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From the different answers that I have received on various questions that I've asked, I have come to the following ideas:

According to Mahayana Madhyamaka emptiness (shunyata), all phenomena is empty of intrinsic essence (svabhava), and even this emptiness itself is empty of intrinsic essence. However, this intrinsic essence appears to be the essence given to phenomena by reification or objectification-classification (papanca). So this means that my mental idea of how some phenomena is, is not how it actually is.

Now, Nirvana is not a sankhara (conditioned and/or compounded thing) but it is also empty, in the sense that it is empty of the essence given to it by reification. So this means that my mental idea of how Nirvana is, is not how it actually is.

Even "emptiness is empty" means that my mental idea of how Mahayana emptiness is, is not how it actually is.

This is interesting, because it does not mean that a chair, a dog and Nirvana are mind-independently unreal or non-existent according to Madhyamaka. Rather, the mental idea that I have of a chair, a dog and Nirvana is unreal or non-existent.

Now in Theravada, all suffering is related to clinging. Clinging is always related to the self, as seen in this answer. According to Sutta Nipata 4.14 (below), the root of all reification or objectification-classification (papañca) is "I am the thinker".

Seeing in what way is a monk unbound, clinging to nothing in the world?"
"He should put an entire stop to the root of objectification-classifications (papañca):
'I am the thinker.'

Commentary (Thanissaro):
The perception, "I am the thinker" lies at the root of these classifications in that it reads into the immediate present a set of distinctions — I/not-I; being/not-being; thinker/thought; identity/non-identity — that then can proliferate into mental and physical conflict. The conceit inherent in this perception thus forms a fetter on the mind. To become unbound, one must learn to examine these distinctions — which we all take for granted — to see that they are simply assumptions that are not inherent in experience, and that we would be better off to be able to drop them.

Also from MN 1 (below), an arahant who is fully liberated from suffering would see phenomena as they truly are, without reification where his mental idea of phenomena associates it with his self (of persons). This is apparently also known as tathata.

“Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu who is an arahant with taints destroyed, who has lived the holy life, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, reached his own goal, destroyed the fetters of being, and is completely liberated through final knowledge, he too directly knows earth as earth. Having directly known earth as earth, he does not conceive himself as earth, he does not conceive himself in earth, he does not conceive himself apart from earth, he does not conceive earth to be ‘mine,’ he does not delight in earth. Why is that? Because he has fully understood it, I say.

According to the Suñña Sutta, the five aggregates are empty of a self (of persons), including that they have no association with self (of persons). All reified mental ideas are mental fabrications (sankhara), so they too are empty of a self (of persons).

So, linking the Mahayana Madhyamaka emptiness to the Theravada emptiness, I can say that all phenomena is empty of a mentally reified intrinsic essence, where this reification or objectification-classification is rooted in "I am the thinker". Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains this as "the perception, 'I am the thinker' lies at the root of these classifications in that it reads into the immediate present a set of distinctions — I/not-I; being/not-being; thinker/thought; identity/non-identity — that then can proliferate into mental and physical conflict." I take it here that "I am the thinker" creates a duality between self (of persons) and non-self (of persons) that creates mental and physical conflict.

So, since Mahayana emptiness says that all phenomena is empty of mentally reified essence, and since all reification is rooted in a self (of persons), and Theravada emptiness states that all phenomena is empty of a self (of persons), then these two definitions of emptiness could be logically linked in this way.

Furthermore, the enlightened one who sees the Theravada emptiness of all phenomena through wisdom, will also simultaneously see the Mahayana emptiness of all phenomena, due to having his reification (papanca) ended, due to having his fetters concerning a self (of persons) uprooted. So, the enlightened one sees things as they truly are, which apparently is called tathata.

Both these emptiness seem to be connected together in Bahiya Sutta (Udana 1.10):

"Then, Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bāhiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress."

I believe my description of the Theravada doctrine above is correct, but I am not sure if my description of the Mahayana Madhyamaka doctrine above is correct or not.

So, my questions are:

  1. Is the Mahayana Madhyamaka doctrine described above correct?

  2. Would this linking of Mahayana Madhyamaka emptiness to Theravada emptiness according to the description above make sense to you, as a Mahayana or Theravada Buddhist? Or am I missing something?

  • Note that in Mahayana itself there isn't concrete agreement on Emptiness; you have two distinct schools of Madhyamaka: Svatantrika (further divided into Yogacara and Sautrantika) and Prasangika. These draw sharp distinction on bases of many details. If you however, wish to generalise in the overall sense, then maybe you would find some parallels. Hence many people will answer it differently. – user13383 Aug 28 '18 at 16:12
  • @bodhihammer Thanks for the link and hint. I'm not sure whether my definition of Madhyamaka emptiness corresponds to Sautrantika or Prasangika, but it definitely disagrees with Yogachara. – ruben2020 Aug 28 '18 at 16:28
  • Prasangika is more radical than Yogacara, and generally speaking - rare. What you described would be only moderately having something to do with Sautranika. The progression is: Vaibhashika -> Sautrantika -> Svatantrika -> Prasangika – user13383 Aug 28 '18 at 17:01
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Yes, your understanding is correct as far as I see. Specifically the point that splitting the phenomena into "I" (the perceiving subject and pursuing agent) and "the other" (the object of pursuit or aversion) is the ultimate root of papanca and the way the two emptinesses are connected.

This is explicitly explained in an early Mahayana work called Madhyāntavibhāga (aka "Maitreya’s Distinguishing the Middle from the Extremes") that cross-links Mahayana and Early Buddhism concepts. It's a rather difficult read, but Mario D'Amato's translation of Vasubandhu's commentary and his own commentary on that, makes it pretty readable, if one goes slow enough to appreciate the implications. It's also available on the Internet in other translations, e.g. this commentary by Thrangu Rinpoche. Another work that covers similar topics is Mipham Rinpoche's Beacon of Certainty.

And no, your definition of Emptiness does not disagree with Yogacara, because Madhyāntavibhāga is specifically a Yogacara work. In Madhyāntavibhāga their definition of Emptiness is exactly: "phenomena are empty of a (mentally reified) intrinsic essence". They also have this notion of "false imagination" - which is what they call the idea that "I" and "objects" are two different things.

Overall, I believe your theoretical understanding is pretty complete. The only point you're missing (I think?) is connection between tathata and cessation of suffering. Why exactly suffering does not arise?

  • The connection between tathata and cessation of suffering is answered in this answer. Craving is a habit of reification. Cessation of craving leads to cessation of suffering (third noble truth). And so the cessation of reification leads to the cessation of suffering. Based on MN 18, Sn 4.14, MN 1 and Ud 1.10, I would say this concept is present in Theravada contrary to what you wrote in this answer. – ruben2020 Dec 25 '18 at 6:41
  • This concept is present in Pali Canon and in the original Buddhism, which is where Mahayana drew most of its ideas from - but I don't think it's present as an accepted teaching in Theravada community. Certainly not given as much importance as in Mahayana, where it's considered the key. – Andrei Volkov Dec 25 '18 at 13:27
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    Actually, I see Theravada as following Sn 4.14. Cessation of suffering comes through cessation of craving, which comes through cessation of reification, which comes through cessation of "I am the thinker". This comes through vipassana which allows one to gain insight into dependent origination and anatta. I think the realization of Theravada emptiness will automatically lead to the realization of Mahayana emptiness. – ruben2020 Dec 26 '18 at 14:29
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Short answer is you seem very close to what I think, however I might quibble with the way you use words. It is very hard to communicate precisely about the doctrine of emptiness so agreeing upon a definite jargon becomes ever more critical to picking out any actual differences vs just apparent differences. This is why the monks and nuns in Gelug monasteries spend years nailing down the jargon and conventions and mutually agreeing to it. Then they spend many more years debating each other in order to more firmly establish the conceptual understanding of emptiness.

"This is interesting, because it does not mean that a chair, a dog and Nirvana are mind-independently unreal or non-existent according to Madhyamaka. Rather, the mental idea that I have of a chair, a dog and Nirvana is unreal or non-existent."

Purported prasangika perspective... all errors or misunderstandings are my own.

This seems the most problematic part of your question to me. A chair, a dog and Nirvana are indeed existent according to Madhyamaka. However, from the ultimate perspective they are indeed unreal just like a dream or illusion is unreal. They have no true existence whatsoever. They only exist conventionally. It is not like, if you take away all the reification and elaboration that there is some real or truly existing thing that 'dog' or 'chair' or 'Nirvana' points to. Thinking otherwise is itself an example of reification or objectification.

This is very hard for us to understand as we hear the above and think, "My god, if it only exists conventionally without being based on any real thing, then it must not really exist at all!" and then fall into nihilism or annihilationism. Yet, this is how things exist. It is the only possible way for things to exist.

To back all this up have a look at Lama Tsongkhapa in his Great Treatise describing the object of negation:

Question: How does ignorance superimpose intrinsic nature?

Reply: In general, there appear in Candrakırti’s texts many usages of verbal conventions such as “nature” or “essence” with regard to objects that exist only conventionally. However, here in the case of reification by ignorance, there is, with regard to objects, be they persons or other phenomena, a conception that those phenomena have ontological status—a way of existing—in and of themselves, without being posited through the force of an awareness. The referent object that is thus apprehended by that ignorant conception, the independent ontological status of those phenomena, is identified as a hypothetical “self” or “intrinsic nature.” For, Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Stanzas says:

All of this is without its own power; Therefore there is no self.

Commenting on this, Candrakırti’s Commentary on the “Four Hundred Stanzas” says:

It is that which exists essentially, intrinsically, autonomously, and without depending on another....

Thus, he says that those are synonyms. “Without depending on another” does not mean not depending on causes and conditions. Instead, “other” refers to a subject, i.e., a conventional consciousness, and something is said not to depend on another due to not being posited through the force of that conventional consciousness.

Therefore, “autonomously” refers to the nature of an object that has its own unique ontological status or manner of being. It is just this that is called “essence” or “intrinsic nature.”

He goes on to describe the famous snake and rope allegory and says that all things exist just like the snake in that allegory. That there is nothing on the side of the object (a rope) at all that makes it a snake. In other words, take a snake and a rope... both of them equally lack any intrinsic 'snake' nature. To whatever extent you can find a 'snake' nature in a rope, to that exact same extent you can find a 'snake' nature in a snake -> that is not. at. all. To really put an exclamation point on it: there is nothing on the side of the object that makes a snake a snake as opposed to a rope.

So, linking the Mahayana Madhyamaka emptiness to the Theravada emptiness, I can say that all phenomena is empty of a mentally reified intrinsic essence, where this reification or objectification-classification is rooted in "I am the thinker".

I think it is important to talk more about how this rooting in "I am the thinker" takes place. Here is a theory, but mind you I can't support any of this with authoritative sources.

The thing we reify most is ourselves. For all of our lives in cyclic existence we've identified first and foremost with this "I am the thinker." And on that basis we've carved out a piece and objectified it and thought, "this "I" is separate from everything else in a real and intrinsic way." On the basis of this little island of "I" we then carve up the rest and objectify this and that. Put another way, the "I" is at the center of our conventions. We conceive of everything else in relation to this "I" and on that basis it is the root of our objectification.

  • A dog is a dog because the observer reified it as such. The observer matched what he sensed to his mental concept of a dog. This is also called perception, isn't it? But if we remove all reification, then is it still a dog or not? Well, it simply is what it is. – ruben2020 Aug 28 '18 at 17:46
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    "But if we remove all reification, then is it still a dog or not? Well, it simply is what it is" -- except "it" is not "it". When you are talking about All, you can say "this is what this is" - but not when talking about individual objects - because drawing the boundaries between objects and then reifying them as something intrinsic is an important part of the objectification process. – Andrei Volkov Aug 28 '18 at 19:52
  • "A dog is a dog because the observer reified it as such." -> I'm not sure what this means. "It simply is what it is" -> This is a tautology and thus only trivially true. I don't think it conveys much information. – Yeshe Tenley Aug 28 '18 at 20:33
  • It is common for Zen to do it this way, for example not to look for specific explanation but say "it is exactly this" or "exactly that", coming from the fact that things are as they are, in order to destroy obsessive, conceptual mind. It is still a good explanation, just as good as any - see what I did there. – user13383 Aug 28 '18 at 21:34
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    What I meant was that an observer looks at something and says "that's a dog". But if there is no observer, then does it matter what anything is or isn't? – ruben2020 Aug 29 '18 at 1:20

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