Presumption, Indecisive Wavering and Distorted Cognition

Other languages


We have covered two valid ways of knowing:

  • Fresh, decisive, accurate bare cognition – non-conceptual cognition of obvious phenomena as the appearing objects
  • Inferential cognition – conceptual cognition of obscure and extremely obscure phenomena by relying on a valid line of reasoning.

Following bare cognition or inferential cognition come phases of subsequent cognition and, except after yogic bare cognition, non-determining cognition.


The next way of knowing is presumption, an invalid way of knowing that takes its object correctly and conceptually cognizes it freshly. This is basically a correct guess. Like inferential cognition, it freshly reaches a correct conclusion, but without really understanding it or knowing correctly why it is true. Therefore, what is wrong with presumption is that it is not decisive and, therefore, it is not a valid way of knowing. We assume that something is correct, but we don’t really know why.

Presumption is when we come to a correct conclusion. We can also come to an incorrect conclusion, but that is not technically this way of knowing. That would just be an incorrect inferential cognition.

Five Types of Presumption

There are five types of presumption.

  • Presuming what is true to be so for no reason – for instance, concluding correctly that in the northern hemisphere the days get shorter in the winter, but not knowing why that is so. Basically, it is a good guess, like when we don’t remember someone’s name, but we make the right guess.
  • Presuming what is true to be so for a contradictory reason – for example, concluding that the days get shorter in the winter in the northern hemisphere because it is tilted toward the sun during that period. That is a contradictory reason, but we come to the correct conclusion anyway.
  • Presuming what is to be so for a non-determining reason – for instance, concluding that the days get shorter in the winter in the northern hemisphere because the earth revolves around the sun. We come to the right conclusion, but the fact that the earth revolves around the sun doesn’t prove that the days get shorter in the winter in the northern hemisphere.
  • Presuming what is to be true to be so for an irrelevant reason – for example, concluding that the days get shorter in the winter in the northern hemisphere because the days are colder. This happens very often in the development of the new website. I make an assertion and the reason why I make that assertion is because “I think so.” For example, “people are interested in a particular article because I think so” is a non-determining reason. Because “I like it” is also an irrelevant reason. In order to come to that conclusion, we need to do so based on a correct reason.
  • Presuming something is true for a correct reason, but without any decisiveness – with our example, concluding that the days get shorter in the winter in the northern hemisphere because it is tilted away from the sun during that period. We rely on this correct reason, but we have no understanding of how that affects the length of the day. I might think people will be interested in an article because more people search for this in Google, but we don’t really understand how that works or what difference that makes. We come to the correct conclusion for the correct reason, but we don’t understand.

All of this is very relevant for our understanding of voidness or any point in the Dharma. We know what the right answer is supposed to be, and we can even know what the right reason is as to why certain things are so, but we really don’t understand it. We presume it to be true. That is a very necessary step in the process of learning. We give something what is called the “benefit of the doubt.” We presume that it is true and then see what follows from that. If what follows from that makes sense and helps to reduce suffering, then we assume it must be correct.

This applies to rebirth, for example. It’s very difficult to understand rebirth correctly. There is a certain logic to it in terms of cause and effect in that any phenomenon that changes from moment to moment can’t come from nothing or come from an irrelevant cause, so our mental continuum must be part of a continuum that extends over beginningless past lives, but we really don’t understand it. Nevertheless, we presume it to be true and work with it.

Knowledge gained from presumption is unstable. When we read or hear some fact and just accept it uncritically on faith without examining it to understand how it is true, usually we can’t remember it.

Let’s try to recognize in our own experience when we have known something through presumption. It’s making a correct guess, a good guess.


Often we make an incorrect guess. For example, we presume that if we buy this item in the store it will work: if we buy this computer it will work. Why do we presume that? We think it is because it was sold in this store. That doesn’t mean anything, does it? That doesn’t prove that it is going to work, does it? This is because they have a good advertising campaign, but that also doesn’t prove it. But, we presume that it will work, don’t we buy it. But, how many of us actually understand how a computer works? Not many at all.

Presumption Versus Hope

Presumption is a very frequently occurring way of knowing something. We need to differentiate it from hope. For example, we presume that this food won’t make us sick. But, this is also mixed with hope; we hope it won’t make us sick. Hope entails a wish that something is true or is the case, whereas presumption does not entail any wish. We presume that a place is going to be a good restaurant and it may turn out to be good, but our reasons for presuming that are not conclusive. We assume that it will be good because the last time that we ate there, it was good. Is that a determining reason? Just because it was good last time doesn’t guarantee that it will be good this time, does it? If it turns out to be good this time, then it was a good guess. But, there is no way of being sure of that or guaranteeing that.

It is the same thing in terms of our interaction with somebody. We go to a party or go to meet our friend and we presume that it will be a nice experience. But, as I say, this can be mixed with the hope that it will be a nice experience.

Presumption and Probability

Doesn’t presuming have to do with probabilities?

This is quite complex. I recently read an article about physics that said that even if there is a 95% probability that something will work, nevertheless, at any moment, in actuality either it works or it doesn’t work. At any specific moment, “maybe it is working” never occurs. That brings into question whether a probability is just a way of making a good guess. Is probability actually descriptive of what occurs? What do we mean by what occurs? Do we mean what occurs in a specific moment or what occurs over a period of time?

Actually, probability is measured by how many times we do something. Basically, if we say that this device will work 95% of the time, it is because the product has been tested, let’s say, a hundred times and five times it didn’t work. It is a kind of chance based on things that have been done and then we say there is the probability.

Yes; we can talk about a device and whether it will fail. The probability is the battery will last for six hours, or something like that. But, the article I read was talking about gambling where you throw the dice and about the probability of when two sixes are going to come up. Just the fact that it did or didn’t come up a certain number of times in the past is not necessarily going to affect the throw of the dice this time. Either it will or won’t come up.

But in general, probability is used to explain cause and effect. Most of the time when we do something, it can be measured, and we can know that most of the time this is what happens. But there can always be exceptions when it won’t happen. For instance, consider the case of seeing a swan in Europe, what is the probability that the swan we see will be white? Most swans that we see are in fact white, but black swans do exist in Australia, so there is the possibility that we will see a black swan. Probability describes causality, that there is a probable result that will follow, like from seeing a swan. Of course, there can be an exception. Probability doesn’t describe everything, like in throwing the dice. Therefore, probability can be used to help us make a good guess, a correct guess.

Probability is used a lot in the medical profession.

Right, there is a certain probability that what this patient has is this disease. So, the doctor presumes it is this disease. With presumption based of probability, we can be fairly sure, but not 100% sure. This is what makes presumption not a valid way of knowing.

Presumption That We Can Attain Enlightenment

The whole issue of decisiveness is a very complex issue actually. How decisive are we actually that we can attain enlightenment? That becomes quite an issue in terms of aiming for enlightenment or liberation. Firstly, how convinced are we that it is possible? Then, how convinced are we that we can attain it? We presume that we can attain it and maybe that is correct, but we really might not understand why. Even if we can recite the correct reason: because of Buddha nature, we might not have any idea of what that really means or how that even proves it. But, we use this all the time, don’t we? We need to question ourselves about how we know that we can attain enlightenment. We are presuming basically that it is true and when we really aren’t 100% decisive about it, we run the danger of not believing it at some point and giving up.

What about looking at the great masters of the past who have attained enlightenment. If they attained it, then probably I will be able to attain it too.

But how do we know that they have attained enlightenment? What is our valid way of knowing that they attained it? In Buddhism, they say that only if we have attained a certain stage ourselves, can we know for sure that someone else has attained it. If we haven’t attained it ourselves, we are not in a position to know correctly and validly. We can presume that someone has attained enlightenment, for instance the Buddha, but we really don’t know decisively because we don’t know from our own first-hand experience what enlightenment is.

We use inference.

Correct. We use inference to know something extremely obscure that we couldn’t know ourselves. Based on other things Buddha said that we can verify ourselves, like the understanding of voidness rids us of suffering, and also based on the fact that Buddha’s sole motivation was compassion to alleviate others’ suffering, we can infer that Buddha had no reason to lie and therefore is a valid source of information about his own enlightenment.

But what about our own attainment of enlightenment? Just because Buddha attained it, does that prove that we will attain it as well? Is our attainment of enlightenment a probability function? Is it that there is a 95% chance that we can attain enlightenment? From the Buddhist point of view, everybody can attain enlightenment, even the worm. Shantideva says that. Where probability would come in is regarding whether we can attain it in this lifetime. Then there is a probability function. But, inevitably can we attain it is a different issue.

This becomes a very interesting question. The Samkhya school of non-Buddhist Indian philosophy asserts that inevitably everybody will become liberated. Buddhism doesn’t say that. Buddhism says that everybody can become enlightened, but that doesn’t guarantee that everybody will attain it, even given infinite time. When people ask the question what happens when everybody has become enlightened, then what? That is irrelevant, because nobody actually said in Buddhism that everybody will attain enlightenment.

Even if time is infinite?

Yes. Because time is infinite, it follows that we have not only developed bodhichitta and taken the bodhisattva vows an infinite number of times, we have also given up the vows an infinite number of times. To attain enlightenment, we need for the first time not to give up bodhichitta and the bodhisattva vows. In other words, we need to take the bodhichitta vows for the first time without giving them up. That’s why we promise not to give up bodhichitta even at the cost of our lives.

Not to give up bodhichitta requires an enormous amount of effort and practice, working to build up positive force for three zillion eons and never giving up our bodhichitta. Very few have actually done this, and it doesn’t follow that everyone will succeed in not giving up bodhichitta over a period of three zillion eons. So, there is no guarantee that everyone will attain enlightenment, even if time is infinite.

But, let’s not diverge too much more. To repeat, we have presumption, a correct guess for either a wrong reason or a correct reason that we don’t understand. Probability is undoubtedly a good guess if we are going to base our decision on probability.

Indecisive Wavering

Indecisive wavering, the next way of knowing, is a mental factor that can accompany the conceptual cognition of some object and wonders about two conclusions concerning this object. In other words, it vacillates or goes back and forth between two categories through which to cognize its object. Does this object fit in this mental box or in that mental box in terms of the conclusion that we make? It is always conceptual. There are three types:

  • Indecisive wavering inclined toward fact or the correct conclusion
  • Indecisive wavering not inclined toward fact, tending toward the wrong conclusion
  • Indecisive wavering that is evenly balanced between the two conclusions.  

I think probability function comes into here as well. For example, suppose we don’t know with 100% certainty that something we do or suggest is going to bring about our intended result, but we are 95% sure. Therefore, we can presume that it will turn out as we hope, and if it does, we thought that with presumption. Or we can think that it will turn out as we wish, but we acknowledge that there is a 5% chance that it won’t work and so we also consider what could happen if it doesn’t work. That would be indecisive wavering. We can’t quite be firm as to which box it is going to fit into.

Indecisive wavering is a disturbing mental factor. Why is it a disturbing mental factor? We go back to the definition of a disturbing emotion or attitude. The definition is that it is a mental factor that, when it arises, causes us to lose peace of mind and self-control. When we have indecisive wavering, when we are unsure if something is like this or like that, we certainly don’t have peace of mind, do we? We lose self-control in the sense that we don’t know what to do or what to choose. It is a very insecure state of mind when we are uncertain: Is it this or is it that?

Often, in order to get out of that state, we will jump to a conclusion. That’s presumption if it is a correct conclusion or it’s just incorrect inference when we jump to the wrong conclusion. We can observe this quite a lot in ourselves. We go to restaurants and read the menu and can’t decide what to eat. We can’t decide what to wear today. Some people have this indecision more strongly than others. Someone who is a good army officer or captain of a ship has to be able to make decisions very quickly and very decisively. If we can’t make decisions, we can’t be a leader or in charge because, ultimately, we have to make the decisions.

Making Decisions

Decision-making is difficult and, in our case, if we are following the Buddhist path with a decision of whether to take refuge or take bodhisattva vows – these sorts of things – how do we decide? It is an interesting question. How can we be decisive that this is what we want to do, and it is going to be beneficial for me? What way of knowing would we have for that?

We could become convinced based on evidence.

Yes, but in the beginning, we would presume that our decision that something will be helpful is correct. It could be mixed with hope, in that we hope that it will be helpful, and we presume that it will be. We come to that conclusion just because our guru told us that and our guru is a valid source of information, or Buddha said that it would be good. We could base our conclusion on further evidence to corroborate what Buddha said. We could see the example of other people who have followed a Buddhist course of action, for instance by becoming a monk or a nun and became happier; but, that is non-determining. If other people have become monastics and have been happy, that doesn’t guarantee that it is going to work for us, does it?

Another way to decide this is by exclusion.

That’s a very good point. We didn’t succeed in other ways, so we try this one. That’s hope. It’s very interesting to know if we have excluded every possibility other than this one, following Buddhism. Maybe there was something that we didn’t even know about. I don’t even know if people continue watching television, and maybe this is an outdated example, but on cable TV in America there are about a thousand different channels that we can watch. We might choose to watch one, because we looked at fifty and they were all pretty boring and horrible, but this one looks like it’s going to be good. So, we decide to watch it. But, maybe there was another channel that we didn’t even look at and which was better. Similarly, maybe there is another tradition among tribes in the Amazon that we didn’t know about and maybe that will be better for us to follow than Buddhism.

Therefore, it’s very hard when we base our decision on an exclusion. This is a way of knowing that isn’t covered in the standard list. It’s covered when we go much more deeply into the topic of negation phenomenon. We know something by excluding other things. We know what we like by excluding what we don’t like. But, have we excluded every other possibility and how can we be sure that we have excluded every other possibility? That’s hard. It comes down to presumption. We presume that we have tried enough possibilities and so we don’t have to try any more.

It’s like when we go shopping. How many stores do we have to go to in order to come to the decision that this is the best one for buying something we want? We haven’t looked at every single store and tried on every single shirt to know that this is the one that we want. But, we have excluded some of them. How much do we have to actively exclude? For example, last time we went to that store, we didn’t find something that we liked, so we won’t even consider going there now. We presume, based on past evidence, that they are not going to have anything that we like now as well. What’s the fault in that line of reasoning? It’s based on not realizing that their stock changes and the type of clothing that they have in their store will change and it’s not the same selection that they had last time.

But, we examine our reasons and then we make our decision of which store to go shopping in for a new shirt based on probability. Probably that store won’t have anything that we like, so we won’t even look there. Or maybe we can give it a chance, but then we have to see what other factors affect our making that decision to give it a try. It can be that we don’t have time to go shopping and try every store. We only have our lunch break, for example. Then we make the decision. We will only go to this store; we don’t have time to shop around; whatever we find there will be good enough.

It’s very interesting how we make decisions and what is the valid way of knowing that helps us become decisive. Of course, what really messes things up is if the mental factor of regret comes in: if I had only gone to this other store, I would have found something better. Regret is a big obstacle to concentration and peace of mind. We’re not able to concentrate because we regret not doing things that we should have done before. We should have started this retreat at a different time. We should have gone with a different teacher. We should have gotten a better cushion. We should have whatever; all these regrets and we can’t actually concentrate. It’s a big obstacle. 

Once we’ve made a decision, can we change our minds? Some decisions we can change, like we might decide to move to a new apartment and it turns out to be terrible. We have noisy neighbors; we didn’t realize that they play loud techno music late at night. We didn’t know that because we only looked at the apartment during the day. We didn’t have enough evidence. In such cases, we can change apartments and move somewhere else. Other times we can’t change the decision that we have made. For example, we break up with somebody and they go on and find another partner and we can’t go back.

This whole issue of decision-making about if something is the best decision and so on is very tricky, isn’t it? Being indecisive can cause us a lot of mental disturbance and mental wandering about whether we made the right decision. This is why conviction, especially in terms of following a spiritual path, is so important. The stronger our conviction is and the more rational it is – not just based on some irrational reason of why we are doing something – gives us a greater chance of success because of confidence in what we are doing. I think that is why the first of the seven arya gems is conviction.

Self-confidence is very important of course in sports. Likewise, self-confidence in practicing the Dharma is also very important, not only confidence that we can achieve the result, but even before that, self-confidence in terms of making the right decision to follow this path.

Distorted Cognition

The last way of knowing in this list of seven is distorted cognition. Distorted cognition is a way of knowing that takes its object incorrectly. There are two kinds:

  • Conceptual distorted cognition
  • Non-conceptual distorted cognition.

Conceptual Distorted Cognition

Conceptual distorted cognition is a cognition that is deceived with respect to its conceptually implied object (zhen-yul). A conceptually implied object is one of the many different types of cognitive objects. Conceptual cognitions are cognitions through the intermediary of a static category. Together with the category is an appearance that represents that category. The classic example is conceptual cognition of the truly established existence of something, for instance “me.” The cognition occurs through the intermediary of the category “truly established existence” and accompanying that category is some sort of feeling that represents what we imagine truly established existence to be: a feeling that “I” exist as some solid entity, as if wrapped in plastic, and whose existence is established all by itself, independently from anything else. This is how we perceive ourselves and we believe that our existence actually is truly established in this way in which it appears and seems. The conceptually implied object would be “me” as a person, whose existence is actually established in the way that it feels like to me.

The conceptual cognition is deceived with respect to that implication, because what we imagine and believe to be true doesn’t correspond to reality. For example, it can be that we imagine and believe that there is a monster under the bed. That is obviously distorted: what we imagine doesn’t correspond to reality. Distorted conceptual cognition, then, is deceived because it believes that the conceptually implied object corresponds to reality. So, if we conceive that it is truly established that “I” exist as an unchanging soul that enters into my body, talks in my head, presses the control buttons to make the body do things and then flies out at death and then inhabits another body – the conceptually implied object would be “me” existing as an actual soul with those characteristics. That’s distorted.

Non-Conceptual Distorted Cognition

Non-conceptual distorted cognition is deceived with respect to the object it takes, which nevertheless appears clearly to it. That would be the example of a blur. We clearly see a blur when we take off our glasses, but that’s deceptive. There is no blur over there on the other side of the room. Our cognition is deceived with respect to the object that it takes and which appears clearly to it.

The Sautrantika Position about How to Establish or Account for the Fact That Something Exists

The most significant distorted cognition concerns how things exist. Remember, we discussed two essential natures, what something is and how it exists. How it exists is a very general way of talking about this second essential nature. We are really talking about how we account for the fact that something exists. How do we know that it exists? Sautrantikas would say, because it functions. We know, for example, that this thing exists because if we bang it, it makes a noise. It does something and that proves that it exists. If we look under the bed to find the monster, we can’t see it and we can’t prove that it exists. We can’t account for the fact that it exists. If we see it, that accounts for the fact that it exists.

We are discussing how we account for or establish that something exists. This is really what the whole discussion is about in terms of what is usually called “how does something exist.” This is where we have the distortion all the time. We think that there is something inside an object that by its own power, whether we see it or not, establishes or accounts for the fact that it exists. That doesn’t correspond to reality, but further analysis gets very sophisticated and complex. So, let’s leave it at that.

Recounting the Seven Ways of Knowing

These are the seven ways of knowing. Remember they are: bare cognition, inferential cognition, subsequent cognition, non-determining cognition, presumption, indecisive wavering, and distorted cognition. Obviously, it takes a while to become familiar with this conceptual framework for being able to analyze what is going on. 

Explanation of Imputation, Mental Labeling and Designation

You mentioned that it was important to distinguish between three notions which were one and the same words in Tibetan and Sanskrit. These were imputation, mental labeling and designation. Why are they the same word in the original languages?


To understand why all three are called by the same word, we need to be clear about the differences between imputation, mental labeling and designation. From a Sautrantika point of view, an imputation is an objective entity (rang-mtshan). If cognition of one were optional, then imputations could only be known conceptually – in other words, they could only be known when we think they are present. But since we can cognize imputations both conceptually and non-conceptually, cognition of them is not optional. For instance, a person is an objective entity that we can both see and can think about. There are the aggregates that are changing from moment to moment – the body, mind, emotions, and all the other different pieces, and they are changing from moment to moment. A person is an objective imputation on all of them and can be seen when we see the sight of their body. Or age is an objective imputation on something lasting over a period of time of many moments. This is the duration of something. This is an imputation. Another example is speed. Something is here and then there and then there and then there. Therefore, motion and speed are imputations; a person is that type of imputation.

Mental Labeling

Mental labeling has to do with conceptual cognition and categories. We mentally label a category onto something that fits in this category. That’s conceptual; and it is how we think of something, how we conceptualize it. That is mental labeling. That is optional: we don’t have to do that.


Designation is giving a name or a word to a category, and through the category, designated on the individual items in that category.

The Common Feature of the Three

Imputation, mental labeling and designation, then, are three distinctly different cognitive processes. What they share in common is:

  • Each entails a basis for imputation, or for mental labeling, or for designation (gdags-gzhi)
  • What is imputed, mentally labeled or designated on its basis is not identical with that basis
  • The basis for the imputation, mental label or designation is devoid of having on its side the defining characteristic of the imputation, mental label or designation.

In addition, as the Prasangika presentation emphasizes, mental labeling with categories and designation with words also share in common:

  • A referent object (btags-chos) – something that the mental label or designation refers to – which is not identical with either the mental label, designation or basis
  • The basis for the mental label or designation is devoid of having on its side the defining characteristic of what the mental label or designation refers to
  • The voidness (total absence) of a self-established referent “thing” (btags-don) as a focal support (dmigs-rten) for the referent object of the mental labeling or designation.

We can only account for the existence of anything validly knowable in terms of mental labeling with categories or designation with words. What is a dog? A dog is what the word “dog” refers to on the basis of all these different animals. That is what a dog is. We can’t find something on the side of any of these animals that makes them a dog.

A wonderful example is when we lay out a set of pictures of ourselves spanning our whole lifetime. What in each of them makes it “me?” We can’t really find something on the side of each these pictures that makes them all me by its own power. In addition, “me” is not the concept “me” or the word “me,” it is what the word refers to on the basis of all these pictures. The “me,” then, is like an illusion. It seems to be something solid, but it is sort of in between the word and category and the item.

The same word as is used for mental labeling and designation is also used for imputation because each of these three entails so-called “imputedly knowable” or “imputedly existent” (btags-yod) phenomena: a type of phenomenon that requires a basis and which can neither exist or be cognized independently of its basis. 

The problem is that when we learn that mental labeling and designation occur only in conceptual cognition, we incorrectly think that imputations such as of the self, “me,” also occur only in conceptual cognition. That leads to the mistake of thinking that persons, including ourselves, are just concepts and, in reality, I and others don’t actually exist. So, we fall to the extreme of nihilism. That’s the reason why I make a distinction in the terminology.

Can you give an example to illustrate mental labeling or designation with the example of a person?

I look at those colored shapes over there. These colored shapes aren’t just colored shapes, they are parts of the imputation “a whole visual object, a sight that I see.” A further imputation on the sight is a body, a whole commonsense object that spans not only visual information but also information from the other senses. Yet a further imputation on the body is a person, who spans not just a body, but a mind, emotions, etc. A whole visual object, a body and a person are all imputations on a basis. They are all objective entities, to use the Sautrantika distinction.

But, how do I account for the fact that there is a person? From the Prasangika point of view, just because I see something doesn’t prove or establish that what I see corresponds to reality, because I also see every object as being self-established and truly existent. With distorted cognition, I also see blurs.

So, how do I account for the fact that there is a person there? We have a concept or category “person” and we have this word “person.” The only way that we can account for the fact that there is a person is that the concept “person” and the word “person” refer to something on the basis of these colored shapes: they refer to a conventional person. We can confirm that this mental labeling and designation are correct by three facts:

  • Everybody agrees on the convention that there are persons in this world.
  • Others that validly see or look at these colored shapes would also agree that they are seeing a person; we aren’t totally imagining something nonexistent and totally conceptional, like an impossible way of existing.
  • Even a highly realized being, an arya, would agree that it is a person.

We are talking about how we account for the existence of something. We can’t account for the existence of something just by the fact that we can see it or that it can perform a function. This is because what we perceive is deceptive. Our seeing something doesn’t prove that what we see refers to something “objective” that others can see too. When we scrutinize, we can’t find persons or even whole objects existing just in our minds and we can’t find them existing in their parts either. But the fact is that we have these concepts and these words for things and they refer to something – that’s how we can account conventionally for the fact that there are these things.

Conventionally, however, everything appears deceptively to our limited minds as being self-established and truly existent. But just because how objects appear to exist is false does not prove that the conventional objects themselves are false. Just because there is a total absence, a voidness, of anything corresponding to the mode of existence that things appear to have does not mean that there is a total absence of any conventionally existent objects. This is a point that Tsongkhapa emphasizes over and again.

We can’t find a person in these colored shapes, nor can we find a person in our concept of a person or in the word “person.” But the concept and word refer to something. That is what is meant by accounting for something merely by mental labeling. There actually is a person that we are seeing over there. A person conventionally exists, but how can we know that it is a person? That is the question. How do we know that there is a person there?

It is because there is a convention, and people agree that such things as persons exist. We are not talking about unicorns. There is that convention of “persons” and those who are valid cognizers – those who validly see things and not those with astigmatisms seeing blurs – would all agree that it is a person. It is also not contradicted by valid cognition of deepest truth either. If we think that it is truly established or truly existent, that would be contradicted by what an arya would see. No, it’s not a truly existent person, self-established from its own side.

Therefore, we can only account for the existence of anything by mental labeling and designation, both of which are from the side of the mind. That’s why Chittamatra is very helpful as a preliminary step. It teaches us that the appearance of anything can only be established in relation to the mind it appears to. Then, Prasangika says the way in which anything exists and how we account for its existence can only be established in relation to mind, specifically in terms of conceptual cognition. That doesn’t mean that a Buddha has conceptual cognition. It’s just how do we account for the fact that there are conventional things? It’s because we think in these categories and they refer to something. On that basis we are able to function.

It’s obviously complex and deep but very helpful, I think, to differentiate imputation, mental labeling and designation.

What is an example of designation?

Designation is applying a word, an arbitrary set of sounds which, by convention, a group of people have agreed that it has a certain meaning and is a word. With a sound that we agree is a word and has a meaning, designation occurs when we apply them to a category. By applying a word and a meaning to a category such as “dogs,” we then apply it to whatever fits into the category, such as that animal over here. That’s a dog. We have to have a concept of what a dog is and a word that refers to it and a definition to cognize it as a dog. The defining characteristic is also just agreed upon as a convention.

What is love? What is liking someone and what is loving someone? These are emotions. Someone made up the difference between what is the definition of liking someone and what is the definition of loving someone. How do we know the border between liking and loving this person and now what we feel has crossed over the border? We find in the dictionary that this is what liking means and this is what loving means, but where is the reality of that? The defining characteristics are conventions; they’re in the dictionary and we have agreed on these conventions and we have agreed that they refer to something. We can distinguish what emotions we are feeling, but how we classify them and what we call them is just in terms of categories, conventions.

Still, the category refers to something. It’s not that we are feeling nothing. We are feeling love or hatred, but the whole spectrum of emotions doesn’t exist in boxes. Here is the box of hatred and here the box of love and here the box of liking. What is deceptive about thinking in terms of categories is that it seems as if things truly exist in boxes. But there is nothing findable on the side of objects that have the power to fit them into boxes. Although what fits into any box has the conventional defining characteristic that qualifies it to fit in that box, even that defining characteristic is conceptually designated as what qualifies it, but also only by convention. However, we shouldn’t be dismissive of categories, mental labeling and designation just because they are conceptual. They are totally necessary for us to make sense of what we experience and to communicate with each other.