Conceptual Fabrication – A Way of Being Aware or Conventional Objects
Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche II: All four Tibetan traditions share this verse (XVIII.5) of Nagarjuna in common:
From the depletion of karmic impulses and disturbing emotions (there is) liberation. Karmic impulses and disturbing emotions are from conceptualization. They are from conceptual fabrication. But conceptual fabrication is ceased by voidness.
The passage from Chandrakirti is the commentary on this verse.
Dr. Berzin: What does “ceased” mean? Does it refer to true cessation (‘gog-bden)?
Now this is a little bit tricky. It could be saying that the ignorant mind can be ceased or that all the conceptual fabrications (spros-pa; mental fabrication) can be ceased. So now, in here, if you look directly, the root text of Nagarjuna is kind of broad. Now, we have to narrow it down to understand it.
Normally, how we explain this verse in Gelugpa is something like all attachment comes from incorrect consideration (tshul-min yid-byed). That’s considering something to exist in a way that does not correspond to the way in which it actually exists. It’s taking something to mind in an inverted way, an incorrect way. Incorrect consideration is coming from grasping for truly established existence (bden-par ‘dzin pa).
This is how it is normally explained in Gelugpa. The line goes directly to grasping for truly established existence and so to the mind itself that grasps for truly established existence. It is the mind that grasps for truly established existence that is ceased by voidness. The Gelugpa side does not go further than this.
Dr. Berzin’s Supplement to Fill Out the Discussion
The Gelugpa understanding of Nagarjuna’s verse is that:
- Disturbing emotions and karmic impulses come from conceptualization – meaning from incorrect consideration of the implied object of the facet of the conceptual cognition that cognizes the superficial truth of conventional objects.
- This conceptualization comes from the conceptual fabrication that is the incorrect consideration of the implied object of the facet of the conceptual cognition that cognizes the deepest truth of conventional objects.
- This incorrect consideration comes from the conceptual fabrication of grasping for self-established existence.
- The true cessation of the conceptual fabrication of grasping for self-established existence is attained by an arya’s non-conceptual total absorption on voidness.
Thus, according to Gelugpa, what is ceased by an arya’s non-conceptual total absorption on voidness is a way of being aware of something – namely, the conceptual fabrication that is the mind of grasping for self-established existence.
As Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche will explain later in this discussion, the Nyingma understanding is that:
- Disturbing emotions and karmic impulses come from conceptualization, which refer to the conceptual fabrication of conventional objects as the implied objects of the single facet of the conceptual cognition that cognizes conventional objects.
- The conceptual fabrication of conventional objects comes from grasping for conventional objects.
- The true cessation of the conceptual fabrication of conventional objects, which includes the true cessation of grasping for the four extremes, is attained by an arya’s reflexive deep awareness of inseparable pure appearance and voidness beyond conception, incommunicable, unimaginable, and inexpressible.
Thus, according to Nyingma, what is ceased by an arya’s non-conceptual total absorption on inseparable appearance and voidness is the conceptual fabrications that are conventional objects, which includes the four extreme modes of their existence.
The Gelugpa and Nyingma understandings of the verse come to the same point in that an arya’s non-conceptual total absorption voidness cognizes only deepest truth. It does not cognize superficial truth (conventional objects) and has no grasping for the four extreme modes of existence.
- Gelugpa comes to this point through refuting and ceasing the conceptual fabrication of grasping for self-established conventional objects.
- Nyingma comes to this point through refuting and ceasing the conceptual fabrication of conventional objects.
The Incorrect Consideration in the Gelugpa Interpretation of Nagarjuna’s Verse
Dr. Berzin: Incorrect consideration occurs in terms of either superficial truth or deepest truth. In the context of this verse, does incorrect consideration of the superficial truth of a conventional object occur in the distorted sensory cognition that cognizes a white snow mountain as blue?
Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche II: This we call “the one that has occurred dependent on the sensory cognition of mundane beings” (‘jig-rten-pa’i shes-dbang-du ltos-ltas). It is in reference to the ordinary cognitions of mundane beings (‘jig-rten-pa’i phal-pa’i shes-pa) that we say “accurate” (yang-dag) or “distorted” (log-pa). But according to Prasangika, all superficial phenomena (kun-rdzob-pa) are distorted, not accurate.
It is different in Madhyamaka Svatantrika and the other Indian schools; they don’t need to say, “dependent on the sensory cognition of mundane beings.” They say superficial phenomena are accurate or distorted. But in Prasangika, even a person’s bare cognition (mngon-sum) is also a conceptual fabrication, although it is also a valid cognition (tshad-ma). For Prasangika, it is both valid and conceptual fabrication. The other tenet systems will not say this. They will say Prasangika is the only one that can say that all minds other than those of an arya in total absorption on voidness are deluded and are conceptual fabrications. All the Tibetan traditions, Gelug, Sakya and so on, assert like this. Everybody says this.
Dr. Berzin’s Supplement to Fill Out the Discussion
Incorrect Consideration Directed at the Essential Nature of Its Object Does Not Occur in Sensory Cognition
In the Gelugpa interpretation of the non-Prasangika tenet systems and in the Nyingma interpretation of all the Indian tenet systems, the Tibetan term “mngon-sum” means “bare cognition” – cognition that is “bare” of concepts. It refers to non-conceptual cognition. In the Gelugpa Prasangika system, “mngon-sum” means “straightforward cognition” – cognition that does not arise directly dependent on a line of reasoning. It may be either conceptual or non-conceptual. Since sensory cognition is exclusively non-conceptual, we shall translate the term “mngon-sum” here as “bare cognition” so as to apply to both the Gelugpa and Nyingma discussions of sensory cognition.
Distortions of superficial conventional phenomena can occur either in the sensory bare cognition (dbang-shes) of ordinary beings or in conceptual cognition. These distortions can concern either the superficial truth of these phenomena or their deepest truth.
The superficial truth of a conventional phenomenon includes both its essential nature (ngo-bo) and its attributes (khyad-par). Although the primary consciousness (rnam-shes) and accompanying mental factors (sems-byung) in a cognition all focus on the same conventional object:
- The primary consciousness cognizes only the essential nature of its object – for instance, the colored shapes that constitute the essential nature of a sight.
- Mental factors cognize the object’s attributes – for instance, the object’s cleanliness, beauty, and attractiveness.
The mental factor of incorrect consideration occurs only in conceptual cognition and has four types:
- Considering what is unclean as clean.
- Considering what is suffering to be happiness.
- Considering what is nonstatic to be static.
- Considering what lacks a truly existent self to have a truly existent self.
The first three types are directed only at the attributes of the superficial truth of its object, the fourth type is directed at the deepest truth of its object.
Incorrect consideration, then, is not directed at the essential nature of its object. Thus, it does not occur in the distorted non-conceptual sensory cognition that cognizes a white snow mountain as blue. If one mentally labels as blue the appearance of a white shape that arises in one’s cognition when seeing a white snow mountain, this is a distorted conceptual labeling and not an example of incorrect consideration of the color.
The incorrect consideration, then, that Gelugpa interprets the first conceptual fabrication in Nagarjuna’s verse as referring to is incorrect consideration of the attributes and deepest truth of its object. Disturbing emotions and karmic impulses come from these types of incorrect consideration.
Distortions That Are Dependent on the Sensory Cognition of Mundane Beings – Non-Prasangika
There are two explanations of distorted sensory bare cognition – the non-Prasangika and the Prasangika. Consider, first, the case of the non-Prasangika presentation of distortions concerning the essential nature of the superficial truth of a conventional phenomenon that are cognized with the sensory bare cognition of mundane beings. All the non-Prasangika tenet systems assert in common that such phenomena have self-established existence. Except for Svatantrika, they also assert that they have truly established existence, defined in Svatantrika as existence established not merely in terms of mental labeling.
For ease of discussion, let us sometimes refer to the essential nature of the superficial truth of a conventional phenomenon simply as an “essential nature.” According to the non-Prasangika assertions:
- An example of an accurate essential nature is the white color of a white snow mountain appearing to one’s eyes and seen as white because it is self-established (inherently established) as truly white from its own side.
- An example of a distorted essential nature is the white color of a white snow mountain appearing to one’s eyes and seen as blue because of haze or because of wearing blue-tinted sunglasses.
- Another example of a distorted essential nature is the red color of an inherently red rose appearing to one’s eyes and seen as gray because of being color-blind.
In accord with these examples, the sensory bare cognition of an essential nature – for instance, the essential nature of the superficial truth of an inherently white snow mountain – is:
- A valid sensory bare cognition if it cognizes a white-colored shape.
- A distorted sensory bare cognition if it cognizes a blue-colored shape.
In these examples, the cause for the distorted sensory bare cognition is either external circumstances or a defective cognitive sensor (dbang-po). The cause for the appearing object (snang-yul) – a blue-colored shape – in the distorted cognition is not the interpolation (sgro-‘dogs, projection, superimposition) of a conceptual fabrication onto this appearing object.
- The appearing object in a cognition is the direct object (dngos-yul) that arises in the cognition, as if it were directly in front of the consciousness (sems-ngor) – literally, it arises to the “face of the mind.”
- Interpolation is the conceptual fabrication of a false appearance or false manner of existing and the projection of it onto something that lacks that appearance or manner of existing. It occurs only in conceptual cognition.
Distortions That Are Dependent on the Sensory Cognition of Mundane Beings – Prasangika
Prasangika is unique in asserting that the color of a snow mountain is not inherently self-established from its own side as truly white or as truly any other specific color. Visual bare cognition of a snow mountain, being non-conceptual, cognizes merely a colored shape and not which color the color is.
The appearance of a color that is seen arises dependently on external and internal circumstances. Dogs, for example, cannot see red. For human eyes, the appearance of a color that is seen is accurate simply if it is cognized without dependence on external or internal causes for distortion – such as darkness, haze, tinted sunglasses, or color-blindness. It is distorted simply if it is cognized dependent on such external or internal causes for distortion.
Which color an appearance of a color is, however, arises dependently merely on the category with which it is conceptually mentally labeled and the name of a color with which it is conceptually designated. In other words, whether the color that appears and is seen is “white” or “blue” depends merely on the concepts and words “white” and “blue” with which it is mentally labeled and designated.
- Gelugpa asserts that the conceptual labeling and designation are only accurate if they do not contradict what a mind that validly cognizes superficial truth cognizes it as; otherwise, it is distorted.
- Nyingma asserts that the conceptual labeling and designation are only accurate if they correspond to what the appearance is conventionally mentally labeled and designated as; otherwise, it is distorted.
Regardless of what appears as the color of a snow mountain and which color it is labeled and designated as, Prasangika is unique in asserting that the sensory bare cognition of the appearance of the color of a snow mountain is a valid cognition. It is valid because it fulfills the individual defining characteristic marks of a valid sensory bare cognition of the essential nature of the superficial truth of a conventional phenomenon. It is a sensory bare cognition that arises dependent on one of the physical cognitive sensors as its exclusive dominating condition (bdag-rkyen) and that is an accurate and decisive cognition of its appearing object (snang-yul), no matter what appears.
Although all sensory bare cognitions are valid cognitions of the essential natures of the superficial truths of the conventional objects that are their appearing objects, nevertheless, all sensory bare cognitions are distorted. They are distorted because the essential natures that are the appearing objects in all sensory bare cognitions appear to have self-established existence. Nevertheless, the cognitions are still valid from another point of view. This is because they are accurate and decisive cognitions even of the mode of existence (namely, self-established existence) of the appearing object that appears and is cognized, for instance, with eye consciousness. Not only does a color appear and is accurately and decisively seen by eye consciousness, but a self-existent color appears and is accurately and decisively seen.
- According to Gelugpa, the distortion of the deepest truth of the conventional object cognized by valid sensory bare cognition arises from the interpolation of a conceptually fabricated appearance of self-established existence. This conceptually fabricated, distorted appearance is initially made and projected by the habit of grasping for self-established existence that accompanies the conceptual cognition preceding the sensory bare cognition.
- According to Nyingma, the distortion cognized by sensory bare cognition arises from the interpolation of conceptually fabricated conventional objects. This conceptually fabricated appearance of conventional objects is initially made and projected by the habit of grasping for conventional objects that accompanies the conceptual cognition preceding the sensory cognition.
Gelugpa and Nyingma Prasangika basically agree on the above points. The only difference is that in the valid sensory bare cognition of the appearance of a color:
- Gelugpa asserts that the appearance of the color and the appearance of its self- established existence are cognized by two different facets of the cognition. The appearance of a color in the sensory cognition does not arise from a conceptual fabrication of a color. Only the appearance of self-established existence arises from a conceptual fabrication.
- Nyingma asserts that the appearance of a color – both what it appears to be and how it appears to exist – is a conceptual fabrication. It is cognized as a whole by the cognition.