The Gelukpa (or Geluk) tradition of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy is inspired by the works of Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), who set out a distinctly nominalist Buddhist tradition that differs sharply from other forms of Buddhist thought not only in Tibet, but elsewhere in the Buddhist world.
The Middle Way, a philosophy systematized in the second century by Nāgārjuna, seeks to chart a “middle way” between the extremes of essentialism and nihilism with the notion of two truths: the ultimate truth of emptiness and the relative truth of dependent existence.
The Geluk school's unique presentation of the Consequence School (prāsaṅgika) of the Middle Way—a tradition that does not build foundational epistemological systems, but affirms existence merely in terms of transactional usage – is a hallmark of its philosophy.
Ultimate Truth and the Middle Way
Emptiness, too, is not “found” when sought (emptiness is empty, too). To be found (when an ultimate essence is sought) is to be intrinsically or ultimately real, and nothing has this status for the Geluk tradition, not even emptiness.
Nevertheless, the claim that there is nothing ultimately true—or that the ultimate truth is “emptiness,” a null set—is a (conventional) truth, not a truth ultimately, because nothing is ultimately true.
Conventional Truth and the Consequence School
That is, a formal argument presumes that a subject matter is objective or given, and this cannot be the case, particularly when an anti-realist (who understands emptiness) and a realist (who lacks an understanding of emptiness) engage in dialogue (Changkya in Cozort 1998, 451).
For the Consequence School, a valid argument for emptiness, like “the table is empty because it is dependent,” is not an objective truth. The reason for this is simply because there are no objective truths; there is nothing given.
Moreover, perception is not foundational in this system.
Neither perception nor inference is foundational in the Middle Way: perceptions validate inferences and inferences validate perceptions; neither has priority as both simply function to sustain a consensual reality.
Thus, unlike some other Middle Way philosophies, like the Autonomy School (svātantrika), there is no “correct” or “incorrect” relative truth, for no independent means exists that could verify a truth claim to be a “correct” relative truth.
Therefore, the measure of what is correct is simply what conforms to the world rather than based on any other warrant that would serve as a deeper structure or more fundamental layer of reality beyond what is simply conventional (Cozort 1998, 52).
Unique Assertions of the Consequence School
While the “foundational consciousness” (kun gzhi rnam shes) and self-awareness (rang rig) are keystones for idealist systems of Buddhist philosophy to get beyond what is merely conventional, the Consequence School does not follow suit.
The Consequence School squarely rejects idealism.
Self-awareness (rang rig), as distinct from object-awareness (gzhan rig), ascribes to the mental a unique way that a mind knows itself, a way that is different from the way a mind knows any other object.
Instead, it is primarily concerned with critical ontology, or what we could call a form of “ontological deflationism,” in that it aims to undermine the foundations of the entire ontological project (MacKenzie 2008, 197).
In the Geluk tradition, self-awareness is rejected as a notion that attributes to the mind a special status as an independently existent entity, and this idea is seen as one that hypostasizes the mind.
One reason for this is that a unique, first-personal access to self-awareness, being simply given in experience, presumes that there are grounds for immediate access to truth, and nothing has that status for Tsongkhapa.
For his Geluk tradition, conventional truths are always mediated and contingent. Geluk scholars argue that self-awareness, understood as a form of epistemologically primary, private knowledge, is not necessary to account for mind and memory.
The notion of the foundational consciousness is an attempt for Buddhists to account for personal causality without affirming a real self. Tsongkhapa dispenses with this notion of a substrate consciousness and sees it as simply another reification, another conceptually constructed essence that masquerades as the primary reality of the self.
Along with positing the entity of disintegration, among the unique features of the Consequence School are that the foundational consciousness and self-awareness are not only denied ultimate existence, but are held to not exist even conventionally.
Conventional truths are always subject to rational analysis; when their conventional status is analyzed, no such self-awareness or foundational consciousness is analytically found, and when analyzed in terms of their ultimate status, they are found to be groundless like every other phenomenon.
Despite the important role of absence in the Geluk tradition, emptiness—the absence of essence—does not refer to total negation, but refers in particular to the negation of the ultimate status of a phenomenon.
That is, the characteristically Buddhist denial of self is interpreted to refer only to mistaken conceptions of self – such as that of a permanent, singular, or truly existing entity – not the self simpliciter.
The mere self, like the mere table or chair (i.e., the table or chair apprehended without the overlay of true existence), is unequivocally claimed to exist. Conventional existence, what undeniably functions within the transactional world, is not negated.
The Geluk tradition's unapologetic affirmation of conventional reality, including the self, is a point of contention with other schools, who argue that their philosophy simply affirms the status quo and thus cannot accommodate a means to revise or transform the world or one's relation to it.
Buddhist Context of Geluk Philosophy
Knowledge of emptiness is key to this emancipatory process, as Tsongkhapa claims, for one must realize the emptiness of the Consequence School, the lack of true essence, to be free from the subtle sense of self and achieve nirvāṇa (Cozort 1998, 316).
Therefore, rather than overcoming mistaken concepts by circumventing them in a mystical flash of insight or an ecstatic experience of union, the Geluk tradition offers a more sober way to overcome misconceptions, one based on clear, rational analysis.
This is because an ascertainment of the lack of true existence is held to be necessary to counteract the directly opposed notion – the apprehension of true existence—which is the misinterpretation of reality (as more than simply conventionally existing) that binds one to suffering.
To do this, it is not sufficient to simply “let be,” stare into space, or ignore the cause of misinterpretation in some tranquil “nonconceptual” meditation; rather, one must have insight induced by reason that counteracts the habit of holding onto true existence.
That is, insight into reality is not held to be beyond thought, or attributed to some third category beyond the world that is neither existent nor nonexistent, but is simply insight into a world that is neither (ultimately) existent nor (conventionally) nonexistent.
Even though Geluk scholars consent to the fact that emptiness can be perceived nonconceptually—in the rarified case of a highly developed meditation – they maintain that the emptiness that is known nonconceptually is no different from the emptiness that is conceptually known.
Moreover, their emphasis on the practice of insight is not based on an appeal to a direct, unmediated access to what is beyond concepts, but to reason. Reason is also given priority over scriptural authority, which is subjected to the scrutiny of analysis and is adjudicated by reason (Tsongkhapa in Hopkins 1999, 71).
The curriculum at Geluk monastic institutions involves five primary topics: metaphysics (abhidharma), epistemology (pramāṇa), negative dialectics (madhyamaka), path structure (Abhisamayālaṃkāra), and ethics (vinaya).
Ethics, too, is integral to this path and to Buddhist philosophy in general, but the most distinctive and interesting features of Geluk philosophy are found in its epistemology, and in particular, negative dialectics.
Yet to account for the relationship between real particulars and unreal universals, the Geluk tradition develops what has been dubbed a “semi-realist” position, whereby it asserts that there are universals that are real entities in contrast to the anti-realism that denies that universals are entities (Dreyfus 1997, 173).
Straddling the delicate line between a realist view that affirms the reality of universals and an antirealist one that denies the reality of concepts, a Geluk account of epistemology holds that universals are real, but that they do not exists separately from their particular instances.
For instance, the universal “cow” and the particular instances of cow are held to be not utterly distinct, as antirealists would have it, nor are they held to be the same, as a strict realist would claim, but are rather said to be “essentially the same but conceptually distinct” (Dreyfus 1997, 174–78).
Yet since the Geluk tradition claims that Dharmakīrti's epistemological project represents an inferior philosophical position, arguably studied for didactic purposes, we need not dwell further on this thorny, scholastic topic.
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see also: Gelug