Summary of the Nyingma Prasangika Position Regarding Emptiness

The Relation between the Object of Refutation in Voidness and the Ease of Understanding Voidness as Dependent Arising

Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche II: [In the context of cognition of conventional truth] because there are cognizing minds (shes-pa), that’s why there are objects cognized (shes-bya), and because there are cognized objects, there are cognizing minds. All these cognizing minds and objects cognized are from a mind that grasps for truly established existence. So, my teacher is thinking that that’s why it’s saying that maybe it is sometimes better that, in order to gain the understanding of voidness, we have to stop all conceptual fabrications.

On the other hand, you look at this piece of paper on the table, then Gelugpa will be looking more like, “I’m not really refuting the paper. I’m refuting the truly established existence of the paper.” So, you try to take and refute the object to be refuted, but you feel that I’m not refuting the object that exists. With that kind of this feeling, you will never feel the fear that we talk about when the texts say that when a person who doesn’t have a good karmic connection or doesn’t have strong merit tries to investigate voidness, they feel so much fear. But for the Gelugpa, I think, there won’t be any fear at all because they will always feel like they are refuting this object to be refuted [truly established existence] not this one [the object].

But then, if you look at Lama Tsongkhapa’s life story, he meditated on voidness and felt so much fear that he felt like maybe he had understood voidness. But when he communicated with Manjushri about that, Manjushri said, “I won’t call this the discriminating awareness of voidness, because there is not a single understanding of dependent arising with this way of understanding.” So then, Lama Tsongkhapa changed the method.

If you look at the story of Lama Tsongkhapa, let’s say his Golden Rosary of Excellent Explanation (Legs-bshad gser-‘phreng), you will see that there he talks about the full parting from the conceptual fabrication of the four extremes (mtha’-bzhi spros-bral). He talked about that. That’s why non-Gelugpas are saying that, before, Lama Tsongkhapa was so good. But, then slowly, slowly he changed. Especially in his Shorter Presentation of an Exceptionally Perceptive State of Mind (Lhag-mthong chung-ngu) – I think that these are the last notes that he left on the topic – in there he says that we shouldn’t say that a jug is devoid of being a jug (bum-pa bum-pa’i stong-pa). It should be more like a jug is devoid of being self-established as a jug (bum-pa bum-pa rang-bzhin-gyi stong-pa).

Now, maybe people will wonder why Lama Tsongkhapa is getting all this information. Maybe he is making things up with the Manjushri. But, if you read the 18th chapter very slowly, there Nagarjuna will explain about how, in total absorption, the aryas see or experience the view. Then, in the later part [of his commentary on this chapter], Chandrakirti makes a very crucial statement: “Everything up to now like this is about the individual defining characteristic marks of the very nature of reality (voidness) for the aryas. Now I shall speak about the individual defining characteristic marks of the very nature of reality for mundane people.” So, there are two different things that he explains.

Then, there, he deals more about cause and effect, and he brings up things like a seed and a sprout. This is more about the understanding that is not only about voidness, but also about the preparation for understanding voidness. We need to prepare to reach the strong understanding of dependent arising.

Dr. Berzin: So, understanding dependent arising is the cause for understanding voidness and it also prepares you to understand voidness as meaning dependent arising?

That’s the tough one because Tsongkhapa says in his Great Commentary on Nagarjuna’s “Root Verses on the Middle Way” (rTsa-shes tik-chen), “After having the position that there is nothing existing by its own or established by its own, then to hold the position for yourself about how things function is the most difficult part.”

Dr. Berzin’s Supplement to Fill Out the Discussion

Conventional objects have self-established existence and minds that cognize them have grasping for self-established existence. Therefore, Nyingma argues that for gaining even the conceptual cognition of voidness in meditation it is better to take conventional objects as the object of refutation and not to have even the implicit apprehension of conventional objects in the meditation. This is because even the implicit apprehension of conventional objects entails grasping for self-established existence, which is the antithesis of cognizing voidness.

The understanding of voidness, however, is not complete unless it is understood as meaning dependent arising, and dependent arising is understood as meaning voidness. When voidness is taken to be the refutation of conventional objects, as in “a jug is devoid of being a jug,” the danger is that one feels that nothing exists and, consequently, one may experience a great deal of fear that “I, too, don’t exist.” If, on the other hand, as Tsongkhapa asserted in the latter part of his life, a jug is merely devoid of being self-established as a jug, but not devoid of being a jug, then one is not refuting conventional objects. One understands that a jug and so on exist as mere conventionalities and, as mere conventionalities, they function in accordance with the dependent arising of cause and effect. Thus, one would not have any fear at understanding voidness.

To understand voidness as meaning dependent arising in this way, however, is extremely difficult and requires an enormous build-up of positive potential (merit). One builds up this positive potential by developing love, compassion and bodhichitta and by helping others as much as one can. To do that requires relating to mundane, ordinary beings in terms of the way in which they experience conventional objects and the world in general.

Chandrakirti explained that the nature of reality that appears to aryas and the nature of reality that appears to mundane, ordinary people are different. Mundane, ordinary people cannot relate to the absence of all conventional objects that aryas cognize in their total absorption on voidness. Such people still cognize and grasp at the appearances of self-established conventional objects. Therefore, in comparison with the Nyingma manner of meditating conceptually on voidness where there is no appearance and no apprehension of conventional objects, meditating in the Gelugpa manner where one has implicit apprehension of conventional objects can make it easier to relate to how mundane, ordinary people experience the world and thus make it easier to develop compassion for them and help them. In this way, it becomes easier to build up the positive potential needed as preparation for understanding the dependent arising of cause and effect and how voidness supports rather than prevents functionality.

The Nyingma Understanding of Dependent Arising

Dr. Berzin: Is this a correct understanding of dependent arising according to Prasangika? There are a million things interacting with everything else and it’s never stopping. All these things, of course, aren’t self-established, because they are established on the basis of causes, parts and mental labeling. Grasping for truly established existence is like trying to make a still photograph of it in which, then, each of the individual things appear – like the jug and all of that. But there are no such things as still photographs. That’s what conceptualization makes. And so, in fact, voidness is the absence of still photographs corresponding to anything real. There are no findable referent “things” (btags-don); nothing exists like a still photograph. But then everything functions because there are a zillion things interacting with each other.

Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche II: That’s more the point of view of Svatantrika.

How is that Svatantrika? Svatantrika would say that everything interacting is self-established. This explanation is saying that none of these things are self-established.

Exactly, but what does that mean? That self-established existence asserted by Svatantrika is not a “thing,” like it should be solidly there. But the point, here, is how Svatantrika recognizes the object to be refuted. The example is an illusion (sgyu-ma). They say that all phenomena are like an illusion. Svatantrika explains that things, appearances – for instance, the appearance of something like a person – are like the illusion of an elephant that people see when a magician has some kind of material substance with a magic spell on it. That magic substance doesn’t have to do anything much; it’s more when deluded, fooled people look at it, their delusion makes it work on them and they see an elephant.

While looking at that magic substance, that substance is there; but it’s nothing like what they see, but it’s there. But what makes this elephant appear to them? If they look very closely at what they see, the part that is this magic substance is there, and if they start examining it, they won’t see this big elephant there. They will only see an elephant when looking from a distance. So, because this magic substance performs some function from its own side, then the deluded person uses that to see the elephant.

It’s the same thing with all phenomena. Bhavaviveka, who is from this Svatantrika school, uses as an example all phenomena – all are dependently imputed (chos thams-cad ltas-nas btags-pa), which means dependently arising. But how he did he say that? In his Blaze of Reasoning, (rTog-ge ‘bar-ba, Skt. Tarkajvāla), all he says is that all phenomena are like a forest. One tree is not a forest. Two trees are not a forest. The whole together is a forest. This is how all phenomena are. He said that. And like an army; you don’t call one soldier an army, or two, or three; but group them all together, then it’s an army. So, similarly, I say this is how all phenomena work.

Dr. Berzin’s Supplement to Fill Out the Discussion

In Svatantrika, the object to be refuted is an illusory elephant whose existence is established exclusively by the power of the mental labeling of a deluded person on the basis of the magic substance. Instead, Svatantrika asserts that the existence of the illusory elephant is established by the mental labeling of a deluded person in conjunction with the power of a basis for labeling – the magic substance – and not by that mental labeling alone. From the Nyingma point of view, whether or not the magic substance has self-established existence makes no difference if the existence of the illusory elephant is established by mental labeling in conjunction with the power of a magic substance.

The same is true if we substitute conventional objects for the illusory elephant and a zillion interacting factors for the magic substance. Afterall, analogous to the basis for labeling being a zillion interacting factors, Bhavaviveka explains that the basis for labeling a forest is not merely one or two trees, but a large group of trees taken together, and the same is the case in terms of an army and a large group of soldiers. Whether we speak of some conventional object and a zillion interacting factors, or a forest and a large group of interconnected trees, or an army and a large group of interacting soldiers, it makes no difference whether the basis for labeling has self-established existence or is devoid of it. To say that it is in conjunction with the functioning of a zillion non-self-established factors interacting as a basis for labeling that a conventional object can be mentally labeled as dependently arising on these factors is still a Svatantrika-type assertion. This is because it asserts that the existence of a conventional object is not established merely by mental labeling but requires the functioning of a zillion non-self-established factors interacting as a basis for labeling. The Nyingma Prasangika position, however, is that conventional objects arise and function dependent on the fact that there are no zillion factors interacting, whether such factors are self-established or non-self-established.

According to Nyingma, Dependent Arising and Functionality Occur without There Being Any Conventional Objects Functioning

Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche II: Bhavaviveka talks about that, but Prasangika’s specialty is not about only that. According to the Nyingma position, the Prasangika view has to stop every phenomenon – like we would say, “You are not Alex, that’s why I am calling you Alex.” Something like that. Prasangika should work something like this. So, this is not a jug. I think this is a jug. I am saying this because it appears like a jug. That’s totally wrong. Because it’s not a jug, then it appears like a jug. This is something to think about.

Dr. Berzin: So, it is because of unawareness, ignorance, that although it’s not a jug, it appears as a jug. It’s not appearing like that from the side of the thing, right?

Yes, yes. It says that I’m a jug here, but then when you try to look for a jug, you can’t find it. After taking all the pieces away … what do we call it? … after refuting all the objects to be refuted, then it’s completely bare. You just can’t find anything left.

Now, Lama Tsongkhapa is saying this is not the Prasangika view. He says the Prasangika view is that even though things don’t function based on anything solidly from their own side, nevertheless that’s why things function.

So, according to the Nyingma explanation, there literally isn’t anything that is functioning, right?


Then there isn’t a function either.

Right. If you can’t find a “thing,” then you can’t find a “functioning thing.” But then all you might feel is depressed because you think this is functioning, this is useful, this is me. Automatically, there will be some personal problem with that. There should be, because this is something that Buddha said would happen. He said, “I found something amazing, something hidden, but if I share this with others, they won’t understand it.”

They will freak out.

They will freak out. Normally, we don’t freak out. So, there should be something that we should really freak out from, and what really causes us to freak out is this one. In the commentary, it says what are the conceptual fabrications that are ceased by voidness? It is the entirety of everything that we see. And then the biggest question will arise for us.

It could be against Lama Tsongkhapa a little bit, but whatever we see, we see truly existent things. Even if the mind says it’s not truly existent, but looking at you, it’s truly existent. So, everything that you are looking at and seeing is truly existent. Lama Tsongkhapa says don’t take it like this. In Illuminating the Intent: An Explanation of (Chandrakirit’s) “Engaging in the Middle Way” (dBu-ma dgongs-pa rab-gsal), in his discussion of the three types of compassion, he says, “Sometimes people qualify sentient beings with voidness, sometimes they don’t characterize them, sometimes they characterize them as nonstatic, sometimes they don’t characterize them. But sometimes there is a mind in which merely a jug arises.” That he said.

If we understand like this, then [it should be that] there is no possibility for us that we have never seen a thing that is not truly existent. [We should have seen it, but] everything has truly established existence for us. The only time see the real voidness is in total absorption; that is the time we will see voidness. That is the statement of how it goes. Then it is really beautiful. My teacher wrote a poem from his way of understanding.

If we have to claim that, in our normal life, as Lama Tsongkhapa says, we have seen a jug that is not qualified as truly existent or not truly existent, how is this possible? Because this is a really complicated subject, let’s go into a really simple example. If we have never seen our face in a mirror, then every time we see this reflection, we would think, “It’s my face.” And if we haven’t seen the voidness of our face in there, then every day when we look at the mirror, we should still feel this is my face. So, similarly, up to now, even though we are saying from our minds, this is not truly existent, yet since we haven’t seen voidness, it’s not possible for us not to see things as appearing to be truly existent. This is something to be noted my teacher used to say.

Dr. Berzin’s Supplement to Fill Out the Discussion

Both Nyingma and Gelugpa agree that conventional objects, such as a jug, appear to have self-established existence whether cognized conceptually or non-conceptually. Nevertheless, when we analyze them in terms of either superficial or deepest truth, there is nothing that can be found. There are no findable referent “things” backing them up. The question, then, is: How is it that cause and effect, especially karmic cause and effect, are valid and function?

Gelugpa says they function on the basis of mere conventionalities. This is what Tsongkhapa was referring to when he said that on occasions when it is not the case that people are either characterizing or not characterizing conventional objects as being devoid of self-establishing existence, it may happen that people see mere conventionalities such as a jug. Thus, although there are no self-established conventional objects, nevertheless cause and effect function on the basis of objects as mere conventionalities.

Nyingma questions how is it possible for there to be such an occasion when people are neither characterizing nor not characterizing conventional objects as being devoid of self-established existence? When seeing our reflection in a mirror, either we recognize it is not our actual face or we don’t recognize that. How can there be a third possibility? So, Nyingma asserts that there are no such things as mere conventionalities. There are no conventional objects, and thus there is no functioning of conventional objects, and cause and effect function on the basis of there being no conventional objects.

To explain that there are no conventional objects, however, is such a radical idea that Buddha hesitated to teach it publicly, since not only would people not understand it, but they would also freak out. To prevent people from freaking out, Tsongkhapa teaches that although there are no self-established conventional objects, there are mere conventionalities and cause and effect function on the basis of them.