Total absorption (mnyam-bzhag) is a mental state having a stilled and settled mind of shamatha (zhi-gnas), but not necessarily an exceptionally perceptive mind of vipashyana (lhag-mthong).
[See: Shamatha and Vipashyana: General Presentation]
The object of a total absorption (mnyam-bzhag) is only voidness (stong-nyid, emptiness), or it can be said to be only a deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa).
When total absorption occurs on the mental continuum of someone who has not yet attained any of the five pathway minds (lam-lnga) or someone with a building-up pathway mind (tshogs-lam, path of accumulation) or an applying pathway mind (sbyor-lam, path of preparation), it is a conceptual cognition with apprehension (rtogs-pa) of voidness. In such cases, it is simply called “total absorption” or “tainted total absorption” (mnyam-bzhag zag-bcas).
Only when total absorption occurs on the mental continuum of an arya, a highly realized being, is it non-conceptual straightforward cognition (rtog-med mngon-sum) with apprehension of voidness. In such cases, it is called the “deep awareness of total absorption” (mnyam-bzhag ye-shes) or the “deep awareness of untainted total absorption” (mnyam-bzhag zag-med-kyi ye-shes).
The deep awareness of total absorption has two consecutive phases: an uninterrupted pathway mind (bar-chad med-lam) and a liberated pathway mind (rnam-grol lam). An uninterrupted pathway mind acts as an obliterating opponent (gnod-pa’i gnyen-po) for getting rid of (spang-ba, abandoning) either a portion of what is gotten rid of by a seeing pathway mind (mthong-spang, abandonment of the path of seeing) or a portion of what is gotten rid of by an accustoming pathway mind (sgom-spang, abandonment of the path of meditation). Thus, a liberated pathway mind has the attainment of a true stopping (‘gog-bden, true cessation) of a portion of what is to be gotten rid of by either a seeing or an accustoming pathway mind.
The Jetsunpa Textbook Assertion that a True Stopping is a Voidness
According to the Jetsunpa (rJe-btsun Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan) textbook tradition within Gelug, Tsongkhapa asserts that according to Prasangika, if it is a true stopping (‘gog-bden), it is pervasive that it is voidness; although if it is voidness, it is notpervasive that it is a true stopping. For example, the voidness of a vase is a voidness, but it is not a true stopping. The Kunkyen (Kun-mkhyen ‘Jam-dbyangs bzhad-pa) textbook tradition agrees with Jetsunpa on this point.
The reason for this is that the liberated pathway mind of an arya has explicit apprehension (dngos-su rtogs-pa) of both voidness and a true stopping, although it has implicit apprehension (shugs-la rtogs-pa) of itself – in other words, implicit apprehension of itself as being a liberated pathway mind. The voidness that this liberated pathway mind apprehends explicitly is the voidness of itself – the voidness of the liberated pathway mind. In other words, the basis for the voidness (stong-gzhi) explicitly apprehended by a liberated pathway mind is that liberated pathway mind itself.
All textbooks of Gelug Prasangika accept that a liberated pathway mind focuses only on voidness and nothing else. But since a liberated pathway mind also has explicit apprehension of its true stopping, then according to Jetsunpa, this voidness on the liberated pathway mind of an arya’s total absorption and this true stopping must be the same. Otherwise, the liberated pathway mind has two objects and this would be an obstacle to total absorption.
- Note that all textbooks of Gelug Prasangika also assert that both true stoppings and voidnesses are deepest truth. Thus you could also say that a liberated pathway mind focuses only on deepest truth.
A true stopping is an absence of a fleeting stain (glo-bur-gyi dri-ma med-pa), while a voidness is an absence of self-established existence (rang-bzhin-gyi grub-pa med-pa). Thus, the object negated (dgag-bya) in an absence of a fleeting stain is a fleeting stain, which is a valid phenomenon (srid-pa) included among validly knowable phenomena (shes-bya).
- A valid phenomenon is one that can be validly knowable now – in other words, a presently happening phenomenon.
The object negated in an absence of self-established existence is self-established existence, which is an invalid phenomenon (mi-srid-pa) that is not included among validly knowable phenomena. It can never be validly known.
Since the objects negated in these two non-implicative negations (med-dgag) appear to be contradictory – one is a validly knowable phenomenon and the other is not, in other words one is an existent phenomenon and the other is nonexistent – the question arises as to how an absence of an existent phenomenon can also be an absence of a nonexistent phenomenon? In other words, how can a true stopping also be a voidness?
The example that Tsongkhapa gives for understanding how an absence of a fleeting stain is also an absence of self-established existence is that an absence of a vase (bum-pa med-pa) is also an absence of rabbit horns (ri-bong-gi rva med-pa).
We can understand Tsongkhapa’s example as follows. As for any non-implicative negation, such as an absence of a vase, from the point of view of the absence itself, that absence is also an absence of a pillar (ka-ba med-pa) and also an absence of rabbit horns. This is the case because a non-implicative negation is “an exclusion of something else in which, after the sounds of the words that exclude the object to be negated have negated that object, they do not leave behind in their wake, explicitly or implicitly, something else.” In other words, the appearing object (snang-yul) of an apprehension of a non-implicative negation phenomenon is merely a total absence – or, in simple language, nothing appears to such an apprehension. Thus, any absence, in other words any appearance of nothing, includes an absence of everything – both things that are included among valid phenomena and things that are not included among valid phenomena, including nonexistent phenomena. Thus, according to Jetsunpa, an absence of fleeting stains is also an absence of self-established existence – in other words, a true stopping is also a voidness.
Thus, a liberated pathway mind focuses non-conceptually only on the voidness of itself. But since if it is a liberated pathway mind, it is pervasive that it has a true stopping on it, a meditator could not possibly focus with a liberated pathway mind on the voidness of that liberated pathway mind without also being focused on the true stopping that characterizes that liberated pathway mind.
As an aside, two further points can be made:
- The fact of an absence of fleeting stains also being an absence of self-established existence can also be expressed as a parting (bral-ba) from fleeting stains also being a parting from self-established existence.
- If it is an absence of self-established existence (rang-bzhin-gyi grub-pa med-pa), it is not pervasive that it is voidness (stong-nyid). For example, the absence of a vase is an absence of self-established existence, but is not a voidness. A voidness has to be an ultimate manner of abiding (gnas-lugs mthar-thug).
The Panchen Textbook Assertion that a True Stopping Is Not a Voidness
The Panchen (Pan-chen bSod-nams grags-pa) textbook tradition agrees that an absence of a vase is also an absence of rabbit horns, but it does not consider this point as proving that a true stopping is a voidness. Thus, the Panchen textbooks say that if it is a true stopping, it is not pervasive that it is a voidness.
Panchen explains Tsongkhapa’s assertion as meaning that although a liberated pathway mind focuses only on voidness, that voidness has two parts. One part (cha-gcig) is the voidness itself and the other part is the true stopping.
Panchen asserts that there are three faults in his teacher, Jetsunpa’s, interpretation that if it is a true stopping, it is pervasive that it is a voidness:
- If a true stopping is pervasive with voidness, then since the voidness of the mental continuum, as the naturally abiding family-trait (rang-bzhin gnas-rigs), is beginningless, then the true stoppings on a mental continuum must also be beginningless.
[See: Overview of Buddha Nature]
- The object negated in a true stopping is included among valid phenomena and is validly knowable, whereas the object negated in a voidness is not included among valid phenomena and is not validly knowable; thus they are contradictory.
- If true stoppings and voidnesses are the same, then there is no need for the two types of Corpus of Essential Nature (ngo-bo-nyid-sku): (1) a Corpus of Essential Nature Pure of Self-established (Stains) (rang-bzhin rnam-dag-gi ngo-bo-nyid sku) and (2) a Corpus of Essential Nature Purified of Fleeting Stains (glo-bur rnam-dag-gi ngo-bo-nyid sku).
- If it is a true stopping, it is pervasive with being the voidness of a liberated pathway mind, not the voidness of the mental continuum. Although the voidness of the mental continuum is a naturally abiding family-trait, the voidness of a liberated pathway mind is not a naturally abiding family trait.
- Although the object negated in a true stopping is included among valid phenomena and is validly knowable, whereas the object negated in a voidness is not included among valid phenomena and is not validly knowable; nevertheless you too accept Tsongkhapa’s example that the absence of a vase is also an absence of rabbit horns. If you accept that example, you must also accept that an absence of fleeting stains is also an absence of self-established existence.
- There are these two types of Corpus of Essential Nature because there are two types of stains: (1) self-established stains (rang-bzhin-gyi dri-ma), which do not exist at all, and (2) fleeting stains, which do exist.
Note that this debate between Jetsunpa and Panchen on the topic of true stoppings and voidnesses is on the sutra level. Panchen agrees with Jetsunpa that in the context of anuttarayoga tantra, the subtlest level of mind, namely the clear light mind (‘od-gsal) has, beginninglessly, both an absence of fleeting stains and an absence of self-established stains. In other words, the subtlest clear light mind possesses the two purities (dag-pa gnyis-ldan). He presents his objections to Jetsunpa’s sutra-level interpretation not as a direct refutation of his teacher’s explanation, but as a suggestion for further analysis and debate concerning this difficult point among Tsongkhapa’s unique assertions.
The Source of the Debate in the Works of Tsongkhapa
The source for the debate concerning true stoppings and voidnesses is Tsongkhapa’s Clarifying Completely the Meaning (of Chandrakirti’s “Supplement to (Nagarjuna’s ‘Root Verses on) the Middle Way’”) (dGongs-pa rab-gsal), chapter 5:
In our tradition, the deep awareness of the untainted total absorption that has straightforward cognition of a (true) stopping is established on top of the apprehension of the very nature of reality (de-kho-na-nyid, i.e. voidness). The presentations that true stoppings are superficial truths (kun-rdzobs bden-pa) are not fit to be taken as reliable. And since it is with great efforts that it has been established that even at the time of manifesting a nirvana release (myang-‘das, i.e. a true stopping), one must have straightforward apprehension of the very nature of reality, we can decide for sure that those who say that true stoppings are superficial truths are incorrect.
Even though, on top of any existent basis (gzhi ‘ga’-zhig), the cutting off of truly established existence as the object to be negated is taken as a deepest truth, it is not pervasive that the object to be negated for everything that is included in the measure of what is deepest truth is something not validly existent as a validly knowable object.
From (Nagarjuna’s) Praise to the Sphere of Reality (Chos-dbyings bstod-pa, Skt. Dharmadhatustotra):
"I prostrate to the sphere of reality (chos-dbyings, i.e. the naturally abiding family-trait, voidness), that which is definitely abiding in all limited beings and which, if not completely known, causes them to circle in the three planes of compulsive existence.
From cleansing themselves of that (unawareness), which becomes the cause of their samsaric circling, that purity (dag-pa), that real nature (de-nyid), is a nirvana release (i.e. a true stopping). Moreover, Dharmakaya (a Corpus Encompassing Everything, i.e. voidness) as well is also that real nature."
Thus, when one has cleansed the stains with respect to an actual nature (chos-nyid, i.e. voidness as the naturally abiding Buddha-trait) when it is together with stains, this is spoken of as (both) a nirvana release (i.e. a true stopping) and a Dharmakaya (i.e. a voidness). It is like that because there are many things that can be spoken of as stains that are objects to be negated with respect to a purified actual nature. And also because, if an actual nature that has become parted from stains were not a valid phenomenon, then all exhausting (efforts) to purify it (through the ten bodhisattva bhumi-minds) would become fruitless. And further because, if it (an actual nature that has become parted from stains) is a valid phenomenon, then the object to be negated with respect to that (purified actual nature) would have to be existent as a validly knowable object.
For example, it is like even though rabbit horns, which are the object to be negated for an absence of rabbit horns, do not validly exist as a validly knowable object; nevertheless, an absence of a vase – for which a vase has been negated as an object to be negated that does exist as a validly knowable object – can also be set as an absence of rabbit horns.
If we speak in general in terms of an actual nature (voidness) that pervades both pure and impure phenomena having that nature (chos-can), then what may be taken as what has been negated (bkag-pa) would be merely an object to be negated that does not validly exist as a validly knowable object, for example the two impossible souls (bdag-gnyis, i.e. of persons and of all phenomena) as what has been negated. Nevertheless, when a phenomenon having a nature has by stages, step by step, come to be purified, its actual nature (voidness) as well comes to be purified step by step. Therefore, for special phenomena having a nature (i.e. liberated pathway minds), it is not enough for them to have purity just in one direction in terms of their actual natures. They must also each have purity from the fleeting stains of their own occasion. Thus, that very thing (de-nyid) is called a true stopping.
Panchen takes “that very thing” in this last line of Tsongkhapa’s to mean purity from the fleeting stains of their own occasion. Jetsunpa takes “that very thing” to mean voidness. Moreover, in the quote cited by Tsongkhapa from Praise to the Sphere of Reality, “Dharmakaya (a Corpus Encompassing Everything, i.e. voidness) as well is also that real nature,” Panchen takes “ Dharmakaya” to mean the voidness of the mental continuum as the naturally abiding family-trait. Jetsunpa interprets Dharmakaya in this quotation as the voidness of a liberated pathway mind, and not as the naturally abiding family-trait. This is because in the previous line, where Nagarjuna says, “that purity, that real nature,” “that purity” can only refer to a liberated pathway mind that has become purified of a portion of unawareness.
It is from these differences in interpretation that these two great Gelug masters each derive their different positions.