The Middle Way Between the Two Extremes

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Kopan Monastery, Nepal (Archive #971)

Lama Zopa Rinpoche used the example of the table to explain emptiness according to the Prasangika Madhyamaka view, at Kopan Course No. 26, held at Kopan Monastery, Nepal, in Nov–Dec 1993. This teaching is excerpted from Lecture Seven of the course. Lightly edited by Gordon McDougall.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Switzerland, 1990. Photo: Ueli Minder.

In reality, when we analyze what the table is, it becomes extremely subtle. It is not that there is no table there, that the table doesn’t exist, but it is like it doesn’t exist. This is the Middle Way view, the view of the Madhyamaka, and in particular of the Prasangika Madhyamaka. This is their view of how the table exists, the subtle dependent arising.

Of the four schools of Buddhist philosophy, the Madhyamaka, [which is the most subtle] has two subschools: Prasangika and Svatantrika. With the Prasangika’s view of how a thing exists by being a subtle dependent arising, we see how the table exists, how what the table is, is extremely subtle. It is not that it doesn’t exist but it’s like it doesn’t exist.

This is an extremely delicate point, and it is so easy to fall into either extreme: the extreme of eternalism, thinking that the thing exists from its own side, or the extreme of nihilism, thinking that it doesn’t exist at all. Now you can get some idea of how subtle it is. We can so easily slip from believing it exists from its own side to believing it doesn’t exist at all, slipping from eternalism to nihilism.

Now here, it’s not that it doesn’t exist. It exists but it is empty. It exists being merely labeled by the mind. Because of that, it’s empty from its own side. In that way, the way the table exists is the unification of emptiness and subtle dependent arising. This level of dependent arising is the most subtle, existing in mere name [depending on the base.]

This is what the Heart of Wisdom Sutra says, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” So, while the table is empty of existing from its own side, it exists by being merely labeled by the mind. Being merely labeled by the mind, it is therefore completely empty of existing from its own side.

Analyzing like this, it makes sense that there can be no form other than emptiness and no emptiness other than form. Applying that to the table, there is no table other than emptiness and there is no emptiness other than the table. The two truths of the table are unified. This line from the Heart Sutra shows the middle way, which is devoid of the two extremes, the extremes of nihilism and eternalism. So, you can now see the huge difference between how the table exists and how it normally appears to us and how we believe it to exist when we don’t analyze the object, when our mind is not aware of the reality of the table. There is the completely false view of the table appearing like this, from its own side, and this is what we believe. The reality of the table is never like that.

When we analyze how the table exists by being merely labeled by mind, that gives us the idea that there is no table on this base. If we could find the table on this base as it appears to us, if that were true, that would mean that the table existed from its own side. That would mean it was an independent, truly existent table, and when we search, we should be able to find the independent or inherently existing table on the base. But when we search the table that appears as an independent, inherently existent table, analyzing whether it really exists or not, we cannot find it. We cannot even find the merely labeled table. What exists is the merely labeled table. That merely labeled table is the table that we can use to put things on, but even that we cannot find on the base.

How can we find it? How can we find the table that is real, that exists inherently on the base? There is no way we can find a table that doesn’t exist. There’s no way to find this on the base. Therefore, we cannot find this table either on the base or separate from the base. We cannot find this table, the table that appears this way to us either on the base or separately from the base. It is nowhere; it is completely nonexistent. We cannot find the merely labeled table on this base, but we can find it in this room, in this hall, in this place where there is this base of the table. We can find the merely labeled table in the world where there is the base of the table. The conclusion is that we cannot find the table on the base, but we can find the table in this room, in this hall.