Five ways of knowing

We all start out with assumptions that a few concepts are supposed to be self-evident. At first, basic English words like ‘self’ or ‘think’ or ‘know’ might not seem to need any definition or explanation. But as we get older we may find that not everyone understands these concepts in the same way.

Knowing is the English word from the same root as the Greek gnosis or the Sanskrit jñāna. Awareness, understanding, and even intelligence are close to being synonyms.

At the lowest level, facts stored in memory might be called knowledge. But a computer can’t be said to know anything, however much data is stored on its hard drive. Knowing presupposes that there’s someone there capable of being aware. And it’s possible to know without memory, as when one first has an experience before verbalising it or storing it in memory. Then there’s another way of knowing that is variously called mental modelling, visualising or imagining.

One model of the possible ways of knowing was devised by the Tantric branch of Buddhism about twelve centuries ago. They settled for a five-way classification, with the five jñāna (five wisdoms or knowledges) corresponding to the five elements into which the Buddha and his first followers had deconstructed the subjective experience of selfhood. Their terminology remains useful as long as English lacks rigorous definitions in this area.

  1. Analytical intelligence, recognising the differences between things and solving problems by breaking them down into their components. The Tantrics called this by the Sanskrit word pratyavekṣaṇajñāna. This process includes deduction as defined in formal logic, reasoning from the general to the specific and making predictions about concrete instances from general rules that have been previously established.
  2. Complementary to pratyavekṣaṇajñāna is the ability to recognise the similarities of things and group them into larger wholes. This is samatājñāna, which corresponds to classification or induction as it enables us to reason from the specific to the general, and induce concepts from observations or concrete examples.
  3. Let’s not forget practical intelligence or kṛtyanuṣṭhānajñāna. This has nothing to do with conceptualising, much less with verbalising, but rather with conscious action to accomplish the desired result. But it’s surely a form of intelligence: for example, the skill that an experienced musician develops in their hands. Instead of having to look for the next note to play as a beginner would, they go directly from the sound they have in mind to the necessary movement of their fingers.
  4. I’ve named this blog after the fourth kind of knowledge, ādarśajñāna. The literal meaning of this term, “mirror knowledge”, is a good metaphor, except that mirrors reverse right and left, and ādarśajñāna doesn’t make even this much alteration. It is awareness reflecting the thing observed, in its entirety, prior to any analysis or classification. Scientologists call it duplication, i.e. copying a datum or an action exactly.
  5. But the highest method of knowing is to simply be the thing you want to know. This is what the Tantrics called tathatājñāna, literally “knowledge of suchness”. While the other four might be called processes through which we gain knowledge, the fifth is the end goal where any distinction between an object of knowledge and its reflection in our awareness disappears. In Scientology this is called as-is-ness. At this point we truly know a thing inside and out, can use it, but don’t have to carry it around as a mental picture anymore.
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2 Comments on “Five ways of knowing”

  1. Poet13c says:

    Excellent! Top marks!

    Thank you for taking the time to write this down, and so eloquently, too.

    Richard Kaminski


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