Gelugpa, Nyingma and Jonangpa on Other-Voidness

Other-Voidness Is an Implicative Negation

Dr. Berzin: I’d like to ask you about other-voidness, zhentong (gzhan-stong). His Holiness the Dalai Lama acknowledges the Jonangpas as one of the proper Tibetan Buddhist traditions, but don’t the Jonangpas say that the deepest truth is not self-void (rang-stong)?

Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche II: From their point of view, it’s not a nonimplicative negation (med-dgag), right?

Right, it’s not a nonimplicative negation, no. It’s an implicative negation. Does His Holiness accept that that is okay?

On the sutra level, it is not okay. But on the tantra level, then it works somehow.

Well, true, you do have the four voids (stong-bzhi) going into clear light in Guhyasamaja, for instance.

Dr. Berzin’s Supplement to Fill Out the Discussion

The Jonangpa tradition of other-voidness adapts Chittamatra terminology and discusses voidness in terms of anuttarayoga tantra. Thus, the clear light mind (‘od-gsal) – the subtlest level of awareness, which is always non-conceptual, and which does not give rise to appearances of self-established existence – is a thoroughly established phenomenon (yongs-grub) that is devoid of all dependent phenomena (gzhan-dbang; other-powered phenomena), which are all nonstatic. Dependent phenomena, in turn, are devoid of totally conceptional phenomena (kun-brtags), which are all static. Thus, the clear light mind is devoid of all nonstatic and static phenomena and thus devoid of all conventional phenomena. Moreover, the clear light mind is a deep awareness (ye-shes) complete with all good qualities. Thus, the clear light mind is an implicative negation. After negating its object to be refuted – all conventional nonstatic and static phenomena – it tosses in its footprint both a negation phenomenon (the absence of all conventional phenomena) and an affirmation phenomenon (deep awareness and all good qualities).
Furthermore, Jonangpa asserts that all conventional phenomena are self-void (rang-stong) – meaning, devoid of self-established existence. They do not withstand analysis. They only have provisional existence and are cognized only by consciousness (rnam-shes), which is always accompanied by unawareness (ignorance) and is thus always false. The clear-light mind, on the other hand, withstands analysis, and so it is not self-void. It has ultimate existence as deep awareness complete with all good qualities. The clear-light mind is permanent and unaffected, and not a dependently arising phenomenon. Jonangpa equates dependently arising phenomena with nonstatic phenomena.
According to the Guhyasamaja anuttarayoga tantra system, as discussed in the Gelugpa tradition, once the energy-winds withdraw from taking the four elements as their basis during the dissolution sequence into the clear light mind and sensory consciousness ceases, then as the movement of the energy-winds gets more and more subtle, one experiences the four voids. Each of the four is devoid of the previous stage in the sequence. The four voids are:

  • Void (stong-pa) – an extremely subtle conceptual mind that is devoid of the eighty indicative, universally-occurring, subtle conceptual minds (rang-bzhin kun-rtog brgyad-bcu) and is equivalent to the white appearance (snang-ba) stage.
  • Very void (shin-tu stong-pa) – an extremely subtle conceptual mind that is devoid of the void stage and is equivalent to the red increase (mched) stage.
  • Great void (stong-pa chen-po) – an extremely subtle conceptual mind that is devoid of the very void stage and is equivalent to the black near attainment (nyer-thob) stage.
  • All-void (thams-cad stong-pa) ­– the subtlest non-conceptual mind that is devoid of the great void stage and is equivalent to the clear light mind.

From the point of view that the clear light mind is devoid of the extremely subtle conceptual minds that are the first three of these four voids and yet is a way of being aware (a deep awareness), the clear light mind is an implicative negation and can be considered an “other-voidness.” However, in the Gelugpa system, the clear light mind is devoid of self-established existence, it dependently arises, is nonstatic, and is able to non-conceptually cognize conventional objects. Thus, it is very different from the clear light mind asserted as an other-voidness by Jonangpa.
In Nyingma dzogchen, rigpa, pure awareness, is devoid of all grosser, limited minds (sems) and, in this sense, can also be considered an implicative negation. However, like the clear light mind in Gelugpa, it is characterized by self-voidness. It is devoid of all four extreme modes of existence. 

Other-Voidness Understood in Terms of the Third Wheel of the Dharma

Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche II: So, that works. His Holiness always says that the third wheel is something to connect to tantra. So, there is where I think that the other-voidness can be understood.

Dr. Berzin: Except that they still say that the clear light mind has self-established existence. That’s the problem.

Yes, but in order to get a good understanding of the third wheel, you need to have a good understanding of the second wheel, which talks about self-voidness.

Right. But if you say that the second wheel is only of interpretable meaning (drang-don), then you don’t take it as applying to the third wheel.

Right, but then ultimately, as we say from the third wheel, with the second wheel we can get only as far on the path as the tenth bhumi. So, that does a tremendous job, the second wheel understanding of self-voidness enables us to reach the tenth bhumi. That’s without using any kind of help from tantra or from the subtlest mind. That means everybody on every level, even in tantra and sutra, will say there is no difference between the view. But the method could be different.

Still, if you say that the subtlest mind, clear light, has self-established existence, that’s a problem, isn’t it? I mean, they say it has self-established existence.

Yes, that’s what the Jonangpa tradition says. But then they have a different answer to that.

Dr. Berzin’s Supplement to Fill Out the Discussion

The second turning of the wheel of Dharma presents the Madhyamaka view of voidness – self-voidness. There are two interpretations, however, of the third wheel. According to one interpretation, the third wheel presents the Chittamatra view, according to which some phenomena have true, unimputed existence and some do not. According to the other interpretation, the third wheel indicates the anuttarayoga tantra teachings.

According to Gelugpa, sutra asserts that by relying exclusively on the second-wheel teachings of voidness and its teachings of the realizations gained with the five pathway minds leading to enlightenment, one can attain as far as the tenth-level bhumi-mind. This attainment does not require accessing the clear light mind through anuttarayoga tantra methods.

Relying on the anuttarayoga tantra methods, one attains a seeing pathway mind (mthong-lam, path of seeing) when one accesses the clear light mind and generates it into a blissful non-conceptual cognition of voidness. In sutra, however, only the final stage of passing from the tenth bhumi to the attainment of enlightenment requires accessing the clear light mind. It needs to be accessed and utilized in order to gain a true stopping of the subtlest level of the cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib). Thus, both the second- and third-wheel teachings can be taken as definitive (nges-don) since they both assert the same view of voidness while teaching different methods that are to be practiced in sequence.   
Nyingma also asserts both the second- and third-wheel teachings can be taken as definitive and that to progress from the tenth-bhumi to enlightenment requires accessing the clear light mind. In the Nyingma context, this means accessing rigpa, pure awareness as asserted in the dzogchen teachings. However, relying on the second-wheel teachings of denumerable voidness, one can reach the final moment of an applying pathway mind (sbyor-lam; path of preparation). To attain a seeing pathway mind (mthong-lam; path of seeing) and to continue further, through the attainment of the ten bhumi-minds, to enlightenment, one needs to gain the view of nondenumerable voidness that is beyond conception, incommunicable, unimaginable, and inexpressible. The attainment of an arya’s total absorption on nondenumerable voidness, however, does not require accessing the rigpa discussed in dzogchen, which also is first accessed with the attainment of a seeing pathway of mind. Recall that in sutra, rigpa is a term used simply for the arya pathway minds.

In neither the Gelugpa nor the Nyingma discussions of the two turnings of the wheel of Dharma, however, is there the assertion, as Jonangpa asserts, that the clear light mind has self-established existence. Jonangpa explains this by asserting that if the clear light mind lacked self-established existence, it would not exist at all. Nyingma, on the other hand, asserts that conventional objects, all of which have self-established existence, do not exist at all. It is not that if they lacked self-established existence, they would not exist. As for nondenumerable voidness, when Nyingma asserts that it is beyond conceptions and beyond words, it includes that it is beyond the conceptualization of self-established existence. Being beyond the conceptualization of self-established existence, however, does not render nondenumerable voidness as nonexistent.

The Need to Go beyond All Conceptualization

Dr. Berzin: What do the terms “nominal other-voidness” (tshig-gi gzhan-stong) and “actual other-voidness” (don-gyi gzhan-stong) mean?

Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche II: The other traditions say it, but I really don’t know what they really mean. The other traditions look at and say that voidness in Gelugpa is nominal other-voidness. “Nominal other-voidness” means it sounds like other-voidness, but it’s only like other-voidness. It’s not so near to other-voidness. 

The Gelugpa position concerning voidness is that it is a nonimplicative negation. But then somehow this nonimplicative negation sounds to them as if, after having refuted and eliminated everything, there is still something left that is an affirmation phenomenon. So, they are saying you are asserting nominal other-voidness. It is other-voidness because you still have something left, an affirmation phenomenon.

And it’s other-voidness because actual self-voidness for them is, if you point at something like this, this is a jug, but [in terms of voidness] it’s not a jug. But Gelugpa says, this is a jug. And what is the voidness of this?  Gelugpa says that voidness is the refutation of a self-established jug and not of the jug itself. The other-voidness proponents say you are still actually clinging to something. They say, this is a nominal other-voidness, but you believe that it’s a self-voidness. So, you say you still believe in self-voidness, but you are just saying those words.

Actual other-voidness, they say, also leaves an affirmation phenomenon. That’s because it is not a nonimplicative negation; it is an implicative negation.

Does Nyingma accept that?

No; actual other-voidness is the Jonangpa assertion.

Right; so, what does Nyingma say?

Self-voidness. But on the tantra level, they speak differently.

So, when Nyingma speaks of voidness that is a non-denumerable ultimate phenomenon, a voidness that is beyond conception, incommunicable, unimaginable, and inexpressible, this is not other-voidness?

Right, like when Gelugpa says “without words, thought or expression” (smra-bsam-brjod-med).

In the Nyingma tradition, when they talk about clear light and pure awareness, rigpa, they are speaking on the level of how pure awareness sees phenomena. That’s a different way of looking. But on the sutra level, in my opinion, Nyingma cannot say that other-voidness can be the view. This is because, when we talk about other-voidness, it cannot still have an object to be refuted. Then the problem is already there.

So, for Nyingma, to gain non-conceptual cognition of voidness, you need to go beyond concepts, words and expressions, whereas in Gelugpa you need to cognize the voidness of voidness and that brings you there.

Yes, but the debate is, I think, from the perspective view of the Nyingma, Sakya and Kagyu, from the beginner’s time, from our time, that we shouldn’t take cognition from reasoning (rigs-shes). “Cognition from reasoning” is a shortcut way of saying “the inferential cognition that apprehends voidness” (stong-nyid-rtogs-pa’i rjes-dpag). This is because cognition from reasoning just takes the first extreme, the extreme of existence (yod-mtha’). So, then if you try to focus only on that, there is no way because this is designed only to take the first extreme, not the rest. So, in order to get the complete picture of voidness, we need to have all the four extremes taken.

But Gelugpa also refutes the four extremes.

That’s with a pathway mind of seeing that is without any of the extremes (mtha’-med-pa’i mthong-lam). But then we’re not talking about only the beginner’s level. That’s what they are arguing.

So, they say, on the beginner level, you only get rid of the extreme of existence.


Gelugpa says you work on all four of them, don’t you?

But how you are going to work is first you have to work on that extreme of existence. This one will take you to the next level.

Doesn’t the line of reasoning “refuting the arising and ceasing of something already existent or nonexistent” (yod-med skye-'gog-gi gtan-tshigs), one of the five types of lines of reasoning of Madhyamaka, refute existence, non-existence, both or neither?

No, this is only for refuting the first extreme, that’s what Nyingma is saying. That’s not the complete refutation of everything. In order to complete refuting everything, they are saying that you can’t find anything there. But Lama Tsongkhapa is saying that this sounds right, but for our beginners it’s too much. So, that’s why in his Grand Presentation of the Graded Sages of the Path (Lam-rim chen-mo) he talked about the over-refutation of the object to be refuted (‘gag-bya khyab che-ba) and the under-refutation of the object to be refuted (khyab chung-ba), and then he speaks of the middle way.

Dr. Berzin’s Supplement to Fill Out the Discussion

The non-Gelugpa Tibetan traditions say that the Gelug assertion of voidness is a nominal other-voidness view because it is actually an implicative negation. It tosses in its footprint affirmation phenomena. This is because, for Gelugpa, voidness refutes only the self-established existence of a jug, for instance, but does not refute the jug itself, which is an affirmation phenomenon.

But Gelugpa does not assert that a jug as a basis for voidness and its voidness can exist independently of each other. Although they are cognized by two different aspects of cognitions that are other than an arya’s total absorption on voidness, nevertheless they are inseparable. When the self-established existence of a jug is refuted, it does not toss in its footprint a jug that is not self-established. Voidness does not remove self-established existence from a self-established jug and leave behind a findable non-self-established jug. As Chandrakirti explains clearly, no phenomenon, even voidness itself, can withstand analysis of either its superficial truth or its deepest truth and be found.
A jug is a basis for voidness in the context of analyzing a self-established jug. A jug as a mere conventionality is a jug in the context of neither analyzing nor not analyzing a self-established jug. Voidness in the Gelugpa system does not toss in its footprint either a jug as a basis for voidness or a jug as a mere conventionality – only the category “voidness” does.
To avoid the extreme of over-refutation, Tsongkhapa explains that voidness does not exterminate or invalidate conventional objects. To avoid the extreme of under-refutation, voidness does not assert that there are findable conventional objects, even non-self-existent ones. Therefore, as a middle path devoid of extremes, Tsongkhapa asserts mere conventionalities. Non-Gelugpas, however, call even this assertion “nominal other-voidness,” an appellation that Gelugpa soundly rejects.

The Nyingma sutra assertion of voidness beyond conception, incommunicable, unimaginable, and inexpressible is not the view of other-voidness. Neither is the Gelugpa reference in the Guru Puja, Lama Chopa (Bla-ma mchod-pa) to deepest bodhichitta – referring to voidness – being incommunicable, unimaginable, and inexpressible. Both are refutations that are beyond the refutations of all four extreme modes of existence, non-existence, both or neither, whereas other-voidness refutes only the extreme of existence and only in reference to conventional phenomenon. Let us examine this point in more detail.

When Jonangpa asserts that conventional phenomena are merely self-void and that they only exist for a mind of ignorance but, ultimately, they do not exist, their assertion of other-voidness leaves unrefuted the extremes of non-existence, both and neither with respect to conventional phenomena. Therefore, we cannot say that either the Nyingma or the Gelugpa view of nondenumerable voidness is an other-voidness view, because nondenumerable voidness does not leave behind any extreme left unrefuted.

In addition, neither Gelugpa nor Nyingma asserts that nondenumerable voidness either is an implicative negation or has self-established existence. In terms of sutra, although an arya’s total absorption on nondenumerable voidness has reflexive deep awareness of its own voidness, nondenumerable voidness itself is not a deep awareness, whereas Jonangpa other-voidness is a deep awareness.

Gelugpa asserts that through the inferential cognition that apprehends the voidness of self-established existence based on absurd conclusions, one refutes not only the self-established existence of existence, but the self-established existence of the other three extremes – nonexistence, both existence and nonexistence and neither existence nor nonexistence. Thus, according to Nyingma, the line of reasoning “refuting the arising and ceasing of something already existent or nonexistent” simply refutes the extreme of existence because it refutes the arising and ceasing of something already self-established as existent or self-established as nonexistent.

Nyingma, on the other hand, uses inferential cognition based on absurd conclusions to refute the existence of conventional objects, not to refute the existence of self-established conventional objects. But then the nonexistence of conventional objects – which is not saying “the self-established nonexistence of conventional objects” – is also not the case, because there is an appearance of conventional objects to minds of ignorance. Conventional objects can’t be both existent or nonexistent – which is not saying “self-established existence as both existent and nonexistent” – since existence and nonexistence are mutually exclusive. And conventional objects can’t be neither existent nor nonexistent – which is not saying “self-established existence as neither existent nor nonexistent” – since existence and nonexistence constitute a dichotomy with no third alternative. 

Because, from the Nyingma point of view, Gelugpa only refutes self-established existence and does not refute nonexistence, the Gelugpa view of voidness falls to the extreme of nihilism. On the other hand, because the Gelugpa view, being a view of nominal other-voidness, asserts mere conventionalities, it falls to the extreme of absolutism. Tsongkhapa refutes that these two are the consequences of the Gelugpa view. He calls the former consequence “over-refutation” and the latter “under-refutation.” From this point as well, Tsongkhapa calls his view “the middle way.” 

Despite these differences, Gelugpa and Nyingma come to the same point in an arya’s total absorption on voidness. Both are meditating on voidness as a nonimplicative negation in which the object of negation is the four extreme modes of existence. This is the case whether or not the four extreme modes are refuted together with the refutation of self-established existence and whether or not this voidness is the same as the voidness that can be conceptually cognized. Furthermore, whether the four extreme modes of existence or conventional objects are taken as the explicit object of refutation, nevertheless since the four extreme modes and conventional objects as their basis are inseparable, the refutation of either of the two amounts to the refutation of both.