The King of Logics to Prove Emptiness

Aug 20, 2021


The “king of logics” to prove emptiness

Paraphrasing Lama Tsongkhapa, Lama Yeshe says that dependent arising is the “king of logics” to prove emptiness. 


All of Buddha’s teachings, the entire lamrim, are based upon the assumption of emptiness, and are leading us to emptiness. Emptiness is implicit in all the teachings. This is the unique characteristic of Lord Buddha’s view. 


You could say that the view of self-existence – which is what Buddha argues with, which is exactly the opposite view of emptiness – is the assumption of the views of samsara. All the views – my mother and father made me, or a creator made me, I didn’t ask to get born, it’s not my fault, I’m just the body – are all based upon the assumption of self-existence, and this is the exact opposite of the Buddha’s view. The exact opposite. 


And so, the point of it all is, as always with Buddha, we need to make it experiential. I mean, we can read all about emptiness, we can squeeze our brains, as Lama puts it, we can get all very excited when we hear about emptiness, but unless we understand how to internalize it, it’s just filling your head with words. 


Let’s try to unpack it, demystify it, and see how it applies to our daily life. Because if it doesn’t, it’s completely useless. 


Everything is a viewpoint

One way of describing what Buddha’s saying is that everything in our mind is a viewpoint, an opinion, an attitude, an interpretation of the people and things and events that fill our lives. 


Things exist, and we can even agree on their bare existence – cups, toilets, love, omniscient mind – but it’s how we interpret them, understand them, their causes, etc., etc., that distinguishes the different views. 


We’ve got it wrong

Christianity would interpret the world one way, materialism interprets it another way, Buddha interprets it in yet another way. It has to do with interpretation, it has to do with view. 


What Buddha is saying is that we do not see correctly how things exist. We get things right to the extent that we can say, “I’m Robina and you’re Fred,” “That’s a cup and not a knife.” That’s cool. Correct. But we don’t get much right, other than that. We get it wrong, he says.


Things do exist in the world. Things exist. But as Lama Zopa Rinpoche puts it, the delusions in our mind, the neuroses, the misconceptions, the wrong views, the negative states of mind, what they do is decorate on top of what does exist layers upon layers upon layers of characteristics that simply don’t exist there. 


And the point of all this? Buddha says that all these wrong views in our head are why we suffer. And correcting these views, cultivating the correct views about how things exist, is the method to stop suffering.


Don’t believe a word Buddha says

Buddhism is basically Buddha’s own direct findings, his own experiences about how things exist and what’s possible. And of course he would say confidently that his views are the correct view. He’s allowed to say that; anyone can say that. But you have to back it up with your findings, your proof, etc., etc. 


Buddha’s like Einstein. If I were Einstein here, and I start telling you about E=MC2 and I say, “This is the truth!” well, you would hope I would be confident that it is true! If he’s sitting here saying, “Well, I’m not sure if it’s true,” you’re laughing and you tell him to shut my mouth, don’t confuse you. If he’s not confident, keep quiet. 


We want Buddha to be confident that he is right. But he’s not asking us to believe him: this is a crucial point that we’re not used to hearing when it comes to spiritual teachings. He’s asking us to check out his findings, to discover the truth of them – or not! – for ourselves. It’s up to us; we’re the boss, not Buddha. 


Like with Einstein, we need listen to what Buddha says and then, with confidence, decide to use his views as our working hypothesis in order to discover the truth of them for ourselves. How else can you work with something if you don’t propose it? Working with Buddhist ideas has nothing to do with believing it, squeezing it inside yourself, not like that at all. And it’s got nothing to do with liking it or not liking it. It’s either true or it’s not. And we have to find out. That’s the Buddhist approach.


Also, like Einstein, every word that Buddha says is from his own direct experience, his own findings. He didn’t make it up; he’s not speculating; he didn’t have a vision or a dream about it; it wasn’t revealed to him.


That’s why you need to check the Buddhist centers carefully, check the Buddha’s teachings carefully, check the people who teach, check the Dalai Lama, that he’s a valid person who represents Buddha’s teachings. If not, be careful! Don’t confuse yourself. 


Wisdom means seeing things as they are

We hear a lot about “wisdom” in Buddhism, but it’s not some special holy word, all high and fancy. “Wisdom” simply means being correct. If there’s one cup on my table and I say there are two, that ain’t wisdom, honey, that’s ignorance. 


Of course, the wisdom Buddha’s saying we can accomplish is a pretty outrageous level of wisdom: seeing the universe as it exists without mistake. That’s the level of wisdom we can accomplish; he calls it omniscience. I mean, my Catholic mother was shocked by that! It’s quite radical.


What sees how things exist is the mind, and that’s Buddha’s expertise. According to the Buddha’s model of the mind in our mental consciousness we have positive, negative and neutral states of mind; there’s no fourth category. And these are technical terms, not moralistic. 


Negative states of mind are not in sync with reality

The negative states of mind have two main characteristics: they’re disturbing and they’re delusional. They’re liars, they’re not in sync with reality. The virtuous states of mind have the characteristic of being peaceful – just check the last time you were loving, kind, generous; you felt peaceful. And, there’s a sense of interdependence there. You’ve got a sense of connectedness with others, which means you’re in sync – to some extent – with interdependence, which is reality. 


When you’re caught up in anger, depression, jealousy, it’s a nightmare, isn’t it? It’s like hell. These states of mind are deeply disturbing and they’re delusional. You’ve got this vivid, vivid sense of a separate, unhappy self-pity me, as Lama Yeshe calls it – lonely, bereft, not fair, poor me, things are done to me, me. Hungry, needy, wanting something more, resentful, angry, hurt, low self-esteem – this is samsara, being caught up in this junk, that’s samsara. 



And the root, the mother, of all these lies in the mind, these neurotic emotions, these wrong views, is simply called “ignorance.” Like all these words, it’s got a very specific definition. “Ma-rig-pa” in Tibetan; “unawareness.” 


Unawareness of, finally, how things actually exist. Or, as they say in Buddhist language, the ultimate way, that things exist. This ignorance causes us to be utterly blind to this reality. As His Holiness the Dalai said recently, this ignorance has two functions: the first one is the mere ignorance of how things are, just merely not knowing; but that’s not the main problem. This ignorance also has an added problem of having made up its own fantasy story, and that’s the one we’re believing in now, which is the story, the belief, that everything exists in and of itself, from its own side, intrinsically, which is precisely the exact opposite of reality. This is so abstract for our minds.


Before we even go into the meaning of what ignorance is – you know, what ignorance thinks: that everything exists out there, from its own side, in and of itself, without depending on anything – let’s just look more broadly at how things do exist conventionally, because that leads us to understand their ultimate reality. 


The two truths

Buddha talks about how things exist in two ways – well, many ways, actually. But this particular way of presenting it, he calls the two truths: conventional truth, the way things exist conventionally; and the way things exist finally, or ultimately. Initially when we hear these, they seem totally contradictory. But in reality, they are like flip sides of the same coin, and our job is to get to see that, to understand that, first intellectually. 


The shorthand for how things exist conventionally is “dependent arising,” or “dependent origination.” Things exist interdependently. Things exist in dependence upon this and that, conventionally. And then ultimately, the shorthand is “emptiness”: “emptiness” is the nature of reality ultimately. This is the way they talk. 


Let’s unpack these ideas, let’s look at the use of these words, because part of our problem is we don’t even know how these words are used. We can’t get our head around the general concepts. You know, after thirty years of hearing Buddhism, let’s say, we still haven’t got a clue what emptiness is, it’s because we haven’t even technically got ourselves sorted out, how to use this terminology. We mystify it.


The word “emptiness”

Let’s look at the word “emptiness” itself. In the most simple sense, it means “absent,” doesn’t it? It means “not there.” If I say, my cup has no water in it, we would simply say, “My cup is empty.” What we mean is, there is no water in my cup; it is empty of water; water is absent from my cup. 


Clearly, Buddha’s not telling us that things are empty of water. So, what is he saying? What is he saying things are empty of? 


Okay. If you’re not color-blind, let’s say, you’re going to agree this white cup is not red. You agree, don’t you? This cup is not red. We would simply say, “You’re right, Robina, it’s not red.” The Buddha would say, using this language, “the cup is empty of being red.” It’s a fancy way to talk, but we can hear the meaning very simply, can’t we? It’s just that we don’t speak like this. We don’t say, “The cup is empty of being red,” but the use of the word there is exactly the meaning. The cup is not red. 


And why would he tell us it’s empty of being red – I mean, it’s empty of being lots of things. The point is, he would only tell a person who is color-blind that it’s empty of being red because that person thinks it’s red, because their mind is making a mistake, is seeing it wrongly. This is crucial to understand.


Establishing what does exist

Okay. You can see the cup is white, right? Well, you could say, “White exists on this cup.” It’s a quaint way to talk, but you understand the meaning, don’t you? “There is white on this cup.” White is a phenomenon that exists on the cup. 


Now, because of that we can see there’s no red on this cup. We can also say, “The absence of red exists on this cup.” Would you agree with that? That on this cup, wouldn’t you agree, there is an absence of red? Let’s discuss.


There is a good reason for talking this way. In Buddhist philosophy there are several synonyms for “that which exists” – and Buddha is all about our discovering “that which exists.” That’s his big thing. Because he says we’re in la-la land right now, believing in things that don’t exist. 


Whatever does exist is necessarily a phenomenon, an object, an existent. The definition of an existent is “that which can be cognized by mind,” a valid state of mind, obviously – and there are precise ways of defining what is valid and what is not. And what we’re attempting to do in this pursuit of wisdom is to eventually cognize all existents precisely as they exist, no more and no less: that’s omniscience.


So, you agree, right, that there is an existent, a thing that can be cognized by the mind, called white? And it exists here on this cup, yes? Would you agree with that? White does exist here on this cup, doesn’t it? It is something that your mind can cognize. 


Okay, how do we know it exists? Well, we have to first establish it conventionally. We need to label it, define it, then check that it fulfills the definition and make sure there are no other valid cognitions of it that contradict this. Then we can all shake on it and agree that this object, this phenomenon called white, exists here on this cup.


Cognizing the absence of something

As I mentioned, let’s say I am color-blind and when I look at white I see red. I’m making a mistake, aren’t I? Remember, we’ve established the existence of this conventional phenomenon called white by defining, etc., etc., and agreeing upon that – that’s what “conventional” means: by convention it’s called white.


When I see a red cup when you show me a white one, I am making a mistake. I am seeing something that doesn’t exist, but which I totally believe does exist. You can’t just bully me into believing it; you have to help me to see the truth. And how do you do that? You help me correct the mistakes: you check my eyes, my glasses, the lighting, the various dependent arisings. You fix the problem. Then I look again at the cup and what will I see? 


Well, interestingly I will not see white – well, actually, for a split second you will – but because I’m so used to seeing red, I’ll get a big shock – “Oh my God, the cup is not red!” In other words, what I see is the vivid phenomenon called “the emptiness of red.” I will cognize the absence of red on that cup. Makes sense, doesn’t it?


When we hear “emptiness,” we tend to think of it as meaning “nothing.” But the “emptiness of red” is a very vivid thing that does exist, isn’t it? But for whom? It’s obvious that this is only relevant to someone who always saw red when white was in front of them. Now, having fixed the problem, that person will see the absence of the thing they always thought was there.


Absence of inherent self

So, what absence is Buddha trying to get us to see? He is saying, “Robina, you need to cognize the emptiness, the absence, of the self-existent I.” Why? Because for eons I have been imposing on my self – the conventional self that does exist – a characteristic that doesn’t exist there. 


The mistake we make – our ignorance makes – is seeing an inherently existent self where there isn’t one. And we do this with everything. We see an inherently existent cup where there isn’t one, an inherently existent dog where there isn’t one, an inherently existent everything, where there isn’t one. We’ve been decorating on top of

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