Ross is going on retreat

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Image: The Age– Sunday 25th 2018, page 19. Digital edition.

Dear readers, I shall be on retreat with my esteemed teacher, Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche for the next six weeks. The retreat is called  Heart of Wisdom and is at Atisha Centre, Bendigo, March 30 to 12th May. As mobile phones and internet are not allowed, I will be unable to contribute my regular blog postings, but look forward to doing so on my return.

I thank you for your support and commitment. Take care.

The image above shows an astonishing cloud in the region of the retreat which is also the site of the Great Enlightenment Stupa.  It occurred on the 25 March, 2018 and is technically called a shelf formation. But from a Tibetan perspective, it would surely be considered most auspicious?


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Going Too Far: Letter to a Reader

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This post I am sharing a question sent by a reader. In so doing I am also fulfilling the promise I made  in the last post More on How Conventional Existence Is Established: to explore the fall-out occurring when we mistakenly and even perversely insist on further investigating and analyzing a conventionality rather than simply and uncritically accepting that it exists merely imputed by name and thought.


Dear James (name altered for privacy reasons)

I quote (in italics below) your recent email enquiry in order to set the context for my response. You write:

Can I just re-state the problem as it appears to me and you might be able to see where I am making wrong assumptions:

  1. All phenomena exist in dependence upon being labelled by mind
  2. Some phenomena are completely unknown to ordinary minds and will never be known by ordinary minds e.g. subtlest cause and effect relationships which are only known by omniscient beings. 
  3. And yet these unknown phenomena are still said to exist in dependence upon being labelled by ordinary mind.



Let me paraphrase your dilemma (I trust that I have understood correctly):

if all phenomena exist in dependence on being labelled by mind and yet some phenomena (such as subtlest cause and effect relationships) must remain unknown to ordinary minds, how then can we say that ordinary minds label them? And, in dependence upon that, how can we say that hidden phenomena therefore exist for them i.e. ordinary beings?

Let me begin by proposing that your confessed quandary is predicated on an assumption:

That some things can only exist as something other than a name given by an ordinary mind[1] which is to say, can only exist if posited by an extraordinary mind. The example/illustration you give is “hidden phenomena.” You hold them illustratively suitable because, in your words, they “are completely unknown to ordinary minds and will never be known by ordinary minds e.g. “subtlest cause and effect relationships which are only known by omniscient beings.”

But I would answer that “hidden phenomena” can be and are validly known (as a distinct class of existents) by ordinary conventional minds. Indeed, they are/must be, because ordinary conventional beings (who are defined as those with ordinary conventional minds) are the very ones who, by dint of their cognitively restricted circumstance, are impelled to label them such. A Buddha, by radical contrast, has no similar reason to do so because, for them, not a single phenomena is hidden. How to claim a state of omniscience otherwise? Note here that Buddhas, however, will agree/confer that we (ordinary beings) see them as hidden because that fact, in all its infinitely nuanced detail, is perfectly known to them by dint of the power and sheer scope of their omniscience.[2]

So the perfectly ordinary everyday fact is that we do successfully and meaningfully talk of (and in this sense work with) hidden phenomena. Witness our current conversation with its shared or common subject: hidden phenomena. We might also give the example of a person’s careful observation of the law of cause and effect by adhering to ethics. So when we say that we “know” them this must be understood in the specific sense of referring to phenomena that, within the terms of our current individual capacities, are effectively or functionally unknowable! That is precisely the rationale driving our ordinary conventional labelling.

An important and obvious qualification is necessary here: to say that “we” ordinary beings “know” hidden phenomena is not to claim and does not require that we can see or penetrate the actual detail of what is hidden, for example, the precise intricate detail of “the subtlest cause and effect relationships which are [indeed] only known by omniscient beings.”  Rather, we are only saying that we regard and thus label them hidden–and know them as hidden accordingly–precisely because they are not manifest, and thus beyond the current reach of our possible awareness, falling as they do beyond the scope of our immediate knowledge.[3] If, on the other hand, they were manifest, and thus revealed in all their crystalline detail, we would have no foundation or reason to label them hidden, in which case the generic category of hidden phenomena would collapse, even in an ordinary conventional sense.[4] In other words, the very category “hidden phenomena” would be rendered superfluous. To call something hidden would have no conventional utility value.

However you might still insist that we don’t “know” hidden phenomena in the sense I have just suggested, because they are completely beyond the scope of our ordinary senses. Isn’t this what hidden means?

Yes, the very definition of “hidden” or, “extremely hidden” (as well as “slightly hidden” if we allow for a threefold division)[5] refers to the fact that we label “hidden” to those objects the full knowledge of which manifestly, even blatantly, falls beyond the capacity/reach of our immediate sensual perception[6] and therefore can only be determined according to logic (in the case of slightly hidden phenomena such as emptiness or impermanence) [7] or belief and faith in the case of extremely hidden phenomena such as the “various different colours of the feathers in the tail of a peacock.”[8] But this doesn’t mean that we can’t know them as “hidden” in the perfectly ordinary mundane sense that we label “hidden” to some phenomena qualified as unavailable our senses and not to others qualified as available to our senses.

To argue otherwise would require a tautology: that hidden objects would be unavailable to be known as hidden objects because they would be hidden as hidden objects. It would be like darkness obscuring darkness. If they couldn’t be established in dependence on appearance to a conventional valid cognizer hidden objects would be no different, in effective terms, from non-existence and hence our current discussion as to whom gets to impute them would be pointless. We wouldn’t “see” a hidden phenomena, even if we tripped over one! Even to save ourselves!

To refine our terms, your example of “subtlest cause and effect relationships which are only known by omniscient beings” is more accurately described as an illustration of not just a hidden or a slightly hidden phenomena but rather, an extremely hidden phenomena because, as Geshe Rabten explains, “such subtle points are impossible for us to comprehend without relying upon the consciousness of a Buddha” and therefore are “said to be “extremely concealed objects of cognition.”[9]

Least we feel we are wandering into esoteric philosophy, let’s step back and consider instead a much more prosaic and palpable sense of hidden. Even objects hidden to us as children became manifest upon adulthood, due to nothing more esoteric than schooling and life experience itself. And again speaking generally, phenomena such as daily street life known to those dwelling in Paris is not known to those dwelling in Melbourne for the simple reason: we don’t share the same immediate habitat and thus lack ready or direct perceptual access to it. But this doesn’t mean that those in Melbourne are in position to deny the existence of Parisian street life.


Henri Cartier Bresson Behing the Gare St. Lazarre, 1932

Henri Cartier Bresson, Behind the Gare St. Lazare, 1932.

In any case, there are many who can experientially vouch for its conventional existence (perhaps we even holidayed there once) and thus even far-away Melbournites can accept its existence through popular conventional repute. Even in the case of a Syrian city being pounded to dust, this is so even though a time might tragically come when there is no longer a suitable base to label “city.” Just rubble. That a city might be contingent in this way, including contingent on being labelled, is precisely the point.



This carries us into the more difficult and potentially more troubling dimension of your quandary: that you find it hard to explain how to establish the existence of hidden phenomena if they are unavailable for us (in terms of our direct contact) to label. The emphasis here is on “label” considered as a dynamic performative act. You write: “And yet these unknown phenomena are still said to exist in dependence upon being labelled by ordinary mind.”

It would seem that your underlying difficulty is that you cannot see how they might be labelled in dependence on an ordinary mind if they are cognitively unavailable to it. But, as has just been explained, they are labelled “hidden” by ordinary minds precisely because they appear obscure to them. Therefore it is pointless to require something in excess of being merely labelled in order to ensure their existential establishment. So it would seem that your dilemma (though you do not explicitly state this) is predicated upon a deeper and more pernicious concern: that if we can’t ourselves label a phenomena there is no way to validly establish the existence of that phenomena. Or perhaps the quandary extends yet further: that if we are not actively engaged in labelling a phenomena, that phenomena does not exist, or no longer exists. Why? Because it does not exist from its own side and hence, when we stop labelling, the phenomena itself stops![10] We might call this the imputational fallacy! It’s a term I just coined, but it makes sense to employ it here.

At this point it is necessary to understand that we label in dependence upon something that is necessarily not that label (meaning the label itself). In other words, we label in dependence upon and in reference to a base suitable to support that label. Otherwise, it becomes impossible to establish them as dependently arisen. As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says: “When we say all phenomena, which are dependent arisings, are sealed with emptiness, we mean that they exist merely as dependent arisings imputed by the mind, relating to the name and the base.”[11] From this we can understand that to say that something exists “merely as dependent arisings imputed by the mind” does not mean that we actually “produce” or create that object through the power of our labelling. If it did, we could label a stone a car and successfully drive to work.[12] Etzy ketsy. No money or petrol involved.

The essential point: when we do label, say, for example, “hidden phenomena” to a suitable base nothing about that hidden phenomena that subsequently appears to us (in dependence on labelling to the base), changes. Likewise, it does not get destroyed (as a conventionally existent hidden phenomena) when we finally personally get to know it directly with our enlightened pristine awareness. This is because hidden phenomena are not really (or ever) carrying out the function of being hidden or doing hidden from their own side, by dint of their own self-established nature. It is not the case that one day, when conditions are right, they suddenly become unhidden in the sense that they get to divulge or reveal something new or fresh, open and unravel the secret of their sequestered contents as it were, from their own side, from the side of the base, like a stage divulging its actors and sets upon the throwing open of the curtains. Again, why? Because they don’t exist by way of their own entity. Not even one particle.[13]

But as has been explained, hidden phenomena can and do exist according to the testimony of ordinary valid cognizers which have, as their reference, those dependent-arisings able to conventionally and contingently fulfil that function of merely supporting the label “hidden” in reliance upon a suitable base–one that, like the designated object, is also dependent upon causes and conditions, parts and the imputing mind.[14] Only when considered as dependent arisings in this subtle way can we adequately appreciate why there is no question that they can function irrespective or whether or not I am labelling them “hidden” or not. The operations of karma, for example, are dependent on a countless myriad of causes and conditions and thus can manifest in trillions of ways as well as produce very particular, distinct and unique effects such as being born human as a princess or prince with delightfully curly brown hair in a country resplendent with gold-domed 12th century Buddhist pagodas. So it is not the case that when we name something a “hidden phenomena” we are referring to something necessarily vague or nebulous: a vacant abstract category with no specific content or nature. Things exist in all their specific particularity because they are dependent arisings, not in spite of it.

If, however, we do insist on holding to this notion of vagueness or lack of specificity regarding hidden things it is likely that we are making what might be called a fundamental category mistake – one that is none other than a variation of the imputational fallacy: mistaking the label itself for the thing labelled. The label “hidden” considered by itself is just a linguistic signifier and not the object signified i.e. the referent object of that label/sound.   It is the same with all labels: the term or sound “car” will not drive us to work any more than a rock will. It is a sound associated with a conceptual utterance. That is why a single word “car” can refer to a whole mass of automobiles even when they are visually dissimilar. By the same token, nor will calling anything “hidden” ever actually hide anything. It’s fun to think of how children gamely test this out when they cry, during a game of hide and seek and when just spotted valiantly declare: “You can’t see me!” An Iraqi child might cover their eyes to less comic effect.

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Let’s secure the points above by considering the following somewhat blatant example: you are knocked over by a car that you didn’t see because it suddenly turned into your street and rammed, unexpectedly, into you? The sheer fact is that you were knocked over by a merely imputed car, one that at the time of being struck you hadn’t [yet] imputed as “car.” It all happened so fast, you were wearing your noise-cancelling headphones and were looking the other way. Silly you. It nonetheless was a car (you came to know this subsequently–of course if you had died you mightn’t) and as such, it proved its grievous capacity, given its weight and reckless speed, etc. to traumatically injure you. You even have the car’s enamel and shards of metal lodged in your wound to bear witness.[15] Merely imputed cars injure or kill, even if we (personally) haven’t labelled them at all or are not currently actively engaged, from our own side, in labelling them at the time of the accident. You will recall that these are the two stances embodied in the imputational fallacy.

chandrakirti cropped



We must be very clear here: when Chandrakirti and other very illustrious Mādhyamika scholars propose that something exists “as simply a given name” this is not tantamount to declaring that an existent thing only exists and is only capable of performing a function when or while being merely named (considering “naming” here as the dynamic of conceptually applying an attribution). In other words, the fact that “an object exists as an object of apprehension of the conceptual thought”[16] does not demand that that object of apprehension (e.g. a table, a racing car or, indeed, a hidden phenomenon) be continuously apprehended in order for it to be established as conventionally existent. This is because when we say that something exists as a mere label in dependence on its appropriate base (to label a car to the pages of a book simply will not do to drive us around) we are simply referring to the measure of its posited existence: how it might exist if it is to exist at all.[17] We are saying nothing more. And we needn’t say something more because a car, for example, existing as more than what is merely labelled has never existed in the past, does not exist now, nor will ever exist in the future. In other words it is not to be found as other (i.e. either more or less) than what is merely conventionally validly labelled. This is all we are claiming and it is sufficient to establish that phenomena as existent.[18]

In summary: there is no existential obligation that we resort to additional and somehow better sources of authenticity, or rather reality-substantiation, in order to shore up or “ground” existence as sheer nominality. Our anxiety or perplexity only intensifies when we search for additional modalities to secure the “real” estimated, erroneously, as something more substantial, more reliable, more sufficient, more replete, more accomplished, than mere imputation. This is because, as described in the last two posts, when we analytically search for the object it won’t be found.[19] Hence our deepest fear–if things exist as sheer nominality then existence itself might or even must fail. This, of course, in Buddhist terminology, describes the extreme of nihilism: if things don’t inherently exist they can’t be established as existent at all. Hence we end up mistaking nothingness for emptiness and, in a single swipe, wiping out the countless variety of things that constitute conventional reality.


Fortunately, there is no need to depart the experiential stuff of the everyday in order to better appreciate the measure or limit of the meaning of things existing as given name or mere label. In reply to the illustrative question: how was George existing at the moment prior to being given the name “George” by his parents?” Georges Dreyfus (that’s him above), appropriately autobiographically, responds:

The way Prasangika answers is not doing philosophy, but trying to see what we say spontaneously in daily life. We say that because George was born on January 13th, 1950, then he existed right from this date. It is in this way that we speak when we do not think philosophically, when we speak in a non-analytical and spontaneous manner. For the Prasangika it is this way of speaking that is most important. Because the other [philosophical way] comes from confusion, from an attempt to find something from the side of the object which corresponds to the name…So, George was existing before he received his name because before he received his name, he was existing as an object to which you could give a name. He does not have an existence that is stronger/greater than simply being the support of a name.

Dreyfus now delivers the knock-out punch:

That the name is given or not does not change anything about the way phenomena exist. When we say that the object exists as a given name, we are not saying that you need a name to create the object, but simply that the object supports a name. The object bears the name, and does not bear the fact of finding something more than the name, something which corresponds to the name from the side of the object. So I hope you understand well that saying that objects exist as a given name is a way of speaking about the way in which objects exist, and has absolutely nothing to do with the fact of knowing if the name has already been given or will be given later or not. This also does not have anything to do with the fact that someone conceives the object in a conceptual manner or not. The fact of knowing if someone is thinking of the object or not is a psychological fact which has absolutely nothing to do with the way objects exist. Objects exist simply as the support of a certain type of investigation, which is the given name, which is to think of the object and the object supports that. Objects do not support any attempt to find something more from the side of the object. This is what we are talking about when we say that objects exist as a simple, given name. We do not talk about the psychological fact, the fact that the name has been given, or that a person is thinking of that object or another one. So when we talk about that, we talk about the way objects exist. Of course, this does not change anything for George. On January 20th, his parents agreed to call him George” and this does not change anything; he existed in the same way since January 13th. It is not that when the name comes, George comes into existence.”[20]

Dreyfus stresses this point because he regards it as a common misunderstanding of “Westerners” when they “start to talk about emptiness.” “They imagine” he argues, “that emptiness is the fact that things depend on the thought that imputes them and they go on to say that when there is no thought there is no object. This is absolutely not right.” He expands, and I quote at some length because this is a really subtle, uncommonly heard, and very, very important point:

It is absolutely not what Chandrakirti and Tsong Khapa said about objects existing only as a given name. They said that objects support a certain type of investigation and do not support any other. That the name is given or that there is a person thinking about the object or not does not change anything about the way the object. Thus, even though objects exist as a given name, there are some objects that received their names before coming into existence, others after, and others at the same time as when they came into existence. On the other hand, even if those objects do receive their names after they have come into existence, they still exist as a given name because they only support the type of investigation that is satisfied with the given name.[21] [Italics mine].

Returning to your chosen example of hidden phenomena–how might they be conventionally established as merely labeled by name and conception if they can’t be apprehended by a conventional cognizer?–the Prasangika would reply: although we ordinary beings cannot currently ascertain the variety of individual phenomena that might be housed under that collective name or rubric (because only a Buddha can see them in their exact particularity) that does not mean/require that those hidden phenomena don’t exist and can function – even within the orbit of our world or experiential locale.

To put it bluntly, the dilemma you articulate regarding hidden objects is also one you should be extending to objects that are not hidden. This is because both hidden and non-hidden objects are, alike, merely imputed by name and concept.



Photograph: George Brown, D.D. Pioneer-missionary and explorer. 1908. New Georgia, Solomon Islands. As usual with colonial ethnographic photography, the  sitter is not named. Of course this image proposes creative repurposing: something not possible if clocks only tell time. 



Khensur Jampa Tegchok gives the deliberately mundane example of a clock, together with invitation that we extend it to every other existent object:

For example, there is the basis of designation–the collection of parts–that the word clock refers to. That collection of parts has to be something that can be used to tell the time. But if we look within that basis and try to find something that is the clock or something that by itself tells the time, there is nothing findable within it that could be identified as being the clock that is used to tell time. For that reason, the clock is said to exist by being merely imputed by name and concept in dependence on its basis of designation. When we understand this with respect to one object, it will be easy to transfer that understanding to other phenomena and to see that they also are mere name and therefore are unfindable on their bases of designation and do not exist from their own side.

Names and labels are sounds, specifically, expressive sounds. In accordance with that name, a conceptual mind arises that thinks, “That is a clock.” It is in this sense that we say all phenomena are mere name, mere label, and mere imputation by conception. It is not the case that the clock is a sound or that only sounds exist.

Although the clock is unfindable in its basis of designation, it is findable in general. When someone asks us, “Where is the clock?” we point over there. While the clock exists on the table, it does not exist on its basis of designation. Conventionally a clock is on the table but when we search in its basis of designation for what the clock ultimately is, we cannot find anything. This is the subtle mode of existence of that object, and understanding dependent arising is indispensable for understanding this.[22]


To search for phenomena as more than what is merely labelled is therefore is to fall, headlong, into the very philosophically-vertiginous analytical trap of which Dreyfus energetically warns:

To understand the Prasangika’s view, we have to understand that there is a certain type of analysis (not analysis in the intellectual sense but in the sense of living experience), of practice, in which we engage without problem and which works. But if we are not satisfied with this type of analysis, the problem begins. Philosophy is a typical example of an attempt where we are not satisfied with the conventional designation and where we try to go further, to really find that which is true in reality, from the side of the object, from the side of the consciousness, etc. All of these begin because we are not satisfied with the conventional practice…I ask for a glass and someone brings a glass. No problem at that level. The problem when the philosopher comes and says, “Wait a minute. You are talking about a glass, but what is the glass? How do you know that there is a glass?” And confusion begins! And two thousand years after you continue to ask yourself and continue to give rise to the same problem, without any progress, because when you are doing philosophy , we are not satisfied in engaging ourselves in conventional practices, but we are trying to find the base/foundation of those practices. And at that time, because there is nothing to be found, as the object does not exist in that way, there is confusion.[24]

So, in short, whether we label “hidden phenomena” or “clock” the measure of positing existence–is exactly the same. As Dreyfus says:

To understand the Prasangika’s view, we have to understand that there is a certain type of analysis (not analysis in the intellectual sense but in the sense of a living experience), of practice, in which we engage without a problem and which works. But if we are not satisfied with this type of analysis, the problem beings. Philosophy is a typical example of an attempt where we are not satisfied with the conventional designation and where we try to go further, to really find that which is true in reality, from the side of the object, from the side of the consciousness, etc. All of these begin because we are not satisfied with the conventional practice…[23]

James, you mention (in another related email) that you find this term “measure of existence” puzzling. I therefore suggest that you step backward to absorb the significance of Tsongkhapa’s three criteria (see Dreaming The Prime Minister and More on How Conventional Existence Is Established) for the establishment of something as conventionally existent. In the meantime, I hope my somewhat rambling reply goes some little way towards answering or even anticipating your dilemma! Or rather, alerts to the trickiness, when unravelled, of its full appalling extent! If we insist that things exist as something more than what is merely imputed, in order to exist at all, we are–whether implicitly or explicitly–asserting ourselves as holders of a tenet asserting true or inherent existence. We are also engaging in what promises to be an endless round of what Dreyfus rather cutely describes as “philosophy”.




Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] The term “ordinary mind” in the context of this discussion can be taken to refer to any unenlightened mind not engaged in meditative equipoise on emptiness. In other words, it refers to the ordinary conventional valid mind that establishes the “valid framework of reality.” See Jinpa, Self, Reality and Reason, 152. As such it pertains to the first of Tsongkhapa’s two meanings given to saṃvṛti. As Jinpa quotes: “For Tsongkhapa, there are at least two distinct senses to the term saṃvṛti. In Elucidation of the Intention, after citing a critical verse from the Lankāvatārasūtra Tsongkhapa writes: “The saṃvṛti referred in the first line and referred to in the final two lines should not be regarded as being the same. This is because the first sense of saṃvṛti is the conventional level [reality] at which we accept things [and events] as coming into being and so on. In contrast, the second saṃvṛti is our apprehension of things as real, from which perspective things are conceived to be real.” See Jinpa, ibid., 152-3.

In other words, as Jinpa highlights, with the first sense we are not referring to (nor are we concerned with) how our fundamental ignorance deludedly grasps “at things and persons as real” but merely with how we operate within a conventionally-derived world of things that are the validly apprehended mundane objects of our (unremarkable) everyday cognitions: tables, chairs, continents, ambitions, numerical systems, Persian cats compared to Siamese cats, growing old, dying, being born, etc. Thus ordinary mind has no (metaphysical) dispute with conventional existence (which it regards as existence) , even though from the Mādhyamaka perspective, it is a world posited by mere name (ming tsam) and mere concepts (brda tsam). As Jinpa observes: “Tsongkhapa reminds us that by these expressions the Buddha is not rejecting the existence of non-linguistic things nor is he repudiating genuine knowledge of their referents.” Ibid., 154.

[2] In his presentation of ultimate truth, Tsongkhapa explains how “obscurational truths” (meaning those truths characterized by being polluted by ignorance) must be perceived by a Buddha’s pristine wisdom that knows all objects of knowledge. Upon the basis of how “[I]f something exists it must be perceived by a Buddha” he explains that:

 [T]here are two ways that a Buddha’s pristine wisdom knows objects of the knowledge–a mode of knowing all objects that are ultimate truths and a mode of knowing all objects of knowledge that are obscurational truths. Concerning those, the first is knowledge of the suchness of the aggregates and so forth in the manner of not perceiving their conventional appearances. The second is knowledge [of those aggregates and so forth] in the perspective of the pristine wisdom knowing the diversity [of phenomena] in the manner of dualistic appearance as object and subject; this is because it is not suitable to posit that a Buddha has implicit realization in which something is realized even though it does not appear and hence [everything] must be known upon its appearing.

Tsongkhapa then adds a necessary qualification:

Although with respect to a Buddha’s knowledge of the diversity the aggregates and so forth do not appear upon its being polluted by the predispositions of ignorance, what appears to the consciousness of the persons that are polluted with ignorance must appear to the Buddha. This is because it is not suitable for those appearances to be non-existent, and if a conventionality exists, it must be observed by a Buddha.

See Hopkins, Tsong-Kha-Pa’s Final Exposition,  257-258. To swing this towards our current discussion, a Buddha does explicitly know hidden phenomena but in the special sense that they know how hidden phenomena exist as conventionalities for those whose minds are polluted by ignorance and who therefore (unlike buddhas) only see things in the manner of dualistic appearance.

[3] According to the Sautrāntika School of Tenets (and amongst other possible twofold classifications) objects of comprehension can be definitely divided into the two: manifest (mngon gyur, abhimukh) and hidden (lkog gyur, parokṣa). See Anne Carolyn Klein, Knowing, Naming & Negation, 163.

[4] We might consider a similar example to hidden: undiscovered. If all things were discovered then discovery with its associated objects would be rendered incapable/impossible.

[5] Geshe Rabten clearly articulates how whether objects (allowing now for a threefold rather than two-fold division) are considered manifest (or evident), slightly concealed or extremely concealed (hidden) is determined according to “the degree to which an object is accessible to our comprehension.” He expands:

Thus an evident object is one that can be immediately perceived with the senses; a slightly concealed object, one that can be inferred through thought; and an extremely concealed object, one that has to be accepted out of belief and faith.” For the first, he gives examples of “the external world of houses, trees, mountains, rivers and so forth, other people as well as our own feelings” because these are “all objects that are experienced directly by our senses. In order to cognise them we do not need to rely upon the intermediary of conceptual thought based on reasoning.” For the second “the impermanence of a jug…the lack of a self-existent person, the existence of past and future lives, and the four Noble Truths” because these can “be validly comprehended by means of logic.” For the third, an example would be “the specific karmic cause of a particular event within this life” as such a thing is beyond the range of our cognition. We can neither directly perceive it nor indirectly infer its existence. Similarly, the particular conditions under which it was created and the particular conditions under which it was created and the particular manner in which it rose to fruition are also incomprehensible to us. 

See Geshe Rabten, The Mind and its Functions,  93-4.

[6] It is necessary to draw a distinction between “an object being directly comprehended as opposed to being immediately comprehended.” Geshe Rabten explains:

The distinguishing feature here is that direct comprehension may be either conceptual or non-conceptual, whereas immediate comprehension is exclusively non-conceptual. The impermanence of sound which appears to a conceptual cognition may be directly comprehended by that cognition. But since its appearance would then be mixed with that of a mental image, it cannot be said to be immediately comprehended by that cognition. Immediate comprehension, then, is a true perception that comprehends the object without the admixture of its own subjective content.

See Rabten, The Mind, 93. Note the use of “immediate” in the footnote above in relation to the cognition of manifest or evident phenomena.

[7] It is valuable to note here that in the case of partially hidden (or concealed) objects (unlike extremely concealed objects) it is not required that we wait until we have an omniscient mind in order to directly cognise them. Through the power of repeated and increasingly subtle inferential cognition we can reach a point where the role of conceptuality drops away and the object is cognised directly, no longer mixed with a generic image of that object. An example: the emptiness that is the object of the direct cognition during meditative equipoise of an Arya being (one who has entered the Path of Seeing or beyond but is yet to remove the two obscurations). Another: subtle impermanence as the main (or focal) object of a direct yogic perceiver which is a union of calm abiding and special insight. As Anne Klein explains:

Because this mind is a directly perceiving consciousness, it is necessarily a mind of complete engagement. This means that a yogic direct perceiver knows impermanence fully…neither yogic nor any other type of direct perception can be posited as a partial engager.

See Klein, Knowledge and Liberation, 156.

Moreover, while we must accept that these beings do indeed have specially–qualified or exceptional cognitive powers, when they designate a phenomena–any phenomena–they can nonetheless, only do this on the basis of using a dualistic conventional consciousness and thus when not in meditative equipoise. Thus, we have a case here that directly contradicts your assertion that “hidden truths” must necessarily remain hidden “for an ordinary mind” if we take “ordinary mind” to mean any mind other than that of an Enlightened being. Even though Arya beings have extraordinary (or supramundane) minds, they are still of this world, which is to say, they participate in the dynamic realm of conventionalities which they realize are empty and thus illusion-like.

[8] Rabten, The Mind, 94-5.

[9] Ibid,, 95.


[10] After writing this sentence I went to make a cup of tea. When I dunked the teabag in the cup, the leaves flooded out into the water. It was obvious the bag had been broken but it had not appeared to me to be so when I took it from the tea caddy. I was thinking of my next sentence! Thus, only when I saw the gush of escaped tea leaves was I in position to label “broken.” However, it is obvious –now–that the teabag was broken before it was dunked. Therefore, it was a broken teabag (sitting in its caddy) prior to me or indeed, anyone else, labelling it “broken.” I mention this because it demonstrates two things, firstly, that to label something doesn’t actually “produce” (in the sense of causally generate) that object and secondly, nor does failing to label it have an (opposite) deconstructive or destructive effect: that of disallowing or preventing its existence because not yet labelled. The fact is, it was broken anyway. Anyhow.

But, and this is a crucial detail, merely broken: there is no broken teabag from its own side. Broken by virtue of some ultimate intrinsic nature. Because a teabag is not inherently existent it is open or existentially or environmentally or interdependently prone to (the influence of) other causes and conditions, in this case, instruments or mechanics that might rip or tear it and hence render it suitable to be labelled “broken’. At some stage. In my teabag case, it was in hindsight, via a not so stunning inference. This suitability is what we mean when we say that something fulfils the measure of a label. It supports that label when it is conferred to an appropriate base. 

Another illustration (which I don’t need to develop): I go on holiday and the milk (which I had forgotten I had) goes off in the fridge. If not used, it putrefies irrespective of whether or not I am present. That is its conventional (not inherent) nature as an bio-organic substance and that is why I can label it a perishable. We can all appreciate this in common and label some things perishable accordingly. It is as simple as that. No conceptual effort or particular contributive labour on my part is required to make it go off! It is exactly the same as the case of the impermanence of my own body – due to it being a causal phenomena it is changing and disintegrating from moment to moment- on the basis of this I age, irrespective of whether or not I describe it as such-perhaps I use expensive skin lotions or have a compulsive body dysmorphia see myself (deludedly) in the mirror (or in the gazes of others) as eternally young?

[11] See Mahāmudrā: Part Two

[12] Notes Thubten Jinpa:

[W]hile commenting on the frequent occurrence of expressions such as ‘mere name’ (ming tsam), ‘mere expressions’ (tha snyad tsam), and ‘mere concepts’ (brda tsam) , in the scriptures, Tsongkhapa reminds us that by these expressions the Buddha is not rejecting the existence of non-linguistic things nor is he repudiating genuine knowledge of their referents. For example, in Essence of Eloquence, Tsongkhapa states: “The significance of [the expression] ‘mere name’ is that, as suggested earlier, when one searches for the underlying [intrinsically] real referent, one does not find it. [Therefore,] it is not the case that there are only words but no referents; nor is it the case that there are no non-linguistic things.” Jinpa glosses: “So, Tsongkhapa is suggesting that this operator ‘mere’ (tsam) negates only the existence of intrinsic being of persons and things to which names and expressions refer. Tsongkhapa is not asserting that nothing exists outside our language and thought patterns. He is not saying that the object jar is nothing more than its linguistic counterpart ‘jar.’ So what is this jar, and in what sense can we say that it exists?

See Jinpa, Self, Reality and Reason, 154-5.

[13] Tsongkhapa writes:

When sought with reasoning analyzing suchness, persons–who are born and transmigrate–and so forth, able to withstand analysis, are not found, even a particle. Nevertheless, phenomena give rise to white and black effects within being illusory-like. You need to form understanding of such statements.

See Hopkins, Tsong Khapa’s Final Wisdom, 82.

[14] Geshe Sonam: “”Dependent arising” refers to dependence on causes and conditions, but also to dependence on parts and on attribution. Everything that exists is dependently existent. If anything exists, it does so dependently.” See Geshe Sonam Rinchen, How Karma Works, 19. 


[15] A friend told me recently of his friend having a major heart attack while waiting at Brisbane airport. Technically he was dead for eleven minutes but was resuscitated. He remembers going to the airport and then waking up in the acute ward a week later, having been brought out of an induced coma. But he remembers nothing in-between. However, he does accept that he had a massive coronary. There are surgical wounds to prove it.

[16]Geshe Georges Dreyfus, Le Deux Vérité selon les Quatre Écoles, Edition Vajra Yogini, Vajra Yogini Institute: France, 2000, paperback edition. I am quoting from a short unattributed English translated extract with no page numbers that was prepared as a student study text. I don’t have access to the French original.


[17] Yeshe Thabkey:

Question: In an unpeopled forest there are also sprouts being produced from seeds. By the power of whose mind is that production posited?

Answer: We have a ground (sa) of understanding what production is. It is not absolutely necessary to have a mind [present in order for production to be posited by the power of a mind].

You do not even have to speak of a forest. While we sleep there are many things we do not see which are posited by the mind. Whether phenomena are seen or unseen, they can fulfill the measure of being posited by the mind. It is not essential that a mind be present. For example, a thousand grams makes a kilo of butter. I may have a one-kilo stone by which, on a balance scale, I can ascertain that a particular lump of butter weighs one kilo. Even if the stone is not present, the measure [of the butter as one kilo] is still there. Analogously, even if the mind which is the positer of something is not present [at that time], the measure of positing it is still there, and it is sufficient that the measure of being posited is fulfilled. Thus, even if no one sees the production of a sprout [in a deserted forest], directly, it is still posited by the mind.

In general, one can also say that all things are posited by a Buddha’s exalted knower. In fact, most [scholars] would say that these cognizers are those of a Buddha. But one does not have to resort to this because it is not essential that such a consciousness be directly present [in order to fulfill the measure of being posited by the mind], just as the kilo-weight need not be present for something to fulfill the measure of being a kilo. Since its mode of existence is the same as that of a phenomena which is directly observed by some mind, so even phenomena that are not directly observed by some consciousnesses are posited through the force of the mind. Such positing occurs through the force of beginningless predispositions. Thus, in order to make the distinction that beginner [practitioners] must make between being and not being posited by the force of appearing to a mind, it is not necessary to understand exalted knowers. To understand valid cognition is sufficient–namely, to understand that something posited by valid cognition exists, and that something not so posited does not. If one objects that no mind is present to do the positing, as in the unpeopled forest, one can still claim the object is posited by an exalted knower. Still, [I emphasize again,] it is not necessary to understand exalted knowers, which are difficult to comprehend, in order to recognize how things are posited by our minds. It is not necessary to speak of phenomena unknown to me [as posited through the force of the mind]; one does not have a conception of true existence with respect to them. [Nonetheless, as explained above, they are technically posited in this way.]

See Khensur Yeshe Thubten, Path to the Middle, 129.

[18] Dreyfus writes, in relation to Dignaga’s famous example of external objects: “But it is certain that there are no inherently existent external objects. The object exists externally simply as a given name. The conventional demonations that we have are incontrovertible for establishing the objects existing as such. Thus the objects exist externally because conventionally, we recognize them as such. And this is enough for the Prasangikas because it is only in this way that phenomena exist.” Dreyfus, ibid. 

Tackling the same point, Thubten Jinpa says: 

So the question is this: Given that existence equals conventional existence, what are the criteria of a valid conventional existence? In other words, How do we determine that something is conventionally real as opposed to non-real? Since Tsongkhapa does not dispute the conventions of the world on questions of what exists and what does not, it appears, at least on the surface, that the criterion of conventional existence is simply whether or not the said convention accords with the perspectives of the world.”

See Jinpa, Self, Reality and Reason, 156. 

[19] Guy Newland, commenting on Khensur Yeshe Thubten’s passage (footnote above):

I have also heard Geluk teachers argue that the effort to “pin down” the exact location of the imputing mind is a kind of ultimate analysis. Conventionally, the dependence of things upon the mind to which they appear cannot be analyzed and defined as a matter of temporal succession. The dependence of things upon the mind is the measure of how they exist–conventionally or relatively, in relation to the mind–but not ultimately or absolutely, in and of themselves. Just as tables and chairs and chariots and persons do not withstand ultimate analysis, so the way that things exist conventionally cannot withstand ultimate analysis. That is, when one searches to see how things exist, one does not at last find some essential, analytically findable way of existing in things called “conventional existence” one finally discovers only their emptiness, their nature of being devoid of any findable pith or substance. “Conventional existence” or “existence in dependence upon the non-defective mind to which it appears” are conventional phrases that point us towards some sort of understanding of how it is that phenomena do exist and function even while being devoid of any type of existence that can be found under analytical scrutiny. However, like the magician who can understand how the illusory elephant exists only because he has seen the stone and knows that it is falsely appearing to be an elephant, we can gain a full understanding of how things exist conventionally only when we have realized their true nature, emptiness. [Italics mine].

See Guy Newland, Appearance and Reality, 80-81.

[20] Dreyfus ibid.

[22] Dreyfus, ibid.

[21] Khensur Jampa.Tegchok, Insight into Emptiness, 196.

[22] Geshe Georges Dreyfus, Le Deux Vérité selon les Quatre Écoles, Edition Vajra Yogini, Vajra Yogini Institute: France, 2000, paperback edition. I am quoting from a short unattributed translated extract with no page numbers.

[23] Ibid.


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