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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 5: Analysis of the Mind and Reality > Introductory Survey of Objects of Cognition: Gelug Presentation

Introductory Survey of Objects of Cognition:
Gelug Presentation

Alexander Berzin
December 2000, revised July 2002 and July 2006

Cognitive Objects

Cognitions (shes-pa) have numerous cognitive objects (yul) – objects known in some cognitive manner. The various Indian schools of tenets differ in their explanations of them for the various ways of knowing (blo-rig). Let us look at some points regarding the Sautrantika system and supplement them with explanations from other systems when they significantly differ. Moreover, several of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions differ in their explanations of the assertions of each of the Indian schools. Here, we shall outline only the Gelug presentation.

Involved Objects and Conventional Objects Actually Experienced

The involved object (‘jug-yul) of a cognition is the main type of object involved with a particular type of cognition (shes-pa). An example is the visual form (gzugs) of a physical phenomenon, such as the shape and color of a table, and the physical phenomenon itself, the table, for a visual cognition (mig-shes).

For all cognitions in general, both conceptual (rtog-bcas) and nonconceptual (rtog-med), the involved object is the conventional object actually experienced (tha-snyad spyod-yul).

Focal Objects

The focal object (dmigs-yul) is the object on which the cognition focuses and which serves as the focal condition (dmigs-rkyen, objective condition) of the cognition. Focal objects exist prior to the cognitions of them and have their own continuums different from those of the cognitions of them.

According to the Chittamatra and Yogachara-Svatantrika-Madhyamaka systems, sensory cognitions do not have focal objects. They do not arise from the focal condition of external objects (phyi-don) existing independently of mental activity (sems, mind).

Appearing Objects and Cognitively Taken Objects

The appearing object (snang-yul) of a cognition is equivalent to the cognition's cognitively taken object (gzung-yul). It is the direct object (dngos-yul) that arises in a cognition, as if it were directly in front of the consciousness (blo-ngor). The appearing object does not need to be visual. It may be any cognitive object, including audio and other sensory ones, states of mind, and categories.

Mental Aspects, Cognitive Appearances, and Mental Representations

A cognition takes on a mental aspect (rnam-pa) of its involved object, in the sense that it gives rise (shar-ba) to a cognitive appearance (snang-ba) of its involved object simultaneously with cognitively engaging with it (‘ jug-pa). A cognitive appearance is a mental representation (snang-ba) of a cognitive object, and is somewhat like a mental hologram. Thus, the cognition of a table, for instance, does not give rise to its focal object – the table itself – but merely to the sight of a table, whether the table is seen, remembered, or imagined

Clarity, Awareness, and Mental Activity (Mind)

Giving rise to a cognitive appearance of something simultaneously with cognitively engaging with it are, respectively, the defining characteristics of making something cognitively clear (gsal, clarity) and making an awareness of something (rig, awareness).

Making something cognitively clear and making an awareness of something are, in turn, the defining characteristics of mental activity (sems, mind).

Making something cognitively clear does not require it being clear in the sense of it being in focus. A blur or a confused idea may also cognitively arise.

Making an awareness of something does not require the awareness being conscious. Nor does it need to entail knowing what it makes cognitively appear. A cognition may be subliminal (bag-la nyal) and may lack cognitive certainty (nges-pa).

Objective Entities, Metaphysical Entities, Meaning/Object Categories, and Audio Categories

In sensory cognition (dbang-shes) – which is always nonconceptual – of the visual form of a computer, for example, the appearing objects are colored shapes and the computer itself. In audio cognition of a word, such as “computer,” the appearing objects are the sounds of consonants and vowels, and the word “computer.” They are all objective entities (rang-mtshan, individually characterized phenomena).

In conceptual cognition (rtog-pa) – which is always mental cognition (yid-shes) – the appearing object may be, for example, the object category (don-spyi, meaning category, meaning universal) of a computer, if we know what a computer is. An object category is the conceptual class, into which fit all the individual items that constitute a set of items that share a common feature. For example, all individual computers fit into the object category computer. From the point of view of language, an object category is likewise a meaning category. A meaning category is the conceptual class, into which fit all the individual items that constitute the set of items that a word validly refers to, when we validly know the meaning of a word. For example, all individual computers fit into the meaning category computer – they all are items that the word computer refers to, if we know what the English word computer means.

If we do not know the meaning of a word, we may also think about the word in terms of merely an audio category (sgra-spyi, sound universal). An audio category is the conceptual class, into which fit all the individual items that constitute a set of sounds that share a common acoustic pattern. For example, the sounds of the word computer, pronounced in any voice, with any accent and any volume, fit into the audio category computer. Someone, who does not know the meaning of the English word computer, may think of the word with merely an audio category. Someone, who does know what the word means, may think of it with a combination of an audio category and a meaning/object category. Although usually not specified in the classical Buddhist texts, audio categories may also be of a noise, such as that of a knock on a door, or a musical phrase.

Also not usually specified in the classical texts, conceptual categories may, in addition, be pictorial, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, or of some other physical sensation. Each of these categories may also have an associated meaning/object category. For example, we may think of an orange through a conceptual category of what oranges look like, what they smell like, what they taste like, or what they feel like in our mouths. We may also imagine falling down through the conceptual category of what falling down physically feels like. All such conceptual categories are metaphysical entities (spyi-mtshan, generally characterized phenomena, universals).

Conceptual categories are the appearing objects of conceptual cognition. In other words, they are the direct objects that arise in conceptual cognition, as if they were directly in front of the mental consciousness. Nevertheless, conceptual categories themselves do not have any physical characteristics, such as a sound or a colored shape.. What actually appears in the conceptual cognition of a computer, for instance, then, is a mental aspect – a mental representation or mental hologram – that resembles the colored shape of an individual computer and thus resembles a computer itself. The colored shape and the computer itself do not appear vividly, however, in conceptual thought, such as when remembering or visualizing our computer. This is because they cognitively appear only through the medium of or mixed with conceptual categories.

Conceptually Implied Objects and Objects Existing as Cognitively Taken

In conceptual cognition involving a conceptual category, the object that corresponds to the category is the conceptually implied object (zhen-yul, conceptualized object, implied object). In conceptual cognition, such an object is equivalent to the object existing as cognitively taken (‘dzin-stangs-kyi yul). In the case of the conceptual cognition of a computer, for example, the conceptually implied object is the actual computer itself. Nonconceptual cognitions do not have conceptually implied objects.

Conceptual cognition produces appearances of truly established existence (bden-snang, appearances of true existence). Truly established existence is the existence of a phenomenon being established by the power of something findable on its own side. Thus, conceptual cognition produces as its appearing object not only the category computer, for example, but also the category truly established existence. The category computer is the category of what the item is; the category truly established existence is the category of the mode of existence of the item. The conceptualized objects are an actual computer and actual truly established existence.

According to the Prasangika Madhyamaka school, there is no such thing as truly established existence. It is an impossible mode of existence. Something totally nonexistent cannot cognitively appear. However, we may think of something totally nonexistent through a category of that nonexistent phenomenon as the appearing object in our thought, and with a mental aspect or mental representation resembling that nonexistent phenomenon appearing in the thought. Thus, in a conceptual cognition of a computer, for example, a computer, as the conceptually implied object of the category computer, exists. However, truly established existence, as the conceptually implied object of the category truly established existence, does not exist. Thus, it is said that the conceptual category truly established existence does not have a conceptually implied object. In short, a computer exists, but a truly existent computer does not exist.

Sensory nonconceptual cognition also produces appearances of truly established existence. Thus, visual cognition of a computer also produces a cognitive appearance (mental representation) of both a computer and truly established existence. According to Prasangika, however, the second of these cognitive appearances is only of seemingly true existence, which the cognition fabricates. The visual cognition does not have conceptualized objects. However, it does have objects existing as cognitively taken – namely, the computer and truly established existence. Truly established existence, however, does not exist and so, the cognition actually only has one object existing as cognitively taken – namely, the computer.

[See: The Appearance and Cognition of Nonexistent Phenomena: Gelug Presentation.]

Referent Objects and Referent “Things

According to Madhyamaka, mental labeling (ming ‘dogs-pa), which is always conceptual, entails a label, word, or concept (rtags), a basis for labeling (gdags-gzhi), and a referent object (btags-chos, imputed object). The referent object is what a label, word, or concept refers to.

In the conceptual cognition of a computer, for example, the mental label is “computer.” The basis for labeling may be colored shapes. The referent object is a computer. The referent object is not the same as the basis for labeling. The colored shapes that appear when seeing a computer are not the computer. Moreover, the referent object is not the mental label either. A computer is not the word computer. A computer is what the word computer refers to when labeled on the basis of appropriate colored shapes.

When thinking of a computer, mental representations (cognitive appearances) of colored shapes and of seemingly truly established existence arise. Labeled on them are the labels computer and truly established existence. The referent objects of these labels are a computer and truly established existence. The conceptually implied objects are an actual computer and actual truly established existence, which actually does not exist.

According to Prasangika, truly established existence is equivalent to existence established by something’s self-nature (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa, findably established existence, inherent existence). This impossible mode of existence is defined as existence established by the fact that when one searches for the referent “thing” (btags-don) – the actual “thing” referred to by a name or concept, corresponding to the names or concepts for something – that referent “thing” is findable. The referent “thing” is findable on the side of the object that is being named.

In the conceptual cognition of a computer, the referent object of the label computer (namely, a computer) and the conceptually implied object (an actual computer) do exist. However, a referent “thing” (a findable computer) does not exist, sitting on the side of the either the referent object or the conceptually implied object and, by its own power, establishing the existence of the computer. Moreover, in this conceptual cognition, the referent object of the label truly established existence exists (namely, truly established existence). However, neither the conceptually implied object (actual truly established existence) nor the referent “thing” (findable truly established existence, sitting on the side of the referent object and establishing its existence) exist.