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Taoism & The Tenets Of Valid Cognition

How Do We Know What We Know?

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The Tenets Of Valid Cognition

The tenets of valid cognition propose an answer to the question: what counts as a logically-valid source of knowledge? In the Tibetan tradition rooted in the work of Dignaga and Dharmakirti, we find three general categories of valid cognitions, which can be very useful to us as Taoist practitioners:

(1) Direct Perceptions. This category includes sensory direct perception, mental direct perception, yogic direct perception and reflexive-awareness direct perception.

Sensory direct perception

is a kind of “seeing nakedly” (or “hearing nakedly” etc.) which is free from conceptual elaboration, and on that basis considered as a valid source of knowledge. In relation to western philosophical categories, “sensory direct perception” bears a certain resemblance to empiricism.

However, this category also includes yogic direct perception and reflexive-awareness direct perceptions: forms of apperception or mystic intuition which functions via a distinct (though not necessarily unrelated) “channel” than does sensory direct perception. It is the inclusion of these two varieties of direct perception which sets this category of “direct perception” -- as articulated within this Tibetan Buddhist context -- clearly apart from grossly materialistic renderings of empiricism.

(2) Inference. This category encompasses deductive reasoning: conclusions reached via the axioms of syllogistic logic. As such, it bears resemblance to the western philosophical category of rationalism. (Notice, however, that in including both direct perception and inference as categories of valid cognition, this Tibetan Buddhist view in large part transcends the empiricism/rationalism polarity frequently encountered in western philosophical discourse.)

(3) Scriptural Authority. The words of enlightened Masters -- e.g. as recorded in authentic scriptures -- are considered also as valid sources of knowledge. This is perhaps the most slippery of the three categories, since it’s easy to find seeming contradictions, within the recorded writings of a single Master (e.g. Shakyamuni Buddha), and certainly if we compare the writings of a number of different, though supposedly all self-realized beings.

My way of relating to this category is to consider it as inclusive of all instances in which we “take on authority” -- in a way that is indeed quite skillful -- the words of advice of someone who we reasonably believe to be more well-informed on a certain topic than we are. So for instance: though I myself have no direct-perception or inferential knowledge of the functioning of a carburetor, a skilled car-mechanic certainly does, and in certain circumstances it is very wise of me to count as authoritative his/her views about it. Similarly for the expertise of brain surgeons, or tax-return accountants, or back-country trail-guides: all instances in which trusting someone who knows intimately a territory that to me is still relatively or completely unknown, is a good thing.

Do any of these categories define a kind of knowledge that is absolutely and completely fool-proof? Of course not, because we’re operating not in the realm of Ultimate Truth but rather within various (and ever-shifting) relative contexts. But this shouldn’t discourage us, nor lead us to making the mistake of throwing out the proverbial baby within the bathwater, because -- within the terrain of Relative Truth -- there are indeed more and less skillful choices, relative to specific contexts.

And if we don’t demand of relative truth what it was never meant to deliver -- viz. the causeless happiness of Ultimate Truth -- then the inevitable imprecision and impermanence of it won’t ever become a source of anxiety, but rather a moment-by-moment reminder, confirmation and celebration of our True Refuge in Ultimate Truth, Buddha-Nature, the unspeakable Tao: waves returning perpetually to the ocean they never, in Reality, have been apart from.

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