Does our Perception Mirror Reality? Theories of Perception in Buddhist Epistemology

Does our Perception Mirror Reality? Theories of Perception in Buddhist Epistemology


Systematic theory of perception first emerged in Buddhist thought in the writings of Dignāga (circa fifth century). He defined perception-arising from the convergence of object, sense faculty, and awareness-in terms of absence of conceptuality, the latter involving “associating names and kinds to the object.” Dharmakīrti (seventh century) developed this view further and defined perception as “cognition free of conceptuality and undistorted.” For both these thinkers, perception relates to unique particulars that constitute the real world while conceptual cognition relates to general characteristics that are constructs of our own thought. Subsequent developments, especially by Dharmottara (eighth century), ushered in a more “active” view where perception acquires a more “ascertaining” character and is seen as intimately connected to the arising of correct perceptual judgment and action readiness. 

These Buddhist epistemologists view perception as apprehending its object by assuming an “aspect” or phenomenal form imprinted upon the cognition through the contact of the object with the sense faculty. Although veridical sensory experience, especially visual awareness, is taken to be paradigmatic, perception is not confined to the sensory modalities alone. It includes mental perception as well. 

This presentation will situate Buddhist epistemology in its historical context, and focus on two points: 1) how perception is defined, and 2) how the insistence on perception being free of conceptuality raises important tensions within Buddhist epistemology, especially for the key question of how our perception and thought interact in creating an integrated cognitive experience of the world.

  • Dialogue 30
    19 sessions
  • December 14, 2015
    Sera Monastery, Bylakuppe, India
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Thupten Jinpa

Thupten Jinpa, PhD, was trained as a monk at the Shartse College of Ganden Monastic University, South India, where he received the Geshe Lharam degree. In addition, Jinpa holds a bachelor’s honors degree in philosophy and a PhD in religious studies, both from Cambridge University. He taught at Ganden monastery and worked as a research fellow in Eastern religions at Girton College, Cambridge University. Jinpa has been the principal English translator to His Holiness the Dalai Lama since 1985 and has translated and edited numerous books by the Dalai Lama, including the New York Times best-sellers Ethics for the New Millennium and The Art of Happiness, as well as Beyond Religion, Universe in a Single Atom, and Transforming the Mind. His own publications include, in addition to numerous Tibetan works, Essential Mind Training; Wisdom of the Kadam Masters; Self, Reality, and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy: Tsongkhapa’s Quest for the Middle View; as well as translations of major Tibetan works featured in The Library of Tibetan Classics series. He is the main author of Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT), an eight-week formal program developed at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University. Jinpa is an adjunct professor on the faculty of religious studies at McGill University, Montreal; the founder and president of the Institute of Tibetan Classics, Montreal; and the general series editor of The Library of Tibetan Classics series. He has been a core member of the Mind & Life Institute from its inception. Jinpa lives in Montreal and is married with two daughters.