Names, Words and Tags
Designation involves the application of a name (ming; word) and/or a tag (brda; label, term) to some item, whether or not that item is validly knowable. Unicorns and self-established existence (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa), after all, do not exist, but have the names “unicorn” and “self-established existence.”
- Since “ming” in Tibetan, “nama” in Sanskrit, can be translated as either “name” or “word,” and since, in English, “word” has a wider usage than “name,” we shall use “word” as their translation for the rest of this presentation.
Words are equivalent to word syntheses (ming-gi-tshogs), which means that a word is a synthesis or imputation on one or more syllables (yi-ge). Thus, words are noncongruent affecting variables (ldan-min ‘du-byed): nonstatic phenomena that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something. Words can be spoken or written, in which cases the sound of a word and the colored shapes representing the word are forms of physical phenomena on which the word is also an imputation.
Words arise dependently on meanings (don) or on signified objects (don). Here, “don” in Tibetan and “artha” in Sanskrit mean both “the meaning of a word” and “an object signified by a word.” A word cannot exist independently of a meaning or of something it signifies; otherwise any sound representing it is just a non-communicative sound.
- According to some texts, the terms “word” and “tag” are equivalent and are used interchangeably.
- According to others, a word (for instance, “mongoose”) is designated on an audio category, and its meaning/significance is ascribed to a corresponding object/meaning category. When we learn this audio category and its corresponding object/meaning category, then when we mentally label some animal as a member of this object/meaning category, we designate the referent object of the object/meaning category with the tag “mongoose.”
- According to yet other texts, what is designated on an audio category is a “tag” and what is designated on the referent object mentally labeled as a member of the corresponding object/meaning category is a “word.”
Here, to make the analysis less complicated, we shall adopt the first variant, namely that “word” and “tag” are equivalent; and so we shall just use “word” for both usages. We shall also simplify the discussion by explaining only in terms of object categories and signified objects, rather than in terms of object/meaning categories and both meanings of words and what words signify.
Designating Words on Sounds and on Objects
Being omniscient, a Buddha non-conceptually and explicitly cognizes all validly knowable objects simultaneously, including all the words with which limited beings designate each object. For everyone other than a Buddha, however, designation with words occurs only with conceptual cognition. Here we shall limit our discussion to just those who are not yet Buddhas.
Words are designated on audio categories through which we conceptually cognize all communicative sounds that are mentally labeled as members of those categories. Such communicative sounds may occur in any voice, volume or pronunciation. We may or may not know the meaning of a word or what it signifies. But even if we do not know, for example, what a mongoose is; nevertheless, no matter who utters the sound “mongoose” or how loudly he or she says it, we can cognize all these sounds through the audio category “mongoose” on which the word “mongoose” is designated.
The word “mongoose” is not only designated on the audio category “mongoose.” Through the audio category “mongoose,” the word “mongoose” is also designated on the sound “mongoose,” the referent object mentally labeled by the audio category.
- The word “mongoose” is a word synthesis as an imputation on the syllables “mon” and “goose.”
- The sound “mongoose” on which the word “mongoose” is designated is a whole as an imputation on the sounds “mon” and “goose.”
When we know the meaning of the word “mongoose,” we can then also conceptually designate a certain animal we see with the word “mongoose” designated on the object category “mongoose.” We do this while simultaneously designating the word “mongoose” on either the sound “mongoose” we utter aloud or on a mental hologram representing the sound “mongoose.” Such an audio mental hologram is what we conventionally call a “voice in our heads.” Whether designated on a vocalized sound or a mentally represented sound, the word is designated on the sound through the audio category on which it is designated.
Delineating Conventional Phenomena through Distinguishing
Designation with words is only possible by relying on the mental factor of distinguishing (‘du-shes, recognition). Distinguishing is one of the five ever-functioning mental factors (kun-‘gro lnga) and is part of every moment of cognition of both limited beings (sentient beings) and Buddhas. Here we shall analyze distinguishing only in the case of those who are not yet Buddhas.
For those who are not yet Buddhas, distinguishing occurs as part of every moment of both conceptual and non-conceptual cognition.
- In non-conceptual cognition, distinguishing cognitively takes an uncommon characteristic (mtshan-nyid) of the appearing object (snang-yul) of the cognition. The appearing object in a non-conceptual cognition is a validly knowable object other than a category or a name.
- In conceptual cognition, distinguishing cognitively takes a composite feature (bkra-ba) of the appearing object of the cognition. The appearing object in a conceptual cognition is a category, in which case the defining characteristic mark of the category is a composite of the defining characteristic marks of the members of the category.
In both cases, conceptual and non-conceptual, on the basis of this distinguishing of an uncommon or composite defining characteristic, the consciousness of the cognition delineates a conventional object (tha-snyad ‘dogs-pa).
- Note that although conventional objects have uncommon characteristic marks or composite features, these marks or features cannot be found upon investigation and lack the power, either by themselves or in conjunction with mental labeling, to establish the existence of the conventional objects they delineate.
In this definition of “distinguishing,” “delineate” translates the same Tibetan term “‘dogs-pa” as we have previously been translating as “impute,” “mentally label,” and “designate.” Delineating a conventional object on the basis of distinguishing a defining characteristic mark means to single out a conventional object that the defining mark characterizes. A defining characteristic mark and something characterized by it (a conventional object) arise dependently on each other: there cannot be one without the other.
Similarly, words, as well, have definitions that delineate their meanings and the objects they signify. The Tibetan word for “definition,” “mtshan-nyid,” is the same word translated as defining characteristic mark. Correct designation with a word entails correctly matching the definition of the word with the defining characteristic mark of the conventional object it signifies. Correct designation, then, depends on the conventions (tha-snyad) adopted by a specific group or society.
In non-conceptual sensory cognition, the mental factor of distinguishing differentiates a conventional object within a sense field from all other items that appear in that sense field. For instance, when we look at someone, we distinguish the colored shapes of the body from the colored shapes of the door next to the body. This it is called “the distinguishing that cognitively takes a characteristic mark concerning an item” (don-la mtshan-mar ‘dzin-pa’i ‘du-shes).
- Note that the Tibetan term for an item, “don,” is the same term translated earlier as both the meaning of a word and an object signified by a word,
The colored shapes we distinguish as a conventional object have as an imputation on them the kind synthesis “body.” What we see is not simply a conventional object, but it is some kind of conventional object. Nevertheless, with non-conceptual sensory cognition, we do not distinguish what kind of conventional object it is.
In conceptual cognition, distinguishing differentiates the object category to which a conventional object belongs from all other object categories. It is called “the distinguishing that cognitively takes a characteristic mark concerning a conventional object” (tha-snyad-la mtshan-mar ‘dzin-pa’i ‘du-shes). Only with conceptual cognition do we distinguish what kind of conventional object we saw and ascribe to it the convention of a word and a meaning. Non-conceptual cognition lacks this type of distinguishing.
We may cognize an object (don), however, without knowing the word for it, in which case we might designate it merely as a “thing.” Or the object might not yet have a specific name, for instance a newly discovered galaxy, but it still has the general name “galaxy.”
The Two Facets of Mental Activity
Mental activity cognizes an object by giving rise (‘char-ba) to a mental hologram (rnam-pa; mental appearance, mental aspect) of the object. Giving rise to a mental appearance of an object is equivalent to cognitively engaging (‘jug-pa) with the object. In technical language, giving rise to a mental hologram of an object and cognitively engaging with an object are two different conceptually isolated ways of describing the essential nature (ngo-bo) of mental activity. They both refer to what mental activity is. For instance, if we ask, what is the mental activity of thinking, then “the mental activity of giving rise to a thought” and “the mental activity of thinking a thought” would be equivalent ways of describing the same happening.
Moreover, mental activity occurs without a separately existing “me” that is making the activity happen, controlling it, or just observing it. It also occurs without a separate entity, called “mind,” that, like a machine, does the activity.
[See: Mind As Mental Activity]
According to the Gelug Prasangika presentation, giving rise to a mental hologram of a cognitive object and engaging with the cognitive object each has two facets that can also be conceptually isolated. From the point of view of giving rise to a mental hologram or mental appearance, there is the arising of:
- The facet of the appearance that concerns what something is (ji-snyed-pa),
- The facet of the appearance that concerns how something exists (ji-ltar-ba).
Correspondingly, from the point of view of cognitively engaging with an object, there is the cognitive engagement that is:
- The cognition of the appearance of what something is
- The cognition of the appearance of how something exists.
Either aspect of the cognition may be accurate or inaccurate.
Any moment of cognition is made up of many parts, both on the side of the mental activity itself and on the side of its objects:
- The primary consciousness (rnam-shes) and attendant mental factors (sems-byung), such as distinguishing, jointly give rise to and cognitively engage with the facet of the mental hologram that concerns what something is. In conceptual cognition, however, mental consciousness also gives rise to and cognitively engages with a category as an imputation on a conceptual isolate.
- Except in the case of non-conceptual total absorption on voidness, grasping for truly established existence (bden-‘dzin) gives rise to and cognitively engages with the facet of the mental hologram that concerns how something exists.
Truly Established Existence
When we speak of truly established existence (bden-par grub-pa), we are talking about something that establishes the object as truly being what it is – in other words, something findable on the side of the object that establishes that the object exists as a person, and not as a door.
In technical terms, truly established existence refers to the existence of something not being established merely imputedly, dependent on mental labeling or designation alone, but established through the power of something findable on the side of the object.
Truly established existence is equivalent to:
- Self-established existence (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa; inherent existence),
- Existence established by something’s own essential nature (rang-gi ngo-bos grub-pa).
- Existence established by a self-defining characteristic mark (rang-gi mtshan-nyid-kyis grub-pa),
Self-established existence means that the existence of an object is established by there being a referent “thing” (btags-don) findable on the side of the object, that one can point to and which serves as a focal support (dmigs-rten) holding up the object, like a support behind a piece of scenery in a theater play.
Existence established by something’s own essential nature means that the existence of something is established by its own essential nature of being what it is, for instance its essential nature of being a body, a mind, or a person.
Existence established by a self-defining characteristic mark means that the existence of an object is established by a defining characteristic mark findable inside the object, which distinguishes it as an individual object, distinct from all other objects.
Grasping for Truly Established Existence
As stated above, in every moment of conceptual and non-conceptual cognition, except in the case of non-conceptual total absorption on voidness, grasping for truly established existence gives rise to and cognitively engages with the facet of the mental hologram that concerns how something exists. It gives rise to and engages with an appearance of truly established existence (bden-snang). Since truly established existence does not exist at all, the appearance merely represents truly established existence.
There are two ways, however, in which this grasping (‘dzin-pa, Skt. graha) cognitively engages with this mental hologram:
- It simply cognizes the appearance as merely an appearance of truly established existence (bden-snang ‘dzin-pa).
- It cognizes the appearance as if it actually were truly established existence (bden-grub ‘dzin-pa), although it is not.
The former occurs in both conceptual and non-conceptual cognition. The later occurs manifestly only in conceptual cognition and is equivalent to unawareness (ma-rig-pa; Skt. avidya; ignorance).
Interpolation (sgro-‘dogs) means adding or projecting onto an object something that is not there. Note that the second term in the Tibetan compound for “interpolation” is “’dogs,” which is the same term used in the expressions for imputation, mental labeling, designation and delineation.
Mental labeling interpolates, as a package, a category imputed on something having the status of being a specific member of that category. It interpolates this package onto the facet of the mental hologram concerning what something is.
Designation interpolates, as a package, a word as an imputation on something having the status of being an object signified by the word. It also designates this package onto the facet of the mental hologram concerning what something is.
One aspect of grasping for truly established existence interpolates an appearance of truly established existence, also known as a dualistic appearance (gnyis-snang), meaning an appearance that is dual in the sense of being discordant with how things actually exist. The aspect of grasping for truly established existence that is equivalent to unawareness interpolates the existence of truly established existence. In both cases, the grasping interpolates this onto the facet of the mental hologram concerning how something exists.
Thus, mental labeling and designation on the one hand, and grasping for truly established existence on the other, interpolate separate things onto separate facets of the mental hologram that a cognition gives rise to. This is the case despite the fact that all three – mental labeling, designation and grasping for truly established existence – occur together in one moment of conceptual cognition and are all focused on the same mental hologram.
- In the case of mental labeling and designation, except when thinking of such nonexistent things as a unicorn or chicken lips, the implied object concerning the facet of what something is does conventionally exist.
- In the case of grasping for truly established existence, the implied object concerning how something exists does not exist at all.
Summary of the Differences between Imputation, Mental Labeling with Categories, Designation with Words, Delineation of Conventional Phenomena and Interpolation
All phenomena, whether known conceptually or non-conceptually, are imputations on a basis for imputation. Imputed phenomena and their bases for imputation cannot exist independently of each other. Imputed phenomena include:
- Wholes as imputations on parts
- Conventional objects, such as an orange, as imputations on data from the various senses extended over a period of time
- Words as imputations on syllables
- Words as imputations on meanings or objects signified by them
- Noncongruent affecting variables as imputations on a basis, such as persons as imputations on bodies and minds
- Static phenomena as imputations on a basis, such as a category as an imputation on the conceptual isolate “nothing other than an individual member of the category,” or a voidness as an imputation on a validly knowable phenomenon.
Mental Labeling with Categories
All phenomena, when known conceptually, are the referent objects of the package of a category as an imputation on a conceptual isolate mentally labeled on a basis for labeling.
Designation with Words
All phenomena, when known conceptually, are the signified objects of a word designated on a category and, through the category, designated on the referent object of the category.
Delineation of Conventional Phenomena
All phenomena, whether known conceptually or non-conceptually, are delineated as conventional objects by the cognitions of them inasmuch as they have distinctive defining characteristic marks differentiated through the mental factor of distinguishing.
Categories and words are interpolations projected in conceptual cognition onto the facet of any phenomenon concerning what it is.
An appearance of truly established existence is an interpolation projected in both conceptual and non-conceptual cognition – except in the case of non-conceptual cognition of voidness – onto the facet of any phenomenon concerning how it exists.
The existence of truly established existence is an interpolation projected manifestly by unawareness in conceptual cognition – and according to the Jetsunpa textbook tradition, subliminally in non-conceptual cognition – onto the facet of any phenomenon concerning how it exists.
Note that the interpolation of a mental appearance of truly established existence or of the existence of truly established existence is not a case of mental labeling.
Note also that imputation, such as the imputation of a whole on parts or a person on a body and mind, is likewise not interpolation. It does not add something that is not there.
Existence Posited Dependently on Mental Labeling Alone or on Designation Alone
The Existence of Something Cannot Be Established by Nonconceptual Cognition of It
The existence of phenomena can only be posited (bzhag-pa; set) dependently in terms of mental labeling alone or designation alone. This means that the existence of something can only be posited merely as its being what a word for it refers to on a basis of designation of it, or merely as its being what a category that can include it as a member refers to on a basis for the mental labeling of it as a member of that category.
You cannot establish that something exists, for instance a whole object such as a body, or a person, by the fact that it can be cognized non-conceptually, for instance by sensory cognition. This is because to establish that the whole body exists unimputedly on the basis of its parts (arms, legs, head and trunk), it would absurdly follow that you would need to distinguish the defining characteristic mark of the body as a whole existing on the side of each of the parts, or the defining characteristic mark of the person on the side of each of the aggregates (body, consciousness, mental factors).
If the defining characteristic mark of a body as a whole or of a person could be found on the side of the parts or aggregates, and not just labeled there, it would be by the power of such a mark that one would establish that there was a whole body or a person. But such a self-defining characteristic mark cannot be found, because if it could be found, it would have to be either identical with the defining characteristic marks of the parts or aggregates, or it would have to be totally separate and independent of them. Both of these possibilities are unreasonable and therefore impossible. Because of that, there is no self-defining characteristic mark of a body as a whole findable on the side of the parts that, by its own power, establishes the existence of the whole. Likewise, there is no self-defining characteristic mark of a person findable on the side of the aggregates that, by its own power, establishes the existence of the person.
Similarly, you also cannot establish that something, such as a body as a whole object or a person, exists by the power of a self-defining characteristic mark on the side of the parts or the aggregates, which serves as the basis, when mentally labeled and designated as a whole body or a person, for establishing the existence of a whole body or a person.
The only way to posit the existence of a body as a whole on the basis of parts, or a person on the basis of aggregates is that a body as a whole or a person is what the object category “whole body” or “person” refers to on the basis of the parts and the aggregates, and they are what the words “whole body” or “person” refer to on the basis of the parts and the aggregates. Thus, a whole body or a person arises dependently on mental labeling alone or on designation alone. And even the defining characteristics of a whole body or a person arise dependently on mental labeling alone.
Dependent arising has five meanings:
- The causal relationship between the twelve links of dependent arising, which describes how uncontrollably recurring rebirth (samsara) arises and is perpetuated and how it can be brought to a true stop
- The relationship between causes and effects
- The relationship between wholes and their parts
- The relationship between mental labels (categories), bases for labeling and referent objects
- The relationship between words, bases for designation and designated objects.
To understand the Gelug Prasangika presentation of dependent arising in the context of voidness, it is essential to differentiate the subtle level of all phenomena being imputedly knowable from the coarse level of nonconguent affecting variables and static phenomena being imputable knowable as phenomena that are imputations on a basis.
When we understand dependent arising in terms of the subtle level of being imputedly knowable, which means understanding dependently arising in terms of all phenomena being imputedly existent, we understand that:
- Samsara does not occur independently of the twelve links, and nirvana cannot be attained independently of bringing about a true stopping of the twelve links
- Causes and effects cannot exist independently of each other
- Wholes and their parts cannot exist independently of each other
- Mental labels (categories), bases for labeling and referent objects cannot exist independently of each other
- Words, bases for designation and designated objects cannot exist independently of each other.
The deepest meaning of voidness understood in terms of dependent arising, however, is not simply the total absence of any phenomenon existing independently, all by itself, and not dependently on or in relation to something else. The deepest understanding of voidness in terms of dependent arising requires, in addition, understanding that the existence of conventional objects can only be posited dependently merely in terms of mental labeling with categories or merely in terms of designation with words.
It is not the case that conventional phenomena lack any self-natures and are therefore nonexistent. The self-nature or actual nature of conventional phenomena is their voidness – the total absence of their self-natures being self-establishing natures. In other words, conventional phenomena exist and can be validly cognized. But their existence is not established by their self-natures. Voidness is not an unaffected self-nature found on the side of phenomena that establishes that these phenomena conventionally exist. Nor do phenomena have findable affected self-natures that establish that they exist dependently on their being mental labeled with categories or designated with words. Such a self-nature that was affected by mental labeling would be a referent “thing” findable on the side of a mentally labeled phenomenon: a focal support propping it up. The existence of conventionally existent phenomena cannot be established directly by anything we can find with analysis.
However, that does not mean that conventional phenomena do not exist. But we can only posit their existence in terms of mere mental labeling alone or mere designation alone. They can only be posited as the referent objects of categories labeled on bases for labeling or as the objects signified by words designated on bases for designation. As referent objects of categories and words, conventional objects can merely be specified as what are implicitly thrown in the tracks of the conceptual isolates “nothing other than themselves” after the sound of the words “nothing other than themselves” have negated “everything other than themselves.”
Further, conventional phenomena do not have self-natures that are established by the power of defining characteristic marks found on the side of the phenomena characterized by them. Nevertheless, it is not the case that conventional phenomena lack any defining characteristic marks and consequently they are impossible to distinguish from one another. The defining characteristic marks of phenomena can only be posited merely as the referent objects of the category “defining characteristic mark” as an imputation on the conceptual isolate “nothing other than a specific defining characteristic mark” when mentally labeled on a specific basis for labeling.
- Such a conceptual isolate is called an “item conceptually isolated as a signifier (don-ldog).”
Thus, similar to how the existence of conventional phenomena themselves are posited, the defining characteristic marks of conventional phenomena can merely be specified as what are implicitly thrown in the tracks of the conceptual isolates “nothing other than their defining characteristic marks” after the sound of the words “nothing other than their defining characteristic marks” have negated “every defining characteristic mark other than their own.”
The superficial truth about conventional phenomena is that when they appear to those who are not yet Buddhas, they appear to have their existence established by a self-establishing nature, and that appearance of a self-establishing nature is taken to be their actual self-natures by those with unawareness. The deepest truth about conventional phenomena, however, is that they are totally devoid of such a self-establishing nature. Their voidness means that their conventional existence can only be set in terms of mental labeling alone or in terms of designation alone. In this way we can understand voidness in the sense of dependent arising.
Thus, the obliterating opponent (gnod-pa’i gnyen-po) – the opponent that rids us forever of beginningless unawareness – is not merely the understanding that there is no such thing as self-establishing existence; it is not merely the understanding of voidness. It is the understanding of voidness to mean dependent arising in terms of mental labeling alone or designation alone. This understanding is the antithesis that can turn away (bzlog-phyogs) the unawareness that interpolates an implied object of the appearance of a self-establishing nature onto the facet of the appearance of conventional phenomena concerning how they exist. In doing so, however, the obliterating opponent does not invalidate the existence of conventional phenomena.