The Distinction between the Svatantrika and Prasangika Views

The Impropriety of Giving Initiations to Those Having No Understanding of Voidness 

It is wrong for lamas to give initiations to those who don’t even know about bodhichitta and voidness. Perhaps they are only giving them for fame. The Nalanda masters did not give initiations publicly, but now the custom of doing this is well-known. This degenerates the teachings. I’m guilty too! For Kalachakra, I focus, however, on the explanation and then just rush through the ritual text. Some lamas don’t even know the ritual or the text and just rush through, making excuses that they’re too shy to do it in full, or slowly. 

Once a ritual lama was performing a ritual in a sponsor’s home. The sponsor had cooked some intestines and, when the sponsor wasn’t looking, the lama snuck into the kitchen and poured some hot intestines into his ritual hat. When the patron came into the shrine room where the lama was going to perform the ritual, the lama put on the hat with the hot intestines inside it. He then rushed through the ritual, explaining that his head was really hot wearing the hat and that also he was too shy to do the ritual slowly. 

In any case, tantric initiations should only be given to those disciples already familiar with bodhichitta and voidness, and then they should be given properly.

The Appearing and the Perceiving of Self-Established Existence

Whether something is good or bad, beneficial or harmful, depends on our attitude. But when we go beyond just how we consider something, we develop attachment to what we consider as “good” and aversion toward what we consider as “bad.” We need to investigate how such items appear to be self-established as truly existing as “good” or “bad.” On one level, we can just observe the two items; on another level, we can analyze whether they truly exist as “good” or “bad,” established as such from their own sides. But then, after that, we can simply see them as positive and negative, helpful and harmful, without grasping for them to be truly established as existing as that. 

Seeing a positive item as something we want to obtain, or a negative one as something we want to discard, is not grasping for truly established existence, since we need this discrimination to know what to adopt or abandon. So, we can perceive something and consider it to be truly existent; we can perceive it while considering it to be devoid of truly established existence; but then we can also just cognize it without considering it in either of those two ways. Thus, we can do our practices without qualifying them as having self-established existence.  

At what point, however, does the mind start to perceive objects and cognize them as being truly existent? It is actually difficult to pinpoint the exact moment on the basis of our own experiences, as there are many ways to characterize the object to be refuted – either gross or subtle. Merely to see a person as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the aggregates is not an object of refutation. It is a fact. However, according to Prasangika, if we perceive such a person as having self-established existence, then we are grasping at truly established existence. When we have experience, we can differentiate whether we are grasping or not. 

The main focus when we meditate on voidness is on proving the lack of self-established existence on the basis of affected phenomena, such as those nonstatic phenomena that we consider “good” or “bad.” The lower Buddhist tenet systems assert that things are not established as being existent or not, or as “good” or “bad,” just by the power of our thinking that they are. From their sides, they must be objectively established as existing as that. They are objectively established like that on the basis of cause and effect. Therefore, they assert the self-established existence of cause and effect and of objective objects, “self-established” from the side of the objects. This is the reason these tenet systems use to establish that things have self-established existence. 

Madhyamaka does not say that things lack any cause, or effect, or self-nature. But, if things were established as existing from their own sides, for instance by the power of a self-establishing nature, and not merely by the power of mental labeling with concepts and designation with words, then they should be found upon analysis. But, as Nagarjuna said in Precious Garland:

(II.10) Just as an illusory elephant, which doesn’t come from anywhere and doesn’t go anywhere, does not remain in the perfect state (of voidness) when dissolved as merely a bewilderment of the mind, 
(II.11) Likewise, the world of illusion, which doesn’t come from anywhere and doesn’t go anywhere, does not remain in the perfect state (of voidness) when dissolved as merely a bewilderment of the mind.

Things are like a mirage of water in the desert. If the mirage corresponded to reality, then the closer we got, we should be able to find water. But the closer we examine, the clearer it becomes that there is no water.  

The Voidness of Causality

When a cause gives rise to an effect, if the cause and the effect had self-established existence, then either the effect arose from no cause, from itself, from something other than itself or from both. But, as Nagarjuna refuted all four positions, he concluded, in Root Verses on the Middle Way:

(XXI.13) A functional phenomenon is not caused to arise from itself, is not caused to arise from something else, nor is it caused to arise (both) from itself and from something else. From what is it caused to arise?

When we examine the nature of designation, we see that something designated [with a word] is designated on a basis. We can distinguish a designation (btags), a basis for the designation (gtags-gzhi) and what the designation refers to (bdags-chos). What the designation refers to and the basis for its designation, however, are not the same things, nor are they totally different, separate things – they are “neither one nor many.” Similarly, we can analyze an effect. Does it come from no cause, from itself, from something else, or from one cause, many causes, or what? Analyzing in this way, we cannot find this effect. 

The Svatantrika-Prasangika Distinction

When we analyze with logic, using syllogisms, we need to apply many lines of reasoning. To prove that an object is nonexistent, we reason that if it existed, it would have to exist in this way or that. If it doesn’t exist in any of these possible ways, then it doesn’t exist. But to carry out the conceptual analysis with logic, we need a mental image of what is to be refuted, so that we can investigate it. 

[This mental image (rnam-pa) is the conceptually implied object (zhen-yul, literally, “clinging object”) of the conceptual cognition in the inference. It is a mental hologram that represents a member of the object category (don-spyi) through which it is conceptualized. The point of disagreement between Svatantrika and Prasangika concerns this conceptually implied object. Svatantrika asserts that its object conceptualized about (zhen-gzhi, literally, “basis clung to”) has self-established existence and is the “referent thing” (btags-don) corresponding to the conceptually implied object. Prasangika asserts that the conceptually implied object represents something that is totally non-existent and therefore there is no such thing as a “referent thing” serving as its “focal support” (dmigs-rten) backing it up.]

Svatantrika and Prasangika both accept dependent arising in terms of mental labeling.

  • Prasangika asserts that there is no findable basis having the defining characteristic (mtshan-gzhi) of a self, the person, as the basis for the designation of a person. 
  • Bhavaviveka, on the other hand, [from whom the Svatantrika system derives,] in Blaze of Reasoning (rTog-ge ‘bar-ba, Skt. Tarkajvala) [his auto-commentary to his Heart Essence of Madhyamaka (dBu-ma snying-po, Skt. Madhyamakahrdaya)], asserted that mental consciousness is designated as the person. Thus, in accepting mental labeling in terms of self-established existence, Bhavaviveka explained that the defining characteristic of something designated should be findable in its basis for designation. [On that basis, the mental labeling is then valid.]

Prasangika, in turn, asserts that a mind validly cognizing an object is valid with respect to its object, but deceived with respect to its cognition of the mode of existence (gnas-tshul) of that object. Cognizing the object as truly having self-established existence is mistaken. Therefore, even if things appear as having self-established existence, this aspect of their appearance is the object to be refuted. When this appearance is investigated, nothing can be found corresponding to it. If something could be found, there would be no point in saying that the object lacks self-established existence. Something has self-established existence if something corresponding to its appearance can be found, backing up the appearance. 

[In other words, the object conceptualized about and to which the conceptually implied object that appears literally “clings,” namely self-established existence, should be found as a “referent thing” and focal support.]


Nevertheless, persons exist, otherwise we could not posit samsara and liberation, happiness and suffering, and this would contradict our direct experience. Therefore, persons do exist, but no trace of them can be found [as a referent “thing”] established in the aggregates that are the basis on which they are an imputation phenomenon. And no trace of them or defining characteristic of them, establishing their existence, can be found in the aggregates that are their basis for designation. The existence of a person can be established only dependently on designation. This is the meaning of a person being “name only” (ming-tsam). The existence of a person can only be established dependently on there being a word for one.

“Name only,” then, does not mean that there are only names with no meanings (don). Designation is the conceptual application of a name or word to a meaning or an object. However, no object self-established with that name can be found corresponding to and backing up or supporting the mental hologram that appears of an object self-established with that name. Only in this way does a name rely on a meaning or object as its basis for designation. This is the meaning of dependent arising – conventional objects arise dependently as what names or words designated on a basis refer to.

The Term “Dependent Arising”

Dependent and independent, reliance and non-reliance, are not just contradictory opposites, they are mutually exclusive. They constitute a dichotomy; there is no third alternative. Things appear as having self-established existence because of the mistaken mind that makes them appear to be established like that, and not because of any actual, findable feature establishing this appearance on the side of the object. This analysis is why Prasangika uses the argument of dependent arising to prove the lack of self-established existence of all phenomena. 

In the term “dependent arising,” “dependent” (rten) negates “independent.” The existence of something cannot be established by its own power; establishing its existence must depend on something else. “Arising” (‘byung-ba) implies that something does exist; it is not totally non-existent but rather can produce effects. Thus, dependent arising is the king of all lines of reasoning to prove the voidness of self-established existence. 

Thus, in terms of cause, nature and effect, there is no such thing as self-established existence. The correct understandings of voidness from the perspective of these three are known as the “three liberations” (rnam-grol gsum, three doors or gateways to liberation). These three can be characterized in terms of sharing the same essential nature (ngo-bo gcig) in common or as having unshared essential natures. When they are formulated in terms of one object as being devoid of self-established existence as either a cause or an effect or by its self-nature, this is the explanation in terms of the three having a single essential nature in common. [When they are formulated in terms of three separate objects – the self-nature of an object, its cause and its effect – this is the explanation of the three as having individual, unshared essential natures.]

Voidness as a Non-Implicative Negation, Not an Implicative One

In Root Verses on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna presents five lines of reasoning for proving voidness. Regarding the Buddha, having all good qualities and no faults, Nagarjuna analyzed:

(XXII.1) The Thusly Gone One is not the aggregates, nor something other than the aggregates. The aggregates are not in him, nor is he in the aggregates. The Thusly Gone One is not a possessor of the aggregates. What Thusly Gone One, then, is there?

The same is the case with the voidness of voidness, the voidness of liberation as the nature of the mind, and so on. In the list of 16 voidnesses, four of them directly refer to the voidness of voidness. Thus, the meaning of voidness is established through analysis when we meditate in the manner Nagarjuna indicated:

(XXI.13) A functional phenomenon is not caused to arise from itself, is not caused to arise from something else, nor is it caused to arise (both) from itself and from something else. From what is it caused to arise?

Voidness is a non-implicative negation. It merely negates the object to be negated and does not toss in the wake of the negation (bkag-shul) – as a footprint left by the negation – any affirmation phenomenon, only a negation phenomenon. Thus, Buddhapalita interpreted this verse as indicating that voidness is a non-implicative negation, when he wrote:

As for “from what is it caused to arise,” it is because examination of an arising leads to “there being no such thing as the topic” (don med-pa-nyid).

[Because no arising from self, other or both is found upon examination, then the only conclusion is that there is no such thing as the topic of the verse, a self-established arising.]

Bhavaviveka criticized his interpretation as being faulty. Bhavaviveka wrote in Lamp for Discriminating Awareness:

Well now, regarding “From what is it caused to arise,” one author (Buddhapalita) wrote that the topic of the line is the “not being caused to arise” (skye-bar mi-‘gyur-ba-nyid). But because of that, then because production and ceasing would not exist, the root topic (rtsa-ba’i don) of the line of reasoning is something not affirmed.

[The root topic of the line of reasoning – the topic about which the proposition to be proven is made – is an arising. What is to be established or proven about this topic is the property, “not being caused to arise from other, self or both.” In proving that this property applies to “arising,” the line of reasoning is affirming its root topic by establishing a property of it. Bhavaviveka criticizes Buddhapalita’s interpretation as only establishing the property, “not being caused to arise from other, self or both,” and because it does not also establish the root topic to which it applies, “arising,” it leads to the nihilistic conclusion that arising, and likewise ceasing, do not exist at all.]

Thus, in contrast with Buddhapalita’s assertion that the verse indicates the non-implicative negation of arising from other, self, or both, Bhavaviveka asserts it as indicating an implicative negation of arising. And so, according to him, the verse must indicate a line of reasoning that affirms its topic. 

[As the non-implicative negation, “there is no arising that is caused from self, other or both,” the words of the negation, after precluding the object to be negated, do not toss any affirmation phenomena in their wake. They only toss in their wake the negation phenomenon “an absence of an arising that is caused from self, other or both.”

As the implicative negation, “arising is not caused from self, other or both,” the words of the negation toss in their wake both the affirmation phenomenon, “arisingand the negation phenomenon, “not being caused to arise from other, self or both.”

Buddhapalita was asserting that the line of reasoning in the verse is a prasanga, one that merely negates its thesis by means of absurd conclusions. Bhavaviveka, in contrast, was asserting that the line of reasoning indicated in the verse is a syllogism, in which the topic of the thesis must be a self-established phenomenon about which something further is to be established or proven. He argued that since the prasanga method of reasoning by means a non-implicative negation does not affirm anything, it leads to the nihilist position that there is no arising and no ceasing of any functional phenomenon, even conventionally. This is one of the main distinctions between Svatantrika and Prasangika, although both agree that voidness itself is a non-implicative negation.]   

Meditation on Voidness

If, while meditating on voidness, we think, “Now I’m meditating on voidness,” as if voidness were an affirmation phenomenon, then we are meditating on voidness as an implicative negation [tossing “voidness” as an affirmation phenomenon in its wake]. Instead, during the total absorption phase (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise) of our meditation, we just stay focused on voidness as a non-implicative negation phenomenon, as is space [the absence of anything tangible or obstructive preventing the spatial existence of something]. This phase of the meditation on voidness lasts just a short time.  

During the subsequent attainment phase (rjes-thob, post-meditation), we focus on all appearances being like an illusion. Since grasping for self-established existence arises when there is an appearance of self-established existence during this phase, we try to maintain the force of the meditative absorption phase while seeing all appearances to be like an illusion. “Like an illusion” means that although things appear to have self-established existence, they are devoid of this impossible way of existing. 

The fact that we perceive things as being self-established does not need to be proven, since things appear to us like that automatically. But since we confirmed during total absorption that there is no such thing as self-established existence, then when the appearance of self-established existence arises once more during the subsequent attainment phase, we just need to recall that there is no such thing as self-established existence and then see these appearances to be like an illusion. It is very difficult to recognize this all at once, or quickly. It requires a lot of time and conducive circumstances. 

After meditating on voidness, then in daily life we need to avoid the four incorrect considerations (tshul-min yid-byed) regarding conventional truth. These are conceptually cognizing what is nonstatic as static, what is impure as pure, what is suffering as happiness, and what is non-self as self. We need to see the opposite and see what things actually are in terms of conventional truth. We need to combine this with bodhichitta, and the prayer that all may attain the state of a Buddha, as a supplement to the above practice. 

Attaining the Two Buddha Bodies in Anuttarayoga Tantra

This leads us to the topic of practice of the tantric path, as a supplement to add to the above practice, as the method for attaining the two Enlightening Buddha Bodies. The unique points of tantra practice are found in the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga tantra. The first three classes of tantra, then, serve as a preliminary to anuttarayoga. 

The main procedures of anuttarayoga practice are aimed at actualizing the two Buddha Bodies. A Dharmakaya is for our own benefit, as it is not seen by others, nor can it benefit them. A Rupakaya (Form Body) is the Corpus of Enlightening Bodies that are for the benefit of others, as they are visible to others and can benefit them. A Dharmakaya includes both an Essential Nature Body (Svabhavakaya) and a Deep Awareness Dharmakaya (Jnana Dharmakaya). Form Bodies include Sambhogakayas (a Corpus of Enlightening Bodies of Full Use) and Nirmanakayas (a Corpus of Emanation Bodies). While staying in Dharmakaya, we manifest these types of Form Bodies. 

The Pali tradition makes no reference to either these two Buddha Bodies or the four. Mahayana, however, presents the two Enlightening Buddha Bodies as being inseparable (dbyer-med), of one essential nature (ngo-bo gcig) and one taste (ro-gcig). In the Guhyasamaja tantra system, this point is referred to as the “inseparability of the three hidden factors” (gsang-ba gsum dbyer-med, the inseparability of the three secret factors) – hidden body, hidden speech and hidden mind.

The Guhyasamaja Root Tantra states that the body is like the mind, and the mind is like the body. In other words, body, speech and mind are all referring to the same thing. However, at our stage, it is clear that our body is not our speech or our mind. The inseparability of the three is from the point of view of subtlest mind and subtlest body. This has implications for our body, speech and mind on the gross level when we are awake, dreaming or in deep sleep.

When we speak of the body, speech and mind of the primordial state (gnyug-ma), the clear light mind is the mind and the subtlest energy that is its mount is body. They are of the same essential nature but have different functions. Subtlest mind is the source of subtlest speech and, therefore, from the point of view of this subtlest clear light level, body, speech and mind are of the same essential nature and of one taste. Then when we actualize Buddhahood, the three are inseparable.  

But then there is the inseparability of these three primordial aspects at both the stage with training and the stage without further training (Buddhahood). At the stage with further training, the body refers to either a rainbow body (‘ja’-lus) [in mother tantra], a pure illusory body (sgyu-lus) [in father tantra] or a devoid form (stong-gzugs) [in Kalachakra]. These are only possible to manifest with the subtlest wind when we are able to transform the clear light mind into a non-conceptual cognition of voidness. To do this requires proficiency in the yoga of inseparable profoundness (voidness) and clarity (appearance-making) (zab-gsal dbyer-med).

We always start these meditations with meditation on voidness. With “Om svabhava shuddha,” we meditate on the selflessness of persons. Then with “sarva dharma svabhava shuddho,” we meditate on the selflessness of all phenomena. With “ham,” we single-pointedly meditate on holding the pride of these two selflessnesses. 

The generation stage (bskyed-rim) contains the essence of the complete stage (rdzogs-rim) in the sense that it mostly focuses on conventional truth, but in its total absorption phase, it has an aspect of deepest truth. The complete stage has an emphasis on the deepest truth aspect as its main focus. 

Generation stage practice is done with the imagination for its conventional truth aspect when visualizing the deities. If we visualize the aggregates, the elements of our body and so on as deities, this is a different level of its visualization practice. While the mind is focused on voidness, imagining that the energy-wind of this mind arises in the form of a deity leads to actually being able to arise on the complete stage in the form of a rainbow body and, when enlightened, in a Corpus of Enlightening Form Bodies, Rupakaya. 

After imagining arising as a deity and focusing on its voidness, then comes meditation on the circle of the deities of the mandala. This builds up positive force (merit), while the meditation on their voidness builds up deep awareness. Here, we imagine that we are building them up as sharing the same essential nature, but when we can actually cultivate primordial clear light on the complete stage, then we are actually able to cultivate method and deep awareness (wisdom) on the path as being of one essential nature.

This is the point on which mahamudra and dzogchen focus, which is the actual object focused on in these two systems. Nowadays, people take mahamudra and dzogchen practice as being easy. I wonder if some teachers today claiming that they are easy is simply due to a lack of knowledge or a lack of maturity?

In any case, in conclusion, Buddha taught that we are our own masters. We are the ones that need to help ourselves attain fortunate rebirths and liberation. The best way to attain these is with bodhichitta, a correct understanding of voidness and the practice of the six far-reaching attitudes, the six paramitas.