Accurate and Inaccurate Appearances

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Brief Review of Why and How We Need to Analyze the Different Types of Appearances

We’ve been speaking about the various appearances that our mental activity gives rise to. We are analyzing them because how things appear to us affects very much how we respond to what we experience in life, doesn’t it? When we respond to the way things appear to us in an inappropriate way, under the influence of our unawareness of how things exist, and with the insecurity and confusion that it brings, that leads us to develop disturbing emotions and attitudes. These activate the various karmic tendencies for us to act in compulsive ways. Then we actually act compulsively, also mixed with disturbing emotions, and this produces all sorts of problems. Especially if we’re trying to help others, it really disables us and prevents us from being of best help to them. That’s because we become attached to them or we become annoyed with them when they don’t follow our advice, and so on. Or, we become control freaks: we think that we can control everything around us. Or we become perfectionists. These disturbing emotions and attitudes, then, produce all sorts of problems, don’t they? So, it’s very important to sort out these various appearances that our mental activity gives rise to and see which are accurate, which are inaccurate, and so on.

There are many variables concerning these appearances that we can evaluate. We can recognize which are the aspects that we need to work to get rid of and which are the ones that are always going to be there and that we just need to develop their abilities more. In other words, we have to understand what we mean by “purification.”

“Purification” can mean, on the one hand, to get rid of something completely – to attain a true stopping of it – or it can mean to get some mental factor or mental faculty to work more efficiently. If we’re able to successfully purify away everything that we need to get rid of, we’ll no longer be under the influence of our unawareness, our confusion, our disturbing emotions and the compulsiveness of our karma. We will become liberated beings, arhats, which means that we’ll no longer experience uncontrollably recurring rebirth. This means rebirth with the type of aggregate factors that we have now: body, mind, all the mental factors, and so on, which are the basis for experiencing the suffering of unhappiness, as well as the suffering and problems of our ordinary happiness, which never lasts, never satisfies – we always want more – and changes to unhappiness because we become bored with it. If we continue the purification process further, we can become enlightened Buddhas, so that we see the interconnectedness of everything, particularly in terms of behavioral cause and effect, and we know best how to help others.

We can undertake this process of sorting these mental factors out and purifying the ones that we need to get rid of with, if we think in terms of the lam-rim, the three levels of motivation. “Motivation” means an intention to reach a certain goal and to do something once we reach that goal, together with the emotion behind that intention. We want to sort out these mental factors that appear in our mental activity, first of all, to avoid worse rebirths, because we really dread that; we’re afraid of that, and if we get continuing precious human rebirths we can best continue to progress further to work toward gaining liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth altogether. We’re determined to be free from samsaric rebirth; we’re disgusted, and not just disgusted, but bored with it, actually. We’re bored of all the recurring problems and sufferings that we have because of our disturbing emotions and our compulsive karmic behavior. We want to gain that liberation, if we think in terms of Mahayana, so that in helping others we’re not going to have obstacles because of our own emotional backgrounds and behavior. Then, moved by love, compassion, and realizing our interconnectedness with everybody, and how we’re all equal, then we work toward the enlightened state of a Buddha so that we can be of best help to them.

If we’re working on the spiritual path already in the context of this advanced level of motivation, the Mahayana motivation, then we can work to achieve each of these three successive goals on the basis of love and compassion. “How can I really continue helping others if I’m reborn as a cockroach, and anybody who sees me just wants to step on me? That’s not going to be of great help to others.” Also, “How can I be of best help if I’m continuing to take rebirth? How utterly boring, I’ll have to be a baby again, I’ll have to go to school again, I’m going to get sick, I’m going to grow old, and so on... Boring! Also, I’ll still have attachment, get annoyed at things, and so on. I really have to get beyond that!” Also, “If people continue to appear to me as if they’re encapsulated in plastic and I can’t really see all the interconnectedness and so on, I don’t really have the large enough scope needed to be able to help them the best, so I have to get rid of that limitation!”

All of this means we really need to sort through all these appearances that our mental activity gives rise to.

Brief Review of Mental Activity

We saw that mental activity has two aspects; it can be described from two points of view. One is the giving rise to a mental hologram, and that’s equivalent to the second aspect, a cognitive engagement with something. The arising of a mental hologram is, in fact, how we cognize things. Although the two are inseparable in our mental activity, nevertheless, conceptually, we can isolate these two aspects so that we can analyze separately the arising of various ways of cognizing things and the arising of various types of mental hologram. Both ways of cognizing and mental holograms constitute what appears in our mental activity.

We’ve spoken about the ways of cognizing that arise and appear in our mental activity. We have seen that these ways of being aware of something, to put it in simple language, both give rise to the mental holograms and cognize them, whereas persons cognize the mental holograms but do not give rise to them. But a person isn’t something that’s separate from this whole process, either watching from somewhere inside our brains the arising of the holograms or controlling it or out of control. So, when we talk about mental activity in terms of experiencing things, we’d have to say that “I experience them.” It’s not that nobody experiences them, and it’s not that “you” experience them; mental activity is individual and subjective.

We have seen that any cognitive engagement entails primary consciousness and mental factors, as well as certain ways of knowing things that are in neither of these categories, like grasping for truly established existence. This is because this grasping for true existence interpolates. In other words, it projects something onto the holograms, which are merely being given rise to by the primary consciousness and mental factors together.

We don’t want to get rid of mental activity; it’s going to continue as a Buddha. We’re going to continue to have primary consciousness and mental factors, although anuttaratantra modifies this and substitutes clear light subtlest consciousness for primary consciousness; but let’s stick with the sutra level explanation in terms of primary consciousness and mental factors. And as Buddhas, we’re going to continue to have five aggregates, but they will not be the same type of aggregates that we have as samsaric beings or even as arhats.

Among those mental factors that we’ll continue to have, we spoke about the five ever-functioning ones and the five ascertaining ones. Each of them operates over a whole spectrum of values. Like, for instance, we talk about “attention”: we can have either almost no attention or complete attention. What we want to do is to get all ten of these mental factors to all work at their maximum optimal levels, and that would be as a Buddha. These mental factors will continue to operate then; they’ll just be working at the best level possible.

So, the ever-functioning and the ascertaining mental factors have not only no beginning but also no end. But then we’ve seen that there are certain other mental factors that also have no beginning, but which can have an end. These include things like unawareness and grasping for true existence. That’s because they can be replaced by an exact opposite that is mutually exclusive with them and, in this case, we’re talking about the discriminating awareness of voidness. However, we have also seen that just mere academic professors can get a correct understanding of voidness, but they would only be able to go as far with that as attaining a state of shamatha – a stilled and settled state of mind. They could attain perfect concentration focused on voidness with a correct understanding. However, they wouldn’t be able to attain a state of vipashyana focused on it – an exceptionally perceptive state of mind that discerns all the details – and they certainly wouldn’t be able to get a non-conceptual cognition on voidness. I think in our Western languages, we could say that they could get perfect intellectual understanding of voidness, but not anything deeper.

In order for that discriminating awareness of voidness to bring about a true stopping of unawareness and a true stopping of grasping for true existence, it has to have an enormous force of other things behind it, which we outlined yesterday, particularly a huge network of positive force based on the determination to be free, or renunciation, and bodhichitta. If we can attain a true stopping of unawareness and of grasping for true existence, we will attain simultaneously a true stopping of the disturbing emotions and attitudes that are based on them. Therefore, when we think about the disturbing emotions in contrast with the positive ones, like anger versus love, then because we can get rid of the negative ones – the destructive or disturbing emotions – that means, and it sounds like a song: love will triumph. There’s nothing that can bring about a true stopping of love and compassion. So, these positive emotions can carry on to enlightenment, but of course they’d have to be purified. They’d have to work at their maximum level.

So, this is our review of what we’ve discussed so far. Since what we’ll analyze next is rather complex, it would be really good if you could try to keep these points in mind as we go further. Because of that, I gave a more extensive review.

The Different Aspects of Mental Holograms

Now let’s turn to the other side of this mental activity, which are the actual mental holograms that mental activity gives rise to. Remember, we’re just – the technical term is “conceptually isolating” these two aspects: the mental engagement that arises and the mental hologram that arises. They don’t actually exist isolated, encapsulated in plastic and separate from each other. We’re talking about the same activity, just from two points of view.

One of the unique features of Tsongkhapa’s clarification of the Buddhist teachings is besides the two truths about any mental hologram that arises – its mode of appearance and its mode of existing – its mode of appearance also has two aspects. Again, the two members of each of these two pairs can only be conceptually isolated from each other, because they arise inseparably together and are just what are seen from different points of view.

  • The mode of appearance of a mental hologram is its conventional, superficial truth. It is what a limited mind – the mind of a non-enlightened being – focused on the appearance cognizes as true. It has two aspects: (1) what object the mental hologram appears to be and (2) how it appears to be established as existing like that. It always appears to be truly existent.
  • The mode of existence is the deepest truth about the mental hologram, namely its voidness, its total absence of truly existing in this impossible way. It is what a mind focused non-conceptually on voidness cognizes as true.

The mental activity of a non-enlightened person cannot cognize both truths simultaneously. The two truths are mutually exclusive. Such persons can only cognize one at a time. When they non-conceptually focus explicitly on voidness – “explicitly” means that a mental hologram of voidness arises and appears in their cognition – the conventional, superficial appearance of the basis for that voidness cannot arise. It can’t arise because the basis for the voidness appears to them to be truly existent, which is mutually exclusive with an appearance of voidness, an absence of true existence. Similarly, when non-enlightened persons focus non-conceptually explicitly on the conventional, superficial appearance of the basis for a voidness, they can only focus implicitly on its voidness – “implicitly means” that a mental hologram of the voidness does not arise or appear.

The enlightened minds of the Buddhas cognize only deepest truth, not conventional, superficial truths. So, what does it mean that Buddhas are the only ones who can focus on the two truths simultaneously and explicitly? Tsongkhapa explains that their ability to focus on the two truths simultaneously means that Buddhas can focus explicitly on the voidnesses of the two truths simultaneously. The voidnesses of the two truths can be conceptually isolated into the voidnesses of each of the two truths, but Buddhas don’t conceptually isolate the two or cognize them separately. Buddhas only have explicit cognition.

Although Buddhas do not cognize the appearances of conventional, superficial truths, because such appearances are appearances of truly established existence and can only arise in the mental activity of non-enlightened persons, that does not mean that Buddhas are not omniscient and do not cognize all validly knowable phenomena. Tsongkhapa further explains that Buddhas cognize “mere conventional objects” (kun-rdzob-pa tsam), not conventional truths. But this doesn’t mean that there are findable “mere conventional objects” that are the common locus cognized by Buddhas as non-truly existent and by non-Buddhas as truly existent. Nor does it mean, like Chittamatra would assert, that there are no external objects – that the appearances of conventional objects in the mental activity of enlightened beings and of non-enlightened beings arise solely from a tendency for cognition of them as an imputation on each of their mental continuums. We need to be careful to avoid these eternalist and nihilist type of extremes. By “mere conventional objects,” Tsongkhapa means what arise in mental activity when it does not analyze or scrutinize either conventional truth or deepest truth.

I realize that what I just explained is extremely advanced and difficult to understand, but it needs to be mentioned, otherwise it can be very easy to understand our discussion of appearances incorrectly.

Accurate and Inaccurate Appearances

Let’s just speak about the mental holograms that arise in the mental activity of everyone other than Buddhas and let’s just speak about the conventional, superficial truth of the mental holograms that their mental activity gives rise to. In other words, let’s talk about the manner of appearance of these mental holograms when they explicitly appear in our usual mental activity. Remember, mental holograms of conventional truths cannot appear in non-conceptual explicit cognition of ultimate truths, voidnesses.

Because mental holograms of conventional truths all appear to be truly existent, they are all deceptive appearances. Their manner of appearance of how they exist and their actual manner of existing are different. Nevertheless, what they appear to be can be either accurate or inaccurate. The classic example is seeing the moon. If an appearance of the moon arises by relying on non-defective eyes, it is an appearance of a single moon and that is an accurate appearance. If the appearance arises dependently on defective eyes, for instance on crossed eyes, then an appearance of a double moon arises. That is an inaccurate appearance.

Both the appearance of a single moon and the appearance of a double moon are deceptive, however, since both appear to be truly existent. Nevertheless, we can differentiate one as being conventionally accurate and one as being conventionally inaccurate. So, for conventional truths, the appearance of what something is can be accurate or inaccurate, whereas the appearance of how it exists is always inaccurate.

It is important here to differentiate between an accurate and inaccurate appearance and a valid and a non-valid way of cognizing the appearance. Tsongkhapa asserts very strongly that just because the appearance of how a single moon seems to exist is deceptive and false, does not disqualify the cognition of a single moon by a non-enlightened mind from being a valid cognition. In fact, Tsongkhapa uniquely asserts that even the cognition of the single moon as appearing to be truly existent is a valid cognition when it accurately and decisively cognizes this appearance of something that resembles true existence. That cognition doesn’t need to be accompanied by the discriminating awareness that the appearance is false in order for it to accurately and decisively cognize the deceptive appearance. In fact, the distorted cognition of a double moon is also a valid cognition from the point of view of its valid cognition of the appearance of a double moon as also appearing to be truly existent.

Appearances of What Something Is Are Relative

Now it becomes even more interesting. What something conventionally appears to be is dependent on the class of beings that cognize it. The appearance of what something is can only be accurate relative to a specific class of beings.

This point doesn’t refer to what we consider the appearance to be an appearance of and what we label it as. For instance, the mental hologram that arises in the mental activity of a baby and that of an adult might be the same. However, adults interpret what they see as “a watch” and they put it on their wrists, but babies consider it “a toy” and put it in their mouths. The same mental hologram arises in the mental activity of both; the difference comes from the mental factor, distinguishing, that accompanies their visual consciousness. This mental factor distinguishes a defining characteristic mark of the object. The adults distinguish the characteristic mark that it is something that can be put on their wrist; the babies distinguish the characteristic mark that is it is something that can be put in their mouth. Both are correct, aren’t they? Then, there’s the mental factor of consideration: what do they consider it to be: a watch or a toy? And, it is accurate that it can function as both a watch and as a toy, can’t it? So, we’re not talking about that difference here when we speak of different mental holograms arising dependently on the class of beings whose mental activity gives rise to them.

The relativity of appearances refers to different mental holograms that arise. And as in the case of the difference between the mental holograms that arise in the mental activity of enlightened beings and non-enlightened beings, it’s not that different classes of beings are looking at some object that is like a blank sheet of paper and one sees it one way and the other sees it another way. Nothing is truly established as “this” or as “that” or as a blank “nothing” that different beings can see differently as “this” or “that.”

One difference in what the mental holograms that arise appear to be to different classes of beings arises because of their having different types of non-defective sensory apparatus. Each perceives through the non-deceptive sensory apparatus specific to their life-form. For instance, the mental hologram that arises and appears to our mental activity when we look at something through the photo-sensitive cells and structure of our human eyes is actually very different from what arises in the mental activity of a fly looking at something through the multi-prismatic lenses of a fly’s eyes. It’s impossible to say which one is more accurate, isn’t it, what a human sees and what a fly sees? Both are accurate relative to their class of beings.

The classic example that maybe you’ve heard of is that humans see water, hungry ghosts see pus and divine beings, the gods, see nectar. These different mental holograms arise as the result of the different karmic aftermath of each set of beings that has ripened into the bodies and minds of their current life forms. All three types of mental holograms are accurate, but accurate only relative to the specific class of beings to whom it arises. Remember, one of the results that ripen from karmic aftermath is the types of appearances that we experience our mental activity giving rise to. Mental activity can accurately give rise to hellish appearances or heavenly appearances or mundane human appearances.

The Three Criteria to Evaluate If an Appearance Is Accurate or Inaccurate

You got that? The mental holograms that rise in the mental activity of different beings can appear differently, depending on the types of cognitive sensors and what they experience as the ripened results of their karmic aftermath. But all of them can still be accurate. Of course, they also can all be inaccurate. So how do we evaluate whether a mental hologram that arises and appears is accurate or not? The great Indian master Chandrakirti gave three criteria. These are not formulated in terms of something on the side of the object. Rather, they are formulated on the side of the mind, on the side of the mental activity. That’s quite significant if we’re mistakenly thinking in terms of there being concrete, objective reality. We can’t actually pinpoint concrete, objective reality.

The first criteria is that (1) what something appears to be needs to be well-known in the sense of commonly known as a conventional object by a specific class of beings. That means, in the case of humans, that ordinary beings, that just means you and I, need to have either experienced the conventional object or heard of the conventional object. It doesn’t mean that we have to have understood it. For instance, we’ve heard of the conventional object “voidness,” we’ve heard of the conventional object “karma.” We don’t really understand them, but they are conventionally known by us; we’ve heard of them. It doesn’t mean that we actually have to have experienced them either, like the example of a mongoose. If we haven’t been to India or haven’t been to a zoo, maybe we’ve never seen a mongoose, but we’ve heard that there is such thing as a mongoose. Even if we’ve never heard of a mongoose, “mongoose” is in the dictionary, so it is a so-called “well-known conventional object.”

 Then, (2) the cognition of this appearance of some well-known conventional object must not be contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes conventional truth. This refers to what something conventionally is. An easy example: you said “yes”; I heard “no.” So, I have to check, did you really say “no”. If I ask you again, “What did you say?” and then you say that you said “yes,” that contradicts that faulty appearance of my thinking that you said “no.” Or, we ask other people: “What did this person say?” Or you listen to the recording again. “I thought that you said ‘blah, blah, blah,’ but now when I listen to the recording again, it’s not there.”

In this case, for what appeared in my mental activity – the appearance of the sound of the word “no” – to be accurate, it has to not be contradicted by the recording. However, here we don’t speak of recorders because they didn’t have them in Chandrakirti’s time in ancient India. Here we’re talking about other people who actually correctly heard what you said, or I ask you what you said. Or we remember what you said, but maybe our memory is inaccurate. All of these ways of checking the accuracy of what we heard are actually really important in our interpersonal relationships. So often we misunderstand what other people say or what they do, so when we get really upset, it’s important to check back to make sure that we’ve understood correctly. You see, what we’re talking about actually does have a practical application!

Then, the third criterion is (3) that the cognition of the appearance must not be contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes deepest truth. This applies to the appearances of how something exists. For example, it appears to me that things are encapsulated in plastic, but an arya who cognizes voidness non-conceptually would contradict our belief that it is actually true. Mind you, the arya’s valid non-conceptual cognition of voidness, deepest truth, doesn’t contradict the fact that what we cognize is an appearance of something that represents true existence. It contradicts that we actually cognize true existence itself.

We can apply that in a very simplistic way as well. When we visit a very old person in a nursing home who has dementia, is in a wheelchair and just picking at a towel and drooling, it appears that this person is truly like that and has always been like that, and we become very uneasy. It is true that the person appears like that, but a mind that validly knows that this person started out as a baby, lived a whole life as an adult, and so on – they certainly weren’t always like that – contradicts that they actually exist in the way they appear to exist. Understanding that allows us to have more respect for the person. Although they appear to have been always like that, it’s a false appearance.

So, these three are very important criteria, and we can see that they’re all formulated in terms of mind, mental activity.

The Causes for the Arising of Inaccurate Appearances

When our mental activity gives rise to mental holograms that are inaccurate or deceptive regarding what something appears to be or how it appears to exist, each of these faulty appearances comes from its own specific causes for deceptiveness.

The causes for the deceptiveness of what something appears to be can be faulty cognitive sensors, like being cross-eyed or hard of hearing. Or, the cause could be some illness, like when we see hallucinations when we have a high fever. Or, the cause could be external circumstances like, for instance, being in a very noisy restaurant, so we can’t really hear what our friends are saying. Or there’s terrible air pollution and smog, so we can’t really see clearly things that are far away.

The causes for the deceptiveness for how something appears to exist refer to the constant habits of grasping at truly established existence. As we discussed, these constant habits give rise to the appearance of truly established existence and we cognize it. We could just cognize it as an appearance and say, “Well, it appears like that, but that doesn’t correspond to reality.” An arhat would be like that. Or, we could cognize it and consider it as actually being truly established existence. That, we would call the actual “grasping” for true existence. That’s what all samsaric beings have. That’s the difference between a samsaric being and an arhat. Buddhas have achieved a true stopping of these constant habits, so they experience neither the arising of an appearance of true existence nor any grasping for it.

Okay? So that’s the presentation of accurate and inaccurate appearances, both in terms of what something is and how it exists. Rather than starting the next topic, why don’t we have a few questions. The next topic will be pure and impure appearances; that’s another variable. Are there any questions?

Do All Classes of Beings Have All the Ever-Functioning Mental Factors?

When you speak about the ever-functioning mental factors that sentient beings have even when they become Buddhas, does this also imply that they’re functionally present in the state of being reborn as a cockroach, or demi-god, or god, or any other type of being?

The five ever-functioning mental factors and the five ascertaining mental factors are present in every possible life form that we can be reborn in. There’s a super level of formless realm beings and also formless realm meditative absorptions we can attain even as humans where we’re so absorbed in a certain type of equipoise that distinguishing becomes dormant. However, it’s still there in terms of the tendency for distinguishing. So, certainly if we are reborn as a cockroach, we will be able to distinguish that something is food, or danger, and we will be certain that “this is food,” so discriminating awareness. In an ant rebirth, we will still have mindfulness and remember where our ant-hole is. As a cow, we will still be able to remember where our barn is. We will have urges, no matter what rebirth we take. For instance, as a mosquito, we’ll have the urge to feed on you. As a dog, we will feel happy or unhappy. The ever-functioning mental factors are present in any type of rebirth that we have.

Note how I’m saying that. I’m not saying that these other beings have these mental factors, that a cockroach on the floor has it. I’m saying, “I will have that if I’m reborn as a cockroach.” This is very significant if we’re going to start to really think in a Dharmic way. Don’t think of these other life forms in terms of “these other beings over there.” Rather, “These are things that I have experienced and that I’ll continue to experience unless I do something about it to achieve a true stopping of that possibility.”

We need to work hard to become convinced that we can be reborn with the bodies and minds of all these different types of life forms. Since the mental factors function over a whole spectrum of values, our mental factor of distinguishing could distinguish many subtle things as a very intelligent human or distinguish very little as an insect. In other words, in any rebirth we take, the type of body we have, for instance the type of brain or cognitive sensors we have, will support the level of the mental factors we have.

Also, I should point out, since this is confusing for many people, that “happy” and “unhappy” are ways of being aware of something. They are not the same as pleasure and pain. Pleasure and pain are physical sensations. “Happy” and “unhappy” are states of mind of how we experience anything, whether physical or mental. So, we could experience even pain with happiness. Like, if we’re somebody that works out with weights and at the end of a training session our muscles hurt, we’re happy about that because we know that we’ve achieved some progress in our training. I work out with weights three times a week, so I know about this. On the other hand, if we’re raped, we might experience sexual pleasure because of that, but we would be very unhappy about it. So, pleasure and happiness are different from each other. Also, we could have a type of body that could experience the most extreme pain and the most extreme unhappiness, which a human body is unable to support. We become unconscious if the pain reaches a certain level.

Working with and understanding these mental factors and how they work over a huge spectrum of values helps us to understand and become convinced that there are many other life-forms that we could experience rebirth as, because as humans we only experience a small part of each of these spectrums. We’re talking not only about the spectrums of the mental factors, but also about the spectrums of the cognitive objects we can experience. In terms of pleasure/pain as physical sensations, they constitute a spectrum; or, in terms of how far we can see: eagles can see much further than humans; dogs can smell much further than humans can, and so on.