The Role of Analysis



Lama Zopa Rinpoche in Bern, 1993. Photograph by Ueli Minder



Through logical analysis we can come to know how things are empty of inherent existence and are empty. Therefore it is necessary to talk about the three main categories of how things can come to be known.

Firstly, there are phenomena such as the objects of sense consciousnesses (smells, tastes and so forth) that can be realized or discovered directly by valid perception. These are available to be seen, or apprehended, by us right here and now.[1]

Secondly there are other phenomena we can realize and come to know by depending upon logic.[2] For example, we can realize impermanent things are changing within every second due to causes and conditions. Likewise, we can understand subtle impermanence by first understanding gross impermanence.[3] As mentioned, we can also understand how things lack true existence and are empty through logical reasoning.

The third category is known by neither direct valid perception nor logic but by depending on quotations in which we have faith.[4] For example, understanding that by making charity we become wealthy or by practicing morality we attain happiness. Through believing in the Buddha (who made these statements regarding the fruits of karma) as an unbetraying source, we accept such things as true.[5] Such quotations are regarded as pure because they don’t receive harm from any of the three analyses—direct valid perception, inferential cognition and reliance on other omniscient ones. Clearly, here reliance on quotations doesn’t refer to just any philosopher going blah, blah, blah! It must be an uncheating, unbetrayable valid quotation and one unable to be negated or refuted by another. The “another” in this context is another valid quotation from another omniscient one. Whatever Śākyamuni Buddha said is not contradicted by what another buddha might say. So the highest valid quotation is that which the Omniscient One said together with the fact that it can’t be harmed by the three analyses because it is pure.[6]





Why is the Buddha the uncheating or undeceptive true founder? Because his teachings are unmistaken and don’t cheat or mislead sentient beings. If practiced exactly as the Buddha has said, the result will always be as stated. In this way his teachings are proven to be a reliable guide. Numberless pandits and yogis have checked these teachings with their experience. They have used their practice as a form of experiment just as scientists do. By practicing in this way, numberless beings have achieved enlightenment. According to their experience, they have taught other sentient beings and they also have achieved enlightenment. Like that, the process has been continuing up to now. Even from our own limited experience, most of us who have done some meditation on the lamrim have already realized its veracity, even if we have yet to experience lamrim realizations. In particular, when we have problems, the lamrim controls and stops the negative thoughts that are the causes of those problems. It stops them just like that!

Likewise, by analyzing with logical reasoning how impermanent things are impermanent because they are dependent on causes and are changing from moment to moment, and how things are empty because they are dependent arisings and thus do not exist from their own side (even while appearing to do so), we can arrive at a definite realization.[7] So you see, even though you haven’t yet realized emptiness, by doing analysis, that much understanding of emptiness will be achieved, and that much understanding of dependent arising will come. While doing analysis in meditation you arrive at the feeling that things are empty and suddenly, the object, the way you see the object, changes. It appears in a way that has not been apprehended before. Its appearance is apprehended differently. Even though you haven’t had an actual realization of emptiness, this sudden change in the appearance is telling you something, proving something not apparent to you before. You see that there is something wrong with this appearance which, when you do not do analysis, appears as completely right and normal. Due to the force of logic you can tell that the way things appear and are apprehended is hallucinatory: they are hallucinations because they don’t exist in the way you normally and formerly perceived them.[8]

So when you are meditating, what is the experience of emptiness when you haven’t had such an experience before? Without prior understanding, how does it appear to you? What is its appearance to your mind?



In terms of the structures of the sādhanas of tantric practice, there is a specific meditation where we must meditate on emptiness as the dharmakāya.[9] Even from the beginning of the sādhana we are supposed to be aware of emptiness and maintain this awareness right up until the end.[10] Otherwise, how can we practice method and wisdom simultaneously with one mind? For this inseparability of method and wisdom is the meaning of the Vajrayāna. More precisely, it is what makes our mind become a vajra.[11] If we leave out wisdom (realization of emptiness), it can’t become a vajra. But neither does it become a yāna, which refers to the vehicle that is this one mind simultaneously uniting method and wisdom, leading us to full enlightenment. Without this inseparably united mind, such a journey doesn’t happen.[12] But if we have had some prior experience (of emptiness) we can recollect those points of experience, whether they concerned meditating on the emptiness of the “I” or the emptiness of other phenomena, such as the aggregates, form, sound, smell, taste, tangible objects and so forth. Whatever earlier experience of emptiness we have had in relation to one object should be brought to bear on the current meditation and the current objects upon which we are meditating. The fact that we had an earlier experience indicates that we have formerly employed a powerfully effective method. So it is good to use it again to meditate on the emptiness of other phenomena.


For further discussion of the role of reason and analysis in meditation see posts:

King of Reasonings

A Beginner’s Guide to Emptiness?

Correct Intellectual Understanding




Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] Manifest objects/phenomena (mngon gyur, abhimukhī) are called manifest knowables because they are directly available to our ordinary sense awareness. In other words, they are obvious and confirmed by direct perception. An example is coarse impermanence. An illustration:  the shattering of a pot (as when struck by a powerful hammer blow).  This is to be contrasted to subtle impermanence which refers to how things disintegrate from moment to moment. An illustration is the gradual erosion of a rock in a river. Subtle impermanence is referred to as a slightly hidden phenomena (cung zad lkog gyur; kimcid-parokṣa) as, unlike coarse impermanence, it does not appear immediately to direct perception but through the force of generating inferential reasoning,  but may, nonetheless,  still be explicitly realized, See Katherine Manchester Rogers, Tibetan Logic, 155. An illustration of a slightly hidden phenomenon is emptiness. Another,  subtle impermanence was just mentioned. A very hidden phenomena (shin to lkog gyur) is one that cannot be proven by reason. An illustration is the specific subtle features of cause and effect such as those that might determine the exact colours in the mottle of a butterfly’s wings. It can only be known via a correct sign of belief  (yid ches kyi rtags yang dag) as Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche will explain.

[2] Gyatso gives a classic  example: “suppose we are standing outside a house and we see smoke rising from the chimney. In dependence on cognizing smoke we can infer that there is fire or combustion inside the house. We cannot see the fire directly but we can have accurate knowledge of it by relying on a correct sign, smoke.” Ven Lobsang Gyatso, Harmony, 37. “Sign” (rtags) in this context must be understood formally as a technical term referring to the reason (given) in a proposition. As Rogers points out, “correct signs can lead to valid knowledge concerning phenomena that would otherwise remain hidden and inaccessible. Reasoning is the means of developing incontrovertible knowledge of, and experience of, phenomena that are currently hidden, and it is the means of eliminating ignorance–that is, such misconceptions as attributing inherent existence to phenomena and persons. See Rogers, Tibetan Logic, 26. Returning to the classic syllogism “With respect to the subject, on a smoky pass, fire exists because smoke exists” we can break down the components of the syllogism as follows:

The basis of debate is a smoky pass.
The predicate of the probandum is: fire (or the existence of fire),
The probandum is: that fire exists.
The correct sign is: smoke.
The predicate of the negandum is: fire does not exist. 
The negandum is: that fire does not exist. 

Ibid, 60. 

[3] How might we infer subtle impermanence from gross impermanence? Take the example of a flower.  If yesterday’s fresh flower is apprehended (only) the next day as wilting, then it follows that it must have been wilting overnight in each hour, minute, second, micro-second, nano-second etc. Although imperceptible (except to a yogic direct perceiver), we can infer that such micro-changes must be incrementally and minutely occurring, as gross change is merely an aggregation of (infinitely) smaller ones, just as a minute is merely an aggregation of seconds, or a mountain an aggregation of molecules.  According to Sautrāntika, “all products last only the instant of their production; they require no further cause for their disintegration than their own production.” Therefore, “Products have a nature of momentary disintegration; it is not something else that makes them so.” See Hopkins, Meditation, 350. See also Tegchok, Insight, 65–68. For a brief explanation of permanent phenomena (non-products), see Rinchen, How Karma Works, 20–22.

[4] As mentioned in the first note, very hidden phenomena (shin tu lkog gyur, atyarthaparokṣa) are called such because they are not available to immediate realization by either direct cognition or logical inference than generates inferential understanding. “Fortunately,” as Hopkins points out, “emptiness…is only slightly hidden, not very hidden; thus, we can get at it through reasoning.” Emptiness Yoga, 139. This is also the essence of Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche’s call for us to appreciate the pivotal role that rational analysis has to play in meditation. It is not the enemy to profound or “mystical” experience but may actually open us to it.

Yet even in the case of very hidden phenomena, we can still find ways to verify them. For example, as is being explained, we can  rely upon the  flawless authority of a Buddha. And even in this case we can say that a certain form of inference is usefully employed inasmuch as we can employ the following logic: if we can  establish that  the Buddha is a reliable authority in relation to manifest and hidden phenomena (and this we can do using our senses and valid inferential reasoning, then it stands to reason that the Buddha must also, by inferential extension as it were, be also a reliable authority in relation to very hidden phenomena. As Hopkins explains:

For instance, with respect to accounts of the effects of actions that Buddha gives in sutras such as the Wise Man and the Fool (Damamūkonāmasūtra), we may wonder how it could possibly be so. Since these are very hidden phenomena, they cannot be proved with reasoning, and it might seem that Buddha can say whatever he likes. However, through our own experience we can confirm Buddha’s teachings on more important topics such as emptiness, the altruistic mind of enlightenment, love, and compassion, for no matter who analyses–Buddhists or non-Buddhist–or how much one analyses, if the person is not biased through desire or hatred, these teachings can bear analysis and serve as powerful sources of thought. When you see that Buddha does not err with regard to these more important phenomena, you can for the first time accept his other presentations.

Hopkins goes further, and in a manner very supportive of our current context:

Some wrongly think that the afflicted phenomena of cyclic existence and the purified phenomena of nirvana cannot be proved by reasoning and that since liberation and omniscience cannot be directly seen, and are not manifest, they can be proved only through citation of scripture. They believe only in scripture and are displaying their own lack of foundation. Suchb a statement of refuge is only a proclamation of the weakness of that refuge. The process of cyclic existence and the eradication of it can be proved by the reasoning that establishes the misconception of inherent existence as its root cause and establishes the wisdom cognising emptiness as its antidote.

And yet further:

Even scriptures that present very hidden phenomena, inaccessible to both direct perception and inference, are proved to be valid through three modes of analysis. The three modes are establishment 910 that the passage is not damaged by direct valid cognition in its teaching of manifest phenomena, (2) that the passage is not damaged by evidential inference in its teaching of slightly hidden phenomena and (3) that the passage is not damaged by scriptural inference in its teaching of very hidden phenomena in the sense of containing internal contradictions and so forth. Thus, even this process derives from reasoning.

See Hopkins in Tsongkhapa, Tantra In Tibet, 32-3.

[5] This same logic regarding ascertaining with confidence the Buddha’s reliable authority is found in Tsongkhapa:

“Others may attack your teaching
but they will never be any match.”
Such claims are validated by dependent arising.
How? Because its explanation casts away all possibility
of flawed assertion and faulty denial
of all phenomena evident or hidden.

This very path of of dependent arising,
the reason for seeing your words as unparalleled,
generates conviction in the validity of other teachings.

Having seen the truth, you taught it.
Those following you will leave all troubles far behind,
for they will cut to the root of every fault. 

Tsongkhapa, “Dependent Arising: A Praise of the Buddha”, translated by Gavin Kilty. See Tsongkhapa, Splendor of an Autumn Moon, 231. See also Tharchin, Key, 203. In Ven Lobsang Gyatso, The Harmony of Emptiness and Dependent_Arising, the same verses are  translated and then followed by commentary:

28. Through this very fact we can well understand
The assertion that, in the way you taught,
Those who would challenge you
By way of logic can find no fallacy.

29. Why? Because your explanation
Makes remote the chance that one
Will exaggerate or deny
Manifest or non-manifest things.

30. Your speech is seen as peerless
Because it presents the path of dependent-arising,
And this gives rise to certainty
That (your) other teachings are valid too.

Thus, as it implies in verse 28, the one who can overturn the Buddha’s teachings on the way things exist has not yet been born. On the philosophical side of the teachings Buddhism takes its stand squarely on logic and reasoning. This is why the Buddha’s teachings offer such a clear path of mental development. In verse 29 ‘manifest’ and ‘non-manifest’ things refers to phenomena that we can experience directly with our senses and to phenomena that we can only initially comprehend by using reasoning, respectively. These two categories cover all phenomena. Exaggerating phenomena means ascribing to them a mode of existence that they do not have. Denying them means not recognizing a mode of existence that they do in fact possess. We can investigate for ourselves whether the teachings on emptiness and dependent-arising are true or not using our reasoning powers. Other aspects of the Buddha’s teachings are less amenable to reasoning, for instance his teaching that generosity n this life leads one to enjoy resources in future lives and the practice of ethical behaviour in this life leads one to enjoy happiness in future lives. In verse 30 Tsong Khapa indicates that directly realizing emptiness as he did will inspire such a respect for the insight of the teacher who taught it that one will have great confidence that those other less easily verifiable aspects of the Buddha’s teachings are true too.

Lobsang Gyatso, The Harmony, 85.

[6] José Ignacio Cabezón translates Gyaltsab Darma Rinchen’s description of the three criteria (analyses) for judging authoritative scripture: “1. that the scripture not contradict the testimony of direct perception (tib. mngon sum la mi gnod pa), 2. that it not contradict inferential reasoning (tib. rjes dpag la mi gnod pa) and 3. that it not contradict inference based on reliable words (tib. yid ches rjes dpag la mi gnod pa).” See “The Concepts of Truth and Meaning in the Buddhist Scriptures,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1981), 8. The article deals mainly with the complexities entailed in interpreting the third criterion. For a related account of how we are to determine what is to be considered definitive and interpretable in terms of both the point of view of the objects of expression and the point of view of the means of expression, see the Dalai Lama, Harvard, 32–33. This distinction has great bearing on what is to be taken literally, or otherwise, in relation to presentations of reality, such as accounts in sūtra.

[7] Realization of the nominal reality of things, i.e., their illusory-like nature (chos rnams tha snad tsam du yod par nges pa). Lama Zopa Rinpoche is giving classic examples of the application of syllogistic reasoning (gtan tshigs yag dag bkod pa). This is a necessarily complex topic involving, amongst other things, understanding the relationship between a sign and a predicate in a valid proof as well as their relationship or connection to a specific subject. Without being precise and clear about such connections, we cannot establish/secure the probandum: the proposition to be established or proven. As Rogers points out, to be considered valid, “the proof must be able to generate, in the mind of an appropriate person, a new valid understanding of the thesis.” Tibetan Logic, 31. In the case of inducing realization of emptiness,  we ourselves are to be considered the appropriate person. We are applying logic to ourselves or rather, using it to strenuously interrogate and collapse our own mistaken but compulsively-held view. The point, again, is that “there must always be a subject, a basis, with regard to which inference is cultivated.” As Rogers notes:

This requirement that there be a specific subject that is the basis of debate becomes especially important when students begin to apply the principles of logic to meditation on the emptiness of inherent existence of phenomena. Emptiness is always proved in relation to a specific subject; it is not an abstraction that one may ponder on per se. Emptiness can only be known in relation to a specific phenomenon, such as a table, or tree, or one’s mind. The reasoning employed in the proof of emptiness is also summarized in syllogisms. Several sample syllogisms from Madhyamaka are:

  • “The subject, the person (gang zag), is empty of inherent existence (rang bzhin gyis stong pa) because of being a dependent-arising (rten ‘byung; pratītya-samutpāda).”
  • “The subject, the mind (sems) is empty of inherent existence because of being a dependent arising.”
  • “The subject, the ‘I’ (nga) is not established from its own side (rang ngos ma sgrub pa), because of not being established from its own side as either one with the aggregates, or different from the aggregates.”

In all these cases, there is a specific subject–the person, mind, or “I”–to which the reasoning applies.

When one understands, for example, that the mind is empty of inherent existence because it is a dependent-arising, that subject, the mind, is the phenomenon that is the substratum, the basis, of that emptiness to be understood. Emptiness is not being understood in isolation, as mere nothingness; rather, it is specifically the mind’s emptiness of inherent existence that the student is realizing. Similarly, when one understands that a particular subject, such as sound, is impermanent because it is a product, the subject sound is then the substatum or basis of the new inference in  that impermanence is being realized specifically in relation to sound.

See Rogers, Tibetan Logic, 39.

In the case of emptiness, however, we can say that “each and every phenomena (dharma) may, potentially, be the subject of the syllogism: the subject [X} is empty of inherent existence because of being a dependent arising. This is because all phenomena are illustrations or examples of dependent-arisings. Even a non-existent thing–such as permanent sound, or the horn of a rabbit–though not an existent and thus incapable of bearing or maintaining any qualities,may be considered to lack inherent existence in the carefully-qualified negative sense that it can only “appear” (be ascertained) as an object of enquiry in dependence on being imputed imputed by thought.  Thus, considered in this  purely nominative sense a non-existent is also a dependent arising. Without first conceptually and perhaps also verbally conjuring (perhaps in a fantasy fiction novel or an erroneous statement) the wondrous spectre of glistening  pink winged unicorns (we are doing that right now by merely speaking about them), we can’t even begin to examine/weigh their ontological status, commence assessing, in other words, whether or not they exist as paid-up or valid members or occupants of that particular zone we call “reality.” 

For discussion of how emptiness is the meaning of dependent arising and dependent arising is the meaning of emptiness see  The Compatibility of Dependent Arising and Emptiness.

[8] Peljor Lhündrub forcefully indicates the power of logical analysis in this context:

How then does one go about refuting the object to be refuted? Suppose that you mistake a striped rope for a snake and that it frightens you. [To dispel the fear that there is a snake] you must correct that error by determining that there is no snake as apprehended by the mind. There is nothing else you can do, no other way [to rid yourself of the fear]. Likewise, [in order to get rid of ignorance] you have to use correct reasons to ascertain that the object of the innate grasping at true existence—a grasping that apprehends things as if they existed from their own side—does not exist, and you then have to accustom yourself to that fact. The nonexistence of the object as it is apprehended by the innate ignorance that grasps at true existence cannot be established simply by fiat. Rather, it must be proven using a stainless collection of scriptures and reasoning. What is more, you must base this proof on a prior analysis that uses analytical wisdom, and you must not understand this reality as something other than the object’s lack of true existence. Simply entertaining no thoughts whatsoever is not allowed.

See the Dalai Lama, Khöntön Peljor Lhündrub and José Ignacio Cabezón, Meditation on the Nature of Mind, 134–35.

[9] This meditation instruction is given within the context of taking the three ordinary states of death, intermediate state and rebirth into the path according to the secret instructions of Highest Yoga Tantra. Details are found in the oral instructions and commentaries pertaining to these practices. During lectures at Harvard University, the Dalai Lama explained,

In Highest Yoga Mantra, factors that we already have in our continuums in the common state are used as the means for achieving Buddhahood through engaging in special techniques…the foundations of tantric practice are an altruistic intention to become enlightened and an understanding of emptiness as described either in the Mind Only School or the Middle Way School. With these as a basis, the experiences of birth, death, and intermediate state are transformed through techniques of Highest Yoga Mantra into factors of enlightenment. The roots of this process are the very subtle wind and mind mentioned earlier—death, intermediate state, and rebirth being manifestations of them. Because the three states of death, intermediate state, and rebirth in the ordinary state have a correspondence with the Truth Body, Complete Enjoyment Body, and Emanation Body of the enlightened state, through techniques of the path, the three ordinary states can be utilized to provide an opportunity for transformation into the Three Bodies of Buddhahood. With this purpose in mind, death is called the Truth Body of the ordinary state; the intermediate state is called the Complete Enjoyment Body of the ordinary state; and rebirth is called the Emanation Body of the ordinary state.

Harvard, 211. See also Chöden Rinpoché, Stairway to the State of Union (Melbourne: Awakening Vajra Publications, 2012), 16–17.

Peljor Lhündrub explicitly explains how the yogi “enters into meditation on the view that unerringly realizes emptiness so as to obtain the result that is the Dharma body [dharmakāya].” He adds, “Why? The resultant Dharma body is what arises from perfecting the practice of accustoming oneself to a cause that is generically similar to that Dharma body: the special accumulation of nonconceptual gnosis, the equipoise that realizes emptiness. The Dharma body does not arise from a cause that is generically dissimilar to the Dharma body. If one does not find certainty in regard to the fact that even conventionally no phenomenon has the slightest bit of existence by virtue of its own nature, even if one wishes to amass a proper accumulation of gnosis, one will not be able to do so.” See the Dalai Lama et al, Meditation on the Nature of Mind, 128–29, where a translation of Peljor Lhündrub’s text, “The Wish-Fulfilling Jewel of the Oral Tradition,” is found.

[10] The Dalai Lama highlights the special features of the generation-stage mind that realizes emptiness in Highest Yoga Tantra: “one should possess a strong conviction that this mind, the mind out of which the deity is generated, is the primordial innate mind of clear light. To have such conviction, it is not enough to simply recite some words as part of a ritual. Rather, one must make the clear light appear within the mind, and—with a conviction that it is this primordial innate mind that is realizing emptiness—one achieves calm abiding and insight. Hence, the process of generating the deity out of emptiness is quite different in the lower tantras and in highest yoga tantra. In highest yoga tantra, one generates the deity out of the primordial innate mind of clear light” (ibid., 26).

[11] The Dalai Lama writes, “A ‘vajra’ is the best of stones, a diamond; there are external symbolic vajras, as in the case of the vajra and bell used in ritual, and there are vajras that are the meanings symbolised. With respect to the latter, a vajra common to all four sets of tantras is an undifferentiability in one entity of method and wisdom. Method is observation of the vast—the body of a deity—conjoined with an altruistic aspiration to highest enlightenment. Wisdom is the knowledge of the suchness of phenomena just as it is. Also, according only to Highest Yoga Tantra, a vajra is the undifferentiability in one entity of method—great bliss—and wisdom—realization of emptiness.” See the Dalai Lama et al., Tantra in Tibet, 22–23.



[12] For Tsongkhapa’s account of the meaning of the vajra vehicle, see ibid., 105–16.






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