Understanding Something: Review of Apprehension

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What does it mean to understand something is a very important topic because there are so many things that we need to understand. We’re not talking simply about understanding the various points of the Dharma, but this issue is very important in our daily life as well. We need to understand language, what people are saying. We need to understand other people and their problems. For example, they say something to us. What do we need to understand? Do we need to understand only the exact words they said, or do we need to understand the deeper meanings behind them? We need to understand how to use a new computer. We need to understand ourselves and our behavior in order to improve it, especially if there’s something faulty with it. We need to understand why we are acting like this and why others are acting like that. We’re not talking about some esoteric theme in epistemology that is perhaps interesting, or not so interesting. We’re talking about something that’s very relevant for being able to deal with daily life issues. 

Mental Activity Is Mere Clarity and Awareness 

Understanding something is a type of mental activity, Basic mental activity is the arising of a mental hologram and a mental engagement – some sort of cognitive engagement. These are two ways of describing the same event. It’s not that a thought arises and then we think it; the arising of the thought is the thinking of the thought. Only that is occurring; there’s no separate me that is controlling or observing it, and no separate mind that, like a machine, is doing it. 

By the way, it is very important when doing mindfulness meditation to avoid this complication: When we are observing the arising of various thoughts, emotions or sensations and things like that, the danger is to conceive that there is a separate me that’s watching all of this. All that is happening is the arising of these feelings like a mental hologram, there’s a cognitive engagement with it, and this mental activity is being accompanied by awareness and attention to what the mental hologram is a hologram of. However, awareness and attention are just mental factors accompanying our consciousness. There’s no separate me that’s sitting in the back of our head watching it. The problem, of course, is that it feels like that. It feels as though there’s some little me sitting in the back of our head watching all of this. That is a deceptive appearance. It deceives us into thinking that it corresponds to reality. 

What Does It Mean to Apprehend Something? 

There are many ways to cognize objects, to know them: They can be correct. They can be incorrect. They could be certain about things. They could be unsure about things. They could just be a guess. “I guess this is your problem. I don’t really know, but I guess it’s this.” These are many different ways of knowing. However, some ways of knowing are called “apprehensions.” An apprehension is defined as an accurate and decisive cognition of something. 

For example, somebody said “yes,” we heard “yes,” and we’re certain that they said “yes.” It isn’t as though they said “yes” and we heard “no” or that we’re not certain what they said – whether they said “yes” or they said “no.” Just because it’s a correct and decisive apprehension, however, doesn’t mean that we understand what the person means by saying “yes.” 

Nevertheless, when we talk about understanding, of course, if it is going to be a reliable understanding, it also needs to be an apprehension. In other words, our understanding needs to be correct, and it must be decisive. We could understand things completely incorrectly, of course. We could have: “Well, I think this is what I understand about it. I’m not sure.” That also is not reliable. Of course, we could be completely convinced that our understanding is correct when, in fact, it’s wrong. That’s why understanding this basic factor of apprehension is very important if we’re going to deal simply with apprehension or if we’re going to deal with understanding. 

Apprehension Is Accurate 

For an apprehension or an understanding to be accurate it has to fulfill three criteria.

[1] There needs to be a certain convention.

Within the Dharma, we can use the example of voidness. Do the Buddhist texts talk about voidness? Yes, there’s the convention of talking about voidness in the Dharma. 

This gets into a whole complicated issue that just came to my mind. Most of the time, most of us deal with the Dharma in translation, and we come across words that have been used for translating Buddhist terms that have very strong Christian connotations – for example, the word “sin.” We can ask, “Well, is there that convention?” We could look at a whole group of translations and say, “Well, yes. Many translators have used this convention.” However, is it really the convention in the original languages? This is the problem. Just because a group of translators have adopted this convention isn’t enough to make it a correct translation, is it? We have to look at the second criterion.

[2] It must not be contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes conventional truth.

Look at the definition of the word “sin.” What are the connotations of the word in our languages? What does it imply? It implies that there is a set of laws that were set down by a higher authority, by God. If we break the law, then we are guilty and it’s a sin; we deserve to be punished. Then, we look at a large selection of the classical Buddhist texts. Do we find anything like that whatsoever in the Buddhist texts, that there is a judge, laws, innocence and guilt? There’s absolutely nothing like that if we look carefully, especially in their original languages. 

What do the texts say about the Sanskrit term pāpa, or in Tibetan, digpa (sdig-pa)? It is a negative karmic potential that comes from acting in a destructive way based on unawareness and confusion about behavioral cause and effect and about how we and others exist. It arises from confusion, not from disobedience of a law: “I didn’t know that if I acted in this way, it would produce problems and suffering.” It ripens into our experience of problems and unhappiness. 

If we understand this term as meaning “sin,” with all the Christian connotations of it, then it’s contradicted by a mind that validly reads the texts, has studied Buddhism, and knows the conventional truth of the teachings. That’s why it is very important when we study Buddhism in translation that we have a very critical mind about the translation terms, because so many of them are misleading. Words like “blessing” – “Bless me so that I understand this” – is a Christian concept, not a Buddhist one.

[3] It must not be contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes deepest truth. 

The deepest truth is that all phenomena are devoid of existing in impossible ways. Rather, everything arises dependently in terms of mental labeling. What does that mean? That’s not very easy to understand. 

“All phenomena” refer to things that have a conventional name or word, such as “sin” or “negative potential.” What establishes that there are such things as these phenomena? What establishes that there is such a thing as sin? All we can say is that “sin” is what the word or concept “sin” refers to. There is nothing on the side of something we did that establishes it as a sin. There’s a concept of sin, and that’s labeled onto something we did as its basis: “It’s a sin.” We killed somebody, we lied, or whatever. It’s simply the act of killing or lying, isn’t it? There’s nothing inherent in the act that by its own power makes it a sin. 

What is sin? Well, there’s the concept “sin,” and it’s what the concept refers to on the basis of some act. So, some action being a sin is arises simply based on that concept of sin. Perhaps that’s an incorrect mental label because we could also label it a “negative force,” or a “negative potential.” Right? Again, that’s just a convention, but a more accurate one because it also conforms with conventional truth – what it says in the various texts. 

If we think that “sin” is the correct translation of pāpa and digpa, independently of the concept of “sin” that has arisen within the context of Christian theology, this would be contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes deepest truth.

Through a process like this, we can get to an accurate understanding of something. Think about that. This whole thing of phenomena arising dependently on mental labeling is not easy to understand. However, think about this explanation. I think perhaps that can make it a little bit clearer. 

Let me summarize to help you think about it. “Sin” is just a convention. It doesn’t accord with all the Buddhist texts and all the explanations in the texts of what the words pāpa and digpa mean. It’s just a convention, so there could be different conventions, and there could be different mental labels – some are accurate, and some are not. There’s nothing on the side of an act that makes it a sin by itself. 

That’s how we apply critical thought to understanding something. 

Apprehension Is Decisive 

Then, the word decisive, the second defining feature of apprehension, means that we have excluded everything else. When we have excluded everything that something is not, what are we left with? We’re left with what it is. This is how we gain certainty about something. We specify it by excluding everything that it’s not, which means it isn’t anything other than what it is. 

For instance, we read that pāpa and digpa mean negative karmic potential. To gain certainty about that, we need to exclude other possible translations of the terms. Once we’ve excluded all sorts of strange things that these terms could mean, we can be certain that it means a negative karmic force. It’s not that we’re confusing it with something else. We have to think about all the possible meanings – I mean, not absolutely every possible meaning in the universe, but the ones that are probable for a certain term in Buddhism – and then exclude the ones that contradict the original texts and make no sense. 

We do that in medicine. How do we diagnose what’s wrong when someone is sick? We test for various possible diseases. It’s not this, it’s not that. Finally, we’re left with what it must be. Just to make a diagnosis without excluding other possibilities is not so certain, is it? 

Here’s a simple example. I was experiencing some dizziness, and I imagined, since I have high blood pressure, that my blood pressure medicine had to be adjusted. I went to my cardiologist, and yes, the blood pressure medicine did have to be adjusted, but that might not be the cause of my dizziness. So, he had to exclude other possibilities of what else it could be. So, he sent me to an eye, ear, and nose doctor to have my inner ear examined to see if there was a problem with the inner ear. That was not the problem. I also went to a neurologist to find out if it was a neurological problem. That was excluded as well. In that way, we were certain that the problem was my blood pressure medicine. This is how we gain certainty. 

It’s very important when we are studying something to bring up the objections – to look at all the possibilities that we think that it means – and exclude the ones that are incorrect by examining them. Narrow it down. Then, our understanding is correct and decisive: “I’m sure that this is what it means.” This is very important. 

It’s so easy to have very subtle incorrect understandings. For example, we understand that everything exists in terms of mental labeling and that we can only establish things in terms of mental labeling. Then, we might think that since space and time are merely conceptual concepts, there are no such things as space and time and therefore everything truly exists independently of space and time. There are some Indian philosophies that assert like that, but not Buddhism. I remember quite well when I was at university and I was studying all the various Indian philosophies, I thought that this was what Buddhism actually asserted. This was before I had studied with any Tibetan masters. That was an incorrect understanding. It had to be excluded later on when I went to India and learned more. 

We always have to check. What do we understand? What are the implications of what we understand? Very often we are superimposing onto Buddhism ideas and concepts that come from other philosophies. We haven’t specified the Buddhist teachings well enough, or even within the Buddhist teachings, we mix up the explanations that come from one Indian tenet system or one Tibetan tradition with another. It’s very common. For example, we study Tibetan Buddhism and say, “Buddhism asserts blah blah blah blah blah,” whereas that’s not at all what the Theravadins or the Zen or Pure Land Buddhists assert. The Indo-Tibetan tradition differs from them on many, many points. 

If we’re within the Gelug school and we study Madhyamaka Prasangika, then often we think, “Well, Prasangika says this,” whereas actually, it’s only the Gelugpa version of Prasangika that has this assertion. Each of the other Tibetan schools has a different understanding of Prasangika. Even within Gelug Prasangika, there are different textbook traditions of the different monasteries. They differ as well. When we start mixing together explanations from different schools and from different masters, they don’t necessarily go together very well. We’ll find contradictions. This is called “mixing,” making a big soup out of everything. That just leads to confusion. 

Does this mean that we don’t study other schools and other explanations? No, it doesn’t mean that. If we have the capacity to not get confused, then we can – without confusing each of the different positions – see that something could be explained in one way, it could be explained in another way, or it could be explained in a third way. It gives us a much larger picture of different ways in which something can be explained or understood, like different levels of… Well, level implies that one is better than the other, but different viewpoints and each of them has their validity. They enrich our understanding without creating any confusion. 

A good example that I find very useful is when we talk about the various mental factors, say the disturbing emotions, we find in the abhidharma texts of Vasubandhu and the abhidharma texts of Asanga slightly different definitions. If we learn both definitions, it enriches our understanding. In Buddhaghosa’s texts of the Theravada tradition, there are yet other definitions of many of these same mental factors. We need to get further insight. Again, it’s about certainty. Certainty doesn’t mean that we become dogmatic and think, “This is the only way of understanding.” Okay? 

Comparison of Abrahamic and Dharmic Religions 

There’s a difference between what are known as the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and the Dharmic religions – Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. I’m drawing this from an analysis in a book called On Being Different by Rajiv Malhotra, an Indian author. He points out that our Abrahamic traditions are history centered. 

What does this mean? It means that time has a beginning, and it has an end. Within the span of linear time, a historical person – Moses, Jesus or Mohammed – received the final revelation of the truth from God at a historical event. What God revealed to them is the final truth, so it is up to us to accept that truth. It’s not something that we could figure out ourselves. If we could figure it out ourselves and we come up with: “I had a revelation from God,” well, what happened to a lot of these people who said that? They were said to be possessed by the Devil, and they were burned at the stake as being heretics. 

The Dharmic traditions are very different. They’re not history oriented or history centered. Each of us is capable of understanding and realizing the truth about reality ourselves. That’s the whole basis of the Dharmic traditions, isn’t it? Various teachers, Buddha included, could show us the way, but everybody needs to figure it out themselves. That’s very different from the Abrahamic traditions, isn’t it? Naturally, in the Dharmic traditions there are many different valid explanations based on different people’s experiences. 

Malhotra explains that these Dharmic traditions of India embrace chaos. There’s no problem with the multiplicity of chaos, it’s the nature of the universe. If we’ve ever been to or lived in India, everything – for instance, traffic or the bureaucratic system – is chaotic, yet everything functions. Nobody has a problem with things being chaotic, they accept it and deal with it. Whereas in the Abrahamic traditions, chaos is a threat. It’s a threat to the authority of the one truth. With that attitude, we feel we have to control it, rule it, make sure that everything is uniform, or that everyone believes the same thing, one truth, etc. Very different from the Dharmic religions, isn’t it? 

When we approach the Dharma and it’s explained that this author explains something like this, that author like that, this school like this, and that school like that, the typical Western response to that is: “But what does it really mean?” We can’t deal with chaos. We have to control it. It has to be under control. There has to be one truth – what something really means. If we approach the Dharma in that way, we’re going to have some problems. 

There ca be many valid interpretations of some Dharma teaching, and we can apprehend the teaching to mean all of them. If we are only able to understand one meaning correctly and decisively, we need to accept that it is not the only way to apprehend what it means. It is like the classic example of humans, ghosts and gods looking at some liquid and humans seeing it as water, ghosts as pus, and the gods as nectar. All of them are correct. They’re all accurate and decisive apprehensions. Then we Westerners ask, “But what is it really...?” We can’t accept that they are all correct.

If we apply this to an example that we can relate to, rather than the pus/water/nectar phenomenon, what is this thing [pointing to a watch]? To adults, it’s a watch. To a baby, it’s a toy. What is it really? Is one more valid than the other? Think about that. 

This is the basic principle that we find in family therapy, particularly in the contextual branch of family therapy, which is the principle of multidimensional partiality or fairness. We get a family together and we ask each person in the family how they understand some problematic situation: What’s the problem? We’re fair, in turn, to everybody in the family. The point being that the child’s perception, the mother’s perception, and the father’s perception are all valid. To really understand the situation, we have to understand everybody’s point of view. It’s like the water/pus/nectar situation, isn’t it? 

In short, when we talk about understanding something, there are many different ways we can understand it, aren’t there? Nevertheless, each one needs to be accurate and decisive for it to be reliable and valid.


I have an objection to understanding having to be decisive. It’s very much putting an additional layer of attachment to a certain mindset. I’m not sure why it is needed if accuracy is already there, because that already requires some judgment of being sure of something.

I gave the example: We think that somebody said “yes,” but we’re really not sure. It could be the correct guess. If the person says “yes” and we hear “yes,” but we’re not really sure, then it’s not decisive. “I thought I saw you yesterday, but I’m not really sure.” It could be the correct guess. When we guess the answer, we could either guess the correct or the incorrect answer. If it’s the correct answer, we’re accurate, but still it’s a guess, we’re not sure. So being accurate doesn’t necessarily being decisive.

We’ve heard about the three characteristics for a valid cognition, and now we’ve also heard that different apprehensions can be valid. What is their relationship to each other? Is it the case that the three characteristics do not apply to a group of people as a whole, but to individual people? 

This starts to get quite complicated. I will try to explain it, but you are forewarned it’s a bit complicated. 

Let’s say our child thinks that we said, “Yes, you can stay up late,” whereas, in fact, we said, “No,” so it’s contradicted. The child’s understanding of the situation is not accurate. Let’s look at the example of the pus/water/nectar phenomenon, the way that it is described and explained in the text. There are defining characteristics of phenomena. They don’t have the power to establish the existence of a phenomenon as this or that, but conventionally, there are characteristic features. We can’t find them on the side of an object, but the mental factor of distinguishing cognizes them, otherwise we couldn’t differentiate one thing from another. 

The example that I use for this, which perhaps makes it a bit more understandable, is: Let’s say we have twelve eggs, and we want to make a few omelets. The twelve eggs can be divided into three groups of four, four groups of three, and six groups of two. That is a characteristic of the twelve eggs, that it is divisible by three, four, six and two. Can we find those characteristics on the side of the twelve eggs? Where? However, there are these defining characteristics of these twelve eggs, aren’t there? Think about that. I love this example. 

Divisible by four, three, or six is not just a concept, is it? I mean, it is a concept; however, it refers to something that is actual. The point is that there are many valid characteristic features of any phenomenon. Of course, they are established by mental labeling; however, conventionally, there are many defining characteristics that are valid. 

If we take the example of the family and a certain behavior. In terms of the behavior, somebody might be dealing with one characteristic feature of it, and another person in the family might be dealing with a different characteristic feature. For instance, the child says, “You never say you love me.” In fact, the father doesn’t say “I love you” to the child, so what the child says is correct. The father says, “Well, but I work, and I provide a home and food and all sorts of other things for you.” That’s also correct. 

Here, we have two defining characteristics of the behavior of the father. First, the father doesn’t say, “I love you.” The other characteristic is that the father provides everything material for the child. Both of these characteristics is correct and we can focus decisively and accurately on each. Both are accurate assessments of the situation. The difference comes in how they are interpreted. 

This gets into inference. The child says, “You don’t say, ‘I love you’” and infers that that means that their father doesn’t love them because he doesn’t say it. However, the father says, “But I provide all of this, so of course I love you. If I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t provide this.” Both the child and the father have valid apprehension of objective facts of the situation, but each mentally labels and understands the situation differently. It is correct that the child feels unloved, and it is also correct that the father feels that he is loving. Both are correct. However, do they understand each other? No. Each is clinging to the Abrahamic dictum that there must be only one truth. 

What the child and the father need to learn in this situation – and it’s particularly relevant in couple therapy – is what one psychologist, the founder of contextual therapy, explained as accepting payment in different currencies. Let’s say, the child wants to be paid in dollars (affection), and the father is offering Euros (taking care of the child). Each has to learn that payment can be in either currency; that it’s okay and valid. That’s the trick. 

This is the application in relationships with others – and this is a very valid analysis from the Dharma point of view as well – that there are different explanations, different sets of understandings, that can all be equally valid. We have to learn that there is another way (another currency, in a sense), particularly when it comes to methods of meditation. Think of mantra recitation. Tibetans love mantras: “They’re a great way of calming the mind, getting the mind focused, and so on.” We ask a Theravadin meditator, and they say, “Oh, don’t do mantras. That’s just mental chattering. Quiet the mind.” 

How do we deal with that? Basically, both are distinguishing and understanding a different characteristic feature of mantra recitation, and within each system, it makes sense. If we really want to understand mantra recitation, then it’s helpful to know these different points of view. Then, we can see what is most beneficial for us. 

If we’re going to do several different meditations at a Dharma center, as you do here – one night Tara meditation with reciting her mantra and one night Theravada mindfulness meditation – we need to be careful. When we are doing the Tara recitation, we have to be decisive that this is beneficial and not think, “Well, maybe it’s beneficial, but the Theravadins say that it’s just noise in your head and you have to quiet the mind.” Then, we’re not decisive that this is a proper meditation to do. Of course, then we don’t benefit from it very much. We’re not confident in what we’re doing. We’re questioning it. We need to be decisive about the benefits of each meditation when we are doing it.

So, when reciting the Tara mantra, we are distinguishing one characteristic feature of mantra practice – it helps us to generate and stay focused on a beneficial state of mind. Then we can be decisive about it being beneficial. When we’re doing mindfulness meditation on another occasion, we distinguish another characteristic feature of reciting mantras – if a mantra comes into our head while trying to quiet our minds, well it’s just mental chattering, mental noise, and then it passes. We’re accurately and decisively focusing on a different characteristic feature of mantra recitation. 

Both characteristic features of mantra recitation are valid, like the divisible by four or three example. Everything is valid within its own context, so there’s no confusion. Within the context of hungry ghosts, it’s pus. Within the context of humans, it’s water. Within the context of Tara meditation, a mantra is one thing. In the context of mindfulness meditation, a mantra is something else. There’s no problem or contradiction. 

Further, if we superimpose onto Buddhism that Buddha, like Moses, got this revelation from who knows who that you should recite mantras – Vajradhara said, “Recite mantras” – and we believe that this is the one truth, then we have a lot of problems with all the variety of meditations that are done. It’s not like that – “Buddha said the truth and that’s it.” Well, Buddha said many, many things. It’s the same in terms of various Buddhist masters receiving pure visions in which Guru Rinpoche, for instance, reveals special teachings to them. What they receive is not the one truth.

This is a problem when we look at Buddha just as a historical figure: “Well, historically the Buddha didn’t do this or that.” Then, we get the Mahayana version of what Buddha did or the tantra version, and we’re completely confused, aren’t we? That’s because we’re thinking only in terms of linear, objective history and objective historical events. I had a very lovely discussion once with one Indian friend of mine, and he pointed out that most Indians don’t even believe in history. Or they think of the epic events of Krishna depicted in the Mahabharata and of Ram and Sita in the Ramayana as being objective historical events, with the same reality as the British raj. Very different from our Western point of view!