How Empty Is Emptiness?

Book coverOne cannot become a Buddha without both compassionate action and nondual wisdom—and one cannot have these two types of paths without both of the two truths, conventional and ultimate. If only emptiness existed and there were, in fact, no conventional truths, then there would be no living beings, no suffering to relieve; thus there would be no compassionate action; and thus there would be no buddhahood. Therefore, maintaining the compatibility of the two truths—the compatibility of emptiness and dependent arising—is crucial to the whole of the Dharma.

Tsong-kha-pa explains that when we understand the compatibility of dependent arising and emptiness, we see that nihilistic misreadings of Madhyamaka in fact have much in common with the eternalist extremes of those who cling to the idea of intrinsic nature. To understand this, consider that the basic question—the compatibility of emptiness and dependent arising—can be posed as follows: Can A produce B when A is empty? If A is devoid of intrinsic nature, how can it produce B? Suppose that A, the cause, is a seed and B, the effect, is a sprout. Now let’s consider three answers to these questions: (1) the answer of the essentialists (including many Buddhists), (2) the answer of those who, in interpreting Madhyamaka, negate too much, and (3) the answer of Tsong-kha-pa.

Book cover
Essentialists: A seed cannot produce a sprout if the seed is empty of intrinsic nature. If the seed does not have, in its intrinsic nature, the capacity to produce a sprout, then a sprout will not be produced from the seed. Since sprouts are produced, we know that their causes, seeds, must have in their essential nature the power to produce sprouts.

Those who negate too much: We agree that a seed cannot produce a sprout when the seed is empty of intrinsic nature. If the seed does not have, in its intrinsic nature, the capacity to produce a sprout, then a sprout will not be produced from the seed. However, Madhyamaka analysis shows that seeds have no intrinsic nature; thus, it follows that sprouts are not produced. All production, all existence, is a delusion.

Tsong kha pa: A seed can produce a sprout when the seed is empty of intrinsic nature, as is frequently observed in the world. A seed does not need an intrinsic nature in order to produce a sprout. In fact, it is only because seeds lack intrinsic nature that dependent arising can take place as observed.

From Introduction to Emptiness: As Taught in Tsong-kha-pa’s Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path by Guy Newland

Back to all Snow Lion Articles