Weighing the Butter, Levels of Explanation, and Falsification: Models of the Conventional in Tsongkhapa’s Account of Madhyamaka (by Guy Martin Newland, in Moonshadows – Conventional Truth in Buddhist Philosophy, by The Cowherds, Oxford 2011)
Following Candrakirti’s interpretations of Nagarjuna, Tsongkhapa (LRC [Byang chub lam rim che ba, Xining 1985] 606-607) argues that if things had any sort of essence or intrinsic nature [svabhava] of their own, this nature would have to be located under ultimate analysis. Therefore, the fact that things are not found under ultimate analysis means that they utterly lack intrinsic nature (not that they are nonexistent). Things lack the sort of existence that would be found, were it there, through ultimate analysis. For Tsongkhapa, not existing under ultimate analysis, not existing ultimately, and not existing intrinsically or essentially are three ways of saying the same thing. The knowledge that things lack essential reality is a liberating insight into emptiness, the absence of intrinsic existence [nisvabhava].
(The difference between Prasangika and Svatantrika, according to Tsongkhapa, is that Svatantrikas, while recognising that nothing withstands ultimate analysis, regard things as having an intrinsic nature conventionally, while Prasangikas take intrinsic nature to be just that which would be found by ultimate analysis if it existed, concluding from the fact that nothing withstands ultimate analysis that nothing has any intrinsic nature at all, even conventionally.)
Thus, the deeper and ultimate ‘level of explanation/analysis’ in Madhyamaka is in fact that level upon which we see the utter lack or absence of any core or pith to which all matters can be reduced. This very lack, emptiness, is all that is ever discerned at that level. It is the entirety of what can be observed from that perspective – but is certainly not on that account the only thing that exists. Still, it must give us pause to consider that ultimate analysis – the mind that knows the final nature of things – does not at all find persons or cars. When persons and cars cannot withstand such rational analysis, when their vivid and seemingly solid presence recedes and finally evaporates as they are scrutinized, then does this not suggest that scrupulous investigation has at last refuted them? And if so, then how can anyone talk about things having any kind of meaningful existence at all once they have been refuted by reasoning?
Tsongkhapa has an interlocutor pose this very question (LRC 606). In response, he argues that this question comes about through conflating (1) the inability to withstand rational analysis with (2) invalidation or refutation by reason. While it would be foolhardy to claim that things are refuted by reason and nonetheless exist, he argues, things may very well exist although being unable to withstand rational analysis. To ask whether something can withstand rational analysis is to ask whether it is ‘found’ or demonstrated by a line of reasoning that analyses what exists ultimately. This kind of analysis is intent upon seeking out the essential nature that is the core reality behind an appearance. When such reasoning analyses a car, it does not find any such essential reality, and this is what it means to say that a car is ‘unable to withstand rational analysis’ (LRC 606-610).
Thus, the unfindability of a car under ultimate analysis is not a sign of a car’s nonexistence; it is only a sign of a car’s not existing in the manner sought by this sort of analysis. That is, it is a sign of the utter nonexistence of an essentially real car. We do not expect to see Saturn looking through a microscope; we do not expect a sociologist to find quarks; we do not expect rational analysis to find conventional existence and so do not conclude that there is none just because it is not found thereby. As Tsongkhapa says, we cannot expect to see sounds even when we look with utmost care.