Mind and Mind Stuff

Next Saturday our Bangkok meditation group for Buddhism and meditation will be looking at questions of the brain and meditative experiences, in the Nirvana Neuron– presented by Dr Holly . So this is a good time to revisit some of the models we use in meditation for analysing the mind.

Mind or Mentality

In Pali Buddhism (Theravada) there are a number of words used to describe mind and its functions, and the boundaries between them are fuzzy at best.

  • ‘Citta’ refers to something like a field of consciousness which ‘knows’. In Abhidhamma it is the citta that knows, and the arammana is the thing that it knows. Figure that out! Citta in the more earthy suttas can refer to attainment of absorption trance (jhana) as abhicitta, or as general conditions of mind like concentration, lust, elasticity, hate, exaltation and more.
  • ‘Cetasika’ – a chiefly abhidhamma term referring to the conditions of mind such as those just listed. There are 52 in all. These are contrasted with pure consciousness (citta) since they are limiting factors on the mind – rather like water (citta) is shaped by a glass. Sometimes given the spectacularly abstruse translation of ‘mental concommitants’.
  • ‘Mano’ refers to the mentality that is one of the six senses. The stuff that is going through the mind – that is sensed. So you again have this split – you have the brain-sense, and the stuff that is sensed. Not unlike a computer has hardware and software.
  • ‘Vinnana’ is always translated as ‘consciousness’ but really means ‘cognition’ of any particular object.

There are a bevvy of other terms that vaguely relate to mind. Non of them are your ‘self’, and all are changing constantly. The important part to remember is that at no point is Buddhism trying to formulate a scientific explanation of the mind. Right and wrong in Buddhism is relative. We are interested in what works and what doesn’t. A model that helps you let go, stop still, and attain to enlightenment works. A model that can’t be used in this way is not considered, even if it is a correct explanation of neurology.

This differs from science, which does not have an objective attainment in mind – science will endlessly seek out more knowledge and more explanations without end. There is no concrete goal.

That said, Buddhism could be viewed as an introspective science. Not very testable from the objective outside world, but inherently testable internally. We have a wealth of terms and insightful models that rapidly make sense of this nebulous thing we call mind. We have a wealth of meditative practises which like Heineken, reach parts of the brain that other perspectives can’t reach. This has been shown by fMRI scans on Monks and Nuns of the Dalai Lama while in meditation. They seem to affect parts of the brain that were hitherto considered beyond conscious control.

So striking were these tests that practically all neurological research these days refers to meditation in some form or other – perhaps more as an attention grabber than for real science. Or maybe as an attempt to soften the Frankenstein images of scientists probing people’s brains.

The goals and practises are different. The fields of interest have common areas. But Buddhism is never science, and science will never be Buddhism. But there is no reason why the two should not collaberate, so long as they are understood to be different things. And so long as we are cautious about neurologists talking about ‘religious’ experiences, and about Buddhists who pick holes in neurology, or look to scripture to explain the brain as an objective science, then the two disciplines can complement each other.

ON SATURDAY we will see something of this – Susan Greenfield, a great scientist and nice presenter suggests that everything, including all kinds of religious or meditative experience will be explainable by neurology in the near future. Will you agree ?

Meditation group meets at Tai Pan Center