SHAKYA MCHOG LDAN ON ULTIMATE TRUTH
Khenpo Ngawang Jorden
In this paper, I first discuss the manner in which ultimate truth is understood by Shakya Chogden (1428-1507), in accord with his interpretation of Nagarjuna and Candrakirti. I will then compare Shakya Chogden's interpretation of Gorampa Sonam Senge (1429-1489). Since these two great scholars played very important roles in the Sakya School, a clear understanding of that school must in part come from an investigation of whether their interpretations of Nagarjuna and Candrakirti's teaching on ultimate truth is different. In addition, since Shakya Chogden is known as one of the great scholars of "gzhan stong" ("other-emptiness") and Gorampa is known as one of the great scholaqrs of "rang stong" ("self-emptiness"), it is worth considering whether Shakya Chogden's interpretation was influenced by gzhan stong philosophy.
A Madhyamika is a person who propounds Buddhist tenets and who asserts that there are no truly existent phenomena, not even particles. The literal meaning of the term Madhyamika is "proponent of the Middle Way." A Madhyamika avoids all extremes, such as eternalism and nihilism, self and non-self, matter and spirit, body and soul, substance and process, unity and plurality, affirmation and denial, and identity and difference. According to the Madhyamaka, one who treads this version of the Middle Way is understanding the true spirit of the Buddha's teachings. The opening salutation of the Mulamadhyamikakarika goes as follows:
I prostrate to the Perfect Buddha, supreme
teacher, who taught that whatever is
dependently arisen is free from all extremes;
unceasing, non-arising, unannihilated, not
permanent, without diversity, without singularity,
not coming, not going.
Nagarjuna (2nd century A.D.) is generally regarded by Buddhologists as the founder of the Madhyamika school. For Nagarjuna, the process of studying Buddhist philosophy is to atain liberation. The way to liberation, as mentioned earlier, is the elimination of ignorance through the realization of ultimate truth. Hence, Nagarjuna seeks to lead his readers to the realization of ultimate truth. However, he does not mean to bring us simply to a mere understanding in words, for words are only conventional constructions. Much philosophy loses itself in conceptualization, and many philosophers are like thirsty travellers in a desert who, not knowing the difference between reality and illusion, are tempted by the mirage and rush in vain from place to place hoping to quench their thirst. But just as a mirage cannot quench our thirst, so also conceptual constructions of the real. The failure to distinguish between reality itself and the mere conceptualization of reality is ignorance, which breeds suffering. Nagarjuna seeks to bring us beyond conceptions of reality to an actual experience of reality as it truly is. By doing so, ignorance is ended and liberation is attained.
The Two Truths
The two truths are very important in the Madhyamika system. The two truths are conventional truth (Tib, kun rdzob kyi bden pa) and ultimate truth (Tib, don dam pai bden pa). They are briefly explained in the Mulamadhyamikakarika chapter 24 verses 8-10:
The Buddha taught teachings, relied on two
truths: mundane conventional truth and ultimate
truth. Those who do not know the difference
between these two truths do not know the
profound points in the teachings of the Buddha.
The ultimate is not taught without resorting
to convention. Without understanding the
ultimate, nirvana cannot be attained.
Domain of The Two Truths
According to Shakya Chogden, the basis for the classification of the two truths is mere truth (Tib, bden pa tsam). It is called 'mere' because it has not been classified as either real (dngos) or unreal (btags). When we speak of the two truths, we are speaking in the realm of concepts. Conceptually, one can divide this domain onto two truths or just one truth. However, objectively there is no truth whatsoever because if there were truth objectively, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas would have seen it in their meditative equipoise; yet they do not see anything. So for Shakya Chogden, as long as we speak of 'truths' we are still speaking in conventional terms. (pp. 15-16)
The Classification of Ultimate Truth
Within the realm of conventional designations, Shakya Chogden presents two types of ultimate truth. The two are, worldly ultimate truth ('jig rten gyi don dam bden pa) and the ultimate truth of the Noble Ones ('phags pai don dam bden pa). The former is defined as that which is found or obtained by a correct worldly perception. Its ordinary things that are familiar to everyone from scholars to cowherds. This kind of ultimate truth has two aspects: "the objective aspect of appearing of this and that" (de dang der snang bai yul gyi cha); and "the aspect that is wrongly superimposed upon that" (de la phying ci log tu sgro btags pai cha). For instance, 'yellow' and 'hot' are true form the prospective of grasping them as true, so they are called worldly ultmate truth ('jig rten du grags pa) (p. 22).
The definition of the ultimate truth from the point of view of the Noble One is that which is found or obtained by means of correct perception from the perspective of a Noble one. Its instance is that which is not seen in any way as the above mentioned worldly ultimate truth by the meditative equipoise gnosis of the Noble One. That which is not seen is conceptually presented (sgro btags) as ultimate truth, but of this kind of ultimate truth (p. 23). In the Autocommentary of Madhyamikavatara, Candrakirti says:
Since the ultimate truth cannot be expressed
and is not an object of cognition, it cannot
be shown. Therefore, an example is illustrated.
The example is:
One should know that suchness (de nyid) is
like that nature (bdag nyid) as which one
with clear eyes sees the false entities such
as hairs that have been conceptually constructed
by (a person) under the influence of cataracts.
To present the etymology of ultimate truth, Shakya Chogden summarises the opinion of Acarya Jnanagarbha:
An awareness (rig pa) arisen from a
complete three-mode-reasoning (tshul gsum
tshang bai rtags) is called 'ultimate' / 'noble'
because it is non-deceptive. Since that very
thing is also an 'object', it is called 'ultimate
object' / 'noble object'.
The Sanskrit term is "paramartha". "Parama" means supreme, best, other, and noble. "artha" means object. In tshig gsal, Candrakirti said,
"That (one) is an object and also noble;
therefore, it is the noble object. Since those two
(object and noble) are true, it is the ultimate
So 'noble' and 'truth' are synonyms, and it is called an 'object' (don, artha) both because it is reality (gnas lugs) and because it is that which is sought (don du gnyer bya) by a cognition of the ultimate. (pp. 29-30)
Gorampa Sonam Senge's interpretation of ultimate truth except for minor terminological differences, the interpretations of these two scholars are very similar. For instance, Gorampa said:
In brief, since the cognition that examines
reality is not beyond the conceptualization
that grasps name and thing together, it grasps
one of the four extremes..... Although it is
explained as ultimate from the point of view
of a cognition that grasps (things) as truly
existent, it is in fact the conventional truth
from the point of view of the unpolluted gnosis
of the meditative equipoise of the Noble one.
Therefore, it is the normal ultimate truth
(rnam grangs pai don dam bden pa) or similitude
ultimate truth (don dam pa rjes mthun pa). The
real ultimate truth cannot be grasped by any
cognition. In many authoritarian texts, "seeing
by means of not seeing" (ma mthong bai tshul
gyis mthong ba) is the real ultimate truth.
(Gorampa's lta' bai shan 'byed p. 35a and 35b)
In other texts, emptiness is identified as the ultimate truth. Understanding emptiness is not easy, especially for those who have not accumulated enough merit. Nagarjuna warns in his Mulamadhyamikakarika, chapter 24.11:
If emptiness is viewed wrongly, those of
inferior intellect are ruined, like wrongly
holding a snake or wrongly using a spell.
By comparing these two great scholars' explanations of ultimate truth, I have become convinced that they are saying the same thing but using different styles. I personally found Shakya Chogden's writing clearer and more compelling. Reading the dbu ma nyes don bang mdzod has led me to believe that on the basis of this text at least, Shakya Chogden was definitely not influenced by the gzhan stong school. The arguments he presents make him no less a "Rang stongpa" than Gorampa.