Self-Voidness & Other-Voidness in the Tenet Systems


Yesterday we started our discussion of the topic of self-voidness and other-voidness, and what we saw was that it’s extremely important to have an understanding of voidness in order to overcome suffering of samsara. And we saw, although we didn’t go into much detail about this, that it was necessary to have understanding of voidness completely in order to achieve liberation or achieve both liberation and enlightenment; in other words, it’s equally necessary for both goals. This is according to the Madhyamaka Prasangika view as interpreted by the Gelugpa or Gelug tradition of Tibet.

Emptiness (Voidness) in the Different Tenet Systems

For the other Mahayana systems of tenets explained or taught in India and the other Tibetan traditions, the understanding of voidness that we need for liberation and for enlightenment are different levels of understanding. It’s not exactly the same understanding. There are many levels of voidness. So everybody agrees that you need some understanding of voidness for achieving liberation or for achieving enlightenment, but the level of sophistication of voidness that you need is different according to these other systems.

Now this is going to be one of the most perhaps difficult and complicated aspects of studying this type of material. And that is namely that there are many, many different Indian Buddhist tenet systems, usually spoken of in terms of four major ones: Vaibhashika and Sautrantika are the Hinayana systems, and Chittamatra and Madhyamaka are the Mahayana systems, and, within Madhyamaka, Svatantrika and Prasangika. That’s complicated enough. And they differ on so many different points. However, what makes it even more complicated is that each of the Tibetan traditions has their own interpretation of each of these four Indian systems; and even within one tradition, like the Gelug tradition, there’s going to be different versions of it. So this makes it extremely complex.

So when we study one particular explanation system, we have to be very careful not to make the mistake of thinking that this is what everybody asserts and everybody believes, because if we do and then we hear an explanation from another teacher from another tradition or another monastery, and we hear something different, then we get terribly confused. Many different cooks: everybody cooking the same type of cake, but they cook it slightly differently; and each of their products is delicious and very nice to eat, but it’s slightly different. We can understand this proliferation of different systems and explanations in terms of Buddha’s method of teaching with skillful means or skillful methods: that different persons have different backgrounds, different capacities, different levels of intelligence, different levels of preparation, and therefore you can’t explain to everybody in the same way; you have to explain differently to suit their needs.

And, as is emphasized, particularly in Tibet, these Indian tenet systems form a graded path. So in order to really understand the most sophisticated explanation – let’s say the Prasangika explanation – it really requires going through and working through the less sophisticated systems, because what you’re doing is narrowing in, getting a more and more refined understanding. Also, even within India, there were many traditions of explanation of the various great Indian commentaries, and these were transmitted to Tibet and translated by different people at different times and so on, so you have many different lineages. Because of these different lineages coming from India, even of the same text, then within Tibet we get many variations in the Tibetan traditions of ways of understanding the Indian material. So we find in the literature, both Indian and Tibetan literature, that there are many debates back and forth about the various systems, and we have to understand what the purpose is for all of this. Although sometimes they use strong language – like calling each other idiots – nevertheless, one has to not put the emphasis on that. Sometimes people get very excited in a debate.

According to the traditional explanation, Buddha taught all of these positions, and they are only for the purpose of helping others to overcome suffering. Buddha did not teach them in order to increase the ignorance and confusion of people. That’s an important point to remember. Each system, if one understands it – and here we’re talking in terms of their teachings on voidness – if we understand it, it helps to diminish someone’s suffering. The only question is: Does it eliminate all the suffering on the deepest levels, or just the initial levels of the grosser types of suffering? But before we can deal with more subtle types of suffering, you have to diminish the greater types of suffering. And so these more so-called simpler systems are very important for that first task. And so the Tibetans in their approach to this material emphasized – and you already have a forerunner of this in India – that these systems are to be studied in a graded order, according to each individual; each person. And one doesn’t start with the most advanced, sophisticated explanation, because if you start there without having worked through the simpler systems, then usually you really don’t understand the sophisticated system and you miss out completely on its benefit.

When we go from one Indian tenet system to the next then, usually, the debates help us to understand certain logical inconsistencies of the more simple system. In other words, first we work with a more simple system – let’s say the Vaibhashika, or the Sautrantika (which comes next) – and it’s very helpful, we master it, helps us to diminish our suffering. But then it’s not that we want to throw it out the window as something that was useless, but we see, well, there are certain logical inconsistencies here in this system, and here is another system, a more sophisticated system (in this case, the Chittamatra) that makes a little bit more sense. And, in that way, when we are ready to understand, we graduate to the next system.

If this is the way that we approach the Indian tenet systems – that basically we need to study all of them in a graded order – then the question is: Is that the same in terms of the Tibetan interpretations of them by the different Tibetan lineages? And no, it’s not the same. We don’t have to study all of them in order to gain liberation or enlightenment. However, if we want to really be able to teach and help everybody, it’s very important to know different systems, different ways of explaining, and so on, so that… Let’s say, as a teacher, if someone from a tradition that we’re not so familiar with comes and asks us a question, then we’re not able to answer if we’re not familiar with these other ways of explaining. Of course we could direct them to a different teacher. But if we really want to become a Buddha, we need to be able to answer everybody’s questions, and therefore it’s helpful to be aware of all the different systems. That’s not easy.

Now when we read the Tibetan commentaries in which they’re debating back and forth with different Tibetan traditions, again, as I said, it might look like a gladiator duel to the death, but we can look at it in a much more kind way: as each master from each tradition is trying to help people to clarify their thinking, to point out certain inconsistencies or certain inadequacies in description or explanation in order to help everybody get a much clearer understanding.

There are two problems here. One is that all this discussion about voidness, for example, entails a tremendous amount of technical terminology, and each tradition and each author tends to have different definitions of the same terms. And so in a discussion, if you don’t make the definition very, very clear, then often what happens is that you interpolate or put onto it a wrong definition and then what they say makes absolutely no sense. A lot of the debate is concerned about that. If you use your term with our definition – boy, does that not make sense! And so be careful. Define your terms carefully.

Also, a lot of these Tibetan explanations are based on meditational experience of great masters, and although they might have very valid meditation experiences – and very validly have received or attained the different results that they say they have attained – nevertheless, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama points out, they weren’t all equally skilled in explaining what they experienced. Some of them wrote and explained very clearly; and others, less clearly. This often is the source of the problem – it’s that some of these masters just didn’t write very well.

There are many points that follow from this, but one point that I think is quite significant – in terms of the fact that different meditation masters had different meditation experiences – is that even if we follow one particular tradition, with the text and explanations of one of the great lineage masters, and we find that very useful, that doesn’t mean at all that our meditation experience is going to be the same as this master’s meditation experience; it might be quite different. We see that over and again in the historical examples in which Tsongkhapa, for instance, had a completely different understanding and realization than his teachers did. But of course if we have a different meditation experience from that of the lineage that we’ve studied in or the great masters or teachers that we have studied with, that doesn’t mean that our realization is necessarily correct. It always has to be checked to see whether it’s valid or not: Has it actually produced the intended result?

One of the big interests of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, however, is to try to come up with a so-called grand unified theory in which, although some of the schools concerned (the Tibetan schools, we’re talking about here) may have really quite contradictory interpretations of certain points – and that is correct, they are contradictory – nevertheless, concerning the main points, it all fits together. And it’s not that it all fits together in terms of my Gelugpa system or my Nyingma system, but it all fits together with all of them being equally valid ways of explaining it.

That gets into a very delicate point. Usually it’s described in terms of how different religions relate with each other and interact, but also, within Buddhism, how the different traditions interrelate and work with each other. You have an exclusivist point of view, which says “Only my system is correct. Everyone else – if you follow their system, you go to hell.” Or is it an inclusivist – that “Well, their understanding has certain things in common with us, but that’s a lower understanding and ours is supreme”? Or do we have equal respect for all of them?

So, although we haven’t gone yet into all the details about self-voidness and other-voidness, these points I think are important. Even if we haven’t understood – and we won’t be able to understand yet – the detailed explanations that will follow, at least it gives us perhaps a helpful frame of mind with which we can undertake this type of study.

In this Buddhist material we find, actually, all three approaches to interreligious dialogue. We find that the Buddhist point of view about the non-Buddhist assertions – for example, about atman (the self) – they are just simply wrong; so this is rather exclusivist. And within the Indian Buddhist tenet systems, it’s more inclusivist – that they’re very helpful, certain aspects that we have in common, and they form a graded path, and our Prasangika system is what you really need in order to gain liberation and enlightenment. And if we follow His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s approach to the various Tibetan traditions, this is more what’s called pluralist – that all of them are equally valid as ways to bring liberation and enlightenment. So if we can clearly differentiate between different approaches to the different material that’s involved in this topic concerning voidness, I think it helps us to become less confused about it.

Okay. I think this is enough for that topic as yet a further introduction for the material. Now we can jump into the heart of the matter.

Emptiness (Voidness)

When we talk about self-voidness and other-voidness, the word voidness here – and for various reasons I prefer the word voidness in English to emptiness – but, in any case, voidness is talking about an absence. When you talk about empty, it puts the emphasis on the container that is empty, and that is not at all the connotation here; it’s just voidness, an absence of something.

When we speak about self-voidness, we’re talking about an absence of impossible ways of existing; and each of the Indian tenet systems will explain different levels of what’s impossible, but these are absent – they never existed, they never will – they are totally impossible. The term self-voidness means an absence of a self-nature; an impossible self-nature. The word self here is the short form of self-nature or, more fully, self-establishing nature. When we speak about other-voidness, this is an absence of other levels of mind – which do exist, but they’re just absent in terms of the subtlest clear light mind.

All the Tibetan systems equally assert that we need, in order to attain enlightenment, a refutation of impossible ways of existence, an understanding that they don’t exist at all, and we need to get this with the subtlest clear light mind. The issue is what you call these two. So some systems don’t even use the term other-voidness; some systems use self-voidness but they use it to describe some less sophisticated absence; I mean an absence of some less subtle impossible way of existing. It’s not fixed, what these terms self-voidness and other-voidness are referring to and how the various authors will use them. Nevertheless – this is the unified field theory – everybody is talking about the same thing and asserts that the same thing is necessary to gain enlightenment.

This is why, if we are going to study any author or any system, we have to, at the very beginning of our studies, learn the definitions of the major terms that this author and system are using.


Now let us speak first about self-voidness. As mentioned, there are levels of sophistication that we need to work through in terms of understanding what actually is impossible. In the less complicated systems, we find that – specifically, I’m talking about the Hinayana systems – we do not find the term voidness used. They use a different term. The Sanskrit word is anatman; it means it’s not there, there is no such thing, so it’s similar to the word voidness, a lack of an impossible soul. There’s no atman. Atman, remember, is soul according to the various non-Buddhist systems. Although it can be translated as self, really what they’re talking about is a soul.

An Aside about Hinayana

Now, just as an aside, so that you don’t get confused: When we talk about Hinayana, this is a term coined by Mahayana. It’s not a very nice term, but it’s referring to a general word for eighteen different schools within Buddhism. The Vaibhashika and Sautrantika that the Tibetans (and the Indians that they derived this from) are talking about are subdivisions of one of these eighteen; it’s called Sarvastivada. Theravada, which is the one that is present now in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, is another one of these eighteen. So don’t equate Theravada with Vaibhashika and Sautrantika, because Theravada has its own completely different system of philosophical assertions.

Lack of an Impossible Soul of Persons and Phenomena

Now lack of an impossible soul. The soul here – atman – is something that is inside a body and mind that somehow activates it; makes it alive. The Sim card inside a cell phone; something like that. So we can talk about an impossible soul of a person that somehow makes a person alive and functioning, or we can talk about an impossible soul of a phenomenon that somehow, inside it, establishes that it exists and works. Therefore, we have the terminology a lack of an impossible soul of persons (gang-zag-gi bdag-med) and a lack of an impossible soul of phenomena (chos-kyi bdag-med) – in general, like the table, or a leg of the body, or a mind. Although it might sound a little bit strange to talk of impossible souls with relation to all things, this is in fact the terminology that is used. And it does have a significance; it is not just a silly, irresponsible use of words. Right? We always have to go back to the basic axiom here, which was that Buddha was not stupid and he didn’t teach stupid things; he chose words because they have a meaning that helps people to overcome suffering. As my teacher Serkong Rinpoche loved to point out, it is extreme arrogance to think that “Well, Buddha didn’t explain it very well. I can explain it much better with my words and my way of using terminology.”

In the Hinayana systems, they only speak about a lack of an impossible soul of persons. They don’t explain in terms of a lack of impossible soul of all phenomena; that is asserted only in Mahayana, which speaks of both a lack of an impossible soul of persons and of phenomena. We need to understand a lack of an impossible soul of persons. Now in the Hinayana systems, although they don’t speak about a lack of impossible soul of phenomena, they do describe how certain types of phenomena exist and what is impossible – the ways that they don’t exist. A Buddha would understand all of that. But they don’t call it a lack of impossible soul, or voidness, or anything like that. And in these Hinayana systems, Buddha and an arhat – a liberated being – basically, their understanding of reality is the same; it’s just that a Buddha knows more. A Buddha knows how to lead everybody to liberation; an arhat doesn’t.

Now in the Mahayana systems, when we talk about a lack of impossible soul of persons, these are impossible types of souls that nobody has; and one needs to understand that lack, or absence, in order to achieve liberation. Then, in order to attain enlightenment, you have to understand the impossible soul of phenomena, which is a more subtle impossible way of existing. That’s what’s called voidness, and it applies to not just physical objects and things like that, but it also applies to persons. And that’s what you need to achieve enlightenment.

What is impossible with respect to persons and what is impossible with respect to all phenomena (including persons) – these are different for everybody except Gelug Prasangika. So, according to everybody except Gelug Prasangika, what you need to understand for gaining liberation and what you need to understand for gaining enlightenment are different. According to Gelug Prasangika, the understanding that is required for liberation and enlightenment is the same. In other words, with the less full understanding of the lack of an impossible soul of persons that everybody else talks about – and which is correct – you’re not going to gain liberation; you’re still going to be left with a very, very subtle level of disturbing emotions. And to get rid of those, even to achieve liberation, you have to get the full understanding of voidness of all phenomena, as applied to persons as well.

Now this is not just an interesting fact about different philosophical systems; this has a great implication for our practice. The implication is that the major source (it may not be the exclusive source, but the major source) of our disturbing emotions – anger, greed, attachment, etc. – is a misconception that we have about how we as persons exist, and that is what you work on first. So if our computer crashes, then the main thing that we need to focus on is not so much the voidness of the computer, but the voidness of me who is so upset about my possession. Me, me, me. “Now what am I going to do?” And if our friend leaves us, or does something that we don’t like, what we need to work on first is not the voidness of our friend, not the nature of the mind and thought and all of that, but the voidness of me who is so upset. “Everybody should do what I want, because I’m the most important and I’m the center of the universe.” So you work on the misconception about yourself. That is the major source of our suffering. That is what we learn from what I just explained about all these philosophical systems.

When our computer breaks, we may understand “Ah, yes. It was manufactured. Impermanent. Anything that’s manufactured eventually will have to break.” And what is the computer? Is it this key? Is it that key? There’s no solid computer, and we refute the solid existence or true existence of the computer – and we’re still left with a big solid me who’s upset, and will be upset about the next computer that we buy when it breaks. Same thing with our friend. We may understand, well, he or she has acted under the influence of disturbing emotions, and their background, and other things that are going on in their life. And what am I angry with? The mind, the body, and so on. And so, okay, we can deconstruct the friend and the incident of what they’ve done to us; but still if we haven’t analyzed me, then we’re still stuck with the me that can get upset with the next incident that happens and the next friend.

So it’s very important, in the beginning, to focus our energies on understanding the voidness of the self, and particularly ourselves. Therefore, in the meditation instructions, we always find that first you understand the voidness of the self, particularly yourself – because that’s easier to understand – and then the voidness of all phenomena. But then, when we have worked with voidness of persons, ourselves, and all phenomena, when we want to put it together in a meditation session, then first you focus on the voidness of phenomena, specifically the aggregates – so your body and mind – and then, on the basis of that being not truly or solidly existent, then you can add onto that “And there is no truly solidly existent me in terms of that.” That’s the second stage; that’s not the first stage, that’s the second stage of practice. Therefore, if we are going to try to get into the practice of voidness and the practice of meditation and so on, it’s important to know the instructions, and what order we do things in, and to understand why. After all, if we’re serious about this, we want to do it correctly. And people have been working with this for 2500 years, so we can benefit from their experience.

Two Types of Disturbing Emotions and Grasping

Now impossible souls of persons. We need to differentiate: there are two types of disturbing emotions and two types of grasping for impossible ways of existing that correspond to these two levels. One is called doctrinally based (kun-brtags); in other words, it’s based on having learned some non-Buddhist or less sophisticated Buddhist system of philosophy. It’s not something that just anybody would have, or the dog would have, or like that. You have to have been taught this. That’s doctrinally based. The other is automatically arising (lhan-skyes). Even the dog has it. You don’t have to teach the dog to growl and get angry when somebody tries to take its bone away. Nobody had to teach the dog that.

Now doctrinally based. I think it’s quite misleading to describe this or to speak of it as intellectually based. It’s not intellectually based; it doesn’t have to be. Intellectually implies that you understand something and have a very complex concept system. You don’t have to have that. It could arise very simply, that someone has indoctrinated you in a certain system, let’s say a certain religion, and so on – here we’re talking specifically about Indian systems, Indian philosophical systems – you might not understand it at all but, on the basis of that, you identify with it, and now you get angry at anybody that challenges your religion or challenges your belief. That’s what we’re talking about. It doesn’t have to be intellectual. Right? You have to be taught – you have to be indoctrinated – in order to go out and fight in a war to defend your faith, and to defend this or that, and you’re very attached to it and very proud of it. So all sorts of disturbing emotions are described as doctrinally based. They’re different from the automatically arising ones that even a dog has. A dog is not going to go out and fight for a religion, is it? Okay? You understand the difference between these two types of disturbing emotions.

So doctrinally based and automatically arising. First we get rid of the ones that are doctrinally based, by basically understanding that the assertions of the doctrinal system don’t make any sense – they’re self-contradictory. So, even if we didn’t understand intellectually at all the doctrines of the system that we were fighting a war over; nevertheless, in order to give up our identification with that, we need to be convinced that this is a ridiculous system – it doesn’t make any sense. But to get rid of the automatically arising anger, and attachment, and greed, and so on – that even the dog has – that takes a lot more effort and work and understanding. That’s more difficult. That comes second.

Now it’s very interesting. There’s a whole discussion about what happens if we’ve never studied in this lifetime any of these non-Buddhist Indian systems. Do we still have doctrinally based disturbing emotions? And is that what we get rid of when we become an arya? Could we substitute, instead, doctrinally based disturbing emotions that are based on Western systems of thought? Now it’s very tempting to say, “Well, yes. You just get rid of the Western ones, whatever you learned in this lifetime,” but that is ignoring beginningless rebirth. But I believe it’s Kedrub Je (mKhas-grub rje), although I might remember incorrectly – maybe it was Tsongkhapa himself – who said that actually everybody has these doctrinally based unawareness or ignorance and disturbing emotions, even if they didn’t study or learn about these systems in this lifetime, because they must have studied about it in some previous lifetime. Just as there are always Buddhas teaching the Buddhist teachings, there are always these non-Buddhists teaching the non-Buddhist teachings. So this is the explanation that is given. Everybody has these, whether you learned it in this lifetime or not. It could get transferred, for example, onto another belief system. And you probably understand that these other belief systems, if they make no sense, are incorrect, but that is just what would be called seemingly – it’s like these doctrinally based unawareness and disturbing emotions, but it’s not the actual definitive ones.

If we look at the assertions of the doctrines that these doctrinally based disturbing emotions or unawareness are based on, we find that we do have many similar things in our Western ways of thinking. We might not have the whole package, but we have parts of it. But what’s to be refuted here is the whole package. So in many Western systems we speak about a soul that comes into the body and then, at the time of death, goes out of the body and goes to heaven or hell or whatever – well, we can see that this is quite similar to certain aspects of the non-Buddhist Indian beliefs. We might not think that it this soul is the size of the universe, like the whole atman/Brahman idea, but we have certain aspects of this belief.