Pramana is a Sanskrit term usually translated into English as “valid cognition.” The Buddhist study of valid cognition can be traced back to Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, and other early Indian masters, who discussed sources and types of knowledge in their writings. The main Buddhist pramana tradition dates from the beginning of the sixth century, when the master Dignaga articulated a comprehensive system in his Pramanasamuchchaya, or Compendium on Valid Cognition. This system was expanded upon and refined in the seventh century by another master named Dharmakirti, who composed seven treatises on valid cognition, the most important of which is the Pramanavarttika, or the Commentary on Valid Cognition. These remain important sources for the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
The word pramana seems to be derived from the Sanskrit root ma, meaning to measure or ascertain; the prefix pra, meaning excellent or perfect; and the suffix ana, which indicates a method or instrument. So pramana is the study of methods for bringing about excellent knowledge.
Understanding the methods we use to arrive at correct knowledge is fundamental to the buddhadharma, because incorrect knowledge is the root cause for circling in samsara. In particular, this incorrect knowledge consists of mistaking what is impermanent to be permanent, mistaking what are causes of suffering to be causes of happiness, and mistaking what is not a self to be a self.
Put another way, the first link in the chain of dependent origination is fundamental ignorance: not knowing who and what we are and not recognizing the nature of phenomena. This gives rise to a basic dualistic split that makes self and its projections appear to be two. Based on this split, karmic actions and all the other links in the chain arise, climaxing with old age and death. The antidote for samsara is correct knowing that does not divide reality into self and other, but sees suchness, things as they are, genuine reality. This interrupts the karmic chain reaction and brings about liberation, or nirvana. This is why distinguishing correct knowledge from incorrect knowledge is vitally important.
However, distinguishing these two is not as easy as you might think. This makes the study of pramana both difficult and profound. You can get a glimpse of this by thinking about the different ways you might know something.
An obvious source of knowledge is direct experience. A traditional example used in the pramana literature is knowing the taste of candy. To bring this up to date, let’s use a Snickers bar as our example. When you bite into a Snickers bar, you know what the taste is. You can describe it as sweet and crunchy and chocolaty and creamy, but that does not begin to convey what the experience is actually like. In fact, you can’t share the experience with someone who has never eaten a Snickers bar through a description, no matter how detailed it is.
Concepts and inference are also sources of knowledge. Even if you have never eaten a Snickers bar, you could get the idea that it tastes sweet and crunchy because it is made from roasted peanuts, nougat, caramel, and milk chocolate. Knowing what the ingredients taste like, you can infer what their combination tastes like. While this is not the actual experience, it is knowledge about it.
Another possible source of knowledge is trusted authority. Much of what you know, you learned from people or institutions you respect: a science teacher, a parent, the New York Times, Buddhadharma, or a scripture, such as the Snickers Bar Sutra, where the Buddha said, “Oh monks, I will teach you about the Snickers bar. I will teach you about the taste of the Snickers bar. Oh monks, the Snickers bar is nutty and creamy and delicious.” This knowledge does not come from direct experience, or from your own reasoning, but depends on someone else’s understanding.
Still another way of knowing is through analogies to things you’ve already experienced. You might learn about the taste of a Snickers bar if you were told that it tastes like a Milky Way, only nutty and crunchy.
It is easy to see that the knowledge that arises from direct experience is very different from the knowledge that arises from inference, trusted authority, or analogy. Direct experience produces vivid, nonconceptual knowledge of its objects. The others give rise to general, conceptual understanding. This is like the difference between seeing a movie and reading a review. No matter how well the review is written, it will never provide the rich visual and audial experience of the actual movie.
In addition to helping us understand clearly the nature of the different types of cognition, pramana clarifies what makes particular types of cognition valid or mistaken, untangles the complicated relationship between perception and conception, and explains how we combine these two ways of knowing to accomplish things in the world. By studying and contemplating these teachings, and meditating within this understanding, we can begin to sort through our experience to see what is valid knowledge and what is confusion. Eventually, with the aid of our careful investigation, we can give rise to valid cognitions of impermanence and selflessness, and the actual cause of suffering and happiness.