The subjects, things, are not inherently produced.
Proof: Because of not being produced from themselves, from naturally existent others, from both, or causelessly.
– Nagarjuna, Treatise on the Middle Way
Holding hands, an old nun and a boy named Tenzin Sopa went for a walk in the forest. It was December and night was approaching. Around them, snow fell silently, the brightness of the snow on the ground contrasted with the soft greys and beige of the shadowy trees and tall grasses. Tenzin gently squeezed the nun’s hand and asked, “Ani la, so how are things produced? Even though rocks and roads appear so solid, how come they disappear?”
The nun thought for a while and replied, “Maybe it would be helpful to think of this: imagine a bejewelled celestial palace made of rainbow light, the palace is square with a vermillion double-door on each side, one for each of the four directions. In the center of the palace on a raised silver dais and glittering royal throne sits Shakyamuni Buddha, gold in color.
The Eastern door leads to a world where things inherently exist (meaning they don’t exist as a result of cause and effect) because they are produced from themselves. In this world, a rock, for example, would arise from itself, it would self-generate. At first it would exist but in an un-manifest state. When it is produced, it is fully revealed. Does such a world exist? No, because if something already exists in a non-manifest state why does it need to be produced since it already exists? How would it be produced? Is it like cloning? Assuming it still needs to undergo some kind of production, what would prevent it from being produced endlessly?
The Southern door leads to a world where things are produced from other things, a snowflake, for example, results from water that freezes when the temperature drops. But in this way of thinking, the other things exist inherently – they are permanent thus not subject to causes and conditions. As such, there would be no relationship between phenomenon: it would be impossible for a kitten to mature into a cat. Being permanent, the kitten would still exist at the same time as the cat.
Also, this implies that inherently existent causes can give rise to inherently existent effects. If this were the case, there would be no relationship between causes and effects because all phenomenon would exist independent of one another so events would be completely random – sweeping the floor could turn on the lamp, extinguishing a candle could crumple a napkin, an acorn could produce a cucumber!
Such a world is clearly impossible.
Continuing around the mandala palace, the world behind the Western door is where things are not produced either from themselves or from other. This sounds strange, but it has a specific meaning. According to some of the non-Buddhist thinkers, phenomena are produced from the nature which is the same entity as its transformations and from the god Ishvara who is other than the transformations. In this context, they conclude that all things are produced from self or from other.1
Since Buddhists do not believe in Ishvara, this world also does not exist.
Finally, entering through the Northern door you find a world where phenomena arise causelessly. Some non-Buddhists believe that an object can be produced from the nature of the entity itself. Buddhists, however, think that an object arises from something other than itself – and that something is known as a cause. So this world is also impossible.
Tenzin and the nun continued down the trail leaving behind small black footprints in the thin layer of soft snow. Finally, Tenzin asked, “Well, that’s interesting, but if all four doors lead to worlds that don’t exist, then according to Buddha, how do things exist?” The nun thought for awhile and then replied carefully, “Each of the four doors represents one way to discredit a belief that things exist without reliance on causes and conditions. In this teaching, there is no explanation of how things exist, but remember the Buddha in the center of the mandala? He is smiling because he found peace, he figured out a solution. Buddha taught extensively about dependent origination. Dependent origination means that objects exist only in relation to other things – specifically, things are dependent on: 1) cause and effect, 2) on their parts, and 3) on thought – the latter refers to the mind that apprehends them.
So to give you an example, the two of us are dependently related because you’re young in comparison to me, but at the same time, you’re old in comparison to your baby sister. You’re short in comparison to me, but you’re tall compared to your sister. You’re a boy, and she’s a girl like me. You have a body with many parts that enable you to see, smell, touch, taste, and hear, and a mind that thinks, and that’s the basis for your name, Tenzin, so that’s how people come to know you and it’s how you know yourself.
Furthermore, because things are not inherently produced, then the way in which we ordinarily think of cause and effect is accurate. Things are impermanent, they can change, they can function. Actions give rise to effects – if you intentionally hurt someone – let’s say you disrespect your teacher by chatting in class, that gives rise to an effect – you get sent out of the room and you create negative karma that can ripen in this and/or future lives. Or, if you do something positive such as returning a student’s lost iPhone, you gain friendship and lots of good merit that can ripen in this and/or future lives.”
Tenzin replied, “Well, I’m not sure I understood all of that, but it seems re-assuring somehow. Let’s go home now and warm up with some hot chocolate .”
~ * May all beings be free from suffering * ~
1Jeffrey Hopkins. Meditation on Emptiness. p. 149
~ Losang Tendrol