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June 20th, 2013

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08:15 am - A Buddhist Solution to the Mind-Body Problem.

As René Descartes put it, "cogito ergo sum." Popularly translated as, "I think, therefore, I am," it established, in Western thinking, a solid philosophical grounding for the actuality of being. At a basic level, the very act of doubting whether or not one exists is proof enough of that existence, at least in a provisional sense (more on that later) as "doubting" can only be done by someone who exists.

Though we have proven consciousness in an axiomatic way, the problem arises when considering the relationship between the brain and consciousness. There are two horns of this problem. In the following blog entry, I'd like to explain the Buddhist explanation of consciousness and in doing so, attempt a solution to a problem that has vexed many thinkers for years.

Defining the mind-body problem

There are two horns to this dilemma, each with many particular variants. They are dualism and monism. Dualism asserts one of two things: that what we think of as consciousness is a substance or essence that exists outside of the laws of physics, or that while the laws of physics are valid, reductionism cannot be used to explain the nature of consciousness. Monism, at the other end of the spectrum can be sub-categorized in one of three ways: that the mind is matter organized in a certain way, that thought is the only thing that truly exists and materiality is an illusion, or that both mind and matter are aspects of a substance that is identical to neither. Those last two, idealism and neutral monism respectively, will be considered in more detail.

The Buddhist explanation of consciousness

In order to understand how Buddhism offers a unique solution to the problem we must have an understanding of consciousness. This is more than a mere definition. In order to comprehend consciousness we must have an answer to a few questions. It is not enough to ask "what is consciousness?" as this is too broad a line of inquiry. Instead, let us ask "how does consciousness come to be?" and "What functions does consciousness perform?"

How does consciousness come to be?

Here it is important to understand that in Buddhism cause and condition are not the same thing. To quote from the Theravada Nyaya,

"According to Buddhism everything in the world is an effect of a cause, or a causally conditioned phenomenon. Such an effect is not produced by a single cause, but by many causes. For example, a tree is an effect the cause of which is a seed. Nevertheless there are many other factors such as earth, water and light which serve as additional causes. Subsequently the effect (tree) itself becomes the cause of a new seed which causes another tree. This shows that cause and effect are not exclusive categories; but inter-changeable...It has already been said that an effect may have more than one cause. Among such causes there may be one or several causes which are indispensable and some other causes which are not. The indispensible cause is called 'cause' (hetu) and non-indispensable causes 'condition' (paccaya)."

So we must turn to the doctrine of paticca-samuppada, that is dependent arising, as found succinctly in Ud 1.1,

"When this is, that is. From the arising of this comes the arising of that."

In order to understand the existence of consciousness we must have a firm knowledge of both the cause and the condition. A survey of the canon provides both of these criterion.

First, the conditions. From Majjhima Nikaya 77.29, "...I have proclaimed to my disciples the way to understand thus: 'This body of mine, made of material form, consisting of the four great elements, procreated by a mother and a father, and built up out of rice and porridge is subject to impermanence, to being worn and rubbed away, to dissolution and disintegration, and this consciousness of mine is supported by it and bound up with it.'"

Here we find the conditions, a mother and father, material form consisting of its own elements, and the continual processing of gross nutriment.

Now the cause. We return to dependent arising, "From fabrications as a requisite condition comes consciousness." To elaborate from Samyutta Nikaya 12.2, "And what is consciousness? These six are classes of consciousness: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, intellect-consciousness. This is called consciousness." An understanding of this cryptic statement answers our second question:

What functions does consciousness perform?

Eye-consciousness does not mean that the eye is conscious, but that with the satisfaction of further conditions, an external form, an eye to see, light, etc (see Samyutta Nikaya 12.44), the eye as a sense modality lets in information. The object of the eye-faculty then becomes an object of the mind continuing the chain of arising. Think of objects as "falling into" the doors of the senses which are then cognized by the mind.

To put it another way, from the Majjhima Nikaya 43.4,

"'Consciousness, consciousness': Thus is it said. To what extent, friend, is it said to be 'consciousness'?

'It cognizes, it cognizes': Thus, friend, it is said to be 'consciousness.'"

This is all to say that consciousness is consciousness of an object, hence why it can only arise when fabrications are present.

However, it must be understood that this is not necessarily the end of the psycho-perceptual process.

The Buddhist Solution to the Mind-Body Problem

Scattered throughout the canon are references to a phenomenon known as papañca. While there is no analysis of this word in any of the commentaries, the accepted use, based on context is one of conceptual excess.

Reading from Majjhima Nikaya 18 we find, "Dependent on eye & forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as a requisite condition, there is feeling. What one feels, one perceives (labels in the mind). What one perceives, one thinks about. What one thinks about, one objectifies. Based on what a person objectifies, the perceptions & categories of objectification assail him/her with regard to past, present, & future forms cognizable via the eye."

And it is here, that we find the root of the so-called problem. The two horns of the problem are premised on wrong view. As we've established, materiality and mentality are inseparable. The analogy given in Samyutta Nikaya 12.67, " It is as if two sheaves of reeds were to stand leaning against one another. In the same way, from name-&-form as a requisite condition comes consciousness, from consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-&-form...If one were to pull away one of those sheaves of reeds, the other would fall; if one were to pull away the other, the first one would fall. "

Dualism, the notion that there is something distinct about consciousness is rejected by Buddhists as a wrong view per Digha Nikaya 1. Consciousness is not a substance, nor are the laws of physics required for an explanation.

Monism, first that consciousness is merely an arrangement of matter is incorrect as consciousness is what the brain does and is dependent on more than biology for its arising. Second, idealism that thought is the only thing that exists refutes itself as a brain is required for thought to appear. Third, neutral monism, that materiality and mentality are a way of referring to the same object that is neither of them, in fact that there is only a single element in the universe cannot be the case as for something to exist it must have it's own nature per the variable conditions that bring a cause to fruition. In the same way that there are causes for every human being, the individual conditions help to determine that own nature. This is true of every phenomenon. It should be mentioned that this own-nature is not to be construed as the essence or being of that object, but a bare convention, an imputation.

This can be understood with the simile of the chariot from Samyutta Nikaya 5.10,

Why now do you assume 'a being'?
Mara, have you grasped a view?
This is a heap of sheer constructions:
Here no being is found.

Just as, with an assemblage of parts,
The word 'chariot' is used,
So, when the aggregates are present,
There's the convention 'a being.'

It's only suffering that comes to be,
Suffering that stands and falls away.
Nothing but suffering comes to be,
Nothing but suffering ceases.


Having made clear what consciousness is, that is to say, it's nature as dependently arisen and it's function as an active agent, that is, consciousness is consciousness of something the dilemma of the mind-body problem vanishes as do all conditioned phenomenon. Since it is the result of speculation premised on wrong view, when right view is obtained, the process behind such speculation is apparent, and, like an army of anxieties attacking the mind, it can be done away with, freeing the mind from unnecessary proliferation, that is to say, papañca-saññā-sankhā, the tendencies that underlie conceptual excess.

May all beings be happy and free from suffering.

(4 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
From:daruma doll
Date:June 22nd, 2013 01:57 am (UTC)
Thank you for your thoughtful attempt at resolving the hard problem of philosophy by using an approach based on the teachings of the Theravada school of Buddhism.

I would like to ask some clarifications:
1) Descartes has empirically proved the existence of a subjective thought process. Did he also prove the existance of an objective reality?
2) As you have correctly observed, the "eye-consciousness", "tongue-consciousness" ... etc. are the functional aspects of the consciousness. When there is a function, there is usually an agent which performs the function. So is there a consciousness which is upstream of its functional manifestations? What about Citta?
3) You have stated that consciousness is always a consciousness of something. What about consciousness being conscious of itself? Is this possible?
4) You have used the word "information" in your text. What is information? How is it related to the other concepts that we use to describe reality such as "matter" and "energy"?
5) Was Gautama using some similar concepts?
6) About neutral monism, you argue against it. Would you please elaborate upon it some more in the light of the points that I mentionned above?

Thank you.

In gassho.

[User Picture]
Date:June 22nd, 2013 04:07 am (UTC)
In answer to your excellent questions.

1) Not as far as I know, but in much the same way as "denying" is an act of consciousness that proves consciousness, questioning reality implies that there is something there even if it's to be understood as empty of a self, and not self-existent. By this I mean that while compounded phenomenon exist, they will exist impermanently and have no abiding essence of their own.

2) I'm not quite sure what you're asking. Is it about the connection to consciousness versus the consciousness that will be so long as the requisite condition has been put into place?

edited to add this note about dependent-arising: In the Pali Canon, it's taught devoid of any sort of outside context whether of a being or an outside world. This is because questions like "what was I in the past?" "Will I be in the future?" are speculative and cannot be answered (MN 2, AN 4.77) and so are not conducive to effective practice. Further, see MN 38, SN 12.35, MN 22, etc.

2a) With regards to citta, Yaṃ ca kho etaṃ bhikkhave, vuccati cittaṃ itipi mano itipi viññāṇaṃ itipi, "But as for what's called 'mind,' 'intellect,' or 'consciousness,'...". Samyutta Nikaya 12.61.

That being said, citta seems to correspond not to a quantity or part of a process, but it seems to represent something qualitative. My note to MN 10 on this subject says, "Mind (citta) as an object of contemplation refers to the general state and level of consciousness. Since consciousness itself, in it's own nature, is the bare knowing or cognizing of an object, the quality of any state of mind is determined by its associated mental factors, such as lust, hate, and delusion or their opposites, as mentioned by the sutta."

3) Consciousness can be conscious of itself as stated above, that is to say mind can have mind as it's object as it is one of the six senses, the contents of which can be known. This is introspection and is an integral part of all Buddhist practice in all vehicles to my knowledge.

4) I think "information" was the wrong word to use here. Perhaps, I should have said "the eye as a sense modality lets in objects of the world around us." Concepts are essentially abstracts used to convey meaning in a general sense, that is conventional knowledge (see Theravada Nyaya and the Patisambhidamagga for more information on this subject. Not trying to evade but it is a complex subject and I don't think I'm capable of explaining it clearly in a concise way). Convention is what the worldling takes to be absolute truth (with special emphasis paid to views of a self), whereas arya/noble knowledge is knowledge of things as they actually. They are all concepts.

5) Yes, the Blessed One made use of convention for the purpose of teaching. DN 9, "...these are the world's designations, the world's expressions, the world's ways of speaking, the world's descriptions, with which the Tathagata expresses himself but without grasping to them."

6) I don't think I need to, really. Part of the reason is that, from what I can tell, there is no clear picture of what this "neutral" entity is. It reminds me very much of those who are "eel-wrigglers." DN 1, "...when he is questioned about this or that point, he resorts to evasive statements and to endless equivocation: "I do not take it thus, nor do I take it in that way, nor do I take it in some other way. I do not say that it is not, nor do I say that it is neither this nor that.'"

Edited at 2013-06-23 12:49 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:June 22nd, 2013 04:26 am (UTC)
Could I get away with asking how you would attempt a solution and from what school?
[User Picture]
From:daruma doll
Date:June 23rd, 2013 04:40 pm (UTC)
Sorry for the belated reply.
I've been quite busy these days.
The topic at hand is a very complex one, and there are plenty of things to consider regarding it.
I would start by observing that none of the philosophical schools, including but not restricted to the Buddhist ones, have come with a definitive solution to the questions arising from the study of consciousness.
I think there is a simple reason for this; for when one contemplates consciousness, one contemplates the whole of his/her existential experience.
This is due to the fact that outside of the consciousness no existence is provable, because only inside the field of consciousness is the existence recognized.
The phenomena that we experience arise as projections inside the field of consciousness.
Their existence outside of the field of consciousness can be inferred, but cannot be proven (Descartes only inferred the existence of a reality outside of his consciousness).
Our own mind is the one and only reality that we are ever able to experience, everything else is just a reflection present inside the field of the consciousness/inside the mind.
Thus Mind might be understood as the noumenon which exists outside and prior to the sensual experience and its conscious perception, because it is the basis of any experience and is independent of any experience.
The fact that consciousness might be contemplating itself outside any input from the sense organs is an empirical proof for this affirmation.
By extension, using the Buddhist concept of Anatman one could also affirm that our personal. ego-limited mind is a subjective perception of an impersonal Mind, which despite being empty of the self is the basis for all psycho-physical experiences (or all dharma), thus this Mind in its purified form might be directly equated with Suchness and Emptiness and being described as the womb of all the Buddhas.
Of course all this is just more words and concepts.

Edited at 2013-06-23 04:48 pm (UTC)

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