The Classical Buddhist View of the Mind

My review in the Times of India

Today being Deepavali, the festival of lights, I thought I would pause on the analysis of American politics and share news about a lamp of wisdom instead. It's an important project initiated by the Dalai Lama; a multi-volume exposition of classical Indian Buddhist philosophy. The second volume is on the Mind with a preface by the Dalai Lama, introductory essays by Thubten Jinpa and John Dunne and published by Wisdom Press. My review just came out in the Times of India today. I am excerpting the review in full below.

Ever since Macaulay’s infamous ‘minute on education,’ Indians have struggled to form an equal relationship between our knowledge systems and the knowledge systems of western modernity. The book under review is a corrective; like Nagarjuna receiving the Prajnaparamita Sutras at the ocean’s bottom, we get to climb the Himalayas to see what Tibetans did with the knowledge they received across the mountains. This volume on ‘The Mind’ is the second book in an ambitious project conceived by the Dalai Lama to bring Indo-Tibetan knowledge systems to a broad global audience. The Buddhist accounts of the mind explained here are of great importance to many constituencies: philosophers and humanists of course, but also cognitive scientists, psychologists and the curious layperson interested in the mystery of consciousness.

Given the wide audience this book desires and deserves, the editors have refrained from lengthy translations and the heavy critical apparatus associated with the humanities; instead, they introduce conceptual questions and arguments first and use translations to further their case. This methodological choice also reveals classical Buddhist thinkers as making reasonable assumptions about the mind and drawing subtle conclusions therein. That sympathetic framing makes differences all the more interesting. For example, the basic unit of analysis - what the book, following the tradition, calls ‘mind’ - is an event, a ‘minding,’ unlike modern neuroscience which takes an object, the neuron, to be the basic building block.

The book covers four classical themes: the descriptive account from the Abhidharma, the Pramana epistemology, the nondual account in the Vajrayana tradition and the traditions of mind training, with John Dunne’s introductory essays setting a generous stage. I will stick to the first three for reasons of space. The Abhidharma introduces a basic distinction between the momentary mind - whose essence is clear and undistorted - and the various mental factors which modify it. Mental factors such as aspiration and mindfulness help the mind make contact with its object. Interestingly, the mind isn’t divided into ‘rational’ and ‘emotional’ states. Instead, each moment has both an attentional and a hedonic quality. Starting with events rather than substances leads to a different theory.

The coverage of the Pramana literature is the most technical part of the book. I was fascinated by how Dignaga and Dharmakirti’s logic supports the basic insight of impermanence, that everything that arises contains the seeds of its own demise - including, famously, the self. I would have liked a comparison with modern probabilistic theories of inference, especially since the Bayesian brain hypothesis argues that all perception is inferential, in direct opposition to the Buddhist accounts.

The Tantric theory of the nondual mind has no real modern counterparts. While the Abhidharma and the Pramana literature assumes a form of substance dualism in which the mindings are distinct from matterings, the Tantric literature says this difference is true only at the gross level. There’s a progression from the grossest level of waking sensation to conscious thought to dreams to dreamless sleep to the subtle consciousness at the point of death. The seeds of this nondual account are already there - in my view, if not the tradition’s - in the clarity and transparency of the mind. That unafflicted clarity is continuous with the clarity of the subtle mind in deep sleep and the subtlest mind of the ‘clear light of death.’ Is that extremely subtle mind a substance? If so, how do the tantriks reconcile that unconditioned state with the Buddhist belief in the empty nature of reality?  

Despite its riches, this book misses two important themes. There’s no material on the non-Buddhist - i.e., ‘Hindu’ in our terminology - interlocutors with whom the Buddhist masters argued while sharing many assumptions. Buddhist thinkers are skeptical about conceptual knowledge but Naiyayikas strongly disagreed. The third volume in this series aims to fill the gap by including chapters on the other schools of Indian thought. Then there’s the lack of engagement with mathematical and computational ideas about the mind. Experimental neuroscience is accessible to monks, but in my view it’s the computational ideas that match the subtlety of classical Indian-Tibetan traditions.

But who has exposure to such a wide range of influences? It’s a future task of Indian civilization; I have this dream that one day we will be able to assimilate the full range of human expression in a new Mahabharata - ‘that which isn’t here isn’t anywhere else,’ says the Jaya - and create a science of flourishing for the benefit of all sentient beings. One that’s sorely needed in this year of distress, not least in India, a country riven by every kind of communal, caste and gender conflict. That’s how we will fulfill Gandhiji’s hope that “the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.” Meanwhile, we have this book to read and cherish.