Details of Ways of Knowing: 2 Types of Relations between Phenomena

Extensive Explanation of “Compendium of Ways of Knowing”

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.

Phenomena That Continually Have Objects and Objects Possessed by Them

For a functional phenomenon to be something that has an object (yul-can) does not mean having an adventitious field of operation for its activity or a recipient for the effects it produces. It is not like a shovel taking soil as its object when it is being used to dig the earth. For an item to have an object means it continually possesses something else whenever and for as long as that item exists. In other words, it can never occur without its object. 

  • All communicating sounds (rjod-byed sgra), be they words or grunts, must have a meaning whenever they exist in order to be capable of communicating. Their object is what they signify. A communicating sound cannot exist as such without meaning something. 
  • Cognitions must continually be of something. They cannot exist without entailing something that they are aware of. 
  • The person of anyone, or their conventional “I”, be they human, animal or whatever, is continually involved with something. This is usually whatever they cognize. In a more general sense, though, they can also be involved with their body or mind, their livelihood, other animate and inanimate objects, and so forth. Even in deep sleep, they must be involved with maintaining their life-force, such as by breathing. And in the most extreme situations, such as when completely absorbed in a state of the meditative attainment of non-distinguishing or the meditative attainment of cessation with all their unstable types of consciousness, distinguishing and feelings temporarily blocked, still that person is involved with their absorption. Thus, communicating sounds, cognitions and persons continually have objects. 

The objects such functional phenomena have may vary and, in continually possessing some object appropriate to them, they are affected by them. Thus, they must change from moment to moment as their objects vary. For instance, the word “clay jug” can have as its point of reference my clay jug, your clay jug or any object fit to be called a clay jug. It cannot have an inappropriate object, such as a table, as its object. Visual cognition can have as its point of focus any shape of a cluster of colored pixels, while a person can become involved in anything that they become aware of according to their karmic predispositions.

Static phenomena can never have objects because they are not functional. Having objects is a characteristic limited by definition only to those things capable of producing an effect. But not all functional phenomena continually have objects. Mirrors, for instance, are not things with objects, because although they frequently reflect objects, they can be present without so doing, such as when one is painted black. The physical cognitive sensors, as well, often have objects, but they too are not phenomena with objects. This is because they too can be present without having an object, such as in case of the eye-sensors of a blind person. 

Something with an object, on the other hand, can never be present without some object. What about sensory consciousness while you are asleep, such as visual consciousness and auditory consciousness? At that time, they and your other types of sensory consciousness are not manifest. They are temporarily blocked and dormant (bag-la nyal), as are all your other types of sensory consciousness, and only mental consciousness is manifest. 

“Dormant” means, literally, “asleep to the taste of the mind.” The Jetsunpa textbooks assert that, during sleep, dormant sensory consciousness still functions subliminally. It subliminally has objects, although the person does not have those objects at that time. In other words, you are not aware of these sensory objects while you’re asleep. But because auditory consciousness subliminally has sounds as its object while asleep, it can hear the sound of the alarm clock when it rings. Similarly, subliminal visual consciousness can detect bright sunlight and that can cause you to wake up. Or someone tickling your foot can also cause you to awaken, as can the smell of smoke. The Panchen textbooks, on the other hand, take “dormant” to mean that sensory consciousness while asleep is present only as a latent tendency (sa-bon). For this textbook tradition, sensory consciousness always having objects refers only to when it is manifest. 

In summary, to have an object, something must continually possess one so long as it is present, manifest and functioning, although the object it possesses may vary.

Continual Possession of a Basis for Imputation

The situation of something with an object and its continual possession of a suitable one is quite different from that of something imputedly existent and its continual possession of its basis for imputation. In both cases, there is continual possession so long as the possessor exists, but the similarity ends there. To be aware of an imputation phenomenon, your consciousness must first and then simultaneously give rise to a mental hologram of its basis for imputation. But to be aware of something with an object, you do not need to rely on knowing its object. For instance, you can know many communicating words without being aware of their meaning, although these words must necessarily mean something. You can recall that you once knew someone’s name without actually being able to remember what it was. You can also know a person without having the slightest idea of what they know or the affairs and objects with which they are involved. But you cannot know a person without being aware of at least something about them, be it their visual form, name or whatever, which serves as a valid basis for their imputation. 


  • A person has both objects and a basis for imputation. 
  • Static phenomena have a basis for imputation, but never objects. 
  • Cognitions and communicating sounds have objects, but no basis for imputation.
  • Physical cognitive sensors and mirrors have neither objects nor a basis for imputation.

Objects (yul) that can be possessed include everything validly knowable, in other words everything existent. Nonexistents, however, cannot be objects. The word “rabbit-horn” does not signify anything: it is sheer nonsense. Tortoise-hair can never be known; it does not exist. And a house belonging to the child of a barren woman cannot be inhabited or known by that child. As there can be no such person, how could they possess or be involved with anything?

Phenomena That Take Objects and Objects Taken by Them

Just as the relation between something that has an object and its objects should be carefully differentiated from that between an imputedly existent object and its basis for imputation, likewise it should be differentiated from that between something that takes an object (‘dzin-pa) and those things it can take (gzung-ba). To take an object does not mean simply to have an object continually. It has the additional connotation of an item’s actively or consciously taking or holding some object continually whenever and for as long as that item exists. 

All cognitions and persons continually both have and take objects. What they take is often in their vicinity. But even if the object a cognition takes is not present, as for instance in the mental cognition thinking of your mother’s face when she is thousands of miles away, still there is an active process of taking that object at the site of the mental cognition. Such activity does not occur in the case of communicating sounds. Although such sounds continually have objects, which are the meanings to which they refer, they do not actively take or hold these meanings close to them. Thus, it is pervasive (khyab) that if something takes an object it necessarily has an object; but it does not follow that if something has an object it necessarily takes it.

Hands, mirrors and physical cognitive sensors are not things that continually take objects. First of all, although your hand may in a conventional sense be said to take hold of objects, it does not necessarily have to do so every moment your hand exists. There are many times when your hand holds nothing. Secondly, to take an object implies an active, conscious act. When your hand takes hold of something, it does so actively, but your hand is not the conscious agent. If it were, then a severed hand or the hand of a corpse could take hold of things. Although it is true that an object may be placed in a such a hand, still it does not actively take hold of it, let alone consciously. Likewise, physical cognitive sensors are disqualified from being continual takers of objects for the same reasons that hold true concerning hands. Mirrors are also disqualified since they are neither conscious nor active and can exist without an object, such as when painted black.

Cognitions are clearly both conscious and active in taking their objects. But is this the case with persons? Whenever any of your types of consciousness has and takes an object – for instance, when your visual consciousness takes a clay jug as its object – conventionally everyone would say, “I see the clay jug.” The agent of the act of consciously taking the clay jug as an object is conventionally ascribed, therefore, both to your visual consciousness and to yourself as a person. To deny that persons can know anything would contradict worldly conventions and therefore is not permitted in any Buddhist system. But although it is allowable to accept persons as consciously and actively taking objects, it does not follow that a person or conventional “I” is a way of being aware of something. 

A person is a conventional, continually changing, nonstatic phenomenon that is an imputation phenomenon having, as its basis for imputation, a continually changing individual network of aggregate factors, such as a body, mind, feelings and so forth. Most outstandingly, it is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of a particular, individual, beginningless continuuum of subtle mental consciousness. Therefore, in one sense, whenever that consciousness has and takes an object, which is a continual occurrence without interruption, it has to be accepted that the person also has and takes that same object. However, you cannot give as the reason for this the fact that the person is the functional phenomenon that has imputed existence on the mental consciousness as its basis for imputation. This is because, if that were a valid reason, it would absurdly follow that the momentary changing – in other words, the impermanence of the mental consciousness – would likewise have and take the same objects as that consciousness, because it too is a functional phenomenon that is an imputation phenomenon on that consciousness as its basis. Therefore, it is simply in order not to contradict worldly convention that a person is said to have and take the same objects that their cognitions, as the basis for their imputation, have and take. Thus, it allows for a person to do things consciously, but does not render a person into consciousness. Otherwise, a person could know things independently of a mind. 

There is one caveat, however. In the context of the Jetsunpa assertion of subliminal sensory consciousness while asleep, the person and manifest mental consciousness both have and take the same objects at that time, whether dreaming or in deep sleep, but only subliminal sensory consciousness has and takes objects while asleep, not the person.  

Things that can be taken as objects are synonymous with objects themselves. Thus, all knowable phenomena can be both had and taken as objects.

Phenomena on Which an Aspect of Something Can Appear

There are also things upon which an aspect (rnam-pa) of something also can appear. Nothing physical can do this continually, for instance a mirror or a physical cognitive sensor. Objects appear on them when they are functioning, but do not when they are somehow blocked. When a cognition takes an object, its aspect can also either appear on it or not, although not in a physical sense – when they appear, they do so somewhat like a mental hologram. As discussed in the next chapter, if a cognition apprehends its object explicitly, its aspect appears; and if implicitly, it does not. Thus, although cognitions have the aspect of some object continually appearing on them, it is not the aspect of every object it takes.

Several points should be noted. Physical cognitive sensors are connected to consciousness, while mirrors and other mechanical detecting devices are not. Both physical cognitive sensors and consciousness can assume the aspect of an object, but the former cannot do so independently of the latter, whereas mental consciousness, for instance, assumes the aspects of objects without direct reliance on a physical sensor. Furthermore, consciousness is aware of the aspects it assumes, while physical cognitive sensors are not, since they lack all conscious qualities. 

Persons continually take objects, but do not take on the appearance of their objects. You do not take on the appearance of a dog when you see one. But the photo-sensitive cells of your eyes and your visual consciousness do assume such an appearance, the former in the manner of a mirror and the latter in an analogous but non-physical way. 


  • Cognitions both continually take objects and sometimes assume their aspect.
  • Persons continually take objects but never assume their aspect.
  • Physical cognitive sensors and mirrors do not continually and actively take objects but nevertheless can sometimes assume the aspect of objects.
  • Hands neither continually take objects nor ever assume their aspect.

Furthermore, something can assume the aspect of something else by either having contact with it or not. The nose-, tongue- and body-sensors assume the aspects of smells, tastes and physical sensations only by having contact with these knowable phenomena. The threshold and range of sensitivity depends on your species and other individual differences. Thus, dogs can be aware of scents too subtle and distant to be detected by the smell-sensitive cells of a human nose, and some dogs can smell better than others.

The eye- and ear-sensors, on the other hand, assume the aspect of sights and sounds only when there is some distance between them and their object, and there is no direct contact. You cannot see something directly on your retina, just as the polished metal surface of a car cannot reflect the paint on it. Nor can you hear something vibrating that directly rests on and vibrates with the cilia of your middle ear. You see and hear things at an appropriate distance, not too far nor too close, but within a range of focus in accordance with your life form and the strength of your cognitive sensors. Thus, eagles can see further than humans, and ants can see closer. A further variable in seeing and hearing is the thickness and intensity of obscuration and interference through which your photo- and audio-sensitive cells can still detect their objects and assume their aspect. This variable can be a function of your level of concentration and also your life-form. Some species can see better in the dark than others.

Both sensory and mental consciousness, as well as mind-sensors, which in fact are also a consciousness, assume the aspect of their appropriate knowable phenomena also by not having contact with them. This is because concrete contact is a function of only phenomena with physical qualities. Something lacking such qualities, as does consciousness, cannot actually physically touch anything. Thus, with olfactory, gustatory and tactile cognitions, only the nose-, tongue-, and body-sensors assume the aspects of smells and so forth by having contact with them. The olfactory, gustatory and tactile consciousnesses also assume these aspects, but without actually coming in contact with either the smells and so on, or with the nose-sensors and so forth. But even though oflactory consciousness does not have physical contact with the nose-sensors, still it has a mental connection and intimate relation with these such that the consciousness comes to assume the aspect of the smell by depending on the nose-sensors’ assumption of that aspect. The same type of relation holds true between visual and auditory consciousness and the eye- and ear-sensors, in which case not even the cognitive sensors make physical contact with the sights and sounds and yet assume their aspect.

Mental consciousness does not rely on any physical cognitive sensor, but only on the mind- sensors of other consciousnesses. Thus, if your visual consciousness has at any time assumed the aspect of a sight, your mental consciousness can later also assume that aspect. The mental consciousness never comes in physical contact with what it assumes the aspect of. Unlike the sensory consciousnesses, it is not limited to assuming the aspect of only certain classes of validly knowable phenomena. However, except in a state of omniscience, you can never be aware of smells, for instance, through your visual consciousness and eye-sensors. But your mental consciousness can assume the aspect of anything knowable – sights, smells and so forth. It can assume the aspect of smells, tastes and physical sensations even when they are not in contact with your nose-, tongue- and body-sensors. For instance, your mental consciousness can take on the aspect of the touch of your mother’s hand even when she is not present or has passed away. Your tactile consciousness and the physical sensation-sensitive cells of your skin are incapable of such a feat! Further, your mental consciousness can assume the aspect of sights and sounds far beyond the capacity of your vision and hearing. You cannot normally see things in the next room or objects that have been destroyed, but your mental consciousness can assume their aspect. These distinctions are important in order to understand how you know things.

As for the things the aspect of which can be assumed by either cognitions or sensors, this set is the same as that of all objects. Everything validly knowable can be both possessed and taken as an object, as well as have its aspect be assumed. Thus, in referring to the aspect assumed as a mental hologram, this does not mean that the mental hologram of a way of being aware of something, such as someone else’s suffering, when known with empathy, appears with a form.

One further point concerns the fact that any cognition has three general components that are ways of being aware of something: a primary consciousness, a cluster of congruent mental factors and reflexive awareness, all of which rely on the same cognitive sensor. The first two components have, take and assume the aspect of the same objects, for instance a clay jug, while the accompanying reflexive awareness does not. It has, takes and assumes the aspect only of the former two conscious components of this cognition, while these two themselves do not reflexively have, take or assume their own aspects.

In summary:

  • Cognitions both have and take objects continually and can assume their aspect. Moreover, they are aware of them. 
  • Physical cognitive sensors can assume the aspect of things, but without awareness of them, and are not things that continually either have or take objects. As discussed previously, physical cognitive sensors may be present without having or taking objects or assuming any aspect, as in the case of a blind person.
  • Communicating sounds and persons continually have objects but do not take them or assume their aspects. The sound of the word “clay jug” is not in the aspect of something with a fat belly, a flat indented bottom and which can hold liquids. 
  • A person continually has and takes objects, is aware of them in a conventional sense, although is not themselves an awareness of them, and they do not assume their aspect. 
  • Hands and clay jugs do not continually have or take objects, nor do they ever assume the aspect of what they may hold or contain.

Types of Logical Pervasions between Objects

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.

The Same or Different

There are many possible relations between two items or sets. Two items are one and the same (gcig, identical) if they appear to a mental consciousness in the same way. Thus “clay jug” and “clay jug” are one and the same. If two items appear not in the same way to a mental consciousness, they are different (tha-dad). “Clay jug” and the Tibetan word “bum-pa” are different, although they may mean the same thing, while “clay jug” and “pillar” are obviously totally different.

Mutually Inclusive or Mutually Exclusive

Two items that are different may nevertheless be mutually inclusive (don-gcig, totally pervasive, synonymous) if they satisfy the eight requirements of congruence. These are: 

  • 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.”
  • If there is no “x” there is no “y,” and if there is no “y” there is no “x.” 

A knowing (blo) of something and a being aware (rig-pa) of it are different, yet they are mutually inclusive. If you know something, you are aware of it; if you do not know something, you are unaware of it, and so forth.

Consider the relation, however, between subtle mental consciousness and a person. These two are different, yet are they mutually inclusive or synonymous? On the one hand, it is true that if there is subtle mental consciousness there must be a person as an imputation on it and if there is no person there is no subtle mental consciousness. But is a person subtle mental consciousness? If it were, then the two would both need to have either the defining characteristics (mtshan-nyid) of the former or the latter.

A person is something imputedly existent to which you can only pay attention by your consciousness first and then simultaneously assuming the aspect of something else. Therefore, if a person and subtle mental consciousness were mutually inclusive with both having the defining characteristics of a person, you could not know that type of consciousness on its own. This is not the case. Reflexive awareness, for instance, knows this consciousness on its own and not its objects. This is evidenced by the fact that you can remember that you once memorized a poem as a schoolchild but without being able to recite it now. Also, reflexive awareness would need to be aware of oneself as a person, though not self-conscious in an awkward adolescent sense. If it were aware of oneself as a person, then since it is aware of each moment of consciousness, everyone should be conscious of themselves at every moment, even in dreams or when having bare yogic cognition of selflessness. Thus, a consciousness is not imputedly existent and the same as a person.

If, on the other hand, a person and subtle mental consciousness were the same and both had the defining characteristics of consciousness, then since a consciousness is a self-sufficiently knowable substantially existent phenomenon, so should a person be. You should be able to think about a person on their own without your consciousness assuming the aspect of anything whatsoever about them – not their name, physical form, an emotion directed at them or anything. This is also clearly not the case. Therefore, a subtle mental consciousness as a basis for imputation and a person as an imputation phenomenon on it are different as well as not mutually inclusive. In fact, they are mutually exclusive (‘gal-ba), because there is no common locus (gzhi-mthun, common denominator) that can be both. There is no common element between the two sets of persons and subtle mental consciousnesses.


Although the sets of persons and subtle mental consciousnesses are mutually exclusive, yet these two sets do not constitute a dichotomy (dngos-‘gal). This is because there are existent phenomena that are neither persons nor such consciousnesses, for instance the set of nonstatic phenomena that are forms of physical phenomena. But the set of imputedly existent phenomena, containing the subset of persons, and the set of self-sufficiently knowable substantial existents, containing subtle mental consciousness as a subset, do constitute a dichotomy. This is because all existent phenomena must be included in either one set or the other. 

Another example of mutually exclusive dichotomous sets is static phenomena and nonstatic ones, while another mutually exclusive non-dichotomous pair is static phenomena and ways of being aware of something – nothing can be both, while forms of physical phenomena are neither.

Trilemmas and Tetralemmas

Two sets, however, may be neither mutually exclusive nor mutually inclusive, but rather may overlap and have common elements, known as a “common locus” (gzhi-mthun) of both sets. The two sets may overlap in two ways involving either three possibilities, constituting a trilemma (mu-gsum), or four possibilities, constituting a tetralemma (mu-bzhi). 

As for the former, consider the sets of nonstatic phenomena and ways of being aware of something. There can be:

  1.  Something that is nonstatic but is not a way of being aware of something, such as a clay jug
  2.  Something that is both nonstatic and a way of being aware of something, such as visual cognition
  3.  Something that is neither, such as a static space. 

There is no fourth possibility of a way of being aware of something. 

This relation of a trilemma, therefore, is a one-way pervasion (khyab) between a subset and its set. Ways of being aware of something constitute a subset of nonstatic phenomena. Therefore, if something is a way of being aware of something, it is pervasive that it is nonstatic; but if something is nonstatic, it is not pervasive that it is a way of being aware of something, for it may be a form of physical phenomena. In other words, all ways of being aware of something are nonstatic phenomena, but not all nonstatic phenomena are ways of being aware of something.

Another example of a trilemma relation is between ways of being aware of something and things that continually have objects. If something is a way of being aware of something, it must have an object. If something has an object, however, it is not necessarily a way of being aware of something, for instance spoken words and persons. It is possible for there to be an existent phenomenon that is neither a way of being aware of something nor continually has an object, such as a clay jug. But there are no ways of being aware of something without any object.

Another possible overlapping relation between two sets is that involving four possibilities. This is the type of relation described above between things that continually have objects and those that have a basis for imputation. There can be:

  1. Something continually with an object but no basis for imputation, such as cognitions and spoken words
  2. Something with a basis for imputation but without an object, such as a static space or the constant changing (the impermanence) of consciousness
  3. Something that continually has an object and a basis for imputation, such as a person
  4. Something that has neither, such as a clay jug or the physical cognitive sensors.

Method of Study

The study approach to all this material is in terms of sets and debates. By learning the definitions of the various sets, you become familiar with its elements and know why they are included and why other items are not. Then, by exploring the pervasions and possible relations among the sets, you become certain of the distinctive properties of each of their elements. You know in which sets they can be included and those from which they must be excluded. In this way your understanding becomes both deep and extensive. In the Tibetan monastic education system, a firm understanding of set theory, gained with the study of ways of knowing, prepares you for a deeper study of logic and debate.

Thus, even if you have no one with whom to debate this material, you should review the sets of validly knowable phenomena, nonstatic ones and static ones, forms of physical phenomena, ways of being aware of something, and noncongruent affecting variables, functional and non-functional phenomena, objective and metaphysical entities, deepest and superficial true phenomena, imputed and self-sufficiently knowable substantial existents, things with objects, things with bases for imputation, things that take objects, things that can assume the aspect of something else, and so forth. Work out their pervasions, relationships, subsets and elements. Specifically, examine such critical items as consciousness, spoken words, cognitive sensors and persons to see the sets to which they do and do not belong. This will form the background and basis for the rest of the topics that follow. When you understand what a way of knowing is and is not, and what distinguishes it from other phenomena, you can then proceed to examine its various divisions.