Elaboration of "What Does It Mean to Understand Something?"
Vienna, Austria, March 2012
Session Three: Straightforward Cognition and Inferential Cognition
Somebody brought up a point just now, during the break, that in many of my explanations I tend to go to the extreme in terms of explaining examples or points of view – Buddhist point of view, Western point of view. And this is a method that’s used in the Buddhist analysis, which is to look at the absurd logical consequences that would follow if you hold a certain position. “If everything had truly established existence, nothing could be able to function.” Now, that’s taking it to the extreme and seeing the absurd conclusion. So that is a method, and of course the challenge is to know when to apply it and when not to apply it. In some situations it’s very helpful. In other situations perhaps it’s not appropriate. So I admit that sometimes I might apply it inappropriately.
But I find it quite helpful, actually. Because one could say, “Well, you’re not being fair to the tradition, because they don’t really assert that way.” But you find this in all the texts. Take for instance the Tibetan Mahayana presentation of Hinayana. It takes it to the extreme, doesn’t it? “You’re working for your own liberation, so it’s very selfish.” Come on, of course there is metta meditation, love and compassion meditation, in Theravada. So what is more important? Fairness? Or is it more important, in this situation, to help people to overcome being self-centered? Which is more important in the particular context of training somebody, training ourselves?
Is the main thing to be fair to all the traditions and present them authentically, the way they are (which would be, let’s say, like presenting a comparative religion course in university)? Or is the main objective not comparative religion, but the main objective is training to achieve liberation and enlightenment (in which case you have to overcome self-cherishing)?
So if our aim is liberation and enlightenment, then these various other traditions can suggest extremes that we need to avoid. So yes, they’re not fair. Certainly the Mahayana presentation of Hinayana is not fair at all to Hinayana. So the problem is if we reduce the other tradition just to this extreme position, then that’s not valid. So we’re distinguishing different characteristics for different purposes. So it’s very important to not be naive about these presentations of other traditions that we have in Buddhism. It’s basically bringing up an objection so that you get more secure on the path of development, of your personal development.
So the same thing in terms of what we were discussing before about Western religious traditions. It’s taking a certain point, carrying it to an extreme, and seeing how can that be helpful to us. Right? How can it be helpful to us in terms of recognizing when I am projecting the parameters of another system onto Buddhism that aren’t really appropriate.
Okay, so let’s go on with our analysis.
Apprehension – we’re still discussing apprehension – it occurs either with valid straightforward cognition (mngon-sum tshad-ma) or valid inferential cognition (rjes-dpag tshad-ma).
(To translator: Well, direct and indirect are not really accurate ways of translating here. Direct and indirect, if we’re going to use those terms, are referring to the difference between Vaibhashika and everybody else. Vaibhashika doesn’t have this thing of mental holograms, and so one perceives things directly, without a mental hologram. And everybody else says it’s through a mental hologram. That’s direct and indirect. So one has to be very precise in the use of terms here.)
So what we have is another term, bare perception [another translation for mngon-sum]. And “bare,” which is the same word as “naked,” is the difference that we have in the Sautrantika and Chittamatra schools, in which the difference is: bare perception is nonconceptual, and inferential is conceptual. So “bare” means without the medium of conceptual cognition. That’s not what I am talking about here. Well, the Sautrantika and the Chittamatra both accept this. I’m differentiating this from Tsongkhapa’s version of Prasangika.
Question: Bare is free from concepts, right? Nonconceptual?
Alex: Yes, and inferential is always conceptual.
According to Prasangika – according to Tsongkhapa – we have the difference of straightforward cognition. Straightforward cognition does not rely directly on a line of reasoning, and it can be conceptual or nonconceptual. Ngon-sum tsema (mngon-sum tshad-ma) is what we’re talking about. So it’s straightforward. It is not going through a line of reasoning. It’s going straight. Straightforward cognition can be either conceptual or nonconceptual. Inferential is conceptual; it relies directly on a line of reasoning. I’ll give an example. It’s very easy.
Conceptual means through a category. So a category like “dog.” You see an individual beast, and you have the category of “dog” in which you would perceive it. That’s conceptual, right? You fit it into the box called “dog.”
So if we’re focusing on voidness, first is inferential, which is the line of reasoning – I’m not going to go into it in detail – “neither one nor many,” and you get to voidness. That’s inferential cognition.
So with the inferential, you’re focusing on voidness through the category “voidness.” Right? No matter what we’re focusing on, it fits into this category of “voidness.” So we have a category directly in front, and then through that category we’re seeing whatever we’re focusing on as fitting into that category, into that box. That’s conceptual.
So we build up to that by relying on the line of reasoning. That’s inferential. And then we’ve become so familiar with that that we don’t have to go through the line of reasoning; we can just go to it straightforwardly, but still through the category. So that’s conceptual straightforward cognition. And eventually we’re able to have nonconceptual straightforward cognition. We’re not relying on a line of reasoning, but it’s not through this category, not putting it in a box.
That’s very important. This distinction is very, very helpful. How do you develop compassion? Well, in the beginning you have to go through these lines: “Everybody is equal. Everybody wants to be happy. Nobody wants to be unhappy.” You work yourself up to it. But eventually you don’t have to go through all of that line; you can just have it. That’s why this difference is very important in terms of practice of how you actually develop yourself. And you can appreciate that these are different levels of apprehension and different levels of understanding. How do I understand? Well, I have to work myself through all these steps in order to convince myself, and then I understand it. Or I just understand it without having to go through all these steps, but it’s on the basis of all these steps. That’s a very important distinction in terms of the steps of how our understanding gets deeper and deeper.
Do you understand that difference and how you would apply it? You send somebody an SMS or an email or something, and you don’t get an instant answer, for example. And so you have to reason out. I mean, otherwise you get angry. So to avoid getting angry – “Why haven’t they answered me immediately?” – you go through a line of reasoning. “I’m not the only thing that’s happening in this person’s life. Everybody has many things happening in their life. I’m not the center of the universe. Therefore there could be many reasons why they don’t answer me immediately. Therefore I need to be patient.” So you develop patience based on a line of reasoning.
So that is one level of understanding, that we have to really work it out in order to calm down. But eventually we’ve – what we would call in our Western terms – digested this understanding. Then the person doesn’t answer you, and you don’t have to work it all out; you know: “Well, of course they could be busy. There so many things that could prevent them from answering me immediately. Why should they answer me immediately?”
Question: When you reach this straightforward nonconceptual stage, how do you make sure that the situation is not deteriorating?
Alex: Is not what?
Participant: The understanding of the situation, the mindset. You don’t forget what you have learned.
Alex: Right. So he’s saying that when you get to a nonconceptual straightforward cognition, how do you know that you haven’t really forgotten the significance of something? And if we have time, I hope that we will do a thorough analysis of what does it mean to nonconceptually understand something. That’s very difficult actually to describe and understand. Very difficult.
Well, again we have the criteria: Is it accurate? Is it decisive? So these are the criteria that you always apply. In terms, let’s say, of this example, of developing patience that they didn’t answer immediately: Well, am I really patient? Or am I still uneasy and a little bit questioning – why haven’t they answered me? But very practical. How many times do we get annoyed when we just get an answering machine and we don’t get the person? Very easily you get annoyed, don’t you? And you get even more angry if they don’t have an answering machine.
Participant: We might think that we have a straightforward nonconceptual perception, but it might be also that we’re confused or something. Like, for example, when we’re receiving no answer.
Alex: Right. First of all, you guys are talking about nonconceptual, and we haven’t gotten there yet. So it’s still conceptual. Conceptual happens all the time. We’ll get into the description of what conceptual is.
I’ll repeat the question. He’s saying that… I forgot your question. Yeah, so it could be that we’re just used to the thing and we haven’t really understood it. Well, yes, there’s apprehension and there’s understanding. We have to distinguish these two. And we could have gotten used to some incorrect understanding – that: “Well, obviously the person doesn’t love me. That’s why they’re not answering immediately” – and that’s my understanding of it, and that’s my perception of it, and I react accordingly, and I’m absolutely sure of that; I don’t have to work it out logically.
Anyway, let’s go forward; otherwise we’re never going to get anywhere into this material.
Inferential is always conceptual, and it relies on a line of reasoning. There are three kinds:
- The first is called deductive logic (dngos-stobs rjes-dpag). “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Here there’s smoke, therefore there must be fire.” So you deduce from the nature of things – that where there’s smoke, there’s fire – you deduce from that logically that here’s an example of the smoke, therefore there must be fire. So you deduce from the principle of how things are, of the nature of things, an example.
- The second kind is renown (grags-pa’i rjes-dpag). (That’s the word for “famous”; it’s renown.) So you hear a sound. And based on the reason that it is well-known by convention to be the sound of a word, you infer that it’s the sound of a specific word, and you infer the specific meaning. How do you know that a sound means anything, that it’s a word? It’s through inference, by a convention. The whole process of understanding language is inference; it’s through concepts of words and meanings.
- Then the third type of inference is called inference based on confidence (yid-ches rjes-dpag). Because you know the source of information is reliable, you infer that what he or she says is true. His Holiness the Dalai Lama uses the best example: How do you know your birthday? There is no way you could know it by yourself. You have to rely on a reliable source of information – your mother or the birth certificate. You have to rely on somebody. And you have to have confidence that they’re a reliable source of information so what they say is true, it’s correct. It’s inference.
Apprehension can be with either straightforward cognition or inferential cognition.
So we apprehend the sound of our baby crying. That’s an example of apprehension in the category of nonconceptual straightforward cognition. Accurate. Decisive. I hear that.
Then you infer: the baby’s crying, therefore there must be a reason why the baby is crying (the baby is uncomfortable or needs something); therefore I have to get up and go take care of the baby. That’s apprehension based on inference, line of reasoning.
If it’s the middle of the night and you’re lying in bed, maybe you have to work it out through the line of reasoning, because I don’t really want to get up: “Oh, the baby’s crying. Well, there’s probably something wrong. I have to get up.” So then we have to work it out through logic. But it might be so digested that you don’t have to work it out; you just get up.
So, you see, you rely on a line of reasoning or not:
- “The baby’s crying. That must mean that something’s wrong. I have to get up.” Even though you’re lazy and you don’t want to get up.
- Or it could be another level, in which you don’t have to work it out; you just straightforwardly understand and get up.
Question: But is it nonconceptual or conceptual, because there’s still the concept of “baby” and “crying”?
Alex: Well, there’s the concept of “baby” and “crying,” that’s true. It could be conceptual or nonconceptual. But as I said, we haven’t quite gotten to describing the difference between those two. That will come.
Okay, that brings us to lunchtime. And we have a concept. So we infer these black lines inside this sphere. How do you know what that is? So we infer. There’s a convention that that means one o’clock, whatever that means. Well, this is based on concept or a convention, isn’t it, and then inference that, well, this is the time we’re supposed to eat.
Question: For example: if I feel I’m hungry, what is that?
Alex: If you feel that “I’m hungry,” then you have… Ah, this is a good example. You have a sensation. So what is this sensation? What is it that I’m feeling? I don’t know what I’m feeling.
When I have this feeling, every time that I have it I will cognize it through the category of “hunger.” And through an inference, when I feel that sensation, in order to get rid of it I have to put biological matter into my mouth and chew it and get it into my stomach. I have to put some sort of what we call “food” inside, and that will make that feeling go away.
How in the world do you know that? Where it becomes very interesting is: How does an infant know that?
Participant: And an animal.
Alex: And an animal. That’s what I mean. A baby animal. They know that from birth. So now we get into intuitive and all these sort of things.
Anyway, let’s take our break.
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