Sunday, August 18, 2013


So, what is the mind? Well, for starters, it is much more than the brain. The materialist position, equating the two, is simply wrong. The bulk and the weight of the evidence point the other way---namely, that the mind is both relational and ‘extended’ to situations in the external world. But what of the ‘self’? Does ‘it’ have a transcendental, separate existence of its own? 

The short answer to that last question is---no. That is the position asserted by most forms of Buddhism, and it is a position that increasingly is being supported by the findings of modern neuroscience and neuropsychiatry.

Hundreds and thousands of separate, ever-changing and ever-so-transient mental occurrences (‘selves’) harden into a mental construct of sorts. We call ‘it’ the self, but  the so-called self, or ego-self, is no more than a confluence of impermanent components (‘I-moments’), that is, mental states (cittas). These mental states are cleverly synthesized by the mind in a way which appears---note that word, appears---to give them a singularity and a separate, independent, unchangeable and material existence and life of their own. The so-called ego-self---as well as the so-called ‘mind’ (nama)---has no separate, independent, permanent existence in the sense of being, to quote from Vipassana Bhavana, ‘compact, all of one piece, doing all these different mental functions’:

‘We’, our entire existence, at any given time is simply the arising of one of those mental states, which is quickly replaced by another. (Vipassana Bhavana.)

Now, it is through this perception of an internally created sense of 'self' that we experience, process and interpret all external reality. With alcoholics and other addicts, this false or illusory sense of self also becomes chemically altered (seemingly for all time)---with truly disastrous consequences for the addict and those associated with him or her. Each of us---not just the alcoholic or other addict---clings to the ‘self’ as self. We even manage to convince ourselves that we ‘belong’ to that self, and that we are those myriads of I’s and me’s that make up our waxing and waning consciousness (the latter simply being the function consisting of apprehending the bare phenomenal world, that is, cognition):

Whenever there is a functioning sense-organ (eye, ear, tongue, nose, body and mind), a sense-object (visual form, sound, taste, smell, touch and thought) entering into the field of the sense-organ then, with these brought together, there is the manifestation of the part of consciousness referring to the specific sense-organ. (Majjhimanikāya, i, 190.)

Buddhist teachings refer to different types of ‘conditions’ that give rise to cognitive events. In the case of sensory perceptions, external objects are the objective or causal condition. However the immediately preceding moment of consciousness is said to be the immediate condition, with the particular sense organ being the physiological or dominant condition.

In short, Buddhism sees a human being as being simply an amalgam of ever-changing phenomena of existence. Yes, the so-called ‘self’ is nothing more than an ‘aggregate’ or ‘heap’ of perceptions and sensations. It is, in reality, a non-selfThere is no unifying consciousness, and no ultimate ‘self.’ Rather, the human mind is a field---indeed, a veritable battle-ground---of conflicting tendencies, feelings and emotions, for the simple reason that the mental is not a unitary agent. Consistent with an overall pluralism, we are always dealing with a plurality---indeed, pluralities---of complex interacting but otherwise waxing and waning forces, for such is the nature of reality. At the same time, Buddhism espouses an ‘extended’ view of the mind such that the mind is seen to be more than just the activity of the brain. Rather, the mind is an embodied and relational process. True, the mind is a product of the brain, but it is conditioned by both internal and external events.

I go so far as to say this---most of our problems, at least those of a mental or emotional character, as well as problems in our relationships, arise because we fail to recognize the ‘illusory’ nature of our ‘self.’ We constantly talk about our ‘self,’ we are told all the time that we must love our ‘self,’ and we react badly when we feel that some other person is attacking our ‘self.’ If only we could grasp this simply truth---more than half of our problems would die from attrition if we, the person that each of us is, acknowledged that ‘self is illusion.’

Know this. You are not a ‘self,’ you are a person among persons. Be confident, but forget all about self-confidence. Be a person of esteem, for that you are, but forget all about self-esteem. Seek the truth (that is, the 'real' and 'actual') in all things, but forget altogether about self-seeking. The purposes of ‘self’ are in direct and stark contradistinction to the pursuit of happiness, peace of mind, and serenity.

 The photographs in this post were taken
by the author on a trip to Japan in 2012.


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