The question of consciousness
1.1. Consciousness is a very elusive subject. It is rather difficult to define consciousness, mainly because it is internal and is a subjective experience. Any experience is always from a given point of view; and it is hard to be objective about our internal experiences. This is particularly true in the case of consciousness where we cannot remove ourselves from the process. The very notion of observing the mind with the mind appears enigmatic, for it does not allow for separation of subject and object. It is a legitimate concern.
1.2. The other problem involved with describing subjective experiences is the use of proper language; these are quite considerable. The language we employ to articulate our subjective experiences have their roots in our unique cultural, historic and linguistic backgrounds. The terms employed by any school, be it oriental or western, have their own broader range of connotations covering not merely the realm of thought but also of emotions and beyond. For instance, in the western languages one speaks in terms of consciousness, mind, mental phenomenon or awareness etc. In the Indian context one speaks in terms of buddhi, manas, jnana, vijnana vidya etc all of which can roughly be translated as awareness or intelligence or mental states. But these terms have a wider range of connotation than their English equivalents. For instance the terms manas or chitta cover not merely the realm of thought but also of emotions and much more. It is therefore, not easy to transport the meaning of a term from one system to the other with accuracy. The terms employed are ever subject to varied interpretations.
1.3. The question of consciousness has attracted a great deal of attention in the Indian philosophical systems. Buddhism developed rigorous methods for refining the attention, and applying that attention to exploring the origins, nature, and role of consciousness in the natural world .The earliest Buddhist texts viewed consciousness as an important factor in determining the course of human happiness and suffering; liberation and bondage. Yet, Buddhism did not “define” consciousness; perhaps, because it is nebulous; and difficult to pinpoint. But in principle, Buddhism asserts it is possible to recognize experientially what consciousness is and identify it.
1.4. The Buddhist texts talk of consciousness in metaphors such as clear light- prabhasvara (implying clarity- all defilements being sort of infection), knowing, and cognizance flowing like a river. They repeatedly talk about consciousness as an ever changing stream.
In order to understand the Buddhist theory of consciousness we have to get to know certain basic Buddhist concepts.
Central reality of all existence is change
2.1. The Buddha pointed out that the central reality of all existence is change. All phenomena come into being as a result of causes and conditions, they change every moment, and eventually they pass away. A belief in a permanent or a changeless-self is regarded a false concept leading to mistaken notions about reality. This belief is in sharp contrast to the Vedanta view of a changeless, attribute-less and immutable Brahman. The Buddhists assert that one of the basic misconceptions is the notion of a self – atman; and, only those who free themselves of such false notions can attain liberation. They argue that if there were some disembodied, unchanging entity, it would have no relation to any individual. And, because it lies beyond the world of the senses it could never be perceived.
3.1. According to the Buddhist view the individuals are not seamless continuum of an enduring essence such as Brahman or atman (soul) ; but, are actually composites of ever changing configuration of five factors or five aggregates – (Pali: khandha; Skt.: skandha).These relate to the physical form (rupa) – the body and all material objects including sense organs ; the sensations or the feelings (vedana) – one’s emotional response to the phenomena by way of desires and aversions in which the five senses and mind are involved; the third is the perception or recognition (sanna or sanjnya) of physical and mental objects; and , the fourth factor – sankhara or samskara – is variously called impulses or mental formulations or fabrications – these include volition and attention , the faculty of will , the force of habits etc. And, lastly there is the faculty of vinnana or vijnana the awareness or consciousness, which encompasses mental events and what is generally called sub-conscious in the West.
3.2. All the five aggregates are regarded “empty of self nature” in the sense they are dependent on causes (hetu) and conditions (patica); and are inter-related. In this scheme of things, consciousness too is conditioned and arises out of interaction with the other factors (physical or mental) .The consciousness in turn influences one or more mental factors. Thus consciousness and the mind-body (nama-rupa) are interdependent; there is no arising of consciousness without conditions. These form the chain of cause and effect (karmic).Yet, though consciousness and matter do contribute towards the origination of each other, one cannot become the substantial cause of the other.
3.3.In the Buddhist view, the difference between the plant, animal and the humans is in the level of intelligence; and all possess subtle consciousness. Any sentient being that can experience pain and pleasure is thought to possess consciousness. Therefore, the subtle consciousness is not uniquely human.
4.1. An individual, according to Buddhist thought, is ever changing or rather a fleeting, changing assortment or a procession of various unstable interacting factors. Consciousness too is highly varied made up of myriad mental states. Those mental states are dependent on the five senses.
4.2. Buddhist teachers suggest that through careful observation, it is possible to see consciousness as being a sequence of conscious moments rather as a continuum of awareness. Each moment is an experience of an individual mind-state: a thought, a memory, a feeling, a perception. A mind-state arises, exists and, being impermanent, ceases following which the next mind-state arises. Thus the consciousness of a sentient being can be seen as a continuous series of birth and death of these mind-states. In this context rebirth is simply the persistence of this process.
4.3. Consciousness is said to act like a life force which runs through the process and through life after life. But, consciousness, unlike atman, is subject to change every movement and influenced by the vicissitudes of one’s life. It is explained that one’s vocational actions produce karmas which influence the consciousness in a certain manner and determine ones rebirth. It is said, the five skandhascontinue on, powered by past karma, propelling births and rebirths. Here, Karma in essence is not action per se, but rather the state of mind of the person performing the action. The problem with such bad Karma is that it molds our personality, creates ruts or habitual patterns of thinking and feeling. These patterns in turn influence our present and future lives.
A major aim of Buddhism is to become aware of this process, and then to eliminate it by eradicating its causes.
Understanding is the key
5.1. The core problem of human existence, according to Buddhist belief, is duhkkha – the suffering .It is caused by the ignorance of the reality of things as they are. Such suffering leads to delusions, attachments and stress; and, results in continuing cycle of rebirths. Due to ignorance of the true nature of reality, human beings make choices that drive them to suffering. Since the problem originates from lack of right understanding, the solution to the malady should be sought in gaining the right understanding. Therefore, the Buddha said, one desirous of seeking liberation must discard mistaken ideas and acquire correct understanding.
5.2. In short, a person’s bondage is caused by ignorance or incorrect understanding. Liberation too is, in effect, caused by understanding- but it is the proper understanding; and nothing more. Bondage is the wrong understanding that binds; while liberation is the right understanding that frees. In either case, it is a matter of understanding. All that is from an individual’s point of view; But, in absolute sense there is neither bondage nor liberation.
6.1. The dhukkha of bondage is thus a matter of mental process; modifications of the consciousness, projecting the world outside and conditioning our reactions to it. Emancipation is the knowledge of things as they really are; and is the freedom from constraints imposed by phenomenal involvements.Emancipation, it appears, is the reverse or the other side of involvement in the phenomena.
6.2. A right understanding when it arises frees instantaneously; and is not delayed until the exhaustion of the karmas that have brought the current life into existence. In other words, liberation need not wait until one’s death. Such an enlightened one is termed an Arhant in the Buddhist lore. [Its equivalent term in Vedanta is Jivan-muktha – the emancipated one even while alive in this body].
6.3. The Buddha was rather reluctant to be drawn into a discussion on the state of consciousness of an Arhant after he discarded his mortal coils. Asked what happens to an Arhant upon his death, the Buddha was said to have replied: “What happens to footprints of birds in mid air?” Perhaps the Buddha likened the death of an Arhant to the extinction of a flame when the fuel (karma) runs out.
6.4. He evidently felt that such questions arose out of a false attachment to self, and that they distracted one from the main aim of eliminating suffering. Those who seek liberation, according to him, must discard the belief in self. And that requires meditative training, which removes defilements like aversions, attachments, cravings and stress.
Mind and consciousness
7.1. The Vedanta and the Buddhist text treat the mind and consciousness as being distinct. Vedanta believes consciousness is so called because the power of deliberation is hidden in it (like the fire in a log of wood that is not burning); and, it is called mind when deliberation is on (like log on fire).Mind is a deliberation of consciousness. Mind is that which discriminates the characteristics of objects.Mind is a pattern or a manipulation of consciousness which in turn is a function of our original nature. According to Tantra, Shiva is consciousness (chith) while Shakthi as its deliberation (vimarsha) is mind (dhih).The union of Shiva and Shakthi too is yoga.
7.2. The Buddhist interpretation appears to be slightly different. It says; consciousness (vinnana) is separate and arises from mind (mana). Nagarjuna(c. 150 – 250CE), the celebrated Buddhist philosopher and founder of Madhyamaika school, expands on it by putting forth a series of vivid images. Nagarjuna compares the natural purity of mind to the butter lying un-extracted in un-churned milk; to an oil lamp concealed inside a vase; to a pristine deposit of lapis lazuli buried in a rock and to a seed covered by its husk. When the milk is churned, the butter is revealed; when holes are made in the vase, the lamp’s light pours out; when the gem is dug out, the brilliance of the lapis lazuli shines forth; and when the husk is removed the seed can germinate. Nagarjuna’s explanation is akin to that of the Sankhya belief which denotes that the effect is in reality a transformation of the cause. The cause is transformed and differentiated into multiplicity of objects.
Nagarjuna then argues that the essential nature of the mind is pure and its defilements are removable through meditative purification. When our afflictions are removed or cleaned through the sustained cultivation of insight, the innate purity of mind becomes manifest.
Practice of meditation
8.1. As per the Vajrayana Buddhism, Bhodhi-Chitta “that which is conscious” resides in all of us as a hidden pool of compassion, tranquility, unaffected, “ever washed bright” and beyond the phenomenal involvements. It can be experienced when our afflictions are removed or cleaned through sustained cultivation of insight. One way of experiencing pure consciousness, according to Buddhism, is to practice meditation.
8.2. The Buddha believed that if one wishes to avoid certain types of results, one needs to change the conditions that give rise to them.The effect lies latent in the cause; and that effect in turn seeds the next effect. He said, removal of a basic condition will remove its effect. Therefore, if one changes the conditions of one’s state of mind, one can change the trait of one’s consciousness and the resulting attitudes and emotions.
It is in this context that the Buddha taught practice of mindfulness anapana –sati; anapana meaning breath and sati (snkt.smruthi) is non-forgetfulness, being aware of it. The Buddha spoke of mind as being essentially pure, clear and peaceful. The distractions, dispersions, confusions and agitations are all apparent. But the appearances could be troublesome and stressful. They need to be cleared. The method he recommended for removing the disturbances is the mindfulness. He asked one to be aware of one’s own breathing; in other words, to be mindful of breathing and of the body, feelings, thoughts, and other phenomena. Accordingly, in order to get rid of dhukkha, suffering one should neither identify with nor attach to vinnana, consciousness; but just watch. That Mindfulness leads to understanding of the impermanent and fleeting character (anitya) and illusory appearance of consciousness and then on to eliminate it by eradicating its causes. [Please click here for more on Mindfulness]
8.2.Dharmakirti (c. 600 AD), a seventh century Buddhist philosopher, too stated that through disciplined meditative training, natural constraints on consciousness are removable and substantive changes can be effected in human consciousness. Dharmakirti argued that, in principle, it is possible for a mental activity like compassion to be developed to a limitless degree. He, in fact, remarked that the greatness of the Buddha as a spiritual teacher lies not so much in his mastery or knowledge in various fields but in his having attained boundless compassion for all beings.
9.1. After having said that, the Buddhist texts caution against treating consciousness as the ultimate reality. It should not be; because consciousness is only a projection of the original nature. And, consciousness is inconsistent and depends on other factors for its existence.The Buddha Manjushree explained the ultimate state of realityis not something that can be known by consciousness, nor is it an object of the mind..He said, you cannot find This Ultimate One with the mind of thoughts … so how do you find it? … by no-mind, no-thought, by not attaching to thoughts but letting them just be there, but never attaching to them while maintaining presence.
Scientific investigations and Buddhist meditation practices
10.1. As discussed above, Buddhist texts hold the view that human consciousness emerges not from the brain or from matter; but from a deeper level. And, as the brain ceases the consciousness will dissolve back into the substrate and carries on from lifetime to lifetime. The continuum of consciousness will carry on; and it is a beginning- less continuum. They argue, the being that is reborn is different from the previous one that died; but its identity remains as before because of the continuity in the flow of consciousness.
10.2. The classical western theory (among other theories) appears to be that consciousness is an emergent property of a complex organization or of the matter called brain. The science thinks of consciousness as arising out of matter because no other explanation seems plausible. It rightly argues that the human emotions, visual perceptions or psyche cannot arise in the absence of the brain or the appropriate faculty. They all arise because of a certain level of brain and nerve-cell complexity. In other words, the nerve cell complexity of the brain is the seat of consciousness. Thus consciousness is a kind of physical process that arises through the structure and dynamics of the brain. And, when the brain is dead, when it decomposes or when it is no longer capable of functioning as brain, the properties of the brain-based consciousness also vanish. That is the end.
10.3. B. Alan Wallace the noted scholar teacher in his essay “A Science of Consciousness: Buddhism (1), the Modern West (0)” observes the West presently has no pure science of consciousness and it also lacks an applied science of consciousness that reveals means for refining and enhancing consciousness.
Francisco Valera, the renowned Biologist who dedicated his life to the studies of ‘biology of consciousnesses’ , opined that if the scientific study of consciousness is to grow to a full maturity-given that subjectivity is a primary element of consciousness – it will have to incorporate a fully developed and rigorous methodology of first-person emphericism. He felt, there was a tremendous potential in this area for contemplative traditions like Buddhism to make a substantive contribution to science and its methods.
There are signs that the scientific community is trying to understand the Buddhist theories of the nature, origins and potentials of consciousness.
10.4. But, the path is not easy. Unlike that of modern science, Buddhism’s approach has been primarily from first-person experience. The contemplative method, as developed by Buddhism, is an empirical use of introspection. The scientific approach is not comfortable with an empirical investigation of subjective events from a first-person perspective. That is because; meditative experiences are not amenable to verification – both through repetition by the same practitioner; and through other individuals of same caliber and adopting same practices. One therefore wonders, given the highly subjective nature of consciousness, whether it is ever possible to gain a third person –objective and scientific-understanding.
The other problem is that it is very hard for the scientists to refuse the possibility that consciousness may not merely be a phenomenon of the brain.
10.5. HH the Dalai Lama in his book The Universe in a Single Atomadmitted that such disquiet is entirely understandable given the dominance of the third-person scientific method as a paradigm for scientific investigation .And, yet trying to bridge the two systems , he explained that the Buddhist approach to the study of consciousness is based on the understanding of functions and modalities of the mind and their casual dynamics – and this is precisely the area that the Buddhist understanding can most readily intersect with scientific approach because , like that of science, much of the Buddhist investigation of consciousness is empirically based.
10.6. B. Alan Wallace who in his essay “Training the Attention and Exploring consciousness in Tibetan Buddhism “ examines the methods of attention training and exploring consciousness in Tibetan Buddhism, joined the issue by stating that without the subjective evidence provided by introspection, there would be no discipline of consciousness studies. He argued that these (Hindu and Buddhist) attention-enhancing methods present a challenge to modern researchers in the consciousness studies “to broaden the scope of legitimate methods of scientific inquiry so that the introspective exploration of consciousness may begin to rise to the levels of sophistication of objective means of studying brain correlates of conscious states.”
10.7. HH the Dalai Lama explained, Buddhist psychology does not catalogue the mind’s make up or even describes how the mind functions. But the primary aim of the Buddhist contemplative practice, he said, is to alleviate suffering especially the psychological and emotional afflictions and to clear those afflictions. And, Science too has contributed enormously to the lessening of suffering, especially the physical suffering. It is therefore appropriate, he said, science and spirituality make common cause.
10.8. And, he concluded on a hopeful note saying “ I believe that it is possible for Buddhism and modern science to engage in collaborative research in the understanding of consciousness while leaving aside the philosophical question. By bringing together these two modes of inquiry, both disciplines may be enriched. Such collaborative study will contribute to a better understanding of the dynamics of the human mind and its relation to suffering. ”
10.9. B. Alan Wallace considers that such collaboration would mutually benefit scientists and Buddhists. According to him, “one of the greatest potentials of the interface between Buddhism and science is that Buddhists may encourage scientists to question their materialistic assumptions and incorporate sophisticated systems of contemplative inquiry within the scientific community. …. Likewise, scientists may encourage Buddhists to question their own assumptions, to revitalize their own traditions of contemplative inquiry, and to integrate them with the empirical methods of modern science. In short, Buddhists and scientists may help each other in overcoming their tendencies to dogmatism and replace this with a fresh and open-minded spirit of empiricism.”
Sources and References
Let’s hope such collaboration takes off the ground and some good comes of it.
Zen and Dhyâna By Prof.SK Ramachandra Rao; Kalpataru publications, Bangalore
B Allan Wallace : http://www.alanwallace.org/spr08wallace_comp.pdf
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi; Harper Perennial; 1990
A Science of Consciousness: Buddhism (1), the Modern West (0)
B. Alan Wallace- Published in The Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies
Third Series, No. 4, Fall 2002, pp. 15-32
Buddhism and Science: Confrontation and Collaboration by B. Alan Wallace
Training the Attention and Exploring consciousness in Tibetan Buddhism – B. Alan Wallace
What is Consciousness vs. Awareness?
Mixing Buddhism and neuroscience to understand human consciousness
Consciousness – Indian Thought – Buddhist Systems
Daniel Dennett on Consciousness – And a Buddhist Response