Thursday, October 29, 2020

The key to the Middle Way -- Part I -- Dalai Lama - 013


The Key to the Middle Way -- PART I --
- A Treatise on the Realisation of Emptiness -
TENZIN GYATSO, The Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Translated by Jeffrey Hopkins and Lati Rimpoche,
with Alexander Berzin, Jonathan Landaw and Anne Klein

[Table of Content]

  1. It is all about the mind

  2. The four seals

  3. The Four Schools of Tenets

  4. Provisory and Definitive Teachings

  5. The Four Reliances

  6. We need to get a conceptual understanding of emptiness through reasoning

  7. The object of negation

  8. Emptiness means emptiness of inherent existence

  9. Ignorance of the emptiness of inherent existence is the root cause of all bad consciousnesses and their consequential suffering

  10. The Two Truths 

  11. The Middle Way between existence and non-existence 


  1. Emptiness doesn’t deny the possibility of valid conventional truths / laws, sciences

  2. Let us give examples

  • - Emptiness of body & mind

  • - Emptiness of external objects

  • - Emptiness of characteristics, elements, samsara & Nirvana, sentient beings & Buddhas

  • - Emptiness of production

  • - Emptiness of causality

  1. Everything is empty <==> because everything is dependently arisen, and vice versa 

  2. Emptiness doesn’t mean nihilism

  • - Everything is merely imputed by the mind, but not from the mind only

  • - Emptiness of emptiness

  • - Emptiness is also a conventional truth when reified

  • - Emptiness is a non-affirming negative

  1. Benefits of realizing emptiness: not being fooled by appearances

  2. From this we gain faith in the other teachings of the Buddha

  3. The three levels of motivation

  4. How to internalise the view of emptiness



Translators' Note

The text was translated by Jeffrey Hopkins, who orally retranslated the English into Tibetan for verification and correction by Lati Rimpoche and then worked with Alexander Berzin, Jonathan Landaw, and Anne Klein to improve the presentation in English.



The Key to the Middle Way

Homage to the perfection of wisdom.

I respectfully bow down to the Conqueror,

Protector of all beings through boundless compassion,

With dominion over glorious wisdom and deeds, but who

Like an illusion is only designated by words and thoughts.


I will explain here in brief terms the essence

Of the ambrosia of his good speech,

The mode of the Union of emptiness and dependent-arising, (Union of the Two Truths)

To increase the insight of those widi burgeoning intellect.


[1. It is all about the mind]

We all want happiness and do not want suffering. Moreover, achieving happiness and eliminating suffering depend upon the deeds of body, speech and mind. As the deeds of body and speech depend upon the mind, we must therefore constructively transform the mind. The ways of constructively transforming the mind are to cause mistaken states of consciousness not to be generated and good states of consciousness to be both generated and increased.

·  What are the determinants, in this context, of a bad state of consciousness? A state of consciousness, once produced, may initially cause ourselves to become unhappy and our previously calm mind suddenly to become excited or tense. This may then act as the cause of hard breathing, nervous sweating, illness, and so forth. From these, in turn, bad deeds of body and speech may arise, which directly or indirectly may also cause hardship for others. All states of consciousness that give rise to such a causal sequence are assigned as bad.

·  The determinants of good states of consciousness, on the other hand, are just the opposite. All states of consciousness that cause the bestowal of the fruit of happiness and peace upon ourselves or others, either superficially or in depth, are assigned as good.

As for ways of causing mistaken states of consciousness not to be generated, there are such means as undergoing brain operations, ingesting various types of drugs, making our awareness dull as if overcome with drowsiness, and making ourselves senseless as if in deep sleep. However, apart from only occasional superficial help, these mostly do more harm than good from the point of view of deep solutions.

Therefore, the way of beneficially transforming the mind is as follows.

·  First we must think about the disadvantages of bad states of consciousness, identifying them from our own personal experience.

·  Then we must recognise the good states of consciousness. If familiarity with them is developed through thinking again and again about their advantages and about their supporting validators, then the various types of good states of consciousness will become stronger.

·  This occurs through the force of familiarity and through these good states of consciousness having valid foundations and being qualities dependent on the mind [and thus capable of limitless development]. Then, it is natural that the defective states of consciousness will decrease in strength. Thereby, in time, sure signs of goodness will appear in the mind.

Many such different methods of transforming the mind have been taught by the many great teachers of this world, in accordance with individual times and places and in accordance with the minds of individual trainees. Among these, many methods of taming the mind have been taught in the books of the Buddhists. From among these, a little will be said here about the view of emptiness.

Views of selflessness are taught in both Buddhist vehicles, the Mahayana and the Hinayana, and with respect to the Mahayana in both sutra and tantra divisions. When a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist are differentiated by way of behaviour, the difference is whether or not the person takes refuge in the Three Jewels. When they are differentiated by way of view, the difference is whether or not the person asserts the views which are the four seals testifying to a doctrine's being the word of the Buddha.



[2. The four seals]

The four seals are:

  1. All products are impermanent.

  2. All contaminated things are miserable.

  3. All phenomena are empty and selfless.

  4. Nirvana is peace.

Therefore, all Buddhists assert that all phenomena are empty and selfless.

·  With respect to the meaning of selflessness, here is a selflessness of persons, that is the non-existence of persons as substantial entities or self-sufficient entities. This is asserted by all four Buddhist schools of tenets: Vaibhasika, Sautrantika, Cittamatra and Madhyamika.

·  The Cittamatrins assert, in addition, a selflessness of phenomena that is an emptiness of objects and subjects as different entities.

·  The Madhyamikas assert a selflessness of phenomena that is an emptiness of inherent existence.

The meaning of the views of the lower and higher schools of tenets differs greatly in coarseness and subtlety. However, if understanding is developed with respect to the lower systems, this serves as a means of deep ascertainment of the higher views; therefore, it is very helpful to do so. Here, selflessness is to be discussed in accordance with the Madhyamika system, and within the division of the Madhyamika into Svatantrika and Prasangika, in accordance with the Prasangika system.



[3. The Four Schools of Tenets]

Question: Did the Blessed One set forth all these different schools of tenets? If he did, on what sutras do each rely? Also, does the difference of status and depth of the schools of tenets necessarily depend on scriptural authority?

Answer: The different views of the four schools of tenets were set forth by the Blessed One himself in accordance with the mental capacities of his trainees, whether superior, middling, or low. Some trainees were likely to fall into views of nihilism or were in danger of losing faith if taught selflessness. For them Buddha even taught the existence of a self in some sutras. Also, some trainees were likely to go either to the extreme of eternity or to the extreme of annihilation if Buddha answered their questions in the positive or the negative. For them Buddha did not say either 'exists' or 'does not exist', but remained silent, as in the case of the fourteen inexpressible views. Also, with respect to the modes of selflessness, Buddha set forth many forms as was briefly explained above.

The sutras on which each of the schools relies are as follows. The Vaibhasika and Sautrantika schools of tenets rely mainly on the sutras of the first wheel of doctrine, such as the Sutra on the Four Truths (Catuhsatya). The Cittamatra school of tenets relies mainly on the sutras of the last wheel of doctrine, such as the Unravelling of the Thought Sutra (Samdhinirmocana). The Madhyamika school relies mainly on the sutras of the middle wheel of doctrine, such as the Hundred Thousand Stanza Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (Satasdhasrikaprajnaparamita). There are ways of presenting the three series of wheels of doctrine from the point of view of place, time, subject and trainee [but this is not a place for such a lengthy discussion].



[4. Provisory and Definitive Teachings]

If it were necessary to differentiate the status and depth of the schools' different views in dependence on scriptural authority, then, since the individual sutras each say that the system which it teaches is the superior system, we may wonder which scripture should be held as true. If one scripture were held to be true, we would then wonder how the other discordant sutras should be considered. But, if the modes of truth of one sutra and the non-truth of the others were necessarily provable only by scriptural authority, then the process would be endless. Therefore, the differentiation of the superiority and inferiority of views must rely only on reasoning.

Thus, the Mahayana sutras say that it is necessary to distinguish what requires interpretation and what is definitive. Thinking of this, Buddha says in a sutra:

Monks and scholars should

Well analyse my words,

Like gold [to be tested through] melting, cutting and polishing,

And then adopt them, but not for the sake of showing me respect.



[5. The Four Reliances]

In his Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras (Mahdyanasutralamkara) Maitreya commented well on the meaning of Buddha's thought in that statement and set forth the four reliances:

  1. One should not rely on the person of a teacher, but on the tenets or doctrines that he teaches.

  2. One should not rely merely on the euphony and so forth of his words, but on their meaning.

  3. With respect to the meaning, one should not rely on those teachings that require interpretation. Such interpretation would be necessary if there were some other non-explicit base in the teacher's thought, if there were a purpose for the teaching's being stated in interpretable form, and if the explicit words of the teaching were susceptible to refutation. One should rely, rather, on those teachings that have definitive meaning, that is, which do not require interpretation.

  4. With respect to the definitive meaning, one should not rely on a dualistic consciousness, but on a non-conceptual wisdom.



[6. We need to get a conceptual understanding of emptiness through reasoning]

With respect to a non-conceptual wisdom that apprehends a profound emptiness, one first cultivates a conceptual consciousness that apprehends an emptiness, and when a clear perception of the object of meditation arises, this becomes a non-conceptual wisdom. Moreover, the initial generation of that conceptual consciousness must depend solely on a correct reasoning. Fundamentally, therefore, this process traces back solely to a reasoning, which itself must fundamentally trace back to valid experiences common to ourselves and others. Thus, it is the thought of Dignaga and Dharmakirti, the kings of reasoning, that fundamentally a reasoning derives from an obvious experience.



[7. The object of negation]

Question: For the sake of improving the mind what is the use of developing valid cognisers and states of consciousness that realise the presentations of views of emptiness? What practitioners need is a sense of practical application and goodness; it is the scholars who need to be learned.

Answer: There are many stages in the improvement of the mind. There are some in which analysis of reasons is not necessary, such as when trusting faith alone is to be cultivated single-pointedly. Not much strength, however, is achieved by just that alone. Especially for developing the mind into limitless goodness, it is not sufficient merely to familiarise the mind with its object of meditation. The object of meditation must involve reasoning. Further, it is not sufficient for the object to have reasons in general; the meditator himself must know them and have found a conviction in them. Therefore, it is impossible for the superior type of practitioner not to have intelligence. Still, if we were forced to choose between a sense of practical application and learnedness, a sense of practical application would be more important, for one who has this will receive the full benefit of whatever he knows. The mere learnedness of one whose mind is not tamed can produce and increase bad states of consciousness, which cause unpleasantness for himself and others instead of the happiness and peace of mind that were intended. One could become jealous of those higher than oneself, competitive with equals and proud and contemptuous towards those lower and so forth. It is as if medicine had become poison. Because such danger is great, it is very important to have a composite of learnedness, a sense of practical application and goodness, without having learnedness destroy the sense of practical application or having the sense of practical application destroy learnedness.

Concerning the improvement of the mind, in order to ascertain the meaning of a selflessness or of an emptiness, it is necessary to ascertain first the meaning of just what a phenomenon is empty of when we refer to 'an emptiness'. The Bodhisattva Santideva says in his Engaging in the Bodhisattva Deeds (Bodhicaryavatara, IX. 140):

Without identifying the imputed thing

Its non-existence cannot be apprehended.

Just so, without ascertaining that of which a phenomenon is empty, an understanding of its emptiness does not develop.



[8. Emptiness means emptiness of inherent existence]

Question: Of what is it that a phenomenon is empty?

Answer: [When we Prasangikas speak of an emptiness, we are not referring to the situation in which one object is empty of some other existent entity. Thus] though we may commonly speak of an 'empty rainbow', since the rainbow is empty of anything tangible, this type of an emptiness is not what we have in mind. [This is because anything tangible can exist separate from an empty rainbow; and, moreover, there is still something positive about this rainbow empty of anything tangible, such as its having colour.] Though we may also speak of 'empty space', since space is empty of anything physical, this too is not an example of what we mean by an emptiness [although here there is nothing else positive implied about space, which is the mere absence of anything physical. This is because here too anything physical can exist separate from empty space.] Rather, when we speak of a phenomenon as being empty, we are referring to its being empty of its own inherent existence [which does not exist at all, let alone exist separate from the phenomenon. In one respect, then, there is a similarity here in that just as a rainbow is naturally empty of anything tangible—it never has been tangible—so too, a phenomenon is naturally empty of its own inherent existence— it never has had inherent existence.] Further, it is not that the object of the negation [inherent existence] formerly existed and is later eliminated, like the forest which existed yesterday and which is burned by fire today, with the result that the area is now empty of the forest. Rather, this is an emptiness of an object of negation [inherent existence], which from beginningless time has never been known validly to exist.

Also, with respect to the way in which a phenomenon is empty of the object of negation, it is not like a table top being empty of flowers. [There, the object of the negation, flowers, is an entity separate from the base of the negation, the table top. With the object of the negation being inherent existence, however, we are not negating an entity separate from the base of the negation, a phenomenon, but rather we are negating a mode of existence of the base of the negation itself. Thus] we mean that the base of the negation, a phenomenon, does not exist in the manner of the object of the negation, its own inherent existence. Therefore, without ascertaining just what the object of the negation is of which phenomena are empty, that is, without ascertaining the measure of what self is in the theory of selflessness, we cannot understand the meaning of an emptiness. A mere vacuity without any sense of 'The object of the negation is this' and 'It is not that' is utterly not the meaning of an emptiness.



[9. Ignorance of the emptiness of inherent existence is the root cause of all bad consciousnesses and their consequential suffering]

Question: What is the use of going to all the trouble of first understanding what something definitely non-existent [inherent existence] would mean if it were existent; and then, after that, viewing it as definitely non-existent?

Answer: It is common worldly knowledge that by believing untrue information to be true we fall into confusion and are harmed. Similarly, by believing phenomena to be inherently existent when in fact they are not inherently existent, we are also harmed. For example, with respect to the different ways in which there can be a consciousness of 'I', there is a definite difference between the way the ‘I’ is apprehended when desire, hatred, pride and so forth are generated based on this ‘I’, and the way the ‘I’ is apprehended when we are relaxed without any of those attitudes being manifest. Similarly, there is the mere consciousness that apprehends an article in a store before we buy it, and there is the consciousness apprehending that article after it has been bought, when it is adhered to as 'mine' and grasped with attachment. Both these consciousnesses have the same object, and in both cases the mode of appearance of the article is the appearance of it as inherently existent. However, there is the difference of the presence or absence of our adhering to it as inherently or independently existent.

Also, when we see ten men, just from merely seeing them it appears to us that ten men exist there objectively or inherently; however, there is no certainty that we will go on to adhere at that time to this appearance of ten objectively or inherently existent men and posit truth to it. [If we were to posit truth to the appearance of these men as being inherently existent, the process of doing so would be as follows.] For either right or wrong reasons, a strong thought [based on having conceived these ten men to be inherently existent] will be generated, which incorrectly considers one from among these ten men as good or bad. At that time, our intellect will falsely superimpose on the appearance of this man a goodness or badness that exceeds what actually exists. Desire and hatred will then be generated, and consequently we will adhere at that time to this object [the appearance of an inherently existent good or bad man] tightly from the depths of our mind as true, most true.

Therefore, a consciousness conceiving inherent existence precedes any bad consciousness, leading it on by the nose, and also accompanies, or aids, many other bad consciousnesses as well. Thus, if there were no ignorance conceiving inherent existence, then there would be no chance for desire, hatred and so forth to be generated. Since that is so, it is important to identify the beginningless emptiness of the object of the negation, which is to say, it is important to identify as non-existent that non-existent entity [inherent existence] which has never validly been known to exist. Once we have made this identification, it is necessary to generate conviction in it as well. The purpose of this process is to cease the arising of incorrect thoughts, inexhaustible like ripples on an ocean, which arise through the force of the appearance of inherent existence as existent, even though it is non-existent, and through the force of the adherence to that false appearance as true. As Nagarjuna says in the eighteenth chapter of his Fundamental Text Called 'Wisdom (Prajna-nama-mulamadhyamakakarika, XVIII. 4-5):

When the thought of the internal

And the external as 'I' and 'mine’

Has perished, grasping ceases

And through that cessation birth ceases.


When actions and afflictions cease, there is liberation;

They arise from false conceptions, these arise

From the elaborations [of false views on inherent

Existence]; elaborations cease in emptiness.



[10. The Two Truths]

Inherent existence has never been validly known to exist; therefore, it is impossible for there to be any phenomenon that exists through its own power. Since it is experienced that mere dependent-arisings, which are in fact empty of inherent existence, do cause all forms of help and harm, these are established as existent. Thus, mere dependent-arisings do exist. Therefore, all phenomena exist in the manner of appearing as varieties of dependent-arisings. They appear this way without passing beyond the sphere or condition of having just this nature of being utterly non-inherently existent. 

Therefore, all phenomena have two entities: one entity that is its superficial mode of appearance and one entity that is its deep mode of being. These two are called respectively conventional truths and ultimate truths.

The Superior (Arya) Nagarjuna says in his Fundamental Text Called 'Wisdom' (XXIV. 8):

Doctrines taught by the Buddhas

Rely wholly on the two truths,

Conventional and worldly truths

And truths that are ultimate.

Also, the glorious Candrakirti says in his Supplement to (Nagarjuna's} ' Treatise on the Middle Way (Madhyamakavatara, VI. 23)[1]:

[Buddha] said that all phenomena have two entities,

Those found by perceivers of the true and of the false;

Objects of perceivers of the true are realities,

Objects of perceivers of the false are conventional truths.

The divisions of ultimate truths will be briefly explained below. Conventional truths themselves are divided into the real and the unreal just from the point of view of an ordinary worldly consciousness. Candrakirti says (Supplement, VI. 24-25):

Also those which perceive falsities are said to be of two types,

Those with clear senses and those having defective ones.

A consciousness having a defective sense is said to be

Wrong in relation to one with a sense that is sound.


Objects realised by the world and apprehended

By the six non-defective senses are only true

From a worldly point of view, the rest are presented

As unreal only from the viewpoint of the world.

The purpose of knowing thus the presentation of the two truths is as follows. Since it is utterly necessary to be involved with these appearances which bring about varieties of good and bad effects, it is necessary to know the two natures, superficial and deep, of these objects to which we are related. For example, there may be a cunning and deceptive neighbour with whom it is always necessary for us to interact and to whom we have related by way of an estimation of him that accords only with his [pleasant] external appearance. The various losses that we have sustained in this relationship are not due to the fault of our merely having interacted with that man. Rather, the fault lies with our mistaken manner of relating to him. Further, because of not knowing the man's nature, we have not estimated him properly and have thereby been deceived. Therefore, if that man's external appearance and his fundamental nature had both been well known, we would have related to him with a reserve appropriate to his nature and with whatever corresponded to his capacities, and so forth. Had we done this, we would not have sustained any losses.



[11. The Middle Way between existence and non-existence

-- Middle Way free of all extremes & middle, free of all conceptual elaborations]

Similarly, if phenomena had no deep mode of being other than their external or superficial mode of being, and if thus the way they appeared and the way they existed were in agreement, then it would be sufficient to hold that conventional modes of appearance are true just as they appear, and to place confidence in them. However, this is not so. Though phenomena appear as if true, most true, ultimately they are not true. Therefore, phenomena abide in the middle way, not truly or inherently existent, and also not utterly non-existent [, not both together, not neither]. This view, or way of viewing—the knowledge of such a mode of being, just as is is — is called the view of the middle way.

With respect to this, the way in which there is no inherent existence or self is as follows. Whatever objects appear to us now—forms, sounds and so forth which are cognised by the eyes, ears and so on, or objects cognised by the mind, or objects of experience and so forth—these objects are the bases of negation, in relation to which the object of that negation, inherent existence, is negated. They appear to be inherently existent, or existing as independent entities, or existing objectively. Therefore, all consciousnesses are mistaken except for the wisdom that directly cognises emptiness.



Continuation on Part II



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