Success in Tantra depends upon understanding emptiness. If we do not yet understand the Prasangika view of emptiness, we should at least study and meditate on the Chittamatra view. If we completely stop trying to develop or improve our understanding of emptiness we incur a root downfall.
In the scriptures it says we to attain enlightenment we unite the bliss of Tantra with the emptiness of Sutra. The emptiness explained in the Sutras and the emptiness explained in the Tantras is exactly the same, namely the lack of inherent existence.
In the teachings on emptiness, we are led through a series of different philosophical schools, which effectively form a ladder leading to the highest view of the Madhyamika Prasangika school. In the beginning of our contemplations on emptiness, it is not necessary to familiarize ourselves with the different tenets of the different philosophical systems. It is better to get a general understanding of our final destination – namely the emptiness of inherent existence – and then later when we our understanding becomes a bit more stable we can dive into the “debates” we find between the different schools in the Sutra texts.
Some people develop rather negative reactions to these debates. They either become discouraged because they understand none of them, or they reject the debates as nothing more than intellectual masturbation. In reality, if we are training in emptiness correctly, we will naturally find ourselves with some of the views and questions of the lower schools. Only when we identify within ourselves the doubt, view or question of the lower schools will the Prasangika refutation of that wrong view function to move our mind. We actually hold, often at very deep levels, virtually all of the wrong views refuted by the Prasangikas. But if we don’t connect the refutation with the wrong views to our own thinking, such debates will be a purely intellectual exercise.
Despite this, we should still somewhat early in our study of emptiness (say after having been in the Dharma for a few years), take the time to read through the debates in Meaningful to Behold and in Ocean of Nectar so we are at least familiar with the broad contours of the debates. It is a bit like when you first arrive at University and they give you a tour of the library. You don’t read all the books in any detail, but you are given a general overview of what all is there so that when you do need a particular book, you know where to find it. Venerable Tharchin explains that wrapping our minds around the meanings of these debates is a systematic method for breaking down all of our wrong views about the nature of reality. By working through them, we gradually fine tune our understanding until it is correct. It is only by meditating on correct meanings that we will actually generate within our mind a wisdom realizing emptiness that can function to remove the two obstructions.
To keep things simple, though, we can think of things developing in four stages. The initial stage is our ordinary view that grasps at everything as being somehow objectively real, existing completely independently of our mind. We think the world is out there, waiting to be observed by our mind, and our mind has no role whatsoever in bringing these objects into existence. The second stage would be realizing everything is the nature of mind. Every appearance is like a wave on the ocean of our mind, but we still grasp at our mind as existing inherently. This is roughly speaking the Chittamatrin view. The third stage is realizing the Sutra Prasangika view which sees all things as mere appearance, like a dream, like a hologram, like an illusion. The only thing that is there is a mere appearance of something being there. The appearance is not real, it is a “mere” appearance, and nothing more. The fourth stage is the Tantra Prasangika view which asks the question, “what is the conventional and ultimate nature of the mere appearance?” The answer is the conventional nature of the appearance is the very subtle mind of great bliss itself, and the ultimate nature of the mere appearance is the emptiness of the very subtle mind in the aspect of the appearance. We continue to meditate until we realize the non-duality between the conventional and the ultimate. It feels as if “the emptiness of my very subtle mind of great bliss appears as all things.” When we attain this state, we know directly and simultaneously all phenomena of all three times and we become a fully enlightened being.
The interesting paradox is our practice when we are beginners (viewing all things as a dream) and our practice when we are very advanced in our training is the same. It is the middle part where we systematically deconstruct all of our wrong views until we are left with only a correct understanding of emptiness. It is for this reason that a true meditation master can teach profound topics like emptiness simultaneously to an audience of brand new beginners and very advanced practitioners and all in the audience can marvel at the beauty of it all.