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 of the points dealing with philosophical issues than what people in his time understood. The Gelug tradition that followed incorporates his new interpretations. 

He based all his reinterpretations on not only direct instruction from Manjushri in many pure visions, but also on his exhaustive study of the Indian and Tibetan Buddhist texts, his impeccable logic and his intense meditation. If we wish to work through and understand the   Dharma material, let alone gain new understandings beyond what we’ve been taught, these are the things that we also need to rely on: thorough knowledge of the Buddhist literature and teachings and unrelenting logic. We have to figure out the teachings, fit them all together and see what makes sense. To successfully do this, we need to build up a tremendous amount of positive force – so-called “merit” – to break through our mental and emotional blocks. We need to work really hard to think about the teachings and meditate on what we have understood.

When we work with and examine the Buddhist teachings, we come across many things that we haven’t heard explanations of before, so we need to figure them out ourselves. We need to work them out, such as through logic, based on the texts, based on the teachings, and really meditate on them, think about them. When we get stuck, we need to build up more and more positive force, especially by working to help people, and then go back. Don’t give up. We need to ask the learned masters around us and other learned people, and if we’re not satisfied with the answers they give, we don’t just say, “Well, okay,” and leave it. Work on it. This is what Tsongkhapa did. 

We may get unsatisfactory answers from our teachers – either on purpose, or they aren’t able to express themselves clearly, or they may simply 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 come across teachers that sometimes will quite on purpose answer unclearly in order to cause us to work it out ourselves and think more clearly. Look at the example of Manjushri. He told Tsongkhapa, “Study Buddhapalita. If you work with his text, then you’ll understand voidness yourself.” 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. We don’t learn so effectively that way. We learn much more if we figure something out ourselves. That often requires a great deal of self-control on the side of the teacher, actually. 

Various Textbook Traditions 

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. For more detail, you should look at the biography of Tsongkhapa on my website and the article, “Special Features of the Gelug Tradition.” 

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

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 the young Serkong Rinpoche’s teachers. It really is amazing how much difference there is among so many points in these different textbooks. It’s very crucial, when we study with a Geshe here in the West, to find out which textbook tradition they’re following. We can find that out by knowing their monastery, since each Gelug monastery follows a specific textbook tradition. This is important 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 so we get very confused. We have to watch out for that, or at least be aware of that so that if what one Geshe says contradicts something that we’ve heard before, when we find out which monasteries each of these teachers come from, we may learn that what they have explained are the viewpoints of two different textbooks. 

The Gelug tradition, the major monasteries in the Lhasa area – Ganden, Drepung and Sera – have four different textbook traditions. Sera Je and Ganden Jangtse follow the Jetsunpa textbooks, written by Jetsun Chokyi Gyaltsen. Lots and lots of Geshes, such as Lama Zopa, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey and Geshe Rabten, come from Sera Je. Serkong Rinpoche came from Ganden Jangtse. Then, there are Drepung Loseling and Ganden Shartse, and they follow the Panchen textbooks of Panchen Sonam Dragpa. For instance, His Holiness’s late senior tutor, Ling Rinpoche, came from Loseling and his late junior tutor, Trijang Rinpoche, came from Ganden Shartse. When His Holiness explains, since his two main teachers came from this textbook tradition, he tends to often give that as his first explanation. Zong Rinpoche as well also came from Ganden Shartse. The School of Dialectics in Dharamsala also follows the Panchen textbooks.

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. 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 came from that monastery, so Michael Roach’s works follow that fourth textbook’s tradition. 

If we look at the Gelug literature that’s available in the West, it’s quite a mixture from all the four textbook traditions. It’s not always so clear when we read these Western works that 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. 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 the Dharma is 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 textual interpretation, then we can really work with each other in discussion and debate to see which makes the most sense, and why this and not that, and so on. Whereas if there were only one dogmatic explanation, then we don’t really develop our minds, and we have to develop the mind to understand voidness, not just memorize dogma. 

But we need to watch out. Not all teachers are open-minded. Certainly in the monasteries – and some monasteries more than others – the monks develop quite a football team mentality, that their textbooks are correct and the other ones aren’t. However, the really great masters are much more open-minded about that, but that’s a little bit rare, I must say. They don’t have sports competitions – there’s no football competition among the monasteries – but when they have debates between two monasteries, the teenage monks go wild, like at a football game. 


Now let’s start to look at the special features of the Gelug tradition and see where they are different from the features of some of the non-Gelug Tibetan traditions. First of all, the administration in 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 Gyume and Gyuto, the Upper and Lower Tantric Colleges. The position is only for seven years. The current one is number 101, so there have been a lot! After seven years, 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. In these cases, the position is for life. 

Yogachara-Svatantrika and Sautrantika-Svatantrika 

In terms of the teachings, let’s first look at Madhyamaka. There are many different ways of dividing Madhyamaka. One common division is between Svatantrika and Prasangika, which seems to have originated in Tibet, but there are other ways of dividing Madhyamaka as well. Some other Tibetan traditions talk about Maha-Madhyamaka, for example. 

Anyway, there are Svatantrika and Prasangika. Within Svatantrika, Tsongkhapa made a division that is not clearly made by any of the other Tibetan traditions. He differentiated Yogachara-Svatantrika and the Sautrantika-Svatantrika. 

The Yogachara-Svatantrikas include such Indian masters as Kamalashila, Shantarakshita, Haribhadra and Vimuktisena. 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 Abhisamayalamkara, A Filigree of Realizations. Tsongkhapa also wrote a very important commentary on Abhisamayalamkara. This Yogachara tradition of Svatantrika is primarily the view that’s presented in Abhisamayalamkara, so it is what we learn when we study prajnaparamita and the stages of the sutra path as presented extensively in that text.  

The two topics studied most extensively in the Geshe training program are Madhyamaka, which means voidness, and prajnaparamita, which means Abhisamayalamkara. The view in Abhisamayalamkara is Yogachara-Svatantrika. When they study Madhyamaka, the Svatantrika view that they study is Sautrantika-Svatantrika. That tradition derives from the Indian master Bhavaviveka. When they study Madhyamaka, they study the difference between Prasangika and both Svatantrika divisions.

If we ask what some of the differences are between these two divisions of Svatantrika, only Sautrantika-Svatantrika accepts the existence of external phenomena. Yogachara-Svatantrika, like Chittamatra, does not accept external phenomena. Yogachara and Chittamatra are two names for the same view. 

Another difference concerns reflexive awareness, rang-rig in Tibetan. “Reflexive” means it’s like a recording device that accompanies every moment of cognition. It is focused on the consciousness and accompanying mental factors but not on the objects in each cognition and is like the internal tape recorder. It accounts for how memory and recollection work. Only Yogachara-Svatantrika accepts reflexive awareness; Sautrantika-Svatantrika does not.

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.  

The Impotance of Paying Attention to All the Details of Each System

We must really pay attention to what explanation we are reading of the assertions of a tenet system and not just think that these are trivial little points. Because everything is interwoven and interconnected within a tenet system, if we leave out one ingredient, or we put in one ingredient from a different tenet system, it affects so many other things in the system. We have to learn all the unique assertions of each of the tenet systems and then work them out and see how they all fit together, then we can understand their explanations. These tenet systems are like networks of assertions, in the sense that all the assertions in each system are interconnected and interwoven. All we’re given are the individual assertions, but then we really have to work with them and chew on these systems and try to really figure out what is it like to think like this. How do we put them together to face different challenges in our life, like if we’re having a certain problem with anger or whatever? 

This is what Buddhism is all about. Buddha taught all of this material to help us overcome suffering and its causes – there’s no other reason for teaching this. Everything is for the purpose of helping us to attain liberation and enlightenment. So, each of these tenet systems presents a way of ridding ourselves of the first two noble truths by realizing the second two noble truths. But in order to get a working tool out of each of these tenet systems for helping us overcome true sufferings and their true causes, we need to put its assertions all together and then we get a very marvelous tool, but nobody’s going to put them together for us. We’ve got to put them together ourselves. That’s the work, so it’s important to get what the actual assertions of each system are to get them straight. It’s quite obvious that in facing some problem in our lives, we can apply the analysis of one or another of the tenet systems and each is going to work slightly differently. Since they all derive from Buddha’s teachings, each will be effective to help us, but each will work differently, and that I find very interesting. 

Let me just give an example. Let’s say we’re having a problem at work. How do we deal with it? The situation might be too emotionally explosive for us to deal with it with a Madhyamaka type of approach. Maybe it might be far more effective to approach it from a Chittamatra point of view and to see, well, actually the whole situation is an appearance that has come as a result of our karma and not to take it as truly established externally. Since thinking that the source of the problem is only externally established can lead to paranoia, it is helpful to apply the Chittamatra solution for the moment. 

That’s a very important point – whatever we experience and the level of happiness or unhappiness we experience it with are coming basically from our karmic potentials for experiencing them. If we go on to Madhyamaka, we can add that in addition, external circumstances also contribute to causing our problems to arise. So, like that, in different situations, depending on our level of emotional stability and clarity of mind at the time, we can apply one or another of these tenet systems. They’re really all just methods. Since it might not be so obvious how to apply them, we need to approach our study of these tenet systems 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. 

Question about Alayavijnana

Is alayavijnana also known as alaya? 

There is a difference between alaya and alayavijnana in some of the non-Gelugpa systems. But first we need some background information. Most of the non-Gelug systems say that Prasangika-Madhyamaka does not make any assertions of its own, and so the Madhyamaka assertions they accept are mostly those that the Gelugpas would distinguish as Yogachara-Svatantrika. They do not differentiate Svatantrika into Yogachara and Sautrantika variants. And although Gelug says that Yogachara-Svatantrika, like Sautrantika-Svatantrika and Prasangika, does not accept alayavijnana even as conventionally existent, non-Gelug says that Svatantrika does accept its conventional existence. 

Thus, most authors in the non-Gelug systems say that Madhyamaka, like Chittamatra, accepts the existence of alayavijnana as the eighth consciousness in their assertion of eight types of consciousness. Gelugpa Madhyamaka accepts only six types of consciousness. However, when the non-Gelug systems say that Madhyamaka accepts the existence of alayavijnana as the eighth type of consciousness, they are not saying that Madhyamaka accepts its existence in the same way as Chittamatra accepts it. Chittamatra says that alayavijnana has truly established existence. Madhyamaka says that it lacks truly established existence. But the Gelug and non-Gelug definitions of true existence are different.

To get to your question, the term “alaya” is not used by the Gelug sutra or tantra traditions, whereas the non-Gelug traditions sometimes use “alaya” as a shortened term for “alayavijnana” in the context of anuttarayoga tantra and dzogchen, though not in the sutra context. However, the different non-Gelug 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 rigpa, while Gelug doesn’t use the terms “alaya” or “alayavijnana” at all in terms of clear light mind. 

[See: Alaya and Impure Appearance-Making: Non-Gelug Positions]

External Existence

Let me add a little more concerning Chittamatra, specifically concerning external existence since that is often not clearly understood. The non-Gelug traditions assert three levels of the absence of external existence. Firstly, in terms of Sautrantika, non-Gelug follows the False Aspectarian interpretation, while Gelug follows the True Aspectarian one. 

According to the False Aspectarian interpretation, sensory non-conceptual cognition cognizes just one moment of the sensibilia of one sense – for instance, one moment of colored shapes, which already exists the moment before sensory cognition of it. The existence of the sensibilia cognized is already objectively established externally before we cognize it. Conceptual cognition projects onto a mental hologram of this moment of colored shapes a conventional, commonsense object, such as an apple, which extends over the sensibilia of all senses and extends over time. Thus, there are no eternally established conventional, commonsense forms of physical phenomena, although there are externally established sensibilia – colored shapes made of pixels of color, moments of the sounds of a consonant and a vowel, and so on. 

According to the True Aspectarian interpretation that Gelug follows, sensory non-conceptual cognition does cognize conventional, commonsense objects at the same time as it cognizes one moment of the sensibilia of one sense concerning this object. In sensory non-conceptual cognition, commonsense objects, such as an apple, with their existence already objectively established before cognition of them, cast an aspect (rnam-pa) of themselves on the cognizing consciousness in the form of what I liken to a mental hologram. Even in conceptual cognition, the mental hologram of a commonsense object that appears derives from an aspect of an externally established object, even if that commonsense object is not there in front of us.

Both Gelug and non-Gelug assert that Chittamatra does not accept external existence in a second sense. External existence means the existence of objects of cognition coming from natal sources (rdzas) separate from the natal sources that give rise to the consciousness and mental factors that non-conceptually cognize them. In other words, external existence is the existence of a form of physical phenomenon already established in the moment before cognition of it. Chittamatra says external existence prior to and independent of the cognition of it cannot be established. Both minds and their cognitive objects in sensory non-conceptual cognition of forms of physical phenomena come from the same natal source, a seed or tendency for the cognition as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the alayavijnana. 

Non-Gelug Chittamatra follows a False Aspectarian interpretation of this nonduality. Non-conceptual cognition still cognizes only one moment of the sensibilia of one sense and cognizes conventional, commonsense objects only conceptually. It is the mental hologram of that one moment of the sensibilia of one sense that arises from the same natal source as the non-conceptual cognition of it. Gelug Chittamatra, following a True Aspectarian interpretation, asserts that the mental holograms of conventional, commonsense objects arise from the same natal source as the non-conceptual cognitions of them. 

Non-Gelug Madhyamaka, still following a False Aspectarian interpretation, asserts yet an additional third level of not accepting external existence. Through the Madhyamaka methods, one realizes a voidness that is beyond words and concepts. This is a voidness that is beyond any cognition in which there is a duality of object and mind as being two findable conventional phenomena, even if they arise from the same natal source. Since conventional existence or conventional truth is false, conventional objects lack an ultimate existence external to deepest truth, and deepest truth is voidness beyond words and concepts.

The Gelug tradition, still following the True Aspectarian interpretation, asserts that although Yogachara-Svatantrika refutes external existence in the same way as Chittamatra does, Sautrantika-Svatantrika and Prasangika accept external existence. Nevertheless, externally existing conventional, commonsense objects lack truly established existence both the moment before they are non-conceptually cognized and the moment when they are non-conceptually cognized.  

Question about 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, since “findable” has a different meaning in the Gelug and non-Gelug systems, so let’s start slowly. Nyingma, Kagyu and Sakya are all Madhyamaka, but if they accept a division of Madhyamaka into Svatantrika and Prasangika, their understandings of the differences between the two are different from the Gelug understanding. They say that Svatantrika and Prasangika share the same view of voidness and that both lead to the attainment of liberation and enlightenment. They both lead to the realization of voidness beyond words and concepts. 

The only difference between Svatantrika and Prasangika according to non-Gelug is their method for attaining the realization of this voidness. Svatantrika uses conceptual cognition of logic and syllogisms to refute the four extremes of truly established existence, the absence of truly established existence, both and neither to lead to an accurate conceptual cognition of voidness. Then, through an enormous buildup of positive potential and intense meditation, we need to go beyond words and concepts to realize the voidness that is beyond words and concepts. Prasangika uses the logic of absurd conclusions to go beyond conceptual logic and to attain this realization of voidness beyond words and concepts. Prasangika is all about how to go beyond all these conceptual categories. The aim of the Prasangika method is to make us stop thinking conceptually in order to go from a conceptual to a non-conceptual cognition of voidness, a cognition that is not merely a cognition of a concept of voidness.  

Gelug asserts that Svatantrika – and let’s stick with Sautrantika-Svatantrika – and Prasangika assert different views of voidness and that the Svatantrika view alone does not bring the attainment of liberation or enlightenment. Svatantrika merely refutes truly established existence. On the one hand, the refutation of truly established existence eliminates the Sautrantika absolutist view that the existence of a conventional object can be established independently of it being merely the referent object (btags-chos) of the conceptual cognition that mentally labels it as fitting into a category. Please keep in mind that a mental label (btags) refers to a category (spyi). On the other hand, the Svatantrika refutation of truly established existence also eliminates what Svatantrika considers the Prasangika nihilist view, which is existence established merely by something’s being the referent object of the conceptual cognition that mentally labels it as fitting into a category. Let me repeat: the absolutist position that Svatantrika refutes is existence established independently of being merely in terms of mental labels, while the nihilist position is existence established merely in terms of mental labels. 

In addition to being such a referent object of a mental label, Svatantrika asserts that conventional objects have self-established existence (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa) – often translated as “inherent existence.” This is existence established by there being a findable referent “thing” (btags-don) corresponding to the referent object of a mental label and that this referent thing is like a focal support (dmigs-rten) holding up the referent object. Prasangika refutes such self-established existence.

Gelug asserts that when we analyze either the superficial, conventional essential nature (ngo-bo) or the deepest essential nature of any phenomenon – in other words, when we analyze with conceptual logic and reasoning what something is and its manner of existence, its voidness – neither essential nature can withstand the analysis. In other words, neither the conventional truth nor the deepest truth of anything is findable.  

The non-Gelug traditions assert that, conventionally, minds and their cognitive objects, as commonsense objects, appear to exist dualistically in the sense that they appear to exist independently of each other as phenomena that are non-conceptually cognizable and that are not merely conceptual mental constructs. But on the deepest level, they do not exist in that way. Because of that, all conventional objects, both minds and their cognitive objects, are deceptive and false. In other words, conventionally, there is dualistic existence, but ultimately dualistic existence doesn’t exist at all; it’s false. 

If we transpose this non-Gelug assertion into the Gelugpa conceptual framework, then because conventional, commonsense objects are merely conceptual constructs, non-Gelug would agree that all conventional, commonsense objects are merely the referent objects of the mental labels, the categories, that conceptual cognition fits them into. There are no findable commonsense, conventional cognitive objects or minds as referent things backing them up. If there were such cognitive objects and minds as referent things in conceptual cognition, that would establish dualistic existence. In this way, we can understand that the non-Gelug Madhyamaka assertion of nonduality and the Gelug Prasangika assertion of the voidness of self-established existence are basically noncontradictory, despite the two views differing on other points. 

According to Gelug Prasangika, the two truths of any phenomenon, including voidness, refer to that object’s superficial and deepest essential natures. The non-Gelug traditions do not assert that the two truths as complete in each phenomenon. Conventionally true objects are the objects of conceptual cognition. In conceptual cognition, minds and their cognitive objects appear to exist independently of each other as phenomena that are non-conceptually cognizable and that are not merely conceptual mental constructs. But these dualistic appearances are deceptive and false. When analyzed with conceptual logic and reasoning, such dualistic objects and minds are not found. They do not withstand that analysis. 

Deepest truth, in the Nyingma and Sakya systems, is exclusively the object of an arya’s deep awareness (ye-shes) during total non-conceptual absorption on voidness beyond words and concepts. It is non-deceptive and true. These non-Gelug systems define truly established existence as that which withstands non-conceptual analysis, which is an analysis beyond words and concepts. Voidness beyond words and concepts withstands such analysis and, in this sense, it has findable existence as a truly established phenomenon. So, I think you can see that to make sense of the positions of each of the Tibetan traditions and their assertions of each of the Indian tenet systems, we need to know the definitions of the technical terms they use in each system.

The Difference between Svatantrika Logic and Prasangika Logic

But let’s go back to the Gelug Prasangika refutation of Svatantrika, which is not shared in common with the non-Gelug traditions. Because Svatantrika asserts self-established existence, it asserts that all the components in the syllogisms it uses in debate have self-established existence. This includes the subject of the thesis, the property to be established about that subject, the logical pervasions in the lines of reasoning used to prove the thesis, and the examples used to illustrate these pervasions. 

Shantideva pointed out that two persons can only debate if they both accept the existence of the components of a syllogism. For instance, if a theist tries to prove to an atheist that God is omnipotent because God created the universe, the argument wouldn’t work. None of the components in the syllogism are acceptable to the atheist, since an atheist does not accept the existence of God, omnipotence, or the creation of the universe. Thus, since Prasangika does not accept self-established existence, they are no components in a Svatantrika syllogism that they can accept. Therefore, Prasangika rejects syllogistic reasoning and uses absurd conclusions instead to demonstrate self-contradictions in the lines of reasoning Svatantrika asserts in the context of their acceptance of self-established existence. 

The Svatantrika use of lines of reasoning – logic, syllogisms, and so on – to establish some point, then, is based on the belief that there is some sort of findable logic on the conventional level in the universe, that there is findable order in the universe. That’s an important issue. Is the universe logical? Are there laws of logic? The West believes that laws of logic, laws of physics and even laws of mathematics are objectively there, findable in the universe. Gelug Svatantrika agrees and so it asserts that we can reason with these self-established laws of logic to prove something. 

Gelug Prasangika says, there are no findable laws of physics or of logic or of mathematics. They’re all mental concepts, mental labels to try to make sense out of things. We can’t find them anywhere. Where are we going to find these laws of physics formulated in mathematical formulas? Where are we going to find them? This is interesting to think about, even in terms of divine laws. 

The logic of Prasangika is to argue from absurd conclusions. In other words, any statement that we 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 un-establish everything. Any logical statement that we make, anything, is going to lead to absurd conclusions. In this way, we get beyond this sort of conceptual thinking. 

It’s all primarily having to do with voidness and how to get to the non-conceptual cognition of it. That’s a central issue actually of the four Tibetan traditions, how do we go from a conceptual cognition to a non-conceptual cognition of voidness? That’s a really difficult question. That’s where the difference in approach arises in the four Tibetan schools, how they solve that question. The approach they teach is based on their great masters’ personal experience. Tsongkhapa did non-conceptual cognition of voidness one way, and Milarepa did it another way; both Are equally valid. 

Recapitulation of the Gelug and Non-Gelug Assertions Concerning Findability

Let’s go back to your question, we need to understand what’s meant by findable existence. Let me try to explain it once more. Findable existence in the Madhyamaka systems is a simpler way of saying what is usually translated as “inherent existence.” I tend to use different terminology these days: “existence established by something’s self-nature” or better, “self-established existence.” If we look at the term in Tibetan (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa), it’s existence that is established by something’s self-nature, and it means by something’s findable self-nature. That’s literally what the word means, the word that’s usually translated as “inherent existence.” 

So, what does this mean? 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? Gelug Svatantrika – and remember, we are speaking about Sautrantika-Svatantrika – refutes truly established existence (bden-par grub-pa), which is the existence of something being established independently of being what a word or mental label refers to. For instance, Vaibhashika and Sautrantika assert that the true existence of something is established merely by its ability to perform a function (don-byed nus-pa). Svatantrika says nothing can be established to truly exist in this way. This way of establishing the existence of something is impossible. Nothing can be established to exist independently of being what a word or mental label refers to. 

A mental label (btags-pa), by the way, is a category (spyi) into which something can conventionally be fit. A “concept” (rtog-pa), on the other hand, is a cognition of an individual item fit into a category. If we keep that definition in mind, then we will not become confused when the Tibetan term rtog-pa is sometimes translated as a “concept” and sometimes as a “conceptual cognition.” Often, however, in oral explanations in Western languages, “concept” is used a synonym for a “category.”

In any case, Gelug Svatantrika asserts that conventional objects are findable; they are findable as the referent object (btags-chos) for the mental labels of them. We have the mental label “table.” This thing here exists because when we say the word “table,” we can find what that word “table” refers to. It refers to this thing in front of me. Because we can find and point to what our words or concepts refer to, that proves that they exist, that establishes that they exist. 

But we have to analyze deeper. Svatantrika also does not accept the Prasangika assertion that nothing can be established to exist independently of being merely what a word or mental label refers to. Svatantrika asserts that for the designation with a word or the mental labeling with a category to be valid, there must be findable, on the side of the basis for labeling, a defining characteristic mark of what is being labeled. On the side of this wooden object in front of me, for instance, there must be a findable defining characteristic mark – for instance, its having a flat surface and four legs. That defining characteristic mark in conjunction with the object being labeled “a table” establishes that it exists as a table. 

Let me give another example. On the side of mental consciousness, there must be findable defining characteristic marks of both mental consciousness and a person that, in conjunction with mental labeling, establish it as both mental consciousness and a basis having the defining characteristic mark (mtshan-gzhi) making me “me.” Thus, despite phenomena being void of truly established existence, they have existence established by a defining characteristic mark (rang-gi mtshan-nyis-gyis grub-pa) in conjunction with mental labeling. Prasangika refutes this as being impossible.

Prasangika differentiates the referent object (btags-chos) that a word or mental label refers to from a referent thing (btags-don) that corresponds to the word or label. According to Prasangika, words and labels refer to something – their referent object – otherwise there would be no conventional objects. But there is no referent thing corresponding to the word or mental label that can be found and pointed to as the focal support (dmigs-rten) holding up that referent object like a prop holding up a piece of scenery on stage in a play. Existence established by there being such a referent thing in conjunction with mental labeling is called “self-established existence,” as if objects existed as such referent things as their self-nature. 

Furthermore, Prasangika says that existence established by a findable defining characteristic mark on the side of the referent object of mental labeling would render that referent object into a referent thing. The existence of defining characteristic marks that allow us to distinguish one object from another with the mental factor of distinguishing (‘du-shes) are also established merely as what the words for them refer to; they are not findable anywhere – not in a mental label, its basis for labeling, or its referent object, let alone in some referent thing.

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 conventionally agreed-upon word for it, and we think in terms of the conventionally agreed-upon category “table” that we fit various items into. The existence of something as a table is established merely by mental labeling. That’s the only thing that proves it. Svatantrika says, “Yes. What establishes it is that there is a name for it, but, in conjunction with that, we can find the thing that the name corresponds to.” 

The earlier schools, the lower schools from Madhyamaka, say that certain things have true unimputed existence; we can find what the word for something refers to, but just the fact that there’s a word for something doesn’t prove that it exists. There are things that prove that something truly exists, findably, besides the fact that there is a word for it and that have nothing to do with the fact that there is a word for it. For example, it can produce an effect; that proves that it exists. The wall exists because when we bang our foot against it, 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” corresponds to, but what really proves that it exists is by banging into it; it hurts. That’s true unimputed existence, and that proves that the wall objectively exists. This is what Sautrantika asserts. Svatantrika refutes that.

The non-Gelug schools do not accept the distinction between Svatantrika and Prasangika as entailing what the Gelug tradition asserts. The two Madhyamaka divisions both lead to the attainment of the non-conceptual cognition of voidness beyond words and concepts and just differ in the method to attain that non-conceptual cognition. In fact, some non-Gelug authors assert that cognition of voidness beyond words and concepts is beyond both conceptual and non-conceptual cognition, since both are just conceptual categories.  

Question about a Tsongkhapa Tulku

Where is Lama Tsongkhapa now? In what form is he right now? Why is there no Tsongkhapa Tulku?

I don’t know. It is true, there was no Tsongkhapa Tulku. At the time of Tsongkhapa, the only tulku line was the Karmapas. 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 Monastery and also, if I remember correctly, the abbot of Drepung and the abbot of Sera. He was really quite outstanding. When he died, there was a child, Gendun Gyatso, who said that Gedun Grub was his predecessor. With this child, this second line of tulkus began. He was called the “Drepung Lama.”

Now I don’t know if there was some political motivation there, since there were a lot of rivalries and a civil war going on at that time between the regions of U and Tsang, with the Karma Kagyus and Jonangpas supporting the side of the King of Tsang and the Gelugpas supporting U. It was a very troubled time. This child had become a monk at Tashilhunpo, which was in Tsang, and then he moved over to Drepung in U, which is where he was identified as the tulku of Gendun Drub. Maybe U needed their own line of tulkus?

In any case, neither Gendun Drub nor Gendun Gyatso were called “Dalai Lamas” during their lifetimes. It was at the time of the third incarnation, Sonam Gyatso, that this title was conferred posthumously on the two. Sonam Gyatso was invited by the Mongol Khan, Altan Khan, to help to restore Buddhism in Mongolia. Altan Khan gave him the name “Dalai Lama” and after that, Sonam Gyatso and his two predecessors were called “Dalai Lamas” and not “Drepung Lamas.” 

To look for a line of tulkus, on the one hand, the actual person who starts the line of tulkus needs to have attained unlabored bodhichitta, proficiency on the generation stage of anuttarayoga tantra practice and see a purpose and benefit to having a line of tulkus. In addition, the followers themselves need to see that it would be beneficial to look for and find the tulku. Only on that basis would we look for a line of tulkus and find them. 

My own idea, just thinking about it now, is that it would not be helpful to have a Tsongkhapa Tulku, not at all. This is because there was a big problem with sustaining the lineages of the heads of the different Tibetan traditions at the time of the Second Karmapa. How do we have a line of succession in them? With Sakya the head remained within a single family. The succession of heads of Sakya passed from uncle to nephew. But there were some problems with that in terms of inheritance. That was perhaps one of the reasons why the Karma Kagyus came up with having the Karmapa and his reincarnations as the head of the lineage. This avoided the problem of family squabbling about inheritance. So, at the time of Tsongkhapa and shortly thereafter, there was already the line of Karmapa tulkus in Karma Kagyu. Tsongkhapa must have seen that there were some problems with that system as well. 

My theory is that it wouldn’t be helpful at all for there to be a Tsongkhapa Tulku because if there were a Tsongkhapa Tulku, then the institution that he started of his successor being the Ganden Throne-holder and this position going to the most learned and qualified disciple wouldn’t have developed. As soon as we would get a Tsongkhapa Tulku, even now, that whole system would be in jeopardy because the tendency would be to make the Tsongkhapa Tulku the head of the Gelugpas. 

Please note that the Dalai Lama line was never the head of the Gelugpas; the Gelugpa head was always someone separate. No Dalai Lama has ever held the position of Ganden Throne-holder, 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. 

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 the number correctly. He’s supposed to come back as the eleventh Buddha of the one thousand prophesied for this fortunate eon. Whether he’s waiting off in Tushita or something like that, or he’s helping the beings in some other universe while he’s waiting, I don’t know. 

So, that’s an important point. 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 that word 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?

If we take the understanding of voidness to be the non-conceptual cognition of voidness – in whatever way the impossible mode of establishing the existence of something is defined and in whatever way voidness or selflessness refutes it – then I think that we could definitely say yes., this certainly is the main thing that is the focus of all Tibetan Buddhist traditions. The Gelugpas emphasize the voidness side that is non-conceptually cognized and the non-Gelugpa traditions emphasize the side of the mind that non-conceptually cognized voidness, but both agree that liberation from samsara and enlightenment requires both voidness cognized by a non-conceptual mind and a non-conceptual mind that cognizes voidness. Then, of course, such a mind has to go together with either just renunciation (the determination to be free from samsara) for attaining liberation or, in addition, bodhichitta for attaining enlightenment. 

Although what is common to all the tenet systems and all the interpretations of them by the different Tibetan systems is some understanding of voidness, there are many differences in these systems concerning what is refuted (dgag-bya) by voidness for attaining liberation or enlightenment, the basis for the voidness (stong-gzhi) for attaining liberation or enlightenment, and even whether the voidness required is an implicative negation (ma-yin-dgag), a nonimplicative negation (med-dgag) or beyond the concepts of affirmation or negation. There are also differences in terms of whether the mind that non-conceptually cognizes voidness is a yogic consciousness, a clear light mind or pure awareness, rigpa

In any case, they all agree that the attainment of liberation or enlightenment requires non-conceptual cognition of voidness. Within the context of the four noble truths, that non-conceptual cognition of voidness is a true pathway mind leading to true stoppings (true cessations) of true sufferings and of the true origins of suffering. And it is the four noble truths, as formulated in this way, that are distinctively Buddhist.

Please bear in mind that many things in Buddhism are shared in common with non-Buddhist systems, whether we’re talking about Indian systems or Western systems. Lots of both Indian and Western systems teach methods for going to heaven. That’s certainly not exclusive to Buddhism. Lots of Indian systems teach how to gain shamatha and even vipashyana – perfect concentration and an extremely perceptive state of mind. That’s not specifically Buddhist. How to achieve these dhyanas, these higher absorptions, that’s not specifically Buddhist. Likewise, teachings on compassion and love are not exclusively Buddhist. Lots of religions teach that. Patience, turn the cheek, lots of religions teach that. Even seeking liberation from samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth, that we find in Hindu and Jain traditions, they call that “moksha,” liberation, it’s not exclusively Buddhist. All Indian religions aim for that. 

All Indian religions even formulate their teachings in terms of samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth, as true suffering, ignorance as its cause, a state in which there is a cessation of that suffering and its cause, and an understanding that will bring about the attainment of that state. But Buddha said that what the others taught was superficial and incorrect. What’s unique is that Buddha identified what the true suffering nature of samsara is, what the actual true cause of it is, what the actual true cessation of samsara is, and what the actual true understanding is that brings about that true cessation. These are the four noble truths, and they include as the fourth noble truth a correct non-conceptual cognition of voidness. That’s what is uniquely Buddhism, not just Tibetan Buddhism but all forms of Buddhism – the four noble truths. 

Then, also what’s uniquely Buddhist is bodhichitta, the aim for enlightenment as defined in Buddhism. With enlightenment, the mind becomes omniscient so that we 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 we will teach this person. Also, the effect what we teach will have not only on this person in all future lifetimes, but on every person that this person meets and interacts with – all of that will be influenced by what we teach this person. That’s what omniscience is all about, so that we can teach the perfect precise method to help each person reach enlightenment. We are able to do this with every being of the universe, every insect of the universe, and with bodhichitta we are aimed at achieving the state in which we are fully able to help them all. 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. Even all the tantra teachings on chakras and the channels and the various exercises regarding them are not exclusively Buddhist either. We have that also in Hindu tantra. 

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