Understanding Something: Non-Conceptual vs Conceptual

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We were discussing what a conceptual understanding is. We saw that basically, in addition to apprehending something correctly and decisively through the medium of an audio category and a meaning category. we have in the background there that we’ve worked out all the implications: we’ve applied it in various situations and so on, we’ve put it together with a lot of other teachings, a lot of other things. And our cognition, our focus – we were using the example of voidness – is held by the force of all these latencies of this, potentials from it. That’s one way of explaining it. There’s another way of explaining it, but we won’t deal with that; that’s more complicated. And the more implications we’ve worked out, the deeper our understanding will be.

Apprehending and Understanding Something Non-Conceptually

So now the question is: How do we understand something non-conceptually? This gets a little bit complicated. What we explained before was not as complicated. We hear so much in the Buddhist teachings: “You have to have a non-conceptual cognition of voidness, of the four noble truths,” and so on. This is the big goal, isn’t it? And we have no idea what that means. Right? We hear the word accurately, decisively. No idea what it means really – not even the meaning, let alone understanding the meaning. So to understand this, we need to describe progressive stages.

Let’s use an example of a baby, and there’s a dog in front of the baby. The baby sees the dog. The baby can apprehend non-conceptually this thing that it’s seeing. So what does the baby see? The baby sees colored shapes. Right?

What I will explain now is the Gelugpa explanation, Tsongkhapa’s explanation. Non-Gelugpas don’t agree with this, so we will leave that aside. This is Tsongkhapa’s explanation. You should be quite aware that Tsongkhapa was really a revolutionary; he questioned and reinterpreted and reexplained almost everything.

According to Tsongkhapa, non-conceptually 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 another thing, and they’re not related to each other. The baby doesn’t see that. Rather, the baby sees a whole item that extends over both space and time.

This is non-conceptual. Others say cognizing a whole item that extends over space and time is conceptual, but Tsongkhapa says this is non-conceptual. You see the whole; you don’t just see parts. Right? These are known as collection syntheses (tshogs-spyi) – synthesizes of a collection of parts and temporal frames into a whole item. So in other words, the baby can distinguish some of the colored shapes in the visual sense field as constituting an individual item. They constitute an individual item that’s:

  • A synthesis of colored shapes, parts (such as legs, head, tail), and puts it all together into one item.
  • A synthesis of at least several moments of perception. Like when the animal is moving, it sees different colored shapes, doesn’t it?

So it actually does see an item, a whole item, non-conceptually. Does that make sense? Otherwise it’s very difficult to make sense of what we perceive, isn’t it?

Also when the baby sees these colored shapes, it distinguishes the characteristics features of what kind of item it is (in this case, the characteristic features of a dog). We’ve had our discussion of characteristic features. But just conventionally it sees the characteristic features. This is called a kind synthesis (rigs-spyi), what kind of thing it is.

So what is the baby seeing? It actually is seeing a dog, not just seeing colored shapes. It’s not just seeing a whole item; it also is seeing a dog, isn’t it? Whether it knows that it’s a dog or not is something else. You’d have to say that it’s seeing a whole knowable item and what it’s seeing is a dog, wouldn’t you? It’s common sense.

More technically, it sees the characteristic features of a dog and something that has these characteristic features, namely a dog. You can’t have characteristic features and something having these characteristic features – those two things can’t exist independently of each other. Right? Defining characteristic marks (mtshan-nyid) and items having the characteristic marks (mtshan-can) cannot appear separately from each other.

Do you follow this? The characteristic features of a dog. Well, it’s a convention, isn’t it? But like our example of the twelve eggs being divisible into three or four or so on, there are these characteristic features. But divisible into four – that can’t appear by itself. You have to have something which has that characteristic: twelve eggs. You can’t have one without the other. Both have to appear. So if it’s a seeing of the characteristic features of a dog – the tail and all these sort of things – then it’s a seeing of the dog. So the baby doesn’t have to know what this thing is in order to see a dog, does it?

So now more technically. Remember we discussed, a little bit before, mental labeling? There’s a basis for the label, and there’s a label. With mental labeling, there’s actually three things that are involved:

  1. There’s the label (btags).
  2. There’s the basis for labeling (gdags-gzhi).
  3. And then there’s what the label refers to in terms of that basis (btags-chos, referent object).

There’s the label “red.” There’s the basis, this frequency of light between this number and that number. So what is red? Red is what the word “red” refers to on the basis of these frequencies. Red is not the same as the frequencies, is it?

No? Let’s give another example. You see pictures of yourself spanning your life. And what am I seeing? I’m seeing, in my case, Alex. Is Alex just identical with one of those pictures, the five-year-old or the twenty-year-old or the fifty-year-old? No. Alex is what the word “Alex” refers to on the basis of all these pictures, isn’t it? I’m just looking at pictures, colored shapes on a piece of paper. Are these colored shapes on the piece of paper Alex? No. This is ridiculous, isn’t it? But I’m seeing Alex. So what does “Alex” refer to?

Do you follow that? That’s very profound actually. That’s often our problem, that we confuse what a label refers to with the basis – in Tibetan, the takcho (btags-chos) and the dakzhi (gdags-gzhi). So digest that for a moment. I think this example with seeing photographs of yourself is a good example.

So a basis for labeling and what a label refers to do not exist independently of a mental label; the three arise dependently on each other. But although these three do not exist independently of each other, the baby doesn’t know the mental label “dog.” It sees what the label “dog” refers to, and it sees the basis for that label (the colored shapes and characteristic features), but it doesn’t know the mental label; it doesn’t know what it is.

So the baby doesn’t have to know that it’s called a “dog,” or what it’s called, in order to see a dog. In other words, the baby doesn’t need to mentally label “dog”or say the word “dog” in its mind, or even know what the word “dog” means, in order to see a dog. Right? As babies, we had to learn the category “dog” and the name “dog” and its meaning.

That actually is very difficult, if you think about it. There are so many different kinds of dogs: a Chihuahua, a German shepherd, cocker spaniel... I mean, how in the world as a child do you know to put them all into the category “dog?” It’s a very interesting process, isn’t it? It’s a very interesting process. Just as an aside: It has to do with exclusion of what it’s not. A little baby thinks that everything is food and puts everything in its mouth. So how does the baby learn to exclude certain things – that this is not food? It’s interesting, isn’t it? But you have to learn that as a baby, obviously.

So this was a conceptual process for the baby to learn the category “dog” and the name “dog”and what it means. So now we’ve learned the category “dog,” we’ve learned the word for it, and so on. So now when we see a dog accurately and decisively, we could cognize it conceptually in the next moment both accurately and decisively through the category “dog.” When we see a dog accurately and decisively, that’s non-conceptual. Then in the next moment we could cognize it conceptually, both accurately and decisively, through the category “dog.” Right? We see it through this category.

So what does that mean? That means that we’re not necessarily thinking the sound of the word “dog” in our heads to apprehend it conceptually as a dog. What is this like? To apprehend it conceptually as a dog, it’s like in our minds accurately and decisively putting it in the box “dog,” as if it truly existed in a box independently of it being just what the label “dog” refers to. That’s what it means, conceptual – put it in a box “dog.”

We do that all the time. We put things in boxes, especially “good,” “bad,” “pretty,” “not pretty.” It’s like boxes, as if truly from their own side they were established as that. No. It’s based on a concept. But even so, the child knows that this is a dog. It doesn’t mean that the child understands that dogs bite and that dogs have to be taken for a walk and they have to be fed and so on. A child doesn’t necessarily understand all the implications of what’s involved with a dog. That’s more than just the decisive, correct apprehension.

Why Different People Perceive the Dog Differently

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

First of all, the emotion is just a mental factor that’s accompanying the cognition. So now you have to analyze a little bit more besides just the emotion that’s accompanying the cognition. So there is a further concept of “threat” or a further concept of “friend, not a threat.” That’s also the filter through which the baby is perceiving this animal. So there’s a category “danger,” “not danger.” An animal has that: “danger,” “not danger.”

So the question is: Why perceive this animal in that category? I mean, it’s interesting. What do you throw into that category of “danger?” Do you throw the table into that category? Do you throw the flower? People who are paranoid throw a lot of things into that category. So you learn by experience; and because of experience of certain things that are danger, you may label “danger” onto things that don’t really conventionally fit into that category. Nobody else would agree that the table is a danger or the color yellow is a danger. Who would agree with that? But you could perceive it through that category as a danger. If the room is yellow – “Ooh!” Or a bull seeing red. It’s an interesting example.

And one could learn from experience danger, either in this lifetime or Buddhism would say some previous lifetimes, so that it becomes like an instinct. I’m sure you’ve heard stories of humans going to an area where humans never have been and the animals aren’t afraid of the humans, and then they learn to be afraid of humans.

And cognitions through certain categories will have associated with them certain emotions that accompany it, like fear together with danger.

Plus accomplishing deep awareness (bya-grub ye-shes) out of the five types of deep awareness (ye-shes lnga) – what to do – which is to run away. Animals know that. So how do you know that? There are five types of deep awareness:

  1. Mirror-like (me-long lta-bu’i ye-shes) just takes in information.
  2. Equalizing (mnyam-nyid ye-shes) puts two things together, more things together, like into a category.
  3. Individualizing (sor-rtog ye-shes). It specifies this. “It’s not anything else. It’s this.”
  4. And then accomplishing (bya-grub ye-shes), which is basically to respond. So you respond: you know to run away. You respond. Food: you know to stick it in your mouth. A worm knows that.
  5. And then dharmadhatu or reality, the sphere of reality (chos-dbyings ye-shes), which is to know what things are, either conventionally or on the deepest level.

That’s part of how mental activity works. It’s with these five types of deep awareness. Everybody has that, including the worm, so to call it “wisdom” is a little bit misleading – “the five types of wisdom.”


Okay, so we have these different steps so far with conceptual: You see the parts. You see the whole. You see what kind of thing it is. So we see the characteristic features and what has characteristic features. With equalizing awareness we can fit it with other things that we’ve experienced and put it into a category if it’s conceptual. And we’re perceiving the basis for labeling, and we’re seeing what the label refers to, but we could either know the mental label or not know the mental label. And even if we know what it is – if we know the mental label, we know what it is – it doesn’t mean that we understand it. And to understand it, as you said, needs experience: experience of being with dogs, taking care of dogs, what’s involved. Or we could be taught. Our parents tell you, “Well, dogs have to be taken for a walk. They do this. They do that. Don’t try to take the bone away from the dog.” We learn.

So these stages. That’s conceptual. Conceptual apprehension. What’s involved – not just apprehending it but knowing what it is and then understanding it. These are separate. These are individual. And when there’s understanding accompanying conceptual cognition, the thing is that we are cognizing it through a category, so it’s like putting it in a box. The understanding can be the same whether it’s conceptual or non-conceptual. Conceptual or non-conceptual just concerns how we’re focusing on the item, on the object. In conceptual, the category is actually right there; it’s arising in our consciousness. “It arises to the face of the mind” is how it’s said in Tibetan. The face of the mind (sems-ngor). “It’s right in front of the face of the mind” is how it’s expressed.

Okay, so that’s conceptual. Let us digest that for a moment. Think about it. When a Buddha sees a dog, does a Buddha know that it’s a dog? Buddha doesn’t perceive the dog through the concept of “dog” or category, but does Buddha still know that it’s a dog? That’s the interesting question. How does a Buddha know that it’s a dog? A Buddha doesn’t put things in categories when a Buddha perceives things. It’s non-conceptual, not putting things in a box. So if we don’t put things in boxes with labels, do we still know what things are? That’s the interesting question. That’s what you have to figure out in order to understand non-conceptual cognition, non-conceptual understanding. You can’t say that a Buddha doesn’t know what anything is because a Buddha knows everything non-conceptually That doesn’t make any sense. That doesn’t mean that a Buddha doesn’t know what anything is. It’s not the same as the baby not knowing that this is a dog. So what’s the difference? Try to figure it out. That’s the challenge.

[See: Designation with Words in the Case of a Buddha]

Apprehending and Understanding Something Non-Conceptually

So now what is non-conceptual? What’s involved with non-conceptual apprehension, non-conceptual understanding? We were using our example of seeing a dog. First of all we can see the dog and non-conceptually, like the baby seeing the dog, accurately and decisively see a dog – not just colored shapes, but the whole thing and what kind of thing it is, a dog. But the baby doesn’t necessarily know what it is. And that dog that the baby sees, we saw that it is what the label “dog” refers to on the basis of all these parts and colored shapes and so on.

And for that baby, even though the basis for labeling and what the label refers to and the label – those three arise dependently on each other (you can’t have one without the other); nevertheless for the baby the only thing that is appearing is the basis for labeling and what the label refers to. The label itself is not appearing, because the baby doesn’t know what it is; it doesn’t know what a dog is. So the baby has to learn the category “dog.” It has to learn the word “dog.” With humans, we usually work with language. How animals learn different things would not be with words, but concepts. Same thing. In any case, when the baby knows that it’s a dog, then in addition to the basis for labeling and what the label refers to – all of that is known conceptually through the filter of the category “dog,” an acoustic representation is associated: a word, a sound of a word.

When the baby learns what it is, you teach the baby: “Dog.” So then the baby sees this as a dog. So how does the baby see this and know it’s a dog? It’s conceptually through the filter of the category. And the category – an animal would have the category. And for us, humans, associated with the category would be a word and a sound of a word.

An animal: Goats know that certain plants are edible and certain plants are not edible. There’s a certain very pretty flower that grows in India that goats know that this is poisonous. It will make them sick. They won’t eat it. So how do they know that? The goat knows it through a category of “nonedible plant.” It doesn’t have a word with it. And maybe it’s represented this category by… it could be a smell, it could be what it looks like. I don’t know. How does a dog know its master from somebody else? It’s represented by a smell, isn’t it, through a category “master.” When you do these analyses, you have to be able to apply it not only to humans, but to animals as well. Then it becomes really interesting. Very interesting.

So this is conceptual. That’s a conceptual knowing of what it is. And then for the child to understand what a dog is, you have to throw understanding on top of it, which is to know all the implications like we explained yesterday – the implications being that the dog bites, you don’t take the bone away, you have to take it for a walk, etc.

So what is the difference between conceptual and non-conceptual? What is the difference? We’re asking a question. That’s how we analyze. You have to say, “Well, what’s the difference between conceptual and non-conceptual?” I’m taking you through an analysis.

The difference is that in conceptual, something is known through the filter of a category, and the category appears explicitly in the cognition. And because the category appears, then you know what it is. You know it’s a dog. Not just apprehend a dog, but you know that it’s a dog. But when you cognize things through a category, automatically there is an appearance of truly established existence. It appears as though the category is self-established as a truly existent "box."

Non-Conceptual Cognition of Voidness

What is non-conceptual cognition of voidness? Let's do an analysis of it.

How do you focus on voidness non-conceptually? You focus on an absence, an absence of truly established existence, but not through the filter of the category "voidness" that would also make the voidness appear to be truly existent. What appears? When you see no apple on the table, what do see on the table? Nothing. So what appears is nothing. Now, there are many distinguishing features of this nothing that appears. You could distinguish an absence of an apple, or the absence of all appearances, or the absence of truly established appearances, or the absence of truly established existence. So with our apprehension, we are focusing just on this distinguishing feature, this characteristic feature of that nothing, that it is an absence of truly established existence. Total absence. No such thing. The appearance is the same as no apple; but that would be trivial to focus on no apple.

We’re talking about distinguishing. What are you distinguishing? So now we’re distinguishing correctly and decisively – there’s no other thing than an absence of truly established existence – so we have apprehension and that’s explicit. There is no implicit apprehension with non-conceptual cognition of voidness.

And of course our non-conceptual cognition of voidness has behind it all the understanding and implications that go with it, and is held with the force of that. But it’s not a conceptual cognition of voidness, in which every time that we focus on this nothing, we focus on it through the filter of the box, “voidness,” that we’re putting it in, which then makes it appear like a truly established nothing. That would be the conceptual cognition. When you cognize things through a category, the appearance that it generates is that everything fits into a box, so it’s truly established – that it refers to reality, that that’s how things actually exist, that they’re in this box or in that box – truly established as being in this box or that box independent of mental labeling.