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The Four Noble Truths

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Tứ diệu đế - Chương IV: Diệt khổ đế (Chân lý về diệt khổ)

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The third Noble Truth is the Truth of Cessation. The key questions we must ask ourselves on this are the following: What is nirvana? What is moksha or liberation? What do we mean by nirodha or cessation? And is it really possible to attain cessation or not?

If we were to reply that we must accept that liberation is possible on the grounds that Buddha spoke of it in the scriptures, I don’t think that is a satisfactory answer. It may be useful to reflect on a point that Aryadeva makes in his Four Hundred Verses on the Middle Way. He argues that when we talk about the ultimate nature of reality, or emptiness, we must realize that the understanding of emptiness is not something which requires reliance on scriptural authority. We can approach it through critical analysis and reasoning.

In Buddhism, we assert that one category of phenomena manifest to us and can be perceived directly, so there is no need for any logical proof of their existence. A second category of phenomena may not be obvious to us, but we can infer their existence through a process of reasoning. These are technically known as ‘slightly obscure phenomena’. Emptiness belongs to this second category.

Since we can infer the truth of emptiness, we must also accept that liberation can be inferred through the reasoning process too. As Nagarjuna says, a true understanding of liberation should be based on an understanding of emptiness, because liberation is nothing other than the total elimination, or total cessation, of delusion and suffering through insight into emptiness. The concept of liberation is therefore very closely related to that of emptiness, and just as emptiness can be inferred, so can moksha.

On account of this intimate connection between emptiness and liberation in Buddhism, the passage in Maitreya’s Abhisamayalamkara which deals with the third Noble Truth contains an extensive discussion of the 16 types of emptiness. The fact that liberation is an ultimate truth (and therefore related to emptiness) is explicitly discussed in Chandrakirti’s writings as well. So it seems that our acceptance of liberation as a possibility is a function of how well we understand the concept of emptiness.


Four Interpretations of No-self or Emptiness

When we talk about emptiness in Buddhism, it is clear that we are referring to the absence of something, a form of negation. In the same way, the no-self theory is a form of negation. Why such insistence on categorical negation? Once again, let us pause for a while and consider our experience.

Let’s imagine that I have a certain fear based on some kind of suspicion that there might be something threatening nearby. If the thought occurs to me that I may be mistaken, that it may be my projection, then although it will lessen my fear it will not completely dispel it. However, if instead I develop the thought that it is pure and utter illusion, that there isn’t anything there at all and I’m just imagining it, and if my negation is that categorical, then of course it will have an immediate impact on dispelling my fear. The question is: if that is the case, what is actually being negated? What is empty of what?

According to the scriptures, emptiness in this example is an absence of the object of negation, which in this case is the object of our fearful apprehension. This does not explain things fully, however, so we have to go further and try to understand what the object of negation actually is. The key to this question really lies in the way we understand the meaning of atman (self) in the context of anatman (no-self). Depending upon one’s philosophical interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching on anatman, there will be differences in the way one identifies what is being negated here.

Buddhist literature expresses varying degrees of subtlety concerning the identity of the atman as an object of negation. For instance, on one level the atman is identified as substantially real, as a soul that exists within each one of us, and so in this context anatman means the negation of a substantially real autonomous agent or eternal soul.

Then we have the interpretation of the Chittamatra school, which understands fundamental ignorance not as the belief in a substantially real and eternal soul, but rather as the belief in the reality of the physical world. The Chittamatrins understand fundamental ignorance, then, as the (erroneous) belief in the duality of mind and matter, so the object to be negated with respect to anatman is precisely this belief.

Thirdly, there is the Madhyamaka-Svatantrika understanding of emptiness. According to this school, although things come into being as a result of causes and conditions, and although the status of things as existing is in one sense or another dependent on our perception, nevertheless there is a certain intrinsic reality to things and events. What is negated by this school is the assertion that objects exist independent of perception, and it is this that constitutes their understanding of emptiness.

From the point of view of the Madhyamaka-Prasangika school, however, that is not the final meaning of the Buddha’s teaching on anatman. According to this view, so long as we have not deconstructed or dismantled the notion that things and events can have any type of intrinsic existence whatsoever, then we are still grasping at things as real, as though they enjoyed some kind of independent status. Therefore the Prasangika-Madhyamikas negate the intrinsic existence and identity of things and events, and claim that this is the true meaning of emptiness.

Despite these differences, what all four schools have in common is a concern to emphasize that while we are rightly engaged in counteracting our grasping at the self, it is important to ensure that our negation does not defy the reality of the conventional world, the world of lived experience. There is a shared understanding that causality and the operation of karma should not be negated in the process. It seems that the Madhyamaka-Prasangika approach is the most successful in this respect, in so far as it uses a form of analysis that allows a thorough and complete negation of atman, while at the same time ensuring that the world of dependent origination and of karma is not destroyed but, on the contrary, reaffirmed.

The middle way

There is a very important passage in Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Treatise on the Middle Way (Madhyamaka-mulakarika), where he states: “That which is dependently originated, I call empty. And that is, in turn, dependently designated.” The idea is that whatever is dependently originated is empty in the ultimate sense, and that what we designate, dependently, is nothing other than empty phenomena. The fact that things and events are dependently designated implies that they are not non-existent, they are not mere nothingness. So when an understanding of dependent origination is combined with an understanding of emptiness, we find that this enables an individual to tread the Middle Way, so-called because it avoids the extremes of absolutism and nihilism.

So the Madhyamaka expression ‘dependently designated’ has a deep significance. The first word, ‘dependently’, implies that things and events come into being through dependence on other factors, which means that they do not possess independent, autonomous, or absolute existence. So this first point negates absolutism. The second word, ‘designated’, implies that things and events are not mere nothingness, that they are not non-existent - that they do indeed exist. This part of the expression therefore ensures that the reality of the phenomenal world is not denied. As Buddhapalita states in his commentary on the Fundamentals of the Middle Way, if things and events have an independent existential status, and come into being without depending on other factors, then why are their designations dependent and interrelated?

In connection with this point, I have been told by various physicists that they are beginning to have problems in postulating an idea of reality that is in accordance with the quantum understanding of the physical world - even as a concept, reality is a problem. For me this points to the difficulty of finding essences when we look into the essence of things. However, if we jump to the other extreme and say that everything is pure illusion and a mere projection of the mind, then we will be falling into the trap into which the Chittamatrins fell, namely the view of total mentalism.

So if things do not possess intrinsic reality and yet, at the same time, if we are not happy with the conclusion that everything is a mere projection of the mind, what is the alternative? What is the middle way? The answer given by the Madhyamikas is that things and events arise purely as a result of the aggregation of many factors, and their conventional existence stems from the identity we impute to each aggregation.

As regards the exposition of the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness generally, we find there are many forms of reasoning presented in the literature which are designed to lead to an understanding of emptiness. Of all of these, the reasoning that is based on the understanding of dependent origination is considered to be the most effective. In order to develop the most profound understanding of the meaning of dependent origination, I think the works of Buddhapalita and Chandrakirti are crucial. Much of my own understanding and, naturally, most of the presentation I am making here, is based on Lama Tsongkhapa’s exposition of these topics, which in turn is very much based on the reading of Nagarjuna by Chandrakirti and Buddhapalita, to the extent that Tsongkhapa substantiates almost every crucial point by referring to the commentaries of these two great masters.

When I study Nagarjuna’s Fundamentals of the Middle Way, I combine the 23rd chapter dealing with the 12 links of dependent origination, with the 18th chapter on anatman. This latter chapter shows how it is the process of grasping at an eternal principle, or a substantially real soul, that binds us to unenlightened existence. It further shows how negating the principle of atman, and eliminating that grasping, lead to liberation. The main point is to underline how important it is to gain insight into emptiness.

I then combine my study of these two chapters with that of the 24th, in which Nagarjuna anticipates a number of the objections which could be put forward by the realist schools of Buddhism. The core of their objections could be summarized in this way: If there is no intrinsic reality, and if there is no intrinsic existence and identity to things and events, then there is no-thing. It follows that there cannot be any Four Noble Truths; if there are no Four Noble Truths there are no Three Jewels; if there are no Three Jewels there cannot be a Path to enlightenment. Nagarjuna responds by turning the realists’ own criticism against them by saying that, on the contrary, if things do exist intrinsically then the consequences the realists attribute to his argument would apply to theirs. That is to say, if things are intrinsically real then the Four Noble Truths would not apply, nor could causes produce effects. So the central message of that chapter is to demonstrate that what Nagarjuna means by emptiness is not a mere nothingness, or a mere non-existence. Emptiness should be understood in terms of the interdependent nature of reality: It is by virtue of their dependent origination that things are devoid of independent existence.

Lodrō Gyatso, a Tibetan master from Amdo, captured this point in a beautiful verse. He said that emptiness in this context does not mean the absence of functionality. What does it mean then? It is the emptiness of real or absolute existence. Dependent origination does not entail intrinsic reality or intrinsic identity, but what it does entail is illusion-like, phenomenal reality. So when you understand the meaning of both emptiness and dependent origination, you can posit emptiness and appearance simultaneously, within one locus, without contradiction.

Furthermore, the same master added that all philosophical schools describe their own position as avoiding the extreme of absolutism by talking about some form of emptiness, and avoiding the other extreme of nihilism by talking about the level of phenomenal reality. He pointed out, however, that it is only when you reverse the process that you overcome all forms of clinging: that is the Madhyamaka-Prasangika position, of course. From the point of view of Madhyamaka-Prasangika, then, it is through understanding appearance that a person is liberated from grasping onto absolutes, and it is by understanding the true meaning of emptiness that a person is freed from falling into nihilism.

The Madhyamaka Schools

Earlier I spoke about there being two different understandings of emptiness even within the Madhyamaka school itself, and I outlined how the Madhyamaka-Svatantrika view differs from that of the Madhyamaka-Prasangika. The basis for accepting this difference comes from the writings of Bhavaviveka, one of the chief disciples of Nagarjuna, who subjects the Buddhist realist schools to very critical examination, and at the same time criticizes Buddhapalita’s reading of Nagarjuna. Bhavaviveka’s own position emerges through these two critiques. In essence, he maintains that although they deny absolute existence, they do accept some form of intrinsic and objective reality to things and events, which Madhyamaka-Prasangika masters like Chandrakirti totally reject. So although Chandrakirti, Buddhapalita and Bhavaviveka were all great disciples of Nagarjuna, there is a substantial difference in their respective understanding of Nagarjuna’s philosophy of emptiness. It is on account of this difference that Tibetan Buddhist scholars distinguish two divisions within the Madhyamaka school, which they call Svatantrika and Prasangika.

These two schools also differ in their methodology. The Madhyamaka-Prasangikas lay much greater emphasis on what is called the consequentialist style of reasoning. This resembles the reductio ad absurdum where you are not so much using reason to affirm something yourself, but rather you are concerned with showing the internal inconsistencies of your opponent’s standpoint. In contrast, the Madhyamaka-Svatantrikas tend to use a syllogistic type of reasoning to establish their own positions.

Furthermore, there is another fundamental difference between Bhavaviveka and Chandrakirti which concerns the way our senses perceive material objects. For Bhavaviveka, it is valid to say that when a visual perception arises we see the appearance of an objective entity, because he accepts that things do possess a degree of objectivity which is then projected on to the perception. This is totally rejected by the Madhyamaka-Prasangika school of Chandrakirti. It is clear, therefore, that the central point of difference between the two Madhyamaka schools is whether or not one accepts any idea of intrinsicality.

Applying our Understanding of Emptiness

The reason why it is so important to understand this subtle point is because of its implications for interpreting our own personal experience of life. When strong emotions arise in you, say attachment or anger, if you examine the experience of that emotion you will see that underlying it is an assumption that there is something objective and real out there which you are holding on to, and on to which you project desirable or undesirable qualities. According to the kind of qualities you project on to a thing or event, you feel either attracted to it or repulsed by it. So strong emotional responses in fact assume the existence of some form of objective reality.

However, if you realize that there is no intrinsic reality to things and events then, of course, this will automatically help you to understand that no matter how real and strong emotions may seem, they have no valid basis. Once you know that they are actually based on a fundamental misconception of reality, then the emotions themselves become untenable. On the other hand, if your understanding of emptiness is not thorough, in the sense that you have not succeeded in negating the notion of intrinsicality completely, then of course your attitude towards emotion will be somewhat ambivalent, and you may feel that there is some sense in which it is valid or justified.

When you have developed a certain understanding of emptiness, albeit an intellectual one, you will have a new outlook on things and events which you can compare to your usual responses. You will notice how much we tend to project qualities on to the world. More especially, you will realise that most of our strong emotions arise from assuming the reality of something that is unreal. In this way you may be able to gain an experiential sense of the disparity between the way you perceive things and the way things really are.

The moral that we can draw from all of this is that the strong emotions which afflict our mind arise from a fundamental state of confusion, which leads us to apprehend things as real and existing independently. In conclusion, we know that afflictive emotions and thoughts have no valid basis, neither in our experience, nor in reality, nor in reason.

By contrast, your insight into the emptiness of things is not only grounded in reason but also in experience: it has valid support. In addition, your understanding of emptiness and your grasping at things as real are directly opposed to one other, so one cancels the other out. Since they are opposing forces, and given that one has valid grounding whereas the other does not, the final conclusion we can draw is that the more we deepen our understanding of emptiness, and the greater the power of our insight becomes, the more we see through the deception of emotions, and consequently the weaker those emotions become. Indeed, we come to realize that strong afflictive emotions and thoughts, and their basis which is ignorance, can be weakened, while insight into emptiness can be enhanced.


We have arrived at a point in our examination where we can conceivably accept that the power of delusions and of ignorance can be reduced, but the question remains as to whether it is at all possible to eliminate them completely and eradicate them from our minds. Some of the points in Maitreya’s Uttaratantra may be very critical here. According to that text, our potential for knowledge is intrinsic to our consciousness and is an inherent, natural quality of our mind, whereas all those factors which afflict the mind are not an essential part of it. Mental afflictions are distinct from the essential nature of our mind, and are therefore called adventitious.

So when we talk about gaining the perfect wisdom of a buddha, we should not think that we need to create qualities in ourselves that are not there already, and acquire them from somewhere outside of us. Rather, we should see perfect buddha wisdom as a potential that is being realized. The defilements of the mind hamper the natural expression of that potential which is inherent in our consciousness. It is as if the capacity for unobstructed knowledge is there in our mind, but the defilements obscure and hinder it from being fully developed and expressed. However, once our understanding of the mind is informed by the idea that the essential nature of mind is pure luminosity and mere experience, or the sheer capacity to know, we can then conceive of the possibility of eliminating these afflictions completely.

To sum up, in this chapter we have followed the conceptual approach to the question of whether or not it is actually possible to attain liberation.

Finally, if we accept that liberation is possible, how exactly is it to be understood? In the scriptures, liberation is characterized in terms of four features. The first feature describes it as the true cessation of the continuum of afflictions. According to the second feature, liberation is true peace, the state of total tranquillity where the individual has attained complete freedom from all defilements of the mind. It is described in the third feature as totally satisfying, because one has reached ultimate satisfaction. Fourthly, it is described as definite emergence, in the sense that one has definitely emerged from the process of unenlightened existence.

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