A Survey of the Paths of Tibetan Buddhism (Part 1/3)

28 January 2010 - 5:13am Comments Off

14th Dalai Lama of Tibet


By His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso

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Introduction

In giving an overview of the Buddhadharma, as practiced by the Tibetans, I generally point out that the Buddhism we practice is an integrated form comprising teachings of the low, Bodhisattva and Tantric vehicles, including such paths as the Great Seal. Because quite a number of people have already received initiations, teachings and so on, they might find it helpful to have an explanation of the complete framework.

We pass our lives very busily. Whether we behave well or not, time never waits for us, but goes on forever changing. In addition, our own lives continually move on, so if something goes wrong, we cannot repeat it. Life is always running out. Therefore, it is very important to examine our mental attitude. We also constantly need to examine ourselves in day to day life, which is very helpful to give ourselves guidelines. If we live each day with mindfulness and alertness, we can keep a check on our motivation and behaviour. We can improve and transform ourselves. Although I haven’t changed or improved myself much, I have a continuing wish to do so. And in my own daily life, I find it very helpful to keep a check on my own motivation from morning until night.

During these teachings, what I will be describing is essentially a kind of instrument with which to improve yourself. Just as you might take your brain to a laboratory to examine your mental functions more deeply, so that you can reshape them in a more positive way. Trying to change yourself for the better is the point of view a Buddhist practitioner should adopt.

People of other religious traditions, who have an interest in Buddhism and who find such features of Buddhist practice as the meditative techniques for developing love and compassion attractive, could also benefit by incorporating them into their own tradition and practice.

In Buddhist writings many different systems of belief and tradition are explained. These are referred to as vehicles, the vehicles of diving beings and human beings and the low vehicle (Hinayana), the great vehicle (Mahayana), and the vehicle of Tantra.

The vehicles of human and divine beings here refer to the system which outlines the methods and techniques for bringing about a betterment within this life or attaining a favourable rebirth in the future as a human or god. Such a system highlights the importance of maintaining good behaviour. By performing good deeds and refraining from negative actions we can lead righteous lives and be able to attain a favourable rebirth in the future.

The Buddha also spoke of another category of vehicle, the Brahma vehicle, which comprises techniques of meditation by which a person withdraws his or her attention from external objects and draws the mind within, trying to cultivate single-pointed concentration. Through such techniques one is able to attain the highest form of life possible within cycle existence.

From a Buddhist point of view, because these various systems bring great benefit to many living beings, they are all worthy of respect. Yet, these systems do not provide any method for achieving liberation, that is, freedom from suffering and the cycle of existence. Methods for achieving such a state of liberation enable us to overcome ignorance, which is the root cause of our spinning in the cycle of existence. And the system containing methods for obtaining freedom from this cycle of existence is referred to as the Hearer’s or Solitary Realizer’s vehicle.

In this system, the view of selflessness is explained only in terms of the person not of phenomena, whereas in the great vehicle system, the view of selflessness is not confined to the person alone, but encompasses all phenomena. When this view of selflessness gives rise to a profound understanding, we will be able to eliminate not only ignorance and the disturbing emotions derived from it, but also the imprints left by then. This system is called the great vehicle.

The highest vehicle is known as the Tantric vehicle which comprises not only techniques for heightening your own realization of emptiness or mind of enlightenment, but also certain techniques for penetrating the vital points of the body. By using the body’s physical elements, we can expedite the process of realization, eliminating ignorance and its imprints. This is the main feature of the tantric vehicle.

I would now like to explain these points in greater detail from an evolutionary or historical point of view.

According to the viewpoint of the Kashmiri Pandit Shakyashri, who came to Tibet, Lord Buddha lived in India 2500 years ago. This accords with the popular Theravadin view, but according to some Tibetan scholars, Buddha appeared in the world more than 3000 years ago. Another group says it was more than 2800 years. These different proponents try to support their theories with different reasons, but in the end they are quite vague.

I personally feel it is quite disgraceful that nobody, not even among Buddhists, knows when our teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha, actually lived. I have been seriously considering whether some scientific research could be done. Relics are available in India and Tibet, which people believe derive from the Buddha himself. If these were examined with modern techniques, we might be able to establish some accurate dates, which would be very helpful.

We know that historically the Buddha was born as an ordinary person like ourselves. He was brought up as a prince, married and had a son. Then, after observing the suffering of human beings, aging, sickness, and death, he totally renounced the worldly way of life. He underwent sever physical penances and with great effort undertook long meditation, eventually becoming completely enlightened.

I feel the way he demonstrated how to become totally enlightened set a very good example for his followers, for this is the way in which we should pursue our own spiritual path. Purifying your own mind is not at all easy, it takes a lot of time and hard work. Therefore, if you choose to follow this teaching you need tremendous willpower and determination right from the start, accepting that there will be many, many obstacles, and resolving that despite all of them you will continue the practice. This kind of determination is very important. Sometimes, it may seem to us that although Buddha Shakyamuni attained enlightenment through great sacrifice and hard work, we his followers can easily attain Buddhahood without the hard work and difficulties he underwent. So, I think that the Buddha’s own story has something to tell us.

According to popular legend, after his complete enlightenment, the Buddha gave no public teaching for 49 days. He gave his first discourse to the five who had formerly been his colleagues when he lived as a mendicant. Because he had broken his physical penances they had abandoned him and even after he had become totally enlightened they had no thoughts of reconciliation towards him. However, meeting the Buddha on his way, they naturally and involuntarily paid him respect, as a result of which he gave them his first teaching.

The First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma

This first teaching, known as the first turning of the wheel of dharma, he gave on the basis of the four noble truths. As most of you know, these four noble truths are the truth of suffering, the truth of its origin, the truth of cessation and the path leading to cessation.

When he taught the four noble truths, according to the sutra we find in the Tibetan edition, he taught them in the context of three factors: the nature of the truths themselves, their functions and their effects.

The four truths are really very profound for the entire Buddhist doctrine can be presented within them. What we seek is happiness and happiness is the effect of a cause and what we don’t want is suffering and suffering has its own causes too.

In view of the importance o the four noble truths, I often remark that the both the Buddhist view of dependent arising and the Buddhist conduct of non-harming emphasize the conduct of non-violence. The simple reason for this is that suffering comes about unwanted due to its cause, which is basically, our own ignorant and undisciplined minds. If we want to avoid suffering, we have to restrain ourselves from negative actions which give rise to suffering. And because suffering is related to its causes the view of dependent arising comes in. Effects depend upon their causes and if you don’t want the effects, you have to put an end to their causes.

So, in the four noble truths we find two sets of causes and effects: suffering is the effect and its origin is the cause. In the same manner, cessation is peace and the path leading to it is the cause of that peace.
The happiness we seek can be achieved by bringing about discipline and transformation within our minds, that is by purifying our minds. Purification of our minds is possible when we eliminate ignorance, which is at the root of all disturbing emotions, and through that we can achieve that state of cessation which is true peace and happiness. That cessation can be achieved only when we are able to realize the nature of phenomena, to penetrate the nature of reality, and to do this the training in wisdom is important. When it is combined with the faculty of single-pointedness we will be able to channel all our energy and attention towards a single object or virtue. Therefore, the training in concentration comes in here and for the training of concentration and wisdom to be successful requires a very stable foundation of morality, so the practice of morality or ethics comes in here.

Ethics

Just as there are three types of training – in wisdom, concentration, and morality – the Buddhist scriptures contain three divisions – discipline, sets of discourses, and knowledge.

Both male and female practitioners have an equal need to practice these three trainings although there are differences in the vows they take.

The basic foundation of the practice of morality is restraint from the ten unwholesome actions: three pertaining to the body, four pertaining to speech and three pertaining to thought.

The three physical non-virtues are:

  • Taking the life of a living being, from an insect up to a human being.
  • Stealing, taking away another’s property without his consent, regardless of its value, and whether or not you do it yourself.
  • Sexual misconduct, committing adultery.

The four verbal non-virtues are:

  • Lying, deceiving others through spoken word or gesture.
  • Divisiveness, creating dissension by causing those in agreement to disagree or those in disagreement to disagree further.
  • Harshness, abusing others.
  • Senselessness, talking about foolish things motivated by desire and so forth.

The three mental non-virtues are:

  • Covetousness, desiring to possess something that belongs to another.
  • Harmful intent, wishing to injure others, be it in a great or small way.
  • Wrong view, viewing some existent thing, such as rebirth, cause and effect, or the Three Jewels as non-existent.

The morality practiced by those who observe the monastic way of life is referred to as the discipline of individual liberation (Pratimoksha). In India, there were four major schools of tenets, later producing eighteen branches, which each preserved their own version of the Pratimoksha, the original discourse spoken by the Buddha, which laid down the guidelines for monastic life. The practice observed in the Tibetan monasteries follows the Mulasarvastavadin tradition in which 253 precepts are prescribed for fully ordained monks or Bhikshus. In the Theravadin tradition the individual liberation vow of monks comprises 227 precepts.

In providing you with an instrument of mindfulness and alertness, the practice of morality protects you from indulging in negative actions. Therefore it is the foundation of the Buddhist path. The second phase is meditation, which leads the practitioner to the second training which is concerned with concentration.

Concentration

When we talk of meditation in the general Buddhist sense, there are two types – absorptive and analytical meditation. The first refers to the practice of the calmly abiding or single-pointed mind and the second to the practice of analysis. In both cases, it is very important to have a very firm foundation of mindfulness and alertness, which is provided by the practice of morality. These two factors, mindfulness and alertness, are important not only in meditation, but also in our day to day life.

We speak of many different states of meditation, such as the form or formless states. The form states are differentiated on the basis of their branches, whereas the formless states are differentiated on the basis of the nature of the object of absorption.

We take the practice of morality as the foundation and the practice of concentration as a complementary factor, an instrument, to make the mind serviceable. So, later, when you undertake the practice of wisdom you are equipped with such a single-pointed mind that you can direct all your attention and energy to the chosen object. In the practice of wisdom, you meditate on the selflessness or emptiness of phenomena, which serves as the actual antidote to the disturbing emotions.

The Thirty-seven Aspects of Enlightenment

The general structure of the Buddhist path, as outlined in the first turning of the wheel of dharma, consists of the thirty-seven aspects of enlightenment. These begin with the four mindfulnesses, which refer to mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind and phenomena. Here, however, mindfulness refers to meditation on the suffering nature of cyclic existence by means of which practitioners develop a true determination to be free from this cycle of existence.

Next are the four complete abandonments, because when practitioners develop a true determination to free through the practice of the four mindfulnesses, they engage in a way of life in which they abandon the causes of future suffering and cultivate the causes of future happiness.

Since overcoming all negative actions and disturbing emotions and increasing positive factors within your mind, which are technically called the class of pure phenomena, can be achieved only when you have a very concentrated mind, there follow what are called the four factors of miraculous powers.

Next come what are known as the five faculties, five powers, eightfold noble path and seven branches of the path to enlightenment.

This is the general structure of the Buddhist path as laid down in the first turning of the wheel of dharma. Buddhism as practised in the Tibetan tradition completely incorporates all these features of the Buddhist doctrine.

The Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma

In the second turning of the wheel of dharma, the Buddha taught the Perfection of Wisdom or Prajnaparamita sutras, on Vultures Peak, outside Rajgir.

The second turning of the second wheel of dharma should be seen as expanding upon the topics which the Buddha had expounded during the first turning of the wheel. In the second turning, he taught not only the truth of suffering, that suffering should be recognised as suffering, but emphasized the importance of identifying both your own suffering as well as that of all sentient beings, so it is much more extensive. When he taught the origin of suffering in the second turning of the wheel of dharma, he referred not the disturbing emotions alone, but also the subtle imprints they leave behind, so this explanation is more profound.

The truth of cessation is also explained much more profoundly. In the first turning of the wheel of dharma cessation is merely identified, whereas in the Perfection of Wisdom sutras the Buddha explains the nature of this cessation and its characteristics in great detail. He describes the path by which sufferings can be ceased and what the actual state called cessation is.

The truth of the path is similarly dealt with more profoundly in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. The Buddha taught a unique path comprising the realization of emptiness, the true nature of all phenomena, combined with compassion and the mind of enlightenment, the altruistic wish to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. Because he spoke of this union of method and wisdom in the second wheel of dharma, we find that the second turning expands and develops on the first turning of the wheel of the dharma.

Although the four noble truths were explained more profoundly during the second turning of the wheel of dharma, this is not because certain features were explained in the second that were not explained in the first. That cannot be the reason, because many topics are explained in non-Buddhist systems which are not explained in Buddhism, but that does not mean that other systems are more profound than Buddhism. The second turning of the wheel of dharma explains and develops certain aspects of the four noble truths, which were not explained in the first turning of the wheel, but which do not contradict the general structure of the Buddhist path described in that first discourse. Therefore, the explanation found in the second is said to be more profound.

Yet, in the discourses of the second turning of the wheel we also find certain presentations that do contradict the general structure of the path as described in the first, thus the great vehicle speaks of two categories of sutras, some which are taken at face value and are thought of as literally true, whereas others require further interpretation. So, based on the great vehicle approach of the four reliances, we divide the sutras into two categories, the definitive and the interpretable.

These four reliances consist of advice to rely on the teaching, not on the person; within the teachings rely on the meaning, not on mere words; rely on definitive sutras, not those requiring interpretation; and rely on the deeper understanding of wisdom, not on the knowledge of ordinary awareness.

This approach can be found in the Buddha’s own words, as when he said, ‘O, Bhikshus and wise men, do not accept what I say just out of respect for me, but first subject it to analysis and rigorous examination.’

In the second turning of the wheel of dharma, the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, the Buddha further explained the subject of cessation, particularly with regard to emptiness, in a more elaborate and extensive way. Therefore, the great vehicle approach is to interpret those sutras on two levels: the literal meaning, which concerns the presentation of emptiness, and the hidden meaning which concerns the latent explanation of the stages of the path.

The Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma

The third turning of the wheel contains many different sutras, the most important of which is the Tathagata Essence sutra, which is actually the source for Nagarjuna’s collection of praises and also Maitreya’s treatise the Sublime Continuum. In this sutra, the Buddha further explores topics he had touched on in the second turning of the wheel, but not from the objective viewpoint of emptiness, because emptiness was explained to its fullest, highest and most profound degree in the second turning. What is unique about the third turning is that Buddhas taught certain ways of heightening the wisdom which realizes emptiness from the point of view of subjective mind.

The Buddha’s explanation of the view of emptiness in the second turning of the wheel, in which he taught about the lack of inherent existence, was too profound for many practitioners to comprehend. For some, to say phenomena lack inherent existence seems to imply that they do not exist at all. So, for the benefit of these practitioners, in the third turning of the wheel the Buddha qualified the object of emptiness with different interpretations.

For example, in the Sutra Unravelling the Thought of the Buddha he differentiated various types of emptiness by categorizing all phenomena into three classes: imputed phenomena, dependent phenomena and thoroughly established phenomena, which refers to their empty nature. He spoke of the various emptinesses of these different phenomena, the various ways of lacking inherent existence, and the various meanings of the lack of inherent existence of these different phenomena. So, the two major schools of thought of the great vehicle, the Middle Way (Madhyamika) and the Mind Only (Chittamatrra) schools, arose in India on the basis of these differences of presentation.

Next is the tantric vehicle, which I think has some connection with the third turning of the wheel. The word ‘tantra’ means ‘continuity’. The Yoga Tantra text called the Ornament of the Vajra Essence Tantra explains that tantra is a continuity referring to the continuity of consciousness or mind. It is on the basis of this mind that on the ordinary level we commit negative actions, as a result of which we go through the vicious cycle of life and death. On the spiritual path, it is also on the basis of this continuity of consciousness that we are able to make mental improvements, experience high realizations of the path and so forth. And it is also on the basis of this continuity of consciousness that we are able to achieve the ultimate state of omniscience. So, this continuity of consciousness is always present, which is the meaning of tantra of continuity.

I feel there is a bridge between the sutras and tantras in the second and third turnings of the wheel, because in the second, the Buddha taught certain sutras which have different levels of meaning. The explicit meaning of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra is emptiness, whereas the implicit meaning is the stages of the path which are to be achieved as a result of realizing emptiness. The third turning was concerned with different ways of heightening the wisdom which realizes emptiness. So I think there is a link here between sutra and tantra.

Different Explanations of Selflessness

From a philosophical point of view, the criterion for distinguishing a school as Buddhist is whether or not it accepts the four seals: that all composite phenomena are impermanent by nature, contaminated phenomena are of the nature of suffering, all phenomena are empty and selfless and nirvana alone is peace. Any system accepting these seals is philosophically a Buddhist school of thought. In the great vehicle schools of thought, selflessness is explained more profoundly, at a deeper level.

Now, let me explain the difference between selflessness as explained in the second turning of the wheel and that explained in the first.

Let us examine our own experience, how we relate to things. For example, when I use this rosary here, I feel it is mine and I have attachment to it. If you examine the attachment you feel for your own possessions, you find there are different levels of attachment. One is the feeling that there is a self-sufficient person existing as a separate entity independent of your own body and mind, which feels that this rosary is ‘mine’.

When you are able, through meditation, to perceive the absence of such a self-sufficient person, existing in isolation from your own body and mind, you are able to reduce the strong attachment you feel towards your possessions. But you may also feel that there are still some subtle levels of attachment. Although you many not feel a subjective attachment from your own side in relation to the person, because of the rosary’s beautiful appearance, its beautiful color and so forth, you feel certain level of attachment to it, that a certain objective entity exits out there. So, in the second turning of the wheel, the Buddha taught that selflessness is not confined to the person alone, but that it applies to all phenomena. When you realize this, you will be able to overcome all forms of attachment and delusion.

Just as Chandakirti said in his Supplement to Nagarjuna’s ‘Treatise on the Middle Way’, the selflessness explained in the lower schools of tenets, which confine their explanation of selflessness only to the person, it is not a complete form of selflessness. Even if you realize that selflessness, you will still have subtle levels of clinging and attachment to external objects, like your possessions and so forth.

Although the view of selflessness is common to all Buddhist schools of thought, there are differences of presentation. That of the higher schools is more profound in comparison with that of the lower schools of thought. One reason is that even though you may have realized the selflessness of persons, as described by the lower schools, in terms of a person not being a self-sufficient or substantially existent entity, you may still cling to a certain misconception of self, apprehending the person as inherently, independently or truly existent.

As realization of the selflessness of persons becomes increasingly subtle, you realize that the person lacks any form of independent nature or inherent existence. Then there is no way you can apprehend a self-sufficient person. Therefore, the presentation of selflessness in the higher schools is much deeper and more profound that of the lower schools.

The way the higher schools explain selflessness is not only more powerful in counteracting the misconception of the true existence of persons and phenomena, but also does not contradict phenomena’s conventional reality. Phenomena do exist on a conventional basis, and the realization of emptiness does not affect this.

The Buddha’s different presentations of selflessness should be viewed in order as providing background for the Buddhist view of dependent arising. When Buddhists speak of dependent arising, they do so in terms of afflictive phenomena that are causes of suffering, whose consequences are suffering. This is explained in terms of ‘the twelve links of dependent arising’, which comprise those factors completed within one cycle of rebirth within the cycle of existence. Therefore, dependent arising is at the root of the Buddhist view.

If you do not understand selflessness in terms of dependent arising, you will not understand selflessness completely. People’s mental faculties are different. For some, when it is explained that all phenomena are empty of inherent existence, it may seem that nothing exists at all. Such an understanding is very dangerous and harmful, because it can cause you to fall into the extreme of nihilism. Therefore, Buddha taught selflessness roughly for persons with such mental faculties. For practitioners of higher faculties, he taught selflessness on a subtler level. Still, no matter how subtle the realization of emptiness may be, it does not harm their conviction in phenomena’s conventional existence.

So, your understanding of emptiness should complete your understanding of dependent arising, and that understanding of emptiness should further reaffirm your conviction in the law of cause and effect.

If you were to analyze the higher schools’ presentation from the viewpoint of the lower schools, you should find no contradiction or logical inconsistencies in them. Whereas, if you were to consider the lower schools’ presentation from the viewpoint of the higher schools, you would find many logical inconsistencies.

The Four Seals

The four seal mentioned above have profound implications for a Buddhist practitioner. The first seal states that all compounded phenomena are impermanent. The question of impermanence has been expounded most fully by the Sutra Follower (Sautrantika) school, which explains that all compounded phenomena are by nature impermanent, in the sense that due to its being produced from a cause a phenomena is by nature impermanent or disintegrating. If something is produced from a cause, the process of disintegration has already begun. Therefore, its disintegration requires no further cause. This is the subtle meaning of impermanence, that anything produced by cause is ‘other-powered’ in the sense that it depends upon causes and conditions and therefore is subject to change and disintegration.

This is very close to the physicists’ explanation of nature, the momentariness of phenomena.

The second seal states that all contaminated phenomena are of the nature of suffering. Here, contaminated phenomena refers to the type of phenomena which are produced by contaminated actions and disturbing emotions. As explained above, something that is produced is ‘other-powered’ in the sense that it is dependent on causes. In this case causes refer to our ignorance and disturbing emotions. Contaminated actions and ignorance constitute a negative phenomenon, a misconception of reality, and as long as something is under such a negative influence, it will be of the nature of suffering. Here, suffering does not only imply overt physical suffering, but can also be understood as of the nature of dissatisfaction.

By contemplating these two seals concerning the impermanent and suffering nature of contaminated phenomena, we will be able to develop a genuine sense of renunciation, the determination to be free from suffering. The question then arises, is it possible for us ever to obtain such a state of freedom? This is where the third seal, that all phenomena are empty and selfless, comes in.

Our experience of suffering comes about due to causes and conditions, which are contaminated actions and the ignorance which induced them. This ignorance is a misconception. It has no valid support and, because it apprehends phenomena in a manner contrary to the way they really are, it is distorted, erroneous and contradicts reality. Now, if we can clear away this misconception, the cessation (of suffering) becomes possible. If we penetrate the nature of reality, it is also possible to achieve that cessation within our minds and as the fourth seal states, such a cessation or liberation is true peace.

When we take into account the different explanations of various philosophical schools within Buddhism, including the great vehicle schools, it is necessary to discriminate those sutras that are definitive and those requiring further interpretation. If we were to make these distinctions on the basis of scriptural texts alone, we would have to verify the scripture we used for determining whether something was interpretable or definitive against another sutra, and because this would continue in an infinite regression it would not be a very reliable method. Therefore, we have to determine whether a sutra is definitive or interpretable on the basis of logic. So, when we speak of the great vehicle philosophical schools, reason is more important than the scripture.

How do we determine whether something is interpretable? There are different types of scriptures belonging to the interpretable category, for instance, certain sutras mention that one’s parents are to be killed. Now, since these sutras cannot be taken literally, at face value, they require further interpretation. The reference here to parents is to the contaminated actions and attachment which brings about rebirth in the future.

Similarly, in tantras such as Guhyasamaja the Buddha says that the Tathagata or Buddha is to be killed and that if you kill the Buddha, you will achieve supreme enlightenment.

It is obvious that these scriptures require further interpretation. However, other sutras are less obviously interpretable. The sutra which explains the twelve links of dependent arising, states that because of the cause, the fruits ensue. An example is that because of ignorance within, contaminated actions come about. Although the content of this type of sutra is true on one level, it is categorized as interpretable, because when ignorance is said to induce contaminated action, it does not refer to the ultimate point of view. It is only on the conventional level that something can produce something else. From the ultimate point of view, its nature is emptiness. So, because there is a further, deeper level not referred to in these sutras, they are said to be interpretable.

Definitive sutras are those sutras, like the Heart of Wisdom, in which the Buddha spoke of the ultimate nature of phenomena, that form is emptiness and emptiness is form; apart from form, there is no emptiness. Because such sutras speak of the ultimate nature of phenomena, their ultimate mode of existence, emptiness, they are said to be definitive. However, we should also note that there are different ways of discriminating between definitive and interpretable sutras among different Buddhist schools of thought.

In short, the texts of the Middle Way Consequentialist (Madhyamika Prasangika) school, particularly those by Nagarjuna and his disciple Chandrakirti, are definitive and expound the view of emptiness the Buddha taught to its fullest extent. The view of emptiness expounded in these texts is not contradicted by logical reasoning, but rather is supported by it.

Amongst the definitive sutras are also included sutras belonging to the third turning of the wheel of doctrine, particularly the Tathagata Essence Sutra, which is actually the fundamental source of such Middle Way treatises as the Sublime Continuum and the Collection of Praises written by Nagarjuna. Also included in the third turning were other sutras such as the Sutra Unravelling the thought of the Buddha, which according to some Tibetan masters are also categorized as definitive.

These scholars (such as Jonangpas) maintain a unique view of emptiness, which is technically called ‘emptiness of other’, and they speak of different kinds of emptiness qualifying different phenomena. They maintain that conventional phenomena are empty of themselves and ultimate phenomena are empty of conventional phenomena.

You could interpret this explanation of emptiness, that conventional phenomena are empty of themselves, to mean that because conventional phenomena are not their own ultimate nature, they are empty of themselves. But these Tibetan scholars do not interpret it in such a way, they maintain that because phenomena are empty of themselves, they do not exist.

As we know from history that many masters belonging to this group of scholars actually achieved high realizations of the generation and completion stages of tantra, they must have had a profound understanding of their particular interpretation of emptiness. But if we were to interpret emptiness as things being empty of themselves in such a manner that they do not exist at all, it would be like saying that nothing exists at all.

Because they maintain that conventional phenomena do not exist, being empty of themselves, they maintain that their ultimate nature is a truly existent phenomenon that exists in its own right, is inherently existent. And when they speak of the emptiness of this ultimate truth they refer to its being empty of being a conventional phenomenon.

Dharmashri, the son of Yumo Mingyur Dorje, one the proponents of this view, stated in a text I once read that Nagarjuna’s view of emptiness was a nihilistic view.

So, these systems of thought maintain that since conventional phenomena are empty of themselves, the only thing that exists is ultimate truth and that ultimate truth exists truly and inherently.

It is obvious that adherence to such a philosophical point of view directly contradicts the view of emptiness explained in the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, in which Buddha has stated explicitly and clearly that as far as empty nature is concerned, there is no discrimination between conventional and ultimate phenomena. He has explained the emptiness of ultimate phenomena by using many different synonyms for ultimate truth indicating that from form up to omniscience, all phenomena are equally empty.

Although Middle Way Consequentialists, proponents of the highest Buddhist philosophical tenets, speak of phenomena being empty and having an empty nature, this is not to say that phenomena does not exist at all. Rather that phenomena do not exist in or of themselves, in their own right, or inherently. The fact is that phenomena have the characteristics of existence, such as arising in dependence on other factors or causal conditions, therefore, lacking any independent nature, phenomena are dependent. The very fact that they are by nature dependent on other factors is an indication of their lacking an independent nature. So, when Middle Way Consequentialists speak of emptiness, they speak of the dependent nature of phenomena in terms of dependent arising. Therefore, an understanding of emptiness does not contradict the conventional reality of phenomena.

Because phenomena arise in dependence on other factors, causal conditions and so forth, the Middle Way Consequentialists use their dependent nature as the final ground for establishing their empty nature. Lacking an independent nature, they lack inherent existence. The reasoning of dependent arising is very powerful, not only because it dispels the misconception that things exist inherently, but because at the same time it protects a person from falling into the extreme of nihilism.

In Nagarjua’s own writings, we find that emptiness has to be understood in the context o dependent arising. In the Fundamental Text Called Wisdom, Nagarjuna says, ‘Since there is no phenomenon which is not a dependent arising, there is no phenomenon which is not empty.’

It is clear that Nagarjuna’s view of emptiness has to be understood in the context of dependent arising, not only from his own writings, but also those of later commentators such as Buddhapalita, who is very concise but clear, and Chandrakirti in his Commentary on Nagarjuna’s ‘Treatise on the Middle Way,’ Clear Words, his Supplement to (Nagarjuna’s) ‘treatise on the Middle Way’ his auto-commentary to it and also his Commentary on Aryadeva’s ‘Four Hundred’. If you were to compare all these texts, it would become very clear that the view of emptiness as expounded by Nagarjuna has to be understood in terms of dependent arising. And when you read these commentaries, you begin to feel great appreciation for Nagarjuna.

This is a brief explanation of the sutra system of the Buddhist path.

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