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In this third year of our continuing investigation of Buddhist philosophy, we begin our study of Madhyamaka, the Middle Way school. Madhyamaka is a direct teaching on the essential nature, free from all extremes. It can be divided into two categories: true reality Madhyamaka and word Madhyamaka. True reality Madhyamaka is the absolute, inexpressible nature-the Mother of all the Victorious Ones; word Madhyamaka describes this absolute nature. The practice of true reality Madhyamaka is divided into ground, path and fruit, whereas word Madhyamaka is divided into teachings and commentaries. The commentarial tradition is characterized by Prasangika and Svatantrika Madhyamaka, and Svatantrika itself includes the Sautrantika and Yogachara Madhyamaka schools. In this book, the Venerable Khenpo Rinpoches use Shantarakshita's famous Madhyamakalankara (The Ornament of the Middle Way) and commentaries by Longchenpa and Mipham Rinpoche to explore Yogachara Madhyamaka. This tradition is generally associated with the "three great masters of the east": Jnanagarbha, Shantarakshita, and Kamalashila.
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2007
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Dharma Samudra
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english
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0965933962
ISBN 13:
9780965933964
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^ 3321
O

pening

t h e

W

isdom

D

oor

of

the

Madhyamaka
School

By Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche
& Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche

O

pening

the

W

isdom

D

oor

of

the

Madhyamaka School

by

Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche
and

Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche

O

pening

the

W

isdom

D

oor

of

the

Madhyamaka School

by

Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche
and

Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche

Edited by Andrew Cook and David Mellins

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

Copyright © 2007 Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and
Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche

All rights reserved. No part of material may be reproduced in any
form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including
photocopying, recording, 01*by any information storage and retrieval
system, without prior written permission from the authors.

Published by Dharma Samudra.

Padma Samye Ling
618 Buddha Highway
Sidney Center, NY 13839
(607) 865-8068
wwvv.padmasambhava.org

ISBN: 0-9659339-6-2

C

ontents

Acknowledgements.................................................................................... 9
Introduction...............................................................................................13
The 84,000 Teachings of the Buddha................................................. 14
Beginning Discussion ofM adhyam aka............................................. 16
Bhavaviveka Refutes B uddhapalita................................................... 17
Chandrakirti Refutes Bhavaviveka..................................................... 19
Shantarakshita and M adhyam aka..................................................... 20
Questions and Answers....................................................................... 22
H is to ry ...................................................................................................... 27
How Svatantrika Madhyamaka Came to Tibet................................ 27
How Prasangika Madhyamaka Came to T ibet.............................. .3 0
The Svatantri; ka Madhyamaka o f This S hedra................................ 32
Review of Svatantrika Madhyamaka Teachings.................................. 35
Benefits o f the Nature As It I s ........................................................... 38
Madhyamaka Is Beyond Conception.................................................41
Madhyamaka and P rajnaparam ita...................................................42
Questions and Answers........................................................................46
Rangtong and S h en to n g ......................................................................... 49
Svatantrika M adhyam aka................................................................... 50
Khenchen Bodhisattva, Shantarakshita.............................................50
Longchenpa and MipHam Rinpoche.................................................52
Relative and Absolute T r u th ................................................................... 55
Refuting the Sameness of the Two Truths.........................................55
1. Error O n e ....................................................................................55
2. Error T w o ....................................................................................56
3. Error T h re e ..................................................................................56

4. Error F o u r.................................................................................... 56
Refuting the Separateness of the Two T ru th s ...................................57
1. Error O n e .................................................................................... 58
2. Error T w o .................................................................................... 58
3. Error T h re e .................................................................................. 58
4. Error F o u r.................................................................................... 59
Valid Cognition and the Two T ruths.................................................60
Meaning of the Two T ru th s ............................................................... 62
Jnanagarbha’s Two T r u th s ................................................................. 64
The Four Categories of Relative T r u th .............................................64
Two Divisions of Absolute T ru th ....................................................... 65
Madhyamaka and the Vajrayana............................................................. 69
Absence o f a Singular and Plural Self-Existing N a tu re .................. 71
Refuting Singularity............................................................................72
Refuting P lu ra lity ................................................................................ 74
How Do Phenomena Really Exist?..................................................... 75
Further Characteristics of Absolute and Relative T r u th ................ 76
The Five Essential Points of Yogachara M adhyam aka........................ 79
1. Functionality.................................................................................... 79
2. Independent Self-Awareness......................................................... 79
3. Interiority— Phenomena as Mental Projections.......................... 80
4. Countable and Uncountable Absolute T ru th ...............................80
5. Gradual Approach to Uncountable Absolute T ruth .................... 82
Uncountable Absolute T r u th ............................................................. 84
Svatantrika-Prasangika Distinction: Gradual Versus I n s ta n t

84

The Five Great Reasonings of M adhyam aka.........................................87
The First Great Reasoning of M adhyam aka.........................................91
1. Results Do Not Arise From Them selves.......................................92
2. Results Do Not Arise From O th e rs ............................................... 92
3. Results Do Not Arise From Self or O th e r.....................................94

4. Results Do Not Arise From Nothing W hatsoever................... 94
General Review....................................................................................95
Distinctions Between Svatantrika and Prasangika M adhyamaka... 97
Review of the First Great Reasoning of M adhyamaka.................... 99
The Second Great Reasoning of M adhyamaka...................................101
1. Phenomena Do Not Arise From Existence.................................102
2. Phenomena Do Not Arise From N onexistence.........................103
3. Phenomena Do Not Arise From Both Existence
and N onexistence..........................................................................103
4. Phenomena Do Not Arise From N othingness.......................... 103
All is Em ptiness.................................................................................. 104
Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, and the Five Reasonings.............................105
General Review.................................................................................. 107
Emptiness and C la rity ......................................................................108
The True Nature of Appearances..................................................... 110
The Third Great Reasoning of M adhyam aka.....................................113
Relationship Between Causes and Results........................................... 114
Do Cause and Result Occur Simultaneously?................................ , . 115
Do Cause and Result Make Contact?................................................... 115
The Fourth Great Reasoning of M adhyam aka...................................117
Reviewing the Purpose of M adhyam aka.............................................119
The Fifth Great Reasoning of M adhyam aka....................................... 121
Absolute Truth and Valid C ognition............................................... 125
Questions and Answers..........................................................................127
Dzogchen and M adhyam aka................................................................131
C onclusion.............................................................................................. 133
About the A uthors...............................................................

139

O ther Publications by the Authors....................................................... 143
Endnotes...................................................................................................147

A

c k n o w le d g em en ts

The Samye Translation Group would like to thank everyone who
was involved in helping bring this project to fruition. In particular, we
would like to thank Andrew Cook for his joyful and diligent efforts in
completing this book and editing these transcriptions. W ithout his
aspirations and hard work, this book could not have been completed in
such a short period of time. Thanks are also well deserved by David
Mellins and Keith Endo for their extensive help w ith editing, and by
Ann Helm for her help with the Tibetan and Sanskrit terms. We would
also like to thank the many people who helped transcribe these
teachings, including Ani Joanie Andras, M ary Ann Doychak, Keith
Endo, Beba Febo, Colin Foote, and Pema Tara. Additional thanks goes
out to Rita Frizzell for her assistance in preparing the text and cover for
publishing, to Sujata Ghosh for her help with final editing, and to Pema
Dragpa for his work w ith editing and layout.
As always, we are deeply grateful to Ani Lorraine O’Rourke and Pema
Tsultrim for their steadfast administrative help with Padmasambhava
Buddhist Center.
We would also like to thank all the resident staff of Padma Samye
Ling whose work actively supports the Khenpo Rinpoches’ activities
locally and internationally. We also wish to extend our thanks to all
mem bers and friends of the Padmasambhava Buddhist Center
worldwide for their constant support over m any years.
Most importantly, we offer our heartfelt gratitude and devotion to
the Venerable Khenpo Rinpoches for blessing us with the opportunity
to receive and practice these profound teachings. We hum bly request
9

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

that Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal
Rinpoche continue to turn the wheel of Dharma, and we offer prayers
for their long and healthy lives.
We sincerely ask forgiveness from all wisdom beings, holders of the
teachings, and readers for all errors and m isinterpretations of the
teachings present in this text. We welcome any suggestions on how to
improve the text.
May everyone who reads this book understand the value and
meaning of their precious hum an life. May their highest aspirations be
fulfilled for the benefit of all beings.

10

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

S h e d r a Ye a r T h r e e :
SvATANTRIKA MADHYAMAKA

Teaching:

The Svatantrika Madhyamaka of Shantarakshita
(Yogachara Svatantrika Madhyamaka) according to
the commentaries of M ipham Rinpoche and
Longchenpa.

Teachers:

Venerable Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and
Venerable KhenpoTsewangDongyal Rinpoche.

Time:

August 27 to September 1,2005.

Place:

Palden Padma Samye Ling Monastery and Retreat
Center, Upstate New York.

Retinue:

Thirty to forty students came from around the world
to participate in six days of intensive study of
Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

¡1

In t r o d u c t io n
We should begin by restrengthening our beautiful bodhichitta
motivation by thinking of all living beings, who extend as far as space.
Keep the following intention in your mind: “In order to liberate all
sentient beings into the state of perfect enlightenment, I am going to
listen to, contemplate, and practice the profound and essential teachings
of Buddha Shakyamuni known as Madhyamaka.”
Over the past two years, we have had the wonderful opportunity to
briefly discuss some of the philosophical systems of Buddhism, according
to our time and capabilities. Everything we practice is based on this
philosophy. But what does it really mean to study Buddhist philosophy? It
means we are engaging in and understanding the profound meaning of the
true nature exactly as it is, by discovering the truth without any exaggeration
or depreciation. It is therefore very important to have a correct
philosophical view. The Madhyamaka teachings are as profound and deep
as an ocean. And in this shedra we will try to enter the depths of the ocean
of Madhyamaka, rather than hang out on Madhyamaka’s beach! So let us
try and deepen ourselves by taking a dip in the vast ocean of Madhyamaka.
There are two different schools of Madhyamaka: Svatantrika
Madhyamaka, or Rangyupa [rang rgyud pa \, and Prasangika Madhya­
maka, or Thalgyurpa \thal *gyur pa].' These two schools present
profound and sophisticated philosophical systems, both within the
specific context of Buddhism and in the m ore general context of human
history. Before going a bit deeper into the Svatantrika Madhyamaka
school, we will give an overview of the wider span of Madhyamaka
teachings. It is im portant to understand Prasangika and Svatantrika
M adhyamaka, since each school is very profound; however, we don’t
have enough time to cover both in detail, and simply reviewing them
m ight not be very beneficial. So we have decided that during this shedra
we will mainly focus on Svatantrika Madhyamaka.
The Madhyamaka philosophy is a teaching of Buddha Shakyamuni,
13

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

who began his spiritual journey by developing the thought of enlightenment
known as “bodhichitta.” After cultivating bodhichitta, he continually
accumulated the two merits for three countless aeons.2 Finally, the Blessed
One reached complete enlightenment—the state of buddhahood. He then
began to share the knowledge and wisdom he gained through his practice
and meditation Mipham Rinpoche5praises the sublime achievement of the
Buddha: “You achieved the ultimate state of realization and discovered the
nectar of the Dharma. Filled with love and compassion, you shared this
nectar with living beings without any trace of self-importance or egodinging.” This nectar is the authentic message of the Buddha, based upon
his realization of the truth. He shared this realization with beings to lead
them to liberation. What we are experiencing now is the glorious nectar of
the Dharma, and we will drink it according to our capabilities.
The Buddha taught about the truth o f the nature as it is. He did not
describe the nature to be fander than it is, nor did he attempt to inspire
or please others by exaggerating. In the same way, the Supreme Teacher did
not subtract anything from the truth in order to avoid displeasing others.
He taught the truth in a straightforward manner, exactly as it is. Truth is
truth. But in order to help small, dualistic minds understand the nature,
the Blessed One taught the Dharma according to different levels of
subtlety, with each level corresponding to unique dualistic fixations and
the various ways the nature is perceived by various types of mind. These
teachings are known as the 84,000 teachings of the Buddha. Yet Buddha
Shakyamuni was not randomly trying to show us different things: Again,
he taught according to the readiness of our dualistic minds so that we
could understand in terms of our capacity, accept the validity of the
teachings, and develop progressively greater understanding.

The 84,000 Teachings of the Buddha
All the teachings of the buddha are encompassed by three seminal
teachings known as the three“tum ings o f the wheel of Dharma.” A great
Dzogchen tantra states that the Buddha gave different teachings in order
14

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

to subdue the three poisons of anger, attachment, and ignorance. To
dispel the attachment of sentient beings, Buddha gave 21,000 teachings
on the Vinaya. To dispel anger, Buddha gave 21,000 teachings on the
Sutras. To dispel ignorance, Buddha gave 21,000 teachings on the
Abhidharma. Finally, so that all three poisons could be dispelled and
subdued, Buddha gave 21,000 teachings on the Tantras.
These teachings do not essentially contradict one another because all
o f us are afflicted by the three poisons o f attachment, anger, and
ignorance, and these poisons need to be uprooted and removed. For this
reason, any Dharma teaching we apply is always good, since it will
directly remove the obstacles and obscurations that prevent joy and
realization; all Dharm a teachings are extremely special. The 84,000
teachings are alternately divided into three o r nine yanas, o r “vehicles,”
according to the various ways we can classify the teachings.4In any case,
the yanas become deeper and more sophisticated as they progress; this
is how the Buddha skillfully leads the childlike minds o f individual
sentient beings along the path to enlightenment. The teachings become
deeper as we grow and our understanding becomes more subtle.
Therefore, the teachings of the first yana are less sophisticated than the
teachings of the second yana, and the second yana is less sophisticated
than the third yana, etc. Each yana includes the teachings of the yanas
that precede it, so the presentation of the nature as it is becomes more
refined and accurate as one moves up the different vehicles. This trend
continues through all nine yanas. In general, this is how the system of the
nine yanas functions in terms of the minds of different sentient beings.
First, it is very im portant to understand the “view” and base our
practice upon this understanding.5 The view is our goal and target.
Once we have established this view, we can progress along the path and
eventually achieve our goals. Hence, the view is the foundation of both
the path and its result, or fruition. In Tibetan Buddhism it is often said,
“Madhyamaka is the view, Mahamudra is the path, and Dzogpa Chenpo
is the result.” Madhyamaka, M aham udra, and Dzogchen are not
15

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

contradictory or isolated from each other; they are al J connected. So we
follow a particular path according to our view, and, as we continue, we
discover the view as it is.
B e g in n in g D

is c u s s io n o f

M adhyamaka

Madhyamaka is known as Uma [dbu ma\ in Tibetan. Uma means
“middle” or “center.” It is this “middle view” or “middle way” we are
going to uncover and explore through the techniques of Madhyamaka.
But why is Madhyamaka referred to as the “Middle Way”? It is called the
Middle Way because it is not extreme; Madhyamaka is not right wing
or left wing. These are the ultimate teachings of the Buddha. In Tibetan
Buddhist philosophy, this ultimate view is known as ngedon [ngesdon],
literally “definitive truth.” Ngedon refers to the certain, definitive,
inevitable meaning of the nature as it is. Since there is nothing further
to add and nothing to subtract from Madhyamaka, it is known as
definitive. By directly referring to the nature as it is, Madhayamaka
explains the ultimate meaning of truth, the nature of all things.
As we m entioned earlier, the Buddha gave three or four seminal
teachings known as the turnings of the wheel of Dharma. Madhyamaka
comes from the second and third turnings, and the Vajrayana
teachings— sometimes known as the “fourth turning of the wheel of
Dharma”— are based upon Madhyamaka. Consequently, Madhyamaka
is the essence of the Buddha’s second, third, and fourth seminal
teachings. Generally speaking, Madhyamaka comes from the
Prajnaparamita teachings of the second turning of the wheel of
Dharma. Prajnaparamita m eans“transcendent wisdom” or “perfection
of wisdom, and is the foundation of the third and fourth turnings as
well. The philosophical system of the Prajnaparamita teachings was
made popular by the great masters Nagarjuna and Asanga, who were
predicted several times by Buddha Shakyamuni in different Mahayana
sutras and tantras. Nagarjuna, the first Madhyamaka teacher, was born
16

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

about four hundred years after the Blessed One’s mahaparinirvana.
The Buddha’s teachings on the Pi'ajnaparamita are very sophisticated,
very profound, and very vast, so they are difficult to immediately
understand.

But

Nagarjuna

summarized

the

philosophy

of

Prajnaparamita in a condensed way that is easy to follow. He wrote a very
famous

book called the Mula-madhyamaka-karikas, or Mula-

madhyamaka-prajna. In Tibetan, this work is called Urrn tsa wa’i
sherab,and it is sometimes translated into English as the Root Verses on
M adhyamaka.6 The Mula-madhyamaka-prajna has twenty-seven
chapters. Yet these chapters are not based on Nagarjuna’s own
presum ptions— he was not just guessing. Instead, this work relies on
logic, reason, and the reader’s own intelligence to explore and introduce
the nature as it is. The great Nagarjuna wrote four or five additional texts
to further support and explain the root text of the Mula-madhyamakaprajna,. These are called the Six Treastises o f the Reasoning o f Madhyamaka.
Altogether, these texts clearly establ ish the view of Madhyamaka.
Nagarjuna was the second head abbot of Nalanda Monastic
University, and many great masters and scholars came to studyat Nalanda
during the time of its flourishing. Arya Nagarjuna had several great
disciples, one of whom was Buddhapalita, a master renowned for his
understanding of Madhyamaka philosophy. Buddhapalita wrote a very
famous commentary on Nagarjuna’s Mula-madhyamaka-prajna entitled
Buddhapalita-vrtti, or The Commentary o f Buddhapalita. Like all great
Buddhist masters of his time, Buddhapalita was Indian, and he too was
studying and teaching at Nalanda. In his commentary on The Root Verses
on Madhyamaka, Buddhapalita directly establishes that everything is
within the profound state of great emptiness. Again, this work was very
popular in India and at Nalanda around the time it was written.

Bhavaviveka Refutes Buddhapalita
Between thirty and one hundred years later, another great master
was born in southern India. His name was Acharya Bhavya, or
17

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

Bhavaviveka, also known as Lobpon Bhavya and Leg Den Je.
Bhavaviveka had studied all the Madhyamaka texts, including
Nagarjuna’s Mtila-madhyamaka-prajna, as well as Buddhapalita’s
com m entary on this work. He refuted certain aspects of the
Buddhapalita-vrtti, arguing that Buddhapalita had gone too far in
establishing great emptiness. O f course, Bhavaviveka used solid
reasoning to support his refutation. He claimed that Buddhapalita’s
com m entary was not the correct way to present and explain great
emptiness to other disciples and practitioners. Acharya Bhavya’s famous
com m entary on the Mtda-madhyamaka-karikas is called Sherab
Dronma— the Lamp of Wisdom,7 and it is in this text that he contradicts
different parts of Buddhapalita’s commentary. The Lamp o f Wisdom
outlines the principal philosophical system o f Acharya Bhavya,
explaining that we should understand relative truth according to the
Sautrantika school o f the Hinayana. From this perspective, on the
relative level everything we see externally is formed by atoms.
Furthermore, perception is inseparable from mind, b u t the objects we
see perceive are made of matter. And this matter is composed of atoms.
Therefore all the objects o f the senses are com pounded— made of
atoms— and these objects are experienced through the perceptions and
conceptions of mind. This is the level of relative truth.
In contrast, on the level of absolute truth everything is empty: All
phenom ena composed o f atoms are empty, and all perceptions,
conceptions, and states of consciousness are empty as well. Based upon
this understanding of the absolute, it should be recognized that
everything is totally empty. Bhavaviveka explains that we should
m aintain this understanding of emptiness on the absolute level, but on
the relative level we should precisely follow the philosophical
understanding of the Sautrantika school of the Hinayana. As we said,
this interpretation of Madhyamaka from the Lamp o f Wisdom became
very popular, and is known as the Sautrantika Madhyamaka school, or
the Sautrantika Svatantrika Madhyamaka school.
is

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

Bhavaviveka was truly a great m aster of Mahayana Buddhism. In
addition to his Lamp o f Wtsdomy which is a word comm entary on
Nagarjuna’s Root Verses on M adhyamaka, Acharya Bhavya wrote a
meaning commentary on the same work entitled Madhyamaka-hrdaya,
or Umax nyingpoi tsig lerchepa.8 This is roughly translated into English
as Verses on the Essence o f Madhyamaka, He then wrote a third book—
a commentary on his own Verses on the Essence o f Madhyamaka— called
Madhyamaka-hrydaya-tarka-jvalay the Blaze o f Reasoning. These last
two works are considered to be essence or meaning commentaries on
Nagarj una’s works.

Chandrakirti Refutes Bhavaviveka
Several generations after Bhavaviveka, the great Indian master
Chandrakirti was born. Eventually Chandrakirti also became the head
abbot of Nalanda. He had studied the M ula-madhyamaka-prajna
commentaries of both Buddhapalita and Acharya Bhavya, and believed
that Buddhapalita’s work was perfect. As a result, Chandrakirti refuted
Bhavavikeka’s teaching, which had since become the basis of the
popular

Svatantrika

Madhyamaka

school.

He

claimed

that

Bhavavivekas’s teachings were more distracting than those of
Buddhapalita, since they did not immediately lead to absolute truth.
Therefore, he argued, Acharya Bhavya created many distracting
conceptual layers and detours to practitioners’ realization of the
absolute. Chandrakirti reasoned that all the different systems and
methods concerning matter, mass, and consciousness merely relate with
relative truth, and relative truth is both deceiving and distracting. He
questioned, “Why should we spend time worrying about relative truth
when it distracts practitioners from the true nature? As Buddhapalita
taught, we should immediately arrive at the absolute truth of emptiness.
This method is accurate, true, and doesn’t mix anything up.”
The

great

master

Chandrakirti

wrote

two

very famous

commentaries on Madhyamaka. First is the Mula-madhyamaka-vrtti19

Opening the Wisdom Door o f the Madhyamaka School

prasannapada, or Clear Words, more commonly known as Prasannapada.
This is called Tsig Salwa [tshig gsal ba) in Tibetan. Second is the
Madhyamakavatara, or Entrance to the Middle Way. The Prasannapada
is a comm entary that explains the words o f Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamaka-prajna, whereas the Madhyamakavatara, or Uma lajugpa
[dbu ma la fug pa], is a commentary on the meaning o f Madhyamaka.
These works created the foundation o f the Prasangika Madhyamaka
school o f Buddhism; because Chandrakirti emphasized a direct
approach to absolute truth, he is known as the second great Prasangika
master. We might say that Buddhapalita was the first master of
Prasangika Madhyamaka, but Chandrakirti became the most famous.
Others argue that Chandrakirti himself was actually the founder o f the
Prasangika Madhyamaka school.

Shantarakshita and Madhyamaka
The great Indian master Shantarakshita was bo m shortly after, or
even during, the time o f Chandrakirti.9 Like Chandrakirti before him,
Shantarakshita eventually became the head abbot o f Nalanda Monastic
University. He was also the principal teacher of the king of Bengal, and,
as you all know, the cofounder o f Tibetan Buddhism. Shantarakshita
studied all the Madhyamaka texts we have been discussing, and he wrote
his own commentary on the Mula-madhyamaka-prajna o f Nagarjuna
known as the Madhyamakalankara, or the Ornament o f Madhyamaka.
He then wrote another text known as Madhyamakalankara-svavrtti,
otherwise known as the Auto Commentary on the Madhyamakalankara.10
The great master Shantarakshita explained relative truth according
to the Mind Only philosophical school [Sems tsam pa]. This school
regards all relative phenom ena as mind: subject, object, and m ind itself
are all held to be mind. So, Shantarakshita describes relative truth in the
tradition of the great masters Asanga and Vasubandhu, exactly according
to the Mind Only view. In terms o f absolute truth, however, he follows
the teachings o f Nagarjuna. Thus Shantarakshita combines the
20

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

understanding of Mind Only and Madhyamaka into a single philosophy
by merging the teachings of Asanga/Vasubandhu and Nagarjuna into a
single state. Normally these two schools are considered to be two major,
independent schools o f thought. For this reason, Shantarakshita’s lineage
teaching of this philosophical doctrine is known as Chittam atra
Madhyamaka or Mind Only Madhyamaka. More precisely, it is known
as Yogachara Svatantrika M adhyamaka
Shantarakshita’s teacher was Yeshe Nyingpo (Skt. Jnanagarbha),
another famous Madhyamaka master who taught at Nalanda. Yeshe
Nyingpo wrote a very popular book on Madhyamaka known as Dettpa
nyi nampar chepa [bDen pa gnyis m am par ‘byedpa; Skt. Satya-dvayavibhanga\, the Division of the Two Truths. This text provided an
explanation of Madhyamaka very similar to that of Shantarakshita’s,
except Yeshe Nyingpo did not specify that relative truth should be
understood as described in the M ind Only school. Shantarakshita’s
m ost renowned disciple, Kamalashila, came to Tibet after he himself
arrived in the Land o f Snows. Kamalashila also wrote a famous book on
Madhyamaka— consistent with Shantarakshita’s presentation— known
as Umanangwa [dBum asnangba;Skt.M adhyam akaloka),theLighton
Madhyamaka. This very famous text is not exactly a commentary, but
rather a general work on the subject o f Madhyamaka.
Jnanagarbha— the teacher o f Shantarakshita— Shantarakshita
himself, and Kamalashila are generally regarded as the most renpwned
masters o f Svatantrika Madhyamaka. When we divide Madhyamaka
into Prasangika and Svatantrika, they are always classified as belonging
to the Svatantrika school. These masters are often referred to as the
“three great masters o f the east,” since they all came from India, Bengal,
and the surrounding area. Examining the history o f India, we discover
that Svatantrika Madhyamaka was very popular there, where it was
taught by masters such as Bhavaviveka and the three great masters of
the east.
21

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyatnaka School

Q

u e s t io n s a n d

A n sw ers

Q u e s t i o n : Could you say a little bit more about how Yogachara

Madhyamaka developed based upon the Cittam atra, or M ind Only
school?
A n s w e r : I think you all know that Yogachara is a synonym for the Mind

Only school, which is called sem tsam pa in Tibetan. The terms
Yogachara and Cittamatra are both Sanskrit words. Roughly translated,
yoga refers to an inner state of concentration and is deeply connected
with the mind. Chara means “conduct” or “action.” So Yogachara can be
translated as “action of the mind.” The M ind Only schools sees
everything in the world and beyond as none other than the emanations
and activities of mind. There are two ways to understand this. First, all
schools agree that one’s own perceptions, conceptions, and ideas are
mind. These are associated with the perceiving subject. Next, we have to
look at seemingly “objective” phenomena, such as mountains, the
world, the galaxy, and other objects. W hat are these? You may wonder
how these phenomenal objects could be projections of mind.
The M ind Only school teaches that our habits patterns of grasping
to phenomena as substantially solid and inherently existent have been
continually im printed in the subconscious storehouse (Skt. alaya), or
the eighth consciousness." Based upon these imprints, our perceptual
habit patterns reflect back to ourselves and others as phenomenal
appearances. Although objects seem to be distinct from mind, they all
begin with mind. Generally, we have accumulated habit patterns: (I)
the habit pattern of (perceiving things) as singular and solid, which is
the universal habit pattern; (2) the habit pattern of perceiving
phenomenal appearances, which are the objects of the senses; and (3)
the habit patterns of individual, physical characteristics. Even though
these three habit patterns appear to be different from m ind itself, they
are actually im prints that have been stored in the alaya for a very long
22

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

time. At the present time, these imprints (objects) are reflecting back to
ourselves (subjects), despite the fact that they are manifestations o f
m ind previously registered in the alaya. In this way, external objects and
all phenom ena are actually part of m ind’s own display; on the absolute
level, nothing substantially solid has ever existed throughout
beginningless time, phenomena are like illusions or magic. This is the
principal philosophy of the Yogachara schools.
The great Shantarakshita incorporated this Mind Only view of
conventional reality in the Yogachara Madhyamaka school, which
therefore describes relative reality in precisely the same m anner as the
Mind Only school. On the absolute level, however, M adhyamaka
describes everything as empty. Even m ind itsel fit seen to be empty and
devoid of inherent self-existence. Shantarakshita united these two
profound philosophical systems— the Yogachara view of conventional
reality and the Madhyamaka view of absolute tru th — w ithout any
hardship or contradiction. To summarize, on the relative level,
everything is a display of m ind; on the absolute level, everything is
completely beyond all characteristics and complexity.
In the Madhyamakalankara, Khenchen Bodhisattva • him self
describes the Yogachara Madhyamaka school as "riding the chariot o f
two great philosophical systems, holding the reins of logic and
reasoning.” And what are these two great chariots? They are the
profound Madhyamaka system of Nagarjuna and the vast philosophical
system of Asanga and Vasubandhu combined together in a single state
of practice. Based upon this profound system o f logic and reason—
applied in meditation— we will proceed directly to the perfect state o f
buddhahood.
Q uestion: You say that, since beginningless time, m ind has created
everything, even atoms. So m ind created that wall right there...could
you put this in an evolutionary context for us?
Answer: [Rinpoches laughing.] Yes, that is really true! If we look closely,
23

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

we will see that this entire building was created by mind; mind projected
the building, m ind made the plans, m ind carried out those plans, and
m ind constructed the building with different materials. And, as you
pointed out, all atom s are also created by m ind, or habitual patterns.
O ur habitual patterns developed a very long tim e ago. In fact, since
beginningless time we have been busy creating and reinforcing habit
patterns. For instance, the habit patterns of m ind gave rise to the four
elements: earth, fire, water, and wind.
One of the main habit pattern shared by sentient beings is the habit
of solidity, the tendency to perceive things as solid. W hen this habit
pattern of solidity is strongly developed, it appears as the earth element.
The habit pattern of moisture or liquid appears as the water element.
The habit pattern of warmth appears as the fire element. The habit
pattern of movement appears as the wind elem ent So the four elements
develop based upon our habit patterns, developing the physical body
and phenomena. These habit patterns reflect outwardly in a variety of
different ways as the objects of the five senses: form, sound, smell, taste,
and touch (i.e. feeling). The habit pattern o f spaciousness reflects
externally as the sky. Each of these “external” reflections is based upon
the habit patterns of the mind. This is why the M ind Only school and
many Buddhist teachers explain that our environment and the whole
universe begin in the m ind, and are none other than m ind’s own
reflections. Even though it seems to be the opposite— that everything
begins outside— deep down, the reverse is actually true; everything
starts inwardly and projects externally.
Our habitual patterns and karmic imprints are stored in the alaya,
which is often translated as the “subconscious storehouse,” the “all­
base,” or the “all-ground.” In a way, all the karma we produce through
volitional action12 is stored in the alaya as a karmic im print or habitual
tendency. When corresponding causes and conditions come together,
karmic tendencies begin to reflect externally as the waves and echoes
of these imprints. We call this “karmic vision,” “karmic experience,” or
24

Opening the Wisdom Door of theMadhyamaka School

“karmic activity.”
O ur meditation practice cleanses and purifies the karmic imprints
on the alaya, and we begin to create new habit patterns associated with
enlightenment. When we completely dissol ve and remove the negative
habit patterns of m ind through our meditation on the great emptiness
of the true nature, we are freed from the habit patterns o f grasping to
phenom ena

as

substantially

solid,

and

we

achieve

perfect

enlightenm ent. Once more, as we purify the alaya, habit patterns of
solidity begin to dissolve, and the space element becomes m ore
predominant. W hen the habit patterns of wisdom become stronger and
stronger, m undane habit patterns related with misperceiving the nature
completely disappear, and we begin to perceive the external universe as
a pureland and ourselves as an enlightened being, or deity.This is a brief
explanation of why m ind is the basis of everything.

25

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

H istory

How Svatantrika Madhyamaka Came to Tibet
But how did Shantarakshita’s philosophical system come to Tibet?
Of course you probably know that Khenchen Shantarakshita himself
travelled to the Land of Snows. There he taught Svatantrika
Madhyamaka, although he did not specifically use the word
“Svatantrika” to describe his philosophy; it was simply part o f the
philosophical teachings he gave in Tibet during the 8th century.13 The
twenty-five disciples of Guru Padmasambhava and other great masters
of that time were all schooled in the philosophical system rooted in the
Svatantrika Madhyamaka school. That is, Svatantrika Madhyamaka was
the only form o f Madhyamaka taught in 8th century Tibet. Although
both Svatantrika and Prasangika texts were translated during the tim e
of Shantarakshita, it wasn’t until the 11th century that Prasangika
became more widespread and activated in the Land of Snows.
A great Tibetan master named Ngok Lotsawa Loden Sherab lived in
Tibet during the 11th century. He was also a great translator and teacher.
Loden Sherab was born in central Tibet, but he left the Land of Snows
at the age o f seventeen to travel to India, particularly to the area of
Kashmir. He stayed in India for seventeen years before returning to the
Tibet, at which time he began teaching in central Tibet. Lotsawa Loden
Sherab became so renowned that each time he gave a teaching ten or
even twenty thousand disciples would gather to listen. It is often said
that there was no room large enough to hold all his disciples, so he
would teach in a meadow or on the plain ground outside. It is also said
that when he taught there were no obstacles: He would simply stand
up on the throne facing east and teach the disciples in that direction,
before turning to teach the disciples in the southern, western, and
northern directions. The Tibetan histories recount that at the end of
his teachings, everybody would say lekparsong [legs pargsungs], which
27

Opening the Wisdom DooroftheMadhyamaka School

is like the Sanskrit exclamation “sadhu!” It means “wonderful.” So
everybody would say “Wonderful! Wonderful!” This is still done today
in Sri Lanka.
At this time in 8,h century Tibet, they used a special book holder
called a shokala. When the teachings concluded, everyone would close
their books at the same time. The sound of these books shutting was so
loud that it would echo throughout the mountains, startling horses and
other animals. Loden Sherab’s philosophical teachings are classified
along with those of Acharya Bhavya and the three great masters of the
east. Thus, he is also renowned as a Svatantrika Madhyamaka master in
the tradition of Shantarakshita.
Loden Sherab eventually became the head of Sangphu Monastic
University in central Tibet. According to Tibetan history, Samye was
Tibet’s first monastic university and Sangphu was its second. Many
great masters of Tibetan Buddhism, including the Omniscient
Longchenpa, started their education at Sangphu. Ngok Lotsawa Loden
Sherab was the second abbot of this monastery and he was responsible
for making Sangphu so famous. It was founded in the 11th century and
survived through the late fifteenth or 16,h century. Sangphu truly
became one of the greatest centers of studying, learning, and knowledge
in all of Tibet. Upon reading the histories, you will find that all the great
masters of Tibetan Buddhism before the 16th century— regardless of
their particular school— studied at Sangphu monastery. Briefly, Loden
Sherab was a very famous master of Svatantrika Madhyamaka.
Lotsawa Loden Sherab had many renowned students, including
TolungGyamarwa [stodlungrgyadmarba) andTolungwa [grolungba],
who were very famous. Because these disciples were great adherents of
the Svatantrika Madhyamaka school, they were also followers of the
three great masters of the east and Bhavaviveka. Later on, another
remarkable master appeared in Tibet named Chapa Chokyi Senge, who
eventually became the head teacher of Sangphu monastery. He was a
very famous logician and practitioner, regarded as an exceptional
28

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

follower of the masters of the east and Acharya Bhavya. Chapa Chokyi
Senge himself had many famous disciples, among whom the m ost
renowned were known as the “eight line disciples of Chapa Chokyi
Senge.” Each one of these disciples became a very famous logician and
scholar, following the Svatantrika Madhyamaka philosophical school.
Generally speaking, the Madhyamaka philosophical system is based
upon logic, philosophy, and correct view— all three are united together.
Thus, each of these Svatantrika teachers was also an expert logician.
Chapa Chokyi Senge is one of the greatest logicians in Tibetan history.
In fact, in a way he is the founder of Tibet’s system of debate. Although
Buddhist debate already existed in India, the Tibetan debate system and
style were invented by Chokyi Senge.
Around the same time as the eight line sons of Chapa, the glorious
master Sakya Pandita appeared in Tibet. One of the greatest masters of
Tibetan Buddhism, Sakya Pandita became the royal teacher o f the
youngest Tibetan prince. He was an accomplished master of Svatantrika
Madhyamaka, a hence follower of the three great masters of the east
and Acharya Bhavya.
When we speak of all these distinguished logicians and masters, we
are not simply referring to intellectuals; these beings were also great
practitioners who achieved the highest realization by practicing
Madhyamaka in combination with the Vajrayana teachings. Both
Svatantrika and Prasangika Madhyamaka were popular in India, but
Svatantrika Madhyamaka was especially widespread. Many of the great
Indian masters— such as the eighty-four mahasiddhas— followed the
philosophy of the Svatantrika Madhyamaka school. As we explained
earlier, this philosophy later came to Tibet and influenced the twenty-five
disciples of Guru Padmasambhava. Consequently, the philosophy of the
twenty-five disciples is also based upon the Svatantrika Madhyamaka
school. The same can be said for the eighty mahasiddhas of the Yerpa
region.14 All the students of Loden Sherab practiced according to the
Svatantrika view, along with the skillful means of the Vajarayana,
29

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

reaching the highest level of realization. This is just a brief history about
how Svatantrika Madhyamaka was transmitted and became popular in
India and Tibet, up until the eleventh or 12th century.

How Prasangika Madhyamaka Came to Tibet
While Prasangika M adhyamaka is often referred to as the
philosophical teachings of Chandrakirti, it actually includes the
teachings of both

Chandrakirti and Buddhapalita. Prasangika

Madhyamaka was also translated into Tibetan during the 8th century,
the time of Guru Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita, but it was never
as popular as Svatantrika Madhyamaka. In terms of ultimate meaning,
Svatantrika Madhyamaka and Prasangika Madhyamaka agree: For both
schools, the absolute meaning is the same, so there they are not so
different in that respect. It is only the method through which each school
establishes the ultimate philosophical view that differs. Again,
Prasangikas and Svatantrikas agree on the essential nature of absolute
truth.
After the time of Lotsawa Loden Sherab— sometime at the end of
the eleventh or the beginning of the 12th century—another noble being
appeared in Tibet whose name was Patsap Nyima Dragpa. Nyima
Dragpa also travelled to northw est India to study in the pocket o f
Buddhist activity in Kashmir, eventually becoming a great translator
and master before returning to Tibet. Nyima Dragpa became interested
in Prasangika Madhyamaka and devoted himself to this philosophical
system. He corrected and retranslated Chadrakirti’s Prasamapada, or
Tsig Tsel (Clear Words), teaching Prasangika Madhyamaka to his
disciples using the Madhyamakavatara. As a result, the Prasangika
tradition grew in popularity during this period in Tibet.
W hen Nyima Dragpa initially began teaching Prasangika
Madhyamaka in Tibet he did not have m any followers. Thereafter,
however, another great Kadampa master began sending his disciples to
study with the famed Sharawa, who specifically taught Chandrakirti’s
30

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

Madhyamakavatara. Due to the efforts of these students, many Tibetan
practitioners soon became interested in the Prasangika Madhyamaka
school. For this reason, there was a rapid growth of the Prasangika
Madhyamaka school in 'fibet during this period.
It was around this time that Chapa Chokyi Senge was said to have
eight lines o f spiritual sons, sometimes referred to as the “sons of the
eight great lines.” Among these spiritual sons was Magda Changchub.
Because he was a disciple of Chapa Chokyi Senge, Magda studied
Svatantrika Madhyamaka; nevertheless, he was also interested in the
Prasangika philosophical system. Thus, Magda Changchub continued
his studies of Prasangika Madhyamaka under Patsap Nyima Dragpa,
eventually becoming one of the greatest Prasangika masters of Tibet.
In later Tibetan histories, Patsap Nyima Dragpa is said to have four
spiritual sons, or renowned disciples, including Magda Changchub.
Hence, Magda Janchub is considered to be a spiritual son of both Chapa
Chokyi Senge as well as Patsap Nyima Dragpa.
But what is the red difference between Svatantrika and Prasangika
Madhyamaka? In essence, there are no big differences between these
schools; the only significant distinction lies in the methods each
tradition uses to establish the two truths, or relative truth and absolute
truth. Regarding their presentations of the absolute level with respect to
the principal “view,” they are the same. So both schools are very similar,
differing only in very subtle ways.
This has been a brief history of the two Madhyamaka schools,
including how they originated in India and later arrived in Tibet. It is
very beneficial to know the history o f how these Madhyamaka schools
began and gained popularity. After Sharawa’s teaching on Prasangika
Madhyamaka, this philosophical school became well-known and widely
practiced in Tibet, and has remained so until the present. Along with
Svatantrika Madhyamaka, Prasangika Madhyamaka is now a principal
subject of meditation in all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The
Dzogchen tantra known as Ati kopa chenpcd gyu (Ati bkod pa chen pa’i
31

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

rgyud) emphasizes the importance o f understanding a given teaching’s
history, explaining that it is hard to have confidence in a teaching
without exploring its history. This is said in various teachings. We have
begun our shedra by following this tradition and mentioning the names
of just a few o f the great Madhyamaka masters of India and Tibet.
Among the Indian and Tibetan masters we just m entioned, a few
contemplated and practiced Madhyamaka in com bination with
Dzogchen and tantra teachings, thus reaching high realization. Each of
the eighty-four mahasiddhas— these wonderful Indian and Tibetan
masters— were practitioners o f Madhyamaka as well as Dzogchen.
There have been countless practitioners and masters who achieved
realization through the practice of Madhyamaka. The mahasiddhas of
India are not restricted to those who gathered at Bodhgaya for a single
ganachakra ceremony, later coming to be known as the “eighty-four
mahasiddhas.”15After that ganachakra ceremony, the enum eration of
“eighty-four” mahasiddhas became very popular, but this does n o t
m ean there were only eighty-four. In India alone there were hundreds
of thousands o f great masters who practiced in this way; the names we
havevlisted here are just a small percent of the total num ber o f
accomplished masters. Each one o f these masters had m any great
disciples, and hence there are lots of authentic lineage holders. This is
how the teaching lineage of Madhyamaka has remained vital until the
present time. Many of the ancient masters came from the first monastic
university in India, Nalanda. Later, sometime between the sixth and
eighth centuries, another exceptional m onastic university was
established, called Vikramashila. As we have already seen, the first
Tibetan monastery was Samye and the second was Sangphu.

The Svatantrika Madhyamaka o f This Shedra
Throughout this shedra we will be using Mipham Rinpoche’s
comm entary on Shantarakshita’s Madhyamkalankara, which is called
Uma gyen gi namshe jatnyang lama gyepai zhalung.16 Since the
32

Opening the Wisdom Door of theMadhyamaka School

Madhyamakalankara is a large book that contains many topics, we will
not have time to discuss it in its entirety. Instead, we will use the text as
a support for our teaching and study o f Svatantrika Madhyamaka,
exploring as m uch as possible in our discussion of this sublime
philosophical school. Among all the commentaries on Shantarakshita’s
Madhyamakalankara, Mipham Rinpoche’s is the largest and most
detailed; it is actually one o f the m ost thorough and precise
commentaries in Tibetan Buddhist history.
Some of you may already know that the great master Tsongkhapa
also began to write an extensive com m entary on Shantarakshita’s
Madhyamakalankara. He started his text with a beautiful verse of praise
to Shantarakshita, then began. But for some reason, he could not finish
the commentary. Later, his disciple Gyaltsab Dharm a Rinchen wrote
what am ounts to footnotes on Tsongkhapa’s initial work, presenting
his additional text under the title Uma gyen gijeyang [dBu ma rgyan gi
brjed bang). O f course, this is not an extensive commentary.
We have seen that Lotsawa Loden Sherab and Chapa Chokyi Senge
were great logicians and followers o f Shantarakshita’s philosophical
system. In all likelihood they also wrote commentaries on the
Madhyamakalankara. However, because they lived so long ago— in the
eleventh and twelfth centuries— many o f their works have disappeared.
People hope to find commentaries by these great masters, but so far no
additional works have been discovered. The teachings written by the
great masters during this early period in Tibet (i.e. the eleventh and
twelfth centuries) were transcribed by disciples and copied by hand—
it takes a long time to write out these texts! And the Tibetan woodblock
printing system is a relatively sophisticated and m odem phenom enon
that was not developed until around the 14th century. Even then, the
woodblocks and prints took quite a long time to make. Thus, many
works o f the ancient masters have completely disappeared. For example,
most o f the works by Chapa Chokyi Senge, written in the beginning of
the 12th century, are gone. I think a copy o f a text by Chokyi Senge,
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyatnaka School

providing an overview o f Madhyamaka, was recently found in Tibet.
Philippe Turenne obtained a copy of this text, which has not yet been
published— we are sure that somebody will publish it soon. In any case,
this is the reason why many ancient texts have disappeared.

34

R
M

eview

of

Svatantrika

adhyam aka

Teachings

We will now begin to explore the teachings o f Svatantrika
Madhyamaka. Just last year, we consulted Longchenpa’s teachings with
respect to the four schools of Buddhism; this year we will consult his
explanations of Mipham Rinpoche’s commentary on the Madhyamakalankara.
From the Madhyamaka point of view, we must first consider the
two truths. The two truths are extremely important since they comprise
all objects of knowledge. But where were these truths taught and who
taught them? They come directly from the teachings of Buddha
Shakyamuni. There is a Mahayana sutra known as the Sutra o f the
Meeting o f Father and Son [Yab sras mjal ba’i mdo] that recounts the
story of how the Awakened One, after leaving his kingdom and
attaining enlightenm ent, returned to meet his father the king. The
Buddha is praised in this sutra: “O h O m niscient One who knows
everything! All-Knowing One, you taught the two truths, never before
taught by anyone else in the world! And what are these two truths? They
are relative and absolute truth.” According to the teachings of Mahayana
and Madhyamaka, many things exist both in the world and beyond it.
Whatever can be conceived in the m ind can be categorized into these
classes of relative and absolute truth.
First, what is relative truth? Relative truth includes everything we
think, hear, feel, and analyze. It includes everything we do. All
phenomenal objects are classified under the label “relative truth.”
Relative truth is also known as that which is interrelated, functional,
and connected to the m undane level. Consequently, different teachings
such as the Sutra o f the Meeting o f Father and Son explain that relative
tru th can also be known as “relative truth o f the mundane world” or
“relative truth of samsara” (Skt. loka-vyavahara-samvrti-satya).
35

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

W hen we begin to analyze the exact meaning of relative truth and
investigate the nature of phenomena we experience by means of feeling,
hearing, seeing, and touching— in fact, all our activities— we do not
find anything substantially solid to which we can grasp or cling. There
is no solid existence behind these experiences: all evaporate into the
state of emptiness, without a trace. This is known as “absolute truth.”
Nevertheless, the two truths were never made into law by the
Buddha. He never ordered us to believe in them. Even so, the two truths
accurately describe the nature o f reality. If we investigate reality on our
own, trying to discover the essence of things by grasping on to objects
as tangible— as things we can hold, touch, or feel— then the words of
the Buddha appear to be false. We will say, “No, the two truths are not
actually correct.” However, as we continue investigate and discover the
essence of objects, we eventually come to the realization that there is
really nothing to find. In this case, we will see that the Buddha’s words
are true and that reality is as he described it. We will conclude that the
two truths correctly describe the nature of reality as it is. Again, this is
referred to as “absolute truth.”
When we establish things according to how they appear to ordinary
perception through hearing, touching, and feeling, this is relative truth.
It includes conceptions such as “I like” and “I don’t like”; “I am happy”
and “I am not happy”; “this is good” and “that is bad”; “this is beautiful”
and “that is not beautiful.” All types of analysis, conceptualization, and
everything we can express in words is relative truth just as it is. Yet when
we look into each of these things, we cannot find any substantially solid
basis behind them. This is known as “emptiness.” The system of relative
and absolute, which is actually two systems, is known as the view of
Svatantrika Madhyamaka. Understanding reality in this way, one can
experience relative truth exactly as it is, w ithout grasping and clinging
to things as substantial and solid. Such is the m ethod for transcending
limited conceptions and accepting reality exactly as it is, w ithout
overlapping the two truths, and w ithout ignoring, judging, or imposing
36

Opening the Wisdom Door of theMadhyamaka School

the two truths upon each other. We simply accept relative truth as it is
and then move beyond it. This is taught by Svatantrika Madhyamaka.
When we say something is “beautiful” or “wonderful,” this is relative
truth. But let us think about what this “beautiful” thing really is. Where
is this beauty? Does it lie in a mental state or in an object? To begin, we
should examine where our concept of beauty comes from. Does this
label exist in the m ind— the subject— or in an object? Upon
investigating in this way, we discover that there is nothing vve can really
hold or grasp on to; there is no substantially solid existing beauty. This
is known as emptiness.
Similarly, when we speak of something as being “bad,” this
“badness” exists in terms of relative truth. Relatively speaking, bad is
bad. But looking closer at the situation, we should try to find where
badness resides. Does it reside in the perceiving subject or the perceived
object? W here is this so-called “badness”? This name and label, this
form ation called “bad”— where is it? The more we think about and
investigate the location of our conception, the more the whole thing
evaporates. Not finding anything whatsoever is itself absolute truth.
This is the philosophical view of the Svatantrika Madhyamaka school,
put very simply and briefly.
“Svatantrika” is a Sanskrit word. Sva means “self” and tantrika comes
from the word tantra, which means “continuation” or “self­
continuation.” Hence “Svatantrika” means “self-continuity.” This means
each and every object of relative truth is, in a way, self-continuing. On
the relative level, everything is a chain of momentary instants, a selfcontinuing continuum. The first instant becomes the cause of the second
instant, and the second instant is the result of the first. This is the self­
continuation of conventional reality. On the absolute level, however,
everything we see— all this self-continuation— is just an echo of great
emptiness. Self-continuity is a sparkling chain of mirages, of emptiness.
There is nothing anywhere that exists in a substantial or solid way.
Svatantrika Madhyamaka encourages us to discover this self-continuing
37

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

nature exactly as it is, both on the relative and absolute levels.
As we m entioned earlier, the Buddha taught about the nature as it
is; he taught about the truth. But there is no imposition and no doctrine
in the Buddha’s teachings— there is nothing to believe. In Svatantrika
Madhyamaka, we consider what is happening behind the scenes of mere
appearances. We have to investigate and analyze what is really going on.
In other words, the Buddha is talking to us and we are talking to the
Buddha, to this nature. Simultaneously, we ourselves are part o f the
nature, so we have every right to investigate w hether or n o t the
teachings are true. Buddha Shakyamuni said this m any times
throughout the teachings. He said, “You should investigate, analyze, and
discover whether or not my words are true. Only then should you accept
or reject them.” Therefore, we do n o t have to be overly polite or
respectful when we talk about philosophical matters. Only when we
agree w ith the teachings based on valid cognition— once th etru e nature
has been legitimately established— do we have to accept them as true.
If we persist in arguing after that point, we are m erely lying and
deceiving ourselves, ignoring tru th as truth.

Benefits of the Nature As It Is
So, what are the benefits o f this nature we have established through
philosophical analysis? W hen we follow the true nature, we discover
reality as it is: the Buddha. Once we find this nature, dualistic m ind will
no longer trick us. We all know that duality m ind loves to fabricate and
manipulate. It likes to grasp at phenom ena, to doubt and hesitate. This
is how duality m ind operates. O ur own self-deception has deceived us
about the nature o f reality from the beginning.
We have heard m any times that all our labels, beliefs, and actions
are simply the creations o f our own minds. Nonetheless, we tend to
believe in what we have created. We hold on to these phenom ena,
continually supporting and analyzing our m ental constructions. Yet
when we begin to investigate the nature of our beliefs by seeking their
38

Opening the Wisdom Door oftheMadhyamaka School

location, we find that none of them are substantially existent. None of
them exist with any solidity. This is the nature of emptiness. Still,
emptiness is not just a black hole som ething that helps us cover up or
ignore the true nature. It is just the simple nature as it is. O ur
conceptions themselves create the ideas o f perm anence and
impermanence, of “this” and “that,” “up” and “down.” And our duality
m ind then clings to these conceptions. Everything we can name is the
creation of duality mind! It is this very situation we must investigate
and analyze.
Again, not finding anything upon looking is referred to as
“emptiness.” The Tibetan word for emptiness is tonpa nyid [stong pa
nyid], but it is also called denpe tongpa [bden pe stong pa], which means
“no solid nature exists.” Emptiness, the absence of a solid nature, is
pervasive. Nothing has a substantial nature, regardless of whether we
believe a given thing to be good or bad. Even enlightenment has no solid
nature. This means we cannot say “samsara is empty but nirvana is not
empty,” or “samsara has no solid nature, but nirvana has a solid nature.”
That is not what the Buddha taught: samsara has no solid nature;
nirvana has no solid nature; samsara is emptiness; and nirvana is
emptiness. For this reason, in his Prajnaparamita teachings, the Blessed
One often said, “There is something even higher and deeper than
buddhahood, which goes beyond any concept such as ‘Buddha is empty,
or enlightenment is empty.”’ Enlightenment has no solid nature and
nirvana also has no solid nature. Then what is really going on?
Appearances are just a magical display—they are magic.
This is why we chant the H eart Sutra every day when we get
together. In this teaching, the Awakened One says, “No eye, no ear, no
nose, no tongue, no body...no wisdom, no five aggregates, no twelve
nidhanas, no eighteen dhatus, no twelve links of dependent origination,
no path, no journey, no wisdom, no loss, no gain, no decrease, and no
increase.” W hat is the meaning of this? When the Buddha taught in this
way, he had not become a cuckoo— he wasn’t crazy! Still, if he said this
39

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

under normal circumstances, people surely would have thought he was
crazy and completely out of order. This is due to the fact that we believe,
grasp, cling, and hold on to our conceptions. As a result we constandy
suffer. Buddha Shakyamuni released all conceptual boundaries and
traps. His teachings bring us to the state of total freedom which results
from discovering the essence of the nature as it is. This is the central
philosophy of Svatantrika Madhyamaka. Once more, it means that
every aspect of what we normally consider to be our “selves” is empty:
the self has no solid nature, the eye has no sol id nature, and the nose has
no solid nature, etc. Put another way, the eye is self-emptiness, the nose
is self-emptiness, consciousness is self-emptiness, and the entire
universe— including samsara and nirvana— is self-empty.
By discovering the nature as it is, we will actually be in the natural
state. This is known as “meditation.” Meditation is nothing more than
m aintaining awareness of the nature as it is, w ithout extreme views.
Simply resting in the natural state, we discover meditation— such is the
authentic view of the nature. There is only one true nature; therefore,
the views of Madhyamaka, Mahamudra, and Dzogpa Chenpo are not
contradictory. The same is true for the Chod practice o f Machig
Labdron, which we have had the opportunity to discuss in the past.
Additionally, discovering the nature as it is will pacify the sufferings of
duality, as in the Shije practice of Padampa Sangye. The great master
Padampa Sangye’s Shije teachings are referred to as “the pacification
lineage teachings” because by practicing them, one pacifies the suffering
that results from duality mind and its fabrications. The various kinds of
suffering are just part of the game of duality. By discovering the nature
and m aintaining this discovery, one attains realization. This great
realization is known as Lamdre, or “path and result,” according to the
teachings of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism. Due to practicing
these teachings, one achieves the result that was sought on the level of
relative truth.
We should understand that Madhyamaka is not just some kind of
40

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

intellectual game. It represents an essential practice and meditation.
W ithin Buddhism, study, contemplation, and meditation on the
Buddha’s teachings m ust be united so that one doesn’t fall into the
scapegoat of intellectualism or skepticism. We have to nourish ourselves
and absorb the teachings, so that we can expand our realization, love,
kindness, and thoughts related with the goodness of the natural state,
thus breaking through the boundaries o f duality. Then we will really
begin to reveal our own true beauty as it is. This is the purpose of all the
philosophical teachings that were laid out and taught by the many
accomplished and realized masters we'mentioned earlier.
As we continue our discussion of Madhyamaka, we should
continually restrengthen our beautiful motivation o f bodhichitta,
thinking, “All living beings would like to achieve enlightenment, and I
wish to lead them all to this state. In order to do so, I am going to study,
contemplate, and meditate on the profound meaning o f the
Prajnaparamita and Madhyamaka.” It is always im portant to keep this
beautiful motivation in our hearts.

Madhyamaka Is Beyond Conception
In general,“Madhyamaka” is known as Uma in Tibetan. It has been
commonly translated into English as “the Middle Way” or “the Middle
Path,” but it may also be translated as “center.” But this does not refer to
a center with boundaries— it is a center completely free from all limits
and territory. Anything with boundaries is not considered to be
Madhyamaka, the Middle Way. In a way, this “m iddle” refers to the
“ heart of the true nature.” Buddha Shakyamuni taught again and again
that if we have any grasping, clinging, or holding, we are not practicing
Madhyamaka. Grasping and holding are forms o f extremism; they are
at the edge. So if we grasp to notions such as “existence,” we are not
engaging in Madhyamaka. Likewise, holding on to any notion o f
“nonexistence” is not Madhyamaka. Nor is grasping to the notions of
“both existing and non-existing” and “neither existing nor n o n ­
41

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

existing.” We have to release every aspect of dualistic conception, freeing
ourselves from all extremes. Studying, contemplating, and meditating
in this way is known as Madhyamaka.
The simple way to understand Madhyamaka is to recognize that it
is entirely beyond all conceptions. W hen you have the view which is
free from conceptions, and you behold the state devoid of all grasping
and duality, you are experiencing an authentic glimpse of the
M adhyamaka view. Truly, grasping and clinging have nothing to do
with Madhyamaka. For this reason, the words “center,” “Madhyamaka,”
and “Middle Way” are just names that point out the profound nature
and usher us into recognition of the nature as it is. This is a brief
description of the meaning of the word “Madhyamaka.”
M adhyam aka and Prajnaparam ita
When we investigate Madhyamaka, we discover that there are many
different categories and divisions through which we can explore this
philosophical school. In this shedra we are presenting an overview of
the entire scope of the Madhyamaka teachings, as if gazing out from
the peak o f a m ountain in a panoram ic view of the entirety of the
Buddha’s teachings. From this perspective, we can see the Madhyamaka
of the sutras as well as the Madhyamaka of the tantras; it is possible to
divide Madhyamaka in this way. According to the Madhyamaka of the
sutras, there are two Umas: scriptural Madhyamaka and commentarial
Madhyamaka, the second of which is more more with texts, teachings,
and books. These books explain the teachings o f Buddha Shakyamuni,
including the commentaries made by great masters who expounded the
doctrine of the Awakened One. In Tibetan, we call these Ka Uma and
Shang Uma, respectively— that is, the Uma of the Buddha’s speech (i.e.
scriptural) and the Uma o f the commentaries on his oral teachings.
Scriptural Madhyamaka refers to the three seminal teachings given
by the Blessed One, as described in Sutra Mahayana: the first, second,
and third turnings of the wheel of Dharma. O f these seminal teachings,
42

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

the first turning of the wheel of Dharma is not considered to be a
Madhyamaka teaching; the entire second turning is considered to be a
teaching on Madhyamaka; and the third turning contains teachings on
both Madhyamaka and other subjects. Thus, for the most part, the third
turning o f the wheel of Dharm a is connected with Madhyamaka. To
summarize, the entire second turning and most of the third turning are
Madhyamaka teachings.
However, the Buddha did not specifically use Madhyamaka
terminology in his teachings, only occasionally using related terms.
Instead, the Blessed One explained Madhyamaka in the language o f his
Prajnaparamita teachings, which were given throughout the second and
third turnings of the wheel of Dharma. But what is the true meaning of
“prajnaparam ita”? As most of you know, it is roughly translated into
English as “wisdom that goes beyond” or “transcendent wisdom.” Yet
within the context of Prajnaparamita, the word “wisdom” does not refer
to intellectual knowledge, but rather to wisdom without territory,
wisdom completely beyond conception. This transcendent wisdom is
impartial, clearly and perfectly understanding the truth nature on both
the relative and absolute levels. By realizing this nature we “go beyond.”
And what do we go beyond? Duality. This is the essence of the
Prajnaparamita teachings. The practice and meditation o f transcendent
wisdom leads us to that which transcends duality altogether. In other
cases, “prajnaparamita” is understood as something that goes beyond
samsara and nirvana. Nevertheless, more specifically it relates with
“going beyond duality.” When we transcend duality, we discover the
innate nature as it is. So, the Buddha generally explained Madhyamaka
by way of his Prajnaparamita teachings.
The great master Nagarjuna used Madhyamaka terminology to
explain the Buddha’s teachings on Prajnaparamita. This language was
established in his famous work entitled the Mula-madhyamaka-prajna.
So, this text and those that followed it widely use Madhyamaka
term inology to explain and explore the profound meaning of the
43

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

Prajnaparamita. Asanga, another exceptional master, also applied
Madhyamaka vocabulary to the Supreme Teacher’s Prajnaparamita
discourses. In this way, Nagarjuna and Asanga were the two principal
masters who intensely explored Prajnaparamita— in a pointed and
accessible way— so th at everybody could understand and learn how to
practice on transcendent wisdom. The Prajnaparamita teachings are
often said to be very profound, vast, and deep; many masters describe
them as being “as deep as an ocean, as vast as the sky, and as infinite as
space.” Such are the common descriptions o f the Perfection o f Wisdom
Sutras. It is difficult even for m ature, intellectual people to understand
their meaning. Therefore, it is extremely fortunate that Nagarjuna and
Asanga clarified the profound and essential m eaning of these teachings.
Prajnaparamita is often described in terms of its “direct meaning”
and “hidden meaning.” The direct meaning of Prajnaparamita was
widely taught by Nagarjuna in his Mula-madhyamaka-prajna, whereas
the hidden meaning was discovered by Asanga. Asanga wrote many
famous works throughout his lifetime, including the Five Treatises of
Maitreya, which were actually taught by Maitreya and written down by
Asanga himself.17 Because their teachings are so profound, these two
remarkable masters— Nagarjuna and Asanga— are often known as the
“great suns of Buddhism,” or “the sun and m oon o f the Buddha’s
teachings.” As we have seen, Buddha Shakyamuni predicted their arrival
as well as the arrival of many others, b u t it would take too m uch time
to mention them all here. It is not accidental that Nagarjuna and Asanga
are so renowned; actually, they were so special and powerful that
Buddhist philosophy in general, and the

Madhyamaka and

Prajnaparamita teachings in particular, have continued in an unbroken
lineage until the present.
Three major Buddhist philosophical schools developed as a result
of

Nagarjuna’s

Mula-madhyamaka-prajna,

his

exposition

of

Madhyamaka as the deep m eaning o f the Prajnaparamita. These are
known as Sautrantika Madhyamaka (Sutra Middle Way school),
44

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

Yogachara Madhyamaka (M ind Only Middle Way school), and
Prasangika Madhyamaka (Consequentialist Middle Way school).
Although other Madhyamaka schools also developed, these three are
principal am ong them all. For instance, the Vaibashika Madhyamaka
school— associated with the Hinanyana school of the Vaibashikas— also
emerged after Nagarjuna’s great work. Sautrantika M adhyamaka
emerged with Bhavaviveka; Yogachara Madhyamaka emerged with the
cofounder o f Tibetan Buddhism, our own great master Shantarakshita;
and, finally, Prasangika M adhyamaka emerged with Chandrakirti.
Regarding these three schools, the first two are classified as Svatantrika
Madhyamaka, whereas C handrakirti’s teachings are classified as
Prasangika Madhyamaka. Therefore, the simplest way to classify
Madhyamaka is according to the Svatantrika-Prasangika (or RangyupaTangyurpa) distinction.

45

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyatnaka School

Q

u e s t io n s a n d

A n sw ers

Q u e s t i o n : Madhyamaka and the Hinayana seem to be very different

from one another? How are they related to one another?
A n s w e r : Madhyamaka is referred to as th e “Middle Way” in part because

it incorporates teachings from the Hinayana all the way up to Dzogchen.
Yet there is a slight difference between the Madhyamaka as it appears in
Hinayana Buddhism and Madhyamaka philosophy itself. Buddhism often
speaks about “view,” “conduct, “ and “meditation.” Our conduct should
be Madhyamaka conduct, our view should be Madhyamaka view, and
our meditation should be Madhyamaka meditation.
The Hinayana view is related with Madhyamaka, so we often speak
of the “Hinayana view of Madhyamaka.” Once we let go of the notion
of a substantial or perm anent ego— a defining characteristic of
Hinayana Buddhism— we are freed from the extreme of permanence.
Yet although we are freed from the mistaken conception of an ego,
everything functions without any blockage. But what is left when we
drop the extreme of permanence? Egolessness; we are left with
egolessness.This direct experience of egolessness frees us from nihilism.
In this way, the Hinayana view is also a Madhyamaka view. The view of
egolessness is actually the view of both the Vaibhashikas and
Sautrantikas, including the Pratyekabuddhas.
Madhyamaka conduct is also free from extremes, since it does not lean
towards indulgence (i.e. luxury) or asceticism. In other words,
Madhyamaka does not engage in the hardships of asceticism, nor the greed
that is often related with luxury. This is the conduct of the Middle Way.
Finally, the view of Cittamatra (Mind Only) is self-awareness free
from duality, which also releases us from the extreme view of
permanence. Still, because the luminosity and radiance of awareness is
ever-present, we do not fall into the trap o f nihilism. In this way, the
view of the Cittamatrins is also a Madhyamaka view.
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Opening the Wisdom Door of theli'hdhyamaka School

Question: W hat does “contemplation” really mean?
Answer: Contem plation refers to investigating and analyzing the
teachings we have received. It is im portant to inquire into the deep
m eaning o f the teachings and try to make some sense of them. In
general, all living beings have some form o f contemplation wisdom,
which basically means they are free from doubt.There are m any things
about which we have no doubt: For example, we tend to believe in
causes, conditions, and results. Upon seeing a result, everybody knows
that it is produced from causes and conditions. Nobody questions this.
Once we have developed this certainty, that is known

as

“contemplation,” since true contem plation is knowledge free from
doubt. The fact that results develop from causes and conditions is
known as the true nature o f illusory, or relative truth. But it is not as
though somebody forced us to believe in conventional reality. It’s very
simple: W hen perfect causes and conditions come together, results are
produced.
However, when we aren’t aware of the causes and conditions that
give rise to a particular result, we m ust thoroughly investigate the
relationship between cause and result at a deeper level. This is also
known as contem plation. Contemplation does not mean we merely
hear the teachings; we have to carefully investigate and analyze them to
discover their deep meaning. Once more, contem plation means we
develop certainty wisdom, about which we don’t haveany doubt. That’s
it! In a way the contemplation guidelines are very simple.
Sometimes, in the Tibetan monasteries, a younger student or junior
khenpo would review the teachings given by a senior khenpo. He might
go over the teachings with the other monks. Perhaps they would study
the teachings once or twice, and then get together and encourage one
another. They often debated, asking each other difficult questions. This,
too, is contem plation. Also, we can read through different Dharma
books and ask a lot of questions about what we have discovered; there
47

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

are many different angles through which we can view the teachings. In
this way we will develop the wisdom of contemplation.

48

Ra

ngtong

and

Sh

entong

After their introduction from India, these two philosophical
systems became extremely powerful and popular in Tibet. Sometime
between the 14th and 16th centuries, further divisions of Madhyamaka
appeared, including the Rangtong (“self-emptiness”) and Shentong
(“other-emptiness”) schools. “Self-emptiness” and “other-emptiness”
are rough English translations of the Tibetan, but it is more accurate to
simply refer to them as Rangtong and Shentong.
Generally speaking, the division between Rangtong and Shentong is
based upon a very subtle point concerning buddha-nature. Everyone
agrees that buddha-nature is inherent in every living being, without
exception. However, although the Rangtongpas believe buddha-nature is
continuously inherent since beginningless time until enlightenment, they
claim that its nature is empty, or self-empty. In other words, buddhanature is empty of itself. This is the Rangtong view.
In contrast, Shentong means “empty of other.” The Shentongpas assert
that buddha-nature is already enlightened, already in the fully-developed
wisdom state. They explain that, even though buddha-nature is in this
state right now, we do not recognize it at the present lime due to temporary
obscurations and defilements. Basically, Shentongpas believe that
enlightenment is immediately present when buddha-nature is emptied of
all things not buddha-nature Thus, they teach the importance of emptying
and releasing buddha-nature from the obscu ring habitual patterns, from
all negativities and defilements, at which point enlightment is right there.
This is why the Shentong school is called “empty of other.” We have now
completed our brief overview and general introduction to the different
Madhyamaka systems.
49

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

SVATANTRIKA MADHYAMAKA
We will now proceed to discuss the teachings o f Svatantrika
Madhyamaka itself, specifically the Yogachara Madhyamaka school as it
was taught by the great master Shantarakshita. Shantarakshita’s
Madhyamakalankara is the root text of the Yogachara Madhyamaka
school; in a way, it is the foundation of the entire Svatantrika philosophy.
We will study this text according to Longchenpa’s teachings on the
Yogachara Svatantrika Madhyamaka school, in addition to Mipham
Rinpoche’s commentary on Shantarakshita’s work. As we have said
throughout these teachings, there are no big differences between the
various Madhyamaka traditions, and the differences that do exist have to
do with very subtle points. The correct practice of any of these traditions
will lead us to enlightenment, so there is also no difference between the
schools at the level of result. Nonetheless, regarding their application, or
m ethod o f practice, each o f the Madhyamaka schools is unique.

Khenchen Bodhisattva, Shantarakshita
Shantarakshita’s Madhyamakalankara has been translated into
English along with Mipham Rinpoche’s famous commentary. By
reading these texts, we can see how special Shantarakshita really was.
We all know th at Khenchen Shantarakshita was the cofounder of
Tibetan Buddhism, b ut his greatness was not limited to this
achievement alone: He was also a highly accomplished master, an
enlightened being, m ahasiddha, great scholar, logician, debater, and
thinker. His fame is in no way coincidental. As M ipham Rinpoche
explains in his commentary, Shantarakshita was also predicted by
Buddha Shakyamuni.
It is said that Shantarakshita lived for over nine hundred years;
according to his own explanation, he spent nine generations waiting
for the appearance of King Trisong Deutsen. Shantarakshita remarked
that in a past life, Guru Padmasambhava, King Trisong Deutsen, and
50

Open ing the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School

him self all made aspiration prayers that in the future they would
together bring the Buddhadharma to a place where it hadn’t previously
existed. When Shantarakshita first m et King Trisong Deutsen, he took
firm hold o f the king’s hands and shook them as he spoke, “I have
waited nine generations for this m om ent. Do you rem em ber our
ancient commitment? Do you remember?” King Trisong Deutsen
answered, “I can vaguely remember, though I don’t remember clearly
because I have not meditated long enough.”
It is said that Shantarakshita repeatedly travelled back and forth
between India and Tibet— and even went to China— to spread the
Dharma. The fact that he could postpone his death for nine generations
and live for nine hundred years demonstrates his extremely high level
o f realization— truly, he was an enlightened master. As normal people,
we generally live for seventy or eighty years before ending up in a
nursing home, if we are lucky! Most likely we would experience many
difficulties and great suffering at the end of such a long life. But
Shantarakshita never underwent these hindrances. He simply waited
for the right time to be born and then established Buddhism in Tibet.
Finally, having left his legacy and fulfilled his comm itm ents, he
departed. Many emanations of Shantarakshita appeared in later times
due to his strong comm itm ent while chanting aspiration prayers.
The glory o f Shantarakshita cannot be overstated. He was one of
the most accomplished masters of Tibetan Buddhism, particularly in
terms o f the Tibetan monastic institution. It was Shantarakshita himself
who founded monasticism in the Land of Snows. Furtherm ore, the
example Shantarakshita offered as a role model and the teachings and
messages he delivered are still alive for today’s practitioners o f Tibetan
Buddhism, not only in Tibet, but also in the bordering countries o f
China, Nepal, Bhutan, and Mongolia. The great m aster’s teachings
travelled far and wide, and we continue to practice his lineage teachings
and benefit from his blessings.
Many teachings state that Shantarakshita was an emanation of
51

Opening the Wisdotn Door of the Madhyamaka School

Vajrapani. W hen he first arrived in Tibet, the great bodhisattva had
some difficulty establishing the Buddhist tradition due to the m any
negative and destructive forces of invisible beings throughout the
region. In reality, however, Shantarakshita had no trouble subduing
these beings; he only made it appear so because of his ancient pact with
Guru Padmasambhava and King Trisong Deutsen. It was necessary for
all three teachers to spread the Buddhadharm a in Tibet, so
Shantarakshita used the pretext of difficulty subduing the negative
forces to

encourage

King Trisong

Deutsen

to

invite

Guru

Padmasambhava to Tibet, stating that Padmasambhava would easily
subdue the obstacles. The great bodhisattva was using skillful means to
create auspicious circumstances for the country of Tibet. He definitely
had the ability to pacify the evil spirits of the region— this is why he
was renowned as an em anation of Vajrapani. Additionally, Guru
Padmasambhava was renowned as an em anation of Buddha Amitabha,
and Trisong Deutsen was renowned as an emanation of Manjushri.
Hence one often hears that three buddhas— Vajrapani, Amitabha, and
M anjushri— came together to establish Dharma in the Land of Snows.
There were m any lineage holders of Shantarakshita’s teachings,
including Kamalashila, Acharya Haribhadra, Dharmamitra, Arya
Vimuktisena, and Abhayakara Gupta. Each of these teachers was a
lineage holder of the Yogachara Madhyamaka school and a follower of
Shantarakshita’s philosophical system. As we discussed earlier, the
twenty-five disciples of Guru Padmasambhava also adhered to
Shantarakshita’s philosophical system.
Longchenpa and M ipham Rinpoche
The great masters Longchen Rabjarn Drime Oser (Longchenpa)
and Mipham Jamyang Namgyal Gyatso were predicted both in the
discourses of Buddha Shakyamuni and in many termas of Guru
Padmasambhava. As foretold, they became exceptional masters.
Although their degree of realization was equal to that of the Blessed
52

Opening the Wisdom Door of theMadhyamaka School

One and G uru Rinpoche, they were extremely h umble, simple, and
gentle, as if they were ordinary hum an beings. Longchenpa and
M ipham Rinpoche continually m aintained these qualities o f modesty,
humility, respect, and appreciation, along with devotion and pure
perception throughout their lives. In fact, they possessed all the good
qualities o f conduct we' can nam e— including loving-kindness and
renunciation— despite the fact they had achieved unsurpassed
scholarship and ultimate realization.

53

R elative an d

A bsolute T ruth

We will continue our exploration of Madhyamaka with a discussion
o f relative and absolute truth. The great Longchenpa describes “five
categories o f explanation” associated with the two truths. The first
category is known as the “object of valid cognition,” which is the basis
of the two-truth division. This refers to all mere objects of knowledge
perceived with valid cognition. W ithout such a basis, the two truths
could not be differentiated in the first place.
The second category of explanation is the “purpose of the
divisions.” In order to dispel mistaken perceptions about the nature as
it is, it is im portant to clarify why we distinguish between relative and
absolute truth. This second category has four subdivisions: the first two
relate with mistaken perceptions about the two truths, whereas the last
two are accurate descriptions o f the two truths used by different
Madhyamaka masters.
R e f u t in g

the

Sa m e n e s s

of the

T w o Truths

Some people claim that relative and absolute truth are simply two
different names that refer to a single object. For example, the object we
refer to as the “sun” in English is known as dawa in Tibetan and sol in
Spanish. This view is incorrect; relative and absolute truth are not the
same, nor are they different names for the same object. Four logical
fallacies result from asserting the sameness of the two truths.

1. Error One
First, if we were to hold the belief that relative and absolute truth
are the same, they would both be absolute, and consequently we would
make many logical errors. Logically speaking, if relative and absolute
truths were the same, everybody would recognize absolute truth
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immediately after experiencing relative truth: Since anyone can perceive
relative truth, this truth would simultaneously be understood as
absolute in the very m om ent of experiencing conventional reality. It is
comm only accepted that upon seeing absolute tru th one becomes
enlightened, it logically follows that everybody who experiences relative
truth would instantly be enlightened. But such is not the case at all. This
is the biggest error that results from assuming relative and absolute
truths to be the same.

2. Error Two
Second, if the two truths were the same, there would have to be the
same num ber o f relative and absolute truths: mountains, water, tables,
and cups are all examples o f relative truth, so there would have to be just
as many absolute truths. Still, by definition there cannot be m any
absolute truths. This is the second error that results from failing to
distinguish between the two truths.

3. Error Three
The third logical fallacy is connected w ith emotions. The emotions
o f sentient beings naturally arise along with the many appearances of
relative truth, swinging back and forth between extremes of happiness
and sorrow. In contrast, the recognition of absolute truth does not cause
emotions to increase and fluctuate between opposite poles; instead, it
leads to the state o f perfect enlightenm ent So, sentient beings are
constantly deluded by relative phenomenal appearances and so
experience many negative emotions and suffering due misperceiving
this conventional reality. O n the other hand, they attain perfect
enlightenment upon recognizing the absolute state and m aintaining
that recognition. Thus, absolute and relative truth are not the same.

4. Error Four
Finally, if the two truths were the same, why would we make the
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distinction between relative and absolute in the first place? What would
be the purpose of creating two absolute truths? These four arguments
are used to refute the view that relative and absolute truths are identical.
Thus, we have to accept that the two truths are different. We will later
use four similar points to refute the mistaken assumption that the two
truths are completely separate. The Omniscient Longchenpa used four
reasonings to refute both erroneous views: (1) believing the two truths
to be identical, and (2) believing the two truths to be completely
separate. From these reasonings, we come to understand that absolute
and relative truths are not the same; rather, they are two different aspects
of the same nature.
If relative and absolute truth are not the same, how should we
perceive them? We should perceive them as though witnessing a magic
show. Actually, the two truths are magical. Relative truth exists
conventionally, but the m om ent we investigate it, we find that it no
longer exists in the way we normally perceive it— it is simply a magical
display. This is why, in the Prajnaparamita Sutra, the Buddha said, “O n
the level of reality, the nature is neither true nor untrue.” The nature is
beyond the dualistic concepts of “true” and “untrue* As long as we cling
to these notions, we will not behold the nature of reality. At the level of
m editation, or realization, we m ust recognize everything as great
emptiness, totally beyond all false dichotomies and conceptual
fabrications. From this perspective, everything is like the blue sky, or
space, w ithout any essential or solid nature. Simultaneously, on the
relative level o f experience, everything should be understood as a
continually arising magical display.
R e f u t in g

the

Sepa r a ten ess

of the

T w o T ruths

We have just refuted the mistaken notion that the two truths are
the same. Now we will use four additional reasonings to refute the
mistaken notion that the two truths are completely different This is the
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second subdi vision of Longchenpa’s second category o f explanation.

1. Error One
Some people claim that relative and absolute truth are completely
different, just as a horse is different from a cow. This view is also
incorrect. First, it is commonly agreed that complete realization of
absolute tru th leads directly to enlightenm ent. But if relative and
absolute truths were totally distinct, one would not achieve
enlightenment even upon realizing absolute truth. After reaching this
so-called “enlightenment,” one would have to search for the nature of
relative truth as well. By definition, such a realization would be partial
and limited.

2. Error Two
Second, if the two truths were completely separate, what would the
authentic nature o f absolute truth be? If absolute truth did not actually
include the nature of relative truth, what would make it “absolute”?
Furtherm ore, where would absolute truth come from is the two truths
were separate? And how would recognizing that things don’t
substantially exist benefit us at all? Such an understanding of the
^substantiality (or interdependence) of phenom ena would be totally
disconnected from emptiness. So why did the Buddha teach, “Form is
emptiness, emptiness is form”? If the two trut hs were separate, realizing
absolute truth would make absolutely no difference in terms of
conventional reality.

3. Error Three
Third, if relative and absolute truth were two different things, there
would be no point in realizing the relative absence of an ego. How
would this help, since understanding egolessness on the relative level
could never lead to realization o f absolute truth? Similarly, there
wouldn’t be any benefit to understanding that objects have no
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substantial nature. For instance, recognizing that objects have no
substantially solid existence— i.e. a vase has no essential “vaseness”
outside of imputed labels— would not help us understand the absolute
nature, or great emptiness, because relative and absolute are assumed to
be completely separate. Relative and absolute realization would have
two different objects of perception.

4. Error Four
Fourth, if the two truths were distinct, a perfect realization of
absolute truth would not lead to enlightenment, given that one would
still lack a complete realization of relative truth. One would not be
omniscient. Having achieved absolute realization, we would still lack
understanding on the relative level. Thus, we would have to learn all
relative truths and would experience all kinds of emotions due to
grasping, since understanding the absolute would not help us
understand conventional reality in the least. Relative understanding
would correspond to an entirely distinct object of knowledge, separate
from absolute truth. Again, we would have to develop realization on
the conventional level, continually experiencing ignorance and
suffering. For all these reasons, relative and absolute tru th cannot be
separate from one another, nor can they refer to the same thing.
What, then, is the actual relationship between the two truths? The
basis of the division between the two truths is an object o f knowledge.
And all objects of knowledge, including everything that can be
conceptualized or imagined, can be divided according to the two truths.
As quoted in Longchenpa’s text, the two truths are not one, yet they are
not two, either. This is the third subdivision o f the second category: The
two truths are two different aspects of the same nature. Put differently,
they are one m eaning with two aspects. Lastly, other Madhyamaka
masters explained the actual nature of the two truths in a slightly
different way. They said, “One exists due to the absence of the other.”
Similarly, nighttime is absent when daytime is here; to say “yes” implies
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the absence o f “no”; and to say that one thing is here logically implies
that its opposite is absent.
V a l id C o g n it io n

and the

T wo T ruths

W ho observes these two truths? None other than our own
intelligence, our own minds. O ur minds observe both relative and
absolute truth. Yet m ind has many different aspects. For example, there
is a correct aspect of m ind and an incorrect aspect of mind. When we
see an accurate picture of relative truth, our intelligence is known as
“accurate intelligence.” In Tibetan, this is known as chog tsema [mchog
tshad ma], which means “true m ind” or “accurate mind,” as well as
“valid knowledge” or “valid cognition.” Valid cognition may examine
either relative or absolute truth, and it is this same valid cognition that
observes and judges objects in relation to relative and absolute truth.
There are two different types of relative truth: “mistaken relative
truth” and “accurate relative truth.” Accurate relative truth itself has two
divisions: “pure accurate relative truth” and “impure accurate relative
truth.” Pure accurate relative truth is only experienced by buddhas and
bodhisattvas and relates with wisdom, whereas impure accurate relative
truth is the perception that arises during times of heavy obscuration.18
Im pure accurate relative tru th is still considered valid, because this
impurity is not due to any defect in our eyes, nor is our consciousness
working improperly due to circumstances. Such view is true as it is, and
thus it is referred to as “valid.” In other words, impure accurate relative
truth is not based upon delusion due to specific circumstances such as
cataracts or other defects. It is called “accurate” because it is fresh,
contextual, immediate knowledge acquired through valid cognition. In
this respect, it is true.
In fact, since im pure accurate relative truth is experienced with
valid cognition, we cannot really call it “im pure.” According the
philosophical teachings of the Nyingma school, however, it is known
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as “valid cognition of the im pure” or “im pure valid cognition.”
Nyingmapas divide valid cognition into two classes: impure valid
cognition and pure valid cognition. Put differently, they are called
“impure cognition of the valid” and “pure cognition of the valid.” O f
course, impure valid cognition is very important. It is mainly through
this type of valid cognition that we operate in the world. For instance,
the famous Buddhist logician Dharm akirti based his teachings,
including

the

Pramanavartika,

the

Nyayabindu,

and

the

Pramanaviniscaya, on this type of impure valid cognition, although he
does not specifically call it “impure ” Dharmakirti simply calls it “direct
valid cognition,” which is pratyaksa-pramana in Sanskrit and ngon sum
tsema [mngon sum tshad ma] in Tibetan.
On the other hand, “pure valid cognition” is the valid cognition of
enlightened beings and great bodhisattvas. Their valid cognition is quite
different than that of ordinary, heavily obscured beings. This is why the
Nyingma masters divided valid cognition into two categories. Similarly,
the Cuyhagarbha Tantra describes two kinds of “valid cognition of
relative truth ” In these Vajrayana teachings, for example, the five
aggregates are said to be the five dhyani buddhas, while the five elements
are said to be the five female buddhas. Additionally, the Vajrayana
teachings regard the entire universe as an enlightened mandala, in
which the phenomenal realm and all living beings are all perfectly pure
from the beginning. Such teachings reflect an understanding based on
pure valid cognition. We don’t presently recognize the enlightened state
of the aggregates and elements— nor do we experience the entire
universe as an enlightened mandala— due to our habitual obscurations;
currently we only have access to impure valid cognition.
The distinction between pure and im pure valid cognition means
that the same object can be perceived in two different ways. First, we
should determine whether a valid cognition— such as the five dhyani
buddhas and the five female buddhas— is related with absolute or
relative truth. This pure valid cognition, for example, is still characterized
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as relative truth. Just because we do not normally perceive reality in this
way does not mean it is untrue. We don’t see relative tru th as it is
perceived with pure valid cognition only because our present valid
cognition is limited, and limited valid cognition cannot perceive the
objects of unlimited valid cognition. At this point we should qualify that
Svatantrika Madhyamaka itself does not explain pure valid cognition,
so, in a way, we have sidetracked the issue. Svatantrika Madhyamaka
exp