In the Tibetan Buddhist interpretation of emptiness, it is important to firmly and clearly establish “the object of negation”. That object is both the idea and experience that phenomena inherently exist. Only a clear sense of what the “object of negation” is, provides the basis for the idea of emptiness to mature into experiential understanding.
We can begin to establish the nonexistence of inherent existence by noticing that everything that exists is impermanent itself or depends on impermanent phenomena to exist – space for example.
Elaborating on this, the one conducts a series of analytic meditations. The first focuses on the idea that all phenomena come into being because of causes and conditions. When the causes and conditions supporting something no longer exist, the thing also ceases to exist.
The next meditation notices that parts make up everything that exists. Any whole is a collection of aggregates. Each part has parts and each whole is part of some other whole.
In the Consequentialist version of emptiness, a phenomenon seems to exist the way it does because the perceiving awareness imputes the idea or experience of inherent existence onto it. This point requires more analysis to penetrate than the preceding two.
It is this reflexive sense that things exist in the way they seem to exist that creates the experience of Conventional Reality made up of objects and processes. This is a step before the ideas such as that reality is socially constructed. A chair appears as a chair first because we impute the mode of being as inherent existence onto appearances. Once we have done that, we can interact with other beings and the environment to construct the boundaries of this and that.
This can occur on a subtle level that we not only are not aware of, but can be counter to our stated beliefs.
This point is traditionally elaborated in dense writings featuring among other elements nesting negations. The purpose is not only to demonstrate the point logically but to erode and eventually eliminate that reflex view that things are the way they appear ie inherently existing.
The danger of over-abstraction in some areas of dGe lugs thought is great, but the intricately woven arguments, when probed over time, lead to an internalization of knowledge and palpable experience of principles, which are then the basis for verbalization. In the beginning, the words seem to use the person, but later, a changed person is using the words
At some point in this process one is likely to ask if emptiness itself truly ie inherently, exists, or even if it is the ground of existence for everything else. Here the importance of establishing the object of negation becomes clear. The object of negation is the inherent existence of phenomena. This is a simple negation. It does not assert the existence of something else.
Emptiness exists only when appearances are imputed to exist. To understand emptiness one must negate it.
Note: Different schools of Tibetan Buddhism have different presentations of emptiness. There can be considerable controversy on some points. I’m using here an understanding of emptiness held by the Gelugpa (“dGe lugs” in the Hopkins quote) school. This view of emptiness is also known as the Middle Way Consequentialist or Prasangika Madhyamika school of emptiness first fully developed by Tsong-Ka-Pa.
I undertook this post to test my understanding of these concepts. Any errors are mine alone and I apologize for them.