General Application of the Seven Ways of Knowing

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Our topic for this weekend is “ways of knowing” or lorig in Tibetan. This is a very helpful topic because it deals with how we know anything, how we know that what we know is correct, and how we know that it is decisive. It very much affects how we proceed on the spiritual path.

As we all know from the Buddhist teachings, we all experience a great deal of suffering. Why does that suffering come about? There are many different levels of suffering and all of this is basically because of our unawareness, usually called our ignorance. Unawareness is based on our misconceptions and projections about reality. We really don’t know or understand what is going on, and if we want to get rid of that confusion, we need to have clear understanding of how things actually exist. We have to clear away all this misconception and confusion or so-called ignorance. 

For that we need to be able to know if we are seeing things and understanding things correctly. When we hear the teachings, how do we understand them? How do we evaluate that we do understand them? This is particularly relevant to the process of trying to deal with others and help others. When they say something, are we sure that we heard correctly what they said and that we understood what they said correctly? All these things are very important in terms of following the spiritual path and dealing with others. Even if we are not following a spiritual path, it is important with our daily interactions with others that we clearly understand what is going on.

Buddhist Map of the Mind

In the Buddhist analysis, as part of the general map of the mind or map of the emotions, we have the presentation of these ways of knowing. We also have a very detailed analysis of the different types of consciousness and mental factors. There is a very complete way of explaining how our minds work and how we actually deal with reality, process information and so on. There are other aspects as well, such as different types of deep awareness. There are many different facets of this very complex, thorough and sophisticated map of the mind. 

I find it extremely important to be able to get that map of the mind clearly delineated and to be able to learn how to read it. The more we can understand this, the more we are able to analyze or discriminate correctly in detail what is going on in our minds and the more we will be able to correct and get rid of all the trouble makers that come up in our perception of every moment of our experience.

In Buddhist studies, the topic of these ways of knowing is studied in the context of the Sautrantika tenet system, one of the Hinayana systems. It comes from the texts of Dignaga and Dharmakirti, great Indian Buddhist philosophers and meditators, obviously great highly realized masters. When we study the various Buddhist teachings, we find that different aspects of it are explained from the point of view of different tenet systems. On one hand, we can find that very confusing and wonder why we need so many system and such complications. We can complain bitterly about that and it is true that it is complicated, but, on the other hand, it is also very helpful. 

In order to understand something as complex as how the mind works, if we have from the very beginning the most sophisticated explanation of it, we might not be able to really understand it very clearly or we might trivialize it by not knowing the background. To avoid that, what is helpful is to get a simpler explanation of it first. This is particularly evident in our study of voidness or emptiness. We get a simpler presentation and then we refine it further and further. The same thing applies to these ways of knowing. We have one presentation, the Sautrantika, and although there are slight variations as we go through the tenet systems about that, we need to have the basis of Sautrantika before we get the Prasangika refinement of it. 

Seven Ways of Knowing

In this Sautrantika analysis, we have seven ways of knowing:

  • Bare cognition (mngon-sum)
  • Inferential cognition (rje-dpag)
  • Subsequent cognition (bcad-shes)
  • Non-determining cognition (snang-la ma-nges-pa)
  • Presumption (yid-dpyod)
  • Indecisive wavering (the-tshoms)
  • Distorted cognition (log-shes).

We will go through all of these later in these lectures. This is not a complete list, but it is the standard one that is studied. But, actually in the presentation, some additional ways are also mentioned. There are different ways of grouping these ways of knowing. What can be helpful before we get into the more specific explanation of each of these is to get some sort of taste of what we are actually talking about here and how we apply it in daily life. If we get an idea of its application and appreciate that it can be very helpful and describes our experience, then we become a little bit more motivated to learn the details about it.

For example, suppose a friend is walking down the street to meet us, but we are not wearing our glasses. We look down the street and what do we see? We see a moving blur coming toward us, but our vision is distorted because obviously there isn’t a blur walking toward us. That would be a distorted cognition. What we perceive doesn’t actually correspond to reality.

Next, we put our glasses on and look down the street and our visual cognition becomes a little bit clearer, but it’s non-determining for seeing who it is. The person is too far away. Although we can recognize that it is actually a person there, but it is non-determining as far as knowing that it is our friend. It is valid as for it being a person, but not decisive or determinate that it is our friend. We could also know that we need to wait until the person gets closer in order to be able to recognize who it is. That would also be valid. Or, we could jump to the conclusion and think that it is our friend. That could be correct or incorrect. We don’t really know. Those are two things involved here.

That’s very relevant because when someone is explaining something to us or telling us something, what often happens is that we think that it is self-evident what they actually mean and we don’t let them finish what they were saying. We immediately jump to the conclusion that they mean this or that, because we don’t have the patience to listen to them. Then, we can be completely wrong about what they were saying or what they meant. If we have the valid way of knowing that we need to wait until they give all the information, then we can understand more clearly and that is more helpful. We need to keep in mind that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions and think it is self-evident what others mean, when it is not certain.

Of course, we need to use our judgment because there are some people who just repeat themselves over and over again and that can become quite tedious. When it is evident what they mean, then we can say that we understand. But then again, we need to be able to evaluate do we really understand what they mean or not? Do we need to ask another question when a person explains something and it’s not clear? We often jump to a conclusion based on what they explain unclearly. Often, we have to ask and clarify. Knowing that we need to ask for more clarification is another valid way of knowing. We evaluate for ourselves that we didn’t really understand. It wasn’t clear and that we need to ask again. Then the other person might have the problem that they think that what they said was self-evident and if they don’t have the patience to explain again, they get cross with us.

This requires communication between two people, both being sensitive to this fact that the meaning that someone has in mind can either be self-evident or not self-evident. When it is not self-evident, we need to be able to give more detail and explanation and not just say it louder or repeat the same words. There can be a lot of misunderstanding and problems in communication between two people because of this particular situation.

Now, in our example of seeing someone walking down the street, suppose we have decided that we can’t really tell if it’s our friend, and we are going to be patient and wait until she comes closer. Now, we might hope that it is our friend and conceptualize that it is she and project an image of her onto our perception of the woman coming down the street. But, that conceptual cognition, actually a projection of our friend onto this person, is what is called “seemingly bare cognition” (mngon-sum ji-ltar-ba). It seems as though we are actually seeing her, but actually it is a projection. As explained in the presentation of conceptual cognition, we have the category or concept “my friend,” somewhat like a mental box, and we are fitting this person we see into this box “my friend” in our minds. Whether it turns out that she actually fits into the box or not, we don’t really know, but we hope.

That is a type of conceptual cognition that is known as “hope”: we hope that it is going to be our friend. There is no certainty there and we really don’t know, so it’s not a valid way of knowing. We are confused, because our conceptual cognition is deceptive. It is called “deceptive” because it fools us into thinking for sure it is our friend, but our expectation can turn out to be false. 

We experience a lot of deceptive cognition actually. We expect that someone is going to act in a certain way or speak to us in a certain way. We expect either all sorts of wonderful things will happen, or when we are really worried, we expect that all sorts of disasters are going to happen. For example, for sure we are going to fail and these types of things. It’s important to recognize these projections and that they don’t correspond to reality. We have these mental boxes, very abstract of course since we can’t actually find these boxes or categories in our minds, and we are fitting things into these boxes without really examining very clearly whether or not they actually fit.

Suppose that we don’t merely hope that it is our friend coming, based on intuition and for no actual reason. I think so is not a valid reason to expect why something is true. Rather, we infer that it is our friend. We think that it is she and are convinced that we don’t need to wait until the person comes closer to be sure. How do we come to that conclusion? We base our conclusion on the reasoning that our friend was supposed to meet us at this time and here is a woman walking toward us. Our friend is a woman and now is when she is supposed to be coming; therefore, we conclude that this is my friend. 

The type of logic that is being used here, however, is a faulty line of reasoning, because it does not exclude that the person we see is someone else. It is an incorrect inference: We see a person coming down the street and it’s a woman. Our friend is a woman and it is the time that she is supposed to be coming, therefore we infer that it must be she.

We have all these different discussions and very sophisticated treatment of logic, which goes hand in hand with these ways of knowing, because some of the ways of knowing are based on logic. But we need to analyze whether or not our reasoning is correct. If we are convinced that she is our friend and she isn’t, then our inference was false. If we aren’t quite convinced and presume that it is our friend and she is, then we made a good guess. That is presumption. We can make a correct guess based on a faulty line of reasoning. There are many different type of presumption.

Presumption can even be based on a correct line of reasoning, but we don’t really understand it. For example, with voidness, we can have the correct line of reasoning, we read it in the text and we say, “Yes, yes, it is void of truly established existence because of the line of reasoning ‘neither one nor many,’” but we really don’t understand it. In that case, we presume that it is true, and it is for the correct reason, but without any decisiveness. This is not a valid understanding of voidness, despite the fact that we have the correct line of reasoning and can, in a sense, recite the reasoning.

Another possibility that can happen is that we are indecisive about whether it is our friend coming or someone else. While she is coming down the street, we waver back and forth between two conclusions: Is it she or someone else? What is the result of having this indecisive wavering? The result is that it makes us feel uneasy. We feel insecure because we are not in control of the situation. We don’t really know. We aren’t in control of who this woman is going to turn out to be. This is indicative of why, in Buddhist teachings, indecisive wavering is a root delusion. It is a disturbing state of mind and one that really is a troublemaker.

We are not just talking about indecision about what we should wear today or what to choose from a menu, although this does make us uneasy in any case. It isn’t a very comfortable thing when we can’t make up our minds. We get paralyzed. More significantly, the root disturbing state of mind is when we are indecisive about what will be the best course of action to take in terms of helping others, and specifically when we are indecisive about reality. Is what I understand about what is going on in my relationship with someone else correct or incorrect? Is my understanding about who I am and how I interact with the world correct or incorrect? These are really disturbing states of mind when we just don’t know and are wavering back and forth. We get very insecure and, what often happens, is we worry uncontrollably. Using our example, we aren’t sure if it is our friend walking down the street. Did she stand us up? We aren’t sure if she loves us anymore? There are all sorts of uncomfortable mental stories, filled with anxiety and worry, that we generate when we really aren’t sure of what is going on.

Another example is “What did she mean when she said that?” Again, we go back to this other valid way of knowing, which is knowing that we need to ask. We need to get more information rather than stay with the indecision. Very often we need to do that. Somebody says something or doesn’t come when they were supposed to come and we jump to the conclusion that “She doesn’t love me anymore or she is really angry with me,” and all sorts of things like that. Then, either we jump to that conclusion or we don’t know. We are indecisive. Maybe it was like this or maybe it was like that and we all get upset, don’t we? If we know these ways of knowing, then we know that this is a disturbing state of mind and it isn’t something that we want. We are determined to be free of that and therefore we will ask what happened. Maybe the bus was late, maybe there was an important telephone call, maybe she forgot or whatever. This describes what is going on with indecisive wavering.

Initial Analysis

Now we might start to analyze what it is that we are seeing. Our friend is too far away for us to validly see who she is. What are we seeing? If we analyze visual perception, visual perception of a specific object occurs in just one moment and in the next moment we see something slightly different. The indistinct person gets a little bit closer. We are basically seeing colored shapes or we can say that we see pixels of colors. We see one moment of colored shapes and then we see another moment of colored shapes. Are we only seeing colored shapes? Some cognition theories would say that we only see colored shapes, but here, according to the Gelug presentation of the Sautrantika system, we are not just seeing colored shapes. We are actually seeing a whole object, the body of a person, that common sense tells us can be seen, heard, or felt if we shake hands. It is a commonsense object that lasts over a period of time, not just for one second. We are seeing an actual living being that is walking down the street. It is not just colored shapes walking down the street.

That might seem a little bit obvious, but this gets into the whole discussion of when we see a body, are we just seeing a body or are we also seeing a person? We would have to say that not only is what we see a thing, an object in general, but specifically it is some kind of a thing. It’s also not that we are seeing a nothing. It’s not that we are seeing a blank sheet of paper or something like that. We are actually seeing something. Objectively, it is a body and it’s not just a body like a zombie or something like that walking down the street. It’s a living person. This is the specific kind of thing that we perceive. The question is, is a commonsense object just a concept projected onto the colored shape or pixels? Or is there some sort of conventional reality that we see and, actually, objectively there are conventional commonsense objects. It’s not that the whole universe exists only of pixels of light.

This becomes a very interesting philosophical question as well. What actually is objective reality? Is objective reality just atoms and pixels of light or are there actual objects? This can go very deep and becomes very interesting. Is there a plastic wrapping around this bunch of atoms that makes it into an object? Where is the boundary where it stops being this object and the air next to it? The analysis goes very deep, and it is based on perception theory.

If we want to understand the teachings on voidness or reality of how things actually exist, we need to fit them together with perception theory. Otherwise the teachings are incomplete, and we don’t really understand why in one system it says conventional objects are just conceptualizations and, in another system, it says that there actually is conventional reality. Things might appear to exist in some strange ways, but we can’t totally deny conventional reality; otherwise it becomes nihilistic and very difficult to justify compassion for anybody if objective reality is just a bunch of atoms and pixels of light. Who are we going to have compassion for? There are many implications of the perception theory.

This is why it’s very important to have a very broad study of the Buddhist teachings. Things only really start to make deeper sense when we fit many different aspects of the teachings together. After all, the Buddhist teachings constitute a holistic system and we are just seeing part of it. It is like the example that the Buddha gave of several blind men touching an elephant. One touches an ear, one touches the trunk, one touches the belly and one touches the tail. Are they all touching the elephant? Yes, we would have to say that they are all touching the elephant. They aren’t just touching a trunk. But, they are also touching a trunk. What is the relation between touching a trunk and touching an elephant? The elephant is all of these parts. Again, there are many things that one can then analyze and that follow from that.

So, back to our example, we are actually seeing a person, a commonsense person, a person who has a mind, emotions and feelings. We are not just seeing colored shapes or pixels of light walking down the street.

Suppose the person we see walking down the street actually is our friend, Mary. We can’t see this yet as she is too far away, but it actually is Mary. When we actually see her, are we only seeing a person, or do we also see Mary? In other words, is Mary just a conceptual idea in our heads, or is she actually Mary?

If the person we see isn’t Mary, then who is she? Is she someone else or is she a nobody who has no name? But it actually is Mary. If we asked her who she is, she would agree she’s Mary and so would everybody else who knows her. Objectively, we would have to say that it is Mary that we are seeing. But, when she is too far away for us to distinguish who she is, we don’t know that. Nevertheless, we are seeing Mary if it actually is Mary and we are not seeing someone else or nobody. This has to do with the topic of whether there are objective facts. From the Sautrantika point of view, there is so-called objective reality.

Once our friend comes close enough to validly see that it is Mary, how do we know that it is Mary? How do we know? How does recognition work? We know that conceptually. “Conceptually” means that we know something through a mental category that we have of this particular individual person. In other words, whenever we get any sensory information about this person, we fit it into the mental box of the category “Mary.” Whether we see her, hear her voice on the phone, whether we shake her hand or hug her, or anything like that. Regardless of what she is doing, wearing, what facial expression she is making, or what she is actually saying, we fit them all into the same category, “Mary.”

We start to appreciate that these mental categories are fixed, like the mental category we have of our friend “Mary.” Of course, there can be all sorts of information and qualities that we associate with that category, but if we just speak about the mental box itself, it is the mental box of an individual person that can be distinguished from other people. What we then add onto it is a name. For instance, we could distinguish a particular person that we see over and over again at the checkout counter of the supermarket who works there all the time, but we have no idea what this person’s name is. We don’t necessarily have to have a name associated with the category of an individual person. But, we could have a name and, in this case, it’s Mary.

That mental category is static, meaning that it doesn’t do anything. The easiest way to understand it is to describe it as a mental box. We have tons of these mental boxes. We can call them concepts, or some idea of who Mary is, we can call them preconceptions when we associate various set qualities with them. It all depends on how we use these mental boxes. Obviously, we can’t find these boxes somewhere in our heads. But, this is how conceptual cognition works. We have mental boxes, or concepts, of objects, words, and the meaning of words. 

Consider the sound of the word “Mary.” No matter who says it, in what voice, or with what volume or pronunciation, we fit it into that mental box of the sound of the same word “Mary.” How do we know that? These could be completely different sounds: they aren’t exactly the same sound if there are with different volumes or voices saying them. The only way that we can recognize and understand language is because we have these so-called “audio categories.” These are boxes of sounds that we fit many sounds into, and then we associate some sort of meaning with them. Of course, the meaning box that we associate with any sound box can be quite different for different people. 

For example, what I understand from the word “love” and what you understand could be quite different. The distinction between the box of I like this person and I love this person could be quite different for different people. How do we know that our feeling fits into the box of I love you rather than just I really like you? That becomes a very interesting topic to investigate in regard to how we actually define these mental boxes and how we determine which box to fit something into.

That is particularly relevant in terms of our emotions, because they are often not very clear. What actually are we feeling? We can also ask is it actually helpful to put what we feel into a mental box, and does it become real only if we fit it into a box? Are we actually feeling love if we don’t call it love? We want the other person to say, “I love you,” so we can fit it into the box of he or she loves me. If they don’t say it, we feel that it doesn’t count, or their love isn’t real. We think “love” only becomes real if we fit it into this box or the sound of these words I love you. But this is nonsense.

That becomes very interesting and helps us to overcome the obsessive insecurity that makes us want our partner to say “I love you” every day. We feel that the person has to send us a Valentine’s Day card because of our indecisive wavering about does his or her feelings toward us fit into this or that mental box? Sometimes it has to fit into a mental box in order to be clear what is going on, but at other times we can be too obsessive about putting it onto these mental boxes and only if they say, “I love you,” does it actually mean that they love us. If they don’t say it, then it doesn’t count or shows clearly that they don’t love us.

How Do We Identify If Someone Fits into a Category?

Conceptual cognition is very important to understand. How do we know to fit this person we see walking down the street into our category of Mary? To do so, we need to distinguish some uncommon characteristic feature of the person that we see and some composite feature of the category “Mary.” This get into the mental factor of distinguishing (‘du-shes), sometimes called recognition. How do we distinguish this person from that person?

We could get into a very sophisticated and very interesting Prasangika analysis of this. To illustrate this point, I often use the example of a series of photos of ourselves from being a baby, to a child, a teenager, a young adult, middle-aged person and an old person – depending on how old we are. How do we know that they are all “me?” They all look completely different. What is the defining characteristic in each of these photos that makes it “me” and not “you” or somebody else? Also, it’s not a nobody. It is somebody in the photos. There must be an individual defining characteristic feature in all the photos that we can distinguish, although it is very hard to specify what it is. Sautrantika would say that there is such a defining characteristic and it is findable on the side of all the persons in the photos and, by its own power, it establishes that it is “me.” Prasangika would agree that conventionally there is such a defining characteristic, otherwise we could not correctly distinguish who it is in the photo, but it is not findable on the side of the person with the power to establish that it is “me.”

In any case, back to our discussion of seeing Mary, there is a conventional defining characteristic in Mary’s voice or what she looks like, no matter what she is wearing or how old she is and so on. There is also what is called a “composite feature” in the mental box. It is a composite made from all the different times that we have seen her – a general characteristic that characterizes the mental box as being the mental box “Mary” and not the mental box of somebody else. Then, we match and fit the individual defining characteristic of the person, Mary, we see into the box that has this composite defining characteristic of “Mary.”

This is where we often make mistakes in our cognition. We project a certain mental box onto something that doesn’t have the defining characteristic to qualify it as being a member of the set of things that go into that box. That happens all the time when we have preconceptions and misconceptions about what someone meant, about who someone is, and even what our feelings are. We distinguish what we feel and label it as fitting into a certain mental box as if emotions actually existed in boxes and now we are feeling one from this or that box.

But emotions don’t exist like that, do they? It’s not that emotions are divided into boxes and somehow now what we are feeling is in this box and now what we are feeling is in that box. We experience a whole array of different emotions, but to understand them fully we need to fit this analysis together with the discussion of how things exist.

In any case, when we work with these mental categories or boxes, we learn how we distinguish one thing from another. How do we know that this is Mary? There is some individual defining characteristic that I distinguish when I see her, and I fit it into the mental box “Mary.” We infer that this is Mary based on the line of reasoning that if the person has such and such uncommon characteristic feature, she fits into this particular mental box with this composite defining characteristic. The reasoning goes: This person has this feature; all things that have this feature fit in this box; there are no things with this feature that do not fit in this box; therefore, this person fits into this mental box.

If we mistakenly thought that the person was Susan when we saw Mary at a distance, we fit her into the mental box of Susan. We didn’t fit her into the correct mental box. We had incorrect consideration. We considered the uncommon characteristic feature of Mary to be the uncommon characteristic feature of Susan. We thought this person had the feature of being Susan when in fact she had the feature of being Mary. Based on that, we incorrectly inferred that this is Susan because we had the incorrect distinguishing of the category that she fit into. We conceptually projected Susan onto Mary and that conceptual cognition was deceptive.

There is a whole list of different types of deceptive ways of knowing that fool us. In other words, we think that it is like this when it isn’t. Maybe it was only that at a distance it looked like Susan and that was incorrect.

Negation: How We Know Something Is This and Not That

When she comes closer and we conceptually know her as Mary and we fit her into the box of Mary, what do we now know? We know that it is not Susan. We thought it was Susan, but it’s not. We negate that she is Susan. How do we cognize that? How do we know that? When we see a person and see that it is Mary, how do we at the same time see that it is not Susan? This gets into the whole theory of negation phenomena and how we know that something is not this but is that.

Firstly, we can only know that this is not Susan, if we knew Susan before. If we didn’t know Susan before, we couldn’t exclude or negate that it was Susan. This is why in Tsongkhapa’s presentation on voidness, he makes a huge emphasis on recognizing the object to be negated. If we can’t recognize what it is we are refuting or negating, we can’t accurately refute it. He goes back to something implied by Shantideva, that if we can’t see a target, we can’t shoot an arrow into it. We might get lucky and shoot the arrow into it, but we are not going to have a stable aim. Likewise, we need to have known who Susan is in order to see that this is not Susan.

When we cognize Mary, we also cognize at the same time “not Susan,” although there isn’t a blank or some sort of a “not Susan” that appears. When we see that it is Mary, we have excluded anyone else other than Mary. She is not anyone else other than Mary, which specifies that she is actually Mary. It limits it down; there she is, Mary. Nothing other than Mary, nobody else other than Mary – and of course it includes eliminating that it is Susan.

We see Mary and are really convinced that this is Mary. This means that we know that it is nobody else other than Mary. It is not that we have to know absolutely every other human being on the planet and exclude each of them, one by one, in order to know that it is nobody other than Mary. If we had to do that, we would never be certain of anything that we know. But, if we want to be really sure that it is not Susan, we would have to know that Susan is included in this nothing other than Mary.

When we become certain of voidness, then we know voidness is not this table or this flower – that’s obvious. But “nothing other than voidness” is too vague even though it seems very specific. To be convinced that it is voidness, we need to be able to exclude some misconceptions or partial understandings that we could have. These negations can be very general as in it’s nothing other than what it is and exclude everything else. Or, in addition, we could exclude some very specific types of mistaken views, such as the nihilist and eternalist views.

The topic of exclusion is a very large area of study in Buddhist cognition theory concerning negation phenomenon. It gets very detailed and is very important for understanding how we focus on voidness. Voidness is an absence of something impossible that can’t possibly exist. How do we focus on that? There are ways of getting into that. For example, we thought that there was milk in the refrigerator. We go to the refrigerator and look inside and see there is no milk. What do we see? We see an empty refrigerator. We don’t see “no milk,” but we know that the absence means no milk because we were looking for milk. There are these gradual ways of being able to understand how we actually focus on voidness. That involves the whole topic of exclusions and negation phenomenon.

Subsequent Cognition

One final point is that when we first recognize that this is Mary, the first moment of our inferential cognition, which is a type of conceptual cognition, is fresh. We think, “Oh, that’s Mary coming.” That’s fresh and very strong. Subsequent to that, we’re not thinking, “Oh, that’s Mary,” every moment of the rest of our interaction. We know that it’s Mary, but it’s quite different from that first moment when it is fresh. What we experience after that initial recognizing of her is called subsequent cognition. It is still correct; we still know that it is Mary. She hasn’t changed into Susan and she hasn’t become a nobody. We still know that it’s Mary, but it’s not fresh like that first inferential moment.

This is another way of knowing and it is quite important to recognize in meditation when we are focusing on something like voidness or compassion. We generate compassion initially, for instance, by going through a line of reasoning – for example, everyone has been our mother and has been so kind to us, etc. We get to compassion, and we feel it very strongly, but then it becomes weak. This is because our state of mind of compassion has become subsequent cognition. It’s not fresh. If it gets too weak where we don’t actually feel anything, then we need to generate it again to get a fresh inference and fresh generation of it. When we are aware that these are two different ways of having compassion, one being a valid fresh way, and the other a stale way, like a stale piece of bread, without any energy behind it, then we know to go back and generate it again. That is a very important instruction in meditation.

Usefulness of the Seven Ways of Knowing in Meditation and Daily Life

Like this, we are trying to illustrate that these seven ways of knowing are not just some boring list that we find in the Buddhist teachings and wonder if we really need to know this and why can’t we just sit and meditate. In fact, this is an extremely useful tool for being able to analyze what is going on in our meditation and to be able to correct it and be able to know how to generate a certain state of mind, such as correct focus on voidness or bodhichitta. 

How are we sure that we are meditating on the correct thing? We might think that we are doing it correctly when we are not. Very often people think that they are meditating on bodhichitta when actually they are meditating on compassion. There is nothing wrong with meditating on compassion, but it isn’t the same as meditating on bodhichitta. We might not know what we are supposed to be focusing on with bodhichitta. That gets into all the mental factors involved in a cognition. What actually is it aimed at, how is the mind taking it, what are all the pieces involved in this state of mind, and how is it actually cognizing its object or taking it or knowing that object? Is there certainty in there? Is it accurate or not? Are we distinguishing the correct thing or not? Are we projecting and fitting it into a box and looking at it through a box – and is it the correct box – with all sorts of preconceptions?

All these things are involved, but not just in meditation. They are involved in all our interactions with others. When we might be feeling lonely or miserable and are considering ourselves a loser, what are we actually distinguishing? What sort of mental box are we putting ourselves into and why are we fitting ourselves into that mental box? We might have fit ourselves into the box of “loser,” and subsequently felt miserable, based on the inference from the line of reasoning: I got almost no “likes” from something I posted on social media and not the anticipated number, and so that means I’m a boring loser. That’s faulty logic, isn’t it? As another example, no one texted us today and so we conclude that nobody loves us and so on. That’s also faulty inference. Maybe the battery ran out on our phone, and so it merely seems that nobody texted us. We have to check and see what is going on.

Particularly in our communication and interaction with others, recognizing our projections is very important. We need to know how we actually know what the other person means when they say what they are saying. Are we assuming or projecting certain things? Do we really understand what they mean? We need to know how to evaluate, how to know when we need to get more information or when we have enough and are just asking unnecessary questions. It can go either way. This is one of the importances of this topic.


Perhaps, there are some general questions about the relevance of this topic before we get into the specifics of it. I suppose what is important to take from all of this is how relevant it is to have some sort of map of the mind and emotions if we are really going to work in a scientific manner with a rational approach to dealing with our emotional states. That might seem illogical to use a rational approach to deal with our emotions, but if we don’t have a systematic approach, everything is too vague. It is going to be too hard to work on our emotions relying just on intuition and feelings to clarify what is going on. 

When we are looking for, let’s say, peace of mind, this comes from many different factors. One of them is that we understand what is going on in our lives. If we don’t understand what is going on in ourselves and in the world, we lack self-confidence and feel insecure. If we feel insecure, we certainly don’t have mental peace. Clarity of mind is very important in addition to kind thoughts and all these other things. That’s why there is this emphasis on compassion and wisdom, these two so-called wings with which we fly in our development. Wisdom begins with knowing how our minds work and having a clear idea and the tools with which to analyze what is going on in our moment to moment experience of life.

How does discussion of ways of knowing apply not just to meditation and ordinary life but also to understanding the Dharma and what we hear and how we listen?

How can we apply this to correctly understanding the Dharma? This is applicable in terms of hearing or listening to the teachings, thinking about their meaning, as well as meditating on them. We have this threefold process. When we hear or listen to the teachings, what is the result of that? The result that we are aiming for is the discriminating awareness (shes-rab), often called wisdom, that comes from hearing. This means that we have to be certain that we heard the words correctly. We could think that somebody said something when in fact they didn’t say that at all. This often happens in conversation with somebody. We think that they said, “Blah blah blah,” but our memory is incorrect. We could rely on a recording, but the recording could be indistinct as well. The discriminating awareness that comes from listening distinguishes correctly and decisively the characteristic features of the sounds we heard as being the sounds of these or those words.

Remember how we understand language. There is some defining characteristic of this sound that fits into the mental box of this word that has this meaning. Therefore, first we have to be sure that we heard the words correctly. We check: this involves bare perception. Do we have indecisive wavering? Did the teacher say this or that? It says this in one text but in another text it is translated differently. Are they talking about the same thing or something different? This becomes a major problem in the study of Dharma in the West. To be certain of the meaning, we need to know what Sanskrit or Tibetan word is being translating. Are they translating the same word or something different? If there isn’t a glossary, it’s really difficult. We have that big problem with just hearing and getting the actual words.

Then, we have to think about them. When thinking about them we get the discriminating awareness that comes from thinking. For this, there are two things that we want to gain. One is a correct understanding. It’s not just that we heard the words accurately and decisively, but we understood the meaning accurately and decisively as well. There are other ways of knowing here that we need to get rid of, like incorrect understanding, indecisive wavering, and presumption that we understand when we don’t. We need to be decisive not only about what the words of the teachings mean, but also decisive that what they mean is true. We can understand what something means but think it to be total nonsense.

To avoid concluding that a teaching is complete nonsense, we need to test it out and see if it makes sense in our experience. Then we can be decisive also about whether it is correct or incorrect, helpful or not helpful. For that, we need to know the application.

To develop discriminating awareness, we need to know the definitions of the Buddhist terms. The defining characteristic features of words and meanings are their definitions. In Tibetan, defining characteristic features and definition are the same word (mtshan-nyid). It is absolutely essential when we listen to teachings, especially from a teacher who can define things for you, to actually get the definition.

For example, His Holiness the Dalia Lama says it’s very important to be affectionate, to have warmth and so on. We could think that the definition of affection has all sorts of sexual connotations, but that is not at all what the Dalia Lama is thinking when he uses that word. He means gentle, kind and so on, with no sexual connotation. Like that, we need to understand the definitions and ask. We presume that a certain word means this or that when it doesn’t actually mean that. So much of our misunderstanding comes from that. For example, from our Western backgrounds we think in terms of mental categories such as guilt, which have no place in Buddhism. We project them onto the Buddhist terms. For example, I like to use the terms “constructive” and “destructive” because they convey no moral judgment; whereas, “virtuous” and “non-virtuous” sound like “good” and “bad” and that we would be condemned and punished if we are non-virtuous. That is not what is meant there. All this is involved with the process of thinking about the Dharma teachings we’ve heard.

Then, when we actually meditate, meditation is to familiarize ourselves with a constructive state of mind, and get it so deeply ingrained that we build up a new neural pathway so that our minds always go in this way automatically. 

For example, Prasangika distinguishes two stages in building up the neural pathway of compassion. The first stage is to generate compassion for someone through inference, based on a line of reasoning. For example, we see someone drunk on the street, making a terrible scene shouting and so on. In order to generate compassion, we think that in previous lives this person has been my mother and been so kind and so on. We have to work ourselves up to actually feeling compassion for this person. That is labored compassion, the initial stage for developing compassion. 

The second stage comes when that compassion is so deeply ingrained that it comes automatically, without needing to go through some line of reasoning. We just generate compassion automatically when seeing the drunk. This is what we are always aiming for with all the positive states of mind that are described in the Buddhist teachings. It is the aim of our meditation. We want to make that neural pathway so strong and to weaken the old neural pathway so sufficiently that the desired state of mind arises automatically without having to put any labor into it. “Unlabored” (rtsol-med) is the technical term and, with this, we just automatically understand impermanence, for example. Automatically, we understand the voidness of a situation and that all our projections are fantasy and complete nonsense. We don’t have to refute them with logic. Just the mere recollection of impermanence or voidness will automatically rid us of them.

Then, eventually we just want to have a state of mind all the time, like bodhichitta. We don’t even need to recall it because it is there all the time in our awareness. We are always mindful of bodhichitta. There are two levels of mindfulness. Mindfulness (dran-pa) is the mental glue that keeps us from forgetting something. Again we need to know the definition of the term. It is the same word as “remembering.” We are not talking about retrieving something from our memory bank. It is not that; but rather it is when we actually keep something in mind and don’t lose it. There is the mindfulness when we have to put effort into keeping something in mind. We bring it to mind and then maintain it with mental glue, mindfulness, so we don’t lose our awareness of it. Then there is the effortless mindfulness where the state of mind is just there. We don’t have to make it fresh, it’s there automatically all the time. We don’t need to put effort into struggling to keep mindful of it all the time, because we will automatically be mindful. 

That’s another area of the mental map that we need to understand concerning how the mental factors are put together. When we talk about the state of vipassana, or vipashyana in Sanskrit, this is when we are able to know in incredible detail what is going on in any situation. Not only do we have perfect concentration, shamatha, but in addition we have this incredible sharpness of mind that sees all the details without it being a clutter of mental boxes with all the words that go with them in our heads. We don’t need to say this is mindfulness and this is this or that factor and so on. We just understand. This is an incredibly exhilarating state of mind. We just see everything that is going on as if we have put things into high-definition focus. If we have this exceptionally perceptive state of vipashyana, combined with the force of compassion, bodhichitta, a correct understanding of voidness and so on and, as in anuttarayoga tantra, a blissful state of mind, then we have the powerful tool that brings us enlightenment. All these different factors work together and it’s very beautiful. 

The other thing that we want to avoid – and this is a big danger, Mara coming in with demonic influences – is when we become hypnotized or mesmerized or seduced by the beauty of this scheme. This explanation of the mind and ways of knowing is so beautiful that we become seduced by it. We become so fascinated by all the details that we get caught up in them and lose sharpness of mind. We need to be careful. The system and the analysis are fantastic, but don’t make a big deal out of them.