Buddhist Analysis: Generalities and Particulars

In the discussion of ways of knowing things and the objects that are known, we touched on the division between conceptual and non-conceptual cognition, and these points introduce us into the topic of what’s called generalities (spyi) and particulars or instances (bye-brag). These are terms – particularly this one, generalities – that are quite difficult, because there are many subdivisions within it and it’s really hard to find a term that satisfactorily works for all of the types that are here.


I think that if we want to describe a little bit better what is really involved here with these generalities, then we would say that they are mental syntheses. In other words, they are a synthesis of various things into some larger entity. According to the Gelug tradition, some naturally occur, like the synthesis of parts into a whole, and some are mental creations, like the synthesis of many different looking creatures into the conceptual category "animal." The non-Gelug traditions say that all syntheses are mentally created. But the mental creation does not need to be an active process.

Let me just give a very simple example, like animals: we don’t have to go through every single instance of every creature that somehow we want to put them together into one group and then, having gathered them all together, then we say, “OK, I’m going to call all of these animal.” It’s not that we actively have to do it. And we’re not talking necessarily about naming them; we’re talking about putting them together in a group. Giving that group a name is something else.

It’s very interesting how we learn these groups. If you think of a small baby, a small baby puts almost everything into the group of edible (you can put it in your mouth), doesn’t it? But later it has to learn that there are certain things that don’t really belong in that group. Anyway, let’s not go into this whole very interesting topic of how we learn these groups.

But a synthesis also doesn’t always work. Sometimes the word category, sometimes the word generality. We’ll see what the different kinds are, what we’re referring to. But in Tibetan or in Sanskrit there’s one word that refers to all of this. So what we’re talking about here is a phenomenon shared in common by the individuals on which it is imputed. That is its definition. That means that it’s imputed. That’s what I mean by a mental synthesis. We have all these individual beings, these creatures, these things that walk around, or whatever, and we put them all together and we impute on it a category, animals. So it’s imputed on it, labeled onto it. But labeled doesn’t necessarily mean verbally, nor does it mean that someone has to actively impute it. Think about it for a moment.


Let's stick with the Gelug presentation. Some syntheses are functional phenomena – nonstatic phenomena that change from moment to moment and are affected by causes and conditions. For instance, a body is a synthesis of its parts, it is an imputation on its parts. No one has assemble and then impute a whole body on four limbs in order for there to be a whole body. There are also groups, like a football team, which do need to be put together from its members. Other syntheses are nonfunctional phenomena – static phenomena that do not change from moment to moment and that are no affected by causes and conditions. These would be categories, like the category animal, a mental label imputed on many species.

Generalities in Reference to Conventional Objects

Collection Mental Syntheses

In reference to conventional objects, there is, first of all, a collection synthesis (tshogs-spyi). A collection synthesis refers to a whole, a whole as an imputation on the parts. If we may borrow the Sautrantika-Svatantrika distinction, some are built-up forms ( (bsags-pa’i gzugs) – forms of physical phenomena that built-up from their constituent particles and/or constituent parts. The particles and parts connect with each other, such as the limbs and trunks of our bodies, to make a whole mass (gong-bu). Just as the limbs grow age, so does the body as a whole change and grow with age.

Others are grouped forms (bsdu-pa’i gzugs) – those in which their constituent parts do not connect with each other, such as a forest, made up of a group or a cluster of trees. A forest gets bigger or smaller depending on how many trees are in it.

Kind Mental Syntheses

The other type of functional synthesis, in connection with conventional objects, is a kind synthesis (rigs-spyi). This refers to what sort or kind of object are things What genus do they belong to? What species do they belong to? So it could be a machine; it could be an animal; it could be a computer.

We have the whole computer, the computer as a whole object, imputed on all its parts. And there are many different kinds of computer. Remember, we had our black Dell, and we had our gray Mac. The type of thing that they are is an imputation on them. The kind of thing that they are is computer. And do computers do anything? Do they change from moment to moment? Can a computer type this and type that? Can a computer process this and process that? Can a computer break? Not alone, unless you press a key. Whether you need to help it or not is something else, but the computer does something.

Now you get into all sorts of causality questions here. The computer can’t do anything just sitting by itself. The cause for a computer doing something is an agent that makes it do something. What allows us to do anything? Oxygen. Food. There are many things that operate. But that’s a whole different question in terms of causality. Very interesting if you think of the difference between a computer and a mind. You need someone separate from the computer in order to operate it and make it work. Do we need someone separate from the mind in order to make it work? No. But this is the concept of a soul that is refuted in Buddhism – that it is separate from the mind and that somehow operates it, like operating a computer.

So we have a collection synthesis and a kind synthesis. There are other aspects here in terms of a whole. For instance, a sentence has parts, but all the parts aren’t existing at the same time, are they, or happening at the same time. When you hear a word, each syllable is happening at a different time. When you’re hearing the second syllable, the first syllable you’re not hearing anymore. So it’s a synthesis over time. So when we have a collection synthesis, a whole – for instance, of the computer – it’s not only a synthesis on the parts which are all happening at the same time, but the computer doesn’t exist for just one moment, does it? So a computer, as a whole and as a kind of object, is an imputation that lasts as a continuum as long as this object exists. Even though, from moment to moment, it’s getting older and getting closer to breaking down. But still we have this collection synthesis, this whole – computer. And it still stays as a computer; that’s what it is.

Object Mental Syntheses

There is also an object mental synthesis (don-spyi). This has to do with sense information. What do we see when we look at the computer? We see a colored shape, right? A black box-shape. But a computer is not just a black shape, is it? It;s an object that pervades all the sensory information about it. Well, my friend is using a computer in the other room, and I hear the tap tap tap tap sound. Am I hearing the computer? Yes. So the object computer is also an imputation on this sound. I’m a blind person – or even not being a blind person – I’m holding the computer in my hand, touching the computer. I have a physical sensation. Is that also a computer? Yes.

So a computer is an object synthesis on all these different types of sense information, this sense data. That’s what we call a conventional object (tha-snyad spyod-yul, conventional commonsense object). . A conventional object is an imputation on all the information that each of our senses gives – plus all the parts, plus the sequence for however long it lasts. That’s the conventional object, the computer. OK? All our objects, everything that we see, are like that, aren’t they?

Generalities in Reference to Language

The next generalities are static phenomena and they include audio and meaning categories. The nonstatic synthese can be know both non-conceptually and conceptually; whereas the static generalities can only be known conceptually.

Audio Categories

So let’s start with categories in reference to language, what I call audio categories (sgra-spyi). OK. Consider the sound of the word computer. Now it doesn’t matter how loud somebody says it. When we hear the sound of that word, there are many, many different variants of what we could hear. It could be in many different voices: a male voice, a female voice, a child’s voice, a computer voice. The sound could be pronounced by many different types of voices, and many different levels of volume, and with many different accents, even. And somehow we put that all together into this audio category of all being the sound of the word computer. Otherwise, how do we understand when two people say the same word? How do we recognize that they’re saying the same thing? The sound isn’t the same. So that’s an audio category. In order to be able to understand what somebody says, or what different people say, we have to understand it through the filter of an audio category, so that somehow we put together all the different variations of the sound that we hear of what we consider the same word. Right? So that type of catgory is static; it doesn’t change.

Now it’s not mentioned in the texts or the analysis, but I would think that analogous to this would be if we see the word computer written. It could be written in different colors, different size fonts, handwriting, printed letters. Somehow we see it all as the word computer, a representation of the written word computer. So I think it’s quite similar here. Think about that. It’s really quite amazing how we know anything.

And even if – it’s interesting – even if these word categories, these audio categories, don’t change, we have to have learned them. As a child, you have to have learned the word computer. We could be listening to a language that we don’t understand, and we can’t even put together words from it, can we? Especially when it’s spoken very, very quickly. We have to learn these. Of course we could forget them as well. If you’ve ever studied a language as a child and not used it very much, then later on in life you don’t remember the language at all.

Meaning Categories

When we are able to conceptually cognize audio categories, these words – and it doesn’t necessarily have to be words (it could be the sound of our car engine) – we can either know what it means or not know what it means. So there are meaning categories(don-spyi), which is the same term as object synthesis that we had earlier, which in this sense now means a static object category. In other words, when we hear the sound of a word and we recognize it as fitting into an audio category, we can also fit it into a meaning category of what the word means or into an object category of what the word refers to.

So I hear the word computer for the first time or I learn the word in Zulu for a computer, I have no idea what it means. Somebody teaches me the word – “Repeat this word,” and I repeat this word. Or in Chinese. I repeat the word. No idea what it means. But I can distinguish when two different people say it in two different voices; I can distinguish that they’re saying the same word. I know that they’re saying the same word. I have no idea what it means or what that word could possibly refer to. So I cognize – I perceive – these sounds that these two different people are saying through the medium of an audio category; they’re saying the same word. Or I hear several sounds of my car engine. I know it’s a car engine – it’s the sound of a car engine – but I don’t know that it means that something’s wrong with the car. I don’t know what it means. It’s a funny sound. I hear a funny sound. No idea really what it means, but it’s a funny sound.

So then we could add on top of that, in addition to it, a meaning category or an object category – what it means and what it’s referring to. And in many ways, the meaning and the object are pretty much the same, although maybe some cases we can differentiate the two. But anyway, I hear this word computer and I know what it means; it’s referring to a type of machine that can do this or this and that, and it’s referring to this object over here on the table. And as we saw, we could represent in our thought, through a specifier, some mental aspect, some hologram, that will represent it for us. It could represent the sound of the word. That’s when we have verbal thinking.

I’m thinking computer, and in my mental consciousness I have what we would describe as I hear in my mind a mental sound of a word, computer. What the little voice in our head is saying. I mean, that’s how it appears. So I’m thinking of the audio category of the word computer, which doesn’t have a sound to it; it’s a general category in which I could include the way the word is said and pronounced by anybody. But when I’m going to actually think it, I’m going to specify down to one particular mental sound, a mental hologram sound, that for me is going to represent that category when I’m thinking about it, what supposedly I mentally hear – the voice in my head saying “computer.”

So we have an audio category of a word, we have the sound of a word, and we have a word. These are three different things. A word is a collection synthesis on the syllables, imputed on the syllables. Com-pu-ter. Three syllables. Think about that. What’s going on when you say “computer” in your mind? And remember, there’s no separate little me sitting in the head with a microphone, saying it. All these things are just arising; it’s just happening. There’s nobody separate from it, making it happen – like somebody separate from the computer, sitting and typing.

So we have this audio category. When we’re thinking, it can be represented by some mental sound – a specific mental sound, not just the general category. And if we know what a computer is, then together with that audio category when we’re thinking computer, there will also be a meaning category. And a meaning category will also refer to an object category. The meaning of what a computer is and an object that represents it.

I’m thinking computer. So I’m verbally thinking. It doesn’t have to be verbally thinking, because I could just be visualizing a computer, but anyway… That’s very interesting actually, if you think about it. When you think eight plus seven is fifteen, do you actually have a mental picture of the numbers and a line underneath it, and a plus sign and 15? It’s quite interesting. Or I look at these three pens on the table, and I am thinking that that’s three. Well, there are three things here and I’m thinking three, but I don’t necessarily have the word three there, but I understand three. And I don’t even have to count them. It’s very interesting how the mind works, how we know things.

When we start to think in terms of dog, obviously we all think of a different type of dog. Or how about a good time? “I’m having a good time.” What in the world does that mean for each of us? That might mean something a little bit different, and might be referring to some different object – doesn’t it? – which for us is a good time; maybe for somebody else it’s not a good time. Is there such a thing as a good time? Is there? Well, everybody has a concept of a good time; it doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody would label it onto the same thing. It’s not the same as a nonexistent phenomenon, like monster. Then we get into the whole philosophical discussion: Is anything a good time from its own side, or is it just in terms of our concept of a good time? If it were a good time from its own side, everybody should consider it a good time. We can go to what we consider a really boring lecture. Somebody considers it a good time; we consider it a torture – it’s not a good time at all to us.

There are many, many implications of this, which I don’t want to go into, but this becomes a very, very deep topic of – in terms of a kind synthesis – of what is it. Can we speak in terms of the object itself as a kind synthesis or is that also a process of labeling? For me, this thing is a computer. If I have a two-year-old son, for him it’s a toy; it’s not a computer at all. What is it? And who knows what the cat thinks it is.

So enough of these generalities, or categories. Individual items are individual instances that would fit into any of these categories, and something could fit into a lot of different categories. And with our various Buddhist philosophical systems, then, we analyze very carefully – and it’s not such an easy topic – where are the defining characteristics (mtshan-ma) that would allow us to correctly put something into this or that category? Are the defining characteristics on the side of the object? Do they exist only in the dictionary? Did some people make it up? What are defining characteristics? That’s not so easy. With the computer, maybe you could say, “Well, it does this and this, and it has that and that in it.” But what about an emotion? Because we all feel something quite different when we feel love, for example.


Conceptual thinking with categories leads us to the topic of memory, so let's discuss it briefly.

First of all, the words memory, remember, recall, mindfulness – they’re all the same word in Tibetan and Sanskrit (dran-pa, Skt. smrti). What it is referring to is like a mental glue. It is keeping us fixed on something so that we don’t lose hold of it. That’s the definition. We’re not talking here about storing information or actually bringing out of the storage a memory. We’re talking about when we’re actually remembering it.

An example is being here in the Tibet Center. So now we’re talking about much later, being here in the Tibet Center on this occasion and hearing the discussion of the lost computer. Now it’s presently happening; it’s valid. Later, hearing this discussion is no longer happening.

This gets really complicated; I’m trying to simplify it a little bit. It is like a tendency (sa-bon), something like a tendency. If we think in terms of our anger, we’re not angry all the time. So sometimes anger as a mental state, as a mental factor, is manifest – it’s actually happening – and sometimes it’s just continuing as a tendency. Now a tendency is one of these changing phenomena that are neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of anything, like time or me. Now even though the word that’s used literally means seed, don’t think of it as a material object. So tendency – it’s imputed, like an abstract phenomenon. I was angry at this time, and after a while I was angry again, and after more time I was angry again. So there were all these instances of anger, and how would we put it together? We’d say, “Well, there’s a tendency to get angry.” It’s an abstraction, in a sense, to put it together. And each time that we’re angry, it’s not exactly the same thing, is it? These are individual instances in this larger category of being angry. So here we have another good example of instances and this generality, or category.

So it’s the same type of thing in terms of remembering. I was here listening to this discussion, here at the Tibet Center listening to the discussion. Later on, I am remembering it, what’s going on. So I’m remembering it, and what I have… there’s this object category of being at the Tibet Center and hearing this lecture. And through that we have a specifier, which is going to get it down to a mental hologram represent being at the Tibet Center. There’s going to be a mental hologram arising, which is going to represent for me what it was like to hear this lecture, to be here and hear the lecture. And what’s interesting is each time I remember being here, the mental hologram that represents it that appears is different, isn’t it? I remember something else about it. I don’t always remember exactly the same thing, do I? But we would put it all together into this general thing – “I remember being here.” And we’re not remembering it all the time. We’re not mindful of it – remembering is mindful – so we don’t have a mental glue with this conceptual thought, holding on to this generality, this category, of being here and something representing it all the time. When we’re remembering it, there’s the mental glue. Holding on to it, that’s mindfulness. When we’re remembering it, it’s a mental glue holding on to it. Holding on to the generality – being here – and some mental representation, the mental hologram. Both. It could be something mentally visual. It could be remembering the sound of my voice. It could be anything. “I remember being confused.” You could remember anything. That, you’ll remember.

So how do we put it together? It would never be exactly the same mental picture, because it’s no longer happening. We could never actually remember what’s no longer happening. That’s not valid. It’s expired. It’s like our milk that has gone bad. It’s finished.

And we would say that we have a tendency to remember; it’s the same word (sa-bon). This, in the West, we would say is a memory, but we’re not talking about some engram printed somewhere in your head. But maybe there is a physical counterpart to this. We’re not discounting that. But in Buddhism, we’re not talking about the engram. And we’re not denying that; that’s not contradictory to what we’re talking about. In Buddhism, we’re always talking about what’s happening from the experience point of view – what you are experiencing? – we’re not describing all these things chemically.

So there’s a tendency. Now what would be the circumstance that would cause, from that tendency, to have a moment of actually remembering it? It could be hearing the word computer; it could trigger it. That would be a circumstance – that’s part of our discussion of causality – and it would be an immediately preceding condition (de-ma-thag rkyen). Immediately preceding thinking about – remembering – being here, is hearing the word computer. Like the dog hearing the bell. Pretty neat, isn’t it? And not everybody remembers being here. And every time that I hear the word computer, I might experience something completely different; I might not think of being here at all.

Now it becomes a very interesting question, which I can’t really answer immediately off the top of my head – but why for certain people will hearing the word computer trigger remember being here and for other people it won’t? That probably has to do with all the emotions – attachment, how strong these emotions were, confusion, etc. – at the time, in order to, what we would say in our Western languages, make a big impression on us.

Also, we don’t have perfect mindfulness, meaning that our mental glue is pretty weak. We get distracted and the mental glue loosens and we stop remembering; we forget. Forget means to stop remembering. Our Western concept of forget is a little bit different from the Buddhist concept of forget. I forgot it means I can never remember it. Forgetting just means… like in the context of trying to concentrate on something, my mind wanders, so I’ve forgotten to focus on the object – mindfulness is weak – so I have to bring my attention back. Although we may think that we’ve really forgotten something, later on in life something might trigger it and we remember it again. That happens, doesn’t it? “Oh, I forgot that happened,” and somebody reminds us what we did when we were in high school forty years ago. “Oh yeah, I remember that.” And it’s very interesting when they remember something that we don’t remember: “I don’t remember saying that. I don’t remember doing that.” Who knows whose memory is accurate?

So the mental representation might not be very accurate. The fact that we no longer remember, that we have this tendency, is not because of some defence mechanism; it’s because there is a fault in our mindfulness that we can’t hold on to it. If we had perfect mindfulness, we could hold on for as long as we wanted. And we don’t have perfect mindfulness. We don’t have control over that, yet; we could. And if we did have control over it then we could say, “My session of remembering it is finished,” and we stop thinking about it; and it doesn’t just sort of come back, because we are doing something else.

That’s a very advanced state, isn’t it? “I am not going to think about there’s a monster in the closet.” I mean, very difficult to do. If it were really good, our mindfulness, we could stay mindful of something – like focusing on an object – for as long as we wanted, and when we decide that we want to stop being mindful of it, we would stop and we would no longer think about it. For us, that’s very difficult. I was in this relationship with someone and we broke up, and I’m thinking about it. Am I really capable of saying, “I’ve thought about it for five minutes. Now I’m not going to think about it anymore – I’m not going to remember it.” We can’t do that. But if we really had developed minds, we would be able to be mindful of something for a certain period of time and then stop it. And if we were a Buddha, we’d be able to continue mindfulness of everything forever and not be confused.