Gelug Cognition Theory and Understanding of Emptiness

Cognition Theory

Tsongkhapa was really a revolutionary reformer who basically reinterpreted many, many of the teachings, particularly on Prasangika. He also very radically reformed the understanding and explanation of cognition theory, of how we know things. This cognition theory is a very fundamental part of the Buddhist education; it’s a topic called lorig (blo-rig) in Tibetan, which usually is translated as “ways of knowing.

In the Gelug presentation of non-Prasangika schools, there are seven different ways of knowing, and Tibetans usually spend a year studying this. This has to do with what are valid ways of knowing and what are nonvalid ways of knowing something. there are two valid ways of knowing things, either through what’s called bare perception, which is non-conceptual, or through inferential understanding – inferential cognition – which is conceptual: you rely on a line of reasoning, or you rely on some sort of convention, or also through relying on a valid source of information. There’s three sorts. “What’s that person’s name?” You ask somebody who knows the person. So how did you know this person’s name? You didn’t know it – you couldn’t know it – through bare perception; you knew it by relying on a valid source of information.

So, anyway, in the discussion of bare perception, which would be like seeing and hearing and so on, the way that this was understood before Tsongkhapa – and the way that it is still asserted by the Sakya, Nyingma, and Kagyu traditions – is that: What do we actually see when you see an object? This is the question. What do you see? For instance, if we look at an orange, all that you see – I mean, all that you know in that moment is the form of an orange sphere, and you only see the present moment of that. That’s all that you see.

Only the form or also the color?

You see an orange sphere, an orange-colored sphere. It is not that you see the color separately and the shape separately. It’s a colored shape. So all you see is the colored shape. Or if you hold an orange in your hand, all that you know through tactile perception is a certain tactile sensation. And only one moment of it at a time. So this is called, the technical term, sensibilia. You only know the sense information of one sense.

Now what is an orange? An orange is not an orange-colored sphere. An orange is not just a physical sensation. An orange is not just a smell. And an orange is not just a taste. What we would call a commonsense orange is – according to this earlier theory – is a concept. It’s something that is imputed. Not only imputed, but it is something that is only conceptually known. It’s a concept. I mean, whether it’s a concept or not – that’s really a Western way of saying it – it can only be known conceptually.

And also of course this orange – I mean, all this sense information is changing every moment. So what we would call a commonsense orange is something that extends over all the information of all the senses and which extends over time. But all you can ever know is the information of one sense in one moment at a time. So you see the problem here. How do you ever know a commonsense orange that extends over time and extends over all the sense information?

The mind conceives of a commonsense object. A commonsense orange – you never see a commonsense orange, you never taste a commonsense orange, all you do is see a colored form and taste a taste, and only one moment of it at a time. That’s very profound. In order to understand the whole discussion of non-conceptual cognition – which is emphasized so much in particularly Kagyu and Nyingma, but also in Sakya – you have to understand that. Otherwise, their discussion doesn’t really make very much sense. Not that it doesn’t make sense, but we get the wrong idea. And, if you think about it, it does make sense – about non-conceptual cognition and the importance of that in meditation. I find it a very lovely point and really very profound.

In other words, all that you ever know through the senses, non-conceptually, is the information of one sense, and only one moment of it at a time. That’s all you know. But a commonsense object is something that is not just an orange circle. A commonsense orange, that doesn’t exist for just one moment; it extends over time. You think it’s sitting on the table there all day long. Well, really you just know that through a concept, because in any moment all you see is one moment of an orange circle, and it’s changing every moment, of course. So the actual commonsense object is something that is only known conceptually, and would have a taste, and a smell, and a physical sensation if you held it in your hand, and so on.

Do you mean by “commonsense object” that this is seen in the same way by everybody?

That’s another question. Whether everybody sees the same commonsense object or not, that really depends on whether we accept that there are external phenomena or whether you say that actually it’s all projection of common, shared karma – if we all have a shared karma to see something. But everybody sees it from a different angle, of course. That also becomes a very profound, difficult question. Is there an actual orange sitting there and that everybody is seeing the same orange? That can become a very deep question.

How do you define exactly “commonsense object”?

A commonsense object is defined as one that extends over the sensibilia – the sense information – of many senses and extends over time. That’s what we ordinarily think of as an orange, or a human being, or anything, isn’t it? These are interesting things to think about.

In addition, the non-Gelug schools, the earlier schools, were saying that what you perceive – the cognition of something – is the result, the effect of the object, the sense information, if we assert external phenomena. That sense information is the cause, and the seeing of it is the result. And so what you actually see is a mental representation – a hologram or something like that – you see a mental representation of an orange sphere. And that mental representation is moment two – the original object, moment one – of an orange sphere, of an orange circle. Or orange sphere; it’s actually a sphere – Well, that’s another question. Do you see depth, or what do you actually see? But let’s say an orange sphere. Moment one of that orange sphere – an orange sphere of moment one – produces a mental representation of an orange sphere in moment two. So, while you’re perceiving this mental representation in moment two, that original moment-one orange sphere no longer exists. You never see anything directly. So, although we can assert external phenomena, you never see it directly. You always see, in a sense, like an afterimage. If you think in terms of the speed of light, that makes perfect sense. You can see far distant stars. That actual object is many, many years later. So these mental representations are opaque: you don’t see anything through them, you just see a mental representation.

Actually, if you pursue the logic of it, it starts to get really very freaky. Because also, if you think about it, we see a mental representation – if you can bring in a little bit of Western explanation here – the mental representation, well, actually that’s a flat surface, a two-dimensional surface of the sensor, of the retina. And that’s what you actually are seeing, isn’t it? And so it’s two-dimensional. So depth as well is a mental construct.

I thought that the eyes are put in a certain angle, so that’s why you see two-dimensional.

Well, yes. But still that’s a mental construct. One eye sees one thing; the other eye sees another thing. How is it put together? It’s a mental construct. And time as well is a mental construct, because all we ever know is one moment at a time. So, if you pursue this, it starts to get really very – now it starts to really affect the nature of reality very much. Everything that we think of in our little world is actually really a hologram.

If we pursue the Western analysis even more, actually the way that our eyes see things – we’re upside down. So that’s even more evidence that our commonsense world is a mental construct. And it’s certainly the case with language, even. Think about language. All that we hear is one syllable at a time. It’s certainly a mental construct that puts together those moments of consonants and vowels into a word, let alone into a sentence that has meaning. All of that’s a mental construct.

So Tsongkhapa came in and he said “What you say here makes sense, but it’s a bit too much.” And so Tsongkhapa said that although this is true – we only see one moment of an orange circle – you have to say that we also see the commonsense object; we see the commonsense orange. Even though that commonsense object is a mental construct, you have to say that we see it; it’s not that it’s just known conceptually. In other words, what he’s saying is that you have to make a distinction within mental constructs. It doesn’t make sense to say, like the earlier schools, that mental constructs can only be known conceptually. You have to say – this is Tsongkhapa’s big insight – that some mental constructs you can actually know non-conceptually; you can actually see them. Otherwise, you have a big problem with the whole and the parts. The whole is a mental construct on the parts. So do you only see parts and you never see a whole? I mean, that’s really – that gets too weird.

Now this gets into a whole discussion of things existing in terms of labeling. There are some mental constructs that you can actually see and hear, and that would include commonsense objects that extend over time and so on. I mean, a construct – do you only know it only conceptually or can you know it also non-conceptually? But it’s certainly a mental construct – a commonsense object – you would have to agree that it’s imputed on all the senses and on the moments. That’s a mental construct. So then the question is: Can you know that non-conceptually? Tsongkhapa says “Some of them you can, definitely. Some you can’t, and some you can.”

What would be an example of a mental construct that you can only know conceptually? The example is universals, as opposed to individuals. For instance, I see this object in front of me. But to know it as a table, as a general category of “table,” that you can only know conceptually. Because I see this object, I see that object, I see that object – and I call them all tables, but they’re very different looking objects. Well, do I see a table? You can’t say you see a table. You see an object, and it’s conceptually called a table. They fit into a general category, a conceptual category, of “tables.” That’s conceptual. But that’s different from actually seeing the object – we’re not just seeing a brown square. I don’t know German. I see a table. I think I see a table. I certainly don’t think I see a Tisch. From the side of the object, is it a table? Is it a Tisch? What is it? It’s clearly a concept agreed upon by convention.

And Tsongkhapa adds that we see an object through a mental representation, but the mental representation is transparent. Otherwise, you get this big problem of time. This is why you have to use the words “direct” and “indirect” perception in this meaning, and reserve it for this meaning, and use different words – conceptual, non-conceptual, implicit, explicit – there are many other distinctions that are drawn. Tsongkhapa says you see commonsense objects directly through transparent mental representation, whereas earlier they said that you only see objects indirectly, because there’s a one moment lag in time. The other schools say that you see objects indirectly through an opaque mental representation. Actually, you don’t even see an object; you see colored forms. And there are some Buddhist philosophers who say that you don’t even see colored forms; all you see are dots of light – even a colored form, a shape, is a mental construct – which is probably even closer to our Western analysis, if you really pursue it.

I went into this a little bit in detail because I know you haven’t studied any of this. And actually I found it absolutely fascinating, and it really, really gets you thinking about the whole discussion of reality. It’s very, very much connected with the discussion of cognition – What do you actually know? What do you perceive? All we know is what we perceive. So what establishes – what proves – that something exists? The only thing that proves that it exists – from the Prasangika point of view – is that, well, we have mental constructs for them. You can’t say anything else.

This was also discussed in art. If you see an abstract painting then you usually try to see some figures, and you want to conceptualize these abstract figures. And you will make a form – maybe it’s this shape or another shape. So there it was also discussed. What do you see? You usually try to see a form. You want a form, and you don’t get it.

Well, this is our grasping for things to be concrete. Yes, abstract painting. Or what was it called – pointillism – where they painted with pixels. That’s a good example. Then it’s really mental constructs.

There are many other points about perception theory, but probably this is enough, because there are many other topics. So let’s get back to what we started yesterday, which is Tsongkhapa’s revision of Prasangika. In connection with perception theory, Tsongkhapa also asserted that Prasangika explains things differently from the other schools – from Sautrantika and so on – in terms of ways of knowing and so on, which none of the other schools made any distinction in terms of Prasangika; remember, they said Prasangika didn’t make any positive assertions about any of it. No need to go into detail on that unless you have a little bit of a background in these ways of knowing.

There’s actually one more point that is good to mention in terms of cognition theory, which follows from what we were discussing, which is that according to non-Gelugpa, the earlier theory, to know that something is this and not that – to determine that something is this and not that – is only done with conceptual cognition, in terms of conventional things. It’s this object as opposed to that object, or this table as opposed to that table, or whatever, and that this is what determines a cognition as being a cognition of a certain specific object. That’s only a conceptual occurrence; whereas Tsongkhapa said “No. In terms of actual non-conceptual cognition, there you determine that what you cognize is a specific object.” Because, he said, you see commonsense objects and you determine this commonsense object to be this and not that.

This gets us into a big, big discussion of mahamudra and dzogchen, and all these things, about going beyond distinguishing between this and that. This all comes from their perception theory. The distinction between this and that is talking about the distinction: this commonsense object as opposed to that commonsense object. So this has very much to do with mahamudra and dzogchen meditation and explanations where they talk about getting to the state of mind that is not involved with making the distinctions between this commonsense this and that. This is because, for them, non-conceptual cognition doesn’t do that. Whereas Tsongkhapa says valid non-conceptual cognition does do that, because you see commonsense objects. Although they’re not really the name for them, that’s something else. That’s conceptual, of course.

So, as I say, in order to really understand properly things like mahamudra and dzogchen, these things in the non-Gelug schools, you really have to know the background of their cognition theory, especially when they’re talking about becoming non-conceptual. So Tsongkhapa changed that very, very much. And so the whole discussion of the importance of non-conceptual cognition and so on is very, very different in Gelug. Or I should say that the discussion of conceptual cognition, and what’s going on with that, is very different.

Voidness in Prasangika

Now, in terms of voidness in Prasangika, this whole discussion of conceptual or non-conceptual affects very much the way that Tsongkhapa presents voidness – voidness meditation. Because, remember, the big central issue that affects so much of the philosophy is how do you go from a conceptual to a non-conceptual cognition of voidness. Obviously, this is going to be very much affected by your understanding of what it means to be non-conceptual. What actually is conceptual? What actually is non-conceptual? Everything hangs together here.

The earlier schools – Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakya – they still continue asserting this: They said that the voidness that you validly cognize – you validly know – conceptually and non-conceptually, those are different voidnesses; it’s not the same voidness. Tsongkhapa said they’re the same; he changed that. But earlier they said that they were quite different voidnesses. And so true unimputed existence (let’s just call it true existence for ease of our discussion here) – true existence, well, this is obviously a mental construct. You can only know this conceptually. Right? It’s a mental construct. It’s just projected. It doesn’t actually refer to anything real. So this is conceptual; conceptually known.

The absence of true existence – that’s the voidness of it – the absence of true existence is also a concept: it’s also only conceptually known. This is the non-Gelug position. An absence can only be known conceptually, they say. There’s several ways of explaining that. One is that – Well, it’s not a good example, but it’s used like that when we talk about the birth of your child in a dream and the death of your child in a dream. Are both known in a dream? Dreams aren’t conceptual, but we can use that as an example. There’s really no difference in the level of your way of knowing, whether you know the birth of the child in a dream or the death of the child in a dream; it’s the same thing. Whether you know the presence of true existence or the absence of true existence, it’s the same level. It’s conceptual. It’s the same way of knowing. Dream-known. Not reality. You have to go beyond this state of a dream. So, likewise, the presence of true existence or the absence of true existence are also the same level of knowing. It’s conceptual. And so, to get to reality, you have to go beyond. You have to go beyond dream-knowing; so, likewise, you have to go beyond conceptually knowing.

So just the usual discussion of voidness, that’s only conceptual. And the voidness that you know non-conceptually is beyond true existence, absence of true existence, both, or neither. You have to understand voidness beyond words, beyond concepts. The voidness that’s known non-conceptually is the voidness that is beyond words and beyond concepts; it’s not the voidness of true existence that is discussed in the texts through logic.

Tsongkhapa says, “No no. It’s not like that.” The absence of true existence is something that can be known non-conceptually – “It’s the same voidness that’s known conceptually and non-conceptually.” See, it’s parallel to this discussion of commonsense objects. Can you actually know commonsense objects non-conceptually? Tsongkhapa says, “Yes. You can know them both conceptually and non-conceptually. So the same thing with voidness; the same voidness can be known both conceptually and non-conceptually. Your discussion about how do you go from a conceptual to a non-conceptual cognition deals only with what you’re doing with your mind. It has nothing to do with the object in terms of voidness. Voidness is voidness. The only thing that’s different is your way of knowing.”

This is a major, major difference. Now we’re getting to the real radical things that Tsongkhapa was saying. Because Tsongkhapa was always emphasizing “Well, conceptual thought, that’s not so bad. Bodhichitta has to be conceptual all the way up to enlightenment. So that’s not the main thing that you have to work on getting over.” Sure, you have to get to non-conceptual cognition – Buddhas don’t have conceptual cognition – but the role of conceptual thought in Gelug is very different from the way that it was considered earlier. And that influences very much the attitude toward logic – toward all sorts of things. The non-Gelugpa put a big emphasis here on meditation and everything to become non-conceptual, and always saying that if it were up to them, then the faults of conceptual cognition are much, much more to be emphasized. This is the whole discussion of cognition theory, the whole discussion of voidness – there being these two kinds of voidness conceptually cognized and non-conceptually cognized. And out of that, you get this whole rangtong (self-voidness), zhentong (other-voidness) discussion – it that distinction was then developed in many, many different ways.

You see, it gets very complex. Because, for the non-Gelugpa, conceptual cognition not only… I mean, conceptual cognition grasps for true existence, but it also makes appearances of true existence. Conceptual cognition makes an appearance of true existence and grasps to it. And what they say is non-conceptual cognition doesn’t make an appearance of true existence and doesn’t grasp for it. non-conceptual cognition doesn’t know how things actually exist, but at least it doesn’t have the fault of making appearances of truly existing objects – it doesn’t recognize what it sees as this and not that – you see, non-conceptual cognition doesn’t make an appearance of commonsense objects. The whole issue of an appearance of true existence is true existence as some commonsense object. So this is non-Gelugpa. So to get to a non-conceptual state is really, really important as a first step in the non-Gelugpa systems, because then at least your mind doesn’t make an appearance of true existence, which has to do with making appearances of commonsense objects.

Tsongkhapa said “Hey, both conceptual and non-conceptual cognition make an appearance of true existence, because you can actually see non-conceptually commonsense objects as this or that. non-conceptual cognition as well makes an appearance of true existence, but non-conceptual cognition doesn’t manifestly grasp for true existence” – and then the different textbooks describe how you have nonmanifest grasping for true existence when you see something. But the appearance of true existence, that’s there with non-conceptual sensory or mental cognition – with seeing. And so whether you get a conceptual or non-conceptual cognition, that’s not what’s going to get you out of the problem. The problem is to stop this – to understand the voidness. And it’s the same voidness, whether it’s known conceptually or non-conceptually.

True existence doesn’t exist at all. It truly established existence is referring to the existence of something being established as true, independent of mental labeling – that’s the earlier schools’ definition, Svatantrika and below – or independent of mere mental labeling. In other words, that it can be found. Existence established as if it were true. But it’s not.

If you talk about true existence, then you mean according to Nagarjuna that it is not findable and it’s just only a construction of the mind and that it exists not out of itself?

Unfortunately, true existence is defined differently in the different tenet systems, so that doesn’t make it easier at all. Remember, this whole discussion of “existence” I find is very misleading, the way it’s been translated in the Western languages. There was never the word “existence” here in the terminology. The word that is used is “established” or “proven” grub-pa, Skt. siddha. That’s the word, not the word for existence. And so you have to really understand the whole discussion in terms of what establishes or proves that something exists. That’s the discussion. That’s what the whole discussion is about, because we can only know something in terms of the mind. So what establishes its existence? Is its existence established from its own side? Or we can establish that it exists only in terms of the mind – knowing it?

I mean, maybe you can understand it a little bit easier if instead of the word “true” we substitute the word “real.” What establishes that it’s real? And so the earlier tenet systems would say “Well, if it produces an effect, it’s real. If it doesn’t produce an effect, it’s not real.” Or “If you can see it, it’s real. If you only can think it, it’s not real; it’s only your imagination.” These are the earlier theories in the earlier tenet systems, if I may simplify them like that, but then I think you can get the idea.

How do you know it’s real? The wall’s real because I bang into it if I try to walk through it. It produces an effect. Or a person being here, or just hallucinating the person’s here – imagining that the person is here. I can actually see the person, and other people can see this person too. If they can’t see it, it’s not real. If you can’t see it, and somebody just imagined that somebody was here, then it wasn’t real. We think like that in the West. The lower schools accept true existence, that certain things have true existence – certain things are real, other things are not real; they’re imaginary or conceptual.

So now we start to go a little bit deeper and make the distinction that true existence, real existence, is something that is independent of concepts. It’s real. So it’s not just the fact that there’s a name for it, or a concept for it, that proves that it exists, that it’s real. Of course there’s names for it. That doesn’t matter. That doesn’t prove that it’s real. What proves that it’s real is that you can see it or it produces an effect. Well, a hallucination exists, but it’s not real, we would say. So these sorts of distinctions are made. Although everyone obviously has a name for it, that isn’t what establishes that things are real.

Now it’s only in terms of imaginary things that you can say that, well, the fact that there’s a name for it means that this imaginary thing exists. But it doesn’t make it real. But the imaginary thing is not real, not truly existent. That’s Chittamatra. Imaginary things – well, sure, they have a name for them. So they don’t have true existence. Their existence is established just on… You know that they exist because there are names for them, concepts for them, that proves that they exist. But they don’t have true existence. They’re not real. Other things have real existence because you can see them, you can bang into things, and these sort of things. That’s Chittamatra. Even though they’re not external – they’re not coming from “out there,” they’re coming from your karma – but still you can see them, you can bang into them, because you perceive them that way.

So now you get to Svatantrika, and Svatantrika says “Hey, you can’t make that distinction. What you have to say is that nothing has true existence. What establishes that things exist is that there are names for them. But it’s not merely that there are names and concepts for them, because we’ve got the name ‘true existence’ but that doesn’t mean that it exists.” So what establishes that it exists is that there are names for it and also that there are findable objects that the names refer to. So it’s mental labeling in connection with there being findable objects that the names refer to. Not just names, not just that there are names and concepts for things. What’s real and what isn’t real? We are not using it now to mean true existence, but the issue is that what makes it real – it’s not just that there’s a name for it, but, in addition, that the name refers to something real; it’s findable.

And then Prasangika comes along and says that the issue of true existence has to do with what you’re saying: They’re basically saying even though you say it doesn’t have true existence – nothing has true existence by our understanding – you’re still asserting that everything has true existence. Because, for us, the only thing that establishes that things exist is the fact that there are names and concepts for it, not anything from the side of the object that you can find that they refer to. And so what makes things real or not real validly is really an issue of valid or not valid – is it a valid labeling or nonvalid labeling? The Svatantrikas were saying that valid labeling and invalid labeling has more to do with the object’s side. But Prasangika is saying “No. Valid or invalid has to do with the side of the mind.” So there are other criteria to know whether or not that mind is correct in making this – having this concept or name. It’s mere mental labeling.

But this is Tsongkhapa’s formulation of Prasangika, and very different. What the other schools said before – Sakya, Nyingma, and Kagyu – they agree with Svatantrika, conventionally. And Svatantrika also says conventionally you can find things; when you analyze it, it’s findable – what it refers to. And so the other schools would agree with Svatantrika on that. But, on the deepest level – and here’s where Prasangika comes in, according to their understanding of Prasangika – you have to go beyond concepts, beyond existent, nonexistent, beyond this, beyond that, beyond all these sorts of things. But conventionally they would say it’s findable as what the names for them refer to.

When we talk about mental labeling in Gelug Prasangika… What establishes that it exists? Merely the fact that there are names for it, but that doesn’t mean that the name or concept produces something. And it doesn’t mean that for something to exist, you have to actively be labeling it or conceiving of it now. It never means that. Whether anybody names something or not doesn’t matter at all. But how do you know that it exists? What establishes that it exists? Just the fact that there’s a name for it. How else could you know that it exists? From the side of the object? Well, how could it just be on the side of the object? How would you know that? It’s absurd to say that it’s on the side of the object.

Tsongkhapa uses the example which is a very, very good example of how would you know that the universe exists in the eons before sentient beings inhabited this universe? Well,nobody was around to mentally label it. The absurd conclusion would follow that if there was nobody around to actively mentally label it, it wouldn’t exist; it didn’t exist. Unless you get into the Western “God” thing – “Well, Buddha mentally labeled it.” But that’s absurd. So it can be mentally labeled, there are names for it, but nobody has to be around labeling it. That’s a common misconception about Prasangika, that things are created by mental labeling and it’s only when you mentally label it that it exists. That you really have to understand in order to understand Prasangika correctly – that point. Otherwise, you really get a totally – everything just exists in your mind – wrong view, and “I’m the center of the universe and I create everything by my concepts.” That’s really not at all what Buddhism is saying.

In terms of our topic, it’s is that this whole presentation of Prasangika, it’s totally new from Tsongkhapa. Totally revolutionary. Nobody thought like that before. Nobody explained like that before. And Tsongkhapa proved it all on the basis of what Nagarjuna said. He showed that this is actually what Nagarjuna was saying, that the other people earlier didn’t really interpret his words correctly; they interpreted just one level of meaning, but that wasn’t the deepest level. So he went back to the text and showed, well, this is actually what Nagarjuna was saying. Because in Nagarjuna’s actual works it’s not clear – he uses too many words like “this” and “that” without being explicit.

Tsongkhapa realized all this not simply because he was a genius or the Einstein of his generation – which obviously he was – but look what he did. He did 3.5 million prostrations and 1.8 million mandala offerings in order to build up the positive force to break through the old way of thinking and to get to this understanding. And in the end Manjushri had told him “To get this, look again at Bhavaviveka” – this Indian text this Indian master wrote – “Now you’ve built up enough positive force to understand really what he was saying.” That’s how it came. That’s really very inspiring, I find, how he actually did this. How did he become such a being? He was extraordinary. He was a revolutionary. Where did it come from? It wasn’t just “Oh, I’m going to be a rebel and tear down what other people thought, to make my own, to express my individuality.” It wasn’t that.

So if we go back a little bit further to what we were discussing before about voidness meditation, the earlier schools were saying that to get the non-conceptual cognition of voidness, first you get the conceptual cognition of voidness, the absence of true existence, and then you have to go beyond all names and concepts – all concepts of true existence, absence of true existence, both, or neither – to go beyond. Whereas Tsongkhapa was saying that to go from the conceptual to the non-conceptual, what you have to understand is the voidness of voidness. In other words, when you have a conceptual cognition of voidness, conceptual cognition is basically grasping for the true existence of it, so you’re grasping for the true existence of the voidness. And so to go beyond that to get to non-conceptual, rather than going almost like to a transcendental level beyond, what you need to do is understand the voidness of voidness. Whereas the other schools would say, well, that’s just making a concept a further concept – voidness of voidness itself is a concept, and then you need the voidness of the voidness of the voidness, and so on – so they say this is absurd. And Tsongkhapa says “No. You understand the voidness of voidness, that’s how you can get to non-conceptual.” And he supports it by a verse in Shantideva, the ninth chapter of Shantideva, which says this fairly clearly.

Another big, big difference is: What appears to an arya in total absorption on voidness? When you actually get the non-conceptual cognition of voidness, what appears? The other schools, the earlier schools, were saying that both conventional and deepest truth appear to an arya’s absorption on voidness. It’s just that during that total absorption, voidness is more prominent; and during the subsequent attainment, often translated as “post-meditation,” the appearance side is more prominent. But, actually, you could never have voidness appearing by itself, because the two truths of something are inseparable. That was the earlier position; whereas Tsongkhapa said that in an arya’s total absorption on voidness, only voidness appears and no conventional appearance. No appearance appears at all. No conventional appearance. It’s just the mere absence of true existence. And the others criticized Tsongkhapa, saying “How can you separate the two truths? That contradicts the whole discussion of the inseparability of the two truths.” But obviously what Tsongkhapa was saying was based on his own experience; that’s how he experienced it.

Serkong Rinpoche used to explain with a very nice analogy of why this was not a problem. He said that if we’re sitting inside a room on the ground floor and we look out the window and somebody walks by – actually, all that we see is the top part of a body going past the window. Now just because that’s all that we see, the top part of a body, that does not mean that there is not a bottom part of the body as well. It’s not that the top part of the body exists by itself. It’s just that we are limited from the point of view from which we’re looking at it. And so the same thing with an arya’s mind. Because an arya is not a Buddha, only a Buddha can perceive the two truths simultaneously. The arya’s mind is still limited and can only focus on one of the truths at a time – not that it only can only focus, but it can only have appear to it one at a time – only one can appear at a time.

This fits in with what Tsongkhapa was saying in terms of when you have non-conceptual cognition of conventional truths – the appearances of things – that it still has an appearance of true existence. And because there is an appearance of true existence when the mind cognizes conventional truths – you see appearances – then you can’t have, with the same mind, an appearance of true existence and an absence of true existence. And so, for that reason, that arya’s mind is still limited, because the only type of appearance of conventional truth that an arya can perceive is one that has an appearance of true existence. And so, for that reason, an arya can’t see the two truths simultaneously.

What you have to distinguish – and Tsongkhapa does quite clearly, and the others didn’t – in the same way is pure and impure conventional truth. An impure conventional truth is one that appears to be truly existent. Pure conventional truth is one that does not appear to be truly existent, that only appears to be dependently arising. So the only type of mind to which you can get an appearance, a pure appearance, is actually the clear light mind – the subtlest mind – all grosser levels of mind make appearances of true existence. This is the importance of anuttarayoga tantra. A Buddha only has clear light mind. So, because sutra aryas don’t have the clear light level of mind, if they perceive conventional truths, they can only perceive them with an appearance of true existence. I mean, you can achieve clear light mind before – you can activate the clear light mind before becoming a Buddha, but that you have to do in anuttarayoga tantra. Whereas for the earlier view, remember they said that non-conceptual cognition doesn’t have an appearance of true existence – it doesn’t appear as this or that – and so there’s no problem with having cognition of voidness and this type of appearance at the same time.

So sometimes we have what looks like a very strange presentation of the two truths in the non-Gelug systems. In some of the non-Gelug systems, not all, conventional truth always has an appearance of true existence. And so, well, you want to get beyond that. And the deepest truth, voidness which is beyond all this, they put pure appearance on that side, because the voidness and pure appearance are inseparable. So Gelug would put on the conventional truth side both impure and pure appearances, while some of the others would put only impure appearances on the side of conventional truth, and put both pure appearances as well as voidness on the side of deepest truth. So sometimes it looks as though they’re denying the two truths. It is just a different way of expressing it; a different way of dividing it up. You find this particularly in Karma Kagyu.

Do you put pure appearances on the side of conventional truth, or do you put it on the side of deepest truth? Gelugpa puts it on the side of conventional truth. And some of the non-Gelug schools, like, for instance, Karma Kagyu, put it on the side of deepest truth. Because deepest truth is voidness inseparable from pure appearance. Because you can’t separate the two. So Tsongkhapa says that’s not a good way of organizing the material here, because it starts to really bring into question the two truths.

This whole discussion of “can you perceive voidness by itself?” influences the presentation of Svabhavakaya, the Nature Body. According to Gelugpa – I mean, what Tsongkhapa said was that it’s the voidness of the omniscient mind of a Buddha. The others before him (and they continue this way) said it’s the inseparability of body, speech, and mind – of the other three bodies. So what does that mean? It means the inseparability of the two truths; the inseparability of appearance and voidness. And so it’s deepest truth, in a sense, if you take deepest truth only as voidness, which is how Tsongkhapa took it. He makes Svabhavakaya just the voidness of a Buddha’s mind. And everybody before took it, this deepest truth, as being the inseparability of the appearance and voidness, or the inseparability of the other three bodies. The presentation of Svabhavakaya is very different.

Another point here concerning voidness meditation is that Tsongkhapa was saying that – and he emphasizes very, very much this is quite relevant – that in order to gain a valid cognition of voidness, you have to correctly identify the object of nullification; you have to correctly identify true existence. (This whole thing, it goes back to Shantideva: You can’t hit a target unless you can see the target first. How can you shoot an arrow and hit it if you haven’t identified the target first?) How can you nullify – in other words, prove that it doesn’t exist at all – how can you prove that true existence doesn’t exist at all if you can’t distinguish it? But this was new. This was revolutionary.

The other sects said, and they continued to argue against Tsongkhapa, that true existence doesn’t exist at all. So how can you identify it? It’s absurd. So what you have to do is go beyond – beyond words, beyond concepts – in order to get to the real understanding of voidness. But then you could reply “Well, even to go beyond something, you have to identify what it is that you’re going beyond.” This is what is very beneficial in terms of debate – that when you do debates, often what you need to do is to argue both sides of the argument, and see the logic behind the one side, and see the logic behind the other side. If you have to defend first one side, and then defend the other side, then you start to really understand what makes most sense, because these are not stupid views. Serkong Rinpoche always emphasized: Don’t be so arrogant to think that these people were dummies. They’re very, very intelligent people, coming up with very intelligent answers to deep questions, but some make more sense than others.

So we need to really understand perception theory in order to really deal with this question of “can you identify the object to be refuted if it doesn’t exist?” Remember, we perceive things through mental representations. Now there can certainly be a mental representation of true existence, but it doesn’t refer to anything real. It’s a mental aspect that we mistakenly think corresponds to reality. It’s a representation. It’s not really – I mean, you can’t have a picture of true existence because there is no such thing. But you can somehow make a representation and you think that’s how things are, but they’re not.

It’s like, for instance… The example that I often use to really simplify things is that true existence would be as if things were in a coloring book, and everything had a big thick line around it making it solidly this. Solid existence. By itself, like in a coloring book. So we can have a mental representation of a coloring book – the world – but that doesn’t mean that’s referring to anything real. But in fact we do perceive things like in a coloring book, don’t we? “Nasty person over there. I don’t like.” “Nice person. Pretty person.” A thick line around it. “My table. My car.” Thick line around it, separate from everything else. So you do have a mental representation of it. We have a mental representation that – a mental aspect of it, like a mental picture – that somehow represents what we’re grasping for. But, remember, mental representations, Tsongkhapa was saying, were transparent. If you have a mental representation of a table, you see the table through it. But a mental representation of true existence – you don’t see true existence on the other side of it, through it. It’s like a hallucination. So that’s how Tsongkhapa explains it. How Gelug explains it. You can identify the mental representation. You are not actually identifying true existence itself, because obviously it doesn’t exist.

To repeat: We have these transparent mental representations and aspects, so you can see through them. You can see the table through it. Table exists. But with the mental representation of true existence, looking through that, you don’t see true existence. There is no true existence. It is like hallucination. You can identify the mental representation. It is not that you identify true existence itself somewhere out there, because, it does not exist.

Do you follow? We need to really appreciate the difference of the approach. I find it helpful to bring in a psychological example. Let’s say somebody who thinks that there are monsters – there’s a monster under the bed. So are you going to try to identify the monster, that mental representation of a monster? Of course there’s no monster under the bed. But to really get over that, do you need to understand that here’s your image of the monster, what is the monster, and you’re putting it together from this and that, and so on? So you correctly identify where it’s all coming from, this mental representation, this idea that you have of a monster under the bed, and then you can get rid of it by realizing that this is absurd. Or if you just say “Well, I’ll transcend all of that.” Forget about trying to identify this monster, this mental image that you have of a monster. Just forget about that. Just transcend it. Go beyond that type of thinking. Go beyond the concept of monsters.

You see? Then I think the difference in approach stands out. Do you say “Well, just go beyond your concepts of monsters,” or do you try to really analyze it, understand that concept that you have, and realize that it’s absurd. And both approaches obviously can be effective for different types of people. But still the child could say “Well, I didn’t see it, but maybe it’s hiding over there.” And you explain “Well, you saw this movie, and you heard this story” – and all these things – “and so this is where you got this idea of a monster from. Recognize you’re just projecting something from a movie, or whatever, that you saw. There are no such things.” The other way is to just show them under the bed: “Look, there is no monster, so shut up.” “Huh? The monster could be hiding.”

What Is to Be Abandoned

Another big area of really radical change that Tsongkhapa made was in terms of what is abandoned or gotten rid of on the stages of the path. He said that Prasangika actually does make assertions, not just like the others who say that all it does is refute to help us to get beyond conceptual thought. And so among the assertions of Prasangika is a whole different presentation of how you proceed through the path – in terms of the path of seeing up to liberation or enlightenment, that part of the path – in terms of what you get rid of, when, and how, and how you classify that. Tsongkhapa said Prasangika has its own way of explaining that, and the others said “No. Whether it’s Svatantrika or Prasangika, they assert the same in terms of that.” It was only several centuries later that the Eighth Karmapa accepted some of what Tsongkhapa said on this point – it was brought into Karma Kagyu – but none of the others ever accepted any of it. And the Eighth Karmapa only accepted part of it, not the whole explanation of these stages of the path.

To make it a little bit of a survey, without going into too much detail here, there are the two sets of obscuration. There’s one set that prevents liberation, and one set that prevents omniscience. In order to gain liberation, you have to overcome this first set – true stopping of everything there – and to gain omniscience, Buddhahood, you have to get rid of both. The obscurations preventing liberation are called the obscurations that are the disturbing emotions – disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes. And so what the non-Gelug said is that when we talk about unawareness or ignorance, you have to distinguish between unawareness about how persons exist and unawareness about how all phenomena exist. They follow Svatantrika, which says that unawareness about how a person exists – that’s in this first set of obscurations; that prevents liberation; that’s a disturbing emotion. But the unawareness about how all phenomena exist – that’s in the obscurations that prevent omniscience, and that’s not a disturbing emotion. It’s a nominal disturbing emotion; it’s not really a disturbing emotion. What causes my samsara is grasping for “me” and “I’m the most important” and “I truly exist” and all that. Whether I believe that something has true existence or not, that doesn’t affect my samsara, but it affects my omniscience. It certainly doesn’t affect my samsara, since unawareness of that is not a disturbing emotion.

They also say that when you achieve the path of seeing – when you get non-conceptual cognition of voidness, voidness beyond words and concepts – that then if you are a bodhisattva on the path, then you work on applying that understanding both to persons and all phenomena, and you work all the way through, all the way to the end of the path. You start eliminating both sets of obscuration at the same time, and you finish getting rid of them both at the same time when you become enlightened; you achieve liberation and enlightenment at the same time. Whereas if you follow the path from that path of seeing onwards as just a shravaka, it’s that same understanding of voidness beyond names and concepts, but you’re just applying it to persons; you’re not applying it to all phenomena. And so, at the end of this whole thing, you only achieve liberation. That’s the difference. Svatantrika doesn’t talk about voidness which is beyond names and concepts – that’s Prasangika, according to the non-Gelug schools – Svatantrika only says there’s voidness of true existence. Right? According to the non-Gelug schools, only the Prasangika bring in the non-conceptual. That’s the main thing in Prasangika, is to get rid of all concepts and conceptual thinking.

Now Tsongkhapa said “Oh, but Prasangika’s different.” According to Prasangika, the unawareness about persons and phenomena, both of them are in the obscurations preventing liberation. Forget about this thing about actual disturbing emotions and nominal disturbing emotions – this is a silly division – they’re all disturbing emotions. And the only thing that’s in the obscurations preventing omniscience is the habit of grasping for true existence. Grasping for a true person and a true phenomenon, that’s all the same thing; that’s grasping for true existence. And so the only thing that’s in the obscurations preventing omniscience are the habits of that, which make the appearance of true existence. The grasping for true existence is in the first set of obscuration, and then the mind making the appearance of true existence is the second set. And you work to get rid of the obscurations preventing liberation first. You don’t even touch these obscurations preventing omniscience until you get rid of all these obscurations – until you get rid of the grasping for true existence. That would be at the end of the seventh bhumi of the ten bhumis. At the end of the seventh one, you get rid of the obscurations preventing liberation, so that’s when you achieve liberation as a bodhisattva. And only then, in the last three bhumis – these stages of bodhisattva mind – you work on getting rid of the mind making the appearance of true existence. So, in other words, first you have to stop believing that these appearances refer to reality, and only when you stop believing in them can you finally work on getting your mind to stop projecting them – stop making them up and projecting them. And that’s the path of a Buddha. And obviously this must be the way that Tsongkhapa experienced it, and that’s why he explained it that way.

Now I think that what is really quite significant in trying to appreciate what Tsongkhapa did was that over these various points – we haven’t covered all of it, by any means – but all of these various stages of reformulation of Prasangika that Tsongkhapa made were based on his experience and logic. It depended on meditation and logic and scripture. And it wasn’t that he figured it out piecemeal – it all hangs together; it all fits together. He was so brilliant that he was able to analyze his experience and fit it in with logic and scripture and so on. I mean, it’s hard to say – Did he do that with the logic and scripture first, and then experience? Probably, yes. But it’s amazing that it can be a whole system like that, totally integrated – that every piece of this fits together, which means you have to really have a grasp of the whole thing, then you can describe the parts of it. Then you really start to appreciate his genius.

Definitive and Interpretable Meanings and the Three Rounds of Transmission of the Dharma

Tsongkhapa also reformulated the distinction between words of definitive meaning and words of interpretable meaning. There’s an important device that was made for analyzing the scriptures (what Buddha said). Earlier they said that this distinction has to do with whole sutras, and the definitive ones are the ones that can be taken literally, and the interpretable cannot be taken literally – you have to interpret it – and this is referring to whole sutras. Whereas Tsongkhapa said “No. The definitive are only talking about voidness, and interpretable is everything else. And you can’t divide it into whole sutras like that. We’re talking about certain passages being definitive or interpretable, rather than whole sutras.”

Then when you talk about the three rounds of transmission of the Dharma, the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma, earlier they said that this was a distinction made according to when Buddha taught. Tsongkhapa said, “No. It’s a distinction in terms of the subject matter, of what he taught.” And if we look what’s in these three rounds, then everybody agrees that the first round is the basic four noble truths, and the second round is prajnaparamita – teachings on voidness. The others said that the third turning was about Buddha-nature. Tsongkhapa didn’t accept that; he said the third turning was about the Chittamatra school – so the second turning was Madhyamaka, the third turning was Chittamatra. And so, for him, it’s the second turning – Madhyamaka – that’s definitive; it talks about voidness and how we should accept it. It’s the third turning about Chittamatra – Mind-Only – that’s interpretable. Whereas the others had said that the second was voidness – Madhyamaka – and the third is Buddha-nature, so both of them are definitive (they mean what they say).

Karma Kagyu says that the second turning is interpretable and only the third turning is definitive. This is referring to the second turning teaching only this voidness that you can know conceptually, and the third turning is teaching the voidness that is beyond words and concepts. So, if you define it like that, then you get their presentation – that it’s only the third turning that’s definitive.

Mind as a Buddha-Nature Trait

In terms of this Buddha-nature, this brings us to the topic of mind. And mind is explained differently. Earlier they said that the mind is static – unfortunately translated as “permanent,” which is quite misleading because everybody accepts that it has no beginning and no end. But the others were saying that the mind is static, whereas Tsongkhapa said it’s nonstatic. You have to understand the difference here. The others said it was static in the sense that the mind is not created anew, it has no beginning and no end – so it’s eternal – and its nature never changes – its conventional nature never changes. So, in that sense, it’s static. Tsongkhapa said, “Hey, don’t use this term. Because static means that it never changes.” And so he says it’s nonstatic, which means that every moment it takes a different object. So, if you look at the definitions – of how they’re using the terms – everybody would agree with each other, but the terms are the exact opposite. Non-Gelug say the mind is static; Gelug says nonstatic.

Now in terms of Buddha-nature, there are two types: an evolving and a naturally abiding Buddha-nature. The evolving is the one that you have to develop more and more and more, and the naturally abiding is the one that is always there. And so the mind, the conventional nature of the mind, the others had said that it’s naturally abiding – it’s always there, it’s always the same. The fact that the nature of the mind, we have that as an ordinary being, and it accounts for the fact that we have that same nature as a Buddha.

Tsongkhapa didn’t agree with this classification. He said that the conventional mind is something that has to be an evolving Buddha-nature, in the sense that you have to get it from where it is now, being limited, to being omniscient; it has to develop in its capacity. Whereas the others are saying it’s naturally abiding because its nature never changes. They’re referring to two different things. This, by the way, supports Tsongkhapa’s deep emphasis on always studying and working to develop your mind more and more. This supports it.

Karma and Vows

Another point is that earlier everybody said that karma is a way of being aware of something. It’s the impulse – not the impulse, the urge to do something. A way of being aware of something. And vows as well are a way of being aware of something; they’re aspects of ethical discipline. Whereas Tsongkhapa said “No, they are – both karma and vows – are very, very subtle forms or subtle kinds of energy on the mental continuum.”

Tantra and Ritual Practice

Just a few very short points about tantra. We won’t be able to go through all of this. You can find it out on my website. But the certain styles of practice differ. The old style is when you do these preliminaries, the hundred thousand things, you usually do it all at once – it becomes a big event – before you get into serious tantra practice. Whereas Tsongkhapa said that – I mean the style that developed in Gelug and Tsongkhapa is that it’s done whenever it fits in, you do it during the course of your practice as well as when you study; no need to make a big event out of it in doing it all together. And they emphasize that you need to do it all the way through the path, not just at the beginning.

Similarly, three year retreats in the other traditions are basically a training ground for doing rituals and stuff like that. And so what they do is, in three years, they do small retreats of the major deities of the system, and then the rituals of all the different deities. You do the small retreats of all of them, so it’s really making them all into one big event. And then you do another one – of course, you repeat the same thing – but only then do they do three years on one practice. Whereas, for Tsongkhapa, these short little retreats of each of the different deity practices, you do separately when they fit into your schedule, and a three year retreat is a three year retreat on one deity practice.

The last point, which is not such a profound point, but an interesting point, is they have this very, very deep chanting voice with the chanted overtones. It sounds like chords. Extremely deep. That was from Tsongkhapa. The other traditions don’t chant with that type of voice. That is only found in Gelugpa; in the Gelug tradition.


You can see from this that Tsongkhapa really was quite a revolutionary. He’s sometimes called a reformer, but I don’t know if “reformer” is such a nice word here. But he really was very, very, very, very courageous to go beyond the understanding of the people of his time and to have this new formulation, almost all of it in connection with Prasangika.

And, when following Tsongkhapa’s tradition, it’s important to appreciate this, and also to know that there are so many points that just are very, very different from the other Tibetan traditions. And not to think, when we hear teachings – which is certainly the way that I had thought for many, many years – when we hear the explanation of Prasangika, to imagine that the other Tibetan traditions accepted the same. They don’t. Not at all. If we at least appreciate that, then we won’t get confused when we read books or hear lectures from teachers from other traditions. The other three traditions have far, far more in common with each other than Gelug. Gelug is really quite separate in terms of many of its assertions. All of the general teachings – the four noble truths, and compassion and love, all these sort of things – are the same.