Relevance and Application of Ways of Knowing

The Sautrantika system of Indian Buddhist tenet systems, as interpreted by the Gelug tradition of Tibet, analyzes seven ways in which we know things. These are:

  1. Bare cognition (mngon-sum)
  2. Inferential cognition (rjes-dpag)
  3. Subsequent cognition (bcad-shes)
  4. Non-determining cognition (snang-la ma-nges-pa)
  5. Presumption (yid-dpyod)
  6. Indecisive wavering (the-tsoms)
  7. Distorted cognition (log-shes).

Being able to identify the way in which we know something is an essential skill that enables us to evaluate what we know or think we know. Because our minds are sometimes mixed with misconceptions and all sorts of projections that have little to do with reality, we create a lot of problems for ourselves and others. This is especially the case when we are unaware that what we perceive or think we perceive is false, or when we have jumped to conclusions prematurely or incorrectly.

For example, suppose our friend is walking toward us down the street to meet us, but we’re not wearing our glasses. When we look down the street, we just see a moving blur approaching. Our vision is distorted. There isn’t an actual blur walking toward us.

Suppose we put on our glasses and look again, but the person is too far away for us to see who is it. Our visual cognition is valid in terms of seeing someone walking, but non-determining for seeing that it’s our friend. If we know that our seeing is non-determining, we could validly know that the person will need to come nearer before we can be sure who it is. We patiently wait and don’t jump to any conclusions.

We might hope that it’s our friend and so we might conceptualize that it’s she and project an image of her onto our perception of the woman coming down the street. But that conceptual cognition of the person just seems to be bare cognition; it’s not valid. We’re confused. Our conceptual cognition is deceptive because it fools us into thinking that for sure it’s our friend, but our expectation may turn out to be false.

Suppose we don’t merely hope that it’s our friend coming, based on just intuition and no actual reason, but rather we infer that it’s she. We think we don’t need to wait till the person comes closer in order to be sure. We base our conclusion on the reasoning that our friend was supposed to meet us at this time and here is a woman walking toward us. Our friend is a woman and now is when she is supposed to be coming, so we conclude that this woman must be our friend.

If we’re convinced that she’s our friend and she isn’t, then our inference was false. If we’re not quite convinced, but presume she’s our friend and in fact she is, then we made a good guess. But our presumption was not based on a valid reason. We based it on the invalid line of reasoning that our friend is supposed to meet us now; there is a woman walking toward us; she must be our friend because our friend is a woman and she’s supposed to be coming now.

We might, however, be indecisive about whether it’s our friend coming or someone else. We might waver back and forth between the two conclusions, and that makes us uneasy. We feel insecure in the situation because we’re not in control of who this woman will turn out to be. We feel like that because the mental factor of indecision that accompanies indecisive wavering is a disturbing state of mind. It makes us lose peace of mind and lose self-control. We may start to worry uncontrollably.

When our friend is too far away for us to validly see who she is, what are we seeing? Are we seeing only one moment of colored shapes and then another moment of different colored shapes? No, we are seeing a whole object that commonsense tells us can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted and touched, and which lasts over a period of time, not just one second. Is this object a nothing? No, objectively it’s a body, a human body, a female human body. Do we see just a body walking down the street? No, we are seeing a person imputed on the body. Is a person just a body? No, a person is a whole object that commonsense tells us also has a mind, emotions, feelings and so on, and also lasts over a period of time.

Suppose the person we see walking toward us actually is our friend Mary. When we see her, are we only seeing a person, or do we see Mary? The person we see isn’t a nobody, it actually is Mary. If we asked her who she is, she would agree and so would others who know her. But now, when she is too far away for us to distinguish who she is, we don’t know that it’s Mary that we’re seeing. Nevertheless, we’re seeing Mary. We’re not seeing someone else and we’re not seeing nobody.

Once our friend comes close enough to validly see that it’s Mary, how did we know that it’s Mary? We knew that conceptually, which means through the mental category we have of this particular individual person. Whenever we see her body or hear her voice or touch some part of her body, it doesn’t matter what she’s doing or what she’s saying or what physical sensation we’re feeling, we fit them all into the category of the same individual person that we’re perceiving. That category is static; it doesn’t change, it doesn’t do anything and it’s not affected by what we see or hear her doing. Further, that category is designated with the name “Mary” and whenever we see or hear or touch her, we can designate her with this name.

How did we know to fit this person into our mental category “Mary?” We distinguished some uncommon characteristic feature of the person we saw and also distinguished some composite feature of the category “Mary.” An uncommon characteristic feature is one that Mary alone has and no one else. A composite feature is one that is shared by all the particular items that fit into a category. It is a composite feature of all the times we’ve seen or spoken with or thought about Mary. We inferred that this is Mary based on the line of reasoning. If a person has such and such an uncommon characteristic feature, it fits into the category having such and such a composite feature.

If we mistakenly thought that she was Susan, then when we saw Mary at a distance, we saw her through the category of the individual person designated with the name “Susan.” With incorrect consideration, we considered the uncommon characteristic feature of Mary to be the uncommon characteristic feature of Susan. Based on that, we incorrectly inferred that this is Susan, because our premise, that she had the uncommon characteristic feature of Susan, was incorrect. Based on this mistake, we fit Mary into the category Susan, or we could say we projected Susan onto Mary. Our conceptual cognition of Mary as Susan was deceptive. Although she looked like Susan, that was incorrect.

When Mary comes closer and we correctly know her conceptually as Mary, we also know that she is not Susan. We negate that she is Susan. How do we cognize that? First of all, we could only know that this is not Susan if we knew Susan before. If we don’t know Susan, we can’t negate that it’s Susan and cognize Mary as “not Susan.” When we are certain that it is Mary that we’re seeing, we have excluded that she is anyone else other than Mary; and of course anyone else other than Mary includes Susan. But when we ascertain with full certainty that this is Mary, when we thought it was Susan or might be Susan, we exclude specifically that it was Susan. The way we know this is by conceptually cognizing her explicitly as Mary, while implicitly we cognize her as “not Susan” as well as “not anyone else other than Mary.” “Explicit” means that Mary appears in our cognition, and implicit means that although we know it’s not Susan or anyone else other than Mary, a blank representing an absence of Susan or an absence of anyone else other than Mary doesn’t actually appear.

Further, when we first recognize that this is Mary, the first moment of our inferential conceptual cognition is fresh. We think, “Oh, that’s Mary coming.” After that moment, we’re no longer actively making the inference. We now have subsequent cognition that it is Mary and our awareness of this is no longer fresh. We know that it’s Mary, but our knowing that is not as conscious as when we first realized who it was.

These examples, then, illustrate what the seven ways of knowing are and how they apply and are useful to identify in our everyday lives.