An examination of the Buddha’s views on the mind. Two and half millennia after his time, shows them to be remarkably rational and contemporary.
The day of Vaisakh Purnima (May 27 this year), is significant for three reasons. It was on this day that Gautama Buddha was born as Prince Siddhartha at Lumbini in Nepal in 560 B.C; the day when he attained enlightenment at Gaya in India; and the day he attained Nirvana (Unity with the Absolute) in 480 B.C. It is, therefore, observed as Buddha Purnima, worldwide. To mark this day in 2010, we examine the rational mind, as conceived by Buddha.
It has become fashionable and commonplace to associate Buddhism with the metaphysical. This is in stark contrast with Buddha’s emphasis on rational thought and insistence on empirical verification. He encouraged the development of theories that were verifiable and was strongly opposed to dogma, which he viewed as an impediment to the truth. To him the truth was supreme, and ideas that hinder the discovery of truth best avoided. He believed in full freedom in thought and action; “the gates of freedom will cease to be gates, if people start clinging to the gates.”
Buddha also had very interesting, remarkably contemporary views on the mind and some of these are enumerated below.
On thoughts and ideas
The very first verse of the Dhammapada translates as “you are nothing but your mind”, based on which, “Sarvam Buddhimayam Jagat” has been proposed. The word used by Buddha ‘ mana ‘ translates both as thoughts and as mind, and can be interpreted to mean the brain. Buddha’s emphasis is on the flow of thoughts and the continuous change in the thinking process. In his concept, ideas are not constant, they change all the time. Ideas have no independent origination; they have ideas preceding and following them. Consequently, all ideas are interrelated and there are no stand alone or absolute ideas. The thinker, the thought and the concepts therein cannot be separated. Interestingly, this concept has parallels in modern psychiatry. A primary delusion, a first rank symptom of Schizophrenia is said to arise when the person, following a “delusional mood” has a thought “out of the blue” and “without antecedents”. To have such a thought that has no thoughts preceding it, and possibly therefore no basis in fact, was abnormal to the Buddha, and remains so in modern concept.
Both the Surangama Sutra and the Lankavatra Sutra attribute perception, physical and emotional, to the mind. “Both delusion and enlightenment originate within the mind and every existence or phenomenon arise from the functions of the mind.” The Surangama Sutra poses an interesting question: “A man opens his hand and the mind perceives it; but what is it that moves? Is it the mind, or is it the hand? Or is it neither of them? If the hand moves then the mind moves accordingly, and vice versa; but the moving mind is only a superficial appearance of mind.” According to the Buddha, all perception had basis within oneself. This concept of the Buddha has neuro-scientific underpinnings. If one were to replace the “mind” as Buddha called it, with “brain” as he probably meant, and is contemporary concept; that all our perception and action has basis in the brain, is truism. Prof. V.S. Ramachandran has described in his book Phantoms in the Brain, novel representation areas for human body parts that have been amputated, developing in the brain.
This illustration leads to another important question, namely, what is ‘me’ and what is ‘mine’? Buddha, through fables, encourages us to think about this existential dilemma. The parable is about a man who takes shelter in an abandoned structure on a stormy night. Sitting in a corner of a dilapidated room he sees around midnight, a demon enter, with a corpse. The demon leaves the corpse on the floor; suddenly another demon appears and claims the corpse. Both demons turn to the man and ask him to decide on the ownership of the corpse. Being truthful, he indicates he saw the first demon bring in the corpse. On hearing this, the second demon is enraged, tears away and eats the hand of the unfortunate man, which the first demon, immediately replaces with the one taken from the corpse. After the demons leave, the man wonders and thinks aloud, “the replaced hand is ‘mine’ but is it ‘me’?
Again, the questions raised have neuro-scientific relevance. After damaging physical trauma, and transplants, it is well reported that people sometimes feel dissociated from their new organs. Indeed, having an organ replaced can be a life-changing experience. At another level, damage to the brain, the parietal lobe in particular, can result in the sufferer neglecting his body parts, as he does not recognise them as his own. The phenomenon of anosognosia, leading to neglect of one half of the body (hemi-neglect), is a well described phenomenon after a stroke. Here, the person sees the paralysed limb lying beside him on the bed, but is unable to recognise it as his own.
Buddha did, therefore, begin the mind-matter debate much before it became fashionable in contemporary philosophy. He placed human emotion firmly within the organ he referred to as the mind, which we now understand to be the brain. His statement – “If we learn that there is no world of delusion outside the mind, the bewildered mind becomes clear” – is remarkably accurate.
On perception and memory
Buddha made a distinction between the flow of thoughts and the stock of memory influencing our perception. In his view our perceptions are influenced by our memory. Thus we view the present through the coloured glass of past experience and do not see things as they exist or as they are constituted. When a person perceives an object, both the memory of the same or similar object and the feelings the person had on the earlier occasion are rekindled. Moreover, comparisons are made between imaginary constructions of the object and the object itself. However, this distinction between stock and flow is more analytical than exclusive. Indeed, stock and flow interact all the time.
This view mirrors our current understanding of how the limbic system in the brain works. It has been proposed that the hippocampus is the storehouse of memories. Adjacent and connected to it by a chemical rich neural network is the amygdala, an organ deeply concerned with human emotion.
Any external stimulus results in activation of both organs; thus when a person sees a snake, his memory (and learning) tell him that it could be dangerous, and he experiences fear as a consequence. Memory and emotion are therefore in continuous interplay, as conceived by Buddha.
The rational mind
Buddha’s understanding of the human mind (and brain) was unique; both rational and contemporary. He encouraged debate and discourse; raised questions more often than he provided answers; encouraging his followers to think like him, with freedom. He recognised the pitfalls of blind faith, unquestioning belief and intolerance of contradictory ideas. He laid emphasis on empirical verification and on understanding the world, as it is and as it is constituted. Indeed, through his radical empiricism, he laid the foundations of scientific spirit and enquiry 2500 years ago. His was the quintessential rational mind.