The Four Buddhist Tenet Systems Regarding Illusion


In the Indian Mahayana Buddhist monasteries, such as Nalanda, monks studied four systems of Buddhist tenets. Two – Vaibhashika and Sautrantika – were subdivisions of the Sarvastivada school within Hinayana. The other two – Chittamatra and Madhyamaka – were subdivisions within Mahayana. The Tibetans have followed this custom, but have made further subdivisions within these four systems. For example, within Madhyamaka, they have differentiated Svatantrika-Madhyamaka from Prasangika-Madhyamaka. Within Svatantrika-Madhyamaka, the Gelug school has further classified Indian authors as Yogachara-Svatantrika or Sautrantika-Svatantrika. The various non-Gelug schools have subdivided Madhyamaka in yet other ways.

[See: Indian Sources for Studying the Four Tenet Systems]

Further, various masters within each Tibetan lineage have interpreted the assorted Indian Buddhist tenet systems differently. In general, Sakya, Kagyu, and Nyingma share an earlier interpretation. Regarding Madhyamaka, this earlier interpretation relies especially on the Yogachara-Svatantrika slant of the two Nalanda masters who introduced Indian Buddhism to Tibet: Shantarakshita and Kamalashila. Because of that, non-Gelug has a great deal of Chittamatra terminology in its presentation of tantra. Tsongkhapa, relying on the works of another Nalanda master, Buddhapalita, radically reinterpreted the tenet systems, especially Svatantrika and Prasangika. Gelug follows his interpretation.

We can see some of the differences in these two main lines of interpretation with just a few examples. For instance, non-Gelug asserts that Svatantrika and Prasangika do not differ in their explanations of the objects nullified by voidness, the emotional and cognitive obscurations, and the stages of ridding ourselves of them. The differences between these two divisions of Madhyamaka lie mainly in the approach toward logic and whether or not any positive assertions can be made about anything. Gelug asserts that these two divisions of Madhyamaka have different assertions concerning the objects nullified by voidness, the emotional and cognitive obscurations, and the stages of ridding ourselves of them. Thus, non-Gelug accepts the Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs rgyan, Skt. Abhisamaya-alamkara) presentation of the stages of the path for all of Madhyamaka, whereas Gelug accepts it only for Svatantrika and identifies an extremely different Prasangika presentation. Likewise, non-Gelug accepts the basic Sautrantika presentation of cognition theory, while Gelug asserts a different Prasangika presentation of it as the deepest explanation.

Even within Gelug, however, various masters have presented several details differently. We shall restrict our discussion here to the general Gelug presentation.

The Tenet Systems as a Graded Path for Meditation

Regardless of interpretation of the features of each tenet system, the Tibetan masters have taught the Indian systems as graded steps in meditation, which are then to be applied to daily life. When studying the sections on discriminating awareness in Chandrakirti’s Engaging in the Middle Way (dBu-ma-la ‘jug-pa, Skt. Madhyamaka-avatara) and Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (sPyod-‘jug, Skt. Bodhisattvacarya-avatara), then, it is important not to see the refutations of non-Prasangika systems in them as directed primarily at winning debates against proponents of other systems. They are intended to help us go deeper in our own understanding.

The methodology is to narrow in on the most sophisticated explanation, as when first learning Newtonian physics, then refining it with Einstein’s theory of relativity, and then refining that with superstring theory. Each theory is relatively true and is functional; they differ merely in accuracy.

Therefore, it is important to try to understand each set of tenet systems one at a time and to try to see reality through each of their views. We must avoid thinking that any of them are stupid. After all, Buddha gave the general principles for each of them and the great Indian masters elaborated their details. Thus, they each have valid sources and were all intended for helping people to overcome suffering. Moreover, we need to proceed through the theories in the proper order, without skipping any. To skip the less sophisticated systems and jump immediately to the more profound ones usually renders the more profound theories trivial.

The method for going deeper in our understanding derives from Shantideva. He wrote that a debate is possible only when the two proponents accept an example in common, such as all things being like an illusion, and both accept as well the conventional functioning of cause and effect, despite all things being like an illusion. This is true in meditation as well, as we try to gain ever-deeper understandings. Let us use this example of all things being like an illusion and let us speak on an introductory rough level.

The Analogy of an Illusion

The point of the analogy of things being like an illusion is that an illusion appears to be real, but does not actually exist in the manner in which it appears to exist. For example, a striped rope may be the basis for the illusion that it exists as a snake. The rope appears to exist as a snake, but it does not actually exist in that way. Nevertheless, the basis for the illusion, namely the rope appearing deceptively to be a snake, functions to scare us. You cannot say that what the illusion seems to be, namely the snake itself, scares us, because the snake does not actually exist, although the appearance of what resembles a snake occurs and therefore exists. The illusion is the appearance of the snake arising on the basis of the rope. The rope itself is not the illusion; the rope, as it appears to a deceived mind, is merely like an illusion.

In short, the basis for the illusion and the appearance of the illusion both exist and both function. What the illusion appears to be does not exist and does not function.

The same analysis applies to a difficult situation in life that appears to exist like an insoluble problem. The difficult situation can cause us to lose our jobs, for example; but its appearance of existing as an insoluble problem is like an illusion. The difficult situation and its appearance as an insoluble problem exist, but insoluble problems do not exist. There is always some solution for a difficult situation, even though it might not be an ideal one.

Methodology: Recognizing Examples from Daily Life

To work with the example of things being like an illusion, we need to recognize something in our everyday lives that in some way is like an illusion and yet which functions. We need to find an example. Once we can recognize and really accept this personal example, we can then deepen our understanding of what the illusion is. How do we deepen our understanding? Take the example of love. We have an idea of what love means. We learn a new definition and then see how that works. If it works better, we may be convinced to accept the new definition.

We can apply the example of things existing like an illusion both to individual beings (persons) and to phenomena in general. Let us first see how it is applied to individual beings.

The Lack of an Impossible “Soul” of a Person

All Buddhist tenet systems accept the conventional existence of a self, “me.” The conventional “me,” however, seems to exist in a way that does not correspond to how it actually exists. The conventional “me” seems to exist in the manner of an impossible “soul” (bdag, Skt. atman). A self that exists in this false way is known as the false “me,” the “me” that is to be refuted. Thus:

  • The conventional “me” is like an illusion and it exists.
  • The appearance of a false “me” is the illusion and it exists.
  • What would correspond to the illusion – an actual false “me” – does not exist.

If we have been taught and believe one of the non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems, we would experience doctrinally-based grasping for a false “me.” Like an illusion, the conventional self (“me”) would appear to us as a “soul,” having a true identity as an unaffected (permanent), monolithic entity that can exists separately from the body and mind (the five aggregates) when liberated and which enters them as the boss, the controller, the observer, or the inhabitant of them. Even if we have not studied such non-Buddhist theories in this lifetime, nevertheless, based on study in previous lives, the self would appear to us as if it existed that way, and it would feel like that. After all, doesn’t it seem as though the speaker of the voice in our heads is a “me” that is separate from our bodies and minds? However, this is like an illusion in the sense that the self does not exist in the way that it appears to exist. Yet, despite being like an illusion, the conventional self functions. I can eat; I can experience suffering; I can gain liberation from suffering.

Once we have eliminated this impossible manner of existence to be nullified (refuted), we need to identify what is left in its place. In this case, we are left with a self that is:

  • Not unaffected by things, but is affected by them and thus changes from moment to moment
  • Not monolithic, but has facets or parts
  • Not separate from the body and mind, but is imputed (mentally labeled) on them.

All of the tenet systems, except Vaibhashika, accept that a further nullification of a more subtle impossible way of existing is necessary. What now needs to be nullified is that such a self (an affected, constantly changing, non-monolithic entity imputed on the aggregates) exists as something that is self-sufficiently knowable. This is because even after we have nullified the object to be refuted, the self still automatically appears to be self-sufficiently knowable. In other words, it appears to be something that can be known by itself, without a basis for its imputation being known simultaneously. No one has to teach us that. For example, we want someone to love “me,” not simply to love me for my body, my intelligence, or my money. Such a “me,” we imagine, could be cognized with love, all by itself, without a body, a mind, or possessions also being cognized with love at the same time. It automatically feels as though there is such a “me,” although this is like an illusion, and we long for it to be loved.

[See: Applying Emptiness When Stuck in Traffic. See also: Self-Sufficiently Knowable and Imputedly Knowable Objects]

Note that we automatically feel that there is a “me” that can be known self-sufficiently even when we also imagine that this “me” exists as an unaffected, monolithic entity separate from the body and mind, controlling them as their inhabitant and boss. Such a “me” is, of course, like an illusion. Much more subtle and difficult to realize, however, is that an affected, constantly changing, non-monolithic “me” imputable on a body and mind also cannot be known on its own.

Once we have refuted and eliminated this subtler impossible manner of existence, we realize that the conventional “me” can only be imputedly known. We are now left with a conventionally existent self, a “me,” which is an affected, constantly changing, validly knowable phenomenon imputable on a body and mind, but which cannot be cognized without some facet of its basis for imputation also being simultaneously cognized. However, it still feels as though such a “me” is truly and findably existent (inherently existent). In other words, it still feels as though there is some findable characteristic feature on the side of such an imputably knowable “me” that, by its own power, makes this person truly and uniquely “me” and not someone else. It feels as though there must be something findable that allows for a correct labeling of this individual stream of continuity of aggregates as “me.” All tenet systems accept such an inherently existent “me,” except for Prasangika.

Prasangika asserts that this mode of existence is also impossible and that such a “me” is also like an illusion. Once this impossible mode of existence is nullified, we are left with a conventional “me” that merely arises dependently in terms of mental labeling. It is merely what the label “me” refers to, when labeled on the basis of an everchanging individual stream of continuity of five aggregates. In other words, the conventional “me” is merely an affected, constantly changing, non-monolithic phenomenon, imputable on an individual continuum of aggregates. It cannot exist separately from those aggregates (separately from a body and mind); it is not a boss, controller, or inhabitant of those aggregates; and it cannot be known on its own, separately from those aggregates. Moreover, its existence is not established by some inherently findable characteristic features on the side of the aggregates that allow the “me” to be correctly imputed (labeled) on those aggregates. Rather, the “me” is established (proved) as something conventionally existent merely by the fact that it is validly imputable on the aggregates. Like an illusion, the self appears to exist in a manner other than that. Nevertheless, despite its deceptive appearance and despite its being devoid of the impossible manner of existence that it appears to have, “I” still function.

Understanding First That the Self Is Like an Illusion

Even before we understand the Prasangika position regarding how the self is like an illusion, if we can understand the non-Prasangika view of this, we can start to apply the analogy of an illusion to other phenomena as well. This is important because the self does not exist in isolation from other phenomena. The self experiences phenomena. It is affected by unawareness (ignorance) and thus experiences deceptive appearances of the phenomena of samsara. It can also be affected by discriminating awareness or understanding, and thus the self can experience liberation. Therefore, it is important to understand how phenomena exist. Although, except for Prasangika, the various tenet systems do not assert as a true cause of samsara unawareness about how phenomena exist, nevertheless samsaric beings still have unawareness or confusion about it. (Note that the Mahayana tenet systems, except for Prasangika, all assert unawareness of how phenomena exist to be a cognitive obscuration preventing omniscience, not an emotional obscuration preventing liberation. The Hinayana tenet systems do not even assert a set of obscurations preventing omniscience.)

As we have seen, when focusing on the self (“me”), which is imputed on the aggregates, the aggregates need to appear to the consciousness. Therefore, although the main focus for gaining liberation is on ridding ourselves of the unawareness concerning how the “I” exists; nevertheless, if we have confusion about the appearance of the aggregates that must appear when focusing on “me,” that confusion will cause problems. For this reason, we must also gain a correct understanding of the two truths concerning all phenomena that might appear among the aggregate factors of each moment of our experience. This is the case even in the Hinayana systems, which do not assert a voidness of all phenomena.

If we understand that the aggregates that appear simultaneously when we cognize “me” are like an illusion, we might still think that there is a “solid” “me,” existing and knowable separately from these aggregates that are appearing. This could happen if we have not already understood that the self is like an illusion. Therefore, we need to understand the voidness of the self first, before we go too strongly into deconstructing the deceptive appearances of phenomena.

On the other hand, once we have an initial understanding that the self is like an illusion, devoid of impossible ways of existing, our understanding of the aggregates also to be like an illusion reinforces our understanding regarding the self. After all, if the basis for labeling something is not solid, but is like an illusion, how can something labeled on it be solid? It, too, must be like an illusion.

Methodology: Analysis of the Assertions of the Tenet Systems

One way to approach the understanding of the illusion-like aspects of phenomena is through stages indicated by the progressively more subtle assertions of the Indian Buddhist schools of tenets. Although this approach is not found traditionally, I would suggest that we could follow the same structure as above regarding the illusion-like aspects of the self. With this approach, we would narrow in on an increasingly more sophisticated understanding of the illusion-like aspects of phenomena through the refutation and nullification of increasingly more refined impossible modes of existence.

This approach is based on the assertions of the two truths – superficial and deepest – in each tenet system. In the Hinayana systems, the two truths are two sets of true phenomena. Although superficial (conventional, relative) true phenomena conceal deepest true phenomena, the superficial phenomena are not traditionally regarded to be like an illusion in Hinayana. In the Mahayana systems, on the other hand, the two truths are two facts about every phenomenon; and since the superficial truth about something conceals its deepest truth, superficial truths are considered to be like an illusion. In order to make a system of analysis that spans Hinayana and Mahayana, the untraditional approach suggested here looks in a Mahayana way at the two truths in Hinayana. In other words, it looks at the two true phenomena asserted in Hinayana as if they were two truths about one phenomenon – the aggregates – and aims to give the insight that all levels of superficial truth about the aggregates are like an illusion.

[See: The Two Truths: Vaibhashika and Sautrantika. See also: Cognition of the Two Truths: Gelug Tenet Systems]


The five aggregates refer to the changing factors that comprise each moment of our daily experience. They consist of forms of physical phenomena, ways of being aware of things, and certain functional abstractions (such as impermanence) imputable on them.

Forms of physical phenomena that we experience, such as objects we see or feel, appear to be solid. This is like an illusion, however, because they are actually a collection of tiny particles. Their appearance as a solid entity is only their superficial (conventional) truth. Their deepest (ultimate) truth is the collection of particles that comprise them.

This understanding can help us enormously. Although Vaibhashika does not assert that the superficial truth about something is like an illusion, nevertheless we can apply this analogy to help us overcome suffering.

For example, when we see a scratch-mark on our car and become upset and angry, we can deconstruct the car and the scratch-mark into its component atoms. What then is the object of our anger? The solidity of the car and of the scratch-mark is like an illusion. On the deepest level, the car and the scratch-mark are just collections of atoms. Are we angry with the atoms? When we feel a pain in our back, are the atoms of our back causing us the pain?

When the appearing object for focusing on “me” is the aggregate factors of the experience of seeing a collection of atoms, the anger accompanying that moment is lessened, and it becomes easier to understand the lack of that “me” existing as a solid “soul.”

Similarly, speech that we hear is made up of the sounds of individual syllables. The sound of each syllable that we hear exists for just a moment and then no longer exists. Thus, the sound of the entire sentence existing all at once as a solid entity is like an illusion. Only the sound of one syllable at a time actually exists. Thus, when we hear a sentence of insult directed toward us, which syllable of it is the object causing us anger?

Thus, the first important insight from Vaibhashika regarding the phenomena that we experience in samsara is that they are made of tiny parts. The second concerns impermanence.

Situations that we encounter – whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral – appear to be permanent, in the sense of being static, unchanging. It is as if we enter a situation (such as feeling hurt because of being rejected by someone), take a photograph of it, and the picture of that frozen moment captured in the still photo is the actual situation. This is like an illusion. No situation exists in the impossible manner of a still photograph. Understanding this helps us to overcome suffering.

We can understand this illusion on two levels. The first is the illusion that the situation will last forever in the manner that appears in the still photo. When we refute that, we are still left with the still photo, and merely the understanding that some time in the future the situation will end. Until then, however, it seems as though the situation will remain basically the same. This too is like an illusion. Each moment, the situation is changing and drawing closer to its end. This is its subtle impermanence.

Moreover, the circumstance that heralds the final end of the situation, such as meeting someone else, appears to be the cause of the ending of the situation of feeling hurt. This, however, is also like an illusion. The actual cause for the end of the situation of feeling hurt is the fact that the situation arose in the first place; and its arising is due to a collection of many causes.


Once we can deconstruct the appearance of what we experience in terms of the illusion that it is solid, will last forever, and does not change from moment to moment, the Sautrantika insight helps us to go further.

Why do the illusion-like phenomena we experience cause us problems? Not everyone has problems with the same objects or situations, so it must have something to do with our minds. The superficial truth about these objects is the projections that we cast on them. For example, we project onto the scratch-mark the image of it being a disaster – the worst thing in the world, the biggest crime of the century. This mode of existing, however, is like an illusion.

The deepest truth is just the objective reality of the object. It is just a scratch-mark, made of a collection of atoms, and it is impermanent. The cause of the car becoming damaged was the fact that the car was manufactured. The other car bumping into it was just the circumstance of the damage appearing. The Sautrantika insight to separate projections from objective reality, then, draws us closer to understanding the relation between our perception, our problems, and objective facts.


The Vaibhashika and Sautrantika insights concern the phenomena we experience, which are the basis for labeling “me” – I am experiencing them in five aggregates. Even with these insights about them, we still face the danger of blaming our problems on objective reality. With the Vaibhashika understanding, we clear away our misconceptions that things are solid and permanent. With the Sautrantika understanding, we go further and clear away all other projections. However, we are still left with objective reality, sitting “out there,” and waiting for us to come along so that it can cause us problems. Even if we understand that our karma causes us to encounter these phenomena of objective reality, we may still feel that objectively real phenomena are the causes of our problems.

Chittamatra helps us to turn our focus to our own minds and the confusion that flows with it as the causes of all our problems. Thus, it is like an illusion that the objects we encounter are sitting “out there,” around the corner, waiting for us to come along and to cognize them. We have to understand that we actually perceive cognitive appearances.

The Vaibhashika and Sautrantika presentations prepare the way for understanding this. According to Vaibhashika, we see external objects directly, not through any cognitive appearance. According to Gelug Sautrantika, we see external objects through transparent cognitive appearances, which are cognitive representations of the objects. According to non-Gelug Sautrantika, we never actually see external objects, because moment A of the object causes the cognitive appearance of it to arise in moment B. In moment B, moment A no longer exists. Thus, although there are external objects, we only see cognitive appearances of them.

[See: Objects of Cognition: Gelug Presentation]

Chittamatra emphasizes the fact that the cognitive appearances that we see and the sense consciousness that sees them both come from the same natal source, namely from the same seed of karmic potential on our mental continuums. In fact, all that we see are cognitive appearances, and they are like an illusion, in that they appear to arise from actual objectively existing objects out there, waiting to give us pleasure or pain. However, they do not exist in that impossible way. The onus or blame for all the appearances that we experience lies on our own individual and shared karma. We cannot blame our suffering on external situations or on other persons.

Although the appearance of external objective reality is like an illusion, nevertheless the illusion-like sense objects we cognize do function. We know they function, because moments of experiencing results from them arise, such as eating and then feeling full. Cause and effect still work, though like an illusion.


The Chittamatra view helps us to understand that the mode of appearance of the sense objects that we experience is not established from the side of objects, but from the side of the mind that cognizes them. Thus, the appearances of sense objects that we cognize are established from the mind. This is the case even after we have cleared away false notions that these appearances are solid (not made of atoms or parts) and that they are permanent, and after we have also cleared away all other conceptual projections as well. Thus, there is no excuse for blaming our problems on something or someone “out there.”

Chittamatra, however, asserts that only the sense objects we experience are like illusions. It is like the example of realizing that a movie is like an illusion, but insisting that the projector of the movie must be real in order to project it. Thus, Chittamatra does not apply the analogy of an illusion to the consciousness that sees sense objects – although that consciousness may seem to be partless and to have projected identities such as being “so smart” or “so bad.” Therefore, with just a Chittamatra understanding, we can still be attached to our minds, or be angry with them.

We need to go deeper to understand that not only the mode of appearance of objects, but the mode of existence of objects is established by the mind. Moreover, we need to understand this in relation not only to sense objects, but also to the consciousness that perceives them and to all other phenomena as well.

This brings us to the insight of mental labeling (imputation). All tenet systems other than Prasangika, assert that the existence of all phenomena is established by their own individual defining characteristics on their own sides and which are not merely imputable there. Svatantrika agrees that there is something on the side of validly knowable phenomena that establishes their existence. However, these findable defining characteristics cannot establish the existence of validly knowable phenomena by their own power alone. It may appear as though these findable characteristics on the side of phenomena establish the existence of the phenomena by themselves, but this appearance is like an illusion. It is only the fact that validly knowable phenomena can be validly labeled (imputed) on the basis of these findable characteristics that establishes the existence of validly knowable phenomena.

Consider the following. If we think that a dog is a cat and then we label it “cat,” does that make the dog into a cat? Svatantrika explains that it is only because certain animals possess the defining characteristics of a cat findable somewhere in them on their own sides that these animals can serve as valid bases for labeling them “cat.” Otherwise, the labeling of anything as anything could be valid. But, because a dog does not possess the findable defining characteristics of a cat, labeling it a cat is not a valid mental labeling.

Thus, with the Svatantrika insight, we understand that a combination of external and internal factors establishes the existence of phenomena. This insight allows the analogy of being like an illusion to apply to all phenomena, both nonstatic and static (permanent and impermanent), not just to sense objects.


With the Vaibhashika understanding, we have deconstructed the illusion-like appearance of sense objects and consciousness being solid and permanent. With the Sautrantika understanding, we have cleared out other projections from them as well. Further, with the Chittamatra understanding, we have cleared out the misconception that the appearances of sense objects are established from their own sides. They are established by the karmic potentials of the minds that cognize them. With the Svatantrika understanding, we have cleared out the further misconception that the existence of any validly knowable phenomenon is established exclusively from its own side. The existence of any validly knowable phenomenon is established through a combination of something findable on its own side and mental labeling.

According to Prasangika, however, although all phenomena appear to have findable characteristic features on their own sides that establish their existence as “this” or “that” in conjunction with them being labeled “this” or “that,” this is like an illusion. If there were such findable features, they could lead to attachment and grasping to them. We could still place the blame for our problems on external objects or on a “me” – there must be something inherently wrong in me, making me no good. The true cause of our problems, however, is the mind’s making deceptive appearances of impossible modes of existence and the unawareness and grasping that come from that.

Because the deceptive appearances of impossible modes of existence are produced by the mind, the mind needs to stop projecting them. If the existence of objects as “this” or “that” were established by something from the side of the objects – even in conjunction with mental labeling – this could shift the focus of attention away from the mind’s confusion as the source of our problems. It could shift it to analyzing only externally to find the inherent characteristic features of objects that make the objects what they are so that we can mentally label them correctly. Therefore, we need to understand existence established by mental labeling alone.

The existence of any phenomenon, according to Prasangika, is established merely by the fact that it can be validly imputed (labeled) on a basis for imputation (basis for labeling). What the label refers to cannot be found on the side of the basis for imputation. Not even the defining characteristic features of what the label refers to can be found there. What establishes that the labeling of the phenomenon is a valid labeling – consequently, what establishes that the phenomenon that the label refers to is an existent phenomenon that is validly knowable – are merely criteria from the side of the mind:

  • The label needs to be a well-known convention.
  • The label needs not to be contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes the superficial truth of the phenomenon.
  • The label needs not to be contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes the deepest truth of the phenomenon.


The Indian Buddhist tenet systems present graded levels of understanding not only of how things exist like an illusion, but also of how cognition works and of many other important aspects of life. When studying these systems, it is important to avoid thinking that they are merely dry theories. They provide essential material for meditation to gain ever-deeper understandings. The purpose for gaining these understandings is not for acquiring intellectual knowledge. It is for applying them to everyday life in order to overcome our individual problems and to enable us to help others most effectively by bringing us enlightenment.