Analysis of Emptiness for Mahamudra Meditation

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We have now covered the meditation on the superficial or conventional nature of the mind or mental activity. Now we’re ready to look a little bit at the meditation on the deepest nature of the mind.

The Two Natures of the Mind or Two Truths about the Mind

When we talk about these two natures, we’re talking about the two truths about mind. These are two facts that are true about the mind. In the Hinayana tenet systems, when we talk about the two truths, we are talking about two different types of true phenomena. Whereas when we are speaking in the Mahayana context about the two truths, we’re talking about two truths concerning one phenomenon. They are both true, and they are inseparable, you can’t have one without the other.

Because, at least in English, the words “absolute” and “ultimate” imply that it’s more true than the other true fact; and also the word “absolute,” at least in English, has the additional misleading connotation that it doesn’t depend on anything else – there are some schools within Tibetan Buddhism, and I shouldn’t say schools, I should say some authors, some masters who do use those terms in such a way that what I call “deepest truth” becomes for them like a transcendent realm almost, so in that sense it becomes almost absolute – but certainly in the Gelug context that is not the case. But that’s a long discussion in terms of why you have these various differences in the different Tibetan schools and among the different Tibetan masters, and we don’t have so much time to go into that. But here we have two true facts about mind. One is on the surface, what does it appear to be, and the other is when you look deeper, how does it actually exist. Both are true. And when we look at the deepest nature of the mind, what it is referring to, of course is its voidness.

Negations – Negatingly Known Phenomena

Voidness is a negation. It’s a negatingly known phenomenon. Remember, we were talking about what exists and what doesn’t exist. What exists can be validly known. What doesn’t exist cannot be validly known. What exists, what can be validly known, can be known either in an affirming way, or in a negating way. So, what can be known in an affirming way, or an affirmation phenomenon, would be “table.” You don’t have to know anything beforehand in order to know “table.” A negatingly known phenomenon would be “not a chair.” In order to know “not a chair,” you have to know “chair” beforehand and it is excluded, it’s negated.

And of course that becomes a very, very interesting topic in terms of learning theory. How does a baby learn “food,” how does a baby learn “not food?” These sort of things. It becomes very interesting, actually. But in any case, voidness is a negatingly known phenomenon, it is excluding something. There are two types of negatingly known phenomena: one that implies something, or an implicative one, and one which is a nonimplicative one, that doesn’t imply something. What it means literally, if we look at the actual Tibetan definition, there is a negating phenomenon that leaves something behind it, and there’s one which doesn’t leave something behind it.

I’m trying to find a clear example. “Not a table cloth.” “Not a table cloth” leaves behind it that it’s something else. It’s not a table cloth, it’s a glass. I’m looking for a table cloth all over the house, and I look at this thing, I look at that thing, I look at that thing, that’s not a table cloth, that’s not a table cloth, not a table cloth, not a table cloth, not a table cloth. It’s something else, it leaves something behind. But then finally we talk about “there is no table cloth.” “There is no table cloth.” doesn’t leave anything behind. So, one is called an implicative negation, the other is called a nonimplicative negation. So, voidness is a nonimplicative negation, it’s saying, “there is no... blah, blah, blah.”

Now, when we talk about “There is no blah, blah, blah,” then we can talk about “There is no table cloth,” that’s something that exists, or we can talk about “There is no invader from the fifth dimension,” which is something that doesn’t exist. Voidness is a nonimplicative negation of something that doesn’t exist.

In addition, when we talk about the absence of something that doesn’t exist, we can speak about the absence of an object that doesn’t exist, or a manner of existing that doesn’t exist. Voidness is talking about the absence of a manner of existence that does not exist. There is no such thing as an impossible way of existing, to put it into simple language.

And so there is a total absence of this impossible way of existing, it never existed. It’s not like “There is no dog in the room,” and the dog might be outside, it just left for a little while, we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about something that never existed, “There’s no such thing!”

This study of these negation phenomena can be very far-reaching and actually is very helpful to enable us to do voidness meditation correctly.

Ways of Establishing the Existence of Something

Now, there are many ways of discussing this topic; and when we talk about impossible ways of existing, that is a very general way of translating our terms here. We’re not talking so much about a way of existing as such; we’re talking more about a way of establishing the existence of something. For the sake of our translator who knows Tibetan we’re not talking about denpar-yopa (bden-par yod-pa), we’re talking about denpar-drubpa (bden-par grub-pa). Drubpa means to establish something, to prove something. What establishes, what proves, what makes something exist?

Is there something on the side of the object that establishes that it exists or not? How do we know that something exists? This becomes a very interesting question. How do you know that these chairs are in this room when we’re out of the room? How do you know that? What establishes that they’re in the room? When you open the door and you look, you can see it, so it’s established from the side of the mind, it’s not established from the side of the chair. Or you have a camera, or some sort of mechanical device that is recording it. So how do you know? You look at what the mechanical device says, so it still involves the mind.

This is our whole discussion here. Obviously we can get far more refined than just these introductory remarks, but that is the topic of discussion of voidness, “what establishes that something exists?” And what we are negating here is impossible ways of establishing that something exists.

This room is filled with atoms and force fields, subatomic particles, energy fields, it doesn’t matter, electromagnetic energy, all this sort of stuff. What establishes that this group of atoms is a body? Is there some sort of plastic coating around this group of atoms and this group of electromagnetic energy that encapsulates and makes it into an object separate from the atoms of the air around? Is there?

It isn’t any plastic bag, but it’s a question of vibration of atoms.

OK, so it isn’t a plastic coating, it’s a question of vibration of atoms. Well, where is the boundary? What sets the boundary between the vibration of the atoms or the energy that constitute the body and that constitute the air? Where is the boundary?

The amount of vibration is so small in a material body that it became material.

OK, so the amount of vibration is small in our body. So if it’s one micro-microvibration more or less, then it’s not the body, then it is the body? It’s an absolute number? What makes an object red? What establishes that the color of that object over there is red? Is there something on the side of the object, a little label that says “red?” In the light spectrum are there boundaries that are solidly there? Walls that say this vibration more than that number is red and less than that number is orange? Does that exist on the side of the light spectrum?

There is no such thing. That doesn’t establish that that’s red.

There’s no straight boundary.

There are no straight boundaries and of course every society is going to divide the color spectrum differently. Even individuals will divide the color spectrum differently. The shirt that she’s wearing – I’m sure if we ask a whole group of people, some people will call it green, and some people will call it blue. Which one is it?


And some people will call it turquoise. So, what establishes these things? And here we get into the whole realm of mental labeling. What establishes that something exists, even just as a knowable object, let alone as what it is – red or orange – is mental labeling. Then we have to understand what mental labeling means.

Mental Labeling

Mental labeling can also be called “imputation.” “Impute” means to put something onto something else. Now, we have a mental label, we have a basis for labeling, and then we have the referent object of the label (btags-chos). These aren’t easy words to translate.

What would be an example?

There’s the word “red,” that’s a label, which after all is just an acoustic pattern that a group of cave people decided, “Ah, we’re going to make this acoustic pattern into a word and we’re going to give it a certain meaning.” It’s totally arbitrary. The words are totally made up by a group of people and adopted as a convention. That’s why we talk about “conventional” truth.

The basis for labeling (gdags-gzhi) is vibrations of the light spectrum between a certain part of the spectrum, between this part and that part. Actually this isn’t scientifically accurate, because somebody was telling me that colors are actually just really a mental thing, that there isn’t actually colors, so we’re just talking about light. But let’s just leave this on the child level of understanding of colors.

So, now the referent object of the label would be red. In other words, what does the word “red” refer to? It refers to red on the basis of these vibrations. So, it’s the conventional object red, or here we’re talking about a quality.

Let’s use a grosser example. “Sasha” is a name, a word; and there’s a basis for labeling that, a body, mind, feelings, etc. So, who’s Sasha? Sasha is not the word “Sasha,” it’s not the name “Sasha,” Sasha is not the body, or the mind. So, what’s Sasha? Sasha is what the word “Sasha” refers to on the basis of this body and mind. And there is a conventionally existent person Sasha. Take a moment to digest that.


What is the difference then between the basis for labeling and the conventionally existent Sasha, the referent object?

This is a very important point. What is the difference between the basis for labeling and the referent object of the label? That is a very crucial thing, that the basis for labeling is not identical with the referent object of the label. They’re not exactly the same, they don’t make one identical thing, they’re not one ping-pong ball, nor are they two totally separate independent ping-pong balls not relating to each other.

Can we say that by putting a label on the basis we get a referent object?

That’s a very important question. When we talk about mental labeling here, we’re not talking about the active process of labeling. It’s not an active process. It doesn’t require somebody actively mentally labeling something in order to create a referent object of a label. What establishes that the earth existed before there were any living beings on the earth? Well, what is the earth? It’s what the word “earth” refers to on the basis of a planet. Does it matter whether or not somebody was there to label it “earth?” No.

But here in that example maybe that’s a little bit misleading, because “earth” is a name, and obviously different societies could call it by a different name. So, more importantly, more subtly – what establishes that it was a knowable phenomenon? It could be known, it doesn’t require somebody being there and knowing it. What the word “knowable object” refers to on the basis of this “thing.” A “knowable object,” that’s just a concept as well, that’s a label.

The earth was functioning regardless of sentient beings being there or not being there?

Right. The earth was functioning regardless of beings being there or not, regardless of beings experiencing it or not. But if we ask, what is the earth? What establishes the earth? What establishes it is the label “earth,” what establishes it is the label “knowable thing,” and so on, on the basis of a basis for labeling. And it was a knowable object regardless of whether or not anybody knew it. It’s what the word “knowable object,” it’s what the word “existent thing” refers to on the basis of a basis for labeling.

Now, one has to be very careful here and this starts to get very subtle. The basis for labeling doesn’t exist like some sort of blank cassette and we come along with the label and put the label on it. The basis for labeling itself is what a label refers to and it itself dependently arises in terms of mental labeling. I labeled “Sasha” on the basis of a body and mind. But what’s the body? The body is also labeled in terms of its parts. What are the parts? They’re labels in terms of the atoms; they’re labeled in terms of... it just goes on and on.

Now, we have to differentiate the referent object of a label from the referent “thing” of the label. That’s how I’m translating tagcho versus tagdon (btags-don). In English I call it the “referent object,” which would be the conventionally existent thing; and the referent “thing.” A referent “thing” doesn’t exist. A referent “thing” would be an actual thing on the side of the object that by its own power makes it an existent thing, or makes it a table, or makes it Sasha. So an actual findable Sasha on the side of Sasha, that would be the referent “thing,” the tagdon – there are two different words in Tibetan – as opposed to tagcho, which is the conventionally existent referent of the word “Sasha.”

Truly Established Existence

What would be truly established existence? Truly established existence is existence established by a referent “thing” findable on the side of the basis for labeling.

That’s what true existence is?

That is what true existence is and that is what is impossible. When we talk about “no such thing as truly established existence,” we’re talking about the absence of existence established by a findable referent “thing” on the side of the basis for labeling. And what’s impossible is that this referent “thing” on the side of the basis by its own power makes “me” me, or makes something some thing, or by its power in conjunction with the mental labeling makes “me” me.

It’s like really funny. We all think like this, in this incorrect way. We think that there is some me, a real findable me, “I have to find myself. If I can find myself, if I can find who I really am, then I’ll be OK.” So, it is as if there were a referent “thing,” a me inside me that I could find and which makes “me” me, it makes me a unique individual. And then, when I find it, I have to express it, express the real me. I have to share it with the world, be creative, prove that I exist. We even speak in terms of that, “the real me,” the truly existent me. This is what is impossible, and there isn’t a real me by its own power that is making “me” me, findable, sitting somewhere inside my head or my body or something like that. And it’s not something which is sort of like a hook that if you labeled it “me,” then it would light something, “Now I’m me.”

So those objects have no referent object, like those invaders from the fifth dimension, so they haven’t in fact any existence then. How is it with these things that have no referent object?

Well, this is a very interesting question. When we talk about invaders from the fifth dimension, do they have any existence? Or if we talk about true existence, truly established existence, does it have any existence? This gets very complicated and there are many different explanations for this. It’s the topic of “cognition of nonexistent phenomena” and Gelugpa and non-Gelugpa disagree, or analyze it differently.

[See: The Appearance and Cognition of Nonexistent Phenomena]

Cognition of Nonexistent Phenomena

How do we cognize a nonexistent phenomenon. Do we cognize the invader from the fifth dimension or the appearance of true existence, or do we cognize something that represents it? Now, anything that we cognize, we cognize through a mental representation. Remember, we were talking about mental holograms. We’re not talking about where there’s no appearance; let’s talk about where there is an appearance. Now, the question is: what are the causes and conditions for the arising of that mental hologram?

In the case of the arising of a mental hologram of Sasha, there’s an externally existent object, it’s called the “focal condition” for the arising of that mental hologram, what one focuses on in order to have the cognition. In the case of a mental hologram of an invader from the fifth dimension, or of true existence, there’s no external object acting as the focal condition for this. This is arising from what’s called a “cause for hallucination” in the context of seeing an invader from the fifth dimension or a pink elephant; or in the case of appearances of true existence caused by the constant habits (bag-chags) of grasping for true existence.

So, the Gelugpa Prasangika gets into a whole interesting discussion of “Do hallucinations exist?” And they say that, “Yes, they do exist as mental holograms, and they could even be known accurately,” in the sense that “I accurately cognize this as a hallucination of an invader from the fifth dimension, and not as a pink elephant.” Nevertheless, it’s of something that doesn’t exist at all. There are no actual invaders from the fifth dimension.

This starts to become very, very profound and very deep when one investigates this from the point of view of true existence. Just because true existence appears doesn’t establish that true existence itself exists. An appearance of true existence exists, and we can accurately identify “This is an appearance of true existence,” even though true existence doesn’t exist.

Tsongkhapa makes a big deal out of this. This is the background of his whole discussion on identifying the object to be negated. The non-Gelugpas say, “Come on, this is ridiculous. It doesn’t exist at all, so how can you identify something that doesn’t exist?” To this whole point, this radical thing that Tsongkhapa made, that it’s so important that the first step in voidness meditation is to identify the object to be refuted (dgag-bya), they’re saying, “Well, you’re talking about something that doesn’t exist at all.” Tsongkhapa says, “Yes, but you can accurately identify the appearance of true existence.”

It becomes even more interesting, because you can mentally label true existence. What is true existence? It’s what the term “true existence” refers to. But now we bring in another technical term, the zhenyul (zhen-yul), the conceptually implied object doesn’t exist. In other words, actually conventionally existent true existence doesn’t exist. What is true existence? It’s what the term “true existence” refers to. Does it conventionally exist? No. So here, the tagcho and the zhenyul are not the same – the referent object of the label and the conceptually implied object of the label are not the same.

For most of us on a beginning level, this detailed discussion is perhaps not too helpful or necessary. But since the translator is also a translator of Tibetan, then these technical terms are not so easy to work with and get a grasp on and they are really quite specific in their definitions, what they’re talking about, and one has to be quite clear about it. But I think that we can at least appreciate that the philosophical analysis here is very, very precise and, if we want to understand the voidness of the mind here in mahamudra meditation, that we really need to have studied quite well the teachings on voidness in order to be able to apply them.

The Existence of Mind Cannot Be Established by Findable Defining Characteristic Features in It

Now, what are we talking about here in the context of mahamudra? First of all, the Fourth Panchen Lama divides his discussion of voidness into two parts. We have grasping for an impossible soul of a person and grasping for an impossible soul of all phenomena – “soul” I’m using as a translation of atman, because “self” sounds a little bit silly here. There’s an impossible soul or impossible self of a person and of phenomena. So when we’re doing this meditation, there is the appearance of an impossible me doing the meditation, and there’s an appearance of an impossible mind, impossibly existent mind, that we’re meditating on. And there’s the appearance-making, from at least the habits of these, appearance-making of an impossible me, in this case a truly existent me, and the appearance-making of truly existent mind. So, the refutation here is first of the false me, and then of the falsely existent mind.

OK, now there’s a big discussion. We don’t have to go into tremendous detail since we don’t have so much time, but a little bit of detail. So this discussion is refutation of truly existent me, who’s doing the meditating, and then refutation of a truly existent mind, which is the object upon which we are meditating here. And in Gelug Prasangika the impossible way that both of these seem to exist in is the same, the object of refutation is the same, the impossible way of existing.

We talk about mind, for example. Then what is mind? Well, it’s what the word “mind” refers to on the basis of a stream of continuity of moments of experience. And each of those moments is made up of micromoments and each of those are made up of micro-micromoments and there’s no partless basis, no ultimately findable basis. So what’s mind is the referent object of this word or concept that some people made up in relation to this basis of labeling.

Now, rather than thinking that it is what the word “mind” refers to when it is labeled on this basis, which brings up your whole question of: do you have to have somebody actively labeling it? Rather than that, it’s perhaps more accurate and less misleading to speak of this in terms of dependent arising, the way His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains this. So it is what the word “mind” refers to, dependent on or in relation to a basis for labeling.

That’s a little bit more accurate. Something arises as a basis for labeling dependent on a label and a label arises dependent on a basis for labeling. They both mutually arise dependent on each other. The label and the referent object and the basis all arise dependently on each other. So, what’s mind? It’s the referent object of the word “mind” in relation to these moments of experience. Is there a referent “thing,” mind, somewhere on the side of each moment of experience that we can find there? No.

Now, the next step with that thought: is existence established by some individual defining characteristics (rang-gi mtshan-nyid-kyis grub-pa)? Remember, we had the defining characteristic of mind: mere arising and engaging, mere clarity and awareness. So is there this defining characteristic sitting there, findable inside each moment that’s making it mind? No.

We could say that the existence of mind would be established through such a defining characteristic, if there were such a thing as a findable defining characteristic inside the mind, but there is no such thing. Even the defining characteristics are just a convention. Somebody made it up and there it is in the dictionary. That becomes very, very significant in our meditation, because we have identified the defining characteristic of mind in our first step, and then we have to realize that you can’t find that defining characteristic, that that itself is a convention.

Take a moment to swallow that.


So, conventionally there are objects such as mind; conventionally there are defining characteristics, like “mere arising of a cognitive object and engaging with it.” But nothing can be found on the side of the object, or on the side of the basis, neither the object itself, a referent “thing,” or the actual defining characteristics. And despite all of that, it still functions, mind still functions. It brings us samsara and it brings us nirvana.