The Appearance and Cognition
of Nonexistent Phenomena:
August 2002, revised August 2006
[As background, see: Fine Analysis of Objects of Cognition: Non-Gelug Presentation.]
The Tibetan explanations of the appearance and cognition of nonexistent phenomena fall broadly into two camps: Gelug and non-Gelug (Sakya, Nyingma, and Kagyu).
Neither Gelug nor non-Gelug, however, presents a uniform explanation. Several masters within each camp have explained specific points slightly differently in their commentaries. Here, as a foundation for more advanced study, we shall present an overview of the main points that are asserted in common by both camps and then the uniquely non-Gelug interpretations.
To represent the non-Gelug position, we shall rely primarily on the explanations given by the fifteenth-century Sakya master Gorampa (Go-ram bSod-nams seng-ge).
Existent phenomena (yod-pa) are those that can be validly cognized. They include both affirmation phenomena (sgrub-pa, affirmingly known phenomena), such as an orange, and negation phenomena (dgag-pa, negatingly known phenomena), such as not an orange.
Nonexistent phenomena (med-pa), such as unicorns and mirages, can be objects of cognition, but not objects of valid cognition (tshad-ma). They are objects only of distorted cognition (log-shes).
Cognitive appearances of nonexistent objects may arise in both nonconceptual and conceptual cognition. In distorted sensory nonconceptual cognition, we may see a hallucination of a unicorn in an empty meadow. In distorted conceptual cognition, we may imagine a unicorn in a meadow. If the nonexistent objects – unicorns – do not actually exist, then how can cognitive appearances of them arise?
Consider the distorted sensory nonconceptual cognition of seeing hallucinated patches of colored shapes that are subsequently conceptualized as a unicorn in a meadow:
There is no focal object (dmigs-yul), focal condition (dmigs-rkyen), or cognitively taken object (gzung-yul) of the hallucination, indirectly cognized (shugs-la rig) by the distorted cognition. This is because there are no external patches of colored shapes that are subsequently being conceptualized as a unicorn. The distorted nonconceptual cognition does not indirectly cognize anything,
The distorted cognition takes on a mental aspect (rnam-pa, mental semblance) that resembles external patches of colored shapes that are subsequently conceptualized as a unicorn in a meadow. Although the opaque mental aspect is directly cognized (dngos-su rig), the hallucination has no appearing object (snang-yul) since nothing has cast its impression on the consciousness. The mental aspect arises because of internal physical or mental causes for hallucination.
The mental semblance of external patches of colored shapes is the involved object (’j ug-yul) of the distorted visual cognition.
Consider the distorted conceptual cognition of imagining a unicorn in a meadow:
As in the distorted sensory nonconceptual cognition, there is no focal object, focal condition, or cognitively taken object. The appearing object is an opaque mental aspect that seemingly resembles a unicorn in a meadow. As in the Chittamatra presentation, the mental aspect (focal aspect, dmigs-rnam) and the consciousness of it come from a shared natal source (rdzas) – namely, the same karmic legacy (sa-bon, karmic seed, karmic tendency). This is the case, despite the mental aspect being a nonstatic metaphysical entity (spyi-mtshan).
The appearing object is confused with the meaning/object category (don-spyi) of actual conventionally existent unicorns, imputed on the opaque mental aspect. The meaning/object category is the involved object.
The conceptually implied object being signified (zhen-pa’i brjod-bya) as a unicorn by the distorted conceptual cognition – external objective patches of colored shapes that the conceptual cognition mentally synthesizes into and signifies as a conventionally existent unicorn – does not exist.
Neither the conceptual cognition of a horse in a meadow nor of a unicorn in a meadow has an external focal object. Nevertheless, the latter is a distorted invalid cognition, while the former is a valid cognition. The conceptual cognition of the unicorn is invalid because it cannot serve as a basis for further valid cognition of its involved object (a conventional unicorn). Namely, it cannot act as a basis for valid sensory nonconceptual cognition of the conceptually implied object being signified (external patches of colored shapes) that the conceptual cognition synthesizes into and signifies as its involved object (a unicorn).
According to the Madhyamaka tenet systems, nonconceptual and conceptual cognition each produce cognitive appearances not only of the extent of what their involved objects are (ji-snyed-pa), but also of how their involved objects exist (ji-lta-ba).
Each validly knowable phenomenon holds its own individual essential nature (rang-gi ngo-bo ‘dzin-pa). “The extent of what something is” refers to the individual essential nature that this something holds. That essential nature may be simply as an individual validly knowable item, or it may be as a specific conventional commonsense object (‘ jig-rten-la grags-pa), such as an orange or a table.
“How something exists” refers to what establishes the existence of something.
In the context of Madhyamaka, the issue of what establishes the existence of something revolves around whether or not an object has truly established existence (bden-par grub-pa, true existence).
“Truly established existence” is existence established by something on the side of an object, independently of mental labeling (ming ‘dogs-pa, imputation). “Independently” means independently of being, in terms of superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa, relative truth, conventional truth), the referent object (btags-chos, imputed object) of a word, concept, or mental label, when validly imputed on a basis for labeling (gdags-gzhi). In other words, truly established existence is existence established independently of being what a word, concept, or mental label conventionally refers to. Nothing exists in this impossible manner.
Imputation may be of the extent of what something is or of how something exists. The imputation of truly established existence is an imputation of how something exists. It entails mental fabrication (spros-pa) by conceptual cognition.
Mental fabrication is the addition of an appearance – an inseparable combination of both what something is and how it exists – to an object, beyond what is the case. The mental fabrication consists of the mental synthesis of objective entities (rang-mtshan, specifically characterized phenomena) into metaphysical entities (spyi-mtshan, generally characterized phenomena), with appearances of truly established (unimputed) existence. Mental fabrication occurs only in conceptual cognition.
Objective entities are individual items (bye-brag) and include moments of sensibilia and moments of sound. They are the exclusive involved objects cognized by valid nonconceptual cognition.
The metaphysical entities into which objective entities are mentally fabricated are combinations of
a collection synthesis (tshogs-spyi) as a commonsense object,
a category of phenomena that the commonsense object is an instance of, such as “an orange.”
Although commonsense objects appear to be truly existent entities (unimputed, not mentally fabricated) and “truly existently” to fit into certain categories, they are devoid of this fabricated manner of existence. This is because the metaphysical entities themselves are mentally fabricated. In other words, although metaphysical entities (commonsense objects) are decisively and accurately apprehended (rtogs-pa) as “this” and “not that” conventional object; nevertheless, there is nothing on the side of the commonsense object that makes it “this” and “not that” by its own power.
Objective entities (moments of sensibilia or moments of sound), which appear only in nonconceptual cognition, do not appear to be truly existent, conventional commonsense objects, which “truly existently” fit into the conceptual categories “this” and “not that.” This is because nonconceptual cognition does not decisively determine (nges-pa, ascertain) its object as “ this” and “not that.” In technical terms, nonconceptual cognition is nondetermining cognition of what appears (snang-la ma-nges-pa, inattentive perception).
Objective entities are what can be synthesized and labeled conceptually as commonsense objects, but they themselves are not commonsense objects. Thus, objective entities lack truly established existence, in the sense that they do not exist unimputedly (truly) as conventional commonsense objects “this” and “not that.” They can only be synthesized into commonsense objects “this” and “not that,” imputedly, by conceptual cognition.
Commonsense objects, such as oranges, as static metaphysical entities, are incapable of performing functions (don-byed nus-pa). This is the case although commonsense objects deceptively appear to perform functions, such as a commonsense orange appearing to make our hands sticky when we hold one. Only objective entities (sensibilia), such as moments of tactile sensations, perform functions.
Here, a moment of a nonsticky tactile sensation – the conceptually implied object being signified by the conceptual cognition of feeling a commonsense orange held in our hand – is followed by a moment of a sticky tactile sensation.
The inference (rjes-dpag) that the moment of the nonsticky sensation performed the function of producing the moment of the sticky sensation as its effect is a valid inferential cognition. This is the case despite the inference being a conceptual cognition. The inference is valid because it leads to valid cognitions of moments of sticky sensations following moments of nonsticky sensations whenever validly conceptually cognizing the feeling of a commonsense orange in our hand.
Sensibilia have parts, since they are collections of molecules (‘ dus-pa’i rdul-phran). Moreover, their molecules are collections of particles (rdzas-kyi rdul-phran), and even particles have directional parts. Further, moments of sensibilia or of sound also have temporal parts. Neither sensibilia nor moments of them or of sound exist independently of their parts.
Nevertheless, sensibilia and their moments do not have truly established existence even as “ sensibilia this and not that” or as “moment this and not that,” unless such a conventional identity is mentally fabricated conceptually. The conventional identity is mentally fabricated by synthesizing it from the collection of parts on which the conventional identity can be labeled.
Thus, both metaphysical and objective entities are devoid of truly established existence.
Consider the case of the conceptual cognition of a conventional commonsense orange according to the Madhyamaka system.
The conceptually implied object being mentally synthesized into and signified as “a commonsense orange” by the conceptual cognition of a conventional commonsense orange is a non-truly existent moment of non-truly existent sensibilia – for instance, a moment of a spherical patch of orange color. The conceptually implied object being signified as an orange does not appear in the conceptual cognition.
The appearing object is an opaque mental aspect that resembles a truly existent commonsense orange. The involved object that arises (appears) is the mental synthesis (meaning/object category)commonsense orange. This mentally synthesized “commonsense orange,” which is merely a conceptual representation (snang-ba) of a commonsense orange, is imputed on the mental aspect that is a mental derivative (gzugs-brnyan) of the mental synthesis and which resembles the synthesis.
What the appearing object appears to be is a conventional commonsense object.
The manner of existence with which the appearing object appears to exist is truly established existence. In other words, the mental semblance of a commonsense orange appears truly existently to be a commonsense orange from its own side, independently of it being imputed (labeled) as such with the meaning/object category (mental synthesis) commonsense orange.
What the appearing object appears to be and how it appears to exist are both distorted. Actual commonsense objects casting their reflections on consciousness do not exist. In sensory nonconceptual cognition, only moments of sensibilia and of sound cast their reflections on consciousness, not conventional commonsense objects. In the conceptual cognition of a commonsense orange, only a meaning/object category, the mental synthesis commonsense orange, is the object actually signified (dngos-kyi brjod-bya) by the mental aspect (the appearing object) in terms of what this mental aspect appears to be.
Similarly, actual true existence casting its reflection on consciousness does not exist. In sensory nonconceptual cognition, only non-true existence casts its reflection on consciousness, not truly established existence. In the conceptual cognition of truly established existence, only a meaning/object category (the mental synthesis) truly established existence is the object actually signified by the mental aspect (the appearing object) in terms of how this mental aspect appears to exist.
A commonsense orange – as what can be mentally fabricated (imputed) on the basis of the conceptually implied object being signified as an orange (external objective sensibilia) – conventionally exists as a superficially true object. A commonsense orange can be validly imputed on sensibilia. The manner of existence (true existence) that is automatically fabricated as an integral aspect of fabricating a conventional commonsense orange on the basis of the conceptually implied object being signified does not exist in deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa). It is only a superficial appearance. Thus, conventional commonsense objects are totally conceptional phenomena (kun-brtags).
In short, the superficially true manner of existence of commonsense objects is that they appear to be truly existent, but in fact they are not truly existent. They are imputedly existent on moments of sensibilia and of sounds.
The superficially true manner of existence of moments of sensibilia and of sound is that they appear to be non-truly existent, but in fact their deepest manner of existence is beyond this conceptualized manner of existence.
Compare the conceptual cognition of non-true existence with that of true existence. As in the case of the difference between the conceptual cognition of a horse and a unicorn, the conceptual cognitions of both true and non-true existence are distorted. However, the latter can act as a basis for further valid cognition of its involved object; the former cannot.
The involved object of the conceptual cognition of non-true existence is the meaning/object category non-true existence. This conceptual cognition can act as a basis for valid sensory nonconceptual cognition of the conceptually implied object being signified (the non-true existence of moments of external sensibilia) that the conceptual cognition synthesizes into its involved object.
The involved object of the conceptual cognition of true existence is the meaning/object categorytrue existence. This conceptual cognition cannot act as a basis for valid sensory nonconceptual cognition of the conceptually implied object being signified (the true existence of moments of external sensibilia) that the conceptual cognition synthesizes into its involved object. Moments of external sensibilia are devoid of true existence.
According to Madhyamaka, mental labeling, which is always conceptual, entails:
a mental label,
a basis for labeling,
a referent object (imputed object, labeled object). The referent object is what a label, word, or concept refers to.
Consider the case of the verbal conceptual cognition of a conventional commonsense orange with the audio category and meaning/object category orange.
In terms of the mental labeling:
The mental label is the object that is the actual signifier (dngos-kyi brjod-byed). This is the audio category orange – a metaphysical entity.
The basis for labeling is a mental aspect (mental semblance) resembling a truly existent conventional orange. This too is a metaphysical entity.
The referent object (object actually signified) is the mental synthesis (meaning/object category) commonsense orange (a collection synthesis) – equivalent to a truly existent commonsense orange, as a metaphysical entity. A commonsense orange being truly existent, however, is merely the superficial truth about it – namely, its appearance to a conceptual mind.
It is important not to identify the referent object with either the basis for labeling or the mental label itself.
The referent object is not the same as the basis for labeling. The mental semblance of a truly existent orange that is the appearing object when thinking of an orange is not an orange. We do not eat a mental semblance when we eat an orange.
The referent object is not the same as the label. A conventional commonsense orange is not the word or audio category orange.
A commonsense orange is what the audio category or word orange refers to when labeled on the basis of an appropriate mental aspect. Namely, a commonsense orange is the mental synthesis (meaning/object category) commonsense orange and this is merely a mental representation of commonsense oranges.
There are no such things as objective commonsense oranges. Nevertheless, it is a valid inferential cognition based on renown (grags-pa’i rjes-dpag) – in other words, based on convention – that when we nonconceptually cognize a certain taste and texture in our mouths when we chew and then swallow something, we label what we have experienced as “eating an orange.”
In terms of the conceptual cognition:
The appearing object (object existing as cognitively taken) is the mental semblance resembling a truly existent commonsense orange.
The conceptually implied object being signified as a commonsense orange is a moment of an external spherical patch of orange color – an objective entity.
What the conceptual category of a commonsense orange refers to (a mental representation of a truly existent commonsense orange as metaphysical entity) is not the same as what the conceptual category of an orange corresponds to (a moment of spherical patch of orange color, as a non-truly existent objective entity).
In other words, the referent object of a conceptual cognition is not the same as its conceptually implied object being signified.
We see a moment of a non-truly existent spherical patch of orange color, an objective entity that appears to be non-truly existent as a “this” and “not that.” In other words, it does not appear to be either a truly existent or a non-truly existent commonsense orange.
We mentally fabricate the referent object (a truly existent commonsense orange, as a metaphysical entity) from the conceptually implied object being signified (a moment of a non-truly existent spherical patch of orange color).
We conceptually cognize a mental semblance of a truly existent commonsense orange, which we take as the basis for labeling “a commonsense orange.”
Appearances of Conventional Objects and of Their Mode of Existence in Sensory Nonconceptual Cognition
Sensory nonconceptual cognition does not produce appearances of true existence. It produces appearances of non-true existence. In other words, its involved objects (moments of sensibilia) do not appear as “this” and “not that” and are not definitely determined (ascertained) as “this” and “ not that.”
Appearances of truly established existence occur only in conceptual cognition.
When conceptual cognition definitely determines an appearance as “ this” and “not that,” it ascertains it as truly existently “this” and “not that.”
The term appearances of non-true existence (med-snang) is used in the Nyingma school. The mainstream Sakya and the Karma Kagyu schools use the equivalent term appearances of dependently arising existence (rten-‘brel snang-ba).
In this context, dependently arising means arising dependently on parts, according to the mainstream Sakya usage.
In Karma Kagyu, the term means arising dependently from unawareness (ignorance), as in the twelve links of dependent arising.
For the sake of simplicity, we shall use the Nyingma term here.
Both appearances of true existence and appearances of non-true existence are mental fabrications.
As one of the four categories true existence, non-true existence, both, or neither, an object can be ascertained as non-truly existent only by a conceptual cognition of its voidness (stong-pa-nyid, emptiness) of true existence. That voidness is a denumerable ultimate phenomenon (rnam-grangs-kyi don-dam).
Therefore, the ontological category non-true existence is a mental fabrication, a metaphysical entity, merely a conceptual category.
The yogic nonconceptual cognition (rnal-‘byor mngon-sum) of the nondenumerable ultimate phenomenon (rnam-grangs med-pa’i don-dam) – namely, voidness beyond words and concepts – produces a purified appearance (dag-pa’i snang-ba) of a mode of existence that is likewise beyond words and concepts.
The nondenumerable ultimate phenomenon is actually inseparable voidness and appearance, with both voidness and appearance being beyond words and concepts. Such a phenomenon cannot be an object of conceptual cognition or of sensory or mental nonconceptual cognition.
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