There’s something of a tangled hierarchy between basic categories and the more nuanced insights that, down the road, they facilitate. A budding mathematician first learns algebra, then geometry, and then calculus – but many report that even though algebra was a necessary building-block for geometry and calculus, they “truly understood” algebra only after mastering the supposedly-more-complex calculus.
And so it is that in the midst of reading Daniel Cozort’s highly detailed 600-page Unique Tenets of the Middle Way Consequence School – a presentation in great depth of one particular understanding of the tenets of valid cognition – I find myself drawn back to the basic categories, and the questions that they are meant to address:
What is real?
What is true?
What is trustworthy?
These are questions that not only occupy the hearts and minds of philosophers east and west; but also – and perhaps most importantly – shape all of our daily lives, in countless ways. Pretty much every action that we take can be traced back to our explicit or implicit answers to these questions: what is real? What is true? What is trustworthy? – because we intuit that the experience of lasting peace and happiness (what we all most deeply desire) depends upon aligning with what is real, true and trustworthy.
The First Answers … Are Not Always The Best Answers
Many of our initial – and generally unexamined – answers to these questions come from our parents, our school-teachers and our professors; along with the vast print, television, radio and cyber media of our culture. Sometimes we question the validity of the belief systems rooted in the “expert testimony” of our parents, teachers and media imprints – but often we do not.
So, for many of us, the first step of our spiritual path – our transformation from ignorance to insight; and from bondage to freedom — is to do just this: to allow ourselves to doubt the supposedly “expert testimony” of these various sources of knowledge, which we have heretofore (and quite innocently) taken as being wholly trustworthy.
Once we’re open to the possibility that what we’ve been taught may not in fact be true, we are free to embark upon explorations and experiments of our own – in the manner of a scientist, testing a series of hypotheses. Based upon our own direct perception and inference (i.e. the evidence that we collect) we then can come to our own conclusions. We can retain the belief systems that we’ve inherited, or we can discard them to make room for alternative views that align more closely with our own direct experience and intelligence.
The Tenets Of Valid Cognition: Basic Categories
This process of refining our perception and understanding is encapsulated in what is sometimes referred to as the “tenets of valid cognition.” These are ways of knowing/perceiving that are without error, free from distortion, and hence trustworthy. They tend to be divided into two main categories: (1) direct perception; and (2) inference.
Direct perception can be divided further into four types: (1) sensory direct perception; (2) mental direct perception; (3) yogic direct perception; and (4) reflexive-awareness direct perception.
Inference can be divided further into two types: (1) inductive; and (2) deductive.
As its name implies, direct perception is the most direct and intimate of the two, and hence the most trustworthy. However, for many if not most people, inference plays a crucial and continuing role not only in our daily lives but also along the spiritual path. In fact, it’s often a conceptual understanding born of inference that opens the way to a direct perception of our True Nature. This is the realm of “higher reasoning” – the conceptual mind employed skillfully to point beyond itself.
The Double-Edged Sword Of Scriptural Authority
A third category – scriptural authority – is sometimes included as a category of valid cognition. When all goes well, this is the realm of “expert testimony,” i.e. trusting – at least provisionally — the hypotheses of teachers/experts, so as not having to “reinvent the wheel.” And when it doesn’t go so well, so-called “scriptural authority” can become the realm of hearsay, blind faith and idolatry.
The Two Truths
When exploring the tenets of valid cognition, it can be quite useful to distinguish their application along the lines of the Two Truths: conventional truth and ultimate truth. Though there are various ways of defining the Two Truths, for our purposes here we’ll employ the following definitions, which locate the Two Truths firmly within the perceiving mind/consciousness:
Conventional truth = that which is seen by a mind looking at things in a conventional way, i.e. from the point of view of the perception of phenomena.
Ultimate truth = that which is seen by a mind looking at the Ultimate, i.e. perceiving no-thing.
The tenet of valid cognition that applies most directly to Ultimate Truth is reflexive-awareness direct perception: the self-evident nondual knowing of Pure Awareness. Here all conceptual criteria (including even the linguistic formulation “reflexive-awareness direct perception”) give way to the ultimately trustworthy self-evident knowing of Pure Awareness as the non-conceptual non-phenomenal source and substance of all-that-is. The omniscience of such self-evident ultimate truth is the capacity to perceive no-thing, which doesn’t mean that phenomena (including various frames of reference) are not appearing, only that the phenomena are not reified as separate, independently existent, autonomous “things.” We know the true nature of every apparent “thing” to be, in reality, no-thing.
Existence & Non-Existence – Relatively Speaking
The other tenets of valid cognition function primarily within the realm of conventional truth. And here (within relative frames of reference) we can define “existence” and “non-existence” in relation to the validity of the perceiving mind/consciousness, i.e. the extent to which the mind is functioning via the tenets of valid cognition:
Existence = that which is known by a valid mind (i.e. perceiving consciousness functioning, without distortion, via human cognitive/sensory faculties).
Non-existence = that which is known by a non-valid mind/consciousness, e.g. perceiving rabbit horns (mistaking the rabbit’s ears for horns).
So “existence” and “non-existence” – in terms of relative truth – have everything to do with the tenets of valid cognition:
A phenomena can be said to exist conventionally if it is perceived via a valid mind, i.e. a mind in alignment with the tenets of valid cognition. What’s important to remember is that such phenomena do not exist inherently – i.e. as permanent, separate, autonomous entities. But they can be said to exist conventionally, in the mode of dependent origination.
Mistaken or distorted perception – in the mode of mirages or hallucinations – arise within a mind that is not in alignment with the tenets of valid cognition. Such apparent phenomena are considered as non-existent. Classic example include: mistaking the ears of a rabbit for horns, so believing that we are seeing a horned rabbit; or mistaking a coiled rope for a snake, so believing that we are seeing a dangerous snake; or mistaking wavering sand for a lake, so believing that we are seeing a body of water. Other examples include purely imaginary yet logically impossible phenomena such as: the son of a barren women; or the wife of a bachelor.
Once we see through the illusion – e.g. see and understand the lake-mirage to be a mirage, rather than a lake – then the lake-mirage, as such, is existent. It’s only when we’re being fooled by it that it’s non-existent (though we don’t know this, at that moment).
The Big-Ticket Non-Existent Phenomenon
The big-ticket non-existent phenomenon is a separate-self, i.e. an independent, autonomous, permanent “me” – identified with a particular body, mind and/or individual consciousness. The belief that such a separate-self exists, when in reality it is wholly non-existent, is the lynchpin of dualistic, samsaric suffering. So this is the belief that we need to examine carefully – to see if it can be established as valid, via direct perception or inference.
Faith In The Suggestions Of A Spiritual Friend
Now it’s not unusual for the starting-point of such an exploration to be the suggestion – say from a spiritual friend – that such an entity (viz. a separate-self) actually does not exist. So this then is a moment of depending upon a kind of “scriptural authority” or “expert testimony” – trusting that such a hypothesis is worth adopting at least provisionally; worth investing our time and energy in exploring – to see for ourselves whether it can be either debunked or verified.
We then go about trying to locate a separate-self, in a way that aligns with the tenets of valid cognition: through direct perception or via inference. Our not-finding of the separate-self lends credence to our provisional hypothesis regarding its non-existence. And it may also increase our trust in our spiritual friend – as a trustworthy source of interesting hypotheses for us to consider. But mostly it should increase our trust in our own capacity to discern – via the tenets of valid cognition – what is real, true and trustworthy.
To be continued …
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