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Dependent Arising and Emptiness

Teachings on the Heart Sutra, a Perfection of Wisdom text.
Khensur Rinpoche Geshe Jampa Tegchok gave this commentary on the Heart Sutra to Saraswati Buddhist Group, Somerset, England on August 17 -20, 2007. The commentary is edited by Andy Wistreich.You can read the Heart Sutra, a Perfection of Wisdom text on the LYWA website, and also find many Heart Sutra resources on the FPMT website.

You may also download this teaching as a pdf.

Commentary on the Heart Sutra
1:  Introduction to the Heart Sutra
2:  Dependent Arising and Emptiness
3:  How Things Exist
4:  The Mere ‘I’
5:  Meditation on Emptiness
6:  Liberation from Cyclic Existence

The passage up to the fifth line of the third paragraph, "the five aggregates are empty of any inherent nature of their own," is the brief answer about how to meditate on emptiness. Following that is the extensive explanation.

First is an extensive explanation of the meaning of emptiness in relation to form,

Form is empty. Emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form and form is not other than emptiness.

This detailed explanation of emptiness in relation to form is followed by an explanation of how to apply it to the remaining aggregates and other phenomena such as the twelve links of dependent arising. What you understand from the discussion of emptiness in relation to form, should be applied to other phenomena such as the eighteen elements, the twelve sources, the twelve links of dependent arising and the Four Noble Truths. Evidently, it is important to understand how this works in relation to form because then you can apply it to anything else.

In brief, it says that all phenomena (everything which exists) are empty of existing by their very nature (by their own nature). There are various ways to express this. One can say either that everything is empty of true existence or of self-existence.

With cause and effect, for example mother and child, the mother is the cause, and the child is the effect. As an effect the child depends upon the mother as a cause. It is straightforward to understand how results depend upon causes - the child depends upon the mother because the mother gave birth to the child. However, somebody cannot be called a mother without there being a child to be mother of, so also the mother exists depending upon the child.

One can easily see that the child's existence depends upon the mother. However, one might have doubts about the idea of the mother's existence depending on the child. This illustrates cause depending on effect, not simply effect depending on cause.

According to the highest system of Buddhist philosophy, the Prasangika (Consequentialist)1 system, not only do effects depend on causes, but causes also depend on effects. They say the mother depends on the child. This is obvious when one considers how a woman does not become a mother merely by reaching a certain age, such as by becoming an adult. She becomes a mother by having a child. Without a child there would be no mother.

Likewise a series of moments culminates in the formation of a particular object. The later moments depend upon the earlier moments, but also the earlier moments of the series exist in dependence on the later moments.

In terms of time, a year, being composed of twelve months, depends on twelve months. Regardless of the different lengths of months - thirty or thirty-one days and so on - a month exists depending on its days, a day depends on twenty-four hours, an hour depends on sixty minutes and so on. Parts and whole are mutually interdependent.

Likewise with respect to short and long, something is only long in comparison to something shorter and something can only be short in comparison with something longer.

There are many other instances of this principle. For example, inside and outside: outside only exists in relation to inside and inside only exists in relation to outside. Likewise, big and small. Moreover, with cloth - fine cloth or course weave cloth - or thick and thin. We can understand this if we apply our minds to it.

One can see how a large object like a house exists depending upon its various parts and can see an interdependent relationship in so many other things too. The more one reflects the more one sees that everything exists and comes into being through depending on something else. One simply cannot find anything that cannot be analysed or described in this way.

According to the Consequentialist system of Buddhist philosophy which is the system of this commentary, there is nothing which does not exist depending upon something else. For example a watch for telling the time can only exist through the convergence and fitting together of its various parts. Since nothing is completely independent, not depending upon something or other, there is nothing self-existent. This is because to be self-existent would be to exist in and of itself without depending on anything else, whereas everything exists through depending on something else.

"Emptiness" implies the non-existence of something. When we use the term "emptiness", something is denied or negated. What is negated or denied is a thing”s being self-existent, where self-existence implies the capacity to come into being and exist without depending on anything else. Nothing exists completely independently of anything else; everything depends upon something. For that reason everything is empty, meaning "empty of self-existence".

The great master Nagarjuna says in The Fundamental Stanzas on Wisdom that there is nothing at all which is not dependent and therefore, there is nothing at all which is not empty. If one could find something not dependent, in other words completely independent of anything, one would have found something self-existent, because self-existent means existing in and of itself without having to depend upon anything else. Thus it would not be empty. If something were independent it would not be empty, because empty means "empty of self-existence". Emptiness negates the self-existence of everything.

It is said that "empty" and "dependent arising" are synonyms - possessing the same import. This means that saying something is dependent means it depends on this and that, and so is not independent. If it is dependent, of course it is not independent and the fact that you know it to be dependent means you know it not to be independent. If it is not independent, it is empty of being independent, or empty of being self-existent, because "independent" means 'self-existent", these being the same thing. "Empty of being self-existent" is exactly what is meant by saying things are empty.

Recognising something as empty enables recognition of it as dependent; it comes to the same thing. Being empty means "empty of self-existence", or empty of existing in and of itself, independent of anything else. Therefore if it is empty it is not independent. Not being independent must mean that it depends, because these are opposites. Therefore thinking about something”s being dependent brings one to the same conclusion, that it must be empty. Thinking about how something is empty brings one to the conclusion that it is dependent, so in this sense "empty" and "dependent" have the same import and may be regarded as synonyms.

Thus, saying something is either empty or dependent comes to the same thing, because something”s being empty means it is empty of self-existence or not self-existent. It is not self-existent because self-existent would mean independent of anything else. Being empty of being self-existent means to depend. Whether you describe something as empty or dependent it means the same thing.

Questions and Answers

Student: I always expected that because the Heart Sutra is about emptiness, Manjushri would give the explanation. Is it significant that Avalokiteshvara gives it?

Khensur Rinpoche: I don”t have a particular answer for that. There does not seem to be any particular reason why Avalokiteshvara, the Deity or Buddha of Compassion would need to answer it, because any enlightened being could have answered. It could have been either Avalokiteshvara or Manjushri since they have the same insight. There is the cause and effect process of developing love and compassion through different stages of the meditation required to develop compassion. Therefore Avalokiteshvara would have a particular kind of insight into dependent arising, so perhaps he is particularly qualified from that point of view. However, any of the Deities would have the same insight and understanding.

Another student: What is the benefit of studying emptiness in relation to achieving the path? What is the main attribute and the main point?

Khensur Rinpoche: That is a very good question. The reason for wandering in cyclic existence, going from life to life and experiencing suffering in one life after another, is the ignorance of the true-grasping or self-grasping mind. One takes birth because of karma - destructive actions done under the control of inner mental afflictions. These mental afflictions are derived from ignorance. The purpose of learning about then meditating on emptiness is to remove or eliminate that ignorance.

This knowledge is the particular and indispensable thing needed to eliminate the root of cyclic existence. By eliminating its root one can eliminate cyclic existence itself. When completely free of cyclic existence one achieves liberation. So this is the single indispensable cause, practice and insight needed to achieve liberation.

In general, to learn about or meditate on emptiness is an extremely powerful purification. Without the wisdom realising emptiness, there is no way to overcome and eliminate the true-grasping, self-grasping mind. Without overcoming the mind of ignorance all the mental afflictions that derive from it cannot be overcome, so one will continue to create karma and be born in cyclic existence. As long as one lacks wisdom and insight, one cannot achieve liberation. Thus although it is most important and effective to meditate on bodhicitta, love, compassion and so on, no matter how much one does this without the wisdom realising emptiness one cannot become free of cyclic existence. They are not what principally free one from cyclic existence.

Another student: I have difficulty understanding the line "Form is empty. Emptiness is form."

Khensur Rinpoche: The first point, "Form is empty" is relatively straight forward. "Form is empty" means that form is empty of self-existence. Why is it empty and how do we know it is empty? We know it is empty because form exists through depending on other things and is therefore dependent. It does not exist independent of anything else, so it is not self-existent. It is not something one can see existing independently, in and of itself. So since it is not self-existent it is empty of self-existence which is why form is empty.

To understand the meaning of "Emptiness is form", consider the emptiness of form. The emptiness of form is its emptiness of self-existence, which is its emptiness of existing independent of anything else. This is form's existence depending upon other factors, which is form itself. So that is the meaning of "Emptiness is form."

Form's existing dependent upon causes and conditions is form itself. This means that there is such a thing as form”s existence dependent upon causes and conditions. If one has to point that out, to what can one point except form itself? That is the meaning of form's existence depending upon causes and conditions being form itself. It is similar with form”s transience, its moment by moment changing nature. That nature is also nothing other than form. You cannot point out form”s moment by moment changing nature anywhere other than exactly where form is. Therefore it is form itself.

Student: It seems the problem is to think of form as being separate from its changing nature.
Khensur Rinpoche: We might have that idea, but obviously it would not make sense. One could not possibly have form”s moment by moment change or form's existence depending upon various causes and conditions as an object separate from form itself.

Student: So one may think about the impermanent form without thinking about the base of that impermanent form, but cannot have them separate. Can one think about them as two?

Khensur Rinpoche: Yes one can. Although for example, the moment by moment changing nature of form does not exist separate from form, still, with a conceptual mind one may think of them separately. Nevertheless that does not make them separate. Just because one may think of them separately does not endow them with any separate identity.

Another student: Some people recite the Heart Sutra a lot. Does it have some power in itself?
Khensur Rinpoche: Because the subject matter is extremely profound, it is said that even reciting the sutra which expresses it is a very powerful purification. It is said that if one recites this sutra every day, it is very helpful in overcoming illnesses and various external and internal forms of harm. Depending on how well and how much one recites it and so on, one could completely eliminate or at least reduce all kinds of obstacles, hindrances, harm and so forth. Besides that, if this recitation and reflection is reinforced by the practice of compassion, love, bodhicitta, the determination to be of benefit to others and so forth, it is most excellent and makes recitation and practice incredibly powerful.

There is a verse whose first line states that the perfection of wisdom is inconceivable and inexpressible. "Inconceivable" literally means that the conceptual mind cannot conceive of or realise it and "inexpressible" means that words cannot express it. The perfection of wisdom is like that.

The next line in that verse says "unproduced and unceasing", meaning that it is not inherently produced. Things are produced, but not inherently. Production is not self-existent and although things cease, there is no inherent cessation. There is no inherent stopping of things. When things cease, their cessation is not self-existent. The lack of inherent production and cessation is emptiness. These are both forms of emptiness and their nature is like space.

In the third line it makes the point that emptiness is an object experienced directly by the aryas, those beings who have a direct realisation of emptiness, when they are in totally non-conceptual single-pointed equipoise or meditation on emptiness. Emptiness is the object of that mind in the sense that it realises emptiness directly and non-conceptually.

In other words, although the first line says that emptiness is inexpressible and inconceivable, it does not mean that it is not at all possible for the mind to know it nor that it is impossible to be expressed at all. It is just that the conceptual mind cannot grasp or experience emptiness the way it is experienced by a direct non-conceptual realisation. Alternatively, although emptiness can be understood and realised by the conceptual mind, the experience of the conceptual mind realising it is not the same as the direct perception of emptiness.

Although emptiness can definitely be expressed and explained extremely – and very precisely at that, the words do not capture the actual experience of emptiness the way that the direct realisation of it does. This is how emptiness is and is not describable.

Also when we hear emptiness is inconceivable we might ask, "Does that mean that it cannot be realised at all?” The third line makes the point that it is not that it cannot be realised at all. It can be realised by the aryas” direct perception of emptiness. For example the path of seeing directly realises the sixteen aspects of the Four Noble Truths, such as emptiness and it is also directly perceived during the paths of meditation and no more learning.

Another student: What would be the benefits in this life from understanding and realising emptiness?

Khensur Rinpoche: The self-grasping mind thinks everything is self-existent but meditating on emptiness opposes that. In the long-term or short-term, meditating on emptiness and reciting the Heart Sutra is very powerful in avoiding illness or reducing and eliminating one's problems, difficulties and hindrances, because they come from the self-grasping mind. This is because the self-grasping mind is the foundation and root of all of the other afflictions. When afflictions of attachment, anger and so forth arise, we engage in various actions which lead to the suffering of having hindrances, illness and so on. Therefore there is a direct link. Meditating on emptiness works because it attacks the very root and foundation of problems and suffering. The meditation itself reduces them.


Called the Consequence School because of the logical method of demonstrating to others the unwanted consequences of their mistaken views. [Return to text]