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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 5: Analysis of the Mind and Reality > The Distinction between Self-sufficiently Knowable and Imputedly Knowable Phenomena

The Distinction between Self-sufficiently Knowable and Imputedly Knowable Phenomena

Alexander Berzin
February 2004, revised July 2006

Introduction

To gain liberation or enlightenment requires nonconceptual cognition that persons, for instance “me,” lack an impossible soul. (gang-zag-gi bdag-med, the selflessness of persons, the identitylessness of persons). Except for the Vaibhashika tenet system, all other Indian Buddhist tenet systems assert that one of the specific impossible souls that persons lack is one that is self-sufficiently knowable (rang-rkya thub-pa’i rdzas-yod). Therefore, for ease of discussion, in the rest of this essay when we refer to the Indian tenet systems, we shall exclude Vaibhashika.

[For the Vaibhashika division between self-sufficiently knowable and imputedly knowable phenomena, see: The Two Truths in Vaibhashika and Sautrantika.]

According to the Gelug tradition, the non-Prasangika Indian Buddhist tenet systems assert the lack or absence of this as the lack of a subtle impossible soul of persons (gang-zag-gi bdag-med phra-mo), while Prasangika asserts it as the lack of a coarse impossible soul of persons (gang-zag-gi bdag-med rags-pa).

Valid cognition (tshad-ma) of this lack requires correct and decisive identification of the validly knowable “me” – the mere “I” (nga-tsam) – and distinguishing it from the impossible soul of a person. Here, the property that distinguishes the two is the manner in which the validly knowable “me” could be validly known. The variables do not specifically concern whether the valid cognition is conceptual or nonconceptual. It concerns whether the validly knowable “me” is self-sufficiently knowable or imputably knowable (btags-yod). All Indian Buddhist tenet systems assert that validly knowable phenomena must be either one or the other.

Here, we shall present the distinction between self-sufficiently knowable and imputedly knowable phenomena as asserted in the Gelug presentation of the Indian Buddhist tenet systems.

Self-Sufficiently Knowable Phenomena

In general, there are four ways of asserting substantial existence (rdzas-yod):

  1. Substantial existence in the sense of being stable and unchanging (brten-pa mi-’gyur ba’i rdzas-yod). This includes only static (rtag-pa, permanent), unaffected (‘dus ma-byas, unconditioned) phenomena.

  2. Substantial existence in the sense of being able to perform a function (don-byed-nus-pa’i rdzas-yod). This includes only nonstatic (mi-rtag-pa, impermanent), affected (‘dus-byas, conditioned) phenomena.

  3. Substantial existence in the sense of being established logically (rigs-pas grub-pa’i rdzas-yod). This includes all existent phenomena. This is also known as substantial existence established by being the focus of valid cognition (tshad-ma’i dmigs-pa’i rdzas-yod).

  4. Substantial existence in the sense of being self-sufficient (rang-rkya thub-pa’i rdzas-yod, self-sufficiently substantially existent). This includes only forms of physical phenomena (gzugs) and ways of being aware of something (shes-pa).

All Buddhist tenet systems agree that only self-sufficient substantial existence is definitional substantial existence (rdzas-yod mtshan-nyid-pa).

A self-sufficiently substantially existent phenomenon is defined as “a validly knowable phenomenon that, when actually cognized (dngos-bzung), does not rely on actual cognition of or by something else.”

  • Actual cognition” refers to manifest (mngon-gyur) cognition, whether with explicit apprehension (dngos-su rtogs-pa) or implicit apprehension (shugs-la rtogs-pa).

  • In manifest cognition of a cognitive object, the consciousness of the manifest cognition gives rise to a mental aspect representing the object. The cognitive object appears, through that aspect, both to the person and to the consciousness of the manifest cognition. Both the person and the manifest consciousness cognize the object.

  • To “apprehend” an object means accurately and decisively to determine it (nges-pa) as “this” and not “that.” With explicit apprehension, a mental aspect representing the apprehended object appears in the cognition; with implicit apprehension, such a mental aspect does not appear.

  • Actual cognition of something else” refers, for example, to actual cognition of the phenomenon’s basis for imputation (gdags-gzhi, basis for labeling).

[See: Relationships with Objects. See also: Introduction to Voidness (Emptiness) and Mental Labeling.]

Let us call “self-sufficiently substantially existent” “ self-sufficiently knowable” for short. In full, self-sufficiently knowable phenomena are “phenomena that substantially exist as things that are self-sufficiently knowable.”

Imputedly Knowable Phenomena

An imputedly existent phenomenon is defined as one that, when actually cognized, does rely on something else. To help avoid confusion, let us translate “imputedly existent” as “ imputedly knowable.” All Indian Buddhist tenet systems agree that only nonstatic abstractions (ldan-min ‘du-byed, noncongruent affecting variables that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something) and static phenomena (static abstractions) constitute the set of imputedly knowable phenomena.

[See: Congruent and Noncongruent Affecting Variables.]

  • According to the Sautrantika tenets, actually cognizing imputedly knowable phenomena relies on actually cognizing their bases for imputation both in the immediately preceding moment and simultaneously with actually cognizing the phenomenon.

  • According to the Mahayana tenets, the above is the case with all imputably knowable phenomena except the various types of lack of impossible soul, voidness (stong-nyid, emptiness), and true stoppings (‘gog-bden, true cessations). Actual cognition of voidnesses and true stoppings rely on actually cognizing their bases for imputation merely in the immediately preceding moment. It does not require actually cognizing their bases for imputation simultaneously with them.

  • Because of this difference, in the Sautrantika system, nonconceptual total absorption on the lack of the impossible soul of a person actually cognizes the aggregates, the validly knowable “me,” and this lack of an impossible soul simultaneously. In the Mahayana systems, only the lack of impossible soul or voidness is actually cognized then. The aggregates and validly knowable “me” are actually cognized only in the immediately preceding moment.

The Distinction Made by Asanga

According to Asanga’s Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa kun-las btus-pa, Skt. Abhidharmasamuccaya), which not only Chittamatra and Svatantrika-Madhyamaka, but also Logic-Follower Sautrantika follow on this point, twenty-nine of the fifty-one subsidiary awarenesses (sems-byung, mental factors) are imputedly knowable; the rest are self-sufficiently knowable.

[See: Mind and Mental Factors: The Fifty-one Types of Subsidiary Awareness.]

The twenty-nine imputedly knowable subsidiary awarenesses are:

  • the twenty auxiliary disturbing emotions (nye-nyon nyi-shu),

  • the five disturbing attitudes with an outlook (nyon-mongs lta-ba-can, deluded outlooks) which constitute the sixth of the six root disturbing emotions and attitudes (rtsa-nyon drug), and

  • the four changeable subsidiary awarenesses (gzhan-‘gyur bzhi).

The rest of the subsidiary awareness, which are self-sufficiently knowable, are:

  • the five ever-functioning subsidiary awarenesses (kun-’gro lnga),

  • the five ascertaining ones (yul-nges lnga),

  • the eleven constructive emotions (dge-ba bcu-gcig), and

  • the five root disturbing emotions and attitudes without an outlook (lta-min nyong-mongs)

The definition for imputedly knowable given in this text is a phenomenon that can become an object experienced by a cognitive sensor (dbang-po) by relying on and being accompanied by a verbal expression (brjod-byed-kyi sgra) or something in a different class (rigs mi-mthun). A self-sufficiently knowable phenomenon is defined as one that can become an object experienced by a cognitive sensor without relying on an expression or something in a different class.

The twenty auxiliary disturbing emotions and, among the four changeable subsidiary awarenesses, regret and sleep – each of these twenty-two is included as a part (cha) of one or more of the three poisonous disturbing emotions (dug-gsum, three poisons): longing desire (‘dod-chags), hostility (zhe-sdang), or naivety (gti-mug). The three poisonous disturbing emotions are in a different category of subsidiary awareness than they are – namely, in the category of the root disturbing emotions and attitudes. Actual cognition with any of the twenty-two relies on and is accompanied by the poisonous disturbing emotion that it is included as a part of. For example, actual cognition, with jealousy, of someone’s wealth relies on and is accompanied by actual cognition of that wealth with longing desire for it.

[See: Dealing with Jealousy.]

Similarly, among the four changeable subsidiary awarenesses, gross detection (rtog-pa) and subtle discernment (dpyod-pa) are discriminating awarenesses (shes-rab), which is in a different category of subsidiary awareness than they are. The five deluded outlooks are types of disturbing, deluded discriminating awareness (shes-rab nyon-mongs-can).

Gungtang, whose commentaries belong to the Kunkyen textbook tradition, clarified that the twenty-nine subsidiary awarenesses specified by Asanga as imputedly knowable are only nominally imputedly knowable. They are not definitional imputedly knowable phenomena (btags-yid mtshan-nyid-pa). All ways of being aware of something are self-sufficiently knowable.

  • In the context of the Logic-Follower Sautrantika, Chittamatra, and Yogachara-Svatantrika tenet systems, all of which accept reflexive awareness (rang-rig), the reason is because all ways of being aware of something are actually cognized by reflexive awareness without relying on cognitive awareness actually cognizing anything else.

  • Within the context of the Sautrantika-Svatantrika and Prasangika systems, the reason is because all ways of being aware of something establish their own occurrence by themselves (shes-pa rang-nyid shes-pa rang-nyid-gyi grub-pa) without relying on actual cognition of it by anything else.

All other Gelug textbook traditions accept Gungtang’s explanation here.

The Chittamatra Assertion

Kunkyen (Kun-mkhyen ‘Jam-dbyangs bzhad-pa) asserts that, in the Chittamatra system, there is a distinction between substantial existence as something that is self-sufficiently knowable (rang-rkya thub-pa’i rdzas-yod) and substantial existence as something that is knowable alone (rang-rkyang ‘dzin-pa’i rdzas-yod). In the former technical term, rkya means “by itself” and thus rang-rkya thub-pa means “able to stand by itself.” In the latter term, rkyang means “alone” and thus rang-rkyang ‘dzin-pa means “knowable alone.” In terms of this distinction, only the latter – substantial existence as something that is knowable alone – is definitional substantial existence. All forms of physical phenomena and all ways of knowing are definitional substantially existent phenomena – they are all substantially existent as things that are knowable alone.

Gungtang (Gung-thang dKon-mchog bstan-pa’i sgron-me) clarified his teacher, Kunkyen’s intention. Substantially existent phenomena that are able to stand by themselves (self-sufficiently knowable phenomena) are not validly knowable phenomena. This is because the term is used only in reference to the subtle impossible soul of a person. Definitional substantially existent phenomena include only validly knowable phenomena.

None of the other Gelug textbook traditions accept this distinction. For them, the term substantial existence as something that is self-sufficiently knowable (self-sufficiently knowable phenomena) applies both to (1) nonexistent phenomena to be negated (shes-bya-la mi-srid-pa’i dgag-bya) and (2) two classes of validly knowable phenomena: forms of physical phenomena and ways of knowing something.

In general, the Chittamatra system defines imputedly knowable phenomena in the same way as do Vaibhashika and Sautrantika. However, it defines self-sufficiently knowable phenomena differently, in accord with the meaning “knowable alone.” Thus, self-sufficiently knowable phenomena are defined as functional phenomena able to stand here (tshur-thub gyi dngos-po), or functional phenomena having existence established as something able to stand here (tshur-thub grub-pa’i dngos-po), or functional phenomena able to be stand in their own place (tshugs-thub-gyi dngos-po). The three terms are synonymous.

Because of this change in definition, Chittamatra can assert apprehension of the lack of an impossible soul by an arya’s nonconceptual total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise), without its basis for imputation, on which the lack relies, simultaneously being apprehended. Chittamatra can assert this without the absurd conclusion following that the lack of an impossible soul is self-sufficiently knowable. In order to apprehend nonconceptually the lack of an impossible soul of a person, for example, one must first apprehend the aggregates on which the imputation of an impossible soul of a person relies, then both the aggregates and the appearance of an impossible soul. Then one scrutinizes the manner of existence of the impossible soul. When one has decisively ascertained that there is no such thing as the impossible soul, then simultaneously with cutting off the imputation of this impossible soul, one explicitly apprehends only the lack of this impossible soul, and not the aggregates on which it is imputed.

Thus, the lack of an impossible soul of a person is imputedly knowable, because actual cognition of it relies on cognition of something else. But, since being self-sufficiently knowable requires only that when an object is actually cognized, it must be knowable alone, it does not specify that “knowable alone” means without reliance on both immediately preceding and simultaneous cognition of something else. Thus, the definition does not exclude being knowable with reliance on the immediately preceding cognition of something else, but without reliance on simultaneous cognition of something else. The lack of an impossible soul can be actually cognized without simultaneously cognizing something else, but it cannot be actually cognized without immediately precedingly cognizing something else. Therefore, the lack of an impossible soul is imputedly knowable. Madhyamaka accepts this Chittamatra distinction.

In contrast, although forms of physical phenomena, as wholes, are imputable on their physical parts, and ways of being aware of something are imputable on their temporal parts, one does not need first to apprehend the parts and then, from reliance on that apprehension, apprehend the wholes. One apprehends the parts and the whole in one step, simultaneously. Moreover, although actual cognition of a whole must rely on simultaneous actual cognition of its parts, this does not render a whole into an imputedly knowable phenomenon in the non-Prasangika systems.

According to the Gelug interpretation concerning all forms of physical phenomena that have parts and all ways of knowing that have temporal parts, both the wholes and their parts are self-sufficiently knowable. This is because a whole physical phenomenon having parts is still a form of a physical phenomenon, and a whole way of knowing having temporal parts is still a way of knowing something. All forms of physical phenomena and all ways of knowing something are self-sufficiently knowable.

The Special Sautrantika-Svatantrika Assertion

In addition to accepting the common distinction between self-sufficiently knowable and imputedly knowable phenomena shared with the other Indian Buddhist tenet systems, Sautrantika-Svatantrika has its own uncommon assertion of substantial existence regarding wholes and their parts. It is based on a distinction Sautrantika-Svatantrika makes between two types of forms of physical phenomena.

Built-up forms (bsags-pa’i gzugs) are those that are built-up from their constituent particles and/or constituent parts. The particles and parts connect with each other, such as the limbs and trunks of our bodies, to make a whole mass (gong-bu). A whole mass is a built-up substantially existent phenomenon (bsags-pa’i rdzas-yod). Built-up forms are definitional substantially existent phenomena.

Grouped forms (bsdu-pa’i gzugs) are those in which their constituent parts do not connect with each other, such as a forest, made up of a group or a cluster of trees. A group of forms is a grouped substantially existent phenomenon (bsdu-pa’i rdzas-yod), but not a definitional substantially existent phenomenon.

Thus, although both built-up forms and grouped forms are definitional substantially existent phenomena from the point of view of both being self-sufficiently knowable, only built-up forms are definitional substantially existent phenomena from the point of view of the relation between their wholes and their parts.

The Special Prasangika Assertion

Prasangika also accepts the common division scheme between self-sufficiently and imputedly knowable phenomena, but considers imputably knowable, in this shared sense, as coarse imputedly knowable. According to the Prasangika assertions, the counter-set (mi-mthun phyogs) of coarse imputedly knowable phenomena – namely the set of self-sufficiently knowable phenomena, to which the validly knowable “ me” does not belong – is a null set. No validly knowable phenomenon is self-sufficiently knowable. This is because Prasangika asserts that substantially established existence (rdzas-su grub-pa) is impossible and a self-sufficiently knowable phenomenon, as mentioned before, is a phenomena that substantially exists as something self-sufficiently knowable.

  • The existence of something is substantially established if it has the ability to perform a function (don-byed nus-pa). That ability arises from a phenomenon being a substantial entity (rdzas) . This definition is made on the basis of the assertion that all validly knowable phenomena have existence established by their self-natures (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa, inherent existence) as the findable referent “things” (btags-don) corresponding to the names and concepts for them. In other words, if we may coin a term, “findably established existence.”

  • Sautrantika, Chittamatra, and Svatantrika assert that only nonstatic, affected phenomena have the ability to produce an effect.

  • Because Prasangika asserts that findably established existence is impossible, it also asserts that substantially established existence is impossible and, thus, self-sufficient knowablility is also impossible.

Prasangika asserts three equivalent types of definitional imputedly knowable phenomena:

  • imputedly knowable as something imputed on a basis (rten-nas btags-pa’i btags-yod),

  • imputedly knowable as something set by names and labels (ming-dang brda’i bzhag-pa’i btags-yod),

  • imputedly knowable as something imputed by conceptual cognition (rtog-pas btags-pa’i btags-yod).

(1) Wholes, for example, are imputed or imputable on the basis of their parts, and all phenomena are imputed or imputable on the basis of their bases for imputation. No one needs to actively impute them in this moment for them to be imputable on their bases.

(2) When searched for, nothing is findable as the referent “thing” corresponding to the name or label for it. Nevertheless, validly knowable phenomena are imputable by names and labels. Individual persons, private groups of people, and societies speaking a common language establish conventions (tha-snyad) to call, with certain names and labels, sets of objects sharing common defining characteristics. The common defining characteristics (mtshan-nyid definitions) are also chosen by the persons, groups, or societies. Based on those conventions, objects having those defining characteristics are imputedly knowable as objects set by names and labels.

  • According to some texts, the terms name (ming) and label (brda) are equivalent.

  • According to others, a name for something comes first, when a person, group, or society assigns the audio category (sgra-spyi, audio universal, sound universal) table, for example, to signify the meaning/object category (don-spyi, meaning universal) table. The audio category is the set comprised of individual combinations of the sounds ta and ble, pronounced in any voice and any volume. The meaning/object category table is the set comprised of individual items that the combination of the sounds ta and ble mean. The combination of the sounds ta and ble, after all, do not have any meaning on their own sides, individually or in combination, unless a person, a group, or a society arbitrarily assigns them a definition and thus a meaning. A label comes afterwards. Once someone learns the name table, then when he or she sees an object with a flat top supported by legs – the conventionally set defining characteristic mark of a “table” – the label table arises.

  • According to yet other texts, a “label” comes first, when a person, group, or society speaking a common language arbitrarily assigns (labels) an audio category, such as “ta+ble” to signify a meaning/object category. From then on, “table” becomes the name the person, group, or society uses for objects with a flat top supported by legs.

  • Sometimes, the term don-spyi is used for the combination of an audio and a meaning/object category. In this more general meaning, we can perhaps translate it simply as a “category.” Categories are arbitrary static abstractions used, according to agreed upon conventions, for conceptually cognizing all validly knowable phenomena. Everything validly knowable is imputedly knowable through a category. Nothing, however, exists from its own side in a category, and when we search for categories “out there,” they cannot be found.

(3) Conceptual cognition is not necessarily verbal. It does not necessarily involve cognizing objects through categories specified by audio and meaning universals. Conceptual cognition can be with categories specified by graphic and meaning universals, such as a “ mental picture” used as a universal to represent, signify, and think nonverbally about a table. It can also be with categories specified by odor and meaning universals, such as the “mental smell” used as a universal by a dog to represent, signify, and think about its master, and so forth with universals based on the other senses. Conceptual cognition can also be merely with static abstractions, such as a space (nam-mkha’). A space is an absence of any obstructive contact – in other words, the absence of any material object that could be contacted in a location and that would obstruct something being there. A space is a valid, imputably knowable object imputed or imputable by conceptual cognition on either an object that is already located somewhere, or on an empty in-between area (bar-snang) – an area between two material objects that does not have any material object located in it.

All validly knowable phenomena, in fact, are imputable knowable as things imputed by conceptual cognition. This does not mean that all validly knowable phenomena can only be validly known by conceptual cognition. It merely means that they are validly knowable because they are merely imputable (btags-tsam) on bases of imputation. This needs to be qualified: they are validly knowable because they are merely imputed or imputable by valid conceptual cognition. A monster under the bed is not validly knowable there simply because a frightened child thinks one is there.

  • Svatantrika asserts that the existence of all validly knowable phenomena is established by their being imputed or imputable on the basis of their also having findably established existence from their own sides. They are not merely imputable without their also having findably established existence.

  • For Prasangika, the valid knowability of a merely imputed or imputable object is not established by the object’s being findable as the referent “thing” corresponding to the imputation. Nothing is findable. It is established merely from the side of the validly imputing mind, according to three criteria:

  • Valid imputation has to be not contradicted by the established convention of the person, group, or society using the label.

  • Valid imputation has to be not contradicted by any valid cognition of the superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa, relative truth, conventional truth) of the object, such as valid cognition of its appearance.

  • Valid imputation has to be not contradicted by any valid cognition of the deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa, ultimate truth) of the object, such as valid cognition of its mode of existence (an absence or voidness of all impossible manners in which its existence could be established).

[See: Establishing the Existence of Validly Knowable Phenomena.]

Summary

All Indian Buddhist tenet systems, except Vaibhashika, agree that the validly knowable “me” does not belong to the counter-set of self-sufficiently knowable phenomena, regardless of definition. It belongs to the analogous set of imputedly knowable phenomena.