The Last Six Ways of Knowing

Inferential Cognition

The next is inferential cognition. And here in the Gelugpa Sautrantika system this is a cognition that arises depending on a line of reasoning. So we could directly perceive smoke coming from the house on the other side of the valley. If we’re non-Gelugs, we perceive moments of the changing gray shape – that’s all we see. That’s what’s objectively there. Inferential understanding would be: where there’s smoke there is fire. They discount lightning having caused the fire, and we would also infer that there is probably somebody living there. That is based on inference. You know that there’s fire, because where there’s smoke there’s fire; and you actually see smoke so you infer the fire, but you don’t actually see the fire. That’s inferential understanding.

There are many kinds of inferential cognition – there’s also the inferential cognition that’s based on conventions. In other words, there is a gray shape coming out of that red shape, which we would call a chimney, and it’s changing pattern every second; and something that looks like that is called by the conventional word “smoke.” So that’s an inferential cognition. You infer from that colored gray shape that there is smoke there and, in addition, you infer, based on a deeper line of reasoning, that there is fire as well. So it depends on how far you want to take inference.

There’s also inference that is based on valid authority. In other words, you see the smoke and you infer that there is fire – that’s an obscure phenomenon – you infer that someone must be living there because you see it every day coming out of this chimney, but you can’t really figure out the name of the person who lives there. So how do you know the name of the person who lives there? Well you have to rely on a valid source of information. That’s an inferential cognition. That is, this person is a valid source of information because they know the person, or whatever. There has to be a reason why they’re valid. And therefore you infer that what they tell us is true... unless they’re lying; but you have to also ascertain whether they’re truthful or not. That’s also a very important thing, because there are a lot of points that we can’t really figure out ourselves, at least not now, and so we need to rely on a valid source of information, an authority.

How do you know if something is a valid source? A book – now you get into lines of reasoning – just because something is published doesn’t mean that it’s valid and correct information. We learn that very well with websites and the internet, that’s quite obvious; but surprise, surprise, it is also true of published books as well. A lot of nonsense is published, so that’s not a valid line of reasoning: “this is true because it was published, it’s printed.” What would make it a valid source of information? One has to investigate and learn what makes something valid. That’s important. What makes this teacher valid that what they tell us is true? They could be talking about the most ridiculous nonsense, but presenting it in very charismatic and entertaining way, and a lot of people believe it, but it is absolute nonsense. So how do you know what is valid and what’s not valid?


So we have inferential cognition, and inferential cognition is conceptual. Conceptual means that it is through the medium of an idea – that’s the most general way of saying it. Actually, the idea here is a type of category and there are many, many different categories, and that’s the general idea that we’re talking about. So it can be an audio category, which would be like a sound, because remember we only hear one moment at a time of a sound; you put it together into words, there are these conventions of words. And whether a man’s voice says “orange,” or a woman’s voice says “orange,” or a computer says it, or a baby says it, there is that universal word “orange” – they are all saying the same word. Otherwise, if you analyze it from a purely physical point of view, they are different sounds. So why should the sound of something in a woman’s voice and the sound of something in a man’s voice be the same word? What is the variable that makes it the same word? Is it the vowels and consonants? Is it the tone, as in languages like Chinese? Is it the person’s voice that makes it a different word? So you get this universal this audio category – it is an idea, a concept that we learn.

And then there are meaning categories – words mean things, which is also a convention that you have to learn. Then it becomes interesting. What do you learn? Or is there stuff that comes along, innate, as part of the baggage of being a human being? There are universals which are objects object categories – that it’s not only the meaning of a sound, but it actually refers to an object.

So there are many different presentations of categories, mental syntheses. The non-Gelug says all categories or mental syntheses are conceptual. The Gelug says some of them are conceptual and some are non-conceptual: you actually see the orange. One of the points that one can see here is in this dialectic between the Gelug and the non-Gelug concerning this point: Do you see commonsense objects or do you not see commonsense objects. One can understand that dialectic in a very helpful way. The Gelug side saying they actually see commonsense objects helps us to put more emphasis on compassion, bodhichitta, and these sorts of things. Because if I look at somebody and all I am seeing is a collection of colored shapes, and the human being who is suffering is conceptual, then that might distance us a bit from others. So by saying we actually do see a human being, and we actually do see blood coming out of somebody lying on the ground, because they have been hit by a car, then that helps to put more emphasis on the compassion side.

But you have to be careful not to go too far on that side, and so we have the other side of the dialectic, the non-Gelug position, which is that all of that is conceptual. That helps us to deconstruct the solidity of things. “This person is bleeding what am I going to do? I can’t help them! They are going to die! I’m inadequate!” Instead of freaking out, we have to see this is conceptual, take it easy and deal with the situation. So the non-Gelug side – that we don’t actually see commonsense objects – helps us on the voidness side more. And so that is like a dialectic, each one helps us avoid the other extreme, just as we had the same type of dialectic between Sautrantika and Chittamatra – Sautrantika saying that there is objective reality, and Chittamatra saying, “Yes but it all comes from your karma so it all is related to the mind and perception.”

It is important to appreciate how we can learn from the different Tibetan traditions in the same way that we can learn from the different Indian tenet systems. You can put them together and learn from them because they help us to avoid different extremes. In that way we avoid the sectarianism in which we say: “Arrgh, they are completely contradictory!” and “Mine is correct and the other is incorrect.” Why? “Because my teacher said so!” – no good reason. So, inferential cognition there is not relying on a valid reason: “Why is mine better? Because someone told me that.” Are they a valid source of information? Maybe about some things, but about this? I don’t know. You have to check on that.

Valid Ways of Knowing

Only bare perception and inferential cognition are what’s called valid ways of knowing. A “valid way of knowing” means fresh and nonfallacious – that’s the definition in Sautrantika. “Fresh” means that it arises by its own power. “Nonfallacious” means nothing’s wrong with it: it is both accurate and decisive. This is what is required for something to be valid. Fresh means it arises by its own power and thus only the first moment of bare perception and inferential cognition is valid. That’s fresh. The next moments are not arising by their own power, they are sort of “stale” – there’s a continuity with what came before. This is Gelug Sautrantika, and the others don’t speak like this.

Distorted Cognition and Subsequent Cognition

What is the significance of that and how does it apply to anything? The way that it applies is in meditation. In meditation when we talk about the faults of concentration, one of the faults is subtle dullness. Subtle dullness is when you are not fresh in each moment, your understanding isn’t fresh in each moment, it has become stale – things are in focus; you are not falling asleep, you’re not mentally wandering, but it’s not fresh. That’s because it’s subsequent cognition. So it fits in very much in meditation. One needs to recognize the difference in one’s own experience between that first moment of freshness, and to be able to have that freshness in each moment rather than getting stale with subsequent cognition. That’s very difficult because that moment of bare perception lasts for one sixty-fifth of a finger snap, let’s say; it’s pretty short. After that it’s a bit dull, it’s a bit stale. That is this third way of knowing: subsequent cognition – either subsequent bare perception or subsequent inferential cognition.

This is especially relevant, not only in terms of concentrating on an object, but concentrating on an understanding of something like voidness or impermanence: you need to have that understanding fresh in each moment, not to become stale; then, one tends to space out. And nonfallacious means both accurate and decisive, so distorted cognition would be not accurate; it’s distorted, so that’s not valid.

It’s very interesting when we get into the discussion of, can we perceive nonexistent phenomena. Yes, we can. Can you perceive them validly? No. It would be a nonexistent phenomenon. A unicorn – can you perceive a unicorn? Yes, you could have a hallucination and see a unicorn, or I could imagine a unicorn prancing in a field. Does that make the unicorn exist? No. So what exists is defined as an object of valid cognition. Existent phenomena are those things that can be validly cognized. Nonexistent phenomena are things that can be cognized, but not validly. Just to say nonexistent phenomenon is cognizing it, giving it a name, so you have to take nonexistent phenomena into consideration.

Well, unicorns and jaundice causing us to see white snow mountains as yellow are interesting examples. But of course there are other examples, like seeing that person as a “monster,” that sort of thing – that’s getting a little bit more relevant in our daily lives. But what about true existence, inherent existence: things existing as what they are, independent of the mind, independent of labeling, establishing what they are by something on the side of the object that makes them what they are. This person who is trying to pass me and beeping the horn wildly is an idiot, he appears to me as an idiot, and there is something inherently wrong with that person – from his own side – that is making this person an idiot. That’s how it seems; that’s what we mean by inherent existence: there is something wrong from the side of the object that’s making it what it is. That’s nonexistent, yet we perceive it; but we don’t perceive it validly, we perceive it with distorted cognition.

Then we get into the whole argument about what actually is appearing. Can you have a mental representation of something that does not exist? That’s pretty interesting. Something that resembles what doesn’t exist. It’s not actually true existence that appears, it’s something that resembles it.

This gets into a very important point in cognition theory: according to the Vaibhashikas, the basic and most simple explanation, the object itself actually arises in cognition. In Sautrantika the object doesn’t arise, a mental representation of it arises – a mental aspect, it’s called. We can understand that from our Western point of view in terms of electric impulses on the retina. Are you perceiving the table, or are you actually perceiving this code of impulses on the rods and retina? It’s like that, this mental aspect. Gelug says that’s transparent in sense cognition: through it you see the actual object. Non-Gelug says no, it’s opaque: you don’t see the actual object because the actual object that causes the sense perception is the previous moment – cause and effect aren’t simultaneous. Moment x produces moment x+1 of the mental aspect. So when you are perceiving x+1, x doesn’t exist anymore – it’s opaque, you are not actually seeing the object. You are not actually seeing the colored form out there – you think you are, but actually there is a time lag. We are perceiving it in the next moment. It’s moved – if we are talking about a moving object – it’s moved, and the moment of our perception is one moment behind the movement.

That’s very interesting; it gets quite profound. Gelug says that’s a bit too far out, and you would have to say that the mental aspect is transparent and through it actually you see that external object, even though it’s the previous moment. Gelug makes a big point of not contradicting basic commonsense experience in this discussion of perception theory, cognition theory, so that people can get into it gradually. Then you can knock them with the Madhyamaka voidness discussion, but go slow to begin with.

Distorted cognition is not accurate. And that’s very important, because in Gelug we make a big difference between what something is could be accurate – your perception of it, as a human being driving a car, who may conventionally be driving like an idiot – that could be valid, that could be accurate; but the perception that there’s something inherently wrong with this person that by its own power makes them an idiot – which would be how they exist as an idiot, not what they exist as, but how – that could be inaccurate. One perceives it as true existence. You make that differentiation in the perception of the way of knowing that is used for perceiving what something is, as opposed to the way of knowing that goes together with it, that perceives how it exists. Non-Gelug puts those two together, saying you can’t really separate the two, and then they have a different way of explaining how the distortion comes in – if you are seeing the person as an idiot, that means you see him truly as an idiot – so there are differences there.

Non-determining Cognition

So that’s distorted cognition. That’s one part of nonfallacious, it has to be accurate; distorted cognition is not accurate. The other aspect is that it has to be decisive, so non-determining cognition is not decisive. In the Gelug Sautrantika system – the non-Gelug has a slightly different presentation of what we mean here – if you have a sequence of perception of something – let’s say I am looking out the window – the first moment of that is fresh: bare perception. Then after that it becomes subsequent cognition, so it gets stale. Then there is the final moment before you switch to looking somewhere else – that’s non-determining cognition. You have lost interest and so it is not decisive.

“Decisive” here means it is not determining what you are seeing; it’s not determinative, if that’s the word, of what you are seeing. I’m seeing traffic going by – you are no longer determining that, you are no longer decisively perceiving that, because it’s inattentive: you are about to switch your attention to something else. That’s non-determining cognition. That also happens when, for instance, we are listening to music and there’s cognition of the wall in front of us – that’s non-determining: it doesn’t ascertain the wall, it’s not decisive about what it’s seeing. What it doesn’t cover is, for example, when you are reading on a page: you are reading one line, but not focusing on the bottom – that’s something else, that’s a different analysis. Here we’re talking about a whole sense field, not part of a sense field that we’re not paying attention to in the sense that we’re not focusing on it.

When we talk about paying attention to something, this is the mental factor of attentiveness – taking something as a focal object. Whereas when we talk about the variable of determining or ascertaining something, being decisive about it, this is the mental factor of discriminating awareness – to decisively discriminate this from that. So, technically speaking, non-determining cognition has a fault in the discriminating awareness; it’s not actually talking about a fault in the attentiveness, although in ordinary language we often refer to non-determining cognition as “inattentive cognition,” but that’s not accurate.

It’s important to know the difference between these two situations – of having a fault of attentiveness or having non-determining cognition – because in meditation we could have either or both of those faults. We could be paying attention to an object, but if we’re “spaced out” it is a non-determining cognition of it: we’re not decisive about the object. The literal translation of the Tibetan term for this way of knowing is: “the object appears, but it is not decisive,” it’s not ascertained, there’s no certainty.

Presumption and Indecisive Wavering

Also what is not decisive is presumption. We’re going through the ways of knowing, here. So presumption is not decisive: “I presume that something is true, but I really don’t understand the line of reasoning, or I don’t even know the line of reasoning.” That’s not a decisive understanding: we are not determining that it’s this and not that. That’s what decisive means. So we’re not really determining that; it’s presumption – we just presume it is true.

And also what is not decisive would be what is called “indecisive wavering.” “Is it this or is it that?” Here we are talking about indecisive wavering as a way of knowing something. There’s also a mental factor of indecisiveness, which is a real crippler. It’s not just in terms of: “What should I eat?” And you sit there and stare at the menu and you can’t decide what to eat. Or, "What should I wear today?” We can see from those examples how crippling indecision can be. So that’s really a disturbing attitude, and it becomes more so when we are indecisive about what something is. “Is this correct, is it incorrect?” In our daily relationships, well, what’s going on in this relationship? “Are my feelings this, or are my feelings that? Are the other person's feelings this, or are they that?” We can see how much worry that brings. That’s a real crippler. So we have that as a way of knowing as well: indecisive wavering. As a way of knowing, then, indecisive wavering is going back and forth between two conclusions – not being decisive, in that sense.

Stages of Cognizing Voidness

So these are seven ways of knowing. There are more details, but we don’t have so much time. But let me just go through a little bit about the stages of cognizing voidness so that you can see some application of this, then end our discussion here. When we work with voidness, voidness means an absence of impossible ways of existing. These impossible ways are nonexistent, they’re impossible. We imagine things exist that way, we project that, but there is a total absence of that: nothing exists that way, no such thing.

So first you have distorted cognition. Distorted cognition is that we perceive these appearances of these impossible ways of existing – there’s something wrong with this person, he’s a real idiot – and we believe that it’s true, that this corresponds to reality. That’s distorted cognition.

Then there is indecisive wavering, the next step, and there’s three kinds of indecisive wavering. There is one that tends toward the inaccurate understanding, one that is evenly balanced, and one that is tending toward an accurate understanding according to one specific tenet system – it depends on the system we are talking about. “Well, I think that this person is truly an idiot, but I have my doubts.” Or it’s sort of fifty-fifty, “I don’t really know.” Or, “Well, probably they don’t inherently exist as an idiot, but maybe they do. Maybe they do, probably they don’t.” So there are these grades – which decision are we tending more towards, or are we just in the middle somewhere.

Then comes presumption. Well, maybe even I heard the line of reasoning that this is an impossible way of existing: If they were inherently an idiot, then they’d have to be an idiot to everybody, in every single situation, from the moment that they were born to the moment that they die. If there were something really wrong with this person that made them an idiot, they would be incapable of tying their shoes. The dog would consider this person an idiot. Everybody – the baby – everybody would consider this person an idiot. So that’s impossible, there is no such way. Nobody exists like that. So we go through lines of reasoning and we presume it is true, but we really don’t understand it. Obviously there are more sophisticated lines of reasoning that can be used. We really don’t understand it, but we presume that it is true – that’s presumption.

Then you get inferential cognition. You go through the line of reasoning, and then, based on that line of reasoning with understanding, then you cognize that there is no such way of existing. This person only appears to be inherently an idiot, but that is an impossible way of existing. No such thing. Conventionally, the person may be acting like an idiot, but that is something else. So we have that inferential understanding. The first moment is valid and then gets dull; you sort of forget that line of reasoning and it is not fresh: that’s the subsequent cognition of an inferential cognition or an inferential understanding. And then the final moment or phase of that sequence of inferential cognition, when we’re about to change to thinking of something else, that would be a non-determining cognition – we’re no longer decisive about our conclusion.

Then finally we would achieve bare yogic cognition, that’s non-conceptual. It arises based on the previous attainment of shamatha and vipashyana – this serenely stilled and settled state of mind that is, likewise, exceptionally perceptive. So without having to rely on cognizing through the medium of an idea, and without having to rely on a line of reasoning, we are able to just cognize in a bare fashion that there is no such thing as anybody existing inherently as an idiot: there’s an absence of that, the person is devoid of that.

So we have that type of progression. And that’s why it is very important to understand these ways of knowing: so we can recognize the sequence, the progression, as we go in our meditation.

Subsidiary Valid Ways of Knowing

There are many other ways of knowing that are not included in the seven. Let me mention two. These are subsidiary valid ways of knowing. The first is – I’ll give the long, jargon terminology of it: validly knowing that one’s attention on an object has been self-induced. And the other is: validly knowing that it will need to be induced by another cognition. Examples for that would be: You see somebody in the distance and either you validly know who it is, just by seeing the person, that would be the first one – validly knowing that one’s attention on an object has been self-induced – just by that seeing itself; it has been self-induced that I know who it is. The other one would be: you see someone in the distance and you validly know that, “I don’t know who it is. I’ll have to get closer in order to know who it is.” Here, one’s attention on an object will need to be induced by another cognition.

That’s something that we use all the time, actually, and it’s important to realize, “I don’t know what that is and I will need to examine more closely.” That’s very important in meditation as well – when we can recognize in our meditation that my understanding of voidness is vague, like seeing the person in the distance, and I am going to need to rely on a deeper cognition, a deeper understanding, in order to be able to get it. Otherwise, we very arrogantly think, “I’ve got it. I’ve understood it,” when it’s like in the distance I thought that was John, but actually it’s Harry. Or even worse, I thought it was John but actually it’s Mary, or Rover – even worse!

So all of these various mental factors are very helpful to learn about. And to see, firstly in one consistent system, and then if we have the capacity to learn some of the variations in the other systems, so that we can apply all of this in our practice to understand how we perceive samsara, basically: our suffering situations – difficult situations – and their causes, and how it is that we would be able to perceive reality or voidness that would achieve a true stopping of samsara.


There is one explanation in Buddhism that says when we perceive things, a duality comes about in terms of the consciousness that perceives. Then we inflate that into a “me,” an “I.” And the object that we perceive, we inflate something other – either “you” or some object “out there.” Then, on the basis of this, there’s a further inflation, which is the “I” as being inherently existent, solid thing, separate from our perception. And the thing out there that we perceive as “something out there,” as being objective, solidly truly existent out there. Then on the basis of this we get disturbing emotions, and suffering, and samsara.

Yes that is one explanation that we find specifically in the Kagyu and Nyingma presentations; it’s generally discussed with the term “dualism,” “duality.” The question was why do we need to bother with all that – can’t we just go back and perceive reality? Well, yes we can, but we need to recognize what is it that we need to deconstruct, and not deconstruct too much. What we need to deconstruct are the inflations. Now conventionally there is a consciousness and an object in each moment of perception. They are the components of a moment of cognition. It was never meant to say that everything is one undifferentiated oneness or blob – consciousness is consciousness, form is form. A colored shape is not seeing – they are different phenomena. Seeing and colored shape are different, but you can’t have seeing without seeing something, and you can’t have something seen without seeing. They are two sides of a coin. The two sides of a coin are not the same side, but you can’t have a coin without two sides.

So it’s like the two truths: two truths aren’t one truth. Two truths, and you can’t have one without the other. The two truths of what something is and how it exists. The same thing applies in terms of consciousness and an object. What we need to deconstruct is the inflation of that into two separate things that exist independently, and then one, the consciousness side, we identify with “me,” and the other, the object, we identify with “not-me,” “other.” And then the inflation takes off from there. So one tries to get back down to just each moment of cognition. So it fits here in terms of valid and non-valid, accurate, decisive, fresh – all these things. It’s going to be defined differently in different schools, but the general principle is the same. As soon as we start this dualism of the separation into two solid independent entities, then it becomes distorted cognition – and it feels like that, that’s what is so terrible. But the fact that there is consciousness and an object – that’s not distorted, that is accurate.

Are categories considered to be something other than just classifications that we use because objects fall within certain limits? Or do categories have some other reality?

In the Sautrantika system, we make a difference between objective entities and metaphysical entities. Objective entities are defined as the truly existent, which means that they can be known through bare perception: you can see it, hold it in your hand, or you can – anyway, let’s not get too detailed; let’s just leave it in this simple level. Metaphysical entities are defined in terms of what appears in the cognition. So an objective entity appears in non-conceptual cognition, and a metaphysical entity is the appearing object in conceptual cognition. And metaphysical entities, these categories don’t have true existence, but they exist.

So now we get into imputed existence. Imputed existence is a form of existence, it exists, and then you get some differentiation here into true existence – you can see it – and imputed existence – it’s just conceptual. This is the initial presentation of those concepts. Then you can get into the much more sophisticated understanding that everything is imputably existent. True existence doesn’t mean just what you perceive with your senses. So it has a different definition in the higher schools, in Madhyamaka. But you start here in Sautrantika, just making those categories so you can start to work with: what is objective reality, and what’s just metaphysical projections. Once you can make that differentiation, then you can go deeper in your understanding of what really is the difference between these two. So universals or categories exist. Do they exist objectively? No. Can they be known validly? Yes.

Some explanations say that love and compassion are method. Other explanations say that love and compassion are some aspect of voidness, the understanding of voidness. What’s going on here?

There are many different explanations and different systems. In general, one would always say that love and compassion is method, and discriminating awareness of voidness is wisdom. “Wisdom” I find too vague a term because there are many technical terms that are translated by “wisdom,” and if you use “wisdom” you are not differentiating between these and they each have quite specific meanings. So discriminating awareness of voidness is a wisdom side.

Now in the Nyingma system of dzogchen where you talk about rigpa, which is pure awareness, then you would say that its essential nature is voidness, but here voidness is referring to two things: not only that it is devoid of existing in impossible ways, but it is also devoid of grosser levels of mental activity – so what’s called “self-voidness” and “other-voidness.” That’s its essential nature of this pure awareness, this most subtle unstained level of mental activity. And its influencing nature is compassion, but compassion is defined here as responsiveness. And its functional nature is giving rise to appearances. It spontaneously establishes appearances. So we have this pure awareness. Pure awareness is devoid of grosser levels, devoid of impossible ways; it makes or spontaneously establishes appearances; and that functional nature of it, which is the same word as compassion, is responsiveness, if you look at the definition. So, that appearance-making is a responsiveness to what was experienced the moment before. So, that responsiveness, then, is the most subtle underlying aspect of mental activity which is involved in what we would normally speak of on a grosser level as love and compassion – which is a response to others in terms of benefiting them. So here we’re speaking on a very, very subtle level of that functional nature of that pure awareness, which is devoid of grosser levels and impossible ways, and how that translates out on grosser levels into what we would call method of love and compassion. So you have to very careful in reading various things and listening to various teachers to know, what system are they talking about, because if you don’t put it into the context of their whole system, it can be very confusing.

Would you advise students who are beginning their studies to stay in one tradition as much as possible?

In the beginning stages, I would say yes. But there is a step before the beginning stage – Gate Zero in Berlin airport. Gate Zero is the stage of shopping. In many places there is no variety of Buddhist options available, and that was the case often in Tibet: that you grew up in some remote valley and there happened to be one monastery in the valley, and that was it. So if you wanted to get an education, if you wanted to become a monk or a nun where there’s a monastery or nunnery, that’s the one that you went to. It didn’t matter what tradition it was because it was the only thing available. Then if you really were interested and really went further, then you might go to some distant place which was from another lineage, depending on many different factors. That was the way it was in Tibet.

So one of my teachers, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, was in the Gelug tradition, but the first monastery he went to was Sakya because that happened to be in his valley. It worked like that. So the same thing in non-traditional Buddhist areas, like in the West: if there is only one Dharma center available, whatever tradition it is, in our town, well, that is what you start with. A lot of people started with Lobsang Rampa and The Third Eye – you start with what’s available.

However, if you have a choice of various centers, then I think if one is interested in Buddhism one should take a look, an initial shopping phase: go to various ones and check them out, check out the teacher. And then it is interesting; how do you choose? Because in many ways the choice is going to be made on the basis of the teacher and the community, because in the beginning we are not going to appreciate the specific features of that lineage, and that’s OK. We can change later on if we find the specifics of that approach not suitable for us. So you find one that suits you.

Now we go from Gate Zero to Gate One – which is that it is important to study within one tradition, but always with the awareness that the other traditions present equally valid alternative explanations for many things, and not to make the projection that what I am learning is the Buddhism that everybody accepts and any explanation that I hear from somebody else is wrong. Of course we have to discriminate; we may hear wrong explanations, but there are valid explanations that are different from our tradition. And so I think from time to time it’s helpful – and some Dharma centers will invite a visiting teacher from another tradition, just to give a little bit of a taste – and I think that’s helpful. And depending on one’s capacity, then, it’s like learning a language. You’ve just done one year of Spanish, then maybe you would like to start French.

If your capacity is up to it, studying with various traditions is very helpful. That was the way that I did it. I was encouraged from the very beginning to study many different traditions – all the traditions, as much as possible, but that’s my own personal disposition. I have an encyclopedic approach, I like to know everything, and so this suited me; other people it might not suit. It all depends. But as His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says, one of his big things is to find a unified field theory, as it were, of all the different Tibetan traditions to see how they all fit together. And what he says is that each tradition – like within tantra, each specific tantra system is going to have more emphasis on one aspect or another. So in your own system, what might not be explained so fully and in so much detail, you can supplement by looking at it from the angle of another tradition that gives more explanation of that particular point. So it supplements your understanding.

You don’t mix it all together as a big stew. If you are practicing several traditions, you do one practice at a time. You don’t mix them all together into one grand mess. So you show respect for this practice and then, when that practice is finished, then you do a practice from another tradition. If you practice in that way, that’s OK. A lot depends on the capacity, but getting at least an appreciation, you don’t have to go too far in other traditions, but just an appreciation. Like this simple point – not so simple – this point that I mentioned this evening of the difference between Gelug and non-Gelug concerning do you actually see commonsense objects or not. Not only very interesting, but an important point. And by seeing that there’s two ways of explaining it, that actually helps very much, regardless of which position we are going to work with more closely. Because you see there are both ways of explaining it, and each one has its advantages, and each one has its dangers if you go too literally in that direction. So it is helpful.

Could you clarify how indecisive wavering is considered a major way of knowing?

Well, since one of the factors in defining valid cognition is nonfallacious, and that has two aspects: being accurate and decisive. Well, there are certain ways that are not accurate, like distorted cognition. There are certain ways that are not decisive, like presumption and non-determining cognition. And then there is indecisive wavering, which sort of combines the two, because it’s not decisive and it can be either tending toward the accurate or the inaccurate side. In many ways it is covering the different possibilities from the definition, and also it’s just very common. I don’t know that you would actually specify it as actually alternating between two possible decisions simultaneously – after all, you only have one moment of it at a time. So perhaps in one moment there is focus on one of the alternatives, but it’s indecisive.

I am adding the word “wavering” to it, just as a way of having some term for it. Sometimes it is translated as “doubt,” which I think is even more vague. It’s focusing on something, but it’s not really decisive to make that as a conclusion. It’s not that you are actively thinking of the other possibility in that moment, although in the next moment you may go to the other alternative. If you think about it, “Should I wear a blue blouse or a yellow blouse today?” Well, you look at the blue blouse and you are indecisive. “Should I really wear this?” Like that, should I really choose this one? Then you look at the yellow one. “Should I really choose that one?” So it’s a way of knowing that blouse, a way of cognizing that blouse, which is indecisive about it because it is not quite choosing it. That’s the way of knowing we are talking about here.

And then, how strongly are you tending toward “I’m going to choose the blue one,” when you look at the blue one. Or you’re looking at it, but you’ve made up your mind you are not going to choose it, or you are tending toward that. Again that’s dealing with this whole mental factor of decisiveness. What is the quality of your decisiveness if we start to analyze it more specifically, more finely? And this is what we do. This is, after all, a very rough presentation that we’ve had now. You can go into tremendous more detail into all of this, and that is what one does in one’s study. You could study this for a year in the monastery and debate about it, and all the categories and how they fit together. You would be very much challenged by all the other students to make sure that you really got it straight, so that there is no indecisiveness; and it is accurate and fresh because you are constantly being challenged every minute, so it helps.