Mind as Mental Activity

The Four Noble Truths Are All about the Mind

The topic of mind is extremely essential in Buddhism, probably one of the most essential aspects. The reason for that is because basically if we think about the difficulties, the suffering, that we have and everybody else has, it’s something which is created by the mind. And when we talk about the four noble truths:

  • Suffering, the first noble truth, is experienced with mind.
  • The cause of suffering is basically our attitude, our confusion. So that’s again the mind.
  • When we want to achieve a true stopping of that – well, we want to achieve a true stopping of all this confusion, the suffering, and the causes of suffering on the mind. I mean, that’s the location of the true stopping, isn’t it? And so that stopping will occur in the mind.
  • The way to achieve that true stopping is to generate a… it’s usually translated as true path (lam-bden), but that’s very misleading. We’re not talking about a course that you’re walking on. What we are talking about is a mind that’s called the pathway mind (lam). It’s a type of mind that will act as a path that actually brings you to this true stopping. So that also is dealing with the mind, obviously.

So all four noble truths are talking about something that’s occurring with the mind and something that we do with the mind. So most of the work that we do in the Dharma is basically with our minds, working on our minds, on our attitudes. Because the way that we speak and communicate, the way that we act with our bodies – all of that is very much directed by our mind.

The Definition of Mind

If our main work in Dharma is working on the mind, it would be a very nice thing to know what we’re talking about. What’s the mind? Now, the word mind (sems, Skt. chitta) is not an easy word. But what are words, after all? Basically a word is an acoustic pattern, just a bunch of sounds. It’s totally arbitrary. Some society has decided to make it into a word, and then they’ve given a definition to it, and now it’s a word. If we look at the totality of our experience of life, these words are a little bit like cookie cutters – thin pieces of metal having a specific shape that you use to cut dough into cookies having those shapes. Every culture has different shape cookie cutters, lots of cookie cutters, in which they’re chopping up our experience of life. This is what we mean by conventions. It’s totally arbitrary what words and things are. Because then we think that there are things which correspond to these words, to these cookies – such as, for instance, mind.

Now, the difficulty here is that each culture is giving a different definition to a cookie cutter which, if you look it up in the dictionary, means “mind.” Because with definitions as well, somebody made it up; they just decided (it could have been a group, a committee – god knows what happened). So what they’re talking about in, let’s say, Sanskrit and Tibetan when it’s translated as mind is not the same cookie as what we talk about when we use the word mind in English or mente in Spanish. And in other Western languages also, they’re very different from what we mean by mind and what the Tibetans and Indians meant. English and Spanish are quite close. And for instance French, esprit – it has the idea of “spirit” in it. Or in German it’s quite similar to the French, Geist. That’s also “spirit,” “ghost.” All of that is included in the word as well, so again a very different cookie. And unfortunately – or maybe fortunately (because it helps us to understand voidness better) – almost every technical word that occurs in Buddhism is not an exact correspondence to our words that you find in the dictionaries. After all, it’s just a dictionary. It doesn’t mean that they’re equivalent, that they’re exactly the same meaning.

So when we study Buddhism, and particularly when we’re studying and trying to understand something so totally crucial to following the Buddhist path, it’s very important to learn the definitions. Because most of the confusion and misunderstanding that we get about Buddhism is really because of the words. We think in terms of our Western language words, and they’re talking about something quite different from what Buddhism is talking about, and then of course all the associations of things that come with that Western word just take us further and further off course from what Buddhism is talking about. So it is always very important to question all these words and really try to find out the definitions and work with the definitions and don’t get caught up in the word that unfortunately we have to use in the West.

That’s not always so easy, primarily because the words are used in the original language with different definitions in different contexts, like our words are. I mean, after all, Buddhism is 2500 years old, so words have slightly changed, evolved, and different authors use them in different ways. So we always have to look within a specific context – how is the author using this word? But we should not get discouraged by that, because that’s what we have teachers for, and there are commentaries as well that explain. But there are certain words which pretty much have kept the same definition throughout, and mind is one of them, so we’re okay. Right? Where you have to be really careful are words like true existence. That’s defined quite differently in different contexts. But this evening we’re looking at mind, so let’s get into it.

Now, in Buddhism we talk about: How do you specify something? And the way we specify something is that it is nothing other than that. So that’s actually a double negative. That’s very important and very, very significant. Because how do you specify what something is? You have to say, “Well, there’s all the things other than that, and it’s anything but that, anything other than itself, than that.” That is not so easy to say in our languages. “Nothing else” actually is the nicest simple way of saying it. What is it? It is nothing else than itself. But can you say “nothing else” in Spanish? And that, I’ve found, is the easiest way of saying it in our languages. So that means that to really specify what it is, we have to put aside what it’s not. That doesn’t mean that we have to put aside the table and the chair and the wall, because it’s obvious that we’re not talking about that.

So what is helpful for us is to show how what we mean by mind is not what Buddhism means by mind. So if we exclude that, then we can get a more precise understanding of what we mean by mind. That’s the Buddhist method by the way. It’s very difficult to just sort of point to it. Because you could say “Well, it’s this and this,” but then you might think “But maybe it also includes something else,” so it’s not making it so specific. And that’s where our confusion comes in and our misunderstanding as Westerners, because we include in these words like mind things that don’t belong there, things from our associations of our word mind. So that really I think is the method for us to follow – not just here but in general in the Dharma – for understanding something, is to clear away the inappropriate associations that we would have with the word coming from our language. Okay.

In terms of our discussion, what is being excluded here first of all is the brain. We’re not talking about something physical. I mean, we’re not denying that the brain is involved (and the nervous system and all of that), but rather we are talking about experience, subjective experience, which is occurring on the basis of a brain. So we’re basically talking about one thing, one event, but just describing it differently. You can describe experiencing from the point of view of physically what’s happening – there’s the brain and the chemicals and electric stuff – or you can just describe it in terms of subjective experience of it. So we’re talking about the subjective experience of it when we talk about mind. After all, we can describe the same thing in many different ways, looking at it from different angles. It doesn’t mean that one is more correct than the other.

Now, in our languages we have two words; we have mind and heart. Right? This is very basic to Western thinking. But another thing that we need to learn is that many, many things are culturally specific. They are not universal. And so not everybody divides experience into two things like that, mind and heart, and certainly Buddhism doesn’t. With one term, we’re talking about both. I mean, what we usually mean by mind is rational, intellectual type of thinking, this type of stuff. And what we include in the heart would be the emotions and intuition, these types of things. But both of those are different aspects of experience of life, aren’t they? They’re how we experience things. So they’re all included in our word here. And also what’s included in our word here is all our sense perception – like seeing and hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling physical sensations – because that’s also part of our experience of life, isn’t it?

You can start to see that when you’re making a dictionary it becomes very difficult to decide what word are you going to translate this with into our languages. It’s quite interesting: All the Western languages chose mind as opposed to heart (and we ignore that aspect, which is a shame). And the Chinese and Mongolians had the same problem, and they chose the word heart rather than the word mind.

Anyway, when we use the word mind, we have to have a much larger cookie cutter. But what we’re not including in our cookie cutter is – I mean, we don’t have this problem in Spanish or English – spirit, which you would have in French and German. That’s not in the cookie cutter here.

Now, the next major thing that we have to exclude here from our cookie cutter is the idea that when we talk about mind we’re talking about a thing that does something. I mean, we work with the word mind, don’t we? Mind is a thing that thinks. A heart is a thing that feels emotions. We’re not talking about a thing here. Right? It’s really weird how that permeates our way of looking at mind, talking about it as a thing. Like we say (I don’t know if you say this in Spanish): “Get that out of your mind,” “He lost his mind,” or “This person is out of their mind.” “Keep this in your mind” – I mean, it’s like there’s a box or something. Or “This person has a very good mind. He has a good car, he has a good house, and he has a good mind.” Right? That is so basic to our way of looking at mind, so it’s quite easy that this association sort of creeps in. That’s not what we’re talking about. So what we’re talking about here is an event. It’s an activity.

With this word experience you have to be a little bit careful. What we’re talking about is experiencing. It’s not the experience, like “Oh, I had a good experience.” We’re talking about the actual event of experiencing. And we are always experiencing something; you can’t just experience. So we’re not talking about experience as a thing, like “This person has a lot of experience” or “I had a bad experience (or a good experience).” Okay? It’s nothing else. So these are the else things, what we’re excluding here. And it is individual; my experiencing is not your experiencing. My experiencing hunger and your experiencing hunger – I mean, that’s not the same, is it? Right? It’s not that we’re all one mind or something like that. Now, everybody’s experiencing is the same thing… Well, I don’t want to use the word thing here. It’s the same type of activity. I walk, and you walk, and somebody else walks – it’s all walking, but my walking doesn’t get you over there. We’re talking about the same thing with everybody, but it’s individual.

Now I think we’re ready for the definition. The definition has three words in it, and each word is very meaningful (they don’t just throw words in there for no reason). We already saw that mind and experience is not the same thing in the original languages. So similarly the words in the definition the way that they’re usually translated don’t correspond to our words either. I mean, the closer you look at all these topics in Buddhism, you find that almost none of the words exactly correspond. Again voidness helps us there, because why should they be exactly the same? It’s just made up. It’s a convention by some group of people with the language. So nothing sacred about it. It’s just convention, arbitrary, but useful because it helps us to communicate. Otherwise you couldn’t communicate. So we need language. Right? So it works, but you have to be careful and understand what’s going on.

Now, the way that the definition is usually translated is:

  • Mere (tsam), which is a word that means “only.” That word is not so much of a problem, but you have to understand what it’s talking about.
  • And then clarity (gsal) and awareness (rig). Those are the two words that are problematic.

Clarity and awareness sound as though they’re things, and remember we’re not talking about things. And clarity, aside from suggesting light or something like that, sounds as though it’s talking about something being in focus, and we’re not talking about that at all. And from our languages awareness sounds as though there’s understanding there, and that’s not necessarily the case either. These aren’t included in our cookie cutters clarity and awareness.

Let’s look at them one at a time. Remember we’re talking about an activity, an event, something that’s happening.


The word clarity is referring to making a cognitive appearance of something. It is sometimes explained with the word to rise (shar-ba), like the sun rises. So that’s why I often use the word arising. It is in this sense that mind is like a mirror, in that it is devoid of anything tangible or obstructive that would prevent its giving rise to a cognitive appearance of anything. And appearance (snang-ba) – you have to watch out because appearance is not talking about something visual. So you have to throw that out of the cookie cutter appearance as well. But there can be an appearance of a smell, of a sound, an emotion, and so on – just here it is; it’s arising.

I think one of the easiest ways of understanding what we’re talking about here with this word clarity is the activity of making a mental hologram of something. Making is a little bit awkward also, because we’re not talking about elves in Santa Claus’s workshop making this thing and then it spits out of our head. So it’s just an arising. Let’s call it arising. I take this concept of the mental hologram from a Western description, from a book called The Holographic Universe, but I think it really describes what Buddhism is talking about very well.

Because if you think about it, when we see something, what’s happening? This is the Western description. There are all sorts of light rays, photons and things like that, with waves and so on, striking different cells of the retina. And then all of that’s translated into electrical information, and there are some chemical processes occurring as well. And then in the West we’d say that the mind makes a mental hologram out of it, which is what we actually see. But here we’re not talking about something doing that – it just occurs. That’s a mental hologram. Right? They don’t deny the physical/chemical thing, but what we are excluding here is that there’s some sort of thing, like a machine called mind, that’s making it. It doesn’t deny the physical/chemical thing; it’s just another description of what’s happening.

It’s the same thing with hearing people speak. Only one moment happens at a time, doesn’t it, so we only hear one tiny little piece of sound of a word at a time. So when we hear the sound of the first letter of a word and then we hear the sound of the second letter, the sound of the first letter doesn’t exist anymore. It’s finished. And yet what do we hear? We not only hear a word but we hear a whole sentence and with meaning. Did you ever wonder how in the world that happens? That’s incredible if you only hear one letter of a word at a time. So this is another type of mental hologram. We’re not talking about a visual hologram. You have to expand your concept of a hologram here.

It’s the same thing in terms of any of the senses. It’s only electrical impulses on different cells of the taste buds of the tongue. I mean, what is that? So again it’s a mental hologram of a taste or of a smell or a physical sensation. Okay? And the same thing with thinking or an emotion or anything like that. They’re all holograms, mental holograms.

You have to start being very precise with language here. A lot of people use the words direct and indirect for different variables when we talk about mind. And often they use that pair, direct and indirect, to cover several things, several variables, which then becomes incredibly confusing – especially when they’re used for conceptual and non-conceptual; that really is incredibly misleading. So the terms direct and indirect (at least the way that some translators use them, and I agree completely): There’s some Buddhist theories that say that perception works without a mental hologram. That’s direct. But if there’s a mental hologram, it’s indirect. It’s through mental holograms that we know the world. Right? It’s indirect because we’re experiencing the world through a mental hologram.

The Vaibhashika say that we experience the world directly – without mental holograms – and everybody else says through holograms, all the other Indian tenet systems. And you should be aware that the different Tibetan traditions have different interpretations as well:

  • Gelug says that these mental holograms are totally transparent: we actually see the world.
  • The other Tibetan traditions – that’s Sakya, Nyingma, and Kagyu – say that these mental holograms are opaque. And the reason for that is that the production of the mental hologram is one millisecond after the event that it is representing. It’s like a censorship. There’s sort of a time delay. So for that reason it’s not actually transparent.

That gives you something to think about actually, because do we actually perceive the world or is there always a one-second delay? Which obviously has incredible implications for cosmologists, these scientists that are dealing with the nature of time and space and things like that. This becomes very interesting. So these are good topics to really chew on and think about. But a mental hologram makes an awful lot of sense.

And of course the mental hologram doesn’t have to be in focus, does it? Because if I take my glasses off, there’s a mental hologram of a blur. Well, there isn’t a blur out there in the room, is there? So it’s not in focus, but that is included in our word clarity. So that’s why the word clarity is often very misleading.

Okay, so that’s the first word of the three words. We haven’t really dealt with mere yet. That comes last – I mean, in the original as well. The order of the words is different. We have to put only or mere first, but actually in the language it’s the third word.


The second word is awareness, and again this is an activity. It’s a – not a nice expression in our languages – a cognitive taking of an object.

Now, taking an object – many things take objects. So for example, a snow shovel is something that takes snow. I mean, you can’t have a snow shovel independent of the snow existing. There couldn’t be a snow shovel without snow, could there? I mean, you couldn’t invent a snow shovel and call it a snow shovel if there weren’t snow. But a snow shovel doesn’t take its object all the time. When it’s hanging in the garage in the summer, it’s not taking its object, snow. But when we talk about mind, every single moment it’s taking an object – there’s a taking of an object. Right? And whether we’re asleep, whether we’re unconscious, it doesn’t matter. The object that it’s taking could be darkness. It could be an absence of light or sound or senses or something. It’s an object.

An absence is something that we can know. We can all see the absence of an elephant in this room. There’s no elephant. What are we seeing? But that gets into another question: What do we actually see when we see no elephant in the room? What arises? What’s your mental hologram of no elephant in the room? It’s very interesting. Yet we know that. We can all see that.

The taking of an object that we’re talking about here is a cognitive one. So that means a type of experiencing of it. There are many, many ways, many, many types of cognizing – taking an object – it could be seeing, it could be hearing, it could be smelling, tasting, feeling a physical sensation (like hot or cold), or it could be thinking. And a physical sensation – don’t limit that to feeling soft or rough or the touch of somebody. We’re also talking about hot and cold, motion, all these things. Those are physical sensations. Okay. So that’s a way of cognitively taking an object. They used to use the word engaging (jug-pa), and that’s okay, but again that can lead to some misunderstanding.

This taking of an object can be either correctly or incorrectly, and it can be either with certainty or without certainty – “I wonder what that is,” “I’ll guess what that is.” That’s a taking of an object, but there’s no certainty to it. “I don’t know what it is.”

These two activities that we’ve been talking about here, the arising of a mental hologram and cognitively taking something – which doesn’t necessarily mean you know what it is or anything like that, but just a cognitive engagement – do they occur consecutively or simultaneously? Is there first the arising of a thought, a mental hologram of a thought, and then we think it? Is there first the arising of a mental hologram of a sight, and then after it’s arisen we see it? If it did, how would we know that the hologram’s arisen? Is it that there’s a visual mental hologram and then I have to decide whether to look at it or not? That’s pretty weird, isn’t it? So the producing of a mental hologram is the seeing of something. That is the seeing of it. It’s not that there’s two activities occurring at the same time. It’s the same activity just described from two different points of view. Okay?


The third word – it’s usually (because it sounds better in English) translated as merely, but it could also be the word only. And so only is a word that excludes something. I mean, the original word is the word that’s used to exclude something. I think in our languages as well: “It’s only this.” It means it’s not that; it’s only this. Two things are excluded here:

  • One is that there is a thing – like a machine, the mind – that’s doing this.
  • The second, which is even more crucial to understand, is that there’s no separate me or person separate from this whole thing that’s doing it, that’s using… There’s a me over here, and now I’m going to pick up this machine, mind, and I’m going to turn it on, and then that machine is going to think or see or something like that. None of that’s going on. There’s no separate person doing this. There’s no mind as a machine that’s doing this. It’s just happening. I mean, of course there’s a person thinking. I’m thinking, not you are thinking. I’m seeing, not you are seeing. I’m not denying that. But there’s not a separate entity from this whole process doing it. But anyway we’ll get into that discussion when we get into the discussion of voidness. Obviously it’s a very important point.

In any case, it’s just this mental activity that’s going on.

Other Important Terms


There are more than two words here, because another word came to mind. But the first word that I wanted to talk about is understand (rtogs-pa). Right? A very basic word. Well, what do we mean when we say we understand something? You have to question every word. It’s the same word that’s used for what is usually translated – at least I translate it this way – as to apprehend (rtogs-pa) an object, and it’s defined as taking it correctly and decisively. That’s the equivalent of the word understanding.

Taking a scarecrow as a human being – well, that’s incorrect taking of it. But to take a human being as a human being, that’s correct. And indecisive would be like for instance “Is that a human or a scarecrow? It’s too far away, I can’t really see.” That’s indecisive. That’s a way of taking the object, because obviously we’re seeing something. But when we see it correctly as a human being and that taking of it as a human being is decisive, that’s understanding. You don’t have to apply a word or anything like that; otherwise you can only understand conceptually, and it’s not like that (you can also understand non-conceptually). And it’s very interesting. So in a sense we know what it is without necessarily applying a word, don’t we? You don’t have to think “Oh, there’s a human being.” You see a human being as a human being with certainty. You understand what it is.

[See: What Does It Mean to Understand Something?]

Explicit and Implicit Apprehension

Now, there’s another variable here, which is often translated as direct and indirect, but you’re confusing it with the other variable. And here the better words are explicit and implicit. Explicit (dngos-su rtogs-pa) means that there’s a knowing of it – because we’re talking here about an apprehension or an understanding – and when it’s explicit, there’s the production of a mental hologram of it. If it’s implicit (shugs-la rtogs-pa), there’s no production of a mental hologram of it.

So when we see this human being as a human being with certainty, we explicitly know or understand or apprehend “There’s a human being.” There’s a mental hologram of a human being. Right? But we can also understand or apprehend implicitly at the same time “Not a scarecrow.” So there’s no mental hologram of not a scarecrow. There’s only a mental hologram of the human being. There’s certainly no hologram of a scarecrow. But we know that this is not a scarecrow, and we know it correctly and decisively, so we understand that – implicit. I mean, it’s really magnificent, this Buddhist analysis of mental activity, incredibly precise.

[See: Apprehension of Validly Knowable Phenomena]

Conceptual and Non-Conceptual Cognition

The next really confusing set of terms is conceptual (rtog-pa) and non-conceptual (rtog-med). It’s very important to know what in the world Buddhism is talking about when it uses these words. These are obviously ways of taking an object. It’s a way of experiencing something. Now, what’s involved with conceptual knowing of something is categories. I was introducing the topic before with cookie cutters.

There are many different kinds of categories, but one kind of category is an audio category (sgra-spyi). It doesn’t necessary have to be the sound of a word. It could also be a sound that is used like a word (like “huh?”) or the sound of an alarm clock – that has meaning. So it’s a category that can be used for many, many different things. We don’t have words just for one individual thing in the universe. That would be really difficult, if every tiny little thing… If there wasn’t a word table… If every possible table was a different word. This is what we mean by category. There’s a category called table. I mean, that is just an acoustic pattern: “Taa-buh-l.” I mean, what is that? So some really arbitrary sound that some Neanderthal or something made, and “Okay. Great. Let’s call that a word, and it’s a category that is going to now refer…” So first of all, we have a word category, a sound category. And it’s very interesting because it doesn’t matter what voice that’s made it or how fast it’s said. Because that could also be quite different, couldn’t it? So it’s a category. No matter how it’s pronounced – high voice, low voice, loud, soft, baby voice – it’s a word. Or no matter how it’s written – that’s even more weird. So, it’s not that every time that we say table we’re saying a different word. And it’s not that when other people say the word table they’re saying a completely different word, unrelated. It’s a category, an audio category. Sometimes this is called a universal, but I think category gives a much better idea.

Then there is a meaning category (don-spyi), which is the same word in Tibetan as an object category, but there’s a bit of a difference. It’s the category into which fit the various items that an audio category refers to, for instance the audio category table. The meaning category would be the category of all the different objects that can be validly called “a table.” Not every object fits into a category. Meaning categories have definitions and the items needs to fulfill the definitions, the defining characteristics. But definitions are just conventions made up by people, for instance for “table,” something flat with legs that you can put something on. Obviously there are many different items that fulfill this definition. “Table” is not just the word for one item.

Although the Tibetan word for a meaning category is the same word as for an object category, an object category in a being’s cognition doesn’t have to necessarily be the meaning category of a word. For instance, a cow has an object category barn or my baby or something like that. It’s not the meaning of a word for the cow. It’s the meaning of a word for us. But a cow knows food, something to eat. It knows the difference between food and cement, a road. It can see many different pieces of grass as food. So it’s an object category, not a meaning category, although it corresponds to a meaning category of our human words. A dog for instance would have a mental hologram of a smell. How does it know that this is the smell of its master? How does it know that? And how does it know that every time it smells that, it’s the master? Right? So there’s a mental smell and a category hologram of my master’s smell, and every time the dog knows “That’s my master’s smell,” but there’s certainly no word. Right?

So to know something – to cognize it – through a category, that’s conceptual. Categories, however, have no form of their own. So, in addition to a category there is also a second mental hologram of something that represents that category for us. So we have two mental holograms, and this one that represents a category – let’s just stay with the Gelugpa explanation – is semi-transparent. It is superimposed on, or projected on to the first hologram when we see or hear something, and is semi-transparent in the sense that through it, we also perceive the mental hologram of an external object, but not vividly. So it’s “semi-transparent.”

Even when we think, there is a mental hologram representing the visual form of an object category or the sound of an audio category; and in these cases as well, these mental holograms are semi-transparent. The thing we’re thinking of doesn’t have to be present, obviously, but the Tibetans would say that actually you’re cognitively engaged with it. If I’m thinking of my mother, I’m cognitively engaged with her even though she died six years ago and she’s certainly not present. There’s a mental picture – that’s the mental hologram – and then there’s the category my mother. It’s not that I’m just thinking of a mental hologram; I’m thinking of my mother. It’s not vivid, because it’s a mixed hologram. No matter how perfectly I can visualize my mother, it’s not as vivid as seeing her.

So this is what we mean by conceptual and non-conceptual. So animals have conceptual cognition as well, not intellectual. I mean, intellectual – that’s a Western word; that’s a Western cookie. There’s no corresponding cookie in the Buddhist cookie jar.


The last word I want to discuss – and I won’t say too much about this – is the word to think. What does thinking mean? Well, what we use the word thinking to mean is usually verbal, and it usually is a whole line of thought, isn’t it? But in the case of any cognitive taking of an object – either correctly or incorrectly, or decisively or indecisively – if there’s a category involved, that’s thinking. So a dog thinks. The dog is thinking of its master – the smell, the category my master. So no words. It’s certainly not intellectual. And from a Buddhist point of view, one instant of it, one second of it – that’s thinking. Thinking doesn’t necessarily mean a whole line of thought.

Original Audio from the Seminar