Steppingstones in Understanding the Two Truths

Understanding the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika assertions of the two truths, and the manner of existence that each type of true phenomenon has and lacks, serves as a steppingstone for understanding the assertions of the Mahayana tenet systems. Let us illustrate this point in terms of several variables regarding the two truths.

The Two Truths

Vaibhashika

The two truths constitute two sets of validly knowable phenomena.

  • Superficially true phenomena are those items that lose their identity when physically dissected or conceptually analyzed (scrutinized).
  • Deepest true phenomena are those items that do not lose their identity when physically dissected or conceptually analyzed.

Superficially true phenomena include only nonstatic phenomena, but not all nonstatic phenomena. A table loses its identity when cut into its constituent parts and particles, but even the tiniest moment of happiness is still happiness. Deepest true phenomena include all static phenomena and some nonstatic phenomena. Even the tiniest portion of a static space is still space and, as already stated, even the tiniest moment of nonstatic happiness is still happiness.

 Sautrantika

The two truths also constitute two sets of validly knowable phenomena.

  • Superficially true phenomena are those items whose mode of existence does not withstand analysis by logic. Analysis by logic occurs only in conceptual cognition. Such phenomena are not findable objectively existing outside the context of conceptual cognition.
  • Deepest true phenomena are those items whose mode of existence does withstand analysis by logic. They are findable objectively existing outside the context of conceptual cognition. They can be cognized by non-conceptual bare cognition (mngon-sum tshad-ma),

Superficially true phenomena include only static phenomena, both categories and selflessnesses. Deepest true phenomena include all nonstatic phenomena.

Understanding the Vaibhashika assertion of the two types of true phenomena in terms of whether or not an item retains its identity when physically dissected or conceptually analyzed serves as a steppingstone for understanding the Sautrantika assertion. Sautrantika presents the two true phenomena only in terms of whether or not they withstand conceptual analysis, but it defines the two truths in terms of whether or not an item retains its mode of existence outside of the context of conceptual analysis by logic. Vaibhashika analyzed whether or not an item, when conceptually analyzed, retained its identity within the context of conceptual cognition of it.

Chittamatra

Vaibhashika, Sautrantika and Chittamatra all assert that all validly knowable phenomena have existence established from their own sides (rang-ngos-nas grub-pa). Their existence can be established by the power of something findable on their own sides. Vaibhashika and Sautrantika assert that there are two types of phenomena established like that, superficially true phenomena and deepest true phenomena, Chittamatra, on the other hand, asserts two truths about each findably established phenomena, with each truth findable by a different level of valid cognition scrutinizing the same phenomenon. Note that “scrutiny” (dpyod-pa) is the same term translated as “analysis.”

  • Superficial truths about phenomena are those items ultimately found by a valid cognition – namely, one tainted with unawareness (ignorance)– scrutinizing what is conventional.
  • Deepest truths about phenomena are those items found by a valid cognition – namely, one untainted by ignorance – scrutinizing what is deepest.

Superficial truths include all nonstatic phenomena – dependent phenomena (gzhan-dbang) – and some static phenomena – totally conceptional phenomena (kun-btags), such as categories. Deepest phenomena include only some static phenomena – thoroughly established phenomena (yongs-grub), namely type of voidness (emptiness), types of seflessness and true stoppings.

Understanding the Sautrantika assertion of the two types of true phenomena in terms of whether or not an item can withstand scrutiny by logic in conceptual cognition and still be cognized non-conceptually outside of conceptual cognition serves as a steppingstone for the Chittamatra assertion. Chittamatra defines the two truths about any phenomenon in terms of the type of phenomena, with its mode of existence, found when scrutinized by two different types of mind. The tainted mind finds the item’s mode of appearance as one type of phenomenon – a dependent phenomenon or totally conceptional one. The untainted mind finds the item’s mode of existence as another type of phenomenon – a thoroughly established one.   

Svatantrika   

Svatantrika defines the two truths in the same way as does Chittamatra and includes the same phenomena in each, though it does not necessarily call them by the same nomenclature. However, Svatantrika defines the modes of appearance and modes of existence of the phenomena found by analysis differently than does Chittamatra; and within Svatantrika, Yogachara Svatantrika and Sautrantika Svatantrika each have their own assertions concerning these points. In our discussion, we shall only consider the Sautrantika Svatantrika presentation, which we shall call simply “Svatantrika.”

An example of how the Chittamatra understanding serves as a steppingstone for the Svatantrika one is as follows. Chittamatra asserts that one of the modes of existence of forms of physical phenomena is found when scrutinizing their mode of appearance in their non-conceptual cognition and another of their modes of existence is found when scrutinizing their mode of appearance in their conceptual cognition. Svatantrika asserts that the mode of existence of all phenomena can only be found when scrutinizing their mode of appearance in the context of their conceptual cognition.

Prasangika

All the previous tenet systems assert that all validly knowable phenomena have existence established from their own sides. Prasangika refutes such existence; there is nothing findable on the side of any object that establishes its existence. Therefore, the two truths cannot be defined in terms of two truths about findable phenomena. Prasangika defines the two truths in terms of merely the involved objects (‘jug-yul) of the two levels of valid cognition differentiated in Chittamatra and Svatantrika. An “involved object” is the main object that a cognition engages with and exists in the manner in which the cognition takes it to exist. Thus, the two truths are not two truths about findable phenomena cognized by two different types of scrutinizing mind.

  • Superficial truths are those items that valid cognition scrutinizing the conventional nature of validly knowable phenomena take as their involved objects.
  • Deepest truths are those items that valid cognition scrutinizing the deepest nature of validly knowable phenomena take as their involved objects. 

Superficial truths include all phenomena, both nonstatic and static, including voidnesses, that are in the involved objects of the valid cognition, tainted with unawareness, scrutinizing them. Deepest truths include the static phenomena – namely, voidnesses, selflessnesses and true stoppings – that are the involved objects of the valid cognition, untainted with unawareness, scrutinizing them. 

Svatantrika asserts that the mode of existence of all findable phenomena, which can only be found in terms of the conceptual cognition of them, is a combination of a mode of existence findable on the side of the object that appears and a mode of existence established from the side of the conceptual mind scrutinizing them. This serves as a steppingstone for the Prasangika assertion that the mode of existence of all phenomena can only be established from the side of the conceptual cognition scrutinizing them.

Existence Established Exclusively by Being Imputed by Conceptul Cognition and Existence Established by Individual Defining Characteristic Marks

Vaibhashika

The terms existence established from something’s own side and existence established by individual defining characteristic marks (rang-gi mtshan-nyid-kyis grub-pa) do not generally appear in the Vaibhashika presentation. However, it is consistent with the Vaibhashika assertions that both deepest and superficial true phenomena have their existence established in these ways. Vaibhashika also asserts that nothing has existence established exclusively by being something imputed by conceptual cognition (rtog-pa btags-tsam-gyis grub-pa). This is because everything has substantially established existence (rdzas-su grub-pa).

Sautrantika

Sautrantika asserts that both deepest and superficial true phenomena have existence established by individual defining characteristic marks findable on the side of the phenomena.

  • Superficial true phenomena (static phenomena – both categories and selflessnesses) have existence established exclusively by being something imputed by conceptual cognition. In Sautrantika, “exclusively” (tsam; merely, only) excludes only “existence established by being something not imputed by conceptual cognition.” That does not preclude the existence of categories and selflessness also being established by their individual defining characteristic marks findable on their own sides.
  • Deepest true phenomena (nonstatic phenomena) lack existence established exclusively by being something imputed by conceptual cognition.

Chittamatra

The Chittamatra (Mind-Only) definition of existence established by individual defining characteristic marks stipulates that phenomena with such existence not be established exclusively by being something imputed by conceptual cognition. In Chittamatra, “exclusively” excludes both existence established by being something not imputed by conceptual cognition and existence established by individual defining characteristic marks.

  • Dependent phenomena (superficially true nonstatic phenomena) have existence established by individual defining characteristic marks alone, because they lack existence established exclusively by being something imputed by conceptual cognition.
  • Totally conceptional phenomena (superficially true static phenomena such as categories) have defining characteristic marks, otherwise they could not be distinguished from each other. Nevertheless, their existence cannot be established by the power of their defining characteristic marks. The existence of totally conceptional phenomena is established exclusively by their being something imputed by conceptual cognition.
  • Thoroughly established phenomena (deepest true phenomena, such as voidnesses) have their existence established by their individual defining characteristic marks. They lack existence established exclusively by their being something imputed by conceptual cognition.   

Svatantrika

Svatantrika asserts that all validly knowable phenomena – both superficial truths and deepest truths – have existence established as something imputed by conceptual cognition, but not exclusively by being something imputed by conceptual cognition. As in the previously discussed tenet systems, “exclusively” excludes existence established by being something not imputed by conceptual cognition. In addition, in Svatantrika it excludes existence established by individual defining characteristic marks alone. All phenomena have existence established by being something imputed by conceptual cognition in conjunction with their individual defining characteristic marks findable on their own side.

Prasangika

Prasangika asserts that all validly knowable phenomena – both superficial truths and deepest truths – have existence established exclusively as something imputed by conceptual cognition. In Prasangika, “exclusively” excludes not only existence established by being something not imputed by conceptual cognition, it also excludes existence established by individual defining characteristic marks, whether by these characteristic marks alone or in conjunction with being something imputed by conceptual cognition.

Summary

All tenet systems agree that if something has existence established from its own side, it has existence established by its self-nature (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa, self-established existence, findably established existence, inherent existence). Such mode of existence is defined as existence established by the fact that when one searches for the referent “thing” (btags-don) – the actual “thing” referred to by a name or concept, corresponding to the names or concepts for something – that referent “thing” is findable. The referent “thing” is findable on the side of the object that is being named. All the non-Prasangika tenet systems accept that all validly knowable phenomena have findably established existence, whether or not they also have existence established by individual defining characteristic marks on their own side.

  • In Vaibhashika, if something is findable like this, it has individual defining characteristic marks on its own side that establish its existence by their own power. Nothing has its existence also established exclusively by being something imputed by conceptual cognition.
  • In Sautrantika, if something is findable like this, it has individual defining characteristic marks on its own side that establish its existence by their own power, whether or not something has existence established exclusively by being something imputed by conceptual cognition.
  • In Chittamatra, if something is findable like this, it does not necessarily have individual defining characteristic marks on its own side with the power to establish its existence. It only has such marks if its existence is not established exclusively by being something imputed by conceptual cognition.
  • In Svatantrika, if something is findable like this, it necessarily has such individual defining characteristic marks. Nothing has existence established exclusively by being something imputed by conceptual cognition, independently of having such individual defining characteristic marks findable on its own side. Nevertheless, the existence of everything is established by their being something imputed by conceptual cognition in conjunction with such findable individual defining characteristic marks.
  • In Prasangika, nothing is findable like this. Everything has existence established exclusively by being something imputed by conceptual cognition. Nothing has existence established by the power of findable individual defining characteristic marks on the side of an object – either by the power of those marks alone or by the power of them in conjunction with the power of imputation – because such findable characteristic marks are nonexistent. In refuting existence established by their self-nature – equivalent to existence established from any phenomenon’s own side – the refutation includes existence established by an individual defining characteristic findable on any phenomenon’s own side

Substantially Established Existence

Substantially established existence (rdzas-su grub-pa) is existence established by something having the ability to perform a function (don-byed nus-pa). It is established by the power of something being a substantial entity (rdzas, Skt. dravya) on its own side.

The term for substantial entity also means a “natal source.” Substantially established phenomena have the ability, established on their own side, to serve as the natal source for the functions they perform.

[See: Self-sufficiently Knowable and Imputedly Knowable Phenomena.]   

Vaibhashika

Vaibhashika asserts that both superficially true phenomena and deepest true phenomena, spanning both nonstatic and static phenomena, have substantially established existence in the sense that they all serve as the natal source and focal condition for the cognition of them.

Sautrantika

Sautrantika, defining superficially true phenomena as all static phenomena, including both categories and selflessnesses, refutes that such phenomena have substantially established existence. The natal source of valid cognition of them is on the side of the mind that cognizes them. 

Deepest true phenomena, referring to all nonstatic phenomena, have substantially established existence and serve as the natal source of not only the valid cognition of them, but also of their results. Forms of physical phenomena, for example, are substantially established and produce effects even when they are not cognized by anyone. As the natal source for the cognitions of them, they exist in the moment prior to cognition of them. Results dependently arise from causes on the basis of the causes being substantial entities.

Chittamatra

Chittamatra (Mind-Only) agrees with Sautrantika that only nonstatic phenomena have substantially established existence but classifies them as superficial truths not as deepest truths. Unlike Sautrantika, however, they do not serve as the natal sources for the cognitions of them; they serve as the natal sources only of their results. Results arise from them dependently on their being a substantial entity.

The natal source of cognition of nonstatic phenomena is not established externally on the side of those objects. This is because Chittamatra asserts that there is no way to establish the external existence of forms of physical phenomena, for instance, prior to the appearances of them arising in their cognition. Rather nonstatic objects of cognition, the primary consciousness and mental factors in cognitions of them, together with the noncongruent affecting variables that are imputations on their basis, all derive from the same natal source, namely a karmic tendency (sa-bon; seed) for the cognition. These karmic tendencies themselves are noncongruent affecting variables that are imputations on the foundation consciousness (kun-gzhi rnam-shes, Skt. alayavijnana) of the person cognizing them. 

Superficial truths also include the static phenomena that are totally conceptional, such as categories. As static phenomena, they do not arise from natal sources, nor do they function as natal sources of results. They do not have substantially established existence. Their existence is established as having the essential nature (ngo-bo) of the conceptual cognitions that take them as their cognitive object. Thus, they exist and occur only as the appearing objects (snang-yul) of conceptual cognitions. 

Deepest truths include the static phenomena that are thoroughly established, such as voidnesses. They too neither arise from natal sources, nor serve as natal sources for results. They too lack substantially established existence. They have the same essential natures as the superficial truths that serve as their basis for imputation. Since their basis for imputation arises from the same natal source as the consciousness and mental factors cognizing them, voidnesses as well are considered “mind-only.”

Svatantrika

Sautrantika Svatantrika asserts that the superficial truths that are nonstatic phenomena have substantially established existence and serve as the natal source for not only valid cognition of them, but also for their results – again as a dependent arising from their being substantial entities. 

Nonstatic phenomena being the natal source of cognition of them needs to be clarified. Forms of physical phenomena exist externally from the cognitions that cognize them, whether non-conceptually or conceptually, but their existence cannot be established outside of the context of their being cognized. Unlike Chittamatra, however, their existence cannot be established in the context of non-conceptual sensory bare cognition of them. It can only be established in the context of the conceptual cognition of them. In conceptual cognition of them, their existence is established from their own side by their individual defining characteristic marks, but only in conjunction with their being imputed on the basis of those characteristic marks by conceptual cognition.  

Superficial truths that are static phenomena, such as categories, and deepest truths, such as voidnesses, which are static, lack substantial existence. The natal source for valid cognition of them comes from the side of the mind cognizing them.

Prasangika

Because Prasangika refutes existence established from phenomena’s own side, it also refutes substantially established existence. Thus, neither superficial truths nor deepest truths have substantially established existence. Prasangika accepts, however, that, conventionally, the nonstatic phenomena from among superficial truths do produce effects. Voidness does not negate or invalidate the dependent arising of cause and effect. However, the ability to perform the function of producing effects or results is not established by something findable on the side of nonstatic phenomena, like their being substantial entities. The conventional existence of both superficial truths and deepest truths can only be established exclusively in the context of their being imputed by conceptual cognition.

Summary

Phenomena having substantially established existence have existence established from their own side and existence established by their self-nature. However, because all systems other than Prasangika assert that everything has existence established from phenomena’s own side, in those systems even those phenomena lacking substantially established existence have existence established on their own side.

  • In Vaibhashika, both superficial and deepest true phenomena, spanning all nonstatic and static phenomena, have substantially established existence and perform the function of being the natal source of the cognition of them, in the sense of being the focal condition for their cognition.
  • In Sautrantika, only nonstatic deepest true phenomena have substantially established existence. They perform the function of being not only the externally established natal sources of their cognition, but also the natal sources of their results and effects.
  • In Chittamatra, only the superficial truths that are nonstatic phenomena have substantially established existence. They do not perform the function of being the natal source of their cognition but do perform the function of producing their results and effects.
  • In Svatantrika, also only the superficial truths that are nonstatic phenomena have substantially established existence. They perform the function of being the natal source of their results and effects. Although they also function as the natal source of their cognition, their existence can only be established in the context of their being imputed by conceptual cognition on the findable basis of their individual defining characteristic marks.    
  • In Prasangika, nothing has substantially established existence. Nonstatic phenomena give rise to effects and result not on the basis of their being a substantial entity. Dependent arising functions only because all phenomena are devoid of existence established by a self-nature, and thus are devoid of existing as substantial entities.
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