The Tetralemma in the Lankavatara

The Yogacara Take on the Four-Fold Negation

Progress & Conservation🔰
15 min readOct 31, 2023
The Buddha in His Pure Land, generated using AI

Kassapa: “Is suffering created by oneself?”
The Buddha: “Not so.”
Kassapa: “Is suffering created by another?”
Buddha: “Not so.”
Kassapa: “Is suffering created both by oneself and by another?”
Buddha: “Not so.”
Kassapa: “Has suffering arisen by chance, being created neither by oneself nor by another?”
Buddha: “Not so.”
Kassapa: “Is there no suffering?” […]
Buddha: “It is not that I do not know and see suffering, Kassapa, I know suffering, I see suffering…. Kassapa, if one thinks, ‘the one who acts is the same as the one who experiences the result,’ then one asserts with reference to one existing from the beginning: ‘Suffering is created by oneself.’ When one asserts thus, this amounts to eternalism. But, Kassapa, if one thinks, ‘The one who acts is one, the one who experiences the result is another,’ then one asserts with reference to one stricken by feeling: ‘Suffering is created by another.’ When one asserts thus, this amounts to annihilationism. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma by the middle.” — Acelakassapa Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 12.17)

We previously talked about the role of the tetralemma in Nagarjuna’s magnum opus, the Mula-Madhyamaka-Karika. We discussed how the use of the tetralemma by Nagarjuna evolved out of the Buddha’s own use of the tetralemma in the discourses of the Pali Canon. In case you have forgotten, the tetralemma is a series of four statements, together presumed by traditional Indian logic to exhaust all possibilities: whenever you have two things, there are these four possible ways in which the two things can relate to one another — (1) identity, they could be the same or identical, (2) difference, they could be totally separate and unrelated things, (3) simultaneous identity and difference, they could be both the same and different, and (4) neither identity nor difference, they could be neither identical to each other nor different from one another. These four possibilities, it would seem, exhaust all possible answers as to how two things can be related.

In the Pali Canon, the Buddha used the tetralemma to demonstrate the nature of the “self” as ultimately empty and devoid of any inherent existence or essential nature, showing that the “self” actually inter-dependently co-arises alongside and in dependence upon various other things — that the self is not a unified thing but a construct based on a multitude of relationships from which we derive our own self-definition. I am a son to my father, a brother to my sister, an employee to my boss, a student to my judo instructor, a writer to those who read my blog, a lecturer to those who listen to me, and an infinite number of other things to other people and things — and all of these aspects of the definition of “me” are process-relational in nature. Everything that I am is connected to everything else that I relate to in some way or another — everything that I have some sort of relationship to. There can be no “me” in a void — no self abstracted from the various relationships that define a person. Without my relatives, friends, society, culture, hobbies, employment, habits, and behaviors — that is, without all the things which “I” relate to and all the processes that I engage in and with which “I” interact— , there is no way to define or describe myself. The self abstracted from all these process-relational characteristics becomes a total void about which nothing can be said. The phenomenon of self — a thing that lacks any independent existence or inherent essence — emerges from the complex interplay of these various relations. There are both internal relations (i.e. internal processes within my body and mind) and external relationships (i.e. how I relate to external things) — these various processes or relationships can be broken down into five categories, or what the Buddha calls the five aggregates, which he names as follows:

  1. Form or rupa (the term form here refers both to the material forms of external objects and to the phenomenal and visual forms in our minds which correspond to these external material objects)
  2. Sensation
  3. Perception
  4. Volitional Formations or samskara (this refers to the faculty of the mind that actively creates mental formations, such as concepts, forms in the mind, and plans for the future —this is the active and karmic aspect of the mind)
  5. Consciousness

Taken together, all five of these aggregates constitute every process and relation that plays a role in self-definition. The illusion of self as an independent thing emerges from clinging to and mistakenly reifying the sum of these aggregates into an independent thing with a concrete essence.

“Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Baraṇasi in the Deer Park at Isipatana. There the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus of the group of five thus: “Bhikkhus!”

“Venerable sir!” those bhikkhus replied. The Blessed One said this:

“Bhikkhus, form is non-self. For if, bhikkhus, form were self, this form would not lead to affliction, and it would be possible to have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus.’ But because form is non-self, form leads to affliction, and it is not possible to have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus.’

“Feeling is non-self…. … Perception is non-self…. Volitional formations are non-self…. Consciousness is non-self. For if, bhikkhus, consciousness were self, this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and it would be possible to have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus; let my consciousness not be thus.’ But because consciousness is non-self, consciousness leads to affliction, and it is not possible to have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus; let my consciousness not be thus.’

“What do you think, bhikkhus, is form permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable sir.” — “Is what is impermanent suffering or happiness?” — “Suffering, venerable sir.” — “Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?” — “No, venerable sir.”

“Is feeling permanent or impermanent?… Is perception permanent or impermanent?… Are volitional formations permanent or impermanent?… Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable sir.” — “Is what is impermanent suffering or happiness?” — “Suffering, venerable sir.” — “Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?” — “No, venerable sir.”

“Therefore, bhikkhus, any kind of form whatsoever, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, all form should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’

“Any kind of feeling whatsoever … Any kind of perception whatsoever … Any kind of volitional formations whatsoever … Any kind of consciousness whatsoever, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, all consciousness should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’

“Seeing thus, bhikkhus, the instructed noble disciple experiences revulsion towards form, revulsion towards feeling, revulsion towards perception, revulsion towards volitional formations, revulsion towards consciousness. Experiencing revulsion, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion his mind is liberated. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: ‘It’s liberated.’ He understands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.’”

That is what the Blessed One said. Elated, those bhikkhus delighted in the Blessed One’s statement. And while this discourse was being spoken, the minds of the bhikkhus of the group of five were liberated from the taints by non-clinging.” — Anatta-lakkhana Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 22.59)

Nagarjuna Confronts the Serpents, generated using AI

Nagarjuna expands upon what the Buddha has said in his discourses by broadening the scope of the tetralemma and applying it to all things and not just to the “self” — thereby demonstrating the emptiness of all phenomena. In the Mula-Madhyamaka-Karika, Nagarjuna subjects various different things and concepts to the scrutiny of the Buddha’s method of using the tetralemma to negate all the possible logical solutions. He arrives at the conclusion that, in addition to the self being empty, so too are all other things ultimately impermanent, malleable, empty of independent existence, and lacking any concrete essence. The Madhyamaka school pushes the envelope and argues that not only is the self empty but so are all of the aggregates that give rise to the illusion of self. And the Madhyamaka school gives us the various prajnaparamita sutras, such as the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra.

“The noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, while practicing the deep practice of Prajnaparamita, looked upon the Five Aggregates and seeing they were empty of self-existence, said, ‘Here, Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness; whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form. The same holds for sensation and perception, memory and consciousness. Here, Shariputra, all dharmas are defined by emptiness, not birth or destruction, purity or defilement, completeness or deficiency. Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no memory and no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind; no shape, no sound, no smell, no taste, no feeling and no thought; no element of perception, from eye to conceptual consciousness; no causal link, from ignorance to old age and death, and no end of causal link, from ignorance to old age and death; no suffering, no source, no relief, no path; no knowledge, no attainment and no non-attainment. Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment, bodhisattvas take refuge in Prajnaparamita and live without walls of the mind. Without walls of the mind and thus without fears, they see through delusions and finally nirvana. All buddhas past, present and future also take refuge in Prajnaparamita and realize unexcelled, perfect enlightenment. You should therefore know the great mantra of Prajnaparamita, the mantra of great magic, the unexcelled mantra, the mantra equal to the unequalled, which heals all suffering and is true, not false, the mantra in Prajnaparamita spoken thus: Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha.” — The Heart Sutra

Nagarjuna and the prajnaparamita sutras of the Madhyamaka school tell us that all five aggregates are empty — but I feel like it’s worth emphasizing here that the five aggregates together constitute all of reality! The first aggregate of form encompasses all of the physical world and all material things and, combined with the other aggregates, encompasses also all subjective phenomena as well. Absolutely everything is encompassed within the five aggregates, so the assertion of the emptiness of the five aggregates entails the emptiness of everything.

“If the self were the aggregates,
It would have arising and ceasing (as properties).
If it were different from the aggregates,
It would not have the characteristics of the aggregates.

If there were no self,
Where would the self’s (properties) be?
From the pacification of the self and what belongs to it,
One abstains from grasping onto “I” and “mine”.

One who does not grasp onto “I” and “mine,”
That one does not exist.
One who does not grasp onto “I” and “mine,”
He does not perceive.

When views of “I” and “mine” are extinguished,
Whether with respect to the internal or external,
The appropriator ceases.
This having ceased, birth ceases.

Action and misery having ceased, there is nirvana.
Action and misery come from conceptual thought.
This comes from mental fabrication.
Fabrication ceases through emptiness.

That there is a self has been taught,
And the doctrine of no-self,
By the buddhas, as well as the
Doctrine of neither self nor nonself.

What language expresses is nonexistent.
The sphere of thought is nonexistent.
Unarisen and unceased, like nirvana
Is the nature of things.

Everything is real and is not real,
Both real and not real,
Neither real nor not real.
This is Lord Buddha’s teaching.

Not dependent on another, peaceful and
Not fabricated by mental fabrication,
Not thought, without distinctions,
That is the character of real
ity (that-ness).

Whatever comes into being dependent on another
Is not identical to that thing.
Nor is it different from it.
Therefore it is neither nonexistent in time nor permanent.

By the buddhas, patrons of the world,
This immortal truth is taught:
Without identity, without distinction;
Not nonexistent in time, not permanent.

When the fully enlightened ones do not appear,
And when the disciples have disappeared,
The wisdom of the self-enlightened ones
Will arise completely without a teacher.

Apart from the cause of form,
Form cannot be conceived.
Apart from form
The cause of form is not seen.

If apart from the cause of form, there were form,
Form would be without cause.
But nowhere is there an effect
Without a cause.

If apart from form
There were a cause of form,
It would be a cause without an effect.
But there are no causes without effects.

When form exists,
A cause of the arising of form is not tenable.
When form is non-existent,
A cause of the arising of form is not tenable.

Form itself without a cause
Is not possible or tenable.
Therefore, think about form, but
Do not construct theories about form.

The assertion that the effect and cause are similar
Is not acceptable.
The assertion that they are not similar
Is also not acceptable.

Feelings, discriminations, and dispositions
And consciousness and all such things
Should be thought of
In the same way as material form.

When an analysis is made through emptiness,
If someone were to offer a reply,
That reply will fail, since it will presuppose
Exactly what is to be proven.

When an explanation is made through emptiness,
Whoever would find fault with it
Will find no fault, since the criticism will presuppose
Exactly what is to be proven.” — Nagarjuna (
The Mula-Madhyamaka-Karika)

The Eternal Buddha Visits Asanga and Vasubandhu During Meditation, generated using AI

After the time of Nagarjuna, the Madhyamaka school that he founded went on to heavily influence all of Mahayana Buddhist thought. The Yogacara school was founded by Asanga and Vasubandhu, two philosophers whose writings largely consisted of commentaries on the works of Nagarjuna. Thus, the Yogacara school can be seen as developing off of, and branching out from, the Madhyamaka school. We had previously discussed the Yogacara school and their “mind only” interpretation of Buddhism. Now I want to discuss how the tetralemma employed by Gautama Buddha and Nagarjuna was taken up by the Lankavatara Sutra, a central text of the Yogacara school.

“Mahamati then asked the Buddha, “Bhagavan, please tell us, how do we transcend sameness, difference, both and neither, existence, nonexistence, and neither existence nor nonexistence, permanence and impermanence, which is not practiced by followers of other paths but which is the practice of the personal realization of buddha knowledge? And how do we get free of the individual and shared characteristics of projection? And how do we accord with the truth of ultimate reality and the sequence of stages marked by increasing purification that lead to the tathagata stage, where one’s effortless resolve, like a magic gem that reflects every color, displays realms without limit, but where everything displayed is distinguished as a perception of one’s own mind? And how do we and other bodhisattvas avoid views of the individual or shared characteristics of such an imagined reality and quickly attain unexcelled, perfect enlightenment and enable other beings to achieve complete happiness and contentment?”…
The Buddha said, “Mahamati, foolish people cling to internal and external existence due to the habit-energy of their attachments to projections of the self-existence of sameness or difference or both or neither, or of existence or nonexistence or neither existence nor nonexistence, or of permanence or impermanence, unaware they are nothing but their own mind.
“Mahamati, it is like when deer are oppressed by thirst, and they see a shimmering mirage, and thinking it is water, they rush foolishly toward it, unaware it isn’t water. In the same manner, foolish people are infected by the habit-energy of beginningless projections and fabrications and are inflamed by the fires of greed, anger, and delusion. Delighting in worlds of form and beholding their origination, duration, and cessation and clinging to external and internal existence, they fall prey to grasping and imagining conceptions of their sameness or difference or both or neither, or of their existence or nonexistence or neither existence nor nonexistence, or of their permanence or impermanence.” — The Lankavatara Sutra

The Yogacara school and the Lankavatara take up where Nagarjuna leaves off. Yes, indeed, the four-fold negation of all possible answers as laid out in the tetralemma holds true. This holds true when we look at our self, as the Buddha taught us, but it also holds true when we look at virtually anything else, as Nagarjuna has taught us. The relationship of this to that or of the one to the many just logically cannot be anything like what the various schools of philosophy prior to Buddhism claimed that it is. The relationship of any two related things cannot be a relation of identity, a relation of difference, a relation of both identity and difference, nor even a relation of neither identity nor difference. This and that — or whatever thing you happen to logically analyze under the microscope of the tetralemma — cannot be anything other than “asymmetrically inter-dependent,” as all things are ultimately empty and everything that does arise in this world inter-dependently co-arises with a multitude of other things as the causes and conditions of its own being. Even conceptually, we cannot conceive of light without also conceiving of darkness. We cannot conceive of goodness without having a simultaneous conception of badness. We cannot speak of this thing without something else — that thing — to contrast it against. Conceptually, this and that co-arise inter-dependent upon one another. And, ultimately, insofar as everything is ultimately empty — lacking any independent essence and being interdependent with everything else — we can say that before the conceptualization there is a breakdown of difference, an underlying undifferentiated and non-dual reality that is characterized by emptiness or openness and pure potentiality.

The Yogacara school follows the logic of Gautama Buddha and then continues on, following the logic of Nagarjuna as well, reaching the conclusion of the emptiness of all things. Yet, they go a little further and analyze emptiness from a different angle. The idea of emptiness that emerges implies that all phenomena are illusory in some sense — they appear to be stable, concrete things but turn out to be constructs of the mind. Yogacara adds another explanatory layer on top of what the Madhyamaka school has told us. The reason that we are inclinded to believe that things must fit somewhere into the four possibilities laid out in the tetralemma is because our minds have projected a false reality on the screen in front of us. The mind has created a projecting of reality that presents fluid, malleable, unstable, complex, and impermanent things — things lacking any independent essence — as concrete entities that we can interact with. The reason that the illusion — the illusion that the four-fold refutation of the statements contained in the tetralemma…the reason that that illusion arose in the first place is because our perceptual reality is not the real world but merely a projection of it.

It might be useful here to think of Plato’s “allegory of the cave,” where the people in the cave can’t directly see the real world outside but can only see the shadows on the wall of the cave — shadows that are created by the light coming from behind them. As the images on the wall in the cave are mere shadows, projected onto the wall by the light behind the inhabitants of the cave, so too are the perceptions of our minds mere projections. We don’t see the actual world but merely an interpretation of it. Our brains have simplified and interpreted reality for us in an intuitive and easy-to-grasp manner. Yet, the projections of the mind are really only a map of reality and not the actual landscape of reality itself. As Alfred Korzybski famously put it, “The map is not the territory.” Or, to put it as the Buddha does in the Lankavatara Sutra of the Yogacara school, don’t mistake the finger that is pointing for the object that it is pointing to— when I point at the moon, look at the moon and not at my finger. The projection of reality that exists in our mind is really just an image of reality, a map, and not reality itself.

Whereas Nagarjuna and the Madhyamaka explain how all things are an illusion, Asanga and Vasubandhu — and the Yogacara school they founded — attempt to offer an explanation of why things are illusory. These phenomena are illusory because they are projections of the mind, mental maps of reality, rather than being the real things themselves. Since the phenomenal world of human perception and cognition is merely a mental projection, it can be thought of as something very much like a dream.

But here’s the thing, everything that Nagarjuna and the Madhyamaka school says is actually implied by what the Buddha himself said — and what the Lankavatara Sutra and the Yogacara school say seems very much to be consistent with what Nagarjuna had said. So we can say that just as Nagarjuna compliments the Buddha, supplementing rather than detracting from what Gautama Buddha taught, in the same way the Yogacara school of Asanga and Vasubandhu compliments and supplements the Madhyamaka philosophy of Nagarjuna. Original Buddhism, Madhyamaka, and Yogacara are all intimately connected and complimentary to one anotherand, I might add, that in Zen Buddhism they end up blending together into a refreshing sort of reformed buddhism that revitalizes the essence of Original Buddhism while also integrating the insights and developments that came from the millennium of Buddhist philosophy in the interim between the time of Gautama Buddha and the time of Bodhidharma.



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