Recognizing the Basic Factors of Mental Activity

This evening I’ve been asked to speak about the nature of the mind. And this is of course a very crucial topic in Buddhism. If we look at various types of suffering that we experience, that of course is in terms of experiencing it – so mind, mental activity. And when we talk about gaining liberation and enlightenment, that’s also something that has to do with the mind. So 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

So mind is perhaps a little bit of a misleading way of approaching this topic because mind implies that it’s some sort of “thing.” And we’re not talking about a “thing” when we are discussing mind; we’re talking about mental activity. So it’s activity, mental activity. It’s individual and it’s subjective and it’s going on all the time. Now, as for what is this mental activity, the mental activity is defined by three words: clarity (gsal), awareness (rig), and then the adjective mere (tsam), which means “only,” in front of that (at least in English it’s in front of that). So clarity and awareness, these are again a little bit misleading as a term, 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 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 of the eyes, and then it’s 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 you know it, because how would you know it, for example? That becomes quite difficult. And if you consider the example of thinking, it isn’t that a thought arises and then you think it. The arising of the thought and the thinking of the thought is the same thing just described two different ways. So giving rise to a mental hologram, a visual mental hologram, and seeing something – that’s the same activity.

So we have an object and then a mental hologram of that object. So these are what’s involved. So giving rise to the mental hologram, cognitive engagement with it. And the word mere means that this is all that is going on. What it is negating is that there is a separate me 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 to think or something like that. So that’s what the mere negates. It negates that there’s a separate me or a separate mind that’s doing all of this. So 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.

So this is mental activity. We can also look at it 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 activity of electrical energy and chemical processes. These are just different ways of explaining the same event. You can explain it from a subjective, experiential point of view (which is giving rise to a mental hologram and some cognitive engagement or involvement with it), or you could describe it from an objective physical point of view (movement of energy or stuff like that). It’s talking about the same event, the same thing, just describing it two different ways.

And also there can be a physical hardware that’s the basis for this mental activity or what it occurs in, like a brain and nervous system. But a brain by itself doesn’t have that mental activity. You put a brain on the table, it doesn’t have mental activity. It’s just when consciousness or whatever is in combination with it, then mental activity can occur on the basis of what’s there physically.

So this is what we mean by mental activity. That’s mind. OK? Is that clear? 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. You can’t have mental activity without content. So that content is going to be the involved object. What does it know? You can’t just have knowing without knowing something. You can’t have seeing without seeing something. You can’t have thinking without thinking something. So there’s always an object. Now that’s 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 the 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 you feel when you pet the dog? What’s a dog? And does a dog only last for one instant? If you’re looking at it over a period of time, are you seeing completely different objects or are you seeing the dog? So 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 it – and I’ll stick, within Gelugpa, to the Prasangika view that they explain of cognition – 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 you see. Or the sound of a dog barking: so you hear that sound, but you also hear the dog. So those are the involved objects, the engaged objects – that commonsense object plus, if it’s sense cognition, one particular type of sensory information.

So what do you see? You see colored shapes, and you see motion of what it looks like. What it looks like will have colored shapes, and it will have, often, motion. That also extends over time (you don’t have motion in one instant). Or it could be a blend of types of sounds. We don’t just hear one thing. You could hear the birds, and you could hear music, and you could hear traffic outside all at the same time. And you also hear volume at the same time; that’s another thing. So there are many things that are involved in terms of what you hear. And also, let’s say, in terms of physical sensations: you can feel, at the same time, temperature and something being rough or smooth. There are many different things that a physical sensation is made up of, that sense field of physical sensations.

So that would be the involved object – the common sense object and one type of sensory information (if we’re knowing it through sense cognition).


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

So 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. So we have an engaged or involved object. What is engaged would be a common sense object plus a mental hologram that represents it. That’s what is involved here. Then we have a primary consciousness together with accompanying mental factors (and I’ll explain that) and a cognitive sensor (I’ll explain that also). So we have 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 cognizes the essential nature (ngo-bo) of the engaged or involved object. So this would be like a computer, for example. You have electrical impulses. I don’t know if they still work on 0s and 1s, but they used to. This type of thing. And this would be like knowing is this visual data or audio data. That’s what primary consciousness does. All that it knows is what kind of data is this, 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)?

And then we have a sensor. And, you see, this consciousness, this primary consciousness and the mental factors that go with it are going to work through a sensor. That would be what’s called the dominating condition (bdag-rken). So you have a specific sensor for each sense faculty. When we talk about 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.

So what does this mean? This means that the sensor sorts out the essential nature (in other words, what is the type of data pertaining to the engaged object that the mental hologram will be of). You see a common sense object, let’s say a dog. There’s a dog in front of you. Now the dog is barking. So there’s a sight. There’s a sound. There’s probably also a smell, if you’re sensitive enough to the smell of the dog. Now the sensor is going to differentiate, in a sense – it’s going to sort out from all that information one particular kind of information. So the photosensitive cells will sort out the visual information, the sound-sensitive cells of the ear will sort out audio information, and then the primary consciousness will operate through that. So seeing or hearing or smelling or tasting or feeling a physical sensation or thinking. Thinking is maybe not the best word – mental cognition – 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.

And also what’s interesting is the appearance. So the sensor is going to determine, in a sense, what type of hologram it’s going to be. Will it be a visual hologram? Will it be an audio hologram? A smell hologram? Or something like that. And what’s really interesting is that it will affect the appearance of that mental hologram as well. 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 – the mental hologram that arises when they’re seeing the dog is going to be quite different, isn’t it, because these are quite different structures of the photosensitive cells in the eyes and the prisms of the eyes and so on that it’s operating through. So do they all see the dog? Yes, they all see the dog, but the mental hologram of it is going to be quite different, isn’t it? Quite interesting actually. What do you see?

Mental Factors

And then there are mental factors that accompany the primary consciousness that affect the way in which the mental activity cognitively takes, or holds, its object. So you have things like interest. These go through a whole spectrum, so it could be no interest or a lot of interest. There could be attention: no attention, a lot of attention. Intention: what you want to do toward the object. Concentration: little concentration or a lot of concentration. And then there could also be positive emotions toward the object, like love or patience for the object, 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 this, to recognize this while you are sitting here, this mental activity. And the mental activity – there are commonsense objects, and there are mental holograms of these commonsense objects, and certain sensory information, in a sense. A mental hologram is a sight or a sound working through photosensitive cells that will sort out what type of phenomenon it is (if it’s mental, the previous moment of thinking or dreaming will dominate and make the next moment also thinking or dreaming). All of this is what’s happening in each moment. This, by the way, could take years to recognize, so don’t think that it’s easy to recognize what is mental activity.

And 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 it is based on making of a mental hologram and a cognitive engagement. Making of the mental hologram has to do with the object and what type of object it’s going to be. That means that it’s going through these sensors. And the engagement with it will be this primary consciousness that just knows that it is a sight or a sound. And mental factors that are dealing with it, the attention or interest, love, hate. All of that is part of what’s arising in each moment. And 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 your meditation, that there’s a me that’s sitting in the back of my head now looking for this mental activity and watching it. But 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.

OK, so let’s start to at least acquaint ourselves with this meditation. And there are many ways of doing it of course: with your eyes open, looking around; with your eyes closed. But here I think it’s best with the eyes open. 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. And even if you start verbally thinking, that’s still the arising of a mental hologram and a cognitive engagement. You’re thinking. 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? You only hear one consonant or vowel, or combination of consonant or vowel, at a time. When I say the first part of a word and then I say the second part of the word, the second syllable of the word, you’re not hearing the first syllable anymore: now you’re hearing the second syllable. And when I’m saying the second word, you’re not hearing the first word anymore. So how in the world do you understand what anybody is saying? Because you don’t hear the whole word in the same moment, and you certainly don’t hear the whole sentence in a moment, and yet you understand the meaning. That’s because there’s a mental hologram of the word or sentence. That’s what you’re hearing. You 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 you see something moving. We only see one frame at a time, yet we are able to see motion. Mental holograms.


OK, this obviously is something 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, everything that we hear and think as well, this 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 you 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 you see or feel… Now, Gelugpa Prasangika: There is an external object, like this statue – that’s the commonsense external object – and you 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 you see the external object, the statue, and that mental hologram represents the statue for you.

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. So what we see is going to be different, but you have to differentiate here. The mental event is made up of many things. So 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 you’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 you 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. 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. And it also doesn’t mean “That was a terrible experience.” Also not using the word experience in that sense. But 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 you have 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 contacting awareness. With contacting awareness, you experience the object as some level of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. It’s how you experience the object.

So how I experience it – do I experience it as something pleasant or as something unpleasant? – is influenced by many things. It’s influenced by your karmic tendencies. It could be influenced by your familiarity with the object in this life: the more you’re familiar with it, the more you find it nice (or the more you 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 you’re in the freezing cold rain, you find the sight of the scenery not so pleasant. If you experience it in nice warm sunshine, you would find it pleasant. It’s affected by that. It can be affected by who or what is around you, the company that you’re with. There could be a dog barking very loudly and growling at the same time as you’re looking at this nice scenery, so you no longer find the scenery very pleasant. There could be loud traffic noise. All of that will affect that contacting awareness.

And then there are other factors, like bodily factors, that will affect it: Are you tired, are you hungry, are you cold, are you sick? That also will affect how you experience the object as pleasant or unpleasant. And also the mental factors will affect how you experience that object. And those mental factors could be directed at the object, like anger or love. Or it 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.

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

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

Feeling a Level of Happiness

And then the second mental factor is feeling a level of happiness, and that’s how you experience the mental activity of seeing or hearing or thinking the object. This is differentiated: how you experience the object and how you experience your knowing the object, your seeing the object. And in accord with finding it some level of pleasant, you would feel some level of happiness. Happiness is that feeling that when it arises you’d like it to continue. And in accordance with finding it some level of unpleasant, you feel some level of unhappy. Unhappiness is that feeling that when it arises you’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 you’re unhappy. Unhappiness, a mental factor. So that level of happiness you feel ripens from positive karmic potentials from your previous constructive behavior, and unhappiness from negative karmic potentials from previous destructive behavior. This is part of the whole ripening of karma, what are you going to feel in that moment.

So remember, how you experience the object is affected by all these different factors – the environment, how you consider it, your mental factors, your state of mind, etc. And feeling happy or unhappy, that’s going to be in harmony with that. And that comes from karmic forces – ripens into feeling unhappy or feeling happy in that moment. Happy though is not the satisfying type of happiness; it doesn’t last. So there are downsides of that type of happiness.

So 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. So you could have pain… You could be a masochist. So you’re experiencing pain. Now you could be experiencing it in a certain way because of how you consider it. If you’re a masochist, you could consider it as something pleasant and you would be happy about it: “I deserve it,” or whatever. So you have to differentiate the object from how you 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. So do you experience it with happiness? This is interesting. You’ve never given birth? Neither have I.

Many mothers tell.

Many mothers tell that they find that pain pleasant.

It’s painful, but gives a lot of…

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 you’re not very happy about it. But at the same time, you are thinking and seeing a baby come out, and that mental hologram, that cognition, that’s pleasant and you’re feeling happy. So 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. So if you’re really focused on the fact that “Here’s a baby coming out,” then you’re feeling very happy and you ignore the pain, because you’re not paying very much attention to it, even though that mental hologram is arising and you’re experiencing the pain.

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

So let’s try to recognize or identify within our experience, within our mental activity, that all of this is going on. We have the arising of a mental hologram (it’s through sensors) and 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. You could have a mental movie going through your 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 you could be singing a song in your head or just having music go through your head. All of that’s covered in the Tibetan word thinking. I don’t know what you would call it all in our Western languages.

But 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 happy or unhappy. Happy: Do you want to continue looking at it? Or now you’re bored: I’ve been looking at the same object, but now I’m unhappy, now I’m having unpleasant contacting awareness of it, and I move my head and look at something else.

Why do you move your head and look at something else? Because there’s a very low level of unhappiness with what you’re looking at before. You’re tired of looking at it. That’s unhappiness. Very low level. It doesn’t have to be that you’re crying and upset. And when you look around and your vision stays with something – well, because you find it pleasant, you’re happy to look at it for a while. That’s the problem with it. You wouldn’t want to look at it forever. You’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 your 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 more nice.

Well, they do something to make the picture more nice, but it’s not nice from the side of the picture, and the camera doesn’t find it more nice. That is how you 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 to be absolutely in the middle of that spectrum would in fact be rare. But it’s a very interesting phenomenon: When you say, “I feel nothing,” what does it mean that I feel nothing? It means that actually you’re not paying attention to what you’re feeling, and that could be for many reasons that are affecting it. You could be afraid to really know what you’re feeling. Sadness is a type of unhappiness, and it could be so deep and so repressed that what you experience is “feeling nothing” when actually you’re feeling very sad.

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

  • One is that I have individual cognitions of each piece, so of each person. It’s pleasant seeing this one and I feel happy, and it’s unpleasant seeing that one and I feel unhappy, and it’s neutral seeing the wall, and it’s pleasant seeing that thangka. So each individual one is this individual cognition. That’s one theory.
  • Another theory is that I’m seeing all these individual objects, but there’s just one cognition of the whole thing. So there’s just a general feeling of happy or unhappy seeing the whole field, even though I’m seeing all these individual objects.
  • Or the third theory is that I’m just seeing the whole sense field – one object – and one feeling with it.

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

So a lot will depend on what you focus on within that sense field. Seeing the whole sense field, but I’m 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 you can recognize and identify as part of that mental activity. Hard to say what it is, isn’t it? But it’s occurring, part of experiencing.

Conceptual and Non-conceptual Mental Activity

Now, that mental activity can be either non-conceptual or conceptual. Non-conceptual can be sensory or in mental dreams. In a dream it seems as though it’s only mental – it’s not working through your eyes or anything – but in the dream it seems as though you are seeing something or you’re hearing somebody speak or feeling a physical sensation like falling or flying or whatever. So that would be non-conceptual.

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

So what’s the difference? Conceptual is through the medium of a category. There are several kinds of categories. 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. So how is it that you see many different animals and you 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. So all of that you see through the category of brown. Or an audio category of the sound of a word. It’s very, very interesting actually. You can say the word “dog,” and you 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 you 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. And then there are meaning categories (don-spyi), like the meaning of the word “love.” What does the word “love” mean? At different times, I’m feeling love. Are you feeling exactly the same thing every time? No, not really. And 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. And 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. So see if within the mere arising of a mental hologram and cognitively engaging you can identify whether or not a category is involved. You see all of these objects as tables. There’s a category of table. Do you have to think verbally, “Table, table, table”? No. Non-conceptually, I feel something, but through the category of happy, I feel happy. There’s a difference: seeing something or “I’m seeing a table.”

Then it becomes even more interesting: When I’m just seeing something, am I actually seeing a table? Or is it only through the category of table that I see it as a table? Is it really a table? Maybe it’s a chair. So you 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 you 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 you’re just seeing the whole sense field? Or do you have separate cognitions for each item in the sense field – so you are just seeing items: person, table, a thing, an item? Or is it even smaller – am I perceiving color, perceiving shape? Or within a physical sensation, am I perceiving texture or am I perceiving temperature?

Then within that being an item, then 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?

You could put together different colored shapes of what I’m seeing incorrectly as constituting an item. Like the red color of your robe and the red color of the table – I 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.

And so 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 you validate what you 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. So 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 everybody else, when I ask everybody else, and I ask you, 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 I can’t find something inside that object that makes it a table or makes it a chair, establishes 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. And from the conventional point of view, if I 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 this engaged object, the commonsense object, and the mental hologram by a process of establishing (sgrub-pa) the object as something you know – visual, audio, mental. Just establishes it: there it is. And then you have this theory that I was explaining: Is it the whole sense field? Is it individual ones, or whatever? So 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 engaged 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. Think of a dog and you think of the category dog, right? Now, how do you think of dog? So through that category you have a specifier (it’s called a conceptual isolate (ldog-pa)) that specifies – excludes everything else except this one mental hologram that is what you think of when you think of a dog. Think of a dog. How do you think of a dog? That category itself excludes cat and table. But the way that you 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 you’re thinking, so the dog that looks like that isn’t there. Or it could be when you’re actually looking at the dog, and so that mental hologram that arises looking at the dog – this is what represents in your mind, when you’re looking at it, a dog. Do you follow that?

So 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. And 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, either when I’m just thinking of the dog… And I’m sure everybody has a different mental picture of what a dog looks like.

Well, it isn’t that you actively exclude everything, because you could never do that. So that’s why I always refer to it as “nothing other than.” I’m 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. But that becomes very, very difficult to understand.

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

So within our mental activity, you notice these two types of activity. One is just establishing a sight and now conceptually isolating and specifying, “This is a human being.” Well, I’m representing human being by this mental hologram of her. That represents an example of a human being for me, that you’re a human being, not just establishing that I’m 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. Distinguishing.

Non-conceptual cognition distinguishes by taking an uncommon characteristic 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. Definition. That’s not so easy.

So what is it doing? It distinguishes some characteristic feature and gives it a conventional significance, that this is a knowable object, that I’m seeing something. But there has to be some characteristic that would allow me 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.

So an example: You’ve never seen a computer before, but with non-conceptual cognition you can distinguish it as an item on the table. You’re seeing something. You don’t know what it is. You don’t even know the name for it. But you’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

Now, 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.

You have a category. How do you define the category? Well, the defining characteristic composite feature of the category – you make it 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. And 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 you 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. And then you isolate… specify one hologram that represents dog. Now you have a word, which is yet something else. A word. You 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. So when I hear them say, “Ooh, there’s a dog,” I know that they’re all talking about this object here. OK?

Characteristic Features

So 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 on the side 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 you 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 inside the category, 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, you would say that there are characteristic features conventionally. If you look for them, you can’t find them. This is not very easy to understand. So 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 a 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 you’d say it’s a table and a chair: I’ve made up a definition of a table or a chair (something you can sit on, something that has a flat surface that you can put objects on). And then – well, sure, conventionally that is a chair and that is a table. But if you 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. So 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 was no concept of love, what establishes 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: other people can validate it; we can validate it. And I’m not making it into some fantastic thing which is impossible, as in it’s going to last forever and make me eternally happy. So the characteristics can’t be found on the side of the object, although conventionally – when you’re not looking – you 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 my own definition. Definition means defining characteristics: this and this and that.

Color: brown or yellow. Well, you have light, and you 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.” And 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, you could say color is also conceptual. It depends on whether you’re perceiving a whole sense field or you’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. Am I seeing yellow? Am I seeing brown? Well, conventionally you’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 you to apply it? No. And that could allow you 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 then this gets into a big discussion of what’s understanding. Understanding is a Western word which implies actually knowing the meaning of something. To know the meaning of something, do you 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

And 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 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. And 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, disturbing emotions and karma, and is that an intrinsic part of our mental activity?

The disturbing emotions – anger, greed, attachment, jealousy, these sort 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 you lose self-control. (Another mental factor is decisiveness, what to do next.) You lose self-control.

And karma is talking about – if we stick to the Prasangika point of view of what we’re talking about here, what we’re presenting – for mental karma, it’s the compulsiveness. Compulsion is a very good word for it. The compulsive thing that, like a magnet, draws you into thinking something or to singing that same song in your head. Compulsion. You don’t have control over it. That’s karma, the mental factor of the urge. Like a magnet, it draws you into thinking. It’s not the activity of thinking. There’s nothing wrong with thinking. Compulsiveness – that’s the karma; that’s what you want to get rid of.

Or if we talk about physical and verbal actions, here we’re talking about the compulsive form that your body takes in doing a certain type of behavior – the shape. Compulsively you’re always hitting. Not the actual hitting, because the hitting itself is like the force that goes on as a result, but it’s the form of it, they say, the shape – that your behavior compulsively always takes the same type of shape. Or with verbal, it always takes the same type of sound of your words: there’s anger behind it, aggression behind it. The sound has a certain quality to it. That’s what’s compulsive.

So Prasangika identifies that in terms of physical and verbal, not the action itself and not the urge that gets you into doing the action. But there are many different theories. But I think what is easier to recognize is the compulsive aspect of the type of hologram that is going to arise, the physical sensation that you feel as you are hitting someone, or the sound of the words, the hologram of the sound of the words that you make. Compulsively it’s going to be like this. And compulsively I’m thinking like this, whether positive or negative. And the disturbing emotions. All of that makes you lose peace of mind and self-control.

And then you 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 which could stop that. Whereas the disturbing emotions and this compulsiveness – that compulsiveness, especially with thinking, is coming from that 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 your 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. So 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. So you 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 you the type of happiness that never lasts. So that leads into the whole discussion of voidness.

And 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 you 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. You try to recognize it, in Karma Kagyu, as you’re seeing and hearing, so you try to recognize it within each moment of different type of cognition.) His Holiness said that what you have to do is to have no (or minimize) sensory cognition. You never get rid of sense cognition completely, because even if you’re in a sense-depravation room – totally black, absolutely no sound, and you’re lying on something that you don’t even feel because it’s so soft or whatever – still you’re going to hear the sound of your heart beating, you’re going to feel the blood pumping in your body, and so on. So it’s impossible not to have that. But minimize it. And no verbal thinking. Try to not have any categories that you’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 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 you can feel, you can sense, the compulsiveness that would make you think something. It is compulsive, isn’t it? You have no control over it. What is this? You’re trying to go to sleep. The compulsiveness that you keep on thinking. That’s karma. That’s horrible. Try to identify: “There’s just this arising of a mental hologram,” and so on.

So 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