Prasangika Variants and Stages of Cognition of Voidness

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Understanding Different Interpretations and Analysis in Buddhist Schools

We have presented the Sautrantika way of enumerating the different ways of knowing. As we go deeper in our studies we find that there are certain variants to be found. For instance, in Asanga’s presentation of the Chittamatra system, there are foundation consciousness (Skt. ālayavijñāna) and deluded consciousness. But, what is significant for most of our studies is the Prasangika variations.

We need to recognize that the Sautrantika explanation of cognition and how cognition works is based on the Sautrantika analysis of how things exist. When we introduce the Prasangika way of understanding how things exist, it affects cognition. But we need to understand that not only do the various Indian tenet systems have different presentations of ways of knowing, but also each of the different Tibetan Buddhist traditions has its own interpretations of the Indian tenet systems. Here we will discuss the Prasangika position as the Gelug masters present it.

This is an important principle to realize when we read and learn about the other Indian tenet systems besides the Gelugpa ones. For instance, the Sakya interpretation and understanding of the Indian tenet systems is quite different from what we find in Gelug. Their interpretation is generally accepted by Nyingma, while Karma Kagyu accepts it for the most part but with some variations.

In order to understand the presentations of voidness (emptiness) and many other topics that the various Tibetan schools give, we need to understand their presentations of cognition theory. If we don’t add that piece to their explanations, their explanations don’t make complete sense. We don’t get the whole picture. All the pieces of their assertions need to be put together. We need to look at all the teachings of any particular system holistically and realize that there are many different variant explanations of almost everything in Buddhism. That follows from the Buddha’s method of teaching skillfully in different ways to different people so that what he teaches will be of most benefit to each particular person and his or her level of understanding and experience.

Gelug Prasangika

Fresh Cognition and Subsequent Cognition Are Discounted

Prasangika defines valid cognition simply as cognition that is non-fallacious. In other words, it is accurate and decisive. The Sautrantika qualification of valid cognition as being fresh is dropped from the definition because Prasangika asserts that no cognition arises under its own power. If a cognition arose under its own power as “fresh,” it would mean that it has self-established existence (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa). But since everything arises dependently on many other factors, nothing can be self-established. Because of that, Prasangika drops subsequent cognition from the scheme of ways of knowing.

Conceptual and Non-Conceptual Straightforward Cognition

Prasangika also redefines what the Sautrantikas call “bare cognition.” In the Sautrantika explanation, bare cognition is always non-conceptual. It takes its object without having a mental category as an intermediary and it needs to be fresh. This is because in the Sanskrit word pramana, valid cognition, Sautrantika takes the prefix pra to mean new or first. But, Prasangika understands pra as meaning correct or valid. It derives its understanding from a different etymology of the Sanskrit. Therefore, for Prasangika, the Sanskrit term pratyaksha, which means bare cognition in the Sautrantika system, means, instead, straightforward cognition.

According to Prasangika, straightforward cognition is a non-fallacious – in other words, accurate and decisive – cognition that does not rely on a line of reasoning. It can be either non-conceptual or conceptual. Because there is no stipulation that the cognition needs to be fresh, what Sautrantika asserts as subsequent sensory bare cognition, Prasangika classifies as non-conceptual sensory straightforward cognition. It does not rely directly on a line of reasoning.

If a cognition arises dependently on a line of reasoning, it is inferential cognition, which is conceptual. From the second moment on, our inferential cognition no longer directly relies on the line of reasoning. Therefore, Prasangika classifies it as conceptual straightforward cognition. Prasangika does not assert what Sautrantika calls subsequent inferential cognition.

As for the difference between inferential cognition and conceptual straightforward cognition, we can understand it by examining the division between labored and unlabored bodhichitta. “Labored” (rtsol-bcas) means that we need to go through a line of reasoning in order to reach the desired state of mind. For bodhichitta, we need to go through the line of reasoning that entails recognizing that everybody has been my mother, remembering their kindness, feeling grateful and wishing to repay that kindness, and so on. This is the seven-part cause and effect bodhichitta meditation. It is a line of reasoning that we rely on to generate a state of mind of bodhichitta, focused on our individual not-yet-happening enlightenment, accompanied by the mental factors of love, compassion and the intentions both to achieve that state and benefit all beings by means of it. When we actually generate that bodhichitta state of mind, the first moment or phase is an inferential cognition.

Unlabored (rtsol-med) bodhichitta is when we are able to generate a state of mind of bodhichitta without needing to rely at all on a line of reasoning. Our cognition of bodhichitta arises automatically and is now straightforward conceptual cognition of it. It is still conceptual because, before we have attained enlightenment, we can only focus on our not-yet-happening enlightenment through the conceptual category “enlightenment.” But now we have become so familiar with bodhichitta that we don’t need to go through that seven-part cause and effect meditation or equalizing and exchanging self with others. We just instantly have bodhichitta and, ideally, all the time. That’s our aim – unlabored bodhichitta.

When we have achieved unlabored bodhichitta, we have crossed the boundary line into becoming an actual bodhisattva and have achieved the first of the five bodhisattva pathways of mind, a building-up pathway of mind – usually translated as a “path of accumulation.” Now, with unlabored bodhichitta as our foundation, we work on building up a joined state of shamatha and vipashyana focused on the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths and on the voidness of these truths and of the person experiencing and meditating on them.

To repeat, the Prasangika system replaces bare cognition with straightforward cognition and it can be conceptual or non-conceptual. With our understanding of voidness, for instance, initially we need to go through many lines of reasoning to get to it. But, eventually, we want to be able to just get our correct understanding without relying on a line of reasoning anymore. Our understanding will initially still be conceptual, but eventually it can become non-conceptual.

No Reflexive Awareness in the Prasangika Presentation

Sautrantika asserts that the object of a cognition and the mind that cognizes it are separate, self-established, objective entities and therefore they are cognized by separate mental faculties. The object of a cognition, such as a dog, is cognized by eye consciousness, while the accompanying reflexive awareness simultaneously cognizes the eye consciousness and its accompanying mental factors that cognize the dog. The cognition by reflexive awareness allows us to remember cognizing that object.

Prasangika refutes even the conventional existence of reflexive awareness. If we needed a separate mental faculty within a cognition to know and record the other mental components of that cognition, that would lead to an infinite regress. We would need yet another mental faculty within that cognition to know and record the reflexive awareness, and on and on ad infinitum. Therefore, reflexive awareness doesn’t make any sense.

In addition, Prasangika asserts that the object of a cognition and the mind that cognizes of it are both devoid of self-established existence, and being inseparable, they are non-dual. Since objects in different classes – such as a dog and the seeing of that dog ­– cannot both appear in one moment of one consciousness, the conceptual cognition of remembering that we saw the dog, for instance, explicitly apprehends the dog and implicitly apprehends our seeing of it. Because that conceptual cognition also implicitly apprehends “nothing other than this dog,” it also implicitly apprehends “nothing other than our previous seeing of it.” Because of that, this conceptual cognition of remembering seeing the dog decisively determines and therefore accurately knows both the dog and the occurrence of our previous seeing of it.

Chandrakirti’s Four Valid Ways of Knowing

Chandrakirti, in his Clarified Words (Prasannapadā), a commentary on Nagarjuna’s Root Verses on Madhyamika (Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā), asserts four valid ways of knowing. Tsongkhapa refers to this in his Lam-rim chen-mo, the Grand Presentation of the Stages of the Path. We might wonder why Sautrantika says there are only two valid ways of knowing, while Chandrakirti says there are four. We need to examine the list to see that there is no contradiction.

  • Valid straightforward cognition
  • Valid inferential cognition
  • Valid cognition based on authority – this is another name for the third type of inferential cognition: inferential cognition based on conviction that the source of information is valid.
  • Valid cognition through an analogous example (nyer-’jal tshad-ma, Skt. upamāna).

Valid cognition through an analogous example refers to examples like knowing what a zebu is – a type of animal in India – by the analogous example of it being like a white bull with a hump on its back and an elongated dewlap under its neck. In this way we can validly know what it is by an analogous example.

What is a zebra, for example? We might have no idea what a zebra is; but, we can infer what it is by the analogy that it looks like a donkey with black and white stripes. Therefore, by an analogy we can validly know what something is. The more usual example that is given is from grammar. Many languages have different inflections of the same word, for example nominative, accusative and genitive cases: “I,” “me” and “mine,” or present, past and past participle: “eat,” “ate” and “eaten.” How do we know that all the inflections refer to the same word but in different cases or tenses? It is by analogous example. The same is the case when we validly know how to reach our destination by looking at an analogous representation of it on a map.

Although many non-Buddhist systems also accept valid cognition through an analogous example as valid, Sautrantika considers this fourth way of knowing unnecessary. It is probably because it is also a type of inference.

Prasangika, however, accepts cognition through an analogous example as valid – for instance, as in the verse from Three Practices to Be Done Continually (rGyun-chags gsum-pa), “Like the stars, a blur, or a torch, an illusion, drops of dew, or a bubble, a dream, flash of lightning, or clouds, regard affected phenomena to be like that.”

Seven Ways of Knowing as Applied to Understanding Voidness

The last point I want to make is the application of these seven ways of knowing for gaining a correct understanding of voidness. By knowing the way in which we cognize voidness, we can gauge our progress more easily.

Distorted Cognition

First, as ordinary beings, we would have distorted cognition of voidness accompanied by unawareness. We perceive things as if they were truly self-established, as if wrapped in plastic, existing all by their own power, independently of anything else. We are totally unaware that this is incorrect. This is the usual definition of ignorance: we just don’t know that this is incorrect. Everything that we perceive is distorted with respect to how it exists.

We could add onto our distorted cognition a distorted and antagonistic attitude (log-lta). With such a disturbing attitude, we stubbornly insist that things exist in the way that we perceive them and we’re argumentative and hostile to anyone that challenges our understanding. This is the real troublemaker that closes us off to correct understanding.

When this disturbing, deluded attitude is translated as “false views,” it doesn’t convey the full meaning. A false view could simply be a mistaken one. But, the deluded attitude is when we are so stubborn about insisting we are correct and so hostile to anyone who disagrees with us that we are completely closed to getting any better understanding. To understand voidness, we need to be open-minded. There are many ways to become open-minded, such as being more compassionate. If we open our heart out to others, we also open our minds to what others might teach us.

Non-Determining Cognition

With that open mind, we can proceed to the next level, which would be to listen to a lecture on voidness. But if we are looking at our cell phone while the teacher is explaining, our hearing about voidness is going to be non-determining. If we’re texting, we aren’t paying attention to the lecture and so we won’t be able to remember a word that was said.

Seemingly Bare Cognition

If our minds were lost in thought while listening to the lecture, we had only seemingly bare cognition of the words. Again, we won’t be able to remember what was said because, again, we weren’t paying attention. We are lost in our thought.

Valid Auditory Bare Cognition, Followed by Conceptual Cognition through an Audio Category

But if we actually heard the words with valid auditory bare cognition and are certain about what we heard and that we heard it correctly, then we would be able to conceptually cognize the sound of the word “voidness” through an audio category. Because of that, the next time we hear, even in the next sentence, the teacher saying “voidness,” we know that they are saying the same word again.

Incorrect Conceptual Cognition through a Meaning Category

But, then, when the teacher says “voidness,” although we know that they are saying the same word as before, either we have no idea of what it means, or we have an incorrect idea. In other words, either we don’t cognize the sound of the word “voidness” through a meaning category, or we conceptually cognize it through an incorrect meaning category, for instance the meaning category “nothingness.” We think voidness means nothingness.

Indecisive Wavering

After this, we start to get some idea of what the word “voidness” means, but we aren’t sure. This is indecisive wavering. Here we can differentiate several steps. First, we need to decide whether or not it is worthwhile to try to understand voidness correctly. Is talk about voidness the same as talk about hell realms, ghosts and demons, which we consider complete nonsense, so we don’t even try to figure out what they are talking about? Is voidness in that same category as fairies and elves? Is it like that, or is it something that we should take the time to consider what it actually means and then whether or not it could be true or correct? We have indecisive wavering about it. If we decide “yes” to both these issues, we gain incentive to go further and try to understand correctly what voidness means.

Next, we have indecisive wavering about whether voidness means nothingness or an absence of impossible ways of existing. If we decide it means an absence, then we would have indecisive wavering about whether that is true. First, we will be inclined to really doubting. We don’t think that it is true, but maybe it’s true and correct. Then eventually we are evenly balanced. We really don’t know; maybe it is true and maybe it is not true. Then, finally we think that maybe it is true. But we still don’t understand it.

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

Then we decide that in order to really understand voidness and determine that it is true, we need to get further information. We need further teachings and much thought and meditation.


Next, when we gain more information and understanding, we presume that it is true. However, we don’t really understand voidness and why it’s true. Even though we can quote the lines of reasoning that are found in the texts, we really don’t understand them, but we presume that they prove that voidness is true.

Valid Inferential Cognition

To gain certainty about voidness, we need next to have valid inferential cognition of it. Then our understanding will be valid. That means we are going to have to rely on the line of reasoning to actually prove it to ourselves. It is not just that we presume that it is true, we have to prove it logically. Therefore, in our meditation on voidness, we need to work with the line of reasoning. We can’t just say that we presume that it is true and then focus on the fact that there is no such thing as impossible ways of existing when we haven’t really understood it and haven’t gained certainty about it by having proven it through a line of reasoning.

That is valid inferential cognition. We go through the line of reasoning and come to the correct conclusion and then focus on it. We would focus on it conceptually, after getting to that correct conclusion based on logic.

Each time we gain a better understanding of what voidness means, we are going to have to correct or substitute the meaning category through which we focus conceptually on “voidness.” That is a gradual process as we get more information and more understanding. As our understanding evolves, we replace the meaning category with one that is more accurate.

Straightforward Conceptual Cognition

With more familiarity with meditation on voidness, we don’t even need to go through the logical line of reasoning to be able to focus accurately and decisively on voidness. We have become so convinced and so familiar with it, that we can just go to that understanding instantly.

Straightforward Non-Conceptual Cognition

With more and more practice and, simultaneously, a sufficient build-up of positive force (merit) from meditation on bodhichitta and engaging in bodhisattva-type deeds, our straightforward cognition of voidness will eventually become non-conceptual. It will no longer be through a category of what voidness means. It will just be non-conceptual and straightforward.

These are the stages for gaining non-conceptual cognition of voidness. However, only the stages of inferential cognition and both conceptual and non-conceptual straightforward cognition are valid cognitions of it. Through them, we build up more and more momentum to be able actually to achieve, with our non-conceptual cognition of voidness, a true stopping of some portion of ignorance and some portion of not knowing.

These are the stages for understanding voidness or for understanding anything. If we know what the stages are that we go through, we can be very careful not to skip any. The one that is the easiest to skip for many of us – not for everyone, because some people are very logical and like to go through logical proofs – is the logical proof. It is very easy to just presume that voidness is true and then just try to focus on it without having proven it to ourselves. This applies to whether voidness is true or impermanence is true or anything else in the Dharma is true. Our understanding of them always need to be rationally based on valid lines of reasoning.


That is the basic material for an introduction to ways of knowing. An introduction certainly doesn’t mean that it was easy, because there is an awful lot of information here. But, it is a very helpful topic despite the fact that it is vast and complex. But, life is complex and the ways that our minds work are complex. It isn’t simple; the more complex the system is that we have for understanding the complexities of life, the more precise it will be. If we oversimplify how our minds work, it doesn’t explain very much.

But, as a start, we may in fact need a simple scheme. Then, we can get fill it out with more and more detail and, for most of us, that gradual path is going to be the most effective.

Questions and Answers

How do we validly know the qualities of a spiritual teacher?

When we see or listen to a teacher, our valid sensory bare cognition can distinguish that this is a person, with characteristic features of gender, height, weight, age and so on. To know the particulars (khyad-par) of these features, including their name, birth place, parents, education and so on, we would need to rely on valid inferential cognition based on confidence in a valid source of this information. Some particulars, like gender and skin color, however, can be known by valid sensory bare cognition.

As for the teacher’s qualities (yon-tan) of being compassionate, more knowledgeable than we are, even-tempered, patient, and so on, we would need to rely on valid inferential cognition based on the force of evidence from our own personal experience. We could also supplement that with inference based on confidence in what valid sources of information tell us. As for knowing such things as their not having time for us because they are too busy with travels and other students, again we would know that inferentially based on the force of evidence.

Are there ways of knowing that we seem to have unconsciously, such as a sense of direction?

There are more types of sensory bare cognition than just the five that Buddhism delineates as characteristic of humans. There are animals that have a sense of direction; animals that have a sense of a magnetic field and so on. It’s possible that humans could have some of these senses as well. Cognition with them would be sensory bare cognition.

Some things we learn by imitation; in English we would say we learn them by osmosis. For example, how does a baby learn to speak a language in a grammatically correct way? The baby will eventually learn to speak the language correctly by imitation. Basically, babies hear other people speaking in a certain way. What they hear will eventually sound right or it won’t sound right because they cognize what they hear through categories of what sounds right.

For instance, in German and many other Indo-European languages, nouns have masculine, feminine or neuter definite articles. Through inferential cognition based on renown, we know it doesn’t sound right to give it a word a feminine definite article when it should be a masculine or a neuter one. Since we know this almost automatically, it seems as though we know what sounds right unconsciously, and this can be so even if we don’t formally know the grammar. Just because we might be unable to fit our language into a conceptual framework that lists all the cases for a noun doesn’t preclude the possibility that we can speak the language correctly.

Is this subsequent cognition?

We would have to say that knowing how to correctly speak a language we learned as a baby is conceptual seemingly bare cognition based of something we remember. It’s not that, just all of a sudden, we know how to speak our native language. In the first moment of saying something in our native language, we know how to say it correctly based on valid inferential cognition based on renown. In the moments that follow as we continue to speak, Sautrantika would say we have subsequent inferential cognition based on renown. This analysis is true also in the case of learning a language later in life – also either by imitation or by studying it formally with a teacher.


I think that we have seen that there are many applications for this scheme of ways of knowing. It is a scheme, a conceptual framework, and therefore knowing it is deceptive cognition. But conceptual frameworks are both necessary and useful. They help us to make sense of our lives and our experience. Their purpose is to help us rid ourselves of suffering and its causes.

The causes of suffering are ignorance, or unawareness, and our non-valid ways of cognizing things, such as distorted cognition and indecisive wavering tending toward an incorrect conclusion. With discriminating awareness, we need to be able to differentiate an incorrect way of knowing or of understanding something from a correct way. The ability to do that accurately, decisively and quickly enables us to rid ourselves of suffering and its causes. If we are doing with compassion – the wish to alleviate everyone of their suffering ­– it also enables us to be of best help to others. Thank you.