Dharma - Merit - Meditation - Nectar - Liberation - Emptiness - Process - Awakening


in Buddhadharma


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"As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it (on a piece of touchstone), so are You to accept my words after examining them and not merely out of regard for me." - Jñânasara-samuccaya, 31.

The First Turning the Wheel of Dharma
The Second Turning the Wheel of Dharma
The Third Turning the Wheel of Dharma
The Fourth Turning the Wheel of Dharma
The Unique Buddhadharma
The Necessity to Accumulate Merit
The Illusion of Inherent Existence
Western Criticism & Process Philosophy


Mandalay - Myanmar (Burma).


As wisdom is the primary concern of the Buddhadharma, the teachings of Buddha Śâkyamuni, these studies aim to point out the concept (theory) & yoga (praxis) of "śûnyatâ", translated as "emptiness". The latter is not "voidness" or sheer nothingness (the empty set), as in nihilism, but the mere indication of an absence, of something not being there, namely a truly established or inherently existing object. This absence does not imply something does not exist, it merely points out substantial entities do not. The yoga of emptiness of the Śûnyavâda is always preceded by generating a pliant mind, i.e. a compassionate mind able to rest in equipoise on its object.

Each view on emptiness yields accepted conclusions (or tenets). Those prevalent in Tibetan scholasticism form a ladder of greater & greater denial of "true establishment", another word for self-powered substances (essences), objects with properties as it were inhering in them. The lowest tenets accept inherent existence. The higher deny it in varying degrees. Study of & reflection on these tenets assist the progressive stages of meditation on emptiness. Each stage, when fully integrated, prepares the mind for the next.

Great Exposition : all phenomena, both compounded (conventional) & uncompounded (ultimate), exist inherently ;
Sûtra School : present minute particles & moments of consciousness have self-nature or are self-powered ;
Mind-Only : consciousness lacking apprehended-object & apprehended-subject is a self, has nature ;
Middle Way : in the Autonomy School (Svâtantrika), conventional phenomena exist inherently, while in the Consequence School (Prâsangika), all phenomena lack true establishment, and so no object has self-nature or is truly (absolutely) established. Logically,  the Prâsangika is the highest view. The idea a higher tenet exists, namely other-emptiness, is rejected on logical grounds, but cannot be denied its place in terms of the direct experience of emptiness. Philosophically, self-emptiness is supreme, but in terms of experience other-emptiness is to be preferred.

This ladder designates an increasingly vaster perspective on the subject. In each, the core question answered is : What is truly established ? Or : What exists by way of its own character ? What is independent from everything else ?

The Mahâyâna Mind-Only School introduced the pedagogic scheme of the "Three Turnings". When Buddhist Tantra became academic (in the 7th century CE), a "Fourth Turning" was added ... These Turnings organized the various teachings, some of which were considered "definitive" (directly revealing the Moon) and others "provisional" (a finger indirectly pointing at the Moon). The different "turnings" are said to represent various levels of the teachings, and therefore call for different audiences. Together, they constitute the "84.000 Dharma Doors". For all schools, the First Turning is provisional. In the Middle Way Consequence School, the Second Turning is definitive and the Third Turning provisional. For the Nyingmapas, Kagyus & Jonangpas (Other-Emptiness), both Second & Third Turnings are definitive.

 The First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma

In the traditional accounts, Śâkyamuni was welcomed in the royal deer park near Vârânasî by the group of five ascetics who earlier had turned their backs on him for having rejected the path of austerities. He proclaimed himself a "Tathâgata", a word etymologically meaning "a speaker of the Truth", but also "one who has attained what is really so" or "one who is thus gone" etc. He gave his First Sermon, called "Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma".

This First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma contained his core teachings : the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path & the Two Truths. These are the foundation of the entire Buddhadharma, the Hînayâna (Tripitaka), as well as the Mâhayâna, both Sûtras & Tantras.

 The Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma

In his Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, Buddha introduced his famous "anâtman" or "no-self" as well as the importance of compassion.

Selflessness is empty of "self", absence of "own-form" ("svabhâva"). It negates the idea objects possess a core essence or "nature" from their own side, inherently, substantially. It affirms process and by doing so brings the absence of substance to bare. The true self is therefore the non-self. The core of the self is selflessness.

To understand these teaching on "śûnyatâ", emptiness, the ultimate reality, numerous tenet-systems developed, differing on the definition of emptiness, the ultimate truth.

Emptiness has two sides : philosophical & yogic :

  • philosophy affirms reason, uses concepts to eliminate reified concepts, and finally tries to nullify the cognitive act of designating or labeling inherent existence itself. This is like approaching enlightenment from "the outside", objectively and in accord with epistemology. It is preparing the vision without spoiling it by trying to describe it. The philosophers gave rise to "Sûtra Mâdhyamaka" and its two branches : the Autonomy School & the Consequence School ;

  • yoga transcends reason, develops direct, non-conceptual experience of emptiness from "the inside" and so manifests the transcendent or supramundane. Middle Way yogis are "Yogâcâra Mâdhayamikas", accepting self-emptiness, except for a consciousness  lacking apprehended-object & apprehended-subject. They come close to "Tantra Mâdhyamaka", stressing primordial wisdom as the union of clarity-emptiness & bliss-emptiness. They are also found in the Other-Emptiness School and in Mahâsandhi (Dzogchen).

The conceptual (logical, reasonable) and the non-conceptual (para-logical, experiential) are the two fundamental answers to the questions addressed by the emptiness-teachings of the Second Turning : What is the ultimate nature of reality ? What is truly establised ? How to think the Two Truths ? However, before engaging the poetry of direct experience, the ways of reason first need to be exhausted.

"Emptiness" is understood in terms of the Middle Way Consequence School, the Prâsangika-Mâdhyamaka, in casu :

  • Nâgârjuna (2th CE) in Mûlamadhyamakakârikâ (A Fundamental Treatise on the Middle Way) & Shûnyatâsaptatikârikânâma (Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness) ;

  • Chandrakîrti (ca. 600 – 650) in his Mâdhyamakâvatâra (Entering the Middle Way) &

  • Śântideva (8th CE) in his Bodhicharyâvatâra (A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life) ;

  • Atiśa (ca. 982 - 1054) in his Bodhipathapradîpa ;

  • Tsongkhapa (1357 - 1419) in his The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, The Ocean of Reasoning and The Essence of Eloquence.

To characterize scientific knowledge, Western Criticism will also be taken into account, in casu Kant (1724 - 1804) of the Critique of Pure Reason as well as process metaphysics.

My studies set off by endorsing the view on emptiness of the Prâsangika-Mâdhyamika or "Rangtong" Mâdhyamikas, the rationalists & strict nominalists found in the Sakya & Gelug schools of Tibetan Buddhism. They back the philosophical approach, stressing study & reflection based on logic & debate. Here, emptiness, the ultimate nature of phenomena, is defined as absence of inherent existence. This is the exclusion negation, or non-affirmative negation.

For Rangtong, ultimate analysis affirms all phenomena, including the "noumenon" of Buddhahood, or wisdom-mind apprehending its object, to be "empty of self", i.e. empty of inherent existence. Hence, Buddhas do not exist "from their own side", nor does their Truth Body or "Dharmakâya" ! As all phenomena (the ultimate included) are of the same ultimate nature, there is nowhere any ontological "split". To clarify its view, the Rangtong often debates with the Mind-Only School, the so-called "Yogâcârin School", "the practice of yoga school", with idealist Mâdhyamikas like Gorampa and at times with Dzogchen & Jonang masters (cf. other-emptiness). These operate on the basis of a choice negation, eliminating the defilements of the mind to bring inherent Buddha-qualities to the fore.

In ultimate analysis, the moment of consciousness following the last ultimate nullification of false ideations cannot be conceptually or linguistically characterized. The difficulty of appreciating the mind of Clear Light is related to the structure of our language, not permitting a transitive verb without a subject and a predicate. There is no "knowing" without a knower and a known. But this is merely grammatical convention. In the expression "the Sun rose" on may realize that it is the Sun that is rising ...

When concepts have cleared all reified concepts, silenced the mind and brought awareness to what is at hand, nothing remains to be said. What happens next is sheer un-saying, ineffable for ever. This can only be approached with poetry. The transcendent state of enlightenment (awakening) can be personally experienced, but not conceptually known or linguistically described from the outside, while the person actually experiencing it from the inside cannot describe it in empirico-formal propositions, but only point to it. He or she can transform this inner experience into living compassion. As art, this knowledge is excellent, exemplaric & sublime.

Because of this critical barrier, strict nominalism affirms nothing about the absolute, except it too lacks inherent existence, own-form ("svabhâva") or "self" ("âtman"). Buddhahood too is a dependent-arising, albeit one continuing for ever, a permanent dynamic or "perpetuum mobile" !

 The Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma

Once the compassionate mind conceptually understands the logic, rationality & philosophy of emptiness, the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma presents the yogic generation of the qualities of the Buddha-potential or Buddha-nature ("tathâgatagarbha") of sentient beings. For the philosophers, bound to the Second Turning, the potential cannot be a full-blown nature, while for yogis, all enlightened qualities are found to be already present but merely covered by adventitious, accidental material. The fact this Fourth Turning comes after the Second Turning, indicates the failure of a mere conceptual analysis at this level.

Several yogic traditions emerged as a result of the Third Turning : Yogâcâra Mâdhayamikas posit a consciousness lacking apprehended-object as well as apprehended-subject. Tantric Mâdhyamikas affirm the unity of clarity(bliss)-emptiness.  Shentong or other-emptiness, affirms primordial, ever existing Buddha-qualities of enlightened mind, speech, mind & action. In Dzogchen, the inseparability of clarity & the empty primordial base is affirmed.

In the yogic tradition of "Mahâ-Mâdhyamaka", "Great Mâdhyamaka", "Shentong" (actually "Zhentong") Mâdhyamaka or "other-emptiness", found in the Nyingma, Kagyu & Jonang schools of Tibetan Buddhism, meditative experience or "yogic perceivers" are central. Shentong is explained in the Mountain Doctrine of Dolpopa (1292 - 1391), in the The Essence of Other-Emptiness & Twenty-one Differences Regarding the Profound Meaning of Târanâtha (1576 - 1634).

In Shentong, teaching extrinsic emptiness, emptiness is affirmed as the non-conceptual, primordially existent wisdom-mind, empty of contingent stains, endowed with the full spectrum of Buddhahood, i.e. non-empty of the vast Buddha qualities of enlightened body, speech, mind & actions. This is a choice negation, nullifying the accidents and affirming enlightened qualities. Shentong posits the power, energy & wisdom of our Buddha-nature, ever-discovering the full array of the natural, fundamental (most subtle) qualities of mind ; the Clear Light shining forth unobstructedly after the temporary defilements and obscurations have been removed through practice. Our Buddha-nature or "matrix-of-One-Gone-Thus" is naturally & inherently radiant & pure. It possesses the thirty-two marks of a Buddha and abides in all sentient beings. "Empty of others" ("zhentong"), it just exists ! Shentong seems to take position from the side of Buddhahood, defining all the rest as sheer illusion. This existence is a continuous symmetry-transformation or unique & perfect enlightened wisdom-stream, dance or kinetography.

According to Dolpopa, the view of other-emptiness is the ultimate tenet, surpassing all others, including the self-emptiness of the Consequence School. The latter is deemed the "Ordinary Middle Way". But for Rangtong, this other-emptiness is the worse kind of heresy, causing a fundamental hierarchy to arise between conventional and ultimate truth (akin to the Platonic divide between the true word of being and the illusionary world of becoming). For Rangtong, there is no tenet higher than the Consequence School, in particular Tsongkhapa's Critical Mâdhyamaka. They invite all arguments to the contrary. They claim Shentong affirms Buddha-nature to be substantial.

Rangtong, Shentong & Dzogchen entertain different views on the Two Truths. For Tsongkhapa, duality is not seen as a problem, for to realize Buddhahood there must be a cognitive act directly knowing emptiness. Buddha-qualities are deemed generated by a such a mind. The target here is reification, not the distinction between a subject & an object of experience. In Dzogchen, ultimate truth is non-conceptual and duality is done away with. For Tsongkhapa, the mind of a Buddha has knowledge of both relative & ultimate objects simultaneously, while in the Great Perfection all virtuous qualities & powers of Buddhahood are contained within the One Truth from the very beginning. As Dzogchen does not, as in other-emptiness, deny self-emptiness, nor conceptually designates anything to be inherently existent, it should not be equated with Shentong with which it nevertheless can be confused. Once the idea of emptiness as absence of inherent existence is firmly established, these subtle distinctions will become clearer.

Can it be shown how these Second (Negating) & Third (Affirming) Turnings can be made of "one taste", i.e. compatible & harmonious ? The differences between Rangtong & Shentong will assist in doing so.

What is primordially & spontaneously established (our Buddha-potential) lacks inherent existence, is "empty" of "self" ("own-form") and so is ultimately self-void (as the Prâsangika-Mâdhyamaka rightly claims). This is its ultimate base, its "body of truth" or "Dharmakâya". Attributing Buddha-qualities to a mere potential is like trying to eat an appel by swallowing the seed of the tree. Clearing the mind from substantial instantiation generates Buddha-qualities. A mere potential needs effort to actualize. Emptiness yoga is the spiritual exercise doing so. What is primordial (Buddha-potential) is devoid of existing truly and inherently (as a substance), but at the same time is devoid of what is coarse and fleeting and devoid of being itself coarse and fleeting (as Shentong affirms). This is combining self-void and other-void. This combines the best of both views.

Absence of inherent existence is indeed "all the way up" !

In Shentong, Buddha-nature, like anything else, does not exist from its own side. But lacking stains, this ultimate truth and absolute reality is "empty" of "other" fleeting, evanescent phenomena or other-void. When, thanks to yoga, the contaminations are voided, nullified or annihilated, the stainless Clear Light, the natural light of the mind shines forth. Although in strict Mâdhyamaka logic, this cannot be conceptually affirmed (for only a non-affirming nullification of "own-form" will do), Shentong designates, contrary to consequent rational thinking, the radiant, inherent qualities or "own-form" of our Buddha-nature, overriding the classical logic of the Prâsangika-Mâdhyamaka with the testimony of direct yogic perceivers ! This reminds me of the difference between rational knowledge and intuitive knowledge in the system of Spinoza (1632 - 1677). The former works with logic (syllogism and/or the reductio ad absurdum), while the latter is its own standard (cf. "veritas index sui").

Rangtong, being a spiritual discipline, should not negate the data from direct yogic experience. Shentong has to accept there is no way around classical logic.

 The Fourth Turning of the Wheel of Dharma

According to Tantra, the Buddha appeared to a great assembly of superior Bodhisattvas (those able to "see" emptiness, perfecting themselves in ten stages) as Vajradhara, the Holder of the Vajra, the thunderbold or diamond. As a diamond, it cuts any substance, but cannot be cut itself. As a thunderbolt the Vajra has irresistible force. Both were deemed necessary in the Dark Age of Kâlî, when evil rules. Kâlî is the black, horrible tongue of Agni, the god of fire, but also the grim consort of Śiva. This "Śakti" represents the radical dissolution & destruction of ignorance, underlining the clear, pristine, pure Divine awareness of her consort, the god of Hindu Tantras.

Appearing in this collective vision as the Holder of the Vajra, Buddha Śâkyamuni projected his final teachings directly in the minds of his most devoted disciples. These superior Bodhisattvas had already realized a pliant, compassionate mind, exclusively devoted to the benefit of all sentient beings. If they engaged in this "secret" and "hidden" practice, they did so because they needed a special technology or skillful means to realize Buddhahood faster than what the Sûtras offered (i.e. the first three Turnings) and this despite the vast presence of evil in the world (and therefore massive hinderances to spiritual emancipation). Indeed, only as Buddhas do they truly benefit all sentient beings.

To be able to realize these goals, these Bodhisattvas were taught to incorporate desire into the path and place the fruit (Buddhahood) in the present moment. This involves a radical change in the coarse, subtle & very subtle layers of the energy-system defined by the physical body. With this notion of the "Vajra-body" and its refinement, complex systems of tantric meditations emerge, emphasizing the unity ("eka") of emptiness ("e-") and bliss ("vam").

The Fourth Turning has been denied any historical significance and viewed as a buddhological recuperation or superstructuration (effectuated by early Mahayanists). Buddhist Tantra has been understood as the origin of Hindu Tantra, and vice versa, which is a more likely account. These studies want to make clear Indian Tantra (Hindu as well as Buddhist) has most likely been influenced by Taoism, in particular its Inner Alchemy. Can these traditions be merged into a coherent ensemble ? Is an operational system, a new, powerful method the outcome ?

 The Unique Buddhadharma

"Shambhu, Meghavahana, Hiranyagarbha
Anangapati, Damodara, and the other (gods),
All puffed up with self-infatuation,
They roar their Lordship o'er the worlds ;
And yet, before the vision of His Body,
They pale like fireflies in the Sun !
Then down they bow their sparkling diadems,
In reverence to the lotuses of His feet !
I pay homage to that Lord of Sages,
The God of all the gods !"

Tsongkhapa : The Essence of True Eloquence, prologue
(Shambhu = Śiva, Meghavahana = Indra, Hiranyagarbha = Brahmâ).

With emptiness, the Buddha introduced a unique teaching. Without it, the Buddhadharma would not differ from the traditional six schools of Indian philosophy, based on the Vedas and Upaniśads, nor from the Abrahamic faiths, based on revealed texts like the Torah, the New Testament or the Koran, all unveiling a substantialist theo-ontology absent in the Buddhayâna. Because of its introduction, the Buddha was able to develop a unique philosophy, drawing a radical distinction between substantialism & nominalism. This crucial divide, together with impermanence, suffering & its cessation, make up the Four Seals, authenticating any doctrine as part of the Buddhadharma.

The Vedic religion, the Ancient Egyptian tradition, the Abrahamic monotheisms, the Greco-Romans and, with only a few exceptions, most of Western philosophy, are substantialist (essentialist) to the core, accepting the objective and independent existence of extra-mental or intra-mental reality, either in terms of the world "out there", adding a creational dimension (the One God being the cause or Creator of the world), or positing a subjective ground "in here" (like an immortal soul or "âtman"). By introducing emptiness, the Buddha thoroughly rejected this ontological approach, conjecturing radical nominalism long before William of Ockam (ca. 1288 - 1347), Kant (1724 - 1804), neo-Kantianism or contemporary Criticism or, more recently, Process Philosophy.

The substantialist preferences of the West live out the Alexandrian dream empowering sensate & mental objects with an existence "of their own", becoming thereby "independent" & "secure", making the thus "liberated" own-powered entities part of a mosaic of other self-powered entities, ruled by a "supreme overlord", eventually an emperor of the world of sorts, or, in a religious sense, a Supreme Being, an All Seeing Eye (cf. "ayin").

The more subtle philosophies and mystical teachings of Judaism (Qabalah), Christianity (apophatic theology) & Islam (Sufism) agree nothing can be said about the essence of the Divine (God is for God Alone). Indeed, in the face of this Divine Darkness, even the most holy names must be denied. The Divine is Nameless, but revealing itself as the "infinite light" (cf. "Ain Soph Aur" in Qabalah), the "hidden light" (cf. ps.-Dionysius the Areopagite in the Mystical Theology), the "excellent FarNear" (cf. Marguerite Porete) etc., giving rise to the wonder of perplexity (cf. Ibn'Arabî on the "station-of-no-station").

The mystics of the West also arrive at nondual truth, and realize why their most cherished substance of substances (namely "God") cannot be found as an ultimate as such. So at this point, the genuine, theist mystic and the non-theist Buddhist yogi "seeing" emptiness can no longer be neatly distinguished, for both acquire the "Body of Truth" ("Dharmakâya"), the ultimate truth concerning phenomena, a completely nondual, direct experience of suchness, of things as they are. Of course, the Buddhadharma goes all the way, while in the West, the path remains "katapathic", empowering "God" with substance insofar as the organization of religion goes. This explains why the West has never treated its mystics properly.

In the graduated path, leading to enlightenment step-by-step, emptiness has to be conceptually understood before it can be directly perceived. The path is a temporary, contrived solution, an elaborate, efficient, ongoing & powerful auto-suggestion introduced, maintained and adjusted, until emptiness is understood & directly recognized.

"He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up it."
Wittgenstein, L. : Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.54.

 The Necessity to Accumulate Merit

Although the vehicles, schools & subschools (sects) of the Buddhayâna often propose different views & paths (methods), they all agree emptiness (attended by wisdom-mind) is the key perfecting all phenomena, while wisdom-mind itself is deemed the most exhalted & virtuous of minds.

But the Buddha did not introduce emptiness without compassion. The Second Turning encompasses both, and for good reasons. Renunciation, compassion & wisdom characterize the graduated path of the Buddhayâna. Renunciation & compassion are necessary preparations to realize emptiness and enter "nirvâna". By practicing these, merit is accumulated. This makes the mind calm enough to understand emptiness.

To organize the Great Perfection Vehicle, Kamalaśîla (ca. 700 - 750 CE) introduced emptiness in terms of the "Five Paths to Enlightenment", called : Accumulation, Preparation, Seeing, Meditation & No-More-Learning. In this scheme, the rational, conceptual realization of emptiness is part of the Path of Preparation, beginning with "superior seeing" and ending with "supreme Dharma". This is followed by various meditative realizations of emptiness on the Paths of Seeing, Meditation & No-More-Learning.

But in no way is one's analytical insight into emptiness, established on the Path of Preparation, divorced from the Path of Accumulation preceding it. Accumulation calls for mindfullness dealing with sensate & mental objects (renunciation), as well as the end of self-cherishing, as in equanimity, joy, love & compassion (the "brahmaviharâs"). These Four Immeasurables make the mind supple enough to effectively investigate emptiness (Insight Meditation). Without this accumulation of merit, emptiness yoga cannot establish "superior seeing". Without this, emptiness cannot be conceptually understood.

When human beings only care for their own petty circles of trust and act accordingly, their minds miss the pliancy to grasp, assimilate & integrate the truth concerning the ultimate nature of phenomena. They cannot understand emptiness and discover the true state of affairs. They need to realize this slowly. If ignorance is like mistaking a rope for a snake in a dark room, one may either turn on the light or carry the "snake" outside the room. Suddenly dangling the rope in the light before those panicstricken by the imagined "snake" may cause harm, while accepting the other is deluded by the "snake" and taking it outside the room, will cause relaxation and enable a gradual appreciation of how deluded one is and how powerful delusions can be. Accumulation is like taking the "snake" out. Teaching emptiness in a wrong way is like dangling the rope taken to be a snake.

Only through compassion, the action of actually causing all possible others to be happy, does the mind slowly open up to take in the wisdom realizing the ultimate nature of things. Conventional truth, and in particular functional interdependence, the bedrock of method & compassion, must be grasped before the wisdom witnessing phenomena as they are can be entered.

In that sense, generosity, morality, patience, diligence & spiritual practice (concentration) are prerequisites for the ultimate success of realizing emptiness. These qualities calm the mind. A calm mind is able to manage the crucial, restructuring insight, bringing it to "the other shore" of absolute truth, to wisdom-mind. Without compassion, wisdom cannot be found. Without wisdom, compassion cannot be perfected and remains inefficient, i.e. does not liberate from suffering (cf. the difference between "good" karma and merit).

Of course, without compassion, absolute truth can be grasped at (not realized or thoroughly established) by way of the logic of ultimate analysis, but the resultant view, lacking the functionality of mere existence, will be nihilist. Then, ultimate nature, the "noumenon" is deemed a mere limit-concept. This "dark" emptiness is a mere "dead" void, a nothingness, an "empty set". This wrong view undermines all other-centered activities, making the mind even more gross & egocentric.

So to realize emptiness, a whole series of conditions must be present. By accumulating merit, the secundary causes leading to enlightenment will actually manifest. Non-Buddhists may understand emptiness, but, lacking a skillful method to greatly increase their merit, they cannot thoroughly understand it, nor directly perceive it. To succeed in this, one needs (a) the vast merit collected by the exceedingly skillful means of compassion, (b) prolonged & recurrent Insight Meditations and (c) the non-conceptual, nondual direct experience of emptiness.

When, in every cognitive act, compassion & the wisdom realizing emptiness are simultaneous, awakening is a fact.

 The Illusion of Inherent Existence

"Śûnyatâ" is the most important, original, complex & far-reaching of Buddha's discoveries, identifying wisdom as a consciousness directly realizing emptiness, i.e. a mind understanding its object as it is, perceiving things as they truly are, devoid of delusions, distortions, hallucinations, superstitions, etc. caused by afflictive emotions and/or gross & subtle mental obscurations designating, positing, imputing, attributing, labeling, etc. objects as unchanging substances existing independently "out there" or "in here". The enlightened mind is non-conceptual and nondual, while being extraordinarily functional & effective, directly & simultaneously perceiving how all events are (a) non-substantial, but process-like, as well as (b) merely appearing as functional, conventional objects.

Conventional reality is an appearance concealing the truth of emptiness (and process) on two levels : subjectively, by positing a permanent self, ego, "I", "person", "soul" ("âtman"), etc. and/or objectively, by establishing a permanent "other", world or "God" ("Brahman").

Although everything appears to be inherently existent ("svabhâva"), no independent, substantial phenomena can be found. The mere appearance of the contrary is caused by a cognitive superimposition of "existence-by-way-of-its-own-entity" ("svarûpa"). This is an ingrained, innate misconception or false ideation operating from the side of the every sentient being within "samsâra". Take that away, and enlightenment ensues.

Not the appearance is binding, but the attachment to it is.

In truth, all conventional phenomena :

  • are produced by determining factors like causes & conditions ;

  • depend on another positor ;

  • have a status changing into something else.

Suppose an entity, event or phenomenon named "A". A is posited by way of identity (A = A) & contradiction (A ≠ B). Here, B is not necessarily another entity, but everything A is not. This is the logical characterization of A. Next, we connect A to another entity, say C as follows : C = f(A) or C is a function of A. Given A, then C is possible (for example, if A is a cup, then C, pouring liquid into A, is possible). The last step is ontological. Turning A into a hypostasis or substance is attributing own-power to A, designating to A a "substantial", "essential", "eidetic" nature. This core remains self-identical and is deemed to represent the "true nature" or "ultimate existence" of A. The "essence" of A must always remain the "essence" of A, for otherwise A could not substantially remain A, but become A', while A' ≠ A. This crucial requisite of substantialism actually undermines the consistency of substantialist ontology. This reified A is an independent "monad" without "parts" and "openings" (cf. Leibniz in his Monadology). Hence, there is no interaction possible, for nothing can "come in or go out". So if A is functional, A cannot be a substance. If A is a substance, A cannot function ! Being ignorant, we think something functional must permanently exist. This is the fundamental error and cause of all our dissatisfactions.

  • formal-logical designation : every object A is self-identical and object of an affirming negation (everything B which is not A) ;

  • functional designation : every object A relates to other objects, say C, by performing functions or C = f(A) ;

  • substantialist designation : every object A, because it functions, is self-identical, i.e. exists by way of its own characteristics. This last designation is false as shown by ultimate analysis, pointing out the absurd consequences of this substantialism, clarifying objects are other-powered and so cannot exist from their own side.

As soon as A is reified or grasped as possessing an essence "of its own", absurdities arise and our ideation of A is scattered. For example, if we accept an inherently existent A can cease to exist, then we must accept it to inherently exist (remain stable) and not exist (unstable). But if existing, A cannot cease. If not existing, there is nothing to cease. Likewise, if we say A exists from its "own side", then "in the core" A always remains A, i.e. unchanging. Hence, as activity is always a kind of change, A cannot act. Accepting an inherently existent A acts makes the action agentless, which is absurd, etc.

Ultimate analysis shows how no ultimately existing, essential A can be found.

Dependent arising is free from inherent existence and beyond substantial change, while retaining the capacity to perform functions. Conventional truth is functional, positing objects not appearing as they are, and therefore illusionary. The functional side of this truth depends on existing conditions & determinations, possessing their own functional & complex inter-connections to which humans constantly add their own. These are processes, not substances. As such, they are impermanent and so always change (cf. the metaphor of fire). Conventional reality, its truth & falsehood, are delusional, illusionary, truth-concealing & delirious because our thoughts, affects & actions intertwined with these conventional appearances misrepresent these sensate & mental objects as self-powered, while in fact they are other-powered, i.e. co-dependent on the thoughts, affects & actions of ourselves & other entities.

Renunciation is called in to train mindfulness and the grasping-aspect of the mind. Accepting each and every state, rejecting none & attracting none, pleasure & sobriety walk hand in hand. Compassion trains selflessness by generating the mind of enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings (Bodhicitta). Both prepare the mind, giving is clear-cut sharpness as well as great suppleness. Generating Bodhicitta safeguards agains the great dangers of emptiness yoga. Nihilism, confirming nothing really exists or matters, is impossible when compassion is present, while eternalism, confirming things are self-powered, is ruled out due to compassion's universal intent, stressing other-powered interdependence instead of self-powered independence. With compassion, the emptiness yogi can take in, without becoming distracted, as much as she or he possibly can.

The most dangerous illusion at hand is the so-called "ontological illusion" (cf. Clearings, 2006), identifying an object and/or a subject of experience as something existing substantially "from its own side", grounding the possibility of knowledge. Idealism substantializes the subject, introducing an unchanging, essential, higher "self" or "own-self" behind or above the empirical ego of direct experience or the "ideal" language of an intersubjective community of sign-interpreters. Realism substantializes the object, positing a real continuum outside and independent of the mind, as it were "cut off" and essentially self-powered.

In the first stages of emptiness yoga (on the Paths of Accumulation & Preparation), a conceptual realization of emptiness is sought, understanding the impossibility of any substantial reality and/or ideality. These rational insights do not take away the illusion of inherent existence (of things and persons appearing as substances), but hinder this concealment of the true state of affairs from deceiving us, slowly bringing down the reifying edifice of the conventional mind. Just like some optical illusions do not vanish as soon as we understand why they appear as they do, the pervasive illusion of self-powered entities comes so natural and automatic that sentient beings become trapped by their own phantasies, fictions & hallucinations. Conceptually grasping why there are no self-powered entities, eroding the reifying mind, leads to
directy experiencing the emptiness of functional, other-powered entities.

 Criticism & Process Philosophy

Besides meditations on method (compassion) & wisdom (emptiness), these studies bring to the fore certain remarkable similarities between, on the one hand, the philosophy of emptiness and, on the other hand, the status of the ideas in Kant's Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781). The connections between dependent arising ("pratîtya-samutpâda") and Whitehead's notion of process in Process & Reality (1929) are also put to the fore. These parallels allow us to erect a reliable vehicle to cross the divide between, on the one hand, Western criticism and metaphysics, and, on the other hand, the wisdom of the Buddhadharma.

Indeed, "nirvâna" points to an insight not different from criticism par excellence, free from all essentialist picture-thinking and substantialist thought. It focuses on a study of the mind and the practice of a flexible, adaptable, free mind. Strong like an anvil, it heads towards the wisdom realizing the true nature of all phenomena. Unlike Western thought, this wisdom cannot be understood without the method of meditation.

The core teachings of Buddha, in particular those of the Mâdhyamika-Prâsangika, are found to be in harmony with Western critical science, in casu critical epistemology and its strict nominalism. To deal with conventional reality and its interdependent mental & sensate events, it advocates, in agreement with system theory, chaostheory & Process Philosophy, dependent arising as the "king of logic" (cf. Tsongkhapa).

In accord with the Middle Way, both eternalism (accepting unchanging objective and/or subjective substances) & nihilism (rejecting both substances & mere existence) are avoided.


© Wim van den Dungen, Antwerp - 2017
philo@sofiatopia.org l Acknowledgments l SiteMap l Bibliography

Mistakes are due to my own ignorance and not to the Buddhadharma.
May all who encounter the Dharma accumulate compassion & wisdom.
May sentient beings recognize their Buddha-nature and find true peace.


initiated : 29 XI 2008 - last update : 06 VII 2014 - version n°1