The Gelug Prasangika & Svatantrika Views of Emptiness

How to Prove That Something Exists?

What’s voidness (emptiness) all about? What is it talking about? It’s about how we establish or prove that something exists. How do we know that something exists? How do we prove it exists? What establishes its existence?

Most translations present voidness as being about how things exist: Do things have inherent existence? Is it this type of existence or that type of existence? That’s one way of discussing it. However, we can also look at it a bit more technically, which is revealed by the terminology, both in Sanskrit and Tibetan. The word that’s translated as existence, whether we have it in these expressions like true existence, inherent existence, and so on, is the same word (it’s a variation of the word grammatically) that means an affirmation or a proof of something; we prove something. It’s the Sanskrit word siddha, and in Tibetan, it’s “drubpa” (grub-pa). Basically, it’s how we establish something. 

How do we establish or prove that something exists? The lower tenet systems answer, “It has the ability to produce an effect, so we know that it exists. That establishes that it exists.” The Madhyamaka schools, Svatantrika and Prasangika, answer, “Because there is a conventionally accepted word or concept for something, we can establish that it conventionally exists as what the word or concept for it refers to.” We’ll get into the differences between these two schools shortly.

The Example of Jealousy

The example I love to use for the Madhyamaka schools is jealousy. What establishes that there’s such a thing as jealousy? Well, we think about it. We think of our experience of things and the experience of all living beings. It includes a huge spectrum of experience. How do we make sense of it? How can we think about it and communicate what we think to others? To do that, we need to divide what we experience into individual things? 

For instance, when cave people got together to make spoken language, they took the whole spectrum of their experience – they were probably talking about human experience, maybe a little bit about animal experience as well – and they conceptually parsed it into types of experiences. They made conceptual boundaries between the pieces they parsed, with each piece having some common defining characteristics that they thought up and decided upon. They then assigned to each piece of experience that they defined a totally meaningless, arbitrary set of sounds – an acoustic pattern – and said that these sounds stand for this piece of experience. 

Every group of cave people conceptually divided human experience and animal experience differently, with different boundaries between concepts, and chose different acoustic patterns to represent what they conceptually divided into commonly experienced things. Conceptual thinking and language undoubtedly evolved that way. Animals have concepts too – otherwise, a cow could never find its barn or identify its baby – but they don’t designate them with acoustic patterns. They designate them with distinctive smells or maybe visual patterns. Anyway, it’s the same thing, the same idea. Language is arbitrary. Convention is what we call these commonly agreed upon concepts and designations. 

Now, we have this convention arbitrarily set up by a group of cave people, and they took the absolutely meaningless acoustic pattern “jea-lou-sy” – jealousy – made it into a word and assigned it a meaning. Centuries later, people wrote dictionaries and included jealousy in it as having this specific defining characteristic or meaning. This officially established the existence of “jealousy.” 

We all feel jealous sometimes, and we think that “jealousy” is a thing that has its existence established from its own side. We think, “There just is an emotion of jealousy.” However, nothing establishes it as jealousy from its own side. There are no boundaries in human or animal experience that parse our experience into things, although conventionally, we experience jealousy. 

Everything is like that, any object. Table. What’s a table? There are so many different items that could be called a table. Some people would call this couch a table because it has four legs, we can put something on it, it will hold what we put on it, and we could eat off of it. So, this is a table. What’s a table? Out of all the items and things that we experience, we sort of make up defining characteristics, and now we have tables. 

Madhyamaka says that what establishes that things exist – that there is such a thing as jealousy – is that it’s the referent object of the concept and word jealousy. In other words, the existence of jealousy is established as what the concept and word jealousy refer to. That establishes that there is such a thing as jealousy. 

Mental Labeling with Concepts and Designation with Words

In more detail, there are three things involved in establishing that there is such a thing as jealousy. These three are the factors involved in mental labeling with a concept and designation with a word. 

  • A basis for labeling or for designation (gtags-gzhi) – some emotion, for instance, that people and some animals experience
  • A label (btags), which is a concept – a category of items sharing a common set of assigned defining characteristics – and a designation – an arbitrarily chosen acoustic pattern assigned as a word to represent this category and all the items in it. 
  • The referent object (btags-chos) of the mental label and word – what the concept jealousy and the word jealousy refer to. 

What the concept and word jealousy refer to is really like an illusion because it’s not the basis and it’s not the concept or word. It’s what the concept and word refer to. 

The Svatantrika Assertion

The two main divisions of Madhyamaka – Svatantrika and Prasangika – disagree on how valid mental labeling and designation work. Consider the basis for mental labeling and designation – something we’re feeling. Can we find the referent object “jealousy” in the basis? Does what we’re feeling contain inside it the defining characteristic of jealousy? Where can we find it? Where can we point to it? Svatantrika says that what the concept and word refer to (jealousy) appears, and we can point to that appearance in the basis (what we’re feeling), because the basis has the defining characteristic of not only the basis but also of the referent object. According to Prasangika, this is the problem with Svatantrika.

When we talk about inherent existence (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa), that’s jargon. We have to look at the definition, otherwise we might not understand its precise meaning. The definition of this mode of existence is existence established by a referent “thing” (btags-don) findable on the side of the basis for labeling or the basis for designation as a focal support (dmigs-rten) holding up the referent object of the label or designation. I prefer to translate it as “self-established existence.” Within the context of mental labeling, Svatantrika accepts it and Prasangika refutes it. 

Can we find the referent object of the concept and word jealousy? If we can, then where can we find it? Svatantrika says we can find it because it is backed up by a referent “thing” on the side of the basis. Svatantrika says that the basis, something we’re feeling, appears and not only does the basis appear, but the referent object also appears. The labeled and designated referent object, “jealousy,” appears. Then, we have to refute two things about it – that it truly exists independently of mental labeling and that it exists merely in terms of mental labeling. This is what Svatantrika is all about; it asserts that the existence of something is established by the combination of the two – mental labeling and self-established existence.

The Prasangika Objection 

What Prasangika objects to is that Svatantrika puts the fact that something appears as part of what establishes that it exists. The referent object appears and then we refute something about it. 

His Holiness the Dalai Lama explained that according to Prasangika, we can’t say that the object of refutation, which actually doesn’t exist at all, appears. To use a silly example, it’s as if the invaders from the fifth dimension appear, and then we refute that they come from the fifth dimension. It’s not like that. That’s what’s wrong with the Svatantrika view. We can’t say that because the referent object of a word or concept appears, that this establishes that the referent object exists. This is because everything that appears to the mind is an appearance of an impossible mode of existence. Thus, everything that appears to the mind is false. 

This is why I reject the word emptiness for voidness in the context of the Prasangika system. It is not that some findable container appears, but it is empty of some impossible mode of existence (not being the referent object of a concept or word for it). It’s not like a findable glass appears, but it is empty of any contents.  

Prasangika says that the only thing that establishes that anything exists is that it’s the referent object of a word or concept for it. It is merely that and nothing more. How do we know that there’s such a thing as jealousy? Well, we have a word or concept for it, and its existence can be validated by other valid cognitions. According to Chandrakirti, there are three things that something has to satisfy in order to be something that validly exists: 

  1. First, it has to fit a pattern, a convention. We didn’t just make up the word. Everybody has agreed. There it is in the dictionary: jealousy. We’ve agreed on a convention of what to call it.
  2. Then, it has to be not contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes the conventional appearance of things (the relative truth or superficially what appears). The simplest example is: just because I see a blur when I take my glasses off, doesn’t prove that a blur actually exists there. I’m seeing a blur, but the fault is a faulty sensor, my eyes. Well, if I look later and check, and other people that are wearing their glasses or can see properly experience it, and they’re not crazy with paranoia or whatever, then it’s okay.
  3. The third criterion is that it’s not contradicted by a mind that validly knows the deepest truth of things. That’s often translated as ultimate truth, but His Holiness indicated that we want to be careful with that because then we can get the idea of this transcendental realm that’s the ultimate, the real thing. An appearance of self-established existence is contradicted by the non-conceptual cognition of an arya that there is no such thing. So, it has to not be contradicted by the mind of an arya non-conceptually cognizing deepest truth. 

In short, it’s only from the side of the mind that we can establish that something actually exists. We can’t establish it from the side of the object. This is very important.

Chittamatra as a Stepping Stone to Prasangika

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

Once, I challenged my class to prove that we’re all in the same room. I asked, “Can anybody here prove that we’re in the same room?” I said that if everybody in this room took a picture of what they saw, and then they gave it to an impartial person – we lay out all the pictures – this person would say, “Well, you’re all in a different place. Look here. They’re all different pictures.”

But you could define the room, define the people, and then they’re there. You’ve defined it. 

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

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

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

Then nothing can be proved. 

Well, that is the big question. How do we prove anything? That’s the big, big question. This is one of the arguments as well between Svatantrika and Prasangika. Svatantrika says that there is logic on the side of the universe. That’s a very important thing to think about. Are the laws of nature – if we can use this word that I was saying is better to avoid – inherent in the universe, or are they only conventions made up by the mind to try to understand how the universe works? Prasangika says no, logic is not inherent in the universe; it is not self-established from its own side and findable in the universe. 

This is what they argue about with Svatantrika. Because Svatantrika is saying that there is such a thing as self-established logic and that we can use it to prove something about a self-established object. The only thing that we have to refute is that we’re using wrong logic, that we’ve come to a wrong conclusion. Prasangika says, “No, no, no. You can’t do that, because neither self-established logic nor self-established objects you are applying it to exist. The only way that you can get the mind to stop making an incorrect belief is to show the absurd conclusion that follows from that belief, and then you realize that it was ridiculous, and then you stop.” 

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

That would be a non-Gelugpa way of saying it.

The Importance of the Prasangika View in Tantra

We can only establish that things exist because they are the referent objects of the words and concepts for them. There’s nothing on the side of the object that establishes that things exist, that proves that they exist. Just because they appear, doesn’t prove or establish that things exist.

This is very crucial when we get to tantra. It’s expressed most nicely in the Sakya view of inseparable samsara and nirvana, which is that the clear-light mind is the source of all appearances, pure and impure. Everything of samsara and nirvana is an appearance of the clear-light mind. The clear-light mind makes these appearances. Either the appearances are pure (which means without appearing to have self-established existence) or impure (which means with an appearance of self-established existence). By having the appearance of a Buddha-figure, it helps us to not think in our ordinary way. 

So the issue of pure and impure appearances is not just that our usual body, the one that gets sick, is an impure appearance, while the appearance of a Buddha-figure or a deity is pure. That’s just taking pure and impure appearances on the conventional level. What we want to do is work with pure and impure appearances on the deepest level, where the difference between the two is an appearance of self-established existence versus not an appearance of self-established existence. 

If we make this distinction in tantra with a Svatantrika understanding, then we would say, “Well, the clear-light mind made this pure appearance of a Buddha-figure as having self-established existence, so that establishes that a self-established Buddha-figure exists, and it’s what the word and concept for it refer to.” That’s why it’s so important to have the Prasangika understanding with tantra because there’s that danger that we’ll go to a Svatantrika view when we learn about how all appearances are coming from the clear-light mind. We’ll take the fact that the clear-light mind makes appearances of self-established existence to prove or establish that this deceptive appearance is pure, it corresponds to reality and there really is self-established existence. This is a very important point.