The Prasangika View of Causality and Voidness Is the Most Effective View

The Mechanism of Karmic Causes Giving Rise to Karmic Results

If we properly understand that there is no such thing as self-established existence (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa, inherent existence), we understand conventional existence established in terms of dependent arising. But how do phenomena dependently arise in terms of behavioral cause and effect – in other words, karma? 

[According to Nagarjuna, and elaborated in the context of the Vaibhashika system by Vasubandhu, there are seven types of karma (las). Nagarjuna listed in Root Verses for Madhyamaka:

(XXVII.4) Speech, movement, and those that are distinguished as the nonrevealing (forms) of not having given up (committing a set of destructive actions), likewise too the other recorded nonrevealing (forms) of having given up (committing a set of destructive actions),
(XXVII.5) Likewise the meritorious (karmic impulses) associated with (others) making use (of something one has given or made) and, in a similar manner, the non-meritorious (karmic impulses), and also a mental karmic urge – these seven phenomena are recorded as what are denoted by karmic impulses.

In terms of the mind, (1) karma refers to the compelling mental urges (sems-pa) that draw our body, speech and mind into the karmic pathways of the urges (las-lam), namely actions. In terms of the body and speech, karma – (2) constructive or (3) destructive – refers to the compulsive movements of the body or the compulsive utterances of the sounds of the words with which the actions are implemented. These are the revealing forms (rnam-par rig-byed-kyi gzugs) of the physical and verbal actions– obvious forms that reveal the motivating framework of the actions. In addition, karma includes the (4) constructive or (5) destructive nonrevealing forms (rnam-par rig-byed ma-yin-pa’i gzugs) of the physical and verbal actions– obscure forms, such as vows, that start with and continue with the mental continuum after the implementation of the actions has ceased, continuing to influence and shape our behavior. Lastly, karma includes the (6) constructive and (7) destructive “inbetween” (bar-ma) nonrevealing forms of the physical and verbal actions of making and providing for others something they can make use of. They continue with the mental continuum, continuing to serve as a condition for others to make use of what we have made.

Upon the ceasing of any of these karmic impulses associated with a compulsive action – generically referred to as the “karmic causes” – several types of karmic aftermath arise. The karmic aftermath includes positive karmic potentials (bsod-nams, merit), negative karmic potentials (sdig-pa), karmic tendencies (sa-bon) and karmic constant habits (bag-chags). All four types of karmic aftermath can be referred to generically as “karmic habits,” or the first three as “karmic tendencies.” It is as a result of the activation of their karmic aftermath that karmic causes give rise, as their “karmic effects,” to our experiencing of various situations and objects with the happiness or unhappiness of the moment.]

Karmic effects arise from karmic tendencies. Karmic tendencies are noncongruent affecting variables (ldan-min ‘du-byed). In general, mental consciousness is taken as the basis on which the karmic tendencies exist as imputation phenomena. The Chittamatra school posits an alaya foundation consciousness (kun-gzhi rnam-shes, Skt. alayavijnana) as their basis. Chandrakirti asserts that their provisional basis (gnas-skabs-kyi kun-gzhi) is the mental consciousness, but their ultimate basis (mthar-thug-gi rnam-shes) is the mere “I” (nga-tsam), the conventionally existent “me,” that is itself an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the mental consciousness and, more generally, on the basis of the five aggregates. 

[A karmic tendency, having on its basis as an imputation phenomenon the “ability to give rise to an effect when the causes and conditions for the arising of an effect are complete” (‘bras-bu ‘char-ba’i nus-pa), arises as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the mere “I” simultaneously with the “perishing” (‘jig-pa) of its karmic cause. The “perishing of the karmic cause” is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the mental consciousness. Simultaneously with the “perishing of the karmic cause” there also arises, also as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the mental consciousness, an “absence” (med-pa) of the karmic cause. With the ceasing of the “perishing of the karmic cause,” there arises on the basis of this “absence of the karmic cause” an imputation phenomenon known as the karmic cause’s “having perished” (zhig-pa). The “karmic cause’s having perished” is equivalent to the “no-longer-happening (‘das-pa) of the karmic cause.” 

Although the “tendency from the karmic cause” is an affirmation phenomenon (sgrub-pa) and the “karmic cause’s having perished” is a negation phenomenon (dgag-pa) – and thus there is no common denominator (gzhi-mthun) that is both – nevertheless, the karmic tendency serves a “basis having the defining characteristic” (mtshan-gzhi) of the “karmic cause’s having perished” state. Although the existence of the “karmic cause’s having perished” is not established by the power of its defining characteristic (rang-mtshan ma-grub-pa), nevertheless, the karmic tendency’s being a basis having the defining characteristic of it indicates that the karmic cause has perished.

Simultaneous with the completion of the karmic tendency from the karmic cause giving rise to all its karmic effects, there is no longer an “ability to give rise to an effect” as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the karmic tendency. Tsongkhapa asserted that the “presence (yod-pa) of the karmic tendency” – now without this ability – still continues, however, as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the mere “I,” but now it has become a so-called “burnt seed.” Similarly, the “karmic cause’s having perished” also still continues as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the continuing “absence of the karmic cause” that is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the mental consciousness.

Tsongkhapa asserted that something’s “having perished” is an affected phenomenon (‘dus-byas-kyi chos, conditioned phenomenon), a nonstatic phenomenon affected by causes and conditions. When Chandrakirti explained that both affected phenomena and unaffected phenomena (‘dus ma-byas-kyi chos) are affected phenomena, he was referring to both something’s “perishing” and something’s “having perished.” He did not mean “unaffected” in the sense of something’s “having perished” being a static phenomenon. 

[But rather it means that this “having perished” abides (gnas-pa) in the same state, without degenerating (nyams), as, moment to moment, it gets progressively more distant in time from the “perishing of the karmic cause.” Its abiding in the same state is unaffected by anything.]

This is in contrast with the Svatantrika, Chittamatra and Sautrantika tenet systems and below, which assert that something’s “having perished” is an unaffected phenomenon in the sense of its being static. 

[These lower systems assert something’s “having perished” to be a static nonimplicative negation phenomenon (med-dgag) – just a static absence – as they do the “no-longer-happening” of something. Prasangika, on the other hand, asserts something’s “having perished” to be a nonstatic implicative negation phenomenon (ma-yin dgag). It’s “object of negation” (dgag-bya) is the “present-happening” (da-lta-ba) of the perishing of something. When the sounds of the words of the negation have precluded the object to be negated, they toss in their wake (bkag-shul) – in other words, they leave as their footprint – not only the negation phenomenon, the “no-longer-happening of the perishing of the karmic cause,” but also the affirmation phenomenon “an arising from the perishing of the karmic cause.” A nonimplicative negation phenomenon tosses in its wake only a negation phenomenon, no affirmation phenomenon.]

Prasangika agrees with these lower systems that a “perishing” of something is an affected phenomenon. The process of the “perishing” of something comes about because it is affected by causes and conditions gathered together. But these lower systems say that once the “perishing” of something has occurred, the something’s “having perished” is unaffected by anything and so it is static, it never changes. But Prasangika retorts that just as the process of the “perishing” of something comes about by its being caused by various factors, those same factors are the causes that bring about something’s “having perished” and the continuing abiding of the imputation phenomenon of its “having perished” [on the basis of its absence.] The “perishing” of something, having arisen from causes and circumstances, gives rise to something’s “having perished” as its result. 

Furthermore, neither the “perishing” nor the “having perished” can be found upon analysis, either ultimately or conventionally – they are the same in this regard. Both are devoid of being established by a self-establishing nature (rang-bzhin); both are devoid of self-established existence.

Thus, Chandrakirti stated in A Supplement to (Nagarjuna’s “Root Verses on) the Middle Way,

(VI.39) Because the ceasing of a karmic impulse is not (established) by means of a self-establishing nature, know that even a long time after its ceasing, at some time, because of its ability (to give rise to an effect), there is the arising of an effect, even without an alaya foundation (consciousness). 

Thus, if you do not accept the existence of an alaya foundation consciousness, you have to accept that later moments of the karmic cause’s “having perished” are among the conditions needed for the arising of an effect from the “ability to give rise to an affect when the causes and conditions for the arising are complete.” That ability is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the karmic tendency that arose as a karmic aftermath of the karmic impulse. Then, just as the process of giving rise to an effect has to depend on causes and conditions for it to occur, likewise the “having given rise to an effect” of the karmic tendency’s “ability to give rise to an effect” must also depend on causal factors. 

[Thus, if the “having given rise to an effect” is an affected phenomenon with a continuing abiding on its basis of imputation (the karmic tendency), Tsongkhapa reasoned that the karmic tendency that is its basis must also continue its abiding on the mental consciousness, but now as a “burnt seed.” Its abiding only ceases with the attainment of a true stopping of it.]

If you assert that the karmic cause’s “having perished” is an unaffected phenomenon [a static phenomenon that cannot affect or be affected by anything] and thus something that has no cause, then you have to accept the absurd conclusion that the “having given rise to an effect” of the karmic tendency’s “ability to give rise to an effect when the causes and conditions for the arising are complete” similarly is an unaffected phenomenon and has no cause. Therefore, both the karmic cause’s “having perished” and the “having given rise to an effect” of the karmic tendency’s “ability to give rise to an effect” arose dependently on causes and conditions and produce effects [namely, later moments in their abiding continuums.]

The Effectiveness of the Discriminating Awareness of Voidness That Comes from Meditation

The discriminating awareness that comes from thinking (bsam-byung shes-rab) about the dependent arising of cause and effect like this, and its voidness of occurring on the basis of self-established existence, gives us confidence that the Prasangika explanation is correct. The discriminating awareness that comes from meditating with the absorbed concentration [of joined shamatha and vipashyana] gives us a strong experience that it is true. Simply believing voidness to be true does not give us such a strong feeling as this does. As a result of this discriminating awareness that comes from meditating, then even when we just hear the word “me,” we automatically feel it is devoid of self-established existence. This is the result of great familiarity.

In terms of the order in which we establish this familiarity, Jetsun Sherab Senge said first to establish familiarity with the gross levels of selflessness and then the subtler ones. Kedrub Je explained to gain familiarity with the subtlest level first, saying that those with the sharpest wits can start there. Sherab Senge’s method is for those with lesser mental faculties. 

But which view is the most effective? Aryadeva wrote in The Four Hundred Verse Treatise:

(XII.19) (The followers of these) three – the Shakya (Sage), the naked (Jains), and the brahmins – uphold their Dharma teachings (respectively) through their minds, their eyes and their ears. Because of that, the tradition of the classical texts of the Able Sage (Buddha) is the subtlest.

Some religious practices might teach gaining liberation by changing or removing our clothes and engaging in ascetic practices, some might teach changing our speech and reciting the Vedas, but Buddhism teaches changing the mind, which is the subtlest and most effective change of all. The best way to change the mind is by developing bodhichitta and a correct understanding of voidness. Meditating on voidness, however, does not affect our emotions, such as courage and the patience to endure suffering when helping others, as strongly as meditation on bodhichitta does.

Then the question is, which view of voidness is the most profound? In his Six Collected Works on Reasoning (Rigs-tshogs drug), Nagarjuna refuted the Vaibhashika, Sautrantika and Chittamatra positions regarding voidness. But we might wonder how this is possible, since Asanga, the main propounder of the Chittamatra view, came after Nagarjuna. However, Buddha already had taught the Chittamatra view in the Descent into Lanka Sutra (Lan-kar gshegs-pa’i mdo, Skt. Lankavatara Sutra). So already at the time of the Buddha, the Chittamatra view, as well as the Madhyamaka view from the Sutras on Far-reaching Discriminating Awareness (Shes-phyin mdo, Skt. Prajnaparamita Sutras), were propounded. 

Despite Nagarjuna’s refutation of Chittamatra, there were still some people who adhered to the Chittamatra view as being better suited to them. Because of that, Asanga took on the task to make the Chittamatra view widespread and, in Bodhisattva Stages, he refuted the Madhyamaka position. But then, later on, Chandrakirti refuted Chittamatra further. All these great masters were simply making these systems clearer.

Which Buddhist View Is the Strongest?

Through attachment and anger a person is ruined. Most non-Buddhist Indian schools agree with this point, although maybe not the hedonistic, materialist Charvaka school. Attachment to the objects of the plane of sensory objects of desire (the desire realm) is detrimental. Therefore, we need to find the cause of attachment to these objects. 

Those who assert only the selflessness of persons explain that if we have grasping for an impossibly existing “me,” then on that basis, we develop attachment and anger. For example, we see that there is a difference in the way we regard some object before we buy it and after we own it as “mine.” Or when something unwanted happens to us, we automatically feel someone harmed “me” or someone damaged something that belonged to “me” – “my” possession. Those who hold this view assert that such misconceptions come from grasping for a “me” that exists independently of the aggregates as a self-sufficiently knowable, substantially existent entity (rang-rkya-thub-pa’i rdzas-yod). 

Meditation on the total absence, the voidness, of such a self-sufficiently knowable, substantially existent “me” helps us to overcome attachment. After all, normally, when we think simply “me,” it is neutral, but if we think of “me” as a substantial entity, existing and knowable independently of the aggregates, we develop a disturbing state of mind. 

The Buddhist tenet systems that assert, in addition, the selflessness of all phenomena agree that the refutation of such a false “me” is helpful. However, even with such a refutation, we can still have subtler attachment and anger focused on an object not connected or associated with the self. Therefore, we need to meditate further on the voidness of all phenomena. 

When we think of “all phenomena,” we primarily think of external sensory objects. These are the ones toward which we develop attachment and hatred. Therefore, we need to meditate on the voidness of these phenomena. With Chittamatra meditation, we see that the existence of external phenomena can only be established in terms of the sensory consciousness that perceives them. We also see that their existence cannot be established as attractive, for example, independently of the conceptual mental consciousness that projects its attractiveness. This helps us to diminish our attachment to such external sensory objects. Thus, Chittamatra refutes the externally established existence of sensory objects. 

The Madhyamaka school agrees that this level of refutation works all right for external sensory objects on the plane of sensory objects of desire but, with this view, we would still consider the mind to have true, unimputedly established existence. All feelings of happiness or unhappiness, as mental factors, can only be established in terms of the consciousness that they accompany. Because of that, if we still grasp for the true, unimputedly established existence (bden-par grub-pa) of consciousness, we can still develop the mental factors of attraction and repulsion toward these feelings [as we meditate to achieve the dhyana levels of mental constancy, which are beyond the plane of sensory objects of desire.] Therefore, to avoid this fault, we need to meditate on the voidness of all phenomena. 

Furthermore, the Chittamatra view also considers voidness to have true, unimputedly established existence. But if we consider voidness to have true, unimputedly established existence, how can it be of any help? [Existing in this impossible way, it could not be taken as a cognitive object.] Therefore, we need to realize that all phenomena are devoid of true, unimputedly established existence. This view is much stronger than the previous ones.

The Voidness of Self-Established Existence and the Understanding of Dependent Arising in Terms of Mental Labeling

The Prasangika view is that all phenomena, whether external or internal, appear to have a self-established existence (inherent existence), existence established from their own side (rang-gi ngo-bor-nas grub-pa). Even if we assert that the deepest truth of phenomena is that their existence is established in terms of mental labeling, still it appears as though their imputedly established existence is on the basis of the mental labeling of something having self-established existence in terms of its conventional truth. 

[The definition of self-established existence is existence of something established or proven by the fact that when one searches for the referent thing (btags-don) – the actual "thing" referred to by a name or concept, corresponding to the names or concepts for something – that referent thing is findable on the side of the object as a focal support (dmigs-rten) for the mental labeling. The existence of that referent thing is established by a self-establishing nature (rang-bzhin).] 

This is what needs to be refuted. 

This is the Svatrantika assertion – namely, that phenomena must have their conventional existence established by a self-establishing nature from their own sides in order for grasping for self-established existence to validly cognize these conventional objects as having self-established existence. Prasangika counters, saying that although phenomena appear to have their existence established like that, this is how they appear to a mistaken consciousness. We must differentiate valid cognition of superficial, conventional truth and of deepest truth, and if we assert that phenomena have a self-establishing basis in terms of their conventional truth, we can still develop attachment to them.

There is a danger of falling into a position of nihilism when we find that things do not have their existence self-established from their own sides even in terms of superficial truth. So how do things function as causes and give rise to effects? It is just on the basis of their existence being established merely by the power alone of mental labeling with concepts and designation with words and names. 

If we gain some understanding of this, based on reflection and analysis when thinking about it, then we can check in our daily lives how things appear to have self-established existence. We need to correctly identify how this mode of the existence to be refuted appears and investigate how is it that it comes to appear.

If things really were to have their conventional existence already established by some self-establishing essential nature (ngo-bo) findable on their own sides [and accountable for their superficial, conventional appearance], what point would there be in saying that their existence, in deepest truth, is established in terms of mental labeling on that basis? Buddhapalita stated this in reference to a Buddha in his commentary on Nagarjuna’s Root Verses for Madhyamaka (XXII.1)

If a Buddha is something to be mentally labeled on the basis of the aggregates, and if this actually meant that a Buddha was not something that lacked (existence established) from an essential nature (ngo-bo), then what use of him being mentally labeled on something that has (existence already established) from an essential nature? 

Thus, Chandrakirti asserted in A Supplement to (Nagarjuna’s “Root Verses for) Madhyamaka:

(VI.35) Since any reasoning that finds as unreasonable, in the context of suchness (voidness), an arising from either self or other is the (same) reasoning that finds it unreasonable as well in (the context of) conventional (truth), then by what means can arising occur?

When we search for an object to have its existence established in any of the seven modes [with its existence established as different from the parts, as identical with the parts, as possessing the parts, as being in the parts, as having the parts exist in it, as the mere collection of the parts, or as the shape of the parts], it is not findable either conventionally or ultimately. The conventional existence of things, then, is posited in terms of when they are not being analyzed in relation to parts. 

There can be no voidness that is separate from a basis of that voidness. Nagarjuna stated this in Root Verses for Madhyamaka:

(XXIV.10) Without relying on conventional (truth), deepest truth cannot be shown. Without accessing deepest truth, nirvana cannot be attained.

Thus, without conventional truth, there cannot be deepest truth, since deepest truth is the deepest truth of conventional truth.  

Nagarjuna also wrote:

(XXII.15) All those who project mental fabrication about the Buddha, who is beyond mental fabrication and undeclining, do not see the Thusly Gone One, deprived by their mental fabrication.

There are different interpretations of the meaning of “beyond mental fabrication.” It could mean that a Buddha does not have mental fabrication (spros-pa, Skt. prapañca) in the sense of not having dualistic appearance-making (gnyis-snang) or not having any appearance-making (snang-ba) of conventional truth. But still, there is no access to deepest truth without conventional truth. 

Buddha taught how conventional reality brings us both suffering and happiness, but in terms of deepest truth, suffering or happiness cannot be found. Nevertheless, there is their superficial, relative truth. 

Therefore, as Chandrakirti wrote in A Supplement to (Nagarjuna’s “Root Verses for) Madhyamaka:

(VI.34) Since, when these (conventional) phenomena are analyzed, other than their having a nature of suchness (voidness), nothing is found abiding on their side, therefore the conventional truth of the everyday world should not be subjected to thorough analysis.

In other words, when conventional objects cannot be found with something findable establishing their existence from their sides, whether in terms of their deepest truth or conventional truth, this means that their existence can merely be established in terms of the mental labels for them alone. Outside of the context of thorough analysis, we should be satisfied, then, with their mere conventionality. In this way, we enter into an understanding of the deepest truth. 

[Thus, Tsongkhapa differentiates between the superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa) of conventional phenomena, which is the deceptive appearance of them as having self-established existence, and their “mere conventionality” (tha- snyad-pa-tsam) or “mere superficiality” (kun-rdzob-pa tsam).

As for where to learn more about mental labeling, Chandrakirti advised in Clarified Words:

Since the presentation of mental labeling in terms of dependent arising is indicated extensively in A Supplement to (Nagarjuna’s “Root Verses for) Madhyamka, it should be sought from just there.

If we want to study Nagarjuna’s Root Verses for Madhyamaka, we should read Buddhapalita’s commentary on it. For more detail, we need to consult Chandrakirti’s commentary on Nagarjuna’s text, Clarified Words. Bhavaviveka, in his commentary on Nagarjuna’s text, Lamp for Discriminating Awareness (Shes-rab sgron-me, Skt. Prajnapradipa), had raised some doubts about Buddhapalita’s interpretation, and Chandrakirti then refuted Buddhapalita’s assertions in Clarified Words.   

We need to study these texts and not put it off with excuses. Once the master Gungtangpa was asked by a disciple to relate his enlightening autobiography. This great master replied, “My first twenty years passed without even being mindful of doing any practice. The (next) twenty passed in a state of thinking, ‘Sometime I’ll do it, I’ll do it.’ And now more than ten years have gone by moaning in regret that I didn’t get to do anything (earlier). This is my story of how I have passed away an empty human existence.” 

Therefore, we need to study extensively. There is much to learn. Nagarjuna listed twenty voidnesses in A Compendium of Phenomena (Chos-bsdud, Skt. Dharmasamgraha). 

In studying the tenet systems regarding voidness, we need to avoid a sectarian view with regard to these tenet systems. Chandrakirti explained in A Supplement to (Nagarjuna’s “Root Verses for) Madhyamaka:

(VI.118) Any attachment to one’s own view and hostility toward the views of others is the prejudice of conceptuality. Therefore, clear (your mind) of attachment and anger; analysis will quickly bring (you) liberation. 

These discussions of the views of the various tenet systems, then, are not for the sake of promoting arguments, but are studied to help us gain liberation from suffering. The Prasangika view is the subtlest and, if we try to go subtler, we’ll undoubtedly fall into an extreme of nihilism. However, it also depends on our own disposition and level of intelligence, so we shouldn’t force ourselves to adopt the Prasangika view. If we can refute true, unimputedly established existence through the Svatantrika view, or with the Chittamatra view, refute externally established existence, this can be very beneficial. The main point is to train in a view that is most appropriate for our own minds. 

The understanding of voidness is a weapon, but whether it will destroy obscurations preventing liberation, and those preventing enlightenment as well, depends on our wielding this weapon with bodhichitta as our motivation. Even if we have a weak understanding of voidness, we can pray that it becomes an antidote to both obscurations.