4. Emptiness | Yogācāra

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The 3 Natures and Emptiness

Yogācāra works often define 3 basic modes or natures (svabhāva) of experience:

These 3 natures are all one reality viewed from 3 distinct angles. They are the appearance, the process, and the emptiness of that same apparent entity.

All things which can be known can be subsumed under these 3 Natures.

Since this schema is Yogācāra's systematic explanation of the Buddhist doctrine of Emptiness (śūnyatā), each of the 3 natures are also explained as having a lack of own-nature (niḥsvabhāvatā).

Vasubandhu's Tri-svabhāva-nirdeśa gives a brief definition of these 3 natures:

What appears is the dependent. How it appears is the fabricated. Because of being dependent on conditions. Because of being only fabrication.

The eternal non-existence of the appearance as it is appears: That is known to be the perfected nature, because of being always the same.

What appears there? The unreal fabrication. How does it appear? As a dual self. What is its non-existence? That by which the non-dual reality is there.

Vasubandhu, Tri-svabhāva-nirdeśa

In detail, 3 natures (tri-svabhāva) are:

1. Pari-kalpita-svabhāva (the fully conceptualized nature).

This is the imaginary or constructed nature, wherein things are incorrectly comprehended based on conceptual construction, through the activity of language and through attachment and erroneous discrimination which attributes intrinsic existence to things.

According to the Mahāyāna-saṁgraha, it also refers to the appearance of things in terms of subject-object dualism (literally grasper and grasped).

The conceptualized nature is the world of everyday unenlightened people, i.e. Samsara, and it is false and empty, it does not really exist (see Triṁśikā v. 20).

2. Para-tantra-svabhāva (literally, other dependent), which is the dependently originated nature of dharmas, or the causal flow of phenomena which is erroneously confused into the conceptualized nature.

It is the basis for the erroneous partition into supposedly intrinsically existing subjects and objects which marks the conceptualized nature.

That it is the causal process of the thing’s fabrication, the causal story that brings about the thing’s apparent nature. This basis is considered to be an ultimately existing (paramārtha) basis in classical Yogācāra (see Mahāyāna-saṁgraha, 2:25).

However, as Xuanzang notes, this nature is also empty in that there is an absence of an existential nature in conditions that arise and perish (utpatti-niḥsvabhāvatā).

That is, the events in this causal flow, while seeming to have real existence of their own are actually like magical illusions since they are said to only be hypothetical and not really exist on their own.

3. Pari-niṣpanna-svabhāva (literally, fully accomplished):

the consummated nature or the true nature of things, the experience of Suchness or That-ness (Tathatā) discovered in meditation unaffected by conceptualization or language.

It is defined as the complete absence, in the dependent nature, of objects – that is, the objects of the conceptualized nature (see Mahāyāna-saṁgraha, 2:4).

What this refers to is that empty non-dual experience which has been stripped of the duality of the constructed nature through yogic praxis.

Scholars say - this is what has to be known for Enlightenment and is defined as just pure seeing without any attempt at conceptualization or interpretation.

Now this is also Empty, but only of itself as an interpretation:

That is, this mode of cognition is devoid of all concepts, and so is empty of being of the nature of the perfected. About it nothing can be said or thought, it is just pure immediacy.

According to Xuanzang, it has the absence of any existential nature of ultimate meaning (paramārtha-niḥsvabhāvatā) since it is completely free from any clinging to entirely imagined speculations about its identity or purpose.

Because of this, it is conventionally said that it does not exist. However, it is also not entirely without a real existence.

The central meaning of Emptiness in Yogācāra is a 2-fold absence of duality:

The first element of this is the unreality of any conceptual duality such as physical and non-physical, self and other:

To define something conceptually is to divide the world into what it is and what it is not, but the world is a causal flux that does not accord with conceptual constructs.

The second element of this is a perceptual duality between the sensorium and its objects, between what is external and internal, between subject (grāhaka, literally grasper) and object (grāhya, grasped):

This is also an unreal superimposition, since there is really no such separation of inner and outer, but an interconnected causal stream of mentality which is falsely divided up.

An important difference between the Yogācāra conception of Emptiness and the Mādhyamika conception is that in classical Yogācāra, Emptiness does exist and so does Consciousness, while Mādhyamika refuses to endorse such existential statements.

The Madhyānta-vibhāga for example, states there exists the imagination of the unreal (abhūta-pari-kalpa), there is no duality, but there is Emptiness, even in this there is that, which indicates that even though the dualistic imagination is unreal and empty, it does exist.

Contra Mādhyamika, which was criticized by Vasubandhu and Asaṅga for being nihilistic (see Viṁśatikā v. 10), the Yogācāra position is that there is something that exists (the para-tantra-svabhāva that is mere vijñapti), and that it is Empty.

The Bodhisattvabhūmi likewise argues that it is only logical to speak of Emptiness if there is something (i.e. dharmatā) that is empty.

Thus Asaṅga speaks of Emptiness as the non-existence of the self, and the existence of the no-self.

The Yogācāra School also gave special significance to the Lesser Discourse on Emptiness of the Āgamas. It is often quoted in later Yogācāra texts as a true definition of Emptiness.