Introduction to the Mind-Only School, Part 3: Emptiness, the Middle Way and Mādhyamika
Emptiness: the most important and most misunderstood term in Buddhism.
Does it mean empty space? Darkness or white light? Does it mean nothing exists, or nothing matters?
Actually, none of the above!
Emptiness is a slippery concept, and every school of Buddhism presents a slightly different understanding of it.
In this article, we’ll look in particular at the understanding of emptiness found in the Mind-Only or Yogācāra school, one of the most influential branches of classical Buddhism. (For an introduction and detailed exploration of Yogācāra, see the previous two articles in this series.)
To understand it, we will first have to understand another foundational Buddhist concept: the Middle Way. From here, I will examine the Yogācārin definition of emptiness, its relationship to the Mādhyamika, and how to bring this understanding alive in your own practice.
What is the Middle Way?
“Abandoning the two extremes, the Tathagata realized the middle path, producing vision, producing knowledge, leading to clairvoyance, enlightenment and nirvana.”
-Samyutta Nikaya, Pāli canon
The term “Middle Way” is among the most important foundations of the Buddha’s teaching, but what exactly this Middle Way is – what are the extremes that it avoids – has been the subject of debate and reinterpretation in nearly every branch of Buddhism since the days of Siddhartha Gautama.
- Sensuality and asceticism
In Theravada Buddhism, the conservative tradition that thrives in Southeast Asia, the Middle Way has been defined as the path of moderation between sensual indulgence and ascetic deprivation.
This refers directly to the life of the historical prince. Once a prince who lived in complete luxury, Gautama spent six years practicing extreme asceticism, before realizing that this too was not the answer.
- Permanence and annihilation
Another approach found in early Buddhism relates to dependent origination. The Middle Way is a balance between permanence (sassata-vāda) and annihilation (uccheda-vāda).
Nothing is permanent. In fact, no object persists for even a moment without changing. So it’s hard to say that anything exists at all!
However, because all objects are constantly changing into other objects, it’s equally incorrect to say that anything ever ceases to exist.
Within this seeming paradox, the Middle Way means that the whole phenomenal reality is an interdependent flow whose very nature is change.
- Existence and non-existence
Any definition of the Middle Way is intimately connected with emptiness. Nowhere is this more true than in the Mahayana tradition and especially the Mādhyamika, the school whose name even means “Middle Way.”
As Nāgārjuna states in his Refutation of Objects (Vigrahavyavārtanī), dependent origination, emptiness and the Middle Way are essentially synonymous.
Founded in the work of Nāgārjuna, the extremes that the Mādhyamika rejects are of self-existence and non-existence.
If objects existed from their own side – unchanging, independent of mental projections and with their own cause in themselves – the world could not function in the way we know it.
If things were not constantly changing, nothing could happen and objects could not interact with each other. After all, any interaction is a change, and if something is unchanging, it must always be unchanging: an unchanging object becoming a changing object means it has already changed!
If things existed independently of the mind perceiving them, everyone would perceive objects the same way. It’s enough to talk to someone who is colorblind, or two people who just saw the same movie, to prove this isn’t the case.
However, we must also reject the extreme of non-existence or nihilism. Clearly and indisputably, something exists. Even if we can’t say anything about what actually exists, even if we throw out external objects entirely and say that all our perceptions are just a sort of dream-like hallucination, you still can’t say that the perception doesn’t exist.
Just your own awareness of existing proves that existence, well, is.
Falling into nihilism is a dangerous trap. It leads people to think that because nothing has inherent existence, nothing matters. We can do whatever we want, push other beings around and make a mess because it’s all some big fake dream.
In truth, the view of emptiness means our actions matter even more. Everything we do, every imprint we put into our mind, creates our reality. The world isn’t a bunch of stuff out there coming at us. It’s what our mind is projecting for us to see.
The Yogācāra understanding of emptiness
The Yogācāra also define the Middle Way as running between the extremes and non-existence, but they put their own psychological, experiential spin on it.
The most classical Yogācārin descriptions of emptiness are found in Madhyāntavibhāga-kārikā, a treatise ascribed to Buddha Maitreya, with commentary by Vasubandhu. (Vasubandhu, along with his older half-brother Asaṅga, are considered the founders of the Yogācāra school in the 4th century.)
Their explanation pivots on the non-duality of subject and object: “Imagination of the unreal that is lacking in the form of being graspable or grasper.”
Vasubandhu teaches that the “imagination of the unreal” is the mistaken division between the subject (“grasper”) and object (“graspable”) in any act of perception.
As I described in the previous installment of this series, the cornerstone of Yogācāra is the observation that the subject and object of any perception are intimately and inseparably linked. In fact, they create each other.
If I see a tree, for example, the tree as it appears to me only exists as a product of my awareness. My visual system and conceptual overlay are generating a unique experience in that moment.
No one else – including myself at another time – has the exact same eyes and perspective to see the tree exactly as I do at that moment. And no one else – including myself at another time – has the exact same set of concepts, memories and tendencies to project the same meaning onto that raw perception.
So the object is created by the subject.
In the other direction, who is the one seeing the tree? The subject in this moment is not an abstract, eternal, unchanging being who perceives without being affected by what I perceive.
If there was an absolute, independent subject, a seer that existed independently from what was seen, it could not interact with anything in the world, because interaction necessarily implies being affected by an outside agent.
I am changing at all times in response to perceptions. Everything I experience contributes to this collection of thought patterns and physical structure that I conventionally call “me.”
So the being seeing this tree is precisely “me seeing this tree.” Not me as I see a rock or me as I see a flower.
The only real subject is the one created in relationship with its object of perception.
Our minds only function in subject/object duality. This is the nature of samsaric minds: with conceptual thinking, it is impossible to even imagine how it could be otherwise. In every normal experience, there must be a subject and an object.
(The exception would be states of samadhi, to borrow the yogic term, in which both the object and the conventional subject are dissolved into pure awareness.)
Neither subject nor object can be said to really exist as they are, because each is only a reflection of each other. And yet neither one could not exist, because then the other could not exist and no experience would be possible.
If you’re reading this, it should be clear that experience is quite possible.
This paradox is the core of the Yogācārin teachings on emptiness. Borrowing again from Madhyāntavibhāga-kārikā:
“The nonexistence of duality is indeed the existence of nonexistence; this is the definition of emptiness. It is neither existence, nor nonexistence, neither different nor identical.”
Yogācāra and Mādhyamika: conflicting views or complementary?
Mādhyamika proponents have argued at times that the Yogācāra actually fall off the Middle Way into both extremes with their definition of emptiness:
- The extreme of nihilism, because they deny the existence of external objects. (Mādhyamika denies the ultimate existence of external objects but carefully maintains their relative reality: they do not exist from their own side but function as real for beings whose karma causes them to manifest within their perception.)
- The extreme of self-existence, because Yogācāra apparently asserts the self-existence of the mind as the basis for all phenomena.
The question that should arise to any spiritual practitioner is, does the Yogācāra definition of emptiness actually contradict Mādhyamika, or is just an intellectual quarrel over language?
From the Mādhyamika perspective, these criticisms of the Yogācāra framework are valid. From the Yogācāra side, however, neither holds much water, simply because of the different view and intention of Yogācāra: a school of epistemology, rather than ontology. Let's look at both extremes:
Existence of external objects: It’s true that Yogācāra denies that external objects exist in the way we think they do. However, they never claim that there’s really nothing out there. Their line is that we can’t say anything about objects outside of our perception, even whether they exist or not. There are no external objects to speak about only in the sense that we can never experience external objects… because everything we experience is internal!
Self-existence of the mind: Again, the Yogācārins do not claim that the mind actually exists from its own side, rather that it is the basis for all experience. Coming from an experiential perspective, the mind therefore is a universal element of everything we know in the world.
As I mentioned in the first article of this series, there was rich dialogue between Mādhyamika and Yogācāra throughout their history, and the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive views. It is possible to take the ontology of Mādhyamika as an intellectual background, while appreciating Yogācārin epistemology as an effective roadmap for practitioners to use to explore their own experience.
Ultimately, maybe the answers aren’t so important.
The goal of all these theories is to bring the mind to its breaking point, to the edge where conceptual thought no longer functions and the mind can open to the infinite.
Techniques for meditating on emptiness
This brings us towards the end of a series of articles packed with theory and what might seem abstract concepts.
However, my intention – same as the intentions of all the Buddhist masters whose work I have presented – was not to bring you along on a philosophical exercise.
These ideas have the power to change your world. They shouldn’t be taken as fuel for the intellect, but as vehicles to take you to a transformative understanding of reality.
You can write as many PhD dissertations on Eastern philosophy as you want, but if you don’t put it into practice, you’ve missed the whole point.
So, what do we do with this knowledge? How do we come to an experiential understanding of these truths?
It’s a process that must come with sincere commitment to understand the teachings and apply them to our everyday lives, as well as a recognition that understanding them is just a means to an end.
Here are a few recommendations to help bring these teachings on emptiness and non-duality into your lived experience:
- Meditate on root texts.
Texts written by realized beings contain more than just ideas. They are a portal to the lived experience of those beings.
Choose a sutra or a root text on emptiness by a teacher you admire. Read it as a meditation.
Try reading a few lines and then quietly sitting with them. Instead of analyzing or thinking about them, let them vibrate within your being.
- The absence of an external, self-existent object
Start by concentrating on something you have strong feelings towards, like a loved one or (better) someone who causes you problems.
At first, hold this object very firmly as self-existent. Think about that person the way you normally would, with all of your opinions and projections, feeling strongly that everything about them comes from them. Feel that they exist totally independent of you.
Then drop it. Realize that all you know about this person is within your own experience, created by your own senses and thought patterns.
Remain in the absence of the self-existent person.
Although you won’t find many modern practitioners identifying themselves as Yogācārin, the Mind-Only view lives on as a foundation for Zen, Chan, and Tibetan lineages of Dzogchen and Mahamudra.
Outside of Buddhism, you can find a taste of it in Kashmir Shaivism, though this tradition is tragically difficult to access these days in a living form.
More accessible is a form of meditation known as self-enquiry. The core practice of Advaita Vedanta, self-enquiry was popularized in the 20th century by Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj.
In this practice, quiet your mind and ask yourself, “Who am I?”
At first, your mind will jump to provide a rational answer, but simply stay with the asking, remembering that anything you can observe can’t be you.
Witness whatever arises, allowing everything – thoughts, sensations, even your perception of who you are at any given moment – to arise and dissolve equally within your field of awareness.
This practice will gradually bring you to rest in the neutral background of awareness that underlies all experience, while recognizing that the body-mind structure you identify as yourself is actually nothing more than an ever-changing series of perceptions.
The Mind-Only school was one of the most profound and influential movements to arise within Buddhism in classical times. Although it doesn’t live on in name, its insights are vital to many spiritual traditions that are widespread and vibrant even today.
We can thank the Yogācāra for its contributions to Buddhist psychology, such as the understanding of the sense consciousnesses and the subconscious mind. And it’s fascinating to see how similar ideas are now appearing in the field of cutting-edge neuroscience. As scientists investigate human consciousness, they find more and more that our world – even our sense of what is real and what isn’t – is created by the mind.
The most refreshing aspect of Yogācāra, in my opinion at least, is their honesty about the goals and limits of philosophy. They were not theorists but practitioners. They knew that no philosophical system, however sophisticated, can contain the Ultimate Reality. And so for them, what was important about a teaching was not how “true” it was but how effectively it could bring a person to the Truth.