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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 5: Analysis of the Mind and Reality > Seven Ways to Cognize Objects > Session One: Philosophical Background and Bare Perception

Seven Ways to Cognize Objects

Alexander Berzin
Boise, Idaho, USA, April 2003

Session One: Philosophical Background and Bare Perception

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:56 hours)


This evening we are going to be speaking about ways of knowing, in other words cognition theory, and how it is that we know things – how our cognition actually works. As we saw yesterday, this is an important topic since it relates very much to how we experience the four noble truths. How we experience the deluded side, which would be true sufferings and their causes. In other words, how our minds perceive things when they are under the influence of confusion, of unawareness of how things actually exist – what is usually called ignorance – and all the disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes that follow from that, and which then we perceive with a lot of problems: a lot of suffering, unhappiness, or happiness that doesn’t really last, doesn’t satisfy. The ways of knowing also describe the liberated side of the noble truths, the true stopping and the true paths that bring that about; in other words, our valid ways of knowing that are going to free us from the first two. Within our experience of the deluded side, sometimes our cognition of things are valid, sometimes they are not valid. We also need to be able to differentiate those in order to understand really what it is that we have to rid ourselves of in order to become free from our problems, and what it is that we need to rely upon in order to accomplish that liberation. So these ways of knowing are extremely important in all aspects of the Buddhist path.

The way that the topic is studied is within the context of a certain set of philosophical tenets or beliefs. And so I think we need to start by introducing the idea of these tenet systems and to see why we have them and why it is important to study them, because things within the Buddhist teachings are always presented from the point of view of one or the other of these systems and not all consistently from one of these systems.

Origin of the Tenet Systems

We can look at these tenet systems, which arose in India, from a historical point of view or we can also look at it from a pedagogical point of view – in other words, how do we study them and how are they relevant in our practice and development? From a historical point of view, Buddha taught a great deal, but none of it was written down while he was alive; it was all passed on orally. People memorized the various discourses that Buddha gave, and they only started writing it down about maybe four hundred years later, give or take some decades, and that was a slow process. When these were written down, still that wasn’t sufficient for their study, because Buddha taught such a vast variety of things in accordance with his audience. Very often they were contradictory.

There is a lot of repetition in the sutras, which makes it easier to remember if you’re memorizing them. And it’s not really so obvious from these sutras what Buddha actually meant: in terms of not only what we need to develop, but also how to study these teachings and put them into practice. And so you get the development of Indian commentarial tradition, in which great Indian masters – either on the basis of pure visions or recovering texts from the nagas underneath the ocean, whatever that means – they wrote commentaries based on their own readings of the sutras. The finding of the Prajnaparamita Sutras, the sutras on the perfection of wisdom or far-reaching discriminating awareness, kept under the ocean by nagas – one can of course look at that literally and take it literally, but one can also take it more in a Jungian type of sense of these are teachings which are found in the deepest type of mind, a clear light level. That if one really is able to plumb the depths of that clear light level of mind and gain realizations about how it exists; then one would discover the teachings of the Prajnaparamita Sutras. These are of course guarded by the nagas, which are various mental blocks that would prevent us from finding that treasure. Sort of like the dragons in medieval mythology protecting the castle and the treasures that are within. So we can understand these accounts on many different levels. We don’t have to take them absolutely literally if that’s uncomfortable, although many people do take them literally in traditional context.

Hinayana and Mahayana

So we get this development of Indian commentaries. And these Indian commentaries fall into or make different positions, because Buddha taught various things. So they put them together, and from this you get the development of these traditions within the Hinayana schools. There is this division of Hinayana and Mahayana. These are loaded terms. “Hinayana” is certainly a derogatory term which means “lesser vehicle,” literally. I prefer to translate this as a “modest vehicle,” which is a little bit more politically correct. But still it’s a derogatory term that was found first in the Prajnaparamita literature – that’s where it derives from. It’s an unfortunate choice of terms, but we don’t have any other that satisfactorily covers the eighteen schools of early Buddhism that developed. Some people like to call it Shravakayana, the vehicle of the listeners, but that has a lot of limitations because the Mahayana path presents a Shravakayana and then the questions arise as to what do you use for it, and then what about the pratyekabuddhas, etc. For want of a better term, we use “Hinayana.” Of these eighteen schools, what we find is the Theravada is what is preserved in Southeast Asia, but there was another important school of it called Sarvastivada and that had various subdivisions.

When we look at these tenet systems, what we are looking at is what were the monasteries in northern India studying. They studied two Hinayana systems from this Sarvastivada tradition, what’s called the “Vaibhashikas” and the “Sautrantikas.” And then within Mahayana, we have the Chittamatra, which means “mind only,” and Madhyamaka, the “central way.” “Vaibhashika” – the term means the ones that rely on large commentaries, the large commentary called Vibhasha. Sautrantikas are those that look at the ultimate meaning of the sutras – that’s the meaning of the word.

Four Tibetan Schools

Anyway, we have these four schools of tenets with lots of subdivisions; it can be quite complex. The Tibetans inherited all of them, and the Tibetans study all of them, and the various Tibetan schools which developed: the early schools of Kagyu, Sakya, Nyingma, and the Kadam tradition which later becomes the Gelug tradition… I know there’s an awful lot of names if you haven’t heard of these before, but that’s the way it is in the study of Tibetan Buddhism – there are a number of names that we need to become familiar with. Anyway, the Kadam tradition becomes the Gelug tradition… So we have four traditions in Tibet, basically, with lots of subdivisions as well: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug. All of them understand these four tenet systems in different ways; they do not agree in what these four tenet systems say. And even within each of these schools, there are many college textbooks from different monasteries and they don’t agree with what these schools say; they have different interpretations. We are left, in the end, with a large variety of interpretations and understandings of these schools of tenets.

How to deal with it, that’s the question. Well, the way that the Tibetans deal with it – and it’s not that the Tibetans made it up, we get this tradition going back in India – is that we can study all of these traditions – the Indian tenet systems, these four schools – in a graded order. What they do is they help us to narrow in on a more and more precise understanding of a particular topic: for example, ways of knowing, or teachings on voidness, the way things actually exist.

Graded Systems

In order to understand something, if we are given the most precise explanation to start with, then it is pretty overwhelming and quite difficult to really understand it in depth. And so, like with the study of physics, we start with Newtonian physics and as a gross explanation it works. That’s an important point: it works. But one can get a more refined explanation if you want to look at more subtle details. If you want to do that, then you would learn Einstein and relativity; that’s pretty OK too. But if you want to go even deeper, then you get into superstring theory; and who knows what will be available twenty years from now. There will probably be something more sophisticated than that as well. You don’t start by studying Einstein, you start with studying Newton; you start with studying arithmetic, for that matter.

Likewise, the same thing is true of these philosophical positions. You don’t start with the most complex one; you start with a relatively simple one. You try to understand that way of explaining things as a whole world view and then, when you are able to work with that and gain the insights that are very valuable from that, because each system is very helpful; then you say, “Well that’s not so precise, it’s not quite like that.” So you narrow in, you exclude some of the explanations and get a little bit finer understanding. And like that you narrow in: “Well it’s not quite like that,” and you narrow in by degrees of refinement.

So it’s very important to study these in the proper sequence like the lam-rim, the graded stages of the path, because without understanding what’s been refined upon you cannot really appreciate the refinement. Often people will try to go to the most sophisticated level immediately, like in Prasangika… within Madhyamaka there is Svatantrika and Prasangika. Prasangika is considered the most sophisticated by most people, not everybody, but certainly within the Gelug tradition it is. Prasangika says that when you search for something, you can’t really find it; there is nothing inherently findable. If you just take that at face value without seeing the context of it, it becomes fairly trivial. Where is the “me?” Well, am “I” my foot? Am “I” in my nose? Am “I” in the back of my head? No, “I” am not any of those. So what? That’s not so profound. It’s a little bit profound, but not earth shattering, not so difficult to understand. But certainly the understanding of voidness in the Prasangika system is not something simple, otherwise why would you need to work zillions of eons building up positive force, or merit, as it is sometimes called, to be able to understand it, if it’s just that “me” is not up my nose or in my ear. So it’s far more profound and sophisticated and complex than that. But that’s just the final touch at the end of a long process of narrowing in on a really accurate description of how things exist.

This is an important principle to understand and Shantideva, a great Indian master who wrote Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (Skt. Bodhisattvacharyavatara), he wrote how, in order to make progress in these systems, to go deeper and deeper, what you need is a common example. If you can understand a common example in a simpler system, then you are able to go deeper and deeper. So let me give the example that he uses, which is things are like an illusion.

Vaibhashika Presentation of Physical Objects

In the Vaibhashika, it says that what appear to us as solid objects that endure over time – well, if you look more closely, it’s a bunch of atoms and little particles and stuff, and moments of time. Only one moment exists at any time, so how do you know that something endures over time and that it is not something completely different the next moment, because the previous moment is finished? On the deepest level, everything is just atoms and moments, so it’s like an illusion that things are solid; nevertheless, and here’s the important point, they function. If you really think about it, it is remarkable: this thing which appears to be a solid chair is actually a collection of atoms, particles, energy fields, and stuff like that; it’s not at all a solid thing. And my body is also not a solid thing; it’s also a collection of atoms. Nevertheless I can sit on it and it will hold me. That’s extraordinary! And so you really start to think about that, it is really like an illusion that this is a solid item, it’s a solid chair.

The difficulty lies in accepting that it is like an illusion but still functions. To get out of the thinking that it has to be solid in order to hold me – that’s not so simple. You can say it very easily in words, but to really understand that – it’s extraordinary. “Because everything is like an illusion” – in that sense, the illusion of solidity and endurance over time. So one works with that, and if you can accept that things are like an illusion on that level, then you can go deeper and understand a more sophisticated level of what is the illusion: it is not just an illusion of solidity. And, nevertheless, things can function. So you work with that Vaibhashika understanding in terms of things made of particles.

The Sautrantika Presentation

Then you go to the Sautrantika system, which is where our ways of knowing are going to be discussed. And there it talks about – well, what are you left with? You are left with saying, well, that everything is all ultimately atoms and particles, so that’s a bit difficult. And so now the Sautrantika says that nevertheless we can differentiate objective reality from fantasy, from projections – this is where ways of knowing come in. How do you know if something is objectively real? How do you know that it’s just a conceptual projection? Most of what we experience is a projection. There are many, many different levels of it. The most profound level actually is in the non-Gelug system in which we talk about, “What’s an orange?”

Ever think what’s an orange? The fruit. What do you actually perceive? Well, we only perceive through one sense at a time; so if I look, what I perceive is an orange sphere, an orange shape. An orange, a fruit, is not an orange circle or an orange sphere. If I smell it, it’s a smell; if I taste it, it’s a taste; if I close my eyes and hold it in my hand, I get a physical sensation. What’s the orange? It’s none of those, is it? So how do you know an orange as a commonsense object? The non-Gelug systems say that is a mental construct, a commonsense orange, that you construct conceptually on the basis of one or more of your senses.

So what is objective reality? What’s a projection? What’s conceptual? This has many different ramifications and there are many different ways of dealing with this. It gets very much into the whole discussion of language. If you think of language and how that works, that’s absolutely extraordinary. First of all, all that you hear is one moment at a time. We don’t hear more than one moment at a time. So what do we hear? We hear the sound of a vowel or a consonant, that’s all. And by the time the next vowel or consonant comes, the previous one is finished and we don’t hear it anymore. Nevertheless, it seems as though we are hearing words and we’re hearing a whole sentence, and not only that but it has meaning to us. There is nothing inherent in the sound of some vowels and consonants that has a meaning – that is a convention of a particular language. We’re able to put all of that together – and we don’t even hear it at one time – and we communicate. So that’s a construct, that’s not objective reality – or is it objective reality?

What’s objective reality? What’s out there? And what’s just a projection from our minds? Since most things are a projection from our minds, and it is like an illusion that it is objective reality, nevertheless it functions. It is like an illusion that you actually spoke a sentence of words that had meaning to them. It’s very funny when you think about it. Nevertheless, it functions – I understood what you meant. So, enter the Twilight Zone here! We are able to work with things being like an illusion but nevertheless functioning. We’re able to work with that and that’s where this level, the ways of knowing, comes in.

The Chittamatra Presentation

Then you get to the Chittamatra thing, which is: well, we don’t want to get too heavily into this thing called objective reality because that doesn’t really indicate a way to overcome suffering. After all, that is the primary goal in Buddhism. If you make this big division between objective reality out there, and all the projections and perceptions and things in here, then you might think that the causes of suffering are objectively real – out there – and have nothing really to do with me. So the Chittamatra position brings us all the way to the other side, and states that everything we experience comes from our karma, from our karmic impulses that cause us to perceive things. When we all look at this glass, none of us see the same thing because everybody is perceiving it from a different angle and a different distance. If everybody were to take a Polaroid camera photograph of what they see looking at this glass… well, a glass is not so easy to differentiate. If you take something like a globe with the world map on it, and everyone takes a picture from where they are sitting, everybody’s going to come up with a different picture. So is there actually a globe out there?

How do you know there’s a globe out there: all we know is what we’re perceiving. Is there a globe out there that exists independent from it being perceived? How would you know that? If you knew that, it would be perceived! There is no way to answer that question, is there? So it becomes very interesting. It seems as though there are external things, but that is like an illusion. You can explain it all from karma. We all have collective karma for all of us to see something that appears to be one object out there, and we are all seeing it from different angles. So we share a common collective karma, but there really is no object out there. Because how would you know there is an object out there separate from any perception? There is no way you could know. That’s Chittamatra. The point of that is to get out of blaming all our problems on objective reality. “You really were a terrible person, you cheated me!” Or blaming the weather, or politics, or economics, or whatever. Everything really is coming from our karma. Then, once you are able to deal with that, then you have to deal with how does the mind exist.

The Madhyamaka Presentation

What’s going on here? Is the mind a truly existent projector that’s projecting this movie, which is like an illusion, but the projector is real? You have to go a little bit deeper. One goes a little bit deeper with Madhyamaka, and one sees that basically all you can say is that everything is made of parts: the mind, the moments; and everything falls apart when you try to investigate it and pin it down. So all that you can say is that everything is what the words for them refer to, on some basis for labeling it. What’s a table? There are all these parts: the wood, the tree that it came from, etc. So what’s the table? Well, it’s what the word “table” refers to. A table isn’t a word, it’s an object – I can put something on it. It’s what that word refers to when it’s labeled on this basis.

Like that, one goes through a progressive understanding; you get deeper and deeper and more and more refined. Within that context, is there anything on the side of the table that makes it a table by its own power? If that were the case, it could not be anything else: I couldn’t sit on it, it couldn’t be a chair. A termite couldn’t live in it, or it would be a home for a termite. So is there something on the side of the table that makes it a table by its own power? Well, not really. There’s nothing on the side of the table. All you can say is it’s what the word “table” means, what it refers to. But it’s like an illusion: there seems to be something that makes this a table. Certainly there is a limited range – it couldn’t be a dog; it could be a chair, it couldn’t be a dog. So how does that work?

It becomes very interesting to work through these tenet systems and go from step to step to get a more and more refined understanding. As my teacher Serkong Rinpoche always pointed out, he said, “Don’t think that any of these so-called lesser and lower systems are stupid. That’s very arrogant to think that. These are incredibly intelligent and profound systems even though they might not be the most accurate, that one could find something a little bit more accurate. They are taught to help to eliminate suffering; and if you could actually see that everything is made of atoms and dissolve our solid view of reality, that would be awfully helpful. To see that things change from moment to moment: my pain, or this difficult economic situation, or whatever – this changes from moment to moment; very helpful.”

Conceptual and Nonconceptual Understanding

Within the ways of knowing, this is first explained in the Sautrantika system, which is the system dealing with what is objective reality and what is fantasy. That’s going to be very important in terms of our own progress in meditation in terms of conceptual understanding versus nonconceptual. Fantasy deals with the conceptual level, conceptually knowing something. We need to know what it means to conceptually know something and what it means to see something objectively – objective reality – we need to know that difference in order to be able to work with that in meditation. So we have this system – there is a brief explanation of it in the Vaibhashika system, the earlier system, but it’s primarily developed here. And then in each of the subsequent systems, Chittamatra and Madhyamaka, there are refinements on it in accordance with its philosophy.

I think it’s really very essential if we want to study any sort of system, say the teachings on voidness, that we also say we want to study it… we’ve been studying the Gelug tradition, for example, so we can’t really study it separate from the teachings on cognition theory. They are related, very much so, this whole issue of mental labeling, projection, conceptual, and so on, it’s very integrally related to perception theory. And then what happens is if you wanted to study a non-Gelug system, such as Sakya or Nyingma or Kagyu, if you just look at their teachings – let’s say on dzogchen in the Nyingma system, or mahamudra in the Kagyu system – in them they talk about focus in a nonconceptual state. And if you bring in a Gelugpa interpretation of what is conceptual and nonconceptual, you have got it all wrong: you’re mixing apples with oranges. You have to understand it within the context of what they say about cognition theory, how they understand the Sautrantika school, how they present it; then it makes sense what they are talking about, otherwise everything seems very contradictory.

Like what we were discussing last night with definitions. Does “permanent” mean forever, or does it mean it doesn’t change? If you define it differently then you get different results as to what’s permanent and what’s not. It’s the same thing with perception theory – in meditation; we are not just talking interesting intellectual theory. If the instruction is to try to quiet down to a nonconceptual state, and you don’t know what they are talking about because you are using the wrong definition, then you can’t possibly do the meditation correctly. You are either going too far, or not far enough.

So it is important to appreciate that there are many different interpretations of the material, and to keep it straight in terms of one system. And each of the systems presents a holistic view. The Indian systems: Vaibhashika, Sautrantika, Chittamatra, and Madhyamaka; and then on top of that there’s the four Tibetan traditions – each have their interpretation of the four Indian systems, so you get sixteen and each of them is a consistent system. In the beginning, of course, it’s a bit bewildering and we can’t study all of them to start with, unless we really have an incredible capacity to not get confused and to be able to keep things straight. It is like studying languages: it is very difficult to start to study two new languages at the same time, much easier one at a time. Like that, one studies one system at a time. If you have the capacity you can study more. The more you study, the broader your mind is; the broader your understanding is, it gives a better perspective.

But what is very important to try to avoid is a very commonly made mistake, which is that you study one system and you think that this is universal Buddhism, generic Buddhism – that everybody thinks this way, that all the schools accept this particular version. And one is very rudely surprised when one finds out that that’s not the case. So all sorts of arrogance comes in, because you go to a different teacher from a different lineage and you hear an explanation, and we very arrogantly say, “That’s wrong! My teachers said this or that. It disagrees. It doesn’t fit in.” That’s very unfortunate because we don’t appreciate that there are other explanations and other systems which are equally as valid, and which work, and all of them are based on meditation experience. This is the important point.

We come from Biblical traditions that emphasize one Truth, one God. One Truth! And so when we are faced with many different versions of the same thing, our natural question is, “But what does it really mean?” “How does it really work?” The “one Truth” type of thing, as if the others can’t possibly be equally true. And that’s very culturally specific to Biblical societies, societies that are based on Biblical thought. It is not that way in Buddhism. Different masters had valid meditation experiences in which they experience… this is the way that they saw how their perception works. This is their valid experience of how they gained nonconceptual cognition of voidness, which is the real issue in most cases. That’s the telling point: how did you get a nonconceptual cognition of voidness? Various masters got it in different ways, and they described the way that they achieved their attainment, and their followers wrote it down, or they themselves wrote it down. And these masters really were highly realized, so they got followers, and from this the various schools arise. So they’re all based on someone’s valid experience that brought them to the same goal: liberation or enlightenment.

Now, of course, one has to be a little bit careful there, because there’s no guarantee that just because the founder of the lineage that I happen to follow had this experience in meditation, that doesn’t mean that I’m going to have that experience, even if I follow that tradition. For me it could happen differently. So one also has to be a little bit open to the fact that there are many possibilities of how it can happen in terms of gaining nonconceptual cognition of voidness. So learning about these various ways of knowing – even learning different systems of what conceptual and nonconceptual mean – can be very helpful.

History of the Teachings on Cognition

If we look at the history of this material, there was a great Indian master Dignaga who wrote the initial text on the topic, and then there was afterwards Dharmakirti, who wrote commentaries on it and developed the ideas a little bit more. That was in India. Then it went to Tibet, and you get it first in the Kadampa tradition. This tradition had two versions of it, one by a master called Chapa (Phyva-pa Chos-kyi seng-ge) and one by a master called Loden-sherab (Blo-ldan shes-rab), and they’re quite different in their understandings of what did Dharmakirti really mean because the Indian masters often wrote not so clearly or specifically. And then there are many sub-commentaries and they slightly differ in their interpretations. So you get two main Tibetan early traditions. And Sakya Pandita from the Sakya tradition followed basically Loden Sherab, and he wrote the major Tibetan commentaries on this material. Chapa’s position was kept to the side. And the Sakyas and the Nyingmas basically follow Sakya Pandita.

Then later on the Gelug tradition comes along, and one of the great early Gelug masters, Kaydrubjey (mKhas-grub-rje) wrote his commentaries – a little bit sneaky in a sense, in that he says, “Oh yes, we also follow Sakya Pandita,” but actually he brings in all of Chapa’s set of theories and explanations, and they follow that in the Gelug tradition. The Kagyu tradition reacted against that and said that Sakya Pandita was not being really understood even though you say you are representing what Sakya Pandita meant; and so they get their version of it, which is basically the same as what you get in the Sakya/Nyingma tradition, but with just some variations, some minor variants there – this was done by the Seventh Karmapa. So we get these basic traditions. And then within the Gelug and within the other traditions, you get the college textbooks that make minor variations on it.

So we have two main positions: there is the Gelug tradition and then there is what I call the non-Gelug tradition: the Sakya, Nyingma, and Kagyu. In the website what I try to do is to present both individually and then alternatingly, so that one sees how the two main systems work. And they’re very interesting. To see how you can have such a completely sophisticated system – and two of them, not just one – that explain things in such a complex sophisticated way. It is really quite wonderful, quite helpful, actually.

Enumerating the Seven Ways of Knowing

In the topic itself, ways of knowing, we speak about the seven ways of knowing, primarily, there are some other ones. The ways lists are counted are often very interesting. Then again, we are not exclusively like that. I live in Berlin in Germany and at the airport, Tegel Airport, there is a gate number zero, which I find wonderful. No, it’s not for the nihilists! It really shocked me because I never noticed there was a Gate Zero, but I took a flight once that left from that gate, and then I really couldn’t believe it when it said “Gate Zero.” At least it wasn’t minus one. So they talk about seven major ways of knowing, and let me list them and then we’ll go into them. There is bare perception, inferential cognition, subsequent cognition, inattentive perception [nondetermining cognition] – what did you say? – inattentive perception [nondetermining cognition], presumption, indecisive wavering – how do you spell indecisive? – indecisive wavering, and distorted cognition. Those are the seven.

Bare Cognition

So let’s look at the mainstream Gelug Sautrantika explanation. Bare perception, perception of something – or bare cognition – is defined in the Gelug Sautrantika system as the cognition of something which is nonconceptual: it is not through the medium of an idea. If we talk about conceptual in the most simple terms, conceptual means to cognize something. “Cognize” is the most general word that, we can use because to know something implies more than just to cognize it, because you could cognize something and not know what it is. It’s to cognize something not through the medium of an idea, so that’s bare – “bare perception” is the term. This can be of four types that are explained in the Sautrantika system.

Bare Sensory Cognition

The first type is bare sensory cognition. That’s through the senses, relying on the sensors. Sometimes it’s translated as “sense powers,” but that’s really misleading; it’s not some abstract power. It’s talking about the actual photosensitive cells of the eyes, or sound-sensitive cells of the ear, or smell-sensitive cells of the nose, taste-sensitive cells of the tongue, or sensation-sensitive cells of the body – whether it’s feeling smooth, or hard, or feeling motion, or temperature, whatever – that type of sensor and sense perception. That’s bare sense perception.

Bare Mental Cognition

Then there’s bare mental perception, or bare mental cognition. And a good example of that would be what we have in dreams, when in dreams it seems as though we are having sense perception. You can think in dreams, you can have all sorts of conceptual things in dreams as well. But, likewise, in dreams it appears as though we are seeing things, or hearing things, or smelling, or tasting, or having some physical sensation. So that’s not relying on the actual physical sensors; it’s purely mental.

What’s interesting here, which is different from our Western cognition theory, is that we don’t speak about consciousness as a whole: we make quite separate divisions of eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, body consciousness, and mind consciousness. We don’t have a word that is generally used for all of them. I mean you do have a word, but that’s not really how it’s presented. Even when the word that we translate as “consciousness” is used, it’s never presented as one thing. There are always these divisions, different types.

Another example of this bare mental cognition would be extrasensory perception in which people are able to see far distances, or hear sounds that are really distant, or know other people’s minds – that sort of thing. And then there is a very tiny moment of bare mental perception that occurs between sense perception and conceptual cognition. Like a switch, when you see a shape and color and before you actually have the conceptual cognition that would give a name, “Oh, that’s John or Mary.” It “switches” from the sense channel to the mental channel. So there’s this tiny little moment of bare mental perception. That’s a very interesting moment. It’s very, very brief, but in very sophisticated meditation systems like dzogchen, great completeness, in the Nyingma tradition you work with that. You try to work with this tiny little space between thoughts, and go deeply into that and underneath that. So we have this moment, this tiny moment, of bare mental perception.

Yogic Bare Cognition

So that’s two of the four kinds of bare perception: nonconceptual sensory and mental. Then we also have what is called yogic bare perception. Yogic bare perception is not relying on a physical sensor, like a sensory cognition, to arise; it is not relying on what is called the mental sensor, which is the momentum of the previous moment of cognition, to arise – the way that bare mental perception works. But it arises by relying for its “dominant cause,” it’s called, on the combined state of shamatha and vipassana (Skt. vipashyana). Shamatha is a stilled and settled state of mind, it’s in perfect concentration and a little more than perfect concentration). And vipassana is an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, often gained from analysis of voidness, but gained in other ways as well. So when you achieve that combined state and are able to focus on – in the Sautrantika system – subtle impermanence or voidness of the self, that is a bare yogic perception: to be able to do that nonconceptually. If it is done conceptually, that is not yogic bare perception. It’s talking about stages of how you would understand voidness, basically. There is one in which you would nonconceptually cognize voidness, to put it in the simplest terms of the higher schools – that type of bare perception. That would be in total absorption, deep absorption, on voidness.

Reflexive Bare Cognition

Then there is a fourth kind which is explained in this system, which is called “reflexive bare perception.” That’s how I translate it, because if you translate it as “self-awareness” that’s far too misleading, because it has nothing to do with the self, has nothing to do with self-confidence, etc. It’s reflexive: it is a type of bare perception that accompanies every other moment of perception, and is like a recording device, in a sense: it focuses on that cognition and it allows you to remember it. Now that becomes a big issue in the development of the philosophical schools of tenets. Is it necessary to postulate a separate type of perception called “reflexive awareness” or “reflexive bare perception” in order to remember something? That gets into a very sophisticated and complex analysis of memory and how that works, which is a very fascinating topic, but perhaps not for this evening.

According to the higher schools, the more sophisticated schools [of Madhyamaka], we don’t actually need this – this is a bit superfluous in the Gelug system. Non-Gelug systems… they would basically accept it, but they have a different definition of it and so that becomes something else. When you get nonconceptual cognition of voidness, then it’s with what’s called “reflexive awareness,” because it is awareness of one’s own Buddha-nature; so a self-type of awareness, in that sense. They define the term completely differently; if you don’t know that, you get very confused when they talk about the same faculty here.

But in the Gelug [Prasangika Madhyamaka] system, memory doesn’t require that; and if you correlate that to meditation, it hits on a very important point which comes up in other aspects of the analysis of meditation, which is “How do you concentrate on something? If you want to be single-mindedly concentrated on something, then it starts to become a bit dualistic if part of your attention is on this reflexive awareness sort of recording what is going on. It is the same issue in terms of the faculty of the alertness mental factor in meditation. Mindfulness, which is a very misleading term in translation, is actually referring to mental glue: it’s holding on to the object and not letting go – that object that you’re concentrating on – it’s holding on. What in the West we call “mindfulness” is actually attention, paying attention to what is going on. That’s not what mindfulness means; mindfulness means just holding on. And then there is alertness, which is detecting if there is something improper with that mental hold: too loose, too tight, you have let go, or become dull, or whatever – then it triggers attention to come back to the object.

Now this becomes a big problem in meditation; this is why the mental factors are very important. It becomes a big problem because it frequently occurs that we become very paranoid in our meditation, and our attention is divided between focusing on the object and keeping watch to check on how our mind is doing – like being a policeman. So you get paranoia, you get dualism. It’s the same issue in terms of this reflexive awareness and so it is very important to understand, as it is explained in the Gelug tradition, that this function of reflexive awareness is actually occurring automatically. There’s a detailed mechanism for how it occurs in each moment without there being a separate faculty that is doing that, a separate way of knowing that is doing that. Just as alertness is a function of mindfulness, you don’t have to have a separate watchman. If you are keeping hold, automatically there is alertness; otherwise, you wouldn’t be keeping hold if there wasn’t the alertness that was watching out that you didn’t lose it – it is part of it, not a separate faculty.

In the beginning, in order to understand how it is possible that we recall something… memory is not talking about the storage of data in Buddhism; it is talking about recollection. It’s the same word: mindfulness. It’s keeping a mental hold on something similar to what we experienced before, a mental representation that resembles what we perceived before – that’s recollecting something. How does that occur? Is there some kind of storage unit? Ultimately there is no storage unit, but one has to approach that gradually, so you get the Sautrantika explanation of reflexive awareness. It’s a very fascinating topic of how we remember things and what that actually means.

Commonsense Objects as Mental Syntheses

So there is bare perception, and bare perception is cognition of an obvious phenomenon like smoke from the house on the mountain over there. That’s the usual example. It’s something obvious and it’s nonconceptual. Now it becomes very interesting: what do we actually see when we see something? Do you just see colored shapes? Do I just see an orange circle, an orange sphere, or do I see an orange? What do I see? The Gelug position is that we not only see an orange shape, but we also see the orange, the commonsense orange.

This gets into the whole discussion of universals [or mental syntheses], which is a very complex and very interesting topic, and the Gelug and non-Gelug differ very much in their presentations of universals. So there is a universal orange [a “kind” type of mental synthesis] of which this orange is an instance of. What’s an orange? All you have is this object in your hand. How do you know it’s an orange? It could be an orange baseball. What is it? And that also is something that endures over time, because we only perceive one moment at a time. And something that extends over all the sensibilia or sense data, the sight, the taste, the smell, and the physical sensations. That object is a universal [or kind type of mental synthesis] that extends over what actually you see. The Gelug tradition would say that you actually see what is called a “kind universal” [kind mental synthesis] and a “collection universal” [collection mental synthesis]. You see the whole, not just the parts. Whereas the non-Gelug systems say you don’t see the commonsense orange – that’s just conceptual. Actually, all you perceive is an orange shape, that’s all you see.

[See: Fine Analysis of Objects of Cognition: Gelug and Non-Gelug Presentations in Alternating Order.]

Now that is a very interesting and important distinction, particularly in the context of the Sautrantika system. What is objective reality after all? That is what we see with bare perception. We see objective reality; that is how it is defined. And that’s very much our Western concept as well, isn’t it; objective reality is what you can see, whether it’s with our eyes or we will allow instruments to see them. That’s what’s objectively real. So is an orange objectively real or not? Or is it just atoms and orange shapes? This is an interesting question and has great profundity when we are asked to try to meditate nonconceptually. We’re not just talking about quieting the voice in our head. To try to go beyond seeing oranges down to just seeing orange shapes, that’s pretty weird. What does it mean, objective reality? How do things actually function? They do function and there are oranges. So what’s an orange?

All of this perception theory leads us to a great deal of contemplation on very important philosophical issues, which have a lot of ramifications. “Car” and then “my car!” or “orange, that’s my orange, don’t you eat it!” “You just ate my orange!” and we get very angry. So we add on top of that a solid “me” that possesses this thing. “What do you possess?” “Oh, I possess an orange shape.” Thank you very much! Is it an orange shape? Yes, that is what we perceive, but how do you know that it is an orange? Very interesting.

It becomes even more interesting when, how do you know that it’s the meaning of this collection of vowels and consonants “orange”? And when different people say it in different voices how do you know they are saying the same word? How do you know that? That gets into universals [mental syntheses]. That’s the big difference between Gelug and non-Gelug. A Gelug is going to differentiate and say that there are some universals [collection and kind mental syntheses or categories] that you actually perceive with bare perception and some that you don’t, that are purely conceptual.

Like the meaning of words, conventions [as kind mental syntheses.] Words themselves as a convention, and the meaning of words as a convention. That really is a convention – there’s absolutely nothing inherent in “OR-RA-AN-GE” that has any meaning, is there? You can’t even say it in one moment; it takes a couple of seconds to say it, and how do you know that those moments are connected? Now you really get into Twilight Zone type of stuff! And if it does make a meaningful unit of a word, then there is no inherent reason why that particular combination should mean this orange shape that I am holding here in my hand. Or am I holding it in my hand? Am I holding it in a pink shape? I mean, that’s all that I see. And what do I feel? It really starts to deconstruct our whole perception of reality, and that’s very important for getting rid of the disturbing emotions that are based on taking things to exist in the way that they appear. That’s the whole point of this perception theory: it’s to try to relate how we know with what we know, because obviously the two are totally connected to each other. So we have bare perception.