Aryas’ Cognition of Emptiness: Four Tibetan Traditions

When shravaka, pratyekabuddhas, or bodhisattvas gain non-conceptual cognition of the four noble truths, they become aryas (highly realized beings, noble ones). They achieve a seeing pathway mind (path of seeing). According to Prasangika, within the context of the four noble truths, all three aryas gain non-conceptual cognition not only of a lack of an impossible “soul” of persons (gang-zag-gi bdag-med, selflessness of persons), they gain non-conceptual cognition of a lack of an impossible “soul” of all phenomena (chos-kyi bdag-med, selflessness of phenomena). That second lack is usually referred to as a voidness (emptiness). The various Tibetan Buddhist traditions differ, however, as to the understanding of voidness that each of the three types of practitioner achieves when becoming an arya.

Gelug and Karma Kagyu

According to Tsongkhapa’s (Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa) presentation of Gelug Prasangika and the Eighth Karmapa Mikyo Dorje’s (Kar-ma-pa brgyad-pa Mi-bskyod rdo-rje) presentation of Karma Kagyu Prasangika, shravaka, pratyekabuddha and bodhisattva aryas have the same non-conceptual cognition of voidness. It is the voidness of all phenomena – namely, the non-implicative negation (med-dgag, absolute absence) of truly established existence. Here, truly established existence includes all four extremes of truly established existence, nonexistence, both, or neither.

The Eighth Karmapa, however, asserts that shravaka and pratyekabuddha aryas have this non-conceptual cognition of the voidness of only the five aggregate factors of experience (phung-po lnga, Skt. panca skandha; five aggregates), the 12 stimulators of cognition (skye-mched bcu-gnyis, Skt. dvadasha ayatana), and 18 sources of cognition (khams bcu-brgyad, Skt. ashtadasha dhatu) associated with their own mental continuums, as well as of untainted true pathway minds (zag-med lam-bden; uncontanimated true paths). Tsongkhapa does not stipulate any such restriction.

[See: The 5 Aggregates, 12 Cognitive Stimulators, 18 Sources.]

Sakya

According to Gorampa’s (Go-ram-pa bSod-nams seng-ge) presentation of Sakya Madhyamaka, shravaka aryas have non-conceptual cognition of the voidness of truly established existence of only their own five aggregates. Here, truly established existence is only the first of the four extremes.

Pratyekabuddha aryas have, in addition, the non-conceptual cognition of the voidness of phenomena in terms of the Chittamatra assertion concerning forms of physical phenomena being devoid of arising from different natal sources than the consciousnesses of them.

Bodhisattva aryas have full non-conceptual cognition of the voidness of all phenomena, which is a voidness beyond words and concepts, beyond all four extremes. Moreover, the non-conceptual cognitions of lack of impossible “souls” and of voidness that shravaka and pratyekabuddha aryas achieve are not fully non-conceptual, since only voidnesses that are beyond words and concepts are known non-conceptually.

Nyingma

According to Mipam’s (‘Ju Mi-pham ‘Jam-dbyangs rnam-rgyal rgya-mtsho) presentation of Nyingma Madhyamaka, shravaka aryas have non-conceptual cognition of the voidness of their five aggregates being established as a monolith, lacking temporal and component parts.

Pratyekabuddha aryas have, in addition, half the non-conceptual cognition of the voidness of true existence of all phenomena, namely only with respect to objects of cognition. They do not have this with respect to consciousness.

Bodhisattva aryas have full non-conceptual cognition of the voidness of all phenomena, which is a voidness beyond words and concepts.