A Mahayana-practising member wrote this comment:

With respect, the Theravada generally has a much more coarse understanding of emptiness and anatta and is confused as to the object of negation. In much the way that placing a bag of ice on a gushing head wound has some efficacy, yet is utterly incapable of actually curing the wound the Theravada understanding anatta doctrine is very helpful, but insufficient to provide a genuine antidote to ignorance and hence suffering ..... The Mahayana tenet systems ... believe Theravada adherents are not ready to understand, but will understand the selflessness of phenomena eventually as they continue to progress on the path.

I would like to understand the perspective of Mahayana Buddhists on why Theravada's anatta (and dependent origination) doctrine is "insufficient to provide a genuine antidote to ignorance and hence suffering" compared to Mahayana's sunyata (emptiness) doctrine?

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    Thank you for opportunity to answer this question. I've been thinking about it a lot lately and trying to find a way to answer that emphasizes the pragmatic. Give me a bit and I'll try to answer respectfully in a comprehensive way including authoritative Madhyamika sources as well as personal experience. – Yeshe Tenley Aug 18 at 14:07
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    I want to criticize Mahayana but I don't know it's subtleties and things I might be over looking. Even if one is enlightened doesn't necessarily mean one will understand all approaches to the Buddha's teaching. – Lowbrow Aug 18 at 14:33
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    Ruben and I have sussed out a seemingly genuine and respectful disagreement between the two of us and also between what we think many of our respective Theravada adherents and Mahayana adherents believe. Not that all Theravada adherents or Mahayana adherents believe or agree with all the contours we are putting forth. In sussing out this disagreement, we are both obviously setting forth our own views in contrast to others and you can call this criticism, but it is done respectfully and is two-sided with a mutual goal of understanding. At least that is what I think is going on. – Yeshe Tenley Aug 18 at 15:34

why anatta is insufficient to uproot suffering? Here is a simple answer:

One type of suffering comes from craving. In other words, if I am sitting over here and in my mind I crave for something over there that I can't obtain - that very experience of painful mismatch between the two is suffering. Another type of suffering comes from fear of losing something. This is the same mechanism at play as with craving, just in reverse: I sit over here having something nice, feeling good - and I know that over there in the future I will inevitably lose it. Hence, that experience of the painful mismatch between the two is suffering.

Oftentimes (but not always!) these two scenarios occur with our sense of "I" as the object of craving or loss. In case of craving, let's say I want to become a great Buddhist teacher, or a successful businessman, or a big boss, or a father of a big happy family. The mismatch between what I want to be and what I am now is experienced as suffering. Or, in the case of a loss, let's say I already feel that my state of being is good, however what if I know that in the future, due to a sickness or war or simply due to old age - I will lose my happy peaceful state of being. Again, there is a mismatch in the mind, and this mismatch is experienced as suffering.

Anatta can help us become immune to this type of suffering. If we stop identifying ourselves with any social role or any lifestyle or even with this body or this mind - then, if we start losing any of it, we will not regret and we will not suffer. If we are not attached to any idea of "I", any particular manner of being, we will be at peace with who we are now and with whatever happens in the future.

However, there is another type of suffering that cannot be fixed with anatta! This type of suffering comes from attachment to forms other than oneself, forms that have nothing to do with "I". For example, consider the situation when your teenage son suddenly declares that he is a gay person (a homosexual). Because you are so attached to an idea that your son should be a proper man, there is a great mismatch in your mind between expectation and reality. Because of this mismatch you experience dukkha, suffering. This type of dukkha has nothing to do with your sense of "I", it is about your son. But because you have a fixed idea of how things are supposed to be, you suffer whenever there is a mismatch.

So anatta can't help with this type of suffering. But shunyata can. According to shunyata, an idea (a form) such as "man" is a stereotype or a reified generalization. In reality, there are all kinds of qualities: such as strength, rationality, joy, sense of beauty etc. - that are present in both man and woman to various degrees and should not be lumped into "man qualities" or "woman qualities". The example of "man" vs "gay" is just one example. Our everyday social life is full of examples when we attach to some form, some idea, some concept of how things are supposed to be, some idea of "rightness" that is based on some overgeneralization - and then from this attachment there comes all kind of conflict and suffering.

When you understand shunyata, you understand the principle behind all generalization, all delineation of entities. You clearly see that every human concept in this civilization is some kind of convention, abstraction, or generalization. You also see that our subjective perception, from our limited experience and single point of view, is always partial - it never includes everything that possibly exists. Because we don't know that our experience partial, we assume that our understanding of the world is how it really is - and then based on this we engage in action that leads to conflict and suffering. Deep understanding of shunyata uproots this source of trouble.

And even at the basic everyday level, anatta does not always help to stop impossible desires that lead to suffering. Let's say I met a beautiful woman that meets all my criteria: she is smart, beautiful, sexy, and has a great character. However, she is already married to another man. Because I'm so deeply in love with her and craving to see her, hug her etc. -- I have a huge mismatch between how things are and how I want them to be. From this craving comes suffering. Can anatta help me with this suffering? It might. If I think about my fantasies about being with her as "my future", "this is how I want to live" - then may be by meditating on anatta I can drop that fantasy of living with her. However in practice, this craving is not entirely based on thoughts about I and "my future". This craving is mostly based on the idea that she is perfect, including her physical, mental, and emotional qualities. This craving is based on overgeneralization of her as a perfect object (in my mind). Here again, shunyata can help. By clearly seeing that my idea of her is mere idealization, a generalization - that in real life she cannot possibly be always looking perfect, always being in happy mood, always attracted to me - as she is in my imagination - by seeing how her image is a creation of my mind - I can liberate myself from craving and suffering of unrequited love.

To summarize all of the above, suffering can be classified as a two-dimensional two-by-two matrix. On one dimension we have 1) suffering that comes from craving and 2) suffering that comes from fear of losing. On the other dimension we have A) suffering that comes from some kind of overgeneralized idea about "I" (my state of being in the past, present or future) and B) suffering that comes from some kind of overgeneralized idea about something else (some external object or even an abstract concept of how things are supposed to be). Anatta can provide liberation from suffering caused by 1A and 2A - but not from suffering caused by 1B and 2B. only shunyata can provide liberation from that.

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    Ah! Now this argument makes sense, which has led me to create this question. – ruben2020 Aug 18 at 17:26
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    @IlyaGrushevskiy - you're right, the son example does have this emphasis on "my son" that may still have too much connection with "I". Perhaps I should have taken an example of aversion to a political or philosophical position of some other people. Although as you implied, in a way all our attitudes about external things are really about our desire or aversion to living in a world influenced by presence of those things, so in a way all our attitudes are still about self. Indeed, in one sense our ideas of "world" and "self" are mirror reflections of each other. – Andrei Volkov Aug 18 at 19:39
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    Still, I hold that to understand that "I" is a non-entity projected (imputed) onto a bunch of physical and informational processes is not enough for uprooting suffering that comes from the conflict that comes from attachment that comes from naive reification of abstractions and overgeneralization of subjective observations. – Andrei Volkov Aug 18 at 19:44
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    @AndreiVolkov I think we can explore this in the question that I have created. In my view, all types of suffering must have something to do with the self, however obscure this connection is. Why would I feel anger or revulsion at a concept or idea if it doesn't have anything to do with ME? – ruben2020 Aug 19 at 3:53
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    @AndreiVolkov I have added this answer that tries to provide an alternative perspective. – ruben2020 Aug 19 at 8:53

From what I read, the issue is that although Theravada realizes emptiness of self, it is still attached to dharmas where Mahayana strives to realize emptiness of self and dharmas.

I remember a quote like this: emptiness is like a bubble in the sea of great enlightenment. I can look it up if you want.

The practical implication is the goal (Arhat vs. Bodhisattva/Buddha) and range of practices (afaik Mahayana has a wider range of practices that can be used for a lot more situations).

  • Hi Miguel, thanks but I think the issues here are really subtle. I think it takes quite a bit of insight to see the difference between Ruben's position and my own for instance. In particular, I don't think the goals of the paths ie., (Arhat vs Bodhisattva/Buddha) has anything to do with the disagreement here. IOW, my answer applies to all of these paths and I think Ruben thinks the same for his answer. No, the difference is in two things: the coarse/subtle understanding of what it means for something to lack self or to be empty and the objects that are thus so. – Yeshe Tenley Aug 20 at 18:08
  • AFAIK, Ruben makes a distinction between the ontological status of persons (not truly existing at all) and objects (might or might not truly exist, but not material to the goal). I'm saying in order to properly arrive at the former, you have to rule out true existence altogether for any object. That, if you have even a little bit of doubt that true existence is altogether impossible for any object at all, then it will be impossible to arrive at the selflessness of persons at a subtle enough level to achieve the goal. – Yeshe Tenley Aug 20 at 18:11
  • @ruben2020, please let me know if I misrepresented you ^^^ – Yeshe Tenley Aug 20 at 18:19
  • I on the other hand, think that it actually is best of short and concise answers. If I were to post up the shortest possible answer, that'd be something like it. For the first sentence alone, you can see clear aim of Mahayana, emptiness of all forms is the liberation, and realisation of Bodhicitta is compliment to it. – user13383 Aug 20 at 22:13
  • Hi Yeshe, thanks for your comments but unfortunately I'm not learned enough to comment much more than that. I'm still wrapping my head around Pali/Sanskrit terms, and even my practice isn't good enough to provide an answer with more insight. I just provided a quote I read from Ven. Master Hsuan Hua, which I think describes the differences, up to my current level of understanding. @bodhihammer thanks for the kind words. – Miguel Ping Aug 22 at 10:48

Let me start with a pragmatic answer that tries to establish exactly how wisdom overcomes ignorance and provides a true antidote to suffering.

Consider the famous allegory of the Snake and the Rope:

Two friends walk along a grassy meadow on a moonlit night. Suddenly, one of the friends gives a jump and yells, “snake!” The other looks in the same direction and sees only a coiled rope. She begs her friend to look closer. He does and now likewise sees only a coiled rope and gives a little laugh of relief as his heart slows.

Think about what is happening here. When the friend that mistakes the rope for a snake looks upon the meadow and knows "snake" his heartbeat instantly begins to rise. His fear appears to arise near instantaneously with the knowledge that there is a snake before him. His fear doesn't arise because he first stops and conceptualizes that "I" am a permanent being or a unitary being or an independent being and this snake here is threatening "me". Similarly, his fear does not dissipate upon conceptualizing that "I" am not a permanent being or a unitary being or an independent being.

What actually happens is that his friend begs him to look closer and he discovers that no snake exists at all and seemingly near instantaneously his heart begins to slow. Upon understanding that what he is seeing is a mere illusion of snake his fear is completely dissipated. This is how wisdom overcomes ignorance. Ignorance stands no chance whatsoever against this incontrovertible knowledge that no snake whatsoever exists in that meadow.

The point is that the wisdom knowing that the self is not a permanent, unitary, or independent being while having some efficacy is insufficient to overcome all our afflictions. It is a tourniquet in a situation calling for a real cure. Still, it is useful to apply tourniquets! Applying a tourniquet can save the patient waiting for a real cure.

Here is another well known famous allegory which makes the same point from Insight into Emptiness page 256:

For example, a young woman may want to have a child. When she is asleep, she dreams she gives birth to a child and is elated. But later in the dream, the child dies and she is devastated. However, on waking, she sees that neither the exhilarating appearance of having a child that brought her joy nor the horrible appearance of the child’s death that caused her anguish is real.

Does the young woman's anguish go away when she wakes up upon contemplating that she is not a permanent, unitary and independent self? Did she contemplate that the "mine" making was inappropriate with regard to the child because the self of her person was subject to causes and conditions? No, that is not what happened. What actually happened was the wisdom knowing that it was all just a dream overcame her anguish and elation. The anguish and elation she felt could not withstand the certain knowledge that it was all just a mere dream. This is how wisdom overcomes ignorance leading to the cessation of suffering.

I've noticed this in my own life. For a long time I pondered what the difference was between "reality" and a "dream." I was certain that there was a difference. It seemed so obvious and something deep inside of me revolted against the idea that all of this is like a mere dream. And then one day I recognized that this very revulsion or inner objection was innate ignorance that has been with me since beginningless time. You can see it replete on this very forum. So many argue and revolt against the idea that phenomena are unreal or like a dream. That the world lacks essence. That all exists as mere convention. They argue that the question is entirely irrelevant and yet strenuously object at the same time that phenomena are unreal seeing no tension in these two things. Paraphrasing:

That question is irrelevant and holds no practical consequence, and oh btw, obviously the world is real and the world is not an illusion and to say otherwise is silly nonsense!

If it was truly irrelevant or immaterial, then no one would object or find it deeply unsettling this idea that the world might actually be just like an illusion holding no objective reality whatsoever. No, the objections come from innate ignorance which can't imagine such a thing. When innate ignorance tries to imagine it we usually fall into nihilism thinking that if the world is illusion, then nothing at all exists or matters and hence destroy ourselves mishandling the snake of emptiness.

Now, for authoritative texts backing this up. First, have a look at Je Tsongkhapa in his Great Treatise Volume 3 page 196 in the Chapter Not Negating Enough:

Opponent: The object to be negated is an intrinsic nature that has three attributes: (1) causes and conditions do not bring it into being, (2) its condition is immutable, and (3) it is posited without depending on some other phenomenon.

...

Fallacies arise if we follow this opponent’s interpretation. Since the partisans of non-Madhyamaka Buddhist schools have already established that compounded phenomena are produced by causes and conditions and are mutable, we should not have to demonstrate to them the absence of intrinsic nature. They also should have recognized that things lack intrinsic nature. So how can this be the unique Madhyamaka object of negation?

Many Madhyamaka texts adduce arguments such as: If things existed essentially, then they could not depend on causes and conditions, they would have to be immutable, and so forth. However, these statements indicate fallacies that would be entailed if things existed essentially; they do not identify the object of negation on its own terms.

It is the case that if something existed ultimately, existed in reality, or truly existed, then it could not depend on causes and conditions, and so forth; however, that is not what ultimate existence means. For example, even though being a pot entails being impermanent, impermanence is not the proper meaning of pot; rather you have to say that it means a “bulbous splay-based thing able to perform the function of holding water.”

Likewise, if something existed ultimately, etc., it would have to be a partless thing; still, here in Madhyamaka we do not suggest that “partless thing” is the fundamental object of negation. Since partless things are merely imputed from the unique perspective of advocates of philosophical tenets, such notions are not the funda- mental cause that binds embodied beings in cyclic existence. Fur- ther, even if you determined that those partless things lack intrin- sic nature and then meditated on that, this would not at all counter the ignorant conception which has operated from beginningless time. Therefore, even optimal and direct knowledge of that would not overcome the innate afflictions.

On page 197 it continues after a bit:

It would be extremely absurd to claim that you can overcome innate afflictions by seeing as nonexistent the twoselves imputed by acquired misconceptions. Candrakırti’s Commentary on the “Middle Way” says:

"When knowing selflessness, some eliminate a permanent self, But we do not consider this the basis of the conception of “I.” It is therefore astonishing to claim that knowing this selflessness Expunges and uproots the view of self."

Also, Candrakırti’s Explanation of the “Middle Way” Commentary says:

To elucidate this very point, the irrelevance of such to innate
afflictions, by way of an example:  

    Someone sees a snake living in the wall of his house. 
    To ease his concern, someone else says, “There is no elephant here.”   
    Alas, to others it is ridiculous  
    To suppose that this would dispel the fear of the snake. 

Candrakırti refers to the selflessness of the person, but it is the same for the selflessness of objects; he could have added:

When knowing selflessness, some eliminate an acquired
    conception of self,
But we do not consider this the basis of ignorance.  
It is therefore astonishing to claim that knowing this selflessness
Expunges and uproots ignorance.

So where does that leave (some) Theravada adherents view of anatta that holds that the self of persons to be a permanent, unitary and independent is the only thing to be refuted? To be clear, the view of the person as a permanent, unitary and independent being is an acquired ignorance and not innate. This view to be refuted, in the time of Shakyamuni Buddha was propounded by other religions as atman. In modern non-Indian religions it is analogous to the soul. This is something that is a learned ignorance and not innate. It has not necessarily been with us since beginningless time.

In modern Western society many, many, many, many non-Buddhists have given up this acquired ignorance and do not believe in the soul. Lots of western scientific practictioners are avowed atheists such as Daniel Dennett. Dennett does not believe in a permanent, unitary and independent self anymore than most Buddhists, but I do not think he is enlightened nor has he overcome the afflictions. I don't think Dennett has achieved the soteriological goal of Buddhism. Why? Because the wisdom overcoming this acquired ignorance does not stand a chance against the innate ignorance thinking the world and things objectively exist in and of themselves. Thinking that the world and things are not like illusions and exist as more than mere convention. It stands no chance against that ignorance. BTW, merely having a correct inferential understanding that the world is like an illusion and all things exist as mere convention is also not enough to overcome this innate ignorance. No, to overcome it we must directly see the lack of inherent existence.

In summary, with respect, I think it is entirely useful and correct that Theravada adherents do not believe in a permanent, unitary and independent self. It is necessary to overcome this acquired ignorance in order to progress on the path to overcoming innate ignorance. However, stopping with overcoming this acquired ignorance is insufficient to pull up our innate root ignorance that has been with us since beginningless time or to truly stop the afflictions.

I believe the Pali Suttas contain the core teaching that goes beyond overcoming this acquired ignorance and shows the way to overcoming innate ignorance, but that the Pali Suttas do so in brief. Thus, someone following the Theravada which only relies upon the Pali Suttas, but understands them correctly and sees how they can overcome this innate ignorance can become Arahants which is the emphasized path in Theravada.

Hope this helps!

Addendum 1:

Some people naively think that Buddhism is all about not going to extremes. That moderation is a virtue in and of itself. Indeed, the Buddha himself espoused the Middle Way free from the extremes of eternalism (Everything exists!) and nihilism (Everything doesn't exist!), but I think it is important to understand that the Middle Way is also an extreme and that the Buddha often espoused us to go to the extreme. What can be more extreme in this world than the perfectly perfected state of the Supreme Buddha? The Buddha exhorted us time and again to push ourselves into perfection. The Buddhist path itself could be thought of as the quintessential guide into going into an extreme perfection. What do I mean when I say the Middle is also an extreme? Well, I think ever deepening the wisdom realizing emptiness pushes us into the knife edge balance between eternalism and nihilism. It is a high wire act that has precarious drops on both sides. If we don't negate enough we risk falling into eternalism. If we negate too much we risk falling into nihilism. Of the two, the latter is said to be a greater risk. But make no mistake Buddhism is all about going to the extreme: perfecting ourselves in order to help others via the Middle Way.

  • IMO someone who experiences the young girl's dreams might see for themselves that, as we fabricate dreams, so we fabricate waking life. Is Mahayana doctrine a necessary addition to that experience? But saying it's "an illusion holding no objective reality whatsoever" may seem too extreme, unless perhaps in some technical "knife-edge" sense that Mahayana carefully explains -- a wrong view per the suttas (MN 117: "There is nothing..."), maybe Mahayana too (Nothing Exists). – ChrisW Aug 18 at 16:01
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    @YesheTenley Here's Snake Allegory 2: Two friends walk on a moonlit night. Suddenly, one of the friends gives a jump and yells, “snake!” The other looks in the same direction and notices the (real) snake, but also a big glass wall separating them from the snake. She begs her friend to look closer. He does and now sees the glass wall and is relieved as his heart slows. In both versions of the allegory, he is not afraid because the snake was real. He is afraid because the snake can harm him. He is afraid, because he clings to his five aggregates, not because the snake was real or unreal. – ruben2020 Aug 18 at 16:09
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    @YesheTenley In Theravada, it doesn't matter whether the snake is real or unreal. As long as he clings to his five aggregates, he will suffer. He has the instinctive fear that "oh no! the snake will harm me!" What is "me"? The body. That is assuming the self is the form. It's an identity view. The problem is with the "me", not with the "snake". – ruben2020 Aug 18 at 16:23
  • That is clever, but the glass wall doesn’t make the fear of the real snake entirely dissipate. It just momentarily relieves the urge to run since the snake is contained. Also, note it is the glass wall that has acted to relieve a bit of that fear! He didn’t say to himself, “ah even without the glass wall I am not afraid because I conceptually know that I am not permanent so “I” is not appropriate. Go buy a python and let it loose in your house and see if your conceptual understanding of the lack of a permanent, unitary and independent “I” dissipates all your fear :) actually don’t... :) – Yeshe Tenley Aug 18 at 16:33
  • @YesheTenley Actually, a conceptual understanding of anatta is insufficient in Theravada. One has to "see it through wisdom" using vipassana. This is explained in the Khemaka Sutta (SN 22.89). – ruben2020 Aug 18 at 16:37

In both Theravada and Mahayana, strong sense of Self is present in observer, sense that pollutes the object with Self grasping and reference. This ignorance is the root of perceiving objects in a deluded or intrinsically existent way, way that does not subject itself to Three marks of existence of a conditioned thing. Example, the right perception is:

  • Seeing that chair is an impermanent phenomenon
  • Seeing that experiencing a chair is inherently unsatisfactory
  • Seeing that chair is neither Self (me), nor truly mine

Mahayana elaborates the last point of perception (Anatta) because we cannot escape such view of things quick enough, not before we are fully liberated from Self. Achieving Arahantship is not easy. To stop suffering practitioner needs to go beyond concepts, as the afflictive ones are typically rooted in ignorance of Self.

Therefore, great mind expansion happens in Mahayana school as it attempts to describe how our conceptual reality occurs by the faculty of Self (by grasping and craving, by prejudice...). Such expansion encompasses all the material and immaterial things, since perception of any phenomena may afflict suffering. For each phenomena to stop causing affliction one has to realise it voidness or emptiness of Self-centered, inherent essence. If coming by a train station [outer phenomenon concept] gives one a traumatic memory - just image of a train might trigger a panic response due to historical background. There has to be something immediate to do about clinging to concept of a train, such as more realistic realisation. By realisation, the example of a train loses its footing - it is not the same train, but recollection of concept itself that causes affliction.

It is a given in Mahayana that meditative experience gives something simply beyond prajna - an intuition past conceptuality (also referred to as jnana). The root here is that prajna is still discriminative and dualistic whereas jnana (intuition) is free of it. So alayavijnana (elaboration of bhavaṅga) is a key point of interest in all Mahayana schools since it is a point of contact with something beyond the dualistic, conceptual perception, and that is Tathata (suchness). Thus, here all beings are said to have Buddha nature, just removing obscurations is process available to ordinary beings. And realisation of Emptiness means reaching this "mundane" state and ultimately - entirely losing oneself in it.

Emptiness is form, form is Emptiness.

It might be realised by non-analytical means, like insight into Emptiness, by koans, or Tibetan chöd. At the same time, it might be accompanied by analytical methods, like paratantra. The latter, analytical methods consider firstly outer phenomena dependent origination that mark something lacking intrinsic essence and secondly, realising non-duality beyond extremes of aversion or strong inclination via understanding both deeply (middle way). Thich Nhat Hanh often says that without experience and teaching suffering (Samsara) gives us, we cannot reach Nirvana.


Conclusion arises in Mahayana that the mind should be expansive, including all the things:

  • sentient, by developing relative Bodhicitta, as it uproots Selfishness and thus vanquishes Self.
  • non-sentient (mostly), by developing realisation of Emptiness, as it uproots ignorance of Self (of the way things are).

That leads to ultimate Bodhicitta. Note that this standard Mahayana approach, approach of relative shortcuts.

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