Syntheses, Categories and Individual Items

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One way of looking at the term (spyi) that is often translated as “universal” or “generality” is as a “category.” That is the term that I prefer to use, and when I use “category,” category means a specific category. I’d like to avoid the implication that one might have of a “generality” being general, vague. It is not vague. We are talking about specific categories. The category of “dog” or the category of “cat” is specific, although it is a generality of all cats and all dogs. “Universal” has some other misunderstandings that can come in because that is a term that is used so often in Western philosophy, so I try to avoid as much possible misunderstanding by using this word “category.” Unfortunately, “category” doesn’t work for all the different examples in which the Buddhist terms are used, either; it is very hard to find a word for it. 

We can speak about categories in reference to conventional objects and categories in reference to language. Both of them are involved with our cognition, our awareness of things. That’s why the topic is relevant. We are not just talking abstract philosophy. In reference to conventional objects, it is a little bit easier to not use the word “category” and use the term “synthesis.” When I give examples, then I think you will understand why I choose this term. 

Collection Syntheses 

First of all, there are “collection syntheses” (tshogs-spyi). What type of synthesis is it? It is a collection type, so the example would be a whole and its parts. The whole is a synthesis of all the parts. A forest, for example, with all the trees, is this type of synthesis. All the trees taken together constitutes a forest. There is also a category of many different kinds of forests, but an individual forest, here, is a collection type of synthesis. It is a collection of parts, so a whole is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of spatial parts. The spatial parts would be all the individual trees. An imputation phenomenon is one that cannot exist or be known independently of a basis. A forest cannot exist or be known without trees. 

A forest, then, as a collection synthesis, is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of an assemblage of trees. It is an example of a “grouped form of physical phenomenon” (bsdu-pa’i gzugs) – a whole physical object made up of parts that are grouped together. There are also “composite forms of physical phenomena” (bsags-pa’i gzugs). These are whole physical objects that are made up of parts that are connected with each other, like the body and its parts – arms, legs and so on. 

A collection synthesis can also be an imputation phenomenon on the basis of sensorial parts. For instance, what’s the fruit “orange”? It’s not just the sight. It’s not just the smell. It’s not just the taste. It’s not just the physical sensation of one in our hand. An orange is a whole that is an imputation phenomenon on all these sensorial aspects, isn’t it? So, that is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of sensorial parts. 

Then, there are collection syntheses that are imputation phenomena on the basis of temporal parts. For instance, the example of the movie “Star Wars.” As a whole, the movie “Star Wars” is an imputation phenomenon on an unbroken series of different scenes made up by different moments that extend over time. So, it is a synthesis of all of them, the whole thing. What kind of synthesis? A collection type of synthesis. We can see, in this case, that “category,” “universal,” “generality” – none of them really work. That’s why I think, in this case, “synthesis” is the best choice. 

Collection syntheses, then, are what we would call “commonsense objects” (’jig-rten-la grags-pa) – the objects that we are aware of when we see something or hold something in our hand. A commonsense orange is not just a colored shape, not just the pulp and does not just endure for one moment. A commonsense object extends over all its parts and moments and all the sensory information we cognize through all of our senses. That is one type of synthesis with regard to objects.

Kind Syntheses 

Then there are also “kind syntheses” (rigs-spyi). What type of synthesis are they? They are a synthesis concerning “what type of object” things are. Like, for instance, cat or dog. What kind of thing is this? This is a “cat.” This is a “dog.” That is a kind synthesis of many different kinds of dogs – an imputation phenomenon on the basis of many kinds of dogs. There is also the kind synthesis “animal,” which extends over both cats and dogs.

Object Syntheses 

Then, there are “object syntheses” (don-spyi). These are conceptual categories. Here is where the word “categories” works. It is a conceptual category in which commonsense objects (’jig-rten-la grags-pa) sharing a set of common defining characteristics fit that occur when we think of, verbalize, imagine, or remember a commonsense object. An object synthesis, or category, is an imputation phenomenon, like a set in mathematics, that can only exist and be known together with an item that fits in the category or that conceptually represents something that fits in the category.

Objective and Metaphysical Entities 

There is a division of things into objective entities (rang-mtshan) and metaphysical entities (spyi-mtshan). Objective entities are non-static phenomena (mi-rtag-pa), functional phenomena (dngos-po); they do something. Metaphysical entities are static phenomena (rtag-pa); they don’t do anything. They are nonfunctional (dngos-med). The various Indian schools of philosophy differ as to what level of reality each of these two types of entities or phenomena have. Let’s not go into that. 

In terms of these syntheses, collection syntheses and kind syntheses are objective entities. They are non-static; whereas object syntheses are metaphysical and static. What I am explaining here is the general Gelugpa explanation. The other Tibetan schools have different explanations of all of this. 

Among the different ways of cognizing things, there is bare cognition (mngon-sum). It includes the various types of sense perception, which are all non-conceptual. When we see this animal, what do we see? We see an objective entity. It is called the “involved object” (’jug-yul) of the cognition. Objective entities can be the involved object for both non-conceptual and conceptual cognition. We can both see this animal and remember seeing it. Thus, the main thing we are cognizing is the involved object. 

When we look at this animal, what do we see? We see the legs, the head, the tail, the body, but we also see the whole dog, the whole thing. We see the collection synthesis as well, and we also see a dog, don’t we? So, it’s a kind synthesis. We don’t have to know that it’s a dog. We don’t have to give it a name, but we can’t say objectively that we don’t see a dog. 

The non-Gelugpas others will say that we don’t actually see a dog, a dog is a conceptual construct, but Gelugpa says that we actually do see a dog. We could argue that we only see a colored shape. But is this just a colored shape that is in front of us? Well, no. It is a collection synthesis because there is a sound to it, there is a smell to it, etc. It’s a collection of all this sense information, isn’t it? Even though we don’t actually see the smell of the dog, but we do see a dog, which is a collection of all these things. 

In fact, there are a lot of things that we see. It’s quite interesting. We see the dog running. Well, what do we see? We see just one moment after another, don’t we? But we also see the collection synthesis “motion.” It is an imputation phenomenon on the dog in consecutive moments in different locations: “This moment it is in this position,” “that moment it is in that position,” “that moment it is in that position.” Motion is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the collection of these, and we see motion as an objective entity. 

Okay? What we see is the involved object. There’s the colored shape. There is the dog. It is a dog, an object that pervades all its sense information, and we see its motion as it is running. Implicitly, what is involved here, but what doesn’t actually appear, is “not a cat.” We also see that it is not a cat. So, these are some of the objects involved in bare perception, which is always non-conceptual. 

There is also something called an “appearing object” (snang-yul). The appearing object is what is directly in front of the consciousness. That would be a mental hologram, and this mental hologram, in the Gelug tradition, is explained as something that is fully transparent. Through this mental hologram, we see the colored shape, we see the dog, etc. We see the involved object. 

Individual Items 

When we talk about individual items (bye-brag), there are many types of “individual.” There is individual sense information, there is an individual dog, and there is the larger individual kind synthesis of “dog.” What kind of thing is it, it is a dog. 

This becomes confusing, doesn’t it? Because, in a sense, “dog” is also a conceptual category, but it is an individual conceptual category, so it’s both a category and an individual item. Furthermore, the category “dog” is an individual item in the larger category of “animal.” It’s not straightforward, then, whether something, like “dog,” is only an individual item or is it only a category or a synthesis, or a generality, or whatever. Also, by the way, these collection types of syntheses can be also thought of in terms of collections of atoms and particles as well. 

Object Categories and Conceptual Cognition

When we get to conceptual cognition, that becomes much more complicated. Conceptual cognition – thinking, remembering, imagining, etc. – entails object categories, which we’ve seem are object syntheses. These are static phenomena; they don’t do anything. When we think of a dog, for example, we are thinking in terms of the object category “dog.” 

What happens when we think of a dog? Imagine a dog. Think of a dog. Now, I’m sure each of us has a slightly different mental image that represents what a dog is to us, don’t we? Nonetheless, we are all thinking, “dog.” So, “dog” is the object category here. 

How do we analyze the components of this conceptual cognition? 

We have certain components that are essential to it. 

Yes. One of these components is a defining characteristic (mtshan-nyid). Where are these defining characteristics? Are they objectively findable on the side of the objects, these animals, that have them, or are they something that the minds of people made up? Did someone make up what defines a dog versus what defines a wolf? 

It is more obvious when we think in terms of emotions. What defines what “love” is when we say, “I love you,” or what “liking” is when we say, “I like you”? Where is the boundary between loving someone and liking someone? It’s all made up, it’s all subjective, isn’t it? 

Think of a dictionary. A group of people made up words out of meaningless sounds and assigned meanings to them. They decided on their definitions, the defining characteristics of the items these words refer to. That’s what undoubtedly happened. When language developed, a group of people, minds, ascribed to a certain set of sounds a meaning, and they made up a definition of what it means. 

Did you ever think of that? Who invented the word “love?” Everybody felt all sorts of different things, and then, somehow, some of them got together, and they said, “Hey, are we all feeling the same thing? Well, actually, what I feel is not the same as what you feel, but how are we going to communicate this? Okay, here are some sounds and let’s use them to represent this emotion.” 

Even what an emotion is – this is pretty weird if we think about it. How would we even identify, in experience, what’s an emotion? When we start to analyze language, it is unbelievable how it possibly evolved and how people actually agreed on it. 

Now, we’re thinking of a dog. We may be thinking “dog” in general, or we may be thinking of our dog, a specific dog, but anyway, we are thinking of a dog, even if we are all thinking of “my dog.” I mean, like, one participant here brought her dog, so we can all think of her dog. Even though it is the same dog, the mental image that each of us has will be quite different. The position of the dog, etc., would be quite different, wouldn’t it, even though we are all thinking about the same dog. Of course, we can represent the dog by the name, rather than represent the dog by a visual image. The dog, on the other hand, could represent various people by a smell, not necessarily by what they look like. There are many different ways that things can be represented conceptually. 

So, we are thinking of a dog. What is the involved object? Now, it gets very complicated. It could be an actual dog. Whether a dog is present or not, it doesn’t matter. The appearing object that, figurately, is directly in front of the mental consciousness is the category “dog.” It is a static phenomenon, so it has no graphic form. It is, so to speak, transparent. If we conceptualize this graphically, in front of the category is a specifier. It is called “nothing other than” (ma-yin-pa-las log-pa) a dog. It too is a static phenomenon, so it too has no graphic form and is also transparent. 

But to think of a dog, there needs to be some individual item in graphic form that represents a dog. So a mental image, a mental hologram, of an individual dog appears in front of the specifier and that is actually what is appearing. It represents a dog for us, and unless it is really weird, there is an actual dog that this represents, isn’t there? Whether we knew that dog or not doesn’t matter. That mental representation of a dog is semi-transparent. Let’s explain what that means.

Semi-Transparent Phenomena 

Now there is this object synthesis, which is this object category “dog.” So, when we are thinking “dog” (whether we verbalize it or not is secondary), this object category is the appearing object in our conceptual cognition. This category “dog” is known as a “semi-transparent phenomenon,” despite the fact that, as a static phenomenon, it has no form. It is semi-transparent in the sense that it is mixed with the specifier, “nothing other than a dog” and through that transparent specifier, it is mixed with the mental hologram that is appearing, representing a “dog.” Not only is it mixed with this mental representation, but the Tibetan word for “mixed,” ‘dres-pa, also means “confused.” Because the category and the specifier plus the mental representation are mixed, the category is confused with the mental representation. It’s confused with the mental hologram of a dog. We’re thinking “dog,” and to us, this is what a dog is. 

Well, there are many animals that can be a dog. But for us, we’re mixing and confusing the whole category of “dog” with what this specific dog looks like. To us, that is what a dog is, so they are mixed together and confused. Do you follow? We are thinking of the category “dog” in which all individual dogs may be fit, but we are representing all dogs with the mental picture of one specific dog, as if all dogs looked like that. Usually, there is an actual dog that looks like that. Even if we imagine a cartoon dog, there is an actual drawing of Mickey Mouse’s dog. 

This category of “dog” by itself doesn’t have any form. It’s static. It is not a form of physical phenomenon; it’s a static category. But if we can get a little bit graphic, it’s like there is mental consciousness with different filters in front of it. The category “dog” is the first filter that is there. That’s the appearing object. This category is like a semi-transparent filter because the category is mixed with and confused with what the mental consciousness cognizes through it – a specifier and a mental representation of a dog. Because of this mixing and confusing, the mental representation – a mental hologram of a dog – is semi-veiled and the conceptual cognition is not as vivid as when seeing a dog. The conceptual cognition of thinking of a dog is also confused, because we think that’s really what a dog looks like and is, although it is just a representation of “nothing other than a dog.” “Nothing other than a dog” excludes everything other than a specific, individual dog to represent the category “dog.” 

Through these filters of a category, a specifier and a mental hologram representing the category, our mental consciousness is thinking of an actual dog – whether the dog is present or not – which would correspond to this mental representation. There are these many filters. The confusion here is that this is what we think a dog is, or this is what we think love is. This is what we think the perfect partner is. This is what we think we deserve in life. I mean, we have these categories, so we are confusing the category with some individual item that is representing the category. 

This is where we get into the topic of individualities. We can talk about this abstractly, but I think it is much more relevant when we talk about it in terms of our experience because this causes a lot of problems when we have this mixing and confusion. 

To think “dog,” the way our minds works is to that we need to have some sort of mental representation of a dog. Or to think “love,” we have to have something that sort of represents what love is. It might not have a physical form, but there is something, even an emotion, that represents love for us when we think of a loving relationship, for example. Problems come when we think that the whole category of love in a loving relationship is only that specific, individual representation of it. So, we expect that the love in every loving relationship has to be like this. See the problem? See where our trouble can come from? 

To summarize, the appearing object here, which is right in front of the mental consciousness, is this object category “dog,” but that is not what is appearing. What is appearing is a mental hologram of a specific dog that is representing “nothing other than a dog.” The involved object would be an actual dog that we’re thinking of.

Since this is not so easy to understand, let me repeat in slightly different words. We have the object category “dog.” It is a metaphysical phenomenon, it’s static. Through it, the specifier “nothing other than a dog” is appearing, represented by a mental hologram. The category and specifier don’t have a shape or form. The mental hologram that appears with a mental shape and form is a representation of a dog chosen from a specific, individual dog that we have previously seen and now recall. That actual dog is the involved object; it is what we are thinking of when we think of a dog. 

Conceptually Implied Objects 

In analyzing conceptual cognition, there is also something called a “conceptually implied object” (zhen-yul). What is the object implied by our thinking of a dog? What is implied by it is an actual dog. The Tibetan term (zhen-yul) that I am translating as “conceptually implied object, or “implied object” for short, means, literally, the object that the conceptual cognition clings to, but only in the sense of a hook on which a coat is hung. It doesn’t means that the conceptual cognition clings to this object as when clinging to someone we are attached to and don’t want to ever leave us. 

Sometimes the conceptually implied object is an existent thing, like a dog, but it could be something nonexistent. We could have, let’s say, a category of “unicorn,” and there can even be a mental representation, a mental hologram, of a unicorn, but there is no such thing as the conceptually implied object of that, an actual unicorn. 

This example of a unicorn is relevant in terms of impossible ways of existing. Things appear to be truly and solidly existent because we conceptually conceive of them existing that way. We do that through the category “true, solid existence,” a specifier and a mental representation that appears of something being truly and solidly existent. But there is nothing truly and solidly existent that is implied by and corresponds to this mental representation and on which the mental representation can be hung. That manner of existing, the implied object of that conceptual cognition, is impossible – something truly and solidly existing totally by itself, independent of everything else. 

Think of it. We have a category, a concept, of truly and solidly existent independent phenomena, and what represents that would be like in a children’s coloring book, something with a solid line around it. But nothing exists with a line around it, does it? The conceptually implied object – the actual manner of existence of objects being that they have a line around them, or that they’re encapsulated in plastic, isolated off from everything else – that doesn’t exist at all. Even in terms of physics, if we really go down small with an electron microscope, where do the atoms and particles of our body end and the atoms and particles of the air next to us begin? Is there a big solid barrier between the two? No. The same thing is true in terms of colors. Is there a solid line separating red from orange, like a wall? No. Or between one emotion and another emotion – for instance, between liking someone and loving them? No. So, we see there are many implications of all of this analysis. 

Audio Categories 

These, then, are categories in reference to objects. Then, there are also categories in reference to language. There are audio categories and meaning categories. 

Audio categories (sgra-spyi) are imputation phenomena that can only exist and be known on the basis of individual acoustic patterns sharing common defining characteristics. They are adopted as conventions in a particular language by the members of a specific society to represent words – for example, the audio categories “window” in English and “Fenster” in German. 

This is actually really quite incredible when we think about it. We are not talking here about the sounds. The sound “win” and the sound “dow,” and the sound “fen” and the sound “ster,” putting them together into a word – that is a collection synthesis. Whereas here we are talking about a category that is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of sounds made in a variety of voices, pitches, volumes and pronunciations. I say “Fenster” with my voice, you say “Fenster” (or “window”) in your voice. It’s a different sound, isn’t it? I say it softly, you say it loudly. Lots of people say it. Some people say “vindow” rather than “window,” but there is an audio category of the word that we all are saying. 

Somehow all these individual pronunciations and sounds fit into this audio category. It’s amazing how we recognize them all as the sound of the same word. They could be made audible by a human voice or by a mechanical device – our phone or a computer-generated voice. There are even audio categories of the sound of a natural phenomenon, like wind. There is an audio category, the sound of wind, isn’t there? Or of rain. 

Although the texts just speak of audio categories for the sounds of words, I think that by extension there are also graphic categories. These would include all the different written representations of words, like “window,” written in different handwritings, or typed in different size types, different type fonts, and so on. They all fit into the graphic category “window.” Very interesting, isn’t it? How in the world do we recognize all these graphic representations as being of the same word? There could also be gesture categories, like in sign languages for deaf people, or tactile categories, like Braille for blind people. We can think of further examples besides what are discussed in the texts.

The structure of conceptually thinking with audio categories is the same as with object categories. If we think of a word, “window” for instance, there is the audio category “window,” a specifier and a mental hologram that is a mental representation of the sound of the word “window.” The implied object is an actual sound that that mental representation would correspond to. 

Meaning Categories 

Audio categories themselves do not have any meanings inherently associated with them, and so there are also meaning categories (don-spyi). A meaning category is an imputation phenomenon that can only exist and be known on the basis of various individual things that share common defining characteristics and that the acoustic patterns in a specific audio category may signify in a specific language, as chosen as conventions by members of a specific society. The acoustic patterns of sounds in a specific audio category could mean one thing in one language and something else in another language – like “nine” in English and “nein” in German (meaning “no”). But here we are talking about within one language, one society. And even within one society, there are homonyms, where two words with different meanings are pronounced the same, like in English “bear” the animal and “bare” meaning naked.

In any case, we can recognize, “I’m listening to a language that I don’t know,” and we could also recognize that two people are saying the same word to each other, but we don’t know what that word means. Here we are talking about the meaning, and meanings don’t exist inherently in the sounds, do they? Or in the physical gestures of sign language? Words having a pronunciation and a merely associated with them are merely coined as conventions by a society or a group of people in order to be able to communicate with each other. 

A meaning category is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of all the slightly different meanings that each person in a language group associates with the acoustic pattern of the audio category of a specific word. To me, “love” means something. To you, “love” means something slightly different. To the other person, it means something else slightly different. The dictionary says something else. Nevertheless, we all understand these different meanings through the meaning category “love” as the meaning of the word “love.” We understand that regardless of who says the word and how loudly they say it, or how they pronounce it. It is amazing, isn’t it? 

A meaning category is also an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the meanings that different people intend or even the same person intends whenever they say or think of an acoustic pattern that fits in a specific audio category of a specific word. For instance, we hear something that vaguely sounds like “love” or “window,” and each time that we hear it, whether it is spoken by the same person several times in a conversation or it’s spoken by different people, we still associate the same meaning category to it. If we think about it, this is amazing because each time we hear it, it is a different sound. Imagine if we didn’t have these categories. How in the world would we understand anything that anybody said, because every sound they make is different. 

Again, when we are thinking conceptually with the mental representations of sounds to which we associate words and meanings, it has the same type of structure as the one we had when we discussed conceptual cognition with object categories. Remember, we spoke about object categories in conceptual cognition. The word for “object category” and the word for “meaning category” is the same word (don-spyi). So when we think of something – it doesn’t have to be a physical object, it could be “love” – it’s both an object (a thing) and a meaning associated with the audio category of the acoustic pattern of a word.

Usually, we would have an object category together with an audio category and an associated meaning category, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be like that. How does a newborn infant think in terms of the object category “mother”? It doesn’t have a word for “mother” yet, does it? This gets us into a whole debate of how does a baby know and recognize their mother, and what is the conceptual thought process of a dog? We shouldn’t think of conceptual cognition as being intellectual. It’s talking about categories. They are involved with memory. How do we remember? How does a cow remember where the barn is? It’s conceptual thought with a category and some mental image representing a barn – “my barn, not your barn. My barn.” 


There are all these different types of objects. When we talk about so-called “generalities and particulars,” as your handouts call them in German, they are referring to what I’m familiar with as being syntheses, categories and individual items. We can also think of these terms in the context of sets and members of sets, and then we can use set theory to help us understand the logical relationships between different sets, different categories. 

When we talk about particulars, we are talking about items that fit into a category. However, as I mentioned, categories themselves can be individual categories fitting into larger individual categories, like the categories of “dog” and “cat” fitting into the larger category of “animal.” 

I hope through this you appreciate what I said at the beginning of this lecture, which is that it is really, really difficult to find any word in our languages that covers all these different meanings of the original Sanskrit and Tibetan terms. Because the word for category or synthesis or generality or universal (or whatever we want to call it) is also the same word that is used for metaphysical entities. It’s the same word. So, how do we translate it? Each translator will either choose one word to cover all the meanings, which obviously can only cover really a few of the meanings, or they will choose different terms for the different meanings; so, of course, it’s confusing. We need to be patient with all of this. 

In the Tibetan language, are there specific words for all of these? 

Yes, but part of the word repeats (spyi), and that is the word that is being translated as synthesis, or generality, or category. That part, that syllable, repeats in all these different usages, and not just in Tibetan, but it also repeats in the original Sanskrit terms as well. 

Conceptual Thinking 

It is necessary to have conceptual categories in order to be able to communicate to each other as limited beings, as we are, and to be able to put together various things that we perceive, like different dogs, different apples, etc., and distinguish what they all are. A Buddha cognizes everything non-conceptually – in other words, without these categories – so obviously, there must be other ways of putting information together. Buddha uses what is called “equalizing deep awareness” (mnyam-nyid ye-shes) to do that, but I don’t really want to go into that. The point that I wanted to make is that the big problem with conceptual thought, with these conceptual categories, is that we tend to think that things exist in boxes, as if they were actually inside these categories. 

A category implies a box, like an entry in the dictionary, and when there is an item, then it fits into that box. However, that is not the way that things exist; things don’t exist in boxes. What would it mean to exist in a box? It would mean that something inherently fits just into this box and that makes it definitely “this.” For example, “you are my ‘friend’ – just ‘friend,’ and nothing else.” I have my definition of what a “friend” should be, so I believe that you have to always fulfill this definition. That’s because you exist in the box “friend” and that box has the definition I have given it. Although we need a concept of “friend” to be able to communicate and deal with things, limited beings as we are, we have to be quite careful not to get into this rigid way of thinking. 

Practical Application 

What is the practical use of, for instance, this last topic about conceptual thought? 

If we just use our ordinary terminology in the West, the thing is that often we have a fixed concept of something, which is represented by something that we ourselves have chosen; a concept of how things should be – for instance, how we should be treated, or a self-concept, a self-image. 

Actually, it’s very interesting. When we think about ourselves, what do we think? Often when we have made a mistake or done something that we regret, we think of “me” through the object category “me,” and now what do we represent it with? We represent it with this particular incident of what we did, and we label it “idiot” and think, “I’m such an idiot.” We think that’s truly who we are, and we get stuck with this label, “I’m such an idiot.” We confuse and mix the category “me” with what is representing me now in our thoughts, which is “idiot,” and then we think that’s really me. We might have acted like an idiot. That is a possibility, but that is only one item, one individual item, that fits into this whole object category of “me,” isn’t it? 

Here we are introducing a method for being able to deconstruct these conceptual thoughts that we have and to understand that “me” can be represented in many, many different ways, not just one. An idiot – that’s not truly who we are, and the only thing that we are. The category “me” is static. Static means that it doesn’t do anything, so the category itself is not something that is changing from moment to moment. We can substitute what will represent this category “me”; we can substitute one thing for another, but to substitute one thing for another is not the same as something organically growing into something else. Let me explain.

We have a concept of the meaning of the word “voidness,” for example. We have the audio category “voidness” or “emptiness” (people translate it so many ways), and we have a meaning category. That meaning category… when anybody says the word “voidness,” we think it means this or that. That meaning category is static; that meaning category itself doesn’t do anything. We can substitute one meaning for another, but it’s still the category of the meaning of the word “voidness,” isn’t it? But now we’re substituting something to represent what that meaning is with something else. If we think in terms of the substitution process, it’s not like we can say, “Well, my understanding grew.” It didn’t really grow the way that a plant grows, did it? It didn’t continuously grow in each moment. As we gained deeper and deeper understandings, we merely substituted one understating of the meaning of “voidness” with another. 

There are many different ways in which things change. This affects our understanding of learning theory, how we learn things and how we conceptually think of things, and so on. The most important aspect here, in terms of the Buddhist path, is how we think of “me” and “you” and what we’re experiencing, because all sorts of disturbing emotions come up when we are confused about that. 

We were using this example: We’re thinking “me,” the category “me,” and what’s representing it may be “the most important person in the world, the center of the universe.” Now, the conceptually implied object of that, a me who actually is the center of the universe, of course, doesn’t exist; it’s nonexistent. For example, “I should always have my way.” The conceptually implied object – somebody who should always have their way – is absurd, isn’t it? There is no such thing. 

When we think that, when we mix “me” with this representation (the one that should always get their way), what happens? Disturbing emotions like greed and anger arise when we don’t get our way. Based on that, then we yell, we do nasty things, we compulsively commit all sorts of destructive types of actions. That produces unhappiness and makes us repeat these types of things. People are nasty back to us. That’s samsara, uncontrollably recurring (from the Buddhist point of view) rebirth. Or we can think of it just even in this lifetime, this self-destructive syndrome is just going to repeat on and on. Also, we experience other people doing things similar back to us. We have all these different types of results, so this whole cycle, this pattern, is almost self-perpetuating. We have to stop it, and to do that, it’s necessary to deconstruct what we’re experiencing and to see what the problematic areas are. Which are correct? What can be corrected? How to correct them? That’s the practical application of all of this. 

Everything that Buddha taught was for the purpose of benefiting others. Therefore, it’s up to us to figure out what the benefit of this teaching is, because the intention was to benefit us. That’s how we learn to apply all these various teachings – not necessarily by having somebody point out to us how it is relevant to our life, but by trying to figure it out ourselves. A teacher or a book can give an example, but then we have to work with it ourselves. All of this material is intended for working on ourselves. 

To do that, first we need to make sure that we heard the words of the teachings correctly. So, that means we got the audio categories correct and that we wrote our notes correctly. We then need to think about the meaning categories associated with what we heard, so that we understand what we heard or read and we become convinced that they are true. Then we repeatedly use these meaning categories to view what we experience. That’s meditation. 

Meditation can be done sitting quietly in a controlled environment, but it can also be done all the time as we are dealing with life. Remember, “meditation” means to accustom ourselves to something, to habituate ourselves with a certain state of mind, or viewpoint, or understanding. It is something we need to do in daily life.

Original Audio from the Seminar