Appearing Object & Referent Object

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This excerpt is from Lorik Oral Commentary by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche:

Objects of Conceptual Mind & Direct Perception. This is one of the topics we study in our popular “Mind & Its World II: Modes of Engagement & Mental Events” class. This course completes the Classification of Mind (Lorik) root text, from the tradition of Pramana or Buddhist epistemology that students began in Mind and Its World I. This course has two main sections.


By Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

The conceptual mind has two objects, an appearing object and a referent object, whereas the nonconceptual mind has just one. This section deals with the two objects of the conceptual mind. When we imagine “a blue table,” there is an appearing object that appears to direct perception but not directly to conceptual mind. Compared to sense perception, the conceptual image is vague and unclear.

Each conceptual mind is involved with these two different objects. There is the mental image that is a conceptual object, “blue table” which we imagine, and there is also the basis for its arising—the blue table out there without any labels, conceptual impositions, or imputations. That is the referent object, that ultimately inexpressible thing out there in the world.

Though we use the word “image” in regard to the conceptual object, we are not referring only to the visual sense. Any of the senses can be involved. For instance, think of the inexpressibly rich chocolate taste of a Snickers bar. An image, an impression, comes to mind, though it pales in comparison to the real thing.

Think of the inexpressibly rich chocolate taste of a Snickers bar. An image, an impression, comes to mind, though it pales in comparison to the real thing.

The object out there is a specifically characterized phenomenon, which produces a conceptual image in our mind. More precisely, it does not produce that image directly, but is the basis on which we develop the conceptual image. For example, based on our visual consciousness of blue, indirectly through a process of exclusion, we develop the conceptual image of “blue;” in a similar fashion, based on seeing tables, we develop the conceptual image of “table;” and based on our taste consciousness occasioned by eating a Snickers bar, we develop the conceptual image of “sweet, chocolatey taste.” Further we can amalgamate these—we can combine the “blue” and “table” the more complex conceptual image of  “blue table”—thus fashioning a rich conceptual world with our mind.

The above is a basic description of conceptual mind. As background information, we should be aware that Buddhist texts on epistemology can speak of not just two but four types of objects: 1) the object of engagement, 2) the referent object, 3) the apprehended object, and 4) the appearing object. With reference to the conceptual process, generally the first two and the latter two are said to be equivalent, respectively. “Object of engagement” and “referent object” point to the same thing—the specifically characterized object, the real external object. In this context, the appearing object (or the apprehended object) is the conceptual image of the former, arrived at through a process of exclusion. In the context of direct perception, there is only one object, taken in through a process of inclusive engagement. In direct perception, the appearing or apprehended object is the object of engagement.

For the discussion of conceptual mind, the two important objects to consider are the appearing object and the referent object. The referent object is so-named because when we have an idea, it is reference to something. That something is the referent object. The word is being used in the usual way. For example, we can say our pramāṇa tradition makes reference to Dignaga, Dharmakirti, the seventh Karmapa, and Khenpo Rinpoche. Similarly, our conceptual mind conceives an image that has a referent. That referent object is specifically characterized, a really existing thing.

The appearing object varies according to the mind’s mode of engagement. In the case of conceptual mind, that appearing object is the conceptualized image. In sensory perception, there is no distinction made between the appearing object and some “referent object.” What appears to perception is the actual thing itself. There is no reference to some other object. More precisely, what appears to perception is the apprehended aspect, which is an accurate representation of the object, and so, to set aside the discussion of the hidden object for the moment, the aspect can be said to be the object. When we see a glass, it appears to perception without the label “glass.” Since the glass itself directly and fully appears to that perception, it can be called an appearing object. In nonconceptual, direct perception, we do not have two objects, but one—which could be called the apprehended object, appearing object (the more common term), or object of engagement (thus named because it is the actual object that consciousness engages, or gets at). For direct perception, they are all one and the same.

Conceptual mind’s image of the object is not very accurate—in the sense of being clear, precise, and complete—unlike the object of direct perception. By way of contrast, in the case of direct perception, there is no distinction between an appearing object and a referent object. There is only one object, and it appears directly to mind.

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