Mental Activity

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This weekend I want to speak about the types of appearances that the mind gives rise to: accurate and inaccurate, pure and impure, tainted and untainted, samsaric and nirvanic. That’s an awful lot of variables, isn’t it? As I was preparing this, when one thinks of all the permutations of all these variables, it becomes really quite complicated. But the point is that our minds give rise to many, many different kinds of appearances, and we need to be able to recognize and discriminate among the various different things that arise.

Then, of course, we have to ask why that’s important? It’s important because we all experience a tremendous amount of sufferings and difficulties. The cause of our sufferings, when we go quite deeply, is our so-called “ignorance,” which means our unawareness. We just don’t know how things exist, so sometimes things appear to us in very strange, confusing, distorted ways and we think that they actually correspond to reality. In fact, we usually respond to our projections of complete fantasy rather than to what’s actually going on. That, of course, leads to many problems. So, either we don’t know that how things appear is incorrect, or we believe that it is correct! There are two ways of formulating that. We need to be able to discriminate between what’s correct and what’s incorrect in terms of all of these variables that I mentioned – accurate, inaccurate, tainted, untainted and so on. That’s not terribly easy, is it? Because there are so many confusing variables involved, we need to sort them out.

The Importance of Conviction That Liberation and Enlightenment Are Possible

If we go deeper into why we’re examining this topic, we have, of course, the different levels of motivation as are described in the lam-rim. These are the graded stages of how we develop our minds toward achieving the various spiritual goals as are described in Buddhism. We’re talking here about better rebirths, liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth altogether, and the enlightened state of a Buddha. If we’re aiming for liberation and enlightenment, then, of course, it’s absolutely crucial to be convinced that it’s actually possible to attain such goals. This means that once we’ve correctly identified true sufferings and the true causes of these true sufferings, we are totally convinced that it’s possible for us to attain a true stopping of them.

What does a true stopping mean? It means that we remove these things that are true causes of our suffering forever so that they never, ever recur again. Then what are we removing them from? We’re removing them from our so-called “minds.” That means we need to become convinced that it actually is possible to get rid of these things forever. That is not terribly easy to either understand, or even more, to become convinced that it’s actually possible.

So, although we could aim for these Buddhist spiritual goals based on faith that they’re possible to attain, thinking: “Our teachers told us that and Buddha told us that, so okay, I accept that.” That sounds really good, doesn’t it? However, working on the basis of that type of faith is not so stable. Something could happen either to us or we find something strange about our teachers, or something like that, and our faith is shaken or shattered. Then, we reach a point where we say, “What in the world am I doing with my spiritual practice? I’m aiming for something that I don’t even believe exists!” Or, we could just think, “Well, it’s not possible to actually achieve a true stopping of this, but if I go in that direction, things will get better.” Of course, that can sustain us, and if we practice sincerely, then, of course, things will get better; we’ll have less suffering.

However, the problem is that progress is never linear. Things go up and down, up and down, so sometimes things go well and sometimes they don’t. Then, when things are not going well, we might get discouraged. So, in order to have stable practice, we really need to put a great deal of effort into trying to understand and become convinced that liberation and enlightenment are actually possible.

Putting the Pieces of the Puzzle Together

There are two aspects to these attainments of liberation and enlightenment. One is: what is it that we can get rid of forever? Then, the second aspect is the question: then what? What does that leave us with? What do we actually attain in terms of our minds, in terms of our bodies, etc. We don’t really have time to cover all of that, but these are very crucial issues.

The main type of meditation that His Holiness the Dalai Lama always stresses is what we usually call “analytical meditation.” Whether that’s actually in the category of “thinking,” in terms of listening, thinking, and meditating, or it’s actually in the category of “meditating,” we don’t need to differentiate that here. This is because I think that the main thing we need to work with at our stage is basically trying to put all the pieces of the Dharma puzzle together. In other words, we hear and read so many different pieces about Dharma, and it’s not easy to see how they all fit together. It becomes even more complicated when we’re learning explanations of things from different tenet systems. There are the Indian tenet systems: Vaibhasika, Sautrantika, Chittamatra, Madhyamaka, and within Madhyamaka there are various divisions. Then, there are the different Tibetan traditions: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Gelug, and within those there are also different divisions. Welcome to the world of Tibetan Buddhism! Each of those Tibetan traditions has its own presentation of each of those Indian systems.

As complicated as that is, the trouble comes when we try to fit together pieces from one puzzle into another puzzle and they don’t go together. You could get to some meta-system, where you try to see how each of these different systems is trying to explain from a different point of view. However, we can really only do that when we’ve understood each of these systems quite well. So, when we do analytical meditation at our stage, we should try to fit together the pieces from just one puzzle. Also, we should try to correctly identify which puzzle the pieces are coming from; otherwise, we’ll get very confused.

Liberation and enlightenment aren’t things that can just be handed to us on a plate. We have to develop our own understanding, which means that we have to figure it out ourselves. That’s what it’s all about: figuring it out. We have to put the pieces of the puzzle together; it’s not that somebody else puts the pieces together and then gives us the whole puzzle. Also, these pieces fit together in many different ways; not just in one way. To fit them together, of course, we need discipline, patience, perseverance, concentration, etc. So, in putting these pieces together, we develop all of these other great qualities, which we will need, of course, to be best able to help others. We need to be patient, we need to persevere, we need to concentrate on the person; people are not easy to help. People give us a hard time; I’m sure that we all realize that. So, we develop these qualities in many, many ways, and one of the ways is through our practice of analytical meditation.

Can We Get Rid of Impure Cognition, and What Is Mental Activity?

So, we have all these variables: accurate and inaccurate, pure and impure, etc. We then try to figure out: what’s going on here? Can we rid ourselves of inaccurate cognition? Can we rid ourselves of impure cognition? We need conviction that this is possible, because to attain liberation and enlightenment we need to attain a true stopping of these incorrect ways of knowing and of the unawareness that lies behind them. Then, of course, to be able to answer those questions, we need to identify correctly what we’re talking about. So, all that it comes down to is, first of all, identifying the basis of this entire discussion.

The basis of this entire discussion is the mind, because that’s what we’re trying to purify; we try to get rid of the so-called “fleeting stains” that taint our minds. So, a very essential thing is to identify correctly: what do we mean by “mind” in Buddhism?

First of all, we need to understand quite clearly that we’re not talking about some sort of thing, some object. The brain is an object; we’re not talking about the brain. We’re talking about what the brain does. We’re talking about mental activity, and that’s the term that I like to use. This mental activity is individual, subjective, and is basically the experiencing of various objects.

That’s the activity: it’s the experiencing of objects, which is individual and subjective. Also, it’s a continuum: it’s one moment after another of this activity in some sort of sequence. One moment of mental activity does not follow another in just an arbitrary, haphazard order; the order follows cause and effect. Also, each individual continuum of mental activity has no beginning and no end. Each continuum goes on forever, without interruption.

Now, there’s a whole huge discussion about why it has no beginning and no end, but this isn’t the occasion for that discussion. The point here is that mental activity always cognitively takes objects. There can be no mental activity without cognitive objects. The “cognitively taking” (dzin-pa) of objects and objects that are cognitively taken (gzung-ba) are inseparable; you can’t have one without the other.

The non-Gelug Tibetan systems refer to that inseparability as “non-duality.” That doesn’t mean, however, that the two are identical. Sometimes, we even hear the expression “non-duality of subject and object.” But that is confusing, because one could misunderstand “subject” to mean the person, the conventional “me,” rather than the mind.

“Cognitively taking an object” is not the same as “having an object” (yul-can). There are many things that have objects and that arise dependently on their objects but are not inseparable from their objects. For instance, a snow-shovel has snow as its object. You couldn’t be a snow shovel if there weren’t such a thing as snow. However, snow certainly existed before there were ever snow shovels and a snow shovel can be hanging in our garage during the summer, without actively taking snow as its object.

Although mental activity is something that has an object, mental activity always cognitively takes an object. If you know, you have to know something; if you’re seeing, you have to see something, you can’t just see. But again, “non-dual” here doesn’t mean that the mental activity of seeing and what you see are the same. The experiential activity of seeing is not the same as the object that you see, is it? But, the two are inseparable. So, when you hear the term “non-dual,” that’s what it’s referring to: you can’t have the two separately from each other. Do you follow that? It makes sense, doesn’t it?

How Is Mental Activity Defined?

Now, how is that mental activity defined? It’s defined with three words: “clarity,” “awareness,” and then the adjective that describes those, which is “mere,” or “only.” Those three words aren’t terribly easy to understand, are they? In fact, they might be misleading, since we might think incorrectly that clarity means “in focus,” which it doesn’t. So, we need to look at the definitions.

In order to do any type of analytical meditation, in order to figure anything out, we need to know the definitions of what we’re trying to put together. Otherwise, we’re trying to fit together the meanings of terms that are completely different from what Buddhism means by them. So, the definitions are absolutely essential. Otherwise, we don’t know what we’re talking about. And often, the words in our own languages don’t actually correspond to the original meanings of the Sanskrit terms. The Tibetan translations of the Sanskrit are close, but even the Tibetan is sometimes different. This is the problem of language, isn’t it? Words in one language don’t exactly correspond to words in another.

In any case, what do each of these three words in the definition of “mental activity” mean? “Clarity” means “giving rise to a cognitive appearance of a cognitive object.” In Tibetan, “giving rise” (char-ba) is an inflection of the same word that’s used for “the dawning of the sun” (shar-ba). We’re talking about the action that does that – the giving rise to a cognitive appearance of a cognitive object – literally, a cognitive aspect (rnam-pa).

What are we talking about here when we speak of cognitive appearances or cognitive aspects of cognitive objects? We’re talking about mental holograms, but not just visual ones. There are mental holograms of sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, thoughts and so on.

If we analyze, even from a scientific point of view: what happens when we see something? From a scientific point of view, there are photons that hit the cognitive sensory cells of the eyes. They, then, get transformed into electric impulses and trigger various neurochemical processes. Then, somehow, in some very complex way, those impulses – neuro-electric and neurochemical impulses – give rise to what we subjectively experience. What we experience is some sort of hologram; that’s the only way to describe it, isn’t it? A mental hologram. You couldn’t actually find it if you dissected your brain; it’s not there in some sort of physical way. So, when we talk about “clarity,” we’re talking about this activity – that experiential, subjective activity of giving rise to a mental hologram.

This is where the term “merely” comes in. Because, it’s not that there’s a separate person that’s doing it, and there’s not a machine called “the mind” that’s doing it. There is no internal machine where the person is pushing some buttons on it and then a mental hologram comes up. It’s just happening. That’s the whole point: it’s just happening. So, it’s just the activity of this happening, “giving rise.” As I mentioned, the word is an inflection of the same word as used for the sun rising. It’s not that somebody is making the sun rise; it just rises. Just as there isn’t a Sun God who’s making the sun rise, there isn’t a person inside our heads making these holograms arise, either. That’s actually a very helpful analogy: there’s no Sun God in our heads that is making everything “clear.”

Then, the leftover word in our definition is “awareness,” and that’s a difficult word. What it’s actually describing is that same mental activity from a different point of view. It’s not that we’re talking about two different types of mental activity that fit together. We’re talking about just one activity. “Awareness” means “a cognitive engagement (jug-pa) with a cognitive object.” The arising of a thought and the thinking of a thought are the same thing. It’s not that a thought arises and then you think it, is it? They are not consecutive activities. Seeing is equivalent to the arising of a mental hologram. It’s not that first the mental hologram arises and then you see it. How could it arise without seeing it?

So, both terms are referring to the same activity, and that’s just happening in every moment without any break. The content is constantly changing, but there is continuity; it’s not that the content is arising arbitrarily. Then, that gets into the whole discussion of karma and so on, but we’re not going to talk about that; about what makes the sequence. It’s actually not just karma. Why is it that when I look at people on one side of the room and I turn my head to the other side, I see the people on this side of the room. You wouldn’t say that’s karma. The karma may be because of the fact that I’m here in this room, and all of you are here, but it’s a little bit more complicated than that, isn’t it? It’s not that I turn my head now back this way and I see an elephant. Unless there is some cause for a hallucination like that. Or, maybe I see it because an elephant walked into the room, but then we would have to investigate if the elephant is really here. This is why we’re talking about investigating these appearances.

Now, mental activity, of course, always has a physical basis. That’s its support. So, we can also describe that mental activity from the point of view of the brain waves, neural impulses and neurochemical interactions. That’s just describing the same activity from a different point of view.

So, the main point to understand is that we’re talking here about this mental activity: Moment to moment, no beginning, no end, never a break, individual, and subjective. Giving rise to a mental hologram and having cognitive engagement with it in some way, and only that. There is no separate person who’s making it happen or who’s sitting in the back of our head and watching it happen. And there’s no machine – the mind – that the person is operating to make this happen.

Primary Consciousness and Mental Factors

Now, analyzing further from the side of that cognitive engagement, we find that every moment of our cognition has two components. One is called “primary consciousness” (rnam-shes) and the other is called “mental factors” (sems-byung). Every moment has these. “Primary consciousness” is either one of the five types of sensory consciousnesses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling a physical sensation, or it is the sixth type, mental consciousness.

What do these types of primary consciousness do? How do they engage with the mental hologram that arises? Of course, this way of talking about primary consciousness is deceptive because it sounds like we’re talking about two separate, consecutive activities – the arising of the mental hologram and the type of cognitive engagement with it – and this is not at all the case. So, this is what we really need to work with: we have to try to realize that although our languages seem to make a duality here, the arising of the hologram and the cognitive engagements by primary consciousness and mental factors are all simultaneous and describing the same cognitive event. This is what we do in analytical meditation: we try to fit everything together in accord with their definitions.

Primary consciousness is just aware of what’s called the “essential nature” (ngo-bo) of an object. What does “essential nature” mean? Actually, every cognitive object has two essential natures: their conventional essential nature – what conventionally they are, specifically what kind of object they are – and their deepest essential nature, their voidness (emptiness). Here, unless focused on voidness, our primary consciousness is aware of only the conventional essential nature of something: what kind of object the mental hologram is. Is it a sight? Is it a sound? Is it a smell? Is it a taste? Is it a physical sensation? Or, is it an object that is known by mental cognition? For each kind of object, there is a separate type of primary consciousness, so visual consciousness for sights, audio consciousness for sounds and so on.

We can think of this in terms of a computer. Now, I’m not a computer expert, so excuse me if what I say is imprecise. However, if our mental activity worked, like a computer, with a digital representation of things with zeros and ones, then primary consciousness would be able to cognize: is it text, is it sound, is it a picture – what is it? It’s quite amazing that computers can do that, but our mental activity also does that; this is what primary consciousness does. It cognizes the essential nature of the mental hologram as a sight, for instance. It’s just cognizes what type of hologram it is.

Mental factors accompany primary consciousness and are aware of the same objects that the primary consciousness cognize, but they take them as cognitive objects in special ways. They do this without adding anything that’s not there, which is called “interpolating,” or denying something that is there, which is called “repudiating.” Like primary consciousness, the mental factors themselves don’t project anything. They just help the primary consciousness they accompany. Some perform functions that help the primary consciousness to cognitively take the object: attention, concentration, interest... many, many factors are involved, almost in a mechanical way, to make that mental activity work. Others add an emotional flavor, which can either be a positive emotional flavor, like loving the object, or a negative one like hating the object. All of these – the primary consciousness and a cluster of accompanying mental factors – arise simultaneously as part of one moment of mental activity.

So, if you think about that, it isn’t that first the hologram arises, and then you see it, then you like it; it’s not like that. It all happens at once. Okay, digest that for a moment.

How do you digest it? By examining – remember analytical meditation – examining what you’re experiencing right now. What are you experiencing? You’re looking, you’re seeing. What are you seeing? What’s going on in your brain? All these electric impulses and stuff like that. The sight you’re seeing is obviously a mental hologram. What you’re seeing on this side of the room – the mental hologram – and what the people on the other side of the room are seeing is different, isn’t it? Some people are seeing the right side of my head and some are seeing the left side of my head. Then the challenge comes: are all of you looking at the same object, but we won’t discuss that! That, also, has to be analyzed.

Then, of course, there are variables, aren’t there, of how much attention you’re paying, of how interested you are... Are you bored? Are you interested? Are you sleepy? Are you awake? Are you happy? Are you unhappy? Are you feeling a positive emotion toward me or a negative one? The emotion might have nothing to do with me; it might have to do with what happened before you came here. All of that is involved simultaneously in this moment of cognition, this moment of mental activity. That’s what’s happening. It’s individual, of course, each one of you is experiencing something different, even though we’re all in the same room and we’re all listening to the same sounds. That’s quite amazing, isn’t it, if you think about it. It’s individual and subjective. It’s subjective: some people are happy, some people are unhappy, some people don’t feel anything.

Now, you’re not just seeing something. It’s not just seeing that’s occurring, is it? It’s also hearing; also feeling the physical sensation of the temperature in this room, and the smell of the air, and, if we get really weird, the physical sensation of your tongue in your mouth. The amount of attention that you’re paying to the sensation of your tongue in your mouth might not be very much. That means that each of these factors are variables, doesn’t it? Sometimes strong, sometimes very weak. Mental activity. You have to identify it; this is very crucial. That’s what we’re working with here.

[pause for reflection]

A Person as an Imputation on Mental Activity

Now, let’s make it a little more interesting. Persons, namely the conventional “me,” are imputations on the five aggregate factors that make up each moment of their cognition. Each moment of our experiencing things – the components of it – can be grouped in five different boxes, you could say. However, it’s just a conceptual scheme; there aren’t any boxes, of course. In a sense, then, persons are imputations on individual, subjective continuums of mental activity.

We’ll explain imputations in a moment, but one important point about them is that imputations, such as persons, and their basis for imputation, their mental activity, are not identical. This can be quite confusing because, in the case of persons and mental activity, they have something in common. Persons also cognitively take cognitive objects. It’s not just that “consciousness sees; I see.” It’s not just that “visual consciousness is seeing,” you’d have to say, “I’m seeing.” It’s not just that “mental consciousness is thinking,” you’d have to say, “I’m thinking.” But it’s not that the “me” is something totally separate from the mental activity and is the one doing the mental activity. The person is not the agent, as it were, of the mental activity. But there is a person thinking and it’s “I’m thinking”– it’s not “you’re thinking” and it’s not “nobody’s thinking.” That’s not very easy to understand, is it? It’s something we really have to work with.

A person, then, “me,” is an imputation on each moment of an individual, subjective continuum of mental activity. So, if both are cognitively aware of objects, what is the difference between mental activity and a person? Mental activity gives rise to mental holograms, whereas a person doesn’t. That’s the difference.

Also, there are times when our mental activity is cognitively aware of the mental hologram it gives rise to, but the person as an imputation on that mental activity does not cognize or know it. For instance, when we are asleep, audio consciousness cognizes the sound of the alarm clock ticking, but we don’t hear it. This is called “subliminal cognition” (bag-la nyal). In the West we would say we are not conscious of the sound of the clock ticking. But if our audio consciousness didn’t continue throughout the night to give rise to a mental hologram of the sound of the ticking and, in a sense, hear it, how could we hear the sound of the alarm when it went off?

But whether we are conscious or not of the objects of our mental activity, still we, as persons, are imputations on that mental activity, with no interruptions. There’s always somebody as an imputation on that mental activity; it’s never nobody. How do we understand that? You can’t have a person without mental activity, and you can’t have mental activity without a person. A “person,” by the way, refers to any life form that has mental activity and which acts with intention and experiences the results of its actions with some level of happiness or unhappiness. The term “persons” (gang-zag), then, as used in Buddhism, does not refer just to humans. Animals and insects are also persons by this definition.

Can you have a person without mental activity? No. Even if someone is in a coma, they are still a person because there is still some level of mental activity, otherwise they would be dead. Likewise, you can’t have mental activity without it being the mental activity of a person. Persons and mental activity arise dependently on each other. We call that relationship between an imputation (a person) and a basis for imputation (mental activity) “dependent arising.” It’s somewhat like the relationship between a whole and parts, in the sense that you can’t have a whole without parts, and parts can’t exist as parts independently of being the parts of a whole, even if not all the parts are present.

A whole, then, is an imputation on parts, and a person is an imputation on the mental activity in general, and if we want to get more specific: an imputation on the five aggregates. And one important point, we see a person, we don’t just think we see a person when all we actually see is a body. Persons are not just conceptual mental constructs.

The Aggregate of Forms of Physical Phenomena

So, we have these five aggregates. “Aggregate” just means a group or conglomeration of many items. Each moment of mental activity is made up of one or more items from each of these five aggregates. The first is the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena. These include all five sensory types of cognitive object: sights, sounds, smells, tastes and physical sensations, whether we see or hear them and so on when we are awake, or we mentally cognize what appears like them in our dreams.

There is a very interesting discussion that arises here. The mental hologram that arises when we see something consists just of colored shapes, but you would also have to say that we also see commonsense objects. When I look at this object in front of me, I see colored shapes, but I’d also have to say that I see a flower. A commonsense object is one that can be known by several types of consciousness and which continues over time. If I touch this object, I’m not just feeling a physical sensation, I’m feeling a flower. If I smell it, I’m not just smelling a fragrance, I’m smelling a flower. The whole commonsense flower is an imputation on all the forms of physical phenomena that constitute its complete sensory information. When we are aware of just a part of that information, for instance the colored shapes of its sight, but not simultaneously aware of some other parts, such as its smell, are we also aware of the flower as a whole? Are we still seeing a flower?

It’s the same discussion as whether there are commonsense persons. A person is an imputation on a body, a mind, emotions, and so on. When we see a body, are we seeing a person, even if we don’t also know their thoughts or their emotions?

There is a big debate about that: how do we know commonsense objects? That’s what we do in analytical meditation. We investigate each of these questions and try to figure it out from other things that we’ve heard or read, and then fit what we conclude into whatever topic we’re discussing. Hopefully, things will then become a little more understandable – a little bit clearer and more precise. The Gelug Prasangika conclusion in this case is that we do see commonsense objects and we do see persons.

So, the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena includes not only sensory objects, but also the physical cognitive sensors. These would be the photo-sensitive cells of the eyes, the sound-sensitive of the ears, smell-sensitive of the nose, taste-sensitive of the tongue and sensation-sensitive of the body. And, of course, these sensors aren’t just sitting on a table; they are part of a body. So, a body as a whole is included in this aggregate as well.

The Aggregate of Consciousness

The next aggregate is the aggregate of consciousness, and it includes the six types of primary consciousness. One of them is involved in each moment. Mind you, you could also have two or more types of consciousness active at the same time. You can see and hear at the same time. The amount of attention that accompanies each cognition might be different, but they’re occurring at the same time. You could also be thinking something else – mentally wandering – at the same time too, couldn’t you? So, each moment of mental activity is a different package of types of primary consciousness and forms of physical phenomena, even if only that physical phenomenon is our body while thinking or in deep sleep.

The Aggregates of Feeling Levels of Happiness

The mental factors are distributed among the last three aggregates. The aggregate of feeling contains just one mental factor, namely feeling. “Feeling” means feeling some level of happiness, somewhere on the scale of happy to unhappy, or a neutral feeling that is neither happy nor unhappy when we are absorbed in incredibly advanced states of deep meditation.

The level of happiness or unhappiness we feel doesn’t need to be intense or dramatic, but there is always some level of feeling present, even when we are asleep. Whether any attention is directed to that feeling of course is variable, but there’s some level of happiness in each moment.

The Aggregate of Distinguishing

The aggregate of distinguishing also contains just one mental factor, distinguishing. You might sometimes see that translated as “recognition”; that’s misleading. “Recognition” implies that you knew something before and then you compare what you cognize now with that and recognize it again. We’re not talking about that at all. What we’re talking about is this: within a sense field, for instance sight, what arises is a mental hologram of colored shapes. Or, we could even describe what arises as a mental hologram of colored pixels, if we analyze from the point of view of each cell of the retina. So, how do we put these together into objects? We don’t just see pixels or colored shapes, do we? We see objects, commonsense cognitive objects. How is mental activity able to do that?

With the aggregate of distinguishing, the mental factor of distinguishing cognizes the “defining characteristic marks” (mtshan) of commonsense objects and this allows us to differentiate one commonsense object from all the other colored shapes and colored pixels in the rest of the sense field around it. With distinguishing, however, we don’t know what the object is, we don’t “recognize” it; we merely differentiate the object from everything around it, so we can focus on it with other mental factors.

There is a huge discussion in Buddhist philosophy about where these defining characteristic marks are located. However, we won’t get into that discussion. That gets really complicated. Nevertheless, with this aggregate we distinguish commonsense objects that arise as mental holograms in our mental activity; otherwise, we couldn’t possibly deal with what’s happening around us.

The Aggregate of Other Affecting Variables

The fifth aggregate is the aggregate of other affecting variables, and here we find all the rest of the mental factors. “Variables” means that each item in this aggregate changes from moment to moment, as does the combination of mental factors from this aggregate that occur in each moment of mental activity. “Affecting” means that they affect our experience. So, we’re talking here about all the other mental factors that affect our experience: attention, concentration, interest, all the emotions, etc. All of these things affect our experience, don’t they?

Also in this aggregate is the person, the conventional “me,” as well as other – and here’s another technical term – “noncongruent affecting variables” (ldan-min ’du-byed), like age. “Non-congruent” means that they don’t share five things in common with the primary consciousness and mental factors. So, the primary consciousness and mental factors are “congruent.” That’s the term from geometry; I’m sure all of you have studied geometry in school. For example, two triangles are congruent. They’re the same shape; they fit together. Look, there was some value to studying geometry! You can put your geometry teacher on the tree of gurus. Algebra, I don’t know, but geometry, okay. So, two triangles share things in common. They’re the same shape; they’re congruent.

Likewise, the primary consciousness and mental factors in a moment of mental activity are congruent; they share five things in common. (1) They rely on the same cognitive sensor: the photosensitive cells of the eyes, for instance. We’re not talking about the organ; we’re not talking about the gross eye. We’re talking about these photosensitive cells in the retina. Or the sound-sensitive cells – I think it’s the hairs of your inner ear, or something in your inner ear. These are sensors, like the photo-sensitive cells in the doors that automatically open. Seeing and the concentration involved with seeing all rely on those cells. (2) They’re all aimed at the same focal object. (3) They all give rise to the same mental hologram, and (4) they all occur at the same time. Then, (5) they all share the same “natal source” (rdzas). What that means is that they all function together harmoniously, with only one primary consciousness and one instance of each of the accompanying mental factors arising in a specific cognition.

So, primary consciousness and these mental factors all share these five things together; they’re congruent. However, persons are not congruent with the primary consciousness and the mental factors. They don’t give rise to the mental hologram, for example. They may occur at the same time, and they’re seeing the same object, but they don’t have all these five things in common.

The Functional Nature of Mental Activity

What is relevant from all this in our discussion of appearances? What’s relevant is that all of these – primary consciousness and mental factors – do not conflict with the intrinsic functional nature of mental activity. There are many different Tibetan words that are often all translated as the same thing: “nature.” However, unless we go to the definitions, we don’t really understand the distinctions. They’re not all talking about the same thing.

We had one term which was “essential nature” (ngo-bo), do you remember? It means what something is, essentially. Is it a sight, is it a sound, is it a smell, etc. “Functional nature” (rang-bzhin) means: what does it do? This term, rang-bzhin, means, literally, “self-nature” and in some contexts it refers to a “self-establishing nature,” but in the context of our discussion it refers just to functional nature. Something’s functional nature or self-nature is innate (lhan-skyes), which means, literally, that it arises simultaneously with it. It is an intrinsic feature of something and, without it, that something would no longer be what it conventionally is.   

The functional nature of mental activity is merely the giving rise to a mental hologram, which is the same as a cognitive engagement with it. This is what we need to remember, because what we want to figure out is whether mental activity, having that innate functional nature, can be liberated or become enlightened? To figure that out, we need to analyze what the constituent items are that come with mental activity that cause suffering and problems and can they be removed from mental activity without mental activity losing its functional nature and therefore no longer being mental activity? Then we need to see which of the constituent items can still be present in our mental activity when liberated and enlightened, and of these, which are present and indispensable in each moment, even when our mental activity contains suffering and its causes. We don’t want to rid our mental activity of those. In fact, we can’t stop them. They’re always going to be functioning.

So, what is always going to be part of our mental activity? What is always going to be conducive or fitting with this functional nature of merely giving rise to a mental hologram and a cognitive engagement? Well, first, what we need to determine is: can there be mental activity without giving rise to a mental hologram and cognitively engaging with it? We want to achieve a true stopping. What do we want to achieve a true stopping of? We want to achieve a true stopping on the basis of mental activity. We want to get rid of the things that cause trouble, but we still want to leave mental activity: this cognitively engaging and giving rise to a mental hologram, which is always with primary consciousness and mental factors.

So, now we examine, we analyze: what could we get rid of and it would still be mental activity? Could we get rid of giving rise to a mental hologram and cognitively engaging with something? If we got rid of that, would it still be mental activity? No, because that’s the innate functional nature of mental activity. It’s the defining characteristic mark – the definition of mental activity. So, there’s nothing that is mutually exclusive with mere clarity and awareness and which could replace them and still leave primary consciousness and its attendant mental factors as being mental activity. So, no matter what type of appearance mental activity gives rise to, there’s always primary consciousness and mental factors present and giving rise to and mentally engaging with mental holograms. This is true whether that mental activity is with suffering and the causes of suffering or without them when liberated or enlightened.

It doesn’t matter what we’re experiencing, how crazy it might be. It’s still mental activity. It’s still primary consciousness and mental factors. It’s still merely the arising of a mental hologram and a cognitive engagement. The mental hologram that arises, of course, could be accurate or inaccurate, pure or impure, tainted or untainted. The mental engagement could be valid or invalid, accurate or distorted, decisive or indecisive. We need to sort out all these types of mental activity, but with all of them the basic functional nature of mental activity remains the same.

So, as Tsongkhapa emphasizes so strongly in his presentation of voidness in his Lam-rim chen-mo, Grand Presentation of the Stages of the Path, we don’t want to achieve a true stopping of too much, because then we don’t have experiencing at all; there’s no mental activity. Also, we don’t want to achieve a true stopping of too little, because then there are still causes of suffering. That’s why it’s very important not to over-refute or under-refute. It’s not that we’ll get rid of our suffering if we just stop thinking anything or just turn into a nothing; that’s not going to happen. We have to work with our mental activity and identify which of its constituent members can we get rid of without losing the innate functional nature of our mental activity and what not only do we not need to get rid of, but which are essential for mental activity to function.

Summary of What We Need to Analyze

Maybe that’s enough for this evening. It’s important to think over and try to understand this basis presentation of mental activity, which is the main topic what we’re talking about when we discuss types of appearances. Then we’ll start to explore: what are the things that we want to get rid of in our mental activity because they cause problems, what are the ones that we don’t want to get rid of because they can help us to benefit others, and what are the ones that are always going to be there? When we talk about pure and impure, and accurate and inaccurate, what is it that we’re talking about? What is pure and impure? What is accurate and inaccurate? The mental activity itself of giving rise to a hologram, whether accurate or inaccurate, is not the problem. The problem is whether the hologram it gives rise to is accurate or inaccurate. This is what I’m trying to get across in this rather complicated way, so that we identify correctly what we need to analyze and what we need to purify.


Let’s spend a few minutes – and not my usual “few minutes,” meaning only ten seconds because of my lack of patience – let us actually spend a few minutes thinking about this. Let’s try to review in our minds if we’ve understood anything from this discussion. Consider the content of what we’ve been discussing – mental activity – and what you’ve understood about it. If we are going to analyze it, there needs to be the arising of a mental hologram and cognitive engagement with that content. What would that mental hologram look like? What kind of mental hologram would arise? Think about that. Then you can give me your answers after you’ve thought about it.

[five-minute pause]

Okay, no more patience. So, tell me: When you to recall what we spoke about – mental activity – with some understanding of it, what’s the mental hologram that arises? Anybody? What arose in your so-called “mind”? Although, “mind” isn’t some sort of box that things arise in.

If the mental holograms of other people or other phenomena like sounds, etc., arise in our minds, is there also a hologram of ourselves arising if we think about ourselves?

If we think of ourselves, there would be a hologram of ourselves, sure. But what would represent ourselves? What we look like? Our name? The sound of our name? What represents “me”? Can just “me” arise? Can it? No. “Me” can only arise with some basis of its imputation arising simultaneously. Even if that basis is just the mental sound of the word “me.”

What is interesting is: if, when a mental hologram of some external object or person arises in our mental activity and we experience it dualistically as if there were a “me” separate from the mental activity and looking at this hologram, is there a separate hologram of “me” arising alongside the hologram of the object or the other person? That’s something to analyze at another time.

But, what mental hologram arises when we’re trying to remember what we understood from the lecture about mental activity?

You mentioned non-duality earlier, but in our own minds what arises is actually duality. There’s the duality of “me” and then everything that we’re trying to understand and be aware of. But that brings up another question. How do we distinguish between what we contribute to the mental hologram and what belongs to the mental hologram from the so-called “objective” external world? It seems as though there’s some duality there as well.

Remember what we were saying: mental activity occurs without a person separate from it making it happen or observing it. It has a cognitive component – primary consciousness and mental factors – and a content component, the mental hologram. However, these are not two separate, independently existing things like two ping-pong balls joined together. They are talking about the same thing from two points of view. That moment of mental activity is made up of five aggregate factors; it’s a network of many components. Like a network, it’s not made up of separate ping-pong balls joined together with sticks.

Each of the components in a moment of mental activity arises in dependence on its own causes and conditions. Some of those causes and conditions are affected by, or coming from, factors on our own mental continuums, and some from external sources. For instance, I see the wall and I see you people sitting here. The mental hologram of them that arises in my mental activity of seeing them arose with the external wall and people as its focal condition. The fact that I came here and see them and that I experience seeing them with happiness is the result of the karmic tendencies that are imputations on my own mental continuum.

But seeing you here is also the result of your karmic tendencies that caused you to come here, plus all the hard work of the people who built this building, not to mention your parents who gave birth to you and so on. The strength of each of the mental factors that accompany my seeing you, such as attention, concentration, and the various emotions, all come from their own tendencies, which are also imputations on my mental continuum.

Although some of the causes and conditions for the components of this moment of mental activity are on my own mental continuum, some are on the mental continuums of other people and some are coming from external objects; nevertheless, the result of all of them are the components of the five aggregates on my own mental continuum that constitute this moment of cognition. The person, “me,” is just an imputation on the basis of these five aggregate factors. There is no duality within the context of the five aggregates in this moment, because, as I said, they network together to form one moment of experience. We can conceptually isolate all the components, but they do not exist as if coated in plastic, separate from each other.    

However, this still doesn’t answer our question: when you try to understand and remember what we were talking about, what’s the mental hologram that arises?

The hologram that arises is like an image that arises on a computer screen, which arises from the external source of you typing something and from the inner source of the computer program and operating system.

Okay, the hologram can be likened to the image on computer screen, but the computer doesn’t experience it with happiness or unhappiness. So, it’s not mental activity.

However, you still haven’t answered: what mental hologram arises when you’re thinking about what you understood from this lecture on mental activity? It is the mental hologram of a mental representation of the sound of words, isn’t it? That’s how you think. It’s a mental representation of the sound of words. However, the words can’t be words without having meaning. Otherwise, they’re just sounds. So, the mental hologram is a mental representation of the sounds of words, and you are cognizing them through some sort of understanding of what the words mean. You’re distinguishing some meaning and that meaning could be accurate or not so accurate. Then maybe, if you got really advanced, then while focusing on whatever hologram arises in each moment, your mental activity could be accompanied by your understanding of this lecture without having to represent it explicitly with mental words.

In any case, like any other type of mental activity, thinking entails the arising of mental holograms and a cognitive engagement with them. Usually, for most of us, the mental hologram is a mental representation of the sounds of words. Some of us think with mental movies or pictures. Most of us, though, think in terms of mental sounds.

A friend of mine studied sign language. He works with many people who were born deaf, so they have no mental image of sound. Then, the question is: how do they think? How do they dream? He reported from his conversations with them that they don’t think with a mental picture of their hands making the signs of sign language. Rather, they think with a mental representation of the physical sensation of the motion of their hands signing. The physical sensation of the motion of their hands has meaning associated with it and their mental activity is accompanied by an understanding of that meaning. Otherwise, they are just thinking of what it feels like to move their hands. Similarly, if we didn’t associate with meanings the mental representations of the sounds of words when we think them, then we are only thinking about sounds. Interesting, isn’t’ it?

So, mental holograms: we need to understand what we’re talking about not only in sense perception, but also in thinking.