A Buddhist View of Consciousness

Considering that the next three chapters all have to do with Consciousness, I suspect that the Dalai Lama is just hitting his stride in Chapter 6: The Question of Consciousness. It’s these sections that most attracted me to the book after I finished Maslow’s book calling for a reconciliation of science, psychology, and religion.

The first paragraph evokes the richness of the conscious experience:

The joy of meeting someone you love, the sadness of losing a close friend, the richness of a vivid dream, the serenity of a walk through a garden on a spring day, the total absorption of a deep meditative state-these things and others like them constitute the reality of our experience of consciousness. Regardless of the content of any one of these experiences, no one in his or her right mind would doubt their reality. Any experience of consciousness-from the most mundane to the most elevated-has a certain coherence and, at the same time, a high degree of privacy, which means that it always exists from a particular point of view. The experience of consciousness is entirely subjective. The paradox, however, is that despite the indubitable reality of our subjectivity and thousands of years of philosophical examination, there is little consensus on what consciousness is. Science, with its characteristic third-person method-the objective perspective from the outside-has made strikingly little headway in this understanding.

There is, however, a growing recognition that the study of consciousness is becoming a most exciting area of scientific investigation. At the same time, there is a growing acknowledgment that modern science does not yet possess a fully developed methodology to investigate the phenomenon of consciousness.

Considering modern society’s reliance on “Science,” it does seem hard to believe that it still doesn’t have a methodology to investigate experiences this vital to our well-being. Science, particularly medical science, obviously plays a major part in keep us well, but it is our conscious experiences that allow us to thrive.

The Dalai Lama attributes part of this lack of scientific progress to the limits of language in dealing with subjective experiences:

Perhaps it is because of these difficulties-the limits of language in dealing with the subjective-that many of the early Buddhist texts explain the nature of consciousness in terms of metaphors such as light or a flowing river. As the primary feature of light is to illuminate, so consciousness is said to illuminate its objects. Just as in light there is no categorical distinction between the illumination and that which illuminates, so in consciousness there is no real difference between the process of knowing or cognition and that which knows or cognizes. In consciousness, as in light, there is a quality of illumination.

Even in attempting to bring peak experiences into the psychological domain, Maslow pointed out that in talking to people about peak experiences that he had to resort to metaphors and “poetic” language. Anyone who’s ever been asked to rate their “pain” on a scale of 1-10 realizes just how difficult it is to quantify some feelings. Moans and screams often seem more accurate measures than any mathematical scale. Personally, I’ve always measured my pain on how loudly I yell “F***” when it occurs. If I can’t manage to utter it at all, it will probably be a “10,” the last pain I ever feel.

My mind got stretched just a little further when the Dalai Lama introduced Karl Popper and the Buddhist classification of reality:

In talking about mental phenomena which, according to Buddhist understanding, have the two defining characteristics of luminosity and knowing, there is a danger that one might assume Buddhism is proposing a version of Cartesian dualism namely, that there are two independent substances, one called “matter” and the other called “mind.” To allay any possible confusion, I feel a little digression on the basic classification of reality proposed in Buddhist philosophy is necessary. Buddhism suggests that there are three fundamentally distinct aspects or features of the world of conditioned things, the world in which we live:

1. Matter-physical objects

2. Mind-subjective experiences

3. Abstract composites-mental formations

After a short discussion of these concepts the Dalai Lama points out that this classification seems quite similar to the influential English philosopher Karl Popper:

I gather that this taxonomy of reality, which goes back to the earliest phases of Buddhism’s philosophical tradition, is almost identical to that proposed by Karl Popper. Popper called them, “the first world,” “the second world,” and “the third world.” By these he meant (1) the world of things or physical objects; (2) the world of subjective experiences, including thought processes; and (3) the world of statements in themselves-the content of thoughts as opposed to the mental process. It is striking that Popper, whom I know had no background in Buddhist thought, arrived at an almost identical classification of the categories of reality. Had I known this curious convergence between his thought and Buddhism in the times I met with Popper, I would certainly have pursued it with him.

One of the reasons I’ve been rather slow turning out these daily entries is that I’ve taken the time to provide background to the Dalai Lama’s ideas. I spent some time yesterday following Jeff’s link to recent discussion of “altruism” and much of this morning reading about Karl Popper’s philosophy. At the very least, I’ve managed to remind myself how profoundly ignorant I truly am, at least when it comes to the world of philosophy.

I’m still not sure my mind will stretch enough to get around the Buddhist “principal categories of cause:”

Crucial to understanding the Buddhist concept of consciousness-and its rejection of the reducibility of mind to matter-is its theory of causation. The issue of causality has long been a major focus of philosophical and contemplative analysis in Buddhism. Buddhism proposes two principal categories of cause. These are the “substantial cause” and the “contributory or complementary cause.” Take the example of a clay pot. The substantial cause refers to the “stuff’ that turns into a particular effect, namely, the clay that becomes the pot. By contrast, all the other factors that contribute toward bringing about the pot-such as the skill of the potter, the potter himself, and the kiln that fired the clay-remain complementary in that they make it possible for the clay to turn into the pot. This distinction between the substantial and the contributory cause of a given event or object is of the utmost importance for understanding the Buddhist theory of consciousness. According to Buddhism, though consciousness and matter can and do contribute toward the origination of each other, one can never become a substantial cause of the other.

This reminds me of the terms “substantial” and “unsubstantial” as used in Tai Chi, a physical concept I find as difficult to understand as the Buddhist version of causation. To me “the pot” is simply the “effect” of other causes, not a “substantial cause,” though perhaps the desire to produce a pot is the “ultimate cause” that causes all the other causes.

Rather than rejecting science out of hand because of the difficulty of reconciling the two, the Dalai Lama argues that a collaboration is possible:

Here I feel a close collaboration between modern science and the contemplative traditions, such as Buddhism, could prove beneficial. Buddhism has a long history of investigation into the nature of mind and its various aspects-this is effectively what Buddhist meditation and its critical analysis constitute. 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, sustained by rigorous training in technique and robust testing of the reliability of experience. All meditatively valid subjective experiences must be verifiable both through repetition by the same practitioner and through other individuals being able to attain the same state by the same practice. If they are thus verified, such states may be taken to be universal, at any rate for human beings.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the Dalai Lama feels this collaboration can take place. Hopefully you are, too.

2 thoughts on “A Buddhist View of Consciousness”

  1. It’s taken until my day off to be able to comment on this series on the Dalai Lama’s thoughts. The complexity of the ideas presented is endlessly mind-expanding. I had to read through the excerpts several times to be able to begin comment at all. What stands out is the discussion of the place of altruism in consciousness. And then what came to mind was a book I read recently which seems to be picking up this thread of altruism, peace and reconciliation.


    Thanks for opening this up for contemplation, Loren, as we head into spring and more time outdoors. Yesterday was warm enough that I had my window open near my work area while I was working. Fresh air brings clarity!

  2. This does seem like “heavy” lifting to me, too, am, though it’s probably got me doing more philosophical thinking than I’ve done in long time.

    I find it difficult to believe that darwinism would rule out “altruism,” though it’s obviously more beneficial to the species than to the individual.

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