UPDATE: Read this version instead, it is the newer edition of this article: http://greg-goode.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Introduction-to-the-Emptiness-Teachings.pdf

Emptiness is another kind of nondual teaching. Emptiness teachings demonstrate that the "I," as well as everthing else, lacks inherent existence. The notion of lacking inherent existence has several senses. In one sense, empty things lack essence, which means that there is no intrinsic quality that makes a thing what it is. In another sense, empty things lack independence, which means that a thing does not exist on its own, apart from conditions or relations. A great deal of what one studies in the emptiness teachings demonstrates that these two senses amount to the same thing.
Emptiness teachings are found mainly in Buddhism, but there are some surprising parallels in the work of Western thinkers such as Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535–475 BCE) Protagoras of Abdera (480-411 BCE), Gorgias of Leontini, Sicily (485-380 BCE), Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360-270 BCE), Sextus Empiricus (c. 160-210 AD), Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE), Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (c. 35-100 AD), Michel de Montaigne, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Derrida, W.V.O. Quine, Wilfred Sellars, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Donald Davidson, Richard Rorty, Nelson Goodman, Richard Lanham, John D. Caputo, Richard Bernstein and many others.
According to Buddhism, when emptiness is realized, peace ensues. One's experience is transformed so that the self, other beings and the world no longer seem like intrinsically compartmentalized objects, distinct and separate from each other. The self and all things are experienced as free.
If the selflessness of phenomena is analyzed
and if this analysis is cultivated,
It causes the effect of attaining nirvana.
Through no other cause does one come to peace.
(The Samadhiraja Sutra)
One who is in harmony with emptiness
is in harmony with all things.
(Nagarjuna, Treatise on the Middle Way 24.14)


The most common connotation of "nonduality" is "oneness" or "singularity." Many teachings state that everything is actually awareness; those teachings are nondual in the "oneness" sense in which there are no two things.
But there is another sense of "nonduality." Instead of nonduality as "oneness," it's nonduality as "free from dualistic extremes." This entails freedom from the pairs of metaphysical dualisms such as essentialism/nihilism, existence/non-existence, reification/annihilation, presence/absence, or intrinsicality/voidness, etc. These pairs are dualisms in this sense: if you experience things in the world in terms of one side of the pair, you will experience things in the world in terms of the other side as well. If some things seem like they truly exist, then other things will seem like they truly don't exist. You will experience your own self to truly exist, and fear that one day you will truly not exist. Emptiness teachings show how none of these pairs make sense, and free you from experiencing yourself and the world in terms of these opposites. Emptiness teachings are nondual in this sense.
For those who encounter emptiness teachings after they've become familiar with awareness teachings, it's very tempting to misread the emptiness teachings by substituting terms. That is, it's very easy to misread the emptiness teachings by seeing "emptiness" on the page and thinking to yourself, "awareness, consciousness, I know what they're talking about."
Early in my own investigations I began with this substitution in mind. With this misreading, I found a lot in the emptiness teachings to be quite INcomprehensible! So I started again, laying aside the notion that "emptiness" and "awareness" were equivalent. I tried to let the emptiness teachings speak for themselves. I came to find that they have a subtle beauty and power, a flavor quite different from the awareness teachings. Emptiness teachings do not speak of emptiness as a true nature that underlies or supports things. Rather, it speaks of selves and things as essenceless and free.
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According to Buddhist teachings, freedom from suffering dawns when we realize that we ourselves, as well as all things, are empty.
In Buddhism, suffering is said to come from conceiving that we and the world have fixed, independent and unchangeable natures that exist on their own without help from anything else. We expect that there is a true way that self and world truly are and ought to be. These expectations are unrealistic and prevent us from granting things the freedom to come and go and change. We like pleasant things to abide permanently, and unpleasant things to never occur. We experience suffering when we actually encounter comings, goings and change. Suffering often takes the form of anger, indignation, existential anxiety, and even a sense that, as they say in TV sitcoms, "something is wrong with this picture."
But when we deeply realize that we and the world are empty, we no longer have unrealistic expectations. We find peace and freedom in the midst of flux.
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What are things empty of? According to the Buddhist teachings, things are empty of inherent existence.
Being empty of inherent existence means that there is no essential, fixed or independent way in which things exist. Things have no essential nature. There is no way things truly are, in and of themselves. We will investigate the notion of inherent existence in more detail below.
Different Buddhist schools or tenet systems have different ways of characterizing emptiness; they have different ways of helping students reduce suffering. My characterization of emptiness adheres somewhat to the Tibetan Gelug-ba school of Prasangika or "Consequentialist" Madhyamika. The term "prasangika" is Sanskrit for "consequence." The "consequence" designation comes from this school's method of debate and refutation, which follows Nagarjuna's style in his Treatise.
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The Consequentialists do not argue for substantive positions, but proceed dialectically. They argue by drawing out the unwanted and unexpected logical consequences entailed by their interlocutors' positions. The Consequentialist style of refutation is as follows: while in debate over metaphysical issues with an interlocutor, the Consequentialist refutes the interlocutor not by negating the interlocutor's statement with a counter-statement (e.g., that matter exists, not Mind), but by finding an inconsistency or a reductio ad absurdum among the interlocutor's statements. This allows Consequentialism to be positionless with respect to issues, most notably on questions of existence and non-existence.
Imagine a philosopher coming up to a man who is sitting quietly against a tree, and telling the man that the tree truly exists because it is of the nature of Mind, and only Mind really exists. The sitting man is a consequentialist. He doesn't have an opinion on the existence or non-existence of Mind or the tree, and doesn't wish to convince the philosopher of a contrary position; he's just sitting there. So he won't offer a counter-claim or argue that the tree really doesn't exist as Mind. Instead, he will draw out more statements from the philosopher until the philosopher is involved in a contradiction. Or he might show that the philosopher's assumptions entail an absurd, unwanted conclusion. Then he'll go back to sitting against the tree.
The Consequentialist school is the most thoroughgoing of the Mahayana schools in its rejection of any kind of intrinsic nature. Even though it is the school of His Holiness the current Dalai Lama, most of the Dalai Lama's public teachings are about other topics of wider interest. Emptiness teachings can get abstract and subtle, and not everyone is interested in them. But if you do find books in English on emptiness, most of them are likely to be written from the Consequentialist standpoint. You will find a list of these books in the References below.
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Thumbnail of the Buddhist World
(Click image to expand in a separate window)
According to the Buddhist emptiness teachings, the world is made up only of things that are "selfless" or empty. Even non-existents are empty. Non-existents would include round squares, the hairs of a turtle, etc., and inherent existence. Existents are divided into two classes, compounded things and non-compunded things.
Compounded things are said to disintegrate moment-to-moment, in a way analogous to aging. They are impermanent in this sense. Compounded things have pieces or parts and are produced from combinations of other factors. Compunded things include physical objects, colors, shapes, powers, sensations, thoughts, intentions, feelings, persons, collections, and states of being. These various things fall under the categories of Form (colors, shapes and powers), Consciousness (the sensory modalities and thinking processes), and Compositional Factors (collections and states of being).
Non-compounded things include do not distintegrate moment-to-moment. In this sense, they are said to be "permanent." There are two kinds of "permanent" existent. There are "occasional permanents," which come into existence and go out of existence. These include, for example, the space inside the cup and the emptiness of the cup. Even though the cup is compounded and consists of parts (such as the rim, the handle, the walls, etc.), the space inside the cup and the emptiness of the cup are not compounded and do not consist of parts. Also, the emptiness of the cup and the space inside the cup stop existing when the cup stops existing. There are also "Non-occasional permanents," such as emptiness in general and space in general. These are the referents of general concepts, and exist as long as any objects or relations exist.
For the student of emptiness, it is not important to remember or utilize this scheme or employ these categories in one's day-to-day use. What is important is to learn the lessons taught by this scheme:
  • According to the Buddhist world-view, everything that exists is said to be empty
  • For each thing, there is also the corresponding emptiness of that thing, because to exist is to be empty
  • Inherent existence falls under the category of non-existent things
This last point is especially important when it comes to meditating on emptiness. When you meditate on emptiness, what you actually look for is inherent existence. Instead of finding inherent existence, you will find the lack of inherent existence. This lack itself is emptiness.
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According to the Mahayana paths of Buddhism that emphasize the notion, emptiness is what the early Buddhist sutras were pointing to when they presented the notion of pratītyasamutpāda (Sanskrit) or paticcasamuppāda (Pali), namely "dependent arising":
There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones notices:
When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn't, that isn't.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.
(Anguttara Nikaya X.92; Vera Sutta)
Centuries later, Nagarjuna (2nd century C.E.) became the preeminent expositor of emptiness teachings. His Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Treatise on the Middle Way) is today considered the most profound and sophisticated exposition of emptiness in Buddhism. The text provides scores of arguments for the conclusion that to propose any kind of inherent existence or metaphysical essence involves the proponent in logical contradictions and incoherence. Chapter 24 actually contains two specific verses that characterize the notion of emptiness itself:
Whatever is dependently co-arisen,
That is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way. (Treatise, 24.18)

Something that is not dependently arisen,
Such a thing does not exist.
Therefore a nonempty thing
Does not exist. (Treatise, 24.19)
In verse 18, Nagarjuna sets up a three-way equivalence:
emptiness : dependent arising : verbal convention
and identifies this equivalence with the Middle Way. The Middle Way is a form of nonduality that is free from the dualistic opposites of essentialism and nihilism. Even emptiness itself is characterized as being empty. It is empty because, instead of having the inherent nature of being dependent arising, it is merely "explained to be" dependent arising.
In verse 19, Nagarjuna states that whatever exists, is in some sense dependently arisen, that is, empty. If something is not dependently arisen, then it is not empty. If it is not empty, then it does not exist. And of course even things we would normally consider as non-existent, such as unicorns and round squares, are also empty.
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So how do things exist if they don’t exist inherently? According to the Buddhist teachings, things exist in an everyday, non-inherent, dependent way. Our mode of existence is dependent on many things, such as the causes and conditions that give rise to us, the components that make us up, and the ways we are cognized and categorized. According to the teachings, we are not separate and independent entities, but rather we exist in dependence on webworks of relations and transactions.
For example, we can say that a bottle of milk exists in a dependent, conventional way because you can go to the store, lift the bottle of milk off the shelf, pay for it, and bring it home. It exists in dependence on its surroundings, its having been manufactured, and in relation to the actions of the store employees and yourself. The bottle of milk is not found to exist independently of these things.
It is taught that all things are empty and dependent like this. That includes people and all other living beings, as well as consciousness and unconsciousness; pleasure and pain; time and space; cause and effect; good and bad; logic and math; language, meaning and reference; art, commerce and science; planets, boulders and bridges; unicorns and Sherlock Holmes; energy, thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Whatever exists is said to exist conventionally, but not inherently.
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Even emptiness is empty. For example, the emptiness of the bottle of milk does not exist inherently. Rather, it exists in a dependent way. The emptiness of the bottle of milk is dependent upon its basis (the bottle of milk). It is also dependent upon having been designated as emptiness. As we saw above, this is alluded to in Nagarjuna’s Treatise, verse 24.18.
Understood this way, emptiness is not a substitute term for awareness. Emptiness is not an essense. It is not a substratum or background condition. Things do not arise out of emptiness and subside back into emptiness. Emptiness is not a quality that things have, which makes them empty. Rather, to be a thing in the first place, is to be empty.
It is easy to misunderstand emptiness by idealizing or reifying it by thinking that it is an absolute, an essence, or a special realm of being or experience. It is not any of those things. It is actually the opposite. It is merely the way things exist, which is without essence or self-standing nature or a substratum of any kind. Here is a list characteristics of emptiness, to help avoid some of the frequent misunderstandings about emptiness, according to the Buddhist Consequentialists:
  • Emptiness is not a substance
  • Emptiness is not a substratum or background
  • Emptiness is not light
  • Emptiness is not consciousness or awareness
  • Emptiness is not the Absolute
  • Emptiness does not exist on its own
  • Objects do not consist of emptiness
  • Objects do not arise from emptiness
  • Emptiness of the "I" does not negate the "I"
  • Emptiness is not the feeling that results when no objects are appearing to the mind
  • Meditating on emptiness does not consist of quieting the mind
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Inherent existence is the kind of existence we uncritically think things have, existing under their own power, without help from anything else. Our sense that things exist in this way is the root of our suffering, according to the Buddhist teachings. We have a sense of this inherency partly due to how we think of language. We think that words are labels pointing straight to pre-formatted, already-individuated things in the world outside of language or cognition. This tendency to feel inherency can even be intensified if we follow essentialist philosophies such as Platonism or materialist realism, which hold that things exist according to their own essential nature, independent of anything else. Our natural tendency to feel this inherency is the root of suffering, according to the emptiness teachings. Actually, being able to locate and isolate this sense of inherent existence in yourself is good news. The more clearly you can grasp the sense of inherent existence, the more powerfully you will be able to realize emptiness when you do your meditations.
What does the sense of inherent existence feel like? We will say much more about this later, but briefly, it feels like something is really there, just like that, being what it really is. You've had a very definite sense of inherent existence if you've ever wondered whether something or someone has been given the "correct" name! Or could it perhaps have been given the wrong name??
According to the emptiness teachings, inherent existence is the kind of existence that things do not have. Things actually lack inherent existence, because they exist as dependent arisings. This dependency is the lack of inherent existence, which in turn, is their emptiness.
The relation between inherent existence, emptiness and dependent arising can be seen through the translation of the Sanskrit or Pali terms for depending arising: pratītyasamutpāda (Sanskrit) or paticcasamuppāda (Pali). The Sanskrit components are individually translated as follows:

Pratītya = Meeting, Relying or Depending + Samut = Out of + Pad = To go, to fall
Notice the three English terms for Pratītya, Meeting, Arising, and Depending. These have been given three different kinds of meanings by the consequentialist writers (see H.H. the Dalai Lama, 2000, pp. 35ff in References), so as to cover all the variations of dependent arising. These kinds of dependence are explained as follows:
Thumbnail of the Inherent Existence chart
  • MEETING - The coming together of causes and conditions in time. In Western philosophical terms, this might be referred to as causal depedency. The cessation of cause comes into contact with the onset of effect within a network of supporting conditions. Examples would include one billiard ball striking another, or the sperm and ovum coming into contact at human conception. Because of uncritically thinking that things and people exist inherently, we can sometimes be surprised by the effects of the "Meeting"-style dependent arising. An example would be the surprise at the aging process if we see someone for the first time after a long absence. This is the least subtle of the three types of dependent arising.
  • RELYING - The way a thing depends on its pieces and parts. In Western philosophical terms, this might be referred to as mereological depedency. The pieces and parts of an object are sometimes called its "basis of designation." According to the emptiness teachings, we would see roots, a stalk, branches and leaves, and based on this, designate the object as a "tree." These various parts are the tree's basis of designation. Being a tree is dependent upon the basis of designation. The tree cannot be said to exist if its basis of designation did not exist. For example, if you have a car in the parking lot over a long period of time, and vandals come and steal pieces here and there over several months, there will come a certain point at which there won't be enough parts for you to call it a car. This is how the car depends upon its pieces and parts, or its basis of designation. Even though this seems reasonable if we think about it like this, it's never theless easy to think that the true car exists in a way apart from the basis of designation, as though there were a "true car" that existed in an ideal realm of some sort. This sense that the car exists without depending on its basis of desgination is the sense of the inherent existence of the car. This is more subtle than "Meeting"-style dependence.
  • DEPENDING - The way a thing depends on being designated by convention, language, or cognition. In Western philosophical terms, this might be referred to as conceptual depedency. Did Mount Everest exist before it was named? Did sub-atomic particles exist as such before they were ever thought of? Would a "rose by any other name" still be a rose? We look at the shape, size and structure of a natural formation of the earth, and call it a "mountain." According to the Consequentialist emptiness teachings, we would say that the basis of designation (formations of earth) existed, but the "mountain" as such did not exist until it was designated by the process of convention and cognition. According to emptiness teachings, it makes no sense to say that something exists if it was never designated or cognized. Nevertheless, it seems to us that things are always there regardless of cognition, and that cognition is a process of mere neutral discovery of what was pre-formed and present all along. This feeling of independence from designation or pre-formed existence is not only an easy feeling to get hold of, it might even seem like common sense to most people. This is another kind of sense of the inherent existence of things. But the emptiness teachings question this. This critique, this "Depending"-style of dependency (as opposed to the "Meeting" and "Relying" types of dependency) will be familar to those who have studied Advaita-Vedanta, Mind-Only Buddhist teachings, or the philosophy of Idealism. The emptiness teachings are not themselves a form of Vedanta or idealism (because emptiness teachings posit that physical objects do exist externally and physically), but they agree with the views which hold that uncognized objects do not exist. This is the most subtle of the three types of dependent arising.
According to Buddhism, anything that exists exists conventionally, through the network of dependent arisings, that is through Meeting, Relying or Depending. Even emptiness exists in this way. But we think and feel that things exist without these dependencies. For something to inherently exist, it would have to exist without any dependencies at all. It would exist without Meeting, Relying or Depending. It is the job of emptiness meditation to find inherent existence, to ascertain whether it exists as we feel it does.
Other terms for inherent existence, gathered from Buddhist and Western sources, would include the following:
  • the reality of the thing irrespective of culture or language or human consciousness
  • objective existence
  • independent existence
  • true essence
  • Platonic essence
  • real existence
  • ontological existence
  • the thing as it really is
  • the thing in-itself
  • the is-ness of the thing
  • beingness
  • actuality
  • thinghood
  • perseity
  • self-sufficient being
  • self-inclusive being
  • essential being
  • instantiation in reality
  • subject of ontological commitment
  • the thing’s entitification
  • the way it really is, regardless of what anyone thinks
  • the reality of the thing as opposed to its appearance
  • what science will eventually discover the thing to be
  • the way God intends the thing to be
  • "it is what it is"
  • "it’s like that, 'cause that’s the way it is" (as the rappers Run DMC used to say)
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Compassion facilitates the realization of emptiness. Although realizing emptiness is said by Buddhist Consequentialists to be the key to the end of suffering, it nevertheless occurs in context. It is not the first thing one learns. In many Buddhist contexts, there is a teaching emphasis on the importance of developing compassion before learning the emptiness teachings. Compassion in these contexts is explained as the spontaneous and sincere wish to help other beings alleviate suffering. Having this wish not only increases one's own joy, but also the depth of one's insight. Emphasizing compassion early on serves as a preventive measure against two ways to go wrong with the emptiness teachings.
  1. Compassion moves the practitioner beyond a merely memorized or intellectual understanding of the emptiness teachings. Compassion helps one's realization become global and holistic.
  2. Compassion is an antidote to learning the emptiness teachings for selfish, egocentric reasons. When one engages in a difficult dialectic like the emptiness teaching for selfish reasons, the result is counterproductive. Emptiness teachings are very subtle. The most common side-effect of misunderstanding emptiness is a crippling sense of nihilism. A nihilistic outlook makes joy, compassion and emptiness very difficult to realize. One doesn't experience an increase in joy and a decrease in suffering. Instead, one experiences a stiffening of the mind and a closure of the heart. But compassion opens the mind and heart. It allows one to "get out of the way." It makes the emptiness teachings easier to understand, easier to realize holistically, and easier to integrate into one's life. Compassion enables the realization of emptiness.
Realizing emptiness facilitates compassion. The effects run the other direction too. A greater understanding of emptiness enables greater compassion. The more strongly one realizes that one's self and other selves are empty of inherent existence, the less one experiences an essential distinction between one's self and another. It becomes harder to place one's own happiness above that of others. It becomes easier to act in such a way that others are benefitted, not just one's self.
Contextual clues. There is a clue to this traditional placement of emptiness later in the learning stream. In the various lists of Buddhist spiritual virtues called "perfections" or "paramitas" (Sanskrit), there are 6 or 10 items. The "perfection of wisdom" refers to the realization of emptiness or the lack of an essential self. But the perfection of wisdom is never the first item in these lists! It is usually number 4 or number 6. Depending on the list, the perfection of wisdom is preceded by the perfections of: generosity, virtue, renunciation, discipline, patience, tolerance, diligence, and one-pointed concentration.
For example, here is a Theravada list from the Pali Canon of Buddhist scriptures:
  1. Dāna: generosity
  2. Sīla: virtue, morality, proper conduct
  3. Nekkhamma: renunciation
  4. Paññā: wisdom, insight
  5. Viriya: energy, diligence, vigor, effort
  6. Khanti: patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
  7. Sacca: truthfulness, honesty
  8. Adhiṭṭhāna: determination, resolution
  9. Mettā: loving-kindness
  10. Upekkhā: equanimity, serenity
Here is a Mahayana list:
  1. Dāna: generosity
  2. Śīla: virtue, morality, discipline, proper conduct
  3. Kṣānti: patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
  4. Vīrya: energy, diligence, vigor, effort
  5. Dhyāna: one-pointed concentration, contemplation
  6. Prajñā: wisdom, insight
I find it interesting that the Mahayana tradition (Nagarjuna's tradition) places more emphasis on the importance of realizing emptiness, and also locates its paramita later in the list, with more perfections before it.
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So how does one actually realize that all things, self and world, are empty? In a nutshell, the realization of emptiness of an object is accomplished through trying to find and validate that object's inherent existence. One narrows down the options and looks everywhere where the object's inherent existence might be found. What happens is that one fails to find inherent existence. What one finds is the simple lack of inherent existence. This lack is the thing's emptiness.
According to the Buddhist path, one trains to stabilize the attention, abandon harmful actions, take up helpful actions, generate patience and compassion, and meditate on the nature of self and other. These various activities are integrated together to assist the practitioner in generating the insight that things are empty. Emptiness can be realized much more quickly this way than if the person began from scratch with emptiness studies themselves. Realizing emptiness is holistic and not merely an intellectual event. Therefore, a compassionate heart is said to enable the patience, spirit of generosity and flexibility of mind and that are required by the very subtle and tricky emptiness meditations.
The form of Buddhism that places the most emphasis on emptiness meditation is probably the Prasangikga Madhyamika. Once the practitioner has the spontaneous desire for compassion and a yearning to hear the emptiness teachings, then the traditional teacher will begin.
There are several stages in the study of emptiness, which are integrated into much of the Buddhist path itself:
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  1. Learn valid establishment – You learn the conventional ways that phenomena are established, i.e., how belief in things is justified. In Buddhism, this can be by learning the Buddhist teachings themselves. They can include teachings on cause and effect, psychology, epistemology, karma, interpersonal relations, compassion, the development of attention and analytical skills. Learning valid establishment prevents the investigator from falling into nihilism, which is the denial of conventional existence along with the denial of inherent existence. Emptiness meditation saves conventional existence, and refutes only inherent existence.
  2. Ascertain the object of refutation – You concentrate to get a strong sense of inherent existence. In this preparatory stage, you familiarize yourself with the difference between conventional existence (which exists, and which is demonstrated by valid establishment) and inherent existence (which we feel exists, but which the meditations prove does not exist). According to the Buddhist teachings, this is the issue in a nutshell, and this is the most challenging stage. Ascertaining the object of entailment can actually require months go get clear about. But the clearer you are on what inherent existence must be, the more able you will be to recognize it should you actually find it in the meditations later, and the more thorough your realization will be.
  3. Determine the entailment – You familiarize yourself with the overall logic of emptiness meditation. The logic is as follows: "Either things exist inherently or they don’t. If things have inherent existence, I should be able to find inherent existence by looking everywhere. But I can’t find inherent existence; I find only its absence, its non-existence. Therefore it doesn’t exist."
    Back to top In the case of the inherent existence of my self, the logic would go as follows:
    1. My self either has inherent existence or it is empty.
    2. If my self has inherent existence, I should be able to find it by looking everywhere it could possibly be.
    3. I have looked everywhere the inherent existence of my self could possibly be, and cannot find it anywhere.
    4. Therefore, my self is empty.
  4. Conduct the emptiness reasonings – These are the meditations themselves. They are called "reasonings" because they involve inference and entailment. They involve a form of logic, and are often thought of as a form of “analytic meditation.” You go through the steps of the emptiness reasonings in a full-fledged, holistic way, trying to put yourself fully into each stage. There are many kinds of emptiness reasoning. One of the simplest to understand is Chandrakirti’s Sevenfold Reasoning. It is easier to learn the stages of the reasoning by applying it to something neutral, such as a car. When the steps are familiar, you apply them to your self, where they are likely to have a greater effect, and the realization will prove to be more intense. The following is an overview of Chandrakirti’s Sevenfold Reasoning, as applied to a chariot:
    Back to top Introduction: If the chariot exists inherently, I will be able to find it somewhere in or around its parts.
    1. Is the inherently existent chariot exactly the same as its parts? No, I don't find the inherently existent chariot as equal to its parts. Instead, I find its absence, its nonexistence.
    2. Is it totally different from its parts? No, I don't find the inherently existent chariot apart from its parts. Instead, I find its absence, its nonexistence.
    3. Is it dependent upon its parts? No, I don't find the inherently existent chariot as dependent upon its parts. Instead, I find its absence, its nonexistence.
    4. Is it such that the parts are dependent upon it? No, I don't find the inherently existent chariot such that its parts are dependent upon it. Instead, I find its absence, its nonexistence.
    5. Is it the possessor of its parts? No, I don't find the inherently existent chariot as the possessor of its parts. Instead, I find its absence, its nonexistence.
    6. Is it the mere collection of its parts? No, I don't find the inherently existent chariot as the collection of its parts. Instead, I find its absence, its nonexistence.
    7. Is it the mere shape of its parts? No, I don't find the inherently existent chariot as the shape of its parts. Instead, I find its absence, its nonexistence.
    Conclusion: Therefore the chariot doesn’t exist inherently. It is empty, existing not inherently, but conventionally only.
    For a more detailed look at Chandrakirti’s Sevenfold Reasoning, see "Emptiness Meditation - Another Kind of Self-Inquiry"
  5. Review the relation between emptiness and valid establishment – You reflect on how the emptiness of your self and the emptiness of other beings and things in the world allows all of these existents to move, change, and interact with each other. If things had fixed and independent nature, as we often feel they do, then they would not be able to change. For example, if a tree had an essential nature as something containing 106 branches and 2,196 leaves, then if it lost even one leaf, it would be definition not be that particular tree any more. If we, for example, had a fixed nature as a person with just these physical and psychological characteristics, then we could never become happier more mature, or more slender without violating these characteristics and becoming by definition another person.

This step is pivotal, because until we identify what we're planning to refute, our meditations will be operating blindly. They won't hit the target. We will be refuting the wrong thing, which will lead to either eternalism or nihilism. This step is also very subtle, and can take months.
Ascertaining the object of refutation means to become very clear about our conception of inherent existence. We know from hearing the teachings that nothing actually does exist inherently. But we think things do exist inherently. It's only by focusing on the conception of inherent existence that we can direct our meditations so as not to refute too little (and leave some inherent existence un-refuted, leading to essentialism), and not to refute too much (and refute some aspects of conventional existence, leading to nihilism). Just how does ascertaining the object of refutation work? As follows:
  1. We examine our feelings and thoughts to isolate our conception of inherent existence (explained more below).
  2. We use our conception of inherent existence as a pointer. This pointer leads us to a sort of claim that the self and other objects seem to be making. They seem to be claiming to exist on their own, independently from everything else. Even before doing the emptiness meditations themselves, we know from hearing the teachings that nothing is supposed to exist in this way. These objects are making a false claim, and now we are able to see this false claim up close and clearly. We have confidence that our meditations will be successful, since the teachings tell us that they have been proven to work for generations of meditators.
  3. Armed with our confidence and clear view of the claim of inherent existence, we disprove the claim using the emptiness meditations. We demonstrate to ourselves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the claim is false and unwarranted. This step is the realization of emptiness. It occurs first inferentially, then directly.
  4. We experience the aftereffects of the realization, in which our tendency to feel the conception of inherent existence diminishes until it is eradicated. This is the end of suffering.

  5. Lotus
    Experiencing self, other and world as empty is to joyfully experience one's place in a light, free, open-ended, interpenetrating webwork of relations and dependencies. Lightness and joy come from no longer feeling as though reality has or needs a foundation. One no longer suffers from existential commitments, yearnings, and anxieties. Life and death are freed up. Nothing seems ultimately stiff, frozen, apart, separate, or unchangeable. There are no more conceptions of an inherently existing self that exists on its own yet needs to be defended, propped up, aggrandized, and pleasured forever. There are no more conceptions of a metaphysical ground underlying existence that can fulfill you if found or frustrate you if not found. Anxieties pertaining to objectivity and ultimacy have ceased. This opens the heart to the radical contingency of all beings, and brings on the sweet, precious desire and commitment to see them free from suffering as well.
    Experience becomes holistic and open-textured, like a web with content as well as a periphery. A spider web and Indra's Net are traditional examples. One never stands apart from the web beholding it from somewhere else. Instead, one has a deep recognition of one's self and one's viewpoint as contingent and dependent on weblike aspects and relations. The web changes whenever something new, whether coarse or subtle, enters at any point. The new element enters by becoming contextualized by the web. At the same time, all the elements of the web are recontextualized to at least some tiny extent by the new element. Nothing is experienced as standing alone, granular, lump-like, or disconnected from other things.
    The experience of self and world as empty deepens over time. One familiarizes oneself increasingly with emptiness and its many effects and ramifications, which include compassion. According to Buddhist teachings, realizing and living emptiness is closely related to the classic spiritual desiderata or "paramitas" (Sanskrit). Specific lists differ, but a common Mahayana list of the paramitas with ten members is: generosity, morality, patience, perseverance, concentration, wisdom, method, wishes, power, exalted or perfect (omniscient) wisdom. Number six in the list is the wisdom of emptiness/dependent arising. This is the insight that neither the self nor anything else has a fixed, permanent, foundational, non-contextual or independent essence. The Buddhist practitioner practices all the virtues. Each one helps deepen the others. Numbers (1) - (5) serve as causes and preparation for (6); and (6) serves as a cause for the deepening of the others. Numbers (1) - (5) prepare the mind the the subtle and powerful realization of (6). Number (6) allows the practitioner to practice (1) - (5) without greed, aversion, clinging or objectification.
    In the Mahayana schools of Buddhism, one continues this process until full Buddhahood is attained, which can take eons. According to the Tibetan Gelug-ba tradition, there are levels and layers, which one is able to pass through primarily by meditating on emptiness. It is possible to reach freedom from suffering in one lifetime, but full Buddhahood takes longer! The levels begin (i) when emptiness is first studied, and continue (ii) when emptiness is first realized inferentially. This is a watershed point. In meditation the practitioner experiences that the object of meditation does not exist inherently. One becomes suspicious and begins a healthy doubt that the world exists the way one's existing essentialist views claim. One feels that the self and the world might not exist as they have seemed to, and one wishes to investigate further. Already there is a certain light, decentered feeling that inspires one to meditate further.
    After more a lot more meditation one gets to the point at which (iii) emptiness is realized directly. This is another watershed point. At this point, the realization is a nondual experience unaccompanied by words, images, argumentation, inference, or a felt split between subject and object. The target that one sat down to meditate about actually loses its distinctness during the meditation; there is no imagery dividing one's putative meditative target from other things. When one rises from the meditation, one need only turn the mind to any object to know that it is empty. These objects include the self, thought, language, all aspects of the path, the Four Noble Truths, and even emptiness itself. One needn't conduct an inference specifically about an object in order to know that it is empty. After realizing emptiness directly, one may continute to meditate on emptiness in order to enrich insights into the variety and subtlety of the dependencies and interrelations among things. For many people, this is a part of their deepest life's interest, for others it is an ongoing part of the spiritual path they feel drawn to. But the sense of metaphysical anxiety - is gone. The sense of feeling alienated from a reality existing as though across a chasm - is gone. The sense of a solid, substantial, unified separate self (as well as other objects) existing on their own without relying on conceptual posits - is gone. The puzzle one might have felt about whether there were exceptions to the emptiness dialectic ("Are all things empty or are there exceptions that maybe I don't know about?") - is gone.
    At this point, all the sufferings and existential anxieties coming from clinging, aversion, and essentialist views of self and life come to a peaceful halt, their causes having ceased. According to the Tibetan Gelug-ba scheme, one does not stop here! As one lives life, one continues to meditate on emptiness. Why? There is a further goal. It is said that even though the obstructions to freedom from suffering have ceased, the obstructions to omniscience have not ceased. Objects still appear to the senses as though inherently existent even though the mind knows better. One's senses are not undeceived yet, but one's mind has an irreversible peace and clarity that the self and objects in the world are empty, arising dependently. According to the Tibetan Gelug-ba scheme, the practitioner meditates on emptiness and practices the other parts of the path until (iv) one by one, she advances through the Ten Bodhisattva Stages until (v) with omniscience and perfect development of all the paramitas, full Buddhahood is attained.
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    Western Emptiness Teachings
    Coming soon
    Slideshow on Western emptiness teachings from Jacques Derrida and Colin M. Turbayne
    This is from a presentation I gave in a Western Emptiness class at the Nalanda Bodhi Center in New York in 2008.
    One of the ways we are encouraged to treat the world as inherently existent is due to the Modernist, post-Descartes habit of seeing the world as a geometric or mechanical system. It seems we are looking out of a kind of watchtower, gazing onto a world. How can one not feel essentially separate if they seem to be inside something looking out onto a world that is defined to be across a metaphysical gap? Emptiness teachings provide many ways to reduce the power of this refute the power of this habit by challenging its presuppositions and providing alternate ways of experiencing.
    Both Derrida and Turbayne suggest seeing the world as language. This is a lot more holistic and organic. It removes the feeling of a metaphysical gap that one usually gets from seeing the world as a mechanical system, and also does a better job of explaining things like illusion and other sensory oddities.

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Comments: Thusness/Passerby recommended me this article, saying it is very good. (Comments continued in the comments section)

Update: This article has been updated recently in the source site (25th December 2012) and updated in this post on 10th January 2013.



Madhyamika Buddhism Vis-a-vis Hindu Vedanta

(A Paradigm Shift)

Ācārya Dharma Vajra (Sridhar SJB Rana)

Published: Buddhist Himalaya

Famous Indian Hindu scholars like the ex-President of India the late Radhakrishnan state ‘The Buddha did not feel that he was announcing a new religion. He was born, grew up, and died a Hindu. He was restating with a new emphasis the ancient ideals of the Indo-Aryan civilization.’ (2500 Years of Buddhism, 1971, Government of India, foreword, p.ix). Swami Vivekananda said that the Buddha was a great Vedantist for Buddhism was really only an offshoot of Vedanta(The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, volume 7, p. 59 and Inspired Talks, volume 3, p. 527). Likewise, Nepalese scholars like Mr. Chudanath Bhattarai, Swami Prapannacharya and scores other Nepalese and Indian scholars, too numerous to be mentioned here, have written that Buddhism is a reaction, a reformation of Hinduism. The Buddha tried to reform some of the malpractice within Hinduism and he never wanted to create a new religion. In short, according to these scholars, Buddhism is correct Hinduism without any malpractice and evils and what is called Hinduism is the malpractice and distorted form of the Vedas.
There are three problems with this interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching. One is that if these authors really believe that the Buddha came to reform evils, malpractices and wrong interpretation of the  Vedas, then why are they still following these “evils and malpractice” (in their own words) and not practicing the Buddha’s teachings, the reformed form of the  Vedas? How warped and distorted are the minds of people who, in one breath, proclaim the Buddha as the great reformer of Hinduism and then turn around and call Buddhism (what the Buddha taught) wrong.
Swami Vivekananda contradicts his own statement by stating that he does not agree with the doctrines of the Buddha as the Vedanta is far superior to his doctrines (The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, volume 3, p. 572). However, he doesn’t give any reasons or proper refutations to justify how his Vedanta is superior to the Buddha’s doctrines. At least ancient Hindu scholars like Sankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Madvacharya et al attempted to refute the Buddhist thesis to show how their view was superior, which is fair and the correct thing to do. But these later swamis simply proclaim that their “view” is superior and call it the “Lion’s Roar”. Of course, these authors contradict the Buddha’s own words as found in Pali canons where he has explicitly mentioned that what he taught was new even though it was taught by former Buddhas, but their teachings were completely lost (Pubbesu Ananussutesu Dhammesu, The Dharma Unheard Before, Vin. I, 10, v. 420). He also said very clearly in the Sammyutta Nikaya, Dhammachakkapabbatana Vaggo 56,11 that he had discovered a lost teaching not existing now , taught by the ancient Buddhas and again in the Nagara Sutta, Nidan Samyuttam, Mahavaggo , Samyutta Nikaya 12.65 he has repated the fact these teachings were of ancient Buddhas.
The Vedas were certainly not lost at the time of the Buddha as they continue to exist even now. Some of these scholars, including Vivekanada, have gone to the extent of claiming that the Buddha actually only wanted to reform the  Vedas, but his disciples misunderstood him and created a new religion. He states that ‘Shankara came, a great philosopher, and showed that the real essence of Buddhism and that of the Vedanta are not very different, but that the disciples of the Buddha did not understand the Master and have degraded themselves, denied the existence of the soul/Atman and of God/Ishwar, and have become atheists/ Nastikas’ (The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: The Sages of India, vol. 3, p. 264) .
How illogical it is to believe that the Buddha’s own disciples who were validated by the Buddha himself and the unbroken lineages stemming from them did not understand him. Whereas, Hindu swamis and panditas 2,500 years later really understood the Buddha’s message! Of course it is not totally the fault of these swamis because during their time facts about Buddhism had vanished from the Indian subcontinent and only hearsay and myths remained based on which these swamis picked whatever they liked. A good example of how mixed up their knowledge of Buddhism was, is evident in the claims made by Swami Vivekanda that what was said in the Kalama Sutta (and that too improvised in a rather confused and mixed up way by him) were the last words of the Buddha (The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Buddhistic India, Volume 3, p. 528).We all know that his last teaching under the Sal tree under which he attained Mahparinirvana was” Vaya Dharma sanskara apramadena sampadayetha” meaning all conditioned existence ceases so practice with mindfulness Such totally confused ideas about Buddhism and its history et al are found aplenty in the teachings of Swami Vivekanda and hundreds of such Hindu swamis, panditas and yogis from ancient times to date.
The second problem with the above interpretation made by the Hindu swamis is that it implies that the Buddha was born a Hindu. Simply because Suddhodana was a King and, therefore, called a  Ksatriya (warrior class), does not prove that he was a Hindu. First of all, what we call Hinduism did not exist at the time of the Buddha, but rather Vedic Brahmanism existed. Hence, the next question that naturally arises is that if the Buddha was really a follower of the Vedic system, why did he not call himself the great  Brahmin or  Maha-Brahmin like the great  Ksatriya Vishvamitra? It is strange to call the Buddha a proponent of Brahmanism, when he called himself the “Great  Sramana” or  Maha-Sramana. Furthermore there is absolutely no proof that the Sakyas followed the Vedic Brahmanic system. On the contrary they considered themselves superior to Vedic Kshetriyas like King Prasenjit of Kosala, whose son the Sakyas were not willing to give their daughter as the story of King Viruddhak makes it clear .They considered themselves superior to Vedic Kshetriyas , implying they were believers of the Sraman system.
Whilst Sramanism is as old as Brahmanism, a lot of research still remains to be done about it. Nonetheless, it can certainly be said that a  Sramana is not a  Brahmin. Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, also called himself a  Sramana. However, if the Buddha was merely reforming the  Vedas, why did he not call himself a Neo- Vedic, Neo- Brahmin or true  Brahmin, i.e.,  Maha-Brahmin? Instead, why did he call himself a  Maha-Sramana?
I would like to ask those scholars and their followers these questions. Nowhere in the Hindu  Shastras (teachings)are  Sramanas considered a part of the Vedic tradition. In fact the  Smritis (a category of Hindu scriptures) even go so far as to say  Brahmins should not take initiations from  Sramana systems like  Shaivism, Vaisnavism or Buddhism. In the Yagyavalka Smriti, Apararka Vyakhya it even says ( Bauddhān Pāshupatānschaiva Laukāyatika nastikan Vikarmasthān dwijān sprishtvā sachailô jalamāvishėt) that if a Hindu upper class (Dvija) is even touched by a Buddhist or a Pashupat ( followers of Shiva) or Atheist etc the Hindu should wash himself clean with his clothes and the Skandha Purana 274-287 says Vaishnavim chātha shaivim cha yoanyām dikchyām samācharet Brahmano na bhavet soatra yadhyapi syāt shadangavit meaning Those who are initiated into Vaishnavism or Shaivism or other ( meaning Buddhists and Jainas etc ) are not Brahmins even if they are learned in all the six limbs of the Vedas . It appears that  Shaivism and Viasnavism were intergrated into the Vedic fold later on. The Valmiki Ramayana Ayodhya Kanda Jaivali Prakarana 2/19/34 has Ram himself calling Buddha a thief and and an Atheist that no wise person should follow ( Yathāhi chor sa tathāhi Buddhastathāgatan nāstikamatra viddhi, tasmādhi yah sankyatamah prajānām na nāstike nābhimukho budhasyāt). This certainly doesn’t seem to considered as a reformation of the Vedic teachings to Ram in the Valmiki Ramayana? It was customary in India from ancient times to call Kings  Ksatriyas (rulers or warriors), regardless of whether they belonged to the  Sramana or  Brahmana group. Even if Suddhodana belonged to the  Brahmin school (of which there is absolutely no proof as yet), and the Buddha may have studied the  Brahmanic literatures (The Buddhist scripture the Lalita Vistar implies that he studied  Brahmanic literature also . Besides other schools, he studied even the  Kirata script. The  Kiratas who are called  Ksatriyas in the Vedic literature were not part of the Indo Aryan fold and thus in no way proves they were  Brahmanical). He certainly did not seem to have taken after Brahmanism but rather after Sramanism, which are not the same thing by any historical standards and neither is Sramanism a means to reform Brahmanism.
The third problem is that the teachings found in Buddhism do not in any way appear to be a reformation of Hinduism. Anyone who has studied Buddhism (I am not talking about prejudiced Hindu oriented scholars), can see that there is a major  paradigm shift between Hinduism and Buddhism; in fact, between all other religious systems and Buddhism. The post modern and new age concept of universalism regarding spirituality, no matter how romantically beautiful, fails miserably when it comes to addressing Buddhism. A paradigm shift cannot and should not be misconstrued as a reformation. Reforms are changes brought about within the same paradigm. Hence,  paradigm shifts are changes in the very foundations or parameters. Therefore, the basic foundations of these practices are completely different.
In such cases, it is completely confused thinking to state that one paradigm is a reformation of another. So Sramanism is a system of religion based on a completely different paradigm than the Vedic-Brahmanism or its offspring Hinduism. Therefore, it would be a gross error to say Buddhism is a reformation of Vedic Hinduism or Vedanta as Swami Vivekanda asserts. First of all, what we call Hinduism today, or even in the time of Swami Vivekanada did not exist at the time of the Buddha, which was the Vedic period. Vedic-Brahmanism was heavily influenced by older Sramanic schools and later on by newer ones like Buddhism and Jainism. We find in the ancient  Brihadaranyak Upanishad, Gargi (a female) challenging the  Brahmin Yagyavalkya. A critical study of the literature clearly shows that the mode of questioning that Gargi applied was very different from the type that many other  Brahmins used to question Yagyavalkya. For instance, all the  Brahmins used the same style of questioning in that they were simply asking the correct interpretation of some things found in the Vedas. But Gargi challenged the Vedas and thus she could have been a  Sramana, even if she were  Brahmin by caste. As Yagyavalkya was not able to answer her questions, he had to stop her by saying ‘Do not ask anymore or else your head will fall off’ (Brihadaranyak Upanishad 3.6.1).
It is these kinds of interaction between Sramanism and Brahmanism that produced the Upanishads and it is the interaction between Buddhism and Vedic Brahmanism (with some influence from Jainism too) that produced what is today called Hinduism. It is in the Upanishadic period that theories identifiable with Shramanas came in direct contact with  Brahmanical ideals (Padmanabh S. Jaini (2001),  Collected Papers on Buddhist Studies , Motilal Banarsidass Publications, p. 47).
According to  Ananda Guruge, a renowned Buddhist leader, the  Sramana movement impacted Vedic education through the Upanishads, with debate and discussion replacing parrot-like repetition of the Vedas (Ananda W.P.Guruge (2005), Buddhist Answers to Current Issues, Author House, p. 119). Therefore,  it is not a reformation but a shift in paradigm. Even if the Vedic paradigm was older, they are still different from one another. However, whether the Vedic paradigm is really older than the  Sramana paradigm is questionable. After all, even though Buddhism began with Shakyamuni, Sramanism is much older. According to the findings of the Indus Valley civilization (3000-2000 B.C.), Sramanism existed in the Indian sub-continent even before Brahmanism entered the region and the Buddha himself has clearly said that there were many Buddhas before him.
It is the purpose of this paper to show how Brahmanismor its offshoot Hinduism and Buddhism are built on two totally different paradigms, even though they share the same language and cultural matrix. It is this sharing of the same language and cultural matrix that has fooled many scholars, especially Hindu biased scholars, who have failed to understand these are two completely different paradigms with very little in common, except the same cultural background, and their language, metaphor, analogy, and words. But as we shall see, the same analogies express two different conceptual structures (paradigms).
I would like to clarify that this is a differentiation between the two paradigms and not a denigration of Hinduism or the Vedanta which are wonderful creations of humanity. It is a refutation of the outdated and baseless notion that Buddhism is a branch of Hinduism or a reformation or based on Hinduism et al and not a denigration of Hinduism. This kind of healthy refutation and rebuttal existed between Buddhism and Hinduism from the time of the Buddha till around the twelfth century when Buddhism collapsed in India after the Islamic invasion. According to the diary of one of the invaders Bakhtiar Kilji (1193 AD), the armed forces specifically targeted the Buddhist monasteries mistaking them to be military centers rather than academics.
Until then it was Buddhism that kept expanding throughout India and Asia. It is said that seventy five per cent of India was Buddhist. Here too, the general Hindu concept put forth by many Hindu scholars like Vivekananda et al that Hinduism took back Buddhism into its fold and that is how Buddhism vanished from India is totally misleading and historically unfounded (The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: The Sages of India, volume 3, p. 265). Also, virtually all famous Hindu Vedantic scholars like Madhvacharya (1238-1317) interpreted Buddhism incorrectly. Madhvacharya states that ‘Madhyamiko vivartam akhilam, sunyasya ene jagat.’ That is ‘The Madhyamics believe that all this  Samsara is an illusion and the  Samsara/ jagat comes out of emptiness.’ (Sarva Darshan Sanghraha). Likewise, hundreds of Hindu scholars after him just assumed this was the true interpretation of the Madhyamic. They have used it either to refute the Madhyamic or to validate that the emptiness of the Madhyamic is just a negative way of stating the  Brahman out of which the universe comes out. However, the Hindu scholars have not had the opportunity to face real Buddhist refutation of their notions for a long time till now, mainly due to language barriers. As they say, the mice will play when the cat is away.
When we compare the  Advaita Vedanta, especially as interpreted by Shankara, and the  Madhyamika, whether it is the  Svatantric form of  Bhavya or  Prasangic form of Candrakirti, the sharing of the same language, culture and analogies, (while talking about two different paradigms), become obvious. I have chosen  Sankara Vedanta because of all sub paradigms within Hinduism, it is the  Sankara Vedanta that appears to come closest to Madhyamic Buddhism. Even Vivekananda seems to think the same with a slight Hinduistic twist as he mentions in his  Buddhism and Vedanta that the Vedanta philosophy is the foundation of Buddhism and everything else in India. However, what we call the Advaita philosophy of the modern school has great many conclusions for the Buddhists.
For instance, the Upanishads themselves are a mix of different concepts susceptible to many interpretations as have been made by various famous interpreters such as Ramanuja, Madhava, Vallabha, Bhaskara, Nimbarka and Yamuna. These are obviously so different from Buddhism that they do not warrant a comparison . The  Shaivadvaita of Kashmir Shaivism also is similar to Sankara Vedanta in many ways. Even though there are fine differences, which we cannot go into here, however, they too use similar words to point at different paradigms.
Because the same language structure (be it  Pali or  Sanskrit) and the same analogies are used to express two different paradigms, many  Vedantins or scholars of Buddhism with Vedantic backgrounds have been fooled into thinking Buddhist Madhyamika is a re-interpretation of Hindu Vedanta. For example, many like Vinova Bhave the guru revered by the late Prime minister of India Indira Gandhi, perceive Buddhism as a negative way to attain the same goal ( via negativa), whereas Hindu Vedanta is the positive way ( via positiva). Likes of Bhave and others argue that the Buddhists use negation, whereas the Vedantis use affirmation and therefore the  Shunyata of Buddhism is a negative way of talking about the  Brahman of the Vedanta.
The issue here is not via negative or positive, but rather approaching two different goals based on two different paradigms, or addressing two diametrically opposed answers to the burning issue of mankind developed from diametrically opposed paradigms. In fact, the Buddha, after engaging in long years of  Brahmanic as well as  Sramanic meditations, found the concept of  Brahman (an ultimately real, unchanging, eternal substratum [ paramartha satta] to this ephemeral transient world) inadequate to solve the basic issue of humanity, i.e., suffering ( dukkha ). He questioned the very existence of such an eternal substratum and also declared that a search for such an imagined  Brahman ( parikalpita atman) was a form of escapism and, therefore, not really spiritual but “Spiritual Materialism”.
Since the concept of  Brahman, the truly existent ( paramartha satta) is the very foundation of Hinduism (as a matter of fact some form of an eternal ultimate reality whether it is called God or Nature is the basis of all other religious systems). When Buddhism denies such an ultimate reality ( paramartha satta) in any form, it cuts at the very jugular veins of Hinduism and all other Theistic systems. Therefore, it cannot be ontologically, epistemologically, and soteriologically said that Buddhism reforms Hinduism.
The affirmation of a ground  (asraya) which is really existent ( paramartha satta) and the denial that no such existent ground  (satta) can be found anywhere, within or without, immanent or transcendent, are two diametrically opposed paradigms, not simply variation or reformations of each other. The Webster Dictionarydefines re-form as ‘to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuse.’ The example I have given above of an eternal base without which Hinduism in its own language would be called atheistic  (Nastik). Therefore, the denial (without any implied affirmation  prasajya pratisheda) of such an eternally existing unchanging base by Buddhism cannot be said to be a reformation, but a  deconstruction of the very roots of the Hindu thesis. That is why Buddhism is not a reformation of Hinduism but a paradigm shift from the foundations on which Hinduism is based.
Hindu scholastic polemics assert that without an ultimate eternal reality ( pramartha satta), there can be no liberation from the changing, transient  Samsara which is an illusion Therefore, even though the Buddha denied such an ultimate reality, he could have meant only conceptually really existing reality/relative reality, not the eternal ultimate reality, which is beyond concepts. Otherwise there cannot be liberation. The fault with this kind of thinking is that it is measuring the thesis of the Buddha (which is no thesis), or interpreting the Buddha from within the Hindu paradigm, within which, an eternal ultimate reality ( paramartha satta) is a necessity for soteriological purpose, i.e., for liberation as  Samsara itself is merely an illusion ( maya) and cannot liberate us. However the Buddha saw this as a necessary dead-end. Since according to the Buddha, there is no  Brahman, such a concept being merely an acquired fabrication ( parikalpana) learned from wrong ( mithya ) scriptures, hankering after or searching for such a  Brahman leads nowhere, let alone liberation. Hence, the Buddhist paradigm if understood correctly, does not require an eternally existing something or other for liberation.
In Buddhism liberation is not about realizing such a ground but rather letting go of all grounds, i.e., realizing the “groundlessness” of  Samsara which is not really an illusion per se but “like an illusion” ( mayavat). As Nagarjuna puts it aptly in his Magnum Opus,  Mulamadhyamakakarika ‘sarva drishti prahanaya yah saddharmam adeshayet.’ That is ‘the Buddha taught out of compassion the true dharma for the sake of letting go of all views.’ (Drishti Parikshya, Investigation of view, chapter 27 verse 30). In the Theravadin  Majjhima NikayaDighanakha Sutta and the  Aggivacchagotta Sutta , the Buddha himself says that ‘all others leave one view only to hold on to another view but the Tathagata let goes all view and does not grasp to any other view.’ The  Phenopindopama Sutra states very clearly that the five aggregates (  pancha skandha), which is the  Samsara, is like a bubble, like foam, like an illusion. It does not say the five aggregates are an illusion but “like an illusion”. In fact, according to Buddhism, holding on to any ground is ignorance and is called innate clinging to the concept of a truly existing self ( sahaja atman graha).
Therefore, in the Buddhist paradigm, it is not only ‘not necessary’ to have an eternal ground for liberation, but in fact, the belief in such a ground itself is part of the dynamics of ignorance. We now move to another major difference within the two paradigms.
In Hinduism liberation occurs when this illusory  Samsara is completely relinquished and it vanishes; what remains is the eternal  Brahman, which is the same as liberation. Since the thesis is that  Samsara is merely an illusion, when it vanishes through knowledge ( jnana) only an eternally existing self called the  Brahman remains and if there were no eternal  Brahman remaining, it would call for a disaster. So in the Hindu paradigm (or, according to Buddhism, all paradigms based on ignorance), an eternal unchanging, independent, really existing substratum/ base (Skt:  AshrayaZhi in Tibetan) or the ‘great substance’( Mahavastu) is a necessity for liberation, otherwise one would fall into Nihilism. But since the Buddhist paradigm is totally different, the question posed by Hindu scholars: how can there be liberation if a  Brahman or the First Cause does not remain after the illusory  Samsara vanishes into wisdom/enlightenment ( jnana/yeshe) is not relevant within the Buddhist paradigm and does not hold any ground in its enlightenment,  Bodhi or  Nirvana. The fact that all Dharmas are interdependently originated ( pratityasamutpanna) implies that there can be no First Cause/Creator God unless these too can arise interdependently. This is why many Hindu scholars from ancient times considered Buddhism as a nihilistic system ( nastika), which actually means non-believer.
First of all, to the Buddha and Nagarjuna,  Samsara is not an illusion/maya but like an illusion ( mayavat) as the  Phenopindopama Sutta found in both Theravadin, Mulasarvastivadin and Mayahayana texts make it clear. To Sankara, the  Samsara is an illusion as his famous verse quoted from the  Puranas state ‘ Brahman satyam jagan mithya’, which means ‘ Brahman is the truth meaning really existing ( Sat) and the  jagat/Samsara is false/illusion.’ According to the rest of the verse, this is the main essence of the thousands of Hindu scriptures described in half a verse: ‘Shlokardhena pravachhyami yaduktam grantha kotibhi’. Also, Sankara repeatedly calls the  Samsara illusion ( maya) in his commentaries of the  Prasthan Trayi (The three pillars of Vedanta –viz- The  Brahman Sutra, the eleven or so main Upanishads and the Bhagavat Gita). There is a  quantum leap in the meaning of these two statements. If  Samsara is merely an illusion, it cannot be the basis for liberation as it does not exist at all in any way whatsoever. How can a barren woman’s son or a vixen’s horn be the basis of our liberation when there is no such thing?
However, if it is interdependently arising and appears like an illusion, it can become the source of our liberation. Secondly, because it is only “like an illusion”, i.e., interdependently arising like all illusions, it does not and cannot vanish. So,  Nirvana does not arisewhen  Samsara vanishes like mist and the  Brahman arises like a sun out of the mist, but rather when seeing that the true nature of  Samsara is itself  Nirvana. That is,  Samsara transforms into  Nirvana as the Hevajra Tantra 2.4.38 clearly states ‘ami dharmas tu  Nirvana mohat  Samsararupina’, meaning ‘all Dharmas/phenomena ( Samsara) are essentially  Nirvana but because of delusion they appear as  Samsara.’ It further mentions that ‘amudah  Samsaran shuddhaya samsaro nirvrittayate’, that is ‘the undeluded one functions in the world purifying the  Samsara into  Nirvana.’ Whilst  Brahman and  Samsara are two different entities: one real, the other unreal; one existing ( Sat) and the other non- existing ( asat). Just like  Samsara being superimposed on the  Brahman like a snake on a rope, the two can never be one. But,  Samsara and  Nirvana in Mahayana Buddhism are one and not two separate things.
Nirvana is the nature of  Samsara or in Nagarjuna’s words  Shunyata is the nature of  Samsara. In the  Mulamadhyamaka Karika, chapter twenty five verses 19-20, Nagarjuna writes there is absolutely no difference between  Samsara and  Nirvana and the same concept is also found in the Hevajra Tantra section two, chapter four, verse 38, as mentioned earlier ‘ami dharmas tu  Nirvana mohat  Samsara rupina’, that is all these Dharmas ( Samsara) are  Nirvana but because of delusion ( moha) they appear as  Samsara. It is the realization of the nature of  Samsara as empty which cuts at the very root of ignorance and results in knowledge not of another thing beyond  Samsara but of the way  Samsara itself actually exists ( vastusthiti), knowledge of  Tathata (“as it-is-ness”) the  Yathabhuta (“as it-really-is”) of  Samsara itself. It is this knowledge that liberates from the wrong conceptual and conditioned experience of  Samsara to the unconditioned “experience” of  Samsara just as it is. That is what is meant by the indivisibility of  Samsara and  Nirvana (Skt.:  Samsara Nirvana Abhinnata, Tib.:  Khor De Yer Me).
Nirvana being the Mind ( Tathagatagarbha), in the context of  Mahasandhi/Dzogchen,  Mahamudra/Chyagchen and  Anuttara Tantra, Samsara could be substituted by the dualistic mind. The Hevajra Tantra 2.4.77 states ‘chittam eva hi sambuddho, na buddho’nyatra darshita’ meaning ‘mind itself is perfectly enlightened and nowhere else is the enlightened one to be perceived.’ Krisnacharya comments in his  Yogaratnamala Commentary, ‘chittam evahi bodhichittam’ meaning the ‘ Chitta means the  Bodhichitta (Enlightened Mind).’ Ratnakarashanti also comments on the verse in his commentary called the  Muktavali, stating ‘chittameva bodhih satvanam tatha pragapi tesham tesham chittasamataya’ meaning ‘by mind itself is meant the mind of enlightened beings and also before enlightenment because the mind is the same/similar. The Hindu paradigm is world denying, affirming the  Brahman .The Brihadaryanaka Upanishad 2.4.12 says ‘na pretyasangyastityare’ that is ‘there is no more consciousness of the particular’ and Sankaracharya in his commentary of this verse further states ‘…. how can the knower of  Brahman who is established in his nature as pure awareness ( vigyanaghana) possibly have any such particular consciousness…..even when the man is in the body, particular consciousness ( Samsara) is impossible at times, as in deep sleep, so how can it ever exist in a man who has been absolutely freed from the body and organ ( Samsara).’
The commentaries on Yogavasitha mentions that a realized yogi loses all consciousness of the external world and is immersed in the  Brahman so much so that the yogi is incapable of looking after him/herself and has to be fed by other people. According to the Hindu  Avadhuta system, an avadhuta is someone who has lost all contact with this world and lives in the inner world could be called an eccentric who does not care anymore for social norms. Whereas, the Buddhist meaning of  Avadhuta is closely related to  kusulipa or  chodpa, which means a person who practices offering him/herself including the body (the most cherished aspect of a person) to all sentient beings through special meditational practices called  chod/chedan or Kusuli Yoga.
The Mahayana Buddhist paradigm does not deny the world; it only rectifies our wrong vision ( mithya dristi) of the world. Therefore, of what use would a  Bodhisattva who has lost all contact with this  Samsara be to anybody? And how could any  Bodhicharya/Bodhisattva activity be conducted in such a state? In fact, discriminating knowledge ( pratyavekshyana gyana) of the particular ( pratya) is part of the Bodhisatva’s enlightenment. The Buddha never lost contact with the “here and now” ( Samsara) except when he was in samadhis. The Mahayana does not give importance toa dream beyond or a separate transcendence from  Samsara. According to Buddhism, such a dream is part of the dynamics of ignorance and to present such a dream would be to perpetuate ignorance. In Buddhism, any system or paradigm which propagates such an unproven and not provable dream as an eternal substance or ultimate reality, be it Hinduism or any other “ism”, is propagating spiritual materialism and not true spirituality. In contrast, in Hinduism such a  Brahman is the  Summum Bonum of its search goal, the peak of the Hindu thesis. The Hindu paradigm would collapse without it. Since Buddhism denies this, it cannot be honestly said that the Buddha merely meant to reform Hinduism. As I have repeatedly said, it is a totally different paradigm. Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Jainism are all variations of the same paradigm, although Jainism is non theistic like Buddhism it is also based on the  Atman-Brahman concept or an ultimately truly existing self/reality. So truly speaking, you could speak of them as reformations of each other. But Buddhism has a totally different paradigm from any of these, not merely from Vedic- Hinduism. This leads us naturally to the concept of the two truths ( satya dvaya).
Both Hindu Vedanta and Madhyamika Buddhism (and for that matter all forms of Buddhism), use the above concept to clarify its paradigm. But again the same words point at two different paradigms. First of all, the concept of the two truths clearly stated in Buddhism, that the Buddha himself used, penetrated Hinduism only after Shankaracharya (seventh/eight century) Even though Patanjali had appropriated a lot of Buddhist concepts and words in his Patanjala Sutra, he did not speak about the two truths per se. According to Surendra Nath Dasgupta the first three main chapters of the Patanjala Sutra which deals mainly with meditation, is just a Hinduized rehashing of Buddhist meditational concepts and the last chapter where Buddhism is criticized is the work of somebody else who wrote it later as the style is different (A History of Indian Philosophy, vol 1.7.pp.229-30).
However, even though Sankara copied these words from Buddhism and also copied many other conceptual words from Nagarjuna to elucidate his Vedantic paradigm (that is why he was accused of being a crypto-Buddhist [ Prachhanna Bauddha] by Bhaskaracharya), the meaning of the paradigm that he tried to clarify using the same words is different. So he was never really a crypto Buddhist but rather a virulent critique of Buddhism. In his Sariraka Bhasya (  BrahmanSutra 2.2.32) he has called the Buddha ‘an incoherent babbler who showed his malevolence towards all creatures acting under delusion…giving contradictory views.’ So much for those western disciples and some western Buddhists who claim that the Sankara Vedanta/Hinduism and the Madhyamic/Buddhism are essentially the same!
In many places these conceptual wordings and analogies are forced to produce the meaning that is required for the Vedantic paradigm. In the Vedantic context, the relative truth ( Vyavahar Satya or Samvritti Satya in Buddhism) is that this  Samsara is an illusion and the ultimate truth (  paramartha satya) is that there is an ultimately existing thing ( paramartha satta) transcending/immanent in this world. Therefore, the relative truth will vanish like an illusion and both the transcendent and immanent  Brahman (the ultimate truth/paramartha satta) will appear as the only truth, hence the world/ Samsara being false: ‘ Brahman satyam jaggan mithya’ that is ‘ Brahman is really existing and the  Samsara is an illusion.’
To sum it up, the Vedantic ultimate truth is the existence of an ultimate existence or ultimate reality called  Atman-Brahman. Reality here is used as something which exists ( satta/ sat). Sri Sankaracharya defines  Sat or real existence in his  Tatva Bodha as that which remains the same and unchanged in all the three times (kala trya api tishtatiti). The three times means the past, present and the future. Thus the ultimate reality has to remain unchanged and that reality is the ultimate truth.
However, the Buddhist ultimate truth is the absence of any such  satta, i.e., and ultimately existing thing or ultimate reality. The significance of  Shunyata is the absence of any real, independent, unchanging existence ( svabhava) and that fact is the ultimate truth of Buddhism, which is diametrically opposite of the ultimate truth of the Hindu  Atman-Brahman. So  Shunyata or emptiness can never be  via negativa, a negative way of describing the  Atman-Brahman of Hinduism as Vinoba Bhave and such scholars would have us believe. The meaning of  Shunyata found in Sutra, Tantra, Dzogchen and Mahamudra is the same and officially accepted by all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism (except those who adhere to the Shentong view) and that isthe Prasangic emptiness of Chandrakirti, i.e., the unfindability of any true existence or simply unfindability ( unupalabdhi).
Some writers of Dzogchen and Mahamudra or Tantra think that the emptiness of Nagarjuna is different from the emptiness found in these systems, but such an idea contradicts the view presented by Acharya Tripitaka Kamala in his  Vinaya Pramod and Advaya Vajra in his  Advaya Vajra Sanghraha. Both authors state (an oft quoted verse in Tibetan texts too) that ‘Ekartha tve apya asammohad bahu upaya duskarad,’ meaning ‘even though the view/goal of Tantra and Sutra are the same Tantra is special in having many skillful means.’ Since the goal of sutra is the non dual realization of emptiness which is not different from luminosity (as per the  Pragyamaramita Sutras) and the emptiness of Sutra is as elucidated by Nagarjuna and his sons, the emptiness of Tantra and Dzogchen has to be the same emptiness.
Therefore, to claim that the Emptiness of the Dzogchen and Tantra are different from the emptiness found in the Sutra is false. The Hevajra Tantra 2.5.67 itself states very clear that ‘this is that great bliss where there is neither ‘no-self’ ( anatman/sunyata) nor other’ (  ehu so paramamahasuha nau para nau appana). So it is not only empty of others but also of the self ( svabhava). However, I would like to ask them whether their emptiness is findable or unfindable? Whether the significance of emptiness in these systems point towards the ‘unfindability’ that is free from the four extremes ( tetralemma) or ‘no seeing’ as it could also be expressed? Also some Shentong scholars (by Shentongpas I mean the Dolpopa Shentongpas specifically, who seem to have abandoned the Prasangic emptiness and not those who have not abandoned the emptiness, like the Minling, Terchen and Shakya Chogden) seem to imply that the Shentong system is talking about a different emptiness. They say that the Buddha nature is not empty of qualities therefore, Buddha nature is not merely empty, it also has qualities.
First of all the whole statement is irrelevant as the issue is not about qualities or the Buddha nature being empty of quality or not. The Buddha nature is empty of “real existence” ( svabhava). Because it is empty of real existence and because it is  nishwabhava or “non-real-existent” (another name for emptiness), it has qualities. As Arya Nagarjuna has said in the Mulamadhyamikakarika ‘all things are possible (including qualities) because they are empty.’ The Samadhiraj sutra says ‘know all things to be like this: a mirage, a cloud castle, a dream, an apparition, without essence (meaning empty) but with qualities that can be seen.’ The Theravadin Majjhima Nikaya 1.297 and Samyutta Nikaya IV 296-97 further state ‘sunnam idam attena va attaniyena va’, meaning ‘this  Samsara is empty of self or anything pertaining to self.’ Therefore, the mind is an integral part of what Buddhism calls  Samsara/world and this mind is Buddha ( Tathagatagarbha), which is also empty in the same way and not in some other way.
If the Buddha nature ( Tathagatagarbha/Sugatagarbha) was really existing ( sat) and not empty ( nishwabhava), in the Sutra sense, like the  Brahman of the Hindus, then the same fault that ancient Buddhist masters blamed on the Hindu  Atman-Brahman would boomerang on these Buddhists too. An unchanging really existing thing cannot function in any way as function implies change (Tatva Sanghraha, chapter 7, section E, text 332-335 of Shantarakshita commentary by Kamalashila). Therefore, how can such a  Tathagatagarbha that is unchanging have any qualities as it cannot function in any way. If it is answered that the function of the Buddha’s qualities are inconceivable ( acintya/sam gyi mikhyab), a further question arises that is, how can a conceivable  Tathagatagarbha (as to say it exists is to bring it down to the level of conception and thus conceivable) have inconceivable qualities? For the Tathagarbha to have inconceivable qualities, it would also have to be inconceivable. We now come to the point of Nagarjuna that the  Tathagarbha must also be free from the four extremes ( tetralemma) which means empty of real existence. Therefore the whole  Shentong/Rangtong issue is superfluous. And if the  Tathagarbha becomes really existing then Buddhism loses its main thesis that differentiated it from Hinduism from its very inception.
We find even Hindu scholars as early as 300 AD like Vatsayana through Bharahar Sutra ( Sutta) trying to prove that the Buddha actually taught the  Atman but the Buddhists did not understand. This statement implies that there were no Buddhists who understood the Buddha. It further implies that until the time of Vatsayana, Buddhists did not agree with the  Atman theory. However, in most kinds of Shentong (except the Dolpopa Shentong), Buddha nature is also empty and emptiness means unfindable that is free from the four extremes as per Nagarjuna-Chandrakirti.
In the tradition of the Mahasiddha Lord of Yogins ( Yogeshwar) Virupad, who is one of the famous eighty four Mahasiddhas as well as a great scholar and an abbot ( Upadhyaya/Khenpo) of Vikramashila; luminosity ( prabhashwar), clarity or pure awareness is the store house consciousness ( alaya vigyana) which is the relative truth and the  Tathagarbha is emptiness and the ultimate truth. The unity of the two is the unity of Samsara and  Nirvana which is inexpressible and experienced only by Aryas ( Aryasamahita), those who have attained the  Bhumis. In short, the unfindability of any true existence is the ultimate truth ( paramartha satya) in Buddhism, and is diametrically opposed to the concept of a truly existing thing called  Brahman, the ultimate truth in Hinduism.
There is also another problem with a really existing  Tathagatagarbha that is not empty. If it is “really existing” then it cannot be indivisible with  Samsara which is empty. Then the mind ( Chitta) cannot be a Buddha and even worse is that the whole of Buddhist Tantra/Vajrayana would be subverted, as  Samsara which is empty cannot be transformed into  Nirvana, which according to the Shentong theory is not empty. The whole of Buddhist Tantra is based on the principle of transformation and that is why it is called the way of transformation ( parinati marga). Vajrayana would become redundant and Sankara Vedanta would be the true Buddhist Way . It is said in the Astasahasrika Pragyaparamita Sutra ( The 8000 Verse Pragyaparamita)
Sachennirvanādapi kaschid dharmo visistatara syat tamapyaham mayopamam badāmi meaning If there’s a dharma above nirvana that too I say is like an illusion and this is quoted by Pragyakarmati in his Panjika( commentary) of the chapter nine verse eight of the Bodhicharyavatara
Now let’s examine relative truth ( samvritti satya). In Hinduism, the relative truth is the fact that this world is an illusion ( maya), which has no existence. As Sankara points out ‘Rajjau sarpa bhramana aropa tadvat  Brahmani jagat aropa.’ Meaning ‘just as the snake is imputed on the rope so too is the  Samsara imputed upon the  Brahman.’ This means that the  Samsara is entirely false, an illusion, like the snake on the rope. However, in Buddhism,  Samsara is interdependently arising. According to Tsong Khapa it has relative existence (  samvritti satta), or it appears conventionally and according to Gorampa Senge and Mipham, it appears like an illusion ( mayavat). Like all illusions, it appears interdependently based on various causes and conditions ( hetu pratyaya). It may be like an illusion but it is the only thing we have; there is nothing behind it or beyond it, which can be called an ultimate thing or reality. It does not have a base or ground that is “really existing”, like the  Brahman, as it is groundless, meaning empty. The ultimate ‘reality’, truth or fact, in the Buddhist sense, is the mode of existence of this illusion – like  Samsara, i.e., “empty of real existence” ( nihsvabhava).
So here too we can find two different parameters for two different paradigms using similar words. Now let us investigate some of the Sanskrit words shared by both paradigms. One word that has created great confusion is “non- dualism”. First of all, Hindu Vedanta is  Advaita, and Madhyamika,  Advaya. Even though they are sometimes used interchangeably by both systems, their meanings are, as used in the two paradigms, different. In Hindu Vedanta, “non dualism” ( advaita) means “one without a second” ( dvitiyam nasti) as interpreted by Sankara  Chandogya Upnishad .Also Chandogya 6.2.1 states very clearly ‘Sad eva….Asid ekam eva advitiyam,’ that is ‘the one and only really existent ( sat), the only one, one without a second.’ The Chandogya Upanishad predates the Buddha by a couple of centuries- many scholars place it between 800BC and 1200BC. What does this mean? That there is only  Brahman, which really exists and nothing else really exists. In other words, the world does not exist at all, it is only an illusion. The true English word for this is “Monism”, which according to the Webster Dictionary is ‘the view that there is only one kind of ultimate substance.’ Swami Vivekanda himself uses the exact word “Monism” for his Advaita Vedanta (The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume 3, Buddhistic India). Since, as we have already seen, there isn’t any kind of ultimate substance according to the Madhyamika Buddhism, the meaning of  advaya (non- dualism) cannot be like in Hinduism.
The Madhyamika scriptures very clearly define  Advaya as ‘ dvaya anta mukta’, that is ‘free from the two extremes’ of existing and non-existing. The extremes are the extreme of eternalism ( saswatanta) to which the Hindu Vedantic  Atman-Brahman fall (the Buddhist  Tathagatagarbha is not a synonym for the Hindu  Atman-Brahman and should not fall into this category. Therefore it should not be interpreted as really existing ( sat). On the contrary according to the  Pragyaparamita Sutras and in the interpretation of the Mahasiddha Yogeshwar Virupa,  Tathagatagarbha is a synonym for emptiness), and Nihilism ( ucchedanta) into which many materialistic systems like  Charvak fall. But it goes deeper. Non dual knowledge ( advaya jnana) is the state of mind which is soteriologically free from grasping at the two extremes of knowing in terms of “is” and “is not” and is itself ontologically free from “existing” or “non existing” (which is the same as saying it is empty). Because it is non conceptual ( avikalpa), free from conceptual proliferation ( nisprapancha), beyond thoughts (  acintya), inexpressible ( unabhilapya) and free from the four extremes ( chatuskoti vinirmukta), it is the true meaning of emptiness.
Hence,to say that the  Tathagarbha exists is to make it conceivable, expressible and within the domain of concepts. As the inimitable Sakya Pandita says, that would be like bringing the  Tathagarbha down to conceptual proliferation ( prapancha). Or, in the context of this essay, it is to make the  Tathagarbha just another synonym for the Hindu  Atman-Brahman which it is not. In the Mulamadhyamaka Karika, Nagarjuna very clearly mentions ‘tathagato nisvabhavo….’ that is ‘the  Tathagata is empty ( nisvabhava) of real existence’ (Mulamadhyamaka Karika, Tathagata Parikshya, chapter 22, verse 16). If the  Tathagata is empty ( nisvabhava), how can the  Tathagatagarbha be really existing like the  Brahman of the Hindu?
Advaita jnana is however the knowledge of the one and only truly existing substance or reality called  Brahman in Hinduism. It could also be called by any other name. Even if the  Brahman is defined as beyond “is” and “is not”, as in the Yogavasistha and the Astavakra Gita and the Avadhuta Gita, it is only a another way of saying that there is an ultimate reality that really exists, i.e., it has an ultimately real existence ( paramartha satta/ Brahman), which is beyond concepts of existing and non existing. Therefore, it still falls within eternalism (  saswatvada), conceptual proliferation ( prapanca), conceivable ( cintya) and verbal thinking ( vikalpa). It is difficult to see how one can say it is the ultimate existence which exists and it is beyond all concepts and thoughts ( avikalpa) in the same breath as ‘existence’ is a concept ( vikalpa).
There is also the use of “free from the existence and non existence/ free from the two extremes or two ends ( dwaya anta mukta)” in Buddhism, and “beyond ( para) existence and non existence or without existence and non existence (as the Avhaduta Gita says without existence and non existence (  bhava abhava vivarjita). “Beyond” or “without/excluding” implies a third something which is neither; but “free” does not necessarily imply a third something which is neither.
Some Shentongpas define the  Tathagatagarbha exactly like the  Brahman of the Vedanta, without realizing it and even claim it as a higher meditator’s view which is not accessible to lower class logicians. Well this type of view has two faults:
First, it implies a kind of hubris that these Shentonpas are some kind of higher logicians or meditators who do not require the lower logic, and such hubris is non Buddhist in tone and nature. The Buddha very clearly said that the panditas and meditators should go hand in hand and respect each other in a  Sutta of the Theravadin  Anguttara Nikaya. The Lord of the tenth Bhumi Vajragarbha in his Satasahasrika Hevajratika (a commentary on the Hevajra Tantra 1.51) mentions very clearly ‘Adau vikalpadheto savikalpam sunyata phalam bhavet. Ante cha sarvabauddhanam akalpatah sunyata phalam’, that is ‘in the beginning, the conceptual cause brings about the fruition of conceptual emptiness and finally, for all Buddhists, the fruition will be non conceptual emptiness.’
Second, this implies that these meditators believe that the lower logicians do not understand the higher view and only they understand it. Well, Milarepa, Phagpa Rimpoche, Sakya Pandita, Marpa of Tibet and Sarahapa, Virupa and many others of India were great meditators and evidently they did not understand their higher meditators’ view otherwise they would have subscribed to it. It must be noted that even Karma Kagyu Shentongpas admit that Milarepa and Marpa were not Shentongpas.
In fact, according to Dolpopa the grand patriarch of Shentong, nobody before him got it right, implying that they were all inferior logicians who didn’t get the Shentong view. This would implicate all the Aryas of India too. But the Dohas of the Mahasiddhas like Sarahapa and Virupa and many others clearly show that they didn’t really get this Shentong view as they never left the  unfindable sunyata in their dohas. They never left emptiness ( Sunyata) and ‘like an illusion’ even for innate wisdom ( sahaja jnana) which is another name for the realization of the  Tathagatagarbha. In his  Yogaratnamala, a commentary on the Hevajra Tantra, the great Mahasiddha and Mahapandita Krishnacharya/Nagpopa (one of the eighty four Mahasiddhas) commented, ‘mahasukhalakshanam sarva dharma sunyatyeti… sarvabuddhadharmadhartvena mantra mahayane tvanu vrnyate,’ which means ‘the mantra-mahayana tradition describes the great bliss to be the emptiness of all dharmas which is the basis of the nature of all Buddhas.’(Yogaratnamala, Commentary on the Hevajra Tantra, 2.2, verses 30 -31).
Another of the eighty four Mahasiddhas, Ratnakarshanti, who was also a Mahapandita further commented on the same verse of the Hevajra Tantra in the  Muktavali,‘in this way after showing the importance of emptiness the importance of the great bliss ( mahasukha) is elaborated with the word Mahamudra ( evam sunyatayah khyatimuktva mahasukhakhyatimahah- mahamudretyadi). This means the emptiness which is the great bliss is the Mahamudra. So Mahamudra is emptiness ( sunyata) as in emptiness of all dharmas ( sarva dharma sunyateti). It is definitely not a different kind of emptiness. Since the Hevajra Tantra 2.8.10-11 clearly advises to study the Madhyamic (and the commentary called Satasahasrikahevajra Tika of the Hevajra Tantra by Vajragarbha who is  dasbhumishwar, meaning Lord of the tenth bhumi, says study Madhyamic and Pragyaparamita on this point) before embarking on the Tantras. Nowhere in the Tantra does it say that the emptiness here is different from the emptiness found in the Pragyamaramita or Madhyamic. We cannot claim that the emptiness of the Tantra is a different emptiness. Vajragarbha also says very clearly in the same commentery 1.86-88 that the  Chakrasamvara Tantra and the  Chatupitaka Tantra and the  Paramadibuddha Tantra and the  Mahasamvara Tantra all have the same intent and meaning.
Some Dzogchen (I mean Buddhist Dzogchen here and not the Bonpo Dzogchen) writers claim that Dzogchen is not Vajrayana but rather another “yana” by itself. Vajragarbha in his Satsahasrika-Hevajra Tika commentary 1.39 on the Hevajra Tantra clearly says ‘Shravakam Pratyekanchatra Mahayanam tritiyakam chaturtham nasti baudhanam panchamancha matam Mune,’ that is ‘that there are only three yanas taught by the Buddha not a fourth or fifth. They are the SravakayanaPratyekbuddhayana and  Mahayana. Now, Advaya Vajra says in his  Advaya Vajra Sanghrah that ‘Mahayana is of two kinds ( Mahayanam Dvividham), the Paramitayana and the Mantrayana ( Paramitanaya cha Mantranaya).’ Therefore, there is no third form of Mahayana as per Advaya Vajra and there is no other fourth or fifth “yana” either according to Vajragarbha.
Perhaps it is most apt now to talk about two other words used commonly by both paradigms:  nisprapanca (Tib.:  thro-me) and  avikalpa (Tib.:  tog-me).  Nisprapanca means “non-fabricated” or “without conceptual proliferation” and  avikalpa means “non-conceptual”. In the context of Hinduism, it is the  Brahman (the ultimate reality, the ultimate real, the ultimate existing) that is beyond concepts and non-fabricated. It also means a non- fabricated and non-conceptual knowledge of that  Brahman. When I use ultimate reality as a synonym for the  Brahman, I am using reality to mean something that exists per se (Webster’s Dictionary). I am aware that reality also connotes “fact” that is truth and such a meaning could be used in Buddhism to mean ultimate fact/truth. But as one of its connotations is “existing”, it is hazardous to use the word “ultimate reality” in any Buddhist context and it is always safer to use the word “ultimate truth” instead. Some English translations of Dzogchen and Mahamudra have used the words “ultimate reality” for Rigpa, co-emergent wisdom ( sahaja jnana),  Tathagatagarbha rather indiscriminately without the authors even realizing that the use of such lax wording brings them not only dangerously close to Vedantins of one form or the other, but also they are actually using Buddhist texts to validate the Vedantic thesis. If some of them object that their ultimate reality is empty, while the Hindu ultimate reality is not, the Hindu can ask, then how is it an ultimate reality in the sense of ultimate existence?
By definition, accepted by all systems within the Indian subcontinent (Buddhism/Hinduism/Jainism) something that really exists ( sat) cannot be empty and cannot be in a flux that is ever changing and cannot be interdependently originating. To avoid this confusion, it is safer and semantically closer to the Buddhist paradigm to use only “ultimate truth”. In fact there is no word for ultimate reality as in  paramartha satta (really existing thing) within Buddhism as this is a Hindu word but there is  paramartha satya (ultimate truth) fact within Buddhism. It is interesting to note that there is no Tibetan word for ultimate existence ( paramartha satta) in the way it is used for the  Brahman-Atman complex because such an  Atman (or whatever name you give it) is alien to Buddhism of all forms-  Sravakayana, Paramitayana and  Vajrayana.
Coming back to  nisprapanca and  avikalpa, in Buddhism, the first verse of Nagarjuna’s  Mulamadhyamikakarika clarifies that the “pratityasamutpada” or the “interdependent origination” is  nisprapanca and beyond concepts and it is the wisdom that realizes that this is  nisprapanca and  avikalpa. No Hindu Vedanta would agree that the  Brahman is either interdependent origination or interdependently originated. The same can be said for words like  acintya(“inconceivable”),  anupamya (“inexpressible”) or  apratistha (“non- established”), for which we need not to write separately.
This naturally leads us to three crucial words and concepts used in the two paradigms: Emptiness ( Shunyata), Interdependent Origination (  Pratityasamutpada) and  Brahman (the ultimate, infinite, eternal, unchanging, truly existing, non conceptual, unfabricated reality).
Many Hindu writers from the fifth and sixth century onwards until today have tried to show that the  Brahman and  Shunyata mean the same thing. The Yogavasistha (seventh/eighth century) has explicitly stated that the  BrahmanShunyata and  Chittamatra are the same reality (chapter 3-5 and 5-6). Modern authors like Dr.S.P. Radhakrishnan, Swami Vivekananda and Vinova Bhave have also tried to prove that they mean the same reality. However, Sankaracharya in his refutation of the Vigyanvada in his  Sariraka Bhasya of the  Brahman Sutra 2.2.27-31 implied that the  Chittamatra of the Vigyanvadin and our  Brahman are very similar but there is a difference. Their  Chitamatra is impermanent (as it is a continuum/santan/gyu) whereas our  Brahman is unchanging really existing thing ( paramartha satta). The Buddhist Guru Shantarakshita who played a key role in transferring Buddhism to Tibet, along with Guru Padmasambhava, says exactly the same thing from a Buddhist perspective in his  Tatvasanghraha: ‘there is a small fault with their non-dual awareness/cognition as opposed to ours due to the assertion of eternity of the non dual awareness/cognition. Their non dual awareness ( jnana/yeshe) is permanent, unchanging and an eternal thing whereas our Chittamatra is a changing eternal process or continuum (santaan) ( Tatvasanghraha, Chapter 8, section E, text 330-331- 335). Je Tsong Khapa mentions in his  Pratityasamutpada Stuti Subhasita Hridaya: ‘whatever is dependent on conditions is empty of real existence. A continuum ( santaan) is by nature a flow of interdependent origination ( hetu-phala prabha)’. This statement makes it clear that dependent origination and  Shunyata are two labels for the same condition or two sides of the same coin.
Therefore, I would like to ask these Hindu authors is  Brahman (which according to them is the same as  Shunyata), dependently originated or origination? Even here in the two words there is a difference. The  Brahman can never be a dependent origination because it is a really existing thing ( Mahavastu or the great thing). It can only be a dependently originated thing but I am sure no Hindu would like to say this of the unchanging eternal independent  Brahman. On the other hand, the significance of  Shunyata is “dependant origination”, or  nisvabhava (“non real existence”). The  Tathagatarbha,  Mahamudra and  Rigpa ( vidhya) cannot also be empty, but not without real existence ( nisvabhava). Such a definition of  Shunyata (as not  nisvabhava) would not only contradict with the entire Buddhist paradigm but would also force such so-called Buddhist writers to fall into the “all-embracing” arms of the Vedantin  Brahman. Something Brahmanism and later Hinduism have been trying to do since the inception of Buddhism and Buddhism has been refuting ever since too. An historical fact most Western Shentongpas seem to be blissfully unaware of to date.
Unfortunately when we analyze all the refutations of Buddhism by every single Hindu scholar modern or ancient, we find that they always distort the Buddhist teachings and then refute it, but not single one of them have got it right. After distorting the Buddhist view in various ways they claim either one of these things:
  • That Buddhism is the same as Hinduism only the way to the goal is different
  • Hinduism adopts the positive and Buddhism the negative to attain the same goal
  • Buddhism is nihilism, pure and simple
  • The Buddha never made it to the  Atman-Brahman realization as he stopped at the level of the  Buddhi (conceptual mind) and called it the ultimate and thus he is the Buddha (from  Buddhi)
  • The Buddha didn’t make it to God realization but stopped lower down in the ladder (Shivapuri Baba and others)
  • The Buddha was God (claimed by Vivekanda also) but the Buddhists didn’t recognize him
  • The Buddha actually came to teach the Vedas but his disciples degraded him and taught no-soul/Anatman and no God (The Complete Works: The Sages of India, Swami Vivekananda Volume 3, p. 264)
  • The Buddha was god incarnate (an incarnation of Vishnu) who come down to deceive the Asuras (whoever they are supposed to be in real time earth) and gave them the wrong teachings so that they would become less powerful than the Gods by following his teachings and abandoning the Vedic teachings which had made them more powerful than the gods (The Harivansa Purana,Vishnu Purana,Srimad Bhagavat Purana , Garuda Purana, Agni Purana, Naradiya Purana, Padma Purana, Linga Purana, Shivapuranam, Skandha Puranam, et al)
This clearly signals that they never really understood what Buddhism was all about and Swami Vivekananda states ‘Well, I do not understand his doctrine — we Hindus never understood it.’ (The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Buddhistic India, volume 3, p. 529). This is what I mean, remaining fixed within the Hindu paradigm you just cannot understand Buddhism. Even Sankaracharya in his  Sariraka Bhasya of the  Brahman sutra 2.2.31 clearly shows that he never really understood what the Buddhists meant by emptiness and assumes it means a vacuous nothingness in his refutation and calls it nonsense as it is opposed to all valid means of knowledge ( sarva pramana vipratisiddha). This applies to Western students of Hinduism and Hindu swamis too who claim that Buddhism and Hinduism are essentially the same. Well, Sankaracharya, in contrast to to this in his Sariraka Bhasya 2.2.32, accuses the Buddha of teaching incoherent theories and malevolently deluding people and that the Buddhist view should be abjured in every way by all who desire the highest good. Likewise, Ramanujacharya and Madvacharya et al also think in the same way.
From the Buddhist side Shantarakshita in his refutation of the Vedantic non-dual awareness/cognition ( Advaita Jnana) in his  Tatvasangraha does not agree that the two are the same in essence (Tatvasangraha, Chapter 7, text 328-335). So do hundreds of Buddhist mahasiddhas, yogis and panditas. Denying the possibilities of other different paradigms by forcefully trying to subsume all paradigms within one’s own personal paradigm is not open mindedness, but rather a subtle kind of closed mindedness and a danger to the creativity of human kind. If  Rigpa and  Mahamudra are described without the correct emptiness, then words such as  MahamudraDzogchenRigpaTathagatagarbha are only new names given to the ancient concept of  Brahman as found in the Upanishads (some of which are 800 to 1200 years earlier than the Buddha himself). Such misconceptions of the  Tathagatagarbha do not come from Buddhists, but actually from Hindu  Brahmins in the garb of Buddhist scholar monks. The Buddha himself clearly said in the Sammyutta Nikaya Dhammachakkapabbattana Vaggo 56.11of the Theravadin school that he discovered a lost knowledge of former Buddhas that had not been heard before …. And the Nagara Sutta of the same Nikaya also says a similar thing.
Some Buddhist writers give lame excuse about meditative experience and theory being different. Well, the Buddha himself taught that the correct view (  samyag drishti) is an integral part of the Buddhist eightfold path and placed it as top priority even before meditation. I would like to reiterate that such a meditative experience, not based solidly in the correct Buddhist view ( samyag drishti/tawa) is not Buddhist but Hindu because it fits perfectly with the Hindu view/theory of reality. If meditative experiences are going to be different from the theory/view on which they are based, that would be tantamount to saying that the base has no relation to the path and fruit. Or, that path is one and the actual experience of the fruit (meditative experience) is another. At least the Hindu base-path-fruit is more consistent. They do not begin with non-real-existence and end up with some kind of subtle existence that is beyond existence and non existence.
The Buddhist meditation experience must coincide with its base (basic paradigm). Yes, there is a shift from conceptual to non-conceptual during meditation but that does not necessitate a shift from non-real existence to real existence from  nisvabhava to  svabhava. If reality is conceptually non-real existent it does not become real existence non-conceptually, but rather it should become the true Buddhist meditative experience of the non conceptual experience of the “non-real -existence”, or more correctly of the state free from the  tetralemma. Vajragarbha states exactly the same thing in his commentary  Satasahasrika Hevajratika on the Hevajra Tantra (quoted in the next paragraph). It may be added here that we can have a non conceptual ( avikalpa) experience of a sour lemon or a sweet candy. Just because these two experiences are non conceptual ( avikalpa), it does not mean that they are the same. But this is implied by most Hindu and New Age meditators who claim that since both the Vedanta or other Hindu meditations and the Mahayana meditations reach the non conceptual state, in essence they are the same. They assume that once it becomes non- conceptual, it is all the same, so they are essentially the same.
Some may say that non real existence is only a concept; however the same can be said of real existence. This concept is used to cut through the grasping of a real existence ( sahaja atman graham), which is nescience ( avidhya) to arrive at the freedom from the four extremes ( tetralemma ). The Lord of the tenth bhumi, Vajragarbha writes in his commentary to the Hevajra Tantra,  Satashasrika Hevajrapanjika ‘in the beginning, based on concepts, we attain conceptual emptiness and in the end the non-conceptual emptiness of all the Buddhists…..through which the supportless compassion (  analambana kuruna) of the  Sugata will arise’ (Satashasrika Hevajrapanjika, 1.51).
What purpose would a really existing  Tathagatagarbha have from a Buddhist point of view? Since  Brahman is real existence by itself and independent, it cannot be a synonym for  Shunyata. Some Shentong Buddhist writers who have not studied Hindu philosophy well enough and try to give invalid excuses by implying that the  Atman -Brahman of Hinduism is imagined, fabricated, whereas the Shentong  Tathagatagarbhas is non conceptual (e.g., Jamgon Kongtrul Lordo Thaye, gaining certainly about the view If one has read the Vedanta Shastra one finds that the  Atman (Self) of the Hindu is also free from mental elaboration ( nisprapancha/thodral) like the  Tathagatagarbha and non-conceptual  nirvikalpa. So the crux of the difference lies in emptiness ( anatman) not in non- elaboration, non conceptual and luminous awareness. The  Atman of the Vedanta is also not accessible to inferior logicians and not negated by logic because it is uncreated, unconditioned, self-existing, self-luminous and beyond concept (found all over the various Upanishads too numerous to enumerate here). So just stating that the Hindu Atman is fabricated and our  Tathagatagarbha is not, does not really solve anything. The Hindus also say exactly the same thing that their  Atman is a non-conceptual experiential thing whereas the emptiness of the Buddhist is a thing of the lower logician ( tarkikas). Actually,  kutarkikas means false logicians. The  Atman is what remains after everything else that is not  Atman has been negated (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad canto 6).
Lastly, the  Atman is not the ego (Skt.:  ahamkar, Tib.:  ngak dzin), which is what the Shentong logic negates. This view of the  Brahman-Atman as non dual, free from existing and non existing, non conceptual were not taught by Buddhist Mahasiddhas to Hindus, as some Western Buddhist scholars or Tibetan Masters seem to imagine. These views were already elaborated in the ancient Upanishads like the  Chandogya Upanishad, quoted above and the  Brihadaranyaka Upanishad where it states ‘Eko drastadvaito bhavati’ meaning ‘it is the one non dual awareness’ (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV, 3. 32). These Upanishads predate the Buddha himself and this seems to be a gross misunderstanding of the sophistication of Hinduism as a whole.
Another word that has confounded many Hindu swamis, is the “unborn” ( ajat or  anutpada) or “unproduced”. In the context of the Hindu Vedanta, it means that there is this ultimate reality called the  Brahman, which is unborn, that was never produced by anything or at any time and which means it always was and will always be the same unchanging substance. A thing, or super-thing, even a non- thing, that always existed and was never ever produced at any period in time, which is separate from this born, illusory  Samsara. Whereas, in the Buddhist context, it is the true nature of  Samsara itself which although relatively appears to be “born” ultimately is never born. Advayavajra in his  Tatvaratnavali states ‘the  Samsara is unborn says the Buddha.’ The Buddha Ekaputra Tantra (Tib.:  Sangye Tse tsig tantra) mentions that the base of Dzogchen is the  Samsara itself stirred from its depth. Since the  Samsara stirred from its depth is interdependently originated, i.e., not really originated or unborn, and since the  Samsara is only relatively an interdependently originated thing, but ultimately neither a thing, nor a non-thing ( bhava or abhava) that truly exists. The term “unborn” for  Brahman (which is definitely not  Samsara) and for  Samsara in Buddhism are diametrically opposed. The true meaning of unborn ( anutpada) is dependently originated (  pratityasamutpanna), which as mentioned before is the meaning of  nisvabhava (non real existence) or  Shunyata. None of these terms are a synonym for  Brahman or anything that has this kind of ultimate real existence, even if it were to be called  Tathagatagarbha. There is no acceptance of an ultimate existence in any Buddhist Sutra.
It is interesting that an exact word for  paramartha satta in Tibetan Buddhism is very rarely used. It shows how non-Buddhist the whole concept is. One has to differentiate between  satta (existence) and satya (truth), although they are so close and come from the same root in Sanskrit. Even in the Ratnagotra there is one single sentence (  Yad yatra tat tena shunyam iti samanupasyati yat punartravasistam bhavati tad sad ihasthiti yathabhutam prajanati): ‘whatever is not found, know that to be empty by that itself, if something remains, know that to exist as it is.’ This statement is straight out of the  Vaibhasika Sutras and the Theravada  Majjhima NikayaCullasunyata SuttaSunnatavagga and  Sautrantik Abhidharma Samuccaya and it seems to imply an affirming negative. First of all, this statement contradicts the rest of the Ratnagotravibhaga if it is taken as the ultimate meaning in the Sutra (as Shentongpas have done). Secondly, since it is a statement of the Vaibhasika School (stating than an ultimate unit of consciousness and matter consisting of eight atoms [ the asta kalapas] of matter and consciousness remain after everything else is negated), it cannot be superior to the Rangtong Madhyamika. Thirdly its interpretation as what remains is the ultimately existing  Tathagatagarbha contradicts not only the interpretation found in other Buddhist sutras as ‘itar etar Shunyata’ (emptiness of what is different from it), but also the Shentong interpretation of  Tathagatagarbha. It contradicts all the other definition of the  Tathagatagarbha found in the Ratnagotravibhaga itself. Finally, such an interpretation of an ultimately existing  Tathagatagarbha that remains after everything else has been negated is exactly the same as in the ancient Brihadaryanaka Upanishad Canto 6, the famous Neti, Neti (Not this, not this).
This brings us to the word  nitya, i.e., “eternal” or “permanent”. The Hindu use of the word  nitya for its ultimate existing reality, viz,  Brahman is  kutastha nitya, which means something remaining, or existing unchangingly eternal and something that is statically eternal. However, whenever the word  nitya is used for the ultimate truth in Buddhism, the Great Pandit Shantarakshita has made it very clear in his  Tatvasamgraha that the Buddhist  nitya is  parinami nitya, which is ‘changing, transforming, eternal’, in another words, “dynamically eternal”. The Buddhist  nitya is more accurately translated in English as “eternal continuum” rather than just “eternal”. Something that changes moment to moment but is Beginingless and endless .
I would like to remind some Western translators of Nyingma and Kagyu texts that it is either the view of Shantarakshita’s Svatantrik Madhyamika or the Prasangika that is given during the “Tri” instruction of Yeshe Lama as the correct view of Dzogchen. In the official Nyingmapa view,  tongpanyid/sunyata as elaborated by Chandrakirti is never abandoned as per Khenpo Rigzin Dorje, a close disciple of the greatest Dzogchen Yogi of the last and this century Chatral Rimpoche. Mipham Rimpoche of the nineteenth century is also very clear about this point. For further elaboration, please refer to my interview with Khenpo Rigzin Dorje in www.byomakusuma.org.
Now finally I would like to show how the same analogies are used in the Vedantic Hinduism and Buddhist Madhyamika to illustrate a different thesis. The most famous analogy in both Vedanta and Madhyamka is that of the snake seen in the rope. In Vedanta, according to the famous Shankaric verse ‘rajjau sarpa bhramanaropa tadvat  Brahmani jagataropa’, the snake is imputed/superimposed upon a piece of rope just as  Samsara is imposed upon the  Brahman. The statement implies that only the rope or the  Brahman is real and the snake –  Samsara is unreal and does not exist at all. They are only illusions. If one studies the analogy one realizes that it is not an accurate analogy. The rope is not eternal like  Brahman. Furthermore the rope is not  asamskrita (unconditioned like  Brahman) so it is not a good example or proof of a truly existing independent  Brahman. It is a forced analogy. After all, it is a Buddhist analogy squeezed in order to give Vedantic meaning.
According to Buddhism the rope stands for  pratityasamutpanna samsara and is a good example because it is interdependently originated from pieces of jute and other materials. Whilst, the snake imputed upon it stands for real existence which is imposed on the interdependently existing rope appearance. Here it is the interdependently appearing rope that is the true mode of existence of the  Samsara and the snake is the imputed real existence on the rope (unlike the snake representing  Samsara in Vedanta). Hence, the snake is our ignorance imputing  Samsara as really existing instead of experiencing it as interdependently arisen. This interdependence or emptiness is  parinami nitya, i.e., an eternal continuum, and this is applicable to all phenomena.
Of course, this interdependence is the conventional truth whereas  nisvabhavata,( non real existence) which is synonymous to emptiness, is the ultimate truth in Madhyamika. Even though I have consistently used the word non real existence, it must be understood as a short hand for free from the  tetralemma, or free from the four extremes ( chatuskoti vinirmukta), which is the true meaning of  niswabhava. Whilst interdependence is itself conditioned, in reality it is unborn and empty and its true nature is unconditioned. But this is not an unconditioned reality like  Brahman, but rather an unconditioned truth, that implies that all things are in reality empty, unborn and uncreated.
Likewise the mirror reflection analogy is used to show that just like images which have no existence at all, appear and disappear on the permanent surface of the mirror. So too  Samsara, which is an illusory reflection on the mirror of  Brahman, appears on the surface of the  Brahman and disappears there. In Buddhism this metaphor is used to show that  Samsara is interdependently arising like the reflection on the mirror. The mirror is only one of the causes and conditions and no more real than the other causes and conditions for the appearance of the reflection of  Samsara. Here too the mirror is a very poor metaphor for the  Brahman, because it is interdependently arisen like the reflection on it. Actually, such analogies are good examples for  pratityasamutpada/ interdependent origination and not for some eternal  Brahman or any other eternally really existing thing. The mirror  Brahman metaphor is only forced. The same can be said of the analogies of the reflection of the moon on the pond and rainbow in the sky.
In conclusion, I would like to sum it up by stating that Buddhism (especially Mahayana/Vajrayana) is not a reformulation of Hinduism or a negative way of expressing what Hinduism has formulated positively. Hinduism and Buddhism share a common cultural matrix and therefore tend to use the same or similar words. Even though they share certain concepts like karma and re-incarnation, their interpretations differ. Hindu concepts of karma and reincarnation tend to be rather linear, whereas the Buddhist concept is linked with  pratityasamutpada. The Theravada concept of  pratityasamutpada is also rather linear compared to the Mahayana/Vajrayana concept, which is more non-linear, multi-dimensional, multi-leveled, interdependent and inter-latched. However, all similarities to Hinduism end there. The  Shunyata of the Buddha, Nagarjuna and Candrakirti is by no means a negative way of describing the  Brahman of the Upanishad, Samkara and Vidhyaranya groups.
I would like to dedicate this article for the long lives of Ven. H. E. Urgyen Tulku, His Eminence Chobgye Trichen, His Holiness Sakya Trizin and Ven. Karma Thinley Rinpoche and to the 17th century Siddha Vajracharya Surat Vajra of Nepal, Tache Baha. May his lineage be re-instated again.

Further reference:



This article was first published on 25th December 1989. It was revised and annotated on 25th December 2012.