Mind, Valid Cognition, Apprehension, and Reflexive Awareness

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We’ve seen the general application and relevance of this topic, ways of knowing. There are additional general things that we also need to understand in order to be able to go further into the individual seven ways of knowing. The first of these is to understand what we mean by mind (sems). When we talk about a way of knowing, what are we actually discussing? For this, we need to understand what is meant by mind in Buddhism.

The first thing that we need to understand about the definition of mind is that it is an activity, mental activity. We are not talking about a thing, even an abstract thing. We are talking about some activity that is going on moment to moment to moment. It is going on whether we are awake or asleep and even when we are unconsciousness. Even under an anesthesia there is still mental activity, even if it is just keeping our body functioning. There is always some sort of mental activity occurring.

How can we describe that mental activity? What actually is it? The Buddhist texts define it as clarity and awareness (gsal-rig), as it is usually translated. The Gelug tradition adds the word mere or only (tsam) to the definition. What is meant by each of these words? This goes back to what we were saying before that in order to understand what is being discussed in Buddhism, we need to know the definitions. Otherwise, we fit the word “clarity” into the box of things being in focus and that is not at all what is meant by clarity here. We fit awareness into the box of consciously knowing what something is, and it doesn’t mean that at all.


Again, we have to get into the definitions. The definition of clarity (gsal) is coming from the word that means “the arising of the sun” (’char-ba). This is the dawning of something; what is happening is that there is the activity of the arising of a mental hologram. A mental hologram is the best way of explaining it. We shouldn’t think of a hologram as just something that is visible. Rather, we are talking about a representation of a sight, a sound, a smell, a taste, a physical sensation, an abstract idea, something in or out of focus, a blur, and other types of representation. Therefore, a mental hologram is a good descriptive term.

It makes sense scientifically as well, because when we see something, for instance, what is actually going on? There are photons that are coming and hitting the retina and they are being translated into electrical impulses and chemical signals as it is transmitted along the neural pathways. What happens in the brain? It is best described as the arising of a mental hologram – that is the experience of seeing something or smelling, hearing, tasting, thinking, etc. That happens whether we perceive something or imagine we perceive something or dream something. The same sort of process is happening. That is what the word “clarity” refers to. It doesn’t have to be in focus and is not talking about that. It is the activity of something appearing.


The other word, “awareness” (rig), has to do with a “way of cognizing.” The Tibetan word used to explain it is the word meaning “engagement” (’jug-pa). There is some sort of engagement, a cognitive process that can be knowing something or not knowing it, or seeing, hearing, thinking, or other general categories. More specifically, it is the ways of knowing, the topic we are discussing. There is this cognitive engagement with something.

These two aspects are really talking about the same thing. For example, it’s not that a thought arises and then we think it. It’s not that first a mental hologram arises and then we see it. How could we know that something has arisen if we haven’t seen it? It is describing the same process from two points of view. In Buddhist technical jargon, we say that the two share the same essential nature but have different conceptual isolates (ngo-bo gcig ldog-pa tha-dad). In other words, we can conceptually isolate these two aspects, but we are really talking about one activity. The activity of cognitively engaging with something and the activity of the arising of a mental hologram are essentially the same, although we can conceptually discuss them individually.


The word “mere” (tsam) is very important here. It means “only” and that means that only that activity is happening. It is not that there is a separate “me” that is making it happen, controlling it, or observing it, separate from the whole process. It is not that there is some machine or thing that is making it happen, separate from it. It’s not that “me,” separate from this whole process, is sitting at this machine, “mind,” and pressing the buttons to make a mental hologram arise. It isn’t that a “me” is deciding that now it will look at this or that and presses a button and turns the head and now we look at something with this operating system. It’s not like that. “Mere” excludes all of that and we are just left with just this activity happening moment to moment to moment.

Of course, as an imputation on that mental activity, we can say, “I am doing it, seeing it, thinking this.” It’s not somebody else or a “nobody.” We want to avoid the two extremes of somebody else or nobody. Conventionally it’s “me,” but not “me” as something separate from the mental activity, trying to control what is going on with our “minds” and emotions. We can’t control everything, but we freak out and feel really insecure about that, because it is a myth that there is a “me” separate from the whole thing.

That is a very important point in meditation, particularly the type of vipassana and mindfulness meditation that is commonly done, in which we want to observe what is going on in our so-called “mind.” If done incorrectly, it can re-enforce this feeling of dissociation in which there is a “me” separate from everything. Then, everything is just like watching a movie and that is very dangerous in terms of losing a sense of responsibility for what is going on, in the sense of our connectedness to others and so on. Although cognitively that could happen, yet when we understand – and of course it is very difficult to understand this whole point of there not being a separate “me” and still we know things – then we can avoid that problem. In meditation, what we want to do is to have mindfulness, as defined in Buddhism as the “mental glue,” so that we don’t lose our object of focus, namely what we are cognizing each moment. There is attentiveness to what is going on, an analytical factor that knows what is going on, but not a separate “me” from all of that doing it.

Mental Activity Always Has an Object

We have mental activity, and of course this activity has to have an object. We can’t have thinking without thinking something. We can’t have seeing without seeing something, even if it is seeing darkness. Even if the activity isn’t thinking anything, we are thinking nothing and that is something. There is always an object. Therefore, when we hear in various Buddhist teachings – although Gelug doesn’t use this terminology so much – but in other traditions we hear this term “non-duality,” it doesn’t mean that the way of knowing and the object we know, the so-called subject and object, are identical. They are not identical, but they are not separable either. We can’t have one without the other. They are inseparable and non-dual, in that they are not two separate unrelated things. There are many levels of sophistication of how we can understand that, but this is the most general understanding of it.

In sensory cognition, for example, we have a focal object (dmigs-yul) and the way of understanding that focal object is that it is the arising of a hologram. The hologram can be accurate or inaccurate. For instance, when we take our eyeglasses off, many of us see a blur. If we know that we are seeing a blur, then it is accurate. If we think that the blur is actually sitting out there in a chair, obviously that is distorted; it’s crazy. Again, it depends on the perspective and if we recognize that we are confused, that can be a valid cognition. It’s very important to be able to have this recognition of our confusion as being confused and not to think that our confusion is actually a correct understanding.

For this, we use all sorts of different methods to verify if our understanding is correct or not, for instance, was it really Mary down the street whom we saw or was it someone else? Or, did you really mean that when you said whatever it was that you said? We can verify our understanding and so it is important to get enough evidence that what we know is actually correct. We need to get these additional verifying factors because we can become not only decisive that something completely wrong is right, but we can also become very stubborn, defensive and closed off about it.

However, the mental activity is the same regardless of how we know something, whether we know it correctly or incorrectly. The basic activity is always the arising of a mental hologram, which is the same as a cognitive engagement with something, and with no separate “me” making it happen, controlling it, watching it, and no machine called “mind” as a concrete or abstract thing that is making it happen.

Parallel with that, we can explain what is physically going on in terms of the brain and nervous system. Nobody is denying the brain, or brain science; but, that is explaining what is happening from a physical point of view, whereas the Buddhist analysis is explaining it from the point of view of a subjective experience. Obviously, we can’t find a mental hologram inside the brain, but that is the way we experience perceiving or knowing something.

Primary Consciousnesses and Mental Factors

The seven ways of knowing have to do with the cognitive engagement aspect of mental activity. If we wanted to describe more fully these seven types of cognitive engagement, we would need to add the different types of primary consciousness – sensory and mental – and all the mental factors involved in each instance of each of the seven. Each of these seven ways of knowing can be analyzed in terms of all the components of it.

The image that is very helpful for understanding how primary consciousness and the mental factors work together is that of a chandelier. Each of the seven ways of knowing is a different model chandelier and, for each model, the primary consciousness is the central big light and the mental factors are the little lights all around it. The primary consciousness and all the accompanying mental factors are aimed at the same object. A chandelier however, is not quite the correct image because it’s not that there is an activity over here and a thought over there and the thinking of it is over in another place and the thinking is illuminating the thought. That certainly isn’t the way that it is happening. But to give us a slight idea of what we are referring to, the chandelier image is helpful.

In our seminar on the seven ways of knowing, we aren’t going to go into these mental factors. But, if we really want to go further, we need to combine this presentation with the presentation of the 51 mental factors and the five types of deep awareness. These five describe the ways in which mental activity occurs in terms of taking in information, putting things together in categories of similarities, specifying the individuality of things, relating to what is perceived, and knowing what something is. This is another piece of this map of the mind. All of it goes together.

As for the physical basis for the mental activity – the brain, the nervous system, neural energy, the cognitive sensors like the photosensitive cells of our eyes and so on – we can say that their functioning and the mere arising of a mental hologram and cognitive engagement also share the same essential nature. They are both referring to the same phenomenon. They are both describing what is happening when we experience things. How do we describe what we are experiencing? We can describe it from different points of view. We can say that it is brain activity and that is describing it from a physical point of view; or we can describe it from a subjective, experiential point of view. That is what we are talking about when we talk about mental activity. Mental activity can be described as a physical occurrence or an experiential occurrence. Both are valid descriptions and they do not contradict or exclude the validity and usefulness of each other.

Ways of Knowing and the Four Noble Truths

What is the significance of this analysis? When we talk about the four noble truths, we are talking about the experience of the four noble truths. We are not talking about something abstract. We are talking about the mental activity of experiencing suffering, of feeling unhappy, feeling our unsatisfying happiness that doesn’t last and we never have enough so it’s totally unstable, or experiencing uncontrollable recurring rebirth, including the neutral feelings experienced in the deepest meditative states of concentration. The whole thing goes up and down between happy and unhappy, on and on forever. No matter what we cognize, it is accompanied by a feeling of unhappiness, unsatisfying happiness or a neutral feeling. There is no certainty of how we will feel while knowing something in one of the seven ways, and what we feel goes up and down as part of every moment of activity.

The cause for the suffering of these unstable feelings is that our mental activity is filled with disturbing emotions, based on unawareness. Everything has two essential natures; the first being what something is – is that Susan or Mary? That can be accurate or inaccurate conventionally. Being unaware of the essential nature of what something is can be a problem, for instance thinking someone said this and it was in fact that. But, the real problem is the essential nature of how something exists. How do we account for the fact that there is such a thing as something? Is there something solid on the side of an object that establishes its existence? That analysis gets us into the discussion of voidness (emptiness). Our not knowing voidness correctly and decisively is the real troublemaker, and so our way of knowing voidness is crucial.

Our way of knowing, then, has to do with knowing both what something is and how it exists, and both can be accurate or inaccurate, decisive or indecisive. Does that something exist independently, encapsulated in plastic and unrelated to anything, establishing its existence all by its own power? Is it correct, for example, that “You don’t love me because you didn’t show up on time”? Or, are things dependently arising – dependent on what is occurring before. For example, we come home from work if we are living with a partner, and the partner sees us and it is as if we come from a nothing, as if nothing was going on in our day before that and here we are. We are supposed to be instantly interested in what was going on with them, instantly available for everything as if nothing had been going on in our lives before we came home. Is it like that – that we exist independently of what we have been experiencing just before and we pop up out of nothing when our partner sees us walking through the door? It’s the same thing for the person walking through the door regarding the person at home. It’s not that nothing went on with that person during the day with the children and with who knows what. Maybe both went to work and still one expects dinner to be ready and all of this. It is absurd.

Things don’t exist independently in the way that they appear. Just because we don’t see what went on in the day with someone before we come home doesn’t mean that nothing went on. The fact that we just see them standing there when we open the door doesn’t establish that they exist like that – merely as someone standing there just for us. Our minds are limited. But, how things appear to us to exist doesn’t establish that they exist in that way. It’s like the point we were making that just because someone we see indistinctly in the distance looks like Mary, or we infer that it is Mary, doesn’t establish that it actually is Mary. We could be wrong.

What do we want to achieve? We want to achieve a true stopping of this suffering and its causes. Where? Not on the wall. We want to achieve this true stopping on our own mental continuums. We want to have our mental activity be free of this unawareness, free of limitations, free of disturbing emotions, and free of the compulsive behavior that comes from them, which means free of karma. We want this true stopping on our mental continuums and we want to attain the true paths also on our mental continuums. What are true paths referring to? They refer to accurate and decisive understanding, in other words valid cognition of the deepest way in which things exist. Of course, we also want valid cognition of what things are; otherwise we completely make mistakes. Actually, what we want is omniscience, and that too is yet another form of mental activity.

What is also important here is to know who is experiencing the mental activity of the four noble truths. It’s “me.” It’s not “nobody” and it’s not somebody else. How does that “me” exist? Is that “me” somebody that is separate, just watching the mental activity of experiencing the four noble truths over there? No. Is it nobody watching it? No; somebody is experiencing it. The mental continuum of experiencing the four noble truths is devoid of an impossible “me” that is experiencing them. This fits in nicely with what we explained about the word “mere” in the definition of mind. Mental activity occurs without an independently existing “me” experiencing it happen. Both the mental activity and the person that is an imputation on that activity and who is experiencing it are devoid of existing in impossible ways.

Everything that we are working on in the Buddhist teachings have to do with the mental continuum that is experiencing the four noble truths. This is very important and extremely crucial to understand. Our mental continuum is where the true stoppings are going to take place. Mahamudra meditation and dzogchen meditation are all focused on identifying the nature of our mental activity. We try not to get caught up in the content of that activity, and just focus on what is happening, the mental activity itself. Mental activity is pure in the sense that, no matter what type of mental activity it might be, it is just the arising of mental holograms and a mental engagement. That is all that is happening.

The focus is always on the mental activity of our mental continuums. If we want to really be able to work with it, we need to know what mental activity is and be able to identify it – at least conceptually. That’s another reason why these ways of knowing are helpful. When we have some concept of what mental activity is, then we can try to recognize it by fitting what we experience into the mental box of that concept. This is conceptual understanding. Then, slowly, we don’t need to put it into the box in order to identify it.

Let’s take a few moments to let that sink in. Mental activity, moment to moment, is the arising of a mental hologram and a cognitive engagement with it. These seven ways of knowing are various ways in which that cognitive engagement occurs. Is it accurate, inaccurate, decisive, indecisive, correct or incorrect?


Valid Cognition

Of the seven ways of knowing, only two can be valid ways of knowing something: bare cognition and inferential cognition. Sautrantika defines valid cognition as “freshly non-fraudulent cognition” (gsar-tu mi-bslu-ba). “Freshly” means that it doesn’t depend on the immediately preceding cognition of the same object as the immediate condition for its clarity, accuracy, and decisiveness. Our example, “Oh, there’s Mary,” doesn’t depend on the previous moment of seeing Mary in order to have the fresh cognition, “Oh, there’s Mary.” It is fresh; whereas while we are with Mary, our awareness that it is Mary relies on the immediate moment of when we first recognized that it was Mary in order for it to be accurate that it is Mary. That is the technical definition of “fresh.

Where did the way of knowing get its clarity – the mental hologram – of what something is? Is it just from that first moment or is it from a series of what was going on just immediately before? Was the mental hologram in the previous moment one of Mary or of something else? If it was a mental hologram of something other than Mary, then the way of knowing her is fresh – literally “new.” Therefore, to be valid, the cognition needs to be fresh. That criterion is dropped by Prasangika for various philosophical reasons, but in the Sautrantika system the definition of valid cognition requires that it be both fresh and non-fraudulent.

“Non-fraudulent” cognition is one that is both accurate and decisive. Accurate is when it corresponds to objective reality. Remember that Sautrantika speaks of objective reality. This is what everybody sees when they see it correctly – when they have their glasses on, in a sense – and what they are decisive about and other valid people would agree as well. We could be in a social group that has completely ridiculous ideas, but just because they agree that having a good fight is a wonderful thing to do or going to war and shooting people is a wonderful thing to do, that doesn’t mean that it is valid. But this gets into a different topic, namely ethics.

Subsequent cognition is not valid because it is not fresh and doesn’t fit into this definition. Non-determining cognition where we can’t determine what something is, because something is too far away, or our attention isn’t focused there, is not valid because it is not decisive. The same thing applies with presumption. We presume that something is true or guess that it is true. If it’s correct it is presumption; otherwise it is an incorrect inference. With presumption we come to the right conclusion, but for a reason we don’t understand. That is also not decisive. Also, indecisive wavering is clearly not decisive.

Distorted cognition isn’t valid because it isn’t accurate, but it could be decisive. We could be totally convinced that everything exists independently and that we are always right and everybody else is always wrong. Everybody is against us and everything is horrible and so on. We could be totally convinced of that and decisive about it, but it is absolutely incorrect.

To be valid, then, our cognition of something needs to be a combination of accurate, but not by making the right guess, decisive and fresh. This is valid cognition, and this is what we are aiming for.

Apprehending Cognition (Apprehension)

Another term used is apprehending cognition (rtogs-pa) or apprehension for short. “Apprehension” is not a common word in English and can be misleading, because the adjective form, apprehensive, means suspicious and frightened. But, I don’t know of any other word. The Tibetan word is also the word for understand, but it doesn’t mean the same as our English word “understand.” Another connotation of the same word, apprehension, is in meditation. In meditation we have two terms used. One is the word that means weak or to decline (nyams). It refers to when we get an insight or some sort of experience but it’s not stable; it declines. It is sort of a flash insight or experience, but we lose it. That is the first level of what we would experience in proper analytical meditation. Our word here in cognition theory, “apprehension,” means a stable realization. That is what we are aiming for in meditation. It is to get a stable understanding. In cognition theory we are trying to get something stable as well, apprehension.

With apprehension, a cognition “apprehends” its involved object (’jug-yul), which means it cognizes it both accurately and decisively. In other words, it is non-fraudulent. For this, we need to know what is an involved object – literally, the object it is cognitively engaging with? There are many different objects in any cognition. This gets very complex. But, the involved object is the main object with which a particular cognition engages. For example, whether we see someone or think about someone, the involved object is the colored shapes of a form of physical phenomenon, as well as the commonsense object that extends over these colored shapes as well as over the other sensory information about the object like sounds, smells, physical sensation, and extends over time. It also includes cognizing the kind of object it is and so on. That is the “involved object” or “engaged object.”

Therefore, when we see Mary down the street, the involved object is the colored shapes that we see. But not just colored shapes, but a commonsense object, a person that we can listen to and touch. It’s a person, not a nothing. It’s Mary and not somebody else. The information about Mary is not just visual, because Mary extends over other information such as her voice, the smell of the perfume that she is wearing, the touch of her hand and all sorts of things. The same thing applies to when we think about Mary. That is the involved object.

For instance, if I have my glasses off and look down the street, the involved object is still Mary, but the appearing object (snang-yul) is a blur. If we want it to be accurate, the involved object and the appearing object need to be the same when talking about sense perception. For example, the person said this and that, but we heard a mumble, something indistinct or something else. The involved object and appearing object don’t correspond to each other. That happens all the time, doesn’t it? We didn’t actually say what someone claims to have heard. There can even be a recording to confirm what someone said, but we didn’t hear that because perhaps our mind was slightly distracted, or we weren’t really paying attention and we fit the words into other boxes.

A cognition apprehends its involved object if it is both accurate and decisive. But to be an apprehension, the cognition doesn’t need to be fresh. For instance, subsequent cognition can apprehend its object, but according to Sautrantika it is not a valid cognition because it isn’t fresh. Prasangika dismisses this distinction between apprehending cognition and valid cognition when it drops subsequent cognition as a way of knowing something. Prasangika asserts that every moment is fresh. We can’t say that something objectively is there and unrelated to the next moment. Everything is dependently arising. This whole idea of freshness is not really relevant once we understand a little bit more deeply; but, because things are really objectified in Sautrantika, then we have the assertion about fresh.

Explicit or Implicit Apprehension

Apprehension can be explicit or implicit. We introduced that difference when we brought up self-awareness, but we didn’t explain it then. In explicit apprehension (mngon-par rtogs-pa), the involved object appears in the cognition, as in our example of inferring that the person we see is Mary. That is explicit because we see Mary. The involved object appears. At the same time that we see Mary, we also see that it is not Susan. Does “not Susan” appear? What does “not Susan” look like? It is not appearing, but implicitly we know “not Susan.” That is implicit apprehension (shugs-la rtogs-pa), and it is both decisive and accurate. That really isn’t Susan. We are totally decisive about it and it is really accurate, because it isn’t Susan.

There are many examples of explicit and implicit apprehension in terms of bare cognition, but both occur with inferential cognition as well. An example of an inferential apprehension is if a person makes this sound “MA-RY,” we infer that the sound has a meaning and is a word. It is not just a sound. That is an inference actually. If it is this sound, therefore it is this word and if it’s this word, therefore it has this meaning. That’s an inference. We know explicitly that it is this word and implicitly it’s not a different word. We have that all the time, otherwise we couldn’t understand language. Inference is a type of valid conceptual cognition.

When people get so down on conceptual cognition and insist that we need to only be non-conceptual, they need to remember that if we were non-conceptual all the time, we couldn’t understand language. Conceptual cognition really is useful. We want to get rid of the problematic aspects of conceptual cognition, that things actually exist in boxes and that the whole world is in boxes. The world isn’t like that; but, nevertheless, we need those mental boxes to function in this world. Otherwise when we see a whole bunch of fruit, we couldn’t know that they are all apples or all eggs. How do we know that they are all eggs? How do we know that all the photographs are picture of “me?” We would have no idea if we didn’t have a category of “me” or a category of “eggs.” What are they? They are not just this oval white shape. It’s more than an oval white colored shape. It’s absolutely fascinating when we get into this more deeply.

One more point with apprehension. We can’t only apprehend something implicitly. Every apprehension explicitly apprehends something and, to be decisive, needs also to implicitly apprehend that it is not anything else.

Reflexive Awareness

If we ask how it is that we can observe what is going on in our mental activity, there are two ways of explaining it. In the Sautrantika system, in each moment of cognition, we have as part of that cognition something called reflexive awareness (rang-rig). Only the Sautrantika, Chittamatra, and Yogachara-Svatantrika tenet systems assert this. These three schools accept that there is such a thing called “reflexive awareness,” sometimes called “self-awareness.” We have something in Western psychology called “self-awareness,” focused on the self, “me,” as the one experiencing things in life, but don’t confuse it with that. Reflexive awareness is reflexive in the sense that it is focused just on the cognitive engagement aspect of each moment of cognition. It’s like a recording device that is there in each moment and is aware of only the primary consciousness and all the mental factors in that moment of cognition. It’s not focused on the mental hologram of the object of cognition that arises. It’s focused on the cognitive engagement itself and, in a sense, it accounts for how we can remember that cognition. It records the cognition, including whether the cognition is fraudulent or not.

The Prasangika tenet system doesn’t assert reflexive awareness as a separate way of knowing. The Prasangika system argues there is no such thing because of what is called in Western logic, “the third man argument.” This means that if we needed to have a separate consciousness to know that consciousness was taking place, then we would need to have another consciousness to know that this consciousness knows that this is taking place and we would have an infinite regress. Therefore, this doesn’t make any sense.

Prasangika explains the phenomenon of memory instead in terms of implicit apprehension. Explicitly in each cognition, the cognition is focused on a mental hologram of its object of cognition and implicitly it is aware that the cognition is happening. It’s not something separate that knows the cognition is occurring, because then how do we know that we know it is happening. Just implicitly, as part of the cognition, we know that it is happening and can evaluate if it is correct or incorrect by using the mental factor of discriminating awareness. Then how well we remember knowing or cognizing something is a matter of attention – where the attention or main focus is aimed.