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in Buddhadharma

On Buddhahood or Awakening

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"Whatever is the essence of the Tathâgata,
That is the essence of the transmigrator.
The Tathâgata has no essence,
The transmigrator has no essence."
Nâgârjuna : Mûlamadhyamakakârikâ, XXII.16.

"If phenomena existed through their own characteristics, the ontological status of the Tathâgata and his attributes would not make any sense. But their ontological status is completely tenable insofar as they are dependently originated and empty of existence through their own characteristics." - Tsongkhapa : Ocean of Reasonings, XXII.3.

"Spontaneously and without thought a Buddha, like a wish-granting jewel, achieves the aims of beings, but does not stir from a moment from the sphere of the final nature of phenomena." -
Hopkins, J. : Meditation on Emptiness, p.122.

In the Greater Vehicle, the Mahâyâna, both Sutric & Tantric, Buddhahood, final liberation, enlightenment or awakening are synonymous, referring to the ultimate state of mind, called wisdom-mind (or "bodhi" mind of Clear Light). Such an exhalted mind has ultimate truth, the emptiness of all objects of mind as its object, having totally & irreversibly ended substantial instantiation. While a dependent arising, and thus impermanent, Buddhahood is an uninterruptedly continual pristine wisdom-mind. Every single Buddha has a unique dance, a perfect holistic kinetography.

The views trying to understand Buddhahood are interpretations of the Two Truths.

They either stress the duality of both truths or their unity. In the latter case, there is only One Truth, namely ultimate truth and conventional truth is rejected. In the former, both truths operate simultaneously.

The views on ultimate truth also differ. Self-emptiness (Rangton) posits all phenomena, Buddhahood included, are empty of self-powered & self-settled substance, but full of otherness (relations). In the view of other-emptiness (Shentong), this ultimate wisdom prehended by wisdom-mind is permanent & truly existent, i.e. subsisting and therefore substantial (a thing from its own side).

For Shentong, self-emptiness is annihilatory, wrongly identifying Buddhahood with nothingness. But for Tsongkhapa, not the object of knowledge is negated (for him, self-emptiness is not the object's emptiness of itself, as Dolpopa claims), but only its substantial instantiation. Hence, the ultimate is the non-affirming negative of the inherent existence of conventional objects, not of conventional reality per se. Hence, a Buddha knows all objects explicitly. From his own perspective, he knows only the endless purity of emptiness, but he also directly & simultaneously perceives all conventional phenomena as they appear to sentient beings.

Afflictive desires obstruct liberation, but obstructions to omniscience prevent Buddhahood.

Leaving aside Shentong (and their ontology of Buddha-nature) as well as Dzogchen, the Middle Way view has different interpretations of Buddhahood. Let us compare Tsongkhapa, and his Middle Way Gelugpas, with the Sakyapa Gorampa. While both are committed to the view Buddhas possess unique cognitive abilities, like knowing all objects of knowledge in then span of a single instant, they disagree on how and in what way this knowledge is gathered. The crucial divide involves the status of conventional, empirical truth. For Gorampa, Buddhas operate entirely independently of this, while for Tsongkhapa, enlightened wisdom has knowledge of both the empirical and ultimate truths.

The issue revolves around the (a) the interpretation of non-duality and (b) the status of ultimate truth.

For Gorampa, ultimate truth is split off from conventionality. Is is ontologically "higher" because it does not involve deception, while conventionality always does. Tsongkhapa agrees conventional truth is deceptive, but accepts its validity in terms of wordly conventions. Empirical validity is possible, despite the fact empirical statements conceal their ultimate truth, namely the absence of substantiality. Conventional truth presents the world as static instead of dynamical, and for this reason it is deceptive. For Gorampa, this is reason enough to discard conventionality per se, placing it in the category of invalid illusions. As only ultimate truth is nondeceptive, only ultimate truth is, in an absolute sense, "true" ! Hence, there is only One Truth, namely ultimate truth. For Gorampa, duality, characterizing conventionality, conceptuality & cognition is invalid.

For Tsongkhapa, conventionality is indeed illusionary (mistaken), but valid (conventionally). So are conceptuality and cognitive activity. Even duality is not a problem, rather the reification of its terms is. Ultimate truth is not "higher" or ontologically different than conventional truth, for the ultimate exists conventionally, and not, as Gorampa states, as an absolute object in its own ontological sphere. Tsongkhapa rejects this Platonic idealism.

The ultimate truth is one of the two natures of each and every phenomenon. Known by way of conventions, the deceptive but conventionally valid empirical reality of an object appears to the worldly mind. Known by way of ultimate analysis, the nondeceptive, ultimate truth of the same object is realized by wisdom-mind. Coherent knowledge involves the mutual collaboration of the Two Truths. One has to argue against a division between them and against a reduction of them. They involve two different types of cognition, each with a different sphere of authority. Conventional phenomena cannot determine the ultimate status of phenomena, nor can their ultimate analysis in any way be authoritative for their conventional status.

These conflicting views influence their view on Buddhahood.

First Gorampa. All sentient beings, including Hearers, Foe Destroyers, Solitary Buddhas and Superior Bodhisattvas are subject to varying degrees of misconceptions regarding the Two Truths. Ordinary beings are influenced by reifying ignorance & defilements. On the Eighth Bhûmi and below, Superior Bodhisattvas, having experienced ultimate truth, are free from these tendencies. Mahasattvic Bodhisattvas of the Eighth to the Tenth Bhûmis are totally free from even the subtlest latent (innate) reifying tendencies, but are subject to nondeluded ignorance, the conditioned state of mind predisposed by the previously existent innate conception of inherent existence or essence. So they are not yet fully enlightened. They are predisposed to the assumption of dualities rather than their reification. Hence, misconceptions of dualistic appearances remain. For Gorampa, Buddhas eliminate all duality. So "dualistic appearance" means the conflict between the ultimate object & the ultimate subject. These Âryas are not yet enlightened because this duality abides. Once this duality is gone, they are Buddhas. They only know conventional objects implicitly, namely by knowing they do not exist. How they apprehend their absolute object or are capable of being compassionate for deluded conventionality is not really explained.

For Tsongkhapa, duality itself is not a problem. The interaction between cognition and the cognitive field cannot be avoided, not even in the most evolved wisdom of Ârya Buddhas (cf. wisdom-minds apprehending emptiness). In his view, Buddhahood involves the simultaneous prehension of the ultimate & the conventional of every phenomena. For Tsongkhapa, the above Mahasattvic Bodhisattvas are not yet enlightened because for them ultimate & conventional knowledge still come about sequentially, and so they have only alternating knowledge of the Two Truths. During meditation they known the ultimate. In postmeditation, they apprehend the conventional. But once they are capable of having direct knowledge of both truths simultaneously, able to cognize empty & dependently arisen phenomena concurrently, establishing the non-conceptual dual-union of the Two Truth, they become Buddhas. Then, from their own perspective, only emptiness is apprehended, while all conventionality is explicitly known as it appears to sentient beings. So far the Gem of the Scholars of the Land of Snow.


© Wim van den Dungen
philo@sofiatopia.org l Acknowledgments l SiteMap l Bibliography

Mistakes are due to my own ignorance and not to the Buddhadharma.
May all who encounter the Dharma accumulate compassion & wisdom.
May sentient beings recognize their Buddha-nature and find true peace.



initiated : 29 XI 2008 - last update : 06 I 2012 - version n°1