Nothing but...?

Sunday October 22, 2006


Recently there was an interesting discussion on the Network of Engaged Buddhists e-mail list concerning dementia and dharma practice. The discussion involved an interesting exploration of whether dharma practice is dependent upon brain-states or whether it is independent. The general consensus in the discussion seemed to be that dharma practice is about something that is somehow beyond to the reach of the physical world, that it cannot be merely about those things that are observable or detectable here within the world. It must be about something longer-term, something more enduring, even – it was suggested – something indestructible.

This claim that dharma practice must be about “something more”, from one point of view, makes sense. Sometimes our lives are narrow, our concerns even narrower, and we do not live as fully as we might. There is indeed more to life. Sitting in meditation, it is possible to notice that life is infinitely more complex than our everyday narratives make out. As the narratives die away and we begin to become a little more aware, we see that there is more – far more – than we habitually take for granted. What, however, I find utterly baffling is the idea that this “something more” must lie somewhere beyond the reach of the physical world. I don’t really think even I understand what this means.

Think of it like this. Let us posit a non-material mind. Either this mind has effects in the world or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t have any effects in the world, then there is no way of knowing whether it exists or not, and even if we take a gamble and say we believe (necessarily without evidence) that it exists, its existence cannot do anything at all. Thus the only kind of non-material mind that seems worth having is one that has effects in the world. These effects, being in the world, should be amenable to systematic study, so that we can then throw light upon the cause (“non-material mind”) that lies behind these effects. This study might be arduous and difficult, but in principle it should be possible. So let us say that we trace all the effects of this posited entity, the non-material mind. Now two questions present themselves. Firstly, how can we be sure that these effects are all attributable to this particular entity that we have posited, if this entity is beyond the physical? If we were to be certain, we would first have to rule out all other possible effects within the world. Secondly, however, even if we did attain to a systematic description of these effects, then I can’t see how this would be different from a systematic description of what happens in the world, rather than a systematic description of something beyond the world.

It is for this reason that when Buddhists talk of Mind with a capital M, when they write that we all have an indestructible Awakened Heart, when they claim that consciousness is an entity that can survive death, I simply do not understand how it is possible to make these claims.

This is perhaps why I do not see my dharma practice as religious. When it comes to religious claims such as these, I suspect that I have the equivalent of a tin ear. Or perhaps it is because when I look out of the window – as I did the other day – and see the poplar tree lit up with evening sun against a dark, brooding sky, and a rainbow arcing across the sky, I do not feel that this material world is insufficient, I do not feel as if I need anything more.

# · Anthony

Yes, Will. I’ve often thought that this idea of a non-material mind actually seemed rather un-Buddhist, in that it seems to be dualistic (it rests on the idea that there is mind and there is matter and they are two entirely different things) and to contradict pratitya samutpada (this ‘mind’ is said to be eternal and indestructible).

# · Tom

When you look out the window and see the poplar tree, what makes you think that that is an all-material experience? Indeed, I think you ought to know it isn’t.

This is an old chestnut, but I submit it to you: Explain to me your experience of seeing the color green in context of the ‘material’ stuff that delivers the experience.

How is the color that you experience created by the material that goes into it? I submit that you cannot make that leap. The so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness is unsolvable by the physicalists.

The cover article in US News and World Report tackles current thinking on consciousness. I blogged about it yesterday.

I think the interesting qualities of research into particle physics may give us a clue. “Particles,” after all, do not exist like Tinker Toy joints, as was thought eighty years ago. The world of the very small is an impossible-seeming feast of wondrous occurances that is unlike the scale of you viewing the poplar tree.

How very likely — it seems to me — the world is richer with explanation for what is going on with consciousness than what we might suppose.

# · Elee

I don’t think Will is discounting electromagnatic waves and quantum physics from the ‘material’ world! It seems to be more to do with discounting things which people claim are ‘beyond the reaches of science’ – mystical and other-worldly things which scientists can not reach with their material methodologies.

Of course the problems of consciousness are incredibly complicated – possibly so much so that humans can’t hope to fully understand them, but that doesn’t mean that what happens in the brain isn’t in the realm of the material.

I also think its a shame that you have to add this other-worldly aspect for people to feel like an explanation is rich.

# · Shanti

Yes, I agree, thinking that Dharma is beyond this world and not observable is non-Buddhist. If we cannot study it outside belief that it doesn’t make sense or doesn’t exist.

# · Gareth

The skeptic in me wants to agree with your post Will, (I’ve just been catching up on the original discussion as it happens)

Do the early texts posit an un-material-mind? having just returning from The Buddhist House, a particular translation of the Tri-Laksana is fresh in my mind..

All Mental formations are impermanent
all mental formations are dissatisfactory
All truths are not-self

The implication being that there is a truth beyond our experience…

Our sense perceptions are unreliable, what we perceive as the world is various process occurring, and these processes occur from our being present in a world that is larger than the individual.

To say that there is some truth that exists beyond the usual processes of usual mental formations is not to separate it from the material world.

I don’t think this means that there is something separate from brain states through.

I’m not sure where I’m heading with this argument. If I agree with you, I think I’m missing the truth, but if I agree on something separate from mind…I think I’m missing something here as well…

I’m going to sign off before becoming more confused.

All the best

# · Will

Yikes! Lots of intelligent comments to reply to. But not enough time as I’m about to catch a bus into the Bulgarian mountains. I’ll try to respond and to do this discussion justice soon.

W :-)

# · Will

OK, a stab at a quick response! I’d go along with your comments, Gareth and Elee – and I’d also add that confusion in these matters is understandable. It is baffling. There’s no doubt about that.

Here’s a thought that I’ve been turning over: is the idea of the experiencer being the product of a non-material mind any less baffling than the idea of the experiencer being the product of processes that, fundamentally, are material. What is baffling is not how experience can arise from dumb matter, but how experience can arise from anything at all. Saying that there is a thing (non-material mind) that has the faculty of experiencing, does not to me make experience any less puzzling. I’m not sure it gets us anywhere at all.

Thanks, Tom, for the link to the overview and the article, which I’ll have a proper look at soon.

All the best,


# · Sam

I suspect that as one’s practice ‘deepens’ these sorts of questions become almost irrelevant, beside the point. I think that there is a kind of silent “knowledge” that can’t be put into words at all and that can encompass everything.

As far as consciousness being “an entity that can survive death” goes, I think that there is much to indicate that this occurs…. strange as it may seem.

# · Will

I’m not so sure Sam.

Firstly, I’m not sure if practice necessarily leads to the diminishment of these questions. For me, it has made them more alive. They don’t seem irrelevant, but vivid and important. Of course, it is entirely possible (or even likely) that I’m just practising wrong, or not enough, or something like that…

I’m not even sure that there is much to indicate that consciousness is an entity, let alone one capable of surviving death. Nor am I sure that knowledge can encompass everything. The Buddha himself spoke of unanswerable questions – and although we may be metaphysically committed to the idea that his knowledge did encompass such imponderables, there’s no reason to assume that practice leads to any kind of omniscience, even a silent omniscience.

I may say more on all of this in a later post…

All the best,

# · Tom

Will wrote: What is baffling is not how experience can arise from dumb matter, but how experience can arise from anything at all. Saying that there is a thing (non-material mind) that has the faculty of experiencing, does not to me make experience any less puzzling. I’m not sure it gets us anywhere at all.

In a fully-material world consciousness is unnecessary. If everything is determined by particles and chemicals jostling around, then humans can run around rather much like robots in a fabulously dead universe.

Consciousness is this something-extra, this added lively tang [taken from the vantage of a physicalist, which is something I do not approve of, but I am using to make my point] that outwardly creates conflict and curious emotions like love and suffering.

Of course, to those of us who are not of the sensibility that the physical is primary and that if consciousness exists it is an add-on, like a sunroof on a Buick, the argument gets turned on its head.

If consciousness always was, then why is the physical necessary? And the answer to that is that consciousness needed some place to romp. Something outside itself to knock it off its game. Because it was lonely it created dead stuff [the material world] and a collide-ascope of other sentient beings that are each the universe of consciousness.

# · Will

I like the idea of a lively tang and consciousness having somewhere to romp, Tom… But I’m really not at all sure about the curious creation myth you’ve got going on there – the loneliness of consciousness creating dead stuff to romp in. I very much like your style… but at the same time I disagree almost entirely.

I still think the puzzle of how experience can arise is not solved in the slightest bit by such dualism. Experience itself is a puzzle, but to say that there is an experiencing kind of substance that is separate from material substance only defers the problem of how experience arises.


# · Tom

What makes you think that material substance is primary and “experience arises” out of it?

Material substance is as much of a puzzle as mysterious consciousness. Both are impossible if we expect either to arise out of a still, black nothingness.

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