Ways of Cognizing Not Indispensable for Mental Activity to Function

Intermittently Manifest Mental Factors

Like primary consciousness, the five types of deep awareness and the ten ever-functioning and ascertaining mental factors, the rest of the mental factors also have no beginning. Although they share the same essential nature as the above-mentioned ways of being aware of something, they do not help mental activity to perform its function. Although these remaining mental factors are included in our mental continuums, they are only part of a manifest cognition intermittently. At other times they are dormant factors. They are not indispensable for mental activity to function.

Some of these intermittently manifest mental factors are true causes of suffering, such as the disturbing emotions and attitudes (nyon-mongs, Skt. klesha; afflictive emotions), for instance anger and attachment, and can be totally removed from the mental continuum such that they never recur in a manifest or dormant manner. Others, such as love and compassion, by their own powers do not cause any suffering. In fact, they may help in bringing about a true stopping (true cessation) of the true causes of suffering. They cannot be totally removed from the mental continuum and so have no end. In fact, with the attainment of Buddhahood, they may become manifest in every moment.

Thus, it is crucial to identify and differentiate correctly these two types of intermittent mental factors:

  • True causes of suffering, which can be removed forever
  • Beneficial factors that can never be eradicated and can be maximized.

The Root Cause of Suffering

The root cause of suffering is unawareness (ma-rig-pa; ignorance), defined in the abhidharma (topics of knowledge) literature by the Indian masters Vasubandhu and Asanga as “not knowing” – specifically, not knowing either behavioral cause and effect or not knowing how persons exist.

  • The non-Prasangika tenet systems refer to not knowing how persons exist as disturbing unawareness (ma-rig-pa nyon-mongs-can). As a true cause of suffering, they include this type of unawareness as a disturbing emotion and thus as an emotional obscuration (nyon-sgrib). Arhats attain a true stopping of the emotional obscurations and thus disturbing unawareness with their attainment of liberation.
  • The non-Prasangika tenet systems also assert non-disturbing unawareness (ma-rig-pa nyon-mongs-can min-pa), namely not knowing how all phenomena exist. They do not consider this type of unawareness as a disturbing emotion and include it only among the cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib). Thus, they do not consider it as a true cause of suffering. Buddhas, however, attain a true stopping of the cognitive obscurations and thus non-disturbing unawareness with their attainment of enlightenment.
  • The manners of existence that the disturbing and non-disturbing types of awareness do not know are different from each other, according to the non-Prasangika systems.

Tsongkhapa, however, in his explanations of the Prasangika system, follows the presentation of unawareness in the pramana (valid cognition) literature. Thus, he takes unawareness as knowing in an inverted manner. He also asserts that the manner of existence known in an inverted manner by unawareness of how persons exist and by unawareness of how all phenomena exist is the same. Unawareness, then, is always a disturbing emotion and, consequently, unawareness of how persons as well as how all phenomena exist is included as an emotional obscuration and as a true cause of suffering.

Further, following the madhyamaka (middle way) literature, Tsongkhapa defines unawareness in the context of the Prasangika understanding of grasping for truly established existence (bden-par ‘dzin-pa). He then analyzes

  • Grasping for truly established existence as an emotional obscuration and thus the true cause of the suffering of samsara (uncontrollably recurring rebirth; cyclic existence),
  • The constant habits (bag-chags) of grasping for truly established existence as a cognitive obscuration and thus the true cause of the limitations preventing the omniscient state of enlightenment.

To understand how true stoppings of the true causes of suffering and the true causes of limited awareness can happen, then, we need to explain grasping for truly established existence as Tsongkhapa has presented it in his interpretation of the Prasangika tenet system.

Grasping for Truly Established Existence

The Conventional Existence and Actual Nature of Knowable Phenomena

Grasping for truly established existence is neither a primary consciousness nor a mental factor. Sharing the same essential nature as all other types of mental activity, it accompanies cognitions and interpolates a mental fabrication onto the object of the cognition it accompanies. What it interpolates is something findable on the side of the object that, by its own power or in conjunction with mental labeling with categories or designation with words, establishes that the object conventionally exists. Thus, grasping for truly established existence does not concern what something conventionally is, but rather how it is that it conventionally exists as what it is.

As mentioned above, every knowable phenomenon holds its own essential nature – its essential nature as a conventional object (tha-snyad-pa) with distinct defining characteristic marks (mtshan-nyid) that distinguish it from everything else. In the Prasangika system, a knowable phenomenon’s conventional existence with a distinct identity-nature (bdag-nyid) as “this” or “that” is accounted for merely in terms of mental labeling with the categories “this” or “that” by conceptual cognition or also in conjunction with designation with the words “this” or “that.” There is nothing findable on the side of an object that establishes it as “this” or “that” by its own power or in conjunction with mental labeling and designation. 

All we can say is that knowable objects conventionally exist inasmuch as they are the referent objects (btags-chos) of the categories with which bases for their labeling (gdags-gzhi) are mentally labeled, and also inasmuch as they are the signified objects of the words with which bases for their designation are designated.

  • Note that the conventional existence of knowable objects is merely accounted for (bzhag; posited, set) in terms of mental labeling and designation. Mental labeling and designation do not establish (sgrub) the existence of conventional objects. They do not make them exist.
  • Although categories and words are interpolations through which conceptual cognition cognizes conventional objects, the conventional objects themselves are not interpolations. 

For example, if we ask how we can account for the fact that there is such a thing as a table, we can only say there is such a thing as a table because of conventions. The category “table” and the word “table,” which are merely interpolated conventions, do refer to something when an object with a flat surface supported by legs is mentally labeled as fitting in the category “table” and designated as a “table.” The category and word do not refer to a “nothing” nor do they refer to a findable “blank something” that can be labeled and designated as anything.

Every phenomenon also has an actual nature (chos-nyid), which refers to its voidness – the total absence of its existence being established in any impossible way. This is its actual self-nature (rang-bzhin). What is impossible is that, upon analysis, there is something findable – also called a “self-nature” (rang-bzhin) – on the side of the object, let’s say a table, that by its own power establishes or makes it conventionally exist as a table, or does so when this findable self-nature is mentally labeled and designated as “the nature of being a table.” 

Such a findable self-nature, which we might better call a “self-establishing nature” or a “soul” (bdag, Skt. atman; “self”), according to Gelug Prasangika, does not exist at all. But unless we are non-conceptually totally absorbed (mnyam-bzhag) on the voidness of such an impossible mode of existence, it appears as though everything has such a self-establishing nature and we believe that everything “truly exists” because of having such a nature. Such an appearance and such a belief in truly established existence are interpolations mentally fabricated by our constant habits of grasping for truly established existence.

Thus, in the Gelug Prasangika context, truly established existence is equivalent to

  • Self-established existence (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa; inherent existence)
  • Existence established by something’s own essential nature (rang-gi ngo-bos grub-pa)
  • Existence established from something’s own side (rang-gi ngos-nas grub-pa).
  • Giving rise to an appearance of truly established existence (bden-snang ‘dzin-pa) and cognizing it as being just an appearance
  • Giving rise to the appearance of truly established existence (bden-grub ‘dzin-pa) and cognizing it as actually being truly established existence.

The Two Aspects of Grasping for Truly Established Existence

Grasping for truly established existence, however, has two aspects:

  • Giving rise to an appearance of truly established existence (bden-snang ‘dzin-pa) and cognizing it as being just an appearance
  • Giving rise to the appearance of truly established existence (bden-grub ‘dzin-pa) and cognizing it as actually being truly established existence. 

Thus, both aspects of this grasping interpolate some form of mental fabrication onto the object cognized in a cognition.

  • In the former case, the interpolation is merely of an appearance of a self-establishing nature. What appears, however, is merely a mental representation of a self-establishing nature, because self-establishing natures do not exist at all.
  • In the latter case, the interpolation is of the existence (yod-pa) of this self-establishing nature. In other words, the grasping interpolates that there actually exists a self-establishing nature findable on the side of the object and which corresponds to what appears. Thus, it cognizes the mental representation of a self-establishing nature in an inverted manner. Rather than cognizing it to be like an illusion, which merely appears to correspond to “reality” but does not, it cognizes it as actually corresponding to “reality.” According to Tsongkhapa, this aspect of grasping for truly established existence is equivalent to unawareness.

Let us call the former “cognition of truly established existence” and the later “grasping for truly established existence.”

Grasping for truly established existence, as equivalent to unawareness, is of two types:

  • Doctrinally-based grasping for truly established existence (bden-‘dzin kun-btags; artificial grasping) – the grasping that has been learned from studying and accepting the existence of a self-establishing nature as asserted by non-Prasangika tenet systems.
  • Automatically-arising grasping for truly established existence (bden-‘dzin lhan-skyes; innate grasping) – the grasping that naturally occurs without needing to be taught about it.

Manifest and Dormant Cognition in Relation to Grasping for Truly Established Existence

The cognition and grasping for truly established existence are still types of mental activity – they each have the essential nature of merely giving rise to an appearance of a cognitive object and, in doing so, cognitively engage with that object. They both arise from a constant habit (bag-chags) of grasping for truly established existence, rather than from a tendency (sa-bon). They occur manifestly, however, only intermittently. At other times, they are present only as dormant factors.

  • A tendency, when distinguished from a constant habit, sometimes gives rise to what it is a tendency of, and sometimes does not give rise to anything, depending on the presence of conditions for them to arise. For example, the tendency for anger.
  • A constant habit, strictly speaking, gives rise to what it is a habit of without any break in continuity. 

There are two different assertions, however, as to how cognition and grasping for truly established existence occur in a dormant fashion when both are not manifest together: 

(1) According to the Panchen (Pan-chen bSod-nams grags-pa) textbooks followed by Drepung Loseling (‘Bras-dpung Blo-gsal gling) and Ganden Shartse (dGa’-ldan Shar-rtse) Monasteries:

  • During non-conceptual total absorption (mnyam-bzhag; meditative equipoise) on space-like voidness, the constant habit of grasping for truly established existence does not give rise to either manifest cognition of an appearance of truly established existence or manifest grasping for it. Both cognition and grasping are dormant in the form of the constant habit.
  • During non-conceptual subsequent attainment cognition (rje-thob; post-meditation) on illusion-like voidness, the constant habit gives rise only to manifest cognition of an appearance of truly established existence, in which case grasping is dormant in the form of the constant habit.
  • Unless true stoppings of the grasping and/or cognition of truly established existence are attained, the grasping and/or cognition resume after their phase of dormancy ends.
  • Despite their dormant phase, the habits are still considered “constant” and are imputations on the mere “me,” which is an imputation on the mental continuum.

(2) According to the Jetsunpa (rJe-btsun Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan) textbooks followed by Sera Je (Se-ra Byes) and Ganden Jangtse (dGa’-ldan Byang-rtse) Monasteries and the Kunkhyen (Kun-mkhyen ‘Jam-dbyangs bzhad-pa NGag-dbang brtson-‘grus) textbooks followed by Drepung Gomang (‘Bras-dpungs sGo-mang) Monasteries:

  • During non-conceptual total absorption on space-like voidness, the constant habit of grasping for truly established existence also does not give rise to either manifest cognition of an appearance of truly established existence or manifest grasping for it. However, simultaneously with the non-conceptual total absorption, the constant habit gives rise to conceptual subliminal cognition and grasping for truly established existence. In subliminal cognition (bag-la nyal), there is interpolation of an appearance of truly established existence, but only the consciousness, and not the person, cognizes it and also grasps for it.
  • During non-conceptual subsequent attainment cognition on illusion-like voidness, the constant habit gives rise only to manifest cognition of an appearance of truly established existence.  Simultaneously, it also gives rise to conceptual subliminal grasping.
  • The constant habits are an imputation on the continuity of grasping for truly established existence, maintained either manifestly or subliminally or both. They are not imputed on the mere “me,” which is an imputation on the mental continuum.

Regardless of which presentation of dormant grasping we follow, the variable of whether the cognition and grasping are manifest or dormant factors depends on whether our mental activity is:

  • Conceptual cognition
  • Non-conceptual sensory cognition
  • Non-conceptual total absorption on space-like voidness – where voidness manifestly appears and is apprehended explicitly, while the basis for the voidness does not manifestly appear
  • Non-conceptual subsequent attainment cognition of illusion-like voidness – where the basis for voidness appears, while its voidness does not appear, but is apprehended implicitly.

Further, the degree to which they occur also depends on whether we are:

  • Ordinary beings (so-so’i skye-bo) – those who have not yet attained non-conceptual cognition of voidness
  • Aryas – those with non-conceptual cognition of voidness and who have thus attained a true stopping of doctrinally-based grasping for truly established existence
  • Arhats – those liberated from uncontrollably recurring rebirth (samsara) and who have thus attained a true stopping of automatically-arising grasping as well
  • Buddhas – enlightened beings and who have thus also attained a true stopping of giving rise to an appearance of truly established existence and cognizing it.

For ordinary beings:

  • During conceptual cognition, including conceptual cognition of voidness, cognition of truly established existence and both doctrinally-based and automatically-arising grasping for it are manifest.
  • During non-conceptual sensory cognition, the cognition is manifest, but neither of the two kinds of grasping. A combination of the two kinds of grasping, however, is present as a dormant factor.

For aryas before attaining liberation as an arhat:

  • During conceptual cognition, cognition of truly established existence and automatically-arising grasping for it are manifest.
  • During non-conceptual sensory cognition, the cognition is manifest, but not any grasping. Automatically-arising grasping, however, is present as a dormant factor.
  • During non-conceptual total absorption on space-like voidness, neither the cognition nor grasping is manifest. A combination of cognition of truly established existence and automatically-arising grasping is present as a dormant factor.
  • During non-conceptual subsequent attainment cognition of illusion-like voidness, cognition of an appearance of truly established existence is manifest and automatically-arising grasping is present as a dormant factor.

For arhats before attaining enlightenment: 

  • During conceptual cognition, non-conceptual sensory cognition and non-conceptual subsequent attainment cognition of illusion-like voidness, cognition of truly established existence is manifest.
  • During non-conceptual total absorption on space-like voidness, the cognition is not manifest, but is present as a dormant factor.

For Buddhas:

  • Their mental activity never gives rise to an appearance of truly established existence, even in a dormant fashion. Moreover, they no longer have conceptual cognition.
  • Non-conceptual cognition of voidness, with no differentiation into total absorption and subsequent attainment phases, is constant.
  • Unlike those who are not yet enlightened, the basis for voidness, namely all validly knowable phenomena, appears simultaneously with this non-conceptual cognition. Thus, Buddhas are omniscient.

The True Stopping of Cognizing and Grasping for Truly Established Existence

A true stopping of cognizing and grasping for truly established existence can be attained, such that neither of the two ever arises again. A true stopping of both can be attained because there is a reversing antithesis (bzlog-phyogs) that can turn unawareness away, namely the correct discriminating awareness (shes-rab) that is the mutually exclusive opposite factor (‘gal-zla) of unawareness. 

More fully, mental activity can stop, forever, its giving rise to and cognizing two layers of interpolation when it gives rise to and thus cognizes any knowable object. The two interpolations, as mentioned previously, are of a mental representation of a self-establishing nature that establishes the object’s essential nature as a knowable conventional object and the existence of an actual self-establishing nature. Mental activity can stop doing this ever again because the unawareness that interpolates the existence of a self-establishing nature on the side of knowable objects can be turned back forever by the correct discriminating awareness that is the antithesis to this unawareness. 

Tsongkhapa explained that the discriminating awareness that is the mutually exclusive opposite factor of unawareness is not the discriminating awareness of merely the nonexistence (med-pa; total absence) of a self-establishing nature, nor is it the discriminating awareness of merely something else about such a nature or about knowable objects. The correct discriminating awareness here is the discriminating awareness of voidness as not only compatible with, but also mutually supportive of dependent arising (rten-‘brel ‘byung-ba) merely in terms of mental labeling.

Thus, one needs to discriminate not merely voidness alone, and not merely dependent arising alone. The correct discriminating awareness of voidness that can turn back unawareness forever is the discriminating awareness of voidness as inseparable from dependent arising. 

Although correct discriminating awareness of voidness inseparable from dependent arising by itself can function as an opponent (gnyen-po) to the unawareness of how everything exists, it cannot function as an obliterating opponent (gnod-pa’i gnyen-po) that achieves a true stopping of it unless it is accompanied by many other factors:

  • Conviction in the natural purity of mental activity and the possibility to gain true stoppings of unawareness, based on close placement of mindfulness (dran-pa nyer-bzhag; Skt. smtryupasthana, Pali: satipattana) on mental activity in terms of true stoppings.
  • Inspiration (byin-rlabs, “blessing”) gained from firm conviction in the good qualities of one’s spiritual teachers and the good qualities of the exceptional deities (Buddha-figures) associated with developing discriminating awareness of voidness, such as Manjushri.
  • Unlabored (rtsol-med) determination to be free (renunciation), or both that and an unlabored bodhichitta aim, so that the networks of positive force and deep awareness become pure builder-networks that contribute to the attainment of liberation or enlightenment, depending on the motivation and dedication, rather than samsara-building networks to improve our samsaric situations. “Unlabored” means without relying on a line of reasoning. Before attaining the actual pure builder-networks and thus attaining a building-up pathway of mind (tshogs-lam; path of accumulation), we can have facsimile builder-networks.
  • A stilled and settled state of mind of shamatha (zhi-gnas; calm abiding)
  • An exceptionally perceptive state of mind of vipashyana (lhag-mthong; special insight), which, by definition, is a joined state of shamatha and vipashyana
  • A non-conceptual joined state of shamatha and vipashyana
  • One set of a zillion (grangs-med; countless) eons of positive force to attain a true stopping of doctrinally-based unawareness and its tendencies; a second set of a zillion eons of positive force to attain a true stopping of automatically-arising unawareness and its tendencies; and a third set of a zillion eons of positive force to attain a true stopping of the constant habits of unawareness.

Non-Buddhists may achieve shamatha focused with discriminating awareness on a correct understanding of voidness, but they cannot attain a joined state of shamatha and vipashyana, let alone a non-conceptual joined state of these since they lack the other accompanying factors necessary for their correct understanding to function as an obliterating opponent.

The True Stopping of Disturbing Emotions and Attitudes

If unawareness is truly stopped, the disturbing emotions and attitudes that derive from it are also truly stopped. They will never appear again in our mental activity. Thus, unawareness and disturbing emotions and attitudes are fleeting stains and are not indispensable for the functioning of mental activity.

Disturbing, destructive emotions, such as anger and hatred, are mutually exclusive with constructive emotions such as love.  However, since disturbing emotions are not parts of the intrinsic nature of mental activity and can be removed forever with a true stopping of unawareness, then although disturbing emotions may temporarily block constructive emotions, they cannot displace them forever. Thus, positive constructive emotions such as love, compassion, patience, and so on are also concordant and compatible with the intrinsic nature of mental activity. They not only have no beginning, but they can have no end.

The Five Types of Deep Awareness and the Disturbing Emotions

When the five types of deep awareness are accompanied by unawareness, they support five of the disturbing emotions. When the unawareness and disturbing emotions come to an end, the underlying deep awareness continues without an end. It can continue accompanied with positive emotions like love and compassion, as these too have no end.

  • Mirror-like deep awareness takes in the basic information about its object, for instance a person. Accompanying unawareness doesn’t know what this information is or means, and so naivety about the person arises. When the unawareness and naivety come to an end, the underlying mirror-like deep awareness continues to take in information, with no end.
  • Equalizing deep awareness cognizes several objects equally. Accompanying unawareness doesn’t know the equality of these objects with each other, for instance the equality of self and others. And so, arrogance and pride arise that we are better than the others, or miserliness arises with which we do not want to share with others. When the unawareness and arrogance or miserliness come to an end, the underlying equalizing deep awareness continues to cognize all beings equally, with no end.
  • Individualizing deep awareness specifies individual persons, for instance, as unique objects of cognition. Accompanying unawareness doesn’t know that each person is merely an individual. Conceptually exaggerating or adding good qualities to a person and conceptually denying or minimizing the person’s shortcomings, longing desire and attachment for the person arises. When the unawareness, longing desire and attachment come to an end, the underlying individualizing deep awareness continues to cognize persons merely as unique individuals.
  • Accomplishing deep awareness cognizes its object in terms of not only accomplishing some purpose concerning it or with it, but also cognizing its object as accomplishing something, for instance a person succeeding. Accompanying unawareness doesn’t know that we can also do this, and so jealousy arises. When the unawareness and jealousy come to an end, the underlying accomplishing deep awareness continues to cognize persons accomplishing constructive goals, for instance, with no end and can be accompanied by unending rejoicing.
  • Deep awareness of the sphere of reality cognizes the essential nature of its object, for instance a person, as being “like this” and not “like that.” Accompanying unawareness doesn’t know that they are “like this” and not “like that” and so anger toward the person arises for not being like we wish they were. When unawareness and anger come to an end, the underlying deep awareness of the sphere of reality continues to cognize the person as “like this” and not “like that,” with no end. 

The Ending of Conceptual Cognition

Conceptual cognition is not considered an emotional or cognitive obscuration. It does not obstruct the attainment of liberation or enlightenment and is not considered an example of true suffering. In fact, conceptual cognition is necessary for the attainment of enlightenment since, before enlightenment, bodhichitta can only be generated conceptually. This is because, unless we are Buddhas ourselves, we can only focus on our not-yet-happening enlightenment conceptually, through the category “enlightenment.” We cannot cognize it non-conceptually. Only Buddhas can do that.

Nevertheless, since conceptual cognition interpolates an appearance of truly established existence on to its involved object, then when we have attained a true stopping of projection and cognition of truly established existence, we attain an end to all conceptual cognition as well. 

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