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Fine Analysis of Objects of Cognition:
Non-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 the two camps: non-Gelug (Sakya, Nyingma, and Kagyu) and Gelug.

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 non-Gelug interpretations.

Neither the non-Gelug nor the Gelug division, however, presents a uniform explanation of cognition theory. Several masters within each camp have explained specific points slightly differently in their commentaries. To represent the non-Gelug position, we shall rely primarily on the explanations given by the fifteenth-century Sakya master Gorampa (Go-ram bSod-nams seng-ge).

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, although, as a nonstatic (mi-rtag-pa, impermanent) object, an orange changes from moment to moment, 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 Non-Gelug

Objective entities can be validly cognized only by valid nonconceptual cognition. Metaphysical entities can be validly cognized only by valid conceptual cognition.

Objective and Metaphysical Entities – Specific Presentation

Specifically Non-Gelug

Objective entities are specifically characterized phenomena. They include all individual items (bye-brag).

Individual items, as Dharmakirti defined them, are those phenomena that are determinate or unmixed in terms of spatial location, temporal location, and essential nature as an individual.

  • Spatial location means situated in a specific perceptible unit of spatial location.

  • Temporal location means situated in a specific unit (a moment) of temporal location.

  • Being individual by essential nature means that the items do not require mental construction from the synthesis of other items, such as spatial units of different sensibilia, temporal parts, or other individual items resembling them. Thus, individual items hold their own essential natures merely as being individuals; they do not hold essential natures as being “this” and “not that” conventional object.

  • Thus, being unmixed means not being mentally constructed from the synthesis of other items.

Individual items include all nonstatic phenomena:

  • moments of forms of physical phenomena – namely, moments of sensibilia and of sound,

  • moments of ways of being aware of something,

  • moments of nonconcomitant affecting variables, such as moments of nonstaticness and of persons.

Here, we shall deal primarily with forms of physical phenomena. In this category, individual items, then, refer only to:

moments of collections of perceptible units of specific types of sensibilia, such as a collection of patches of colored shapes comprising a sight,

  • moments of the collections of molecules over which specific types of sensibilia extend,

  • moments of sounds.

These are the only things that we actually see, hear, smell, taste, or physically sense.

Metaphysical entities are generally characterized phenomena. They include all categories (mental syntheses) and all concepts, such as absences – for instance, the absence of a vase imputed on a bare tabletop.

Categories are those phenomena that are held in common (thun-mong-ba) by other phenomena: they are that into which other phenomena “go together” (rjes-‘gro) or fit. They are not simply collections (tshogs-pa) of individual items. Categories do not have determinate spatial locations, temporal locations, or essential natures as individual unsynthesized items. They are mentally (conceptually) constructed (spros-pa, fabricated) by a mental synthesis of individual items that are instances of them, or by a mental synthesis of the spatial, sensorial, and/or temporal parts on which they are imputed.

Thus, categories include:

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

  • a commonsense orange, as a mental synthesis of the individual sensibilia of sight, smell, taste, and physical sensation,

  • the sight of a commonsense orange (and not simply just a sight), as a mental synthesis of a collection of patches of colored shapes,

  • a commonsense orange, as a mental synthesis of a succession of individual moments of either of the above two mental syntheses,

  • a conventional identity as “an orange” imputed on any of the above three mental syntheses.

Therefore, although commonsense objects exist, they are merely metaphysical entities, not objectively real. They can be validly known only by the conceptual cognition that mentally constructs and imputes them on the individual items of which they are a mental synthesis.

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 Non-Gelug

The involved object in nonconceptual cognition is:

  • a moment of sensibilia,

  • or a moment of sound.

The involved objects in a conceptual cognition are:

  • a commonsense object, for example a table,

  • such metaphysical features of the table as:

  • the table as a table,

  • the table as an instance of an item in the category table,

  • the table as an instance of what the word table signifies.

Thus,

  • objective entities are the involved objects of only nonconceptual cognition,

  • metaphysical entities are the involved objects of only 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 Non-Gelug

Nonconceptual cognition does not apprehend (identify) its involved object. It merely cognitively takes hold of (‘ dzin-pa) its involved object.

Decisive determination (ascertainment) of an involved object, that it is “this” and “not that,” occurs only with a conceptual cognition that immediately follows a moment of nonconceptual cognition. Consequently, nonconceptual mental cognition is a nondetermining cognition of what appears (snang-la ma-nges-pa, inattentive perception). An object appears, but is not decisively determined as “this” and “not that.” Only conceptual cognition apprehends its involved object.

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 Non-Gelug

For example, in what is conventionally considered seeing smoke rising from the chimney of a house on a mountain, moments of slightly different gray-colored shapes are obvious, because they can be seen.

The presence of both smoke and fire is obscure: neither can be directly seen.

The presence of smoke can be validly known inferentially by relying on renown that the application of the mental synthesis smoke on a mental aspect (rnam-pa, mental semblance, mental hologram) resembling smoke mentally constructed from a succession of slightly different gray shapes is a correct application of a term.

The presence of fire can be validly known by relying on a valid line of reasoning, “Where there is smoke, there is fire.”

The name of the person living in the house 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.

Only the moments of slightly different gray-colored shapes are objective entities, and they are obvious. The smoke, the fire, and the name of the person are all metaphysical entities. The first two are obscure and the third 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 Non-Gelug

There is no such thing as implicit apprehension (shugs-la rtogs-pa), either in nonconceptual or conceptual cognition, in which a cognitive object is decisively determined without a mental aspect resembling it arising.

  • As already noted, nonconceptual cognition does not apprehend its involved objects, because nonconceptual cognition does not decisively determine the objective entities that are its involved objects.

  • Valid conceptual cognition apprehends the metaphysical entities that are its involved objects. In decisively determining an involved object, a mental aspect seemingly resembling a metaphysical entity always arises. Such apprehension does not bear the technical term explicit apprehension (dngos-su rtogs-pa).

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 Non-Gelug

The external object that casts an impression (a mental aspect) on sensory consciousness of it is a moment of sensibilia, such as a moment of colored shapes, or a moment of sound. Only such individual items are objective external entities.

  • According to a minority position within the non-Gelug camp, as represented by the fifteenth-century Sakya master Shakya-chogden (gSer-mdog Pan-chen Sha-kya mchog-ldan), the external object that casts a mental aspect here is a moment merely of molecules. In the case of objects of visual cognition, the molecules would be similar to colored pixels. Only moments of molecules are objective entities, not moments of sensibilia, such as patches of colored shapes. Sensibilia are metaphysical entities.

Since sensory nonconceptual cognition does not decisively determine anything about its object, the mental aspect that appears to sensory nonconceptual cognition cannot resemble some nonstatic features that are its involved objects and some that are not its involved objects. The entire mental aspect that appears in sensory nonconceptual cognition resembles the involved object.

  • The mental aspect (the mental hologram) in the cognition is the directly involved object.

  • The external object (a moment of external sensibilia or a moment of external sound) is the indirectly involved object. The difference between the two will be explained below.

Level of Transparency of Mental Aspects

Specifically Non-Gelug

The mental aspect cast on a sensory consciousness by an external objective entity, such as a moment of an external patch of colored shape, is opaque. Only the mental aspect appears in sensory nonconceptual cognition.

  • The mental aspect is directly cognized (dngos-su rig) by the cognition.

  • The moment of the external patch of colored shape that casts a mental aspect on the sensory consciousness of it is indirectly cognized (shugs-la rig) by that sensory cognition.

This distinction derives from the non-Gelug literal assertion of the momentariness of nonstatic phenomena. The moment of the external patch of colored shape that existed as the direct cause (dngos-rgyu) of the sensory cognition of it has ceased to exist the immediately following moment when the sensory cognition with the mental aspect cast by it occurs. In this sense, the moment of the external patch of colored shape is hidden (lkog na-mo) in the sensory cognition.

  • Being hidden in a cognition, however, is not equivalent to an involved object being obscure. Obscure phenomena can only be validly known inferentially by relying on a line of reasoning or renown. The presence of a moment of an external patch of colored shape that is cognized by a sensory cognition, however, is not something that can only be inferred. The moment of an external patch of colored shape is cognized nonconceptually by sensory cognition, but only indirectly.

  • Nor is the indirect cognition of a moment of an external patch of colored shape a case of a cognition of something in which little or no attention is paid to an object. In such cases, the object not paid much attention to is still present and appears to the cognition. Here, however, the moment of an external patch of colored shape indirectly cognized by the sensory cognition of it no longer exists when the sensory cognition of it occurs the next moment. Therefore, the attention in the cognition is focused only on the mental aspect (the directly involved object of the cognition).

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 Non-Gelug

In sensory nonconceptual cognition, the focal object of the cognition (a moment of sensibilia) is only indirectly cognized. Nevertheless, the focal object, in its entirety, is still an involved object of the cognition.

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 Non-Gelug

The cognitively taken object (gzung-yul, held object) of a cognition is defined as the external objective entity that serves as the direct cause of the cognition.

  • Thus, in sensory nonconceptual cognition, the cognitively taken object is the moment of external sensibilia that the cognition indirectly cognizes.

  • The appearing object (mental derivative) is only the directly cognized opaque mental aspect of the cognitively taken object, and not the cognitively taken external object itself.

Summary of Sensory Nonconceptual Cognition in Chart Form

Specifically Non-Gelug

 

External Object

Mental Aspect

 

Opaque mental derivative

A moment of sensibilia

A moment of sensibilia

Does not appear

Appearing object

Cognitively taken object

Assumes the aspect

of the cognitively taken object

Focal object

 

Involved object

 

Involved object

Indirectly cognized (hidden)

Directly cognized

Merely held,

Not decisively determined as either a commonsense object or as “this” and “not that” r 0 n n n n commonsense object

Merely held,

Not decisively determined as either a commonsense object or as “this” and “not that” r 0 n n n n 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 (dgag-pa, negatingly known phenomenon) and include both conceptual categories and conceptually isolated items (ldog-pa, conceptual isolates, distinguishers).

A negation phenomena is an exclusion 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.

  • 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 implici    tly, 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 Non-Gelug

What appears (arises) in conceptual cognition are mental syntheses and the conceptual categories into which these mental syntheses fit. These two types of metaphysical entities are the involved objects of conceptual cognition. The mental syntheses and categories are mental representations – for instance, the mental representation of a commonsense object, such as a commonsense table, and the mental representation of the conceptual category into which it fits, such as “table.”

The appearing object of a conceptual cognition is a mental derivative (mental reflection) of the mental synthesis and conceptual category. It is a conceptually isolated item that stands for the mentally synthesized commonsense object and category in the conceptual cognition. It too is a static metaphysical entity. As the appearing object, the conceptually isolated item is the object that is seemingly directly in front of the mental consciousness of the conceptual cognition.

The conceptually isolated item is a mental exclusion of something else – namely, it is the type of implicative negation phenomenon that is a “nothing other than.” In the case of the conceptual cognition of a commonsense table, the conceptually isolated item is “ nothing other than a commonsense table.” What is left in the wake of the negation phenomenon when we have excluded “ everything other than a commonsense table” is “a commonsense table.”

  • The type of exclusion of something else known as an “individually characterized object exclusion of something else” is also the type of implicative negation phenomenon that is a “nothing other than.” The object exclusion is merely a fact about, for instance, a commonsense table – namely, that it is nothing other than a commonsense table.

  • Despite its technical name individually characterized object exclusion of something else, the fact itself is not an individually characterized object. It is a fact that individually or specifically characterizes a commonsense object. The fact itself is a static metaphysical entity and is not equivalent to the commonsense table.

  • A conceptually isolated item, on the other hand, refers to the appearing object in a conceptual cognition of a commonsense object, such as a commonsense table. It specifies an individual commonsense table as a mental derivative of the mental synthesis commonsense table and the category table.

Being a static metaphysical entity, the conceptually isolated item nothing other than a commonsense table lacks any objective physical characteristics of its own. Neither “a commonsense table,” nor “nothing other than a commonsense table,” exists objectively with objective sensibilia, such as a colored shape or texture. Both a commonsense table and its conceptual isolate are merely mental syntheses. Yet, in order to conceive of and think about a commonsense table, a conceptual cognition must take on a mental aspect that seemingly resembles a commonsense table. The mental aspect that it takes on is the conceptual isolate. Thus, despite being a metaphysical entity, the conceptually isolated item, as the appearing object, resembles what seems to be the colored shape of a specific individual commonsense table. It is not, however, that an objective colored shape is appearing in the conceptual cognition, let alone an object commonsense table.

As a mental derivative of a mentally synthesized commonsense table and of the conceptual category commonsense table, the conceptually isolated item stands for the shared commonality (gzhi-mthun, common locus) of all items that would fit into the mental synthesis or category. It is not equivalent to the mental synthesis a commonsense table.

  • In the case of the mental synthesis a commonsense table, the conceptually isolated item stands for the shared commonality of the mental aspects in the conceptual cognition that seemingly resemble colored shapes and tactile sensations. This shared commonality allows for both types of mental aspect to be validly labeled by the conceptual cognition as “a commonsense table.”

  • In the case of the category commonsense table, the conceptually isolated item stands for the commonality of all mental aspects that seemingly resemble individual commonsense tables. This shared commonality allows for all of them to be validly labeled as “tables,” regardless of what seems to be their shapes, sizes, colors, textures, or materials from which they are made.

The conceptually isolated item, as the focal aspect of the conceptual cognition, is an opaque mental aspect. Objective entities, such as moments of patches of colored shapes, do not appear through them. In fact, conceptual cognition does not cognize any objective entities at all, not even indirectly, and thus lacks any focal object.

The conceptual category or mental synthesis is superimposed (mentally labeled, imputed) on the conceptually isolated item that derives from it. The conceptual cognition cognizes the conceptually isolated item – in this case, a mental aspect that seemingly resembles “a commonsense table” in the conceptual category table – through the mental synthesis commonsense table and conceptual category table. However, since the mental synthesis and conceptual category are both semitransparent mental representations, they partially veil the mental aspect that is the appearing object of the conceptual cognition. Thus, the mental aspect seemingly resembling a commonsense table in the category table does not appear vividly. This is the case no matter how clear or how much in focus this mental derivative may be.

The conceptual cognition is deceptive, because it confusingly appears as though the appearing object – the conceptual isolate of a commonsense object, such as a table – is an external objective entity. Commonsense objects in conceptual categories, however, are merely metaphysical entities. They are mental representations that arise and appear only in conceptual cognition.

Since cognitively taken objects are defined as the direct causes of the cognitions of them and since conceptual cognitions do not have external objective entities present as their direct causes, conceptual cognitions do not have cognitively taken objects.

  • Thus, appearing objects are not synonymous with cognitively taken objects.

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 Non-Gelug

A category is defined as a mentally constructed synthesis (spros-pa, mental fabrication) of individual items.

All categories (mental syntheses) are nonfunctional (static) phenomena.

Collection and kind mental syntheses are subcategories of object categories.

Because collection mental syntheses and kind mental syntheses are static metaphysical phenomena, they do not appear in sensory nonconceptual cognition. They appear only in conceptual cognition. This is consistent with the assertion that sensory nonconceptual cognition does not decisively determine its object as a “this” and “not that.”

Consider the example of seeing something.

  • In moment one (the moment immediately preceding the moment when the seeing of something actually takes place), a moment of an external patch of colored shapes occurs. This external objective entity is the indirectly cognized focal object and cognitively taken object of the seeing.

  • In moment two (the moment when the seeing actually occurs), a mental aspect representing the previous moment of the patch of colored shapes arises. The previous moment of the patch of colored shapes no longer exists. This “internal” objective entity is the directly cognized appearing object and the involved object. The mental representation appears merely as a patch of colored shapes. It does not appear as a whole commonsense object, let alone one that is an instance of “this” and “not that” – for example as “a table” and “not an orange.”

  • In moment three (the moment of conceptual cognition immediately following the nonconceptual seeing), a mental aspect resembling a whole commonsense item with the conventional identity a table occurs, as a mental synthesis. The mental aspect resembling a commonsense table is the appearing object of the conceptual cognition of the table. The metaphysical entity table from which it derives is the involved object.

Cognizing a sentence as a whole (based on hearing the sound of only one consonant or vowel at a time) and cognizing the motion of something (based on seeing some item in only one position and location at a time) are similarly conceptual processes.

Some non-Gelug scholars, such as Shakya-chogden, assert that the mental aspects that appear in visual nonconceptual cognition are mental representations of only a moment of a collection of molecules. The cognitive appearance of even colored shapes occurs only in conceptual cognition.

Conceptual Cognition with Object Categories

Specifically Non-Gelug

Object categories (mental syntheses) appear as the involved objects of conceptual cognitions in which the appearing objects are opaque mental representations of commonsense objects (opaque mental aspects that resemble commonsense objects). The object categories are superimposed (imputed) on and confused with the mental representations.

Consider the nonverbal conceptual cognition of the sight of an orange. This may occur immediately after seeing a moment of an external spherical patch of orange color, or later imagining or remembering a commonsense orange.

An opaque mental aspect resembling a commonsense orange arises as the appearing object of the conceptual cognition. A moment of a specific external spherical patch of orange color is not even indirectly cognized.

The mental aspect, a mental representation of a commonsense orange, is confused with the object categories imputed on it. The mentally fabricated and projected object categories (mental syntheses) with which the mental representation is identified are:

  • a whole object with temporal continuity,

  • a “real” commonsense orange,

  • either oranges in general or a specific “public” orange visible to anyone.

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 Non-Gelug

In verbal conceptual thinking, opaque mental aspects seemingly resembling commonsense conventional words as collection syntheses and kind syntheses arise as the appearing objects. The conceptual cognition does not cognize, even indirectly, the objective sounds of sequences of vowels and consonants. The commonsense conventional words, as mentally synthesized wholes, are merely metaphysical entities.

The conceptual categories that verbal conceptual cognition imputes on the mental aspects and with which they are mixed include:

  • collection syntheses,

  • kind syntheses,

  • audio categories, and

  • meaning categories or meaning/object categories.

Conceptual thought related to language does not occur with only an audio category or only a meaning/object category. It always occurs with a combination of the two.

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 Non-Gelug

In the conceptual cognition that verbally thinks a commonsense word such as “orange,” the appearing object is an opaque mental aspect that seemingly resembles the sound of the entire commonsense word orange.

The audio category orange and the meaning/object category of what the audio category orange signifies appear (arise) in the cognition as the involved objects.

Since verbal conceptual cognition always involves both audio categories and meaning/object categories, such cognition always has two conceptually implied objects:

  • the object conceptually implied as a signifier (zhen-pa’i brjod-byed),

  • the conceptually implied object being signified (zhen-pa’i brjod-bya).

They must be differentiated from:

  • the object that is the actual signifier (dngos-kyi brjod-byed),

  • the object actually signified (dngos-kyi brjod-bya).

The object that is the actual signifier of the commonsense orange is the audio category orange (the involved object). The objects conceptually implied as the signifiers of the commonsense orange are the external momentary sounds of vowels and consonants, as heard one by one.

The object actually signified by the mental aspect that seemingly resembles a commonsense orange is the meaning/object category commonsense orange (the involved object). The conceptually implied object being signified is a moment of external sensibilia, such as a spherical patch of orange color.

Summary of Conceptual Cognition in Chart Form

Specifically Non-Gelug

External Object Mental Aspect
(= Focal Aspect)
Metaphysical Entities
 

Mental derivative of a category

 
    Mental representation of a
commonsense object
  Opaque  
A moment of objective sensibilia Resembles a commonsense object

Commonsense object as a collection synthesis and kind synthesis,

Audio and meaning/object categories

Does not appear Appearing object,
Partly veiled
Appears
No cognitively taken object    
No focal object    
Not involved   Involved object
   

Decisively determined as an item that fits in “these” and “not those” categories and mental syntheses

Object conceptually implied as the signifier, Conceptually implied object being signified

 

Object that is the actual signifier, Object actually signified by the mental aspect,

Mistaken for the conceptually implied object signified