Introduction, Apprehension and Presumptive Cognition

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Among the Tibetans, the Buddhist monasteries have traditionally been the great centers of learning. The educational system followed by many of them, such as Ganden, Sera and Drepung of the Gelug tradition, is modeled on that introduced more than a thousand years ago from Indian monastic universities such as Nalanda. Each of these Tibetan monastic centers is divided into several monasteries composed of many small colleges. Each monastery has its own set of textbooks, but the education is uniform throughout. Upon its successful completion, monks in the Gelug tradition are awarded the Geshe degree, for which they must be at least 25 years of age. Similar systems of study can be found in many monasteries of the other Tibetan lineages of Buddhism as well, with slight variations in curriculum, degree requirements and titles conferred.

The novices begin their formal studies at about the age of eight, after they have been taught to read and write. Very quickly they begin to memorize the major texts that will form the basis for their later studies. These texts have been translated from Sanskrit and only after they have been fully memorized will they be explained. Although in their classes the novices receive lectures, the main emphasis is on debating. Having had a point explained to them, the students pair off to explore with each other its implications, defense and possible refutation. This ensures that they understand what they are taught and do not merely accept things as true without knowing why.

The topic of the first class is collected topics (bsdus-grva, dura). In it, the young novices learn the fundamentals of debating. Memorizing a large number of formal definitions, they develop their powers of reasoning by debating on such topics as cause and effect, existents and non-existents, affirmation and negation phenomena, sets and sub-sets, and mutual exclusion and lines of reasoning. At the conclusion of this course, at about the age of nine or ten, they enter the second class, which is on ways of knowing (blo-rigs). A synopsis of this subject is given in the present text. The third class deals with ways of reasoning (btags-rigs).

Having completed these three preparatory classes, the novices are ready to begin the five primary subjects for the Geshe degree, the major texts for which they have already memorized. The main topics are the perfection of discriminating awareness (phar-phyin, Skt. prajñāpāramitā), the middle way philosophy (dbu-ma, Skt. madhyamaka), valid cognition (tshad-ma, Skt. pramāṇa), special topics of knowledge (mdzod, Skt. abhidharma) and rules of monastic discipline (dul-ba, Skt. vinaya).

The following text, written in the late eighteenth century, is from the second preliminary class, concerning ways of knowing. It is found in The Collected Works of A-kya Yongs-‘dzin, vol. 1 (New Delhi: Lama Guru Deva, 1971), folios 515-526. It is a compendium of the major points of this subject, written in metered verse similar to jingles. Phrases inserted to fill out the meaning in the English translation have been indicated by their inclusion within parentheses. This is a sample of the type of text memorized by the young novices in this class so that they will have the most important definitions and lists of divisions clear in their minds for use in debate. It presents this topic from the point of view of the Gelug interpretation of the True Aspectarian (rnam bden-pa) branch of the Sautrantika (mdo-sde-pa) tenet system of Indian Buddhism. This interpretation accepts the sensory bare cognition of everyday whole objects that extend over time. The explanation follows the Jetsunpa set of textbooks, written by Jetsun Chokyi Gyaltsen (rJe-btsun Chos-kyi rgyal-mtsan) and used in the colleges of Sera Je and Ganden Jangtse Monasteries.

The textbooks of the various monasteries – not only within the Gelug tradition, but also among the other Tibetan traditions – explain their subjects from slightly different points of view. This is purposeful and in keeping with the Buddha’s general method of teaching with skillful means. The main objective of the monastic educational system is to prepare young novices to think for themselves and develop their minds to their fullest potential. This is all for the purpose of achieving the omniscience of the full enlightenment of Buddhahood in order to be able to benefit all beings. If a subject, such as ways of knowing, were to be presented in a dogmatic fashion with but one orthodox interpretation, this would leave little room for the students’ mental development and creativity. But with each monastery using different textbooks having alternative explanations, the debates between their students become livelier and more challenging. In this way, the novices learn to become great teachers themselves, making rapid progress along the pathway to enlightenment. Therefore, although alternative explanations of several points concerning ways of knowing may be found in various other texts, yet if the ultimate purpose of the study of this subject is kept in mind, one will remain unconfused and undaunted, ever focused and stimulated toward the goal.

Introductory Discussion

Homage to Manjushri.

This text concerns the mind and the ways in which it knows things. By understanding how your mind works and training it properly, you can attain omniscience and the full enlightenment of Buddhahood. You will then be able to help liberate from their suffering all sentient beings, that is everyone else with a limited mind. Homage is therefore made to Manjushri who manifests the complete wisdom of the Buddhas.

As people have different levels of aptitude, Buddha has taught many different tenet systems of philosophical explanations to meet their needs. This text is written from the Sautrantika point of view. According to it, all things validly knowable, that is validly cognizable, are either impermanent (nonstatic) or permanent (static) depending on whether or not they have the ability to produce an effect. There are three kinds of impermanent phenomena: forms of physical phenomena (gzugs), ways of being aware of something (shes-pa), and those that are neither (ldan-min ’du-byed, noncongruent affecting variables). The first type has ten divisions: sights, sounds, smells, tastes and physical sensations, plus the physical cognitive sensors corresponding to each of them. The second, ways of being aware of something, has three divisions: primary consciousness (rnam-shes), mental factors (sems-byung) and reflexive awareness (rang-rig, Skt. svasaṃvedana). Impermanent phenomena that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something include tendencies (sa-bon, seeds), constant habits (bag-chags), the person (gang-zag) or conventional “me” (kun-rdzob-pa’i nga) and so forth.

A way of being aware of something is defined as an impermanent phenomenon of a clear awareness involved with an object. With primary consciousness, you are aware merely of the essential nature (ngo-bo) of a sight, sound and so forth. With mental factors, you become aware of distinctions in such objects, make judgements about them, react to them and so forth. With reflexive awareness, you know that you have been conscious of something and you experience this in the sense of witnessing it. Reflexive awareness accounts for memory.

Take the example of seeing a beautiful work of art. With the first way of being aware of it, you receive its bare visual impression. With the second, you identify it as a work of art, judge it to be beautiful, react to it with pleasure and so on. With the third, you are aware of your state of mind experiencing all this, so that you can later recall the experience.

A consciousness (rnam-shes) in general is defined as a principal awareness (gtso-sems) upon which can be placed the impression of the essential nature of anything that can be validly cognized. Being a principal awareness connotes that consciousness is always accompanied by a cluster of mental factors. Consciousness, then, refers specifically to primary consciousness, and there are six types in connection with the six cognitive sensors (dbang-po): visual consciousness depends on the physical eye-sensors to become aware of sights or visible forms; auditory on those of the ears for sounds; olfactory on those of the nose for smells; gustatory on those of the tongue for tastes, and tactile on those of the body for physical sensations. Mental consciousness depends on the non-physical mental sensors to become aware of anything validly knowable.

The objects and sensors of each cognitive faculty, such as that of vision, are known as its cognitive stimulators (skye-mched, Skt. āyatana), and thus there are twelve of them. When the consciousness of that faculty is added to its objects and cognitive sensors, they are called the cognitive sources (khams, Skt. dhātu) of that faculty, and there are eighteen of these. When a moment of consciousness of a particular faculty, its attendant mental factors and reflexive awareness are grouped together, they are known as the conscious phenomena of that faculty or as an instance of its cognition (shes-pa).

Thus, there are the cognitive faculties of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking. Encompassing all six is your faculty of knowing (blo). Through it, you know things or have knowledge of them in a variety of ways. As this faculty is an impermanent phenomenon and since such things are defined as validly knowable phenomena with the ability to produce an effect (don-byed nus-pa, Skt. arthakriyā) – in other words, functional phenomena (dngos-po) – then in fact what is discussed are the various ever-changing instances of the functioning of this faculty – that is, specific instances of various ways of knowing things. To simplify the language of this translation, “the faculty of knowing,” “knowing” and “ways of knowing” are often used interchangeably.

An explanation of the presentation of ways of knowing involves both knowing, which is something having an object, and the objects (it has). Of these, in general, something that has an object is defined as a functional phenomenon that (continually) possesses an object appropriate to itself. When divided, there are three types: (1) forms of physical phenomena, (2) ways of being aware of something and (3) noncongruent affecting variables. (An example of) the first is all communicating sounds, of the second every cognition, and of the third the limitless (numbers of) persons.

All spoken words (ngag) signify something; if they had no objects they referred to, they would just be meaningless sounds. Cognitions (shes-pa) are always of something and persons (gang-zag), as imputation phenomena (btags-pa) on the basis of cognitions, also always have cognition of something. It is not just that cognitions know things, but persons as well also know things. Imputation phenomena will be explained below.

There are (1) definitions, (2) synonyms and (3) divisions of knowing. As for the first of these three, the defining characteristic of a knowing (of something) is an awareness (of it). Knowing, cognizing, being aware of and having a clear (cognitive arising of something) are all mutually inclusive (synonymous) terms.

For two terms, “x” and “y”, to be mutually inclusive (don-gcig), they must satisfy the eight requirements of congruence: if it is “x” it is “y” and if it is “y” it is “x”; if it is not “x” it is not “y” and if it is not “y” it is not “x”; if there is an “x” there is a “y” and if there is a “y” there is an “x”; and if there is no “x” there is no “y” and if there is no “y” there is no “x”. Thus, if you know something, you are aware of it; if you do not know something, you are unaware of it, and so forth. The standard example is that if something is impermanent, it is affected by causes and conditions.

An example of two terms that are not mutually inclusive is a clay jug and being impermanent. Although if something is a clay jug it must be impermanent, it is not the case that if something is impermanent, it must be a clay jug; or if it is not a clay jug, it must be permanent.

The relation, then, between a clay jug and being impermanent is one of pervasion (khyab): “x” is pervasive with “y” if all instances of “x” are “y”, although all “y” need not be “x”. All clay jugs are impermanent, but not all impermanent phenomena are clay jugs.

When divided, there are many aspects. There is knowing with apprehension and knowing without apprehension. Moreover, it can be divided into seven ways of knowing. There are valid and invalid ones, both conceptual and non-conceptual, bare cognitions and inferential cognitions, both primary minds and mental factors, and so on. There are many such things.


A way of knowing something is said to be either with or without apprehension depending on whether or not it apprehends its own object.

When one of your types of consciousness apprehends (rtogs-pa) its involved object (jug-yul) – the main object with which a particular cognition involves itself or engages ­– this does not mean that it necessarily comprehends or understands what it is. It merely means that it has taken its object correctly and decisively so that later you will have no doubts about having cognized it. If you see a white snow mountain as white, you have apprehended it correctly. If you see it as yellow, you have not. Similarly, if you are not sure of what you have seen, you have not apprehended it.

Of the seven ways of knowing, bare cognition, inferential cognition and subsequent cognition: these three are apprehensions (of something). The other four are knowing (something) without apprehension.   

Thus, if your knowledge of something is presumptive (yid-dpyod), non-determining (snang-la ma-nges-pa), indecisive wavering (the-tshoms) or distorted (log-shes), you have not apprehended it correctly or decisively.

As for the statement by some scholars that presumptive cognition is a knowing (of something) with apprehension, the intended meaning is that with mere presumptive cognition one can (just about) apprehend (something).

With presumptive cognition, you correctly cognize something, for instance that sound is impermanent, but because of not understanding why it is impermanent, you are not decisive about what you presume to be true. Since apprehension of an object does not require understanding it, presumptive cognition is not disqualified from apprehending its object by means of this factor. But, because it lacks decisiveness, then despite presumptive cognition cognizing its object accurately, it cannot be said to apprehend it. It can only be said to almost apprehend its object.  

There is explicit apprehension and implicit apprehension, accepted respectively as apprehensions of an object with the dawning or non-dawning of a mental hologram (of it).

When you have a bare visual cognition of something blue, for instance, a mental hologram (rnam-pa, aspect) of a patch of blue dawns in your cognition. Thus, you have an explicit apprehension (dngos-su rtogs-pa) of what is blue. You also have an implicit apprehension (shugs-la rtogs-pa) of it being not yellow, and with this, no mental hologram of “not yellow” appears. When you hear a man speaking in the next room, you explicitly apprehend the sound of his voice. Although his form does not actually dawn on your visual consciousness, you know implicitly that he is there.

From Eliminating Mental Darkness: (A Filigree) for (Dharmakirti’s) “Seven Volumes (on Valid Cognition)” (by Kedrub Je): “It is said that (1) in general, with valid cognitions there are explicit and implicit ones; and (2) with bare cognition and inferential cognition, you may have explicit and implicit apprehension. The first statement is a very rough one, while the second is the Sautrantika position. Or the latter could be taken in the sense that both (types of apprehension may occur) in specific instances of bare cognition and inferential cognition.

Thus, to say that valid cognition (tshad-ma) – meaning bare cognition (mngon-sum) and inferential cognition (rjes-dpag)­ – can apprehend objects both explicitly and implicitly, is only a rough general statement. It does not mean that every instance of each of them does so. Any specific instance of these valid ways of knowing something can apprehend objects either only explicitly or both explicitly and implicitly. This is how Kedrub Je (mKhas-grub rJe dGe-legs dpal-bzang) explains this point in his Eliminating Mental Darkness: A Filigree for (Dharmakirti’s) Seven Volumes on Valid Cognition (Tshad-ma sDe-bdun-gyi rgyan yid-kyi mun-sel).

“As for how an invalid cognition can apprehend (its object) explicitly or implicitly, it is in the same way as explained for the valid ones.”

A valid way of knowing something (valid cognition) is defined as a fresh, non-fraudulent awareness of it. To say that your knowledge must be fresh (gsar) in order to be valid precludes the possibility of subsequent cognition (bcad-shes) being considered a valid means of knowing. Since it must be non-fraudulent (mi-bslu-ba), presumptive cognition cannot be taken as valid, and since it must be an awareness (shes-pa), the physical cognitive sensors such as the photosensitive cells of the eyes, for instance, cannot be considered as such either.

Even though subsequent cognition is invalid because it is not fresh, this does not mean that it is fraudulent. Once you have initially inferred or have had bare cognition of an object and thus have apprehended it correctly and decisively, your subsequent cognition of it continues to discern it this way. Therefore, in the same manner as these two valid ways of knowing, subsequent cognition also can apprehend objects both explicitly and implicitly or only explicitly.

The seven ways of knowing something are by (1) presumptive cognition, (2) non-determining cognition, (3) subsequent cognition, (4) distorted cognition, (5) indecisive wavering, (6) bare cognition and (7) inferential cognition.

Of these seven, only the last two are valid. Subsequent cognition, bare cognition and inferential cognition, however, each apprehend their objects. Distorted cognition (log-shes) is the worst of all, since it falsifies what is correct.

Presumptive Cognition

Presumptive cognition is defined as an invalid cognition that freshly, conceptually implies a correct object.

Through a valid means of knowing something, such as inferential cognition, you have a fresh, conceptual understanding of a correct conclusion. With a presumptive cognition (yid-dpyod, presumption), however, you have a fresh reaching of a correct conclusion without really understanding it or knowing why it is true. With presumptive cognition, therefore, you merely seem to understand or apprehend something freshly, because what you know is true, but actually your knowledge of it is indecisive and therefore invalid. You presume it to be true either for no reason, a wrong one, or even a right one, but without understanding why it is correct.

When divided, there are five kinds of presumptive cognition: (presuming what is true to be so) (1) for no reason, (2) for a contradictory reason, (3) for a non-determining one, (4) for an unestablished one and (5) for a correct one, but without having reached decisiveness (about it). Examples having the defining characteristics of each in turn are said to be as follows: A knowing with which one assumes sound to be impermanent from merely (hearing) the words, “Sound is impermanent.” Similarly, assuming the same by relying on a line of reasoning that is contradictory, non-determining or unestablished, or by relying on the (correct) line of reasoning, (because it is) produced, (but not understanding it – these) are said to be what the presumptive cognitions are like that take sound to be impermanent.

To understand something by inferential cognition depends on a correct line of reasoning (rtags). This involves the use of a three-member logical demonstration consisting of a thesis (bsgrub-bya), a reason (gtan-tshig) and two kinds of examples (dpe) – for instance, sound is impermanent, because it is something produced, like a clay jug and not like space. This is one of the most commonly used examples in Buddhist logic since it is used to refute the assertion by several non-Buddhist schools that such sounds as the words of the Vedas are eternal and permanent because they are the revelations of super-empirical truths without any author.

In this case, sound is the subject of the thesis (sgrub-chos) and impermanent is the property to be established (sgrub-bya’i chos) – in other words, what is to be proved about it. These two together are known as the thesis – sound is impermanent. Because it is something produced is the reason or line of reasoning used to prove it. Something produced (byas-pa) means something that has arisen immediately from effort. The two examples are a homogeneous item (mthun-phyogs), such as a clay jug, and a heterogeneous item (mi-mthun-phyogs), such as space. A homogeneous item must have both the property to be established and the property given as the reason; a heterogeneous item is one in which both properties are absent.

For the reason to prove the thesis, three factors (tshul-gsum) must be fulfilled: the reason must have (1) applicability to the topic (phyogs-chos) – being something produced pertains to sound, (2) pervasion (rjes-khyab), meaning existence in a homogeneous item – being something produced pertains to clay jugs, and (3) negative pervasion (ldog-khyab), meaning nonexistence in a heterogeneous item – being something produced does not pertain to space.

Thus, (1) because sound is something produced, (2) because it is pervasive that if something is produced, such as a clay jug, it is impermanent and (3) because it is pervasive that if something is permanent, it is not something produced, you can validly conclude that sound must also be impermanent, with a full and decisive understanding of how and why.

Note that being something produced and being impermanent are not mutually inclusive. If something is produced, meaning it has arisen immediately from effort, it is pervasive that it is impermanent; but if something is impermanent, it is not pervasive that it is something produced, for instance lightning. Similarly, being something produced and being impermanent are also not mutually exclusive. If something is not impermanent, such as space, it is pervasive that it is not something produced; but if something is not produced, it is not pervasive that it is permanent, for instance lightning.

This is an example of an inferential cognition, a valid way of knowing something to be true that is not obvious by relying on a validating reason. With presumptive cognition, on the other hand, because there is some fault in your line of reasoning you can only presume something to be true, for you do not fully understand why.

With “sound is impermanent” as the thesis, a clay jug as a homogeneous item and space as a heterogeneous item, but with a different reason, the last four types of presumptive cognition can be illustrated as follows.

[1] You conclude that sound is impermanent because you believe it not to be something produced, like a clay jug and not like space. This is a contradictory reason. Examine the three factors: (a) Being something unproduced does not pertain to sound. When someone speaks, they make a sound. Thus, the first factor is not fulfilled. (b) It is not pervasive that if something is not produced it is impermanent. First of all, a clay jug is not an example of something not produced. A clay jug arises immediately from effort. But even if you cite lightning as a homogeneous example of something that is not produced and yet is impermanent, you could cite a counter example of space, which is not produced and yet is not impermanent; space is permanent. Thus, the second factor is not fulfilled. (c) It is not pervasive that if something is permanent, like space, it is not something unproduced. In fact, if something is permanent, it is pervasive that it is unproduced. Thus, the third factor is also unfulfilled.  

[2] You may reach this same conclusion by using the reason: because it is something that is validly knowable. (a) Does being validly knowable apply to sound? Yes. This reason satisfies the factor of applicability to the thesis. (b) Is it pervasive that if something is validly knowable, like a clay jug, it is impermanent? No. Although all impermanent phenomena are validly knowable, it is not pervasive that all validly knowable phenomena are impermanent, for example space, which is validly knowable but permanent. Therefore, this reason fails the test of pervasion. (c) Is it pervasive that if something is permanent, such as space, that it is not validly knowable? Again, no, because permanent phenomena are validly knowable. Therefore, this reason fails the test of negative pervasion as well. Thus, to conclude that sound is impermanent because it can be validly known is a presumptive cognition based on a non-determining reason.

[3] You may also conclude correctly that sound is impermanent as above, but for the reason that it is something that can be seen by the eye. Being visible, however, (a) is not a quality of sound and (b) is not pervasive with being impermanent. Many impermanent phenomena, such as sound, cannot be seen by the eye. Further, (c) it is not pervasive that if something is permanent, it cannot be seen by the eye. For example, when looking at an open doorway to an adjacent room, you explicitly see the two sides of the doorframe, the in-between area (bar-snang) and the back wall of the room behind. This is followed by a conceptual cognition of the doorframe, the in-between area and the wall behind, in which the reflexive awareness accompanying this conceptual awareness and cognizing it with non-conceptual bare cognition implicitly apprehends the absence of any obstructive contact between the two sides of the doorframe. In this way, you know that the in-between area provides no obstruction to you walking in. In the visual cognition that subsequently follows, that conceptual cognition with reflexive awareness implicitly cognizing this absence continues in accompaniment with the visual cognition. In this manner, it could be said that the permanent phenomenon of this absence of obstruction ­in other words, space ­– can be seen. However, to reach the correct conclusion that sound is impermanent because it may be seen by the eye is a presumptive cognition based on an irrelevant reason that does not fulfill all three factors.

[4] A correct reason for concluding that sound is impermanent is because it is something produced. However, if you reach this correct conclusion and say it is for this correct reason, but do not understand what being something produced means or what it has to do with being impermanent, then you have presumed what is true to be so for a correct reason, but without any decisiveness.

These (five) may be condensed into two: (1) a presumptive cognition (of something) for no reason and, for the latter four, (2) a presumptive cognition having some reason. The understanding one gains from merely listening (to a teaching) is mostly presumptive cognition. Therefore, it is said that its continuum is unstable.

Knowing something may come from either listening to a statement or explanation of something, thinking about it till you understand it, or meditating on it to gain familiarity with it. When you merely hear or read a fact, however, if you do not think about it or examine it carefully to understand how and why it is true, you usually can only presume it to be so. Because you have not comprehended it fully, often you cannot remember such factual knowledge. Thus, it is said that its continuum is unstable because often such knowledge does not endure. Another example is uncritical, blind faith in something that is true, which is a form of belief based on no reason.