Tantra: A Union of Method and Wisdom

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We were speaking about gaining conviction in the efficiency of the tantra path so that we can engage in it with our full hearts. In order to gain that conviction, it’s necessary to understand why tantra is more efficient than sutra and how it actually works so that we would want to become involved with it and engage in its practice. We were analyzing this in a four-part scheme and were speaking about it in terms of the four classes of tantra in general. The four-part scheme is, first, that the path is closer to the resultant stage. The second point is that within that path, there’s a closer union of method and discriminating awareness, or method and wisdom. For the discriminating awareness of voidness, the third point is that there’s a special basis for that voidness, and the fourth point is that there’s a special level of mental activity for focusing on that voidness.

We covered the first point, which was that the path that we practice is closer to the resultant stage, so it’s more efficient for reaching that resultant stage. What we do is we imagine now that we are already at that resultant point, which is very much connected with bodhichitta because, with bodhichitta, we are aiming at our future attainment of enlightenment further down on our mental continuums. Here we are imagining that we’re there already, so this entails very much the understanding of voidness and imputation phenomena. The conventional “me” is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of our entire mental continuum. That would include the point on that mental continuum when all the obscurations will be removed and there is the attainment of that resultant state, the state that we are aiming for with bodhichitta to benefit everyone.

When we speak about mental labeling, or more precisely, conceptual labeling, we’re talking about the concept or category “me” also as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of our entire mental continuum. The existence of the conventional “me” can only be established as being merely what the concept or category “me” refers to as conceptually labeled on this basis. When we understand this, we understand that the conventional “me” is devoid of existing as a truly inherently existent “me,” self-established as something separate from the aggregates of this mental continuum, ruling over them, and that there’s something findable inside me that makes me uniquely “me.” Understanding this helps us to avoid any extremes of, basically, the insanity of thinking that we actually are a Buddha now, like imagining that we’re Jesus Christ, or we’re Napoleon or Cleopatra.

This point of the path being closer to the result is manifest firstly in terms of imagining that we have a purified body; in other words, we’re appearing in the form of a Buddha-figure, with our speech being that of mantras. The pure environment is the second point, which is that everything around us is this mandala environment. The mandala refers to the palace and also the grounds around it, which can be very extensive to the size of the universe. The third point is that our way of experiencing things is with a joy that is not mixed with confusion – that’s sometimes called “uncontaminated” joy; “contaminated” I find not a very nice word, so “untainted” is what I usually use, a joy that is untainted by grasping for truly self-established existence. The fourth point is that we are able to act in the way that a Buddha acts – with enlightening influence. We’re able to quiet down others and their difficulties and discomfort; we’re able to stimulate their good qualities to grow, we’re able to bring everybody under control in the sense of their being able to work together, and we’re able to forcefully stop dangerous situations. We’re able to do all those effortlessly, just by our very presence, our way of being.

In tantra practice, we imagine all of this simultaneously. We are appearing as this Buddha-figure, reciting mantras in this environment of a mandala, making offerings that give untainted joy to others, feeling joy ourselves when offering them to ourselves, and emanating lights out to others, not only making offerings to them but also influencing them in these four positive ways that help others. All of this is, as I said, not a lie. It’s not self-deception, because we know that we’re not there yet, but all of this is nevertheless a valid basis for the imputation phenomenon “me.” That was the first point we covered.

In Tantra, a Closer Union of Method and Discriminating Awareness 

Let’s go on to the second point, which is that, within that pathway of practice, we have a closer union of method and discriminating awareness. As we said at the beginning of this discussion, what we want to do in our practice, of course as a Mahayana practice, is to achieve the body and mind of a Buddha in order to benefit others, if we put it in brief. The body and mind of a Buddha are inseparable. If one is the case, the other is also the case. We can’t just have a mind. We can’t just have a body. We can’t just have mental activity. We can’t just have a physical basis for that mental activity that is supporting it, the energy of it. The two are describing the same phenomenon from different points of view.

The practices of method and discriminating awareness, or wisdom, focus on these two sides of mental activity, the physical and the mental. In other words, method focuses on the physical side as the main cause that is going to give rise to the body of a Buddha, the appearance side, because with the body, we help others and so on – that’s the method side. Discriminating awareness, or wisdom, focuses on the mental side as the main cause for the mind of a Buddha. 

Because on a resultant level, we want to have body and mind together inseparably, not just one at a time, then similarly, if we can practice method and wisdom, or method and discriminating awareness, together in one moment of mental activity and maintain that, that will be a much more efficient way of bringing about the result – having a body and mind together in each moment – than practicing the two separately.

In Sutra, Method and Wisdom Have Two Different Ways of Cognitively Taking Their Object 

The issue is how closely can we get these two practices linked? In other words, can we have them both in one moment of mental activity? In sutra, it’s not possible to do this. In sutra, we take as our principal method, compassion. We take as the principal type of discriminating awareness, the discriminating awareness of voidness. The two of these are quite different types of mental activity or minds. 

If we want to specify a type of mental activity, a moment of mental activity, then we need to specify two things, Tsongkhapa says, in accord with the two aspects of mental activity. In terms of appearance-making, what is the appearance that is the focal object of the cognition, and in terms of cognizing, how does the mind take it, how does it cognize it.

We need to know those two things. If we know those two things, then we can generate that type of mental activity, that moment of mind. Otherwise, it’s very difficult. If we’re told to meditate on bodhichitta, how do we do that? If we want to actually have single-minded concentration on bodhichitta, what is that state of mind? What is that mental activity that we would want to do in each moment? 

Well, what is it focused on? It’s focused on enlightenment, and it’s not enlightenment in general, not Buddha’s enlightenment, it’s our own individual future enlightenment that we have not yet attained. That’s what it’s focusing on, and how does it take it? It cognizes it with an intention, the intention to attain it and the intention to benefit others by means of that attainment. That specifies what it is that we’re trying to generate. Otherwise, it’s too vague. It could just devolve into a “May everybody be happy” state of mind, which is not at all what bodhichitta is.

Here, the point is that one moment of mental activity can only have one way of cognitively taking an object. One moment of a cognition cannot have two different, disharmonious ways of cognitively taking an object. This point is very relevant in terms of how can we put together method and wisdom in one moment of mental activity. If our primary method and our primary wisdom, our discriminating awareness, have two different ways of cognitively taking an object, then even if they’re focused on the same object, the two cannot occur simultaneously in one cognition. That’s the key to understanding this whole discussion.

Even if method and wisdom are focused on the same object, let’s say sentient beings – compassion, may they be happy, and voidness, they are devoid of existing in impossible ways – we can’t have the two simultaneously in one moment of a single cognition because their ways of cognitively taking that object are completely different. When compassion as method is focused on sentient beings and their suffering, the way of taking them is, “May they be free of their suffering.” That is the dominant mental factor that is going to flavor the way of taking that object while giving rise to an appearance of sentient beings.

Whereas with voidness, not only are we not actually focusing on the conventional appearance of sentient beings, what we’re focusing on is an absence, sort of like blank space, and the way of taking it is to understand that what that represents is the total absence of any impossible ways of existing for those sentient beings. Sentient beings don’t even appear if we’re doing it properly – of course, that’s quite advanced if they don’t appear – in any case, that’s not our main focus, it is not on their appearance, it’s focusing on the absence of impossible ways of existing for them. 

Focusing compassion on sentient beings and focusing the understanding of voidness on them are very different types of mental activities. Do you follow that? We can’t have those two simultaneously. We can alternate them, but we can’t have them simultaneously. That’s the sutra approach.

In sutra, you’re alternating between trying to see things in a conventional way, dealing with the compassion or method side, and then trying to understand the ultimate way things exist on the deepest level. Is that the dichotomy or split you’re talking about?

Yes, we practice the two one at a time, method and wisdom. We work with compassion and alternate it with working with voidness. It’s not a dichotomy in the sense of a dualism, with a big division between the two, but what we want to do in sutra is to have each be held by the force of the other.

Is it the case that the more we develop compassion, the more we are able to see voidness, understand voidness, and gain that wisdom? And the more that we see voidness, the more compassionate we become?

Well, yes, we could say that, in a sense, but we need to understand what that means. What that means is that the more compassionate we become, the more positive force we build up, and as a result of that positive force, or merit as it were, some of our mental blocks – the obscurations that would prevent us from understanding voidness – break down. In that sense, our minds become more open for seeing voidness. 

On the other side, when we see that things don’t exist in impossible ways, when we understand their voidness, then we understand that everything is interdependent – dependent arising in the most general sense of everything being interdependent. And because we’re all interdependent, that would naturally lead to compassion for everyone because we’re all interconnected – for example, everyone has been our mother. In that sense, one would lead to the other. This is the way that it would be explained in the Gelug tradition, and that would be valid for any type of practice, sutra or tantra. 

There are other approaches. In the Nyingma presentation of dzogchen, as we get down to the deeper and deeper levels of mental activity, there’s a sort of a quality of mental activity that is naturally compassionate, but we have to understand what compassion means in that context. It’s not, “May everybody be free of suffering,” but rather there is a responsiveness of mental activity to others. 

In Zen, it’s again slightly different. As we quiet down and get to a basic zazen state of mind, then in line with some branches of traditional Chinese philosophy, we naturally feel love and compassion. 

As I was saying, in sutra, the way that we put together method and wisdom, compassion and discriminating awareness of voidness, is that each is held by the force of the other. It is a little bit like – I don’t know if this is correct in terms of physics, but – the “momentum” of our compassion meditation will carry on as an underlying flavor while we do voidness meditation, so it’s not manifest. Similarly, the momentum of our meditation on voidness will carry on as underlying our meditation on compassion, although it won’t be manifest at the same time in one moment of mental activity. 

That’s the best that we can do in sutra, and that is the way that we practice, and, of course, it’s effective and helpful. But in tantra, we want to be able to bring the two together as best as we can in one moment of mental activity so that it will be a more efficient cause for achieving the result, which is to have the body and mind of a Buddha, which are simultaneous in each moment; that’s the whole purpose.

Combining Method and Wisdom in Tantra 

If we speak about tantra in general, then rather than compassion as a method, we have the body of a Buddha-figure as a method. That doesn’t mean that we do not have compassion and bodhichitta as methods. They are there, but in addition, we have an uncommon method. That uncommon method – not shared with sutra – is to imagine that we have the form of a Buddha Body, which obviously is a closer cause to having an actual body of a Buddha, with which we help others with our compassion, love and bodhichitta. So, this is method here. Wisdom, discriminating awareness, is the same – the understanding of voidness.

Here we can have method and wisdom in one moment of mental activity, but it’s important to understand what we mean by that. When we focus on voidness, there’s no appearance of truly established existence. Now, unless we’re working in the highest class of tantra with the clear light subtlest level of mental activity, then any time other than focusing on voidness, there’s going to be an appearance-making of truly established existence. It’s not the case that we’re focusing on the appearance of ourselves as a Buddha-figure and simultaneously focusing on the voidness of it, because that Buddha-figure is going to have an appearance of truly established existence, and voidness is an absence of any appearance of truly established existence. It’s not possible to have the presence of something and the absence of it appear simultaneously in one cognition. This is the same, whether we’re meditating on the voidness of our Buddha-figure body or the voidness of the vase. So, a union of method and wisdom is not meant in the sense of focusing on our appearance as a Buddha-figure and focusing on the voidness of that figure. Because, again, the only way the two could combine would have to be the same way that sutra combines method and wisdom. One is held by the force of the other. 

What is meant, then, by a union of method and wisdom that is valid for all four classes of tantra in general? When a moment of mental activity is focused on voidness, that mental activity does not exist disassociated from a body, a physical basis, does it? It can’t. What we are imagining here is that while focusing on voidness our body appears as the Buddha-figure, even though at that moment of total absorption on voidness the appearance of that body is not our focal object. Do you follow? Did you get it?

There is somebody meditating on voidness, isn’t there? That person is us and we have a body. It’s not just disassociated mental activity up in the sky. OK, so our body while meditating on voidness has an appearance. What is that appearance? It’s the appearance of a Buddha-figure. Are we focusing on that appearance in that moment of mental activity? No, but we know that we have a body with an appearance, and that appearance is actually existing and present in that moment of mental activity, isn’t it? 

That’s a forerunner to the highest class of tantra explanation, anuttarayoga, which is that the subtlest energy of that mental activity, which in this class of tantra is clear light mental activity, takes on the shape of the Buddha-figure and has the appearance of this body. And because it’s clear light mental activity, an appearance can arise that is not an appearance of truly established existence, because the clear light level of mind does not make appearances of truly established existence. The appearances that any grosser level of mental activity gives rise to are appearances of truly established existence. For that clear light level, the appearance that it gives rise to can be an appearance of a Buddha-figure lacking truly self-established existence and such an appearance can arise simultaneously with an absence of truly established existence. Do you follow? So, the explanation in general tantra opens the door to the anuttarayoga method for combining method and discriminating awareness.

[See: The Union of Method and Wisdom: Gelug and Non-Gelug]

In tantra practice, when we focus on voidness, our ordinary body and all other phenomena no longer appear. We focus on the absence of impossible ways in which they appear to exist. But there are many ways of meditating on voidness. In a tantra sadhana, we don’t do analytic meditation; we need to have sufficient familiarity from previous analytical meditation on voidness, such that in the sadhana, we only need to either recite some verse, which is usually what’s done, or some Sanskrit mantras that clue us to the approach that we might take for meditating on voidness. In different sadhanas, the approach is going to be slightly different. 

Just to give you a little idea of the variety, for instance, in Kalachakra, what we would do is focus on the voidness of all the causes that could lead to our attainment of enlightenment, the voidness of all the results that could follow, the voidness of the steps that lead to it, and the voidness of the three spheres that are involved: (1) the person meditating, (2) the object of meditation and (3) the activity of the meditating. We do that consecutively in steps.

In Chakrasamvara, Heruka, we focus first on the voidness of the aggregates, then the voidness of the “me” that is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the aggregates, then on the non-conceptual level of cognizing that, and then the clear light level of that. In Hevajra with the Sakya type of approach, we focus on all appearances as coming from the mind, then on these appearances arising due to karmic aspects affecting the mind, then on the voidness of the mind, and then on the non-conceptual level of that, which in Sakya is referring to the clear light level. Or just a simpler, two-step focus: on the voidness of the aggregates and then on the voidness of the “me” that is an imputation phenomenon on them as its basis. Or in Guhyasamaja, that things neither truly exist, totally non-exist, both or neither.

In each sadhana, there will be a slightly different method of meditating on voidness. They are all talking about the same voidness, but that’s one of the benefits of doing many different sadhanas in different styles. It gives us reinforcement in our understanding of voidness because we’re focusing on it from the points of view of different lines of reasoning that we have familiarized ourselves with before.

So, in general tantra, we focus on voidness while having the body of a Buddha-figure and, in that way, we have method and wisdom together in one moment of mental activity. 

The way in which we arise in the form of the Buddha-figure can also be done in many different ways. In each of the classes of tantra, there’s a slightly different step-by-step way in which we do that – arising as seed syllables, insignia, and so on – and there are many levels of meaning to each step in the process. It’s not just an exercise in visualization. Each step in the process of arising in the form of the Buddha-figure represents different things – either the five types of deep awareness or the five different aspects of Buddha-nature (body, speech, mind and so on).  It’s a very wonderful and meaningful meditation. 

Unfortunately, most translations translate the process of arising as, “out of voidness I arise as this or that figure.” That’s a very misleading translation. It’s not out of voidness. We haven’t come out of voidness and now we’re no longer thinking of voidness. It’s, “Within the state of voidness, I arise as a Buddha-figure.” If we want to be even more precise, the word translated from Tibetan as “state” is the Sanskrit word “rasa” that means “flavor” and the preposition “from” indicates the ablative case in Sanskrit, which can also mean “because of.” From the Sanskrit original, we can translate the phrase as “Because of the flavor of voidness, I arise as…” 

The Two Phases of Meditation on Voidness 

There are two phases to the focus on voidness. There is (1) the total absorption (mnyam-bzhag) on voidness – Jeffrey Hopkins calls that “meditative equipoise on voidness” – in which the total absorption is on an absence of impossible ways of existing, so on an absence of truly self-established existence, if we’re doing this with a Gelug Prasangika understanding. There is no appearance of either truly self-established existence (so-called “inherent existence”) or any basis that is devoid of it. That absence is explicitly apprehended; it is what appears in the cognition, and it appears like space. There is nothing implicitly apprehended during this total absorption phase, it is not that the Buddha-figure that is the basis for this voidness is accurately and decisively cognized but without appearing. So, the voidness cognized here is like space, like an absence of appearance. There are many other meanings to the analogy of voidness here being like space, but let’s just leave it on this simplest level. 

Then, there’s what is misleadingly translated as the “post-meditation” period. The term (rjes-thob) literally means “subsequent attainment.” It refers to the phase of meditation on voidness that is attained immediately after the total absorption phase ends and that can only be attained by being immediately preceded by that total absorption. This phase always starts while still being in a state of meditation but may continue as well immediately following our arising from meditation. 

During the subsequent attainment phase, there is once more the appearance-making of truly self-established existence and its basis, our form as a Buddha-figure. They arise automatically when no longer explicitly apprehending their voidness. We now explicitly apprehend the Buddha-figure, which appears to have truly self-established existence, but we simultaneously implicitly apprehend its voidness. The absence of truly self-established existence cannot appear while this impossible way of existing is appearing. So, we can understand “because of the flavor of voidness” to imply that the appearance that arises of ourself as a Buddha-figure is “within the flavor of voidness,” within the implicit apprehension of voidness. 

The realization we have during this subsequent attainment phase is that the appearance of ourselves as a Buddha-figure is like an illusion. The mode of existence that appears – namely, truly self-established existence – seems to correspond to the way things exist, but that’s not true, so we don’t believe it. Nevertheless, all things, including us as a Buddha-figure, function. That’s very important to realize with this understanding of things being like an illusion. In spite of the fact that things don’t exist in the way that they appear, nevertheless, they function. That is the whole key to understanding things being like an illusion. 

Shantideva emphasizes that in his ninth chapter of Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (Skt. Bodhicharyavatara). If we can understand an example on a simple level and accept it and deal with it – and if everybody accepts that example – then we can go on to understand that example on a deeper level. All the Indian Buddhist tenet systems accept the analogy that everything is like an illusion. For example, this chair is actually made of atoms and an energy field. It only appears to be a solid object; it’s not really solid. It’s solidity is like an illusion, despite the fact that it appears to be solid. In actuality, on the deepest level, it’s a collection of atoms and energy, but in spite of that, we can sit on it, and it will hold us. The collection of atoms that constitutes our body is not going to fall through it, which is incredibly far-out if we think about that. How is it that this collection of atoms is something that can perform the function of holding something on top of it, and we can sit on it?

If we can accept that things such as seemingly solid chairs are like an illusion and nevertheless still function, this opens the way to understanding on more sophisticated levels what the illusion is and how, even though things lack truly self-established existence and are like an illusion, they nevertheless can still function. That is the key to going deeper and deeper in studying the tenet systems.

In any case, whether we are meditating on voidness in the context of a sutra practice or in the context of a tantra practice, this is what we focus on during our subsequent attainment phase of meditation after our total absorption on voidness – we focus on things being like an illusion, but nevertheless they function. We still have an understanding of voidness, but we’re not totally absorbed in explicitly apprehending it. We implicitly apprehend it during this subsequent attainment phase, while we explicitly apprehend the basis for this voidness – in the case of tantra, the appearance of us as a Buddha-figure.

Explicitly apprehending the basis for voidness and implicitly apprehending its voidness, however, is not what is meant by the tantric method of acombination of method and discriminating awareness in one moment of cognition. We can meditate like this in the context of either sutra or tantra practice and do this with any object, actually. So, there’s nothing special about this, even if the basis for voidness is us as a Buddha-figure. As with bodhichitta and the discriminating awareness of voidness, method and wisdom are held one at a time, but with the force of the other. 

For method and wisdom to be in union in one moment of cognition, they need to not only both be manifest, whether explicitly or implicitly, but they both also need to be manifest explicitly. In general tantra, then, the way that the two are combined explicitly in one moment of cognition is that while totally absorbed on voidness, our body has the appearance of a Buddha-figure, despite the fact that during that total absorption, we do not apprehend our appearance either explicitly or implicitly. This is what is meant when this point is explained as “the mind that understands voidness appears as the Buddha-figure.” That’s the way that it’s usually said in short. I just explained it in a fuller way.


Could you say that the mind that meditates on voidness is compassion, and in that way, combine method and wisdom?

Well, when we speak about a mind of compassion, we’re talking about a mental activity, the mental activity of being compassionate toward an object. Its way of taking its object – this sentient being and its suffering – is, “May you be free of it.” To say that that type of mind is now meditating on voidness, well, not really. We would have to say that compassion is not manifest at that time. There could only be a legacy of it at that time. It couldn’t be manifest.

Now, we would have to agree that the mental activity meditating on voidness has a body that is the basis for the mental activity. Even though the appearance of that body is not explicitly apprehended at that time, still the body is there. It’s not that the body has disappeared. So, it is explicitly there in that moment; it appears, though not to our cognition of voidness. It is not the same as when we are meditating on voidness without visualizing our ordinary body in the form of a Buddha-figure. Our ordinary body is not what becomes a Buddha-body, the form of a Buddha-figure, this sort of nirvanic level. What about having a body in general? Well, we can speak of that as an aspect of Buddha-nature, but it’s not the samsaric body that can serve as a pathway for attaining a Form Body of a Buddha. 

What’s the difference here between the highest yoga tantra and the three lower classes of tantra in terms of this simultaneity of method and wisdom?

Here we’re just saying that that person’s body appears as a Buddha-figure, the body that supports that mental activity that’s focusing on voidness. In anuttarayoga tantra, we are speaking about the subtlest level of mental activity, the clear light mind. That subtlest level of mental activity has as its energy basis subtlest energy. The subtlest energy is appearing in the form of the Buddha-figure. 

We can’t have the appearance of that subtlest body as a Buddha-figure in the three lower classes of tantra when we’re totally absorbed on voidness, because there the total absorption on voidness is with a grosser level of mental activity, what’s called bare yogic perception; it’s not with clear light mental activity.

When any grosser level of mind gives rise to an appearance, it can only give rise to an appearance of truly self-established existence. It cannot give rise to an appearance that does not appear to exist in that impossible way. It’s only the clear light level that can give rise to an appearance that does not appear to be truly self-established. Because of that unique feature, only this clear light level of mental activity can also focus on the absence of truly self-established existence simultaneously with this appearance of a Buddha-figure – known at this stage as an “illusory body.”

The non-Gelug Tibetan traditions have different explanations of these points. What I am explaining is Gelug, and it derives from Tsongkhapa.

Is the clear light level the only level of mind that can perceive dependent arising?

This is complicated, because there are many levels of dependent arising, and the non-Prasangika tenet systems assert that truly self-established phenomena dependently arise and appear. But only the clear light level of mental activity can give rise to and cognize a so-called “pure appearance” that is not an impure appearance of truly self-established existence. All the other levels of mental activity have limited, periscope vision and give rise to and cognize the impure appearances of conventional phenomena. 

In general tantra, when we have the body and mind simultaneously, still in the three lower classes, we’re not focusing on the appearance of a body, although the body is there. In the highest class of tantra, we focus on the appearance of the body as well, while simultaneously being totally absorbed on voidness, so that’s special. 

Obviously, these are things that we need to chew on. If we haven’t heard this before, well, we’re not going to understand anything completely the first time. That’s normal. The thing is to work on it, think about it. Hearing, contemplating and meditating. Hear it first, then chew on it in contemplation, and then meditate on it single-pointedly.

From our study of science, wouldn’t we be able to know conceptually that the chair is actually a collection of atoms and force fields? And if we were a botanist, we’d know about all the plants and biological processes, and if we were a physicist, we’d know about all the forces and so on that allow the chair to hold something? Wouldn’t this be equivalent to a conceptual understanding of voidness, and that the real difference in terms of our Buddhist understanding concerns the non-conceptual cognition of it?

I think that even on that conceptual level, there’s a huge difference. I wouldn’t say at all that the scientific understanding here is the full Buddhist understanding, because what is necessary for the understanding of voidness – as Tsongkhapa points out, coming from Shantideva – is that we need to be able to focus on the target in order to be able to hit it with an arrow. We have to be able to identify the object that is being nullified or refuted. What is it that’s totally absent? For that, we need to identify and refute deeper and deeper levels of impossible ways of existing until, eventually, we are able to identify what truly self-established existence means and refute it with the understanding of its voidness – there’s no such thing, this is impossible.

There are several levels of meaning of dependent arising aside from its usage in the context of the twelve links of dependent arising. In Vaibhashika and Sautrantika, dependent arising only means arising dependently on causes and conditions. It includes only non-static phenomena. Chittamatra adds arising dependently on parts and Madhyamaka adds arising dependently on conceptual labeling. For both Chittamatra and Madhyamaka, all phenomena dependently arise, but Chittamatra includes both phenomena that have truly established existence and those that lack such existence and that arise dependent merely on conceptual labeling. Prasangika refutes phenomena that have truly established existence and extends dependent arising to everything in the sense that everything arises dependent merely on conceptual labeling.

What is anything? We can only specify things in terms of what the words for them refer to. What’s a table? Well, there are all these atoms and all the causes that went into making the table. What is a table? All we can say is that there’s this word or concept “table.” It’s what the word or concept “table” refers to on the basis of all its parts and causes as a basis for labeling. It’s like an illusion. The table appears to be some sort of solid entity, but it doesn’t exist that way. Even “table” is a conceptual category. It’s not that something can only be exclusively a table and fit into that box, that category, and not be anything else. It’s also a home and food for a termite.

The understanding of voidness is much more profound than what we get from the scientific understanding. The scientific understanding, of course, is a start, but that’s not really the understanding of voidness. Voidness is the total absence, total nullification, no such thing, of the object to be nullified, this impossible way of existing, whether we’re talking conceptually or non-conceptually.

If one really understood voidness, then would the chair no longer hold us? We’d fall to the floor because it would no longer be an illusion?

No, there is the conventional truth. The seemingly truly self-established chair is like an illusion. This is the thing – in spite of being like an illusion, nevertheless, it functions. That is what we really have to be able to accept and work with and not freak out at; otherwise, we’re lost into nihilism. It’s perfectly sane that, of course, things function despite appearing to exist in an impossible way. Somebody yells at us – the sounds are just vibrations of air and they’re only saying one syllable at a time. We’re only hearing one syllable at a time. Putting these syllables together into words are conceptual constructs, and these words have been arbitrarily assigned meanings. There is nothing inherent in the actual sound “idiot.” It’s just a convention that these otherwise meaningless sounds means something. Words are total conceptual fabrications, like an illusion. Nevertheless, we have to respond when someone yells at us; we don’t just sit there and grin like an idiot, then we really are an idiot.

“Like an illusion” doesn’t mean that conventional objects are literally an illusion, although the non-Gelug Tibetan traditions will assert that they are an illusion. We need to understand what the Gelug tradition means when it says that all things are like an illusion. What is the similarity with an illusion, and what is the difference? “Like an illusion” means things appear to exist in a way in which they don’t actually exist. Their manner of appearance doesn’t correspond to their manner of existence – in technical jargon – but they function more than an illusion functions.

An illusion can scare us, so now we have to get into valid cognition. If we think there is a monster under our bed and it scares us, well, that functioned, didn’t it? However, if we look under the bed, it is an illusion that there’s a monster there. But it certainly functioned to scare us, so how did it function? Through a nonvalid way of knowing it – our thinking the monster was there was incorrect, whereas a rat under our bed might scare us, but then it’s only like an illusion. We did correctly perceive that there was a rat under our bed, so it’s different. 

There are general presentations of all the Dharma topics and more precise presentations. The explanation of this point about illusion could be more precise than what I presented, certainly, far more precise. For example, there is a difference between what we call the “awake state” and the “dream state,” they’re not the same. What we perceive during the awake state is like an illusion, it’s not an illusion, it’s not a dream, it’s not the same as a dream. What we perceive in a dream is an illusion, but we can certainly get angry in a dream and build up negative karmic potential. We can get scared. We couldn’t get actually physically injured in the dream, though. There are these such differences.