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Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > Comparison of Buddhist Traditions > Comparison of the Hinayana and Mahayana Assertions of the Understandings of Voidness by Arhats and Buddhas

Comparison of the Hinayana and Mahayana Assertions of the Understandings of Voidness by Arhats and Buddhas

Alexander Berzin, May 2008

The Lack of an Impossible “Soul

The Hinayana schools, including Vaibhashika, Sautrantika, and Theravada, assert the lack of an impossible “soul” – or selflessness – with respect only to persons, not all phenomena. Although they do not use the term voidness for this absence, nevertheless we can think of it as a type of voidness. Persons lack a “soul,” an atman, that is unaffected by anything, partless, and separable from a body and a mind, and which can be cognized on its own. Such a “soul” is impossible. With just the understanding that there is no such thing as this type of “soul” with respect to persons, one can become either an arhat or a Buddha. The difference depends on how much positive force or so-called “merit” we build up. Because of their development of the enlightening aim of bodhichitta, Buddhas have built up far more positive force than arhats have.

According to the Chittamatra and Svatantrika Madhyamaka schools of Mahayana, arhats and Buddhas have different understandings of voidness. Arhats understand merely a person’s lack of an impossible “soul,” defined in the same way as the Hinayana schools do. With just this understanding of voidness with respect to persons, one overcomes the emotional obscurations preventing liberation and becomes an arhat. Buddhas have the further understanding that all phenomena lack an impossible “ soul.” However, Chittamatra and Svatantrika Madhyamaka differ in their definitions of this impossible “soul.”

  • According to Chittamatra, this impossible “soul” of all phenomena is a manner of existence established by a phenomenon arising from a natal source that is different from the natal source from which the cognition of that phenomenon arises. Cognitive objects and the cognitions of them arise from the same natal source, namely from a karmic tendency or “seed” on the mental continuum of the person cognizing it. This is the case for all phenomena, including persons. With this understanding, one overcomes the cognitive obscurations preventing omniscience, and becomes a Buddha.
  • According to Svatantrika Madhyamaka, the impossible “soul” of all phenomena, including persons, is a manner of existence established truly and unimputedly, independently of the names and concepts for them.

As for the Prasangika Madhyamaka assertions, each of the four Tibetan traditions – Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelug – asserts that both arhats and Buddhas have an understanding of the lack of an impossible “soul” or voidness of all phenomena, including persons. Further, all four agree that arhats overcome only the emotional obscurations, whereas Buddhas overcome the cognitive ones as well. There are, however, significant differences. Although this gets rather complex, let me outline these differences in brief.

  • According to Sakya Prasangika, the impossible “soul” of phenomena that arhats understand is one with a manner of existence that is established truly and unimputedly. This is the same as the Svatantrika Madhyamaka assertion of what Buddhas understand. But according to Sakya Prasangika, arhats understand this voidness with regard to only the phenomena included within their own aggregates. The impossible “soul” of phenomena that Buddhas understand is one that can be established as either truly and unimputedly existent, truly and unimputedly nonexistent, both or neither. Buddhas understand this “voidness beyond words and concepts” in reference to all phenomena. So, Buddhas understand a completely different level of voidness than Hinayana arhats do. These two types of voidness do not just differ in terms of the scope of their bases – the phenomena merely within one’s own aggregates versus all phenomena. Their objects of negation differ in scope as well
  • According to Nyingma Prasangika, the impossible “soul” of phenomena that arhats understand is one that is established as a monolith, lacking temporal and component parts. As with Sakya Prasangika, arhats understand this voidness of phenomena with regard to only the phenomena included within their own aggregates. The Nyingma Prasangika assertion of the impossible “soul” of phenomena that Buddhas understand is the same as the Sakya Prasangika one.
  • According to Karma Kagyu and Gelug, the impossible “soul” of phenomena that arhats and Buddhas both understand is the same, and the scope of the basis for this voidness is the same. Both traditions also assert in common that the only difference between an arhat’s and a Buddha’s understanding of this voidness is that an arhat’s understanding has behind it only the force of renunciation – the determination to be free. A Buddha’s understanding has behind it, in addition, the force of the enlightening aim of bodhichitta. Karma Kagyu and Gelug Prasangika differ here merely regarding the voidness that arhats and Buddhas understand. The Karma Kagyu Prasangika assertion of this impossible “soul” of phenomena is the same as that asserted by Sakya and Nyingma with regard to all phenomena. The voidness of it is a voidness beyond words and concepts. The Gelug Prasangika assertion of the impossible “soul” of all phenomena is a manner of existence truly established by something findable on the side of a phenomenon. In this assertion, Gelug Prasangika is unique.

[See: Nonconceptual Cognition of Voidness by Shravaka, Pratyekabuddha, and Bodhisattva Aryas According to the Four Tibetan Traditions.]

Summary

Let me summarize these differences in brief. Hinayana and the Chittamatra and Svatantrika Madhyamaka schools of Mahayana assert that arhats understand the lack of an impossible “soul” only of persons. All Mahayana schools assert that Buddhas understand the lack of an impossible “soul” of all phenomena as well.

The lack of an impossible “soul” of persons that arhats understand is the same in Hinayana, Chittamatra, and Svatantrika Madhyamaka. The two Mahayana schools differ, however, in their assertions of the impossible “soul” that all phenomena lack.

Prasangika Madhyamaka asserts that arhats and Buddhas both understand the lack of an impossible “ soul” of phenomena.

  • The Sakya and Nyingma variants assert that the scope of the basis for the voidness of this impossible “soul” of phenomena is different for arhats and Buddhas. The Karma Kagyu and Gelug variants assert that the scope for this basis is the same.
  • Sakya and Nyingma assert that the impossible “soul” of phenomena understood to be void by arhats is more limited than that which Buddhas understand, although these two schools each defines that impossible “soul” differently. Karma Kagyu and Gelug assert that the impossible “soul” that arhats and Buddhas understand to be void is the same. Karma Kagyu defines this impossible soul in the same way as Sakya and Nyingma define the impossible “soul” of all phenomena that only Buddhas understand. Gelug understands this impossible “soul” of all phenomena differently.