Cognitive Obscurations of Arhats: Gelug Prasangika


Limited beings (sems-can, sentient beings) are all unenlightened beings – those with physical, verbal, and mental limitations in comparison to Buddhas. Buddhas are not limited beings; they are not “sentient beings.”

Limited beings can be divided into mundane beings and liberated beings.

  • Mundane beings (‘jig-rten-pa, worldly beings) are those whose mental continuums contain the fleeting stains (glo-bur-gyi dri-ma) of both the emotional obscurations (nyon-sgrib) preventing liberation and the cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib) preventing omniscience.
  • Liberated beings (dgra-bcom-pa; Skt. arhat, foe-destroyer) are those who have attained a true stopping of all the emotional obscurations, but whose mental continuums still contain the cognitive obscurations. Liberated beings may be of the shravaka, pratyekabuddha or bodhisattva class.
  • Buddhas are those whose mental continuums have a true stopping of both the emotional and cognitive obscurations.

The emotional obscurations (nyon-sgrib), as formulated in the Gelug Prasangika tenet system, refer to both the doctrinally based (kun-btags) and automatically arising (lhan-skyes) disturbing emotions and attitudes (nyon-mongs, Skt. klesha; afflictive emotions), including unawareness (ma-rig-pa; ignorance), as well as their tendencies (sa-bon; seeds). The disturbing emotions, including unawareness, may be aimed at either persons or at all knowable phenomena. Unawareness, in this system, is equivalent to grasping for truly established existence (bden-‘dzin).

The cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib) are much more subtle. According to Gelug Prasangika, they refer to the constant habits (bag-chags) of grasping for truly established existence. In order to identify these obscurations more distinctly, let us delineate them as they occur with the mental activity of liberated beings. The following presentation is based on the commentary on the Second Jamyang Zhepa’s (Kun-mkhyen ‘Jam-dbyangs bzhad-pa rdo-rje II, dKon-mchog ‘jigs-med dbang-po) text on tenet systems written by the 20th-century Geshe from Rong-bo Monastery in Amdo, Geshe Jamyang Dragpa (‘Jam-dbyangs grags-pa): A Mirror to Give Rise to the General Meaning of the Tenet Systems: An Explanation of the Manner of Assertions of the Propounders of Tenet Systems, Based on (Jamyang-shepa II’s) “Jewel Garland of Tenet Systems” (Grub-mtha’ rin-chen ‘phreng-ba-la brten-nas grub-mtha’ smra-ba-dag-gi ‘dod-tshul bshad-pa grub-mtha’i spyi-don ‘char-ba’i me-long).

The Mental Activity of Liberated Beings

When conventional objects (tha-snyad-pa), also called superficial objects (kun-rdzob-pa; concealer objects), appear to the minds of liberated beings, a self-establishing nature (rang-bzhin) appears to exist findably on the side of each object, establishing the conventional existence of the superficial essential nature of that object.

  • The superficial essential nature (kun-rdzob-pa’i ngo-bo) of a knowable object is what it conventionally is, for instance a dog or a cat.

Liberated beings know that mundane minds interpolate existence (yod-pa) onto what would correspond to those appearances of self-establishing natures, namely actual self-establishing natures.

  • Mundane minds (‘jig-rten-pa’i blo, worldly minds) refer to the mental activity of mundane beings when they are not totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness (emptiness): the total absence of self-establishing natures because there are no such things.
  • Interpolation (sgro-‘dogs; superimposition) is adding something to something else that was not originally there, like adding a feather to the shaft of an arrow.

Liberated beings know that mundane minds take as true the existence of actual self-establishing natures that their minds interpolate, although their existence is not true. Liberated beings’ own minds, however, do not interpolate and attribute existence to such non-existent natures.

Nevertheless, by the power of the cognitive obscurations still on their mental continuums – namely, the constant habits of grasping for truly established existence – the mental activity of liberated beings still interpolates the appearance of self-establishing natures, other than when these beings are non-conceptually totally absorbed on voidness. More precisely, these constant habits prevent their omniscience by still giving rise in each moment of their mental activity to two things:

  • A facet of the deceptiveness of dualistic appearances
  • A stain of cognitively taking the two truths as being of two essential natures.

A Facet of the Deceptiveness of Dualistic Appearances

A facet of the deceptiveness of dualistic appearances (gnyis-snang ‘khrul-ba’i cha) refers to the fact that liberated beings’ mental activity still includes a facet that gives rise to an appearance of the superficial essential nature of conventional objects as being established by a self-establishing nature. This is a dualistic appearance (gnyis-snang) because this manner of appearance (snang-tshul) does not correspond to the manner of abiding (gnas-tshul).

The dualistic appearance conceals or obscures the deepest essential nature (don-dam-pa’i ngo-bo) of conventional objects, namely their voidness. This deepest essential nature is that there is no such thing as a self-establishing nature that establishes the superficial essential nature of knowable objects as if they were not merely accounted for by dependent arising in relation to mental labeling with categories and designation with words.

A Stain of Cognitively Taking the Two Truths as Being of Two Essential Natures

A stain of cognitively taking the two truths as being of two essential natures (bden-gnyis ngo-bo tha-dad-du ‘dzin-pa’i dri-ma) refers to the fact that the mental activity of liberated beings still includes a stain that makes the voidness of superficial truth and the voidness of deepest truth seem to be of different essential natures.

  • The superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa; concealer truth, obscurational truth, conventional truth, relative truth) of conventional objects is that the superficial essential natures of knowable objects actually are established by self-establishing natures. Superficial truth, then, is actually false, because there are no such things as self-establishing natures.
  • The deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa; ultimate truth) of conventional objects is their voidness: the total absence of self-establishing natures establishing their existence.

Because the essential natures of the two truths, namely their essential natures of each being devoid of self-established existence, are inseparable, they are of the same essential nature (bden-gnyis bden-stong-du ngo-bo dbyer-med-pas ngo-bo gcig). If the two truths were not of the same deepest essential nature, then the absurd conclusion would follow that when you cognized the voidness of a conventional object, such as a table, you would be cognizing something different from the ultimate void nature that is deepest truth.

For instance, before enlightenment, voidness (the deepest essential nature of all knowable objects) appears and is explicitly apprehended (dngos-su rtogs-pa) in non-conceptual total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise). In the non-conceptual subsequent attainment (rjes-thob; post-meditation) phase, when the conventional object that is the basis for the voidness appears as if it were self-established, its voidness does not appear, but is implicitly apprehended (shugs-la rtogs-pa). These two voidnesses are not two different voidnesses, although they are apprehended separately before attaining enlightenment.

  • Apprehension (rtogs-pa) is an accurate, decisive valid cognition of a knowable object.
  • Objects explicitly apprehended appear in the cognition of them.
  • Objects implicitly apprehended are cognized, but do not appear, such as “not a cat” when explicitly apprehending a dog.

For a Buddha, there is no division of non-conceptual total absorption and non-conceptual subsequent attainment. To the omniscient deep awareness (rnam-mkhyen ye-shes) of a Buddha, the appearance of all knowable phenomena arises, without any appearance of self-establishing natures. This appearance of untainted phenomena is explicitly apprehended simultaneously with explicit apprehension of the deepest essential nature of all knowable phenomena.

  • Untainted phenomena (zag-med chos-can) are those that appear without any appearance of self-establishing natures

In technical jargon, the appearance of all knowable objects and their voidnesses are established and secured inseparably from each other (grub-bde dbyer-med) on the face of a Buddha’s deep awareness.

Thus, to the omniscient awareness (rnam-mkhyen) of a Buddha, all conventional objects arise simultaneously with all the appearances of what they can be validly labeled as and with all the words in all languages with which they can be validly designated. All conventional objects can arise simultaneously to omniscient awareness because none exist on their own with just one self-established identity (bdag, Skt. atman) as just “this” and called just “this” independently of mental labeling and designation; and because of simultaneous explicit apprehension of voidness, none of them appear to exist in that deceptive way. But a Buddha knows that conventional objects appear to liberated minds, when not totally absorbed on voidness, as each having just one self-established identity as “this” and called just “this,” although that is like an illusion. A Buddha also knows that this self-establishing nature appears to actually exist and be true to the minds of mundane beings who are not totally absorbed on voidness.