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. And both of these could be conceptual, but only straightforward cognition is non-conceptual.

So we need to understand what do we mean by conceptual, since we hear this all the time in Buddhism – conceptual cognition and non-conceptual cognition – we’re aiming for non-conceptual. Well, we have to know what that is, don’t we?

Apprehension in Conceptual Cognition

Let’s see first in terms of conceptual cognition. How does apprehension work with that? So in terms of inference… remember we had three kinds? So let’s use an example of inference based on renown. An example would be hearing or reading the word “voidness.” So what are we actually seeing? We’re seeing some curved lines (that’s what we’re seeing, isn’t it?) when we read the word “voidness,” or we’re hearing a vibration of air when we hear the word – somebody says, “Voidness.”

Conceptual means that we cognize it through the medium of a category. There are two types of category: an audio category (sgra-spyi) and a meaning category (don-spyi).

Conceptual Cognition through an Audio Category

First we apprehend non-conceptually the sound, right, the sound of somebody saying the word “voidness.” Right? Accurate. Decisive. This is the sound we heard, and we’re certain that this is the sound that they made and not another sound. We’ve excluded that they’ve said something else, that they made a different noise, different sound.

But then conceptually we know – through the audio category of the sound of the word “voidness” – we cognize this sound as being the sound of the word “voidness.” It’s the sound of the word “voidness.” That means that regardless of how somebody pronounces it, regardless of the voice (whether it’s a man’s voice, a woman’s voice, a machine voice), regardless of the volume – all of that we cognize through the category: they’re all saying, “voidness.” How do you know – two different people say, “voidness” – that they’re saying the same word? How do you know that? It’s through a category, “voidness.” It’s fitting into this box, “voidness.” The sound of the word “voidness,” audio category.

That’s quite amazing if you think about it. How do you know that two different people are saying the same word? Two different voices. Two different volumes. And although the texts don’t speak about a visual category, it’s the same thing with reading. “Voidness,” whether it’s written with this type of typeface or that type of typeface or in this color or in handwriting – all of these are a written representation of the word “voidness.” It’s a category that it all fits into. Okay? Think about that. It’s important to understand what we mean by conceptual. This is an audio category, one part of it. Obviously we have to learn these categories.

Now, when we are thinking through a category, cognizing through a category, then we have a… there are various things, like a filter. So the first thing is the category. And then after the category, if we conceptualize this graphically, then we have what’s called a conceptual isolate (ldog-pa) – nothing other than, it’s nothing other than – and then there is something that represents it.

I’ll give you an example. It’s very easy. Think of a dog. Everybody has a different idea, a different picture in their mind, of what a dog looks like. That’s our idea of what a dog is. So there’s the category “dog,” and then isolate it from everything else so that it sort of gets specific, and then you represent it with what we would call in our languages “an idea of a dog.” It’s amazing. We’re all thinking of something different – it looks different – but we’re all thinking of a dog. Quite amazing.

So the same thing with an audio category. We have something that represents it in our conceptual cognition. For instance, this is the way that it should be pronounced. Like 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.” But in my mind, the sound of that name is represented by “NaGARjuna.” The accent is on the second syllable, not the third syllable. Do you follow? NaGARjuna. MaDHYAmaka, not MadhyaMEEka. AMERica, not AmerEEca. That’s the example I always use to demonstrate. It’s not AmerEEca; it’s AMERica. Two short syllables at the end.

We have this all the time, don’t we? Cup of coffee. I have an idea of what a cup of coffee should taste like. I represent it through a certain taste. Somebody serves me this hot brown liquid and I know it’s supposed to be coffee. But I have an idea of what coffee should taste like – it’s not that, but I can cognize it as coffee. Sometimes we call that a preconception. Think about that. This is how we think all the time, how we understand language. It’s conceptual.

Then we get into trouble, with the coffee example, when we’re very attached to our representation of it. “This is what a cup of coffee should taste like.” And so anything else – “That’s a terrible cup of coffee.” We get annoyed. So disturbing emotions arise because this doesn’t live up to our expectation, our representation of what a cup of coffee should taste like. So there’s no problem with the conceptual process. The problem comes when we get attached to our representation and think that: “This is the only one, and it has to be 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?

So we hear somebody say the word “voidness,” and we apprehend it correctly, conceptually, as being the sound that we hear, that it is the sound of the word “voidness.” We’re absolutely certain that it was the sound of nothing other than the word “voidness.” If we’ve apprehended it, it means that later we don’t have any doubts. We can remember correctly what they said, what we heard. If we thought we heard a different word and we weren’t certain what we heard, then we haven’t apprehended the word. You know, we weren’t really paying attention to what they said, and then afterwards we’re not certain what they said at all, are we? This happens all the time. This happens very often when we hear a whole lecture.

Okay, so those are audio categories.

Conceptual Cognition through a Meaning Category

Then a meaning category. Meaning category: we cognize the word “voidness” as having a meaning, and the meaning is “a total absence of an impossible way of existing.” So no matter whether we hear the word “emptiness” or we hear the word “voidness” or we hear “Leerheit” in German or we hear “vacuité” in French, we cognize them all as having the same meaning. So it’s through this category of the meaning. They all mean the same thing.

And of course we could represent this meaning with a particular type of meaning, let’s say a set of words. We represent it with something. “This is what I think it means.” Everybody is saying different words – “voidness,” “Leerheit,” etc. – and I take that all to have a certain meaning. It’s all talking about the same thing. And I represent it with a meaning. Well, that meaning could be accurate or inaccurate. I think they’re all talking about nothingness, but I put it all into one category of the meaning of the word “voidness.”

I’ll give an easier example. Love. What’s love? “I love you.” We hear these words. They have meaning to us. And it doesn’t matter what language the person speaks and so on, we think it all means something – “I love you” – and then we have our own private idea of what that means, to love you, and of course we project that. A lot of confusion arises from that.

A classic example from my own experience: You know in various European countries when a man meets a woman, you greet her cheek to cheek and going “mwah,” like a kiss. So in some places it’s one, in some places it’s two, in some places three, and some places four. Some places your lips never touch the other person’s cheek, and some places they do. All of this means hello, a greeting, we think. But then this happened to me once. I did that too many times, and then the woman got completely the wrong idea. I think my lips touched her cheek, and she got completely the wrong idea of what that signifies, the meaning of that. “Oh, this person is coming on to me sexually,” which was not at all my meaning. Think about that.

It’s interesting. Words have different meanings, you know. In Latin America, 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 something like that. When we come from a German background, or Swiss, and six o’clock – genau, precisely, we’re there. They’re not even dressed yet.

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

So we have meaning categories.

So how do we know that the meaning that we use as the filter for when we hear words or read words – how do we know that that meaning category is correct? Well, we can apply the same three criteria for the validity of this meaning as we did for the sound of crying:

  1. First of all, it accords with a convention that a group of people have assigned this sound. I mean, it’s just a sound, so there’s nothing inherent in the sound that it has a meaning. And so a group of people have assigned this sound to be the sound of the word “voidness” and for this word to have this definition. It’s a convention. All language is like that, if you think of it.

So that’s the first thing. Is there a convention that this sound is actually – people agree it’s the sound of a word and it has a certain meaning? That has to be there, doesn’t it? You’re reading a book, and all you see are these lines. That’s all you’re seeing. If you saw Chinese characters, what are you seeing? Lines. You don’t even recognize that it’s a word, let alone that it has a meaning, if you don’t know Chinese. So there’s a convention. You have to know the convention.

Have you ever listened to somebody speaking a foreign language that you don’t understand? To us it’s just sounds. You can’t even divide it into words, can you? We have to have the categories of the words and then of course meanings of the words. Right?

So then the second criterion. We hear the word “voidness.” Okay, so there’s a sound. So yes, there is this word; and yes, there’s the convention that this sound has this meaning assigned to it.

2. Then it’s not contradicted by the classical texts and what qualified teachers explain. In the texts, and what the teachers explain, are that this word has this definition. It means this. I mean, this is how you check: Did I understand it correctly?

3. And it’s not contradicted by the aryas, who cognize that words don’t 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 of the word “voidness,” 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 still doesn’t necessarily mean that we understand voidness. See, there’s the difference here between apprehend – I know the word, I know what it means (what the definition is), but I don’t understand it. Understanding is more than that, more than apprehension.

This happens to us all the time when we’re reading a complex text, let’s say a text by Tsongkhapa. You read a complex sentence, and we could apprehend each word and the meaning of each word correctly and decisively, but not understand the sentence at all. That happens all the time, doesn’t it? I know what every word means. What does the whole thing mean? We could even apprehend correctly and decisively the different levels of the meaning of the word “voidness” – I know it means this in Chittamatra, I know it means that in Svatantrika, I know it means that in Prasangika – and still not understand it. Okay? But of course we need to have that first, before understanding; we have to have the apprehension – correct, decisive.

What we have to try to figure out is what in addition to that do we need in order to say that we understand it? So think about it. What would you need more than that? What do you think? What more do you need besides correct and decisive apprehension in order to say that we’ve understood it? I know the word “voidness.” I can recognize it no matter how it’s said, how it’s written. I know the definition. What, in addition to that, would you need in order to say that you 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 it, so I would never know what snow really means.

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

So to understand something, we not only apprehend it – we’re also able, in addition, to infer all the implications of it. Right? If voidness means this, then it follows that this and this and this and that. We’re able to put voidness together with many other teachings we’ve received. So we’re able to put voidness in terms of, well, how does the cognition of voidness rid us of disturbing emotions and karma? Then we’ve understood it. If we can put it together and figure it out, all the implications, all the applications – how does it work? – then you understand it. Then we can apply our understanding of voidness for analyzing other topics, and it will produce the result: it rids us of suffering.

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. We want to get not just a non-conceptual cognition of voidness; we want a non-conceptual understanding of voidness, not just accurate and decisive. There has to be understanding there.

So when we have a correct understanding of voidness, and we conceptually focus on voidness through the category “voidness,” although we apprehend voidness correctly and decisively, we don’t simultaneously bring to mind all the implications. Nevertheless, our apprehension of voidness is held by the force of the latencies from our previously having worked out, through inference and deduction, all the implications. So that’s in the background. That’s unconscious, we would say. It’s held by the force of that. But when we focus on it with understanding, you’re not bringing all those implications to conscious mind at that moment.

Do you follow? Conceptual. That means it’s through the category of “voidness.” Every time that I meditate – well, the experience is different each time, but I recognize that I’m focusing on voidness. There’s the category “voidness.” All of these fit into the category of “voidness,” what I’m focusing on. Together with the meaning and so on. We don’t have to say the meaning, but it’s with that. It fits in the meaning category. So that’s the apprehension. And then it’s held by the force of these latencies that are there from having worked out all the implications beforehand. So I’ve worked it all out, and so that understanding – all those implications – that’s unconscious at the time when I’m focusing on voidness, but it’s there in the background.

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

You work out all the implications of voidness. We’ve analyzed and applied it to many things. We have fit it together with all sorts of other teachings that we’ve heard – how it fits together with impermanence, how it fits together with cause and effect. And we’ve worked it out with apprehension and inference in terms of it’s accurate and decisive. Decisive, that this is how it fits with that teaching and with that teaching. We’ve worked it all out, which you do through analytical meditation (well, through thinking about it actually). So we’ve gone through it many, many times – meditation – so that we’re really familiar with all these implications.

And now in our meditation we focus on voidness. Either we have to get to it, generate that understanding, based on directly the line of reasoning, or we’re so familiar with it we don’t have to go through the line of reasoning – just straightforward we get to it. But it’s conceptual still. It’s through the category “voidness.”

Now, at that time when I’m focusing on voidness conceptually – each time that I focus on it I recognize I’m focusing on voidness, so it’s in this category. Now, at that time when I am focusing single-mindedly on voidness, conceptually I’m not at the same time thinking all the different implications of it, but I know those implications because I’ve worked it out before. So that force of that previously working it out is in operation there while I’m holding or focusing on voidness, this absence.

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

Let me give an easier example. We meet our friend, and the friend has a problem. They tell us their problem: they’re unhappy and so on. So now we are focusing on their situation through the concept, the category, of a “problem” and through the category “my friend.” Now beforehand, we know all sorts of things about this person. We know that they lost their job. We know that they have a family. We know the background of this person. The more that we know all the implications about this person, the better we can understand their problem. Now, when we focus on them, however, on the problem, we’re not consciously bringing up all that information, thinking it consciously, but it’s all there, so that we just understand. And we also understand problems – that problems come about from causes, and if you change the circumstances and so on, the situation will change. So we also understand that. You don’t have to think it consciously at the time. But we have worked all of that out beforehand based on experience, based on logic, and so on.

We have this all the time. The computer won’t do what we want it to do, so we perceive it conceptually through “the computer’s not working.” But because of all the training and all the knowledge and all the implications of how to fix it are there, we understand what’s the problem and we know what to do. You don’t have to think it all out. It’s held by the force of knowing all the implications – that if it won’t do this, it’s because of this or because of that, and then you have to do this, and then you have to do that. It’s how we understand things.

Think about that. Does it make sense? And how do you know it makes sense? How do you know you’ve understood it? It’s because when you think about it, you apply that to various examples from your life and you see, well, is that the way it is? So you understand it. You can apply it for analyzing various things from your experience and so on: does it make sense?

Okay, what questions do you have?

Using the Term “Emptiness”

The question is about 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,” they 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.” In English we have these two words. In many other languages you don’t have this difference. But in English “emptiness” or “empty” implies that there is something there, some truly existent thing that is there, and there’s nothing inside it: it’s empty, like the glass is empty. And so that gives the false impression of the Svatantrika position – that is the Svatantrika position, according to Gelugpa – which is that conventionally things truly exist, but on the deepest level you can’t find anything (so empty). But that’s not the Prasangika understanding.

The word “shunya” in Sanskrit is the same word as the word for “zero.” It doesn’t mean nothing, but it means an absence. So what is absent? And of course different schools will say something is absent, different things are absent.

Let’s use an easy example. The child thinks that there’s a monster under the bed. Right? So it has an idea of a monster – it has the category “monster” – represents it by some sort of scary looking thing, and then projects that onto the noise that it hears under the bed. Maybe it’s the cat under the bed, but the child thinks it’s a monster. But that monster, that idea of a monster, doesn’t refer to anything real. A real monster, which is the referent object of this appearance, is absent. There is no such thing. That’s what we’re talking about in general, but we have to get more specific here. But that’s the general idea of an absence, that there’s no referent object to what we imagine. It’s not referring to anything real. So a real referent object is totally absent. There never was one. There never will be one.

But I haven’t gone deeply into what voidness is. This is just an example to get into the way of understanding.

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 up on the basis of cartoon representations and representations in movies (Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.) of what a monster is. But there are no real monsters. But it’s built up on the basis of that.

The example that I use is chicken lips. Chicken lips. We could imagine lips on a chicken, but it 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. We talk about denpar drubpa (bden-par grub-pa). Denpar is “true.” And drubpa, which some people will translate as existence – it’s not the word for existence (satyasiddha, it’s not the word for existence in Sanskrit either) – it is “to establish something.” Something is established. So how do you establish, or prove, that something exists? What establishes that it exists?

Okay, so dog. What establishes that there are dogs? Well, what is a dog? What’s a dog? The only thing that you could say is that a dog is what the word “dog” refers to. There’s nothing on the side of this animal that you could find that establishes it as a dog. What? Is there a little word there? Is there a little label there? What’s on the side of the dog, on the side of this animal? What establishes that anything is a thing, a knowable object? Is there some sort of line around it that makes it into a thing? Is it encapsulated in plastic, separated from everything else, that makes it into a thing? What establishes that it’s a thing? Does everything exist like in a child’s coloring book, with a line around it making it into things, and then we just project colors onto it? It’s not like that.

So there’s a basis for labeling (gdags-gzhi), but even the basis for labeling… You know, a DNA structure. Well, what is that? There’s proteins, and then what’s that? Well, there’s the atoms and molecules. You can’t find anything that’s on the side of this object that establishes that it’s a dog. So what establishes that it’s a dog? Well, the only thing that you can say is that a dog is merely what the word or concept “dog” refers to in terms of a basis. It is what a word or concept refers to.

So we have to make a difference 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). “Dog” refers to something. There are dogs. Conventionally there are dogs. We’re not refuting that. But the concept or the word “dog” implies a box, and there are no referent things – that it’s just fitting in a box.

Let me give an easier example. I always use the example of colors. Orange, the color orange. Is there a color orange? What’s orange? Orange is what the word or concept “orange” refers to. But in the light spectrum are there walls from the side of the light – that on this side of the wall, this number in the spectrum up to that one, this is orange – as if things existed like in a dictionary? That there’s this category, there’s this box; and if it’s a little bit over there, now it’s in the red box? Reality doesn’t exist in terms of boxes of things, does it?

What’s love? Well, it’s what the word or concept “love” refers to. Is there such a thing as love? Sure, conventionally there’s such a thing as love. In all the emotions that every human being experiences, is there this box “love?” Now I’m plugging into this box. Now I’m feeling love. It’s not like that.

So what is totally absent is a referent thing. There are referent objects, but there’s no such thing as a referent thing. What is absent is a referent thing in a box, with a line around it, encapsulated in plastic – “This is the emotion ‘love’” – from its own side, and everybody plugs into it, like plugging into the internet.

When we imagine that what establishes things is something on the side of the object by its own power, then there’s not even a referent object. Not only is there no referent thing, there’s no referent object. It doesn’t refer to anything that is even conventionally true.

So do we understand what I just explained? How would you understand it? You have to have accurately and decisively heard it so that you could remember accurately and decisively what I said. Well, we have recordings, so that makes it easy. And we start with easy examples, like the monster under the bed, to get the general idea, and then we get a little bit more precise. Right? There’s a cat under the bed. So there is something under the bed. It’s just that what you imagined it to be – a monster – that’s not referring… There’s no object like that. No thing like that. No object and no thing.

So then you work all of this out in terms of your experience. Do I get into trouble now and have difficulties when I think: “You don’t love me”? As if love were some sort of thing, which I’ve decided what it is, it exists by itself, and you haven’t plugged into it, and you’re not directing it to me.

Is there such a thing as love? Sure. What establishes it? Well, there’s a word “love,” a concept. So we’ve agreed it refers to something, but it’s not a thing by itself. So it doesn’t exist in this impossible way. That’s what’s absent, an actual referent thing. That’s what voidness is talking about. It’s not that the glass is empty. So to really understand it, you have to fit it together with so many different things.

Remember when we were talking about conceptual cognition? I have the category “love.” I’m thinking in terms of “love,” and I represent it by something, my private representation of what love is. And then I think that that is the actual thing, “love” as a thing. And if you don’t have that, then you don’t love me. This is the problem, isn’t it? That causes problems. Suffering. We project the representation and think that’s what it really is and that there is such a thing that corresponds to our idea of what love is – and that if you don’t have that, you don’t love me.

So when you get to that, that I’m projecting this – “This is ridiculous,” and then we cut it out. It’s like understanding voidness. “This is ridiculous.” We cut it out. So we either get to that by working it out – “That’s just my projection of my idea.” So we could work it out and come to that conclusion. Or we’ve worked it out so often before, that it’s just obvious to us. And when we start to go on that trip of: “You don’t love me,” we just – snap! – like that, you cut it off: “This is ridiculous.” It’s clear.

Work it out. If love only means this one thing that I think it is, that means that what I feel when I love my sexual partner, when I love my child, when I love my mother, when I love my country, when I love my car, when I love my dog – that it’s all the same. Well, this is ridiculous, isn’t it? It’s clearly not that. So you work it out, the logic of it – “This is stupid, so why do I believe like that?” – and then you just cut it.

So if we understood it correctly and accurately and decisively, then we can apply it, and you get the stated results – that your suffering goes away, you have less problems. If I applied it and nothing happened or it just got worse, then I really didn’t understand it correctly.