Details of Ways of Knowing: 5 Indeterminate Objects

Extensive Explanation of “Compendium of Ways of Knowing”

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A knowing (of something) that is a non-determining cognition is one whose involved object is an objective entity that appears clearly but without decisiveness.

Decisive Cognition Versus Non-Determining Cognition

For an object to be cognized with decisive determination – in other words, decisively – means that cognition of it is accompanied with the mental factor of distinguishing (’du-shes), which differentiates it clearly from what it is not, including the background that also appears in the cognition. The cognition decisively determines (nges-pa) it as this object and not that one, although it might not actually know what it is. Discriminating awareness (shes-rab) adds certainty to the distinguishing such that you cannot be swayed from being convinced that this is what you are cognizing, and not something else. Also present is the mental factor of attention (yid-la byed-pa) – to cognize something with decisive determination, you obviously need to pay attention to it, although you may pay attention to something that you lack decisive determination of, as in the case of paying attention to your presumptive cognition of something. With non-determining cognition (snang-la ma-nges-pa), however, these three mental factors are not directed toward the clearly appearing involved object of that cognition.

The involved object (’jug-yul) of a cognition is the main object the primary consciousness in the cognition cognitively takes. Literally, it is the object that the consciousness “enters and engages with” within the domain of the appearing object (snang-yul) of the cognition. Thus, not every feature of the appearing object is the involved object of the cognition. Only objective entities can be the involved objects of the primary consciousness of a cognition, whether non-conceptual in the case of sensory consciousness or either conceptual or non-conceptual in the case of mental consciousness.

The involved object is also called the cognitively taken object (’dzin-stangs-yul). It is the object that corresponds to how the object is cognitively taken. Although every cognition has an involved object, not every cognition of an indeterminate object is a non-determining cognition of it, and not every way of knowing is capable of non-determining cognition. Some ways of knowing may only have decisive determination of their involved objects, never non-determining, such as inferential cognition; while some objects, such as metaphysical entities like categories, may be either known with decisive determination or not known at all by a specific type of cognition. 

The above definition of a non-determining cognition specifies that only involved objects that are both objective entities – so impermanent phenomena – and appearing clearly are known by non-determining cognition. Therefore, objective entities that are not the involved objects in a cognition are not known by non-determining cognition. Also excluded from being objects of non-determining cognition are metaphysical entities – so permanent phenomena – non-existents, and objects that do not appear in a cognition or which do so unclearly. To understand precisely what is being disqualified, some detailed analysis is required.

The Objects Known by Non-Determining Cognition Can Only Be Certain Objects

Cognitions can be divided into mental and sensory ones, as well as into conceptual and non-conceptual ones. Sensory cognitions can only be non-conceptual, while mental ones can be either conceptual or non-conceptual. Conversely, conceptual cognition can only be mental, while non-conceptual ones can be either mental or sensory. Let us leave aside in our discussion here non-conceptual cognition by reflexive awareness, which is with neither sensory nor mental consciousness.

Every cognition has an object with which it is involved, its involved object (’jug-yul). The involved object is mutually inclusive with the conventional object actually experienced (tha-snyad spyod-yul) by the cognition. Thus, non-conceptual and conceptual cognitions can only take as their involved objects objective entities. Their manner of so doing, however, is quite different.  

Decisive Determination of a Physical Object in Valid Bare Sensory Cognition

Consider first non-conceptual sensory cognition. Since the analysis of non-conceptual mental cognition is the same as that for non-conceptual sensory ones, analysis of the one will suffice for both.

The focal object (dmigs-yul) that non-conceptual sensory cognition is aimed at is an externally existing, commonsense physical object. Such cognition takes as its involved object the commonsense object, such as a book, and only certain nonstatic features (yon-tan) of it. In the case of visual cognition of the book, for instance, the nonstatic features would include its visual information, its sight, but not the sound of its pages when turning them. Further, sensory cognition can cognize its involved object either accurately or inaccurately. In the former case it is bare cognition, while in the latter a non-conceptual distorted cognition. 

Leaving distorted cognition aside for the moment, consider bare sensory cognition. Depending on whether or not the cognition apprehends by its own power its involved object, it is termed either valid or subsequent bare cognition. It cognizes its involved object, the commonsense object, accurately and with decisive determination that this is its involved object. In both cases, it can either simply have explicit apprehension of the book or, in addition, implicit apprehension of “not a movie.” 

Both the book and “not a movie” are objective entities, and both are the involved objects of the sensory cognition. However, only the explicitly apprehended book appears clearly as a mental hologram; the implicitly apprehended “not a movie” does not appear. Further, the involved objects explicitly apprehended can be either a form of physical phenomenon – the book – or both a form of physical phenomenon together with an obvious noncongruent affecting variable that is an imputation phenomenon imputedly knowable on it as its basis, for instance the impermanence of the book when a page tears.

The commonsense object that is the involved object explicitly apprehended by valid bare sensory cognition is not only an objective entity, but also a self-sufficiently knowable one. Although if it is a physical object it is always within the context of an also appearing background, yet this object itself appears clearly and on its own to the consciousness that cognizes it with decisive determination. “On its own” does not mean that it is isolated without any background at all, but rather that it is not dependent on its background. It could appear in another context. This is the sense of its appearing on its own, namely it is not restricted or limited to only one background. 

If the book, as such an objective entity, appears clearly as the involved object of one of your sensory types of consciousness, for instance your visual consciousness, and that visual consciousness does not pay attention to it because another of your types of consciousness, for instance your auditory consciousness, is, at the same time, paying attention to its involved object, the sound of someone talking to you, then the visual bare cognition of the book is a non-determining cognition with no apprehension of that first object. The book appears clearly in the non-determining cognition, but without decisive determination of it as being your cognized object. The non-determining cognition takes its object accurately but has only subliminal cognition (bag-la nyal) of it. In other words, the visual consciousness has the book as its object, but not you as a person. By not being attentive of its involved object, the book, the cognition of it generates no decisiveness or later memory.

Indeterminate Forms of Physical Objects within a Sense Field 

This situation of non-determining cognition, such as your visual cognition of a book when your attention is distracted by mental wandering or by listening to the sound of someone taking to you, is quite different from your peripheral vision of the words on the bottom of the page when your attention is focused on reading something a few lines above. The words on the bottom, like the rest of the background appearing in the cognition, are objective entities. They appear clearly to your visual consciousness and a mental hologram of the entire page, including them and the rest of the background, does arise in the cognition. But the words on the bottom of the page remain indeterminate because your attention is narrowed to something specific within your field of vision. Only those words you are reading at the moment are the object your visual consciousness is actually taking as its involved object. Thus, although the entire page is the focal object here and also the appearing object, not all of its parts or all of its nonstatic features are necessarily the involved objects of the visual cognition of it.

Although it can be said that this visual consciousness takes no heed and is inattentive of the sight of the words on the bottom of the page, as it is of the wall in the background, still it does not have non-determining cognition of them. Thus, it is not at fault because it does have attentive determination of its involved object, the sight of the words on the middle of the page. As a step toward omniscience, however, its field of attention could be expanded so that eventually you could be fully attentive of everything that appears. 

In summary, it is only if a specific consciousness is inattentive of everything in its field of cognition, while one of your other consciousnesses is attentive of its involved object, that it becomes a non-determining cognition. It does not become so if it is merely inattentive of certain things that appear to it. This is because not everything that appears to a consciousness needs be taken as its involved object. Also, if a cognition is attentive of at least something that appears to it and has decisive determination of that, it cannot be a cognition that is completely non-determining by nature. Thus, if a consciousness is inattentive of something that appears to it, it is not pervasive that it must be a non-determining cognition. Nevertheless, as with non-determining cognition, you will not be able to remember the words on the bottom of the page when your vision is focused a few lines above.

Indeterminate Noncongruent Affecting Variables

Suppose the involved object explicitly apprehended by a sensory bare cognition is a noncongruent affecting variable. Such objective entities are imputedly knowable and can only be paid attention to by your consciousness first assuming the aspect of something else, namely its basis for imputation, and then continuing to assume that while also cognizing what is imputedly knowable on it as its basis.

Suppose you are a surgeon seeing a person you are operating on. Your visual consciousness is aimed at the body of a person and so also at the person, and this constitutes the focal object of your visual cognition. The body of a person is the aspect that the cognition assumes, and so a mental hologram of the body arises. What appears clearly, then, as the appearing object, is both a body and a person, and both are objective entities. 

At first, however, only the body is the involved object of the cognition. It is quite possible that your visual cognition stays like that and you do not take the person as your involved object as well. You pay attention only to seeing a body and are inattentive of the fact that you are also seeing a person as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of that body. In such a case, you do not have non-determining cognition of the person. This is because the person that you are inattentive of and the body that is its basis for imputation, and which you have decisive determination of, are both appearing objects in the same cognition. This case, then, is slightly similar to being inattentive of the words at the bottom of the page when reading several lines above. There are, however, significant differences in the two cases.

If, after reading the words on the middle of the page, you then shift your attention and read the next line below, the sight of the words on the middle of the page are no longer the involved objects of your visual cognition. In the case of paying attention to the body on the operating table as a person after just seeing it merely as a body, however, you do not become inattentive of the body that is its basis for imputation. Previously, only the body was your involved object, but now the person as well is also the involved object. 

Suppose you now see the person lying in bed after the operation. Because of automatically arising grasping for an impossible mode of existence of a person, it will appear as though the person is self-sufficiently knowable. It appears as though you are just seeing a person and not a person as an imputedly knowable phenomenon on the basis of a body. If, from not knowing that this deceptive appearance does not correspond to reality, you are fooled by that appearance, still your visual cognition of the person is not a non-determining one. Although the person’s body is not the involved object of the cognition, the cognition does decisively determine this person as its involved object and not some other patient.

Suppose while checking up on this patient you look at the person’s chart, but the patient still appears in your field of vision. Although you are not paying attention to the patient, your visual cognition of the person is still not a non-determining one. It is now the same case as when reading the lines on the middle of a page and not paying attention to the lines on the bottom. If, however, you become distracted by listening to an announcement asking you to report immediately elsewhere, your visual cognition of the patient in the bed before you has now become a non-determining one.

Indeterminate Obscure Phenomena

You might wonder about whether or not sensory cognition can be considered inattentive of obscure phenomena or have non-determining cognition of them. Obscure phenomena can be apprehended by ordinary beings only by relying on a valid line of reasoning and include both objective and metaphysical entities. As already noted, the objects of non-determining cognition must be objective entities. Therefore, metaphysical obscure phenomena, such as the selflessness of a person, are excluded from being such an object, both on the grounds of their not being objective and their inability to appear to any type of bare cognition, let alone clearly.

But what is the situation with objective obscure phenomena? These may be divided into two groups: those that do appear to bare cognition and those that do not. An example of the former is the noncongruent affecting variable of the moment to moment changing of a clay jug – its subtle impermanence – and of the latter, the physical phenomenon of a fire that is present on a distant mountain where you see smoke. 

Gross impermanence and subtle impermanence are both objective entities – in this case, imputedly knowable noncongruent effective variables. The gross impermanence of the clay jug, such as when it cracks, is an obvious phenomenon that you can clearly see when you look at the jug. The subtle impermanence of the jug changing from moment to moment, however, being obscure, is something you cannot see. Both the gross and subtle impermanence, however, are features of the clay jug that are part of the focal object of your eye consciousness when you look at it, and a mental hologram of the clay jug as something that undergoes both gross and subtle impermanence does arise in your visual cognition of it. But there are major differences. 

The gross impermanence of the clay jug cracking, being an obvious phenomenon, can be the involved object of your seeing it, although it is possible not to notice it when it happens, in which case it is not the involved object. In the case of the subtle impermanence of the clay jug, however, although it appears clearly, it is too subtle for your visual cognition to cognize as its involved object. As an ordinary being, you can only cognize it conceptually. So, although you may be inattentive of both the gross and subtle impermanence of the clay jug when looking at it, the difference is that the gross impermanence, being obvious, can be the involved object of the visual cognition, whereas the subtle impermanence, being obscure, cannot be its involved object. But even if you are inattentive of the gross and subtle impermanence of the clay jug while seeing the jug as your involved object, still your seeing is not a non-determining cognition of the two types of impermanence. However, while listening attentively to the sound of the words of someone talking to you while the clay jug is still in your field of vision, you do have non-determining cognition of the jug and both its gross and subtle impermanence.

The case of the obscure objective entity of the fire on the smokey mountain is quite different. The fire does not appear to your visual consciousness. Therefore, even when looking at the smoke as your involved object, your visual consciousness could not be said to be inattentive of the fire, let alone to have non-determining cognition of it. This is because, as an ordinary being, you could not pay attention to it with your visual consciousness even if you wanted to. Furthermore, when your attention is distracted to another cognitive faculty, although you would have non-determining cognition of the smoke on the mountain if it were still within your field of vision, you would not have such with respect to the fire. This is because it does not appear at all and therefore cannot be the involved object of your vision under any circumstance.

Indeterminate Objects in Distorted Non-Conceptual Cognition

With distorted, non-conceptual sensory cognition, the involved object is something non-existent which nevertheless, for some reason, appears clearly. There are several varieties. One is when your visual consciousness takes a white snow mountain as its focal object and sees it as blue because of the evening light, haze, blue sunglasses or a nervous disorder. Another variety is when taking a bare tabletop as a focal object and, due to a cause for hallucination, seeing either a pink elephant or a clay jug on it. In the former case, the pink elephant, like a rabbit-horn, is totally non-existent, while in the latter a clay jug is a validly knowable phenomenon, but the presence of an absent one is non-existent. Yet another variety is when taking a clay jug on a tabletop as a focal object, but not actually seeing it because of conceptually projecting the non-existent absence of that present clay jug, also because of some cause for hallucination or defective vision.

In all these above cases, the focal object is an objective entity that appears clearly and is not paid proper attention. In fact, it is taken incorrectly, and a non-existent phenomenon appears clearly in its place and is the involved object. In none of these cases, however, could it be said that you have non-determining cognition of the focal object – the white snow mountain, bare tabletop or present clay jug. This is because they are not the involved objects of these distorted visual cognitions, and also your visual consciousness is attentive of something else it is involved with, even though its involved object is non-existent. 

When you become distracted with another sense’s information or a thought, then if the focal object of the previous distortion (the white snow mountain, and so on) remains in your field of vision, you will have non-determining cognition of it. This is because it is an objective entity, appearing clearly and the involved object of your visual consciousness. Whether or not the distortion itself continues to appear clearly because of the continued presence of a cause for hallucination, still you cannot be said to have non-determining cognition of it during this period of distraction. This is because it is not an objective entity.

Indeterminate Objects in Conceptual Cognition

Lastly, consider conceptual cognitions. All are with mental consciousness and all take as their involved objects objective entities, such as a clay jug. There are two varieties. For example, you can conceptualize about the price of a clay jug while looking at it or you can think about a clay jug when none are in sight. The former variety takes the external clay jug as its focal object, while the later does not have an external focal object. In both cases, however, an externally existing clay jug, an objective entity, is their involved object.

In both cases as well, the appearing object is a semitransparent metaphysical entity, the object category “clay jugs.” Through it, your mental consciousness cognizes a fully transparent mental hologram that is a conceptual representation resembling the externally existing, objective clay jug. The mental hologram is also the involved object of the conceptual cognition, but appears unclearly, partially veiled by the object category. Through it, and also partially veiled, appear the features of the external clay jug. Even if the clay jug is not present, still because the mental hologram representing the jug resembles it, it is explained that the external jug is still appearing through its conceptual representation. However, just like the mental hologram, the external jug also appears unclearly.

While thinking about the clay jug, your mental cognition is always attentive of the object category and the mental hologram. It may, however, not pay attention to the external clay jug even if, while thinking about it, you can see the jug in front of you. Although, while lost in thought about the jug, your visual cognition of the external jug would be a non-determining cognition of it – it still appears clearly to your visual consciousness – your mental cognition of the external jug would still be attentive of it, because you are still thinking about it decisively. 

In fact, conceptual cognition can never have non-determining cognition, because its involved objects, despite being objective entities, never appear clearly to it. They are always mixed with a metaphysical category and so are partially veiled by the category.  


In summary, it can be seen that non-determining cognition is possible only under certain conditions and with only specific ways of knowing, as specified in its definition. To consolidate and reconfirm your understanding of these possibilities and the variables involved, you should work out the pervasions among involved objects, objective entities, metaphysical entities, obscure phenomena, objects that appear clearly, unclearly and not at all, focal objects and appearing objects. This can be most instructive even if you have no one with whom to debate this material.