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Tsong Khapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path

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tsongkhapaIf I had to choose, the Tibetan polymath Tsong Khapa would probably constitute the single most important figure in shaping my worldview. That isn’t to say I agree with him on everything, or consider myself by any stretch of the imagination to be a member of his Gelukpa order, but he does present the basic existential, ethical, and critical-phenomenological framework with which and against which I articulate my views of life. With him and against him I would play other key figures like Nagarjuna and Shantideva, Gendun Choephel and Gorampa, Nietzsche, James Joyce, Shakespeare, Kant, and Habermas.

As a Mahayana Buddhist philosopher, Tsong Khapa believed that the end-goal of contemplation was to liberate oneself from the habitual patterns of thought that externalize and reify the conceptual distinctions and valuations that we make in order to provide a framework for understanding the world and surviving within it. An exaggerated sense of the objective validity of the conceptual schema we use to posit objects and events in the world is ultimately founded in what the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget considered to be the fundamental conceptual schema from which all others derive – our concept of the Self.

The psychologist George Kelly went so far as to say that the personality ultimately consists of nothing more than the habitual patterns of action and interpretation that we use to navigate the world. I think to some degree this accords with the Buddhist conception of samsara, which holds that the problem of suffering in the world results from our being unconsciously driven by our beliefs about ourselves and the world which are merely provisional, but which are instinctually taken as having objective validity.

Tsong Khapa in one short text of considerable interest posits that the Buddhist therapy of alleviating suffering rooted in such misconceptions is based on what he calls the three principal aspects of the path, which he identifies as renunciation, compassion, and wisdom, with the latter specifically referring to the wisdom which directly grasps the degree to which the world we inhabit is largely a conceptual construction of our perceptual organs and the mechanisms of our consciousness.

These may be considered three aspects of one path because they are three articulations of the same underlying insight from three different reference points.

Tsong Khapa elsewhere defines renunciation as the definitive intention to emerge [from samsara]. I consider this the best definition of the Buddhist concept of renunciation that I’ve ever heard – it places emphasis on the relinquishment of the attachment to desirable things in the world that keeps us bound to our mental constructions and valuations. In this sense, renunciation is something rather distinct from the mere asceticism it is often confused for – it is not just a change in behavior or attitude, but a recognition of the actual state of affairs. Specifically, desirable things are only desirable because we desire them, not because of any intrinsic virtue that they possess. Likewise, ownership or possession exist solely through the force of convention, and there is no greater underlying reality to the fact of ownership than the degree to which we all act as though one person owns a thing. If we all stop saying it, we stop owning it.

Compassion is an analogous insight articulated with respect to our habitual tendency to value ourselves and our own experiences more than we value other people. In Tsong Khapa’s view, this posture results from the same underlying cognitive error. In his arresting analysis of compassion in his Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Tsong Khapa writes:

[U]nderstand that self and other are mutually dependent such that when you are aware of self, you are aware of other; and when you are aware of other, you are aware of self. It is like being aware of near mountains and distant mountains, for example.


Moreover, Shantideva’s Compendium of Training states:

By becoming accustomed to the equality of self and other,
The spirit of enlightenment becomes firm.
Self and other are interdependent.
Like this side and the other side of a river, they are false.

The far side and the near side of the river are not false in the sense that they cannot be systematically and meaningfully differentiated, they are false insofar as they are completely contingent on a judgment of the intellect based on its point of view. If you move to the other side of the river, the nature of the shore changes from “other side” to “this side.”

In that sense, the self does not exist inherently or independently, it exists in dependence upon how it is posited by consciousness. This is true of all things, according to Tsong Khapa – the present Dalai Lama has described interdependence as “Buddha’s slogan.”

That this determination of the dependent nature of existence may be extended to all things constitutes the reality of all phenomena is the third principal aspect of the path, or wisdom. In this technical sense, wisdom refers to the non-intrinsic identity of all phenomena, which ultimately depend on their causes and conditions, their spatial and temporal parts, and the way that they are designated by consciousness.

The final point, that phenomena depend on conceptual imputation for their existence, is subtle, and in my view it should not be misconstrued as a statement of idealism, such as George Berkeley would have made in holding that there is no substance or fabric of reality beyond their fact as mere appearances to consciousness. A close reading of Tsong Khapa and his sources reveals a view much closer to the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who held not that things are mind-only, but that insofar as we can speak of their existence in anyway whatsoever, we can only speak or analyze them from the standpoint of some consciousness. Their status as things in themselves is unknowable and indeterminate, and attempts to characterize phenomenal appearances as if they exist in themselves ultimately leads to contradiction.

The point of all this is not abstract deliberation, but the existential realization that our own misconstrual of the world and our relationship to things is harmful and deceptive, and leads us to cause suffering for others and for ourselves. I think there are times of life when the radiant nature of things shines through and we can have a direct perception


Written by Mesocosm

February 21, 2018 at 2:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Another excellent post. Curious what you think of the Dzogchen of Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, seeing boundless spacious Awareness as a reality that can be directly known? Or to put it another way, the “noumenon?”


    February 21, 2018 at 3:35 am

  2. Thank you Don. I haven’t spent much time looking at Bonpo, though in general I’ve found the approach of Dzogchen and Mahamudra to be extremely congenial, and closely related to the shikantaza practice I used to focus on when I lived at a Soto Zen monastery.

    I’m a big fan of the Gelukpa but one thing that I think they get wrong is strongly identifying ultimate truth with emptiness. In my opinion, this is a somewhat eccentric view that is unique to the Gelukpas among the Tibetans, with all other schools asserting that ultimate truth is something akin to underlying reality devoid of the superimposition of conceptual fabrications. I think the Gelukpa fear that positing such a concept will inevitably lead to reifying ultimate truth is excessive and unwarranted, and think both the Sakya author Gorampa and the Gelukpa author Gendun Choephel are right to criticize Tsong Khapa on that point.

    I think my idea of ultimate truth probably relates to what you’re calling noumena – am I on the right track?


    February 21, 2018 at 8:31 am

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