Reply To: Establishing Daily Study, Contemplation, and Meditation Practice

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Jared K. Jones

…if you have emptiness there has to be an opposite, something as opposed to nothing, so the conventional emptiness is that, but the ultimate emptiness is nothing and something, both and neither so the negation is contained in the being.

I’m a little unclear about what you mean. Does everything have to have an existent opposite if it exists? What’s the opposite of an acorn? Non-acorn is the opposite of an acorn. Non-acorn is everything that cannot co-referentially denote acorn, in my beginners understanding. The opposite of emptiness is non-emptiness. Non-emptiness is a non-existent (and impossible) phenomena: that which arises without depending upon parts-whole, cause-effect, nor nominal designation. Emptiness is a mere absence, so it cannot be the presence of something: it is the absence of a particular thing—inherent or true existence. Then again, it’s not absolutely nothing. If it were nothing at all, then it would be non-existent, as would all other phenomena. However, each thing that is empty has a nature that excludes inherently existing, not existing, both, and neither, without any of these modes being established as ‘the actual mode’ of existence from the side of the object.

If a seed is on the verge of being a sprout and we take 500 photos of the transition from seed to sprout, 100 people will give different answers when we ask: on what photo does the sprout arise? Some will say photo 1, where the sprout is invisibly partially arisen in the seed; others will say the sprout doesn’t exist at all on slide 1, but only emerges on slide 108. Others will say the sprout never arises, due to some philosophical view they hold: perhaps, only a continuum of atoms exists; sprouts are just a human fabrication, a positivist might argue. Someone might say, due to another philosophy, that the sprout is itself arisen and itself not arisen, at all times: perhaps, these are both possibilities existing in the mind of a deity, or among the Forms of Plato. For the Prasangika, it seems to me, all of these possibilities create unwanted logical consequences. The most notable being: if the sprout arose objectively, then we would all agree at the time it arose! It happened out there, after all, and we have nothing to do with it, right? No, this isn’t right. So, the nature of the arising of the sprout is one excluding existing, not existing, both, and neither from its own side. All four of these are impossible if that is the mode of being of the sprout objectively—out there, mind-independently. In reality, it only arises in relation to the valid designation of a term onto an appropriate perceptual basis.

If I understood Geshe la correctly in his teaching on the Six Perfections, he pointed out that, while dependent origination provides a way of understanding emptiness, emptiness itself, as a mere absence of inherent existence in anything, is an ultimate truth. To say that something lacks inherent existence is different from making an affirmative statement (such as dependent origination) about phenomena on the level of conventional reality. I’ve never studied epistemology, so I may be mixing apples and oranges here. Your thoughts?

Ah yes, ah yes. The question becomes, if emptiness is not dependent on anything else, then how does it exist? If it acts as the mode of being of all things, then it depends upon those things, does it not? There is only ever ‘the emptiness of… this particular sprout,’ for example. Rather than there being, some amorphous emptiness out there from which all sprouts arise. Emptiness (in terms of its objective aspect, what Nagarjuna mainly deals with in the Mula) is just the lack of self-existence, true existence, or inherent existence of that particular sprout. Looking at it from the side of dependent origination, it is the mere designation of ‘sprout’ on a valid basis of designation. That’s why the sprout is empty; it’s merely designated. It’s not a sprout without the designation, nor without parts-whole and cause-effect. Though these other two are less subtle than the designation.

When that particular sprout ceases, can the absence of the inherent existence of that sprout continue to exist? Does the mere designation of ‘sprout’ on a particular valid basis of various causal conditions and perceptual conditions persist somehow after that particular sprout ceases? It seems that the designation ‘sprout’ ceases simultaneously with the sprout going out of existence, what do you think?

Is the emptiness of that particular sprout somehow stubbornly persisting within the non-existence of that same sprout?

The challenge would be: can you point to an emptiness that is not ‘the emptiness of…’ such and such? If not, then this may indicate that emptiness is also merely conventionally existent: it is empty of self-existence, true existence, or inherent existence. It depends upon parts-whole, cause-effect, and nominal designations. It arises as the mode of being of other things, rather than being established in-and-of-itself. It’s an ultimate fact about all things, rather than an ultimately existent thing. Like all other things, emptiness exists conventionally. This is what I think…