Origin of the Tenet Systems
Indian Buddhism, as transmitted to Tibet, had four main schools of philosophical tenets (grub-mtha’). According to tradition, Buddha is the source of them all. Various Indian masters wrote the major treatises presenting the views of the four.
Two of the tenet systems are Hinayana (theg-dman) – Vaibhashika (bye-brag smra-ba) and Sautrantaka (mdo-sde-pa) – and two are Mahayana (theg-chen) – Chittamatra (sems-tsam-pa) and Madhyamaka (dbu-ma-pa). Each has several subdivisions. Let us speak here of only the four in general.
Within the eighteen Hinayana schools, the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika belong to Sarvastivada (thams-cad yod-par smra-ba), a Sanskrit tradition, different from the Pali Theravada tradition (gnas-brtan smra-ba). The Tibetan lineage of monastic vows comes from another of its sub-schools, Mulasarvastivada (gzhi thams-cad yod-par smra-ba).
It is unclear which of the four schools actually existed as separate traditions in India with these names. Perhaps some did and were studied in separate monasteries where the main authors lived and taught, since the Chinese founded individual traditions based on Chittamatra and Madhyamaka. Probably in later times in India, at monastic universities like Nalanda, all were studied, as in Tibet.
Different Tibetan masters wrote commentaries on the major Indian texts and thus the different Tibetan lineages explain the tenet systems (grub-mtha’) of the four schools differently. Even within one Tibetan lineage, several authors have explained the tenet systems differently. Here, we shall present the Gelug version and, within Gelug, we shall rely primarily on the explanations that accord with the Jetsun textbook tradition (rJe-btsun yig-cha) of Jetsun Chokyi-gyeltsen (rJe-btsun Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan), followed by Sera Jey (Se-ra Byes) and Ganden Jangtsey (dGa’-ldan Byang-rtse) Monasteries. Occasionally, we shall indicate some of the variant views from the Panchen textbook tradition (Pan-chen yig-cha) of Panchen Sonam-dragpa (Pan-chen bSod-nams grags-pa), followed by Drepung Loseling (‘Bras-dpungs Blo-gsal gling) and Ganden Shartsey (dGa’-ldan Shar-rtse) Monasteries.
Occasionally, we shall also indicate some of the major variants found in the non-Gelug Tibetan lineages. To represent the position of these lineages, we shall rely primarily on the explanations given by the Sakya master Gorampa (Go-ram bSod-nams seng-ge).
Study of the Two Truths
All Hinayana and Mahayana tenet systems assert the two truths (bden-pa gnyis). Regardless of how the tenet systems define and delineate them, the two truths always constitute a dichotomy (dngos-‘gal). All knowable phenomena must be members of the set of either one or the other true phenomena, with nothing knowable that belongs to either both or neither of the sets. Consequently, understanding the two truths constitutes understanding all knowable phenomena.
Only the Mahayana schools assert cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib) which prevent omniscience (kun-mkhyen). Omniscience means the simultaneous cognition of all knowable phenomena. Simultaneous cognition of all knowable phenomena, in turn, requires full and accurate understanding of all knowable phenomena – in other words, full and accurate simultaneous understanding of the two truths. Thus, to rid ourselves of the cognitive obscurations and attain enlightenment requires full and accurate understanding of which phenomena constitute each of the two truths and the manners in which each of these constituent phenomena exist and do not exist.
One of the methods followed by the various Tibetan Buddhist traditions for gaining this understanding is through an integrative study of the assertions of all four tenet systems concerning the two truths. This is because the Tibetan tradition regards these assertions as progressively more sophisticated. Understanding the assertions of the less sophisticated tenets provides the foundation for understanding those that are more complex. Thus, by studying all four tenet systems, Mahayana practitioners narrow in on the deepest understanding of the two truths, in order to help them rid themselves of their cognitive obscurations and attain the omniscient state of a Buddha.
My teacher, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, said that just because the more sophisticated tenet systems refute the less sophisticated ones, we must not think that the latter are senseless or useless. After all, according to tradition, Buddha taught them all, with each intended not only for a specific audience, but also for a specific stage in a practitioner’s development. Significant spiritual progress follows from successively gaining discriminating awareness (shes-rab, wisdom) of all phenomena in terms of each system, as when progressing through the three levels of graded lam-rim motivation.
Buddhist Classification of Phenomena
To understand the two truths, we need to understand the classification of phenomena in Buddhism.
Everything is knowable. Existent phenomena (yod-pa) may be known by valid cognition (tshad-ma). Nonexistent phenomena (med-pa) – such as hallucinations, turtle-hair, and impossible ways of existing – may be known by invalid, distorted cognition (log-shes). When known, nonexistent phenomena themselves do not appear to distorted cognition, because they do not actually exist. According to Sautrantika and the Mahayana systems, the consciousness cognizing them merely takes on or assumes a mental aspect (rnam-pa) that represents them, somewhat like a mental hologram.
Existent phenomena are divided into:
- Nonstatic (impermanent) phenomena (mi-rtag-pa)
- Static (permanent) phenomena (rtag-pa).
Both nonstatic and static phenomena may have a beginning and an end, no beginning and no end, a beginning but no end, or no beginning but an end. Thus, the distinction between nonstatic and static phenomena has nothing to do with how long a phenomenon lasts. Rather, the distinction is drawn in terms of whether or not something changes from moment to moment while it lasts. Nonstatic phenomena arise from causes and conditions, are affected by other phenomena, change from moment to moment, and produce effects. Static phenomena do not arise from causes and conditions, are not affected by other phenomena, do not change from moment to moment, and do not produce any effects.
Nonstatic phenomena are divided into:
- Forms of physical phenomena (gzugs)
- Ways of being aware of something (shes-pa)
- Noncongruent affecting variables (ldan-min ‘du-byed, nonassociated compositional factors). In general, these are defined as nonstatic phenomena that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something – for example, acquirements (thob-pa), arisings (skye-ba), agings (rga-ba), and disintegrations (‘jig-pa). Noncongruent affecting variables do not share five things in common (mtshungs-ldan lnga) with the primary consciousness (rnam-shes) and subsidiary awarenesses (sems-byung, mental factors) that they accompany.
Although Vaibhashika mentions only fourteen noncongruent affecting variables, other nonstatic phenomena also fall into this category, such as
- Karmic tendencies (sa-bon, seeds)
- Habits (bag-chags)
- Persons (gang-zag).
Static phenomena include
- Spaces (nam-mkha’)
- Analytical stoppings (so-sor brtags-pa’i ‘gog-pa)
- Nonanalytical stoppings (so-sor brtags-pa min-pa’i ‘gog-pa).
Although Vaibhashika mentions only the above three static phenomena, the other tenet systems accept as static:
- The lack of an impossible soul (bdag-med, selflessness, identitylessness)
- Voidnesses (stong-nyid, Skt. shunyata, emptiness)
- Nonimplicative negations (med-dgag, nonaffirming negations, absolute nullifications)
- Audio categories (sgra-spyi, sound universals)
- Meaning/object categories (don-spyi, meaning/object universals).
A space is the absence of obstructive contact. In other words, it is the absence of any material object in a location that would obstruct something from occupying three dimensions there. It is a static fact about a material object that accounts for its existence in three dimensions, but without being the cause for its occupying three dimensions. Space is also a static fact about an in-between area (bar-snang) – an open area between two material objects, such as the two sides of an open door. The space imputable on an in-between area accounts for a material object either to be situated in the area or to pass through it. It does not produce, as its effect, an object’s sitting somewhere or moving elsewhere. Space, then, does not refer to the space an object occupies, or to the space inside it, the space around it, or the open space between it and something else.
An analytical stopping is a true stopping (‘gog-bden, true cessation) of a portion of either emotional obscuration (nyon-sgrib) or cognitive obscuration, such that that portion will never arise again. It is a static eternal parting (bral-ba) from that portion of obscuration and is attained through analytical cognition of the four noble truths.
A nonanalytical stopping is a static eternal parting from the occurrence of a result arising from a particular cause, once that result has occurred from another cause. An example is the nonanalytical stopping of arriving at work today by car when you have arrived today by bus. Once you have arrived today by bus, your arriving today by car will never happen. The fact that it will never happen will never change, and cannot be affected by anything.
A voidness is a static fact about some phenomenon. It is the static fact of a phenomenon’s total absence of existing in an impossible way. Although the term voidness appears primarily in the Mahayana systems, we may use the term loosely to refer to both the lack of an impossible soul of a person (gang-zag-gi bdag-med, selflessness of a person, identitylessness of a person) and the lack of an impossible soul of phenomena (chos-kyi bdag-med, selflessness of phenomena, identitylessness of phenomena), Each tenet system specifies, within the context of its own definitions, the ways of existing and “souls” that are impossible.
- Only the Mahayana tenet systems assert the lack of an impossible soul of phenomena.
- Although the Vaibhashika system specifies only three static phenomena, it would need to accept that the lack of an impossible soul of a person is a static phenomenon. As such, it would be included within the category of analytical stoppings, although not considered the same as an analytical stopping.
- One important distinction to note is that a space is the absence of something that does exist, while a voidness and the lack of an impossible soul are absences of something that does not exist, never has existed, and never will exist.
A nonimplicative negation phenomenon is one in which, after the sound of the words of the negation have eliminated the object to be negated (dgag-bya), no affirmation phenomena (sgrub-pa) are left behind or implied.
- Except for Vaibhashika, all other tenet systems assert that both spaces, voidnesses, and lacks of impossible souls are nonimplicative negation phenomena. Vaibhashika does not assert nonimplicative negations. According to Vaibhashika, spaces and lacks of impossible souls are implicative negation phenomenon (ma-yin dgag, affirming negations). An implicative negation phenomenon is one in which, after the sound of the words of the negation have eliminated the object to be negated, both affirmation and negation phenomena are left behind or implied.
A conceptual category (spyi) is a universal imputed onto a set of individual items sharing a common feature, such that all the items in the set can be understood as being the same general type of thing.
- The individual items that fit into an audio category are the sounds of a word, pronounced with any voice, accent, or volume, but not necessarily having any meaning understood by the sounds. When anyone says “table,” whether or not the person understands the meaning of this acoustic pattern, the person is saying sounds that fit into the audio category of the word table.
- The individual items that fit into a meaning/object category are the objects meant or signified by the sounds of a word. All individual objects with a flat surface supported by legs fit into the meaning/object category table.
Categories are formulated in terms of words, definitions, and concepts, but they are not created by words and so on. They do not grow from a word and a definition like a plant that grows from a seed, with the help of water. Moreover, categories do not change from moment to moment. A new category, such as the audio and meaning/object category computer may have a beginning. But even as new individual items (new models) are designed and built, they can still be included in the category computer, so long as they fulfill the individual defining characteristic marks agreed upon by convention as what specify a “computer.” The category computer itself does not change and does not do anything.
- Vaibhashika does not accept that audio and meaning/object categories are static phenomena. According to Vaibhashika, they are nonstatic phenomena – specifically, noncongruent affecting variables.
The General Meaning of the Two Truths
The two truths (two true phenomena) are the superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa, Skt. samvrtisatya, relative, conventional truth) and the deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa, Skt. paramarthasatya, ultimate truth).
According to the Indian master Chandrakirti, in his Clear Words (Tshig-gsal, Skt. Prasannapada), the term translated here as “superficial” (kun-rdzob, Skt. samvrti) has three meanings:
- That which obstructs seeing the accordant nature of reality (de-bzhin-nyid, thusness, suchness) – namely, seeing the reality of the four noble truths
- That which is dependent on something else (gzhan-la ltos-pa)
- That which is worldly convention (tha-snyed-pa).
The Vaibhashika system uses “superficial” in the second meaning, as referring to things that depend on parts or on a basis for imputation (gdags-gzhi). They lack a self-nature of being able to stand in their own place (rang-la tshugs-thub-kyi rang-bzhin med-pa) when analyzed with scrutiny.
The Sautrantika system tends to use “superficial” in the third sense, as referring primarily to worldly conventions imputable on objective entities.
The Mahayana systems use “superficial” in the first sense, as referring to a truth about some phenomenon, which either partly veils or completely conceals something deeper about that phenomenon. The deepest truth about the phenomenon is what the former truth partly veils or completely conceals. In general, the superficial truth about something is its appearance – what it appears to be. Its deepest truth is how it actually exists.
In a sense, one could say that even in the second and third meanings, superficial true phenomena obscure deepest true phenomena. Anything that is dependent on parts obscures or veils the ultimately smallest parts on which it depends, and worldly conventions obscure the objective entities that are known through them.
None of the tenet systems, however, asserts one of the two truths as the absolute or actual truth, truer than the other is. Rather, each is true to the valid cognition (tshad-ma) that takes it as one of its cognitive objects. In other words, Buddhism does not present two truths as extreme transcendental religions or philosophies do, with the two totally separate from each other. It does not share the philosophy of “deny this world and accept only the world beyond.” Nor does it assert levels of reality existing independently of each other, as in the case of a transcendent God existing before the universe and then creating the universe. The two truths in Buddhism are interdependent.
Organizing the Hinayana and Mahayana Presentations into a Graded System
The main difference between the Hinayana and Mahayana presentations of the two truths concerns whether or not the two truths share the same essential nature. An essential nature (ngo-bo) is the basic type of phenomenon that something is, such as something being a sight, a sound, or a way of being aware of something.
- In the Hinayana systems of Vaibhashika and Sautrantika, the two truths are two sets of true phenomena. In technical terms, the two types of true phenomena have different essential natures (ngo-bo tha-dad): they are essentially two different types of things.
- In the Mahayana systems of Chittamatra and Madhyamaka, the two truths share the same essential nature (ngo-bo gcig). They are two true facts about the same aspect of a particular phenomenon: such as about the sight of something or about the sound of something.
Despite this fundamental difference, we can gain an introductory overview of the two truths that spans both the Hinayana and Mahayana systems by looking at the Hinayana presentation in terms of the Mahayana formulation. To do this, let us not look at all aspects of each system’s presentation of the two truths, but simply examine how each presentation regards the cognition of one item – for instance forms of physical phenomena, such as a hand.
- In the Hinayana systems, when we examine a hand with a mind valid for cognizing superficial true phenomena, we cognize one type of phenomenon. When we examine with a mind valid for cognizing deepest true phenomena, we cognize another type of phenomenon. In brief, according to Vaibhashika, we cognize either a material hand or the smallest particles it is made of. According to Sautrantika, we cognize either the category “hand” or the material hand. The material hand obscures the particles, and the category obscures the material hand.
- In the Mahayana systems, when we examine a hand with a mind valid for cognizing superficial truths, we cognize what an object appears to be and how it appears to exist. When we examine with a mind valid for cognizing deepest truths, we cognize how an object actually exists. In brief, according to Chittamatra and Madhyamaka, we cognize a either a hand or its voidness of existing in an impossible way.
What something appears to be – the sight of a hand – may be either accurate (tshul-bcas) or inaccurate (tshul-min), depending on whether or not it can be corroborated by further valid cognition of what things conventionally are. Similarly, how something appears to exist may be either pure (dag-pa) or impure (ma-dag-pa), depending on whether or not the way that something appears to exist corresponds to the way in which it actually exists.
- Many of the non-Gelug systems include among superficial truths only impure appearances. Because of their assertion of the inseparability of voidness and appearance, they include pure appearances as deepest truths.
Impure superficial truths appear to exist in impossible ways. The actual manner in which superficial truths exist is devoid of those impossible ways in which they impurely appear to exist. Chittamatra and Madhyamaka differ as to which are the impossible ways:
- Chittamatra asserts two impure appearances for the hand. (1) The dualistic appearance (gnyis-snang) that the hand and the valid cognition of the hand derive from different natal sources (rdzas). In other words, the appearance that the hand exists as an external object (phyi-don). (2) The appearance in conceptual cognition that the hand has its existence as a “hand” established by an individual defining characteristic mark (rang-mtshan), findable on the side of the hand, that serves as a foundation on which affixes the sound of the word “hand.”
- Svatantrika-Madhyamaka asserts that the impure appearance of the hand is its appearance that it has its existence as a cognitive object established by its own uncommon manner of abiding on the side of the hand, without it being set also by the power of something added by the mind.
- Prasangika-Madhyamaka asserts that the impure appearance of the hand is its appearance that it has its existence as a cognitive object established by the fact that when one searches for the referent “thing” (btags-don) corresponding to the name and concept “hand,” that referent “thing” is findable on the side of the hand.
Vaibhashika Presentation of the Two True Phenomena
According to Vaibhashika:
- Superficial true phenomena – 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 – 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 and a person’s lack of an impossible soul.
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 person’s not existing as an impossible soul.
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). Because a hand, its constituent partless particles, and its space all perform the functions of at least acting as the causal conditions 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 merely by its being imputed by conceptual cognition (rtog-pas btags-pa-tsam-du grub-pa), because all existent phenomena are substantially established.
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 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: imputedly knowable or self-sufficiently knowable.
Imputedly knowable phenomena (btags-yod, imputedly existent phenomena) are those validly knowable phenomena that, when actually cognized, rely on actual cognition of or by something else. Cognition of them requires cognition of the parts on which they rely.
Superficial phenomena that are forms of physical phenomena or ways of being aware of something are imputedly knowable. Vaibhashika asserts sensory nonconceptual cognition of an object through direct contact with it, without the medium of a mental aspect of the object. Because of that, when something made of parts is validly known, the cognition must simultaneously also take as its objects the parts on which the object depends.
Self-sufficiently knowable phenomena (rang-rkya thub-pa’i rdzas-yod, self-sufficiently substantially existent 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 are self-sufficiently knowable. For example, noncongruent affecting variables, such as acquisition of the 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 (rdzas). 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 is self-sufficiently knowable. 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 imputed on the mere collection of the aggregates, when you have 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 imputed. For this reason, Vaibhashika asserts only one level of lack of an impossible soul of a person: a person’s absence of having existence established as a static, monolithic entity, independent from the aggregates on which it is imputed (rtag-cig rang-dbang-can-gyis grub-pa). Vaibhashika does not assert the subtle lack of an impossible soul of a person: a person’s absence of having existence established substantially as a self-sufficiently knowable phenomenon.
In short, all deepest true phenomena are self-sufficiently knowable, whereas not all superficial true phenomena are imputedly knowable. Some superficial true phenomena, namely noncongruent affecting variables, are also self-sufficiently knowable.
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 merely by their being imputed by conceptual cognition (rtog-pas btags-pa-tsam-du grub-pa). They lack the ability to perform functions and thus lack substantially established existence. They 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 depending on being imputed by words or conceptual cognition. They have the ability to perform functions and thus have substantially established existence. They include all nonstatic 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 (projected, 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.
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.
Moreover, deepest true phenomena include not only sensibilia (sensory objects) such as colored shapes, smells, tastes, and physical sensations, but also commonsense objects (‘jig-rten-la grags-pa), 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.
- 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.
- According to non-Gelug, commonsense objects that extend over all their sensory data and over time are superficial true phenomena.
Self-sufficiently Knowable 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 a function have existence established merely by their being imputed by conceptual cognition. This division does not correspond, however, to the division made between self-sufficiently knowable phenomena and imputedly knowable phenomena.
Sautrantika defines self-sufficiently knowable and imputedly knowable phenomena in the same way as Vaibhashika does, but interprets the definitions quite differently. Thus, self-sufficiently knowable phenomena are defined as validly knowable phenomena that, when actually cognized (dngos-bzung), do not rely on actual cognition of or by something else. Imputedly knowable phenomena are those validly knowable phenomena that, when actually cognized, do rely on actual cognition of or by something else. Cognition of them requires immediately preceding and simultaneous cognition of their bases for imputation.
- “Actual cognition” refers to manifest (mngon-gyur) cognition, whether with explicit apprehension (dngos-su rtogs-pa) or implicit apprehension (shugs-la rtogs-pa).
- In manifest cognition of a cognitive object, the consciousness of the manifest cognition gives rise to a mental aspect representing the object. The cognitive object appears, through that aspect, both to the person and to the consciousness of the manifest cognition. Both the person and the manifest consciousness cognize the object.
- To “apprehend” an object means accurately and decisively to determine it (nges-pa) as “this” and not “that.” With explicit apprehension, a mental aspect representing the apprehended object appears in the cognition; with implicit apprehension, such a mental aspect 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 aspect of the object appearing, somewhat like a mental hologram of the object.
- “Actual cognition of something else” refers, for example, to actual cognition of the phenomenon’s basis for imputation, both immediately prior and simultaneously with cognition of the phenomenon.
Because of this change in interpretation of the definitions of the two types of knowable phenomena and of the two true phenomena, the phenomena assigned as self-sufficiently knowable by Vaibhashika and Sautrantika are nearly the reverse of each other.
Forms of physical phenomena and ways of being aware of something are self-sufficiently knowable phenomena. The cognitions that cognize them do so without needing to rely on prior and simultaneous 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 constituent separate, different substantial entities. 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.
Thus, all superficial true phenomena are imputedly knowable, whereas not all deepest true phenomena are self-sufficiently knowable. Some 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. These 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 established merely by their being imputed by conceptual cognition, this does not exclude that they have existence established both by individual defining characteristic marks findable on their own side as well as by their being merely imputed by conceptual cognition. “Merely” excludes only “not being 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 phenomena (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 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.
Comparison with the Mahayana Tenet Systems
As mentioned above, 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 stepping-stone for understanding the assertions of the Mahayana tenet systems. Let us illustrate this point in terms of understanding existence established by being merely imputable by conceptual cognition and, specifically, the meaning of the word merely in this context.
The terms existence established by something’s self-nature, existence established from something’s own side, and existence established by individual defining characteristic marks 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 merely by being imputable, because everything has substantially established existence.
Sautrantika asserts that both deepest and superficial true phenomena have existence established by individual defining characteristic marks findable on the side of the phenomena. It also asserts that superficial true phenomena have existence established by being merely imputable by conceptual cognition. In Sautrantika, “merely” excludes only “not being imputed by conceptual cognition.”
- Svatantrika agrees with Sautrantika regarding what “merely” excludes.
- In the Chittamatra and Prasangika systems, “merely” excludes also having existence established by individual defining characteristic marks.
Based on this distinction regarding the meaning of “merely,” let us examine the pervasions between (1) phenomena having existence established by individual defining characteristics findable on their own side and (2) phenomena having existence established by being merely imputable by conceptual cognition.
The Vaibhashika system asserts that all phenomena have (1) and do not have (2).
The Sautrantika system asserts:
- Phenomena having (1), but not having (2) – namely, deepest true phenomena (objective entities).
- Phenomena having (1) and having (2) – namely, superficial true phenomena (metaphysical entities).
- There are no phenomena that have do not have (1), but have (2).
- There are no phenomena that do not have (1), and do not have (2).
Thus, Sautrantika asserts that all phenomena have (1). However, superficial true phenomena also have (2), whereas deepest true phenomena do not have (2).
Chittamatra asserts phenomena that do not have (1), but have (2), namely superficial true phenomena – referring to totally conceptual phenomena (kun-brtags) in its system (all static phenomena other than voidnesses). Sautrantika asserts that not having (1) but having (2) is an impossible mode of existence.
Svatantrika asserts that all phenomena have both (1) and do not have (2). Vaibhashika asserts the same; however, Vaibhashika asserts that, in addition, nothing has existence established by being imputable by conceptual cognition. Svatantrika, on the other hand, asserts that all existent phenomena have existence established by being imputable by conceptual cognition.
Prasangika asserts that all phenomena do not have (1), but have (2). Thus, Sautrantika agrees with Prasangika that if something does not have (2), it must have (1). It is impossible for anything to have (1) and also to have (2). Prasangika, however, asserts that having (2) and also having (1) is an impossible mode of existence, whereas Sautrantika asserts that deepest true phenomena have both (1) and (2).
The progressive steps of understanding, then, are as follows:
- All tenet systems agree that if something has existence established by its self-nature, it is findable on its own side as the referent “thing” for the name or concept for itself.
- In Vaibhashika, if something is findable like this, it has individual defining characteristics on its own side that establish its existence by their own power. Nothing has its existence also established by its being merely imputable, or even by its being imputable.
- In Sautrantika, if something is findable like this, it has individual defining characteristics on its own side that establish its existence by their own power, whether or not in conjunction with mere imputation also establishing its existence.
- In Chittamatra, if something is findable like this, it does not necessarily have such individual defining characteristic marks. It only has such marks if its existence is not established by its being merely imputed. Moreover, those phenomena that have such marks only have findable marks that establish their existence as validly knowable phenomena. They lack findable marks that serve as the basis for labeling various names or qualities for the phenomenon.
- In Svatantrika, if something is findable like this, it necessarily has such individual defining characteristic marks. Nothing is merely imputable, independently of such individual marks findable on the side of a basis for imputation. Nevertheless, the existence of everything is established by their being imputable.
- In Prasangika, nothing is findable like this. Everything is merely imputable. 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.