Diversity of Views of Self-Voidness & Other-Voidness in the Tenet Systems


Yesterday, we started our discussion of the topic of self-voidness and other-voidness, and what we saw was that it’s extremely important to have an understanding of voidness (emptiness) in order to overcome the sufferings of samsara. We can gain an appreciation of its importance by understanding voidness in the context of the four noble truths.

We also saw that, in general, self-voidness is an absence of something impossible – there are no such things. Other-voidness refers to the clear-light mind that is devoid of other phenomena. The fourth noble truth – the true pathway mind for attaining a true stopping of true suffering and its true causes or true origins – is the non-conceptual cognition, with the clear-light mind, of the voidness of what is impossible. This is as much as we have covered so far. 

The Diversity of Presentations, in the Indian Tenet Systems, of the Voidness of What Is Impossible 

Perhaps one of the most difficult and complicated aspects of studying the voidness of what is impossible is that there are several different presentations of this voidness among the Indian Buddhist tenet systems. These systems are usually spoken of in terms of four major ones: Vaibhashika and Sautrantika from among the Hinayana systems, and Chittamatra and Madhyamaka from among the Mahayana ones, and within Madhyamaka, Svatantrika, Prasangika and in some cases, Maha-Madhyamaka as well. That’s complicated enough; however, what makes it even more complicated is that each of the Tibetan traditions has its own interpretation of each of these four Indian systems. Even within each of the Tibetan traditions, there are different interpretations by different great masters from the different monasteries. This makes it extremely complex. Despite these various interpretations, all agree that the distinction between self-voidness and other-voidness is made within the context of Madhyamaka. 

When we study one particular explanation system, we have to be very careful not to make the mistake of thinking that this is what everybody asserts and believes, because if we do and then we hear a different explanation from another teacher from another tradition or an author from another monastery, we get terribly confused. 

Many different bakers could be baking the same type of cake, but each makes it slightly differently. Each of the cakes they produce is delicious, but they’re all slightly different. The different tenet systems and their explanations are like this analogy. We can understand this proliferation of different systems and explanations, however, in terms of Buddha’s method of teaching with skillful methods. Different persons have different backgrounds, different capacities, different levels of intelligence, and different levels of preparation, and therefore we can’t explain to everybody in the same way. We have to explain differently to suit their needs. 

As is emphasized, particularly in Tibet, these Indian Buddhist tenet systems form a graded path; to really understand the most sophisticated explanation requires working through the less sophisticated systems. In the process of doing that, we narrow in on the deepest presentation of voidness by getting a progressively more and more refined understanding with each system. 

Also, even within India, there were many traditions of explanation found in the great commentaries by the Nalanda masters, and these were transmitted to Tibet and translated by different people at different times. This has resulted in many different lineages of these texts. Because of these different lineages from India, even of the same text, then within Tibet, there developed many variations of ways to understand the Indian material. Both Indian and Tibetan literature contain many debates about the interpretation of the assertions of the various tenet systems, and so we have to understand their purpose. Although sometimes they participants in the debates use strong language – like calling each other idiots – nevertheless, we have to not put the emphasis on that, as sometimes people get very excited in a debate, even when the debate is in written form. 

According to the traditional explanation, Buddha taught all of these positions, and they are only for the purpose of helping others to overcome suffering. Buddha did not teach them in order to increase the ignorance and confusion of people, or to incite arguments in debate. That’s an important point to remember. The teachings on voidness in each Buddhist system, if understood correctly, helps to diminish people’s suffering. 

Studying the Different Assertions of Voidness in the Tenet Systems in a Graded Order

The only question is whether the understanding of a certain explanation of voidness eliminates all the suffering on the deepest levels or just the initial levels of the grosser types of suffering. If the latter is the case, then before we can deal with more subtle types of suffering, we have to diminish the greater types of suffering. These more so-called “simpler” tenet systems are very important for that first task. The Tibetans in their approach to this material emphasized – and we already have a forerunner of this in India – that these systems are to be studied in a graded order. We don’t start with the most advanced, sophisticated explanation, because if we start there without having worked through the simpler systems, then, usually, we really don’t understand the sophisticated system and we miss out completely on its benefit. 

When we graduate from one Indian tenet system to the next, then usually it is because the debates have helped us to understand certain logical inconsistencies in the simpler system. In other words, we all need to work first with the less complex systems, starting with Vaibhashika. It is very helpful to do this. When we master the assertions of this system, it will help us to diminish our suffering. However, when we go deeper, it’s not that we want to throw the Vaibhashika assertions out the window as something that was useless, but we see that there are certain logical inconsistencies in it and here is a more sophisticated system – first Sautrantika and then Chittamatra – that makes a little bit more sense. In that way, when we are ready to understand, we graduate to the next system. 

If this is the way that we approach the Indian tenet systems – that basically we need to study all of them in a graded order – then we might ask, “Do we follow that same procedure in studying the different interpretations of these Indian tenet systems by the different Tibetan lineages? Do they form a graded order?” No, it’s not the same. We don’t have to study all of them in order to gain liberation or enlightenment. However, if we want to really be able to teach and help everybody, it’s very important to know different Tibetan systems with their different ways of explaining. Let’s say, as a teacher, if someone from a tradition that we’re not so familiar with comes and asks us a question, then we’re not going to be able to answer if we’re not familiar with these other ways of explaining. Of course, we could direct them to a different teacher, but if we really want to become a Buddha, we need to be able to answer everybody’s questions about everything in the Dharma, and therefore, it’s helpful to be aware of all the different systems. That’s not easy. 

How to Relate to the Debates between Masters of the Different Systems

Now, when we read the Tibetan commentaries in which they’re debating back and forth about the assertions of different Tibetan traditions, again, as I said, it might look like a gladiator duel to the death. But we can look at these debates in a much kinder way, as each master from each tradition is trying to help people clarify their understanding by pointing out certain inconsistencies or certain inadequacies in the alternate explanations of other masters. They might also be highlighting extreme positions that we need to avoid. 

There are two problems here. One is that all this discussion about voidness, for example, entails a tremendous amount of technical terminology, and each tradition and each author tends to have different definitions for the same terms. In a discussion, if we don’t make the different definitions clear, then often what happens is that we interpolate our definition of a term onto the usage of that term in another system where they define it differently, and as a result, what they say makes absolutely no sense. A lot of the debate is concerned about that. But these critiques of other systems may be warnings, “If we use your term with our definition, then it really doesn’t make any sense. So be careful and define your terms precisely and explicitly.” 

Also, a lot of these Tibetan explanations are based on the meditation experience of great masters. Although they might have had completely valid meditation experiences and have authentically gained the intended results of their practice; nevertheless, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama points out, they weren’t all equally skilled in explaining what they experienced. Some of them wrote and explained very clearly, and others less clearly. This often is the source of the problem – some of these masters just didn’t write very well. 

There are many points that follow from this, but one significant point that follows from the fact that different meditation masters had different meditation experiences is that even if we follow one particular tradition, with the text and explanations of one of the great lineage masters, and we find that very useful, that doesn’t at all mean that our meditation experience is going to be the same as this master’s experience. It might be quite different. We see that over and again in the historical examples in which Tsongkhapa, for instance, had a completely different understanding and realization than his teachers did. Of course, if we have a different meditation experience from that of the masters of the lineage that we’ve studied or from the great masters or teachers that we have personally studied with, that doesn’t mean that our realization is necessarily correct. It always has to be checked to see whether it’s valid or not. Has it actually produced the intended result? 

A Grand Unified Theory of the Various Assertions of the Different Tenet Systems

One of the big interests of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, however, is to try to come up with a so-called “grand unified theory” of the assertions of the various Tibetan traditions. Without denying that they have really quite contradictory interpretations of certain points – and that it is correct that they are contradictory – nevertheless, concerning the main points, they all fit together. It’s not that they all fit together in terms of my Gelugpa system or my Nyingma system, but they all fit together in the sense that all of them being equally valid ways of explaining the main points from different points of view. 

That gets into a very delicate point. Usually, it’s described in terms of how different religions relate with each other and interact, but also, within Buddhism, how the different traditions interrelate and work with each other. We could have an exclusivist point of view, which says, “Only our system is correct. Everyone else, if you follow your system, you will go to hell.” We could alternatively have an inclusivist point of view, “Well, your understanding has certain things in common with ours, but it’s a lower understanding and ours is supreme.” We need to examine whether we hold either of these views, or do we have the pluralist viewpoint of having equal respect for the assertions of all the systems? 

Although we haven’t gone yet into any detail about self-voidness and other-voidness, these points, I think, are important. Even if we haven’t understood – and we won’t be able to understand yet – the detailed explanations that will follow, at least hearing about them will inspire us to undertake this type of study. 

In this Buddhist material, we find, actually, all three approaches to interreligious dialogue. We find that the Buddhist point of view about the non-Buddhist assertions – for example, about atman (the self) – is that they are just simply wrong, so this is rather exclusivist. Within the Indian Buddhist tenet systems, it’s more inclusivist in that all of them are very helpful, and there are certain aspects that we have in common, but they form a graded path, and our Prasangika system is what you really need in order to gain liberation and enlightenment. But, if we follow His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s approach to the various Tibetan traditions, this is more the pluralist one, that all of them are equally valid as methods for attaining liberation and enlightenment. So, if we can clearly differentiate between different approaches to the different materials that are involved in this topic concerning self-voidness and other-voidness, I think it helps us to become less confused about it. 

Okay, I think this is enough for that topic as yet a further introduction to the material. Now, we can jump into the heart of the matter. 

The Meaning of the Term “Voidness” in Self-Voidness and Other-Voidness 

When we talk about self-voidness and other-voidness, the word voidness means an absence of something. In the context of self-voidness, it refers to an absence of something impossible – there is no such thing. Each of the Indian tenet systems will explain different levels of what’s impossible, and none of them ever existed or even will exist because each of them is totally impossible. Further, many of the Tibetan traditions explain the assertions of these Indian tenet systems differently from each other.

Some people translate voidness as “emptiness,” but in the context of self-voidness, I prefer to use the word voidness to emptiness. “Emptiness” gives the impression that there is something findable that is empty of something impossible, like a glass that doesn’t contain a monster in it. Although this connotation might suit the assertions of the less sophisticated tenet systems, it is totally inappropriate for Prasangika. Therefore, to avoid confusion, I don’t use “emptiness” for self-voidness in any of the tenet systems.

The term self-voidness means an absence of a self-nature (rang-bzhin), an impossible self-nature. The word self here is the short form of self-nature or, more fully, a self-establishing nature. That means a nature that is findable on the side of an object that has the power to establish something impossible. 

  • The Gelug interpretation of Prasangika asserts the impossible thing that a self-establishing nature establishes is the self-established existence of something. 
  • The non-Gelug interpretation of Prasangika asserts the impossible thing that a self-establishing nature establishes is conventional objects themselves, all of which are self-established. 

When we speak about other-voidness, what are absent are things that are extraneous to or don’t pertain to the clear-light mind. Depending on the Tibetan tradition, the phenomena that are absent may be other levels of mind themselves, the types of objects cognized by these other levels of mind, or the manner of existing of these other levels of mind. The various Tibetan traditions also differ concerning the mode of existence of the clear-light mind. 

All the Tibetan systems, however, equally assert that in order to attain enlightenment, we need to refute what is impossible with the understanding that it doesn’t exist at all. Then we need to focus non-conceptually with the subtlest clear-light mind on voidness – the total absence of what is impossible. 

There are some further differences, however, between the Gelug and non-Gelug systems: 

  • The non-Gelug systems assert that the voidness cognized conceptually and the voidness cognized non-conceptually are not the same; Gelug asserts that they are the same. 
  • Further, Gelug asserts that the clear-light mind needs to be made into a mind that cognizes the voidness of impossible ways of existing, while some others assert that, by nature, it already has this voidness as its object.

The issue is also what to call these various absences: 

  • Some Tibetan traditions, and sometimes only some masters within those systems, use the term other-voidness for the clear-light mind and some don’t. 
  • Among those who do, as we’ve seen, there is no uniformity in the interpretation of what the other phenomena are that the clear-light mind is devoid of.
  • Some traditions don’t themselves use the term self-voidness in reference to their own assertions of an absence of what is impossible, although some others may refer to them as proponents of self-voidness. 
  • Some systems that do use self-voidness use it only for the absence of what is impossible that can be cognized conceptually and not for non-conceptually cognized voidness.

It’s not standardized and fixed, then, what these terms self-voidness and other-voidness are referring to and how the various authors will use them. Nevertheless – this is the unified field theory – everybody asserts that the same thing is necessary to gain enlightenment – the non-conceptual cognition, with the clear-light mind, of the absence of what is impossible. This is why, if we are going to study any author or any system, we must, at the very beginning of our studies, learn the definitions of the major terms that this author and system are using. 


Let’s speak first about self-voidness. Although the Gelugpas do not use this term in reference to themselves, many non-Gelug authors use it in reference to the Gelug presentation and assert that it is an incorrect self-voidness – it is not what they assert as self-voidness. The Buddhist method, however, is to understand first what something is not, and then to exclude that in order to know what something is. So, let’s look first at the Gelug assertions about voidness, especially since these are the ones that I am most familiar with. For Gelug, what is impossible that voidness refutes are impossible ways of existing.

As mentioned, there are levels of sophistication that we need to work through in terms of understanding the way of existing that is refuted as being impossible by each of the Indian tenet systems – there is no such thing. In the less complicated systems – specifically, I’m talking about the Hinayana systems of Vaibhashika and Sautrantika – we do not find the term voidness used. They use a different term. The Sanskrit term is anatman; it means “a lack of an impossible soul” because there is no such thing, so it’s similar in connotation to the word voidness. There’s no such thing as an atman, meaning a “soul” as defined by the various non-Buddhist Indian systems as a person. Although atman can be translated as “self” or “identity” and anatman as “selflessness” or “identitylessness,” really what the term is talking about is a soul that animates and establishes a body and mind as a person. 

Just as an aside, so that we don’t get confused, when we talk about Hinayana, this is a term coined by Mahayana. It’s not a very nice term, but it’s used as a general word for 18 different schools within Buddhism. The Vaibhashika and Sautrantika tenet systems that the Tibetans (and the Indians that they derived this from) study are subdivisions of one of these 18 schools, Sarvastivada. Theravada, which is the one that is present now in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, is another one of these 18. So, don’t equate Theravada with Vaibhashika and Sautrantika, because Theravada has its own completely different philosophical assertions. 

The Lack of an Impossible Soul of Persons and Phenomena 

Now, in terms of anatman – a lack of an impossible soul, the soul here, atman, in the Mahayana systems – is something that is inside a body and mind that somehow activates it, makes it alive. It’s like the SIM card inside a cell phone, something like that. We can talk about an impossible soul of a person that somehow makes a person alive and functioning, or we can talk about an impossible soul of a phenomenon that somehow, inside it, establishes that it exists and works. Therefore, we have the terminology a lack of an impossible soul of persons (gang-zag-gi bdag-med) and a lack of an impossible soul of phenomena (chos-kyi bdag-med), in general, like the table, or a leg of the body, or a mind. 

Although it might sound a little bit strange to talk of impossible souls with relation to all phenomena, this is, in fact, the terminology that is used, and it does have a significance; it is not just a silly, irresponsible use of words. Right? We always have to go back to the basic axiom here, which was that Buddha was not stupid, and he didn’t teach stupid things. He chose words because they have a meaning that helps people overcome suffering. As my teacher Serkong Rinpoche loved to point out, it is extreme arrogance to think, “Buddha didn’t explain it very well. I can explain it much better with my words and my way of using terminology.” 

The Hinayana systems only speak about a lack of an impossible soul of persons. They don’t explain in terms of a lack of impossible soul of all phenomena; that is asserted only in Mahayana, which speaks of both a lack of an impossible soul of persons and of all phenomena. But although the Hinayana systems don’t speak about a lack of an impossible soul of phenomena, they do describe the ways in which certain types of phenomena do exist and the ways in which they don’t exist. A Buddha would understand all of that, according to the Hinayana systems, but wouldn’t call it a lack of impossible soul, or voidness, or anything like that. 

In these Hinayana systems, the understanding of reality of a Buddha and an arhat – a liberated being – is basically the same; it’s just that a Buddha knows more. A Buddha knows how to lead everybody to liberation, and an arhat doesn’t. 

In the Mahayana systems, when we talk about a lack of impossible soul of persons, these are impossible types of souls that nobody has, and one needs to understand that lack, or absence, in order to achieve liberation as an arhat. Then, in order to attain enlightenment, we have to understand the impossible soul of phenomena, which is a more subtle impossible way of existing. That’s what’s called voidness in these systems, and it applies to not just physical objects and things like that, but it also applies to persons. That’s what we need to understand in order to achieve enlightenment. 

What is impossible with respect to persons and what is impossible with respect to all phenomena (including persons) are different for all the Mahayana tenet systems except Prasangika. Therefore, according to everybody except Prasangika, the impossible ways of existing negated by voidness that we need to understand for gaining liberation and for gaining enlightenment are different. Prasangika, on the other hand. says that the impossible way of understanding to be refuted is the same for both attainments. The only difference among the Tibetan interpretations of this point is that for the non-Gelugpas, to attain liberation, that understanding does not need to apply to all phenomena, only to some, while for Gelug, it needs to be understood as applying equally to all phenomena in order to attain either liberation or enlightenment. 

In other words, according to Prasangika, with the less full understanding of the lack of an impossible soul of persons that the non-Prasangikas assert– and which is correct – we’re not going to gain liberation; we’re still going to be left with a very subtle level of unawareness (ignorance) and disturbing emotions. To get rid of those, even to achieve liberation, we have to get the full understanding of voidness of all phenomena, as applying to persons as well. 

Now, this is not just an interesting fact about different philosophical systems; this has a great implication for our practice. The implication is that the major source (it may not be the exclusive source, but the major source) of our disturbing emotions – anger, greed, attachment, etc. – is a misconception that we have about how we as persons exist, and that is what we must work on first. So, if our computer crashes, the main thing that we need to focus on is not so much the voidness of the computer, but the voidness of me who is so upset about my possession. Me, me, me. “Now, what am I going to do?” And if our friend leaves us, or does something that we don’t like, what we need to work on first is not the voidness of our friend, not the voidness of the mind or of thought or of all of that, but the voidness of me who is so upset. “Everybody should do what I want because I’m the most important, and I’m the center of the universe.” We work on the misconception about ourselves first, as that is the major source of our suffering. That is what we learn from what I’ve just explained about all these philosophical systems. 

When our computer breaks, we may understand, “Ah, yes, it was manufactured. It’s impermanent. Anything that’s manufactured eventually will break.” “What is the computer? Is it this key? Is it that key? Is it something separate from the keys?” We can’t find a self-established computer – there’s no such thing – and so we refute the self-established existence of the computer, but we’re still left with a big solid self-established me who’s upset and who will be upset again about the next computer that we buy when it breaks. It’s the same thing with our friend. We may understand that they have acted under the influence of disturbing emotions and of their background, and of other things that are going on in their life. What am I angry with? The mind, the body, and so on. We can deconstruct the friend and the incident of what they’ve done to us, but if we haven’t analyzed me, then we’re still stuck with the me that can get upset with the next incident that happens and the next friend. 

This is why we always find in the instructions of voidness meditation that, at the beginning, we need to apply our understanding of voidness to the self, particularly ourselves, because that’s easier to understand, and then apply it to all phenomena. Then, when we have gained more familiarity with voidness meditation that we do like this, then in meditation we first focus on the voidness of phenomena, specifically the aggregates – so our body and mind – and then, on the basis of understanding them as being devoid of having self-established existence, we can add, “And there is no self-established me experiencing these aggregates.” That’s the second stage; that’s not the first stage, that’s the second stage of practice. 

Therefore, if we are going to try to get into the practice of voidness meditation, it’s important to know the instructions, and what order we do things in, and to understand why. After all, if we’re serious about this material, we want to practice it correctly. People have been working with this material for 2,500 years, so we can benefit from their experience. 

Two Types of Disturbing Emotions and Grasping 

From Sautrantika through Prasangika, the Indian Buddhist tenet systems assert two levels of impossible souls of persons; Vaibhashika asserts only the first. Corresponding to these two levels, the non-Vaibhashika systems assert two types of disturbing emotions and two types of grasping for impossible ways of existing. One is called doctrinally based (kun-brtags); they are based on having learned and accepted the assertions of one of the non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems concerning persons or on having learned and accepted the assertions of one of the less sophisticated Indian Buddhist tenet systems concerning all phenomena. These are not the disturbing emotions that just anybody would have – the dog wouldn’t have them, for instance. We have to have studied one of these systems and accepted their doctrines, and so they are “doctrinally based.” The other level is automatically arising (lhan-skyes). Even the dog has these disturbing emotions. We don’t have to teach the dog to growl and get angry when somebody tries to take its bone away. Nobody had to teach the dog that. 

Now, concerning doctrinally-based disturbing emotions and grasping, I think it’s quite misleading to call them “intellectually-based.” They are not necessarily intellectually based. They don’t necessarily have to involve the intellect. “Intellectually” implies that we rationally understand something in terms of a complex conceptual system. We don’t have to have that. It could be that someone has taught us the dogma of some religious system; we don’t understand it intellectually, but we accept it on blind faith, and now we identify with it as my religion, my beliefs. Now we get angry at anybody that challenges our religion or challenges our belief. 

That’s what we’re talking about. It doesn’t have to be intellectual, right? We have to have been indoctrinated in some faith in order to go out and fight in a religious war to defend that faith that we’re very attached to and proud of. Such disturbing emotions are different from the automatically arising ones that even a dog has. A dog is not going to go out and fight for a religion, is it? Okay? Do you understand the difference between these two types of disturbing emotions? 

This is only an initial level of identifying what doctrinally based disturbing emotions might be. More specifically, they are the disturbing emotions that arise based on having been taught and believing that we exist in the manner of the atman, the soul, that is asserted by one of the non-Buddhist systems. They arise based on thinking of ourselves as existing as such an atman

So, there are doctrinally-based and automatically-arising grasping for impossible souls of persons and the disturbing emotions that arise from identifying ourselves as existing as that level of impossible soul. First, we get rid of the disturbing emotions that are doctrinally based, basically by understanding that the assertions of the doctrinal system we’ve accepted don’t make any sense – they’re self-contradictory. Even if we didn’t understand intellectually at all the doctrines of the system that we were fighting a war over, nevertheless, in order to give up our identification with this system and with the type of atman it asserts, we need to be convinced that its assertions are incorrect, they don’t correspond to reality. However, to get rid of the automatically arising anger, attachment, greed, and so on that even the dog has requires a lot more work and effort. That’s more difficult and comes second. 

It’s very interesting, as there’s a whole discussion about what happens if we’ve never studied in this lifetime any of these non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems. Do we still have doctrinally-based disturbing emotions? Is that still what we get rid of when we become an arya? Could we substitute, instead, doctrinally \-based disturbing emotions that are based on Western systems of thought? Now, it’s very tempting to say, “Well, yes. We get rid of the Western ones instead, whatever we might have learned in this lifetime,” but that is ignoring beginningless rebirth. 

The Tibetan commentaries explain that actually everybody has doctrinally-based grasping and doctrinally-based disturbing emotions, even if they didn’t study or learn about these systems in this lifetime. This is because they must have studied and accepted them in some previous lifetime. Just as there are always Buddhas teaching the Buddhist teachings somewhere in the multitude of universes, there are always non-Buddhist masters teaching the non-Buddhist teachings. This is the explanation that is given. 

So, everybody has this doctrinally-based grasping for impossible souls and doctrinally-based disturbing emotions, whether or not they’ve studied and accepted one of the non-Buddhist Indian systems in this lifetime. We might have been taught and accepted as true the teachings on only some of the characteristics of the soul asserted by some non-Indian system of belief and have disturbing emotions that arise based on our identification with these assertions, but these would have to be called seemingly doctrinally-based grasping and disturbing emotions. They’re not the actual definitional ones, merely like them. 

If we look at the list of individual characteristics of the atman that these doctrinally-based disturbing emotions and grasping are based on accepting, we find that we do have many similar assertions about the soul or the self in our Western religious systems. For instance, many Western religious systems assert a soul that comes into the body at conception and then, at the time of death, goes out of the body and goes to heaven or hell. Well, we can see that this is quite similar to certain aspects of the non-Buddhist Indian beliefs. We might not think that this soul is the size of the universe, like the whole atman/Brahman idea, but we have certain aspects or parts of this Indian belief. What’s to be refuted here, however, is the whole package. A Western belief in a soul that enters the body at conception, leaves the body at death and then goes to heaven or hell is classified by Buddhism as a doctrinally-based incorrect consideration (tshul-min yid-byed), not as a doctrinally-based grasping for an impossible soul of a person.