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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 5: Analysis of the Mind and Reality > The Validity and Accuracy of Cognition of the Two Truths in Gelug-Prasangika

The Validity and Accuracy of Cognition of the Two Truths in Gelug-Prasangika

Alexander Berzin
February 2002
revised, September 2002 and June 2006

Cognition of an Object

All Tibetan traditions accept that in cognizing a validly knowable phenomenon (shes-bya), mental activity (sems, mind) simultaneously gives rise to (shar-ba, produces) a cognitive object (yul) and cognitively engages (‘ jug-pa) with it. In the definition of mind, “giving rise to a cognitive object” is referred to as “clarity” (gsal), while “cognitively engaging with such an object” is referred to as “awareness” (rig).

For example, in seeing a white rectangular towel, mental activity simultaneously produces the sight of a white rectangular towel and sees it. What we see, however, is not just sensibilia (a white rectangle). In order not to contradict convention (tha-snyad), we need to assert that we also see the towel itself – the so-called “ commonsense (‘jig-rten-la grags-pa) towel.” Cognition of a towel, however, does not create the towel.

Producing a cognitive object and cognitively engaging with it are two aspects of the same mental activity, two ways of describing the same phenomenon. It is not that production of a sight comes first and then, a moment later, the seeing of it occurs.

Moreover, mental activity occurs without there being a findable agent “ me” or “ mind” existing independently and separately from the activity and making it happen, like a person using a computer to make images appear on a screen. Thus, mental activity (mind) is defined as the “ mere” arising and cognizing of objects – in other words, “mere clarity and awareness” (gsal-rig-tsam).

Conceptual and Nonconceptual Cognition

Cognition of an object may be either conceptual cognition (rtog-bcas-kyi shes-pa) or nonconceptual cognition (rtog-med-pa’i shes-pa). Conceptual cognition of something is through the medium of an audio category (sgra-spyi), a meaning/object category (don-spyi), or both. It may also be through the medium of merely a concept (rtog-pa), such as a concept of space (nam-mkha’) or a concept of an impossible way of existing. Conceptual cognition occurs only with mental cognition (yid-shes), never with sensory cognition (dbang-shes).

A category (spyi) is a universal imputed onto a set of individual items sharing a common defining characteristic mark (mtshan-nyid, definition), such that all the items in the set can be understood as being the same general type of thing.

  • The individual items that fit into an audio category are an acoustic pattern, pronounced with any voice, accent, or volume, but not necessarily having any meaning understood by the sounds of the pattern. When anyone says “towel,” whether or not the person understands a meaning associated with this acoustic pattern, the person is saying sounds that fit into the audio category towel.

  • The individual items that fit into a meaning/object category are the objects meant or signified by the sounds of an acoustic pattern. In such cases, the acoustic pattern constitutes a word. All individual items that share in common the defining characteristic mark “ being an absorbent cloth or paper used for wiping or drying” fit into the meaning/object category of “towel.”

Note that an audio category does not have an object/meaning category inherently associated with it from its own side. The audio category do can be associated with not only the meaning/object categories do, due, dew, or doo (as in “ doo-doo”) in English, but also the meaning/object categories du in German (equivalent to “ you” in English), du in Chinese (equivalent to either “measure” or “stomach” in English), ‘du in Tibetan (equivalent to “gather” in English), and so on. The association of an audio category with an object/meaning category is established by mental labeling alone, according to an adopted convention.

Nonconceptual cognition is without such a medium. It may be sensory, mental, or yogic.

  • Sensory and yogic cognition are exclusively nonconceptual.

  • Mental cognition may be either conceptual or nonconceptual.

Bare yogic cognition (rnal-‘byor mngon-sum) is a valid nonconceptual cognition that arises from the dominating condition (bdag-rkyen) of a state of combined 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 which cognizes either subtle nonstaticness (mi-rtag-pa phra-mo) or voidness (stong-pa nyid, Skt. shunyata, emptiness). When it cognizes voidness (the absolute absence of all impossible ways of existing), it occurs only during the total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise) of an arya. Like sensory cognition, it too is exclusively nonconceptual.

Distinguishing

Distinguishing (‘ du-shes, recognition) is a subsidiary awareness (sems-byung, mental factor) that accompanies all nonconceptual and conceptual cognitions, except for certain extremely deep meditative absorptions. Distinguishing takes an uncommon defining characteristic mark of what appears (snang-ba) in either a nonconceptual or conceptual cognition and ascribes a conventional significance (tha-snyad ‘dogs-pa) to it. It does not, however, necessarily ascribe a name (ming) or mental label (brda) to its object, nor does it compare it with previously cognized objects.

In sensory nonconceptual cognition (for instance, visual cognition), we can distinguish sensibilia (for instance, colors such as white and shapes such as a rectangle), and commonsense objects (for instance, a towel). In such cases, the distinguishing does not ascribe the labels white, rectangle, or towel to what appears in the cognition. In fact, distinguishing here does not even know that the color is white, that the shape is rectangular, or that the object is a towel. It merely distinguishes them as conventionally knowable items, from everything else that appears in that visual cognition. In other words, it distinguishes them from all the other colors, shapes, and commonsense objects that appear in the field of vision. This is known as “the distinguishing that cognitively takes as a characteristic mark something’s being a knowable item” (don-la mtshan-mar ‘dzin-pa’i ‘du-shes).

In conceptual cognition, distinguishing ascribes a conventional term and its meaning (sgra-don) to its object. It specifies the object as belonging to a specific audio category or to a specific audio and meaning/object category, excluding it from what is not in those categories. Thus, in ascribing a name or both a name and its meaning to the object that appears to it, such as “white,” “rectangle,” and “towel,” it distinguishes white from all other colors that are not white, a rectangle from all other shapes that are not rectangular, and all other items that are not towels. This is known as “the distinguishing that cognitively takes as a characteristic mark something’s being a conventionality” (tha-snyad-la mtshan-mar ‘dzin-pa’i ‘du-shes). Nonconceptual cognition lacks this type of distinguishing.

Thus, visual nonconceptual cognition merely distinguishes the individual defining characteristic marks of something that characterize it an existent, validly knowable color, shape, and commonsense object. It distinguishes “this” color from “that” color, “ this” shape from “that” shape, and “this” commonsense object from “that” commonsense object. Conceptual cognition distinguishes as well the individual defining characteristic marks that characterize what appears to it as the type of object it specifically is – “this” specific color (“ white,” not “ yellow,”) “this” specific shape (“a rectangle,” not a “circle,”) and “this” specific type of commonsense object (“a towel,” not “a raincoat.”)

The Two Truths

Every knowable phenomenon has two truths (bden-pa gnyis) concerning it. In technical language, the two truths share a single essential nature (ngo-bo gcig). In other words, they refer to two true aspects of any phenomenon. Each truth may be cognized either nonconceptually or conceptually.

  • Superficial truths (kun-rdzob bden-pa, conventional truth, relative truth) are those phenomena that are findable by a valid cognition scrutinizing (dpyod-pa, analyzing) what is conventional (tha-snyad-pa).

  • Deepest truths (don-dam bden-pa, ultimate truth) are those phenomena that are findable by a valid cognition (tshad-ma) scrutinizing what is ultimate (mthar-thug).

In these definitions, “findable” does not imply that the scrutinizing valid cognitions find, on the side of the scrutinized phenomenon, 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 (‘jug-yul) and explicitly apprehend them.

  • An involved object of a cognition is a principle object (yul-gyi gtso-bo, main object) that it cognitively engages.

Valid Cognition and Apprehension

Valid cognition is a nonfallacious (mi-bslu-ba) cognition of an involved object of a cognition. A cognition is nonfallacious if it induces decisive determination (nges-pa) of its involved object and is not damaged by other valid cognitions.

  • Other valid cognitions refer to valid cognitions scrutinizing either deepest or superficial truth.

  • Prasangika does not include the stipulation that valid cognition also requires that the cognition be fresh (gsar-tu), which the less sophisticated tenet systems assert. This is because, in light of the Prasangika view of voidness, all moments of cognition are fresh.

  • Valid cognition may be nonconceptual or conceptual.

A cognition, whether nonconceptual or conceptual, apprehends (rtogs-pa) its involved object if it correctly and decisively determines it as “this” and “ not that.” Apprehension of an object may be either explicit or implicit.

  • With explicit apprehension (dngos-su rtogs-pa), 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.

  • With implicit apprehension (shugs-la rtogs-pa), such a mental aspect does not appear.

A cognition cannot implicitly apprehend an object without simultaneously explicitly apprehending another object. However, a cognition can explicitly apprehend an object without simultaneously implicitly apprehending anything.

All valid cognitions apprehend their involved objects.

Two Facets of a Valid Cognition

In general, any specific moment of valid cognition has two facets, each of which is valid for apprehending only one truth about the phenomenon that is its involved object. They are the facets:

  • valid for apprehending superficial truths (kun-rdzob rtogs-pa’i tshad-ma),

  • valid for apprehending deepest truths (don-dam rtogs-pa’i tshad-ma).

In terms of these two facets,

  • Valid mental cognition, whether conceptual or nonconceptual, has the ability to apprehend either of the two truths, either explicitly or implicitly.

  • Valid sensory nonconceptual cognition apprehends only superficial truths, either explicitly or implicitly.

  • Yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness apprehends only deepest truths, and only explicitly.

Facets of Superficial Truth

In general, the superficial truth about any item is its appearance, while the deepest truth about it is its voidness (its actual mode of existence).

In terms of this general formulation, within superficial truths, there are two inseparable facets of the appearance of an item:

  • the appearance of the item as an object,

  • the appearance of a mode of existence of the item.

Note, however, that an item cannot appear without it appearing with a mode of existence; and a mode of existence does not exist independently of an item that exists with that mode of existence.

Consider the case of a visual object.

  • The appearance of a visual object as an object is the appearance both of a colored shape and of a conventional, commonsense object. For example, when seeing something, both a white rectangle and a towel may appear. Both conceptual and nonconceptual cognitions produce cognitive appearances of both sensibilia and commonsense objects.

  • The appearance of a mode of existence of an item may be either an appearance of seemingly true existence (bden-par grub-pa) or an appearance of non-true existence. The two alternatives constitute a dichotomy (dngos-‘gal), with no third alternative (phung gsum-pa) possible.

For an item to be truly existent means for it to have a truly existent conventional identity (tha-snyad-du yod-pa’i bdag) as “this” or “that” individual validly knowable object or as “ this” or “that” individual, specific kind of validly knowable object.

A truly existent conventional identity would be one established by the power of an objective, individual defining characteristic mark (rang-mtshan) findable on the side of an item. Such a findable mark would allow for a correct mental labeling (yang-dag-par ming ‘ dogs-pa) of the item as “this” or “that.” This is because the findable mark would be what made the basis having the findable mark (mtshan-gzhi) into a proper basis for labeling (gdags-gzhi) “this” or “that.” It would establish that truly existent identity either by its own power alone, or in conjunction with mental labeling. Thus, truly established existence is synonymous with existence established by self-nature.

Although mental activity can give rise to an appearance of a mode of existence that resembles true existence, actual true existence cannot appear because there is no such thing. The item’s absolute absence of true existence is its voidness (emptiness). Voidness, as a mode of existence, is equivalent to non-true existence.

An item’s absolute absence of a truly existent conventional identity does not mean that it has no conventional identity at all. For something to be devoid of true existence implies that it has a non-truly existent conventional identity as “this” or “that.” Otherwise, the absurd conclusion would follow that nothing could be distinguished from anything else. Everything would be the same item and you and I would be the same person.

Although there is no such thing as an objective defining characteristic mark findable on the side of a basis for labeling or on the side of an item itself, nevertheless there are conventional defining characteristic marks, validly knowable by the mental factor distinguishing. Their existence, however, is established by mental labeling alone. Thus, a non-truly existent conventional identity is one established by the power of mental labeling alone, and not in conjunction with the power of an objective defining characteristic mark findable on the side of a basis for labeling or on the side of an item itself, or by the power of such a findable objective mark alone.

In short, the deepest truth about an item is its actual mode of existence, which is its voidness – the absolute absence of its having a truly existent conventional identity. The superficial truth about an item regards the basis for the voidness (stong-gzhi). The basis includes the nonconceptual appearance of the item and of a mode of existence, both of which have non-truly existent conventional identities as validly knowable objects. The basis also includes the conceptual appearance of what the item specifically is and of what the mode of existence specifically is, both of which also have non-truly existent conventional identities. Thus, the non-truly existent conventional identities of any knowable object are devoid of existing as truly existent conventional identities.

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

Impure and Pure Appearances of Superficial Truths

Corresponding to the above distinction between the true existence and non-true existence of any item, there are impure appearances (ma-dag-pa’i snang-ba) and pure appearances (dag-pa’i snang-ba) of the superficial truth about an item.

  • An impure appearance of a superficial truth about an item is the appearance of it as seemingly truly existent. This mode of appearance (snang-tshul) does not correspond to the actual mode of existence (gnas-tshul, mode of abiding) of the item. An example is the appearance of the item as having a seemingly truly existent conventional identity – for instance, as a truly existent “white rectangular towel.”

  • A pure appearance of a superficial truth about the same item is the appearance of it as having a non-truly existent conventional identity as a white rectangular towel. Here, the mode of appearance and the mode of existence are the same.

Note that there is no common locus (gzhi-mthun) between a pure appearance and an impure appearance of a superficial truth. In other words, there is no findable entity, such as a “white rectangular towel,” that exists independently of a mode of appearance, and which can appear either impurely or purely, depending on the mind that cognizes it. This is because there is no findable referent “thing” on the side of a knowable object that corresponds to the names or labels for it. Nevertheless, there are external objects (phyi-don) – validly knowable objects that have a different essential nature from that of the cognitions of them.

Similarly, it is not the case that a pure appearance of a superficial truth arises first in a cognition and then the cognition projects onto it an impure appearance. Cognition gives rise either to an impure appearance or a pure appearance of a superficial truth.

When conceptual mental cognition and either sensory or mental nonconceptual cognition cognize superficial truths, they can only give rise to and cognize impure appearances of superficial truths. None of them can give rise to and cognize pure appearances. All three types of cognition, however, can be equally valid for cognizing impure appearances of superficial truths, depending on the way in which they cognize the impure appearances. Only clear light cognition, discussed later in this essay, can give rise to and cognize pure appearances of superficial truths.

Grasping for True Existence

In summary, sensory and mental nonconceptual cognition cognize only the appearance of an something – the appearance of an item and the appearance of a mode of existence of the item. Conceptual mental cognition cognizes both (1) the appearance of an item and a mode of existence, as well as (2) the appearance of what something specifically is and of the specific mode in which it exists. All these appearances are impure appearances, and impure appearances are appearances of seemingly true existence (bden-snang, appearances of true existence).

As for cognition of the impure appearances of seemingly true existence, the term grasping for true existence (bden-par 'dzin-pa) has two meanings. The word translated as “to grasp” ('dzin, Skt. graha) actually means only “to take something as a cognitive object.” In terms of true existence, we may take as a cognitive object “an appearance of seemingly true existence” (bden-snang ‘dzin-pa), or we may take as a cognitive object “ truly established existence” (bden-grub ‘dzin-pa). “Grasping for true existence” may mean either the first of the two alternatives or both alternatives in conjunction with each other.

  • Sensory and mental nonconceptual cognitions take as a cognitive object only an appearance of seemingly true existence. They merely give rise to and cognize this appearance. Thus, they “grasp for true existence” only in the first sense of the term.

  • Conceptual cognition takes as a cognitive object both an appearance of seemingly true existence and the concept truly established existence. This is because conceptual cognition interpolates (sgro-‘dogs, superimposes, projects) something that is not there. It interpolates (1) that the mode of existence that appears to it fits in the category truly established existence and (2) that this specific conceptualized mode of existence corresponds to the actual mode of existence of the object that appears to it. In other words, it takes the mode of appearance (an impure appearance of superficial truth) of its involved object to be the actual mode of existence (deepest truth). Thus, conceptual cognition “grasps for true existence” in both senses of the term.

Correct and Distorted Superficial Truths

Relative to reasoned cognition (rigs-shes), there is no division of superficial truth into correct superficial truth (yang-dag kun-rdzob) and distorted superficial truth (log-pa’i kun-rdzob). This is because there is no such thing as a distorted superficial truth.

  • A correct superficial truth is a non-truly existent one – one that exists in the manner of a pure appearance of superficial truth.

  • A distorted superficial truth would be a truly existent one – one that actually existed in the manner of an impure appearance of superficial truth.

Reasoned cognition is cognition that analyzes the two truths by relying on valid reason. Such cognition decisively determines that there is no such thing as truly established existence, either ultimately or conventionally. Because of this, relative to reasoned cognition, a division scheme into correct and distorted superficial truths is invalid. A division scheme of phenomena into two sets is only valid when both sets have items that belong to them.

Nevertheless, relative to conventional valid cognition (tha-snyad-pa’i tshad-ma), superficial truths can be divided into correct and distorted superficial truths.

  • Superficial truths that are cognized by conventional valid cognition are correct superficial truths.

  • Superficial truths that are cognized by distorted cognition (log-shes) are distorted superficial truths.

Conventional valid cognition, also known as worldly valid cognition (‘ jig-rten-pa’i tshad-ma), is valid cognition by all minds other than yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness. Thus, since conventional valid cognition always makes impure appearances of superficial truths, the division scheme of superficial truths into correct and distorted ones refers only to impurely appearing superficial truths.

Distorted Cognition

Distorted cognition (log-shes), then, cognizes impure appearances of distorted superficial truths. Of the two facets of an impure superficial truth, however, the distortion is in regard to the appearance of an item as an object. It is not in regard to the appearance of the mode of existence of an item, since all impure appearances of superficial truth, whether distorted or correct, are appearances of seemingly true existence.

Distorted cognition may be either nonconceptual or conceptual.

  • A distorted nonconceptual cognition is one that is deceived (mistaken) with respect to its involved object.

  • A distorted conceptual cognition is one that is deceived with respect to its conceptualized object (zhen-yul, implied object).

Conceptualized objects belong exclusively to the domain of conceptual cognition and are, literally, the items onto which the categories or concepts “cling.” They are what a category in a conceptual cognition refers to. For instance, when thinking about an apple, the category apple refers to a commonsense apple. When remembering our mother, the concept we have of our mother refers to our mother.

An example of a distorted nonconceptual cognition is the visual cognition of a double moon by a cross-eyed person when not wearing corrective eyeglasses. The involved object of the cognition is a double moon. Examples of distorted conceptual cognition are imagining a double moon, remembering a blue shirt that we wore yesterday when actually we wore a yellow shirt, and thinking that sound is permanent (eternal).

In the case of seeing a double moon, the involved object (an actual double moon) is nonexistent. In the case of imagining a double moon, the conceptualized object (an actual double moon) that would fit into the category double moon is nonexistent. In the case of incorrectly remembering a blue shirt that we wore yesterday, again the conceptualized object a blue shirt that we wore yesterday does not exist.

However, if we think of sound as being in the category permanent phenomenon, the conceptualized object a permanent phenomenon does exist. It is not like a double moon. Nevertheless, the cognition is still deceived about its conceptualized object and is therefore distorted. This is because the involved object sound is not an example of the conceptualized object a permanent phenomenon. The imputation of the category permanent phenomenon onto the basis for imputation a sound is incorrect. The distorted imputation is “a conceptual cognition that does not accord with fact” (rtog-pa don mi-mthun).

There are four causes for deception (‘khrul-ba’i rgyu bzhi) – referring to the deception that occurs in distorted cognition:

  • A faulty dominating condition (bdag-rkyen) for the cognition, such as the faulty visual sensors of someone who is cross-eyed.

  • A faulty focal condition (dmigs-rkyen) for the cognition, such as when seeing a twirling torch as a ring of fire.

  • A fault with the situation of the cognizing person, such as being in a moving vehicle and seeing trees moving backwards, or wearing tinted sunglasses and seeing white objects as pink.

  • A faulty immediately preceding condition (de-ma-thag rkyen) for the cognition. The immediately preceding moment of cognition is its immediately preceding condition. If the immediately preceding moment of cognition were under the influence of faulty logic or stubborn ignorance, we might think that sound was permanent. If it were under the influence of forgetfulness, we might incorrectly remember what we wore yesterday. Or if it were under the influence of paranoia, we might think someone was following us, when actually no one was.

All such cognitions are deceived or mistaken concerning their involved objects. Valid cognitions that are not affected by any of the causes for deception do not corroborate the distorted cognitions. They contradict them.

Although a cognition of a double moon is distorted and, as a whole, is not a valid cognition; nevertheless, the cognition of the appearance of the double moon within the context of that distorted cognition is “valid.” This is because it is nonfallacious that an appearance representing a double moon actually does arise and is cognized clearly in the distorted cognition.

  • The cognition of this distorted superficial truth is not contradicted by the cognition of superficial truths by other persons who are cross-eyed. They all see appearances of a double moon when looking at the moon.

  • The cognition of this distorted appearance is not even contradicted by a cognition of deepest truth, in the sense that cognition of the voidness of the distorted appearance does not negate the conventional existence of the distorted appearance.

The same is true regarding distorted conceptual cognition, such as thinking that sound is permanent. Within this distorted cognition, the cognition of “sound” and the cognition of the category permanent are themselves valid, although the imputation of the category permanent onto sound and the cognition of sound through the medium of that category are distorted.

One further clarification needs to be made. Although distorted cognition of a distorted superficial truth does not concern the appearance of the mode of existence of an item, nevertheless there can be a distorted conceptual cognition of the appearance of a mode of existence. For example, we might conceptualize that an item’s impure appearance of seemingly true existence is a pure appearance of non-true existence. This distorted conceptual cognition is deceived about its conceptualized object pure appearance. The impure appearance that is its involved object is not an example of a pure appearance. Such invalid cognition occurs, for instance, as a consequence of taking a Svatantrika-Madhyamaka understanding of voidness as the deepest understanding of voidness and therefore negating an underpervasively identified object to be negated (dgag-bya ngos-‘dzin khyab-chung-ba dgag-pa).

Deceptive Cognition

A deceptive cognition (‘khrul -shes) is one that has a mistake or confusion concerning its appearing object. Its appearing object seems like something else.

All cognitions other than yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness are deceptive cognitions of the appearance of the mode of existence of superficial truths. This is because all of them give rise to and cognize appearances of impure superficial truths. The appearances of seemingly true existence seem to be appearances of actual true existence. However, not all deceptive cognitions of the impure appearances of superficial truths as objects are distorted cognitions. Only some are distorted, while others are valid.

Among nonconceptual cognitions, only distorted nonconceptual cognitions are also deceptive cognitions regarding the appearance in them of superficial truths as objects. This is because the involved object of a distorted nonconceptual cognition, such as seeing a double moon, is also its appearing object.

Among conceptual cognitions, however, all conceptual cognitions are also deceptive regarding the appearance in them of superficial truths as objects, whether the conceptual cognition is valid or distorted. Let us examine this point in detail.

In conceptual cognition, the appearing object is a category, a concept, or both. For the sake of simplicity, let us restrict our discussion to just conceptual cognition that has a category as one of its appearing objects – for example, the conceptual cognition of a dog. The appearing objects of this cognition are the category dog and the concept truly established existence. What actually appears (snang-ba) in the cognition, however, is a dog (through a mental aspect representing one) and an appearance of seemingly true existence. The conceptual cognition imputes the category and concept onto what appears – namely, it imputes them onto the superficial truth of the appearance of the object that the item is and the appearance of the mode of existence that the item has.

The conceptual cognition is deceptive because it mixes into one what appears with what it imputes (snang-btags gcig-tu ‘dres). “To mix into one” means to make two things appear is if they were one and the same identical thing. It may be correct that an individual dog is an instance of something that could conventionally be put into the category dog. However, when, in cognition, the category dog is mixed together with the appearance of a specific instance of a dog, the cognition is deceptive. This is because it seems as though the category and the specific instance of an item that conventionally is in that category are one and the same identical thing. In different words, it seems as though an entire set is identical with just one member of the set, when the member that appears is merely representing an example of all the members of the set. In simple language, it seems as though what this particular dog looks like is what dogs in general look like.

Conceptual cognition is not only deceptive because it mixes into one its appearing object (in our example, the category dog) with what appears to it (a conventionally existent dog). It is also deceptive because it mixes into one its other appearing object (the concept truly established existence) with what also appears to it (an appearance of seemingly true existence). Specifically, the conceptual cognition takes the appearance of something as being a truly existent dog and interpolates onto it the concept truly established existence as a dog. This aspect of the conceptual cognition is distorted. The conceptualized object truly established existence does not exist at all. Therefore, to take something nonexistent as if it were existent is a distorted interpolation.

Thus, concerning cognition of impure superficial truth, the conceptual cognition of a dog as a “dog” is deceptive from two points of view:

  • It mixes the category dog with the appearance of a specific individual dog.

  • It mixes the concept truly established existence with an appearance of seemingly true existence.

The first deceptive aspect is a valid conceptual cognition. It is valid that this individual knowable object conventionally fits in the category dog. It could even be a valid deceptive cognition that this specific appearance of seemingly true existence conventionally fits into the category appearances of seemingly true existence. It would be distorted, however, to take this specific appearance of seemingly true existence as conventionally fitting into the category appearances of non-true existence.

Simultaneous Cognition of the Two Truths

Cognition of two sensory aspects of something by two appropriate types of mental activity can occur simultaneously. For example, we can see the sight of an orange with visual cognition and, at the same time, smell its fragrance with olfactory cognition. We cannot see and smell the visual and olfactory cognitive objects, however, with just visual cognition.

Similarly, we can cognize the superficial and deepest truths about something simultaneously, but only by the appropriate aspects of mental activity valid for cognizing each. Thus, mental activity valid for cognizing superficial truths about an item – what it appears to be and how it appears to exist – is not valid for cognizing its deepest truth – how it actually exists, and vice versa.

This statement is true whether the mental activity is cognition of impure or pure appearances of superficial truths and, within the former category, whether the mental activity is conceptual or nonconceptual.

The sight and the smell of an orange are not mutually exclusive phenomena (‘ gal-ba) and thus one moment of mental activity can cognize both simultaneously, with both being explicitly apprehended. The presence and absolute absence of true existence, however, are mutually exclusive phenomena. One moment of mental activity cannot simultaneously give rise to a mental aspect representing the presence of true existence as well as its absence. In other words, one moment of mental activity cannot explicitly apprehend both at the same time.

Therefore, because the impure appearance of an item is with an appearance of seemingly true existence, such an appearance occludes (khegs) or blocks simultaneous explicit apprehension of its deepest truth, its absolute absence of true existence. In other words, cognition of impure superficial truths and of deepest truths cannot occur simultaneously, with both being explicitly apprehended.

Simultaneous cognition of the two truths can occur, however, in one moment of conceptual cognition, with one being explicitly apprehended and the other being implicitly apprehended.

  • Conceptual total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise) cognition of voidness simultaneously apprehends voidness explicitly and the basis for that voidness implicitly.

  • Conceptual subsequent attainment (rjes-thob, subsequent realization, post-meditation) cognition of voidness simultaneously apprehends the basis for a voidness explicitly and its voidness implicitly.

On the other hand, although one moment of nonconceptual cognition can implicitly apprehend voidness while simultaneously explicitly apprehending the basis for the voidness, it cannot implicitly apprehend the basis for a voidness while explicitly apprehending its voidness.

  • Nonconceptual total absorption cognition of voidness apprehends voidness explicitly and does not apprehend the basis for that voidness even implicitly.

  • Nonconceptual subsequent attainment of voidness simultaneously apprehends the basis for a voidness explicitly and its voidness implicitly.

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

A conceptual cognition that explicitly apprehends a voidness can only do so by giving rise to an appearance of the seemingly true existence of the voidness. The cognition is correct regarding the superficial truth of what the voidness is – it is an appearance of a voidness. It is also correct regarding the superficial truth of how the voidness appears to exist – it appears to be seemingly truly existent. However, the conceptual cognition is deceptive, because it mixes the voidness that appears with the category voidness, and the appearance of seemingly true existence that appears with the categories appearances of true existence and truly established existence. The aspect of the cognition that mixes the appearance of a seemingly truly existent voidness with the category truly established existence is distorted. The other aspects are merely deceptive, but not distorted. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, the cognition is a valid conceptual cognition.

Here, the explicit conceptual apprehension of a voidness that appears to be seemingly truly existent does not block the same conceptual cognition from simultaneously implicitly apprehending the basis for that voidness. It does not block it because that basis for voidness could appear in the conceptual cognition, although it does not appear. In technical language, the manner with which the conceptual cognition cognitively takes its object (‘ dzin-stangs) explicitly (namely, by giving rise to an appearance of it as if truly existent and grasping) does not prevent cognition in general of the object that it simultaneously apprehends implicitly.

  • If the basis for the voidness did appear in the conceptual cognition, the aspect of the cognition for cognizing superficial truths could only make that basis appear as if truly existent. This is because the appearances that conceptual cognition makes can only be appearances of seemingly true existence.

  • From the point of view of the appearance of how something exists, the appearance of a seemingly truly existent voidness would not be incompatible with an appearance of a seemingly truly existent basis for the voidness. This is because both are appearances of seemingly true existence. They are incompatible only from the point of view of the appearance of what something is – the absence of an impossible mode of existence and the presence of an object having that impossible mode of existence.

  • Because of that incompatibility, the two truths cannot appear and be explicitly apprehended simultaneously in conceptual cognition.

When conceptual subsequent attainment cognition explicitly apprehends a basis for voidness, it also makes it appear as if truly existent, because it is a conceptual cognition. The explicit conceptual apprehension of a basis for voidness that appears to be seemingly truly existent does not block the same conceptual cognition from simultaneously implicitly apprehending the voidness itself. It does not block it because that voidness could appear in the conceptual cognition, although it does not appear. If the voidness did appear in the conceptual cognition, it also could only appear as if truly existent. The rest of the analysis is the same as that for conceptual total absorption cognition of voidness.

The analysis for nonconceptual subsequent attainment cognition is the same as that for the conceptual variety. This is because both types of cognition are with mental cognition, and mental cognition, whether conceptual or nonconceptual, can only make appearances of superficial truths that are appearances of impure superficial truths. Thus, if the voidness did appear in nonconceptual subsequent attainment cognition, here as well it could only appear as if truly existent.

The situation is quite different with nonconceptual total absorption cognition of voidness. This type of cognition is a bare yogic cognition and therefore does not make appearances of true existence. Thus, when this cognition explicitly apprehends a voidness, it does not make it appear as if truly existent. Such an explicit apprehension of voidness does block the same nonconceptual cognition from simultaneously implicitly apprehending the basis for the voidness. It blocks it because that basis for voidness could not appear in the nonconceptual yogic cognition. If the basis for the voidness could appear in the nonconceptual yogic cognition, it could only appear as if truly existent. This is because nonconceptual yogic cognition is with mental consciousness, which is a grosser level of consciousness that that used in clear light cognition.

Clear Light Cognition

Anuttarayoga tantra explains that mental activity occurs with three levels of subtlety: gross, subtle, and subtlest.

  • Gross consciousness is sense consciousness, and that has only sensory nonconceptual cognition.

  • Subtle consciousness is mental consciousness, and that may have conceptual or nonconceptual mental cognition, as well as nonconceptual yogic cognition.

  • Subtlest consciousness refers to the clear light mind (‘od-gsal). Its cognition is always nonconceptual.

Clear light cognition is the only level of cognition that, when giving rise to and cognizing a superficial truth, can do so in terms of a pure superficial truth (an appearance of a superficial truth as being devoid of true existence). This is because during clear light cognition of an item, the clear light mind can never give rise to an appearance of the item as being seemingly truly existent. Because of this unique feature, clear light cognition is the only type of cognition that can explicitly apprehend both truths simultaneously – namely, deepest truth and pure superficial truth. After all, a voidness of true existence and an appearance of something as devoid of true existence are not incompatible.

Although nonconceptual yogic cognition also does not make an appearance of seemingly true existence, it cannot explicitly apprehend both truths simultaneously. This is because yogic cognition is a type of subtle cognition – not a subtlest one – and when subtle cognitions give rise to superficial truths, they can only give rise to appearances of impure superficial truths.

[For further discussion, see: The Union of Method and Wisdom in Sutra and Tantra: Gelug and Non-Gelug Presentations.]