You are in the archive Please visit our new homepage

The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

Switch to the Text Version of this page. Jump to main navigation.

Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 5: Analysis of the Mind and Reality > Elaboration of "What Does It Mean to Understand Something?" > Session Five: The Difference between Conceptual and Nonconceptual Cognition

Elaboration of "What Does It Mean to Understand Something?"

Alexander Berzin
Vienna, Austria, March 2012

Session Five: The Difference between Conceptual and Nonconceptual Cognition

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:21 hours)

More people are coming, so we’ll wait a moment. Who’s not here? Can you see that somebody’s not here? What do you see? How do you know that it’s the absence of Andrea? What you see is nothing.

Okay. Shall we begin, in any case. We were discussing what a conceptual understanding is. And we saw that basically, in addition to apprehending something correctly and decisively through the medium of an audio category and a meaning category (we’re talking about conceptual), we have in the background there that we’ve worked out all the implications: we’ve applied it in various situations and so on, we’ve put it together with a lot of other teachings, a lot of other things. And our cognition, our focus – we were using the example of voidness – is held by the force of all these latencies of this, potentials from it. (That’s one way of explaining it. There’s another way of explaining it, but we won’t deal with that; that’s more complicated.) And the more implications we’ve worked out, the deeper our understanding will be.

Apprehending and Understanding Something Nonconceptually

So now the question is: How do we understand something nonconceptually? And now this gets a little bit complicated. What we explained before was not as complicated. Not that complicated, though; there are more complicated things. But this is very, very interesting actually. We hear so much in the Buddhist teachings: “You have to have a nonconceptual cognition of voidness, of the four noble truths,” and so on. This is the big goal, isn’t it? And we have no idea what that means. Right? We hear the word accurately, decisively. No idea what it means really – not even the meaning, let alone understanding the meaning. So to understand this, we need to describe progressive stages.

So let’s use an example of a baby, and there’s a dog in front of the baby. The baby sees the dog. Now, the dog can apprehend… Not the dog, the baby. (The dog apprehends as well. The dog sees the baby.) The baby can apprehend nonconceptually this thing that it’s seeing. So what does the baby see? The baby sees colored shapes. Right?

What I will explain now is the Gelugpa explanation, Tsongkhapa’s explanation. Non-Gelugpas don’t agree with this, so we will leave that aside. This is Tsongkhapa’s explanation. You should be quite aware that Tsongkhapa was really a revolutionary; he questioned and reinterpreted and reexplained almost everything.

According to Tsongkhapa, nonconceptually the baby doesn’t just see disjointed colored shapes, and it doesn’t just see disjointed one-second pictures – one second one thing and the next second another thing, and they’re not related to each other. The baby doesn’t see that. Rather, the baby sees the whole that they constitute both spatially and temporally.

Participant: That the dog constitutes?


Alex: No. No. That the colored shapes moment to moment are changing, that the thing is moving. That it sees a whole thing, not just disjointed parts and disjointed colored shapes.

This is nonconceptual. Others say it’s conceptual, but Tsongkhapa says this is nonconceptual. You see the whole; you don’t just see parts. Right? These are known as collection syntheses (tshogs-spyi) – synthesizes a collection of parts and temporal frames into a whole item. So in other words, the baby can distinguish some of the colored shapes in the visual sense field as constituting an individual item. They constitute an individual item that’s:

  • A synthesis of colored shapes, parts (such as legs, head, tail), and puts it all together into one item.
  • A synthesis of at least several moments of perception. Like when the animal is moving, it sees different colored shapes, doesn’t it?

So it actually does see an item, a whole item, nonconceptually. Does that make sense? Otherwise it’s very difficult to make sense of what we perceive, isn’t it?

Also when the baby sees these colored shapes, it distinguishes the characteristics features of what kind of item it is (in this case, the characteristic features of a dog). We’ve had our discussion of characteristic features. But just conventionally it sees the characteristic features. This is called a kind synthesis (rigs-spyi), what kind of thing it is.

So what is the baby seeing? It actually is seeing a dog, not just seeing colored shapes. It’s not just seeing a whole item; it also is seeing a dog, isn’t it? Whether it knows that it’s a dog or not is something else. You’d have to say that it’s seeing a whole knowable item and what it’s seeing is a dog, wouldn’t you? It’s common sense.


Participant: What was the part about a whole knowable item?


Alex: Whole knowable… a validly knowable thing, a validly knowable item. And what is it? It’s a dog.

More technically, it sees the characteristic features of a dog and something that has these characteristic features, namely a dog. You can’t have characteristic features and something having these characteristic features – those two things can’t exist independently of each other.

Right? So it’s tsen (mtshan, marks), or tsenyi (mtshan-nyid, characteristic marks), and tsenchen (mtshan-can, having marks), having it. And these two things cannot appear separately from each other.

Do you follow this? The characteristic features of a dog. Well, it’s a convention, isn’t it? But like our example of the twelve eggs being divisible into three or four or so on, there are these characteristic features. But divisible into four – that can’t appear by itself. You have to have something which has that characteristic: twelve eggs. You can’t have one without the other. Both have to appear. Do you follow that? So if it’s seeing the characteristic features of a dog – the tail and all these sort of things – then it’s seeing the dog. So the baby doesn’t have to know what this thing is in order to see a dog, does it? Does it?

So now more technically. Remember we discussed, a little bit before, mental labeling? There’s a basis for the label, and there’s a label. With mental labeling there’s actually three things that are involved:

  1. There’s the label (btags).
  2. There’s the basis for labeling (gdags-gzhi).
  3. And then there’s what the label refers to in terms of that basis (btags-chos, referent object).

There’s the label “orange.” There’s the basis, this frequency of light between this number and that number. So what is orange? Orange is what the word “orange” refers to on the basis of these frequencies. Orange is not the same as the frequencies, is it?

No? Let’s give another example. You see pictures of yourself spanning your life. And what am I seeing? I’m seeing, in my case, Alex. Is Alex just identical with one of those pictures, the five-year-old or the twenty-year-old or the fifty-year-old? No. Alex is what the word “Alex” refers to on the basis of all these pictures, isn’t it? I’m just looking at pictures, colored shapes on a piece of paper. Are these colored shapes on the piece of paper Alex? No. This is ridiculous, isn’t it? But I’m seeing Alex. So what does “Alex” refer to?

Do you follow that? That’s very profound actually. That’s often our problem, that we confuse what a label refers to with the basis – in Tibetan, the takcho (btags-chos) and the dakzhi (gdags-gzhi). So digest that for a moment. I think this example with seeing photographs of yourself is a good example.

So a basis for labeling and what a label refers to do not exist independently of a mental label; the three arise dependently on each other. But although these three do not exist independently of each other, the baby doesn’t know the mental label “dog.” It sees what the label “dog” refers to, and it sees the basis for that label (the colored shapes and characteristic features), but it doesn’t know the mental label; it doesn’t know what it is.

So the baby doesn’t have to know that it’s called a “dog,” or what it’s called, in order to see a dog. In other words, the baby doesn’t need to mentally label “dog” or say the word “dog” in its mind, or even know what the word “dog” means, in order to see a dog. Right? As babies, we had to learn the category “dog” and the name “dog” and its meaning.

That actually is very difficult, if you think about it. There are so many different kinds of dogs: a Chihuahua, a German shepherd, cocker spaniel... I mean, how in the world as a child do you know to put them all into the category “dog?” It’s a very interesting process, isn’t it? It’s a very interesting process. Just as an aside: It has to do with exclusion of what it’s not. A little baby thinks that everything is food and puts everything in its mouth. So how does the baby learn to exclude certain things – that this is not food? It’s interesting, isn’t it? But you have to learn that as a baby, obviously.

So this was a conceptual process for the baby to learn the category “dog” and the name “dog”and what it means. So now we’ve learned the category “dog,” we’ve learned the word for it, and so on. So now when we see a dog accurately and decisively, we could cognize it conceptually in the next moment both accurately and decisively through the category “dog.” When we see a dog accurately and decisively, that’s nonconceptual. Then in the next moment we could cognize it conceptually, both accurately and decisively, through the category “dog.” Right? We see it through this category.

So what does that mean? That means that we’re not necessarily thinking the sound of the word “dog” in our heads to apprehend it conceptually as a dog. What is this like? To apprehend it conceptually as a dog, it’s like in our minds accurately and decisively putting it in the box “dog,” as if it truly existed in a box independently of it being just what the label “dog” refers to. That’s what it means, conceptual – put it in a box “dog.”

We do that all the time. We put things in boxes, especially “good,” “bad,” “pretty,” “not pretty.” It’s like boxes, as if truly from their own side they were established as that. No. It’s based on a concept. But even so, the child knows that this is a dog. It doesn’t mean that the child understands that dogs bite and that dogs have to be taken for a walk and they have to be fed and so on. A child doesn’t necessarily understand all the implications of what’s involved with a dog. That’s more than just the decisive, correct apprehension.

Why Different People Perceive the Dog Differently

Question: Why is it that children have different reactions to this dog? There are children who are afraid, and there are children who are very confident. So there is also an emotion on the side of the child.


Alex: Right. She’s saying that different children will have a different response to a dog: some children will be naturally afraid of them; other children will be very comfortable with them. What is this?

Well, often this is based on a… First of all, the emotion is just a mental factor that’s accompanying the cognition. So now you have to analyze a little bit more besides just the emotion that’s accompanying the cognition. So there is a further concept of “threat” or a further concept of “friend, not a threat.” That’s also the filter through which the baby is perceiving this animal. So there’s a category “danger,” “not danger.” An animal has that: “danger,” “not danger.”

So the question is: Why perceive this animal in that category? I mean, it’s interesting. What do you throw into that category of “danger?” Do you throw the table into that category? Do you throw the flower? People who are paranoid throw a lot of things into that category. So you learn by experience; and because of experience of certain things that are danger, you may label “danger” onto things that don’t really conventionally fit into that category. Nobody else would agree that the table is a danger or the color yellow is a danger. Who would agree with that? But you could perceive it through that category as a danger. If the room is yellow – “Ooh!” Or a bull seeing red. It’s an interesting example.

And one could learn from experience danger, either in this lifetime or Buddhism would say some previous lifetimes, so that it becomes like an instinct. I’m sure you’ve heard stories of humans going to an area where humans never have been and the animals aren’t afraid of the humans, and then they learn to be afraid of humans.

And cognitions through certain categories will have associated with them certain emotions that accompany it, like fear together with danger.

Plus accomplishing deep awareness (bya-grub ye-shes) – the five types of deep awareness (ye-shes lnga), five (lnga) types of yeshey (ye-shes) – what to do, which is to run away. Animals know that. So how do you know that? There are five types of deep awareness (the five types of yeshey is the Tibetan):

  1. Mirror like (me-long lta-bu’i ye-shes) just takes in information.
  2. Equalizing (mnyam-nyid ye-shes) puts two things together, more things together, like into a category.
  3. Individualizing (sor-rtog ye-shes). It specifies this. “It’s not anything else. It’s this.”
  4. And then accomplishing (bya-grub ye-shes), which is basically to respond. So you respond: you know to run away. You respond. Food: you know to stick it in your mouth. A worm knows that.
  5. And then dharmadhatu or reality, the sphere of reality (chos-dbyings ye-shes), which is to know what things are, either conventionally or on the deepest level.

That’s part of how mental activity works. It’s with these five types of deep awareness. Everybody has that, including the worm, so to call it “wisdom” is a little bit misleading – “the five types of wisdom.”

Summary and Concluding Remarks

Okay, so we have these different steps so far with conceptual: You see the parts. You see the whole. You see what kind of thing it is. So we see the characteristic features and what has characteristic features. With equalizing awareness we can fit it with other things that we’ve experienced and put it into a category if it’s conceptual. And we’re perceiving the basis for labeling, and we’re seeing what the label refers to, but we could either know the mental label or not know the mental label. And even if we know what it is – if we know the mental label, we know what it is – it doesn’t mean that we understand it. And to understand it, as you said, needs experience: experience of being with dogs, taking care of dogs, what’s involved. Or we could be taught. Our parents tell you, “Well, dogs have to be taken for a walk. They do this. They do that. Don’t try to take the bone away from the dog.” We learn.

So these stages. That’s conceptual. Conceptual apprehension. What’s involved – not just apprehending it but knowing what it is and then understanding it. These are separate. These are individual. And when there’s understanding accompanying conceptual cognition, the thing is that we are cognizing it through a category, so it’s like putting it in a box. The understanding can be the same whether it’s conceptual or nonconceptual. Conceptual or nonconceptual just concerns how we’re focusing on the item, on the object. In conceptual, the category is actually right there; it’s arising in our consciousness. “It arises to the face of the mind” is how it’s said in Tibetan. The face of the mind (sems-ngor). “It’s right in front of the face of the mind” is how it’s expressed.

Okay, so that’s conceptual. Let us digest that for a moment. Think about it. Then tomorrow we can discuss in a little bit more detail what is actual nonconceptual understanding.

When a Buddha sees a dog, does a Buddha know that it’s a dog? Buddha doesn’t perceive the dog through the concept of “dog” or category, but does Buddha still know that it’s a dog? That’s the interesting question. How does a Buddha know that it’s a dog? A Buddha doesn’t put things in categories when a Buddha perceives things. It’s nonconceptual, not putting things in a box. So if we don’t put things in boxes with labels, do we still know what things are? That’s the interesting question. That’s what you have to figure out in order to understand nonconceptual cognition, nonconceptual understanding. You can’t say that a Buddha doesn’t know what anything is because a Buddha knows everything nonconceptually That doesn’t make any sense. That doesn’t mean that a Buddha doesn’t know what anything is. And it’s not the same as the baby not knowing that this is a dog. So what’s the difference? Try to figure it out. That’s the challenge.

So let’s end with a dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it act as a cause for everyone to reach enlightenment for the benefit of us all.