Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: What’s with All the Debates in Emptiness Teachings?

Preparation 5:  Understanding how to relate to philosophical debates about emptiness

Throughout Shantideva’s explanation of emptiness he refers to many different philosophical schools of thought.  the names of these schools, such as the samkhyas the chittamatrins, and the prasangikas are all very unfamiliar to us. The debates between the different schools can seem academic and since we have never actually met someone from these philosophical schools it can seem to have little meaning. So how can we understand these discussions?

Fundamentally, the presentation of the views of the other schools are designed to help us to better identify the object of negation.  As Gen Tharchin explains, 80% of realizing emptiness is correctly identifying the object of negation.  The debates between the Prasangikas and the other schools helps us identify different common forms of grasping we might still be holding onto.  By presenting them as different philosophical schools, we can see within our own mind how we have similar grasping.  When we see clearly how we have such views, the debates with the Prasangikas will function to dismantle the wrong views within our own mind.

Concretely, how can we understand these debates?

First, they are like a ladder that gradually brings us to the final view of the prasangika. By refuting each of the lower schools, we are able to leave behind an aspect of our ignorance. And each time we do, we move up the ladder closer to the final view. 

Second, we need to identify these different schools of thought in our own world. The views represented by these different philosophical school schools do in fact correspond with philosophical views many people or different religions hold. Therefore, it is helpful to connect the views of the different philosophical schools with common philosophical views we find in our modern world.

But third and most importantly, we must identify within our own mind how we are still grasping onto the views of these lower schools in our own thinking. If we do not recognize how we are in fact holding onto the views of these lower schools but just do not realize it, then the prasangika refutations of the lower schools will lack power. But if we see clearly how in fact we are holding such views, then the prasangika refutation will directly dismantle our ignorance. In this way, contemplating these different debates is itself a practical method for bringing our mind to a correct view of emptiness.

Since we know that the final view Geshe-la wants us to have is that of the prasangika, we can often think that the views of the lower schools are irrelevant and wrong and we can just look at the highest view. This is a mistake. Instead, when we read the objections of the lower schools, we should identify how we ourselves have the doubt that is being expressed by the lower school. We need to look into our mind and see how we do hold onto the views that they espouse. We might not ever call ourselves a samkhya, but we all definitely have samkhya tendencies. We need to find these tendencies within ourselves, and then the prasangika refutation will be extremely powerful in our mind. As we go through the debates in Shantideva’s presentation, I will introduce the basic tenants of each of the lower schools when we first encounter them so we know where they are coming from. For a complete explanation of tenets, please see the appendix in Ocean of Nectar. This is not an intellectual philosophical game, it is a practical method for bringing our mind to the correct view of emptiness.

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