Understanding Something: Straightforward or Inferential

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Presenting Extreme Examples

Somebody brought up a point during the break, that in many of my explanations I tend to go to extremes when giving examples from different points of view. This is a method that’s used in Buddhist analysis, especially Prasangika, which is to look at the absurd logical consequences that would follow if we hold a certain position. For example, “If everything had self-established existence, nothing could be able to function.” Now, that’s taking the position of self-established existence to the extreme and drawing the absurd conclusion. This is a method, and of course, the challenge is to know when to apply it and when not to apply it. In some situations, it’s very helpful. In other situations, perhaps it’s not appropriate. I admit that sometimes I might apply it inappropriately. 

However, I find it quite helpful, actually. Of course, one could say, “Well, you’re not being fair to a particular tradition because they don’t really assert that way.” Nonetheless, we find this method used in so many of the texts. Take, for instance, the Tibetan Mahayana presentation of Hinayana. It takes it to the extreme, doesn’t it? “You’re working for your own liberation, so it’s very selfish.” Come on, of course, there is metta meditation, love and compassion meditation, in Theravada. What is more important in the context of a Mahayana text – being fair to the Theravada tradition or pointing out self-centeredness as an extreme to avoid when working to help others? 

When teaching Buddhism as a practice, is the main thing to be fair to all the traditions and present them authentically, the way they are – which would be, let’s say, like presenting a comparative religion course in university? Or is the main objective not comparative religion, but training students to achieve liberation and enlightenment, in which case we have to overcome self-cherishing? 

If our aim is liberation and enlightenment, then the approach of some traditions can suggest extremes that we need to avoid. So yes, it’s not fair to those traditions. Certainly, the Mahayana presentation of Hinayana is not fair at all to Hinayana. If we reduce the other tradition just to this extreme position, then that’s not valid. We’re distinguishing different characteristics for different purposes. It’s very important not to be naive about these presentations of other traditions that we have in Buddhism. They basically bring up an objection so that we become more secure on the path of our personal development. 

This is the same thing we were discussing before about the Abrahamic religious traditions. From a Dharmic religion point of view, we take a certain point in the Abrahamic traditions, such as there being just one truth, carry it to an extreme and seeing how pointing that out as an extreme to avoid can be helpful to us. Doing so helps us to recognize when we’re projecting certain features of another system onto Buddhism that aren’t really appropriate. 

Okay, so let’s go on with our analysis. 

Inferential and Straightforward Cognition 

We’re still discussing apprehension. Apprehension, accurate and decisive cognition, occurs either with valid straightforward cognition (mngon-sum tshad-ma) or with valid inferential cognition (rjes-dpag tshad-ma).

When mngon-sum is translated as “bare cognition,” this is referring to its usage in the Sautrantika, Chittamatra and Svatantrika schools. In these schools, the difference between these two apprehensions is that bare cognition is non-conceptual, while inferential cognition is conceptual. “Bare” means without the medium of conceptual categories. That’s not the presentation that I want to discuss here. 

According to Tsongkhapa’s presentation of Prasangika, mngon-sum tshad-ma means straightforward cognition: cognition that does not rely directly on a line of reasoning. It can be either conceptual or non-conceptual. It’s straightforward in the sense that the cognition is not through a line of reasoning. Inferential cognition, by way of contrast, is a conceptual cognition that relies directly on a line of reasoning. “Conceptual cognition,” whether or not it relies on a line of reasoning, is cognition of something through a conceptual category. For example, a category like “dog.” When we see an individual animal as a dog, we are cognizing it through the category “dog,” like fitting it into a box called “dogs. That’s conceptual cognition.

If we’re focusing on voidness, first our cognition of it will be conceptual. It will be through the conceptual category “voidness.” No matter what we’re focusing on when conceptually meditating on voidness, we fit it into this category of “voidness.” We have this category directly in front of our minds, and through it we’re cognizing whatever we’re focusing on as fitting into that category, into that box. That’s a conceptual cognition of voidness. 

The first type of conceptual cognition we will have will be inferential. It must rely on a line of reasoning, such as “neither one nor many.” I’m not going to go into it in detail. We need to build up to our conceptual cognition of voidness by relying on such a line of reasoning. That’s inferential cognition. 

Eventually, we’ve become so familiar with that inference that we don’t have to go through the line of reasoning to be able to focus on voidness. We can just generate it straightforwardly, but it will still be through the category “voidness.” That’s conceptual straightforward cognition. Eventually, we’re able to have non-conceptual straightforward cognition, which not only does not rely on a line of reasoning, but it’s not through this category of voidness. We’re not putting it in a conceptual box. That’s very important. This distinction is very helpful. 

The same process is involved with develop compassion. In the beginning, we have to go through some line of reasoning to build up to feeling it: “Everybody is equal. Everybody wants to be happy. Nobody wants to be unhappy, and so on.” Like this, we work ourselves up to generating compassion. However, eventually, we don’t have to go through such lines of reasoning; we can just generate compassion. That’s why this difference between inferential cognition and straightforward cognition is very important in terms of how we actually develop beneficial states of mind and understandings. 

We can appreciate that these stages of development entail different levels of apprehension and understanding. How do we understand something, like for instance impermanence? Well, we might need to work through all the steps of a line of reasoning in order to understand impermanence and convince ourselves that it is true. Or we might be able just to understand it without having to go through all these steps, but our understanding is on the basis of having previously gone through the line of reasoning. That’s a very important distinction in terms of the steps of how our understanding gets firmer and firmer. 

Do you understand that difference and how we would apply it? For instance, we send somebody an SMS or an email, and we don’t get an instant answer. We have to apply reasoning, otherwise, we would get angry. To avoid getting angry, “Why haven’t they answered me immediately?” we go through a line of reasoning. “I’m not the only thing that’s happening in this person’s life. Everybody has many things happening in their life. I’m not the center of the universe. Therefore, there could be many reasons why they haven’t answered me immediately. Therefore, I need to be patient.” We develop patience based on such a line of reasoning. 

That is one level of understanding – we have to really work it out in order to calm down. However, eventually, when we have – what we would call in our Western terms – “digested” this understanding, then, when the person doesn’t answer us, we don’t have to work it out logically. We just know, “Well, of course, they could be busy. There are so many things that could prevent them from answering me immediately. Why should they answer me immediately?” 

When you get to a non-conceptual straightforward cognition, how do you know that you haven’t really forgotten the significance of something? 

Well, again we have the criteria: Is our cognition accurate? Is it decisive? These are the criteria that we always apply. In terms of this example of developing patience that they didn’t answer immediately, we could ask ourselves: “Well, am I really patient? Or am I still uneasy and questioning why they haven’t answered me?” 

This is very practical. How many times do we get annoyed when we call someone and just get an answering machine? We very easily get annoyed, don’t we? We get even angrier if they don’t have an answering machine.

We might think that we have a straightforward non-conceptual perception, but it might also be that we’re confused or something. Like, for example, when we receive no answer. 

Yes, it could be that we’re just used to an incorrect understanding, so we think that we've understood something correctly – even understood it non-conceptually. However, in fact, we haven’t really understood it correctly at all. We could have gotten used to some incorrect understanding, such as, “Well, obviously, the person doesn’t love me. That’s why they’re not answering immediately. That’s my understanding of it, and that’s my perception of it, and I’m absolutely sure of that; I don’t have to work it out logically.” However, we haven't apprehended it because what we perceive is not accurate. 

Anyway, let’s go on.

Inferential Cognition 

Inferential cognition is always conceptual, and it relies on a line of reasoning. There are three kinds: 

  1. The first is called deductive logic (dngos-stobs rjes-dpag). “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Here there’s smoke, therefore there must be fire.” We deduce from the nature of things – that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. We deduce from that logically that here’s an example of smoke, therefore there must be fire. We deduce it from the principle of the nature of things.
  2. The second kind is renown (grags-pa’i rjes-dpag). We hear a sound, and based on the reason that it is well-known by convention to be the sound of a word, we infer that it’s the sound of a specific word, and we infer the specific meaning. How do we know that a sound means anything, that it’s a word? It’s through inference and by convention. The whole process of understanding language is inferential; it’s through concepts, words and meanings.
  3. The third type of inference is called inference based on confidence (yid-ches rjes-dpag). Because we know a source of information is reliable, we infer that what he or she says is true. His Holiness the Dalai Lama uses the best example: How do we know our birthday? There is no way we could know it by ourselves. We have to rely on a reliable source of information – our mother or our birth certificate. We have to rely on somebody, and we have to have confidence that they’re a reliable source of information and what they say is true. 

Apprehension in Conceptual Cognition 

Apprehension, then. can be with either straightforward cognition or inferential cognition. For instance, we apprehend the sound of our baby crying. That’s an example of an apprehension that is a non-conceptual straightforward cognition. It’s accurate and decisive. We actually hear that and have no doubts about it. 

Then, we infer that if our baby’s crying, there must be a reason why they’re crying – they need something. Therefore, we reach the conclusion that we have to get up and go take care of our baby. That’s apprehension based on inference; there’s a line of reasoning. It’s accurate and decisive.

If it’s the middle of the night and we’re asleep in bed, we hear the baby crying and wake up. But are still groggy, so maybe we have to work it out through a line of reasoning “If my baby is crying, there must be something wrong. Even if I don’t really want to get up, I have to get up.” However, this line of reasoning might be so well digested that we don’t have to work it out; we just get up even if we’re groggy. So, you see, we may or may not need to rely on a line of reasoning: 

But is it non-conceptual or conceptual, because there’s still the concept of “baby” and “crying”? 

Well, there’s the concept of “baby” and “crying,” that’s true. From that point of view, our cognition could be conceptual or non-conceptual. However, we haven’t quite gotten to describing the difference between those two types of apprehension. That will come. 

Okay, that brings us to lunchtime. How do we know that? We look at these two black lines inside this flat circular glass object strapped to our wrist. How do we know what that signifies? We infer. There’s a convention that that means “one o’clock,” whatever that means. This is based on a concept or a convention, isn’t it? We infer that if it’s one o’clock, it’s time to go eat lunch. 

For example: if go to eat because I feel hungry, what is that? 

This is a good example. We have a physical sensation. How do we know what that feeling is and what it means? We do that through inference. Whenever we experience this physical sensation, we cognize it conceptually through the category “hunger.” We experience this physical sensation as unpleasant. We then reason inferentially, to get rid of this unpleasant sensation, I need to put biological matter into my mouth, chew it and swallow to get it into my stomach. I have to put some sort of what is called “food” inside, and that will make that unpleasant sensation go away. Therefore, since now I feel that sensation, I have to go eat. 

How in the world did we learn that line of reasoning? Where it becomes very interesting is, how does an infant know that? 

And an animal?

A baby animal knows that from birth. Now we get into instinct and all these sorts of things. However, first, let’s have our lunch.