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The benefits of the study of Dudra

The benefits of the study of Dudra

White double dorje over red background.
Dudra is a series of lessons in basic logic, epistemology, and psychology. (Image by Madboy74)

Venerable Losang Donyo is a Western monk who is a student at Seraje Monastic University in South India, where he is studying Collected Topics and learning philosophy and debate. He has written this explanation of Dudra, or the Collected Topics, as an introduction to this branch of Buddhist philosophy. This article covers the beginning of the Collected Topics. He plans to write more about it as time goes on.


Dudra is a series of lessons in basic logic, epistemology, and psychology compiled and condensed from the seven Pramana texts of Dharmakirti. He was an Indian Buddhist scholar and contemplative who lived in the 7th century C.E. These lessons derived from his works are taught in a classroom setting. Leaving them in the classroom would not provide one with genuine familiarity or knowledge of the subjects. In light of that, they are contemplated, discussed, and scrutinized through a daily practice of “partner meditation,” where two individuals engage in a type of structured debate aimed at honing in on and clarifying the meaning and practical spiritual application of each day’s lesson.

Since the study of this material is new to the people and culture of the Western/Judeo-Christian/scientific-materialist world, the culture at large has under-appreciated it. This is mainly due to lack of awareness of the contents of these texts on Dudra, and likewise the benefits that one derives from studying them.

Then, what are the benefits of studying Dudra? Because each person has a different mind, they will be affected in different ways by studying this material. However, there are effects that are commonly seen by most if not all individuals who undertake some degree of commitment to studying this course. One is an increased ability to reason and a general improvement in the clarity of one’s mind. This is extremely practical; it helps one in daily life to make wise decisions, as well as in one’s spiritual practice to more readily identify and combat mal-adaptive, afflictive emotions and the thoughts that stimulate them.

Another effect is the ability to listen to others’ points of view and to take a nuanced approach to issues. This, again, applies to both worldly affairs and to one’s reading of the Buddhist teachings. The above two impacts of studying this material combine to give one an overall freedom of mind. With this new openness, sharpness and clarity, one becomes less gullible and naive. It becomes harder to get lured by propaganda. It becomes harder to fall prey to self-deception. In short, one learns to think for oneself and to be sincere.

On top of those effects, various insights or benefits may accrue as one goes through each lesson of the Dudra course. As a student who’s gone through this program and is continuing to study Buddhist philosophy, I offer my own experience of how studying these subjects have benefited me. May those who are interested likewise gain benefit through this path of reasoning!

1 – Colors: White and Red

The first lesson in the Dudra course is called “Colors: White and Red.” Strange, isn’t it? A study of logic and psychology that begins with a lesson in colors. And it doesn’t even go into how the different wavelengths of light are absorbed and reflected by objects to send light into the retina where cones and rods react differently depending on the wavelengths and intensity of light. No, none of that is explicitly mentioned. You might even say the lesson is not even talking about colors – not about what colors really are.

What’s more, this is the only lesson in the course that deals directly with physical objects. That’s right. The only lesson in the entire two to three-year Dudra program, and nearly in the entire fifteen to twenty-five year course of Buddhist philosophy, that teaches explicitly about what kinds of physical objects exist is the first lesson. Its duration is somewhere around one month.

This is indicative of what Buddhist philosophy is all about. The fields of scientific investigation – or, more accurately, the type of scientific investigation that’s been emphasized in Western culture for the last several centuries and has come to be seen as the staple of the modern, technologically developed world – deal almost solely with the world of “forms.” Physical objects. Matter. Some sciences deal with conscious life and consciousness itself, but only insofar as they are connected to matter. A widely held view has it that physics – the study of the actions and qualities of fundamental particles – is the basis for all other sciences, and for all that exists. But do these sciences address all issues of import to the human condition?

Many will say that they indeed do. But not Buddhists. Buddhists say that there are issues which aren’t directly, or at least fully, addressed in this outwardly-directed way, in this particle-based way. Particularly key here is the issue of how to overcome suffering and remove its causes, and how to experience happiness and develop its causes. This is a fundamental issue. While it’s never asserted to be the fundamental basis of all that exists, it is seen to be the fundamental, soul-searching question for sentient existence. All sentient beings wish for happiness and dislike suffering. This is a fundamental condition of sentient life.

Thus, most of the topics one will investigate in the course of their Buddhist studies are directed towards that issue. But of course happiness and suffering, and human experience in general, are related to the objects of our physical world. So the first lesson in this Dudra course addresses those objects.

Oftentimes scholars and students will discuss the benefits of this Colors Lesson in terms of it being the training ground for learning the logic and debate format. This is certainly true. Physical objects are easy to observe, and thus we’re accustomed to dealing with them and thinking about them. So to start learning to think in a logical way, in a philosophical way, it’s quite useful to use as our basic topic of investigation. It’s something that we’re already familiar with. So we get to think about sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sources of tactile sensation. Using these relatively simple topics, one can get used to using the tools of reasoning that will be your bread and butter as you go through the rest of the lessons.

But I would caution you to not say that beyond this benefit, the Colors Lesson doesn’t really have any application to one’s Dharma practice. I would say it has some serious application. Why? Well, studying this lesson can lead one to a very engaging practice of mindfulness.

At the outset, one learns that the divisions of matter are made in terms of our conscious experience. The five types of external matter are the objects that are experienced uniquely by each one of the five senses. Visual forms – colors and shapes – are defined as objects that are apprehended by visual consciousness. Sounds are objects that are heard by auditory consciousness. And so on – you get the picture.

Here “objects,” then, clearly doesn’t only refer to man-made things that are composed of parts and materials, like tables and chairs, houses and cars. It refers to qualities as we experience them through each of our senses. Red colors, white colors. Sweet smells, sour smells. Roughness, sharpness, smoothness, softness.

These all have to be explored and debated. To do that, we have to know how these all appear to the mind. Say you have a pet cat that you love. The cat is one thing. But that cat has its shape and color, the sounds it makes, its smell, its (ugh…) taste, and the aspects of our tactile sense that we feel when we physically contact it. But it’s easy to sort of take for granted all of this. To just ignore it and say, “Hey cat, come here! I need some love!” Then to get annoyed when it jumps away.

The real field of exploration then turns out to be our immediate sensory experiences. We have to really look at what we’re seeing. Whether we’re walking, standing, sitting, or lying, we have to bring awareness to the sensations coursing through the body. Does that sound familiar?

The debate works in tandem with the mindfulness practice. Once we start to get used to paying more attention to the objects of our sense experience, we can then sharpen our ability to discriminate different types of objects. So there are further divisions. We learn that there are primary colors and secondary colors. Within secondary colors we find the color of darkness, the color of shadow, the color of luminance. In a way, a debater starts to take an artist’s eye to their visual world, looking at the play of light and shadow, observing how the setting sun changes the appearance of the color of the distant mountain.

As a debate progresses, it helps keep us inspired to pay even closer attention to our experience. Does the color of a mountain actually change as the sun sets? Does everything lose its color in a darkened room? Is a black cat black?

The experience, in turn, informs the debates. After all, if something contradicts direct experience, could we say it’s logical?

2 – Established Bases

The second lesson expands out from the material world. Here, a student gets introduced to all that exists.

That may sound like an exaggeration. You mean to say that this lesson goes into black holes and gravity waves, muons and gluons, extremophiles, compound interest, polynomial equations? No, it doesn’t go into those topics. It does, however, set out some basic principles that apply to all existent phenomena.

It does this before the lesson itself begins. Before each lesson of Dudra, there is a quotation or two, mostly from the Pramanavartikakarika, that are identified as being the primary source from which the lesson was derived. The quotes are short, and identify the basic principle that the lesson explores in greater detail. Here’s the quote for the lesson on established bases:

Because there are two types of things which can be comprehended, there are two types of cognition. This is so because there are both things which can perform some function in the world and those which cannot.

That is an elaborated translation intended to more fully illustrate the quotation’s meaning. It illustrates one of the primary theses of the Pramana logic texts. There exist two types of fundamental things. There are actual, impermanent entities that arise from causes, abide, change, and produce results. These entities appear to our consciousness in a direct, vivid way, without being mediated by the thinking mind. They include matter, consciousness, and other phenomena that we can perceive and are related to matter and mind but are not either of them (for instance, a person – people exist in relation to their bodies and minds, but are not either one of them).

There are also phenomena which do not arise from causes, do not change, and do not produce results. They do not appear to the mind by the automatic process of just bumping into our senses, but only appear through thought. They are mediated by a conceptual appearance. They do not appear to sense consciousnesses; they can only appear to the mental consciousness.

We can perceive them with our minds, but they are impotent and not actually present in the same sense as the impermanent, functioning class of phenomena. They are things which are imputed by language and concept. However, we can’t say they don’t exist because they still can be found to exist in relation to impermanent, functioning things. They can be found to exist because they hold up in every way to logical reasoning and to experience, whereas non-existent things are found to contradict experience or logic. The classic example of this kind of static, hidden object is uncompounded space. It’s defined as an attribute which is a mere negation of tangibility. It’s what allows things to exist and move in space.

Whoa. We just went from the surface of Alice’s mirror, where visible things flicker in and out in front of our senses, and jumped down a deep, philosophical rabbit hole. Strap in. This is home now. We’re not coming back out.

This lesson is presented in a way that can be understood quite easily, but has great depth that will continue to be explored for years to come. It sets the basis for all else that’s to come. It sets the basis for the realizations of impermanence, emptiness, and the cause-effect nature of action (karma).

The lesson of established bases gives not only an introduction to this two-fold division of existent things, but also describes these phenomena from many angles. First of all, there is the overarching category – established base. There are several phenomena that are equivalent to this; existent, phenomenon, comprehended object, knowable object, and object. They each have their individual definitions, which have their own slightly unique characters. Existent is that which is observed by a reliable cognizer. Phenomenon is that which holds its own identity. Knowable object is that which is well-suited to be an object of mind.

We already learn from going through this list of equivalent phenomena two important concepts. One is that everything exists in relation to a mind perceiving it. The other is that any given item has many different aspects to it. Coffee is a phenomenon. Why? It’s able to hold its own identity. It’s also an existent. It’s a comprehended object. It’s a knowable object. It’s an established base. They all exist in some sense “on” that one item – coffee. We can look at coffee and see how it’s observed by reliable cognitions, see how it’s well-suited to be an object of mind, see how it’s composed of particles (the definition of matter).

Not only that, but because the above listed phenomena are equivalent, we start to see how they each imply one another. By the mere fact of being able to hold its own identity, an object can be observed by a reliable cognizer. And vice versa.

Phew! If that isn’t a novel way of looking at things, I don’t know what is. As a novel way of looking at things, it can be difficult, confusing, or even suspect. But as the debates go and one continues to observe one’s experience and go back and forth between the logical form of the debate and how objects appear in one’s own experience, this perspective begins to become refreshing. It begins to feel very significant. It begins to show the debater how their mind works, and how the conceptual mind functions in our lives to impute an entire realm of existence (as well as countless fabrications which don’t exist) on top of what naturally appears to the senses. And it does this all day long, without us ever really reflecting on it… that is, until we gain the tools needed to start to observe it.

3 – Identifying Isolates

In the third Dudra lesson, students get introduced to another philosophical tool that helps to see how the conceptual mind functions and how phenomena exist. Remember, those two things – the imputing conceptual mind and existing phenomena – are embedded in relation to one another.

It takes some time for most students to get a feel for this lesson. Take a phenomenon, say steel for instance. There are many instances of steel, many cases of steel existing. There are stainless steel, American steel, steel railroad tracks, steel skyscraper frames. Those are all steel. However, is steel itself any of those examples of steel?

Steel is metal, steel is matter, steel is impermanent, steel is an existent. That’s all pretty clear. But is it shiny steel or rusty steel? Solid steel or liquid steel? Steel is simply steel itself. It is the isolate of steel. It is one with steel.

The more literal translation of the Tibetan term that we’re calling “isolate” here is “reversal” or “reflection.” The “isolate of steel” is actually an abbreviated term, which means the ‘reverse of not being one with steel.’ It is the reflection of steel itself.

The isolate of steel exists because we have the term for steel and it refers to something. When we think of “steel” there is something that appears to the mind. What appears to the mind when you think, simply, “steel?” The steel that appears to the mind at that time is the steel which is the isolate of steel.

These isolates are identified, as in the lesson on Established Bases, by way of positing phenomena which are equivalent to them. Four phenomena are explicitly listed as being equivalent to the isolate of steel. ‘One with steel’; ‘steel which is one with steel’; ‘the definiendum of a strong, hard metal made of iron and carbon’; and ‘that which fulfills the three qualities for being the imputed existent of a strong, hard metal made of iron’.

If you’re asked to posit a phenomenon which is one with steel, all you can say is steel. It’s the only thing which is totally non-distinct from steel in any way. If you’re asked to posit the definiendum of a strong, hard metal made of iron and carbon, the only thing you can say is steel. A definition and its definiendum have a monogamous relationship.

Going through these, then, points out to the student what steel itself is. It gives a student a chance to meditate on how steel appears to the mind when one thinks of just that phenomenon. It also helps one to start to question what it means to be something. ‘One with steel’ is not one with steel. Only steel is one with steel. ‘One with steel’ is distinct from steel because it is one with ‘one with steel’.

Even though those four phenomena listed two paragraphs above are all distinct from one another, and are not one another, steel is the only phenomena that can be posited as being each of those four. Here one starts to see that one’s mind is doing some strange things when it thinks. It’s a part of the long journey to becoming aware of the workings of the conceptual mind.

4 – Reversed From Being, Reversed From Not Being

The fourth Dudra lesson has the strongest flavor of being a sort of logical game out of all the lessons so far. This lesson is about learning to use negations and understand what happens when they get doubled, tripled, quadrupled, etc. Still, there is a lot to learn here about the mind, and a deeper meaning about how the conceptual mind functions which perhaps will not become clear right away.

Again, looking to examples is the only way this lesson will become clear. Let’s look at hats. We have hats. We also have non-hats. Those are contradictory – if something is one, it is necessarily not the other.

Then, we have the reverse of being a hat. This is equivalent to non-hat. Whatever is one is necessarily the other. Next is the reverse of not being a hat. This is equivalent to being a hat. If something is a hat, it’s necessarily the reverse of not being a hat. It’s a double-negative. Two negatives make a positive. It’s like saying a wool cap is “not a non-hat.” It is reversed from not being a hat.

Though it may seem odd to split hairs between not a non-hat and the reverse of being a hat, once again this exercise itself impels students to turn their gaze inward and observe how these phenomena appear to the mind. Then, if we look at how afflicted mental processes – such as attachment, craving desire, and anger – relate to objects, this thinking exercise helps to reverse the afflictions themselves. That person who appears to be perfect, pure, a genuine source of lasting fulfillment not only is not any of those things… s/he is the total reverse of any of those things.

This is powerful thought to bear in mind. It helps to turn the mind away from superimposing qualities which don’t really exist onto the objects that we experience. It helps to reverse the four distortions (seeing the impermanent as permanent, the unsatisfactory as happiness, the impure as pure, the selfless as a self). Those four are the primary source of all human troubles.

There is something else going on here as well. I find it more difficult to understand. During the lesson in Established Bases we got introduced to the workings of the conceptual mind, and how it apprehends phenomena through the medium of a mental image. The nature of this mental image (keeping the example of a hat) is an appearance of the reverse of not being a hat. While the subtleties of how conceptuality functions are not addressed directly in this lesson, students get primed to understand them by becoming familiar with this idea of being reversed from being something. The topic of how conceptual thought functions will be returned to again and again over the course of the full philosophy program.

This lesson can also be very fun. Debaters pile up all the reverses of being and of not being, which forces the one answering to pay very close attention and listen attentively. Here’s an example of what I mean – The subject is: a hat. It follows that: it is the reverse of being the reverse of being the reverse of not being the reverse of being the reverse of not being the reverse of not being a functioning thing. Pretty simple, right? This helps to train one’s listening skills as well as one’s wits.

4.a – Things Which Are It, Things Which Aren’t It

This is a short lesson that’s slotted as an adjunct to the previous lesson. It is strongly linked with the way the debate format is structured, so it’s difficult to get a sense of its meaning without being involved in debate practice. In that context, however, it helps immensely to gain greater clarity about how to interpret the contents of a debate when it gets kind of complex, when there are many different subjects and predicates being posited one after another.

Further, this lesson helps, once again, to shed light on another aspect of the conceptual thinking mind. This is because it deals with implied meaning when a subject is not explicitly stated. For instance, a debate may go something like this – The subject is: a cat. It follows that: it’s a living being. It follows that: it’s an impermanent phenomenon. It follows that: it exists.

In the above line of questioning, a subject is explicitly stated only once. From then on, the word “it” is used to take its place. A simple case of a third-person pronoun. There’s not much room for doubt about the subject to which it’s referring.

But are there times when “it” could be a little bit more ambiguous? Well, oddly enough, one just came up. If you look closely at the paragraph above, “it” came up twice. First it says, “…the word ‘it’ is used to take its place.” Then the last sentence says, “There’s not much room for doubt about the subject to which it’s referring.”

If you read those sentences as I intended them, you’d see that the first it refers to “a subject.” The second it refers to “the word ‘it’.” But does it absolutely have to be interpreted that way?

Here we start to see something that’s active nearly non-stop in our everyday lives in a new light. We’re brought to reflect on the nature of how two individuals can hold shared implied meaning in a span of communication without ever explicitly stating it. We see how a single statement can appear to two individuals minds in a similar way, but also in dissimilar ways (if we’re not careful).

For instance, I’ve had experiences where someone was talking about a person… “Oh, he did this and that, he said this and that.” Then I realize only after a few minutes that they’re talking about a completely different person than I initially thought! Always a bit of an abrupt mental switch when that happens, isn’t it? And it can be a little embarrassing!

Then the debaters also get a chance to look at it itself. That’s the pronoun it I’m talking about. What happens if one leaves off a subject altogether? It follows that: it exists. It follows that: it is permanent. It follows that: it appears to the mind. Would you say yes or why?

Or one might say – Take the subject: permanent phenomenon. It follows that it is it. In a statement like this, you start to see that not only the words themselves, but the way that intonation and emphasis are used also influences the meaning. Try saying that above thesis in different ways to see how many different meanings you can give it.

So there are fun, albeit confusing, debates that come up in this lesson, and it shows us how to really pay attention to each and every word someone is saying – but beyond that, to how they’re speaking and to the intention behind their words. That skill certainly reaches beyond the Dharma garden.

Many of the debates that come in this lesson are tied to the Tibetan syntactic structure, so they won’t translate directly into English. However, I’m sure that once people start debating more in English, new debates will arise that are dependent on the English syntax. It will be fun to see what people come up with, and how we can smash our preconceptions and sense that we know everything there is to know in new, innovative ways!

5 – Definitions and Defined Items

The basis for this lesson had already been laid in the lesson on Established Bases, where the basic theory of definitions was elaborated. It has to do with knowledge or knowing something, but here we’re not talking per se about knowing facts or information. Here we’re talking about knowing any particular phenomena. Facts and information are phenomena, but here we can talk about simply knowing tree, or knowing impermanence, or knowing water, in a way that doesn’t sound totally bizarre.

So how does the theory go? In relation to any phenomena there is a 1) definition, 2) the item defined (or definiendum), and 3) illustrations. So a door, for instance, is a definiendum. It has a definition. ‘A portal that opens and closes, separating two rooms or the indoors from the outdoors or gives one access to a storage space such as a fridge or closet’ is that definition.

It’s fine to use a working definition, or to use one that’s already been written up in the texts. The point is that it covers all instances of the phenomenon without stretching too far such that it starts to seep into the territory of another phenomena. So if we said ‘something that opens and closes’ is the definition of door, then we’d have to say that drawers and books and jars and Broadway musicals are all doors. It’s far too vast of a definition.

Then the third part is the illustrations. The illustrations of a door are endless, but include white doors, wooden doors, glass doors, screen doors, car doors, etc. The main question here is – how do we come to know what a door is? In dependence on an illustration, we realize what the defining characteristics are. Then we can understand that the particular illustration is the definiendum, because we’ve already come to know it is the definition. Whatever is one must be the other.

A key point in the theory is that to know any definiendum, we must first ascertain its definition. Here we’re talking about knowing with the conceptual mind… it’s not referring to cases were we just see some object briefly before our eyes, without ever really identifying what the object was. In those cases, we could say we saw the object, but it’s not the type of knowing that is meant in this lesson.

Where does this theory take us? It strikes at the very basis of how we develop knowledge of our world, how we build up an understanding of the things around us. It has aspects of child developmental theory. It brings us to really reflect on, and to observe, how we use our senses to bring in the raw data of various objects, and then use our thinking minds to distinguish the various defining characteristics and learn how to group like things together. It leads us to watch the underpinnings of how we come to understand the world around us. This, then, is again a source of information that gives us not only fuel for contemplation, but also for developing greater awareness within daily life of how our minds are functioning – it applies to every part of Dharma practice and in a large way to our general interaction with the world.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.

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