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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 5: Analysis of the Mind and Reality > The Gelug Chittamatra Assertion of No External Phenomena

The Gelug Chittamatra Assertion of No External Phenomena

Alexander Berzin
June, 2002, revised May 2006
based on explanations received from Serkong Rinpoche and Geshe Dawa

[As background, see: Basic Features of the Gelug Chittamatra System. See also: Relationships between Two Objects in General.]

General Presentation

The Chittamatra (sems-tsam, Mind-Only) tenet system asserts that there are no such things as external phenomena (phyi-don). Let us examine the way in which the Gelug tradition understands this central point of the Chittamatra system.

External phenomena are nonstatic (impermanent) phenomena that arise from different natal sources (rdzas) than the valid cognitions of them. One of the subtle lacks of impossible soul of phenomena (chos-kyi bdag-med phra-mo, subtle identitylessness of phenomena, subtle selflessness of phenomena) is the voidness of forms of physical phenomena, and the valid cognitions that take these forms of physical phenomena as their cognitive objects, deriving from different natal sources (gzugs-dang gzugs-’dzin-pa’i tshad-ma rdzas-gzhan-gyis stong-pa).

Chittamatra, however, does not deny the existence of forms of physical phenomena. After all, as dependent phenomena (gzhan-dbang, other-powered phenomena), they are devoid of existing in the manner of nonexistent totally conceptional phenomena (kun-brtags, totally imaginary phenomena). In other words, they do not exist as nonexistent items to be nullified (dgag-bya, objects to be refuted) that cannot be validly cognized. Forms of physical phenomena can be validly known. As nonstatic phenomena, they arise from causes and conditions, perform functions, and produce effects.

Moreover, Gelug Chittamatra asserts that not only are sensibilia forms of physical phenomena, but so are commonsense objects (‘jig-rten la-grags-pa). Sensibilia include the most basic data cognized by sensory cognition: namely, colored shapes, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical sensations. Commonsense objects are items such as clay pots, tables, oranges, and human bodies.

The Gelug tradition, while acknowledging that there is a False Aspectarian (rnam brdzun-pa) interpretation of Chittamatra, favors the True Aspectarian (rnam bden-pa) presentation. According to this presentation, whatever appears grossly to valid sensory cognition is established as existing as how it appears (snang-ba ltar-du grub-pa). Thus, in a valid nonconceptual visual cognition, the appearance of colored shapes pervading areas of pixels (particles) and the appearance of commonsense objects exist as they appear. These appearances are not merely interpolations onto the appearance-making (gsal, clarity) aspect of mind, which is beyond the duality of objects and consciousnesses of them.

Further, all these forms of physical phenomena – pixels, colored shapes, and commonsense objects – have existence established by their own self-natures, truly established existence, existence established as ultimate phenomena, and existence established by their individual defining characteristic marks.

  • Existence established by something’s self-nature (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa, findably established existence, inherent existence) is defined as existence established by the fact that when one searches for the referent object of the imputation of something (btags-don), that referent object is findable. The referent object is findable on the side of that object.

  • Truly existent (bden-par grub-pa) is defined as existence established as an ultimate phenomenon (don-dam-par grub-pa).

  • Existence established as an ultimate phenomena is defined as existence established by something’s individual defining characteristic mark. Ultimate phenomena are those phenomena that appear to an arya’s total absorption (‘phags-pa’i mnyam-bzhag, an arya’s meditative equipoise) on the four noble truths.

  • Existence established by individual defining characteristic marks is defined as existence established from the side of something’s own unshared way of abiding (mthun-mong ma-yin-pa’i sdod-lugs) as a cognitive object that is not merely imputable by a conceptual cognition.

Because of the instincts of unawareness (ma-rig-pa’i bag-chags, habits of ignorance) of the lack of an impossible soul of phenomena, forms of physical phenomena appear to exist externally. However, this deceptive appearance (‘khrul-shes) is like an illusion (sgyu-ma lta-bu). They are devoid of existing in this impossible way.

 

If forms of physical phenomena existed externally, they would need to exist independently of the phenomena of validly experiencing them nonconceptually. Moreover, they would need to exist before the valid cognitions of them, so that they could function as the focal conditions (dmigs-rkyen) for the valid cognitions of them. This would be like the model suggested by Biblical creation. First, there was heaven and earth – external objects – and then man, implying mind, experiencing them. Western science has a parallel view. First, the universe came into existence and, later, life evolved to experience it. Buddhism, on the other hand, asserts that both the universe and mind (mental activity) are beginningless and endless, and therefore there have never been external objects existing independently of mind. Even to speak about or think about such objects as existing when they are not cognized is still cognizing them.

Thus, in the presentation of how things exist, Chittamatra does not speak about how, for instance, a clay pot itself exists, but how the visual form of one exists in the context of a moment of validly seeing it. In fact, there is no such thing as a clay pot itself, existing independently of and outside the context of:

  • the valid seeing of the visual form of one,

  • the valid hearing of the sound of one being tapped,

  • the valid feeling of the physical sensation of one in our hands,

  • the valid thinking about or the valid recalling of any of those three through a mental representation of it, or

  • the valid talking or writing about one through a verbal representation (a word) for one.

Common Locuses and Categories

When we validly see the clay pot, the visual form of the clay pot that we see does not exist separately from the visual consciousness to which it appears. Moreover, the visual form is unique to that moment of cognition. For instance, when we validly see the visual form of the clay pot on the table, that visual form does not exist identically with the visual form of the clay pot on the table that someone else validly sees from the other side of the room. Nor does it exist later in the valid visual cognition of the clay pot on the floor. This is because Chittamatra asserts that forms of physical phenomena exist by their self-establishing natures. Such existence means that the referent object of the imputation of the clay pot is findable, but findable only in the context of the valid cognition of the clay pot. Therefore, the findable existence of the clay pot in exactly that same position, angle, age, state of cleanliness, and so on is only in the context of the specific mind validly cognizing it at that moment, and none other.

Nevertheless, according to Tsongkhapa’s interpretation of Chittamatra during the earlier part of his life, there is conventionally (tha-snyad-du) a common locus (gzhi-mthun) clay pot involved when several people all validly see a clay pot at the same time, but each from a different angle and distance. Ultimately, however, there is no common locus clay pot. A common locus clay pot could not be an object cognized by an arya’s total absorption.

 

In his later writings on Chittamatra, Tsongkhapa interprets Chittamatra as asserting that there is no common locus clay pot even conventionally existent. This is the generally accepted Gelug Chittamatra view. When several people validly see a clay pot at the same time, each person is experiencing the ripening of tendencies (sa-bon, seeds) of collective karma on his or her own mental continuum. It is not that each person is validly seeing a common locus clay pot. Nevertheless, the clay pot is findable – everyone can point to one, in terms of what each person validly sees. In fact, when all of them are asked to point to a clay pot that they see on a table, for instance, each will validly see all the others pointing to the same clay pot that he or she validly sees there.

Note that a common locus clay pot is not the same as a meaning/object category (don-spyi, meaningful idea) of what the expression clay pot signifies. The expression clay pot signifies a category of phenomena (individual clay pots) and means that category. The category clay pot, then, is a category for classifying physical objects into a set and for classifying the meaning of the expression clay pot into a set, no matter who says those words.

All Tibetan interpretations of Chittamatra accept that a meaning/object category of what the expression clay pot signifies is imputable on the basis of everyone’s simultaneous valid cognition of a clay pot there, but from different angles and distances. Like all totally conceptional phenomena, however, such a category does not have existence established by an individual defining characteristic mark, independently of it being merely imputable by a conceptual cognition.

Moreover, the clay pot is devoid of having existence established by individual defining characteristic marks on its own side as foundations on which affix the sound of the words clay pot (bum-pa bum-pa-zhes-pa’i sgra rang-gi ‘jog-gzhir rang-gi mtshan-nyid-kyis grub-pas stong-pa). The clay pot that we see has an individual defining characteristic mark findable on its own side that makes this physical object an individual validly knowable object, independently of the object being merely imputable by a conceptual cognition of it. However, it lacks any individual defining characteristic marks findable on its own side that – either by themselves alone or in conjunction with a conceptual cognition of it with a mental label – make it into a “clay pot,” “ein Topf,” a “bum-pa,” or even that make it “beautiful,” “ugly,” “large,” or “small.”

Natal Sources

According to Chittamatra, in the valid visual cognition of the visual form (sight) of a clay pot, the visual form and the visual consciousness seeing it come from or share the same natal source – a karmic tendency. They arise simultaneously from it as parts of a single cognition, without coming from different natal sources. It is not that first the sight exists and then the consciousness sees it.

  • Within the True Aspectarian presentation of Chittamatra, this assertion of a single visual form composed of variegated colored shapes being cognized by a single visual cognition of the entire form is the explanation of the Proponents of Non-Dual Diversity (sna-tshogs gnyis-med-pa) division.

The natal source of something is what gives rise to it. For example, a potter’s wheel is the natal source of a clay pot, an oven is the natal source of a loaf of bread, and a womb is the natal source of a baby. A natal source may give rise to two inseparable things, such as a clay pot and the belly of the clay pot (a whole and its parts). Alternatively, it may give rise to two separable things, such as two clay pots.

Some natal sources cease to exist after they give rise to something, such as a seed as the natal source of a sprout. Some continue to exist, such as a potter’s wheel after it produces a clay pot.

Forms of Physical Phenomena Lack Obtaining Causes

Although the karmic tendency is the natal source of both the visual form of the clay pot and the visual consciousness that validly cognizes it, the karmic tendency is the obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu, material cause) of only the visual consciousness. It is not the obtaining cause of the visual form. The obtaining cause of something is that from which one obtains the item as its successor and thus it ceases to exist when its successor arises. In other words, the karmic tendency for a cognition turns into the visual consciousness as its successor, not into the visual form.

The karmic tendency that is the obtaining cause for the visual consciousness is only the simultaneously acting condition (lhan-cig byed-rkyen) for the visual form. It is necessary for the karmic tendency to exist beforehand in order for the visual form to arise in the cognition, but the karmic tendency for the cognition does not transform into the visual form.

In the Buddhist tenet systems that assert external phenomena, a seed is the obtaining cause for a sprout and the unfired clay is the obtaining cause for the fired clay of a clay pot. In the Chittamatra system, however, forms of physical phenomena do not have obtaining causes, because obtaining causes also would have to exist before their results and cease to exist when they give rise to their results as their successors. If the obtaining cause for the clay pot existed before the clay pot, it would have to come from a different natal source than the clay pot and would have to exist as an external object. This is not possible.

Thus, although it appears as though the fired clay of the clay pot validly cognized now came from the unfired clay validly cognized some time ago as its obtaining cause, this appearance is like an illusion. The cognized fired clay did not come from the cognized unfired clay. The cognized fired clay and the cognized unfired clay only exist within the contexts of the valid cognitions of them.

Nevertheless, from the tendencies of collective karma, the fired clay appears to have come from the unfired clay as its successor. It does not appear as though it came from an apple seed. Any cognition to which it appears as though the cognized fired clay came from an apple seed as its obtaining cause is not only deceptive (‘khrul-shes) with respect to the fired clay having an obtaining cause, it is also distorted (log-shes) with respect to what an obtaining cause would appear to be.

Forms of Physical Phenomena Lack Similar-Family Causes

The karmic tendency for the cognition is also not the similar-family cause (rigs-‘dra’i rgyu) of the visual form of the clay pot, but only of the visual consciousness of the visual form of it. Similar-family causes are in the same category of phenomena as their results and serve as models for them. Sights, as forms of physical phenomena, do not leave karmic tendencies; only ways of being aware of something do that. Therefore, a visual form (a sight) cannot be the similar-family cause of a karmic tendency; and a karmic tendency cannot be the similar-family cause of a subsequent visual form.

In the Buddhist tenet systems that assert external phenomena, only a model of the visual form of a clay pot can be the similar-family cause of the visual form of a clay pot. However, a model of the visual form of a clay pot would have to exist prior to the visual form of the clay pot in order to serve as its model, which means that it would have to exist externally. Since Chittamatra asserts that this is an impossible way of existing, then according to its system, forms of physical phenomena do not have similar-family causes.

Forms of Physical Phenomena Lack Immediately Preceding Conditions

The karmic tendency for the cognition of the visual form of the clay pot, then, is only the natal source of the visual form. It is not even the immediately preceding condition (de-ma-thag rkyen) of the visual form. This is because only ways of being aware of something have an immediately preceding condition. In fact, the karmic tendency is not even the immediately preceding condition for the visual consciousness that cognizes the visual form. The immediately preceding condition for a moment of awareness of something must be the immediately preceding moment of awareness.