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Great Madhyamaka

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The Lineage of Vast Activity Is Not the Same as "Mere Mentalism" by Karl Brunnhölzl

Since Tibetan texts so often mention—more or less pejoratively—those called Mere Mentalists or Proponents of Cognizance, we should investigate their pur­ported assertions and positions.

Karmapa Mikyo Dorje briefly identifies them as those within the general Yogacara tradition who interpret the framework of the three natures in a realistic sense.

They are portrayed as asserting that conscious­ness is really and ultimately existent, referring to the other-dependent nature in general and the ground consciousness in particular.

Mere Mentalists are also said to describe the perfect nature as the really existent other-dependent nature being empty of the imaginary nature.

Based on the passage in various sutras that "the whole universe which consists of the three worlds is mere mind," another major position that is often ascribed to them is that only mind is real and that everything in the universe is nothing other than mind and created by it.

However, as will be shown immediately below, these positions attributed to the Mere Mentalists cannot be ascribed to the lineage of vast activity, since none of them is found in the texts of this lineage and most of them are explicitly rejected.

The lineage of vast activity denies any real or ultimate existence of "mere mind" (citta-matra) or "mere cognizance" (vijnapti-matra).

For example, Asanga's Synopsis of Ascertainment refutes both "Sramanas and Brahmans who claim some substantially existing mere mind" by using reasoning and scripture. Vasubandhu's Commentary on The Distinc­tion between the Middle and Extremes says:

Based on the observation of mere cognizance, the nonobservation of [outer] referents arises.

Based on the nonobservation of referents, also the nonobservation of mere cognizance arises.

Thus, one engages in the characteristic of the nonexistence of both apprehender and appre­hended.

Therefore, observation is established as the nature of nonob­servation, because if there is no referent to be observed, an observation [of it] it is not suitable. Thus, one should understand observation and nonobservation as being equal.

Sthiramati's subcommentary on this text elaborates:

Thus, in its nature, observation is nonobservation.... [This means that] there is no difference between the nonobservation of referents and the observation as mere cognizance in that [both] do not exist. Thus, they are to be understood as equal.... [The latter) is just called "observation," since an unreal object appears [for it].

However, since there is no [actual] referent, nothing is observed by this ["observa­tion"]. Therefore, ultimately, its nature is nonobservation....

Hence, it is said that it does not exist as the nature of observation.

In such observation, neither is the nature of observation to be eliminated, nor is the nature of nonobservation to be established.

They are the same in that they are undifferentiable.... "So why is [mere] cognition called 'observation' then?" In its nature, it is nonobservation, but [it is des­ignated] in this way, since an unreal object appears [for it], as this is the convention in the world and the treatises.

Maitreya's Ornament of Sutras says:

    The mind is aware that nothing other than mind exists.
    Then, it is realized that mind does not exist either.
    The intelligent ones are aware that both do not exist
    And abide in the expanse of dharmas (dharmadhatu) in which these are absent.

Even The Sutra of the Arrival in Lanka, which is so often considered one of the classic sutras of Mere Mentalism in the above sense, declares:

    Through reliance on mere mind,
    One does not imagine outer objects.
    By resting in the observed object of suchness,
    One should go beyond mere mind too.

    Going beyond mere mind,
    One must even go beyond the nonappearance [of apprehender and apprehended].
    The yogic practitioner who rests in nonappearance
    Sees the great vehicle.

    This spontaneously present, peaceful resting
    Is completely purified through aspiration prayers.
    Genuine identityless wisdom
    Sees by way of nonappearance.

The same is clearly stated again and again in other texts of this tradition too, such as Maitreya's Distinction between Phenomena and Their Nature:

    Through [outer referents] being observed in this way, they are observed as mere cognizance.
    Due to observing [them] as mere cognizance,
    Referents are not observed,
    And through not observing referents,
    Mere cognizance is not observed [either].
    Through not observing this [mere cognizance],
    One enters into the observation of both being without difference.
    This nonobservation of a difference between these two
    Is nonconceptual wisdom.
    It is without object and without observing,
    Since it is characterized
    By nonobservation of all characteristics.

Vasubandhu's Instruction on the Three Natures agrees:

    Through the observation of (objects) being merely mind,
    A referent to be known is not observed.
    Through not observing a referent to be known,
    Mind cannot be observed [either].
    Through not observing both,
    The expanse of dharmas is observed.

His Thirty Verses says:

    When consciousness itself
    Does not observe any observed object,
    It rests in the actuality of mere consciousness (vijnaptimatrata),*
    Since there is no apprehender without something apprehended.

    Being no-mind and nonreferential,
    It is supramundane wisdom.
    This is the complete change of state
    And the relinquishment of the twofold impregnations of negativity.

    It is the undefiled expanse
    That is inconceivable, positive, and constant.
    It is the blissful Body of Release
    And the Dharma Body of the Great Sage.

In the gradual process of realizing true reality, the expedient purpose of the step of describing objects as being "merely mind" or "merely cognition" is to prevent the total denial of seeming reality in which subject and object appear.

To start by presenting just the unqualified nonexistence of mind (the perceiving subject) courts the danger of falling into a nihilistic extreme by failing to account for the mere appearance of the interaction between mind and its objects. Such is stated in Sthiramati's Subcommentary on The Distinction between the Middle and Extremes:

"[If neither objects nor mind exist,] then why is the nonexistence of mere cognizance not presented right from the start?"

The apprehender depends on the apprehended.

Consequently, if [it is established that] there is no object to be observed [by the apprehender], one may eas­ily realize [the nonexistence of the apprehender too], since something that has the nature of being [its] observed object has been eliminated.

Otherwise, existence would be altogether denied due to the lack of mutual dependence of apprehender and apprehended.

This does not differ from what Candrakirti's Entrance into Centrism says:

    The Buddhas said, "If there are no knowable objects,
    One easily finds that a knower is excluded."
    If knowable objects do not exist, the negation of a knower is established.
    Therefore, they first negated knowable objects.

The lineage of vast activity clearly postulates that the actual liberating purpose of "mere mind" lies in going beyond it, that is, transcending duality by pointing beyond this very mind and entering the middle path of emptiness or suchness.

In this, The Sutra of the Arrival in Lanka is followed:

    The (Buddhas) do not see mere mind.
    Since there is nothing to be seen [by it], it does not arise.
    This middle path is what is taught
    By me as well as by others.

    Arising and nonarising
    As well as entities and nonentities are emptiness.
    The lack of nature of [all] entities
    Is not to be conceived in terms of such pairs.

    Through the realization that what is seen is of one's own mind,
    Clinging to duality is abandoned.
    Abandoning means fully understanding
    And not destroying mind's imagining activity.

    Through the full understanding that what is seen is of one's own mind,
    Mind's imagining activity ceases to operate.
    Since mind's imagining activity ceases to operate,
    Suchness has become free from mind.

From all of these sources, it should be very clear that such Yogacara terms as "mere mind," "mere cognizance," and "mere consciousness" are used in describing a meditative progression or as provisional antidotes for clinging to external referents.

However, these notions are in no way ontologically or metaphysically reified.

Rather, once their purpose is fulfilled—that is, realizing that both appre­hender and apprehended do not really exist—they are put out of commission.

The notion of "mere mind" in Yogacara is as self-negating as the notion of emptiness in Centrism.

Just as in the case of emptiness, to reify or cling to the antidote only turns it into poison.

This is most clearly expressed by the Chinese Yogacara Hsuan Tsang in his Ch'eng wei-shih lun:

Since citta and caittas depend on other things to arise (paratantra), they are like a magician's trick, not truly substantial ('real') entities.

But so as to oppose false attachments to the view that external to citta and caittas there are perceptual-objects (ching, visaya) composed of real, substantial entities, we say that the only existent is consciousness.

But if you become attached to the view that vijnapti-matra is something truly real and existent, that's the same as being attached to external perceptual-objects, i.e., it becomes just another dharma-attachment [and definitely not liberating].

The same point can be found in Centrist texts.

For example, Nagarjuna's Sixty Stanzas on Reasoning says:

    What is stated as the four great elements and such
    Is contained in consciousness.
    Since such (consciousness) is left behind through wisdom,
    Is it not falsely conceived?

His Commentary on the Mind of Enlightenment agrees:

    As the entities of apprehender and apprehended,
    The appearances of consciousness
    Do not exist as outer objects
    That are different from consciousness.

    Therefore, in the sense of having the nature of entities,
    In all cases, outer objects do not exist.
    It is these distinct appearances of consciousness
    That appear as the aspects of forms.

    The aggregates, constituents, and so on were taught
    In order to counteract the clinging to a self.
    By abiding in [the view of] mere mind,
    Those with good fortune relinquish them too.

And Kamalasila's Stages of Meditation states:

    Outer form does not exist.
    It is one's own mind that appears [as something] outside.

Furthermore, the lineage of vast activity does not claim that the world is created by mind.

There is no such statement in any Yogacara texts. What they do say, though, is that we mistake our mentally projected constructions for some real or external world.

To summarize, ultimate reality in Yogacara is clearly not some real mind or "mere mind."

Vasubandhu's verses above explicitly say that it is "no-mind (acitta)" meaning free from dualistic, reifying mind.

Instead, Yogacara often explains the characteristics of the ultimate in a way that is as non-affirming as Centrist descriptions.

Asanga's Commentary on The Sutra That Unravels the Inten­tion says:

Here, the Buddha teaches the five characteristics of the ultimate.

The five characteristics of the ultimate are the characteristic of being inex­pressible, the characteristic of being nondual, the characteristic of being completely beyond the sphere of dialectic, the characteristic of being completely beyond difference and non-difference, and the characteris­tic of being of one taste in everything.

The Ornament of Sutras gives the following five pairs of characteristics of the ultimate:

    Neither existent nor non-existent, neither same nor other,
    Neither arising nor ceasing, neither increasing nor decreasing,
    Not purified and yet purified again—
    These are the characteristics of the ultimate.

The lineage of vast activity also does not assert that the ground consciousness is inherently or ultimately existent.

Rather, it must be eliminated in order for one to attain enlightenment.

As The Sutra That Unravels the Intention says:

Visalamati, bodhisattvas ... do not see an appropriating consciousness.... They do not see a fundamental ground, nor do they see a ground consciousness.


    The appropriating consciousness is profound and subtle.
    All seeds flow [toward it] like the stream of a river.
    It is inappropriate to conceive of it as a self.
    I did not teach it to naive beings.

Asanga's commentary elaborates on this verse:

The ground consciousness is difficult to understand, since it is not (taught) on the lower levels of the teachings, since it abides as bearing the characteristics of the seeds of the [si operative consciousnesses]], and since it does not abide through having any characteristics of its own.

This means that the ground consciousness is nothing but the sum of its seeds and that there is no other underlying, permanent substratum or entity of a ground consciousness apart from the seeds that constitute it.

Since the seeming continua of these seeds are impermanent, the ground consciousness is merely a seeming, impermanent continuum too.

It also does not actively create anything.

Thus, it is not at all like the Hindu atman or a creator.

Rather, The Synopsis of the Great Vehicle says:

The ground consciousness is like an illusion, a mirage, a dream, or [the appearances of] blurred vision.

As quoted above, the same text also explains that the ground consciousness is remedied by the latent tendencies of listening. Thus, Vasubandhu's Thirty Verses states:

In arhathood, it becomes annulled.

The ninth chapter ("the grounds without mind") of Asanga's Grounds of Yoga Practice says:

In terms of the presentation of the ultimate, the ground without mind is the expanse of the nirvana without remainder.

Why? Because the ground consciousness ceases in it.

The text says that this applies to arhats, bodhisattvas who will not revert, and Buddhas alike and elaborates in several places on the details of the relinquishment of the ground consciousness.

Similar statements are also found in the Nivrtti portion of Asanga's Synopsis of Ascertainment and his Synopsis of the Great Vehicle.

The final realization of true reality as explained by the lineage of vast activity is the nonreferential, nondualistic wisdom that realizes and is inseparable from the expanse of dharmas free from both afflictive and cognitive obscurations.

This is the Dharma Body of a fully enlightened Buddha.

As in Centrism, this wisdom is typically described by Yogacaras by merely excluding what it is not.

The Dis­tinction between Phenomena and Their Nature says that nonconceptual wisdom is characterized by the exclusion of five aspects.

First, as was explained before about the correct notion of mental nonengagement, nonconceptual wisdom is not just the mere absence of mental engagement.

Rather, in the direct seeing of the true nature of phenomena, all reference points have vanished for this wisdom.

Thus, since there is no reference point for it to engage in anymore, any mental engagement in reference points naturally subsides.

This does not mean, how­ever, that this wisdom lacks wakefulness and one-pointed, sharp mindfulness.

It is also not without knowing, since it directly realizes the nature of phenomena.

Second, it is not just a state of being beyond coarse and subtle conceptual analy­sis, since this likewise applies to the upper three meditative concentrations of the form realm.

Third, nonconceptual wisdom is not the mere subsiding of all thoughts, for otherwise deep sleep, fainting, being completely drunk, or the med­itative absorption of cessation would also qualify as such wisdom.

Fourth, it is not something that is by its very nature without thoughts, such as matter.

Fifth, it is also not the state of trying not to think anything, since this is just another sub­tle thought or grasping in itself.

The Ornament of Sutras says:

    Just as the heat in [a piece of] iron
    And blurred vision in the eyes vanish,
    The mind and wisdom of a Buddha
    Are not expressed as existent or nonexistent.

The Sutra That Unravels the Intention says:

"O Blessed One, through which perfection do bodhisattvas apprehend the lack of nature of phenomena?" "Avalokitesvara, they apprehend it through the perfection of knowledge."
"O Blessed One, if they appre­hend the lack of nature through the perfection of knowledge, why do they not also apprehend that (phenomena) have a nature?" "Aval­okitesvara, I definitely do not say that a nature apprehends the lack of nature. 

However, without teaching through letters, one is not able to teach the lack of nature, that which is without letters, or what is to be personally experienced.

Therefore, I declare that '[the perfection of knowledge) apprehends the lack of nature.'"

As for the Dharma Body, the tenth chapter of The Synopsis of the Great Vehicle makes it very clear that this Dharma Body is not something outside of emptiness.

Specifically, it says that it is free from the duality of existence and nonexistence (X.3).

Asvabhava's (450-530) Explanation of The Synopsis of the Great Vehicle elaborates:

[The phrase) "[The Dharma Body) is characterized by the nonduality of existence and nonexistence" [means that] it does not have the char­acteristic of existence, since all phenomena have the essential charac­ter of the nonexistence of entities.

Nor does it have the characteristic of nonexistence, because its nature is emptiness.

In an insertion into his Chinese translation of Vasubandhu's commentary, Paramartha emphasizes here that all the enlightened bodies of a Buddha must be interpreted through the understanding of emptiness.

In both The Sublime Continuum and The Ornament of Sutras, the Dharma Body is said to be spacelike and is equated with the completely pure expanse of dharmas as well as the naturally luminous nature of the mind.

The Synopsis of the Great Vehicle compares the ways of understanding the three natures:

"In this teaching that is the very extensive teaching of the great vehi­cle of the Buddhas, the Blessed Ones, how should the imaginary nature be understood?"

It should be understood through the teachings on the synonyms of nonexistents.

"How should the other-dependent nature be understood?"

It should be understood to be like an illusion, a mirage, an optical illusion, a reflection, an echo, [the reflection of] the moon in water, and a mag­ical creation.

"How should the perfect nature be understood?" It should be under­stood through the teachings on the four kinds of completely pure dhar­mas.

As for these four kinds of completely pure dharmas,

(1) natural complete purity means suchness, emptiness, the true end, signlessness, and the ultimate.

Also the expanse of dharmas is just this.

(2) Unstained complete purity refers to [the state of] this very (natural purity) not having any obscurations.

(3) The complete purity of the path to attain this unstained purity consists of all the dharmas con­cordant with enlightenment, the perfections, and so on.

(4) The com­pletely pure object in order to generate this path is the teaching of the genuine dharma of the great vehicle.

In this way, since this (dharma) is the cause for complete purity, it is not the imaginary nature.

Since it is the natural outflow of the pure expanse of dharmas, it is not the other-dependent nature either.

All completely pure dharmas are included in these four kinds [of purity).

The text elaborates further on the unreal nature of the other-dependent nature.

However, this lack of reality does not prevent the mere appearance and func­tioning of various seeming manifestations for deluded and undeluded minds:

Why is the other-dependent nature taught in such a way as being like an illusion and so on?

In order to eliminate the mistaken doubts of oth­ers about the other-dependent nature.... In order to eliminate the doubts of those others who think, "How can nonexistents become objects?" it is (taught) to be like an illusion.

In order to eliminate the doubts of those who think, "How can mind and mental events arise without [outer] referents?" it is (taught) to be like a mirage.

In order to eliminate the doubts of those who think, "How can likes and dis­likes be experienced if there are no referents?" it is (taught) to be like a dream.

In order to eliminate the doubts of those who think, "If there are no referents, how can the desired and undesired results of positive and negative actions be accomplished?" it is (taught) to be like a reflec­tion.

In order to eliminate the doubts of those who think, "How can various consciousnesses arise if there are no referents?" it is (taught to be] like an optical illusion.

In order to eliminate the doubts of those who think, "How can various conventional expressions come about if there are no referents?" it is (taught) to be like an echo.

In order to eliminate the doubts of those who think, "If there are no referents, how can the sphere of the meditative concentration that apprehends true actuality come about?" it is (taught) to be like [a reflection of] the moon in water.

In order to eliminate the doubts of those who think, "If there are no referents, how can unerring bodhisattvas be reborn as they wish in order to accomplish their activity for sentient beings?" it is (taught) to be like a magical creation.


How should one engage in (appearances as being mere cognizance]?... One engages in this just like in the case of a rope appearing as a snake in a dark house.

Since a snake does not exist, [to see it] in the rope is mistaken.

Those who realize [that the rope] is its referent have turned away from the cognition of (seeing) a snake where there is none and dwell in the cognition of [apprehending] a rope.

[How­ever,] when regarded in a subtle way, such is also mistaken, since [a rope] consists of [nothing but] the characteristics of color, smell, taste, and what can be touched.

[Thus,] based on the cognition of (seeing color] and so on, the cognition of [apprehending] a rope has to be dis­carded too.

Likewise, based on the cognition of (seeing) the perfect nature, ... also the cognition of mere cognizance is to be dissolved....

Through engaging in mere cognizance, one engages in the other-dependent nature.

How does one engage in the perfect nature? One engages in it by dis­solving the notion of mere cognizance too....

Therefore, there is not even an appearance of (phenomena) as mere cognizance.

When bodhisattvas ... dwell in the expanse of dharmas in an immediate way, what is observed and what observes are equal in these bodhisattvas.

In consequence, what springs forth [in them] is equal, nonconceptual wisdom.

In this way, such bodhisattvas engage in the perfect nature.

From the point of view that Yogacara presentations are based on the view that everything is experienced only in our mind, the three natures can be summa­rized in yet another way.

The imaginary nature stands for our habitual way of misperceiving the other-dependent nature.

We insist that dependently originat­ing mere appearances in the mind are real and distinct subjective and objective entities, such as inner consciousness and external objects.

However, even if such dualistic appearances have no ground, they still appear and are experienced.

The perfect nature refers to perceiving the unity of dependently originating mere appearances and emptiness.

This means realizing that any imaginary subject-object duality and all superimpositions of personal and phenomenal identities never existed in other-dependent appearances. In other words, this is the real­ization of the unity of form and emptiness.

Thus, the three natures are not three different ontological "things." It is not that by subtracting one (the imaginary nature) from the other (the other-depend­ent nature), one arrives at the third (the perfect nature).

Rather, Yogacara talks about the other-dependent nature as the experiential ground for a dynamic process of disillusioning and refining our perception, with the imaginary nature and the perfect nature being the "extremes" of mistaken and pure perception respectively.

Thus, the other-dependent nature stands for the continuity of expe­rience, which is impure when imagined as the imaginary nature and pure or per­fected when this imaginary nature has been seen through.

Since the realization of the perfect nature is still an experience and not something abstract or just nothing, it is said that the other-dependent nature in its pure aspect is the perfect nature.

In this way, "other-dependent nature" is just a term for the compound meaning of the imaginary nature and the perfect nature, which points to the underlying experiential continuity of a mind stream that becomes increasingly aware of its own true nature.

In summary, in the lineage of vast activity, there is clearly no trace of reifying any of the three natures.

Again, this just follows what The Sutra of the Arrival in Lanka says:

    When scrutinized with insight,
    Neither the imaginary, nor the dependent,
    Nor the perfect (nature) exists.
    So how could insight conceive of an entity?

In his explanation of the four purities that comprise the perfect nature (natu­ral complete purity, unstained complete purity, the complete purity of the path, and the completely pure object), Vasubandhu adds that the first two purities are the unchanging perfect nature, while the last two are the unmistaken perfect nature.

Both his and Asvabhava's commentary identify natural complete purity with Buddha nature.

As for the genuine dharma as the completely pure object, Vasubandhu elaborates on why the teachings of the great vehicle are completely pure and are therefore included in the perfect nature:

Thus, whatever dharma arises from the imaginary arises from afflicted causes.

Whatever (dharma) arises as the other-dependent is not true.

However, since it is the natural outflow of the pure expanse of dhar­mas, [the completely pure object) is neither of these, is not untrue, and arises from the perfect (nature) itself.

When the genuine dharma becomes an object of a conceptual consciousness or is verbally expressed during the initial stages of the path, it is imaginary.

Since the inner subject of such processes is false imagination—that is, the other-depend­ent nature in its unawareness of the ultimate—the dharma also becomes entan­gled with and thus blurred by the other-dependent nature.

Finally, on the level or nondual, nonconceptual wisdom that directly realizes the expanse of dharmas (the actual, complete purity of the path), there is no more separation or differ­ence between subject and object.

This is the culmination of the path as the pas­sage from engagement in the dharma to its clear manifestation as the nature of one's entire being: enlightenment.

Surely, the immediate experience of the expanse of dharmas itself is beyond thought and expression, but its natural expres­sion or outflow for the benefit of others is the genuine dharma as it is compas­sionately communicated by those who have this experience.

This represents the passage from enlightenment to communicating the dharma to others, which is clearly expressed in The Prajnaparamita Sutra in Eight Thousand Lines:

When the dharma taught by the Thus-Gone One is taught, the disci­ples reveal and seize the nature of phenomena.

While [being in the state of] having revealed and seized the nature of phenomena, whatever they explain, whatever they teach, whatever they relate, whatever they express, whatever they clarify, and whatever they perfectly illuminate, all of this is not in contradiction to the nature of phenomena.

Vener­able Sariputra, when the nature of phenomena is explained by the chil­dren of good family in this way, it is not in contradiction to the nature of phenomena. It is the natural outflow of the dharma taught by the Thus-Gone One.

Inasmuch as such genuine dharma itself is the natural expression of the expanse of dharmas, it is not subject to change. It is only the experiential, inner subjec­tivity of the practitioner engaging in this dharma that may be fully aware of the ultimate source of this natural expression or not.

The former experience is then called "nondual, nonconceptual wisdom," while the latter is other-dependent consciousness.

In Yogacara, everything is contained within the expanse of dharmas, or natu­ral complete purity.

Although the Yogacara system is expressed within the frame­work of the three natures, the ground consciousness, and such, it is important to keep in mind that this entire edifice is grounded in and built from within the per­spective of direct insight into the expanse of dharmas.

The dharma as well as the ensuing path of engaging in it stem from this natural ground, and when this ground is directly realized, then both this dharma and the path merge back into the expanse of dharmas. As The Ornament of Sutras says:

    It is said that enlightenment is attained
    By those nonconceptual bodhisattvas
    Who regard all that has been explained
    As mere conception.

This also points to the relationship between the four purities.

The latent ten­dencies of listening as the outflow of "one's own" expanse of dharmas (natural purity) are the remedy for the ground consciousness (the ground of delusion) in the same mind stream.

On the path, it is not that consciousness is an indiscrim­inate blend of both illusion and truth.

Rather, within the naturally pure, funda­mental space of the expanse of dharmas, the purity of the path manifests from engaging in the completely pure object, that is, the genuine dharma as the nat­ural expression of others' realization of the expanse of dharmas.

This path results in a radical change of state of one's inner subjectivity; that is, dualistic con­sciousness unaware of the expanse of dharmas is revealed as nondual wisdom and expanse inseparable.

This is nothing other than unstained complete purity. Vasubandhu's commentary on The Synopsis of the Great Vehicle says:

Unstained complete purity means that the very same suchness [natu­ral complete purity) becomes Buddhahood.

This is characterized as pure suchness in that it is free from the stains of afflictive and cogni­tive obscurations.

As for the statement that the perfect nature is the other-dependent nature empty of the imaginary nature (which is said to be the position of the Mere Mentalists), it is also found in the texts of the lineage of vast activity.

However, accord­ing to The Synopsis of the Great Vehicle, its meaning is to be understood as follows:

The aspect of affliction refers to the existence of the imaginary nature in the other-dependent nature.

The aspect of complete purity refers to the existence of the perfect nature in the other-dependent nature.

Thus, the other-dependent nature itself is involved in both of these aspects.

This is what the Buddha had in mind when he taught the three natures.

The analogy for this meaning is gold ore, which may also be said to involve three aspects: stone, gold, and gold ore as their compound. Before being processed in an oven, gold ore looks like ordinary stone, although it actually is gold.

In itself, it is just the compound of stone and gold.

After having been processed in a furnace, only the gold is visible and not the stone.

Likewise, as long as ordinary consciousness has not been touched by the fire of nonconceptual wisdom, this consciousness appears as the nature of false imagination, but not as the true reality, which is the perfect nature.

Once ordi­nary consciousness has been touched by the fire of nonconceptual wisdom, this consciousness appears as the perfect nature and no longer as the nature of false imagination.

Thus, the consciousness that is false imagination—the other-dependent nature—is involved in both aspects, just as gold ore contains both stone and the gold that exists within it.

Thus, the other-dependent nature may be considered under two aspects. In its first aspect, it is contaminated by false imagination, with the result that a world of dualistic appearances is constructed.

Appearances are imputed to possess an intrinsic nature of their own, though they do not exist in this way from the ultimate point of view.

This is why the other-dependent nature in its imaginary aspect is called the basis for the appearance of all entities.

Since we are trapped by such imagination into a false view of things that leads to suffering, the other-dependent nature is said to pertain to suffering.

The second aspect of the other-dependent nature is its being uncontaminated by the above processes and being identical to the perfect nature.

This is said to be the aspect pertaining to purity.

In other words, if there is absolutely nothing, not even some illusory, impure, and dualistic mind at the beginning of the path to liberation, then there cannot be any purified, nondual mind as the result of this path.

Thus, the mere fact of empti­ness or the expanse of dharmas alone is not enough for enlightenment; there has to be an experience of it.

One of the crucial reasons to propose the other-dependent nature is to account for the continuity of a mind stream from impure to pure experiences.

In the lineage of vast activity, it is only in this sense that the other-dependent nature being empty of the imaginary nature is said to be the perfect nature.

These are also referred to as the pure and the impure other-dependent nature.

The Synop­sis of the Great Vehicle says:

In one sense, the other-dependent nature is other-dependent; in another sense, it is imaginary; and in yet another sense, it is perfect.

In what sense is the other-dependent nature called "other-dependent"?

It is other-dependent in that it originates from the seeds of other-depend­ent latent tendencies.

In what sense is it called "imaginary"?

Because it is both the cause of [false] imagination and what is imagined by it. In what sense is it called "perfect"?

Because it does not at all exist in the way it is imagined.


Thus, in terms of its imaginary aspect, this very other-dependent nature is samsara. In terms of its perfect aspect, it is nirvana.

Such statements may also be seen as justifications for the relationship between the three natures as it is usually described by the proponents of other-emptiness: that the perfect nature is empty of both the imaginary and the other-dependent natures. Vasubandhu's Brhattika (his major commentary on the Prajnaparamita sutras) likewise interprets the three natures in this sense.

In any case, due to the dual status of the other-dependent nature (pure and impure) at different stages of the path, whether it is said that the perfect nature is the other-dependent nature empty of the imaginary nature or that the perfect nature is empty of both the imaginary and the other-dependent natures, the meaning is the same.

As for the notion of Buddha nature, there is no reifying interpretation of it in any of the texts of the lineage of vast activity.

The teachings on Buddha nature are not meant as a philosophical or even ontological alternative to emptiness.

Buddha nature or the luminous nature of the mind is not seen as a monistic absolute beside which all other phenomena have an illusion like status.

Rather, it is the undeluded state of mind in which its self-delusion has fully and irreversibly ceased to operate.

The main example that is used for it is space.

However, in order to clarify that the insubstantial expanse of the mind is not like mere inert, outer space but that it is the luminous, natural unity of wisdom and expanse, the teachings on Buddha nature also give many examples for the luminous aspect of mind's nature and its boundless, inseparable qualities.

Asanga's commentary on The Sublime Continuum's most famous two verses explains:

Those whose minds stray from emptiness are those bodhisattvas who have newly entered the [great] vehicle.

They deviate from the princi­ple of what emptiness means in terms of the Heart of the Thus-Gone Ones (tathagatagarbha).

Among them,] there are those who assert the door to liberation that is emptiness due to the destruction of [real] entities, saying, "The subsequent extinction and destruction of an existing phenomenon is perfect nirvana."

Or, there are also those who rely on emptiness by mentally focusing on emptiness [as some real entity), saying, "In a way that is distinct from form and so on, what is called 'emptiness' exists as some entity which is to be realized and meditated on."

So, how is the principle of what emptiness means in terms of the Heart of the Thus-Gone Ones expressed here?

    There is nothing to be removed from it
    And not the slightest to be added.
    Actual reality is to be seen as it really is—
    Who sees actual reality is released.

    The basic element is empty of what is adventitious,
    Which has the characteristic of being separable.
    It is not empty of the unsurpassable dharmas,
    Which have the characteristic of being inseparable.

What is elucidated by this? There is nothing to be removed from this basic element of the Thus-Gone Ones that is naturally completely pure, since the emptiness of [all] expressions of afflicted phenomena (the adventitious stains) is its nature.

Nor is the slightest to be added to it, since the expressions of purified phenomena (the fact of insepa­rable dharmas) are its nature.

Hence, it is said [in The Sutra of the Lions Roar of Queen Srimala) that the Heart of the Thus-Gone Ones is empty of all the cocoons of afflictions, which are separable [from it] and realized as being relinquished.

It is not empty of the inconceivable Buddhadharmas, which are inseparable [from it], realized as not being relinquished, and greater in number than the sands of the river Ganga.

Thus, one clearly sees that when something does not exist somewhere, the (latter) is empty of that [former]. In accordance with reality, one understands that what remains there always exists.

These two verses unmistakenly elucidate the defining characteristic of emptiness, since it [thus] is free from the extremes of superimposition and denial.

Here, those whose minds stray away and are distracted from this principle of emptiness, do not rest [in it] in meditative concentration, and are not one-pointed [with regard to it] are therefore called "those whose minds stray from emptiness." Without the wisdom of ultimate emptiness, it is impossible to realize and reveal the nonconceptual expanse.

Thus, what remains after the adventitious stains are realized to be non-existent is clearly not some reified entity, but the naturally pure expanse of dharmas free from reference points, just as it is.

Immediately after the above verses, The Sublime Continuum explains the rea­son for teaching Buddha nature, even though it is impossible for anyone but a Buddha to directly realize it:

    Having taught in certain places that, just like clouds, dreams, and illusions,
    All knowable objects are empty in all aspects,
    Why did the Victors teach here
    That the Buddha-Heart exists in all sentient beings?

    They taught this in order to eliminate
    The five flaws in those in whom they exist.
    These are faintheartedness, denigrating inferior sentient beings,
    Clinging to what is not the actual, denying the actual dharma, and excessive attachment to oneself.

Accordingly, Karmapa Mikyo Dorje in his Lamp That Excellently Distinguishes the Tradition of the Proponents of Other-Emptiness states that the existence of Buddha nature is taught in order to awaken all sentient beings' disposition for Buddhahood and to relinquish the five flaws.

Some scholars say that the teach­ings on the existence of Buddha nature in all sentient beings have to be inter­preted as merely an expedient meaning, since they—according to the above verses—only serve to eliminate these five flaws.

The Karmapa counters this argu­ment in good Consequentialist manner by drawing absurd consequences from it.

He says that if these teachings were only of expedient meaning, there would be no need to give up these five flaws.

This means that there would be no flaw in looking down on inferior beings, because beings do not really have Buddha nature.

Consequently, there is no reason to believe that such beings have Bud­dha nature's enlightened qualities.

There would also be no flaw in denying the possibility of enlightenment, since the nonexistence of Buddha nature means the nonexistence of the Dharma Body.

When rejecting enlightenment, one would not fall into the extreme of false denial, since Buddha nature as its very ground never existed. Rather, one would express just the true way things are.

Thus, it would also be fine to be fainthearted and lack confidence in ever attaining enlightenment, since Buddha nature does not indeed exist in one's own mind stream.

Hence, to have self-confidence in it being one's true nature would be an attitude that does not at all correspond to the facts.

The Karmapa does not explicitly mention this, but following his same line of argument for the remaining two flaws, people would be fully entitled to be proud and self-satisfied when achieving any new qualities.

Since there would be noth­ing behind the delusions and obscurations that manifest as cyclic existence, it would be justified to take these deluded states as the only reality. Consequently, any attempt at practicing the Buddhist path would be pointless.

Moreover, if the teachings on Buddha nature are understood as an expedient meaning, that is, as mere skillful means to address some specific flaws, it would follow that all other teachings of the Buddha as well, including those on emptiness, are of expe­dient meaning, since it is common to all teachings of the Buddha that they were given for specific purposes and as remedies for specific problems.

Thus, there would be nothing of definitive meaning in the Buddha's teachings.

The above absurd consequences by the Karmapa in no way imply that he affirms any reified existence of Buddha nature.

This is very clearly described in his commentary on The Ornament of Clear Realization:

In this context, in order to know exactly what the mode of the supreme vehicle is, one must know what is the true reality, the nature of phe­nomena.

In the mantra vehicle, this is explained as being the princi­pal of the divisions of all dispositions, the lord of the circle of the ultimate mandala, and the remaining, irremovable continuum of all aspects of ground, path, and fruition in which the three poisons are relinquished and whose own nature is not impermanent.

This actual mode of being is declared as "the Heart of the Thus-Gone Ones" by venerable Maitreya.

His intention was that this Heart is the Dharma Body endowed with twofold purity and that, by labeling a part with the name of the whole, sentient beings have one dimension, that is, "natural purity," of the Buddha-Heart endowed with twofold purity.

In this way, he spoke of "sentient beings who have the disposition of the Buddhas." ...

In his Autocommentary on The Profound Inner Reality," [the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje) ... explains that those who possess impure mental impulses are sentient beings and thereby elucidates that the expanse of dharmas does not exist in such sentient beings.

He presents these very sentient beings as being the adventitious stains, that is, what is produced by false imagination which deviates from the expanse of dharmas.

By giving the pure mind names such as "ordinary mind," "original protector," and "original Buddha," he says that exactly this (mind) is what involves the mode of being inseparable from the Bud­dha qualities.

This kind of (pure mind) is also the (Buddha-] Heart that actually fulfills this function.

At this point one might ask, "What does this pure mind refer to?" It is "the luminous nature of the mind."

The meaning of "luminous" is that the [deluded] mind that has deviated [from its nature) is [never­theless] naturally pure.

It is said that such a naturally pure Heart exists in sentient beings, [but] that is also not meant literally.

Rather, by tak­ing the naturally luminous Heart as the basis, [the fact] that impure sentient beings exist in it as that which is to be purified is stated [as] "Buddha exists in sentient beings."

Yet, it is likewise [only] under the influence of other-dependent mistakenness that sentient beings exist as what is to be purified, whereas, according to the definitive meaning, the adventitious stains which are to be purified do not exist right from the start.

Thus, the teachings on Buddha nature do not mean that there is some nucleus of Buddhahood enclosed in sentient beings behind the obscuring adventitious stains.

Rather, our whole existence as sentient beings is in itself the sum of adven­titious stains that float like clouds in the infinite, bright sky of Buddha nature, the luminous, open expanse of our mind that has no limits or boundaries.

Once these clouds dissolve from the warm rays of the sun of wisdom shining in this space, nothing within sentient beings has been freed or developed, but there is just this radiant expanse without any reference points of cloud like sentient beings or cloud-free Buddhas.

In brief, not only is there no statement in the texts of Maitreya, Asanga, and Vasubandhu that mind, the ground consciousness, any of the three natures, or even Buddha nature is really or ultimately existent, but this is precisely what is explicitly and repeatedly denied.

This is also expressed in The Sutra of the Arrival in Lanka:

Having thoroughly meditated on all phenomena being free from mind, mental cognition, consciousness, the five dharmas, arid the [three] natures, Mahamati, a bodhisattva mahasattva is skilled in phenomenal identity-lessness.

Most modern scholars who do not base their writings and research on Gelugpa presentations alone also agree that the essential purport of the system of Maitreya, Asanga, and Vasubandhu is not at all idealistic and that there is no claim of a really existing mind or other such entities.

In fact, in much the same way as the Centrists, Yogacaras like Asanga and Vasubandhu introduce and employ expe­dient concepts, such as "mere mind," only for the sake of dissolving previous ones.

Once these concepts on different levels have fulfilled their purpose of redressing specific misconceptions, they are replaced by more subtle ones, which are similarly removed later in the gradual process of letting go of all reference points.

The outcome of the above presentation is that the refutations in the Centrist texts of Mere Mentalism in general and of a really existing self-awareness or ground consciousness and so on in particular cannot be directed against the sys­tem of these masters.

I have gone to some length here to provide evidence for this for two main reasons.

First, it is quite an important point that Centrism and the lineage of vast activity are not mutually exclusive.

Second is the need to redress the common but mistaken conflation of the lineage of vast activity with what Tibetans call Mere Mentalism, which invariably leads to its rejection.

see also: Madhyamaka