Teachings given in New York City in May 1998 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on The Spirit of Manjushri
His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Session Three: Emptiness
In Buddhism there is a discussion of something called the imprints of karma. As to what exactly is an imprint is quite problematic. It is not said to be neither physical nor mental but is almost in the form of a potency, something like a potentiality. One could almost say it is a form of subconscious continuum. When one talks about the subconscious sometimes it is understood in terms of a seed or potential, sometimes it is purely an imprint, something that imprints our consciousness, the imprints which predispose us to act in a certain way.
Perhaps one way in which to help understand how this continuum of karmic imprints is maintained is to look at the way in which memory functions within one’s life. Memory involves a recollection of an experience one has had before. There is a gap between the actual experience and the subsequent memory of it. There must be something that connects the two, the intuitive experience of it. Whereas to what exactly is the faculty, on which these imprints are stored, some maintain that it is the fundamental store consciousness, the alayavijnana. Some maintain it is the sixth mental consciousness.
From the Tibetan point of view the highest level of practitioner is someone who dedicates his/her entire life to the pursuit of the Dharma and seeks solitude. They are said to be the lions among practitioners. There could also be serious practitioners who can continue to pursue their own path and make progress but at the same time share their experiences and knowledge with others leading the form of life of a teacher.
Many of these practices have to do with adopting a certain way of thinking, of being, and making these thought processes as a part of one’s own way of being. This is not to suggest that whatever I have stated here is something that even I can put into practice. There is no suggestion that whatever one knows will be realized. What is true is that at the beginning one needs to develop an overview, an overall sense of the direction of the path. This is a level of conceptual understanding. I think it is crucial to at least have this kind of a grand picture.
For example if one is constructing a large house there is no possibility of having the whole construction built at once. The actual practice has to be done on a step-by-step basis. This isn’t to say that at least the architect needs to have an overall plan and a conception of how the building will eventually unfold.
As to the specific question as to where to begin, I think this depends upon the mentality and temperament of the practitioner. Some should begin with reflection on the impermanent and transient nature of existence whereas for another reflection on emptiness may be a better place to begin. Yet for others a more devotional approach of seeking reliance on a spiritual master may be much more inspiring and effective. What is important is that once one has actually engaged on the path then one should have a highly integrated approach whereby all the key elements of the path are complete. They will have a cumulative effect on the transformation of the practitioner’s mind.
However there is at a very general level a definite sequence to the path. The first stage of practice should be focused on dealing with the negative manifestations of one’s delusions. This practice has to do with morality practice, the practice of refraining from the ten negative actions. If one looks at specific negative activities such as killing, stealing, sexual misconduct and so on, on many of these points there is a broad consensus between the legal status of those actions and the moral status of those actions. Refraining from killing is said to be moral and where it is said to be legal depends very much on the state of mind and motivation of the person in avoiding committing such a negative deed.
If one’s motivation is purely out of fear of the legal consequences of murder then although in actual fact the person refrains from a negative act, one can not say that it is a Dharma practice as it is motivated by fear of the legal consequences. Whereas if someone refrains from committing a murder, not out of fear of the legal consequences but out of understanding that such an act is a negative deed, then this would be a form of Dharma practice. Still here it is not a profound Dharma practice as the motivation is still selfish. If a person refrains from committing murder out of the motivation that just as one cherishes one’s own life so does this other person and murder is a most harmful act to that person, then this is a profound Dharma practice. Although in actual fact the act is the same in all three cases but depending upon the motivation present there is a difference whether the act is legal, moral or profound.
Existence, which is constituted by and caused by karma and delusion, is unenlightened existence itself and is the suffering of conditioning. What is crucial here is to have a deep understanding of the negativity of the delusions. The stronger one’s realization of the negativities of the delusions then the stronger will be one’s force or sense of repulsion to the consequences of one’s delusions.
In terms of trying to cultivate a deep conviction in the negativity of the delusions of one’s mind, perhaps the best way to do this is to refer back to one’s own personal experience. When we judge our state of mind, we can see that everytime there is a strong occurrence of a negative emotion like hatred or anger, we see an immediate disturbance within our mind. It destroys any sense of composure we may have and creates restlessness. From our own personal experience we can see that many of the psychological problems, confusion and restlessness are the consequences of negative emotions and thoughts. In fact in the whole history of human existence violence on a large scale from war to domestic violence is all a direct consequence of strong negative afflictions and emotions.
However if one examines the relationship one has with one’s own negative emotions, one is not fully aware or mindful of their destructive nature. In fact on the contrary, one tends to embrace them. For example if confronted with a threat or provocation, strong emotions like anger arise in one. It seems to give a strength or courage to deal with the given situation. It is almost as if one willingly embraces these negative emotions and seeks them as a kind of protector. In reality the occurrence of such strong emotions in one creates all sorts of problems. To begin with one loses one’s sense of proportion and loses the ability to judge between right and wrong. Also the extra boldness one gets is often blind and one is not able to utilize it in the right way.
We spoke about renunciation, the true renunciation that is the genuine aspiration to seek liberation from samsara. We spoke about bodhicitta that is the genuine aspiration to attain full enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. The factors which obstruct the attainment of these objects of aspiration are the delusions and obstructions to knowledge. It is the insight into emptiness that is really the antidote to the elimination of these obstructive forces.
Generally speaking on the practical level someone is not a practicing Buddhist based on whether or not the person has taken refuge in the Three Jewels. The difference between Buddhist and non-Buddhist philosophical schools of thought is made on the basis of whether or not someone subscribes to what is known as the Four Excellences of Buddhism.
All composite phenomena are transient, impermanent and all phenomena are empty and selfless. Nirvana alone is true peace. The first of the Four Excellences is the recognition that anything that is a composite, anything, which comes into being from causes and conditions, is transient and impermanent. Second, anything which is a product of polluted causes, contaminated causes, in the final analysis is a form of suffering.
The third is all phenomena are empty and selfless or devoid of self-existence. The absence of self-existence referred to here is the general notion of anatman, no-self that is common to all the schools of Buddhism. Of course there are one or two exceptional cases where such as the Vatsiputriya school or the Personalist schools which posit some notion of a real existence of self. On the whole, philosophically speaking, all Buddhist schools reject any notion of an atman or soul principle. Therefore the doctrine of no-self is fundamental philosophically for all schools of Buddhism.
The fourth and final point is that nirvana; the true cessation of suffering, alone is the state of lasting joy and peace. These are the Four Excellences of Buddhism that are shared by all schools of Buddhism.
It is said in ancient Indian schools of non-Buddhist thought that all posit an atman or soul principle which is said to be permanent, autonomous and independent from the mind and the body which constitute the empirical reality of the person. In the non-Buddhist schools of thought there is a belief in some kind of eternal soul which is totally separate, categorically separate from, distinct from the body, the contingent nature of the person, body and mind. Buddhist schools on the whole reject that kind of atman therefore the emphasis is on the no-self, the anatman.
There is also another level of the understanding of the doctrine of no-self. The no-self is understood in terms of the rejection of a self that is the master or controller over our aggregates such as the body and mind yet is still a part of it. This kind of clinging to an autonomous self—although this self is not completely separate from the mind/body aggregate but still it enjoys some kind of autonomy—this is also said to be a form of belief in an atman or a soul. The majority of the Buddhist schools reject this.
When one talks about the Four Excellences in Buddhism, no-self or selflessness needs to be understood along these lines not necessarily along the lines of subtle no-self as presented by Mahayana schools. Buddhist schools on the whole reject any notion of a self that is independent of mind and body, the aggregates. The notion of a self that is permanent, eternal and unitary is also rejected. This is the basic Buddhist position on the whole; it rejects such a soul principle. However as to what exactly is the individual person there is a divergence of opinion among Buddhist thinkers. Some maintain it is the totality of the aggregates, which is the true person. Some maintain that it is mental consciousness, which is the true person.
Buddhist schools on the whole accept the person itself as a concept, a nominal construct. Many Buddhists however believe that underlying the nominal construct there must be some real reference, some real person who should be findable under ultimate analysis.
On the whole much of the Buddhist position is to identify the person with either the continuum of the consciousness or the aggregates. In the case of the Cittamatra school they posit a continuum of consciousness which enjoys a stable foundation, the alayavijnana, the fundamental store consciousness. All of these schools basically share a commonality that is to suggest there must be a substantially real person who should be findable when one seeks for the reference behind the term and concept of the person. This suggests that these Buddhist schools are not entirely content with the notion of a person as a mere construct, a mere nominal reality. Rather they seek some kind of objective grounding to what a person really is, to find some kind of objective reference to the term and concept of personhood.
However, Madhyamika thinkers such as Candrakirti and Buddhapalita rejected all of that and argued that there is no real need to seek for some kind of reference for our concept of person and self and find some kind of objective reality that has a degree of intrinsic existence or identity. From Candrakirti and Buddhapalita’s point of view the very urge to seek for some kind of objective grounding in this manner suggests a clinging to some kind of reified reality. Candrakirti argued that this way of looking at the world stems from a belief in some kind of inherent existence of things. If things enjoyed inherent reality that means they enjoy a degree of independence. If things enjoyed independent existence then that would contradict their fundamental nature which is the interdependent nature of reality. The fact those things come into being as the result of many causes and conditions shows they lack independent existence. Candrakirti rejected that even a person has any intrinsic reality. The person is a nominal construct.
This is not to suggest that a person or self does not exist but a person and self do exist. They posses a nominal reality, a construct. But it is a construct that comes into being in dependence upon the basis of designation such as the physical and mental aggregates. Neither body nor consciousness nor the continuum of consciousness nor the aggregate of mind and body can be said to be the person. The person is something dependent on these bases of designation.
Even if one attains a level of understanding of no-self, not at the subtlest level but at the gross level of realization of the absence of self as enjoying any substantial reality, that in itself will have a powerful impact upon one’s emotional life. It will immediately decrease the force of many of the derivative delusory states of mind.
In the Mahayana tradition in the Mind-only and Middle Way schools in addition to the doctrine of no-self or person, there was the acceptance of the no-self of phenomena. If one looks at the understanding of the no-self of phenomena in the Mahayana schools, for example like the Yogacara or Cittamatra school, the Mind-only school, they argue that many of the perceptions of the world that we have, especially the perception of physical realities, in the final analysis don’t posses any objective reality. They are projections of the mind. The recognition of this is the realization of emptiness of external phenomena.
Physical objects that we perceive as real do not have an objective existence; they are projections of the mind. They are in a sense extensions of the mind. There is no separate reality “out there”. Within the Yogacara or Cittamatra there is a very sophisticated system of thought in which one’s perception of the external world is accounted for in terms of how they are projections coming out of one’s own mind. They speak of fifteen different kinds of projections. In any case they are traced to four principal types of imprints which give rise to these kinds of perceptions. The first is said to be imprints that give rise to the perception of similar kinds. For example when one sees a blue object, one recognizes it as a blue object and this ability to recognize a blue object as blue is said to be the consequence of an imprint within one’s own mind left by successive, previous experiences of the perception of blueness.
The Cittamatrins also state that one’s ability to relate the concept “blue” to blue objects is caused by an imprint called the concept creating imprint. This imprints on one’s consciousness by previous experiences. They suggest that if one examines one’s thought when perceiving a blue object not only is it identified as blue but also one correlates the concept of blueness with the blue object. Furthermore if one examines one’s perceptions, one tends to imagine as if the blue object exists objectively as the true reference of the concept of blueness and the term blue. In reality the relationship between the term and concept on the one hand and the blue object on the other, is really arbitrary. There is nothing objectively real on the part of the blue object that justifies it to be the basis of that designation. However this is not how it appears to us and Cittamatrins argue that this is a false perception.
This is what causes the perception of duality between the blue object and the perception of blue. This duality is the result of karmic imprints. This is what lies at the root of the cycle of confusion. The Cittamatrins because of their basic philosophical standpoint of the question of whether or not there is an objective reality or physical world have a different interpretation of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. They do not subscribe to literal interpretation of the Prajnaparamita Sutras. For them the key to understanding the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras lies in the Samdhinirmocana Sutra (The Sutra Unraveling the Thought), where one finds a discussion of what is known as Three Nature theories. These are the imputed nature, the dependent nature and the ultimate nature of reality.
Cittamatrins would interpret the teachings of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras arguing that one can not take them literally as a literal acceptance would amount to a form of nihilism as one would reject any notion of identity. The Cittamatrins thus reinterpret the statement that all phenomena are empty, all phenomena are absent of identity, by interpreting the notion of identity differently in different contexts. For example when discussing the identitylessness of imputed nature one can understand it in terms of self-defining characteristics and so on.
They argue that the perception of the external world arises as the result of the imprints that exist within the consciousness. They speak of different kinds of imprints. Imprints that give rise to the perception of objects and imprints that give rise to delusory perceptions and so on. We find in the Cittamatra texts a very sophisticated process of reasoning which they described in terms of the Four Ways or Four Stages in one’s quest for the understanding of the ultimate truth through analysis of the name, reference, identity and the characteristics. Thus one arrives at the final point where one’s perception of empirical reality, external reality as enjoying some kind of objective existence, is in the ultimate analysis an illusion.
The very perception of grasping at some sort of a belief in this duality of subject and object is the fundamental ignorance. The overcoming of this duality takes place through the realization of the absence of this duality between subject and object. Thus for the Cittamatrins the absence of this subject/object duality is the highest emptiness, the ultimate truth.
Regardless of the validity of the Cittamatrin schools position, this kind of understanding of the nature of the external world definitely has a very high therapeutic value, liberative value. This is in the sense that after having negated any notion of some kind of abiding, eternal soul principle then when one shifts one’s focus to the nature of the external world and begins to view them in the final analysis as a result of our own mental projections, this in itself would have a tremendous impact on reducing the intensity of one’s grasping at the external world. Once one realizes that much of what one perceives of the reality “out there” is a creation of one’s own mind, it will automatically effect a loosening of this kind of strong grasping, strong clinging, to the really existent “out there”. One can not deny the liberative value of the Cittamatrin’s theory.
From the Madhyamika point of view the problem with the Mind Only school’s position is that in some sense they are only going half way in the journey. They have been able to reject the objective or intrinsic reality of the external world but in the process of rejecting the duality between subject and object, they have ended up solidifying the existence of consciousness and mind leaving some kind of absolute or intrinsic existence or reality to consciousness. From the Madhyamika point of view even this kind of belief in the existence of the mind and consciousness will have the effect of constricting one as it can lead to many of the derivative delusions.
Within Madhyamika thought one can see that because there is no explicit statement on the part of Nagarjuna as to the question of whether or not the external or physical world possess some kind of objective reality, there is a divergence of opinion. For example one of the earliest commentators on Nagarjuna, Bhavaviveka, has maintained that there is no need to reject the objective reality of the external world. Although one can maintain that all phenomena are in the final analysis empty of independent existence, there is no need to totally reject some degree of objective reality to the external world.
There are other Madhyamika thinkers like Santaraksita and Kamalasila who share many of the doctrines of the Cittamatrin school. Particularly they reject the objective reality of the external world while integrating that kind of insight within the overall Madhyamika position that in the final analysis that both subject and object are devoid of independent existence. There is quite a divergence even amongst the Madhyamika thinkers.
However there is a third line of interpretation of Nagarjuna’s thought represented by people like Buddhapalita, Candrakirti and Santideva, the three principal representatives of this line of thought, who depart quite a lot from the Cittamatra school and also from Bhavaviveka’s interpretation as well as Kamalasila’s and Santaraksita’s interpretations. They differ from the Cittamatra School as the Cittamatrins make discrimination between the non-reality of the physical, external world and the true existence of consciousness. Buddhapalita, Candrakirti and so on reject this. They argue just as the Mind Only school, that when subjecting the notion of the external, physical world as being composed of atomic constituents in terms of the indivisibility and finite nature of the atom to a dissecting analysis that ultimately the very notion of physical reality tends to disappear. Buddhapalita and Candrakirti argue that one can apply the same kind of deconstructive analysis to even mental events such as consciousness. This is done by subjecting these events to analysis in terms of their constituents, the temporal stages of the continuum of consciousness. When one subjects consciousness to this kind of analysis, one again begins to lose the very notion of what exactly is a mental event. They argue there is no need to discriminate between the external world and the consciousness as far as having inherent existence.
Similarly they differ from people like Bhavaviveka by arguing that he ultimately believes in some kind of intrinsic nature that can be validly established by consciousness. Whereas people like Buddhapalita and Candrakirti reject this arguing that there is nothing in an ordinary perception that is not tainted by the perception of intrinsic reality. It is only when one attains the non-conceptual, intuitive realization of emptiness that one can gain a state of mind totally free of such contamination or delusion. Therefore Candrakirti and Buddhapalita argue that just because a form of perception is deceptive does not necessarily mean that it is not valid. One can have a valid cognition of an object but at the same time the perceptual level can have a degree of deception or illusion.
The point Buddhapalita and Candrakirti are making is that so long as one succumbs to the temptation to seek some sort of objective grounding for our perception, seeking an entity that enjoys an intrinsic reality “out there”, then one is still under the power of grasping, clinging to some type of true existence, some kind of independent existence. Therefore one should be able to have a worldview that is valid within the framework of conventional validity where one does not seek for some kind of ultimate grounding. One can make sense of one’s perceptions at the conventional level where cause and effect or subject and object can be accepted in relational terms.
One can identify at least five different levels of emptiness or no-self. First is the emptiness of a soul which is said to be permanent, unitary and so on. Second is the absence of self as some sort of substantial reality. Third is the emptiness of subject/object duality. Fourth is the emptiness of some kind of intrinsic reality that is not dependent upon the perceiving mind. The fifth level of emptiness is the emptiness of the Prasangika School which is the emptiness of inherent existence.
When one talks about the no-self nature of reality or emptiness, there are many different levels of understanding, five have been already discerned here. If one looks at these five different levels of emptiness, although they are all equal in being a concept of understanding emptiness, the difference is that while one may have realized the first level this is no guarantee that one will not fall under the temptation of grasping at real existence. For example, one have a realization of the absence of a soul as a unitary, permanent entity while at the same time one can continue to hold on to a belief of some kind of substantial reality of the self. Even if one has realized the lack of a substantial entity of self, one can continue to believe in the empirical reality of the physical world as having some kind of independent existence.
This suggests that even if one has attained the first, second or third level of the realization of emptiness, one is still not free from clinging or grasping at some kind of intrinsic existence. Therefore one is then not completely free from the causal mechanism of producing within one the negative emotions like attachment. In contrast if one has realized the highest level of emptiness, the emptiness of inherent existence, and it is vibrant and vivid within the mind, it really precludes neither any possibility nor any room for clinging or grasping at any notion of intrinsic existence. This shows that the later levels are subtler than the earlier levels.
On what grounds does one arrive at the conclusion that nothing really possess inherent existence? One can relate this to one’s own personal experience. In our naive perception of the world, whether it is an internal experience or a perception of an empirical object, one tends to believe in an inherent reality of these things as if they really exist “out there”. One feels they are tangible and that one can point one’s finger at the object. When one examines carefully and probes for what there is, then the object begins to disappear.
However this is not to suggest that nothing exists. Our own direct, empirical experience of being in the world testifies to the existence of ourselves as sentient beings and also our interaction with objects in the world testifies to the existence of the world around us. The question is if things can not be found to exist when we probe for their ultimate nature but if at the same time our empirical experience suggests that they do exist, in what sense can we understand them as being existent? Since objective reality with some kind of independent existence becomes completely untenable, this leaves only one alternative, that is to say the existence of things must be understood at the nominal level as nominal reality.
Once one has gained this sort of understanding that the existence of phenomena, things and events, can be understood only in terms of a nominal reality, one refocuses one’s attention to one’s self and the objects around one, then one will realize this is not how one tends to perceive oneself and the world. Through this kind of process of analysis one can arrive at the conclusion that although the world and oneself appears to be as if they enjoy some kind of independent existence, but in reality this perception is false and illusion.
As to the specific application of the forms of reasoning to arrive at such a conclusion, one finds in the Madhyamika literature the reasoning that seeks the absence of identity and difference. As a result of one’s prolonged analysis when one arrives at a certain conviction that things and events definitely are devoid of inherent existence, one gets to a point where one’s understanding of this will be very firm. As a result of prolonged familiarity with this kind of understanding it is possible to arrive at a point where one’s perception or realization will be content-free as if it is the mere absence.
Although I am not suggesting that the realization of emptiness requires the attainment of tranquil abiding, samatha, but what seems to be true is that without the attainment of calm-abiding, one’s realization of emptiness can not really progress much. What seems to be true is the deeper one’s conviction in the emptiness of intrinsic existence or inherent existence, the more liberated one will become in terms of grasping and clinging at objects and self. Therefore one will also begin to untie the normally imprisoning process whereby one tends to grasp at things and objects with strong attachment and emotional reactions.
Also what seems to be true is if one examines the nature of many of one’s delusions and afflictions of the mind, one finds a strong grasping at the object of that emotion whether it be lust, hatred or attachment. Any understanding of emptiness will have a direct effect on undermining the delusions. This understanding cuts through the heart of the inherent existence of the object of one’s delusion. On the other hand if one looks at the positive states of mind, they are free of these clinging and grasping; therefore the realization of emptiness cannot harm them but rather reinforce them.
Isn’t the whole understanding and thought processes pertaining to emptiness undermining to conventional reality, the reality of one’s day-to-day experience? In this respect Lama Tsong Khapa makes an important point in The Three Principal Elements of the Path were he reminds us that generally speaking in all philosophical tenets it is the perception of appearance that dispels the extreme of non-existence and the perception of emptiness that dispels the extreme of existence.
Buddhapalita really sums up the Madhyamika position on how the understanding of emptiness reinforces one’s belief in the reality of the empirical world, the conventional everyday life. He sums up the points expressed in a wonderful passage in the Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way) by Nagarjuna. In it Nagarjuna states anything that is dependently originated has been taught to be emptiness and this is dependently designated. This is the path of the middle. Buddhapalita explains here that one’s true understanding of emptiness must take place in terms of dependent origination. One could almost say that there is a creation between dependent origination and emptiness. The fact of the dependence of things and events in itself suggests the emptiness of independent existence or inherent existence. The fact that things are devoid of inherent existence suggests that very dependent nature. Therefore in some sense they are two different sides of the same thing, two different ways of looking at the same thing. Therefore Buddhapalita has suggested a way of understanding Nagarjuna’s teachings on emptiness in a very unique way where emptiness and dependent origination are equated with each other.
When one has developed such an understanding it is said that the very perception of appearance dispels the extreme of existence and the very perception of emptiness dispels the extreme of non-existence. What happens here is a reversal process of what normally happens in other schools of thought because the appearance suggests a way of relating to the world which is within the nominal reality. Because of this it rejects any form of intrinsic existence and because emptiness is understood in terms of dependent origination, the very concept of emptiness suggests things do exist.
What exactly are the criteria by which one can determine whether something is existent or not? Here one can discern three criteria. One is an object of consciousness or knowledge that its concept exists. The second is the convention known is not contradicted by another valid cognition. The third criterion used is such a convention is not negated by an ultimate analysis that probes into the real mode of being.
If one takes the example of the horn of a rabbit, one can have a concept of this. One can have an image of it and one can also use terms like rabbit’s horn. Although the concept can exist but one can not say the horn of a rabbit is real, as the perception of the non-existence of a rabbit’s horn will directly contradict the view that a rabbit has a horn. The third criterion is needed because certain philosophical postulates such as the alayavijnana, the store consciousness, and the notion of atman are concepts that are posited as a result of reasoned philosophical thinking. Therefore if these things are real they should be able to withstand ultimate analysis however which is not the case. It is on the basis of these three criteria that one can determine whether something exists or not.
Candrakirti tried to come up with an understanding of the nature of existence whereby no belief in any kind of inherent existence is posited but at the same time one has the possibility of making a real substantial distinction between a false reality and a real entity. An example is the difference between a dream person and a real person. One must have a way of distinguishing between the two. This is the essence of Candrakirti’s philosophy where a way of understanding existence is developed which would not involve forcing a belief in some kind of intrinsic reality of things and events.
It is on the basis of developing such an insight into the profound emptiness that one can attain either liberation from samsara by counteracting the fundamental ignorance and the derivative delusory states of mind or when complemented by bodhicitta one can attain full enlightenment through the practice of emptiness. So with this teaching on the Three Principle Elements of the Path by Tsong Khapa ends with a beautiful exhortation to practice which reads, “O son, When you realize the keys of the three principal elements of the path as they really are, seek solitude and cultivate strong effort and quickly reach the final goal”. This is advice we need to adopt.
End of third teaching