Conceptual Cognition and Number of Valid Ways of Knowing

Conceptual Cognition

Furthermore, a conceptual cognition is a conceptually implying awareness that takes (its involved object) and mixes it with either an audio category or object category.

An audio category (sgra-spyi) is the category of the sound of a specific word, such as “mango,” and as a metaphysical entity, is a permanent phenomenon. All instances of the utterance of the word “mango,” in all voices, all volumes, all pronunciation and all accents are members of the audio category “mango.” It is through such categories that you can understand speech. No matter who says a certain word or how they say it, in each case you can understand the sound as being the same word by conceptually cognizing it through the audio category of the word.

Object categories (don-spyi) are mutually inclusive with meaning categories and they too are metaphysical entities. All mangoes, which are the objects that the audio category “mango” refers to or means, ­are members of the object category “mango.” It is through such categories that you can understand that several items you see in a store are all mangoes.

In conceptual cognition, for instance the thought of a mango, either the audio category or the object category “mango,” or both, is the appearing object. Being metaphysical entities, permanent phenomena, categories have no form. To think of a mango, then, requires something with form to represent it – either a mental image of a mango or the mental sound of the word “mango.” Such a mental representation, a mental hologram of a visible form or sound, needs to be specified.  

If you wish to specify something precisely so that it will not be confused with anything else, you would say that it is what is left over after the conceptual exclusion of everything it is not. A mango is not an orange, a peach, an apricot, a cantaloupe and so forth. These are all non-mangoes. Upon the exclusion of everything that is not a mango, what is left, or what is isolated, is the opposite of a non-mango. It is nothing other than a mango, which is equivalent to a mango. The exclusion is not an active process of excluding non-mangoes one by one however, it is conceptual. Similarly, if you want to specify a specific mango: it is what is left upon the conceptual exclusion of all other mangoes. Every permanent and impermanent phenomenon can be individually specified by a conceptual isolate (ldog-pa), a “nothing-other-than.”

In conceptual cognition, for instance the conceptual cognition of imagining a mango, there are three items in the thought: the object category “mango,” the conceptual isolate “nothing other than a mango,” and a mental hologram representing a mango. The object category is an imputation phenomenon on the conceptual isolate as its basis for imputation, and the conceptual isolate in turn is an imputation phenomenon on the mental representation of a mango as its basis for imputation. The object category and conceptual isolate are both permanent phenomena, whereas the mental representation, that mental hologram of a mango, is an impermanent phenomenon.

The mental hologram of a mango and the implied object, an actual externally existent mango, are the involved objects of this conceptual cognition. The conceptual cognition is deceptive because it mixes or conflates and confuses the category “mango” with this mental representation of a mango and with an actual mango.  

Buddhas do not have conceptual cognition. They know what things conventionally are and what the sounds of words mean without needing to cognize them through categories. Buddhas know everything non-conceptually with bare cognition.

When divided, there are two (types): (1) conceptual cognition that accords with fact and (2) conceptual cognition that does not accord with fact.

Thinking of a clay jug in terms of the category “clay jug” is undistorted. It is a conceptual cognition that accords with fact (rtog-pa don-mthun). This is true also of your conceptual cognition of the selflessness of persons that arises from inferential cognition. But imagining a rabbit horn, a permanent sound or a permanent, partless, independently existing self of a person, on the other hand, is distorted. It is a conceptual cognition that it does not accord with fact (rtog-pa don mi-mthun).

(There are also) the two: (1) conceptual cognition that applies a name and (2) conceptual cognition that) applies an object.

In a conceptual cognition that applies a name (ming-sbyor rtog-pa), the appearing object is the name or word for something and, designating this name on some object having the defining characteristics of that word, you conceptually cognize it through this word. For instance, when you see an object with a fat belly, an indented flat base and from which you can pour water, you think the name “clay jug.” Here, you conflate and confuse the name or word “clay jug” with the object on which it is designated.

In a conceptual cognition that applies an object (don-sbyor rtog-pa), the appearing object is an object, for instance a clay jug, but not the name “clay jug.” Imputing it on something having a certain quality or property, you conceptually cognize it as being this object. For example, when you see a red earthenware object, you think of it as being a clay jug, but without thinking the word “clay jug.” Here, you conflate and confuse a specific object or kind of object with something having a certain quality or property. Another example is thinking of that thing over there holding a stick as a man.

The conceptual cognition that mixes the name “clay jug” with something having a fat belly, an indented flat base and from which water can be poured is one that applies both a name and an object. This is because being something having a fat belly and so forth is both the defining characteristic and meaning of the name “clay jug” as well as a quality of an object that is a clay jug. Thus, when you see an object having this defining characteristic and property and think the name “clay jug,” you are also thinking of a clay jug as an object that the name refers to.

A conceptual cognition that applies an object, such as a clay jug, to something that merely has a quality of a clay jug, such as being a red earthenware object, but which does not have the defining characteristic of one, is not actually a valid applying of a name, even if it thinks “clay jug.” It is a presumptive cognition because something with the quality of being a red earthenware object may also be a clay plate or a clay statue.   

There are also the three: (1) conceptual cognitions involving a tag and a basis, (2) those that interpolate extraneous things, and (3) conceptual cognitions involving obscure facts. There are many ways to divide them.

[1] In conceptual cognitions that involve a tag and a basis (brda-rten-can-gyi rtog-pa), you know something through a tag. A tag (brda, label) is a set of sounds, agreed upon by convention to be a name or word for something and then applied to a basis (rten), namely an object having the defining characteristic of the word  For instance, you know that four-legged animal with a great hump of flesh on its neck through the tag “brahmin bull” or your five aggregates through the tag “me.” Thus, when your stomach is empty you think, “I am hungry,” imputing the tag “me” on the body consciousness of the physical sensation of hunger as its basis. A more modern example is tagging a specific exoplanet with the name HD 20868 b.

[2] The Tibetan word for interpolation (sgro-‘dogs) literally means tying a feather to a bamboo arrow. Thus, in an interpolated conceptual cognition that interpolates something extraneous (don gzhan-pa-ni sgro-‘dogs-kyi rtog-pa), you tie or superimpose an idea of some extra descriptive quality onto an object that is not qualified by it. For instance, you may think of sound or your conventional “me” as something permanent. As permanence does not apply to what you are ascribing to, such thoughts are conceptual distorted cognitions as well.

The opposite of interpolation is repudiation (skur-‘debs). With it, you deny qualities of an object that pertain to it. Thus, instead of thinking of sound as permanent, you would deny that it is impermanent. Interpolation and repudiation prevent you from cognizing a middle path of the actuality of things.

[3] In a conceptual cognition involving an obscure fact (lkog-du gyur-ba’i don-can-gyi rtog-pa), you mix an object with one of its obscure attributes that you have not apprehended explicitly through bare cognition. For instance, if there is a man hiding behind a house and you have not seen him, but someone tells you he is there, you come to know something that is not obvious when you look at the house. Likewise, when you gain a conceptual understanding from inferential cognition that sound is impermanent or that your conventional “me” is devoid of existing as a permanent, partless, independently existent soul, you also know something that is not obvious to your bare cognition. In such a conceptual cognition, you mix the object category of an obscure quality, such as impermanence, with an object qualified by it, such as sound.

In addition, there are the three (types of) conceptual cognition of (1) what has been heard, (2) (what has been) thought about and (3) (what has been) meditated upon. The meaning of each in turn is the conceptually implying awareness (1) that takes (its object) by means of merely an audio category, (2) that which has found certainty (about it) from having thought about its meaning and (3) that of a higher plane (of concentration) from having familiarized oneself further and further with a meaning that has arisen from thinking.

Your teacher tells you about the selflessness of persons. Based merely on having heard the sound of the word “selflessness,” you now can remember the term through the audio category “selflessness of persons,” but without an object/meaning category of its meaning. When conceptually you are aware of the term “selflessness of persons” in terms of an audio category alone, then you have the conceptual cognition of it that arises from hearing (thos-byung rtog-pa). This is also an example of a presumptive cognition of something true to be so for a correct reason, but without knowing why.

When you have thought about the meaning of the words you have heard through the use of valid logical arguments such as inferential cognition, you will gain a confident conceptual or intellectual understanding of what the “selflessness of persons” means. You will then have the conceptual cognition of it that arises from thinking (bsam-byung rtog-pa). This will be through the medium of an object/meaning category (don-spyi) based on understanding.

Through repeated inferential cognition, you will gain a thorough familiarity with the accurate meaning of the selflessness of persons. When you have achieved a state of shamatha with a mind of one of the two higher planes (gong-sa) – the plane of ethereal forms (form realm) or plane of formless beings (formless realm) – you can then focus your conceptual absorbed concentration with full certainty on the selflessness of persons with a first, second and so on level of mental constancy (bsam-gtan, Skt. dhyana). This will then be the conceptual cognition that arises from meditation (sgom-byung rtog-pa).

Once you have achieved an advanced state of shamatha focused like this on the selflessness of persons, you then need to join it with a state of vipashyana focused on the same object. If, in addition to the network of deep awareness (ye-shes-kyi tshogs, collection of insight) you have built up from such meditational practice as this, you have also built up a vast network of positive force (bsod-nams-kyi tshogs, collection of merit) from having done many constructive deeds with pure motivation over a long period of time, you will then, as a result, achieve bare yogic cognition focused non-conceptually on the selflessness of persons. This comes about not mystically through a leap of faith, but simply through a process of cause and effect. Your joined pair of conceptual shamatha and vipashyana will automatically become non-conceptual as a bare yogic cognition. With this achievement, you become an arya, a “noble one.”

The Number of Valid Ways of Knowing

The types of distorted conceptual cognitions that have arisen concerning how many (distinct ways constitute) the count of (types of) valid cognition are as follows. The Charvakas and Jains accept only one valid way of knowing, namely (1) bare cognition.

In not accepting inferential cognition as valid, but only bare cognition, the Charvakas and Jains assert that you can only know things that are obvious (mngon-gyur). If you cannot directly see something or hear it and so forth, they say you cannot know it.

The Samkhyas assert that there are three (types of) valid cognition: (1) bare cognition, (2) inferential cognition and (3) knowing something through verbal indication.

When you understand what someone means by what they say or you learn something that is true by reading it in a text of scriptural authority or hearing it explained by someone trustworthy, you have validly known something through verbal indication (sgra-byung tshad-ma). The Sautrantikas classify such knowledge under inferential cognition, but the Samkhyas (grangs-can-pa) and many other non-Buddhist schools classify this as a separate valid means of knowing.

Included in this category is not only the knowledge of what someone means when you hear the person speaking in the next room, for instance, but also knowing that the person is there. However, according to the Buddhist explanation of the Sautrantikas, you can apprehend such knowledge implicitly when you have bare auditory cognition of their voice.

The Nyayas (and Vaisheshikas) accept four: in addition to these three, (4) cognition through an analogous example.

[4] You have never seen a zebra. You go to a zoo and see an animal that looks like a mule but has black and white stripes. You know what a mule is and, by its analogy, you know that this strange animal is not a mule. This is cognition through an analogous example (dpe-nyer ‘jal-ba), accepted by the Nyaya (rigs-can-pa) and Vaisheshika (bye-brag-pa) schools as a valid means of knowing. You do not exactly know what your object is, but by analogy with other objects that you do know, you can identify what it is not.

(Some of) the Mimamsakas claim that the number is definitely only six: these four plus (5) valid cognition through implication and (6) validly cognition of non-existence.

[5] The fat man Devadatta does not eat during the day. Because Devadatta is fat and because people must eat in order to be fat and can do so during either the day or the night, you validly know by implication (don-gyis go-ba’i tshad-ma), or disjunctive reasoning, that Devadatta must eat at night. Another example is you know someone is in your two-room house, but you do not see the person in the front room. By implication or a process of elimination you know they must be in the back one.

[6] There are four types of non-existence (med-pa): antecedent non-existence (snga-na med-pa), perished non-existence (zhig-nas med-pa), mutual non-existence (phan-tshun med-pa) and absolute non-existence (gtan-nas med-pa). The Mimamsakas (rgyal dpog-pa) say that there is a separate means of cognition for validly knowing such non-existences (dngos-po med-pa’i tshad-ma). For instance, when you see milk you can know of the antecedent non-existence of yogurt in it, that is the yogurt’s not yet being in the milk before it has curdled. Later, when you see the yogurt, you know of the perished non-existence of the milk in it, for once it has curdled the milk is no longer there. When you know of the mutual non-existence of a horse in a bull, you see that a bull is not a horse and a horse could not be a bull, for these two are mutually exclusive. When you see a rabbit’s head and know of the absolute non-existence of a rabbit horn on it, you know of the non-existence of something that never existed, does not exist now and can never exist. Although you might fantasize and see a mental image of a goat horn on a rabbit’s head, you cannot possibly imagine a rabbit horn there, because there is no such thing.

The Charaka (Mimamsakas) claim that the number is definitely eleven. To the above six they add valid cognition through (7) (synthetic) reasoning, (8) non-cognition, (9) tradition, (10) inclusion and (11) intuition.

Within the Mimasaka school, the followers of the master physician Charaka (Ca-ra-ka), one of the main contributors to the Ayurvedic system of medicine, assert four addition types of valid cognition.

(7) With valid inferential cognition, you use analytic reasoning to infer the cause from an effect, for instance where there is smoke there must be fire. The reverse of this is to know something by synthetic reasoning (rigs-pa), which is to deduce the effect from a cause. An example is where there is fire there must be smoke. With analytical reasoning, then, you reason backwards from an effect to its cause; with the latter you reason forwards from a cause to its effect, based on experience of the world.  

(8) If you do not perceive something when if it were there you would, then you know by non-cognition (mi-dmigs-pa) that it is not there. For instance, you can know of the absence of horns on a rabbit’s head by your non-cognition of them, because if they were there you would surely see them. This is different from simply knowing the absolute non-existence of rabbit horns, where you know something because of the absence of an object. Here you know something because of the absence of a valid means of cognizing it.

(9) When you know something by tradition (zhes-grags-pa), you believe something to be true because everyone else does. An example is knowing that a certain tree contains a spirit because all your ancestors and everyone in your community believe it does. Also, you know by tradition to shake hands with your right hand, and to feed a cold and starve a fever.

(10) When you know something by inclusion (srid-pa), you know about the individuals included in a group by knowing about the group itself. An example is knowing that there are at least ten people in the classroom when you are sure there are fifty, or that a certain person is Japanese because you know he is a member of a Japanese delegation to a conference.

(11) If for no apparent reason you have a feeling that your mother will visit you today and she actually does, then you knew she was coming by intuition (snyam-sems-pa). Although such cognitions do occur, they are unreliable and usually a form of wishful thinking. It is by coincidence that they are true, because more often than not, unless you have achieved the higher attainments of absorbed concentration, your expectations or predictions are false.

Our own tradition is that it is definite that there are only two: (1) bare cognition and (2) inferential cognition.

The reason there are only these two is because there are only two kinds of validly knowable or validly cognizable things – objective entities and metaphysical entities. The former are objects that are obvious and can be apprehended explicitly through bare cognition. The latter are either obscure, such as the impermanence of sound, or extremely obscure, such as the fact that wealth is the result of generosity practiced during previous lives. Such things cannot be apprehended explicitly through bare cognition, although by aryas they may be implicitly so perceived. Ordinary people (so-so’i skye-bo) – those who are not yet aryas – know them through inferential cognition and thus it is necessary for there to be only two distinct valid ways of knowing. To differentiate more as separate methods is superfluous.

Concerning this, the definition of a valid cognition is a fresh, non-fraudulent awareness. When divided, there are two (types): (1) valid bare cognition and (2) (valid) inferential cognition. From another (point of view), there are (another) two (types): (1) valid cognition that determination (of what its object is) is self-induced and (2) (valid cognition) that determination (of what its object is) must be induced by another (cognition). And from the point of view of etymology, there are three (valid sources for knowing something): (1) valid people, (2) (valid) speech and (3) (valid) cognition.

You may know something validly by relying on either valid persons, valid speech or valid cognition. A valid person is a Buddha. Valid speech is his teachings, such as those in the first turning of the wheel of Dharma concerning the four noble truths. The four are the truths of suffering, its cause, its cessation and the pathway mind leading to this. Reliance on such persons or speech will lead you to valid knowledge. You will attain this as well through the valid cognitions of bare cognition and inferential cognition.

These three types of knowing something are valid in the sense that they arise from valid sources. But since your cognition of what Buddha has said may be presumptive or non-determining, these are said to be valid only in an etymological sense and not in an actual one.