Appearances as the Play of the Mind: Gelug Explanation

Subtle Appearances as the Play of the Mind

When the texts speak of the appearances of samsara and nirvana as being the “play of the mind” (sems-kyi rol-pa), according to the Gelug Prasangika presentation, it means that the mind is the agent (byed-pa-po) giving rise to appearances. In more detail, for an illusory body, bardo body, and Sambhogakaya, the clear-light subtlest mind is the simultaneously acting condition (lhan-skyes rkyen) – the actual agent, like a potter for a clay jug – and the subtlest energy-wind, which is the support of this mind, is the obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu), like the clay for the clay jug. For Dharmakaya, the roles of the two are reversed. 

The clear-light subtlest mind and the subtlest energy can each function as agents giving rise to samsaric appearances, such as that of a bardo body, because of the positive and negative karmic potentials that are imputation phenomena on the basis of the clear light subtlest mind. “Giving rise to a samsaric appearance” does not refer exclusively to such an appearance when it serves as the focal object (dmigs-yul) in a cognition such as a cognition for instance of a bardo body. It also refers to the form of the body that appears in the state between death and rebirth, even when it is not being cognized. The karmic potential is the ripening cause (rnam-smin-gyi rgyu) for the specific form that the bardo body takes. 

In the case of the nirvanic appearances of a Sambhogakaya, a Corpus of Bodies of Full Use, the enlightenment-builder networks of positive force and of deep awareness that are likewise imputation phenomena on the basis of the clear light subtlest mind are also parts of the causal process. These are networks built up with a bodhichitta dedication. The enlightenment-builder network of positive force – and especially the bodhisattva vows, which are non-revealing forms (rig-byed ma-yin-pa’i gzugs) included in this network – is an additional obtaining cause besides the subtlest energy-wind. The enlightenment-builder network of deep awareness is an additional simultaneously acting condition besides the clear light subtlest mind. 

Coarse Appearances as the Play of the Mind

For the four great elements (earth, water, fire and wind) and the coarse appearances of the environment and its inhabitants (snod-bcud), the inseparable pair of the clear light subtlest mind and subtlest energy-wind is the simultaneously acting condition and agent for their arising. 

Since the subtlest energy-wind is very subtle, it cannot be the obtaining cause of the four great elements. An obtaining cause and the result or product obtained from it must be on the same level of subtlety. What is the obtaining cause of the four elements then? Their obtaining cause is the potential ability (nus-pa) of each of them to give rise to forms of physical phenomena that not only appear, but can be validly cognized, even if only long after their arising, such as the elements comprising the universe. This does not mean, however, that it is possible to establish or prove the existence of these elements by any means other than their being merely the referent objects (btags-chos) of the concepts and words for them.

The Example of Pus and Water

Consider the example cited by Chandrakiriti in Engaging in the Middle Way (dBu-ma-la ’jug-pa, Skt. Madhyamakavatara) (VI.71ab) of humans perceiving a stream of water and preta ghosts perceiving a stream of pus when both are looking at the same stream of liquid, and both perceptions being valid cognitions. In this example, the potential ability of the water element to give rise to an appearance is the obtaining cause of the two different appearances. The simultaneously acting condition for the arising of these appearances is the karmic potential that is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the continuum of the clear light subtlest mind and subtlest energy-wind of the individual limited beings reborn in these two life-forms. 

How does this work? The water element has different facets (cha-shas), with each facet having its own defining characteristic mark. The defining characteristic mark of one facet does not negate the defining characteristic marks of the others. Bear in mind that the elements lack both self-established existence (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa; inherent existence) and existence established by the power of these defining characteristic marks (rang-mtshan-gyis grub-pa).

As a ripened result (rnam-smin-gyi ‘bras-bu) of the karmic potential of these limited beings, their mental factor of distinguishing (‘du-shes) can differentiate and focus on the defining characteristic mark of the specific facet that is detectable to its life-form through the cognitive sensors (dbang-po; the photosensitive cells of the eyes) that are also distinctive to their life-form. In distinguishing this specific defining characteristic mark, the humans or preta ghosts validly perceive either water or pus as the dominating or comprehensive result (bdag-‘bras) of their karmic potential. 

Differentiating the Prasangika View from the Chittamatra One

Thus, the obtaining cause of the matter that constitutes the environment and the bodies of the limited beings that inhabit it does not come from mind. The Prasangika view is not like the Chittamatra one that, in sensory cognition, both the object perceived and the consciousness and accompanying mental factors that perceive it come simultaneously from the same natal source (rdzas) – namely, from the same karmic tendency that is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the being’s individual foundation consciousness (kun-gzhi rnam-shes, Skt. alayavijnana) and its supporting subtle energy-wind. 

Further, it’s not that everything is the play of or created by “my mind.” All appearances are the play of the mind in general. That does not mean they are the play of some universal mind existing up in the sky by its own self-establishing power findable on its own side. All appearances that each individual being perceives is the play of each of their individual minds. The existence of validly knowable phenomena cannot be established independently of the mind, but our minds do not create the universe and everyone in it. Each being has a mental continuum that creates their individual experiences of sensory objects in conjunction with the potentials of the elements as their obtaining causes.

How do we understand this? The fact that all the beings born with the same type of life-form validly cognize the same type of appearance, for instance of water or pus, is due to their collective or shared karmic potential (thun-mongs-gi las). The existence of these appearances as water or pus can only be established as being the referent objects of the conceptual labeling of each being that perceives it. But to say that the environment and the beings in it are the play of the mind does not refer to just establishing their existence as water or pus in terms of conceptual labeled, but as already explained, they are the play of karmic potential and the potentials of the elements. 

Objects of sensory cognition and the consciousness and mental factors that cognize them do not arise simultaneously in the way that Chittamatra asserts it as both arising simultaneously from the same karmic tendency. The two have a cause and effect relationship. From the ripening of one karma tendency there arises the appearance of an object on the basis of the potentials of the various facets of the elements that comprise its obtaining cause. From the subsequent ripening of another karmic tendency – and this ripening can occur much later than that previous one – there arises the experience of cognizing the object. According to Gelug Prasangika, the inseparability of mind and appearance does not imply simultaneity, but rather interdependence. However, when an object is functioning as the focal condition (dmigs-rkyen) of the cognition of it, the cognition of it arises uninterruptedly (bar ma-bcad). 

We also need to be careful to not to understand this explanation in terms of the Sautrantika-Svatantrika tenet system. It is not, as Sautrantika-Svatantrika asserts, that conventionally there is a findable stream of liquid comprised of a self-established water element having these different facets findable on its own side and that later, in conjunction with and dependent on the mental factor of distinguishing findable on the side of the perceiver’s mind, the stream of liquid is validly cognized as a stream of water or of pus. 

Appearances as the Play of Voidness and of Bliss

All appearances of samsara and nirvana are also explained as being the play of voidness (emptiness). This means that all appearances have voidness as what they rely on (rten) and as their self-nature (rang-bzhin). Because appearances have voidness as their self-nature, they dependently arise. Voidness and appearance are inseparable in this sense. They are also inseparable in the sense that appearances are the basis for their voidness (stong-gzhi). Voidness does not create appearances, nor is it the natal source out of which appearances that were sitting inside it emerge. 

There is also the explanation that appearances are the play of bliss (bde-ba’i rol-ba) or the play of joy (dga’-ba’i rol-ba). They are also called the play of deep awareness (ye-shes rol-ba). This is found, for instance, in the Guru Puja, Lama Chopa (Bla-ma mchod-pa), where the pure appearances of the Form Bodies of a Buddha and of the mandala environments are referred to as the play of the clear-light subtlest mind generated into a blissful deep awareness of voidness.