Truly Established Existence in the Tenet Systems


In our discussion of self-voidness, we saw that we can speak about impossible ways of existing with regard to persons and with regard to all phenomena. First we focus on understanding that our conventional self – which does exist – does not exist in the manner of an impossible, false “soul.” It does not exist in the manner of an impossible “soul” as is asserted by the non-Buddhist Indian schools of philosophy; namely, as something that is unaffected or static – never changes – and is a partless monolith, and exists completely independently of a body and mind. Such a thing does not exist. When we believe in such an impossible “soul” or “me” then we get what is known as doctrinally based disturbing emotions.

But we also have a deeper, more subtle misconception: it appears as though we exist as a self-sufficiently knowable “me,” and when we believe that this corresponds to reality, then we have automatically arising disturbing emotions. But we saw also that if we can overcome this type of belief, this type of misconception, and realize that there’s “no such thing” – or the self-voidness of such a soul with relation to a person – with that understanding alone, with the proper motivation of renunciation, we can gain liberation according to all schools except the Gelug Prasangika. But if we want to gain enlightenment according to the Mahayana schools, then we need to understand the voidness of all phenomena, including persons, and it is an absence of a much more subtle false manner of existence. And, according to Gelug Prasangika, we need the same understanding even to attain liberation. According to Gelug Prasangika, we still have disturbing emotions based on this unawareness of the voidness of all phenomena. According to the other schools, then, we have what is designated as a disturbing emotion but is not actually, definitively, a disturbing emotion. So basically they’re talking about the same thing; they just don’t call it an actual disturbing emotion.

As we saw, some of the most major differences between the various schools will be different use of terminology and different way of defining them. There are many terms, particularly that we’ll come across in our study of self-voidness, that are defined differently by the different Indian schools of philosophy; and if we don’t know the definition in the context of a particular school of tenets, we get confused if we bring in a definition from another school of tenets.

Truly Established Existence in Vaibhashika and Sautrantika

One of the most confusing terms is “true existence” (bden-par grub-pa, Skt. satyasiddha). Now, first of all, you have to understand that, in this entire discussion of impossible ways of existing and possible ways of existing, we are not really talking about the way of existing itself. We’re talking about what establishes that something exists. What proves that it exists. What demonstrates that it exists. True existence, the way that it’s defined in Vaibhashika, Sautrantika, and Chittamatra is literally “truly established existence”; it really exists, and it’s really established. From the Madhyamaka point of view, truly established existence does not exist at all. We think it truly exists, but it doesn’t. It’s actually false.

Now for Vaibhashika and Sautrantika, what truly establishes that something exists is that it performs a function. For Vaibhashika, both static and nonstatic phenomena, their existence is truly established because, even though static phenomena don’t do anything – like space – nevertheless, they function as an object of the cognition of them. And please keep in mind that I’m explaining here the Gelug system. According to Sautrantika – and here Gelug has two different opinions, so we’ll follow the Jetsunpa textbook tradition – only nonstatic phenomena have truly established existence, because they actually produce a result. So in Sautrantika (according to this explanation of it), when we talk about voidness – and here, in this system, we’re talking about the lack of an impossible “soul” of a person – that lack is static (it doesn’t do anything). It’s just a fact that is always true, but it doesn’t have truly established existence; it is merely imputed.

Truly Established Existence in Chittamatra

Now we get into the Mahayana systems. And please be patient: I’m just giving you the main points of these systems. Obviously you could spend many years studying these systems. These are not simple. But just the main points, so you get a little bit of a taste.

Chittamatra – and again, this is Gelugpa Chittamatra – is going to define truly established existence differently from Sautrantika and Vaibhashika. What has truly established existence is what is known as an ultimate phenomenon (don-dam-pa), and an ultimate phenomenon is one that appears to the total absorption of an arya. So total absorption of an arya is not just focused on voidness; it can start with focusing on, as I said, the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths, then it can go on to voidness.

Now when we talk about voidness, here, of all phenomena, in Chittamatra, what this is referring to are two types of voidness. Maybe we don't need to go into much detail here, but one aspect of voidness, or one of the voidnesses, is that an object of cognition (referring to a sense cognition) and the consciousness that is aware of it do not come from different natal sources; they both come from the same seed of karma. When we are aware of something, actually what we are aware of is a mental hologram, which is produced by the mind. Even from a Western point of view, you’d have to accept that. We just have – from a Western point of view – for instance, vision: light rays come in, and firing of electrons, and all that sort of stuff, and there’s a mental hologram. So these are appearances, mental appearances, and that is the only thing that we know, that we cognize, that we’re aware of. So this is the main point of Chittamatra – Chittamatra means “mind-only” – that what we’re aware of, it’s only from the mind. And you can’t really speak of external phenomena; you can only speak of anything in relation to your speaking about it (so that’s a relation to a mind) or your thinking of it (that’s a relation to a mind) or your giving a name to it (that’s a relation to a mind) or your seeing it (that’s a relation to a mind). It’s impossible to work with an actual external phenomenon. Externally established – nothing is established externally.

So, when I work with my students on this, I challenge them, for example, to prove that we’re all sitting in the same room. You can’t actually prove that. If we each took a Polaroid camera picture of this room, you would have – if there are fifty people here – you’d have fifty different pictures. It’s not the same room.

So that is when we talk about the voidness of what’s called dependent phenomena (gzhan-dbang): phenomena that arise dependently on causes and conditions.

Defining Characteristic Marks

Now what establishes that something truly exists is that it appears, as I say, to a mind of an arya in total absorption, non-conceptually. So that’s a relation to a mind. We’re not establishing it because somehow it’s “out there,” because we couldn’t even discuss that – after all, how could you know that it’s out there?

These objects that appear to an arya have a defining characteristic mark on their own sides that establishes, by its own power, independently of conceptual cognition, that they exist as individual validly knowable phenomena. This defining characteristic mark establishes that these things truly exist, and they are not just totally conceptional (kun-brtags-pa), like static categories, which can only be established as existing in the context of their being imputed in conceptual cognition. So, here, what’s truly existing is unimputed.

This is a lot of jargon. It’s not easy. Let me try to make it a little bit more understandable: I think of an elephant through the totally conceptional static category "elephant." The category "elephant" is imaginary. It only exists in the context of being mentally labeled in a conceptual cognition on a mental hologram that represents an elephant to me when I picture one. The category and the representation are just projected by the mind. The defining characteristic on the side of the representation of an elephant does not have the power by itself to establish this mental hologram as being an elephant. The mental hologram is devoid of that impossible way of existing. That’s the other type of voidness here. The mental hologram is established as representing the category "elephant" dependently only on the category "elephant."

If I see an elephant – I can’t establish that the elephant exists somewhere out there before I see it, or before anybody sees it; there’s no way to establish it that way. So it doesn’t have externally established existence. But when I see it, although the source of that cognition of the elephant, of my seeing that elephant, comes from a seed of karma – so the mental hologram and the visual consciousness that precedes it, all of that’s coming from some seed of karma to see an elephant – it’s not just totally imaginary. I’m not just projecting an elephant; I’m actually seeing an elephant. It’s truly an elephant, and there is some definable characteristic on the side of this object, this mental hologram, that establishes it, by its own power, as an individual elephant. And the same thing with the voidness of this elephant – the negation of the appearance coming from a natal source different from that of the cognition of it. That voidness of external existence also has an individual defining characteristic on its own side that truly establishes its existence. An arya perceives that voidness of external existence. So that voidness is what is called a "thoroughly established phenomenon" (yongs-su grub-pa). But it’s still a fact – it’s a static fact – it doesn’t do anything.

So, in this system, dependent phenomena and thoroughly established phenomena – both are truly existent. They are not imaginary; they are not like the static category "elephant" involved in imagining an elephant. Their existence is established unimputedly by their individual defining characteristic marks on their own sides.

Dependent, Totally Conceptional, and Thoroughly Established Phenomena

But a voidness is not the same as a dependent phenomenon, because it lacks the same essential nature (ngo-bo) as a dependent phenomenon. That’s the terminology. Because when an arya focuses on a dependent phenomena – that’s not what brings liberation or enlightenment; it’s only when the arya focus on the voidness that does. So, in this system, dependent phenomena lack the type of existence that a totally conceptional phenomenon has, because it has some defining characteristic on its own side. And voidness lacks the type of nature (or the way of existing) of dependent phenomena, because although it does have a defining characteristic on its own side, it’s not a nonstatic phenomenon like a dependent one, and it’s not something that will not bring you liberation by focusing on it.

From this point of view, dependent phenomena are devoid of existing the way that totally conceptional phenomena exist, and thoroughly established phenomena are devoid of existing the way that dependent phenomena exist. I point this out – although this is rather difficult to understand, hearing it once like that – because this structure is going to be a very crucial thing in the other-voidness discussion.

[See: Basic Features of the Gelug Chittamatra System]

By the way, I’m following the traditional way of explaining, which is that all the sessions up to now were relatively fairly easy to understand; I’ve saved all the really difficult stuff for the last session. So be patient. Almost always, when you hear explanations from Tibetan lamas, particularly about topics like voidness, and people like His Holiness the Dalai Lama – the last session is the most, most difficult. And His Holiness will go through this difficult material the most quickly as well, because even if he went through it slowly, most people wouldn’t understand it anyway, and the people who could understand it – like the teachers who are present at the teachings – then this helps them, and then they can explain it much more slowly afterwards to the other students. This is the method here; so I’m following that.

Truly Established Existence in Madhyamaka Svatantrika

Svatantrika. Now this is within Madhyamaka and, again, we’re talking about the Gelug interpretation of it. According to this view, there is no such thing as truly established existence. Truly established existence, from their point of view, is – well, it’s phrased in a very complicated way, with many negatives in the way in which it’s phrased; so let’s simplify it, not give the exact way in which it is explained or the terminology works. It says things are not established just by an individual defining characteristic on the side of the object, but there has to be that in conjunction with being what a mental label refers to, labeled on that defining characteristic. So in short, then, the existence of something is not established merely by it being what a mental label refers to, and it’s not established merely by an individual defining characteristic on the side of the object that allows for the labeling, but it’s established by the combination of the two.

So there has to be a defining characteristic on the side of the object. Let’s say “me” – there has to be something that makes me “me” and not “you,” on the side of me. Chittamatra said there’s something on the side of me that makes me “me,” regardless of the me being what the word “me” refers to. Whereas Svatantrika is saying: well, no, there is this defining characteristic on the side of the object, but you have to also bring in the relation with the mind; and so it is what a word or concept refers to, based on it being labeled on this hook – on this individual defining characteristic. So what is me? Well, me is just what the word “me” refers to, but labeled onto this defining characteristic over here, on the side of the basis. And Prasangika comes and says that no, there is no defining characteristic on the side of the object that can be found. The only way to establish that something exists – How do you establish that it exists? We can’t actually point to it – there’s no referent “thing” that’s sort of sitting there, either just an appearance or whatever – it only is what a word or concept refers to.

So, for Svatantrika, truly established existence – which doesn’t exist – is existence established unimputedly. True existence in Svatantrika means unimputed. True existence would be if something could be established totally independently of what a word or concept refers to, just by its own characteristic on its own side; that’s impossible.

Truly Established Existence in Madhyamaka Prasangika

Prasangika says that even that is wrong, Because, for Svatantrika, non-truly established existence – in other words, in terms of what a word refers to – is still with a basis of this findable characteristic mark on the side of the object. For Svatantrika, when we say “So how do things exist? What establishes that they exist?” – it’s what a word refers to and a findable characteristic mark.

Prasangika says even that’s wrong. Things are established merely in terms of what a word or concept refers to. What is love? Merely what the word “love” refers to. Well, you can look up in the dictionary a definition, a defining characteristic, but that was made up by somebody. Each of us experience what we call love quite differently. what I experience and call love isn’t quite the same as what you might experience; and each time I experience it, it could be different. So what’s on the side of the emotion that makes it love? The only thing that establishes the existence of love is the word “love” – which, after all, is just a combination of meaningless sounds that somebody decided is a word and gave it meaning – and the definition, which also somebody made up.

Is there such a thing as love? Yes. Well, what is it? It’s what the word or concept “love” refers to. It’s referring to something. We experience it. But there is nothing that corresponds to this word or concept that’s sitting somewhere out there in our head – or who knows where – encapsulated in plastic, with a definition typed on it there, and there it is: that’s love. Because this is what a dictionary implies, doesn’t it? There’s all little categories, little boxes, and here’s the box out there of “love” and “kindness” and “happiness” and all these sorts of things. Things don’t exist in boxes like that from their own side. This is voidness. It’s an impossible way of existing that the referent “thing” in this box exists by itself, independently of anything – that it just sits there by its own power makes something what it is. This is the word tagtsam (btags-tsam, merely imputed).

So you can see from this progression of more and more subtle analyses of how things exist and how they don’t exist that our understanding of voidness – what’s impossible – gets more and more subtle. And obviously you have to work with this a tremendous amount of time to be able to actually see it – recognize it, as it were – within yourself; within your own experience. And surely most of us think that there must be something inside me that makes me “me.” This whole idea that I’m special. Or you’re special, when we are infatuated with something – there’s something on the side of you that makes you “you” and so special. No such thing. Nevertheless, everything is individual. That’s not so easy, that everything does retain its individuality, but its individuality is not established by something on the side of the object.

Conceptual and Non-conceptual Cognition of Voidness

Now on to the next point that we have to add to this, which is the difference between what’s called denumerable (rnam-grangs-pa’i don-dam) and non-denumerable ultimate phenomena (rnam-grangs ma-yin-pa’i don-dam). This differentiation comes in Svatantrika. “Denumerable” means that it can be counted among those things that can be known conceptually; “non-denumerable” means it cannot be counted among those things that can be known conceptually.

We’re talking about ultimate phenomena, so we’re talking about voidness. When you focus on voidness conceptually – this is Svatantrika – then there is a defining characteristic mark of voidness that appears. When you focus on it conceptually. That’s Svatantrika. It appears to exist truly just by the power of that, but it doesn’t. But when you focus on voidness non-conceptually, then no individual defining characteristic mark is there, just total absence. You’re focusing conceptually on voidness. So a category “voidness.” Now, conceptually, “voidness” – in order to apply that category, there’s a hook on the side of voidness (a defining characteristic mark) that allows me conceptually to focus on voidness. When non-conceptually (no category), no hook.

This type of terminology is then brought into the Prasangika explanation by Sakya, Nyingma, and Kagyu. Here the whole question is: How do you get a non-conceptual cognition of voidness? According to Gelugpa, you just understand the voidness of voidness. That’s it. Simple. Voidness is just what the word “voidness” refers to. There’s nothing on the side of voidness, because even conventionally when you focus conceptually on voidness there still isn’t something on the side of voidness.

Now non-Gelugpa, they’re saying when you focus on voidness, voidness of truly established existence, then conceptually you’re focusing on non-truly established existence. This is denumerable; it’s included or counted among things that are focused on conceptually. So, just as true existence seemed like a “thing,” now non-true existence seems like a “thing,” because you’re focusing on it through a category or conceptually. So if you’re focusing on just the absence of truly established existence, that’s going to stay conceptual; it’s a concept – I mean, it’s what the concept refers to, of “no such thing as truly established existence.” And the same thing if you think in terms of both truly and non-truly established, or neither truly or non-truly established. They’re on the same level here. These are denumerable.

When we focus non-conceptually on voidness, it’s actually a different voidness than the voidness of truly established existence. It is the voidness that – and this is the terminology they use – “voidness beyond words, beyond concepts.” For Gelugpa, denumerable and non-denumerable voidness is the same. For the non-Gelugpa, they’re quite different. It’s the same in Gelugpa Prasangika; and in non-Gelugpa they are different. You could debate back and forth, but actually if one looks more objectively at the thing, they’re really talking about the same thing. It’s just a matter of what you experience in meditation, and you describe it differently – what you experience in conceptual cognition of voidness, and what you’ve experienced in non-conceptual cognition of voidness. And how you are going to describe that? Are you going to describe that as the voidness of voidness in your non-conceptual experience, or are you going to describe it as “Well, it was beyond words, beyond concepts.”

Two Views of Self-Voidness

Within self-voidness we have these two types of positions, then, which would be that we’re talking about a manner of establishing existence, either that it is merely in terms of what mental labeling refers to – So that is in conjunction with what establishes it. It’s in conjunction with conceptual thought. In other words, everything can be known conceptually. That doesn’t mean that they have to be known conceptually – you can know them non-conceptually – but the only way you can establish the existence of something is that there is a word for it; there is a concept for it. What establishes that something exists is merely what a word or label refers to; that’s connected to conceptual thought – when we are working with words and concepts and labels. Phenomena are not created by mental labeling. When we feel love, we feel love; it doesn’t matter whether you say “Love love love” in your mind or not. So, although things of course can be known non-conceptually, the only way to establish that anything exists is that there’s a word for it or a concept for it, and it’s what the word or concept refers to. So self-voidness: devoid of something on the side of the object that establishes its existence, or that there’s a findable referent “thing” corresponding to the label.

The other view of self-voidness here is that the manner of existence of voidness is devoid of… in other words what can be expressed by the deepest manner of existence, or what would be known non-conceptually… is devoid of what can be expressed by words and concepts (what can be known by words or concepts). It is beyond words and concepts. The voidness is devoid of being something that can be known conceptually – that can be put in words or concepts. So it’s devoid of being truly existent, or not truly existent, or both, or neither. So here we use the negating word: it’s beyond (‘das-pa) that. And in Gelugpa you use another negating word, which is it’s devoid of being truly existent, non-truly existent, and making a “thing” out of any of these positions.


Now we get another voidness view here, which is referring now to the clear light mind. And the clear light mind is also beyond the level of mind that deals with words and concepts. So when we talk about “beyond words and concepts,” then we can either talk about how something exists, or we can understand it in terms of a mind – a level of mind that is beyond the level of mind with words and concepts.

When we talk about the level of mind that is beyond words and concepts, that’s getting into other-voidness. Now there are many views of other-voidness. You can speak of this clear light mind beyond words and concepts: its manner of existence is void of true existence. Mipam, for example, within Nyingma, says that. Or you have a position in which this other-voidness, this clear light mind, also its way of existing is beyond words and concepts. So, for instance, the Third Karmapa says that. So we have various views of self-voidness, various views of other-voidness, by mixing in this whole thing of “beyond words and concepts.”

Now we get some complication here. The complication is that in these other-voidness views they tend to use the Chittamatra terminology, but used with different meanings. So, you recall, we – in Chittamatra – were speaking about how dependent phenomena are devoid of being like the totally conceptional phenomena, and thoroughly established are devoid of being like dependent phenomena. Now in Gelug Prasangika, you can use these terms with reference to one phenomenon. So, in terms of this phenomenon, what is thoroughly established is its voidness (that’s its deepest truth); what is dependant is its conventional truth or relative truth; and what’s totally conceptional is its appearance of true existence.

Now other-voidness. We can also use this type of terminology. And so dependent phenomena are devoid of being like totally conceptional. Totally conceptional are things that you know just conceptually, and dependent phenomena are things that you can know non-conceptually. So the ones that you know non-conceptually that arise from causes and circumstances, these aren’t like things that you know conceptually. So when we are aware of a dependent phenomenon, something that arises from causes and conditions, like my hand – I’m seeing it non-conceptually, so it’s devoid of conceptual thought. And the clear light mind here in this other-voidness system, that’s thoroughly established. That’s devoid of even this dependent phenomenon; in other words, our grosser levels of mind with non-conceptual cognition, like seeing the hand through the eyes – through eye consciousness.

Now that’s okay. That’s okay. However, you get into trouble when instead of understanding what I just explained from an epistemological point of view – in other words, from the point of view of ways of knowing – if you now understand this only in an ontological point of view – in other words, from the point of view of ways of existing – then there’s some problem here if you assert – and this is where objections to other-voidness come up from the self-voidness points of view – if you assert that this clear light mind, its way of existing is (if you understand the word “beyond” as meaning “not”) beyond truly existent, non-truly existent, both, or neither. Right? Non-denumerable. Can’t be included in any of these.

So if we look at these dependent phenomena, like my hand and so on, that’s not truly existent. And just imagine true existence doesn’t even exist at all. Right? It’s totally conceptional. But the problem is: when you say that the clear light mind is beyond being non-truly existent, then – if you understand the word “beyond” to be a negation – then that means that what is not truly existent must be truly existent. And so the big objection here with the other-voidness position is that it is explained unclearly, usually. This is the big objection, that really what you’re saying here – because you’re not explaining yourself clearly – is that there is a truly existent, transcendent realm, transcendent existence clear light mind, and everything else doesn’t really exist. And you have reduced the system to, basically, Vedanta: Brahman, that’s truly existent, the whole big thing; and everything, our relative world, that’s all illusion – that doesn’t exist at all.

Nobody wants to accept responsibility for this incorrect view. So the Gelugpas accuse the Kagyus – the Karma Kagyus, specifically – of holding this wrong view. And the Karma Kagyus say “We don’t hold that view. That is the wrong view of Jonangpas.” And the Jonangpas say “We don’t hold that wrong view. That is the wrong view of just some stupid people.” That’s like the Buddhists accusing the Bonpos of animal sacrifice, and the Bonpos saying, “We never did that. That was something before Bon in Tibet.”

So these are some of the issues involved with self- and other-voidness. And, as I said in the very beginning, we have to be a little bit careful, particularly when we deal with other-voidness views, because often, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama points out, the way in which it is described by the great masters in the texts is often a bit unclear and a bit confusing. their meditation experience might have been very valid, but their way of writing was not the best.

Negation Phenomena

I’ve left out one large piece of the whole discussion, but we don’t really have time, and it is even more complicated than what I’ve just been discussing – and this has to do with negation phenomena (dgag-pa). But that would have to wait for another time. That topic deals with different types of objects and how you know them. There’s quite a difference between knowing that “this is a cup” and, when I hold up my watch, “this is not a cup.” How do you know it’s not a cup? This is this whole topic of negation phenomena, and that’s very relevant to the discussion of “not truly existent” – how in the world do you know that? This whole issue of negation phenomena is, as I say, also very essential to the whole debate about self- and other-voidness.

[See: Negation Phenomena: How to Focus on Emptiness]

Common Ground between the Different Views

But if we look in a non-prejudiced way at the various views of self-voidness and other-voidness, acknowledging (as everybody does) that there is in fact an incorrect view of other-voidness – and nobody will say that that’s what we believe – but acknowledging that there is an incorrect view of other-voidness, if we look at what is a correct view of other-voidness, then there’s no problem in terms of describing what we need to understand, what we need to achieve in order to achieve enlightenment: namely, a clear light mind with a non-conceptual cognition of voidness.


So to sum up: to go back to some points that I made in the very first lecture, which is that if our attitude toward all this topic that we have been discussing – particularly this last session – is that “This is too much. I can’t understand this. Why is it so complicated?” and so on, then we’re not ready to understand voidness yet. As the great Indian masters have said, you’ve got to love this topic, and love all the intricacies about it, in order to really have a mind that is open enough to really investigate it and understand it. Otherwise, you have no interest whatsoever in meditating on it. But if we have a strong enough motivation, we understand that it really is necessary to understand all of this. It’s not so simple, but if I really want to eliminate not just my suffering but help to eliminate everybody else’s suffering, I need to understand that. Then by building up more positive force, by thinking more about the beginning topics (impermanence and stuff like that), and with inspiration from a spiritual teacher, eventually we will develop a strong enough interest and state of mind that’s receptive enough to really delve into this.

So please try to avoid what everybody identifies as the incorrect other-voidness point of view, which is to make the clear light mind (or some pure land, or some transcendent realm) a lazy man’s situation – that you just have to pray hard enough or find the great guru with all the superpowers, and then we just immediately get transferred to this transcendent paradise and everything will be perfect and nice. That is a myth. So, as the saying goes, “Resistance is futile!” – there is no easy, lazy man’s way of out of samsara.

One last question.

Do all schools agree that emptiness is beyond conceptual thought?

No, they don’t. All schools agree that it’s necessary to have a non-conceptual cognition of voidness. And, as I was explaining with these denumerable and non-denumerable ultimate phenomena, some say that the voidness that you understand conceptually and non-conceptually is the same voidness, and some say it’s not. But everybody agrees that you have to understand voidness non-conceptually. And even those schools that speak about voidness beyond words and concepts, one has to have – totally essential – conceptual cognition of voidness first in order to have the non-conceptual cognition of voidness beyond that. This is where the negation phenomenon comes in: in order to know “not a cup,” first you have to know “cup.”

Okay. So then let us end here with a dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from all this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for understanding this topic deeply, and fully, and eventually nonconceptually, so that we can actually gain liberation and enlightenment for the benefit of all.