Details of Ways of Knowing: 1 Validly Knowable Phenomena

Extensive Explanation of “Compendium of Ways of Knowing”

Homage to Manjushri.

This text concerns the mind and the ways in which it knows things. By understanding how your mind works and training it properly, you can, with a bodhichitta aim, attain omniscience and the full enlightenment of Buddhahood. You will then be best able to liberate from their suffering all sentient beings, that is everyone with an obscured mind, limited beings. Homage is therefore made to Manjushri, the manifestation of the complete omniscience of the Buddhas.

Divisions within the Sautrantika Tradition

As people have different levels of aptitude, Buddha taught many different tenet systems to meet their needs. This text is written from the Sautrantika (mdo-sde-pa) point of view, which is characterized as a Modest Vehicle (Hinayana) school of tenets that asserts both external objects (phyi-don) and reflexive awareness (rang-rig), as well as truly established existence (bden-par grub-pa).

In the Sautrantika system, truly established existence is defined as:

  • Existence established by having the ability to perform a function according to the Jetsunpa textbook tradition of Jetsun Chokyi Gyaltsen (rJe-btsun Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan) of the Gelug school. By this definition only nonstatic phenomena and have truly established existence.
  • Existence established by something findable on the side of the object according to the Panchen textbook tradition of Panchen Sonam Dragpa (Pan-chen bSod-nams grags-pa). By this definition, both static and nonstatic phenomenal have truly established existence.

There are two branches of Sautrantika: 

  • Those who follow scriptural authority (lung-gi rjes-‘brangs), such as that of Vasubandhu’s Autocommentary on “Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge” (Chos mngon-pa'i mdzod-kyi rang-‘grel, Skt. Abhidharmakoshabhashya
  • Those who follow reasoning (rig-pa’i rjes-‘brangs), as found, for instance, in Dharmakirti’s Seven Volumes on Valid Cognition (Tshad-ma sde-bdun).

This text presents specifically the viewpoint of the latter. 

Within the tradition of those who follow reasoning, there are two further subdivisions: 

  • True Aspectarians (rnam bden-pa) assert that sensory bare cognition, for instance visual bare cognition, cognizes not only the sight of an external object but also the commonsense object itself. A commonsense object (‘jig-rten-la grags-pa) is a whole object, well-known in the world, that extends over the sensory information (sensibilia) about it from all the senses and extends over a period of time. 
  • False Aspectarians (rnam brdzun-pa) assert that visual bare cognition only cognizes one moment of only the visual information of an external object; the commonsense object is a mental synthesis known only conceptually. 

Here, the presentation is from the True Aspectarian viewpoint.  

Although the subject matter is presented in terms of Hinayana tenets, you should approach its study with a Mahayana motive of bodhichitta. You should aspire to gain enlightenment by means of it in order to help all beings.

Existent Phenomena: Affirmation and Negation Phenomena

In the Buddhist systems in general, the division between what is existent (yod-pa) and what is nonexistent (med-pa) is drawn according to whether or not something is validly knowable, or in other words validly cognizable. 

An existent phenomenon is called a “thing” (chos), defined as “something that holds its own essential nature” (rang-gi ngo-bo ‘dzin-pa), such that it can be taken as a cognitive object by both a person and their consciousness. Something nonexistent, however, such as a rabbit horn, the son of a barren woman, tortoise hair, a flower out of a thin air, and so forth, can never be known validly, because there are no such things. They are totally nonexistent.

Something existent may be either an affirmation phenomenon or a negation phenomenon: 

  • An affirmation phenomenon (sgrub-pa) is an existent phenomenon that can be validly known without having to exclude an object to be negated (dgag-bya). For example, a clay jug can be validly known without having to exclude or negate anything else.
  • A negation phenomenon (dgag-pa) is an existing phenomenon that can be validly known only in terms of it being an “exclusion of something else” (gzhan-sel, exclusion of what is other). For example, “not an apple” can only be known in terms of the exclusion of “an apple.”

There are two types of negation phenomena. Put simply, 

  • An implicative negation phenomenon (ma-yin dgag) is one that, after the sounds of the words with which it is formulated have excluded its object to be negated, they imply something else in its stead. For example, when the sounds of the words “it is not an apple” have excluded something being an apple, they imply that it is something else, for instance a pear.
  • A nonimplicative negation phenomenon (med-dgag) is one that, after the sounds of the words with which it is formulated have excluded its object to be negated, they do not imply anything else in its stead. For instance, the sounds of the words “there is no apple on the table” or “the absence of an apple on the table,” having excluded the presence of an apple on the table, do not imply anything else on the table in its stead. 

Static and Nonstatic Phenomena

What exists can be either impermanent (mi-rtag-pa) or permanent (rtag-pa), in the sense of being either nonstatic or static. Both types of phenomena, however, can last for either a limited time or forever. While they endure, nonstatic phenomena have a continuum that changes from moment to moment, while static ones remain unchanged. Since the translations “nonstatic” and “static” are perhaps less open to confusion than the more common “impermanent” and “permanent,” they will be used for these two types of phenomena.

Nonstatic phenomena may be either affirmation phenomena or negation phenomena:

  • In the Sautrantika system, most affirmation phenomena are nonstatic – for example, an apple and desire. An apple changes from moment to moment as it ripens on the tree and then rots. An episode of desire changes in intensity from moment to moment.
  • Only some implicative negation phenomena are nonstatic. They include such phenomena as “not a pear” as well as the isolate (ldog-pa), “nothing other than an apple.” An isolate of something is equivalent to, literally, “that which is turned from what it is not” (ma-yin-pa-las log-pa) – in other words, a “nothing other than.”  This nonstatic isolate is called an “individually characterized object exclusion of what is other” (don rang-mtshan-gi gzhan-sel), or “an object exclusion,” or “object isolate” for short. As an apple changes from moment to moment, likewise its being “not a pear” and its being “nothing other than an apple” also change from moment to moment with it. 

Static phenomena may also be either affirmation phenomena or negation phenomena:

  • A few affirmation phenomena are static, for example the presence of something (yod-pa), such as the presence of fire on a distant mountain where are you see smoke.
  • All nonimplicative negation phenomena are static.
  • Some implicative negation phenomena, such as audio categories (sgra-spyi) or meaning/object categories (don-spyi), which are the type of isolate that is a “mental exclusion of something else” (blo’i gzhan-sel), are static. They will be explained below.

There are two types of nonstatic phenomena: 

  • Fleeting phenomena (glo-bur-ba) are nonstatic phenomena that last for only a limited time. Their continuums not only continuously undergo change, but they also degenerate (nyams) from moment to moment, as in the case of the human body. 
  • So-called “permanently changing phenomena,” on the other hand, such as the continuums of individual beings, are beginningless and, according to the Hinayana tenets, end only when the person attains nirvana without residue (lhag-med myang-‘das, Skt. parinirvana). They have no further continuities, either in an altered state or all merged into one. Their end occurs when the person dies after attaining liberation as an arhat or enlightenment as a Buddha, the final goals of the Buddhist paths. According to the Mahayana tenets, the continuity of the subtle mental consciousness lasts forever and does not extinguish at parinirvana like a spent candle. But in either case, although subtle mental consciousness changes from moment to moment, it does not degenerate.

Static (rtag-pa) phenomena can also be divided into two similar groups. Some last for only a certain time, while others endure forever. Consider the example of the space (nam-mkha’) of something, which is defined as the absence of obstructibility and tangibility with regard to a material object. It is the absence of anything tangible that obstructs the object from occupying three dimensions, regardless of where that object may be located. It is a fact about a material object that accounts for its being three-dimensional and not the empty space it occupies. If there were something tangible, obstructing its three-dimensional existence, the object could not physically exist. Regardless of what momentary changes happen to the object, where it is moved or how it is used, this fact about it remains the same. It is a static phenomenon, an imputation phenomenon on the basis of a commonsense material object. Dream objects and ways of being aware of something lack this property of three-dimensionality, called “space.” An imputation phenomenon (btags-pas ‘dogs-pa) is one that cannot exist or be known separately from its basis for imputation (gdags-gzhi). In a sense, it is “tied” to its basis.

If the basis on which the space is an imputation phenomenon is a fleeting object, such as a clay jug, its static space will endure for only a certain time, namely so long as the clay jug exists. Once the clay jug has perished, the absence of anything tangible obstructing its spatial existence – its three-dimensionality, its space – no longer exists because its basis for imputation no longer exists. The space that is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of all material objects as a whole, on the other hand, lasts forever. Since Buddhism posits multiple universes, there will always be material objects and so, likewise, there will always be a lack of anything tangible obstructing their three-dimensional physical existence. Material objects will always have three-dimensionality. 

Affected Phenomena and Unaffected Phenomena

It is commonly accepted in all Buddhist tenets that whatever changes is an affected phenomenon (dngos-po, conditioned phenomenon), while whatever remains static is an unaffected phenomenon (dngos-med, unconditioned phenomenon). To be affected means to be the product of a network of causes and conditions and to undergo further change as the result of further causes and conditions. Sautrantika asserts six types of causes and four kinds of conditions, each with many subdivisions. But suffice it to say that all changing phenomena are the products of a network of them, and thus affected and conditioned by them. 

For instance, something fleeting, such as the human body, is the product of the parents’ sperm and egg, the nutrition it receives and so on. A so-called permanently changing phenomenon, such as an individual continuum of subtle mental consciousness, may not have a beginning when it was created out of other phenomena in its same category of substantial entity (rdzas), such as a clay jug out of clay. Yet it changes from moment to moment, and each moment of it is affected by and arises as the result of such things as the knowable phenomena it cognizes, a previous moment in its continuum and so forth. Thus, nonstatic phenomena are necessarily affected by causes and conditions. 

Static phenomena, on the other hand, are unaffected by causes and conditions and are not products of a network of them. A clay jug is a product of clay, water, a potter’s wheel, the potter’s effort and so forth, but the space of the clay jug is not the result of such a network. It is merely something that comes into existence simultaneously with the clay jug as an imputation phenomenon on it as its basis, like a mathematical fact about it. It is an existent, validly knowable fact on the basis of the clay jug and does not depend for its existence on someone actively imputing it on its basis. As it is unaffected by anything, it does not change from moment to moment. 

Another example of a static, unaffected phenomenon is the absence of the clay jug’s being on a tabletop when it is located elsewhere. This absence is an imputation phenomenon that exists on the basis of the tabletop and does not refer to the empty space left on the tabletop from its absence or non-existence there. The clay jug’s absence of being on the tabletop started to be the case with the separation (bral-ba) of the jug from the tabletop. But it did not result from that separation. It is not like the disintegration of a clay jug that has gradually occurred over a period of time, affected by a network of causes and conditions. The clay jug’s absence from the tabletop remains statically the case so long as it is not placed back on the table. The absence does not undergo momentary changes, despite the tabletop and clay jug continuing to change. 

Functional Phenomena and Nonfunctional Phenomena

A substantially established phenomenon (rdzas-su grub-pa) is something that has the ability to produce an effect (don-byed nus-pa, Skt. arthakriya). According to the Sautrantika system, only affected phenomena are substantially established and therefore functional, whereas everything unaffected is nonfunctional. In the Sautrantika system, then, the term for affected phenomena, dngos-po, can also be translated as “functional phenomena,” and the term for unaffected phenomena, dngos-med, as “nonfunctional phenomena.” 

Thus, a clay jug can perform the function of holding water and the cognition of your loved one can make you happy. But a static space – the three-dimensionality of a material object – cannot do anything. It is nonfunctional and merely a fact. Unlike clay, water, a potter’s wheel and the effort of a potter, it does not produce, as the result of a causal sequence, the clay jug. There are many logical fallacies and absurd conclusions that would follow if it did. 

For instance, the lack of anything tangible that obstructs a presently-happening clay jug from occupying three dimensions no matter where the jug is located would have to exist before the clay jug comes into existence in order to be able to produce the clay jug. Remember, the space of a clay jug is not an empty space that is present before the clay jug exists and that, when the jug comes into existence, it occupies. Nor is it the space inside the jug. Before the presently-happening jug comes into existence, the presently-happening clay jug is a nonexistent phenomenon. For the space of a presently-happening clay jug to produce the clay jug before the clay jug exists, the nonexistent clay jug would need to exist three-dimensionally, with an absence of anything tangible obstructing its three-dimensional existence. That is clearly absurd. Something nonexistent cannot have three-dimensional spatial existence. 

Likewise nonfunctional is the absence of a clay jug from the tabletop. It does not do anything.

Individual Items and Categories

Existent phenomena include both individual items (bye-brag) and categories (spyi). A category is a synthesis of many individual items sharing a common characteristic feature. As such, a category or synthesis is an imputation phenomenon that can only exist and be known on the basis of one or more of the individual items that fit into it.  

The True Aspectarian Sautrantika system asserts two types of categories: 

  • Categories that are functional phenomena (spyi dngos-po-ba)
  • Categories that are nonfunctional phenomena (spyi dngos-po ma-yin-pa). 

Categories that are functional phenomena – nonstatic syntheses – include: 

  • Collection syntheses (tshogs-spyi)
  • Kind syntheses (rigs-spyi).

Collection syntheses are whole commonsense objects that are imputation phenomena on the basis of forms of physical phenomena (gzugs) or ways of being aware of something (shes-pa): 

  • Collection syntheses that are imputation phenomena on the basis of forms of physical phenomenon are themselves forms of physical phenomenon and are imputation phenomena on the basis of spatial, sensorial, and temporal parts. The parts may be connected with each other, as in the case of the parts of an apple or a body. In such cases, the collection synthesis constitutes a composite form (bsags-pa’i gzugs) – in other words, a whole mass (gong-bu). Alternatively, the parts may be unconnected and merely gathered together, such as in the case of a forest and the trees that comprise it. In such cases, the collection synthesis constitutes a grouped form (bsdu-pa’i gzugs).
  • Collection syntheses that are imputation phenomena on the basis of ways of being aware of something are themselves ways of being aware of something and are imputation phenomena on temporal parts. Anger or love, for instance, is not just something that lasts only one moment, but rather is something that extends over a period of time.

Consider the case of an apple. A commonsense apple is collection synthesis of a skin, stem, flesh and seeds, a sight, smell, taste, and physical sensation, all of which extend over time. It is a whole mass, a composite of particles. 

Kind syntheses are classes of items all sharing a common set of defining characteristics (mtshan-nyid). There are many varieties of fruit and, among them, there is a group of several similar types and each individual piece of each of these similar types is an apple. A kind synthesis, then, is the type of commonsense object that an individual collection synthesis is. 

Categories that are nonfunctional phenomena are also of two types:

  • Audio categories (sgra-spyi)
  • Meaning/object categories (don-spyi).

As static phenomena, such categories are negation phenomena – namely, mental exclusions of everything that does not fit into them (blo’i gzhan-sel). They are conceptual constructs (spros-pa) through which you can understand everything. They only exist and occur in the context of conceptual cognition. 

  • An audio category is an imputation phenomenon designated with a word on the basis of any sound with which that word can be spoken. Regardless of the pronunciation, accent or volume with which a word is spoken, you can understand a specific set of sounds as all fitting into the audio category of the sound of the word “apple.” This is how you understand spoken language. 
  • A meaning/object category is an imputation phenomenon mentally labelled on the basis of any commonsense object – both a collection synthesis and a kind synthesis – that shares the common composite feature (bkra) of the category and is conventionally taken as the referent object and meaning of an associated word.

For example, when you see an object in the store, you do not just see a sight, but you also see a whole commonsense object, which is both the collection synthesis and the kind synthesis that is, for instance, a persimmon. You see a persimmon. But if you don't know what it is, you might ask someone and they say, “It is a persimmon.”  You can only understand the sounds that they utter and what this object is by conceptually fitting the sound into the audio category “persimmon” and conceptually fitting the object that you saw into the object category “persimmon,” which is also the meaning category associated with that audio category. It is only through static categories that you can understand nonstatic syntheses that are commonsense objects. 

Objective Entities and Metaphysical Entities

Having the ability to produce an effect – the defining characteristic of a nonstatic phenomenon – is also the defining characteristic of an objective entity (rang-mtshan). Therefore, nonstatic, changing phenomena are generated from causes, produce effects, are substantially established and are objectively real. They are also what are known as deepest true phenomena (don-dam bden-pa), in the sense that the establishment of their existence is able to withstand the conceptual analysis of logic. This is because the existence of nonstatic phenomena is established from their own side, without being dependent on being merely established in the context of the designation of them with words and the mental labeling of them with concepts. They are still findable, objectively existing outside the context of our conceptual analysis. Although dependent on parts, causes and so forth, they nevertheless truly exist in their own right, independently of being conceptually cognized, and are able to function as objective entities. Although they can be labeled by concepts and designated  by words, their existence is not established merely in the context of the conceptual cognition of them. 

Static phenomena, on the other hand, are metaphysical entities (spyi-mtshan, generally categorized phenomena), which are defined as those existent phenomena that are ultimately incapable of producing any effect. Thus, they do not come into existence from a network of causes and conditions, do not generate any results and are merely metaphysical, not objective realities. They are not substantially established. A rabbit-horn is also ultimately incapable of producing any effect, but because it is nonexistent, it is not metaphysical. 

Static phenomena, however, do exist and can be validly known. However, they are superficial true phenomena (kun-rdzob bden-pa, conventional true phenomena) in that their existence can be established only in the context of the mental labeling of them with concepts and the designation of them with words. They cannot withstand conceptual analysis with logic, because outside of that context, they cannot be found – although they can be found within that context. Thus, superficial true phenomena cannot be non-conceptually, explicitly seen, for example, by bare visual cognition. This is because they are not objectively real. Although not dependent on causes, metaphysical phenomena do depend on parts and, as imputation phenomena, they are dependent on a basis for imputation. Nevertheless, they do not participate in cause and effect. 

Types of Objective, Nonstatic Phenomena

There are three kinds of objective, nonstatic phenomena: 

  • Forms of physical phenomena (gzugs)
  • Ways of being aware of something (shes-pa)
  • Noncongruent affecting variables (ldan-min ‘du-byed), which are neither of those two.

Forms of Physical Phenomena

The first type of nonstatic phenomena, forms of physical phenomena, has two divisions:

  • The four great elements (‘byung-ba chen-po bzhi) – earth, water, fire and wind
  • Forms of physical phenomena made from them as their cause (rgyur-byas-pa’i gzugs).

Both are forms of corporeal matter (bem-po) comprised of clusters of colored particles such that the cluster constitutes a shape. 

There are ten types of forms of physical phenomena that are made from the four great elements as their cause, divided into five sensory objects and five types of physical cognitive sensors (dbang-po).

The five sensory objects are:

  • Sights (gzugs)
  • Sounds (sgra
  • Smells (dri)
  • Tastes (ro
  • Physical sensations (reg-bya).  

Each of these can be the object of only two types of consciousness: either (1) their own specific specialized one, such as sights are objects specific to visual consciousness, or (2) mental consciousness. 

According to the Jetsunpa textbook tradition, however, there are certain physical objects that can be known by more than one type of sensory consciousness. This refers specifically to the four great elements. They can be detected both as physical sensations of solid, liquid, heat and gas and also as visual sights. Most of the other textbooks say that they are exclusively physical sensations alone, and when conventionally someone says, “I see fire,” they are in fact seeing the color and shape of the fire and not the fire itself. But the Jetsunpa textbook tradition asserts that since the Buddhist teachings must not contradict worldly convention, it must be allowed that you can directly see water, fire and so forth. Otherwise, the absurd conclusion would follow that, as with fire, you see only the color and shape of the clay jug, but not the clay jug itself. There can be much debate on this point.

The Vaibhashika tenet system asserts that shapes can be cognized by the consciousness of physical sensations (tactile consciousness). This is because Vaibhashika asserts that shape and color constitute separate substantial entities (rdzas). Sautrantika, however, asserts that color and shape constitute a single substantial entity, namely a sight, and so cannot be cognized separately. Sautrantika, therefore, asserts that sights can only be cognized by visual consciousness.

Sautrantika does not accept revealing forms (rig-byed-kyi gzugs), which are asserted in the Vaibhashika and Madhyamaka tenet systems as the types of constructive or destructive karmic impulses of the body or speech that reveal that they were caused to arise by constructive or destructive karmic urges of the mind. 

  • According to Vaibhashika, they are the momentary shapes of the body, comprised only of light, while committing an action of the body or the momentary sounds of the speech while committing an action of speech. 
  • According to Madhyamaka, they are the movements of the body while committing an action of the body or the utterances of the speech while committing an action of speech. 

It is unclear whether Sautrantika accepts the type of revealing form asserted in the Chittamatra system as indicative forms (mngon-par gsal-ba’i gzugs). These are unspecified phenomena, neither constructive nor destructive, that indicate merely that they arose from a cause. They refer specifically to the intangible visible form of the blue color of the sky.     

Cognitive Sensors

Humans have five types of physical cognitive sensors: 

  • The photosensitive cells
  • The audio-sensitive cells
  • The smell-sensitive cells
  • The taste-sensitive cells 
  • The physical sensation-sensitive cells. 

Each set of sense-sensitive cells is specific for a specific type of sensory consciousness. These five physical cognitive sensors are composed of the smallest particles specific to each and are normally objects only of mental consciousness.

For most limited beings the photosensitive cells are located in the eyes, the audio-sensitive in the ears, the smell-sensitive in the nose, the taste-sensitive in the tongue, and physical sensation-sensitive throughout most of the body, and therefore in the Sautrantika literature they are called the photosensitive cells of the eyes (mig-gi dbang-po), the audio-sensitive cells of the ears (rna’i dbang-po) and so on. But this is not their location for all limited beings. The octopus, for example, has additional photosensitive, smell-sensitive and taste-sensitive cells in the suckers of its tentacles. 

Forms Included Only among Cognitive Stimulators That Are All Phenomena

The above forms of physical phenomena are classified as forms included among the cognitive stimulators that are forms (gzugs-kyi skye-mched-kyi gzugs). There are also forms of physical phenomena that are classified as forms included only among the cognitive simulators that are phenomena (chos-kyi skye-mched-kyi gzugs-kyi skye-mched-kyi gzugs). These are forms of physical phenomena that can only be known by mental consciousness. These are asserted as forms in the Chittamatra system of Asanga but are not accepted as actual forms by the Sautrantika system, only nominal ones. There are five types:

  • Forms of physical phenomena derived from what have been amassed together (bsdus-pa-las gyur-pa’i gzugs), namely the smallest particles (rdul phra-ma) derived from mentally deconstructing coarse material objects. According to the Sautrantika system, they have directional parts and therefore can be further subdivided. Thus, unlike what the Vaibhashika system asserts, there is no ultimately smallest indivisible physical particle. When grouped together in composites, however, such particles form corporeal matter. But each individual particle is incorporeal and therefore invisible to the naked eye and can only be seen by the “mind’s eye.” 
  • Forms of physical phenomena that are open spaces (mngon-par skabs yod-pa'i gzugs), such as the open spaces between objects that can only be known by mental consciousness, such as distances between oneself and a distant mountain, astronomical distances between stars and microscopic distances between particles. 
  • Forms of physical phenomena arising from having properly received them (yang-dag-par blangs-pa-las byung-ba’i gzugs), such as the nonrevealing forms (rnam-par rig-byed ma-yin-pa’i gzugs) of vows. Nonrevealing forms are subtle forms received only with a strong motivation, but once received on the mental continuum, do not reveal that motivation. Sautrantika asserts that nonrevealing forms are only nominal forms of physical phenomena, but that, actually, they are not substantially established and therefore unable to perform any function. 
  • Forms of physical phenomena that are totally imaginary (kun-brtags-pa’i gzugs), such as sensory objects in dreams and the conceptually implied objects (zhen-yul) of conceptual cognitions that appear when imagining physical objects such as sights, sounds, smells and so on, or when visualizing the form of a Buddha 
  • Forms of physical phenomena arising from meditative power (dbang-‘byor-pa’i gzugs), such as the fire or water emanated and cognized by the power of absorbed concentration (ting-nge-‘dzin, Skt. samadhi).

Ways of Being Aware of Something

The second type of nonstatic phenomena, namely those that are ways of being aware of something, has three divisions: 

  • Primary consciousness (rnam-shes) – they cognize the essential nature (ngo-bo) of their object, meaning what type of phenomenon it is, such as a sight, a sound and so on 
  • Mental factors (sems-byung) – they accompany primary consciousness and cognizing objects in distinctive ways 
  • Reflexive awareness (rang-rig) – they cognize just the primary consciousness and its attendant mental factors that accompany it.

Mental factors are congruent with the primary consciousness they accompany, which means that they share five congruent features (mtshungs-ldan lnga) with them:

  • Reliance (rten) – they rely on the same cognitive sensor for their arising
  • Object (yul) – they cognitively aim at the same focal object for their arising
  • Mental aspect (rnam-pa) – they give rise to the same cognitive semblance of the focal object, which they assume or take on, like a transparent glass appearing to be blue when placed on top of a patch of blue color. The mental aspect that arises is somewhat like a mental hologram. 
  • Time (dus) – they arise, abide, and cease simultaneously
  • Natal source (rdzas) – although coming from their own individual natal sources, referring to their individual tendencies (sa-bon), they come from natal sources that have the same slant (ris-mthun), in the sense that they work harmoniously together without clashing. 

Noncongruent Affecting Variables

Noncongruent affecting variables that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something are nonstatic objects of cognition that do not share five congruent features with the primary consciousness and mental factors that cognize them. They include: 

  • Attainments (thob-pa)
  • Non-attainments (ma-thob-pa)
  • Homogeneity (skal-mnyam)
  • Life force (srog) – that which maintains the continuity of the mental consciousness and the tendencies on it during the span of a lifetime as one type of being  
  • A syllable synthesis (yi-ge’i tshogs) – the intentionally made sound of a consonant put together with the sound of a vowel 
  • A name or word synthesis (ming-gi tshogs) – an assemblage of syllables that is intentionally put together and assigned a meaning 
  • A phrase synthesis (tshig-gi tshogs) – an assemblage of words that is intentionally put together and assigned a meaning
  • Arising (skye)
  • Abiding (gnas)
  • Aging (rga)
  • Perishing (‘jig)
  • The meditative attainment from a balanced absorption on  non-distinguishing (‘du-shes med-pa’i snyoms-‘jug) – a temporary blockage, during this absorption, of the gross consciousness and mental factors that have stable continuums, such as feelings and gross distinguishing 
  • The state of non-distinguishing (‘du-shes med-pa) – a temporary blockage of the primary consciousness and mental factors that have stable continuums that occurs in the mental continuum of gods on the fourth level of mental constancy (fourth dhyana) on the plane of ethereal forms (form realm), during their lifetime, as a result of that meditative attainment
  • The meditative attainment from a balanced absorption on cessation (‘gog-pa’i snyoms-‘jug) – a temporary blockage, during this absorption, of the gross consciousness and mental factors that have either stable or unstable continuums, such as feelings and gross distinguishing or disturbing emotions.  

A Compendium of Special Topics of General Knowledge (mNgon-pa kun-btus, Abhidharmasamuccaya), a Chittamatra text by Asanga, lists several more, including:

  • Time (dus)
  • Location (yul)
  • Speed (mgyogs-pa)
  • Number (grangs)
  • Sequential order (go-rim), and so on. 

Many more items can be added to this list that Sautrantika accepts, most noteworthy of which are: 

  • Persons (gang-zag)
  • The conventional “I” (nga)
  • The selflessness of persons (gang-zag-gi bdag-med)
  • Impermanence (mi-rtag-pa)
  • Tendencies (sa-bon)
  • Habits (bag-chags).

Types of Metaphysical, Static Entities

Metaphysical, static entities include:

  • The space of something – the absence of anything tangible or obstructive that would prevent an object from occupying three dimensions 
  • Analytical stoppings (so-sor brtags-pa’i ‘gog-pa, analytical cessation) – a state of being parted forever from something to be gotten rid of (abandoned) by a seeing pathway mind (path of seeing) or by an accustoming pathway mind (path of meditation). Such pathway minds have non-conceptual cognition of the four noble truths.
  • Nonanalytical stopping (so-sor brtags-pa ma-yin-pa’i ‘gog-pa, nonanalytical cessation) – a state of being parted forever from something that could have happened, but never happened, once something else has happened instead
  • Audio categories (sgra-spyi) – the conceptual category of the sound of a word or name, in which the sounds of all individual pronunciations of the word or name fit, regardless of the voice, volume, or pronunciation with which it is spoken.
  • Object category (don-spyi) – the conceptual category into which fit all individual items that are instances of it.
  • Absences (med-dgag), including the coarse and subtle selflessness of persons.

All metaphysical entities are exclusions of something else (gzhan-sel). 

  • A category is the exclusion of everything not included in it
  • A space is the exclusion of anything tangible that would obstruct the spatial existence of something, 
  • A stopping is the exclusion of what is stopped
  • An absence is the exclusion of something that is not present or is nonexistent. 

Thus, they are all, in a sense, conceptual constructs – in other words, concepts. This means that any cognition of them is conceptual. Thus, in the Sautrantika system, not all conceptual cognitions include audio or object categories. Valid cognitions of spaces, stoppings and absences are all conceptual, although not necessarily through the categories “spaces,” “stoppings” or “absences.” 

Self-Sufficiently Knowable Phenomena and Imputably Knowable Phenomena

There are several types of substantial existence (rdzas-yod) mentioned in Buddha’s sutra texts: 

  • Substantial existence in the sense of being able to perform a function (don-byed-nus-pa’i rdzas-yod) –  according to the Sautrantika position, all nonstatic phenomena and only they alone have such substantial existence, while static phenomena lack it.
  • Substantial existence in the sense of being stable and unchanging (brten-pa mi-’gyur ba’i rdzas-yod) – this would refer to static phenomena and not to anything that undergoes change. This type of substantial existence is unacceptable in terms of the Sautrantika tenets. It does, however, fit comfortably into the Vaibhashika (bye-brag-smra-ba) system. This is because the latter set of Hinayana theories asserts that all knowable phenomena have the ability to produce an effect, even static ones: they produce the effect of cognition of them. Therefore, unlike the Sautrantikas, the Vaibhashikas accept all knowable phenomena as substantially existent. 
  • Substantial existence in the sense of being self-sufficiently knowable (rang-rkya thub-pa’i rdzas-yod) – if the essential nature of something can be cognized without having to depend on your consciousness first and then simultaneously assuming the aspect (rnam-pa) of something else – meaning, giving rise to a mental hologram of something else –  that item is substantially existent inasmuch as it is self-sufficiently knowable. You can know it by itself. Only nonstatic phenomena that are forms of physical phenomena and ways of being aware of something fall in this category, for they alone can be known on their own without depending on your consciousness simultaneously giving rise to the mental hologram of something else. They may be called “self-sufficiently knowable phenomena.”

The opposite of this third type of substantial existence is imputed existence (btags-yod). If, in order to cognize the essential nature of something, you must depend on your consciousness simultaneously giving rise to the mental hologram of something else, that first item has imputed existence on the basis of the second. Included in this category of knowables are both noncongruent affecting variables and static phenomena. Although the former are nonstatic objective entities capable of performing a function, while the latter are static metaphysical ones incapable of producing any effect, both have only imputed existence. Both may be called “imputedly knowable phenomena.” 

Consider the examples of the impermanence, meaning the momentary changing, of a clay jug and the space of a clay jug, meaning the absence of anything tangible obstructing the clay jug from occupying three dimensions no matter where it is located. You cannot know either of these without relying on your consciousness giving rise simultaneously to a mental hologram of the clay jug itself, the basis for both imputations. 

The process involved is that first you must cognize the basis, for instance the clay jug – something with self-sufficiently knowable substantial existence. Then immediately following, while your consciousness is still aimed at that basis and giving rise to a mental hologram of it, you simultaneously cognize an imputation phenomenon on its basis, such as the fact of its changing or its lack of anything obstructing its spatial existence. The moment to moment changing of the clay jug is an objective entity. It produces such effects as the clay jug’s aging and deteriorating, and your unhappiness if you happen to be attached to the clay jug. Moreover, this change itself undergoes continual change. The fact that nothing is obstructing the three-dimensional existence of the clay jug, however, does not do anything, let alone change. 

In summary, 

  • The existence of static phenomena, as superficial true phenomena, can only be established in the context of a conceptual cognition that mentally labels them with a concept or designates them a word on an appropriate basis for imputation. They are only metaphysical entities, not objective ones. In order for them to be validly known, your consciousness must first and then simultaneously give rise to a mental hologram of their basis. 
  • Noncongruent affecting variables are deepest true phenomena with the ability to produce effects. Their existence is not something that can only be established in the context of a conceptual cognition that mentally labels them with a concept or designates them with a word on an appropriate basis for imputation. They are objective entities. Nevertheless, to cognize them, your consciousness must likewise give rise first and then simultaneously to a mental hologram of their basis for imputation, for they too have only imputed existence. 
  • Forms of physical objects and ways of being aware of something are also deepest true phenomena with the ability produce an effect. To cognize them, however, your consciousness need not give rise to the mental hologram of anything else. They are self-sufficiently knowable on their own. These differences should be carefully noted. 

Further Detail about Ways of Being Aware of Something

A way of being aware of something (shes-pa) is defined as a clarity and awareness with respect to an object. This is also the definition of mind (sems), the individual, subjective experiencing (myong-ba) of something. 

  • Clarity (gsal) is the defining characteristic of being devoid of anything tangible or obstructive that would prevent the cognitive arising (‘char-ba, dawning) of a cognitive object, similar to a mental hologram. In that respect, a way of being aware of something is as vast and expansive as space. 
  • Awareness (rig), as the second defining characteristic, is the mental activity of a cognitive engagement (‘jug-pa) with an object, such as with any of the seven ways of knowing discussed in this text. 

A way of being aware of something, then, cognitively engages with an object and, in doing so, gives rise to a mental hologram of it. 

  • With primary consciousness, you are aware merely of the essential nature of a sight, sound and so forth. 
  • With mental factors, you are aware of distinctions in such objects, make judgements about them, react to them and so forth. 
  • With reflexive awareness, you experience the fact that you have been conscious of something in the sense of witnessing it. 

Take the example of seeing a clay jug. With the primary consciousness, you receive its bare visual impression. With the second, you distinguish it as a clay jug and as being red, regard it as attractive and as belonging to you, feel happiness and attachment at seeing it, and so on. With the third, you are aware of this entire constellation of consciousness and mental factors such that later you may recall seeing it. 

A consciousness in general is defined as a principal awareness, upon which can be placed the essential nature of anything through the process of taking it as its object. A principal awareness (gtso-sems) is a cluster of a primary consciousness and its accompanying congruent mental factors. Since a consciousness is always accompanied by some mental factors, it is referred to as a principal awareness. 

“Being a principal awareness, upon which can be placed the essential nature of anything” should not be taken literally in a physical sense, however, because consciousness lacks all physical qualities. Therefore, it does not receive impressions like a lump of clay or a piece of a film. Rather, it bears the information it is aware of, somewhat like the way in which a mirror bears the image it reflects. Unlike a mirror, however, consciousness is aware of its objects and it itself is transparent, being non-physical. 

According to this definition, then, consciousness refers specifically to primary consciousness. There are six types in connection with the six cognitive sensors: 

  • Visual consciousness depends on photo-sensitive cells to become aware primarily of sights or forms
  • Auditory consciousness depends on audio-sensitive cells the sound-sensors primarily for sounds
  • Olfactory consciousness on the nose-sensors primarily for smells
  • Gustatory consciousness on the tongue-sensors primarily for tastes
  • Corporeal consciousness on the body-sensors primarily for physical sensations. 

Each of these five sensory types of consciousness can also explicitly apprehend certain noncongruent affecting variables that are imputation phenomena on the basis of their primary type of object. Explicit apprehension (dngos-su rtogs-pa) of an object is an accurate and decisive cognition of something, in which a mental hologram of the object arises. For instance, you can see or hear a person or the gross impermanence of a clay jug, such as when it breaks. Each can also implicitly apprehend certain static phenomena that are also imputation phenomena on the basis of their primary object, such as when seeing the absence of a clay jug on a bare tabletop. Implicit apprehension (shugs-la rtogs-pa) of an object is an accurate and decisive cognition of something, in which a mental hologram of the object does not arise. In the special case of Buddhas, since they are omniscient, they can be aware of all knowable phenomena through any of their consciousnesses, even sensory. 

  • Mental consciousness depends on mind-sensors to become aware of anything validly knowable. 

Unlike the previous five types of cognitive sensors, however, which are forms of physical phenomena,  mind-sensors are not tiny cells of a physical organ, such as the brain. They refer to any of the six types of primary consciousness when one of them serves as a basis for a next moment of consciousness to arise. 

Cognitive Stimulators, Cognitive Sources and Conscious Phenomena

The six types of knowable objects – sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, and all existent phenomena – and the six cognitive-sensors normally used to cognize them are called the twelve cognitive stimulators (skye-mched bcu-gnyis, Skt. dvadasha ayatana). This is because they function as the items that cause the six types of cognition to arise and increase. 

When the six types of consciousness are added to the above twelve, they are known as the eighteen cognitive sources (khams bcu-brgyad, Skt. ashtadasha dhatu, eighteen cognitive spheres). They are so termed because they encompass what is in their own class and have continuity. 

When a moment of consciousness of a particular cognitive faculty, such as vision, and its accompanying mental factors and reflexive awareness are grouped together, they are known as the conscious  phenomena (shes-pa) of that faculty or as an instance of its cognition. Thus, it should be noted that consciousness is merely one component of a cognition. 

Therefore, there are six general types of cognition: visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile and mental, each of which is composed of a primary consciousness, a cluster of congruent mental factors and reflexive awareness.. All six are ways of knowing objects. Thus a knowing (blo) and a way of knowing are general terms used synonymously and encompassing any type of cognition. 

Obvious, Obscure and Extremely Obscure Objects

Validly knowable phenomena may also be divided into those that are obvious, obscure or extremely obscure.

  • Obvious objects (mngon-gyur) – those objective entities that can be explicitly apprehended by valid sensory cognition; for instance, smoke that you see on a distant mountain. Also obvious are metaphysical entities that can be implicitly apprehended by valid sensory cognition, such as the absence of an apple on a bare tabletop. This will be explained in more detail in later chapters.
  • Obscure objects (lkog-gyur) – those objects that can be validly known only by relying on logic and reasoning; for instance, fire on a distant mountain when you see smoke rising there: where there is smoke, there is fire.
  • Extremely obscure objects (shin-tu lkog-gyur) – those that can be validly known only by relying on a valid source of information; for instance, the name of the person who lit the fire on that distant mountain.

Summary

In summary, in the Buddhist Sautrantika system, there are both existents and nonexistents. Only the former are validly knowable, and they are divided into two: nonstatic objective entities and static metaphysical ones. The first are divided into three: forms of physical phenomena, ways of being aware of something and noncongruent affecting variables. Both this latter one and static phenomena are merely imputedly existent, whereas the former two are self-sufficiently knowable substantially existent. Imputedly existent phenomena can only be paid attention by your consciousness first and then simultaneously also assuming the aspect of the self-sufficiently knowable, substantial object that is their basis for imputation. Thus, of the four types of validly knowable phenomena, forms of physical phenomena and ways of being aware of something can be known on their own, while noncongruent affecting variables and static phenomena can only be known in conjunction with one of the former and and simultaneously with it. Moreover what can be validly known may be either something obvious, obscure or extremely obscure.

Ways of being aware of something are divided into three: primary consciousness, mental factors and reflexive awareness. The conscious phenomena of the cognition of something consist of a cluster of all three. Depending on the primary consciousness and cognitive sensor involved, there are cognitions of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind. All six are ways of knowing any of the above existent objects. 

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