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Fine Analysis of Objects of Cognition:
Gelug Presentation

Alexander Berzin, August 2002, revised August 2006

[As background, see: Introductory Survey of Objects of Cognition.]

Preface

The various Indian schools of Buddhist tenets (grub-mtha’) differ slightly in their explanations of cognition. The Tibetan traditions take the Sautrantika explanation as a basis and then refine it with the explanations of the more sophisticated tenet systems. Accordingly, we shall look here at some points regarding the Sautrantika system of cognition and supplement them with explanations from other systems when they significantly differ.

Further, various Tibetan masters explain differently many assertions of each of the four Indian schools of tenets. Their explanations fall broadly into two camps: Gelug and non-Gelug (Sakya, Nyingma, and Kagyu).

Here, as a foundation for more advanced study, we shall present an overview of the main points that are asserted in common by both camps and then the uniquely Gelug interpretations.

Neither the Gelug nor the non-Gelug division, however, presents a uniform explanation of cognition theory. Several masters within each camp have explained specific points slightly differently in their commentaries. Here, we shall use the explanations given primarily by the late eighteenth-century master Akya Yongdzin (A-kya Yongs-‘dzin dByangs-can dga-ba’i blo-gros) to represent the Gelug position. This explanation accords with the monastic textbook (yig-cha) tradition of the sixteenth-century master Jetsun Chokyi-gyeltsen (rJe-btsun Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan), followed by Sera Jey (Se-ra Byes) and Ganden Jangtsey (dGa’-ldan Byang-rtse) Monasteries.

1 Basic Distinctions among Cognitive Objects

Cognition of an Object

Cognition (shes-pa) of an object may be either nonconceptual (rtog-med) or conceptual (rtog-bcas). Conceptual cognition is through the medium of a conceptual category (spyi, universal) or a concept (rtog-pa), while nonconceptual cognition is not through such a medium.

Note that

  • sensory cognition (dbang-shes) is always nonconceptual;

  • mental cognition (yid-shes) may be either nonconceptual or conceptual;

  • conceptual cognition is always mental.

Nonconceptual cognition may also be bare cognition of reflexive awareness (rang-rig mngon-sum) or yogic bare cognition (rnal-‘byor mngon-sum).

  • Reflexive awareness (rang-rig, self-awareness) accompanies each moment of cognition and takes the cognition that it accompanies as its object, allowing later recollection (dran-shes) of it.

  • Yogic bare cognition is of subtle nonstaticness (mi-rtag-pa phra-mo, subtle impermanence) or the absolute absence of an impossible “soul” of a person (gang-zag-gi bdag-med, identitylessness of a person, selflessness of a person).

For the sake of simplicity, we shall restrict our discussion of nonconceptual cognition here mostly to its sensory form.

Cognitive Objects and Sensibilia

Cognitions have numerous cognitive objects (yul) – objects known in some cognitive manner. Among them are sensibilia and commonsense objects.

Sensibilia are the forms of physical phenomena (gzugs) that, in one moment, occupy an extended location (yul), and which are cognized by a sensory consciousness. As objects well known in the philosophical treatises (bstan-bcos-la grags-pa), sensibilia are thus the smallest spatial units of physical phenomena that are perceptible by the senses in one moment.

Each “patch” of sensibilia occupies an extended location in the sense that it spatially extends over a collection of “molecules” (‘ dus-pa’i rdul-phran) specific to its class of cognitive stimulator (skye-mched). Molecules, in turn, are aggregations of substantial particles (rdzas-kyi rdul-phran).

There are four classes of sensibilia:

  • sights (patches of colored shapes),

  • smells,

  • tastes,

  • tactile or physical sensations.

Since sounds do not have spatial extension over a collection of molecules of similar class (rigs-mthun), sounds are not included as sensibilia.

Commonsense Objects and Conventional Objects of Experience

What is a commonsense orange? Is it a sight that we see, a fragrance that we smell, a flavor that we taste, or a tactile sensation that we feel when we hold one in our hands? As an object well known in the world (‘ jig-rten-la grags-pa), a commonsense orange is an item that extends over the locations of all four classes of sensibilia. Moreover, a commonsense orange does not exist for just an instant: it endures over time.

Commonsense objects are equivalent to conventional objects of experience (tha-snyad spyod-yul) – objects of ordinary experience to which the conventions of words or concepts refer. Thus, commonsense objects are said to “hold their own individual essential natures” (rang-gi ngo-bo ‘dzin-pa). This means that they have their own individual conventional identities as “this” and “not that,” and are distinguishable from each other – such as a specific item being “an orange” and “not a table,” or “this orange” and “not that orange.”

Since certain items, such as a liquid, may be experienced as water by humans, pus by clutching ghosts (hungry ghosts), and nectar by divine beings (gods), the qualification needs to be added that commonsense objects have conventional identities established as valid only in relation to certain groups of beings.

Knowable Phenomena and Comprehensible Objects

Knowable phenomena (shes-bya), also called comprehensible objects (gzhal-bya), are cognitive objects that can be known by valid cognition (tshad-ma). They include all existent objects or phenomena.

More specifically, knowable phenomena include

  • objective entities (rang-mtshan, specifically characterized phenomena),

  • metaphysical entities (spyi-mtshan, generally characterized phenomena).

Objective Entities and Metaphysical Entities

In the Sautrantika system, objective entities are those phenomena whose existence is not established by their being merely imputable. They can be cognized without having used mental construction (spros-pa, mental fabrication) – meaning without having added anything in order to cognize such objects, beyond their being the sums of their parts. They have substantially established existence (rdzas-su grub-pa), because they are able to perform a function (don-byed nus-pa).

  • A person (gang-zag), for example, is imputable on a set of five aggregate factors (phung-po lnga, five aggregates). However, a person is not merely imputable. Persons perform functions and, therefore, are substantially existent objective entities.

Metaphysical entities are those phenomena whose existence is established by their being merely imputable (rtog-pas btags-tsam-gyis grub-pa). They are merely imputable on the basis of objective entities. Their existence is not substantially established (rdzas-su ma-grub-pa), because they are unable to perform a function.

Specifically Gelug

Objective entities can be validly cognized by either nonconceptual or conceptual valid cognition. Metaphysical entities can be validly cognized only within the context of valid conceptual cognition.

Objective and Metaphysical Entities – Specific Presentation

Specifically Gelug

Objective entities include all nonstatic phenomena – phenomena that change from moment to moment.

Nonstatic phenomena include:

  • forms of physical phenomena (gzugs),

  • ways of being aware of something (shes-pa),

  • nonconcomitant affecting variables (ldan-min ‘du-byed, nonassociated compositional factors), such as nonstaticness (impermanence) and persons (gang-zag). Nonstaticness is the nonendurance of an item for a second moment.

Here, we shall deal primarily with forms of physical phenomena. They include:

  • commonsense objects, such as oranges and tables,

  • their conventional identities as “this” and “not that,”

  • the sensibilia that comprise commonsense objects,

  • the molecules and moments over which the commonsense objects and their sensibilia extend,

  • the moments over which commonsense sounds extend.

Dharmakirti specified objective entities as those phenomena that are determinate (nges-pa) or unmixed (ma-‘dres-pa) in terms of spatial location (yul), temporal location (dus), and essential nature (ngo-bo) as an individual knowable item.

  • Spatially determinate means that the western portion of an object does not exist in the east.

  • Temporally determinate means that something that exists in the morning has a definite end, for instance when it ceases to exist in the evening.

  • Being individual by essential nature means that something is distinguishable from other objects.

  • Thus, being unmixed means being not mixed up with or indistinguishable from something else.

Since these three criteria can apply both to nonstatic and static (rtag-pa, permanent) phenomena, they cannot be intended as a strict definition of objective entities. Dharmakirti used them only as criteria for refuting the non-Buddhist Nyaya view of universals as indivisible entities inhering equally in all their instances.

Metaphysical entities include all static phenomena – phenomena that do not change from moment to moment.

Static phenomena include:

  • the conceptual categories (spyi, universals) orange and table, of which all individual oranges and tables are instances of items that fit into them,

  • the absence of a vase imputed on a bare tabletop.

Involved Objects and Objects Existing as Cognitively Taken

The involved object (‘jug-yul, engaged object, object of application) of a cognition is the main object with which a particular cognition involves itself (‘ jug-pa, engages, cognitively enters).

The involved object is equivalent to the object existing as cognitively taken (‘dzin-stangs-kyi yul).

Specifically Gelug

The involved object in either nonconceptual or conceptual cognition is a commonsense object, for example a table, and those nonstatic features (yon-tan, qualities) of the table with which the cognition is actually involved. It is not possible for some feature of a commonsense object, such as the shape of a table, to be the involved object of a cognition unless that cognition also takes as its involved object the commonsense object of which that feature is a quality.

The nonstatic features may be:

  • sensibilia of the table, such as its sight or tactile sensation,

  • the nonstaticness of the table,

  • the table as a table,

  • the table as an item fitting in the category table.

Thus, only objective entities are the involved objects of either nonconceptual or conceptual cognition.

This statement, however, needs qualification. Although such metaphysical entities as the category table are not the involved objects of a conceptual cognition that takes a commonsense table as its involved object, nevertheless they are the involved objects of the nonconceptual bare cognition of reflexive awareness that accompanies that conceptual cognition.

2 Distinctions in Terms of Ways of Cognizing

Decisive Determination and Apprehension of an Involved Object

Apprehension (rtogs-pa, understanding) decisively determines (nges-pa, ascertains) its involved object correctly by decisively cutting it off from incorrect interpolations (sgro-‘dogs bcad-pa) that it is something other than itself. Thus, in correctly identifying its involved object, it induces immediate certainty of that object, such that recollection of the involved object can later occur.

Specifically Gelug

Both valid nonconceptual and valid conceptual cognitions apprehend their involved objects, decisively determining them as “this” and “not that.”

In other words, when we apprehend a commonsense table by either validly seeing or thinking of it, we experience the table (the involved object) as a table and we can correctly remember later that we experienced the table as a table. We do not experience the table as an orange; nor do we validly remember that we experienced the table as an orange. Similarly, with apprehension, we experience the table as this specific table and not any other table, and we correctly remember later that we experienced it as such.

This assertion follows from the facts that

  • both nonconceptual and conceptual cognitions cognize commonsense objects,

  • valid cognition experiences commonsense objects as holding their essential natures as “this” and “not that” individual conventional item.

In an episode of nonconceptual cognition of an involved object, however, the last moment is a nondetermining cognition of what appears (snang-la ma-nges-pa, inattentive perception). An object still appears, but is no longer decisively determined as “this” and “not that.”

Except in the case of an arya’s nonconceptual total absorption (mnyam-bzhag) cognition of voidness, any single moment of nonconceptual cognition, by itself, is a nondetermining cognition of what appears. This is because a single moment (one sixty-fifth of the time of a finger-snap) is too short a time for decisively determining what appears to it. A sequence of moments of nonconceptual cognition is required to establish apprehension. Thus, each moment within the context of the sequence is considered an apprehension, despite each individual moment by itself not being an apprehension.

Decisive determination of an object does not necessarily entail cognition of a static category imputed on the involved object, such as an audio category (sgra-spyi) entailing a word or a name or a meaning category (don-spyi), of which the object is an individual instance. Such imputation occurs exclusively in conceptual cognition of an object. These two types of categories will be discussed later, below.

Thus, with nonconceptual decisive determination, we experience the table as a table, and not as an orange, when we bump into a table in the dark, and we experience it as this table and not as any other table. In order to have this decisive determination, we do not need to think the word table or think that what we experienced is an instance of what the word table means. In other words, we can nonconceptually experience the item as a table and as this specific table, without knowing that it is a table or which specific table it is.

Obvious, Obscure, and Extremely Obscure Objects

An involved object is obvious (mngon-gyur-ba) if it can be cognized by valid sensory nonconceptual cognition (dbang-mngon tshad-ma). Obvious objects may be any objective entity.

An involved object is obscure (lkog-pa) if it can only be cognized by a valid inferential cognition (rjes-dpag tshad-ma) that relies on a line of reasoning (rtags) or on renown (grags). All inferential cognition is conceptual. Obscure objects may be any validly knowable phenomenon, whether an objective or a metaphysical entity.

An involved object is extremely obscure (shin-tu lkog-pa) if it can only be cognized by a valid inferential cognition that relies on conviction (yid-ches). Conviction, here, is that someone is a valid source of information (skyes-bu tshad-ma) and therefore that any information that this person gives is correct. Extremely obscure objects may also be any validly knowable phenomenon.

Specifically Gelug

For example, the presence of smoke (a commonsense object with spatial and temporal extension) rising from the chimney of a house on a mountain is obvious because it can be seen.

The presence of fire in the house on the mountain is obscure: it is not visible. Nevertheless, it can be validly known inferentially by relying on the line of reasoning, “Where there is smoke, there is fire.”

The name of the person living in the house on the mountain is extremely obscure: it cannot be known through either sensory cognition or reasoning. It can only be known by relying on someone who correctly knows this information or on a valid up-to-date data bank, and by inferring that if the source of the information is valid, the information must be correct.

The smoke, the fire, and the name of the person are all objective entities. The only difference is that the smoke is obvious, the fire is obscure, and the name of the person is extremely obscure.

Clarity, Awareness, and Mental Activity (Mind)

In cognizing an involved object – whether obvious, obscure, or extremely obscure – a cognition gives rise (‘ char-ba, shar-ba) to a cognitive appearance (snang-ba) of something simultaneously with cognitively engaging (‘ jug-pa, cognitively involving itself) with it. The cognitive appearance is a mental aspect resembling the involved object, and it too is an involved object of the cognition.

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

The mere making of something cognitively clear and the mere making an awareness of something (gsal-rig tsam) are, in turn, the defining characteristics of mental activity (sems, mind).

The word mere indicates that mental activity occurs without a “me” or a “mind” existing as an independent entity, separate from the mental activity, and serving as the agent that is making the activity happen. In fact, in any action, mental or physical, there is no such thing as an agent existing as an unaffected (‘ dus ma-byas, static, permanent), monolithic (gcig, one), separate entity independently of the action, either making the action happen or observing it occur.

Making something cognitively clear does not require the object being clear in the sense of it being in focus. The appearance of a blur may also cognitively arise.

Making an awareness of something does not require the awareness being conscious. Nor does it necessarily entail knowing the conventional identity of what becomes cognitively apparent. A cognition may have minimal attention (yid-la byed-pa) accompanying it and may lack cognitive certainty (nges-pa).

Explicit and Implicit Apprehension

Specifically Gelug

Apprehension of an involved object, in either nonconceptual or conceptual cognition, may be

  • explicit apprehension (dngos-su rtogs-pa),

  • implicit apprehension (shugs-la rtogs-pa).

In explicit apprehension of an involved object, a mental aspect (rnam-pa, mental semblance, mental hologram) of the involved object itself arises. Only obvious objective entities may be explicitly apprehended by valid bare nonconceptual cognition.

  • This is the case only with unenlightened beings.

  • In the case of Buddhas, obscure and extremely obscure objective entities may also be explicitly apprehended nonconceptually by omniscient awareness (rnam-mkhyen).

Any phenomenon – obvious, obscure, or extremely obscure; nonstatic or static; objective or metaphysical – may be explicitly apprehended by valid inferential (conceptual) cognition.

In implicit apprehension of an involved object, only a mental aspect resembling the basis for imputation (gdags-gzhi) of the involved object arises, but not a mental aspect resembling the involved object itself. Only obvious objective entities may be implicitly apprehended by valid sensory nonconceptual cognition.

For example, when valid visual cognition explicitly apprehends a table, it implicitly apprehends negation phenomena (dgag-pa, negatingly known phenomena) such as “not an orange,” “not anything other than a table,” “not any table other than this table,” and so on. Only a mental aspect resembling a table arises in the cognition. No mental aspect resembling “not-an-orange” arises. All such negation phenomena are called “individually characterized object exclusions of something else” (don rang-mtshan-gyi gzhan-sel, object exclusions) and are nonstatic objective entities.

  • Negation phenomena are exclusions of something else (gzhan-sel, exclusions, eliminations of what is other), in which an object to be negated (dgag-bya) is explicitly precluded by the conceptual cognition that cognizes the phenomenon.

  • In the case of Buddhas, all metaphysical entities may be implicitly apprehended nonconceptually by omniscient awareness.

[See: Affirmations, Negations, and Denumerable and Nondenumerable Ultimate Phenomena. See also: The Gelug Definitions of Affirmation and Negation Phenomena.]

Either metaphysical or objective entities may be implicitly apprehended by valid inferential cognition.

  • In the case of metaphysical entities, such as conceptual categories, only the reflexive awareness that accompanies the conceptual cognition implicitly apprehends them. Reflexive awareness implicitly apprehends them nonconceptually, while the mental consciousness of the conceptual cognition does not apprehend them at all. But, since this implicit apprehension occurs within the context of a conceptual cognition, the apprehension can be considered conceptual implicit apprehension.

  • In the case of objective entities, such as object exclusions, the mental consciousness of the conceptual cognition itself implicitly apprehends them.

3 Objects in Nonconceptual Cognition

Mental Aspects in Nonconceptual Cognition

In sensory nonconceptual cognition, an external object (phyi-don) casts (gtod) a mental aspect of itself on the sensory consciousness that cognizes it.

  • An external object is one that exists prior to the cognition of it and functions as the natal source (rdzas) of the mental aspect that arises in its cognition.

  • A natal source of something is what produces it, like the potter’s wheel for a clay pot or an oven for a baked bread.

The mental aspect may be the mental semblance of a sight, a sound, a smell, a taste, or a physical sensation. It is a mental semblance, however, of only the objective entities that the specific sense consciousness can cognize. Visual consciousness, for example, cannot take on the mental aspect of a sound or a taste.

Moreover, in cognizing an external object, a cognition gives rise only to a mental aspect resembling the external object. It does not give rise to the external object itself.

According to the Chittamatra (mind-only) tenet system, there are no such things as external objects. In sensory nonconceptual cognition, the mental aspect that arises comes from the same natal source as the sensory consciousness of it – namely, both come from the same karmic tendency (sa-bon, karmic seed, karmic legacy) as their common natal source.

According to the Vaibhashika system, sensory nonconceptual cognition directly contacts and cognizes external objects, without giving rise to a mental aspect resembling them.

Specifically Gelug

The external object that casts an impression on a sensory consciousness of it is a commonsense object as an objective entity.

  • Consider the example of sensory nonconceptual cognition of a table, such as seeing a table or feeling a table with our hands. Like a mental impression or mental hologram, the mental aspect of a table that appears in the sensory cognition resembles the external commonsense table in all the nonstatic features that are explicitly apprehensible by the sensory consciousness that assumes that mental aspect.

Sensory nonconceptual cognition can explicitly apprehend only forms of physical phenomena specific to it and such nonconcomitant affecting variables as nonstaticness.

  • For example, in seeing a table, the table casts a mental aspect on the visual consciousness that sees it. The mental aspect resembles the patches of colored shapes that comprise the sight of the table, and the table itself. But, not only that, the mental aspect also resembles the gross nonstaticness of the table. This is because visual consciousness can also “see” the gross nonstaticness of a table when it collapses.

  • Visual cognition of a collapsing table may decisively determine either the sight of the collapsing table or the nonstaticness of the table, depending on what it decisively determines concerning its mental aspect. Only what the cognition decisively determines of its mental aspect is the involved object of that cognition.

  • Thus, not all features or qualities of the mental aspect that appears in a valid sensory cognition are necessarily its involved objects. Only those qualities that the valid sensory cognition apprehends are its involved objects and only those qualities are decisively determined. Others qualities may appear in the cognition, but if the cognition pays little attention to them, it lacks decisive determination of them as “this” and “not that.” Consequently, they are not the involved objects of the cognition and are not apprehended by the cognition.

Level of Transparency of Mental Aspects

Specifically Gelug

The mental aspect cast on a sensory consciousness by an external objective entity is cognitively transparent. In other words, when nonconceptually cognizing the mental aspect of an external objective entity such as a commonsense object, the mental aspect does not veil the commonsense object. Rather, the sensory nonconceptual cognition directly contacts the external commonsense object, albeit through the transparency of a mental aspect.

Thus, in the sensory nonconceptual cognition of a commonsense object, the external commonsense object actually appears through the totally transparent mental aspect cast by it on the consciousness.

Focal Objects and Focal Aspects

The focal object (dmigs-yul) is the object toward which a cognition aims and which serves as the focal condition (dmigs-rkyen) of the cognition. Focal objects exist prior to the cognitions of them and have their own continuums different from those of the cognitions of them. They are the external objective entities that cast mental aspects of themselves on the consciousnesses that cognize them.

According to the Chittamatra system, although sensory nonconceptual cognitions have involved objects, they do not have focal objects. They do not arise from the focal condition of external objects existing independently of mental activity (mind).

  • Instead, sensory cognitions have focal aspects (dmigs-rnam), which are the mental aspects that sensory consciousnesses assume in cognizing their involved objects.

  • The focal aspect in a sensory cognition arises from (is produced by) the same natal source as the sensory consciousness of it – namely, from the same karmic tendency (sa-bon, karmic seed, karmic legacy). It does not arise from (it is not produced by) an external focal object as its natal source.

Specifically Gelug

Only those features of focal objects (commonsense objects) that are decisively determined by sensory nonconceptual cognitions of them are the involved objects of those cognitions.

Appearing Objects and Cognitively Taken Objects in Nonconceptual Cognition

The appearing object (snang-yul) is the direct object (dngos-yul) that arises in a cognition, as if it were directly in front of the consciousness (blo-ngor). It is a mental derivative (gzugs-brnyan, mental reflection) of a cognitive object.

In sensory nonconceptual cognition, the appearing object is equivalent to the mental aspect that appears. It is a mental derivative of an external objective entity.

Specifically Gelug

The appearing object (the fully transparent mental aspect) in sensory nonconceptual cognition is equivalent to the cognition’s cognitively taken object (gzung-yul, held object). It is a full transparency of an external commonsense object.

The appearing object here is not necessary equivalent, however, to the cognition’s involved object, which may be merely certain nonstatic features of the appearing (cognitively taken) object.

Summary of Sensory Nonconceptual Cognition in Chart Form

Specifically Gelug

  External ObjectMental Aspect
  Fully transparent mental derivative

Commonsense object,

Conventional identity as “this” and “not that,”

Spatial & temporal parts

Commonsense object,

Conventional identity as “this” and “not that,”

Spatial & temporal parts

Appearing object Appearing object
Cognitively taken object Assumes the full aspect
of the cognitively taken object
Focal object  
Involved object
(within the domain of the appearing, cognitively taken focal object)
Involved object
(within the domain of the appearing, cognitively taken focal object)
Explicitly apprehended  
Decisively determined as “this” and “not that” commonsense object Decisively determined as “this” and “not that” commonsense object

4 Objects in Conceptual Cognition

Mental Aspects and Appearing, Involved, Focal, and Cognitively Taken Objects in Conceptual Cognition

Conceptual cognition imputes (‘dogs-pa, mentally labels) a metaphysical entity, such as a conceptual category or concept, onto the mental aspect it assumes, and mixes the two. Conceptual cognition is always a deceptive cognition (‘khrul-shes), because it takes this mixture to be an objective entity, existing externally.

  • Of the two items confused with each other, one is the appearing object (snang-yul), as if it were directly in front of the mental consciousness.

  • The other is a mental representation (snang-ba), which simply appears (snang) or arises.

For the sake of simplicity, we shall restrict our description of conceptual cognition in the remainder of this article to the presentation of conceptual cognition containing mental exclusions of something else (blo’i gzhan-sel, mental exclusions, mental eliminations). Mental exclusions are static metaphysical negation phenomena and include both conceptual categories and conceptually isolated items (ldog-pa, conceptual isolates, distinguishers).

  • Among negation phenomena, the type that static mental exclusions are is an implicative negation phenomenon (ma-yin dgag).

  • An implicative negation phenomenon is an exclusion of something else in which, after the sounds of the words that exclude the object to be negated have negated that object, they leave behind in their wake (bkag-shul), explicitly or implicitly, something else.

Thus, we shall omit from our description the presentation of inferential cognition in which a line of reasoning is validly cognized. We shall also omit the presentation of conceptual cognition of concepts that are nonimplicative negation phenomena (med-dgag, nonaffirming negations).

  • A nonimplicative negation phenomenon is an exclusion of something else in which, after the sounds of the words that exclude the object to be negated have negated that object, they do not leave behind in their wake, explicitly or implicitly, something else.

  • In simple terms, nonimplicative negation phenomena are static, metaphysical entities that are merely the absences of something. They include:

  • the absence of a vase on a bare tabletop,

  • space (nam-mkha’) – the absence of any material object that could be contacted in a location and that would obstruct something being there,

  • the absolute absence of an impossible “soul” of a person.

[See: Affirmations, Negations, and Denumerable and Nondenumerable Ultimate Phenomena.]

Specifically Gelug

The mental aspect that appears in conceptual cognition is a mental representation of an external objective entity (a commonsense object), such as a specific table. As in sensory nonconceptual cognition, the mental aspect is fully transparent. The external objective entity cognized through it serves as the focal object of the cognition.

  • Thus, both nonconceptual and conceptual cognitions have focal objects.

  • In conceptual cognition, however, the focal object does not need to be present at the time and location of the cognition involving it, as in the case of a remembrance of seeing the table yesterday.

As in valid sensory nonconceptual cognition, the nonstatic features of the focal object and of the fully transparent mental aspect resembling it in valid conceptual cognition are the explicitly apprehended involved objects.

When explicitly apprehending one or more involved objects, a valid conceptual cognition may simultaneously implicitly apprehend other objects. Those objects would also be the involved objects of the conceptual cognition.

  • In the case of conceptual cognition explicitly apprehending a table, for example, the implicitly apprehended involved objects may include object exclusions, such as “not an orange” and “nothing other than a table.”

More specifically, the fully transparent mental representation that actually appears in the conceptual cognition of the table is a conceptually isolated item (conceptual isolate). Like the object exclusion nothing other than a table, a conceptually isolated item is an implicative negation phenomenon. Specifically, the type of implicative negation phenomenon that both conceptual isolates and object exclusions are is a “nothing-other-than” (ma-yin-pa-las log-pa). In other words, both leave behind in their wakes what is left when we exclude or eliminate everything that is not a specific object. In this case, they leave behind what is left when we exclude everything that is “other than the table” – in other words, everything that is “not the table.” Thus, both leave behind “the table.” Object exclusions, however, are nonstatic objective entities; whereas, conceptually isolated items are static metaphysical entities.

  • Conceptually isolated items may be either “items conceptually isolated as an individual item” (rang-ldog) or “items conceptually isolated as a category” (spyi-ldog).

  • Object exclusions are also called “items conceptually isolated as a basis for labeling” (gzhi-ldog).

  • The defining characteristic mark (mtshan-nyid, definition) of a validly knowable phenomenon is called an “item conceptually isolated as a signifier” (don-ldog).

Because the conceptual isolate nothing other than the table leaves behind in its wake “the table,” we can say, in a sense, that the metaphysical, conceptually isolated item is equivalent to the objective entity the table. As static phenomena, conceptual isolates lack any physical features of their own. For example, the conceptually isolated item nothing other than the table lacks the colored shape of the table. However, because of the equivalence of this conceptually isolated item with the table that is specifies, and because the conceptual isolate is fully transparent, a mental aspect resembling the colored shape of the table and resembling the table itself appears through the conceptual isolate in the conceptual cognition. This is the case even if the table is not present at the time when a conceptual cognition occurs, such as when recalling the table. Thus, as a mental representation of the objective table, the conceptually isolated item serves as a mental aspect resembling the table.

The appearing object in a conceptual cognition – the object seemingly directly in front of the mental consciousness – is not the conceptually isolated item, however. The appearing object is a conceptual category, such as the category table. Like conceptual isolates, conceptual categories are static, metaphysical mental exclusions of something else and implicative negation phenomena. The conceptual category table is “nothing other than the category table.”

Conceptual categories are mental derivatives (mental reflections) of the individual objective entities that fit into them. For example, the conceptual category table is a mental derivative mentally constructed from all individual commonsense tables, regardless of their shape, size, color, texture, or the material from which they are made.

In conceptual cognition, conceptual categories, such as table, are imputed on and thus mixed with conceptual isolates, such as nothing other than this specific table. Through this conceptually isolated item, the conceptual category is thus imputed on and mixed with the specific objective table. In this way, the conceptual cognition conceptually cognizes this specific individual table as “a table,” associating with it the word table and the meaning of that word.

The conceptual cognition is deceptive, however, because in mixing a specific individual item with a conceptual category, it gives the deceptive appearance that tables in general look like this specific individual table. As another example, when we think of “a dog” in general, a mental image of our pet spaniel may arise in our minds. It deceptively appears as though our pet spaniel is what “dogs” in general look like.

Conceptual categories, as mental derivatives of commonsense objects, are semitransparent metaphysical entities. Thus, in the conceptual cognition of a specific objective commonsense table, the specific table is cognized through a semitransparent mental derivative of all tables (the conceptual category table) and a fully transparent mental representation of the specific table (the conceptually isolated item nothing other than the specific table). Because the conceptual category is a semitransparent filter, it partially veils the appearance of the specific table. In other words, the appearance of the specific table in the conceptual cognition is not vivid, no matter how clear and in focus it might be.

The appearing objects of conceptual cognitions (conceptual categories) are also their cognitively taken objects. Thus, in both nonconceptual and conceptual cognitions, the appearing objects are equivalent to the cognitively taken objects.

  • In sensory nonconceptual cognition, both are external objective commonsense objects.

  • In conceptual cognition, both are static metaphysical entities.

Categories in Reference to Conventional Objects

In the most general terms, a category (spyi, universal, generality) is a phenomenon shared in common by the individuals (bye-brag) on which it is imputed. In some cases, it is clearer to translate the Tibetan term for it as a “mental synthesis” or as a “synthesis” for short.

Among categories, we may differentiate:

  • categories in reference to conventional objects,

  • categories in reference to language.

In reference to conventional objects, there are three main types of categories:

  • collection mental syntheses (tshogs-spyi),

  • kind mental syntheses (rigs-spyi),

  • object mental syntheses (don-spyi).

Collection mental syntheses are wholes imputed on spatial, sensorial, and/or temporal parts. The parts may be connected with each other, as in the case of the parts of a table or a body. Alternatively, the parts may be unconnected and merely gathered together, such as in the case of a forest and the trees that comprise it.

Consider the example of “a table.” “A table,” as a whole item, can be imputed on

  • a collection of patches of colored shapes,

  • a collection of tactile sensations of variously shaped surfaces,

  • a collection of the previous two collections,

  • a collection of legs and a flat surface,

  • a collection of molecules,

  • a collection of moments of any or all of the previous collections.

A whole is a category into which several items fit. This is because it can be imputed on any of the above collections of parts.

Because collection syntheses extend over time, they are also called vertical mental syntheses (gong-ma’i spyi).

Kind mental syntheses are the type of phenomenon that a specific individual item is an instance of, such as “a table” imputed on a specific instance of something having legs and a flat surface.

  • Similar items of varying design and individual items of the same design may be instances of the kind synthesis table.

  • In other words, a kind synthesis specifies the conventional identity of something.

The kind of phenomenon that something is constitutes a category into which many items fit. This is because it can be imputed on any item having the characteristic marks of that kind of phenomenon.

Because kind syntheses extend over instances of them, they are also called horizontal mental syntheses (thad-ka’i spyi).

Object mental syntheses are the conceptual categories of commonsense objects used when thinking of, verbalizing, imagining (visualizing), or remembering commonsense objects.

Specifically Gelug

A category is defined as an individual set, class, or whole imputed on a collection of subsets, individual members of a set, individual instances of a class, or individual parts.

There are two ontological types of categories:

  • categories that are functional phenomena (spyi dngos-po-ba),

  • categories that are nonfunctional phenomena (spyi dngos-po ma-yin-pa).

Functional phenomena (dngos-po) are synonymous with nonstatic phenomena. Nonfunctional phenomena (dngos-med) are synonymous with static phenomena.

Let us call categories that are functional phenomena “nonstatic mental syntheses.” They may be cognized either nonconceptually or conceptually. They include:

  • collection mental syntheses,

  • kind mental syntheses.

Since collection and kind syntheses are nonstatic phenomena, they appear in sensory nonconceptual cognition as part of the focal objects (equivalent to the mental aspects, appearing objects, and cognitively taken objects). When ascertained, they may also be the involved objects explicitly apprehended by the sensory nonconceptual cognition of them.

Thus, when we see a collection of parts, we also see the whole that they comprise and the type of phenomenon that the whole is (its conventional identity). For example, when we see the legs and flat surface of a table or the shape and color of a table, these parts simultaneously also appear as a whole item and as a table. This nonconceptual cognition, however, does not apply a word or name to the item.

We shall call categories that are nonfunctional phenomena “static categories.” They are cognized only conceptually. They include:

  • object categories.

Conceptual Cognition with Object Categories

Specifically Gelug

Object categories are the semitransparent appearing objects in conceptual cognition. They are superimposed (imputed) on and confused with mental representations of the involved objects of the conceptual cognition – namely, external objective entities.

Consider the example of the nonverbal conceptual cognition of a form of physical phenomenon, such as when thinking of the sight, smell, taste, or physical sensation of an external commonsense object, for instance an orange.

A mental aspect arises resembling:

  • a specific set of sensibilia of the external commonsense object,

  • the nonstatic collection synthesis of the sensibilia constituting a whole object,

  • the nonstatic kind synthesis of the sense data constituting “this” kind of object, and “not that” kind – an orange, not an apple.

This threefold mental aspect is a fully transparent mental representation of a specific external objective set of sensibilia, a collection synthesis, and a kind synthesis. The objective set of sensibilia, the objective collection synthesis, and the objective kind synthesis are all cognized through this mental aspect resembling them.

The semitransparent appearing object (the conceptual category) with which the totally transparent mental aspect is mixed is an object category, as in the case of imagining or remembering an orange, but without associating the word orange with what mentally appears.

  • In the case of imagining an orange, a fully transparent mental aspect resembling a specific commonsense orange arises. An objective specific commonsense orange appears through it. The mental aspect and specific commonsense orange are mixed with the semitransparent object synthesis oranges in general, with which the mental representation is confused.

  • In the case of remembering a specific commonsense orange, the specific commonsense orange appears through a fully transparent mental aspect that resembles it. These are mixed with the semitransparent object synthesis a specific “public” orange. A specific public orange is one that anyone could have seen from any angle when we saw that specific commonsense orange. The appearance of the specific commonsense orange may also be mixed with the semitransparent object synthesis the specific commonsense orange whether seen, smelled, tasted, or touched.

Categories in Reference to Language

In reference to language, there are two types of categories:

  • audio categories (sgra-spyi, sound universals),

  • meaning categories (don-spyi, meaning universals).

Audio categories are acoustic patterns adopted as conventions (tha-snyad) in a particular language by the members of a specific society. As the acoustic patterns of words, such as “table,” and not the sounds of words (which are collection syntheses and kind syntheses), they are categories in the sense that they are imputable on sounds made in a variety of voices, pitches, volumes, and pronunciations. The sounds may be made audibly by a voice, a mechanical device, or a natural phenomenon; or they may be merely mental. Audio categories by themselves do not have any meanings associated with them.

  • Although the classical Buddhist texts do not mention them, we may, by extension, speak of written categories. Written categories would be patterns of lines and dots adopted as conventions for representing words in a particular language by members of a particular society. They are categories in the sense that they are imputable on lines and dots appearing in a variety of colors, scripts, handwriting, levels of darkness, and substances out of which they are made. The lines and dots may be written by hand, mechanically produced, or naturally occurring.

  • Likewise, we may speak of gesture categories, such as those that are used in sign languages, which are adopted as conventions for representing words.

  • We may also speak of tactile sensation categories, such as patterns of tactile sensations of raised dots that are used in Braille systems, which are adopted as conventions for representing words.

Meaning categories are patterns of significance of acoustic patterns, adopted as the meanings of words in a particular language by members of a specific society. By extension, meaning categories could also be patterns of significance of written patterns, gesture patterns, or tactile sensation patterns. Meanings do not exist inherently within sounds, lines and dots, gestures, or tactile sensations. They are merely conventions coined, assigned to acoustic patterns and so on, and used as categories by the members of a specific society in order to communicate. For example, depending on the meaning category conventionally assigned to it, the same acoustic pattern can mean “to,” “too,” or “two” in English or “you” in mispronounced French. Similarly, the same written pattern, for instance “bear,” can mean “a large furry mammal” or “to endure something.”

Moreover, meaning categories are categories in the sense that they are imputable on all the slightly different meanings that each person in a language group associates with a particular acoustic pattern of a word. Further, they are categories also in the sense that they are imputable on acoustic patterns each time the acoustic pattern is used by any person and even by the same person.

Meaning categories refer not only to patterns of significance of acoustic patterns and so on, but also sometimes to patterns of objects that acoustic patterns and so on signify. In such cases, meaning categories are equivalent to object mental syntheses. For this reason, meaning categories may also be termed “meaning/object categories.”

Specifically Gelug

In verbal conceptual cognition, we think of (1) the objective sounds of the vowels and consonants audible during the sequence of moments required to hear the sound of entire commonsense words. We think as well of the objective sounds of entire commonsense words as (2) objective collection syntheses and (3) objective kind syntheses. We think of all three through fully transparent mental aspects resembling them all.

Verbal conceptual cognition thinks of the above three through semitransparent conceptual categories. It imputes these categories on and mixes them with the objective sounds and syntheses, as well as the mental aspects resembling them. The conceptual categories may be:

  • merely an audio category, as in the case of thinking the word voidness without having any idea of what it means, or

  • both an audio category and a meaning category, as in the case of thinking the word voidness together with a meaning associated with the word, even if that meaning is inaccurate.

Consider the case of preverbal conceptual cognition, such as when a preverbal baby thinks of its mother when it misses her and cries. A mental aspect resembling the form of a physical phenomenon, such as a mental sight, sound, smell, taste, or physical sensation, together with a collection and a kind synthesis, arises. The conceptual category with which it is mixed is:

  • merely a meaning category. Although the baby does not yet know the word mother, it conceives of the meaning of the audio category mother. This meaning category is fit (rung) to be applied to the audio category mother when the baby learns the word mother.

Conceptually Implied Objects

Conceptually implied objects (zhen-yul, conceived objects, implied objects) are, literally, the objects on which conceptual categories or concepts cling. They are phenomena exclusively of conceptual cognition. Nonconceptual cognition does not have conceptually implied objects.

Specifically Gelug

Consider the conceptual cognition that verbally thinks an objective commonsense word – for example “orange.”

If the verbal conceptual cognition apprehends only the sound of the word orange, the external objective sound of the commonsense word orange is the involved object.

The appearing objects are the semitransparent audio category orange and the meaning/object category of what the audio category orange signifies.

The conceptually implied object of the audio category is the external objective sound of the commonsense word orange (the involved object). The conceptually implied object of the meaning/object category is the external objective commonsense orange.

Summary of Conceptual Cognition in Chart Form

Specifically Gelug

External ObjectMental Aspect
(Conceptual Isolate)
Category
    Mental derivative of external objects
  Conceptual representation of an external object  
  Fully transparent Semitransparent

Moments of sensibilia,

Commonsense object (as an objective collection synthesis and an objective kind synthesis),

Conventional identity as “this” and “not that,”

Spatial & temporal parts

Resembles moments of sensibilia,

Resembles a commonsense object (as a collection synthesis and kind synthesis),

Conventional identity as “this” and “not that,”

Resembles spatial & temporal parts

Audio categories, audio and meaning/object categories
Appears,
Partly veiled
Appears,
Partly veiled
Appearing object
    Cognitively taken object
Focal object    
Involved object Involved object Involved object of only the reflexive awareness of the conceptual cognition
Explicitly apprehended   Implicitly apprehended only by reflexive awareness
Decisively determined as an item that fits in “these” and “not those” conceptual categories Decisively determined as an item that fits in “these” and “not those” conceptual categories Decisively determined implicitly by
reflexive awareness as “these” and “not those” categories
Conceptually implied object   Mistaken for the conceptually implied object