Understanding Something: Intellectual vs Intuitive

Intellectual Understanding versus Intuitive Understanding

Now we’re up to our discussion of what is an intellectual understanding versus an intuitive understanding of something. First of all I should say that we don’t have this distinction in the presentation of epistemology in Tibetan Buddhism or Indo-Tibetan Buddhism (it all comes from India). However, if one looks at the usual definitions from a Western point of view, then you can usually figure out how it would fit into the Buddhist analysis. This is very important because there are so many things that we conceptualize about in our Western culture that are not explicitly spoken of in Buddhist presentation, like low self-esteem, insecurity, these sort of things.

According to most definitions, if we look in the dictionary, intellectual understanding is an understanding of something directly derived through the force of logical reasoning. That’s the definition. We may not use it to have that definition, but that’s what it says in the dictionaries. And it may or may not also rely on empirical knowledge from prior personal experience.

Empirical knowledge from prior personal experience. That would be straightforward cognition. In other words, we experienced driving a certain type of car or using a certain type of computer, and then you figure out, based on that experience, you figure out logically how to drive another car or how to use a different type of computer. So we may have prior experience or may not.

So we are consciously directly going through lines of reasoning – “If it’s like this, it’s like that,” and so on – like how we analyzed what would be involved with a non-conceptual cognition of voidness. How does a Buddha know something? We worked it out through logic.

And what is an intuitive understanding? Again you look in the dictionary, and what it says is that it’s an understanding that does not rely directly on logical reasoning. There are many varieties of intuitive understandings. In some non-Buddhist spiritual systems, they explain intuitive understanding as mystical: it derives from a transcendent source such as God. That would be one variety. So then we have to see: Is there something like that in Buddhism? These are called “mystical experiences.”

In Christianity, we speak of the “grace of God”: “through the grace of God, I understood something.” In Buddhism, we do speak of understanding 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, but it’s “inspiration.” The term means “to uplift and brighten.” Adhishthana is the Sanskrit term. Adhishthana, “to a higher stage,” so uplifting. And chinlab (byin-rlabs) – chin (byin), “to brighten” – is the Tibetan term. So that’s the connotation, not that it’s coming through some mystical power. So I think “inspiration” covers it quite nicely.

So we get inspiration from the Buddhas, from Manjushri – we do a lot of Manjushri mantra – this type of thing, or from the ripening of our network of positive force. We’ve built up so much positive force through making requests so you get inspiration, doing prostration, doing ngondro (sngon-’gro, preliminary practices), that it breaks through the mental blocks and you understand something. So we’d probably call that an “intuitive understanding”; it’s not deriving directly through a line of logical reasoning. So you have that in Buddhism.

This term which is often translated as “merit”(bsod-nams) – I use “positive force.” “Merit” sounds as though you get enough points and then you win a prize, and so you win an understanding, or you earn it; you’ve built up enough points. It’s not like that. It’s a positive force – like charging a battery – and the more positive force that you have, then it works, and you break through the mental blocks and you’re able to understand. So it’s not terribly mystical.

We find this type of understanding most prominently in mahamudra and dzogchen practice in which one’s teacher helps one to literally “meet the nature of our minds, face to face” (sems-kyi ngo-sprod). Ngotro (ngo-sprod) in Tibetan. That’s usually translated as to “introduce” you to the mind, so I always have a cartoon image of that, which is: “Alex, meet your mind. Mind, meet Alex.” But if you look at the words, it is that they help us to “meet” – the word is “to meet” – the mind, face to face. So through their inspiration and our positive force, then we’re able to meet that mind. Well, as we said: to meet it, we apprehend it. I mean, there’s “apprehend,” there’s “to know,” and there’s “to understand.” So there are many different levels here.

Dzogchen also speaks of the innate “deep awareness” – that’s yeshey (ye-shes) in Tibetan – the deep awareness that is part of the nature of the “pure awareness” – that’s rigpa (rig-pa) – of the primordial mind. In other words, if you get down deeply enough and you’re able to meet the nature of the mind, you’ll find that it has this innate deep awareness as one of its characteristics, because it is capable of perceiving everything when all the veils are removed. Even when it’s not removed, you can see through them. Note that rigpa is a subcategory of clear light, of osel (’od-gsal). Clear light, osel, can still have the habits of grasping for true existence imputed on it. Rigpa doesn’t. That’s the difference.

So in dzogchen they speak about how the most basic fundamental pure state of the mind has innate within it deep awareness. So we could say that’s intuitive. Through the inspiration of the teacher, the teacher helps you to meet this nature of pure awareness face to face. So once you meet it, then that deep awareness functions. This is the way that it’s explained. And we would, I think, put that in the category of an intuitive understanding, although it’s a little bit more sophisticated than just our usual intuitive understanding. Like “I have an intuitive understanding that it is going to rain tomorrow.” Not that level.

But for more commonly experienced intuitive understanding of something, usually we’re unaware of any reason for why we understand it. Intellectual – we worked it out through reason. Intuitive – I understood, but I really don’t know how or why I understood it; I just understood it. That’s sort of the way it works, isn’t it, how we experience it? But if we analyze, usually it arises from unconscious reasoning by analogy. It can be based on empirical – usually it’s based on empirical knowledge from the present or from prior experience either in this life or a previous life.

I’ll give an example: There’s an old model computer or Windows XP, and now a new version comes out. And we intuitively know how to use it. Well, why? It’s based on empirical knowledge of the previous operating system. And it’s not that we work it out logically, but unconsciously by analogy you’re able to work it. So we would say that’s intuitive, but actually it’s an unconscious process of working through analogy: “It’s like that.” Or I know how to drive this new car. It’s not exactly the same, but by analogy of the previous car I was driving… It’s not that I have to: “Well, there’s the key, and there’s the pedal, and there’s…” You’re not working it out consciously, logically. That’s how we work unconsciously through analogy.

Easy example: I just bought a new scanner for my computer. Now, I would have had to read the instructions in order to learn how to operate this machine. So that would be an intellectual understanding gained through reading this and figuring out from these words what it means. Whereas my friend who helped me install it – he would never read an instruction book. He has a lot of experience with this type of equipment, and just intuitively, based on analogy, he knew how to operate this new scanner. I think this is the type of example that I’m thinking of.

So based on prior empirical knowledge (that’s straightforward cognition) or previously having read some instruction books (so prior inferential understanding). And if they were very young, Buddhism would explain: well, maybe in some previous life we had this. Like these little tulkus who, without anybody showing them, know how to hold the vajra and bell and to do the drum, and so on, based on prior experience.

But what about an intuitive understanding of impermanence or voidness or compassion, bodhichitta? What is this? Now of course we could also speak in terms of prior experience in previous lives, that it comes to us very easily. Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, my teacher, was one of the teachers of His Holiness. He was involved with His Holiness’s education as a child. And he said: “With His Holiness, no matter what it was, all you had to do was tell him once, and then he understood it and remembered it.” He didn’t have to explain anything further. So it was just sort of reminding him of a topic. This is not so magical. I mean, it’s perhaps magical… unusual with a small child.

I don’t know if you’ve experienced it, but I’ve experienced it. I studied Chinese quite extensively as a young man, as a teenager and young adult, but I haven’t really actively used it in most of my adult life. So I can’t automatically know a word. “What is that called in Chinese?” I may not be able to recall it. But then someone tells me what it’s called in Chinese, the Chinese name for it, and then, “Oh yeah, I know that,” and so I remember it. I have to be reminded. So it’s sort of like that. You don’t recognize somebody that you haven’t seen in many, many years, and they tell you 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 Understanding

If we want to examine a little bit more closely what is the difference… I mean, we’ve examined what is the way in which we gain the understanding in terms of intellectual and intuitive, so now we have to examine the reliability of both.

Very often some people will favor one and say that intuitive understanding – “Well, not so good.” But a lot of people say, “Well, you only understand it intellectually,” as if this is not reliable. But what are they saying is more reliable? So you have to examine: Is it just intuitive understanding or what? What is the parameter that they’re referring to when they put down intellectual understanding? In other words, are most people making the differentiation between apprehension and understanding when they use these categories of “intellectual” and “intuitive?” I think in most cases that differentiation is not clearly made between apprehension and understanding.

So in terms of apprehension, a so-called “intellectual understanding” usually will include an accurate and decisive apprehension of something. We’ve worked it out through logic; now we have an intellectual understanding of voidness or what compassion is or what bodhichitta is. So we’ve apprehended it correctly and accurately. There may not be understanding, but we’ve derived it based on logic. So I would say that an intellectual understanding accurately and decisively apprehends its object.

But an intuitive understanding of impermanence and voidness, etc., may or may not apprehend its object accurately and decisively. Sometimes this intuitive grasp (let’s use a general word here) – the intuitive grasp of impermanence, for example – might not be very precise in terms of accuracy or decisiveness. It’s sort of vague. We would say, “Well, I have a feeling for it, an intuitive feeling for impermanence or voidness.” That’s not an accurate, decisive apprehension, is it? Not like having worked it out through logic intellectually. “Intellectually” just means through logic, through reasoning.

In other words, based on, let’s say, personal experience of a few people die that I know, or my computer breaks, intuitively I have a feeling for impermanence. Well, it’s usually presumption. We presume this to be accurate, whereas in fact it’s quite vague. That’s different from deriving it: “All phenomena that arise based on causes and conditions cannot last. They’re impermanent because the causes and conditions that sustain them change.” So that’s a very important distinction, I think, in terms of how reliable is this intuitive understanding. If it’s a little bit vague and sort of just a feeling, then it’s not accurate and it’s not decisive.

In other words, even if we start with some intuitive understanding of something, in order for it to become reliable we need to work out the implications, to really analyze, to think. Don’t get me wrong: An intuitive understanding could be accurate and decisive, but in most cases or in many cases it’s not. You have to check. We could be convinced that our vague understanding is really the whole thing, but that’s self-deception. I remember buying a new fax machine many years ago, and my friend intuitively… he absolutely refused to read the instruction books – “Yeah, yeah, I know how to do it” – and then he proceeded to break it.

So in terms of intuitive understanding, we may or may not be able to put our intuitive understanding into words. Whether our intuitive understanding apprehends it or not, we still might not be able to put it in words. The intellectual understanding – usually it’s easier to be able to put it into words. That means that it’s easier to teach other people on the basis of our intellectual understanding rather than an intuitive one. It’s hard to put the intuitive one into words, so how do you teach somebody? You could show them. That is one way of learning, certainly, especially if we’re talking about art or things that you do with your hands. You learn by doing. But impermanence and so on? Well, there are Zen ways of learning, but more challenging. Zen ways of teaching, I should say.

The Tibetans build these very, very elaborate sand mandalas (rdul-phran-gyi dkyil-’khor), and then at the end they just wipe it with their hand like this and throw the powdered sand either in a river or they do something with it like that. And so this is to teach us impermanence. But you might not get it, you might not understand, and then be quite shocked that they just smash this thing that they spent so much time and effort in building.

So we spoke about apprehension. There’s a difference between intellectual and intuitive. Intellectual in most cases is more reliable – not all cases, but most cases it’s more reliable – to be accurate and decisive. So in terms of understanding the implications of impermanence or voidness or compassion or bodhichitta, we can derive the implications – remember, that’s what’s involved with understanding – we can derive the implications intellectually, which means we work them out with logical reasoning. So through logically fitting impermanence and voidness, and so on, together with different facets of the Dharma, that was how we figured out what is involved with nonconceptual cognition of voidness. Or of: How does a Buddha know what something is? We worked it out with logic.

Now of course you could object and say, “Well, but you didn’t really understand it, because you haven’t experienced it.” And so even if you’ve worked it out through logic, you don’t really understand it unless you experience it. And that is a valid objection, I think, but one would have to really examine more deeply what’s the difference whether you have experienced it or not experienced it.

Like an easy example, that a man could figure out logically what all the implications are of actually giving birth to a baby, but a man can never experience what it’s like to actually give birth. So does a man really understand? When a man understands intellectually what it’s like to give birth to a baby, does the man really understand it? These are examples that we could use in terms of raising objections. And one has to analyze further. I mean, I certainly haven’t come up with all the answers.

But on the other hand, I could intuitively understand what it’s like to give birth to a baby as a man and really feel sympathy and give support to my partner when she gives birth to a baby, but still I’ve never experienced it. So the logical pervasions are not strict here, that with the intellectual you have to have experienced it. With the intuitive as well, you have to experience. So that’s another parameter: whether you have experienced it or not. I didn’t work it out logically that the bones spread and all these sort of things. In other words, what I’m saying is that the parameter of whether we have experienced something or not is not the distinguishing feature between intellectual and intuitive understanding. Because I think some people do make the differentiation, the difference, on the basis of experience or not. But if you look in the dictionary, the difference is whether it arises in logical reasoning or not.

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

So with intellectual understanding, we’ve worked out the implications. But we could intuitively understand the implications of, let’s say, impermanence or voidness, and how it fits with other facets of the teachings, without having to work it out. And this too may or may not be precise or decisive. We usually experience this as everything just sort of automatically fits together, everything clicks. That’s how we experience it. We haven’t worked it out with logic. All the implications. Everything clicks. Everything just sort of makes sense to us automatically. So we would say that’s an intuitive process. But 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 not be obvious.

The usual process is that we focus on a single topic, such as the defining characteristics of mental activity, then we also focus 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 yeshey, of deep awareness? There’s one that equalizes. It puts things together and sees the similarity. Like a little child: You show a little child a page which has some squares and some circles, and then you teach the child: “Well, which ones are the same?” That’s using equalizing deep awareness. So it’s a similar type of process. So without using a formal line of reasoning, we understand how these various things – the nature of the mind and bodhichitta and so on – how it all fits together with this equalizing awareness. It’s hard to say whether this is intellectual or intuitive.

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

Emotional Understanding

Now what about emotional understanding? Well, whether we derive our apprehension or our understanding of something, like impermanence, either intellectually (by relying on a line of reasoning) or intuitively (by relying on other means), both are nonstatic phenomena (mi-rtag-pa). Nonstatic. Whether we’re talking about an apprehension or an understanding of something, like impermanence – whether we derive it intellectually or intuitively, that apprehension and that understanding is a nonstatic phenomenon. So what does that mean?

Nonstatic. They usually translate it as “impermanent,” but then we get a limited understanding of what’s the significance here. Nonstatic. That means that it produces an effect; it arises from causes and conditions and it produces effects. People say, “Well, I only have an intellectual understanding, but I don’t feel anything; it hasn’t really made any effect.” This is impossible. Even if you have an intellectual understanding, based on logic, it’s a nonstatic phenomenon, therefore it has to affect you in some way. It might not be dramatic in terms of emotions, but it will make a difference.

I’m basing this on a teaching of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He explains this in terms of the development of compassion. And he says that compassion developed based on reason – that everybody’s equal, everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy, etc., etc. – that this is more stable than compassion that’s just based on emotion. “Oh, you poor thing.” That’s not stable. What does that mean? That means that if you’ve built it up through a line of reasoning – which means intellectual – you will feel something; you will feel compassion. It might not be this overemotional, overwhelming type of thing, but you will feel compassion. You generate the feeling.

So then the question is: How do you know that you’re feeling an emotion? How do you know that you’re feeling something? An interesting question, isn’t it? And we’d have to go to the definition of a disturbing emotion (nyon-mongs). Disturbing emotion: When it arises, it makes you lose peace of mind and lose self-control. So 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, but with compassion and self-control so you can help somebody. You can decide to help somebody. So then you examine: Am I actually feeling something? Am I feeling more tranquil, more peace of mind? Am I able to act in a way that I decide to act? And so on. But it doesn’t have to be dramatic, that your body is rushing with various chemicals.

So whether we intuitively feel a strong emotion of compassion or we derive it based on reason, it affects our state of mind. But whether or not we apply our understanding to our behavior, that’s another matter. You feel all sorts of compassion, but you don’t do anything. So have you really understood it if you don’t do anything? We would call this a “deep understanding” – not just emotional, but actually it affects your behavior. Then you have the full understanding.

That pretty much covers what I’ve prepared or the extent of my analysis so far. But obviously much more can be analyzed. We can go much more deeply into this topic. And it’s a relevant topic, because if we want to make progress on the spiritual path, we have to understand what we’re doing, and there are so many different levels to that, so many different things that are involved. So this is like an introduction to that.

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 are people, from very small childhood, frightened of this or that. And often the only way to explain it is a trauma in 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 like that. If one came into the house, he would very easily take it out. But he was terrified of frogs. If there was a frog in the house, I had to remove it. So where in the world does that come from? So maybe he was a fly eaten by a frog or something like that.


Let’s end, then, with a dedication. I must thank you for giving me the opportunity to work all of this out. This is an important question, so I had fun figuring all of this out and analyzing it. Which is what we need to do if we’re going to make any progress in the Dharma. And it’s very important to approach all of this and see that it’s great fun. You have to enjoy it. You have to love doing it. Then it works.

Tsongkhapa mentions that in Lam-rim chen-mo in terms of developing bodhichitta. If it’s based on some previous-life experience so that you love this, you really have such a strong what we would call an “intuitive feeling” for it, your development of bodhichitta will be much more secure and stable than if you really have to work on it in this life. So this thing of you just love analyzing voidness and love this sort of thing, then it’s going to be more secure. Fun.

Okay, so we end with a dedication. Whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all. Then maybe we will remember it in future lives.