Teachings on Lamrim Chenmo

By His Holiness the Dalai Lama

In July 2008, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama gave a historic six-day teaching on The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lamrim Chenmo), Tsongkhapa's classic text on the stages of spiritual evolution. Translator for His Holiness was Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D.

This event at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania, marked the culmination of a twelve-year effort by the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center (TBLC), New Jersey, to translate the Great Treatise into English. The transcripts were kindly provided to LYWA by the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center, which holds the copyright. Webcast recordings of these teachings are available through His Holiness’ official website.

The transcripts have been published in a wonderful book, From Here to Enlightenment, edited by Guy Newland and published by Shambhala Publications. We encourage you to buy the book from your local Dharma center, bookstore, or directly from Shambhala.

Day Five, Afternoon Session, July 14 2008

Transcript # 8


Questions for the Dalai Lama

Thupten Jinpa: “Your Holiness, in American culture, for many people it is considered disgraceful or unacceptable to show weakness, to show pain or to show need.”

His Holiness: [discussion with Thupten Jinpa in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: “How can one show compassion by helping someone who is unwilling to admit their pain or need by asking for help?”

His Holiness: [discussion with Thupten Jinpa in Tibetan]

His Holiness: I don’t know. I think… I think better to ask some experts. Maybe they have some sort of ideas. I don’t know.

Thupten Jinpa: “How is it possible to maintain the practice of non-grasping when grieving the death of someone that you love, especially when it is a sudden death, and one is in great shock?”

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So in many instances like this, a lot depends on what kind of overall outlook on life that you have. And this is in fact where perspectives like the illusion-like understanding of the nature of reality really will have an impact.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So here I think it is important to make a distinction between forms of grasping, if one can use that word: for example, when someone generates a strong compassion in the face of a suffering sentient being. In that instance (the person who is experiencing this great compassion for the suffering sentient being) there is a genuine form of attachment, of focus—an engagement with the object of that compassion. So that kind of attachment and engagement and turning towards or holding that object—it’s not a distorted form of grasping. And it’s not the form of grasping that one needs to get rid of.

The form of grasping that one needs to get rid of is a form of grasping that is grounded upon some form of falsification of the object which involves an element of distortion such as afflictions and so on, particularly grasping at the substantial existence of the object. So in… so therefore in some texts, some texts say that mental states such as compassion and faith, they are by their very nature virtuous qualities. Therefore they cannot be simultaneous with an afflicted state of mind.

However, some other texts even speak of afflicted compassion or afflicted faith. So regardless of whatever it may be, so for example in our case, those who do not have the realization of emptiness, when we generate a strong devotion towards the Buddha, maybe it is possible in that faith, that strong devotion we feel for the Buddha, there may be an element of grasping at the substantial reality or existence of the Buddha. So that is a form of afflicted devotion.

However, it is important to make the distinction that the form of grasping that one needs to avoid is really the grasping that is rooted in some form of falsification and distorted perception. It’s not the kind of attachment or focus or holding that experiences like compassion generate.

So although experientially these two forms of grasping may feel like the same,— phenomenologically speaking, they are the same—but in terms of the overall environment within the mind, they are quite different. In one case, in the case of compassion, there is a more sound basis; in the case of a distorted grasping, there is no sound basis. So that phenomenologically they may be experiences similar but their mental environments are very different.

His Holiness: So it seems there is some understanding about absence of independent existence that may not directly affect on our destructive emotion. But gradually that understanding, you see, gradually changing our whole attitude toward, I think, external object as well as internal object. So through that way gradually then these destructive emotions then reduce or at least their intensity…

Thupten Jinpa:…intensity…

His Holiness: …reduced. The positive, constructive emotion still further…

Thupten Jinpa: …enhanced.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: There might also be differences based on different individuals depending upon their own physical constitution, mental states and so on.

His Holiness: Next question.

Thupten Jinpa: “Your Holiness, I feel agitated to see and hear the Shugden protesters outside. How do I help myself? And also please address this issue as many are misinformed.”

His Holiness: [discussion with Thupten Jinpa in Tibetan]

His Holiness: That can’t help. Actually this is a problem. Now last, I think, three hundred seventy years. So still that problem remains. During Fifth Dalai Lama, you see, this problem started.

So actually from 1951 until early ’70, I myself also one of the worshippers of this spirit. So actually, previously, I also one of them. Then around early ’70… of course, I am not going into detail—boring.

Actually, you see, there are different sorts of methods to investigate. And also reading the autobiography of the past many great lamas, mainly great lamas of the yellow hat sect. Suppose if this Shugden is something truly reliable, then most of these great lamas after Fifth Dalai Lama, I think, must be…

Thupten Jinpa:…practitioners…

His Holiness: …practice. That’s not the case. So I developed some doubt. Then, thorough investigation. Then it became clear. And one sort of… [continues in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So for example in one of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s writings, he very explicitly explains his position vis-a-vis this spirit worship and identifies what it is and what were the causes and conditions giving rise to the arising of this. And what are the functions, destructive functions, of this particular spirit.

And he identifies the condition from which it arose as a form of false aspiration or distorted aspiration. And then the nature itself as a spirit that manifests in the form of a violator of a pledge. And then the function the Fifth Dalai Lama identifies is bringing about harm for both the Buddhist doctrine and beings, sentient beings.

His Holiness: So then it is my moral responsibility to make clear what’s the reality. And whether listen or not—entirely up to individual. So right from beginning, I told…

Thupten Jinpa: …I told…

His Holiness: …Tibetans, as well as some of our friends, this sort of story. But whether they listen to my advice or not—up to them.

What do you feel? Whether accept religion or not, individual right. Whether, you see, accept this religion or that religion—up to individual.

Now this is actually not religion. Simply spirit worshiper.

So then another sort of consequence, another aspect of this problem is, Tibetan Buddhism (as I think many of you already noticed)—the pure lineage of Nalanda tradition. So due to some of Tibetans’ sort of practice or behavior, this profound, rich tradition eventually become something spirit worshiper. It’s very sad.

And then secondly, I think all of you know, my effort is promotion of non-sectarian. And particularly within Tibetan Buddhist tradition, I always give encouragement to receive teaching from…

Thupten Jinpa:…teachers, lamas…

His Holiness: …teachers of different traditions. Like Fifth Dalai Lama and many, many sort of past great lamas, you see, they received teachings from different traditions.

So my own case in early, I think, early ’70, or I think late ’60s, then I still practice this. Then I already started receiving teaching from Kunu Lama Rinpoche. Like Shantideva’s…

Thupten Jinpa:…text…

His Holiness: … text, like that already. Then he—very much non-sectarian. He received many, many teachings from many different traditions. So I wanted to receive one teaching, Nyingma tradition, Nyingma sort of teaching from him. Then firstly I asked Ling Rinpoche, since I already received some teaching from him, so now I want to receive the Gyu sang wey ning po, the Nyingma sort of… one…

Thupten Jinpa: …tantra…

His Holiness: …important text…

Thupten Jinpa: …tantra…

His Holiness:Gyu sang wey ning po.1 Then Ling Rinpoche little bit cautious because of this spirit. Although Ling Rinpoche, you see, never sort of worshipped this, he himself very, very sort of cautious about this spirit. Not like Trijang Rinpoche. Trijang Rinpoche very much sort of close with this spirit.

However Ling Rinpoche, because of this story—one Gelug lama received teaching from Nyingma tradition, then this spirit will destroy you—so Ling Rinpoche little bit scared. So Ling Rinpoche advised me, “Oh, be careful. Be careful.” He told me like that. So failed to receive teaching from him.

So you see the practice or follower of that Shugden, Shugden worshipper, you see, they have this sort of tradition: must be very, very strict one’s own sort of Gelug tradition. Like that. [continues in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So in actuality that kind of standpoint deprives you of the freedom of religion, not to be able to receive other teachings.

His Holiness: So… [continues in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So in actual practice, to restrict a form of standpoint that you know deprives one the freedom to choose is a form of affirmation of the freedom. Because the double negation is an affirmation.

His Holiness: So that’s quite complicated, like that. So anyway, that’s the second reason.

Then third reason, of course since Fifth Dalai Lama and Thirteenth Dalai Lama also very, very sort of…

Thupten Jinpa:…critical…

His Holiness: …serious about this sort of spirit, like that. So logically, I am supposed reincarnation of Fifth Dalai Lama and Thirteenth Dalai Lama, so I have to follow their line.

I think in order… in order to prove myself as a true reincarnation.

So anyway, these people, you see, they really I think fond of worshipping this spirit, then okay—their right, no problem. Only my worry in Germany, again you see, some group of Shugden follower. They, I think, at least three-four hours shouting. So then eventually I felt little sort of concern about their throat. Too much shouting, shouting, shouting, shouting. Like that.

Thupten Jinpa: “Your Holiness, what single act could each of us do to help the people of Tibet in the long run and in the short term?”

His Holiness: [discussion with Thupten Jinpa in Tibetan]

His Holiness: Sounds like pu mey and pu mi. So pu mi means Tibetan and pu mey means female. So I confused.

His Holiness: [discussion with Thupten Jinpa in Tibetan]

His Holiness: Now I think immediate…one important thing is, unfortunately, since Tenth of March crisis happened, because of Chinese government propaganda many innocent Chinese now get the feeling Tibetans are anti-Chinese. So too much emotion. My last visit America, I had actually some Chinese demonstrations, so then finally I wanted meet some of them. Then I think seven of them I met. Too much emotion. Except two persons, you see, calmly listen about my sort of explanation. But the rest of them, no. No interest to listen, you see, my explanation. Too much emotion. Like that.

So at that time also I suggested now the time has come to set up good friendship groups. Tibetan and Han Chinese wherever they live in their community there, set up one friendship group. And then make known each other so that when some problem, you see, happen, then they can discuss. They can exchange. Otherwise, you see, usually no communication, remain isolated, then something happen, then too much emotion.

So you can help. Wherever some Tibetans and Han Chinese there, help them to create one sort of friendship group. And you also can join. You see, with sort of sincere motivation. After all, the Tibetan problem have to solve between Han Chinese and Tibetan. No one else.

I always, you see, telling my Chinese sort of friend and also my Western supporters— two hands, right hand supposed more important. So this right hand extend to the Chinese government. And so long as this right hand remains empty, then logically, there are people who are willing to help us, who really showing concern for us. So naturally our left hand accepted them. As soon as right hand gets some concrete sort of…

Thupten Jinpa:… result…

His Holiness: …result, then left hand will withdraw and say goodbye. So like that.

So therefore, among the Chinese brothers and sisters, fuller awareness about the Tibetan problem is very, very essential. So whenever you have some opportunity, tell them about Tibetan culture, about Tibetan language, about Tibetan spirituality. It is helpful.

Then also, sometimes I think helpful to tell the history. Tibetan view. Chinese view. And even among Chinese also, there are different views about past history. Not all agree the Chinese official sort of view, official version. So that’s very important in order to develop realistic… in order to carry realistic approach, fuller knowledge about the reality is very essential.

So in that respect, I think many of you, you see, can help. Then like that.

Thupten Jinpa: “Your Holiness, as a beginner on the path, still taking just baby steps, do you have any words to help me establish a meaningful daily practice that will lead me forward to greater awareness and understanding?”

His Holiness: I think, read more. Nowadays translation in English, also some other languages, now like French or German, I think Spanish, and of course Chinese although I think fewer than English, isn’t it? I think new translation, I think English much more. So in any way, read more.

Then daily, at least one hour or half an hour think about inward, and contemplation those points which you learned through reading. And more examine, more examine, more sort of investigation. And some kind of comparison—what text says and what your usual sort of way of thinking and way of life is. Comparison. That’s the way.

I think time in morning better—your mind fresh. Maybe after breakfast even better. At least for me like that. You see, before breakfast still hungry so sometimes even meditate, half mind go to stomach. So like that. So that’s the way. [continues in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So this kind of approach, by studying and then trying to take what you have understood as a basis of your contemplation, spending some time in a more formal way. This is a kind of a combination of understanding, study and meditative practice. So in a sense, that kind of approach will become a combination of the approach of learning, critical reflection and meditation.

[Back to text]

Relying on Definitive Sources2

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So we were talking about… now to return to the text: we were talking about the need to differentiate between what is a definitive sutra and what is a non-definitive sutra. And I pointed out that even within the Buddha’s own sutras there are different criteria that explain what constitutes a definitive sutra and what constitutes a non-definitive sutra. For example in the Sandhinirmochana Sutra (Unravelling the Intent of the Buddha) there was one interpretation explained, a criteria of determining this. Similarly we also find another sutra, the Akshyamatinirdesa Sutra. In that, Buddha presents another criteria of determining what constitutes definitive and what constitutes non-definitive.

What this suggests is that if we were to rely on sutra alone, scripture alone, to determine what is a definitive and what is a non-definitive, then the question arises which sutra to base it on? And in order to prove that sutra to be definitive, then you would need another sutra to establish that, and so on. So the process would become infinite. So there is, therefore… and of course if the Buddha were to be alive today, we can go back to him and say, “Can you please tell us what… which one is really the true one?” which is of course… we don’t have that recourse.

Therefore the only way in which we can determine what is a definitive and what is non-definitive is really by applying critical analysis. And that’s also the reason why masters like Nagarjuna composed the great treatises, such as the collection… the six collections of his analytic corpus. And in fact the expression, the collective name given to those six works, which is Rigs Tshogs (Analytic Collection or Analytic Corpus) is really beautiful because it emphasizes the role of reason and critical analysis.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: Therefore the Buddha himself states in a sutra:

“O Monks and learned ones do not accept my words just out of reverence or because I say so, but just as the goldsmith would examine the quality of the gold by subjecting it to a rigorous process, in the same manner, so you should subject my words, and on that basis of your own understanding you should accept their validity.”

So what the Buddha is pointing out is that one should not accept the scriptures or sutras on the basis of their face value, but rather one should relate what is said to one’s own understanding, and on the basis of that understanding, one should accept their validity.

Buddha’s Purpose in Teaching Emptiness3 4

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: In understanding the way in which the teaching on no-self and emptiness is presented here, one thing that is very beneficial is to look at Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. Particularly in Chapter 24 where, in response to the objections raised by the Buddhist essentialists (who have charged Nagarjuna’s position to be a form of nihilism, kind of implying the rejection of all the law of cause and effect and so on) Nagarjuna opens his rebuttal of these objections by stating that:

"The reason why you are leveling against me all of these nihilistic charges is because you have failed to understand the purpose of the teaching on emptiness—what is emptiness. You have failed to understand emptiness itself, and also the meaning of the term emptiness." So I think this is a very significant point that Nagarjuna is raising.

So in identifying…in explaining what is the purpose of the teaching of emptiness, Nagarjuna points out that the purpose of the teaching of emptiness is to help eliminate all the distorted perceptions, distorted states of mind. And generally speaking, all the Buddhist schools share the consensus that grasping at self is a form of a fundamental distortion.

And so although all the Buddhist schools share this as a consensus, however, the way in which the understanding of no-self is characterized has different implications. For example, certain types of Buddhist schools understand the no-self, or anatman, in terms of the absence of a substantially real, existing person—a person as possessing self-sufficient, substantial reality. And based on that, one cultivates the wisdom realizing that degree of no-self.

Although that realization will definitely have an impact upon reducing grasping (at least the gross levels of grasping to one’s own sense of self) however, because it does not relate to the grasping at the basis of the self, which are the aggregates, so therefore still room is left for grasping.

Because as explained before, when you have grasping at the basis of the self, the aggregates, then the sense of possession of these aggregates as being one’s own arises. And when you have that kind of ‘mine’, notion of ‘mine’, with the grasping, then of course grasping arises as well.

So I normally point out the difference, the qualitative difference, between the ways in which we relate to objects, something that we find attractive. So before we buy that object, when it’s displayed in the shop, you may feel attached to it, but the quality of that attachment is very different from after you have bought that object, and now you have labeled it as ‘yours’, and you start relating to that object as ‘yours’.

And from that point onwards, the different…the degree to which you feel attached to it and how that attachment is tied to your own identity and possession is very different. Although it may be the same object, but the quality of the attachment you have towards that object is very different. So this shows that, so long as there is some basis to identify something as ‘mine’ with a grasping, then of course grasping at ‘self’ arises.

And therefore the realization of no-self only in relation to the person as devoid of self-sufficient substantial existence is not adequate. So therefore we find in the Buddhist teachings not just a notion of no-self of person, but also no-self of phenomena— selflessness of phenomena.

And here within the schools that present this, there is one school, for example the Mind Only School, where the selflessness of phenomena is understood in terms of the absence of subject/object duality. And here the understanding is that when we relate to objects, and we see that object as the true referent of the term that we apply to this object, we act as if this particular object exists as the referent of that term, you know, somehow objectively by means of its own characteristics.

So therefore, by dismantling the solidity of this external reality and meditating upon this, it is possible that one’s grasping at external things may reduce, because you are dismantling the notion of a solid object which is independent, out there. And once you do that, of course it is going to have an effect on your own grasping at these objects. The grasping will be reduced.

However, so long as that analysis is not applied to one’s own internal states (such as sensations, feelings and mental states) then there will still be some room, basis, for grasping. Or you may not grasp so obviously to the external objects but you will grasp at your own internal states, your sensations, feelings and so on, particularly with relation to the sensations and so on. So therefore we find the Madhyamaka approach, the Middle Way School approach where—not just external material objects but across the entire spectrum of phenomena—the idea of substantial reality is negated.

So therefore, the presentation is made of the absence of true existence of all phenomena, both internal and external. And within this school of Middle Way, there are two principal understandings of emptiness. One that still presupposes some notion of objectivity to things, and here a notion of an inherent nature is accepted, say, for example, the Madhyamaka Svatantrika. So here, although they do accept the notion of emptiness, but since there is a supposition that (although phenomena exist in relation to our perception) however there is a mode of being that can appear to the mind, an undistorted mind. And so this kind of notion supposes, assumes, there being some kind of objective nature to things.

And now in contrast, the other Madhyamakas reject, even on the conventional level, this notion of objective reality. So the problem with the earlier Madhyamaka… sorry, the first Madhyamaka view, is that even then, there is still some basis left for grasping because there is a degree of objective reality that is maintained. So there is a basis to grasp at, there is a basis to hold on to.

And here Nagarjuna points out in the Sixty Verses where he says that so long as… sorry, “In a mind that still holds onto a locus, why is it not the case that the poisons of the mind will arise in it?”

So… and therefore the second group of Madhyamaka, the Middle Way masters, reject the notion of objective, inherent existence, even on the conventional level. So in this way they dismantle any basis for objectification. So there is no ground left. There is no basis left. There is no object left that can be grasped at or objectified. And it is this…So if you compare all of these different explanations of the teaching on no-self and critically reflect upon them, then you can see that progressively they do lead to this subtle understanding where, in the final analysis, nothing must be left as a ground to grasp onto, to hold onto.

And in a way we see a kind of a parallel, some kind of a parallel in the quantum world. Before, in the classical model of physics, there was the assumption of objects as possessing kind of self-defined reality. However, in the light of quantum discoveries, increasingly that kind of classical model of supposing objectivity is becoming difficult to maintain.

And so there is an understanding that even the notion of reality needs to incorporate some perspective of the perception, some role of the perception. However in the quantum world, I noticed that because of this difficulty of grounding reality of the things in an objective manner, they are also finding it very difficult to even articulate what reality is.

So in the Madhyamaka, when the Madhyamaka Prasangikas say that there is no objective ground or basis for the reality—that all phenomena are dependently originated and all phenomena exist by… they are real only in terms of language terms and designation— they are not saying that anything goes. It’s not the case that you can imagine something and that is real.

And this is where I feel that quantum physics is finding difficulty in trying to incorporate the insights but also at the same time maintain the notion of reality. And therefore even for the Madhayamaka, the Middle Way philosophers, the crux of the challenge really is how to maintain that middle way, the balance—while rejecting totally any notion of objective, intrinsic reality, yet at the same time according robust reality to things. And maintaining that middle way is really the challenge.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So therefore if you examine all the various explanations of the teaching on no-self that we delineated—the earlier ones, when you critically examine them— somehow you feel that there is something not complete here, there is something lacking here, that somehow they feel… don’t seem completely right.

And then progressively, as you move on, you culminate in the understanding of the Madhayamaka Prasangika where the notion of intrinsic existence is rejected, you know, entirely. Then the statement that all phenomena are devoid of inherent existence, and then that realization, that standpoint… we will come to recognize that there is no…this is complete. This is final. There is no contradiction involved here.

The Madhyamaka Tradition5

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So then Tsongkhapa explains historically the various interpretations of Nagarjuna’s teachings that evolved in India. So within the Madhyamaka tradition in the Indian context, there evolved Nagarjuna’s own disciple, immediate disciple, Aryadeva. And the disciples and interpreters of… commentators on Nagarjuna include Buddhapalita. And those who follow Buddhapalita’s reading include Chandrakirti and Shantideva.

And then there evolved another line of interpretation coming from Nagarjuna and Aryadeva, stemming from Bhavaviveka. And from Bhavaviveka, Jnanagarbha, and Shantarakshita, and his student Kamalashila.

So you have two main strands of interpretation of Nagarjuna’s writings. And within the group that come from Bhavaviveka, there were again internally, two subdivisions; one which accepts the notion of external reality, and one which rejects external reality and follow more in line with the Mind Only School standpoint. So you have Bhavaviveka himself and Jnanagarbha belonging to the first group. And Shantarakshita and Kamalashila taking more of a Mind Only type standpoint.

Here in this text, Tsongkhapa presents primarily, principally, the standpoint of Chandrakirti—the standpoint that rejects the notion of intrinsic existence even on a conventional level.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: In the case of Tibetan tradition, whether it is the early translation school of Nyingma, or whether it is the Mahayana teaching… sorry, Mahamudra teaching, the Great Seal teachings of Kagyü school, or whether it is the union of clarity and emptiness teachings of Sakya school, or whether it is that of the Gelug tradition, all of these four major schools really present their view of understanding of emptiness from the point of view of Prasangika tradition, Prasangika standpoint.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So within the Tibetan tradition, we have the Shendong standpoint that upholds the teaching of the Great Middle Way. And within that school, there are some masters who maintain that the interpretations of Nagarjuna presented by or propounded by Buddhapalita and Chandrakirti are unacceptable. And in fact they present the convergence of the standpoint of Nagarjuna and Asanga, and particularly pointing out Nagarjuna’s Hymns to the Ultimate Expanse as really representing the final standpoint of Nagarjuna’s thought. And of course the content of the teachings in the Hymns to the Ultimate Expanse is very similar to the Sublime Continuum teaching of Maitreya, the Uttaratantra.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So of course if you look at the writings of these great masters, there are differences in the terminology they use, the approaches they present, and so on. However, when it comes to the final understanding, I think what Panchen Lama Losang Chogyen states in his root lines on Mahamudra, the Great Seal, where he says that (in relation to all these diverse teachings) if someone is learned in the definitive teachings and application of the reasoning, combined with yogic practices and yogic realizations with deep experience, then all of the teachings really converge on the final point.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: However we do need to bear in mind that, both in the context of the teachings of the Tibetan masters as well as Indian masters, that one needs to distinguish between two principal approaches of a text: one which is presented specifically in relation to an individual, a specific individual’s approach; and another approach, where the presentation is made from the point of view of overall Dharma teaching.

The Stages of Entry into Reality6

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So then the third outline, the way in which the view of emptiness is presented, this is explained under two main headlines: the stages by which one enters into the understanding of the suchness, and the actual presentation of the suchness.

So here, when Tsongkhapa is talking about stages by which one enters into suchness, we need to understand what is meant by suchness, tattvata. And here it is helpful to look at Nagarjuna’s own salutation verse in the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, where he characterizes the ultimate reality as total calming of conceptual elaboration, total pacification of conceptual elaboration.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: In identifying what is the suchness that one needs to enter into its understanding, Tsongkhapa writes in the following (this is in Chapter 9, page 119, second para). So he opens with a question, “Nirvana is the reality one seeks to attain, but what is nirvana? If ‘entry into reality’ means a method for attaining it, then how do you enter?”

And then in response he writes:

“The reality that you seek to attain—the embodiment of truth—is the total extinction of…” conceptualizations “…of both the self and that which belongs to the self, specifically by stopping all the various internal and external phenomena from appearing as though they were reality itself—which they are not—along with the latent predispositions for such false appearances.”

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: The nirvana being referred to here is the non-abiding nirvana.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So then Tsongkhapa writes the following on the same page:

“The stages by which you enter that reality are as follows: First, having contemplated in dismay the faults and disadvantages of cyclic existence, you should develop a wish to be done with it. Then, understanding that you will not overcome it unless you overcome its cause, you research its roots, considering what might be the root cause of cycle existence. You will thereby become certain from the depths of your heart that the reifying view of the perishing aggregates, or ignorance, acts as the root of cyclic existence. You then need to develop a sincere wish to eliminate that.

Next, see that overcoming the reifying view of the perishing aggregates depends upon developing the wisdom that knows that the self, as thus conceived, does not exist. You will then see that you have to refute that self. Be certain in that refutation, relying upon scriptures and lines of reasoning that contradict its existence and prove its nonexistence. This is an indispensable technique for anyone who seeks liberation.”

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So these explanations are really based upon Chandrakirti’s Clear Words (Prasannapada).

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So here one thing that is made very clear is that between selflessness of phenomena and selflessness of person, there is no difference in degree of subtlety of what is being negated between these two selflessnesses. Other Madhyamaka schools that adhere to some notion of inherent existence, for them there is a difference between what is being negated in the context of selflessness of phenomena and selflessness of person.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So here Tsongkhapa cites from Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland where Nagarjana states that, “So long as grasping at the aggregates remains, there will be grasping at self present.” So Nagarjuna says that in order for someone to realize the selflessness of person completely, or in its entirety, one also needs to overcome grasping at true existence of phenomena…true existence of the aggregates as well.


Identifying the Object of Negation: Grasping at Self7

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So then the second, which is the actual presentation of the ultimate reality, this Tsongkhapa explains in terms of three main subheadings: identifying the object of negation of the reason; and what method should one adopt, whether by means of consequential reasoning or syllogism; and the manner in which the view arises in one on the basis of that method.

And then the first one is explained further in terms of three outlines: “why the object of negation must be carefully identified”; “refuting other systems that refute without identifying the object to be negated”; and “how our system identifies the object of negation.”

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So with respect to this, Aryadeva states in the 400 Stanzas on the Middle Way where he says that, “The seed of cyclic existence lies in consciousness and the objects are the sphere of experience, field of experience, of this consciousness.” Therefore when one sees absence of selfhood in these objects then the seed of cyclic existence will come to an end.

So here, what Aryadeva is pointing out is that the seed of cyclic existence really is the grasping at self. So in order to bring about an end to the cyclic existence, we need to find a way of eradicating that seed which is the root, and this can only be done by finding a way to bring about within ourselves a genuine understanding that the ‘self’—the content of this grasping, which is the ‘self’—does not really exist.

So our self-grasping grasps at ‘self’ and what we call ‘self’. And whether or not that exists will have implications. So we need to apply critical reasoning to try to flesh out, “If ‘self’ (as we tend to grasp it to be existent) were to exist, how would it look like? What would be the implications?”

So in this manner when you… so the key point here is to really understand the manner in which we tend to grasp at this notion of ‘self’. And by analyzing this, we need to demonstrate that the ‘self’—as we grasp it—does not really exist.

And this understanding of the total non-existence of this ‘self’ that is the object of our grasping needs to be internalized and that conviction—that ascertainment—can then help us eliminate that grasping. So that’s the only way possible.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So…

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So if we were to try to relate this object of negation to our own personal experience, we need to examine how the notion of self tends to arise in us naturally. So when we have the thought of “I am,” the thought that “I am,” which is a very natural sense of selfhood that we all possess, but if we examine this carefully we will see that within our sense of self there is a kind of a supposition (and especially when the sense of self manifests in a strong form, underlying that) there is a kind of an assumption of a self that somehow exists in between our body and mind—something separate and over and above this.

And somehow this object of our sense of self that we call “I”—we assume that it has some kind of concrete reality that is somehow self-defining and self-sufficient. It has some kind of concrete reality.

And not only is it the case in which we relate to our sense of self, but also in fact this is exactly the way in which we tend to relate to everything else. So when we perceive something externally, whether it is something out there, we tend to relate to that object as if that object is existing in its own right out there where we see it. Something that we can point our finger at. Something that is occupying a locus in space, and so…

However, when we talk about the grasping at self as being deluded, we need to understand that the basis upon which the grasping arises—which is the person—we are not saying that does not exist. The person exists—the person that we speak about, the previous existence of the person, the future rebirth of the person. And also on that basis we can also make distinctions between me and others, self and others. So the person as an individual does exist.

So what is being negated is the manner, the way, in which we tend to assume that person to exist. So it’s a particular manner in which we assume that person to exist that is being negated. And here our assumption is that the person exists as some kind of self-sufficient, discreet reality.

And so therefore, when we perceive everything, even at the visual sensory level, the kind of perception of discreetness, the perception of solid, concrete reality, is already there, although some Madhyamaka masters contend that that perception of true existence occurs only at the level of thought, not at the level of the senses, sensory experiences.

But here Chandrakirti’s line of thinking, where what is being negated is very subtle, even at the sensory, perceptual level, the perception of inherent existence is already there. So based upon that perception, then we tend to follow after this with thought—grasping at it. So we affirm our perception. And on the basis of that, we view whatever we perceive to possess exactly the reality that we perceive in them.

So in the case of a person, our own self, just as the self appears to us as possessing this inherent existence, we also affirm that perception, and we grasp at it. And it is this grasping at inherent existence that needs to be negated. And also the content of that grasping at inherent existing self, that is what needs to be negated.

Dream Analogy; Critical Analysis; 5-fold and 7-fold Reasonings8

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So with respect to this, there are some very powerful lines in the Seventh Dalai Lama’s writing. In one of which he says that,

“Just as in a mind that is intoxicated with sleep, various events and objects arise in that dream. And just as they appear, they appear so real in that dream. However, the reality of all the things that appear in the dream is that they cannot be demonstrated to be real. They are unreal.”

In the same manner, he says that in our every-day perceptions, when things appear to our mind, they appear to possess… as if they possess inherent existence just as if our mind, our perceptions, are intoxicated by this grasping at inherent existence. However, the perception that we have of things possessing objective existence is unfounded. And even though this is the case…

His Holiness: [discusses with Thupten Jinpa in Tibetan, then continues in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So he says that even though they do not possess any reality at all, but to the mind (the six-fold consciousnesses of ordinary sentient beings which are intoxicated by the deep sleep of delusion) each of these things appears as if each of them possess a self-defining reality of their own—as if existing in their own right, objectively, from outside.

And so he says that for the ordinary mind, when we perceive something outside, we perceive that phenomena as if existing right there from the side of the object itself. And so therefore he says that this distorted perception… so the content of that distorted perception (which assumes that things possess some kind of objective existence in their own right)—this is the subtle object of negation, and this must be negated without any residue, without leaving anything behind.

And then similiarly Gung-tang Rinpoche says in one of his writings…

His Holiness: [discussion with Thupten Jinpa in Tibetan]

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: In Gung-tang Rinpoche’s writing he says that through the cultivation of the view of emptiness, one seeks to understand the nature of things. However, in that process one does not find inherent existence, and that not-finding of inherent existence through this process constitutes the negation of inherent existence.

So generally, not finding something is not equivalent to negating something or finding its non-existence. But in the context where, if it is something that when we search for it, it should be findable, yet when we search for it, it cannot be found, then in such a context, then non-observance, or non-finding and finding its non-existence coincide.

So in the case of inherent existence—if it is real—when we search for it, it should be findable. So when you… through emptiness reasoning when you do not find it, you are negating the inherent existence. And then he says that, “However, that does not reject…that does not imply the non-existence of the basis upon which you understand emptiness.” So the designated bases are left untouched.

And so the only reality that one can affirm in the aftermath is the nominal existence. So only mere label and mere designation. And it is on that level of nominal existence one should be able to accord all the functions of cause and effect and so on. And the fact that the functions operate and they exist—the relationships and functions still exist—is something that will be affirmed through one’s own personal experience of the world. And if one follows this line of processes then Gung-tang says that, “One has arrived at the right point.”

And so when talking about subjecting inherent existence to critical analysis and not finding it, this process may involve the application of, or employment of, five-fold reasoning: of identity; absence of identity (difference); basis and the support; and the supported; and inherence of relations that we find in Nagarjuna’s text. And if we add two more, the shape (or configuration) and the collection, then it becomes a seven-fold analysis.

So when you subject ‘person’ or ‘self’ to this kind of five-fold or seven-fold analysis and when you do not find that… Because if, say for example, a person does exist objectively in its own right, then when you search for it, it should exist either as identical with the aggregates, or as separate, or as the support, or as the supported. However, when you search through such analysis we do not find it. And that is an indication that the person does not exist objectively in its own right.

So…and once objective existence becomes untenable then the other option left is the subjective existence. So then subjective existence also becomes a problem because then you will have to identify the existence of something in terms of one’s own state of mind. So therefore, neither the subjective existence nor the objective existence becomes tenable so the only alternative that is left is the nominal existence. So you accord existence to phenomena only in nominal terms.

Ways of Avoiding Nihilism9

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So then Tsongkhapa identifies incorrect ways of identifying the object of negation, which includes two ways. One is over-negation, and the other one is under-negation. And in the context of over-negation there is quite a good summary, presentation, of this in one of Gung-tang’s writings where basically Gung-tang points out that there are those who, while upholding the Middle Way view of philosophy and emptiness, share with the Buddhist essentialists basically the premise that if things do not possess inherent existence then they will not possess any existence at all. And so for example, the whole premise of the essentialist critique of Madhayamika presented in the 24th chapter where Buddhist essentialists leveled against Nagarjuna that the emptiness teaching implies a rejection or a negation of the existence of the four noble truths and so on.

So what Gung-tang is pointing out is that those who uphold this position—that absence of inherent existence implies absence of any existence—share the same kind of views with the Buddhist essentialists. Yet at the same time they maintain that they are upholding the teaching of emptiness.

So here… so this would include particularly those who understand Nagarjuna’s tradition of the Madhyamaka school to be rejecting any notion of valid cognition of things. So when they understand Nagarjuna’s teaching that everything is kind of mere label, mere designation, and no degree of inherent existence can be accorded to things, they also assume this to mean that no existence can be accorded.

So Gung-tang explains that for those who maintain this, for them there will be no differentiation between good and bad, right and wrong. None of these distinctions can be maintained. And in a sense one can understand this because when we define a perception to be valid, one of the key criteria, a defining characteristic, of a valid understanding is it’s non-deceptiveness, that it is non-deceptive in relation to its perception. And non-deceptiveness ties into the notion of a truth, something being true.

So therefore these Madhyamika interpreters reject the notion of this kind of truth in the Madhyamaka system, and therefore they reject any notion of valid cognition. And Gung-tang is saying that if you reject that notion of valid cognition, you will be basically sharing the same position with the essentialists who maintain that if there is no inherent existence then nothing will exist. And in that case one will not be able… one will fall into the extreme of nihilism. And if that is the case, then one will not be upholding the true middle way, which Nagarjuna identifies with his emptiness.

And in fact emptiness is the natural kind of basic middle way of the ground ‘shi’ ‘uma’ and the fact that emptiness is characterized as the middle way means it needs to be free from both extremes of absolutism and extremes of non-existence or nihilism.

Dependent Origination as the Meaning of Emptiness10

And here it is important to relate this to Nagarjuna’s own explanation of the meaning of emptiness. For example, the one that I’ve cited when he says that the essentialists do not understand the purpose of the teaching on emptiness, they do not understand what is emptiness, and they do not understand the meaning of emptiness. And in that context, Nagarjuna explains that:

“When I say something is empty, I do not mean emptiness to be equivalent to total non-existence. Nor is emptiness equated with the unfindability of things when you search for it. However, the meaning of emptiness is dependent origination.”

And in fact in Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Nagarjuna says, “That which is dependently originated, that I describe as emptiness.” So there, he is equating emptiness with dependent origination and saying that the meaning of emptiness is dependent origination.

And this is based upon the Buddha’s own statement in a sutra where Buddha states that, “That which has arisen from conditions is devoid of arising,” and “Such a thing is devoid of any intrinsic arising,” and “Therefore that which is dependent upon, that which has arisen from, conditions is presented to be empty.”

And so therefore Tsongkhapa equates the meaning of emptiness with dependent origination. And furthermore he then goes on in the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way that, “ This in turn is dependently designated and this is the true middle way.” So… and the expression he uses is “dependently designated,” and this is a very powerful expression because it is formed of two elements: dependent and designated.

Dependence already conveys the idea that phenomena do not possess a status that is independent. Therefore the phenomena are dependent. They are contingent upon others. They are dependent upon others. So therefore the expression ‘the dependent’ already negates any notion of independent existence, any notion of inherent existence.

And then the second element of the expression, ‘designated’, conveys the notion that it is not nothing, it is not non-existent, but there is an identity of something which is kind of, you know, emergent from this dependent relation. So together this expression, ‘dependent designation,’ points towards the Middle Way. Therefore Nagarjuna says that this is the true middle way.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So continuing with the explanation that the meaning of emptiness is really to be understood in terms of the meaning of dependent origination, and within the dependent origination, as explained before, there are two levels. One is the dependent origination in terms of causes and conditions, and one is dependent origination in terms of dependent designation. So Tsongkhapa explains (he writes on page 129, the final paragraph, in the middle of the final paragraph) he writes the following:

“This attainment, as explained earlier, is based on their having amassed along the path immeasurable collections of merit and sublime wisdom, collections within which merit and wisdom are inseparable. That, in turn, definitely relies upon attaining certain knowledge of the diversity of phenomena. This profound knowledge understands that the relationship of cause and effect—conventional cause and effect—is such that specific beneficial and harmful effects arise from specific causes.”

So here Tsongkhapa is referring to the dependent origination in terms of cause and effects and using that as the basis, one then arrives at the understanding of the second level, which is the dependent designation. And so he writes that:

“At the same time, amassing the collections of merit and wisdom also definitely relies on attaining certain knowledge of the real nature of phenomena. This means reaching a profound certainty that all phenomena lack even a particle of essential or intrinsic nature. Certain knowledge of both diversity and the real nature is needed because without them it is impossible to practice the whole path, both method and wisdom, from the depths of your heart.”

“This is the key to the path that leads to the attainment of the two embodiments when the result is reached; whether you get it right depends upon how you establish your philosophical view of the basic situation.” How you establish your view of the ground of reality. “The way to establish that view is to reach certain knowledge of the two truths as I have just explained them. Except for the Madhyamikas, other people do not understand how to explain these two truths as non-contradictory; they see them as a mass of contradictions.”

So he is talking about the cause and effect, dependent origination and the dependent designation:

“However…” those who are learned and who are “…possessed of subtlety and wisdom and vast intelligence—experts known as the Middle Way followers, Madhyamikas—have used their mastery of techniques for knowing the two truths to establish them without even the slightest trace of contradiction. In this way they reach the final meaning of what the Buddha has taught. This gives them a wonderful sense of respect for our Teacher and his teaching. Out of that respect they speak with utter sincerity, raising their voices again and again: “You who are wise, the meaning of emptiness—emptiness of inherent existence—is dependent origination; it does not mean that things do not exist, it does not mean that they are empty of the capacity to function.”

His Holiness: Full stop. 


[rgyud] gSang ba'i snying po (Guhya Garbha). [Return to text]

2 See Newland, ch. 12, “The Purpose of Emptiness,” pp. 139-141. [Return to text]

3 See Newland, ch. 12: 141-144. [Return to text]

4 When His Holiness is reading from the original Tibetan Lamrim Chenmo, Dr. Jinpa sometimes translates directly from the Tibetan and sometimes reads from the Great Treatise English edition of Lamrim Chenmo. Occasionally he provides his own terminology so there will be some small differences between his translation and the English edition. Two differences are his use of “dependent origination” instead of the Great Treatise “dependent arising” and “Middle Way” instead of the Great Treatise “Madhyamaka.” [Return to text]

5 See Newland, ch. 12: 144-145. [Return to text]

6 See Newland, ch. 13 “Reality and Dependent Arising,” pp. 147-148. [Return to text]

7 See Newland, ch. 13: 148-150. [Return to text]

8 See Newland, ch. 13: 150-152. [Return to text]

9 See Newland, ch. 13: 152. [Return to text]

10 See Newland, ch. 13: 153-155. [Return to text]