The Appearances of Cognitive Objects That Arise in Mental Activity

What arises in a moment of mental activity includes both ways of cognitively taking objects and cognitive objects that are cognitively taken. 

Although we can say that both of these appear in a moment of cognition, usually appearances (snang-ba) in a moment of cognition refer to the cognitive objects that are cognitively taken. These appearances arise as transparent mental holograms (rnam-pa), through which we cognize conventionally existent phenomena (tha-snyad-du yod-pa’i chos). Although, as we have seen, mental activity can be divided into conceptual and non-conceptual cognition, here, we shall focus our discussion on non-conceptual sensory cognition according to the Gelug Prasangika assertions.

The Two Essential Natures of Appearances and the Two Truths

As we have also seen with the examples of the mental factors of consideration, regard and discriminating awareness, ways of being aware of something can be accurate or inaccurate. Likewise, mental holograms can be accurate or inaccurate. This parameter, however, has many variants.

Each validly knowable phenomenon – and so every mental hologram that arises in cognition of it – has two essential natures:

  • A superficial or concealer essential nature (kun-rdzob-gyi ngo-bo)
  • A deepest essential nature (don-dam-pa’i ngo-bo).

Its superficial essential nature refers to:

  • Its manner of appearance (snang-tshul), which is equivalent to
  • Its superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa), which refers to
  • What something appears to be within the extent of what can be validly cognized (ji-snyed-pa; literally, the extent of what is).

Its deepest essential nature refers to:

  • Its manner of abiding (gnas-tshul), in other words, what establishes its conventional existence, which is equivalent to
  • Its deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa), which refers to
  • Its manner of existence (ji-lta-ba).

The two truths themselves share one essential nature (ngo-bo gcig). In general, that means that the two truths are two facts about the same aspect of a validly knowable phenomenon considered from two cognitive points of view. The aspect, here, refers to the phenomenon’s appearance, namely the mental hologram through which it is cognized. 

The two truths are inseparable (dbyer-med), in the sense that if one is the case, so is the other. However, if we validly know one of them, we do not necessarily validly know the other, either simultaneously or sequentially. So, if we validly know the superficial essential nature of something, we do not necessarily know its deepest essential nature. 

As for the definitions of the two truths:

  • Superficial truths are those phenomena that are findable by valid cognition scrutinizing that which is conventional.
  • Deepest truths are those phenomena that are findable by valid cognition scrutinizing that which is ultimate.

“Scrutinize” (dpyod-pa) in the context of these definitions means to analyze with a cognition that is a reasoning (rig-shes). A reasoning cognition analyzes whether or not the superficial or deepest essential nature of a validly knowable phenomenon is a self-establishing nature that has the power, either by itself or in conjunction with mental labeling, to establish the conventional existence of that validly knowable phenomenon.

  • According to the Chittamatra and Svatantrika tenet systems, such reasoning cognitions find, respectively, the two essential natures existing as self-establishing natures.
  • According to the Gelug Prasangika view, however, nothing stands up to scrutiny or analysis with reasoning like this. This is the case because there are no such things as self-establishing natures. What a reasoning cognition finds is a voidness – the total absence of either of the two essential natures existing in this impossible way.

Because of this difference, Gelug Prasangika defines “find” in the context of these definitions of the two truths differently from how the Chittamatra and Svatantrika tenet systems define it. Gelug Prasangika asserts that “find” in this context means what the reasoning cognition scrutinizes as its involved object (‘jug-yul). 

  • The involved object when a reasoning cognition scrutinizes that which is conventional is the superficial essential nature of a conventionally existent phenomenon (tha-snyad-du yod-pa’i chos), which merely appears to be a self-establishing nature.
  • The involved object when a reasoning cognition scrutinizes that which is ultimate is the deepest essential nature of that phenomenon, namely its total absence (the voidness) of its actually being a self-establishing nature.

In order to avoid the extreme of nihilism, then, when accepting that all superficial truths are deceptive, Gelug Prasangika differentiates a mental hologram’s manner of appearance, and thus its superficial truth, into two facets:

  • Its manner of appearance in terms of which item it appears to be within the extent of what can be validly cognized (ji-snyed-kyi snang-tshul)
  • Its manner of appearance in terms of its manner of existence (ji-ltar-gyi snang-tshul).

In simpler language:

  • A superficial truth is what a validly knowable phenomenon appears to be, together with how it appears to exist, namely with truly established existence. Thus, all superficial truths are deceptive, because they are appearances of what seem to be self-established phenomena. Literally, they are “concealer truths” because they conceal their deepest truths. However, just because how something appears to exist is deceptive does not preclude the possibility that what it appears to conventionally be may be accurate.
  • A deepest truth is how a validly knowable phenomenon actually exists, namely devoid of truly established existence, understood as being not only compatible with dependent arising, but supportive of dependent arising.

Clarification about Conventionally Existent Validly Knowable Phenomena

According to the Chittamatra and Svatantrika tenet systems, the two truths share a common locus (gzhi-mthun), namely findable, self-established, validly knowable phenomena having the two essential natures. Such phenomena, they assert, are conventionally existent.  

From the Gelug Prasangika point of view, however, there is no findable common locus for the two truths, since Prasangika asserts that there are no such things as self-established validly knowable phenomena. That does not mean, however, that there are no validly knowable phenomena. Tsongkhapa repeatedly asserts that there are conventionally existent phenomena that can be validly cognized. He refers to them as “mere conventional phenomena” (tha-snyad-pa tsam) or “superficial phenomena” (kun-rdzob-pa). “Mere conventional phenomena” are what appear to valid cognition when not scrutinizing its cognitive object.

  • The existence of mere conventional phenomena, however, cannot be established by self-establishing natures, since there are no such things as sel-establishing natures.
  • Their existence can only be established dependently in terms of mental labeling.

What Buddhas Cognize

According to Tsongkhapa, mere conventional phenomena are what Buddhas cognize with their simultaneous, omniscient awareness of all validly knowable phenomena. Mere conventional phenomena are the bases for the voidness that Buddhas simultaneously cognize. Within Gelugpa, there are two positions as to how Buddhas cognize mere conventional phenomena:

  • Directly – through their being the involved objects in their own omniscient mental activity
  • Indirectly – through their being the involved objects in the mental activity of all sentient beings.

In the context of the sutra system, then, although Buddhas omnisciently cognize all mere conventional phenomena, they do not cognize superficial, concealer truths, since all superficial truths appear to be self-established. Thus, Tsongkhapa asserts that a Buddha’s omniscient explicit awareness of the two truths as sharing one essential nature, but having different conceptual isolates, focuses only on voidness. The voidness cognized by omniscient awareness can be conceptually isolated into the voidness of the superficial truth and the voidness of the deepest truth of all validly knowable phenomena. In this way, a Buddha cognizes the voidness of both truths explicitly and simultaneously.

  • Doing so does not contradict omniscient awareness simultaneously also cognizing all mere conventional phenomena as the bases for voidness, because mere conventional phenomena are not the same as the deceptive appearances of superficial concealer truths.
  • Before enlightenment, it is only possible to cognize the voidness of superficial truths implicitly – i.e. without voidness appearing in the cognition – while explicitly apprehending the deceptive appearances of superficial truths. This occurs only during non-conceptual subsequent attainment meditation on illusion-like voidness,

The Two Truths in the Anuttarayoga Tantra System

Within the context of the anuttarayoga tantra system, Gelug Prasangika, asserts illusory body (sgyu-lus) as superficial truth and clear-light subtlest mind (‘od-gsal) as deepest truth. Here,

  • Clear-light subtlest mind refers to such a mind when explicitly apprehending voidness.
  • Illusory body refers to the subtlest energy-wind (shin-tu phra-ba’i rlung), which is the support of that clear-light mind, when that energy-wind appears in the form of a Buddha-figure (yidam).

Because subtlest mind is not accompanied by manifest grasping for truly established existence or conceptual cognition, it does not give rise to an appearance of truly established existence. Thus, when clear-light mind is manifest, and its supporting energy-wind is appearing in the form of an illusory body, the superficial essential nature of that illusory body does not appear as a self-establishing nature. Thus, the two truths, specified in this way, can arise and be validly cognized simultaneously and manifestly, which is not possible in the context of the sutra definitions of the two truths.

These differences between the sutra and anuttarayoga tantra usages of the two truths are significant to note when it comes to analyzing accurate and distorted appearances. 

Accurate and Distorted Appearances

As for the manner of appearance (superficial truth) of the mental holograms that appear in the mental activity of limited beings (sentient beings) – in other words, those who are not yet enlightened – we need to differentiate:

  • What appears to a mundane mind (‘jig-rten-pa’i blo; worldly mind) – the mental activity of someone who is not yet a liberated being (arhat) and which occurs when the person is not totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness
  • What appears to the mental activity of a liberated being, also when not totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness.

Recall that:

  • Mundane mental activity still has both cognition of what appear to be self-establishing essential natures as well as grasping for them to correspond to actual self-establishing essential natures.
  • A liberated mind merely has cognition of what appear to be self-establishing essential natures, but it does not grasp for them.  

The Superficial Phenomena That Appear in Mundane Mental Activity

The superficial phenomena that appear in mundane mental activity – both ways of knowing and objects known – can be divided into:

  • Accurate superficial phenomena (yang-dag-pa’i kun-rdzob)
  • Distorted superficial phenomena (log-pa’i kun-rdzob).

Accurate and Distorted Appearances of What Something Conventionally Is

Concerning the appearance of what a superficial phenomenon is, the appearance may be:

  • Accurate, such as the appearance of a single moon
  • Distorted, such as the appearance of a double moon.

The distorted appearance arises because of a shallow cause for deception (‘phral-gyi ‘khrul-rgyu), in this case our being cross-eyed and looking without our glasses on. 

We may validly cognize the distorted appearance of a double moon, however, when we accurately and decisively apprehend it as an appearance of what looks like a double moon. Our cognition of the distorted appearance only becomes a distorted cognition when, with incorrect consideration, we take the appearance to correspond to an actual double moon in the sky. 

What something appears to be, however, is dependent on the class of beings that cognize it and is accurate relative to that class of beings.

  • This does not refer to how one considers and labels the appearance. For instance, the mental hologram that arises with the mental activity of an adult and a baby may be the same, but the adult interprets what he or she sees as a watch to put on his or her wrist, while the baby interprets and considers it a toy to put in its mouth.
  • The relativity of appearances here refers to the different mental holograms that arise, for instance, of water in the mundane mental activity of a human being, pus in the mental activity of a clutching ghost, and nectar in the mental activity of a divine being, when each looks at the same conventional object. Because there is no findable, self-established common locus – truly established as “water,” for instance – that all of them are looking at, each mental hologram is accurate for the specific species.

Accuracy of what something conventionally is, then, is determined by the first two of the three criteria asserted by Chandrakirti:

  • What appears needs to be well known in the sense of commonly cognized, although not necessarily understood, by the conventional, ordinary mundane cognitions of a certain group or species.
  • The cognition of this well-known appearance must not be contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes superficial truth. This applies to the appearance of what something is.

Accurate and Distorted Appearances of How Something Exists

Concerning the appearance of how a superficial phenomenon exists:

  • The appearance is always distorted, whether of a single moon or a double moon, because it always appears to be self-established.
  • The cognition of the appearance can be valid, however, when it accurately and decisively apprehends the mode of existence that appears to be an appearance of what looks like that of truly established existence.
  • But that cognition is always distorted from the point of view that it always grasps for these appearances of self-establishing natures to be actual self-establishing natures.

The cognition of the mode of existence is distorted because it fails Chandrakirti’s third criterion for validity: the cognition of the appearance must not be contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes deepest truth. This applies to the appearance of how something exists.

The Superficial Phenomena That Appear in the Mental Activity of a Liberated Being

Liberated beings (arhats) are no longer subject to shallow causes for deception, because they have so-called “mental bodies” (yid-lus), not ordinary physical bodies. Therefore, the appearances of what something conventionally is are never distorted.

[See: Physical Bodies of Buddhas and Arhats.]

The superficial phenomena that appear in the mental activity of a liberated being when not totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness are all distorted, however, in the sense that they appear to be self-established. Liberated beings cognize these appearances validly for what they are, but never distortedly grasp for them to correspond to actual self-establishing natures.

Pure and Impure Appearances

In the Buddhist context, the variable of pure (dag) or impure (ma-dag) is applied in terms of whether or not an appearance is adulterated and stained with faults. Faults refer to items that derive from unawareness. The variable of pure or impure, then, applies to both facets of the superficial truth of a mental hologram: what it appears to be and how it appears to exist.

Pure and Impure Appearances of What Something Conventionally Is

Concerning the appearance of what something is:

  • An impure appearance is as an ordinary habitat and an ordinary body, for instance a human one. Human bodies arise from unawareness via the mechanism of the twelve links of dependent arising.
  • A pure appearance is as a mandala palace and the body of a Buddha-figure (yi-dam), such as Avalokiteshvara or Tara. These pure appearances arise from compassion as a means to fulfill the purposes of others.  
  • Both impure and pure appearances of what something is may be accurate or inaccurate. Inaccurate ones would be, for instance, a blurred human and an out-of-focus Tara. Accurate ones would be a human and a Tara in focus.

Pure appearances of what something is also implies an appearance similar to what arises in our mental activity when we have become Buddhas. These include four purified factors (rnam-par dag-pa bzhi):

(1) Pure bodies (our own and others as Buddha-figures)

(2) Pure environment (mandala palace and its surroundings, like a pure land)

(3) Pure manner of experiencing sensory objects with enjoyment (blissful awareness)

(4) Pure actions (enlightening influence)

  • Calming and quieting others 
  • Stimulating others to grow, to have clearer minds, warmer hearts, be more engaged in positive activities, and so on
  • Bringing others under one’s power to go in a positive direction and helping others to unify and gain power from their own internal forces, also to go in a positive direction
  • Forcefully stopping dangerous situations in which others may hurt themselves or be hurt by others.

In tantra, based on our Buddha-nature factors, we impute our conventional “me” on the not-yet-happening four purified factors and imagine we are experiencing these now.

Buddhas, however, can appear in any form in order to benefit others, either as an ordinary human, as Avalokiteshvara or even as an animal or a bridge. But imagining ourselves in the pure form of a Buddha-figure has many advantages as a method for helping us to and others attain enlightenment.

  • Our ordinary forms are tainted (zag-bcas) in the way that Vasubandhu defines “tainted,” namely they arise based on unawareness and the other disturbing emotions and attitudes, and they give rise to, strengthen and perpetuate further unawareness and disturbing emotions and attitudes. The form of a Buddha-figure is not necessarily untainted (zag-med), since we could practice tantra with attachment, etc., but such forms do not elicit disturbing emotions as strongly as our ordinary bodies do. They do not have so many disturbing emotions associated with them, like when we think, “I’m too short”; “I’m ugly,” etc.
  • They do not change from moment to moment, so they serve as a less deceptive, more stable and subtler basis for meditating single-pointedly on voidness, as opposed to the continually changing seemingly solid body as the basis for our voidness meditation.
  • All the arms, legs, faces, etc. represent the various factors we need to develop and perfect in order to attain enlightenment, so they help us to keep them in mind simultaneously.
  • The pure appearance of ourselves as a Buddha-figure is closer to the result we wish to achieve, namely the Corpus of Enlightening Forms (Form Bodies) of a Buddha. This means that as an obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu) for the Form Bodies, they are more similar to the result than compassion, bodhichitta and the network of positive force. An obtaining cause is that from which one obtains the result, in the sense that it transforms into the result and ceases to exist when the result arises, like a seed for a sprout. The imagined Buddha-figure on the generation stage (bskyed-rim), and then the pure illusory body in the form of a Buddha-figure on the complete stage (rdzogs-rim) are the obtaining causes for the Form Bodies in anuttarayoga tantra.

Pure and Impure Appearances of How Something Exists

Concerning the appearance of how something exists, here “pure” means “purified,” namely appearances that arise in mental activity that is purified of (i.e. attained a true stopping of) the emotional obscurations):

  • An impure appearance is one that arises in the mental activity of mundane beings ­­­– persons with emotional obscurations, which include grasping for truly established existence – except for when they are totally absorbed (mnyam-bzhag) in non-conceptual cognition of voidness. At all other times, the mental holograms that arise in their mental activity have an appearance of truly established existence, which they both cognize and grasp for as corresponding to reality. This is the case whether the appearances that arise are those of ordinary bodies and of Buddha-figures. Both are impure appearances from the point of view of how they appear to exist.
  • A pure appearance is one that arises in the mental activity of liberated beings or Buddhas – those who have achieved a true stopping of the emotional obscurations. In the case of liberated beings, when they are not totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness, the mental holograms that arise in their mental activity have an appearance of truly established existence, which they merely cognize, but do not grasp for. An example is a pure illusory body of the path of liberation, which is attained on the anuttarayoga tantra complete stage of unity of the pair: pure illusory body and a true stopping of the emotional obscurations. When liberated beings are totally absorbed on voidness after this attainment, the pure appearance of their pure illusory body is without even an appearance of truly established existence. This is the stage of the unity of the pair: pure illusory body and actual clear light. Buddhas are also liberated beings, although they have, in addition, a true stopping of the cognitive obscurations. The pure appearances that arise in the mental activity of Buddhas never have an appearance of truly established existence, because Buddhas are always totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness. Because pure illusory bodies appear only in the mental activity of liberated beings, including Buddhas, they are always accurate in terms of what they appear to be.

Tainted or Untainted Appearances

The variable of tainted (zag-bcas) or untainted (zag-med) is defined in a unique manner by Gelug Prasangika. It is a variable set in terms of the appearance of how something exists:

  • Tainted phenomena – those phenomena that are mixed with an appearance of truly established existence, such as the aggregates of someone not totally absorbed (mnyam-bzhag) non-conceptually on the voidness of truly established existence. This includes both the cognitive objects and ways of cognizing them that appear in the mental activity of such a person.
  • Untainted phenomena – those phenomena that are not mixed with an appearance of truly established existence, such as the aggregates of someone totally absorbed non-conceptually on the voidness of truly established existence. Such persons include all aryas, arhats and Buddhas, when each is totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness, and whether they attain this non-conceptual total absorption on voidness within the context of sutra or any of the four classes of tantra practice.

Concerning the appearance of how something exists,

  • If it is a tainted appearance of how something exists (i.e., with an appearance of truly established existence), it can be an impure appearance of how something exists that arises in the mental activity of a mundane being when not totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness. Or it can be a pure appearance of how something exists, for instance the appearance of a pure illusory body on the path of liberation of a liberated arhat when such a being also is not totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness. Both pure and impure appearances of what something is (a Buddha-figure or a human) may be tainted (i.e. appear to be truly established).
  • If it is an untainted appearance of how something exists (devoid of appearing to have truly established existence), it cannot be an impure appearance of how something exists in the mental activity of a mundane being. Nor can it be a pure appearance of how something exists in the mental activity of a liberated being when not totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness.
  • Both pure and impure appearances of what something is (Buddha-figure or human) may be tainted or untainted depending on whether or not the person is totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness.  

The Appearances of Samsara and Nirvana

What Is Samsara?

Samsara refers to uncontrollably recurring rebirth under the influence of disturbing emotions and attitudes and karmic impulses, both of which derive from unawareness of how persons (ourselves and others) exist: in other words, cognizing in an inaccurate, contradictory manner how persons exist. Since persons and all phenomena exist in the same manner, this refers to unawareness of the voidness of all phenomena. 

Samsaric appearances arise, then, only in mundane mental activity – the mental activity of those who are not yet liberated from samsara and which occurs when they are not non-conceptually totally absorbed on voidness. Mundane mental activity has both cognition of truly established existence and grasping for it.

Samsaric Appearances

In terms of the appearances of how phenomena exist, all samsaric appearances are tainted, because they all give rise to and have cognition of truly established existence.

Because all samsaric appearances also have grasping for truly established existence, they are all distorted from this point of view. Note that:

  • Sometimes samsaric appearances have both manifest cognition and manifest grasping for truly established existence, such as with conceptual cognition for ordinary beings and aryas who are not yet arhats.
  • Sometimes they have both manifest cognition and dormant grasping, such as with non-conceptual sensory cognition for ordinary beings and aryas who are not yet arhats.
  • But when aryas who are not yet arhats are totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness, and thus have both dormant cognition and dormant grasping, the appearance that arises is not samsaric.

In terms of the appearances of what things are, samsaric appearances may be:

  • Pure (the body of a Buddha-figure) or impure (a human body)
  • Each of these may be accurate (a four-armed Avalokiteshvara or a human body) or distorted (a three-armed Avalokiteshvara appearing to be four-armed one or a scarecrow appearing to be a human)

What Is Nirvana?

There are two main types of nirvana:

  • Natural nirvana (rang-bzhin-gyi mya-ngan ‘das) – the voidness of the truly established existence of all phenomena.
  • Acquired nirvana (thob-pa’i mya-ngan ‘das) – the state of liberation from samsara, as either an arhat or a Buddha.

For an arhat, acquired nirvana includes both:

  • Nirvana without residue (lhag-med-pa’i mya-ngan-’das) – their state during non-conceptual total absorption on the voidness of truly established existence, when there is no cognition of or grasping for truly established existence,
  • Nirvana with residue (lhag-bcas-pa’i mya-ngan ‘das) – their state during their subsequent realization phase of meditation when they have cognition of truly established existence, but no grasping for it.

For a Buddha, their acquired nirvana is called non-abiding nirvana (mi-gnas-pa’i mya-ngan ‘das), since they do not abide in either the extreme of samsara nor the extreme of the complacent nirvanas of arhats. At no time does the mental activity of Buddhas contain cognition of or grasping for truly established existence. As we have seen, Buddhas omnisciently cognize all superficial phenomena, but do not cognize superficial truths, since superficial truths refer to superficial essential natures that appear to be self-established natures. 
In the case of Buddhas, non-abiding nirvana includes:

  • Nirvana without residue – a Buddha’s Deep Awareness Dharmakaya (ye-shes chos-sku, Skt. jnanadharmakaya)
  • Nirvana with residue – a Buddha’s Rupakaya, a Corpus of Enlightening Forms.

Nirvanic Appearances

Both arhats and Buddhas experience the appearances of natural nirvana, since when either of them is non-conceptually totally absorbed on the voidness of truly established existence, neither has grasping for truly established existence, whether manifest or dormant.

When aryas who are not yet arhats are non-conceptually totally absorbed on voidness, they still have dormant grasping for truly established existence. Thus, although the appearance of voidness that arises in their meditation is untainted, it is neither pure (with a true stopping of the emotional obscurations) nor impure (with an appearance of truly established existence). It is a nirvanic appearance only from the point of view of natural nirvana, but not from the point of view of an acquired nirvana.  

Only arhats and Buddhas, however, experience acquired nirvana.

  • Arhats attain a true stopping of the emotional obscurations and so a true stopping of grasping for truly established existence.
  • Buddhas attain a true stopping as well of the cognitive obscurations and so a true stopping of cognition of truly established existence.

Appearances of attained nirvana, then, are those that lack any grasping for truly established existence, whether manifest or dormant. Arhats and Buddhas experience them continually. The appearances of how things exist that arise in their mental activity are always pure.

Note that, motivated by compassion, Buddhas may appear in any form in order to benefit others, whether that of a human, a Buddha-figure or even as a bridge. These forms are all included within a Buddha’s Corpus of Enlightening Forms. Thus, even when a Buddha appears as an ordinary human, this is an appearance of a Buddha’s nirvana with residue, and so is a pure appearance, not an impure one.

Conclusion

There is a large number of permutations when we work out the logical pervasions among the variables of accurate and distorted, pure and impure, tainted and untainted, and samsaric and nirvanic appearances of cognitive objects and of ways of knowing. Working out these pervasions, either by ourselves or in debate with others, reveals the wide array of appearances that arise in mental activity. All of them, however, share the common defining characteristic mark of mental activity. All are examples of “mere clarity and awareness.” 

Top