The Buddhist Brain

Buddhism and the Brain § SEEDMAGAZINE.COM


Science, at least good science, tells us about the world as it is, not as some wish it to be. Sometimes what science finds is consistent with a particular religion’s wishes. But usually not.

Despite my doubts, neurology and neuroscience do not appear to profoundly contradict Buddhist thought. Neuroscience tells us the thing we take as our unified mind is an illusion, that our mind is not unified and can barely be said to “exist” at all. Our feeling of unity and control is a post-hoc confabulation and is easily fractured into separate parts. As revealed by scientific inquiry, what we call a mind (or a self, or a soul) is actually something that changes so much and is so uncertain that our pre-scientific language struggles to find meaning.

Buddhists say pretty much the same thing. They believe in an impermanent and illusory self made of shifting parts. They’ve even come up with language to address the problem between perception and belief. Their word for self is anatta, which is usually translated as ‘non self.’  One might try to refer to the self, but the word cleverly reminds one’s self that there is no such thing.

When considering a Buddhist contemplating his soul, one is immediately struck by a disconnect between religious teaching and perception. While meditating in the temple, the self is an illusion. But when the Buddhist goes shopping he feels like we all do: unified, in control, and unchanged from moment to moment. The way things feel becomes suspect. And that’s pretty close to what neurologists deal with every day, like the case of Mr. Logosh.

Mr. Logosh was 37 years old when he suffered a stroke. It was a month after knee surgery and we never found a real reason other than trivially high cholesterol and smoking. Sometimes medicine is like that: bad things happen, seemingly without sufficient reasons. In the ER I found him aphasic, able to understand perfectly but unable to get a single word out, and with no movement of the right face, arm, and leg. We gave him the only treatment available for stroke, tissue plasminogen activator, but there was no improvement. He went to the ICU unchanged. A follow up CT scan showed that the dead brain tissue had filled up with blood. As the body digested the dead brain tissue, later scans showed a large hole in the left hemisphere.

Although I despaired, I comforted myself by looking at the overlying cortex. Here the damage was minimal and many neurons still survived. Still, I mostly despaired. It is a tragedy for an 80-year-old to spend life’s remainder as an aphasic hemiplegic. The tragedy grows when a young man looks towards decades of mute immobility. But you can never tell with early brain injuries to the young. I was yoked to optimism. After all, I’d treated him.

The next day Mr. Logosh woke up and started talking.


41 comments on “The Buddhist Brain

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  1. The Dalai Lama is one of the founders of the Mind Life Institute which explores the relationship between science and Buddhism.

    As far as rebirth and karma go, maybe some quantum explanation will bring make them scientifically plausible some day. Some western Buddhists assert a Buddhism without these ideas altho I think the remainder is not in fact Buddhism.

    Some also present Buddhism as a technology rather than as religion asserting that while its methods are conducted subjectively, they are reproducible and verifiable. Again, this pertains to single lifetime phenomenon.

  2. How does a Sciento-Buddhist react to the following set of postulates?

    “Only in the infinite development of the human race toward the ideal spirit of holiness can the individual soul actualize its immortality. The individual soul is always only the impetus of the ascent, always the sum total of ascents, which come together in the infinite development.”

    Hermann Cohen RELIGION OF REASON

    (I understand that the terms each beg further definition… but life’s hard and deadlines loom. Just… try to refrain from separating the elements from each other artificially, or attaching merely mythological definitions to words like “soul”: “Ideal” is an important controlling concept here for Cohen, a major scholar of Kant as well as of Judaism…)

  3. @ CK MacLeod:

    Just… try to refrain from separating the elements from each other artificially

    I’m just letting this soak in for a moment.


    It depends on what level I consider it.

    Well maybe not.

    Of the six realms of existence, only in the Human Realm is it possible to attain Enlightenment. Lacking actual Enlightenment, we are constantly cycling through all 6 realms. Beings in all realms have been in each of the real;ms many many times. But each realm remains what it is – the nature of a realm does not change. If all beings attain enlightenment, then the six realms will be empty.

    The soul mindstream is the sum total of both ascents and descents.

    I don’t find this a satisfying response, so when you have a chance, sketch out your dissatisfaction with it and maybe we go from there.

  4. @ bob:
    Cohen’s system isn’t intended to be a scientific description of material reality or a taxonomy or topography of organic life. What you call the Human Realm might be another name for what he’s getting at, except that he defines the truly human as something always in becoming – in the above statement an “impetus” rather than a static entity or thing. It’s the element or essence that always escapes physical-scientific, or any mere description as such in philosophy or religion, because physical-scientific and even religious-philosophical descriptions are always only tools for naming, defining, corraling, isolating, dispensing with the non-essential.

    So “the mindstream” seems to be a kind of thing, or name for thinking in objective form – in science, the actual physico-chemical stuff of thought, the vehicle or assembled vehicles (organic, material, objectively measurable bits and pieces, etc.) of thinking. The infinite development would be the open-ended creation of meaning (and meaning of creation), what thinking thinks and thinks thinking, not the mere thoughts of thought*, in attendance to which the mere isolated inwardness or simple subjectivity becomes the free individual or individual capable of freedom and therefore of moral existence, one with universal humanity in “correlation” with the unique and eternal being (God), the soul in its immortal aspect, or the soul properly understood.

    (*I’m aware that the the thought of thought is thought to be thoughtless thought… Part of a well-known German tongue-twister.)

  5. What I also wanted as much to bring forward, though, was the consciousness within prophetic Judaism, as understood by Cohen, of the tenuousness of ego or identity. He sees it already acknowledged in the commandment to love God the Eternal with all your strength and all your soul: That’s because the creation of the “I” in correlation with the Eternal requires an act of will. If the ego were a readymade, sturdy, coherent thing, there’d be no need to summon your scattered parts into a unitary determination.

  6. “Mindstream” hmm. Murky waters here.

    The scientific is a valid description of Conventional Reality in terms f CR. But it suffers from an ontological confusion. Ultimate Reality is the nonconceptual and nondual perception of emptiness.

    Buddha Nature is the potential of all beings to attain such an awareness which because it is noncnceptual and nondual, escapes the thoughts of thoughts.

  7. @ bob:
    I think we encounter a problem here that we’ve encountered before: The difficulties of mapping a Buddhist discourse, or conventional rendering of that discourse, onto either a Kantian-Hegelian or a merely “plain English” discourse. Terms like “non-conceptual” and “emptiness” seem to have very different functional definitions within Buddhism than within German idealism. For the latter, a concept of the “non-conceptual” would be an absurdity, other than perhaps as a name for the material or objective world seen apart from, prior to being taken up into, the concept of the material and the relationship of material and conceptual.

    I see this problem as possibly more a linguistic problem than a Buddhist problem: For instance, the Latin roots already point to the contradiction entailed in the notion of a non-conceptual perception. Attend to the prefixes, and you’re trying, approximately, to talk about an unconceived conception, or unperceived perception – an un-grasping grasp, a non-acquired acquisition, etc.

  8. @ CK MacLeod:

    The difficulties of mapping a Buddhist discourse, or conventional rendering of that discourse, onto a Kantian-Hegelian or merely “plain English” discourse.

    That is to say the difficulties of mapping Ultimate Reality in terms of Conventional Reality.

    Buddhism may use philosophy as a tool, but it does not see itself as a philosophy. Or, Buddhism may use logic and reason as a tool, but sees them as a tool useful to a point, but to be discarded past that point as dead weight at best.

  9. @ bob:
    We’re stuck with the means available to discussion for the sake of discussion.

    But I think there’s something more to this mapping problem. In Cohen’s theology – which he argues as essential or ideal monotheism – God is the name of the one, unique, eternal being Who or perhaps Which, according to the prophets, can be known only through His effects or attributes. The numerous anthropomorphic characterizations of God are taken by Cohen as metaphorical or mythological, not as basic to the theology. When quizzed directly, God says, “I am that I am,” not, “I’m a handsome big bearded dude.” Islam is relatively firm about this as well, though the Islamic scripture also indulges in anthropomorphism at other points. Christianity is a more complex case, especially in its trinitarian versions.

    My point is that pure monotheism or ideal monotheism also has an arguably central place-holder for the Indescribable, though for Cohen and within the Rabbinic traditions that’s not the same thing as the Unreasonable. Even God can’t violate reason – make a rock that He can’t pick up – but that limitation isn’t a limitation on His omnipotence, or properly speaking a limitation at all. He is subject to truth because He “Is” truth, is the basis of truth and reason, and this relates to this theoretical point of contact between Buddhism and Abrahamic theology. In anthropomorphic terms, understanding that we’re speaking metaphorically, we could say that anything He wants to happen immediately is. If He wants a rock that can’t be picked up, then that is the truth. If He wants to pick up the rock, than that’s the truth. There could be no gap between His will and reality.

    Revealed religion isn’t reasoned into existence. Its relationship to reason is exactly the reverse. It produces the possibility of reason, constructs the human being as a creature of Reason. So it is neither subordinate to Reason nor superior to it. It is simply different from Reason, but not unconnected to it: They are two aspects of truth, and we are dependent on both of them and on each of them, and they are interdependent within us, and cannot fully exist wholly separately from beings – us – knowing them.

    Buddhism as a belief system at first appears superior in this one respect, since it doesn’t produce or rely upon an anthropomorphic depiction of the one unique and eternal being. However, if we decide that mythological/magical appurtenances are offensive to ideal religion, then we can criticize traces of polytheism, anthropomorphism, and eudaemonism in cults of the Buddha and other figures and in the popular versions of doctrines of reincarnation and karma, wherever they function in place of “divine judgment.”

    What’s gained by imagining God as a subjectivity, a person, is a way for the common understanding to derive purposefulness from religious instruction: An all-powerful boss tells you not to murder and threatens to punish you if you covet your neighbor’s ass. The real ground of religion, and what Cohen calls its “share” in reason, has to do with the need to supplement and complete ethics, which knows the individual only as a person in a category, one of many people, but can’t address the inner, actual experience of the living being. In monotheistic religion, we call that realm the one of man and his maker (the idea a relationship to God starts you on the road to the cult).

    I think that may be what makes Buddhism religious – rather than a mere set of techniques – that it opens the possibility for subjective redemption or consolation, under the name of enlightenment, but parallel to Cohen’s formulation, as an alignment with the true and an “impetus,” not (never) a particular content, even a conceptual content, different from but neither contrary to nor irrelevant to ethics.

  10. CK MacLeod wrote:

    For the latter, a concept of the “non-conceptual” would be an absurdity

    Many spiritualists–even some Buddhists–make this same point because the idea of something being “non-conceptual” is, of course, conceptual. The more modern version of non-dualism, then, as it’s expressed by people like Adishanti, Kathryn Ingram, etc, tries to avoid even the concept of non-concept. They will say, “No need for practice. Avoid ‘story,’ and just say yes to what is.” That way they don’t get caught in the conceptual traps.
    CK MacLeod wrote:

    I think that may be what makes Buddhism religious – rather than a mere set of techniques – that it opens the possibility for subjective redemption or consolation, under the name of enlightenment, but parallel to Cohen’s formulation, as an alignment with the true and an “impetus,” not (never) a particular content, even a conceptual content, different from but neither contrary to nor irrelevant to ethics.

    A pretty miraculous sentence there by the way. Redemption or consolation. I especially like that.

  11. @ Scott Miller:
    I think that we can attempt to see this Buddhist-Scientist coherence as a working-through of anthropomorphism, a deconstruction of the human: So, when the common Christian, Jew, or Muslim starts constructing God in the image of Man, the Buddhist-Scientist already knows that we don’t know what Man is, if anything. And then the Hindu raises his hand and says, “who thinks he knows, knows nothing,” and the post-modernist, deconstructivist is inspired to give a speech about the worthlessness of giving speeches, based on a story about the pointlessness of stories, and also passes out from drunkenness. Nietzsche and Kathryn Ingram, their arms around each other’s shoulders, are busy throwing up, singing “Yes!” as their streams of technicolor rainbow vomit merge. And then Cohen, the only one still vaguely coherent, though sadly aware that no one’s listening, points out that the prophets already anticipated all of this.

    Could be a good subject for a painting!

  12. @ Scott Miller:
    The idea of nonconceptuality is a concept, but nonconceptuality is not. The phrase I used in #6 was “nonconceptual and nondual perception of emptiness”.

    We can go round and round about this but the point is that there are human experiences that do not involve conceptualization. Buddhists maintain that one of these experiences is a perceptoin of emptiness that is direct, aware and does not involve categorizing the experience into subject object aspects.

  13. bob wrote:

    Buddhists maintain that one of these experiences is a perceptoin of emptiness that is direct, aware and does not involve categorizing the experience into subject object aspects.

    I’m really not quibbling with you, witch-doctor, so please don’t cook me before I’ve finished.

    We are unable to discuss “non-conceptual” except by way of concepts. I think you understand that perfectly well. Yet, in your last sentence you repeat a seemingly naive (linguistically/philosophically naive) framing of the problem: The “perception” that is “direct, aware, and non-dual” wouldn’t be a “perception” properly speaking, since “perception” (like the related term “conception”) implies a perceiver and a perceived, a subject and an object. I believe what you are saying is that the Buddhist discourse, like the monotheist discourse and in another way (according to Derrida) all discourse, needs to refer, insists on referring to that which inherently escapes discourse – seemingly a paradox. It ceases being a paradox when it is understood in this way as the basis of discourse and simultaneously the basis of what you call Ultimate Reality and a Hegelian might call the Absolute Idea. Where you, I think, fall back into the paradox, also the Skeptical Fallacy, is when you assert, within a discourse of CR, UR as an absolute contradiction and nullification of CR, rather than as the true ground of CR: The Skeptic who insists on telling everyone else that there’s no point in telling anyone anything. Anyone always says to the Skeptic, “If it’s all the same to you, as you say it is, then please shut up!”

    What I’m trying to say, and when I get a chance in coming days I’ll try to dig up and re-construct Cohen’s ontology, is that UR and God appear to have very similar functions in the two discourses. “UR” – as “ur,” the origin – is an excellent acronym for this purpose! For Cohen, God is another name for (unique, eternal, unitary, all-inclusive, infinite, etc.) being – Man for becoming. Neither can be conceived apart from the other. As the unperceived perception/unconceived conception/unacquired acquisition, UR is the necessary ground/basis/origin for perception, conception, acquisition. It is also the “uncreated creator,” whose action the atheists and the ignorant (almost) always seek in the past, expecting mere causality, when causality itself is only ever a caused and created “thing,” but Creation is eternal and present, its beginning always still to occur.

  14. @ bob:
    Agreed. There are human experiences that do not involve conceptualization. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. I like the way of referring to those experiences as “unconditioned.” Truly unconditioned experiences transcend experience, so there is no way to practice or train our way into an unconditional level of awareness.

  15. @ Scott Miller:
    Why shouldn’t the indescribable and unnameable also be unmentionable? Any claim to be saying anything about it is a lie. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” (Possibly a self-contradictory statement, but that’s appropriate.)

  16. @ Scott Miller:
    @ CK MacLeod:

    “Unconditioned”…in some sense I agree, others not so much. Even especially emptiness is a dependent phenonomen. If there were no sentient deluded beings there would be no Buddhas. But Buddhas are beyond karma, so unconditined in that sense, and maybe others.

    Language is inadequate to the task, but can point us in a useful direction…the means available.

    I don’t remember who, but someone I read said Buddhist discourse was a series of increasingly subtle lies designed to help us alng the path. The traditional metaphor is children in a building that is burning, but that this is nt yet apparent t them. Also there is nt the time for the parents t go in and get them. So the parents tell them there are wonderful toys outside and but they need t come outside to play with them.

  17. @ bob:
    That notion of a truth for the learned and “wonderful toys outside” for the masses is hardly unique to Buddhist apologetics. Ibn Rushd, the Muslim philosopher most identified with a defense of reason against mythology, thought that exposing the common people to esoteric teachings, or to the merely metaphorical nature of depictions of Allah and the after-life, should be forbidden.

    I suspect it can’t work in the modern, democratic world – under the Hegelian “principle of thought and the universal.” “The hungry sheep look up and are not fed.” People come to religion and philosophy for truth as well as consolation, and the approach seems to suggest that you can’t have both – a conclusion devastating to faith.

    We are sensitive to the political implications of two or more doctrines, truth for the cognoscenti, fairy tales and propaganda for the sheep. The idea also tends to produce and re-produce “our sublime truth” vs. “their ridiculous falsehoods,” leading to conflict and irreconcilable differences, competition among falsehoods for more satisfactory illusion and pandering, an ever broader identification of religion with falsehood, and mistrust and revulsion among those who begin to suspect the lies.

  18. CK MacLeod wrote:

    People come to religion and philosophy for truth as well as consolation

    The consolation ends with what has come to be commonly known, even outside of mystic Christian circles, as “the dark night of the soul.” So it’s okay to start out being consoled and then get locked in a bathroom by your fellows for 3 years like St. John of the Cross, end up feeling completely abandoned by God or the Universe or whatever is connected to your sense of consolation and then recognize a truth that makes the question of being “fed” mute.

  19. Scott Miller wrote:

    There are human experiences that do not involve conceptualization.

    A problematic assertion. From the Hegelian perspective, “human” may be “conceptualizing,” and human being is conceiving – which is also “murdering,” negating the living by transferring it into the realm of non-living abstractions – the notion of Buddy vs. living, eating, pissing on the carpet Buddy. So you might even say there are no human experiences properly speaking. There are experiences or events that may be experienced, and then there is the human negation of them, also known as time – historical time – the ongoing annihilation of being, transformation of is into was, also known as conceptualization, also known as self-consciousness. The pre-experiential events undergone by the so-called human body are in this sense the non-human, or not uniquely human, merely material, part of human being, the part of being-human that’s no different from being-a-rock, distinguishable from not-being only by the human part.

    It was in the region of this insight that Kojève located Hegel’s true claim to being a great philosopher. Kojève points out that Hegelian dualism is not the same as conventional dualism, aka “Realism,” which divides the world into subject and object, corresponding to ideal and real. Hegelian dualism is dualistic relationship within the unity of the Absolute Idea, according to Kojève the relationship of space and time, with space also corresponding to being, materiality, and with time only comprehensible, only comprehended as in the above: as the “concept that is there,” the negativity of the essentially human in and as historical time.

  20. @ CK MacLeod:

    I’m sure my retelling f the traditional burning house metaphor was lacking. Reading it many times in several different books by several different teachers I never took it the same way as your gloss.

    The Tibetan Mahayana teaching are traditionally presented in a graded, gradual path. These provisional teachings are meant for serious students and monks and nuns as well as the laity.

    I made the original “human experience” comment.

    Neurologically, most human (as well as other beings’) experience is nt conceptual. To the extent I was thinking through the original comment, it could have referred t the Human Realm.

    The Hegelian interpretation you present is interesting but why cut away the material aspects of humanity from its definition? It strikes me as a form of alienation from the materiality of human experience.

  21. bob wrote:

    The Hegelian interpretation you present is interesting but why cut away the material aspects of humanity from its definition? It strikes me as a form of alienation from the materiality of human experience.

    To answer the question: to understand what is human, and therefore can matter to human beings as human beings, about being human. Also because it’s fun.

    No one cares or can care about unknown rocks falling unperceived on unknown rocks. Defining the human part of human being is indeed an alienation, undertaken conceptually, by intention, from the materiality of human experience physico-chemical events, materiality itself. At the same time, it is an assertion about such “alienation.” The neurological events would be physico-chemical “things,” like the words as scratches on paper or pixels on a screen or sounds in the ear rather than the ideas they are presumed (must be presumed) to refer to, the signs not the signified. It is in no way an assertion that this alienation or negation is the whole thing, the all, but it does entail a recognition that it is a whole thing, or an aspect of the whole complete and comprehensive in itself: The Spinoza-whole within the wholer whole, its incompleteness suspended because incomprehensible from its own perspective.

    One challenge to this definition of the human part of human being concerns the notion of the animal. The statement is frequently encountered among the philosophers that this or that aspect of human consciousness or behavior distinguishes “us” from the “animals,” or the human part of us from the animal part of us, with “animal” a kind of mid-point between human and material/inanimate/non-living. I think, but am not sure, that science is turning material – animal – human into a continuum rather than a series, but that wouldn’t prevent us from examining stricter philosophical distinctions. Perhaps we could share humanity in this sense with differently conceived forms of negativity/self-consciousness without losing the Kojevian-Hegelian framework.

  22. Though I’d have to form my own sense of what dualism within the “unity of the Absolute idea” is, I like the notion.
    Also, remember that the human experiences that transcend conceptualization also transcend experience. It’s a paradox. It’s important to always maintain awareness of Ultimate Paradox. That’s the way to keep from making all the usual mistakes here. The existence of Spirit and the fact that we are spirit explains the “negation.” Spirit is Creativity. It isn’t separated as a cause. It causes what seems to be real, gives the real its sense of reality, and also explains why it isn’t real.
    So it’s not fair to find the first part of my earlier assertion “problematic.” I made that easy for you with my sentence structure. The two things–what we’re calling experience and what transcends experience–should also go together as I have put them together within this comment.

  23. @ Scott Miller:
    All the same:

    There are human experiences that do not involve conceptualization.

    …is a conceptual, or concept-like, assertion about something asserted not to involve conceptualization. Now I know you know this – you recognized it from the start – but you continue to insist on it.

    This problem goes to a fallacy exhaustively discussed by pre-Hegelian philosophers going back to the ancient Greeks, handled in a parallel manner by the Hebrew prophets, and featured prominently in the philosophical investigations of Islamic philosophers.

    About that possible mode of being we can conceive – conceive even in the minimal sense of merely reporting or merely undergoing as a not yet reflected-upon event – only its non-conceptualizability. Any other statement purporting to describe it would be absurd. So what we have instead of the not-conceptualized is the concept of the unconceptualizable, of that which would be incomparable, uncountable, un-representable, unknowable. It has these same characteristics in common with several other ideas: the One, the Infinite, the Non-Existent, Nothingness, the Eternal, the Impossible, the Transcendent, God – all leading to the suspicion, and some claim the proof, that they are equivalent terms, mere aspects of the same concept that is unlike all other concepts.

    I think we agree in some respects about this idea and its function, but not about all aspects of its implications, or what claims of somehow having accessed or integrated the inaccessible into one’s experience must also imply.

  24. @ CK MacLeod:
    With those provisions in place, I think, yes, we do agree. I have no qualms with the ideology in place. The only thing that I hold to tightly is that practice cannot make an unconditioned, non-existent transcendence occur. To claim otherwise is charlatanism, and of course we’re safe within our discourse since we’re not addressing practice.

  25. @ Scott Miller:
    I don’t know enough to agree or disagree with your stance on charlatanism, though it seems sound enough to me. However, it also seems to me that someone could speak about a transcendent experience merely in the sense that it transcended “normal” life – like a “peak experience,” or possibly even a leap in comprehension or a coming into contact with a latent potential. Not making any judgment on credibility of any such claims… I thought in your yoga practice you very much sought things along those lines.

  26. @ CK MacLeod:

    Non-conceptual experiences are like rocks, beer, beings of all forms etc. in that concepts can describe them but never fully represent them.

    To assert “NCE’s exist” is a concept. Really so what. To assert a rock exists is a concept to but says nthing about the rock other than it exists.

    To assert that all human experience is conceptual defines humanity in a way that is unrecognizable to me.

  27. @ bob:
    We’re talking about the difference between experience and event. Experience implies an experiencer. “Event” in this context is a word for the assertion that trees do fall in the forest whether or not someone observes them doing so.

    Not sure why this definition of conceptual is difficult for you, considering some of the other very difficult concepts that you take in stride, but sometimes in these matters the alien-ness of a postulate is a promising sign.

    Possibly you are insisting on a zoological definition of the human – human being as naked ape – and a notion of experience as pure sensuous existence. Descartes takes a major step in Western philosophy when he insists that the basis of his human existence is that he thinks. Hegel is unable to leave things at that, and the first part of the Phenomenology is devoted to demonstrating that so-called direct sensuous experience remains non-determinate universality prior to the concept – randomness.

  28. @ CK MacLeod:

    Conceptually, I do understand.

    The problem is on the expressive side of things. This is much more pervasive for me than I suspect is apparent. Usually, I end of not posting comments like this. “Like this” for me means below some threshold of completedness, or above some threshold of being stuck in a loop.

    Actually, you fill in meaning for me a certain amount and that disguises my expressive difficulties somewhat. But here my thoughts have to do with my original phrase ““nonconceptual and nondual perception of emptiness”.

    “Of emptiness” is the heart of the phrase. This is as far as I can take it right now. Many times I have not posted comments “like this”.

  29. bob wrote:

    This is much more pervasive for me than I suspect is apparent.

    I would say that it’s darn near 100% invisible to the rest of us… or anyway to me.

    Can you define for me again, simply and in your own words, what “emptiness” is or isn’t, the place or function it has in the Buddhist discourse? Any hints on corresponding terms in the Western philosophical tradition, or known common errors, would also be helpful, if the first part doesn’t handle it.

    No rush, but it comes up so often, it would be nice to have the definition at hand. Deeper reading/investigation could come later or as needed.

  30. CK MacLeod wrote:

    I thought in your yoga practice you very much sought things along those lines

    Yes, peak experiences are sought. I like to say that they establish “favorable conditions” for Grace. So it’s not an either-or type thing. You’re right in that most yoga people think of Samadhi (the goal of yoga) as something that can be forced into existence. I don’t see Samadhi as the ultimate goal of yoga. I see it that we try to experience elevated consciousness, and the elevation might be Samadhic, but I think there is a next thing. It’s what Buddhists refer to as Mahamudra, or Dzogchen. Those are enlightened states that transcend the word state. They transcend conditioned existence. They are unconditioned. At the same time, they are “the natural state of Mind.” This should be good news for people who, like Hegel before them, try to make it through logic or ethics. That doesn’t cut it because the mind is not self-illumining. All spiritual texts make that point. The mind is not self-illumining, but through Grace, or something akin to Grace, illumination is possible. It is the conditioned effort to think our way into enlightenment that doesn’t do the job.

  31. To explain my “good news” statement. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m assuming Hegel, like Nietzsche, like all the philosophers really, were not only unenlightened from a Buddhist perspective, but weren’t even happy. So it’s good news that there’s an explanation and that the explanation could motivate us to not repeat their errors as humans. I love their ideas. The ideas did not serve them in respect to the present discourse. If they weren’t happy and spiritual texts conveyed the idea that the mind is self-illumining, then it’s a problem because they did such wonderful things with their minds. Because the mind is not self-illumining, then there’s no problem. They just didn’t establish favorable conditions for Grace. They paid too much attention to ideas and not enough attention to how to establish favorable conditions for Grace.

  32. @ Scott Miller:
    You are full of hurtful prejudice, just like all the other New Age meanies… but, sniff, I forgive you, and am going to hold my virtual tongue instead of indulging in an “our enlightenment is more enlightened than your enlightenment” counter-attack.

    From what I know about Hegel’s biography, and more important what I know from reading him, he was a cool daddy-o and hepcat who was doing what he loved, and fairly well rewarded for it, and felt pretty darn terrific about it all – and in his case “it all” covers a LOT of territory – up until the day he died – suddenly, in a cholera epidemic, when he was in his 60s. Was apparently happily married, too.

    Up until relatively recently, in historical terms, philosophy was thought primarily to be a search for wisdom, and a strong tradition going back to the ancients held that only the wise man could or would be truly happy. This was especially true for the Stoics, and Socrates was also a model for this idea. Babylonian Judaism and its world-conquering children, Christianity and Islam, demanded solutions suitable for all, not just the adept, and that led to a couple thousand years of dissatisfaction on all sides, but also to a lot of activity in the struggle to build a world that somehow could meet up with the messianic vision.

    Obviously, we still have a ways to go, and there’s a tendency to overdo whatever seems to be working at any given time, until it becomes a problem, but GWF philosophized us all much closer to a sublime and liberating interpenetrating coordination of world mind and individual mind, and I think he got a big kick out of it, too, even if he didn’t go around doing magic tricks (as far as I know).

  33. @ CK MacLeod:
    Asked and answered. Thanks. But I did ask. “Meanies” don’t ask. I’m sure you’re willing to concede that as philosophers go, Hegel was an exception. That matters to me. His being happy is important to me in respect to his message. Gandhi: my life is my message. So I’m glad your hero was happy. Thank you for the setting me straight. Please consider that since the mind is not self-illuminating, mental judgements like the one you jokingly refer to as “hurtful prejudice” is not of much importance since all that is at stake boils down to the creation of unfavorable conditions. We can transcend that easily. Right?

  34. CK MacLeod wrote:

    even if he didn’t go around doing magic tricks

    But you couldn’t help yourself there. That was a shot. “Magic tricks” is a shot at New-Age heroes. But here’s a magic trick for you. Ramana Maharshi sat on a rock for a decade or so, not saying anything. Try that as a magic trick. Shivabalayogi sat in lotus position for over 23 and a half hours a day for 16 years. Good trick.

  35. @ Scott Miller:
    No thanks!

    You’re right that “magic tricks” was a shot, and I apologize for taking a shot, but the seriousness of this discussion was beginning to wear on me – itself becoming a kind of distraction. This topic that you’ve brought up is interesting and potentially very significant, even though you did, I think, broach it in a way that exposed your prejudices.

    I think we may disagree about the role of demonstration and exhibition in proving the validity of a given philosophy or faith, but maybe we don’t. For a discipline that promises to create better physical health or other good things, it makes perfect sense to look to either kind of proof – the well-being of acolytes or the attainments of adepts – but from the perspective of religious philosophy it’s highly problematic. The most well-known (in the West) prophetic treatments of the problem area – generally of eudeamonism and proof of faith – are the Book of Job and the Temptations of Christ. Maybe after dinner I’ll find some good stuff from Ibn Rushd, written in a philosophical rather than prophetic manner, so that all three of the Abrahamic faiths can be represented.

  36. Rushd suggests that there are two kinds of miracle (magic trick) that can be associated with revelation: the extraneously miraculous and the appropriately miraculous. The comparison is between someone who claims to be able to heal the sick, and to prove his powers walks on water, and someone who makes the same claim, and proves it… by actually healing the sick. In the case of Islam, the appropriately miraculous is everything about the Qur’an and the circumstances of its dictation that directly support the idea that it is revelation – the beauty of the language, the comprehensiveness and specificity of its content, etc.

    Typically, Rushd suggests that the former type of proof might be appropriate to the common people, and the latter type of proof to the common and learned alike. In regard to the Qur’an, the “appropriate miracle” is the fact that the Messenger purports to be a Messenger not because he walks on water or cures the sick, but because he provides a revelation that is implanted in the souls of those who receive it.

    “The common people are not aware of the objections and doubts that we raised against the extraneously miraculous. However, if religion were pondered carefully, it would be found that it only takes into account the fitting and appropriate, not the extraneously miraculous.”

    Cohen says something very similar about the Judaic sources, but goes further and finds that all appeal to miracle is a distraction and diversion from the true path.

  37. CK MacLeod wrote:

    all appeal to miracle is a distraction and diversion from the true path

    The Yoga Sutras make the same point. It’s funny that I was trying to point out that this kind of discourse, though fun, doesn’t establish favorable conditions and as I was making that point it was wearing on you. Naturally. So I won’t distract you further. I will just point out that outside of the fun, I also like the fact that blogging has exposed my prejudices. That’s one of the reasons I started doing it. I’m always preaching to the choir. No choir here. And I forgive you for the shot.

  38. Scott Miller wrote:

    as I was making that point it was wearing on you

    Not your fault, more an overall observation, and more a self-criticism, or intended to be one. I’m very thankful to you and bob for indulging me on these topics, and I’m sorry for feeling conflicted about delving into them in this way. Sorry about feeling sorry, etc.

    Anyway, I knew you knew you had exposed your prejudices. Maybe we need to go through the whole ritual in these matters, pointing out each other’s flaws and errors, confessing our own, exchanging forgiveness and affirming continued mutual recognition – just as long as it doesn’t become an impetus to false resolution.

    So, I’m grateful for the indication regarding the Yoga Sutras, and, if you get a chance, if you could track down or point me to the relevant passages, I’d be grateful. But I don’t want to rush to premature conclusions. One project – the project? – is to explore the possibility of a truly syncretic understanding, a reconciliation of East and West and all around and all below and above, and not just in general terms, but that project requires continual respectful attention to areas of disagreement, to the not-yet-reconciled. We can proceed under the assumption or hypothesis that the highest truth would be a universal and common truth, but I’m not sure that we can safely assume anything else.

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