The Four Buddhist Tenet Systems Regarding Emptiness

Voidness, also known as emptiness, is very difficult to understand. To gain a correct understanding of it requires a great deal of positive force, concentration, study, and a strong motivation to want to understand it, based on realizing how essential it is. In the beginning, we might just get a general idea without much clarity, but that’s okay, as it’s how everybody begins. Slowly, over time and through a lot of work, it will eventually become clearer and clearer. That is why voidness is studied through graded levels of understanding among the Tibetans.

Different Buddhist Traditions and Interpretations  

The Indian Buddhist philosophical systems, or what are called the “tenet systems,” are all based on Buddha’s teachings, which Buddha taught to help different people of varied dispositions and stages of development. As Atisha put it so nicely, everything that Buddha taught is intended for our own gradual development in stages. It isn’t that this or that teaching is for those stupid people over there, and we don’t need that stage of realization. As Shantideva, the great Indian master, pointed out, if we work with certain common themes that we find in all of these tenet systems, and gain an understanding in a simpler system, we can use that same analogy to further a deeper understanding.

The most common and important example that Shantideva uses is the example that everything is like an illusion, and yet, everything functions. From one point of view, things such as a body, a chair and so on, are solid; however, that’s really just the superficial appearance. When we look at things more deeply, everything is made of tiny atoms. Therefore, even on this basic level, it is like an illusion that our body and the chair are solid. Nevertheless, we don’t fall through the chair even though these are just two collections of atoms with lots of space in between.

We shouldn’t leave it to the level of thinking that it’s a miracle that we don’t fall through the chair. We need to try to understand what is meant by “reality” and things being “like an illusion.” We also shouldn’t belittle or trivialize this initial level of explanation, because to digest that emotionally and incorporate that understanding into our lives is already very advanced.

Four Tenet Systems                                                                                   

There are four tenet systems within Indian Buddhist philosophy. Two are Hinayana and two are Mahayana. The Hinayana schools, Vaibhashika and Sautrantika, are not to be confused with the Theravada teachings prevalent in Southeast Asia. Theravada is a different brand of Hinayana. There were actually 18 schools of Hinayana, and Theravada was just one of them. Vaibhashika and Sautrantika are subdivisions of another Hinayana system, Sarvastivada, which stayed mostly in North India. The two Mahayana schools are Chittamatra, meaning “mind-only,” and Madhyamaka, meaning “middle way.” Within Madhyamaka, there are two subdivisions according to the Tibetan classification: Svatantrika and Prasangika.

To make things even more delightfully complicated, each tradition of Tibetan Buddhism has a different interpretation of all of these systems. In this lecture, we shall just discuss the Gelug tradition. Within Gelugpa, unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, more useful for developing the mind, there are different textbooks used in the different monasteries, each with slightly different interpretations of many points. We will follow just one of those used by most of my teachers. It’s the textbook tradition called Jetsunpa used by the Geshes at Sera Je monastery and Ganden Jangtse monastery.

It’s important to be aware of these different texts and sources. At Drepung Loseling monastery and Ganden Shartse monastery, the Geshes use a different textbook system called Panchen. Sometimes we might hear different explanations from the Geshes from different monasteries and we shouldn’t get confused by that. Try to keep everything in its proper place. They’rejust a little bit different on certain points.

There are actually four different Gelugpa textbook traditions. Jeffrey Hopkins’ books follow yet another of these, Kunkhyen from Drepung Gomang monastery, and Michael Roach follows yet another one, Tendarma from Sera Mey monastery. Be aware that there are differences. This is very useful, actually, because with only one explanation, that can easily become dogma. We learn differently when challenged to figure out why these different textbooks say what they say, why we have these differences, and so on.

Voidness Is an Absence of Impossible Ways of Existing

Our mental activity always gives rise to mental holograms of things; that’s how we know these things. Among these mental holograms, there is the appearance of what something is and an appearance of how it exists. Either of them can be false, what I call impossible. Although mental activity gives rise to false appearances of what something is only occasionally, it constantly gives rise to false appearances of how things exist.

At the same time as these false appearances of how things exist arise, we regard them with ignorance, or unawareness. According to some masters, our unawareness is that we don’t know that the appearance is of something impossible. According to others, our ignorance is more active than that. We believe that the appearance of something impossible is actually an appearance of something possible. This is like the difference between not knowing that the appearance of a monster under the bed does not correspond to reality and thinking that the appearance of the monster actually corresponds to a real monster under the bed. What we need to rid ourselves of is imagining that the appearance of some impossible way of existing actually corresponds to how things exist. That’s what we have to get rid of.

That is what voidness is all about: voidness is an absolute absence. There is no such thing as an actual real referent corresponding to this appearance of something impossible. A real referent is totally absent: it was never there. In Western terms, we are talking about projections of fantasy. They don’t correspond to anything real.

In another type of terminology, what’s impossible and is totally absent is an impossible “soul” or “self.” There is an impossible “soul” of persons and an impossible “soul” of phenomena – something findable inside a person or inside any phenomenon that, in a sense, gives it “life.”

The analysis of an impossible “soul” is slightly different in each of the Buddhist tenet systems. Each progressively asserts in a more subtle manner what is impossible. It gets more and more profound. We have to realize that although our mental activity gives rise to the appearance of such “souls,” they’re impossible; they don’t correspond to anything real. We have to negate such appearances with a correct understanding of voidness. There is no such thing, even though it appears.

The Hinayana schools only talk about an impossible “soul” of persons, including ourselves and everyone else. In addition, the Mahayana schools speak of an impossible “soul” of phenomena. The Hinayana schools say that to achieve liberation or enlightenment, all we need to do is rid ourselves of this belief in an impossible “soul” of persons. We need to realize the selflessness of persons, which is equivalent to the voidness of persons. To achieve enlightenment and become a Buddha, all we need is more positive force, or so-called merit, than is needed just for attaining liberation. That positive force will allow us to know how best to benefit all beings. We do not need to rid ourselves of belief in an impossible “soul” of phenomena to become a Buddha, because Hinayana does not assert such a thing. Mahayana disagrees and asserts that for enlightenment, we also need the full understanding of the voidness of phenomena.

Among the Mahayana schools, Chittamatra and Svatantrika explain that to achieve liberation, we have to rid ourselves of the grasping for this impossible “soul” of persons. But for enlightenment, we also have to rid ourselves of grasping for an impossible “soul” of phenomena. Prasangika uniquely asserts that we actually need to rid ourselves of grasping for an impossible “soul” of both persons and phenomena even to achieve liberation and that what is impossible about both is exactly the same. The other Mahayana schools state that what is impossible about persons and what is impossible about phenomena are different. Obviously, persons are part of all phenomena, so eventually, we need to understand that the voidness of phenomena pertains to persons as well.

Nevertheless, to achieve liberation, we have to understand something impossible about persons that is less profound than about all phenomena. To achieve enlightenment, according to Prasangika, after we rid ourselves of grasping for an impossible “soul” of all phenomena including persons, we have to rid ourselves of the constant habits of unawareness that give rise to these impossible appearances. The other Mahayana schools say we can get rid of the obstacles preventing liberation and the obstacles preventing omniscience together, gradually all the way, rather than serially.

The Gross Impossible “Soul” of Persons

Let’s begin with the impossible soul of persons. A person, gang-zag in Tibetan, in Sanskrit pudgala, is an imputation on an individual mental continuum. We’ll explain what an imputation is shortly. In each lifetime, the mental continuum with a person as an imputation phenomenon on it is going to be associated with the physical elements of a particular life form. There is nothing inherent in a mental continuum that makes it always human or animal, male or female, or anything like that. We would also call an insect a person, and again, it’s not inherently an insect. It’s an individual mental continuum that, in this particular lifetime, happens to have the aggregates – the body and mind – of an insect.

This is very profound, especially if we delve into this topic of imputation in terms of rebirth. It is not that Alex the human is now reborn as Fifi the poodle. Instead, in this mental continuum, there is one lifetime as Alex a human and then another lifetime as Fifi the poodle. This makes a big difference in terms of how we view rebirth.

Gross and Subtle Levels of the Impossible Soul of Persons                                                               

There are two levels of an impossible soul of persons, gross and subtle, and Prasangika adds yet a third. The first of the levels, the gross or coarse level, is the doctrinally based grasping for an impossible soul. This is very specifically defined and is based on learning, accepting and believing in the doctrines taught by a non-Buddhist Indian philosophical system. Of the eight non-Buddhist Indian schools, seven of them, like Buddhism, accept karma and rebirth. Rebirth is going on and on, over and over and over again, on the basis of karma. This is assumed. There is only one school, the Charvakas, that doesn’t accept karma and rebirth; they are often called hedonists or nihilists. Their viewpoint is that we should all have a good time because, at the end of this lifetime, we cease to exist.

The question really is what is it that is continuing from lifetime to lifetime under the force of karma? What is it that is continuing from moment to moment in this lifetime? These non-Buddhist schools assert that an atman, which Buddhism calls an impossible soul, is continuing. However, Buddhism says that there is no such thing as an atman; this impossible soul does not correspond to reality. When we hear and learn about, accept and believe in one of these theories about an impossible soul, that’s called grasping for a gross impossible soul of persons or grasping for an impossible self of persons.

Qualities of a Gross Impossible Soul of Persons                                                                                

What are the qualities of this gross impossible soul of persons? All these Indian schools accept in common that there are three qualities. Besides those agreed upon three qualities, they do have other differences. The first quality is that the soul is static, which means it never changes because it is not affected by anything. The second is that it is a partless monad. Either it is one with the universe with no parts, as in “atman is Brahman,” a type of pre-Hindu Brahmanic belief, or that it is a tiny little monad, like a spark of light or something like that. Those first two of the three qualities are usually translated as “permanent and one.”

The third quality is that an atman, a soul or self, can exist independently of a body, mind, emotions and so on, or in other words, independently of the aggregates. It exists independently like that when it attains liberation from rebirth. In each lifetime, this type of soul, or self, inhabits or possesses the body, the mind and the emotions, or controls them as if it’s the boss and they are like a machine. Obviously, it could be some combination of these three. For instance, “Now, I am in this body, and I possess this body and mind, and I am going to use and control it. While here, I live in my head.” This independently existing soul, “me,” flies off from this body and mind at death and inhabits another body and mind which it will possess, use and control as if pushing the buttons inside.

Doctrinally Based Disturbing Emotions and Attitudes 

There are some aspects of this that we might automatically think and feel. However, we are discussing the whole package, and that’s something that we wouldn’t just automatically think. An animal certainly wouldn’t automatically think that it exists like this. We have to be taught that assertion by some doctrinal systems. That’s why grasping for such a soul of a person is called “doctrinally based.” This is what we have to get rid of first – our belief that we are established as existing as that type of soul, that is our self, “me.”

Based on believing that we exist as this gross type of impossible soul, we have what are called “doctrinally based disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes.” For example, identifying the internal voice in our minds as “me,” with the all the qualities of this impossible soul, we become very defensive about that “me” and get angry with anybody that disagrees or challenges us. We identify our possessions as belonging to this “me” and become very attached to them. We might identify this “me” with our religion, nationality or race and even go to war over it. We might even think that torturing and whipping ourselves is the way for this impossible soul to attain liberation.

Although we might not have the full-fledged Indian version of this doctrinal view, if we look at our Western religions and beliefs, we find many similarities. With hedonism, for instance, we think that we’re going to live forever, somehow independently from this body and mind and never grow old, so we should just have as much fun as we can. In some religious systems, we might believe that if we torture ourselves as penance, we can achieve liberation with an eternal afterlife in heaven. Identifying ourselves as someone with the characteristics of such beliefs, we certainly develop attachment to our beliefs and anger when challenged. We even wage war with great hatred for those with different beliefs.

What Remains after Each Negation

When we realize that there is no such thing as this type of soul – in other words, when we realize the gross selflessness of persons – we stop identifying ourselves as one. We realize that we do not exist as this gross impossible soul.

In working with voidness – in this case, called selflessness or identitylessness – it is very important to look at what we are left with once we have negated a certain level of what is impossible. We have not negated that there is a person, “me”; we have merely negated that there is a person can be established as existing as a static, partless soul and that is not an imputation on the aggregates of a body, mind and so on, but something that can exist independently of them once liberated from rebirth. That leaves a self that is an imputation on the aggregates – one that cannot exist independently of the aggregates – and which is nonstatic and has parts. Because the aggregates are constantly changing, the self, “me,” is constantly changing, never static. And because the aggregates are made up of many moments of many parts, the self cannot be partless.

Imputation and Mental Labeling

It is very important to understand what is meant by imputation and by mental labeling. Although both are called by the same term in Tibetan, tagpa (btags-pa), especially from the Prasangika point of view when it discusses how to establish the existence of everything, this may hide the differences. For example, the self is an imputation on the five aggregates; but, according to Prasangika, its existence can only be established exclusively in terms of mental labeling on the basis of the five aggregates. These are different.

Something that is an imputation – an imputation phenomenon – cannot exist separately from a basis for imputation (gdags-gzhi). The phenomenon and its basis exist dependently on each other. Some imputation phenomena are forms of physical phenomena or ways of knowing something. A whole body, for example, is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of its parts: a head, trunk and limbs. A whole mood is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of its parts: a consciousness, a set of emotions and a feeling of happiness or unhappiness. A whole body and a whole mood cannot exist independently of its parts, and both can be known both non-conceptually and conceptually. We can see or think of our own or someone else’s body. We can remember a mood we were in and, if we have ESP, we can non-conceptually know the moods that others are in as well.

Other imputation phenomena are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something – so-called noncongruent affecting variables (ldan-min ‘du-byed) – but are still nonstatic phenomena; they change from moment to moment. For instance, a whole year is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of 365 and a quarter days and cannot exist independently of those days.

The self, “me” as a person, is another example of a nonstatic imputation phenomenon that is neither a form of a physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something – in this case, an imputation on the basis of five aggregates. A person, a “me,” cannot exist independently of a body, mind, emotions and feelings, and “me” can be known both non-conceptually and conceptually. We can both see and think of ourselves.

No one has to actively “impute” nonstatic imputation phenomena such as a body, a mood, a year and a person on their bases for imputation, their parts, in order for them to exist. If we see a head, a trunk, and arms and legs all connected to one another, we see a body. If we live through 365 and a quarter days, we live for a year. If there is a body with a mind and emotions and feelings, there is a person, a “me.” These are all facts.

Mental labeling, on the other hand, describes the relation between a static category, such as homo sapiens, with individual members of that category, individual humans. Like imputation phenomena, the mental label of a category and members of that category exist dependently on each other and cannot exist separately on their own.

Nevertheless, there is a big difference between a nonstatic imputation phenomenon and a static mental label. The mental label of a category can only be cognized conceptually; it is the concept or idea of what, for instance, a homo sapiens is, as opposed to a Neanderthal. When we see a certain body with a mind, emotions and feelings, it is optional whether or not we mentally label it as homo sapiens. It only exists as homo sapiens in relation the category, concept and idea of homo sapiens. We need to actively label it – in other words, conceptually classify and fit it into our mental box of “homo sapiens” – in order to think of it as being a homo sapiens. But when we see a body with a mind, emotions and feelings, we are seeing a person, a “me,” regardless of what category we mentally label them with.

It is important to differentiate the self, “me,” as a nonstatic imputation phenomenon and the static mental label “me,” which is the category “me,” in which we can fit all instances of “me” and the five aggregates. With imputation phenomena, there are two things involved: the imputation phenomenon and the basis for imputation, so the self and the five aggregates. But with mental labeling, there are three things involved: the mental label, the basis for labeling and the referent object of the label (btags-chos). In the case of the self, the mental label is the static category “me,” the basis for labeling are the five aggregates and the referent object of the label is the self, “me,” as an imputation phenomenon also on the basis of the five aggregates.

When we speak about words or names, words are imputation phenomena on the basis of the meanings of words. A sound without a meaning is not a word, it is merely a sound. Like other imputation phenomena, words and their meanings cannot exist independently of each other. Words are designated on categories and, through the categories on which they are designated, they are also designated on the individual members that fit in the categories. So, like categories, words can only be known conceptually. Also like categories, there are three things involved with words: a word, such as “me,” as a designation, the five aggregates as the basis for the designation, and the referent object of the designation – again, the self, “me,” as an imputation phenomenon also on the basis of the five aggregates.

This is obviously just an introduction to something to work with, study and analyze. Imputation, mental labeling and designation are not easy to understand, but it is essential to at least understand that although they share something in common, they also have differences. What they share in common is that a nonstatic self as an imputation phenomenon, the static category of a self and the word “self” – none of them can exist independently of a set of five aggregates as their basis for imputation, basis for mental labeling and basis for designation.

Their differences, I’ve already explained. But there is one more important thing to note. Mentally labeling the five aggregates with the category “me” and designating them with the word “me” do not create the self, “me,” as their referent object. Whether or not we think of our body, mind, emotions and so on with the static category “me” and the word “me,” there is still the nonstatic “me” as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the body, mind and emotions. Mental labeling with categories and concepts and designation with words do not create the nonstatic self. They do not create “me.”

When we think of ourselves, when we think “me,” on the basis of the five aggregates, the referent object is actually the nonstatic “me,” which has parts and cannot exist independently from its basis for imputation, the five aggregates. This “me” actually exists, it functions, it does things. But it is like an illusion because it appears to exist in a way that does not correspond to how it actually exists. Under the influence of doctrinally based unawareness, ignorance, it appears as though the referent object is the coarse impossible “me” – a static, partless “soul” that is not an imputation phenomenon, but which can exist independently of a basis for imputation, a set of five aggregates. Such an impossible self actually is a complete illusion. There is no such thing. So please remember, the false “me” is an illusion, while the actual “me” is merely like an illusion because it appears to exist in an impossible manner, as if it corresponded to reality.

The Subtle Impossible “Soul” of Persons

Next, we have the discussion of the subtle impossible “me.” This is what automatically arises. We don’t have to be taught this; animals have it too. Without having to be taught, it appears to us that a person can be known self-sufficiently (rang-kya thub-pa’i rdzas-yod). That means that a person, myself for example, “me,” can be known without its basis for imputation – the body, the mind, the emotions, or something – being cognized both immediately before and simultaneously with it. Even if we understand that a person is a nonstatic imputation on the aggregates and cannot exist by itself, still it automatically arises that we imagine that a person can be known all by himself or herself.

In terms of mental holograms, when we see or think of ourselves, the mental hologram of “me” arises together with the mental hologram of its basis for imputation, even if that basis is just the mental sound of the word “me.” First, we cognize the mental sound of the word and then both that mental sound and “me.” But it doesn’t seem like that to us. It feels as though there is a hologram of just “me,” without it actually being a hologram of a body, mind, emotions, or a mental word appearing and being cognized, with me as a person being on imputation phenomenon on that as its basis. This is what it seems like and this is what we believe corresponds to reality. Some examples are: “I don’t know myself very well,” or “I know myself very well,” as if “myself” were something that we could know independently of knowing our body, mind or emotions, and so on. We feel like we could know ourselves without anything else. That’s very subtle, but actually very profound.

For example, “Do you know Maria?” “Yes, I know Maria.” It’s as if Maria were something that we could know by itself. We don’t say or think, “I know what Maria looks like and so I know who Maria is.” When we think, “I know Maria,” we just think that we know this person. What is it that we actually know? It’s as if we could know Maria self-sufficiently, without simultaneously at least having a mental hologram of her name. We can’t think of Maria without some basis being cognized first and then simultaneously. How do we think of Maria? Either it has to be with a mental hologram of what she looks like, the sound of her voice, her name, or something else. We can’t just think Maria, see Maria, or know her self-sufficiently, without a basis also appearing and being known.

Even though we might know that we are an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the aggregates, nevertheless, automatically it appears as though we can know “me” self-sufficiently. We can know our “selves.” “I can see ‘myself’ in the mirror. Can we see ourselves in the mirror? Sure, we can. But we see ourselves in the mirror only on the basis of also seeing the body in the mirror. But we feel that it’s “me” appearing by itself; it’s not that it’s a body with “me” as an imputation on a body as its basis.

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.” That’s automatically how we think and how we feel. Then, based on believing that this appearance of a subtle impossible “soul” corresponds to reality, we get automatically arising disturbing emotions. We have attachment to “me” and others as if it were attachment simply to the person, not something about them as well. We also have anger in the same way. These automatically arise. Animals have it too.

The self, “me,” that is like an illusion, then, is not only an imputation phenomenon, inseparable from a basis for imputation, it is also an imputedly knowable phenomenon (btags-yod). It can’t be known separately from first and then simultaneously cognizing its basis for imputation. It is like an illusion in the sense that it appears to exist in a way that does not correspond to how it actually exists; but, nevertheless, the person, “me,” exists and functions. The self is not the same as illusion; it is not nonexistent. We do see ourselves in the mirror; it’s not that we are looking at nobody. And it is “me,” not somebody else and not a dead body.

The subtle impossible self or “soul” of a person, then, is one that is self-sufficiently knowable; and there is no such thing. The self is devoid of being established as existing in that impossible way. According to all the non-Prasangika schools, if we understand and non-conceptually cognize just that much – the subtle selflessness of persons, meaning the total absence or voidness of anything that corresponds to this subtle “soul” in reality – and if we become so familiar with this realization that it rids us of all the levels of subtlety of the automatically arising disturbing emotions that arise from it, we gain liberation from samsara.

What Establishes That Something Exists?

When we refute impossible ways of existing, then in order not to fall to an extreme of nihilism, we are left with the question, “How does the self or how do all things actually exist?” How things exist, however, is not really the issue. It is much more subtle than that. The issue here is what establishes or proves that something exists. How do we know something exists? We are not talking about what makes something exist. We’re talking about what proves or establishes that something exists.

The Sanskrit term, here, siddha, drub (sgrub) in Tibetan, doesn’t mean “exist.” It’s the same word as “prove,” and the same word as “affirmation,” as in “affirmation phenomena.” What affirms, what proves, what establishes that something exists? For something to “exist” means that it is validly knowable. But what establishes that it’s validly knowable and that it’s not just an illusion? This is what is involved in the discussion of voidness. Voidness is the total absence of a valid way of establishing that something exists that corresponds to an impossible way of establishing it. That impossible way is total nonsense. It is like an illusion.

There are certain impossible features that we might believe establish or prove that something exists and is validly knowable; but it’s impossible that they prove it. Voidness is the total absence of any actual mode of establishing that something exists and that something is validly knowable that corresponds to the impossible mode that we imagine establishes that. Each of the tenet systems refutes an impossible mode of establishing that things exist – whether just about persons or also about phenomena – and asserts an actual mode of establishing their existence. As one works progressively through these tenet systems, what is refuted and what is established becomes more and more subtle.

This is precisely what voidness is all about – the negation of impossible ways of establishing that things exist and can be validly known. If we think of voidness as being about impossible ways of existing, our understanding will not be so precise.

How the Hinayana Systems Establish Existence                                          

First, let’s look at the Hinayana tenet systems of Vaibhashika and Sautrantika. They only refute impossible ways of establishing that a person exists. Vaibhashika refutes that a person can be established as existing and validly knowable as a static, partless, independently existing atman. Sautrantika refutes in addition that a person can be established as existing and validly knowable as a self-sufficiently knowable phenomenon. Neither system refutes an impossible way of establishing that all phenomena exist, but still they do assert what establishes that all phenomena do exist and can be validly known.

First, there are some general ways of establishing the existence and valid knowability of all phenomena asserted in common by all tenet systems except Prasangika, both Hinayana and Mahayana. All of them assert that there is something findable on the side of each object that has the power to establish its existence as a validly knowable object. This is known as a self-establishing nature (rang-bzhin), or self-nature, sometimes translated as an “inherent or intrinsic nature.” It establishes the existence of something as the findable referent “thing” (bdags-don) that is the focal support (dmigs-rten) that, in a sense, backs up and holds up the referent object of mental labeling.

You recall, with the mental labeling of the category “me” on the basis of the five aggregates, the referent object of the mental label is the actual “me” as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the five aggregates. The referent “thing” in this case, backing up and supporting this imputation phenomenon is a findable, self-established “me” that has on its own side a self-establishing nature that establishes that it is an existent, validly knowable “thing.” Like this, all tenet systems other than Prasangika assert that all validly knowable phenomena, including persons, have self-established existence (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa) – in other words, their existence is established by a self-establishing nature findable on their own sides. Most translators render this mode of existence as inherent existence. It is equivalent to existence established from something’s own side (rang-gi ngos-nas grub-pa).  

Another assertion shared in common by all the tenet systems other than Prasangika concerns the unique defining characteristic mark (mtshan-nyid) that each phenomenon has, which allows for it to be differentiated, by the mental factor of distinguishing (‘du-shes), from other phenomena as a distinct, validly knowable, existent phenomenon. These tenet systems assert that this defining characteristic mark too is findable on the side of each object. In the case of an imputation phenomenon, such as the self, “me,” its defining characteristic mark is findable on the side of its basis for imputation – so, somewhere on the side of the five aggregates. 

These tenet systems differ, however, as to whether or not this characteristic mark has the power to establish the existence and valid knowability of the object, and whether it has the power to do this by itself. To explain how that works in the cases when it does have this power, then for years I have used the analogy of there being like a solid line or plastic coating around each object that establishes it as a specific, validly knowable object and not as another such object. Such a plastic coating, for instance, establishes that this table doesn’t just merge with everything else in the background as part of one big, undifferentiated soup.

All tenet systems other than Prasangika, then, agree that everything validly knowable, including the self, “me,” has findable on its own side a self-establishing nature and, in most cases, a defining characteristic mark that has the power to establish its existence as a unique validly knowable object and individualize it from everything else. In other words, all validly knowable phenomena have their existence established by their individual defining characteristic mark (rang-gi mtshan-nyid-kyis grub-pa) as well as by their self-establishing nature. That’s the general viewpoint of the non-Prasangika tenet systems, involving everything that we could validly know.

Vaibhashika

Vaibhashika adds to the above that what establishes and proves that something exists is its ability to perform a function (don-byed nus-pa): its ability to do something. The most basic thing that everything is able to do, both nonstatic and even static phenomena, is to serve as an object for the valid cognition of them. Everything has substantially established existence (rdzas-su grub-pa) because everything serves as the natal source (rdzas) of the valid cognition of it. Because something can perform that function, that proves it exists. It has truly established existence (bden-par grub-pa). An imaginary “invader from the fifth dimension” can’t perform that function because it cannot be validly known; therefore, it doesn’t exist.

Even the existence of the actual “me” as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the aggregates can be established as existing like that. A person, a self, “me,” can do things: we can breathe, think, walk, talk and see things. That’s proof that we exist.  And we can certainly be known by valid cognition – other people can see us. The self, “me,” like all other validly knowable phenomena, both nonstatic and static, has a self-establishing nature on its own side that makes it a “thing,” a validly knowable “thing.” And its defining characteristic mark that in a sense envelops it in plastic as an individual person is found, according to Vaibhashika, on the side of the network of the five aggregates.

Sautrantika

Sautrantika differentiates between objective phenomena (rang-mtshan), which refer to all nonstatic phenomena including persons, and metaphysical phenomena (spyi-mtshan), which refer to all static phenomena such as categories (spyi). Sautrantika says that what Vaibhashika asserts about substantially established phenomena applies only to objective phenomena. Only objective phenomena can perform functions and so only they have substantially established existence. According to the Gelug Jetsunpa textbook definitions, only they have truly established existence. Body, mind, persons are “real.” That’s objective reality.

Metaphysical phenomena, such as static categories, on the other hand, cannot perform any functions. Unlike Vaibhashika, Sautrantika does not consider serving as a basis for cognition as performing a function., so static phenomena are not substantially established and, according to the Jetsunpa textbooks, they do not have truly established existence. The existence of metaphysical phenomena is established merely by being something mentally labeled by conceptual cognition (rtog-pa btags-pa tsam-du grub-pa). Within the context of conceptual cognition, however, they still have self-established existence and existence established by their individual characteristic marks. “Merely” just excludes their being established as something not mentally labeled by conceptual cognition.

In terms of the self, “me,” individual “me”s are objectively real, but the category “me” mentally labeled on them is not objectively real. It can only be established as existing in someone’s conceptual thought.

For Sautrantika, the individual defining characteristic mark of a person, “me,” is findable on the side of their mental consciousness as its basis for imputation, rather than on the side of the network of all five aggregates as Vaibhashika asserts. Sautrantika asserts this because only mental consciousness is what actually goes from lifetime to lifetime. The point is that we need to find something that is always available to be the basis for labeling. What’s always available is mental consciousness, so that’s where we can find the “me.” That’s where we can point to the referent object of the word “me” as a findable referent “thing.”

How the Mahayana Systems Establish Existence                                         

Chittamatra

Chittamatra agrees with Sautrantika that to attain liberation we need to rid ourselves only of grasping for the gross and subtle impossible “souls” of persons as Sautrantika defines them. But, to gain enlightenment, we need also to rid ourselves of grasping for the impossible so-called “soul” of all phenomenon.

Chittamatra agrees with both Vaibhashika and Sautrantika that all validly knowable phenomena have self-established existence and existence established from their own sides. Only dependent phenomena (gzhan-dbang), referring to nonstatic phenomena, and thoroughly established phenomena (yongs-grub), referring to the two types of voidness that Chittamatra asserts, however, have existence established by their individual defining characteristic marks. They lack existence established merely or exclusively by being something mentally labeled by conceptual cognition. Thus, they are truly existent.

Existent totally conceptional phenomena (yod-pa’i kun-brtags), referring to static phenomena other than the two voidnesses – namely, categories and space, lack existence established by their individual defining characteristic marks. It is in the sense of this lack or absence that they have existence established merely or exclusively by being something mentally labeled by conceptual cognition; they do not have truly established existence. Nevertheless, these totally conceptional phenomena have defining characteristic marks – in this case, a composite feature (bkra-ba) – that differentiates each of them from other such phenomena as distinct validly knowable objects.    

The Chittamatra system asserts two aspects of grasping for an impossible “soul” or way of establishing the existence of phenomena, both of which it considers as subtle, and so Chittamatra asserts two types of voidness of phenomena. Both concern our cognition of dependent phenomena – namely, nonstatic phenomena. As for what Chittamatra asserts concerning thoroughly established and totally conceptional static phenomena, this concerns their defining characteristic marks and is rather complicated to explain, so we won’t discuss that here.

The first impossible way of establishing that nonstatic phenomena, including persons, “me,” exist is when they are objects of non-conceptual cognition – for instance, when we see them. At such times, what is an impossible way of proving that these validly knowable nonstatic phenomena exist? What is impossible is to establish that something we see exists already the moment before we see it. There is no way to prove that the mental hologram that our mental activity gives rise to of the object we see has come from an external natal source (rdzas) that existed already before we see it.

The first type of voidness in Chittamatra, then, is that the mental holograms of the nonstatic objects we see are devoid of coming from a natal source that is different from the natal source of the consciousness and mental factors that cognize it. The mental hologram and ways of being aware of it all come from the same natal source – a karmic tendency for that cognition. These karmic tendencies or “seeds” are imputations on our foundation consciousness, the alayavijnana

Here, Chittamatra is refuting the Sautrantika assertion that nonstatic things have objective existence “out there” independently of our seeing them. Sautrantika says that they objectively exist before we see them. The sources of those mental holograms of nonstatic objects are the objects that were objectively present before we saw them, plus our karmic potential to see it.

The question being examined is, “How do we know that?” How could we know that the object objectively exists out there before we see it? Chittamatra says that is impossible. How do we know that in a room having absolutely nobody in it there’s a bed in there? What proves that it’s there? The only thing that would prove that it’s there is that we open the door and look. It’s only when our mental activity gives rise to a mental hologram of a bed, or somebody else goes into the room and we hear them saying there’s a bed there, that it establishes and proves that it exists. We can’t prove that it exists by saying that it’s objectively there before anybody sees it. Therefore, Chittamatra states that there is no objective reality.

Let’s consider another implication of this Chittamatra assertion of no objective reality. Suppose there’s a donkey in the middle of the room, we’re all sitting in a circle around it, and everybody takes a picture of it. Every picture is somewhat different. Well, what does the donkey really look like? It’s not objectively one thing. It’s not that it looks like something separately from anybody looking at it. That’s impossible. All we can say is that the sources of the appearances of the donkey in each of these pictures is the camera each observer uses to take the picture and the observer’s karmic tendencies to sit where they are sitting and to take the picture from that angle and distance.

Of course, we have shared or so-called “collective” karma.  As in our example, it appears to each of us that we’re all in the same room, but what each of us sees is not the same. Nobody is seeing the same thing, and because of that, we can’t actually prove or establish that we’re all even in the same room. It’s like an illusion that we’re all in the same room, since what we’re experiencing, seeing and hearing are all very individual mental holograms.

The more we examine this point, the subtler it gets. Everybody in the room sees me, Alex, but we’re each seeing something different. What appears to each of us is coming from our sides, from the side of the mind. We can’t say that Alex exists only in each person’s mind; however, what appears comes from each mind. If Alex only existed in our heads, then there would be as many Alex’s as there are people in the room. Clearly, this is absurd. Therefore, it’s like an illusion that we’re all seeing the same person sitting here. Nevertheless, everyone in the room can all see and hear me, Alex; however, everybody hears and remembers something different. It’s like an illusion.

In spite of this seeming paradox, Chittamatra still asserts that within our non-conceptual cognition of dependent phenomena – within the context of our seeing something – the nonstatic objects we see in the form of mental holograms have self-established existence, existence established from their own sides and existence established by their individual defining characteristic marks. Because of that, within the mental hologram that arises when we see such objects, it’s like they have a plastic coating around them making them something distinct from what is around them. It’s just that their natal source is the karmic tendency for the cognition of them and that the karmic tendency for the cognition is an imputation on foundation consciousness, alayavijnana. In the case of the self, “me,” its individual defining characteristic mark is found on the side of foundation consciousness, since according to Chittamatra it is foundation consciousness that goes from lifetime to lifetime.

What about the second type of voidness, the voidness of the second subtle type of impossible “soul” of phenomena? This concerns dependent phenomena when mental holograms of them arise and appear in conceptual cognition of them. In such cases as well, the mental holograms that arise of them do not derive from natal sources external to the consciousness and mental factors that cognize them. But there is something about them that is even more profound.

Here, Chittamatra agrees with Sautrantika that even within the context of dependent phenomena appearing in the conceptual cognition of them, their existence as distinct validly knowable phenomena is still established by the power of their individual defining characteristic marks alone. Chittamatra disagrees with Sautrantika, however, that these individual defining characteristic marks, which are the basis on which categories are mentally labeled and names are designated – that these characteristic marks have the power to establish that these dependent phenomena exist as fitting in these categories and as being the referent of these names. Chittamatra says that they are devoid of such an impossible way of existing. Mental labeling and designation alone establish them as fitting in these categories and as being the referent of these names.

The image I use which is perhaps helpful for understanding this subtle point is that Sautrantika asserts that the individual defining characteristic marks of nonstatic phenomena have hooks on their side on which categories and names can be attached.  For instance, there is a hook somewhere inside me, within the defining characteristic mark that makes me “me” and that the name and category “Alex” can affix to. There is another hook for “Alexander,” and another hook for “Alejandro,” and another hook for “Berzin,” and another hook for “person,” and another hook for “nice person,” and another hook for a color skin. There is a hook for every quality and every name in every language on the side of my individual defining characteristic mark that establishes that I’m Alex or Alejandro, or a nice person, and that hook has the power to establish me as existing as that.  

Chittamatra refutes this, stating that if this were true, things would be so crowded with hooks, it would be absurd. It’s impossible; there are no hooks on the side of the individual defining characteristic mark of dependent objects that appear in conceptual cognition when we think of something. It is only by the power of mental labeling and designation alone that these categories, qualities and names can be applied to the object that appears in the thought. It’s not that there is a specific hook on the side of the object that allows us to hang each appropriate name on it.

The Sautrantika point of view on this issue is actually not so far-fetched. How is it that we can give different names for things and have different words for them in different languages? For instance, we might say this is a “table” or this is a “mesa” or this is a “piece of junk” or an “antique,” or that this is “beautiful” or this is “ugly.” How is it that we can apply all these words and they are all valid? It’s not just arbitrary. We can’t say that it is a dog; no, it is not a dog; so, there have to be appropriate hooks in there. We can have relative judgments like a “piece of junk” or a “beautiful antique.” Both can be applied, but not “dog.”

What is this thing in front of me? Is this a “table” or, for you Spanish speakers, is this a “mesa?” It’s an interesting question. Which side has the power to establish that it exists as a table or a mesa? Is it on the side of the object or on the side of the mind that is conceptually labeling it? What proves that it is a table? What proves that it is a mesa? In order to understand what Buddhism is talking about with voidness, we really have to understand this concept of what proves that something exists as something. What proves that it exists at all?

Chittamatra states that on the side of any nonstatic object that appears in the mental hologram of a cognition of it, there’s a plastic coating around it that makes it validly knowable either non-conceptually or conceptually. However, what establishes it as being a table or a mesa, that’s in terms of mental labeling and designation alone, which occur only in conceptual thought.

But the object is not merely a mental label. That’s because it actually functions. It is not that, by mentally labeling it, that makes it a validly knowable object. According to Chittamatra, something is not just validly knowable because it is mentally labeled as being validly knowable. There’s something on the side of the object that establishes that. Being a validly knowable object is established by something ­ an object’s own side – for instance, an individual defining characteristic mark as well as a self-establishing nature – even though the object is just appearing out of a karmic tendency for cognition of it.

It takes a bit of time to introduce all these tenet systems, but when complete, we will have the whole picture to work with. This Chittamatra view is extremely profound. In terms of our progression, what is really important is that now, by understanding the Chittamatra assertions, we understand that the existence of the appearances of things and what they are can only be established from the side of the mind, not from the side of the object. If we can understand and work with that, it sets the way for us to be able to understand the Prasangika view that the very existence of things can only be established from the side of the mind and not at all from the side of the object. Understanding the Chittamatra view is a stepping stone for understanding the Prasangika view.

Svatantrika Madhyamaka

Next, we move onto Svatantrika Madhyamaka. Svatantrika agrees with Sautrantika and Chittamatra that to attain liberation we need to rid ourselves only of grasping for the gross and subtle impossible “souls” of persons as Sautrantika defines them. It also agrees with Chittamatra that to attain liberation, we also need to rid ourselves of grasping for an impossible “soul” of all phenomenon, but not as defined by Chittamatra. Svatantrika has its own way of asserting an impossible way of establishing the existence of phenomena and the voidness of it.

You remember that Vaibhashika says that all validly knowable phenomena have truly established existence; nothing has existence established merely by being something mentally labeled by conceptual cognition.

Sautrantika does not accept this. It asserts that static phenomena, metaphysical entities, have existence established merely by being something mentally labeled by conceptual cognition. But nonstatic phenomena, objective entities, totally lack that. According to the Jetsunpa way of defining truly established existence in Sautrantika, nonstatic phenomena have truly established existence and static phenomena lack truly established existence.

Chittamatra asserts that totally conceptional phenomena – static categories and static space – have existence established exclusively by being something mentally labeled by conceptual cognition. They lack truly established existence. But nonstatic phenomena and the two types of voidness, being thoroughly established static phenomena, have truly established existence and lack existence established exclusively by being something mentally labeled by conceptual cognition. They have truly established existence because they appear to the minds of aryas – those with non-conceptual cognition of voidness. Thoroughly established phenomena appear during their total absortion (mnyam-bzhag) on voidness, while nonstatic phenomena appear during the subsequent attainment (rjes-thob) phase of their non-conceptual meditation. 

You see the progression here. With Vaibhashika, nothing has existence established exclusively by being something mentally labeled by conceptual cognition. Sautrantika says the all static phenomena have existence established in that way and Chittamatra limits that to static categories and static space. Vaibhashika asserts that all validly knowable phenomena have truly established existence. Jetsunpa Sautrantika limits this to nonstatic phenomena and Chittamatra adds that voidnesses also have truly established existence.

Both Madhyamaka tenet systems, Svatantrika and Prasangika, assert in common that nothing has truly established existence. But how they differ is how they treat the issue of existence established exclusively by being something mentally labeled by conceptual cognition. According to Svatantrika, all validly knowable phenomena lack existence established exclusively by being something mentally labeled by conceptual cognition. But they also lack existence established exclusively by being something not mentally labeled by conceptual cognition – which is another way of saying they lack truly established existence. They lack both extremes because, according to Svatantrika, the existence of all validly knowable phenomena – both nonstatic and static – is established by their being something mentally labeled by conceptual cognition in conjunction with the individual defining characteristic marks findable on their own sides. In this way, Svatantrika adopts a Madhyamaka “middle way” position that avoids the extreme of objective reality, as asserted by Sautrantika, and the extreme of mind-only, as asserted by Chittamatra.

As for the individual defining characteristic mark of persons, “me,” Svatantrika, like Sautrantika, asserts that mental consciousness, as the basis for imputation of persons, is the basis having the individual defining characteristic mark (mtshan-gzhi) of a person. Svatantrika does not assert foundation consciousness, alayavijnana.

Let’s consider the example of something nonstatic, for instance a table. How do we establish that there is a such a thing as a table and that this thing in front of me exists as a table? Sautrantika asserts that although we can mentally label it with the category “table” and designate it with the word “table,” that doesn’t establish that it is a table. Whether or not we call it a table, it is established on its own side as a table by the findable individual defining characteristic mark of a table there. This is because it has the ability to function as a table.

Chittamatra asserts that the individual characteristic mark findable on the side this object only has the power to establish that this object exists as a validly knowable object. That characteristic mark totally lacks the power to establish it as existing as a table. It is exclusively by the power of this object being mentally labeled with the category “table” and designated with the word “table” that establishes it as existing as a table. Nevertheless, like an illusion, it performs the function of a table.

Svatantrika does not refute that there is an individual defining characteristic mark findable on the side of this object. It does refute, however, the Sautrantika and Chittamatra common assertion that this characteristic mark has the power all by itself to establish that this object exists as a validly knowable object. The this object is devoid of a characteristic mark that has the power by itself to envelop the collection of atoms into a package separate from everything around it so that it can be validly known as a distinct “thing.”

Svatantrika further refutes the Sautrantika position that this findable characteristic mark has the power by itself to establish that this validly knowable object exists as a table. But it also refutes the Chittamatra position that it is exclusively mental labeling and designation that establishes that it exists as a table. Instead, Svatantrika asserts that this object in front of me has findable on its own side the defining characteristic mark of both a validly knowable object and a table. But it can only be established as existing as a validly knowable object and as a validly knowable table by the power of mental labeling and designation of this object as its basis, because this basis has such a findable defining characteristic mark. If the basis for labeling and designation did not have this specific characteristic mark findable on its own side, then anything could be labeled and designated as a validly knowable object, even a rabbit horn, and anything could be labeled and designated as a table, including a dog.

What is a table, then? A table is what the category “table” and the word “table” refer to when labeled and designated on the basis of an object having the findable defining characteristic mark of a validly knowable table. A table is the referent object of the mental labeling and designation. However, Svatantrika, like Vaibhashika, Sautrantika and Chittamatra, asserts that, in any case, there is a findable referent “thing” holding up and supporting this referent object of the mental labeling and designation. As a focal support, this referent “thing” is, literally, the basis at which valid cognition of the object is aimed or focused and this referent “thing” has a self-establishing nature that establishes its existence. Svatantrika asserts that if the object did not have a self-establishing nature, then valid cognition of it would be aimed at nothing, which is the nihilist extreme. That this self-established referent “thing” exists is further established by the fact that it appears to the mind that is aimed or focused on it.

In simpler words, Svatantrika states there’s a word “table” and there’s something on the side of the object it’s designated on that makes it a table; it’s not a nothing. Similarly, there’s something findable on the side of me that makes me uniquely “me” and not “you,” and allows me to be validly called “Alex” in this lifetime and not “Fifi.” More precisely, that findable something that can be pointed to is a defining characteristic mark on the side on my mental consciousness that goes from lifetime to lifetime. And when someone sees me in the distance, whether or not they distinguish and mentally label that they’re seeing a person or that they are seeing Alex, still they are seeing me. That’s because I have a self-establishing nature findable on my own side that establishes my existence as something that can validly appear.

Prasangika Madhyamaka

Only when we have gotten this far in our understanding, gradually getting to this point by working progressively through the tenet systems, that we can now go to Prasangika. We have already understood that the “me” is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of a network of five aggregates and can’t be known by itself. We know about mental labeling with categories and designation with words, and we also know about individual defining characteristic marks.

Prasangika says that even within the context of mental labeling and designation, there is nothing on the side of the object that, in conjunction with mental labeling and designation, establishes and proves that it exists. What establishes that something exists as a table, then? It is established as existing as a table exclusively by the power of mental labeling with the category “table” and designation with the word “table.” This means that the existence of the table can only be established as being what the category and word “table” refer to – their referent object – on the basis of parts, causes and so on. Further, there is nothing findable backing it up as a self-established referent “thing.” Everything is devoid of self-established existence. There is no findable “thing” that is mentally labeled as a “table” and which has the power to establish its existence as what the category and word “table” refer to.   

The validity of mentally labeling, then, is not determined by something on the side of the object, but exclusively from the side of the mind that labels things in accord with accepted conventions. First, there needs to be the accepted convention “table.” Those who validly see it need to not contradict that it is a table. No one who correctly sees conventional truth would say it’s a dog when they accurately and decisively see it. Lastly, those who validly cognize the deepest truth – it’s voidness of being established by a self-establishing nature from its own side – need to not contradict it. Just because it appears to be established from its own side as a table, like Svatantrika asserts, does not prove it can be established as existing in that way. Those who correctly cognize voidness non-conceptually realize that this appearance is false. It is like an illusion.

If we understand the Prasangika position correctly, then we know that mentally labeling the five aggregates with the category “me” and designating it with the word “me” does not create me.  We can validly cognize things without fitting them into categories or giving them names; we can know things non-conceptually. However, what establishes or what proves that things exist as this or that is that there are names and categories or concepts for them, and things exist merely as what those names, categories and concepts refer to. However, what they refer to, that referent object of the name or concept, can’t be found.

One shouldn’t expect to understand everything that we’ve covered here after just one lecture. What I’ve tried to do is offer a good chunk of material, in perhaps a bit more precise manner of explaining, so that there is a lot of mental food to chew on. From this, we can also appreciate the incredible profundity of the Prasangika view as explained in the Gelugpa school. We shouldn’t reduce voidness to some simplistic, trivialized version that when we look for our self somewhere inside our body – up our nose or under our armpit – we can’t find it. There is a great subtlety to the Prasangika position.

Dedication

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

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