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Elaboration of "What Does It Mean to Understand Something?"

Alexander Berzin
Vienna, Austria, March 2012

Session Two: Review

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:38 hours)

Yesterday we began our discussion of what does it mean to understand something. And this is a very important topic because there are so many things that we need to understand. We’re not talking simply about understanding the various points of the Dharma, but this issue is very important in our daily life as well. We need to understand language, what people are saying. We need to understand other people, their problems. They say something to us. How do we understand what it is? Do we only understand the exact words or do we understand the deeper meaning behind it? We need to understand how to use a new computer. We need to understand ourselves and our behavior in order to be able to somehow improve it if there’s something faulty with it. We need to understand why am I acting like this and why are you acting like this. So we’re not talking about some esoteric theme in epistemology that is just perhaps interesting, perhaps not so interesting. We’re talking about something that’s very relevant to being able to deal with daily life issues. 

Mental Activity Is Mere Clarity and Awareness

And what we saw yesterday is that basic mental activity is the arising of a mental hologram and a mental engagement – some sort of cognitive engagement – with that. And these are two ways of describing the same event. It’s not that a thought arises and then you think it; the arising of the thought is the thinking of the thought. And only that is occurring; there’s no separate me that is controlling it or observing it. 

By the way, that is very important when you do mindfulness meditation – I believe that you do that here – to avoid this complication that could come in when doing that meditation. Because when you are observing the arising of various thoughts or emotions or sensations or things like that, the danger is to conceive that there is a separate me that’s watching all of this stuff. All that’s happening is the arising of these feelings like a mental hologram, cognitive engagement with it, and it’s being accompanied by awareness of it, attention to what it is; but that’s just another mental factor. There’s no separate me from the whole thing that’s sitting in the back of our head and watching it. The problem of course is that it feels like that. It feels as though there’s some little me sitting in the back of our head watching all of this. That is a deceptive appearance. Deceptive. It deceives us into thinking that it corresponds to reality

What Does It Mean to Apprehend Something?

Then there are many ways to know objects, to cognize objects: It can be correct. It can be incorrect. It could be certain about things. It could be unsure about things. It could just be a guess. “I guess this is your problem. I don’t really know, but I guess.” These are many different ways of knowing. But some ways of knowing are called “apprehensions,” and an apprehension is defined as an accurate and decisive cognition of something. 

So we used the example that somebody said “yes,” we heard “yes,” and we’re certain that they said “yes.” And it isn’t as though they said “yes” and we heard “no” or that we’re not certain what they said (whether they said “yes” or they said “no”). And just because it’s a correct and decisive apprehension doesn’t mean that we understood what the person meant by saying “yes.” 

But when we talk about understanding, of course if it is going to be a reliable understanding, it also needs to be an apprehension. In other words, our understanding needs to be correct, and it must be decisive. We could understand things completely incorrectly of course. And we could have: “ Well, I think this is what I understand about it. I’m not sure.” That also is not reliable. And of course we could be completely convinced that our understanding is correct when in fact it’s wrong. So that’s why understanding this basic factor of apprehension is very important if we’re going to deal simply with apprehension or if we’re going to deal with understanding. 

Apprehension Is Accurate

And for an apprehension or an understanding to be accurate it has to fulfill three criteria. And we saw that these are: 

  1. First of all, there needs to be a certain convention

We used an example, let’s say within the Dharma, of voidness. Do they talk about voidness? Yes, there’s this convention talking about voidness in the Dharma 

That gets into a whole complicated issue that just came to my mind. Because most of the time most of us are dealing with the Dharma in translation, and we come across words that have been used for translating Buddhist terms that have very strong Christian connotations (for example, the word “ sin”). And we can say, “Well, is there that convention?” And you could look at a whole group of translations and say, “Well, yes. Many translators have used this convention. But is it really the convention in the original languages?” This is the problem. So just because a group of translators have adopted this convention isn’t enough to make it a correct translation, is it? So we have to look at the second criterion: 

  1. Is it contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes conventional truth? 

So you look at the definition of the word “sin.” What are the connotations of the word in our languages? What does it imply? It implies that there is a set of laws that were set down by higher authority, by God. And if we break the law, if we don’t follow the law, then we are guilty, and it’s a sin, and we deserve to be punished. So then we look conventionally at all the Buddhist texts, and do we find anything like that whatsoever in the Buddhist texts, that there is a judge and laws and guilty, not guilty? Absolutely nothing like that in the Buddhist texts if you look at the original and you read a large variety of texts. Nothing like that. It’s not there. 

So what does it say about this term conventionally in all the texts? Well, what do the texts say for this term – for our Tibetan student here – digpa (sdig-pa)? It is a negative force, a negative potential, that comes from acting in a destructive way based on unawareness and confusion about reality. So it arises from confusion, not from disobedience of a law: “I didn’t know that if I acted in this way, it would produce problems and suffering.” 

So if we understand this term as meaning “sin,” with all the Christian connotations of it, then it’s contradicted by a mind that validly reads the texts and has studied Buddhism and knows the conventional truth of the teachings. That’s why it is very, very important when we study Buddhism in translation that we have a very critical mind about the translation terms, because so many of them are misleading. Words like “blessing” – “Bless me so that I understand this” – I mean, this is a Christian concept not a Buddhist concept

  1. And then the third criterion is that it is not contradicted by a mind that validly sees the deepest truth

So the deepest truth is that everything arises dependently – they arise dependently on mental labeling. So what does that mean? That’s not a very easy thing to understand. What are things? Things are devoid of existing in some impossible way. 

So when we’re referring to these things that have the conventional name or word as “sin” or “ negative potential,” what are we talking about? What establishes these things? What is a sin? A sin is what the word or concept “sin” refers to. There is nothing on the side of the object that establishes it as a sin. There’s a concept of sin, and that’s labeled onto it: “It’s a sin.” You killed somebody, you lied, or whatever. It’s simply the act of killing or lying, isn’t it? There’s nothing inherent in that that by its own power makes it a sin. 

What is a sin? Well there’s the concept “sin,” and it’s what it refers to on the basis of this act. So its being a sin is just arising based on that concept of sin. And perhaps that’s an incorrect mental label, because we could also label it a “negative force,” a “negative potential.” Right? And again that’s just a convention – but a more accurate one because it also conforms with conventional truth, what it says in the various texts. 

[So if we think that “sin” is the correct translation of digpa, independently of the concept of “sin” that has arisen within the context of Christian theology, this would be contradicted by a mind that validly cognized deepest truth.] 

So through a process like this we can get to an accurate understanding of something. Think about that. This whole thing of things arising dependently on mental labeling is not easy to understand. However, think about what I said, this explanation. I think perhaps that can make it a little bit more clear. 

Let me summarize it to help you think about it. Sin is just a convention. It doesn’t accord with all the texts and all the explanations in the texts, what the word “sin” usually means. And it’s just a convention, so there could be different conventions; there could be different mental labels. There’s nothing on the side of an act that makes it a sin by itself. 

That’s how we apply critical thought to understanding something. 

Apprehension Is Decisive

And then decisive means that we have excluded everything else. So this is like voidness, in a sense. Voidness is the absence of impossible ways of existing, impossible ways of establishing something. When we have excluded everything that’s impossible, what are you left with? On the one hand, you’re left with just an absence of all this impossibility. That’s what you focus on with voidness. If you’re going to focus on the absence of everything that’s impossible – well, what are you left with? You’re left with just this absence. Okay, so that’s the absence of everything. But having excluded everything that’s impossible, we’re left with what’s possible, aren’t we? 

So how do we specify something? How do we get certainty about it? By excluding everything that it’s not, which means it isn’t anything other than what it is. 

So we’ve excluded sin, we’ve excluded all sorts of strange things that it could be, and so now we are certain that it means a negative force. We understand what that means. It’s not that we’re confusing it with something else. So you have to think about all the possible meanings – I mean, not absolutely every possible meaning in the universe, but the ones that are probable for a certain term in Buddhism and exclude that. 

You do that in medicine. How do you diagnose something? You test for various things. Well, it’s not this. It’s not that. It’s not this. It’s not that. Finally you’re left with what it must be. Just to make a diagnosis without excluding other possibilities is not so certain, is it? You have to just be sure that there’s a problem. Maybe that’s the problem. 

A simple example. I was experiencing some dizziness, and I imagined that it was – I have high blood pressure – that my blood pressure medicine had to be adjusted. So I went to a cardiologist, and yes, the blood pressure medicine did have to be adjusted. However, he had to exclude other possibilities of what it could also be. So I went to an eye, ear, and nose person to have my inner ear examined – is there a problem with the inner ear? I went to a neurologist to find out is there some problem with the blood in the brain. All of that was excluded. Then you can be certain what the problem is. Well, this is how we gain certainty. 

So it’s very important when we are studying something to bring up the objections – what are all the possibilities that we think that it means? – and to exclude the ones that are incorrect by examining them. Narrow it down. Then your understanding is correct and decisive: “I’m sure that this is what it means.” This is very important. 

It’s so easy to have really very subtle incorrect understandings. We understand that, well, everything exists in terms of mental labeling: we can only establish things in terms of mental labeling. So then we could think that space and time are merely mental concepts, and so then we might think that there is no such thing as space and time and everything exists independently of space and time. Well, there are some Indian philosophies that assert that, but Buddhism doesn’t. I remember quite well when I was at university and I was studying all the various Indian philosophies. Then I thought that this was what Buddhism actually asserted (I hadn’t really gotten very far in studying with actual Buddhist masters). So that was an incorrect understanding. It had to be eliminated. It had to be excluded later on when I learned more. 

So we always have to check up. What do we understand? What are the implications that we understand? And very often we are superimposing onto Buddhism ideas and concepts that come from other philosophies. We haven’t specified the Buddhist teachings well enough. Or even within the Buddhist teachings, we’re mixing up the explanations that come from one school with what comes from another. 

It’s very, very common that… We study Tibetan Buddhism, for example, and we say, “Buddhism asserts blah blah blah blah blah,” whereas that’s not at all what the Theravadins or the Zen or Pure Land Buddhists assert. This is the Indian-Tibetan tradition. It’s different on many, many points. 

And if you’re within the Gelugpa school, Gelug school, and we study Prasangika, Madhyamaka Prasangika, then often we think “Well, Prasangika says this,” whereas actually it’s only the Gelugpa version of Prasangika that has this assertion. Each of the other Tibetan schools have a completely different understanding of Prasangika. And even within Gelugpa Prasangika, there are the different textbook traditions of the different monasteries. They differ as well. When you start mixing together some explanations from one school, some explanations from another author, and so on, they don’t necessarily go together very well. You’ll find some contradictions. So that’s called “mixing,” making a big soup out of everything, and that just leads to confusion. It’s like saying all religions are the same. 

So does that mean that we don’t study other schools and other explanations? No. It doesn’t mean that. If we have the capacity to not get confused, then we can – without confusing each of the different positions – we can see that, well, this could be explained in one way, it could be explained in another way, it could be explained in a third way. And it gives us a much larger picture of different ways in which something can be explained or understood, like different levels of – well, level implies that one is better than the other, but different viewpoints, and each of them have their validity. So it enriches our understanding without confusing them. 

A good example, what I find very useful, is when we talk about the various mental factors, say the disturbing emotions and so on, you find in the abhidharma texts of Vasubandhu and the abhidharma texts of Asanga slightly different definitions. Well, if you learn both definitions, it enriches your understanding. And in Buddhaghosa’s texts of the Theravada tradition, there are yet other definitions of these same mental factors. Get further insight. So, again, certainty. Certainty doesn’t mean that you become very dogmatic and: “This is the only way of understanding.” Okay? 

Comparison of Western and Dharmic Religions

There’s one more point (I know you have a question): There’s a difference between our Western religions and the Dharma so-called religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. I’m drawing this from an analysis in a book called On Being Different by Rajiv Malhotra, an Indian author. He points out that our Western traditions are history-centered. 

So what does this mean? It means that time has a beginning. It has an end. And an historical person and an historical event had the final revelation of the truth from God (so either Moses receiving the laws from God, or Jesus or Mohammed). And the life story of these three people – t otally essential. And that’s the final truth, so it is up to us to accept that truth. And it’s not something that we could figure out ourselves. If we could figure it out ourselves and we come up with: “Oh, I had a revelation from God” – well, what happened to a lot of these people who came up and said that? They were burned at the stake as being heretics. They were possessed by the Devil. 

So the Dharmic traditions (Hindu and Buddhist) are very different. They’re not history-oriented, not history-centered, about this event. Each of us is capable of understanding and realizing truth about reality ourselves. That’s the whole basis of Dharma tradition, isn’t it? Various teachers, Buddha included, could show us the way, but everybody needs to figure it out themselves. Very, very different, isn’t it? So naturally there are many different valid explanations based on different people’s experience. 

So in the Indian traditions, they embrace chaos. There’s no problem with chaos – that there’s multiplicity – this is of course the nature of the universe. If you’ve ever been in India, lived in India, you see chaos (from our point of view), but it functions perfectly. Nobody has a problem with it. Whereas in the Abrahamic traditions, then, chaos is a threat. It’s a threat to the authority of the one truth. And so then you have to control it – control, rule it, make sure that everything is uniform, everyone believes the same thing, one truth, etc. Very, very different, isn’t it? When we approach the Dharma and it’s explained that this author explains it like this, that author like this, this school like this, and that school like that – what the typical Western response to that is: “But what does it really mean?” We can’t deal with chaos. We have to control it. It has to be under control. One truth – what it really, really means. If you approach the Dharma in that way, you’re going to have some problems. 

So with the many explanations, all of which are valid – we’re talking about valid explanations, not crazy explanations – all of which are valid, we can have apprehension. It can be correct, it can be decisive, but individual. Like the example, the classic example, that here you have something and the humans see it as water, the ghosts see it as pus, and the gods see it as nectar. All of them are correct. They’re correct, accurate, decisive. So we ask, “But what does it really...?” It’s coming from a completely different cultural background. 

So if we apply this to an example that we can relate to, rather than the pus/water/nectar phenomenon, what is this thing? To adults it’s a watch. To a baby it’s a toy. What is it really? Is one more valid than the other? Think about that. 

Okay, so this is the basic principle that we find in family therapy, particularly in the contextual branch of family therapy, which is this principle of multidimensional fairness. You get a family together and you ask each person in the family how do they understand the situation: what’s the problem? You’re fair equally to everybody in the family. The point being that the child’s perception of it, the mother’s perception, the father’s perception – all of them are valid. And to really understand the situation, you have to understand everybody’s point of view. It’s like the water/pus/nectar situation, isn’t it? 

So when we’re talk about understanding – many, many different aspects to it, aren’t there? But each one needs to be accurate and decisive in order for it to be reliable, in order for it to be valid. Okay? Think about that. 

Questions and Answers

Okay, perhaps we have some time for questions now. 

Participant: I’ve an objection to it having to be decisive. It’s very much putting an additional layer of attachment to a certain mindset. And I’m not sure why it is needed if accurate is already there, because that’s already requiring some judgment of being sure of something. 

Alex: So he’s saying: Why do we need to have decisive in addition to accurate? If it’s accurate, then doesn’t that imply that it’s decisive? 

I gave the example: I think that you said “yes,” but I’m really not sure. It could be a correct guess. If the person says “yes” and you hear “yes,” but you’re not really sure, then it’s not decisive. “I thought I saw you yesterday, but I’m really not sure.” It could be a correct guess. When we guess the answer, we could either guess the correct answer or guess the incorrect answer. If it’s a correct answer, we’re accurate, but it’s a guess (we’re not sure). 

Question: We’ve heard about the three characteristics for a valid cognition, and now we’v e also heard that a different sort of apprehension can be valid. So what is their relationship to each other? Is it the case that the three characteristics apply not to the group of people as a whole, but to individual people? 

Alex: Well, this starts to get quite complicated. That’s just a forewarning. I will try to explain it, but you are forewarned it’s a little bit complicated. 

There are certain criteria that… Let’s say the child thinks that you said “no,” whereas in fact you said “yes,” so it’s contradicted. So the child’s understanding of the situation is not accurate. Okay, let’s look at the example of the pus/water/nectar phenomenon, the way that it is described in the text, the way that it is explained. There are defining characteristics of phenomena. They don’t have the power to establish the phenomenon as this or that, but conventionally there are characteristic features. You can’t find them, but there are. You can’t find them on the side of the object. 

The example that I use for this, which perhaps makes it a little bit understandable, is: Let’s say you have twelve eggs, and you want to make an omelet. The twelve eggs can be divided into three groups of four, four groups of three, six groups of two. So that is a characteristic of the twelve eggs, that it is divisible by three, divisible by four, divisible by six, divisible by two. Can you find those characteristics on the side of the twelve eggs? Where? However, there are these characteristics, defining characteristics, of these twelve eggs, aren’t there? Think about that. I love that example. 

So it’s not just a concept, is it – divisible by four, three, six? I mean, it is a concept; however, it’s referring to something that is actuality. The point being that there are many valid characteristic features of any phenomenon. Of course, it is established by mental labeling; however, conventionally there are many defining characteristics that are valid. 

So if you take the example of the family, their certain behavior. Well, the behavior – somebody might be dealing with one characteristic feature of it, and another person in the family is dealing with a different characteristic feature. So let’s say the child says, “You never say you love me.” And the father doesn’t say that, so that could be correct. And the father says, “Well, but I work and I provide a home and money and all sorts of things for you.” That’s also correct. “Food, clothing – I provide all of this for you.” So we have two defining characteristics of the behavior of the father. One is that the father doesn’t say, “I love you.” And the other characteristic is that the father provides everything, everything material, for the child. So to focus on each of those decisively, accurately – they’re both correct. Both are accurate assessments of the situation. The difference comes in how these are interpreted. 

So this gets into inference. “You don’t say, ‘I love you.’ I infer that what that means is that you don’t love me, because you don’t say it.” And the father says, “But I provide all of this. I love you. If I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t provide this.” So the actual… I guess what we would call the facts, the objective facts, of the situation – each person has a valid apprehension of it, but then the mental labels (how it’s understood): It is correct that the child feels unloved and the father feels that the father is loving. That’s correct from their points of view. But then do they understand each other? That’s where the interchange comes. “It seems to me that you don’t love me, because you don’t say, ‘I love you.’” But the father says, “But I do love you.” 

So what one needs to learn in this situation – and it’s particularly relevant in couple situations, couple therapy – is what one psychologist, the founder of this school, mentioned, is to learn to accept different currencies. Currencies, like in money. The child wants to be paid in dollars let’s say (affection), and the father is offering euros (taking care of you). So you have to learn that you could pay in either currency, that it’s okay, that it’s valid. That’s the trick. 

So this is the application in relationships with others, and this is a very valid analysis from the Dharma point of view as well – that there are different explanations, different sets of understanding, that are equally valid, and we have to learn that, okay, this is another way (this is another currency, in a sense). Particularly when it comes to methods of meditation. Think of that, the whole thing of mantra recitation. Tibetans love mantras: “They’re a great way of calming the mind, getting the mind focused, and so on.” You ask a Theravadin and they say, “Oh, don’t do mantras. That’s just mental chattering and stuff like that. Quiet the mind.” How do you deal with that? So each is distinguishing a different characteristic feature of mantra recitation, aren’t they, and understanding it differently, and within each system it makes sense. If we really want to understand mantra recitation, then it’s helpful to know these different points of view. Then we can see what is most beneficial for me. 

So if we’re going to do several different meditations… Like you do here. One night you do Tara meditation, so I’m sure you’re reciting mantras. And one night you’re doing mindfulness meditations, so basically Theravada. So when you are doing the Tara recitation, you have to be decisive that this is beneficial. Not have this: “Well, maybe it’s beneficial, but the Theravadins say that it’s just noise in your head and you have to quiet the mind,” and so then you’re not decisive that this is a proper meditation to do. And then of course you don’t benefit from it very much. You’re not confident in what you’re doing. You’re questioning it. So we’re reciting the Tara mantra or whatever mantra, and we understand it, it’s accurate, we’re decisive: “This is beneficial. It has this use, that use.” We are focusing on one characteristic feature of the mantras in terms of helping us to generate a state of mind and so on. 

When you’re doing the mindfulness meditation another occasion, we get completely into that. We’r e focusing on the characteristic feature that if a mantra comes in your head – well, it’s just mental chattering, it’s just mental noise, and then it passes. Like that. So you’re accurately and decisively focusing on a different characteristic feature of the mantra. 

Both characteristic features are valid, like divisible by four or three. Everything is valid within its own context, so then there’s no chaos here. Within the context of hungry ghosts, it’s pus. Within the context of humans, it’s water. Within the context of Tara meditation, mantra is one thing. In the context of mindfulness meditation, mantra is something else. No problem. No contradiction. 

So if we superimpose onto Buddhism: “Buddha, like Moses, got this revelation from who knows who, but got this revelation that you do mantras. Or Vajradhara said ‘Do mantras.’ And this is it, the one truth,” then we have a lot of problems with all the variety of meditations that are done. It’s not like that – “Buddha said the truth and that’s it.” Well, Buddha said many, many things. 

This is a problem when you look at Buddha just as a historical figure: “Well, historically the Buddha didn’t do that.” And then you get the Mahayana version of a Buddha, and you get the tantra version of a Buddha, and then we’re completely confused, aren’t we? That’s because we’re thinking just this linear thing – that you have to have a historical figure, and the historical event is so important. 

One Indian friend of mine – I had a very lovely discussion with him, and he pointed out to me that most Indians don’t even believe in history. That’s an interesting comment, isn’t it? So with that, let’s have our break, and then we’ll continue.