The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

Switch to the Text Version of this page. Jump to main navigation.

Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 5: Analysis of the Mind and Reality > Cognition of the Two Truths in the Gelug Sautrantika, Chittamatra, Svatantrika, and Prasangika Systems

Cognition of the Two Truths in the Gelug Sautrantika, Chittamatra, Svatantrika, and Prasangika Systems

Alexander Berzin, 2002, revised June 2006
based on explanations received from Geshe Dawa and Geshe Tenzin Zangpo

In order to rid ourselves of the second noble truth, true causes of suffering, we need to gain nonconceptual cognition of the lack of an impossible soul (bdag-med, selflessness, identitylessness) with relation to each of the four noble truths. In Mahayana terminology, this means gaining nonconceptual cognition of voidness (stong-pa-nyid, Skt. shunyata, emptiness). A voidness is an absence of an impossible way of existing and must be in regard to some item that is devoid of existing in the impossible way that this voidness is nullifying (negating, refuting).

To gain nonconceptual cognition of voidness, then, requires cognition of the basis for the voidness (stong-gzhi) as well as of its voidness. The two truths (bden-gnyis) are a classification scheme found in all Indian Buddhist tenet systems (grub-mtha’) for categorizing the two types of true phenomena. Although each tenet system asserts its own parameters for defining the two truths and thus differs regarding which phenomena it classifies in each, nevertheless voidness and the basis for a voidness always fall into separate categories. This is the case despite each tenet system defining differently the impossible ways of existing that voidness nullifies. Therefore, in order to know how to cognize voidness, both conceptually and nonconceptually, and thus how to rid ourselves of the true causes of our suffering, we need to know the steps that each tenet system explains for the meditative process for realizing voidness.

Here, we shall explain these steps as outlined in the Sautrantika, Chittamatra, and Prasangika Madhyamaka systems. These three systems represent the three main variant types of explanation. We shall mention the Svatantrika Madhyamaka systems only as an aside, since they do not assert a radically different scheme. Each of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions explains the assertions of the Indian tenet systems differently. Here we shall focus only on the Gelug interpretation. Moreover, within the Gelug tradition, various monasteries follow the textbook (yig-cha) traditions of different great masters. Here, we shall present the explanations that accord with the Jetsunpa (rJe-btsun-pa) tradition. This textbook tradition was established by the sixteenth-century master Jetsun Chokyi-gyeltsen (rJe-btsun Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan) and is followed by Ganden Jangtsey (dGa’-ldan Byang-rtse) and Sera Jey (Se-ra Byes) Monasteries. Occasionally, we shall point out major variant explanations from some of the other Gelug textbook traditions.

The Gelug Sautrantika System

[As background, see: The Two Truths in Vaibhashika and Sautrantika . See also: Fine Analysis of Objects of Cognition: Gelug Presentation .]

Nonconceptual and Conceptual Cognition, and Explicit and Implicit Apprehension

Existent phenomena are equivalent to validly knowable phenomena (shes-bya) and validly comprehensible phenomena (gzhal-bya). All existent phenomena may be validly known – by valid nonconceptual cognition, by valid conceptual cognition, or by either of the two.

Nonconceptual cognition (rtog-med) – namely, bare cognition (mngon-sum) – cognizes its involved object (‘ jug-yul) without the medium of a category (spyi, universal) or conception (rtog-pa) of the object. It is “bare” it the sense that it lacks such a medium. Conceptual cognition (rtog-bcas), on the other hand, cognizes its involved object through such a semi-transparent medium.

Valid nonconceptual and valid conceptual cognition may apprehend more than one involved object at a time. The two types of valid cognition may even occur simultaneously. Apprehension (rtogs-pa) of an involved object means an accurate, decisive determination (nges-pa) that the involved object is “this” and not “that.”

  • When either of the two types of valid cognition apprehend its involved objects by giving rise to cognitive appearances of them, it explicitly apprehends (dngos-su rtogs-pa) those objects. In other words, in explicitly apprehending an involved object, a valid cognition (tshad-ma) takes on or assumes a fully transparent mental aspect (rnam-pa) that resembles that object, somewhat like a mental hologram.

  • When either of the two apprehends its involved objects without giving rise to cognitive appearances of them, it implicitly apprehends (shugs-la rtogs-pa) those objects.

Although all valid cognitions explicitly apprehend an involved object, not all implicitly apprehend an additional involved object. Moreover, a valid cognition cannot implicitly apprehend an involved object without explicitly apprehending another involved object.

  • Subsequent cognition (bcad-shes) is an invalid way of cognizing an object. It is asserted by Sautrantika, Chittamatra, and Svatantrika, but not by Prasangika. Although subsequent cognition, both nonconceptual and conceptual, may explicitly or implicitly apprehend its involved objects, we shall not discuss subsequent cognition of the two truths in this essay.

Deepest True and Superficial True Phenomena

Existent phenomena can be divided into two types of true phenomena (bden-pa gnyis, two truths): deepest true phenomena (don-dam bden-pa, deepest truths, ultimate truths) and superficial true phenomena (kun-rdzob bden-pa, relative truths, conventional truths). In Sautrantika, the two constitute two different sets of items because they have different essential natures (ngo-bo tha-dad). An essential nature (ngo-bo) is the basic type of phenomenon that something is, such as something being a sight, a sound, or a way of being aware of something.

Deepest true phenomena are those items, the mode of existence of which withstands analysis. All nonstatic (mi-rtag-pa, impermanent) phenomena, as objective entities (rang-mtshan, individually characterized phenomena), are deepest true phenomena. Objective entities are those phenomena whose existence is not established by their being merely imputable. A hand, for instance, withstands analysis. Upon scrutiny, we discover that it is findable, objectively existing outside the context of our conceptual thinking process. Moreover, deepest true phenomena have substantially established existence (rdzas-su grub-pa). This is because they are able to perform a function (don-byed nus-pa).

Nonstatic phenomena include:

  • forms of physical phenomena (gzugs),

  • ways of being aware of something (shes-pa),

  • nonconcomitant affecting variables (ldan-min ‘du-byed, nonstatic phenomena that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware, nonstatic abstractions), such as a person (gang-zag).

Objective, deepest true phenomena can be apprehended explicitly or implicitly by either valid nonconceptual or valid conceptual cognition.

Superficial true phenomena are those items, the mode of existence of which does not withstand analysis. All static (rtag-pa, permanent) phenomena (static abstractions), as metaphysical entities (spyi-mtshan, generally characterized phenomena), are superficial true phenomena. Metaphysical entities are those phenomena whose existence is established by their being merely imputable. The category hand, for example, does not withstand analysis. Upon scrutiny, we discover that it is not findable, objectively existing outside the context of our conceptual thinking process. Moreover, superficial true phenomena have existence that is not established substantially (rdzas-su ma-grub-pa). This is because they are unable to perform a function.

Static phenomena include:

  • audio categories (sgra-spyi, sound universals),

  • meaning/object categories (don-spyi, meaning/object universals),

  • a person’s lack of existence as an impossible soul (gang-zag-gi bdag-med, selflessness of a person, identitylessness of a person). For ease of discussion, let us call this lack of existence as an impossible soul “a voidness,”

  • a space (nam-mkha’),

  • other absences besides a voidness and a space, such as an absence of flowers in a vase.

[For definitions of these static phenomena, see: The Two Truths in Vaibhashika and Sautrantika.]

Audio categories and meaning/object categories are called “mental exclusions of something else” (blo’i gzhan-sel, mental exclusions). They are the exclusions of everything that is not in a specified category and are implicative negation phenomena (ma-yin dgag, affirming negations). For the sake of convenience, we shall refer to them merely as “categories.”

Voidnesses, spaces, and other absences are called “nonimplicative negation exclusions of something else” (med-dgag-gi gzhan-sel). For the sake of convenience, we shall sometimes refer to them merely as “absences.”

[For definitions of implicative and nonimplicative negation phenomena, see:Affirmations, Negations, and Denumerable and Nondenumerable Ultimate Phenomena.]

Metaphysical, superficial true phenomena cannot be explicitly apprehended; they can only be implicitly apprehended.

  • Categories occur only in the context of conceptual cognition.

  • Absences can be apprehended in either conceptual or nonconceptual cognitions.

Conceptual cognition explicitly apprehends only deepest true phenomena, since they are what actually appear (snang) in the cognition.

  • The appearing objects (snang-yul) in conceptual cognition are superficially true categories or absences.

  • Conceptual mental cognition does not apprehend the superficially true categories, or absences because they are not the involved objects of the cognition. Only the reflexive awareness (rang-rig) that accompanies the conceptual cognition apprehends these superficial true phenomena. It does so, implicitly and nonconceptually, while it simultaneously apprehends, explicitly and nonconceptually, the mental consciousness and accompanying subsidiary awarenesses (mental factors) of the conceptual cognition.

Thus, although superficial true phenomena may be implicitly apprehended, nonconceptually, by reflexive awareness; nevertheless, since this implicit apprehension by reflexive awareness is occurring in a conceptual cognition, it is said that the implicit apprehension here is conceptual. .

When nonconceptual cognitions, such as bare visual cognition, are said to apprehend, implicitly, absences such as the absence of a vase on a table, they do not actually have bare visual cognition of the absences themselves – they do not actually “see” the absences. As metaphysical, superficial true phenomena, absences can only occur in conceptual cognitions simultaneously with the nonconceptual cognitions and be implicitly apprehended by the reflexive awareness that accompanies those conceptual cognitions. They are implicitly apprehended without a mental aspect representing the absence appearing in the cognition and without a category absence.

Nonconceptual cognitions cannot implicitly apprehend categories or absences.

Self-sufficiently Knowable and Imputedly Knowable Phenomena

Among objective, deepest true phenomena, forms of physical phenomena and ways of being aware of something are self-sufficiently knowable phenomena (rdzas-yod). Self-sufficiently knowable phenomena are validly knowable phenomena that, when actually cognized (dngos-bzung), do not rely on actual cognition of or by something else. This means that they can be cognized without the immediately preceding cognition having to take on the mental aspect of another deepest true phenomenon and then, when cognizing these objects themselves, needing, simultaneously, also to cognize this other deepest true phenomenon.

  • Actual cognition refers to manifest (mngon-gyur-ba) cognition, either nonconceptual or conceptual, and, when the manifest cognition is a valid cognition, either with explicit or implicit apprehension.

  • In manifest cognition with explicit apprehension of a cognitive object, the consciousness of the manifest cognition gives rise to a mental aspect representing the object. The cognitive object appears, through that aspect, both to the person and to the consciousness of the manifest cognition. Both the person and the manifest consciousness cognize the object. Manifest cognition with implicit apprehension of a cognitive object is one that occurs in the context of a manifest cognition with explicit apprehension.

  • For example, when seeing or thinking of a hand, we cognize the hand without our visual or mental cognition needing to take on the cognitive appearance of anything other than the hand, such as five fingers, immediately preceding our cognition and then simultaneously with it.

Nonconcomitant affecting variables and metaphysical, superficial true phenomena are imputedly knowable (btags-yod). Imputedly knowable phenomena are those validly knowable phenomena that, when actually cognized, do rely on actual cognition of or by something else. Cognition of them requires immediately preceding and simultaneous cognition of their bases for imputation (gdags-gzhi).

Consider the example of a nonstatic nonconcomitant affecting variable, such as a person:

  • When seeing or thinking of a person, we cognize the person only by our visual or mental cognition taking on the fully transparent mental aspect (cognitive appearance) both of the person and of a suitable basis for imputing the person, such as his or her body. In either case, both the person and the visual form of his or her body are the involved objects of the cognition.

  • We cannot see or think of a person with only a cognitive appearance of the person arising, without a cognitive appearance of some basis for imputing that person also arising. This is because a person is something imputed on a basis for imputation. In simple words, we cannot see a person without first and then also simultaneously seeing his or her body. We cannot think of a person without first and then also simultaneously thinking of his or her physical appearance, his or her name, the sound of his or her voice, or something like that.

  • Nevertheless, when we see or think of a person, a cognitive appearance of the person arises and we cognize the person. This is because persons are substantially existent, which means they are able to perform functions, and, conventionally, we need to accept that persons perform functions. Persons do things, such as walk or talk. To say that only a body walks or talks contradicts convention.

Consider the case of a static absence, such as a space. A space is defined as the absence of any obstructive contact – in other words, the absence of any material object that could be contacted in a location and that would obstruct something being there. Specifically, consider the example of seeing an empty space in a vase. We cannot “see” an absence of any obstructive contact in a vase unless:

  • In the immediately preceding moment of cognition, our eye consciousness gives rise to a cognitive appearance (a mental aspect) of the two deepest true phenomena a vase and an “in-between area” (bar-snang) inside it, in between the sides and the bottom of the vase, and apprehends these two deepest true phenomena, explicitly through these cognitive appearances, with nonconceptual visual cognition.

  • While nonconceptual visual cognition continues explicitly to apprehend the vase and the in-between area inside the vase, conceptual mental cognition also gives rise to a cognitive appearance of the vase and the in-between area inside the vase, and explicitly apprehends them. However, the conceptual cognition cognizes this in-between area not only through the medium of the cognitive appearance, but also through the additional medium of the nonimplicative negation exclusion (the concept) absence of any obstructive contact. A mental aspect representing an absence of any obstructive contact does not appear in the cognition, nor is there present a category absence of any obstructive contact. The nonimplicative negation absence of any obstructive contact is implicitly apprehended by the reflexive awareness that accompanies the conceptual cognition.

  • While conceptual mental cognition continues to cognize the absence of any obstructive contact in the above manner, the nonconceptual visual cognition continues explicitly to apprehend the vase and the in-between area inside it. It is only roughly speaking that we can say that the nonconceptual visual cognition implicitly apprehends the absence of any obstructive contact in the vase.

In the case of a static category, such as the meaning/object category hand, we cannot think with the meaning/object category hand unless:

  • In the immediately preceding moment of cognition, our eye consciousness gives rise to a cognitive appearance (a mental aspect) of a hand and apprehends this deepest true phenomenon (the hand), explicitly, with nonconceptual visual cognition.

  • While nonconceptual visual cognition continues explicitly to apprehend the hand, conceptual mental cognition also gives rise to a cognitive appearance of the hand and explicitly apprehends it. However, the conceptual cognition cognizes the hand not only through the medium of the cognitive appearance, but also through the medium of a meaning/object category hand. This is how we recognize this object – which, according to Sautrantika, is objectively a hand – as fitting onto the category hand and not into the category foot or vase. The category hand is the appearing object of the conceptual cognition and is implicitly apprehended by the reflexive awareness that accompanies the conceptual cognition.

[See: The Distinction between Self-Sufficiently Knowable and Imputedly Knowable Phenomena.]

Cognition of Two Truths When Cognizing Voidness

In the context of Sautrantika, voidness refers to a person’s lack of existence as an impossible soul. A person is a deepest true phenomenon, while its lack of existence as an impossible soul (its voidness) is a superficial true phenomenon – specifically, a superficially true absence. Here, both truths are imputedly knowable, and they may be imputably knowable with either of two states of mind: total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise) or subsequent attainment (rjes-thob, subsequent realization, post-meditation).

[For the specific types of impossible soul that a person lacks existence as according to Sautrantika, see: The Two Truths in Vaibhashika and Sautrantika.]

Total Absorption and Subsequent Attainment Cognition

Total absorption is a state of mind having the joined pair (zung-’brel) of shamatha (zhi-gnas, a stilled and settled state of mind, mental quiescence, calm abiding) and vipashyana (lhag-mthong, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, special insight), and in which absorbed concentration (ting-nge-’dzin, Skt. samadhi) is focused single-pointedly on a voidness that is like space (nam-mkha’ lta-bu’i stong-pa-nyid, space-like voidness).

  • The total absorption of an applying pathway mind (sbyor-lam, path of preparation) is conceptual.

  • The total absorptions of a seeing pathway mind (mthong-lam, path of seeing) and an accustoming pathway mind (sgom-lam, path of meditation) are nonconceptual and are the total absorptions of an arya.

Subsequent attainment is a state of mind having the joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana, and in which absorbed concentration is focused single-pointedly on a voidness that is like an illusion (sgyu-ma lta-bu’i stong-pa-nyid, illusion-like voidness).

  • Subsequent attainment is conceptual or nonconceptual depending on the pathway mind it is a state of, in accord with the same criteria as pertain to total absorptions. Even when nonconceptual, however, the nonconceptual phase of subsequent attainment may be followed by a conceptual phase.

  • Subsequent attainment cognition occurs only immediately following total absorption cognition.

Nonconceptual total absorption is with bare yogic cognition (rnal-‘byor mngon-sum). Conceptual total absorption and both conceptual and nonconceptual subsequent attainments are with mental cognition.

  • Bare yogic cognition is a valid nonconceptual cognition that arises from the dominating condition (bdag-rkyen) of a state of combined shamatha and vipashyana, and which cognizes either subtle nonstaticness or voidness. When it cognizes voidness, it occurs only during the total absorption of an arya. Although it occurs with mental consciousness, it does not arise, in the manner of mental consciousness, from the dominating condition of mental sensors (yid-kyi dbang-po). A mental sensor is an immediately preceding moment of cognition.

Conceptual Cognition of Voidness

Consider the conceptual total absorption cognition of the voidness of a person.

  1. First, we apprehend explicitly a deepest true phenomenon that can serve as a basis for the imputation of a person – for instance, we explicitly apprehend a body through a mental aspect representing the body.

  2. Then, we explicitly apprehend both a body and a person imputably knowable on the basis of the body. Both are deepest true phenomena and both are apprehended through mental aspects representing them.

  3. Simultaneously with the previous cognition is the arising, on the basis of the person, of a mental aspect (an appearance) representing existence as an impossible soul of a person. This mental aspect is also a deepest true phenomenon. However, it does not reveal anything through it, because there is no such thing as existence as an impossible soul of a person. The part of the cognition that takes as its object the appearance of existence as an impossible soul of a person is distorted. If all three steps are with conceptual cognition, they are also through the medium of the superficially true meaning/object categories body, person, and existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person. The categories body and person are implicitly apprehended by the reflexive awareness that accompanies the conceptual cognition.

  4. We then scrutinize, with logical analysis, existence established as an impossible soul of a person. At this point, the cognition must be conceptual, since logical analysis relies on lines of reasoning and is therefore always conceptual.

  5. After scrutinizing, we decisively understand that there is no such thing as existence established as an impossible soul of a person. Simultaneously with this understanding, the mental aspect representing existence as an impossible soul of a person and the category existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person are decisively cut off from the cognition.

  6. Simultaneously with this understanding and this cutting off, we continue explicitly to apprehend conceptually the body and the person. In addition, we conceptually cognize a nonimplicative negation a lack of existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person (a voidness of a person), imputedly knowable on the basis of the person. .

  7. The deepest true phenomena a body and a person are explicitly apprehended with conceptual mental cognition, because mental aspects representing them are what actually appear in the cognition. No mental aspect representing the superficially true phenomenon a lack of existence as an impossible soul of a person, however, appears in the cognition. Nor is there present the category a lack of existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person. The superficially true nonimplicative negation phenomenon a lack of existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person and the superficially true categories body and person are implicitly apprehended by the reflexive awareness that accompanies the conceptual cognition. Although the conceptual mental cognition itself does not actually implicitly apprehend a lack of existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person; nevertheless, roughly speaking, we can say that voidness here is implicitly apprehended by the conceptual mental cognition

Consider the conceptual subsequent attainment cognition of the voidness of a person, which immediately follows this conceptual total absorption.

  • The deepest true phenomena a body and a person continue to be explicitly apprehended with conceptual cognition. The superficially true nonimplicative negation phenomenon a lack of existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person and the superficially true categories body and person continue to be implicitly apprehended by the reflexive awareness that accompanies the conceptual cognition. Roughly speaking, we can still say that the lack of existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person is implicitly apprehended by the conceptual mental cognition.

  • Now, however, a mental aspect representing existence as an impossible soul of a person appears in the conceptual cognition once more and is also cognized by the conceptual cognition through the medium of the superficially true category existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person.

  • In this way, we realize that although there is an appearance of an impossible soul of a person and it seems as though the person actually exists in the manner of this impossible soul, there is actually no such thing as an impossible soul. The appearance is merely like an illusion. The manner of appearance (snang-tshul) of a person does not correspond to its manner of abiding (gnas-tshul, manner of existence).

Nonconceptual Cognition of Voidness

During the total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise) phase of an arya’s nonconceptual cognition of the voidness of a person, the first five steps of the sequence are the same as in the analysis of conceptual total absorption cognition of the voidness of a person.

  • In the sixth step, simultaneously with the decisive understanding that there is no such thing as existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person and the cutting off of the mental aspect representing existence as an impossible soul of a person and the category existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person, we explicitly apprehend, nonconceptually, the deepest true phenomena a body and a person.

  • Simultaneously with that nonconceptual explicit apprehension of deepest true phenomena, we cognize conceptually the superficially true nonimplicative negation a lack of existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person imputedly knowable on the basis of the person.

The deepest true phenomena a body and a person are explicitly apprehended with nonconceptual bare yogic cognition (rnal-‘byor mngon-sum). The superficial true phenomenon the lack of existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person is implicitly apprehended with the reflexive awareness that accompanies the conceptual cognition of the lack of an impossible soul of a person. As in the case of conceptual total absorption cognition of voidness no mental aspect representing a lack of existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person appears in the cognition; nor is there present the category a lack of existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person.

Although in an arya’s total absorption on voidness, only the deepest true phenomena are apprehended in the context of a nonconceptual cognition, while the superficial phenomenon is apprehended in the context of a conceptual cognition; the cognition taken as a whole is considered as nonconceptual total absorption cognition of voidness. This is why, roughly speaking, we can say that the bare yogic cognition implicitly apprehends voidness nonconceptually.

During the subsequent attainment (rjes-thob, post-meditation period) phase of an arya’s nonconceptual cognition of the voidness of a person,

  • The deepest true phenomena a body and a person are explicitly apprehended with nonconceptual mental cognition. A mental aspect representing existence as an impossible soul of a person also arises in the cognition.

  • Simultaneously, the superficial true phenomenon a lack of existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person is cognized by conceptual cognition and imputedly apprehended by the reflexive awareness that accompanies the conceptual cognition.

  • As was the case with nonconceptual total absorption cognition of voidness, roughly speaking we could say that the nonconceptual subsequent attainment cognition apprehends voidness implicitly.

  • During the phase of conceptual subsequent attainment cognition that may follow this nonconceptual phase, the structure is the same as that of conceptual subsequent attainment cognition before the stage of an arya. The difference is that the grasping for an impossible soul of a person (gang-zag-gi bdag-‘dzin) that occurs here is parted from whatever portion of this grasping the uninterrupted pathway mind (bar-chad-med lam) phase of the total absorption has gotten rid of (spang-ba, abandoned).

  Conceptual total absorption Conceptual subsequent attainment Nonconceptual total absorption Nonconceptual subsequent attainment
A body and a person

Yes, explicit conceptual,

by mental cognition

Yes, explicit conceptual,

by mental cognition

Yes, explicit nonconceptual, by yogic cognition Yes, explicit nonconceptual, by mental cognition
A mental aspect representing a body and a person Yes Yes Yes Yes
The categories body and person

Yes, implicit conceptual,

by reflexive awareness

Yes, implicit conceptual,

by reflexive awareness

No No
Existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person No No No No
A mental aspect representing existence as an impossible soul of a person No Yes No Yes
The category existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person No Yes No No
The lack of existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person

Yes, so-called “implicit conceptual,”

by mental cognition

Yes, so-called “implicit conceptual,”

by mental cognition

Yes, so-called “implicit nonconceptual,”

by yogic cognition

Yes, so-called “implicit nonconceptual,”

by mental cognition

A mental aspect representing the lack of existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person No No No No
The category a lack of existence actually established as an impossible soul of a person No No No No

 

The Gelug Chittamatra Tenet System

[As background, see: Basic Features of the Gelug Chittamatra System.]

The Lack of an Impossible Soul of Phenomena

As a Mahayana tenet system, Chittamatra asserts not only the same lack of an impossible soul of a person as Sautrantika does, but also asserts the lack of an impossible soul of phenomena (chos-kyi bdag-med, selflessness of phenomena, identitylessness of phenomena). An example of such a lack 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). In other words, the voidness of the existence of forms of physical phenomena as external objects (phyi-don).

The Three Types of Characterized Phenomena

Further, Chittamatra divides all phenomena into three types of characterized phenomena (mtshan-nyid gsum):

  • phenomena characterized as totally conceptional (kun-brtags-pa’i mtshan-nyid, totally conceptual phenomena, imaginary objects),

  • phenomena characterized as dependent (gzhan-dbang-gi mtshan-nyid, dependent phenomena, other-powered phenomena, relative objects),

  • phenomena characterized as thoroughly established (yongs-su grub-pa’i mtshan-nyid, thoroughly established phenomena, perfect objects).

Totally conceptual phenomena include existent ones and nonexistent ones. Existent totally conceptual phenomena (yod-pa’i kun-brtags) include all static phenomena other than voidnesses (in other words, other than the various types of lack of impossible soul). Nonexistent totally conceptual phenomena (med-pa’i kun-brtags) include turtle-hair and impossible souls (impossible ways of existing).

Dependent phenomena include all nonstatic phenomena.

Thoroughly established phenomena include all voidnesses.

Although Chittamatra divides all phenomena into objective and metaphysical entities, it classifies thoroughly established phenomena as objective entities rather than in the way that Sautrantika does: namely, as metaphysical entities.

The Two Truths

In Chittamatra, the two truths share the same essential nature (ngo-bo gcig), rather than having different essential natures as Sautrantika asserts. In other words, in Chittamatra, the two truths are the same essential phenomenon, but merely scrutinized from two different points of view. When analyzed from the point of view of convention, one finds a superficial truth – something is a dependent phenomenon or a totally conceptional phenomenon. When analyzed from the point of view of deepest truth, one finds a deepest truth – it is devoid of existing in an impossible manner, namely with an impossible soul. That deepest truth is a thoroughly established phenomenon.

Thus, deepest truths (don-dam bden-pa, ultimate truths) are defined as those phenomena that are ultimately (mthar-thug) found by a valid cognition scrutinizing (dpyod-byed, analyzing) what is deepest (don-dam-pa, ultimate). Only thoroughly established phenomena are deepest truths.

Superficial truths (kun-rdzob bden-pa, relative truths, conventional truths) are defined as those phenomena that are found by a valid cognition scrutinizing what is conventional (tha-snyad, Skt. vyavahara). Dependent and existent totally conceptional phenomena are superficial truths.

Thus, in Chittamatra, all nonstatic phenomena are superficial truths. Some static phenomena are also superficial truths: namely, existent totally conceptional ones; and some static phenomena are deepest truths: namely, voidnesses. This contrasts greatly with the Sautrantika system, in which all nonstatic phenomena are deepest truths and all static phenomena are superficial truths.

As for how the phenomena included among the two truths may be apprehended (whether nonconceptually or conceptually, whether explicitly or implicitly):

  • Superficially true dependent phenomena and deepest true thoroughly established phenomena may be apprehended in the same ways and in the same types of cognition as Sautrantika explains for deepest true nonstatic phenomena.

  • Superficially true existent totally conceptional phenomena may be apprehended in the same ways and in the same types of cognition as Sautrantika explains for superficially true static phenomena.

Self-sufficiently Knowable and Imputedly Knowable Phenomena

As in Sautrantika, nonstatic nonconcomitant affecting variables (better translated as “nonstatic abstractions” in the Chittamatra context) and static phenomena are imputedly knowable, while nonstatic phenomena are self-sufficiently knowable. Thus, imputedly knowable phenomena include nonstatic abstractions, existent totally conceptional phenomena, and thoroughly established phenomena. Chittamatra, however, makes a distinction between how, on the one hand, nonstatic abstractions and existent totally conceptional phenomena are imputedly knowable and how, on the other hand, thoroughly established phenomena are imputedly knowable.

  • Actual valid cognition of nonstatic abstractions and of existent totally conceptional phenomena requires reliance on both immediately preceding as well as simultaneous actual cognition of their bases for imputation.

  • Actual valid nonconceptual cognition of thoroughly established phenomena requires reliance only on immediately preceding actual cognition of their bases for imputation. It does not require simultaneous actual cognition of these bases. Therefore, once the basis for imputation of a voidness has actually been cognized, the voidness imputedly knowable on it can actually be cognized immediately after that, but only nonconceptually, without the basis for the voidness also being cognized in the cognition.

Cognition of the Two Truths

Conceptual Cognition of Voidness

Consider the case of conceptual total absorption on the voidness of the existence of a form of a physical phenomenon, for instance a hand, as an external object that derives from a different natal source than the valid cognition cognizing that form. For short, let us refer to this voidness as “a voidness of existence as an external object.”

  1. First, we explicitly apprehend the superficially true phenomenon a hand through a mental aspect representing a hand. Simultaneously with that explicit apprehension, we distortedly cognize, on the basis of the hand, a mental aspect representing existence as an external object. If all of the preceding is with conceptual cognition, the explicit apprehension of the hand is also through the medium of the superficially true meaning/object categories hand and existence actually established as an external object. Both categories are implicitly apprehended by the reflexive awareness that accompanies the conceptual cognition.

  2. We then scrutinize, with logical analysis, existence as an external object. At this point, the cognition must be conceptual, since logical analysis relies on lines of reasoning and therefore is always conceptual.

  3. After scrutinizing, we decisively understand that there is no such thing as existence as an external object. Simultaneously with this understanding, the the mental aspect representing existence as an external object and the category existence actually established as an external object are decisively cut off from the cognition.

  4. Simultaneously with this understanding and this cutting off, the mental aspect representing the hand and the category hand also disappear from the cognition. The mental aspect that now appears in our conceptual cognition is one that represents the deepest true phenomenon a voidness of external existence. We explicitly apprehend voidness of external existence through the medium of this mental aspect as well as through the medium of the superficially true category voidness of external existence. The category is implicitly apprehended by the reflexive awareness that accompanies the conceptual cognition. Simultaneously with the explicit apprehension of a voidness of external existence, the conceptual cognition implicitly cognizes the hand. No mental aspect representing a hand appears in the cognition. Nor is there the category hand present in the cognition.

Consider the conceptual subsequent attainment cognition of the voidness of the hand’s existence as an external object, which immediately follows this conceptual total absorption.

  • Once again, the superficially true phenomenon the hand appears in the conceptual cognition through the medium of a mental aspect representing the hand and the category hand. In addition, an aspect representing existence as an external object also appears and is cognized through the category existence actually established as an external object.

  • Simultaneously with the explicit apprehension of the superficially true hand by the conceptual cognition, the conceptual cognition implicitly apprehends the deepest truth about it: its voidness of external existence. The conceptual cognition implicitly apprehends this voidness without a mental aspect representing this voidness appearing in the cognition and without the category voidness of external existence.

Nonconceptual Cognition of Voidness

The steps involved in an arya’s nonconceptual total absorption cognition of a hand’s voidness of existence as an external object are basically the same as those for the conceptual equivalent of this cognition. The only difference is that in the fourth step, the explicit apprehension of the voidness of existence as an external object is by nonconceptual bare yogic cognition and is through the medium of only a mental aspect representing that voidness. The category voidness of external existence is not present in the nonconceptual cognition.

As for an arya’s nonconceptual subsequent attainment cognition of a hand’s voidness of existence as an external object, which immediately follows this nonconceptual total absorption:

  • Once again, the superficially true phenomenon the hand appears in nonconceptual mental cognition through the medium of a mental aspect representing the hand. In addition, an aspect representing existence as an external object also appears and is cognized.

  • Simultaneously with the explicit apprehension of the superficially true hand by the nonconceptual mental cognition, the nonconceptual mental cognition implicitly apprehends the deepest truth about it: its voidness of external existence.

  • During the phase of conceptual subsequent attainment cognition that may follow this nonconceptual phase, the structure is the same as that of conceptual subsequent attainment cognition before the stage of an arya. The difference is that the grasping for an impossible soul of phenomena (chos-kyi bdag-‘dzin) that occurs here is parted from whatever portion of this grasping the uninterrupted pathway mind phase of the total absorption has rid the mind of.

  Conceptual total absorption Conceptual subsequent attainment Nonconceptual total absorption Nonconceptual subsequent attainment
A hand Yes, implicit conceptual, by mental cognition

Yes, explicit conceptual,

by mental cognition

No Yes, explicit nonconceptual, by mental cognition
A mental aspect representing a hand No Yes No Yes
The category hand No

Yes, implicit conceptual,

by reflexive awareness

No No
Existence actually established as an external object No No No No
A mental aspect representing existence as an external object No Yes No Yes
The category existence actually established as an external object No Yes No No
Voidness of existence as an external object

Yes, explicit conceptual,

by mental cognition

Yes, implicit conceptual,

by mental cognition

Yes, explicit nonconceptual, by yogic cognition Yes, implicit nonconceptual, by mental cognition
A mental aspect representing the voidness of existence as an external object Yes No Yes No
The category voidness of existence as an external object

Yes, implicit conceptual,

by reflexive awareness

No No No

Further Points

The Appearance of Voidness when Explicitly Apprehended

Chittamatra asserts that phenomena lack two types of impossible soul. Although they do not differentiate the two as coarse and subtle, since both are subtle, let us use the terms "coarse" and "subtle" in reference to them for ease of discussion.

The voidness of the existence of a form of a physical phenomenon as an external object that derives from a different natal source than the valid cognition cognizing that form is the coarse lack of an impossible soul of all phenomena (the coarse voidness of all phenomena – “coarse voidness,” for short). Coarse voidness pertains only to dependent phenomena, because only the nonstatic phenomena in a cognition derive from a natal source. Static phenomena are unaffected by causes and conditions. Thus, there is no such thing as the coarse voidness of coarse voidness itself. This means that even during conceptual total absorption on coarse voidness, the conceptually explicitly apprehended coarse voidness does not appear to have existence as an external object.

In Chittamatra, the subtle voidness of all phenomena is the voidness of forms of physical phenomena having existence established by individual defining characteristic marks as foundations on which affix the sound of the words “forms of physical phenomena.” Subtle voidness pertains to all phenomena, including thoroughly established ones. Thus, during conceptual total absorption on subtle voidness, the conceptual mental cognition that explicitly apprehends subtle voidness makes an appearance of it as having existence established by individual defining characteristic marks as foundations on which affix the sound of the words “subtle voidness.” This is because conceptual cognition always makes an appearance of its explicitly apprehended object as having existence established in this impossible way.

The conceptual total absorption cognition explicitly apprehends this appearance of an impossible way of existing through the medium of the category existence established by individual defining characteristic marks as foundations on which affix the sound of the words for that object and that category is implicitly apprehended by the reflexive awareness that accompanies the conceptual cognition. The conceptual total absorption, however, does not apprehend and does not even cognize the impossible way of existing itself, because such a mode of existence does not exist at all. In technical terms, the conceptually implied object (zhen-yul, implied object) of the conceptual cognition of the impossible way of existing is a nonexistent totally conceptional phenomenon.

  • Likewise, during conceptual total absorption on coarse voidness, the conceptual mental cognition that explicitly apprehends coarse voidness makes an appearance of it as having existence established by individual defining characteristic marks as foundations on which affix the sound of the words “coarse voidness” and cognizes it through the medium of the category of this impossible way of existing.

  • During nonconceptual total absorption on either coarse or subtle voidness of all phenomena, however, the bare yogic cognition does not make an appearance of the voidness as having existence established by individual defining characteristic marks as foundations on which affix the sound of the words “voidness.” This is because nonconceptual total absorption on a voidness does not make any appearance of a superficial truth. In the Mahayana sutra traditions, if a cognition makes an appearance of a superficial truth, it is an appearance of that superficial truth with an impossible mode of existence.

Implicit Apprehension by Total Absorption Cognition

According to the Jetsunpa textbook tradition, although neither conceptual nor nonconceptual total absorption cognition of a hand’s voidness of existence as an external object implicitly apprehends the hand, nevertheless either of the two types of cognition may implicitly apprehend something else. While explicitly apprehending the hand’s voidness of existence deriving from a different natal source than the valid cognition of itself, the total absorption may implicitly apprehend the hand’s existence as deriving from the same natal source as the valid cognition of itself. Conceptual and nonconceptual total absorption on the lack of an impossible soul of a person, however, does not implicitly apprehend anything.

The Gelug Svatantrika Madhyamaka Systems

Svatantrika Madhyamaka is divided into Yogachara Svatantrika and Sautrantika Svatantrika.

  • The Yogachara Svatantrika system asserts cognition of the two truths in the same manner as does Chittamatra. Thus, it accepts reflexive awareness and rejects external existence. The only major difference is that, in this system, subtle voidness of phenomena is the voidness of truly established existence (bden-par grub-pa, true existence) – namely, the voidness of existence established from the side of an object’s own uncommon manner of abiding, without also being set by the power of something additional from the mind (namely, imputation). It rejects the subtle voidness of phenomena asserted by Chittamatra.

  • The Sautrantika Svatantrika system does not accept the existence of reflexive awareness and asserts external existence. Thus, it asserts only one level of voidness of phenomena, namely the same voidness as Yogachara Svatantrika asserts as subtle voidness of phenomena. It rejects the coarse voidness of phenomena that is asserted by Chittamatra and Yogachara Svatantrika, as well as the subtle voidness asserted by Chittamatra. Within the parameters of its own assertions of voidness of phenomena, Sautrantika Svatantrika accepts the explanation of cognition of the two truths much in the same way as Prasangika Madhyamaka asserts. However, it asserts valid bare cognition (mngon-sum tshad-ma) in the same way as do Sautrantika, Chittamatra, and Yogachara Svatantrika – namely, it asserts that it is always nonconceptual.

The Gelug Prasangika Madhyamaka System

[As background, see: The Validity and Accuracy of Cognition of the Two Truths in Gelug Prasangika.]

Self-sufficiently Knowable and Imputedly Knowable Phenomena

Prasangika accepts the common division scheme between self-sufficiently and imputedly knowable phenomena as asserted by Chittamatra, but considers imputably knowable, in this shared sense held in common with Chittamatra, as coarse imputedly knowable.

From the subtler point of view, however, all phenomena are imputably knowable, dependently arising from reliance on a basis for imputation. This does not mean, however, that we need to cognize the basis for imputation first and then we cognize, simultaneously, both the basis and the referent object (btags-chos, imputed object, labeled object) of the imputed label or concept. It simply means that the referent object cannot be cognized without its existence being established merely by its depending on a basis for imputation.

Except for the case of voidness, the referent object and the basis for imputation need to be cognized simultaneously. In the case of voidness, although the voidness, as the referent object of the imputation voidness, does not exist independently of a basis for its imputation, it can be explicitly apprehended, nonconceptually, without simultaneous apprehension, either explicitly or implicitly, of its basis for imputation.

Prasangika does not accept self-sufficient knowability on this subtler level of analysis because it does not assert substantially established existence. Rather, all phenomena have existence established by their being merely imputable by conceptual cognition. There is no substantial essence findable on the side of an object that establishes its existence.

No Reflexive Awareness

Prasangika does not assert reflexive awareness. All conceptual apprehensions have implicit apprehension of themselves and of the categories that occur in them. As for nonconceptual apprehensions:

  • The Jetsunpa textbook tradition asserts that they all have implicit apprehension of themselves.

  • The Panchen (Pan-chen) and Kunkyen (Kun-mkhyen) textbook traditions follow Kaydrubjey (mKhas-grub rJe dGe-legs dpal-bzang) on this point. They assert that the uninterrupted pathway mind (bar-chad med-lam) phase of an arya’s nonconceptual total absorption on voidness does not have implicit apprehension of anything, including itself, while it has explicit apprehension of voidness. All other nonconceptual apprehensions have implicit apprehension of themselves. The Panchen textbook tradition was founded by Panchen Sonam-dragpa (Pan-chen bSod-nams grags-pa) and is followed by Drepung Loseling (‘ Bras-spungs Blo-gsal-gling) and Ganden Shartsey (dGa’-ldan Shar-rtse) Monasteries. The Kunkyen textbook tradition was founded by the Second Kunkyen Jamyang-shaypa (Kun-mkhyen ‘Jam-dbyangs bzhad-pa rdo-rje II, dKon-mchog ‘jigs-med dbang-po) and is followed by Drepung Gomang (‘ Bras-spungs sGo-mang) Monastery.

The Voidness of All Phenomena

Prasangika asserts only a subtle lack of impossible soul of all phenomena – in other words, only a subtle voidness of phenomena. This is the voidness of truly established existence, but defined differently from the way that the other tenet systems define it. According to Prasangika, truly established existence is existence established from atop an object on its own side, without being satisfied that it is merely imputable by conceptual cognition. Within the parameters of the voidness of true existence, however, Prasangika asserts external existence.

The Two Truths and the Three Types of Characterized Phenomena

In general, Prasangika defines the two truths in the same way as does Chittamatra. Deepest truths are those phenomena that are findable by a valid cognition scrutinizing what is ultimate (mthar-thug). Superficial truths are those phenomena that are findable by a valid cognition scrutinizing what is conventional. Thus, the deepest truth about any phenomenon is its voidness and the superficial truth about it is its cognitive appearance – what the basis for voidness is and how it appears to exist.

In these definitions, “findable” does not imply that the scrutinizing valid cognitions find, on the side of the scrutinized phenomena, the referent “thing” (btags-don) corresponding to the name or label for the phenomenon. If the scrutinizing valid cognitions could find such a referent “thing,” the phenomenon would fulfill the definition of having existence established by its self-nature (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa, inherent existence). Prasangika is unique among the tenet systems in asserting that nothing has its existence established in this impossible way. “ Findable” here in the definitions of the two truths simply means that the scrutinizing valid cognitions take the phenomena as their involved objects and explicitly apprehend them.

In terms of the three types of characterized phenomena, dependent phenomena refer both to nonstatic phenomena as well as to existent static phenomena other than voidnesses. “Dependent” here means dependently arising based on imputation by names and concepts, not simply dependent on causes and conditions. Totally conceptional phenomena refer only to nonexistent ones – specifically, to impossible ways of existing. Thoroughly established phenomena are voidnesses, in which the objects nullified (dgag-bya, object to be refuted) are the totally conceptional phenomena.

As in Chittamatra, totally conceptional and dependent phenomena are superficial truths, while thoroughly established phenomena are deepest truths.

[See: The Appearance and Cognition of Nonexistent Phenomena: Gelug Presentation.]

Impure and Pure Superficial Truths

There are two types of superficial truths:

  • The appearances of dependent or thoroughly established phenomena as existing in the manner of totally conceptional phenomena constitute impure superficial truths (ma-dag-pa’i kun-rdzob).

  • The appearances of dependent or thoroughly established phenomena as lacking existence in the manner of totally conceptional phenomena constitute pure superficial truths (dag-pa’i kun-rdzob).

  • Only nonconceptual clear light (‘od-gsal) cognition with the subtlest level of consciousness makes appearances of pure superficial truths and cognizes them. Achieving such cognition is not possible in the sutra systems. The attainment of clear light cognition of the two truths is the exclusive domain of anuttarayoga tantra. Any other type of cognition that makes a cognitive appearance of a superficial truth makes a cognitive appearance only of an impure superficial truth.

When a cognition makes an impure appearance of true existence, it is not that first clear light cognition makes a pure appearance of non-true existence and then, based on that, other types of cognition superimpose an impure appearance of true existence on the basis of the pure appearance. Moreover, it is also not the case that a validly knowable phenomenon exists with a pure appearance established from the side of the object. The pure and impure appearances arise simultaneously, indistinguishably mixed like milk and water, dependently on the appearance-making activity of mind. Thus, although an appearance of true existence is imputedly knowable, it is not the case that first the basis for imputation of it is cognized by itself and then the basis together with the imputed true existence are cognized simultaneously.

Except for yogic cognition and nonconceptual clear light cognition, all other cognitions, both conceptual and nonconceptual, give rise to mental aspects representing true existence imputably knowable on the basis of all other mental aspects that it makes appear.

Conceptual Cognition

Unlike the other Buddhist tenet systems, Prasangika does not assert that what we have been translating as “valid bare cognition” (mngon-sum tshad-ma) is always nonconceptual. Prasangika defines this type of cognition as a valid cognition that does not arise by directly depending on a line of reasoning. Thus, in the Prasangika context, it is better to translate the term for this cognition as “valid straightforward cognition.”

Because of this change in definition, Prasangika asserts that valid straightforward mental cognition may be either conceptual or nonconceptual. Consequently, there are two types of valid conceptual cognition of voidness. One directly relies on a line of reasoning. This is valid inferential cognition (rjes-dpag tshad-ma). The other, valid conceptual straightforward cognition, does not directly rely on a line of reasoning, but is still through the medium of the category voidness.

  • Valid straightforward sensory and yogic cognition, however, is only nonconceptual. This is because sensory and yogic cognition can never be conceptual.

Cognition of the Two Truths

Conceptual Cognition of Voidness

Consider conceptual total absorption cognition of a hand’s voidness of truly established existence:

  1. First, we explicitly apprehend the superficially true phenomenon a hand through a mental aspect representing a hand. Simultaneously with that explicit apprehension, we distortedly cognize a mental aspect representing true existence imputably knowable on the basis of the hand. If all of the preceding is with conceptual cognition, the explicit apprehension of the hand is also through the media of the superficially true meaning/object categories hand and truly established existence. Both categories are implicitly apprehended by the conceptual cognition itself.

  2. We then scrutinize true existence. At first, our scrutiny must start by depending directly on a line of reasoning, and our conceptual cognition of voidness begins as an inferential cognition. From the second moment onwards, that cognition becomes conceptual straightforward cognition of voidness. With sufficient familiarity with this inferential cognition, we eventually are able to achieve conceptual straightforward cognition of voidness immediately. We merely apply our previously gained understanding of voidness, without needing to go through a line of reasoning in our meditation.

  3. After scrutinizing, either with or without direct reliance on a line of reasoning, we decisively understand that there is no such thing as true existence. Simultaneously with this understanding, the mental aspect representing the hand and the category hand, as well as what was imputedly knowable on the basis of them – namely, the mental aspect representing true existence and the category truly established existence – are decisively cut off from the cognition. All of these are cut off simultaneously because conceptual cognition cannot make an appearance of anything without making it appear as if having true existence.

  4. Simultaneously with this understanding and this cutting off, we explicitly apprehend only a deepest true phenomenon a voidness of true existence. We explicitly apprehend this voidness with conceptual mental cognition through the medium of both a mental aspect that represents that voidness and the superficially true category voidness of true existence. Moreover, the conceptual cognition gives rise to a mental aspect representing true existence, imputed on the voidness of true existence, and cognizes it through the medium of the category truly established existence. Only the category voidness of true existence is implicitly apprehended by the conceptual cognition. Moreover, simultaneously with the explicit apprehension of voidness, the conceptual cognition implicitly cognizes the hand. No mental aspect representing a hand appears in the cognition. Nor is there the category hand present in the cognition.

Consider the conceptual subsequent attainment cognition of the voidness of the hand’s true existence, which immediately follows this conceptual total absorption.

  • Once again, the superficially true phenomenon the hand appears in the conceptual cognition through the medium of a mental aspect representing the hand and the category hand. In addition, an aspect representing true existence also appears, imputed on the hand, and is cognized through the category truly established existence.

  • Simultaneously with the explicit apprehension of the superficially true hand by the conceptual cognition, the conceptual cognition implicitly apprehends the deepest truth about it: its voidness of true existence. The conceptual cognition implicitly apprehends this voidness without a mental aspect representing this voidness appearing in the cognition and without the category voidness of true existence.

Nonconceptual Cognition of Voidness

The steps involved in an arya’s nonconceptual total absorption cognition of a hand’s voidness of true existence are basically the same as those for the conceptual equivalent of this cognition. The only difference is that in the fourth step, the explicit apprehension of the voidness of true existence is by nonconceptual bare yogic cognition and is through the medium of only a mental aspect representing that voidness. The category voidness of true existence, as well as a mental aspect representing true existence and the category truly established existence are not present in the nonconceptual cognition.

  • According to the Jetsunpa textbook tradition, the nonconceptual total absorption cognition of voidness implicitly apprehends this total absorption. It also has subliminal (bag-la nyal) cognition of the hand, subliminal conventional bodhichitta, subliminal compassion, and, within each of these accompanying subliminal cognitions, subliminal grasping for the truly established existence of the involved objects of those cognitions.

  • According to the Panchen textbook tradition, nonconceptual total absorption on voidness does not implicitly cognize anything, nor does it have any subliminal cognitions. Conventional bodhichitta, compassion, and grasping for true existence are present merely as latencies (bag-chags, habits).

  • Note that all cognitions other than nonconceptual total absorption on voidness give rise to appearances of true existence. Only conceptual cognition, however, has manifest (mngon-gyur-ba) grasping for true existence. Jetsunpa asserts that during nonconceptual cognition – whether sensory, mental, or yogic – grasping for true existence continues in a subliminal form. Panchen asserts that it continues merely as a constant habit.

[See: Dormant Grasping for True Existence According to Gelug Madhymaka.]

As for an arya’s nonconceptual subsequent attainment cognition of a hand’s voidness of true existence, which immediately follows this nonconceptual total absorption cognition:

  • Once again, the superficially true phenomenon the hand appears in nonconceptual mental cognition through the medium of a mental aspect representing the hand. In addition, an aspect representing true existence also appears, imputed on the hand, and is cognized.

  • Simultaneously with the explicit apprehension of the superficially true hand by the nonconceptual mental cognition, the nonconceptual mental cognition implicitly apprehends the deepest truth about it: its voidness of true existence.

  • During the phase of conceptual subsequent attainment cognition that may follow this nonconceptual phase, the structure is the same as that of conceptual subsequent attainment cognition before the stage of an arya. The difference is that the grasping for true existence that occurs here is parted from whatever portion of this grasping the uninterrupted pathway mind phase of the total absorption has rid the mind of.

  Conceptual total absorption Conceptual subsequent attainment Nonconceptual total absorption Nonconceptual subsequent attainment
A hand

Yes, implicit conceptual,

by mental cognition

Yes, explicit conceptual,

by mental cognition

No Yes, explicit nonconceptual, by mental cognition
A mental aspect representing a hand No Yes No Yes
The category hand No

Yes, explicit conceptual,

by mental cognition

No No
True existence No No No No
A mental aspect representing true existence Yes Yes No Yes
The category truly established existence Yes Yes No No
Voidness of true existence

Yes, explicit conceptual,

by mental cognition

Yes, implicit conceptual,

by mental cognition

Yes, explicit nonconceptual, by yogic cognition Yes, implicit nonconceptual, by mental cognition
A mental aspect representing the voidness of true existence Yes No Yes No
A category voidness of true existence

Yes, implicit conceptual,

by mental cognition awareness

No No No