The Compatibility of Dependent Arising and Emptiness




In recent commentary on the ninth chapter (Wisdom) of Shāntideva’s Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life,[1] Tara Institute’s resident teacher, the Venerable Geshe Doga stressed how we need “a good understanding of that which is the crux of the Prāsaṅgika view.”

As exemplification the  Guru Puja was quoted:

Samsara and nirvana lack even an atom of true existence
While cause and effect and dependent arising are infallible.
I seek your blessings to discern the import of Nagarjuna’s intent–
That these two are complementary and not contradictory.

 This single verse Geshe Doga explained “expresses the ultimate view” as presented by “the forerunners [trailblazers] of the Prasangika view: Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti, as well as the great scholars such as Shantideva who followed them.” He then described the profound way in which this view simultaneously and mutually established the manner in which “beings and the environment exist in an illusory manner while being empty of inherent existence”:

When phenomena are seen as being empty of inherent existence, that enables the establishment of actions and activities as being generated and so forth, in an illusory manner. The point being presented here is that the understanding of emptiness and the understanding of the interdependent manner are not contradictory, but rather, complementary. As Lama Tsong Khapa mentioned, it is at this point that one’s understanding of the ultimate view is thoroughly established.

Understanding the empty nature of phenomena actually relates to subtle illusory or subtle conventional truth.[2] Through not understanding this essential point, other schools take the wrong turn and establish illusory truth as being inherently existent. According to these other schools, if things lack inherent existence then that would negate all existence.

It is essential to have the correct view of emptiness. If one is not able to establish the interdependent nature of all phenomena, and thus the illusory truth or existence of phenomena, then there is a danger of completely negating the existence of all phenomena and that is where one would fall into the extreme of nihilism.[3] So we really need to understand the non-contradictory relationship between conventional or illusionary phenomena, and emptiness.


Photo Ross Moore

After noting how “the Svatantrika-Madhyamika school posits the lack of true existence of the agent, action and activity” Geshe Doga observed that, despite this, “they are unable to establish the lack of inherent existence of the action, agent and action.”[4] He then extensively developed this point. I quote at length:

Only the Prasangika Middle Way School is able to establish, through logic and reasoning, that the agent, the action and activity lack inherent existence. There is not even an atom of inherent existence in all three. It is only the Prasangika Madhyamika School that presents the profound logic and reasoning of how the lack of inherent existence, rather than negating existence, actually establishes the existence of illusory truth – this is the unique presentation of the Prasangika Middle Way School.[5] It is in this way that one gains an understanding of subtle illusory or conventional truth. As I have presented many times in previous teachings, this has the same meaning as the lines in the Heart Sutra which say:

Form is empty; emptiness is form.

It all comes down to the same point. When the understanding of interdependent origination dawns upon oneself, it enhances the understanding of emptiness and when the understanding of emptiness dawns upon oneself, it enhances the understanding of interdependent origination. At that point, one has come to the correct understanding of the Prasangika view.

What this means is that a prime cognition establishes interdependent origination without having to rely on another prime cognition. The right view of emptiness is established when the same primary awareness or cognition that establishes interdependent origination is also able to establish the empty nature of all phenomena, and vice versa. When the prime cognition that realises emptiness is also able to establish interdependent origination, one will then have gained the correct and unmistaken understanding of the Prasangika view.

Although elaborate explanations are available to help enhance our understanding it is good to begin with a simple but correct understanding of what is being presented here. Then, based on that, one can further expand that understanding with a more elaborate explanation. So it is good to begin with this simple understanding that will shed light on the correct view.

As presented in the teachings we have this mistaken perception of the self as being inherently existence, and existing independently. This is called grasping at an inherently existent self. First, we need to understand what is that wrong conception? What does it mean to grasp at an inherently existent self?

With a good understanding of what that misconception is, we can go further. The self that is perceived by the wrong conception of grasping at a truly or inherently existent self does not exist in the way that it is perceived by that wrong conception. What does that mean? If such a self were to exist, then how would it exist? As one begins to understand the absurdity of a self that does not depend on any other factor, existing in and of itself, then the understanding of the lack of an inherently existent self begins to dawn upon oneself. One is getting closer to the correct understanding of selflessness.

When engaging with the explanations in the teachings, we may think, ‘Oh, we need to realize selflessness as a way to overcome the misconception of grasping at a truly or inherently existent self’. However, we run the risk of becoming wrapped up in such words, Using these explanations to relate only to other phenomena is the wrong approach.

The proper approach is to relate the teaching to oneself. Setting aside the investigation of other phenomena for the time being, look at how we perceive ourselves, and then try to understand the lack of inherent existence of one’s own self.

It is essential to understand how grasping a truly existent self is a misconception onto which we hold at all times.

That is why we need to target overcoming the misconception of grasping at an inherently existent self. If we take this approach when contemplating selflessness, then we will reach a point where our meditation practice becomes more meaningful.

We might assume a rigid posture and try to focus single-pointedly on one object which may have some effect in settling one’s mind. But that alone will not help overcome the afflictions within us that serve as the very root of all our misconceptions. Grasping at true existence will not be shattered if we just focus single-pointedly on an object just to calm our mind.

We have access to the teachings, and we have heard them many times, so it is good to actually think about the profound explanations on emptiness again, and again. We won’t accomplish much of an understanding just by reading the texts just occasionally and glancing at them once in a while.

It is only by really contemplating them again and again that we develop a deeper understanding. Of course, emptiness is a difficult topic to understand, and not easy to meditate on.


Photo Ross Moore

After several personal anecdotes, Geshe Doga concluded his essential concise commentary on the compatibility of emptiness and dependent arising with the following heart-felt call for us to practice:

The main points that I emphasise regularly is that we have this great opportunity now of having access to the Dharma, and we should not waste this incredibly fortunate time. The main point of practice, as the great masters of the past have emphasized, comes down to the ways to cultivate love and compassion, and being kind to others. The benefits of this are obvious. You can definitely see that if you are kind and considerate to others you will receive benefit yourself in return. On the other hand, if you engage in harmful intentions towards others, you will be harmed yourself. This is very obvious. The essential point is developing a sense of genuine concern for others, and then further enhancing that love and compassion. As I often emphasise, this is really the main point of our practice.

In the next post how realization of emptiness supports and enhances the generation of great compassion will be outlined. Why this blog was named Reflections on Emptiness: Moon in Rippling Water will also be explained. 


[1] This (lightly re-edited) extract is used with permission from the Ven Geshe Doga. Its source is  his commentary (session dated 28 February 2017) on Shantideva’s Bodhisattvacharyavatara, translated by the Venerable Michael Lobsang Yeshe with transcript prepared by Su Lan Foo; edit 1 by Adair Bunnett; edit 2 by Venerable Michael Losang Yeshe. © Tara Institute. Edited transcripts of current and recent Study Group teachings  will be publicly available at a future date. In the meantime, transcripts of Geshe Doga’s earlier teachings on Buddhist tenets as well as his comprehensive  earlier commentary on the Ninth Chapter (Wisdom) of Shantideva’s text (which is again under discussion here) are  available for download. See

[2] Geshe Tashi Tsering observes how subtle conventional truth (or what he refers to as the subtle level of conventional truth) is discernible only subsequently to realization of emptiness,  and in dependence upon it:

“We now have to reconcile two statements that appear to be contradictory: first, that we need to understand ultimate truths before conventional truths, and second, that conventional truths are methods to help us realize ultimate truths. The crucial word here is “realize.” It is very true that we can’t understand the conventional nature of an object—that it appears to exist inherently when it does not—before we have an understanding of its lack of inherent nature, but that does not mean we must first directly realize emptiness. The two truths, in fact, help each other. When we walk we use both legs, first one and then the other. In the same way, a fairly gross understanding of ultimate truth takes our understanding of conventional truth to a deeper level, then that level of understanding of conventional truth takes our understanding of ultimate truth to a deeper level, and so on.

In this way, our understanding of conventional truths will lead us finally to a deep direct realization of the ultimate truth of emptiness. Before that, however, we must use our conceptual, logical understanding of emptiness to realize that the object we are exploring is a conventional truth because it appears to have inherent existence whereas it does not.

This subtle level of conventional truth, wherein the object appears to have an inherent existence that it in fact does not have, will only be realized after we have a fairly good understanding of ultimate truth. So, even though Chandrakirti is quite correct in asserting that conventional truths are the method and ultimate truths arise from that method, in the actual mechanics of realizing both conventional and ultimate truth, the order is reversed.”

Geshe Tashi Tsering, Relative Truth, Ultimate Truth: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Volume Two (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008), 176-7.

[3] His Holiness the Dalai points out that those who propound truly existent things [all schools below the Mādhyamikas] argue the reverse: all those schools asserting things do not exist truly  fall  into the extreme of nihilism because, for them, and in the words of Nāgārjuna’s Treatise on the Middle Way:

If all these are empty,
There would be no arising and no disintegration;
It would follow that for you [Proponents of the Middle Way School]
The four noble truths would not exist.

His Holiness spells out the objector’s position:

“If as you say, all phenomena are empty of true existence, then the four noble truths are impossible, the Three Jewels–Buddha, doctrine, and spiritual community–are impossible. In that case, training in the path, entering the path, attaining the fruits of the path and so forth would be impossible. Not only that, if all phenomena were empty of inherent existence, no presentations of any of the phenomena of the world could be posited. If phenomena do not have inherent existence, their very entities would be non-existent. without any entity, no phenomenon could be posited as existing.”

After quoting  Nāgārjuna’s reply (notice the subtle changes in wording to the verse  stating the objector’s position above) His Holiness glosses the deep meaning:

“If all this is not  empty,
There would be no arising and no disintegration;
It would follow that for you [Proponents of Inherent Existence]
The four noble truths would not exist.

Nāgārjuna answers that in a system in which things are not empty of inherent existence, everything would be impossible. Then, he says that the objector has not understood well the meaning of the emptiness of inherent existence. What does a system that asserts an emptiness of inherent existence mean by this? Emptiness has the meaning of dependent arising. To prove that things are empty of inherent existence, Nāgārjuna uses the reason that they are dependent arisings. He does not use as a reason that things are utterly devoid of the capacity to perform functions. Far from that, dependent-arising is asserted, and it is used as the reason proving that things are empty of inherent existence. Because the other systems do not assert an emptiness of inherent existence, they assert that phenomena inherently exist, in which case objects must be established under their own power, and hence it is contradictory for them to depend on other conditions. Consequently, dependent-arising becomes impossible in their systems. Once dependent-arising is not feasible, all the presentations of cyclic existence and nirvana, good and bad, are impossible. However, for all of us who assert the dependent-arising of the cause and effect of favorable and unfavorable phenomena; there is no way that this can be denied. Since this is the case, the absence of inherent existence also definitely should be asserted.”

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama at Harvard: Lectures on the Buddhist Path to Peace. Translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1988), 197-19. Tsongkhapa’s commentary on the same verses in Great Exposition on the Stages off the Path:

“When you propound in this way that as long as sprouts and so forth are asserted to exist, they exist in the sense of being established by way of their entities and propound that if [sprouts] are utterly establishment by way of their own entities, they are utterly non-existent, you unquestionably fall to the two extremes. Therefore your mode of understanding is no different from that of the Proponents of True Existent..As long as you do not realise this differentiation by the glorious Chandrakīrti between the four –inherent existent and existence [on the one hand] and absence of inherent existence and non-existence [on the other hand], you will unquestionably fall to the two extremes, whereby you will not realise the meaning of the middle free from the extremes. For when a phenomena comes to be utterly without establishment by way of its own entity, it will [for you] come to be utterly non-existent; in this case, since there is utterly no way to posit cause and effect with the empti[ness] of inherent existence, you fall to an extreme of annihilation. Also, once a phenomena is asserted as existing it must [for you] be asserted as established by way of its own entity; in that case, since there comes to be no way to take cause and effect as illusion-like, appearing to exist inherently whereas they do not, you fall to an extreme of permanence. 

Therefore, through realising that all phenomena are, from the beginning, without even a particle that is established by way of its own entity, you do not fall to an extreme of existence. And, when you induce an ascertaining consciousness which ascertains that even so [i.e. even though they lack inherent existence], things such as sprouts and so forth, without coming to be non-things empty of the capacity to perform functions, have the power to perform their own functions, you abandon the extreme of non-existence.”

See Elizabeth Napper, Dependent-Arising and Emptiness: A Tibetan Buddhist Interpretation of Mādhyamika Philosophy (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1989; 2003), 199-200.

[4] “Furthermore, the Svatantrika Madhyamika posits that all phenomena are imputed by conceptual thought. They also assert that though a phenomena is just imputed it is still findable from the object upon which it is imputed. For example, a person is said to be imputed upon the aggregates and because through observation, a person can be findable, this school asserts a person exists by its own nature. They only reason they show as to how it becomes findable is that, according to their assertion, a person can be pointed out by giving or showing a particular example.” Geshe Doga, The Tenets, Tara Institute Study Group transcript, 1 October 1985. According to the Yogācāra- Svātantrika Mādhyamikas “any object or established base must exist by its own nature. The reason, as mentioned before, is based on the idea that an object is findable.” Ibid. For this school ‘existing by its own nature’, ‘existing by its own mode of subsistence’, and ‘existing inherently’ are synonymous. Ibid. It is useful to note that though both Middle Way Schools (including the two Autonomy sub-schools) employ shared terms such as  “inherent existence” what they hold them to mean significantly differs. 

[5] His Holiness the Dalai Lama likewise indicates how the other Middle Way School–the Svātantrika Mādhyamikas assert that “conventionally, phenomena are established by way of their own character.” Ibid, 199. Thus, according to Consequentialists (Prāsaṅgika Mādhyamikas), the Autonomists (Svātantrika Mādhyamikas) are expounders of inherent existence because they “cannot distinguish between the existence of an object and its existence by way of its own character, and thus until they can refute the establishment of objects by way of their own character, they cannot understand that their valid cognitions are mistaken with respect to the appearance of the object’s being established by way of its own character.” The Dalai Lama at Harvard, 200-201. According to the Prāsaṅgika Mādhyamikas on the other hand: “While it is the mode of being or mode of subsistence of phenomena that they cannot be found under analysis, phenomena appear in a contrary way as if they exist objectively in their own right. Objects appear in a manner that is discordant with their own mode of being, seeming to exist in their own right whereas, they do not, and we adhere to them as existing in accordance with how they appear.” Ibid., 208.

However, for the Svātantrika Mādhyamikas (Middle Way Autonomists) the appearance of things as inherently existence is not to be refuted because they assert that things do exist conventionally in this way and thus there is no discordance between their appearance and their mode of reality. This stance is linked to their view that, though ultimately empty of inherent existence, phenomena do inherently existent on a conventional level. His Holiness illustrates: “They contend for that for a chair to be established as a chair, it must exist as such from its own side: it must possess some inherent quality of chair-ness. Middle Way Autonomists also accept that, on the whole, our sensory perceptions are not mistaken with respect to the objects they experience, since to them the appearance of chair-ness –that independently established quality of the chair–is not incorrect.” The Dalai Lama, A Profound Mind: Cultivating Wisdom in Everyday Life. Edited by Nicholas Vreeland (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2011), 88.

The essential distinguishing point remains: for the Svātantrika Mādhyamikas, phenomena such as conceptual consciousnesses “are established by way of their own character conventionally.” If they were not, for them, they “would be utterly non-existent.” The Dalai Lama At Harvard, Ibid. 201. These issues are touched upon here because they underlie Geshe Doga’s presentation regarding the uniqueness of Prāsaṅgika tenets. They will return in later posts. 


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