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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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Overview of Phenomena that Have Objects and Their Objects

Alexander Berzin
Knappenberg, Austria, March 2010

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:34 hours)

We have been going through a tremendous amount of material and there is an even larger amount of material still left to go through. And the format that we’re using is not the most ideal, user-friendly format because there’s no time to digest or to discuss this material and too much is being presented at one time. However, we have started on this format and so it’s not so easy to change. 

In going through this material there are two styles that one can do in order to give an introduction. One method is to just explain part of one topic, and just say what is in the rest of the topic without actually explaining it. And the other style, which is usually the style that His Holiness the Dalai Lama uses and which I’ve been following, is to talk about almost everything, in other words, give a short explanation of all the different elements within a topic. So that the point is not to overwhelm you. The point is for you get this view that “Wow, there is so much in here, that I would really like to go deeper and understand all of this more slowly and in detail.” So there are these two didactic methods here. Anyway, just to give a little bit of apology if this is overwhelming, because it is overwhelming, there is no denying that; but I don’t feel comfortable just mentioning something without explaining it, especially since there is always a problem with terminology. So I think it is better than just giving a list of things and then perhaps you have a wrong idea of what they are, to at least have a little bit more specific concept or idea that you know you are going to have to work on more and get more information and deal with it, in order to digest it. 

Okay, so the next topic is “subjects and objects.” And this is dealing with various types of functional phenomenon (dngos-po). A functional phenomenon is a nonstatic phenomenon (mi-rtag-pa), something that performs a function, does something. And for a functional phenomenon to have an object (yul-can) means that it continually and actively possesses an object appropriate to itself whenever and for as long as the functional phenomenon occurs or exists. For something to have an object means that it has to have that object continually and actively and it can’t just be any object, it has to be some object that is appropriate to it. And it has that object whenever it occurs and for as long as it is occurring or existing. 

So there are three types of phenomenon that have an object: ways of being aware of something (shes-pa), persons (gang-zag), and communicating sounds (rjog-byed-kyi sgra). Okay, well, each of these are large topics. But it has to actively take an object whenever it exists, so for instance a snow shovel has an object that is appropriate to it: snow. But it is not always taking that object. In the summer when the snow shovel is sitting in the garage, it doesn’t have an object. So that’s not what we are talking about. Whereas a way of knowing something, like seeing or being angry with something, when they are inactive it is not as though they exist somewhere, stored in our mind like the snow shovel sitting in the shed in the summer. Right? They are just not functioning. They can be in a potential form, but it’s not as though they are sitting like the snow shovel in our head. So a way of knowing something is – whenever we are seeing, we are always seeing an object. Whenever we are angry, we are angry with something, even if we can’t specify what we are angry with. Angry with life, angry with the – you have a nice word in German, “existential Angst,” just a sort of existential anger. So it has an object: existence. So whenever you have anger, whenever you have seeing, it actively has an object for as long as it is occurring. And a way of knowing something cannot occur on its own without knowing something. It has to have content. Mental activity has to have content. Okay? 

So when you hear, as you hear in Buddhism in many explanations, the nonduality of subject and object – I never like this word “subject” anyway – but the nonduality of it, that doesn’t mean that the way of knowing and its object are one thing, that they’re the same. They are not the same. They are not identical. We’ll get into this with our discussion of “one and many,” but it means that they don’t exist as two separate unrelated things. 

And persons always have objects. That gets into the whole discussion of persons. What do we mean by a person, or an individual, or “me?” I introduced a little bit about the nonstatic phenomena that are in this “neither” category (ldan-min ‘du-byed). So persons or “me” (conventional “me,” it’s called) is an example of that type of “neither” phenomenon. And so we have the mental continuum, and this is a sequence of experiences, moments of experience, one after another, which are causally related. They form a continuity, continuum, individual. And how do we put it together? Like we had instances of similar behavior, we put it together by labeling it a habit, or a potential, or a tendency. So, similarly, how do we put together these moments of related experience that form a cause-and-effect relation with each other, one after another, a sequence? What can be imputed on that, or labeled on that, is a person, or an individual, or me, or you. An individual, me, or a person, and not a word – not just the name “me.” I am not any of the moments of experience, so what is the “me?” The “me” is what this word or concept refers to, on the basis of this sequence of moments. 

The example I always use is a movie. We have a movie like “Star Wars.” It is made up of a sequence of moments. We are not talking about the actual plastic of the film; we are talking about the actual thing that you see and hear, and that’s a moment after moment after moment. And so what is Star Wars? Star Wars is not just the title. It’s not any moment of what we see. I mean Star Wars isn’t just one moment, is it? But whenever we are seeing a moment of it, we would say we are seeing Star Wars, but we are not seeing the whole thing at once. Is there a movie Star Wars? Yes. It’s not the title and it’s not any of the moments, is it? It is what the title refers to on the basis of the sequence of moments. That is very, very profound and there are many, many consequences that follow from that in terms of selfishness, in terms of all sorts of problems that arise because of our misconception of how we exist and others exist. 

So because visual consciousness is always seeing something, and ear consciousness is always hearing something, and mental consciousness is always thinking something, we’d have to say also “I’m seeing,” “I’m thinking,” “I’m hearing.” So, in that sense, the person also is always having objects. And just as mental activity goes on with no beginning and no end, taking objects, so does a person, or an individual, or “me.” 

And then the third type of functional phenomenon that always has objects is communicating sounds. So whether we are talking about syllables, whether we are talking about words, whether we are talking about phrases, whether we are talking about sentences, whether we are talking about just grunts or the beating of a drum in the jungle, it is communicating something, so it has an object. It takes an object. The object is its meaning. So the objects that they have are their meaning. It is a communicating sound or communicating something. It is communicating something – information. 

Okay, that’s the overview. 

Now the topic that needs to be dealt with in more detail is cognitions of something, knowing of something. And here we have seven ways of knowing something. This is a topic that the Tibetans study for at least one year in their monasteries, so let’s try to do it in fifteen minutes or ten minutes. 

So we have valid cognition (tshad-ma) and invalid cognition (mtshad-min). The valid has to be nonfallacious (mi-bslu-ba), not wrong information, not a wrong knowing of something. And remember we have these different Indian philosophical systems. In one of these systems, it has to also be “fresh” for it to be valid. Fresh in each moment, “sartu” (gsar-tu) means fresh, not stale. Literally it is translated as “new,” but that doesn’t quite give the right flavor. And I understand something that’s fresh for the first phase of it; but then, okay I understand it, but it’s getting not so fresh, a little bit stale, so it’s not so valid. Whereas another more sophisticated school of tenets says well, every moment actually is fresh, if you think about it in a deeper sense of how things exist. 

But anyway we have that, and then we have what is called “apprehension” (rtogs-pa). It is a difficult word. I mean do you want to call it “understanding” or whatever; I can’t think of a good word. So I use “apprehension.” You apprehend something. And what that means is that not only is it correct and accurate, but it is also decisive (nges-pa). It is this and not that. It is decisive about it. So that is another division. So as I say, what are we going to call it, apprehension or not? That’s difficult. We have explicit apprehension (dngos-su rtogs-pa) and implicit apprehension (shugs-la rtogs-pa). Explicit is when the object actually appears to the consciousness; and implicit, it’s not appearing. So for instance we see this object, let’s say an orange. We see an orange and explicitly this is an orange, not something else. So what we explicitly apprehend is an orange. So that is the object that is explicitly apprehended here; an orange, that’s appearing to us. 

We also implicitly know “not an apple.” But an apple or “not an apple” doesn’t actually appear, does it? Okay, remember our negation phenomena (dgag-pa). To know that something is this and not that. And then it becomes very interesting. Do you have to know everything that it is not, in order to know that it is this? To know that this is an orange, do I have to go through every fruit and every other phenomenon that exists, exclude that, in order to decide it is an orange and not any of these other things? Obviously we don’t. So it is actually a very interesting process. How do you know that it is an orange and not something else? But, anyway, these are topics to explore when we go into more detail in the future. Because then what we will also know, associated with this, is that it is “nothing other than an orange.” Okay that’s a double negative. Usually you just translate it as double negative, but what it means is it is “nothing other than” (ma-yin-pa-las log-pa) an orange, which means it is an orange. How do you specify an orange? An orange is nothing other than an orange, so that’s excluding everything else. 

Now, ways of knowing. We can have bare perception (mngon-sum; bare cognition) of something. “Bare” here means without it being conceptual. And when we get into our discussion of what on your list here is called “generalities and specifics,” then we’ll get into the discussion of what the difference is between conceptual (rtog-bcas) and nonconceptual (rtog-med). I don’t want to go into it here. 

You see one has to be very, very specific with terminology here. Some people call this direct cognition. “Direct” and “indirect,” I reserve for something else. One school of Buddhist philosophy says that you directly perceive (dngos-su rig) objects, which means without making a mental hologram, and indirectly (shigs-la rig) means that actually you see a mental hologram (rnam-pa). Because the external object that is the immediately preceding moment (remember we had these in our discussion of causes), the immediately preceding moment of the equal status cause (skal-mnyam-gyi rgyu), the immediately preceding moment of the mental hologram… Actually when you are seeing a mental hologram – that object that produced it, I mean that was in moment one. Moment two is the mental hologram. So in moment two of the mental hologram, moment one is not existing anymore. There’s moment two of that object. So you don’t actually ever see the object, you are only seeing the mental hologram. So that is the distinction between direct and indirect. So I want to reserve those terms for that distinction and not for this distinction in terms of conceptual and nonconceptual. Otherwise everything gets mixed together and you get very confused

Okay, so now we have bare perception which is without the medium of a – for want of a better word, let’s say “concept.” But I will clarify that term because I actually don’t like that term. But for our simple discussion today, we are perceiving something not through a concept, but nonconceptually. And this is seeing, hearing – all sense cognition – and also mental cognition. We make this distinction in Buddhism between sensory cognition (dbang-shes) and mental cognition (yid-shes). We are not talking in a Western configuration of a brain that is doing all of this, in a sense. I mean, we make this distinction so mental cognition can also be bare. For example when we dream, seeing something in a dream, what we call seeing it’s not actually seeing because it is not with your eyes. That’s nonconceptual. That is bare perception, mental. 

Then we have inferential cognition (rjes-dpag). This is cognition. It can be valid, it can be invalid. But it can be valid, it can rely either on a line of reasoning, so a proof. We see smoke and we infer that there’s fire – relying on the line of reasoning that where there is smoke, there is fire. Here there is smoke, therefore there is fire. And there are other types of inferential cognition. When we hear the sound of a word and we infer the meaning of it, it’s based on a convention. We hear sounds. How do you know these sounds mean anything? Well we know by convention that this set of sounds which some Stone Age people (or even before) made up and decided that it meant something. We infer, based on that convention, the meaning of these sounds. It is really quite fascinating if you think about it. Quite amazing. That’s why we said that communicating sounds always have a meaning. Sounds by themselves, there’s no inherent meaning in a sound. It’s just a sound. Okay? And we can also infer that someone is authoritative. There are many different types of inference. 

Then we have subsequent cognition (bcad-shes). This is after the first moment where it’s fresh. Then the next moment, subsequent to that, it is not so fresh. 

Then we have presumption (yid-dpyod). I presume that something is correct, but I don’t really understand why. So it is not decisive. And again there are many types of that. 

But you see, all of these have an object. I presume that your name is Mary. Well I presumed that, I’m not sure, and it could be wrong. Or I presume your name is Corinna, but I really am not sure about it. I’m guessing. So that’s the type which is correct but it is not decisive, so it is not an apprehension. So with presumption you’re guessing what it is. 

And then we have nondetermining cognition “nangla ma-ngeypa” (snang-la ma-nges-pa). To call it inattentive perception is completely wrong. You can be paying attention to it, but you can’t figure out what it is, “ma-ngeypa” – it’s not certain about it. In Tibetan, it is not decisive. It is not determining. I can’t figure out what this is. I am looking at it. I am paying attention to it. Or it could be I am not paying attention to it. So whether you’re paying attention or not is another variable. So it’s a nondetermining cognition, not decisive about it, don’t know what it is, basically. Presumption: I guessed, I made a guess. Here I’m not making a guess. 

Then we have indecisive wavering (the-tshoms). Is it this? Or is this that? There certainly is no decisiveness there either. But now we are wavering between two or more possibilities. Sometimes it is translated as “doubt,” that is also misleading. There’s two possibilities and it’s indecisive, and you are wavering back and forth. Is it this? Is it that? And you could tend more toward the correct decision or toward the incorrect one, or you’re in the middle. It doesn’t even have to be that either of the possibilities that you are considering are correct. I’m wondering is your name Mary or is it Jane? I can’t decide which one. And both of them are wrong. Okay? 

And then the last one is distorted cognition (log-shes). Distorted means that it’s completely wrong. (Yes, so let me just finish. She wants me to review these seven. I’m sorry I didn’t write them up here.) The last one, let me just explain that a little bit. Distorted cognition, so seeing a hallucination. I mean if you know it is a hallucination that’s something else. But the actual seeing of a hallucination, that is a distortion. Or a blur – I take my glasses off and I see a blur. Now from one point of view it is accurate. I am accurately seeing a blur. But it is not accurate, it is distorted, in terms of there isn’t a blur sitting over here in front of me, is there? And also we could have distorted thinking. It’s thinking something that is completely wrong. 

So we have bare perception, we have inferential cognition, subsequent cognition, presumption, nondetermining cognition, indecisive wavering, and distorted cognition. These are the seven ways of knowing. There are many other ways of knowing, but some of them are discussed in Buddhism, some of them are rejected. There are many different ways of classifying. 

I’ll just give you an example of one way of knowing. It would be to know something by analogy. So we are working, let’s say, with two languages, Spanish and Portuguese. So we know Spanish, but we don’t know Portuguese. And so I know how to say something or what a grammatical construction is in Spanish, and I know that Portuguese is analogous to it, to Spanish. And so I say, by analogy, it must be like this in Portuguese. 

Actually, we use this a lot in terms of solving problems. That, well, this is analogous to something else that I did before, so it must be like this, as a solution. So this is a way of knowing something, isn’t it? But that is not explicitly accepted in the Buddhist classification scheme. But other non- Buddhist Indian schools speak of this. This is quite interesting, right? Because you could say it’s a subcategory of presumption, because I don’t know; it is not decisive. It’s really a guess, isn’t it, but based on analogy. So depends on how you want to classify it. But we use it a lot actually. 

Now you can look at it as inference. Is this a correct inference? Portuguese is similar to Spanish. Therefore this should be the same from Spanish in Portuguese. Well is it a logical – is it a correct inference that just because two things are similar, that they are the same? But then we think, “Oh, but it has to be the same.” Not necessarily the same. So again it helps us in dealing with problems. “Oh, I have seen this problem before, so it must be the same.” 

It’s interesting. Let’s say you are dealing with people who have emotional problems and so by analogy, I think, “Oh. it must be like a case that I saw before.” Not necessarily so. When we can analyze anything that I know, or that I think I know, how accurate is it? How decisive is it? What are the possibilities here? Then we don’t get so stubborn and say, “Well, it has to be like this!” We can recognize a little bit more easily when actually we are just guessing, really. But sometimes we can’t be decisive, so we try. But then if we know that it wasn’t decisive, that I was knowing this by analogy or presumption, then if it turns out that what we thought was incorrect, we’re not stubborn about it. We can change. We’re not insistent. Very helpful. 

Okay, so these are seven ways of knowing. Then we have, in terms of these ways of knowing, we have a further division which is leading to a very, very large topic, which is mind and mental factors. In other words, subsidiary awareness (sems-‘byung) – that’s a more literal translation of the Tibetan and Sanskrit term – the subsidiary to primary consciousness (rnam-shes). We have primary consciousness and we have these mental factors. Primary consciousness is a way of knowing something which knows the essential nature of something. That’s all that it is aware of is the essential nature. This is the Tibetan word “ngowo” (ngo-bo), which is not an easy word. Not just “nature,” because there are many, many different types of nature. So I call this the “essential nature.” 

So this has to do with what type of phenomenon is this. If we use a little bit of a Western analogy here, it is talking about information – these Western terms – talking about information. Now what primary consciousness is aware of is that this is visual information, or this is audio information, or this is olfactory information, or mental information. It’s aware of the essential nature of what kind of information is this. That is all it is aware of. If you think of it in terms of a computer, it is quite interesting that these electrical impulses, and somehow this machine can differentiate that this is picture information or audio information. So similarly this works here with our minds and that is called the primary consciousness. That’s all it knows, is the essential nature, what kind of information is it. So we have eye consciousness, ear, nose, tongue, body and mental. So it is seeing a sight, just as a sight. 

Then the mental factors that accompany this principal consciousness share these five things in common, so: same focal objects, same mental hologram, relying on the same sensor, occurring at the same time, and the same sort of slant (the type of phenomenon it is in terms of ethical category). And it’s subsidiary in the sense that it is not the main thing, but it is easier to refer to them as “mental factors,” and they help us to deal with that information and somehow qualify it in many ways. I mean there are so different many mental factors, so it covers a large spectrum. 

Now there are many abhidharma systems. Remember we have these eighteen schools of Hinayana, we have various schools of Mahayana – everybody has their own abhidharma. And in these various abhidharmas, these topics of knowledge, there will be different lists of these mental factors. So we shouldn’t just think there is one list of them. So some lists have forty-six, some have forty-eight, some have fifty-one. The list with fifty-one is the usual one that is studied, but it is not the only one. And what we need to understand, importantly, is that there are two ways of dividing a pie. So you can cut the whole pie into fifty-one pieces or you could cut part of a pie into fifty-one pieces and then there is the rest of the pie. So when we have these schemes of forty-six or fifty-one or whatever number, it’s this second way of dividing the pie. So these are just illustrative, the main ones, and there are tons of other ones. 

Some of these are going to be involved with how we actually connect with an object. So we have things like attention, we have things like interest, we have things like intention. Intention (‘dun-pa), attention (yid-byed), feelings (tshor-ba) on the level of happy or unhappy about it – either about it or while we are looking at something or thinking something. I mean I’m looking at the wall and I am unhappy. It is not that I am unhappy with the wall – “Oh, it’s a terrible wall” – but as we saw with our analysis of causality, the reason why I am feeling unhappy, it’s not because I am looking at the wall, is it? Could be, but it might not be. But it’s going on at the same time. Okay, that’s actually important, because if I stop looking at the wall and I look out the window, am I now going to feel happy? The factor that is causing the unhappiness is not necessarily related to the object that I am observing. So that is not the solution, to look out the window. Although things are impermanent, so things could change. 

And we also have distinguishing (‘du-shes), to distinguish this from that. That is usually translated as “recognition” – that is a terrible translation. It’s not recognition. Recognition is a much more complicated, sophisticated process. You have to have seen something before, you have to remember it, compare it to what you saw before, and then you recognize what it is. It is not talking about that. We’re just talking about distinguishing. Distinguish light from dark. I mean we’re talking about some very, very basic factors that even the worm has. 

Then there are mental factors which are all the various types of emotions, both positive and negative. So we have greed and attachment and anger, hatred, etc. But we also have love and compassion and patience, and these sort of things as well. 

We have certain mental factors that are uncertain in terms of their ethical status. Like, for instance, regret. If I regret something negative that I did, that’s positive; if I regret something positive that I did, then that’s negative. 

Well this is a very detailed topic, something which is extremely helpful to study, to be able to deconstruct any moment of our experience into all the various mental factors that are occurring. Each of these mental factors actually covers a whole spectrum. So we have, let’s say, attention – it can go from very, very little attention to a great deal of attention. Or very little interest to a great deal of interest. Or very little anger to a tremendous amount of anger. Covers a spectrum. I have no interest in this – that is also a level of interest. 

And not only are these factors changing in their intensity all the time, they are changing in terms of how long the sequence of it goes on. So they are starting and ending at different times. Their intensity is going up and down at different times. When you start to deconstruct it, it is amazingly complex. And very helpful. Because, again, mental labeling. You could label “Oh, I’m in a bad mood.” Okay, so on the basis of all these things that are happening, you could call it a bad mood, you could say, “I’m in a bad mood.” So it can be a bad mood that is conventionally existent. However, when we make this bad mood into some sort of monster, a black cloud over our head, solid, horrible, then you are really stuck in it, you have a big problem with it. But if we understand, well, this is just a mental label, a “bad mood,” and it is referring to something. I could label it differently, “challenging situation,” rather than a “bad mood,” for example. That’s this lojong type of practice, where you change your attitude, how you label something. And when we deconstruct, even if we say, ok, it’s a bad mood, but you deconstruct it into all its parts, it is not this solid monster. Then you see, well, it is not constant, all sorts of variables are changing in it, and this is the variable that I have to work on, or that one, and so on. It gives us an idea of how to work on this bad mood. But if you just make it into some solid monster then you are stuck, you are paralyzed. 

Now what we have not covered is the division of all sorts of types of objects. And this is quite complex, in terms of the type of objects that are involved in nonconceptual cognition, the types of objects that are involved in conceptual cognition. But I think it would be best to leave that topic until we get to our discussion of, I think in our program it is called “generalities and individualities,” something like that. I don’t like those terms, in any case, so we will correct them. But when we talk about these things, I will bring in the discussion of the various types of cognitive objects. 

Okay. Thank you.