Buddhist Analysis: Generalities and Particulars

Other languages

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 to 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 them, 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, animals; we don’t have to go through every single instance of every creature that we want to put together into one group and then, having gathered them all together, we say, “OK, I’m going to call all of these animals.” It’s not that we actively have to do it. 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 we think of a baby, a baby puts almost everything into the group of edible (everything can be put it in our mouth), doesn’t it? 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. 

However, a synthesis also doesn’t always work. It could sometimes be the word category, sometimes the word generality. We’ll see what the different kinds are, what we’re referring to. In Tibetan or in Sanskrit, there’s one word that refers to all of this. 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. This is 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 conceptually impute on the basis of all of them all a category, animals. So, a mental synthesis is imputed on these particular items, conceptually labeled onto them. However, labeled doesn’t necessarily mean verbally, nor does it mean that someone has to actively impute the synthesis. Think about it for a moment.


Let’s stick with the Gelug presentation. Some syntheses are functional phenomena, non-static phenomena that change from moment to moment and are affected by causes and conditions. For instance, a body is a synthesis of its parts, an imputation phenomenon that can only exist and be known on the basis of its parts. No one has to 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 are not 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 phenomenon on the basis of parts. If we may borrow the Sautrantika-Svatantrika distinction, some are built-up forms (bsags-pa’i gzugs) – forms of physical phenomena that are 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 with 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 things are. What genus do they belong to? What species do they belong to? 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, an imputation phenomenon on the basis of all its parts, and there are many different kinds of computers. Remember, we had our black Dell, and we had our gray Mac. The type of thing that they are is the kind mental synthesis, which is also an imputation phenomenon on the basis of them. The kind of thing that they are is computers. Do computers do anything? Do they change from moment to moment? Can a computer type this and type that? Not alone, unless we press a key. Can a computer process this and process that? Can a computer break? Whether we need to help it or not is something else, but the computer does something. 

Now we 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. However, that’s a whole different question in terms of causality. It’s very interesting if we think of the difference between a computer and a mind. We 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. This is the concept of a soul that is refuted in Buddhism, that it is separate from the mind and somehow operates it, like operating a computer. 

Thus, 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 or happening at the same time, are they? When we hear a word, each syllable is happening at a different time. When we’re hearing the second syllable, we’re not hearing the first syllable anymore; it’s a synthesis over time. 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? A computer as a whole and as a kind of object is an imputation phenomenon that lasts as a continuum as long as this object exists. Even though from moment to moment, it’s getting older and closer to breaking down, we still have this collection synthesis, this whole computer. 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. However, a computer is not just a black shape, is it? It’s an object that pervades all the sensory information about it. Well, our friend is using a computer in the other room, and we hear the tap tap tap sound. Are we hearing the computer? Yes. The object computer is also an imputation phenomenon on the basis of this sound. We’re a blind person – or even not being a blind person – we’re holding the computer in our hand, touching the computer, and we have a physical sensation. Is that also a computer? Yes.

A computer is an object synthesis on the basis of 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 phenomenon on the basis of all the information that each of our senses gives, plus all the parts and the sequence of all of them 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 non-static syntheses can be known both non-conceptually and conceptually, whereas the static generalities can only be known conceptually. 

Audio Categories

Let’s start with categories in reference to language, what I call audio categories (sgra-spyi). Consider the sound of the word computer. 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, many different levels of volume, and with many different accents, even. Somehow we put them all together into this audio category of 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 involves 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? That type of category is static; it doesn’t change. 

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 font sizes, handwriting, printed letters. Somehow we see them all as the word computer, a representation of the written word computer. I think it’s quite similar here. Think about that. It’s really quite amazing how we know anything. 

Even if these word categories, these audio categories, don’t change, we have to have learned them. As a child, we 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? This is especially true 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 they mean or not know what they mean. There are meaning categories (don-spyi), which is the same term as object synthesis that we had earlier. 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. 

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

We could add on top of that audio category, in addition to it, a meaning category or an object category, what it means and what it’s referring to. In many ways, the meaning and the object are pretty much the same, although maybe in some cases, we can differentiate the two. Anyway, we hear this word computer, and we 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. As we saw, we could represent it in our thought, through a specifier, by 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.

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

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, an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the syllables, com-pu-ter. Three syllables. Think about that. What’s going on when we say “computer” in our mind? 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.

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. 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. It’s the meaning of what a computer is and an object that represents it. 

We’re thinking computer, so we’re verbally thinking. It doesn’t have to be verbally thinking because we could just be visualizing a computer, but anyway… That’s very interesting actually if we think about it. When we think eight plus seven is fifteen, do we actually have a mental picture of the numbers and a line underneath it, and a plus sign and 15? It’s quite interesting. Or we look at these three pens on the table, and we’re thinking that that’s three. Well, there are three things here, and we’re thinking three, but we don’t necessarily have the word three there, yet we understand three. We 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, which for us is a good time, doesn’t it? 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 a 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, and somebody considers it a good time, but we consider it 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 – 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 we have a two-year-old son, for him, it’s a toy; it’s not a computer at all. What is it? Who knows what the cat thinks it is. 

Individual Items

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. 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-nyid) 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 we could say, “Well, it does this and this, and it has that and that in it.” However, 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, are all the same word in Tibetan and Sanskrit (dran-pa, Skt. smṛti). 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 storage a memory. We’re talking about when we’re actually remembering it. 

An example is being here in the Tibet Center. Being here in the Tibet Center on this occasion and hearing the discussion of the lost computer is presently happening. Later, hearing this discussion is no longer happening, but we can remember it.

This gets really complicated; I’m trying to simplify it a little bit. Remembering something works like with a tendency (sa-bon). If we think in terms of our anger, we’re not angry all the time. 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.” Even though the word that’s used literally means seed, don’t think of it as a material object. A tendency is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of a series of similar incidents. We were angry at this time, and after a while, we were angry again, and after more time, we were angry again. There were all these instances of anger, and how would we put them together? We’d say, “Well, there’s a tendency to get angry.” It’s an abstraction, in a sense, to put it together. 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. Here we have another good example of instances and this generality, or category. 

It’s the same type of thing in terms of remembering. We were listening to this discussion here at the Tibet Center. Later on, we are remembering it, what was going on. We’re remembering it, and what do we have? There’s this object category of being at the Tibet Center and hearing this lecture. Through that, we have a specifier, which is going to get it down to a mental hologram representing being at the Tibet Center. There’s going to be a mental hologram arising, which is going to represent for us what it was like to hear this lecture, to be here and hear the lecture. What’s interesting is that each time we remember being here, the mental hologram that represents it appears different, doesn’t it? We remember something else about it. We don’t always remember exactly the same thing, do we? However, we would put it all together into this general thing, “I remember being here.” 

Furthermore, 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. We’re holding on to the generality – being here – and some mental representation, the mental hologram. It could be something mentally visual. It could be remembering the sound of my voice. It could be anything, “I remember being confused.” We could remember anything that would represent being here for us. Sometimes, however, what we mentally represent being here with when we remember did not happen at all. This is a false memory.

In any case, how do we put all these instances together of remembering being here? 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.

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 our brain. Maybe there is a physical counterpart to this. We’re not discounting that. However, 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 experiential point of view – what we are experiencing – we’re not describing all these things chemically. 

Thus, there’s a tendency. What would be the circumstance that would cause, from that tendency, a moment of actually remembering the event to arise? It could be hearing the word computer that could trigger it. That would be a circumstance, which is 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. It’s like the dog hearing the bell. Pretty neat, isn’t it? Not everybody remembers being here, and every time that we hear the word computer, we might experience something completely different; we might not think of being here at all.

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. For example, in the context of trying to concentrate on something, our mind wanders, so we’ve forgotten to focus on the object – our mindfulness is weak – and we have to bring our 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 40 years ago. “Oh yeah, I remember that.” 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?

Thus, the mental representation might not be very accurate. The fact that we no longer remember, although we still have this tendency that would enable us to remember once more, is not because of some defense 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. We don’t have perfect mindfulness. We don’t have control over that, yet we could. If we did have control over it, then we could say, “My session of remembering it is finished,” and we stop thinking about it; 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, it’s very difficult to do. If our mindfulness were really good, 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 no longer think about it. For us, that’s very difficult. For instance, we were in a relationship with someone and broke up, and we’re thinking about it. Are we 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. However, 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. If we were a Buddha, we’d be able to continue mindfulness of everything forever and not be confused.