Svatantrika and Prasangika: The Two Truths


Madhyamaka is divided into two schools according to the Gelug presentation of it. We have Svatantrika and Prasangika, and Svatantrika is divided also into two: Sautrantika-Svatantrika and Yogachara-Svatantrika. Sautrantika-Svatantrika accepts externally existing phenomena, Yogachara-Svatantrika does not. Like Chittamatra, Yogachara-Svatantrika says that objects in sensory non-conceptual cognition are devoid of coming from an external source different from the source of the consciousness of them. They have the same natal source. Let’s focus primarily on Sautrantika-Svatantrika.

Again, we have the same definitions of the two truths as we had in Chittamatra. Deepest truths are those phenomenon that are findable by valid cognition scrutinizing what is ultimate, scrutinizing the deepest level – that’s referring to voidnesses again. Superficial truths are those phenomenon that are findable by valid cognition, scrutinizing what is conventional. Very nice, but it doesn’t give us very precise information. Again, as we had in previous schools, Svatantrika also agrees that everything is established by its self-nature from its own side. So we can actually find the referent thing on the side of the object when we search for it.

Chittamatra said that dependent phenomenon and thoroughly established phenomena – voidnesses – are truly existent. They are established as true and that means that they are not established merely by the fact that they occur in conceptual thought. But as for totally conceptional phenomena, categories, their existence is not truly established. You can only establish their existence in terms of what is called “mental labelling.” That’s referring to conceptual thought. Starting with Svatantrika, all the Madhyamaka divisions are going to say that you can’t establish the existence of anything truly, independently of mental labelling.

Mental Labeling

We need to look more closely at how mental labeling establishes that something exists. Svatantrika says that the existence of conventional objects cannot be established only by mental labelling – the emphasis here is on the word “only.” This is because their existence is established by mental labelling in conjunction with a findable barcode on the side of the object. Because of that barcode, objects are actually findable when scrutinized. Now we need to look more closely at mental labeling.

There are three things involved with mental labeling. A mental label is a category. The category could be designated by a word or a name, but the word or name is not the same as the category. Let’s not confuse the two. There are two kinds of categories: audio categories and meaning categories or object categories. We discussed them before in our presentation of Sautrantika. So categories are mental labels. Then we have the basis for labeling. These are individual objects that fit into the category. And then have what a category refers to – the referent object of the category.

Now, what were we talking about? We were talking about how to establish that there are dogs, that there is such a thing as a dog in general. We have all these moving things – they are the basis for labeling. Then there is the category “dog” mentally labeled on them. So, what is a dog? A dog is what the category “dog” – the mental label “dog” – refers to on the basis of all these individual things. A dog is the referent object of the mental label. Do you understand that?

There are a lot of quite different looking creatures and there is also the category “dog.” So, what is a dog? Well, the category refers to something and that’s how you establish that there’s such a thing as a dog. Svatantrika says, “That’s not enough, because you could label, as a basis for labelling, anything as a dog.” I could label this table as a dog, I could label my hand as a dog, I could label anything as a dog. So Svatantrika says that there has to be something on the side of the object, a barcode for dog that, in conjunction with that category, establishes that there is a dog. You establish the existence of something from the side of both the mind and the object together in conjunction.

The difference between these two Svatantrika schools is that the Sautrantika-Svatantrika says that the object comes after the external elements and the mind comes out of a seed of karma, while Yogachara-Svatantrika says, “No they both come from the same seed of karma.” But for both Svatantrika branches, the deepest truth of things is that they are devoid of being established as not truly existent by mental labelling alone. They can only be established as being devoid of true existence by mental labeling in conjunction with findable characteristic marks on their own side; otherwise anything could be labeled anything.

Referent Objects and Referent Things

We need to differentiate a referent object from a referent thing. These are two different technical terms. We have the mental label – that’s a category, like “dog” – and a word or a name could be associated with it. Then there’s the basis for labeling – some creature – and the referent object for the category – the creature as a dog. In other words, the category refers to something, a dog, based on the basis for labeling – this creature.

Now when we talk about something being established by its self-nature from its own side, this means that when we search for some conventional object, we find something. What we find is called a “referent thing” – something that corresponds to the category. It actually is a dog.

A referent thing is different from a referent object. What a category refers to is a referent object; while what the category corresponds to is a referent thing. A referent thing is something that is sitting on the side of the object and is serving as a prop which is holding up from the back that referent object. The image that I find useful is a piece of scenery in a drama or movie, there’s something behind it that’s holding it up.

Here, what Svatantrika is saying is that there has to be a referent thing on the side of the object, otherwise anything could be anything. It’s actually a dog, so there is on the side of that object the barcode of “dog” and so it can be validly labeled as a dog. Do you follow that?

This is not an exact analogy, so don’t push it too far, but imagine that you have a hologram of your mother, so that would be like a referent object and the referent thing would be my actual mother. That corresponds to this hologram, which in a sense holds up that hologram in conjunction with the label “my mother,” and my actual mother establishes that this hologram is my mother. If we need to understand Madhyamaka, we really have to understand the difference between the referent object and the referent thing; these are two different words in Tibetan. It’s hard to come up with a good translation, but those are the words I use.


When we get to Madhyamaka-Prasangika, they also accept that there is externally established existence. Mental holograms don’t just come from your head. Superficially true phenomena refer to all appearances. This is the same as with Svatantrika. But when we talk about voidness here, then what they are refuting is really the Svatantrika position. Prasangika says, “No, it isn’t that there’s a referent thing; there are no referent things. There is nothing behind or holding up a referent object of mental labeling and so you can’t establish the existence of something by there being a referent thing.”

In other words, you cannot establish anything on the side of the object. There is no existence established by something’s self-nature, because there is no such thing as a self-establishing nature. You can’t prove the existence of anything from the side of an object. No way. You can’t prove it from a findable barcode – individual defining characteristics – that are on the side of the object. You can’t find them.

Where do you find such defining characteristics in this field of pixels, to use our example of pixels? It’s not in this pixel, it’s not in that pixel, where is it? If we think of it in more concrete terms, where do you find the genome – in this molecule or that? You don’t. So, there’s nothing findable on the side of the object. The existence of everything is established merely in terms of mental labelling, even the defining characteristics, even the barcode. It’s only established conceptually.

Defining Characteristics

In other words, people who got together and made up a category also made up its definition. I think the easiest example of that is an emotion. What is love? Well, everybody experiences so many different things and even each person experiences so many different things in individual moments of experience, so how do we understand what we are experiencing? Among all those emotions, somehow somebody taught us the category “love.” This is love, we taught the child that word and we’re referring to the category “love” when we say, “I love you.”

But, what’s the definition of love, its defining characteristic? Well, each culture defines it quite differently and what love means to me – and we live in the same culture – might mean something different from what love means to you. So even a defining characteristic is mentally labelled.

Is there such a thing as love? Yes. How do you establish that there is such a thing as love? How do you prove there is such a thing as love? Well, there’s the concept of love, there’s the category “love” and that’s the only thing that establishes that there is such a thing as love. Love is merely what the category “love” refers to. There’s nothing on the side of the emotions that we feel in each moment that’s like a barcode – this one is love, this one is this, and this one is that. You can only establish things on the side of the mind. They’re emotions, they’re just sitting there and I have one moment of experience within that, how do I put plastic around one part of that experience and call it “That’s this emotion?” It’s not like that, is it?

But is everything just an undifferentiated soup? No. Things do have conventionally defining characteristics; it’s just that you can’t find them on the side of the object.

Valid Mental Labeling

Can you label anything “anything?” No, it’s not chaos, which is what the Svatantrikas were accusing the Prasangikas of. We can only demonstrate the validity of something also from the side of the mind. How do we establish that something is valid? This is a dog or this is a king? We have to remember that this whole discussion evolved in India with the caste system and the problem was if there was nothing on the side of this person that made him a king – in addition to his being crowned a king – then a beggar could be made a king. So Svatantrika says that there must be something on the side of the person – his being part of this royal caste – that in addition to the title “king” makes him a king. There was this caste thinking and this is what Prasangika was refuting.

Prasangika says, “What establishes that there are kings? Well, there is the category, the concept of king and there is a group of beings that agree with that, worms don’t have this concept of king, but some humans have it. Those who perceive conventional truth correctly would agree that this person is the king.”

There was a very interesting example of this point in the news today. A bishop in the Mormon Church in America dressed up like a homeless person. He put on a wig, wore very dirty clothes and stood outside of the church begging. Many of the people who went to church just wanted to chase this beggar away and had very nasty thoughts and gave nasty looks at the beggar who was the bishop. Then, when the people were all seated, somebody in the church said, “There is this person outside who would like to come up and say something.” So, the bishop dressed as the beggar went up and read something from the Bible to the people and the people had a strange look on their faces. Then he took off the wig and took off his disguise and there he was. He was established as the bishop by valid cognition of his conventional truth. Valid cognition of his conventional truth invalidated his being established as a beggar.

It’s only correct cognition that establishes that this is the bishop; it was incorrect cognition that concluded he was a beggar. For instance, if I take my glasses off and I see a blur in front of me, nobody would agree that there was an actual blur sitting there, would they? If I put my glasses on, I can validly see it’s not a blur.

Also, what we perceive has to be not contradicted by a mind that sees deepest truth correctly. If I imagined that you were encapsulated by plastic with some barcode sitting inside there, anybody who sees deepest truth would see that’s ridiculous, that’s impossible. Can it be that you have sewn on your clothes a little piece of cloth that has your name on it and that that establishes who you are? That’s ridiculous.

Chittamatra got us into this way of thinking. Chittamatra helps us to understand that all appearances are just established only from the side of the mind. Prasangika then is saying, “Well, all ways of establishing that anything exists also come only from the mind.”


That is the presentation of the superficial and deepest truths in the four Indian Buddhist schools. This topic is something that can be very, very helpful in dealing with our experiences in life.

We can deconstruct that things aren’t so solid as they appear to be, they’re made of parts. Like a problem is made of parts. We have to differentiate our projections from objective reality and we have to understand that how things appear to us is just coming from our own minds. We have to understand that actually the only way that something is established as a problem, for example, is because of the concept “problem.” There’s nothing on the side of the situation that makes it a problem. What is a problem? A problem is what the category “problem” refers to on the basis of the situation. There’s nothing on the side of the object that establishes it as, “This is a solid horrible problem.” But when we think that there is something solid, findable there, then we project all sorts of things onto it.

Is the situation a problem? Well, conventionally you could call it a problem, but because I understand that it’s only established in terms of this label, even though others might agree that it’s a problem – the economy or whatever – but because it’s established as a problem simply in terms of that concept “problem,” therefore it’s not so solid. We can work with it, we can change the situation. If we think that from its own side it’s established as a problem, then there’s nothing we can do about it. Then we feel helpless. In short, understanding these different levels of analysis are extremely helpful in dealing with the complexities of life.