The Two Truths: Vaibhashika and Sautrantika

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Vaibhashika Presentation of the Two True Phenomena

According to Vaibhashika:

  • Superficial true phenomena (kun-rdzob bden-pa; Skt. samvrtisatya, relative truth, conventional truth) are those things that we can no longer cognize the conventional identities of (tha-snyad-du yod-pa’i bdag) while we are dissecting them by physical means or analyzing them by mental scrutiny.
  • Deepest true phenomena (don-dam bden-pa, Skt. paramarthasatya, ultimate truth) are things that we can still cognize the conventional identities of while we are dissecting or analyzing them.

Superficial true phenomena are of three varieties:

  • Forms of physical phenomena that depend on spatial and temporal parts, such as a hand or the sound of someone talking. When we dissect a hand and look at the muscles, veins, nerves, and bones, or even without dissecting it, while we think of the atoms of a hand, we no longer perceive the identity of the hand. When we dissect the sound of someone talking into the sounds of its component vowels and consonants, or while we listen to each component sound individually, we no longer cognize the identity of the words or sentences they comprise. We no longer comprehend their meaning.
  • Ways of being aware of something that depend on temporal parts, such as a stream of verbal thought. While we think each microsecond of a stream of thought, we no longer cognize the identity (in other words, the conventional meaning) of the entire stream.
  • Nonstatic phenomena that are neither, such as acquisitions, arisings, and so on. All such phenomena depend on a basis for imputation. There can only be an acquisition dependent on the basis of something that is acquired; there can only be an arising dependent on the basis of something that arises, and so on. When we analyze an acquisition or an arising of something, the acquisition or arising falls apart and we are left with the phenomenon acquired or arisen.

When examined in minutest detail, superficial true phenomena or their bases for imputation are made from ultimately smallest parts, which themselves are partless. They are superficial truths in the sense that they completely conceal something deeper: their ultimately smallest parts.

Deepest true phenomena include:

  • The four elements that are the building blocks of all physical objects, namely earth, water, fire and wind
  • The five types of sensory objects – sights, sounds, smells, tastes and physical sensations
  • The five types of primary consciousness – eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mental
  • Mental factors such as happiness, concentration, love and anger
  • The partless particles (the smallest units of matter that can be known) that compose physical objects such as a hand
  • The partless microseconds (smallest units of change that can be known) that compose the experience of a way of being aware of something
  • Static phenomena, such as the space of something.

After physically dissecting any of the elements or sensory objects, or mentally dissecting any type of primary consciousness or mental factor, the tiniest parts or tiniest moments of them still retain their conventional identities. After all, the slightest odor is still a smell and the tiniest moment of love is still love. Further, while analyzing partless particles, partless moments, and static phenomena, we still cognize their conventional identities.

Thus, in a very general sense, superficial truths (superficial true phenomena) are the commonsense everyday objects that appear to us, such as hands and the meaningful units of speech. They completely conceal deeper truths: elements, sensory information, partless particles, partless moments, consciousness, mental factors and static facts such as space. Another example of a superficial truth is a person. A person completely conceals the deeper truth about him or her: the elements, particles, types of primary consciousness and mental factors that comprise the five aggregates on which the person is an imputation.

Note that all superficial true phenomena are nonstatic, but not all nonstatic phenomena are superficial true phenomena. This is because partless particles and partless microseconds are nonstatic phenomena, but also deepest true phenomena. In other words, all static phenomena are deepest true phenomena, but not all deepest true phenomena are static phenomena – for instance, partless particles and partless microseconds.

Modes of Existence of the Two Truths in Vaibhashika

Unlike the more sophisticated tenet systems, Vaibhashika does not assert that the two truths exist in different ways. According to Vaibhashika, both superficial truths and deepest truths have substantially established existence (rdzas-su grub-pa).

Substantially established existence means existence established by the ability to perform a function (don-byed nus-pa). A phenomenon’s ability to perform a function arises from its being a substantial entity (rdzas, Skt. dravya). Because a hand, its constituent partless particles, and its space all perform the functions of at least acting as the focal conditions (dmigs-rkyen) for the valid cognitions of them – since they can all be validly known – Vaibhashika uniquely asserts that all existent phenomena have substantially established existence. Thus, nothing has existence established exclusively by being something imputed by conceptual cognition (rtog-pas btags-pa-tsam-du grub-pa), because all existent phenomena are substantially established.

The term “rdzas,” translated here as “substantial entity,” also means a natal source. A natal source is that from which something derives, such as an oven for a loaf of bread. If something has substantially established existence, it serves as the natal source of valid cognition of it. Serving as the natal source of valid cognition of them is the most basic function, then, that all existent phenomena perform.
Moreover, all existent phenomena also have truly established existence (bden-par grub-pa, true existence). This is because, according to Vaibhashika, something has truly established existence if it has the ability to perform a function, and all existent phenomena have that ability.

Self-sufficiently Knowable Substantially Existent Phenomena and Imputedly Knowable Phenomena According to Vaibhashika

Although both superficial and deepest true phenomena – and thus all nonstatic and static phenomena – have substantially established existence, another division can be made among them according to how they are knowable: self-sufficiently knowable or imputedly knowable.

Self-sufficiently knowable substantially existent phenomena (rang-rkya thub-pa’i rdzas-yod, self-sufficiently knowable phenomena) are those validly knowable phenomena that, when actually cognized (dngos-bzung), do not rely on actual cognition of something else. Cognition of them does not depend on cognition of parts or bases for imputation.

Static phenomena, partless particles, partless moments and nonstatic noncongruent affecting variables (ldan-min ‘du-byed, nonstatic phenomena that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something) have self-sufficiently knowable substantial existence. For example, noncongruent affecting variables, such as acquisition of a new house, depend on a basis for imputation – the new house that is acquired. Moreover, both the acquisition of the new house and the new house that is acquired come into existence (arise) simultaneously. Nevertheless, Vaibhashika uniquely asserts that the acquisition itself is a separately cognized substantial entity. This is because, according to Vaibhashika, acquisition is a separate substantially established phenomenon that causes the new house to be acquired. Cognition of the acquisition of the new house, then, does not rely on cognition of the new house that is acquired.

Since a person is also a noncongruent affecting variable, it too has self-sufficiently knowable substantial existence. Vaibhashika asserts that a person is the mere collection (network) of the five aggregates upon which it is imputed. As such, a person is self-sufficiently knowable because, when you see a person, you do not simultaneously see the entire collection of the five aggregates upon which he or she is imputed. 

More fully, Vaibhashika asserts direct cognition of phenomena, which means cognition of an object requires direct contacting awareness of it and not cognition of it through the intermediary of a mental hologram (rnam-pa, mental aspect) of the object. Thus, although a person is an imputation on the mere collection of the aggregates, when there is cognition of a person, the consciousness just has direct contacting awareness of the person and not of the entire collection of five aggregates that are the basis on which he or she is an imputation. For this reason, Vaibhashika asserts only one level of selflessness of persons: a person’s absence of having existence established as a static, monolithic entity, independent from the aggregates on which it is an imputation (rtag-cig rang-dbang-can-gyis grub-pa). Vaibhashika does not assert the subtle selflessness of persons: a person’s absence of having existence established as a self-sufficiently knowable substantially existent phenomenon.

Imputedly knowable phenomena (btags-yod, imputedly existent phenomena) are those validly knowable phenomena that, when actually cognized, rely on actual cognition of something else. Because Vaibhashika asserts that nothing has existence established exclusively by being something imputed by conceptual cognition (rtog-pas btags-tsam-gyis grub-pa), it is unclear whether Vaibhashika asserts any validly knowable phenomenon as being imputedly knowable.

[See: Self-Sufficiently Knowable and Imputedly Knowable Objects]

Sautrantika Division of the Two Truths: Objective Entities and Metaphysical Entities

Sautrantika has two divisions – Sautrantika Followers of Scriptures (lung-gi rjes-‘brang-gi mdo-sde-pa) and Sautrantika Followers of Logic (rigs-pa’i rjes-‘brang-gi mdo-sde-pa). The Sautrantika Followers of Scriptures assert the two truths in the same way as do the Vaibhashikas. The Sautrantika Followers of Logic refine the Vaibhashika definitions such that the two truths refer to different sets of phenomena than they do in the Vaibhashika system. Let us look at their presentation. For ease of discussion, we shall refer to the Sautrantika Followers of Logic simply as Sautrantika.

According to the Sautrantika:

  • Superficial true phenomena have their existence established exclusively by being something imputed by conceptual cognition. They lack the ability to perform functions and thus lack substantially established existence. In other words, they do not serve as the natal source for valid cognitions of them. The natal source for their valid cognition is from the side of the mind cognizing them. Superficial true phenomena include all static phenomena.
  • Deepest true phenomena have their existence established from the side of their own individual manner of abiding (rang-gi sdod-lugs-kyi ngos-nas grub-pa), without exclusively being something imputed by words or conceptual cognition They have the ability to perform functions and thus have substantially established existence. They serve as the natal source for valid cognition of them, as well as the natal source for their effects or results, and include all nonstatic phenomena. In the case of forms of physical phenomena, ways of being aware of something that occur in other’s cognitions and the noncongruent affecting variables that are imputations on either of them as their basis for imputation, their individual manners of abiding establish their existence externally to any minds that cognize them, even before they are cognized.
  • Nonstatic phenomena, however, are not the natal source of their results in the Samkhya sense of the result already existing in their cause. According to this non-Buddhist Indian school of tenets, results exist in their causes, but are unmanifest there. They just require the right conditions for their arising manifestly.  
  • Although Sautrantika, like Vaibhashika, asserts partless particles and partless moments of ways of being aware of something, Sautrantika asserts them to be the same type of true phenomena as are the forms of physical phenomena and ways of being aware that they comprise – namely, deepest true phenomena.

Superficial true phenomena are classified as metaphysical entities (spyi-mtshan, generally characterized phenomena) – literally, phenomena with general defining characteristics. They are the appearing objects (snang-yul) of only conceptual cognitions, although they are not the actual cognitive appearances (snang-ba) in those cognitions.

An appearing object of a cognition is the direct object (dngos-yul) that arises in a cognition, as if it were directly in front of the consciousness (blo-ngor) that cognizes it. Categories, however, lack any shape or form, and therefore cannot actually “appear.” They are like static abstractions, which can only arise in a conceptual cognition when imputed (labeled) onto a basis for imputation that does have a shape or form, such as a sensory object. The sensory object (a deepest true phenomenon), then, is what actually appears, through a fully transparent mental aspect (mental hologram) that represents it. The sensory object, however, is partially veiled by the partially transparent category, since the category is the appearing object directly in front of the consciousness.

Deepest true phenomena are objective entities (rang-mtshan, individually characterized phenomena) – literally, phenomena with individual defining characteristics. They are the appearing objects of only non-conceptual cognitions, although they are what actually appears in both non-conceptual and conceptual cognition.

[See: Objects of Cognition: Gelug Presentation]

Moreover, superficial true phenomena are those items, the mode of existence of which does not withstand analysis by logic. For example, after analyzing with logic the categories with which we think about the place where we live – such as “my home,” “comfortable,” “beautiful,” “ expensive,” and so on – we discover that they are not findable, objectively existing outside the context of our conceptual thinking process. Thus, analysis clears away our projections and we no longer find these superficial truths.

Deepest true phenomena are those items, the mode of existence of which does withstand analysis by logic. The place where we live itself, for example, withstands analysis. No matter how much we analyze, our analysis does not destroy the actual place where we live. After analyzing with logic, we discover that that place is still findable, objectively existing outside the context of our conceptual thinking process.

Another set of divisions Sautrantika has is True Aspectarian Sautrantika (rnam-bden-pa’i mdo-sde-pa) and False Aspectarian Sautrantika (rnam-brdzun-pa’i mdo-sde-pa). The difference regards how commonsense objects (‘jig-rten-la grags-pa) – forms of physical phenomena that extend over all their sensory data and extend over time – are validly cognized.

According to the True Aspectarian interpretation, followed in the Gelug tradition, deepest true phenomena include not only sensibilia (sensory objects) such as colored shapes, smells, tastes, and physical sensations, but also commonsense objects, such as hands, that extend over all their sensory data. Moreover, deepest true phenomena include not only single moments of sensibilia or the momentary sounds of vowels and consonants; but also commonsense objects that extend over time, and words and sentences that extend over sequences of momentary sounds. They can be validly cognized non-conceptually by valid sensory bare cognition (dbang-gi mngon-sum tshad-ma).

According to the False Aspectarian interpretation, followed in the non-Gelug traditions, commonsense objects that extend over all their sensory data and over time are superficial true phenomena and only validly knowable conceptually. Here, we shall explain only the True Aspectarian interpretation.

Self-sufficiently Knowable Substantially Existent Phenomena and Imputedly Knowable Phenomena According to Sautrantika

As we have seen, Sautrantika differentiates the two true phenomena according to whether or not their existence can be substantially established by their performing a function. Those that cannot perform the function of serving as the natal source for valid cognition of them have existence established exclusively by being something imputed by conceptual cognition. This division does not correspond, however, to the division made between self-sufficiently knowable substantially existent phenomena and imputedly knowable phenomena. Some substantially existent phenomena are self-sufficiently knowable and some are imputedly knowable.

Sautrantika defines self-sufficiently knowable phenomena and imputedly knowable phenomena in the same way as Vaibhashika does but interprets the definitions quite differently. As in Vaibhashika, self-sufficiently knowable substantially existent phenomena are defined as validly knowable phenomena that, when actually cognized (dngos-bzung), do not rely on actual cognition of something else. But, since being substantially existent is part of the name for this type of phenomenon, such phenomena include only substantially established ones, but not necessarily every type of them. Imputedly knowable phenomena are those validly knowable phenomena that, when actually cognized, do rely on actual cognition of something else. Cognition of them requires actual cognition of their bases for imputation immediately prior to actual cognition of them, but also, according to Sautrantika, simultaneously with them. Since being substantially existent is not part of the name for imputedly knowable phenomenon, such phenomena include not only some substantially established ones, but also some phenomena that are not substantially established.

  • “Actual cognition” refers to manifest (mngon-gyur) cognition, whether with explicit apprehension (dngos-su rtogs-pa) or implicit apprehension (shugs-la rtogs-pa).
  • To “apprehend” an object means accurately and decisively to determine it (nges-pa) as “this” and not “that.” With explicit apprehension, a mental hologram (rnam-pa, mental aspect) representing the apprehended object appears in the cognition; with implicit apprehension, such a mental hologram does not appear. Vaibhashika does not assert a difference between explicit and implicit apprehension, because it asserts that cognition directly contacts and cognizes its object. Sautrantika, however, asserts that cognition in which an object appears must occur through the medium of a mental hologramof the object appearing.
  • In manifest cognition of an explicitly apprehended object, the consciousness of the manifest cognition gives rise to a mental hologram representing the object. The cognitive object appears, through that mental hologram, both to the person and to the consciousness of the manifest cognition. Both the person and the manifest consciousness cognize the object. When there is also an implicitly apprehended object, a mental hologram does not appear of that object, nevertheless both the person and the manifest consciousness cognize it as well.
  •  “Actual cognition of something else” refers to actual cognition of the phenomenon’s basis for imputation immediately prior to and, in the case of Sautrantika, simultaneously with actual cognition of the phenomenon.

Forms of physical phenomena and ways of being aware of something are self-sufficiently knowable substantially existent phenomena. The cognitions that cognize them do so without needing to rely on prior cognition of anything else. We can see or think of a hand, for example, without our non-conceptual visual cognition or conceptual mental cognition of it first having to cognize a colored shape before cognizing a hand, or without first having to cognize five fingers. This does not mean, however, that we can cognize a hand without simultaneously cognizing some sensory quality (yon-tan) or some physical parts, it just means that we do not need to cognize some sensory quality or some physical parts first, before cognizing a hand.

  • According to the Jetsunpa textbook tradition, the whole, its parts, and its sensory qualities constitute separate, different substantial entities and so separate, different natal sources for valid cognition of them. If this were not the case and they were all the same substantial entity, then the absurd conclusion would follow that one cognition, for instance visual cognition, would have to cognize the hand together with all its sensory qualities at the same time – not only a colored shape, but also a texture, a smell, a taste, and a sound. Or, when we see a hand, we would have to see all its parts. If we saw only part of a hand, we would not be seeing a hand.
  • According to the Panchen textbook tradition, the whole, its parts, and its sensory qualities are the same substantial entity. Otherwise, the absurd conclusion would follow that one could cognize a hand on its own, separately from cognizing one of its sensory qualities or some of its parts.

Noncongruent affecting variables and static phenomena are imputedly knowable phenomena.

  • We cannot see or think of the movement of a hand, for example, without immediately preceding cognition of the hand in one position and then simultaneous cognition of the hand in a second position.
  • We cannot think of an individual substantially existing item with five fingers in terms of the static audio and meaning/object categories hand without first cognizing the individual item with five fingers and then cognizing both the individual item and the category hand.
  • The hand and the movement of the hand are the same substantial entity, whereas the audio and meaning/object categories are neither the same nor different substantial entities as the hand. This is because movement has substantially established existence: it has the ability to perform a function. Categories have existence not established substantially: they lack the ability to perform a function.

In short, according to Sautrantika, all deepest true phenomena have substantially established existence; whereas no superficial phenomenon has substantially established existence: they have existence exclusively established by being something imputed by conceptual cognition. All imputedly existent superficial true phenomena are imputedly knowable, whereas not all substantially established deepest true phenomena are self-sufficiently knowable. Some substantially established deepest true phenomena, namely noncongruent affecting variables, are also imputedly knowable.

Modes of Existence of the Two Truths in Sautrantika

Existence Established by Something’s Self-Nature and Existence Established from Something’s Own Side

Existence established by something’s self-nature (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa, findably established existence, inherent existence) and existence established from something’s own side (rang-ngos-nas grub-pa) are synonymous terms (don-gcig). If a phenomenon has one of the two types of existence, it also has the other, and vice versa. Both modes of existence are 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. This definition is accepted by all tenet systems.

According to Sautrantika, all validly knowable phenomena – both superficial and deepest true ones – have their existence established by their self-natures and existence established from their own sides. When we search for the actual “thing” referred to by the name hand or by the name the category “hand,” we find an actual hand or the actual category “hand” on the side of the hand or on the side of the category that is being named, with its existence as a validly knowable phenomenon established there, from its own side.

Existence Established by Individual Defining Characteristics

Moreover, both superficial and deepest true phenomena have their existence established by individual defining characteristic marks (rang-gi mtshan-nyid-kyis grub-pa), findable on their own side. Their individual defining characteristic marks serve as the basis for their being labeled by the names, words, and concepts for them, as well as for their qualities.

Note that in the case of superficial true phenomena (metaphysical entities), although they have existence exclusively established by being something imputed by conceptual cognition, this does not exclude that they also have existence established by individual defining characteristic marks findable on their own side. “Exclusively” only excludes existence established as something not imputed by conceptual cognition.

Existence Established as Being Individually Characterized

According to the Jetsunpa textbook tradition, in the Sautrantika system, existence established by individual defining characteristics is not synonymous with existence established as being individually characterized (rang-mtshan-gyis grub-pa). The term individually characterized is the same term as the one translated above as “objective entities.” Only individually characterized phenomena (objective entities, deepest true phenomena) have existence established as being individually characterized. Although metaphysical entities (superficial true phenomena, generally characterized entities) have existence established by individual defining characteristic marks, they do not have existence established as being individually characterized.

According to the Panchen textbook tradition, in the Sautrantika system, existence established by individual defining characteristic marks is synonymous with existence established as being individually characterized. Here, Panchen is using the term individually characterized in a more general sense, not merely for objective entities (deepest true phenomena), but also for metaphysical entities (superficial true phenomena, generally characterized entities).

Truly Established Existence and Existence Established as Being a Deepest Phenomenon

According to the Jetsunpa textbook tradition, in the Sautrantika system,

  • Truly established existence (bden-par grub-pa, true existence) is synonymous with existence established as an ultimate phenomenon (don-dam-par grub-pa); and ultimate phenomena (don-dam-pa) are synonymous with deepest true phenomena (don-dam bden-pa). Thus, deepest true phenomena (objective entities, nonstatic phenomena) all have truly established existence (existence established as true phenomena). They all can perform a function.
  • Superficial true phenomena (metaphysical entities, static phenomena), on the other hand, have existence not truly established (bden-par ma-grub-pa, non-true existence). They lack true existence because they are established as not ultimate phenomena (don-dam-par ma-grub-pa). This is because they cannot perform a function and are merely something imputed by words and concepts. For this reason, superficial phenomena have falsely established existence (rdzun-par grub-pa, false existence) – in other words, existence established as false phenomena.

According to the Panchen textbook tradition, in the Sautrantika system,

  • Truly established existence is synonymous with existence established from something’s own side. Thus, both superficial and deepest true phenomena have truly established existence. This is the same as the usage of “truly established existence” as in the Vaibhashika system.
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