The Four Buddhist Tenet Systems Regarding Emptiness

Voidness, also known as emptiness, is obviously very difficult to understand. Understanding it requires a great deal of positive force, concentration, preparation and a strong motivation to really want to understand it, based on seeing how absolutely essential it is. In the beginning we just might get a general idea, we might not really understand too much, but that is okay, that’s how everybody begins. But slowly, slowly, over time, and putting in a lot of work on it, eventually it will get clearer and clearer. The way it is studied among the Tibetans is through graded levels of understanding.

Different Buddhist Traditions Have Different Interpretations

We’re going through what’s called the Indian Buddhist tenet systems, or philosophical systems based on Buddhist teachings, which Buddha taught to help different people of different dispositions and different stages of development. And as Atisha put it so nicely, everything that Buddha taught is intended for our own gradual development by stages – not just for these stupid people over there, but I don’t need it. And we saw that – as Shantideva, the great Indian master, pointed out – that if we can work with certain common themes that you find in all of these systems, then if we can get an understanding of it in a simpler system, we can use that same analogy to get a deeper understanding. And we saw that the example that Shantideva uses, which is the most common and probably important example, is the example that everything is like an illusion and yet, nevertheless, it functions. And we saw that the most basic example of this is that from one point of view things are solid – body, chair, and so on – but that’s really just the superficial appearance because, when we look at it deeper, everything is made of tiny little atoms. So it is like an illusion that our body is solid and the chair is solid but, nevertheless, we don’t fall through the chair, even though these are two collections of atoms with lots of space in-between. And we shouldn’t leave it at just the level of: “Well, it’s a miracle that I don’t fall through the chair!” We need to try to understand what is meant here by “reality” and things being “like an illusion.” We shouldn’t belittle or trivialize this initial level, because actually to really digest that emotionally and deal with our lives with that understanding is already very, very advanced.

There are four tenet systems within Indian Buddhist philosophy. Two are Hinayana schools, two are Mahayana. Vaibhashika and Sautrantika are the two Hinayana schools; they’re from a different brand of Hinayana than Theravada, so don’t at all confuse it with the teachings that you have of Theravada in Southeast Asia, a different brand of Hinayana. There were eighteen schools of Hinayana, Theravada was just one. These are subdivisions of another one Sarvastivada that stayed mostly in North India. The two Mahayana ones are called Chittamatra, which means “mind-only,” and Madhyamaka, which means “middle way”. Within Madhyamaka there are two subdivisions: Svatantrika and Prasangika.

And, to make things even more delightfully complicated, each tradition of Tibetan Buddhism has a different interpretation of all of these. So this evening we will just speak about Gelugpa. And within Gelugpa, unfortunately or fortunately, to make it more useful for developing the mind, there are different textbooks used in the different monasteries and they have slightly different interpretations of many of the points. I will follow just one of those, that of most of my teachers – it’s the textbook tradition called Jetsunpa. And that’s what’s used by the Geshes in Sera Je monastery and in Ganden Jangtse monastery.

I point this out because you really should be aware of this. Geshe Sopa comes from Sera Je, the same textbook tradition. So does Serkong Rinpoche, my teacher. At Loseling, in Mexico City, the Geshe uses a different textbook system Panchen. So sometimes you might hear different explanations from the Geshes from different monasteries. You shouldn’t get confused by that; try to keep everything in its proper place. It’s just a little bit different, not a lot different, but a little bit different on certain points. There’s actually four different Gelugpa textbook traditions. Jeffrey Hopkins’s books follow yet another of these Kunkhyen, and Michael Roach follows yet another one Tendarma. So be aware that there are differences. As I say, this is very useful, actually, because if there was just one explanation then that’s dogma, and you don’t really learn, you don’t get challenged by trying to figure out, “Well, why did they say what they said? Why do they have these differences?” and so on.

Voidness Is an Absence of Impossible Ways of Existing

In the discussion of our unawareness or ignorance, what happens is we are always making mental holograms of things; that’s how we know them. And among these mental holograms, often there is the appearance of something that is impossible. And our unawareness is either: “I didn’t know that it was impossible” or “I thought it was possible,” like the difference between: “I didn’t know that there were no apples on the table” or “I thought there were apples on the table.” So the deepest thing that we have to get rid of is thinking that there are apples on the table, when there aren’t – thinking that this appearance of something impossible actually refers to something real. That’s what we really have to get rid of.

Voidness is saying that there is no such thing; that is what voidness is all about – an absolute absence. There is no such thing as an actual real reference to this appearance of something impossible. So we’re talking – if we put it in Western terms – about projections of fantasy. They’re not referring to anything real. And in a different type of terminology, what’s impossible is an impossible “soul.” So there is an impossible “soul” of persons and an impossible “soul” of all phenomena. And each school progressively asserts what is impossible. So the impossible “soul” is slightly different in the different schools; it gets more and more profound. And so we have to realize that although it appears, it’s impossible – that this is not referring to anything real. We have to negate it with the understanding of voidness – there is no such thing, even though it appears.

The Hinayana schools only talk about an impossible “soul” of persons: ourselves and everybody else. And the Mahayana schools speak, in addition, of an impossible “soul” of all phenomena. The Hinayana schools say that to achieve liberation, or enlightenment, all you have to do is get rid of this belief in an impossible “soul” of persons. The only real difference with the Buddha is that for enlightenment you need to know all phenomena, but there is nothing discussed in terms of getting rid of some impossible “soul” or impossible things about phenomena. In Hinayana they say a Buddha has to get rid of any wrong ideas that a Buddha has, but it’s not presented in the same way as in Mahayana, in terms of voidness.

Then the Mahayana schools say that to achieve liberation you have to get rid of the grasping for this impossible “soul” of persons, but for enlightenment you also have to get rid of grasping for an impossible “soul” of all phenomena. And Prasangika says, well, actually you need to get rid of this grasping for an impossible “soul” of both persons and all phenomena to achieve liberation, and actually what is impossible about both is exactly the same – the other Mahayana schools say that it’s different. The other Mahayana schools say that what is impossible about persons and what is impossible about all phenomena are different. Obviously, persons are part of all phenomena, so eventually you have to understand that about persons too. But to achieve liberation you have to understand something impossible about persons, which is less profound. So to achieve enlightenment, according to Prasangika, what you have to get rid of are the habits of unawareness that make these impossible appearances – and that you do after you have gotten rid of this grasping. The other Mahayana schools say you can get rid of the two together, gradually all the way.

The Gross Impossible “Soul” of Persons

Let’s talk about the impossible “soul” of persons first. A “person” (gang-zag, Skt. pudgala) is what we would call any individual mental continuum. That mental continuum is going to be connected with physical elements of a particular life form. There is nothing inherent in a mental continuum that makes it always a human or an animal, or male or female, or anything like that. We would also call an insect a “person.” It’s not inherently an insect – it’s a mental continuum that in this particular lifetime happens to have the aggregates of an insect. Now this is very profound, if you get into it, in terms of rebirth. It is not Alex the human is now reborn as Fifi the poodle. But in this mental continuum is one lifetime as Alex a human and then another lifetime as Fifi the poodle. There is a big difference in terms of how you view rebirth.

Now there are two levels of an impossible “soul” of persons: gross and subtle. Prasangika has yet a third one. The first of the levels, the gross level or coarse level of what is called the “grasping for an impossible ‘soul’” here is the doctrinally based grasping for an impossible “soul.” So this is very, very specific. This is based on learning about and accepting and believing in the doctrines taught by a non-Buddhist Indian philosophical system. Now, of these eight non-Buddhist Indian schools, seven of them, like Buddhism, accept karma and rebirth. Rebirth going on and on and on, over and over and over again, on the basis of karma. This is assumed. There is only one school, the hedonists, that don’t accept karma and rebirth, and they are called the nihilists – “let’s have a good time because at the end of this lifetime that’s it.”

So the question really is, well, what is it that is going from lifetime to lifetime under the force of karma? Or what is it that is just going on in this lifetime? These other schools are asserting an impossible “soul” that does that, and Buddhism says no, there is no impossible “soul.” If you hear about, and learn about, and accept and believe in one of these theories about an impossible “soul” – that’s what they are talking about, that type of grasping for an impossible “soul.”

What are the qualities of this impossible “soul?” And all these Indian schools accept in common and say that there are three qualities. Besides those three qualities they have differences, but they all, in common, say the impossible “soul” has three qualities. One just says that it’s only in this lifetime. First of all the soul is static, doesn’t change; it’s not affected by anything. Second one is that it is a partless monad. So either it is one with the universe, no parts, atman is Brahman – this type of Brahmanic belief, pre-Hindu. Or that it is a tiny little monad, like a spark of light or something like that. So that’s usually translated as “permanent and one.”

The third quality is that it is separate from the body and the mind and the emotions (the aggregates). So this type of soul either possesses the body, mind, and emotions, or it controls them, it’s the boss, like a machine, or it inhabits them – or, obviously, it could be some combination of these three. “Now I am in this body, this soul, and I possess this body and mind, and I am going to use it and control it, and I live in my head.” And then this separate “me,” this separate “soul,” flies off from this body and mind, and now is going to inhabit another one which it will possess as mine and use it and control it – push the buttons inside.

Now some parts of this we might automatically think, we might automatically feel like. But the whole package – which is what they are talking about here – the whole package, that’s something that you wouldn’t just automatically think. An animal certainly wouldn’t automatically think this. You have to be taught that by some doctrinal systems. That’s why it’s called “doctrinally based.” Now this is what you have to get rid of first. And this type of soul, according to the seven schools, not the hedonists, is the one that can be liberated from rebirth. Then it is liberated from the illusion that it is separate, and now it is, according to the Hindu and Brahmanic views, one with the universe. And, based on this belief, we get what’s called “doctrinally based disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes.” So we get very attached to our view, our religion, and we get very defensive about it, and we get angry with anybody that disagrees or challenges us – maybe we even go to war over it – and we can get very arrogant about it, and we get many disturbing attitudes based on this belief – like grasping for this body to be “mine,” or something of our body or our mind to be “me.” This is “my” car – these types of thing. That sort of impossible “soul.” This is “my” religion, “my” church; this is “my” whatever. And then there’s also a disturbing attitude that such a soul is eternal, or this disturbing attitude of grasping for ascetic practices to be the path to liberation – like if you torture yourself, and whip yourself, and standing on one foot for a year – so this is going to bring you liberation.

So although we might not have the full-fledged Indian version of this, if you look at some of our Western religions and beliefs there is a lot that is very similar, isn’t there. So either we are complete hedonists – live for this lifetime, have as much fun as you can, make as much money as you can. Or, although we don’t believe in rebirth over and over and over again, there is rebirth in heaven or hell – and that’s according to slightly different versions of karma: reward and punishment based on actions. And that there is an eternal “soul” that’s separate from the body and mind that’s going to go flying off to this. And perhaps if we torture ourselves and whip ourselves that will help us to get to liberation in heaven more quickly. And we certainly get disturbing emotions based on such beliefs – that our belief is the best, superior, and we go to war with great hatred and anger against anybody who disagrees. Before, we had the hedonists – “I’m going to live forever, and it’s separate from this body because I never get old, and just have as much fun as I can.”

So when we realize that this is impossible, that there is no such thing as this type of soul – that’s not what I am; I am not just this gross impossible “soul” – so what do we know after that? This is very important in the understanding of voidness. You always have to look at, well, what do we know after something has been negated? It’s a person, that’s a “me,” that’s the “me” that actually exists in our persons, individual mental continuums. So there’s a person, “me” – the name you can give it – and everybody uses that type of idea, whether you have a word for it or not. So “me”; what is “me?” I am something that is imputed on the aggregates – the body, mind, and emotions. The five aggregates, I’ll just say very quickly here, that’s the body and mind. So it’s imputed on it, it’s labeled on it – I’ll explain that in a minute. So if the basis – that’s what we call “me” – now, if the basis is nonstatic (we saw that all the aggregates are changing all the time), what’s imputed on it has to also be nonstatic – it can’t be static. And because the basis has parts, what’s imputed on it (“me”) can’t be a partless monad – that also has to have parts. And because it’s imputed, that means that it’s not independent of a body and mind. Non-Buddhist schools would say it’s independent, could be separate.

Mental Labeling

We have to understand – it is very important – what we mean by imputation or mental labeling. There are three things involved: The basis for imputation – that would be the body, the mind, the emotions (the five aggregates). Then there is the mental label – this is the word, or category, or concept “me.” Now that mental label, that’s not me; that’s a word or concept. The third thing is the object designated by the label. It is what the word or concept “me” refers to; the object designated by the label is me.

This is obviously something you are going to have to work with, so I am just throwing it out now. I’ll give a simple example: This collection of three hundred and sixty-five and a quarter days, that’s a basis for labeling, for imputation. The mental label by which we put it together and organize it so we can talk about the whole thing is the mental label “year.” But a “year” – that’s only a category, that’s only a word. A year is not a category or a word. A year is something, isn’t it? So what does the label “year” designate? What’s designated by it is an actual year. It’s equivalent to, it’s what you call, three hundred and sixty-five and a quarter days, in order to deal with the whole thing. But it is not just the word – it’s what the word signifies, what it means. So here you have the basis, and here you have the word (the mental label), and then what the mental label refers to – me. Well, that’s like an illusion. It seems to be static, and without any parts, and independent, and so on – but that’s like an illusion. That’s a complete false illusion. But even just that it is mentally labeled and it’s just what is designated by a word – that’s like an illusion, isn’t it? And yet it functions – I see, I hear, I know, I walk, I do things – it functions.

Let’s state it differently; it wasn’t so clear, the way that I said it. The impossible “me,” the coarse impossible “me,” the gross “soul” – that is an illusion; that doesn’t function at all. That is an illusion, the impossible “me.” But the actual me, which is designated by the label “me” on the basis of the body and mind, that is like an illusion. So here we have to work with another level – of things being like an illusion. I’m like an illusion and yet I function; I do things. So be careful here. The false “me,” the impossible “me” – that is an illusion. The actual me – that’s like an illusion, and yet it functions. And another very important point to know about mental labeling: labeling does not create the object designated by the label. It doesn’t matter whether you call it “me” or not, there’s the actual me. You don’t need the label. The label doesn’t create it. The label doesn’t create a year. Before there was the word or concept “year,” were there years? Yes. The word “year” didn’t create it. The earth went around the sun. And you could call it “year.” “Year” is applicable to that, but it doesn’t create a year.

The Subtle Impossible “Soul” of Persons

Now the subtle impossible “me.” This is the one that automatically arises. You don’t have to be taught this; animals have it too. Whether or not we know that the self is imputed on the aggregates, it doesn’t matter. Whether we think that there is this impossible “soul” or we know that there is no such thing, it doesn’t matter, because this is more subtle. So without having to be taught, it appears to us that a person can be known self-sufficiently. That means that it can be known without the body, the mind, or the emotions, or something appearing simultaneously.

Let’s put this into the type of image and language of a mental hologram. It automatically appears, the mental hologram of just “me” – or, at least, we think it does. It feels as though there is a hologram of just “me,” without it being a hologram of body, mind, emotions, or something, also appearing, and me being what can be imputed on it. This is what it seems like, this is what we believe. Let me give examples: “I don’t know myself very well,” or “Oh, now I know myself very well.” – as if “myself” were something that I could know independently of knowing my body, or knowing my mind or my emotions, and knowing myself in terms of that. That’s very subtle, but actually very profound.

“Do you know Maria?” “Yes, I know Maria.” – as if Maria were something that you could know. But we don’t say, “I know Maria’s body,” unless we’ve had relations, but you know what I mean. When we think, “I know somebody,” we just think that we know this person. What is it that we know? It’s as if we could know Maria self-sufficiently, without simultaneously at least having a mental hologram of her name. You can’t think of Maria. How do you think of Maria? Either it has to be with a mental hologram of what she looks like, the sound of her voice, the name – something. You can’t just think Maria or just see Maria, that you could know her self-sufficiently, without a basis appearing.

Even though we might know that I am imputed on the aggregates; nevertheless, automatically it appears as though I can know “me” self-sufficiently. I can know “myself.” I can see “myself” in the mirror. You see yourself in the mirror? Sure, I see myself in the mirror. That’s my body. Now I do see myself in the mirror, but I see myself in the mirror on the basis of the body appearing in the mirror – we feel that it’s “myself”; it’s not that it’s just a body.

So we have many expressions that reveal this automatic way of thinking: “I am not feeling like myself today,” “I am out of touch with myself,” “I am looking for my true self,” “Be yourself.” And that’s automatically how we think and how we feel. And, of course, it is based on believing that this appearance of a subtle impossible “soul” corresponds to reality that we get automatically arising disturbing emotions: attachment (in terms of myself and others), and anger, and so on. This is the automatically arising type. Animals have that too.

So this actual me, it’s like an illusion. It’s not only imputed but it is imputably knowable, it’s not self-sufficiently knowable, it’s imputably knowable. It’s imputed, but more than that, it is imputably knowable. The basis it is imputed is the aggregates (the body and mind). And, in addition, it is only imputably knowable. Something, some basis appearing. It is not like the body – aside from the relation of the whole and parts, which is a whole other discussion. It is not like the body, that you can just see the body. So it is like an illusion; nevertheless, it functions. And we do see ourselves in the mirror; it’s not that we are looking at somebody else or even a dead body.

Now that’s more subtle – it’s like an illusion, yet it functions. And according to all the non-Prasangika schools, if you understand just that much – that this is impossible, no such thing – and you get that non-conceptually, and you get really, really familiar with that so that you have that every single moment of your existence, then you gain liberation. You don’t gain liberation just when you’ve had it non-conceptually for five minutes or four hours. That’s not enough. You have to have it always. So when you get it always, then you’re liberated.

What Establishes That Something Exists?

This is difficult enough to understand, obviously. So now the question is, well, just with that much understanding, well, what type of actual self do we have? Who is “me”? What is “me”? So now we get into this thing of – what’s usually spoken of in terms of – how do things exist. This is a misleading translation. That’s not really the issue. The issue is much more subtle than that. The issue here is what establishes or proves that something exists: how do you know something exists? We are not talking about what makes it exist. We’re talking about what – it’s the word “establish” (sgrub) – what proves that it – it’s the same word as “prove” and the same word as “affirmation,” the affirmation phenomenon – what affirms, what proves, what establishes that it exists? “Exist” means that it is validly knowable. What establishes that it’s validly knowable – that’s it’s not just garbage, an illusion.

So this is what Mahayana is talking about with voidness. It is saying that, well, there are certain things that you might believe establish or prove that something exists, but that is impossible, that doesn’t prove it. Voidness is the total absence of – in terms of phenomena – it’s the total absence of this being what proves that it exists. That’s not only in Prasangika, that’s all Mahayana. But it gets more and more subtle, what they are refuting. The manner of establishing that something exists gets more and more subtle – I mean the impossible manner that they are refuting. That, you’ll have to chew on for a while. But this is what voidness is all about, if you want to be precise. This is what they are actually talking about, otherwise it’s too vague: “the way of existing” – that’s not precise.

Now let’s go back to Hinayana. Vaibhashika and Sautrantika talk about what establishes that various things exist. Everybody says, except Prasangika, that what establishes that something is validly knowable is that there is something on the side of the object that makes it a validly knowable object. This is what I have been describing for years as a solid line around it that makes it specific – not something else – that makes it a specific, validly knowable object. That would be equivalent to a line around it. This table doesn’t just merge into the background as part of one big soup. What proves that it exists is that, well, yes, on its side there’s some line around it that individualizes it from everything else. That’s general – everything has that, everything that we could validly know. There’s only one characteristic feature, the most basic characteristic feature, the individual characteristic feature of something – it’s just that it’s an individual knowable object. It doesn’t merge into everything else. Including “me” – that has a line around it. And, in addition, the referent object for the label, for the word for it, can be found. There’s the table! There’s a line around it. There’s the table. “Me.” There’s a line around “me” – I’m not merging into the wall or becoming you. So the referent of that word “me” can be found, on the side of the object. So this, in general, everybody accepts about everything, except Prasangika.


Now Vaibhashika says, “Let’s get more specific.” That, of course, establishes that something exists, proves that it exists. But what really proves that everything exists is that it functions, performs a function. Because it does something. And the most basic thing that everything does, including static phenomena, is serve as an object to be validly known. And so because it functions, that proves it exists. (My “invader from the fifth dimension” doesn’t function, doesn’t exist.) It functions, so that I can validly know it. That proves that it exists.

It makes sense – all of these positions make sense. So even the actual “me” is like that. There is a line around it, making it separate from everything else; and it makes it a knowable object; and it functions. That proves that I exist. I do things, I see things, I see you – that proves that I exist. And that “me” can be found. Where? In the aggregates, somewhere in the aggregates, the collection of the whole aggregates – well, that’s “me.” Although that’s the basis but, nevertheless, you can find it. The basis serves as an example for it; that’s where you can point to.


Now Sautrantika says that, well, we have to differentiate between objective phenomena (rang-mtshan) and metaphysical phenomena (spyi-mtshan). So what we understood about Vaibhashika, well, that’s just talking about objective reality – what functions, what we would say is “real.” Body, mind, persons – those are real. That’s objective reality. And, well, metaphysical phenomena – what are those? Those are these categories, static categories that we were talking about. These categories, Sautrantika says, well, sure, they have a line around them. The category “table” is not the category “chair.” And here they start to get into a hint of Prasangika but, after this, everybody steps back from it. But they say that these categories, well, you can’t find a referent object of the category “tables.” So what establishes that the category “tables” exists? What proves that it exists is that it is applicable, it can be mentally applied; it can be mentally labeled on individual tables. Individual “me’s”, they’re objectively real. The actual “me,” according to Sautrantika – that’s real, it functions. I function, I do things – that proves that I exist, even though it’s like an illusion. Even though the “me” is imputed on the aggregates and even though it is not self-sufficiently knowable. But if we talk about the category “me,” the category “persons,” well, that’s a category. But what proves that it exists is that it can be applied to many, many different persons, many different “me’s”; everybody calls themselves “me.” Whether or not anybody labels it, it doesn’t matter.

Now we get to the Mahayana schools. Now we start talking about impossible ways of proving that something exists. That’s impossible, although it might appear as though it is like this. Now we are getting into the impossible “soul” of a person.

One thing that I left out, and I have to go back: In the Sautrantika, it says, well, come on, you can’t talk about the collection of the aggregates as being what you find, the basis of labeling, for “me” – what you can point to. You can say, well, it’s mental consciousness, because mental consciousness, that’s really what goes from lifetime to lifetime. The thing is, you have to find something that is always available, to be the basis for labeling. So what’s always available is mental consciousness, so that’s where you can find the “me.” That’s where you can point to the referent object of the word “me.”


Now we get to Chittamatra and Mahayana. Chittamatra says, “Well, yes, we agree what you have to get rid of – the impossible gross and subtle ‘souls’ the way that’s defined in Hinayana. You get rid of that type of grasping, you’re liberated. But to gain enlightenment, you have to understand the voidness of all phenomena.” Chittamatra says, “Well, there’s two levels here. What is an impossible way of proving that validly knowable phenomena exist? What’s impossible is that when we know something – when there’s a mental hologram of something, the mind produces a mental hologram – that the object that appears is coming from its own independent external source.”

What proves that something exists? Hinayana would say, “Well, the thing exists objectively out there without my seeing it, before I see it.” So the source of that mental hologram is coming from the thing that was there before, plus from my karma. Now the question is: “How do you know that?” How do you know that it objectively exists out there before you know it? That is impossible. How do you know that, in a room where there is absolutely nobody, that there’s furniture, that there’s a bed in there? What proves that it’s there? The only thing that would prove that it’s there is you open the door and look. It is only when you actually have a mental hologram, or somebody else goes into the room, that it proves that it exists. You can’t prove that it exists by saying, “Well, it’s objectively there before anybody knows it.” So there is no objective reality.

For example, there’s a donkey in the middle of the room and we’re sitting in a circle around it, and everybody takes a picture with a Polaroid camera. Every picture is different. Well, what does the donkey really look like? It’s not objective. It’s not that it looks like something separate from anybody looking at it. That’s impossible. All you can say is that the sources of the appearance of things are from karmic tendencies. So this is the source of the object that appears in the mind – that’s the source of the hologram, basically. And the knowing of the hologram comes from a karmic tendency. And that’s all you can say that it comes from. And, of course, we have shared karma, collective karma. So we’re all in the same room, but what we’re seeing is not the same; nobody is seeing the same thing. But we would say – this is like an illusion – we would say we’re all in the same room; so collectively we’re all in the same room, but what we’re experiencing, what we’re seeing, what we’re hearing, are all very individual mental holograms.

So now we’re getting much more subtle here. Everybody sees me, but they are seeing something different. What appears is coming from their side, from the side of the mind. But you can’t say that I exist only in each person’s mind. What appears comes from their mind. If I only existed in your heads, then there would be as many Alex’s as there are people in the room – this is absurd. So it’s like an illusion that you’re all seeing the same person sitting here. And yet you can all see me. I’m talking to you – everybody hears something different and remembers something different. It’s like an illusion. Woo-woo-woo.

But still they say that there is a solid line around me and you can find me. What you find the person or find yourself as, they say it’s alayavijnana, it’s the storehouse consciousness, the foundation consciousness. I will not go into what that is because that’s a long discussion, but that’s more subtle than the mental consciousness. It’s what carries the karmic tendencies, and that’s why it’s very important. This is what is specified here.

Now Chittamatra has something else here, which is also going a little bit in the direction of Prasangika. We have the second, the more subtle type of impossible “soul” of all phenomena. The Hinayanas say that what establishes that something exists is the characteristic mark that just makes it a knowable thing, like a line around it, from the side of the object. The image I use which I think is helpful is that there are hooks, characteristic marks, of any name that you could validly apply to it, on the side of the object. So, like there is a hook somewhere within me; because of that hook, which is a hook for the word or the label “Alex” or for “Alexander” (that’s another hook), and another hook for “Alejandro,” and another hook for “Berzin,” and another hook for “Fifi the dog,” and another hook for “person,” and another hook for “nice person,” and another hook for a color – a hook for every quality and every name in every language that establishes that I’m Alex or that I’m Alejandro, or that I’m a nice person or a person, that establishes it. And Chittamatra says, “Come on, no way! Things would be so crowded with hooks. No, there’s no hooks on the side of the object. That names and qualities and so on are just applicable. It’s not that there is a hook on the side that allows you to hang the name on it.”

This is not so farfetched, the Hinayana point of view. I mean, how is it that you can give different names for things, and then different languages? This is a “table,” this is a “mesa,” this is a “piece of junk,” this is an “antique,” this is “beautiful,” this is “ugly.” How is it that you can apply all these words to it and they are all valid? It’s not just arbitrary. This is a “dog” – no, it is not a dog. So there has to be appropriate hooks in there. So you can have relative judgments: it’s a “piece of junk” or a “beautiful antique” – both can be applied, but not “dog.” So what is this? Is this a table or is this a mesa? It’s an interesting question. And on which side is it a table or a mesa – is it on the side of the object or on the side of the mind that is labeling it? What proves that it is a table? What proves that it is a mesa? So you see why you really have to, in order to understand what Buddhism is talking about with voidness, you really have to understand this concept of what proves it exists as something. What proves that it exists at all? Chittamatra says, sure, on the side of the object there’s a line around it that makes it knowable; but what establishes it as being a table or a mesa, well, that’s in terms of the mental labeling. But it’s not merely a mental label, because it actually functions. It is not that we’re mentally labeling it, making it a knowable object – that’s not just mentally labeled, according to Chittamatra. It’s something on the side of the object that establishes that; it’s not just that it can be mentally labeled a knowable object. It is a knowable object – from its own side – even though it is just appearing out of karma.

So let’s summarize this. Here we have the karmic tendencies, often called the “seed.” Karmic tendencies producing a mental hologram. And from the side of that object that’s been produced, the appearance – we’re talking about the appearance – the appearance has come from the side of the mind. Now what’s appeared has a solid line around it. But what I call it, that’s something else. That’s coming from – there is nothing on the side of the object that’s there that allows you to hang the words on them. Independent of whether I know it or not, it always comes out with a line around it. But it functions. That also establishes that it’s real – not like a category – if I put the paper on top of it then the table holds it.

Okay, it’s taking a little bit of time, but I think let’s complete this then you have the whole picture to work with. So this Chittamatra is extremely profound, actually. And what is the real importance of it, in terms of our progression here, is that now from Chittamatra we understand that the appearances of things are coming only from the side of the mind. So it’s like an illusion that it is coming from out there. If we can deal with that, then that prepares us for Prasangika, which is saying, “Hey, that’s not quite right!” Chittamatra says the appearance is not proven or established from the side of the object; it’s only established from the side of the mind. So if we can understand that, and work with that, then that sets the way for us to be able to understand that what proves that something exists is not at all from the side of the object – it’s totally from the side of the mind. And so it prepares us. It’s easier to understand.

Svatantrika Madhyamaka

Now onto Svatantrika Madhyamaka. Earlier, all the other schools are saying, “Well, only some things are imputed.” Madhyamaka comes along, both divisions of Madhyamaka, and says, “Hey, no, what establishes that everything exists is that it is imputed, it’s imputable; it can be labeled.” So everything can be imputed. What’s impossible is that it has unimputed existence. What’s impossible is that it objectively exists: it functions and that proves that it exists, independent of that it can be mentally labeled. The two Madhyamaka divisions say, “No, no, no, it’s all imputed on parts, and so on. Everything – a table is imputed on the parts and causes, and all these sorts of things.”

So now we have imputation being a much larger thing. It is not just imputing names and categories, it is imputing everything. Because, remember, the others were saying that the line around it, that’s not imputed. Chittamatra was saying, “Hey, come on, only the names are imputed, the categories; but the line around it, hey, that’s there, on the side of the object.”

So, now, Madhyamaka says that what proves that things exist is they can be labeled, they can be given a name. A knowable object. The non-Madhyamaka are saying that whether or not you give a name to something, or anything like that, that doesn’t establish that it exists. They do exist. It’s only categories that are imputable. The actual table is not imputable, this table. The category “table,” well, that’s imputable. How do I know that there’s a table? Well, it’s not just because I can label it “table.” There is a table, it functions. Excluding categories – categories, well, they don’t function, it’s just that they can be applied. So Madhyamaka says you can’t establish that something exists independent of a name or a concept. I know that there are tables because I can label tables; it is what the concept refers to, the name refers to.

Now Svatantrika says what establishes that things exist is that you can give them names, but there is still a line around things, and there are even hooks on things. Things don’t exist independently of – how can you establish that tables exist independent of the concept “table”? You can’t. The earlier schools say that you can establish that tables exist independent of the concept “table” – well, that’s impossible. What are you talking about? What are you establishing? It can only be established in terms of words. How do I know these tables exist? Well, because there’s the word “table.” What are tables? It’s what the word refers to. If there wasn’t the word “table,” how would I know that there are tables? It is like an illusion that it exists independent – that what establishes it is independent of a label.

Svatantrika says it can’t just be by that itself; there has to be something on the side of the object as well. A line around it and a hook for “table,” and so on. So it’s the two working together, interdependent with each other: there’s a word “table” and there’s something on the side of the object that makes it a table. There is something on the side of me that makes me “me” and not “you.” Something on my side. Something on the side of this person driving a car and beeping and trying to pass me on the road that makes this person an idiot. Of course he’s an idiot in terms of the concept “idiot,” but there absolutely is something on the side of this person, wrong with him, that makes him an idiot – so that I can actually call him an “idiot” because he is driving like an idiot.

Something special – what kind of special thing that makes me unique in me? So Madhyamaka says, “Come on, it’s only in terms of the concept that you can say he is an ‘idiot.’” Svatantrika says there has to be something also on the side of the object. And in terms of “me,” you can actually find me. What makes me specially me? And here they go back to the mental consciousness, so that’s the basis – you can always find it, you can always point to it – that’s me. The referent object for the name can be found, you can point to it. It’s on the side of the object. You can point to the mental consciousness as the findable basis that has the characteristic feature of a “me.”

Prasangika Madhyamaka

Now it’s only when you have gotten that far in your understanding, in terms of gradually getting to this point, that now you can go to Prasangika. You have already understood that the “me” is imputed and can’t be known by itself. You know about appearances. You know about categories. You know, in general, about mental labeling. And you know about these hooks, and so on. Prasangika says even within the context of mental labeling, there is nothing on the side of the object that establishes it, that proves that it exists. What establishes that there’s a table? Well, the fact that there is the concept of “table,” the fact that there’s a word “table,” and that it is applicable. It’s not from the side of the object that we know that it is validly applicable – it is only from the side of the mind that you know whether it is a valid implication or not. So whether it is correct or not, whether it is valid or not, is established by – I mean, let’s not go into that, but different criteria from the side of the mind.

If we understand this correctly, then we know that the label “me” doesn’t create me. And I can know me – of course, we have to know the body, and these things, in order to know me. And we can know things without giving them names; you can know things non-conceptually. But what establishes, what proves that things exist is that, well, there are names and concepts for them – they are what those names and concepts refer to. However, what they refer to – that referent object of the name or concept – can’t be found. Everybody else said that you can find it on the side of the basis, you can find it as the mental consciousness, or something, the collection of the parts – you can find it. “No, no, no – you can’t find a referent object. It’s only with names and concepts. You can’t find it on the side of the object.”

This is really getting subtle there. So it’s an illusion that it can be found. It’s an illusion – I mean, it appears like that – but it’s an illusion that what’s designated by the label can actually be pointed to and found as the basis. Because the basis is labeled on its parts, and that is labeled on its parts, and it goes on forever, yet everything functions – like an illusion.

I don’t expect, and so you shouldn’t expect, that you understood everything that we’ve covered here. But what I’ve tried to do is give you a good chunk of material, in perhaps a little bit more precise way of explaining, so that you have a lot of food to chew on. And from this we can also appreciate that Prasangika is very, very, profound. It’s not this trivialized thing, “Well, can you find the ‘me’ up your nose or in your armpit?” – the subtlety of what they’re talking about.

So let’s end with a dedication. We think whatever understanding we have gained, may it go deeper and deeper, grow and grow, and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Original Audio from the Seminar