Through the Lens of Madhyamaka

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche unpacks the Madhyamaka view of the two truths.

By Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

“The Cloud” by Leandro Erlich, 2014. Installation view from: “Leandro ERLICH—The Ordinary,” 2014 Organized by 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. Photo by Keizo Kioku.

One of the first things many of us hear about Buddhism is that nothing exists; everything is shunyata, emptiness, nothingness. This is the ultimate truth, the absolute or final truth expressed in the view of Madhyamaka, the school of Buddhist thought based on the writings of second-century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. When we begin traveling along the path of realization, this teaching receives a great deal of emphasis.

This truth of shunyata can be difficult to accept because we are completely steeped in the conventional view of reality. We assume without question that everything exists. This more familiar and comfortable way of perceiving our world is known as the relative truth in Buddhist thought. To help us experience the deeper and less apparent ultimate truth, the emptiness of all phenomena, Madhyamaka logic uses the tool of non-affirming negation. Whereas established logic tells us that when we negate one idea we must replace it with another—“not this, but that”—non-affirming negation is a statement that negates or refutes something but does not posit anything else in its place.

Using this method, we negate each aspect of existence, one after the other, until nothing is left. This beautiful flower does not truly exist, nor does this cool glass of water, this precious friend, this feeling of happiness, this thought of tomorrow, this body, this mind, this me. We analyze, dismantle, and thereby transcend our strong clinging to the solid existence of each aspect of our world. In this way, a Buddhist practitioner is initially propelled from the extreme of existence to the extreme of nonexistence, which can be a great shock.

The Label and the Basis of the Label

The appearances we experience—the sensory perceptions and their objects and the conceptual mind and its objects—are all experiences of relative truth. And there is a certain validity in our experiences of the relative. One great Tibetan master of the twentieth century, Gendun Chophel, said, “When my fingertips experience the pricking of a needle, then I feel that things do exist.” But when he contemplated phenomena deeply, he found there was nothing solid and real to be found. This is a very good illustration of the two truths: when you analyze phenomena, there is nothing solid and real to be found, but when experiences are left unanalyzed, they are quite vivid and sharp. This notion may seem esoteric, but if we pay attention, we can see this truth at work in our daily lives. One way to do this is to distinguish between what the Prasangika school refers to as the “labels,” which includes the labeling process itself, and the bases of the labels.

For instance, conventional logic tells me that if I put my finger into a fire, the fire will burn it. This is called the “relative truth.” However, if I ask, “What is fire? What is a finger?” I may become aware of a gap between the terms “fire” or “finger” (the labels) and the phenomena referred to by those terms (the bases of the labels). The label does not exist beyond our conceptual minds; it is irrelevant to the phenomenon in its own state. The name “fire” and the thing that is hot and burning are not the same. The term “finger” is simply the word I use (in English) to describe the long, bendable digit attached to my hand. Yet because of our samsaric conditioning, we perceive the two things—the basis of the label and the label itself—as one. Therefore, the first step in Madhyamaka analysis is to become aware of the difference between the two and to observe the labeling processes of the mind. Through contemplating in this way, we see that the basis is free from both the label and the labeling process. Our actual experience of the world of phenomena transcends concepts, thoughts, and labels. This is our first analysis.

From the perspective of the Madhyamaka, both existence and nonexistence are extreme positions; the absolute truth is beyond any view of existence or nonexistence.

Next, we can analyze the basis of the label itself. Consider a table. What exactly is the thing we call a table? What is the basis of the label “table”? Contrary to conventional understanding, the basis is not a single entity. It has many parts: a top, sides, legs, and so forth. And if we look closely at each part, we can see that each of them, in turn, is made up of different parts. Each leg also has a top, sides, and so forth. If we continue to examine each of those parts, we will discover that each of them is composed of atomic particles. And if we further observe each atomic particle, we’ll find even smaller, subatomic particles. Eventually, we’ll arrive at a tiny unit, the irreducible “partless” particle. But if we continue and break down the “partless” particle through analysis, nothing solid or real is found.

Modern physics and Madhyamaka reasoning come to almost the same conclusion regarding the existence of external phenomena. Madhyamaka calls that state in which nothing existent is found at the subatomic level “emptiness” or “shunyata,” whereas the scientific community posits hypothetical entities (zero-dimensional or mathematical representations) and uses labels for them such as “quarks,” “strings,” or “energy fields.” Even though there is nothing there, these scientific terms create the illusion that there is something to hold on to. Instead of experiencing the rug being completely pulled out from under our feet, such labels provide a sense of ground, of something to stand on. Madhyamaka analysis offers no such reassurance; instead, it leads us to total groundlessness.

Thus in Madhyamaka reasoning we completely refute any notion of existence. We analyze, we destroy, and we transcend any kind of clinging to existence whatsoever. That is the function of the non-affirming negation. From the perspective of the ultimate truth, there is a complete sense of negation without any compensating affirmation.

The Actual Absolute Truth

The Madhyamaka point of view does not leave us stuck there, though. It goes beyond negation to find the real nature of phenomena, which transcends both existence and nonexistence, eternalism and nihilism. Shantideva, the eighth-century Indian scholar and Madhyamaka master, said that when, after deep contemplation, we are thoroughly intimate with the notion that nothing exists, that notion too should be abandoned. After all, the Buddha taught that even emptiness itself is empty, nonexistent.

Once we’ve transcended the delusion of existence, the next step on the Madhyamaka path is to return to the middle. In fact, Madhyamaka means “Middle Way.” From the perspective of the Madhyamaka, both existence and nonexistence are extreme positions; the absolute truth is beyond any extreme, beyond any view of existence or nonexistence. While the absolute truth refutes existence, it also goes beyond nothingness, beyond nonexistence. The great master Saraha said clinging to existence is very foolish, and clinging to nonexistence is even more foolish.

For this reason, the stage of complete negation is sometimes called the “nominal absolute truth,” which means that, while it may be absolute or ultimate truth, it is still not the complete absolute truth. Santiraksita, whose teachings are central to the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, distinguished between this nominal absolute truth and the “actual absolute truth.” The actual absolute truth is not simply descriptive of genuine reality, but is reality itself, the basic state, which goes beyond all conceptualization, beyond existence and nonexistence. This basic state of reality is called “freedom from all elaborations.” At this stage, we experience the absolute truth, free from concepts of existence or nonexistence. There is nothing to hold on to, not even a real or correct view.

Differing Views

If you are unclear about how to understand these concepts, you’re not alone. There is disagreement among, and even within, schools of Madhyamaka thought as to the nature of the relationship between the relative and the absolute. The primary divide is between the Svatantrika, or Autonomous, school of Madhyamaka and the Prasangika, or Consequence, school. The Svatantrika Madhyamaka school is further split into the Sautrantika–Svatantrika Madhyamaka and the Yogacara–Svatantrika Madhyamaka, representing two different views that prominent Svatantrika masters have asserted on the nature of relative truth.

One position, expressed by Bhavaviveka, founder of the Sautrantika–Svatantrika school, separates phenomena in the world from the mind itself and says relative truth can be established through reasoning. According to this view, it is correct to say that, relatively speaking, there are outer phenomena. Atomic partless particles and tiny, indivisible moments of consciousness—the threads of consciousness—do exist as true and valid things. Accordingly, there is subject and object. This view is most in accordance with that of the early Buddhist school known as the Sautrantika, from which this movement took its name.

The second view in the Svatantrika Madhyamaka school was put forth by Santiraksita. This view is more in accordance with the Cittamatra, or Mind–Only, school of Mahayana and is therefore known as the Yogacara–Svatantrika Madhyamaka school. (Yogacara is commonly regarded as another name for the Cittamatra school, although some differences emerge when it comes to their views on the ultimate nature of mind.) According to the Yogacara view, everything is the creation of our own mind—all appearances, all the illusions that we experience are reflections of our mind. Therefore, nothing exists beyond our own mind and perceptions. This view says that while objects may appear to be physically distant, far from our mind, in fact the appearances and our mind are of one nature. Neither outer perceived objects nor the perceiving mind itself can be said to exist ultimately. This is contrary to the Cittamatra view that says mind itself does inherently exist. Thus the Yogacara–Svatantrika school says that Cittamatra is correct in its understanding of the relative truth but not in its view of the absolute truth.

For the Yogacara–Svatantrika school, it is valid to say that relative truth is the projection of the mind. However, there are two ways to understand this. The more fundamentalist view asserts that there is no external thing whatsoever. Everything is just the mind’s projection. A more nuanced interpretation posits that the way each individual sees the world is unique to that person. If everything we perceive is mediated by the interpretation of our minds, how can we be certain of anything? This way of understanding relative truth does not deny external existence, but rather asserts that the particular ways we each perceive external objects and conceive of the things outside of us are specific to each individual.

Furthermore, this view is also said to be “mind only” because everything is a creation of karma, which comes from the movements of mind. Motivations and intentions are of paramount importance in the karmic chain of cause and effect. All of our actions, which accumulate karmically through body and speech, are rooted in our mental motivations or intentions, such as the intention to harm other sentient beings or the intention to help them. From that point of view, everything is a creation of our minds.

The Prasangika Madhyamaka school, by contrast, does not assert any particular position on relative truth. Chandrakirti, the second-century founder of the Prasangika school, said all phenomena are valid in accordance with their function, provided they are not closely examined. However, when relative phenomena are subjected to analysis, that analysis will neither establish nor prove the existence of anything. He explained that if one could establish or prove something through analysis, that would be the absolute truth. However, if one could establish through reasoning that a phenomenon truly existed, this would create a logical inconsistency. Reasoning and logic cannot prove simultaneously that things exist and that they do not exist. Chandrakirti said that if both of these were correct, then emptiness would be something that acts like an antidote to the existence of relative truth. From this perspective, because our experience of relative truth is so solidly real for us, we would have to bring in emptiness, a distinctly separate and ultimate truth, to destroy relative truth so it could then become empty. This in turn would mean emptiness is not the nature of phenomena, that the absolute truth is not the nature of relative truth. If you separate the two truths in this way, you lose ultimate reality, and that’s a problem.

Therefore, the Prasangika school asserts the inseparability of the two truths and cautions against drawing too sharp a distinction between them. They are of one nature right from the beginning. When you see relative truth, its nature is absolute truth. Nothing separates the two. We can’t find any instance of relative truth, no matter how solid and real it seems, that exists separate from or outside of the absolute truth. To the extent that we see a form, hear a sound, or experience a thought as being vividly clear and real, to that same degree we can also experience them as empty.

Where to Begin

When we begin to practice according to the Madhyamaka view, we needn’t worry too much about shunyata. Rather we should try to see clearly how we solidify and cling to experiences. This is very important. When we look deeply at our own clinging, how we solidify our subjective experiences—our pain, our happiness, our desire—we find that these mind states can seem so real, so significant, and so bothersome that sometimes we can’t even get a good night’s sleep.

In the beginning, we don’t necessarily need to examine external “solid” phenomena; we can simply look at our experience of a thought or a belief. Sometimes a simple belief taken up in a community becomes solidified to the point that individuals are willing to risk their lives, or even kill, to defend it. It’s helpful to see how we solidify a particular concept and then become so attached to it.

Understanding the two truths is not just a question of knowing the views of the Svatantrika and Prasangika schools, or the views of Bhavaviveka, Santiraksita, and Chandrakirti. It is not about examining how they disagree or how they agree. It is about realizing how we experience the relative truth and the view of absolute truth. We can be someone who holds the Svatantrika view or the Cittamatra view, or someone who holds other views. But when we have the experience of holding a particular view, we need to understand these two truths so we can see beyond the view we’re holding: “Yes, I am holding on to the true existence of atomic phenomena”—or mental phenomena or what have you. It is important to see that and to experience it clearly, then to apply the absolute view—the truth of shunyata, emptiness, egolessness. In this way, we see to what extent we can experience the absolute truth—as well as the relative truth—in a more transcendent way.

photo of Ponlop Rinpoche

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is founder and president of Nalandabodhi and Nitartha International, and the author of several books including, most recently, Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Empowers You.