Chittamatra: The Two Truths


When we speak about the two truths in Chittamatra and the other Mahayana schools, we’re not talking about two different types of true phenomenon, we’re going to talk about the true truths. But speaking about the two truths that are descriptive of all phenomena, just from two different points of view. They are two facts about them that are completely true. The two facts that are true about any phenomenon are what they appear to be – their appearance – and how they exist. How they exist is presented in terms of their absence of how they don’t exist – their voidness. How they don’t exist in these Mahayana systems are in impossible ways. Voidness or emptiness is the total absence of these impossible ways of existing. Impossible ways of existing never existed and never will exist.

Now, with the Chittamatra school, we’re delving deeper into the relationship of mind and reality. The word “Chittamatra” literally means “mind-only,” but don’t take that so literally to mean, in a solipsistic manner, that only the mind exists: “Everything just exists in my head!” It’s not a solipsistic, narcissistic system. It’s Mahayana, so if everybody just exists in your head how could you possibly have compassion for anybody? It’s obviously not solipsistic, “I’m the only one who exists and you’re just a figment of my imagination.” It just means that we can only really talk about anything in terms of relation to a mind. When we’re talking about something, that’s a relation to a mind; when we’re thinking about it, that’s in relation to a mind. There’s no way I’m discussing anything or dealing with anything other than through the relationship with the mind.

The Three Types of Phenomena in Chittamatra

Now we need to speak about, “What is the relation of phenomena with the mind?” Chittamatra divides phenomena into three different types that are all related to the mind:

  • Phenomenon characterized as being totally conceptional, so totally conceptional phenomena. They’re sometimes called totally imaginary phenomena.
  • Phenomena characterized as dependent, so dependent phenomenon, sometimes called other-powered phenomena.
  • Phenomena characterized as thoroughly established, so thoroughly established phenomena.

In this scheme, Chittamatra separates into two groups the static phenomena that Sautrantika considered as superficial true phenomena. The two groups are totally conceptional phenomena and thoroughly established phenomena. Totally conceptional phenomena, such as categories, just occur in conceptual cognition; while thoroughly established phenomena, namely voidnesses, can be known both conceptually and non-conceptually.

Totally conceptional phenomena include both existent categories and non-existent phenomena. The categories of dog, animal, etc. exist and have existent items in them; whereas when you think of the category “chicken lips,” it’s a null set. There’s nothing in this category, because actual chicken lips are non-existent. Actually, even the category of chicken lips is nonexistent, because it’s just the category of chicken and the category of lips put together, isn’t it? In any case, totally conceptional phenomena, both those that exist and those that don’t, do not occur outside of conceptual thought, so technically they have the essential nature of the conceptual cognitions of them.

Totally conceptional phenomena are defined as phenomena not established as ultimate phenomena. In Sautrantika, what was considered ultimate phenomena, or objective reality, were nonstatic phenomena – what Chittamatra calls dependent phenomena. According to Chittamatra, nonstatic phenomena are truly existent – they truly do exist – because they perform functions that you can plainly see, non-conceptually. But Chittamatra considers both dependent phenomena and thoroughly established phenomena as ultimate phenomena. Ultimate phenomena are those that appear in the non-conceptual cognition of aryas. So they too have a connection with mind.

Non-Conceptual Cognition of an Arya

An arya is somebody that has non-conceptual cognition of the four noble truths – the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths, to be precise. They see what is truly existent. They perceive first non-conceptually dependent phenomena – non-static phenomena, things that change moment to moment. They are what Sautrantika called objective entities. True sufferings, their true causes and the true pathway minds that bring about their true stoppings include all dependent phenomena. Then, aryas perceive non-conceptually the third noble truth, true stoppings – which includes the voidness of the person experiencing the four noble truths and the voidness of the four noble truths themselves.

Those voidnesses are thoroughly established phenomena and they are also static. So, all nonstatic phenomena and the static phenomena that are voidnesses are ultimate phenomena; and because they are not known only in the context of conceptual cognition, Chittamatra considers them truly existent. Other static phenomena, specifically categories, occur only in conceptual cognition and so are not ultimate phenomena and are not truly existent.

Just to be clear, a voidness is an absence of something. It’s not an absence of a thing like the absence of an elephant in this room, but it is an absence of a way of existing. And it’s not the absence of a way of existing that is possible and does exist, but it’s an absence of an impossible way of existing. When we talk about a way of existing, that really is not very precise. When we look at the terminology and we look at the way that it’s used, we can see that what we’re speaking about here is, “How do you establish that something exists?”

Establishing What Exists

That word “establish” is the same word that means to prove. How do you prove that something exists? What proves it? What makes it exist? What makes us say that it exists? Vaibhashika says, “Well, if it does something, it exists. That proves that it exists. It functions.” Sautrantika says, “Well, that’s only true for some things, not for everything: only for non-static phenomenon.”

Instead, Sautrantika says that everything has something on its own side that establishes that it exists, because if you look for something, you can find it. It has its own self-nature, its own barcode that establishes that it exists. That barcode generates what is almost like plastic encapsulating something and making it a thing, an individual item. That’s true even for categories.

Deepest Truth and Superficial Truth in Chittamatra

According to Chittamatra, deepest truths are defined as those phenomenon that are ultimately found by a valid cognition scrutinizing what is deepest. Sounds like a tautology, doesn’t it? That refers to just these absences of impossible ways of existing. Deepest truths, then are the thoroughly established phenomena. They are the voidnesses of all three types of phenomena – totally conceptional, dependent and also the thoroughly established ones themselves: the voidness of voidnesses.

Superficial truths are those phenomena that are found by a valid cognition scrutinizing what is conventional. If you examine carefully any phenomena in terms of their conventional natures – conventionally what they appear to be – what you find is their superficial truth. If you examine on a deeper level, ultimately what is true about them is their absence of existing in impossible ways.

Appearances of Impossible Ways of Existing

The problem is that things appear to exist in impossible ways and, because we believe that they actually exist in that way, we act on that basis. It causes all our problems and we respond emotionally on that basis. That causes all our problems. We have to realize that this appearance of what’s impossible doesn’t correspond to anything real. Nothing exists like that. It’s impossible and, if we can clear out that deceptive appearance, then we’re left with seeing actual reality.

But, how do things exist in Chittamatra? According to Chittamatra, everything conventionally existent has something inside of it – a self-nature or, more precisely, a self-establishing nature – that by its own power establishes that it exists. It doesn’t establish that it exists outside of the cognition of that object, but it establishes that it exists within the cognition. Within the cognition of anything, we can find and point to the object of that cognition: there it is. Also, all existent phenomena have individual defining characteristic marks like barcodes and these are, in a sense, like what encapsulates them in plastic and makes them an individual object of valid cognition.

But unlike Sautrantika, only ultimate phenomena, namely dependent phenomena and thoroughly established phenomena, appear to an arya’s non-conceptual cognition. Only they have their existence established by their barcodes, which makes them what they are when they are cognized non-conceptually. That is complicated, so we need to explain that.

The First Type of Voidness of All Phenomena in Chittamatra

To explain that, we need to explain the two different types of voidness of all phenomena in Chittamatra. Chittamatra agrees with Sautrantika that when we perceive things in non-conceptually with sense perception, we actually perceive a mental hologram. Sautrantika says that the mental hologram comes from the side of the object, whereas the consciousness that perceives it comes from a seed of karmic potential on my mental continuum. So, the mental hologram of the sensory object and the consciousness perceiving it come from separate natal sources. A natal source is the technical term for the place where something is produced and comes from, like an oven for a loaf of bread or a womb for a baby.

According to Chittamatra, it only appears as though what we perceive – the mental hologram – is coming from an external natal source different from the source from which the consciousness of the hologram comes from. But that appearance is deceptive; we imagine that it’s correct, but it is not. So, the first type of voidness of all phenomena in Chittamatra is that whatever we see, hear, smell, taste or physically feel is devoid of existing as coming from a different natal source from the consciousness of it. That voidness is the deepest truth about these dependent phenomena in non-conceptual sensory cognition. We can’t establish the existence of these changing phenomenon by the fact that they come from an external source. There’s no way to establish that, because the only way that we can deal with these objects is with a mental hologram and the mental hologram comes from that same seed of karma as the consciousness that perceives it.

Application of Understanding the First Type of Voidness

The understanding of this first type of voidness of all phenomena in Chittamatra is very helpful for avoiding problems and suffering. For example, let’s say that only three people came to this lecture and so when I look at you, there arises a mental hologram of just three people in the room in front of me. If I think that the source of the mental hologram I see is external, then I could place the blame for only seeing three people on the people in this area or on the organizers who did a bad job of advertizing. But if I realize that the source of my seeing only three people attending and of the mental hologram of the three people I see both come from the same internal source, a seed of karmic potential on my mental continuum, then I place the blame for the poor attendance on my own karma. If I want to improve the situation, I need to work on purifying my negative potentials and building up positive ones. So instead of getting angry at the people in this area – what’s wrong with them that more didn’t come? – I work on myself instead, but without placing a heavy burden of guilt on myself. I realize that what I experience in the world is the result of my previous compulsive behavior – the result of my karma.

The Second Type of Voidness of All Phenomena in Chittamatra

Now let’s look at the second type of voidness of all phenomena asserted by Chittamatra. As already mentioned, Chittamatra agrees with Sautrantika that everything has its own individual defining characteristic features. Everything has a barcode, as it were, and because of that barcode establishing the object as something validly knowable, you can find that object there, established by its barcode on the side of each object. You can find dependent phenomena there in sensory non-conceptual cognitions when you see the mental hologram of them. There are actual dependent phenomena, even though you only know them in the context of a mental hologram. In conceptual cognition, categories also have such barcodes that establish them as knowable items and you can point to them as the appearing objects in the conceptual cognition.

Now, when we perceive something, for instance when we see something, we just see a knowable form, a knowable shape having color and size. I see this thing in front of me and that barcode on the side of it establishes it as a knowable colored shape and so a knowable object, for instance a table, that I see.

If I can use another analogy, the barcode is like the formatting on a computer diskette. It is only in conceptual cognition that our concepts – these categories – actually write more specific characteristics onto that diskette, like pretty or ugly, or the word for it, “table.” It is not that the formatting on the side of the object already contains the information of these characteristics. And our conceptual thought reads it. In a sense, conceptual thought writes these characteristics onto the formatting. So, this second voidness of all phenomena is that in conceptual cognition, the objects that appear lack the defining characteristics on their side that categories could attach to.

This makes a lot of sense if you understand what we’re talking about. On the side of this thing in front of me, there is no barcode containing the word for it, like “table.” Because of that absence, that voidness, every language can call it by a different word; and the same word “table” can apply to many different objects. For instance, if I have a dog, I can give it any name. There’s nothing in the dog’s barcode that establishes what name you’re going to give it. That’s purely mental labelling. And there can be many dogs with the same name.

The same thing is the case with categories. The category of good, bad, large, small, hot and cold, they’re merely labeled by the conceptual mind. These characteristics are all relative. Air will have temperature, that’s part of the general barcode, but a human may consider it cold, while a penguin be very comfortable with it. So this is all conceptual, isn’t it? It’s the same thing with pretty and ugly, good and bad, and comfortable and uncomfortable. All these things are purely conceptual. They are not established from the side of the object. This is very profound for helping us overcome judgements.

Think about categories like dog, mammal or animal. They’re not really established on the side of some living beings we see. Some scientists got together at some period of history and examined lots of different living beings and decided that these all fit into a category and they gave the category a name, “mammal.” Sautrantika said there already is the barcode for mammal on the side of these creatures, whereas Chittamatra refutes that and asserts that the barcode is just coming from the conceptual mind.

However, it appears as though that information is established on the side of the object, doesn’t it? It appears from the side of that object that it’s hot, it’s cold, it’s good, or it’s bad, and it’s big or small. But, actually, an apple, for instance, is big to an ant, but not big to a human. It’s all relative to one’s concept of “big.” To use the technical language, dependent phenomena are devoid of having characteristic features that serve as the basis for ascribing names or categories to them. That’s the second type of voidness for all phenomenon. That voidness is the deepest truth of things.


Could we say that objects don’t have a barcode at all?

They do have a barcode that makes them validly knowable objects – that much they have. Objects do have temperature, size and so on – but they don’t have the specific evaluations of these. Those are all relative to the mind that perceives them.

So they have a barcode that allows for us to perceive them?

Correct. If there weren’t a barcode, Chittamatra says that we couldn’t perceive something as an object. What do we actually see when we see anything? We see pixels, pixels of light, that’s what we see. What do we see on a computer screen? We see pixels, that’s all that we see. So how do we actually see objects? That’s a very interesting point, isn’t it? This gets very profound, for that we have to get into the Madhyamaka schools to really analyze it thoroughly.

Is there something on the side of the pixels that actually coagulates them into colored shapes and coagulates the colored shapes into objects? Where is that information? It starts to get quite interesting. But according to Vaibhashika and Sautrantika and Chittamatra, yes. It’s not just pixels, there are actual objects there and they have a barcode on their side that, in the sense, encapsulates them in plastic. The barcode – the defining individual characteristic marks – makes it a thing; it establishes a boundary between this thing and what’s on the other side of the boundary, separating it from what’s on the other side of the packaging, the plastic. So Chittamatra says that everything’s like in a coloring book, a child’s coloring book: it has lines around it and the mind colors in what’s inside the lines. That’s simplifying it a lot, but I think you get the idea.