Posted by: Soh
Comments by PasserBy/Thusness:

Thanks AEN for the article and the effort for typing out the whole article. When I was reading this article, there is somehow an immediate recognition and understanding of how my six phases of experience can be mapped more appropriately. What that came to my mind may not be what the author was trying to convey but that realization just dawn and it is cool :)

And for this, I am grateful to the article and your effort.

Thanks again!

Please refer to source file for footnotes:

Fourfold Meditation: Outer, Inner, Secret and Suchness

Yael Bentor (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Ever since the discourse on the Four Noble Truths, Buddhist teachings have often taken the form of tetrads. Even when the fourth stage is conceived as beyond all categorization and enumeration, it nevertheless follows the three initial steps. The present article is concerned with tetrads that follow the pattern of outer, inner, secret, and suchness. While outer and inner refer to objects and subject, and suchness to the true nature of things, the secret element varies with the system to which the tetrad belongs. It is in fact the third stage that provides an indication as to which school of thought the tetrad is akin. An important characteristic of the tetrads considered here is that they cross the boundaries of individual traditions. Even though on the whole, the Buddhist tantric tradition tends to draw solid lines of distinction between sutra and tantra, Ratnakarasanti in his Prajnaparamitopadesa does link the fourfold meditation described in the Lankavatarasutra (with that of the Guhyasamajatantra. He also links these with the Avikalpapravesadharani. Around the early 13th century, Lce sgom pa related the tetrad of outer, inner, secret, and suchness offerings with the four stages in his delineation of taming the engagement of awareness (rig pa brtul zhugs kyi spyod pa) by means of meditation on the mandala. We shall review a number of fourfold meditations, such as those of the Lankavatara Sutra with its various commentaries, including those by Kamalasila and Ratnakarasanti, the fourfold meditations presented in the Yogacara treatises ascribed to Maitreya, the meditations on the formless ream, the meditation on the four offerings, and Lce sgom pa’s depiction of the generation process. A common thread runs through them.

In a number of his works, Ratnakarasanti describes a gradual meditation in four stages of yoga (rnal ‘byor gyi sa, yogabhumi). These works include the Prajnaparamitopadesa, the Prajnaparamitabhavanopadesa and the Madhyamakalankapratipadasiddhi. The four stages of yoga are:

1. Apprehending things to the extent they exist.

2. Apprehending mind-only or mental-process-only (sems tsam la dmigs pa).

3. Apprehending suchness (de bzhin nyid la dmigs pa).

4. Non-apprehending or non-objectifying (dmigs su med pa).

Summarising Ratnakarasanti’s explanation of the four stages of yoga:

In the first stage the yogi apply their minds (yid la byed pa) to the diversity of phenomena in the world that are the objects of the six senses. Then they apply their minds to the six senses and the six consciousnesses, in order to comprehend the mental activities that engage with the world. By combining calm abiding (zhi gnas) and penetrating insight (lhag mthong) they reach an understanding of conceptual reflected images to the extent they exist, and discern the modes of apprehending them through the eighteen spheres of perception.

In the second stage the yogis reflect on the perception of all phenomena as products of mental-processes-only (sems tsam), which appear due to habitual tendencies of clinging to objects. Since objects grasped as external to mind do not exist as they are conceptualized, their grasper cannot exist in that way either. By combining calm abiding and penetrating insight, the yogis understand that the diversity of appearances of the eighteen spheres of perception are mental-processes-only, empty of object and subject, and devoid of inherent existence.

In the third stage the yogis apply non-appearance to the false marks of manifest appearances, as meditators on the formless realms pass beyond the perception of form, by perceiving infinite space. Thereby they relinquish all false conceptual marks of the object and subject and view them as space, utterly immaculate and limitless, empty of duality, sheer clarity., They realize that all phenomena are formless, undemonstrable, and unobstructed, their one essential characteristic being the absence of characteristics. By combining calm abiding and penetrating insight, they realize that all appearances are reflected images of emptiness and apprehend the suchness of all phenomena as they are.

In the fourth stage, the yogis pass beyond the subtlest conceptualisation of phenomena. Without exertion and without conditioning, they realize experientially, through a direct perception, the suchness of all phenomena. They realize the complete vanishing of the marks of phenomena and the nature of phenomena, the enlightened wisdom, which is non-dual, free of appearances and apprehension, the supramundane non-conceptual calm abiding and penetrating insight.

Ratnakarasanti links this fourth stage with the yoga of the realization of non-conceptualisation in the Avikalpapravesadharani. This is in contrast to his predecessor Kamalasila, who – as Gomez points out – commented on the four levels of meditation of the Lankavatarasutra in his Bhavanakrama and composed a commentary on the Avikalpapravesadharani without suggesting any relationship between them. Although the Avikalpapravesadharani serves as a scriptural authority for both the sudden and gradual paths to enlightenment, it does offer a graded course of progress towards enlightenment.

According to this text, on their path to non-conceptuality, the Bodhisattvas relinquish marks of conceptuality in stages, by not applying their mind (yid la mi byed pa, amanasikara). First they give up all marks of conceptualisation with respect to inherent existence. But then, the marks of conceptualisation in analysing the antidotes to conceptualisation of inherent existence arise. In the second step the Bodhisattvas relinquish these marks as well. By not applying their minds to them. But then, the marks of conceptualisation in analysing suchness arise. In the third step, the Bodhisattvas relinquish marks of conceptualisation in analysing suchness. But then, the marks of conceptualisation in analysing their attainment arise. In the fourth step, the Bodhisattvas relinquish the marks of conceptualisation in analysing their attainment. Then, the Bodhisattvas engage in unsupported, free of appearances, devoid of cognition and foundation. These are the steps towards non-conceptualisation portrayed by the Avikalpapravesadharani. In this Prajnaparamitopadesa, Ratnakarasanti describes the fourth stage of yoga in his delineation of the four yogabhumi in terms leading towards the non-conceptual level of the Avikalpapravesadharani, and then cites the Dharani itself.

Ratnakarasanti then proceeds by relating the four stages of yogas he describes to the four steps of meditation in the Lankavatara Sutra. The following is a translation of Ratnakarasanti’s citation of the Lankavatara Sutra.

Having relied on mental-processes-only (sems tsam, cittamatra), [the yogis] would not conceptualise external objects.

Having apprehended suchness, they would pass beyond even mental-processes-only.

Having passed beyond mental-processes-only, they would pass beyond non-appearances.

The yogi abiding in non-appearances sees the Mahayana.

The Lankavatarasutra served as one of the main scriptural authorities for the Chan-school that is characterised by its sudden path to enlightenment, but this passage obviously offers a gradual path. While the stages of meditation presented in these verses can be interpreted in more than one way, Ratanakarasanti follows here Kamalasila. In this ‘First Bhavanakrama’, Kamalasila cites this passage as a basis for the graded process of meditation on wisdom (prajnabhavanakrama, shes rab bsgom pa’I rim pa). As has been pointed out by several scholars, here Kamalasila adheres to the words of his teacher Santaraksita who, in the conclusion to his Madhyamakalankara, says:

Having relied on mental-processes-only (citttamatra), one would understand that there are no external entities.

Having relied on this method [Madhyamaka], one would understand that even that [Cittamatra] is completedly devoid of own essence.

Therefore those who ride the chariot of the two methods [Madhyamaka and CIttamatra], while holding the reins of reasoning, attain the true meaning as it is, the state of the Mahayanist.

In his commentary Madhyamakalankaravrtti, Santaraksita provides a scriptural authority for his position by citing the same verses from the Lankavatarasutra that were quoted above (Ichigo, 1989, p.156), and Kamalasila reproduces them in his own commentary Madhyamakalankarapanjika (ibid.). But, while the Madhyamakalankara is mainly concerned with theory, Kamalasila’s Bhavanakramas are devoted to meditative practices. Still, this presentation of meditation in structured steps would seem to fall within the theory of practice rather than within the practice itself.

Kajiyama (1978) has suggested tha Kamalsila’s presentation of the four steps of meditation in the Bhavanakrama follows the doxographical exposition of tenets and corresponds to the positions respectively of (1) the Sarvastivada and Sauntrantika, of (2-3) the two schools of ‘Mind Only’, the Satyakaravada and Alikaravada, and of (4) the Madhyamaka. The interesting question is whether the fourfold meditation was modelled on this doxographical structure, or whether it is possible that the tradition of the fourfold meditation formed the paradigm for the system of the four tenets. Kamalasila’s explanation of the verses from the Lankavatarasutra may be summarised as follows.

In the first stage, the yogis investigate material phenomena (chos gzugs can, rupino dharmah), that others conceptualise as external objects, and analyse them into their components, until they do not see them. Thereby they realise that all external objects are results of mental-processes-only (cittamatra). Since they no longer apprehend the distinguishing features that allow their apprehension, they relinquish the conceptualisation of material phenomena.

Then the yogis analyse immaterial phenomena. Since these are mental-processes-only, there are no objects, and since subjects need objects with which to relate, there could be no subjects. Hence, the yogis pass beyond the notion of subject as well and abide in the non-dual knowledge of the absence of dual appearances.

In the third stage, the yogis pass beyond even the knowledge of the absence of dual appearance. They relinquish their attachment even to the knowledge of non-duality, and abide in the knowledge of the non-appearance of the knowledge of non-duality alone.

In the fourth stage, the yogis abide in the realisation that all phenomena are devoid of own essence and thereby enter non-conceptual concentration (nirvikalpasamadhi). Since they do not see by means of the ordinary eye, they see the sublime suchness, and since they do not cling to things, they see them through the wisdom eye. Since they look through the wisdom of meditative equipoise, they do not apprehend (mi dmigs pa, anupalambha) any phenomena, and this is the supreme non-apprehension. Since they do not apprehend any essence, they neither conceptualise any thing nor any non-thing.

Both Kamalasila and Ratnakarasanti interpret the four stages of meditation they present on the basis of the passage from the Lankavatarasutra. Both explain the first stage of the yoga as non-conceptualisation of external objects and the second as realisation of mental-processes-only. Their interpretation of the third stage is similar, yet while Kamalasila emphasises non-duality – the yogis abide in a non-dual knowledge of the absence of dual appearances, Ratnakarasanti underscores non-apeparance of the false marks of phenomena. With regards to the fourth stage, Kamalasila stresses that even the knowledge of non-duality is untrue; hence the yogis abide in the knowledge of the non-appearance of the knowledge of duality. Then they enter non-conceptual concentration where they see without seeing that all phenomena are devoid of own essence and attain the realisation of suchness. Ratnakarasanti emphasises here a direct perception that is beyond the marks of both phenomena (dharma, chos) and of the nature of phenomena (dharamata, chos nyid). This is the terminology that appears in the Guhyasamajatantra. Immediately after citing the verses from the Lankavatarasutra (X 256-58), Ratnakarasanti declares:

The Guhyasamajatantra teaches this very thing in one verse: “When you examine your mind, [you realise] that all phenomena abide in the mind. These phenomena abide as the sky-vajra. There are no phenomena and the nature of phenomena” (Derge, p.321, Peking, p.249.4).

Ratanakarasanti then relates the sutric meditation on wisdom to the tantric meditation of the Guhyasamajatantra, emphasising their identity:

1. In both [the Lankvaatarasutra and the Guhyasamajatantra] the first stage of the yoga is not explicit. Because as long as [the yogis] do not grasp that all phenomena are these [as they appear], so long they would not be able to grasp their emptiness. Hence, understanding that all phenomena are these [as they appear] is the first stage of the yoga.

2. Developing resolute faith that they [all phenomena] are mental-processes-only, empty of the grasped and the grasper. This is the second [stage of the yoga] that is accompanied by appearances.

3. Since in that very [stage, the yogis] develop resolute faith in the non-appearance of the marks of phenomena, viewing [all phenomena] as clarity is the third [stage of yoga].

4. Since in that very [stage] all the marks of phenomena and of the nature of phenomena do not appear at all, this insight is the fourth [stage of the yoga] (Derge, p.322, Peking, p.249.4).

Ratnakarasanti goes on to interpret the verses from the Lankavtarasutra in terms of both this fourfold yoga of the Guhyasamajatantra and of the four stages of the yoga that he outlined above. He begins with the second stage.

2. Here, the meaning of ‘mental-process-only’ is to know apprehension as mental-processes-only. This is the meaning of the ‘second stage of the yoga’.

1. The meaning of ‘[the yogis] would not conceptualise’ refers to external objects that are conceptualised in the first stage of the yoga, and the meaning of ‘they would pass beyond’ refers to the other.

3. The meaning of ‘apprehension of suchness is the wisdom by which one apprehends suchness. This is the meaning of ‘the third stage of the yoga’.

4. The meaning of ‘passing beyond mental-processes-only’ is to train in the example of a precedent. It is not accomplishing something without a precedent. The meaning of ‘passing beyond non-appearances’ is accomplishing without a precedent. Further, the meaning of ‘non-appearances’ is the non-appearances of the marks of phenomena. This is the meaning of ‘apprehending suchness’. If you ask: “How does one pass beyond that?” – one abides in non-appearances. That is to say, one is endowed with the insight that the marks of [both] phenomena and the nature of phenomena do not appear at all. This is the meaning of ‘abiding in the fourth stage of yoga’ (Derge, p.322, Peking, p.249.4f).

Ratnakarasanti embeds in this interpretation vocabulary that appears in the stanza from the Guhyasamajatantra: “There are no phenomena and no nature of phenomena.” Finally, he interprets that verse from the Guhyasamajatantra in terms of the fourfold meditation:

Further, ‘examining the mind’ is the second stage of the yoga. ‘Abide’ means that all phenomena are appearance of your own mind. This is understood as: your own mind is appearing, while not existing. ‘Sky-vajra’ is the two non-appearances [of phenomena and of the nature of phenomena]. ‘Abiding there’ is abiding in non-appearances of phenomena and the nature of phenomena, successively. The non-apeparance of the inherent nature of phenomena here is the third stage. The non-appearances of the inherent nature of the nature of phenomena is the fourth stage [Derge, [.323, Peking, p.250.1).

In his commentary on the Guhyasamajatantra, the Kusumanjali (Toh.1851), Ratnakarasanti again interprets the verse from the Guhyasamaja in terms of the four yogabhumi. The following is a very tentative translation of a few sentences from this commentary on the verse in question.

The meaning [of this verse] is as follows: When the Bodhisattvas see a dream, the ysettle their quipoised mind in that dream and investigate it [as follows]. Because in this dream there are no object whatsoever to be grasped, nothing graspable, there is no grasper either. Well now, this mental-process-only of dualistic appearance with regards to non-duality is but a deception… Because they indeed are like dream, all phenomena are mental-processes-only… All those appearances of phenomena of forms, feelings and so on, are your own mind alone endowed with aspects of forms, feelings and so on. Still there is no object to be grasped by the mind that is external to the mind… Following that [the Bodhisattvas contemplate], since there is no grasped, there is no grasper either. That being so, there is no duality. Therefore, [the Bodhisattvas] thoroughly relinquish the deceptive causes for dualistic appearances of all phenomena, which are one taste, empty of duality… and engage in perfect mental application. Because they proceed with this mental application, their minds rest in meditative equipoise on that which is spontaneously accomplished, unconditioned… empty of duality and free of mental proliferation. That was explained to be the supra-mundane pristine wisdom of emptiness, free of mental proliferation, non-conceptual, the ultimate thought for enlightenment… As for [the line] ‘there are no phenomena and no nature of phenomena’, there is no appearance in the manner of phenomena, because when the cause for all phenomena vanishes, there is appearance as emptiness alone. There is no appearance in the manner of the nature of phenomena either… The emptiness of phenomena is the nature of phenomena (Derge, pp.82.7-84.3).

Thus, the verse from the Guhyasamajatantra, which in itself contains no explicit fourfold structure, is explained by Ratnakarasanti in his commentary on the Tantra in terms of our fourfold meditation.

In his Hevajrasadhana entitled “Relinquishing Deception” (Bhramahara, ‘Khrul pa spong ba, Toh.1245), Ratnakarasanti provides practical instructions for the meditation on emptiness that precedes the generation of the mandala. Here the fourfold meditation is actually applied in a tantric practice. Note that a few of the clauses here appear as well in the passage from the Kusumanjali cited above.

Then having made all phenomena into the object of [their] mind, [the practitioners] should investigate [them in the following way]. This is just mind, which appears deceptively in various forms, as in a dream. There is nothing to be grasped by the mind, which is external to the mind. Since there are no grasped entities, the mind as well is not a grasping entity [does not grasp]. Hence all phenomena have mind as their essence. Their emptiness of grasped and grasper is the Highest Truth. Having determined this unequivocally, [the practitioners] should relinquish the deceptively superimposed and deceptively marked aspects of all phenomena, and then they should see just their nature alone, which is characterised by non-dual awareness, limitless like an immaculate crystal and the pure autumn sky at midday. This is taught to be the ultimate thought for enlightenment, the supramundane pristine wisdom of emptiness, devoid of mental proliferation and free of conceptualisation (Derge, pp.378.7 – 379.3, and Isaacson, in preparation).

Fourfold meditations like those that appear in Ratnakarasanti’s works are common in Yogacara writings, and are considered to be typical for expositions of this school. Among these are Vasubandhu’s Trimsika (vss.28f) and Trisvabhavanirdesa (vss.36f.), and the Madhyantavibhaga (vs.6). Davidson (1985:295-97), Jackson (1987:348-51 and notes there) and Lindter (1997) have pointed to still other parallels. A few examples will be sufficient here. The sixth chapter of the Mahayanasutralankara describes the following path toward the realisation of things as they are. After understanding that there is nothing but the mind, the wise realise that the mind does not exist either. And after understanding that there is no duality, the wise abide in the dharma-sphere. A similar fourfold meditation is found in the fourteenth chapter of the same work (vss.23-28).

Another consonant fourfold meditation is found in another work among the treatises known by Tibetans as “Five Works of Maitreya”. The Dharmadharmatavibhaga outlines the four aspects of engagement in the perfect practice.

1. Dmig pa’i sbyor ba, upalambhaprayoga,

2. Mi dmigs pa yi sbyor ba, anupalambhaprayoga,

3. Dmigs pa med dmigs sbyor ba, upalambhanupalambhaprayoga,

4. mi dmigs dmigs pa’I sbyor ba, nopalambhopalambhaprayoga.

It is possible to interpret these puzzling phrases in more tht one wa, but the traditional interpretation is found in Vasubandhu’s commentary, the Dharmadharmatavibhagavrtti:

1. Through apprehending mere cognition.

2. Through non-apprehending objects.

3. Through non-apprehending mere cognition when there are no objects, since when there are no objects to be cognised, cognition is not possible.

4. Through non-apprehending duality, non-duality is apprehended.

We have seen that Ratnakarasanti employs four stages of meditation not only in his explanation of meditations according to the system of the Perfection of Wisdom, but also in the system of the Guyasamajatantra. Another author who makes use of fourfold meditation in a tantric context is Lce sgom pa who, around the early thirteenth century wrote the Man ngag rin chen spungs pa devoted ot the netire Buddhist path (Sorensen 1999, Bentor 2000). In the description of the tantric path included there, Lce sgom pa portrays the practices for taming the engagement of one’s awareness (rig pa brtul zhugs kyi spyod pa) that are performed for enhancing the experience of those who have attained a slight stability in their formal meditation. One of these practices, which is carried out with proliferation of mental constructs (prapanca), consist of actually acting out of the mandala. Yogis and yoginis occupy the seats of the Buddhas in the mandala, meditate there, and make four kinds of offerings. What is the purpose of this practice?

Tantric practices may be expressed as transformations of the practitioner’s place (gnas), body (lus), enjoyments (longs spyod) and deeds (mdzad pa). These are called the four complete purities (yongsu dag pa bzhi, yet another fourfold presentation that begins with outer and inner). T he complete purity of place refers to the transformation of the practitioners’ environment into the mandala of their yi dam; the complete purity of body to the transformation of the practitioners themselves into their yi dam; the complete purity of deeds, to the transformation of the practitioner’s ordinary emotions and cognitions into pure enjoyment free of any affliction.

When enlightened beings make and receive offerings, both the giver and recipient are said to experience perfect enjoyment untainted by any trace of such affliction as attachment, miserliness, or jealousy. Therefore, offerings and meditation on the practice of offering form an essential component of the tantric practice. For the transformation of their enjoyment, the yogis and yoginis make the four offerings outer, inner, secret, and suchness. The outer offerings are said to transform ordinary enjoyments into sublime ones, by generating a special immaculate bliss as object of the five senses.

The inner offerings of the five fleshes and five tantric nectars, which are no different from the five male and female Buddhas of the mandala, serve for overcoming ordinary conceptions of attractiveness and repulsiveness. The secret offerings are the bodhicitta of the Father-Mother enlightened beings in embrace that descends along the central channel of the subtle body. When it reaches the four cakras, the four joys are experienced whereby ordinary desire is transformed into great bliss. The offerings of suchness are accomplished when the mind that experiences this sublime bliss sees emptiness directly. By making these four offerings, the practitioners engage in the transformation of their enjoyment through a proliferation of mental constructs.

Another practice for taming the engagement of one’s awareness is performed completely without proliferation of mental constructs. Lce sgom pa describes it in the following words.

Thoroughly comprehending the outer, inner, secret, and suchness, they tame their ordinary conceptual thoughts by means of their awareness. They fuse all the external and internal phenomena into the assemblage of enlightened beings of the mandala as mere conventional illusion. They then realise that all these enlightened beings are emanations of their own minds. In the highest truth, the mind as such is not apprehending, therefore they penetrate the equanimity of emptiness. Hence this is called the practice of engaging in the taming of awareness (p. 122).

Here the four kinds of offerings have been endowed with a new level of meaning .The meditation on the generation process (bskyed rim) is interpreted here in four steps that correspond to the outer, inner, secret and suchness offerings. In the outer step all phenomena are transformed into the mandala and the enlightened beings dwelling in it. In the inner step, the practitioners understand that this mandala is but a product of their own mental processes. In the secret step, they realise that the mind as such (Sems nyid) does not apprehend (or does not objectify, mi dmigs pa); and in the step of suchness they penetrate the equanimity of emptiness. These steps are obviously the fourfold meditation we encountered above.

In his description of the four stages of yoga, Ratnakarasanti uses the example of meditation on infinite space for the sake of passing beyond the perception of form. Did Ratnakarasanti perhaps have in mind the meditative absorption of the four formless realms as a further model for his four stages of yoga? The meditation on the four formless realms is another example for a fourfold meditation with a pattern of outer, inner, secret, and suchness. The important feature for this meditation, for our purposes, is that it is shared by non-Mahayana and even non-Buddhist systems, and may have served as a kind of prototype ofr most of the fourfold systems of meditation we have encountered above. The meditative absorptions of the four formless realms consist of meditative absorption on infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness, and neither perception nor non-perception. Buddhist literature attributes these last two meditations to the two meditation teachers of the Buddha with whom he studied before attaining enlightenment (Nakamura 1979, Bronkhorst 1986). Hence these are considered to be pre-Buddhist forms of meditation adapted by Buddhism or early Buddhist teachings that were eventually superseded and then attributed to non-Buddhist teachers. Certain terms used in these meditations on the four formless realms are preserved in later systems of fourfold meditation. Among these terms are ‘applying’ and ‘not applying the mind’ (manasikara, yid la byed pa and amanasikara, yid la mi byed pa) to ‘divesity’ (nanatva, sna tshogs), and ‘passing beyond’ a certain meditative state (atikram, ‘da’ ba or bzla ba). This consistency in terminology may indicate conscious continuity and change in these meditative practices.

A fondness for numerical categorisation is a constant within most Buddhist systems of thought. Even some of those who wish to do away with categories nevertheless resort at times to various categories, as does the “Heart Sutra” in teaching emptiness. In continuing a long Indian tradition, and out of their tendency towards comprehensiveness, various Buddhist systems try to find links between the distinct numerical categories. The most celebrated system among them is of course tantra, which constantly seeks correlations, as the meaning of its name ‘weaving thread’ suggests. Though it may be impossible to make rules for how they function, there are certain numerical categories that structure much of Buddhist thought. One important example is the three bodies of the Buddha that find cosmological parallels in the three realms of desire, forms, and the formless; mental parallels in the three types of consciousness according to the Yogacara – the consciousnesses of the six senses, the klistamanas and the alayavijnana; and according of the Great Perfection they find parallels to their models of being in the three modes of the mind – emptiness, clarity and non-obstruction. The fivefold system that underlies much of tantric thought is well known. Here are correlations among the five aggregates, the five physical elements, the five afflicting emotions, and the five male and female Buddhas of the mandala together with the five wisdoms and so on. The fourfold classification of mediations is another such fundamental configuration that finds constant expression in Buddhist thought.

Posted by: PasserBy
I love the way Dr Greg Goode presents his understandings of Emptiness, it is simple to understand yet does not lack insight and clarity. Coming from one that has matured the non-dual holistic experience, his new observations will be most valuable.

After reading his article NonDual Emptiness Teachings, I revisited his website scouting for more articles relating to Emptiness. This article Chandrakirti’s Sevenfold Reasoning on Selflessness is equally insightful. Some of his older articles were written strictly from the Advaita Vedenta perspectives. It will be interesting to see how his recent insight of Emptiness is being integrated into his non-dual experiences. All experiences are non-dual, vivid, direct and luminously present yet there is nothing real and substantial, merely dependently originates.

With regards to the direct path of practice, still the same old familiar ‘nothing to do’ and ‘simply be’; but this direct path when practice with a non-inherent and dependent originate view yields different experiential fruitions from the inherent view of the Advaita.

Similarly the same language of descriptions still applies to pristine awareness -- imageless-ness, attribute-less, formlessness and unborn but unlike Advaita Vedenta’s teachings, never is Buddhism pointing to any background reality. For true liberation to take place, it is the challenge of a sincere practitioner to directly and fully realize this luminous yet empty nature of pristine awareness experientially.

Another Kind of Self-Inquiry:
Chandrakirti’s Sevenfold Reasoning on Selflessness

This article originally appeared in HarshaSatsangh Magazine

"A chariot is not asserted to be other than its parts,
Nor non-other. It also does not possess them.
It is not in the parts, nor are the parts in it.
It is not the mere collection [of its parts], nor is it their shape.
[The self and the aggregates are] similar."

– Chandrakirti, Supplement to (Nagarjuna’s)
“Treatise on the Middle Way”

* Introduction
* Mistaken Conception
* Note on the Teachings of Emptiness
* What the Reasonings Refute – Inherent Existence
* What the Reasonings Do Not Refute – Conventional Existence
* The Sevenfold Reasoning – Preparation
* The Sevenfold Reasoning on the Selflessness of Persons
* Conclusion

When I was about ten years old, my friends and I would throw rocks at each other. This led to a kind of self-inquiry, as I later found out. Smack! My friend's rock hit my arm. “I got you,” he said with glee. “No you didn't,” I retorted smugly, “You only got my arm.” Then he went for something closer to home. Bonk! The rock landed on my head. Now I got you!” “No, that was only my head.” Later, I thought a lot about this, for many years in fact. There was no place a rock could land that I thought was truly me. In fact, whatever “X” could named was not me, because it was “My X.” But where was the “I”? It's not as though I didn't have a strong sense of it. I did, especially at first. This is why I looked so hard for it for so many years. But no matter where I looked, it seemed to keep shifting around, almost as though it was always in back of me! Even as a youth, years before I had ever heard of Buddhism or nondualism or Chandrakirti, the inability to find the “I” really did begin to weaken my sense of its reality.

The Sevenfold Reasoning is a Buddhist meditation on the ultimate nature of things – persons (the “I”) and phenomena. In the traditions of Buddhism that utilize the Sevenfold Reasoning (such as the Dalai Lama's sect, the Gelukba Madhyamikas), the ultimate nature of things is said to be emptiness. The Sevenfold Reasoning is based on the teachings of Chandrakirti, an 8th-century Indian Buddhist teacher. Chandrakirti provided a way to inquire into the ultimate or final nature of things, as a way to help relieve suffering. In doing so, he extended the arguments of Nagarjuna (2nd-3rd century), whose monumental Treatise On The Middle Way had systematized the teachings in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras (100BCE – 100CE). According to these sutras and teachings, it is the ignorance or misconception about the way things exist that keeps sentient beings in suffering and cyclic existence. Sentient beings have the conception that phenomena (as well as they themselves!) exist in a very solid, independent way, whereas nothing really exists in this way. When this conception ceases, ignorance ceases, and suffering ceases.

The Sevenfold Reasoning is a set of inferences that one contemplates deeply. Even though they are an intellectual process, it is known as a meditation in the Buddhist Middle Way teachings. The reasonings are to be gone into intensely, with the full force of one’s feelings about how things are. The reasonings are not a method of “no-thought” or of turning the mind away from objects. Instead, objects are taken full-strength, faced directly and forcefully. When these powerful reasonings are gone into fully, one’s view of one’s self and the world is deeply shaken. For a moment it might feel as if the earth has turned upside down, or one has fallen into a huge crevasse. Thereafter, things, including one’s sense of self, do not really have the same inert heaviness any longer. In Middle Way treatises, it is said that if the Sevenfold Reasoning seems too abstract, intellectual or irrelevant, and if it does not engender deep feelings of something having shifted, then perhaps it is not the best meditation for now.

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Mistaken Conception
What is this mistaken conception of how things exist? It is partly a matter of feeling and partly a matter of thinking. The feeling component is partly a felt sense that things are somehow really there, solid, independent, separate from us, and somehow casting themselves towards us. The thinking part is an intellectual sense of things as self-sufficient and independent of everything. To flesh out this intellectual strand of total independence from everything, Middle Way treatises speak of three kinds of independence. For example, if a cup exists inherently and independently in the way that matches our conception of “independent of everything,” then it exists independent of causes and conditions, independent of its own parts, and independent of being observed by a mind. For suffering beings, the feeling and intellectual sense of inherent existence apply to any cognizable object, whether it is a school bus, the feeling of joy, “2+2=4.” This is an example of the conception of the inherent existence of phenomena.

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This sense or conception applies not just to phenomena but also to people, including ourselves. We appear to exist inherently just like the coffee cup. For example, after a swift kick in the shin or a false accusation (or a true one!), a very palpable sense of an inherently existing self arises. Blood and anger might arise, the stomach might get queasy. “How could they do that to me? I’ll show them!” This sense, fired by the pain of indignation, seems to point to a self that is really there, and at the moment, very offended. This sense of self (not the insulted-ness but the self that has suffered the insult) is a sense that feels like I am really there. This sense does not seem like a self that depends on causes and conditions. It does not seem to be dependent on the parts and pieces of the body/mind, and it does not seem to be dependent upon being imputed by thought. It seems like one very wronged but very real self. This is an example of the sense of inherent existence -- the inherent existence of the “I.”

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It is said in Middle Way Buddhism that this conception of inherent existence is a misconception. It is said to be a misconception because although things appear to exist in this way, they actually do not exist in this way. Although the conception of inherent existence is present, inherent existence itself can nowhere be found. This unfindability of inherent existence is the emptiness that Middle Way Buddhism teaches about.

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Note on the Teachings of Emptiness
There is a traditional caveat given to those desiring to study the teachings or reasonings on emptiness. The caveat, which is given in most texts and scholarly commentaries on the subject, warns that emptiness does not entail utter non-existence, nihilism, or psychological depression. It also advises that the teachings on emptiness should only be studied by (i) those who burst out in tears at the mere mention of the word "emptiness," (ii) those whose hair stands on end at the mention of the word, or (iii) those who have faith in such teachings and who feel certain that emptiness does not negate conventional cause-and-effect as presented in the Buddhist path.

The reason for this caveat is to prevent a nihilistic approach to life and the Buddhist path. The teachings on emptiness attempt to show that spiritual progress is possible exactly because things are empty. But the nihilistic reaction to the teachings is an offtrack misunderstanding, which manifests partly as (i) a mistaken belief that since everything is empty there is no conventional cause-effect relation between phenomena, and (ii) a hopeless feeling that there is no point to spiritual progress. Most teachings on emptiness attempt to counteract this nihilistic approach. See, for example, the works referred to in the footnotes at the end of this article.

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What the Reasonings Refute – Inherent Existence
The Sevenfold Reasonings refute inherent existence, which is also called the “object to be negated.” The conception of inherent existence, along with the grasping feelings discussed above is called the “object to be abandoned.” Inherent existence itself is called the “object to be negated.” The Sevenfold Reasonings work like this: once inherent existence is deeply understood not to exist, then the conception of inherent existence (along with the grasping) will be abandoned spontaneously. That is, once we thoroughly negate the “object to be negated,” the “object to be abandoned” will no longer appear.

How does this work? We see a cup. Because it appears to really be there under its own steam, independent of causes, independent of its parts, and independent of being perceived, it appears to be inherently existent. Not only does it appear to be inherently existent, we might also actually believe that it exists this way. This appearance and this belief make up the conception of inherent existence. The conception of inherent existence is said by Middle Way Buddhism to be the root of suffering. Moreover, just because we have the conception of inherent existence does not mean that inherent existence really exists. It is sort of like having the idea of a unicorn, or seeing a snake where there is only a rope. Just because we have the conception of an object does not establish the existence of that object.

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The Sevenfold Reasoning provides a meditative way to look for inherent existence and see that it is not findable. Once inherent existence is clearly seen to be not-findable, the conception of inherent existence will cease. The end of this misconception is said to be the end of cyclical existence, and amounts to the Buddhist Third Noble Truth – the cessation of suffering. The Sevenfold Reasonings are part of the Buddhist Fourth Noble Truth, which is the path leading to the end of suffering.

The reasonings explore the questions, “What is the relationship between the car and the parts of the car?” and “What is the relationship between my self and the parts of my body/mind?” If the car really existed inherently the way it appears to, then this inherent existence entails certain things about the parts of the car. If the I existed inherently as it seems to, then this entails certain things about my body and mind. Using the Sevenfold Reasoning, we can see whether these entailments make sense. If we can see that the implications of inherent existence are not true, then we can see how inherent existence itself cannot exist. If we can see this, then the conceptions of inherent existence will cease and there will be freedom from suffering.

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What the Reasonings Do Not Refute – Conventional Existence
If things do not exist truly or inherently, do they exist at all? Or do they totally and utterly lack existence? The Buddha is quoted as saying, “What the world accepts, I accept. What the world does not accept, I do not accept.” In the Middle Way teachings, it is said that things do exist conventionally. The conventional existence of the cup is the everyday ability of the cup to hold tea, to be washed and dried, and to shatter if dropped. The cup is a mere nominality or imputation or “say-so,” asserted by the mind dependent upon certain pieces and parts. This conventional cup serves the purpose of a cup even though if it were analyzed with the Sevenfold Reasoning, it would not be found. The fact that it would be unfindable under this analysis is not significant, since nothing could withstand that analysis. The purpose of the Sevenfold Reasoning is not to negate every possible thing that can be negated; rather, it is to negate inherent existence – the conception of which causes suffering.

The Sevenfold Reasoning is not applied to refute the conventional, everyday existence of things, such as the teacup, the self that goes to the grocery store, or the Yankees who won the 2000 Subway Series. There are three main reasons for not refuting conventional existence. One is that conventional existence, according to Middle Way Buddhism, is not the cause of suffering. Therefore, there is no necessity to refute it. Two, not refuting conventional existence allows Buddhism to be able to “speak with the world” by accepting what the world accepts.

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Three, not refuting conventional existence provides a way for Buddhism to present the Four Noble Truths and the eight-fold path to the end of suffering. Even though the Buddhist teachings are vast and profound teachings, they are still conventional existents. By not refuting conventional existence while indeed refuting inherent existence, Buddhism itself can tread the Middle Way between the extremes of existence. If conventional existence were refuted along with inherent existence, the Buddhist path would not be possible since nothing would be said to exist. Refuting conventional existence would err on the side of nihilism. Retaining conventional existence avoids this extreme.

On the other hand, if inherent existence were not refuted, then too the Buddhist path would not be possible. Inherently existent things are independent of everything and therefore causeless, untouchable and eternal. If things existed inherently, they would be forever frozen in place, and no change or progress along the Buddhist path would be possible. Suffering entities would forever remain suffering entities. For Buddhism not to refute inherent existence would err on the side of eternalism. Avoiding both extremes is the Middle Way.

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"The Sevenfold Reasoning - Preparation
In Middle Way treatises, there are two preliminary steps that facilitate the Sevenfold Reasoning. Their purpose is to make the reasonings “up close and personal,” to help put the “object to be negated” clearly in sight. The first step is for the meditator to generate a clear sense of inherent existence. This can be done by imagining, for instance, a serious, embarrassing and public insult, and then deeply experiencing the thoughts and feelings that occur. These arisings are said to depend on the conception of inherent existence. This process of summoning up the feelings is not dangerous, and the effort does not make the sense of inherent existence stronger and more firmly entrenched. Rather, it allows the meditator to generate a clearer, more visceral image of what is to be negated. It keeps the meditator's conception of the “object to be negated” from being too thinly intellectual, and keeps the meditation from being merely a word-game. It is a lot of work!

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The second preliminary step is to review the overall dynamic of the Sevenfold Reasoning. You can proceed like this, following this pattern: If X, then Y. Not Y. Therefore, not X.

a) If the inherent existence of the chariot (or the self) were established, then this inherent existence would be findable in at least one of the seven ways.

b) It is not findable in any of the seven ways. (The Sevenfold Reasoning itself is gone through in this step.)

c) Therefore the inherent existence of the chariot (or the self) is not established.

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The reasonings are based on a common-sense search for the object called inherent existence, based on the example of, say a cup, a chariot, or one's self. If inherent existence of the cup is a findable thing, existing the way it appears, then it ought to be either the same as the parts of the cup, or different from the parts of the cup. This is analogous to looking for a cat in the house. If she is findable in the house, then she is either in the living room or somewhere other than the living room. But if she is found not to be in the living room and not to be anywhere else in the house, then we can safely say there is no cat in the house. Indeed, if we can feel as certain about the dynamic of the Sevenfold Reasoning as we feel about the cat analogy, then this very insight starts to chip away at our conception of inherent existence, and a feeling of peace and joy can result.

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The Sevenfold Reasoning on the Selflessness of Persons
Personal things often rivet our attention while impersonal things are hardly noticed. The conception of inherent existence of persons (such as one's self) causes more suffering and is harder to remove than the conception of inherent existence of non-personal phenomena such as cars and trees. According to Middle Way Buddhism, both kinds of conceptions must be refuted in order to end the ignorance that causes suffering and cyclical existence. The conception of the inherent existence of phenomena is the root of the conception of the inherent existence of persons. This is because the senses perceive phenomena such as shapes, sounds, colors, textures, etc. The mind, if it considers the final nature of these phenomena, considers them to be inherently existent. For some phenomena, perhaps the shape of an arm, a hand, or a face, or the sound of a voice, the mind attributes the entity of person. For the mind that considers the final nature of this person, the person is considered to be inherently existent. In Middle Way teachings, it is said that without realizing the selflessness of persons, it is not possible to realize the selflessness of phenomena.[2] So the meditative reasonings are done first on persons. Even so, it is often recommended to beginners to familiarize themselves with the reasonings by using the example of a car, or chariot, as in Chandrakirti’s example.

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We will simply list the seven steps for these phenomena, and then examine the reasonings in terms of persons.

The Sevenfold Reasoning on the Selflessness of Phenomena:

1. The car is not inherently the same as its parts.

2. The car is not inherently different from its parts.

3. The car is not inherently dependent upon its parts.

4. The car is not inherently the substratum upon which its parts depend.

5. The car is not inherently the possessor of its parts.

6. The car is not inherently the mere collection of its parts.

7. The car is not inherently the shape of its parts.

The Sevenfold Reasoning on the Selflessness of Persons:

The reasonings on the selflessness of persons try to find the true person. They search by trying to isolate the inherent existence of the person in relation to the parts the body/mind. For purposes of one's meditation, the parts of the body/mind include everything related to what one thinks of as one's self. It can be any physical, mental, moral or psychological phenomenon whatsoever. We might think of ourselves as a body, a mind, set of memories, or a collection of character values, or something that essentially includes all of these. The reasonings go like this. With a firm sense of this inherent existence in mind, we try to isolate it – is the inherent existence of the self exactly the same as the parts of the body/mind? Is it different from the parts? These first two steps of the Sevenfold Reasoning logically cover all the bases. The self is either inherently the same as, or different from, the parts. The other steps of the reasonings are valuable to go into because they keep the meditation from being purely an intellectual exercise. We might, for example, truly feel that the self owns the body/mind. This is the conception to get at, even though it is logically entailed by the self being different from the body/mind. Once all the reasonings are gone through in depth and the inherent existence of the self is not found anywhere, this can upset one's conception of the way things are. At first it is disorienting and perhaps scary. Later, it can be the source of great joy.

1. The self is not inherently the same as the parts of the body/mind.

2. The self is not different from the parts of the body/mind.

3. The self is not dependent upon the parts of the body/mind.

4. The self is not inherently the substratum upon which the parts of the body/mind depend.

5. The self is not inherently the possessor of the parts of the body/mind.

6. The self is not inherently the mere collection of the parts of the body/mind.

7. The self is not inherently the shape of the parts of the body/mind.

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Taking these one at a time,

1. The self is not inherently the same as the parts of the body/mind. If we understand the parts as various groups of physical, mental, and psychological factors, we ask: Is the self equal to these things? Is it equal to them individually? If it is, then certain counterintuitive results apply. The self would be equal to each body part or each thought individually. The self would be many just as the parts are many. But we don't think of the self as many, so it cannot be found in all the parts taken individually. How about the parts taken as a whole? This is also not what we think of when we conceive of the inherent existence of the self. If the self is equal to the parts and the self is single, then the parts must be one single entity. This is clearly not the case. Also, if the self is equal to all the parts, then we could never get our hair cut, or lose a finger or gain a new thought. For that newly missing or added element changes the overall parts. If the self is equal to all the parts, this new addition or deletion would mean that we have a new self. But our strong intuition is clearly that the self can undergo change. So the self cannot be equal to all the parts. It is not just that we have not looked hard enough. We have looked at the possibility of the self being the parts. In the parts we have found the lack of inherent existence of the self. It cannot be there.

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2. The self is not inherently different from the parts of the body/mind. If the self were inherently different from its parts, then too odd things result. You would be able to apprehend the self somehow in total isolation from the parts. Conceptually, you would be able to strip away the elements of the body/mind until none are left but nevertheless still be able to point to the self. You would have to still be able to distinguish this partless self from someone else's self. Where would this partless self be? It must be able to have a different location from the body. As they might say in Missouri, “Show me that self with no parts.” The self would be one thing and the parts would be a totally separate thing. So the self is not inherently different from the parts of the body/mind.

3. The self is not inherently dependent upon the parts of the body/mind. Is the self inherently dependent upon the parts? Sometimes we think so. Sometimes the self appears as something above and beyond the parts, but somehow supported or buoyed up by the parts. This relation of dependence is another case of (2) above, the self being a different entity from the parts, which has been refuted. If the self is dependent on the parts, it must be different from the parts. Why is dependence given as a separate meditation in addition to mere difference? So we can gain insight on the falsity of the sense we often have that dependence on the body/mind is a special way that the self truly exists. It is almost as though the sense of inherent existence is hiding out in the sense we have of dependence.

Besides the problem that dependence entails difference, which was refuted, there is another problem with dependence. That is, what is the link between the self in question and this particular set of parts such that this self is dependent upon the parts? Why isn't another self dependent upon the parts? Conversely, why is the self in question dependent on these particular parts and not my next-door neighbor's parts? Two more odd consequences follow if there were inherent existence of the self in dependence on the parts. (a) The self related to these parts… What makes that self my self? This supposedly inherently existent self fails to satisfy the criteria that would make it my self. I would need another self to bind the parts and the self together under the auspices of "mine," but this second self does not exist. Even if it did, there would need to be yet another self to make that one mine, and so on ad infinitum. And (b), why is there not more than one self dependent upon the same set of parts? Why not? This is consistent with the conditions given. Since this self is totally different from the parts, I cannot see this self; other selves can be supported by the same parts. These are all natural conclusions if there is a self different from the parts that is inherently dependent upon the parts. In a search for the inherently existent self which depends on the parts of the body/mind, this self has proved unfindable.

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4. The self is not inherently the substratum upon which the parts of the body/mind depend. Do the parts inherently depend upon the self, which serves as their substratum? This is another case of the refuted alternative (2) above, the self being inherently different from the parts. And it is similar to alternative (3) above, with the dependence running in the opposite direction. Similar consequences occur with this alternative.

"Why these parts? Why this particular self? Show it to me in isolation from the parts. No! Not that one over there, this self!"

In addition, since we are looking for the substratum in this case, trying to isolate it as the inherently existent self, it is especially instructive to meditate on this? Can more than one substratum support the same set of parts? Either simultaneously or in succession over time? Assume for the moment a relation of an inherently existing self as the substratum of the parts of the body/mind. Is it the same at time T1 as at time T2? Going by the reasoning of case (4), there is no reason it cannot be a different self and no proof that it is the same self. But if it is different, then we have the absurd conclusion that the same body/mind is supported by two selves over time. Then, I would be an inherently different self at T2 than I am at T1. And if the body can depend on two selves simultaneously, then I am different from myself even now! Therefore, the inherent existence of the self cannot lie in its being the substratum on which the parts of the body/mind depend.

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5. The self is not inherently the possessor of the parts of the body/mind. This is yet another case of (2), the self being different from the parts, as well as a bit of (1), where the self is the same entity as the parts. But it is very fruitful to go though this meditation completely on its own, since we have often have a strong conception that the self possesses the parts of the body/mind. This alternative deserves its own meditative refutation.

Perhaps the self possesses its parts in the way that I possess my hand. This would be a case in which I am the same entity as my hand (as in (1) above.) If this alternative is gone into, it becomes quite doubtful, since for me to conceive strongly of possessing my hand, I must mentally pull away from the hand for the moment at least, and conceive of myself as something other than the hand. For me to be truly the same entity as the hand, I cannot possess the hand. A thing cannot possess itself. So the self cannot possess the parts in this way.

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Or, perhaps I possess my hand in the way that I possess the car. This is a case of (2) above, the possessor and the possessed as two separate entities. In addition to the impossibility of the self being a different entity from its parts, what is there in common that links the parts and the self as possessor and possessed? Just what is it that serves as the possessor of the hand? It is not the hand or any other part of the body or mind. Where is it? We can only come up with a vacuity, the emptiness of the inherent existence of such an inherently existing self.

6. The self is not inherently the mere collection of the parts of the body/mind. Perhaps the self is inherently the mere collection of the parts of the body/mind. The falsity of this one is a little harder to realize. Our sense of inherent existence of the self seems to put a little distance between the parts and the self. We seem to conceive of a bit of a gap between appropriator and appropriated, between agent and action, between "my" and "body/mind." In this alternative, all there is, is the body/mind. Why even talk about the self? There would be no need to have something called "the self" which is exactly the parts of the body/mind. Agent and action would be one. Self and body/mind would be one. The self would be redundant, and unfindable. Also, in the Middle Way schools of Buddhism that employ the Sevenfold Reasoning, it is said that the conventional self is not the parts themselves, but is posited on the basis of the parts. Based on apprehending those particular parts, a designated self is said to exist conventionally. It is not the parts, but is based on the parts. The appropriator and appropriated are slightly and subtlely different. There is room to make sense of "my life," "my actions." A self redundant with the parts cannot exist inherently.

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7. The self is not inherently the shape of the parts of the body/mind. This alternative investigates whether the self is inherently the shape of the parts of the body/mind. Can this be? According to this, self would be a physical thing. Non-physical components such as a mind and thoughts and values do not have a shape. Even though these non-physical things are not inherently the self (as we saw in (1) above), it certainly makes no sense for them to be totally irrelevant to the self, as they would be if the self were merely the shape of the parts. Also, if the self is the shape, then this allows no change in shape without a corresponding change in identity of the self. Over time the shape of the body changes. People grow, gain weight, perhaps take up yoga or weightlifting and tone up. Perhaps they lose a limb, lose their hair, become bent with age. Even in the absence of these kinds of shape changes, there are the perceptual shape changes due to changes in posture, standing vs. sitting. There are other shape changes due to the angle from which the parts are viewed. From the left or the right, from near or far, the appearance of the shape changes. The shape criterion misses the point of our conception of the inherent existence of the self, since according to that conception, the inherently existing self is able to persist through changes in shape of the parts. So the self is not inherently the shape of the parts.

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These reasonings search for the inherently existent self. If it does exist, then logically, it must be either the same as the parts of the body/mind, or different. If it is different from the parts, then there are several seemingly likely candidates proposed for what the self is and how it stands in relation to those parts. But in every case, the self was looked for and not found. What was found instead was an absence, a vacuity, which is the lack of this inherently existing self. The more we understand the dynamics of the Sevenfold Reasonings, the more clearly we can see how the inherently existing self cannot exist. We have the conception that things exist inherently. But upon examination, we see deeply that they cannot possibly exist in this way. There is an earth-shattering shift when this meditation is done at a level deeper than intellectual word-play. And if one refutes the object of inherent existence over and over, using the examples of different kinds of phenomena, one will see something new begin to happen. Persons and phenomena will be conceived as conventionally existent but lacking inherent existence. This is the end of the conception of inherent existence, and the end of painful and afflicted arisings such as the following:

“How could she do that to me? That is absolutely not permissible! I have done so much for her, and this is the gratitude I get!”

If these feelings are greeted with even an intellectual, inferential cognition of the emptiness of inherent existence, the sense of anger and indignation will dissolve right then and there! And should the conception of inherent existence ever come to an end, then feelings and beliefs like these will arise no more. According to the Buddhist Middle Way teachings, this is the end of suffering and the end of one’s cyclical existence.

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[1] The Sevenfold Reasoning can be purused in greater detail in two excellent books available in English. Joe Wilson's 69-page Chandrakirti's Sevenfold Reasoning: Meditation on the Selflessness of Persons. Dharmasala, India: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1980. Also, Jeffrey Hopkins' Emptiness Yoga. Ithaca, New York. Snow Lion Publications, 1995. 510 pages. Some if the images and insights in the present article are inspired by these works.

[2] Kensur Yeshey Tupden, Path to the Middle: Oral Madhyamika Philosophy, edited and translated Anne Carolyn Klein: Albany, New York: State University of New York, 1994, p. 144.
Posted by: PasserBy
Don't do anything whatsoever with the mind --
Abide in an authentic, natural state.
One's own mind, unwavering, is reality.
The key is to meditate like this without wavering;
Experience the Great [reality] beyond extremes.
In a pellucid ocean,
Bubbles arise and dissolve again.
Just so, thoughts are no different from ultimate reality.
So don't find fault; remain at ease.
Whatever arises, whatever occurs,
Don't grasp -- release it on the spot.
Appearances, sounds, and objects are one's own mind;
There's nothing except mind.
Mind is beyond the extremes of birth and death.
The nature of mind, awareness,
Uses the objects of the five senses, but
Does not wander from reality.
In the state of cosmic equilibrium
There is nothing to abandon or practice;
No meditation or post-meditation period.

~ Miranda Shaw (tr.) "Niguma: Mahamudra as Spontaneous Liberation," in Passionate Enlightenment.

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Posted by: PasserBy
Homage to the state of great bliss!
Concerning what is called Mahamudra
All things are your own mind.
Seeing objects as external is a mistaken concept;
Like a dream, they are empty of concreteness.

This mind, as well, is a mere movement of attention
That has no self-nature, being merely a gust of wind.
Empty of identity, like space.
All things, like space, are equal.

When speaking of 'Mahamudra'
It is not an entity that can be shown.
There the mind's suchness
Is itself the state of Mahamudra.

It is neither something to be corrected nor transformed,
But when anyone sees and realizes its nature
All that appears and exists is Mahamudra,
The great all-encompassing Dharmakaya.

Naturally and without contriving, allowed simply to be,
This unimagined Dharmakaya,
Letting it be without seeking is the meditation training.
But to meditate while seeking is deluded mind.

Just as with space and a magical display,
While neither cultivating nor not cultivating
How can you be separate and not separate!
This is a yogi's understanding.

All good deeds and harmful actions
Dissolve by simply knowing this nature.
The emotions are the great wisdom.
Like a jungle fire, they are the yogi's helpers.

How can there be staying or going?
What meditation is there by fleeing to a hermitage?
Without understanding this, all possible means
Never bring more than temporary liberation.

When understanding this nature, what is there to bind you?
While being undistracted from its continuity,
There is neither a composed nor an uncomposed state
To be cultivated or corrected with a remedy.

It is not made out of anything
Experience self-liberated is dharmadhatu.
Thinking self-liberated is great wisdom,
Non-dual equality is dharmakaya.

Like the continuous flow of a great river,
Whatever you do is meaningful,
This is the eternal awakened state,
The great bliss, leaving no place for samsara.

All things are empty of their own identities.
This concept fixed on emptiness has dissolved in itself.
Free of concept, holding nothing in mind,
Is in itself the path of the Buddhas.

For the most fortunate ones,
I have made these concise words of heartfelt advice.
Through this, may every single sentient being
Be established in Mahamudra.

This was given orally by the great pandita Naropa to Marpa at Pullahari.
(Translated by Erik Pema Kunsang.
Published in Songs of Naropa: Commentaries on Songs of Realization, by Thrangu Rinpoche (Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1997).

Extracted from:
The blog owner has given some insightful comments. Do visit.
Posted by: PasserBy
Oh, my Guru! The Exemplar of the View, Practice, and Action,
Pray vouchsafe me your grace, and enable me
To be absorbed in the realm of Self-nature!

For the View, Practice, Action, and Accomplishment
There are three Key-points you should know:

All the manifestation, the Universe itself, is contained in the mind;
The nature of Mind is the realm of illumination
Which can neither be conceived nor touched.
These are the Key-points of the View.

Errant thoughts are liberated in the Dharmakaya;
The awareness, the illumination, is always blissful;
Meditate in a manner of non-doing and non-effort.
These are the Key-points of Practice.

In the action of naturalness
The Ten Virtues spontaneously grow;
All the Ten Vices are thus purified.
By corrections or remedies
The Illuminating Void is never disturbed.
These are the Key-points of Action.

There is no Nirvana to attain beyond;
There is no Samsara here to renounce;
Truly to know the Self-mind
It is to be the Buddha Himself.
These are the Key-points of Accomplishment.

Reduce inwardly the Three Key-points to One.
This One is the Void Nature of Being,
Which only a wondrous Guru
Can clearly illustrate.

Much activity is of no avail;
If one sees the Simultaneously Born Wisdom,
He reaches the goal.

For all practitioners of Dharma
The preaching is a precious gem;
It is my direct experience from yogic meditation.
Think carefully and bear it in your minds,
Oh, my children and disciples.

Extract from:
Posted by: PasserBy
Mahamudra, the royal way, is free
from every word and sacred symbol.
For you alone, beloved Naropa,
this wonderful song springs forth from Tilopa
as spontaneous friendship that never ends.
The completely open nature
of all dimensions and events
is a rainbow always occurring
yet never grasped.
The way of Mahamudra
creates no closure.
No strenuous mental effort
can encounter this wide open way.
The effortless freedom of awareness
moves naturally along it.
As space is always freshly appearing
and never filled,
so the mind is without limits
and ever aware.
Gazing with sheer awareness
into sheer awareness,
habitual, abstract structures melt
into the fruitful springtime of Buddhahood.
White clouds that drift through blue sky,
changing shape constantly,
have no root, no foundation, no dwelling;
nor do changing patterns of thought
that float through the sky of mind.
When the formless expanse of awareness
comes clearly into view,
obsession with thought forms
ceases easily and naturally.
As within the openness of universal space
shapes and colors are spontaneously forming,
although space has no color or form,
so within the expanse of awareness
realms, relations and values are arising,
although awareness possesses
no positive or negative characteristics.
As the darkness of night,
even were it to last a thousand years,
could not conceal the rising sun,
so countless ages of conflict and suffering
cannot conceal the innate radiance of Mind.
Although philosophers explain
the transparent openness of appearances
as empty of permanent characteristics
and completely indeterminable,
this universal indeterminacy
can itself never be determined.
Although sages report
the nature of awareness to be luminosity,
this limitless radiance cannot be contained
within any language or sacramental system.
Although the very essence of Mind
is to be void of either subjects or objects,
it tenderly embraces all life within its womb.
To realize this inexpressible truth,
do not manipulate mind or body
but simply open into transparency
with relaxed, natural grace
intellect at ease in silence,
limbs at rest in stillness
like hollow bamboos.
Neither breathing in nor breathing out
with the breath of habitual thinking,
allow the mind to be at peace
in brilliant wakefulness.
This is the royal wealth of Mahamudra,
no common coin of any realm.
Beloved Naropa, this treasure of Buddhahood
belongs to you and to all beings.
Obsessive use of meditative disciplines
or perennial study of scripture and philosophy
will never bring forth this wonderful realization,
this truth which is natural to awareness,
because the mind that desperately desires
to reach another realm or level of experience
inadvertently ignores the basic light
that constitutes all experience.
The one who fabricates
any division in consciousness
betrays the friendship of Mahamudra.
Cease all activity that separates,
abandon even the desire to be free from desires
and allow the thinking process to rise and fall
smoothly as waves on a shoreless ocean.
The one who never dwells in abstraction
and whose only principle
is never to divide or separate
upholds the trust of Mahamudra.
The one who abandons craving
for authority and definition,
and never becomes one-sided
in argument or understanding,
alone perceives the authentic meaning
hidden in the ancient scriptures.
In the blissful embrace of Mahamudra,
negative viewpoints and their instincts
are burned without remainder, like camphor.
Through the open door of Mahamudra,
the deluded state of self-imprisonment
is easily left behind forever.
Mahamudra is the torch of supreme liberty
shining forth through all conscious beings.
Those beings constituted by awareness
who try to ignore, reject or grasp awareness
inflict sorrow and confusion upon themselves
like those who are insane.
To be awakened from this madness,
cultivate the gracious friendship
of a sublime sage of Mahamudra,
who may appear to the world as mad.
When the limited mind
enters blessed companionship
with limitless Mind,
indescribable freedom dawns.
Selfish or limited motivations
create the illusory sense of imprisonment
and scatter seeds of further delusion.
Even genuine religious teaching
can generate narrowness of vision.
Trust only the approach
that is utterly vast and profound.
The noble way of Mahamudra
never engages in the drama of
imprisonment and release.
The sage of Mahamudra
has absolutely no distractions,
because no war against distractions has ever been declared.
This nobility and gentleness alone,
this nonviolence of thought and action ,
is the traceless path of all Buddhas.
To walk this all-embracing way
is the bliss of Buddhahood.
Phenomena on every plane of being
are constantly arising and disappearing.
Thus they are forever fresh,
always new and inexhaustible.
Like dreams without solid substance,
they can never become rigid or binding.
The universe exists in a deep, elusive way
that can never be grasped or frozen.
Why feel obsessive desire or hatred for it,
thereby creating illusory bonds?
Renounce arbitrary, habitual views.
Go forth courageously to meditate
in the real mountain wilderness,
the wide open Mahamudra.
Transcend boundaries of kinship
by embracing all living beings
as one family of consciousness.
Remain without any compulsion
in the landscape of natural freedom:
spontaneous, generous, joyful.
When you receive the crown of Mahamudra,
all sense of rank or attainment
will quietly disappear.
Cut the root of the vine that chokes the tree,
and its clinging tendrils wither away entirely.
Sever the conventionally grasping mind,
and all bondage and desperation dissolve.

The illumination from an oil lamp
lights the room instantly,
even if it has been dark for aeons.
Mind is boundless radiance.
How can the slightest darkness
remain in the room of daily perception?
But one who clings to mental processes
cannot awaken to the radiance of Mind.
Strenuously seeking truth
by investigation and concentration,
one will never appreciate
the unthinkable simplicity and bliss
that abide at the core.
To uncover this fertile ground,
cut through the roots of complexity
with the sharp gaze of naked awareness,
remaining entirely at peace,
transparent and content.
You need not expend great effort
nor store up extensive spirtual power.
Remain in the flow of sheer awareness.
Mahamudra neither accepts nor rejects
any current of energy, internal or external.
Since the ground consciousness
is never born into any realm of being,
nothing can add to or subtract from it.
Nothing can obstruct or stain it.
When awareness rests here,
the appearance of division and conflict
disappears into original reality.
The twin emotions of anxiety and arrogance
vanish into the void from which they came.
Supreme knowing knows
no separate subject or object.
Supreme action acts resourcefully
without any array of instruments.
Supreme attainment attains the goal
without past, future or present.
The dedicated practitioner
experiences the spiritual way
as a turbulent mountain stream,
tumbling dangerously among boulders.
When maturity is reached,
the river flows smoothly and patiently
with the powerful sweep of the Ganges.
Emptying into the ocean of Mahamudra,
the water becomes ever-expanding light
that pours into great Clear Light
without direction, destination,
division, distinction or description.

Extracted from:
Posted by: Soh

Emptiness is another kind of nondual teaching. Emptiness teachings demonstrate that the "I," as well as everthing else, lacks inherent existence. The notion of lacking inherent existence has several senses. In one sense, empty things lack essence, which means that there is no intrinsic quality that makes a thing what it is. In another sense, empty things lack independence, which means that a thing does not exist on its own, apart from conditions or relations. A great deal of what one studies in the emptiness teachings demonstrates that these two senses amount to the same thing.

Emptiness teachings are found mainly in Buddhism, but there are some surprising parallels in the work of Western thinkers such as Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535–475 BCE) Protagoras of Abdera (480-411 BCE), Gorgias of Leontini, Sicily (485-380 BCE), Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360-270 BCE), Sextus Empiricus (c. 160-210 AD), Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE), Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (c. 35-100 AD), Michel de Montaigne, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Derrida, W.V.O. Quine, Wilfred Sellars, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Donald Davidson, Richard Rorty, Nelson Goodman, Richard Lanham, John D. Caputo, Richard Bernstein and many others.


According to Buddhism, when emptiness is realized, peace ensues. One's experience is transformed so that the self, other beings and the world no longer seem like intrinsically compartmentalized objects, distinct and separate from each other. The self and all things are experienced as free.

If the selflessness of phenomena is analyzed
and if this analysis is cultivated,
It causes the effect of attaining nirvana.
Through no other cause does one come to peace.
(The Samadhiraja Sutra)

One who is in harmony with emptiness
is in harmony with all things.
(Nagarjuna, Treatise on the Middle Way 24.14)

How Is Emptiness Nondual?

The most common connotation of "nonduality" is "oneness" or "singularity." Many teachings state that everything is actually awareness; those teachings are nondual in the "oneness" sense in which there are no two things.

But there is another sense of "nonduality." Instead of nonduality as "oneness," it's nonduality as "free from dualistic extremes." This entails freedom from the pairs of metaphysical dualisms such as essentialism/nihilism, existence/non-existence, reification/annihilation, presence/absence, or intrinsicality/voidness, etc. These pairs are dualisms in this sense: if you experience things in the world in terms of one side of the pair, you will experience things in the world in terms of the other side as well. If some things seem like they truly exist, then other things will seem like they truly don't exist. You will experience your own self to truly exist, and fear that one day you will truly not exist. Emptiness teachings show how none of these pairs make sense, and free you from experiencing yourself and the world in terms of these opposites. Emptiness teachings are nondual in this sense.

For those who encounter emptiness teachings after they've become familiar with awareness teachings, it's very tempting to misread the emptiness teachings by substituting terms. That is, it's very easy to misread the emptiness teachings by seeing "emptiness" on the page and thinking to yourself, "awareness, consciousness, I know what they're talking about."

Early in my own investigations I began with this substitution in mind. With this misreading, I found a lot in the emptiness teachings to be quite INcomprehensible! So I started again, laying aside the notion that "emptiness" and "awareness" were equivalent. I tried to let the emptiness teachings speak for themselves. I came to find that they have a subtle beauty and power, a flavor quite different from the awareness teachings. Emptiness teachings do not speak of emptiness as a true nature that underlies or supports things. Rather, it speaks of selves and things as essenceless and free.

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Emptiness in Buddhism

According to Buddhist teachings, freedom from suffering dawns when we realize that we ourselves, as well as all things, are empty.

In Buddhism, suffering is said to come from conceiving that we and the world have fixed, independent and unchangeable natures that exist on their own without help from anything else. We expect that there is a true way that self and world truly are and ought to be. These expectations are unrealistic and prevent us from granting things the freedom to come and go and change. We like pleasant things to abide permanently, and unpleasant things to never occur. We experience suffering when we actually encounter comings, goings and change. Suffering often takes the form of anger, indignation, existential anxiety, and even a sense that, as they say in TV sitcoms, "something is wrong with this picture."

But when we deeply realize that we and the world are empty, we no longer have unrealistic expectations. We find peace and freedom in the midst of flux.

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What Does Emptiness Mean?

What are things empty of? According to the Buddhist teachings, things are empty of inherent existence.

Being empty of inherent existence means that there is no essential, fixed or independent way in which things exist. Things have no essential nature. There is no way things truly are, in and of themselves. We will investigate the notion of inherent existence in more detail below.

Different Buddhist schools or tenet systems have different ways of characterizing emptiness; they have different ways of helping students reduce suffering. My characterization of emptiness adheres somewhat to the Tibetan Gelug-ba school of Prasangika or "Consequentialist" Madhyamika. The term "prasangika" is Sanskrit for "consequence." The "consequence" designation comes from this school's method of debate and refutation, which follows Nagarjuna's style in his Treatise.

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The Dialectical Approach

The Consequentialists do not argue for substantive positions, but proceed dialectically. They argue by drawing out the unwanted and unexpected logical consequences entailed by their interlocutors' positions. The Consequentialist style of refutation is as follows: while in debate over metaphysical issues with an interlocutor, the Consequentialist refutes the interlocutor not by negating the interlocutor's statement with a counter-statement (e.g., that matter exists, not Mind), but by finding an inconsistency or a reductio ad absurdum among the interlocutor's statements. This allows Consequentialism to be positionless with respect to issues, most notably on questions of existence and non-existence.

Imagine a philosopher coming up to a man who is sitting quietly against a tree, and telling the man that the tree truly exists because it is of the nature of Mind, and only Mind really exists. The sitting man is a consequentialist. He doesn't have an opinion on the existence or non-existence of Mind or the tree, and doesn't wish to convince the philosopher of a contrary position; he's just sitting there. So he won't offer a counter-claim or argue that the tree really doesn't exist as Mind. Instead, he will draw out more statements from the philosopher until the philosopher is involved in a contradiction. Or he might show that the philosopher's assumptions entail an absurd, unwanted conclusion. Then he'll go back to sitting against the tree.

The Consequentialist school is the most thoroughgoing of the Mahayana schools in its rejection of any kind of intrinsic nature. Even though it is the school of His Holiness the current Dalai Lama, most of the Dalai Lama's public teachings are about other topics of wider interest. Emptiness teachings can get abstract and subtle, and not everyone is interested in them. But if you do find books in English on emptiness, most of them are likely to be written from the Consequentialist standpoint. You will find a list of these books in the References below.
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The Buddhist World

Thumbnail of the Buddhist World

(Click image to expand in a separate window)

According to the Buddhist emptiness teachings, the world is made up only of things that are "selfless" or empty. Even non-existents are empty. Non-existents would include round squares, the hairs of a turtle, etc., and inherent existence. Existents are divided into two classes, compounded things and non-compunded things.

Compounded things are said to disintegrate moment-to-moment, in a way analogous to aging. They are impermanent in this sense. Compounded things have pieces or parts and are produced from combinations of other factors. Compunded things include physical objects, colors, shapes, powers, sensations, thoughts, intentions, feelings, persons, collections, and states of being. These various things fall under the categories of Form (colors, shapes and powers), Consciousness (the sensory modalities and thinking processes), and Compositional Factors (collections and states of being).

Non-compounded things include do not distintegrate moment-to-moment. In this sense, they are said to be "permanent." There are two kinds of "permanent" existent. There are "occasional permanents," which come into existence and go out of existence. These include, for example, the space inside the cup and the emptiness of the cup. Even though the cup is compounded and consists of parts (such as the rim, the handle, the walls, etc.), the space inside the cup and the emptiness of the cup are not compounded and do not consist of parts. Also, the emptiness of the cup and the space inside the cup stop existing when the cup stops existing. There are also "Non-occasional permanents," such as emptiness in general and space in general. These are the referents of general concepts, and exist as long as any objects or relations exist.

For the student of emptiness, it is not important to remember or utilize this scheme or employ these categories in one's day-to-day use. What is important is to learn the lessons taught by this scheme:

  • According to the Buddhist world-view, everything that exists is said to be empty
  • For each thing, there is also the corresponding emptiness of that thing, because to exist is to be empty
  • Inherent existence falls under the category of non-existent things

This last point is especially important when it comes to meditating on emptiness. When you meditate on emptiness, what you actually look for is inherent existence. Instead of finding inherent existence, you will find the lack of inherent existence. This lack itself is emptiness.

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Emptiness and Dependent Arising

According to the Mahayana paths of Buddhism that emphasize the notion, emptiness is what the early Buddhist sutras were pointing to when they presented the notion of pratītyasamutpāda (Sanskrit) or paticcasamuppāda (Pali), namely "dependent arising":

There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones notices:
When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn't, that isn't.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.
(Anguttara Nikaya X.92; Vera Sutta)

Centuries later, Nagarjuna (2nd century C.E.) became the preeminent expositor of emptiness teachings. His Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Treatise on the Middle Way) is today considered the most profound and sophisticated exposition of emptiness in Buddhism. The text provides scores of arguments for the conclusion that to propose any kind of inherent existence or metaphysical essence involves the proponent in logical contradictions and incoherence. Chapter 24 actually contains two specific verses that characterize the notion of emptiness itself:

Whatever is dependently co-arisen,
That is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way. (Treatise, 24.18)

Something that is not dependently arisen,
Such a thing does not exist.
Therefore a nonempty thing
Does not exist. (Treatise, 24.19)

In verse 18, Nagarjuna sets up a three-way equivalence:

emptiness : dependent arising : verbal convention

and identifies this equivalence with the Middle Way. The Middle Way is a form of nonduality that is free from the dualistic opposites of essentialism and nihilism. Even emptiness itself is characterized as being empty. It is empty because, instead of having the inherent nature of being dependent arising, it is merely "explained to be" dependent arising.

In verse 19, Nagarjuna states that whatever exists, is in some sense dependently arisen, that is, empty. If something is not dependently arisen, then it is not empty. If it is not empty, then it does not exist. And of course even things we would normally consider as non-existent, such as unicorns and round squares, are also empty.

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Conventional Existence

So how do things exist if they don’t exist inherently? According to the Buddhist teachings, things exist in an everyday, non-inherent, dependent way. Our mode of existence is dependent on many things, such as the causes and conditions that give rise to us, the components that make us up, and the ways we are cognized and categorized. According to the teachings, we are not separate and independent entities, but rather we exist in dependence on webworks of relations and transactions.

For example, we can say that a bottle of milk exists in a dependent, conventional way because you can go to the store, lift the bottle of milk off the shelf, pay for it, and bring it home. It exists in dependence on its surroundings, its having been manufactured, and in relation to the actions of the store employees and yourself. The bottle of milk is not found to exist independently of these things.

It is taught that all things are empty and dependent like this. That includes people and all other living beings, as well as consciousness and unconsciousness; pleasure and pain; time and space; cause and effect; good and bad; logic and math; language, meaning and reference; art, commerce and science; planets, boulders and bridges; unicorns and Sherlock Holmes; energy, thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Whatever exists is said to exist conventionally, but not inherently.

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Emptiness Itself is Empty

Even emptiness is empty. For example, the emptiness of the bottle of milk does not exist inherently. Rather, it exists in a dependent way. The emptiness of the bottle of milk is dependent upon its basis (the bottle of milk). It is also dependent upon having been designated as emptiness. As we saw above, this is alluded to in Nagarjuna’s Treatise, verse 24.18.

Understood this way, emptiness is not a substitute term for awareness. Emptiness is not an essense. It is not a substratum or background condition. Things do not arise out of emptiness and subside back into emptiness. Emptiness is not a quality that things have, which makes them empty. Rather, to be a thing in the first place, is to be empty.

It is easy to misunderstand emptiness by idealizing or reifying it by thinking that it is an absolute, an essence, or a special realm of being or experience. It is not any of those things. It is actually the opposite. It is merely the way things exist, which is without essence or self-standing nature or a substratum of any kind. Here is a list characteristics of emptiness, to help avoid some of the frequent misunderstandings about emptiness, according to the Buddhist Consequentialists:

  • Emptiness is not a substance
  • Emptiness is not a substratum or background
  • Emptiness is not light
  • Emptiness is not consciousness or awareness
  • Emptiness is not the Absolute
  • Emptiness does not exist on its own
  • Objects do not consist of emptiness
  • Objects do not arise from emptiness
  • Emptiness of the "I" does not negate the "I"
  • Emptiness is not the feeling that results when no objects are appearing to the mind
  • Meditating on emptiness does not consist of quieting the mind
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Inherent Existence

Inherent existence is the kind of existence we uncritically think things have, existing under their own power, without help from anything else. Our sense that things exist in this way is the root of our suffering, according to the Buddhist teachings. We have a sense of this inherency partly due to how we think of language. We think that words are labels pointing straight to pre-formatted, already-individuated things in the world outside of language or cognition. This tendency to feel inherency can even be intensified if we follow essentialist philosophies such as Platonism or materialist realism, which hold that things exist according to their own essential nature, independent of anything else. Our natural tendency to feel this inherency is the root of suffering, according to the emptiness teachings. Actually, being able to locate and isolate this sense of inherent existence in yourself is good news. The more clearly you can grasp the sense of inherent existence, the more powerfully you will be able to realize emptiness when you do your meditations.

What does the sense of inherent existence feel like? We will say much more about this later, but briefly, it feels like something is really there, just like that, being what it really is. You've had a very definite sense of inherent existence if you've ever wondered whether something or someone has been given the "correct" name! Or could it perhaps have been given the wrong name??

According to the emptiness teachings, inherent existence is the kind of existence that things do not have. Things actually lack inherent existence, because they exist as dependent arisings. This dependency is the lack of inherent existence, which in turn, is their emptiness.

The relation between inherent existence, emptiness and dependent arising can be seen through the translation of the Sanskrit or Pali terms for depending arising: pratītyasamutpāda (Sanskrit) or paticcasamuppāda (Pali). The Sanskrit components are individually translated as follows:

Pratītya = Meeting, Relying or Depending + Samut = Out of + Pad = To go, to fall

Notice the three English terms for Pratītya, Meeting, Arising, and Depending. These have been given three different kinds of meanings by the consequentialist writers (see H.H. the Dalai Lama, 2000, pp. 35ff in References), so as to cover all the variations of dependent arising. These kinds of dependence are explained as follows:

Thumbnail of the Inherent Existence chart
  • MEETING - The coming together of causes and conditions in time. In Western philosophical terms, this might be referred to as causal depedency. The cessation of cause comes into contact with the onset of effect within a network of supporting conditions. Examples would include one billiard ball striking another, or the sperm and ovum coming into contact at human conception. Because of uncritically thinking that things and people exist inherently, we can sometimes be surprised by the effects of the "Meeting"-style dependent arising. An example would be the surprise at the aging process if we see someone for the first time after a long absence. This is the least subtle of the three types of dependent arising.

  • RELYING - The way a thing depends on its pieces and parts. In Western philosophical terms, this might be referred to as mereological depedency. The pieces and parts of an object are sometimes called its "basis of designation." According to the emptiness teachings, we would see roots, a stalk, branches and leaves, and based on this, designate the object as a "tree." These various parts are the tree's basis of designation. Being a tree is dependent upon the basis of designation. The tree cannot be said to exist if its basis of designation did not exist. For example, if you have a car in the parking lot over a long period of time, and vandals come and steal pieces here and there over several months, there will come a certain point at which there won't be enough parts for you to call it a car. This is how the car depends upon its pieces and parts, or its basis of designation. Even though this seems reasonable if we think about it like this, it's never theless easy to think that the true car exists in a way apart from the basis of designation, as though there were a "true car" that existed in an ideal realm of some sort. This sense that the car exists without depending on its basis of desgination is the sense of the inherent existence of the car. This is more subtle than "Meeting"-style dependence.

  • DEPENDING - The way a thing depends on being designated by convention, language, or cognition. In Western philosophical terms, this might be referred to as conceptual depedency. Did Mount Everest exist before it was named? Did sub-atomic particles exist as such before they were ever thought of? Would a "rose by any other name" still be a rose? We look at the shape, size and structure of a natural formation of the earth, and call it a "mountain." According to the Consequentialist emptiness teachings, we would say that the basis of designation (formations of earth) existed, but the "mountain" as such did not exist until it was designated by the process of convention and cognition. According to emptiness teachings, it makes no sense to say that something exists if it was never designated or cognized. Nevertheless, it seems to us that things are always there regardless of cognition, and that cognition is a process of mere neutral discovery of what was pre-formed and present all along. This feeling of independence from designation or pre-formed existence is not only an easy feeling to get hold of, it might even seem like common sense to most people. This is another kind of sense of the inherent existence of things. But the emptiness teachings question this. This critique, this "Depending"-style of dependency (as opposed to the "Meeting" and "Relying" types of dependency) will be familar to those who have studied Advaita-Vedanta, Mind-Only Buddhist teachings, or the philosophy of Idealism. The emptiness teachings are not themselves a form of Vedanta or idealism (because emptiness teachings posit that physical objects do exist externally and physically), but they agree with the views which hold that uncognized objects do not exist. This is the most subtle of the three types of dependent arising.

According to Buddhism, anything that exists exists conventionally, through the network of dependent arisings, that is through Meeting, Relying or Depending. Even emptiness exists in this way. But we think and feel that things exist without these dependencies. For something to inherently exist, it would have to exist without any dependencies at all. It would exist without Meeting, Relying or Depending. It is the job of emptiness meditation to find inherent existence, to ascertain whether it exists as we feel it does.

Other terms for inherent existence, gathered from Buddhist and Western sources, would include the following:

  • the reality of the thing irrespective of culture or language or human consciousness
  • objective existence
  • independent existence
  • true essence
  • Platonic essence
  • real existence
  • ontological existence
  • the thing as it really is
  • the thing in-itself
  • the is-ness of the thing
  • beingness
  • actuality
  • thinghood
  • perseity
  • self-sufficient being
  • self-inclusive being
  • essential being
  • instantiation in reality
  • subject of ontological commitment
  • the thing’s entitification
  • the way it really is, regardless of what anyone thinks
  • the reality of the thing as opposed to its appearance
  • what science will eventually discover the thing to be
  • the way God intends the thing to be
  • "it is what it is"
  • "it’s like that, 'cause that’s the way it is" (as the rappers Run DMC used to say)
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Compassion and Emptiness

Compassion facilitates the realization of emptiness. Although realizing emptiness is said by Buddhist Consequentialists to be the key to the end of suffering, it nevertheless occurs in context. It is not the first thing one learns. In many Buddhist contexts, there is a teaching emphasis on the importance of developing compassion before learning the emptiness teachings. Compassion in these contexts is explained as the spontaneous and sincere wish to help other beings alleviate suffering. Having this wish not only increases one's own joy, but also the depth of one's insight. Emphasizing compassion early on serves as a preventive measure against two ways to go wrong with the emptiness teachings.

  1. Compassion moves the practitioner beyond a merely memorized or intellectual understanding of the emptiness teachings. Compassion helps one's realization become global and holistic.

  2. Compassion is an antidote to learning the emptiness teachings for selfish, egocentric reasons. When one engages in a difficult dialectic like the emptiness teaching for selfish reasons, the result is counterproductive. Emptiness teachings are very subtle. The most common side-effect of misunderstanding emptiness is a crippling sense of nihilism. A nihilistic outlook makes joy, compassion and emptiness very difficult to realize. One doesn't experience an increase in joy and a decrease in suffering. Instead, one experiences a stiffening of the mind and a closure of the heart. But compassion opens the mind and heart. It allows one to "get out of the way." It makes the emptiness teachings easier to understand, easier to realize holistically, and easier to integrate into one's life. Compassion enables the realization of emptiness.

Realizing emptiness facilitates compassion. The effects run the other direction too. A greater understanding of emptiness enables greater compassion. The more strongly one realizes that one's self and other selves are empty of inherent existence, the less one experiences an essential distinction between one's self and another. It becomes harder to place one's own happiness above that of others. It becomes easier to act in such a way that others are benefitted, not just one's self.

Contextual clues. There is a clue to this traditional placement of emptiness later in the learning stream. In the various lists of Buddhist spiritual virtues called "perfections" or "paramitas" (Sanskrit), there are 6 or 10 items. The "perfection of wisdom" refers to the realization of emptiness or the lack of an essential self. But the perfection of wisdom is never the first item in these lists! It is usually number 4 or number 6. Depending on the list, the perfection of wisdom is preceded by the perfections of: generosity, virtue, renunciation, discipline, patience, tolerance, diligence, and one-pointed concentration.

For example, here is a Theravada list from the Pali Canon of Buddhist scriptures:

  1. Dāna: generosity
  2. Sīla: virtue, morality, proper conduct
  3. Nekkhamma: renunciation
  4. Paññā: wisdom, insight
  5. Viriya: energy, diligence, vigor, effort
  6. Khanti: patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
  7. Sacca: truthfulness, honesty
  8. Adhiṭṭhāna: determination, resolution
  9. Mettā: loving-kindness
  10. Upekkhā: equanimity, serenity

Here is a Mahayana list:

  1. Dāna: generosity
  2. Śīla: virtue, morality, discipline, proper conduct
  3. Kṣānti: patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
  4. Vīrya: energy, diligence, vigor, effort
  5. Dhyāna: one-pointed concentration, contemplation
  6. Prajñā: wisdom, insight

I find it interesting that the Mahayana tradition (Nagarjuna's tradition) places more emphasis on the importance of realizing emptiness, and also locates its paramita later in the list, with more perfections before it.

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How to Realize Emptiness

So how does one actually realize that all things, self and world, are empty? In a nutshell, the realization of emptiness of an object is accomplished through trying to find and validate that object's inherent existence. One narrows down the options and looks everywhere where the object's inherent existence might be found. What happens is that one fails to find inherent existence. What one finds is the simple lack of inherent existence. This lack is the thing's emptiness.

According to the Buddhist path, one trains to stabilize the attention, abandon harmful actions, take up helpful actions, generate patience and compassion, and meditate on the nature of self and other. These various activities are integrated together to assist the practitioner in generating the insight that things are empty. Emptiness can be realized much more quickly this way than if the person began from scratch with emptiness studies themselves. Realizing emptiness is holistic and not merely an intellectual event. Therefore, a compassionate heart is said to enable the patience, spirit of generosity and flexibility of mind and that are required by the very subtle and tricky emptiness meditations.

The form of Buddhism that places the most emphasis on emptiness meditation is probably the Prasangikga Madhyamika. Once the practitioner has the spontaneous desire for compassion and a yearning to hear the emptiness teachings, then the traditional teacher will begin.

There are several stages in the study of emptiness, which are integrated into much of the Buddhist path itself:

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  1. Learn valid establishment – You learn the conventional ways that phenomena are established, i.e., how belief in things is justified. In Buddhism, this can be by learning the Buddhist teachings themselves. They can include teachings on cause and effect, psychology, epistemology, karma, interpersonal relations, compassion, the development of attention and analytical skills. Learning valid establishment prevents the investigator from falling into nihilism, which is the denial of conventional existence along with the denial of inherent existence. Emptiness meditation saves conventional existence, and refutes only inherent existence.

  2. Ascertain the object of refutation – You concentrate to get a strong sense of inherent existence. In this preparatory stage, you familiarize yourself with the difference between conventional existence (which exists, and which is demonstrated by valid establishment) and inherent existence (which we feel exists, but which the meditations prove does not exist). According to the Buddhist teachings, this is the issue in a nutshell, and this is the most challenging stage. Ascertaining the object of entailment can actually require months go get clear about. But the clearer you are on what inherent existence must be, the more able you will be to recognize it should you actually find it in the meditations later, and the more thorough your realization will be.

  3. Determine the entailment – You familiarize yourself with the overall logic of emptiness meditation. The logic is as follows: "Either things exist inherently or they don’t. If things have inherent existence, I should be able to find inherent existence by looking everywhere. But I can’t find inherent existence; I find only its absence, its non-existence. Therefore it doesn’t exist."

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    In the case of the inherent existence of my self, the logic would go as follows:

    1. My self either has inherent existence or it is empty.

    2. If my self has inherent existence, I should be able to find it by looking everywhere it could possibly be.

    3. I have looked everywhere the inherent existence of my self could possibly be, and cannot find it anywhere.

    4. Therefore, my self is empty.

  4. Conduct the emptiness reasonings – These are the meditations themselves. They are called "reasonings" because they involve inference and entailment. They involve a form of logic, and are often thought of as a form of “analytic meditation.” You go through the steps of the emptiness reasonings in a full-fledged, holistic way, trying to put yourself fully into each stage. There are many kinds of emptiness reasoning. One of the simplest to understand is Chandrakirti’s Sevenfold Reasoning. It is easier to learn the stages of the reasoning by applying it to something neutral, such as a car. When the steps are familiar, you apply them to your self, where they are likely to have a greater effect, and the realization will prove to be more intense. The following is an overview of Chandrakirti’s Sevenfold Reasoning, as applied to a chariot:

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    Introduction: If the chariot exists inherently, I will be able to find it somewhere in or around its parts.

    1. Is the inherently existent chariot exactly the same as its parts? No, I don't find the inherently existent chariot as equal to its parts. Instead, I find its absence, its nonexistence.

    2. Is it totally different from its parts? No, I don't find the inherently existent chariot apart from its parts. Instead, I find its absence, its nonexistence.

    3. Is it dependent upon its parts? No, I don't find the inherently existent chariot as dependent upon its parts. Instead, I find its absence, its nonexistence.

    4. Is it such that the parts are dependent upon it? No, I don't find the inherently existent chariot such that its parts are dependent upon it. Instead, I find its absence, its nonexistence.

    5. Is it the possessor of its parts? No, I don't find the inherently existent chariot as the possessor of its parts. Instead, I find its absence, its nonexistence.

    6. Is it the mere collection of its parts? No, I don't find the inherently existent chariot as the collection of its parts. Instead, I find its absence, its nonexistence.

    7. Is it the mere shape of its parts? No, I don't find the inherently existent chariot as the shape of its parts. Instead, I find its absence, its nonexistence.

    Conclusion: Therefore the chariot doesn’t exist inherently. It is empty, existing not inherently, but conventionally only.

    For a more detailed look at Chandrakirti’s Sevenfold Reasoning, see "Emptiness Meditation - Another Kind of Self-Inquiry"

  5. Review the relation between emptiness and valid establishment – You reflect on how the emptiness of your self and the emptiness of other beings and things in the world allows all of these existents to move, change, and interact with each other. If things had fixed and independent nature, as we often feel they do, then they would not be able to change. For example, if a tree had an essential nature as something containing 106 branches and 2,196 leaves, then if it lost even one leaf, it would be definition not be that particular tree any more. If we, for example, had a fixed nature as a person with just these physical and psychological characteristics, then we could never become happier more mature, or more slender without violating these characteristics and becoming by definition another person.

The Pivotal Step:
Ascertaining the Object of Refutation

This step is pivotal, because until we identify what we're planning to refute, our meditations will be operating blindly. They won't hit the target. We will be refuting the wrong thing, which will lead to either eternalism or nihilism. This step is also very subtle, and can take months.

Ascertaining the object of refutation means to become very clear about our conception of inherent existence. We know from hearing the teachings that nothing actually does exist inherently. But we think things do exist inherently. It's only by focusing on the conception of inherent existence that we can direct our meditations so as not to refute too little (and leave some inherent existence un-refuted, leading to essentialism), and not to refute too much (and refute some aspects of conventional existence, leading to nihilism). Just how does ascertaining the object of refutation work? As follows:

  1. We examine our feelings and thoughts to isolate our conception of inherent existence (explained more below).
  2. We use our conception of inherent existence as a pointer. This pointer leads us to a sort of claim that the self and other objects seem to be making. They seem to be claiming to exist on their own, independently from everything else. Even before doing the emptiness meditations themselves, we know from hearing the teachings that nothing is supposed to exist in this way. These objects are making a false claim, and now we are able to see this false claim up close and clearly. We have confidence that our meditations will be successful, since the teachings tell us that they have been proven to work for generations of meditators.
  3. Armed with our confidence and clear view of the claim of inherent existence, we disprove the claim using the emptiness meditations. We demonstrate to ourselves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the claim is false and unwarranted. This step is the realization of emptiness. It occurs first inferentially, then directly.
  4. We experience the aftereffects of the realization, in which our tendency to feel the conception of inherent existence diminishes until it is eradicated. This is the end of suffering.

  5. Lotus

    Experiencing self, other and world as empty is to joyfully experience one's place in a light, free, open-ended, interpenetrating webwork of relations and dependencies. Lightness and joy come from no longer feeling as though reality has or needs a foundation. One no longer suffers from existential commitments, yearnings, and anxieties. Life and death are freed up. Nothing seems ultimately stiff, frozen, apart, separate, or unchangeable. There are no more conceptions of an inherently existing self that exists on its own yet needs to be defended, propped up, aggrandized, and pleasured forever. There are no more conceptions of a metaphysical ground underlying existence that can fulfill you if found or frustrate you if not found. Anxieties pertaining to objectivity and ultimacy have ceased. This opens the heart to the radical contingency of all beings, and brings on the sweet, precious desire and commitment to see them free from suffering as well.

    Experience becomes holistic and open-textured, like a web with content as well as a periphery. A spider web and Indra's Net are traditional examples. One never stands apart from the web beholding it from somewhere else. Instead, one has a deep recognition of one's self and one's viewpoint as contingent and dependent on weblike aspects and relations. The web changes whenever something new, whether coarse or subtle, enters at any point. The new element enters by becoming contextualized by the web. At the same time, all the elements of the web are recontextualized to at least some tiny extent by the new element. Nothing is experienced as standing alone, granular, lump-like, or disconnected from other things.

    The experience of self and world as empty deepens over time. One familiarizes oneself increasingly with emptiness and its many effects and ramifications, which include compassion. According to Buddhist teachings, realizing and living emptiness is closely related to the classic spiritual desiderata or "paramitas" (Sanskrit). Specific lists differ, but a common Mahayana list of the paramitas with ten members is: generosity, morality, patience, perseverance, concentration, wisdom, method, wishes, power, exalted or perfect (omniscient) wisdom. Number six in the list is the wisdom of emptiness/dependent arising. This is the insight that neither the self nor anything else has a fixed, permanent, foundational, non-contextual or independent essence. The Buddhist practitioner practices all the virtues. Each one helps deepen the others. Numbers (1) - (5) serve as causes and preparation for (6); and (6) serves as a cause for the deepening of the others. Numbers (1) - (5) prepare the mind the the subtle and powerful realization of (6). Number (6) allows the practitioner to practice (1) - (5) without greed, aversion, clinging or objectification.

    In the Mahayana schools of Buddhism, one continues this process until full Buddhahood is attained, which can take eons. According to the Tibetan Gelug-ba tradition, there are levels and layers, which one is able to pass through primarily by meditating on emptiness. It is possible to reach freedom from suffering in one lifetime, but full Buddhahood takes longer! The levels begin (i) when emptiness is first studied, and continue (ii) when emptiness is first realized inferentially. This is a watershed point. In meditation the practitioner experiences that the object of meditation does not exist inherently. One becomes suspicious and begins a healthy doubt that the world exists the way one's existing essentialist views claim. One feels that the self and the world might not exist as they have seemed to, and one wishes to investigate further. Already there is a certain light, decentered feeling that inspires one to meditate further.

    After more a lot more meditation one gets to the point at which (iii) emptiness is realized directly. This is another watershed point. At this point, the realization is a nondual experience unaccompanied by words, images, argumentation, inference, or a felt split between subject and object. The target that one sat down to meditate about actually loses its distinctness during the meditation; there is no imagery dividing one's putative meditative target from other things. When one rises from the meditation, one need only turn the mind to any object to know that it is empty. These objects include the self, thought, language, all aspects of the path, the Four Noble Truths, and even emptiness itself. One needn't conduct an inference specifically about an object in order to know that it is empty. After realizing emptiness directly, one may continute to meditate on emptiness in order to enrich insights into the variety and subtlety of the dependencies and interrelations among things. For many people, this is a part of their deepest life's interest, for others it is an ongoing part of the spiritual path they feel drawn to. But the sense of metaphysical anxiety - is gone. The sense of feeling alienated from a reality existing as though across a chasm - is gone. The sense of a solid, substantial, unified separate self (as well as other objects) existing on their own without relying on conceptual posits - is gone. The puzzle one might have felt about whether there were exceptions to the emptiness dialectic ("Are all things empty or are there exceptions that maybe I don't know about?") - is gone.

    At this point, all the sufferings and existential anxieties coming from clinging, aversion, and essentialist views of self and life come to a peaceful halt, their causes having ceased. According to the Tibetan Gelug-ba scheme, one does not stop here! As one lives life, one continues to meditate on emptiness. Why? There is a further goal. It is said that even though the obstructions to freedom from suffering have ceased, the obstructions to omniscience have not ceased. Objects still appear to the senses as though inherently existent even though the mind knows better. One's senses are not undeceived yet, but one's mind has an irreversible peace and clarity that the self and objects in the world are empty, arising dependently. According to the Tibetan Gelug-ba scheme, the practitioner meditates on emptiness and practices the other parts of the path until (iv) one by one, she advances through the Ten Bodhisattva Stages until (v) with omniscience and perfect development of all the paramitas, full Buddhahood is attained.

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    Western Emptiness Teachings

    Coming soon

    Slideshow on Western emptiness teachings from Jacques Derrida and Colin M. Turbayne

    This is from a presentation I gave in a Western Emptiness class at the Nalanda Bodhi Center in New York in 2008.

    One of the ways we are encouraged to treat the world as inherently existent is due to the Modernist, post-Descartes habit of seeing the world as a geometric or mechanical system. It seems we are looking out of a kind of watchtower, gazing onto a world. How can one not feel essentially separate if they seem to be inside something looking out onto a world that is defined to be across a metaphysical gap? Emptiness teachings provide many ways to reduce the power of this refute the power of this habit by challenging its presuppositions and providing alternate ways of experiencing.

    Both Derrida and Turbayne suggest seeing the world as language. This is a lot more holistic and organic. It removes the feeling of a metaphysical gap that one usually gets from seeing the world as a mechanical system, and also does a better job of explaining things like illusion and other sensory oddities.

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