Mind and Its Objects

An excerpt from Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics, Volume 2: The Mind

John Dunne

John Dunne holds the Distinguished Chair in Contemplative Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He received his PhD in Sanskrit and Tibetan studies from Harvard University.

The following is his introductory essay to Mind and Its Objects, Part 4 of Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics, Volume 2: The Mind.


Buddhist Epistemology

Over the centuries, Tibetan scholarship on the Indian Buddhist classics has been greatly facilitated by the creation of literary genres that extract and organize materials on particular topics in the Indian Buddhist texts. The previous discussion of mental factors, for example, reflected the “mind and mental factors” literature (Tib., sems dang sems byung), which extracts and organizes materials from an array of Abhidharma texts. In their examination of “mind and its object,” our authors’ efforts are similarly informed by another such genre known as “mind and cognition” (Tib., blo rig). Drawing on the main themes of that genre, our authors now have the opportunity to explore in greater detail some issues we have already encountered. To do so, our authors focus on Indian Buddhist epistemological texts, especially those of Dharmakīrti and his followers. Yet the way that material is structured and interpreted reflects nuances and innovations articulated by Tibetan scholars themselves. Here, we encounter especially the influence of the renowned scholar Chapa Chökyi Sengé (1109–69), whose work on numerous issues figures prominently in this discussion. Our authors note that Chapa’s opinions were at points controversial, and his views received especially trenchant criticism from Sakya Paṇḍita Kunga Gyaltsen (1182–1251) and his followers. Our authors remark on these differences at crucial points, and as with other topics treated in this volume, they aim to present a range of theories. Nevertheless, Chapa’s approach has advantages for unpacking central aspects of the Buddhist epistemological tradition, and our authors thus organize this part around key concerns for Chapa. In the first half, they examine the varieties of objects, along with related issues such as the role of images in cognition and the nature of conceptuality. In the second half of this part, our authors then turn to a sevenfold typology of cognition. To set the stage for the appreciation of these topics, I will now examine some of their key features.



Although earlier precedents can be cited, the Indian Buddhist epistemological tradition (Skt., pramāṇa) is generally traced back to Dignāga and Dharmakīrti in the sixth and seventh centuries. Through the works of various commentators, critics, and interpreters, Dharmakīrti becomes particularly influential for later Indian Buddhism and its transmission to Tibet. To understand the Dharmakīrtian account, it is helpful to begin with the relatively straightforward example of an ordinary person’s visual sense perception. Dharmakīrti and his followers hold that sense perception is a causal process, and several conditions are required for visual perception to occur: some material, visible stuff must be present; other external conditions such as adequate light must be involved; various mental factors including a basic level of attention (manasikāra) must be active; contact (sparśa) between the object and the sense faculty must occur; and so on. When all the requisite preconditions are in place, an image (ākāra) or phenomenological form of the object is generated in visual consciousness. Dharmakīrti indicates that this image is not just a mirror image of the object, since it varies across individuals, owing to such factors as the acuity of their sensory faculties and their currently active interests and affective states. Simultaneous with this object image (grāhyākāra), a subject image (grāhakākāra) must also arise. This subject image accounts for the phenomenal sense of consciousness or knowing that accompanies the experience, and it also is part of the subject-object structure—the sense of “in here / out there.” These images of the subject and of the object arise simultaneously in the moment of visual perception, and for a tiny fraction of a second, those images are presented without any categorization or conceptualization. Here, we should add that this involves a particular meaning of “conceptualization” that we will discuss further below. Importantly, our authors note that earlier models in the Abhidharma do not accept the notion that perception is mediated by images or phenomenal forms in this way, but for the epistemological tradition established by Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, an object image and a subject image are necessarily present in any moment of ordinary consciousness.

Some crucial features of this model may already be evident. First, in the most straightforward account of Dharmakīrti’s model, what is directly presented in a moment of sense consciousness is not the visible thing itself. Instead, it is an image or phenomenal form presented in consciousness. When I see an object that I identify as “blue,” for example, the blue color that I am directly experiencing is not a thing outside my mind; it is an image within consciousness. Second, my identification of that object as “blue” does not occur in the moment of perception itself; that conceptualization occurs as a perceptual judgment or subsequent cognition (Tib., bcad shes) that conceptualizes the image after the initial perception. The perceptual image and the consciousness in which it occurs are thus completely nonconceptual. A third key feature here is that perceptions do not occur in a vacuum; they are filtered and defined by the interests, goals, and dispositions active in the mind. For Dharmakīrti and his followers, a perception can count as a “valid cognition” only if it can produce a subsequent cognition that provides epistemically reliable information about the object in a way relevant to my goals. Thus, even though my perception is an image in consciousness, my perception must enable me to act on the cause of that image—a causally efficacious object—that is relevant to my goals. In a sense, what I directly see is just an image in my mind, but no organism is just interested in mental images; we wish to encounter opportunities and avoid dangers. If the image caused by the object cannot lead me to act on causally relevant stuff (and not just images in my mind) in ways that enable me to achieve those goals, then perception would be pointless, at least on the Dharmakīrtian account.

One important feature of the Dharmakīrtian system is that it posits a distinction between the image presented in sense consciousness and the object that caused the image. In other words, this model involves a kind of gap between the phenomenal image and its cause (an approach that, in Western philosophy, would be akin to a sense-data theory). The image might be something such as the presentation of a red object in awareness with a particular shape that we conceptualize as an “apple,” and the cause would be the actual material stuff that we wish to eat. Some interpreters of Dharmakīrti such as Chapa attempt to close this gap, even to the point that, by reinterpreting Dharmakīrti’s notion of the object image in particular ways, the image’s role as a mediator—a bridge between the material stuff and immaterial consciousness—is reduced or eliminated. As a result, for these interpreters, sense consciousness ends up engaging more-or-less directly with objects (akin to versions of “direct realism” in Western philosophy). Other interpreters, such as Sakya Paṇḍita, seek to preserve this gap in their interpretations of Dharmakīrti’s model of perception. There is thus a spectrum of interpretations, some that seek to close the gap between the object and the object image and some that seek to preserve it. An exploration of this spectrum’s full range would be complex indeed, and in the interest of simplicity, our authors decide to favor Chapa’s end of the spectrum, where the gap between the object and the object image in consciousness is reduced or eliminated. However, as Georges Dreyfus has noted, Dharmakīrti’s earliest Indian interpreters tend to assume a stronger version of this gap, and thus in historical terms, the typology of objects discussed by our authors arose in response to interpreters who assumed a clear gap between object and object image. Let us now examine the typology of objects our authors present, with an eye to clarifying how it seeks to reduce that gap.

"The perceptual image and the consciousness in which it occurs are thus completely nonconceptual."

Types of Objects

Based on Dharmakīrti’s account and fully elaborated by later Indian and Tibetan interpreters, the typology of objects presented by our authors is fourfold: (1) appearing object, (2) observed object, (3) conceived object, and (4) engaged object. The interpretation of these categories varies, and not all Buddhist epistemologists used this typology or accepted it. Dharmakīrti and his earliest interpreters do not explicitly use this typology, and they lack the technical term appearing object; however, they do refer to the object image as an “appearance” (Skt., pratibhāsa) in awareness. This stands in contrast to the observed object (gṛāhya)—the thing that causes an appearance or object image to arise in a moment of perception. Thus, if Dharmakīrti’s earliest Indian interpreters were to use this fourfold model, they would say that the first two types of objects—the appearing object and the observed object—should be distinct. But following Chapa, our authors collapse the gap between object and object image, and the appearing object and the observed object are thus synonymous. In lieu of being interpreted as what causes an object image in a perception, the observed object is precisely what is directly apprehended by a sense consciousness, and that object is also the appearing object in that it is cognized by that consciousness by way of appearing to it.

So far, we have been discussing the typology of objects in relation to perception, which is necessarily nonconceptual for the Buddhist epistemologists. To understand the third type of object—the conceived object—we must examine conceptual cognition. In brief, conceptual cognitions involve mental objects such as the conceptual image of a pot presented in the thought “This is a pot.” This conceptualized “pot” is both the appearing object and observed object of that conceptual cognition, since it is what that cognition directly apprehends. That conceptual pot, however, is presented as referring to—or simply being the same as—some real pot in the world. As such, that real pot is the “conceived object” of that conceptual cognition. In other words, it is what that conceptual cognition is guiding us to. In part this means that the thought of a unicorn does not truly have a conceived object, since there is no real thing to which it can refer in this way.

The fourth type of object, the engaged object, is what a cognition is prompting us to act upon, whether through physical actions or additional mental activity. A conceptual cognition prompts us to engage in this way precisely by presenting its mental objects as the conceived object—as some real thing in the world. A perceptual cognition, being nonconceptual, has no conceived object; instead, it directly presents its content—the observed object—as something for us to act upon, and in comparison to a conceptual cognition, a perceptual cognition has a kind of vividness that is especially relevant to prompting actions on its engaged object. From a strictly epistemological standpoint, this category of the engaged object may seem redundant, since it is not directly connected to questions of truth or justification, but Buddhist thinkers are interested in more than just the conditions that make a cognition epistemically reliable. Their theories are also informed by a keen interest in the mechanisms involved in our behaviors and the role that cognitions play in prompting—or changing—those behaviors.


On Concept Formation through “Exclusion”

Already in part 1, our authors pointed out that conceptual cognition is deceptive. On the one hand, we ordinary beings must rely on concepts—as expressed in language and thought—to make our way in the world, yet our thoughts and statements about the world, while useful for engaged action, invariably mislead us. In the introduction to part 1, I noted the two ways in which conceptual cognitions are mistaken. First, they present their content—such as the concept “fire”—as identical to some real fire in the world, but unlike an actual fire, the thought of fire cannot truly burn anything. Second, the concept or thought of fire involves a universal (Skt., sāmānyalakṣaṇa), which amounts to an essence or “fire-ness” that characterizes every fire. Yet Buddhist epistemologists maintain that this notion of “fire-ness” is simply a mental construct; in fact, there is no such universal, no entity that is exactly the same in any two things that we call “fire.” Every thing that we call “fire” is actually unique in every way, not at all the same, even if by using that concept or expression we somehow are able to successfully achieve our goal of becoming warm and do not confuse those entities with stuff that will make us cold.

If conceptual cognitions are always mistaken, how can they reliably guide action? The key to this question lies especially in the problem of accounting for some sameness that enables us to use a single concept or expression such as “fire” for multiple unique things. If, as Buddhist epistemologists maintain, there is in reality no such sameness, how are concepts or expressions such as “fire” still successful in guiding our actions? The answer to this question is the theory of exclusion (apoha) developed by Dignāga and Dharmakīrti with further elaboration by many generations of commentators.
The full details of exclusion theory are complex, and to set the stage for the in-depth summary provided by our authors, it will be helpful to examine the term exclusion itself. As we have noted, Buddhist epistemologists reject the notion of any real sameness—what in Western philosophical terms would be called a universal—that characterizes every instance of, for example, a fire. Yet even though there is no real sameness, our cognitive systems can construct an unreal sameness. The key here is that our cognitive systems are not simply constructing concepts out of some bad habit, as Dharmakīrti puts it. Instead, these concepts help us avoid what we think will inhibit our flourishing while also helping us obtain what we believe will promote it. In short, we are concerned with desirable outcomes—­identifying something as “fire” is tied to my desire to get warm and to engage with an object capable of making me warm. And with that context in place, my cognitive systems construct something that is, in practical terms, the same for all fires, even though there is no sameness in the world.

Although every individual instance of fire is completely unique, our cognitive systems can ignore the variations among those instances and instead focus on the way that each thing we call a “fire” is “excluded” (Skt., apoḍha, vyāvṛtta) from all things that do not have the expected or desired effects. And this “exclusion of that which does not have the expected goal-­oriented, causal capacity” (atadarthakriyāvyāvṛtti) constitutes a sameness. Thus, even though there is no real “fire-ness” that characterizes all fires, in my experience each thing I call “fire” is different from other things that don’t do what I expect a fire to do. A somewhat tongue-in-cheek way of putting this is to say that, in terms of the things that we call a fire, we can say that they are all the same in that they are “not a non-fire.” This statement, however, is not as a simple as it looks, and this process certainly cannot be reduced to a mere logical double-negation, which would be both trivial and pointless. Instead, this notion of exclusion only makes sense when we understand that it falls within a behavioral context, where the formulation and use of concepts (whether expressed through words or not) is ultimately tied to our goal-oriented behaviors that end in a concrete experience of, for example, feeling warm.

The example of fire that I have chosen is a traditional one, but it also has the advantage of easily invoking an experience. Nearly everyone has had the experience of being cold and then seeking some means to become warm, whether with a “coat,” a “heater,” a “fire,” or the like. And while the vast array of things that we can fit under these categories are varied indeed, it is easy to understand how the point of that categorization is to achieve a goal: the question of the exact sameness of every coat or heater is not a practical concern. Of course, we can—and do—develop higher-order concepts that are less concrete in this way, but the claim of the exclusion theory is that even those higher-order concepts emerge out of a more basic system that serves to guide our embodied actions toward the concrete goals that we seek. For again, the thought of a fire (or some other abstraction) cannot make us warm. The claim here is that what counts is the actual, perceptual experience.

"And with that context in place, my cognitive systems construct something that is, in practical terms, the same for all fires, even though there is no sameness in the world."

Seven Types of Cognitions: A Model of Transformation

Conceptual cognitions involve distortions that do not come into play for perceptual cognitions. This is not to say that perceptions are simply pure, unconstructed encounters with the world. At all levels of analysis, Buddhist epistemologists acknowledge that perception is a highly conditioned process influenced by numerous factors, such as the particularities of our embodiment, the context formed by our expectations, and the acuity (Skt., pāṭava) of our attentional and volitional capacities. Still, perception holds a special place in Buddhist epistemology. As we have seen, at a basic level our conceptual system operates in a way that facilitates our goals, which themselves involve concrete perceptual experiences, such as feeling warm. The mere thought of feeling warm is not enough: we want to actually experience warmth. In this way, perception is said to be vivid (spaṣṭa) in ways that thought or conceptuality is not. Importantly, this also means that perception can be harnessed to the project of personal transformation, precisely because its vividness includes a visceral, embodied encounter with whatever is being perceived. To take a key Buddhist example, it is certainly laudable to have a conceptual understanding of the notion of personal selflessness (pudgalanairātmya), such that I intellectually understand that, even if it feels like I have some unchanging, absolute, and autonomous identity that constitutes my “self,” I do not in fact have that kind of self at all. This intellectual understanding of selflessness can be helpful in reforming some of my dysfunctionality, but an actual perceptual experience of selflessness, where I viscerally feel that lack of any such essentialized and unchanging self, will have a much stronger impact on my beliefs and behavior. This insight into the primacy of perception underlies the sevenfold typology of cognition that figures prominently in our authors’ discussion.

The sevenfold typology again harkens back to Chapa, who is renowned for presenting it. Here again, there are disagreements among Tibetan philosophers about some of these categories, but our authors choose to set aside those disagreements in favor of a presentation that echoes an analysis made by the present Dalai Lama. In this account, the sevenfold typology traces a kind of developmental arc from being caught in the delusion of, for example, a fixed and essentialized self, and gradually moving toward a transformative perceptual experience of selflessness. The first stage involves (1) a distorted cognition, namely, the belief that my identity is immutable, unchanging and autonomous. But then, perhaps under the influence of something I have read or someone I have met, I begin to question this idea. Eventually, a state of (2) doubt arises, and since the issue of my own identity is of considerable importance, I begin to study this question. Through my rational analysis, I reach a point of (3) correct assumption. My analyses have not uprooted my doubt, but I am starting to recognize that my previous belief in a fixed, essentialized self is untenable. Finally, as I engage with this problem more, I am able to have a truly valid moment of (4) inference, where I am fully confident that I have come to the correct ­conclusion—namely, that selflessness most accurately describes a key feature of my experience.

These first four types of cognitions are all very much in the conceptual realm, and His Holiness’s way of interpreting them connects to a typical sequence within Buddhist contemplative practice that involves studying (Skt., śruti, literally, “hearing”), contemplating (cintā), and meditating (bhāvanā). In a sense, the presence of persistent doubt is what gets us started in the serious study of an issue, and as we mull it over in contemplation, we start to get an idea of where our analysis is headed. Finally, we reach a point of conviction in that analysis, which here would correspond to a well-formed inference. But at this point, we are still in the realm of concepts, and we have not had a visceral, perceptual experience that will truly impact our cognitive schema about the self. As a result, our behavior will not change significantly. Instead, we must begin to meditate or focus on the conclusion to our analysis, and this enables us to have (5) a sustained subsequent cognition, in which the first moment of our inferential insight into selflessness is sustained in thought. We then apply additional meditative techniques to focus one-pointedly on that sustained insight, and this eventually leads to (6) a direct perception of selflessness.

That moment of the direct perception of a transformative insight is visceral in ways that the intellectual understanding cannot be, and it recruits our entire embodied experience—not just our thoughts—to the task of change. Dharmakīrti attempts to explain this point by citing cases that many of us would understand. For example, if I wake up in the middle of the night and hear a thief in my house, the visceral reaction that I feel at the moment is dramatically different from merely thinking about a thief coming that night. The point of Dharmakīrti’s example is not that a thief is actually in my house; instead, Dharmakīrti means that we wake up, perhaps from a dream of thieves, and then we have this visceral experience. In a similar way, the long and intense process of contemplating selflessness, when combined with meditative techniques, can result in a visceral, perceptual experience that truly reorients our beliefs and behaviors. This stands in contrast to (7) an indeterminate perception, which in this context would be a meditative experience that, while vivid and even dramatic, has no visceral impact on our beliefs or behaviors, precisely because it is not emerging from—or contextualized by—a careful inquiry into a crucial issue such as the question of personal identity.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s insightful way of interpreting the sevenfold typology of cognition sets aside some of its thornier details, including especially the very status of indeterminate perception itself. In a direct and instructive way, it evokes precisely the underlying concern of this model: in what way can our beliefs and experiences be cultivated to reduce suffering and enhance human flourishing?

John Dunne

"The sevenfold typology again harkens back to Chapa, who is renowned for presenting it."

This, the second volume in the Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics series, focuses on the science of mind. Readers are first introduced to Buddhist conceptions of mind and consciousness and then led through traditional presentations of mental phenomena to reveal a Buddhist vision of the inner world with fascinating implications for the contemporary disciplines of cognitive science, psychology, emotion research, and philosophy of mind. Major topics include:

– The distinction between sensory and conceptual processes and the pan-Indian notion of mental consciousness

– Mental factors—specific mental states such as attention, mindfulness, and compassion—and how they relate to one another

– The unique tantric theory of subtle levels of consciousness, their connection to the subtle energies, or “winds,” that flow through channels in the human body, and what happens to each when the body and mind dissolve at the time of death

– The seven types of mental states and how they impact the process of perception

– Styles of reasoning, which Buddhists understand as a valid avenue for acquiring sound knowledge

In the final section, the volume offers what might be called Buddhist contemplative science, a presentation of the classical Buddhist understanding of the psychology behind meditation and other forms of mental training.

To present these specific ideas and their rationale, the volume weaves together passages from the works of great Buddhist thinkers like Asaṅga, Vasubandhu, Nāgārjuna, Dignāga, and Dharmakīrti. His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s introduction outlines scientific and philosophical thinking in the history of the Buddhist tradition. To provide additional context for Western readers, each of the six major topics is introduced with an essay by John D. Dunne, distinguished professor of Buddhist philosophy and contemplative practice at the University of Wisconsin. These essays connect the traditional material to contemporary debates and Western parallels, and provide helpful suggestions for further reading.


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