Tibetan Buddhism presents the relationships with objects in the context of the discussion of the cognition theory found in the Sautrantika system of tenets. Here, we shall outline the main points according to the Gelug presentation of Sautrantika, and then supplement it with points from the non-Gelug presentation of Sautrantika when they significantly differ. Within the Gelug Sautrantika system, we shall follow the textbook tradition of Jetsunpa (rJe-btsun Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan), followed by Ganden Jangtse (dGa’-ldan Byang-rtse) and Sera Je (Se-ra Byes) monasteries.
1 Gelug Presentation
Having an Object
For a functional phenomenon (dngos-po) to have an object (yul-can) means for it continually and actively to possess an object appropriate to itself, whenever and for as long as the functional phenomenon occurs or exists. A functional phenomenon is one that is nonstatic (mi-rtag-pa, impermanent) and affected (‘dus-byas, conditioned) by causes and conditions.
Ways of cognizing something (shes-pa), also translated as “cognitions of something,” always have an object (yul) – the something that they cognize. They cannot occur on their own, without having objects. Ways of knowing something (blo) and ways of being aware of something (rig-pa) are synonyms for ways of cognizing something.
Persons (gang-zag) also have objects, without any break of continuity. This is because persons are labeled or imputed based on mental continuums (sems-rgyud) consisting of five aggregate factors of experience (phung-po lnga). In other words, they are labeled based on individual continuities of ways of cognizing something. Since ways of cognizing continually have objects, so do persons. Self (bdag), “me” (nga) and individual being (skyes-bu) are synonyms for persons.
Communicating sounds (rjod-byed-kyi sgra), whether words, grunts, or the beating of jungle drums, also have objects whenever and for as long as they exist. Their objects are what they signify or mean. Something cannot be a communicating sound without meaning something.
Ways of Cognizing an Object Must Always Actively Have an Object
Although a snow shovel is associated with snow as its object, the relationship between a snow shovel and snow is not that of having an object. A snow shovel only has snow as its object when it is used for clearing away snow. It may exist, however, without actively having snow as its object – for instance, when it is hanging in the shed during the summer.
Ways of cognizing something are not like snow shovels. When inactive, they do not exist stored somewhere in our brains or minds, without having objects. Ways of cognizing an object only exist whenever and for so long as they actively cognize something. In this sense, they always have objects.
Moreover, ways of cognizing something only exist or occur as part of a person’s mental continuum. They cannot exist or occur without being the cognitive experience of someone.
Ways of Cognizing an Object Are Absent When Temporarily Blocked
Mirrors may reflect objects, but they do not have objects. This is because a mirror can still be present without reflecting an object, for instance when black paint temporarily covers its surface. Similarly, physical cognitive sensors (dbang-po, sensory powers), such as the photosensitive cells of the eyes, may be involved with cognition of an object, but they do not have objects. This is because the photosensitive cells of a person’s eyes are still present during sleep, but without being involved with objects.
Ways of cognizing something are not like mirrors or physical cognitive sensors. Manifest cognition with eye consciousness (mig-gi rnam-shes, visual consciousness), for example, is temporarily blocked (khegs) during deep sleep. At such times, it is not like the photosensitive cells of the eyes – still present, but without having an object. During deep sleep, manifest cognition with eye consciousness is absent. Manifest cognition will be discussed in detail below.
Cognitively Taking an Object and Objects Cognitively Taken
For a functional phenomenon to cognitively take an object (‘dzin-pa) means for it actively to hold an object in a cognitive manner continually, whenever and for as long as the functional phenomenon occurs or exists.
Communicating sounds continually have objects, but they do not cognitively take objects. They do not hold their objects in cognitive manners. Ways of cognizing something and persons, on the other hand, both have an object and cognitively take an object.
The object cognitively taken (gzung-ba) by a way of cognizing something or a person need not be in its immediate vicinity. It is not like snow that needs to be next to a snow shovel for the snow shovel to pick it up. The object cognitively taken may be thousands of miles away, such as when thinking of someone in a foreign land, or may even be dead.
Primary Consciousness, Mental Factors and Principal Awareness as Cognizers of an Object
A way of cognizing an object may be a primary consciousness (rnam-shes), a mental factor (sems-byung, subsidiary awareness), or a principal awareness (gtso-sems) of the object.
A primary consciousness of an object cognizes merely the essential nature (ngo-bo) or fundamental type of phenomenon that the object is.
Primary consciousnesses include the six fold network of primary consciousness (rnam-shes tshogs-drug). Five are types of sense consciousness (dbang-gi rnam-shes) – eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body consciousness – and the sixth is mind consciousness (yid-kyi rnam-shes, mental consciousness). Thus, eye consciousness, for example, cognizes a sight merely as a sight.
A mental factor, namely a subsidiary awareness of an object accompanies and assists a primary consciousness in cognizing its object, as in the case of concentration (ting-nge-‘dzin) or intention (‘dun-pa). Alternatively, it flavors the cognition, such as with an emotion like love or anger, or with the feeling of a level of happiness (tshor-ba, feeling), such as joy or suffering.
Within a cognition, a principal awareness is an awareness consisting of the composite of a primary consciousness and its accompanying mental factors. It is the prominent way of being aware of an object that characterizes the type of cognition that is occurring. Examples of principal awarenesses are bodhichitta and the deep awareness of the total absorption (mnyam-bzhag ye-shes) on voidness of a highly realized being (an arya).
Five Congruent Features
Many types of mental factors accompany each moment of primary consciousness of an object. They and the primary consciousness that they accompany all share five congruent features (mtshungs-ldan lnga, five things in common).
According to the Vaibhashika view of Vasubandhu’s Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa’i mdzod, Skt. Abhidharmakosha), the five congruent features are:
- Reliance (rten) – relying on the same cognitive sensor (dbang-po) as the dominating condition (bdag-rkyen) for their arising,
- Object (yul) – cognitively aiming at the same focal object (dmigs-yul) as the focal condition (dmigs-rkyen, objective condition) for their arising,
- Mental aspect (rnam-pa) – giving rise to the same cognitive semblance of the focal object as the aspect of the focal object cast on them and which they assume or take on,
- Time (dus) – arising, abiding, and ceasing simultaneously,
- Natal source (rdzas, natal substance) – although coming from their own individual natal sources – referring to individual karmic tendencies (sa-bon, karmic seeds, karmic legacies) – coming from natal sources that have the same slant (ris-mthun). Thus, they work harmoniously together without clashing, for instance within the structure of a single belief (dad-pa) or intention (‘dun-pa).
The Manner of Cognitively Taking an Object
Each cognition has a manner of cognitively taking an object (‘dzin-stangs). The manner may be specified in terms of the main type of subsidiary awareness that accompanies the cognition – for example, with compassion.
In the Madhyamaka systems, the manner of cognitively taking an object may also be either with taking it to be truly existent (bden-‘dzin, grasping for true existence) or without taking it to be truly existent.
Non-conceptual and Conceptual Cognition of an Object
The manner of cognitively taking an object may also be either non-conceptually (rtog-med) or conceptually (rtog-bcas). Sense consciousness of an object is exclusively nonconceptual. Mind consciousness of it may be either conceptual or non-conceptual. Conceptual cognition occurs only with mind consciousness.
The Gelug school uniquely asserts that cognition, whether non-conceptual or conceptual, has direct contact with “real” objects, such as tables and chairs, and that such objects actually appear in both types of cognition. A real object is one that has truly established existence (bden-par grub-pa), which, in the Sautrantika system, means that it has the ability to perform a function.
In both non-conceptual and conceptual cognition, however, the cognition assumes a transparent mental aspect (rnam-pa, mental semblance) that the real object casts on it (gtod), and which resembles that real object. The mental aspect is somewhat like a mental hologram. In the case of forms of physical phenomena, the mental aspect may be the mental semblance of a sight, a sound, a smell, a taste, or a physical sensation.
- In non-conceptual cognition, also called bare cognition (mngon-sum), the mental aspect is equivalent to a transparent mental derivative (gzugs-brnyan, reflection) of the real object. Since nothing veils, either partially or totally, the appearance of the real object in the cognition, real objects appear in a “bare” fashion as the appearing objects (snang-yul) of the nonconceptual cognition.
- In conceptual cognition, the mental aspect is also a transparent semblance of the real object. The mental derivative of the real object, however, is a semi-transparent conceptual category (spyi, universal), such as the category table, into which the real object, such as a specifc individual real table, fits. The conceptual category into which the real object fits is superimposed or projected onto the mental aspect resembling the real object. Thus, although the real object appears in the cognition, it appears only in a semi-veiled fashion. The appearing object is actually the conceptual category and not the real object itself. In this sense, the real object appears “mixed” with a concept of it.
Conceptual categories are static (permanent) phenomena that are imputed on real objects. Although categories into which certain phenomena fit may be redefined or replaced by another, categories do not organically grow like plants. Thinking with conceptual categories produces an effect, but a category itself cannot do anything.
Apprehension and Comprehension of an Object
A cognition apprehends (rtogs-pa) its involved object (‘jug-yul) if it cognitively takes that object accurately (yang-dag-pa) and with certainty (nges-pa).
Cognitively taking an object accurately means non-distortedly, as when cognitively taking a white snow mountain as white, rather than as pink because of wearing tinted sunglasses.
Cognitively taking an object with certainty means to decisively determine (nges-pa, ascertain) an object correctly as “this,” by decisively cutting it from incorrect interpolations (sgro-‘dogs bcad-pa) that it is “that.” Thus, in correctly identifying its involved object, decisive determination induces immediate certainty that we cognized “this” and “not that,” such that recollection (dran-pa) of the object can later occur. If a cognition does not decisively determine its involved object, we are unsure, later, that we cognized it and not something else. We would need an additional cognition to determine the object as “this.”
In colloquial terms, decisively determining an object resembles “getting a lock” on “this” object, by cutting it off from other objects. It occurs based on the accurate functioning of distinguishing (‘du-shes, “recognition”) as a subsidiary awareness accompanying the cognition.
Distinguishing ('du-shes) an object is the mental factor that separates it from the rest of the cognitive field by focusing on the individual defining characteristic (mtshan-nyid) of the object.
An apprehension of an object, however, does not necessarily comprehend or understand (shes-pa) what its object is. Comprehending an object occurs first in conceptual cognition with the application of a meaning category (don-spyi, meaning universal) to the object, such that we correctly discriminate the object to mean or signify “this” and “not that.” Comprehension may also mean to discriminate something as correct from incorrect, as in the case of a mathematical calculation, or as accurate from inaccurate, as in the case of how an object exists or what the karmic consequences of an action will be. Comprehension occurs based on accurate discriminating awareness (yang-dag-pa’i shes-rab) accompanying the apprehension.
Discriminating awareness of an object is the subsidiary awareness that adds decisiveness (nges-pa) to distinguishing the object. Although the Tibetan term for certainty and decisiveness is the same, certainty in the context of apprehension refers to a lack of indecisive wavering (the-tshoms, doubt) that the cognition was of this object and not that one. Decisiveness in the context of comprehension and discriminating awareness refers to a lack of indecisive wavering about what something is or how it exists.
Explicit Apprehension and Implicit Apprehension of an Object
Gelug uniquely asserts that a valid cognition may apprehend its involved object either explicitly (dngos-su rtogs-pa) or implicitly (shugs-la rtogs-pa).
With explicit apprehension, a cognition ascertains its involved object by the power of a mental aspect of that object arising (shar-ba) in the cognition. With implicit apprehension, a cognition ascertains an involved object, a mental aspect of which does not arise in that cognition. It ascertains it simply by the power of its explicit apprehension of another involved object, a mental aspect of which does arise in the cognition. For example, the visual cognition that sees an orange explicitly apprehends “an orange” and implicitly apprehends “not a tangerine.”
Implicit apprehension of something cannot occur on its own. It must accompany the explicit apprehension of an object. Thus, a single moment of cognition may apprehend one object explicitly and another implicitly, both at the same time. In such cases, the explicit and implicit apprehensions are both simultaneously manifest and thus both simultaneously attentive of their objects.
The Cognized Aspect and Cognizer Aspect of a Cognition
Both nonconceptual and conceptual cognitions have cognized aspects (gzung-rnam) and cognizer aspects (‘dzin-rnam). Gelug explains these terms as referring to two aspects of the consciousness side of the cognition.
In seeing or thinking of a table, for example,
- The cognized aspect of the cognition, as its outward-facing part (kha phyir-lta’i cha), is the aspect of consciousness that is cognized by the cognizer aspect, although it itself cognizes its own involved object, namely the table
- The cognizer aspect of the cognition, as its inward-facing part (kha nang-lta’i cha), is the aspect of consciousness that cognizes the cognized aspect, such that we can remember that the cognition occurred.
The cognized aspect may be any type of primary consciousness, such as eye consciousness or mind consciousness. The cognizer aspect is a mental faculty called “reflexive awareness” (rang-rig), which is neither a primary consciousness nor a subsidiary type of awareness.
Not only the Sautrantika system, but also the Chittamatra and Yogachara-Svatantrika-Madhyamaka systems assert reflexive awareness and explain it as accompanying each moment of cognition.
The Sautrantika-Svatantrika-Madhyamaka and Prasangika-Madhyamaka systems do not accept even the conventional existence of reflexive awareness. According to their explanations, in each cognition the primary consciousness explicitly cognizes its involved object – for instance, a table – and implicitly cognizes its own occurrence.
Manifest and Subliminal Cognition
Cognition of an object may be either manifest (mngon-gyur-ba) or subliminal (bag-la nyal).
In manifest cognition, the consciousness of the manifest cognition gives rise to a mental aspect of a cognitive object. The cognitive object appears, through that mental aspect, both to the person and to the consciousness of the manifest cognition. Both the person and the manifest consciousness cognitively take it – both cognize or “know” it.
A manifest cognition may both explicitly and implicitly apprehend objects. Although the manifest cognition does not give rise to a mental aspect of the object that it implicitly apprehends, nevertheless the implicit apprehension is manifest. Both the manifest consciousness and the person have implicit apprehension of an object.
Moreover, several manifest cognitions may occur simultaneously. For instance, we may see someone while hearing him or her speak. However, the strength of attention that accompanies each manifest cognition may vary. Attention (yid-la byed-pa) is the subsidiary awareness that engages the mental activity (mind) with a specific object within a cognitive field. It causes the mental activity to focus on the object in a certain way and with a certain strength. For example, attention may focus on an object painstakingly, in a resetting manner, uninterruptedly, or effortlessly.
In subliminal cognition, the consciousness of the subliminal cognition gives rise to a mental aspect of a cognitive object. The cognitive object appears, through that mental aspect, only to the consciousness of the subliminal cognition and only that consciousness cognizes it. The cognitive object of the subliminal cognition, however, does not appear to the person and is not cognized by the person. Nor does it appear to or is it cognized by the consciousness of the manifest cognition that is simultaneously occurring and overpowering the subliminal cognition.
For example, while asleep, our ear consciousness subliminally cognizes the sound of the alarm clock ticking next to our heads; but we, as persons, do not cognize it. Our ear consciousness even has a certain level of attention to the sound. Because of this subliminal audio cognition, we can hear the alarm ring and wake up. Despite being attentive of the sound, subliminal awareness is, nevertheless, a non-determining cognition of what appears to it (snang-la ma-nges-pa). Because it lacks certitude in its taking the sound as a cognitive object, the ear consciousness cannot determine that the sound is “this” and “not that.”
Because it is a non-determining cognition of what appears to it, subliminal awareness does not apprehend any object, either explicitly or implicitly. Nevertheless, several subliminal cognitions may occur simultaneously.
The Tendency of a Way of Cognizing an Object
After a particular way of cognizing an object has occurred manifestly and then temporarily is absent, it continues as a tendency (sa-bon, seed, legacy). When appropriate causes and conditions are present, the tendency intermittently (re-‘ga’-ba) gives rise to further manifest occurrences of that way of cognizing an object. We may take as an example, here, anger.
In general, a tendency of a way of cognizing an object is neither a way of cognizing something nor a form of physical phenomenon. Rather, it is a nonstatic abstraction imputed on a mental continuum. As a noncongruent affecting variable (ldan-min ‘du-byed), it produces effects on that continuum. In other words, a tendency does not share five congruent features with the manifest primary consciousness that it underlies. Yet, it functions as a variable that can affect future experience.
The Habit of a Way of Cognizing an Object
Habits (bag-chags, instincts), like tendencies, are nonstatic abstractions that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of cognizing something. They are noncongruent affecting variables.
In certain contexts, the Gelug tradition uses the word habit (bag-chags, instinct) as a general term for both tendencies and habits. When the two are differentiated, a tendency (legacy) gives rise intermittently to further manifest occurrences of a way of cognizing, while a habit does so constantly. The legacy of instances of being angry, for example, gives rise to further episodes of anger only from time to time. The habit of grasping for true existence, on the other hand, gives rise to manifest appearance-making of true existence every moment other than when non-conceptually cognizing voidness.
2 Non-Gelug Variants
No “Real” Objects
External phenomena (phyi-don) are merely moments of the sensibilia of various sense fields, such as moments of patches of colored shapes for the visual sense field. Commonsense objects, such as oranges, extending over the sensibilia of several senses and extending over time are mere imputations constructed from and labeled on the basis of moments of sensibilia.
Direct and Indirect Cognition
Cognition, whether non-conceptual or conceptual, does not directly contact external phenomena. Moments of external sensibilia produce opaque mental semblances of themselves, known as mental aspects or mental derivatives. The two terms are synonymous. Only the mental aspects actually appear to cognition and they are always nonstatic.
Both non-conceptual and conceptual cognition directly cognize (dngos-su rig) mental aspects. Non-conceptual cognition indirectly cognizes (dngos-su mi-rig, shugs-la rig) moments of external sensibilia, which remain hidden (lkog na-mo) to it. They remain hidden in the sense that the moment of the sensibilia that caused the moment of cognition of a mental aspect of itself no longer exists when the moment of cognition occurs. Conceptual cognition does not cognize external objects at all, not even indirectly.
Further, although external phenomena are hidden from the cognitions of them, that does not render all external phenomena into obscure phenomena (lkog-pa). An obscure phenomenon is one that cannot be known by valid sensory non-conceptual cognition, but can only be validly known only by a valid inferential cognition (rjes-dpag tshad-ma) based on a line of reasoning (rtags) or on renown (grags-pa).
For example, in what is conventionally considered seeing smoke rising from the chimney of a house on a mountain, moments of slightly different gray-colored shapes are obvious phenomena (mngon-gyur-ba), because they can be seen, albeit indirectly. The presence of smoke is obscure: it cannot actually be seen, either directly or indirectly. The presence of smoke can only be validly known inferentially by relying on renown that the application of the category smoke on a mental aspect resembling the commonsense object smoke is a correct application of a term after validly cognizing, non-conceptually, a succession of slightly different gray-colored shapes.
The Cognized Aspect and Cognizer Aspect of a Cognition
The mental aspect is the cognized aspect (gzung-rnam) of the cognition. The consciousness that cognitively takes the cognized aspect as its appearing object (snang-yul) is the cognizer aspect (‘dzin-rnam).
The cognizer aspect is aware both of the cognized aspect and of itself. In cognizing itself, a consciousness functions as reflexive awareness, although it is not identical with reflexive awareness.
[For more detail, see: Objects of Cognition: Advanced Presentation]