Understanding Something: Intellectual vs Intuitive

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Intellectual Understanding vs Intuitive Understanding 

Let’s examine what an intellectual understanding of something is versus an intuitive understanding of it. First, I should say the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist literature on epistemology does not include these classifications or even any words for them. However, if we look at the usual definitions given to these terms in the West, we can usually figure out how they would fit into the Buddhist analysis. This is very important because there are so many things that we conceptualize in our Western cultures that are not explicitly spoken of in the classical Buddhist presentations, like low self-esteem, insecurity, and so on. If we want to get a Buddhist perspective on them, we need to be able to describe them in terms of Buddhist concepts. 

If we look in the English dictionary, according to most definitions, intellectual understanding is an understanding of something directly derived through the force of logical reasoning. That’s the definition. We may not often use that definition, but that’s what it says in the dictionary. Intellectual understanding may or may not also rely on empirical knowledge from prior personal experience. But if our understanding derives solely from empirical knowledge, it’s unclear if it should be classified as intellectual or intuitive.  

Empirical knowledge from prior personal experience would be straightforward cognition. In other words, we gain experience driving a certain type of car or using a certain type of computer, and then based on that experience, we figure out by analogy how to drive another car or how to use a different type of computer that we may or may not have prior experience with. Is that an intellectual process or is it just intuitive?

To gain an intellectual understanding of something, however, according to the dictionary, we would consciously and directly go through a line of reasoning – for example, “If there’s smoke, there’s fire.”  It’s similar to what we discussed concerning gaining a conceptual understanding of voidness by relying on inference based on logic. 

Now, what is an intuitive understanding? Again, we look in the dictionary, and it says it’s an understanding that does not rely directly on logical reasoning. But does that mean that all intuitive understandings are irrational? That would invalidate all of them even those that were accurate. That would be weird. 

In any case, if we go by the dictionary definition, then there are many varieties of intuitive understandings. Some non-Buddhist spiritual systems explain understandings that are not based on logic as mystical, deriving from a transcendent source such as God. That would be one variety. Then, we have to investigate is there is something like “mystical experiences” in Buddhism? 

Christianity speaks of the “grace of God” – “Through the grace of God, I understood something.” Buddhism speaks of understandings deriving through inspiration from the Buddhas or from our spiritual teachers. “Inspiration” is often translated with the Christian term “blessing,” which I think is inappropriate; it’s “inspiration,” which means “to uplift and brighten.” Adhishthana is the Sanskrit term. Adhishthana means “a higher stage,” so it’s uplifting. Chinlab (byin-rlabs) – chin (byin), “to brighten,” is the Tibetan term. There is no connotation that the understanding is coming from the mystical power of a “blessing” or “grace.”. I think “inspiration” covers the connotation quite nicely. 

We receive inspiration from the Buddhas and bodhisattvas – from Manjushri, for instance – as the result of reciting many Manjushri mantras or as the result that ripens from the network of positive force we build up through making requests to the Buddhas for inspiration. Further, we get inspiration from the network of positive force we build up through doing preliminary practices such as prostrations, which helps us break through mental blocks and thereby to understand things. We’d probably have to call those understandings “intuitive” if we stick to the English dictionary definition since they do not derive directly through a line of logical reasoning. 

But I really wonder if understanding something through the grace of God or through the inspiration of the Buddhas can really be called “intuitive.” It seems to me that understandings that do not depend on logic can be divided into those that are caused to arise by others and those that arise from within us. To me, only the ones that derive from within us and that do not rely on logical reasoning would qualify to be called “intuitive.”  

But let’s go back to the Buddhist examples that derive from inspiration that arises based on an interaction with the Buddhas or from our spiritual teachers. We’re not talking about the inspiration that some people derive from nature, a sunset or music. From reciting the mantras of the Buddhas or of our teachers, or from making requests or from making prostrations or mandala offerings to them, we build up the positive force that can ripen into our gaining new insights and understandings. The Tibetan term I translate as “positive force,” sönam (bsod-nams), punya in Sanskrit, is often translated as “merit.” But “merit” sounds as though if we accumulate enough points, we win a prize, and so we win an understanding. Or it can imply we have to earn our understanding by putting in enough hours and working hard. It’s not like that. It’s more like charging a battery – the more positive force we build up, the better the battery  works so that, when it is charged, we are able to break through our mental blocks and understand things better. It’s not terribly mystical. 

We find this type of understanding most prominently in mahamudra and dzogchen practice, where our teacher helps us to literally “meet the nature of the mind, face to face” (sems-kyi ngo-sprod). The second Tibetan word in this phrase, ngotrö (ngo-sprod) is usually translated as “introduce,” which implies that our teacher introduces us to our mind. I always have a cartoon image of that, which is: “Alex, meet your mind. Mind, meet Alex.” However, the Tibetan phrase actually means that they help us to “meet the mind, face to face.” Through their inspiration and our build-up of positive force, we’re able to meet our mind in the sense of apprehending the nature of the mind. Of course, we could differentiate knowing the nature of the mind, apprehending it, and understanding it. There are several levels.  

Dzogchen speaks of innate “deep awareness,” yeshey (ye-shes) in Tibetan, which is the deep awareness that is part of the nature of the “pure awareness,” rigpa (rig-pa) that is the primordial mind. In other words, if we go down deep enough and are able to meet the nature of the mind, we’ll find that it has this innate deep awareness as one of its characteristics. Rigpa, the mind of pure awareness, is capable of apprehending and understanding everything when all the veils of ignorance and confusion are removed from its innate deep awareness. Even when these veils have not been removed, we can cognize things through these veils. Note that rigpa is a subcategory of clear light, osel (’od-gsal). Clear light, osel, can still have the habits of grasping for self-existence as imputation phenomena on it as its basis; rigpa is the basic level of the clear light mind, which has never been stained by the taints of these habits, to use the technical jargon.. That’s the difference.

When dzogchen texts speak about how the most basic fundamental pure level of mind, rigpa, has this deep awareness innate within it, we could say that the understandings of things with this deep awareness are intuitive. But are they intuitive in the same manner as intuitively knowing how to drive our new car? Let’s look more closely. 

Inspiration from our teacher helps us meet this nature of pure awareness face to face, and by enabling us to identify and access pure awareness, it helps us to apprehend its innate nature of deep awareness. Doing so removes the veils of ignorance that cloud this pure awareness, so that its innate deep awareness functions fully with omniscience. I suppose we could classify the understandings that arise with this innate deep awareness as intuitive since they do not derive directly from logic, but I think they are far more sophisticated than our usual intuitive understandings, like intuitively understanding how drive our new car. It’s not that level of understanding. 

For the more commonly experienced intuitive understandings of something, we’re usually unaware of why we understand it. We don’t really  know how or why we understood it; we just understood it. That’s sort of the way it works, that’s how we experience understanding something intuitively, isn’t it? However, although we might claim that we understand something based on intuition, yet if we examine more deeply, we see that our intuitive understanding most likely has arisen from unconsciously reasoning by analogy based on empirical knowledge from prior experience either in this life or some previous life. 

Reasoning by analogy often underlies many of our intuitions, even that it will rain tomorrow, or that the stock market will rise. But is reasoning by analogy a type of logic and, if we rely on such reasoning to gain an understanding of something, does that qualify this understanding as being intellectual? In the Mahayana context, Chandrakirti classified reasoning by analogy as a valid way of cognizing something – for instance, understanding voidness through the analogies of space and illusions. Dharmakirti before him, in the Hinayana context did not accept it as a valid means. Let’s examine more closely.

For example, we have an older model phone or laptop and now a new version comes out with a new operating system. We intuitively understand how to use it. How is that possible? We intuitively understand how to use it based on the empirical knowledge we gained through using our old phone or laptop and the previous operating system. It’s not that we work out logically how to use it by relying on a formal line of reasoning, but unconsciously by analogy we’re able to figure it out. We would say our understanding of how to use it is intuitive, but actually it’s based on reasoning through analogy, although that reasoning is unconscious. 

Another example is intuitively understanding how to drive a new car. It’s not exactly the same as the previous car we were driving, but by the analogy of driving the previous car we know how to drive the new one. It’s not that we have to consciously think, “To start a car, I need to turn the key. Here is a key, therefore to start the car I need to turn it.” We don’t consciously work it out logically; we just look at the dashboard and unconsciously know what to do. 

Here’s another example: I just bought a new scanner for my computer. I would have had to read the instruction manual in order to learn how to install and operate this machine. That would be an intellectual understanding gained through reading and figuring out from the words what they mean. Whereas my friend who helped me install it would never read an instruction manual. He has a lot of experience with this type of equipment. Intuitively, based on analogy, he understood how to operate this new scanner.

This is the type of example that I’m thinking of. My friend’s intuitive understanding was based on prior empirical knowledge gained from straightforward cognition or from having previously read some instruction manuals for other scanners. If my friend were very young, Buddhism would explain that maybe in some previous life he had gained this knowledge empirically. We see such examples with these little tulkus who, without anybody showing them, know how to hold the vajra and bell and to beat the damaru hand drum based on their past-life experience. 

What about an intuitive understanding of impermanence, voidness, compassion, or bodhichitta? What is this? We could also speak in terms of prior experience in previous lives to explain why understanding some things come to us very easily. Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, my teacher, was one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He was involved with His Holiness’s education as a child. He told me once: “With His Holiness, no matter what topic it was, all you had to do was explain it to him once, and then he understood and remembered it. I or the other tutors didn’t have to explain anything further. It was as if we were just reminding him of something he already knew.” 

This is not such a mysterious phenomenon. I don’t know if you’ve experienced something similar to this, but I have. I studied Chinese quite extensively as a teenager and young adult and became quite fluent, but I haven’t actively used the language in most of my adult life. Now, I don’t automatically know the Chinese word for many things; I’m unable to recall it. However, when someone tells me what something is called in Chinese, the Chinese name for it, then, “Oh yeah, I know that” and I remember it. I merely have to be reminded. It’s sort of like that. We meet somebody that we haven’t seen in many, many years and we don’t recognize them. They tell us who they are, and then, “Oh yeah, now I remember who you are.” We’ve all experienced that, I’m sure. 

The Reliability of Intellectual and Intuitive Understandings 

We’ve examined some of the ways with which we gain intellectual and intuitive understandings. Now, we have to examine the reliability of each. Some people are critical of intuitive understanding and say it’s just guessing, while others criticize intellectual understandings as not really being understanding it all. When people are critical of intuitive understandings, I don’t think they are questioning intuitively knowing how to drive their new car. The discussion is more directed at understanding philosophical issues, such as understanding impermanence or voidness. So, which is more reliable, an intuitive understanding of impermanence or an intellectual understanding of it? Or is neither reliable? Let’s analyze. 

What are the parameters that people are using, whether consciously or unconsciously, for judging the validity and reliability of intellectual and intuitive understandings? I think that in most cases, the variables are those that we have been discussing to distinguish knowing something, apprehending it, and understanding it. To avoid confusion about these distinctions, let’s call an intellectual understanding of something “an intellectual grasp of something” and an intuitive understanding of something “an intuitive grasp of something.” “Grasp” (‘dzin-pa) means a cognitive taking of an object.  

An intellectual grasp of impermanence, for example, could be either merely knowing what impermanence is and what it means – in which case, our knowledge might not be so accurate or even decisive – or it could be an accurate and decisive apprehension of impermanence. In either case, we’ve gone through a line of reasoning and now have  gained an intellectual grasp of impermanence. But whether our intellectual grasp of impermanence is mere intellectual knowledge or an accurate and decisive apprehension of it, we may still not really understand impermanence. 

An intuitive grasp of impermanence might, in some cases, be an apprehension of it, but in most cases, it is not very precise, neither in terms of accuracy nor decisiveness. It’s sort of vague. We would say, “I have an intuitive feeling for impermanence.” That’s not an accurate, decisive apprehension, is it? It’s not like having worked it out intellectually through logic. “Intellectually” means through logic, through reasoning. 

Based on, let’s say, personal experience of a few people dying that we know, or our computer breaking, we could say that intuitively we now have a feeling for impermanence. Well, it’s usually a presumption. We presume that what we have grasped as being impermanence is accurate, and we might even be convinced that it is accurate, whereas, in fact, it’s quite vague. That’s different from deriving: “All phenomena that arise based on causes and conditions cannot last. They’re impermanent because of the causes and conditions that sustain them change.” This is a very important distinction, I think, in terms of how reliable our intuitive grasp of something might be. If it’s a little bit vague or just a feeling, then it’s not accurate and decisive. 

In other words, even if we start with some intuitive grasp of impermanence that we are decisive about that it is accurate, still, in order for it to become reliable we need to check its accuracy by work out the implications of what we have grasped. Don’t get me wrong, an intuitive understanding could be accurate and decisive, but in many cases, it’s not. We have to check. We could be convinced that our vague grasp of some topic is really correct and is a full understanding of it, but that could be self-deception. I remember buying a new fax machine many years ago, and my friend who offered to install it for me absolutely refused to read the instruction manual – “Yeah, yeah, I know how to do it” – and then he proceeded to break it. 

Further, in terms of an intuitive grasp of something, we may or may not be able to put our intuitive grasp into words. Even if our intuitive grasp of something apprehends it accurately and decisively, we still might not be able to put it into words. With an intellectual grasp, it’s usually easier to put what we’ve grasped into words. That means that it’s easier to teach other people on the basis of an intellectual grasp of a topic rather than with just an intuitive grasp. 

If it’s hard to put our intuitive grasp of something into words, then how do we teach what we’ve intuitively grasped to somebody? We could show them. That is one way of teaching, especially if we’re talking about some form of art or sport or anything that we do with our body. Our students learn by us showing them what to do and then by them imitating that. 

What about teaching someone impermanence? The Tibetans build these very elaborate sand mandalas (rdul-phran-gyi dkyil-’khor) and then, at the end of the ceremony in which they are used, they just wipe it with their hand like this and toss the powdered sand either in a river or in some other body of water. This is to teach us impermanence. However, we might not get the point or understand the lesson, and so we are quite shocked that they just destroy this thing that they spent so much time and effort building. 

Let’s say our intellectual or intuitive grasp of impermanence actually apprehends impermanence accurately and decisively, how do we go from that level to actually understanding impermanence. We said that we need to work out the implications of what we have apprehended, and that means we need to work them out using logic. But, if we work out the implications using logic, does that mean that the understanding we gain is merely intellectual? Someone could object and say, “Well, but you didn’t really understand impermanence, because you haven’t experienced it.” That is a valid objection, I think, but we would have to really examine more deeply what the difference is between experiencing something and not experiencing it. 

The difference is easy to comprehend in the case of impermanence. If we’ve never lost someone in our lives, either through them dying or leaving us, do we really understand impermanence, or is our understanding just theoretical? What about when it’s not possible to experience something? Here’s an easy example, a man could logically figure out all the implications of giving birth to a baby, but a man can never experience what it’s like to give birth. So, can a man really understand what giving birth is like? When a man understands intellectually what it’s like to give birth to a baby, the man doesn’t really understand it, does he? But then, a man could intuitively appreciate what it’s like to give birth to a baby and feel sympathy and give support to his partner when she gives birth, but still, he’s never experienced it and so he doesn’t fully understand. 

So, I think that the parameter of whether we have experienced something or not is not the distinguishing feature between an intellectual understanding and an intuitive one. Some people might make the differentiation on the basis of experience or not, but if we look in the dictionary, the difference is whether the understanding arises based on logical reasoning or not. 

There are many things that we really can’t fully appreciate, whether we call it “understanding” or not. This gets into how we define “understanding.” Does it include appreciating their emotional impact? For instance, what it’s like for our child to die. If we’ve never experienced that, we could sympathize, we could have some idea, but it’s very difficult to really appreciate the enormous suffering that a parent has when their child dies. Even though we work out all the implications, and even if we intuitively feel sympathy for the person, we still haven’t experienced it, so we don’t really appreciate what it’s like. 

When we have intellectually or intuitively understood something – for instance, impermanence – we’ve usually worked out the implications with logical reasoning. But we need to repeat the analytical process again and again in order to make our understanding firm. Buddhism differentiates a flash insight (nyams) – an insight that, like a flash, is intense but doesn’t last – and a firm understanding (rtogs-pa) that endures. 

We could also intuitively understand how impermanence fits with other facets of the teachings without having to work it out with logic. We usually experience this as everything just sort of automatically fits together, that everything “clicks.” That’s how we experience it. We haven’t worked it out with logic and all the implications. Everything just sort of automatically makes sense to us. We would say that’s an intuitive process. Nevertheless, I think we would still have to say that this is based on some sort of prior training in terms of analogy, in terms of experience in life (it could be previous lives). It can’t arise for no reason. That’s not kosher in Buddhism, that things arise for no cause. The cause might just not be obvious. 

The usual process for understanding the implications of some topic, such as the mind as meaning mental activity, is that we focus on its defining characteristics and then focus also on other topics, like Buddha-nature and bodhichitta, and then we put them together using equalizing deep awareness (mnyam-nyid ye-shes). Remember, we had these five types of deep awareness? There’s one that puts together and equalizes similar things. It puts things together and sees the similarity. For example, we show a little child a page that has some squares and some circles on it, and then we ask the child to point out which ones are the same. That’s using equalizing deep awareness. It’s a similar type of process here in putting together some topic and its implications. Without using a formal line of reasoning, we could understand how these various things – the nature of the mind and bodhichitta and so on – all fit together just with this equalizing awareness. It’s hard to say whether this is intellectual or intuitive. 

Usually, the characteristic of the greatest level of intelligence is the ability to fit things together and see the patterns. For instance, Einstein was able to observe and know so many different phenomena, and then he came up with a law of physics, the theory of relativity, putting them all together and making sense out of everything. This is what we’re talking about on a much less sophisticated level. Was that intuitive or intellectual, what Einstein did? It’s hard to say, but I think what’s involved is what Buddhism calls “equalizing deep awareness” – putting things together and seeing the pattern. 

Emotional Understanding 

What about emotional understanding? Whether we’re talking about an apprehension or an understanding of something, like impermanence, whether we derive it intellectually or intuitively, that apprehension and understanding is a non-static phenomenon. What does that mean? 

The term non-static is usually translated as “impermanent,” but if we translate it like that, we get a limited understanding of its significance. Something that is non-static changes every moment because it arises dependently on causes and conditions that also change every moment and also because it produces effects. Someone might know this meaning of something being non-static, and both apprehend and understand it, but then say, “I only have an intellectual understanding of what it means for something to be non-static. But I don’t feel anything; it hasn’t really made any effect on me.” This is impossible. Even if we have an intellectual understanding of something, based on logic, our understanding is a non-static phenomenon; therefore, it has to affect us in some way. It might not be dramatic in terms of our emotions, but it will make a difference. 

I’m basing this on a teaching that His Holiness the Dalai Lama often gives. He explains this point in terms of the development of compassion. He says that compassion developed based on reason – that everybody’s equal, everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy, etc. – is more stable than compassion that’s based on emotion – that everyone has been our mother and has been so kind to us, and so on. For example, if when feeling compassion for someone, we feel, “Oh, you poor thing” – that’s not stable. What does His Holiness’s point mean? It means that even if we’ve built up compassion through a line of reasoning – which means intellectually – we will still feel something; we will feel compassion. It might not be this overemotional, overwhelming type of thing, but we will feel compassion. We generate a feeling. 

Then the question is: How do we know that we’re feeling an emotion if it’s very low-grade and not intense? How do we know that we’re feeling something? An interesting question, isn’t it? We’d have to go to the definition of a disturbing emotion (nyon-mongs). When it arises, a disturbing emotion makes us lose peace of mind and self-control. A positive emotion should be the opposite of that: When we develop it, we feel at least some level of peace of mind and we have self-control. We’re not under the influence of anger and so on. When we feel compassion, we have a calm, peaceful mind and self-control so that we can decide what best to do to help somebody. 

So, to answer the question of whether we are feeling something when we have an intellectual understanding of something such as compassion, we need to examine, “Am I feeling more tranquil? Do I have more peace of mind? Am I in control and able to make a rational, wise decision of what to do?” The emotional state we feel doesn’t have to be dramatic with hormones rushing through our body. 

Whether our emotional experience of compassion derives from reason or just intuitively arises and regardless of how dramatic it may be, it’s another issue whether we apply our understanding and feeling to our behavior. If we feel compassion, but we don’t act on it and do something to alleviate the suffering of others, have we really understood compassion? On the other hand, if it does affect our behavior, we could call our understanding  “a full understanding” – it’s not just emotional, it actually affects our behavior as well.

That pretty much covers what I’ve prepared and the extent of my analysis so far. There is, obviously, much more that can be analyzed. We can go much deeper into this topic. It’s a relevant topic because if we want to make progress on the spiritual path, we have to gain an understanding of so many things, and there are so many different levels to that, so many different things that are involved. This seminar has been an introduction.

Emotional Experiences from Previous Lives 

Is it possible to have, like with me, an emotional experience from previous lives? Not intellectual, but emotional. 

That is, I think, a common experience of why people, from childhood, are frightened of this or that. Often, the only way to explain it is a trauma from a previous life. 

I lived with a Tibetan monk in India for many years, and he was not afraid of snakes or scorpions or anything poisonous like that. If a snake came into the house, he would very easily take it out. However, he was terrified of frogs. If there was a frog in the house, I had to remove it. Where in the world did that come from? Maybe in some previous life he was a fly eaten by a frog or something like that. 


Let’s end with a dedication. I must thank you for giving me the opportunity to work all of this out. What does it mean to understand something is an important question, and I had fun analyzing and figuring all of this out. This is what we need to experience if we’re going to make any progress in the Dharma. We need to enjoy analytical thinking and analytical meditation. We have to love doing it. Then it works.

Tsongkhapa mentions that in Lam-rim chen-mo, in terms of developing bodhichitta. If our development is based on some previous-life experience so that we automatically have a strong “intuitive feeling” for it, our development of bodhichitta will be much more secure and stable than if we really have to work on it in this life. So, if we love analyzing impermanence, voidness and these sorts of things, then not only will we find it fun, the insights we gain will be more secure. 

We end with a dedication. Whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this discussion, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for us and everyone to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all. Then, maybe in future lives we will intuitively understand the points we’ve discussed. Thank you.