Basic Distinctions among Cognitive Objects

Historical Introduction

The Buddhist teachings on cognition theory and logic derive from the works of the late 5th-century Indian master Dignaga and of Dharmakirti, the late-6th century disciple of his disciple. Dignaga wrote A Compendium of Validly Cognizing Minds (Tshad-ma kun-btus, Skt. Pramanasamuccaya); Dharmakirti defended it against non-Buddhist Indian theories in his Commentary on (Dignaga’s Compendium of) Validly Cognizing Minds (Tshad-ma rnam-’grel, Skt: Pramanavarttika).

The various Indian schools of Buddhist tenets (grub-mtha’) differ slightly in their explanations of cognition. Dignaga is the source of the Sautrantika position. Dharmakirti presented mostly the Sautrantika view, but occasionally supplemented it with the Chittamatra explanation. Some later masters interpreted Dharmakirti in the light of Madhyamaka.

The Tibetan traditions take the Sautrantika explanation as a basis and then refine it with the explanations of the more sophisticated tenet systems. Accordingly, we shall look here at some points regarding the Sautrantika system of cognition and supplement them with explanations from other systems when they significantly differ.

At first, the Tibetans emphasized study of Dignaga’s works alone, under the influence of Atisha, the early 11th-century Indian master from whom the Kadam tradition derives. The Kadam master Ngog Lotsawa (rNgogs Lo-tsa-ba Blo-ldan shes-rab) (1059-1109) shifted the emphasis to the works of Dharmakirti, thus establishing the new epistemology system (tshad-ma gsar-ma). The Kadampa master Chapa (Phyva-pa Chos-kyi seng-ge) (1109-1169), the founder of the Tibetan style of debate and the study of collected topics (bsdus-grwa, “dura”), elaborated on the new system. His interpretations are known as the Chapa-tradition (phyva-lugs).

The Sakya master Sakya Pandita (Sa-skya Pandi-ta) (1182-1251), refuted many of Chapa’s interpretations of Dharmakirti, based on his study of Sanskrit and of the works of Dharmakirti in their original language with the Indian master Shakya Shribhadra. His interpretations form the Sapan-tradition (sa-lugs).

Although all four Tibetan traditions claim as their authority Sakya Pandita’s commentaries on cognition theory, the Gelug school follows more closely Chapa’s interpretations. The Nyingma and Kagyu schools follow closely the mainstream Sakya explanation of Sapan’s works. Therefore, we may roughly divide the Tibetan explanations of cognition theory into the Gelug and the non-Gelug presentations. Further, various Tibetan masters also explain differently many assertions of each of the four Indian schools of tenets. Their explanations also fall broadly into the two divisions: Gelug and non-Gelug.

Neither Gelug nor non-Gelug, however, presents a uniform explanation of cognition theory. Several masters within each camp have explained specific points slightly differently in their commentaries. Here, as a foundation for more advanced study, we shall present an overview of the two general positions regarding the main points. For each point, we shall present the assertions shared in common and then the two positions in an alternating fashion. We shall use the explanations given primarily by the late 18th-century master Akya Yongdzin (A-kya Yongs-’dzin dByangs-can dga-ba’i blo-gros) to represent the Gelug position, as explained orally by Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, Geshe Sonam Rinchen and Geshe Dawa. This explanation accords with the monastic textbook (yig-cha) tradition of the 16th-century master Jetsun Chokyi Gyaltsen (rJe-btsun Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan), followed by Sera Je (Se-ra Byes) and Ganden Jangtse (dGa’-ldan Byang-rtse) Monasteries. To represent the non-Gelug position, we shall rely primarily on the explanations given by the 15th-century Sakya master Gorampa (Go-ram bSod-nams seng-ge), as explicated by Geshe Georges B. J. Dreyfus in Recognizing Reality: Dharmakīrti’s Philosophy and Its Tibetan Interpretations. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Cognition of an Object

Cognition (shes-pa) of an object may be either non-conceptual (rtog-med) or conceptual (rtog-bcas). Conceptual cognition is through the medium of a conceptual category (spyi, universal) or a concept (rtog-pa), while non-conceptual cognition is not through such a medium.

Note that:

  • Sensory cognition (dbang-shes) is always non-conceptual.
  • Mental cognition (yid-shes) may be either non-conceptual or conceptual.
  • Conceptual cognition is always mental.

Non-conceptual cognition may also be bare cognition of reflexive awareness (rang-rig mngon-sum) or yogic bare cognition (rnal-’byor mngon-sum).

  • Reflexive awareness (rang-rig, self-awareness) is part of each moment of cognition and, according to the Gelug presentation, takes only the consciousness and mental factors of the cognition that it is part of as its objects, allowing later recollection (dran-shes) of the cognition. The non-Gelug position of Gorampa is that reflexive awareness is the cognizer aspect (‘dzin-rnam) of a cognition that experiences the essential nature of itself (rang-gi ngo-bo). This means that it takes as its objects everything that shares the same essential nature as the entire cognition that it is part of, including its objects.
  • Yogic bare cognition is of subtle nonstaticness (mi-rtag-pa phra-mo, subtle impermanence) or the coarse or subtle absence of an impossible “soul” of a person (gang-zag-gi bdag-med, identitylessness of a person, selflessness of a person).

For the sake of simplicity, we shall restrict our discussion of non-conceptual cognition here mostly to its sensory form.

Cognitive Objects and Sensibilia

Cognitions have numerous cognitive objects (yul) – objects known in some cognitive manner. Among them are sensibilia and commonsense objects.

Sensibilia are the forms of physical phenomena (gzugs) that, in one moment, occupy an extended location (yul), and which are cognized by a sensory consciousness. As objects well known in the philosophical treatises (bstan-bcos-la grags-pa), sensibilia are thus the smallest spatial units of physical phenomena that are perceptible by the senses in one moment.

Each “patch” of sensibilia occupies an extended location in the sense that it spatially extends over a collection of “molecules” (‘dus-pa’i rdul-phran) specific to its class of cognitive stimulator (skye-mched). Cognitive stimulators are the cognitive objects and cognitive sensors (dbang-po) of each of the five sensory and one mental cognitive faculties. Molecules, in turn, are aggregations of substantial particles (rdzas-kyi rdul-phran).

There are four classes of sensibilia:

  • Sights (patches of colored shapes)
  • Smells
  • Tastes
  • Tactile or physical sensations.

Since sounds do not have spatial extension over a collection of molecules of similar class (rigs-mthun), sounds are not included as sensibilia.

Commonsense Objects and Conventional Objects of Experience

What is a commonsense apple? Is it a sight that we see, a fragrance that we smell, a flavor that we taste, or a tactile sensation that we feel when we hold one in our hands? As an object well known in the world (‘jig-rten-la grags-pa), commonsense apple is an item that extends over the locations of all four classes of sensibilia. Moreover, a commonsense apple does not exist for just an instant: it endures over time.

Commonsense objects are equivalent to conventional objects of experience (tha-snyad spyod-yul) – objects of ordinary experience to which the conventions of words or concepts refer. Thus, commonsense objects are said to “hold their own individual essential natures” (rang-gi ngo-bo ‘dzin-pa). This means that they have their own individual conventional identities as “this” and “not that” and are distinguishable from each other – such as a specific item being “an apple” and “not an orange,” or “this apple” and “not that apple.”

Since certain items, such as a liquid, may be experienced as water by humans, pus by clutching ghosts (hungry ghosts), and nectar by divine beings (gods), the qualification needs to be added that commonsense objects have conventional identities established as valid only in relation to certain groups of beings.

  • According to the Gelug position, commonsense objects are cognized by both non-conceptual and conceptual cognition.
  • The non-Gelug position is that commonsense objects are cognized only by conceptual cognition.

Knowable Phenomena and Comprehensible Objects

Knowable phenomena (shes-bya), also called comprehensible objects (gzhal-bya), are cognitive objects that can be known by valid cognition (tshad-ma). They include all existent objects or phenomena.

More specifically, knowable phenomena include:

  • Objective entities (rang-mtshan, specifically characterized phenomena)
  • Metaphysical entities (spyi-mtshan, generally characterized phenomena).

Objective Entities and Metaphysical Entities

In the Sautrantika system, objective entities are those phenomena whose existence is not established by their being merely something that can be mentally labeled. They can be cognized without having used mental construction (spros-pa, mental fabrication) – meaning without having added anything in order to cognize such objects, beyond their being just the sums of their parts. They are nonstatic (impermanent) and have substantially established existence (rdzas-su grub-pa), because they are able to perform a function (don-byed nus-pa).

  • A person (gang-zag), for example, is an imputation phenomenon existing on the basis of the continuum of an individual set of five aggregate factors (phung-po lnga, five aggregates); it is not merely something that can be mentally labeled by a mental construct.
  • Persons perform functions and, therefore, are substantially existent objective entities.

An imputation (btags-yod, imputation phenomenon, imputedly existent phenomenon) is a validly knowable phenomenon that, when cognized, relies on actual cognition of something else (namely a basis for imputation, gdags-gzhi), both prior to and simultaneous with cognition of it. Imputation phenomena cannot exist independently of their basis for imputation.

There are two types of imputation phenomena:

  • Noncongruent affecting variables (ldan-min ‘du-byed, non-associated compositional factors) – nonstatic objective entities that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something, for example  age, nonstaticness (impermanence) and persons (gang-zag). Nonstaticness is the non-endurance of an item for a second moment. 
  • Static metaphysical entities.

Metaphysical entities are those phenomena whose existence is established exclusively by their being something that can be mentally labeled (rtog-pas btags-tsam-gyis grub-pa). They merely can be conceptually labeled on the basis of objective entities. Their existence is not substantially established (rdzas-su ma-grub-pa), because they are unable to perform a function. 

Conceptual labeling (mental labeling) is a subcategory of imputation. Imputation can be divided into: 

  • Imputation of nonstatic, noncongruent affecting variables, which, being objectively real, do not require conceptualization to establish their existence; the existence of noncongruent affecting variables is established from the side of their basis for imputation.
  • Mental labeling of static phenomena, which, being metaphysical entities, do require conceptualization to establish their existence; nevertheless, within the context of conceptual cognition, they still have self-established existence and existence established by their individual characteristic marks. They are not “unreal.”
  • Designation of words, which also requires conceptualization to establish their existence. 


Objective entities can be validly cognized by either non-conceptual or conceptual valid cognition. Certain metaphysical entities can be validly cognized non-conceptually, but all metaphysical entities can be validly cognized within the context of valid conceptual cognition.


Objective entities that are mental holograms resembling moments of external sensibilia and sounds can be validly cognized only by valid non-conceptual cognition. Objective entities that are mental holograms resembling commonsense objects and metaphysical entities can be validly cognized only by valid conceptual cognition.

Gelug Non-Gelug
Objective entities cognized by non-conceptual or conceptual valid cognition some validly cognized only by non-conceptual cognition, some validly cognized only by conceptual cognition
Metaphysical entities some validly cognized non-conceptually, all cognized by valid conceptual cognition cognized only by valid conceptual cognition

Objective and Metaphysical Entities – Specific Presentation


Objective entities include all nonstatic phenomena – phenomena that change from moment to moment.

Nonstatic phenomena include:

  • Forms of physical phenomena (gzugs)
  • Ways of being aware of something (shes-pa)
  • Noncongruent affecting variables. 

Here, we shall deal primarily with forms of physical phenomena. They include:

  • Commonsense objects, such as apples and oranges
  • Their conventional identities as “this” and “not that”
  • The sensibilia that comprise commonsense objects
  • The molecules and moments over which the commonsense objects and their sensibilia extend
  • The moments over which commonsense sounds extend.

Dharmakirti specified objective entities as those phenomena that are determinate (nges-pa) or unmixed (ma-’dres-pa) in terms of spatial location (yul), temporal location (dus), and essential nature (ngo-bo) as an individual knowable item.

  • Spatially determinate means that the western portion of an object does not exist in the east.
  • Temporally determinate means that something that exists in the morning has a definite end, for instance when it ceases to exist in the evening.
  • Being individual by essential nature means that something is distinguishable from other objects.
  • Thus, being unmixed means being not mixed up with or indistinguishable from something else.

Since these three criteria can apply both to nonstatic and static (rtag-pa, permanent) phenomena, they cannot be intended as a strict definition of objective entities. Dharmakirti used them only as criteria for refuting the non-Buddhist Nyaya view of universals as indivisible entities inhering equally in all their instances.

Metaphysical entities include all static phenomena – phenomena that do not change from moment to moment.

Static phenomena include:

  • The conceptual categories (spyi, universals) “apple” and “orange,” of which all individual apples and oranges are instances of items that fit into them
  • Absences (med-pa), such as the absence of a peel, which is an imputation on a peeled apple.
  • Space (nam-mkha’), which is the absence of anything tangible that could obstruct a material  object from occupying three dimensions.
  • The selflessness of persons.


Objective entities are specifically characterized phenomena. They include all individual items (bye-brag).

Individual items, as Dharmakirti defined them, are those phenomena that are determinate or unmixed in terms of spatial location, temporal location, and essential nature as an individual. The non-Gelug scholars interpret Dharmakirti’s characteristics here differently from the way that the Gelug ones do:

  • Spatial location means situated in a specific perceptible unit of spatial location.
  • Temporal location means situated in a specific unit (a moment) of temporal location.
  • Being individual by essential nature means that the items do not require mental construction from the synthesis of other items, such as spatial units of different sensibilia, temporal parts, or other individual items resembling them. Thus, individual items hold their own essential natures merely as being individuals; they do not hold essential natures as being “this” and “not that” conventional object.
  • Thus, being unmixed means not being mentally constructed from the synthesis of other items.

Individual items include all nonstatic phenomena:

  • Moments of forms of physical phenomena – namely, moments of sensibilia and of sound
  • Moments of ways of being aware of something
  • Moments of noncongruent affecting variables, such as moments of nonstaticness and of persons.

Here, we shall deal primarily with forms of physical phenomena. In this category, individual items, then, refer only to:

  • Moments of collections of perceptible units of specific types of sensibilia, such as a collection of patches of colored shapes comprising a sight
  • Moments of the collections of molecules over which specific types of sensibilia extend
  • Moments of sounds.

These are the only things that we actually see, hear, smell, taste, or physically sense.

Metaphysical entities are generally characterized phenomena. They include

  • Commonsense objects
  • Conceptual categories
  • Absences
  • Space
  • The selflessness of persons.

Categories are those phenomena that are held in common (thun-mong-ba) by other phenomena: they are that into which other phenomena “go together” (rjes-’gro) or fit. They are not simply collections (tshogs-pa) of individual items. Categories do not have determinate spatial locations, temporal locations, or essential natures as individual unsynthesized items. They are mentally (conceptually) constructed (spros-pa, fabricated) by a mental synthesis of individual items that are instances of them, or by a mental synthesis of the spatial, sensorial, and/or temporal parts on which they are conceptually labeled.

Thus, categories include:

  • The categories ”apple” and “orange,” of which all individual apples and oranges are instances of items that fit into them
  • A commonsense apple, as a mental synthesis of the individual sensibilia of sight, smell, taste, and physical sensation
  • The sight of a commonsense apple (and not simply just a sight), as a mental synthesis of a collection of patches of colored shapes
  • A commonsense apple, as a mental synthesis of a succession of individual moments of either of the above two mental syntheses
  • A conventional identity as “an apple” mentally labeled on any of the above three mental syntheses.

Therefore, although commonsense objects exist, they are merely metaphysical entities, not objectively real. They can be validly known only by the conceptual cognition that mentally constructs and labels them on the individual items of which they are a mental synthesis. Mental holograms resembling commonsense objects, however, and cognized in conceptual cognition are objectively real. Commonsense apples still grow on commonsense trees and can be eaten. They still are subject to cause and effect in terms of pragmatic conventional truth.

We shall discuss categories more extensively later, below.

Involved Objects and Objects Existing as Cognitively Taken

The involved object (‘jug-yul, engaged object, object of application) of a cognition is the main object (dngos-yul) with which a particular cognition involves itself (‘jug-pa, engages, cognitively enters). In both non-conceptual and conceptual cognition, the involved object is a functional phenomenon (dngos-po), meaning a non-static objective entity.  

The involved object is equivalent to the object existing as cognitively taken (‘dzin-stangs-kyi yul).


The involved object in either non-conceptual or conceptual cognition is a commonsense object, for example an apple, and those nonstatic features (yon-tan, qualities) of the apple with which the cognition is actually involved. Thus,

  • Not all nonstatic features of a cognized commonsense object are the involved object of the cognition that cognizes it.
  • It is not possible for some feature of a commonsense object, such as the shape of an apple, to be the involved object of a cognition unless that cognition also takes as its involved object the commonsense object of which that feature is a quality.

The nonstatic features may be:

  • Sensibilia of the apple, such as its sight or tactile sensation
  • The nonstaticness of the apple
  • The apple as an apple
  • The apple as an item fitting in the category ”apple.”

Thus, only objective entities are the involved objects of either non-conceptual or conceptual cognition.

  • In the case of non-conceptual cognition, the involved commonsense object is an external item.
  • In the case of conceptual cognition, the involved commonsense object is a conceptually implied object (zhen-yul), which will be explained later, below.

This statement “only objective entities are the involved object,” however, needs qualification. Although such metaphysical entities as the category “apple are not the involved objects of a conceptual cognition that takes a conceptually implied commonsense apple as its involved object, nevertheless they are the involved objects of the non-conceptual bare cognition of reflexive awareness that accompanies that conceptual cognition. This is because the metaphysical entities in a conceptual cognition, such as the categories in it, share the same essential nature (ngo-bo) as the conceptual consciousness and mental factors that cognize them and which are the involved objects of the reflexive awareness. Thus, the metaphysical entities are part of the main object of reflexive awareness.


When a moment of sensibilia or a moment of sound is cognized by sensory non-conceptual cognition, since that moment is the cause of the cognition of it as its effect, and since cause and effect cannot exist simultaneously, sensory non-conceptual cognition directly cognizes only a mental aspect cast on it by the external moment of sensibilia or sound.

The indirectly involved objects in sensory non-conceptual cognition are:

  • A moment of sensibilia
  • A moment of sound.

The directly involved objects in sensory non-conceptual cognition are:

  • A mental hologram of a sensibilia
  • A mental hologram of a sound.

The involved objects in a conceptual cognition are:

  • A commonsense object, for example an apple, as a functional, conceptually implied object signified by a word (zhen-pa’i brjod-bya) and appearing as an objective mental hologram. This shall be explained later, below
  • Such metaphysical features of the conceptually implied apple as (1) the apple as “an apple,” (2) the apple as an instance of an item in the category “apple” and (3) the apple as an instance of what the word “apple signifies.

Since the mental holograms that arise in sensory non-conceptual cognition and the mental holograms and metaphysical entities that arise in conceptual cognition are all in the nature of the cognitions that cognize them and since the cognitions themselves are objective entities, the involved objects of non-conceptual cognition by reflexive awareness in both sensory non-conceptual and conceptual cognition are all these features of these cognitions.


  • External objective moments of sensibilia and sounds, and the mental holograms of them, are the involved objects of only non-conceptual cognition.
  • Objective conceptually implied commonsense objects are the involved objects of only conceptual cognition.
  • Objective moments of non-conceptual and conceptual cognition – including the consciousness, mental factors, mental holograms of objective moments of external sensibilia and sounds, conceptually implied commonsense objects and metaphysical entities that arise in them – are the involved objects of reflexive awareness.  

Clarity, Awareness, and Mental Activity (Mind)

In cognizing an involved object, a cognition gives rise (‘char-bashar-ba) to a cognitive aspect (rnam-pa, cognitive semblance) of something simultaneously with cognitively engaging (‘jug-pa, cognitively involving itself) with it. The cognitive aspect is like a mental hologram resembling the involved object and it too is an involved object of the cognition.

Giving rise to a cognitive appearance of something simultaneously with cognitively engaging with it are, respectively, the defining characteristics of making something cognitively clear (gsal, cognitively revealing something, clarity) and making an awareness of something (rig, awareness).

The mere making of something cognitively clear and the mere making an awareness of something (gsal-rig tsam) are, in turn, the defining characteristics of mental activity (sems, mind).

The word mere indicates that mental activity occurs without a “me” or a “mind” existing as an independent entity, separate from the mental activity, and serving as the agent that is making the activity happen. In fact, in any action, mental or physical, there is no such thing as an agent existing as an unaffected (‘dus ma-byas, static, permanent), monolithic (gcig, one), separate entity independently of the action, either making the action happen or observing it occur.

Making something cognitively clear does not require the object being clear in the sense of it being in focus. The appearance of a blur may also cognitively arise.

Making an awareness of something does not require the awareness being conscious. Nor does it necessarily entail knowing the conventional identity of what becomes cognitively apparent. A cognition may have minimal attention (yid-la byed-pa) accompanying it and may lack cognitive certainty (nges-pa).

From another point of view, clarity refers to the defining characteristic of mental activity that, like a mirror, is devoid of anything tangible or obstructive that would prevent the cognitive arising of a cognitive aspect of something. In this regard, mind, as mental activity, is as vast and expansive as is space. Awareness refers to the defining characteristic of mental activity that, unlike a mirror, it individually and subjectively experiences its cognitive object.


When the mental aspect of an external commonsense object arises in a non-conceptual sensory cognition of that object, the external commonsense object continues to conventionally exist. Thus, it is directly cognized by the non-conceptual sensory cognition.


When the mental aspect of an external moment of sensibilia arises in a non-conceptual sensory cognition of that object, that external moment of sensibilia or sound is no longer happening. Thus, it is not directly cognized by the non-conceptual sensory cognition. Only the mental aspect of it is directly cognized.