Recognizing the Basic Factors of Mental Activity

This evening I’ve been asked to speak about the nature of the mind. This is, of course, a very crucial topic in Buddhism. If we look at the various types of suffering that we experience, they, of course, occur in terms of our experiencing them – so mind, mental activity. When we talk about gaining liberation and enlightenment, that’s also something that has to do with the mind. It’s very important and crucial to really have a clear understanding of what we mean by mind in order to be able to work with it. 

Mind as Mental Activity 

Mind is perhaps a little bit of a misleading way of approaching this topic because mind implies that it’s some sort of “thing.” We’re not talking about a “thing” when we are discussing mind; we’re talking about mental activity, it’s activity, mental activity. It’s individual and subjective, and it’s going on all the time. Now, as for what is this mental activity, it is defined by three words: clarity (gsal), awareness (rig) and the adjective mere (tsam). So, mere clarity and awareness – these are again a little bit misleading as terms, although they are literally what the words mean. We need to really understand what they signify. 

When we talk about clarity, we’re not talking about something being clear in the sense of being in focus. We’re not talking about a quality, like “There’s clarity in my mind” or something like that. Rather, what we’re talking about is the activity of giving rise to a mental hologram. When we know something, like when we see something, actually what happens – if we describe it from a Western point of view, even – light rays enter into the eye and meet with the photosensitive cells and then they’re translated or changed into electric impulses, chemical connections and so on, and what we actually perceive is a mental hologram that is based on this type of process. So, mental activity involves giving rise to a mental hologram, and this mental hologram can be a hologram of a sight, it can be a hologram of a sound, it can be a hologram of smell, etc., or it can just be a hologram of a thought. That’s one aspect or one way of describing what’s happening with this mental activity. 

Another way of describing the exact same activity is awareness, which means a cognitive engagement (jug-pa), and a cognitive engagement with an object means something like knowing it. It could also be not knowing it; it could be understanding it; it could be seeing it; it could be feeling it, like an emotion, having an emotion toward it, some sort of subjective cognitive engagement with the object. 

Now those two things, those two activities – giving rise to a mental hologram and an engagement, a cognitive engagement with it – are talking about the same activity, just describing it from two different points of view. It’s not that first a mental hologram arises, and then we know it, because how would we know it, for example? That becomes quite difficult. If we consider the example of thinking, it isn’t that a thought arises, and then we think it. The arising of the thought and the thinking of the thought are the same thing just described in two different ways. So, giving rise to a mental hologram, for instance a visual mental hologram, and seeing something, that’s the same activity. 

There is some object and then a mental hologram arises of that object. This is what’s involved, giving rise to the mental hologram as a cognitive engagement with it. The word “mere” means that this is all that is going on. What it is negating is that there is a me separate from this whole process, which is either the controller making it happen or the observer watching it happen. There’s no separate me, and there’s no separate thing, like a machine called mind, that this me is pressing the buttons of in order to see or think or something like that. That’s what the mere negates. It negates that there’s a separate me or a separate mind that’s doing all of this. There’s just the mental activity. It’s going on, moment to moment to moment to moment. If we say, “Who’s thinking?” Well, of course, I’m thinking, but that me is not something separate from the whole process. This is mental activity. 

We can also look at mental activity from a physical point of view, and from a physical point of view, we could describe the phenomenon of mental activity in terms of the activity of very subtle energy, or on a grosser level, in terms of the activity of electrical energy and chemical processes. These are just different ways of explaining the same event. We can explain it from a subjective, experiential point of view (which is the mere giving rise to a mental hologram and some cognitive engagement or involvement with it), or we could describe it from an objective physical point of view (the movement of energy or stuff like that). These are talking about the same event, the same thing, just describing it in two different ways. 

Also, there is physical hardware that’s the basis for this mental activity, or what it occurs in, like a brain and nervous system. However, a brain by itself doesn’t have that mental activity. We put a brain on the table, and it doesn’t have mental activity. It’s just when consciousness, or whatever, is in combination with it, that mental activity can occur on the basis of what’s there physically. This is what we mean by mental activity. That’s mind. OK? Is that clear? It’s not so easy to identify, but this is what we’re talking about. 

Involved Objects, the Content of Mental Activity 

Now, mental activity always has an engaged or involved object (jug-yul) that it knows through making a mental hologram of it. We can’t have mental activity without content, so that content is going to be the involved object. We can’t just have knowing without knowing something. We can’t have seeing without seeing something. We can’t have thinking without thinking something, so there’s always an object. What does it know? What it knows is called the involved object or the engaged object, and in most cases, it’s a commonsense object (jig-rten-la grags-pa). 

A commonsense object means like a dog. When we say commonsense object, what that means is something that extends over different sense data and extends over time. What is a dog? Is it the sight of the dog? Is it the smell of the dog? Is it the sound of the dog? Is it the physical sensation that we feel when we pet the dog? What’s a dog? Does a dog only last for one instant? If we’re looking at it over a period of time, are we seeing completely different objects, or are we seeing the dog? A commonsense object would be the dog that extends over the sight, sound, smell, taste, physical sensation, etc., of the dog and extends over time. That’s a commonsense object. 

Within Tibetan Buddhism, there are many different ways of explaining all of this, but within the Gelugpa way of explaining, we actually do see a dog. We don’t just see a colored shape of a dog. We see the dog and the colored shape of a dog. That’s what we see. Or the sound of a dog barking, so we hear that sound, but we also hear the dog. Those are the involved objects, the engaged objects – that commonsense object plus, if it’s sense cognition, one particular type of sensory information. 

What do we see when we see a dog? We see colored shapes – the colored shapes of a dog – and we see the motion of these colored shapes. This motion also extends over time; motion doesn’t occur in one instant. What do we hear? We often hear a blend of several types of sounds. We don’t just hear one thing. We could hear the birds, and we could hear music, and we could hear traffic outside all at the same time. We also hear volume at the same time; that’s another thing. There are many things that are involved in terms of what we hear. Also, let’s say, in terms of physical sensations, we can feel at the same time temperature and something being rough or smooth. There are many different things that the sense field of physical sensation is made up of.

So, that would be the involved object – the commonsense object and one type of sensory information if we’re knowing a commonsense object through sense cognition.  


There are six types of cognition: there are five types of sensory cognition, plus mental cognition. There’s seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling a physical sensation – the five sensory – and mental. In the Buddhist presentation, we divide cognition in this type of way. 

What is a cognition? Cognition is this mental event that is occurring, and this mental event, this mental activity – a moment of mental activity – is made up of several things. There is an engaged or involved object. What is engaged with each sense or thought would be a commonsense object plus a mental hologram that represents it. That’s what is involved here. There are also a primary consciousness together with accompanying mental factors (and I’ll explain that) and a cognitive sensor (I’ll explain that also). There are these three types of things that are involved in a mental event. 

Primary Consciousness 

We’ve already discussed the object, what is arising and known. What’s doing the knowing is primary consciousness (rnam-shes) and mental factors (sems-byung). Primary consciousness, or simply a consciousness, cognizes the essential nature (ngo-bo) of the engaged or involved object. This would be like with a computer, for example. This would be like knowing are the 0’s and 1’s visual data or audio data. That’s what primary consciousness does. All that it knows is what kind of data this is, basically. Is it visual? Is it audio? Is it a smell? Is it a taste? A physical sensation? Or is it purely a mental phenomenon, like a thought or what appears in a dream, something like that, that’s only known by the mind? 

Then, we have a cognitive sensor. A primary consciousness and the mental factors that go with it are going to work through a cognitive sensor. This cognitive sensor would be what’s called the dominating condition (bdag-rken). So, we have a specific cognitive sensor for each sense faculty. When we talk about a cognitive sensor, we’re talking about the photosensitive cells of the eyes, the sound-sensitive cells of the ears, the smell-sensitive cells of the nose, the taste-sensitive cells of the tongue, the physical-sensation-sensitive cells of the body, and if it is a mental cognition, like thinking, the sensor here is the immediately preceding moment of cognition. 

What is the function of a cognitive sensor? Each type of primary consciousness operates only through a cognitive sensor that is specific to it – for instance, eye consciousness operates only through the photosensitive cells of the eyes; and each type of sensory information impinges and is detected by only a specific type of cognitive sensor – for instance, sights by the photosensitive cells of the eyes. For example, we see a commonsense object, let’s say a dog. There’s a dog in front of us. Now, the dog is barking, so there’s a sight, there’s a sound, and there’s probably also a smell, if we’re sensitive enough to the smell of the dog. The visual information will be taken in and registered by the photosensitive cells of the eyes when those cells are functioning as the support of eye consciousness, and the audio information will be taken in and registered by the sound-sensitive cells of the ears when those cells are functioning as the support of ear consciousness. So, seeing or hearing or smelling or tasting or feeling a physical sensation or thinking all operate in the same basic way. “Thinking” is maybe not the best word – “mental cognition” would be better – because that also includes dreaming, for example, and our word “thinking” in Western languages doesn’t quite correspond to how we talk about it in the Buddhist presentation. 

Also, what’s interesting is the appearance. The cognitive sensor will affect the appearance of the mental hologram that arises with the primary consciousness. For instance, the mental hologram that arises through the photosensitive cells of the human eye or the eyes of a fly or the eyes of a fish when each is seeing the dog is going to be quite different, isn’t it, because the structures of the photosensitive cells in the eyes of each of them are different. Do they all see the dog? Yes, they all see the dog, but the mental hologram of the dog is going to be quite different, isn’t it? That’s quite interesting, actually. What do we see?

Mental Factors 

Then, there are mental factors that accompany the primary consciousness, and they affect the way in which the mental activity cognitively takes, or holds, its object. So, we have things like interest. Each of these spans a whole spectrum. Interest could be no interest or a lot of interest. There could be attention, no attention, or a lot of attention. Intention concerns what we want to do toward the object. Concentration can be little concentration or a lot of concentration. Then, there could also be positive emotions toward the object, like love or patience for it, or there could also be negative ones toward the object, like anger or attachment. 

Recognizing Mental Activity 

All of these are making up one mental event, one moment of mental activity. What would be helpful then is to try to distinguish and recognize this mental activity while we are sitting here. Remember, with each moment of mental activity, there is a commonsense object and a specific type of sensory information about that object and a mental hologram of this commonsense object as represented by that sensory information. A mental hologram is a holographic sight or a sound that arises based on a specific sense consciousness, with its accompanying cluster of mental factors, operating through a cognitive sensor specific to that consciousness and to that sensory information. If it’s a mental cognition, the previous moment of thinking or dreaming will dominate and make the next moment also a mental cognition. All of this is happening in each moment. This, by the way, could take years to recognize, so don’t think that it’s so easy to recognize what mental activity is. 

I think what is important here is that mental activity is not just a thing. There are many, many aspects that are involved here, and all of them are involved in the mental activity of making a mental hologram arise of some commonsense object as a cognitive engagement with it. Making a mental hologram arise has to do with the commonsense object and what type of information about it will be involved – its sight, its sound and so forth. For the mental hologram to arise requires a primary consciousness operating through a cognitive sensor. The cognitive engagement is with a primary consciousness that just cognizes that it is a sight or a sound, and the mental factors that are dealing with it – the attention, interest, love, hate and so on. All of that is what’s happening in each moment. There’s no separate me, no separate machine called the mind that’s doing it, and no separate me that’s watching it, although it might feel like that in our meditation, that there’s a me that’s sitting in the back of our head looking for this mental activity and watching it. Even that looking or watching is the arising of a mental hologram of looking and watching, so there’s no separate me from all of this. Although if we ask the question, “Who’s thinking?” of course, it’s me; it’s not you. It’s individual. 

Let’s start to at least acquaint ourselves with this meditation to recognize mental activity. There are many ways of doing it, of course: with our eyes open, looking around, or with our eyes closed. Here, I think it’s best with the eyes open. That way, we’re seeing, we’re hearing. By the way, can you hear anything? I can hear this clock ticking. I don’t know if you can hear anything. The room is pretty quiet. Even if we start verbally thinking, that’s still the arising of a mental hologram of a thought and a cognitive engagement with it – we’re thinking it, and there’s no separate me that’s doing the thinking. 

Move your head around. There will be the arising of different mental holograms because you’re seeing different things. 

I find the most interesting mental hologram is the mental hologram of words or a sentence. Have you ever thought about that? We only hear one consonant or vowel, or combination of consonants or vowels, at a time. When we say the first syllable of a word and then we say the second syllable of the word, we’re not hearing the first syllable anymore; now, we’re hearing the second syllable. When we’re saying the second word, we’re not hearing the first word anymore. So, how in the world do we understand what anybody is saying? Because we don’t hear the whole word in the same moment, and we certainly don’t hear the whole sentence in a moment, and yet we understand the meaning. That’s because there’s a mental hologram of the word or sentence. That’s what we’re hearing. We are hearing the sounds through a mental hologram that’s representing the whole word or sentence. It’s very interesting, actually. It’s amazing how we hear and understand language or how we see something moving. We only see one frame at a time, yet we are able to see motion – mental holograms. 


OK, obviously we will need to continue each of these short meditations, but I just wanted to give you a little bit of a taste of it. 


So, you say everything is a mental hologram, even what we think, our thoughts? 

Everything that we see and everything that we hear and think as well is through a mental hologram. 

Who creates the hologram, or what creates it? 

What creates the hologram? As I said, there is a physical component of it, so there is energy and so on. If we say, “I think” or “I see,” fine. I think or I see, but there’s not a me or a mind that’s separate from this that’s creating it. What we see or feel… Now, Gelugpa Prasangika: There is an external object, like this statue – that’s the commonsense external object – and we see it through a mental hologram. Western science would agree with that as well. What they would say in Buddhism is that the mental hologram – the actual word for it is just the word aspect (rnam-pa), but that doesn’t communicate very much – this mental hologram is transparent, so through it we see the external object, the statue, and that mental hologram represents the statue for us. 

But it is different in every person because also it’s depending on the imprints one has in one’s life. For instance, the dog. When I see a dog, I have fear. Other people see a dog, they feel... 

Right. What we see is going to be different, but we have to differentiate here. The mental event is made up of many things. The mental hologram will be, as I say, a mental picture of a dog. Now, for each of us, that mental hologram will look different because we’re looking at it from different angles and different distances and different heights, and we could be looking at it through human eyes or spider eyes, so that will be different. Now, the mental factors that go with it will also differ, whether there’s fear with it, whether there is compassion, love, whatever, that will flavor this mental event. 

Watching the statue, the hologram that arises will be different because we’re at different distances and different angles. 

That is a technical point. 

Well, but it will look different. If you took a picture with a Polaroid camera and he took a picture, they wouldn’t actually be exactly the same. Are we all seeing the same object? That becomes a complicated philosophical question. 

Mental Activity Means Experiencing Something 

OK, let’s go on. A synonym for mental activity, or mind, is to experience something. Now, experience is not in the sense of “I’ve been at this job a long time, and so I have a lot of experience.” We’re not using “experience” to mean that. It also doesn’t mean “That was a terrible experience,” so also, not using the word “experience” in that sense. To experience something is the big difference between a sentient being (someone with a mind) and a computer. The computer, on the screen, there’s the arising of some information, some representation, a picture of something, and there can be… Well, I don’t know if there’s a cognitive engagement, maybe not, but the computer doesn’t experience the object. With mental activity, we experience the object. So, what does experience mean? For experience, we need to have two mental factors, what’s called contacting awareness (reg-pa) and feeling a level of happiness (tshor-ba). 

Contacting Awareness

Contacting awareness – some people translate it as “contact,” but it’s not talking about something physical; it’s a mental factor. So, it’s contacting awareness. With contacting awareness, we experience the object as some level of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. It’s how we experience the object. 

How we experience it – do we experience it as something pleasant or as something unpleasant? – is influenced by many things. It’s influenced by our karmic tendencies. It could be influenced by our familiarity with the object in this life; the more we’re familiar with it, the more we find it nice, or the more we find it not nice. 

It could be influenced by the environmental factors, like whether it’s day or night, whether there’s enough light, what the temperature is, what the weather is like. Looking at beautiful scenery while we’re in the freezing cold rain, we find the sight of the scenery not so pleasant. If we experience it in nice warm sunshine, we would find it pleasant. It’s affected by that. It can be affected by who or what is around us, the company that we’re with. There could be a dog barking very loudly and growling at the same time as we’re looking at this nice scenery, so we no longer find the scenery very pleasant. There could be loud traffic noise. All of that will affect that contacting awareness. 

Then, there are other factors, like bodily factors, that will affect it. Are we tired, are we hungry, are we cold, are we sick? That also will affect how we experience the object as pleasant or unpleasant. Also, the other mental factors will affect how we experience that object, and those mental factors could be directed at the object, like anger or love. Or they could be directed at something completely different, “I’m really angry at what happened today, and so I don’t find this food very pleasant because I’m in a bad mood.” That will also affect how we experience the object. 

Then, very importantly, how do we consider the object? Do we consider it beautiful? Do we consider it delicious? Do we consider it as mine? That’s going to affect very much whether we find it pleasant or unpleasant. Do we experience it as a piece of junk? How we consider the object is also going to affect how we experience it. 

We can’t say that the object from its own side is pleasant or unpleasant, and that how we experience it is not just from our karma. It’s from all these other factors that are going to affect how we experience some object. That’s part of experiencing. 

Feeling a Level of Happiness

The second mental factor is feeling a level of happiness, and that’s how we experience the mental activity of seeing or hearing or thinking the object. This is differentiated: how we experience the object and how we experience our knowing the object, our seeing the object. In accordance with finding it some level of pleasant, we would feel some level of happiness. Happiness is that feeling that when it arises, we’d like it to continue, and in accordance with finding it some level of unpleasant, we feel some level of unhappiness. Unhappiness is that feeling that when it arises, we’d like it to end. “I don’t want to see this anymore. I don’t want to stand out in the rain and look at this.” So, we’re unhappy. Unhappiness, a mental factor. That level of happiness that we feel ripens from positive karmic potentials from our previous constructive behavior and unhappiness from negative karmic potentials from previous destructive behavior. This is part of the whole ripening of karma, what we are going to feel in that moment. 

So, remember, how we experience the object is affected by all these different factors, the environment, how we consider it, our mental factors, our state of mind, etc. And feeling happy or unhappy, that’s going to be in harmony with that. That comes from karmic potentials, which ripen into feeling unhappy or feeling happy in that moment. Happy, though, is not the satisfying type of happiness; it doesn’t last. There are downsides to that type of happiness. This is what it means to experience something. That’s part of this mental activity.

Can you have unpleasant contacting awareness and happy feeling with that? 

They always say no. I mean, it’s very interesting. Let’s use the example of pleasure and pain. Pleasure and pain are physical sensations. They’re not a feeling of happiness or unhappiness. Those are different. We could have pain… We could be a masochist. So, we’re experiencing pain. Now, we could be experiencing it in a certain way because of how we consider it. If we’re a masochist, we could consider it as something pleasant, and we would be happy about it: “I deserve it,” or whatever. We need to differentiate the object from how we experience the object. 

Maybe also a mother giving birth. 

Well, this is interesting. Giving birth, she says, is pain, but you experience it with happiness. Do you experience it with happiness? This is interesting. You’ve never given birth? Neither have I. 

Many mothers tell us that they find that pain pleasant. It’s painful but gives a lot of happiness. 

Well, no. I think that there is a difference here. There’s a difference. What is the mental hologram? One mental hologram that’s arising is through the physical-sensation-sensitive cells of the body, which is feeling pain, a lot of pain, and it’s unpleasant, and we’re not very happy about it. But at the same time, we are thinking and seeing a baby come out, and that mental hologram, that cognition, that’s pleasant, and we’re feeling happy. Each one has its own aspect of contacting awareness and its own happiness. 

Now, all of these things go on simultaneously. There’s also a theory that they alternate, but if they’re going on simultaneously, which is what most would accept, then what’s different here is the amount of attention that is with that mental event. If we’re really focused on the fact that “Here’s a baby coming out,” then we’re feeling very happy, and we ignore the pain because we’re not paying very much attention to it, even though that mental hologram is arising, and we’re experiencing the pain. 

Or how about when we have our tooth drilled with Novocain, so we do not feel pain, and yet we’re very unhappy. Why? Which mental hologram are we unhappy about? It’s actually our thought that “I’m having my tooth drilled” and seeing the dentist over us, and so on, and the noise. The noise of the drill usually is what really makes us unhappy, but it’s not the physical sensation because we don’t feel anything. Again, what we pay attention to is going to sum up the experience of that moment. That’s very important to realize, because then we can shift what we pay attention to within that moment, so in a sense… 

For instance, in my home, I live on a busy street corner, and there’s a lot of noise from the traffic. I’m hearing it all day long, but I’m not really paying attention to it at all. I’m so used to it that I pay no attention to it, and I can do my work without being bothered. However, in the beginning, I would be very bothered because I’d pay too much attention to the noise. So, it’s like that. 

Exercise to Recognize Mental Activity 

Let’s try to recognize or identify within our experience, within our mental activity, that all of this that we’ve spoken of is going on. We have the arising of a mental hologram, it’s through sensors, and there is a certain primary consciousness that sorts out that this is seeing, or this is hearing or feeling a physical sensation, or we’re thinking or dreaming. Maybe we’re not dreaming here because we’re not asleep, but we could be dreaming. 

Thinking, by the way, doesn’t have to be verbal. We could have a mental movie going through our head. There are many different types of what in Buddhism would be called thinking. Usually, in the West, thinking… we tend to identify it just with verbal thinking, but it doesn’t have to be verbal thinking. Even when it’s audio, it doesn’t have to be verbal because we could be singing a song in our head or just having music go through our head. All of that’s covered in the Tibetan word “thinking.” I don’t know what we would call it all in our Western languages. 

Anyway, there is this arising of a mental hologram, the cognitive engagement with it, and experiencing. Contacting awareness, experiencing the object as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral – and remember this is a whole spectrum, so it doesn’t have to be dramatic – and together with that, we feel happy or unhappy. Happy, do we want to continue looking at it? Or now we’re bored, we’ve been looking at the same object, but now we’re unhappy, now we’re having unpleasant contacting awareness of it, and we move our head and look at something else. 

Why do we move our head and look at something else? Because there’s a very low level of unhappiness with what we’re looking at. We’re tired of looking at it. That’s unhappiness, a very low level. It doesn’t have to be that we’re crying and upset. When we look around, and our vision stays with something, well, because we find it pleasant, we’re happy to look at it for a while. That’s the problem with it. We wouldn’t want to look at it forever. We’d get very tired after a while. Or hearing the same song over and over and over again. So that pleasant, unpleasant, happy, unhappy, that’s also arising as part of the mental activity, and this is what differentiates our looking from a camera taking a picture. The camera doesn’t experience its object. 

But the modern cameras can do something to make the picture nicer. 

Well, they do something to make the picture nicer, but it’s not nice from the side of the picture, and the camera doesn’t find it nicer. That is how we experience it – we experience it as nice. 

It’s a kind of experience of the camera, I would say. 

No. The camera can be programmed to give rise to certain aspects of something, but that doesn’t mean that it has pleasant or unpleasant contacting awareness with that and feels happy or unhappy. 

There’s actually not much perception of a neutral feeling, is there? 

Well, no. There is neutral, but that refers to the absence of happiness or unhappiness that we experience in extremely deep states of absorbed concentration. But on an ordinary level, to be absolutely in the middle of that spectrum of happy or unhappy would, in fact, be rare. However, it’s a very interesting phenomenon. When we say, “I feel nothing,” what does it mean that we feel nothing? It means that actually we’re not paying attention to what we’re feeling, and that could be for many reasons that are affecting it. We could be afraid to really know what we’re feeling. Sadness is a type of unhappiness, and it could be so deep and so repressed that what we experience is “feeling nothing” when actually we’re feeling very sad. 

Now it gets very interesting because there are three theories here. We’re looking at the room, and so we’re seeing all these people, and we’re seeing the wall and seeing these beautiful Tibetan thangkas, these paintings in brocade. All of that’s in our field of vision, but what are we feeling? So, there are three theories. 

  • One is that we have individual cognitions of each piece that we see, so of each person. It’s pleasant seeing this one, and we feel happy, and it’s unpleasant seeing that one, and we feel unhappy, and it’s neutral seeing the wall, and it’s pleasant seeing that thangka. Each individual thing we see occurs each one in an individual cognition. That’s one theory. 
  • Another theory is that we’re seeing all these individual objects, but there’s just one cognition of the whole thing. There’s just a general feeling of happiness or unhappiness seeing the whole field, even though we’re seeing all these individual objects. 
  • The third theory is that we’re just seeing the whole sense field, one object, and one feeling with it. 

That’s very interesting. What do we feel when we’re looking at a few things, some of which we like and some that we don’t like? That’s very interesting, actually. How does that work? There’s no clear answer. There are these three theories. 

A lot will depend on what we focus on within that sense field. Seeing the whole sense field, but we’re focusing on this one person within it or focusing on the shirt that he’s wearing. That would be different, wouldn’t it, from focusing on his face. Might be very nice to see the face, but that’s really not a very nice shirt, for example. Just as an example. I’m not saying that your shirt is not nice. 

So experiencing, that’s something that we can recognize and identify as part of that mental activity. Hard to say what it is, isn’t it? But it’s occurring, we are experiencing things. 

Conceptual and Non-Conceptual Mental Activity 

Now, that mental activity can be either non-conceptual or conceptual. Non-conceptual can be sensory or in dreams. A dream isn’t happening through our eyes or anything, but in the dream it seems as though we are seeing something or we’re hearing somebody speak or feeling a physical sensation like falling or flying or whatever, so that would be non-conceptual. 

Or mental activity could be conceptual. Conceptual is only mental, and again that can be either when we are awake or in dreams.

What’s the difference? Conceptual is through the medium of a category. There are several kinds of categories. It could be an object category (don-spyi), like dog or brown, or it can be an audio category (sgra-spyi) of the sound of a word. How is it that we see many different animals and we know them all as a dog? It’s through the category of dog. They all look quite different, but through that category of dog, we see them as dogs. Or brown, there are many different shades of brown. All of them we see through the category of brown. Or an audio category of the sound of a word. It’s very, very interesting actually. We can say the word “dog,” and we could hear it in many, many different people’s voices and pronounced in very different ways, and it could be at different volumes, and yet we hear that through the category that this is the sound of the word “dog.” They’re all saying “dog.” That’s amazing, actually, but that’s how it works. So, there are these audio categories. 

Then, there are meaning categories (don-spyi), like the meaning of the word “love.” What does the word “love” mean? At different times, we’re feeling love. Are we feeling exactly the same thing every time? No, not really. What I feel and what you feel, is that exactly the same? No. But we’ve given it a word, “love,” and it has a meaning. It’s really interesting because what I think it means and what you think it means could be something quite different, and what the dictionary says it means could also be something different, but I have one meaning for it, and when I use that word, it means this. 

So, we have these categories. Non-conceptual is not through the filter of a category. See if within the mere arising of a mental hologram and cognitively engaging, if we can identify whether or not a category is involved. We see all of these objects as tables. There’s a category of table. Do we have to think verbally, “Table, table, table?” No. Non-conceptually, we feel something, but through the category of happy, we feel happy. There’s a difference between seeing something or “I’m seeing a table.” 

Then, it becomes even more interesting. When we’re just seeing something, are we actually seeing a table? Or is it only through the category of table that we see it as a table? Is it really a table? Maybe it’s a chair. We can see this as a table or a chair, but it seems as though it’s impossible to see something non-conceptually without also mentally seeing it as a chair or as a table. That’s very, very difficult to identify, what is non-conceptual cognition, extremely difficult to recognize. Normally it happens in a microsecond, so fast we wouldn’t be able to notice it, but non-conceptual is just registering that it’s a sight, a sound. 

Again, it depends on the theory of cognition. Is it just a sight because we’re just seeing the whole sense field? Or do we have separate cognitions for each item in the sense field – so we are just seeing items: person, table, a thing, an item? Or is it even smaller? Are we perceiving color, perceiving shape? Or within a physical sensation, are we perceiving texture, or are we perceiving temperature? 

Then, within that being an item, there’s what kind of item? It’s a complicated issue. I wanted to introduce a few more things before we get into that issue, but this is really where the cognition theory and voidness theory come together. What establishes that it’s a table? What establishes that it’s a chair? Is it something inside that object, or what? What establishes it as a knowable item? Is there a line around it that separates it from what’s next to it that makes that into an item? 

We could put together different colored shapes of what we’re seeing incorrectly as constituting an item. Like the red color of your robe and the red color of the table. We could see that all as one thing because your robe and your shirt have different shades of red, and so does the table. Is there a line just around your robes that separates the red of the robes from the red of the table? Where is the line? Interesting. 

All of that’s coming from the side of the mental activity, not from the side of the object, and yet there are commonsense things. 

Chandrakirti’s Three Criteria for Valid Labeling 

That gets into how do we validate what we see? There are the three criteria. 

  • There’s a convention of robes. There isn’t a convention of that red shape on your body and that red shape of the table making one item. There isn’t any convention of that. There’s no name for it. So, a convention, that’s from the side of the mind. 
  • It is not contradicted by a valid cognition of its conventional truth. If I take off my glasses, I just see a blur, a red blur. So, do you see a red blur? Do you see a red blur? No. You’d say, “No, there isn’t a red blur over there.” It’s correct that the mental hologram that I’m perceiving is the mental hologram of a red blur. That’s correct, but there isn’t a red blur out there, so that would be invalid to see it as a red blur. Or I thought I heard you say yes, but when I ask everybody else and I ask you as well, you say, “I didn’t say yes. I said no.” Contradicted by others that validly heard it. So, that again is validated by the side of the mind. 
  • It is not contradicted by a mind that validly sees deepest truth. It should not be contradicted by that. The deepest truth is that we can’t find something inside that object that makes it a table or makes it a chair, establishing it by its own power as a table or a chair. It’s established as a table or a chair by mentally labeling it and using it as a table or a chair, conceiving of it as a table or a chair and using it like that. From the conventional point of view, if we labeled that as a dog, well, it couldn’t function as a dog, so it’s contradicted. 

This gets into this whole thing of characteristic features but let me add a little bit more here. 

Non-Conceptual Cognition 

Non-conceptual cognition – His Holiness the Dalai Lama explained this a few weeks ago in Toulouse very well. He said that non-conceptual cognition engages with its involved object, the commonsense object, and the mental hologram by a process of establishing (sgrub-pa) the object as something we know: visual, audio, mental. It just establishes it; there it is. Then, we have this theory that I was explaining: Is it the whole sense field? Is it individual ones, or whatever? Depending on which of these theories we accept, non-conceptual cognition establishes its object either as a conventional type of sense field (establishes it as a sight or a sound), or if we’re seeing individual items only with individual phases of consciousness, it establishes it as a conventional object (such as an individual item) within a sense field, or as a characteristic feature, if that’s what it is, within the sense field or within an item, such as a level of light, a type of color, a level of temperature, a type of texture. All it does is it establishes it like that. 

Conceptual Isolates 

Conceptual cognition engages with its involved object through a process of exclusion (sel-ba) of everything other than the object, so it specifies its object. This becomes very, very interesting. 

Here’s how it works. When we think of a dog, we think of the category dog, right? Now, how do we think of a dog? Through that category, we have a specifier – it’s called a conceptual isolate (ldog-pa) – that specifies, excludes everything else except this one mental hologram, and that is what we think of when we think of a dog. Think of a dog. How do we think of a dog? That category itself excludes cat and table, but the way that we think, that the mind works, is that it excludes everything else, so it specifies one particular mental hologram to represent dog. Now that mental hologram could be just when we’re thinking, so the dog that looks like that isn’t there. Or it could be when we’re actually looking at the dog, and so that mental hologram that arises looking at the dog, this is what represents it in our mind, when we’re looking at it, a dog. Do you follow that? 

These are very different ways of knowing something. His Holiness explained it very clearly – it was really quite eye-opening, I found – that non-conceptual just establishes it’s a sight, there it is, or it’s a living being. Now, conceptually, it specifies down, excluding everything else – it’s a dog. Of all types of living beings, it’s a dog, and this is what a dog looks like when we’re just thinking of the dog… I’m sure everybody has a different mental picture of what a dog looks like. 

Well, it isn’t that we actively exclude everything, because we could never do that. That’s why I always refer to it as “nothing other than.” We’re conceiving of a dog through this isolate, which is “nothing other than a dog.” What is this? This is nothing other than a dog, but that excludes everything else. Usually, that’s translated as the double negative: it’s not not a dog. However, that becomes very, very difficult to understand. 

That’s how conceptual thought works. It specifies something. Non-conceptual is without specifying, but both conceptual and non-conceptual have with them the mental factor of distinguishing (du-shes). This becomes very complicated, so first, let’s get this idea of specifying, exclusion of everything else. There are quite different ways of mental activity working, aren’t there? Can you understand that? Difficult to recognize – very subtle – because it’s not an active process of isolating, and because there’s also the process of fitting something into a category. That has to do with what we call “mental labeling.” 

Within our mental activity, also notice these two types of activity. One is just establishing a sight and now conceptually isolating and specifying, “This is a human being.” Well, we’re representing human being by this mental hologram of “her.” That represents an example of a human being for us, that you’re a human being, not just establishing that we’re looking at something. All of that’s part of mental activity. 

Distinguishing in Non-Conceptual Cognition 

Now, both non-conceptual and conceptual activity have the mental factor of distinguishing (du-shes). That’s often translated as “recognition,” but it’s more basic than that; it’s distinguishing. 

Non-conceptual cognition distinguishes by taking an uncommon characteristic feature or defining feature (mtshan-nyid) of its appearing object (snang-yul) – that’s the mental hologram of the sense field or some commonsense object within it or some feature of it – and it ascribes a conventional significance (tha-snyad ’dogs-pa) to it as being a knowable object. That’s not so easy. 

So, what is it doing? It distinguishes some characteristic defining feature and gives it a conventional significance that this is a knowable object, that we’re seeing something. However, there has to be some characteristic that would allow us to see this as an object, or a characteristic, a defining feature, that ascribes it as a sight or a sound. So, it distinguishes that. Within that sense field, this is what it’s distinguishing. It doesn’t give a name or a meaning of a name to it. 

For example, we’ve never seen a computer before, but with non-conceptual cognition, we can distinguish it as an item on the table. We’re seeing something. We don’t know what it is. We don’t even know the name for it, but we’re distinguishing it from the table. That’s non-conceptual. It does have distinguishing. Or it could be distinguishing a sight from a sound, distinguishing a visual sense field, not an audio sense field. It doesn’t give a name to it.

Distinguishing in Conceptual Cognition 

In conceptual cognition, it distinguishes by taking a composite feature (bkra-ba) of its appearing object. Its appearing object is a category. With non-conceptual, it’s the characteristic features of the commonsense object in the mental hologram. In conceptual, it’s a feature of the category, and it ascribes a conventional name or word (with or without also a conventional meaning of the name or the word) to it, for instance, “dog” or “brown” or “love.” 

We have a category. How do we define the category? Well, the defining characteristic composite feature of the category is something that we or others make up. It is the defining feature that all the items that fit into this category share in common. Somebody made it up. The person who wrote the dictionary made it up, but that defining characteristic of the category makes it a category of brown, not a category of yellow. It then isolates this category from all others, and specifies one mental hologram to represent the category, and labels the name onto that mental hologram, and through that mental hologram, labels the name onto the conventional commonsense object. 

So, we have a category of dog with some defining characteristic that makes it not a wolf and not a cat; it’s a category of dog. Then, we isolate… specify one hologram that represents dog. Now, we have a word, which is yet something else, a word. We say, “Well, that word is going to represent this category, and now I’m going to label it ‘dog.’ We’re going to call the category ‘dog.’” And now we’re going to call that mental hologram a “dog,” and we’ll call the commonsense object a “dog” as well, regardless of how loud somebody says the word “dog” or what voice they say it in. When we hear them say, “Ooh, there’s a dog,” we know that they’re all talking about this object here. OK? 

Characteristic Features 

There are characteristic features of the hologram and the commonsense object and characteristic features of the category. Distinguishing in non-conceptual cognition is involved with the characteristics of the mental hologram, and conceptual is concerned with distinguishing the characteristics of the category. 

Now, what’s interesting is that the characteristic features are not findable as establishing themselves by their own power on the side of the conventional commonsense objects, or on the side of the mental hologram, or on the side of categories, but conventionally all phenomena have characteristic features. Can we find the defining characteristic inside this category of dog that’s sitting there by its own power and makes that a category of dog? It’s not findable inside the category and, it’s not by its own power, or together with mental labeling of the word “dog” onto it, that makes it a dog. The category of dog is a category of dog just by the power of mental labeling alone. 

Now, we would say that there are characteristic features conventionally. If we look for them, we can’t find them. This is not very easy to understand. Although they conventionally exist, they don’t establish the existence of the object as a validly knowable object, or as “this” or “that,” by their own power or even by their own power in conjunction with mental labeling. 

I’ll give an example. Non-conceptual is difficult, so conceptual is much easier. Is there something inside this object that makes it a table or makes it a chair, some defining feature, by its own power, independent of the concept of a table or a chair that somebody made up? Although conventionally, we’d say it’s a table and a chair. We’ve made up a definition of a table or a chair – something we can sit on, something that has a flat surface that we can put objects on. Then, well, sure, conventionally, that is a chair, and that is a table. However, if we look inside, was that defining characteristic always there regardless of anybody ever having thought up a table or chair? No. 

Or an emotion, love. We feel many different things, don’t we? Everybody feels different things, and we feel different things every different moment. Is there something inside each of those feelings – I’m using feeling in the Western meaning of that – inside each of these emotions that by its own power makes it love? If there were no concept of love, what would establish it as love? It’s the concept of love, what the concept of love refers to, but conventionally we would say, validly, “I feel love,” and other people would agree. It’s not contradicted. There is that convention, and other people can validate it; we can validate it. We’re not making it into some fantastic thing, which is impossible, as in, it’s going to last forever and make us eternally happy. The characteristics can’t be found on the side of the object, although conventionally – when we’re not looking – we would have to say, “Well, sure, this has the characteristics of love,” but that’s very difficult to find. Somebody has defined it, either general (in the dictionary) or our own definition. Definition means defining characteristics: this and this and that

Color: brown or yellow. Well, we have light, and we have wavelengths of light. Somebody had to come up with the concept of colors to differentiate these different wavelengths and also make the boundaries, “Between this and that is brown. Between this and that is yellow.” Different people have different boundaries, and different cultures will have different boundaries. There’s nothing on the side of the light that establishes it as color or as this color or that color. Non-conceptual would have it as a color. Conceptual would have yellow or brown, and even from another point of view, we could say color is also conceptual. It depends on whether we’re perceiving a whole sense field or we’re perceiving an item. There are different theories of how cognition works, but it’s perceiving a feature with one cognition. OK? 

This is not easy. This gets into the whole voidness discussion in terms of what establishes an object as what it is. Are we seeing yellow? Are we seeing brown? Well, conventionally, we’d have to say, “Yes, I’m seeing yellow or brown.” Other people would agree, but what establishes or makes it brown or yellow? That’s a convention, mentally labeled, applied. Is there anything on the side of the object, like a hook, that allows us to apply it? No. And that could allow us to apply different words for it in different languages? No. Is it a table? Is it a Tisch (the German word for table)? Dog? Is it a Hund? What is it? 

Also, with these cognitions, it could be valid or not valid. Valid means that it’s accurate and it’s decisive. We don’t have time to get into it, but this gets into a big discussion of what’s understanding. “Understanding” is a Western word that implies actually knowing the meaning of something. To know the meaning of something, do we have to know the word for it and the definition of the word, or just know what it is? This is not a very easy question because our word “understanding” doesn’t correspond exactly to the Tibetan word (rtogs-pa). Because non-conceptual cognition of voidness certainly understands voidness, but not conceptually. It’s understanding it, but it’s not understanding it as the meaning of the word “voidness” accurately and decisively. 

The Disturbing Emotions and Karma 

The other topic that we don’t have time for, but really is very, very crucial to go into is once we’ve identified mental activity – the arising of a mental hologram, cognitive engagement with it – that arising that can be accurate or inaccurate (like a blur), does it correspond to the commonsense object? The way of knowing it could be decisive or not decisive in terms of how much certainty is there with the distinguishing. There’s experiencing it – pleasant, unpleasant, feeling happy, unhappy – and, of course, all these other factors of attention and concentration and interest and so on. But then we have another set of mental factors, and these are disturbing emotions and karma, and are these an intrinsic part of our mental activity? 

The disturbing emotions – anger, greed, attachment, jealousy, these sorts of things – when they arise, they cause the mind, cause that mental activity, to lose its peace of mind. It’s no longer peaceful, the energy is all upset, and we lose self-control. 

Karma is talking about karmic impulses. If we stick to the Prasangika point of view of what we’re talking about here, what we’re presenting – karmic impulses of the mind refer to the compelling urges – “compulsion” is a very good word for it – that, like a magnet, draws us into thinking something or to singing that same song in our head. Compelling urges or compulsion – we don’t have control over it. Those are the karmic impulses of the mind – the mental factor of the urge. Like a magnet, it draws us into thinking. It’s not the activity of thinking. There’s nothing wrong with thinking. The compulsiveness that uncontrollably drives our thinking – that’s the karma, and that’s what we want to get rid of. 

Or if we talk about the karmic impulses of the body, we’re talking about the compulsive form that our body compulsively takes as the method we implement to cause an action of the body to take place. Karma here is not an action of the body, like hitting someone, but rather it’s the form our body compulsively takes in order to bring about the action of hitting someone.  Or with the karmic impulses of the speech, they are the compulsive sounds of the syllables of the words that we compulsively utter as a method we implement for causing an action of the speech to take place. 

Prasangika and all the Buddhist tenet systems are very clear that karma does not refer to actions themselves, but rather to the compelling urges that drive our thinking, the compulsive forms our body takes when acting and the compulsive sounds our speech utters when speaking. There are many different theories, but in none of them is karma “actions.” 

I think, as a way to start and what is most relevant in our discussion of mental activity is to try to recognize the compelling aspect of the urges that bring on the mental holograms in our cognitions – the compulsiveness of our thoughts. Compulsively, we’re thinking in a destructive or confused constructive way, accompanied by disturbing emotions or disturbing attitudes and all of that makes us lose peace of mind and self-control. 

Then, we start to analyze: Is that an intrinsic part that always has to be there with mental activity? Giving rise to a hologram, mental hologram, an engagement, some contacting awareness (pleasant, unpleasant), happy, unhappy. All of that is always there. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s no counterforce that could stop that. Whereas the disturbing emotions and this compulsiveness, especially with thinking, is coming from unawareness in terms of me, “I’ve got to do this.” 

A very good example is being a perfectionist, doing constructive things like, “I’ve got to do perfectly on my exam,” and “My room has to be perfectly clean,” and “I have to look perfectly groomed,” and so on, compulsiveness about the form that our behavior is taking. But it’s all based on me – “I’ve got to be like that” – thinking that this me exists as some sort of findable entity and so on. There is a counterforce to that, in terms of seeing that the me doesn’t exist like that. As I said, this is a whole other very large topic, but it is the next step of the process of identifying mental activity. 

Mental activity is, as they say, pure. It’s not stained by these disturbing factors. We have to recognize within that mental activity what is fundamental to it (just how the activity works) and what can be removed from it. What can be removed from it are these disturbing emotions and this compulsiveness about it. Those are the real troublemakers, even when it’s compulsively being good, being constructive, because it brings us the type of happiness that never lasts. That leads into the whole discussion of voidness. 

One last thing I wanted to add from what His Holiness mentioned in Toulouse, which was very, very interesting. He said that the way that we meditate on recognizing this conventional nature of mental activity, making a mental hologram and some sort of engagement with it… This is, I assume, the Gelug way of doing it. (Karma Kagyu does it differently. We try to recognize it, in Karma Kagyu, as we’re seeing and hearing, so we try to recognize it within each moment of different type of cognition.) His Holiness said that what we have to do is to have no (or minimize) sensory cognition. We never get rid of sense cognition completely, because even if we’re in a sense-depravation room – totally black, absolutely no sound, and we’re lying on something that we don’t even feel because it’s so soft or whatever – still, we’re going to hear the sound of our heart beating, we’re going to feel the blood pumping in our body, and so on. It’s impossible not to have that, but minimize it, and have no verbal thinking. Try to not have any categories that we’re verbally thinking or “This is silence,” nothing like that, and no extraneous emotions going on, of feeling fear. Because a lot of people, if they’re in that situation, freak out, “I don’t exist,” etc., so they’re afraid and so on. So, it’s without any of that. In that situation, try to recognize, to distinguish, mental activity, what it is, because that’s the best situation for being able to distinguish it. Because, of course, then we can feel, we can sense, the compulsiveness that would make us think something. It is compulsive, isn’t it? We have no control over it. What is this? We’re trying to go to sleep. The compulsiveness that we keep on thinking, that’s karma, karmic impulses, that’s horrible. Try to identify, “There’s just this the arising of a mental hologram,” and so on. 

Anyway, that brings us to the end of our discussion. I just wanted to introduce different points that could be developed further, but if at least you get interested in this topic of mental activity and meditation on the nature of the mind, this is really very, very powerful.

Original Audio from the Seminar