Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche
The Third Madhyamaka Analysis:Seeking the Essential Nature
Let us discuss the third mode of analysis or examination found in the classical Indian commentaries which demonstrate emptiness.
This perspective was developed by Shantarakshita, a great Indian scholar and yogi who, through his practice, is said to have attained the ability not to age and extended his life to the age of 999 years old. During his long life he composed many commentaries on Buddhist philosophy and various sutrayana subjects; his most noted work being the Ornament to the Middle Way.
The tantra teachings were introduced into Tibet by Padmasambhava, but the sutra teachings were disseminated in Tibet primarily by Shantarakshita, who came before Padmasambhava and ordained the first monks in Tibet. The third Madhyamaka analysis of Shantarakshita is the examination of the essential quality, or intrinsic nature, in order to recognize its transcendence of conceptuality.
This method of Shantarakshita is the easiest way to understand fundamental emptiness. There is only one thing to understand - non-conceptuality. It is not necessary to approach the subject from many points of view; from this one perspective we can understand the emptiness of everything - the emptiness of mind, the emptiness of phenomena, the emptiness of the connection between mind and phenomena. In all contexts, emptiness can be understood from this one point of view. From this single perspective, emptiness can be understood in its totality without reference to the many different possible points of view. Mipham Rinpoche, the great Nyingma scholar, when writing his commentary to The Ornament to the Middle Way said that Shantarakshita’s single point of view is like the thunderbolt of Indra which he could hurl to earth destroying whole cities.
What we are going to consider is the essential quality of reality. We can see that if reality had an essence or an essential quality, this essential quality would have to be either unitary, i.e., there would have to be a single essential quality to everything, or it would have to be multiple. Nothing can be simultaneously unitary and multiple. Also, if there were any essential quality at all, to say that it was neither single nor multiple would be to deny the very essential quality that we were trying to affirm. Such a proposition would be self-contradictory. There are only two possibilities: that any essential quality be either unitary or multiple.
In looking for the essential quality of all compounded and all uncompounded things, which must be either unitary or multiple, we can see that multiplicity is based on units. We cannot have many things unless we first have one. A number of things is always composed of a number of single things; unless there were first one, then there could not be many. So first we will examine the question of whether or not there is any unitary essential reality to anything.
In general, every experience consists of the perception of appearances in an objectified frame of reference and the subjective experience of the mind. First, if we consider the appearances in an objective frame of reference, we can see that no appearance has unitary nature. If we look at a hill, for instance, it looks like a single hill, but actually it has a top and sides, trees and shrubs, and so on, that is to say, it is a composite with several items
Or we can examine something like a vase. A vase has a base and a neck and a top, so the notion that a vase is just a vase or that a hill is just a hill is basically a false intellectual concept. There is nothing we can designate as “a hill,” or “a vase,” or any other material object.
Or take the example of an elephant. While we might speak in general terms of there being an elephant, if we look at the elephant we see feet, a trunk, a torso, and a head, and so on; we see the various parts of the elephant, but no particular single quality or part is the elephant itself. Thus everything that appears to us as a single object is really a compound.
Or if I look at my watch, it might look like a single thing, like just a watch. But if I take my robe and cover half of the watch, I can immediately see that the watch must be a compounded thing, because two parts of the watch are capable of behaving in two distinct manners - the part being visible and the part not being visible. Therefore I can see that what seemed to be a single unitary thing is actually a compound.
In the same way, nothing that we designate as a single thing is in reality a single unitary thing at all, because there is no single, uncompounded reality by which the object can be identified. Even our own bodies are composed of separate parts. No single quality by which the whole can be identified is ever found under analysis.
In short, we can see that all phenomena are compounds; there is no unitary essential quality to anything. Everything that we experience, all that appears, is analyzable into smaller and smaller parts. The designation “single unit” is merely a convenient mental label for what is in fact a collection of parts, of particles. This demonstrates the emptiness of large objects or gross forms.
Even if we examine tiny particles, apparently invisible and intangible particles, we discover nothing unitary exists. As Vasubandhu said in his Compendium of Knowledge, if compounds are composed of tiny particles, then these particles must relate to other particles in such a manner as to build up compounds. In relating to other particles, they must do so in terms of directions. That is, each particle would have another particle to the east of it, to the west of it, to the north, and to the south, as well as having a particle above it and below it. In relating to a number of other particles, any given particle would be showing more than one characteristic and in having more than one characteristic, that is, east, west, north, and south, and so on; it reveals its own compounded nature. Therefore, it could not itself be an invisible, intangible, unitary particle. Thus the notion of unitary particles as the building blocks of the world is a fallacy.
Alternatively, if we were to propose that smallest particles have no quality of directionality, but connect with only one other particle in a total relationship, we can see that this too could not be the case by examining how such a situation might come about. If two particles were interconnected in such an integral fashion, the one particle would have to exactly pervade the other, for if it did not, this would show the compounded nature of both particles. A third particle would also have to pervade exactly the original particle, and so on with all particles in samsara. Thus the totality of existence would be subsumed in one particle. Such a particle would include more particles, but would get no bigger. It could not serve as a basis for the building up of compounds; it would not have multiplicity of characteristics observable in our world.
So, in examining objective appearance in this way, it becomes obvious that there is no essential quality to any “thing.” There being no essential quality in any of the appearances which nonetheless occur, we may conclude that all is emptiness, all is of the nature of shunyata.
As for the nature of the mind, we all tend to feel that we have a mind which experiences and recognizes things. But if we examine the experience of mind, we see that there is not a single thing which is the mind we are said to have. Consciousness has many different components, from awareness of visual objects (forms, shapes and colors), awareness of sounds, tactile consciousness, smell, taste, and mental consciousness; they are all distinct parts or functions of the mind. Each type of consciousness recognizes a particular field of experience in its own terms. Thus each of these six consciousnesses functions in its own frame of reference and is somewhat independent of the others. So the mind too is not a single, unitary thing, but a compounded object, consisting of many parts, just as all external objects are compounds.
It is sometimes said that there are eight consciousnesses; the five sensory consciousnesses, the mental consciousnesses, the klesha consciousness, and the ground consciousness; all appearances and mind forms arise from them. The consciousness that clings to the notion of “I” and the ground consciousness which stores information from the other six consciousnesses are sometimes held to be independent modes of consciousness. It is much easier to posit just six consciousnesses.
More specifically, we can see that visual consciousness, for instance, has the potential to perceive various objects. For instance, if we look at a piece of yellow cloth, we see yellow; if we look at a snowy mountain we see white. Then too we experience the objects of visual awareness in succession, seeing first one thing and then another, and so on, with prior appearances disappearing the moment the succeeding appearance occurs. Thus, visual consciousness is multiple and successive and has many different referential objects; so it cannot be a single, unitary thing.
Examining the successive manner in which consciousness perceives objects, we might be led to believe that each “flash” of awareness, each moment of consciousness, is a fundamental unit of time, comparable to the indivisible particles of matter already discussed. However, if we could ever isolate such a single unit of time, we would see that it could only occur within a framework of ongoing consciousness, because awareness is never static and hence each moment is linked to a previous and a future moment. That is, such a moment would not be a inseparable whole but rather would consist of three parts: past, present, and future
So there is no unitary essential quality, no single identifiable reality, in either the external world that appears to us or the subjective mind. Neither is there any reality in activity or functioning. If we decide to go to Kathmandu, for example, we might think that the activity of going, the function we would be performing by going, has some essential reality of its own. Or if rain falls, we might feel that, although there is really no rain as such, because what we call rain is only innumerable drops, yet there is a reality to the activity of the rain which is the falling of the rain. However, this is not the case, for there is no valid way to isolate and designate as real any function or activity. That is to say, the falling of the rain cannot be isolated from the rain itself, nor can the going of an individual be isolated from the individual itself. These activities or functions are merely smaller changes in their mode of being a particular compound and are not separate things at all. Therefore, no function can ever be isolated and identified as a unitary thing.
Finally, we might decide that some uncompounded entity like space has a fundamentally real, inherent existence. Space is not a compound, it does not consist of different parts, so we might very well imagine it to have some sort of essential quality.
But in actuality no uncompounded entity exists in and of itself, not even as a mere appearance. If we make a square with our finger, we might refer to a square space, but in fact, there is no square space there at all. We simply fail to recognize our finger for the moment and suppose that we see a square space. But space is not a thing in itself; it merely seems to exist as the negation of particular appearances, in this case our finger. Similarly, the space in a room seems to appear real but when we negate the appearance of the walls, then there is no independent thing that we can point to as “this space.”
Thus we can conclude from the foregoing analysis that there is no way for there to be any particular single real nature or essence to anything. And if there is no single real nature, there also could not be any multiple real nature, because multiplicity is based on single units. If there is no single unit, there can be no multiplicity. These being the only possible modes that a real nature or quality might exist, we can see from this one method of examination that there is no self in any appearance, no self in any dharma, no essential nature to anything at all.
This concludes the discussion of the third analysis of Madhyamaka, an examination to find the essential quality according to the Ornament to the Middle Way of Shantarakshita.
May virtue increase!