The question of ever-present change must be as old as the discipline of philosophy itself. The notion of constant flux attributed to Heraclitus (c. 535–c. 475 BC) and known as “panta rhei
” was largely forgotten in the later development of Greek thought, but in India the notion of universal flux developed from around the sixth century BCE onward and inspired different philosophical systems, among them the Buddhist philosophy.
The Buddha’s statement “all that is conditioned is impermanent!” is known as one of The “Four Seals,” the cornerstone of all Buddhist traditions. In Buddhist logic this seal became the basis for the equation: “Whatever is conditioned is impermanent and whatever is impermanent is conditioned. Whatever is not conditioned is not impermanent and whatever is not impermanent is not conditioned.”
In Buddhism, the doctrine of the impermanence of conditioned entities is interwoven with the doctrine of causality. The fact that an entity is conditioned by previous causes and moments makes it subject to impermanence. The doctrine of impermanence was further refined into the doctrine of momentariness. This doctrine postulates a process of momentary arising and cessation on the micro level that happens so fast that it is perceived as a continuity.
The following presentation will highlight different definitions and classifications of what the terms conditioned and impermanent might mean for a number of selected Tibetan Buddhist masters in their interpretations of the true nature of the mind. Their literary works are invariably based, directly or indirectly, upon Indian Buddhist śāstras translated into Tibetan.
The point of the exploration in general is to facilitate access to the insights of Tibetan Buddhist masters as they are formulated within the framework of a philosophical discussion. A characteristic feature of their statements is that they are not based on intellectual speculation, but on meditative experience.
Here, we will be concerned mainly with the interpretation of statements pertaining to this issue in two Indian śāstras, the Ratnagotravibhāga and the Madhyāntavibhāga, both attributed to Maitreya. However, as we will see, some of our Tibetan authors also draw on Indian works on Buddhist logic, epistemology, and ontology such as Dharmakīrti’s Pramāṇavārttika, Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa, and Asaṅga’s Abhidharmasamuccaya. The latter texts were studied in the monastic colleges of Tibet in the form of simplified manuals that constitute their own literary genre known as “Collected Topics” (Bsdus grwa) and “Classifications of Mind” (blo rigs).
In Buddhism, a mind conditioned by “actions” (karmasaṃkleśa) and “defilements” (kleśasaṃkleśa) is by definition a changeable mind—or one could even say—an unstable mind. As different mental factors make their appearance in our minds, our mental states change. Over the course of a day, an ordinary mind experiences many different mental states or factors caused by various defilements. But what should we think about the ultimate nature of the mind?
The mind or mental state in which the ultimate nature of mind is experienced, is considered the goal of the Buddhist path. It is called the enlightened mind, the true nature that is revealed when kleśa (“defilements”) and karma have subsided. This observation leaves us with two fundamental questions: Is this ultimate nature also described as conditioned and impermanent? Second, if this is the case, why is ultimate nature described in such a way? I will return to these questions below.
In order to introduce the selected Tibetan authors and their works, it may be helpful to reiterate that the so-called “Empty in itself-Empty of other” distinction that arose in Tibet is based on different interpretations of the nature of the mind or the so called “buddha-nature.” These interpretations stem from different readings of the seminal text for the presentation of the buddha-nature, the Ratnagotravibhāga (hereafter abbreviated as RGV). The Buddha nature teachings are traditionally associated with the so-called third turning of the wheel of the Dharma, which the “Empty of other” proponents as well as other thinkers assert to be the highest level of the Buddhist teachings, following the division of the Buddha’s teachings provided in the seventh chapter of the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra into three stages or wheels of doctrine, the first two being classified as provisional and the third and final stage as definitive.
In the RGV the nature of the mind is described in a way that lends itself to various interpretations. More than fifty commentaries were written in Tibet based on this śāstra. Some were composed by authors classified as proponents of the “Empty in itself” philosophy and others by proponents of the “Empty of other” philosophy. The latter were often accused of interpreting the RGV’s statements too literally, taking the true nature of the mind to be a truly existent entity which was anathema to the Madhyamaka teachings based on the so-called second turning of the wheel of the Dharma. There was also the question of the qualities attributed to buddha-nature. If it contains qualities (as the RGV says it does) how can it be empty at the same time? The ontological status of the nature of the mind vis-à-vis the nature of emptiness is a central topic much discussed in the Tibetan tradition.
In this article, I will focus on explanations by selected authors, some of which have been classified as proponents of the “empty of other
” philosophy. It is by now generally accepted that their works have been underrepresented, if not misrepresented, within the Tibetan scholastic tradition, partly as a consequence of the political persecution of the Jonang
school. (Burchardi, "How Can a Momentary and Conditioned Mind Be Integral to Gzhan Stong