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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 5: Analysis of the Mind and Reality > The Union of Method and Wisdom in Sutra and Tantra: Gelug and Non-Gelug Presentations

The Union of Method and Wisdom in Sutra and Tantra: Gelug and Non-Gelug Presentations

Alexander Berzin
February 2002, revised July 2006
based on clarifications by
Geshe Tenzin Zangpo, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche II,
and Nya-ngo Rinpoche

[As general background, see: Relationships with Objects. As background for chapters 1 and 2, see: Making Sense of Tantra: Part II, Chapter 6.]

1 Gelug Sutra

Method and Wisdom as a Joined Pair

All Mahayana systems in the domains of either the sutra or the tantra teachings aim for a union of method and wisdom in order to reach enlightenment. Here, we shall discuss only the Prasangika Madhyamaka presentation of how to achieve such a union.

On the sutra level, method is conventional bodhichitta (kun-rdzob byang-sems) and wisdom is the discriminating awareness (shes-rab) of voidness (stong-pa-nyid, Skt. shunyata, emptiness). Nonconceptual cognition of voidness is also known as deepest bodhichitta (don-dam byang-sems). Thus, method and wisdom as a joined pair is a joined pair of conventional and deepest bodhichittas.

  • Tsongkhapa asserts that deepest bodhichitta is not actual bodhichitta. This is because if it were, then the absurd conclusion would follow that nonconceptual cognition of not only enlightenment, but even of a vase, would be actual bodhichitta.

The two bodhichittas are the foundations for strengthening and expanding the enlightenment-building networks of positive force (bsod-nams-kyi tshogs) and deep awareness (ye-shes-kyi tshogs) (collections of merit and wisdom). These two networks are the obtaining causes (nyer-len-gyi rgyu) for achieving the body and mind of a Buddha, respectively.

  • The obtaining cause of something is the natal source (rdzas, natal substance) giving rise to the item as its successor. It ceases to exist simultaneously with the arising of its result. For example, a seed is the obtaining cause for a sprout.

The union of method and wisdom that we are able to achieve with the sutra systems is, specifically, method and wisdom as a joined pair (thabs-shes zung-‘brel). A joined pair is the type of joined inseparability (sbyor-bcas-kyi dbyer-med) of two items, in which one of the two is attained before the joining of the pair and then, while maintaining cognition of the first item, we join the second item to it.

  • An inseparability of two items is a relationship in which when one is present, so is the other.

  • A joined inseparability is an inseparability attained through the power of meditation.

[See: Relationships between Two Objects in Anuttarayoga Tantra.]

Different Manners of Cognitively Taking an Object

Conventional bodhichitta, if described roughly, focuses on our own, individual not-yet happening (future) enlightenment with two accompanying intentions (‘ dun-pa): to attain that enlightenment and to benefit all beings by means of that attainment.

Discriminating awareness of voidness focuses on a nonimplicative negation phenomenon (med-dgag, nonimplicative negation, nonaffirmining negation) – namely, on the absolute absence of truly established existence (bden-grub, true existence). It decisively discriminates that there is no such manner of existence. Nothing has its existence or conventional identity (tha-snyad-du yod-pa’i bdag) established by the power of some defining characteristic marks (mtshan-nyid) inherently findable within it.

In sutra, then, the obtaining causes for a body and a mind of a Buddha have different manners of cognitively taking their objects (‘ dzin-stangs).

  • For an item to cognitively take an object (‘ dzin-pa) means for it actively to hold an object in a cognitive manner continually, whenever and for as long as the item occurs or exists. In this case, the item is a way of being aware of an object, either conventional bodhichitta or discriminating awareness of voidness.

On the most basic level, the manner in which bodhichitta cognitively takes its object is with the intention to attain something. The manner in which discriminating awareness cognitively takes its object is with the understanding that there is no such thing. On a deeper level, conventional bodhichitta takes its object by making an appearance of it as seemingly truly existent and grasping for that mode of appearance (snang-tshul) to be the actual mode of existence (gnas-tshul) of its object. Nonconceptual discriminating awareness of voidness takes its object without making an appearance of it as seemingly truly existent and does not have the previous type of grasping for true existence. Thus, the manners in which conventional bodhichitta and nonconceptual discriminating awareness of voidness cognitively take an object are not only different, they are mutually exclusive (dngos-‘gal).

In general, one cognition cannot have more than one manner of cognitively taking its objects. In particular, one cognition cannot have two mutually exclusive manners of cognitively taking its objects. Because of this limitation, the union of method and wisdom as a union of conventional bodhichitta and the discriminating awareness of voidness can only be a joined pair of two individual cognitions. To understand this, let us examine conventional bodhichitta and the discriminating awareness of voidness more closely.

Conventional Bodhicitta

Conventional bodhichitta is an extremely complex cognition. Its focal aspect (dmigs-rnam) consists of:

  • our mental continuum,

  • imputed on our mental continuum, our not-yet-happening enlightenment (ma-’ongs-pa’i byang-chub, future enlightenment),

  • imputed on our not-yet-happening enlightenment, our not-yet-happening acquirement (ma-’ongs-pa’i thob­-pa) of our not-yet-happening enlightenment.

Within this complex focal aspect, the parts (cha) that are our enlightenment and our acquirement of our enlightenment are affirmation phenomena (sgrub-pa). An affirmation phenomenon is one that, when apprehended (rtogs-pa), 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. The words that express “enlightenment” and “attainment” do not contain any words that negate or cut off anything.

[See: The Gelug Definitions of Affirmation and Negation Phenomena.]

Although these two parts of the focal aspect of conventional bodhichitta are affirmation phenomena, this does not mean that our not-yet-happening enlightenment is our presently-happening enlightenment (da-lta-ba’i byang-chub) and that we can actually apprehend it now, like we can see our hand in front of our eyes. Our not-yet-happening enlightenment presently exists as a nonstatic (impermanent) phenomenon, steadily changing from moment to moment until it transforms into our presently-happening enlightenment. Thus, it is important to understand that our presently-happening enlightenment is not happening now: it is nonexistent at the present moment.

Buddhas also have conventional bodhichitta. In their case, however, the focal aspect is merely their presently-happening enlightenment.

Aspiring and Engaged Bodhicitta

Conventional bodhichitta has two stages, both of which have the same focal aspect as above:

  • aspiring bodhichitta (smon-sems),

  • engaged bodhichitta (‘jug-sems).

Both stages of bodhichitta have two intentions (‘dun-pa) as subsidiary awarenesses (sems-byung, mental factors) accompanying them.

  • The first is the intention to benefit all limited beings by means of attaining our not-yet happening, but attainable enlightenment.

  • In the case of aspiring bodhichitta, the second intention is that our not-yet-happening acquirement of our not-yet happening enlightenment gives rise to a presently-happening acquirement of our presently-happening enlightenment. This type of intention is a wish or aspiration that the acquirement of attainment of a goal occurs.

  • In the case of engaged bodhichitta, the second intention is actually to make effort in the practices that will bring about our not-yet-happening acquirement giving rise to a presently-happening acquirement. This type of intention is known as “keen interest” (don-gnyer) to make effort to accomplish a goal.

  • For Buddhas, only one intention accompanies their conventional bodhichitta: to help all others through their presently-happening enlightenment.

With engaged bodhichitta, we take bodhisattva vows. In method and wisdom as a joined pair, method is engaged bodhichitta.

[See: Stages of Bodhicitta.]

Labored and Unlabored Bodhicitta

Conventional bodhichitta, whether aspiring or engaged, may be either labored (rtsol-bcas) or unlabored (rtsol-med). Labored bodhichitta is bodhichitta generated by working ourselves up to it, with great effort, through a series of steps, each of which entails a line of reasoning. The lines of reasoning may be those used in the seven-part cause and effect quintessence teaching (rgyu-‘bras man-ngag bdun) or in the method of equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and other (bdag-gzhan mnyam-brje).

[See: Seven Part Cause and Effect Quintessence Teaching for Developing Bodhicitta. See also: Equalizing and Exchanging One's Attitudes about Self and Others.]

Unlabored bodhichitta arises without having to work ourselves up to it in the above manner. With its attainment, we attain a Mahayana building-up pathway of mind (tshogs-lam, path of accumulation), the first of the five pathway minds (lam-lnga, five paths) leading to enlightenment.

  • According to the Jetsunpa (rJe-btsun Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan) textbook tradition, followed by Sera Jey (Se-ra Byas Grava-tshang) and Ganden Jangtsey (dGa’-ldan Byang-rtse Grva-tshang) Monasteries, only unlabored bodhichitta is actual bodhichitta.

  • According to the Panchen (Pan-chen bSod-nams grags-pa) textbook tradition, followed by Drepung Loseling (‘Bras-spungs Blo-gsal gling Grva-tshang) and Ganden Shartsey (dGa’- ldan Shar-rtse Grva-tshang) Monasteries, both labored and unlabored bodhichittas are actual bodhichittas.

[See: The Five Pathway Minds (Five Paths): Basic Presentation.]

In method and wisdom as a joined pair, method is unlabored engaged bodhichitta.

Conceptual versus Nonconceptual Cognition

Conceptual cognition (rtog-bcas-kyi shes-pa) of something is one that cognitively takes its object through the media of an idea (snang-ba, mental appearance) representing it and an audio category (sgra-spyi, sound universal), a meaning/object category (don-spyi, meaning universal), or both types of categories. In some cases, instead of an idea and a category, the conceptual cognition has as its media an idea and a concept (rtog-pa), such as space (rnam-mkha’). Conceptual cognition occurs exclusively with mind consciousness (yid-kyi rnam-shes).

Nonconceptual cognition (rtog-med-pa’i shes-pa) of something cognitively takes its object without the filter of an idea and a category. It occurs in all instances of sense consciousness (dbang-gi rnam-shes) and, in certain situations, also with mind consciousness.

Before enlightenment, conventional bodhichitta is exclusively a conceptual cognition. This is because, except for Buddhas, no one can focus on enlightenment except through the media of an idea representing it and the category enlightenment. This is the case whether we focus on a presently-happening enlightenment of a Buddha or on a not-yet-happening enlightenment of anyone other than a Buddha, including ourselves. Only Buddhas cognize enlightenment nonconceptually, since only Buddhas know enlightenment directly from personal experience.

Conceptual bodhichitta, in fact, does not even apprehend our not-yet-happening enlightenment.

  • A cognition, whether conceptual or nonconceptual, apprehends its involved object (‘jug-yul) if it correctly and decisively determines (nges-pa) it as “this” and not “ that.”

  • Apprehension of an object may be either explicit apprehension (dngos-su rtogs-pa) or implicit apprehension (shugs-la rtogs-pa), depending on whether or not a mental aspect (rnam-pa) representing the apprehended object appears in the cognition. A mental aspect is somewhat like a mental hologram, although it need not be a visual one.

  • Even though a mental aspect representing our not-yet-happening enlightenment appears in conceptual bodhichitta – namely, our idea of it – still, our conceptual cognition cannot precisely and decisively determine that enlightenment as “this” and not “that.” This is because only an omniscient awareness (rnam-mkhyen) can apprehend all the qualities and aspects of enlightenment precisely and decisively.

Long before the attainment of enlightenment, however, discriminating awareness of voidness can be nonconceptual. It becomes nonconceptual with the attainment of a seeing pathway mind (mthong-lam, path of seeing), the third of the five pathway minds on the way to enlightenment, and thus becoming an arya. Moreover, even conceptual discriminating awareness of voidness can apprehend voidness, either explicitly or implicitly.

In method and wisdom as a joined pair, wisdom is nonconceptual discriminating awareness of voidness, although a joined pair with conceptual discriminating awareness needs to be attained first.

Inferential Cognition and Straightforward Cognition

There are two valid ways of cognizing a validly knowable object:

  • Inferential cognition (rjes-dpag tshad-ma),

  • Straightforward cognition (mngon-sum tshad-ma).

Valid inferential cognition cognizes its involved objects by directly relying on a line of reasoning (rtags). It is exclusively conceptual. Valid straightforward cognition cognizes its involved objects without directly relying on a line of reasoning. It may be either conceptual or nonconceptual.

When we generate labored bodhichitta in a meditation session, its first moment is cognized with inferential cognition. From the second moment onward, until that episode of labored bodhichitta ends, the labored bodhichitta is cognized with conceptual straightforward cognition. That is because each subsequent moment of labored bodhichitta in the episode is not generated by directly relying on a line of reasoning.

Except in the case of a Buddha, unlabored bodhichitta is always cognized with conceptual straightforward cognition.

Voidness may be cognized either with inferential cognition or with either conceptual or nonconceptual straightforward cognition.

In method and wisdom as a joined pair, method is unlabored engaged bodhichitta with conceptual straightforward cognition. Wisdom is discriminating awareness of voidness with nonconceptual straightforward cognition.

Grasping for True Existence in Conceptual and Nonconceptual Cognition

Further, conceptual cognition always produces and cognizes an appearance of seemingly true existence (bden-snang) as the mode of existence of the object that appears in it. Conceptual cognition also has grasping for truly established existence (bden-‘dzin, grasping for true existence), except for two cases:

  • the conceptual cognition explicitly apprehending voidness that occurs on the last moment of an applying pathway mind (sbyor-lam, path of preparation) before the attainment of a seeing pathway mind,

  • conceptual cognition of an arhat (liberated being, “foe-destroyer”).

Grasping for truly established existence cognitively takes its object with nonconcordant attention (tshul-min yid-la byed-pa, incorrect consideration). It pays attention to the manner in which its object appears to exist in a way that is not concordant with its actual manner of existence. Thus, it incorrectly considers the manner of appearance to be the manner of existence. In simple language, grasping for truly established existence believes its object actually to exist with the impossible manner of existence with which it appears to exist – namely, with actual true existence.

Gelug is unique in asserting that, except for nonconceptual cognition of voidness, nonconceptual cognition also produces an appearance of true existence. Grasping for truly established existence does not occur manifestly (mngon-gyur), however, during nonconceptual cognition. This point will be explained below.

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

Thus, conventional bodhichitta, being conceptual, always has both appearance-making of seemingly true existence and grasping for truly established existence. Although conceptual cognition of voidness has the same two features, nonconceptual cognition of voidness neither makes appearances of seemingly true existence nor manifestly grasps for truly established existence.

In the joined pair of method and wisdom, then, method has appearance-making and grasping for truly established existence, while wisdom has neither of the two.

Principal Awareness versus Subsidiary Awareness

Conventional bodhichitta is a principal awareness (gtso-sems). It is not a subsidiary awareness (sems-byung, mental factor) that is part of another principal awareness.

Within a cognition, a principal awareness is an awareness consisting of the composite of a primary consciousness (rnam-shes) and its accompanying subsidiary awarenesses. This composite is prominent in the cognition and characterizes the type of cognition that is occurring.

The primary consciousness in a cognition cognizes merely the essential nature (ngo-bo) of its object – in other words, the type of phenomenon that something is. In the case of conventional bodhichitta, the primary consciousness is mental consciousness and it cognizes its object, enlightenment, merely as enlightenment.

A subsidiary awareness accompanies and assists a primary consciousness in cognizing its object, as in the case of intention and concentration. Alternatively, it flavors the cognition with an emotion or feeling, as in the case of attachment and nonattachment. The primary consciousness and accompanying subsidiary awarenesses in a cognition are congruent (mtshungs-ldan). This means that they share five things in common, such as the same focal aspect.

[See: Congruent and Noncongruent Affecting Variables.]

Some of the subsidiary awarenesses, in addition to intention, that accompany engaged conventional bodhichitta are:

  • sincerity (bsam-pa),

  • lack of hypocrisy (g.yo-med),

  • lack of pretense (sgyu-med),

  • nonattachment (ma-chags-pa),

  • joyful perseverance (brtson-‘grus).

[For definitions of these subsidiary awarenesses, see: Stages of Bodhicitta.]

Love (byams-pa), compassion (snying-rje), and exceptional resolve (lhag-bsam) are also subsidiary awarenesses. Although, in general, we may say not only that they are stages in developing conventional bodhichitta, but also that they accompany bodhichitta; nevertheless, they are not congruent with bodhichitta. In fact, they are not even part of the same cognition as is bodhichitta.

Bodhicitta occurs with mental consciousness in one cognition; while love, compassion, and exceptional resolve occur in simultaneous, but separate cognitions, each also with mental cognition. This is because these three subsidiary awarenesses have different, individual focal aspects and different, individual manners of cognitively taking their objects.

  • Compassion, for example – and, in particular, great compassion (snying-rje chen-po) – conceptually focuses on all limited beings and the sufferings of all limited beings. Like conventional bodhichitta, compassion in everyone except a Buddha does not apprehend its focal aspect. It does not apprehend all limited beings and all their sufferings, because, except in the case of a Buddha’s omniscient awareness (rnam-mkhyen), it is impossible for all limited beings and all their sufferings actually to appear in a cognition accurately and with decisive determination as “this” and “not that.”

  • The manner with which great compassion cognitively takes its object is with the wish for the sufferings of all limited beings to be parted from them and for all limited beings to be parted from their sufferings.

Discriminating awareness is also a subsidiary awareness. For discriminating awareness of voidness to be nonconceptual means that the cognition it accompanies is nonconceptual. Except for Buddhas, the consciousness of a cognition accompanied by discriminating awareness of voidness must be mental; it cannot be sensory. Thus, the actual wisdom factor here is a principal awareness consisting of a mind consciousness accompanied by discriminating awareness of voidness.

Thus, in method and wisdom as a joined pair, method is the principal awareness of a conceptual cognition, while wisdom is a subsidiary awareness in a nonconceptual cognition. Both method and wisdom, however, are cognitions with mind consciousness as their primary consciousness.

Conceptual and Nonconceptual Wisdom

There are three levels of discriminating awareness of voidness:

  • the discriminating awareness that arises from hearing (thos-byung shes-rab),

  • the discriminating awareness that arises from contemplation (bsam-byung shes-rab),

  • the discriminating awareness that arises from meditation (sgom-byung shes-rab).

Although all three are with mind consciousness, only the first two arise in cognitions that rely on the power of their mental sensors (yid-kyi dbang-po) as their dominating conditions (bdag-rkyen). Thus, both arise only in mental cognitions (yid-kyi shes-pa). The mental sensor of a cognition is the immediately preceding moment of cognition. Mental cognition may be conceptual or nonconceptual.

Discriminating awareness that arises from meditation arises in cognitions that rely on the power of the joined pair of shamatha (zhi-gnas; calm abiding, mental quiescence) and vipashyana (lhag-mthong, special insight) as their dominating conditions. Shamatha is a serenely stilled and settled state of mind, while vipashyana is an exceptionally perceptive state. When such cognitions are nonconceptual and cognize either subtle nonstaticness or voidness, they are called yogic nonconceptual cognition (rnal-‘byor-gyi shes-pa).

[See: General Presentation of Shamatha and Vipashyana.]

Discriminating awareness of voidness may accompany either an inferential cognition or conceptual or nonconceptual straightforward cognition of voidness. Thus, nonconceptual straightforward cognition of voidness may occur with either mental cognition or yogic cognition, depending on whether or not the nonconceptual cognition is with the joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana.

In the joined pair of method and wisdom, method is a conceptual straightforward mental cognition, while wisdom is a nonconceptual straightforward yogic cognition.

Manifest and Subliminal Cognition

Cognition may be either manifest (mngon-gyur-ba) or subliminal (bag-la nyal). The difference hinges on the fact that both consciousness (rnam-shes) and persons (gang-zag) cognitively take objects uninterruptedly. Not only does eye consciousness see a dog, a person also sees a dog. Only a consciousness, however, gives rise to cognitive appearances.

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 cognitively take the object – both of them cognize or “know” it. Manifest cognition with implicit apprehension of a cognitive object is one that occurs in the context of a manifest cognition with explicit apprehension.

In subliminal cognition, the consciousness of the subliminal cognition gives rise to a mental aspect representing a cognitive object. The cognitive object appears, through that mental aspect, only to the consciousness of the subliminal cognition and only that consciousness cognizes it. The cognitive object of the subliminal cognition does not appear to the person and is not cognized by the person. Nor does it appear to or is it cognized by the consciousness of the manifest cognition that is simultaneously occurring and overpowering the subliminal cognition. For example, when we are asleep, our ear consciousness has subliminal cognition of the clock ticking, but our manifest mental consciousness does not hear the ticking and nor do we. It is only because of that subliminal cognition of the sound of the clock, however, that we can hear the alarm and wake up.

Both conceptual and nonconceptual cognition of voidness may only be manifest. When manifest, however, conceptual mental cognition may apprehend voidness either explicitly or implicitly. Yogic nonconceptual cognition may apprehend voidness only explicitly.

Once developed, then unless we give up bodhichitta, unlabored bodhichitta remains manifest (mngon-gyur) continuously, except for during yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness. We shall discuss this exception below.

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

Simultaneous Manifest Cognitions

Several cognitions, having different objects, can occur simultaneously. For example, while eating, seeing the sight of someone talking to us occurs simultaneously with hearing the sound of the person’s voice and tasting the flavor of the food. All three cognitions are manifest simultaneously. Two cognitions can even be manifest simultaneously with one being nonconceptual and the other conceptual, such as seeing the page of a book we are reading while thinking about something else.

Even though several cognitions may occur simultaneously, the subsidiary awarenesses that accompany them may vary in strength. Especially variable are attention (yid-la byed-pa, taking to mind), mindfulness (dran-pa), and mental fixation (ting-nge-‘dzin, concentration).

  • Attention engages the cognitive object in a specific manner.

  • Mindfulness maintains the mental hold (‘dzin-cha) on the object, preventing the object from being lost as an object of cognition. It is somewhat like “mental glue.”

  • Mental fixation maintains the mental abiding (gnas-cha) on the object.

[See: Relationships with Objects.]

During manifest conceptual cognition of voidness, we may still have manifest unlabored bodhichitta, as well as manifest love and compassion, although these are all separate conceptual cognitions. The manifest conceptual cognition of voidness may even be with absorbed concentration (ting-nge-‘dzin, Skt. samadhi)).

Absorbed concentration on a cognitive object is simply mental fixation that is free of all mental wandering (rnam-g.yeng), flightiness of mind (rgod-pa, mental agitation), and mental dullness (bying-ba). Thus, absorbed concentration on one object does not preclude manifest cognition of another object. It merely precludes distraction by any other manifest cognitions that are occurring simultaneously.

The unlabored bodhichitta that is manifest during absorbed concentration on voidness has very weak attention, mindfulness, and mental fixation accompanying it; nevertheless, that bodhichitta remains manifest. We never lose our intention to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all. In fact, as the great Indian master Shantideva explained, once developed, unlabored bodhichitta remains manifest, building up positive force (bsod-nams, merit), even when we are asleep or drunk.

Simultaneous Manifest and Subliminal Cognitions

Unlike unlabored bodhichitta, cognition of voidness does not remain manifest uninterruptedly, unless we have attained enlightenment. While having manifest absorbed concentration on unlabored bodhichitta, then, it is not possible simultaneously to have manifest cognition of voidness, either conceptually or nonconceptually. Similarly, while having manifest yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness, it is not possible simultaneously to have manifest unlabored bodhichitta.

Within the Gelug tradition, there are two ways of explaining method and wisdom as a joined pair in these situations. These are according to either the Jetsunpa or the Panchen textbook tradition.

  • In this case, the Jetsunpa explanation is also accepted by the later Gelug textbook traditions of Tendarwa (mKhas-grub bsTan-pa dar-rgyas) and Kunkyen (Kun-mkhyen ‘Jam-dbyangs bzhad-pa rdo-rje II, dKon-mchog ‘jigs-med dbang-po). The former is followed by Sera May (Se-ra sMad) Monastery, and the latter by Drepung Gomang (‘Bras-spungs sGo-smang) Monastery.

The Jetsunpa tradition explains that while having manifest absorbed concentration on unlabored bodhichitta, conceptual or nonconceptual cognition of voidness may only occur subliminally. Likewise, while having manifest yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness, unlabored bodhichitta continues uninterruptedly, but only subliminally.

The Panchen tradition explains that while having manifest absorbed concentration on unlabored bodhichitta, discriminating awareness of voidness may only be present simultaneously as a tendency (sa-bon, seed). Likewise, while having manifest yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness, unlabored bodhichitta simultaneously occurs only in the aspect of a tendency.

  • Imputed on a mental continuum, a tendency for a type of awareness is the legacy of previous manifest occurrences of that awareness. Specifically, it is the type of latency (bag-chags) that gives rise to a manifest occurrence of that awareness only intermittently (re-‘ga’-ba).

  • Although, like subliminal cognition, a tendency is considered a dormant factor (bag-la nyal), it is not a way of being aware of something (shes-pa). It is a noncongruent affecting variable (ldan-min ‘du-byed) – a nonstatic phenomenon that is neither a form of physical phenomenon (gzugs, form) nor a way of being aware of something.

When wisdom, as a tendency, is joined with manifest method, it is explained that method is held by the force (stobs) of the immediately preceding moment of manifest wisdom. This is because that moment of manifest wisdom functions as the immediately preceding condition (de-ma-thag rkyen) for the arising of the moment of method that immediately follows it. Similarly, when method, as a tendency, is joined with manifest wisdom, it is explained that wisdom is held by the force of the immediately preceding moment of manifest method.

2 Gelug General Tantra

Buddha-Figures as Method in General Tantra

Whether we practice sutra or tantra, if unlabored conventional bodhichitta is taken as method, a joined pair of method and wisdom can only be achieved

  • with method and wisdom being present as separate cognitions,

  • or, according to the Panchen explanation, also with one of the two being present merely as a tendency.

Although unlabored conventional bodhichitta and yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness are the main factors that build up and strengthen the two enlightenment-building networks that are the obtaining causes for the enlightening body and mind of a Buddha, there is a problem here. The enlightening body and mind of a Buddha share the same essential nature (ngo-bo gcig). This means that they are two facts about essentially the same phenomenon – a Buddha. Moreover, the two occur simultaneously within the context of each and every individual moment of a Buddha’s manifest cognition. Therefore, a more efficient means for developing the body and mind of a body would be one that allowed building up the obtaining causes for each of the two simultaneously, also within the context of a single manifest cognition.

Conventional bodhichitta and the voidness of conventional bodhichitta are two facts about the same phenomenon and share the same essential nature. As we have seen, however, it is not possible to work on developing them within the context of a single cognition. This is because, as ways of being aware of an object, they have mutually exclusive manners of cognitively taking their objects.

It is possible, however, to work on developing focus on a body and on the voidness of a body within the context of a single cognition. Our ordinary bodies, however, do not transform into the enlightening bodies of a Buddha. We cannot benefit everyone as fully as a Buddha does with our ordinary bodies, which are limited in innumerable ways. A closer cause for attaining the enlightening body of a Buddha, complete with all its extraordinary features, is the body of a Buddha-figure (yi-dam, tantric deity). Because of its many advantages, we imagine ourselves arising in the form of such a figure and benefiting all beings in the same way as the enlightening body of a Buddha does. Therefore, general tantra takes as method, in addition to conventional bodhichitta, the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure.

[See: Making Sense of Tantra: Part I, Chapter 4.]

Tantra, then, emphasizes achieving method and wisdom as a joined pair by using as method visualization of a Buddha-figure as the form in which our mental continuums give rise to an appearance of our bodies. Correspondingly, wisdom in tantra is the discriminating awareness of the voidness of ourselves in terms of being Buddha-figures. It is not simply the voidness of ourselves in terms of the aggregate factors (phung-po, Skt. skandha) that constitute our ordinary bodies and minds.

To understand how we can practice, in a single cognition, visualization of ourselves as a Buddha-figure and focus on its voidness, we need to understand the two truths (bden-pa gnyis).

The Two Truths

The two truths are two inseparable facts about the same phenomenon, and thus they share the same essential nature. Both are true and are inseparably the case, regardless of whether one moment of mind perceives the two simultaneously.

  • The superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa, relative truth, conventional truth) about something is how it appears: both what it appears conventionally to be and how it appears conventionally to exist.

  • The deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa, ultimate truth) about the same phenomenon is how it actually exists.

Note, however, that despite this rough formulation of the two truths, it is not the case that a phenomenon and its two truths exist independently of each other. A phenomenon and the two truths about it arise dependently (rten-‘brel, dependent arising) and simultaneously with one another. It is like the case of a vase and the shape of the vase.

We can also describe the two truths as deepest truth being a voidness (the absolute absence of an impossible way of existing of something) and superficial truth being a basis for that voidness (stong-gzhi). In tantra, then, superficial truth is the appearance of the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure and deepest truth is the voidness of this Buddha-figure. Focus on this superficial truth is method and focus on this deepest truth is wisdom.

[See: The Validity and Accuracy of Cognition of the Two Truths in Gelug Prasangika. ]

Total Absorption and Subsequent Attainment Cognitions of Voidness

Total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise) 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 space (nam-mkha’ lta-bu’i stong-pa-nyid, space-like voidness).

  • The total absorption of an applying pathway mind is conceptual.

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

Subsequent attainment (rjes-thob, subsequent realization, post-meditation) 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. Thus, it is either a nonconceptual or a conceptual straightforward cognition and not an inferential cognition. Subsequent attainment cognition of voidness does not arise by relying directly on a line of reasoning.

Nonconceptual total absorption is with yogic cognition. Conceptual total absorption and both conceptual and nonconceptual subsequent attainments are with mental cognition.

Cognition of the Two Truths with Total Absorption and Subsequent Attainment Cognitions

In general tantra, conceptual total absorption cognition of voidness explicitly apprehends voidness and implicitly apprehends the basis for that voidness (the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure). Both conceptual and nonconceptual subsequent attainment cognition of voidness explicitly apprehend the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure and implicitly apprehend its voidness. All three cognitions make appearances of the true existence of the objects that they explicitly apprehend. The conceptual varieties of these cognitions also grasp at their involved objects as having truly established existence.

Nonconceptual total absorption cognition of voidness explicitly apprehends voidness and does not apprehend the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure, even implicitly. It neither makes an appearance of the true existence of voidness, nor does it grasp for the truly established existence of voidness.

  • The two truths of the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure are still inseparable during total absorption cognition of the voidness of that form. The situation resembles sitting on the ground floor of a house and seeing through the window a person walk past. Although only the top half of the person’s body appears to pass by, this does not mean that the person’s body is missing a bottom half. The limitation derives from the side of the perspective, not from the side of the person’s body.

  • Thus, even an arya’s nonconceptual total absorption cognition of voidness is still the cognition of a limited mind of a limited being (sems-can, sentient being).

According to the Jetsunpa textbook tradition, simultaneously with this manifest nonconceptual total absorption cognition of voidness, several subliminal cognitions occur. Included among them are subliminal cognition of the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure, subliminal conventional bodhichitta, and subliminal compassion. All of these subliminal cognitions make appearances of the seemingly true existence of their involved objects and grasp for the truly established existence of these objects. The subliminal cognitions, however, do not apprehend their involved objects.

  • The Jetsunpa tradition even asserts that while explicitly apprehending voidness, the nonconceptual total absorption cognition of voidness implicitly apprehends the total absorption, although it does not have implicit apprehension of anything else.

The Panchen textbook tradition does not accept either subliminal cognition or implicit apprehension of anything simultaneously with manifest nonconceptual total absorption cognition of voidness. During this manifest cognition, grasping for true existence, conventional bodhichitta, and compassion continue merely as latencies (bag-chags, habits). There is no cognition of the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure, even in a subliminal cognition separate from the manifest total absorption.

[See: Cognition of the Two Truths in the Gelug Sautrantika, Chittamatra, Svatantrika, and Prasangika Systems.]

The Joined Pair of Method and Wisdom during Nonconceptual Total Absorption Cognition of Voidness

The actual joined pair of method and wisdom that is required as the obtaining cause for a body and mind of a Buddha is the body of a Buddha-figure appearing simultaneously with a manifest explicit apprehension of voidness. If we insist on the body of a Buddha-figure, as the basis for voidness, being apprehended by the same manifest cognition as the one that has nonconceptual explicit apprehension of its voidness, this is not possible in general tantra. That body cannot be apprehended even implicitly, let alone explicitly, by that same manifest nonconceptual cognition of voidness.

  • Thus, from the point of view of the impossibility of achieving a joined pair of method and wisdom as involved objects of a single manifest yogic cognition, taking as method the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure faces the same problem as does taking conventional bodhichitta as method.

  • This is the case despite it being possible to practice with a joined pair that takes as method the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure as an additional involved object of (1) a manifest conceptual total absorption cognition of voidness and of (2) manifest conceptual and nonconceptual subsequent attainment cognitions of voidness.

The solution to this problem in general tantra is to imagine that the mind that has nonconceptual total absorption cognition of voidness “takes on the aspect (appearance) of the form of a Buddha-figure.” But what does that mean?

A mind cannot exist without some physical basis, even if only the subtlest one, as is the case with a mind on the plane of formless beings (gzugs-med khams, formless realm). Therefore, it is a fact that a mind that has nonconceptual total absorption cognition of voidness also has a physical basis. In the case in question, the physical basis is the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure. Thus, although manifest nonconceptual total absorption cognition of the voidness of the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure cannot apprehend that form; nevertheless, that form (the basis for that voidness) coexists with the mind that has that total absorption cognition.

Whether or not we accept that, simultaneously with the total absorption cognition, we have subliminal cognition of that form, this solution to the problem of joining method and wisdom during nonconceptual total absorption cognition of voidness is viable. However, as soon as we have manifest cognition of the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure, our minds can no longer have nonconceptual total absorption cognition of its voidness. Therefore, the solution that general tantra offers for the problem of how to achieve joined method and wisdom in a single manifest nonconceptual total absorption cognition of voidness is still deficient.

3 Gelug Anuttarayoga Tantra

Two Types of Correct View of Reality

Anuttarayoga tantra speaks of two ways of asserting the correct view of reality:

  • the correct view in terms of the devoid nature itself (chos-nyid lta-ba),

  • the correct view in terms of what has voidness as its nature (chos-can lta-ba).

Sutra and general tantra explain in terms of the first of the pair. Anuttarayoga tantra explains in terms of both views. Note, however, that voidness is exactly the same in both these views. It is the voidness of truly established existence, as Prasangika explains it.

According to the correct view asserted in terms of the devoid nature itself, deepest truth refers to voidness. Superficial truth refers to the bases for voidness – namely, appearances. The inseparability of the two truths, as an inseparability of voidness and appearance, is an inseparability of voidness and dependent arising (rten-‘brel). All appearances arise dependently on mental labeling. In this sense, they are the natural effulgence of voidness (stong-nyid-kyi rtsal).

  • A natural effulgence, also called a “display” (rol-pa, play), is the natural brilliant shining of something, such that it gives rise to an array of appearances. The classic example of a natural effulgence is sunshine. Sunshine is inseparable from the sun. It naturally shines as part of the functional nature (rang-bzhin) of the sun. Sunshine is not only that which appears when we look at the sun, it also accounts for the appearances of other innumerable objects. 

[See: Introduction to Voidness (Emptiness) and Mental Labeling.]

Method and wisdom in general tantra are presented according to the correct view asserted in terms of voidness itself. Method, as the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure, is a dependently arising display of voidness. We work to have simultaneous manifest cognition of both the voidness of the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure and the dependently arising appearance of that form, despite the problem of not being able to do this during manifest nonconceptual total absorption cognition of voidness.

While not neglecting the correct view in terms of voidness itself, anuttarayoga tantra overcomes the problem with this view by turning to the correct view asserted in terms of what has voidness as its nature. What has voidness as its nature is the mind (mental activity). Thus, we can speak of appearances as the natural effulgence of the mind (sems-kyi rtsal) – in other words, as the natural effulgence of clarity and awareness (gsal-rig-gi rtsal).

  • “Mere clarity and awareness” (gsal-rig tsam) are the defining characteristics of the superficial truth of “mind.” “ Clarity” refers to the appearance-making aspect of mental activity. “ Awareness” refers to its cognitively engaging with cognitive objects. “Mere” means that these aspects of mental activity occur without there being an independently existing “mind” or “person” doing them or making them happen.

[See: The Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra, Part III, Chapter 3.]

Appearances as the Natural Effulgence of the Mind

Appearances as the natural effulgence of the mind can be explained from the point of view shared by sutra and tantra or from the unshared point of view of anuttarayoga tantra. From the shared point of view, “mind” in the context of “appearances as the natural effulgence of the mind” refers to any instance of gross or subtle mind.

  • The gross mind (sems rags-pa) is sense consciousness, which exclusively has sensory nonconceptual cognition.

  • The subtle mind (sems- phra-mo) is mental consciousness, which may have conceptual cognition, mental nonconceptual cognition, or yogic nonconceptual cognition.

When explained from the unshared point of view of anuttarayoga tantra, however, “mind” in the context of “appearances as the natural effulgence of mind” refers to the subtlest mind (sems shin-tu phra-mo), known as “clear light” (‘od-gsal). Clear light cognition has the distinctive features of being exclusively nonconceptual, of never grasping for truly established existence, and of never even making appearances of seemingly true existence. Moreover, it is naturally devoid of all disturbing emotions and attitudes (nyon-mongs, Skt. klesha, “afflictive emotions”), as well as of all mental distraction, flightiness of mind, and mental dullness. Nevertheless, clear light cognition does not necessarily have nonconceptual cognition of voidness.

The natural effulgence of clear light mind, in turn, can be explained in terms of either subtlest energy/wind (rlung shin-tu phra-mo) or blissful awareness (bde-ba, bliss).

Utilizing Subtlest Energy/Wind on the Side of Method

Just as there are three levels of grossness of mind, there are three corresponding levels of grossness of body that are the physical bases (rten) on which the three levels of mind rely:

  • The gross body (lus rags-pa), with its cognitive sensors (dbang-po), such as the photosensitive cells of the eyes, is the basis for sense consciousness.

  • The subtle body (lus phra-mo) is the subtle energy-system of the gross body, with its chakras (‘khor-lo, energy-nodes), energy-channels (rtsa), and energy-winds. It serves as the basis for mental consciousness, especially in conceptual cognition.

  • The subtlest body (lus shin-tu phra-mo) is the subtlest energy/wind that is the basis for clear light mind.

Subtlest energy/wind shares the same essential nature as clear light mind. In other words, clear light mind and subtlest energy/wind refer to the same “thing,” just from two different points of view. Subtlest energy/wind is the subtlest form of physical phenomenon and, in a sense, is that out of which cognitive appearances are made. Thus, appearances are cognitive shapings of subtlest energy/wind.

A visualized form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure is an appearance made by a conceptual cognition. As such, this type of form appears to be truly existent and our conceptual cognition grasps to it as having truly established existence. Because of that, as we have seen, our minds cannot make an appearance of such an imagined form simultaneously with nonconceptual total absorption cognition of voidness.

When all the energy-winds of the subtle body have been completely dissolved into the center of the heart chakra, cognition with “actual clear light mind” (don-gyi ‘od-gsal) becomes possible. When such a clear light mind has manifest nonconceptual total absorption cognition of voidness, it is possible for that clear light mind simultaneously to give rise to an appearance of what is known as a “purified illusory body” (dag-pa’i sgyu-lus) as the basis for that voidness. This is possible because actual clear light cognition makes an appearance of a purified illusory body without making it appear as if it had true existence. Such type of total absorption cognition of voidness has manifest explicit apprehension of both voidness and its basis (the form of ourselves as a purified illusory body).

  • The joined pair of method and wisdom achieved with an actual clear light cognition and a purified illusory body is referred to as a “unified pair” (zung-‘jug). With a unified pair, the two items of the pair arise simultaneously with the attainment of the unified pair.

  • In the context of such a unified pair, actual clear light is referred to as a “deepest true phenomenon” and purified illusory body is referred to as a “superficial true phenomenon.” As examples of the two truths, they share the same essential nature.

[For further detail and the Kalachakra presentation, see: Relationships between Two Objects in Anuttarayoga Tantra.]

Utilizing Blissful Awareness on the Side of Method

Anuttarayoga tantra teaches two ways of accessing and activating clear light mind and achieving, in the context of clear light cognition of voidness, an obtaining cause for an enlightening body of a Buddha. Both ways require that the energy-winds of the subtle body be completely dissolved in the center of the heart chakra.

One way to cause the energy/winds to dissolve is by working with the energy/winds themselves. Following this method, we then generate the subtlest energy/wind that is the support of our clear light cognition of voidness into the form of ourselves as a purified illusory body. This method is emphasized and taught in detail in the father tantra (pha-rgyud) division of anuttarayoga tantra.

The other way to access and activate clear light mind is by generating successively more intense states of blissful awareness. Following this method, we achieve a rainbow body (‘ja’-lus) as the natural effulgence of the ultimate level of blissful awareness associated with our clear light cognition of voidness. Using blissful awareness as method is emphasized and taught in detail in the mother tantra (ma-rgyud) division.

  • Note that there are four successive levels of blissful awareness, known as the four joyful awarenesses (dga’-ba bzhi, four joys). The most intense level, the fourth, is called “ simultaneously arising joyful awareness” (lhan-skyes dga’-ba). It is also called “great blissful awareness” (bde-ba chen-po, great bliss). The four levels of joyful awareness are generated, through special methods employing the subtle energy-system, on various stages of the complete stage (rdzogs-rim) of anuttarayoga tantra practice.

  • Thus, great blissful awareness is not necessarily with clear light mind.

Blissful awareness may be either a type of subsidiary awareness (sems-byung, mental factor) or a type of deep awareness (ye-shes). As a subsidiary awareness, it is a feeling of a level of happiness (tshor-ba) that may accompany either a sensory or mental cognition. As a deep awareness, it is the principal awareness (gtso-sems) in a cognition that is parted from mental fabrication (spros-bral). Specifically, this second type of blissful awareness is the blissful awareness of an object, in which the mind that cognizes the object is parted from all mental fabrication and projection of appearances of seemingly true existence and from all grasping for truly established existence.

Clear light cognition is naturally parted from all such mental fabrication and grasping. However, clear light cognition is not necessarily a blissful awareness. For example, on the basis level (gzhi) – in other words, on our ordinary samsaric level – clear light cognition at the time of death is not naturally blissful. However, on the pathway level (lam, path) – in other words, on a level attained through specific meditation practice – clear light cognition can be generated as a blissful awareness, even at the time of death. Moreover, on the basis level, clear light cognition does not cognize voidness. Cognition of voidness with clear light mind can be attained, however, on the pathway level.

  • Similarly, great blissful awareness does not necessarily have cognition of voidness.

Blissful awareness as a deep awareness is a great blissful awareness attained with a pathway clear light mind that has nonconceptual total absorption cognition of voidness.

  • Although clear light mind does not necessarily have cognition of voidness and is not necessarily blissful, and although a great blissful awareness is not necessarily a cognition of voidness; nevertheless, it is pervasive that when we attain an actual clear light cognition of voidness, we attain a great blissful awareness.

Great blissful awareness, here, is not achieved as a result of the attainment of an actual clear light cognition of voidness. In this sense, it is not like the sense of fitness (shin-sbyangs) that is attained as a result of achieving shamatha, and then the nondisturbing exhilarating feeling of physical and mental bliss that this sense of fitness induces. Nor is great blissful awareness a result that is a state of being parted (bral-‘bras). It is not a static state, like a true stopping (‘gog-bden, true cessation), that is attained by means of effort, but which is neither produced by nor ripens from that effort. Great blissful awareness is a nonstatic phenomenon, and it lasts only as long as actual clear light cognition of voidness is maintained.

Actual clear light cognition of voidness, then, is identical with a great blissful deep awareness of voidness. The two share the same essential nature. This is the meaning of the “deep awareness of inseparable blissful awareness and voidness” (bde-stong dbyer-med-kyi ye-shes, deep awareness of inseparable bliss and voidness). This inseparability is the joined pair of method and wisdom in the context of the correct view in terms of what has voidness as its nature, when explained from the viewpoint of blissful awareness.

  • The joined pair of clear light cognition of voidness and great blissful deep awareness of voidness constitutes a unified pair. In its full technical sense, a unified pair is one in which the two members are attained for the first time with the initial actualization of the unified pair.

The feeling of a level of happiness which, as a subsidiary awareness, accompanies the mental consciousness that has yogic cognition of voidness is one of untainted bliss (zag-med-kyi bde-ba, uncontaminated bliss). It is untainted in the sense that it does not arise from the power of karma or disturbing emotions. However, because yogic cognition of voidness is with mental consciousness – only a subtle, not a subtle level of mind – it cannot make appearances of superficial truths simultaneously with itself.

Thus, although one aspect of the correct view in terms of what has voidness as its nature is that appearances are the natural effulgence of blissful awareness, this does not refer specifically to the untainted blissful awareness that, as a subsidiary awareness, accompanies the mind consciousness of yogic cognition of voidness. The reference is exclusively to the blissful awareness that is a deep awareness within the context of actual clear light cognition of voidness.

 

4 Non-Gelug Sutra

[As background for chapters 3 and 4, see: Making Sense of Tantra: Part II, Chapter 7.]

The non-Gelug systems explain differently many of the above points concerning method and wisdom as a joined pair. Here, we shall present only some of the main differences. As representatives of the non-Gelug assertions, we shall limit our discussion to the presentations made in Nyingma by Mipam (‘Ju Mi-pham ‘Jam-dbyangs rnam-rgyal rgya-mtsho) and, in Sakya, the mainstream position of Gorampa (Go-ram bSod-nams seng-ge) and the minority position of Shakya Chogden (gSer-mdog Pan-chen Sha-kya mChog-ldan).

Conceptual and Nonconceptual Cognition

Nonconceptual cognition does not make appearances of seemingly true existence and thus does not grasp for truly established existence. Valid bare cognition (mngon-sum tshad-ma) is exclusively nonconceptual. Appearance-making and grasping for true existence occur exclusively with conceptual cognition.

Moreover, nonconceptual cognition does not decisively determine its object as “this” and not “ that.” Decisive determination entails exclusion of what is other (gzhan-sel), which is purely a conceptual process. Nonconceptual cognition merely mirrors what appears to it. Yogic nonconceptual cognition mirrors deepest truth; other nonconceptual cognitions mirror superficial truth.

“Apprehension” means only correct valid cognition of an object. “Being a decisive determination of its object” is not part of the definition of apprehension, since nonconceptual cognition apprehends its object, but does not have decisive determination of its object as “this” and not “ that.” Thus, conventional bodhichitta apprehends enlightenment as its involved object.

A valid cognition can only apprehend its object explicitly, namely by producing a mental aspect (an appearance) correctly representing the object. There is no such thing as implicit apprehension.

Although there are dormant factors (bag-la nyal), such as tendencies and habits, there is no such thing as what the Jetsunpa textbook tradition in Gelug asserts as subliminal awareness.

Conceptual and Nonconceptual Wisdom in Sutra

Wisdom is the cognition of voidness. However, the voidnesses that are cognized conceptually and nonconceptually differ from each other.

  • Conceptually cognized voidness is a denumerable ultimate phenomenon (rnam-grangs-pa’i don-dam). It is the total absence (nonimplicative negation phenomenon) of truly established existence.

  • Nonconceptually cognized voidness is a nondenumerable ultimate phenomenon (rnam-grangs ma-yin-pa’i don-dam). It is a voidness beyond words and concepts (brjod-dang rtog-pa-las ‘ das-pa). It is beyond the conceptual categories of truly existent, non-truly existent, both truly and non-truly existent, and neither truly or non-truly existent.

Consider the two phenomena: clarity (gsal) and voidness (stong).

  • Clarity refers either to the appearance-making aspect of mind as well as appearances, or merely to appearances.

Superficial truth is either the clarity factor (gsal-cha) or the voidness factor (stong-cha) appearing separately from one another, as if each existed independently of the other. Such an appearance is called a “dual appearance” (gnyis-snang). Although the clarity factor may be apprehended by itself, either conceptually or nonconceptually, the voidness factor appearing separately as denumerable voidness may be apprehended with discriminating awareness only conceptually. Thus, denumerable voidness is a superficial truth.

“Nondenumerable voidness” is a deepest true phenomenon. The deepest true phenomenon is inseparable clarity and voidness (gsal-stong dbyer-med). Nondenumerable voidness is cognized nonconceptually by yogic cognition during the total absorption cognition of an arya. This yogic cognition is with reflexive deep awareness (rang-rig ye-shes). Nondenumerable voidness cannot be cognized conceptually.

  • According to self-voidness (rang-stong) systems, nondenumerable voidness is a mode of existence.

  • According to other-voidness (gzhan-stong) systems, nondenumerable voidness is a way of being aware of something. Thus, reflexive deep awareness itself is a deepest true phenomenon.

In the joined pair of method and wisdom, wisdom is reflexive deep awareness of nondenumerable voidness.

[See: Affirmations, Negations, and Denumerable and Nondenumerable Ultimate Phenomena.]

Conceptual and Nonconceptual Bodhicitta

In sutra, method is bodhichitta. Not all non-Gelug masters, however, assert that the bodhichitta that is joined as a pair with an arya’s yogic nonconceptual cognition of nondenumerable voidness is conventional bodhichitta, or that it is conceptual.

Gorampa

Gorampa asserts that joined with the wisdom factor of yogic cognition of nondenumerable voidness is conceptual conventional bodhichitta as method. He also asserts that an arya’s nonconceptual total absorption cognition of nondenumerable voidness has a primary consciousness (namely, mental consciousness) and subsidiary awarenesses (mental factors). Conventional bodhichitta not merely focuses on and mirrors, with primary mental consciousness, our not-yet-happening enlightenment and our not-yet-happening attainment of our not-yet-happening enlightenment; it also has the subsidiary awareness of intention to achieve a presently-happening enlightenment and a presently-happening attainment of that enlightenment, and the intention to benefit all beings thereby. Thus, from the point of view of both conceptual method and conceptual wisdom being a primary consciousness with subsidiary awarenesses, method and wisdom are compatible.

Gorampa further asserts that an arya’s conceptual cognition does not make appearances of and grasp for truly established existence. Only the conceptual cognition of ordinary beings (so-so’i skyes-po) – in other words, non-aryas – makes such appearances and grasps for them. An arya’s conceptual cognition, however, does make appearances of and grasp for the other three extremes: non-truly established existence, both truly and non-truly established existence, or neither truly nor non-truly established existence. Thus, the conceptual conventional bodhichitta that is joined as a pair with an arya’s yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness beyond words and concepts makes an appearance of our not-yet-happening enlightenment as if non-truly existent, and grasps for it being established as non-truly existent.

Various mainstream Sakya masters disagree as to whether the conceptual conventional bodhichitta that is joined with an arya’s yogic nonconceptual cognition of nondenumerable voidness is a separate manifest cognition or a dormant factor. If it is a dormant factor, there is also disagreement as to whether that dormant factor is a noncongruent affecting variable (a tendency for conceptual conventional bodhichitta) or an obscured (lkog-gyur) cognition (a cognition that is not manifest, somewhat like a hidden trace of a cognition).

Mipam

Mipam also asserts that conventional bodhichitta is the method that is joined with an arya’s nonconceptual cognition of nondenumerable voidness. However, he asserts that conventional bodhichitta here is nonconceptual. Nonconceptual conventional bodhichitta merely mirrors our enlightenment, and is not accompanied by any intentions.

The reason why conventional bodhichitta here is nonconceptual is that all enlightening good qualities (yon-tan) of Buddhahood are complete within the sphere of deepest true nondenumerable voidness. Thus, being a good quality of Buddhahood, conventional bodhichitta is also complete within reflexive deep awareness of nondenumerable voidness. In fact, deep awareness and its good qualities are inseparable and simultaneous, as in the classic example of the sun and sunlight.

As is the case with deep awareness itself, the conventional bodhichitta that is one of the good qualities of deep awareness is also beyond being a primary consciousness with accompanying subsidiary awarenesses, and is also nonconceptual. This means that the conventional bodhichitta that is a quality of the deep awareness of total absorption on nondenumerable voidness lacks accompanying subsidiary awarenesses. For this reason, although conventional bodhichitta here focuses on enlightenment, it lacks the intention to achieve that enlightenment and the intention to benefit all beings thereby. Deep awareness has no conscious intentions to do anything; rather, it spontaneously accomplishes everything (lhun-grub), without any deliberate effort. Compassion, here, is also a good quality of deep awareness, and is not a subsidiary awareness accompanying another cognition simultaneous with reflexive deep awareness.

Although conventional bodhichitta is a good quality of deep awareness and thus simultaneous with deep awareness, conventional bodhichitta and the other good qualities of enlightenment are not prominent during an arya’s total absorption cognition of nondenumerable voidness. All the qualities of deep awareness become equally prominent only with the attainment of enlightenment.

Shakya Chogden

Shakya Chogden asserts that the bodhichitta that is joined with an arya’s nonconceptual total absorption cognition of nondenumerable voidness is nonconceptual deepest bodhichitta.

The deepest true phenomena, according to him, are the individual moments of reflexive deep awareness, which are themselves a nonduality of inseparable clarity and voidness being both (1) a way of cognizing and (2) a cognized object. Inseparable clarity and voidness is also the deepest truth of complete enlightenment. Therefore, in mirroring inseparable clarity and voidness, an arya’s nonconceptual total absorption on nondenumerable voidness is a total absorption on the deepest truth of complete enlightenment and thus is equivalent to deepest bodhichitta.

Nevertheless, since Shakya Chogden also asserts that reflexive deep awareness has both primary consciousness and accompanying subsidiary awarenesses, there is no contradiction in nonconceptual deepest bodhichitta not only mirroring complete enlightenment, but also having the intention to attain it and to benefit all beings. After all, intention is one of the five ever-functioning subsidiary awarenesses (kun-‘gro lnga).

[For further discussion, see: Ridding Oneself of the Two Sets of Obscurations in Sutra and Anuttarayoga According to Nyingma and Sakya.]

5 Non-Gelug Tantra

Impure Appearances and Denumerable Voidness as Method and Wisdom in Conceptual Cognition

For the non-Gelug traditions, the conceptual level of practice in general tantra takes as wisdom discriminating awareness of denumerable voidness – the nonimplicative negation phenomenon an absolute absence of truly established existence. It takes as method an appearance of the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure as the basis for that denumerable voidness. Both denumerable voidness and its basis are superficial true phenomena.

Also, as in Gelug, a conceptual cognition cannot simultaneously produce an appearance of seemingly true existence and an appearance representing an absolute absence of truly established existence. It can only make one or the other appear at a time.

  • Conceptual total absorption cognition of denumerable voidness only produces an appearance representing an absolute absence of truly established existence.

  • The conceptual subsequent attainment cognition that follows it only produces an appearance of seemingly true existence.

Moreover, conceptual cognition makes the item that appears to it seem to exist as something corresponding to a conceptual category – or in nontechnical language, as something concrete that fits into the solid box of a concrete conceptual category. Such a cognitive appearance is an impure appearance (ma-dag-pa’i snang-ba).

Conceptual cognition perceives the impure appearance and believes that the actual item corresponds to the impure appearance of it that it mentally fabricates and projects (spros-pa).

  • Conceptual cognition of an appearance of seemingly true existence has grasping for the presence of truly established existence (bden-‘dzin).

  • Conceptual cognition of an appearance of an absolute absence of truly established existence has grasping for the absence of truly established existence (med-‘dzin).

Since the non-Gelug traditions do not assert implicit apprehension, a valid cognition can only apprehend its object explicitly, namely by producing an appearance aspect of the object. Thus, conceptual cognition apprehends only the one item that appears to it – in this case, either an appearance of an absolute absence of truly established existence or an appearance of seemingly true existence – and it does so explicitly.

In short,

  • Conceptual total absorption cognition of denumerable voidness apprehends only a nonimplicative negation phenomenon (an absolute absence), which it makes appear like an empty space.

  • Conceptual subsequent attainment cognition of the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure existing like an illusion apprehends only an impure appearance of the Buddha-figure. Although the Buddha-figure appears to be seemingly truly existent, the subsequent attainment cognition of it is with the discriminating awareness that it does not exist in the impossible manner in which it appears to exist.

In conceptual cognition, general tantra combines method and wisdom in the same manner as it does in sutra, through the mechanism of a tendency. Simultaneous with conceptual total absorption cognition of denumerable voidness is an underlying tendency for conceptual cognition of the impure appearance of the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure. Simultaneous with subsequent attainment cognition of the impure appearance is an underlying tendency for conceptual cognition of its absolute absence of truly established existence.

The Transition from a Conceptual to a Nonconceptual Cognition of Voidness

“Absolute absences” and “items having manners of existence that are absolute absences” are merely conceptual categories used to conceptually think about things and how they exist. They do not exist unimputedly on their own. At first, they may be useful categories for gaining a provisional understanding of reality. Once we have gained an initial understanding, however, we need to go beyond these conceptual categories to the nonconceptual level.

Gelug makes the transition through gaining the discriminating awareness of the voidness of voidness. An absolute absence of truly established existence is itself absolutely devoid of truly established existence. In non-Gelug, to go beyond the conceptual category of absolute absences requires a radical change in the manner of meditation.

To make the transition from conceptual cognition of denumerable voidness to nonconceptual cognition of nondenumerable voidness in non-Gelug, we cannot practice with a conceptual cognition of nondenumerable voidness. Conceptual cognition cannot make an appearance of something beyond words and concepts; conceptual cognition can only give rise to impure appearances. In other words, conceptual cognition can only make things appear to exist in a manner that is different from their ultimate manner of existence (which is beyond words and concepts). At best, conceptual cognition can represent something beyond words and concepts as an absence of words and concepts, which is an inaccurate representation.

Moreover, it is precisely because the ultimate manner of existence of things is beyond words and concepts that conceptual cognition cannot produce an appearance of that manner of existence. This is because a conceptualization of something that cannot be put into concepts is self-contradictory. Consequently, conceptual cognition cannot cognize the ultimate manner in which things exist – either separately from or simultaneously with the item that ultimately exists in that manner.

Thus, conceptual cognition of an impure appearance of ourselves as a Buddha-figure and its denumerable voidness as an absolute absence can serve as method and wisdom only provisionally. Nevertheless, gaining discriminating awareness of denumerable voidness is necessary first, before being able to go beyond it. It like a butterfly egg cannot transform directly into a butterfly, but needs to turn into a caterpillar first. Such discriminating awareness, however, is not the actual obtaining cause for a Buddha’s omniscient awareness.

Pure Appearances and Nondenumerable Voidness as Method and Wisdom in Nonconceptual Cognition

The joined pair of method and wisdom in tantra refers to the pure appearances (dag-pa’i snang-ba) of the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure and their nondenumerable voidness. Pure appearances are appearances that are beyond appearing to exist in any of the four conceptual categories of truly existent, non-truly existent, both, or neither. As bases for their voidness that is beyond words and concepts, pure Buddha-figures and their nondenumerable voidness are inseparable, and always appear inseparably to the reflexive deep awareness of both an arya’s total absorption cognition and subsequent attainment cognition.

An arya’s deep reflexive self-awareness of pure appearances of Buddha-figures and their nondenumerable voidness explicitly cognizes both of them, in the sense that it makes an aspect of both appear simultaneously. During nonconceptual total absorption cognition, however, nondenumerable voidness is more prominent; while during nonconceptual subsequent attainment cognition, the pure appearances of the form of ourselves as a Buddha-figure is more prominent. Equal prominence of both occurs only in a Buddha’s omniscient awareness. Nevertheless, an arya’s total absorption and subsequent attainment cognitions have only one manner of cognitively taking their objects – namely, as that which is beyond all words and concepts.

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

Anuttarayoga Tantra and Dzogchen

The joined pair of method and wisdom in anuttarayoga tantra is a purified illusory body and nondenumerable voidness realized with actual clear-light cognition. The characteristics of a purified illusory body are the same as those of a pure appearance of a Buddha-figure, except that a pure illusory body is a form of subtlest energy-wind, as it is in Gelug anuttarayoga tantra. Actual clear-light cognition of nondenumerable voidness and a pure appearance of ourselves as a purified illusory body arise inseparably with an arya’s deep self-awareness, with the former more prominent during total absorption cognition and the latter more prominent during subsequent attainment cognition. The Kagyu and Sakya anuttarayoga tantra systems aim for this type of joined pair.

In the dzogchen systems practiced in Nyingma and in the various subschools of Kagyu, the joined pair of method and wisdom is specified in terms of rigpa (pure awareness) (rig-pa). On the wisdom side, rigpa innately has reflexive deep awareness of its own nature beyond words and concepts. On the method side, rigpa spontaneously establishes appearances of the form of ourselves as a rainbow body (‘ja’-lus). Again, the wisdom side is more prominent during total absorption cognition and the method side more prominent during subsequent attainment cognition.

[See: Introduction to Dzogchen.]