Dependent Arising: Avoiding Nihilism and Eternalism

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Basics

Voidness (emptiness) is a total absence of something impossible. But it is not the total absence of some impossible object, like chicken lips. Nor is it simply the total absence of an impossible way of existing, like independent existence. Voidness is the total absence of impossible ways of accounting for or establishing the existence of validly knowable objects. It deals with the issue of how to account for the fact that there are validly knowable things and that they can be validly known as “this” or “that.”

When we ask, what accounts for the fact that things exist and can be validly known, what kinds of things are these referring to? They refer to things such as teachers and students, teaching and learning, Buddhism and Christianity, easy and difficult, long and short. How do you account for there being such things that we can validly know? Some ways in which you might imagine that you can account for them are impossible. Voidness negates those impossible ways – it is the total absence of an actuality that corresponds to them. But, to understand voidness more precisely, we need to know the definitions of the factors involved.

What is a validly knowable object? It is defined as something that holds its own essential nature. It is equivalent to a conventional object. What is a conventional object? It is something that, for ease of communication and other practical purposes, is agreed upon by custom as being something, like “a religion” or “a spiritual teacher.” A validly knowable object, then, is something that can be validly known as “this” or “that,” based on what has been agreed upon by custom. For instance, a teacher is a validly knowable object, based on a convention, agreed upon by custom and dependent upon context, of what a teacher is and what the word for one is. A teacher is not a validly knowable object all on its own, independently of all these factors.

If something needs to hold its own essential nature so that, for ease of communication, it can be agreed upon by custom as being this or that, then what is an essential nature? Actually, all validly knowable conventional objects have two essential natures: a superficial essential nature (concealer nature, relative nature, conventional nature) and a deepest essential nature (ultimate nature).

  • The superficial essential nature of objects is what validly knowable phenomena conventionally are, for instance a teacher or a student. The question is, how to account for these superficial natures? What is confusing and deceptive is that these superficial natures appear to be accounted for by inherent natures – in other words, by something findable on the sides of conventional objects that have the power to make them what they are. Thus another way of translating the term “inherent nature” is a “self-establishing nature” – a nature inside a validly knowable object that, all by itself, establishes it as being what it conventionally is. For instance, although someone is conventionally a teacher, and this is valid, it appears as though what accounts for them being a teacher is that they’re just naturally a teacher; it’s their inherent nature. This appearance is false.
  • The deepest essential nature of objects is their voidness of self-established existence (inherent existence). Because there are no such things as self-establishing natures findable on the side of validly knowable objects, it is impossible that they account for their conventional existence as “this” or “that.”

You can only account for something being validly knowable as a conventional object in relation to something else or dependently on something else. This fact is called “dependent arising.”

Dependent Arising in Terms of Relativity

Many validly knowable conventional objects can only be established in relation to something else. For instance, your fourth finger is not inherently long or short from its own side, unrelated to anything else. You can only account for it being validly knowable as “long” in relation to your little finger. But, in relation to your middle finger, it is “short.” So, your fourth finger being long or short is not established or accounted for by something on the side of your finger. It arises or conventionally exists as long or short only in relation to something else.

Suppose you have what would be conventionally considered a long fourth finger. You could validly say your fourth finger has the superficial nature of being long and others would agree. And when you look at your fourth finger all by itself, it doesn’t just appear just to be relatively long; it appears naturally to be long – really long all on its own. Others might even agree, “My goodness, what a long fourth finger you have!” But it’s impossible to establish your fourth finger as being long, all on its own, by the power of some self-establishing nature inside it. Why? Because there is no such thing as a self-establishing nature. In this example, you can only establish your fourth finger’s superficial nature of being long dependently on or relative to other people’s fourth fingers. Fingers can only be relatively long, never naturally long.

Dependent Arising in Terms of Relativity and Functionality

Consider the case of teachers and students of Buddhism. You can only account for someone being validly knowable as a “teacher of Buddhism” if the person has students, is teaching them something of Buddhism and they learn something from it. This is the case whether the students study with them in person, or whether they just read their books or their website and learn something from them. So someone can only be established as a Buddhism teacher dependently on their students, on their performing the function of teaching, and further, what they do can only be established as “teaching” if it produces the effect of students learning from it.

If no one comes to this person’s teachings and no one looks at their website and no one actually learns anything from their website, can they still be validly known as a Buddhism teacher? No. But even if someone has students, is teaching them Buddhism and they are learning, and so they can be validly known as a Buddhism teacher, their conventionally being a teacher is only accounted for dependently on these factors. It cannot arise based on some inherent nature inside the person that by its own power establishes their conventional nature of being a teacher. There is no such thing as a self-establishing nature that accounts for someone being a teacher.

Similarly, you can only account for someone being validly knowable as a “student of Buddhism” if the person has a teacher, is studying something of Buddhism with them and they learn it from them. Again, this is the case whether the person studies with a teacher in person, or only through the teacher’s books or website, but they need to learn something from it. So someone can only be established as a student of Buddhism dependently on their teacher, on their performing the function of studying and learning something of Buddhism from them, and further, what they do can only be established as “studying” if it produces the effect of their learning something.

If the person doesn’t go to a teacher’s teachings or read the teacher’s books or website, and even if they do, if they don’t learn anything from them, can they still be validly known as a student of Buddhism? No. But even if someone has a teacher, is learning the Buddhist teachings from them, and so they can be validly known as a student of Buddhism, their conventionally being a student is only accounted for dependently on these factors. It cannot arise based on some inherent nature inside the person that by its own power establishes their conventional nature of being a student. There is no such thing as a self-establishing nature that accounts for someone being a student.

From this analysis, we see that it is impossible to be a student of Buddhism independently of having a teacher of Buddhism, the teacher actually teaching something of Buddhism and the student actually learning something from it. Therefore, we can validly conclude that someone definitely needs to rely on a teacher of Buddhism in order to learn anything about Buddhism and be conventionally considered a student of Buddhism.

We can define the two extremes of nihilism and eternalism in terms of the above basic presentation of dependent arising. As we have seen, validly knowable objects have a superficial nature of what they conventionally are, for example a Buddhism teacher or a student of Buddhism. But, to the minds of everyone other than Buddhas, their superficial natures as teachers and students of Buddhism appear to be established by self-establishing natures findable on their own sides. These findable self-establishing natures seem to account for their validly existing as teachers and students of Buddhism, but they do not since they don’t exist.

The extreme of nihilism is that not only do those who are conventionally known as teachers and students of Buddhism lack self-establishing natures findable on their own sides that account for them being teachers and students, they even lack the superficial natures of being teachers and students.

What are the implications of this nihilist extreme? Despite the facts that you have students, you are teaching them something of Buddhism and they are learning it, you cannot be validly known as a teacher of Buddhism. You don’t exist even conventionally as a teacher, because there are no such things as teachers. Likewise, despite the facts that you have a teacher and are studying and learning the Buddhist teachings from them, you cannot be validly known as a student of Buddhism. You don’t exist even conventionally as a student, because there are no such things as students.

Here, a superficial nature of conventionally being something, despite only deceptively appearing to be established by an inherent self-establishing nature, is tied inseparably together with an actual self-establishing nature. Because of that, when refuting the self-establishing nature, one also refutes the superficial nature of what these people conventionally are. This is an example of over-refutation – refuting not only a self-establishing nature, but also a superficial essential nature of being conventionally a teacher or a student of Buddhism.

The extreme of eternalism can of course be that these people have both superficial natures of being a teacher and a student of Buddhism as well as self-establishing natures findable on their sides that establish these superficial natures.

Under-refutation, however, would be to refute only a findable self-establishing nature on the side of a person that, by its own power alone, can account for their being a Buddhism teacher or student. But you leave unrefuted a findable self-establishing nature on the side of a person that, in conjunction with other things, accounts for their conventionally being a Buddhist teacher or student.

For example, you might consider yourself basically to be natural Buddhism teacher, although you realize that your inherent nature of being a natural Buddhism teacher by itself doesn’t establish you as a teacher of Buddhism. You refute that it has that power by itself, but you under-refute it. This is because you still believe that you have that inherent nature, but it only establishes you as a teacher of Buddhism in conjunction with having students, teaching them Buddhism and them learning something of Buddhism from you.

You can under-refute inherently being a natural student of Buddhism in the same way.

Mental Labeling with Categories and Designation with Words

As we have seen, someone’s superficial nature of conventionally being a teacher or a student cannot be accounted for by some self-establishing nature findable inside them, although it deceptively appears as though this is the case. Their superficial natures can only be accounted for dependently on other things – teachers and students being formulated in relation to each other, and both being formulated in relation to their performing certain functions: teaching and learning.

But we have also seen that even if you acknowledge that you can only be a student if you have a teacher and are studying with and learning something from the person, you might still consider that there’s something findable in you that enables you to be a natural student in these circumstances. Because of the danger of this under-refutation, we need to look at dependent arising on a subtler level – on the level of mental labeling and designation.

Mental labeling with categories and designation with words are functions of conceptual cognition. Conceptual cognitions are cognitions of validly knowable phenomena through the medium of categories. They are always with mental consciousness, not with sensory consciousness.

When you think of yourself as a student, in Western terms you would say that you have a concept or an idea of what a student is, based on certain defining characteristic features and qualities, and you think of yourself as also having those features and qualities. So they fit your idea of what a student is. The defining characteristic features would be, for instance, you have a teacher, this person has been teaching you something, and you have been learning it. The qualities would include having an open mind, wanting to learn something, being respectful of the teacher and what they are teaching you, and so on. This is your idea of what a student is; it accords with what has been agreed upon by convention as to what a student is; and you fulfill these defining features and qualities.

In Buddhist terms, when you think of yourself as a student, you are thinking in terms of the category “student.” A category is a class of phenomena having common, shared defining characteristic features and qualities. If someone such as yourself also has these features and qualities, you mentally label yourself with that category. You consider yourself as a member of the set of people who can be validly labeled as students.

You also have a combination of sounds in your language, such as “stu+dent” in English, that have been conventionally considered as a word and assigned a definition. You then designate the category of “students” with the word “student” since they have matching defining characteristic features and qualities. You also designate yourself with the word “student” since you too conventionally have the defining characteristic features and qualities of this category.

Although you may have the defining features and qualities of what is conventionally known as a “student,” nevertheless, if there were no concept of students and if that concept were not defined in terms of those features and qualities, you could not have the superficial nature of being a student and you could not be validly known conventionally as a student.

The nihilist extreme comes from over-refuting. Not only do you refute that the defining features and qualities of a student are findable in yourself and they are what accounts for your being a student all by themselves, you also refute that you can be validly known conventionally as a student. You might still be learning something from someone, but you wouldn’t be a “student” and you couldn’t validly be known as a “student.”

The eternalist extreme comes from under-refuting. You only refute that these findable defining features and qualities have the ability just by themselves to account for your being a student, but you do not refute that they are findable inside you and that in conjunction with the concept of a student, they establish you as a student. You still think of yourself as basically a student and identify yourself with your idea of a student.

A More Refined Discussion of Mental Labeling

Mental labeling comprises three components:

  • a mental label – a category, such as “student”
  • a basis for labeling – yourself
  • the referent object of the label – a student.

The category “student” has, by custom, been defined by certain commonly agreed upon characteristic features, such as having a teacher and studying and learning something from the person, and certain commonly agreed upon qualities, such as being open-minded and wanting to learn. The category has also, by custom, been designated with a word “student.”

Suppose, among the many things about your life, you have a teacher of Buddhism and are studying and learning something of Buddhism from the person and among your many qualities, you are open-minded and want to learn something about Buddhism. Now, there are many other aspects of your life as well: you have a family, a job, many friends and you do many things other than study and learn Buddhism: you work at your job, you train at the gym, you eat, you sleep and so on. Moreover, you don’t study with your Buddhism teacher every moment of your day and night. In addition, you also have many other qualities besides being open-minded and wanting to study Buddhism: you’re busy most of the time, you’re neat, you love swimming, you’re well-traveled and more.

You, as a person, are imputed on every moment of your life and on all your qualities, regardless of what you are doing or what qualities you are demonstrating at any moment. Unlike the category “student,” which can only be known conceptually, you as a person can be known both conceptually (you can think about yourself) or nonconceptually (you can see yourself in a mirror). An individual person is quite a different type of knowable object form the category “persons.”

In any case, mentally labeling yourself with the concept or category of “student” functions somewhat like a cookie-cutter. Of all the facets of your life and all your qualities, the conceptual thought singles out as its basis for labeling those features and qualities in your life that fit the definition, or at least most of the defining characteristics, of the category “student.” More precisely, the conceptual thought mentally labels the category “student” onto yourself as its basis for labeling. In that case, you are imputed as a person on those defining characteristics of the category “student” found in your life and in your character. The referent object of the label is your superficial nature of being a student.

Whether or not anyone activity mentally labels you as a student, your superficial nature as a student appears to be accounted for by a self-establishing nature. This is because, being the referent object of the label or concept “student,” your superficial nature as a student is based on certain features and qualities about you as if they constituted a separate entity, a self-established “identity” isolated from everything else about you and your life. In a sense, with conceptual cognition, mental labeling projects a self-established box (the category “student”) onto a self-established entity (you as a student) as if you fit in this box.

Voidness negates any self-establishing nature that accounts for or establishes your superficial nature as a student. A person, you, with a self-establishing superficial nature as a student is the implied object of the mental labeling and is known as a “referent ‘thing’.” But it is totally absent because there is no such thing as a referent “thing.” Your superficial nature as a student, as the referent object of the label “student” only appears to be a referent “thing” corresponding to the mental label. It appears as though this referent “thing” – a self-established student with a self-establishing nature as a student – is backing up, supporting and accounting for your superficial nature of being a student; but nevertheless it is totally absent. The only thing that accounts for your superficial nature as a student is the mental label “student” – the concept of “a student” labeled on you as imputed on certain characteristic features and qualities of your life.

The nihilist extreme is to refute not only a referent “thing” (a self-established student that corresponds to the mental label “student”), but to over-refute and also refute the referent object of the mental label (your validly knowable superficial nature as a student). In other words, you refute that it is valid to call yourself “a student,” even though you are studying with and learning from a teacher, because there are no such things as “students.”

The eternalist extreme is to refute, as accounting for your superficial nature as a student, only a self-establishing nature based merely on imputing your “self” on certain isolated features and qualities about you and your life, totally independently from the mental label and concept of “a student.” In other words, you accept that studying and learning with a teacher constitute a self-establishing nature that accounts for your being a student, but not by itself alone. It constitutes a self-establishing nature of being a student only in conjunction with the mental label and concept of “a student.”

Voidness and Dependent Arising Eliminate the Two Extremes

We have seen that dependent arising refers to the fact that you can only account for and establish the existence of any validly knowable phenomenon dependently on factors other than itself. Nothing can establish its own existence by means of a self-establishing nature.

We have also seen that there are many ways of specifying dependent arising. The superficial nature of validly knowable phenomena being conventionally “this” or “that” arises dependently on:

  • being relative to something else, such as “long” and “short,” or “teacher” and “student”
  • performing a function, such as studying and learning something
  • mental labeling with concepts or categories and designation with words.

Although not discussed here, dependent arising also encompasses products arising dependently on causes and wholes arising dependently on parts.

From one point of view:

  • voidness of self-established existence eliminates the extreme of eternalism – since eternalism means things being self-established.
  • dependent arising eliminates the extreme of nihilism – since validly knowable phenomena arise and appear.

From another point of view:

  • voidness eliminates the extreme of nihilism – voidness is not the absence of everything, just the absence of self-established existence.
  • dependent arising eliminates the extreme of eternalism, namely that self-established phenomena can arise independently of everything – dependent arising is the arising of validly knowable conventional phenomena that merely appear to be self-established, but are not.
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