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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 5: Analysis of the Mind and Reality > Impure and Pure Appearances According to Non-Gelug

Impure and Pure Appearances According to Non-Gelug

Alexander Berzin
January 2001, revised July 2006

Appearances of Truly Existents and of Non-truly Existents

In conceptual cognition (rtog-pa), which can only be mental cognition (yid-shes), appearances of things as truly existent “this”s and “that”s (bden-snang) arise. For example, they may be the appearance of a truly existent “table” or the appearance of the truly existent word “table.” Appearances (snang-ba) refer to any cognitive object that arises in a cognition.

Such appearances do not refer to anything real. There is no such thing as a truly existent table – an object that exists as a “table” independently of the conceptual label “table.” There is no such thing as a truly existent word “table” – a sound that exists as the word “table” independently of the conceptual process. Let us call these appearances “ appearances of truly existents.”

In sensory cognition (dbang-shes), which can only be nonconceptual cognition (rtog-med), appearances of things as not truly existent “this”s and “that”s (med-snang) arise. The appearances are the cognized aspects (gzung-rnam) of the sensory cognitions and represent the external phenomena (phyi-don), which, as focal objects (dmigs-yul), precede and give rise to the cognitions. For example, in visual cognition, the object-aspects may be the appearance of merely colored shapes; in audial cognition of speech, they may be the appearance of merely the sound of consonants and vowels. The appearances of them as “ tables” or as words like “table” arise afterwards, as mental constructs (spros-pa) fabricated by conceptual mental activity. Things also do not exist in this way, as disjointed colored shapes or as disjointed sounds of consonants and vowels. Let us call the appearances that arise in sensory cognition “appearances of non-truly existents.”

[See: Relationships with Objects.]

Going Beyond Impure Appearances

In conceptual voidness meditation, the discriminating awareness (shes-rab) of voidness is a discriminating awareness of a denumerable ultimate phenomenon (rnam-grangs-pa’i don-dam). A phenomenon is “denumerable” if it can be counted among phenomena that are knowable and expressible through words or concepts. Conceptually cognized voidness is an absolute absence (med-dgag, nonimplicative negation) of true existence. Such an absence is exclusively a conceptual construct and therefore knowable only conceptually. Being an ultimate phenomenon, it is thus a denumerable ultimate phenomenon. Denumerable voidness, however, eliminates only the extreme of true existence. One needs to go beyond the other three impossible modes of existence: the extremes of absolute absence of true existence, both the presence and absolute absence of true existence, and neither.

Likewise, in appearance meditation, one needs to go beyond not only appearances of truly existents, but also other extremes, such as appearances of non-truly existents. Both are impure appearances (ma-dag-pa’i snang-ba, unpurified appearances). According to the assertions of Nyingma dzogchen (rdzogs-chen, great completeness), both are appearances produced by limited mental activity (sems).

Pure Appearances

Pure appearances (dag-pa’i snang-ba) are beyond appearances of truly existent or non-truly existent “this”s and “that”s. They arise simultaneously and inseparably with nonconceptual cognition of the voidness that is a nondenumerable ultimate phenomenon (rnam-grangs ma-yin-pa’i don-dam). Such a nonconceptually cognized voidness is a voidness that is beyond words and concepts and thus it cannot be counted among the phenomena that can be known or expressed by them. They appear in yogic nonconceptual cognition (rnal-‘byor mngon-sum) and with clear-light nonconceptual cognition of nondenumerable voidness. They are the appearances arising from clear-light mental activity or, in dzogchen terminology, they are the natural effulgence (rtsal) of rigpa (rig-pa, pure awareness).

[For a more advanced discussion, see: Affirmations, Negations, and Denumerable and Nondenumerable Ultimate Phenomena.]

Unawareness Accompanying Impure Appearance-Making

The appearance-making of truly existents by conceptual cognition is accompanied by two types of unawareness (ma-rig-pa, ignorance):

  1. not knowing (mi-shes-pa) – not knowing how appearances exist,

  2. contradictorily taking them (phyin-ci log-tu ‘dzin-pa) – contradictorily taking them to exist in the manner that they appear to exist.

The appearance-making of non-truly existents by sensory cognition is accompanied by only one type of unawareness: not knowing how appearances exist.

More precisely, in both conceptual mental and nonconceptual sensory cognition, unawareness does not know and thus does not cognize pure appearances existing inseparably from and arising simultaneously with nondenumerable voidness. An obscuring factor (rmongs-cha) prevents reflexive deep awareness (rang-rig ye-shes) of inseparable voidness and appearance, or inseparable rigpa and appearance.

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


In short, objects are neither truly existent “this”s nor “that”s. Nor are they just disjointed colored shapes not truly existent as “this”s and “that”s. Ultimately (mthar-thug), objects are inseparable pure appearances and clear-light mental activity or rigpa.

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