Introduction to Ways of Knowing and Debate
If we are not convinced of the benefits of studying something, why would we study it?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So the Tibetans did that and in this way they developed terms that would lend themselves to the definitions.
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.
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.
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 if we fail to do that, then our discussions could be not meeting each other because we’re talking about two different things.
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.
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.
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.
“Well, yes, this may be true, but that’s not what we’re talking about.
And you’d have to say ‘yes,’ because in each moment we know something different.
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;
And 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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 Bodhgaya lead 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.
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.
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.
And you have to keep your composure; you can’t get upset about that and start to cry or anything like that.
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.”
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 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 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.
They ask, “What should we read? What should we study?”
I say, “Well, go to my website berzinarchives.com 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 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 nonconceptual 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:
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?
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 does it mean to have a nonconceptual 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 nonconceptually, are you relying on a line of reasoning, are you not relying on a line of reasoning?
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.
“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.
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.
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!