Cognition of Impermanence Does Not Bring Attainment of True Stoppings

The varying traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, and different scholars within each tradition, present a wide array of explanations of affirmation phenomena (sgrub-pa, affirmingly known phenomena, affirmations) and negation phenomena (dgag-pa, negatingly known phenomena, negations). They all base themselves on the works of the great Indian masters of epistemology, Dignaga and Dharmakirti. Each position has wide-ranging ramifications that can help us understand the other assertions of that position. 

Here, we shall restrict ourselves to the Gelug presentation and draw out some of its ramifications concerning the Gelug Prasangika view of valid cognition, especially of nonstaticness (impermanence) voidness. Specifically, we shall follow the definitions of affirmation and negation phenomena given by Purchog (Phur-cog Ngag-dbang byams-pa rgya-mtsho), the author of several textbooks used by the Jetsunpa (rJe-btsun Chos-kyi grags-pa) interpretation line within the Gelug tradition. They elaborate on earlier Gelug presentations, such as those by Kedrubje (mKhas-grub rJe) and the First Dalai Lama (dGe-‘dun grub). Purchog’s explanations represent the majority Gelug view. 

According to Purchog’s definitions:

  • An affirmation phenomenon is a (validly knowable) phenomenon that is apprehended in a manner in which an object to be negated (dgag-bya) is not explicitly precluded (dngos-su ma-bcad-pa, explicitly cut off, dismissed, rejected) by the sounds that express the phenomenon.
  • A negation phenomenon is “a (validly knowable) phenomenon that is apprehended in a manner in which an object to be negated is explicitly precluded by the conceptual cognition that cognizes the phenomenon.”

Except for the later Kunkyen (Kun-mkhyen ‘Jam-dbyangs bzhad-pa) textbook tradition, all other Gelug textbook traditions accept this interpretation. 

[See: Affirmation and Negation Phenomena: Gelug Definitions]

Valid Cognition of Nonstaticness

According to the majority Gelug position, “nonstatic” (mi-rtag-pa, Skt. a-nitya, impermanent) is an affirmation phenomenon. The sound of the prefix non in the word nonstatic only signifies a preclusion of the word static and does not by its own power necessitate an actual preclusion of the meaning of the word static that we have previously apprehended. 

We can understand this through the simpler classic example of a “negatingly” expressed affirmation, “Amitayus” (Tshe-dpag-med). “Amitayus” is a Buddha-figure and his name means “Infinite Life Span.” The words that express this name in English are the negating prefix in and the words finite life span. The words that express it in Sanskrit have the negating prefix a and, in Tibetan, the negating postposition med. Correctly and decisively thinking “Infinite Life Span,” however, does not require having first apprehended and thus having first known, both correctly and decisively, what “Finite Life Span” means.

Suppose we have apprehended the meaning of “finite life span” before. If we have explicitly precluded it, we then are thinking “a not-finite life span.” We are not thinking “infinite life span.” “A not-finite life span” is a negation phenomenon, but “Infinite Life Span” is an affirmation phenomenon, not a negation one. 

Another example is the English word atom, composed of the negating prefix a and the root tom, coming from the Greek tomein, meaning “to separate.” Although, etymologically, the word atom means “something that cannot be separated into parts,” thinking “atom” does not require previous apprehension and preclusion of something that can be separated into parts. “Atom” is an affirmation phenomenon.

The same is true with valid conceptual cognition of “nonstatic.” Correctly and decisively thinking “nonstatic” does not require having first apprehended and thus known both correctly and decisively the meaning of the word static, and then having explicitly precluded it. 

The status of “nonstatic” as an affirmation phenomenon has many ramifications concerning the level of attainment possible through meditation on it. Specifically, it affects the question of whether it is possible to attain a true stopping (‘gog-bden, true cessation) of suffering and its causes through non-conceptual cognition of the nonstaticness of persons or of all affected (‘dus-byas) or functional phenomena (dngos-po).

Background for Understanding Meditation on Affirmation and Negation Phenomena

We need to know several points concerning sets and members of sets in order to understand what we realize through meditation on such phenomena as suffering, nonstaticness, or voidness.

  • A set, whether of an affirmation or a negation phenomenon, cannot be formulated independently of members that are included in the set. An infant can only formulate the conceptual category of “edible” based on milk being included in this set. 
  • This fact is the case whether or not anyone has ever cognized any included member yet, so long as members of the set are theoretically validly knowable. Examples are the sets of extraterrestrial life forms and of subatomic particles not yet observed.
  • Sets of affirmation or negation phenomena may be sets of items having properties (chos-can, “property-possessors”; khyad-gzhi, bases for characteristics) or they may be sets of properties (chos; khyad-chos, characteristics). Properties, whether affirmation or negation phenomena themselves, do not exist independently of one or more bases characterized by them. For example, “green” and “not green.”
  • Sets may be of words or of referent objects or meanings of words. They may be of specific items or of specific categories or kinds of items.
  • Sets of property-possessors may be sets constituted by one specific member or they may be sets of many members sharing the same name, the same category of the type of phenomenon they are, or the same property.

Suppose we wish to meditate on a property-possessor as validly possessing a certain property – for example, on the nonstaticness of sound or of a person “me,” or on the voidness of the true findable existence of a sound or of a person “me.” It is necessary to validly know beforehand that a specific validly knowable phenomenon or a specific set of validly knowable phenomena is a member of the set of property-possessors possessing that property. We need to validly know that sound or a person is a member of the set of phenomena possessing the property nonstatic or the property devoid of true findable existence.

Valid Ways of Correctly Ascertaining That a Certain Property-Possessor Is a Member of the Set of Phenomena Possessing a Certain Property

Correctly ascertaining that a certain property-possessor is a member of the set of phenomena possessing a certain property is a conceptual process requiring valid inferential cognition. 

There are three types of inferential cognition: inferential cognition based on:

  • What is well-known (grags-pa’i rjes-dpag)
  • The force of the actuality of phenomena (dngos-stobs rjes-dpag, the power of evidence)
  • Conviction (yid-ches rjes-dpag).

Through valid inferential cognition based on what is well-known, we observe, through valid non-conceptual cognition, a defining characteristic (mtshan-nyid) in a property-possessor and infer that the property-possessor is a member of the set of phenomena defined and characterized by that defining characteristic. This is how we validly know that a particular piece of fruit we see in the market is an apple and apply to it the correct name. 

Through valid inferential cognition based on the force of the actuality of phenomena, we correctly and decisively know that a property-possessor is a member of the set of phenomena possessing that property, when that fact is slightly obscure (lkog-‘gyur), through proving it based on logical pervasions and deductive logic. This is how we know that the house with smoke coming out of it on the mountain over there belongs to the set of phenomena possessing a fire.

Through valid inferential cognition based on conviction, we correctly and decisively know the membership in a set when that fact is extremely obscure (shin-tu lkog-gyur). For example, how can we learn the name of a woman unknown to us whom we see in our friend’s photo album? We do not see any name written beneath the photo and we cannot figure it out by logic. The only way correctly and decisively to know her name is to ask our friend. Our friend answers “Mary.” We now validly know her name by inference based on conviction. We know that our friend has correct information and that he would not lie to us or pretend that he knows her name when he does not. Based on conviction in the truth of these two points, we infer that Mary is actually her name.

Cognition of Nonstaticness through Theravada Style Practice of Close Placement of Mindfulness

Consider, for example, the Theravada style of practicing the four close placements of mindfulness (dran-pa nyer-zhag, Skt. smrtyupasthana, Pali: satipatthana). The four are close placements of mindfulness on the body (Pali: kaya), the feelings of happiness and unhappiness (Pali: vedana), the mind (Pali: citta), and the true nature of things (Pali: dhamma). 

[See: The Four Close Placements of Mindfulness in Theravada]

In the first stage of the fourth close placement (close placement of mindfulness of the true nature of things), we focus on: 

  • The types of breath and their effects on the body 
  • The levels of feelings of happiness and their effects on the mind
  • The levels of freshness and concentration and their effects also on the mind.

Through mindfulness (dran-pa, Skt. smrti, Pali: sati), gross detection (rtog-pa, Skt. vitarka, Pali: vitakka) and subtle discernment (dpyod-pa, Skt. vicara, Pali: vicara) of these affecting and affected variables (‘dus-byas, Skt. samskara, Pali: sankhara) and of their continual variations, we validly cognize that they belong to the set of nonstatic phenomena. We correctly and decisively know that our bodily sensations belong to the set of nonstatic phenomena through inference based on it being well-known that “changing from moment to moment because of the influence of other changing factors” is the defining characteristic of nonstatic phenomena. 

With this apprehension, we can now focus single-pointedly on “the nonstaticness of our bodily sensations.” The apprehension of this is valid cognition of an affirmation phenomenon. It did not require prior apprehension of the meaning of the word static. Moreover, the affirmation phenomenon is not merely the words the nonstaticness of my bodily sensations, it is the meaning of the word.

Another point demonstrates that apprehension of “the nonstaticness of our bodily sensations” is valid cognition of an affirmation phenomenon, not requiring previous apprehension of an object to be negated and preclusion of that object. A practitioner who has gained valid inferential cognition of nonstaticness through this type of meditation has previously cognized “static” only through conceptual cognition that takes “nonstatic” as “static” (mi-rtag-pa rtag-par ‘dzin-pa). An example would be the conceptual cognition of the physical sensation of an itch as static. Such conceptual cognition has discordant consideration (tshul-min yid-byed, incorrect consideration) of its known object “nonstatic.” It does not apprehend “nonstatic” because it considers nonstatic in a manner that does not accord with what is correct. The conceptual cognition is distorted (log-shes) and, as such, does not apprehend “static” either. Therefore, unless the practitioner had previously studied philosophy, they never apprehended “static” before validly cognizing “nonstatic” in meditation. Recall that apprehension requires accurate and decisive cognition.

Through the realization of “nonstatic” from successful practice of close placement of mindfulness, we can replace discordant consideration of “nonstatic” with concordant consideration (tshul-bcas yid-byed, correct consideration) of it. With concordant consideration that considers “nonstatic” as “nonstatic,” our cognition apprehends “nonstatic.” Although we have replaced discordant consideration with concordant consideration, we have not explicitly precluded any object to be negated.

Valid Cognition of “Non-Static” Is Not the Same as Valid Cognition of “Not Static”

On the other hand, we may use non-Prasangika Indian logic for gaining valid inferential cognition based on the force of the actuality of phenomena. For example, we can validly infer that “sound is not-static” by relying on the reason “because it is affected by causes” and the homogeneous example “a vase” and a heterogenous example “space.” In technical terms, what is to be proven or established (sgrub-bya) is the thesis (phyogs) “sound is not-static.” In it, the subject of the thesis (sgrub-chos) is “sound” and the property to be established (sgrub-pa’i chos) is “not-static.” The logical proof (sgrub-pa) of the thesis is “sound is not-static, because it is affected by causes, as is a vase and not like space.” 

  • Although the Tibetan word for “logical proof” and for “affirmation phenomenon” is the same, they translate two different Sanskrit words. A logical proof is “sadhana” in Sanskrit, while an affirmation phenomenon is “vidhi.”
  • Therefore, the property to be established in a logical proof may be either an affirmation or a negation phenomenon. In this case, as we shall see, the thesis, which contains “not-static,” is a negation phenomenon.

To prove a thesis requires reliance on three components (tshul-gsum) of a valid line of reasoning: 

  • Applicability to the topic (phyogs-chos) – the reason (rtags) must exist as a property of the topic (phyogs) of the thesis. Sound, as the topic of the thesis, is, in fact, affected by causes.
  • Pervasion (rjes-khyab) – the reason must exist in a homogeneous item (mthun-phyogs, rang-phyogs), a member of the set of all phenomena sharing the property to be proven. All phenomena that are not-static are products of causes. The homogeneous example of a not-static phenomenon that is affected by causes is a vase.
  • Negative pervasion (ldog-khyab) – the reason must be nonexistent in a heterogenous item (mi-mthun phyogs, gzhan-phyogs), a member of the counter-set of all phenomena lacking the property to be proven. All phenomena that are not not-static (all static phenomena) are not products of causes. The heterogenous example of a static phenomenon that is not affected by causes is space.

Based on these three components of a valid line of reasoning, we validly infer and cognize the conclusion, “sound is not-static.”

The “not-staticness of sound” is a negation phenomenon. Valid conceptual cognition of it through inference required previously apprehending the counter-set “static phenomena” and precluding (cutting off, dismissing, rejecting) it. The preclusion was the third step of the line of reasoning: the reason must be nonexistent in a heterogenous item – in other words, the reason must not apply to the example of any item that is a member of the counter-set . 

If we have first validly cognized the negation phenomenon “not-static” in this way and then practiced close placement of mindfulness, we could come to have valid bare sensory cognition of the negation not-static. In such a case, we are not cognizing the affirmation nonstatic, we are cognizing a negation phenomenon. This is an important distinction to make regarding identification of the type of valid cognition that can rid us forever of unawareness (ma-rig-pa, ignorance) in order to attain true stoppings (‘gog-bden) of true sufferings and their true causes. 

Refutations in Non-Prasangika Indian Logic 

We must be careful not to confuse a negation phenomenon with the technical term refutation (sun-‘byung-ba, Skt. dushana). Although in English, “a refutation” can mean several different things, in non-Prasangika Indian logic, “refutation” refers to the refutation of a proof. 

The refutation of a proof may be based on a fault in the thesis, the reason, or the examples. 

  • A fault in the thesis would be that it contradicts valid bare cognition. Any line of reasoning used to try to prove that sound is static would be refuted, because the staticness of a sound contradicts the evidence of the valid hearing of a sound. 
  • Faults in the reason may be that its existence in the topic of the thesis is unestablished, uncertain, or contradictory to the fact. Sound is not-static cannot be proven by the reason “because it is loud” or “because it is not produced by causes.” Not all not-static phenomena are loud, and no not-static phenomenon is not produced by causes.
  • Faults in the examples may be that their existence in a homogenous item or nonexistence in a heterogeneous item may be unestablished, uncertain, or contradictory. Sound is not-static because it is man-made cannot be established by the example, like lightning or space. 

Thus, in non-Prasangika Indian logic, a refutation is not a refutation of an object to be negated. 

The Difference between Non-Prasangika and Prasangika Logic 

Prasangika logic is different from the non-Prasangika form. 

Non-Prasangika Logic

Non-Prasangika logic aims to prove or establish a thesis regarding whether or not a certain property (chos) applies to a property-possessor (chos-can). The property may be either an affirmation phenomenon or a negation one. By relying on a line of reasoning in which the reason has the three characteristics mentioned above, we may prove that sound is not-static, or that space is static. 

Implicit in this logic is the belief that what establishes the existence (the valid knowability) of phenomena, such as the relation between a property-possessor and a property are truly existent logical pervasions on the side of objects. For example, the pervasion that all nonstatic phenomena are the product of causes is established from the side of the phenomena themselves, like some findably existent fact. 

Prasangika Logic

Prasangika does not accept that the existence of phenomena, such as the relations between property-possessors and properties is established by findable, truly existent logical pervasions on the side of phenomena. It does not even accept that the existence of property-possessors is established by some truly findable individual characteristics on their own sides (like solid lines around them) that make them individual validly knowable items. The issue of what does and does not exist depends solely on the validity of the mind that cognizes it. 

The aim of Prasangika logic, then, is to refute ways of thinking that are false because they relate certain properties to property-possessors to which they do not validly apply. Those properties may be either affirmation phenomena or negation ones. Thus, Prasangika logic aims to disprove a thesis, rather than to prove one. It does not rely on lines of reasoning containing the three factors, but relies instead on absurd conclusions (thal-‘gyur, Skt. prasanga) that would follow if the inapplicable property explicitly did exist in the inappropriate property-possessor. By examining the absurd conclusions that would follow if, for instance, sound were static, we refute the thesis that sound is static. Thus, we validly cognize, inferentially, that sound is not-static. 

We validly know that a conclusion is absurd if one or more of the following criteria, regarding the mind that cognizes and believes it, are satisfied. The cognition is inaccurate because it is contradicted by:

  • Valid minds that share the same conventions (tha-snyad) of the terms we are using
  • Valid minds that cognize the superficial truths of things – what they appear to be
  • Valid minds that cognize the deepest truth of things – what does and does not establish the existence (the valid knowability) of things.

The “not-static” derived from the conceptual preclusion of the object to be negated (“static”) through non-Prasangika logic, then, is not the same as the “not-static” derived from conceptual preclusion by Prasangika logic. This is because the methods for precluding the object to be negated are different. 

  • Non-Prasangika precludes an object to be negated through asserting three logical pervasions that truly and findably exist on the sides of objects. 
  • Prasangika precludes it through thorough examination of the absurd conclusions that follow if the object (the property) to be negated applied to the property-possessor.

Thus,

  • Non-Prasangika preclusion of an object to be negated does not derive from a refutation based on exposing faults in logic.
  • Prasangika preclusion of an object to be negated derives from a refutation of the faults that would follow if the conclusion were true. Non-Prasangika preclusion does not derive from this type of refutation either.

These differences are also significant regarding identification of the types of valid cognition that bring about true stoppings. 

The Valid Cognition Required for Attaining True Stoppings According to Prasangika 

In Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (sPyod-‘jug, Skt. Bodhicharyavatara), Shantideva argues strongly that non-conceptual cognition of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths, such as the nonstaticness of persons, does not bring liberation, despite the non-Prasangika assertion that it does. He was referring to the non-Prasangika explanations of the sixteen that deal only with unawareness of how persons exist and that do not entail realization of the Prasangika view of voidness. The commentaries refer to all sixteen as the non-conceptual cognition of nonstaticness.

[See: The Sixteen Aspects of the Four Noble Truths]

Shantideva asserts that only non-conceptual cognition of voidness as defined in Prasangika, and applied to all validly knowable phenomena, can bring liberation. He gives several reasons to demonstrate this. Non-conceptual total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise) on the nonstaticness of persons removes discordant consideration of it. It does not, however, have the power to remove tainted (zag-bcas, contaminated) feelings or craving (sred-pa) for such feelings forever. That craving will activate the karmic aftermath of throwing karma at the time of death and will bring further samsaric rebirth. 

Jetsunpa’s analysis of affirmations and negations gives further insight into why non-conceptual cognition of nonstaticness of persons cannot bring about the attainment of true stoppings and thus the attainment of liberation. 

Non-Conceptual Cognition of Nonstaticness Is Insufficient for Attaining True Stoppings 

In Theravada mindfulness meditation on the breath, the body, the feelings and the mind, we only fully realize the nonstaticness of them all when we realize, in addition to their entailing only suffering, four more of their features. Through mindful scrutiny, we validly cognize, in sequence, with cognition of each based on cognition of the preceding ones:

  • That they are beyond our control. In this way, we validly cognize their lack of an impossible soul (bdag-med, Skt: anatmya, Pali: anatta, selflessness, identitylessness). 
  • That they are “non-me” and “non-mine.” In this way, we validly cognize their voidness (stong-nyid, Skt. shunyata, Pali: sunnata).
  • That they are just like that. In this way, we validly cognize their accordant nature (de-bzhin-nyid, Skt. tathata, Pali: tathata).
  • That they all have true karmic causes as the conditions for their arising. In this way, we validly cognize their conditionality (de-rkyen-nyid, Skt. idampratyayata, Pali: idappacayata). This means that we cognize the connection of the causal links of dependent arising with the resultant links of the affected variables of samsaric rebirths that ripen from them. 

If, as in the case of cognizing “the nonstaticness of the breath,” the practitioner relies on an inferential cognition based on being well-known in order to validly cognize the lack of an impossible soul of the breath, then, like nonstaticness, that lack of an impossible soul will be an affirmation phenomenon. The sound of the word “lack” does not preclude “an impossible soul.” If, on the other hand, the practitioner relies on an inferential cognition based on the force of the actuality of phenomena in order to validly cognize the lack of an impossible soul of the breath, then that lack will be a negation phenomenon based on prior explicit preclusion of an impossible soul. 

Even if we go on to cognize the nonstaticness of a person through close placement of mindfulness meditation, still, non-conceptual cognition of the nonstaticness of persons does not bring about the attainment of true stoppings (‘gog-bden). This is because it has not arisen based on a prior actual preclusion of an object to be negated. Its object, the nonstaticness of persons, is not a negation type of phenomenon. It is an affirmation type of phenomenon and the non-conceptual focus merely correctly distinguishes and focuses on it without explicitly precluding anything. The cognition resembles non-conceptual focus on true suffering. 

The Attainment of True Stoppings

Why is meditation on an affirmation insufficient for gaining a true stopping of suffering and its causes? To understand this requires understanding how the attainment of a true stopping arises.

In their abhidharma texts on special topics of knowledge, both Vasubandhu and Asanga defined unawareness as “not knowing” (mi-shes-pa) – not knowing either behavioral cause and effect or how something exists. In his works on valid cognition, Dharmakirti defined it as “invertedly cognizing” (phyin-ci-log-par ‘dzin-pa) – cognitively taking, in a manner opposite to what is correct, either behavioral cause and effect or how something exists. The non-Prasangika tenet systems follow the abhidharma definition; Prasangika follows Dharmakirti’s. 

Because of this difference in definition of “unawareness,” the non-Prasangika systems consider non-conceptual cognition of the nonstaticness of persons a method for gaining a true stopping of unawareness of that fact, despite its being focus on an affirmation phenomenon. This is because it is the opposite of not knowing the reality of persons. Shantideva takes the Prasangika position and disagrees, since such cognition does not eliminate invertedly cognizing the reality of anything. Replacing not knowing with correctly and decisively knowing an affirmation temporarily suppresses inverted cognition. However, such valid cognition cannot get rid of inverted cognition such that it never recurs. 

The attainment of true stoppings is achieved by true pathway minds (lam-bden, true paths). These may be either seeing pathway minds (mthong-lam, path of seeing) or accustoming pathway minds (sgom-lam, path of meditation). Each level of the two arya (‘phags-pa, noble) pathway minds has two phases. The first is an uninterrupted pathway mind (bar-chad med-lam); the second is a liberated pathway mind (rnam-grol lam). 

  • Uninterrupted pathway minds do the actual getting rid of (spang-ba, abandoning) a portion of something that a true pathway mind gets rid of (spang-bya, abandonment). They are the minds that bring about the attainment of separations (bral-ba) from such portions and these separations last forever, without ever changing. Separations are static phenomena that are always the case and never change. 
  • Liberated pathway minds have the true stoppings of the portions gotten rid of by the uninterrupted pathway minds that immediately preceded them as their immediate conditions (de-ma-thag rkyen).

What true pathway minds rid us of are ways of knowing, and their tendencies and habits, which take as their objects an object to be negated that does not apply to a certain basis – for example, the unawareness that discordantly considers “not truly existent” as “truly existent.” Thus, getting rid forever of a portion of something to be gotten rid of arises from getting rid forever of a portion of the unawareness on which it is based. 

Since unawareness is an inverted cognition of something, it can only be gotten rid of by a non-conceptual cognition that is based on previously having explicitly precluded the object to be negated that the unawareness discordantly applied. Thus, only a non-conceptual cognition of a negation can serve as an uninterrupted pathway way. 

Since nonstaticness is an affirmation phenomenon, the non-conceptual cognition of it does not explicitly cognitively preclude anything. Therefore, it cannot possibly rid us of the inverted cognition of anything and thus cannot possibly bring about the attainment of a true stopping. 

Cognition of Voidness Requires an Actual Cognitive Preclusion

A further implication of Jetsunpa’s definitions of affirmations and negations is that only a valid non-conceptual cognition of voidness that entails an actual cognitive preclusion of the object to be negated – truly established existence – has the ability to bring about a true stopping of suffering. 

For a non-conceptual cognition of voidness as a negation to be valid, then, requires it being immediately preceded by two steps. First, there needs to be a correct and decisive distinguishing (‘du-shes, recognition) of the basis to which the negation of the object to be negated applies – the basis of the negation (dgag-gzhi) – and a correct and decisive distinguishing of the object to be negated (dgag-bya) – truly established existence. Then, there needs to be an actual preclusion of the object to be negated. Only following that sequence can there be a non-conceptual cognition of voidness itself. 

The actual preclusion does not need to be based on a sequence of inferential cognition explicitly occurring immediately before making the preclusion. According to the Gelug presentation, Prasangika asserts that valid inferential cognition directly relies on a line of reasoning and is always conceptual. Valid straightforward cognition (mngon-sum tshad-ma) does not rely directly on a line of reasoning. Its first phase can be conceptual, based on inferential cognition that occurred quite a while ago. The second phase would then be non-conceptual.

Correctly and Decisively Distinguishing a Nonexistent Object to Be Negated

Only existent phenomena are validly knowable and only validly knowable phenomena can be apprehended. Thus, in the stipulation that negation requires prior actual preclusion of the object to be negated, prior actual preclusion can only be based on prior apprehension of the object to be negated if that object to be negated is a validly knowable phenomenon. In the case of voidness, however, truly established existence is a nonexistent phenomenon and, therefore, not validly knowable. Does this imply that truly established existence cannot be explicitly precluded? 

Prasangika answers this seeming contradiction by explaining that to bring about an actual preclusion of truly established existence, it is sufficient to conceptually apprehend a mental hologram representing truly established existence. The mental hologram representing the nonexistent phenomenon is a validly knowable phenomenon, and we can apprehend it conceptually as such so long as we do not have incorrect consideration concerning this mental hologram that is the conceptually implied object (zhen-yul) and its basis clung to (zhen-gzhi, conceptualized-about object) actual “truly established existence.” 

[See: The Appearance and Cognition of Nonexistent Phenomena]

To preclude the conceptualized-about object, sometimes referred to loosely as the conceptually implied object itself, which is the object to be negated, we need to rely on inferential cognition through the absurd conclusions (thal-‘gyur, Skt. prasanga) that would follow if the existence of phenomena could be truly established. We cannot rely on straightforward lines of reasoning since all non-Prasangikas do not consider truly established existence to be nonexistent. Therefore, in the case of the object to be negated in a negation phenomenon being nonexistent, prior actual preclusion of it needs to have occurred by a valid inferential cognition of an accurate mental hologram of it and that prior actual preclusion needs to have relied on absurd conclusions. Thus, voidness is a negation phenomenon.

Let us examine more closely. Inferential cognition is always conceptual cognition. In the case of the inferential cognition that explicitly precludes the nonexistent object to be negated “truly established existence,” the appearing object (snang-yul) of the cognition is the meaning/object category (don-spyi) “truly established existence,” designated with the tag (brda) “truly established existence.” Through the category, the conceptual cognition cognizes an appearance representing truly established existence (bden-snang). This cognitive appearance is the mental hologram that is the conceptually implied object.

The conceptual cognition of these existent, validly knowable categories and existent conceptually implied objects lacks a conceptualized-about object, because truly established existence is nonexistent. There is no validly knowable phenomenon “truly established existence” being conceptualized by the thought. The appearance representing truly established existence is arising due merely to the power of the habits of grasping for truly established existence (bden-‘dzin-gyi bag-chags), and not due to the power of truly established existence itself. 

While the conceptual cognition of an appearance representing truly established existence explicitly apprehends the mental hologram representing truly established existence, it can also, simultaneously, implicitly apprehend the absence of any conceptualized-about object clung to by this conceptually implied object – in other words, the voidness of truly established existence. 

Thus, for conceptual cognition of the voidness of truly established existence to be valid, the cognition: 

  • Needs to be based on correctly and decisively distinguishing appearances of truly established existence. 
  • It needs to contain accurate an accurate tag and accurate meaning/object category “truly established existence” on the basis of that correct and decisive prior distinguishing. 
  • It needs to have concordant consideration of the mental hologram of truly established existence and not consider it as corresponding to anything existent.
  • It needs conviction that it is it is possible to negate truly established existence through the power of inference through absurd conclusions. 
  • It has to explicitly preclude truly established existence through the power of absurd conclusions that are correctly and decisively understood. 
  • It must not think merely the words “truly established existence” as an object without them being designated on the meaning/object category of what they mean.
  • It must not think “truly established existence” through merely an accurate audio category (sgra-spyi). It is insufficient merely to think the mental sounds “truly established existence” with no idea of what they mean. 
  • It must not merely presume that truly established existence does not exist without fully understanding why its existence is impossible. In other words, even if it has an accurate meaning/object category of what “truly established existence” means, it must be decisive about that meaning. 
  • Furthermore, even when subsequently focusing straightforwardly on voidness either conceptually without directly relying on the absurd conclusions, or non-conceptually without the media of an object/meaning category, the cognition itself needs to cognize it with the power of previously having explicitly precluding truly established existence. If that power is missing, the cognition cannot bring about a true stopping of anything.

In short, as enumerated in the four-part voidness meditation on voidness: 

  • We need first to correctly and decisively distinguish the object to be negated.
  • We then need to apprehend correctly the absurd-conclusion manner of reasoning that negates it. 
  • We need to be decisively convinced that the manner of reasoning negates it.
  • We need explicitly to negate (preclude) the object to be negated. 

Only then can we validly focus on voidness.

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