More on How Conventional Existence Is Established



Tsongkhapa, 16th Century Gilt bronze. Tibet


I would like to chat a little about the relationship between valid existence and analysis. This stems directly from last week’s post where Tsongkhapa’s three criteria for the establishment of valid conventional existence were introduced. See Dreaming the Prime Minister.

As Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche has been explaining, to merely claim that one is the prime minister does not actually a prime minister make. A whole set of other supportive causes and conditions must be intact and active, such as being legitimately elected, being recognized as the person for whom people actually voted, being ready and able to take office (i.e. being a legitimate citizen), being formally sworn in by formal parliamentary constitutional decree, etc. The test of legitimacy of one’s prime-ministerial claim (what if one was dreaming or high on drugs?) involves examining whether or not it is “damaged by the valid minds of others as well.” In other words, a consensual endorsement by a community or collective of valid minds is required. It follows that any unsupported or solitary (and thus independent) claim to prime ministership is to be ruled out as inappropriate if not also downright delusional and whacky.[1] Consider even the claim to be an incarnated great yogini or  or yogi. Rigorous testing of such claims is required as there is always the prospect of imposters.

To understand this scenario or network of contingencies more deeply requires approaching the meaning of “valid minds” in this context of establishing conventional existence. Though this leads immediately into the swirling tenet-driven waters of Buddhist epistemology, I shall try to keep the discussion simple.

It is essential to understand at the outset that a valid cognition of table (to take an example) is to be distinguished from a conception that mistakingly, and excessively, adheres to that table as truly existent. In other words, as Kensur Yeshey Tupden says: “it is necessary to recognize that the mind conceiving of true existence apprehends something beyond what the [valid] consciousness apprehending the [mere] table perceives.”[2]


Warped but useable. Design by Lelièvre 2012. 

The referent object [Tib. zhen yul] of a valid cognition apprehending the mere table does exist. It exists in dependence on being merely imputed in dependence on the base of designation. In some cases this base might be a sawn-off tree trunk or in others a lightweight Ikea blond veneer concoction held together with plastic plugs. But the referent object of the mind conceiving true existence–true existence itself–does not exist. Indeed, such an inherently existent table–one that exists from its own side–is (in this case) the object of negation.[3] When we search for this inherently existent table, using an ultimate analysis (see Dreaming the Prime Minister) such cannot in the slightest be found. If it could, the table would be established as truly existent! But when we apply such an ultimate analysis we find that the conventionally existent table can’t be found either. This is the case not just for tables but for any conventionality including phenomena we call “emptiness.” As Kensur Yeshey Tupden says:

Further, although emptiness is both permanent and an object of knowledge, it does not appear to a consciousness of meditative equipoise as a permanent phenomenon or as an object of knowledge; these [aspects] are related to emptiness but are not objects of the wisdom of meditative equipoise. Object of knowledge, existent, established base, and so forth, are all conventional phenomena; emptiness is an ultimate object, and therefore emptiness [alone] has to be the object of a wisdom cognizing the manner of existence.[4]

Therefore we are required to precisely understand how not being found by an ultimate cognizer does not equate with not being findable in general i.e. as the object of a conventional valid cognizer which operates in other conditions and circumstances. For example, when you realize the emptiness of the table in your room, the table does not somehow evaporate or disappear. If it did, when you arose from meditative equipoise (which ascertained only emptiness) you would surely discover everything that was (formerly) supported by it, scattered upon the ground! In other words, insight into emptiness would destroy conventionalities and, in this disastrous sense, would be the ultimate annihilating angel.

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Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Basilica, Barcelonia. Photograph by Barbara Weibel. 

In the words of Kensur Yeshey Tupden, and jumping from a table to a pillar:

When one uses reasoning to discover whether or not a pillar exists inherently, that pillar itself ceases to be an object of this analytical mind. Does this mean you find the pillar to be nonexistent? No. The pillar ceases to be an object of that particular mind; similarly, if you look for the mode of abiding of the selflessness of persons, that selflessness ceases to be an object for the mind which observes that selflessness’ mode of abiding. [5]

So this is the juncture where, if not exquisitely careful, we are prone to fall into the extreme of denying not just truly existent but also conventionally existent things because we have failed to understand the significance of the specialized nature of the minds involved in directly realizing emptiness and establishing conventional things. Though they can both operate in one person, they cannot operate in them at the same time. Only a Buddha can cognize conventionalities and emptinesses simultaneously and even here some qualification is required.[6]

As Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche advised last week, to securely rescue ourselves from a pending nihilistic outcome we must fully recognize how merely imputed things exist as dependent arisings. As Kensur Yeshey Tupden says:

One needs to understand [conventionally exist phenomena] as dependently arisen. When all its parts are gathered together, a thing comes to be; when there are only one or two, it does not. Because they must be gathered for it to exist, that thing is a dependent arising; in addition to its parts, it requires causes and conditions, [and] a mind designating a convention. These are [the three ways in which an impermanent thing] is a dependent arising. [7]

The third (as listed above) –dependence upon a mind designating a convention–is what Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche is referring when he says we must understand “the extremely subtle point of dependent arising.” See Dreaming the Prime Minister. Without dependence upon imputation by a valid mind, not even a prime minister, let alone a table or a pillar can be established as conventionally existent. If she could, what need of elections, investiture and all the other assembled cultural paraphernalia? As Pabongka Rinpoche pointed out (same post) if the chant master existed from his own side, he would pop out of the womb fully equipped and magnificently chanting in the very deepest bass. Oh, and he would be already fully grown which would make for an exceedingly difficult labour.


Ven Ngawang Tashi Bapu, Principle Chant Master,  Drepung Loseling Monastery, India.

It can’t be found by that particular analytical mind because it does not truly or inherently exist. If it did truly exist, it would be findable as that is the exact and strategically-restricted nature of the intent of such an ultimate analysis. That’s why it has been set up and operationallly employed. Yet this unfindabiity to this mind does not impinge on the fact that this post can, in general, be said to conventionally exist once we allow for the meeting of all the conditions for conventional existence (again, as described in the last post). So, returning to the essential of recognizing how things are dependent arisings, that we can’t establish (with either a conventional or an ultimate mind) that the table or the pillar or the prime minister exist from the side of the base independently of designation by concept and name (or label) proves that the table or the prime minister exist merely in dependence on other things i.e. are not established as the basis of their own mode of subsistence. It is in this nominal or putative sense that they are merely conventionally (not ultimately) existent. Logic demonstrates this:

When uninvestigated and unanalyzed, the thing does exist [but cannot be found to exist under analysis]. If it could [be found under analysis], it would necessarily exist on its own and so would have to truly exist. If it existed that way, one would find it as either the same as or different from its parts [but when one analyzes, one cannot find it thus]. If it were one with its parts, then all the [multiplicity of] parts would be singular; or just as there are many parts, it itself would be many. This is the reasoning of the one and the many.[8]

You will recall that the same reasoning was applied in the last post (see notes) to the snake imputed to the rope and then the snake imputed to the valid basis of imputation of “snake”. In neither case could a snake be found as either the same or different from its parts.

Kensur Yeshey Tupden therefore raises the intriguing rhetorical prospect that we might now conclude that if a thing cannot be found when investigated and analyzed (and only be found when it is not) then we are allowed no basis upon which to distinguish what exists from what does not exist i.e. the existence of a conventionally existence snake is no different from the horns of a rabbit i.e. if one existed so would the other, if one didn’t exist neither would the other. However, as Kensur Yeshey says:

[[E]ven though it exists unanalyzed and uninvestigated, it is not like the horns of a rabbit, and [it does not follow that] the horns of a rabbit must exist. The horns of a rabbit do not come to be, even if they are apprehended. They can never function like the horns of a rabbit, whereas this tape recorder, unanalyzed and uninvestigated, exists, because it can carry out its own appropriate function. It is something that is apprehended without investigation or analysis, There is, thus, the difference that one functions and the other does not.”[9]

Likewise with the snake imputed to the rope and the putatively “real” snake imputed to the bones, scales, forked tongue, beating heart, etc, suitable to perform as the basis of designation “snake”. For more on this proverbial snake see Pinpointing Root Ignorance and King of Reasonings.

In summary, we are led, full circle, back to the significance of what it means to “validly” as opposed to “invalidly” impute a conventional existent. Kensur Yeshey Tupden says:

Unanalyzed and uninvestigated, this object must exist, yet if [there were something] beyond this existence, then, when one analyzed and investigated, one would get at that object. If something exists as apprehended by the mind that analyzes and investigates, it must truly exist; if it exists for the mind that neither investigates nor analyzes, then it conventionally exists, it does not utterly exist. The manner of valid establishment must be posited by a nonanalytical, noninvestigating mind. Such a mind does analyze, but this is not the analysis of the phrase “nonanalytical, noninvestigating mind.” This latter occurs after an object has been established by valid cognition.

Kensur Yeshey Tubten illustrates this with the following illustration:

“For example, once impermanence is established by valid cognition, one does not analyze its entity but investigates whether impermanence truly exists or not–that is, one analyzes its way of being. However, so long as its impermanence is not established, there is [need for] analysis: “The subject, sound, is impermanent because of being a product.” [10]

Only in this analytical way–via syllogistic inference–can we arrive at the realization of sound’s impermanence, not just in some abstract sense, but in terms of one’s own valid cognition. Then, and only then, on the basis of that discovery/realization are we positioned to proceed to an ultimate analysis: investigating whether or not impermanent sound exists truly i.e. one examines “its [hypothetical] true existence, its way of being. These are two [different analytical procedures.”[11] While the first analysis is included within the ordinary sphere of operations of a conventional cognizer, the second isn’t. This is because it seeks to investigate beyond the superficial appearance of things i.e. penetrate their final or ultimate mode of existence, something a normal conventional cognizer does not seek to do.

Therefore, in this example of sound’s impermanence, there is a necessary sequence of both types:

Once impermanence is established by valid cognition, one does not analyze its entity but investigates whether impermanence truly exists or not–that is, one analyzes its way of being.” In other words, once successfully established by valid cognition, we do not then turn our ultimate analysis upon the mere dependently-arisen entity that is labelled “impermanence” as this would constitute a fault, namely, that of analyzing whether or not a conventional phenomena can be found by an ultimate analysis searching for the actual way of being of that impermanence. We have already established that it can’t – even if it validly exists. Rather, we search for whether that (hypothetical) truly existent impermanence can be found – as something left over by the end of our exhaustive analysis. [12]

The word “hypothetical” has been crucially inserted here by editor Anne Carolyn Klein (in line with the dialectical tradition) for the very important reason that true existence cannot, in reality, be examined, for the devastatingly simple reason that it doesn’t exist. But it’s appearance does. We are to understand that emptiness is also “merely posited by a nonanalytical mind and exists only conventionally. When we turn an ultimate analysis onto it, we do not find emptiness abiding there by way of its own entity. It too lacks existence from its own side.”[12] Thus emptiness is empty too. And the emptiness of emptiness also, ad infinitum.

From a Prāsaṅgika perspective, while a truly existent table does not exist, its appearance as a truly existent table does. [13] This is due to the previous dispositions deposited by innate self-grasping ignorance from time immemorial.  These dispositions constitute, in fact, the obscurations to omniscience and will be still present even after the conception of true existence have been dispelled, as in the case of the mindstream of an eighth ground bodhisattva. So special care must be taken here not to mistake or confuse the appearance of true existence for the object of negation, or rather, the subtle object of negation according to the Prāsaṅgika. Our enterprise of realizing emptiness will become hopelessly muddled if we do.

The object of negation, refers to the referent object or object of engagement of a consciousness conceiving true existence. In other words, the truly existent table (something which is only mistakingly asserted to exists) is what is to be negated – not its appearance to our mind.[14]

But when the truly existent table is found not to exist whatsoever, the mind conceiving true existence is exactly repudiated. This is because the mind of knowledge (that realizing emptiness) is the “contradictory equivalent” – of the ignorance apprehending a self of phenomena or persons. Therefore, underlying this is the essential of a precise identification of the hypothetical extent of existence that ignorance superimposes on merely labelled things and then holds them as existing in that way. Tsongkhapa says:

Moreover, if ignorance is not identified, you will not know how to cultivate its antidote, therefore identification of ignorance is extremely important. Ignorance is the opposite of knowledge, but knowledge should not be taken as just any other knowledge; rather, it is wisdom knowing suchness–selflessness. Its opposite is not suitable to be just the nonexistence of it or just other than it; hence its opposite is its contradictory equivalent. This is a superimposition of self [that is, inherent existence].[15]

This point was discussed in Adopt What Is Beneficial

snake revealed as hose

A rough analogy would be the snake imputed on the rope: once the rope is (correctly/non-erroneously) seen as a rope, and not a snake, the mind conceiving snake there–covering the spot from where it appears–gets instantaneously stopped. With its existence not just not found but dynamically and exactly dialectically opposed, there is no basis, or ground, for the continuation of the mind seeing/projecting/superimposing snake there.[16] At least temporarily, that is, because until the seeds of innate self-grasping are removed, this appearance of true existence will set itself up again. It is for this reason that it is called “innate.”

In the next post I shall discuss some of 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. This pertains to Kensur Yeshey Tupden words (quoted earlier):

“Unanalyzed and uninvestigated, this object must exist, yet if [there were something] beyond this existence, then, when one analyzed and investigated, one would get at that object.”

If we find ourselves impelled to still hunt for some additional essence in a thing, an essence that makes it that thing really, from its own side, then we haven’t accepted that Tsongkhapa’s  three criteria are sufficient to validly establish a conventional existent. [17]   o this becomes a very big deal, especially as it means we can’t be a holder of Prāsaṅgika tenets, even if we  profess, even elaborately, to be so.

Also entailed is a misunderstanding of what “valid” means and therefore how it is to be appropriately applied. This is because Prāsaṅgikas “speak of [phenomena as] being established by valid cognition and imputed by thought.”[18] Italics mine.

Ross Moore 17 March 2018





Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] Though not similarly a semantic or language theory, this requirement anticipates Wittgenstein’s private language argument famously presented in his Philosophical Investigations where he states that “The words of this language are to refer to what can be known only to the speaker; to his immediate, private, sensations. So another cannot understand the language” [§243]. If one invented a private personal language it would remain totally inaccessible to others; nothing more than chaotic meaningless gibberish, an accusation indeed, often arrogantly applied by invading colonials to the meaningful speech of indigenous peoples.

[2] See Kensur Yeshey Tupden, Path to the Middle, 106.

[3] However, the appearing object of that mind conceiving true existence does exist. Therefore, as Kensur Yeshey Tubten, says:

Yet, there is no need to negate the appearance of true existence. This exists and appears. it is something like a meaning generality or mental image. Can there not exist an image of the horns of a rabbit? The appearance of the true existence exists, and, therefore, it appears to and is realized by Buddhas also,. However, it is a mistaken appearance, not truly established, and [does not lead]Buddhas to conceive of true existence. Moreover, it appears to them because of its appearing to us, not from the Buddha’s own side. The appearance of true existence and endless purity (dag pa rab ‘byams) do not impair one another, both appear directly.

Ibid, 98.

[4] Ibid., 99.

[5] Kensur Yeshey Tupden, Path, 98. He further says, and now taking the example of a pot:

A pot itself is not the mode of abiding (gnus lugs) of a pot; the mode of abiding of a non-truly existent pot has to be its absence of true existence. Thus, a pot is not an object of the wisdom which sees the mode of abiding of a pot. Similarly, selflessness is not its own mode of abiding: the mode of abiding of any selflessness is its own selflessness. Only selflessness–meaning the lack of inherent existence that characterizes, pots, pillars, and other phenomena–is an object of the consciousness that cognizes the way of abiding of those phenomena.

Ibid, 99.

Put succinctly, a conventionality cannot be the object of such a wisdom; only an emptiness can. It is in this special sense that we can see that, in the face of such a wisdom, all fabrications or elaborations of both true existence and conventional existence cease. Again, the reason is to be understood in terms of the characteristics of the respective cognizers involved:

A direct realization of emptiness is the only nonmistaken consciousness within the mental continuum of a sentient being; śūnyatā itself is the only object of that realization. That mind does not see or hold anything else as its direct or indirect object, including the basis on which it has realized emptiness, such as a form. The analogy is a visual consciousness that is free of disease which does not see the mistaken appearance of falling hairs. A mind directly perceiving  emptiness is free from the influence of ignorance, so conventional things do not appear. “Ordinarily perceived by a conventional mind” refers to forms and so on, which are objects that appear to a consciousness obscured by ignorance.

Sopa, Steps, Volume Five, 372.

[6] “Although a Buddha sees the object, the base of emptiness, he or she does not see it in the manner of seeing its attribute, emptiness. Conversely, although a Buddha sees emptiness, he or she does not see it in the manner of seeing its basis.” See Geshe Sopa, Steps, Volume Five, 253.

[7] Ibid., 106. Note: a permanent thing, because it is not a causal phenomena, is only dependent upon parts and imputation – the last two conditions. This point is elaborated in my post A Wise Spiritual Friend, note 1.

[8] Kensur Yeshey Tupden, Ibid., 116.

[9] Ibid, 106-7.

[10] Ibid., 107.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 108.

[13] The Svātantrikas, on the other hand, hold that a form appearing to eye consciousness as inherently existent, does exist as it appears and hence (for them) this eye consciousness is unmistaken in relation to this appearance of inherently existent form. However, they do hold that phenomena, while existing inherently conventionally, do not exist inherently ultimately. Geshe Sopa says (during a discussion of the distinction between Svātantrika and Prāsaṅgika tenet positions):

“Well,” someone may ask, “what follows from Bhāvaviveka’s acceptance that the eyes and so on do not ultimately arise.” Tsongkhapa replies that the eys, forms, and so on are not ultimate truth and do not exist in reality, so they cannot be found as objects of any unmistaken consciousness. Therefore they are found by conventional consciousnesses, which apprehend false appearances. Those consciousnesses are mistaken owing to being influenced by ignorance. According to the Prāsaṅgika system, forms and colors that appear to a visual consciousness do not exit as they appear, so these consciousnesses are false perceivers. Although a visual consciousness that sees a color or a shape may be valid, what appears to such a consciousness is false because it appears to be inherently existent–which it isn’t in reality. Bhāvaviveka does not agree. He considers that a valid sense consciousness is nonmistaken regarding its object and its object’s inherent nature; its object does existent inherently, just as it appears.

See Sopa, Steps. Volume Five, 368.

[14] Referent object (Skt: *adhyavasāviṣaya; Tib: zhen yul) object of engagement (Skt: pravṛttiviṣaya; Tib: ‘jug-yul). See ibid, 110.

[15] Jeffrey Hopkins, Tsong-Kha-Pa’s Final Exposition of Wisdom, 38

[16] We must be cautious here in overextending this analogy because, in the case of a direct realization of emptiness, a non-affirming negative that is the mere or sheer unfindability of true existence is nondualistically ascertained. But this does not mean that this mind establishes emptiness’s existence: only a dualistic conventional cognizer positing conventionalities can do that as has been explained.

[17] Some terminological care is required here. As Geshe Sopa points out:

Every functional and nonfunctional thing has its own nature, and its own manner of existing; all Buddhist schools accept this, including the Prāsaṅgika. However, it is only the Proponents of Inherent Existence [Svātantrika] who accept that things “exist by” their own nature. To say that something exists by its own nature implies that is has an inherent nature–a nature through whose power that thing exists from its own side.

See Sopa, Steps, Volume Five, 381.

[18Kensur Yeshey Tupden, Path, 70.




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