The Higher Assertions of Voidness Undermine Those of the Lower Systems

How to Refute the Assertions of Lower Tenet Schools

The way in which we should understand how the position of a higher school of tenets undermines or damages another lower school can be understood in terms of how Madhyamaka undermines and refutes the Chittamatra assertion in this final round of transmission of the Dharma that ways of cognizing things, such as consciousness, have truly and unimputedly established existence. 

For this, Madhyamaka employs lines of reasoning that take what an opponent accepts and then draw absurd conclusions that would follow from them. For instance, if truly and unimputedly existent eye consciousness ultimately cognizes sights, then it should also cognize sounds, because it has truly and unimputedly established existence. If something had truly and unimputedly established existence, it would be able to do anything, and so a truly and unimputedly existent eye consciousness would even be able to see a sound. 

Or, if something had truly and unimputedly established existence, it would not be able to perform its function. Just as a truly and unimputedly existent eye sensor or truly and unimputedly existent ear sensor cannot cognize a sight, likewise a truly and unimputedly existent eye consciousness could not cognize a sight either. If we put this in the structure of a syllogism, a truly and unimputedly existent eye sensor does not cognize sights because it is a cognitive sensor, like the ear sensor. Or the truly and unimputedly existent earth element does not have the essential nature of being earth because it is an element, like water. Just as water is not earth, likewise earth would not be earth if it had truly and unimputedly established existence.

If you understand that, then perhaps you have lessened your use of the ignorance mudra of shrugging your shoulders like this. The ignorance mudra is Westerners’ favorite mudra. That, of course, is a joke; there is no mudra like that, at least not in the manuals. However, joking helps you to understand. When you throw your head back in laughter, that is the understanding mudra, the wisdom mudra, the opposite of the ignorance mudra. 

So, lines of reasoning like this undermine and damage the assertion of truly and unimputedly established existence. This is the way the higher tenet systems refute the lower systems, for instance with the type of reasonings the Prasangika system uses to refute the Svatantrika assertions.

Questions and Answers

One of the absurd conclusive statements made by Madhyamaka, such as if an eye consciousness has true existence, it could do anything, makes sense to a Madhyamaka because they accept that true existence is false, and it doesn’t exist. But Chittamatras accept true existence; they accept that true existence is a reality, so how does a statement like that damage a Chittamatra point of view? 

This is very difficult since Chittamatra asserts that an appearance of true, unimputed existence is established simultaneously with cognition. But, with more and more logical reasons, eventually they become convinced. The effectiveness of refutations, however, all depends on whether or not they are based on valid lines of reasoning, but even if valid, others don’t become convinced instantly. 

Chittamatrins base their assertion of ways of being aware of something having truly and unimputedly established existence in terms of the difference, from the point of view of ordinary common people, between accurate and distorted cognition. Prasangika also has its own way of asserting the difference, from the point of view of ordinary common people, between accurate and distorted cognition, which Chittamatra doesn’t accept. So, only when the Chittamatrins analyze over and again the true unimputed existence of ways of being aware of something that they eventually become convinced that there is no such thing. But this doesn’t happen all at once. They need to work up to being able to accept the refutation.

Prasangika asserts that the existence of things can only be established merely in terms of their designation with names. Their existence is not established by something findable on their own sides. There is nothing to fault in that. But Chittamatra and below assert that if phenomena have true, unimputed existence, it is pervasive that they exist, and if things lack true, unimputed existence, it is pervasive that they do not exist. Prasangika asserts the opposite. Svatantrika as well asserts that if phenomena have true, unimputed existence, it is pervasive that they do not exist, and if things lack true, unimputed existence, it is pervasive that they do exist. So, these positions are very different from the Chittamatra one.

Prasangika asserts if phenomena had inherent, self-established existence, it is pervasive that they do not exist, and if things lacked inherent, self-established existence, it is pervasive that they do exist. This is because the existence of all phenomena can only be established merely in terms of their designation with names. It cannot be established by something coming from their sides. Although Svatantrika asserts that if phenomena have true unimputed existence, it is pervasive that they do not exist, and if things lack true existence, it is pervasive that they do exist; they also assert that if phenomena have inherent, self-established existence, it is pervasive that they exist, and if phenomena lack inherent, self-established existence, it is pervasive that they do not exist. So, this is the opposite of Prasangika.

To explain this further in terms of the Chittamatra view is complicated and difficult; to explain in terms of the Prasangika view in relation to this point is a bit easier. When Prasangika asserts no such thing as self-established existence, Svatantrika doesn’t accept that and, to undermine the Prasangika view, they provide many lines of reasoning to refute that. But Prasangika retorts that the existence of phenomena can only be established merely in terms of their designation with names. If, as you Svatantrikas assert, their existence is also established from their own sides in conjunction with their designation with names, there would be no need to establish them in relation to designation. Their existence would already be established. 

When the Svatantrikas first hear this, it doesn’t settle well in their minds; they can’t immediately accept this. They need to think about it and analyze. It’s the same with the Chittamatrins; they too accept inherent, self-established existence. For instance, if the room here used as His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s quarters when he visits were self-established as his quarters, it would have already had to have been established as his quarters even before it was designated as such. There would have been no need to designate it as His Holiness’s quarters at all. Such examples are effective for countering the Chittamatrins, because they too accept inherent, self-established existence as well as truly and unimputedly established existence. But it’s not so simple. They have many lines of reasoning to support their acceptance of true, unimputed existence.

Let’s look at another example. Without having ever flown, you might not accept that it is possible to fly in an airplane, but when you study how it works and gain understanding, then you accept that flying in an airplane exists. In earlier times, we in Tibet had never seen an airplane and so it seemed impossible that there could be such a thing. But then we saw such things and we had to accept them. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not the fact that airplanes can fly settles well in our minds. 

Like that, you need to examine and analyze the assertions of each of the tenet systems. You need to listen to many teachings and think a great deal about them. That’s the only way that understanding will come about. It isn’t instant. For example, in terms of understanding the identitylessness of phenomena, if things had inherent, self-established existence coming from their side, there would be no need to designate them newly with names, because just seeing them, you would know what they are. For example, when you look at His Holiness’s quarters here, both its appearance as a room and its appearance as being self-established as His Holiness’ room arise and are established simultaneously in your cognition of it. Because of that, it automatically comes to your mind that, from the start, before the room was designated as His Holiness’s quarters, it was self-established as his quarters from its own side. You therefore accept that it exists like that, able to stand on its own, because it looks like that when you see it. The Chittamatrins accept self-established true, unimputed existence like that. They are not going to give up their assertion of this so easily.

There is no necessity to refute each and every lower tenet system; those who assert them would not understand anything, even if you tried. For very learned persons among them to meditate on their own view is perfectly okay. Buddha taught differently for different individuals. He taught that the self exists and specified how it exists in accord with different persons. For the Vaibhashikas, the self of a person exists in one way, for Sautrantikas another way, for Chittamatra and for Svatantrika too, each has its own assertion for how the self of a person exists. There is no need to refute them all. They suit different people. 

If someone meditates according to the Vaibhashika system, eventually, later on, they can attain Buddhahood. Everyone can attain Buddhahood. If a Vaibhashika meditates on the four noble truths, what is the fault in that? You can’t say that that’s wrong. Everyone meditates and practices on the level that they are at, and that is perfectly correct. There is no need to push them to go to a more sophisticated tenet system. If someone following the Vaibhashika system is meditating with the absorbed concentration of shamatha and vipashyana on the four noble truths, there is nothing wrong with that and there is certainly no need to push them to accept the Sautrantika view. 

The same is true if someone is following a Hinayana path, they don’t need to be pushed to follow Mahayana. If they are receptive, then of course they can be led to a higher view. But, by using their own Hinayana methods and working for their own purposes, they can attain the state of an arya according to their system and abandon what is to be abandoned and reach their goal. If this were not the case, then Buddha would not have taught the shravaka path; he would have only taught Mahayana,   

The purpose of meditating on voidness is to develop discriminating awareness. If teaching someone about voidness will just cause them harm, you should not teach it. It should only be taught to those for whom it will not cause harm, but rather will benefit them. If someone thinks that, if the existence of things were established merely by the power of mental labeling, that means that things don’t exist at all; and if, as a result, they fall to the distorted view of nihilism, then by repudiating and denying reality, it is said that they will fall to a hellish rebirth. One does not fall to a hellish rebirth just from not knowing about voidness; one falls only by becoming confused about voidness and falling to the extreme of nihilism. 

If someone thinks that things truly exist, they go to the extreme of absolutism, but that doesn’t have the same serious consequences as thinking that if things do not truly exist, then they do not exist at all, which is the nihilist view. Therefore, it is only if people are receptive that they can be led step by step, gradually, to more and more sophisticated views. And for that, they need to analyze and meditate on each of them. They cannot jump immediately to the highest view. Different views suit different people, like the example of Atisha’s teacher Serlingpa. He asserted the Chittamatra view, whereas Atisha accepted the Prasangika view.  

I have a question back to you. When Svatantrika refutes the Chittamatra assertion of truly and unimputedly established existence, do they themselves have the fault that they found with the Chittamatra assertion? Do the Svatantrikas believe that phenomena have truly and unimputedly established existence? 

No.

Are they saying that just to be cute? Is it just a matter of words, or is it that they have actually thought about it and think that way?

They think that way because they have thought about it.

Right. Just as the Svatantrikas actually believe there is no such thing as true, unimputed existence and have come to their belief having thought a great deal about it, likewise, there is no reason to expect the Chittamatras to immediately accept the Svatantrika’s argument and say that it is correct. Of course, they are not going to accept it at first. It would only be on the basis of having given it a great deal of thought that eventually they would understand that all these faults do follow. 

For instance, if we say that just wearing robes makes someone a monk, then saying that, people might think it is absurd that there is nothing more to being a monk, apart from this strange set of clothing. Actually, it is in terms of a great deal of thought about wearing the robes, over a long period of time, that being a monk and wearing robes derive all its benefits. Likewise, it is not just in terms of a simple superficial statement that one changes one’s mind. One has to think about things.

So, you need to study all these assertions of the tenet systems and their lines of reasoning. No one should think that these things are easy to understand. The great masters of these tenet systems, like Bhavaviveka for Svatantrika, were extremely learned and based their assertions on a great deal of analysis. It is not easy at all for people with brains like ours to understand what they say and refute it. 

You have to work through these assertions that consciousness has truly and unimputedly established existence and then that consciousness has self-established existence. I illustrated this yesterday with the life of Tsongkhapa, a very learned person, who was thinking about all these other views and positions. He would come up with his understanding of them and Manjushri himself would tell him that it wasn’t correct, that he didn’t have it yet and that it wasn’t quite right. Eventually, because he put all that work and effort into actually coming up with the correct understanding, he gained that understanding. It is essential to keep these examples in mind in terms of how we approach these matters. Don’t think that Prasangika is such an easy thing that you can understand just like that.

It is a fairly easy statement to say that the person is not any of the individual aggregates; however, what about saying that a person is the collection of all the aggregates of their experience? For instance, when we look at the assertion that the self is just the collection of the aggregate components, the classic example to show that this is absurd is of a chariot. If we were to just pile up all the component parts of the chariot, is that the chariot? You need to analyze deeply in order to refute that. Let’s go on.

Differing Positions on the Lack of True, Unimputed Existence

Shantideva goes on:

(3) In light of that, the world is seen to be of two types: yogis and common people. And regarding that, the world of common people is undermined by the yogi world.
(4) Through differences in their intelligence, yogis too are undermined by progressively higher ones, by means of examples accepted by both and because, when not scrutinizing, (both accept that causes function) for the sake of the result.

The view of common, ordinary people is contradicted and undermined by the view of yogis, and even among yogis, there are differences in their minds and the higher and higher ones negatively affect and undermine the view of the lower ones. As an example of what is being referred to here, let’s just discuss the different positions in terms of a lack of truly established unimputed existence of things. 

The Sautrantikas assert that because metaphysical entities are mentally labeled, they are superficial, conventional truths. They are totally conceptional. But yet, they also assert that everything has truly established existence – existence established from their own sides. This is what common, ordinary people believe. They believe that everything is truly existent. The Chittamatrins, however, say that totally conceptional phenomena lack truly established existence. They say that dependent phenomena and thoroughly established phenomena have truly and unimputedly established existence, whereas totally conceptional phenomena lack truly and unimputedly established existence. This assertion by those who say that totally conceptional phenomena lack truly and unimputedly established existence undermines and damages the assertion of those who accept that totally conceptional phenomena have truly and unimputedly established existence. This is what is referred to by the line “the world of common people is undermined by the yogi world.”

And then, “yogis too are undermined by progressively higher ones.” For instance, Prasangika asserts that all phenomena lack inherent, self-established existence. This undermines the Svatantrika assertion that all phenomena have inherent, self-established existence. But the way that Svatantrika asserts inherent, self-established existence – which is without things also being truly and unimputedly existent – undermines the Chittamatra assertion of dependent phenomena and thoroughly established phenomena having truly and unimputedly established existence. This way that Svatantrika refutes the Chittamatra assertion of truly and unimputedly established existence helps the Prasangika refutation of it as well. 

This is the meaning of “undermine” when Shantideva says, “yogis too are undermined by progressively higher ones.” The object to be refuted by the higher and higher systems is subtler and subtler, for instance in terms of the identitylessness or selflessness of phenomena, which the yogis all assert. This can also be understood in terms of the presentation of the ten levels of bhumi minds, the ten bhumis, also becoming more and more sophisticated. The higher and higher levels of bhumi mind each outshine the prior level and the understanding attained with the lower levels. But the line doesn’t mean that, in any system, the mind that understands deepest truths undermines a mind that understands surface or superficial, conventional truths. When an arya mind focuses, non-conceptually, with total absorption on deepest truth, voidness, and conventional truth doesn’t appear, that doesn’t mean that it has undermined or damaged conventional truth. It is just that it doesn’t remain focused on conventional truth.

That’s all for today.

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