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How Things Exist

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.

Read the Heart Sutra, a Perfection of Wisdom text. You may also download the commentary in a pdf file.

3. How Things Exist

"Dependent arising"1, "empty" and "the middle way"  all have the same basic meaning involving the same kinds of thought processes. Just as the word "middle" normally means the middle between right and left, likewise dependent arising is said to be the middle way or the middle, with the connotation of being between two extremes. The path of the middle which goes through the central way is the one free of two extremes. These two are the nihilistic and the permanent/eternalist extremes. If something were inherently or self-existent, existing in and of itself by its own nature, this would be the permanent extreme because the permanent or eternalist extreme basically means inherent existence.

That things (phenomena) exist means they have their own particular function to accomplish or perform. Within this context of things being able to perform a function, refuge exists. We assert that there is refuge, and also that karma (action) and its results exist. Although everything which exists can perform actions or functions, there is nothing which is inherently existent or self-existent.

Therefore one should distinguish between statements that things exist and that they inherently exist. They exist but they do not inherently exist - they are not self-existent. If they were self-existent, existing by their own nature, existing inherently or intrinsically (these are different ways of expressing the same point) they could exist completely independent of any action they perform, and of any other phenomenon. However, we know things exist and the way they exist because they can perform actions. They each have specific actions and functions they perform - that is the level on which they exist.

If things were self-existent, they would exist independent of the capacity to perform any action or function. Therefore there is a big difference between saying things exist and that they are self-existent. To repeat, things do exist, but they are not self-existent - they do not exist inherently.

We must distinguish between existing and being self-existent. These are complete opposites because existing means coming into being through depending on various other factors. However, something self-existent would be completely independent of anything else.

We must also distinguish between not existing inherently and not existing at all. Things are not inherently existent - they do not exist inherently - but that is very different from not existing at all. One should recognise that things are existent without being self-existent. When realising things are not self-existent, one should not think they do not exist at all.

Dependent Arising, Empty and Emptiness

How are dependent arising and empty connected? They come to the same thing and have the same import. Therefore one should understand something as empty, in such a way as to see it as dependent. Moreover, one should understand something as dependent, in such a way as to see it as empty.

When something is empty, what does "empty" mean? It does not mean empty of existing - not existing at all. "Empty" means empty of self-existence which means being independent of anything else. Thus it means dependent. An empty thing exists depending on various other factors.

Knowing something to be empty leads one to recognise that it exists as a dependent arising. The opposite is also true. Knowing something to be dependent, one knows it depends upon various other factors and is not independent. Independent meaning self-existent, and not independent meaning not self-existent, one knows something dependent to be empty of self-existence and therefore "empty". This demonstrates that "empty", "dependent arising" and "the middle way free of the two extremes" come to the same thing, are synonymous, having the same meaning or import.

Everything which exists is empty - of self-existence - but not everything is emptiness. There is a difference between "empty" and "emptiness", because emptiness is the quality of a thing's being empty, or the characteristic that an object has of being empty. Everything which exists is empty, but not everything is that quality of being empty, so not everything which exists is emptiness. One must distinguish between empty and emptiness.

Emptiness is the ultimate way of being of phenomena and is described as an exclusive negation.2 It is neither a positive phenomenon nor an implicative negation.3 It is a negation, and out of the two types of negation it is an exclusive negation. Not everything which exists is this exclusive negation, emptiness, but everything which exists is empty.

There is a difference between being empty and being emptiness. There are two types of truth, namely conventional truth and ultimate truth. Emptiness means ultimate truth, and not everything which exists is ultimate truth. Everything which exists is empty because of being empty of self-existence. Not everything is emptiness because not everything is an ultimate truth. There are also conventional truths.

Some texts seem to use the words "empty" and "emptiness" indistinguishably, suggesting that there is little difference between them. However, there is very definitely a distinction between them because emptiness is ultimate truth, and empty is not ultimate truth. Not everything which is empty has to be an ultimate truth, but everything which is emptiness has to be an ultimate truth. Although absolutely everything which exists is empty, it is not the case that everything which exists is emptiness, because emptiness is an ultimate phenomenon and not everything which exists is an ultimate phenomenon.

Just as dependent arising and empty are synonymous, also the appearances of dependent arising and empty are synonymous. "Dependent arising appearance" and "the appearance of dependent arising" mean conventionally existent. All that exists, exists conventionally and is also empty. Thus all that exists and appears is both a dependent arising and also empty. Things exist and appear but are also empty, so although they exist, things are not self-existent, but are empty of self-existence.

First is the idea of conventional phenomena appearing to be and being dependent and second the idea of them as empty and free from assertions. When these two ideas seem different and separate, one has not yet understood Buddha's teaching of emptiness. On the other hand if one recognises that things both appear to be and are dependent, and that they are simultaneously empty, knowing these two without any conflict, one has correctly understood the definitive teaching of the Buddha.

Everything is both empty and dependent. Distinguishing between empty and emptiness, one should maintain the knowledge of everything's being simultaneously empty and dependent.

When recognising something as dependent, can one eliminate the sense of it existing in either of the two extremes? In other words, can thinking of things being dependent eliminate the two extremes? It is not hard to see how dependent arising eliminates the extreme of non-existence (the nihilistic extreme). All four Buddhist philosophical systems4 accept that. However, does recognising a thing as dependent, a dependent arising, also eliminate the permanent or eternalistic extreme, which is the extreme of things being self-existent?

When thinking how something is dependent does that bring to mind an idea of its being self-existent or does it bring to mind how in order to exist the thing depends on the coming together of various different factors? Reflection on how something is dependent certainly stops one from thinking it does not exist at all, but on the other hand does it stop you from thinking the thing is self-existent?

Recognising something as dependent implies that it is not self-existent and therefore stops both extremes It stops the extremes both of thinking a thing does not exist at all and of thinking it is self-existent. This insight into how the understanding of dependent arising can eliminate both extremes is one of the unique and very difficult to understand points of the Consequentialist system.

Furthermore, recognising a thing's being empty stops the extreme of believing it to be self-existent, which is the permanent or eternalistic extreme. When recognising something as empty, one recognises that it is empty of self-existence. That self-existence means existence independent of anything else.

Thinking something is empty of self-existence, involves thinking that it is not independent. This is seen through recognising that it is dependent. So something's being empty means it depends, and therefore exists dependently. "Empty" stops both extremes. Thinking of something as empty stops both extremes in your mind, and thinking of it as a dependent arising also stops both extremes.

The Two Truths

What we hear, smell, taste, touch and wear are examples of conventional truths. For an example of emptiness analyse the person, to seek a self-existing person in the aggregates - the form, feeling, discrimination, the conditioned phenomena and the consciousness aggregates. Investigate, searching for a self-existing person in each of those aggregates. At a certain point having looked everywhere and not having found it, there is an empty appearance, almost a feeling of having lost that self-existing person. What is then appearing to our mind is the emptiness of the person, which is an example of ultimate truth.

Having recognised that things appear to one as if self-existent the mind investigates whether or not what appears to be self-existent is genuinely so. The mind which analyses and searches for a self-existent thing eventually realises there is no such thing. This is called a valid mind experiencing ultimates or engaging in an ultimate analysis. That valid mind finally realises emptiness, the object found by a valid mind engaging in an ultimate analysis or experiencing ultimates.

Visual forms, sounds, tastes and so on, are not objects found by a mind performing an ultimate analysis, but they are objects found by a mind engaging in a conventional analysis. For example, the visual consciousness that realises (sees) visual form is a valid mind; the nose consciousness that smells various odours, so realising those odours is also a valid mind. These are examples of valid minds experiencing conventionalities.

Ultimate truth is not found by a valid mind experiencing conventionalities but is generally defined as the object found by a valid mind experiencing ultimates. This mind is a valid mind experiencing ultimates with respect to this object. Moreover, just as in general, things like emptiness are the objects realised by a valid mind performing an ultimate analysis, conventional phenomena or truths such as smells, tastes and so forth are objects found by a valid mind performing a conventional analysis.

Student: I have always thought that all phenomena are like coins with two sides, with conventional reality on one side and ultimate reality on the other. But am I mistaken, does emptiness not apply to all phenomena?

Khensur Rinpoche: One may say that a thing's empty and dependent aspects are like two sides of a coin. However emptiness is something else. It is correct to think of the two truths as being like two sides of one coin, because you are thinking of how the thing is empty rather than how it is emptiness.

Conventional phenomena do not exist as they appear, whereas ultimate phenomena do. This statement requires one to identify to what they are appearing. To which type of mind do conventional phenomena not exist as they appear? To which type of mind do ultimate phenomena exist as they appear?

Two types of valid mind are being discussed here. To one of them conventional phenomena do not exist as they appear and to the other ultimate phenomena do exist as they appear.

The mind to which conventional phenomena do not exist as they appear is the valid main mind5 realising them. For example for visual form, it means visual (eye) consciousness, the valid main mind6 realising visual form. Visual consciousness is a valid mind experiencing conventionalities. That valid mind experiencing conventionalities is the main mind realising visual form. Visual form does not exist in the way it appears to that valid mind since it appears to be self-existent but is not. Therefore although that is a valid mind, visual form does not exist as it appears to it. It is the same with other conventional phenomena like smells, tastes, sounds and so on.

What appear to visual consciousness and what it realises are shapes and colours. Shapes and colours appear to visual consciousness as self-existent, whereas they are not. They are dependent, existing only through dependence, and not at all self-existent. In this sense, shapes and forms do not exist the way they appear to the valid mind realising them.

There is a difference between sense consciousnesses - visual consciousness realising visual form, shapes and colours and so on; ear consciousness realising sounds, and so forth - and the innate I-grasping mind. The innate I-grasping mind is a type of true-grasping or self-grasping mind that grasps or apprehends the "I" in one's own continuum as being self-existent. There is a difference between the inborn I-grasping mind which thinks of and believes the "I" to be self-existent or inherently existent, and the mind which thinks, “I'm coming, I'm going, I'm doing this, I'm doing that”, which are minds realising the conventionally existing "I." Those minds thinking, “I'm coming, I'm going, I must do this and I must do that,” are conventional minds and are not true-grasping, so are certainly not the innate I-grasping mind.

Notes

"Dependent arising" means arising in dependence on other things. [Return to text]

 This means that in its act of negation it excludes any positive implications. [Return to text]

Phenomena can be either positive or negative (e.g. "body" or "nobody"). Negations may be implicative or exclusive. An implicative negation would imply something in place of the negation. [Return to text]

The four Buddhist systems are the philosophical schools of the Vaibhashika (Particularists), Sautrantika (Sutra-followers), Cittamatra (Mind-only) and Madhyamaka (Middle Way). [Return to text]

Mind can be divided into main minds and mental factors. An example of a main mind is the visual consciousness. An example of a mental factor is feeling. So if you see something you like, you have a visual consciousness as a main mind and pleasure as a feeling.  [Return to text]

 Valid means that the visual consciousness has correctly ascertained its object, so if it is seeing a sunflower, it is not mistaking it for a lotus, as it is actually a sunflower that is being seen. [Return to text]

 

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