What is an Idea? (Part one)

We begin our discussion on idea in the spirit of the method we use to agree on terminology the way Tibetan Buddhism is taught in Geshe advanced Buddhist studies. If we cannot agree on terms and ideas, it will be more difficult to explain other concepts based on those. I am not using traditional dharma words here ideas those are for explaining the foreign Sanskrit concepts to Tibetan students. Since education in the West is diverse and culture is changing rapidly, it is good to have common ground in English also.

We can agree that ideas are modules of mental process; one of your most important techniques for interacting with the world. This word comes from both the Latin and Greek, meaning, “to see.” In that way, it appears to be a way of describing the gathering of information, however, I also think it is not easy to definitively state, “both the Greeks and the Latin say that idea = to see.” We all understand the confusion possible from our own explorations in communication between cultures, certainly in my experiences of Tibetan language in understanding Sanskrit that predates Tibetan for Buddhist studies. There are also complications between other cultural influences in the English language, creating many unknown nuances to language until investigated.

This reminds me of stories I have heard about an unnamed European explorer who not only discovered Tibet, (to his own mind) as well as, (with extremely rudimentary Tibetan language ability), translated Tibetan texts that sound bizarre because of a lack of correct meanings of terminology. No Tibetan scholar… he would have been laughed off the debate court with that kind of language and understanding.

Therefore, in a similar respectful manner, it is likely that the Greeks had many nuances to this word, “idea.” We cannot impose our own standards upon their knowing in order for us to have a superficial understanding of what the Greeks said – “it means to see.” That would be immature and premature to an inquiring mind.

So, it is good to see fresh, so that we can derive the most benefit from ideas. We can agree that ideas are mental activities. Idea can also operate under the meaning of a “notion.” A notion also has a feeling of experiencing an unexamined or light-hearted result of superficially gathered impressions. This means that there is not much analysis or reflection used, either by lack of time or deep interest. This use of idea as a notion could also be applied to hurt someone by demeaning their thinking as useless, for example, “Well, buddy, you’ve got some funny notions there.” In that way, the idea has been reduced to a meaningless process going on in you that has little to do with logical possibilities. It certainly does not relate to correct thinking in their opinion!

On the other hand, one could personally have a notion, for example, to get an ice cream cone. In that way, you could use it interchangeably – “I’ve got an idea to go for an ice cream cone,” but if you do not want to give it full status you might choose to say, “I’ve got a notion to do this.” Certainly, if I examined it more closely, I would probably decide not to go, knowing how many calories, how little time, and how little I actually need an ice cream cone. Still, I have a notion to go there.

It could also be beneficial to use as a way to hold an unformed idea without giving it full status as an idea. It allows us to organize thoughts and interact with others or other ideas without losing correct logic. Therefore, it is a nuance of language to be able to have an unformed idea. If you say, “ I’ve got a notion to fly to the moon”– you do not have to own a spaceship or know someone with a spaceship. You do not even need education such as astronauts are logically required to have. Recently, I saw a movie about a young fellow who became a renowned rocket scientist called, “October Sky.” It was inspiring to see his dedication and enthusiasm. Even though he was a boy living in West Virginia with no hopes of ever becoming a rocket scientist, in fact, he did, and it was not a notion of his but a true idea.

Anyway, I could have a notion (idea) to go to the moon. What does it cost now, $20 million to go up into space? I do not need any of those things, only a partial idea in order to perhaps liven up some other unnamed thing. Perhaps I really mean that I am not happy on this Earth and I would like to go to the moon to escape. Perhaps I mean my nature is to fly high. We do not know where that notion is coming from. However, we can retain a part of language to express without needing to explain every single piece of information logically. To be continued….


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