Indispensable Ways of Cognizing That Appear in Mental Activity

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The mind gives rise to many types of appearances, in terms of both the objects of cognition and the ways of cognizing them that arise. In both cases, what arises may be accurate or inaccurate, pure or impure, tainted or untainted, samsaric or nirvanic. Why is it important to learn about this? It is important because the cause of all our suffering is our unawareness (ignorance) concerning how everything exists. Moreover, we base our understanding of how things exist on how they appear to us and on how we cognize them. But how things appear to us may be confusing or misleading, and our ways of cognizing of them may also be confused. Therefore, it is important to be able to differentiate the various appearances our minds give rise to and our various states of mind that arise. We need to discriminate which appearances and which ways of knowing bring more suffering when we think they correspond to reality and which ones will help us to rid ourselves of suffering. 

But before we analyze the various appearances the mind gives rise to, we need to identify correctly what is mind and what are the ways it gives rise to appearances.

Mental Activity

Mind (sems) means mental activity: the individual, subjective experiencing of cognitive objects. Each individual continuum of mental activity has neither a beginning nor an end and continues with no interruptions. Thus, mental activity always cognitively takes cognitive objects. There can be no mental activity without cognitive objects taken by it. Thus, what cognitively takes cognitive objects (’dzin-pa) and the cognitive objects cognitively taken (bzung-ba) are inseparable (dbyer-med). Many non-Gelug schools refer to this inseparability as non-duality (gnyis-med).

As a knowable phenomenon (chos, Skt. dharma), mental activity is something that holds its own essential nature (rang-gi ngo-bo ’dzin-pa). Each knowable phenomenon in fact has two essential natures: a superficial one (kun-rdzob-gyi ngo-bo) and a deepest one (don-dam-pa’i ngo-bo).

In the context of the definition of a knowable phenomenon, however, something’s own essential nature (rang-gi ngo-bo, Skt. svarupam) refers to its superficial essential nature, namely what form or type of phenomenon it is. This is individuated and specified by the defining characteristic mark (mtshan-nyid) of the knowable phenomenon. For mental activity, its superficial essential nature is “mere clarity and awareness” (gsal-rig-tsam). Although mental activity has only one superficial essential nature (ngo-bo gcig) of what it is; nevertheless “clarity” and “awareness” can be conceptually isolated (ldog-pa) from each other as different ways of describing that same essential nature.

  • “Clarity” means giving rise (’char-ba) to cognitive appearances (rnam-pa, mental holograms) of cognitive objects.
  • “Awareness” means a cognitive engagement (’jug-pa) with cognitive objects.
  • “Mere” (tsam) means this activity occurs without a separately findable mind as an instrument making it happen or a separately findable person, “me,” operating the mind and making it happen, or just observing it.

Mental activity, however, always has a physical basis as its support; but it is never identical with its physical basis. 

Each of these defining features can function accurately or inaccurately. The mental hologram or way of knowing that appears can be inaccurate, and the “mere” can be confused when imagining a separately existing “me” as the agent or observer of the mental activity. But even when inaccurate and mixed with confusion, the mental activity still occurs with these defining characteristics. 

In short, an individual continuum of mental activity has neither a beginning nor an end and continues with no interruptions. It has no beginning or end because its essential natures, both superficial and deepest:

  • Are not created by anything, although each moment of them is generated by the force of their immediately preceding moment
  • Are not affected by anything, so they do not degenerate and eventually expire
  • Have no mutually exclusive opponent factors that could replace them and therefore cause them to end.

Primary Consciousness and Mental Factors

Basic Presentation

If we ask what mental activity does, it gives rise to mental holograms of cognitive objects and, in doing so, it cognitively engages with those cognitive objects. This is in fact the defining characteristic mark that distinguishes mental activity from all other phenomena. Thus, all types of mental activity share this same defining characteristic mark; otherwise, they are not a type of mental activity. A phenomenon that lacks one or both features of this characteristic mark cannot fulfill the definition of mental activity. 

Persons (gang-zag), for example, are not a type of mental activity because, although they cognitively take cognitive objects uninterruptedly, they do not give rise to cognitive appearances of the cognitive objects they take. Nevertheless, persons are imputations on mental activity, with no beginning and no end, and are therefore inseparable from that activity.

How Mental Activity Performs Its Function

If we then ask how mental activity performs its function, it does this by means of primary consciousness and attendant mental factors.

  • Primary consciousness (rnam-shes) includes the five types of sensory consciousness (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling physical sensations) and mental consciousness. These cognize merely the essential nature (ngo-bo) of their objects, namely what class of objects their cognitive objects are (a sight, a sound, a smell, a taste, a physical sensation, a phenomenon knowable by mental consciousness).
  • Mental factors (sems-byung, subsidiary awarenesses) are derivatives of mental activity. They accompany and supplement primary consciousness and are aware of their objects in distinctive ways. Some perform functions that help the primary consciousness to cognitively take an object, such as attention and concentration. Others add a positive or negative emotional flavor to the taking of the object, such as love or anger. Except for unawareness (ma-rig-pa, ignorance) as Tsongkhapa defines it, none of the other mental factors interpolate any mental fabrications (spros-pa, Skt. prapanca) onto their objects. Interpolation (sgro-’dogs, superimposition, projection) means adding something that is not there.

The primary consciousness and accompanying mental factors in each moment of mental activity share five congruent features (mtshungs-ldan lnga). According to the Vaibhashika view of Vasubandhu’s Treasure-House of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa’i mdzod, Skt. Abhidharmakosha) – accepted by the Gelug presentation of the Prasangika system of Madhyamaka as well – the five congruent features are:

  • Reliance (rten) – relying on the same cognitive sensor (dbang-po)
  • Object (yul) – cognitively aiming at the same focal object (dmigs-yul)
  • Aspect (rnam-pa) – giving rise to the same cognitive appearance, namely the same mental hologram 
  • Time (dus) – arising, abiding, and ceasing simultaneously
  • Natal source (rdzas, natal substance) – coming from their own individual natal sources, referring to their individual tendencies (sa-bon; seeds).

Thus, primary consciousness and its attendant mental factors both give rise to the same mental hologram of the same cognitive object, and in doing so, both cognitively engage with the same cognitive object. However, the way in which each cognitively engages with the same object is different:

  • Primary consciousness engages with it by cognizing merely the essential nature of the object.
  • Mental factors engage with it in distinctive ways such that the cognition has its own special characteristics.

If primary consciousness were missing, the mental factors alone would not cognize the essential nature of what its object is – a sight, a sound, a smell, a taste, a physical sensation, or a mental object. If we may use the rough analogy of a cell phone, without primary consciousness, the device would be unable to identify and display the audio portion of the digital code of an app as distinct from the video portion. And without mental factors to assist in this process, the device would be unable to access the code, differentiate its audio data from its video data, and display differences in volume of the sound and brightness and contrast in the picture.

Thus, primary consciousness and attendant mental factors are indispensable components of mental activity. No matter what type of appearance mental activity gives rise to, a cluster of primary consciousness and mental factors is always present, giving rise to and mentally engaging with mental holograms.

Levels of Mental Activity

There are three levels of subtlety of consciousness involved in mental activity:

  • Gross or coarse consciousness – sensory consciousness: always non-conceptual
  • Subtle consciousness – mental consciousness, whether awake, asleep, dreaming or in a coma: both conceptual and non-conceptual
  • Subtlest consciousness – clear light consciousness, always non-conceptual.

All three types of primary consciousness share the same essential features of mental activity and are accompanied by certain mental factors. All three have no beginning. Both gross and subtle consciousness have an end with the attainment of enlightenment. Only subtlest consciousness continues into enlightenment and has no end. 

Manifest Cognition and Dormant Factors

These three levels of consciousness also differ in terms of when they are manifest and when they continue as dormant factors.

  • A way of cognizing is manifest (mngon-‘gyur-ba) when it arises in a cognition and the person (gang-zag) also cognitively takes as an object the mental hologram that it gives rise to.
  • A way of cognizing becomes a dormant factor (bag-la-nyal) when it is present on the mental continuum, but not part of a manifest cognition. As such, it may be present merely as a tendency (sa-bon, seed) which, as a noncongruent, affecting variable, is an imputation on the mental continuum. In such instances, it is neither a way of being aware of something nor a form of physical phenomena.

In terms of this variable of being manifest or dormant, we may note the following differences among the levels of consciousness:

  • Gross consciousness is dormant when asleep, under anesthesia, in a coma and during the bardo period in between rebirths.
  • Both gross and subtle consciousness are dormant during the period of death before bardo.
  • Except during the period of death before bardo, during the actual clear light phase of anuttarayoga tantra meditation and when enlightened, subtlest consciousness is always dormant. However, it underlies each moment of mental activity and, as such, gives rise to an appearance similar to that when cognizing voidness (emptiness) – a dark blue appearance similar to the sky at false dawn, when sunlight, moonlight, starlight and total darkness are all absent. Being mostly dormant, we are normally unaware of this dormant factor.

The Distribution of Primary Consciousness and Mental Factors among the Five Aggregate Factors (the Five Aggregates)

The five aggregate factors (phung-po lnga, five aggregates) are a scheme for describing the ever-changing nonstatic components of each moment of mental activity. They may be “tainted” (zag-bcas) or “untainted” (zag-med) with so-called “fleeting stains” (glo-byur-gyi dri-ma), as will be explained later. Each moment of mental activity must contain at least one item included in each of the five. 

The physical objects involved in cognition are all included in one aggregate:

  • Forms of physical phenomena serving as cognitive objects for both sensory and mental cognition (sights, sounds, smells, tastes and physical sensations)
  • Forms of physical phenomena that can only be cognized by mental consciousness (for instance, dream objects)
  • The cognitive sensors of the physical senses (photosensitive cells of the eyes, sound-sensitive cells of the ears, and so forth)
  • The body, or at least, during death and enlightenment, the subtlest life-supporting energy-wind.

Primary consciousness is found in another separate aggregate:

  • The six types of primary consciousness.

The mental factors are distributed among the last three aggregate factors:

  • Feeling a level of happiness (tshor-ba)
  • Distinguishing (du-shes) the defining characteristic marks of a cognitive object that make it distinct from everything else
  • Other affecting variables (du-byed), which include all the other mental factors plus the person or conventional “me” and other noncongruent affecting variables (ldan-min ’du-byed) that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something.

Thus, cognition must be comprised of at least one form of physical phenomenon, one type of primary consciousness, the mental factors of feeling and distinguishing, and at least one additional mental factor from the aggregate of other affecting variables. This means that not all the mental factors from this last aggregate must be present in each moment of mental activity. Some mental factors, however, must always be present; otherwise mental activity could not perform its function: giving rise to mental holograms of cognitive objects and, in doing so, cognitively engaging with the cognitive objects.

The Mental Factors That Are Indispensable for Mental Activity to Perform Its Function

The Five Ever-Functioning Mental Factors

Some mental factors are always present in each moment of cognition, namely the five ever-functioning mental factors (kun-’gro lnga). Each spans a spectrum of possibilities and changes in each moment:

  • Feeling a level of happiness – spanning a spectrum from extreme unhappiness to extreme happiness
  • Distinguishing the defining characteristic marks of a cognitive object that make it distinct from everything else – correctly or incorrectly
  • Urge (sems-pa), which causes the mental activity to face an object or to go in its direction – with varying levels of strength
  • Contacting awareness (reg-pa), which differentiates that the object of a cognition is pleasant (yid-du ’ong-ba), unpleasant, or neutral, and thus serves as the foundation for experiencing it with a feeling of happiness, unhappiness, or a neutral feeling – spanning a spectrum of intensity
  • Paying attention or taking to mind (yid-la byed-pa), which engages (jug-pa) the mental activity with the object, for instance paying some level of attention to the object (spanning a spectrum of strength), focusing on the object in a certain way (restoring attention, maintaining attention, etc.), or considering the object in a certain manner (concordantly with how it actually is or discordantly).

These five are indispensable for mental activity to perform its function. As Asanga has explained in Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa kun-las btus-pa, Skt. Abhidharma-samuccaya):

  • We do not actually experience an object, unless we feel some level of happiness on the spectrum from happiness through neutral to unhappiness.
  • We do not cognitively take something within a sense field or mental landscape as an object of cognition, unless we distinguish some characteristic feature of it.
  • We do not even face or go in the direction of an object of cognition, unless we have an urge toward it.
  • We do not have any basis for experiencing the object with a feeling, unless we have contacting awareness to differentiate it as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
  • We do not actually engage with the specific object, unless we pay some level of attention to it, even if that level is extremely low.

The Five Ascertaining Mental Factors

There are also five ascertaining mental factors (yul-nges lnga) that enable the mental activity to take its object decisively and accurately. Vasubandhu explained them as also accompanying each moment of cognition and defined them accordingly; whereas Asanga explained and defined them as only accompanying constructive cognitions that apprehend their objects.

  • An apprehension (rtogs-pa) is a cognition ­that cognizes its object accurately and decisively.

When presenting mental activity in the context of the discussion of accurate and inaccurate, pure and impure, Vasubandhu’s presentation is perhaps more appropriate since the values and strengths of these factors may also vary.

  • Intention (dun-pa) is the motivation (kun-slong) to obtain any object, to achieve any goal, or to do something with the object or goal once obtained or achieved.
  • Regard (mos-pa) takes its object to have some level of good qualities on the spectrum from no good qualities to all good qualities – accurately or inaccurately.
  • Mindfulness (dran-pa) is the mental factor of holding on to any cognized object without losing it as an object of focus – spanning a spectrum from strongly to weakly.
  • Mentally fixating (ting-nge-’dzin; concentration) is keeping fixed on a cognized object – spanning a spectrum from strongly to weakly.
  • Discriminating awareness (shes-rab, wisdom), which Vasubandhu calls intelligent awareness (blo-gros), decisively discriminates that something is true or false, constructive or destructive, and so on. It adds some level of decisiveness to distinguishing an object of cognition, even if that level is extremely weak – correctly or incorrectly.

Thus, we may incorrectly consider something to be something else, like suffering to be happiness, and we may regard something as having positive or negative qualities that it lacks. We may decisively discriminate something to be true when it is false and may do so with varying strengths of decisiveness. Nevertheless, as mental factors, consideration, regard, and discriminating awareness help mental activity to perform its function and are indispensable.

Thus, all beings, both limited beings (sems-can, sentient beings) as well as Buddhas, have these ten mental factors, as well as primary consciousness, as part of each moment of their experience, with no beginning and no end. This is the case regardless of the appearance their mental activity gives rise to. 

In technical terms, all these components are simultaneously arising causes (lhan-cig ’byung-ba’i rgyu) of mental activity. In other words, primary consciousness and these ten mental factors arise simultaneously with each other and simultaneously with any type of mental activity and comprise each moment of that mental activity. Since they enable the functioning of mental activity that they comprise, they are, in this sense, causes of mental activity. But unlike a seed being the cause of a sprout, they exist simultaneously with the mental activity that they are the causes of.

Does a Cell Phone Have Mental Activity?

One could argue that our cell phone also has mental activity. After all, it takes in information through its keypad, camera and sound recorder. It processes that information and so, in a sense, cognitively engages with it. It also gives rise to appearances and sounds on its display. It can fixate on words and, remaining mindful of them and, with appropriate apps, distinguish the words from each other and do so decisively with discriminating awareness. With intention, it can translate these words into another language and, with artificial intelligence, even learn to improve. Our cell phone can even communicate with other digital devices. However, it fails the test of having mental activity because it doesn’t have contacting awareness of information as pleasant or unpleasant and doesn’t experience that information with happiness or unhappiness as the result of its previous behavior. 

Although some people might identify with their phones, a cell phone is not a valid basis for imputation of a person. Only persons experience happiness or unhappiness as the result of their intentional actions, cell phones do not. Our cell phone doesn’t feel unhappy when its auto-correct function makes a mistake in correcting the spelling of a word we enter when messaging.

Principal Awareness

Mental activity also includes several types of principal awareness (gtso-sems). A principal awareness is a cluster or network of a primary consciousness and specific accompanying mental factors.

The Five Types of Deep Awareness (Five Wisdoms)

Five types of principal awareness are also indispensable for mental activity to perform its function. These are the five types of deep awareness (ye-shes lnga, five wisdoms, five Buddha-wisdoms). They are clusters of primary consciousness together with distinguishing, and an assortment of other ever-functioning or ascertaining mental factors, such as attention, regard, intention, and so on. They are the most fundamental ways in which mental activity processes information.

The five are:

  • Mirror-like deep awareness (me-long ye-shes), with which mental activity takes in the basic information about its object, like a mirror or a sound recorder
  • Equalizing deep awareness (mnyam-nyid ye-shes), with which mental activity cognizes several objects as equal to each other in some regard
  • Individualizing deep awareness (so-sor ye-shes), with which mental activity cognizes its object as individual and unique
  • Accomplishing deep awareness (don-grub ye-shes), with which mental activity cognizes its object in terms of how to accomplish some purpose concerning it or with it, or in terms of what its object is doing.
  • Deep awareness of the sphere of reality (chos-dbyings ye-shes, dharmadhatu wisdom), with which mental activity cognizes either the superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa, concealer truth, conventional truth) of its object (what it conventionally appears to be) or its deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa, ultimate truth) (how it exists).

These five types of principal awareness have no beginning and no end. Depending on the strengths of the mental factors that comprise them, they vary in their values. As a Buddha, these five types of deep awareness function at their full efficiency. Although cell phones also perform the above five functions, that still does not qualify them as having mental activity.


Bodhichitta is another example of a principal awareness. It comprises a mental consciousness that is focused on our own individual not-yet-happening enlightenment as an imputation on the Buddha-nature factors that are themselves imputations on our mental continuum and which will enable our attainment of enlightenment.

  • Relative (or conventional) bodhichitta is aimed at our not-yet-happening Corpus of Forms (Rupakaya, Form Bodies)
  • Deepest bodhichitta is aimed at our not-yet-happening Corpus of Deep Awareness Encompassing Everything (Jnana Dharmakaya, Wisdom Dharmakaya) and Corpus of Essential Nature (Svabahavakaya, Nature Body).

Both aspects of bodhichitta are accompanied by the intention to attain that not-yet-happening enlightenment and to benefit all beings by means of that attainment. They are supported by the additional mental factors of love, compassion, and so on. 

The Buddha-nature factors include:

  • The abiding factor – the voidness (stong-nyid, Skt. shunyata, emptiness) of mental activity: mental activity is devoid of impossible ways of existing,
  • The two evolving factors – a network of positive force (bsod-nams-kyi tshogs, collection of merit) from previously committed constructive behavior and a network of deep awareness (ye-shes-kyi tshogs, collection of wisdom)
  • The factor that allows mental activity to be inspired and uplifted.

These Buddha-nature factors have no beginning on each person’s mental continuum. Likewise beginningless is the facet of the two networks that is their ability to give rise to the various Corpuses of a Buddha (Buddha Bodies) when all the supporting conditions are complete. Similarly beginningless is the individual not-yet-happening enlightenment imputed on those facets, supported by both voidness and the ability of the mental continuum to be inspired and uplifted. 

The development of a bodhichitta aim on each being’s individual mental continuum and the giving up of that bodhichitta aim have no beginning. The giving up of bodhichitta has an end, however, the first time we develop bodhichitta for the final time, when that development leads uninterruptedly to our attainment of enlightenment. Since bodhichitta continues on with Buddhahood, but without the intention to achieve enlightenment, the development of bodhichitta that leads uninterruptedly to enlightenment has no end. When we read of someone developing bodhichitta for the first time, this means the person develops it for the first time without later giving it up.

Conceptual and Non-Conceptual Cognition

Also beginningless are the two most general types of mental activity: conceptual (rtog-bcas) and non-conceptual (rtog-med).

  • In conceptual cognition, which is always with mental consciousness, mental activity gives rise to static audio categories (sgra-spyi) and/or static object/meaning categories (don-spyi). Through the intermediary of these categories, conceptual cognition cognizes the mental holograms of the individual items it also gives rise to. In doing so, it fits the individual items into these categories as if their existence were truly established as belonging there.
  • Non-conceptual cognition cognizes the mental holograms it gives rise to without the intermediary of any categories.

The categories, through which conceptual cognition (rtog-pa) cognizes its involved objects (’jug-yul), are interpolations. For example, the category “table,” through which conceptual cognition cognizes an individual table as its involved object, is an interpolation. It adds something extra to the individual table that is not naturally there – namely, that it belongs to the static category “table” –  like adding a feather to the end of an arrow.

Seven Ways of Cognizing Objects

Both conceptual and non-conceptual cognition may be accurate or inaccurate, and decisive or indecisive. According to the various permutations of these two factors: accuracy and decisiveness, we may differentiate seven ways of cognizing objects that can appear in mental activity.

Accurate or Inaccurate, But Always Decisive

Two ways of cognizing objects that can arise may be accurate or inaccurate, but are always decisive:

  • Straightforward cognition (mngon-sum), which according to the Gelug Prasangika presentation is cognition that does not rely on a line of reasoning, and which may be either conceptual or non-conceptual. According to the Sautrantika system, it is always non-conceptual and thus is better translated in that context as “bare cognition.”
  • Inferential cognition (rjes-dpag), which does rely on a line of reasoning and is always conceptual.

When either straightforward cognition or inferential cognition is both accurate and decisive, it is called an apprehension (rtogs-pa) of its object. Apprehension is synonymous with valid cognition (tshad-ma).

When straightforward sensory cognition (which is always non-conceptual) is inaccurate, this is because of its arising being based, for instance, internally on dizziness or defective cognitive sensors, such as when hard of hearing, or externally, for instance when based on foggy weather. 

When inferential cognition is inaccurate, this is because of its arising being based on a faulty line of reasoning. 

  • When inaccurate, straightforward cognition or inferential cognition does not apprehend its object and is not a valid way of knowing.

The Sautrantika tenet system posits a third way of cognizing an object that is also always decisive, and which also may be either accurate or inaccurate. This is subsequent cognition (bcad-shes), which is the sequence of moments of cognition of something after the initial moment of bare or inferential cognition of it. Because it is no longer a fresh (gsar) cognition of its object, it can never be a valid cognition, even if it is accurate and decisive. Prasangika rejects this type of cognition because, in accord with its assertions of how all phenomena exist, each moment of cognition is fresh.  

Accurate or Inaccurate, But Always Indecisive

Three ways of cognizing objects that can arise may be accurate or inaccurate, but are always indecisive:

  • Presumption (yid-dpyod)
  • Indecisive wavering (the-tshoms)
  • Non-determining cognition (snang-la ma-nges-pa).

Decisive or Indecisive, But Always Inaccurate

One way of cognizing that can arise may be either decisive or indecisive, but is always inaccurate, namely distorted cognition (log-shes).


Regardless of the way of cognizing their objects, all these ways of cognizing do not go beyond being in the essential nature of mental activity. Each is an example of merely an arising of and cognitive engagement with a mental hologram. As such, they too have no beginning. But because cognitions may be either accurate or inaccurate, and decisive or indecisive, inaccuracy and indecisiveness are not parts of the essential nature of mental activity. They can be displaced and eliminated forever by the accuracy and decisiveness of valid cognition.

[See: Lorig: Ways of Knowing]

Valid cognition is determined by the three criteria asserted by Chandrakirti. These will be explained below in connection with the discussion of accurate and inaccurate appearances.