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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 5: Analysis of the Mind and Reality > Explanation of Significant Points Concerning Voidness (Emptiness) made by His Holiness the Dalai Lama > Explanation of Significant Points Concerning Voidness (Emptiness) made by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Explanation of Significant Points Concerning Voidness (Emptiness) made by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Alexander Berzin
Toronto, Canada, April 2004

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:55)

The Importance of Being Convinced that Liberation and Enlightenment Are Possible

In the traditional presentation of lam-rim, the graded stages of the path, you usually have renunciation, and then it has the three higher trainings – in ethical discipline, concentration, and discriminating awareness of voidness (you discriminate between how things do exist and how they don’t exist) – and the emphasis is on having the motivation. Because to just have an understanding of voidness without any specific aim of what you’re doing it for, then just like with any positive action, basically it will build up positive karmic force, which will just improve your samsara. You could have a nice discussion around the coffee table about voidness, but it’s not going to get you any further on the spiritual path, and you’re not going to be able to understand it very deeply.

And so the emphasis there is on having the proper motivation so that you can have a proper dedication. And so if you dedicate the karmic force – here it wouldn’t necessary be a karmic force (that’s a big debate, whether it’s karmic or not) – you would dedicate whatever comes from that toward liberation. Or with bodhichitta you dedicate it toward enlightenment. It’s like when you do something positive, then the default setting on the internal karma computer is that it goes into the “improve samsara” folder. But you have to actually very consciously press the button to save in either the “for liberation” folder or “for enlightenment” folder – that’s why the dedication is so absolutely essential – and then that positive force will contribute toward liberation or enlightenment.

[See: The Two Enlightenment-Building Networks (The Two Collections).]

In the lam-rim, then, the emphasis is on the motivation. Gain renunciation. That comes first. And then the three higher trainings. And they don’t really explain it very deeply at all in the intermediate scope, where you’re aiming for liberation, but they then explain it more fully once you’ve gotten the bodhichitta motivation. But His Holiness put the emphasis the other way around, which is that you really need the understanding of voidness in order to have proper renunciation or bodhichitta. This is similar to what you find in the Seven-Point Lojong. I call it cleansing of attitudes [lojong (blo-sbyong)]. That’s usually translated as mind training, but that sounds as though you’re just intellectually training yourself to have a better memory, so I don’t like that term. It literally means “to cleanse away negative attitudes and transform them into positive attitudes.” In that text it has first the presentation of deepest bodhichitta, before the presentation of relative bodhichitta, and it’s only in the Gelug tradition that it’s changed. They say that according to some special oral lineage – which must come from someone – it is toward the end of the text. Well, again it can appear in two places, but the earlier version of the text, the earlier edition of the text, has it first. That’s the original order of it. So it’s the same idea.

Well, it’s interesting. You can look at it from several points of view. One point of view is: How do you know that liberation is possible or enlightenment is possible? And if you are not convinced that it’s possible, then how can you sincerely aim to achieve that, either liberation or enlightenment? So this gets into the whole discussion of the natural purity of the mind and the disturbing emotions and attitudes, which are based on unawareness of voidness, usually called ignorance, but are based on that (that supports the disturbing emotions and attitudes).

When you look at beginningless time, you have the mental continuum. Mental continuum from the point of view of logic has no absolute beginning, because everything has to have a previous moment as its cause, and it can’t just arise from nothing. If it arose from nothing, then there’s no cause. Or it could arise from any cause, His Holiness was saying, which means the whole thing becomes absurd and chaotic. So that has beginningless continuity, and so do unawareness, or ignorance, and the disturbing emotions, and so do the positive qualities – love, compassion, and so on.

So then you have to ask: Which one can be stronger? Because they say that the positive qualities have no beginning and no end, just as the mental continuum has no beginning and no end, whereas the unawareness and the disturbing emotions and distorted attitudes and everything have no beginning, but do have an end (you can get rid of them). So why? And the reason why, His Holiness explained, is that you look at what supports them, and what supports the so-called correct ones and the incorrect ones is quite different. You can replace the negative ones with the correct understanding. Correct understanding and incorrect understanding are mutually exclusive (you can’t simultaneously correctly understand and incorrectly understand). So then the question, as I said, is: Which is stronger? Which is going to really do it? And what will really do it is the correct understanding – because that’s based on reason, which supports it – and the more you strengthen that, the less suffering you have. And that’s the whole point, what Buddhism is talking about, is how to get rid of suffering.

And so if that’s what your aim is… Theoretically you could say your aim was to have more suffering. Then you would say that unawareness was better because it brings you more suffering. But if your aim, as part of the basic nature of sentient beings, is that you want to be happy and you don’t want to be unhappy, then the correct understanding is stronger: it’s based on logic, and it gets rid of suffering. Whereas the more you examine the incorrect understanding, based on logic… This of course is on the premise that logic is correct. Not everybody agrees that there is such a thing as logic and it is correct. But if you accept that premise, the more that you work on the side of unawareness and confusion, the more suffering you get, and it’s not supported by logic.

So, because of that, if you could get to the point… Well, an arya is able to have nonconceptual cognition of voidness (so, able to have absolutely no grasping of true existence, and the mind doesn’t even make an appearance of true existence). So at that point there is a total absence of any appearance, or believing in that appearance, of true existence. That’s why they’re the Arya Sangha, the Sangha refuge. They’ve gotten it for a little while. So that starts the process, and that’s going to get rid of a little bit of the distorted side – the doctrinally-based disturbing emotions, the ones that are based on hearing an incorrect tenet system and believing in it (basically one of the Hindu or Jain systems). If you could get that state of mind – the total absorption on voidness, with not even appearance-making of true existence, let alone believing in it – that all the time, which is what a Buddha does, only a Buddha does, then you’ve gotten rid of all the unawareness; you’ve gotten rid of all the distorted side. That’s why all of these can be eliminated.

So if you understand that, and if you understand that in order to get there you have to build up a tremendous amount of positive force and dedicate it toward that goal, then you have an understanding of, as His Holiness says, the two truths and an understanding of the four truths, and that leads you to an understanding and conviction in the Three Jewels:

  • An understanding and conviction that there is such a thing as the Dharma Jewel, which is that state in which there’s the total stopping forever of this distorted side and the full realization of the true path, which is not only the opponent to that but the result of it as well – the understanding of voidness and then having that all the time, so both the path and the result. If you gain understanding in that – well, that’s the Dharma Jewel.

  • Then the Sangha Jewel. There are those that have a little bit of that understanding sometimes.

  • And the Buddhas are the ones that have it all the time.

So if you understand that, then you can be convinced that there is such a thing as liberation, because the aryas on the path, the Arya Sangha on the path, achieved liberation, part of the way to Buddhahood. And you can be convinced that it’s possible to achieve enlightenment. And so on that basis, then you can actually have proper renunciation and bodhichitta with confidence that that attainment of liberation and enlightenment is possible. And then the whole discussion gets into – His Holiness didn’t go into it – that it’s possible for me to achieve that, not just the Buddha or these guys in ancient India achieved it, and for that you have to get into the whole Buddha-nature discussion.

So it’s very important for taking an empowerment like Kalachakra, or any other empowerment, to be very confident in the tantra path. His Holiness mentioned that briefly. And you can only really get confidence in the tantra path based on, first of all, confidence in the sutra path and confidence that liberation and enlightenment are possible. So this is what was being emphasized here, and in the Nagarjuna text, as a preparation.

And then it’s necessary to understand – His Holiness was alluding to this – that really to be able to achieve enlightenment, you need to have that understanding of voidness nonconceptually not only with renunciation behind it, not only with bodhichitta behind it, not only with an enormous amount of what’s usually called the two collections (the two networks, I call them) of positive force and deep awareness, or merit and wisdom – this tremendous positive force, this tremendous… further and further experience of the deep awareness of voidness, so it builds up a habit of it, and the type of deep awareness of conventional truth that sort of goes along with that. But in addition to all of that, the mind that has all of this, what you need is the clear-light mind, the subtlest type of mind. And the reason why you need that is that, first of all, that’s the type of mind that a Buddha has. I mean, everybody has it on a basis level, but everybody has these other grosser levels which are on top of it.

And this is what His Holiness was correcting Thupten Jinpa about. What is important about the clear-light mind is not... You’re missing the full essence of it if you say that it is more subtle than the conceptual mind. It is more subtle than the conceptual mind, and it’s more subtle than all of those rough minds (the conceptual mind is just one level of mind). So it is more fundamental than that, underlying that. And not only does it not have grasping for true existence, which is conceptual.

It’s only conceptual mind that grasps for... You know the expression “grasping for true existence”? It has two meanings. It means to just perceive true existence – so you have that in sense cognition as well – or to take it as true, to believe that what appears corresponds to reality. That’s only conceptual.

So not only is it free of the conceptual mind that believes in this junk that our mind makes appear, but it is also more subtle than the level of mind that makes that appearance of true existence, which would be not just the conceptual level of mind but also the sense cognition, nonconceptual, rough level of mind. When we see, that’s nonconceptual. Or when we dream, that’s nonconceptual. It’s not imagination; it’s not the same (it’s more vivid in a dream). So it’s more subtle than that. It doesn’t make the appearance of true existence. How was Thupten Jinpa translating it? I think he was using elaboration. This is the term mental fabrication. That refers to making an appearance of true existence.

Participant: Conceptual elaboration. I think he was using Lhaktor-la’s translation, which he had in print.

Alex: Whatever he was using. Just so that you know to refer back to what Thupten Jinpa was saying. That’s the production of this junk, these deceptive appearances.

And so it doesn’t do that either. And because it doesn’t do that either (because only grosser levels of mind do it), and because the grosser levels of mind don’t have unbroken continuity, His Holiness was saying – because they cease in the short period of death existence, when you only have the clear-light level – so because that clear-light level doesn’t have [sic! does have]unbroken continuity, then you could say that has to be the actual conventional nature of the mind, and therefore that’s unstained.

It’s similar to the total absorption on voidness; the only difference is that it doesn’t understand what’s happening. In Kaydrub Norzang-gyatso’s commentary, the one that was just published, just translated, he explains that with the clear-light cognition, you get an appearance like a total absorption on voidness (in other words, no appearance of true existence), but you don’t understand it. So this is why you need the understanding of voidness beforehand in order to apply it at that moment. But it is called a similar class cause (rigs-’dra’i rgyu). It’s in a similar class, the same type of animal, as total absorption on voidness.

So on the basis of that, having unbroken continuity (and it’s the only level of mind that has unbroken continuity), you can say the nature of the mind is not stained by these other levels. So this is the great advantage, and this is what anuttarayoga tantra is all about, is to get to that level and to be able to sustain that level. And if you can sustain that level and add to it the nonconceptual understanding of voidness – which you’re only going to be able to get if you have renunciation and bodhichitta and these two networks, two collections – then you’ve got it, then you’ve got Buddhahood.

So to really take the empowerment fully with conviction, you need the conviction that liberation is possible, enlightenment is possible, the nature of the mind is not stained by these fleeting things – which is not just referring to the conceptual mind, it’s not just referring to the disturbing emotions, but it’s referring to all the grosser levels that make these appearances of true existence, which are the basis for then believing in it – and confidence in the tantra method for actually being able to get to that clear-light level (not having to wait until you die to experience it). Then on that basis, I really want to do tantra. This is what His Holiness was leading up to. I mean, it was great that His Holiness was explaining it today.

The Difference between Svatantrika and Prasangika

His Holiness was talking about the difference between Svatantrika and Prasangika in Madhyamaka. I don’t know if this is of interest to you. I was very excited about it, so I’m just babbling on about it. But I was very excited because His Holiness explained it so nicely, so well. He was saying that, you know, one of the big objections to Svatantrika is that they say that… You see, the whole issue in terms of voidness… What’s voidness all about? What’s it talking about? It’s talking about how do you establish or prove that something exists. How do you know it exists? How do you prove it exists? What establishes its existence?

And there is this terminology, that voidness is talking about how things exist: Is it inherent existence? Is it this type of existence, is it that type of existence? And that’s one way of discussing it. But you can also look at it a little bit more technically, which is revealed by the terminology, both in Sanskrit and Tibetan. And the word that’s translated as existence, whether you have these expressions like true existence, inherent existence, and so on – is the same word (it’s a variation of the word grammatically) as the word which means an affirmation or a proof of something, you prove something. So it’s how you establish something.

So how do you know that something exists? And so the lower tenet systems are saying, “Well, it produces an effect (or these sort of things), so you know that it exists. That establishes that it exists.” Now, in the Madhyamaka schools, Svatantrika and Prasangika, they say that “What establishes that it exists? Well, it can be mentally labeled. It is what a mental label refers to. What establishes that it exists? Well, we have a concept, we have a word for it, and it’s the referent object of the word or concept.”

So because we have a word or concept for it, you know that it exists. We have the word or concept of table. The example I love to use for this is jealousy. What establishes that there’s such a thing as jealousy? Well, you think about it. Think of our mental experience of things. Well, experience is just mental anyway, but think of our experience of things. In the experience of living beings – now, that’s a huge spectrum of experience. How do you divide that into things?

So the cave people got together, and they took acoustic patterns, and somebody got the idea that this is going to be a word and this is going to have meaning. And so arbitrarily they make up a definition, and they take the whole spectrum of experience – they’re probably talking about human experience, maybe a little bit of animal experience as well – and they arbitrarily make a line on this side and on that side, and they say, “This parcel of experience, that’s going to be the meaning that we’re going to assign to this totally meaningless, arbitrary acoustic pattern, and that’s a word.” And the definition is also made up by the mind, because they made up the definition of it. And every group of cave people had different conventions, so they divided human experience and animal experience differently, with different boundaries. And language evolved that way, and conceptual thinking evolved that way. Animals have concepts too – otherwise the cow could never find its barn or identify its baby – but they don’t do it with acoustic patterns; they do it with smells or visual things. But anyway it’s the same thing, the same idea. It’s arbitrary. Convention is what we call it.

So now we have this convention arbitrarily set up by a group of cave people, and they take the absolutely meaningless acoustic pattern “je-al-ou-sy” – jealousy – make it into a word, assign it a meaning (write in the dictionary that that is the meaning of it, the defining characteristic of what it is), and then there is this thing jealousy. And so we all feel jealous, and we think that jealousy is a thing and that it’s established from its own side. Nothing establishes it from its own side. There are no boundaries in human experience or animal experience that parses it into things, although conventionally you experience jealousy. Also you could experience envy. Well, there’s a difference.

Everything is like that, any object. Table. What’s a table? There are so many different items that could be called a table. And some people would call this couch a table because it has four legs, and you can put something on it and it will hold it, and you could eat off of this. So this is a table. What’s a table? Out of all the items and things, you sort of make up a defining characteristic, and now you have a category of table. Okay? So it’s convention only.

Now, Madhyamaka says that “What establishes that things exist, that there is such a thing as jealousy? Well, it’s the referent object of the word or concept jealousy.” So that’s jealousy. So it’s on a basis. What’s the basis? When we talk about mental labeling, you have three things:

  • You have the basis for labeling.

  • You have the label, which is just an acoustic pattern or a concept with a conventionally assigned definition to it, defining characteristic to it.

  • And then you have the designated object, what is designated by the word or concept jealousy. But that is really like an illusion because it’s not the basis, and it’s not the word; it’s what it refers to.

Okay. So now the basis. Can you find the referent object in the basis? Where can you find it? Where can you point to it? This is what His Holiness was mentioning today which I found really very nice because he was very clear about it. I’ve heard him explain it before, I think, but I didn’t really understand it so well – not that I fully understand it at all, but His Holiness explained it very nicely. He explained that Svatantrika says that it appears, and this is the problem with Svatantrika. They say, “What establishes that it exists?”

Now, when you talk about inherent existence, that’s jargon. You have to look at the definition, otherwise you’re confused by the English connotations of the word inherent, which are a bit irrelevant. The definition of it is that “the referent object of a word or concept can be found, and its findability establishes that it exists.” That’s the definition of inherent existence. So that’s what they’re talking about and what Prasangika is refuting.

Okay. So can you find the referent object of the word? Well, where can you find it? You find it in the basis. So what Svatantrika says is that the basis appears. Not only the basis appears, the thing appears; the designated object appears. And then you have to refute something about it, which is that it exists independent of being the referent object of a word or concept. This is what Svatantrika is all about; it’s the combination of the two.

But what the Prasangika really objects to is that you put the fact that it appears as part of what establishes that it exists. The referent object appears, and then you refute it.

And His Holiness was explaining that according to Prasangika you can’t say, “Hey, come on, the object of refutation is what appears.” So you can’t say the object of refutation, which actually doesn’t exist at all, appears – as if the invaders from the fifth dimension appear, and then you refute that they come from the fifth dimension. It’s not like that. So that’s what’s wrong with it, with the Svatantrika view. You can’t say that just because something appears – and in addition it’s the referent object of the word or concept – that establishes that it exists, because everything that appears to the mind is an appearance of true existence. So everything that appears to the mind is false.

Prasangika says the only thing that establishes that anything exists is that it’s the referent object of a word or concept for it. How do you know that there’s such a thing as jealousy? Well, we have a word or concept for it, and it can be validated by other valid cognitions. His Holiness simplified it. There are three things that it has to satisfy, according to Chandrakirti:

  1. The first one is that it has to fit a pattern, a convention. So you didn’t just make up the word. Everybody has agreed. There it is in the dictionary: jealousy. So we’ve agreed on a convention of what to call it.

  1. Then it has to be not contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes the conventional appearance of things (the relative truth, or superficially what appears). So the simplest example is: just because I see a blur when I take my glasses off, that doesn’t prove that a blur actually is existing there. I’m seeing a blur, but the fault is a faulty sensor, my eyes. So that’s what His Holiness was saying. Well, if you look later and check, and other people that are wearing their glasses or can hear properly experience it or that they're not crazy with paranoia or whatever, then it’s okay.

  1. The third criterion is that it’s not contradicted by a mind that validly knows the deepest truth of things. (That’s often translated as ultimate truth, but His Holiness was indicating that you want to be careful with that because then you can get the idea of this transcendental realm that’s the ultimate... The real thing.)

So if it’s not contradicted because of an appearance of true existence – well, everybody sees an appearance of true existence, but that’s contradicted by an arya’s total absorption, that “Hey, that’s not the case. That’s not valid.” So only from the side of the mind can you establish that something actually exists; you can’t establish it from the side of the object. So this is very important.

It’s quite interesting. His Holiness in another teaching – where he was talking about the tenet systems – was saying this is why Chittamatra (Mind-Only) is such an important school, because it’s a stepping-stone. This is exactly what Shantideva says at the beginning of the ninth chapter of Bodhicharyavatara. He says that if you can understand something on a relative level and you can accept it, then you can have a deeper understanding that is similar to it. The example that he gives is it’s like an illusion. If you can understand that things are like an illusion on a simple level, you can understand it on a more profound level. So here what His Holiness referred to earlier was that if you can understand, from Chittamatra, that appearances are not established from the side of the object (appearances are established from the side of the mind), then you can go to understanding that how you establish something exists is not from the side of the object (it’s from the side of the mind).

Participant: That could mean that we are all self-projections of others.

Alex: We are all projections of others? No, you can’t say that everybody exists in your mind or everybody exists in my mind. You can just say that what I perceive is a mental hologram produced by my mental continuum. That’s what I perceive.

I challenge my classes to prove that we’re all in the same room. Can anybody here prove that we’re in the same room? And I say that if everybody in this room took a picture of what they see, and then they give it to an impartial person – you lay out all these pictures – this person would say, “Well, you’re all in a different place. Look here. They’re different pictures.”

Participant: Yeah, but you could define the room, define the people, and then they’re there. You’ve defined it.

Alex: Well, how are you defining it? Is it from the side of the object or from the side of the mind?

Participant: It doesn’t matter how you define it. Once it’s established as a convention, it’s an established convention.

Alex: Just because there’s an established convention of a group of crazy people deciding that they’re all in the same place, that doesn’t prove it.

Participant: Then nothing can be proved.

Alex: Well, that is the big question. How do you prove anything? That’s the big, big question. And this is one of the arguments as well between Svatantrika and Prasangika. Svatantrika’s saying that there is logic on the side of the universe. That’s a very, very important thing to think about. Are the laws of nature – if we can use this word that I was saying is better to avoid – inherent in the universe, or are they only conventions made up by the mind to try to understand how the universe works? And so Prasangika says no. This is what they argue about with the Svatantrika. Because the Svatantrika is saying in their logical arguments that there is such thing as logic and that you can use logic to prove that something exists, and the only thing that you have to refute is that you’re using wrong logic, that you’ve come to a wrong conclusion. Prasangika says, “No, no, no. You can’t do that. The only way that you can get the mind to stop making an incorrect belief is not to prove that, well, your incorrect belief is based on incorrect logic, but it’s to show the absurd conclusion that follows from that belief, and then you realize that it was ridiculous, and then you stop.”

Participant: Is that the same as asserting that you can’t prove anything?

Alex: That would be a non-Gelugpa way of saying it, yes. That would be a non-Gelugpa way of saying it.

So you can only establish that things exist because they are the referent objects of the words and labels for them and names for them, concepts for them. There’s nothing on the side of the object that establishes that it exists, that proves that it exists. Just because it appears, doesn’t.

Now, this is very crucial when you get to the tantra. (I don’t know if His Holiness is going to go into this. Sometimes he does. And there’s no way of predicting what His Holiness is going to explain about Kalachakra.) It’s expressed most nicely in the Sakya view of inseparable samsara and nirvana, which is that the clear-light mind is the source of all appearances, pure and impure. And His Holiness likes to speak in terms of that. So everything is coming from the appearances of the clear-light mind. The clear-light mind makes these appearances. So either it is pure (which means without appearing to be truly existent) or it is impure (which means with an appearance of true existence). And by having the appearance of a Buddha-figure, it helps you to not think in your ordinary way. So pure and impure – it’s not just our usual body, the one that gets sick, and then the pure appearance of a Buddha-figure or a deity. That’s just taking it on the conventional level. What you want to do is do that on the deepest level, where this helps you to understand what really it’s talking about, which is the difference between an appearance of true existence and not an appearance of true existence.

So if you do this with a Svatantrika [understanding of] tantra, then you would say, “Well, the clear-light mind made this appearance, so that establishes that it exists, and it’s what the word for it refers to.” So that’s why it’s so important to have the Prasangika understanding with tantra, because there’s that danger that you’ll go to a Svatantrika view when you learn about how all appearances are coming from the clear-light mind. This is a very important point.

Participant: Alex, when you say that according to Svatantrika, they say that the appearance is there, and therefore it exists because it’s just there, and it’s the referent to a name (or what you call an acoustic pattern), is that the same as when they say that according to Svatantrika, conventional reality exists inherently for them?

Alex: Exactly.

Participant: Because you said that all appearances, until we reach that state of directly realizing emptiness, are appearing as truly existent. So that’s equivalent? That’s the same?

Alex: Yeah. Right. That’s what inherent existence means. That’s why it’s very important not to just stay at the level of jargon – and all translators give different jargon for the same words – but to always really push your local geshes to give you the definition. If you don’t know the definition, you don’t know what they’re talking about. And unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, each of the tenet systems has a different definition for all these terms, the different types of existence. And not only do they have different definitions of them in the tenet systems, but each of the Tibetan traditions has different definitions for each of the tenet systems. And then it gets even worse because within one tradition, like Gelugpa – well, the Jetsunpa textbooks have one set of definitions, and the Panchen textbooks have another set of definitions, and so if you don’t know what monastery your geshe comes from and what textbooks he’s using, you get confused. You ask two Gelugpa geshes that are coming from different textbook traditions, and they’ll give you two contradictory answers. Nobody tells you that. You need to know that; otherwise it gets very, very confusing. So always go to the definition. That’s very important.

Participant: Alex, something seems a little confusing.

Alex: I am sorry if I’m dumping the Pacific Ocean on you with all of this stuff, but I was very excited about it. It was very nice that His Holiness explained.

Participant: You present it very well. Thank you. This notion from the Svatantrika of the appearance being inherent, truly existent, and being also a referent object…

Alex: Well, everybody below Prasangika believes in this existence established by its findability, the findability of the referent object of words and concepts.

Participant: I’m having a little trouble distinguishing this point. The same problem happens in terms of reifying the clear-light mind in Chittamatra. So in this sense there’s not a big difference – there must be a difference, but that’s what I’m not clear about here.

Alex: There is a difference. The difference between Chittamatra and Svatantrika on this point is that Chittamatra says that the mind has true existence. By true existence, what they mean is that it…

Participant: Like a duality of subject and object?

Alex: Well, no, no, no. That’s another level of it. There’s several levels of it. But what they mean by true existence is its findability – that it can be established independently of being the referent object of the word for it. And Svatantrika says, “No, no, no. What establishes it is that it is the referent object of the word for it, but in addition, from its own side it’s appearing.” Not that from its own side it’s appearing – then you get into the difference between Yogachara Svatantrika and Sautrantika Svatantrika – but that something from its own side is also making it existent; this referent object is findable.

So the earlier schools, when they talk about true existence, they’re saying that its existence can be established independently of being the referent object for a word or concept. That’s what often is translated as these term universals and meaning universals. They’re talking about categories – the category of table, the category of jealousy – that would be applicable to many people’s experience or many objects. It’s a category. So what’s a category? Well, that’s obviously something that’s made up with words or concepts. You can only establish that there is such a category in terms of a word or a concept.

Participant: What’s the Tibetan word for this?

Alex: That’s these drachis and donchis [drachi (sgra-spyi, audio category); donchi (don-spyi, meaning category)].

Participant: This is the same term as meaning generality?

Alex: Yeah. We’re talking about categories, to put it in plain English.

Which Is the Correct Tenet System?

Participant: If there are all these differences and all these different ways of looking at it, is there one that works and the others don’t, or do they all work?

Alex: Ah, this is a very good question. If there are all of these, is there one that works and one that doesn’t? Underlying that is: Is there one that’s really true? I tend to think that that way of thinking, that type of question, what underlies it is this culturally specific grasping for “one god, one truth” and “What does it really mean?” And that’s our way of thinking; whereas that’s not the way of thinking in Buddhism. That’s our culturally specific Western, Biblical way of thinking. That’s not how everybody thinks. Buddha taught all of these as skillful means; they’re all correct.

Now, the Tibetans come along. This is one of the contributions that the Tibetans made to the historical development of Buddhism  which is, you know, Buddha taught all these sutras. They’re completely chaotic. It’s really difficult to figure out what’s going on in all these sutras. How did the sutras come about? Buddha and his bunch of monks – excuse me for the expression – Buddha and his bunch of monks were invited for lunch by different people, and after lunch: “Buddha, could you please give a talk?” And Buddha gave a talk. And Buddha was very skillful, so he gave a different talk to different people – to the king, to a peasant, to an educated person, to an uneducated person. He made it understandable. So then you get all the sutras.

And somebody had a tremendous memory – they didn’t write it down, because writing was only used in those days for either military purposes (you want to send a message to your army) or the merchants (for keeping records). You didn’t use writing for philosophical things. That came centuries and centuries later when somebody had the brilliant idea to do that. But earlier nobody used writing for philosophical things, but people had miraculously these tremendous memories, and so they remembered.

This is why Shantideva’s so great, because he says, “Well, any reason that you say that Mahayana is not the teachings of the Buddha you could use to say that Hinayana’s not the teachings of the Buddha.” Nothing was written down. So you’re just saying that people remembered it perfectly over so many centuries? And that proves that this is an authentic teaching? Come on! If you’re going to say that that proves Hinayana, then we can say that that proves Mahayana as being valid as well. So it’s really a good argument.

The sutras, then, are very disorganized. So the Indians come along and they write the commentaries, and you get Nagarjuna, you get these people, and they put it into some sort of organized fashion. Great. Wonderful. Now, the Tibetans come along and they add outlines to it.

Tibetans are very orderly. That makes a lot of sense in terms of their culture. If you’re a nomadic culture and you’ve got to pack up your tent and pack it on the yaks, you know what bag everything is in. And while you’re on the road, you have to know where the cheese is, where the tea is – what bag it’s in. And then when you unpack and set up your tent in limited space… Tibetans are great. I mean, they are the most fantastic packers. They live in a tiny space and know where everything is and have a little space for everything. They’re great at that. Best people I’ve ever come across for doing that.

So they did that with the Indian commentaries. They made all these tremendous outlines and stuff. And then there’s the graded paths – Atisha’s idea, but the Tibetans really picked up on it. And then they study the tenet systems according to a logical order. And so you can say that one leads to the deepest understanding. That’s Prasangika. But everybody has a different understanding of what’s Prasangika. Tsongkhapa was an unbelievable revolutionary radical. He disagreed with everybody that came before him. And what is presented as Prasangika – you really have to keep in mind this is Gelugpa Prasangika. This is not what the Nyingmas, Sakyas, and Kagyus say Prasangika is saying; they say something quite different. Don’t think that it’s universal. He was incredibly revolutionary. So, anyway, you get Prasangika. The others would say Prasangika is also supreme, but then they have Maha-Madhyamaka and tantra and these sort of things.

But, anyway, Prasangika. The other ones are leading to this, but the other ones are quite valid because they will help to diminish suffering. They won’t get rid of everything, but they’ll help to diminish suffering. And so that’s okay. That’s cool.

Subtle and Gross Disturbing Emotions

And this was also one of the quite radical things that Tsongkhapa came up with. (Manjushri told him all of this – that’s the way that it’s usually explained – and he didn’t just, from his own brilliance, do this. Sort of like a humility statement. Which is fine. Because it’s very difficult to know what in the world does that mean, that Manjushri told him all of this.) In any case... And His Holiness was mentioning it today. Do you recall His Holiness was talking about the difference between gross and subtle disturbing emotions? Okay, so what’s that all about? And again you have to go to the definitions; otherwise it’s really impossible to have any idea about what they’re talking about, what Tsongkhapa’s talking about, because this is specifically Gelug Prasangika.

Now, in terms of what I call “grasping for an impossible soul of a person,” what’s usually translated as “selflessness of a person” – selfless is just a psychological term (they’re really talking about a soul) – and this is the soul that is impossible: there is no such thing, that’s not what a person is. And so what automatically arises – that was also brilliant, what His Holiness presented (it goes back hundreds of years before Buddha) – what automatically arises is, and this I don’t think came through so clearly, but there’s this term in Tibetan, what it means is a self-sufficiently knowable self (rang-rkya thub-pa’i rdzas-yod). That’s what automatically arises, a self that is self-sufficiently knowable, that can be known without anything else appearing simultaneously. This is what automatically arises.

And we say that all the time: “I see Michael.” So we say, "I’m seeing a person." We don’t say, “I’m seeing a body, and on the basis of that body, I can designate Michael.” We think that “I’m seeing Michael” independent of anything else appearing. Or “I’m sitting on the couch.” A body is sitting on the couch, and labeled on the body there’s a me. Are there two things sitting on the couch? Is the body sitting on the couch and I’m sitting on the couch, so there are two things sitting on the couch? Well, no. Then you get the whole Prasangika trip with it. But that’s what a self-sufficiently knowable self means. And that automatically arises. We all think that, you know, “I know Mary.” All right. What do you mean, I know Mary? What do you know? I know the body of Mary? I know the mind of Mary? What do you know? I know the name Mary, and on the basis of that, I can say I know Mary. But we don’t think like that. It automatically arises that “I know Mary.” Everybody has that. That’s what is automatically arising.

Now, His Holiness said that, you know, people were thinking and thinking and thinking about this, and then you get these pre-Buddhist Indian philosophical systems. Ands so they say that this me, now they make it into an atman, a soul, and they say that:

  • This me is static. That means it never changes. I’m always the same.

  • It’s a monolith, which means it has no parts. So they take it to two extremes. Either you say it’s one with the universe, this "atman is brahman" trip (that’s what you have in the Upanishads). Or it’s a tiny monad, like a spark of life that’s in everybody. So it has no parts, and it doesn’t change. None of these things change.

  • And it’s separate from the aggregates, separate from a body and mind (because it goes into a body and comes out of a body and goes into another body), and is either the inhabitant of the aggregates or the possessor of the aggregates or the controller of the aggregates.

So that’s the gross impossible me. That doesn’t exist. That’s just a fabrication. But underlying that is the one that’s self-sufficiently knowable that everybody has.

Now, the difference between subtle and gross disturbing emotions. What Tsongkhapa says – he comes up with this – is that if you are unaware of this lack of an impossible soul of a person, this subtle one, this is what all the disturbing emotions are based on. In other words, “This is me, and I know myself. I’m sitting here, on the couch.” And then from this you get “This is my seat and don’t you sit on it,” and there’s attachment to it, and anger if anybody else sits near, and so on. So it’s a whole emotional trip that is based on this grasping for me to exist as a self-sufficiently knowable entity. So, Tsongkhapa says, those are the gross disturbing emotions, the automatically arising gross disturbing emotions. We’re not talking about the doctrinally based ones, based on believing one of these Hindu “the atman is one with the universe” trips.

Now, he says that with the understanding of voidness from the lower tenet systems, the non-Prasangika tenet systems, you can get rid of that. There’s no appearance of that. In total absorption on voidness based on their understanding, you get rid of it forever. However, what you haven’t gotten rid of is what is underlying that, which is the appearance-making of true existence and grasping for true existence. And so you can have doctrinally and automatically arising, Prasangika says (because you could still believe in these lower systems, so it would be, according to Prasangika, still doctrinally based).

You have a type of disturbing emotion that somebody who has had this nonconceptual cognition of voidness based on a lower tenet system is left with. The way that Thupten Jinpa was explaining it is that rather than being emotionally based, it’s cognitively based. And this I found was really nice because His Holiness was speaking about it from an experiential point of view, that it’s very difficult to know what’s the difference between these gross and subtle? The gross, he said, is based on this grasping for me, self-sufficiently knowable me. Get rid of that, and you’re left with the subtle, which is just based on the fact that the mind makes the projection of true existence and you believe in it, but it is not based on believing in a self-sufficiently knowable me. That’s the subtle type of disturbing emotion, and that only Prasangika understanding could get rid of.

What is underlying it? What’s supporting the disturbing emotion? Either an appearance-making  you know, the mind makes this hologram  appearance-making of true existence and the appearance-making of a me that can be known by itself, or just the appearance-making of true existence without the appearance-making  because you’ve gotten a stopping of it, and it’s not going to ever come again  of a self-sufficiently knowable me. So the subtle one is just based on the appearance-making of true existence, and that is more of a cognitively based disturbing emotion or attitude, not an emotionally based one.

Participant: So is it after the path of seeing that that would happen?

Alex: No, because you can only achieve the path of seeing (mthong-lam, seeing pathway mind) with the Prasangika understanding of voidness. So you haven’t gotten anywhere from the Prasangika point of view. Well, you have gotten somewhere…

Participant: You’ve gotten to the intellectual understanding.

Alex: Yeah. You’ve gotten somewhere, but you haven’t gotten really far enough.

So this was the point that I wanted to make, is that the Tibetans make this gradual path in which you go through the tenet systems in steps, getting rid of junk that you want to get rid of, till you get to the Prasangika one.

So this was very, very nice. It’s very, very difficult to know what in the world is Tsongkhapa talking about when he’s talking about these subtle disturbing emotions. His Holiness indicated it very nicely.