Investigation of the Ennobling Truths
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(The previous twenty-three chapters have sought to establish through reasoning how all internal and external phenomena lack the nature of intrinsic existence. [There now follows] an objection by those who think that this reasoning, which only sets out to prove whether or not [things are intrinsically existent], denies all actions and fields of action such as arising and passing away, bondage and freedom. Each numbered verse in the English will be followed by Tsongkhapa's commentary, translated from Tibetan by Stephen Batchelor.)
Chapter 24. Investigation of the Ennobling Truths
(Awakening) Four noble truths
1. "If all were empty, nothing could come about or perish. It would follow for you that the four ennobling truths could not exist.
Tsongkhapa: "If it were established that all internal and external things were empty of intrinsic existence, you would have committed both great and many errors. How? If things were empty in that way, they could not exist. Hence, like children of barren women, they could neither be born nor die. In which case nothing at all could come about or perish. Since nothing existed, it would follow for you proponents of emptiness that the four ennobling truths could not exist. For if there were not the slightest birth or destruction, the five aggregates of clinging, which were born from former causes and are the truth of anguish, could not exist. If they did not exist, then the actions and afflictions that are the origin of the anguished aggregates could also not exist. If there were no anguish, a true cessation, by which anguish ceases, could likewise not exist. And if there were no cessation of anguish, the true eightfold path that leads to such cessation could not exist. (395)
2. "Since the four ennobling truths would not exist, understanding, letting go, cultivating and realizing would no longer be valid.
"If that were the case, since the four ennobling truths would not exist, understanding anguish, letting go of its origins, cultivating the path and realizing cessation would no longer be valid. Because if the four fields of action (that which is to be understood [i.e. anguish], that which is to be let go of [i.e. the origins of anguish] etc.) were non existent, then the four [corresponding] actions (understanding etc.) would also be invalid. For actions always require fields in which to act. (395)
3. "Since they would not exist, the four fruits would also not exist. If the fruits did not exist, there could be no abiding in the fruits. Experiencing them would also not exist.
"Since the understanding of the truth of anguish etc. would not exist, the four fruits [i.e. of the stream entrant, once returner, non-returner and arhat, the four classic stages of awakening found in early Buddhist tradition] would also not exist. ... If those four fruits did not exist, there could be no four ennobled beings to abide in the fruits. Therefore, there would also not exist the four ennobled beings to experience them. (395-6)
4. "If those eight beings did not exist, the Community would not exist. Since there would be no ennobling truths, the sublime Dharma could also not exist.
"If those eight beings, i.e. the four who abide in the fruits and the four who experience the fruits, did not exist, the Community Jewel would not exist. If there were no eight beings, since there would be no ennobling truths, the sublime Dharma (so-called since it is the Dharma of those ennobled sublime ones) could also not exist. [There are two kinds of] Dharma here: Insight, which leads one into the path that results in the fruit of cessation, and Texts, i.e. the teachings which elucidate those [paths and their fruits]. (398)
5. "If the Community and the Dharma did not exist, how could Buddha exist? When you talk of emptiness, the three Jewels are maligned.
"If the sublime Dharma did not exist, how could Buddha exist? It could not, because apart from experientially knowing all dharmas through the injunctions of the sublime Dharma and Dharma which accords with it, there can be no attainment of Buddhahood. If the Community did not exist, how could Buddha exist? There are four reasons for this: for the attainment of Buddhahood it is necessary (1) to have accumulated wisdom from the teachings of the Community and (2) to have accumulated goodness through having made offerings, paid respect and gone for refuge to the Community. (3) If there were no Community, there would be no one who has achieved stream entry etc. And without first experiencing those [stages], one cannot attain Buddhahood, because even the Buddha must inevitably have achieved some of those fruits. (4) Furthermore, Lord Buddha himself pertained to the Community that has no more training to do, and in some schools is regarded as part of the Community of monks. In these ways, it is obvious that there can be no Buddha without Community. ... Therefore, when you talk of the meaning of emptiness, you are maligning the three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Community, which are so hard to find, occur only rarely, are not encountered by those with little goodness and are very precious. (398-9)
6. "The existence of actions and fruits, what is not Dharma and what is Dharma, the conventions of the world: all these too are maligned."
"Furthermore, since you include everything when you talk of all phenomena being empty of intrinsic existence, then the occurrence or non-occurence of the fruits of both what is not Dharma, i.e. what is unskilful, and what is Dharma, i.e. what is skilful, would not exist. And all the conventions of the world such as 'do this,' 'sit down,' 'go away,' 'come here,' since they too must be included in 'everything,' are maligned. Hence, this manner of teaching emptiness is no good." (399)
7. An explanation for that: since you do not understand the need for emptiness, the nature of emptiness, and the point of emptiness, therefore in that way you malign.
"Here is an explanation to answer that other person's objection: Since you do not understand the need for teaching emptiness, the nature of emptiness, and the point of emptiness, i.e. that point, which when clearly grasped, one then explains as "emptiness," you therefore badly malign yourself, i.e. you are damaged by numerous wrong ideas. Entirely because of your own misconceptions, you think that "non-inherent existence" ... means "non-existence." In that way, in falsely exaggerating the meaning of emptiness, you then censure us with statements such as:
"If all were empty,
Nothing could come about or perish..." [v. 1 above]
and thus, with great displeasure, you malign us.
Likewise, if you were to interpret the earlier line:
"Fixations are stopped by emptiness." [XVIII: 5]...to imply that emptiness means the pacification of every single fixation which apprehends the characteristics of something, and therefore "non-inherent existence" means "non-existence," then the web of fixations alone will expand in such a way that you will fail to understand the need for teaching emptiness. ...
"Moreover, it says in a sutra: "Whatever is born from conditions is unborn." That is why something which depends on conditions is said to be empty: it is not self-sufficiently stuck inside of itself. "Contingently emergent" means "intrinsically empty." "Emptiness" does not mean "the absence of a functioning reality." ... (400-1)
8. The Dharma taught by Buddhas perfectly relies on two truths: the ambiguous truths of the world and the truths of the sublime meaning.
"Who are these people who censure us without understanding the need for emptiness as explained by the Madhyamika? Failing to correctly understand the division of the two truths, which is explained in the teachings, they are those who argue on the basis of their own enthusiastic opinions while merely mouthing the words of the teachings. Therefore, in order to dispel the misconceptions of those who misconstrue the meaning of the teachings, Acharya Nagarjuna [continues his response] from the point of view of a correct presentation of the two truths.
"One enters the Dharma taught by the Lord Buddhas through perfectly relying on two truths. The two truths are taught as: the ambiguous truths of the world and the truths of the sublime meaning.
"Here "world" refers to people configured in dependence upon the aggregates [of body and mind], because it is taught that "world" ['jig rten] depends [brten] on aggregates that perish ('jig). "Ambiguous" (kun rdzob); samvrti = covering, concealing, keeping secret, dissimulation, hypocrisy, and/or obstruction ) which therefore means 'unaware' or 'ignorant', because [ambiguous truths] cover and obscure the actual reality of things. Although in this context 'ambiguous' is explained as synonymous with 'obscuring', this does not mean that everything ambiguous is obscuring.
"Moreover, 'ambiguous' can also mean 'mutually dependent'. Since [things are] necessarily mutually dependent, this means that they do not have the nature of being self-sufficiently stuck inside themselves. This etymology might lead one to conclude that since sublime truths are also like this, they too should be called 'ambiguous'. This is incorrect. For example, ['lotus' in Tibetan] literally means 'lake born'. But on the grounds of this etymology one cannot conclude that a frog [is a lotus because it too is 'lake born'].
"Furthermore, "ambiguity" also implies "signs," i.e. the conventions of the world.
"... When [something is] both meaningful and sublime, then it is a "sublime meaning" (don dam; paramartha = the highest or whole truth , spiritual knowledge ). Since it is infallible in terms of one's seeing reality as it is, it is "truth." [402-3]
[At this point in his commentary, Tsongkhapa launches into a twenty page study of the two truths.]
9. Those who do not understand the division into two truths, cannot understand the profound reality of the Buddha's teaching.
"Those who do not understand as explained above the division into the two truths of ambiguous and sublime, cannot understand the profound, contingently emergent reality of the Buddha's teaching. Therefore, if one wishes to know the reality of the Conqueror's teaching, one should understand how the sublime is beyond the extreme of intrinsic existence as well as the extreme of utter non-existence, for the very reason that contingently created and contingently configured ambiguous [truths] are perfectly functional even while appearing like the moon in water. 
10. Without relying on conventions, the sublime meaning cannot be taught. Without understanding the sublime meaning, one will not attain nirvana.
"The sublime is by nature free from fixations. Nonetheless, it has to be taught. But what is the point of teaching ambiguous [truths] such as the aggregates, the sense fields, the [ennobling] truths, contingent emergence and so on? Since they are not reality itself, then one must let go of them. There is surely no need to teach what is to be let go of?" It is indeed true that deceptive ambiguous [truths], which appear to be reality when in fact they are not, are to be let go of. But without relying on and coming to terms with ambiguous truths and conventions (i.e. the world's distinctions between speech and what is spoken about, knowledge and what is known etc.) in reference to the noble sublime, the sublime meaning cannot be taught. Without being taught, it cannot be understood. And without understanding the sublime meaning, one will not attain nirvana. Therefore, because they are a means for attaining freedom, then like one in search of water needs a cup, one must first invariably come to terms with the ways in which ambiguous things exist.
11. If their view of emptiness is wrong, those of little intelligence will be hurt. Like handling a snake in the wrong way, or casting a spell in the wrong way.
"If one handles something which is beneficial in a way other [than one should], then it will indeed be of no benefit but how will it cause harm? A person who plants seeds in the wrong way will not be destroyed by his action." Let's consider other examples. Like, i.e. for example, if you handle snakes, spells or medicines in a way other than you are instructed, not only will this be an error but the potency of these things could cause great harm. If you cast aside such advice and handle them in the wrong way, they will damage you. Or, similarly, although a spell cast in accordance with instructions will benefit the person who casts it, if you ignore the instructions and cast a spell in the wrong way, you will be damaged. [424-5]
12. Therefore, knowing how difficult it is for the weak to understand the depths of this Dharma, the heart of the Muni strongly turned away from teaching the Dharma.
"If one regards emptiness in the wrong way, you will be damaged. And those of weak intelligence are incapable of correctly apprehending the meaning of reality itself. On awakening the Buddha saw the temperaments of beings as well as the great depths of the Dharma. Therefore, knowing how difficult it is for the weak in intelligence to understand the depths of this Dharma of profound contingent emergence (dependent origination), the heart of the Lord Muni strongly turned away from teaching the Dharma. 
13. Since [those] erroneous consequences do not apply to emptiness, whatever rejections you make of emptiness do not apply to me.
"Not knowing the correct nature of the two truths, you fabricate many erroneous consequences, such as:
"If all were empty, nothing could come about or perish..." (XXIV: 1 a-b)
"Since you do not understand the presentation of the two truths, you have not internalized emptiness, its point or its need. And this has led you to such fabrications, which do not apply to those of us who speak of emptiness. Therefore, having ascribed many faults to emptiness, whatever rejections you make of emptiness do not apply to my tradition. You ascribe these faults through exaggerating the meaning of emptiness to mean that there are no functional things at all. But we do not accept that view. Since we explain the meaning of emptiness to be that of the contingent and relational emergence (dependent and interdependent origination) [of things], such criticisms are unjustified. This argument against the Madhyamaka tradition (that nothing at all would be able to function) is due to the fact that you fail to understand the meaning of empty contingent emergence. You should try and understand it. 
14. Those for whom emptiness is possible, for them everything is possible. Those for whom emptiness is not possible, for them everything is not possible.
"From our point of view, not only do such mistakes not apply, but all the presentations of the [ennobling] truths and so on work extremely well. Those traditions for whom emptiness of inherent existence of all things is possible, for them everything we have spoken of is possible.
"When we speak of emptiness, we mean that whatever arises contingently and relationally is empty of inherent existence. Therefore, when emptiness is possible, contingent relatedness is possible. [In a world of] contingent and relational emergence, anguish can occur; but [in a world of] no contingent and relational emergence, anguish would not be possible. When there is anguish, the origins of anguish, the cessation of anguish and a path leading to the cessation of anguish are possible. When there are such things, understanding, [letting go of, realizing and cultivating] them are possible, and if we can do those four things, the fruits and those who abide in them are possible. If there are people who experience and abide in the fruits, Community is possible; if the [ennobling] truths exist, the sublime Dharma is possible; and if those two exist, then Buddha is possible. Therefore, the Three Jewels are possible. All mundane and supramundane things, Dharma and not-Dharma, the results of such, and the conventions of the world too are all possible. ...
"Those traditions for whom the emptiness of inherent existence is not possible, for them, since contingent relatedness is not possible, everything we have presented [above] is not possible. The way in which this is not possible will be explained at length. [427-8]
15. You are transferring your own mistakes onto me. This is like mounting a horse but forgetting about the horse itself.
"From our point of view, we are without fault and do not contradict any statements about samsara or nirvana, but you misrepresent our viewpoint in a crude and mistaken way. You fools who do not see the difference between value and error are transferring your own mistakes onto me. This is like, for example, someone mounting a horse but forgetting about the horse itself. And then accusing someone else of the fault of having stolen the horse. While mounting the horse which has the characteristics of contingent emergence empty of inherent existence, your mind gets distracted and you fail to notice this. Then you get into an argument with us. 
16. If you view all things as existing from their own nature, then you would view all things as not having causes and conditions.
"What mistakes are made by those who criticise us who speak only in terms of non-referential emptiness? This is now pointed out. If you view all things as existing from, i.e. by - their own nature, then, since a nature cannot be produced from causes and conditions, you would view all things as not having to depend on causes and conditions.
17. Cause and effect itself, agents, tools and acts, production and cessation, the effects too would be undermined.
"If you think of a jug as existing by its own nature, it would have no need of changing causes and conditions. It would absurdly follow that the effect called "jug" would be causeless. If there were no jugs, then agents, i.e. potters, as well as tools, such as wheels and so on, and the acts of making pots would also not exist. Since they were non-existent, production and cessation too would not exist, and hence the effects too would be undermined. (428)
18. Whatever is contingently related, that is explained as emptiness. That is contingently configured; it is the central path.
"From our standpoint, the reason we are able to validate all presentations is because we accept the following: whatever is contingently related to causes and conditions is explained as the very meaning of being empty of birth by its own nature.
"... But what does it actually mean to say that something empty of inherent existence is something contingently emergent? If it is meant in the sense that a jug is a vessel [with the ability to pour water,] then it would follow that as soon as you are certain that effects emerge in dependence upon causes and conditions you would also be certain of their emptiness. But this is clearly not so. And the same problem occurs if one asserts that the word "contingent emergence" denotes emptiness. Even if you assert that [something's emptiness] is implicitly [understood] through the explicit certainty of its contingent emergence, this would likewise not hold true. Because if you were to ask yourself: "What is this thing?" you would not [necessarily] say it was [empty].
"So how do we deal with this? The way in which something empty is contingently emergent is only accessed by those centred people (Madhyamikas) who have refuted inherent existence through authoritative understanding. And not by anyone else. When such centred people have explicit certainty that something emerges contingently in dependence upon causes, then, through the force of that very cognition, they gain certainty about its emptiness of inherent existence. This is so because they have understood (a) that something inherently existent cannot be related to anything else, and (b) that to be both [inherently existent] and contingently emergent is a contradiction. Having gained certainty about emptiness (the elimination of inherent existence by means of contingent emergence), the very moment they see or hear or remember that grains of barley, sprouts and so on depend upon causes and conditions, then they reflect and meditate on how such things do not therefore have their own nature.
"By acting thus, even if, in subsequent lifetimes, the emptiness of inherent existence is not explicitly explained to them, simply through an account of contingent emergence, their predisposition to the view of emptiness will be aroused. This would be like when rTa-thul simply told Kuntu-rgyu-nye-rgyal about the contingent emergence of the four truths, the latter understood the nature of reality itself.
"That which is empty of inherent existence is contingently configured. We configure a cart on the basis of its wheels and other contingent parts. As such it is empty and not born from its own nature. Such unborn emptiness is beyond the extremes of being and non-being. Thus it is both the centre itself and the central path. Emptiness is the track on which the centred person moves. Nagarjuna says in his Polemic:
"I honour the incomparable Buddha,
Who teaches that Emptiness, contingent emergence
And the central path are one." (429-31)
19. Because there are no things at all, which are not contingently emergent, therefore, there are no things at all, which are not empty.
"Because there are no things at all, which are not contingently and relationally emergent, contingent emergence too is empty of inherent existence. Therefore, there are no things at all, which are not empty of inherent existence. (431)
20. If all were not empty, nothing could come about or perish. It would follow for you that the four ennobling truths could not exist.
"If all internal and external things were not empty of inherent existence, nothing could come about, be born, or perish. Then it would follow for you that the four ennobling truths could not exist. 
21. If things were not contingently emergent, how could anguish exist? Impermanent things are taught to be anguish; in their very own nature they do not exist.
"Why is this so? Whatever is inherently existent cannot be contingently emergent. And if things were not contingently emergent, they could not be impermanent; they would be like flowers in the sky. Therefore, how could anguish exist? For the Lord has said that whatever is impermanent is [prone to] anguish. Impermanent, corrupted things are taught to be [prone to] anguish. If one accepted that things existed in, i.e. by their very own nature, then since they could not exist, anguish could not be possible. 
22. If it did exist from its own nature, why would it have an origin? Therefore, for those who undermine emptiness, it can have no origin.
"If anguish did exist from its own nature, then since it would be unborn, why would it have an origin? It would not need one. Therefore, for those who undermine anguish's emptiness of inherent existence, it can have no origin. Because something is posited as [anguish's] origin due to the fact that anguish originates from it.
23. If anguish existed by its own nature, there could be no cessation. Because its own nature would be totally present, cessation too would be undermined.
"If anguish existed by its own nature, there could be no truth of the cessation of anguish, because such a nature could never be revoked. Because if something existed in that way by its own nature, it would have to be totally present at all times, the truth of the cessation of anguish would be undermined by those who hold on to inherent existence and reject the view of emptiness.
24. If the path existed by its own nature, cultivation would not be appropriate. If the path is to be cultivated, your own nature cannot exist.
"If the truth of the path existed by its own nature, since it would exist even it one had not cultivated it, cultivation would not be appropriate. What then would be the point of cultivating it? If you accept that the path is to be cultivated, then your ennobling path cannot exist by its own nature, because it is a task to be performed.
25. When anguish, origins and cessation cannot exist, what ceasing of anguish could one seek to attain by the path?
"Surely the path is to be cultivated because the cessation of anguish is to be attained and its origins are to be let go of. But when, according to those who maintain that things inherently exist, the aggregates of anguish, the truths of the origins and the cessation of anguish cannot exist, what true ceasing of anguish by the path that lets go of the origins [of anguish could there be]?. Since there can be no cessation which they seek to attain, the cultivation of the path would be invalid. 
26. If non-understanding existed by its very own nature, how could one ever understand? Doesn't it abide also - by nature?
"If one's previous non-understanding of anguish existed by its very own nature, how could one subsequently ever understand it? One could not, because it truly abides by its own nature, just like heat in fire, doesn't it? Existing by its own nature and becoming something else are mutually exclusive.
27. In the same way, your letting go, realizing, cultivating and the four fruits too are as impossible as understanding.
"In the same way as understanding is impossible, from your standpoint, letting go of origins, realizing cessation and cultivating the path would also be impossible, because the previous inherently existent state of not-having let go of orgins could not subsequently be let go of. This is so since inherent existence cannot be revoked. The way we have explained understanding can then be applied to the other two [realizing cessation and cultivating the path]. And as with understanding, the four fruits such as stream entry and so on too could not possibly exist in a subsequent time while not having existed previously.
28. How can any fruits, which totally hold their own nature and by their own nature are unattained, be attained?
"How can any of the four fruits, which exist by their own nature as previously unattained, subsequently be able to be attained? They could not be because they totally hold their own nature, i.e. their own nature could never be revoked.
29. If the fruits did not exist, there could be no abiding in the fruits. Experiencing them would also not exist. If those eight beings did not exist, the Community would not exist.
"If the four fruits and their attainment did not exist, there could be no abiding in the fruits and therefore experiencing them also would not exist. If those eight beings did not exist, the Community Jewel would not exist.
30. Since there would be no ennobling truths, the sublime Dharma could also not exist. If the Community and the Dharma did not exist, how could Buddha exist?
"Since there would be no ennobling truths, the sublime Dharma Jewel could also not exist. If the Community and the Dharma did not exist, how could Buddha exist? It could not. These points should be understood as explained above.
31. It would also follow that your Buddha does not depend on awakening. It would also follow that your awakening does not depend on Buddha.
"If, for you, those who are called Buddha existed by their own nature, they would not depend on, i.e. be related to, awakening, i.e. omnisicient wisdom, because it is said that "natures are unconstructed and unrelated to anything else." Similarly, it would also follow that your omniscient wisdom of awakening does not depend on, i.e. is unrelated to and independent of, Buddha, because it would be inherently existent.
32. For you, someone who by their very nature is not Buddha, could not attain awakening however much you strive in the practice of awakening for the sake of awakening.
"Furthermore, for you, a person who prior to becoming Buddha abided by his very nature in the state of not-Buddha could not attain awakening however much he strove in the practice of the Bodhisattva for the sake of attaining unsurpassable awakening. Because such a nature could never be revoked.
[nb. Tsongkhapa's insistent but strained Mahayana gloss on the text of vs.31 & 32]
33. No one would ever do what is Dharma and what is not Dharma. What can that which is not empty do? Inherent nature is inactive.
"Moreover, if you accept [that things are] inherently existent, no person would ever do skillful deeds which are Dharma and unskillful deeds that are not Dharma, because what can that which is not empty of inherent nature do? It is impossible for something with inherent nature to do anything.
34. Even without Dharma and not-Dharma, you would have the fruits. You would not have the fruits which have arisen from the causes of Dharma and not-Dharma.
"Furthermore, if you say that fruits exist by their own nature, then even without having done Dharm[ic] and not-Dharm[ic] acts, you would have the pleasant and unpleasant fruits which have those [acts] as their cause. In that case, it would be meaningless to do either of those two acts for the sake of those fruits. Hence, without having done those two acts, you would not have the fruits which have arisen from the causes of Dharma and not-Dharma.
35. If you have the fruits which have arisen from the causes of Dharma and not-Dharma, why are the fruits which have arisen from the Dharma and not-Dharma not empty?
"If you have the two fruits which have arisen from the causes of Dharma and not-Dharma, why are both the fruits not empty of inherent existence? They must be because they are contingently emergent [things] which have arisen from the Dharma and not-Dharma, like reflections in a mirror.
36. Whoever undermines emptiness which is contingent emergence also undermines all the conventions of the world.
"He who says that things are inherently existent undermines emptiness which is contingent emergence. Whoever does that undermines all the conventions of the world such as "go!", "do!", "give it back!", "sit down!"
37. If one undermines emptiness, there would be no actions at all and actions without an author and agents who do not act.
"Moreover, if one undermines the emptiness of inherent existence of all things, then since something inherently existent would exist without having to do anything [to produce it], people would do no actions at all. There would be actions without an author, i.e. [actions occuring] even without anything being done, and agents who do not act at all. Since this is illogical, all things must be empty of inherent existence.
38. If there were inherent nature, all beings would be unborn and unceasing, would be fixed in place forever, separated from the variety of situations.
"Furthermore, if all things existed by their inherent nature, all beings would be unborn and unceasing, because an inherent nature would be unconstructed and irrevocable. If things were unborn and unceasing, all beings would be fixed in place forever and since they would be unrelated to causes and conditions, they would be separated from all the variety of situations.
39. If [things] were not empty, there could be no attainment of what had not been attained, no ending of anguish and no letting go of all actions and afflictions.
"If [things] were not empty of inherent existence, there could be no subsequent attainment of a fruit that had not previously been attained, no subsequent ending and exhaustion of anguish that previously had not been ended and exhausted, and no subsequent letting go of all actions and afflictions that had not previously been let go of.
40. He who sees contingent emergence sees anguish and origins and cessation and the path itself.
"If one believes that things are inherently existent, all doctrines will be invalidated. Therefore, the yogin who sees emptiness to have the characteristics of contingent emergence sees the very reality of those four noble truths of anguish and origins and cessation and the path."