Subtitle: As Taught in Tsong-kha-pa's Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path. From the ad at Snow Lion Publications:

"Readers are hard-pressed to find books that can help them understand the central concept in Mahayana Buddhism—the idea that ultimate reality is "emptiness." In clear language, Introduction to Emptiness explains that emptiness is not a mystical sort of "nothingness," but a specific truth that can and must be understood through calm and careful reflection.

Newland's contemporary examples and vivid anecdotes will help readers understand this core concept as presented in one of the great classic texts of the Tibetan Tradition, Tsong-kha-pa's Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. This new edition includes quintessential points for each chapter.

Guy Newland is Professor of Religion and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Central Michigan University, where he has taught since 1988. He is a translator and co-editor of the three-volume translation Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, and is the author of several books on Tibetan Buddhism, including Appearance and Reality. "

From an interview with Newland on the book:

"Some traditions focus on the idea that emptiness is the absolute reality, the fundamental thing that exists, and that other things that appear are illusions. The practices involve allowing the fundamental purity that is the nature of things to shine out. I think that's a common way to practice in Tibetan Buddhism; you can find parallels to it in other Mahayana traditions outside of Tibet as well.

And then there is another way of looking at things. It doesn't disagree with that, exactly, but it shifts the focus a little and says, well, nothing absolutely exists. Nothing, including emptiness, exists in and of itself. Everything exists only conventionally because everything exists only interdependently. This is fundamentally true of even emptiness itself. That's what Nagarjuna said; that's what he meant when he said not to take dogmatic views of emptiness. He meant not to reify emptiness as an absolute essence. Therefore, in this view, emptiness is another conventionally existing thing. All things exist conventionally. Emptiness is the name that we give to one particular existing thing: the fact that nothing exists ultimately. And that's a very different way of talking about things.

This latter way of talking about things predominates in Nagarjuna's Fundamental Treatise and in Chandrakirti and in Tsong-kha-pa's Great Treatise. These texts are not opposed to the idea of saying that emptiness is the fundamental reality. They do believe that emptiness is the final nature of things. But they want to avoid having that be understood as an absolute essence.

I could probably boil it down: Do you think of emptiness as a kind of absolute essence of pure mind? Or do you think of it as the lack or absence of any essence? Anywhere? At all? Which way do you want to approach this? They're really different, I think. Both of these views have scriptural basis in the Mahayana. Both of them have strong practice lineages in Tibet. I think H.H. the Dalai Lama has made a large effort in some of his teachings, such as in Kindness, Clarity, and Insight, to try to bridge these and show that they are both legitimate aspects of the Mahayana tradition and that people should see that these are both medicines that are in the Buddhist pharmacy, not distortions of the dharma."

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Newland is being diplomatic here. I've referenced The Two Truths Debate by Sonam Thakchoe in various threads which demonstrates vividly and accurately the arguments of the above two approaches via Tsongkhapa and Gorampa; for example the Batchelor thread and the prior Gaia thread "letting daylight into magic." I offer those threads as context for this one, since Newland has usually been associated with the Tsongkhapa camp and in this book of course focuses on that view.

I also appreciate this from the interview:

CC: In Great Treatise, on which your book is based, Tsong-kha-pa puts forward the idea that conceptual thought is not the root cause of our problems, but rather a tool for liberation.

GN: Of course that's an absolutely core idea in the book. People sometimes have the idea that if they would simply stop thinking about things—sort of bury their heads in the sand—that problems would go away. They think that all that's needed is to practice a deep kind of concentration—very, very focused and one-pointed. It could be a very peaceful state of mind that relieves us of all our ordinary troubles.

The wish to do this is deeply in us—kids will go on a merry-go-round until they're dizzy just to stop their ordinary experience, or roll down a hill—which is what I did as a kid. Something within just wants a break from the constant talking in our heads—which can lead to sex or drugs or drumming, for example. The problem, of course, is that it doesn't get at the root of our problems. If we don't strengthen our thinking and analyze more carefully, then we don't get at what's really causing our suffering. Then as soon as the non-conceptual vacation is over, we come back to the same problems that we had before. They haven't changed at all.

If the suffering world is only a thought-construction, then stopping thought does seem to be the most liberating move. Yet as Tsong-kha-pa famously argues, another step beyond this, seeing that not thinking is not enough, is at the very heart of what it means to be a Buddhist. Other religions have profound ethics, and techniques for accessing amazing non-conceptual states, but Buddhism claims the distinction of a penetrating analysis of how the world exists. Only by engaging this analysis, and engaging it conceptually, does one create the basis for real liberation from unnecessary misery. As Ch'an master Sheng Yen teaches, practice is not about stopping thought, for if it were, your teacher could just whack you in the head with a hammer.

Once you have this understanding of how things exist, developed through careful analysis, you use the power of mental focus, developed in concentration and meditation, and make this understanding of empti­ness the focus of your practice. That way you combine these two kinds of Buddhist meditation—the kind that involves focusing your mind and making it a powerful instrument, and the analytical power, discriminating and discerning and working out exactly how things exist. This is the path of preparation, preparing yourself to go into nirvana.

hammer whackers.
What struck me was how he equated sex, drugs and drumming. To be honest drumming never got me quite as high as the other two. That is, until I got older and after repeated brain hammerings. Now conceptual elaboration gets me off so thank emptiness for Tsong-and-a-dance.
Ya I got a kick out of the drumming reference. Somewhere, perhaps in The Myth of Freedom, Trungpa talks about yogis who push on their eyelids and see interesting colors, an apparent reference to Yoni Mudra. The history of the polemic between the two "streams" -- jnana vs. yoga -- is interesting, and ancient, as ancient as the oldest Jain scriptures. You've done a pretty good job presenting its primary Tibetan version. I still owe Balder an account focussing on the ancient Indian tradition.
It's true that Chandrakirti does not distinguish between thought and some form of transrational cognition that is "non-thought."  He says that prajna is a form of "mati." What perhaps needs to be disinguished is the thought that reifies (prapancha; vikalpa) and that which does not (what Shankara calls "viveka"). Shankara too doesn't refer to some supercharged mysterious transrational faculty. Nididhyasana too is still a form of thinking (manana; mati) like dhyana.

To refresh from the letting daylight thread, quoting The Two Truths Debate (TTD):

A key issue here is whether the transcendence of conceptual elaboration (prapanca) calls for a total obliteration of conceptual categories (107).

Although it is not entirely without ontological implications, T does not view the transcendence of the categories of prapanca as a metaphysical transcendence. What is transcended is the conventional understanding associated with the dualistic understanding of things—but without entailing the nonexistence of those things. This follows from his prior commitment to a transcendent epistemological perspective as the basis on which the essenceless, relational and contingent nature of phenomena is established. So while the cognitive agent experiences a total transcendence of the categories of prapanca in the realization of ultimate truth during meditative equipoise, T takes this experience of transcendence to operate strictly within the epistemic domain—within the psychophysical aggregates, which are not themselves transcended or dissolved. Transcending the categories of prapanca is not metaphysical transcendence (110-11).

As espoused by T, ultimate valid cognition is transcendent wisdom in the sense that it is directed to the transcendent sphere—toward ultimate truth, supramundane or unconditioned nirvana—but it is nevertheless mundane in terms of its scope and meaning. Transcendent wisdom still operates entirely within the range of the conditioned world—it is itself dependently arisen and does not imply a shift to a metaphysically unconditioned sphere…. The true and essential characteristic of transcendent knowledge thus consists in a precise understanding of the conditioned world itself… Once transcendent knowledge is achieved, the meditator still makes use of dualities in practical contexts…and yet the habitual tendency toward prapanca ceases, for the meditator now sees such dualities as part of an ongoing process rather than as inherently persisting discrete entities (112-14).

To see ultimate truth nondually is, in his [T’s] view, to see phenomena as empty, and given the conceptual unity between emptiness and dependent arising, so, in experiential terms, to see phenomena as empty is also to see phenomena as dependently arisen. It is critical therefore to understand the nature of the conceptual unity between emptiness and dependent arising, for the same principle of conceptual unity must be applied on the experiential level to resolve the tension between knowing phenomena as empty, therefore nondually, and knowing them as dependently arisen, therefore dually. Here the issue of the unity of the two truths becomes central (124).

Thus, although nondual transcendent wisdom gives access to ultimate truth, T argues that this wisdom does not do so in isolation from dual empirical wisdom. Nondual transcendent wisdom is itself an empirical phenomenon, and it is not therefore an empirically transcendent truth, as Gorampa would have it (126).

T’s main purpose is attaining nondual knowledge is not to eschew the subject-object dichotomy. The purpose, as he sees it, is rather to purify deluded cognitive states and destroy ego-tainted emotions in the service of bodhicitta…. Both the dual and nondual perspectives are required for success on the path, and that is why T creates no hierarchy between them (128).

And kela, you did start the Indian version the the letting daylight thread. You  said on Feb 2, 2009, 8:06 PM:


I wonder if the distinction between the jnani and the yogi helps any here. It parallels the distinction between the pandita and the siddha in tantrism.


There is an ancient “argument” between these two interpretations of the “path” that I never did get around to describing in the End of Enlightenment thread.


At one point in the Gita there is a distinction made between jnana and vijnana. Shankara associates jnana with the jnani and vijnana with the yogi. The distinction thus parallels the distinction between the paths of Yoga and Samkhya that we find in the Mahabharata. As J. Bronkhorst relates in his Two Traditions of Meditation, the Samkhya Yoga distinction parallels to some extent a similar distinction in the Buddhist tradition between the development of meditative absorption (jhana and the development of analyitcal insight (vipassana). We`ve been down that path.


Shankara glosses jnana with avabodha, which I translate as understanding, while he translates vijnana with anubhava which is can be fairly unambiguously translated as experience. He then says that the yogi attempts to have direct knowledge through experience of the objects understood through jnana.


At first glance this would appear to prejudice the superiority of vijnana, experience, the way of the yogi. But I don`t think that this is necessarily the case, at least as the jnani understands things. I think the argument of the jnani is that while this experiences may offer some kind of instanciation of the teaching, a kind of taste or example, for one it not something that lasts. In other words, after a powerful mystical experience occurs the yogi is thrown back into the world. The important thing, when this occurs, is understanding the meaning of such events, their significance. In other words, the yogi must become a jnani. It is this understanding or jnana that is the saving knowledge or liberating insight, since it remains with the jnani once it is cultivated. The experience comes and goes.


As I understand jnana, while it may be non-dual in some sense, perhaps in the way that Tsogkhapa understands it, it is still for Shankara determinate, and not a night in which all cows are black as it is for some mystics and yogins.


There is another sense in which what Tsongkhapa describes just an example of Vernuft. In this case, while there may be some experience that lies beyond Vernuft in some sense, all we really have is Vernuft in the end. We don`t walk around in some kind of mystical trance all day, just as the idea that we are evolving into the subtle state is ridiculous. Just as Vernuft goew beyond or lies prior to empirical experience, so too it prefigures or grounds transcendent experience, even the latter goes beyond it in some sense. In other words, there has to be a sense in which this transcendent experience makes sense for us here in the world; otherwise it becomes a kind of abstraction. (Oh oh. I hope this does not entail or elicit some Wilberian discussion or distinction between ascenders and descenders.) The upshot is that, developmentally speaking, all we really have is vision logic in the end. The rest is hype.


I would even go so far as to say that the jnani is attempting to deal with these things in a reasonable down to earth way, instead of idealizing and absolutizing them as the yogis and tantrikas do. As I attempted to argue in the End of Enlightenment thread, this idea of sahaja samadhi as some kind of 24-7 orgy of non-dual experience is a kind of idealization, the purpose of which is to extol a metaphysical conception of release as absolute and transcendental. (It is here as well, I would suggest, that we find parallel notions of pure consciousness, primordial pristine awareness and so on, notions that give substance or imagery to a particular conception of release or nirvana.)

The interview in the initial post has been moved here. A free copy of the referenced book can be found here.

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