The Madhyamaka View of Emptiness

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2023-06-22
AUTHOR: Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro Rinpoche
HITS( 1589)
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The nine yanas of the path

In the Nyingma literature, “nine yanas” or vehicles on the path of Dharma are mentioned. In most sutras, only “two yanas” are mentioned – Mahayana (Great Vehicle) and Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle). Additionally, in some treatises and in tantra, “five yanas” are taught. Of course, there are also countless other ways in which the Dharma is explained. These classifications emerged because of the need to give different levels of teachings to sentient beings in accordance with their individual capacity.

The concept of “nine yanas” is introduced below:

In “nine yanas,” the nine stages from Shravakayana to Dzogchen are all considered non-secular vehicles to liberation; not included is the human-celestial yana.

The human-celestial yana is mentioned in the Guhyagarbha Tantra. In this vehicle, the fundamental belief in cyclic existence and karma, the law of cause and result, leads a person to take up virtuous deeds and abandon non-virtuous deeds. Due to virtuous roots, blessings are created that allow the person to be reborn in the human and celestial realms. The human-celestial yana is also called a secular vehicle. At a higher level are the non-secular vehicles, which from sutra to tantra can be divided into nine stages:

1. Shravakayana (Hinayana) 


2. Pratyekabuddhayana (Hinayana) 


3. Bodhisattvayana (Mahayana – Sutra)(Yogacara, Madhyamaka and higher schools) 


4. Kriya Tantra (Mahayana – Outer Tantra) 


5. Charya Tantra (Mahayana – Outer Tantra) 


6. Yoga Tantra (Mahayana – Outer Tantra) 


7. Maha Yoga (Mahayana – Inner Tantra)(Development stage practice) 


8. Anu Yoga (Mahayana – Inner Tantra)(Completion stage practice) 


9. Ati Yoga (Mahayana–Inner Tantra)(Dzogchen)

The human-celestial yana is the lowest level. Shravakayana, the next level above, takes the fundamental view in the human- celestial yana one step further. It also believes in cause and result and the cycle of life and death, but rejects the notion of a “self” which is asserted in the human-celestial yana. The view in Shravakayana and Pratyekabuddhayana is basically the same; Yogacara expands on this view but refutes certain aspects of it. For instance, Shravakayana claims there is no “self in person” but the four elements – earth, water, fire and wind – exist, so there is “self in phenomena.” Yogacara believes there is neither “self in person” nor “self in phenomena.”

Apart from that, Yogacara asserts all phenomena are created by the mind, a position which Madhyamaka also holds. However, Madhyamaka denies the existence of the alaya consciousness. The view in Madhyamaka is higher than in Yogacara (here we refer specifically to the Yogacara view in the four schools of Buddhist philosophy, not to aspects of the view expounded in the Lankavatara Sutra and in other sutras). In the writings of Nagarjuna on Madhyamaka and those of Vasubhandu and Asanga on Yogacara, for example, the Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, Twenty Verses on Consciousness Only, and Thirty Verses on Consciousness Only (these texts are also in circulation in Chinese-speaking areas), it shows clearly the view in Madhyamaka is more profound than in Yogacara. The highest view, over and above Madhyamaka, is tantra. This is a progressive practice in which each of the nine yanas presents us with new ideas that uphold but also repudiate the previous view.

Of course, only academics in comparative religion have an interest in studying this at great length. We can also get a general overview, but that should not be our priority. As Buddhists, we must have the right view: an accurate understanding of the cycle of life and death, the universe, human life and all worldly phenomena and matter; at the very least, we should comprehend the true nature of reality. This is the basis of liberation; even in the absence of realization, this understanding is essential.

Establishing no-self

Firstly, we need to ask ourselves: what are the things with which we come into contact twenty-four hours a day? All of us arrive into this world with a view that is inherent at birth; this view is not reliant on external circumstances or guidance from others; in Buddhism, it is called “innate self-attachment.” It is “innate” because it is not conferred by our parents or teachers, but inherent at birth. It is “self-attachment” because it clings from moment to moment to our own self-existence. Our lives revolve around the existence of this “self’; if this “self” does not exist, we would not have to do any of the things we now do for ourselves.

How then do we infer this “self” does not exist?

For example, if we want to check out a car, we can see on the outside a chassis and four wheels. To get a closer look, we can open the hood of the car and see the structure inside. For an even closer look, we can remove the parts and examine them. That way we are in a better position to say whether the car is in good condition. If we judge the car by its appearance alone, we can only establish the concept of a “four-wheel vehicle.”

Or if we want to examine a house, it appears on the outside only as a place someone can live in. To get a closer look, we need to know what kind of material is used in its construction. This requires that we conduct an inspection to determine whether it is a wood, stone, or steel and cement structure.

Therefore, to fully understand a thing, we must be able to go beyond the surface and explore its deeper meaning. In the same way, if we want to comprehend the self and phenomena, we need to investigate how things outside come into being, and how our mind is constructed. This understanding can only be established through thorough analysis.

The methodology is similar to that used to examine the car and house. However, we need to point out that in investigating the type of material used in constructing the house, whether stone or steel and concrete, most people are just content to see the structure of the house; there is no need to take a further look at the nature of that material. But from our perspective, it is essential.

In sutra we are taught how to reason. As an example, assume we have a piece of fabric; our eyes tell us it is a piece of fabric that can be made into clothing. But if we take the fabric apart, it becomes a pile of threads. Faced with this large pile of threads, where is the fabric we saw a moment ago? At this time, we should think: perhaps that piece of fabric never existed. Or perhaps the fabric was there but disappeared after it was taken apart. If we think the fabric never really existed, then “what is the material that we usually buy to make our clothes?” Or if we think the fabric was there but disappeared after it was torn up, then “where did it go?” We need to give serious thought to these questions. They are not an argument set forth by any particular school but a critical proposition.

We can continue to investigate the nature of the fabric as follows. After taking apart the fabric and examining it, we come to the conclusion: it is made of threads. If we then take one of these threads and take it apart, we reach the conclusion: it is made of even finer threads, silk or wool. Once again, where is the thread that was taken apart? Did it ever exist? If not, what is it that we saw before it was taken apart? What is the fabric composed of? If the thread was there but disappeared after it was taken apart, where did it go? This process by which an image appears then disappears – is it not like a rainbow, a dream, an illusion?

Let us now take a closer look at the pile of wool threads. If we are conducting the investigation with our eyes, a fine strand of wool is the limit. However, we can still cut up this strand of wool into many sections as tiny as dust particles. Each section can no longer be considered wool at this point. If we continue to divide these dust-like sections until they cannot be divided any further (i.e. empty), what is left? Please note the final result is most important. Can this minute dust particle be divided indefinitely? Or only up to a point? Some say it can be divided into the smallest dust particle but no further. Others say it can be divided indefinitely. We believe both viewpoints are incorrect. Who is to say the smallest dust particle cannot be further divided?

We know that the concept of six directions is east, south, west, north, up and down. Does a micro dust particle have six directions? The answer is most definitely yes. This implies there are six directions that are even more refined. The east direction has its own east, south, west, north, up and down; the east of the east direction also has its own east, south, west, north, up and down. It is the same with all six directions; they can all be divided again and again until the dust particle no longer exists.

Likewise, if a second can also be divided indefinitely, this second will last forever and never come to an end. A minute will be even longer, not to mention an hour; there will be no difference to us between day and night. From a secular standpoint, a second is an absolute concept; but in another space-time continuum, it is not exactly so. For instance, a dime consists of ten pennies which can be counted, starting with one penny and ending with ten pennies when all are used up. From the standpoint of time, an hour has sixty minutes, a minute has sixty seconds, but a second contains a figure so large it cannot be described, just as the stars in the sky cannot be counted; thus, the second will not come to an end, not after a night, two nights or longer. We cannot use up the second, since it is endless and without limit. This second will remain a second forever. Like we are here together in this second; when you leave this place in a while, you will still be in this second – this much is certain; if at the time you leave, the second has ended, it can hardly be called endless. Therefore, if tomorrow is the same second as yesterday, the concept of time no longer exists.

Having thus examined time, let us go back to analyzing phenomena. One may ask about this watch in my hand: how many dust particles is it composed of? If the answer is infinite, what about a house? It is also composed of infinite dust particles. If both are made up of infinite dust particles, why do they appear so different in mass and weight? Please note the dust particle mentioned here is a unit of measurement; whether it is the house or watch we are referring to, the dust particle is the same unit. Just as a “gram” is a unit of mass; it is the common standard against which all things big or small are measured.

We know there is more mass in ten grains of rice than five grains of rice, because of the difference in quantity. Why then is the house so much bigger than the watch if they are similarly composed of infinite dust particles? Where does the difference in size come from? The rice that we eat should also have an infinite number of dust particles; if so, we will never be able to finish a bowl of rice. Some say our appetite is limitless; if our appetite is limitless, we will never be full but in fact that is not true. It is thus clear if we use an infinite number of dust particles as a basis of measurement, a tiny strand of hair is the same as a house, since they both contain infinite dust particles. In that case, the mass and weight of the hair and the house cannot be established.

From a different angle, we can try to see objects as having a limit or boundary. Where is this “limit”? Take our previous example: the east still has east, south, west and north; the north still has east, south, west and north; if we keep dividing each of the directions like this, a limit which cannot be divided any further can only be established arbitrarily by our mind. In reality, every object has a boundary, so it gets smaller and smaller when divided until it reaches a dust-like limit. But our mind is limitless, so an object can be “divided indefinitely” if we contemplate doing so. A watch is limited in mass; it gets smaller and smaller when divided; when it cannot be divided further, it disappears. This is as taught in the Dharma: a dust particle has neither form nor color. At least not in the way that we see form and color. Scientists have now discovered the existence of a “wave” in wave-particle duality, but that is no more than a very coarse concept. When an object “cannot be divided” any longer, it means if we try to divide it further, it cannot be found.

All dust particles vanish this way. What is left is spaciousness – this is emptiness at the basic level, the negation of existence. Clearly phenomena are without substance, but in our eyes, they literally exist – this is dependent arising. In sum, objects that are finite in scope cannot be divided indefinitely; at some point in time, a limit is reached beyond which they cannot be divided. When objects cannot be broken down further, that is emptiness.

Ordinarily, if you want to use a table, you do not have to examine it, just use it. If you want to examine it – the table is composed of wood planks, the wood planks can be divided further, and so on – you will not find the table at the end. When the table cannot be broken down further, like the car and the house in our previous example, it disappears.

If we wish to understand the true nature of our world and the universe, we can follow the methodology above; at the end we will discover everything is like the sky, there is nothing there. This is the view that Chandrakirti held: if you want to own an object, don’t examine it; if you examine it, you will be left with nothing and feel “disappointed.”

By way of the analysis above, we should fully understand we live in our own illusion twenty-four hours a day. The things we used to think are very real do not exist at all. If we take a step further and examine this so-called self – our skin, muscles, bones, inner organs and so forth – it is also composed of dust particles; like the world outside, the “self” does not exist. Our six kinds of consciousness, or eight kinds of consciousness, are also empty.

Realization of emptiness is essential to liberation

As an ordinary person, we do not need to examine a table in order to use it; we only need to be mindful of cause and result and cyclic existence. This is the viewpoint of the human- celestial vehicle. If we choose to take a step further and practice Madhyamaka or Yogacara, the view and practices of the human- celestial vehicle and Shravakayana are overly simple.

This is how the world is: the external environment and our mind exist as long as we do not examine their true nature; when we examine it, we are left with nothing. This is the natural order or essence of phenomena, not something the Buddha thought up and wanted us to contemplate on. If it is just a rule, we have no reason to accept it. If we accept the rule, it is dogma. The truth is based on evidence; it can undergo analysis and cannot be changed by anyone at will.

Likewise, if you hope to find a self, then forgo your investigation into whether or not a self exists. Because if you look for the self, it cannot be found. Since beginningless time, we have been misled into thinking the self exists and have thus sowed the seed of cyclical existence. The concept of emptiness, which negates the existence of both phenomena and the self, is the only thing that can actually help us advance on the path to liberation.

Hereof, we would advise those who are attached to external objects to avoid contemplation of this kind – just keep dreaming, do not wake up. When you learn to contemplate, it will be like waking up from a big dream! Do not give thought to this question if you want to fully enjoy the material pleasures this world has to offer. But of course if you keep on doing so, you will never be free of suffering !

On the surface, it may seem nothing has been gained from the practices in Madhyamaka or Yogacara after attaining realization. Actually, “attaining nothing” is precisely what we want – this is realization of emptiness. In everyday life, if we lose something and cannot find it, we become very disappointed. But in the practice of emptiness, we are looking for “nothing.” When we have this view, even if we do not attain realization, at least we have an understanding of emptiness.

Dependent arising and quantum physics

Perhaps some people consider the view of emptiness and its practice to be dogma. This is an absolute mistake. However, regarding our discussion above, academics and scientists should conduct a thorough inquiry into this subject matter. Without due consideration or analysis, the view of emptiness cannot be called religious dogma or superstition. Scientific exploration is specifically embodied in the ongoing research on matter such as atoms, atomic nuclei and fundamental particles – electrons, neutrons, protons, photons, etc. Physicists currently believe a quark or a subquark is the smallest constituent of matter which cannot be further broken down. Actually, this is still inconclusive. With the help of particle accelerators, they have now discovered the existence of a wave that co-exists with the particle. Assuming even more advanced equipment in the future, they will discover new matter. However, they will never be able to rely on instruments to probe the mysteries of the mind.

Despite being held up as a standard, science is at a loss to explain how the mind works. The rapid development of research from classical mechanics to quantum mechanics has led to significant discoveries on the state of matter; with each new finding, a byword is established. Although in sutra, the name used is different, the definition of matter in science and in sutra is very similar. However, in quantum mechanics, a fundamental particle is said to exist; this premise has never changed. In Buddhism, there is no fundamental particle to speak of; all particles can be broken down again and again until they no longer exist. Hence, the view of emptiness in Buddhism goes well beyond the concept of a fundamental particle. In similarly investigating the basic nature of phenomena, Sakyamuni Buddha chose “no-self” and as a result guided sentient beings towards liberation; regrettably, science chose to produce nuclear weapons and invited a path of destruction. If we stay deluded and do not wake up, we have only ourselves to blame if mankind is brought to extinction. This is a very important difference between Buddhism and science.

Self-realization of emptiness, self-liberation

With an understanding of emptiness, we are only able to sow the seeds of virtue. But realizing emptiness is not an idle phrase, it has to be experienced. The process of realizing emptiness is the process of weakening the attachment to oneself. With practice, “self-attachment” will gradually diminish, but the wisdom of “no-self” will slowly increase. This is the way to liberation. We would be fooling ourselves if we think burning incense and prostrating to the buddhas will get us there. If we seek liberation, we should be like a person who is walking; our eyes should watch the road, our two legs should be moving. If we see but do not take a step, liberation is far away in the distant future; if we don’t see, we cannot move a single step. To see is to establish the view of emptiness; to move is practice emptiness accordingly. Our practice should not be arbitrary, like flipping through a book on the Middle Way when we have nothing to do, getting a quick read on the concept of emptiness, indulging in idle talk on “no-self in phenomena” and so forth. However much we may know, we cannot attain liberation without direct experience and realization.

In Buddhism, dependent arising is a fundamental concept. All things, whether mind or phenomena, come into being as a result of causes and conditions. We have been trapped in the cycle of existence lifetime after lifetime also because of causes and conditions. If causes and conditions are not necessary, would the Buddha also transmigrate in samsara? Clearly, there is no result without a cause, no arising without a condition; everything is produced this way. The cause of cyclic existence is primarily ignorance and desire. Ignorance is not the absence of knowledge; if so, a wall or stone is also ignorant. Ignorance is not knowing the true nature of reality, which causes attachment to the wrong view – self-attachment; with attachment to the self comes desire for worldly things; the result is endless existence in samsara.

Therefore, we must fully comprehend “no-self” in order to escape the cycle of life and death; it is like having wisdom eyes that can clearly see the path to liberation. The next step is to practice. Actually, it is not difficult to practice “no-self.” With practice, everyone can be liberated; unfortunately, so many people know this but few actually practice.

All of us firmly believe in our own opinions and civility. But how civilized are we? We cannot even distinguish between what is essential and what is not. In our short lifespan, we perceive the most important thing to be mere trifle and discard it, but embrace worthless things and end up in samsara. This is ignorance, a perverted perception. We should know our most important goal in life is to seek liberation. However, certain activities such as releasing living creatures or reciting mantras are seen as a form of recreation to be taken up after tea or mealtime. Some people, after practicing a few days in the mountain, return home because they cannot survive without a bath. Which is more important, liberation or the bath? Clearly, it is not anything outside but we ourselves who are the obstacle to our liberation! If we only make empty promises but do nothing, liberation can never be attained.

People often talk about “receiving blessings”; the buddhas certainly have the power to confer blessings, which are not without benefit. Sakyamuni Buddha once said, “We are our own protector.” That is to say we are our own savior. If we don’t help ourselves, and expect others to come to our rescue, liberation is not possible. Some say the buddhas are compassionate and will lift us out of cyclic existence. This is wishful thinking!

In the Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish, there is this story of a monk who was responsible for logistics in the monastic community where he lived. Once, a benefactor handed him a gem as an offering to the monastics in the community, but he kept it for himself. Later when the monastics found out about it, they told the monk to either sell the gem and buy food for everyone or return it to them, but he refused. With every cause, there is a corresponding result. Due to this transgression, the monk had to endure immense and prolonged suffering in hell and in the animal realm. During the lifetime of Sakyamuni Buddha, the monk took rebirth as a fish with four legs and lived in a pond. One day, the Buddha took his disciples to the edge of the pond to tell them the causes and conditions that led to the monk’s rebirth as a fish; moreover, he said the three buddhas before him had also taken their disciples to the edge of the pond to tell them this story; the Buddha then said the buddhas after him will also bring their disciples to this place and recount the same story. Nonetheless, the thousand buddhas of the Fortunate Aeon will not be able to save the fish. This is all due to the monk’s own karma.

We can protect ourselves only by aspiring to attain liberation and practicing the right way, no one else can help us. For instance, on the surface it may appear Amitabha Buddha is saving us, but we ourselves must truly cultivate bodhicitta, abandon evil and practice virtue, show remorse for wrongdoing, and work diligently on our studies and practice in order for Amitabha Buddha to deliver us. If we do nothing, Amitabha Buddha cannot save us either. It is not that the Buddha is not compassionate or unfair, he is unable to help those who diverge from the substance of the teachings. The Buddha can only transmit the methods; whether we practice or not is entirely up to us. If we continue to follow our habitual tendencies, lose sight of what is important, and chase after worldly things that have no value, it’s hard to say when we will ever attain liberation.

Some people who think highly of themselves believe: I have listened to The Innermost Heart Drop of the Guru ( Lama Yangtik)  and other Dzogchen teachings, received many empowerments, appeared in the company of so many living buddhas, I will definitely attain buddhahood even without practice! They then wait for liberation to drop into their lap. This is just absurd !

To be conferred the Dzogchen empowerment and lineage is indeed sacred; it is the result of infinite blessings accumulated over countless kalpas. If we do not break the tantric vows, we will attain liberation within seven lifetimes. However, let us calm down and examine whether our habitual tendencies still exist after listening to the Dzogchen teachings. Have we purified our conduct? Have we experienced a change in our mind? Actually, it is easy to tell if we have changed. After listening to The Innermost Heart Drop of the Guru and the Dzogchen teachings, do we still delight in and never tire of the things we used to be interested in; are we still unconcerned with the things we did not want to do before; do we still refrain from practice? If we follow this process of examination, we may find we have not changed at all.

A person may encounter the rare opportunity to listen to the Dzogchen teachings, but if he or she becomes very proud and complacent, and fails to observe the samaya commitments, this kind of person whom we have mentioned in previous teachings is headed towards darkness from light. We must not take this casually!

As ordinary people, everything we have done since beginningless time is perverted. We normally do not undertake virtuous deeds; even when we recognize the need to practice virtue, we only do so superficially. Perhaps we practice giving just to gain fame and profit in this world. Some people burn incense and prostrate to the buddhas to secure a successful career, gain wealth and be promoted, ensure their children go to college and bring honor to their ancestors. But these have nothing to do with liberation. To attain liberation, we must not allow these activities to preoccupy us and waste our precious human birth.

Practicing emptiness

If you want to be a true practitioner, you should set aside at least an hour each day to practice. The specific practice is as follows: with your body in the sevenfold meditation posture of Vairochana, first take refuge, then generate bodhicitta, lastly enter into contemplation. For most people, the practice of no-self begins with examining one’s own body, not the world outside. Using the method described earlier, the body can be successively broken down into its parts until it is reduced to emptiness; this is a relatively simple method. Next examine the mind which likewise can be reduced to an instant. In Madhyamaka and tantra, this practice is known as mind watching mind; once the mind calms down, it will notice the mind actually does not exist and is fundamentally empty.

Whether the method used is examination or mind watching mind, the key is to thoroughly experience the nonexistence or emptiness of all things. People ordinarily feel the circumstances in a dream are real; as soon as they wake up, they discover it is all an illusion. In the same way, if we do not examine the world inside and outside, everything appears substantive and very real. Using the method above or other methods to examine things, we will discover the world that we cling to is like a dream or a rainbow, which basically does not exist. This is the actual state of all phenomena, the irrefutable and unchanging truth.

After following this method of examination and gaining realization of no-self or emptiness, maintain that state of realization and level of concentration. The longer we stay focused the better, but at the early stage, begin with half a minute or a minute only; when discursive thoughts arise, go back to the examination and start over again. Repeat this process over and over, then end with a dedication to enlightenment. This is a relatively easy practice on emptiness.

At the beginning, there is no point in elaborating on the generation or completion stage and other advanced practices. Only this kind of practice is dependable and appropriate. As long as we stay firm and do not regress, work diligently on the practice, our self-attachment will gradually weaken, our desire, anger, ignorance, arrogance and other afflictions will completely vanish. We deserve to be called a true practitioner only in this way!


 

【Notes】

TheInnermostHeartDropoftheGuru:oneoftheFourPartsofNyingtikbythe great Dzogchen master Longchenpa. To compile the most profound pith instructions of Dzogchen, this teaching is the essence of all the instructions Longchenpa gave in his lifetime. It is a precious text unsurpassed for dispelling doubt and obstacles to practice; moreover, it is said to contain inconceivable blessings of mind transmission.