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Both dharma teachers are yogis that went for 9 years retreat and trained in the Nyingma lineage.

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Breaking the Silence – The Teachings of Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma Teachings
In this second part of the trilogy on Bodhidharma, let us go deeper into his teachings, including the two methods Bodhidharma taught for entering the Way of Awakening.  We shall also see how Bodhidharma’s teachings fit within the broader context of various Mahayana methods.

View other parts of this Trilogy at 

Bodhidharma Life StoryPart I – Transcending Movement and Stillness – The Life of Bodhidharma

Part III – The Wild Leaps of Awakening – Bodhidharma and Martial Arts

 Bodhidharma taught through silence and words, and through resting and movement. Sometimes he just sat silent and dissolved the conceptual proliferations of seekers in that silence. Sometimes, he used abrupt and loud words and expressions to totally shift the mindset of disciples and to bring to dust their  frames of reference. In resting like a mountain, gazing at the empty wall of mind’s nature, he showed how the mind of dualities and conceptual proliferations comes to rest in the basic space of the perception and the perceived1. In moving like a wild goose spreading its wings, he showed how the perception and the perceived never harm the silence of the basic space.

The View from the Summit

View from the Summit

In the view of awakening, as expressed by the Buddha in the Prajna-paramita-sutras, Lankavatara-sutra, and so on, the perception and the perceived are seen to be unborn, without a beginning. The perception and the perceived have never ever arisen as independent realities separate from the basic space of all phenomenal arising2.  Realizing this principle cannot be the result of seeking. It is rather like seeing the entire landscape from the top of a high summit by resting and not seeking. All teachings of the Buddha, and particularly Mahayana Sutras, skillfully take disciples to this summit. Bodhidharma’s teachings are in essence no different from this.

There are broadly two approaches to arrive at the summit. One is that of the Nalanda masters. It involves elaborate study and then using the sword of prajna (understanding) through logical reasoning and contemplations to cut one’s conceptual proliferation branch by branch. As the thoughts that proliferates with dualistic conceptions are gradually eliminated with the sword of prajna, one reaches the summit of non-conceptual view that is beyond seeking. The other approach is that of close master-disciple relationship. In this case, by following the skillful personal instructions of a master, the disciple quickly gains a glimpse into that non-conceptual view by instantaneously cutting through whatever obscured true seeing. Then, the disciple trains to rest at the summit of that non-conceptual view of the basic space, without taking recourse to elaborate reasoning and logic. Bodhidharma emphasized the latter.

Bodhidharma’s teachings, matching with his time, made sure that the skillful means of realizing the vast expanse of one’s own mind does not turn into mere religiosity. Buddha-dharma was already very popular by then and people were turning it into religious systems. So, for Bodhidharma, it was important to dismantle the religiosity to show the true meaning of the Buddha’s teachings.

He always emphasized that the purpose of practicing Dharma should be to tame and transform mind, and all the more to realize Buddhahood that is in one’s nature beyond all seeking and rejecting. He repeatedly made it clear that there is no use doing elaborate practices in a religious way if you miss this real meaning and purpose.

Finding the Buddha

Bodhidharma said,
To find a Buddha, you have to see your nature.
Whoever sees one’s own nature is a Buddha.
Invoking Buddhas, reciting Sutras,
Making offerings, and keeping precepts
Are all useless if you don’t see your nature.
Invoking Buddhas results in feeling blessed;
Reciting Sutras results in a good memory;
Keeping precepts results in a good rebirth;
And making offering results in good karma;
Yet, none of those result in finding the Buddha.

Seeking the BuddhaTo find a Buddha all you have to do is to see your own nature. Your own true nature is no different from that of a fully awakened Buddha. If you don’t see your nature, and instead run around all day looking elsewhere, you’ll never find a Buddha. In fact, there’s nothing to find. There is no Buddha to seek elsewhere. Just recognize your own innate potential and let it naturally flourish. There, you find the true Buddha. Invoking Buddhas, reciting Sutras, making offerings, keeping precepts and various other such activities are only to create conditions to get closer to that recognition and to make it easier for it to flourish. But, if you go on looking outwardly to see results from such actions without turning attention towards your own mind, then you won’t find a Buddha. The best one can gain by performing such acts religiously is some good karma, good memory, good rebirth, and feeling blessed, keeping the hope alive, but never Buddhahood!

Thus Bodhidharma’s style was to turn the attention of the disciple inward to the mind, and into its empty nature. The Master leads the disciple into realizing that one’s mind by its very nature is equal to that of a fully awakened Buddha. Yet, when one recognizes the nature of one’s own mind, nothing is found there to cling to as ‘this is mind’. Discovering one’s own Buddhahood in the empty-mind is the essence and the way of Mahayana Buddhism.

Bodhidharma said,
You should realize that the cultivation of the Way does not exist apart from your mind. If your mind is pure, everything is pure as buddha-fields. As sutras states, “If the minds of beings are impure, beings are impure. If the minds of beings are pure, beings are pure,” and “To reach a buddha-field, purify your mind. As your mind becomes pure, everything becomes pure as buddha-fields.” (from the Breakthrough Discourse)

Dissolving the Mind

Dissolving the mind
Though purifying mind is the essence of practicing the Way, it is not done by clinging at the mind as a glorified and absolute entity. It is not that one simply goes inward by rejecting the external world. It is not that the mind is pure and the world is impure. When mind is clear, the world is a pure-field. When mind is deluded, the world is Samsara. Bodhidharma said,
Seeing with insight, form is not simply form, because form depends on mind. And, mind is not simply mind, because mind depends on form. Mind and form create and negate each other.  …  Mind and the world are opposites, appearances arise where they meet. When your mind does not stir inside, the world does not arise outside. When the world and the mind are both transparent, this is the true insight.” (from the Wakeup Discourse)

Just like the masters of Madhyamaka, Bodhidharma too pointed out that mind and form are interdependently arising. Mind and form create each other. Yet, when you cling to form, you negate mind. And, when you cling to mind, you negate form. Only when such dualistic notions are dissolved, and only when both mind and the world are transparent (not turning to obstructing concepts) the true insight arises.

In this regard, Bodhidharma said,
Using the mind to look for reality is delusion.
Not using the mind to look for reality is awareness.
(from the Wakeup Discourse)

So, to effectively enter the Way, one has to go beyond the dualities (conceptual constructs) of mind and form. As far as one looks for reality as an object of mind, one is still trapped in the net of delusion (of seeing mind and form as independent realities), never breaking free from it. In that way, one holds reality as something other than oneself, and even worse, one holds oneself as a spectator to a separate reality!

When the mind does not stir anymore and settles into its pristine clarity, the world does not stir outside. The reality is revealed beyond the divisions of Self and others, and mind and form.  Thus, as you learn not to use the mind to look for reality and simply rests in the natural state of mind as it is, there is the dawn of pristine awareness –  knowing reality as it is, non-dually and non-conceptually.

When the mind does not dissolve in this way to its original clarity, whatever one sees is merely the stirring of conceptuality. Even if we try to construct a Buddha’s mind, it only stirs and does not see reality. Because, the Buddha’s mind is simply the uncompounded clarity of Bodhi (awakening), free from stirring and constructions. So, Bodhidharma said,
That which ordinary knowledge understands is also said to be within the boundaries of the norms. When you do not produce the mind of a common man, or the mind of a sravaka or a bodhisattva, and when you do not even produce a Buddha-mind or any mind at all, then for the first time you can be said to have gone outside the boundaries of the norms. If no mind at all arises, and if you do not produce understanding nor give rise to delusion, then, for the first time, you can be said to have gone outside of everything. (From the Record #1, of the Collection of Bodhidharma’s Works3 retrieved from Dunhuang Caves)

Often, this approach of simply not using mind and the instruction to rest naturally, are confused with  simply sitting in tranquility or Shamatha. Particularly, those who did not obtain the direct and clear instructions confuse so. Then, though they keep meditating, they do not enter the Way. However, if one understands Bodhidharma’s approach properly, it is not about holding mind in a passive state. His Way is a union of Shamatha (pacification of mind) and Vipashyana (cultivating insight). For example, Bodhidharma gave the following instructions regarding how to work with the mind that arises,
When mind arises, rely on teachings to watch the source where it arises from. If mind discriminates, rely on teachings to watch the source of discrimination. If attachment, anger or deluded thoughts arise, rely on teachings to watch the source they arise from. [When nothing arises,] not seeking for their arisings is cultivating the Way. When there is arising of thought, then investigate, and by relying on teachings, clear it up!(From the Record #1, of the Collection of Bodhidharma’s Works retried from Dunhuang Caves)

As it is evident from the above, Bodhidharma’s approach of dissolving mind is through insight, and not that of holding mind in a passive state. Various states of meditation attained through simply pacifying mind into various states of absorption (dhyana) are merely temporary and do not lead to real insight and liberation. Whereas, when  the dualistic mind is dissolved through insight, and then by simply resting in that insight, there is the view of reality, and thus liberation.

Thus, Bodhidharma clarified,
Not creating delusion is enlightenment.
Not engaging in ignorance is wisdom
No affliction is Nirvana.
(from the Wakeup Discourse)

Breaking the Silence

Bodhidharma spent nine years meditating in a cave near Shaolin Monastery

Bodhidharma kept silence for many years and stayed in a Samadhi of clear insight. He said,
Freeing oneself from words is liberation. (from the Wakeup Discourse)

The words, even when not spoken out, are proliferations of a conceptual and dualistic mind. To dissolve mind, it is important to free oneself from such proliferations and be able to rest naturally. Yet, he cautioned that a dumb kind of silence should not be confused as the Way. So, in the same discourse, he mocked those who glorify the silence of stupidity,
Those who understand both speech and silence are in Samadhi. If you speak when you know, your speech is free. If you are silent when you don’t know, your silence is bondage. If your speech is not attached to appearances, it is free. If your silence is attached to appearances, it is bondage. Language by itself is not bondage. Because, language by itself is not attachment. And, attachment has nothing to do with language. (from the Wakeup Discourse)

Clearly, it does not matter whether you speak or keep silence as far as either of it is from a point of wisdom and understanding. And, even the silence can be bondage if there is attachment and the lack of insight. In fact, the depth of inner silence of realization can pervade every spoken word. Then, words transcend silence and stirring.

The Two Ways to Enter the Way

The wide-eyed yogi, Bodhidharma
Bodhidharma (Daruma) – a 15th Century painting. (Photo courtesy – Kyoto National Museum)

Bodhidharma’s approach to the Way can be classified into two methods. In one of his famed teachings in China, he spoke of these two kinds of entry to the Way. They are,
  1. Entering the Way through Insight – The instantaneous Entrance to the Way
  2. Entering the Way through Practice – The Gradual Entrance to the Way

Entering the Way through Insight

Entering the Way through insight happens when a disciple of high caliber listens to the instructions of the master, and then leaving behind all deluded pursuits, directly gains insight into the empty nature of mind. Then without making distinction between self and others, one maintains a stable and clear mind like a wall. This is the instantaneous entrance to the Way that Bodhidharma is most well known for. Relaxing in the stable and clear nature of the empty mind is the meditation that is unmoving like a wall. Unmoving does not mean that the mind is lost in vacuity with no thought and perception at all. It also does not mean that one is just sitting all the time. It is not that kind of unmoving. Even while various perceptions and experiences arise, one remains unmoving from the insight of the empty nature of mind and evenness of knowing that all beings possess Buddha-nature. As Bodhidharma said,
To transcend motion and stillness is the highest meditation. (from the Wakeup Sermon)

In this way, Bodhidharma’s approach is not that of just remaining still in body and mind, but that of meditation transcending motion and stillness. It is about maintaining unmoving realization of the reality throughout all actions of life, or simply, ‘unmoving meditation in action’.

Zen Master Dogen
Zen Master Dogen
The sitting meditation of Bodhidharma is also known as ‘Wall-gazing Meditation’ (Pi-kuan in Chinese). Though in certain traditions of Chan/Zen, it is practiced by facing a wall, its meaning is not limited to simply gazing at the wall. In this, one trains to abandon all conceptuality and relax in the utter clarity of mind. As a poetic expression, it is like directly ‘gazing’ into the empty wall of the  mind’s nature. However, in practice there is nothing to gaze as the nature of mind transcends object-subject dualities. So one simply relaxes in the natural clarity of mind.

Often, Bodhidharma’s approach of entering the Way through insight is confused with purely sitting meditation, devoid of everything else. In fact, his tradition got the name Zen School or Chan School (which literally means Meditation School) because ordinary people confused this to be just always sitting in meditation. As Dogen, a later master of Zen and the founder of Soto School of Zen in Japan pointed out in his Bendowa,
At first, while Master Bodhidharma sat facing the wall for nine years …, both monks and non-monastics … called him the sage who just practiced zazen (sitting meditation) as the essence. After that, his successors for generations practiced zazen. Seeing this, foolish worldly people, who did not understand what goes on in the sitting, in confusion [of seeing only the outer form] called this the ‘Zazen School’ (the school of sitting meditation). … Do not take zazen to be same as the samadhi [of the three trainings of discipline, samadhi and wisdom], or dhyāna (meditation) of the six perfections. [The true zazen practice is what] Tathagata in the assembly at Vulture Peak (Grhakuta Mountain of Rajgir) transmitted to Venerable Mahakashyapa, the unsurpassed great transmission of the wondrous mind of Nirvana, the vision of dharma-eye. … It is a complete Way of Buddhadharma 

Entering the Way through Practice

Though the instantaneous approach of entering the Way through insight appears simple, it is difficult to gain instantaneous insight for most people even when a Master guides them to the view. So, Bodhidharma also taught a gradual way of entrance to the Way that is easy for all. This is ‘entering the Way through practice’. This has four practices,
  1. Accepting Suffering
  2. Adapting to Conditions
  3. Seeking nothing
  4. To unite with the Way

The first step in the gradual way is to learn not to react foolishly to sufferings arising from karmic ripening of past deeds. By reacting negatively, we only add more fuel to the karmic ripenings. In the face of painful situations that life presents, a skillful practitioner spends his or her energy in creating positive conditions and doing positive deeds rather than lamenting or reacting to painful situations negatively. This brings a first level sanity to life.

From Bodhidharma's Wakeup DiscourseThe second step is a little more advanced. Adapting to conditions is about realizing that all painful and pleasurable incidents of life are conditional and would also go away as conditions change. A skillful practitioner learns to maintain evenness of mind during both happiness and suffering, without giving into excessive elations and depression. This leads to profound clarity and  peace of mind.

The third step is even more advanced. Seeking nothing means that one has already realized a mind of contentment and  sees the meaninglessness of all selfish pursuits. In this stage, one even abandons seeking enlightenment. It does not mean that one remains inactive or shies away from action. Rather, one enjoys engaging in heroic pursuits for the benefit of others. (same as relative bodhicitta.)

As the final stage of the gradual way, the practitioner unites with the Way by seeing the emptiness of Self and all phenomena and by recognizing the empty expanse of the ground of all phenomena.

Honoring the Words of the Buddha

Though Bodhidharma emphasized the need to go to the essential meaning than merely reading scriptures, he also valued scriptural knowledge. In fact, Bodhidharma held Sutras in high esteem. Particularly he held that Mahayana Lankavatara Sutra contains the essential teachings of the instantaneous realization tradition of Mahayana. When Bodhidharma made Huike his Dharma successor, along with his robe and bowl he passed on a copy of the scripture of Lankavatara Sutra.

The Teachings Go further East

Bodhidharma’s teachings spread mainly in China and further east in Korea and Japan. His teachings later evolved into the instantaneous tradition of the Southern Chan school of China and the gradual tradition of the Northern Chan school of China. These teachings reached Vietnam through an Indian master named Vinītaruci who was a disciple of the Chinese master Sengcan, who in turn was a disciple of Huike, the heart disciple of Bodhidharma.  In Vietnam this school came to be known as the Thien school. The Chinese Chan school propagated to Japan when Myoan Eisai learnt it in China and established the Rinzai Zen School, following the Chinese tradition of the Linji Chan school.  Further, Dogen learnt from the Chinese tradition of the Caodong Chan school and established the Soto Zen school in Japan. All of these schools practice the meditation of just sitting and resting in the unborn nature of all appearances without seeking or rejecting appearances. The difference among these schools is in the additional supports they use such as Sutra recitation, contemplation on koans (verses, often with seemingly paradoxical meaning, supposed to take the disciple beyond conceptuality), walking meditation, etc.

Placing in a Broader Context

During the 8th century CE, Bodhidharma’s teachings (Chan) reached Tibet from China. And that provides a unique opportunity to review Bodhidharma’s teachings in the context of many other Mahayana Buddhist teachings that arrived in Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism had both the pandita methods (those who made thorough scholarly study to enter the Way of awakening) and the kusulu methods (those who just practiced the essence of non-conceptual realization, without much scholarly study). These pandita and kusulu methods blended into an integral whole in Tibet with the same lineages and masters handling both kinds of methods together. Thus, the Tibetan scholars were able to come up with some of the best works of systematizing, contrasting and co-developing various methods of awakening, without denigrating one style for another. Since Chan tradition did not survive in Tibet for long, Bodhidharma’s teachings do not occupy a place in the analytical works of later Tibetan scholars. However, during the short period of the Chan presence in Tibet, some important scholarly works were composed that covered Bodhidharma’s tradition.

Nub Sangye Yeshe’s Classification of the Four Systems

Nub Sangye Yeshe
Nubchen Sangye Yeshe

Amongst those were Nubchen Sangye Yeshe’s composition of a very important work, with the name Samten Migdron (Lamp to the Eye of Meditation). Nubchen was a direct disciple of Guru Padmasambhava who brought Vajrayana Buddhism from India to Tibet. Nubchen’s work analyzed all the traditions of Mahayana Buddhist meditation into four systems with equal respect. This work also helps to distinguish between Chan / Zen and Atiyoga, and to avoid mixing up of the two methods.

Samten Migdron was lost for a long time. A manuscript of this text was recovered in early 20th Century from the Dunhuang caves in China. This became a very helpful source to see how Bodhidharma’s teaching style fits within the broader context of Mahayana Buddhism.

Nubchen classified Mahayana Meditation of the union of Shamatha (calm-abiding meditation) and Vipashyana (insight meditation) broadly into four systems. These are
Two methods of Sutrayana
  1. Gradual
  2. Instantaneous 
 and the two of Vajrayana
  1. Mahayoga (generation and completion stage practices of Mantrayana) 
  2. Atiyoga (the Great Perfection or Dzogchen practice). 

All of these four have their own respective ways of arriving at the union of shamatha and vipashyana on the unborn and empty nature of the basic space of all phenomena, and attaining liberation in that basic space.

According to Nubchen’s classification, the Gradual Sutrayana refers to the path of gradually abandoning various conceptual clingings and gradually realizing the unborn and empty nature of the space of all phenomena. Here, one cultivates non-conceptuality with respect to various phenomenal appearances, and that gradually leads to the basic space.

The second system, the Instantaneous Sutrayana, is what Nubchen identifies  primarily as the teachings of the Great Abbot Bodhidharmottara (or Bodhidharma), particularly ‘Entering the Way through Insight’ (Nubchen also deals with many other masters of Chan / Zen as belonging to this category). According to Nubchen, this method teaches the unborn nature of the space of all phenomena from the very beginning. The practice here is that of wall-gazing as the union of shamatha and vipashyana by training to rest in the unborn ultimate nature. According to Nubchen, this unborn nature is the parinishpanna svabhāva (Perfect Nature) of the unborn space as in Yogacara. Here one cultivates non-conceptuality with respect to the emptiness of all phenomena. In other words, one cultivates non-conceptuality with respect to non-appearances4, without clinging to a conceptual notion of emptiness.

The third, Mahayoga, refers to the generation and completion stage practices of the Vajrayana. Here, one cultivates the non-dual non-conceptuality of the inseparability of the unborn space and wisdom-appearances.

The fourth, Atiyoga, refers to Great Perfection or Dzogchen. Here, a disciple is directly introduced to the play of his or her pristine awareness that is inseparable from the unborn space of all phenomena. In Atiyoga, one directly rests in the spontaneously present non-conceptuality where there is no reference for meditation, such as the object or subject. In this spontaneously present non conceptuality, emptiness and appearances are naturally unified.

Prasangika Madhyamaka and Bodhidharma

In the context of the above analysis, it is also interesting to compare Prasangika Madhyamaka with Bodhidharma’s method. Though these two methods of entering the Way differ drastically, the qualities of their meditation are essentially the same.

Prasangika uses consequential reasoning (the logic of reduction-ad-absurdum) to see the absurdity of every possible conceptual elaboration. Here, conceptual elaborations include the views such as existence, non-existence, both and neither. As one studies scriptures and thoroughly analyzes, one gains certainty in the absurdity of all such conceptual positions. Having gained certainty through such analysis and contemplation, one’s mind comes to rest in the uncontrived nature of mind, giving rise to self-arisen wisdom that is in the nature of mind. (Nubchen Sangey Yeshe did not analyze Prasangika as a separate system in Samten Migdron. However, since the Prasangika approach is to cut all extremes of existence, non-existence and so on simultaneously, its meditation is the same as what Nubchen explains for the Instantaneous Sutrayana, namely, that of non-conceptuality of non-appearance.)

Unlike Prasangika, Chan / Zen does not use elaborate logic and reasoning to analyze every possible position. Instead, a disciple in this case relies on the individualized instructions of a realized Master to move from the position where he or she is stuck  to the point of gaining glimpse into the view of the unborn nature. The effectiveness of this approach depends on the ability of both the master and the disciple. Though a detailed Madhyamaka style analysis is not performed, some systems of Chan / Zen use riddles (koan). Riddles are chosen by the Master depending upon where the disciple is stuck currently. The real Chan / Zen according to ‘Entering the Way through Insight’ (Instantaneous Entrance) starts only when gradually the disciple arrives at the gate of having a glimpse of the unborn nature.

View the Complete Trilogy at 

Bodhidharma – a Trilogy on His Life and Teachings

Authors – Yogini Abhaya Devi Yogi Prabodha Jnana

Yogini Abhaya Devi
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The abbot of the Sanbô-Zen

    I think that there is no one who has not heard the name Descartes. Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was a great philosopher and mathematician born in France. He was a contemporary with the great physicist, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), born in Italy Descartes, in Discourse on the Method, a work published in 1637, wrote, “I think, therefore I am.”1 These words, signifying the comprehension of the existence of the self as a reality beyond doubt, formed probably the most famous and most important proposition in the history of modern philosophy. For that reason Descartes is called the Father of Modern Philosophy.
    The process of Descartes’ cognitive methodology in the Discourse on the Method is, to put it simply: “If something can be doubted even a little, it must be completely rejected.” Those things which we usually think of as correct must be completely rejected should there be even the faintest doubt about them. In such a process even the proposition that 1 + 1 = 2, which seems to be self-evident reasoning, is rejected. However, Descartes asserts that the one thing that cannot be excluded and remains last of all is the perception “I think, therefore I am.” Is this true? Should this be rejected? Certainly there is a self which thinks about the self thinking. This fact cannot be denied.
    But was Descartes really right?
    Descartes was mistaken. I cannot help but say so. Perhaps someone will say to me, “Do you really think that you have the knowledge and intelligence sufficient to refute the conclusion drawn by one of the greatest thinkers known to us, someone who thoroughly thought through the problem and reached a conclusion affirmed by everyone?” It goes without saying that I do not have the knowledge and intelligence of Descartes. However, this is not a question of knowledge and intelligence. It is rather a question of the real world discovered through experience.
    Descartes is mistaken in a number of points.First of all, the proposition itself, “I think, therefore I am” is a tautological contradiction. The contradiction lies in the fact that while the proposition seeks to show the process whereby one can know the existence of “I,” already from the start it is presupposing that existence in the words, “I think.” This contradiction seems at first to be only a matter of word usage and not something essential to the argument. However, it is really closely tied up with the essence of the problem.
    To think about “Is this correct? Is this mistaken?” is something that cannot be denied. “Thinking” is a reality that cannot be excluded. Up to this point it is true just as Descartes maintained. However, the next step in which Descartes knows the existence of “I” by “therefore I am” is where Descartes fell into error. Where in the world did Descartes bring in this “I”? Where in the world did Descartes find this “I”? I must say that as soon as Descartes started with “I think,” he already had fallen into this error.
    “Thinking” is a reality that cannot be denied. But there is nothing beyond that reality of “thinking.” No matter where you look, something called “I” does not exist. No matter how much intellectual knowledge you may have, insofar as you do not have this experience, you cannot discover this world. “I think, therefore I am” must be re-phrased as “Thinking, but there is no I.”
    When Master Joshu was asked what was the world discovered by Shakyamuni (What was the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?) he answered, “The oak tree in the garden.” This is a famous koan in the Gateless Gate (Mumonkan).Jôshû is presenting the world of “Thinking, but there is no I.” The oak tree in the garden, besides that tree nothing else exists in heaven or earth--an even less so, a “Joshu” who is looking at it. This is the world that is manifested in this utterance.
    “The oak tree in the garden, but there is no I.”
    1The original French is: Je pense, donc je suis. This was rendered into Latin by a priest friend of Descartes as “Cogito ergo sum.”
(translated by Jerome CUSUMANO with the assistance of SATO Migaku)

From the “Opening Comments”of Kyosho (Sanbo-Zen's official magazine) 342, 2011 (May/June)

Hakuun Yasutani, "Flowers Fall: A Commentary on Zen Master Dogen’s Genjokoan”

Chapter 7

“In mustering the whole body and mind and seeing forms, in mustering the whole body and mind and hearing sounds, they are intimately perceived; but it is not like the reflection in a mirror, nor like the moon in the water. When one side is realized the other side is dark.”

Here Dogen Zenji shows the way in which one further actualizes Buddhahood. Body and mind are fundamentally one. Regarding them as two is a thought, a delusion. When you are happy, is it your mind that is happy or is it your body that is happy? When you are hungry, is it your body or your mind? If you say “My stomach has become empty, it must be my body,” don’t we also say, “I realize how hungry I was?” Then, it must be the mind. Don’t be asinine. It’s both. Both are one. When mind and body are working separately, neither of them is any good. They are utterly incomplete. The whole idea is extremely frivolous. Be serious. Mind and body are always one.

Here Dogen Zenji has shown the manner of earnestly practicing the Buddha way. In other words it’s completely mustering the whole body and mind. Seeing and hearing, standing and sitting, it’s completely mustering the whole body and mind. That’s “just,” wholeheartedly. It’s just walking, just working, just sitting. It’s just being in samadhi throughout the twenty-four hours of the day.

This is the way of practice of our predecessors, the buddhas and ancestors. In modern terms one can call this living fully.

When Master Hsiang-yen was sweeping the garden, he was just working with his whole body and mind completely mustered. Therefore at the single sound of a pebble striking bamboo, he attained great enlightenment. When the priest Ling-yun was on pilgrimage, with his whole body and mind mustered he was just making a pilgrimage and climbing up a mountain road.

Therefore, when he glanced at a peach blossom he attained great enlightenment. To intimately perceive is to realize the Way.

Now, between completely mustering the whole body and mind to see forms and to hear sounds, and intimately perceiving (attaining great enlightenment), there is a subtle turning point.

These two are not the same. And yet, of course, they are not unrelated. Therein is the subtle experience called “the single sound of enlightenment,” which is spontaneously expressed. Shakyamuni Buddha upon his enlightenment exclaimed, “How wonderful, how wonderful!” Hsiang-yen said, “One striking of the pebble on the bamboo and I have forgotten everything I knew.” Ling-yun said, “Having directly arrived at this moment, I have no further doubts.” Su Tuong-p’o sang out, “The sound of the mountain is this broad, long tongue of the Buddha.” Thus, seeing one’s true nature and realizing the Way is the basis of the Buddha way. You people of the Soto sect should once again clearly recognize, believe, and eagerly practice it. If within the sect there is no one with the actual experience of realizing the Way, and the Shobogenzo is dropped down to the level of thought and becomes a philosophy, I’m afraid Dogen Zenji’s Buddhadharma will vanish from the sect like clouds and mist.

Next he points out in detail how to realize the Way, to intimately perceive. “it is not like the reflection in a mirror, nor like the moon in the water.” Here, by means of a metaphor, he clearly points out that realizing the way is completely different from the realm of intellect and understanding.

The simile of the reflecting of an image in a mirror and the reflecting of the moon in the water mean that the mirror and the reflection, the water and the moon, are two separate things that have become one, but the actual experience of enlightenment is a completely different matter. Therefore, even if one can conceptually understand the principle of Zen or intellectually comprehend the meaning of manifest absolute reality (genjokoan), that is not enlightenment.

Enlightenment means waking up to the world of oneness. Unenlightened people look at everything dualistically: self and other, subject and object, delusions and enlightenment, this world and the Pure Land, unenlightened persons and buddhas, form and emptiness. Even if one tries to get rid of that duality by mouthing the theory that “form is emptiness,” the seam of “is” remains. It’s not the seamless stupa.

The actual experience of enlightenment comes springing forth in the realm of true oneness. And with that, one sometimes cries out in astonishment. One becomes aware that the whole universe is just the single seamless stupa. It's not some simplistic kind of thing like a reflection in a mirror.

"Mountains and rivers are not seen in a mirror." It's not that mountains, rivers, and the earth are reflected in one's mind-mirror. That's okay when we are using metaphors for thoughts and consciousness. But what we are speaking of now is the realm of the actual experience of enlightenment. The self is the mountains, rivers, and earth; the self is the sun and moon and the stars.

The great earth has not
A single lick of soil;
New Year's first smile.

"Not another person in the whole universe." One side is all there is, without a second or third to be found anywhere. If one calls this subject, everything is subject and that's all. There is no object anywhere. It's the true mind-only. It's snatching away the objective world but not the person. If one calls this object, everything is object and that's all. There is no subject anywhere. It's snatching away the person but not the objective world. It's the true matter-only. Whichever one you say, only the label changes and it is the same thing. While Dogen Zenji calls this completely self, he also calls it completely other. It's all self. It's all other. This is the meaning of "when one side is realized the other side is dark." This is also called "one side exhausts everything." It's the whole thing, being complete with one, exhausting everything with one.


    Traditionally Zen is a form of Buddhism that strictly emphasises 'sitting meditation' for the realisation of Buddhist truths, particularly for realising the truth of no-self, emptiness, and the uncreated Mind. Zen is also a form of Buddism that emphasises the originally pure nature of the mind, much as other Mahayana schools of Buddhism.  As Bodhidharma, who is thought of as the first Chinese teacher of Ch'an (Jap: Zen), said:
Once mortals see their nature, all attachments end.  Awareness isn't hidden.  But you can only find it right now.  It's only now.  If you really want to find the Way, don't hold on to anything.
Zen Buddhism has gained a lot of popularity in the West partly because of this emphasis on the here and now.  It is very simple and straightforward.
"This mind is the Buddha.  I don't talk about precepts, devotions or ascetic practices such as immersing yourself in water and fire, treading a wheel of knives, eating one meal a day, or never lying down.  These are fanatical, provisional teachings.  Once you recognise your moving, miraculously aware nature, yours is the mind of all buddhas.  Buddhas of the past and future only talk about transmitting the mind. They teach nothing else.  If someone understands this teaching, even if [she's] illiterate [she's] a buddha.  If you don't see our own miraculously aware nature, you'll never find a buddha even if you break your body into atoms."  Bodhidharma (5th cent.)
     Zen teachings are said to be 'non-dual', emphasising that our usual way of being is like living in a trance of dualism.  The philosophy of emptiness -  no subject, no object -  has become the hallmark of Zen teachings.  (It should be said, however, that in calling into question the traditional, egological subject-object split, Zen is no different to other forms of Buddhism).
     In Zen there is an emphasis on the interdependence of body and mind. 13th cent. Japanese Zen master, Dogen Kigen: 
"You should know that the Buddha Dharma from the first preaches that body and mind are not two, that substance and form are not two." (Bendowa)
     Zen Buddhism affirms the body as the means of our self-realisation.  It is, perhaps, for this reason that so many westerners have found Zen attractive as a philosophy and spiritual practice.   From the Zen point of view, to live the body's life fully is to be self-realised: 
A monk asked Master Tung-shan, “Cold and heat descend upon us. How can we avoid them?”
Dongshan answered, “Why don’t you go to the place where there is no cold or heat?”
The monk continued, “Where is the place where there is no cold or heat?”
Dongshan said, “When it is cold, let it be so cold that it kills you. When hot, let it be so hot that it kills you.”
     In Zen practice freedom comes when identification with the body and body-image is ended; this is to transcend the 'fabricated body' and realise the 'true body' of grass, trees, and wall rubble; wind, rain, water and fire.  "The Buddha-body", says Dogen, "is the manifesting body, and there is always a body manifesting Buddha-nature."
     In the teachings of the Zen masters the Buddhist teaching of 'dependent-origination' takes on a decided ecological flavour:
"What we call the body and mind in the Buddha Way is grass, trees and wall rubble; it is wind, rain, water and fire." (Dogen, Hotsu Mujo Shin)
To be fully present in "the immediate presencing here and now of being-time," Dogen said, is to realise the presence-time of all life, "As self and other are both times, practice and realization are times; entering the mud, entering the water, is equally time." (Dogen, Being Time)
We cannot know the Buddha-nature through the sense-seeking ways of our ordinary individual mind:

When most people hear
That the Buddhas transmit the
Teaching of the One Mind,
They suppose that there
Is something to be attained
Or realized apart from mind,
And they use mind to seek the teaching,
Not realizing that mind and
The object of their search are one.
Mind can’t be used to seek mind;
If it is, even after millions of eons
Have gone by, the search will still not be over.

- Huang-Po
      So the task, as Zen conceives it, is to simply be attentive to our ordinary lives, becoming more and more aware of the delusions that we live by, and hence, while not suppressing the flow of an imaginary film that we mistake for 'self and world' , not depending on it either.  As someone said, "Enlightenment is an accident, and practice makes us accident-prone".  So, practice won't free us -  only realisation can do that -  but without practice one is likely to remain stuck in the cyclic existence of delusory consciousness.
"The great way of the Buddha and the patriarchs involves the highest form of exertion, which goes on unceasingly in cycles from the first dawning of religious truth, through the test of discipline and practice, to awakening and nirvana. It is sustained exertion proceeding without lapse from cycle to cycle. Accordingly, it is exertion that is neither self-imposed nor imposed by others but free and uncoerced. The merit of this exertion upholds me and upholds others."  Dogen


Ways of Cognizing the Two Truths: Gelug Prasangika


Cognition of an Object

All Tibetan traditions accept that in cognizing a validly knowable phenomenon (shes-bya), mental activity (sems, mind) simultaneously gives rise to (shar-ba, produces) a cognitive object (yul) and cognitively engages (‘jug-pa) with it. In the definition of mind, “giving rise to a cognitive object” is referred to as “clarity” (gsal), while “cognitively engaging with such an object” is referred to as “awareness” (rig).
For example, in seeing a white rectangular towel, mental activity simultaneously produces the sight of a white rectangular towel and sees it. What we see, however, is not just sensibilia (a white rectangle). In order not to contradict convention (tha-snyad), we need to assert that we also see the towel itself – the so-called “ commonsense (‘jig-rten-la grags-pa) towel.” Cognition of a towel, however, does not create the towel.
Producing a cognitive object and cognitively engaging with it are two aspects of the same mental activity, two ways of describing the same phenomenon. It is not that production of a sight comes first and then, a moment later, the seeing of it occurs.
Moreover, mental activity occurs without there being a findable agent “ me” or “ mind” existing independently and separately from the activity and making it happen, like a person using a computer to make images appear on a screen. Thus, mental activity (mind) is defined as the “ mere” arising and cognizing of objects – in other words, “mere clarity and awareness” (gsal-rig-tsam).

Conceptual and Nonconceptual Cognition

Cognition of an object may be either conceptual cognition (rtog-bcas-kyi shes-pa) or non-conceptual cognition (rtog-med-pa’i shes-pa). Conceptual cognition of something is through the medium of an audio category (sgra-spyi), a meaning/object category (don-spyi), or both. It may also be through the medium of merely a concept (rtog-pa), such as a concept of space (nam-mkha’) or a concept of an impossible way of existing. Conceptual cognition occurs only with mental cognition (yid-shes), never with sensory cognition (dbang-shes).
A category (spyi) is a universal imputed onto a set of individual items sharing a common defining characteristic mark (mtshan-nyid, definition), such that all the items in the set can be understood as being the same general type of thing.
  • The individual items that fit into an audio category are an acoustic pattern, pronounced with any voice, accent, or volume, but not necessarily having any meaning understood by the sounds of the pattern. When anyone says “towel,” whether or not the person understands a meaning associated with this acoustic pattern, the person is saying sounds that fit into the audio category towel.
  • The individual items that fit into a meaning/object category are the objects meant or signified by the sounds of an acoustic pattern. In such cases, the acoustic pattern constitutes a word. All individual items that share in common the defining characteristic mark “ being an absorbent cloth or paper used for wiping or drying” fit into the meaning/object category of “towel.”
Note that an audio category does not have an object/meaning category inherently associated with it from its own side. The audio category do can be associated with not only the meaning/object categories do, due, dew, or doo (as in “ doo-doo”) in English, but also the meaning/object categories du in German (equivalent to “ you” in English), du in Chinese (equivalent to either “measure” or “stomach” in English), ‘du in Tibetan (equivalent to “gather” in English), and so on. The association of an audio category with an object/meaning category is established by mental labeling alone, according to an adopted convention.
Non-conceptual cognition is without such a medium. It may be sensory, mental, or yogic.
  • Sensory and yogic cognition are exclusively non-conceptual.
  • Mental cognition may be either conceptual or non-conceptual.
Bare yogic cognition (rnal-‘byor mngon-sum) is a valid non-conceptual cognition that arises from the dominating condition (bdag-rkyen) of a state of combined shamatha (zhi-gnas, a stilled and settled state of mind, mental quiescence, calm abiding) and vipashyana (lhag-mthong, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, special insight), and which cognizes either subtle nonstaticness (mi-rtag-pa phra-mo) or voidness (stong-pa nyid, Skt. shunyata, emptiness). When it cognizes voidness (the absolute absence of all impossible ways of existing), it occurs only during the total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise) of an arya. Like sensory cognition, it too is exclusively non-conceptual.


Distinguishing (‘du-shes, recognition) is a mental factor (sems-byung, subsidiary awareness) that accompanies all non-conceptual and conceptual cognitions, except for certain extremely deep meditative absorptions. Distinguishing takes an uncommon defining characteristic mark of what appears (snang-ba) in either a non-conceptual or conceptual cognition and ascribes a conventional significance (tha-snyad ‘dogs-pa) to it. It does not, however, necessarily ascribe a name (ming) or mental label (brda) to its object, nor does it compare it with previously cognized objects.
In sensory nonconceptual cognition (for instance, visual cognition), we can distinguish sensibilia (for instance, colors such as white and shapes such as a rectangle), and commonsense objects (for instance, a towel). In such cases, the distinguishing does not ascribe the labels white, rectangle, or towel to what appears in the cognition. In fact, distinguishing here does not even know that the color is white, that the shape is rectangular, or that the object is a towel. It merely distinguishes them as conventionally knowable items, from everything else that appears in that visual cognition. In other words, it distinguishes them from all the other colors, shapes, and commonsense objects that appear in the field of vision. This is known as “the distinguishing that cognitively takes as a characteristic mark something’s being a knowable item” (don-la mtshan-mar ‘dzin-pa’i ‘du-shes).
In conceptual cognition, distinguishing ascribes a conventional term and its meaning (sgra-don) to its object. It specifies the object as belonging to a specific audio category or to a specific audio and meaning/object category, excluding it from what is not in those categories. Thus, in ascribing a name or both a name and its meaning to the object that appears to it, such as “white,” “rectangle,” and “towel,” it distinguishes white from all other colors that are not white, a rectangle from all other shapes that are not rectangular, and all other items that are not towels. This is known as “the distinguishing that cognitively takes as a characteristic mark something’s being a conventionality” (tha-snyad-la mtshan-mar ‘dzin-pa’i ‘du-shes). Non-conceptual cognition lacks this type of distinguishing.
Thus, visual non-conceptual cognition merely distinguishes the individual defining characteristic marks of something that characterize it an existent, validly knowable color, shape, and commonsense object. It distinguishes “this” color from “that” color, “ this” shape from “that” shape, and “this” commonsense object from “that” commonsense object. Conceptual cognition distinguishes as well the individual defining characteristic marks that characterize what appears to it as the type of object it specifically is – “this” specific color (“ white,” not “ yellow,”) “this” specific shape (“a rectangle,” not a “circle,”) and “this” specific type of commonsense object (“a towel,” not “a raincoat.”)

The Two Truths

Every knowable phenomenon has two truths (bden-pa gnyis) concerning it. In technical language, the two truths share a single essential nature (ngo-bo gcig). In other words, they refer to two true aspects of any phenomenon. Each truth may be cognized either non-conceptually or conceptually.
  • Superficial truths (kun-rdzob bden-pa, conventional truth, relative truth) are those phenomena that are findable by a valid cognition scrutinizing (dpyod-pa, analyzing) what is conventional (tha-snyad-pa).
  • Deepest truths (don-dam bden-pa, ultimate truth) are those phenomena that are findable by a valid cognition (tshad-ma) scrutinizing what is ultimate (mthar-thug).
In these definitions, “findable” does not imply that the scrutinizing valid cognitions find, on the side of the scrutinized phenomenon, the referent “thing” (btags-don) corresponding to the name or label for the phenomenon. If the scrutinizing valid cognitions could find such a referent “thing,” the phenomenon would fulfill the definition of having existence established by its self-nature (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa, inherent existence). Prasangika is unique among the tenet systems in asserting that nothing has its existence established in this impossible way. “Findable,” here in the definitions of the two truths, simply means that the scrutinizing valid cognitions take the phenomena as their involved objects (‘jug-yul) and explicitly apprehend them.
  • An involved object of a cognition is a principle object (yul-gyi gtso-bo, main object) that it cognitively engages.

Valid Cognition and Apprehension

Valid cognition is a non-fallacious (mi-bslu-ba) cognition of an involved object of a cognition. A cognition is non-fallacious if it induces decisive determination (nges-pa) of its involved object and is not damaged by other valid cognitions.
  • Other valid cognitions refer to valid cognitions scrutinizing either deepest or superficial truth.
  • Prasangika does not include the stipulation that valid cognition also requires that the cognition be fresh (gsar-tu), which the less sophisticated tenet systems assert. This is because, in light of the Prasangika view of voidness, all moments of cognition are fresh.
  • Valid cognition may be nonconceptual or conceptual.
A cognition, whether non-conceptual or conceptual, apprehends (rtogs-pa) its involved object if it correctly and decisively determines it as “this” and “ not that.” Apprehension of an object may be either explicit or implicit.
  • With explicit apprehension (dngos-su rtogs-pa), a mental aspect (rnam-pa) representing the apprehended object appears in the cognition. A mental aspect is somewhat like a mental hologram, although it need not be a visual one.
  • With implicit apprehension (shugs-la rtogs-pa), such a mental aspect does not appear.
A cognition cannot implicitly apprehend an object without simultaneously explicitly apprehending another object. However, a cognition can explicitly apprehend an object without simultaneously implicitly apprehending anything.
All valid cognitions apprehend their involved objects.

Two Facets of a Valid Cognition

In general, any specific moment of valid cognition has two facets, each of which is valid for apprehending only one truth about the phenomenon that is its involved object. They are the facets:
  • valid for apprehending superficial truths (kun-rdzob rtogs-pa’i tshad-ma)
  • valid for apprehending deepest truths (don-dam rtogs-pa’i tshad-ma).
In terms of these two facets,
  • Valid mental cognition, whether conceptual or non-conceptual, has the ability to apprehend either of the two truths, either explicitly or implicitly.
  • Valid sensory non-conceptual cognition apprehends only superficial truths, either explicitly or implicitly.
  • Yogic non-conceptual cognition of voidness apprehends only deepest truths, and only explicitly.

Facets of Superficial Truth

In general, the superficial truth about any item is its appearance, while the deepest truth about it is its voidness (its actual mode of existence).
In terms of this general formulation, within superficial truths, there are two inseparable facets of the appearance of an item:
  • the appearance of the item as an object,
  • the appearance of a mode of existence of the item.
Note, however, that an item cannot appear without it appearing with a mode of existence; and a mode of existence does not exist independently of an item that exists with that mode of existence.
Consider the case of a visual object.
  • The appearance of a visual object as an object is the appearance both of a colored shape and of a conventional, commonsense object. For example, when seeing something, both a white rectangle and a towel may appear. Both conceptual and non-conceptual cognitions produce cognitive appearances of both sensibilia and commonsense objects.
  • The appearance of a mode of existence of an item may be either an appearance of seemingly true existence (bden-par grub-pa) or an appearance of non-true existence. The two alternatives constitute a dichotomy (dngos-‘gal), with no third alternative (phung gsum-pa) possible.
For an item to be truly existent means for it to have a truly existent conventional identity (tha-snyad-du yod-pa’i bdag) as “this” or “that” individual validly knowable object or as “ this” or “that” individual, specific kind of validly knowable object.
A truly existent conventional identity would be one established by the power of an objective, individual defining characteristic mark (rang-mtshan) findable on the side of an item. Such a findable mark would allow for a correct mental labeling (yang-dag-par ming ‘ dogs-pa) of the item as “this” or “that.” This is because the findable mark would be what made the basis having the findable mark (mtshan-gzhi) into a proper basis for labeling (gdags-gzhi) “this” or “that.” It would establish that truly existent identity either by its own power alone, or in conjunction with mental labeling. Thus, truly established existence is synonymous with existence established by self-nature.
Although mental activity can give rise to an appearance of a mode of existence that resembles true existence, actual true existence cannot appear because there is no such thing. The item’s absolute absence of true existence is its voidness (emptiness). Voidness, as a mode of existence, is equivalent to non-true existence.
An item’s absolute absence of a truly existent conventional identity does not mean that it has no conventional identity at all. For something to be devoid of true existence implies that it has a non-truly existent conventional identity as “this” or “that.” Otherwise, the absurd conclusion would follow that nothing could be distinguished from anything else. Everything would be the same item and you and I would be the same person.
Although there is no such thing as an objective defining characteristic mark findable on the side of a basis for labeling or on the side of an item itself, nevertheless there are conventional defining characteristic marks, validly knowable by the mental factor distinguishing. Their existence, however, is established by mental labeling alone. Thus, a non-truly existent conventional identity is one established by the power of mental labeling alone, and not in conjunction with the power of an objective defining characteristic mark findable on the side of a basis for labeling or on the side of an item itself, or by the power of such a findable objective mark alone.
In short, the deepest truth about an item is its actual mode of existence, which is its voidness – the absolute absence of its having a truly existent conventional identity. The superficial truth about an item regards the basis for the voidness (stong-gzhi). The basis includes the nonconceptual appearance of the item and of a mode of existence, both of which have non-truly existent conventional identities as validly knowable objects. The basis also includes the conceptual appearance of what the item specifically is and of what the mode of existence specifically is, both of which also have non-truly existent conventional identities. Thus, the non-truly existent conventional identities of any knowable object are devoid of existing as truly existent conventional identities.
[See: The Appearance and Cognition of Nonexistent Phenomena]

Impure and Pure Appearances of Superficial Truths

Corresponding to the above distinction between the true existence and non-true existence of any item, there are impure appearances (ma-dag-pa’i snang-ba) and pure appearances (dag-pa’i snang-ba) of the superficial truth about an item.
  • An impure appearance of a superficial truth about an item is the appearance of it as seemingly truly existent. This mode of appearance (snang-tshul) does not correspond to the actual mode of existence (gnas-tshul, mode of abiding) of the item. An example is the appearance of the item as having a seemingly truly existent conventional identity – for instance, as a truly existent “white rectangular towel.”
  • A pure appearance of a superficial truth about the same item is the appearance of it as having a non-truly existent conventional identity as a white rectangular towel. Here, the mode of appearance and the mode of existence are the same.
Note that there is no common locus (gzhi-mthun) between a pure appearance and an impure appearance of a superficial truth. In other words, there is no findable entity, such as a “white rectangular towel,” that exists independently of a mode of appearance, and which can appear either impurely or purely, depending on the mind that cognizes it. This is because there is no findable referent “thing” on the side of a knowable object that corresponds to the names or labels for it. Nevertheless, there are external objects (phyi-don) – validly knowable objects that have a different essential nature from that of the cognitions of them.
Similarly, it is not the case that a pure appearance of a superficial truth arises first in a cognition and then the cognition projects onto it an impure appearance. Cognition gives rise either to an impure appearance or a pure appearance of a superficial truth.
When conceptual mental cognition and either sensory or mental non-conceptual cognition cognize superficial truths, they can only give rise to and cognize impure appearances of superficial truths. None of them can give rise to and cognize pure appearances. All three types of cognition, however, can be equally valid for cognizing impure appearances of superficial truths, depending on the way in which they cognize the impure appearances. Only clear light cognition, discussed later in this essay, can give rise to and cognize pure appearances of superficial truths.

Grasping for True Existence

In summary, sensory and mental non-conceptual cognition cognize only the appearance of an something – the appearance of an item and the appearance of a mode of existence of the item. Conceptual mental cognition cognizes both (1) the appearance of an item and a mode of existence, as well as (2) the appearance of what something specifically is and of the specific mode in which it exists. All these appearances are impure appearances, and impure appearances are appearances of seemingly true existence (bden-snang, appearances of true existence).
As for cognition of the impure appearances of seemingly true existence, the term grasping for true existence (bden-par 'dzin-pa) has two meanings. The word translated as “to grasp” ('dzin, Skt. graha) actually means only “to take something as a cognitive object.” In terms of true existence, we may take as a cognitive object “an appearance of seemingly true existence” (bden-snang ‘dzin-pa), or we may take as a cognitive object “ truly established existence” (bden-grub ‘dzin-pa). “Grasping for true existence” may mean either the first of the two alternatives or both alternatives in conjunction with each other.
  • Sensory and mental non-conceptual cognitions take as a cognitive object only an appearance of seemingly true existence. They merely give rise to and cognize this appearance. Thus, they “grasp for true existence” only in the first sense of the term.
  • Conceptual cognition takes as a cognitive object both an appearance of seemingly true existence and the concept truly established existence. This is because conceptual cognition interpolates (sgro-‘dogs, superimposes, projects) something that is not there. It interpolates (1) that the mode of existence that appears to it fits in the category truly established existence and (2) that this specific conceptualized mode of existence corresponds to the actual mode of existence of the object that appears to it. In other words, it takes the mode of appearance (an impure appearance of superficial truth) of its involved object to be the actual mode of existence (deepest truth). Thus, conceptual cognition “grasps for true existence” in both senses of the term.

Correct and Distorted Superficial Truths

Relative to reasoned cognition (rigs-shes), there is no division of superficial truth into correct superficial truth (yang-dag kun-rdzob) and distorted superficial truth (log-pa’i kun-rdzob). This is because there is no such thing as a distorted superficial truth.
  • A correct superficial truth is a non-truly existent one – one that exists in the manner of a pure appearance of superficial truth.
  • A distorted superficial truth would be a truly existent one – one that actually existed in the manner of an impure appearance of superficial truth.
Reasoned cognition is cognition that analyzes the two truths by relying on valid reason. Such cognition decisively determines that there is no such thing as truly established existence, either ultimately or conventionally. Because of this, relative to reasoned cognition, a division scheme into correct and distorted superficial truths is invalid. A division scheme of phenomena into two sets is only valid when both sets have items that belong to them.
Nevertheless, relative to conventional valid cognition (tha-snyad-pa’i tshad-ma), superficial truths can be divided into correct and distorted superficial truths.
  • Superficial truths that are cognized by conventional valid cognition are correct superficial truths.
  • Superficial truths that are cognized by distorted cognition (log-shes) are distorted superficial truths.
Conventional valid cognition, also known as worldly valid cognition (‘jig-rten-pa’i tshad-ma), is valid cognition by all minds other than yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness. Thus, since conventional valid cognition always makes impure appearances of superficial truths, the division scheme of superficial truths into correct and distorted ones refers only to impurely appearing superficial truths.

Distorted Cognition

Distorted cognition (log-shes), then, cognizes impure appearances of distorted superficial truths. Of the two facets of an impure superficial truth, however, the distortion is in regard to the appearance of an item as an object. It is not in regard to the appearance of the mode of existence of an item, since all impure appearances of superficial truth, whether distorted or correct, are appearances of seemingly true existence.
Distorted cognition may be either non-conceptual or conceptual.
  • A distorted non-conceptual cognition is one that is deceived (mistaken) with respect to its involved object.
  • A distorted conceptual cognition is one that is deceived with respect to its conceptualized object (zhen-yul, implied object).
Conceptualized objects belong exclusively to the domain of conceptual cognition and are, literally, the items onto which the categories or concepts “cling.” They are what a category in a conceptual cognition refers to. For instance, when thinking about an apple, the category apple refers to a commonsense apple. When remembering our mother, the concept we have of our mother refers to our mother.
An example of a distorted non-conceptual cognition is the visual cognition of a double moon by a cross-eyed person when not wearing corrective eyeglasses. The involved object of the cognition is a double moon. Examples of distorted conceptual cognition are imagining a double moon, remembering a blue shirt that we wore yesterday when actually we wore a yellow shirt, and thinking that sound is permanent (eternal).
In the case of seeing a double moon, the involved object (an actual double moon) is nonexistent. In the case of imagining a double moon, the conceptualized object (an actual double moon) that would fit into the category double moon is nonexistent. In the case of incorrectly remembering a blue shirt that we wore yesterday, again the conceptualized object a blue shirt that we wore yesterday does not exist.
However, if we think of sound as being in the category permanent phenomenon, the conceptualized object a permanent phenomenon does exist. It is not like a double moon. Nevertheless, the cognition is still deceived about its conceptualized object and is therefore distorted. This is because the involved object sound is not an example of the conceptualized object a permanent phenomenon. The imputation of the category permanent phenomenon onto the basis for imputation a sound is incorrect. The distorted imputation is “a conceptual cognition that does not accord with fact” (rtog-pa don mi-mthun).
There are four causes for deception (‘khrul-ba’i rgyu bzhi) – referring to the deception that occurs in distorted cognition:
  • A faulty dominating condition (bdag-rkyen) for the cognition, such as the faulty visual sensors of someone who is cross-eyed.
  • A faulty focal condition (dmigs-rkyen) for the cognition, such as when seeing a twirling torch as a ring of fire.
  • A fault with the situation of the cognizing person, such as being in a moving vehicle and seeing trees moving backwards, or wearing tinted sunglasses and seeing white objects as pink.
  • A faulty immediately preceding condition (de-ma-thag rkyen) for the cognition. The immediately preceding moment of cognition is its immediately preceding condition. If the immediately preceding moment of cognition were under the influence of faulty logic or stubborn ignorance, we might think that sound was permanent. If it were under the influence of forgetfulness, we might incorrectly remember what we wore yesterday. Or if it were under the influence of paranoia, we might think someone was following us, when actually no one was.
All such cognitions are deceived or mistaken concerning their involved objects. Valid cognitions that are not affected by any of the causes for deception do not corroborate the distorted cognitions. They contradict them.
Although a cognition of a double moon is distorted and, as a whole, is not a valid cognition; nevertheless, the cognition of the appearance of the double moon within the context of that distorted cognition is “valid.” This is because it is non-fallacious that an appearance representing a double moon actually does arise and is cognized clearly in the distorted cognition.
  • The cognition of this distorted superficial truth is not contradicted by the cognition of superficial truths by other persons who are cross-eyed. They all see appearances of a double moon when looking at the moon.
  • The cognition of this distorted appearance is not even contradicted by a cognition of deepest truth, in the sense that cognition of the voidness of the distorted appearance does not negate the conventional existence of the distorted appearance.
The same is true regarding distorted conceptual cognition, such as thinking that sound is permanent. Within this distorted cognition, the cognition of “sound” and the cognition of the category permanent are themselves valid, although the imputation of the category permanent onto sound and the cognition of sound through the medium of that category are distorted.
One further clarification needs to be made. Although distorted cognition of a distorted superficial truth does not concern the appearance of the mode of existence of an item, nevertheless there can be a distorted conceptual cognition of the appearance of a mode of existence. For example, we might conceptualize that an item’s impure appearance of seemingly true existence is a pure appearance of non-true existence. This distorted conceptual cognition is deceived about its conceptualized object pure appearance. The impure appearance that is its involved object is not an example of a pure appearance. Such invalid cognition occurs, for instance, as a consequence of taking a Svatantrika-Madhyamaka understanding of voidness as the deepest understanding of voidness and therefore negating an under-pervasively identified object to be negated (dgag-bya ngos-‘dzin khyab-chung-ba dgag-pa).

Deceptive Cognition

A deceptive cognition (‘khrul -shes) is one that has a mistake or confusion concerning its appearing object. Its appearing object seems like something else.
All cognitions other than yogic non-conceptual cognition of voidness are deceptive cognitions of the appearance of the mode of existence of superficial truths. This is because all of them give rise to and cognize appearances of impure superficial truths. The appearances of seemingly true existence seem to be appearances of actual true existence. However, not all deceptive cognitions of the impure appearances of superficial truths as objects are distorted cognitions. Only some are distorted, while others are valid.
Among non-conceptual cognitions, only distorted non-conceptual cognitions are also deceptive cognitions regarding the appearance in them of superficial truths as objects. This is because the involved object of a distorted non-conceptual cognition, such as seeing a double moon, is also its appearing object.
Among conceptual cognitions, however, all conceptual cognitions are also deceptive regarding the appearance in them of superficial truths as objects, whether the conceptual cognition is valid or distorted. Let us examine this point in detail.
In conceptual cognition, the appearing object is a category, a concept, or both. For the sake of simplicity, let us restrict our discussion to just conceptual cognition that has a category as one of its appearing objects – for example, the conceptual cognition of a dog. The appearing objects of this cognition are the category dog and the concept truly established existence. What actually appears (snang-ba) in the cognition, however, is a dog (through a mental aspect representing one) and an appearance of seemingly true existence. The conceptual cognition imputes the category and concept onto what appears – namely, it imputes them onto the superficial truth of the appearance of the object that the item is and the appearance of the mode of existence that the item has.
The conceptual cognition is deceptive because it mixes into one what appears with what it imputes (snang-btags gcig-tu ‘dres). “To mix into one” means to make two things appear is if they were one and the same identical thing. It may be correct that an individual dog is an instance of something that could conventionally be put into the category dog. However, when, in cognition, the category dog is mixed together with the appearance of a specific instance of a dog, the cognition is deceptive. This is because it seems as though the category and the specific instance of an item that conventionally is in that category are one and the same identical thing. In different words, it seems as though an entire set is identical with just one member of the set, when the member that appears is merely representing an example of all the members of the set. In simple language, it seems as though what this particular dog looks like is what dogs in general look like.
Conceptual cognition is not only deceptive because it mixes into one its appearing object (in our example, the category dog) with what appears to it (a conventionally existent dog). It is also deceptive because it mixes into one its other appearing object (the concept truly established existence) with what also appears to it (an appearance of seemingly true existence). Specifically, the conceptual cognition takes the appearance of something as being a truly existent dog and interpolates onto it the concept truly established existence as a dog. This aspect of the conceptual cognition is distorted. The conceptualized object truly established existence does not exist at all. Therefore, to take something nonexistent as if it were existent is a distorted interpolation.
Thus, concerning cognition of impure superficial truth, the conceptual cognition of a dog as a “dog” is deceptive from two points of view:
  • It mixes the category dog with the appearance of a specific individual dog.
  • It mixes the concept truly established existence with an appearance of seemingly true existence.
The first deceptive aspect is a valid conceptual cognition. It is valid that this individual knowable object conventionally fits in the category dog. It could even be a valid deceptive cognition that this specific appearance of seemingly true existence conventionally fits into the category appearances of seemingly true existence. It would be distorted, however, to take this specific appearance of seemingly true existence as conventionally fitting into the category appearances of non-true existence.

Simultaneous Cognition of the Two Truths

Cognition of two sensory aspects of something by two appropriate types of mental activity can occur simultaneously. For example, we can see the sight of an orange with visual cognition and, at the same time, smell its fragrance with olfactory cognition. We cannot see and smell the visual and olfactory cognitive objects, however, with just visual cognition.
Similarly, we can cognize the superficial and deepest truths about something simultaneously, but only by the appropriate aspects of mental activity valid for cognizing each. Thus, mental activity valid for cognizing superficial truths about an item – what it appears to be and how it appears to exist – is not valid for cognizing its deepest truth – how it actually exists, and vice versa.
This statement is true whether the mental activity is cognition of impure or pure appearances of superficial truths and, within the former category, whether the mental activity is conceptual or non-conceptual.
The sight and the smell of an orange are not mutually exclusive phenomena (‘gal-ba) and thus one moment of mental activity can cognize both simultaneously, with both being explicitly apprehended. The presence and absolute absence of true existence, however, are mutually exclusive phenomena. One moment of mental activity cannot simultaneously give rise to a mental aspect representing the presence of true existence as well as its absence. In other words, one moment of mental activity cannot explicitly apprehend both at the same time.
Therefore, because the impure appearance of an item is with an appearance of seemingly true existence, such an appearance occludes (khegs) or blocks simultaneous explicit apprehension of its deepest truth, its absolute absence of true existence. In other words, cognition of impure superficial truths and of deepest truths cannot occur simultaneously, with both being explicitly apprehended.
Simultaneous cognition of the two truths can occur, however, in one moment of conceptual cognition, with one being explicitly apprehended and the other being implicitly apprehended.
  • Conceptual total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise) cognition of voidness simultaneously apprehends voidness explicitly and the basis for that voidness implicitly.
  • Conceptual subsequent attainment (rjes-thob, subsequent realization, post-meditation) cognition of voidness simultaneously apprehends the basis for a voidness explicitly and its voidness implicitly.
On the other hand, although one moment of non-conceptual cognition can implicitly apprehend voidness while simultaneously explicitly apprehending the basis for the voidness, it cannot implicitly apprehend the basis for a voidness while explicitly apprehending its voidness.
  • Non-conceptual total absorption cognition of voidness apprehends voidness explicitly and does not apprehend the basis for that voidness even implicitly.
  • Non-conceptual subsequent attainment of voidness simultaneously apprehends the basis for a voidness explicitly and its voidness implicitly.
[See: Cognition of the Two Truths: Gelug Tenet Systems]
A conceptual cognition that explicitly apprehends a voidness can only do so by giving rise to an appearance of the seemingly true existence of the voidness. The cognition is correct regarding the superficial truth of what the voidness is – it is an appearance of a voidness. It is also correct regarding the superficial truth of how the voidness appears to exist – it appears to be seemingly truly existent. However, the conceptual cognition is deceptive, because it mixes the voidness that appears with the category voidness, and the appearance of seemingly true existence that appears with the categories appearances of true existence and truly established existence. The aspect of the cognition that mixes the appearance of a seemingly truly existent voidness with the category truly established existence is distorted. The other aspects are merely deceptive, but not distorted. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, the cognition is a valid conceptual cognition.
Here, the explicit conceptual apprehension of a voidness that appears to be seemingly truly existent does not block the same conceptual cognition from simultaneously implicitly apprehending the basis for that voidness. It does not block it because that basis for voidness could appear in the conceptual cognition, although it does not appear. In technical language, the manner with which the conceptual cognition cognitively takes its object (‘dzin-stangs) explicitly (namely, by giving rise to an appearance of it as if truly existent and grasping) does not prevent cognition in general of the object that it simultaneously apprehends implicitly.
  • If the basis for the voidness did appear in the conceptual cognition, the aspect of the cognition for cognizing superficial truths could only make that basis appear as if truly existent. This is because the appearances that conceptual cognition makes can only be appearances of seemingly true existence.
  • From the point of view of the appearance of how something exists, the appearance of a seemingly truly existent voidness would not be incompatible with an appearance of a seemingly truly existent basis for the voidness. This is because both are appearances of seemingly true existence. They are incompatible only from the point of view of the appearance of what something is – the absence of an impossible mode of existence and the presence of an object having that impossible mode of existence.
  • Because of that incompatibility, the two truths cannot appear and be explicitly apprehended simultaneously in conceptual cognition.
When conceptual subsequent attainment cognition explicitly apprehends a basis for voidness, it also makes it appear as if truly existent, because it is a conceptual cognition. The explicit conceptual apprehension of a basis for voidness that appears to be seemingly truly existent does not block the same conceptual cognition from simultaneously implicitly apprehending the voidness itself. It does not block it because that voidness could appear in the conceptual cognition, although it does not appear. If the voidness did appear in the conceptual cognition, it also could only appear as if truly existent. The rest of the analysis is the same as that for conceptual total absorption cognition of voidness.
The analysis for non-conceptual subsequent attainment cognition is the same as that for the conceptual variety. This is because both types of cognition are with mental cognition, and mental cognition, whether conceptual or non-conceptual, can only make appearances of superficial truths that are appearances of impure superficial truths. Thus, if the voidness did appear in non-conceptual subsequent attainment cognition, here as well it could only appear as if truly existent.
The situation is quite different with non-conceptual total absorption cognition of voidness. This type of cognition is a bare yogic cognition and therefore does not make appearances of true existence. Thus, when this cognition explicitly apprehends a voidness, it does not make it appear as if truly existent. Such an explicit apprehension of voidness does block the same non-conceptual cognition from simultaneously implicitly apprehending the basis for the voidness. It blocks it because that basis for voidness could not appear in the non-conceptual yogic cognition. If the basis for the voidness could appear in the non-conceptual yogic cognition, it could only appear as if truly existent. This is because non-conceptual yogic cognition is with mental consciousness, which is a grosser level of consciousness that that used in clear light cognition.

Clear Light Cognition

Anuttarayoga tantra explains that mental activity occurs with three levels of subtlety: gross, subtle, and subtlest.
  • Gross consciousness is sense consciousness, and that has only sensory non-conceptual cognition.
  • Subtle consciousness is mental consciousness, and that may have conceptual or non-conceptual mental cognition, as well as non-conceptual yogic cognition.
  • Subtlest consciousness refers to the clear light mind (‘od-gsal). Its cognition is always non-conceptual.
Clear light cognition is the only level of cognition that, when giving rise to and cognizing a superficial truth, can do so in terms of a pure superficial truth (an appearance of a superficial truth as being devoid of true existence). This is because during clear light cognition of an item, the clear light mind can never give rise to an appearance of the item as being seemingly truly existent. Because of this unique feature, clear light cognition is the only type of cognition that can explicitly apprehend both truths simultaneously – namely, deepest truth and pure superficial truth. After all, a voidness of true existence and an appearance of something as devoid of true existence are not incompatible.
Although non-conceptual yogic cognition also does not make an appearance of seemingly true existence, it cannot explicitly apprehend both truths simultaneously. This is because yogic cognition is a type of subtle cognition – not a subtlest one – and when subtle cognitions give rise to superficial truths, they can only give rise to appearances of impure superficial truths.
[For further discussion, see: The Union of Method and Wisdom: Gelug and Non-Gelug]