by Dr. Alexander Berzin
Conventional and Deepest Bodhichittas
Conventional bodhichitta (kun-rdzob byang-sems, relative bodhichitta) focuses on the superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa, conventional truth, relative truth) of enlightenment, such as its qualities of omniscience. Deepest bodhichitta (don-dam byang-sems, ultimate bodhichitta) focuses on its deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa, ultimate truth), namely its voidness (stong-nyid, emptiness).
Focus on the Two Truths
According to the Gelug assertions, we may focus on voidness as a non-implicative negation (med-dgag, nonaffirming negation, absolute absence) of truly established existence with either mental cognition or yogic straightforward cognition (rnal-‘byor mngon-sum). Mental cognition of voidness may be either conceptual or non-conceptual, whereas yogic cognition is exclusively non-conceptual.
Regardless of which of these types of cognition we use, such cognitions cannot simultaneously produce and focus on an appearance representing the superficial truth of anything, including enlightenment. This is because such types of mental activity employ mental consciousness, which can only produce appearances of superficial truths as seemingly truly existent. Only when we use the subtlest level of mind and its clear-light cognition (‘od-gsal) to focus on voidness can we simultaneously produce and focus on an appearance representing the superficial truth of something as non-truly existent.
Only a Buddha, however, can focus non-conceptually on the superficial truth of enlightenment. This is because only a Buddha can directly know, for instance, omniscience. Before Buddhahood, we can only focus on the superficial truth of enlightenment conceptually, through the medium of a meaning/object category (don-spyi) of what enlightenment means and refers to.
Conceptual cognition always produces an appearance of seemingly true existence. Therefore, nonconceptual cognition of the absolute absence of truly established existence cannot simultaneously produce an appearance of true existence. Consequently, although clear-light cognition of voidness can simultaneously give rise to appearances of superficial truths as non-truly existent, it cannot simultaneously produce an appearance of the superficial truth of enlightenment as non-truly existent. It can only do so when it is the omniscient clear-light cognition of a Buddha.
In summary, with an anuttarayoga seeing pathway mind (mthong-lam, path of seeing), its clear-light nonconceptual cognition of voidness can already simultaneously produce an appearance of the superficial truth of a purified illusory body (dag-pa’i sgyu-lus) as non-truly existent. It cannot do so with an appearance of the superficial truth of enlightenment. Therefore, illusory body is a more efficient method to unite with clear-light cognition of voidness than is conventional bodhichitta.
Gelug Assertion of Deepest Bodhichitta as not Actual Bodhichitta
With a seeing pathway mind, however, not only in anuttarayoga, but also in sutra and the three lower tantra classes, we can focus non-conceptually on the deepest truth of enlightenment. This is because, as the third-century Indian Buddhist master Aryadeva has stated in Four Hundred Verse Treatise on Madhyamaka (dBu-ma bzhi-brgya-pa, Skt. Madhyamaka-catuhshataka) “The way in which (the mind) becomes the seer of one phenomenon is the way it becomes the seer of everything. The voidness of one thing (suffices) for the voidness of all things.” Thus, a seeing pathway mind can focus non-conceptually on the voidness of enlightenment, despite being unable to focus non-conceptually on the basis for that voidness (stong-gzhi) – the superficial truth of enlightenment. For this reason, the late 14th-century Gelug founder Tsongkhapa (rJe Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa) did not accept deepest bodhichitta as actual bodhichitta.
In other words, if deepest bodhichitta were actual bodhichitta, the absurd conclusion (thal) would follow that cognizing the voidness of a vase would be deepest bodhichitta. This is because cognizing the voidness of a vase suffices for cognizing the voidness of enlightenment, despite the voidness of a vase and the voidness of enlightenment being individual voidnesses due to their having different bases for voidness. Therefore, in Gelug, bodhichitta as method is exclusively conventional bodhichitta.
The Assertion of Shakya Chogden
In non-Gelug, deepest truth is the inseparable pair: pure appearances and voidness beyond words and concepts. Although clear-light cognition of a seeing pathway mind can non-conceptually cognize deepest truth, it cannot do so with equal prominence of both pure appearance and voidness beyond words and concepts until enlightenment. Nevertheless, deepest bodhichitta is actual bodhichitta because it focuses both on the qualities of enlightenment, such as omniscience, and the voidness of enlightenment.
For this reason, the 15th-century Sakya master Shakya Chogden (gSer-mdog Pan-chen Sha-kya mChog-ldan) asserted that deepest bodhichitta may be simultaneous with yogic non-conceptual cognition of voidness. In such cases, bodhichitta and deep awareness of voidness are both non-conceptual.
For Shakya Chogden, the superficial truth of anything is its appearance with truly established existence to a conceptual mind, and therefore, superficial truth is nonexistent. Thus, conventional bodhichitta is the conceptual mind that focuses on a conceptual representation of our not-yet-happening attainable enlightenment, which appears to be truly existent. Because of this, Shakya Chogden asserts that only deepest bodhichitta is actual bodhichitta.
The Mainstream Sakya and Nyingma Positions
When Nyingma masters, such as the 19th-century Mipam (‘Ju Mi-pham ‘Jam-dbyangs rnam-rgyal rgya-mtsho), and mainstream Sakya masters, such as the 15th-century Gorampa (Go-ram bSod-nams seng-ge), assert that bodhichitta may be simultaneous with yogic non-conceptual cognition, they specify bodhichitta here as conventional bodhichitta.
For Gorampa, this conventional bodhichitta is conceptual and focuses merely on the superficial truth of enlightenment through the medium of the meaning/object category enlightenment. This is because Gorampa asserts that the deep awareness (ye-shes) of voidness beyond words and concepts still has primary consciousness (rnam-shes) and accompanying mental factors (sems-byung, subsidiary awareness). The object on which it focuses might be, for example, a conceptual appearance representing omniscience. It is a superficial truth about enlightenment, however, because omniscience cannot be put into words and concepts. Its manner of existence is beyond them.
For Mipam, conventional bodhichitta in this context is non-conceptual. This is because Mipam asserts that the deep awareness of voidness beyond words and concepts is also beyond the level of mind that has primary consciousness and accompanying mental factors.