Understanding Something: Conceptual Cognition

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We were speaking about the different types of apprehension before, and we saw that we can have decisive and accurate apprehension either through valid straightforward cognition or valid inferential cognition. Both of these could be conceptual, but only straightforward cognition can also be non-conceptual.

We need to understand what we mean by conceptual cognition, especially since we hear all the time in Buddhism that we have to go beyond conceptual cognition and gain non-conceptual cognition. So, to go beyond conceptual cognition and gain non-conceptual cognition, we need to know what both are, right?

Apprehension in Conceptual Cognition 

Let’s first discuss conceptual cognition. How does apprehension work with that? Let’s take as an example inference, which is always conceptual, and of the three kinds of inference, let’s use an example of inference based on renown. An example would be reading or hearing the word voidness. What are we actually seeing when we read it? We see some curved and straight lines – that’s what we’re seeing, isn’t it? We hear a vibration of air when somebody says the word voidness. Through conceptual cognition by means of inference based on renown, we then apprehend what we are seeing or hearing signifies – it signifies the word voidness

What is conceptual cognition? Conceptual cognition is the cognition of something through the medium of a category. There are two types of categories: an audio category (sgra-spyi) and a meaning or object category (don-spyi). Let’s look at them one by one, starting with audio categories.

Conceptual Apprehension through an Audio Category 

When we conceptually apprehend the sound of somebody saying “voidness,” we apprehend it first non-conceptually by hearing it. Our hearing of this sound is accurate and decisive. This is the sound we hear, and we’re certain that this is the sound that the person has uttered and not another sound. We’ve excluded that they’ve said something else, that they uttered a different noise or a different sound.

Then, through the audio category of the sound voidness, we conceptually cognize this sound as fitting with other similar sounds we have heard into the audio category voidness. That means that regardless of how somebody pronounced it, regardless of whether with a man’s voice, a woman’s voice, or a machine’s voice, and regardless of the volume, we cognize all of these sounds as fitting in the audio category voidness: they’re all saying voidness

How do we know that when we hear two different people say “voidness” that they’re saying the same thing? How do we know that? It’s by conceptually cognizing the two sounds through the audio category voidness. Both sounds we heard fit into the audio category voidness.

That’s quite amazing if you think about it. How do we know and understand that two different people are saying the same thing? The sounds we hear are in two different voices and two different volumes. Although the texts don’t speak about graphic categories, it’s undoubtedly the same mechanism with reading. “Voidness,” whether it’s written with this or that typeface or in this or that color or in this or that handwriting – all of them are graphic representations of the line drawing voidness. We know they are all written or typed forms of the line drawing voidness because they all fit into the same graphic category. Okay? 

Think about that. It’s important to understand what we mean by conceptual cognition. One type of conceptual cognition, the type involved with language, entails audio categories. Obviously, we have to learn these categories. The sounds and graphic representations of a language don’t exist already in our minds when we are born.

Furthermore, we need to conceptually cognize the sounds that fit in an audio category such as the audio category voidness as also fitting into the object category sounds of words. Otherwise, we are just hearing sounds and don’t recognize them as being the sounds of words. We might consider them as the sound of wind and a mouse might merely infer from them the presence of a potential danger.

The Components of a Conceptual Cognition

In any case, when we are apprehending something through a conceptual category, there are various other components involved, somewhat like filters. If we represent all these components graphically, then situated closest to mental consciousness is the conceptual category. Next to it is a conceptual isolate (ldog-pa), also called a “specifier.” Literally, the conceptual isolate is a double negative, “not not this,” or in simpler language, “nothing other than this.” The category, then, is a classification that is “nothing other than this one.” In this sense, the category itself is a conceptual isolate. The conceptual isolate also isolates from the category everything other than what fits into the category. It can also specify an example of what does fit in the category, and so next to the conceptual isolate is a mental representation, like a mental hologram, of an example that fits in the category.  

I’ll give you an example. It’s very easy. Think of a dog. Everybody has a different idea, a different picture in their minds of what a dog looks like. That’s our idea of what a dog is. There’s the category dog. It’s a conceptual isolate of everything that is not a dog and each of us represents this category with what we would call in our languages, “our idea of a dog.” It’s amazing. We’re all thinking of something different – each animal we imagine looks different – but we’re all thinking of a dog. Quite amazing.

It’s the same thing with an audio category and its conceptual isolate. We have something that represents an audio category in our conceptual cognitions, somewhat like an “inner voice,” exemplifying the way some word is pronounced. Take, for example, the name “Nagarjuna.” “NaGARjuna” – that’s the actual Sanskrit pronunciation. It ends in two short syllables: “NaGARjuna.” Now, I hear somebody say, “NagarJUna,” and that sounds terrible to me, but I can understand that they’re saying “Nagarjuna” because I am conceptually fitting it into the audio category Nagarjuna, despite the fact that, in my mind, the sound of that name is represented by “NaGARjuna.” The accent is on the second syllable, not the third syllable, which is how the other person represents it. Do you follow? NaGARjuna. MaDHYAmaka, not MadhyaMEEka. AMERica, not AmerEEca. That’s the example I always use to demonstrate the actual Sanskrit pronunciation. It’s not AmerEEca; it’s AMERica. Two short syllables at the end.

Anyway, we have this all the time, don’t we? For instance, a cup of coffee. I have an idea of what a cup of coffee should taste like. I represent it through my idea of a certain taste. Somebody serves me a hot brown liquid and I know it’s supposed to be coffee. However, I have a fixed idea of what coffee should taste like – it’s not the same as the taste of this hot brown liquid I’m served – but I can still cognize it as coffee. 

Sometimes, we call such ideas “preconceptions.” I have a preconception of what coffee should taste like. Then we get into trouble when we’re very attached to our conceptual representation. We think, “This is what a cup of coffee should taste like,” and with anything else, we think, “That’s a terrible cup of coffee.” We get annoyed. Disturbing emotions arise because the hot brown liquid we’re served doesn’t live up to our preconception and expectations of what a cup of coffee should taste like. It doesn’t match what we mentally represent the taste of coffee with.

Basically, there’s no problem with the conceptual process. The problem comes when we get attached to our representation and think, “This is the only taste that coffee should have, and it has to be like this.” It’s very helpful to try to identify our personal, private ideas of what things – and then we use this terrible word – should be. “It should be like this, the way that I think it should be.” Why should it be? Are we a world dictator decreeing what coffee should taste like and banning all alternatives?

To summarize conceptual apprehension through an audio category, we hear somebody utter the sound voidness, and we conceptually apprehend it correctly as being the sound that we heard and that it was the sound voidness. In addition, we’re absolutely certain that it was the sound of nothing other than the sound voidness. If we’ve apprehended it, this means that later we don’t have any doubts. We can correctly remember the sound that we heard someone utter. If we thought we heard a different sound or we weren’t certain what we heard, then we haven’t apprehended that sound. If we weren’t really paying attention to what they said, then afterward we would not be certain of what they said, would we? This happens all the time. For instance, when we hear a very long lecture that we find boring. 

Just because we have apprehended the sound voidness that we hear and are certain that we have heard this sound and not some other sound, that doesn’t mean we know that this is the sound of the word voidness and, further, that we have understood what this word means. A mouse could have heard the sound voidness too and not known even that it is the sound of a word. For us, as humans, to know that the sound voidness is the sound of a word called voidness, we need already to have been taught and know that society has agreed, as a convention, to designate the audio category voidness and the sounds that fit in it as being the sounds of a word – namely, the word voidness. Someone has taught us this word, voidness, and now we remember that the sound we hear is the sound of the word voidness

But to go further and apprehend what the word voidness means, we need also to have been taught and know that society has also agreed, as a convention, to conceptually label with a meaning the audio category and the sounds that fit in it that it has designated with the word voidness. Society has conceptually labeled them with the meaning category an absence of impossible ways of existing, and now we need to remember that meaning category too. So, society has agreed on two inseparable conventions concerning the audio category of the sound voidness and the sounds that fit in it – they are designated as being the sound of the word voidness and, being the sound of the word voidness, they are conceptually labeled with the meaning category an absence of impossible ways of existing.

Conceptual Apprehension through a Meaning Category 

What are meaning categories? Meaning categories are imputation phenomena that can only exist and be known on the basis of audio categories designated with words. There cannot be a meaning, without it being the meaning of something, for instance the meaning of a word; and a sound cannot be the sound of a word unless there is a meaning associated with it. Otherwise, it is just the sound of some noise, like the sound of traffic. Think about that.

Take, for example, the meaning category an absence of impossible ways of existing. Each of the Indian Buddhist tenet systems, and some of the Tibetan traditions as well, assert a different impossible way of existing that is absent. However, all these meanings fit into the meaning category an absence of impossible ways of existing. This meaning category can be an imputation phenomenon on the basis of many different audio categories of words that all mean the same thing. In this case, these would be the audio categories of the words voidness and emptiness in English, Leerheit in German, vacuité in French, and so on. There are many words that have been designated as having the meaning an absence of impossible ways of existing.

Not all meanings that are cognized through the meaning category an absence of impossible ways of existing validly fit into this category, however. For instance, the meaning an absence of any existence at all. That meaning category is a valid imputation phenomenon on the basis of the audio category of the words the assertion of nihilism, but not on the basis of the audio category of the word voidness. So, a conceptual apprehension through a meaning category, such as an absence of impossible ways of existing, needs to have a valid meaning representing the category, such as an absence of self-established existence. “Self-established existence” is often translated as “inherent existence.”

It is important to realize that sounds themselves are not self-established as being the sounds of words and that words are not self-established as have a specific meaning. Sounds must be designated as being the sounds of words, and words must be conceptually labeled with meanings. In other words, sounds are established as being the sounds of words dependent only on their having been designated as such, as a convention, and words are established as having a certain meaning dependent only on their having been mentally labeled as such, also by convention. Further, whatever meaning the sounds of the words have been conventionally designated as having – such as the sound of voidness being designated as being the sound of the word voidness and being conceptually labeled as having the meaning an absence of impossible ways of existing – they must not be contradicted by valid cognition of the teachings given by valid sources of information. 

I’ll give an easier example – love. What is love? Someone utters the sounds, “I love you,” we hear them and recognize them as being the sounds of words. In addition, these words have meaning to us. It doesn’t matter what language the person speaks – they could have uttered the sounds ich liebe dich. We think they mean in German the same thing as the words I love you in English. But then we conceptually represent the meaning category love with our own private idea of what saying, “I love you” means, and we project that meaning onto the sounds of the words we heard. A lot of confusion arises from that.

Let me give a classic example from my own experience. You know in various European countries when a man meets a woman, he moves his cheek either against or just near her cheek and utters the sound mwah to represent a kiss. In some places, it’s one kiss and in some places, it’s two, three, or four kisses. There are some places where your lips never touch the other person’s cheek, and in some places, they do. All of this simply means hello, a greeting. However, this happened to me once when I made that gesture of greeting too many times for a particular European culture and the woman completely got the wrong idea. I think my lips touched her cheek, and she completely got the wrong idea of what that signified. She thought, “This man is coming on to me sexually,” which was not at all my intention or the meaning of my gesture. Think about that.

It’s interesting. Words have different meanings in different cultures. In Latin America, for example, if you say, “Come at six o’clock” – well, of course, that doesn’t mean come at six o’clock. Nobody would come at six o’clock when you say, “Come at six o’clock.” It means come at seven o’clock or even later. When we come from a German background, or Swiss, and someone in Latin America says come at six o’clock – genau, we’re there precisely at six, and they’re not even dressed yet.

Or when someone says, “I’ll call you.” Does that literally mean they’re going to call us? Or are they just being polite? How do we understand the meaning of these words? 

How do we know that the meaning categories that we apply to the sounds of the words we hear are correct and that we have apprehended and correctly understood what the words mean? Well, we can apply the same three criteria for the validity of a specific meaning as we did for the sound of our baby crying:

[1] First of all, it must accord with a convention that a group of people has agreed to, that this sound is the sound of a word and that that word has this meaning. I mean, what we heard was just a sound, so there’s nothing inherent in the sound that makes it be the sound of a word and inherent in the word that makes it have a specific meaning. Basically, a group of people has assigned this sound to be the sound of the word voidness and this word to have the meaning an absence of impossible ways of existing. It’s a convention. All language is like that, if you think about it. 

That’s the first thing to check. Is there a convention that this society has agreed upon that a certain sound, no matter how it is voiced, is the sound of a word and that it has a certain meaning? That has to be there, doesn’t it? It’s the same thing with the written or printed word. We’re reading a book, and all we see are these lines. That’s all we’re seeing. If we saw Chinese characters, what are we seeing? Lines. We don’t even recognize that they are words, let alone that they have a meaning if we don’t know Chinese. We might simply conceive of them as artistic designs.

Have you ever listened to somebody speaking a foreign language that you don’t understand? To us, it’s just sounds. We can’t even divide what we hear into words, can we? We need to apply audio categories for the sounds that we hear, recognize them as being the sound of words and remember the meaning categories for these words. Right?

So, we hear the sound voidness and apprehend it conceptually through the audio category voidness. We then apprehend the sound conceptually by fitting it into the meaning category the sound of a word, and then conceptually apprehend it further through the meaning category an absence of impossible ways of existing. To check if we have apprehended the meaning correctly and accurately, we check and, yes, this is the sound voidness and there is the convention that the sound voidness is the sound of a word and there is the convention that this word voidness has this meaning assigned to it – an absence of impossible ways of existing. And there is also the convention that the specific meaning I represent an absence of impossible ways of existing with does validly fit into this meaning category.

[2] Second, we check to see that this meaning of “voidness” is not contradicted by the classical texts and what qualified teachers explain. Yes, there is this definition in the texts and in the qualified teachers’ explanations. “Voidness” can mean this. This is the second step in checking whether we have apprehended the meaning. 

[3] Finally, we check to see that this meaning is not contradicted by the deepest truth cognized non-conceptually by aryas. Aryas cognize that words do not have meanings inherently established in them independently of mental labeling. Right? The word voidness is used by many different schools of Buddhism with quite different definitions, so it’s not that inherently it means just one thing. That’s why I use this term “absence of impossible ways of existing” because that covers all the different schools.

Understanding Something Conceptually 

Just because we apprehend correctly and decisively the sound that we hear as being the sound voidness and that it is sound of a word, and just because we apprehend correctly and decisively the meaning of the word voidness as meaning “a total absence of impossible ways of existing,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that we understand voidness. There’s a big difference between these apprehensions and actually what we would call “understanding voidness.” 

This happens to us all the time when we’re reading a complex text, let’s say a text by Tsongkhapa. We read a complex sentence, and we apprehend each word and the meaning of each word correctly and decisively, but we don’t understand the sentence at all. We could even apprehend correctly and decisively the different levels of the meaning of the word voidness – we know it means this in Chittamatra, that in Svatantrika, and that in Prasangika – but we still don’t understand it. Of course, before we can understand what Tsongkhapa is saying about voidness, we need first to have apprehension of the words and their definitions in what he has written; that level of understanding has to be correct and decisive.

What we have to try to figure out is what, in addition, to that do we need in order to say that we actually understand what Tsongkhapa has written? Think about that. What would we need more than that? What do you think? What more do we need besides correct and decisive apprehension in order to say that we understand voidness? ” We can recognize the word voidness no matter how it’s said or how it’s written. We know the definition. What, in addition to that, would we need in order to say that we understand it?


Okay. Experience of what?

If I live on a hot island and I’ve never seen snow, and someone tells me what snow is: I’m sure I can describe it very well, but I’ve never experienced snow, so I would never know what snow really means.

How does that relate to voidness? Unless we’ve experienced voidness, we can’t really understand it? What does “experience” mean? How do we experience voidness? We have to be a little bit more precise. 

You must know it. 

What does that mean? What does it mean to “know” something? We might know the definition of voidness, but we still might not understand it. In usual Western terminology, if we experience snow, now we know what snow is. Now we know it, but we might not understand what snow is. How in the world does snow come about? Why is it in this shape and why is it this color? We don’t understand that at all. So, have we understood snow? No, I don’t think so. But to say, “Now I know what snow is because I’ve experienced it,” that’s different. But why every snowflake is different – we don’t know or understand that at all, so we don’t really understand snow at all.

I propose, as a start, that to understand something like voidness, we not only need to apprehend the word and its definition, but we need also to apprehend the implications of word and its definition. Tsongkhapa explains that the implication of the word “voidness,” meaning “an absence of impossible ways of existing,” is that dependent arising is infallible – voidness does not contradict the fact that effects arising dependently on causes.  

Just apprehending this implication of voidness – knowing it accurately and decisively – in addition to having gotten the definition of voidness right I think is still not enough for understanding voidness. In addition, I propose that we would also need to be able to put our tentative understanding of voidness together with many other teachings we’ve received and apply it to analyzing topics such karma. The criterion for understanding voidness, then, would be that our application of our understanding of voidness to a source of our suffering produces its stated result – it rids us of that suffering or at least diminishes it. Then we can have conviction that our understanding is correct.

Once you’ve really understood something, is it still an intellectual thing? Does it require thinking? Are we still thinking?

That gets into the difference between a conceptual and a non-conceptual understanding. That we’ll get to later. But regarding thinking, there is a difference between having a thought, which just means cognizing an object with mental consciousness, either conceptually or non-conceptually, and thinking, which means conceptually going through a line of thought, like an inferential line of reasoning. So, in order to answer your question, we would need to work out the pervasions between an intellectual cognition and thinking through a line of reasoning. That’s not so simple. 

But let’s go back to a conceptual cognition of voidness. When we have a correct understanding of voidness, which includes understanding its implications and applications, and we conceptually focus on voidness, although we apprehend voidness correctly and decisively at that time, we do not simultaneously bring to mind its implications and applications. Nevertheless, our apprehension of voidness is held by the force of the latencies from our previously having apprehended the implications and applications. This force is in the background. It’s unconscious, we would say. Our conceptual cognition is held by the force of that. We’re not bringing all the implications and applications to the conscious mind at that moment.

Do you follow? Our cognition is conceptual. That means our cognition of voidness is through a category – in this case, the object category voidness. The word for meaning category and for object category is the same in both Sanskrit and Tibetan. What the word voidness means and refers to is the cognitive object voidness. Every time that we meditate on voidness, the mental hologram that arises representing voidness is slightly different, but all of these conceptual representations fit into the object/meaning category voidness

Such a conceptual cognition of voidness through the object/meaning category voidness does not necessarily need to be accompanied by a second conceptual cognition through the audio category voidness represented by a mental hologram of the sound of the word voidness. We don’t need to experience a voice in our head saying “voidness” when we have a conceptual cognition of voidness. We just need an accurate and decisive idea of what “voidness” means. That’s the apprehension. 

If we have worked out the implications and applications of voidness beforehand and if our conceptual apprehension is held by the force of the unconscious latencies from these implications, then I think we could say that we actually understand voidness when we are conceptually apprehending voidness. It’s like our knowledge of all these implications and applications is there unconsciously in the background when we are focusing on voidness through the object/meaning category.

Do you follow? No? Let’s do it piece by piece:

We work out the various implications and applications of voidness. We’ve analyzed and applied voidness to many situations in our lives. We have fit it together with all sorts of other teachings that we’ve heard – for example, how it fits together with impermanence and how it fits together with behavioral cause and effect, karma. We know that our analyses are accurate and decisive because our concept of what voidness means fits with all these other teachings and makes sense of them. We’ve come to this conclusion by having used valid inference in analytical meditation, and also by informally thinking through the teachings in light of voidness, a by applying what we have understood to dealing with problematic issues in our lives, and this has helped us get rid of unhappiness, at least provisionally at that time. We’ve repeated this analytical meditation many, many times so that we’re really familiar with all these implications and are totally convinced that our idea of what voidness means is correct because it has helped us deal with problems.

Now in stabilizing meditation, we conceptually focus single-pointedly on voidness. Either we need to first generate our idea of what voidness means – our conceptual representation of voidness – by going through a line of reasoning, or we’re so familiar with the concept of voidness that we don’t have to go through any line of reasoning; we just straightforwardly generate our idea, our mental representation, of what voidness means. However, it’s still a conceptual cognition. It’s through the object/meaning category voidness.

Now, at that time when we’re conceptually focusing single-mindedly on voidness through the object/meaning category, we’re not at the same time thinking about all the different implications and applications of voidness. But we know those implications and applications because we’ve worked them out beforehand. The force of previously having worked them out is in operation while we’re focusing on voidness in this way.

Now, do you follow that? Does that make sense? Think about it a little bit.

Let me give an easier example. We meet a friend, and our friend has a problem. They tell us their problem: they’re depressed. Now, we are focusing on their situation through the object category my friend and through the object category problem

Beforehand, we have come to know all sorts of things about our friend. We know that they lost their job. We know that they have a family. We know their background. The more detail we know about our friend and its implications on their life, the better we can understand their problem of being depressed. When we focus on our friend and their problem, we’re not consciously bringing up all that information and thinking about it consciously; however, it’s all there in the background. 

We also know all the various implications of problems such as being depressed. We have worked out beforehand that problems come about from causes, and if we change the circumstances supporting and perpetuating the problems, the situations will change. We don’t have to think about these implications consciously at the time of focusing on our friend and their problem. However, we have worked all of that out beforehand based on experience, logic, and so on.

We have this type of conceptual understanding all the time. Let’s look at another example. Our computer won’t do what we want it to do, so we perceive it conceptually through the category malfunctioning computer. If we have the training and knowledge to be able to figure out what the implications of the malfunctioning are, and so we know what is wrong and how to fix it, then when we conceptually focus on the malfunctioning computer, we understand the problem and accurately and decisively know what to do. Our understanding of the malfunctioning is held by the force of our knowing all its implications – that if it won’t do this, it’s because of this or because of that, and to fix it, we have to do this or we have to do that. This is how we understand things.

Okay, what questions do you have?

Using the Term Emptiness 

My question is about the use of the term emptiness, what is it supposed to mean and is there a different way of speaking about what it's supposed to mean that is maybe less irritating? Because a lot of people, if they hear the term emptiness, develop all sorts of confusion.

Well, thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to explain why I don’t use the word emptiness and why I use the word voidness instead for the Sanskrit word shunya (śūnya)or shunyata (śūnyatā). “Shunya” is the same word as the Sanskrit word for “zero.” It doesn’t mean “nothing,” it means an absence. What is absent? Impossible ways of existing. There are no such things as these ways of existing; they’re impossible. The different Indian tenet systems then assert different ways of existing that are absent.

In English, we have these two words that are used to translate “shunya” – “emptiness” and “voidness.” In many other languages, we don’t have two distinct terms, but in English we do.

  • “Emptiness” or “empty” implies that there is something there, some inherently existent, self-established thing that conventionally appears and is there, but on the deepest level there’s an absence of something impossible inside it: it’s empty like a glass is empty. 
  • “Voidness,” on the other hand, just means there is no such thing as some impossible way of existing. There is just a “void.”

“Emptiness” is an appropriate translation for the Chittamatra and Svatantrika assertions of shunyata. 

  • Chittamatra asserts that forms of physical phenomena have self-established, true existence established independently of mental labeling. As such, they conventionally appear and are findable in sensory cognition. But, in deepest truth, when they appear in sensory cognition, they are “empty” of coming from a natal source that is different from that from which the consciousness and mental factors cognizing it come. 
  • Svatantrika asserts that all phenomena have self-established existence and that they conventionally appear and are findable as such. But, in deepest truth, they are “empty” both of having true existence established independently of mental labeling and of having their existence established merely in terms of mental labeling.

The translation emptiness suits these two tenet systems because for both of them conventional objects are like empty glasses. “Emptiness” doesn’t work for the Prasangika assertion, however. Prasangika simply asserts that there is no such thing as self-established existence, whether established independently of mental labeling or in conjunction with mental labeling. Furthermore, self-established existence is impossible and totally absent both in terms of conventional truth and deepest truth. So, according to the Prasangika view, all phenomena are simply “devoid” of impossible ways of existing and nothing is findable, while according to the Chittamatra and Svatantrika views, phenomena are like findable empty glasses – findable glasses that do not have impossible ways of existing inside them.  

Let’s use an easy example. A child thinks that there’s a monster under the bed. They have this idea of a monster – the category “monster” – and represent it by some sort of scary looking thing, and then project that as being under the bed. But there are no such things as monsters, and so for something to exist as a monster is impossible. Technically, we would say that there is no referent object (btags-chos) for the category monster. The category and word monster do not refer to anything real, although they could be conceptually represented by a cartoon monster. 

Analogous to the Chittamatra and Svatantrika understanding of shunyata would be that there is actually a cat findable under the bed, but it does not exist as a monster because that is an impossible way of existing. Analogous to the Prasangika understanding would be that there is nothing findable under the bed because existence as a monster is impossible. 

So, for Chittamatra and Svatantrika, there is something findable that is empty of existing as a monster, which is impossible. For Prasangika, there merely is a total voidness of existence as a monster – there is no such thing; there never was and never will be, it’s impossible.

Referent Objects and Referent Things 

Coming back to this concept of a holographic representation: What if there’s no referent object outside of the nature of this holographic representation?

You mean, if a mental hologram arises of a monster, what is this? That hologram of a monster is built upon the basis of cartoon representations and representations in movies (Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.) of what a monster is. Nonetheless, there are no real monsters. 

The example that I use is chicken lips. We could imagine lips on a chicken, but they wouldn’t be chicken lips because there’s no such thing. We could imagine human lips on a chicken. Donald Duck or Daisy Duck have lips, but those are human lips. They’re not duck lips because there’s no such thing.

Now, we have to get into terminology. There is the term denpar drubpa (bden-par grub-pa), in Sanskrit satyasiddha, usually translated as “true existence.”  Denpar and satya mean “true.” Although many people translate drubpa and siddha as “existence,” they are not the words for “existence.” They are the words for  “established,” “affirmed,” and “proved.” They concern the issue of how we can establish, affirm, or prove that something exists. What establishes that something exists?

For instance, a dog. What establishes that there are such things as dogs? Well, what is a dog? The only thing that we can say is that a dog is what the concept of a dog and the word dog refer to when a society has agreed that a set of certain animals be mentally labeled and designated with the convention dog. This is the case although there is no need to call them dogs or conceive of them as dogs, or to call or conceive of them as anything. There’s nothing on the side of some animal that we could find that establishes it as a dog. What could be found? Is there a little name tag or label dog there? Is there anything findable on the side of these animals? 

What establishes that anything is even a thing, a validly knowable object? Is there some sort of line around it that delineates it as a thing? Is it encapsulated in plastic, separated from everything else, and that is what establishes it as being a thing? Does everything exist like in a children’s coloring book, with lines around them making them into things, and then we just project colors onto it? Although the non-Prasangika tenet systems assert like that, Prasangika soundly refutes that. 

With mental labeling with concepts or categories, there is a basis for labeling (gdags-gzhi) on which the concept or category is labeled. The concept or category cannot be labeled on just anything. The basis needs to have certain defining characteristics shared in common by the category and all individual items that fit in the category. But even the defining characteristic of dogs for instance, like a DNA structure, cannot be found and pointed to on the side of the basis. When we analyze and look closely, the DNA is made up of proteins, the proteins are made up of molecules, the molecules are made up of atoms, the atoms are made up of subatomic particles, and so on. In the end, we cannot find anything on the side of some animal that by its own power, or in conjunction with mental labeling, establishes that this a dog. 

So, what establishes that some animal is a dog? Well, the only thing that we can say is that a dog is merely what the concept and word dog refers to on the basis of some animal with certain defining characteristics as its basis for labeling. And even the existence of a defining characteristic of a dog is established merely in terms of mental labeling. Someone had to conceive that a certain pattern of DNA is the defining characteristic of a dog and mentally label and designate it as such, and others would have to have accepted that as a convention. The DNA by itself is just a set of proteins, and the proteins are just a set of molecules, and so on. 

We need to differentiate between a referent object and a referent thing. Those are two different words in Tibetan: takcho (btags-chos, referent object) and takdon (btags-don, referent thing). The concept and word dog refer to something. Conventionally, there are dogs. They are the referent objects of the concept and word dog that have been mentally labeled and designated on a certain set of animals. Buddhism does not refute that. Their existence as dogs, however, can only be established dependently on their having been mentally labeled with the conventionally agreed-upon concept of a dog and designated with the word dog. They are not self-established as dogs by something findable in their own sides. They are merely the referent objects of the concept and word dog

A referent thing, on the other hand, is something self-established from its own side as a dog, for instance, that allows for it to be correctly labeled and designated as a dog. In this case, it would be an animal that, conventionally, is a dog and appears as a dog. It is what serves as the focal support (dmigs-rten) for its being correctly labeled and designated as a dog. In a sense, this referent thing is backing up and supporting the referent object of the concept and word dog. To put it slightly differently, a referent thing would be like some animal that appears to be a dog, but that alone does not establish that it is a dog. What establishes that it actually is a dog, according to Svatantrika, is that, in addition, it can be validly cognized, conceptually, as fitting into the category dog like some concrete item fitting into a box. According to Prasangika, there are no such things as referent things. 

Let me give an easier example. I always use the example of colors, like the color orange, since it is easier to understand. Is there a color orange? What establishes that there is such a thing as the color orange? The color orange is merely what the concept and word orange refer to, having been mentally labeled and designated orange on the basis of a certain range of frequencies on the light spectrum. The color orange is the referent object of the mental label and the word orange. There is nothing on the side of the light spectrum that establishes a certain range of frequencies of light as being “orange.” There are no walls on the side of the light spectrum separating it into portions. It’s not that on one side of a wall on the light spectrum the color is red and on the other side it is orange. The existence of orange and red are merely established in terms of mental labeling. 

The mental labeling and designation, however, are not just arbitrary. To be valid, they need to fulfill Dharmakirti’s three criteria as we have discussed before – there must be an agreed-upon convention of orange and red, for instance, and they must not be contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes conventional or deepest truth.

Consider the example of love. What’s love? Well, it’s merely what the concept and word love refer to on the basis of some emotions that people feel. Is there such a thing as love? Sure, conventionally there’s such a thing as what we call “love” – society has agreed on this convention. On the side of all the emotions that every human being experiences, is there this findable box love in all our minds, and when we feel love, it’s like we’re feeling something that fits in this box? No, it’s not like that.

What is totally absent is a referent thing, as if with a line around it, encapsulated in plastic, sitting in a findable box in our minds, like a piece of chocolate in a box of chocolates, and established as “love” from its own side. And when we feel “love,” it’s as if we have chosen a chocolate from this box and are tasting it. 

If we think that conventionally there is a findable referent object, but that in deepest truth it does not exist as a referent thing, then we are thinking like a Svatantrika that there is a cat findable under the bed. What establishes that it exists as a cat in the Svatantrika way of thinking, is not only that it actually is a cat, but also that it can be validly labeled as a cat. Neither of the two criteria establish that it is cat by their own power alone. But just because the frightened child labels it as a monster doesn’t establish it as existing as a monster, because there are no such things as monsters. 

If, on the other hand, we say there are no such things as referent things, and we focus on the total absence of referent things with the force of having understood that the existence of things can only be established as being the referent objects of mental labeling, then we are thinking like a Prasangika that there is no such thing as a monster and there is nothing findable under the bed that could possibly be established as existing as a monster.  

Do you understand what I just explained about referent objects and referent things? What would be the steps for being able to understand it? We would first have to have accurately and decisively heard this explanation so that we could accurately and decisively remember what I said. Well, we have recordings, so that makes it easy. We would then have to think about what it could mean. To understand the meaning of what I explained, we would start with easy examples like the monster under the bed. Then we would go on to examples from our own experience. Do we create unhappiness and suffering for ourselves when we think, “You don’t love me,” by imagining that love is some sort of referent thing, self-established and findable within the spectrum of emotions, and that you haven’t reached into the box called “love” inside your emotions and directed that emotion toward me? 

Is there such a thing as love? Sure. What establishes that there is such a thing? Well, there’s the concept love and the word love. Society has agreed on a defining characteristic of a set of emotions that have this defining characteristic and have agreed on calling it “love” and that this word refers to something. But what it refers to is not some findable thing whose existence as “love” is established by the power of a defining characteristic findable on its own side. Its existence as love cannot be established in this impossible way. That’s what’s absent – an actual referent thing corresponding to the concept or word love. That’s what voidness is talking about. It’s not that there is a findable glass that is empty. There is just voidness.

There’s one more point I want to make. Remember when we were talking about conceptual cognition? We have the category love, for instance. We’re thinking in terms of “love,” and we represent it by something, our personal representation of what love is. Then, we think that that is the actual referent thing that corresponds to “love.” We think that our personal idea of what “love” is the only real thing that love is. Then, if the other person doesn’t demonstrate what we think love is, we conclude that they don’t love us. This is the problem, isn’t it? Thinking like that causes us problems and suffering. 

When we are able to recognize that the personal representation of love that we’re clinging to as the referent thing that the concept and word love correspond to – when we’re able to understand accurately and decisively that “this is ridiculous,” there are no such things as findable referent things corresponding to our concepts and words, then we can drop our clinging. It’s like understanding voidness. When we start to go on that trip of: “You don’t love me,” we just cut it off with our understanding of mental labeling and voidness. It’s clear, “This is ridiculous.” 

We gain decisiveness that love cannot possible exist as just the referent thing that we imagine it to exclusively be by working out the logical consequences that would follow if what we imagine were true. If love only means this one thing that we think it does, that means that what we feel when we love our sexual partner, our child, our mother, our country, our car, and our dog – in all these cases, what we feel are all exactly the same. Well, this is ridiculous, isn’t it? It’s clearly not like that. Basically, we work out the logical consequences of our mistaken beliefs and conclude, “This is stupid, so why do I believe like that?” – and then, with decisiveness, we just cut it off from our way of thinking.

If we have understood voidness correctly, which means accurately and decisively with all its implications, then we can apply our understanding to problematic situations in our lives like with this example of love, and we will get the stated results – our suffering goes away or at least diminishes, and we have fewer problems. If we have applied our understanding and no improvement has happened, or our suffering and unhappiness have just gotten worse, then we really haven’t understand voidness correctly at all.