The Three Natures

The three natures are the imaginary, the dependent, and the perfected.

Whatever is grasped by mental designation is the imaginary nature. Non-entities and the appearances of objects arising in the mind are imaginary. The relationship between name and object, such as grasping the name as the object or mistaking the object as the name, are also imaginary. Outer, inner, fringe and center, big and small, good and bad, space and time, and so on, whatever is grasped by thought is imaginary in nature.

The dependent nature is simply consciousness which arises as subjective and objective poles, based on the habitual tendencies of ignorance. The perfected nature is self-aware, self-luminous, and free from contrivance. The synonyms of the perfected nature are dharmata, dharmadhatu, suchness, and ultimate truth.

The dependent and imaginary natures are equally false and relative. However, it is necessary to separate them into individual categories. The imaginary nature does not exist even on a relative level. The dependent nature exists on a relative level. The perfected nature does not exist on a relative level, yet it truly exists on an ultimate level.  

Therefore, imaginary nature exists by designation, and the dependent nature exists as perception. The perfected nature does not exist in either of these two ways, rather it exists in an uncontrived way.

The imaginary nature is non-existent emptiness. The dependent nature is existent emptiness. The perfected nature is ultimate emptiness.

Lord Maitreya said:

If one understands non-existent emptiness, and likewise existent emptiness, as well as ultimate emptiness,  it is said that one understands emptiness.

—Jetsun Taranatha, Maha Madhyamaka

About Tashi Nyima

I am a Dharma student, and aspire to be a companion on the path. I trust that these texts can offer a general approach and basic tools for practicing the Buddha's way to enlightenment. ||| Soy un estudiante del Dharma, y aspiro a ser un compañero en el sendero. Espero que estos textos ofrezcan a algunos un mapa general y herramientas básicas para la práctica del sendero a la iluminación que nos ofrece el Buda.
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10 Responses to The Three Natures

  1. Jason Siegel says:

    Excellent!

  2. The following is a snippet from a brilliant exposition of the three natures by the Eighth Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje (1507-1554):

    The imaginary is that which, from the perspective of being affected by ignorance, appears as the aspect of being real because it is seemingly real. However, the imaginary is not even conventionally real because it is delusive and empty of a nature of its own even conventionally. … The other-dependent is the conventional reality that actually fulfills this function because the essence and nature of the other-dependent are established conventionally, due to which it is not empty of its own nature.

    This stuff is really subtle – but the above indicates that the “equally illusory” attribution is incorrect…

    • Tashi Nyima says:

      Mikyo Dorje and the Kagyupas hold a different view on the three natures, as apparently do you. However, your view does not make the Jonang view ‘incorrect’. It is merely different. If you only wish to read about your own view, this may not be the best place to do so. Peace and clarity, friend, and thank you for visiting.

      • Actually I have great respect for the Jonang view – I think that Dolpopa’s ‘Mountain Doctrine’ is an amazing work that I found completely inspirational. I am merely seeking clarification and not interested in holding to any one particular view. Surely the Jonang view and that of the 8th Karmapa are not antagonistic, but rather complementary As I understand the situation, please correct me if I am wrong, Dolpopa’s ‘baisic element’, ‘the ultimate clear light’, ‘element of attributes’, ‘self-arisen pristine wisdom’, partless pervader of all phenomenon, and so on corresponds to the dependent nature purified of all traces of the imputational nature. Have I misunderstood?

  3. Ok – I have understood your presentation, I see the point – according to the Jonang view it is the ‘element of attributes’ completely undisturbed by adventitious stains which is the ultimate nature. From that point of view the other two would be equally illusory – sorry to have misunderstood. Best wishes…

  4. DEW says:

    I found this explanation of the Zhentong view of the 3 natures according to Tsen Khawoche, written by Michael R. Sheehy:

    What follows is my translation of a brief elucidation on the three natures (trisvabhāva, rang bzhin gsum) by Tsen Khawoché. This short text consolidates these three natures in a manner that was later identified as being in harmony with zhentong, as made explicit within the writings of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1363) and later Jonangpa authors. Though it appears under the title Instructions of the Zhentong View, its important to keep in mind that this was the name given to this short piece by Kunga Drolchok when he included it in the larger compilation [In Tibetan, “Gzhan stong lta khrid”]. I have also given it the simple title, Tsen Khawoche’s Condensation of the Three Natures.

    As it reads in translation,

    Here is essential guidance on the view of zhentong [Drolchok’s preface]:

    Having gone to refuge and generated the mind of awakening,

    Seizing onto delusional projections as true is the imaginary nature (parikalpita, kun brtags). Seizing onto objects of fixation, and the one who fixates as real is the nature of inaccurate conceptual elaborations. This is like deceptively perceiving a rope as a snake. From material form all the way up to omniscience — to the fullest extent of what is possible — there are that many imaginative imputations to fixate on.

    What depends upon causes and conditions is the relational nature (paratantra, gzhan dbang). Although these appear in multiplicity, they are all merely inaccurate conceptual elaborations. Similarly, delusional projections are like the rope that is the premise for deceptively perceiving the snake. From form up to omniscience, karma and disturbing emotions generate conceptual elaborations.

    The unerring perfect nature (pariniṣpanna, yongs grub) is the naturally manifest ultimate actuality of phenomena that timelessly pervades the relational nature — like space pervading the rope-snake. This invariable perfect nature encompasses the two form dimensions of buddhahood, the factors of enlightenment, what is true along the path, and everything from the ultimate actuality of phenomenal form up to omniscience. On the relative level, this is devoid of the qualifying attributes imputed by the imaginary nature.

    Although classified as three natures without an inherent essence, if you analyze — since there are no fixations and there is nothing to fixate on besides the mind, only the phenomenal quality of the relational nature and the phenomenal actuality of the perfect nature are free from defilement. They are the identical ultimate actuality of phenomena that is spontaneous presence.

    In this way, the imaginary nature is devoid of an intrinsic essence, like a hare’s horns. The relational nature is devoid of the imaginary nature, like an illusion. The perfected nature is devoid of both the imaginary nature and the relational nature, like space.

    Distinctions between the imaginary and the relational are relative, not ultimate. The perfect actuality of phenomena is ultimate. This is the Great Madhyamaka: free from extremes without being in any way either identical of different in essence from the phenomenal quality of relative reality. [The colophon reads, “From a condensation of the threefold nature of reality. This is a teaching that un-taints the rust of dualistic perceptions. It is a lucid writing and a supreme instruction on splendid natural freedom.”]

  5. Witty LEON says:

    Thank you ! It’s a very clear explanation.

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