Cognitive Set Theory and Buddhism

Cognitive Set Theory makes a number of claims (particularly about mathematics and syntax) which are in no way Buddhist, so it seems inappropriate to label CST as a Buddhist work.  That said, much of Cognitive Set Theory can be understood using Buddhist terminology, which might be of interest to the Buddhist readers of this work.  Hence: this post.

To understand Cognitve Set Theory in Buddhist terms, the part and chapter titles can be reformulated as follows:

  1. Dharmas (Alaya, Dharmas, Shunyata)
  2. Kayas (Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, Nirmanakaya)
  3. Mirrors (Percepts of Objects, Concepts of Percepts, and Concepts of Concepts)

The translation of “everything” as Alaya is straightforward: Alaya is often translated as “ground” or “basis of all”).  For the schools of Buddhism before chittamatra, “everything” might also be translated as svabhavikakaya.  “Dharmas” literally means “things”, and “shunyata” literally means “nothingness”, so those translations are quite close.  The translation of the Mirrors section is more or less literal.  The translation of the physical, perceptual, and conceptual universes as the Kayas, however, requires some justification.

In Buddhism, the three spheres in which a Buddha manifests are the Dharmakaya (“truth body”), the Sambhogakaya (“bliss body”), and the Nirmanakaya (“emanation body”).  These are held to be decreasingly pure and only seen by Buddhas, such that most beings only see the least subtle level (the nirmanakaya).

The Dharmakaya is that Kaya which contains all of the others, and it is sometimes translated as the ground (or basis) of existence.  Since this ground is non-dual, there is a sense in which it does not matter if we call it mind or matter (as long as we do not confuse multiple non-dual doctrines which have adapted different terminology).  Followers of the chittamatra school refer to it as mind, whereas materialists would refer to it as matter: in both cases, this non-dual nature must have the qualities of both matter and mind.  

Given that Dharmakaya is referred to as mind, it is no surprise that Mahayana Buddhists group the other two Kayas into the Rupakaya (which means “form body”, or perhaps “material body”).  The Sambhogakaya eminates from the Dharmakaya.  It’s literal translation is the “bliss body”, and is related to the sensation that a Buddha or Bodhisattve experiences in virtue of their purity.  Sensation is held by Buddhist thinkers to be a nonconceptual consciousness which anticedes the (potentially) conceptual consciousnesses that follow it. Finally, the Nirmanakaya eminates from the Sambhogakaya.  It is the least subtle body, in which Buddhas manifest in order to teach beings who are are not pure enough to perceive the other realms.

Since the descriptions of the Kayas can be quite nebulous, and I am not realized enough to know them directly, these chapter headings can also be defined in terms of the four foundations of mindfulness, or the eight consciousness model.  In terms of the four foundations of mindfulness, the chapters correspond to the first three: body, sensation, and mind.  Using the eight consciousness model, the physical universe corresponds to the realm of the sense objects (which, according to the Sautrantika view, is hidden from direct perception).  The perceptual universe corresponds to the five sense consciousnesses (which are non-conceptual).  The conceptual universe corresponds to the sixth (mental) and seventh (kleshic) consciousness.  The seventh (kleshic) consciousness is both conceptual and polluted by incorrect (selfish) understanding, so it is no longer operative in the minds of Arhats.  The the eighth consciousness exists as a substrate for mind in general, and acts as everything from the Buddhist perspective.

The relationship between the perceptual and the conceptual universes also corresponds closely with Tibetan Buddhist (and particularly Gelukba) theories of direct and subsequent cognizers.  Similarly, the differentiation of concepts into first-order and higher-order corresponds to the distinction between meaning generalities and term generalities (don spyi and gras spyi).

Cognitive Set Theory is a view of human cognition: it does not discuss the role of affect, emotions, and love. Thus, in comparison to Buddhism, it does not attempt to explain the role of the heart (which is probably more important, but more difficult to understand).  Neither does it discuss the path which leads away incorrect conceptualization (and negative emotions) and toward a more healthy state of being.  These are, of course, the rationale for correctly understanding reality in the first place, so hopefully the conceptual framework in this book leads toward a soteriogical transformation.  May it benefit all beings.


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