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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 5: Analysis of the Mind and Reality > Gelug Definitions of Affirmation and Negation Phenomena

Gelug Definitions of Affirmation and Negation Phenomena

Alexander Berzin, March 2004
Based on explanations by Geshe Tenzin Zangpo (Tutor of Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche II) and Geshe Wangchen (Tutor of Ling Rinpoche VII)

The varying traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, and different scholars within each tradition, present a wide array of explanations of affirmation phenomena (sgrub-pa, affirmingly known phenomena, affirmations) and negation phenomena (dgag-pa, negatingly known phenomena, negations). They all base themselves on the works of the great Indian masters of epistemology, Dignaga and Dharmakirti. Each position has wide-ranging ramifications that can help us understand the other assertions of that position.

Here, we shall restrict ourselves to the Gelug presentation and draw out some of its ramifications concerning the Gelug Prasangika view of valid cognition, especially of nonstaticness (impermanence) and voidness. Specifically, we shall follow the definitions of affirmation and negation phenomena given by Purchog (Phur-cog Ngag-dbang byams-pa rgya-mtsho), the author of several textbooks used by the Jetsunpa (rJe-btsun Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan) interpretation line within the Gelug tradition. They elaborate on earlier Gelug presentations, such as those by Kaydrubjey (mKhas-grub rJe) and the First Dalai Lama (dGe-‘dun grub). Purchog’s explanations represent the majority Gelug view.

Types of Phenomena and Ways to Apprehend Them

Existent phenomena (yod-pa) are defined as those phenomena that are validly knowable (shes-bya). Nonexistent phenomena (med-pa) are those that cannot be validly known, conventionally (tha-snyad) or ultimately (mthar-thug), by a mind focusing on either superficial truths (kun-rdzob bden-pa) or deepest truths (don-dam bden-pa). For example,

  • chicken-lips cannot be validly cognized by a mind focusing on the superficial truth of anything – in other words, by a mind focusing on what anything is, according to the convention set by a group of valid minds;

  • true existence (bden-par grub-pa, truly established existence) cannot be validly cognized by a mind focusing on the deepest truth of anything – in other words, by a mind focusing on what establishes or proves the existence of anything. Gelug Prasangika defines true existence as existence established by the power of something on the side of an object, either by itself or in conjunction with being something imputable on a basis.

Existent phenomena include both nonstatic (mi-rtag-pa, impermanent) and static (rtag-pa, permanent) phenomena. Nonstatic phenomena are affected by causes and conditions and thus are known as “affected phenomena” (‘dus-byas, affected variables, conditioned phenomena). They change from moment to moment and function to produce effects, and thus are also called “functional phenomena” (dngos-po). Static phenomena are unaffected by causes and conditions and thus are known as “unaffected phenomena” (‘dus ma-byas, unconditioned phenomena). They do not change from moment to moment and do not function to produce effects. Consequently, they are called “nonfunctional phenomena” (dngos-med). For example,

  • a human body is nonstatic;

  • a category, such as “apples,” is static.

Both nonstatic and static phenomena may have (1) a beginning and an end, (2) a beginning, but no end, (3) no beginning, but an end, or (4) no beginning and no end. Examples of each of the four varieties, in turn, include:

  • among nonstatic phenomena: (1) a human body, (2) the emanations a Buddha emits once having attained enlightenment, (3) suffering experienced on a mental continuum, and (4) a mental continuum;

  • among static phenomena: (1) the absence of the dog from the room while it has gone for a walk, (2) the absence of the dog from the room after it was cremated, (3) the absence of the dog from the room before it was conceived, and (4) the absence of the true findable existence of a mental continuum.

Existent, validly knowable phenomena may be either affirmation or negation phenomena. For example,

  • “an apple” is an affirmation phenomenon;

  • “not-an-apple” (“a non-apple”) is a negation phenomenon.

Both affirmation and negation phenomena may be either nonstatic or static; and both may be apprehended (rtogs-pa) by either conceptual or nonconceptual cognition. For example:

  • We may see or think of an apple (a nonstatic affirmation phenomenon) or a non-apple (a nonstatic negation phenomenon);

  • An arya may cognize, nonconceptually or conceptually, an Essential Nature Corpus of a Buddha (ngo-bo-nyid-sku, Skt. svabhavakaya) (a static affirmation phenomenon);

  • We may see or think of the absence of the dog from the room (a static negation phenomenon).

There is no common locus (gzhi-mthun, common denominator) between affirmation and negation phenomena. This means that no validly knowable phenomenon is both. Further, there is no validly knowable phenomenon that is neither. Affirmations and negations form an actual dichotomy (dngos-‘gal), which means that all existent phenomena must be either one or the other. They are not merely mutually exclusive (‘gal-ba), like cats and dogs, nor do they form opposite poles of an axis, like black and white, with many shades in between.

An apprehension is a cognition that correctly and decisively cognizes its involved object (‘jug-yul). For example:

  • valid bare cognition (mngon-sum tshad-ma), which, according to non-Prasangika is exclusively nonconceptual, such as seeing. Prasangika defines this valid way of knowing as valid straightforward cognition, which may be either conceptual or nonconceptual, depending on whether or not it relies on a line of reasoning in the immediately preceding moment of cognition.

  • valid inferential cognition (rjes-dpag tshad-ma), which is exclusively conceptual, done only by thinking;

  • according to non-Prasangika, subsequent cognition (bcad-shes) of either a valid bare cognition or a valid inferential cognition, when the cognition of the object is no longer fresh. Prasangika does not assert subsequent cognition as a way of cognizing a validly knowable phenomenon. Thus, for non-Prasangika apprehension and valid cognition are not synonymous, since subsequent cognition apprehends its object but does not validly cognize it. For Prasangika, apprehension and valid cognition are synonyms.

Presumptive cognition (yid-dpyod), indecisive cognition (the-tshoms), nondetermining cognition (snang-la ma-nges-pa), and distorted cognition (log-shes) do not apprehend their objects.

Thus, although affirmation and negation phenomena may be cognized by all seven ways of knowing, they are not apprehended by all of them.

[See: Apprehension of Validly Knowable Phenomena.]

Affirmation and Negation Phenomena Are Single Units That May Contain Several Elements

Affirmation or negation phenomena may be items with several properties or qualifications. In such cases, the phenomena are classified as affirmations or negations as single units encompassing the items and the properties or qualifications. For example,

  • “an apple on the table” and “a red apple on the table” are affirmation phenomena;

  • “no apple on the table” and “no red apple on the table” are negation phenomena.

If one element in the unit would be a negation phenomenon on its own, the entire unit is a negation phenomenon. Examples of such negation phenomena are:

  • “a table with no apple on it,”

  • “an untied shoe.”

Although negation phenomena are existent phenomena, they may be negations of nonexistent phenomena. For example,

  • “no invaders from the fifth dimension,”

  • “a room without invaders from the fifth dimension,”

  • “no true findable existence,”

  • “no true findable existence of a table,”

  • “a table lacking true findable existence.”

The Definitions of Affirmation and Negation Phenomena

Purchog’s definition of an affirmation phenomenon is “a (validly knowable) phenomenon that is apprehended in a manner in which an object to be negated (dgag-bya) is not explicitly precluded (dngos-su ma-bcad-pa, explicitly cut off, dismissed, rejected) by the sounds that express the phenomenon.”

His definition of a negation phenomenon is “a (validly knowable) phenomenon that is apprehended in a manner in which an object to be negated is explicitly precluded by the conceptual cognition that cognizes the phenomenon.”

To appreciate the distinction drawn in the definitions, we need first to understand “explicit preclusion.”

  • “Preclusion” is the conceptual process whereby we formulate sets and counter-sets, regardless of the number of members in each set.

  • The set and counter-set formulated by preclusion are not only mutually exclusive (nothing can be a member of both sets); they constitute an actual dichotomy (all validly knowable phenomena must be in either one or the other set).

  • The set and counter-set constitute an actual dichotomy even if one of the sets is a null set, containing no validly knowable phenomena (such as true existence and non-true existence).

  • “Preclusion” implies previous apprehension of an object to be negated, and exclusion of it from the set of all validly knowable phenomena other than itself (if the object to be negated is an existent phenomenon) or from the set of all validly knowable phenomena in total (if the object to be negated is a nonexistent phenomenon. In this latter case, what is precluded is a mental semblance of a nonexistent phenomenon and not the nonexistent phenomenon itself. The mental semblance can be apprehended, but the nonexistent phenomenon itself cannot.)

  • “Explicit” means the preclusion is obvious, not implicit.

  • The preclusion does not require apprehending all knowable phenomena simultaneously and then excluding one member from the set.

  • Although the preclusion requires apprehension of the object to be negated, the preclusion does not require apprehension of each and every member of the set of all validly knowable phenomena from which the object to be negated is precluded. To derive the set of “non-apple” does not require the apprehension of all apples. The preclusion is not a deliberate, conscious mental act of cutting off the object to be negated from each member of the set one by one. Otherwise, it would be impossible to formulate sets and counter-sets.

  • Once the preclusion has been made, apprehension of any member of the set of everything else does not occur with simultaneous apprehension of the excluded object.

Further,

  • Affirmation phenomena may be apprehended without prior preclusion of an object to be negated. This means that apprehension of an affirmation phenomenon does not depend on a previous conceptual process through which the set to which the affirmation phenomenon belongs was formulated in contrast to a counter-set.

  • Negation phenomena may only be apprehended once a prior conceptual preclusion has been made. Once a set and counter-set have been formulated by explicit preclusion, affirmation phenomena may also be apprehended correctly and decisively as a member of an appropriate set.

For example, a newborn infant cognizes its mother’s milk as “edible” (an affirmation phenomenon) without needing first to formulate, conceptually, the set of “edible items” by precluding from it the counter-set of “inedible items” (a negation phenomenon). The infant thinks that everything is eatable. As it grows, however, it learns which items validly belong to each set. Gradually, as a toddler, it learns to regard cereal as “edible,” not “inedible,” and its toy as “inedible,” not “edible.” It apprehends cereal and its toy as members of the correct set only when it has gained accuracy and certainty about the distinction. It does not have to try to eat every existent phenomenon in order to apprehend both sets.

How an Explicit Preclusion Occurs

As for how we first formulate a set and counter-set through preclusion of an object to be negated, it is not that the preclusion occurs prior to the first moment of conceptual cognition of the negation phenomenon. In between a moment of conceptually apprehending the object to be negated and a moment of conceptually apprehending the negation phenomenon, no intervening moment of conceptual cognition cutting off the object to be negated occurs. The conceptual cognition itself, of the negation phenomenon, is the preclusion. It is not the agent of the preclusion, because the preclusion is not a conscious deliberate mental act.

This process resembles that of apprehending the light on and the light off in a room. After apprehending the light, we do not need to switch off the light and, only after completing that act, do we apprehend the darkness. Switching off the light occurs simultaneously with apprehending the absence of light.

The first moment of either conceptual or nonconceptual apprehension of a negation phenomenon is preceded by a moment (a phase) of conceptual cognition of the object to be negated. The initial moment of conceptual or nonconceptual apprehension of the negation phenomenon precludes the object to be negated. This is a crucial point to comprehend in order to meditate correctly on voidness.

A moment (skad-cig) of the occurrence of something is the period of time required for its essential nature as itself (rang-gi ngo-bo) to be present. Often, the process requires a series of moments in the Western sense of the smallest unit of time, or even longer, as in the case of a storm. A storm, as a validly knowable phenomenon having the essential nature of a storm, does not manifest instantly. For a storm to be present as a storm and then change from moment to moment requires a moment (a phase) of building up.

The same is the case with a moment of apprehension of something. Its initial occurrence, with the essential nature of an apprehension of a specific object requires more than a tiny unit of time to build up. Thus, verbal conceptual apprehension of a negation phenomenon such as “not an apple” requires several tiny units of time to establish itself. We need to think, one by one in sequence, “not,” “an,” “ap,” “ple.” The initial moment of this apprehension of “not an apple” extends over all four tiny units of time. We verbally think “not an apple,” however, as a single unit of meaning, not as disjointed moments of thought. After all, the moment of thinking “not” is not the meaningful thought “not an apple.” Nor is thinking “ple” the same as thinking “not an apple.”

The Role of Language in the Preclusion of an Object To Be Negated

Earlier Gelug definitions of affirmation and negation phenomena do not indicate what makes an explicit preclusion. Thus, the role that language plays in the process is open to interpretation. Purchog’s definitions help to clarify the issue.

To appreciate the majority Gelug position, let us examine some examples of objects to be negated. Suppose I want to point out a picture of Tenzin in my photo album from my visit to India to my new friend who does not know any of the people in it. My friend does not even know if Tenzin is a man or a woman, or even if Tenzin is a Tibetan. Tenzin is a common name that Tibetans give to both men and women. For all he knows, Tenzin could even be the name of my dog or the name of a village.

We thumb through the pages. We come to a page without a photo of Tenzin. I look at a photo and think “not Tenzin” and my friend also thinks “not Tenzin.” Both thoughts are correct, although only mine is valid. My friend’s thought is only a presumption, because he is not certain what Tenzin looks like. He merely made a correct guess. We then come across a photo of Tenzin and, not paying attention, I think “not Tenzin.” My friend also thinks “not Tenzin.” Both of our thoughts are incorrect and invalid.

Were the “not Tenzin”s that both of us thought in the two examples negation phenomena? If both were, what were their objects to be negated? The “not Tenzin” that I thought was based on previously having precluded the person “Tenzin” as the object to be negated. I formulated my concept of the set of “not Tenzin”s with the preclusion of “Tenzin” from all other persons. My previous preclusion was a cognitive one of the meaning of the sounds of a word – a referent person for a name – since I had in mind a specific person to whom the name “Tenzin” referred. The “not Tenzin” that my friend thought was not based on such a previous type of preclusion, since he did not know the specific person I precluded or rejected in my usage of the words not Tenzin.

According to the definition, the “not Tenzin” I thought was a negation phenomenon. The concept of “not Tenzin” that my friend thought was not derived from previously having precluded the person “Tenzin” whom I had in mind. He merely thought the words “not” and “Tenzin” and applied them to a person at random. He did not think of a specifically defined set of persons, “not-Tenzin.”

If the “not Tenzin” he thought was not a negation of what the words meant in a certain context, but his “not Tenzin” was merely words, like those of a parrot, was his “not Tenzin” still a negation phenomenon? The sound of the word “not” in his thought “not Tenzin” negated the word “Tenzin.” But is it helpful to classify his verbal preclusion or cutting off of the word “Tenzin” the type of preclusion significant enough to determine the distinction between affirmation and negation phenomena? This is the point that is open to interpretation. The answer has many ramifications concerning the relative importance of words or their meanings when meditating on a negation phenomenon, such as voidness.

What if my friend thought that the “Tenzin” I meant referred to some other person called “Tenzin” whom he knew. He looked at a photo in my album of either one of my “not Tenzin”s or even of the person who was not my “not Tenzin,” namely my “Tenzin.” He thought “not Tenzin,” but the concept of “not Tenzin” that he thought was derived from having precluded his “Tenzin,” not mine. According to the definition of a negation, the “not Tenzin”s that each of us thought were negations. However, they were not the same negation phenomenon, since the objects negated were different.

The Role of Language in Apprehension of an Affirmation Phenomenon

Suppose, for example, when we come across the photo of the “Tenzin” I meant and, before I say anything, my friend who does not know anyone named “Tenzin” thinks “Tenzin.” Again, his cognition is a presumption, a correct guess. But, is the “Tenzin” he thinks an affirmation phenomenon? To think of it is not a preclusion of an object to be negated, requiring thinking first of that object to be negated. Therefore, according to the definition of an affirmation, it must be an affirmation phenomenon.

But, what is the object that the affirmation establishes? Is it the person “Tenzin” or merely the word “Tenzin?” Or is it both? After all, words and other communicating sounds (for example, the sound of Morse code, grunts, and music) do not exist independently of their referent objects or meanings. If they are communicative, they signify something to their originally intended audience, even if a parrot speaks them.

Suppose my friend knew another person called “Tenzin.” Suppose, then, that when he looked at the photo of the “Tenzin” I had in mind, he mistook it for the “Tenzin” he knew and thought “Tenzin.” Is his conceptual cognition of “Tenzin” valid? He is imputing the same name to the person as the correct one, so from this point of view, thinking merely the name “Tenzin” is correct. However, from the point of view of the referent person or meaning of the name “Tenzin,” his conceptual cognition is incorrect.

The Majority Gelug Position

The majority Gelug position regarding the role of language in drawing a distinction between affirmations and negations becomes apparent when elaborating Purchog’s definition of an affirmation phenomenon. At the time of conceptually apprehending an affirmation phenomenon, the sounds of the words that express the affirmation – whatever those words may be – have nothing to do with the type of preclusion meant in the definition of a negation phenomenon. “Preclusion” in both definitions exclusively concerns, as objects to be negated, the referent objects or meanings of words.

The sounds of words, phrases, prefixes, or suffixes preclude other sounds of words. Examples in English are “not,” “no,” “other than,” “there are no,” “no such thing as,” “absence,” “void,” “lack of,” “without,” “neither…nor,” “no longer,” “not yet,” “passed,” “counter,” “inverse,” “reverse,” “negative,” “non-,” “un-,” “in-,” “a-,” “de-,” “anti-,” “contra-,” “-less,” and so on. Without specific referent objects or meanings, however, the sounds of these words, phrases, prefixes, or suffixes of negation do not preclude any referent objects or meanings. They lack that power, on their own, whether they express an affirmation or a negation phenomenon.

The sounds that express a negation phenomenon necessarily contain the sounds of words, phrases, prefixes, or suffixes of negation. The sounds that express an affirmation phenomenon may or may not contain such sounds. An affirmation phenomenon may be merely a word or the referent object or meaning of a word. A negation phenomenon is exclusively the referent object or meaning of a word.

Thus, in the previous example, I was thinking of “a not-Tenzin,” and my friend who did not know anyone named Tenzin was just thinking in sequence the words “not” and “Tenzin.” My “not-Tenzin” was a negation of the person “Tenzin”; his “not Tenzin” was merely an affirmation of the words “not” and “Tenzin.” My friend who knew someone else named “Tenzin” was also thinking of “a not-Tenzin” based on the negation of a person. But his “not-Tenzin” and my “not-Tenzin” were two different negation phenomena, not the same one, since they were based on precluding two different objects to be negated.

When I was thinking of “a Tenzin” and my friend who did not know anyone named “Tenzin” was just thinking “Tenzin,” my “Tenzin” was an affirmation of a person; his “Tenzin” was an affirmation of the word “Tenzin.” They were different affirmation phenomena. When my friend who was thinking of someone else called “Tenzin” thought of “a Tenzin,” his “Tenzin” and my “Tenzin” were different affirmation phenomena.

Except for the later Kunkyen (Kun-mkhyen ‘Jam-dbyangs bzhad-pa) textbook tradition, all other Gelug textbook traditions accept this interpretation.

The Minority Gelug Position

The minority Gelug interpretation, formulated by Kunkyen, disagrees. As a conceptual process, preclusion may be either simply of another word or also of the referent object or meaning of that word.

According to Kunkyen, the sounds of the words that express affirmations in valid conceptual cognition of them must not make any preclusions of other words. Thus,

  • Negations are based on the preclusion of specific referent objects or meanings of words, and are expressed with the sounds of words that preclude other words.

  • Affirmations are based on no preclusion of specific referent objects or meanings of words and are expressed with the sounds of words that do not preclude other words.

Thus, thinking of “a not-Tenzin” and thinking “not Tenzin” are both thoughts of negations, although not thoughts of the same negation phenomenon. The former is the negation of a referent object or meaning of a word; the latter is a negation of a word. However, as the majority Gelug position asserts, thinking of “a Tenzin” and thinking “Tenzin” are both affirmations, but different affirmations. The former is an affirmation of the referent object or meaning of a word; the latter is an affirmation of a word.

The basic difference, then in the two Gelug interpretations is that

  • according the majority view, if the words expressing a phenomenon are formulated with a word, phrase, prefix, or suffix of negation, it is only a negation phenomenon if the concept for it is formulated by precluding a specific referent object or meaning of the word to be negated.

  • According to the minority view, if the words expressing a phenomenon are formulated with a word, phrase, prefix, or suffix of negation, it is a negation phenomenon whether or not the concept for it is formulated by precluding a specific referent object or meaning of the word to be negated.

  • Based on this difference, the majority view is that “impermanence” and “nonstaticness” are affirmation phenomena, while the minority view is that they are negation phenomena. This is because the concepts for them are formulated by precluding merely the sound of the words permanence and staticness, but not their referent meanings. We do not need to know the meaning of “permanent” or “static” in order to know that something is impermanent when we see it break.

Here, we shall treat in more depth only the majority position.

Apprehension of an Affirmation Object

A question may arise. If apprehension of a negation phenomenon requires previously apprehending the object to be negated and apprehension of an affirmation phenomenon does not have the same requirement, does apprehension of a negation or of an affirmation phenomenon require previously apprehending that negation or affirmation phenomenon itself?

It is true that we cannot label an object in front of us and think “an apple” without having seen a physical form, smelling a smell, or tasting a flavor in the immediately preceding moment and then applying the mental label apple. Such objects as a physical form, and so on, are a basis for labeling or for imputation (gdags-gzhi). Similarly, even if no such object is in front of us, we cannot think of an apple without previously having seen, smelled, tasted, or simply heard of an apple. As a baby, we cannot even think the mental word apple without having learned it first, by hearing the sound apple. However, does a baby need to have previously seen an apple in order to be taught “an apple,” or can a baby be shown something it has never seen before and learn directly what it is? Can a baby learn a new word it has never heard before?

The answer is yes. Otherwise, the absurd conclusion would follow that there could never be any new inventions and new words for them, because we would have to have known them before, at least in some previous lifetime. And every word in every language would have to be eternal and never have changed.

Thus, apprehension of an affirmation phenomenon does not require previous apprehension of the affirmation phenomenon. We can apprehend new things for the first time, like when we first hear of or see a new invention, and we can learn new words, without needing previously to have known anything. We don’t even need to know the definition or meaning of a new vocabulary word or of the words of a Tibetan, Latin, Hebrew, or Arabic prayer that we learn to chant, before being able to know the words correctly. All we need is a valid mind.

Similarly, apprehension of a negation phenomenon does not require previous apprehension of the negation phenomenon. If an infant thinks that everything is edible, it can learn the concept inedible when first trying to eat something that does not satisfy its hunger.

[See: Establishing the Existence of a Validly Knowable Phenomenon.]