Understanding Something: Apprehension

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Introduction to the Topic 

In this seminar, we’re going to explore the topic, “What does it mean to understand something?” This is a very important topic and one that is not traditionally dealt with in Dharma presentations. However, we need to understand the teachings and texts about impermanence and voidness. We also need to understand the people that we’re trying to help, their problems, and we have to understand what they say to us. So, to understand what “understanding” is is important.

Unfortunately, when we use the word understand in all these contexts, it can be confusing, since it has a slightly different meaning in each. Actually, there are a few terms that have similar, yet slightly different meanings that can sometimes be used interchangeably in one context but have different connotations in others. For example, we could know something; we could understand something; or we could apprehend something – “apprehend” means to know something accurately and decisively. 

Obviously, the way these words are used in one language, like English, and the way that the so-called equivalent terms in another language, like German, are not going to exactly correspond to each other. For instance, when we say in English, “I know French” and “I understand French,” they mean the same thing. However, “I apprehend what you said,” “I know what you said,” and “I understand what you said” are different. “I know what I read” and “I understand what I read” are also slightly different, aren’t they? 

It is very important to have a clear idea of what the steps are that we would go through in gaining an understanding and knowledge of something. We need to be precise with our usage of terms to describe these steps, otherwise we can’t actually identify what our level of knowledge or understanding is, and we couldn’t really know whether we understood something or not. As I said, how do we know that we’ve understood anything? 

Terms Associated with Cognition and Understanding 

In Tibetan, we have a number of different terms. We have the word sem (sems). This is usually translated as “mind,” but actually that’s a bit of a misleading translation. It means mental activity. It’s not talking about a thing; it’s talking about an activity, something that occurs from moment to moment. This is the most general term. What does it mean? The definition is “mere clarity and awareness” (gsal-rig tsam). Each of these words has a definition, and they don’t mean what our English words mean: 

  • “Clarity” (gsal) doesn’t mean the mind or its objects being in focus, but rather it means the mental activity of giving rise to a mental hologram. When we see something for instance, what is happening? Photons hit the retina, they trigger neuroelectric and chemical signals that pass through through the optic nerves to the brain, and what is similar to a “mental hologram” arises of what we saw. That’s actually what we see, a mental hologram. It’s the same with hearing sounds, they are just a vibration of some membrane in the ear, and that’s also translated into a mental hologram, a mental hologram of a sound. Thoughts, emotions and so on are also mental holograms. Overall, the word “clarity” means the mental activity of giving rise to a mental hologram, making something mentally appear.
  • The second word, “awareness” (rig), means a mental engagement. It could be knowing something, not knowing something, being conscious of it, or being unconscious of it – any type of mental engagement.

These two types of mental activity are not separate processes. They are descriptions of the same event, the same activity, from two points of view. The arising of a thought is the same as thinking a thought. It’s not that first the thought arises and then we think it. Or that a mental hologram arises and then we see it. How would we even know that it’s there in order to be able to see it? This makes no sense to think that they’re separate. 

  • The word “mere” (tsam), which means “only,” reflects that this is all that’s happening. There’s no separate me during this whole process that is observing or controlling the mental activity or a separate mind that’s like a machine and there’s a me sitting behind it working the machine and it produces the mental hologram. It’s not like that.

This is the most basic definition of mental activity. This is what the word mind connotes. No matter what kind of mental activity we’re talking about, this is what’s occurring. It’s occurring moment to moment with absolutely no break in continuity, no beginning, and no end. Also, it’s individual; this is very important. Of course, there are many meditation methods – mahamudra, for example – to try to recognize this mental activity that is going on regardless of what we are seeing or hearing. However, that’s a whole separate topic, a very helpful one actually. 

Then we have several other words, like shepa (shes-pa), to cognize an object; rigpa (rig-pa), to be aware of an object; dzinpa (’dzin-pa), to cognitively take an object. All of these are synonyms. What that means is that each of them connote actively holding onto an object in a cognitive manner. These are important terms because there are many different ways to hold onto an object in a cognitive manner such as: conceptual (rtog-pa), non-conceptual (rtog-med), inference (rjes-dpag), presumption (yid-dpyod), and indecision (the-tshoms). There are many different ways. It could be conceptual or non-conceptual. It could be mental perception or sense perception. It could be presumption (we presume something to be true, but we don’t really understand why), indecisive wavering (is it this? is it that?), or distorted cognition (log-shes) (we just get it wrong). 

This is a big topic that is also studied in Tibetan Buddhism. In the traditional training in the monasteries, they study this for at least a year. This topic is very important for being able to identify how we know something. Some ways of knowing are valid, and some are not valid. Obviously, in our topic, understanding, we have to know whether it is a correct understanding or an incorrect understanding; are we sure of it or not so sure of it? 

Then there’s another term, togpa (rtogs-pa) in Tibetan, which is a very difficult term to translate into English. I’ve come up with to “apprehend” something, which is not a common word. We don’t really have a word for this in English, but it means to cognize something accurately and decisively. 

To the translator: An accurate translation. Very good. It was decisive; you made up your mind. Maybe there was first a little bit of indecisive wavering there?

You see, that’s a very good example. Did he really understand what I said? Or did he know it already and so he could remember it? How accurate and decisive is his way of translating? He could have used a dictionary app on his phone – it gives the precise translation and he just repeated it, but he didn’t understand it at all. That’s also quite possible. 

Then, we have this word in Tibetan, gowa (go-ba), to understand something. This is not, though, well-defined in Tibetan. I was very surprised to learn that.

I’ll tell you a story. I’m very close to the young reincarnation of my teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, who’s now 27. I was also very close to the old one, his predecessor. One day, I called and asked him, “What’s the definition of gowa?” He said, “There is no definition. It’s not defined.” Then, I said, “Well, why don’t you ask your teacher what it means?” To my surprise, he said, “I don’t think that any Tibetan has ever asked that question. It’s not a question that you could appropriately ask.” So I said, “Well, you could be the first to ask that.” However, I don’t think he pursued it. 

It is up to us to explore, analyze and figure out what this word gowa means, especially if this is the word that would correspond to our word understand. We need to do that because usually the Tibetan word togpa is taken to mean “understand, but it doesn’t really correspond in use to the English word understand; it means “apprehend” – the accurate and decisive cognition of something. Apprehend and understand cannot be used interchangeably in English. If we understand something correctly, we apprehend it. But, then, we could have an incorrect understanding or an unclear understanding. On the other hand, an apprehension of something can’t be incorrect or unclear. Also, we could apprehend something, but not really understand it.

So, we’re not talking about incorrect understanding or imprecise understanding with the Tibetan word togpa, apprehension. This is the problem. We can modify the word “understanding” in our languages and say “incorrect understanding” or “not a very decisive understanding” – we understand it, but we’re not quite sure. That’s the difficulty with the word “understand.” In Tibetan, it wouldn’t be like that. We wouldn’t say we understand something if our understanding were imprecise or unsure.

Now, we have to start to employ the Indian tradition of logic and analysis that the Tibetans use, which is a very useful tool. This is what I try to teach and not just give information. We can read correct information anywhere – well, maybe not anywhere, but we can read it. The point is to learn how to analyze and figure things out ourselves,. This is the whole point of Dharma training. If we can analyze something properly, we’ve understood it. 

What Does It Mean to Apprehend Something? 

Let’s explore the word apprehend (rtogs-pa). To apprehend something means to cognize it both accurately and decisively. There are four possibilities (mu-bzhi). This is the way we analyze, and maybe this will make it clearer. Our cognition – which means our knowing of something – can be: 

  1. Accurate and decisive. The person said “yes,” we heard “yes,” and we’re sure about it. No indecision. No doubts. That’s what decisive means. We don’t have any doubts about it.
  2. Inaccurate and decisive. The person said “yes,” we heard “no,” and we’re sure that they said “no.”
  3. Accurate and indecisive. The person said “yes,” we heard “yes,” but we’re not sure. We think we heard “yes.”
  4. Inaccurate and indecisive. The person said “yes,” we heard “no,” but again we’re not quite sure.

It’s very important to know that there are these four possibilities when we are communicating with somebody, because each of these four could take place. Even if we apprehend something correctly and decisively, we might still not really understand what the person meant by saying “yes.” “What did you mean by that?” I think that’s a good example of the difference between apprehend and understand. Just because we apprehended something doesn’t mean we understand it. For example, “You said that. I really heard what you said. I’m positive that’s what you said. But I have no idea what you meant.” This shows the difference between the two. 

Explicit and Implicit Apprehension 

Apprehension can be either explicit (dngos-su rtogs-pa) or implicit (shugs-la rtogs-pa) – now we get a little bit more detail. The difference is whether or not a mental hologram of the involved object (‘jug-yul) arises or not. Let’s take an example: 

  • We explicitly apprehend the sound of footsteps on the stairs. That’s what we accurately and decisively hear. There’s a vibration of air that strikes the audio-sensitive cells in our ears and, from that, a mental hologram arises of the sound of footsteps on the stairs. 
  • Implicitly, we apprehend the presence of somebody there. There’s no mental hologram of a person, but we know implicitly, decisively and accurately, that somebody is on the stairs when we explicitly hear the sound.

Another example: We see these flowers. A mental hologram of the flowers arises. Implicitly, we know “no piece of fruit.” It’s not a piece of fruit – a piece of fruit doesn’t appear. However, we know that what we see is not a piece of fruit, don’t we? 

Okay? These are the two types of apprehension that we have: explicit and implicit. An apprehension can’t be just implicit; an implicit apprehension has to accompany an explicit one. On the other hand, an explicit apprehension does not need to also have an implicit component. 

Apprehension Is Accurate 

Now, we have to analyze further. How do we analyze? We analyze with definitions. Tibetan Buddhism, coming from the Indian tradition, defines most things. Unfortunately, it doesn’t define “to understand,” but it defines most terms. So, we have to analyze. Let’s start with analyzing what apprehension of something means – an accurate and decisive cognition of something.

First, what does “accurate” mean? How do we know that anything we know is accurate? We have to understand what it means to be accurate. That’s the only way to figure things out. Look at the definitions, and in the definitions look at the definitions of the words in the definition, and then see what the implications are. 

Let’s take the example of apprehending with audio cognition the sound of our baby crying. How do we know that’s accurate? We hear the sound. How do we know accurately that this is the sound of our baby crying? 

“Accurate” means that it fulfills the three criteria of Dharmakirti for a cognition to be valid.

  1. It accords with a convention. Babies cry and there’s the convention that this sound that we hear is the sound of them crying. Our cognition of the sound as the sound of a baby crying fulfills that convention. 
  2. It’s not contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes conventional truth. What does this mean? It means that others can also hear the sound of the baby crying. We ask somebody else, or we ask a few people, “Did you hear the baby crying?” We put on the recording machine – is there the sound of a baby crying? Yes, the sound conforms. Nobody contradicts that and says, “No, I didn’t hear anything” or “It was the cat.”
  3. It’s not contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes deepest truth. Aryas – those who non-conceptually cognize deepest truth – do not perceive the sound of a baby crying as arising independently of causes and conditions and independently of what the mental label “crying” refers to.

Do we understand what that sound means? Do we understand its significance? Not necessarily. What does that sound mean? Let’s say we think, “Well, it’s just a sound. The baby is crying, but it doesn’t mean anything. There’s nothing wrong with the baby.” That would be thinking that the sound is arising independently of a cause. That’s impossible and this would be contradicted by what an arya would know. 

Furthermore, we could think that babies just sometimes make that sound, but it doesn’t mean anything. If we think that, that’s also incorrect. Valid cognition of conventional truth would contradict that because that sound can be validly labeled and conceptually cognized through the concept of “crying” and even designated with the word “crying.” That’s valid and we have to deal with the crying. It’s not just a sound. 

What is crying? What does the word “crying” mean? What is it referring to? It refers to the sound that the baby is making. Now, if we think that that sound is just a sound – we don’t see it as what the word “crying” refers to – we’re not going to deal with it, are we? We could think, “It’s just a sound. Babies make sounds. Thank you very much.” Nevertheless, that sound is objectively the sound of a baby crying. 

Again, what do we hear? We just hear a sound, don’t we? It’s just a vibration of air. Nonetheless, it is what the word “crying” refers to. If we think that it’s just a sound existing by itself, we wouldn’t identify it as the sound of crying, would we? Do you follow that? I mean, it’s just designated as crying. It’s given that word and words have meanings, but we don’t necessarily understand what certain words mean. Does sound by itself have a meaning? Someone could say to us in a language we don’t understand that the baby is crying, and all we hear are strange, meaningless sounds.

Think about that. We see and hear all this stuff about mental labeling with concepts and designation with words. We have to really think what these types of imputation mean. They’re talking about something that actually occurs all the time. It’s not something esoteric and really obscure. They’re not. It’s totally practical. Everything in the Dharma is meant for practical application to help us overcome suffering. Therefore, we try to figure out what in the world does mental labeling actually mean in practical daily life. Taking refuge implies that we are actually convinced that everything the Buddha taught makes sense. It’s not nonsense. The training is to figure it out ourselves. This is a very basic principle of Dharma, that we are all capable of figuring things out ourselves. 

To continue, just because we accurately hear the sound of the baby crying doesn’t mean that we understand what it means. The dog can also accurately hear the sound of the baby crying, can’t it? There has to be more. 

Apprehension Is Also Decisive

Now, what does “decisive” mean? For example, our partner comes home, doesn’t say a word, goes into another room and closes the door. What’s that? Well, we accurately saw that. That’s really what we saw. Now we think, “My partner is angry with me. That’s why they did that.” So now we need to check with Dharmakirti’s three criteria. Does that accord with a convention? Yes, if they’re angry, they could do that. There’s that convention. They don’t want to talk to us. But there’s also the convention that when they’re really tired that’s what they do. They just have to lie down, so they go into the other room. They’re too exhausted to talk. They had a terrible day at work. So, we’re uncertain what we accurately saw meant.

Now the second criterion, does our interpretation of our partner not speaking with us accord with conventional truth? So, we ask, “Are you angry with me?” Ask. Don’t just assume. Get further evidence. Did they lie down and go to sleep because they were tired? Then, the deepest truth: “Am I the center of the universe and the only important thing in my partner’s life? Is everything they do totally only because of me?” This is ridiculous, isn’t it? It’s contradicted by deepest truth. There are many different causes and conditions for why my partner acted like that, and it’s not just about me. 

These three criteria of Dharmakirti are very useful and practical. How do we know what we see and understand is correct or not? Think about that for a moment. 

Mental Factors Associated with Decisiveness 

For our cognition to be decisive, it needs to be accompanied by several mental factors. Mental factors are ways of knowing something that assist one of our types of consciousness – for instance, visual consciousness. First, we have a mental factor called “distinguishing” (’du-shes). This is usually translated as “recognition,” but that is a misleading way of translating it. It’s not accurate since “recognition” requires knowing what something is by comparing it with something we’ve cognized before. But this mental factor doesn’t do all of that. “Distinguish” is the meaning here. 

We distinguish a certain characteristic feature (mtshan-nyid) in a sensory field. How do we distinguish something, for instance, in the visual sensory field? What are we seeing? We’re seeing a lot of colored shapes. That’s what we’re seeing, isn’t it, colored shapes. It’s not that colors and shapes are separate things. Now, how do we put those colored shapes together into different objects? Well, to do that we distinguish a certain characteristic feature in a group of them that are next to each other. We distinguish this grouping of colored shapes from the ones in the background. That’s what this mental factor is talking about. It’s not that we know what object some group of colored shapes make up that we see.

Does the factor of distinguishing distinguish whether a colored shape is near or far away? 

No, it’s not like that. It’s how we differentiate a group of colored shapes from the colored shapes of the background. For instance, we see colored shapes over here, and we could group together the tan-colored shapes with the yellow-colored shapes behind them and make them into an object. Well, that’s not an object, is it? However, we can group the brown-colored shapes and the tan-colored shapes into an object and that would be correct? How are we able to do that? We can group them correctly together into an object because conventional objects have individual characteristic features, and distinguishing is the mental factor we use to detect these features. Distinguishing is one of the most basic, fundamental mental factors. That’s why it’s one of the five aggregates. Everybody has that, even a worm. 

Suppose we’re in a crowded restaurant with a friend. Lots of people are talking. How do we distinguish the sounds of our friend talking from all the other sounds? Obviously, there is a characteristic feature of the tone and sound of their voice that we can distinguish from all the other voices that we are hearing. This is how our minds work. Mental activity works like that. It has to. This is distinguishing.

Then, there’s discriminating awareness, which is another mental factor. That’s sherab (shes-rab) in Tibetan. Sometimes it’s translated as “wisdom.” When super-developed, it can be something like wisdom, but this is a regular mental factor that everyone has. What does it do? It adds decisiveness to the distinguishing. That’s the definition. So, we have two terms. One is “distinguishing” – I can distinguish this from that. Second, discriminating awareness adds certainty to the distinguishing.

Think of the definition. The definition is “it adds certainty to the distinguishing” so that we have no wavering about it, and later we’ll have no doubts about it. How does that work? This means when we explicitly apprehend the object, such as we’re hearing the sound of the baby crying, we’re distinguishing the defining characteristic of the sound as the characteristic feature of crying. The television is on and somebody else is talking in the room, so we’re hearing all these sounds simultaneously. We distinguish from all these sounds the distinctive feature of the sound of crying. Otherwise, how do we hear crying? It has to be like that. 

A characteristic feature is not a quality – for example, the quality of loud, soft, and so on. It’s quite difficult to understand what a characteristic feature means. Think about that. It is quite difficult. There is a characteristic feature of the sound of crying. We can distinguish that from the sound of the water dripping, for example. It would be hard to describe what that feature is, wouldn’t it? Nevertheless, we know what the sound signifies. Actually, we know that through the conceptual process of mental labeling. 

How does mental labeling work? There’s nothing findable on the side of the sound that establishes it as the sound of a baby crying. There’s no little tag inside that says, “I’m the sound of a baby crying.” A mental label is a conceptual category in which many similar items can be fit. In the West, we might call such a conceptual category a “concept” or a “convention.” We can also designate this category and the items that fit in it with words, such as “the sound of a baby crying.” This mental label and the items that fit in it all have a shared defining feature and the words for it have definitions that we can find in the dictionary. But what are these defining features and definitions? They’re just conventions made up and agreed upon by people. People make them up, don’t they? That’s what “conventional” means, there are these conventions. And although the defining features aren’t findable little tags on the side of things, identifying them as objects and as some specific type of object, yet the mental factor of distinguishing enables us to cognize them. Quite amazing, isn’t it? 

In any case, there are all sorts of sounds going on, but with the mental factor distinguishing there is the arising of a mental hologram of the sound of the baby crying, right? We distinguish the defining characteristics of the sound of the baby crying from everything else we are hearing. This means we have individuated this sound from the other sounds we hear. How do we do that? 

For our cognition of what this sound is – it’s the sound of our baby crying – to be an apprehension of the sound and really decisive, everything else it could be has to be excluded. How does that work? Explicitly, we hear the sound of our baby crying. What do we implicitly apprehend? Implicitly, we apprehend that the baby’s not sleeping. It’s not the sound of the baby sleeping. Right? It’s also not anything other than the sound of the baby crying. That’s the Tibetan word dogpa (ldog-pa), sometimes translated as “a double negative” or “a nothing other.” It is a specifier – nothing other than the sound of our baby crying excludes everything else. So when we explicitly hear the sound of our baby crying, implicitly we know it’s not anything other than the sound of our baby crying. It’s not somebody else’s baby crying that we hear. 

Think about that. How would we decisively know that that is the sound of our baby crying? We hear it explicitly, but we’re only decisive about what it is when we also apprehend, but only implicitly, not-the-sound-of-the-baby-sleeping. With that additional implicit apprehension, we are decisive in knowing that this is the sound of our baby crying. 

Let me repeat: we accurately hear this sound, explicitly, and we accurately hear, implicitly, that is not the sound of our baby sleeping. It’s nothing other than the sound of a baby crying – it’s not the sound of a dog crying. Also, it’s nothing other than the sound of our baby crying – it’s not the sound somebody else’s baby that we hear next door. When all of that is excluded, then we are decisive: “That is the sound of my baby crying.” Furthermore, all these exclusions are implicitly known, and the way that we experience that is quite unconscious. However, actually, the mind is sorting all of that out, isn’t it? Our mental activity is sorting it out: It’s not this. It’s not that. It definitely is the sound of our baby crying. 

This is a simple example, isn’t it? Nonetheless, when we try to apprehend or understand something more complicated, then in order to be precise and decisive about what it is, we need to exclude what is incorrect, what it’s not. This is the process that’s used in what is known as “prasanga (thal-’gyur) logic.” We look at the absurd conclusions of everything else and then determine that it can only be this because we’ve excluded everything else. 

“Decisive apprehension” means that it’s not what’s known as a “non-determining cognition” (snang-la ma-nges-pa). “Non-determining” means we’re not sure that we heard something, or we’re not sure what we heard was the sound of a baby crying or the sound of our baby crying. It’s non-determining. It doesn’t determine it. The mental hologram of a sound arises, but we’re not certain what it is. If our cognition is decisive, it’s not a non-determining cognition. In other words, what do we not want to have? We don’t want, “I’m not sure what that is.” It’s not indecisive wavering. 

In summary, there are different ways of cognizing something. It can be non-determining – “I heard it, but I’m not sure what it is.” It can be indecisive – “Maybe I heard it, maybe I didn’t. Did I hear it or didn’t I hear it?” That’s indecisive wavering. 

Even if we’ve decisively heard the sound of our baby crying, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we understand what it means. For instance, we don’t know whether the baby could be hungry, or could have dirtied its diaper, or perhaps could be cold. We don’t understand what the crying means. Just because it’s decisive doesn’t mean that we understand it, and just because it’s accurate also doesn’t mean we understand it. Nonetheless, all of these are components of a correct understanding. A correct understanding has to be accurate. It has to be decisive, but just to be accurate and decisive is not enough. 

Okay, let’s take a moment to digest that. 

How to Get an Understanding of Voidness 

Suppose, for instance, we know the definition of voidness: “The total absence of impossible ways of existing,” a very simple definition. Impossible ways of existing do not correspond to anything. They’re impossible. There is no such thing. Voidness is the total absence of that.

I can know that definition accurately – I can recite the words perfectly; it’s accurate. I’m totally decisive that this is the definition and it’s not something else – voidness doesn’t mean nothingness, so I’ve excluded that it means nothingness, as that’s nihilism. However, that doesn’t mean I understand it at all, does it? 

It’s clear that if we understand something, it has to be accurate and decisive, but just because it’s accurate and decisive doesn’t mean we understand it. For example, I know the definition of voidness. I’m really sure, I’m positive that’s the definition. I look it up in a book. Yes, that’s the definition. I ask somebody, my teacher, “Is that the definition?” “Yes, that’s the definition.” I still don’t have any idea what it means. It’s not even an intellectual understanding because, actually, I don’t understand anything. 

Do you follow that? These are the steps. Usually, that’s the first thing that we have to develop when we study the Dharma or when we study anything. We need to apprehend correctly and decisively what the teachings are. However, to just leave it at that so that we can answer an examination that asks us the definition – we can write the answer – what’s that? How does that help us? It’s a start. We have to have that. Nonetheless, that’s certainly not what’s going to eliminate our problems, our suffering. Do you follow that? 

This process of how we get to an accurate and decisive apprehension is very important to know. We check: voidness, is it accurate? 

  • Is there a convention of “voidness” in Buddhism? Well, yes. The Buddhist texts all talk about it. Do they talk about God in Buddhism? What do they talk about in Buddhism? They talk about voidness. It is a valid topic in Buddhism.
  • Then, we have the definition – does it check with conventional truth? We look it up in the texts. We ask our teachers, “What’s the definition?” Of course, we have to know if these books and teachers are reliable. Are they valid sources of information? For that, there’s yet another process to determine how we know something or someone is a valid source of information. A lot of sources of information are not valid at all. Just look at what comes up when we Google something on the internet – a lot of garbage.
  • Then, there’s deepest truth. Is voidness some sort of thing that’s sitting inside all objects? Or does it mean ultimately there’s nothing there? Well, an arya would say, “Come on, both are completely wrong. That’s not what voidness means at all.”
  • Finally, have we excluded everything that it’s not? We need to be decisive.

We read a lot of old Western books that were written about voidness, and they describe it as being nihilism – voidness means that nothing exists. Well, we have to exclude that. 

There should be no indecision, no indecisive wavering: “Maybe it means what my teachers say, but maybe it actually means nothing, nothingness, that nothing exists.” We don’t want this type of indecision. “Well, I’m not quite sure. Maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that.” We’re never going to get a deeper understanding if we can’t decide what it actually means, what the actual definition is. 

Okay, let that sink in. Think about it. 

That’s why debate and discussion – either formal debate or just discussion with each other – are very important and useful. We can weed out incorrect understanding with them. But at this stage, we’re not even talking about understanding yet – just incorrect information. Maybe we didn’t get the definition of voidness right. We’re not certain about the definition when the other person questions us. This is very helpful. The more we exclude what is incorrect, the more accurate and decisive we are about what is correct. “I thought the definition of voidness was that. Oh, no, it’s not that.” Now, we’ve gotten a little bit closer to what voidness actually means. Only when we accurately and decisively know what the definition of voidness is can we accurately and decisively distinguish it when we try to meditate on voidness.

What’s the implication of what I just said? It is to not be attached to what we think we know and what we think we understand. Also, don’t have arrogance and pride, thinking, “Oh, I’ve gotten it,” because, usually, we can always refine what we have understood; we can exclude: “Well, it wasn’t precisely that.” Don’t be attached. It’s one of the bodhisattva vows, I think. Never be satisfied with our level of development; we can always go further until we become a Buddha. 

How to do that? Look at the definition of mental activity and apply that to our understanding or knowledge of something like voidness. The mental activity occurring here is just the arising of a mental hologram and an awareness of it, a mental engagement. That’s all it is. There’s no separate me that is thinking about this understanding or knowledge that could then look back at this thing that it’s thinking and, with attachment and arrogance, think, “This understanding and knowledge are mine” and “I’m so great.” 

Thinking like that is based on a total myth that there’s a separate me from the whole event of the arising of a mental hologram and a knowing of it and that this separate “me” holds onto this understanding and knowledge as mine. It’s absurd that there’s this separate entity, this sort of creature back there in our head that has this thought, understanding or knowledge, and thinks, “It’s mine” and “Oh, I’m so great.” Of course, if we ask who’s thinking it? “Me.” It’s not somebody else thinking it or nobody thinking it. But we have to watch out for making that “me” into some separately existing concrete entity. 

If we have this understanding of how we exist in relation to our knowledge and our understanding, we will be much more open to refining it to more precise level. Without that, getting a correct understanding of voidness will be very difficult. So let that sink in a moment. Who is it that’s knowing voidness? 

It’s really funny. So many people are into this trip of believing: “Nobody understands me. I want somebody to understand me. I want to find somebody who will really understand me,” as if there were a me separate from everything else that could be understood without understanding the personality and the background and everything. They just understand me. Come on! That’s impossible.

Discussion about the Next Class 

We have a decision to make, and we have to be decisive. So far, we have covered one page of the six pages of material that I have prepared – which is what I suspected before I came here – and this is only the beginning of the analysis of the topic. There is much, much more that could be analyzed here. I was actually quite naive when I said, “We’ll do one topic Friday night on what does it mean to understand something, and then we’ll do a whole weekend on something else.” In fact, we could speak for a whole month about this subject. We haven’t even approached the topic of what’s an intellectual understanding, an intuitive understanding, and so on. 

What I would suggest is that we forget about the second topic and just continue with this for the rest of the weekend. That is following the philosophy of if we’re going to do something, do it right, not halfway. The point is not just to read you what I analyzed and go through it very quickly. The whole point of our being here is for you to actually (pardon the word) understand something, to learn something. This is what I would suggest. However, this isn’t a complete democracy; I have a larger vote of what we do for this weekend. The other topic, dealing with the compulsiveness of karma in daily life, will have to wait for another opportunity. Does anybody have a strong objection to this plan? 

By the way, that’s how you ask a lama. Don’t ever ask… I mean, the wrong way to ask is: “Can I do this?” That’s not the way to ask a Tibetan lama. We ask, “Do you have any objection if I do this?” We suggest our idea, and then we ask them if they have any objection. It’s a child’s way of asking, “What should I do? Tell me what to do.” We never learn that way. Instead, “This is what I propose. Do you have any objection?” That is the traditional way of asking a lama. “What should I do? Tell me what to do” – that’s dependency. 

Furthermore, the term giving permission – it’s not giving permission. Gagcha (dgag-cha) means “I have no objections.” They release us from objections. We are free to do this because there are no objections. This is how we grow to become a mature person able to make our own decisions and come up with our own analysis of what the objections are to any plan that we have. 

Maybe we should ask this tomorrow morning because there might be other people who come and they will expect something, and if we immediately do something completely different, they might be disappointed. 

This is very good. This is called purva paksha in Sanskrit. It is a very important method for analysis. Purva paksha means the other side, the opponent’s side. In a debate, we make the objection – this is what we need to do ourselves – from the other point of view, and now we have to answer it. Purva paksha in Sanskrit. 

Now, we have the objection: “There’s going to be people coming tomorrow morning who maybe weren’t here this evening and they expect the second topic.” We have to do the analysis. The whole point is to learn how to analyze. How do we reply to that objection? Every Tibetan and Hindu philosophical text is in this format. This is Indian.

Do you have the answer to the objection? 

It’s easy. Give them their money back. 

What do you do before that? 

Ask them. 

Right, we ask them. We say, “This is what we’re doing. So sorry that we are not giving this second topic. You are welcome to stay, and there will be a review so you won’t feel lost. However, if you really don’t want to stay, here’s your money back.” 

But they still may be disappointed. 

They will be disappointed, but the other people who are here won’t be disappointed. 

What is the line that goes with this? The line is: “If Buddha couldn’t please everybody, how could I expect to possibly please everybody?” This is very helpful. “Not everybody liked the Buddha. Why should everybody like me?” Seriously, that’s very helpful when we get upset that someone doesn’t like us. Well, what do we expect? Of course, somebody’s going to be disappointed. 

So, I would propose that. Your objection is a valid objection. All these purva pakshas, these objections, are valid. They’re not stupid. However, we have to answer them. It’s very important to learn this when we’re trying to make a plan or something like that. Bring up the objections. What are the objections to this? Then, answer those objections. If we can’t answer the objections, then the objections are valid, and we then have to change our plan. 

For example, “I want to go on holiday.” The objection: “Well, I don’t have the money.” Then we answer that. Can we go on a cheaper holiday? We work with and analyze that. 

I have an answer to that objection. You could promise to come back to teach about karma another time. 

Right. That’s an answer. I could promise to come back and teach the second topic at a certain time. What’s the Indian answer to that? Definitely maybe. Right? That’s a valid answer. “Definitely maybe” means that I will definitely try, but I can’t absolutely promise and guarantee. Who knows what’ll happen? Or maybe I teach it somewhere else and it’ll be on my website. It’s a topic that I would very much like to teach because I think that this way of explaining karma is much more accurate, much more useful. 

The Problem with Translating Karma as “Action” 

I’ll just give you a very brief point about this. The Tibetan word for karma is lay (las), which is the colloquial Tibetan word for action. Therefore, all Tibetans – I can’t say all, but most Tibetans, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, translate it in English as “action” because it’s the colloquial word for “action.” So fine. They look it up in the dictionary; that’s the word. It’s in the dictionary. 

Think about that. Does that make any sense whatsoever? It makes absolutely no sense, even if we don’t know the definition. If actions are what keep us in samsara and suffering, then to gain liberation, to gain enlightenment, we’d have to stop doing anything. That makes absolutely no sense. Do you see the method here? It’s very important. The method is to look at the consequences of understanding karma to mean actions. If the consequences, what follows from that, are totally absurd, then we’re not translating it correctly. 

We are under the control of karma. We’re not under our own control. We’re out of control. What does that mean? Let’s not take it literally as a “me” that’s separate from everything and it’s the controller. When we’re talking about karma, we’re talking about the compulsive aspect of our actions. They’re compulsive. For instance, compulsively, we lie. Compulsively, we have to be good. “I have to be the good one. I have to be perfect.” It’s this compulsiveness that keeps us, over and over again, repeating the same types of patterns that cause us suffering and problems. We have to overcome the compulsiveness of our actions, and not just give up doing anything. 

Can you just repeat that again? 

It’s the compulsive aspect of either our destructive or constructive behavior that we have to overcome. Otherwise, we’re not acting consciously on the basis of compassion or anything like that. Just compulsively, for example, we lie all the time, or we’re compulsively a perfectionist. We have to be perfect. We have to be good. Very neurotic, isn’t it? If we understand that, then we know what the problem is. The troublemaker is the compulsiveness, which then makes perfect sense that it comes from habit and so on.