In Je Tsongkhapa's, Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path Volume 3 pages 343-344 we have this:

Therefore, as I explained before, the sword of reasoning cuts through phenomena, revealing that they lack even a shred of the two selves, and brings forth certainty about selflessness. So if a thing possessed of the two selves does not exist, then how could the non- existence which is its negation be established in reality? The con- ception that the nonexistence that is the absence of the son of a barren woman really exists must be based on the observation of a barren woman and her son. If those two are never observed, then no one thinks to construct the expression, “The nonexistence of the son of a barren woman truly exists.” In the same way, when you see no truly existent thing anywhere at all, you also do not give rise to the conception that the nonexistence of that truly existent thing is something truly existent. Therefore, you stop all thoughts conceiving of signs, because if a thought conceives of true existence, it must be a thought that conceives of the true existence of either an existent or a nonexistent. So if the larger category is negated, then the subcategory is negated. This is what KamalaŸıla’s Stages of Meditation says.

The context of this passage is a debate on how to generate the direct perception of emptiness. To my understanding, Je Tsongkhapa is refuting the notion that the Path of Seeing can be attained by eliminating all conceptual thought after one has used reason (ie., conceptual thought) to thoroughly conceive of the truth of emptiness.

The above passage to me seems to be saying that we have to use analysis/reason/conceptual thought during meditation to establish that, "the nonexistence that is the absence of the son of a barren woman really exists." In other words, that emptiness (the nonexistence or negation of the existence of the son of a barren woman) truly exists is the conclusion of analysis directed at the ultimate. Is this so?

However, right after that it says to enter into signlessness you have to stop all thoughts (emphasis in the original) of true existence ie., even the true existence of emptiness.

I'm confused. Is emptiness a true existent (ie., not mistaken with regards to its appearing object)? I think it is. However, in order to enter signlessness do we have to stop thinking this?

What is the correct interpretation of this passage?

I think Je Tsongkhapa must be using "true existence" or "real" existence synonymously here with inherent existence rather than the alternative defintion of, "non-mistaken with regard to its appearing object."

Why? In the very next passage he says this:

Thus, to achieve the nonconceptual sublime wisdom, you alter- nate (1) developing certainty, profound certainty, that there is not even a particle of true existence in any thing or non-thing whatso- ever, and (2) stabilizing your mind on the conclusion thereby reached. You cannot achieve such wisdom by simply constricting mental activity without any analysis of an object, because this ap- proach does not make it possible to eliminate the conception of true existence. This is because it is merely not thinking of true existence; it is not knowledge of the absence of true existence. In the same way, it is merely not thinking of a self, but is not knowledge of the lack of self, so cultivating it does not stop the conception of self. There- fore, you must distinguish between (1) not thinking about true exist- ence or the existence of the two selves, and (2) knowing the lack of true existence or the nonexistence of the two selves. Remember this critical point.

Thus, I think he must be using 'true existence' synonymously with inherent existence.

  • @TenzinDorje, is Tsongkhapa here using 'true existence' as non-mistaken with regard to its appearing object or the alternative definition as synonymous with inherent existence? My guess is the latter... as the former seems to yield contradiction.
    – user13375
    Aug 13, 2018 at 15:39
  • You are most likely correct. Consider, for instance, "In the same way, when you see no truly existent thing anywhere at all". If 'true existence' meant 'true' in the sense of 'appearing as it exists to a direct perceiver' then this statement would be incorrect. Aug 15, 2018 at 14:47

2 Answers 2


No, it does not.

One nice book on the topic that I encountered is Mario D'Amato's translation of Madhyāntavibhāga and its Vasubandhu’s commentary. In addition to providing an excellent translation, Prof. D'Amato does an awesome job retelling both texts in his own words, elaborating and clarifying the meaning. Another solid book on the topic is Mahāmudrā, The Moonlight, by Dagpo Tashi Namgyal.

Both books discuss the enlightened mind's perspective, particularly emptiness and signlessness.

In general, it is my understanding that emptiness refers to the fact that all conceptualized representations whatsoever are mere schematic models of the ontological reality and that signlessness refers broadly to the direct experience of reality beyond conceptualized representation, and specifically to direct ("intuitive") experience of emptiness thereof.

In Mahayana Buddhism there are many ways of inducing direct experience of reality beyond conceptualized representation -- most of them involve overwhelming or exhausting the discursive (conceptual) mind one way or another. The methods range from sleep deprivation, to teacher making sudden loud noise during student's meditation session, to koans, to analytical methods. The latter are particularly popular with Madhyamaka and Gelug students inclined towards intellectual speculation.

One particular pattern of demonstration involves showing the limits of basic descriptive constructs that pertain to "entity" - by deconstructing their underlying assumptions - which at that moment leaves the student with more or less clear idea of emptiness in their mind. However, in reality, the student is actually grasping onto the "sign" of emptiness (i.e. the handle of the abstraction) while mistakenly assuming to be experiencing the emptiness itself.

So the next step in the demonstration necessarily involves some sort of analytical debunking of the concept of emptiness itself, which hopefully leaves the student with no conceptual ground to stand on. The resulting experience of being "lost" is a door into signlessness.

In this passage, Tsongkhapa uses one particular technique for the second step of the demonstration, the debunking of the concept of emptiness. This particular technique employs simple logic that exploits the dependency between negation and negandum. If negandum does not exist, it says, how can its negation have any existence? The traditional example of a son of a barren woman is an example of a negandum. This impossible son metaphorically stands in for the svabhava of entities -- the intrinsic nature whose emptiness was demonstrated on step 1. This emptiness of the intrinsic nature of all phenomena (including all objects as well as the perceiving subject, "the two selves") is metaphorically compared with the non-existence of the son of a barren woman. The author says: if the son (the intrinsic nature) does not exist, how can its negation (the empty nature) not be a mere figure of speech? The purpose of this passage is not to discuss the intricacies of the notion of "existence" vs "true existence" vs "intrinsic existence" etc. - but to simply knock the concept of emptiness from under the student's feet.

Once the student lets go of the sign of emptiness and enters signlessness, he or she can hopefully see the emptiness of everything directly. This seeing involves actual direct and clear understanding of the limits of conceptual mind and the profound contrast between all models and reality. Hence in the next passage Tsongkhapa comments on the resulting state of "nonconceptual sublime wisdom", "developing profound certainty, that there is not even a particle of true existence in any thing whatsover", "eliminating the conception of true existence", "knowledge of the absence of true existence" and "knowledge of the lack of self".

  • Thanks for the book recommendations. When I begin to study tantra in more depth I'll keep a look out for it. One thing I'd note is that Tsongkhapa argues in that same passage strenuously against the idea that merely stopping discursive conceptual thought is any kind of realization or leads to a direct perception of reality. He states that the only method leading to direct perception of emptiness is the latter one I think you've explained pretty well.
    – user13375
    Aug 15, 2018 at 13:06
  • Few corrections. 1) This is Madhyamaka, which belongs to the general category of "sutrayana". Tantra is a different animal altogether. 2) RE: "mere stopping" - it's a bit complicated. On one hand, having no thoughts "like a fool" is certainly not It. On the other hand, if Madhyamaka's analytical approach were the only way, the other 83999 methods of Theravada, Pure Land, Zen, Tantra, Dzogchen etc. would not exist.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Aug 15, 2018 at 13:53
  • Ah, my reference to tantra was in assuming that "Mahāmudrā, The Moonlight" was a tantric text book recommendation as I associate Mahāmudrā with tantra. This is correct, yes?
    – user13375
    Aug 15, 2018 at 13:56
  • On the other... I wonder if those 83999 other methods might be highly effective on the path for certain realizations that might be distinct in some subtle way from what Tsongkhapa is after? Because I know that Tsongkhapa advocated Tantra in the highest possible terms. For him, Tantra was the way of the truly advanced student and he thought it indispensable. Speaking personally, I don't think I'm anywhere near advanced enough to go there :)
    – user13375
    Aug 15, 2018 at 13:57
  • 1
    ...While I agree that the final equipoise of the meditation on emptiness cannot be devoid of representation, in my personal experience that representation actually is "signless" -- i.e. it lacks any conceptual labeling. So while it's not a blank state of mind, it is a state of mind without "traditional" (discursive) thoughts - instead it feels rather like a more robust version of intuition, if that makes any sense. The object of that super-intuition is "how things work" in general and "emptiness" in particular.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Aug 15, 2018 at 15:11

According to Je Tsonkhapa, the entry to the Path of Preparation is a union of samata and vipassana on emptiness, which is also an inferential cognizer realizing emptiness. This knower if the first wisdom arisen from analytical meditation.

Since an inferential cognizer is a conceptual consciousness, this wisdom realizing emptiness realizes its object by way of a mental image appearing to it. Since the mental image of emptiness is a conventional truth, it appears to the inferential cognizer accompanied with the appearance of true existence. Thus, if one conceives, at this stage, that emptiness exists as it appears, he conceives that emptiness is truly existent in the sense of inherent existence.

Je Tsongkhapa simply means that emptiness (a complete negation) is empty of inherent existence, just as the basis of emptiness is empty of inherent existence.

The first direct realization of emptiness (a union of calm abiding and special insight as well) is the entry to the path of seeing, and it realizes emptiness in a non-dualistic manner. So it is free from both: the appearance of true existence, and the conception of true existence. But Je Tsongkhapa spoke in relation the inferential cognizer in this context.

Additionally, in the Middle-Length Lam Rim, Je Tsonkhapa posits that the 'a inherently existent mine' is utterly non-existent, like the son of a barren woman.

At that time, inherently established mine will not be found by the reasoning analyzing suchness, just as, for example, when the son of a barren woman is not observed, the mine of the son of a barren woman—eyes and so forth—are not observed.

In this context, he uses the analogy of the son of a barren woman to explain that phenomena (as opposed to persons) also are empty.

  • Do you believe signlessness can be entered through other means than this back and forth between samata and vipassana? ie., can it be entered through 83999 methods of Theravada, Pure Land, Zen, Tantra, Dzogchen?
    – user13375
    Aug 15, 2018 at 15:38
  • 1
    In the Middle-Length Lam Rim, LTK says "First there is the need to check reality and realize emptiness or selflessness and enter the yoga of signlessness. There is no more the appearance of the signs of true existence. Analysis, conceptuality, is done in order to directly realize emptiness. The non-conceptual realization arises from conceptuality." So, what he believed is quiet clear. With respect to tantra, the idea is to realize emptiness with a more subtle mind but doesn't refute the samata-vipassana scheme. I think we should create a chat room on your question but I don't know how... Aug 15, 2018 at 15:50
  • 1
    Here you go.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Aug 15, 2018 at 15:53

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