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Discourse on the Main Points of Dharma, Based on the First Panchen Lama’s Root Text for the Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra

Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche I
Barnet, Vermont, USA, August 1982
Translated by Alexander Berzin
Edited by Lucy Costa and Alexander Berzin

Part II: Commentary on the Text

Session Eleven: Different Presentations of Voidness

The View of Voidness in the Four Buddhist Philosophical Tenets

Serkong Rinpoche: As for how to recognize the nature of the mind, the masters of the different traditions, Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Gelugpa, have all discussed and presented various methods. But if you really get to the essence of what they are all talking about, it brings you to the point of the nature of the mind being voidness. In other words, by nature there is a total absence of findable existence, which is a fantasized, impossible way of existing, and, therefore, it is necessary to gain the discriminating awareness with which you understand that there’s no such thing as findable existence.

When you speak of voidness in general, the absence of all fantasized, impossible ways of existing, there are many different ways to express and present what these fantasized, impossible ways are. All the four schools of Buddhist philosophical tenets do assert an absence of impossible ways of existing, voidness. However, although they all assert some form of absence of impossible ways of existing, it is only in the more sophisticated schools, the Chittamatra and Madhyamaka, that they assert an absence of a fantasized, impossible ways of existing with respect to phenomena in general; the lower schools don’t assert it with respect to general phenomena.

Although in the Chittamatra School they assert with respect to phenomena that there is an absence of a certain type of fantasized, impossible way of existing, they still assert that things do exist truly and unimputedly. In the Svatantrika branch of the Madhyamikas they assert that there is an absence of fantasized, impossible ways of existing and they say that one such way is that things exist truly and unimputedly. So they say that this is impossible, that nothing exists that way. But they still assert that things exist inherently and findably, so they assert findable existence but refute unimputed existence. In the Prasangika School, when they assert an absence of impossible ways of existing, they include inherent findable existence into that category, maintaining that this is also a fantasized way of existing and there’s no such thing. There’s a voidness of it, a total absence of it. But the Svatantrikas and the Prasangikas both are Madhyamika schools in the sense that they both share the assertion that there’s no such thing as true unimputed existence; both of them assert that this is a fantasized, impossible way of existing and that there is a total absence of it.

Participant: Could you explain “unimputed”?

Alex: Rinpoche says that will come, but first you need to set out the foundation and the structure of the discussion.

Serkong Rinpoche: Although the two types of Madhyamika schools, the Svatantrika and Prasangika, agree that there is no such thing as true unimputed existence, all the lower schools from Chittamatra downwards say that there is such a thing, that this is not a fantasized, impossible way of existing, but that things actually exist truly and unimputedly. Therefore, the Chittamatra and below schools are known as the schools that assert true phenomena, in terms of them all agreeing that things exist truly and unimputedly. But even though all of these lower, less sophisticated schools do assert true unimputed existence, the ways in which they assert it and the way in which they understand it are quite different.

You have to understand what type of assertion you have in each of these schools with respect to what are conventionally, or relatively, true things and ultimately true things. In the first school, Vaibhashika, which is the roughest way of looking at things, they would say that relatively true things are things that, when broken apart, the mind can no longer grasp or take them as being the things that they originally were. I’ll say that again, when you break an object up, if the mind can no longer grasp it the way that it originally was, then that thing is just a relatively true phenomenon. Like for instance, if we were to smash this glass here, then you’d have all the little pieces and fragments of it and the mind would not perceive the glass anymore, because it can no longer perceive it as a glass. Or like if you have a piece of cloth and you were to unravel it and take it apart, then the mind could no longer see it as the cloth that it originally was; you would just see the little threads of it. So these are all relatively true things that, when smashed or taken apart, your mind can no longer perceive them as they originally were.

Things that are not like that are ultimately true things, such as if you think about form in general, when you take a form apart, the pieces still are forms. No matter how small you break it up, still the mind would see it as a form, just as it saw it originally as a form. The same thing, for instance, with feeling in general: no matter how much you dissect the feeling, even down to the little tiniest moments of it, it’s still a feeling and the mind would still experience it as a feeling. These are, therefore, ultimately true things according to the Vaibhasika School, whereas relatively true things would be like the glass or the piece of cloth that as you take them apart the mind would no longer see it in the same category as it did before.

The next higher level of sophistication is represented by the Sautrantika School. They say that regular impermanent phenomena, or changing nonstatic phenomena, are objectively real phenomena, and these objectively real things are ultimately true phenomena, that these objective things all around, which change all the time, are an ultimate true level of reality, and what’s relatively real or conventionally real are either metaphysical entities or static abstractions. In other words, when you think of abstract things in general or something in the metaphysical realm, all of these are only relatively or conventionally true; whereas objective concrete things are ultimately true. So that’s the next higher level of sophistication, the Sautrantika position.

In the Chittamatra School, the Mind-Only School, the next level of sophistication, they divide phenomena into three categories. First you have other-powered or dependent phenomena, things that are influenced by other forces. So these are things that are impermanent, nonstatic, and change. Then you have thoroughly established phenomena, which refer to voidness itself. Finally, you have totally imaginary phenomena, which are all other static abstractions, and these are totally imaginary. So there are other-powered phenomena, which are things that change, thoroughly established phenomena, that’s referring to voidness, and then totally imaginary or totally conceptional phenomenon which is referring to all other static abstractions. According to this school, all dependent and thoroughly established phenomena exist truly and unimputedly and, therefore, are ultimately real, that is, they are the ultimate level of truth, ultimate true phenomena. Whereas the totally conceptional phenomena lack true unimputed existence; in other words, they only exist by imputation, they are totally conceptional. They are just a mental imputation and, therefore, these are not ultimately true things. They are not ultimate reality but are just conventionalities, or relative truth.

So this is the way that they assert it. It’s safer to say that. Since there are many subdivisions within Chittamatra, it’s better to just leave the statement as that they say that dependent and thoroughly established phenomena have true unimputed existence, whereas totally conceptional phenomena lack true unimputed existence, they are only conceptional and imputed. If you actually then go to the next step of making the equivalency in terms of the first of these being ultimately true phenomena and the others just being conventionalities, or relatively true, then it gets rather complicated, because some of the sub-schools have different assertions on that point. So that was just a sort of general statement in terms of that latter level of equivalence, whereas the first statement covers all the subdivisions.

The reason why the Chittamatrins state that dependent phenomena have true unimputed existence is that these arise from causes and circumstances and, because they actually arise, they are not mere mental imputations, but they are true unimputed phenomena. That’s the reason why dependent phenomena exist truly and unimputedly. The reason why thoroughly established phenomena, namely voidness, have true unimputed existence is because it’s what is perceived by a highly realized being, an arya, in a state of total absorption. Highly realized beings, or aryas, when in a state of total absorption, or single-minded concentration, perceive voidness, a total absence of fantasized, impossible ways of existing. Since this is an object that, to that consciousness, is true, therefore, it’s not just something that is imputed. It’s a true and unimputed phenomenon; that’s the reason why they assert that.

If you want to delve a little bit into the complication here, the reasons that were just stated, namely, dependent phenomena exist truly and unimputedly because they arise from causes and circumstances, and thoroughly established phenomena exist truly and unimputedly because they are perceived by the total absorption of a realized being – these are explanations from the perspective of saying that these things exist as something or other; it’s a positive assertion about them. However, you’ll also see in other texts descriptions of these from the opposite point of view, in which they’ll say that because dependent phenomena do not arise from themselves, but rather arise based on other things, or based on causes and conditions, therefore, they are not true things unto themselves. So here’s a negative assertion about them in terms of their being true or not, and here it’s talking from a completely different point of view. It asserts that phenomena are not true unto themselves, meaning that they come from other things, they are not arisen by themselves. Also, when you speak about thoroughly established phenomena, because thoroughly established phenomena are voidness, and voidness is not established as a concrete nature of anything because it is not something concrete, therefore, there’s also a negative assertion with respect to voidness, saying that it is not a true concrete anything.

So in different texts you’ll come across different types of statements about these different types of phenomena. You shouldn’t get confused by them, because they are talking from different points of view and emphasizing different aspects in the discussion. That’s why it’s a very complicated issue with respect to the Chittamatra, the Mind Only School; it gets complicated.

In the Svatantrika School of Madhyamika, which is the next level, when they talk about true unimputed existence, it’s defined as – well there are a number of negatives in the sentence so it’s not going to come out in very easy English. It says that something that exists truly and unimputedly would not be something that arises to a mind that is unaffected or unharmed. Now let’s dissect that because it’s unclear in English. You have a type of mind that can be affected by different faults, such as seeing things yellow because of jaundice, and other sorts of flaw. Now, what you need is for things to arise to a mind that is unaffected by any defects, an unaffected mind. The Madhyamika Svatantrikas say that something that would not arise to an unaffected mind is something that would exist truly and unimputedly.

Sorry, that’s the way that it’s expressed, with about two or three negatives in the sentence, and if you were to unravel it and put it in a positive sense, it wouldn’t fulfill the definition, so it has to be said with all the negatives. In this way they say that there’s no such thing as unimputed existence because these are things that would not be things that would arise to a mind that’s unaffected by flaws. They say that such things, therefore, don’t exist at all, although they do assert that things exist findably and inherently.

So what they say wouldn’t arise is with respect to a faulty mind. If we express it like that, we eliminate at least one negative in the sentence. Things that wouldn’t arise to a non-faulty mind would be true unimputed existence, things that would exist truly and unimputedly. So that’s all that they are asserting wouldn’t arise to a non-defective mind, but they are not going further and saying inherently findable things also wouldn’t arise to a non-faulty mind or non-defective mind, that’s only going the next step of sophistication up to the Prasangikas where they would assert that.

In the Svatantrika School they say that nothing can exist truly and unimputedly, that there’s a total absence, or voidness, of that. The Prasangikas would agree, but they go one step further and refute more than the Svatantrikas. The Svatantrikas, as just said, assert that nothing exists truly and unimputedly, nevertheless they say that everything is findable even though not existing truly and unimputedly. The Prasangikas say that, in addition to the fact that they don’t exist truly and unimputedly, they also don’t exist inherently and findably. So there’s a total absence of that type of existence and that’s what they assert as voidness and they assert that with respect to persons or individuals as well as with respect to any phenomenon. They assert that persons lack any inherent findable identity and, likewise, all phenomena lack that as well. Nothing has an inherently findable identity.

For the Prasangikas, if something were to exist truly and unimputedly, it would also exist inherently and findably as well. Therefore, by asserting that things lack true unimputed existence, they mean that they lack inherent findable existence as well. So you were asking what does true unimputed existence mean, for the Prasangikas it means not only true and unimputed existence in general, the way the Svatantrikas accept it, but they understand it also to mean inherently findable as well. As you can see, the term is different from the Svatantrikas because they include within the term “true unimputed existence” the implication of it, which is that if anything existed truly and unimputedly, it would have to be findable as well. So does that answer your question?

Participant: What does impute mean?

Alex: To impute is that the mind calls something. For instance, you have this collection of pieces of paper and black lines on it and you impute on it, or label on it, the word “book,” “it is a book.” “Impute” is an action of the mind of calling something “something.”

Participant: I didn’t understand correctly the Chittamatra School, but are they stating that totally conceptional phenomena exist inherently by their own creation, not through causes and conditions?

Alex: You are confusing two things, those are mutually exclusive.

Serkong Rinpoche: Things can be either totally nonexistent or existent. If they are existent, then they are either static or nonstatic, which is usually translated as permanent or impermanent but that’s misleading, so static or nonstatic. Now within these two categories that you have, static and nonstatic, dependent phenomena are all nonstatic; they are all changing phenomena. Totally established phenomena are static and they are voidnesses; voidness is a static abstraction. Totally conceptional phenomena are all those static phenomena other than voidness. So totally established and totally conceptional phenomena are both in this one category: they are static, they are unconditioned; they are not affected by causes and circumstances.

Within this division scheme, they say that, first of all, all existent things have inherent findable existence; if something is totally nonexistent, then it doesn’t have inherent findable existence. So, both static and nonstatic phenomena have inherent findable existence; they exist, you can find them, you can point to them. When you talk about dependent phenomena and thoroughly established phenomena – nonstatic changing phenomena and static voidnesses – these have true unimputed existence; whereas the static totally conceptional phenomena lack that. They are only imputed, so all the totally conceptional phenomena lack true unimputed existence.

Now, the category of totally conceptional phenomena is divided into two. There are those totally conceptional phenomena that exist, and those totally conceptional phenomena that don’t exist at all. Those totally conceptional phenomena that exist are inherently findable, but they are not truly and unimputedly existent. Whereas those totally conceptional phenomena that are totally nonexistent are not findable at all because they are not existent. OK, you got it?

If you want to add to the complication then you can ask, “What do they mean by voidness and what do they mean by these totally conceptional ones that don’t exist?” In the Chittamatra system you have two types of voidness or fantasized, impossible ways of existing that don’t exist at all. The first is something that can be established by a nonconceptual sensory perception and that’s, namely, the voidness of dependent phenomena., According to the Chittamatra School, the consciousness of objects and the objects they are conscious of come from one and the same natal source, namely they both come from the same seed or tendency. It is a karmic seed for both the object and the consciousness of that object in the same moment of cognition. To imagine that they don’t come from the same natal source is a fantasized, impossible way of existence, and nonstatic phenomena, changing phenomena, are totally devoid of existing in that way.

Participant: Nonstatic phenomena?

Serkong Rinpoche: Things that change. Now, the object and the consciousness of that object are devoid of existing as not coming from the same immediate source, so it gets complicated. That’s one type of voidness, and that voidness is a thoroughly established phenomenon; it is something that is findable.

Now voidness is something that refutes something, and it would have to refute something that is an imaginary, fantasized, impossible way of existence. An imaginary, fantasized way would be if they come from different immediate sources and that would be an example of a totally conceptional phenomenon that doesn’t exist at all.

Participant: Because in actuality they come from the same source?

Serkong Rinpoche: Because in actuality they come from the same source. So then existing as coming from different natal sources would be not only totally imaginary, totally conceptional, but it also doesn’t exist at all and therefore that would be an example of totally conceptional phenomenon that is nonexistent, which lacks both true existence as well as inherent findable existence.

This first type of voidness asserted in the Chittamatra system, which we just described, is said to be the view that relies on nonconceptual sensory perception. You could see that the object and the consciousness of that object come from the same natal source and they are devoid of coming from different natal sources. So that’s the first type of voidness.

The second type of voidness is spoken of in terms of the view of reality that relies on conceptual cognition, or is speaking in terms of conceptual mental consciousness, because sensory perception is nonconceptual. So the first one refers to your sensory perceptions of things, of the consciousness and the object that’s perceived, both being devoid of coming from different immediate sources. The second refers to conceptual mental consciousness in terms of various forms of things and the names of things.

With respect to names of things, let’s say you are calling this the “Milarepa Center,” or you are calling this the “meditation hall.” There’s the words “meditation hall” and there’s what the words refer to, namely the basis upon which you are affixing the words “meditation hall” and calling it something with those words, with that name. Now that basis or foundation is devoid of existing truly and unimputedly. In other words, if the basis for calling something a name did exist truly and unimputedly, then when you call this building a “meditation hall,” a “building,” and a “barn,” these three names would be referring to three different things. If you had two persons called John, then the name John in both cases would have to refer to the same person. The same name couldn’t refer to two different persons.

The fact that you can have three names for this building and they all refer to the same thing, and the fact that you can have two people called by the same name and they don’t refer to the same person but to different people, means that the things that names refer to don’t exist truly and unimputedly. So that’s the second type of voidness, which is the voidness involved with the name of things, or voidness involved with conceptual mental cognition. The basis for the names of things existing truly and unimputedly would be a totally conceptional phenomenon that doesn’t exist at all.

Alex: Rinpoche is laughing because while I was translating his explanation, you all were nodding your heads as if you actually understood what he was talking about. [Laughter]