To gain liberation or enlightenment requires non-conceptual cognition that persons, for instance “me,” lack an impossible soul (gang-zag-gi bdag-med, the selflessness of persons, the identitylessness of persons). In the Gelug presentation, except for the Vaibhashika tenet system, all other Indian Buddhist tenet systems assert that one of the specific impossible souls that persons lack is one that has self-sufficiently knowable substantial existence. Vaibhashika asserts that persons do have self-sufficiently knowable substantial existence.
[For the Vaibhashika division between self-sufficiently knowable substantially existent phenomena and imputedly knowable phenomena, see: The Two Truths: Vaibhashika and Sautrantika]
The Sautrantika, Chittamatra and Svatantrika tenet systems assert the lack or absence of such an impossible soul as the lack of a subtle impossible soul of persons (gang-zag-gi bdag-med phra-mo, subtle selflessness of persons), while Prasangika asserts it as the lack of a coarse impossible soul of persons (gang-zag-gi bdag-med rags-pa, coarse selflessness of persons).
Valid cognition (tshad-ma) of this selflessness requires correct and decisive identification of the validly knowable “me” – the mere “I” (nga-tsam) – and distinguishing it from the impossible soul of a person. Here, the property that distinguishes the two is the manner in which the validly knowable “me” could be validly known. The variables do not specifically concern whether the valid cognition is conceptual or non-conceptual. It concerns whether the validly knowable “me” has self-sufficiently knowable substantial existence or imputably knowable existence (btags-yod, Skt. prajnaptisat; imputed existence).
All non-Prasangika Indian Buddhist tenet systems assert that validly knowable phenomena must be either one or the other. Prasangika asserts that all validly knowable phenomena have imputedly knowable existence. Nothing has self-sufficiently knowable existence.
Self-Sufficiently Knowable Substantially Existent Phenomena
In general, there are four ways of asserting substantial existence (rdzas-yod, Skt. dravyasat) – literally, existence as a substantial entity (rdzas, Skt. dravya):
- Substantial existence in the sense of being stable and unchanging (brten-pa mi-’gyur ba’i rdzas-yod). This includes only static (rtag-pa, permanent), unaffected (’dus ma-byas, unconditioned) phenomena.
- Substantial existence in the sense of being able to perform a function (don-byed-nus-pa’i rdzas-yod). This includes only nonstatic (mi-rtag-pa, impermanent), affected (’dus-byas, conditioned) phenomena.
- Substantial existence in the sense of being established logically (rigs-pas grub-pa’i rdzas-yod). This includes all existent phenomena. This is also known as substantial existence established by being the focus of valid cognition (tshad-ma’i dmigs-pa’i rdzas-yod).
- Substantial existence in the sense of being self-sufficiently knowable (rang-rkya thub-pa’i rdzas-yod). This includes only forms of physical phenomena (gzugs) and ways of being aware of something (shes-pa).
All Buddhist tenet systems agree that only self-sufficient substantial existence is definitional substantial existence (rdzas-yod mtshan-nyid-pa).
A self-sufficiently knowable substantially existent phenomenon – literally, a phenomenon with existence as a substantial entity that is self-sufficiently knowable – is defined as “a validly knowable phenomenon that, when actually cognized (dngos-bzung), does not rely on actual cognition of something else.” As a substantial entity, it has the power, established on its own side, to be known by itself.
- “Actual cognition” refers to manifest (mngon-gyur) cognition, whether with explicit apprehension (dngos-su rtogs-pa) or implicit apprehension (shugs-la rtogs-pa).
- In manifest cognition of a cognitive object, the consciousness of the manifest cognition gives rise to a mental aspect (rnam-pa, mental hologram) representing the object explicitly apprehended. The cognitive object appears, through that aspect, both to the person and to the consciousness of the manifest cognition. Both the person and the manifest consciousness cognize the object. When implicit apprehension accompanies explicit apprehension in a manifest cognition, a mental hologram of the implicitly apprehended object does not appear, but that implicitly apprehended object is still cognized by both the person and the manifest consciousness.
- To “apprehend” an object means accurately and decisively to determine it (nges-pa) as “this” and not “that.”
- “Actual cognition of something else” refers to actual cognition of the phenomenon’s basis for imputation (gdags-gzhi, basis for labeling) immediately prior to valid cognition of it.
Imputedly Knowable Phenomena
An imputedly existent phenomenon is defined as one that, when actually cognized, does rely on actual cognition of something else – namely, its basis of imputation immediately prior to actual cognition of it. Following the guideline of my teacher, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, to “milk” the meaning from the words, let us analyze the etymology of the Sanskrit and Tibetan terms for “imputed existence” in order to clarify its meaning:
- The original Sanskrit term, prajnaptisat, for the type of existence such phenomena have, literally translates as “existence as something that is caused to be cognized with discriminating awareness.” Prajna (shes-rab) is discriminating awareness and prajnapti is the passive causative participle of the verbal form of the term: caused to be discriminated. The term prajnapti is similar in grammatical form to the term vijnaptirupa, which occurs in the Vaibhashika and Prasangika presentations of karma. There, it is translated in Tibetan in accord with its Sanskrit grammatical form as rnam-par rig-byed-kyi gzugs. In English, it is translated as a “revealing form” – one, the cognition of which causes its motivation to be known. Thus, in the term prajnaptisat, the Sanskrit connotes existence that is caused to be revealed by something else, namely actual cognition of its basis for imputation immediately prior to its actual cognition.
- The Tibetan translators chose to render the term as btags-yod. Btags is the past tense of the verb ’dogs-pa, which means “to tie on to something else.” Thus, in the term btags-yod, the Tibetan connotes existence tied to something else – namely, as with the Sanskrit prajnaptisat, tied to actual cognition of the basis on which it is tied in the moment immediately prior to its actual cognition. In English, the term is translated as “imputed existence.”
To help make the discussion clearer, we are translating “imputedly existent phenomena” as “imputedly knowable phenomena.” The Sautrantika, Chittamatra and Svatantrika tenet systems agree that only nonstatic abstractions (ldan-min ’du-byed, noncongruent affecting variables that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something) and static phenomena (static abstractions) constitute the set of imputedly knowable phenomena. Vaibhashika does not seem to assert any validly knowable phenomena as being imputably knowable; while Prasangika asserts all validly knowable phenomena as being imputably knowable.
- According to the Sautrantika tenets, actually cognizing imputedly knowable phenomena relies on actually cognizing their bases for imputation both in the immediately preceding moment and simultaneously with actually cognizing the phenomenon.
- According to the Mahayana tenets, the above is the case with all imputably knowable phenomena except the various types of lack of impossible soul (bdag-med; selflessness), voidness (stong-nyid; emptiness), and true stoppings (’gog-bden; true cessations). Actual cognition of selflessnesses, voidnesses and true stoppings rely on actually cognizing their bases for imputation merely in the immediately preceding moment. It does not require actually cognizing their bases for imputation simultaneously with them.
- Because of this difference, in the Sautrantika system, non-conceptual total absorption on the lack of the impossible soul of a person actually cognizes the aggregates, the validly knowable “me,” and this lack of an impossible soul simultaneously. In the Mahayana systems, only the lack of an impossible soul or voidness is actually cognized then. The aggregates, validly knowable “me” and object of refutation are actually cognized only in the immediately preceding moment.
The Distinction Made by Asanga
According to Asanga’s Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa kun-las btus-pa, Skt. Abhidharmasamuccaya), which not only Chittamatra and Svatantrika-Madhyamaka, but also Logic-Follower Sautrantika follow on this point, 29 of the 51 mental factors (sems-byung) are imputedly knowable; the rest are self-sufficiently knowable.
[See: Primary Minds and the 51 Mental Factors]
The 29 imputedly knowable mental factors are:
- The twenty auxiliary disturbing emotions (nye-nyon nyi-shu)
- The five disturbing attitudes with an outlook (nyon-mongs lta-ba-can, deluded outlooks) which constitute the sixth of the six root disturbing emotions and attitudes (rtsa-nyon drug), and
- The four changeable subsidiary awarenesses (gzhan-’gyur bzhi).
The rest of the mental factors, which are self-sufficiently knowable, are:
- The five ever-functioning subsidiary awarenesses (kun-’gro lnga),
- The five ascertaining ones (yul-nges lnga),
- The eleven constructive emotions (dge-ba bcu-gcig), and
- The five root disturbing emotions and attitudes without an outlook (lta-min nyong-mongs).
The definition for imputedly knowable given in this text is a phenomenon that can become an object experienced by a cognitive sensor (dbang-po) by relying on and being accompanied by a verbal expression (brjod-byed-kyi sgra) or something in a different class (rigs mi-mthun). A self-sufficiently knowable phenomenon is defined as one that can become an object experienced by a cognitive sensor without relying on an expression or something in a different class.
The twenty auxiliary disturbing emotions and, among the four changeable mental factors, regret and sleep – each of these 22 is included as a part (cha) of one or more of the three poisonous disturbing emotions (dug-gsum, three poisons): longing desire (’dod-chags), hostility (zhe-sdang), or naivety (gti-mug). The three poisonous disturbing emotions are in a different category of subsidiary awareness than they are – namely, in the category of the root disturbing emotions and attitudes. Actual cognition with any of the twenty-two relies on and is accompanied by the poisonous disturbing emotion that it is included as a part of. For example, actual cognition, with jealousy, of someone’s wealth relies on and is accompanied by actual cognition of that wealth with longing desire for it.
[See: Envy: Dealing with Disturbing Emotions]
Similarly, among the four changeable mental factors, gross detection (rtog-pa) and subtle discernment (dpyod-pa) are types of discriminating awareness (shes-rab), which is in a different category of mental factors than they are. The five deluded outlooks are types of disturbing, deluded discriminating awareness (shes-rab nyon-mongs-can).
Gungtang, whose commentaries belong to the Kunkyen textbook tradition, clarified that the 29 mental factors specified by Asanga as imputedly knowable are only nominally imputedly knowable. They are not definitional imputedly knowable phenomena (btags-yod mtshan-nyid-pa). All ways of being aware of something are self-sufficiently knowable.
- In the context of the Logic-Follower Sautrantika, Chittamatra, and Yogachara-Svatantrika tenet systems, all of which accept reflexive awareness (rang-rig), the reason is because all ways of being aware of something are actually cognized by reflexive awareness without relying on cognitive awareness actually cognizing anything else.
- Within the context of the Sautrantika-Svatantrika and Prasangika systems, the reason is because all ways of being aware of something establish their own occurrence by themselves (shes-pa rang-nyid shes-pa rang-nyid-gyi grub-pa) without relying on actual cognition of it by anything else.
All other Gelug textbook traditions accept Gungtang’s explanation here.
The Chittamatra Assertion
Kunkyen (Kun-mkhyen ’Jam-dbyangs bzhad-pa) asserts that, in the Chittamatra system, there is a distinction between self-sufficiently knowable substantial existence (rang-rkya thub-pa’i rdzas-yod) and substantial existence as something that is knowable alone (rang-rkyang ’dzin-pa’i rdzas-yod). In the former technical term, rkya refers to something established on its own and not as part of a sequence and thus rang-rkya thub-pa means “able to establish itself as an object of actual cognition without having relied on actual cognition of something else prior to it.” In the latter term, rkyang means “alone” and thus rang-rkyang ’dzin-pa means “knowable alone” – namely, without something also being actually cognized simultaneously. In terms of this distinction, Kunkyen asserts that only the latter – substantial existence as something that is knowable alone – is definitional substantial existence, not self-sufficiently knowable substantial existence. All forms of physical phenomena and all ways of knowing are definitional substantially existent phenomena – they are all substantially existent as things that are knowable alone.
Gungtang (Gung-thang dKon-mchog bstan-pa’i sgron-me) clarified his teacher, Kunkyen’s intention. He explained that Kunkyen rejected self-sufficiently knowable substantial existence from being definitional substantial existence because he considered such existence as applying only to phenomena that were not validly knowable. “Self-sufficiently knowable substantial existence” applies only to the subtle impossible soul of a person (a self-sufficiently knowable substantially existent person), and such a person is totally nonexistent. The same term cannot be used for both non-existent phenomena (phenomena that cannot be validly known) and existent phenomena (those that can be validly known). Definitional substantially existent phenomena must include only validly knowable phenomena. Therefore, self-sufficiently knowable substantial phenomena cannot be considered definitional.
None of the other Gelug textbook traditions accept this restricted use of these terms. For them, the term self-sufficiently knowable substantial existence can be applied both to (1) nonexistent phenomena to be negated (shes-bya-la mi-srid-pa’i dgag-bya), such as the subtle impossible soul of persons, and (2) two classes of validly knowable phenomena: forms of physical phenomena and ways of knowing something.
In general, the Chittamatra system defines imputedly knowable phenomena in the same way as do Vaibhashika and Sautrantika. However, it defines self-sufficiently knowable phenomena differently, in accord with the meaning of “substantial existence as something that is knowable alone.” Thus, self-sufficiently knowable phenomena are defined as phenomena able to stand here (tshur-thub gyi dngos-po), or phenomena having existence established as something able to stand here (tshur-thub grub-pa’i dngos-po), or phenomena able to stand firmly (tshugs-thub-gyi dngos-po). The three terms are synonymous.
Because of this change in definition, Chittamatra can assert apprehension of the lack of an impossible soul by an arya’s non-conceptual total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise), without its basis for imputation, on which the lack relies, simultaneously being apprehended. Chittamatra can assert this without the absurd conclusion following that the lack of an impossible soul is self-sufficiently knowable. In order to apprehend non-conceptually the lack of an impossible soul of a person, for example, one must first apprehend the aggregates on which the imputation of an impossible soul of a person relies, then both the aggregates and the appearance of an impossible soul. Then one scrutinizes the manner of existence of the impossible soul. When one has decisively ascertained that there is no such thing as the impossible soul, then simultaneously with cutting off the imputation of this impossible soul, one explicitly apprehends only the lack of this impossible soul, and not the aggregates on which it is imputed.
Thus, the lack of an impossible soul of a person is imputedly knowable, because actual cognition of it relies on cognition of something else. But, since being self-sufficiently knowable requires only that when an object is actually cognized, it must be knowable alone, it does not specify that “knowable alone” means without reliance on both immediately preceding and simultaneous cognition of something else. Thus, the definition does not exclude being knowable with reliance on the immediately preceding cognition of something else, but without reliance on simultaneous cognition of something else. The lack of an impossible soul can be actually cognized without simultaneously cognizing something else, but it cannot be actually cognized without immediately precedingly cognizing something else. Therefore, the lack of an impossible soul is imputedly knowable. Madhyamaka accepts this Chittamatra distinction.
In contrast, although forms of physical phenomena, as wholes, are imputable on their physical parts, and ways of being aware of something are imputable on their temporal parts, one does not need first to apprehend the parts and then, from reliance on that apprehension, apprehend the wholes. One apprehends the parts and the whole in one step, simultaneously. Moreover, although actual cognition of a whole must rely on simultaneous actual cognition of its parts, this does not render a whole into an imputedly knowable phenomenon in the non-Prasangika systems.
According to the Gelug non-Prasangika interpretation concerning all forms of physical phenomena that have parts and all ways of knowing that have temporal parts, both the wholes and their parts are self-sufficiently knowable. This is because a whole physical phenomenon having parts is still a form of a physical phenomenon, and a whole way of knowing having temporal parts is still a way of knowing something. All forms of physical phenomena and all ways of knowing something are self-sufficiently knowable.
The Special Sautrantika-Svatantrika Assertion
In addition to accepting the common distinction between self-sufficiently knowable and imputedly knowable phenomena shared with the other Indian Buddhist tenet systems, Sautrantika-Svatantrika has its own uncommon assertion of substantial existence regarding wholes and their parts. It is based on a distinction Sautrantika-Svatantrika makes between two types of forms of physical phenomena.
Composite forms (bsags-pa’i gzugs) – literally, “piled-up forms” – are those in which their constituent particles and/or constituent parts connect with each other, such as the limbs and trunks of a human body or the parts of a vase, to make a whole mass (gong-bu). Such forms of physical phenomena have composite substantial existence (bsags-pa’i rdzas-yod).
Grouped forms (bsdu-pa’i gzugs) are those in which their constituent parts do not connect with each other, such as a forest, made up of a group or a cluster of trees. They have grouped substantial existence (bsdu-pa’i rdzas-yod).
Composite forms are self-sufficiently knowable wholes, since actual cognition of them does not rely on actual cognition of the parts on which they are imputations prior to them, but do require cognition of at least some of their parts simultaneously with them. Although grouped forms have substantially established existence, they are imputedly knowable wholes. Actual cognition of them requires actual cognition of some of their parts immediately prior to cognition of them simultaneously with those parts.
The Special Prasangika Assertion
Prasangika also accepts the common division scheme between self-sufficiently knowable and imputedly knowable phenomena, but considers imputably knowable existence, in this shared sense, as coarse imputedly knowable existence. According to the Prasangika assertions, no validly knowable phenomenon has self-sufficiently knowable substantial existence. This is because Prasangika asserts that substantially established existence (rdzas-su grub-pa) is impossible and a self-sufficiently knowable phenomenon, as mentioned before, is a phenomenon that substantially exists as something self-sufficiently knowable.
- The existence of something is substantially established if it has the ability to perform a function (don-byed nus-pa). That ability arises from a phenomenon being a substantial entity (rdzas). This definition is made on the basis of the assertion that all validly knowable phenomena have existence established by their self-natures (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa, self-established existence, inherent existence) as the findable referent “things” (btags-don) corresponding to the names and concepts for them. In other words, if we may coin a term, “findably established existence.” If something has substantially established existence, it is on the basis for its having findably established existence. It has existence established from its own side (rang-ngos-nas grub-pa).
- Sautrantika, Chittamatra, and Svatantrika assert that nonstatic, affected phenomena have the ability to produce an effect or results and thus are substantially established.
- Because Prasangika asserts that findably established existence is impossible, it also asserts that substantially established existence is impossible and, thus, self-sufficient knowability is also impossible.
Prasangika asserts three equivalent types of definitional imputedly knowable phenomena:
- Imputedly knowable as something imputed on a basis (rten-nas btags-pa’i btags-yod)
- Imputedly knowable as something set by names and labels (ming-dang brda’i bzhag-pa’i btags-yod)
- Imputedly knowable as something imputed by conceptual cognition (rtog-pas btags-pa’i btags-yod).
(1) Wholes, for example, are imputations on the basis of their parts, and all phenomena are imputations on the basis of their bases for imputation. No one needs to actively impute them in this moment for them to be imputations on their bases.
(2) When searched for, nothing is findable as the referent “thing” corresponding to the name or label for it. Nevertheless, validly knowable phenomena are imputable by names and labels. Individual persons, private groups of people, and societies speaking a common language establish conventions (tha-snyad) to call, with certain names and labels, sets of objects sharing common defining characteristics. The common defining characteristics (mtshan-nyid, definitions) are also chosen by the persons, groups, or societies. Based on those conventions, objects having those defining characteristics are imputedly knowable as objects set by names and labels.
- According to some texts, the terms name (ming) and label (brda) are equivalent.
- According to others, a name for something comes first, when a person, group, or society assigns the audio category (sgra-spyi, audio universal, sound universal) table, for example, to signify the meaning/object category (don-spyi, meaning universal) table. The audio category is the set comprised of individual combinations of the sounds ta and ble, pronounced in any voice and any volume. The meaning/object category table is the set comprised of individual items that the combination of the sounds ta and ble mean. The combination of the sounds ta and ble, after all, do not have any meaning on their own sides, individually or in combination, unless a person, a group, or a society arbitrarily assigns them a definition and thus a meaning. A label comes afterwards. Once someone learns the name table, then when he or she sees an object with a flat top supported by legs – the conventionally set defining characteristic mark of a “table” – the label table arises.
- According to yet other texts, a “label” comes first, when a person, group, or society speaking a common language arbitrarily assigns (labels) an audio category, such as “ta+ble” to signify a meaning/object category. From then on, “table” becomes the name the person, group, or society uses for objects with a flat top supported by legs.
- Sometimes, the term don-spyi is used for the combination of an audio and a meaning/object category. In this more general meaning, we can perhaps translate it simply as a “category.” Categories are arbitrary static abstractions used, according to agreed-upon conventions, for conceptually cognizing all validly knowable phenomena. Everything validly knowable is imputedly knowable through a category. Nothing, however, exists from its own side in a category, and when we search for categories “out there,” they cannot be found.
(3) Conceptual cognition is not necessarily verbal. It does not necessarily involve cognizing objects through categories specified by audio and meaning universals. Conceptual cognition can be with categories specified by graphic and meaning universals, such as a “mental picture” used as a universal to represent, signify, and think nonverbally about a table. It can also be with categories specified by odor and meaning universals, such as the “mental smell” used as a universal by a dog to represent, signify, and think about its master, and so forth with universals based on the other senses. Conceptual cognition can also be only with static abstractions, such as a space (nam-mkha’). A space is an absence of any obstructive contact – in other words, the absence of any material object that could be contacted in a location and that would obstruct something being there. A space is a valid, imputably knowable object imputed or imputable by conceptual cognition on either an object that is already located somewhere, or on an empty in-between area (bar-snang) – an area between two material objects that does not have any material object located in it.
All validly knowable phenomena, in fact, are imputable knowable as things imputed by conceptual cognition. This does not mean that all validly knowable phenomena can only be validly known by conceptual cognition. It just means that they are validly knowable exclusively (tsam, merely) because they are imputable on a basis of imputation; they are devoid of anything on their own sides such as a self-establishing nature or individual defining characteristic mark that also has the power to establish their existence. This needs to be qualified: they are validly knowable because they are exclusively imputed or imputable by valid conceptual cognition. A monster under the bed is not validly knowable there simply because a frightened child thinks one is there.
- Svatantrika asserts that the existence of all validly knowable phenomena is established by their being something imputed or imputable on the basis of their also having findably established existence from their own sides. Thus, they are not exclusively imputable as something by conceptual cognition.
- For Prasangika, the valid knowability of an exclusively imputed or imputable object is not established by the object’s being findable as the referent “thing” corresponding to the imputation. Nothing is findable.
It is established exclusively from the side of the validly imputing mind, according to three criteria:
- Valid imputation has to be not contradicted by the established convention of the person, group, or society using the label.
- Valid imputation has to be not contradicted by any valid cognition of the superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa, relative truth, conventional truth) of the object, such as valid cognition of its appearance.
- Valid imputation has to be not contradicted by any valid cognition of the deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa, ultimate truth) of the object, such as valid cognition of its mode of existence (an absence or voidness of all impossible manners in which its existence could be established).
All Indian Buddhist tenet systems, except Vaibhashika, agree that the validly knowable “me” is not a self-sufficiently knowable substantially existent phenomenon, regardless of definition. It is imputedly knowable.