Sunday, September 7, 2008

Brain versus Mind

Dharmachari Seven

( (

According to the Buddhist theory of mind (in Abhidharma or Buddhist Psychological terms), there are eight factors that together comprise a human being. The first four are collectively known as body -- although most frequently referred to in the aggregate as form (rupa). These are the Four Great Elements or mahabhuta (dhatu).
  • Earth (the quality of hardness)
  • Fire (heat)
  • Water (cohesion)
  • Wind (motion)
At a subatomic level, the Abhidharma speaks of particles (kalapas) or units that together build up to form the various qualities of matter. All materiality is characterized by degrees of these qualities.

The second four are collectively known as mind -- although most frequently referred to in the aggregate as "name" (nama). These are spelled out and together are regarded as "mind."
  • Feeling (sensation)
  • Perception (six sense-organ and object contact)
  • Mental formations (e.g., will or volition, etc.)
  • Consciousness (reflective awareness)
At a finer magnification, the Abhidharma speaks of mind-moments (cittas) or discrete units of mentality that together build up to form the various processes of awareness.

Brain vs. Mind
Body (brain) and mind (mentality) are interdependent, and for the most part do not occur separately. This may not be obvious because the Abhidharma analyzes them as if they were separable.
The purpose of the analysis is to demonstrate their conditioned (compo-nent, dependent) nature. It may also not be obvious because form or body need not be gross, as it is in the Sensual Sphere (Rupa-loka). It can be fine material (subtle and luminous as with beings existing in higher realms that are not perceptible with the eye but rather with the mind's eye). There are even four Immaterial Planes (Arupa-loka), which are mind-only. These may correspond to a material basis in some form, somewhere, but not as it is generally spoken of.

The Buddha depicted among angelic devas in the Fine Material world.

The brain is not the mind and may not even be the "seat of consciousness." In fact, rightly speaking, the entire body is conscious. And it is difficult to demarcate where the brain ends and body begins. The Central and Peripheral Nervous Systems (which could also reasonably be called the "brain") enervate every region of the body and can literally be seen in the shape of the human body (Bodyworlds). They actually look like this:


One might even go so far as to argue that the brain cannot operate, and therefore normal human consciousness (or the epiphenomenal mind) cannot function, in the absence of blood -- that is, without nutriment (glucose) and oxygen. Glucose is not considered the brain, and neither are the lungs. Yet without them, there is no brain function. This is only to say that it is an artificial distinction being drawn:

The body is interconnected and interdependent, and it supports ordinary mentality. Mentality, in turn, governs the body. Anyone can practice telekinesis, or mentally moving something physical. Just blink or raise your arm. We are fascinated how someone might remotely move objects and forget the miraculous everyday movement of proximate objects.


At a finer resolution, the nervous system looks like this (Figure 2.5). However, Western science is not doing much to spread the news that there are many "neurons" in the heart and intestinal tract (giving a whole new literal meaning to the express "gut feeling" and intuition).


In ancient times, in almost every culture, the heart was regarded as the "seat of consciousness," not the brain. Certainly, it is the heart early in utero that begins to beat before the quadrants or components of what will come to be the brain are formed. Yet, "mind" (sensation + perception + formations + consciousness) is already present. In the absence of the subconscious-stream (see bhavanga-sota), and without the force of karma to sustain one in this form, human life is not possible. Therefore, the physical basis is not enough, but neither is the nonphysical. They are both important and interdependent. They co-arise and co-exist.
It is important to note that on death, consciousness seems to be independent of the brain (and body). The "spirit" (gandhaba) departs. However, that is only the way it seems. Immediately upon death, by force of karma, there is a spontaneously-arisen (opapātika) "body" that supports consciousness. This may be the rebirth or a transitional form. It is also possible in meditation to attain and literally see the Four Immaterial Planes now while embodied as a human. Siddhartha Gautama did so before becoming a buddha (fully-enlightened) under the Indian yogis Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputra.


The system is ongoing and functions as a closed loop. The flowchart diagramming this process is encapsulated in the fundamental Buddhist teaching of Dependent Origination (Paticca-samuppada). "When this is, that comes to be. With the ceasing of that, this ceases" is a brief way of explaining an otherwise complicated set of codependent factors.

Eidetic representation of Dependent Origination's complexity (vimokkha)

No originating or prime cause is stipulated, only the necessary and sufficient conditions for sustaining the process. In the past, on account of ignorance, there was karma (the performance of deeds with the tendency to ripen in a result). On account of karma, there is rebirth. And on account of this, the "entire mass of suffering" comes to be. Because one factor is dependent on the others, it is possible to bring ignorance and suffering to complete extinction.

Since that was the Buddha's goal -- nirvana or "the end of suffering" -- rather than psychology or physics for their own sake, no ultimate ontological resolution is to be found in the Dharma. However, enlightenment is possible. And with enlightenment, the pursuit of all these questions is possible. One may see and know for oneself and come to understand that such questions are not the ultimate and do not pertain to full liberation from ignorance and the end of suffering. If they did, the Buddha explained, he would have taught them. Instead, from all that he knew, he limited himself to teaching only two thing, suffering (dukkha) and the end of suffering (nirvana).

More Depth

No comments: