Details of Ways of Knowing: 8 Distorted Cognition

Extensive Explanation of “Compendium of Ways of Knowing”

Contrast between Undistorted and Distorted Cognition

Distorted cognition is defined as a way of knowing that takes its own object in an inverted manner.

Except for distorted cognition and the times when an indecisive wavering is considering a wrong conclusion, all the rest of the five invalid ways of knowing take their object in a manner that conforms with fact. Because of this, they can often be put to good use. Consider, for example, that you are at the beach and someone is drowning at a slight distance from the shore. At first, when you look out over the water, the form of the person may appear to your valid bare cognition, but you pay it no heed because your attention was involved in listening to music. This is non-determining visual cognition. If you left at that point, such invalid cognition would have been disastrous. But suppose a doubt arose in your mind when you peripherally saw some movement of arms fluttering about. You might then have indecisive wavering with your mental consciousness aimed at the person, taking them accurately as a person and being unsure whether they were in trouble or not.

If this inconclusive state were inclined toward the accurate conclusion, you might next enquire of those around and discover that they have a friend who has been out in the water for a very long time and that they are not a good swimmer. This reason does not necessarily prove that the person you see in the water is their friend or that they are in fact drowning, but now with presumptive cognition you reach this accurate conclusion freshly and dive into the water. As you near the person, you can see more clearly that they are in fact struggling to stay afloat and you can hear their shouts for help. The first phase of this cognition is a valid knowing of the fact that they are in trouble. You continue to apprehend this with subsequent cognition as you continue to swim out to them. Finally, you reach the person and bring them safely back to shore.

Throughout this entire event, your various cognitions took their object, the person, in an accurate way – namely as a person. Therefore, even though most of the ways in which you knew this person or something about them were invalid, nevertheless, they led to a beneficial ending. But, when your vision was first focused on the person, had you thought what you saw was a log and walked away, the results would have been very grave indeed. This is an example of a distorted cognition, since it takes its “own object” (rang-yul) in a manner contrary to the facts – that it is a log. Please recall that a cognition’s “own object” is the second moment in the continuum of an immediately preceding object. In the case of this distorted cognition of a person as a log, the cognition’s “own object” is a log and this is not the second moment of the person as its immediately preceding object.  

There may be some rare cases when a distorted cognition can have a beneficial result, but this is usually only by coincidence. For instance, you might be walking on a dark road at night, and ahead of you lies a band of thieves in ambush waiting for a victim. Before you reach them, you see a dark form on the road. You think it is a horrible monster or demon, when in fact it is a harmless deer. But frightened by what appears to you, you run back home and consequently avoid being mugged and robbed. Such a benefit is merely spurious. To cultivate such distorted cognitions as this paranoid vision or various other hallucinations will only result in your familiarity with ignorance and non-reality. Invalid cognitions, on the other hand, which nevertheless, take their object in accordance with reality, can be successfully used as part of a pathway of development, provided you recognize them for what they are and are aware of their limitations.

A classic example of the usefulness of non-distorted, yet invalid cognitions concerns the usual process through which you gain yogic bare cognition of selflessness. At first, when thinking about your person or conventional “me,” you may have indecisive wavering, suspecting that it may not exist as a static entity. You then read some books or hear discourses on Buddha’s teachings. Now aware of the accurate lines of reasoning, but not fully understanding them, you presume that they are true and that as a person you may in fact not be static.

Such a presumptive cognition gained from hearing can lead, through proper analytical thinking about it to a valid inferential cognition of selflessness. This valid conceptual cognition will be followed in stabilizing meditation by many subsequent cognitions of what has already been accurately apprehended. Some will be of this inferential cognition, and others may be recollections of the selflessness about which you have already become certain because of this inference. Although the latter type of subsequent cognition is helpful for gaining familiarity with the true way in which your conventional “me” exists, it is more powerful and beneficial in your meditations to infer this freshly and validly over and again and then maintain concentration on a stream of subsequent cognition following from a fresh, valid inference. By such a process, and through your auxiliary building up of positive force (merit) from constructive acts, your attainment of yogic bare cognition of selflessness will follow by cause and effect and you will become an arya. Thus, this achievement is not gained by any “mystical” process, but rather by a rational progressive path.

Even when you have attained such an exalted state, although you will continue to have invalid cognitions such as subsequent and even some rare non-determining ones, they will not hamper your progress to arhatship and the complete elimination of all your disturbing emotions and attitudes. Only a Buddha is able to rid themselves of all invalid cognitions, and even valid conceptual ones of inference. But this, as well, comes from their repeated familiarity with yogic bare cognition and its invalid subsequent cognition while practicing as a bodhisattva arya. Thus, certain invalid ways of knowing can be beneficial for spiritual progress.

Distorted cognition, however, such as that which misconceives your conventional “me” to be a static entity and to have a permanent identity, is extremely detrimental to your development. In taking as its object a static “me” when focused on your conventional one, it is contrary to reality and will lead only to further ignorance and suffering. Nevertheless, such distortion can have a last instance when proper opponents are applied.

Types of Distorted Cognition

When divided, there are two (types): (1) conceptual distorted cognition and (2) non-conceptual distorted cognition. The definition of the first is a conceptually implying awareness that is deceptive in terms of its own conceptually implied object. The definition of a non-conceptual distorted cognition is an awareness having a clear appearance (of an object) that is deceptive in terms of its own manner of cognitively taking it. The first is like the two types of grasping for an impossible “soul,” namely of phenomena and persons, while the second is, for instance, like the sensory cognition to which a snow mountain appears to be blue.

Conceptual Distorted Cognition

Conceptual cognition is a way of knowing an object about which you conceptualize. Thus, it is known as a conceptually implying awareness (zhen-rig) – literally, an awareness that clings to something. It gives rise to a category as its appearing object (snang-yul). Consider the case of a conceptual cognition having as its appearing object the object category (don-spyi) of “clay jugs.” The object category is equivalent to the conceptual isolate, namely the static mental exclusion (blo’i gzhan-sel) “nothing other than a clay jug.” This conceptual isolate is an implicative negation phenomenon (ma-yin dgag), which explicitly tosses in its wake (shul) (leaves as its footprint) a mental representation (snang-ba) of a generic clay jug and implicitly tosses an actual clay jug. The mental representation is also a static phenomenon: a generic clay jug representing all clay jugs is not a product of causes and conditions. Therefore, a mental hologram of a representative clay jug also arises in the conceptual cognition as a nonstatic objective entity that is a form of physical phenomenon that can only be cognized by mental consciousness. 

You may recall that the involved objects of a cognition, except for those of reflexive awareness, must be objective entities. This objective mental hologram, then, is the involved object of the conceptual cognition and is known as the “conceptually implied object” (zhen-yul, implied object, conceptualized object), the object implied by the conceptual cognition. A conceptually implied object, however, literally means “an object that clings to a basis clung to” (zhen-gzhi, an object conceptualized about). The basis clung to is an externally existing object, whether or not that object is present and non-conceptually cognized by a separate cognition. But such an external object, even if present, is not a “cognitively taken thing” (gzung-don) functioning as a focal condition (dmigs-rkyen) for the mental hologram. 

Cognitively taken things are coarse forms of physical phenomena (gzugs rags-pa). Only non-conceptual cognitions cognize them and thus only non-conceptual cognitions have focal conditions. Conceptual cognitions do not have focal objects (dmigs-yul) that cast an aspect of themselves on the mental consciousness. They arise from the activation of a habit (bag-chags) for them and not from reliance on an externally existent focal condition.

The conceptually implied object in a conceptual cognition, for instance the mental hologram of a clay jug, appears only unclearly to the conceptual cognition. This is because it is cognized through the filter of the object category, “clay jugs.” All conceptual cognitions are deceived or deceptive (‘khrul-ba) because they mix or confuse a category with a mental hologram representing a generic member of that category, as if all members of that category looked like it. Nevertheless, it is possible to apprehend the objective mental hologram, the involved object of the conceptual cognition, through such a way of knowing, and even to do so validly, as with an inferential cognition. In this case, the involved object is taken accurately, freshly, decisively, non-fraudulently and with first-phase apprehension. But still such an inferential cognition is deceptive, as just explained. 

If a conceptual cognition is also deceived with respect to the objective entity that is its conceptually implied object, it is distorted as well. Its conceptionally implied object, which is the “own object” of the conceptual cognition, does not correspond to a subsequent moment of an external object that you previously cognized. For instance, you may recall seeing your friend wearing a yellow shirt yesterday. The appearing object is the object category of your friend that you saw yesterday. What appears in your recollection is a mental hologram representing your friend that you saw yesterday, which is an appearance of them wearing a yellow shirt. The conceptually implied object is the mental hologram of them yesterday wearing a yellow shirt. 

If it were, in fact, true that they were so dressed that day, then your conceptual cognition has taken its “own object,” this conceptually implied object, accurately and your way of knowing conforms with fact. If, however, they happened to have been wearing a blue shirt, not yellow, then your conceptual cognition is deceived about its “own object,” because it does not conform with fact. With your friend wearing a blue shirt yesterday as its basis clung to, your distorted recollection, which is necessarily conceptual, has appearing in it a mental hologram of them wearing a yellow shirt that day. The conceptually implied object, them actually wearing a yellow shirt yesterday, is false because it does not correspond to a later moment of the basis clung to. Thus, your cognition is doubly deceived. A category is mixed and confused with a mental hologram representing it and the basis the hologram clings to does not correspond to reality. This is conceptual distorted cognition.

Another type of distorted conceptual cognition occurs in most dreams. Here, as well, what appears are mental holograms of people and physical objects. The particular mental holograms that appear may or may not be representations of existent people or things, but the situations in which they participate in your dreams usually are totally fictitious and do not correspond to reality. They are not dream representations of later moments in sequence from actual events. Therefore, most dreams are distorted cognitions.

The most prominent examples of conceptual distorted cognitions are those with which you grasp for an impossible “soul” or self of persons or phenomena, since they are the true sources of repeated suffering with uncontrollably recurring rebirth, samsara. Sautrantika does not assert a selflessness of phenomena as the voidness of an impossible manner of establishing the existence of all phenomena, including persons, as the Chittamatra, Svatantrika and Prasangika tenet systems do. In the Sautrantika system, the selflessness of phenomena is the absence of phenomena existing as objects experienced or made use of by a person existing in an impossible way. 

There are two levels of grasping for an impossible “soul” of persons, whether of yourself or others. You can regard your conventional “me,” or that of someone else, as being established as a static, partless self, an atman, that can exist independently of a basis for imputation – a body, mind, etc. – or as being established as a self-sufficiently knowable entity. In either case, your distorted conceptual cognition is about some complex of your aggregates, such as your body, and the noncongruent affecting variable of your person or conventional “me” imputedly existent and imputedly knowable on this basis. 

Consider the case of grasping for the self to be established as a self-sufficiently knowable entity. The appearing objects are the object categories bodies, persons and one or both of these impossible modes of existence of your conventional “me.” These object categories are represented by a mental hologram of a body with a conventional “me” as an imputation on it and this “me” having what resembles this impossible mode of existence. The “me” in this mental hologram does not have this impossible mode of existence because that mode of existence doesn’t exist; there is no such thing. This mental hologram is the “own object,” the involved object, and the composite conceptually implied object of the conceptual cognition. The basis clung to by this conceptually implied object would be an externally existent actual body, a conventional “me,” but with this “me” being totally devoid of existing in this impossible way as a self-sufficiently knowable entity. Although the body and conventional “me” components of this hologram correspond to reality, the semblance of this impossible mode of existence of your conventional “me” does not correspond to reality. There is no such thing as a self-sufficiently knowable self, although Sautrantika asserts that the body is a self-sufficiently knowable entity. Therefore, it is a distorted conceptual cognition. 

Non-Conceptual Distorted Cognition

Unlike conceptual distorted cognition, which is always mental, non-conceptual distorted ones are mostly sensory and do not have as their appearing objects metaphysical categories or other metaphysical entities such as spaces, absences or selflessnesses. Their appearing objects are objective entities, and these are also their “own objects” and their involved objects. They appear clearly to one of your sensory types of consciousness, although not necessarily in focus. The “own objects,” namely the involved objects, in conceptual cognition are also objective entities, but in such cases, they are conceptionally implied objects. They appear unclearly to the mental consciousness, being partially veiled. In both cases, however, conceptual and non-conceptual, the “own objects” that appear in a distorted cognition are not subsequent moments of previous external objective entities that correspond to reality

There are many examples of non-conceptual distorted cognitions. For instance, when your visual consciousness takes as its focal object a white snow mountain, it may give rise to an appearance of a blue snow mountain. This might happen if you look at the snow mountain in the evening light, or through a haze at a great distance, or tinted glasses, or if you have a certain organic defect of your eye-sensors such as color blindness and so forth. Likewise, because of jaundice, a white conch shell may appear to your eyes as yellow. If you are cross-eyed, you will see two moons and if you are near-sighted, you may see distant objects as blurred. All such cognitions have a deceptive manner of cognitively taking (‘dzin-stangs) the mental hologram that appears to it. For instance, because of being near-sighted, the manner in which your visual consciousness gives rise to a mental hologram of a tree is deceptive, because it gives rise to an appearance of a blurred tree, which is not the next moment of a previous moment of an actual external tree. It does not confirm to reality. The mental hologram of a tree merely appears as blurred because of a faulty eye-sensor.

Other examples of non-conceptual distorted cognitions are hallucinations induced by fevers, drugs or other such causes. Unlike fantasies, which are mental and conceptual, hallucinations are sensory and non-conceptual. Their focal objects are places where the hallucinated objects are not present. Some of the objects that appear may be conventionally existent ones, such as a clay jug in a place where one is not present or the absence of a clay jug where one is present or a physical sensation in a phantom limb or in a prosthetic one. Some hallucinations may be appearances of totally non-existent objects such as rabbit-horns or pink elephants. These “own objects” that appear do so clearly, but are not subsequent moments of the actual external focal objects, and so do not correspond to reality. The distorted cognition is taking these appearances in an inaccurate manner contrary to reality, as if they were existent and present in a place without them. 

An objection may be raised at this point. If what appears in a non-conceptual distorted cognition is non-existent and yet can appear clearly, does this not render non-existent phenomena functional and, therefore, existent and knowable? No, there are no such faults. It is not that a non-existent phenomenon exists from its own side, as existent ones do, and then by acting as a focal condition performs the function of appearing and generating the sensory cognition that assumes its aspect as its “own object.” Rather, such a distorted sensory cognition is generated by one of a variety of causes for deception, such as a defective cognitive-sensor and so forth. 

The appearance itself of this non-existent thing does exist, because you can see it, hear it or physically sense it. But what this appearance is of does not in fact exist. It is merely a semblance of something non-existent. The mental hologram of a pink elephant or of rabbit-horns that appears can be a composite of disparate mental holograms of an elephant and the color pink, or of goat horns and a rabbit’s head. It is like a child’s drawing of a monster. Just because the child draws some fantastic picture does not mean that that monster must actually have to exist serving as the model for what they are drawing. 

In short, non-existent phenomena are not knowable, let alone functional. Distorted cognition merely gives rise to an appearance of something non-existent, it does not give rise to something non-existent. According to Sautrantika, when you imagine an existent rope to be a non-existent snake, your distorted conceptual cognition does not accurately cognize either the rope or the appearance of a snake. And it certainly does not accurately cognize a non-existent snake; it does not even cognize a non-existent snake inaccurately. Similarly, when you hallucinate a clay jug present on an empty tabletop or see a blurred tree in the place of a tree, your distorted non-conceptual cognition does not accurately cognize either the clay jug or the empty tabletop or either the blurred tree or the tree. And it is not cognizing, either accurately or inaccurately, an absent jug or a non-existent blurred tree. These differences are important.

Synonyms for Distorted Conceptual Cognition

From Eliminating Mental Darkness: (A Filigree for [Dharmakirti’s] Seven Volumes on) Valid Cognition, “Distorted conceptual cognition, conceptual distorted cognition and interpolation are all three mutually inclusive. An indecisive wavering not inclined toward fact also can be said to be a conceptual distorted cognition.”

With conceptual cognition, the involved object is a mental hologram that appears representing a metaphysical category. This involved object is a conceptually implied object, and it may or may not conform with fact or reality. If it does not, then it is a distorted conceptual cognition.

A distorted cognition in general is one that takes its “own object” inaccurately. This inaccurately cognized “own object” may either appear clearly or be known through the medium of a category. In the latter case, it is a conceptual distorted cognition. Therefore, of the many varieties of non-distorted and distorted conceptual cognitions and of non-conceptual and conceptual distorted cognitions, the sets of distorted conceptual and conceptual distorted ones are mutually inclusive. This is one of the four possibilities involved in the tetralemma between conceptual and distorted cognitions. The other three are:

  • Conceptual but non-distorted, such as a valid inferential cognition
  • Distorted but non-conceptual, such as seeing a blurred object
  • Neither distorted nor conceptual, as with valid bare cognition.

Interpolation (sgro-‘dogs) means literally “to tie a feather to an arrow.” Thus, it means to add something extraneous and superfluous to what is already there. It may add something totally non-existent or it may exaggerate what is there to an extent that does not conform to fact. It is always conceptual. Examples would be seeing a striped rope and imagining it to be a snake or perceiving a nonstatic person and imagining them to be static, partless and independently existent. These conceptual cognitions interpolate and fantasize something to be present – a snake or a static self – which is totally non-existent.

Other examples can be cited in terms of cognitions colored by desire or pride. You see a pleasant looking person and if you have desire for them, then your conceptually implying awareness exaggerates their form and the pleasant feeling that accompanies seeing them. It interpolates the inappropriate mental hologram that their form is pure and perfect, and that to have intimate physical contact with them will bring you sheer happiness and eliminate suffering. This does not, however, conform to reality. Pride is similar. Aimed at certain of your good qualities, it conceptually exaggerates them into being better than anyone else’s. Thus, interpolation is mutually inclusive with conceptual distorted cognition as well.

An indecisive wavering not inclined toward fact is a conceptualizing awareness that, for instance, is aimed at a sound and, fluctuating between two conclusions, such as considering it to be either a nonstatic or a static phenomenon, tends more toward the latter choice. Since this latter choice is the distorted conceptual cognition of imagining sound to be static, Kedrub Je classifies this type of indecisive wavering as distorted in his Eliminating Mental Darkness: (A Filigree for [Dharmakirti’s] Seven Volumes on) Valid Cognition (sDe-bdun yid-kyi mun-sel).

This, however, may be open to debate, which is indicated by the author’s presenting this proposition as something someone else says, as opposed to his simply stating it as his own assertion. What can be argued is that a distorted cognition is one that has come to a definite conclusion, albeit a wrong one. Indecisive wavering, however, has not yet reached such a definite conclusion. It is still considering the matter. Therefore, even if it is inclined toward an inaccurate way of taking its object and most of the time does take it wrongly, yet because it is not conclusive about it, it does not grasp at its wrong conclusion tightly. It is taking it only tentatively as its “own object.” A distorted cognition, on the other hand, has strong grasping and, therefore, Kedrub Je’s assertion can be debated.

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