Jinpa, Thupten. Self, Reality, and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy: Tsongkhapa’s Quest for the Middle Way.  London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002.

For Tsongkhapa, emptiness is the intrinsic nature (svabhava) in that it is the ultimate mode of being of all things and events; yet, it cannot be said to exist by means of an intrinsic nature (svabhava), for the latter would imply that emptiness exists in some essential or absolute sense.  Emptiness equals x’s absence of intrinsic existence, which is x’s own nature in that it is non-contingent and not dependent on others.  However, emptiness cannot be said to be its own nature independently of a subject. (98)

Tsongkhapa argues that although it is true that if an entity exists by means of its own intrinsic nature (svabhava), it must be non-contingent and independent of other factors, yet non-contingence and independence in themselves cannot exhaust the full meaning of svabhava.  If this were so, then the Madhyamikas would have no dispute with the essentialists on the ontological status of empirical objects.  Even the essentialists (the Vaibhasikas and Sautrantikas) do not deny the contingent and dependent nature of phenomena given their acceptance of the fundamental Buddhist principles of momentariness and conditionality of all existent things.  So when notions such as non-contingence and independence are refuted in Madhyamaka literature, we should, according to Tsongkhapa, understand that these are refutations of certain aspects of svabhava that do not in themselves constitute the totality of the Madhyamaka critique of svabhava.  (100-1)

Tsongkhapa also identifies another type of nihilism, which he calls ‘nihilism through reification’.  By this, Tsongkhapa contends that grasping as absolute negation of intrinsic existence is itself a form of nihilism.  This is the reification of emptiness, for this constitutes absolutizing that which is the direct negation of intrinsic being itself… perhaps Tsongkhapa wishes to draw our attention to the intimate connection that exist between the extremes of nihilism and eternalism…. when emptiness is absolutized, this entails a rejection of the reality of the conventional world thus causing one to fall into nihilism.  Similarly, when no existential status is accorded to the world of everyday experience, the result is to believe in some kind of transworldly absolute entity, thus causing one to fall into eternalism. (172)

Interestingly, Tsongkhapa states on several occasions that there exists such a unique Prasangika approach.  For the Prasangika, it is appearance (instead of emptiness) that counters eternalism, and it is emptiness (instead of appearance) that counters nihilism.  Such a reversal in this process can only be effected because of the unique Prasangika understanding of the principle of dependent origination, whereby dependent origination is equated with final emptiness…. for Tsongkhapa, the core of the Madhyamaka theory of emptiness is to free the mind from all temptations of reification, be they in the form of atman, brahman, elementary dharmas, indivisible atoms, absolute consciousness, the autonomy of reason, and so on…. Since Tsongkhapa’s ontology contains no notion of an underlying unitary substratum, it cannot be defined by any criterion as monistic.  Although Tsongkhapa undeniably accepts that emptiness is the sole ultimate (paramartha), there is no suggestion that it (emptiness) is some kind of underlying hidden absolute with unique ineffable metaphysical properties.  For emptiness too is ‘relative’ in that its identity and existence are contingent upon the things on which it is defined.  For Tsongkhapa, apart from the emptiness of individual things and persons, there is no ‘universal’, all-encompassing emptiness that can be characterized as some kind of great ‘mother-emptiness’.  (174)

For Tsongkhapa, perhaps the main problem with agnosticism is that the line between agnosticism and full-blown epistemological scepticism is extremely fine, if not non-existent… Tsongkhapa sees epistemological scepticism, ontological nihilism, and moral relativism as different aspects of the same spectrum.  (175)

 

Furthermore, like all Prasangikas, Tsongkhapa does not reject the reality out there.  What is denied is its intrinsic existence and intrinsic identity.  The identity and being that the world possesses are said to be only contingent.  Insofar as this is true, there is an element of relativism in Tsongkhapa’s ontology.  However, that is not to say that no reality exists outside our language and thought… There is nothing purely linguistic or conceptual about these facts of reality.  (175)

Perhaps one of the key points in Tsongkhapa’s claim that critical reasoning is indispensable for enlightenment relates to his understanding of the nature of avidya – fundamental ignorance – which is thought to lie at the root of our unenlightenment.  According to Tsongkhapa, this avidya is not a state of mere unknowing; rather, it is an active, cognitive state of ‘mis-knowing’.  It apprehends our own existence and the world as enjoying some kind of intrinsic, ontological status.  This belief is considered to lie at the heart of our reifying perspectives that tie us to a perceptual state of bondage.  If this is the case, then Tsongkhapa seems to ask, ‘How can a state of mere non-discursiveness free us?’  Non-discursiveness is essentially a passive withdrawal of the mind from all mental activity, which can at best lead to a state of non-mentation, or a blank mind.  This state of non-mentation, however, cannot have any real effect in rooting out our fundamental ignorance, for it does not penetrate into the depth of avidya’s delusory nature.  For how can simply not thinking about it help dispel our fear of the snake in a cave?  Only by discovering that there is no snake in the cave can we eliminate

this fear from the mind.  And, this act of discovery constitutes, for Tsongkhapa, a primarily cognitive process involving critical analysis, i.e., reason.

 

Thus, at the heart of the claim lies the following thesis: it is only by cognizing the absence of intrinsic existence of self and the world – seeing that they are empty of ultimate existence – that the process of undoing our unelightenment can begin… For Tsongkhapa, a negation of the self’s intrinsic existence and cognition of the absence of the self’s intrinsic existence are one and the same… Thus, when the intrinsic being of self is negated, the absence of the self’s intrinsic being is affirmed….  Since the negation of intrinsic being constitutes for Tsongkhapa a cognition of ultimate truth, to have knowledge of emptiness through inference is thus a case of ‘knowing that’.  It is definitely not a state of mere non-cognition; rather, it is an active state of cognition whose content is the emptiness of intrinsic existence… For Tsongkhapa an insight capable oFor Tsongkhapa, perhaps the main problem with agnosticism is that the line between agnosticism and full-blown epistemological scepticism is extremely fine, if not non-existent… Tsongkhapa sees epistemological scepticism, ontological nihilism, and moral relativism as different aspects of the same spectrum.  (175)

 

Furthermore, like all Prasangikas, Tsongkhapa does not reject the reality out there.  What is denied is its intrinsic existence and intrinsic identity.  The identity and being that the world possesses are said to be only contingent.  Insofar as this is true, there is an element of relativism in Tsongkhapa’s ontology.  However, that is not to say that no reality exists outside our language and thought… There is nothing purely linguistic or conceptual about these facts of reality.  (175)

Perhaps one of the key points in Tsongkhapa’s claim that critical reasoning is indispensable for enlightenment relates to his understanding of the nature of avidya – fundamental ignorance – which is thought to lie at the root of our unenlightenment.  According to Tsongkhapa, this avidya is not a state of mere unknowing; rather, it is an active, cognitive state of ‘mis-knowing’.  It apprehends our own existence and the world as enjoying some kind of intrinsic, ontological status.  This belief is considered to lie at the heart of our reifying perspectives that tie us to a perceptual state of bondage.  If this is the case, then Tsongkhapa seems to ask, ‘How can a state of mere non-discursiveness free us?’  Non-discursiveness is essentially a passive withdrawal of the mind from all mental activity, which can at best lead to a state of non-mentation, or a blank mind.  This state of non-mentation, however, cannot have any real effect in rooting out our fundamental ignorance, for it does not penetrate into the depth of avidya’s delusory nature.  For how can simply not thinking about it help dispel our fear of the snake in a cave?  Only by discovering that there is no snake in the cave can we eliminate this fear from the mind.  And this act of discovery constitutes, for Tsongkhapa, a primarily cognitive process involving critical analysis, i.e., reason. (177)

For Tsongkhapa an insight capable of eradicating the deeply ingrained misknowledge comes only through a convergence of deep meditative concentration (samadhi) and sharp penetration of the mind into the way things really are (tathata).  For this, the attainment of both deep contemplation and profound analysis is essential. (177-8)

The crux of Tsongkhapa’s defence seems to be based on the claim that within his own ontology a coherent and robust existential status is accorded to the everyday world of experience.  He also seems to suggest that since ‘knowledge’ of the emptiness of intrinsic being is arrived at through critical awareness, that emptiness cannot be construed as mere nothingness.  He is arguing that just as emptiness can be established through critical reasoning so can it be cognized and experienced by the practitioner. (181)

 

In the immediate aftermath of a profound deconstruction of intrinsic existence, when the perception of self and the world returns, it is believed that this happens in a totally refined sense.  Self and the world appear almost in a ‘new’ light – i.e., they are both actual and empty of intrinsic existence, which has always been the case.  Self and the world now appear illusion-like.  According to Tsongkhapa, this marks the realization of the profound nature of dependent origination…. Tsongkhapa envisions the culmination of one’s analysis into the ultimate nature of things as a profound convergence between emptiness and dependent origination… At this point, the mind of the Madhyamika practitioner is believed to have reached such a developed stage that even a mere perception of the fact of dependent origination spontaneously gives rise to the deconstruction of the solidity of all objects of cognition.  For such a person, it is said that emptiness truly equals dependent origination.

Perhaps the most important test of valid insight into emptiness for Tsongkhapa is how one’s understanding manifests in action.  If, as a result of prolonged contemplation on emptiness, the individual becomes more and more desensitized to the sufferings of the world, there is a serious flaw in one’s understanding of the teachings of no-self… In other words, profound awareness of the truly empty nature of things and events must manifest in compassionate ethical behaviour… One could say that compassionate action is the authentic way of being in no-self… all actions that pertain to others now stem from a perspective that is no longer rooted in the notion of the ‘truly’ important, egoistic self. (182-3)

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