Emptiness Teachings Primer
It seems many, if not most, in my groups have very little experience or familiarity with the Buddhist Emptiness Teachings. Due to this, many of my posts and comments must seem bizarre and nihilistic; not so. These powerful teachings, especially “Prasangika”, are really complete paths in themselves. So perhaps everyone could engage with these texts below, and ask questions as needed.
Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso:
“Emptiness ultimately means that genuine reality is empty of any conceptual fabrication that could attempt to describe what it is.”
“Emptiness does not mean complete nothingness, it means dependent origination. Emptiness and dependent arising have the same meaning.”
Twofold Emptiness Explained
The first fold is "emptiness of self":
There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding regarding the question of selfhood and whether a personal, individual self of any kind actually exists. Some think there is a personal self that underlies the fictional self, which is only a conceptual construction. This is the view of an "atman" or "self-soul" that the Buddha thoroughly refuted. The so called conventional self can't be found to exist within the body-mind nor outside the body-mind. That leaves no other option for its existence except within imagination.
In a dark room, a rope may be mistaken to be a snake, along with all the descriptions about snakes that the mind contains. We feel anxiety, fear and our adrenalin and blood pressures go up, as well as heart beat.
But if we look closely at the rope in brighter light, we won't be able to find a snake within the rope, or upon the rope, nor outside of the rope. That leaves only the imagination as its residence. It's the same regarding our snake-self. Our body-mind is like the rope. The mind infers a self as a personal "me" upon and within the body-mind in the darkness of confused mental functioning. We have real feelings felt about this imaginary "me" that create moods, altered bio-chemistry and sense of a "suffering me". But if we introspectively look within our mental events, we won't find a "me" anywhere; not in the body, not in the mind; we only find thoughts and feelings ABOUT a self, but no self is discovered. Then the lights go on and suddenly the subconscious mind ceases to generate the mistaken "me" belief. The personal self or "me" was no more real than the imaginary snake! There is no "liberation or enlightenment" beyond this direct insight and cessation of this cognitive error, and none without it. Read this below.
Khenpo Tsulstrim Gyatso:
"When we realize the selflessness of the individual, however, this whole process stops. The wrong views that have their root in the belief in self cease, then the mental afflictions cease, then karmic actions cease, and as a result of that, birth in samsara’s cycle of existence ceases."
Khenpo Tsulstrim Gyamtso
"We can formulate the following logical reasoning: Karmic actions and results are mere appearances devoid of true existence, because no self, no actor, exists to perform them. This is a valid way to put things because if the self of the individual does not exist, there cannot be any action, and therefore there cannot be any result of any action either."
Khenpo Tsulstrim Gyamtso
"Someone might ask, “Isn’t it nihilistic to think that karmic actions and their results do not exist?” In fact, this is not a nihilistic view because there exists no self to have any nihilistic view. There can be a nihilistic view only if there is someone to hold it, but since there is no one to have any view, then there can be no nihilism. Furthermore, since the thought of nihilism neither arises nor abides nor ceases, there can be no nihilism in genuine reality. Genuine reality transcends the conceptual fabrications of realism and nihilism. It transcends karmic actions and results, and the absence of karmic actions and results as well. If karmic actions and their results do not exist in the abiding nature of reality, then what is the quality of their appearance?
Nagarjuna describes this in the chapter’s thirty-third verse:
Mental afflictions, actions, and bodies, as well as actors and results, are like cities of imaginary beings, like mirages, and like dreams."
Khenpo Tsulstrim Gyatso
"Some people might argue, “There are yogis and yoginis who realize selflessness, and this proves that the self really does exist after all, or else who would be the ones who possessed this realization?”
Nagarjuna answers this claim in the third verse:
"The ones who do not cling to “me” or “mine” do not exist either. Those who do not cling to “me” or “mine” see accurately, So they do not see a self."
The second "fold" is "emptiness of all objectively existing things":
In the Sutra Requested by Madröpa, the Buddha said:
Whatever arises from conditions does not arise. It does not have the nature of arising. Whatever depends on conditions is explained to be empty, And to know emptiness is the way to be conscientious.
IN THIS CHAPTER, Nagarjuna explains the meaning of this passage and proves its validity with logical reasoning. The reason Nagarjuna composed this chapter was that people believe that causal conditions are real. As a result of that, they believe that things really happen. They believe that arising is real. When they believe that, it is difficult for them to believe in emptiness and to gain confidence that all phenomena are empty of inherent existence. However, in order to understand the true nature of reality, we must realize that nothing ever really happens. We must realize that arising and birth are not real. Therefore, Nagarjuna analyzes causes, conditions, and arising, and he proves that they are in fact empty of any inherent nature.
Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso
“Whatever object we analyze, we find that it is merely imputed to exist in dependence upon its parts. Analyzing the parts themselves, we find that they too are imputed to exist in dependence upon their own parts. Down to the subtlest particles of matter imaginable, nothing has any type of existence other than as a mere dependent imputation. Therefore, since there really is no object out there, no reference point for any notions of pleasant or unpleasant, pleasant and unpleasant themselves cannot exist. This is what Nagarjuna teaches in the ninth verse:
How could it be possible for sentient beings who are like illusions or objects that are like reflections, be either pleasant or unpleasant?”
“Nirvana does not truly exist because when we analyze, we cannot find anything or anyone that can actually attain it.”
“IN THIS CHAPTER, Nagarjuna explains the meaning of this passage and proves its validity with logical reasoning. The reason Nagarjuna composed this chapter was that people believe that causal conditions are real. As a result of that, they believe that things really happen. They believe that arising is real. When they believe that, it is difficult for them to believe in emptiness and to gain confidence that all phenomena are empty of inherent existence. However, in order to understand the true nature of reality, we must realize that nothing ever really happens. We must realize that arising and birth are not real. Therefore, Nagarjuna analyzes causes, conditions, and arising, and he proves that they are in fact empty of any inherent nature.”
“We can formulate the following logical reasoning: Karmic actions and results are mere appearances devoid of true existence, because no self, no actor, exists to perform them. This is a valid way to put things because if the self of the individual does not exist, there cannot be any action, and therefore there cannot be any result of any action either.”
“There is no karmic act, no maturation, so even the name “samsara” does not exist.”
“Someone might ask, “Isn’t it nihilistic to think that karmic actions and their results do not exist?” In fact, this is not a nihilistic view because there exists no self to have any nihilistic view. There can be a nihilistic view only if there is someone to hold it, but since there is no one to have any view, then there can be no nihilism. Furthermore, since the thought of nihilism neither arises nor abides nor ceases, there can be no nihilism in genuine reality. Genuine reality transcends the conceptual fabrications of realism and nihilism. It transcends karmic actions and results, and the absence of karmic actions and results as well. If karmic actions and their results do not exist in the abiding nature of reality, then what is the quality of their appearance? Nagarjuna describes this in the chapter’s thirty-third verse: Mental afflictions, actions, and bodies, As well as actors and results, are like cities of gandharvas, like amirages, and like dreams. This verse teaches us that karmic actions and their results do not genuinely exist; they are mere conventions, mere superficial appearances, like cities of gandharvas, mirages, and dreams. Thus, even though actors and actions do not genuinely exist, in apparent reality they do exist as dependently arisen mere appearances. So you do not need to worry or be afraid of reality being nothingness. Reality is appearance and emptiness undifferentiable, and this appearance-emptiness is open, spacious, and relaxed.”
“The Heart of Wisdom Sutra teaches: There is no ignorance nor any ending of ignorance, no aging and death nor any ending of aging and death.”
“Milarepa sang: No meditator and no meditated, No paths and levels traveled and no signs, And no fruition bodies and no wisdoms, And therefore there is no nirvana there,
Just designations using names and statements.”
“This whole passage is a logical reasoning that progresses in stages. First, Milarepa sang that there is no meditator. There is no meditator because there is no self. If there is no meditator, there cannot be any object of meditation, and if there is no object of meditation, there cannot be any path or any signs of progress on the path. If there is no path, there cannot be any fruition at the end of the path in the form of the fruition bodies and wisdoms. If there are no fruition bodies or wisdoms, there is no such thing as nirvana.”
“Since samsara is just a dependently arisen appearance, it is naturally open, spacious, and relaxed. Therefore, we do not have to cleanse ourselves of samsara, only of our thoughts that samsara truly exists.”
“Furthermore, whatever arises in dependence upon causes and conditions does not truly arise. One way to understand this is to see that it is not the case that just one single cause or one single condition can bring something into existence, but rather, that many causes and conditions must come together for any one particular result to arise. Thus, if we look at any particular result and first see that it requires a number of causes and conditions to come together to produce it, we can then look at those causes and conditions and see that each one of them as well requires an incredible number of causes and conditions to cause it to arise. We can go back and back and get to even the most subtle causes and conditions, and we find that these too do not exist independently, but rather can only exist in dependence upon a multitude of their own causes and conditions. Then we realize that nothing exists independently with a nature of its own, that there is nothing truly there. Everything is like a dream and an illusion. The same can be said for all of the thoughts that arise in our minds, whether they are good thoughts, bad thoughts, or neutral ones. There is not a single thought that can arise on its own, that can decide to come to existence and then be born. Thoughts can arise only when many causes and conditions come together to produce them. Since these causes and conditions also exist only in dependence upon their own causes and conditions, and those causes and conditions themselves need their own causes and conditions in order to arise, and on and on, all of them are empty of inherent existence. The arising of thoughts is therefore empty of any inherent nature.”
“Along these lines, in his song No Birth, No Base, and Union, the lord of yogis Milarepa sang: The true nature of appearances is that they’ve never been born. If birth seems to happen, it’s just clinging, nothing more. The spinning wheel of existence has neither a base nor a root. If there is a base or root, that’s only a thought.”
“If there is no “me” in the first place, How could there be anything that belongs to me?”
“CHAPTER 17: AN EXAMINATION OF KARMIC ACTIONS AND RESULT:
Mental afflictions, actions, and bodies, as well as actors and results, are like imaginary cities of gandharvas, like mirages, and like dreams.”
“Similarly, sentient beings are not bound and do not become free.”
“CHAPTER 9: AN EXAMINATION OF WHAT COMES FIRST
The one who experiences perceptions does not exist before, during, or after the experiences of seeing and so forth. Knowing this, all thoughts of an experiencer of perceptions either existing or not existing are over-turned.”
“In Chandrakirti’s text Entering the Middle Way, he explains, “The present does not abide; the past and the future do not exist.”
“Analyzing in this way makes it clear that the three times do not truly exist, that time is just a creation of our thoughts.”
“CHAPTER 7: AN EXAMINATION OF THE COMPOSITE
Arising, abiding, and ceasing do not exist, and therefore there are no composite things.”
Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso:
“The Heart of Wisdom Sutra teaches:
All phenomena are emptiness: They have no characteristics, no birth, no cessation, no stains, no freedom from stains, no decrease, and no increase.”
“Nagarjuna wrote this chapter to explain how it is that views themselves do not exist.”
From Sri Lankan Master Niyananda:
"If, for instance, a whirlpool in the ocean comes to cease, can one ask where the whirlpool has gone? It will be like asking where an extinguished fire has gone. One might say that the vortex has 'joined' the ocean. But that, too, would not be a proper statement to make. From the very outset what in fact was there was the great ocean, so one cannot say that the vortex has gone somewhere, nor can one say that it is not gone. It is also incorrect to say that it has joined the ocean.
A cessation of a whirlpool gives rise to such a problematic situation. What, in short, does it amount to? The vortex ceased and now 'became' the great ocean itself? That is the misunderstood significance of the comparison of the emancipated one to the great ocean.
The commentators do not seem to have paid sufficient attention to the implications of this simile. But when one thinks of the relation between the whirlpool and the ocean, it is as if the realized practitioner has become one with the ocean. But this is only a mis-turn of speech.
In reality, the whirlpool is merely a certain momentary state of the ocean itself. That momentary state (a personal self) is now no more. It has ceased. It is because of that momentary altered state and its whirling self-grasping that there was a manifestation of suffering (and the personal self).
The cessation of suffering could therefore be compared to the cessation of the whirlpool, leaving only the great ocean as it is.
Only so long as there is a whirling vortex (conceptualizing mind) can we point out a 'here' and a 'there'. In the vast ocean, boundless as it is, where there is a whirlpool, or an eddy, we can point it out with a 'here' or a 'there'.
Even so, in the case of the saṃsāric individual, as long as the whirling round is going on in the form of the mental vortex, there is a possibility of designation or naming as 'so-and-so' (identity). But once the mental vortex has ceased, there is actually nothing to identify with, for purposes of (personal) designation. The most one can say about it, is to refer to it as the place where a vortex has ceased.
Such is the case with a Buddha too. Freedom from duality is the cessation of the vortex itself (the conceptualizing mind and it's imaginary self).
We have explained on a previous occasion how a whirlpool or vortex comes to be. A current of water, trying to go against the mainstream, when its attempt is foiled, in clashing with the mainstream, gets thrown off and pushed back, but turns round to go whirling and whirling as a whirlpool. This is not the norm. This is something abnormal. Here is a distortion resulting from an (the egoic mind) attempt to do the impossible (to survive as a self). This is how a thing called 'a vortex' (samsaric mind and self) comes to be."
"Yā c' eva kho pana ajjhattikā paṭhavidhātu, yā ca bāhirā paṭhavidhātu, paṭhavidhātur ev' esā. Taṃ n' etaṃ mama, n' eso 'haṃ asmi, na meso attā 'ti evam etaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ."(from the Buddha)
"Now whatever earth element that is internal, and whatever earth element that is external, both are simply earth element. That should be seen as it is with right wisdom thus: 'this is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.'"
The implication is that this so-called individual, or person, is in fact a vortex, formed out of the same kind of primary elements that obtain outside of it. So then, the whole idea of an individual or a person is a mere momentary self-illusion. The notion of individuality existing in beings is comparable to the apparent individuality of a whirlpool in a stream. It is only a pretence. That is why it is called asmimāna, the conceit 'I am'. In truth and fact, it is only a conceit.”
Prasangika from Gen Lamrimpa:
"The entire universe and everything in it is conceptually designated."
"We say that phenomena are established by the power of conceptual designation."
"Since phenomena do not exist inherently, they must exist conventionally. And since phenomena are established by the power of convention, they exist in a dependent fashion. Phenomena are dependent upon something else; in particular, they are dependent upon conceptual designation."
"There are a number of Buddhist scriptures that make this point. For example, there are sutras that say phenomena are established by conception. Also, Nagarjuna’s writings say that phenomena are established by thought, and Aryadeva makes the same point. All these Buddhist writings say that phenomena are established by convention, and what they mean here is that they are conceptually designated."
"This is an assertion unique to the Prasangika Madhyamaka view. All four Buddhist philosophical systems affirm that phenomena are dependent upon the collection of their preceding causes and conditions. But apart from the Prasangika system, the other Buddhist philosophical systems do not assert that phenomena are established by conception. Advocates of those other systems are not able to comprehend this point."
"Nagarjuna comments that total emptiness, or universal emptiness, remains upon the complete cessation of all appearances of conventional reality. In the absence of all conventional appearances, that emptiness can be called “the clear light of the fourth occasion.” The Buddhist scholar Sangye Yeshe states that this mind of clear light pervades all of space. This indicates the essential nature, or the mode of being, of the awareness (rigpa)."
"We can ask this question in relation to the “I.” How does the “I” exist? First of all, the “I” does not exist except as a conceptual or verbal designation. Apart from that, the “I” has no other mode of existence."
(Translated from Tibetan by B. Allan Wallace)
“For example, someone may think, “Well, the Buddha died, so the Buddha is not here now. The Buddha does not exist now because the Buddha is impermanent.” If someone thinks like that, then the explanation to give is that the dharmakaya of natural purity is permanent and unchanging. The dharmakaya of natural purity is nothing other than the Buddha, and therefore the Buddha is permanent. The Buddha is precisely the natural purity of reality’s basic essence, which never ceases to exist.”
“If you study these reasonings presented in The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, when you receive Mahamudra and Dzogchen explanations of emptiness and lack of inherent reality, you will already be familiar with what is being taught and so you will not need to learn anything new.”