Tainted and Untainted, and Samsaric and Nirvanic Appearances

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Tainted and Untainted Appearances

We’ve looked at the variables affecting the type of mental holograms that our mental activity gives rise to. These are the variables of “accurate and inaccurate” and “pure and impure” appearances. We’ve seen that these variables refer to both the appearance of what something is as well as the appearance of how it exists.

The next variable is “tainted and untainted” appearances. In English this pair is often translated as “contaminated and uncontaminated,” but, in English, that implies something like “contaminated with radiation in Chernobyl,” so I don’t really care for those terms. “Tainted and untainted” are more emotionally neutral terms. These terms are defined differently in the different traditions. Vasubandhu, as we’ve seen, defined a tainted phenomenon as “anything that arises based on unawareness and the other disturbing emotions, and which gives rise to, strengthens and perpetuates further unawareness and further disturbing emotions.” With this definition, “tainted and untainted” corresponded to “impure and pure.”

The Gelug Prasangika tradition defines “tainted and untainted” in its own unique way. Here, this variable is set only in terms of the appearance of how something exists. “Tainted phenomena” are those phenomena that are mixed with an appearance of truly established existence. “Untainted phenomena” are those phenomena that are not mixed with an appearance of truly established existence.

Now we have to understand what “mixed with an appearance of truly established existence” means. Remember, we discussed how mental activity is made up of primary consciousness and a whole network of mental factors. The primary consciousness and mental factors always have a focal object that they share in common, as well as a mental hologram of that object that they all give rise to together and which appears. Often, but not always, that object is a form of physical phenomenon, but even when that object is not such a form, like when focusing on voidness, there is always a person’s physical body that is the support of the mental activity.

Phenomena that are “mixed with an appearance of truly established existence” refer to all these components that are supporting, or part of, or appearing in our mental activity when that mental activity is giving rise to an appearance of truly established existence. So, when our mental activity is focused with total absorption non-conceptually on the voidness of truly established existence, it is not giving rise to a mental hologram that has an appearance of truly established existence and of course it doesn’t grasp at it. At that time, the primary mental consciousness or clear-light consciousness, all the accompanying mental factors, and the body of the person supporting that mental activity are all untainted. They appear or arise in our untainted mental activity.

At all other times – so, whenever our mental activity is not absorbed non-conceptually on voidness – our primary consciousness, mental factors, body and so on are tainted. They have tainted appearances when our mental activity is engaged in the appearance-making of truly established existence. So, whether we’re imaging our body in our ordinary form or in the pure form of a Buddha figure, it can be either tainted or untainted, depending on whether there’s an appearance of truly established existence with it. That’s what the variable “tainted and untainted” is referring to.

So, even when we’re an arhat, we’re not always totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness: only a Buddha is. At that time, when as an arhat we’re totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness, our illusory body (if we’re practicing anuttarayoga tantra) or our mental body (if we’re practicing sutra) is untainted. But when we come out of that meditation and our mental activity still gives rise to holograms with an appearance of true existence, but which we don’t grasp at it, our illusory body or mental body is tainted with an appearance of truly established existence. Let that sink in for a moment.


Samsaric and Nirvanic Appearances

The last variable that we need to discuss are the appearances of samsara and the appearances of nirvana. What do they refer to? Samsara is uncontrollably recurring rebirth, which is based on unawareness as described by the twelve links of dependent arising. Nirvana is a state of liberation from unawareness. Both arhats and Buddhas have attained nirvana, though a Buddha has, in addition, attained enlightenment.

If we look at unawareness in the context of the twelve links a little bit more deeply than just the explanation given by the non-Prasangika schools, we’re talking about grasping for truly established existence. Remember, grasping for true existence has two components: (1) the appearance-making and cognition of truly established existence, and (2) the grasping at it to correspond to how things actually exist. That grasping is accompanied by unawareness: either not knowing that it doesn’t correspond or believing that it does correspond. So, a samsaric appearance is one that arises with an appearance of true existence plus this grasping. A nirvanic appearance is one that arises without this grasping, but it could be either with or without an appearance of true existence.

For arhats, when a nirvanic appearance is with an appearance of true existence, it is called “nirvana with a residue,” and when it is without such an appearance, namely when they are totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness, it is called “nirvana without a residue.” “Residue,” in reference to arhats, means with an appearance of true existence. Remember, arhats, when they’re not totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness, their mental activity still gives rise to an appearance of true existence and they cognize it, but do not grasp at it. So, since arhats are liberated beings – they have attained nirvana – all appearances that their mental activity gives rise to are nirvanic appearances, despite the fact that sometimes those appearances are tainted with an appearance of true existence and sometimes untainted.

For aryas who have attained a true stopping only of doctrinally based grasping of true existence, but not yet a true stopping of the automatically arising variety – so they have not yet attained nirvana and are not arhats – all the appearances their mental activity gives rise to are samsaric appearances. This is the case whether they are absorbed non-conceptually on voidness or any time otherwise.

The mental activity of Buddhas never gives rise to an appearance of truly established existence and certainly has no grasping. In reference to Buddhas, “nirvana with residue” refers to their Form Bodies and “nirvana without residue” refers to their Dharmakaya, their minds.

Nirvana with or without residue is known as an “acquired nirvana”: what one acquires or attains as an arhat or as a Buddha. There’s also “natural nirvana,” which refers to voidness.

Working with This Material in the Manner of Abhidharma Training in Higher Discriminating Awareness

When we work with this material, we do so in the manner with which we study abhidharma. The Indian Buddhist texts are often divided into the tripitika, the three baskets. These are the “baskets” of the texts on vinaya, sutra, and abhidharma. Studying each of these helps us to develop the so-called “three higher trainings.” “Higher” refers to developing them with a motivation of either renunciation – the determination to be free of samsara – or bodhichitta.

  • By studying vinaya – the rules of discipline, the vows – we develop the training in higher ethical self-discipline.
  • By studying the sutras, we develop the training in higher concentration. The sutras describe all sorts of different meditations we do.
  • By studying abhidharma, which means “special topics of knowledge,” we develop the training in higher discriminating awareness.

“Discriminating awareness” (shes-rab) is usually translated as “wisdom,” but that’s much too vague a word. Discriminating awareness isn’t necessarily about voidness. Remember, the definition of “discriminating awareness” is “a mental factor that adds certainty to distinguishing.” With it, we’re absolutely certain that something is this and not that. We distinguish these colored shapes as a body from the colored shapes of the wall. That’s distinguishing. Discriminating awareness adds certainty to that. We’re really sure of that, there’s no indecision; but, of course our decisiveness could be correct or incorrect. Abhidharma helps us to train in this type of discriminating awareness – decisiveness in distinguishing this from that. It doesn’t teach about the discriminating awareness of voidness.

When we study abhidharma, we learn all sorts of variables, like what we’ve been discussing: accurate and inaccurate, pure and impure, tainted and untainted, samsara and nirvana – all of these. We had four sets of variables here. They deal with both what things appear to be and how they appear to exist. We discussed this from the point of view of ways of being aware of things – the cognitive side – and we also discussed it from the mental hologram side.

We improve our discriminating awareness with abhidharma training by working with set theory, like in mathematics. Set theory deals with the logical pervasions of various sets of items. For example: what is the pervasion between something being impure and something being accurate or inaccurate? In other words, if something is impure, can it be accurate? Can it be inaccurate? Can it be tainted? Can it be untainted? We try to figure out all these combinations. This, then, is what we do in the abhidharma training in order to develop the discriminating awareness to know decisively such things as: if something is like this, what are the possibilities that it could also be this or that? If it’s not like this, what are the possibilities? With each pervasion we state, we need to give an example. In this way, our minds become very clear and sharp. That’s the development of discriminating awareness.

Remember, until modern times, Buddhist practitioners in traditional Buddhist societies didn’t have our modern educational system. Studying Dharma was their educational system, so this is how they developed their intelligence, their ability to deal with complex systems. Whether we like it or not, conventional reality is very complex, so we have to deal with it. This means that we have to develop our ability to work with highly complex systems. If we think in terms of the interactions of everybody with each other, how complex is that?

So, we’ve presented all of these variables, and if we want to work with it, we need to work out for ourselves all the logical pervasions: how the variables all fit together. Before I came here, I thought that I’d make charts to show how these variables fit together, but when I started to try to do that, I realized that it was too complex to make charts of all the different ways our four sets of variables fit together. Also, you can’t really put so many variables into a two-dimensional chart. So, I gave up and decided that this is your homework.

We can use this material either to help us develop this discriminating awareness, or we could use it to analyze what we’re experiencing in each moment. That means that when we’re having some sort of problem or difficulty, we try to identify what are the faulty appearances our mental activity is giving rise to here. What are the problematic mental factors that we need to work to get rid of, and what is the basic functioning of mental activity that we don’t try to get rid of? Then, of course, there’s the third possibility, which is just to forget about it all this!

Everything depends on our motivation. Why did we come here to start with? Did we come just for entertainment, or did we want to learn something that might be actually useful? Now we have time for some more questions.

How Do We Have Valid Cognition of Completely New Objects?

The first of Candrakirti’s three criteria for evaluating a valid cognition was that the object needs to be a well-known conventional object. But what about if something completely new appears that isn’t an object of common knowledge – for example, some newly discovered subatomic particle or a new element in the periodic chart or some alien object from outer space? In such cases, how can this first criterion for a valid cognition of it be fulfilled?

If something arises newly and we’re the very first person to observe it, just the fact that we have observed it means that it’s an object of common knowledge. “Common” doesn’t necessarily mean “shared with many others”; it can also mean “ordinary.” In other words, with just our ordinary type of mind, we can observe it. That’s enough, even if we’re the first person to observe it. However, we need to verify that what we observe is not a hallucination, so we need to check with other people if they can also observe it. That’s the scientific method: other people have to do the experiment and come up with the same result. That was Chandrakirti’s second criterion: it has to not be contradicted by a mind that validly cognized conventional truth.

Is Bodhichitta a Type of Primary Consciousness?

What kind of mind is bodhichitta? Is it a type of mental consciousness?

To answer this, we need to understand the difference between a “primary consciousness” (rnam-shes) and a “principal awareness” (gtso-sems). These are two different Tibetan terms. We’ve spoken about primary consciousness: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling a physical sensation, or mental consciousness. “Primary awareness” is a cluster of some type of primary consciousness and certain mental factors that always have to be there with a certain specific value. That whole package or cluster of ways of knowing is given the name of the principal component of it, which in this case, is bodhichitta.

Bodhichitta, then, is a principal awareness made up of a mental consciousness that’s focused on our individual not-yet-happening enlightenment, which is an imputation on the Buddha-nature factors that will be its causes on our own mental continuum. In the same package with this mental primary consciousness are two specific intentions: to attain that enlightenment and to benefit all beings by means of that attainment. Accompanying this principal awareness, bodhichitta, and arising immediately before it, are two additional cognitions. One is love and the other is compassion. Both are with mental consciousness and both are aimed at all sentient beings. But each has its own way of taking to mind all sentient beings. Love is with the wish for them to have happiness and the causes for happiness. Compassion is the wish for them to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.

We can have several cognitions simultaneously, each with its own focal object and each with its own way of taking that focal object to mind. Each might not be accompanied, however, with the same degree of attention. An easier example to understand is seeing, hearing and feeling the temperature of the room at the same moment.

Are love and compassion mental factors?

Yes, love and compassion are mental factors, even if they are not listed in the standard Buddhist abhidharma lists of 51 or 46 mental factors. If we have a pie, we can divide it into many different numbers of slices. And if we divide it into 51 slices, we could do that in two ways. We could divide the whole pie into 51 slices, or we could divide only part of the pie into 51 slices and there would be some pie left over. The abhidharma presentations of the mental factors are like dividing just part of the pie of mental factors into 51 slices. There are many mental factors that aren’t included in the standard lists, like love, compassion, patience, and so on. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t mental factors; they are. The abhidharma presentations are just dividing part of the pie, not the whole thing.

Why Are the Mental Factors in Some Life Forms More Highly Developed Than in Others?

With all the mental factors that mental activity has, why is it that in certain life forms they can be more highly developed than in others?

This is a very good question, because it reminds us of the fact that when we talk about mental activity, it always has to have a physical basis. We can also describe it in terms of physically what is happening: in terms of chemicals, electric impulses, and so on; but we also need to consider the basic cognitive hardware of the rebirth state in which it occurs. In the discussion of the things that ripen from our karmic aftermath, there is what’s called “throwing karma.” Throwing karma shapes the type of life form we have in our next lifetime. Then, there’s completing karma, which is going to complete the circumstances of it: we can be reborn as a human but a blind one, and so on.

When throwing karma gives rise to the body of our next lifetime, with its species-specific habits like wagging our tail when we’re happy, the accompanying completing karma adds the value and strength of the unspecified mental factors that we’ll have in that lifetime. Completing karma doesn’t give rise to the strength of the constructive mental factors like love and compassion, or the destructive ones like anger that we’ll have.

Now, remember, each of these unspecified mental factors, like “discriminating awareness,” which is basically intelligence, as well as “attention,” and all these other factors, span a spectrum of varying values and strengths. So, very intelligent or not very intelligent, the ability to distinguish many things or not to distinguish very much, the ability to decisively understand things or not – these are variables.

Our throwing karma, then, throws the mental continuum with the conventional “me” as an imputation on it into a rebirth situation in which all these mental factors are the result of each of their tendencies. Please don’t misunderstand this. It’s not that we are separate from all of this and that now we’re dealt a new deck of cards by karma and have to play with them in this next lifetime. That’s New Age, not Buddhism.

The physical basis, in other words the body of the life-form of our rebirth – a human body and brain, or an ant body and brain – will only be able to support the value of the unspecified mental factors that ripen together with it. The body and the unspecified mental factors ripen together and fit harmoniously with each other. So, these two will come together and ripen together. An ant brain will only be able to support a very low value of discriminating awareness and ability to understand things, though of course it will be able to distinguish and discriminate where its anthill is.

This was the point I was making when I mentioned that the bodies of different life forms will be able to support different levels of pain and pleasure and, associated with that, different levels of happiness and unhappiness. The spectrum for these will be from very low intensity to very high intensity. For example, a hell being has a body that is not going to fall unconscious, like a human one will, at a certain level of pain; it will stay conscious all the way to the extreme end of that spectrum. That’s a hellish rebirth. When humans experience extreme levels of unhappiness, they can commit suicide; hell beings can’t commit suicide and so they can experience even worse unhappiness. So, the body and the mental factors will always work harmoniously with each other. The body will support the level of the mental factors and the level of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical sensations appropriate to it. An ant can’t learn calculus, a human can’t distinguish the scents that a dog can, and a fish can’t type on a computer.  

If we are reborn as an ant or a cockroach, can we develop bodhichitta in that life-form? Well, no. We wouldn’t be able to understand what enlightenment is. We would need to wait until the karma that’s sustaining that type of life has been depleted and there’s sufficient positive potential built up during previous lifetimes so that we’re born with a precious human rebirth. There’s not much we can do as an ant to improve our future rebirths. There are maybe a few things that as a dog we could do to build up more positive potential. We could learn to be a seeing eye dog that helps a blind person, so that dog would certainly build up some positive force from that. But I wonder about the seeing-eye dog’s motivation.

If we have developed a certain quality, a certain mental factor like patience to a certain extent, and we’re reborn as an ant, will we then be an extremely patient ant, or a hell being but an extremely patient hell being, or a human being that will inherit that potential and will be very patient?

No, not necessarily. We’ve had beginningless rebirths, so just because we develop something in this lifetime doesn’t mean that it’s going to ripen in the next lifetime. It could ripen twenty thousand lifetimes in the future; it’s not linear like that. Even if we were very intelligent in this human lifetime, there is no guarantee that we will be equally intelligent in our next human lifetime. The value and strength of our intelligence is not going to grow linearly even in successive human rebirths. The potential for an equal level of intelligence is there, but how it manifests will depend on an enormous number of circumstances in each lifetime.

However, as humans we have a special situation, which is that due to our karmic potentials, we may be born with limited intelligence. But, we do have the potential to develop our intelligence further, not just simply with education, but by building up positive force to overcome mental blocks. The classic example is that Buddha had a disciple who couldn’t remember anything. So, the Buddha had this disciple sweep the temple. The Buddha told him to say, “Dirt be gone; dirt be gone.” Then, by building up such tremendous positive force from always cleaning the temple, this monk developed great insight and eventually became an arhat. Whether that’s true or not is beside the point. It illustrates the point that with a tremendous amount of positive force, we can overcome these types of handicaps. However, if our throwing karma has already ripened so that we’ve been born blind, then no matter how much positive force we build up, we’re not going to develop sight. But we can still develop our intelligence by learning to read brail, for instance, and studying like that.

Diet and exercise will also affect the strength of our mental factors. Medications can affect the level of pain we feel or our ability to distinguish things. These can have just a short-term or a long-term effect in this lifetime and may affect the functioning of these mental factors in future lives as well. The topic of cause and effect in relation to our mental activity is very complex.