Details of Ways of Knowing: Preface

Extensive Explanation of “Compendium of Ways of Knowing”

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The Need for a Map of the Mind and Its Ways of Knowing

In the teachings of Buddha, the mind is given paramount importance because all physical, verbal and mental actions stem from its motivating influence. Such actions can be under the dominance of unawareness (ignorance) and disturbing emotions, in which case they will result in suffering and unhappiness for both yourself and others. Or with discriminating awareness and a proper motivation they can bring release from suffering and the possibility to lead others to such liberation. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the workings of your mind and to sort out its ways of knowing in order to realize what is to be avoided and what is to be cultivated. To do so, you need a detailed map of all possible ways of knowing and states of mind so that you can always identify where you mentally are, as it were, and what is occurring on your mental continuum. Only then you can guide yourself toward any constructive goal. 

Buddha’s teachings provide many models of the mind and schemes for recognizing its various states. For instance, there are the mahamudra teachings concerning the natures of the moving and quieted minds, with particular attention paid to the nature of thoughts, appearances, and so forth. The dzogchen system discusses the mind from the point of view of its primordial purity. The lamdre system of the path and its results talks of recognizing the blissful nature of the mind and its relation to appearances. General anuttarayoga tantra teaches about the gross, subtle and subtlest levels of consciousness, their relation to the subtle system of energy winds, the 80 universally-occurring types of subtle conceptual minds, and so forth. All these schemes tend toward the side of Buddha’s presentation of the tantras, his most advanced and sophisticated methods for attaining enlightenment. They each present coherent, non-conflicting maps of the mind, each suited for the practice of specific sets of disciples sharing a common type of physical and mental energy configuration. Since individuals can be of different energy types, there is need for different maps and modes of practice in tantra, the set of teachings that deals specifically with the body and mind’s energy schemes.

The Context of the Buddhist Maps of the Mind

Buddhism as practiced among the Tibetans follows a combined path of sutra and tantra teachings. The former provides the context and background for the latter and gives it its “life-force” in terms of outlining practices for cultivating your motivation, gaining ethical self-discipline, concentration, discriminating awareness (shes-rab, Skt. prajñā, wisdom) and helping others. The four major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism may differ in the aspect and approach specialized in with respect to the most advanced tantra practices, but they all share a common and indispensable background of sutra teachings. Thus, in general it can be said that the Kagyu tradition transmits the mahamudra line, the Nyingma the dzogchen, the Gelug the general anuttarayoga and the Sakya the lamdre line of tantra teachings. But these specialties are not exclusive to them since there are mahamudra lines in Gelug and Sakya, dzogchen in Kagyu and so forth. However, all traditions follow a similar course of training with respect to the sutras. 

In general, Buddha’s sutra teachings can be divided into those of Hinayana (the Modest Vehicle) and Mahayana (the Vast Vehicle), both of which are followed in harmony by the Tibetans. In fact, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has characterized Tibetan Buddhism as “complete Buddhism” since all its traditions transmit the combined practice of its three major aspects, namely Hinayana and both Paramitayana (the Perfection Vehicle) and Vajrayana within Mahayana. The teachings on such topics as ethics, monastic discipline, logic, and concentration are shared in common between Hinayana and Mahayana. The specific practices to develop compassion, bodhichitta and the most detail concerning discriminating awareness are found in Paramitayana. With the four classes of tantra, six in the Nyingma presentation, come the methods for the most efficient, simultaneous achievement of both a body and a mind of a Buddha. Thus, all three systems taken together are essential for attaining enlightenment. 

Concerning the sutra portion of the teachings, Buddha introduced four Indian systems of tenets. Two are within the Hinayana fold, namely the Vaibhashika and the Sautrantika, and two are Mahayana, namely Chittamatra and Madhyamaka, with the latter divided in Tibet into subdivisions, such as Svatantrika and Prasangika. Unlike the various highest tantra systems, which are intended for the practice of persons of different energy types, the sutra systems form a graded path of increasingly more precise explanations all intended for progressively developing your understanding. Madhyamaka is commonly accepted as the most precise by all Tibetan traditions and is the framework within which the tantras are practiced. Each Indian system, however, like the tantra ones, presents a coherent, complete map of the mind, for instance, and forms a total system unto itself. The study of each of them in turn has many purposes in terms of pedagogical techniques and forms an integral part of the standard monastic education of all Buddhist traditions of Tibet. 

The Gelug Tradition

The work presented here is specifically from the Gelug lineage. Although many features of its monastic educational system concerning the sutras are found in common with other Tibetan traditions, for instance the subject matter, major Indian texts, use of debate and so forth, nevertheless it is beyond the scope of this work to present a comparative study. The Gelug lineage was founded in the late 14th century by Tsongkhapa (rJe Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa) (1357–1419). He studied with masters from all Buddhist traditions extant at his time in Tibet and recombined the three Kadam lineages that had stemmed from the Indian master Atisha (Jo-bo rJe dPal-ldan A-ti-sha) (982–1054). This latter figure visited Tibet in the 11th century, stressing the harmonious manner with which the sutras and tantras fit together. Tsongkhapa emphasized this point as well, and also strove to revitalize the monastic institutions. This he did by teaching that the natures of the monastic, bodhichitta and tantra vows are different. Prior to his time, most masters taught that these natures were the same. The implication of Tsongkhapa’s assertion is that to hold merely the tantra vows, for instance, does not suffice as constituting the holding of monastic or lay vows as well. The three sets must each be held individually. 

With this greater emphasis on monastic ethical discipline, Tsongkhapa combined the debate tradition found among the Sakya monasteries with the Kadam emphasis on the dual practice of sutra and tantra. He and his disciples founded many great monastic centers in Central Tibet, the most noteworthy of which are Ganden (dGa’-ldan dGon-pa), Sera (Se-ra dGon-pa) and Drepung Monasteries (Bras-dpung dGon-pa) near Lhasa, as well as Tashilhunpo (bKra-shis lhun-po) near Shigatse. Each has been later divided into several colleges, each of which have several thousand monks. The monastic universities were modeled on earlier Indian counterparts at Nalanda, Vikramashila and Odantipuri. 

The Gelug Education System and the Place of the Study of Ways of Knowing in It

Not all the youngsters in each of these colleges as novices receive the same education and training. Depending on their aptitudes and inclinations, they begin to specialize at an early age. But those with sufficient interest and intelligence, after the general primary education in reading and ritual, are led through a fairly standard course of higher sutra training. There are eight general classes, some of which last over several years. 

In the first three classes, usually begun at about the age of nine, the fundamentals of debate, set-theory, logic and so forth are learned. The names and topic of these classes are: 

  • Collected topics (bsdus-grva, “dura”)
  • Ways of knowing (blo-rigs, “lorig”) 
  • Ways of reasoning (btags-rigs, “tarig”). 

The next five classes are in the broad topics of: 

  • The perfection of discriminating awareness (phar-phyin, Skt. prajñāpāramitā)
  • The middle way philosophy (dbu-ma, Skt. mādhyamaka)
  • Valid cognition (tshad-ma, Skt. pramāṇa)
  • Special topics of knowledge (mdzod, Skt. abhidharma
  • Rules of monastic discipline (dul-ba, Skt. vinaya). 

Each of these five topics is approached primarily through the medium of one major Indian text written from the point of view of a particular school of Buddhist sutra tenets. In studying the subject matter of the text, you learn as well the assertions of that particular school of tenets regarding some of the topics covered in the other major texts. Moreover, several major texts may be incorporated within the study of a specific main one:

  • The perfection of discriminating awareness deals with the hidden teachings on discriminating awareness contained within the widespread ones on methods. Specifically, it covers the stages and paths to the various Buddhist goals: the Hinayana ones of liberation and Mahayana of enlightenment. It is organized around A Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs-rgyan, Skt. Abhisamayālaṃkāra) by Maitreya (rGyal-ba Byams-pa) and is presented from the Madhyamaka-Svatantrika point of view. 
  • The middle way philosophy is the study of the actual discriminating awareness teachings of voidness and the six far-reaching attitudes (six paramitas, six perfections). It is based on Engaging in the Middle Way (dBu-ma-la ’jug-pa, Skt. Madhyamakāvatāra) by Chandrakirti (Zla-ba grags-padPal-ldan grags-pa). It presents the Madhyamaka-Prasangika tenets.
  • Valid cognition is the more detailed study of logic and ways of knowing begun in the lower three classes. It covers the proofs for the validity of such essential points as the Three Jewels, rebirth, omniscience and so forth. It is centered around the study of A Commentary to (Dignaga’s “Compendium of) Validly Cognizing Minds” (Tshad-ma rnam-’grel, Skt. Pramāṇavārttika) by Dharmakirti (Chos-kyi grags-pa), several chapters of which are from the Sautrantika viewpoint and others the Chittamatra. 
  • Special topics of knowledge covers the topics of the physical and mental constituents of living beings, the Buddhist picture of the universe and all beings in it, karma, disturbing emotions and the paths to liberation. It follows A Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa’i mdzod, Skt. Abhidharmakośa) by Vasubandhu (dByigs-gnyen) and is presented from the Vaibhashika point of view. 
  • Rules of monastic discipline is the study of the monastic vows, based on the The Vinaya Sutra (’Dul-ba’i mdo, Skt. Vinayasūtra) by Gunaprabha (Yon-tan ’od). The vows are according to the Mulasarvastivada ordination lineage and are explained according to the Vaibhashika tenets.

Each of the Gelug monasteries follows in general and in common the commentaries written on these five subjects by Tsongkhapa and his two disciples Gyaltsab Je (rGyal-tshab rJe Dar-ma rin-chen) (1364–1432) and Kedrub Je (mKhas-grub rJe dGe-legs dpal-bzang) (1385–1438). In addition, they all accept the commentary to A Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge written by the First Dalai Lama (rGyal-ba Ge-’dun grub) (1391–1474), who was another direct disciple of Tsongkhapa. The various monasteries, however, each have their own set of textbooks (yig-cha) written by later authors, which serve as sub-commentaries to these major works and present slightly different views on numerous fine points of detail. 

  • The oldest textbooks were written by Jetsunpa Chokyi Gyaltsen (rJe-btsun Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan) (1469–1544), and these are followed by Ganden Jangtse (dGa’-ldan Byang-rtse Grva-tshang), Sera Je (Se-ra Byes Grva-tshang), and Sera Ngagpa Colleges (Se-ra sNgags-pa Grva-tshang). 
  • Next oldest are by Jetsunpa Chokyi Gyaltsen’s disciple, Kedrub Tendarwa (mKhas-grub dGe-’dun bstan-pa dar-rgyas) (1493–1568), used by those of Sera Me College (Se-ra sMad Grva-tshang). 
  • Ganden Shartse (dGa’-ldan Shar-rtse Grva-tshang), Drepung Loseling (’Bras-spungs Blo-gsal gling Grva-tshang), and Drepung Ngagpa Colleges (Bras-spungs sNgags-pa Grva-tshang) accept the textbooks of Panchen Sonam Dragpa (Pan-chen bSod-nams grags-pa) (1478–1554).
  • The most recent ones are by Kunkyen Jamyang Zhepa (the First), Ngawang Tsondru (Kun-mkhyen ’Jam-dbyangs bzhad-pa Ngag-dbang brtson-’grus) (1648–1721). These are used by Drepung Gomang (Bras-spungs sGo-mang Grva-tshang) and Drepung Deyang Colleges (Bras-spungs bDe-dyangs Grva-tshang). 

This covers the three main Gelug monastic centers which, since the reforms of His Holiness the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, have the exclusive authority to confer the highest degree of Geshe in this educational system. To receive this degree, you must be at least 25 years of age. Monks of the other Gelug monasteries, such as Tashilhunpo, which has its own set of textbooks written by His Holiness the First Dalai Lama (rGyal-ba dge-’dun grub) (1391–1474), must therefore complete their studies and examinations at one of these above three centers. The textbooks written by His Holiness the Fifth Dalai Lama (rGyal-dbang Ngag-dbang blo-bzang rgya-mtsho) (1617–1682) are no longer followed by any specific monastery.

Debate as the Method of Study of Ways of Knowing

There are two prominent features of this educational system: memorization and debate. At a very early age, the novices begin to memorize the basic texts for each of their classes. They will receive no instruction or explanation of them until the works are committed to memory. The method for accomplishing this is for a large group of students to sit or pace back and forth in a courtyard, often at night or in the early morning, each shouting his text at the top of his voice with none in unison. This great output of energy ensures that the youngsters do not fall asleep, and the loud atmosphere forces them to concentrate. It also accustoms them from an early age not to require a great deal of sleep, which is very useful for their mental development. 

Once they can recite the texts and have all the definitions and points in them at the tips of their tongues for instant use in debates, they then receive lectures progressively on each point. Having had a topic explained to them, they then proceed to the debate ground. There they pair off and engage in simultaneously held loud debates, accompanied with ritual gestures, in order to explore the implications of what they have just been taught and integrate it with their previously gained knowledge. This ensures that each student develops a firm understanding of the subject matter, without merely leaving it at the level of a superficial and easily forgettable impression of a topic based on only hearing a lecture. The debate technique sharpens their discriminating faculties for subsequent use in meditation and prepares them for answering questions competently when they themselves become teachers. Moreover, on a more practical, pedagogical level, it provides – with its vigorous gestures, loud clapping and highly energetic and often joking atmosphere – the stimulation and excitement needed to hold the interest of the adolescent students and train them to enjoy using their minds lucidly.

The point of the debate is not merely to elicit accurate and quick information as in a quiz. It is won by causing your opponent to contradict himself, and the young debaters correct each other by pointing out the absurd logical conclusions that would follow from their faulty statements. Often an entire class will be pitted against one member. This is very helpful in developing self-confidence and conviction in your right understanding, and humility to curb any intellectual pride. 

Furthermore, on the more advanced levels, the students from all the monasteries gather on certain annual occasions to debate special subjects. At this time and also during final oral examinations, the debaters must defend the positions of their own textbooks against those of the other monasteries. With four major sets of textbooks followed, each with slightly different assertions and explanations, the participants must think for themselves in a creative fashion in order not to be defeated in debate. Thus, it can be seen that there is no single orthodox, correct set of doctrines held dogmatically in this system. The point is to train your mind in order to gain an omniscient state of Buddhahood. 

Some geshes point out that on a more profound level, the emotionally charged atmosphere of the debate ground provides many opportunities for the false “I” to arise. This is the “me” that seems to exist substantially on its own, inherently findable as the person who, for instance, has just been “truly” humiliated or “truly” victorious. The existence of such an “I” arises most dramatically in emotional situations at such times your mind is usually clouded and unclear as if intoxicated by the emotion. In a heated debate, however, the false “I” arises in a unique situation of mental clarity and sharp discriminating awareness. Thus, there is a perfect opportunity to recognize the false “I,” distinguish it from the conventionally existent one and refute the former soundly and decisively. This is the testimony of those who have successfully traveled the pathway of reason and debate laid out by this educational system.

The Present Text

In 1976, the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives published A Compendium of Ways of Knowing, A Clear Mirror of What Should be Accepted and Rejected by Akya Yongdzin (A-kya Yongs-’dzin dByangs-can dga’-ga’i blo-gros, also known as A-kya Yongs-’dzin Blo-bzang don-grub) (1740–1827), with a commentary given orally by Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey and translated by Sherpa Tulku and the present compiler, Dr. Alexander Berzin, with the assistance of Khamlung Tulku and Jonathan Landaw. That book is a translation of the late 18th century text Blo-rigs-kyi sdom-tsig blang-dor gsal-ba’i me-long, which is one of the most commonly memorized short texts on ways of knowing used in the second class of the Gelug educational system. It is found in “The Collected Works of A-kya Yongs-’dzin,” vol. 1. (New Delhi, Guru Deva, 1971), folios 515–526 and is in the form of easily memorizable jingles for the major classifications and definitions involved in this topic. The closest English analogue might be such children rhymes as “‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ or when sounded like ‘a’ as in ‘neighbor and ‘weigh’.”

In the process of revising that translation and preparing a second edition, it seemed as though a more advanced and extensive text in English on this subject might be useful as an adjunct to this introductory work. The precedent for this is found in the fact that ways of knowing are first studied in the second class mostly as a means for learning debate and set theory, but then in later classes on valid cognition are treated once more in greater depth. Therefore, just as there are several graded sets of textbooks on this subject in the Tibetan literature, this present work similarly uses and repeats the framework of the root text of Akya Yongdzin and treats each topic in greater detail. The textbook tradition of Jetsunpa Chokyi Gyaltsen has been followed throughout. 

The method of compilation has been one that is neither a direct translation of an oral teaching on the subject, nor an editing of several such teachings. Rather, the compiler has worked closely with Geshe Sonam Rinchen from Sera Je Monastery in the manner of asking many hundreds of specific questions concerning minute points that arose in the process of working out and filling in the logical implications of the subject matter. Questions were also asked on numerous occasions to Geshe Dawa and Yeshe Lodro Rinpoche, and several times to Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey. The commentary was then written in English based on the translation of these answers and further confirming questions asked of Geshe Sonam Rinchen. 

Since this subject matter is traditionally to be studied by debate and the details filled in as result of such question-and-answer exploration, it was felt that this method of compilation might suggest this type of approach. Information has also been added from discourses given at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives by Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey on Dharmakirti’s A Commentary to (Dignaga’s “Compendium of) Validly Cognizing Minds, translated by Losang Gyaltsen, and on Asanga’s Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge (mNgon-pa kun-btus, Skt. Abhidharmasamuccaya), translated by Losang Gyaltsen and Losang Choepel, as well as from a discourse by Geshe Sonam Rinchen on Vasubandhu’s Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge, translated by Losang Dawa. Furthermore, the patience and forgiveness of the learned scholars is sought for any mistake that are left due to insufficient experience and debate.

What is presented here, then, is an analytical map of the mind and its ways of knowing as presented by the Hinayana Sautrantika tenets as interpreted by the Jetsunpa textbook tradition of Sera Je and Ganden Jangtse Colleges. Although Buddha taught on the sutra level slightly different mappings with his other systems of tenets, the Sautrantika is the one that was given in most detail and which forms the basis for the other systems. As you must start somewhere, and it is always best to start with a relatively less complicated system, the Sautrantika one is traditionally used as the foundation. Once it is mastered, the modifications of the other systems can be more easily approached.

Furthermore, since this presentation of the workings of the minds is shared for the most part in common with the Theravadin traditions of Hinayana, its study gives the student valuable insight into their meditational and doctrinal approaches. Only by understanding fully the various Buddhist traditions and systems of tenets on their own and in terms of their own inner logic can you begin to debate the comparative virtues and shortcomings of each and gain an appreciation of Buddha’s teaching technique of skillful means. The same holds true for the comparative study of the different textbooks of the four Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Therefore, with the hope of not confusing the various traditions, but preserving and transmitting the pure integrity of each, what is presented here is but one of many possible mappings of the mind.

The material found in this book is admittedly very complicated, and perhaps confusing. Nevertheless, charts and other aids have been purposely omitted. The reason is because this subject matter is traditionally to be studied by means of debate. Since most people reading this work will not likely have the opportunity to approach it in this fashion, the omission of charts may stimulate them to draw these themselves. In this way, by serving as a workbook, this text may hopefully introduce the reader not only to its subject matter but also actively to the technique it teaches for training the mind. May it be of some small benefit and use.

Alexander Berzin

Dharamsala, India



For various reasons, this manuscript was never completed and therefore never published. It remained as part of the Berzin Archives for the last more than 40 years. During that time, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been regularly meeting with scientists discussing, among other topics, the nature of the mind. Most recently, His Holiness has been emphasizing the need for detailed explanations of the Buddhist presentation of the workings of the mind that could be of benefit to both the scientists and the general public. Inspired by his call, I revised and published on the Study Buddhism website the translation of A Compendium of Ways of Knowing, as well as Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey’s commentary. Despite this present, more detailed commentary being incomplete, it seemed worthwhile to revise and publish it as well, in order to add it to the growing literature on the topic. May it be of benefit.

Alexander Berzin

Berlin, Germany

March 2021