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āvaraṇa (T. sgrib pa སྒྲིབ་པ་; C. zhang) is translated as "obscuration," "obstruction," "obstacle," etc. In the Sanskrit Mahayana tradition, two types of obscurations are commonly identified: "afflictive obscurations" (kleśā-varaṇa) and "cognitive obscurations" (jñeyā-varaṇa).

Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche states:

Negativities, or obscurations, are mental defects, and our good qualities are positive mental factors. On a more subtle level, these mental defects can be divided into afflictive obscurations and cognitive obscurations. The afflictive obscurations include attachment, anger, and jealousy—all the coarse afflictive emotions. Cognitive obscurations include any conceptual thought that involves the ideas of subject, object, and action. When one has become free of the two obscurations and their habitual patterns, one is fully purified.[1]

Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions states:

Sentient beings’ minds are obscured by two levels of obscurations, which are gradually eradicated as we progress along the path. Afflictive obscurations mainly hinder the attainment of liberation. They include the afflictions, their seeds—potentials producing another moment of the affliction—and polluted karma causing rebirth in saṃsāra. Afflictive obscurations have been eliminated by arhats, by bodhisattvas on the eighth ground and above, and by buddhas.
Cognitive obscurations are more subtle and difficult to remove. Mainly impeding omniscience, they prevent beings from directly perceiving both conventionalities and their emptiness simultaneously. They consist firstly of latencies (vāsanā) of the afflictions that remain on the mindstream even after the afflictions and their seeds have been eliminated, and secondly of the aspect of the mind that continues to mistakenly see inherent existence. Only buddhas have completely eradicated these. The Pāli tradition also refers to cognitive obscurations (ñeyyāvaraṇa) impeding full knowledge, which a buddha has abandoned.
Other cognitive obscurations are dysfunctional tendencies (duṭṭhulla, dauṣṭulya), latencies on the mindstreams of arhats that manifest in peculiar physical, verbal, and mental behavior. The Pāli commentary to the Udāna speaks of latencies (vāsanā) built up by defilements that produce similar dysfunctional actions in the future. These exist in the mindstreams of ordinary beings and arahants.[2]

The Garland of Radiant Light states:

There are an infinite number of obscurations that can be discussed, but in brief, these obscurations all fall into two categories: the afflictive obscurations and cognitive obscurations. The afflictive obscurations obstruct liberation and are the cause of cyclic existence. The cognitive obscurations, on the other hand, are explained to obstruct the direct perception of all objects of knowledge. In other words, they hinder the attainment of omniscience and cause one to fall into the realm of constructs.
That these two include all obscurations is a tenable position because there is no fruition to aspire to aside from liberation and omniscience, and the afflictive and cognitive obscurations are posited with reference to their preventing these two fruitions. What causes them to arise is the apprehension of the self of persons and phenomena, respectively, and it is the realization of the twofold absence of self that relinquishes this twofold apprehension. Therefore, since there is no superior ultimate reality to be realized other than what is realized by these two [insights], the types of obscurations are limited to a definite number--two. For this reason, it is asserted that once these two are exhausted, one will be free from all obscurations because no other obscurations exist.[3]

Distinction between the Nyingma and Sarma traditions

Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang explains the subtle difference in understanding between the Nyingma and Sarma traditions:

The way our tradition (Nyingma) interprets the two obscurations follows the Sublime Continuum:
All thoughts such as miserliness and so on
Are held to be emotional obscurations.
All thoughts of “subject,” “object,” and “action”
Are held to be conceptual obscurations.
We accept that negative emotions such as attachment are the emotional obscurations, and that considering subject, object, and action to be true constitutes the conceptual obscurations. However, the new schools (Sarma) assert that the emotional obscurations and the conceptual obscurations share a common ground, because considering things to truly exist is held to be an emotional obscuration. They maintain that as the emotional obscurations get more and more subtle, they become the conceptual obscurations, and as these get subtler still, they become the obscurations of habitual tendencies. They compare them to the smell of musk, which lingers in a container in which it has been kept, growing gradually fainter and fainter.[4]


  1. Chökyi Dragpa 2004, Introduction (by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche).
  2. Dalai Lama & Thubten Chodron 2014, s.v. Chapter 10.
  3. Dharmachakra Translation Committee 2007, s.v. Chapter 2.
  4. Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang 2011, Chapter 3.