“…inherent existence is the kind of existence that things do not have. Things actually lack inherent existence, because they exist as dependent arisings. ~ Greg Goode

In Part 6, Greg continues his overview of emptiness by exploring Inherent Existence and its relationship with emptiness and dependent arising. If you need to read the earlier parts of Greg’s series, here’s Part 1Part 2Part 3,  Part 4, and Part 5.

Inherent Existence

Inherent existence is the kind of existence we uncritically think things have, existing under their own power, without help from anything else. Our sense that things exist in this way is the root of our suffering, according to the Buddhist teachings. We have a sense of this inherence partly due to how we think of language. We think that words are labels pointing straight to pre-formatted, already-individuated things in the world outside of language or cognition. This tendency to feel inherence can even be intensified if we follow essentialist philosophies such as Platonism or materialist realism, which hold that things exist according to their own essential nature, independent of anything else. Our natural tendency to feel this inherence is the root of suffering, according to the emptiness teachings. Actually, being able to locate and isolate this sense of inherent existence in yourself is good news. The more clearly you can grasp the sense of inherent existence, the more powerfully you will be able to realize emptiness when you do your meditations.

What does the sense of inherent existence feel like? We will say much more about this later, but briefly, it feels like something is really there, just like that, being what it really is. You’ve had a very definite sense of inherent existence if you’ve ever wondered whether something or someone has been given the “correct” name! Or could it perhaps have been given the wrong name??

According to the emptiness teachings, inherent existence is the kind of existence that things do not have. Things actually lack inherent existence, because they exist as dependent arisings. This dependency is the lack of inherent existence which, in turn, is their emptiness.

emptiness, inherent existence

The relation between inherent existence, emptiness and dependent arising can be seen through the translation of the Sanskrit or Pali terms for depending arising: pratītyasamutpāda (Sanskrit) or paticcasamuppāda (Pali). The Sanskrit components are individually translated as follows:

       Pratītya = Meeting, Relying or Depending   +

       Samut = Out of   +

       Pad = To go, to fall

Notice the three English terms for Pratītya: Meeting, Relying and Depending. These have been given three different kinds of meanings by the consequentialist writers (see H.H. the Dalai Lama, 2000, pp. 35ff in References (provided in Part 4),  so as to cover all the variations of dependent arising. These kinds of dependence are explained as follows:

  • MEETING – The coming together of causes and conditions in time. In Western philosophical terms, this might be referred to as causal dependency. The cessation of cause comes into contact with the onset of effect within a network of supporting conditions. Examples would include one billiard ball striking another, or the sperm and ovum coming into contact at human conception. Because of uncritically thinking that things and people exist inherently, we can sometimes be surprised by the effects of the “Meeting”-style dependent arising. An example would be the surprise at the aging process if we see someone for the first time after a long absence. This is the least subtle of the three types of dependent arising.

  • RELYING – The way a thing depends on its pieces and parts. In Western philosophical terms, this might be referred to as mereological dependency. The pieces and parts of an object are sometimes called its “basis of designation.” According to the emptiness teachings, we would see roots, a stalk, branches and leaves, and based on this, designate the object as a “tree.” These various parts are the tree’s basis of designation. Being a tree is dependent upon the basis of designation.
    The tree cannot be said to exist if its basis of designation did not exist. For example, if you have a car in the parking lot over a long period of time, and vandals come and steal pieces here and there over several months, there will come a certain point at which there won’t be enough parts for you to call it a car. This is how the car depends upon its pieces and parts, or its basis of designation. Even though this seems reasonable if we think about it like this, it’s never nevertheless easy to think that the true car exists in a way apart from the basis of designation, as though there were a “true car” that existed in an ideal realm of some sort. This sense that the car exists without depending on its basis of designation is the sense of the inherent existence of the car. This is more subtle than “Meeting”-style dependence.
  • DEPENDING – The way a thing depends on being designated by convention, language or cognition. In Western philosophical terms, this might be referred to as conceptual dependency. Did Mount Everest exist before it was named? Did sub-atomic particles exist as such before they were ever thought of? Would a “rose by any other name” still be a rose? We look at the shape, size and structure of a natural formation of the earth, and call it a “mountain.” According to the Consequentialist emptiness teachings, we would say that the basis of designation (formations of earth) existed, but the “mountain” as such did not exist until it was designated by the process of convention and cognition. According to emptiness teachings, it makes no sense to say that something exists if it was never designated or cognized. Nevertheless, it seems to us that things are always there regardless of cognition, and that cognition is a process of mere neutral discovery of what was pre-formed and present all along. This feeling of independence from designation or pre-formed existence is not only an easy feeling to get hold of, it might even seem like common sense to most people. This is another kind of sense of the inherent existence of things. But the emptiness teachings question this. This critique, this “Depending”-style of dependency (as opposed to the “Meeting” and “Relying” types of dependency) will be familiar to those who have studied Advaita-Vedanta, Mind-Only Buddhist teachings, or the philosophy of Idealism. The emptiness teachings are not themselves a form of Vedanta or idealism (because emptiness teachings posit that physical objects do exist externally and physically), but they agree with the views which hold that uncognized objects do not exist. This is the most subtle of the three types of dependent arising.

According to Buddhism, anything that exists exists conventionally, through the network of dependent arisings, that is through Meeting, Relying or Depending. Even emptiness exists in this way. But we think and feel that things exist without these dependencies. For something to inherently exist, it would have to exist without any dependencies at all. It would exist without Meeting, Relying or Depending. It is the job of emptiness meditation to find inherent existence, to ascertain whether it exists as we feel it does.

meditation, emptinessOther terms for inherent existence, gathered from Buddhist and Western sources, would include the following:

      • the reality of the thing irrespective of culture or language or human consciousness
      • objective existence
      • independent existence
      • true essence
      • Platonic essence
      • real existence
      • ontological existence
      • the thing as it really is
      • the thing in-itself
      • the is-ness of the thing
      • beingness
      • actuality
      • thinghood
      • perseity
      • self-sufficient being
      • self-inclusive being
      • essential being
      • instantiation in reality
      • subject of ontological commitment
      • the thing’s entitification
      • the way it really is, regardless of what anyone thinks
      • the reality of the thing as opposed to its appearance
      • what science will eventually discover the thing to be
      • the way God intends the thing to be
      • “it is what it is”
      • “it’s like that, and that’s the way it is” (as the rappers Run DMC used to say)

— — —

In Part 7 of this 10-part series …  Greg will cover “Compassion and Emptiness” and “How to Realize Emptiness” … so stay tuned …

Click here for Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, and Part 5 of this series.


We are honored to publish this guest post series authored by Greg Goode and is sourced from his website. Greg is one of the teachers in Stillness Speaks library so please visit his teacher’s page for comprehensive information about his work.

Images: (all edited and logo added) 1) Fading away by Alosh Bennett, CC by 2.0 Generic, 2) Untitled Emptiness by AWA, CC by-SA 2.0, 3) Human gametes, by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann, CC by 2.0 Generic,  4) Tree by Taras Kalapan, CC by 2.0 Generic, 5) Absolute Emptiness by Hakan Dahlstrom, CC by 2.0 Generic.

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