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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 5: Analysis of the Mind and Reality > The Prasangika View among Non-Buddhists

The Prasangika View among Non-Buddhists

Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche II
Translated, compiled, and edited by Alexander Berzin
Bodh Gaya, India, December 2009

Even a non-Buddhist can understand the Prasangika view of the absence of self-established existence (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa med-pa) both correctly and with certitude. In other words, even non-Buddhists can have valid apprehension (rtogs-pa) of voidness (emptiness).

  • Apprehension is a way of knowing that cognitively takes its object correctly and with certitude that it is “this” and not “that.”

[See: Apprehension of Validly Knowable Phenomena.]

This apprehension by non-Buddhists may even be a total absorption (mnyam-bzhag) on voidness. If an apprehension is a total absorption, it is pervasive that it is with a stilled and settled mind of shamatha (zhi-gnas). The non-Buddhists’ apprehension of voidness cannot, however, also be with an exceptionally perceptive mind of vipashyana (lhag-mthong).

[See: General Presentation of Shamatha and Vipashyana.]

The total absorption of a non-Buddhist on voidness cannot be with vipashyana because the development of a joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana (zhi-lhag zung-‘brel) focused on voidness requires the inspiration (byin-rlabs, “blessings”) gained from firm conviction (mos-pa) in the good qualities of one’s spiritual teacher and of the exceptional deity (lhag-pa’i lha) Buddha-figures associated with developing discriminating awareness (shes-rab) of voidness, such as Manjushri. Such firm conviction entails three types of belief (dad-pa) that their possessing these good qualities is a fact:

  • believing a fact about an object to be true, based on reason (yid-ches-kyi dad-pa),
  • clearheadedly believing a fact about an object to be true (dang-ba’i dad-pa), which, like a water purifier, clears the mind of disturbing emotions and attitudes about the object,
  • believing a fact about an object to be true with an aspiration concerning it (mngon-‘dod-kyi dad-pa), with which one not only believes the good qualities of the spiritual teacher and exceptional deities to be true, but one also has confident belief that oneself can attain true stoppings (‘ gog-bden) of true sufferings and their true causes based on nonconceptual cognition of the voidness that they teach.

Although non-Buddhists must listen to (thos-pa) or read about the correct Prasangika view of voidness as taught by a Buddhist master, then contemplate (bsam-pa) or think about it, and finally meditate (sgom-pa) upon it in order to gain a state of shamatha that apprehends voidness, they lack firm conviction in the Buddhist spiritual teachers and exceptional deities who taught this view. Consequently, although non-Buddhists may attain a joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana with apprehension of objects other than voidness, they lack the inspiration of the Buddhist spiritual teachers and exceptional deities needed in order to gain a joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana with apprehension of voidness.

For the same reasons, non-Buddhists’ apprehension of voidness can only be conceptual. They are unable to have nonconceptual apprehension of voidness.

Further, their conceptual total absorption having apprehension of voidness can only function optimally as an opponent (gnyen-po) for their unawareness of the very nature of reality (de-kho-na-nyid ma-rig-pa). It cannot function as an obliterating opponent (gnod-pa’i gnyen-po) for this type of unawareness of theirs.

  • In the context of meditation, an opponent on a meditator’s mental continuum is a state of mind that has the ability (nus-pa) merely to weaken and temporarily suppress something to be gotten rid of (spang-bya) on that person’s mental continuum. For example, meditation on the ugliness and dirtiness of the body acts as an opponent for merely weakening and temporarily suppressing that person’s attachment to the body.
  • An obliterating opponent (literally, an opponent that harms) something to be gotten rid of on a meditator’s mental continuum is a state of mind that has the ability to actually rid that person’s mental continuum of a portion of something to be gotten rid of.

For example, the deep awareness (ye-shes) of nonconceptual total absorption on voidness on an arya’s uninterrupted pathway mind (bar-chad-med lam) acts as an obliterating opponent that rids that person’s mental continuum of a portion of its unawareness of the very nature of reality.

  • An obliterating opponent must be the opposite of that which it destroys and gets rid of, and such opponents that actually do obliterate something to be gotten rid of on a mental continuum and thus bring about true stoppings (‘ gog-bden) occur only on the mental continuum of an arya.

[See: The Five Pathway Minds (Five Paths) – Basic Presentation.]

Thus, a non-Buddhist’s total absorption having apprehension of voidness can function as an opponent that weakens and temporarily suppresses that person’s unawareness of the very nature of reality, but it cannot serve as an opponent that obliterates that unawareness on this person’s mental continuum. This is because that apprehension not only lacks an exceptionally perceptive state of mind of vipashyana, but also because it is still conceptual.

By way of contrast, a non-Buddhist’s total absorption with apprehension of voidness does not necessarily even function as an opponent to weaken and temporarily suppress that person’s unawareness of cause and effect (las-‘bras ma-rig-pa), let alone serve as an opponent that obliterates that unawareness. This is because a non-Buddhist with such total absorption could still believe that making an animal sacrifice will result in a rebirth in a heaven. So, non-Buddhists with total absorption having apprehension of voidness could still be reborn in a worse state of rebirth.

Through their total absorption having apprehension of voidness, however, non-Buddhists may build up a samsara-builder network of deep awareness (ye-shes-kyi tshogs, collection of wisdom), but not necessarily even a samsara-builder network of positive force (bsod-nams-kyi tshogs, collection of merit). Non-Buddhists, of course, do not build up either of the liberation-builder or enlightenment-builder forms of the two networks, because they lack renunciation and a bodhichitta aim.

[See: The Two Enlightenment-Building Networks (The Two Collections).]

Non-Buddhists can even apprehend voidness to mean dependent arising (rten-cing ‘brel-ba) in terms of mere mental labeling (rtog-pa btags-tsam). However, by building up only a samsara-builder network of deep awareness, there is the danger that these non-Buddhists may apprehend only voidness and not apprehend it as meaning dependent arising. This may result in the fear that the superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa) of things does not exist, in other words fear that there is no conventional existence (tha-snyad-du yod-pa) of anything, Thus, they may fall to the extreme of nihilism (med-mtha’).

[See: Introduction to Voidness and Mental Labeling.]

In general, building up a network of positive force serves to affirm the conventional existence of validly knowable phenomena. Therefore, although non-Buddhists could have a Prasangika view (lta-ba), that does not make them a Prasangika person (gang-zag). To be a Prasangika person requires both a Prasangika view and Prasangika behavior (spyod-pa), namely a correct view of voidness plus both a bodhichitta aim and bodhisattva behavior based on a correct understanding of cause and effect.

However, by the force of inspiration merely from a correct view of voidness, a non-Buddhist with such a view may eventually understand correctly what true stoppings, true pathway minds, liberation and enlightenment mean. Thus, eventually, such a non-Buddhist may take safe direction (refuge) in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and thus become a Buddhist aiming for liberation or enlightenment.