Profound view

Profound view

Part of a series of talks on Lama Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path given in various locations around the United States from 2002-2007. This talk was given at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in Castle Rock, Washington.

  • Eliminating the grasping of inherent existence
  • Three kinds of compassion
  • Practicing mindfulness of emptiness
  • Understanding dependent arising and emptiness

Emptiness, part 6: Profound view (download)


The more we understand emptiness, the more we begin to see how all of our suffering is actually totally unnecessary. In other words, that suffering isn’t a given, it’s something that’s produced by causes. It’s not inherently existent, and it’s our own confused mind that produces the causes of the suffering.

We can watch when our mind is getting attached, or when it’s getting upset, and there’s this proliferation of thoughts and emotions inside. We can stop and ask our self, “Who is thinking all of this?” We can look at whatever object or person we’re upset about or lusting after and say, “Who or what is this person or object?” When we do we find through deep examination that there’s nothing solid there on the side of the object; nothing solid here on the side of the subject. All the upset or all the craving, this whole tumultuous thing that is creating all the karma that produces the suffering, we come to see all of that is totally unnecessary. We see that kind of reaction doesn’t correspond with the reality of the situation and so we begin to let go.

When we look at all the universes full of sentient beings, all wanting to be happy, all wanting to be free of suffering, and yet all caught in their own misery. When we think that all the things they’re angry at, all the things they’re craving, don’t exist the way they think they exist, and yet sentient beings believe that all these things are inherently existent. Again we see how unnecessary their suffering is. We understand that if this grasping at inherent existence could be eliminated, then all the afflictions, all the karma, all the suffering would just crumble along with it.

When we include an awareness of emptiness in with our generation of bodhicitta the compassion and the bodhicitta become much stronger. And we really want to develop all the ways and means as quick as we can—to be able to really benefit beings so that we all don’t keep creating unnecessary suffering for ourselves and others. Generate this aspiration for full enlightenment to do just this.

Three types of compassion

Thangkha image of Chandrakirti.

When we see sentient beings as impermanent and as not having a self-sufficient, substantially existent I or self, that deepens our compassion for them because we see them in a much deeper and broader way.

In Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara, the Supplement to the Guide on the Middle Way, in his homage he paid homage to great compassion. He talked about three different kinds of compassion, viewing sentient beings in three different ways. One was compassion viewing sentient beings as suffering. That’s how we ordinarily think of compassion. The second was the compassion seeing phenomena, is that how it’s translated? Anyway, I can’t remember what the term of it is, but the meaning was the compassion seeing sentient beings as impermanent and as not having a self-sufficient, substantially existent I or self. That deepens the compassion because you’re starting to see sentient beings in a much deeper and broader way. The third kind of compassion was the compassion, the non-objectified compassion. When we say, mig me tse way ter chen chen re sig [This is the first line of a five-line Lama Tsongkhapa prayer.], the mig me tse way, mig me means without an object, means without an inherently existent object; tse way is compassion. This mig me tse way, this kind of compassion without an inherently existent object, that’s the third kind of compassion that Chandrakirti was talking about. And it’s seeing that sentient beings don’t inherently exist.

This has a few ramifications. One is that we begin to see, as I was just explaining in the motivation, that all the suffering that we see around us is totally unnecessary. It comes just because the cause of it exists. It comes just because sentient beings grasp at inherent existence. Since the grasping at inherent existence is a wrong conception, it’s a wrong consciousness, and since it can be eliminated by the wisdom that sees things as they are, then we really see that all that suffering is just totally unnecessary. If we saw things the way they are, there wouldn’t be the ignorance, there wouldn’t be the afflictions, there wouldn’t be the karma, and there wouldn’t be the suffering. The whole sandcastle crumbles. The compassion for sentient beings becomes very strong because we see that the root of their suffering can be eliminated.

Another question that then arises is: if sentient beings don’t exist inherently, who are we having compassion for? This is again the mind that is swinging from inherent existence to non-existence, from absolutism to nihilism. First we see inherently existent sentient beings, “Well, if they don’t inherently exist then there are no sentient beings there, what’s the purpose of generating compassion?” That’s nihilism. There are sentient beings there, but those sentient beings exist by being merely labeled. There are no findable sentient beings when we search with the mind of ultimate analysis. All that’s found when we search with ultimate analysis is the emptiness of whatever we’re searching for, a lack of inherent existence of whatever we’re searching for. But remember, eliminating inherent existence does not mean eliminating all existence. What’s left over is nominal existence, existence by mere name, existence by mere label.

With that third kind of compassion we’re training our mind to see sentient beings in a very different way. We’re training to see that they’re not only suffering unnecessarily by force of their ignorance, but also that they’re empty of inherent existence. They’re not solid and concrete sentient beings. And yet they still create karma and experience the results. Like we were talking about yesterday, it’s the general I that creates the karma and experiences the result. It’s the mere I that goes from one life to the next. And so similarly, all these sentient beings, there’s that mere I that cannot be found when you look for it—but it joins one life and the next, and it carries the karma which also cannot be found when you look for it.

Wisdom and compassion support each other

Compassion takes on a whole different aspect when we start adding an understanding of emptiness to it. You feel some shift in your mind. This is because what that first kind of compassion, just the compassion seeing suffering sentient beings, what’s appearing to us is these inherently existent sentient beings. They have all this horrible suffering. And then in the back of our mind we’re still blaming God for it. Or we’re blaming the sentient beings, “Oh, these idiot sentient beings! Why do they keep doing this stupid stuff? Why don’t they just listen to me when I tell them how to do it right?!” The compassion can get lost a little bit there if we’re not careful—if we’re just seeing suffering sentient beings.

When we really begin to understand emptiness the compassion becomes much deeper, and so much more tolerant, impartial, and patient. Also our confidence that it’s possible to eliminate the suffering of sentient beings (us included in sentient beings), becomes stronger. This is because we realize how suffering is just this construct based on a very wobbly base which is grasping at things in a totally unrealistic way. We begin to feel very confident that, “Wow, the root of the suffering can be eliminated.” This is good news, you know? So then we have a lot more energy for practice because it doesn’t seem hopeless.

One of the things that happens if we don’t have a strong spiritual practice, we know from people in helping professions, is compassion fatigue. It’s like, “Oh, I help so much and I’m exhausted. These sentient beings just keep doing the same thing.” Or we go, “Oh, how’s this ever going to end? I cure one sentient being and another one takes its place.” This is the story of how Chenrezig’s head split into eleven parts. He emptied the hell realms one night and the next morning they were full again with more sentient beings. He just said, “Aye aye aye! This is too much, give me a break,” and his head cracked open!

When we understand how suffering is based on wrong conception, then the confidence that it can be eliminated increases. So our enthusiasm for practice increases because we realize we can free our own mind. And our enthusiasm to help other sentient beings also increases because we realize that it actually is possible for all of them to gain liberation, that suffering isn’t a given. It’s only there because the causes for it exist.

That’s why bodhisattvas have this incredible ability to see the three-thousand-million-billion worlds full of suffering sentient beings and still be optimistic. I mean, an incredible capacity to bear suffering and not let it get you down, not let it become a burden, or get depressed because of it. The bodhisattvas can witness all of this stuff and witness all of us acting in our totally imbecilic ways—and they still have compassion, and they still have optimism. They don’t get depressed because they know that the whole thing can stop because the whole thing’s on a shaky foundation to start with.

Are you getting some feeling about how wisdom and compassion can support each other, and really make each other stronger? Because when you have this view of wisdom your compassion can bear so much without getting discouraged. And when you have compassion you have so much enthusiasm to develop wisdom because that’s what’s going to cut the root of samsara. The two things just go back and forth.

That’s why in the bodhisattva bhumis they have the meditative equipoise on emptiness and they have the periods of subsequent attainment where they’re doing virtuous activities and creating merit. The meditative equipoise on emptiness is the collection of wisdom. The subsequent attainment times, their daily life, becomes the collection of positive potential, the collection of merit. The collection of wisdom becomes the primary cause for the dharmakaya of the Buddha—the Buddha’s mind. The collection of merit becomes the primary cause for the rupakaya—the form body. This is the body through which the Buddha can manifest in so many forms, so many facets, in order to be able to guide us. It all begins to make sense.

Practicing mindfulness of emptiness

I just wanted to talk a little bit about ways of practicing mindfulness of emptiness. These are my ideas. Some of them I copied from my teachers and some of them are my own ideas, just so that if they don’t work you know why.

We can do this mindfulness of emptiness during the break time. We do our meditation sessions because it limits our senses so we can delve more deeply in meditation. But outside of meditation we want to keep our awareness of emptiness going—because if you keep it going outside meditation then it’s easier when you meditate. The break times you don’t just drop what you’ve been doing and watch television. Or if you watch television, you use the example of television, of things appearing one way but existing in another.

Zong Rinpoche, one of my teachers, when he first came to America, like 1980 or ‘81, and I had the honor to be able to cook for him—he and Geshe Gyeltsen would sometimes sit and watch television, sci-fi movies or something. Geshe Gyeltsen spoke English, but Zong Rinpoche didn’t know anything of English. (He was the one that I told about that said, “There was nobody home.”) So he would watch the television and I was always going, “Hmm, I wonder why he’s doing that?” Now I understand why.

1. Watching television

It’s just such a perfect analogy for things appearing but not existing in the way they appear. How we look at the TV, we grasp all those people doing those things as truly existent, we generate so much emotion watching the television. We can even create some much karma watching the television. And it’s all based on hallucination—there are not even people. All the people we’re creating the emotions about and the karma with, they don’t even exist! There are no people inside that box on the coffee table. If you watch TV then you have that mind, “Okay, it appears, but it doesn’t exist the way it appears.” Likewise, all the things that I look at going on in my life—they appear to be inherently existent people, but they don’t exist that way.

Then the question comes, “Well, if they appear but they don’t exist the way they appear, how can they function? How can things function?” Then you go back to your example of the TV or your example of the reflection of a mirror. Even though things exist only by being labeled, even though things exist only on a nominal level, they still function. The TV still functions to generate a lot of emotions in us and a lot of opinions in us, doesn’t it? There are no real people in the TV, it’s total hallucination. Yet it still functions and it has effects. Likewise, all the other things that we look at around us, they don’t exist in the way they appear—but they still function and they bring results.

2. Reflections in a mirror or a still pond

Like the reflection in the mirror, this is another way to practice mindfulness of emptiness. Look in the mirror. We go, “Look at me!” We think that there’s me in the mirror. We think that there’s a real face in the mirror. Is there a real face? No way! Is there nothing in the mirror? No. There’s the appearance of a face. The appearance of a face functions because you can look at the mirror, you can shave, you can pick your zits, you can put on your mascara. The image in the mirror functions. And it can function even though it doesn’t exist the way it appears. So likewise, other phenomena that we look at, they don’t exist the way they appear, but they still function. It’s not that they’re non-existent.

You can practice mindfulness when looking in the mirror, mindfulness when watching TV. I used to like to walk up to the pond and look in the pond. They often use the example of the reflection of the moon in a still pond. Sometimes you could see that. You could see the reflection of the trees in the pond. There are no trees in the pond, no trees, but the trees appear, and it functions. I can still look at it and say, “How beautiful.” Likewise, other things that we see in our life, they have no solid findable essence—but they still function.

Like I was saying yesterday, if they had a solid findable essence they couldn’t function because if they had a solid findable essence they would be independent of all other phenomena. Something that’s independent cannot be affected by causes and conditions, it cannot produce results. It’s only because things are dependent, only because they exist on the nominal level, by being merely labeled, that they can function. It’s really a lot to put your mind around, but we keep trying.

3. Examining activities

One thing to do while you’re doing some activity is to think whatever you’re doing, “This is merely labeled by mind. It exists just because it’s merely labeled by mind. It doesn’t exist from its own side. It can’t stand on its own.” Just have that awareness as you look at everything around you. It exists merely by being labeled by mind. Or an offshoot of that, like I was saying the other day, is to describe what you’re doing, “What is merely called I is opening is what is merely called a door.” It changes our sense of who we are. Instead of, “I am opening the door,” I, this big agent—what’s called I. Well, what in the world is what’s called I? Just that appearance—there’s nothing there! But what’s called I still functions because it’s opening what’s called a door. But there’s no solid door there either. Even if it’s made of metal, there’s no solid door.

4. Watching the appearances to the mind

Another way to practice mindfulness of emptiness is to think, when you watch things, “This is a hallucination. These are projections of my hallucinating mind. It doesn’t exist.” When you’re seeing something really frightful and you’re actively grasping at inherent existence and holding onto what you’re seeing as so real, to say, “This is hallucination. It’s like being on drugs. This does not exist.” Here what’s nonexistent is the inherently existent thing. We’re not saying that there’s nothing there at the time when we’re saying, “This does not exist.” We’re referring to the inherently existent thing that we’re clinging on to at that time. That’s what we’re referring to when we say, “It doesn’t it exist.” We’re not saying there’s nothing there.

I find it very effective, like when there’s a very troubling situation, when somebody’s saying something I don’t like or something is going on, if I just say, “This is merely an appearance to the mind.” Or there’s something really wonderful and your mind is starting to go, “Wow, it’s prince charming.” So you just go, “Oh, this is just an appearance to the mind. That’s all. No prince charming there, sorry. Just an appearance to the mind, that’s all.” I find that a very nice way of mindfulness of emptiness too, “Just an appearance to the mind. Don’t need to get so worked up about it.”

5. Everything we experience is like last night’s dream

Another way is to say, “This is like a dream, an illusion, an echo, a reflection in a mirror, a movie on a TV, a hologram.” That is, it doesn’t exist in the way it appears. It appears inherently—but it’s not. It’s like when you have a dream. You can dream this whole extensive, elaborate thing, and when you wake up in the morning, where is it? Gone, isn’t it? It’s totally gone. It’s similar in our life, isn’t it? Everything we experience is like last night’s dream. All the pleasure we ever had—like last night’s dream. All the misery we’ve ever had—like last night’s dream. It’s nowhere. Even while it’s happening, it’s like we’re dreaming. We just haven’t woken up from the dream to see that it’s last night’s dream yet. You know how it is, once in a while when you have a lucid dream and you know that you’re dreaming? It gives you a different take on the situation. So it’s similar. It’s an appearance to the mind, it’s like a dream. I don’t really need to get so bent out of shape regarding this. Then this whole thing of—in a few minutes it’s going to be last night’s dream, because it’s all gone. What use is there creating all sorts of horrible karma, either reacting with hostility or reacting with clinging?

6. Examining the parts

Another way is to look at things and just break them down into parts. Like the thing that I was telling you about the tree, go back and forth between the parts and the whole, between the basis of designation and the object designated. A tree appears but what exactly is the tree? There are only branches, a trunk, fruit, and leaves. When I don’t analyze there’s a tree there. But when I look at any of the parts, are any of them the tree? And you go back and forth. And then do it with a person. Do it with a person that you have a lot of strong feelings about. Look at that person. “Oh, they’re a real person.” Actually there’s just a body and mind. That’s all, just a body and mind. “Oh, their body. There’s a hand, a leg, a liver, an intestine.” You do that whole little glance meditation, all the parts of the body gift wrapped in the skin. We call it body. Mind—it’s just different consciousnesses. There’s just a body and a mind there, there’s no person. But when you’re not analyzing a person appears.

What is that person? Who is that person that appears? And you start looking again and there’s no person. When you don’t look there’s a person. Then you begin to see that person is just a convenient label—so you don’t have to say, “That body over there that looks like this, that has a consciousness in it.” You say Mary instead. It’s kind of interesting when we start looking at it, there’s just a body and a mind and we get this feeling, “Oh no there isn’t. There’s a person there.” Don’t we? We go, “A real person.” Well, what in the world is this real person? What does this real person do?

When you start analyzing all the activities that you ascribe to this real person are actually only due to the body and mind. “Oh, well, he looked at me.” Well, it’s his body that looks. “Oh, he said these wonderful words that he loves me.” Well, actually that was just some mental factors and then the sound produced by his vocal chords. True or not true? It’s true, isn’t it? He had some kind of thought, who knows what, we can’t read his mind. Prince charming? Forget it, can’t understand him at all—I’m joking. We can’t read somebody else’s mind. They have some kind of thought consciousnesses, who knows what kind of thought consciousnesses. It may be a thought consciousnesses of attachment or something like that. Then that motivates the mouth to say something, the vocal chords to say something, and some sound comes out. And then our mind hears that sound—and wow, we create the ultimate love story. On the basis of what? There’s just a body and a mind there, that’s all. Prince charming is a fake. He appears to be there, but he’s not!

7. Who or what is walking?

Another one, this was one Zopa Rinpoche does, is when you’re walking, say, “Why do I say I’m walking?” Why do I say I’m walking? It’s because the body is walking. There’s no other reason besides the fact that the body’s walking to say, “I’m walking.” There’s no person there walking. There’s no inherently existent person there walking. It’s just because the body is there that we say, “I’m walking.” Or we say, “I feel angry, or I feel whatever, depressed,” whatever you happen to feel. Why do I say, “I feel angry or I feel depressed?” I only say that because there’s a certain mental factor arising in the mind at this moment. Just because the mental factor of anger is there for a while I say, “I’m angry.” Just because there’s the mental factor of depression for a while I say, “I’m depressed.” But aside from these mental factors there’s no other reason to say I’m angry, I’m depressed, or even I’m happy! Only because the feeling aggregate has a happy feeling we say, “I’m happy.” Aside from that there’s no other reason to say, “I’m happy” because there’s no I in there that’s happy. There’s just the mental factor of the feeling of happiness—that’s all. We begin to diminish this sense of such a strong I, such a controller there.

8. Who is seeing the objective reality?

Another way to have some mindfulness of emptiness is to recognize other people don’t see things the same way as we do. If things were inherently existent, if they existed the way they appear to us, then everybody should see things exactly the same way. But they don’t. The person we think is wonderful, somebody else can’t stand. The person we can’t stand, somebody else thinks is wonderful. We have one view on a situation; our friend has another view on the situation. There’s no objective reality out there—so just to practice being aware of that, being mindful of that.

You can do it not just with other people, but with animals. I have two kitties, Achala and Manjushri. Some of you know about Achala and Manjushri. Sometimes in the evening I’ll walk in and Ach will be sitting on a placemat on top of the kitchen table. He owns the place. He’s a big cat so he kind of fills up the whole placemat. I’m labeling this, “This is a placemat on the kitchen table and thus it’s not a place for kitties to sit.” He’s not labeling it as a placemat on the kitchen table. He’s labeling it as a kitty perch and a nice place to hang out, and so he belongs there.

See—you begin to look around. The ants come in the house. We had a whole parade of ants this summer, and they pick up all sorts of interesting little things, rif-raf, garbage, different things. Wish they’d pick up the big pieces of garbage and take them outside, but they only pick up the little ones. We look at it and, “It’s garbage, it’s dust.” They look at it and, “It’s building material,” and they get excited, “Oh, concrete! Got to take this piece of paper, got to take this whatever.” In Thailand I saw this so much. The little ants would go and pick up the big ants that were dead. I look at it and, “It’s a dead ant, something that you want to clean up.” They look at it, “It’s food.” In doing this we see things are not objective realities out there. We all label them differently. Even from one species to the next things are labeled differently.

9. Acknowledging the imprints on the mindstream

Then another way to think as you’re going through the day is to think, “This appearance of a real object existing from there (in other words the base of the label) … this appearance of a real object existing from there is fabricated by the imprint left on my mind from the past self-grasping.” This appearance of a real object existing there, a real telephone, a real piece of chocolate cake, a real gorilla, whatever it is, is fabricated by the imprint left on my mind—by past self-grasping or by past conceptions of inherent existence. In other words, remember I was saying before, we have the act of grasping at inherent existence and then we have the imprints of the grasping—like the onions and the scent of the onions. So due to the imprints, the scent of the onions, then things appear to us to be real, inherently existing out there. But just to think, “Oh, it’s appearing inherently existent just because of these imprints on my mind. But it actually doesn’t exist that way.”

I find it particularly effective to do this with people. Somehow, I don’t know about you, but for me there’s just so much energy around people and so much like there’s a real person there. Like, “There’s a real person and they have a real motivation. Then to say, “No, there’s just a body and mind and this appearance is coming because of the imprints on my mindstream.”

10. What do the holy beings see?

Then also to think that all the aryas, all those holy beings who have realized emptiness directly, don’t perceive this. What they find when they search for the object is not this, not what I’m seeing. They find that all of this is nonexistent. It’s empty. So to think like that—what do the holy beings see? Not what I’m seeing! What I’m seeing they find to be completely empty.

In the morning when you generate your motivation: I’m not going to harm, I’m going to benefit, I’m going to hold the bodhicitta, and then ask yourself, “Is what I see true? Is what I see real, as it exists, as it appears?” It’s a very interesting question to throw into your mindstream when you first wake up in the morning because it reminds us of emptiness. All that’s appearing, is it real, is it as it appears?

Those are just some ideas about how to practice mindfulness of emptiness in your daily life. Good to do when you’re riding on a bus, in a plane, in a train, waiting in the doctor’s office, whatever it is—just practice any of these ways to familiarize the mind.

Now we’re running out of time and I’d better finish the text. Of course I didn’t say everything I wanted to, but when do I ever?

Verse 11: When is your understanding of the view incomplete?

The next verse is about how to know when the analysis you’re doing of the view is still incomplete, how to know when your understanding of the view is still incomplete. Je Rinpoche (Lama Tsongkhapa) says:

Appearances are infallible dependent arisings; emptiness is free of assertions (of inherent existence or nonexistence). As long as these two understandings are seen as separate, one has not yet realized the intent of the Buddha.

Our analysis is still incomplete when dependent arising and emptiness are seen as two separate things. When we think about dependent arising and see, “Oh, all these appearances exist because of dependent arising,” and we’ve got that. And when we think of emptiness we think, “Emptiness is free of inherent existence and it’s also free of nonexistence, so it’s just empty. But how do emptiness and dependent arising go together?” We’re having some understanding of them, but we’re not seeing them as complimentary yet. These two understandings are seen as separate, so we haven’t realized the Buddha’s intent. The intent of the Buddha is, of course, the full realization of emptiness and dependent arising. Like I was saying yesterday, the full realization of dependent arising actually comes after we’ve realized emptiness. We realize emptiness—and after realizing emptiness to still be able to assert conventional existence, nominal existence, the subtle dependent arising of things existing by being merely labeled. That’s when those two understandings come together. It’s not just realizing emptiness but it’s being able to establish nominal or conventional existence afterwards.

Verse 12: When is your understanding of the profound view complete?

Je Rinpoche says:

When these two realizations are simultaneous and concurrent, …

in other words, when dependent arising and emptiness are simultaneous and concurrent, when they feed into each other, then …

… from the mere sight of infallible dependent arising comes definite knowledge which completely destroys all modes of mental grasping. At that time, the analysis of the profound view is complete.

All modes of mental grasping means all modes of the self-grasping, all the different ways that we can conceive of a self. In “from the mere sight of infallible dependent arising,” why does he say infallible? It’s because dependent arising is infallible. That’s the only way things exist, is by dependent arising. Dependent arising doesn’t let you down because it’s the only way things can exist. “ … From the mere sight of the infallible dependent arising … ” that that just shatters all of the self-grasping. When that happens then the analysis of the profound view is complete. At that time emptiness and dependent arising are no longer seen as separate but they’re seen as totally complementary and they’re seen as coming to the exact same point.

Often they talk about the two truths being the same nature. Two truths: conventional truth—all these things around here that function, some of the permanent phenomena that … basically the emphasis is on functioning things—conventionally truths, and ultimate truths—emptiness. These two are indifferentiatable, you can’t have one without the other. When you realize that dependent arising and emptiness come to the same point, when the dependent arising is there, that’s the conventional truth. It’s like analogous to the conventional truth. The emptiness is the ultimate truth. Dependent arising and emptiness come to the same point. One proves the other.

The two truths are one nature but nominally different

Likewise, we come to see that conventional truths and ultimate truths are one nature, that you can’t have one without having the other. That’s why we don’t think of emptiness as like in some other universe, some other place, some other something that’s unrelated to us. But emptiness is right here, right now. It’s the nature of ourselves, the nature of everything that we experience. So when we realize emptiness we’re not newly creating emptiness. It’s not that emptiness didn’t exist before and now we’re creating it. Also, it’s not that we’re destroying inherently existent phenomena when we realize emptiness either—because inherently existent phenomena never existed. All that’s getting created or destroyed is—wisdom is getting created, and the wrong conception is getting destroyed. But in terms of how things exist, they have always existed this way, they always will exist this way. We’re just realizing it. We’re not creating emptiness or destroying inherent existence.

Emptiness can only be the emptiness of a conventionally existent object. There’s not the emptiness of nothing. Emptiness is dependent on conventionally existent objects. So emptiness is not some absolute truth unrelated and independent, but emptiness is also dependent. Emptiness also exists by being merely labeled. Emptiness also conventionally exists. Why? Because nothing ultimately exists, not even emptiness. Even though emptiness is an ultimate truth it doesn’t ultimately exist because when you search for it with ultimate analysis it again evaporates. Emptiness is also empty. It’s not some solid, absolute truth that you can draw a circle around, like “Got emptiness.”

Emptiness is always emptiness of some thing, and the nature of any thing is always emptiness. You can’t have a conventionally existent object that isn’t empty. Everything that exists is empty of inherent existence. You see how the two truths are one nature? They’re one nature, but they’re nominally different. They seem really different to us, don’t they? They seem different like completely—180 degrees. I guess when you have that realization they don’t. You really see them as totally complementary.

Verse 13: The unique Prasangika view

Then Je Rinpoche goes on:

In addition, appearances clear away the extreme of (inherent) existence; emptiness clears away the extreme of non-existence. When you understand the arising of cause and effect from the viewpoint of emptiness, you are not captivated by either extreme view.

This verse refers to the unique teaching of the Prasangika school. The previous verse was how to know when your analysis of the profound is complete. Then this verse is the unique Prasangika view.

We talk about the Middle Way view and we have this idea, “Here’s inherent existence, here’s nonexistence, and emptiness is right smack in the middle of them.” No, it’s not like that. Middle Way view doesn’t mean that you’re right smack in the middle of inherent existence and nonexistence—because neither inherent existence nor nonexistence, neither are the way that things are. Emptiness and dependent arising actually are completely another degree outside of these two extremes. Don’t think of, “Okay, I got the balance point, that things are half inherently existent and half nonexistent, that’s the Middle Way view.” No, they’re not half and half, they’re neither of those extremes. They’re something completely outside the triangle. They’re not these two extremes.

Usually when we’re first approaching emptiness, let’s say this side is inherent existence and this side is nonexistent. When we first are approaching it, as we understand emptiness more and more, our understanding of emptiness counteracts our absolute view of inherent existence. Emptiness is like, “Oh, we thought things are inherently existent. Whoa, they’re empty of inherent existence.” Emptiness at the beginning, it counteracts the inherent existence. And then likewise, after in subsequent meditation time, “Oh, well things aren’t totally nonexistent, they’re dependent arising.” At that time instead of going to the extreme of nihilism and nonexistence, then dependent arising is what counteracts that. “Oh, things aren’t nonexistent. They exist dependently.” So you see how at the beginning emptiness is counteracting inherent existence and dependent arising is counteracting nonexistence.

Now, when your view gets deeper and deeper, you realize that dependent arising actually counteracts inherent existence and that emptiness counteracts nonexistence. This is because you come to see, “Oh, things are not inherently existent but they dependently exist.” Just saying dependent arising, just the words, are totally opposite to inherent existence—dependent arising and inherent existence, totally opposite. Dependent arising there comes to counteract inherent existence. And then similarly, just the words empty of inherent existence, just that shows that things are not nonexistent. They’re just empty of inherent existence. Then emptiness comes to counteract the extreme of nihilism, of thinking that things are nonexistent.

As your understanding becomes deeper you can see how dependent arising proves emptiness and how dependent arising also proves existence and no inherent existence. Dependent arising proves both emptiness and existence, and you come to see how. Did I say that right? Then you see emptiness disproves inherent existence, but it also disproves nonexistence. Both emptiness and dependent arising, both of them counteract both extremes, but I think you only get that when your understanding is really deep.

There’s one quote here in Tibetan, let me see if I can find that quote. Je Rinpoche says in the Middle Exposition of the Gradual Path:

The difficult point is that one must, from the depths, induce ascertainment with respect to refuting inherent existence without residue, establishment by way of the object’s own entity, …

(refuting that without residue)

… and positing just non-inherently existent persons and so forth, as the accumulator of actions, experiencer of effects and so forth. The composite of these two in which there is an ability to posit these hardly occurs, hence the Madhyamaka view is very difficult to find.

There is also another really nice quote I like here. It’s from the King of Concentration Sutra, Samadhiraja Sutra, it’s on a slightly different aspect:

Migrators in cyclic existence are like dreams. No one is inherently born here and no inherently dies. No inherently existent sentient being, human or living being, is found. These things are like bubbles, plantain trees, illusions, flashes of lightning, reflections of the moon in water, and mirages. In this world no one inherently dies and passes or transmigrates to another life. Still, actions done are never lost. They ripen as good and bad effects in cyclic existence.

Influence of the historical period of Lama Tsongkhapa and Nagarjuna

The reason why Je Rinpoche spends so much time not just refuting inherent existence but also positing conventional existence is because the people at his time were very much going to the nihilistic extreme and saying nothing exists. “There’s no good, there’s no bad, you can do whatever you want!” We hear that a lot nowadays too, don’t we? “Oh, good or bad, they’re all just empty. None of them exist.” Well, you know, this kind of nihilistic view is extremely dangerous. In fact, they say it’s worse than the absolutist view because even if you’re an absolutist, you’re going to have respect for karma and its effects. But if you’re a nihilist there’s no respect for karma and its effects, and under the influence of that nihilist view, “Oh, there’s no bad!” You hear people say this all the time nowadays. And then under the influence of that kind of misconception people create all sorts of negative karma, destroying themselves, sometimes even destroying the Dharma. (The Dharma from its side is indestructible.)

They say the nihilistic view is so terrible because people misunderstand emptiness to mean nonexistence and thus they negate karma and its effects. When you negate karma and its effects then you stop living an ethical life. When you stop living an ethical life, what do you have left? Anarchy, madness, chaos—internal and external, that’s what you have. That’s why Je Rinpoche just so painstakingly goes through this thing of asserting how conventional truths still exist—they just don’t inherently exist.

At the time when Nagarjuna wrote, in his historical period, people were mostly absolutists. That’s why Nagarjuna was just, “There’s no this and there’s no that and there’s no this and there’s no that”—negate, negate, negate—because his companions were all absolutists. The people around at Je Rinpoche’s time were nihilists, so he was really trying to say, “There’s emptiness, but there’s inherent existence and don’t negate cause and effect.”

What’s quite interesting are both the nihilists and the absolutists have the exact same wrong view. It looks like they have totally different wrong views because one believes everything inherently exists and one believes everything doesn’t exist at all. But in actual fact they both have the same view because both of them think if it exists, it inherently exists, and if it’s empty it’s nonexistent. Both of them believe that. It’s just that for the absolutists, “If it exists it inherently exists”—they go to that side. And the nihilists say, “If it’s empty it doesn’t exist at all”—and they go to that side. But you see that the whole paradigm that they’re operating in is exactly the same. That’s why the way Nagarjuna explains and the way Je Rinpoche explains that the arguments can be applied for both nihilists and absolutists. And that’s why this whole thing of dependent arising and emptiness coming to the same point is so skillful. And why dependent arising is the queen of all reasonings, because it is so skillful to get rid of both extremes.

Verse 14: Strong words of encouragement from Lama Tsongkhapa

Then, the last verse! This last verse in the outline is “Strong words of encouragement so the reader will recognize the truth of the instructions and practice them.” Here’s Je Rinpoche talking to us from his heart:

In this way, when you have realized the exact points of the three principal aspects of the path, by depending on solitude, generate the power of joyous effort and quickly accomplish the final goal, my spiritual child.

We’re Je Rinpoche’s and the Buddha’s spiritual children. We’re their offspring. We’re the next generation coming up so they’re trying to nurture us and grow us into good practitioners. He’s saying when you realize the exact points of the three principal aspects of the path—so when you’ve heard the teachings and you’ve thought about them and you understand them well—don’t be content with just that. But “by depending on solitude,” and what solitude means here is living a simple life, uncomplicating your life, so few possessions, few wants, living in contentment. Solitude also means staying away from the eight worldly concerns. So your mind is isolated from the eight worldly concerns which remember are not objects but mind states. By depending on that solitude “generate the power of joyous effort,”—because we need a lot of joyous effort to really understand this, and to integrate it in our mind, and generate the union of serenity and special insight (the union of shamatha and vipassana) on this. And then “quickly accomplish the final goal,” full Buddhahood, “my spiritual child.”

Always at the end of teaching a text they start reading the first few verses again as something auspicious, so that we leave it left undone [and thus we return again—for more teachings on this!].

I bow down to the venerable Spiritual Masters. I will explain, as well as I am able, the essence of all the teachings of the Conqueror, the path praised by the Conquerors and their spiritual children, the entrance for the fortunate ones who desire liberation.

Listen with clear minds, you fortunate ones who direct your minds to the path pleasing to the Buddha and strive to make good use of freedom and fortune without being attached to the joys of cyclic existence.

Do you get some sense of Je Rinpoche talking to you? It’s like, here was this practitioner, Je Rinpoche was incredible. He had direct line to Manjushri and he would have visions of Manjushri and be able to ask Manjushri his questions about emptiness. When I was in Tibet I was able to go to the place where, yes, I think it was there, that he had some of his visions of Manjushri. I can’t imagine what that must be like, having all these questions and then having a direct line with Manjushri. Anyway, through these verses we get a sense of here’s somebody who’s walked that path and done that and accomplished that. Then out of compassion spelling it all out for us and encouraging us to do the same.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.