As Thupten Jinpa points out, according to Tsongkhapa’s understanding of the Mādhyamaka system, “inherent” or “intrinsic” existence (rang bzhin gyis yod pa) is synonymous with:

  • existing by means of self-defining characteristics (rang gi mtshan nyid kyis yod pa)
  • existing in-and-of itself (rang ngos nas yod pa)
  • existing in an absolute sense (don dam par yod pa)
  • existing as intrinsically real (bden par yod pa)
  • existing with thoroughly [definable] nature (yang dag par yod pa).[1]

These should therefore be taken as synonymous for the purposes of this blog except for those cases where Lama Zopa Rinpoche discusses or highlights their particular employment within the specific interpretative context of an individual Buddhist tenet system. As the Prāsaṅgika tenet system employs further  terms to capture what is meant by the object of negation (pratiṣedhyadgag dka’ sa)  [referring to the ‘self’ that is to be refuted by wisdom as false because non-existent] it is useful to consider also Jeffrey Hopkins’s list of “hypothetical synonyms of ‘self’” as given in Meditation on Emptiness.[2]

1 true establishment (satya-siddhi/bhāva, bden par grub pa/dngos po)
2 true existence (satya-sat, bden par yod pa)
3 ultimate existence (paramārtha-siddhi, don dam par grub pa)
4 existence as [its own] suchness (tattva-siddhi, de kho na nyid du grub pa)
5 existence as [its own] reality (samyak-siddhi, yang dag par grub pa)
6 natural existence or existence by way of its own character (svalakṣhaṇa-siddhi, rang   gi mtshan nyid kyis grub pa)
7 substantial existence (dravya-sat, rdzas yod)
8 existence able to establish itself (tshugs thub tu grub pa)
9 existence from the object’s side [rather than being imputed from the subject’s side] (svarūpa-siddhi, rang ngos nas grub pa)
10 objective existence (viṣhaya-siddhi, yul gyi steng nas grub pa)
11 existence through its own power (svairī-siddhi, rang dbang du grub pa)
12 existence in the object that receives designation (prajnapti-viṣhaya-siddhi, btags yul gyi steng nas grub pa)
13 existence right in the basis of designation (gdags gzhi’i steng nas grub pa)
14 inherent existence (svabhāva-siddhi, rang bzhin gyis grub pa)
15 existence through its own entitiness (svabhāvatā-siddhi, ngo bo nyid gyis grub pa)
16 existence in the manner of covering its basis of designation (gdags gzhi’i go sa gnon pa’i tshul du yod pa)
17 existence from the side of the basis of designation (gdags gzhi’i ngos nas grub pa).

Even this list is not exhaustive. [3] Though technically synonymous, each of these terms has particular valency enabling us to (at least conceptually) glimpse from different privileged analytical vantage points as it were, the actual mode of false apprehension involved in innate grasping at inherent existence.  For example, according to this ignorance, things do appear to exist with a thoroughly definable nature (yang dag par yod pa). It is as though table’s nature, for example–let’s call it ‘tableness’–is already established there thoroughly defining what that thing is i.e. table. In this sense a table appears to give rise to itself because that is its nature.  But to that ignorance things also appear to exist substantially  (dravya-sat, rdzas yod) in the sense of solidly, entirely without reliance on a collection of factors such as wood, legs, flat surface, ability to support a computer and especially a designating consciousness attributing ‘table’ to a designatory base suitable to function as table, etc. So consider the wooden crate performing, quite successfully thankyou,  as coffee table in a student squat. Indeed, and this is a unique Prāsaṅgika (Consequentialist) tenet, clinging to a table as not just appearing but existing in a substantial way runs exactly counter to the fact that it is only posited by the mind in dependence on parts that are non-table. For Consequentialists, not even the parts of a table are substantially existent as the parts of a table, which is to say, that the parts are not sitting there waiting from their own side, either singularly or collectively,   to receive the ‘table’ designation. But this is the stuff of later posts. Enough has been said to intimate how we should treasure each synonym for what it so productively, so delicately  yields in terms of cognitive nuance.  Considered together they  provide a precious map for tracking down, from different directions, the mode of innate self-grasping ignorance, without which realisation of emptiness cannot even begin to occur. And, used intelligently and creatively, they all arrive at the same point.

Considered from the other perspective, if we were just to use one hypothetical synonym, say ‘existence through its own power’ (svairī-siddhi, rang dbang du grub pa), we might take ages (aeons?)  to come to ponder  whether ‘existence through its own power’ means  ‘existence in the object that receives designation ‘(prajnapti-viṣhaya-siddhi, btags yul gyi steng nas grub pa). In brief, each of these variants, considered alone,  constitute precious meditations in themselves. But not because they are able to set themselves up! Rather, because they can’t!



The great multilingual scholar Khunu Lama Tenzin Gyaltsen           (1894-1977)



Getting on top of the terminology is challenging  because the texts across the centuries together with shifting patterns within the oral traditions, weight and emphasise terms in idiosyncratic  ways. Additionally,  different tenet systems (philosophical schools) might have unique terms or, more tricky again, use the same terms (as another tenet system) but load them with their own implied content, content that might even contradict another usage of the very same word. Without appreciating the fabric in which their usage is imbedded  we cannot hope to arrive at even a semblance of what was intended.

We must pay  respect to this invariable failure of words to transparently convey their putatively ‘real’ (rather than interpretable) meaning. These concerns, of course, do not pertain just to philosophy but to the infinitely-potentialized nature of language itself.  It is because words are empty of inherent meaning or identity that they can work to mean something pointed or specific, or come to mean anything at all. Yet they can work specifically and fulfil their purposes with exquisite decorum  if we agree to consensually  attribute  a signification as to what they might be made to mean. Without being couched in a shared semiotic system we cannot hope or expect words to function as reliable freight-carriers  of meaning and so perform as vehicles of any sensible communication.  Why would we have to learn a foreign (how come it gets to be seen as foreign?) language otherwise?  Even an alphabet has to be originally designed and deployed within mutual understanding. That is why  the scrawling, no matter how ingenious, of a lost feral child living in total jungle isolation will be indecipherable to her discoverers. This may also be the case when finding some prehistoric runes in a cave. But we can’t pursue the momentum of  this discussion here. It’s sufficient to raise it.

Also,  following from the point above, language behaves like an evolving beast: it is never  static. Being a dependent-arising, and thus subject to causes and conditions, it can’t be. And, to even further complicate matters,   individual scholars will, in the audacious name of best or pure practice, translate even basic  Sanskrit and Tibetan terms according to their own views and expectations of how the language they are regarding might or (didactically-speaking) should behave: for there is a question of language discipline or perhaps language to be disciplined. This is before we have even arrived at the contemporary  possibility of English translation where all these issues are elaborately rehearsed and replayed.

There are also academic fashions regarding modes of translation (these can be serious or whimsical) and  views, usually rigorously-held,  concerning  whether one should be literal or looser, stricter or more free-form, especially when approaching the terse even obtuse grammar found in canonical Tibetan translations  of what are often centuries-older classical Sanskrit verse forms.  Given all this, in order that the reader does not lose their footing, and when deemed appropriate,  the Tibetan and often the Sanskrit forms (where available)   are given in brackets alongside the English translation. e.g. ear-whispered lineages (snyan bygyud); non-thing (dngos med, abhāva).This is done either  in the main body of the text or in footnotes. e.g. ear-whispered lineages (snyan bygyud); non-thing (dngos med, abhāva). The glossary (forthcoming) will include further variants.

45447-200Before becoming unduly alarmed,  be reassured by the fact that Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s presentation is exquisitely geared to our current capacity and needs. A repertoire of philosophical and core Buddhist terms is neither presumed nor essential to derive enormous benefit from this blog. Indeed, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, when outside of Tibetan language settings,  deliberately teaches in English in order to facilitate, at every turn, our capacity to establish rapport with the Dharma he so passionately wishes to impart. It is in this regard that we can appreciate the immensity of the assimilative task, the sheer range of strategies and verbal devices he has devised over many years in order to convey  even the most subtle and complex Buddhist concepts in language we can assimilate and understand. This is why he will introduce not one but multiple hypothetical synonyms for self. Each offers, following from the earlier discussion,  some special advantage and leads us towards some particular understanding. A typical example (drawn from a soon-to-be published post):

For example, when you look at your I, you see the I on that I. It is always there. It is always there in the sense that it has been appearing as independent, inherently existent, not merely labeled by the mind twenty-four hours a day. All that time of appearing in that way it has been apprehended as true. Because of believing in the apprehension of what is not true as true we have been blocked in our recognition of the false I.[4]

Even in this single short but typical passage we can discern the presence of a number of key technical terms found formally listed in the Hopkins and Jinpa material (quoted above). But rather than being announced in an enumerative fashion, they are found sutured together to form a cohesive argumentative logic, a narrative momentum capable of leading us toward the intended goal: luminous insight or actual realization. Such argumentative dexterity declares Rinpoche’s exceptional, even startling, individuality as a teacher. And as an accomplished Anglophone. Witness the  great skill and polemical vigor of his so-often mischievous exploitation of the vernacular:

We think this one has big muscly arms. Big pieces (of muscle) around the body. But not on the face or the nose. We leave these alone. Nor the ear. But big muscles elsewhere are beautiful. Or slim and beautiful. We put all these interpretations, these labels, these exaggerations on the nose and ears and the hair.

Isn’t it just possible that in a sudden moment of ludicrous, even burlesque humor, the keen flash of wisdom’s sword might reveal itself? In the very midst of a popular cultural reflection upon narcissistic obsession concerning manufacturing ideal bodies, the way in which things nominally exist in dependence upon being merely imputed by name and concept is shutterstock_81248260illustrated with suddenly amplified drama and relevance. While affording delightful mirth, the comedic element can be seen to flip itself over into a powerful and direct confrontation with the so-deeply anchored presumption that things exist from their own side, from the base of designation, through their own power, by virtue of their own nature, substantially, right in the basis of designation, right in the place where they appear to really be etc. Especially appealing or sexy things! In which we so love to invest!  A capacity to locate complex examinations of the mode of existence of things within the robust, even boisterous structures of everyday language (and living) reveals Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s immense kindness as well as  uncanny perspicacity for he is always predicting and resolving and often playing with our “reading” problems in advance.

That is why  just when we start to find the path of the logical argumentation arduous, the subject matter  too solid, too heavy, Rinpoche jump-starts us via an electrical cloud-burst of sheer fun. Regarding those preciously-posturing and flexing über muscle-builders  we have to laugh (they are not just human) —not so much at them but at our own equally tedious  sanctity of holding oneself  so dear, so special, so ontologically intact.


And that’s precisely the point. Later in the blog we will find meditations where we are required to break ourselves down analytically into bits and pieces. Can a whole be found in its parts or can the parts constitute a “real” whole? On what basis do we label a “chariot” or a “car?” When applied to ur own bodily composition it  quickly dismantles vanitas.

The lists of synonyms (above) are not the only relevant or important terminological issues to consider. Even a key term such as dependent arising (rten ‘byung/rten ‘brel, pratītyasamutpāda) is to be found  in the just quoted passage, “It is always there in the sense that it has been appearing as independent,” albeit, and significantly, in the form of its exact polar opposite: independent existence—which, in reality, is no existence at all. Why? Because it is a measure of the mode of false existence projected by reifying ignorance and is exactly what is to be eliminated by the precise application of wisdom— the techniques of which constitute the subject matter of this blog. And again, favored English translations for the term “pratītyasamutpāda” shift to include “dependent origination,” “dependent relation,” “interdependency” and so forth. Even what is meant by “dependent” (let alone independent) will be found, on closer inspection, to require considerable interpretive finesse as it is variously inflected and then enlisted by the individual tenet systems to carry out quite specific pedagogic purposes in line with their respective soteriological ambitions.[5] The stakes of somehow “correct” interpretation can therefore be high.

That the same must be said of other key terms becomes quickly evident upon even casual perusal of the glossary (forthcoming). Footnotes, for this reason (situated at the end of the post of which they pertain), seek to identify and unfold many terminological issues and usages, but always with the express aim of situating and describing debates and points of interpretation within the wider published literature and, especially, within the extensive framework of the oral commentarial tradition (itself based on treasured and much-studied canonical scriptural sources). Just as we would be wary of a brain surgeon who didn’t know the names of certain   body parts, let alone their functions, so should we be wary of approaches to Buddhist thought that promise to eschew terminological detail in the name of fluent access.  Indeed, without working from our own side to comprehend what is finally traditional Buddhist technical language, much of value in Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s lucid and often highly condensed account will (potentially) slip past.




Is this trough empty?

In this blog references serve a variety of functions. Sometimes they gloss the meaning of a term or concept in the name of conceptual precision. If “emptiness” simply meant an absence of something that was present (a common meaning in everyday parlance) then a pig would realize emptiness when it had finished the food in its trough. But as His Holiness The Dalai Lama states:

[When we Prāsaṅgikas speak of an emptiness, we are not referring to the situation in which one object is empty of some other existent entity. Thus] though we may commonly speak of an ‘empty rainbow,’ since the rainbow is empty of anything tangible, this type of emptiness is not what we have in mind.[6]

So a reference in such a case i critical in alerting  to the need to very precise by paying attention to the demands of the immediate context.


Another role is to invite us to approach the wider literature. How Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s oral discourses pertain to a wider oral as well as often considerably more formal text-based literary culture (grounded in intensive memorization and exegesis of the great canonical texts and study manuals forming the basis of monastic studies) is indicated in this way. Such concordant or correlative referencing can (by nature and definition) never be exhaustive. The suggestions for wider reading made here are offered as valuable further study tools and are based on my own research experience as well as consideration of what might prove most valuable for you.

Referencing is also employed as creative invitation to pause to embellish and elaborate our understanding as we navigate what is often demanding material. In respect to this, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, when asked, replied that the references “were beneficial because they help the reader to learn more.”

Finally, interpretive points or discussions found as part of reference content, where possible or known, are attributed to their sources and location in the secondary literature. The importance of substantiating reference content in this way can’t be sufficiently stressed. It remains a major editorial responsibility. It is not the case, in other words, that I am seeking to introduce novel or extraneous debates to service some personal agenda. I am even avoiding the common penchant for  subsuming Buddhist insights (or at least seeking to do so)  Buddhist insights into the framework of “Western” thought. This may have value but it is not the purpose of Moon in Rippling Water.



All Sanskrit and Tibetan words for names and technical terms in English have been given parenthetically where appropriate. In the case of book titles, quotations etc. drawn from other publications, I have maintained the form used by those respective authors. Sometimes, this might mean that a proper noun, such as Śāntarakṣita or Candrakīrti for example, or a technical term, such as zhi gnas (śamatha) may occur with variant transliteration and spellings. This simply reflects the number of transliterative as well as phonetic conventions currently simultaneously circulating in the broader literature.

Though Sanskrit terms are migrating into English (usually with various phonetically anglicized spellings), I have chosen to use standard Sanskrit transliteration so as to provide a continuity with the academic sources cited. This means, for example, that ś has not been written as sh, ş as şh, c as ch and ch as chh as is often the case. However, in the case of Sanskrit names or titles etc. cited or quoted from secondary reference sources, as mentioned above, I have respected the internal style decisions of those particular authors or publishers. For example, Śāntideva might be found as Shantideva when referring to Batchelor’s translation of his seminal text, Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, while Candrakīrti may appear as Chandrakirti, or bodhicitta as bodhichitta in various settings.

When Lama Zopa Rinpoche employs untranslated Tibetan words in English discourses, I have rendered them according to the  Wisdom Publications Style Guide, except in some cases where the phonetics based on the earlier Hopkin’s system have already entered the literature to become stable forms, e.g., Chenrezig rather than Chenrezik. For the sake of clarity I have, where possible, also supplied, either in brackets or, in a corresponding endnote, the Wylie transliteration of the same word or term. In cases where both essay phonetics and Wylie Tibetan are given, they are displayed in that order. For further transliteration detail, see Jeffrey Hopkins, Meditation on Emptiness (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1996), 19–22. See also Turrel V. Wylie, “A Standard System of Tibetan Transcription,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 22 (1959), 261–67.

This blog basically follows the style of referencing given in the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). However, I have not used the (optional) author-date style for the bibliography. When citing a work that has already been cited, simply the author’s last name, a shortened version of the title, followed by a comma and the page or pages cited is employed. Though the Chicago Manual of Style allows but does not require the use of “ibid.” to refer to the work cited in the previous note, I have chosen to employ it as follows: when citing the same page of the work, “ibid.” alone has been used. When citing a different page, “ibid.” followed by a comma and the page number has been used; e.g., ibid.,
5; ibid., 64.The Latin abbreviations “op. cit.” and “loc. cit.” are not employed.



unknownAs the blog is really a profound discussion on how everything exists nominally or “in mere name,” it was felt that the use of either single or double quotation marks to indicate a nominative usage (e.g., the merely labeled “I”) would prove cumbersome in the main text, except in those cases where the fact or role of the term as a term was being especially emphasized, e.g., “To be more precise, the object perceived by the eye sense is the base and “form” is the label.” The intent in such examples, is to highlight the fact, or manner, or nature, of its nominative usage. It was also felt that using quotation marks sparingly in this fashion had the advantage of placing greater emphasis on context. Their use in quoted material reflects the original published source.




q6643567When a round bracket ( ) is found in the main body of the text, it contains supplementary material given by Lama Zopa Rinpoche: e.g., “Within the four sects of Tibetan Buddhism the tradition of Lama Tsongkhapa (Gelug, dge lugs pa) has the largest number of monks.” Use of a square bracket [ ] indicates the insertion of material interposed by the editor: e.g., “It [falsely] apprehends that there is an I in either the phenomena of body or mind or their association.”

plainicon-com-50015-8edd-512pxBracketed and/or italicized material found in cited reference material reflects their original use in those sources and hence remains unremarked. In those rare cases where I introduce italics or bracketed material within a referenced quote, I acknowledge this at the end of that quote; e.g., italics mine, brackets mine.


[1] Thupten Jinpa, Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy (London & New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002), 60.

[2] Hopkins notes, “The members of this list are only ‘hypothetical’ synonyms because in Buddhist logic ‘synonym’ (ekārtha) means ‘one object,’ and thus all synonyms necessarily exist. Since these terms for ‘self’ refer to non-existents, they can only be ‘hypothetical’ synonyms.” Jeffrey Hopkins, Meditation on Emptiness (Boston: Wisdom, 1996), 36. Likewise, Cozort and Preston write, “Technically, only existents may be equivalents. The members of this list are not actual equivalents because none of these imagined ways of existing actually occurs. The conception that they exist occurs, and that conception is a mind.” See Daniel Cozort and Craig Preston, Buddhist Philosophy (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2003), 239, footnote 2. See ibid. for several classical lists of hypothetical synonyms of true existence complementing those given above.

[3] See also Hopkins’s extensive list in Emptiness Yoga (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1995), 86. 

[4] False I (rdzun pa’i nga). In case we are already getting confused as to the meaning of ‘self” in relation to ourselves (as persons), Hopkins writes: “In general, ‘self’ (ātman, bdag), ‘person’ (pudgala, gang zag) and ‘I’ (ahaṃ, nga) are synonyms along with ‘creature’ or ‘being’ (puruşha; skies bu), which has been translated here as ‘person’. However, when Prāsaṅgikas speak specifically of a self of persons (pudgalãtman; gang zag gi bdag), this self does not refer to the conventionally existent person which is imputed in dependence on the aggregates of mind and body. In the term “self of persons’, ‘self’ means ‘inherent existence’, and the word ‘persons’ means ‘nominally existent persons’. Hence, the term ‘selflessness of persons’ means the non-inherent existent existence of nominally existent persons. “Inherent existence’ means ‘independent existence’, ‘objective existence’, ‘natural existence’ or ‘existence under its own power’, etc. See Hopkins, Meditation on Emptiness. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1996, 175. 

[5] See Hopkins, Meditation, 37, for a short treatment of this example in the context of the opposites of selflessness.

[6] The Dalai Lama, The Buddhism of Tibet (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1987), 57.


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