Understanding Something: Non-Conceptual vs Conceptual

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In the previous session, we discussed what a conceptual understanding is, and we used the example of understanding voidness. We saw that, basically, in addition to apprehending the sound voidness correctly and decisively through the medium of the audio category voidness, the object category the sound of a word, and a meaning category an absence of impossible ways of existing, which is also the object category voidness, we have in the background that we’ve worked out all the implications of this meaning. We’ve put it together with a lot of other teachings and applied it to various situations. When we focus conceptually on voidness, then, our conceptual understanding is held by the force of the latencies from having worked out these implications and our experiences of having applied them. This is what we have explained concerning conceptual understanding. 

This one additional factor involved, which I don’t think I mentioned. The reason why our conceptual cognition is accurate and decisive, and therefore an apprehension of voidness, is that it is generated by valid inferential cognition based on logic. 

The Discriminating Awarenesses That Arise from Listening, Thinking and Meditating 

There is another way in which we could describe the steps in gaining a conceptual understanding of voidness. Let’s look at that a moment before going on.

Studying and learning the Dharma entails developing three levels of discriminating awareness (shes-rab): the discriminating awarenesses that arise from listening to and hearing the words of the teachings, thinking about their meanings, and then meditating on these meanings. In the case of listening and thinking, the discriminating awarenesses accompany conceptual apprehension. In the case of meditating, the discriminating awareness accompanies first conceptual apprehension and then non-conceptual apprehension. Our previous analysis of conceptual apprehension helps us to understand what these three types of discriminating awareness entail.

[1] We listen to a lecture by our teacher and hear the sound “voidness.” If our hearing this sound is accurate and decisive – we are sure that this is what we heard – we have non-conceptually apprehended the sound. This non-conceptual apprehension is followed immediately by conceptual apprehension of this sound through the audio category voidness – it is correct that it fits in with all other times we’ve heard this sound uttered in different voices and volume, and we are sure of that. This conceptual apprehension is followed with a second conceptual apprehension through the object category sound of a word – it is accurate that this sound fits into the category of the sound of words, and we are sure of that too. 

This second conceptual apprehension is then followed by a third conceptual apprehension, now through the object category words found in valid Buddhist sources of information. It is accurate that this word fits into the category of words found in the classical Buddhist texts. When that third conceptual apprehension is accompanied by discriminating awareness – the awareness that adds certainty to our distinguishing the sound voidness that we heard as being the sound of a word found in the classical Buddhist texts, then we have the discriminating awareness that arises from listening to and hearing the sound of the word voidness

We go through the same steps to develop the discriminating awareness that arises from listening to and hearing the sound of the words in the definition, or meaning, of voidness – an absence of impossible ways of existing. We now understand that the sound voidness and the sound an absence of impossible ways of existing are the sounds of words found in the classical Buddhist texts. 

[2] We then think about voidness and its meaning, proving its validity by relying on valid inferential cognition based on logic and analyzing its implications and applications. When we experience that our application of voidness with this meaning to various problems in our life results in a diminishing of our suffering and unhappiness, we are now able to conceptually apprehend voidness and its meaning with the discriminating awareness that arises from thinking. We could conventionally say that now we understand what voidness means.

[3] We then focus single-pointedly on our apprehension of voidness and its meaning, first conceptually by working through the logical proof and our analysis once more and then non-conceptually when we no longer need to work through the proof in order to generate this apprehension. The discriminating awareness that accompanies our single-pointed apprehension – whether that apprehension is conceptual or non-conceptual – is the discriminating awareness that arises from meditation. Colloquially, we might say that we have now really understood voidness and its meaning because we have built our understanding up as a habit to the point where it arises automatically in difficult situations, and we automatically apply it effectively. 

We’ll discuss how we go on from here to the non-conceptual apprehension and understanding of voidness in a moment. I’d like to explain something else first. 

Apprehending Something Non-Conceptually 

We have mentioned the non-conceptual apprehension that occurs when hearing sounds, such as the sound voidness, but only as a preliminary step to the conceptual apprehension of voidness. Now, let’s look in greater depth at other examples of non-conceptual apprehension. Let’s leave aside the non-conceptual cognition that occurs with mental consciousness when focused single-pointedly in meditation on voidness and analyze, instead, the non-conceptual apprehension that occurs in sensory cognition, such as seeing something. Let’s use the example of a baby sitting in front of a dog that we used before.

What does the baby see? The baby sees colored shapes. Right? The baby can apprehend non-conceptually these colored shapes. It is confident that it is seeing these colored shapes, not any other ones, and that it is accurate. To analyze more deeply, let’s look at the Gelug assertions concerning the Sautrantika analysis of what the baby is seeing. Non-Gelugpas don’t agree with them, but we will leave aside their assertions of the Sautrantika analysis. We will also leave aside the analysis made by the other Indian tenet systems. The Gelug Sautrantika explanation is perhaps the easiest to understand. 

According to Gelug Sautrantika, the baby doesn’t just see disjointed colored shapes, and it doesn’t just see disjointed one-second pictures – one second, one thing and the next second, something else. Rather, the baby sees a conventional, common-sense object – one that extends over space and all its other sensory attributes, such as a sound, a smell, a taste, and a physical sensation when touched, and lasts over time. The baby sees something that is a whole object, even though only the front part of the object and not the back part appears in its field of vision.

This is sensory non-conceptual cognition. We see common-sense objects that are whole objects; we don’t just see parts. Right? Whole objects are known technically as “collection syntheses” (tshogs-spyi). They are a synthesis of a collection of parts, temporal frames and sensory attributes into an individual whole object. This whole, validly knowable object that the baby sees is a synthesis of legs, a head and a tail, as well as of colored shapes, smells and sounds, and of all of them in different positions as this object moves. Of course, the baby doesn’t actually see the smells and sounds, it just sees colored shapes and a whole object as a collection synthesis. Does that make sense? 

Also, when the baby sees these colored shapes and whole object, it distinguishes the characteristic features (mtshan-nyid) of what kind of item it is – in this case, it distinguishes the various characteristic features of a dog. Characteristic features cannot exist or be cognized independently of something possessing the characteristic features (mtshan-can). What possesses the characteristic features of a dog is a dog. A dog, then, is the kind of thing that the baby sees. 

A dog, as what kind of thing something is, is called “a kind synthesis” (rigs-spyi). It is a synthesis based on a set of characteristic features shared in common by many similar objects. According to Sautrantika, the kind of thing that some object is – in this case, a dog – is established on the side of the object by the power of the defining characteristic features also found there. That kind of thing, a dog, is objectively what that object is, independently of it having been conceptually labeled with the concept of a dog and designated by convention with the word dog. Sautrantika asserts objective reality. There is objectively a dog as a whole object sitting there in the room before the baby crawls over and sees it. 

What is the baby seeing? It is objectively seeing a whole object; it’s not just seeing colored shapes. It’s also not just seeing a whole object that is merely an undefined “something”; it is objectively seeing a dog, isn’t it? Whether or not it knows that it’s a dog or what it’s called is another issue; it’s not necessary for seeing a dog. Even if the baby doesn’t know that this is a dog and what’s it’s called, we’d have to say that it’s seeing a whole, validly knowable object, and that whole, validly knowable object it sees is a dog, wouldn’t we? This accords with common sense. And we’d also have to say that when the baby accurately sees this whole object that is actually a dog and is certain that it is seeing this object, it is non-conceptually apprehending the sight of a dog. It is non-conceptually apprehending it even though it doesn’t know that it is a dog or what it is called.  

The Difference between Imputation and Both Mental Labeling and Designation

Collection syntheses, kind syntheses, object categories and words are all imputation phenomena. An imputation phenomenon is one that cannot exist or be cognized independently of a basis for imputation that is cognized first and then simultaneously with it. 

  • In the case of seeing the collection synthesis of a whole object, first we see one moment of a colored shape, for instance, and then, together with the colored shape, we see the collection synthesis of a whole object. And then, together with the colored shape and the collection synthesis of a whole object, we also see the kind synthesis of what kind of object it is. This all occurs with non-conceptual cognition by eye consciousness.
  • In the case of thinking with an object category, first we see a colored shape together with a collection synthesis and a kind synthesis, and then we cognize with mental consciousness a conceptual representation of this colored shape, collection synthesis and kind synthesis through the filter of an object category or concept that it fits into. This is conceptual cognition.
  • In the case of a word, we follow all the above steps with cognizing with mental consciousness the object category and conceptual representation together with a word. This too is a conceptual cognition.

Conceptual cognition with a category entails an object category or concept conceptually labeled on the basis of a conceptual representation of an item that fits in this category. Conceptual cognition with a word entails a word conceptually designated on the basis of an object category and the individual items that fit in that category. 

There are three components involved with both the conceptual labeling of categories and the conceptual designation of words. Let’s use the example of the conceptual cognition of a dog. First, conceptual labeling. There are: 

  • A conceptual label – the category dog or the concept of a “dog” 
  • A basis for labeling – a conceptual representation of a dog
  • The referent object of the label – what the label refers to – namely, a dog.

In the case of designation with words, there are:

  • A designation – the word dog
  • A basis for designation – the category dog and all conceptual representations of a dog 
  • The referent object of the designation – all dogs.

There are only two components, however, involved with the imputation phenomena collection syntheses and kind syntheses. In the case of a collection synthesis, there are only:

  • An imputation phenomenon – a collection synthesis: namely, an objective whole object
  • A basis for imputation – spatial parts, temporal parts, and sensory attributes.

In the case of a kind synthesis, there are only:

  • An imputation phenomenon – a kind synthesis: for instance, an objective dog
  • A basis for imputation – a whole object possessing the characteristic features of a dog.

According to Sautrantika, in the case of a dog as something that can be validly seen, heard, smelled or touched, its being a whole object and its being a dog are objective facts about it that are intrinsically established on the side of the dog. On the other hand, this dog being conceptually labeled with the category dog and designated with the word dog are totally optional. Fitting into a conceptual category or concept and being designated with a word are not intrinsic attributes of a dog. The baby sees a dog but has no concept of “dogs” and so does not fit what it sees into the object category dog, and it certainly doesn’t know that it is called “a dog.” It doesn’t even know that word or what it signifies.      

In other words, the baby doesn’t have to know that what it’s seeing is called a “dog,” or what it’s called, in order to see a dog. Or in other words, the baby doesn’t need to conceptually label what it sees as fitting into the object category dog or say or think the word dog in order to see what is objectively a dog. Right? As babies, we had to learn the category dog and the word dog and its meaning. 

It’s not so difficult to teach a baby a word, such as “dog,” by pointing at just one animal. But how does the baby learn the object category dog? There are so many different kinds of dogs: a Chihuahua, a German shepherd, a cocker spaniel, a poodle, and so on. How in the world does a baby learn that they all conventionally fit into the object category dog? This is a mystery. Is it the same process as the baby learning what is edible? The baby perhaps learns what is edible by trial and error, putting everything in its mouth and excluding what it cannot eat. But a baby doesn’t do that for learning which animals are dogs. I don’t think it points to a cat, is told it’s not a dog and then excludes that from the category dog.

Perhaps the baby is shown pictures of various types of dogs and learns to distinguish certain characteristic features that they share in common that define them all as collection syntheses and kind syntheses – in other words, characteristic features that define all of them as whole objects that are dogs. They all have tails that they wag, for example. Sautrantika says that these characteristic features are established inherently on the side of these animals, while Prasangika, for instance, says that their existence can only be established conceptually in terms of the mental labels for them. Nevertheless, Prasangika agrees that the mental factor of distinguishing (‘du-shes) cognizes these characteristic features, otherwise we couldn’t differentiate one thing from another.

In addition to the baby distinguishing the characteristic features of a dog shared in common by many varieties of the animal when it looks at pictures of different breeds of dogs, it also uses four of the five kinds of deep awareness (ye-shes) that all mental activity has: 

  • With mirror-like deep awareness (me-long lta-bu ye-shes), it takes in the information about all the animals it sees in these pictures, distinguishing the characteristic features.
  • With equalizing deep awareness (mnyam-nyid ye-shes), it identifies and puts together the characteristic features it distinguishes that all these animals share in common.
  • With individualizing deep awareness (sor-rtog ye-shes), it differentiates each of these animals that share these characteristic features from one another – although they share these features, they don’t all look exactly the same. 
  • With deep awareness of the sphere of reality (chos-nyid ye-shes), it identifies the conventional reality of these animals – they are all whole objects of the same kind, and they are all called “dogs.”      

My guess is that this is the way the baby learns the category dog, the word dog and the meaning of that word – it refers to a set of animals that share common characteristic features. Once the baby has learned all this, then when it sees a dog accurately and decisively, it thinks accurately and decisively that it is a dog – it accurately and decisively fits what it sees into the category dog. It may or may not also associate it with thinking the word dog or saying “dog.” Seeing the dog accurately and decisively is a non-conceptual apprehension of the dog. Thinking it accurately and decisively as being a dog is a conceptual apprehension. With conceptual apprehension, it’s as if the baby fits what it sees in some box in its mind called “dog,” and it seems to the baby as though it is truly established as fitting in this box.

As adults, we too conceive of things as existing like that all the time. We too conceptually put things in mental boxes, especially boxes like “good,” “bad,” “pretty,” and “ugly,” as if things were truly self-established as that from their own sides, independently of being mentally labeled as that. 

In any case, the baby now has learned what a dog is and, when it sees one, it apprehends it as a dog. The baby may know that dogs wag their tails, but that doesn’t mean that the baby knows anything further about dogs. It has to be taught further that that dogs bite, they have to be taken for a walk, they have to be fed, and so on. The baby doesn’t know all the implications of some animal being a dog. When it learns that, it knows that with the fifth type of deep awareness, accomplishing deep awareness (bya-grub ye-shes). It knows what you need to do with a dog.

Why Different People Perceive the Dog Differently 

Why is it that children have different reactions to this dog? There are children who are afraid of it, and there are children who are very confident. There is an emotion on the side of the child – fear, confidence and so on. 

An emotion is a mental factor that accompanies the child’s conceptual cognition of a dog when seeing one. We need to analyze more deeply. The child who is afraid of dogs is conceptually cognizing the dog not only through the category dog, but also through the categories danger and threat. A cat might also conceptually cognize the dog as a danger and a threat through those same categories. It’s not just humans who have conceptual cognition like that. 

The question is, Why does the child think of this animal in those categories, danger and threat? It’s an interesting question. What do we fit in the category danger and why? We usually learn what is dangerous only by personal experience; children often don’t believe their parents when they tell that that something is dangerous. They have to find that out by themselves. But sometimes we label the category danger onto things that don’t really conventionally fit into that category. People who are paranoid throw a lot of things into that category that no one else would be afraid of. Is a table a danger? Is abduction by aliens a danger? Who would agree with either of those? Nevertheless, some people might think of tables and abduction by aliens through the category danger and accompany that with the emotion of fear. 

But as for the child that is afraid of dogs and thinks of them in the category danger, they could have learned that from an experience in this lifetime of having been bitten by a dog.  But even if they have never experienced something like that in this lifetime or seen something like that in a video, Buddhism would say that they must have experienced something like that is some previous lifetime, so that in this lifetime, they are instinctively afraid of dogs.


Let’s summarize what we have discussed so far. We have seen that understanding something requires several steps. We see some parts of something – we see the front of it but not the back – and then we are seeing it as a whole object, followed by seeing what kind of thing it is. Then, we see the characteristic features of this object possessing these characteristic features. All those steps occur with non-conceptual cognition. 

Next, with equalizing deep awareness, we fit a mental representation of the object into an object category that includes other similar objects we’ve experienced or know that share the same characteristic features. This is now a conceptual cognition with an object category or concept mentally labeled on a basis for labeling. If we know beforehand what this object category is called – if we know the name or word with which it is designated by convention, then we may designate the conceptual representation in our conceptual cognition, and through it the object we see, with this name. In this way, we know what we are seeing. 

If our conceptual knowing of what it is that we see is accurate and decisive, we have conceptually apprehended it. But that doesn’t mean we really understand what we see. To understand it, we need experience with similar items that share the same characteristic features. Let’s say we see a dog. To understand dogs, we need the experience of being with dogs, taking care of dogs, knowing what’s involved, and so on. Even if we have never had a dog, our parents could have explained to us, “Dogs have to be taken for a walk. They like bones, but don’t ever try to take a bone away from a dog.” We can learn about dogs like that, but what we understand from what we were taught might not really sink in until we have had the experience of taking care of a dog ourselves. 

One more point. When we see a dog, light hits our eyes, and our minds give rise to a fully transparent mental hologram (rnam-pa) of the dog. In Tibetan, the mental hologram is described as being directly in front of the “face of the mind” (sems-ngor). Through this fully transparent mental hologram, we non-conceptually cognize the dog that is objectively sitting in front us. When we follow this with conceptual cognition of the dog so that we know what we are seeing, the object category dog is directly in front of the face of our mind. This object category is only partially transparent. It partially veils the specifier and conceptual representation of the dog so that this representation, which is also a mental hologram, is not as vivid as the mental hologram that arises when we simply see the dog. While conceptually thinking “dog,” with all the associations we might have for the category dog, we project the conceptual representation of the dog onto the mental hologram that arises in our seeing of the dog and mix the two together. The conceptual representation is described as being fully transparent.

Another point: Conceptual cognition is always deceptive because it gives rise not only to a category, a specifier, and a conceptual representation, but also to an appearance of self-established existence. It appears as though the category truly exists as a self-established box in our minds and that the conceptual representations of items that fit in this box truly exist as self-established items that fit in this box. When the conceptual representation of the dog is projected onto and mixed with the mental hologram of seeing the dog, then this mental hologram in the seeing also takes on an appearance of self-established existence. It appears as the dog we see is truly a self-established, whole, validly knowable object and that it is truly self-established as the kind of thing it is, a “dog.”    

Okay, that’s conceptual apprehension and conceptual understanding. Let us digest that for a moment. Think about it. 

Another point: When a Buddha sees a dog, does a Buddha know that it’s a dog? Being omniscient, a Buddha would have to know that it is a dog. But Buddhas do not have conceptual cognition, they have only non-conceptual cognition. So, a Buddha doesn’t cognize the dog through the concept of a “dog” or the object category dog. Then how does a Buddha know what it is?

A Buddha knows it’s a dog simply by non-conceptually cognizing the kind category dog simultaneously with the collection category whole object when seeing this animal. A Buddha also knows that various people and animals mentally label this animal with various concepts and that various people designate it with different names – dog, Hund, chien, perro, and so on. Although a Buddha has equalizing deep awareness, it doesn’t conceptually fit all the animals it sees as having the same characteristic features into a mental box as if they were self-established as fitting there. 

Apprehending and Understanding Something Non-Conceptually and Then Conceptually

Since this all is rather complicated, let’s go over non-conceptual apprehension and non-conceptual understanding once more. What are involved? We were using the example of a baby seeing a dog. When the baby sees the dog accurately and decisively, it is non-conceptually apprehending it. It sees not just colored shapes, but the dog as a whole object,  and distinguishes what kind of thing it is, a dog. However, the baby doesn’t necessarily know what it is. 

The kind synthesis of what kind of thing the baby is seeing, a dog, is an imputation phenomenon in the basis of the collection synthesis that establishes the dog as a whole object. 

  • Sautrantika asserts that what the baby sees is objectively a dog and that the collection synthesis and kind synthesis are both findable, self-established on the side of the dog and that, by their own power, they establish the dog as a whole object and as a dog. The baby does not just see colored shapes. 
  • Prasangika agrees that the baby does not just see colored shapes, but that it also sees these two syntheses. Nevertheless, the two are not findable, self-established on the side of the dog. The only thing we can say that establishes the existence of what the baby sees as a whole object and as a dog is the fact that when it is mentally labeled with the categories whole object and dog, a whole object that is a dog is what these mental labels refer to.    

The baby only sees what appears to it – a whole object that is a dog. It has no idea or concept of what a dog is and doesn’t even know the word dog yet. The baby has to learn the category dog and the word dog. Humans usually learn what objects are by learning what a set of similar objects, such as different breeds of dogs, are called. They learn the words for them in a particular language – for instance, “dog” in English. When the baby knows that it’s a dog and that it’s called “dog,” then it sees the dog through the filter of the object categories whole object and dog and the audio category dog.

Animals learn what objects are not with words, but with concepts often based on scent or sight. For example, goats in India know that certain plants are edible and certain plants are not edible. There’s a very pretty red and yellow flower that grows in India that goats know is poisonous. It will make them sick. They won’t eat it. How do they know that? The goat knows it through the category non-food

How does a dog know its master? It knows its master conceptually through the concept of them conceptually represented perhaps by a mental representation of a scent. When we do these analyses, we have to be able to apply it not only to humans, but also to animals as well. Then, it becomes really interesting. 

To go back to the baby seeing a dog, if its seeing the dog is accurate and decisive, its seeing is a non-conceptual apprehension of the dog. If, when seeing it, the baby accurately and decisively thinks that this is a dog and knows that it is called “dog,” its thinking that is a conceptual apprehension of the dog. But, for the baby to understand what it means for this animal to be a dog – what the implications are of it being a dog – it needs not only to learn that dogs need to be taken for a walk and that they bite, it needs also to have some personal experience with dogs. It may have to wait until it is much older before it will truly understand and appreciate what it means to have a dog.  

When the baby conceptually apprehends the dog through the filter of the category dog, the filter also adds an appearance of true, self-established existence. It appears as though the dog it sees is truly self-established as a dog and that it fits inside the self-established box called “dog” in its minds. Even if the baby gains some experience with dogs when it grows up, its understanding of what a dog is will still be conceptual and it will still think of dogs as being self-established as dogs because this is how they will appear to it. To overcome these deceptive appearances and belief in their corresponding to reality will require non-conceptual apprehension and understanding of voidness.   

Non-Conceptual Apprehension and Understanding of Voidness 

Now we can get back to non-conceptual apprehension and understanding of voidness. How do we focus on voidness non-conceptually? We do that by focusing on an absence, a total absence of self-established existence – there’s no such thing. But we don’t focus on that absence through the filter of the category voidness and a conceptual representation of an absence, since doing so would make voidness appear to be some self-established “thing.” 

What appears, then, in such a non-conceptual cognition? When we see no apple on the table, for instance, what do see? Nothing. The table is merely the location of the absence of an apple, and it doesn’t appear. Rather, when we focus just on that absence, what appears is just nothing – not a conceptual picture of a nothing, but actually nothing. 

An absence has to be an absence of something. When we focus on this absence that non-conceptually appears, not only does the location of this absence not appear, but also what is absent does not appear. We distinguish merely the defining characteristic of an absence. Whether what appears is an absence of an apple, an absence of a dog, an absence of appearances, an absence of self-established existence because it is elsewhere but not here, or an absence of self-established existence because there is no such thing – in all these cases what appears is the same. What appears is nothing. In order for our non-conceptual cognition to be accurate and decisive and thus to be a non-conceptual apprehension of voidness, we need to distinguish this absence as being the absence of self-established existence because there is no such thing. 

How is it that we are able to distinguish this absence correctly and decisively as an absence of self-established existence because there is no such thing? It is because our non-conceptual apprehension of voidness was preceded by a conceptual apprehension of voidness through both an object category voidness, an audio category voidness, and a meaning category an absence of self-established existence because there is no such thing. We were able to understand this meaning accurately and decisively because we generated this conceptual apprehension by relying on valid inferential cognition proving that there is no such thing as self-established existence. We would also have already worked out the implications and applications of voidness through inference. Because of that background, our non-conceptual apprehension of voidness is be held by the force of the latencies from our previous understanding, and therefore it is a non-conceptual understanding. And because the total absence that appears does not appear through the filter of an object category or meaning category, it does not appear to have self-established existence as if fitting in the conceptual box voidness.