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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 4: Deepening the Understanding of the Path > The Gelug Prasangika Presentation of the Two Sets of Obscurations

The Gelug Prasangika Presentation of the Two Sets of Obscurations

Alexander Berzin, April 2012

There are two major sets of obscuration (sgrib-gnyis; two mental obstacles):

  • emotional obscurations (nyon-sgrib, Skt. kleshavarana), which prevent liberation,
  • cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib, Skt. jneyavarana), which prevent omniscience.

According to the Gelug Prasangika assertions, emotional obscurations preventing liberation refer to all disturbing emotions and attitudes (afflictive emotions) as well as to grasping for the truly established existence (bden-'dzin; grasping for true existence) of all phenomena. Both of these are ways of being aware of something. Also included among the emotional obscurations are the tendencies (sa-bon, Skt. bija) of the disturbing emotions and attitudes, and the tendencies of grasping for truly established existence.

The literal translation of the term translated here as “tendencies” is “seeds.” These refer to traces of disturbing emotions and grasping left on the mental continuum with the ceasing of a moment of disturbing emotion or attitude or the ceasing of a moment of grasping for truly established existence. These traces act as a source for the continuity of disturbing emotions and attitudes and the continuity of grasping for truly established existence.

According to an oral explanation given by Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche (mTshan-zhabs Ser-kong Rin-po-che), just as a rice seed is a grain of rice that can give rise to future crops of rice if it meets with the proper conditions, so too the tendencies of disturbing emotions and attitudes and the tendencies of grasping for truly established existence are themselves disturbing emotions or attitudes and this type of grasping. He based his explanation on his understanding of Tsongkhapa’s Essence of Excellent Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings (Drang-nges legs-bshad snying-po).

The tendencies of these delusions are not the same as the constant habits (bag-chags, Skt. vasana; instincts) from and for them. The term "constant habit" is synonymous with the terms "habit" (goms) and "root" (rtsa-ba). According to Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche’s explanation, the difference between a tendency and a constant habit is like the difference between a seed of rice and the root of a rice plant. A seed from a rice plant is still a grain of rice, while the root of a rice plant is not rice. Similarly, the tendencies of disturbing emotions and attitudes and of grasping for truly established existence are still ways of being aware of something, while the constant habits of and for them are noncongruent affecting variables (affecting variables that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something). The more usual Gelug Prasangika assertion is that both tendencies and constant habits are noncongruent affecting variables: neither is a way of being aware of something.

Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche’s explanation and the main-stream Gelug Prasangika view both agree, however, that cognitive obscurations preventing omniscience have no common locus (gzhi-mthun, common denominator) with phenomena that are ways of being aware of something. There is no phenomenon that is both this more subtle type of obscuration and a way of being aware of something. This second set of obscuration includes the constant habits for the disturbing emotions and attitudes and the constant habits of grasping for truly established existence.

The main difference between the tendencies and the constant habits of the disturbing emotions and attitudes is as follows. The tendencies have the ability (nus-pa, potential) to give rise to further instances of disturbing emotions and attitudes, but only occasionally, not continuously. For example, we are not angry all the time, only occasionally. The constant habits lack the ability to give rise to further instances of the disturbing emotions and attitudes. Rather, they function as a circumstance supporting the “lack of clarity” (gsal-ba med-pa) of the mental continuum on which they are imputed; and they do this continuously, not just occasionally. In this context, “lack of clarity” means the inability of the mental continuum to give rise simultaneously to the two truths of anything, namely the superficial truth (conventional truth, relative truth) of its appearance and the deepest truth (ultimate truth) of its voidness of truly established existence.

Unlike the tendencies of the disturbing emotions and attitudes, the tendencies of grasping for truly established existence have the ability to give rise continuously to further instances of, in this case, grasping for truly established existence, and not just occasionally. The constant habits of grasping for truly established existence, on the other hand, continuously give rise to the appearances of truly established existence. With grasping, one believes that the appearances of truly established existence correspond to the way in which everything actually exists.

According to some explanations, so long as the emotional obscurations have not been gotten rid of, one facet of the constant habits of grasping for truly established existence also continuously gives rise to this grasping. This facet of these constant habits is equivalent to the tendencies of grasping for truly established existence. Once the emotional obscurations have been eliminated, however, the constant habits of grasping for truly established existence no longer have this facet. The constant habits now give rise continuously only to appearances of truly established existence and no longer to any grasping for truly established existence.

In the Gelug Prasangika system, “appearances of truly established existence” (bden-snang), “dualistic appearances” (gnyis-snang) and “deceptive appearances” (‘khrul-snang) are synonymous. Appearances of truly established existence are “dualistic” in the sense that the manner in which they appear to exist is other than the manner in which they actually do exist. Their manner of appearing (snang-tshul) is as if with truly established existence; whereas their manner of abiding (gnas-tshul) is as devoid of truly established existence. Thus, the appearance of truly established existence and the voidness (the total absence) of truly established existence are “dual” in the sense that they are two mutually exclusive phenomena: in one moment of cognition on a mental continuum, the presence and absence of appearances of truly established existence cannot simultaneously occur. Dualistic appearances, then, are “deceptive” in the sense that, to a mind having cognitive obscurations imputable on it, these appearances of truly established existence seem to correspond to the way in which everything actually does exist, whereas in fact they are the exact opposite. They do not correspond at all.

The constant habits of grasping for truly established existence (specifically, the facet of them that continuously gives rise to appearances of truly established existence) are synonymous with the “constant habits of the deception of dualistic appearance-making” (gnyis-snang 'khrul-pa’i bag-chags). The equivalency of these two terms is based on the fact that the constant habits of grasping for truly established existence also have a “deception-causing facet from dualistic appearance-making” (gnyis-snang-gi 'khrul-cha). This is the facet responsible for the fact that a mental continuum with cognitive obscurations imputable on it cannot give rise to the two truths of anything simultaneously: the superficial truth of its appearance, whether accurate or distorted, and the deepest truth of its mode of existence. Let us examine this point more closely.

The superficial truth of any phenomenon entails both the appearance of what it is and the appearance of how it exists. Either of these two aspects may be accurate or distorted. The distorted appearance of the manner of existence of any phenomenon is an appearance of it as if with truly established existence; an accurate appearance of its manner of existence is an appearance of it as a dependently arising phenomenon, totally devoid of truly established existence.

The only superficial truth of how some phenomenon appears to exist that a mental continuum with cognitive obscurations can give rise to is a distorted superficial truth, namely an appearance of that phenomenon as if with truly established existence. Therefore, when such a mental continuum is focused nonconceptually on the deepest truth of that phenomenon, i.e. its voidness, it cannot simultaneously focus on either the distorted or the accurate superficial truth of how it appears to exist. This is because:

  • focus on an absence of truly established existence renders impossible simultaneous focus on the presence of the distorted appearance of truly established existence,
  • the deception-causing facet of the constant habit of grasping for truly established existence prevents the arising of the accurate superficial truth of the appearance of how something exists.

In short, except when nonconceptually focused on voidness, all wandering beings cognize only dualistic, deceptive appearances of truly established existence, and continuously react to them with grasping for this impossible mode of existence and with disturbing emotions and attitudes. This causes them to wander through samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

Arhats, whose minds are still limited, can still perceive only the distorted appearances of truly established existence when they cognize the superficial truth of how things exist. This is because they have not yet rid their mental continuums of the cognitive obscurations. Yet, because they have eliminated forever all their emotional obscurations, they are not deceived by the deceptive appearances they perceive. This is because they do not grasp for these distorted appearances of how things exist to correspond to how they actually exist.

Buddhas, however, do not even experience distorted appearances of truly established existence arising in their mental continuums. This is because they have rid themselves forever of the cognitive obscurations as well as the emotional ones. Without any limitations or obscurations, they simultaneously cognize, nonconceptually, both the accurate superficial truths of everything and their deepest truths. Because the accurate superficial truths of how everything exists is as dependently arising phenomena, then nothing appears to a Buddha as if it were self-established independently of everything else. Thus, because, in cognizing voidness, a Buddha simultaneously cognizes the interconnectedness of everything, a Buddha is omniscient. In other words, a Buddha is fully aware of the accurate appearance of the total extent of what exists (ji-snyed-pa), while simultaneously cognizing the way in which everything exists (ji-lta-ba), namely with a total absence of truly established existence.

There are further sets of obscurations, such as those of the Hinayanists (dman-sgrib; obstacles of inferior purpose), those that come from karma (las-sgrib, Skt. karmavarana; karmic obstacles), and those to meditative attainments (snyoms-'jug-gi sgrib-pa, snyoms-sgrib). These are not necessarily to be included in the categories of the emotional or cognitive obscurations; however, all are gotten rid of by the time Buddhahood is attained.

[For further detail, see: The Distinction between Tendencies and Habits Included in the Two Sets of Obscuration, According to Gelug.]