Fine Points about the Two Truths: Gelug Prasangika

The Two Truths Have the Same Essential Nature

When the statement is made that the two truths have the same essential nature (ngo-bo gcig), but different conceptual isolates (ldog-pa tha-dad), it does not mean that they are referring to the same essential nature. It is not that the two truths are referring to the same superficial object or the same voidness of the same superficial object, but just viewed from the perspective of two different minds: a mind stained with unawareness and the mind of a Buddha.

Rather, the two truths share the same essential nature of both being devoid of self-established existence. In other words, their deepest essential natures of voidness are the same; it is just that the basis that their voidnesses are in reference to (ltos-gzhi) can be conceptually isolated as these two different items.

  • Conceptual isolation is a phenomenon that occurs merely in thought as a tool for analysis.
  • Two items that share the same essential nature but which can be conceptually isolated from each other do not, in fact, exist or occur separately from each other.

The reason why the two truths cannot be of two different deepest essential natures is the following. If superficial truths were of a different deepest essential nature from deepest truths, i.e. if superficial truths were of a different deepest essential nature than voidness, then the absurd conclusion would follow that only voidness would be devoid of self-established existence and superficial truths would not be devoid of self-established existence. This would absurdly follow because the two would have to have different deepest natures: if one is voidness, the other could not be voidness.

Although the two truths are different conceptual isolates, nevertheless, being of the same essential nature, they are inseparable (dbyer-med). “Inseparable,” in its technical sense, means that if one is the case, so is the other.

  • If it is the case that minds stained by unawareness take as true the existence of self-establishing natures that establish the superficial essential natures of things, it is also the case that non-deceptive minds will nevertheless take as true the deepest essential natures of things, i.e. their voidness.
  • If it is the case that non-deceptive minds take as true the deepest essential natures of things, it is also the case that minds stained by unawareness will nevertheless take as true the existence of self-establishing natures that establish the superficial essential natures of things.

The Conventional Existence of Superficial Knowable Phenomena

We have learned that superficial knowable phenomena conventionally exist (tha-snyad-du yod-pa). However, they appear like illusions because their superficial essential natures appear to be self-established, whereas in deepest truth they are not self-established.

But how is it that there are superficial objects conventionally known as a “human,” a “lake” or a “religion?” In other words, how do they conventionally exist as a human, a lake or a religion? The conventional existence of superficial objects can only be accounted for in terms of their being the referent objects (btags-chos) of mental labeling with categories by conceptual cognition and designation with words, in which case the referent objects appear to be self-established.

  • A referent object is what a category and a word refer to. For instance, the referent object of the category “human” mentally labeled on a limited being imputed on an everchanging continuum of a body and mind and designated with the word “human” is a conventionally existent “human.”
  • The category “human,” however, is conventionally defined by agreed-upon characteristic marks and designated by a word, “human.” Based on these defining characteristic marks, which conceptual cognition conceives as existing findably also on the side of a certain limited being, the conceptual cognition mentally labels, designates and thinks of that being as a “human” and not as a “Neanderthal” or a “lake.”
  • Although the limited being conventionally exists as a “human” merely in terms of this mental labeling and designation, nevertheless it seems to have on its own side a findable self-establishing nature that establishes it as a “human.” It seems like there is something inside it that makes it a “human,” not a “Neanderthal” or a “lake,” although there is not.
  • To a mundane mind, the limited being truly is a “human,” because it believes that there actually is such a self-establishing nature inside the being that establishes it as a human, either by its own power or in conjunction with the mental label and designation “human.”

The Division between What Conventionally Exists and What Is Non-existent

Not everything that appears to a mundane mind, however, conventionally exists. Chandrakirti explains that what conventionally exists (tha-snyad-du yod-pa) must fulfill three criteria:

  • It must be widely known to cognitions of conventional objects (tha-snyad-pa’i shes-pa), although not necessarily understood by those cognitions. Most modern educated people have heard of quarks, for instance. They are widely known, despite the fact that not many people understand what they are.
  • As an object widely known like that, other cognitions of conventional objects must not invalidate it. Although objects seen as blurs by people with poor vision are widely known, the conventional existence of objects actually being blurs is invalidated by unimpaired vision.
  • The widely known object must not be invalidated by reasoning when reasoning analyzes the object accurately in terms of its voidness or when it analyzes whether or not the object has a self-establishing nature. Although self-establishing natures are widely thought to exist by those with unawareness of voidness, such natures are invalidated by analysis of them with reasoning.

Non-conceptual Cognition of Deepest Truth Does Not Negate Conventional Existence

Let us look more deeply at this third criterion. Non-conceptual cognition of voidness negates the existence of self-establishing natures that establish the existence of the superficial essential natures of knowable phenomena. Thus, it invalidates self-establishing natures. It does not, however, negate the conventional existence of knowable phenomena. Analysis with the reasoning of voidness does not invalidate conventional objects.

In more detail, when reasoning analyzes whether or not a conventional object has a self-establishing nature that establishes its existence, then despite the fact that the object appears with a representation of a self-establishing nature, it concludes there is no such thing as a self-establishing nature. One focuses, then, on “no such thing as a self-establishing nature”; in other words, one focuses on its voidness. At such a time, neither the conventional object nor the representation of a self-establishing nature appear. This is because the object being negated is the existence of a self-establishing nature that corresponds to the representation of one that appears. With voidness, one is focusing only on the total absence of such a nature: there is no such thing; it does not exist.

The object being negated is not the existence of the conventional object that appears with a representation of a self-establishing nature; only the findable existence of an actual self-establishing nature is being negated. Thus, although the analysis with reasoning invalidates the existence of a self-establishing nature that corresponds to the representation of such a nature that appears in cognition, it does not invalidate and obliterate the conventional object that appears with a representation of such a nature. This is because the conventional object is not the object of negation by voidness.

Valid Cognition of the Appearance of a Self-Establishing Nature

As already explained, when a mundane mind cognizes a superficial object, equivalent to a conventional object, both the superficial essential nature of the object and an appearance representing a self-establishing nature establishing that superficial essential nature appear. Although there is nothing findable on the side of the object that actually corresponds to this representation; nevertheless, the cognition of the appearance of a representation of a self-establishing nature is still a valid apprehension (rtogs-pa). It is a valid apprehension because this appearance, a representation of a self-establishing nature, actually does appear and is accurately and decisively cognized as what appears.

Nevertheless the cognition is deceptive (‘khrul-ba) with reference to this appearance of a representation of a self-establishing nature, since the appearance conceals the deepest truth, that there is no such thing as a self-establishing nature. For a mundane mind, the cognition is doubly deceptive because the unawareness that accompanies the cognition takes the self-establishing nature actually to exist.

Accurate and Distorted Superficial Truths

Not all cognitions of the superficial essential natures of conventional objects by mundane minds, however, are valid cognitions (tshad-ma). Superficial phenomena – both ways of knowing and objects known – can be divided into accurate superficial phenomena (yang-dag-pa’i kun-rdzob) and distorted superficial phenomena (log-pa’i kun-rdzob). But this division of what is and is not conventionally valid is made only from the perspective of mundane minds. A mundane mind, as explained above, is one that still contains unawareness and thus still grasps for the existence of self-establishing natures.

Within the context of the belief that there actually are self-establishing natures on the sides of conventional objects, the distinction between distorted and accurate superficial objects is made in terms of whether or not the mundane mind cognizing the superficial object is affected by shallow causes for deception (‘phral-gyi ‘khrul-rgyu).

  • There are both internal and external shallow causes for deception with respect to sensory cognition. Internal ones include cataracts, jaundice, astigmatism, tinnitus, mental and physical illness and hallucinogens; external ones include mirrors in which images are reflected, caves in which sounds echo and magic tricks.
  • Shallow causes for deception with respect to mental cognition include false doctrinal systems, incorrect lines of reasoning, and sleep.

Thus, visual cognition of a blurry face and of a face in a mirror and also mental cognition of a face in a dream are all valid cognitions from the point of view of their cognizing an appearance of a blur, a reflection and a dream image. However, these appearing objects are distorted because they do not correspond to actual faces. The cognitions of them are likewise distorted, not valid, when they take these appearances to be an actual face.

To the mind of a liberated being, however, there is no distinction between accurate and distorted superficial objects. To such a mind, all superficial objects are equally distorted from the point of view that they all appear to be self-established, although they know that they are not.

The Object of Refutation by Voidness

In the Prasangika system, as explained by Tsongkhapa, the object of refutation by voidness is the existence of self-establishing natures that establish the existence of the superficial natures of conventional objects.

  • The refutation of such self-establishing natures is not merely that such natures do not exist, since one might conclude that because of their non-existence, nothing exists. Thus, one might fall to the nihilist position (med-lta).
  • Nor is the refutation of self-establishing natures a refutation of such natures defined as something other than how Prasangika defines it. The Svatantrika system, for instance, refutes merely self-establishing natures that establish the existence of the superficial natures of conventional objects by their own power alone and not in conjunction with mental labeling. Thus this system still asserts the existence of self-establishing natures that establish the superficial natures of conventional objects in conjunction with mental labeling.

The object of refutation in Prasangika is a self-establishing nature that establishes the existence of the superficial nature of conventional objects (either by its own power alone or in conjunction with mental labeling), as opposed to the superficial nature of conventional objects dependently arising and being accounted for merely in relation to mental labeling and designation alone.

Moreover, it is not that the refutation is a self-establishing nature is the negation of something that existed and the refutation makes it non-existent. Voidness does not make anything be devoid of self-established existence. Self-establishing natures never existed. Further, the refutation does not replace a self-establishing nature with something else, also as if the self-establishing nature existed before and now something else, namely dependent arising, has taken its place. The object of refutation has never existed.

Thus, it is crucial to identify correctly and decisively the object of refutation and to neither over-refute nor under-refute it.

Over-refutation of the Object to Be Refuted

Over-refutation is when, in refuting self-establishing natures that establish the superficial essential natures of conventional objects, one also refutes superficial essential natures as well. In doing so, one refutes the existence of conventional objects. If conventional objects do not exist, the absurd conclusion follows that there is no such thing as constructive or destructive behavior and no such things as their results. Thus, ethics would be meaningless and liberation would be impossible. Tsongkhapa adamantly defended the conventional existence of ethical behavior, since many at his time mistakenly thought that voidness justified a lack of ethics.

This is the extreme of annihilation (chad-lta). It comes about from incorrectly asserting that since the superficial essential natures of things can only be established by self-establishing natures, then the negation of self-establishing natures also negates the conventional existence of superficial essential natures. This extreme also follows from taking overly literally statements in the prajnaparamita (far-reaching discriminating awareness; perfection of wisdom) literature, for instance The Heart Sutra, “No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.”

Under-refutation of the Object to Be Refuted

There are many examples of under-refutation. One might refute only the objects refuted by lower tenet systems, such as:

  • Partless particles and partless moments
  • Self-establishing natures that establish the superficial essential natures of things merely by their own power, rather than in conjunction with mental labeling.

Both these refutations leave as unrefuted the existence of any kind of self-establishing nature at all.

One might refute merely the objects of doctrinally based unawareness (kun-btags-kyi ma-rig-pa) about persons, as formulated by the lower tenet systems, such as static, monolithic persons that can exist independently of a body and mind when liberated. One might even refute in addition the objects of automatically arising unawareness (lhan-skyes-kyi ma-rig-pa) about persons that these lower systems formulate, namely self-sufficiently knowable persons (rang-rgya ‘dzin-thub-pa’i gang-zag) – persons that can be known without their bases for imputation (gdags-gzhi) simultaneously appearing and being cognized. But still, one might leave unrefuted self-established persons that are nonstatic, non-monolithic, incapable of existing independently of being imputed on bodies and minds, and impossible to cognize without some basis for their imputation also appearing and being cognized simultaneously.

Another under-refutation is that voidness merely refutes self-establishing natures that establish the superficial essential natures of conventional objects, but does not also refute self-establishing natures that establish the deepest essential natures of objects. In other words, the refutation still leaves voidness as being established by its own self-establishing nature. In short, it is an under-refutation to assert the voidness of superficial truth, but not the voidness of voidness.

Yet another under-refutation is that voidness merely refutes that the superficial essential natures of conventional objects are their deepest essential natures, or that the superficial natures are the self-establishing natures that establish the deepest essential natures of conventional objects. Again, this is an under-refutation because it does not also refute the actual self-establishing natures of conventional objects.

Conclusion

Understanding the two truths correctly and decisively, then, is essential for correctly and decisively identifying the object to be refuted in order to attain a true stopping of the true causes for suffering and so to attain liberation and enlightenment.

To attain either liberation or enlightenment, we need to cognize correctly and decisively the deepest truth of all phenomena as the voidness of the existence of self-establishing natures that establish the existence of conventional objects. This means that we need to understand superficial truth correctly and decisively. We must apprehend that the superficial essential natures of conventional objects can only be accounted for by dependent arising. In other words, they can only be accounted for in relation to mental labeling and designation alone, without the existence of self-establishing natures establishing their existence. This is the case despite the fact that conventional objects appear, like illusions, to be established by self-establishing natures.

In correctly and decisively identifying the two truths, then, we avoid the two extremes of annihilationism and eternalism (rtag-lta), by neither over-refuting nor under-refuting the object to be refuted in superficial truth when we correctly and decisively cognize deepest truth. We neither annihilate the conventional existence of superficial objects, nor leave as still true the manner in which their existence appears to be established.

When we have attained a true stopping of both the doctrinally based and automatically arising unawareness that interpolates the actual existence of self-establishing natures, we attain liberation. When, due to further familiarity with this correct view and a further build-up of positive force (bsod-nams, Skt. punya; merit) dedicated to enlightenment, our mental activity stops giving rise to an appearance of self-establishing natures, we attain enlightenment.