The ultimate truth is called ‘the union of luminosity and emptiness’, or ‘the union of awareness and emptiness’, or the ‘wisdom of the basis (alaya-jnana)’. This is the Great Madhyamaka, or middle way, beyond the extremes of existence and non-existence.
Some say that the middle way is mere freedom from all conceptual characteristics. If your view is freedom from characteristics, merely to assert the emptiness of all (dharmas) would be sufficient to express that, so you would not need to use additional words like ‘luminosity’, ‘awareness’, ‘wisdom’.
You say, ‘because I speak of luminosity, my view is not the extreme of non-existence’. What is your understanding of ‘luminosity’? Is this luminosity empty or not? You cannot bring yourself to think that something might not be empty, so you say luminosity is empty, which seems safe.
If luminosity is empty, why do you refer to its particular ‘union’ with emptiness as your view, rather than the union of emptiness with dharmas such as forms, physical elements, the defilements, space, nirvana and so forth. Why is your view not more plainly called ‘the union of emptiness and all dharmas’? Is luminosity for you a ‘special’ kind of empty phenomenon or dharma separate from the dharmas of samsara and nirvana, or is it just a synonym for them?
You perhaps consider luminosity to be a special kind of subtle concept arising from your analysis – the arising of mere appearances empty of subject and object, the bare awareness of mind, or the pure subjective quality of mind, or nonconceptual bare experience – something like this. These are, you must admit, empty. These are all descriptions of characteristics which are graspable by a dualistic cognition through analysis and so are all subject to the analysis which shows they are empty.
You correctly assert that all dharmas are empty and free from inherent characteristics, and you correctly see in this a danger of asserting the extreme of universal non-existence. Your error is to imagine you can avoid this non-existence by saying ‘there is not mere nothingness, for there is the flow of empty appearances (= luminosity)’ and referring to this as in a ‘union’ with emptiness. Why talk of ‘unions’ rather than use the plain and simple predicate ‘is empty’. You have not, after all, distinguished being empty from being in union with emptiness. To be sure, unless your ‘flow of mere appearances’ actually exists, it cannot help you avoid an assertion of universal non-existence.
When the emptiness of the flow of appearances is understood, it does not exist. There is not some subtle or ’empty’ appearance. ’empty’ awareness or ‘luminosity’ left over to help you avoid universal non-existence. If something is left over after your analysis, such as a flow of appearance or awareness, you should analyze that too and you will see that it too is empty.
You want to avoid universal non-existence by saying ‘appearances are constantly arising, empty of subject and object’. But this arising is subject to analysis. The point that appearances do not have ultimate arising is a fundamental necessity of their emptiness and the very intent of the Madhyamaka analysis. So you must concede any such ‘arising’ is not ultimate, but a relative truth – in short, empty. What then is your ‘left over’ dharma that differentiates your position from an assertion of universal non-existence?
You would like to avoid universal non-existence by saying, ‘yet we see there are mere appearances’. Here you assert merely the fact of your own delusion and something which previously you denied – that you yourself are the subject who actually sees appearances – which only contradicts you own claims about the emptiness of subject and object, of appearances and of the individual self. You respond, ‘This awareness is inexpressible, but I know it from my own experience.’ If it is inexpressible and known only by you, why do you go on to describe it and make it the foundation of your philosophy?
You say that empty appearances are constantly arising without subject and object and this ‘flow’ is not existent or non-existent. The problem, you say, is that we ‘reify’ this flow – project a reality onto a basis which itself is empty of subject and object. You say once we stop ‘reifying’ this basis, or flow, there will still be empty appearances, only now they won’t be ‘reified’ and everything will be fine. You say this basis or flow is empty and also ‘luminous’. But Madhyamaka analysis shows there is no basis upon which we project ‘reification’, rather appearances depend on reification (i.e. grasping), not the other way around. It might be added that the idea that there is an existent mental basis of samsara, empty of subject and object, is the provisional mind-only view, not the definitive middle way.
You might say that Santideva himself says we do not negate the mere cognitions of seeing and hearing (9.25):
“Cognitions of seeing and hearing
Are not the objects of negation here.
Here we are preventing
The cause of suffering – their discrimination as real.”
This does not mean we accept they exist in the ultimate sense. Please refer to the clear explanation of these lines by the Acharya Sonam Tsemo, who clarifies that while we do not negate seeing and hearing in conventional truth, we do negate them in ultimate truth. For as Santideva says (in 9.26):
“If they were real, they would be other than mind but,
If they are not other, they cannot be real.”
You may point out that Acharya Chandrakirti has asserted the existence of the ‘mere relative’ in distinction to ‘relative truth’, which is the perceptual object of aryas who have realization of the path. While he did make this distinction, he asserted that the mere relative does not belong to the ultimate and is a delusion which these aryas do not reject merely while they are on the path. The ‘mere relative’ does not exist ultimately and cannot differentiate your view from an embrace of universal non-existence. According to Acharya Chandrakirti, the ‘mere relative’ does not exist for buddhas.
You might say these mere appearances are nothing but dependent origination, empty of subject and object, and hence your position is not universal non-existence or mind-only. This position is indeed a profound view, and may be called the ordinary Middle Way, as distinct from the Great Madhyamaka. It is the view, for example, expressed in the Madhyantavibhanga of Maitreya:
“The false imagination exists.
In it, duality does not exist.
Emptiness exists here,
And within it, that [false imagination] exists as well.”
Likewise the explication of emptiness and dependent origination by Arya Nagarjuna in such treatises as the Mulamadhyamakasastra is equivalent to this view. It is the view that shows the emptiness of subject and object without showing the emptiness of their basis, which is called ‘the dependent nature’ or ‘dependent origination’. While some philosophers have taken such a view as definitive, it is in fact provisional, precisely because it does not show that whatever basis is left over after one has asserted the emptiness of subject and object is itself empty.
It is in the Dharmadharmata-vibangha and the Uttaratantra-shastra that the Jina Maitreya taught the definitive meaning of the Great Madhyamaka, and in the two ‘praises’ such as In Praise of the Dharmadhatu that the definitive meaning was set out by Arya Nagarjuna. In the definitive meaning, the Great Madhyamaka, mere appearances, deluded awareness and dependent origination itself are not the remnants of analysis but are subject to analysis and found to be empty. As Sonam Tsemo says, (p. 441)
“An ultimate intrinsic nature is the logical subject. It is not a dependent origination, because it is illogical for an existent or non-existent effect to arise. This refutation of the ultimate intrinsic nature as a dependent origination establishes that dependent origination is not… an ultimate intrinsic nature and is… a relative delusion.”
Though the analysis that phenomena are dependent originations is a profound tenet of the ordinary Madhyamaka tradition, dependent origination and the ‘flow of empty appearances’ in the Great Madhyamaka tradition of Nagarjuna and Maitreya must themselves be acknowledged as non-existent and hence cannot differentiate one’s view from an assertion of universal non-existence.
Rather, the Great Madhyamaka is free from universal non-existence because while all objects, subjects, flows of appearance and awarenesses are empty, and while dependent origination itself is also empty, what remains after this analysis is the inconceivable Buddha kayas, wisdoms, qualities and activities which, being beyond the grasp of conceptual cognition, are not subject to the analysis of emptiness and hence are not empty.
These kayas, wisdoms are so forth are what is meant by ‘luminous’. It means the pure, primordial ‘mind’ of all buddhas, not a special, subtle quality of dualistic appearances or dualistic cognition that remains after an analyst has found the gross emptiness of subject and object. Whatever appearances and cognitions remain after analysis, no matter how subtle, are subject to further analysis and will be found to be empty. Luminosity is not a subtle quality of samsaric appearances perceptible to analytic cogntion, but is completely inconceivable to the ordinary mind and inaccessible by any analytic cognition.
Thus, to avoid the assertion of universal non-existence, someone who asserts emptiness can only look to dependent origination as a provisional truth which, in the final analysis, must be recognized as empty. Universal non-existence cannot then be avoided unless one finally asserts that the emptiness of all dharmas is in an inseparable union with that which is not empty and which withstands analysis, called luminosity, awareness, or buddha nature.