Cognition of Emptiness in the Four Tibetan Traditions

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There are affirmation and negation phenomena. Both are existent phenomena, defined as things that can be validly known. We can validly know “an elephant” and we can validly know “not an elephant.” We can look at something and know that it is not something else. That is a negation phenomenon, something that we know by negating something else. Of course, the interesting question is, “How does ‘not an elephant’ appear to us when we see an animal and know it is not an elephant?” That is an interesting question to contemplate. 

In any case, there are two types of negation phenomenon: affirming and non-affirming. I call them “implicative” and “non-implicative.” An implicative negation phenomenon is one where, after the negation is made, the words of the negation imply both something negated and something affirmed. For instance, consider the negation, “This is a table without a tablecloth.” The words of the negation phenomenon, “a table without a tablecloth,” negate a tablecloth and affirm a table. This is an implicative negation. 

A non-implicative negation would be, “There is no tablecloth on the table.” The object negated is “a tablecloth on the table.” The words of the negation only negate something; they do not affirm anything. “On the table” is merely the location of the object of negation, “a tablecloth.” The words of the negation negate a “tablecloth on the table,” they do not affirm “the table.” 

The object of negation with a non-implicative negation can be something that exists, such as a tablecloth, or it can be something that doesn’t exist, such as a monster under the bed. It can also be a mode of existence or manner of establishing the existence of something that is invalid and thus doesn’t exist. In the meditation on emptiness, voidness, what we want to focus on, and this is true in terms of all the Indian tenet systems other than Vaibhashika, is a non-implicative negation of a manner of establishing the existence of something that does not exist as a valid means – for example, existence established by a findable, referent “thing” that corresponds to the impossible mode of existing that our minds are projecting. There is no such thing as a findable, referent “thing” that corresponds to the impossible mode of existing that our minds are projecting and therefore it is impossible that the existence of something can be established by such a means. 

The example that I love to use is that of a man dressed as Santa Claus on the street at Christmas time. It appears as if the costume he is wearing establishes that he is Santa Claus, but that doesn’t correspond to reality. The clothes someone wears do not establish who they are, and, in addition, there is no Santa Claus. But, as in the example of “no tablecloth on the table,” in the negation “the non-establishment of the existence of the man as Santa Claus by the power of the clothes he is wearing,” the man is merely the location or, more precisely, the basis of the object of negation, “the establishment of existence as Santa Claus by the power of the clothes that are worn.” The words of the negation do not affirm the man.

Space-like and Illusion-like Voidness

There are two ways of understanding this type of non-implicative negation, sometimes called “self-voidness.” The Gelugpa manner is to differentiate (1) the mode of existence of something that is impossible to establish from (2) its basis, so that the words of the negation simply negate the impossible mode, but without either affirming or negating the basis. The other manner, asserted by Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya, is that the words of the negation eliminate both the impossible mode of existence and its basis, since the two are inseparable. Both interpretations, however, do not deny that our deluded minds give rise to the deceptive appearance of a man established as Santa Claus by the power of the clothes he is wearing.

In either case, in total absorption on voidness, neither the impossible mode of existence nor its basis appears, only our understanding of the object of negation differs. But in both cases, we simply focus on the total absence of anything holding up or backing up our projection like a prop or scenery in a theatrical play. When there is scenery in a theatrical play, such as a painting of a forest on a large canvas, there is something holding up the scenery. Here, with voidness, what is missing is some findable “thing” on the side of the object that corresponds to reality, and which is holding up our projection that appears. If we mentally dissect the mental hologram that appears, we cannot find anything that is holding it up and establishing its existence. 

In the total absorption meditation on voidness, we want to focus on there being no such thing. This is space-like voidness. Space doesn’t mean an empty space. We need to look at the definition of space. It is the absence of anything tangible or obstructive that would prevent something from occupying three dimensions. It is a static property of a material object, such as this book. No matter where I move this book there is nothing preventing it from occupying three dimensions. Space does not refer to the space that it occupies. Voidness is like space because there is nothing on the side of its basis preventing it from functioning. That is space-like voidness.

After a period of total absorption meditation, there is a period of subsequent attainment meditation, sometimes translated as the “post-meditation period.” During this phase of meditation, we focus on illusion-like voidness. Here, the object of refutation appears once more, but we focus on it now with the understanding that, like an illusion, although it appears to exist in an impossible way, that does not correspond to how it actually exists. 

Conceptual and Non-Conceptual Total Absorption and Subsequent Attainment

At first, our total absorption and subsequent attainment meditations are both conceptual. During total absorption, although there is no conceptual appearance representing the basis of voidness existing in an impossible way, there is a conceptual appearance representing its space-like voidness existing in an impossible way. During subsequent attainment, there is, once more a conceptual appearance representing the basis of voidness existing in an impossible way. To go back to our example of the man in a Santa Claus costume, during conceptual total absorption on his voidness, a conceptual appearance does not arise of the costumed man seeming to be established as Santa Claus by the clothes he is wearing. Only a conceptual appearance arises representing perhaps a darkness and seeming to be established as a findable “thing.” During conceptual subsequent attainment, again a conceptual appearance arises of the costumed man seeming to be established by his clothing as Santa Claus. 

The presentation of conceptual total absorption and subsequent attainment on voidness is the same in both the Gelugpa system and the Kagyu, Nyingma, Sakya system. In both systems, conceptual total absorption on space-like voidness is attained by the power of logic.

In non-conceptual total absorption on voidness, both systems assert in common that there is now no conceptual appearance representing voidness. They differ, however, regarding the subsequent attainment phase that immediately follows. The difference arises because of the difference in the two systems concerning non-conceptual cognition. 

With seeing, for example, we non-conceptually see only the colored shapes of the body of the costumed man – and even that, for only a moment at a time. With the sensory apparatus of our eyes, we do not cognize the body’s odor, the physical sensation of holding its hand or the sound of the person’s voice. Gelugpa asserts that, nevertheless, with the non-conceptual seeing of his body, we non-conceptually also cognize the so-called “commonsense body” that extends over all its sensory data and endures over time, as well as the “commonsense person” as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of all five of his aggregates. Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya assert that cognition of the commonsense body and person is exclusively conceptual. It is cognition of a conceptual synthesis of all these components and, as such, is a mental construct. But be careful here. This does not mean that the commonsense body and person do not exist; it is not a nihilist position. It just means that we can only cognize a commonsense body and person conceptually.

Gelugpa, then, asserts that non-conceptual total absorption on voidness is followed by non-conceptual subsequent attainment during which the costumed man, for instance, appears seeming to exist in an impossible way. Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya assert that this subsequent attainment is conceptual, since the appearance of the costumed man as a commonsense object can only arise in a conceptual cognition, since that appearance is a conceptual construct.

The Manner of Gaining Non-Conceptual Cognition of Voidness

The manner of gaining non-conceptual cognition of voidness also differs in the two systems, although both assert that it requires, in sutra, one countless eon of building up positive force to attain it. In the Gelugpa system, non-conceptual cognition of voidness is attained through meditation on the voidness of voidness, attained through logic. In the Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya system, it is attained through meditation on what they call “other-voidness,” “zhentong” in Tibetan – the voidness that is beyond words and concepts, and so not attained by relying on logic.     

Voidness Meditation in Tantra

In the first three classes of tantra, we focus in total absorption on the voidness of ourselves appearing as a Buddha-figure, a yidam. In anuttarayoga tantra, we also do that, but in the mahamudra style of anuttarayoga tantra, as practiced in Kagyu and Sakya, for instance, we focus on the voidness of the clear-light mind giving rise to the appearance of a yidam. Here, the clear-light mind is also referred to as “other-voidness.” It is devoid not only of the conceptual categories of truly established existence, non-truly established existence, both and neither, but also devoid of all grosser levels of mind, both conceptual and non-conceptual. Gelugpa agrees that the clear-light mind is devoid of all grosser levels, it just doesn’t use the term “other-voidness.” The Gelug Guhyasamaja tradition calls this feature of the clear-light mind “all-void.” 

In the dzogchen systems of Kagyu and Nyingma, the other-voidness of rigpa, pure awareness, is substituted for the other-voidness of the clear-light mind. But one further point about rigpa: it is described as “pure from the top” and complete with all good qualities. “Pure from the top” refers to its voidness beyond words and concepts. Although it is beyond the concepts of affirmation and negation phenomena, that doesn’t mean that it is some findable “thing” inside our minds.