Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche



Examining Both Cause & Result, the “Four Limits”

-- the Third Analysis of Madhyamaka to Explain Shunyata*





We went through the first and second analyses of what has come to be known as “The Five Reasonings of Nagarjuna” that were written in the 2nd century C.E. by the excellent Mahasiddha Nagarjuna, who founded the Madhyamaka School, the Middle Way School, meaning the middle way between assumptions that are either a fabricated superimposition or a denial.1
The middle view of Madhyamaka is sometimes referred to as Prajnaparamita, which means “Mother of all Buddhas” since it is the basis for realization. Only with perfect insight into the transcendent nature of Prajnaparamita - the Sanskrit term that was translated into Tibetan as Shes-rab-kyi-pa-rol-tu-phyin-pa (“Perfection of Wisdom”) - can freedom from samsara be attained and nirvana be realized. The Mother of all Buddhas, i.e., the middle view and perfection of wisdom, is the cause for realization of Buddhahood. Correctly understanding “The Five Reasonings of Nagarjuna” enhances a deeper appreciation and understanding of shunyata, translated as “emptiness,” which is never outside the world of ordinary appearances and experiences.
            We need not fear that insight of emptiness could cause us to fall into a state of nothingness, in which there is no karma, no appearance, nothing at all. Such nothingness does not exist. Rather, Madhyamaka philosophy teaches us to understand and differentiate between the conventional way things appear and function, the way things appear, and the ultimate nature of all things, the way things are. Should we only understand the first and not the other, we could mistakenly cling to the false beliefs that superimpositions always entail. On the other hand, should we only understand the ultimate truth of emptiness and deny conventional appearances and experiences, we could mistakenly cling to the false beliefs that denial always entails, e.g., the notion that vice and virtue are meaningless. Such an attitude causes people to turn away from respecting the integral nature of conditioned existence and from taking on any responsibilities.
To analyse the essence of all that is, Nagarjuna presented reasons that validly prove why sameness and difference of entity are mutually exclusive and therefore any superimpositions and denials are conventional approaches to life and do not describe the ultimate truth. He showed that the intrinsic nature of all outer and inner phenomena is emptiness by proving that all things are
-                     devoid of a cause,
-                     devoid of a result,
-                     devoid of both cause and result, and
-                     that everything manifests as the appearance of interdependent arising.
Other than these four ways that things are, there seems to be no conceivable way that something can possibly be.
The first verse of “The Five Reasonings of Nagarjuna” is a summary of the four verses that follow, opening the gateway to knowledge for us. It describes the true essence of all that can be imagined to exist in the lines,

Since it is beyond the nature of being one or many,
           Suffering has no inherent essence,
           Like the suffering in a dream, for example.
           The suffering in bardo is also like this
. -- Nagarjuna

In the 7th century, the great Mahasiddha Chandrakirti explained Nagarjuna’s texts and wrote the Madhyamakavatara in order to clarify the four logical reasons that Nagarjuna composed about the fact that the essence of all things is beyond one and many.2 In the last century, Mipham Rinpoche wrote The Gateway to Knowledge and in the chapter on “The Four Analyses” brought together the most important points of the many texts that explain shunyata and that need to be studied if we hope to correctly understand the selflessness of both an apprehending subject and apprehended objects. We need to know that if there were a self, then liberation would be impossible, the reason why these instructions on emptiness, shunyata, are so very precious.3
            In the first article on refuting inherent existence, we examined the cause by looking at the “Four Diamond Slivers” and learned why the four refutations that point to the essence are true,

Since it does not arise from itself, other,
           Both of them, or without a cause,
           Suffering does not arise.
          Present suffering is also like this. -- Nagarjuna

In the second article that confirms emptiness, we approached this most difficult topic by examining the result and investigated whether existents and non-existents are empty of arising. We discovered that while phenomena certainly function and influence each other according to a respective and successive pattern, one condition arising out of another, nonetheless the actual arising itself can never be found, i.e., in the ultimate sense there is no solid entity that can ever arise. It would be very beneficial to understand the second analysis of Madhyamaka, which is decisive when learning to appreciate karma, “the infallible law of cause and effect” that incessantly is the nature of relative reality. The second instructions Nagarjuna summarized in a verse are,
Since the result does not arise
           From existing at the time of the cause,
          From not existing, from both, or neither,
          Suffering therefore does not arise. -- Nagarjuna
Before discussing the third mode of analysis that Mahasiddha Nagarjuna gave us according to the instructions that Bodhisattva Shantarakshita also elucidated so carefully, I do wish to briefly speak about Shantarakshita, who realized these instructions so perfectly and handed them down to us so that we can easily understand this difficult theme.
            Bodhisattva Shantarakshita was the great Indian abbot, scholar, and yogi who, through his practice, is said to have attained the ability not to age very fast and therefore lived 999 years. He composed many commentaries on Buddhist philosophy and especially on the Sutrayana instructions that Lord Buddha conveyed in Deer Park in Sarnath, India. Shantarakshita’s most influential work is The Ornament of the Middle Way, in which he explained Madhyamaka precisely. The teachings of Tantrayana that Lord Buddha taught were introduced to Tibet by Padmasambhava, but the Sutrayana was disseminated in Tibet mainly by Shantarakshita. He arrived in Tibet a little earlier than Padmasambhava and ordained the first seven monks at Samye Monastery in Central Tibet.4 We will look at the third analysis of Nagarjuna, referred to as the “Four Limits,” in reliance upon the exposition written by Shantarakshita in order to discover the intrinsic nature of all that is and can be.

An Explanation of Both Cause & Result, the “Four Limits”

               From one cause, neither one nor many results arise.
               From many causes, neither one nor many results arise.
               Therefore, all things are without arising.
               Suffering, too, is like a dream.
-- Nagarjuna

 There is only one kind of knowledge we wish to gain and that is prajna that recognizes emptiness. Prajna is a Sanskrit term and was translated into Tibetan as shes-rab, shes meaning “knowledge,” rab meaning “the very best,“ so prajna is “very best knowledge.” Bodhisattva Shantarakshita presented easiest explanations on the best knowledge so that we can understand emptiness and showed that there is only one thing we need to discover: the indescribable essence. By understanding the indescribable essence, it is not necessary to study each of the four limitations separately here since emptiness can be understood from that one perspective. Emptiness of mind, emptiness of phenomena, emptiness of the relationship between the mind and phenomena can all be understood from the perspective of the emptiness of both cause and result.
            When Mipham Rinpoche, the great Nyingma scholar, wrote a commentary to The Ornament of the Middle Way, he compared Shantarakshita’s summary of all viewpoints, that he put into one, to a thunderbolt of Indra, who is said to be able to hurl his thunderbolt from his heavenly abode down on the earth and destroy entire cities. Bodhisattva Shantarakshita turned his attention to one question only in order to clarify Nagarjunas’s third verse that refutes both cause and result. By clarifying a single question already addressed by Nagarjuna in the introductory verse, he gave us the possibility to understand emptiness, the ultimate truth of existents. Shantarakshita asked,
Is the essence one or many?
If phenomena have an intrinsic essence, it would have to consist of one or many indivisible parts since nothing can be “one” and “many” - gcig and du-ma in Tibetan - at the same time. Arguing whether an independent essence consists of neither one nor many parts would be denying the superimposition made, namely that an essence exists to begin with; such assertions are obviously self-contradictory. Those people arguing in the name of materialism would state that an intrinsic essence consists of either “one” or “many” parts, even if they cannot find it.
            Many people invest a great deal of energy to find an answer to the question whether phenomena possess a self-existing essence and, since they assume that it exists, whether that supposed essence consists of one or many parts. They are discovering with microscopic precision that even tiniest particles consist of many parts and therefore are multiple. It is logical that something composed of many parts does not consist of one thing. A number of things always consist of a number of parts, i.e., without one there cannot be many. So let us examine whether or not there can be an essence that can be known to exist as an inherently existing entity that is free of consisting of “one” or “many.”
            In general, experiences consist of subjective perceptions of appearances that are bound by contexts or frames of reference. First, we can see that no appearance is made up of a single entity because it appears within a context. Taking the example of a hill: It looks like it is an independently existing object but actually it consists of a summit, sides, trees, shrubs, and so on, i.e., it is composed of many factors in order to match the conventional designation of being a hill. Taking the example of a vase: It looks like it is one thing, but it has a base, a neck, a top, i.e., it consists of many parts, just like the hill we just looked at. Defining such objects as “one” is merely an intellectual superimposition. Actually there is nothing to the hill or to the vase that we can ever point to as being “one.” Taking the example of an elephant: We can speak of an elephant in general terms, but when we look closely, we actually see its parts – its feet, its trunk, torso, and so on – and we designate all parts we perceive as though it were one object, an elephant in this case. No part of the elephant would stand the test of being the elephant we are referring to when we do, yet we formulate all our perceptions and use a single term to describe the collection of all its parts we mistakenly perceived as being a non-compounded object, i.e., as existing from its own side. In fact, everything that appears to us, everything we falsely apprehend as an inherently existing object is in truth comprised of many parts and therefore does not live up to the definition of being “one.” Looking at my watch, it seems to be one thing; if I cover half of it with the sleeve of my robe, then I see for myself that what I now see is half of my watch. In the same way, nothing we call “one” ever is because non-compounded objects that would be identified as “one” do not exist. Our own bodies also consist of many parts. In short, we can see that all conceivable phenomena are compounded; nothing is unconditioned nor lacks parts. The designation “one,” “unconditioned,” “indivisible particle” are abstract names we use for the sake of convenience, i.e., we point to a collection of many parts or particles that we perceive and wrongly take them to be “one.” This discussion proves emptiness, i.e., the lack of independent, solid, intrinsic existence of large objects and gross forms. Let us investigate smallest objects now.
            Even if someone examines what they may think is a tiniest existing particle, they will never find an entity that does not consist of many parts and is fit to be called “one.” In the Compendium of Knowledge, Vasubandhu wrote that since compounded objects, whether large or small, consist of tiniest particles, then such tiniest particles must connect or relate with other tiniest particles to make a whole.5 In order to connect, such small particles must have sides, i.e., each particle said to be the tiniest must have an eastern side, a western side, a northern side, and a southern side, a top, and a bottom in order to connect with something else that needs to have similar features in order to be able to relate or connect. Anything that has sides has dimensions, which are always more than one; a phenomenon that could connect would necessarily also need to be an entity consisting of dimensions and therefore would not be an indivisible particle. We see for ourselves that stating that tiniest, indivisible particles are building blocks of the world only leads astray.
Supposing a part-less particle that has no sides exists and converges with another part-less particle; in that case the part-less particle would have to penetrate the other precisely in order to pass the test of being an indivisible particle, i.e., independent of parts and therefore unconditioned. If the original, indivisible particle did not penetrate or pervade another indivisible particle exactly and precisely, both particles would necessarily have to be compounded since one would be larger than the other. A third particle would also have to perfectly pervade the particle deemed the original in order to pass the test that tiniest, indivisible particles make up the world. In such a case, everything would have to be contained in one particle; that particle would have to contain all others without ever becoming bigger. Such notions do not prove multiplicity, “many,” in the least. By examining subtle and gross phenomena in this way, we do learn that no self-existing essence really exists although appearances arise, and the fact that no inherent essence can ever be found for whatever arises is the truth of shunyata, “emptiness.”
As to the nature of the mind, we all feel that we have an inherently existing mind that continuously perceives and recognizes things. If we examine closely, though, we can see that it is not possible to point to an indivisible entity we usually think of as “mind.” Consciousness, too, consists of many factors, e.g., the visual consciousness identifies objects – forms, colours, and shapes – that it perceives with the respective sensory organ, the eyes. There is awareness of sound, awareness of tactile sensations, of smells, and of tastes. There is also the mental consciousness that distinguishes sensations and feelings. All these factors are mental events of what we consider an indivisible entity and call “the mind.” But there are more mental events than I just mentioned, so the mind is certainly not an independent, inherent existent since it consists of many factors and mental events, and therefore the mind is dependent.
The texts and expositions that elucidate Madhyamaka speak of eight types of consciousness: the five sensory consciousnesses, the sixth mental consciousness, the afflicted consciousness (klesha consciousness), and the ground consciousness (alaya in Sanskrit). The mental factors arise upon perceiving an object that can be perceived. Some people say that the klesha consciousness and the alaya consciousness together are the indivisible essence.6 For the benefit of the instructions I am presenting here, it is easier just taking the first six into consideration in order to refute the view that the mind is independent.7
We can see that the visual consciousness, to take it as an example for all others, has the potential to perceive objects that are appropriate to be seen. If we look at a yellow cloth, we designate the colour of the cloth with the term we have agreed to use and call it “yellow,” and if we look at a snow-capped mountain, we say it is “white.” Furthermore, we see things successively and extremely fast, i.e., first we notice one aspect of an object and then another, and so on, the first perception having ceased before the next arises, in an ongoing process of many perceptions occurring in what seems all at once or suddenly. The visual consciousness is not an independent perception. Some people may think that each “flash” of awareness, each moment of consciousness, is the one instant in time that they are seeking to define as the shortest instant of time and therefore the essence, just like some people try to prove the intrinsic existence of a tiniest particle that they are not able to find, no matter how hard they try. Should someone attempt to find a shortest instant in time, they would eventually learn that such an instant would only occur in reliance upon an ongoing consciousness in order to give up such a futile pursuit. Awareness is never static, rather every moment of awareness depends upon a previous moment and influences the next moment, so a moment of awareness is not an independent fraction of time, rather it is determined by three factors: a previous moment, a present moment, and a future moment. It is evident that there is no independent instant in time that can ever be called “one,” i.e., that does not consist of fractions and can rightfully be considered an independent existent and therefore a self-existing essence – neither in the external world (that arises and appears) nor in the inner realm of our mind (that also arises and appears).
Furthermore, there is no reality to activities either. If we decide to travel to Kathmandu, for example, we might think that actually going is an independent reality.  We might think that, although rain consists of many raindrops, there is a reality to “raining.” However, this is not so since “raining” depends upon raindrops. It is evident that going to Kathmandu depends upon the individual who is going and “raining” depends upon rain. The actions or functions illustrated in these examples point to changes that incessantly occur, so actions and functions cannot be isolated from their context and are therefore not what is referred to as “one.”
Another supposition may come to mind, namely, that a non-compounded entity like space has an intrinsic essence. But, actually, there is no such thing as a non-compounded entity that exists in and of itself, the definition of “inherent.” For example, we are free to draw a square in open space with our finger and can speak of “square space,” but there is no detectable “square space” that can ever be found. If we claim there is, then we simply forgot our finger and the motion we made and merely speak of the idea we had of “square space.” Furthermore, space is not a thing in itself; rather space is simply the absence of appearances. Similarly, space in a room is only the absence of objects. We also define the space in a room in dependence upon the walls, which are compounded, so there is no self-existing entity consisting of “one” that can ever be found for space since our perception and therefore our conception of space arise in reliance upon references.


We can deduce from these instructions that there isn’t anything that can possibly ever be one non-compounded entity and that there isn’t a self-existing entity that can possibly ever consist of many since many, as we know, always consists of more than one, or two, or three, or more things. If an entity inherently exists of and through its own accord, how can it consist of many? “One” or “many” being the only possibilities for anything to be, we readily see that all appearances, all dharmas, all things that arise and that can be perceived and identified have no self-existing, solid, independent, inherently existing essence. And that is why these instructions were presented - to understand the “Four Limits” summarized in the verse,

From one cause, neither one nor many results arise.
           From many causes, neither one nor many results arise.
           Therefore, all things are without arising.
           Suffering, too, is like a dream.
-- Nagarjuna 

In the fourth article on the reasoning of Madhyamaka we will learn that all things that arise are mere appearances of interdependent origination, rten-brel in Tibetan, and that no phenomenon possesses an own, self-existing essence.
Thank you very much.

* Instructions on chapter 6 of “mKhas pa’i tshul la ‘jug pa’i sgo – The Gateway to Knowledge” by Mipham Rinpoche, presented at the Namo Buddha Seminar in Kathmandu, Nepal, 1978, translated from Tibetan by Shakya Dorje. Revised excerpt from Venerable Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, An Open Door to Emptiness. Translated by Shakya Dorje, edited by Michael L. Lewis, Clark Johnson, Ph.D. & Jean Johnson, 3rd ed., Namo Buddha Publications, Crestone, Co., 1997, pages 59-64. (First ed. published by Lhungdrub Teng, Kathmandu; 2nd ed. published by Tara Publishing, Manila.) Revised by Gaby Hollmann. for Thar Lam, forthc. Dec. 2007.
1 Legend reports that Nagarjuna, who lived some time between 150 and 250 C.E., was preordained by Buddha Shakyamuni to recover and explain the Prajnaparamitasutra. Nagas are said to have informed him of texts hidden in their kingdom, so he travelled there and returned with Sutras to India.
2 The great master Chandrakirti (approx. 550-600 A.D.) was an Indian Buddhist scholar of the Madhyamaka School and is best known for founding the Prasangika sub-school. He offered proof why nothing has an inherent existence and was one of the most influential commentators of Nagarjuna.
3 See Ven. Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, The Middle-Way Meditation Instructions of Mipham Rinpoche, Namo Buddha Publications, Crestone, & Zhyisil Chokyi Ghatsal Publications, Auckland, 2000. In this book the great Tibetan scholar, Mipham Rinpoche, who actually stayed a while with the previous Thrangu Rinpoche in his monastery, describes how one develops compassion, then expands this to Bodhicitta, and eventually develops prajna. Also known as Mipham Jamyang Gyatso, Lama Mipham lived from 1846 until 1912.
4 King Trisong Detsen (742-798 A.D.) contributed greatly to establishing Buddhism in Tibet. He invited the Indian Pandit and Bodhisattva Abbot of Nalanda University, Shantarakshita to Tibet to speak about dependent origination and the ten virtuous actions and to build the first monastery at Samye near Mt. Hepori in Central Tibet. Shantarakshita was the founder of the philosophical school combining Madhyamaka and Yogacara. There was a smallpox epidemic at that time. The conservative faction in the court blamed Shantarakshita and deported him from the land. On the abbot’s advice, the king invited Padmasambhava from Swat to drive out the spirits who had caused the smallpox. The emperor later asked Shantarakshita to return, which he gladly did. - Padmasambhava (also Padmakara or Padma Raja, Tibetan Padma Jungne), in Sanskrit meaning “Lotus Born,” founded the Tantric school of Buddhism in the 8th century. In Bhutan and Tibet he is known as Guru Rinpoche, “Precious Master,” where especially followers of the Nyingma School honour him as the Second Buddha. Both Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita built Samye Gompa, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. At that time, Samye was called Nechen, which means “the great location.” One of the most accomplished of the “seven examined men” first ordained at Samye Gompa was Bodhisattva Vairocana.
5 Vasubandhu was the 4th century Indian scholar who wrote the Abhidharmakosha, which is an analysis of phenomena and serves as a commentarial tradition to the Buddhist teachings.
6  The klesha consciousness is the afflicted consciousness that clings to the idea of a self and calls it “I.” The alaya consciousness is the consciousness that stores expressions and impressions that naturally flow into it through the first six consciousnesses and via the seventh consciousness.
7 For a detailed and meticulous discussion of the eight consciousnesses, see Ven. Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, Transcending Ego: Distinguishing Consciousness from Wisdom. A Treatise of the Third Karmapa. Translated from Tibetan by Peter Roberts, Namo Buddha Publications, Crestone, & Zhyisil Chokyi Ghatsal Publications, Auckland, 2001.