It seems we need to go through the logical deconstruction of “existence” repeatedly to help us really get emptiness. This adaptation from How to Realize Emptiness by Gen Lamrimpa takes us through some of the arguments with exceptional clarity.
The Buddha said: “That which the world asserts to be existent, I too assert to be existent, and that which the world asserts to be nonexistent, I too assert to be nonexistent.” Thus, the assertion entails a conventional agreement. Such a process of agreement, or in fact the very term of “designation” or “imputation,” implicitly denies inherent existence.
The Madhyamaka position is not simply that phenomena are conceptually designated, but that they are merely conceptual designations, and the implication of the term “merely” (Tib. tsam) in this context is that phenomena have no real existence apart from the process of conceptual designation. Nevertheless, doesn’t it seem that things still appear to the mind, whether or not we designate them? Don’t phenomena seem to have some kind of power in and of themselves? Isn’t it simply counterintuitive to say that things are merely conceptual designations? So on what grounds is this assertion made?
In fact, to establish the existence of any phenomenon, we do need a basis of designation. A sprout, for example, is not merely a conceptual designation in the sense of being a figment of our imaginations. If things were merely conceptual designations, then we could say fire is water, just by choosing to designate it as such.
Within a specific linguistic context, the labels must not be mixed up and everything that is identified must be labeled. If there is no label, then one will not be able to establish the functions of the unlabeled entities. Imagine one person who knows eighteen languages: he knows eighteen different labels for each thing, and he participates in eighteen conventional agreements, and by this participatory agreement is able to establish all of those things in any of these languages. Other people who do not know so many languages don’t know all the terms that he does. Nevertheless, they too have designated the objects in their own way. The people and the linguist are alike insofar as he has conceptually designated the objects and they too have conceptually designated them. Our ability to establish a function, or an activity, of a certain object or entity comes purely from the power of conventional agreement. It does not come from the object’s own side.
If you ask, “Is this a hand?” then the very clear accurate answer would be, “This is called a hand.” If you counter this by saying: “Isn’t this a hand?” then the realistic answer would be, “This is the basis of designation of a hand.” Such a response is equally applicable to everything else. If you think or say about everything, “This is called this, this is called that,” then by doing so, you mute the suggestion of inherent existence. We can call this a hand, and we can also say that it is the object designated on the basis of designation of a hand. We can also say that it is a basis of designation of a hand. In dependence upon this basis of designation we can impute many things: we can impute upon this the impermanence of the hand, the knowable objects of the hand, or many things that are synonymous with those knowable objects. For instance, if we are concerned with the outside we can designate skin, while if we are concerned with the inside, we can designate veins or arteries or bones, and so forth. What we have here is simply a whole collection of stuff.
In Madhyamaka teachings we encounter the statements that phenomena are “originally pure” of inherent existence (Tib. gdod ma nas zhi ba), “naturally liberated,” (Tib. rang bzhin gyis mya ngan las ’das pa), and “naturally unestablished in reality” (Tib. Rang bzhin gyis ma grub pa). Whether we want to say that things are pleasant or unpleasant, they are merely imputed as such. For example, if there is some disease in your hand, and you subject that disease to Madhyamaka analysis, then it cannot be found to exist from its own side any more than your hand can. It seems that in the process of conceptual designation we are really loading attributes onto things, which do not belong there by themselves. It is as though we are forcing things upon objects, and by using a hundred different languages to do so, we are overburdening them with all these designations and imputations. So if we ask, “How does a certain phenomenon exist?” the answer is that it is established by the power of consent. It thus seems that when something is conceptually designated, it is there, whereas if it is not conceptually designated, it is not there.