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"Perception in the Buddhist psychology of Nalanda" by Geshe Dorji Damdul

Buddha indicated that the mind is the chief as regards all our emotions and actions, and if it is driven by ignorance, it leads to all miseries. He taught the twelve links of dependent origination, pertaining to the evolution of three kinds of miseries in samsaric existence, all stemming from ignorance. The counter force for this ignorance is what the Buddha identified as wisdom, to remove the veil of ignorance which blinds the vison of reality.
Dry-cool garden (1921), Paul Klee (German, 1879 - 1940) artvee.com

1. 1. Background to the Study of Perception
Dhammapada states:

Mind is the chief and precedes them all;
If with the impure mind, one speaks or acts,
Miseries will follow,
Like a card following the ox.

Mind is the chief and precedes them all;
If with the pure mind, one acts or speaks,
Happiness will follow,
Like a shadow that follows the person (1).

Buddha indicated that the mind is the chief as regards all our emotions and actions, and if it is driven by ignorance, it leads to all miseries. He taught the twelve links of dependent origination, pertaining to the evolution of three kinds of miseries in samsaric existence, all stemming from ignorance.
The counter force for this ignorance is what the Buddha identified as wisdom, to remove the veil of ignorance which blinds the vison of reality. The Sutra (2) states:

When the mode of emptiness, peace, unborn nature
Is failed to be perceived, migrating beings revolve (in samsara).
The (Buddha) who is endowed with great compassion
Through multiple reasons, drive beings into (this insight).

As Gyaltsab Rinpoche said in his Commentary on Pramanavaritikakarika (3):

All desirable goals are attained through valid cognition whose apprehension of the object tallies with the reality.

Given that valid cognition, more precisely valid direct perception, is the key to ultimate happiness, as indicated above, tremendous focus and emphasis is given to understanding epistemology and psychology in Nalanda Buddhism, in order to understand what valid cognition is constituted of and its taxonomy.

Perceptions maybe of two kinds: non-erroneous and erroneous perceptions. Since beings operate through their minds, which in turn predominantly feed on the information provided by perceptions, enriching valid perceptions determine the quality of one’s life, with respect to the individual as well as the community.

As indicated in Acharya Dignaga’s Pramanasamuchaya, valid perception is defined as a mind which is devoid of conceptuality and is non-mistaken. More detailed explanations pertaining to the definition of valid perception will be discussed in the main body of this essay.

As for the divisions of valid perception, all Buddhist schools commonly present three kinds of perception: sensory, mental, and yogic direct perception. Some Buddhist schools, such as Sautrantika, Chittamatra and Yogachara Svatantrika, accept additional meta-awareness or self-cognisant perception (Skt: Svasamvedhana, Tib: rang-rigs), in addition to the three perceptions mentioned above. Broadly speaking, sensory perception is the trigger for many of the mental and emotional states.

(1) Dhammapada, Chapter 1, Verses 1 and 2.
(2) The Sutra in the form of a single verse is cited in Legshay snyingpo, p. 2 (Sera Jey rigzoe chenmoi tsom-drig khang Publication 2020).
(3) Gyaltsab Dharma Rinchen’s Tharlam Seljay, p. 341 (CIHTS Gedhen Chilay Khang Publication 2016).

2. The Mechanism for the Arising of Sensory Perceptions
Valid sensory perception, which is of five kinds – visual perception, auditory, gustatory, olfactory, and tactility – should necessarily arise by dependence on three conditions. These three conditions are the perceptive condition (Tib: dmigs rkayen), unique empowering condition (Tib: mthun mong ma yin pai bdhag rkayen), and immediately preceding condition (Tib: dhe ma thag rkyen). Take the example of the visual perception of a flower. In this case the flower is the perceptive condition; eye sense power is the unique empowering condition; and the immediately preceding mind, be it mental or sensory, is the immediately preceding condition. That the resultant sense awareness perceives a flower, and not a tree or a table, is because of having the flower as the perceptive condition. Furthermore, that the resultant sense awareness perceives a visual object, and not tactility, or smell, is because of having eye sense power as its unique empowering condition. Finally, that the resultant sense awareness is produced in the nature of awareness and not as a tangible material object made of atoms is because of it being the continuum of a preceding awareness and not a material base as its unique substantial cause.


3. What Transmits the Information from the Sense Perception to the Mental Consciousness, the Latter Being the Decision-Making Body of the Self?
All actions carried out by an individual take place based on decisions made by the mental consciousness. This can be gathered from the fact that all Buddhist schools, except Prasangika, identify the mental consciousness as the substantial illustration of the person. Decisions are made on the basis of the kind of information the mental consciousness is fed with, which are picked up and transmitted to it by other awareness or consciousness, such as the sense consciousness. The question lies, what bridges the two consciousnesses, i.e., the one which gathers the information, such as the sense consciousness, and the one that processes the information and make decisions, which is the mental consciousness. Here various Buddhist schools differ in their points of view.

Some Buddhist schools, such as Chittamatra (Mind-Only School), claim that self-cognisant perception (Skt: svasemvedhana, Tib: rang-rig) is the one which is responsible for serving as the bridge between the information gathering consciousness, such as sense perceptions, and the information processor – the mental consciousness. They support this claim by very strong reasons which one can learn in great detail from Lama Tsongkhapa’s Commentary on Acharya Chandrakirti’s seminal text, Madhyamakavatara (Tib. Gongpa Rabsel(4))

Now, what is self-cognisant perception? Just as an external light-bulb has two functions - to illuminate other objects and to illuminate itself - all minds in general have two functions, to perceive other objects and also to perceive oneself. From the point of view of perceiving oneself, the concept of self-cognisant perception came into being. Debates in support of it and against its existence are found in great detail in Lama Tsongkhapa’s Commentary on Acharya Chandrakirti’s seminal text, Madhyamakavatara (Tib. Gongpa Rabsel) and also in Bodhisattva Shantideva’s text, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.

For the Prasangika Buddhist School, having rejected self-cognisant perception, they come up with a unique presentation of the concept of perception and its attributes, to find the link between the source-perception and the mental consciousness, for the latter to make decisions based on information gathered by the former. To fully understand Prasangika’s unique presentation in this regard, the following back ground facts are required.

Memory plays a very important role in the processing of information by the mental consciousness in making decisions. Chittamatra and the advocates of self-cognisant perception argue that if self-cognisant perception is rejected, how can one account for the formation of memory. In essence, the argument that they put forth is as follows.

Say you have seen your friend Mr. A a year ago and you have a memory of him today. What makes you remember Mr. A? Just as one does not have any basis for the memory of a thing which someone else did in your absence, one cannot have a memory of Mr. A if one did not cognise him before. One may say, I have the memory of Mr. A, as I validly perceived my friend Mr. A a year ago. Not only do you remember Mr. A, you also have the memory of you having perceived Mr. A. What cognised the mind within you which perceived Mr. A? Chittamatra argues that this is the disconnect and loophole if one does not accept self-perceiving mind. One cannot account for the memory of your mind having seen Mr. A a year ago. How does Prasangika resolve this issue despite rejecting the self-perceiving mind?

(4) Illuminating the Intent: An Exposition of Acharya Candrakirti’s Entering the Middle Way by Lama Tsongkhapa, translated into English by Thupten Jinpa (Wisdom Publications 2021).


4. Prasangika’s Unique Presentation of Perception
When any mind interacts with its object, they do so with two actions: the act of the object appearing to the mind, and the act of the mind apprehending the object. For the minds which are classified as perceptions, the act of apprehending the object is also referred to as the act of perception. Related to the two actions, all minds have two objects: the object of appearance and the object of apprehension. For the conceptual minds following the direct perceptions such as sensory, only the generic image or meaning generality (Skt: Artha-samanya, Tib: dhon-chi), for e.g., the meaning generality of a flower, is the object of appearance, and not the bare intrinsic object, such as the visual flower, while the intrinsic substantial flower is the object of apprehension, from the point of view of the lower Buddhist Schools. Whereas for the direct perception perceiving a flower, the visual flower is the object of appearance as well as the object of apprehension (or the object of perception).

For Prasangika, on the other hand, all minds - including distorted minds, such as self-grasping ignorance - should necessarily cognise their object of appearance, which is totally not feasible from the point of view of the other lower schools. This entails all perceptions necessarily perceive and cognise their object of appearance for Prasangika. On top of the other explanations given by Acharya Chandrakirti and Bodhisattva Shantideva (5) to account for the memory, this unique presentation of perception of the object of appearance enriches Prasangika’s account of memory formation while rejecting the self-perceiving mind.

Acharya Chandrakirti brought up two main points to account for the memory. Even in the absence of the cognition of the subject which views the object, the phenomenon of remembering the subject is inalienably tight with phenomenon of remembering the object. When I remember by brother, I say, “I remember my brother.” Here the subject, ‘I’ invariably comes along with the memory of my brother as the object. Also in the conventional sense, when the objects of the two minds - direct perception of the object and the later thought of the same object - are similar and share a continuum, the later thought is termed as memory. Whereas Bodhisattva Shantideva gave an example of a person in whom a thought (Tib: dren pa) of being injected with poison in the winter season the last year, is triggered later in the next monsoon when the person feels the pain corresponding to the event when thunder strikes, even without having experienced the injection of the poison before. One important observation struck me related to this usage of the word memory in English. It may not suit too well in this context. The word ‘memory’ is used by many English translators to translate the Tibetan word དྲན་པ་ (dren-pa) when translating this section, the point of view of Bodhisattva Shantideva. There is a nuanced limitation in the nature of language, although it does not affect the discussion off the track. In Tibetan, the word དྲན་པ་ (dren-pa), while it does connote memory as in English, the meaning of this word is more pervasive than just a memory. It also pervades to the random thoughts which are sparked without necessarily thinking of reasons in favour of the contents of the thought, which may not be a memory. Such thoughts are expressed in Tibetan as, “ངས་གཅིག་དྲན་སོང་།” which in English can be more closely translated as, “A thought came to me.” It is like Archimedes, who had a sudden trigger of a thought of buoyancy, because of which he spontaneously jumped out of the bath and ran naked down the streets with loud shouts, “Eureka!” “I have found it! It was not a memory which arose in Archimedes. This translation issue does not divert us from the main discussion on memory.

(5) The Chapter on Wisdom, Chapter 9, in A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Tibet House Delhi Publication 2012).


5. Mental Direct Perception
Mental direct perception is classified into two: the one which is induced by a sense direct perception, and the other induced by factors other than sense perception. While Buddhist scholars accept both, they accept the first kind, on the basis of what the Buddha indicated in a Sutra (6): “Consciousness of forms are of two types, those depending on the eye and those depending on the mind”. Those depending on the mind refers to the mental direct perception, which are given rise to by factors other than sense perceptions. Buddhist psychologists differ in their position of how these mental direct perceptions indicated in that Sutra are triggered by sense consciousness.

Scholar Prajnakaragupta, the advocate of i) ‘alternating production’, states that with an eye sense perception as an example, the first moment of eye sense perception arises followed by the first moment of mental direct perception, followed by the second moment of eye sense perception, followed by the second moment of mental direct perception. Whereas Brahmin Shankarananda, the advocate of ii) ‘production in three types’, states that following the first moment of eye sense perception, three kinds of mind arise simultaneously: the second moment of eye sense perception, the first moment of mental direct perception and the first moment of self-cognisant mind which perceives both the second moment of the eye sense perception and the first moment of mental direct perception. Master Dharmottara, the advocate of iii) ‘production only at the end of a continuum’ accepts that if an eye sense perception arises for five moments, mental direct perception is induced only after the end of the last moment of the eye sense perception. Of the three, Lama Tsongkhapa and his disciples accept the third mode, while Sakya Pandita accepts the second. Given that mental direct perception induced by sense perceptions should necessarily be a single moment in the shortest duration of time (Tib: dhu-tha kay-chik-ma), it is considered to be very hidden phenomena beyond the accessibility of direct perception and pure reasoning by the power of fact of ordinary beings. As for the mental direct perceivers which are not indicated in the above sutra, these include the six higher perceptions (Skt. Abhijna, Tib: mngon shes).

(6) Sutra cited in Lati Rinpoche’s Mind in Tibetan Buddhism (Snow Lion Publication, Third Print 1986).


6. Yogic Direct Perception
Unlike many other traditions of psychology, Buddhist psychology puts forth the concept of yogic direct perception to account for attaining enlightenment.

As the Tibetan masters put it, ‘For enlightenment, one begins with direct perception, followed by inferential cognition and ends with direct perception’. This explains why one requires extensive knowledge of Buddhist psychology of perception in order to accomplish the soteriological purpose of enlightenment.

Enlightenment, in the Buddhist context, should be understood as clearing the mind of all adventitious defilements, including both afflictive and cognitive obscurations. There is inborn enlightenment within all beings, but it lies in a dormant state, which is referred to as Buddha nature or Tathagata-garbha. What veils this enlightenment from being manifest are the mental defilements. To remove the mental defilements, one has to identify the nature of the defilements, which is well reflected in the Essence of Dependent Origination Mantra, which the Buddha taught in The Sutra on Dependent Origination(7). The Mantra goes,

Yey dharma heytu prabhava heytum taysham tathagato haywa tat taysham chayo nirodha evam vadi maha shramanaye svaha.

Its English translation reads as:

All phenomena arise from their causes,
The causes are taught by the Tathagata,
The cessation of the causes,
Is indicated by the Great Seer.

This is further explained in detail by Arya Nagarjuna in Mulamadhyamakakarika, Chapter Eighteen, wherein it says (8):

Ceasing of karma and afflictions is nirvana;
Karma and afflictions arise from conceptualisation,
Which in turn arises from elaboration (of ignorance);
The elaboration (of ignorance) ceases through emptiness.

Given that all defilements which veil the Buddha nature boil down to either ramifications and offshoots (referred to as afflictive obscurations) of self-grasping ignorance or the subtle stains (referred to as cognitive obscurations) of self-grasping ignorance, wisdom that remedies the final ignorance is the ultimate antidote to be cultivated by the aspirants of the soteriological purpose of enlightenment.

The process by which this wisdom is cultivated is presented in the form of an axiom by Tibetan masters, which is cited above as, ‘For enlightenment, one begins with direct perception, followed by inferential cognition and ends with direct perception.

As David Hume indicates in his book, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding(9), perception is the building block for the more sophisticated concepts and ideas. The wisdom of emptiness – the insight into the ontological reality - which is extremely sophisticated, is generated in three stages: through learning, reflection and meditation. Only when the said wisdom manifests in the form of the wisdom of deep meditation, to the extent of non-dual perception of the ontological reality, can one uproot the defilements. This wisdom must build upon the wisdom derived through reflection, in order to gain absolute conviction about emptiness as the ultimate reality. This, in turn, should be preceded by the wisdom derived through learning by means of sound reasons to establish emptiness, with the use of syllogisms such as, ‘My body (as the topic), it is empty of intrinsic reality (the predicate), since it is dependently originated on causes and conditions (the sign or reason).’ To understand the thesis or probandum of the said syllogism, which is ‘my body being empty of intrinsic reality’, one has to know the three modes, i.e, property of the subject, forward pervasion and reverse pervasion (10)

To know the first mode, which is the property of the subject, one has to know the body as dependently originated, where the body is seen as dependent on causes and conditions. Specifically, my body to be dependently originated in ways dependent on causes and conditions is cognised by direct perception. From this we could see that wisdom initially begins with direct perception. Likewise, we require a series of direct perceptions to eventually cognise the other two modes as well. With the help of cognising the three modes, one then establishes the thesis, ‘my body being empty of intrinsic reality’. This insight of emptiness is inferential cognition, which is a wisdom derived through reflection. This is the meaning of ‘direct perception leads to inferential cognition’. The conviction one has gained over this fact of emptiness through inferential cognition has to be practiced over and over again in order to reach to the level of the wisdom derived through meditation. The wisdom derived through meditation in turn is of two kinds, one on the conceptual level and the other on the direct perception level. The one on the direct perception level of the wisdom of emptiness is the most important wisdom to counteract the self-grasping ignorance. This gives us the understanding the meaning of ‘inferential cognition leads to direct perception.

(7) The Noble Mahayana Sutra “Dependent Arising” in The Blaze of Non-Dual Bodhicittas (Tibet House Publication 2023).
(8) Chapter 18, Mulamadhyamakakarika, in The Blaze of Non-Dual Bodhicittas (Tibet House Publication 2023).
(9) David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Oxford University Press 2007).
(10) Three modes for a sound syllogism are: 1) Property of the subject – the topic should be the reason or sign, 2) forward pervasion – whatever is the sign entails the predicate, 3) reverse pervasion – whatever is not the predicate entails not the sign.


7. The Difference Between Direct Perception and Conceptual Mind
While both direct perception, such as the sensory perception of a flower and conceptual mind, such as the thought of a flower, get to their primary object (which is the flower), the conceptual mind never perceives the bare object, which in this instant is the bare flower. It always uses meaning generality (Skt: aratha samanya, Tib: don-spyi), which obscures the conceptual mind from perceiving its object in its bare intrinsically substantial form. Given that the meaning generality and the actual object always appear as mixed-up to the conceptual mind, conceptual mind is posited to be always mistaken with respect to the object of appearance. The wisdom of emptiness in the form of inferential cognition being a conceptual mind is no exception, in that it is as well mistaken with respect to its object of appearance, although it is not mistaken with its primary object of apprehension and instead cognises it.

Here the two camps, Prasangika versus all the other Buddhist schools, differ starkly in their views regarding what constitutes mistaken mind and whether or not a mind can cognise the same object with respect to which it is mistaken.


8. All Minds (Including Conceptual Minds) are Direct Perception with respect to their Object of Appearance for Prasangika – A Unique Presentation
Prasangika starkly diverts from the rest of the Buddhist schools in positing that all minds should necessarily be cognising their object of appearance, and adds that they are direct perceptions with respect to their object of appearance. They do maintain, as do the other Buddhist schools, that conceptual minds are always mistaken with respect to the object of appearance. For Prasangika, there is no contradiction between a mind cognising an object and being mistaken with respect to the same object. On the other hand, this is not feasible for the rest of the Buddhist philosophical schools.

Back to the main point, one needs to explore how the initial experience of the wisdom of emptiness, which is in the form of conceptual mind, transmutes into yogic direct perception of emptiness. Now, the five paths to enlightenment, as presented in the Heart Sutra mantra, are as follows: Gatay (the Path of Accumulation), Gatay (the Path of Preparation), Para-gatay (the Path of Seeing), Para-sam-gatay (the Path of Meditation), and Bodhi Svaha (the Path of No-More Learning).

Generally speaking, the first two paths – the Path of Accumulation and the Path of Preparation – are conceptual with respect to the wisdom of emptiness, not direct perceptions of emptiness. As the practitioner traverses from the second path to the third path, which is the Path of Seeing, the wisdom of emptiness which was in the form of conceptual mind transmutes into the direct perception of emptiness, which is then referred to as yogic direct perception of emptiness.

How does this transmutation happen, from conceptual mind to direct perception? As discussed previously, the meaning generality or the image of the primary object which blurs the conceptual mind from perceiving emptiness directly gradually fades away with constant practice of the meditation on emptiness. At what pace the meaning generality fades away is determined by the rigour and the will power of the mind of the practitioner. The will power and the rigour of the mind in turn is determined by what motivation drives it, whether it is just the motivation of renunciation, or it is the motivation of Bodhicitta driving one to practice the wisdom of emptiness. If the motivation is Bodhicitta, this motivation fades away the meaning generality way more effectively in comparison with the mind tempered by just renunciation, to arrive at perceiving emptiness directly. Within the realm of direct perception of emptiness, there are differences in how purely one perceives emptiness. One can draw the analogy of a young child and an elderly person, both of whom are directly perceiving the fine painting of Mona Lisa. While both perceive the painting with their direct perception, they differ starkly in the degree of clarity of their perception of the painting.


9. Do Direct Perceptions Require Intrinsic Substantial Entity as Their Perceptive Object?
For Buddhist Schools other than Prasangika, all valid direct perceptions should necessarily have an intrinsic substantial entity as their perceptive object, and that non-composite phenemona, which are non-substantial, never appear to valid direct perception. It is for this reason that Sautrantika maintains that direct perception of selflessness at the level of the Path of Seeing has the five aggregates - which they posit as intrinsic substantial entities- as the perceptive objects, and the selflessness of the person - which is not substantial in nature, although it is the primary object of this mind - is cognised implicitly and not directly.

For Prasangika, the direct perception of emptiness perceives emptiness directly and not implicitly. Unlike Sautrantika, for Prasangika, even if the object is not the nature of substantial entity, valid direct perception can still have its appearance and cognise it directly. This yogic direct perception of emptiness perceives its object directly in ways of negation. This is popularly postulated as, ‘not seeing anything is seeing the supreme’. Through negating the object of analysis with respect to the ultimate analysis in the form of yogic direct perception, this perception directly sees the supreme, which is emptiness. This understanding of how emptiness is directly perceived is not at all even remotely discussed in the tenet systems of the lower schools. This can easily be mistaken with the mind falling into a state of coma, like the meditative state of the third and the fourth formless realm – the realm of vacuity and the peak of existence – where the cognitive activity of the mind is so inactive. Whereas perceiving emptiness directly through ‘not seeing’ as explained earlier is cognitively a very active state. It is so important not to mistake one for the other. It is for this reason that Abhidharma texts clearly indicate that Sravakas cannot have a direct perception of selflessness, if the practitioner employs the meditative state of the fourth formless realm to perceive emptiness. Therefore, it is of crucial importance that the distinction be made between the mode of perceiving emptiness directly as presented by Prasangika, verses a mind refraining from any object, as do the meditative states of vacuity and the peak of existence of the formless realm. It is for this reason that despite the first two teachers of the Buddha, Acharya Alarakalam and Acharya Udreka, having already attained the meditative state of vacuity and peak of existence respectively, they failed to have insight into emptiness. Thus did Prince Siddharth go in search of the true and complete path to enlightenment. This is clearly indicated by Acharya Dignaga in the words of salutation to the Buddha in his seminal work Pramanasamuchaya (Eng.: Compendium of Presentations of Valid Cognition) where he wrote:

The one who has transformed into the Reliable Guide,
Motivated by altruism to benefit all the beings,
The teacher, Sugata and the Protector,
To you, I make prostrations.

Italian translation by Atisha Mathur


Chandrakirti, Acharya. Madhyamakavataranama. Printed by Tibet House Delhi (2014)
Dharmakirti, Acharya. Pramanavartika, Establishing the Reliable Guide. English Translation by Geshe Dorji Damdul, Tibet House Publication, India (2020)
Dharma Rinchen, Gyaltsab. Illuminating the Path to Liberation. In Tibetan Language. Gedhen Chilay Khang, CIHTS, Varanasi Publication (2016)
Dignaga, Acharya. Pramanasamuchaya and Auto Commentary. Sera Jey Rigzod Chenmo Publication (2023) SRJB-0418
Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 978-0-19-921158-6
Nagarjuna, Arya. Mulamadhyamakakarika, Blaze of Non-Dual Bodhicittas. Tibet House Publication, India (2023)
Shakyamuni, Buddha, (2014). Dhammapada. Dharma Publishing, USA (2014)
Shakyamuni, Buddha. Heart Sutra. Tibet House Publication, India (2023)
Shantideva, Bodhisattva. A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. LTWA Dharamsala Publication (1979)
Tsongkhapa, Lama. Illuminating the Intent: An Exposition of Candrakirti’s Entering the Middle Way. English Translation by Thupten Jinpa (Dr.) Wisdom Publication (2021)
Vasubandhu, Acharya. Abhidharmakosh. FPMT Translation, Printed by Tibet House, Delhi (2015)


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