The Gelug Understanding of Svatantrika


Concerning the life of Tsongkhapa, one of the most important points is what a great revolutionary Tsongkhapa was. Through all his tremendous efforts in meditation, and preliminary practices, building up positive force and so on, he gained a newer and deeper understanding of many, many of the points dealing with philosophical issues than what people in his time understood. And so the Gelug tradition that follows incorporates his new interpretations.

All his reinterpretations he based on not only direct instruction from Manjushri in many pure visions, but also through his exhaustive study of the Indian and Tibetan Buddhist texts, his impeccable logic, and his intense meditation. This is very important in terms of – if we want to understand and really work through material, let alone gain new understandings beyond what we’ve been taught, that these are the things that we need to rely on: thorough, thorough knowledge of the Buddhist literature and teachings, and unrelenting logic. You have to figure it out. Put it all together and see what makes sense. And then really build up a lot of positive force and really meditate, really work hard thinking about it. Because when we examine the teachings and we work with them – you have to really work with the Buddhist teachings. And they’re so advanced, and of course there’s going to be many, many things that we come across that we haven’t heard explanations of, and we need to figure it out ourselves. Then, after that, when we try to figure it out ourselves, these are the things we need to rely on. Work it out. Logic, based on the texts, based on the teachings. Really meditate on it. Think about it. And when you get stuck, build up more and more positive force and go back. Don’t give up. We ask the learned masters around us and the other learned people. And if we’re not satisfied with the answers they give, don’t just say “Well, okay,” and leave it. Work on it and work on it. This is what Tsongkhapa did.

Because we can get many, many unsatisfactory answers from our teachers – either on purpose, or they aren’t able to express it clearly, or they may not know. Often I’ve asked questions to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and he says he doesn’t know – he’s very honest about that – or “It’s not clear in any of the teachings,” he says. Or we often see teachers that sometimes will quite on purpose not answer clearly, in order to cause us to work it out ourselves and think more clearly. Look at the example of Manjushri. He told Tsongkhapa “Well, study this and that text. If you work with that text, then you’ll understand it yourself.” So sometimes this is a very effective teaching method actually, rather than just being like a baby expecting all the answers to be fed to us on a spoon. You don’t learn so effectively that way. You learn much more if you figure it out yourself. That often requires a great deal of self-control on the side of the teacher, actually.

The Gelug tradition that follows Tsongkhapa has many features that are not shared in common with the other Tibetan traditions – Nyingma, Sakya, and Kagyu – and here we can only look at some of the major points. The article that I wrote on this is on my website, as is the biography of Tsongkhapa, so you can look more there. But that as well is not an exhaustive study. This material, “Special Features of the Gelug Tradition,” is found in the section called “Comparison of Tibetan Traditions” and Tsongkhapa’s biography is in the section called “Sources of Inspiration.”

[See: Special Features of the Gelug Tradition. See also: The Life of Tsongkhapa]

Various Textbook Traditions

Also I should mention that, within the Gelug tradition, the various monastic textbooks that developed also differ in their interpretations of many fine points. But here we’re going to talk about the major view. This is something that I didn’t really appreciate so deeply until I was studying in India this summer with Serkong Rinpoche’s teachers. It really is amazing how much difference there is among so many points in these different textbooks. And so it’s very crucial, when you study with a Geshe here in the West, to find out what textbook they’re following – which tradition. I mean, you can find that out by knowing their monastery. Because often what happens is that we hear explanations from different Geshes who are coming from different monasteries with different textbooks, and they contradict each other, and you get very confused. So you have to watch out for that, or at least be aware of that: that if it contradicts something that you’ve heard before – when you find out, you may learn that it’s a viewpoint of two different textbooks.

So you should be aware that in the Gelug tradition, the major monasteries in the Lhasa area – Ganden, Drepung, and Sera – there’s four different textbook traditions. Sera Je and Ganden Jangtse follow the Jetsunpa textbooks, written by Jetsun Chokyi Gyaltsen. Lots and lots of Geshes – Lama Zopa – come from Sera Je – and Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey and Geshe Rabten. And so lots and lots of people, Geshes, come from Sera Je. And Serkong Rinpoche came from Ganden Jangtse. They follow the same textbook. Then there is Drepung Loseling and Ganden Shartse, and they follow the Panchen textbooks of Panchen Sonam Dragpa. So, for instance, His Holiness’s late Senior and Junior Tutors – Ling Rinpoche came from Loseling and Trijang Rinpoche from Ganden Shartse. So when His Holiness explains, since his two main teachers came from one textbook, he tends to often give that as his first explanation. And Zong Rinpoche also came from Ganden Shartse.

Then there are the Kunkhyen textbooks of Kunkhyen Jamyang Zhepa Dorje, followed by Drepung Gomang. This is the tradition that Jeffrey Hopkins’s teacher Geshe Wangyal, a Kalmyk Mongol, came from. So when we look at Jeffrey Hopkins’s works, he’s often explaining from that textbook tradition. Then there’s a fourth textbook tradition by Kedrub Tendarwa, which is used by Sera Me. Michael Roach’s teacher comes from that monastery, so Michael Roach’s works follow that fourth textbook’s tradition.

So if you look at the literature that’s available in the West, it’s quite a mixture from all the four textbook traditions. And it’s not always so clear to us, when we read these things, there are differences. So we shouldn’t be surprised. (Just to make things even more complicated: Of course Sakya, Nyingma, and Kagyu have their own explanations of so many different things. And even within those schools there’s no uniformity; they have different textbooks, too.) This is actually very good. Rather than feeling depressed by all of that, and confused, it’s really quite excellent, because that means that things are not dogma – it’s not dogmatic – and there’s plenty of room for debate and discussion and working things out further and investigating.

If there are different opinions that are all based on logic and so on, then you can really work with each other to see which makes the most sense, and why this and not that, and so on. Whereas if it was one dogmatic thing, then you don’t really develop your mind, and you have to develop the mind to understand voidness, not just memorize dogma. So, again, not all teachers are so open-minded. Certainly in the monasteries – and some monasteries more than others – they develop quite a football team mentality, that their textbooks are correct and the other ones aren’t. But the really great masters are much more open-minded about that. But that’s a little bit rare, I must say. And so they don’t have sports competitions – there’s no football competition between the monasteries – but when they have debates between two monasteries, the teenage monks go wild, like at a football game.


So, first of all, the administration of the Gelug tradition is quite different from all the others. The head of the Gelug tradition is called the Ganden Tripa, the Holder of the Ganden Throne, Tsongkhapa’s throne at Ganden monastery. It’s a position that any qualified monk can attain. The position alternates between the senior-most retired abbots of Gyumay and Gyuto, these Upper and Lower Tantric Colleges. The position is only for seven years. The current one is number 101, so there have been a lot! It’s only for seven years, then they have to retire.

The heads of the other Tibetan traditions are either specific tulkus, like the Karmapa, or they’re members of a specific clan, like in the Sakyas. And, in these cases, the position is for life. They’re very, very different.

Yogachara Svatantrika and Sautrantika Svatantrika

In terms of the teachings, let’s first look at the Madhyamaka. There are many different ways of dividing Madhyamaka. One common division is between Svatantrika and Prasangika, but there are other ways of dividing them as well. Other schools talk about Maha-Madhyamaka as well. So, anyway, there’s Svatantrika and Prasangika. Now in Svatantrika, the Gelugpas – Tsongkhapa – made a division within that which is not clearly made by any of the other schools, any of the Tibetan traditions. Tsongkhapa sorted out the difference between the Yogachara Svatantrikas and the Sautrantika Svatantrikas.

Yogachara Svatantrikas, these include Tibetan masters such as Kamalashila, Shantarakshita, Haribhadra, and Vimuktisena. These were basically – Kamalashila and Shantarakshita – were the ones that came and established Buddhism in Tibet at the time of Guru Rinpoche. Another of Kamalashila’s students, called Haribhadra, was the one who wrote the main commentary on Abhisamaya-alamkara. And Tsongkhapa did the same: he also wrote very important commentaries on Abhisamaya-alamkara. So this Yogachara tradition of Svatantrika, this is the one that is primarily the view that’s presented in Abhisamaya-alamkara – you know, when you study prajnaparamita and the stages of the path – the view of that text and its commentaries.

In the Geshe training program, the two topics that they study the most are: There’s the path of understanding voidness. That’s prajnaparamita. That’s in the Abhisamaya-alamkara. So the view that’s discussed there is Yogachara Svatantrika. The other thing that they study the most is Madhyamaka. When they study Madhyamaka, the Svatantrika view that they study there is the other one – that’s the Sautrantika Svatantrika. It’s different. When they study Madhyamaka and they study there the difference between Svatantrika and Prasangika, the Svatantrika that they study there, that’s the Sautrantika Svatantrika – the main author being Bhavaviveka. So those positions are a bit different, they really are, and one has to be aware of that in terms of the topics that they study, these Geshes. Studying prajnaparamita is one; studying Madhyamaka is the other.

Whereas the other Tibetan traditions don’t make this distinction. They usually divide Madhyamaka in other ways.

So if we ask what is the difference between these two divisions of Svatantrika, then only the Sautrantika Svatantrika accepts the existence of external phenomena. Yogachara Svatantrika, like the Chittamatra, does not accept external phenomena. Yogachara and Chittamatra are two names for the same view. That’s the main point, actually, by which they divide the names – why one is called Yogachara Svatantrika and one is called Sautrantika. Svatantrika primarily has to do with whether or not they accept external phenomena. Why are they called Sautrantika and Yogachara Svatantrika? Sautrantika in general accepts external phenomena. So Sautrantika Svatantrika accepts external phenomena. Chittamatra, which is another name for Yogachara, does not accept external phenomena. So Yogachara Svatantrika does not accept external phenomena. It’s primarily on the basis of that distinction that they’re given these names. Why are they given these names? You could give them any name. I don’t think we need to get into detail of what it means not to accept external phenomena, unless you really want to. But if you want a little bit of explanation on these points, I can give that. It’s up to you. It is a very difficult point actually.

Anyway, there’s another topic, which is called reflexive awareness. Reflexive awareness. It’s translated in other ways, depending on how other people translate it. “Reflexive” means it’s like a recording device, and in every moment of cognition there’s this thing – it’s called rang-rig in Tibetan – that comes along as part of it, which is like the internal tape recorder. It’s like recording it; it’s what happens with remembering. Only the Yogachara Svatantrika accepts that; Sautrantika Svatantrika does not accept it. Except of course, within Gelugpa, the Jetsunpa textbooks – that’s what Sera Jey and Ganden Jangtse use – they differ from the other textbooks and they say none of the Svatantrika positions accept it.

I got very confused about this because I have heard the Jetsunpa explanation from Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, that nobody accepts that within Svatantrika. When you read Jeffrey Hopkins’s publications, and so on, there you are – it says that Yogachara does accept it. That’s a different textbook tradition. That’s a good example of the difference in the textbooks. What they’re arguing about is how to understand the texts of these early masters, the masters of the tradition, where it’s suggested but not actually said explicitly. Jetsunpa says that neither of them accept it. All the other Gelugpas say that one division accepts that, the Yogachara. And the other Tibetan traditions say that everyone accepts it in Svatantrika.

So you must really pay attention to what explanation are we reading and not just think that, well, these are trivial little points. Because everything is interwoven and interconnected within a system, and so if you leave out one ingredient, or you put in one ingredient, it affects so many other things in the system. So you really have to get all the characteristics of the system and then work it out and see how it all fits together, then we can understand their explanations. Studying these tenet systems, these traditions, is really – like they’re networks, in the sense that they’re very, very complex systems and everything interweaves. And all we’re given are like the facts about the characteristics of it, and then you really, really have to work with them and chew on these systems, and try to really figure out, well, what is it like to think like this. How do you put it together to face different things in your life if you’re having a certain problem with anger or whatever?

This is what Buddhism is all about. Buddha taught all of this stuff to help us to overcome suffering and its causes – there’s no other reason for teaching this – and to reach liberation and enlightenment. So each of these tenet systems presents a way of dealing with the first two noble truths and working with the second two noble truths. But in order to get that into a working tool, each of these systems, you have to put it together, all these different factors of it, and then you get a very marvelous tool. But nobody’s going to put it together for us. We’ve got to put it together. That’s the work. And so it’s important to get what are the actual ingredients of the system straight. And it’s quite obvious that, well, you can change one or another element in the system and it’s going to work slightly differently. It may still work very effectively, but it’s going to be different. And that I find very interesting.

So let me just give an example. Let’s say we’re having problems in our work. How do you deal with it? This situation, it might be a little bit difficult. It’s too emotionally explosive for us to deal with it in a Madhyamaka type of approach. So maybe it might be far more effective to approach it from a Chittamatra point of view and to see, well, actually this whole thing is an appearance that has come as a result of my karma and not to take it as external existence, that it’s coming from outside. That really just would lead us to paranoia. So, not to look at it from that point of view, and to apply the Chittamatra solution for the moment. Because that is a very important point – you realize that, whatever the experience, it’s coming basically from our karma. So, like that. Different situations, depending on our level of emotional stability at the time, our clarity of mind at the time, we can apply one or another of these tenet systems. They’re really all just methods. Although it might not be so obvious how to do it, it would be quite necessary in our study of these tenet systems to approach it from a practical point of view, and try to see that actually it’s very practical to learn all of these systems as methods for dealing with problems.

Another point concerning the divisions of Svatantrika is, according to Tsongkhapa, none of the Svatantrikas – neither of the two divisions – accepts the existence of alayavijnana. That’s this foundation consciousness or storehouse consciousness. They don’t accept its existence, even conventionally.



Is alayavijnana also known as alaya?

Yes, it can be called “alaya” for short, but there is a difference. There is a difference between alaya and alayavijnana in some of the other systems. You see, the non-Gelug systems say that Svatantrika does accept it. Tsongkhapa says “No. They don’t accept it at all.” The other systems say they do accept it, but they don’t accept it in the same way as Chittamatra accepts it. Chittamatra says that this alayavijnana has true existence, true unimputed existence. And according to the non-Gelugpa, they say that Svatantrika accepts that it conventionally exists, but it doesn’t have true unimputed existence.

To get to your question: In the non-Gelug systems they say, for Madhyamaka, the actual assertions that Madhyamaka accepts are the Svatantrika assertions. They say Prasangika doesn’t assert anything. And so, because of that, in all the explanations they accept alayavijnana. But, in their systems, especially when it has to deal with tantra, anuttarayoga tantra, then they start using “alaya” rather than “alayavijnana” for different things that happen in connection with the clear light mind. So, when you get into the use of the non-Gelug schools of this terminology in tantra, then you’ll find a difference between alaya and alayavijnana. And there the different traditions have quite different explanations. Sakya, Nyingma, and Kagyu don’t agree at all; they use these terms quite differently in connection with their discussion of the clear light mind. And Gelug doesn’t use it at all – they throw it out – for all Madhyamaka.

What’s important to realize is that non-Gelug never say that within Madhyamaka they accept alaya and alayavijnana the way that the Chittamatras do, as being truly existent. But always bear in mind that non-Gelug schools, when they do use “alaya” and “alayavijnana” in the Madhyamaka context, they do not say that it has true existence, the way the Chittamatras do. And remember the non-Gelug never say that Madhyamaka accepts, like Chittamatra, that there’s no external phenomena; it is quite different. Well, there’s only three negatives in that sentence!

The Sakya, Kagyu, and Nyingma all say that Madhyamaka accepts external existence. So that’s another point that they’re not agreeing with Chittamatra. Chittamatra says “No external existence,” and says “Alaya is truly existent.” Kagyu, Sakya, and Nyingma Madhyamaka says that there is external existence and alaya doesn’t have true existence, but conventionally it’s a very convenient way of explaining things about how karma works and what carries karma from lifetime to lifetime.

We have to put this into a practical example. What are the Chittamatras saying? They’re saying it’s like the mind is a movie projector, and everything “out there” is just a projection of the mind – it’s not really out there – but the projector is truly existent. That’s Chittamatra. Whereas the Nyingma, Kagyu, and Sakya Madhyamaka are saying that it’s a combination: It’s like there’s external reality, sort of like a screen, and the mind is projecting on it. So you have both together, an external screen and a projector, and none of them have true existence.

So, if you put it into a simple analogy like this, then you can work with the system. And you can see that it could be a helpful way of looking at things: the movie that the projector is playing is your own private, karma movie. And then there’s this discussion of whether or not there’s an automatic recording device going along with the projector to remember and sort of rewind and look at it again – or how does that work? So, even when the non-Gelug says that there is this recording device, it’s not truly existent like the Chittamatras say.

Findable Existence

Is it correct that the Kagyu, Sakya, and Nyingma say that there is findable existence, whereas Gelug says no?

This is a bit complicated. Nyingma, Kagyu, and Sakya accept the assertions of Svatantrika in the way that they define them. They’re all Madhyamaka. They all say that Prasangika is the highest, but their understanding of Prasangika is also very different.

We have to get to this, but let’s start with that; this comes a little bit later here, but I’ll bring it in now. The non-Gelug schools – Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya – say that, within Madhyamaka, Svatantrika makes all the positive assertions. And so you can get, through Svatantrika, a correct conceptual understanding of voidness. But that conceptual understanding of voidness, that’s a concept of voidness. And to get to a non-conceptual understanding, you have to go beyond that, and this is what Prasangika is all about. Prasangika is all about how to go beyond all these conceptual categories. It's aim is not to make you stop thinking. The aim of Prasangika is to go from a conceptual to a non-conceptual cognition of voidness. So it’s beyond a concept of voidness. So, as I say, it’s beyond that kind of voidness. And Prasangika doesn’t make any positive assertions about anything – according to them – that’s all in Svatantrika. And so Svatantrika is only talking about conventional existence. Conventionally, things are findable, but on the deepest level they’re not. Because of that, everything conventionally is deceptive and false. In other words, conventionally there is findable existence, but ultimately findable existence doesn't exist; it's false.

According to these other schools, the understanding of Madhyamaka – before Tsongkhapa – is that the only difference really between Svatantrika and Prasangika was the use of logic. The Svatantrika uses lines of reasoning – logic, syllogisms, and so on – to try to establish some point. It’s based on the belief that there is some sort of findable logic on the conventional level in the universe – there is findable order in the universe. As you can see, that’s an important issue. Is the universe logical? Are there laws of logic? The West believes that; laws of physics and laws of logic are there, findable, in the universe. Svatantrika says that. And so you can argue with these laws of logic, and so on, to prove something.

Whereas Prasangika says there are no findable laws of physics and all these things. They’re mental concepts; mental labeling to try to make sense out of things. You can’t find them anywhere. Where are you going to find these laws of physics? Where are you going to find it? This is interesting to think about, the central question of all religion and science. And so the logic of Prasangika is to argue from absurd conclusions. In other words, any statement that you make is going to lead to absurd conclusions and contradictions. That’s the logic of Prasangika, as opposed to Svatantrika, which is trying to use logic to establish something. Prasangika uses logic to unestablish everything. Any logical statement that you make – anything – is going to lead to absurd conclusions. In this way, you get beyond this sort of conceptual thinking.

It’s all primarily having to do with voidness, to get to the non-conceptual cognition of it. That’s the real central issue actually of the four Tibetan traditions, is how in the world do you go from a conceptual cognition to a non-conceptual cognition of voidness. That’s a really difficult question. That’s where the difference is in approach – where they stand out – in the four Tibetan schools: how they solve that question. And obviously it’s based on their great masters’ personal experience. Tsongkhapa did it one way, Milarepa did it another way; both equally valid.

But, to get to your question, we have to understand what’s meant by findable existence. It’s usually translated as “inherent existence.” I tend to use different terminology these days: "existence established by seomething's self-nature" or better, "self-established existence. If you look at the term in Tibetan (rang-bzhing-gyis grub-pa), it’s existence that is established by something’s self-nature, and it means a findable self-nature. That’s literally what the word means, the word that’s usually translated “inherent existence.”

So what does this mean? What’s the definition? This whole issue of existence in Buddhism has to do with what establishes or proves that something exists. That’s the question. What proves that it exists? Now this term that we’re talking about it, what it means is that the objects are findable as the – things are findable as the referent object for the mental labels of them. We have the mental label “table.” This thing here exists, because when we say “table,” the word “table,” you can find what that word “table” refers to. It refers to this thing. Because you can find what our words or concepts refer to, that proves that it exists; that establishes that it exists. That’s a findable self-nature, self-nature of the thing, is that it’s findable as the meaning of what the word for it refers to. That’s the actual technical meaning here. It’s not just the word. Words refer to something; you can find them and point to it. The fact that you can find the object that the word refers to proves that it exists. That’s what it’s talking about.

So that could be either in connection with mental labeling or not in connection with mental labeling. You see, according to Gelugpa, Prasangika says that what proves that there’s a table – the only proof that there’s a table is that we have a word for it. It’s established merely by mental labeling. That’s the only thing that proves it. And Svatantrika says “Yes. What establishes it is that there are names for it. But, in conjunction with that, you can find the thing that the names refer to.” And the earlier schools, the lower schools from Madhyamaka, say that certain things have true unimputed existence. That you can find what the word refers to proves that it exists, but just the fact that there’s a word for it doesn’t prove that it exists. There are things that prove that it truly exists, findably, besides the fact that there are words for it, having nothing to do with the fact that there are words for it. For example, that it can produce an effect; that proves that it exists. The wall exists, because I bang my foot against it and it hurts; that proves that it exists. It has nothing to do with the fact that it’s the object that the word “wall” refers to. Who cares? Of course it can be found as what the word “wall” refers to, but what really proves that it exists is by banging into it, it hurts. That’s true unimputed existence. That proves that the wall exists. The non-Gelug schools do not accept this distinction between Svatantrika and Prasangika.

Why is there no Tsongkhapa Tulku?

Where is Lama Tsongkhapa now? In what form is he right now?

I don’t know. There was no Tsongkhapa Tulku. At the time of Tsongkhapa, the only tulku line was the Karmapas. And actually the second tulku line to start was that of the Dalai Lamas:

One of Tsongkhapa’s disciples, Gendun Drub, was the founder of Tashilhunpo and also, if I remember correctly, the abbot of Drepung and the abbot of Sera. He was really quite outstanding. He died and there was this kid who said that he was his predecessor. I mean, it wasn’t that they went out looking for him. And so, with this child, they started another line of tulkus. Now I don’t know if there was some political motivation there – in terms of there were a lot of rivalries, a civil war going on with the Karma Kagyus on one side and many other people on the other side. It was a very troubled time. But this child moved from Tashilhunpo, which was in Tsang where you had this big war going on – the King of Tsang was supported more by the Karma Kagyus and Jonangpas and these sort of people – so he moved over to Drepung where he’d been abbot (and later he became abbot again, I think). And, at that time, he was called the Drepung Lama. He wasn’t called the Dalai Lama. It was at the time of the third one that he was invited by the Mongol Khan to help to restore Buddhism in Mongolia. And the Mongol Khan, Altan Khan, gave him the name “Dalai Lama.” And then they changed the name, going back, changed him from being called the Drepung Lama to being called the Dalai Lama. (Actually, in this whole thing, it wasn’t so much the Karmapas themselves who were involved in the political things; it was more the Shamarpas – the Shamar Rinpoches – who have quite a history of being involved in political problems.) Then it was given posthumously to the first and second in the line; they changed the name from Drepung Lama to Dalai Lama.

But to look for a line of tulkus, on the one hand the actual person who starts the line of tulkus needs to see a purpose for them: it will be beneficial to have a line of tulkus. And the followers themselves need to see that it would be beneficial to look and find the tulku. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that in terms of tulkus now. And, only on that basis, would you look for a line of tulkus and find them. So I think it’s quite clear – I mean, this is my own idea, just thinking about it now – that it wouldn’t be helpful to have a Tsongkhapa Tulku, not at all, because this was a big problem with these big lineages: How do you have a line of succession in it? With some of them – it was the early ones, the Sakya – it was within the family. And there were some problems with that in terms of inheritance and all that sort of stuff. That was primarily the reason why the Karma Kagyus – you know, why you had the development of the Karmapa as the head of the lineage: you didn’t have this problem with family squabbling, and inheritance, and these sort of things. And so they have – the Karma Kagyus – this tulku line. And obviously Tsongkhapa saw that there’s some problems with that as well.

So it wouldn’t be helpful at all for there to be a Tsongkhapa Tulku. Because if there were a Tsongkhapa Tulku, then this whole institution that he started with the Ganden Throne-holder going to the most learned and qualified disciple, that wouldn’t have developed. As soon as you get a Tsongkhapa Tulku, even now, that whole system would be in threat, because the tendency would be to make the Tsongkhapa Tulku the head of the Gelugpas. And the Dalai Lama line was never the head of the Gelugpas; it was always something separate. No Dalai Lama has ever held the position of Ganden Throne-holder. And so I think that there hasn’t been a line of Tsongkhapa Tulkus, and they wouldn’t look for a line of Tsongkhapa Tulkus, because it wouldn’t serve a beneficial purpose.

So Tsongkhapa could be off in some other universe teaching and helping others. He’s supposed to come again as, I think, the eleventh Buddha. That’s what he’s prophesied as, if I remember correctly – the number. He’s supposed to come back as the eleventh Buddha. Whether he’s waiting off in Tushita or something like that, or he’s doing some help in some other universe while he’s waiting, I don’t know.

So that’s an important thing. There has to be a practical benefit for being found as a tulku; otherwise, you wouldn’t manifest as a tulku. This is my own idea, just thinking about it right now.

Also, when we say Tushita, it’s Tushita pure land; it’s not Tushita Heaven. There’s Tushita Heaven, which is a god realm in samsara, and then there’s a Tushita pure land. Tushita, by the way, you know what it is in Tibetan? The Tibetan word for Tushita? Ganden, the same name as Tsongkhapa’s monastery.

Is Understanding Voidness the Central Aspect of All the Tibetan Traditions?

Is the understanding of voidness the most central thing for all the Tibetan traditions?

I think that you would say definitely yes. You’d have to say that it is the main thing. Whether we call it voidness, or you call it lack of a self, or whatever. It’s certainly the main thing that is the focus for all Buddhist traditions. Because it’s only from that understanding that you will gain liberation from samsara and enlightenment. Then of course it has to go together with either just renunciation (the determination to be free from samsara) or, in addition, bodhichitta. The common thing throughout is some understanding of voidness, as formulated by the different tenet systems. That’s what really makes it Buddhist.

An awful lot of things in Buddhism are shared in common with non-Buddhist systems, whether we’re talking about Indian systems or Western systems. Lots of systems are aiming for how to go to heaven. That’s certainly not Buddhist. Lots of systems teach how to get shamatha and even vipashyana – perfect concentration and an extremely perceptive state of mind – that’s not Buddhist. How to achieve these dhyanas, these higher absorptions – that’s not Buddhist. And, likewise, teachings on compassion, and love, and all these things, that’s not Buddhist. That’s not exclusively Buddhist. Lots of religions teach that. Patience, turn the cheek to the other – lots of religions teach that. Even seeking liberation from samsara, that you find in Hindu and in Jain traditions. They call that moksha; liberation. It’s not exclusively Buddhist. All Indian religions aim for that.

What’s unique is that Buddha identified the actual cause, the deepest cause of samsara. And what really is the suffering nature of samsara and not just superficial, and the deepest cause for it, and how to achieve an actual true stopping of it – the four noble truths – which is: you need the understanding of voidness. That’s what is uniquely Buddhism: the four noble truths.

Then also what’s uniquely Buddhist is bodhichitta, the aim for enlightenment as being where the mind becomes omniscient so that you can actually see and understand all the karmic causes of why somebody has the problems they have now, going back through beginningless time, and all the consequences of anything that you will teach this person. And the effect that it would have not only on this person in all future lifetimes, but on every person that this person meets and interacts with that’s influenced by what you teach this person. That’s what omniscience is all about, so that you could teach the perfect precise thing to help this person reach enlightenment, and you could see this with every being of the universe, every insect of the universe, and be aimed to help them all. You can see it all at once. The bodhichitta aim to achieve that – that’s uniquely Buddhist – and to see that it’s all possible on the basis of Buddha-nature, which means really understanding the nature of the mind. That’s uniquely Buddhist; uniquely Mahayana. This person is going to talk to his friends based on what he learned and that interaction, that’s going to have an influence on all of them. I mean, it’s huge – the consequences of teaching anybody anything. That’s why you need to overcome the second set of obscurations that limit the mind from seeing all of this.

Even all the tantra stuff of chakras and the channels and these various exercises, that’s not exclusively Buddhist either. You have that in Hinduism.

So, His Holiness always emphasizes, whatever practice we do, make sure you do it as a Buddhist practice – with bodhichitta, and some understanding of voidness, the four noble truths – otherwise, what you’re doing is not particularly Buddhist. Just being a nice person, being kind to everybody, it’s not specifically Buddhist, is it?