Deceptive Cognition and Self-Induced or Other-Induced Cognition

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Deceptive Cognition or Seemingly Bare Cognition

There are some further ways of knowing besides the standard list of seven. The one delineated in most detail is deceptive cognition (’khrul-shes). Deceptive cognition is also called “seemingly bare cognition” (mngon-sum ltar-snang). It seems to be bare cognition, but it is not.

Deceptive cognition can be either conceptual or non-conceptual. It is a way of knowing that is deceived with respect to its appearing object (snang-yul). It mixes and confuses its appearing object with the actual objective entity (rang-mtshan) that is its involved object (’jug-yul).

It is deceptive in terms of what something actually is; whereas, distorted cognition is deceived with respect to what actually exists. Rather that confusing what appears with something else – like we confuse our idea of who you are with who you actually are – distorted cognition would be confusing what we think you are with something that is impossible. For example, to think that you are Prince or Princess Charming, the perfect partner, the most wonderful partner that could ever possibly exist and will satisfy everything like in a fairy tale and we will live happily ever after – that is distorted, because nobody can exist like that. Whereas, thinking that a person is Susan and not Mary, when she actually is Mary, is just incorrect about her conventional identity, confusing it with something that does exist. That’s the difference – although both are wrong, thinking Mary is Princess Charming is distorted cognition whereas thinking that she is Susan is deceptive cognition.

Again, deceptive cognition can be either conceptual or non-conceptual.

Conceptual Deceptive Cognition

In conceptual deceptive cognition, the appearing object is a metaphysical entity (spyi-mtshan), namely a category, such as the category “dog.” Its involved object is an actual dog, an objective entity. Conceptual cognitions are deceptive in as much as they mix and confuse the category with the actual object that it is involved with. What does that mean?

For instance, when we think of a specific dog as fitting into the general category of dogs, we think all dogs are like this dog. That’s an expectation, isn’t it? We had a dog and it was like this – it liked to sit in our lap – and now we get another dog and we assume it is going to be the same. That’s deceptive because this new dog might not like to sit in our laps at all, and so we are disappointed with it.

With dogs maybe it is one matter, but how about a partner? We had a partner before and that partner abandoned us or was inconsiderate, and now we project that onto the next partner. We do that all the time. This is a very good example. It is when we generalize from a past experience and then project something from that generalization, in other words, from this category, onto something else that we fit into that same category.

Take a moment to reflect on that, because I am sure everybody can recognize how we often experience what we could call “false projection.” For example, we were disappointed with this Buddhist center and if we go to this other Buddhist center, we project that we are also going to be disappointed. Or, we go to a movie and we decide beforehand that we are not going to like it, or we won’t like the party, or we have this family meeting and it’s going to be awful, because previously it wasn’t very nice.

We imagine that what represents the category in our mind is going to then be the case with everything that we subsequently fit into this category. Deceptive conceptual cognition is, in addition, distorted when, for example, we think of a unicorn. Thinking of a unicorn, we could have a mental image of a cartoon unicorn, but it doesn’t actually correspond to anything in reality and is probably a composite cartoon of a horse and a horn on its head, because there aren’t actual unicorns. We can’t actually visualize a unicorn.

That is distorted and, as I said, a common example is to think that things are going to be like in a fairy tale. If we do this or that, we will live happily ever after. That is a fairy tale when we conceptualize like that. That doesn’t correspond to reality. It is distorted.

Non-Conceptual Deceptive Cognition

With non-conceptual deceptive cognition, the appearing object is a mental hologram (rnam-pa), while the involved object is an actual objective entity. In this case, the deceptive cognition is also distorted. An example is seeing a blur or hearing the sound of tinnitus. It’s not only deceptive, but it is distorted as well because what we see or hear doesn’t correspond to reality.

Seven Types of Seemingly Bare or Distorted Cognition

There are seven types of seemingly bare cognition or deceptive cognition. The first six are conceptual and the last is non-conceptual.

[1] Seemingly Bare Cognition of What is Deceptive

The first is seemingly bare cognition of what is deceptive. These are distorted conceptual cognitions that do not accord with facts, such as imagining that sound is permanent. Further examples are what we imagine we see in our dreams and also in fantasies. For instance, when we dream of our friend and believe we are actually seeing him, we are cognizing the mental hologram of our friend as he appears in the dream with the category “our actual friend.” We are confusing fiction with reality.

When we are dreaming, we might recognize that it is a dream, but that is something else. It is still a dream and doesn’t correspond to what conventionally we would say is commonsense reality. It’s conceptual. What appears in our dreams is usually made up of many different pieces of things that we have experienced before. They are put together in the dream in often very bizarre ways that don’t really fit together in reality; yet we cognize them in the categories of objective objects.

It is the same process with our fantasies and with imagining something. Also included here is the misconception when a frightened child thinks there is a monster under the bed.

[2] Seemingly Bare Cognition of Knowing Something Superficial

This would be a conceptual cognition in which we think of some physical object, like a table, through the static category “table” or some mental state, such as sadness, through the static category “sadness.” The objective entity “table” is made of atoms and is nonstatic: it changes every moment. The objective entity “sadness” also changes every moment. However, when we cognize them through a static category, they appear to be static and partless, like the category. Such conceptual cognitions are not distorted because there are, in fact, objective commonsense objects such as tables that are solid and moods of sadness that endure over a period of time.

[3] Seemingly Bare Cognition in an Inferential Cognition

This is the conceptual cognition of a line of reasoning used to prove a thesis in inferential cognition. Such conceptual cognition is through the three categories of agreement, congruence, and incongruence that constitute a line of reasoning. Here, we mix and confuse the appearing objects – the three static categories – with the conceptually implied objects (zhen-yul), the actual three-part line of reasoning.

Remember, in inferential cognition we have a three-part line of reasoning to prove a thesis, as in the example that we used to prove that the noise our neighbor is making will pass, for the reason that it was man-made.

  • This noise was made by a human being.
  • Everything man-made has passed, such as historical events.
  • Nothing that lasts forever has been man-made, such as mental continuums.

When we conceptually cognize these three statements of fact, we fit them into the categories “agreement,” “congruence” and “incongruence” of a line of reasoning. It is the three statements of fact that actually prove the thesis, not the static categories “agreement,” “congruence” and “incongruence.” The inferential cognition is deceptive, then, because it appears as though the categories prove the thesis, not the statements. Nevertheless, it is accurate that the line of reasoning does prove the thesis.

In the Sautrantika system, valid three-part lines of reasoning are self-established as having the ability to prove a thesis. But from a Prasangika point of view, why would they prove anything by their own power? After all, the three are merely statements of fact. It’s just that we have this concept that they prove something when we put them together.

This brings me to a point that I sometimes ponder. Is there logical order – or even fairness – inherently existent in the universe? If there is, where is it? Is a logical order in the universe just something that our mind uses in order to make sense of the universe? Where does logic exist? That is a very interesting point, isn’t it? Logic, actually, is a mental construct that enables us to make sense of the universe. According to Prasangika, it can only be established as a valid means of cognition merely in terms of mental labels with categories. Nevertheless, we rely on logic to know something not obvious, like the noise my neighbor is making will end at some point.

[4] Seemingly Bare Cognition of Something Derived from an Inferential Cognition

Seemingly bare cognition of something derived from an inferential cognition would be cognition of the conclusion reached by a line of reasoning. Just as conceptual cognition of the three-part line of reasoning used in inference is deceptive, the conceptual cognition of the conclusion proven by the line of reasoning is also deceptive. In our example, it mixes the impermanence of the noise our neighbor is making with the static category of “impermanence.” 

[5] Seemingly Bare Cognition of Something We Remember

Next is seemingly bare cognition of something we remember. What does it mean to remember something or someone, for instance our mother? It’s not non-conceptual; we’re not actually seeing her. It’s conceptual. What is the appearing object, the thing closest to consciousness if we think of an appearing object graphically? It’s the static category of our mother and then the static specifier “nothing other than our mother,” which specifies what we remember about her. Do either of these two static objects have a form? No, static phenomena have no form; instead, there’s also a mental hologram that represents our mother when we think of her.

Our mother looked very different when she was a baby, then when she was a child, and in all the other stages throughout her life. But, to remember and think of her, we represent her with just one mental image. It’s deceptive because she didn’t look like that all the time, did she? But when we remember her, we think that what appears in our conceptual cognition is our mother. Do you see what is deceptive about it?

It’s very interesting when we think, for example, of a relationship we have with such and such a person. How do we think of it or remember it? We have something that represents it. It could be a mental image, mental words, or even an emotional feeling like when we are missing our relationship with that person. But none of these are the totality of the relationship, are they? Even if we have a whole sequence of thought about our relationship, still we are only thinking about a certain aspect of it.

Of course, when we mention the emotional tone of our memory, this is a complex of mental factors that accompany remembering our mother or thinking about her. Depending on what we use to represent our mother when we are remembering her, the emotions will be different, won’t they? We can remember the good times or the difficult times. But regardless of how we remember her or think of her, it is based on a tendency to think of her and the category “my mother.” That tendency is an imputation on our mental continuum.

Remember cause and effect. Nothing can be a cause without there being an effect. Therefore, that tendency to think of our mother is there only as long as we can remember her. It’s very interesting when we think about Napoleon or Cleopatra, nobody can remember them anymore. We can imagine them, but we can’t remember them because we didn’t experience seeing or hearing them. If we can’t remember something anymore, it’s no longer a memory and there is no longer the tendency to remember it. Maybe we can say that we still have some unconscious memories of past lives, but in most cases that is quite hard to validate. In any case, that tendency to think of our mother will get activated by some circumstance and then we will have a conceptual cognition of remembering her.

When we remember someone who changes in each moment, like our mother, we can represent her with many different mental images. But it is the same when we remember or think of something static, which doesn’t change, like the number two? Even in such cases, we can represent this fact with various mental images: two fingers, two apples, or the number two written in English, Arabic or Chinese numerals.

[6] Seemingly Bare Cognition of Something We Hope For

The next one is seemingly bare cognition of something that we hope for. It is a conceptual cognition in which we imagine something that has not yet happened, like the completed house we are building or the completed website we are making. It is an expectation. We hope that this is what is going to happen. We have a concept of the completed house, a category, which we represent by something, and this is what we project onto what has not yet happened, mixing and confusing the two.

Another example is mixing and confusing a package that we hope will arrive tomorrow, so a not-yet-happening delivered package, with the category of an already-delivered package. We hope and expect that tomorrow that package we’re expecting will arrive. “Expect” means that we really believe it. We really expect it to come and, of course, we can be very disappointed if nothing arrives. Expectations are not reliable at all.

Of course, this type of deceptive cognition can be mixed with indecisive wavering. We are not really sure what will happen. We hope that something will happen, like the delivery of that package, but we could waver between thinking it will come or maybe it won’t. We could also be totally convinced that it will come and, if it does, then that was presumption, a correct guess. What made us so sure that it was going to happen? It can just be because we thought so. That’s not a determining reason, is it?

For example, last time when we made a similar order online, it arrived in three days, so we presume this order as well will take only three days to come. But there isn’t a logical pervasion, is there, that because it took three days last time, it will take three days this time? We presume that the same thing will happen, and we hope that it will happen. We have a concept that we project onto the situation, that this is what is going to happen. This is deceptive cognition.

In meditation, they always say don’t have any expectations, just meditate, because if we have expectations, we’ll have disappointments as well.

[7] Non-Conceptual Seemingly Bare Cognition

Lastly, there is non-conceptual seemingly bare cognition. The example is seeing a blur. We see something with our glasses off and it looks like a blur. It seems as though there actually is a blur there and that it is an objective entity, but that doesn’t correspond to reality. Another example is seeing a double moon when we are cross-eyed.

Valid Cognition in Which Determination of Its Object is Self-Induced

The last form of cognition presented in the text is called “cognition in which determination of its object is self-induced” (rang-las nges-pa’i tshad-ma). There is also “cognition in which the determination of its object needs to be induced by another cognition” (gzhan-las nges-pa’i tshad-ma). The Tibetan terms for these are shorter than the English.

An example we mentioned before was seeing someone coming down the street. If it is self-evident who it is, we know that we don’t need to have any further information in order to determine or ascertain their identity or be decisive about it. This is a cognition in which determination of its object, or decisiveness about it, is self-induced. Or, we might validly know that the person is going to have to come closer before we can actually determine who it is. This is a cognition in which we know that the determination or ascertainment of its object, or decisiveness about its object, needs to rely on another cognition.

It’s very important to know when we need to have further cognition in order to be sure of something, because many of us have the tendency to jump to false conclusions prematurely. We think we’ve understood something, so we decide that we don’t need to question or analyze further, when in fact we don’t really understand it at all. We think that we have understood enough in our meditation, when we haven’t.

Knowing that we don’t have sufficient information or evidence to be decisive about something is a very important way of knowing that we need to cultivate. For instance, when someone is explaining something to us, we often don’t give them a chance to finish explaining. Instead, we jump to the conclusion that it is evident what the person is trying to say. Very often we’re wrong. Even if we are right, the other person gets quite annoyed that we don’t let them finish what they are saying.

I am quite guilty of that very often myself. It comes from impatience. Because we’re impatient, we jump to the conclusion that it is self-evident what someone means, and we don’t need them to explain any further in order to understand. That’s very tricky, especially when the person is repeating themselves. It requires a great deal of diplomacy, especially with an older person who repeats themselves. But if what someone says is unclear, we need to ask, “Did I understand that you meant this?”

It is important to know when we are uncertain of something – for instance, whether we heard what someone said correctly or not. That’s really important when we are listening to teachings and the teacher uses words strangely in our language when we know that they are not a native speaker. In those cases, we need to ask for the definition of the term they just said.

There are five types of valid cognition in which determination of its object is self-induced:

[1] Valid Bare Cognition by Reflexive Awareness

Valid bare cognition by reflexive awareness determines and is decisive by itself of what all the mental components of a cognition are. Without needing to rely on any further cognition, it determines and decisively records the primary consciousness and all the mental factors that make up the cognition it is part of.

[2] Valid Yogic Bare Cognition

Valid yogic bare cognition is decisive by itself about its object. According to Sautrantika, valid yogic bare cognition is a non-conceptual cognition, with joined shamatha and vipashyana, of coarse or subtle impermanence, or the lack of a coarse or a subtle impossible “me.” It doesn’t need to rely on any other cognition to ascertain and be decisive about its object.

[3] Valid Inferential Cognition

Valid inferential cognition is decisive about a conclusion that it has reached through a line of reasoning. Once it reaches a conclusion, it does not need to rely on anything further to determine what it is.

[4] Valid Bare Sensory Cognition of Something Performing Its Function

When we see something performing its function, it is evident that it is doing something, that something is happening. We do not need to rely on anything else to determine that.

[5] Valid Bare Sensory Cognition of Something Familiar

This is an interesting example. If we see someone walking down the street whom we see every day, it is self-evident that we know who it is. If I see my mother or my child every day, it is self-evident when we see them in the morning that we don’t need to ask, “Who are you?” We are familiar enough that it is self-evident who they are from the first moment we see them.

Valid Cognition in Which Determination of Its Object Needs to Be Induced by Another Cognition

With valid cognition in which determination of its object needs to be induced by another cognition we validly know that it will require additional information, another cognition, in order to determine decisively what the object is. There are three types:

[1] Valid Sensory Bare Cognition of Something for the First Time

With valid sensory cognition of something for the first time, we see something, for example, a new device that we bought, and it’s not self-evident how to use it. Actually, it’s very interesting when we buy a new device. There are some people who think they don’t need any instructions on how to use it. It’s obvious how to use it. But, what is going on there?

They base their claim on previous experience.

Based on previous experience, we expect that because we were able to figure out other devices by ourselves then, we can fit this new device into that category and we assume we will also be able to figure it out. If we do figure it out, our confidence was based on presumption. It was a good guess.

What if the device is a chair? Each time you see a different chair, do you need to read the instructions of how to sit down on it? If we know how to sit in the new chair, is that just a good guess?

That’s a good example. If we buy a new chair, do we need instructions to know how to sit on it? We need to differentiate. There are some things that are self-evident, like sitting in a chair, and some things that are not. For instance, we buy a chest of drawers from IKEA that came in thirty-seven pieces, was it self-evident how to put it together? Not really.

Where is the factor located that makes something self-evident?

It’s certainly located in the mind and not in the object. My mother had and died of Alzheimer’s. She reached a point where she had no idea how to put her glasses on her face. She had no idea how to lie down once she was put on a bed. It wasn’t self-evident to her how to do something that to us would be self-evident. To someone who is a computer engineer, how to use a new device might be quite self-evident. For example, if we buy a new cell phone and if we have a lot of experience based on familiarity with cell phones, we could probably figure out how to use it. To someone who has never used a cell phone before, it would not be self-evident how to use it.

That’s not exactly true. A child at one and a half years can figure out how an iPad works. They can use an application on it without anyone actually teaching them how.

Does a child who is able to figure out how to use an iPad learn by trial and error or do they get it right the first time?

They do it by trial and error.

By trial and error, so they have to try again because the correct way to use it wasn’t evident the first time.

A child one and a half years old doesn’t really understand what they are doing with the iPad.

Right, you can figure out how something works, but that doesn’t mean you understand how it works.

But most people don’t understand how their bodies even work. And yet they know to eat healthy food.

That’s correct. With presumption we come to a right conclusion and maybe for the right reason. If we eat such and such type of food, it will make us feel better; but we really don’t understand why.

To eat, we need to put food in this hole on our face, our mouth, and not in those holes on our face, our nose. Actually, the baby doesn’t know that, does it? Usually we learn by imitation, but isn’t there also knowing something instinctively?

There are instincts, but where are they coming from? Buddhism would say from previous lives. Science might say from evolution, which also means previous lives, although not our own previous lifetimes, but the previous lives of others. There are many kinds of habits: habits built up in this lifetime, habits that carry on from previous lifetimes, species type of habits and so on.

What often happens with some people is that they are convinced that they will be able to figure something out. They think how to use a new device is self-evident and refuse to look at the instructions. As a result, they often break it. We need to not be so arrogant and think we can figure everything out ourselves and don’t need anyone’s help. It’s important to know when we do need help.

It is very interesting actually. For example, in designing a new device or website, we want to make it as self-evident as possible how to use it so the design of something can be more easily understood. How do we know when a new design is more self-evident and easier to understand how to use than the old one? How do we know that? It is by user-testing. In other words, we tested it with 100 people and 95 were able to understand how to use it. So, there is a 95% probability that most people will be able to figure out how to use the new design. But we can’t guarantee that.

We base our decision to go with a new design on an inference, don’t we? We infer from this user testing group that it will be the characteristic of the whole category of people who will use it. This is interesting because it may or may not be like that. Our assumption was an example of a deceptive conceptual cognition. That is very difficult, isn’t it? For user testing, you’re supposed to choose a random group. For example, for a telephone poll of who is going to win an election, the pollsters just call 1,000 people they randomly choose. But why should it be true that this particular group of 1,000 people represents the whole population?

They calculate a margin of error.

But what do you base your calculation on?

You have to use mathematical formulas.

But what are the mathematical formulas based on? They’re based on probability, aren’t they? In any case, there are various elections that have occurred in which all the polls beforehand indicated that somebody will win and in the actual election the result was quite different. Anyway, there is no need to go further in this direction.

We have valid sensory bare cognition of something for the first time and then, if we can’t figure it out on the first try, we know that we either have to try again or we need to ask someone and get instructions.

Sensory Bare Cognition When the Mind is Inattentive 

The next type of valid cognition that we need to get further information in order to ascertain what we perceive is sensory bare cognition when our mind is inattentive. This is when we are reading or looking at our phone or deeply engrossed in something and somebody says something to us. We are not paying attention to it. Then we know to ask, can you please repeat that. We recognize that we didn’t really hear their words, or we weren’t listening to what they said. When this happens, it’s important to recognize that and to ask them to repeat.

Sensory Cognition Having a Cause for Deceptiveness

Then there is sensory cognition having a cause for deceptiveness. For instance, a lot of people need reading glasses. They walk or drive around the city and can’t really read the signs. Here, we would validly know that to read a sign, we need to put on our glasses. We know that we need to remove the cause for deceptiveness, our poor vision, in order to read the sign.

This is valid from one point of view, in that we know that we are going to have to put on our glasses; but, the cognition itself is of course distorted because we are seeing a blur and it is not a blur.

There are a few more topics that are discussed in the texts, but maybe it is not so necessary to go into them now. We can get the general idea of the various ways of knowing from what we’ve been discussing.


What have we covered thus far? We’ve covered the seven basic ways of knowing something:

  • Bare cognition
  • Inferential cognition
  • Subsequent cognition
  • Non-determining cognition, with which we can’t determine with decisiveness what something is
  • Presumption, a correct guess but unstable because it lacks a sound foundation
  • Indecisive wavering, with which we can’t decide this or that
  • Distorted cognition.

In addition to these seven, there are the various sub-categories of deceptive cognition, or seemingly bare cognition. For example, it seems as if we are actually seeing something in our dreams, but that is certainly not seeing and it’s not bare cognition. It is deceptive because in the dream it appears as though what we see is real. Even if we recognize that it is a dream, it still appears as if it is real and actually happening.

There is also valid cognition of whether it is self-evident what something is or whether we need to get further information. This is the basic scheme.

The main aim of Buddhism in general is to rid ourselves of ignorance, our unawareness of cause and effect and of how we, others and everything exists. To rid ourselves of this unawareness requires valid cognition of both cause and effect and the voidness of impossible ways in which we project that things exist.

In order to rid ourselves of our unawareness, we need to be able to evaluate what we perceive and how we understand it. We need to be able to identify what is wrong with our cognition and what are the troublemakers. The troublemakers include not just the way of knowing something, but also the mental factors, all the disturbing emotions, compulsive urges and so on that accompany our way of knowing. And please note that unawareness, disturbing emotions and so on can accompany even valid ways of knowing. So, we need to rid ourselves of both non-valid ways of knowing as well as ignorance in order to rid ourselves of suffering and the causes of suffering.

Do you have any questions?

Three Mental Factors Involved with Decisiveness

I have a question about decisiveness, for example concerning the difference between inferential cognition and presumption. Could the difference be dependent upon the person? For example, when hearing the vowel in a foreign word someone is saying and determining what the word is that they’re saying – I could be sure that this is an “a,” but another person could need more data and might be a little bit more conservative in their evaluation. What is this decisiveness and is it something objective?

Is the decisiveness objective? Where is that decisiveness? First of all, we can’t really speak of decisiveness independently of accuracy. We can be decisive about something correct or something incorrect. But decisiveness itself involves three mental factors: (1) distinguishing (’du-shes), (2) discriminating awareness (shes-rab) and (3) firm conviction (mos-pa).

If we can’t distinguish, using your example of vowels, somebody saying in English “hot” or “hat,” we can’t be decisive about what they said, whether what we guess they said is accurate or not. Chinese is a wonderful example with tones. “Ma” or “maa” – someone might not be able to distinguish the difference between the two, but one is the word for mother and the other is the word for horse. What did someone say, horse or mother? We have to be able to distinguish the defining characteristic. If we aren’t even aware that tone makes a distinction between words in Chinese, we are not going to be able to distinguish the two words from each other.

When I first went to India to study with the Tibetans, there were no textbooks for spoken Tibetan. My professor at university didn’t even know how Tibetan was pronounced. So first I had to learn to distinguish the different sounds in the spoken language, because there are eight different sounds that all sound like the letter “t” or “d” to an English speaker. To speak and understand spoken Tibetan, we need to be able to distinguish each of them; although we can distinguish them correctly or incorrectly. That’s the first mental factor needed in order to be decisive.

The next factor is discriminating awareness; it adds certainty to the distinguishing. Distinguishing is that it is this and not that. Discriminating awareness is that it is definitely this and not that.

The third factor is firm conviction, with which we are so convinced of our decision that nothing is going to make us change our minds. What we are convinced of can be positive or negative, can’t it? When it is positive and correct, we are so convinced that this is the right thing to do, it gives us strength. But, we could also be so convinced of something negative or incorrect that we are closedminded and stubborn about it. It doesn’t matter what anyone says or what logic is used, we are “right.”

These three factors work together whether or not what we are convinced of is correct. How do we know it is correct? There are various ways to validate something. Sautrantika would say if something works, if it produces its stated result, it is correct. For example, we try a diet and if it works, we lost weight. Then of course we might have the fallacy of reducing the result to coming from just one cause. That goes back to the laws of karma that a result doesn’t come from just one cause. It comes from a combination of many factors that are affecting the situation. For example, we are convinced that because we took this certain pill, we lost weight. Then we presume, we hope that if we take this pill or follow this diet we will lose weight. But, then we haven’t distinguished all the different variables that are going to affect whether we lose weight or not, such as what food and what amount of food we eat and whether we also exercise.