Unawareness (ma-rig-pa, ignorance) in Buddhism concerns unawareness either of behavioral cause and effect or of the very nature of reality (de-kho-na-nyid). When loosely translated, the issue of the very nature of reality is the issue of how things exist. More precisely, however, it is the issue of what establishes the existence of a validly knowable phenomenon (shes-bya). After all, existent phenomena (yod-pa) are defined as those that are validly knowable.
The different Buddhist tenet systems (grub-mtha’) offer different solutions to this important question, since unawareness of it is the true cause of suffering. Let us restrict our analysis to the Gelug interpretation of those systems.
Some of the systems explain that different criteria establish the existence of different categories of validly knowable phenomena, although some basic criteria apply to everything that actually exists. Some of the systems assert the same criteria apply to all validly knowable things. The graded study of the tenet systems can lead us to the most precise analysis.
All tenet systems less sophisticated than Prasangika assert that the existence of all validly knowable phenomena is established by the fact that each such phenomenon has an individual defining characteristic mark (rang-gi mtshan-nyid) on its own side that makes it an individual validly knowable item. They also assert that their existence is established by the fact that they can be found as referent "things" (btags-don) corresponding to the names and concepts for them. This manner of establishing their existence is known as "existence established by a self-nature" (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa, inherent existence).
Gelug Prasangika asserts that nothing on the side of an object establishes its existence. Therefore, we do not need first to apprehend something on the side of the object that establishes its existence and only then can we validly know it as a validly knowable phenomenon. The only thing we can say that establishes the existence of validly knowable phenomena is merely the fact that they can be validly labeled (btags-tsam). They are the referent objects (btags-chos) of the names and concepts for them, although referent "things" corresponding to names and concepts cannot be found by minds validly scrutinizing (dpyod-pa, analyzing) the superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa, conventional truth, relative truth) or the deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa, ultimate truth) of things.
Names and concepts, however, do not create their referent objects. Nor do referent objects of words and concepts exist independently of the words and concepts for them. Nor do validly knowable objects exist independently of their being validly knowable as the referent objects of the words and concepts for them, although we may validly know them nonconceptually – without relying on words and concepts. If they did exist independently of all valid mental processes, how could we ever know that they exist? There is nothing on the sides of objects that establishes their existence, independently of all valid mental processes, otherwise how could we ever know that they establish their existence?
Thus, only the valid cognition (tshad-ma) of the mind that labels phenomena establishes their existence, not anything on the sides of the phenomena themselves. According to the Indian master Chandrakirti, a mind validly labels a phenomenon if it:
- Does not contradict valid cognition of it that follows an established convention (tha-snyad)
- Does not contradict valid cognition of its superficial truth
- Does not contradict valid cognition of its deepest truth.
Gelug Prasangika concludes, then, that valid cognition of validly knowable objects does not require previous apprehension of anything on the side of an object. All that is needed is a valid mind. Valid cognition of a negation phenomenon (dgag-pa), such as “not an apple,” requires previous cognition of an object to be negated (in this case, “an apple”). However, the previous cognition of the object to be negated likewise occurs without needing to cognize something findable on the side of the object to be negated.