Refuting Self-Established Existence and Final Words of Advice

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Assertions and Refutations of Self-Established Existence

The next verse states:

(IX.5) Functional phenomena are seen by the (common) world and conceptualized to be absolutely existent, and not like an illusion. It’s in this regard that there’s dispute between the yogis and the (common) world.

The ordinary, common world sees things, such as fire and so on, as having self-established natures of being hot and so on. They see functional phenomena, such as fire, as being true, because they explicitly see them. Because those who assert truly established functional phenomena directly see, with bare cognition, seeds giving rise to sprouts, they conceptualize that they are absolutely existent and accept that. But when you ask them do they comprehend the voidness, like an illusion, of what they take to be truly existent, then this is what the Madhyamikas and those who assert truly established functional phenomena debate about.

Both Madhyamikas and those who assert truly established functional phenomena accept what appears before their minds: fire having a nature of being hot and seeds giving rise to sprouts. Those who assert truly established functional phenomena, however, do not comprehend the voidness, like an illusion, of what they take to be truly existent, whereas Madhyamikas comprehend it. Because of that, there’s dispute between the yogis and the common world. The dispute is about it being like an illusion that things appear not to be established merely in terms of names.

The text goes on to refute the Sautrantikas and below, and then, on top of that, specifically to refute the many assertions of the Chittamatrins. Then it presents the Madhyamaka assertion of the pathway mind that apprehends voidness as being without need or ability to be disputed. After that, the text goes on to explain in terms of these three points: to be able to generate an arya pathway mind, the necessity for the discriminating awareness that apprehends no such thing as truly established existence; then the method for generating the discriminating awareness that apprehends voidness, the very nature of reality; and then making effort in that method.

Shantideva goes on:

(IX.6) But even form and so on, (as perceived by) straightforward cognition itself, is (established only) by popular consensus and not by valid cognition; and that’s false, like the popular consensus that what’s unclean and so forth is clean and so on.

Chittamatra and the tenet systems below – Sautrantika and so on – are called “those who assert truly established functional phenomena.” They say that if the existence of things is not self-established – if it is not established by inherent, self-establishing natures – then straightforward, bare cognition of sights and so on would not work. Prasangika, in contrast, asserts that the existence of things is not self-established, right? And so even though sights and so on are perceived with straightforward, bare cognition, Prasangika says they are established merely by popular consensus and are just conventions. 

The others don’t accept that. They say that if things did not have self-established existence, then sights and so on – the five types of sensory objects – would not appear; they would not be seen. They can be seen only because they have inherent, self-established existence. Thus, they say that the reason why sights and so on can be perceived is because they have self-established existence.

Prasangika replies that even though sights and so on are seen, it is just by the popular consensus of the world that they are seen. That is all that can be said about them. Seeing them is valid cognition only from the point of view of surface, conventional truth, but it is not valid cognition from the point of view of voidness, the very nature of reality.  

To repeat, they say that if sights and so on did not have self-established existence, they could not be seen. We say that there isn’t this fault, so their assertion needs to be refuted. Their perception of what appears is only valid from a conventional point of view, but not from the point of view of the actual nature or reality. This is the meaning of it being established only by popular consensus and not by valid cognition

If perceiving self-established existence is an invalid cognition, then cognizing that there is no such thing as self-establishing existence is a valid cognition. But straightforwardly cognizing no such thing as self-establishing existence is what an arya’s total absorption cognizes. So, if straightforward, bare sensory cognition of self-established sights and so on validly cognized the actual way in which they exist, then there would be no need for an arya’s total absorption.  

When sights and so on are perceived, they appear to have self-established existence, and this is what is seen with straightforward, bare sensory cognition. But that cognition is only valid by popular consensus in terms of what appears; it is invalid in terms of its cognition of what appears as actually being self-established. Straightforward, bare sensory cognition is a valid cognizer of only surface, conventional truth, but not of deepest truth. 

Checking Our Understanding

What was just said? What is the meaning of this line, but even form and so on, (as perceived by) straightforward cognition itself, is (established only) by popular consensus and not by valid cognition

Visible forms and so on are established by valid conventional minds. But they are not established by valid ultimate minds. If they were established by ultimate minds, then even ordinary people would see that and there would be no need for the awareness of aryas in deep absorption.

What is the main issue here? It is whether or not there is such a thing as inherent, self-established existence. To determine this requires discriminating awareness. Who is asserting that things have self-established existence and who is asserting that things do not have self-established existence?

From the Chittamatra and below, they assert that there is inherent, findable, self-established existence.

The Svatantrikas as well assert that things have inherent, self-established existence; however, if we state this in terms of Chittamatra that is okay. Who replies to that, that things do not have inherent, self-established existence?


When Prasangika states that there is no such thing as inherent, self-established existence, what do the proponents of such existence say in reply? They assert that if things did not have self-established existence, it contradicts the fact that sights and so on are seen with straightforward, bare cognition. The first words of this verse, but even form and so on, (as perceived by) straightforward cognition itself, give their position of what contradicts the Prasangika assertion. They state this as the contradiction – namely, that we can see that things have inherent, self-established existence. To that, Prasangika says back, that there is no contradiction. Their perception of sights and so on is valid cognition of only the surface, conventional truth of sights and so on; it is not valid cognition of a self-establishing nature. You have to state it like that, because it gets complicated if you say that it is not ultimately valid. 

If, when ordinary persons see sights and so on, their perception of self-establishing natures were valid, then there would be no need for them to achieve the total absorption of an arya, because they would already be cognizing with straightforward, bare cognition true, unimputed existence as the actual way in which things exist.

The Need for Study and Building Up Positive Potential for Being Able to Understand Voidness

The Prasangikas have lines of reasoning to disprove self-established existence, whereas the lower schools do not have lines of reasoning that establish that there is self-established existence. It is not sufficient merely to be able to just parrot the lines of reasoning, you have to think about them a great deal and then actually come to an understanding of what they are talking about. The view of voidness is extremely subtle and profound. It is only on the basis of thinking about it a great deal and analyzing that, eventually, you will gain a more and more refined understanding.  

It is only if you do a lot of prostrations, make many mandala offerings, repeat Manjushri’s mantra, om arapatsana dhih, many times, and study many of the great scriptural texts, and do all of this over a very long period of time, that, eventually, you will get some understanding of what this text is talking about. Voidness is not something that is easily and quickly understood, and the assertions of the lower schools are difficult to refute.

If you consider the Chittamatra school, the masters who asserted it, such as Dignaga and Dharmakirti, were extremely learned and inconceivably intelligent. To refute their profound logical arguments is unbelievably difficult. For the Svatantrika school, there are also many great masters who asserted its tents, such as Bhavaviveka, Shantarakshita, Kamalashila, and Jnanagarbha. They wrote extensive great texts, and it is extremely difficult to be able to refute the positions asserted in them.

All these great masters were experts in presenting the views of these lower tenet systems, but they themselves have understood and realized the Prasangika point of view. Their own view was Prasangika, and they merely specialized in presenting the views of these lower systems. So, don’t think that the views they explained were the ultimate views they accepted.  

There are various, famous lines of reasoning that are used by Prasangika for ascertaining voidness, such as the “vajra droplets” line of reasoning, the line of reasoning “parted from being either singular or plural,” and the reasoning “refuting the four possibilities of arising.” It is important to understand these lines of reasoning, the key points and how they are asserted and so forth in order to gain an understanding. If you don’t develop an exceptionally perceptive mind of vipashyana and use that for gaining a realization of voidness, you will not be able to cut the root of all your uncontrollably recurring problems, samsara. If you cannot cut through the root of all your uncontrollably recurring problems and situations, then there is no way that you will gain the enlightened state of a Buddha. 

To gain this exceptionally perceptive state of mind of vipashyana, it is necessary to gather together all the circumstances conducive for that. The basis for gaining any type of discriminating awareness is to maintain a very strict, strong ethical self-discipline. In addition to that, you need to listen to and think about the great classic scriptural texts. In that regard, there are the four great classics by Tsongkhapa concerning the correct view, mentioned before: The Great Exposition of Vipashyana, An Ocean of Reasonings, The Essence of Excellent Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings, and Clarifying the Intention of Madhyamaka. These four great classics are what you should listen to, study and think a great deal about in order to gain an understanding of voidness. 

You should try to study and gain some understanding and don’t become discouraged. Eventually, you will gain some understanding of what is going on. When you do, you will be able to continue and see all the meanings of these great texts.

It is not sufficient to engage in this study merely to become famous as someone who can just discuss this information, but rather you need to apply this to yourself. You have to try to recognize the ignorance, or unawareness, that arises simultaneously with each moment and try to clear away all your bewilderment about reality. For this, you need to cut through all the grasping for truly established existence on your mental continuums. This is what is referred to as gaining good qualities; you gain them when you apply all the teachings to yourself. It is foolish to just learn all these things so that you can become very clever and stand up in front of people to become a well-known teacher. There is no point to go through this whole process to gain this type of renown. 

Once you understand voidness with respect to one phenomenon, then you can apply it to all phenomena. It is not necessary to have to go through the entire process for everything, because the way in which one thing is void applies to all things. However, it is very difficult to gain that initial understanding of voidness with respect to one particular phenomenon.

The Necessity for Both Studying the Dharma and Learning Tibetan

If the complete meaning of voidness and all these texts were translated perfectly so that the entirety of it could be found in the English language, then you could study the correct view very satisfactorily through the medium of English. However, this is not the case. That does not exist yet; we do not have all these classics and all the meanings completely conveyed in the English language. We do have them, however, completely conveyed correctly in the Tibetan language. Therefore, it is very important to try to learn and master the Tibetan language.

In the past, the great translators of Tibet, emanations of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, went to India and put a great deal of work and effort in translating and conveying the entire, full meaning of the texts from Sanskrit into Tibetan. It is extremely difficult to find someone who knows the entire Dharma perfectly and also knows the language well enough to be able to translate correctly. On the other hand, there are people who know the language perfectly but who don’t know the Dharma. It is necessary to have complete and perfect knowledge of both the Dharma and the language involved in order to translate properly. So, since all the material is available in the Tibetan language, it is necessary to both study the Dharma and to learn Tibetan to gain a full understanding of both the material and the language.

Among Tibetans, everything is translated into Tibetan and all the meaning is available in our own language. For our practice, it is not necessary to study and master the Sanskrit language. However, if we do study and master Sanskrit, there are many additional benefits that we can gain. Likewise, you will gain many additional benefits for your own understanding of the Dharma in Tibetan first and then in your own language. So, again, I recommend highly that you should put effort into both studying the Tibetan language and studying the Dharma in order to apply it to your practice. 

Correct Understanding Takes a Long Time and Much Effort

You shouldn’t think of this as something that you are going to master in a few months or a few years. Look at the geshes of Tibet. We all studied for 20, 25 or 30 years in order to gain some understanding. No one is going to be able to gain such an understanding of all this material in a matter of just a couple years.

All of you have a built up a great deal of positive potential, or merit, that allows you to meet with the Dharma, be able to study it, and have it available in nice surroundings, without having to undergo all the difficulties and hardships that people in the past have had to go through to receive their Dharma training. This is an indication of the great positive potentials that you have built up. However, you should not just throw it away and think if you can’t gain realizations and understanding quickly that you should forget about it. You have to persevere with a great deal of enthusiasm over a very, very long period of time with continuous and steady effort. Normally, we all put in a great deal of work and effort into just making a living to try to find enough food, drink and clothing for ourselves. If we could apply that same type of energy into trying to gain an understanding of the Dharma, then perhaps we would get somewhere.

If I were to continue to go through a word for word explanation of the text, it would be difficult for me, extremely difficult for the translator, and also extremely difficult for you to understand. However, you have an excellent geshe here, and you should approach this subject matter very slowly and gradually, with a sustained effort, and eventually, you will be able to gain some understanding.

Oral Transmission of Chapter 9

I have received this teaching myself five times. Since I have the lineages, I will give you the oral transmission of the rest of this chapter, and then you will have the transmission of these points. 

As for the lineage, as I was explaining before, my teacher Gen Khunu Lama Rinpoche received this from Dza Patrul Rinpoche. Each time he would explain this text, Bodhisattvacharyavatara, even in the winter, various special flowers would bloom. He practiced all the teachings in this text and became someone with no difference at all from Shantideva himself. Gen Khunu Lama Rinpoche also received this teaching at Tashilungpo Monastery from the unimaginably great teacher Kachen Sanggye Kelsang. I also received the transmission from a great master at Drepung Monastery, Geshe Gendun Tashi, who had received it from Khangsar Dorjechang.

So, as I said, since I have these lineages, I will offer you the oral transmission. You have your own Geshe Rinpoche here, and other great geshes will be coming. You should ask for teachings on this subject matter from them and study this very slowly over a long period of time. Then, it will go well. 

When you approach the study of this text, you should try to gain an understanding of the actual cryptic words of the root text from its commentary, as I was doing for these first few verses. With an understanding of each word and how to fill out the unsaid meaning between those words, you will then be able to understand the various points being made. To try to understand the subject matter of the text without understanding the words would be hopeless. Therefore, initially, try to go through and gain an understanding, from the commentary, of all the actual words of the text. 

Now I will give you the oral transmission…

The Refutation of Reflexive Awareness

When we reach these verses,

(IX.17) It’s been said by the Guardian for the World, in fact, "Mind cannot see mind." Just as the edge of a sword cannot cut itself, so (it is with) the mind.
(IX.18) (Suppose you responded,) "But, it’s just like how a candle flame perfectly illuminates itself as a phenomenon." (Well,) the flame of a candle isn’t being illuminated, since it’s not something that had been obscured by darkness.

There is the line, the flame of a candle isn’t being illuminated, in other words, a flame doesn’t illuminate itself. This is refuting the Chittamatra assertion of reflexive awareness. This refutation of reflexive awareness is one of the eight unshared difficult assertions of the Prasangika system.

As Shantideva says, the edge of a sword cannot cut itself. No matter how sharp a sword is, it cannot cut itself. The root text uses this and the example of a flame not illuminating itself as examples to refute reflexive awareness. Reflexive awareness is an awareness that is aware of itself, a mind that cognizes awareness itself. 

If a flame could illuminate itself, then darkness should be able to obscure darkness. What’s the fault in that statement? Darkness is something that you can see; to obscure something means to make it no longer visible. The fault, then, is that, if darkness could obscure darkness, then it would not be possible to see darkness. There are many cute lines of reasoning, using these kinds of examples, to refute reflexive awareness, like no matter how skilled an acrobat you are, you cannot climb on your own back. 

Advice on Study and Practice

For auspicious reasons, I have given you the transmission of this ninth chapter of Bodhisattvacharyavatara at this Nalanda Monastery. All of you are very intelligent full monks or novice monks or nuns, and some of you are laypersons who have a great interest in this subject matter. As I have said, you need to proceed with your studies very slowly and carefully, even if it’s just in terms of a few words at a time. Proceed in a relaxed manner until you finally come to an actual complete mastery and understanding of the meaning and subject matter of this text. I consider it very fortunate that we have been able to discuss this subject matter with you.

You have here both a monastic community, a sangha, and also a temple housing the Buddhist scriptures, both of which you are extremely fortunate to have. The full monks in a sangha community are like the king of the beasts, the lion. Just as the snow lion is the king of the beasts and lives high up on the mountain peaks of the snow mountains, likewise the monks live at the pinnacle here in a monastery which is situated in a place like this. It is very fortunate for there to be something like this here, and even the insects and creatures around have built up great positive potential and merit just to be in the vicinity of such a place. If this sangha community here at Nalanda Monastery keeps up all the monastic traditions, such as the bimonthly purification of transgressions, and follows all the procedures of study and ritual, and you monks keep very strict ethical self-discipline with your vows, whatever number of vows each of you individually might have taken, then things will go very well. You will be able to accomplish great purposes.

I have traveled extensively around the world, to China and many other countries; there is nothing great or impressive about the wealth or material things that I have seen. However, seeing somewhere like this is truly great. Therefore, all of you should practice very well and live together in harmony. Take all the teachings to heart, have a kind and warm heart and practice steadily. You have all the conducive circumstances gathered here together and have excellent translators and spiritual masters. With everything going for you, practice well and sincerely.

In Tibet, many of us traveled from very far regions. We had to walk for six, nine months, even a year carrying our possessions on our backs. Many of us would have to go six or seven days without food, but we never worried. We just continued with our studies, working with the texts. There are many people like that. None of you have had to undergo that type of difficulty. Probably none of you had to walk here but came from your countries by motor vehicles or whatever manner. This is an indication of the positive potentials you have built up. On that basis of everything being conducive, you should study very hard. 

The time of the total decline and setting of the Buddhas’ teachings has not yet come. Therefore, during this time of opportunity, I have great hopes for the teachings to flourish in excellent condition in a similar way as in the account given about the time of Tsongkhapa.

The main point is to tame our minds. Whatever type of Dharma practice or tradition you follow, just get on with it and practice it very well. You should never criticize the practice or the tradition of others. That type of criticism will never do. All the various teachings of the Buddha are incorporated into the various views and teachings of the shravakas, the listeners to the teachings, the pratyekabuddhas, the self-realized beings, and the bodhisattvas. All of their practices include trying to benefit others and never hurting anyone or causing any harm. 

You should recite as much as you can OM MANI PADME HUM. All the essential points of the teachings are incorporated within this precious mantra of Avalokiteshvara. While you recite OM MANI PADME HUM, the main thought to cultivate is for everyone to be happy and no one to ever have any problems or suffering. Through such altruistic thoughts, you will gain a vast-minded Mahayana attitude, with which you always think about others. 

The mantra OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SOHA, the mantra of Tara, is extremely precious. However, when we recite it, we have this feeling or wish for ourselves to have a long life. When we say OM AH RA PA TSA NA DHI, there is the tendency to wish for ourselves to become learned, clever, and to gain wisdom. On the other hand, OM MANI PADME HUM, the mantra of Avalokiteshvara, incorporates all the compassion of all the Buddhas and all the wishes for everyone to be free from his or her suffering. The main thing that comes through reciting it is the feeling to be of benefit to others. The manner in which Avalokiteshvara dedicated his heart to others and to enlightenment, the way that he developed bodhichitta, was to say that “I myself will not reach the state of enlightenment, the state of a Buddha, until everybody else has.”

At such a degenerate time as the present, Avalokiteshvara is still present and working for the benefit of all beings. We have actually seen His Holiness, Avalokiteshvara himself, with our own eyes working in such a compassionate manner. Although there are Manjushri and Vajrapani and they are very famous – and, of course, there is no difference in all the qualities of the Buddhas – nevertheless, we don’t find Manjushri or Vajrapani going around in a form that we all can meet. Whereas a sign of his intense, loving concern – what Avalokiteshvara is all about – is the fact that Avalokiteshvara is present now. We can actually see His Holiness ourselves right now. Therefore, say his mantra OM MANI PADME HUM as much as possible and have a kind and warm heart. That is the main point.

As for developing the discriminating awareness with which we understand reality and voidness, if this is something that we hold with a mind of compassion, the heart of bodhichitta, then the combination of compassion and wisdom can bring us to the state of a Buddha. 

That is all that I have to say today.