A Mere Making of Appearances and Cognizing Them

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The Meaning of “Mind” in Buddhism

I’ve been asked to come here this weekend to teach about appearances (snang-ba), how the mind makes appearances and the various problems that are associated with that. This is not a very simple topic, because in fact all our problems come because of confusion about appearances and so it’s very important to try to understand what are appearances, how do they exist and do they correspond to reality or not.

When we speak about appearances, if you think about it, what really does it mean for something to appear? When we think about it, then we realize that it involves a mind. When something appears, it has to appear to a mind. It’s not just appearing by itself. And so we need to really understand first of all what we mean by mind and its relation to appearances.

What do we mean by “mind” (sems) in Buddhism? This is a very crucial question. Basically, when we speak about mind, we’re speaking about mental activity. Of course we can speak about the brain and these sorts of things that do mental activity, but that’s not really the main concern in Buddhism. When we speak about mental activity, also we’re not talking about the chemical or electrical activity of cognition, although the Buddhist analysis doesn’t negate this. It doesn’t say that the physical side doesn’t exist. Of course it exists. But we can describe mental activity from many points of view and the point of view that Buddhism is discussing is the point of view of individual, subjective experiencing.

So we’re always talking about individual mental activity; we’re not talking about some sort of collective thing. And when we talk about individual subjective experiencing, it’s the experiencing of something; it has to have content. So, what is the content of this experiencing, this mental activity? This is where the discussion of appearances begins.

Now, we have to look at the definition of mental activity or mind. It is usually translated with three words as clarity (gsal-ba) and awareness (rig-pa) and the word merely or only (tsam). We have to understand what these words mean because we can have a very confused understanding of them. Now, “clarity” is not speaking about some quality of something, like it being in focus or not in focus. It’s not talking about that at all. What it is explained as is an arising (‘char-ba) – “arising,” it’s the same word as the sun rising, a dawning. So it is making an appearance arise. This is the activity. So, there is the making of a mental appearance and that’s one way of describing what’s happening. We’re talking about an event.

Another way of describing the same thing is a cognitive engaging (‘jug-pa). It’s engaging with this appearance in some sort of cognitive manner, so it’s the making of an awareness. Now, we have one activity. It’s not that first there is making a mental appearance and then, after that, there is making an awareness of it. It’s not like that. We could understand that with a simple example: it’s not that first a thought arises and then you think it. The arising of a thought and the thinking of the thought are the same thing, just described in two different ways. So, it’s the same thing with seeing and hearing and smelling and tasting and feeling a physical sensation and dreaming and so on.

Then this third word, mere or only, means that this is happening without there being some separate thing or person that’s doing it. There’s no agent that’s separate from this that’s doing it. In other words, it’s just this activity. There isn’t a separate me or a separate thing called “mind” which is doing this. That, of course, gets into deep Buddhist philosophy, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment.

Of course there are many practices that are involved for trying to recognize this bare mental activity. We find these in methods known as mahamudra and dzogchen and there are many further practices that we can do based on being able to recognize and identify just mental activity itself. It’s not so easy, actually, to just identify the activity itself. But we have to be quite careful in reading about this topic not to get confused by the usual words for it, “clarity and awareness.”

We’re not talking about some sort of light and it’s totally irrelevant whether something is in focus or whether I take my glasses off and there’s a blur that arises. And in some languages “clear” implies that you understand, “everything is clear,” and it certainly doesn’t mean that; confusion also arises. And when we talk about awareness of something, it doesn’t mean that we have to have full attention or certainty about what something is. And it doesn’t have to even be what we call “conscious” in the West. It covers conscious, subconscious, unconscious, and so on.

Divers Explanations

Now appearances come in here with this discussion of what is it that is arising and engaged with when we talk about mental activity. Of course we have in Buddhism many different explanations, not just one, so I’ll try to limit all the possible explanations that we find to a manageable number, otherwise it gets too confusing.

You know, there are two approaches to understanding something or to explaining something. There’s one approach which says there’s only one explanation, that’s definitively what it is. And there’s another approach which is more instrumental, is how it’s usually called, which means that there could be many explanations that all work equally well. There’s not just one that’s more correct than another.

We find this in mathematics: if you have a very complex problem, there could be many ways of solving it and all of them can be equally correct, not just one. The same thing in engineering: you have computers, you have the PCs and you have the Macs. These are two ways of solving the same problem and you can’t say that one is more correct than the other. They both work. We may prefer one over the other, that’s something else. But we can’t say that one is more correct than the other. And the same thing is true with these different explanations of how the mind works, how appearances work, and so on.

In our explanations, in general we have one way of explaining according to the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism and one way that is mostly common to the other schools – that would be Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakya – some differences, but they have a general way of explaining that’s similar and different from the Gelug way of explaining. So, let’s restrict ourselves mostly to the Gelug tradition, although I’ll point out where it is that you get the major starting point of the difference between the Gelug and the non-Gelug explanations. From this starting point, then the variation begins.

Within each of these Tibetan traditions, they have their own way of explaining the different Indian philosophical positions. Those constitute the sutra side of explanation. And then we have a further explanation that comes in, specifically, the highest class of tantra and then there’s a further detail is given from Kalachakra teachings. This is the highest class of tantra also. We have these different levels in the Gelug explanation and also in the non-Gelug explanation. So, we’ll stick to the Gelug side.

And since we don’t have so much time and since this is a very, very complicated topic that brings in many, many other issues, we’ll try to make it as general as possible and just go into detail with certain aspects of it that are really quite crucial. Because it can help us to analyze what appears to us. When we see somebody, what is appearing? How much of that is accurate, how much of that is a projection? Does it correspond to reality or not? What am I emotionally reacting to? Am I emotionally reacting to an accurate appearance or to the projection of something which is totally inappropriate? So unless we understand what really are appearances and what’s going on, it’s hard to differentiate and throw out the garbage that is causing us trouble.

And remember, we’re not talking about the image – and it’s very hard for this to sink in to our understanding – we’re not talking about a mind which is sitting in our head and projecting appearances, and then me, “I’m sitting behind the projector and I’m looking at them.” It’s not like that. And “If there is a problem here, I just have to get up from the seat in the back of my head, walk over to the projector and fix it.” It’s not like that, although this is of course the solution that we would like for there to be.

There’s just mental activity and it’s going on from moment to moment, it’s individual, subjective. There’s the basic functioning that’s going on all the time, it never changes. I mean, moment to moment the content is different, but the basic functioning stays the same. So what we have to really examine is the content of our experiencing. What is it that is arising?


The different Buddhist philosophical positions are presented in a graded order, which means that when you understand the first explanation, then that forms a basis for understanding the next explanation. Now, the Vaibhashika School, which is the one that we would start with, doesn’t really discuss very much about the whole process of cognition, of mental activity. What is unique about its presentation is that it says that sensory non-conceptual cognition – it’s talking about seeing, hearing, etc. – it directly contacts and cognizes external objects (phyi-don). In other words, there’s no mental appearance, this mental activity is not producing a mental aspect (rnam-pa) that resembles the external object. But it doesn’t really discuss in terribly much detail beyond that and none of the other schools in Indian Buddhist philosophy accept this. They do not agree.


Natal Sources and Mental Holograms

So we need to start with this next school, which is called Sautrantika. Sautrantika asserts and accepts that there’s such a thing as an external object. So, what is an external object? What do we mean by that? It is an object that exists prior to the cognition from it and it functions as the natal source (rdzas) of a mental aspect that arises in the cognition of it. So that means we have to understand what we mean by a “natal source.” Natal source is something that, like the word “natal,” it gives birth to – here we’re talking about a mental aspect.

What are examples of a natal source, so that we can understand what it’s talking about? An oven is the natal source of a loaf of bread. So, we’re not talking about the dough that turns into the loaf of bread. We’re not talking about that. And we’re not talking about the person who makes the loaf of bread. We’re talking about the oven. Another example is the potter’s wheel, which is the natal source of a clay pot. This is very interesting if you think about it. We’re not talking about the clay, we’re not talking about the potter; we’re talking about the wheel.

If these are examples of what a natal source of something is, what does it mean that the external object is the natal source of the mental aspect that resembles it and represents it in cognition of it. Think about that. I see this cup. The mental appearance of the cup – is that something that is made out of the cup? No. The bread is not made from the metal of the oven, right? And does this cup sit there and make a mental image and then throw it out to my mind? No, so where does it come from? This is the interesting question.

One has to really analyze and think. Chittamatra and tantra and so on will give more detail about the natal source of things and what the mental aspect is made of. But first we have to understand the natal source and I think to understand it more deeply we have to say: Well, what is a mental aspect? What are we talking about here? And it is explained as a mental semblance (rnam-pa), something that resembles the object, an objective entity. It’s a mental semblance of an objective entity that a specific sense consciousness can cognize, like a sight or a sound.

I think that the easiest analogy for us, as Westerners, to work with as an approach to this whole topic is that we’re talking about mental holograms. Then the discussion starts to become a little bit more understandable, I think.

Western science speaks about cognition, and when we see something, for example, what’s going on? Light, photons, etc. are coming – I’m not a scientist, so excuse me if I say this incorrectly or too simplistically – but coming from the object, hitting the eye sensors, the cognitive sensors in the retina and so on, little rods and cones, and that is translated into electrical impulses and some chemical processes that travel along the neurons. And when that reaches a certain part of the brain, and of course there’s a big discussion of where and is it only one part of the brain or other parts of the brain, but in any case, then there is what we would call “seeing.”

So, what do we see? Do we see electric impulses and chemicals? Well, you say, “I see the cup,” or “I see the sight of the cup.” So the Vaibhashika says this happens without there being a mental hologram that is formed. And Sautrantika and everybody else says that actually those electric impulses and so on are somehow translated into a mental hologram. It’s not that anybody else can see it – remember, it’s individual and subjective – and that’s what we see. That’s what appears in my vision.

What is it that we see? We see electric impulses, we see a mental hologram. So, except for Vaibhashika, Buddhism talks about mental holograms. The technical word is a mental aspect (rnam-pa). It’s an aspect of the external object and the external object is the natal source of that, like the oven. So, like a loaf of bread coming out of an oven, I think that we can perhaps think – maybe this is too simplistic, but to help us initially to understand – that coming out of the object would be things like photons and so on and that is like the bread – well, that’s not quite the bread, but it is then translated into little electrical impulses, the chemicals, and eventually the mental hologram.

Here we’re just talking now about sense perception – seeing, hearing, etc. – which is non-conceptual. We’re not talking about the appearances and the holograms and all of that in conceptual thinking. That’s something else. When we get into the realm of concepts, then in the West we speak in terms of thoughts and ideas, these sort of things. That’s a more complicated discussion. We’ll get to that, so don’t worry.


Now, I want to introduce something here, which actually opens the door to a lot of other discussions. What I want to start discussing is what’s called “to apprehend (rtogs-pa) an object” and this means to cognize it – cognize is the most general word for either sensory or mental – to cognize it “both accurately and with decisive determination.” Decisive determination (nges-pa) means that when you see something, let’s talk about seeing, if you apprehend the object, it decisively cuts off all incorrect interpolation (sgro-‘dogs), or projection, that it’s something other than itself. “I see a dog. I decisively determine that this is a dog.” It cuts off all other possibilities that it’s something other than a dog. And it allows for me to correctly recollect that object later. So, we apprehend something as a specific thing, not as something else.

This word opens a door into a whole big discussion, which is actually an important discussion. This is non-conceptual (rtog-med). When there’s a decisive determination of an object, of a dog that I see, that doesn’t mean that I know it’s “a dog,” that I know what it is, that it’s this, it’s “a dog.” It just decisively determines that it’s a specific object, so I can later remember. I have no idea what it is. To know what it is, that’s conceptual. But I can remember, “I saw this.” We won’t get into how the actual moment of remembering occurs, that’s complicated. And of course it needs to be accurate (yang-dag-pa), otherwise you don’t remember it correctly.

Because you see, there’s always this problem with certain mental factors to understand what they’re referring to. There’s a mental factor that some people, most people, translate as “recognition.” I think this is very misleading. “Recognize” implies that you knew it before and then you remember and then you recognize it again. We’re not talking about that. This mental factor is distinguishing (‘ du-shes, Skt. samjna). To distinguish, like for instance, light from dark.

When I look in front of me, what is the mental hologram? It’s all sorts of colored shapes, isn’t it? So, colored shapes. We will get into the discussion of: do we only see colored shapes, or what do we actually see? But distinguishing allows me to distinguish this collection of colored shapes from the colored shapes around. Otherwise there’s no way of being able to cognize anything. This is distinguishing. So when distinguishing something – and that happens every moment – then it can be with a decisive determination or not. It doesn’t have to be decisive, it can be indecisive, “I don’t remember.” “I saw this face before, I don’t remember it,” so it wasn’t a decisive determination. And if it wasn’t accurate, then also I don’t remember it properly.

We have another mental factor called discriminating awareness (shes-rab, Skt. prajna). That’s sometimes translated very poorly as “wisdom.” It has nothing to do with wisdom. So, discriminating awareness is defined as the mental factor that adds certainty. What we’re saying here, a decisive determination, it adds certainty to the distinguishing – and it could be strong or weak of course. This is relevant here to this whole discussion, because we have to understand that in a non-conceptual cognition you’re not applying a name; you don’t know what something is, but still there’s a decisive determination and there is a mental hologram.

So, in our discussion of mental holograms, or appearances, the main context of it will be within the context of apprehension of something, but not always. So we have to distinguish here, but in apprehension it’s very interesting because something can be either explicitly apprehended (dngos-su rtogs-pa) or implicitly apprehended (shugs-la rtogs-pa). When you explicitly apprehend something, the mental hologram of it actually arises. So I decisively determine “this object.” It’s a dog – I don’t know that it’s a dog, but I decisively determine “this particular thing.” Implicit apprehension is, at the same time a mental aspect, a hologram of it, does not arise. So, if I explicitly apprehend that it’s “this object,” then implicitly I apprehend it’s “not that object.”

Let’s make it with a dog. A mental hologram of a dog arises when I see a dog. I apprehend “dog.” We’re not talking about with the word and so on, but “this object,” I can remember it. Well, I also know at the same time that it’s not a cat. Does “not a cat” appear? Is there a hologram of “not a cat?”

I look at this table and a mental hologram of this table arises, I explicitly apprehend it. At the same time I also apprehend “no apple on the table.” That’s implicit. Is there a mental hologram of “no apple on the table?” Think about it. How do you know that there’s no apple on the table? Well, we say, “I see that there’s no apple on the table,” but what do you actually see? So when we talk about appearances, we can understand something either with an explicit appearance or from that explicit appearance also know something implicit from it. Implicit means it’s sort of somewhere implied inside it. Right? You have to see a table in order to also understand “no apple on the table,” the point being that there is some mental hologram arising, but we can know more than just that mental hologram.

When I have a decisive determination, the mental hologram of a dog, with that I also know it’s not a cat. So some things we know with an appearance and some things we know without an appearance. And with a decisive determination there’s a decision, “Yes! This and not that.” Here we’re just talking about it being a specific object; it doesn’t necessarily imply that we know it’s a dog or a cat. A baby looks at its teddy bear. Does it know that it’s a teddy bear? Does it know the word “teddy bear?” It doesn’t know anything, but here’s where recognition comes in. It can remember this specific object. It had a decisive determination of it and it’s not some other object, because if another object comes, the baby will reject it. OK? We’re talking about something very, very basic.

Commonsense Objects

One more point for this evening. What do we see when we see? Do we see only colored shapes or do we also see what’s called commonsense objects (‘jig-rten-la grags-pa)? Commonsense objects are conventional objects of experience (tha-snyad spyod-yul), that’s another word for it. When I look at this thing here, do I see only colored shapes or do I also see a dog? A commonsense object – a dog is a commonsense object, it’s a convention that we all agree.

A commonsense object is one that has spatial extension over a collection of molecules of similar class. So it’s made up of many parts. And also it extends over different sense data. Is a dog only colored shapes? Or you pet a dog, there’s a physical sensation. Is a dog a physical sensation? There’s smell. So, a commonsense object extends over all of that information. And it also extends over time. So, in one moment what do I see? In one moment do I just see one moment of colored shapes or do I also see the dog? The next moment the dog moved, so the colored shapes could be in a slightly different configuration. Do I still see a dog?

In other words, what is the mental appearance? What is the mental hologram? Is it a mental hologram just of colored shapes or is it also a mental hologram of a dog. What do you think? Do you see a dog or do you only see colored shapes?

We do see the conventional object because even if we don’t know what it is, we don’t know the name of it and so on, yet we conventionally say that I’m seeing the same thing from moment to moment.

This is where Gelugpa and non-Gelugpa split radically. According to Gelugpa you see commonsense objects non-conceptually. You don’t just see colored shapes, you also see the conventional object; you see the dog. Now, we’re not talking about knowing what it is. We’re not talking about knowing that it is “a dog” and putting it in the category of “dog” and calling it “a dog.” But you see a conventional object that extends over all the sense data and over all its parts and over time. We’re just talking about an object; we’re not talking about knowing what it is.

Gelugpa says that there’s a mental hologram not just of colored shapes, but a mental hologram of an object, a commonsense object, a thing that extends over senses and time when you see. The other Tibetan traditions, Nyingma, Sakya, and Kagyu say “no, in sense perception, non-conceptual, you do not see a commonsense object – or hear…” They say that to perceive a commonsense object is conceptual.

There are two types of conceptual here, there is one which is known as a collection synthesis (tshogs-spyi). Through the medium of a collection synthesis, we put together sense information from different senses and construct out of it a commonsense object – also continuing moments – we put it together as an object. So, these non-Gelugpas say that that is a mental synthesis, it’s a conceptual process. Now, in addition it’s also a conceptual process what it is, that’s separate. So the mental synthesis puts it together as an object that extends over sense information and time and then there’s another type of conceptual cognition through the medium of a kind synthesis (rigs-spyi) that adds onto it what it is, “dog.” “This object is a dog.”

[See: Objects of Cognition: Advanced Presentation]

This becomes very interesting, actually, if you think about it, not just with sights, but what about sounds of language? Do you actually hear words and sentences? We only hear one moment at a time. So what is the mental hologram of a sentence? Is it a mental synthesis of all these moments of individual sounds? That’s a very interesting question. How in the world do we understand language when somebody speaks? Because you only hear one moment at a time? So is it a mental synthesis and only conceptual, or do we actually hear words and language?

So obviously there are two explanations. But it gives us something to really think about, because I think that with language it’s very clear that we don’t hear a whole sentence all at once, and yet, unbelievably, we understand meaning from all of it. This is extraordinary. So, obviously there’s some mental hologram, which is arising, of sound, of all these sounds. Well, are they synthesized together into words or how are they put together?

It becomes very, very interesting, actually, the more that you analyze. Have you ever listened to a language that you know absolutely nothing of and you can’t even divide the sounds that you’re hearing into words? Are we hearing words or are we only hearing sounds? What are we hearing? These are the type of questions that one has to analyze when we try to understand what are these mental appearances, what are mental holograms, and what are the different kinds and so on.

You can see that if you have a basic difference in explanation of whether or not you see and hear commonsense objects, that from that starting point almost everything in the philosophy is based on that and it will be different because of that difference. If commonsense objects are just mental syntheses, that leads us to think that how they exist is quite different from when you say that you actually see a commonsense object.

But we will leave this discussion here and not explore it further, because this is a very large topic and if at every stage we compare Gelugpa and non-Gelugpa it’ll be far too confusing, so let’s just stick with one. So we will just deal with the Gelugpa explanation in which we actually do non-conceptually cognize conventional objects.

Cognition of Commonsense Objects and Their Parts and Qualities

So when we talk about a mental hologram of colored shapes and a mental hologram of an object, they’re the same kind of mental hologram.

Is it one mental hologram or different ones?

The Gelugpa textbooks have different interpretations of that. The different colleges in the major Gelugpa monasteries use different textbooks. Jetsunpa is Ganden Jangtse and Sera Je. According to this, when you see a conventional object, in the same essential nature (ngo-bo gcig), in the same sort of package, if you want to put it in simple language, you also perceive all the parts and the qualities, all in one package. Because if that were not the case, you should be able to perceive the size without perceiving the object, if they were separate, or a part without seeing the whole.

But the Panchen textbooks, which are used in Ganden Shartse and Drepung Loseling, they say that these are separate, that the conventional object and the various qualities and parts and various sense data are separate. They are separate things, separate packages, because otherwise when you see one, let’s say the size, then you should also be able to see the color at the same time. Or when you see the quality – it could also be a sense thing, so when you see it, you should also be smelling it, have the smell at the same time. When I touch the dog with my eyes closed, I should also have a picture of the colored shape of a dog. But the other position is saying that this Panchen position implies that there should be a commonsense object separate from a colored shape and from a smell or a tactile sensation.

So both positions can be argued logically. There aren’t simple answers to difficult questions. But that becomes a very big question: how do you perceive qualities of things? Not just the smell of something and the taste of something and the tactile sensation and then sight and sound and so on, but size and shape and color. There’s all sorts of qualities, temperature, do they all come in one package? Are they in separate packages?

There’s three positions here. Let’s say if we see something that has many different colors, you see a spotted dog, a multicolored dog. One position the proponents of an equal number of cognized objects and cognizing consciousnesses (gzung-’dzin grangs-mnyam-pa) is that there are separate holograms for each of the colored shapes and separate cognitions of each of the colored shapes – an equal number of colored shapes and separate mental activity for each. And then the next position the half-eggists (sgo-nga phyed-tshal-pa) is that there are many little holograms of each of the colored shapes, but just one consciousness that knows it. And then the third position the proponents of non-dual diversity (sna-tshogs gnyis-med-pa) is that all the colored patches and the consciousness of all the individual pieces are part of the same cognition. The example for that is: an egg has both the white and the yellow; they inseparably make up an egg in a cognition. Inside the egg there’s both the white and the yellow inseparably. So inside a cognition, there are all these little pieces and the cognition of each of them.

So it starts to get very complicated – how do you cognize a mental hologram? Do you cognize the whole thing? All the pieces? You have separate cognitions of each of the pieces? Where does it get put together? Think of the Western analogy here: you see something, so the photons from the different colored patches of the dog hit different little sensory cells. And so we have a whole collection here of electric impulses from the neurons that are coming from each of these cells. So, are they all known at once, in one cognition? Are they known by little separate parts of the brain and how is it put together?

This is what we’re talking about here and I’m sure scientists have a lot to say about how do you actually see a whole object that has many different colors or many different parts. How do you see the whole thing? Does it have to be put together or what? Although it might sound as though we’re talking about very philosophical topics, these are things that scientists need to examine as well, and they do. And people like His Holiness the Dalai Lama in meeting with these cognitive scientists, these brain scientists, is very interested to correlate the Buddhist explanation with the scientific explanation, because they’re talking about the same activity, the same phenomenon, but one side is describing it in terms of the physical process that’s going on and the other, the Buddhist, is describing it from the subjective experience side.

Cognition of Nonexistent Objects

One other point: when we get back to apprehension, we were talking about something can be accurate or not accurate. Can you have a mental hologram of something that doesn’t exist? A mental hologram of a little green man that comes from Mars? A little green Martian coming on a flying saucer? Now, I can have a mental hologram of that and be very paranoid. So, does it correspond to reality, to something that you could see with your eyes? Well, no. So, it is something that represents a little green man from Mars, but it’s not actually the same as a hologram coming from a little green man from Mars out there as an external object that’s the natal source of this hologram.

Often we have mental holograms like that, that sometimes we even project on people, “You’re a monster!” What is this? And actually, with these mental holograms of things that don’t exist, it can even be non-conceptual, like for instance a hallucination. Like, for instance, when you have some disease of the eyes, you have cataract for instance, and then you see things very blurred and so on. Well, you actually see a blur, but the blur doesn’t exist out there. It’s not coming from an external blur that is sending out photons to you.

[See: The Appearance and Cognition of Nonexistent Phenomena]

So, when we talk about these appearances, these mental holograms, there are many different kinds. But the main thing that we need to understand, at least for this evening, is that what we’re talking about is mental activity. The mental activity is giving rise to these things. Mental activity gives rise to mental appearances. That is a defining characteristic. But it’s not just like a mirror that also gives rise to images. It also is a cognitive engagement. And according to Sautrantika – Gelugpa version of it – there are actual external objects, conventional objects. There are not just colored patches out there. But there are actual conventional objects out there that are the natal source for these mental holograms.

I can’t help myself but to bring in the interesting thing from this discussion of Gelug or non-Gelug: What exists externally, “out there?” Is it just photons and electrons, or are there actual objects? Is it just an electromagnetic field or are there actual conventional objects, commonsense objects out there? This is where the discussion leads: what actually is existing out there in the physical world? And I don’t know what science says. Does science say that it’s just an electromagnetic field and it’s mental activity that divides it into objects and makes it into commonsense objects? Or are there actual objects? Or is it both?

OK. So these are some things to think about and they are important questions actually. So do you have any questions?


If there are external objects, commonsense objects, it’s hard to understand the Gelug explanation of voidness. The other explanation, in the non-Gelug, with commonsense objects being a mental synthesis, that it’s a little bit easier to understand voidness.

Well, I think we need to realize that when we talk about voidness, we’re talking about an absence of impossible ways of existing. And the explanation of what is an impossible way of existing is different in each of the Indian philosophical schools. When we understand voidness, we have to understand that there’s no such thing as this impossible way of existing. Things may appear to exist that way, but they don’t.

This is something that we will get into that we find in Gelugpa, which is that there are two aspects of the mental activity. One is making a mental hologram of what something is, a conventional object or a dog or a cat. And the other is making a mental appearance or a hologram of how it exists. And these are together. So, the aspect of the hologram of how it exists could be not referring to anything real, whereas the conventional object appearance could be referring to something that is conventionally real.

But of course one can explain more and more and more in terms of what is the impossible way of existing and how is it explained in Chittamatra, in Svatantrika and Prasangika etc., but it’s very clear, in Gelugpa they make this differentiation: what something appears to be and how it appears to exist. And in non-Gelug those two come together, they’re not really differentiated. In Gelug they are differentiated. As I said, because of this basic difference, is a conventional object just a conceptual construct or not, then so much else follows from that. The explanation in the understanding of voidness in each of these Tibetan traditions depends very much on understanding this distinction concerning commonsense objects.

We can look at a dog from the side, from one view, and we see four legs in the mental hologram. You can look at it from another point of view, from the front, and maybe you only see two legs. Which one is correct?

There’s a wonderful statue in the museum in Berlin, where I live. It’s wonderful; it gives a perfect example of this. It is a statue of a lion from some ancient dynasty and it has five legs. When you look at it from the side you only see four. But when you look at it from the front there’s another leg there, so you actually also see four, the way that it’s arranged. So it has five legs, actually, if you go around and count it. So here is your example.

But this is getting into something completely different. This is getting into the topic of a defining characteristic (mtshan-nyid) and this is going to be discussed in great depth with very different opinions on this in each of the Indian philosophical schools. Is there an individual defining characteristic located on the side of the object that makes it what it is? Having four legs makes it into a dog, and having two legs doesn’t? Or is it a mental construct, the defining characteristic. So, where is this defining characteristic and how set is it? Or is it something that is just a convention? So, there’s this whole discussion.

We’re not talking here in our discussion yet about conceptual cognition of a defining characteristic of a dog. Now you get into the discussion in terms of sense perception and is there an individual defining characteristic that establishes the existence of this object as a specific individual object from the side of the object. That’s the question. And within Gelugpa, all the schools except Prasangika say that there is this type of individual defining characteristic.

The analogy that I can use that helps for this understanding is a plastic coating. There is a plastic coating around this conventional object that makes it not any other conventional object. Or a plastic coating around these colored shapes, like a dark line that puts it together into an object. And the non-Prasangikas would say, “Yes, it’s on the side of the object.” And the Prasangika would say, “No, that’s a mental construct,” that it’s not on the side of the object, it’s on the side of the mind that mentally labels it.

Why, according to the Gelugpas, do you see a conventional object?

The Gelugpas say, basically, that if you didn’t see it, it tends to throw everything into almost like a Chittamatra – that everything is in the mind. They don’t explain it like this, but if you think about it, then it undermines compassion. If conventionally there were no people and it’s just a mental synthesis of colored shapes and physical sensations, it would be a little more difficult to develop compassion for that being.

The Gelugpas don’t necessarily argue that, but this is my thinking of why, one of the arguments in favor of the Gelugpa position. I’ve never read a debate that goes along those lines. Also it becomes very difficult to… this is more what the Gelugpas themselves will say is that unless you have commonsense conventional objects that are actually seen non-conceptually, it’s very difficult to present the two truths, the conventional truth and the deepest truth. That becomes much more difficult.