Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche


Interdependent Origination, rten-‘brel

-- the Fourth Discussion of Madhyamaka to Explain Shunyata*





We discussed the first three analyses of “The Five Reasonings” that were written in the 2nd century C.E. by the extraordinary Mahasiddha Nagarjuna to show that no phenomenon possesses a self-existing essence.1 Nagarjuna founded the Madhyamaka School, the Middle Way School, meaning the middle way between assumptions that are either a superimposition or a denial.
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” renders a deep understanding of the ultimate truth of shunyata, the Sanskrit term for “emptiness.”
            In general, fearing that insight of emptiness could cause us to fall into a state of nothingness, in which there is no appearance, nothing at all, is unfounded. 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, for instance that things exist forever. 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 belief that karma as well as vice and virtue are meaningless. Such an attitude leads an individual to turn away from acknowledging the interdependent nature of conditioned existence and from taking on responsibilities.
To show the essence of all that appears and that is not fit to depend upon causes and conditions, Nagarjuna presented reasons that validly prove why any abstract superimpositions and denials are merely conventional approaches to life and are ultimately not real. He showed that the essence of all outer and inner phenomena is emptiness, shunyata in Sanskrit, 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 interdependence.
Other than these four ways that things are, there seems to be no conceivable way that something can possibly be.
The opening verse of “The Five Reasonings of Nagarjuna” is a summary of the four verses that follow and opens the gateway to knowledge for us. He described the ultimate nature 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.
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 true 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 essential points of the many texts explaining shunyata that need to be studied if we hope to correctly understand the selflessness of both apprehending subject and apprehended objects. We need to know that if there were a solid self, then liberation could not be, the reason why these instructions on emptiness are so very precious indeed.3
            In the first article on refuting inherent existence to prove emptiness we looked at the “Four Diamond Slivers” and learned why, ultimately, a result does not arise because whatever arises ultimately must always exist and then causes would not be.  The verse is,
Since it (the essence) does not arise from itself, other,
Both of them, or without a cause,
Suffering does not arise.
Present suffering is also like this.
In the second article that proves emptiness we examined the result and discovered that existents and non-existents are empty of arising. We saw that while phenomena certainly function and influence each other according to a respective and successive pattern, one condition arising out of another, nonetheless a result itself can never be found. Should a non-existing result be produced, the horns of a rabbit could also arise. It would be very beneficial to reflect the second analysis of Madhyamaka well since it is decisive when learning to appreciate karma, “the infallible law of cause and effect” that unremittingly functions. Nagarjuna summarized the second instructions in the verse,
 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.

In the third article that proves emptiness we examined both cause and result together, this reasoning known as “The Four Limits.” We discovered that a result, which is both existent and non-existent never arises because there is no such thing as an existent and non-existent result; nothing possesses contradictory features. Nagarjuna summarized the four abstract limitations and wrote,

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.
We will now look at the fourth verse of “The Five Reasonings of Nagarjuna” according to Mipham Rinpoche’s instructions and come to discover that conventionally phenomena appear due to interdependent origination and emptiness, while a self-essence can never be ascribed to any appearance or experience that arises.

Interdependent Origination, rten-‘brel

Since like a moon in water, a rainbow, and a movie,
It is the mere appearance of interdependent arising,
No phenomenon exists through possessing an essence.
The extremes of samsara and nirvana,
  of permanence and extinction are transcended. -- Nargarjuna
We saw that all dharmas, “phenomena,” that arise are devoid of inherent existence, that all dharmas merely appear in dependence upon causes and conditions and not arbitrarily. We also saw that every outer and inner phenomenon arises, abides, and ceases again without disclosing a true essence that, upon careful investigation, cannot be found. Yet phenomena appear and they do so through interdependent origination, rten-‘brel in Tibetan.4 Nothing is eternal, nothing is in vain, there is no coming and no going, rather due to the truth of interdependent origination and emptiness, things appear when causes and conditions prevail and influence each other, while, in truth, they are like a reflection in a mirror. Taking the example of a statue of Buddha Vajradhara reflected in a mirror: The reflection is not real and yet it appears. If we turn the mirror around, then the image of Vajradhara has not vanished since it never had a self-existing, own, solid essence anyway. The reflection arose in dependence upon causes and conditions and cannot be said to be eternal or to have not been – such statements are only conceptual formulations and never describe the true essence.
In an unending succession of time without number, phenomena arise, abide, and cease again in a structured fashion when causes and conditions prevail, while only the indescribable essence - that is not fit to depend upon causes and conditions - is true. Ultimately, all phenomena are devoid of a cause, devoid of a result, devoid of both cause and result, and merely manifest as interdependent existents that influence each other, the relative truth. No moment can ever be found to verify independent, ultimate self-existence since all things exist in dependence upon causes and conditions that incessantly appear due to shunyata, “emptiness,” which never impedes conditioned existents to arise when conditions are appropriate.
Lord Buddha pointed to the truth of suffering and to the truth of the source of suffering, and the logical reasoning that Madhyamaka offers explains in great detail why, ultimately, suffering, walking, eating, sleeping, and other worldly activities take place conventionally and do so only and just because they are devoid of a self-essence, i.e., they are devoid of solidity. Things can only arise, take place, and appear because shunyata is the fundamental nature of all that is. If appearances and experiences inherently existed and if shunyata were beyond the reaches of conditioned existence, nothing could arise or take place. Emptiness is not outside the ordinary world of experiences nor ever divorced from the Noble Truths and the precious path to freedom from suffering.
In the previous articles that explained the first three analyses of “The Five Reasonings of Nargjuna,”5 we saw that no manifestations of conditioned existents possess an ultimate reality, and yet things seem to exist inherently, i.e., of their own accord – like the elephant we observed in our dream.6 If we examine relative causes and results and hope to be able to prove that they arise of their own accord and are self-existent, we will eventually and definitely see that nothing has a reality of its own, that all things arise in dependence upon causes and conditions. This topic was explained precisely by Mahasiddha Nagarjuna in his book, dBu-ma-rtsa-ba-bshes-rab-shes-bya-wa, “The Treatise on the Middle Way.”
Just like a prisoner who is locked behind bars has no way to be set free reliably other than by walking through the door, we too are caught in the world of samsara and have no way to reliably become free other than by realizing the fundamental nature of all that is. Realization of the essence is attained through what is called “the three liberating factors.”

They are:         
  -   realizing that no source can ever be found,
-   realizing that causes and results have no true nature of their own,
  -   and realizing the essence of all appearances and manifestations.
By ascertaining the three liberating factors, we do attain freedom from contrived ways. Yet, it is necessary to use the key, prajna, in order to open the door to freedom from samsara, which is marked by suffering and always will be. Realizing the supreme view of emptiness won through prajna, “best knowledge,” opens the gateway that unifies the conventional truth with the ultimate truth inseparably.7
            Realization of the indivisibility of the relative and ultimate truth of being - called dharmadhatu in Sanskrit, “vast expanse of phenomena” - is the Mother of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, Prajnaparamita. Just as a mother gives birth to a child, wisdom of the true nature has brought forth all enlightened beings born in the present and in the past, and it will bring forth all future Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, most definitely. The unity of conventional reality and ultimate reality is like the centre of the cloudless sky. 8
By showing what it is not, we tried to explain emptiness, which is the essence. Emptiness is ineffable and transcends all imputations or descriptions we resort to when trying to describe it. If we are able to abide in meditative awareness that is free of abstract conceptions and narrow-minded limitations or boundaries, then we will be able to recognize that all dharmas are like an illusion, like a dream, like a reflection in a mirror or on the surface of a settled river or lake. Then we will be able to ascertain the pure view, Prajnaparamita, which gives birth to transcendent knowledge, jnana that is the actual unity of the relative and ultimate truths.
Let us look at an example to appreciate the key we hold in our hands and can freely use to open the door to liberation that is replete with supreme and immeasurable values of being. If we want to travel to Kathmandu, we must first inquire about the direction to take. Having received correct information, we can start our journey and even help those who also wish to go - or we could take them along. Likewise, if we realize emptiness, the essence of all that appears and is, then we will be able to show it to others. Should prajna not be integrated with all that arises and appears, then it would be impossible to reach out to others and to show them the teachings that are so beneficial and true. Gaining only an intellectual understanding does not suffice and certainly will not empower or endow us with the ability to display wisdom that is replete with illuminating qualities since those wonderful qualities will not have unfolded from within us in the first place. Only direct insight into the true essence enables the immaculate potential abiding within to arise and shine brilliantly for others to appreciate, ask about, and wish to attain too. This is the reason why realization of emptiness is the source and the way of the Great Vehicle, Mahayana, which is an expression of not just emptiness but also the richness of love and compassion unified inseparably – the genuine mind.


It has been an exceptional opportunity for me to teach the “Five Reasonings of Nagarjuna” according to the four analyses written by Mipham Rinpoche in The Gateway to Knowledge. He compiled the vast collection of classical Sanskrit texts that were written on this subject by many great Mahasiddhas to explain and elucidate Madhyamaka Philosophy in a single book, making it so much easier for us.
            In general, we understand the teachings through three methods:
-                     direct perception,
-                     inference, and/or
-                     authoritative transmission.
Buddhist practitioners should not resort to insincere sources when studying the teachings Lord Buddha shared with us but only rely on authentic teachers who unequivocally possess outstanding qualities and realization.
In order to gain direct insight into the fundamental nature of reality, we must first listen to the teachings and study the great expositions that have been handed down to us so abundantly. In order to directly perceive the true nature through the practice of Mahamudra, we first need to have gained correct understanding. Studying the profound books that are available on Mahamudra is an invaluable support for our appreciation and practice, which certainly leads to direct insight into the true nature of reality.
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 65-68. (First ed. published by Lhungdrub Teng, Kathmandu; 2nd ed. published by Tara Publishing, Manila.)  Revised by Gaby Hollmann for Thar Lam, forthc. April 2008.
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. 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. Mipham Rinpoche was a “student of Jamgon Kongtrul, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and Paltrul Rinpoche. Blessed by Manjushri, he became one of the greatest scholars of his time; his collected works fill  more than 30 volumes. His chief disciple was Shechen Gyaltsab Pema Namgyal, the root guru of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.” Eric Pema Kunsang & Marcia Binder Schmidt, Blazing Splendour. The Memoirs of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, Boudhanath, 2005, p. 416.
4 See specifically Ven. Thrangu Rinpoche, The Twelve Links of Interdependent Origination, Namo Buddha Publications, Crestone, & Zhyisil Chokyi Ghatsal Publications, Auckland, 2001.
5 The present article is on the fourth reasoning, which deals with interdependent origination. Please see Ven. Thrangu Rinpoche, The Twelve Links of Interdependent Origination for a detailed discussion of how we actually create our world. See also His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, Arising of Phenomena. How and Why the World Exists, in: Thar Lam, August 2005, pages 2-17.
6 See the first analysis of Madhyamaka that describes the illusory nature of the appearance of an elephant in a dream in the article, Examination of Cause, the “Diamond Slivers,”  in: Thar Lam.
7 Kung-rzob-den-pa and don-dam-den-pa are the Tibetan terms for “relative, conventional truth” and “ultimate truth.” Conventional truth means that all things arise and manifest through interdependent arising; ultimate truth means that all things are free of inherent existence. Appearances and experiences remain valid as appearances and experiences, but there is no intrinsic essence to them other than the emptiness of the very appearance and experience.
8 Dharmadhatu is “the suchness in which emptiness and dependent origination are inseparable; nature of mind that lies beyond arising, dwelling and ceasing.” Eric Pema Kunsang & Marcia Binder Schmidt, Blazing Splendour, p. 402. Ven. Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche wrote, „In general, we can know that, of all the phenomena that cause samsara and nirvana, not one of them moves from the expanse of the dharmadhatu. The essential nature of samsara and nirvana is nothing other than the dharmadhatu. Yet, it is the case that we do not realize that; we do not realize the genuine nature of reality. Therefore, we have the confused appearances, the mental afflictions and the suffering that constitute samsara. Because of our ignorance of the dharmadhatu, we go around in samsara.” Ven. Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, The Dharmadhatu, in: Bodhi, issue 4, 1999.