Dr. Berzin: Rinpoche, you study with both a Gelugpa and a Nyingma teacher, especially about the Prasangika view of voidness (emptiness). Could you please explain the differences between the Gelugpa and Nyingma interpretations of voidness as asserted in Prasangika and please keep this on the sutra level.
The Two Truths in Gelugpa and Nyingma
Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche II: The differences can be seen from their explanations of this passage from chapter 18 of Chandrakirti’s Clarified Words: Commentary on (Nagarjuna’s) “Root (Verses on) the Middle Way” (dBu-ma rtsa-ba’i ‘grel-pa tshig-gsal-ba, Skt. Prasannapadā-madhyamaka-vṛtti):
Having discordantly conceptualized what has form and so on, infantile ordinary beings give rise to the disturbing emotions of longing desire and so on, for it has been explained, “Longing desire, hostility and naivety are said to be produced from conceptual thought. They arise dependent on inversions of beautiful and not beautiful.” From a sutra as well it is said, “Desire, I know your root. You arise from conceptual thought. If I would not conceptually think you up, then afterwards you would not occur in me.”
Like that, karmic impulses and disturbing emotions, as many as there are, originate from conceptualization; and those conceptualizations are, in fact, assorted conceptual fabrications, habituated to from beginningless samsara. They arise from what has the individual defining characteristic mark of a cognizing mind and an object cognized, something spoken and something that speaks, something that does (something) and something done, function and what functions, jug, pillar, cloth, crown, chariot, form, feeling, woman, man, gain, loss, happiness, sadness, fame, disgrace, censure, praise, and so on. Further, these conceptual fabrications of mundane people, without exception, are ceased by means of voidness – in other words, in the voidness of all phenomena by means of the view.
This is a commentary on verse 5 of chapter 18 of Nagarjuna’s Root Verses on the Middle Way, Called Discriminating Awareness (dBu-ma rtsa-ba’i tshig-le’ur byas-pa shes-rab ces bya-ba, Skt. Prajñā-nāma-mūlamadhyama-kārikā):
From the depletion of karmic impulses and disturbing emotions (there is) liberation. Karmic impulses and disturbing emotions are from conceptualization. They are from conceptual fabrication. But conceptual fabrication is ceased by voidness.
As for the different interpretations of these lines, I will call it one stream of water coming into two different pipelines and then ending in one pipeline at the end. This analogy is in reference to the sutra teachings where Sakya, Kagyu, Nyingma, and Gelugpa all talk about the two truths, but with different understandings of the two, especially of the deepest truth. This could be the main point from this commentary concerning the differences in their ways of understanding.
Dr. Berzin’s Supplement to Fill Out the Discussion
Critical to understanding the differences between the Gelugpa and Nyingma interpretations of the passages from Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti is understanding their assertions about the two truths: superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa) and deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa). To understand the two truths, one needs to understand imputation and mental labeling.
Both Gelugpa and Nyingma accept the Prasangika view as expounded by Nagarjuna and elaborated upon by Chandrakirti. This view is summarized by Nagarjuna in his Root Verses on the Middle Way (XXIV.18):
I regard as voidness that which is dependent arising. It (voidness) is imputation-based. This, indeed, is the middle path.
Svatantrika Madhyamaka interprets “dependent arising” to mean the dependent relationship between an imputation phenomenon (gdags-pa, Skt. prajñapti) and a basis for imputation (gdags-gzhi). As a refutation of truly established existence (bden-par grub-pa; true existence), which Svatantrika takes to mean true, unimputed existence, Svatantrika asserts that all phenomena are imputedly knowable (btags-yod) – knowable only as imputation phenomena.
An imputation phenomenon is, literally according to the Sanskrit term, “something caused to be known.” It exists and is caused to be known in reliance on something else, a basis for imputation. For example:
- A whole exists and is caused to be known in reliance on parts,
- A self (a person) in reliance on an individual continuum of five aggregates,
- Voidness (emptiness) in reliance on a basis for voidness,
- A category (spyi) in reliance on individual items (bye-brag) that fit in the category.
Some imputation phenomena are nonstatic, such as a whole and a self. Some are static, such as a category and voidness. Gelugpa further classifies them in terms of those that can be cognized both non-conceptually and conceptually, such as a whole, a self and voidness, and those that can only be cognized conceptually, such as a category. Regardless of how they are classified, an imputation phenomenon cannot exist or be cognized independently of first cognizing its basis and then, except in the case of voidness when cognized non-conceptually, simultaneously cognizing it together with its basis.
Prasangika Madhyamaka interprets “dependent arising” to mean, in addition to the Svatantrika interpretation, the dependent arising of all phenomena in terms of mental labeling alone or designation alone as a refutation of self-established existence (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa; inherent existence). This does not mean that all phenomena are created by mental labeling alone or by designation alone. It means that when the question is asked, “What is a jug (bum-pa; vase)?” then since there is nothing findable on the side of some object that affirms, or proves, or establishes that it is a “jug,” the only thing that can be said is that a jug is merely what the concept “jug” and word “jug” refer to mentally labeled and designated on the basis of individual items that are hollow and have a flat base and a fat belly.
- Gelugpa asserts the establishment of the conventional existence of phenomena by means of (merely) the valid cognition of mental labeling with concepts (rtog-pas brtags-pa’i tshad-grub).
- Nyingma asserts the establishment of the conventional existence of phenomena by means of the valid cognition that is set by concepts (that correspond to what something is conventionally labeled as) (rtog-pas bzhag-pa’i tshad-grub).
Both, however, within the context of their definitions, accept Chandrakirti’s three criteria for the validity of mental labeling:
- It be in accord with an accepted convention.
- It not be contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes superficial truth.
- It not be contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes deepest truth.
Mental labeling with concepts and designation with words are special cases of imputation. They occur only in conceptual cognition. Let us limit our discussion to mental labeling with concepts. Concepts (rtog-pa) refer to thoughts containing object categories (don-spyi), such as the category “jugs” (bum-pa, vase).
A category is a negation phenomenon (dgag-pa) – something that can only be known by excluding something else (gzhan-sel). Specifically, a category is “a conceptual exclusion of what is extraneous” (blo’i gzhan-sel) – “a conceptual exclusion” for short.
In more detail, a category is a conceptually fabricated classification that excludes everything that is not an item that shares a set of unique characteristic features that define the classification. As such, a category is a static abstract phenomenon, something that has no form and that does not undergo change.
Categories, as conceptual exclusions, are implicative negations (ma-yin dgag). An implicative negation is an exclusion of something extraneous that, after conceptually negating an object to be negated, tosses in its wake (bkag-shul) – somewhat like in its footprint – both a negation phenomenon and an affirmation phenomenon (sgrub-pa).
- An affirmation phenomenon is something that can be known without excluding anything extraneous to it.
After the conceptual exclusion of everything that does not fit in a category, a category tosses in its footprint:
- The negation phenomenon “not ‘what does not fit in the category'” – in other words, “nothing other than what fits in the category.” This negation phenomenon is a conceptual exclusion of what fits in the category from what does not fit in it. Such a negation phenomenon can be translated as an “isolate” or a “nothing-other-than” (ldog-pa). It is a static phenomenon and, being a static phenomenon, it has no form.
- An affirmation phenomenon – namely, a conceptually fabricated generic representation of an item that is nothing other than an item that fits in the category.
After conceptually excluding the object to be negated (everything that does not fit in the category), the conceptual exclusion does not toss in its footprint any example of the object to be negated – “something that does not fit in the category.”
In the conceptual cognition, the category as an imputation phenomenon is cognized simultaneously with the negation phenomenon and the affirmation phenomenon that it tosses. For example, the conceptual cognition of a jug cognizes the category “jug” mentally labeled on a generic conceptual representation of a jug as a representative item that fits in this category to the exclusion of everything that does not fit in the category. The implied object (zhen-yul) of the conceptual cognition is a jug as a commonsense object well-known to the mundane world (‘jig-rten-la grags-pa) and which can be seen non-conceptually by valid visual cognition.
- The implied object of a conceptual cognition is what the cognition is thinking of – the conceptualized object. Literally, it is the object that the conceptual cognition “enters into,” “adheres to” and “clings to.”
In terms of mental labeling,
- The category “jug” is the mental label.
- The generic conceptual representation of a jug is the basis for labeling.
- The implied object is the referent object (btags-chos) of the mental labeling.
Furthermore, grasping for truly established existence (bden-par ‘dzin-pa; grasping for true existence) – for Prasangika, meaning grasping for self-established existence – entails two mental actions. This is because the word in it, ‘dzin-pa – literally, “taking” – has two meanings. Because of the constant habit (bag-chags) of grasping for truly established existence, an appearance of self-established existence arises in every moment other than during an arya’s total absorption on voidness. Grasping for truly established existence both
- “Takes” (‘dzin-pa) this appearance as its object of cognition, and
- “Takes” (‘dzin-pa) it to correspond to how everything actually exists.
This much is asserted in common by Gelugpa and Nyingma. Now we can look at the differences between Gelugpa and Nyingma regarding the two truths that are critical for understanding their interpretations of the passages from Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti’s texts.
The Gelugpa Assertion of the Two Truths
For Gelugpa, superficial truth refers to the deceptive mode of appearance of conventional objects (tha-snyad-pa).
- Conventional objects refer to commonsense objects such as jugs, love, and persons.
- Commonsense objects, well-known to the mundane world (‘jig-rten-la grags-pa), refer to objects that extend over all its sensibilia (sight, sound, smell, taste, tactile sensation) and over a period of time and that can be validly cognized by sensory non-conceptual cognition.
When we physically or mentally dissect what we think of as a jug, we cannot find anything. So how can we establish that there is such a thing as a conventional, commonsense jug? All that we can say is that, in a conceptual cognition (a thought) in which a conceptual representation of a generic jug is cognized mixed with the mental label (the concept and category) “jug,” a conventional, commonsense “jug” is:
- Gelugpa – what the thought refers to.
- Nyingma – what is in accord with what is conventionally called a “jug.”
In general, then, conventional, commonsense objects – let’s refer to them simply as “conventional objects” – are the implied objects of mental labeling. They deceptively appear to exist in a manner that is impossible and does not refer to anything validly known – namely, with self-established existence. The existence of conventional objects seems to be established from something findable on their own sides – a self-establishing nature (rang-bzhin) – but such a nature does not exist at all. Deepest truth, however, refers to the actual mode of existence of conventional objects – voidness (emptiness) – the absence of any impossible mode of existence that corresponds to this false manner of existence.
Gelugpa asserts that all cognitions other than an arya’s non-conceptual total absorption (mnyam-bzhag) on voidness (which cognizes only deepest truth) have two facets:
- One that cognizes the superficial truth of its object.
- One that cognizes its deepest truth.
Thus, we can differentiate the implied object of each of these facets. Consider the conceptual cognition of a jug in which a conceptual representation of a generic jug appears:
- The facet that conceptually cognizes the superficial truth of the generic jug cognizes what the object appears to be – a jug. The implied object of this facet of the conceptual cognition is a jug as a conventional object.
- The facet that conceptually cognizes deepest truth cognizes how the generic jug appears to exist – with self-established existence. Other than voidness cognized in an arya’s non-conceptual total absorption, all objects of cognition deceptively appear to have self-established existence. The implied object of this facet of the conceptual cognition is self-established existence, which does not exist at all.
A referent “thing” (btags-don) is a findable, self-established “thing” as the focal support (dmigs-rten) holding up the referent object and thus holding up the implied object of the conceptual cognition.
- When we search for a referent “thing” (actual self-established existence) backing up the implied object of the facet that conceptually cognizes the deepest truth of a jug, nothing can be found.
- Similarly, when we search for a referent “thing” (a self-established jug) backing up the implied object of the conceptual cognition when superficial truth and deepest truth are taken together, also nothing can be found.
- The absence of any referent “thing” is the voidness of self-established existence as well as the voidness of self-established conventional objects, such as a jug self-established as a “jug” by the power of something findable on its own side.
Voidness is the total absence of findable referent “things” and is the same whether cognized conceptually or non-conceptually. Despite the absence of findable referent “things” when analyzing either superficial truth or deepest truth, nevertheless everything functions as “mere conventionalities” (tha-snyad-tsam) by means of the dependent arising of cause and effect, a whole and parts, and mental labels and what they refer to.
- Mere conventionalities are what are cognized when neither analyzing superficial truth nor analyzing deepest truth.
Furthermore, voidness is the same whether cognized as a denumerable ultimate phenomenon (rnam-grangs-kyi don-dam) or as a non-denumerable ultimate phenomenon (rnam-grangs ma-yin-pa’i don-dam). In both cases, it is the voidness of self-established existence and, as such, it eliminates the four extremes (mtha’-bzhi) of existence, non-existence, both and neither.
- As a denumerable ultimate phenomenon, voidness is a phenomenon that can be counted among those that can be validly cognized conceptually – in other words, validly mentally labeled with concepts (categories) and validly mentally designated with words. Although, as an object cognized in a valid conceptual cognition, voidness as a denumerable ultimate phenomenon appears to have self-established existence, nevertheless it lacks such existence.
- As a non-denumerable ultimate phenomenon, voidness can be validly cognized non-conceptually by an arya’s total absorption without appearing to have self-established existence.
The Nyingma Assertion of the Two Truths
Nyingma emphasizes that appearance and voidness are always inseparable:
- Superficial truth is inseparable appearance and voidness as cognized conceptually by a mind of unawareness (ignorance). It is a denumerable ultimate phenomenon.
- Deepest truth is inseparable appearance and voidness as cognized by the reflexive deep awareness (rang-rig ye-shes) of an arya’s non-conceptual total absorption. It is a non-denumerable ultimate phenomenon.
Within the context of either the denumerable ultimate or the non-denumerable ultimate, appearance is also considered as superficial truth and voidness as deepest truth:
- Deceptive, impure superficial truth and the voidness that is the conceptual negation of the four extremes are cognized conceptually in the context of the denumerable ultimate.
- Pure superficial truth and the voidness that is beyond conception, incommunicable, unimaginable, and inexpressible (smra-bsam-brjod-med rtog-las ‘das) are cognized non-conceptually in the context of the non-denumerable ultimate.
Thus, the inseparable deceptive appearance and voidness that is cognized conceptually by a mind of unawareness is not the same as the inseparable appearance and voidness cognized non-conceptually by reflexive deep awareness. The inseparable pure appearance and voidness that is cognized non-conceptually cannot be cognized conceptually, nor can it be conceptually designated with words.
All cognitions of appearances have only one facet. All cognitions cognize inseparably what something appears to be and how it appears to exist. Thus, in terms of the conceptual cognition that, for instance, entails cognizing the category “jug” mentally labeled on and mixed with a conceptual representation of a generic jug:
- There is only one implied object – a jug as a conventional object, in terms of both the appearance of what it is and the appearance of how it exists (namely, with self-established existence).
- Being self-established, the implied object of the conceptual cognition (a commonsense jug) is a “referent thing,” and “referent things” do not exist at all.
- Grasping for self-established existence, then, refers to grasping for conventional objects taken to include both what they appear to be and their self-established existence as what they appear to be. To distinguish this connotation from the Gelugpa usage of grasping for self-established existence, where only self-established existence is what is grasped for and not conventional objects as mere conventionalities, we shall call grasping for self-established existence in the Nyingma context as “grasping for conventional objects.”
Thus, actual conventional objects do not exist at all. However, the implied object of the conceptually cognized non-existence of conventional objects also does not exist and must also be refuted as the extreme of nonexistence (med-mtha’). Thus, the refutation and negation of self-established existence does not eliminate the other three of the four extreme modes of existence.
When not subjected to the analysis of superficial truth or deepest truth, conventional objects performing functions can be validly cognized, even by sensory non-conceptual cognition. Karmic cause and effect are still valid. Nyingma rejects, however, the Gelugpa assertion that karmic cause and effect functions on the basis of voidness and conventional objects being mere conventionalities. Karmic cause and effect functions on the basis of voidness and there actually being no conventional objects.
These differences between the Gelugpa and Nyingma assertions of the two truths account for the differences between the two traditions’ interpretations of Nagarjuna’s verse and Chandrakirti’s commentary on it.