The Appearance and Cognition
of Non-Existent Phenomena:
August 2002, revised August 2006
The Tibetan explanations of the appearance and cognition of nonexistent phenomena fall broadly into two camps: Gelug and non-Gelug (Sakya, Nyingma, and Kagyu).
Neither Gelug nor non-Gelug, however, presents a uniform explanation. Several masters within each camp have explained specific points slightly differently in their commentaries. Here, as a foundation for more advanced study, we shall present an overview of the main points that are asserted in common by both camps and then the uniquely Gelug interpretations.
We shall use the explanations given primarily by the late eighteenth-century master Akya Yongdzin (A-kya Yongs-‘dzin dByangs-can dga-ba’i blo-gros) to represent the Gelug position. This explanation accords with the monastic textbook (yig-cha) tradition of the sixteenth-century master Jetsun Chokyi-gyeltsen (rJe-btsun Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan), followed by Sera Jey (Se-ra Byes) and Ganden Jangtsey (dGa’-ldan Byang-rtse) Monasteries.
Existent phenomena (yod-pa) are those that can be validly cognized. They include both affirmation phenomena (sgrub-pa, affirmingly known phenomena), such as an orange, and negation phenomena (dgag-pa, negatingly known phenomena), such as not an orange.
Nonexistent phenomena (med-pa), such as unicorns and mirages, can be objects of cognition, but not objects of valid cognition (tshad-ma). They are objects only of distorted cognition (log-shes).
Cognitive appearances of nonexistent objects may arise in both nonconceptual and conceptual cognition. In distorted sensory nonconceptual cognition, we may see a hallucination of a unicorn in an empty meadow. In distorted conceptual cognition, we may imagine a unicorn in a meadow. If the nonexistent objects – unicorns – do not actually exist, then how can cognitive appearances of them arise?
Consider the distorted sensory nonconceptual cognition of seeing a unicorn in a meadow:
The empty meadow is the focal object (dmigs-yul). The cognition of a unicorn there takes on a mental aspect (rnam-pa, mental semblance) that resembles a unicorn in the meadow. The mental aspect is the appearing object (snang-yul) and cognitively taken object (gzung-yul).
According to the Prasangika tenets, the mental aspect that resembles a unicorn is an existent phenomenon, although the unicorn is nonexistent. Moreover, the cognition of a hallucinated unicorn as a hallucinated unicorn is accurate. The distortion lies in considering the hallucinated unicorn to be an external, conventionally existent unicorn.
The fifteenth-century Gelug masters Gyeltsab (rGyal-tshab Dar-ma rin-chen) and the First Dalai Lama Gedundrub (dGe-‘dun grub) agree that the hallucination of a unicorn assumes a mental aspect that resembles a unicorn and that this mental semblance appears (arises) in the cognition. However, since they assert that distorted sensory nonconceptual cognition has neither an appearing object nor a cognitively taken object, they do not identify the mental aspect with either of them.
A unicorn is the involved object (‘ jug-yul) of the distorted visual cognition. An external, conventionally existent unicorn, acting as the focal object and focal condition (dmigs-rkyen) of the hallucination, does not cause the mental aspect that appears (the mental semblance of a unicorn) to arise. This is because there is no such thing as an external conventionally existent unicorn. The mental aspect arises because of internal physical or mental causes for hallucination.
As a transparent mental semblance of a unicorn, the mental aspect that appears does not reveal an actual unicorn through it. It does not reveal anything.
Consider the distorted conceptual cognition of imagining a unicorn in a meadow:
An empty meadow is the focal object, as in the nonconceptual hallucination. The transparent mental aspect that appears or arises is a mental representation (snang-ba) of a unicorn in the meadow and this is the involved object.
The appearing object is the semitransparent meaning/object category (don-spyi) unicorn, based perhaps on a composite of the meaning/object categories horse and cartoon horn.
The conceptually implied object (zhen-yul) – an actual conventionally existent unicorn corresponding to the meaning/object category unicorn (the appearing object) – does not exist. Thus, an actual unicorn as the conceptually implied object does not appear, even unclearly, through a transparent mental aspect and semitransparent appearing object.
According to the Madhyamaka tenet systems, nonconceptual and conceptual cognition each produce cognitive appearances not only of the extent of what their involved objects are (ji-snyad-pa), but also of how their involved objects exist (ji-lta-ba).
Each validly knowable phenomenon holds its own individual essential nature (rang-gi ngo-bo ‘ dzin-pa). “The extent of what something is” refers to the individual essential nature that this something holds. That essential nature may be simply as an individual validly knowable item, or it may be as a specific conventional commonsense object (‘ jig-rten-la grags-pa), such as an orange or a table.
“How something exists” refers to what establishes the existence of something.
In the context of Madhyamaka, the issue of what establishes the existence of something revolves around whether or not an object has truly established existence (bden-par grub-pa, true existence).
“Truly established existence” is existence established by something on the side of an object, independently of mental labeling (ming ‘dogs-pa, imputation). “Independently” means independently of being, in terms of superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa, relative truth, conventional truth), the referent object (btags-chos, imputed object) of a word, concept, or mental label, when validly imputed on a basis for labeling (gdags-gzhi). In other words, truly established existence is existence established independently of being what a word, concept, or mental label conventionally refers to. Nothing exists in this impossible manner.
Imputation may be of the extent of what something is or of how something exists. The imputation of truly established existence is an imputation of how something exists. It entails mental fabrication (spros-pa) by conceptual cognition.
“Mental fabrication” is defined as the addition of an appearance of a manner of existence to an object beyond what exists. Specifically, mental fabrication makes up and projects an appearance of truly established existence. It occurs in both conceptual and nonconceptual cognition. Mental fabrication automatically arises (lhan-skyes) in each moment of experience, due to the habits of grasping for true existence (bden-‘dzin-gyi bag-chags).
Thus, although metaphysical (spyi-mtshan) and objective entities (rang-mtshan) both lack truly established existence, both appear to be truly existent.
Metaphysical entities include all static (rtag-pa, permanent) phenomena,
Objective entities include all nonstatic (mi-rtag-pa, impermanent) phenomena.
Mental labeling (imputation) and mental fabrication are not equivalent terms.
Mental labeling entails applying a word or concept to signify the extent of what something is. In other words, mental labeling applies the name of the commonsense object that something conventionally is. Mental labeling is merely an imputation on a basis for labeling, such as a collection of parts, and does not make up anything beyond what conventionally is the case.
Mental fabrication entails making up and projecting how something deceptively appears to exist (‘ khrul-snang), which goes beyond what is actually the case.
Existence in terms of mental labeling means existing conventionally as “this” and “not that,” dependently on being the referent object of the mental labels “this” and “not that,” when those mental labels are validly imputed on a basis for labeling.
Although the actual process of mental labeling occurs only in conceptual cognition; nevertheless, everything exists in terms of mental labeling, whether conceptually or nonconceptually cognized.
Consider the case of the conceptual cognition of a conventional commonsense orange according to the Madhyamaka system.
The conceptually implied object is a truly existent commonsense orange. What the conceptually implied object appears to be – a commonsense orange – conventionally exists as the superficial truth about the object. It can be validly imputed on appropriate sensibilia. The appearance of a commonsense orange arises in the conceptual cognition through a fully transparent mental aspect that resembles a commonsense orange.
How the conceptually implied object appears to exist – with truly established existence – does not exist. The commonsense orange is devoid of true existence.
Although the transparent mental aspect assumed by the conceptual cognition is a mental semblance of true existence, the aspect does not reveal actual truly established existence through it. The deceptive appearance of this mode of existence is distorted, because it is an appearance of something nonexistent, as in imagining a unicorn.
In imagining a unicorn in a meadow:
The focal object is a meadow (which does exist) and the involved object is a unicorn there (which does not exist). There is no actual unicorn, however, as the focal condition casting its reflection on the consciousness.
The mental aspect (which does exist) resembling a unicorn appears (arises) simply because of external and internal causes for distortion.
The appearing object is a meaning/object category (which does exist) of unicorn, imputed on the mental aspect.
Similarly, in imagining a commonsense orange as truly existent,
the focal object is the commonsense orange (which does exist) and the involved object is truly established existence (which does not exist). There is no actual true existence as the focal condition casting its reflection on the consciousness.
The mental aspect (which does exist) resembling truly established existence appears (arises) simply because of an internal cause for distortion – namely, the habit of grasping for true existence.
The appearing object is a meaning/object category (which does exist) of truly established existence, imputed on the mental aspect.
Thus, the conceptually implied object, as a conventionally existent commonsense object, is devoid of existing in the manner of the conceptually implied manner of existence. This absence of an impossible mode of existence is the voidness (stong-nyid, emptiness) of the conceptually implied commonsense object.
According to Madhyamaka, mental labeling, which is always conceptual, entails:
a mental label,
a basis for labeling,
a referent object (imputed object, labeled object). The referent object is what a label, word, or concept refers to.
Consider the case of the verbal conceptual cognition of a conventional commonsense orange with the audio category and meaning/object category orange.
In terms of the mental labeling:
The mental label is the audio category orange and, usually in addition, a meaning/object category orange – both being metaphysical entities.
The basis for labeling may be a spherical shape of orange color – an objective entity.
The referent object is a commonsense orange – a nonstatic collection synthesis (tshogs-spyi) as an objective entity.
It is important not to identify the referent object with either the basis for labeling or the mental label itself.
The referent object is not the same as the basis for labeling. The colored shapes that appear when seeing or thinking of a commonsense orange are not the actual orange. We do not eat a colored shape when we eat an orange.
The referent object is not the same as the mental label. An actual orange is not the word or concept orange, nor is it a conceptual category.
An actual orange is what the audio category orange and meaning/object category orange refers to when labeled on the basis of appropriate colored shapes.
In terms of the conceptual cognition:
The appearing objects are not simply the audio and meaning/object categories orange, but rather the audio and meaning/object categories truly existent orange.
The conceptually implied object (object existing as cognitively taken) is a truly existent orange. This is what the conceptual category (the concept) of “an orange” implies (zhen, clings to) and corresponds to.
what the conceptual category of “an orange” refers to (non-truly existent commonsense oranges, as objective entities) is not the same as what the conceptual category of an orange corresponds to (truly existent oranges, which do not exist at all).
In other words, the referent object of a conceptual cognition is not the same as its conceptually implied object.
We see a non-truly existent commonsense orange, which nevertheless appears to be truly existent.
We then conceptualize it as a truly existent commonsense orange.
In conceptual cognition, we mentally fabricate the conceptually implied object (a truly existent orange) and project it onto the referent object (a non-truly existent orange as an objective entity that we can see).
Appearances of Conventional Objects and of Their Mode of Existence in Sensory Nonconceptual Cognition
Not only conceptual cognition, but also sensory nonconceptual cognition produces cognitive appearances (mental aspects) resembling truly established existence. Thus, visual cognition of a commonsense orange produces appearances of both a commonsense orange and its true existence.
Visual cognition does not have a conceptually implied object. It does have, however, an involved object, which is also its object existing as cognitively taken.
In reference to what the mental semblance appears to be – an orange – a commonsense orange (the object existing as cognitively taken) is an existent phenomenon.
In reference to how the mental semblance appears to exist – with truly established existence – true existence (the object existing as cognitively taken) is a nonexistent phenomenon.
Since how the involved object appears to exist – with truly established existence – does not exist, sensory cognition of the deceptive appearance of this mode of existence is distorted. This is because it is sensory cognition of an appearance of something nonexistent, as in a hallucination of a unicorn.
In the hallucination of a unicorn in a meadow, the focal object is a meadow (which does exist) and the involved object is a unicorn (which does not exist). There is no actual unicorn, however, as the focal condition casting its reflection on the consciousness. The mental semblance (which does exist) of a unicorn arises simply because of external and internal causes for hallucination.
Similarly, in the hallucination of the true existence of a commonsense orange, the focal object is the commonsense orange (which does exist) and the involved object is truly established existence (which does not exist). There is no actual true existence as the focal condition casting its reflection on the consciousness. The mental semblance (which does exist) of truly established existence arises simply because of an internal cause for distortion – namely, the habit of grasping for true existence.
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