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Butterflies, Great Sages & Valid Cognition

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Seeing Nakedly: Buddhist “Valid Cognition”

What is at stake in this philosophical exploration of a Taoist parable is, in part, what in Buddhism are known as the tenets of Valid Cognition, which address the question: What counts as a logically-valid source of knowledge? Here’s a very brief introduction to this vast and intricate field of inquiry.

The Buddhist tradition of Valid Cognition is a form of Jnana Yoga, in which intellectual analysis, in concert with meditation, is used by practitioners to gain certainty about the nature of reality, and to then rest (non-conceptually) within that certainty. The two principal teachers within this tradition are Dharmakirti and Dignaga.

This tradition includes numerous texts and various commentaries. Here I will simply introduce the idea of "seeing nakedly" – which in my view is at least a rough equivalent to Chuang-tzu’s “waking up from the dream” - by way of quoting the following passage, taken from a dharma talk given by Kenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, on the topic of valid cognition:

“Naked perception [occurs when we] just perceive the object directly, without any name associated with it, without any description of it ... So when there is perception that is free of names and free of descriptions, what's that like? You have a naked perception, a non-conceptual perception, of a totally unique object. A unique indescribable object is perceived non-conceptually, and this is called direct valid cognition.”

How Do We Learn To “See Nakedly”?

So what does it mean, then, to actually do this? First, we need to become aware of our habitual tendency to clump together into one tangled mass (or mess!), what in reality are three distinct processes: (1) perceiving an object (via the sense organs, faculties & consciousnesses), (2) assigning a name to that object, and (3) spinning off into conceptual elaboration about the object, based upon our own associational networks. (The process of disentangling these three, particularly in terms of our sense of hearing, is described also in chapter 3 of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.)

To see something "nakedly" means to be able to stop, at least momentarily, after step #1, without moving automatically and almost instantaneously into steps #2 and #3. It means to perceive something as if we were seeing it for the first time (which, as it turns out, is indeed the case!), as if we had no name for it, and no past associations involving it.

Inter-Planetary Anthropology

A thought-experiment that can support this sort of perceiving is to imagine that you're an anthropologist of sorts, sent from another planet to do research about earth-life. You've never seen, heard or read anything about life on Earth, and you come from a planet that is radically different, in every way, from Earth life. And imagine yourself walking around that first day after your "landing" - how you would be as if a virgin, in terms of your perceiving: everything would be fresh, and new, and vastly interesting.

So that's a bit about naked perception - Feel free to try it! The Taoist practice of “Aimless Wandering” is great support for this kind of “seeing nakedly.”

Sense Faculties In Buddhist Valid Cognition

Now assuming we are in fact able to do this: to simply perceive something nakedly, as if for the "first time." What, then, are the components of our human mechanism that are involved in this act of sense perception? According to the tradition of valid cognition, sense perception occurs in dependence upon the interaction of a sense object (the "thing" that we're looking at, or hearing, or smelling, or tasting, or touching) with a sense organ (i.e. our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and/or body), a sense consciousness (one associated with each of the five sense organs, representing the cognitive aspect of the process), and what's called a sense faculty.

The addition of this latter component - the sense faculty - is one thing that distinguishes the system of valid cognition from western psychological theories of perception. The sense faculties are objects only of yogic direct valid cognition, i.e. they are observed, in the forms described below, only within a specific meditative absorption. So what do these sense faculties, as perceived by the Buddhist yogi or yogini, look like?

According to Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche:

~ the eye sense faculty looks like a delicate open flower;

~ the ear sense faculty looks like a wooden corkscrew;

~ the nose sense faculty looks like two copper needles;

~ the tongue sense faculty looks like two half-moons;

~ and the body sense faculty looks like a fluffy yellow bird.

Hmmmm ... Most of us (I'm assuming!) have never heard of, let alone seen, these sense faculties. But - as Rinpoche says - it's good that we at least hear about them, for this "plants the seed" for our being able, eventually, to enter the meditative state in which we actually can and do perceive them directly.

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