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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 5: Analysis of the Mind and Reality > Elaboration of "What Does It Mean to Understand Something?" > Session Six: The Difference between Conceptual and Nonconceptual Cognition (continued)

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

Alexander Berzin
Vienna, Austria, March 2012

Session Six: The Difference between Conceptual and Nonconceptual Cognition (continued)

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:31 hours)

What Is Involved in Understanding Something?

We have been looking at what does it mean to understand something, and we’re trying to understand what it means to understand something. And we saw that this requires not just apprehension, which is to accurately and decisively cognize something, but also understanding implies to have worked out all the implications of something and to connect what we have apprehended with so many other things. So we apprehend something. We also discussed what it means to know something, like know what something is in terms of mental labeling and understanding.

The method that we’ve employed is the method that I’ve been explaining is involved with understanding something, which is to put many, many aspects of the teachings together and work out what the implications are of the various teachings. So, we’ve put together a tremendous amount of varied material from the teachings on epistemology (how we know things) and the whole theory of what are affirmation and negation phenomena.

Negation phenomena like “not an apple,” “nothing other than an apple,” “no such thing as a monster.” All of that is in the theory of negation phenomena. Affirmation phenomena, negation phenomena. Something that we know through an affirmation – that’s a drubpa (sgrub-pa) in Tibetan – or what we know through a negation – that’s a gagpa (dgag-pa).

[See: Gelug Definitions of Affirmation and Negation Phenomena.]

And we’ve put together a lot from voidness theory, the theory of mental labeling, and all the explanation about the nature of the mind. We put that in there as well. So what this illustrates is that if we have difficulty understanding and following this whole discussion, that really it depends on understanding, or at least familiarizing ourselves with, each of the pieces that are being put together here.

That illustrates, I think, what is very relevant for any sort of tantra practice or tantra study. When we do a tantra practice in a sadhana (sgrub-thabs), for instance, which is a method to be able to actualize – again we have our word drubpa: drubtab (sgrub-thabs), a way to actualize or affirm or to establish ourselves as a Buddha-figure, as a deity, a yidam – then we notice in it that there are so many… all the different pieces from sutra, and they’re all put together. So we have bodhichitta, we have compassion, we have voidness, we have the far-reaching attitudes or perfections, so-called “perfections.” All the various arms and faces and so on of the Buddha-figures represent these various things. And if we haven’t trained ourselves and familiarized ourselves with each of these pieces, then it’s impossible to put them together, especially when in a line in a sadhana, just with a few words, we have “compassion,” “everything becomes void,” these sort of things. If you haven’t trained yourself with tremendous familiarity and really understood and worked with these various aspects, how can you possibly generate them so quickly in a tantra practice? You can’t.

There’s the instructions that when you have “everything becomes void” in a tantra practice, you don’t at that time do the analysis of voidness. You just recall your understanding of voidness instantly, because you have done all the analysis and worked with it beforehand. Otherwise you break the continuity of the sadhana by doing a whole, huge analysis at that point. Or to put it in our epistemology terminology that we’ve presented yesterday: at that point we don’t generate the understanding of voidness and the focus on voidness through inference, directly relying on a line of reasoning, but with straightforward cognition (it’s going to be of course conceptual, but the one that doesn’t rely directly on the line of reasoning). That’s why Tsongkhapa’s whole presentation of ways of knowing is actually very profoundly related to how we meditate.

My point in bringing all of this up is that if we find the presentation that I’ve been giving here difficult, sophisticated, and so on, by analogy we should realize that any of these tantric rituals that we do are likewise sophisticated, advanced, complex, and even more complex than what I’ve been explaining. So don’t trivialize them into just being a ritual that you chant, like singing a hymn in church. I don’t mean to say that singing a hymn in church is trivial, but what I’m saying is that don’t reduce it to just singing.

And also I think that this presentation underlines that we really need to study, think about, and work with all the various aspects of the Dharma teachings, and not just leave them as separate subjects but try to put them together.

We have this in the presentation of the six far-reaching attitudes (pha-rol-tu phyin-pa). They’re called “perfections,” but in English “perfection” isn’t quite… it gives the impression that (a) you have to be perfect, which is difficult, and (b) it’s just referring to the final stage of them. There is a whole long process of coming up to that final stage, and so it’s far reaching. It’s an attitude that – exactly the connotation of both the Sanskrit and the Tibetan – that takes you far; it takes you all the way to liberation and enlightenment.

In the presentation of these six, it says that all six of them are complete in each of the six. And likewise we hear that: “In one word of the Dharma, all the Dharma teachings fit together.” Well, take that seriously. That means that with any topic that we study, we need to fit in everything else in the teachings. And it will fit together. That’s the whole point. When we study the Dharma it’s like being given many, many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and these fit together not just in one way but in multidimensional ways. And that’s the whole task of understanding, is to put all the pieces together in as many ways as possible.

This is the way that we study lam-rim, the graded stages of the path. You go through it the first time and, if you really do it in the proper classical way, you don’t know what’s coming next. I was very fortunate. I was able to study it that way because it was before any of these texts were ever translated. But that was long ago. Now everything is available, so it’s like knowing how a mystery story is going to end – read the end already. But in any case, you go through it step by step consecutively – that’s only the first time of going through it – without knowing what comes next. But as I said, this way of studying it is only the first way. And then you go back, and at each step you fit in everything that comes later, as much as you can.

The old Trijang Rinpoche, the one that was the junior tutor of His Holiness, always used to say that “I’ve read Lam-rim chen-mo” – this is the big lam-rim by Tsongkhapa – “a hundred times, and each time it’s like reading a different text.” That’s because each time you’re able to fit in more and more of all the different aspects of the Dharma into each tiny little point. This is what understanding is. That’s how understanding gets deeper and deeper and deeper. It’s fitting everything together in multidimensional ways.

Well, this is what His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes, in terms of our Dharma practice, is analyze. What distinguishes us from animals is that we have human intelligence. Use it. Try to figure things out. Put things together. This is what he means when he says, “Analyze, analyze, analyze. Don’t just recite ritual.” Ritual without understanding has very, very little power, very little effect. Ritual with understanding – now, that’s something else. That is what we’re aiming for, but first you need the understanding.

Actually there are several ways of doing it; it’s not just that first you have to have understanding. Another style would be to do the two simultaneously: work on understanding and do ritual. Another presentation is, well, do ritual first because it builds up the positive force that enables you to understand. But the point of all the methods is that you need both, not just one.

The ritual gives us a structure – that’s its main function – so that on that structure we could put together many, many different things that we have understood. That’s the meaning of the word “tantra.” Tantra. The root “tan” means “to stretch.” Tibetans translate it with a word that means “continuity” (rgyud). Not only do we have continuity, but in another sense it is the thing that you draw out to make the strings of a loom. And it’s on that loom, in these strings, that you weave all the different points of the Dharma. So it’s your structure on which you can weave, put together, bodhichitta and voidness and impermanence and all these different things.

Participant: What’s a loom?


Alex: A loom is what you weave a rug on. It’s the strings of the loom.

So understanding involves all these various things – putting things together, working out the implications, applying the various points that we have apprehended correctly and decisively.

Apprehending and Understanding Something Nonconceptually

So now what is nonconceptual? What’s involved with nonconceptual apprehension, nonconceptual understanding? This is what we’re up to in our discussion.

We were using our example of seeing a dog. We can accurately and decisively know that it’s a dog. I mean, first of all we can see the dog and nonconceptually, like the baby seeing the dog, accurately and decisively see a dog – not just colored shapes, but the whole thing and what kind of thing it is, a dog. But the baby doesn’t necessarily know what it is. And that dog that the baby sees… I mean, we saw that the dog is what the label “dog” refers to on the basis of all these parts and colored shapes and so on.

And for that baby, even though the basis for labeling and what the label refers to and the label – those three arise dependently on each other (you can’t have one without the other); nevertheless for the baby the only thing that is appearing is the basis for labeling and what the label refers to. The label itself is not appearing, because the baby doesn’t know what it is; it doesn’t know what a dog is. So the baby has to learn the category “dog.” It has to learn the word “dog.” With humans, we usually work with language. How animals learn different things would not be with words, but concepts. Same thing. In any case, when the baby knows that it’s a dog, then in addition to the basis for labeling and what the label refers to – all of that is known conceptually through the filter of the category “dog,” an acoustic representation is associated: a word, a sound of a word.

Participant: This is for the baby or…?


Alex: When the baby learns what it is. You teach the baby: “Dog.” So then the baby sees this as a dog. So how does the baby see this and know it’s a dog? It’s conceptually through the filter of the category. And the category – an animal would have the category. And for us, humans, associated with the category would be a word and a sound of a word.

An animal: Goats know that certain plants are edible and certain plants are not edible. There’s a certain very pretty flower that grows in India that goats know that this is poisonous. It will make them sick. They won’t eat it. So how do they know that? The goat knows it through a category of “nonedible plant.” It doesn’t have a word with it. And maybe it’s represented this category by… it could be a smell, it could be what it looks like. I don’t know. How does a dog know its master from somebody else? It’s represented by a smell, isn’t it, through a category “master.” When you do these analyses, you have to be able to apply it not only to humans, but to animals as well. Then it becomes really interesting. Very interesting.

So this is conceptual. That’s a conceptual knowing of what it is. And then for the child to understand what a dog is, you have to throw understanding on top of it, which is to know all the implications like we explained yesterday – the implications being that the dog bites, you don’t take the bone away, you have to take it for a walk, etc.

So what is the difference between conceptual and nonconceptual? What is the difference? We’re asking a question. That’s how we analyze. You have to say, “Well, what’s the difference between conceptual and nonconceptual?” I’m taking you through an analysis.

The difference is that in conceptual, something is known through the filter of a category, and the category appears explicitly in the cognition. And because the category appears, then you know what it is. You know it’s a dog. Not just apprehend a dog, but you know that it’s a dog.

So now you work it out. Try to figure it out. How would you know what something is nonconceptually? These are the things that you have to put together. We’re doing our analysis here, so here are the points:

  • A Buddha is omniscient (a Buddha knows everything).
  • A Buddha only has nonconceptual cognition.
  • If a Buddha knows everything, then a Buddha also knows categories. How does a Buddha know categories?

So we had apprehension, remember? And apprehension can be explicit or implicit. What was the difference? The difference was: Explicit, the object appears (a mental hologram is a way of talking about it in a very general way), an aspect appears. And implicit, it doesn’t appear. So when we’re talking about categories, you can’t really speak about mental holograms as such; our analogy doesn’t work there. But anyway it doesn’t matter. Something appears; something doesn’t appear. If a category appears, that’s conceptual. Right? And it could be apprehension: correct, decisive. So how could a Buddha apprehend a category accurately and decisively without it appearing? Because if it appeared, it would be conceptual. A Buddha doesn’t have conceptual cognition. So what is the only possibility that’s left? What is the only alternative?


Participant: If the Buddha is omniscient, maybe he perceives the world differently than us who are still under the influence of dualism. And if the Buddha was free of this dualism, then maybe he would not need to perceive an object through this category.


Alex: Right. But still how would a Buddha know what it is? If a Buddha doesn’t know what it is, then it’s hopeless. And to say that a Buddha knows this transcendentally nondually, you’d have to explain that mechanism. You couldn’t just leave it as: “Well, we can’t understand it.” That is not a satisfactory answer from the point of view of Buddhism.

So have you figured it out?


Participant: I tried to. As Buddha is omniscient, he sees all the causes and conditions which form the subject. So he sees all the causes in one figure, in one box.


Alex: Right. So he’s saying that a Buddha can see all the causes and conditions in terms of not only the previous lives of this sentient being who now happens to have taken a dog rebirth but also all the causes and conditions of how people decided to make the sound “duh-aw-guh” and assign it as having a meaning. Yes, but that’s irrelevant. That still doesn’t mean that he knows what it is. He knows why people call it that, but he doesn’t know what it is.


Have you worked it out?


Participant: I don’t know if I’ve worked it out. Okay, Buddha knows everything…


Alex: Buddha knows everything.


Participant: He knows the truth, the real truth. But then when he knows the real truth and...


Alex: He knows the real truth. Is there only one truth?


Participant: No, there are many truths.


Alex: Well, aren’t there two truths, the deepest truth and conventional truth?

Participant: That’s more difficult.


Alex: Well, there is the conventional truth. From Gelugpa point of view, conventional truth has its own validity. A Buddha knows both.


Participant: But what I want to say is that he knows what I feel, who I am. He can observe me without having a conceptual phase, and he knows the difference between how he is and how he observes me. And with this difference...


Alex: So a Buddha knows others, knows everything about us, so knows how we think conceptually. And a Buddha doesn’t operate in the same way. But if a Buddha knows what we think and if we’re thinking a category, how does a Buddha know that category?


Participant: Because it’s a difference to him.


Alex: No. That has to be an object of his cognition, the category. So how does he know it?


Participant: He remembers.


Alex: So he remembers? Memory is conceptual. That’s through a concept. You don’t actually know the event before; you know something that represents it through a category in which you can fit it every time that you remember it. So that’s different. I remember my mother. Well, every time that I remember my mother, something slightly different appears, but it’s all through the category of “my mother.”

He was saying that the Buddha knows how we think. We think with concepts and categories, so a Buddha knows. But then the question is: What is the way? It’s so obvious. I said that apprehension can be explicit and implicit. If the category is explicit, it’s conceptual; it appears. Therefore how does a Buddha know these categories?

Participant: Implicitly.


Alex: Implicitly, thank you very much. Implicitly. They don’t appear. So just as we hear the sound of steps on a staircase and implicitly we know a person is there, a Buddha likewise explicitly sees this animal – what kind it is, the whole, etc. – and implicitly knows the label for it, but that label doesn’t appear. And both of these are manifest in that cognition. In other words, they’re happening. It’s not like it’s unconscious.

Participant: “Both of these” means…?

Alex: Explicit and implicit are both in the category called ngon-gyurwa (mngon-gyur-ba, manifest). There’s another category, bagla-nyal (bag-la nyal), which is “subliminal.” That’s something else.

It says in the texts: a Buddha knows… Categories are what are known as metaphysical phenomena – this is chitsen; rangtsen (rang-mtshan, objective entities), chitsen (spyi-mtshan, metaphysical entities) – metaphysical phenomena, and a Buddha knows all of them implicitly. And it’s not… I mentioned subliminal cognition. I don’t want to confuse you. It is manifest. Manifest means that both the consciousness and the person perceive it. It’s not just my eye consciousness sees; I see as well. Not just my ear consciousness hears; I hear as well.

Manifest – both the consciousness and the person cognize it. Subliminal – only the consciousness cognizes it, not the person. As in the example: When you are sleeping, the sound of the clock ticking is connecting to the ear consciousness, but I don’t hear it. How is it that you could possibly hear the alarm clock in the morning? It’s because the sound is coming to the ear consciousness. When it’s loud enough, then I hear it as well. So that’s subliminal.

So it’s not like that for a Buddha. It’s not like what we would call “unconscious” or “subliminal.” The Buddha actually manifestly knows that it’s a dog implicitly. Don’t think “implicit” means unconscious or subliminal. If the ear consciousness wasn’t functioning while we were sleeping, you could never hear the alarm. So it’s not like that for how a Buddha knows that this is a dog. How a Buddha understands anything is exactly the same as if conceptual.

All of this – apprehending a dog and implicitly that it is a “dog,” the label – in addition is held by the force of knowing all the implications, like you said: the previous life of the dog, who decided that this sound will represent a dog, and so on. So all of that is held by the force of understanding. A Buddha fits everything together. And for a Buddha, everything is manifest. The omniscience is completely all manifest.

And when we speak about nondual – you brought up nondual – nondual in Gelugpa Prasangika... The word “nondual” (gnyis-med) has many different meanings in different contexts – Chittamatra, mahamudra (in terms of clear-light mind), in dzogchen. It has many different meanings. But if you look at the meaning in Gelug Prasangika, “dual” (gnyis) doesn’t mean “two different things.” “Dual” means that something arises in a manner which is not in accord with how things actually exist. Dual in that sense, that it’s different from how things exist – in other words, an appearance of truly established existence. And a Buddha doesn’t see that, of course. I mean a Buddha’s mind doesn’t generate that, an appearance of truly established existence. Categories do. Categories automatically, if they appear, are making an appearance of non-truly-established existence – in other words, everything fitting in a box, as if truly it belonged in this box. So it can’t appear for a Buddha.

In the Gelug Prasangika context you would translate dual as “discordant.” Discordant. It’s not in accordance with how things are. It’s discordant. It’s not in accordance. So dual in that sense.

Nonconceptual Cognition of Voidness

So let me just briefly… It’s complicated. If it’s really complicated and difficult, you do it briefly. That’s sort of the tradition. Because you have to really work on this. What is nonconceptual cognition of voidness? So let me describe. Analysis. You do an analysis of it.

So how do you focus on voidness? You focus on an absence, an absence of truly established existence. So what appears? When you see no apple on the table, what do see on the table? Nothing. So what appears is nothing. Now, there are many distinguishing features of this nothing that appears. You could distinguish an absence of an apple, or the absence of all appearances, or the absence of truly established appearances, or the absence of truly established existence. So with our apprehension, we are focusing just on this distinguishing feature, this characteristic feature of that nothing, that it is an absence of truly established existence. Total absence. No such thing. The appearance is the same as no apple; but that’s trivial, to focus on no apple.


We’re talking about distinguishing. What are you distinguishing? So now we’re distinguishing correctly and decisively – there’s no other thing than an absence of truly established existence – so we have apprehension. And what is appearing, then, is the basis for labeling voidness and what the mental label “voidness” refers to. That’s explicit. And implicitly we know the mental label “voidness.”

So what have we actually accomplished? We have apprehended voidness as dependent arising – voila! – the voidness of voidness, nonconceptual cognition of voidness, as dependent arising. Which is what Tsongkhapa says. You haven’t really cognized voidness if you only cognize voidness as voidness; you have to cognize it as dependent arising. That’s how it works, as far as I understand.

So, in brief, that is at least my present understanding of what nonconceptual cognition of voidness actually would mean. And of course it’s with all the understanding and everything, all the implications that go with it, and being held with the force of that. So it’s not a conceptual cognition of voidness, in which every time that we focus on this nothing, we focus on it through the filter of the box, “voidness,” that we’re putting it in, which then makes it appear like a truly established nothing. That would be the conceptual cognition.

Participant: The category “emptiness” seems truly established, you said?


Alex: When you cognize things through a category, the appearance that it generates is that everything fits into a box, so it’s truly established – that it refers to reality, that that’s how things actually exist, that they’re in this box or in that box – truly established as being in this box or that box independent of mental labeling.

So let’s take our break, and then we can get into our discussion of what’s the difference between an intellectual and an intuitive understanding.