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Home > Advanced Meditation > Mahamudra > Overview of A Root Text on Gelug-Kagyu Mahamudra > Session Four: Questions and Answers

Overview of A Root Text on Gelug-Kagyu Mahamudra

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, August 2006

Session Four: Questions and Answers

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:26 hours)

We were in the middle of asking some questions concerning the defining characteristics of mind, and there were a few hands that were up with questions. Does anybody have further questions they’d like to ask?

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: The question is: “How can there be two thoughts at the same time – grasping for a truly existent me, as well as thinking to do something?”

First of all, let me clarify that when we talk about intention, intention accompanies both conceptual and nonconceptual cognition. So it doesn’t necessarily require what we would call “ thinking” – “thinking” is thinking in terms of categories.

Now, this gets a little bit complex of course – when we speak about nonconceptual cognition, like seeing, there can be intention that draws us to seeing the table, as opposed to seeing the wall. But then there can also be the thought which might come before that – and perhaps a verbalized, but not necessarily verbalized in our mind – “I think I’ll look at the table.” Most of the time, we don’t think that; we just look at the table. So we need to be clear that intention goes on all the time; it’s one of the five ever-functioning mental factors that accompanies each moment of our awareness ...it depends on which tenet system we’re following: Vasubandhu says it accompanies every moment, Asanga defines it as only an intention for something constructive, and so it isn’t with every moment.

In any case, within a nonconceptual cognition, the mind gives rise to an appearance of true existence and we perceive that, we cognize that. In conceptual cognition, not only do we cognize that appearance, but we take it or understand it to refer to what actually exists. There’s the arising in this case of an appearance of true existence and cognizing it, being aware of it; there’s just simply that in nonconceptual cognition.

Translator: And in conceptual?

Answer: In conceptual – in addition to that – we conceive, or we think that the way that this appears to exist corresponds to the way that it actually exists, or in very simple language, we believe this deceptive appearance.

Now, within any cognition we need to differentiate – this is Gelugpa, mind you – the aspect of mental activity that cognizes the superficial truth of something – what it appears to be, or what it is conventionally – and there’s also an aspect of that cognition which cognizes how it exists.

So there’s the cognition of “table” and within one cognition two parts of the cognition: one part “what is this.” And it is not necessarily knowing what it is, saying “table,” but it is perceiving the conventional truth of it, the conventional truth of it as a table. So, we see, according to Gelug, not only a colored shape, but we also see a table; we see both. So that’s one part of the cognition and that can be either accurate or inaccurate.

Now, the other part of the cognition is a cognition of how it exists, and here it’s perceiving it to exist in a truly established way – I won’t go into the definition of that, that’s complex – so one part of the cognition is accurate, one part of it is not accurate – Gelugpa says this. And the only difference in conceptual is that it perceives this through a category – “table” – and in terms of how it exists, it actually believes that it truly is existent, or that it’s existence is truly established.

Translator: Now you were speaking about nonconceptual?

Answer: Well, both nonconceptual and conceptual – conceptual adds on top of it.

Whether conceptual or nonconceptual, the part of the mind that is perceiving how it exists, in other words this appearance of true existence – in the non-Gelug, they explain it very nicely – what happens is that it makes a twofold appearance: that the object is truly existent and that the cognizer is truly existent, and truly existent as me, as a separate me.

Translator: Conceptual or nonconceptual?

Answer: The same, conceptual or nonconceptual. When we are talking about the part of the cognition that’s cognizing how it exists, then the non-Gelug explains this in a very nice way. Gelug would agree that the object appears to be truly existent and the mind that’s perceiving it appears to be truly existent as me.

Translator: And this is Gelugpa or non-Gelugpa?

Answer: Non-Gelugpa explains it that way and Gelugpa would agree; they don’t actually give this type of explanation, but I think it helps to understand your question – the answer to your question.

Translator: So these two aspects, a truly existent perceiver and a truly existent object? And Gelugpa would agree?

Answer: Gelugpa would agree. The way that Gelugpa would explain this is that there’s automatically arising grasping for true existence of all phenomena and there’s automatically arising grasping for true existence of the “me,” and that both of these accompany the cognition. That’s the way Gelugpa would explain it, but it’s not inconsistent with this other way of explaining it, and this other way of explaining it, I think, makes it clearer.

So, automatically arising appearance of true existence of all phenomena – so that’s referring usually to the object of the cognition, and the automatically arising making an appearance of true existence – and then the conceptual thing, believing it – of a me, the object of that is usually the mind. It doesn’t have to be the mind, non-Gelugpa always explains it as mind, it doesn’t have to be, but often it is. The automatically arising grasping for true existence of all phenomena would correspond to making an appearance of true existence of the object, and the automatically arising making an appearance of a truly existent me, and then the conceptual cognition believing it, would correspond to thinking in terms of the perceiver, being “me.”

Whichever way we want to understand it, it comes down to the same thing, which is that seeing the table and believing in a truly existent me aren’t separate cognitions. They’re all part of the same cognition involving various types of mental factors, or – it gets technical, because grasping for true existence is not a mental factor, but in any case – various ways of being aware that all occur in one cognition. So, in one cognition, there are many different things that are going on that are making up that moment of cognition; and we shouldn’t think that they are, in a sense, disconnected to each other. It all makes one moment of experience.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: The question is: “In terms of conceptual and nonconceptual cognition, does conceptual have to do more with Aristotelian logic and nonconceptual with paradoxical logic?”

I don’t think that there’s an equivalency here. The Buddhist analysis is of course speaking in terms of different systems of logic than the Greek traditions, but whether we are analyzing in terms of the categories of Buddhist epistemology – ways of how we understand the way the mind works – or in categories of ancient Greek epistemology, nevertheless, human experience is the same. We have conceptual and nonconceptual cognition, they’re just different systems for understanding.

In Buddhist logic, the form of the logical syllogism used for proving a thesis is different from the form in Aristotelian logic, but that difference is irrelevant to your question. Whether we try to prove something with a logical syllogism – which would be done from a Buddhist point of view in the Sautrantika, Chittamatra and Svatantrika systems – or we try to prove something via paradoxes, which would be the Prasangika system, both types of logic involve conceptual cognition.

Nonconceptual cognition does not arise based on any line of reasoning or logic. Now, we have to qualify that, of course – that explanation is true within Gelugpa for the non-Prasangika systems. You see, in the non-Prasangika systems we divide inferential cognition and bare cognition in terms of one being conceptual, the other being nonconceptual. So inference is conceptual and non-inferential is nonconceptual.

But Prasangika makes a different distinction here, and for them inferential relies directly on a line of reasoning and now, instead of calling it bare cognition, we translate the same term as “ straightforward cognition,” which means it doesn’t rely directly on a line of reasoning. Before, the definition was “bare,” bare of concepts; here it’s “straightforward.” It means it doesn’t go through a line of reasoning. Still, in the Prasangika system, inferential cognition relies on logic and it’s always conceptual, whether it is straight syllogisms or paradoxical logic. Straightforward cognition could be either conceptual or nonconceptual, so we can have conceptual cognition not relying directly on a line of reasoning or logic.

An example would be, for instance, we go through a line of reasoning of inference, and then we come to a conclusion, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” And so we go through that line of reasoning, that’s inferential cognition of the fire. We see smoke, and then we go through a line of reasoning, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” and now we focus on, “There’s fire there,” we don’t actually see it. So, when we come to that conclusion, that’s inferential cognition, that’s conceptual. Now we focus on, “There’s fire there.” That is conceptual, because we’re thinking in terms of the category “fire,” but it is straightforward cognition, it is not relying directly on the line of reasoning anymore.

Translator: So we focus conceptually on the existence of fire, without relying...

Answer: Without at that moment actively relying on the line of reasoning. This affects very, very much our whole understanding of what’s usually called analytical meditation and absorbed meditation, whether or not conceptual or nonconceptual affects very much our understanding of how to meditate on voidness and so on. There’s a very significant difference here, especially when we think in terms of Western categories like “intellectual understanding.” Unless we make a very clear distinction of these various ways of knowing, then we can get very, very confused.

Question: Can you give an example of an indirect conceptual understanding?

Answer: “Indirect” is a terrible word here, because I don’t know what you’re referring to. I make a very clear distinction between “direct and indirect,” “explicit and implicit,” “ straightforward and non-straightforward,” “bare and non-bare.” If you don’t make distinctions between these words, and if you just use “direct and indirect” in a very loose way for all of them, you’re going to get enormously confused. OK.

Direct and indirect – this is used in the non-Gelug systems. Remember, we were talking about seeing the table and the mental hologram. Now, the non-Gelugs take nonstaticness very literally. So moment one of the table gives rise to moment two, which is the perception of the mental hologram; so when we are perceiving the mental hologram in moment two, the table which gave rise to that, which is moment one, doesn’t exist anymore.

Actually, they don’t say we see the table, they say we only see a colored shape. So, when we see the mental hologram of a colored shape, we directly cognize the hologram and indirectly cognize the moment before of the colored shape that was external – indirectly because it doesn’t exist anymore. That’s the difference between direct and indirect in how I’m using the terminology. Direct is right this moment, it’s the same moment, and indirect is a time lag of a moment before, like when we hear the radio signal from the moon, or from Mars, there’s a time lag.

Now explicit and implicit has to do with whether or not the mind gives rise to a mental hologram of the object. This has to do with whether or not there’s a mental hologram of the object of cognition. So, explicitly there’s a mental hologram, so I see a table – this is Gelugpa – I see a table, so explicitly I perceive a table, because there’s a mental hologram of a table, and implicitly I perceive “not anything else,” or “not a dog.” There’s no mental hologram of that. So that’s the difference between explicit and implicit.

Bare and not bare – the difference is whether or not the cognition is through a category, so that’s conceptual or nonconceptual. And straightforward and not straightforward is whether or not it relies directly – meaning immediately – on a line of reasoning or not.

Translator: If it relies, then it is?

Answer: Then it is not straightforward, and if it doesn’t rely it’s straightforward.

Now, if we just use our Western languages in a sloppy manner, we could refer to all of these as direct and indirect. But if we translate it like that, we’re going to get terribly confused, because here are four very different distinctions that are being made. And, by the way, although it might seem as though this is a grand wavering from our topic of mahamudra, it’s not, because when we look in more detail about these ways of knowing things, it gives us a much clearer idea of what are we talking about, when we’re talking about mind.

Ways of being aware, it’s aware of something, so how is it aware of something? With a time lag, with making a hologram, without making a hologram, with relying on a line of reasoning, with a category, without a category? All of them have the exact same nature of mind; all of them have the conventional nature of mere clarity and awareness, the mere arising of a cognitive object and an engagement with it, a cognitive engagement, without there being some separate mind or separate me doing it. All of them fulfill that defining characteristic.

Each of these ways of knowing have the same defining characteristics: mere clarity and awareness, the giving rise to a cognitive object and the cognitive engagement with an object, and that happening without there being a separate me or a separate mind that’s doing it. Mind you, I left out that this mental activity can also be described from the point of view of physically what’s happening. That would be in terms of the energy and so on that’s involved with this – but that’s not the same as the actual subjective experiencing of something – the winds, the brain, the nerves and so on; we’re not denying that.

Translator: So from the viewpoint of Prasangika Madhyamaka, you gave the example of the straightforward conceptual thinking with the example of smoke and fire, so what would be the not straightforward conceptual thinking?

Answer: What would be not straightforward? The not straightforward cognition is when we actually go through the line of reasoning “where there’s smoke there’s fire” and come to the conclusion. The process of thinking through the line of reasoning and coming to the conclusion, that first moment or little phase of thinking the conclusion, that would be the conceptual, inferential cognition.

Translator: So that’s the one that should be backed up by the previous moment of logic?

Answer: It is the final step in the line of logic, the whole process is the inferential understanding, and then the next moment after that would be straightforward.

Translator: So the immediately preceding cause of the direct conceptual thinking here will be the indirect one?

Answer: Let’s not use direct and indirect.

Translator: The immediately preceding cause of the straightforward is the non-straightforward?

Answer: Correct. What will precede the straightforward conceptual cognition will be not straightforward, one that relies on a line of reasoning. So one could go through a line of reasoning to come to the conclusion of voidness, “There’s no such thing as truly established existence,” and then stay focused on it straightforwardly, and it’s still conceptual, but you’re not relying directly on a line of reasoning anymore.

Translator: Would that mean that enlightened consciousness is one which lacks conceptuality?

Answer: The enlightened mind – there’s a great deal of discussion of when a mind gets rid of all conceptual cognition. But if we follow the Gelug tradition on that, that would only be an enlightened mind. An enlightened mind does not from its own side – this gets into a big discussion, a big debate, but the Gelugpas would say that – the mental continuum of a Buddha from its own side doesn’t generate and perceive categories, so it doesn’t perceive things conceptually; however, it could be aware of concepts of others.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: The question is: “Playing chess involves conceptual thinking; could a Buddha play chess?”

I’m just speaking off the top of my head now; obviously this isn’t discussed in the text. Conceptual thinking has to do with categories, remember that; but one can perceive cause and effect and so on not necessarily through categories. A Buddha knows cause and effect nonconceptually, it’s not through the category, “when you bang your foot against something in the dark, then it hurts.” So that’s a general category of things, and our specific instances fit into that category. A Buddha doesn’t think in those terms.

Translator: I didn’t understand what banging the foot has to do with categories.

Answer: Well, that’s a general category, like a principle that – “category” isn’t the precise word either; it’s hard to come up with a term here, but a “principle,” or a “law,” that – “ bang your foot and it hurts,” cause and effect, just on a very simple level. If we think conceptually about it, then anytime that somebody bangs their foot, then we would think, “Ah, bang your foot, that fits into this category ‘bang the foot and then after that comes pain.’” And so then we would know conceptually the relationship between those two.

A Buddha wouldn’t think in terms of these categories, these laws. A Buddha would just know nonconceptually, not through a category. So, the same thing in terms of playing chess: a Buddha would know, “If you move this piece this place, then that would happen, that would happen, that would happen in a specific context,” but without thinking in terms of rules. If we put it in very simple terms, to play chess conceptually is to have all the rules in your mind and fit everything into the rules. A Buddha just plays, and a Buddha knows how everything works, but without having to constantly look in the rule book.

OK, that brings us to the end of our session. We haven’t been able to go further into the text; however, having an opportunity to ask some questions is always helpful, and particularly, as I said, it sheds light more and more on the phenomenon of mind. And to really understand the nature of the mind, we have to get to the basic, basic, basic defining characteristics. So, whether the mind is conceptual, nonconceptual, whether it’s any of these two sides of all these variables that we’ve mentioned, the defining characteristics are the same. So don’t think the defining characteristic of mind is that it’s nonconceptual; that’s not a defining characteristic. OK?

So, let’s end with the dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it act as a cause for really being able to successfully do this mahamudra practice, to be able to actually recognize the nature of my mind, both conventional and deepest, and through working with the mind achieve enlightenment for the benefit of everyone.