The topic for this evening deals with ways of knowing or cognition theory. In order to study some topic in general, Shantideva, the great Indian Buddhist master, said it is very important to know the benefits of the topic in order to be able to put enthusiasm into it. If we are not convinced of the benefits of studying something, why would we study it? Why would we want to know it? Here we are talking about how we actually know things, how the mind works: what is a valid way of knowing something? And to understand the benefits of that, I think we need to look at the education system in the Tibetan monastic tradition and we will see the place of it there.
In this education system, first of all, you have to bear in mind that the young monks and nuns who come into this system do not have any other education; they are coming in illiterate. And in traditional Tibet there were no opportunities for a lay type of education; there were no public schools or anything like that. So if you wanted to learn to read or have any type of education, you joined the monastery, and many people did so as children.
The way that they started after they learned how to read was with what we would call in the West “set theory.” In other words, these are logical categories – the technical word for it is selected topics or dura (Tib. bsdus-grva). By this method, the young monks and nuns would learn logical pervasions. For example, if you have two sets of things – and they would work like this with colors: white and red, for example – is there anything that is both white and red? Well, these are two sets that are mutually exclusive. And then you could have two things that would be in the same set, or sets that would overlap partially, and so on – and in this way they would learn to think logically.
The emphasis on logical thinking is very strong in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, coming from the Indian monastic tradition; this is because if we want to be able to cut through our confusion, which means by seeing reality, and in that way overcome the difficulties and problems that our confusion causes us, then it is very necessary to be able to see reality correctly and not just in a vague type of way. Seeing things correctly means in a logical type of way; it has to make logical sense. Of course one can approach it in an intuitive type of way as well; but even if we do, we need to validate that intuition. Just because it is intuition does not mean that it is correct. We could have very incorrect intuitions concerning the stock market. So we have to be able to validate our knowledge – what we learn, what we see in the world. And so there is this emphasis on logic and rationality, regardless of what other form of approach we may have: devotional, and so on. The young students in the monasteries learn how to think logically. And then, after this, they learn this topic that we are going to speak about this evening and tomorrow evening, which is ways of knowing.
How do we know things? I won’t get into the details this evening, except to say that there are seven different ways in which we could know something. Some of them are correct and accurate; some of them are distorted; some of them are indecisive; with some of them we just presume something to be true, but we don’t really understand it. And these things are not studied just for intellectual curiosity or because they are fascinating, or something like that – like an abstract metaphysical study. But rather, they are always oriented in a practical type of way: oriented toward how do we see reality, how do we evaluate our perceptions in life? When do we have projections? Are these projections accurate or are these projections distorted, coming from our own fantasies, particularly concerning other people and our relationships with them. What are the projections about ourselves? So we need to be able to evaluate the various ways in which we’re knowing things.
Also, when we start to learn about how things actually exist – as opposed to how we imagine things to exist, how we project how things exist – then we need to also see how do we progress in our understanding? How does that grow in a practical way? This concerns our meditation process; it also concerns our application of this understanding in our daily lives. And this, as well, requires us to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of where we are at: How is our understanding developing? How firm is that understanding? And so this topic, these ways of knowing, applies very much in analyzing our ordinary lives, our ordinary perceptions, and also analyzing and being able to make some sort of understandable progression in our meditative experience.
So we learn about these ways of learning. And the way that it’s studied is in terms of the set theory that we learned before this. In other words: “If it’s this type of way of knowing, is it accurate? Our understanding of something, is it fresh or not?” Well, there are some things that are fresh, but not accurate; and some that are accurate, but not fresh. Our understanding can become a bit stale, a bit dull; and then, although it might be accurate, nevertheless because it is not fresh you cannot really apply it very well. It’s like an old shoe or something like that. So they look at these different categories and they see how they fit together in a logical type of way.
After that, the next topic they learn concerns ways of logical reasoning – this is straightforward logic – and they learn lines of reasoning: what is a valid proof of something; what are the various faults that come up in our logic, etc. And that also is important – not necessarily for putting down somebody else, but more for our own inner development and our own understanding.
All of this is studied from the point of view of debates. Debate is the medium through which Tibetans learn. Of course, it’s based on memorizing. Everyone has to memorize the text first, and particularly what they memorize are definitions. In fact the term which is used for this whole debate process is actually the Tibetan word for “definitions,” it’s not the word for “debate” at all. The definitions are extremely crucial if we are going to have any type of discussion with somebody else: we have to agree on the definitions of the terms, particularly technical terms.
This is a point that needs emphasis here in the West because many of our words do not really correspond exactly to the original terms. It’s difficult enough that we are dealing with two languages, Sanskrit and Tibetan, but the Tibetan terms do not always seem to correspond to the Sanskrit either. The Tibetans, when they came into contact with Buddhism in India, did not really have a well-developed philosophical tradition. And so they did not have a lot of technical terms that already had meaning in their own language, like we have from our own Western philosophies and religions, and the way the Chinese had, for example, from their long tradition of philosophy before they came in contact with Buddhism. So the Tibetans were very challenged by this, and they met that challenge in a very interesting type of way. Actually they borrowed a manner of approach from a people called the Khotanese, who lived north of Tibet in a desert region; it wasn’t that they made it up themselves. This approach was to not only look at the definition of things, but also the etymology of different words. And if they did not have a word for a particular thing then, rather than just making up a word, what they did was they put together two words – two or three words – that sort of gave different angles of the meaning. It was almost like a phrase, except that it actually made a new word, because that’s the way the Tibetan language works. It is made up of syllables. Each syllable is an actual word by itself, but then you put a few of them together and it makes another type of word. So the Tibetans did that and in this way they developed terms that would lend themselves to the definitions.
But here in the West, when we start to translate Buddhist terminology we really don’t have words that always correspond. And also, when we look at the terminology that is already there, an awful lot of it is jargon: it no longer really has much meaning to us. For example, we say “sentient beings,” but who would ever really use in ordinary conversation the phrase “sentient being”? Practically nobody. And it does not really have too much meaning to us if you really thought about it. Also a lot of our terminology for Buddhist terms was coined by the pioneers of Buddhist studies in the West, the occidental study of Buddhism. And although we owe a great debt to the early pioneers, what they produced by their efforts could certainly be improved. Many of them came from a Christian missionary background, many of them were living in the Victorian era, and so their choice of terms was naturally flavored by that.
Or also, sometimes what would happen – as in the case of Theosophy: Madam Blavatsky – she came across Tibetan Buddhism and actually spent a couple of years in Tibet. This was in 1867, a long time ago. And she felt that people would not be able to understand it, so she just translated everything into occult terminology and Hindu terminology – “Atlantis,” and these sort of things – as a way of translating. This brings in really very different ideas that actually aren’t there in the original. A lot of Christian terminology comes in as well, like “virtuous” and “nonvirtuous,” which implies a bit of a moral judgment, whereas actually there’s no moral judgment involved in Buddhist ethics. Things are simply constructive or destructive; it is not that it’s virtuous or nonvirtuous.
So the definitions are really very important, and the context, the background, this also becomes extremely relevant. And we’ll see this later in our series this week when we talk about mental factors, when we start talking about emotions because, in fact, there is no Tibetan word for “emotion,” which is very interesting. They speak about positive ones, they speak about negative ones, but they do not have a word that covers both. So when we talk about other types of specific emotions, such as “loyalty,” that means something very different to a medieval European person, to a modern American, to a traditional Japanese – these are very different societies and contexts. And so it is very important to know really what a word means in order not only to be able to understand it, but to try to gain insight into the Tibetan teachings concerning it.
So the study and practice of debate is very much involved with learning definitions; and, unfortunately, words have many definitions depending on the author, and the school, and so on. So one has to learn the definitions within one’s own tradition. And then if we’re going to discuss with people from a different tradition, we have to ask them, “What is your definition?” And if we fail to do that, then our discussions could be not meeting each other because we’re talking about two different things. Although we might be using the same word, there’s a lot of confusion there.
Let me give an example. A good example is the set of words “permanent” and “impermanent.” These two words can be referring to two very different things. One meaning of permanent is eternal, that is something that lasts forever, and impermanent would be something that lasts only for a short time. Under a different set of definitions, permanent could be something that does not change and impermanent could be something that does change. Well, something that doesn’t change could last for a short time, or forever; and something that does change could also change from moment to moment only during the short time that it exists, or forever.
So this can be quite confusing, particularly when we hear the set of terms applied to something like mind. We look at one Tibetan school and they say that the mind is permanent, each individual’s mind is permanent, and the other school says that it is impermanent. And you think, “Well, what’s going on here, this is completely contradictory!” But the whole issue revolves around the fact that each of these two schools is defining the word differently. One of them says that mind is permanent, meaning that it has no beginning and has no end – that there’s this stream of continuity of mental activity going on forever, no beginning, and it’s even going on through Buddhahood. Everybody would agree about that. It’s not that it only has a beginning at some time, and then an end when it ceases to exist and to generate the next moment. The other schools are saying: “Well, yes, this may be true, but that’s not what we’re talking about. What we’re talking about is, ‘Is it a phenomenon that changes from moment to moment?’ And you’d have to say ‘yes,’ because in each moment we know something different. The object of the mind is different, so you would have to say that the mental activity is changing from moment to moment. In that sense, mind is impermanent.” In fact, both sides would agree with what each other is saying but they’re using the words “permanent” and “impermanent” with completely different definitions.
So the use and study of definitions is absolutely crucial to our understanding of Buddhism. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the majority of our confusion about Buddhism in the West can be resolved if we learn the definitions. That often the confusion comes because we’re reading a word and we assume that it means the same thing in a Buddhist context as it does in our own normal usage of the term. And then we have all sorts of associations with that term which are completely irrelevant to the Buddhist context and, in fact, very misleading. That’s where most of our confusion comes. So it is quite important not only to learn the definitions, but a lot of the work that I’ve done in my life is to try to stimulate people to revise their terminology when the terms that are used are either misleading, inadequate, or have become jargon that no longer carries very much meaning. And although sometimes the choices can be a little bit unsettling if you are familiar with the old terminology; nevertheless if we look at the history of Buddhism as it went from one civilization to another, the Tibetans and the Chinese revised their terminology over the centuries; they did not stick with the initial efforts of the pioneers. So that’s something that I think needs to happen in our Western languages as well.
It becomes even worse when you go into other languages besides English. Since the majority of translations have been made into English, then sometimes when people are doing German, French, or Spanish translations, rather than going back to the original languages, they’re translating from English. And then it gets even further removed from the original meaning because the words in the two European languages don’t correspond exactly, either. They get very hung up on: what’s the difference between “consciousness” and “awareness,” for example. In Spanish, you don’t have two different words for that. And it is irrelevant because neither “consciousness” nor “awareness” corresponds to anything that the Tibetans are talking about. Here is where set theory comes in: part of what we call consciousness is what the Tibetans are talking about, but not in the sense of consciousness and unconsciousness, or a collective unconscious, or that sort of thing. So it gets very, very confusing. Best, then, is to go to the definitions, the way that the Tibetans do it in their traditional study. So we have the debate system.
The debate system is how you traditionally approach this material, although we would not necessarily have to do that ourselves in our own study. You might ask, “What are these debates like?” And these debates are very colorful, to put it in a mild word. They are very animated. First we need to understand what is the purpose of the debate, then also get a picture of what it is. Mind you, it’s adolescents who are debating, mostly, with a great deal of energy; and so the debates are punctuated with gestures and jumping up and down, and screaming and yelling, and so on – and laughing, and all the type of horseplay that adolescents love to engage in. The purpose of the debate is not to defeat the opponent – that’s not really what it’s all about. What one tries to do in the debate is to challenge the other person to think consistently. So a person makes a statement, and then the other person’s debating is going to challenge their understanding of this statement to see if they can be logically consistent with it. You win the debate if you can cause the other person to be logically inconsistent. So you lose it if you contradict yourself. Then they make this huge gesture “tsa!” which is short for ngotsa, “shame.” Shame! You have contradicted yourself, and so you haven’t really understood! Why would you want to do this? And the reason for debating in this way is to help in the meditation process. In meditation, what we want to do is to be able to focus on a correct and accurate and decisive understanding of some point, so you can really concentrate, and really absorb it, and integrate it into a whole way of dealing with life.
Now to be able to focus on something with complete concentration and complete clarity of mind, it’s very important to be decisive about it; this we learn in ways of knowing. You can’t have any doubts; you can’t have any fuzzy thinking, fuzzy understanding. It has to be absolutely accurate: I really understand this. In our education system, people often are passive in the whole educational process. You sit there and listen to a lecture, and struggle to stay awake, and if you are able to stay awake, maybe you take some notes or something, but the understanding might not be so correct. And often we are not challenged, except in an examination in which you just write out answers to one or two questions, something like that. And inaccuracies come in everywhere.
It’s very interesting. My teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, was very challenging to people. I was his translator for nine years, his interpreter, and I travelled around the world with him to various Buddhist centers. And once, he was teaching at a place, and he was teaching about voidness, which is a very advanced sophisticated topic, but one in which the audience was supposed to be familiar – in fact, it was at a Western monastery. And he explained something, and he explained it completely incorrectly. It was pretty outrageous what he said, and everybody very dutifully, reverentially, wrote it down and said nothing about the whole thing. And then at the next session, Rinpoche came back and he said, “Last time I said something absolutely outrageous, incorrect. Don’t any of you use your minds? Don’t you think? Teachers make a slip of the tongue, and translators” – looking directly at me – “often mistranslate something, misunderstand it, or don’t remember it correctly.” And when students write it down, sometimes they don’t write it down accurately, either. They think they heard something, but they didn’t. One can prove that by looking at the notes of a class and comparing what each of the students wrote down.
And so, like that, he said that no matter what you hear, always check it out; and if it doesn’t fit in with what you heard before, and if you can’t really figure out what actually was meant, ask. Look it up, look it up in reliable texts, and ask reliable sources of information – various people – either the teacher himself or herself, or someone else, but don’t just write it down and take it as true if it just doesn’t fit properly. This is a very important principle when we are trying to integrate something into our lives, particularly something so crucial as our understanding of reality. We really need to have a correct and decisive understanding. And so what we want to eliminate is several of these ways of knowing, which would be indecisive wavering: we have doubts, we don’t know, does it mean this, does it mean that, various implications of meaning that we haven’t really explored, so we haven’t really thought it out deeply.
Now in meditation, contemplation, or whatever we want to call it – of course it would be, more properly, contemplation – we could sit and we could try to figure it out. And so we figure it out, and we think about it and think about it, and try to think logically – because we’ve been trained to think logically in this education system in the monasteries – and understand what it’s talking about. And this, of course, is a very important thing to do. Again, Serkong Rinpoche used to teach – at least he taught me – in that type of fashion, that if I would ask him a question he would work out logically with me what the answer would be and why that must be the answer, as opposed to just dogmatically saying, “This is the answer!” Work it out logically, see how it fits in.
Now the problem here is that if we are trying to do this in meditation by ourselves, we do not challenge ourselves as much as other people would challenge us – especially adolescents in the heat of debate who are not going to let up, who are not going to let us off the hook with a fuzzy understanding. And a lot of them are really very intellectually aggressive, in terms of the debate, because it becomes a lot of fun and they enjoy it! So the purpose of the debate is to get a clear and decisive understanding, and if you’ve been shown that you’ve contradicted yourself, or you can’t answer, then obviously you haven’t understood correctly, especially when it goes into implications of the understanding that we would never have thought of – we never would have imagined – that other people will come up with.
And so this debate process is a learning process. It’s not an attacking process, but it’s very much a learning and clarifying process which is then intended for application in meditation and in practice. It is not just done, as some outsiders might look at it and say, “Oh this is just intellectual. But we want to meditate!” as if these were two totally disassociated ways of learning. They are not at all. The whole purpose of the debate is to be able to get decisive understanding: completely accurate, free of doubts, free of any fuzziness, so that then you have a very clear object to focus on in meditation, to work with. So it is done in that type of way.
Also, the other meditation skill which is gained in the debate is concentration. Well, it is hard to imagine if you haven’t seen it and witnessed it, but try to picture an area – let’s say like a big, big hall – in which you have, sitting next to each other, about maybe a hundred pairs of debaters. Now it’s usually not just two people; it could be three or four people, with somebody sitting on the floor as the defender and the ones standing up being the ones that are challenging. All of these debates are occurring simultaneously, next to each other, no space in-between; they like to sit really bunched up, close together. And everybody is screaming at the top of their lungs, and sometimes the type of room that you’re in is almost like an echo chamber, so it becomes even more magnified in terms of volume. And you have to be able to concentrate; otherwise it’s hopeless, there is no way that you can debate. You have to be able to block out, not listen to, any of the other debates that are going on and be totally, totally focused. I think almost that this is done on purpose because it forces the people to gain concentration. You have to concentrate. You cannot survive without that. And so it provides – not an atmosphere of chaos, as it would look from the outside, but an atmosphere extremely conducive to concentration.
And, again, if we were to try to meditate by ourselves in a very noisy place, we would get very distracted by it, and probably very annoyed by it. But a debate is… well, you are in front of other people who are going to laugh at you if you don’t pay attention, and so you are forced to have to concentrate because of the other people with whom you are debating. And so it’s a very interesting situation.
You have this actually quite a lot in the Tibetan monastic training when they memorize – everybody has to memorize the prayers. And you might think, well, that’s pretty boring to do, and what sort of incentive could you give a young kid to memorize not only a few prayers, but we’re talking about memorizing hundreds and hundreds of pages of text. Well in the monasteries if you wanted to eat, get a cup of tea and breakfast in the morning, you had to go to the rituals. That’s where it was passed out. And to go to the rituals, you had to have memorized the ritual texts and recite them with everybody, because you can’t come in and read it from the books. Like that, there was a very strong incentive to memorize if you wanted to get a cup of tea and some breakfast in the morning, or some tea and other things later in the day to eat.
So they memorize, and they have a lot to memorize, and the way that they memorize is out loud. In fact, when they meditate or recite anything, they always read out loud. It is very difficult, actually, for a Tibetan – it’s really funny – it’s difficult for a Tibetan to read silently. Always out loud, some sort of vocalizing of it. You can, of course, transform that into a meditative type of… I wouldn’t say meditative practice, but into a practice of generosity, in the sense of saying that, “Well, I’m saying it out loud. May everybody hear this. May everybody benefit from it.” That’s like the mentality of the Indians who rented their most favorite piece of Western technology – before the computer, I’m talking about a little bit earlier than that – it was the loudspeaker. Everybody, if you could get a little bit of money, you would rent a loudspeaker and blast to the entire community the most wonderful Hindi film music, the singing and the dance music that Indians absolutely love. And this is a practice of generosity. And if you ask somebody to turn it down, they can’t understand at all what you are talking about, because “We’re playing this because we want to make everybody happy.” Everybody wants to enjoy this, and everybody does except us Westerners who are grumpy and “Shut it off, so I can sit and meditate on love and patience.” And often you have several loudspeakers simultaneously playing different things; this is very typical in India, and we have a similar type of thing among the Tibetans, but not with loudspeakers. Everybody is shouting their recitations out loud, whether we’re justifying it in terms of happiness to everybody and teaching everybody or not – I doubt that most people actually think that way, it’s just their custom.
Also, I think it is very much in line with training body, speech, and mind that the Buddhist – not only Buddhist, but all Indian philosophies speak in terms of not just body and mind, but body, speech, meaning communication, and mind; and so it’s very important from that point of view to train our speech, our ability to communicate. And this, of course, has a much subtler meaning as well because the speech involves the breath and the breath involves the energy. The two are very much connected in all Indian thought. And so by training the speech in terms of actually voicing things, that helps us to start to work with the energies of the body: to be able to calm things down and get to a more subtle productive level of energy rather than the nervous type of energy that goes through us. When they memorize, then, everybody shouts out loud – in the evening, right next to each other, at the top of their voices – something different. And this is the way that they recite what they’ve memorized.
In fact, it’s really lovely, the Tibetans have this custom of reciting the Kangyur – the collected scriptures of Buddhist teachings, a big collection of one hundred and eight volumes, something like that. And what they do is to build up some great positive force: “Let’s recite all of the Buddha’s words.” They get all the monks and nuns together, and lay people who can read, and they break up into little groups usually of about anywhere from five to ten people; and each group gets a volume, and the way that the Tibetan scriptures are printed is in loose sheets, it’s not bound. So it’s very convenient. They dealt out, like in a card game, let’s say ten pages to each person: page one to ten, ten to twenty – it doesn’t matter because these volumes have many texts in them. So it doesn’t matter whether you get something in the middle, or a little bit of the end of something and the beginning of something else – that’s totally irrelevant, that doesn’t matter. You get your ten pages. And then everybody shouts them out loud, simultaneously, reading them, because what you want is the positive force of the words of the Buddha being recited. It doesn’t matter whether you understand it or not, or anybody else could possibly understand it while you are reading it. But it’s recited out loud.
What is even more amusing, from our point of view, is that when somebody in that group of, let’s say ten, finishes their set of ten pages, then they give it to the leader – the one that has to keep track of the pages and make sure everything is in order – and then the leader gives a new set of ten pages to the first person next to him or her; and then everybody takes their unfinished pages and passes them to the next person. So it is a little bit like the Mad Hatter’s tea party: “Move down! Change seats!” This type of thing. And it’s marked – because you look at the page numbers – where that set of ten is finished, and so it goes like that. And everybody’s screaming at the top of their lungs. There could be a hundred or a thousand people. I have done it once with a huge group in Bodh Gaya led by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who was given a much larger stack of pages than anybody else because he can read out loud faster than anybody else; he’s really quite extraordinary.
So we have many opportunities in the Tibetan milieu to develop concentration – you have to, otherwise you can’t possibly survive. It’s very interesting to participate in something like that to see what attitudes come up and how it really does absolutely force you to concentrate. So we have these methods. Other things about the debates which are useful to know is that it’s being done by adolescents, and teenagers have a great deal of energy. And in the monasteries they don’t have sports activities or these sorts of things for the teenagers, and so it is necessary to somehow harness their energy and give them some sort of outlet. And so the debates, in which they are jumping up and down and making these big gestures with clapping, and so on, gives them some opportunity to release their energy. Also, the debates are frequently done at night, and they continue very late at night; and this is a way of keeping the monks and nuns awake. So it has those benefits.
Another benefit of it is that you can’t be shy: you can’t be one of the people that just sits silently in the back of the class and never says anything. Everybody is forced to actually understand something and to be able to defend their understanding. And this is really very wonderful in the education system, because in other education systems maybe a few people are always the ones asking questions, that are more forward, and so on. And a lot of people are either intimidated or shy or just don’t understand. I mean they just don’t pay attention. You can’t be like that. In the monastic education system you have to be vocal; everybody participates in the debates. And it’s also where you build up your character because no matter how smart you are, somebody else is going to trip you up and make you contradict yourself; and so it’s very good for toning down the ego. Because when somebody trips you up, the Tibetans all laugh and everybody thinks it’s a grand joke that you contradicted yourself, and they hoot and howl and jump up and down. And you have to keep your composure; you can’t get upset about that and start to cry or anything like that. So it is very good for building the character as well. So, it’s important not to look at the whole debate educational system as these dry intellectual debaters; it’s not like that at all.
This topic, then, of ways of knowing is something which is studied on the debate grounds. And these three topics – set theory, the ways of knowing, and then lines of reasoning – form a very good foundation for the next topic that is studied in the traditional monastic education, which is a text by the Sanskrit name of Abhisamaya-alamkara. This means “A Filigree or Ornament” – but actually it’s a filigree, a complex twisting of jewelry – “of Realizations.” This is a text by Maitreya, which comes from India. And it is probably the text that receives the most intensive study of any of the texts in the monastic system. Only the Tibetans study it; none of the other traditions of Buddhism pay so much attention to it. The reason being that when Buddhism came to Tibet – well, it came earlier in little waves and pieces here and there – but the major first wave that came was from a great Indian master Shantarakshita, who was an abbot in India. He faced a lot of difficulties, actually, because there was a xenophobic conservative faction in the court – anti-foreign. And they were pretty upset by the King inviting this abbot from India and they wanted to get rid of him. And very conveniently at the time a smallpox epidemic broke out, and so they said, “Aha, this Indian has brought the smallpox from India, and so we need to kick him out.” So they kicked him out. And he went back to India and sent back Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava, who was a very, very great master. And Padmasambhava, the traditional account was that he tamed the demons of Tibet that were making all these obstacles – actually, what he did was some sort of rituals to get rid of the smallpox – so it was referring to an actual situation. And then, when the epidemic had died down and people weren’t so freaked out, Shantarakshita came back.
Shantarakshita was a great master and he had many disciples, and later his disciple Kamalashila came and there was a big debate, and so on. But one of his disciples was Haribhadra, and Haribhadra wrote the main commentary on this text, this Filigree of Realizations. And so, from the influence of these first masters – sort of, “Here’s my favorite text and here’s my good disciple who’s written the best commentary on it” – so everybody started to study that. It’s quite understandable, being a teacher and encouraging people to read my own books! Well obviously they are the clearest books, from my point of view. So I encourage people. They ask, “What should we read? What should we study?” I say, “Well, go to my website or read my books.” I think there are other teachers that probably do the same with their own works. So it’s quite natural that Shantarakshita and his disciples plugged their book as well.
The Filigree of Realizations is not a trivial book by any means; it is a very profound book, and the Tibetans spend five years studying this text in their training program in the monasteries. The text is a text that summarizes the Prajnaparamita Sutras. “Prajnaparamita” is usually translated as “perfection of wisdom.” I have a slightly different term, “far-reaching discriminating awareness” – discriminate reality, what’s true from what’s not true; and it is far-reaching, it takes us all the way to enlightenment. The Prajnaparamita literature is extremely vast and extremely complex, not at all obvious as to what it is talking about, and there is a lot of repetition in it. So it’s very difficult to deal with it as study material. And so what this Filigree of Realizations does is it extracts from the Prajnaparamita literature the important points and sets them out in an incredibly complex system of overlapping insights and levels and stages of realization. What it’s talking about is how do we actually gain the understanding of voidness, and gain all the other insights and realizations along the paths that take us to the various goals that are described in Buddhism.
In terms of becoming an arya, somebody who has a non-conceptual cognition of voidness, and the different categories of that, whether it is shravaka, pratyekabuddha or bodhisattva – these are different types of practitioners – and what do they understand: each of them has a different understanding, what does it take to reach liberation on this path and other paths? How many of these overlap with each other, and what is in common, and what’s special about a particular path? It’s incredibly complex. Of course, it is also quite important in terms of our own development, as we progress along the paths, to have some sort of roadmap and also to realize that the roadmap is not linear. It has its ups and downs, and is very complex, and we can look at it from many different points of view. And so all of the set theory, for example, is absolutely essential to be able to study this material because it takes all these realizations and puts them in different sets: What is it that only a Buddha knows? What is it that all the aryas know? What is it that all the bodhisattvas understand? Some of that overlaps and some of it doesn’t overlap. How does it all fit together? If you don’t have set theory, you are completely lost in all of this.
And this Filigree of Realizations is indicating the stages that we progress through in our meditation and in our actualization of the goals. Well that’s exactly what we were learning in terms of ways of knowing, this cognition theory. How do we know which are valid ways, and which are not such valid ways; and which are not so bad, but we have to go beyond them? What is conceptual? What is non-conceptual? What does that actually mean: to have a conceptual cognition of something? What does it mean to have a non-conceptual cognition of something? If the stages of the path are delineated according to the type of mind that understands voidness, it’s focusing on how do you know it: do you know it conceptually, do you know it or non-conceptually, are you relying on a line of reasoning, are you not relying on a line of reasoning? What type of idea do you have of voidness that you are focusing through? All these sorts of things. Well, you need the building blocks for that, the basics, because the text will assume you know what that means. And all of that is what we learn in this topic, ways of knowing.
So it is really something which is very practical in terms of our own progress on the spiritual path. It is practical in terms of meditation, and also I find it very practical in daily life. When we are quite aware that there’s a big difference between, for example, presumption and actually knowing something validly: “I presume it’s true, but I don’t really understand why and I don’t really know.” “I presume that you are going to do this or that,” when, in fact, it is not clear at all that the person is really going to do it. Well, am I just presuming it, or do I know it? It is important to be able to make that distinction so that when, for instance, the person doesn’t do it – whatever it was that we presumed that they were doing – well whose fault is it? “I only presumed that they were doing it, but I actually never even asked them. I thought I asked them, but” – indecisive wavering there – “did I really ask them? I don’t quite remember, but I think I asked them. And so I presume that I asked them, and then they didn’t do it!” So the fault is really in our own way of knowing. We are mistaking a presumption for an accurate, decisive understanding of something, an accurate knowing of it. These are very important in our daily lives.
The same thing with what we’ll be discussing later in the week in terms of mental factors: various things – the emotions, the other things – that accompany our knowing of something – how does that color what we know? How does that affect what we know? If together with our knowing something, there is arrogance, or jealousy of other people, or insecurity, “Maybe the other person knows better than I do” – this type of thing can be very devastating, not only in our daily interactions, but certainly in our meditation. “I understand a little about impermanence or voidness, or whatever it is. But maybe these other people know better.” Especially if we are doing some sort of retreat with other people and the other people are sitting around us meditating, then all sorts of mental factors – disturbing emotions – could be there accompanying our meditation, or our attempt at meditation. There again, ways of knowing: are we really meditating or are we just sort of sitting there and trying to look good, not scratch too much or squirm in our seats, as we’re praying that the hour be finished soon? A lot of prayer gets said in these meditation sessions!