Types of Bare Cognition

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Thus far we have covered in our discussion valid and invalid ways of knowing. Valid cognition is cognition that is fresh, accurate and decisive. We have also discussed apprehension, which is accurate and decisive cognition, but not necessarily fresh. Apprehension can be explicit or implicit depending on whether or not the object apprehended appears in the cognition. We have also discussed conceptual and non-conceptual cognition, depending on whether or not we cognize something through the intermediary of a category.

Let’s analyze an example. I’m feeling cold. I know that through sensory cognition. I don’t know if there is a draft coming from a window or if a window is open or not, but I feel a draft. Therefore I feel cold. To know whether the window was open obviously I would need to stop the lecture and go over there and take a look or ask somebody. But, based on previous knowledge, I validly know that if I am feeling cold, if I zip up my jacket I will feel warmer. How do I know that? It is based on inference and previous knowledge. If I zip the jacket, the effect will follow that I will feel warmer.

When I zipped the jacket, I zipped it over the microphone clipped to my shirt. I then saw the gesture that my associate made. How did I know what the gesture meant? I could have thought that the gesture was just a greeting, “Hi, how are you?” That would have been a conceptual cognition in which I inferred that what I saw when he waved his hand had a certain meaning. That is a type of inference. I put what I saw into the mental box of a greeting. But it was an incorrect inference. If I had waved back hello, that would have been silly. Instead, I put that gesture in the mental category of having the meaning: “idiot, you’re covering up the microphone, so don’t zip up your jacket over it” and that probably was what he meant, knowing my associate here. Then, I knew what to do.

How did I know what to do? Again, there was an inference based on previous knowledge that I need to pull down the zipper of the jacket so as not to cover up the microphone. All these things are involved in the conceptual cognition. It still leaves the question of why I feel the draft and if there is a window open or not. That I don’t know. I validly know that to determine this would require having another cognition. I need to look or ask someone who is a valid source of information.

Well, my associate just came up and moved the microphone so that now it is clipped on my jacket rather than on my shirt. Firstly, was there an emotion involved in what went on just then? He observed what occurred, and correctly inferred that I was cold, and saw what happened with the zipper. He was then motivated to think further. He could respond by not caring, but the response came from a motivation of being concerned and wanting to be of help. Then, he figured out a solution. How did he figure out that the solution would be to clip the microphone on the jacket? He could have clipped it onto my nose. But, he didn’t do that. This is discriminating awareness based on previous knowledge and just the logic of how things work. For example, he couldn’t clip it onto the flower in the vase over there, because it would be too far away.

We have all these different ways of knowing and they help us to deal with different situations. So now let’s look at the seven ways of knowing themselves, one by one.

Bare Cognition

The first way we will examine is bare cognition, defined as a fresh, non-deceptive, non-conceptual cognition in which the appearing object is an objective entity, namely a non-static phenomenon. It is non-conceptual, meaning no category is involved, and the appearing object – in other words, the mental hologram that appears as if directly in front of the consciousness – is an objective entity. Objective entity (rang-mtshan) in the Sautrantika system means a non-static phenomenon, something that is changing all the time for however long it exists. It can be a form of physical phenomenon – namely, sense information such as a sight, sound, smell, taste or physical sensation – and based on that information, a commonsense object. It is not just sensory information. It’s a table for example, not just a colored shape, nor just a physical sensation when we touch it with our hands. Additionally, it’s a kind of thing; it’s a table and not a dog that we feel with our hands.

The object of our bare cognition can also be another type of non-static phenomenon, a way of knowing something. We can be focused on what we are feeling right now, a feeling of happiness or unhappiness. We can be focusing on an emotion, or on our state of mind such as being depressed or excited. That also can be bare cognition.

The objective entity also could be an imputed phenomenon, an imputation on the basis of a commonsense object. Such imputations are neither a way of knowing nor a form of physical phenomenon. The technical term for such an objective entity is a non-congruent affecting variable (ldan-min ’du-byed). An example of such a variable is age. Age is not a form of physical phenomenon. It’s an imputation, an everchanging fact, about a physical phenomenon. Because an imputation is not physical, we can’t say that it is physically located on top of some phenomenon, as if it were separable from the object and could exist on its own, independently of the object that’s its basis. Nevertheless, the phenomenon is its basis. The age of a person, then, is not something physical findable on the person’s body, but is an imputation based on the physical situation of the body. In addition, the age doesn’t need to be inferred by someone in order to establish that there is an age associated with the person’s body. Someone’s age is an objective fact about the body and the person, and it is non-static: it increases every moment.

When we talk about an imputed phenomenon, for instance a person as an imputation on the basis of a body, mind, feelings and emotions, it is an objective entity. It is objectively a person, not something imaginary, and it does have age. This applies to motion as well. One moment an object is here and then in the next moment it’s at a different place, the next moment yet another different place. Its motion is an imputation on this object over a certain period of time. Motion does occur. It’s an objective entity, an imputation.

Understanding the Crucial Differences between Imputation, Mental Labeling and Designation

Imputation is quite different from mental labeling, which has to do with a conceptual process of putting things into a category. Mental labeling is optional, imputation is not. When we look at a person, for example, Mary, a human being, it is optional whether we fit this person we see into our fixed idea of Mary. That fixed idea is what we’ve been calling a mental category, a concept. That’s optional, isn’t it? That’s mental labeling and not the same as imputation, even though it is the same Sanskrit and Tibetan word (btags-pa). Those are quite different.

There is also designation, also the same word, and this has to do with applying a word or a name to the category. That’s also optional. I can conceptually put this person in the mental category of Mary, my host, but still not know or remember her name. Therefore, we have these three quite different phenomena: imputation, mental labeling, and designation. It’s very crucial to understand the differences among these three.

So, with bare cognition, we actually see, non-conceptually, colored shapes, a body, as well as a person as an imputation on the body and which extends over time. We are seeing a commonsense object, an objective entity. What kind of commonsense object is it? It’s a person not just a body, and what I see is still objectively a person, whether or not I mentally label him with the category of the person with whom I spoke in the break and whether or not I designate him with the name “Lawry.”

Four Causes for Deception with Bare Cognition

Once again, bare cognition is non-conceptual and what appears in it, the appearing object, is a non-static phenomenon, an objective entity. Although bare cognition of an objective entity entails the arising of a mental hologram of it, that does not mean that what we know through bare cognition exists only “in our minds,” as it were. Only Chittamatra asserts “mind-only,” but here we are presenting the Sautrantika view. And Sautrantika accepts objective reality.

Additionally, bare cognition is non-deceptive. There are four causes for deceptiveness or deception.


The first cause for deception is reliance. If the non-conceptual bare cognition relies on a defective sense organ, like being cross-eyed producing double vision and seeing two moons, the bare cognition of the double moon is deceptive. I am actually cross-eyed in one eye. If I take my glasses off, I see a double image. That is still bare cognition, without a concept or category involved, but it is deceptive because the involved object, the moon, and the appearing object, two moons, don’t correspond with each other. Other examples are seeing a blur when we are near-sighted, far-sighted or astigmatic and look at something with our glasses off. Or hearing indistinct sounds when we are hard of hearing and listen to someone speaking. Reliance on a fault sensor, then, is one cause of deceptiveness.

The Object

Another cause of deception is the object. If certain objects of a non-conceptual cognition are moving very quickly, bare cognition of them is deceptive. The classic example occurs when we twirl a torch or a flashlight in the dark, we would be deceived into seeing a ring of light. That is deceptiveness in terms of the object.


In a moving train, we non-conceptually see the trees outside approaching very quickly and then rapidly moving backwards. We see that non-conceptually, but that is deceptive. It isn’t that the trees are moving; we are moving. It’s not that the trees are running toward us and then they see us clearly and freak out and run away in the other direction. It’s not what is happening, is it?

The Immediate Condition

The fourth source of deceptiveness is if, immediately before looking at someone, our mind is strongly disturbed, for instance by fear, we might see something that is not there.

These are the four causes of deceptiveness. Valid bare cognition is free of any of these four.

Four Types of Bare Cognition

There are four types of bare cognition:

  • Sensory bare cognition
  • Mental bare cognition
  • Bare cognition by reflexive awareness
  • Yogic bare cognition.

Differences between “Bare Cognition,” “Direct Cognition,” “Explicit Cognition,” and “Straightforward Cognition”

I use the word “bare” here because the cognition is bare of a category or of being conceptual. We need to be careful with the words we use for all these aspects of valid ways of knowing. It becomes too confusing if we use words like “direct” and “indirect” for more than one meaning within any particular tenet system. We need to restrict them to just one meaning, if possible. I restrict “direct” and “indirect” to just whether or not the consciousness in a bare cognition is in contact with the involved object. This variable is relevant in two contexts:

  • The Vaibhashika tenet system doesn’t assert mental holograms. Contact between the sensory information from an object and the consciousness is direct, without the intermediary of a mental hologram. I call that “direct” bare cognition. By comparison, the the other tenet systems assert the arising of mental holograms in bare cognition, and so they assert “indirect” bare cognition.
  • Then, in the context of the Sautrantika system – which is what we are discussing here – there is a big discussion about whether bare cognition of a moment of some object is simultaneous with that moment or if we are seeing a mental hologram of an object a tiny fraction of a second after the original object and never actually see that source object. We are just seeing the mental hologram because, when that appears, the previous moment doesn’t exist anymore. The Gelug version takes the former position, which I call “direct” bare cognition in the sense that cognition of an object occurs directly with the presently occurring moment of that object. The non-Gelug version takes the latter position, and so “indirect” bare cognition, since the moment of the cognition of an object is not in contact with the moment of the object it cognizes: it’s a fraction of a second later.

“Explicit” and “implicit” are also different from “direct” and “indirect.” This variable refers to whether something appears or doesn’t appear in the apprehension of an object. “Bare” and “not bare” have to do with whether or not cognition is through a category. Each of these sets of terms concerns very different variables and we don’t want to use the same words, “direct” and “indirect,” for all of them or we can get totally confused. Precision in terminology is very crucial.

In Prasangika, we are going to have “straightforward” cognition and “not straightforward” cognition, referring to whether or not the cognition arises through reliance on a line of reasoning. There, again, we wouldn’t want to use “direct” and “indirect” for this variable, since it would cause further confusion. That’s why my terminology very often is unusual or unfamiliar, but I am trying to get more precise to avoid confusion.

Sensory Bare Cognition

Sensory bare cognition is by one of the five types of sensory consciousnesses. In Western cognition theory, we just talk about consciousness and we don’t talk about the different types of consciousness in the way we talk about them in Buddhism. In Buddhism, we distinguish between the different types of sensory consciousness and also sensory versus mental consciousness. Sensory consciousness has five types: visual, auditory, olfactory meaning through the nose, gustatory meaning through the tongue, and physical sensation. Physical sensation is not just tactile or what we actually touch. It also includes feeling hot or cold, moving or not moving, and all sorts of physical sensations besides hard or soft.

We need to be careful not to confuse the physical sensations of pleasure and pain with the mental states of happiness and unhappiness. Happiness and unhappiness are mental factors of how we experience something. They accompany any type of cognition, sensory or mental, and are on some level on the spectrum of happy or unhappy. In every moment, we are feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness and this is the mental factor of feeling. It doesn’t have to do with feeling a sensation, or feeling an emotion, or having a feeling that it will rain later, or having our feelings hurt.

Our English word “feeling” is much too broad. There are lots of meanings, but in Buddhism it is only referring to feeling something on the spectrum of happy or unhappy. That can accompany sensory or mental cognition. The physical cognition that we experience can be pleasure or pain. We can be happy about it or unhappy about it. Often, we have the problem that we equate pleasure with happiness. That is quite confused to think that in order to be happy we have to have pleasure all the time – for instance, in order to be happy, all we have to do is eat some chocolate or listen to some music that is pleasant and we will be happy. It is very important to differentiate pleasure and pain on the one hand, and happy and unhappy on the other.

Sensory bare cognition relies on one of the five physical cognitive sensors (dbang-po) as its dominating condition (bdag-rkyen). They dominate or rule what type of cognition it will be – visual, auditory and so on. These physical cognitive sensors are forms of physical phenomena: the photo-sensitive cells of the eyes, the sound-sensitive of the ears, the smell-sensitive of the nose, the taste-sensitive of the tongue, and the physical sensation-sensitive of the body.

One important point to remember: sensory cognition can only know things non-conceptually. If it is conceptual cognition, it is mental cognition.

Mental Bare Cognition

Then we have mental bare cognition. It’s by mental consciousness and can be of any non-static object and does not entail cognizing that object through a static category. Mental bare cognition arises by relying on a mental cognitive sensor as its dominating condition. The mental cognitive sensor refers to the immediately preceding moment of cognition. There is no physical cognitive sensor involved. The brain isn’t considered in this formulation, because it is common to everything. We don’t have any discussion of the brain in the classical Buddhist texts.

His Holiness the Dalia Lama says that we should add the brain into the Buddhist explanation of cognition. There is nothing contradictory in doing so. We would just have to say that the brain is the general cognitive sensor common to all the different types of sensors that are described in the Buddhist way of explaining. There is nothing to be afraid of by adding brain science to the Buddhist analysis. It just fills out the Buddhist map of the mind with more detail. It’s wonderful and His Holiness welcomes that.

Remember, the appearing object in bare cognition is always a non-static phenomenon. So, this is the same with mental bare cognition. We can have mental bare cognition of any non-static phenomenon. It occurs, for instance, with extrasensory cognition such as reading others’ minds, but most commonly it occurs for just an instant at the end of a stream of sensory bare cognition before our cognition becomes conceptual. For example, when we have visual bare cognition of seeing someone, we have a tiny moment of mental bare cognition of the person just before we switch to conceptually fitting what we see into the fixed idea that this is Mary.

Seemingly Mental Bare Cognition Such as in Dreams

There are several types of seemingly mental bare cognition, which actually are distorted conceptual cognitions. On this there is a bit of a dispute or discussion in terms of dreams, for instance. For a long time, I thought that what we seemingly “see” with our minds in dreams or imaginings were with non-conceptual mental bare cognition. It fit in with the finding in modern brain science that, from the point of view of what is going on in the brain, there isn’t any difference between seeing something and imagining something. This is actually an important point, for when we visualize ourselves as a Buddha figure, as Avalokiteshvara or Tara for example, it builds up the neural pathway for actually appearing in that form. Whether we visualize the figure or actually see a painting or photo of it, it builds up the same neural pathway. I thought the same would be true when we dream of ourselves as one of these Buddha-figures.

It may still be the case that seeing, dreaming or visualizing a Buddha-figure all build up the same neural pathway, but that doesn’t establish that seemingly seeing the figure in a dream is non-conceptual cognition. The mainstream Gelug view is that dreaming is conceptual. We have the concept of what something looks like, based on experience during the day, and then what arises in a dream is a mental representation of that concept. Tsongkhapa says that it is possible to have non-conceptual cognition in our dreams, but that is undoubtedly referring to someone who has extrasensory perception in their dreams. For instance, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama dreams of where a particular tulku has been born or is going to be reborn, that would be an example of this extrasensory perception in a dream and would be non-conceptual. But, that would be very rare.

Bare Cognition of Reflexive Awareness and the Mechanism of Recollection

Next is bare cognition of reflexive awareness. According to the Sautrantika, Chittamatra, and Yogachara-Svatantrika tenet systems, each of the ways of knowing include not only some type of primary consciousness and a cluster of some mental factors, they also include reflexive awareness. This reflexive awareness accompanies every moment of non-conceptual cognition as well as conceptual cognition, although it itself is always non-conceptual. It only cognizes the other types of awareness involved in the cognition, namely the primary consciousness and the mental factors. Not only does reflexive awareness cognize them, but it also implants a certain mental imprint as one of these non-congruent affecting variables – a tendency (sa-bon) or, literally, a “seed” – from that cognition.

This tendency is for future conceptual cognitions of something representing what we experienced, and it allows us to subsequently recall the object, which means to be mindful (dran-pa) of it once more. In other words, when the tendency gets activated, a conceptual cognition of the event that was experienced arises with a mental image that represents it. The recollecting doesn’t have to be just of an event. It can also be of a fact like one plus one is two and then we remember it. Remembering something, then, occurs through conceptual cognition of a mental hologram resembling the object previously cognized and an object category that mentally derives from the object and into which fit all mental holograms resembling the object.

In other words, we attended this lecture and then we go home. In every moment of being here, reflexive awareness, although not physical, has, in a sense, recorded a mental imprint of having been at this event. The event is no longer happening, but it was something that existed. There is a difference between something existing (yod-pa), meaning validly knowable, as in knowing that yesterday existed, and something presently happening (srid-pa). Those are two different words in Tibetan. They often get confused. Yesterday is not happening now, but it still is an existent phenomenon and I can validly think of yesterday. Yesterday is a no-longer-happening event and tomorrow is a not-yet-happening one. Nevertheless, they can be validly known. Because they can be known, they exist; but just because they exist doesn’t mean that they are happening now. Is there such a thing as yesterday? Yes. Is yesterday happening now? No it isn’t.

We attend a lecture today; now it is no-longer-happening. That no-longer-happening of that lecture today is part of this whole phenomenon of a tendency to be able to remember it. We now have a category derived from having been here and the lecture taking place and our attending it. Later, we can think of the lecture again; we can remember it or recall it conceptually. In that conceptual cognition, there is a mental category as the appearing object that comes up or gets activated in a sense, and that mental category is of yesterday’s no-longer-happening lecture. It will be represented by something that we remember from it. What we remember could be quite different each time that we think of it. What each of us remembers could also be quite different, although we are all using the category “yesterday’s lecture.” What represents the event could be accurate or inaccurate. It can also be indecisive when we don’t quite remember. We think it was something like this, but we aren’t sure.

That is memory and remembering something is conceptual. It is interesting to examine if our memories are accurate or not, and what we remember. That becomes significant in the topic of how to relate to a spiritual teacher. The analysis of this is very applicable to everyday life, not just with our teacher. The point with a teacher is when we recall the person and think about them, and even when we conceptualize about our teacher when we are with them, we should focus on the teacher’s actual objective positive qualities. We don’t exaggerate them, or project some that are not there, so we don’t have longing desire and attachment. We also don’t deny the negative qualities and shortcomings, but we don’t place our attention there.

We represent the guru or teacher by their positive qualities. If we think of the positive qualities, it is inspiring. If we think of the negative qualities, we just complain and feel depressed. There is no benefit derived from complaining that our teacher is too busy and has too many students and doesn’t have time for me personally, for example. This is a valid point if we have a teacher who is world famous and has thousands of students. It is a correct point that the teacher doesn’t have time for us and is not here all the time. But if we focus on that and exaggerate it as something so terrible and take that as what we focus on when we recall our teacher, there won’t be any benefit whatsoever. On the other hand, if we think of the positive qualities of the teacher it can be very inspiring.

It is the same thing in terms of recalling our relationship with someone else when we think of them. Our parents might not have been the ideal parents, or our partner might not be the ideal partner, but to always complain and focus on the negative qualities just gets us down, doesn’t it? It certainly doesn’t make us happy or benefit us. If we think of the positive qualities and emphasize them, this can be very helpful. It inspires and gives us something that we can learn from. Even when we see negative qualities, we can learn from them, rather than saying how terrible the person is. We can learn not to act like that and it teaches us something.

Therefore, how we represent someone in our conceptual thought is very important. We can choose what we remember of any person or event. For example, the teacher spoke for too long and I was tired and we complain and it’s the only thing that we remember. We don’t remember anything that we might have learned positively from the lecture. An understanding of how memory works is very helpful.

The way that remembering is explained in the Sautrantika system is with this additional way of knowing called reflexive awareness and it always has non-conceptual bare cognition of the primary consciousness and mental factors of each moment of our non-conceptual or conceptual cognition. With reflexive awareness, we notice what is going on in our cognition, and record it as valuable or not, correct or not. Discriminating awareness helps it to know that, but it records that information. Prasangika would say that we don’t need a separate faculty, reflexive awareness, in order to be aware that a cognition is occurring. We know that implicitly as part of any cognition.

Yogic Bare Cognition

To repeat, we have bare cognition with the senses, bare cognition mentally, bare cognition with reflexive awareness, and the fourth one is yogic bare cognition. Remember all of them are non-conceptual. Yogic bare cognition is with mental consciousness and it relies on the joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana for its arising. A joined pair (zung-’brel) is a technical term meaning one arises first and then the other is joined to it, as opposed to a pair of things that arise simultaneously. With a joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana, first we gain shamatha and then we gain vipashyana joined together with it. This is an example of calling the cause by the name of the result. Shamatha and viapshyana actually refer to the result that we want to attain, a state of shamatha and a state of vipashyana, but we are calling the meditation practice to attain them by the name of the result.

What is shamatha? It is literally a stilled and settled state of mind. It can be conceptual or non-conceptual, but with bare yogic cognition, we are only talking about the non-conceptual variety. But, whether conceptual or non-conceptual, shamatha is a state of mind that is quieted or stilled of flightiness of mind, a sub-category of mental wandering or distraction, and mental dullness.

Flightiness of mind is when our minds fly off from the object of focus to an extraneous object because of longing desire for that other object. Because we exaggerate the good qualities of that object, we want to think of it rather than focus on the object of the meditation. We want to think about it because we like it or find it more interesting – for example, what we will do today or someone or some object we are attached to and so on. Flightiness of mind is called the biggest obstacle to gaining concentration. Of course, we can have mental wandering and distraction because of anger, being upset about something or someone. That can be a major problem as well. But, usually, what is considered the strongest obstacle to gaining shamatha is flightiness of mind because of longing desire for something, particularly when we are off in meditation retreat and so on, and we miss something or someone that we are attached to.

With a state of shamatha, our minds are stilled of this flightiness of mind, and in general all mental wandering, and also stilled of mental dullness. There are gradations of that. We can attain perfect absorbed concentration or samadhi, but still that is not a state of shamatha. The state of shamatha has, in addition to that, an exhilarating blissful feeling, both physical and mental, in which we can sit as long as we want and have our minds focused on something for as long as we want, free of distraction, dullness and flightiness of mind. It’s described as very uplifting and exhilarating. “Thus have I heard,” because I certainly haven’t attained it myself.

Shamatha can be focused on many different things and it does so by taking it to mind (yid-la byed-pa, paying attention to it) in a certain way – in other words, with a certain understanding. That tells us that the purpose of shamatha is not just to gain better concentration. It’s better concentration on something that, in addition, with a correct understanding of it, acts as an opponent to some disturbing or mistaken state of mind about the object. So, we can focus on many different things according to what purpose we want to achieve with shamatha.

Asanga gave a long list of different objects to gain shamatha on, depending on what our major problem might be. Breath is the recommended object of focus for when the biggest problems we have are distraction and mental wandering, including verbal thought and other mental garbage going through our minds. For most of us, this is quite dominant and focusing on the breath is a way to counteract all this mental wandering. But if, for instance, our main problems are desire and attachment for someone’s body, then we focus on the human body that we find so attractive and on all the waste products that are in the stomach and bowels and on the skeleton as the object of concentration. To attain shamatha with this, in addition to attaining concentration, we counteract the attachment and desire.

Attaining shamatha here is a provisional measure as it doesn’t get rid of the deepest cause for our attachment to the body, which is our making the body a self-established object, existing independently without relying on anything. It is on the basis of our grasping for self-established existence that we then become attached to the body. But, with shamatha, we focus on our object with just correct consideration and mindfulness of these aspects. We have the gross understanding that the body has all sorts of unattractive things inside it, but without all the details of it.

Our shamatha here, whether conceptual or non-conceptual, is accompanied with many other mental factors besides non-attachment, for instance love and compassion. There is also distinguishing. What are we distinguishing? Instead of distinguishing how beautiful that body is on the outside, we focus on what’s on the inside: the skeleton and the waste material in the intestines.

If our problem is anger, we would focus on someone or something that really makes us angry, whether a person or the irrational thinking of people, and we would focus on that with love. We understand and are mindful of the fact that people who think irrationally suffer because of that and so, with love and compassion, we want them to be happy and be rid of that. Our shamatha, then, focuses with love directed toward a specific person or someone representing all irrational people, and we do so with the correct consideration that they suffer because of their irrational thinking. We then work to attain a state of shamatha focused in this way.

Asanga has a whole long list of different topics that we can attain shamatha on. We shouldn’t think that shamatha is just on the breath or on awareness or the open space of awareness. Those are examples of objects that we can use, but whatever object we choose as our focus shouldn’t be simply for the sake of gaining concentration. It should also be for helping us to gain provisional relief from a certain disturbing state of mind.

Once we have attained a state of shamatha, we strive to attain a state of vipashyana on top of that. Our minds are still perfectly focused with shamatha – no flightiness of mind, no mental dullness and it has the exhilarating, blissful physical and mental sense of fitness to be able to concentrate as long as we wish. But with vipashyana, we have both gross detection (rtog-pa) of the general details about our object of focus and also subtle discernment (dpyod-pa) of all the precise details. In addition, we gain a second exhilarating, blissful sense of fitness to be able to discern and understand all the details of anything. That’s why vipashyana is called an “exceptionally perceptive state of mind.”

The Three Objects of Yogic Bare Cognition

We first attain a joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana with conceptual cognition. Yogic bare cognition is when we attain this pair non-conceptually. However, not all non-conceptual joined pairs of shamatha and vipashyana are examples of yogic bare cognition. Yogic bare perception is when the joined pair is focused non-conceptually on just one of three possible objects:

  • Subtle impermanence
  • Coarse or subtle selflessness or voidness as asserted by one of the Buddhist tenet systems.

The Hinayana tenet systems – Vaibhashika and Sautrantika – do not use the term “voidness,” shunyata. They assert anatman, so-called “selflessness” or “identitylessness” or the “lack of an impossible soul,” and they assert this only in reference to persons, not in reference to all phenomena. In other words, they assert the lack of a person existing as a soul, as the “atman” asserted by one of the non-Buddhist Indian schools of philosophy. For a person to exist as an atman or soul is impossible because there is no such thing as an atman. The Mahayana tenet systems assert in addition the lack of an impossible soul of phenomena. For example, there is no impossible “soul” of a flower sitting inside this object that establishes it as a flower and not as a dog.

In Mahayana we call that lack or absence a “voidness” or “emptiness.” I don’t like the term emptiness because it implies the Chittamatra and Svatantrika positions that there are self-established objects, but they are “empty” in the sense that they lack some additional impossible way of existing. In other words, there is some findable, self-established object there that has nothing inside it, like an empty glass. In Prasangika, shunyata doesn’t mean that; it means voidness, simply no such thing, a total absence. It is the word for zero. There is no such thing as this impossible way of existing and it’s not that there is something finable there that is missing something impossible inside it. A voidness is a total absence: a total absence of an impossible way of existing that doesn’t correspond to reality. It is totally absent because there is no such thing.

So, one type of bare yogic cognition is focused non-conceptually on the lack of an impossible soul of a person or on a voidness. A second type is focused non-conceptually on subtle impermanence. “Coarse impermanence” refers to the fact that all conditioned phenomena – referring to everything new that arises based on causes and conditions – is going to come to an end. Why? It is because the causes and conditions that created it are no longer creating it anew in each moment. Therefore, it is going to come to an end. That’s coarse impermanence.

Subtle impermanence, the third possible object for bare yogic cognition, refers to the fact that every moment such phenomena are getting closer to their end, as they change from moment to moment. They do so because they were created. What is the cause of death? The cause of death is conception. If we weren’t conceived, we wouldn’t die. After being conceived, every moment draws us closer to death, even if that death occurs before we are actually born. There will be some circumstance that brings on our death, but the actual cause of death is that we were conceived. Another example, why did my computer break? It broke because it was built, not because I spoiled water on it. Spilling water on it is just the circumstance under which it broke, but even if that didn’t happen, inevitably the computer is going to break. If we understand subtle impermanence, then when it does break, we don’t get so upset.

This is very helpful. For instance, whatever relationship we get into arose because of causes and conditions. We were at this stage of our life, and you were at that stage of your life; we had this going on, and you had that going on. We were living here, and you were living there. We were interested in this, and you were interested in that. We looked like this, and you looked like that. Based on those conditions, the relationship began.

As time passed, all those conditions changed; they were no longer generating the relationship. Maybe we remember those conditions, but now we moved to another city, we are interested in something else, we have learned something different about the person, and so on. Therefore, the relationship changes all the time. The relationship also has to eventually come to an end, because it started. That end will either be that one person or the other dies, or the situation changes so completely that it doesn’t make any sense for the relationship to continue and for the people to be together anymore. That happens because the original conditions that helped to bring it about are not happening again and again in each moment.

Understanding this is very helpful. It teaches us that as a relationship continues over time, we need to be able to re-invent it based on the current conditions and situations that are going on with us and the other person. If we try to keep it going based on what we had five years ago, it’s not going to work. This is very helpful.

How Can Valid Cognition Produce Suffering?

I’m a bit confused, I could look at this chair with bare cognition and that would be a valid way of seeing it. But then I might be extremely attached to it and want it for myself. Seeing it with that attachment produces suffering. But I’m still seeing it with valid bare cognition. How can we know something in a valid way if it nevertheless produces suffering?

When we look at the chair, there is valid cognition of a chair. That’s bare valid cognition; but when we look at the chair and grasp onto it as the most beautiful chair in the world and we want it as mine, or that’s my chair, don’t sit on it and we worry that someone will spill coffee on it and so on, then it is seemingly bare cognition, because we are exaggerating its qualities. It’s not valid anymore. Remember, there are different types of bare cognition. There are valid bare cognition, subsequent bare cognition, and non-determining bare cognition. There is also seemingly bare cognition, which isn’t actually bare cognition, it’s conceptual, like in a dream or when we project an exaggeration onto something.

The criteria here for being a valid bare cognition is that I’m seeing a chair with my eyes. It’s fresh when I walk into the room and see the chair. It’s also accurate and decisive that I’m seeing the chair.

Yes, it’s fresh, accurate and decisive. It’s non-fraudulent and so non-deceptive. The seeing becomes deceptive when we see the chair with attachment. It is deceptive because we think, for instance, that there is something from the side of the chair that establishes it as belonging to “me.” We project “me” onto it and either identify a solid “me” with this chair, in that the fashion of it defines “me,” or we conceive of ourselves as a solid “me” that can possess it as “mine.”

Is it only a valid cognition if we have a neutral attitude toward it?

Conventionally, what we see could be our chair in that we bought it. There is a difference between the conventional truth about it and grasping for it to truly exist as “mine,” solidly, and then becoming possessive over it.

Maybe my question is how can a valid way of knowing produce suffering. If I know something in a valid way, can I still suffer? Could we say that bare cognition is when we see the chair, but don’t cognize it in terms of a “me” with which we exaggerate the qualities of “me”? If we don’t project anything on the object, just see the qualities of the object and that not it’s mine, then I think our valid cognition cannot produce suffering.

This is a good point that you bring up. In our analysis of seeing the chair, we’ve only been talking about the validity of our cognition in terms of seeing the object, but we haven’t really considered the relationship of “me” with the chair. This is true. We can conceptually cognize it through the category “mine” and designate it as “my chair,” and that would be a valid inference, based on recalling the fact that we bought it and based on the line of reasoning that if we bought it, conventionally it’s mine. This is true, an objective fact about the chair. It is my chair, not yours and not nobody’s, because in fact we bought it. But what about thinking or seeing it as truly “mine?”

Although not really part of the topic of ways of knowing, nevertheless we need to bring in here Tsongkhapa’s explanation that cognitions have two aspects. His assertion derives from the definition of primary consciousness. Primary consciousness is one that is aware of the essential nature of something. Everything has two essential natures (ngo-bo). There is the conventional or superficial essential nature of what something is: it’s a chair not a dog; it’s our chair, not yours, because we bought it, not you. Our cognition of this conventional nature can be accurate that the chair is not someone else’s, it’s ours. It can also be decisive: we have no doubts about it, it’s our chair. But, then there is also the deepest essential nature of how it exists. We cognize that with mental consciousness conceptually and it underlies non-conceptually seeing it and conceptually knowing it as ours.

There is a big point of dispute about this between the Gelug and non-Gelug masters. Gelugpas say that a cognition can be valid in terms of what the conventional essential nature is, but invalid concerning how it exists. How it exists can be in terms of how the object itself exists or how the person exists who is cognizing it or seeing it. The point is that we need to differentiate the aspect of a cognition that cognizes what something is from the aspect that cognizes how it exists. Tsongkhapa asserts that just because the cognition of how something exists is distorted, inaccurate and invalid does not invalidate the validity of the accurate, decisive cognition of what it is.

The non-Gelug position that Tsongkhapa refutes is that if one part of the cognition is false, the whole cognition is false. That is a major area of disagreement that Tsongkhapa was very adamant about refuting. We need to differentiate these two aspects of a cognition; otherwise, since all cognition other than non-conceptual cognition of voidness, is invalid regarding how things exist, we can easily fall to the nihilist position that everything we cognize is false and we have to go to some transcendent state beyond all of that to have valid cognition. He says that this view totally disassociates us from conventional reality.

Tsongkhapa argues that we could have a valid cognition of what something conventionally is that nevertheless is simultaneously invalid regarding how something exists. The disturbing emotions and, because of them, suffering arise because of the invalid way of knowing how something exists, not because of the valid cognition of what something conventionally is.

One aspect of the cognition is valid in terms of conventionally what something is, but the other aspect is invalid from the deepest point of view in terms of how it exists. It seems as if its existence is truly established by something independent and findable on its own side that makes it truly a chair and makes us truly existent as its owner. The aspect of our seeing the chair that cognizes that way of existing is invalid, and because of incorrectly considering it as true, we would suffer. We become possessive and worried or troubled about others sitting on it or spilling coffee on it or going near it and that produces suffering. Then, we act compulsively and yell at anyone who goes near. But the cognition is perfectly valid in terms of seeing a chair and knowing that it’s our chair.

Review of Bare Cognition

To repeat, Sautrantika asserts that we can have yogic bare cognition with joined shamatha and vipashyana focused non-conceptually on gross impermanence, subtle impermanence, or on the selflessness of persons. Prasangika asserts only the one focused on voidness is actual yogic bare cognition.

In summary, then, there are four types of bare cognition: sensory, mental, with reflexive awareness – the non-conceptual recording device – and yogic. All of these are non-conceptual and have to be free of any cause of deception, otherwise they are deceptive, seemingly bare cognition, but not really valid cognition.

Remember, also, a cognition can be valid conventionally in terms of what something is but invalid in terms of how something exists. Because it is invalid about how something exists, we get the disturbing emotions and suffering. Our problems can be exasperated by further invalid cognition of what something is. For example, we think something is ours, but actually it’s yours. We can have great attachment based on thinking something is solidly existent, but our attachment can also be based on the mistaken idea that something belongs to us when it doesn’t. We need to remember all these points when we study valid bare cognition.