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Making Sense of Tantra

Alexander Berzin, 2002

Part II: Why Tantra Is More Efficient Than Sutra

7 Non-Gelug Variations Concerning General Tantra

Except for the following variations in assertions, the non-Gelug traditions of Tibetan Buddhism – Sakya, Kagyu, and Nyingma – agree with Gelug on the various reasons why general tantra is more efficient than sutra.

(1) Closer Analogies

Buddha-Nature and Positive Self-Images

The non-Gelug traditions agree with Gelug that transforming our self-images to those of Buddha-figures is not simply by the power of positive thinking. It derives from our Buddha-natures and on the fact that self-images are devoid of existing in impossible manners.

Most Sakya masters explain, as in Gelug, that our Buddha-natures contain all the potentials (nus-pa) for becoming enlightened. When Nyingma masters explain, on the other hand, that the factors of Buddha-nature are not merely potentials, but are complete within us (rdzogs-pa), they do not mean that we are already fully operational, omniscient, all-loving Buddhas. The Buddha-nature factors, such as the natures of our minds and their innate qualities of compassion and so on, are complete in the sense that we do not need to import or manufacture them. Nevertheless, fleeting stains prevent our access and realization of them in their fullest forms. Representing these factors by the self-images of Buddha-figures helps us to remove the mental obscurations (sgrib-pa, obstacles) that constitute these stains.

Moreover, all non-Gelug schools agree that a tantric transformation of self-image requires understanding that self-images are devoid of existing as phenomena whose manner of existence actually corresponds to the way that conceptual cognition of them makes them appear. On the most basic level, conceptual cognition makes self-images appear to exist with true existence. The non-Gelug traditions take true existence to mean true unimputed existence. This means existing by themselves, as phenomena arising unimputedly, separately from minds that cognitively give rise to and perceive them. In technical terms, as imputations, self-images refer to something (btags-chos), but what they refer to does not correspond to the unimputedly existent objects that the imputations conceptually imply (zhen-yul).

For example, the self-image of being an idiot refers to an idiot, as defined by social or personal convention. This is what it means. Nevertheless, there is no such thing as an absolute idiot – someone who is an idiot regardless of who is regarding him or her in that way. Thus, despite regarding ourselves as idiots, our self-images do not make us into absolute idiots, although our self-images have meaning. The same is true when we adopt the self-image of being Buddha-figures.

[For a more advanced discussion, see: Introductory Survey of Objects of Cognition: Gelug Presentation.]

Sakya View of Inseparable Samsara and Nirvana

The Sakya tradition provides a further explanation of why imagining ourselves as Buddha-figures is not distorted cognition. According to the Sakya view of inseparable samsara and nirvana (‘ khor-‘das dbyer-med), our energies vibrate and appear in multiple forms simultaneously, somewhat like subatomic particles vibrating simultaneously at multiple quantum levels. On one quantum level, we appear in the forms of our usual bodies; but on other levels, we simultaneously appear as Buddha-figures. The appearances that we or anyone else perceives of us depend on the minds that perceive them. So long as the minds that perceive them are not affected by superficial or deepest causes for deceptive or distorted appearance-making – such as astigmatism, autism, or grasping for true unimputed existence – the cognitions of the appearances of us as usual humans or as Buddha-figures are equally valid.

(2) Closer Union of Method and Wisdom

As with the Gelug presentation, method in non-Gelug general tantra is the appearances of ourselves as Buddha-figures and wisdom is the cognition of voidness with respect to those appearances. Many masters of the non-Gelug traditions, however, differentiate self-voidness (rang-stong) from other-voidness (gzhan-stong). Depending on how they define each and whether they accept as the ultimate view one, the other, or both, their assertions of the wisdom that is inseparable from method in tantra varies.

In general, self-voidness is an absence of a self-nature (rang-bzhin), referring to an absence of an impossible mode of existence. Other-voidness is a deep awareness (ye-shes) with an absence of, or devoid of other levels of mental activity. All agree that the voidness asserted by Gelug is a variety of self-voidness and that, although it has a certain level of validity, it is not the ultimate view.

In Terms of Self-Voidness

When voidness refers to self-voidness, the appearances and their self-voidness, as their mode of existence, are still two inseparable facts about the same phenomenon. Nevertheless, because many basic assertions here are different from those in Gelug, the explanations of the closer union of method and wisdom also vary.

According to Madhyamaka in general, there are two types of ultimate phenomena:

  • Denumerable ultimate phenomena (rnam-grangs-pa’i don-dam) are voidnesses that are validly cognized conceptually. They are “ denumerable” in the sense that they can be counted among what appears to minds validly cognizing phenomena through mentally labeling them with words and concepts.

  • Nondenumerable ultimate phenomena (rnam-grangs ma-yin-pa’i don-dam) are voidnesses that are validly cognized nonconceptually. They are “nondenumerable” in the sense that they cannot be counted among what appears to minds validly cognizing phenomena through mentally labeling them with words and concepts.

For ease of discussion, let us coin the terms denumerable voidness and nondenumerable voidness for these two.

Denumerable voidness is voidness as the nonimplicative negation (med-dgag, non-affirming negation) of true unimputed existence. In simpler terms, it is the absolute absence of true unimputed existence, because there is no such thing. Negation phenomena (dgag-pa), such as denumerable voidness are merely conceptual categories (spyi, universals), and, as such, can only be known conceptually.

Nondenumerable voidness is a voidness that does not fit into the solid categories implied by conceptualizations such as affirmations (sgrub-pa), negations, both, or neither. In this sense, such a voidness is “beyond all words and concepts.” Moreover, nondenumerable voidness is not merely a voidness that is beyond words and concepts. It is an inseparable voidness and appearance, both of which are beyond words and concepts.

All non-Gelug traditions accept that the ultimate (mthar-thug) manner in which everything exists is nondenumerable voidness. All things exist in a manner beyond words and concepts. The words and concepts for manners of existence – such as “with an affirmation of true existence,” “with a negation of true existence,” “with both,” or “ with neither” – conceptually imply (zhen-pa) that these manners actually exist as concrete categories, like separate boxes. This is impossible. They also conceptually imply that if the ultimate manner in which everything exists could be put into words and concepts, this manner of existence would be a concrete item that would fit into one of these solid boxes. This too is impossible. Valid nonconceptual cognition reveals that the ultimate manner of existence of everything does not fit into any conceptual box. Thus, the ultimate way in which everything exists is beyond a manner corresponding to what the words and concepts for them conceptually imply.

[See: Affirmations, Negations, and Denumerable and Nondenumerable Ultimate Phenomena.]

Two Non-Gelug Usages of the Term “Self-Voidness”

Among the non-Gelug schools, the usages of the term self-voidness regarding the two levels of deepest truth in the context of tantra fall into two camps.

  1. Nyingma and mainstream Sakya, for example the fifteenth-century master Gorampa (Go-ram bSod-nams seng-ge), tend to use “self-voidness” to mean only the ultimate manner of existence, nondenumerable voidness. They do not usually use the term to refer to the denumerable voidness of anything, its absolute absence of existing with true existence.

  1. Karma and Shangpa Kagyu, in their presentations of tantra, use “ self-voidness” exclusively for denumerable voidness. Although they accept that the manner of existence of everything is ultimately beyond words and concepts, they do not use the term self-voidness for this nondenumerable voidness. Note that here, we are limited ourselves to the Karma Kagyu and Shangpa Kagyu assertions of the Maha-Madhyamaka tradition, as its Madhyamaka view is the view of reality that pertains to the practice of tantra.

Relevant Assertions Unique to Non-Gelug

The non-Gelug traditions differ significantly from Gelug on five further points that are relevant for understanding their explanations of why method and wisdom are closer in general tantra than they are in sutra. Sakya, Kagyu, and Nyingma assert in common:

  1. Nondenumerable voidness, as a voidness beyond words and concepts, is beyond the four extreme modes of impossible existence that are the conceptually implied objects corresponding to the conceptualizations: (a) true existence, (b) an absolute absence of true existence, (c) both, or (d) neither. As with Gelug, an absolute absence of true existence, as a denumerable voidness, is an absolute absence of the four extremes of (a) eternalism (true existence), (b) nihilism (total nonexistence), (c) both, and (d) neither.

  1. Conceptual cognition, and only conceptual cognition, makes its object appear to exist in one of the four impossible manners that denumerable voidness is beyond. Nonconceptual cognition does not make its object appear in any of these ways.

  1. Denumerable voidness, as an absolute absence, can therefore be an object only of conceptual cognition, not of nonconceptual cognition.

  1. Nondenumerable voidness, as a mode of existence beyond words and concepts, can be an object only of nonconceptual cognition, not of conceptual cognition.

  1. “Wisdom” as discriminating awareness (shes-rab) of voidness cognizes only denumerable voidness. The “wisdom” of nondenumerable voidness is exclusively deep awareness (ye-shes).

Conceptual and Nonconceptual Unions of Method and Wisdom in Terms of Self-Voidness

In the Gelug tradition, the union of method and wisdom in general tantra entails the same method and wisdom whether the union is with conceptual or nonconceptual cognition. Moreover, the manner for combining the practice of method and wisdom is also the same on both levels. With sufficient strengthening of the enlightenment-building networks of positive force and deep awareness, a conceptual union leads to a nonconceptual one.

The non-Gelug traditions agree that a conceptual union of method and wisdom is prerequisite for achieving a nonconceptual one and that strengthening the two enlightenment-building networks brings the transition from one to the other. However, the wisdom factor differs in the conceptual and nonconceptual unions. On the conceptual level, wisdom is the discriminating awareness of denumerable voidness; on the nonconceptual level, it is the deep awareness of nondenumerable voidness. Consequently, the manner in which non-Gelug combines method and wisdom here is also different on the two levels.

Non-Gelug explains the union of method and wisdom in conceptual cognition in the same basic manner as Gelug does. Method and wisdom are each cognitively taken only within the context of the other, which means that each continues as a legacy when the other occurs. As in Gelug, such practice avoids the shortcomings of bodhichitta as method, since the manners of cognitively taking space-like and illusion-like denumerable voidness are not contradictory. They are equivalent.

In Gelug sutra and general tantra, the appearances of Buddha-figures that arise in conceptual and nonconceptual subsequent attainment cognition of voidness are the same. Both are appearances of what seem to be truly existent Buddha-figures. In non-Gelug, appearance-making of true existence (bden-snang) occurs only with conceptual cognition. In both the non-Gelug and Gelug systems, such appearances are unpurified appearances (ma-dag-pa’i snang-ba, impure appearances). The appearance-making factors (gsal-cha, clarity factor) of our mental continuums are not purified of the obscurations that cause production of such deceptive appearances.

According to non-Gelug, yogic nonconceptual cognition produces purified appearances (dag-pa’i snang-ba, pure appearances) – appearances produced by mental continuums temporarily purified of the obscurations giving rise to unpurified appearances.

Purified appearances are appearances that are beyond words and concepts. In other words, the manner of existence that yogic nonconceptual cognition produces an appearance of is a manner that is beyond the extremes of a presence or absence of true existence, both, or neither. This is because deep awareness of nondenumerable voidness accompanies yogic nonconceptual cognition. We understand nonconceptually the purified manner of existence that appears.

[For a more advanced discussion, see: Divisions, Causes, and Elimination of Unpurified Appearance-Making According to Non-Gelug.]

Thus, yogic nonconceptual cognition of the nondenumerable voidness of a Buddha-figure gives rise to the purified appearance of the Buddha-figure simultaneously with the deep awareness of how it exists. In this manner, yogic nonconceptual cognition here combines method and wisdom in the same moment of cognition.

During total absorption cognition, however, nondenumerable self-voidness is more prominent; while during subsequent attainment cognition, the appearance of the Buddha-figure is more prominent. Equal prominence of both occurs only in a Buddha’s omniscient awareness. Nevertheless, total absorption and subsequent attainment here have only one manner of cognitively taking their objects – namely, as that which is beyond all words and concepts.

In Terms of Other-Voidness

Some non-Gelug masters assert that the voidness that is beyond words and concepts is also a cognitive state. They call this “other-voidness” (gzhan-stong), because it is a cognitive state devoid of other levels of mind, namely the levels of mind at which conceptual cognition occurs.

There are two main traditions.

  1. When non-Gelug masters use self-voidness to refer to the ontological state beyond words and concepts, as for instance in Nyingma, they accept other-voidness in addition to self-voidness.

  2. When they use self-voidness exclusively in the sense of an absolute absence, as for instance in Karma and Shangpa Kagyu, they assert other-voidness as also being beyond self-voidness. Implicit, however, is that other-voidness still exists in a manner that is beyond words and concepts.

Inseparable from and simultaneous with other-voidness are the pure appearances of Buddha-figures. These pure appearances are the “play” (rol-pa) or “effulgence” (rtsal) of other-voidness, in the sense that the cognitive state of other-voidness spontaneously gives rise to them. Other-voidness is naturally pure of unpurified appearance-making. The obscurations that cause deceptive appearance-making are fleeting and only temporarily prevent other-voidness from its natural pure appearance-making. Purification of these obscurations does not create the production of pure appearances. The purification process is not like building a machine. Because of this manner of presentation, it is more accurate to speak of pure appearances rather than purified appearances in the context of other-voidness.

[For a more advanced discussion, see: Alaya and Impure Appearance-Making.]

Concordant with the non-Gelug assertion of nondenumerable self-voidness as the manner of existence beyond words and concepts, the nonconceptual cognition of other-voidness directly and simultaneously cognizes inseparable other-voidness and pure appearances. During total absorption, the former is prominent; while during subsequent attainment, the latter is prominent. The cognition has only one way of taking its object – as the cognitive state beyond all words and concepts.

[For a more advanced discussion, see: The Union of Method and Wisdom in Sutra and Tantra: Gelug and Non-Gelug Presentations.]

(3) Special Basis for Voidness

Buddha-Figures as Less Deceptive

Gelug is unique in asserting that conceptual and nonconceptual cognition both give rise to appearances of true existence (bden-snang), except when nonconceptually cognizing voidness: an absolute absence of true existence. The non-Gelug traditions assert that only conceptual cognition gives rise to appearances of true existence. These may be appearances of any of the four extremes of eternalism, nihilism, both, or neither.

Sensory and mental nonconceptual cognitions do not fabricate and project (spros-pa) an appearance of its object as truly existent in any of these ways. It produces an appearance of its object as not truly existent (med-snang). Such an appearance, however, is still an unpurified one.

Except during yogic nonconceptual cognition of nondenumerable voidness when the process of ridding ourselves forever (spang-ba, abandoning) from unawareness begins, unawareness (ma-rig-pa, ignorance) accompanies all moments of conceptual and nonconceptual cognition. Unawareness may be of cause and effect or of the manner in which something exists. Let us speak here only of the latter.

In general, unawareness is a way of cognitively relating (shes-pa) to a cognitive object (yul). It is of two varieties. While focusing on and cognizing an object,

  1. it may simply not know how it exists (mi-shes-pa), or

  2. it may, in addition, simultaneously take it to exist in a manner contradictory to deepest truth (phyin-ci log-tu ‘dzin-pa).

Sensory nonconceptual cognition occurs for only one-sixtieth of a second. In the case of visual cognition, it perceives only shapes and colors. The shapes and colors it cognizes exist as not truly “this”s or “that”s. The unawareness of not knowing how they exist accompany the nonconceptual cognition of them.

Conceptual cognition immediately follows, fabricating and projecting appearances of the shapes and colors as objects with truly existent identities as “this”s or “that”s , for instance as our ordinary bodies. It simultaneously takes them in a contradictory manner, as actually being truly existent objects with truly existent identities.

Because nonconceptual sensory cognition occurs so quickly, we are normally unaware of it. Our usual cognition of our ordinary bodies, then, is conceptual, despite our misbelief that we are actually “seeing” what our conceptual minds make appear. Thus, cognition of our ordinary bodies usually entails disturbing emotions and attitudes toward them, which can infect our focus on their voidness. Even if we are able to maintain nonconceptual sensory cognition, we remain unaware of how what we perceive actually exists.

Focus on the voidness of our appearances as Buddha-figures, already generated with an understanding of their voidness, minimizes the danger of infection from disturbing emotions and attitudes or from unawareness. Therefore, it is less deceptive. This is the case whether our cognition of their voidness is conceptual or nonconceptual.

[For a more advanced discussion, see: Fine Analysis of Objects of Cognition: Non-Gelug Presentation. See also: Divisions, Causes, and Elimination of Unpurified Appearances According to Non-Gelug.]

Buddha-Figures as More Stable

The non-Gelug systems do not use the Gelug term so-called static nonstatic phenomena. Instead, they often use unaffected phenomena (‘ dus ma-byas, unconditioned) or everlasting phenomena (rtag-pa, permanent) with the same meaning. The appearances of Buddha-figures are more stable objects for focus in voidness meditation than the appearances of our ordinary bodies are, because they are unaffected by aging, hunger, or aches and pains and because they last forever.

Buddha-Figures as More Subtle

When we see our ordinary bodies, we focus on the shapes and colors that our nonconceptual sensory cognition gives rise to. Almost immediately, however, we cognize the shapes and colors through the filter of an appearance of a truly existent body that our conceptual cognition fabricates and superimposes on them. Although what we perceive is conceptual, we believe that we are actually “seeing” what appears to us.

Because we generate the unpurified appearances of ourselves as Buddha-figures from our conceptual minds, we know more easily that they lack the true existence with which they appear to us.

Further, because purified appearances of ourselves as Buddha-figures arise simultaneously with cognition of their voidness that is beyond words and concepts, they never appear to exist with true existence. Moreover, they never appear to exist separately from either their voidness or the mind that gives rise to them. Although the same is true regarding the purified appearances of ourselves in our ordinary human forms, such forms do not become the physical bodies of a Buddha once we remove all fleeting stains or obscurations.

(4) Special Level of Mental Activity

The Sakya and Kagyu traditions assert the same basic scheme of three levels of mental activity as Gelug does. Nyingma, on the other hand, differentiates two levels of mental activity:

  1. limited awareness (sems, “sem”),

  2. pure awareness (rig-pa, “rigpa”).

Limited awareness includes the first two general anuttarayoga categories. Thus, not only are sensory and ordinary mental cognitions limited awareness, but so are yogic nonconceptual cognitions. Rigpa, on the other hand, in its various facets, encompasses the clear-light level. Let us keep to the classification scheme of general anuttarayoga and use merely the term clear-light mind for the subtlest level of mental activity.

The non-Gelug traditions agree with Gelug that only anuttarayoga tantra uses the subtlest level of mental activity, clear-light mind, for cognizing voidness. Bodhisattva sutra and the three lower tantra classes employ yogic nonconceptual cognition, a type of subtle mental activity, not subtlest. Thus, tantra includes a special level of mental activity for cognizing voidness, but not all classes of tantra employ it.

Concluding Points Concerning Voidness in Sutra and Tantra

The non-Gelug traditions differentiate the two stages of each of the four classes of tantra in terms of whether the practice is without or with cognition of voidness. The first stage of each lacks the cognition, while the second has it.

The meaning here is that with the first stage of each, practitioners have only cognition of denumerable voidness. With the second stage, they gain cognition of nondenumerable voidness as an ontological state (self-voidness), a cognitive state (other-voidness), or both. This is because the first stage has only conceptual cognition of voidness, while the second brings nonconceptual cognition of it.

Even if we conceptually understand nondenumerable voidness beyond words and concepts, we can only focus on it at the first stage of practice through a conceptual category representing it, which cannot be an accurate idea at all. In most cases, it would be, in fact, a mental representation of an absence of words and concepts.