Philosophical questions on consciousness

Select a link to find the Dalai Lama's answer.

Q: Given the fact that in your tradition there exist states of clarity and there are reports of people experiencing this more subtle state of mind, my question is two-fold: first, do you think that such non-cognitive states of mind could in theory be observed with our external tools? For example, if we were to place a meditator who is in a state of clear light into one of our modern machines with magnetic resonance, using new brain-imaging techniques, would we be able to see something, some sign of this subtle state? Perhaps we do not yet know how to do this but, in theory,. do you think it would it be possible? If so, what, in your opinion, would be the relation between the two levels, gross and subtle, in the field of interdependence? We do not want to succumb to a new dualism, that of grossness and subtlety. What is the nature of causality between these two levels?

A: I think it may be difficult to measure the activity specific to the mind that consists of reflecting one's object and knowing it. But as the experiences of the gross consciousness appear in the activity of the brain and can therefore be observed as such, it seems to me that it should also be possible to study the physical manifestations of the more subtle states of mind. The subtle level of consciousness, referred to by the term "clear light," appears among other things at the moment of death. Those who have practised ahead of time are able to remain voluntarily in this state for several days after death, and for the duration of this time their bodies do not decompose. Modern scientific instruments would be able to observe this phenomenon, and in fact this has already occurred in India. Although it seems to me that it would be difficult to observe the subtle mind in its entirety using these methods, I think all the same that this might give us an idea.

To answer the second question, concerning the relation between the gross mind and the subtle mind, you must know that the degree of subtlety of the mind will depend in part on the degree of subtlety of its physical support and on the particular ruling condition, the six senses. But the faculty shared by all perceptions -- to reflect an object and know it -- comes from the subtle mind. In this way it is possible to understand the fundamental relation that exists between the subtle and gross levels of the mind. Sensory and mental consciousnesses are produced depending on ruling conditions specific to each of the six senses: visual sense for visual perceptions, mental faculty or sense for mental knowledge, etc. Because the grossness of their support is. greater, sensory perceptions are relatively gross compared to mental consciousnesses. Still, all h ave the ability to reflect their object and know it, an aptitude which derives from their common underlying foundation, the subtle mind, clear light. The tantric texts of Buddhism comment on the manner in which the gross levels of the mind are linked to the subtle mind. It is explained how eighty states of consciousness correspond to four stages of absorption of the gross mind into the subtle mind, during death for example. The links between the different levels of the mind are illustrated, but it is a very complex subject which would be difficult to go into at this point.

Q: I am particularly interested in the question of the validation of phenomena by consciousness, and therefore in the conditions of their integration. I would like to ask if, apart from certain limited analogies -- which are very interesting -- between the Dharma and contemporary sciences, Buddhism has something more fundamental to offer the West. I am thinking here of the practice of meditation in particular: a renewed open-mindedness and sense of space and time which might give scientific information access to a more truly conscious "reality, "so that it would no longer be merely a fascinating "fiction" related to matter/ energy, the space/time curve, the nonsubstantiality of phenomena, etc.

A: I have no immediate answer to your question, but I do have a few ideas to put before you. It would be interesting to refer some of these ideas to certain types of phenomena mentioned by Buddhist philosophical texts. There are physical phenomena, forms, which are not made up of gross matter (one of the properties of which is solid obstruction), but which are, rather, subtle forms, which may be classified into five categories. The first are forms deriving from an assembly, infinitesimal particles such as atoms. Their form is described as being spherical, but their colour is not mentioned. Next we have the mental appearances of space, that is the appearance with which the sky appears to mental perception. I think that modern science could provide more explanations on this subject and have greater success in making it comprehensible. Will it, in reality be particles of space or of light? These two first types of subtle physical phenomena are accepted by all and are not solely creations of the mind.

The third type of subtle form includes those which are imagined and might appear, for example, to a person meditating, but which only the meditator can see and which cannot fulfill their usual functions. The next category is that of forms created by the powers of concentration; these are phenomena which originate from the four physical elements through the force of meditation practised by those who have been very successful in developing their powers of concentration. These phenomena may be experienced not only by the meditator but also by other people. Through meditating in this way it is possible to create fire, for example fire which can fulfill its function of burning and heating. It may seem strange, to say the least, that forms can be produced through the power of concentration. I do not know exactly how they can be interpreted or understood, but I do not think they last for very long after they have been created, probably only for the duration of the meditation. These third and fourth types of form should give scientists matter for reflection! If these phenomena exist, how are they produced?

Up to now we have talked about information contained in the Sutras. We could also examine them in the light of the Tantras, the esoteric aspect of Buddhism which deals at length with the nature of more or less subtle energies.

Q: What is the concept of time in Buddhism?

A: Excuse me, I misunderstood the Tibetan translation of the question; in our language the words for "demon" and "time" are pronounced almost identically, and I was about to give you a talk about what a demon is from a Buddhist point of view!

Regarding the Buddhist concept of time, our philosophy has. adopted several positions. The Sautrantika school, also known as the "Holders of Discourse," affirms that all phenomena and events exist only in the present moment. For this school, past and future are nothing other than simple concepts, simple mental constructs. As for the Madhyamika-Prasangika school, the Consequence School of the Middle Way, it generally explains time in terms of relativity, as an abstract entity developed by the mind on the basis of an imputation, the continuity of an event or phenomenon. This philosophical view &scribes, therefore, an abstract concept whose function is dependent on the continuum of phenomena. From this point on, to try to explain time as an autonomous entity, independent from an existing object, proves impossible. That time is a relative phenomenon and can claim no independent status is quite clear; I often give the example of external objects which can be easily conceived of in terms of the past or future, but of which the very present seems inconceivable. We can divide time into centuries, decades, years, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. But as the second is also divisible into multiple parts, milliseconds for example, we can easily lose our grasp of the notion of present time!

As for consciousness, it has neither past nor future and knows only present moments; it is the continuum of a present moment being trans . formed into another present moment, whereas with external objects the present disappears in favour of notions of past and future. But further pursuit of this logic will lead to absurdity, because to situate past and future we need a frame of reference which, in this case, is the present, and we have just lost its trace in fractions of milliseconds.. . .

Q: If consciousness has neither beginning nor end, and if it is not permanent, does it age like an old house, changing with each moment? And if it has neither form, nor colour, nor odour, bow can it be transformed?

A: First of all, let us try to agree on the problematic notion of consciousness, of the mind. We have only a gross and partial intellectual understanding of consciousness. Our desire to perfect that understanding through analytical research will lead us to the discovery of the luminous, clear, and knowing nature of consciousness. It is extremely important to know how to identify clearly the object we are analysing, in this case the nature of consciousness. Once we identify the nature of consciousness with its immaterial and non-obstructive characteristics, we will be able to use it to confront external objects and a third category of phenomena, abstract concepts such as the notions of time and change which have neither the nature of consciousness nor that of material objects. Keeping these three classifications well in mind -- physical objects, the mind, and abstract mental constructs -- we will be able to identify consciousness by comparing it to the two other categories of phenomena. Once we have clear knowledge of its nature, it will not only be possible to have a conscious experience of the process of change occurring within consciousness, but also to understand how consciousness and the experience of consciousness depend on a preceding moment of consciousness. Only the preceding instant of consciousness may lead to a subsequent moment of consciousness nothing else has that faculty.

I do not think we can talk about the continuity of consciousness solely in terms of chronology. The very idea of chronology, and thus aging, only has meaning in relation to material phenomena, such as the body. On the level of different individual consciousnesses, such as sensory faculties, we can use the term "aging" to refer to the physiological basis, the body of a human being; in the case of sensory consciousnesses, aging in large part progresses in keeping with the individual's physiological condition. The two evolutions are not independent. To speak of the "aging of sensory consciousnesses" is possible if we associate this affirmation with a biological, physiological process, something we cannot do when we speak of mental consciousness.

I think it is very important to reflect on the nature of consciousness, to know the different types of consciousnesses and their natures. Buddhist scripture holds that sensory perceptions, such as visual consciousness, are direct and not conceptual; a visual perception perceives a form, without however discerning between its good or bad, desirable or undesirable, aspects. The discernment takes place on a conceptual level, which constitutes a far more interpretative process than. that of simple sensory perception.

As far as mental consciousness, the world of conceptual thought, is concerned, we distinguish different levels of subtlety, from the gross to the most subtle, well-documented in the tantric system The brain, neurons, synapses, etc., are connected to consciousness, and this opens onto a vast terrain for investigation when we connect them with what tantric literature calls energy (Tibetan: lung; Sanskrit: prana).

Research into the exact nature of the relation between the brain, consciousness, and energy proves to be very interesting. When all the functions of the brain have stopped and physiological conditions have disappeared, it would seem that a form of the process of consciousness continues to exist. This has been observed in the experience of certain realized lamas whose bodies, although declared clinically dead, do not decompose and remain fresh for several days or even several weeks. At this stage, the Buddhist point of view maintains that the individual is not altogether dead, that he is continuing to evolve through the process of death, and that he remains in a state of subtle consciousness. I think scientists ought to seek logical explanations for these cases when the body does not decompose even when the functions of the brain and the body have stopped.

The texts also give accounts of meditators who have learned to develop a supernatural ability to create physical objects with their mind, or produce elements such as fire and air, perceived not only by their creator but also, apparently, by other people. Other types of mentally created objects are only perceived by the meditator. I do wonder what the substantial, material cause of these external objects might be. If there is a result -- a mentally created physical object -- it must be preceded by a cause and conditions of the same nature. I also wonder if these objects exist solely during the practitioner's meditation, and cease to exist as soon as he leaves his meditative absorption. I cannot say what the material cause of this type of mentally created object might be. It is a question I address to the monastic community: can consciousness become a substantial cause of material objects? The Tantras, such as that of Guhyasamaja, speak of the illusory body and its substantial cause, which is purported to be subtle energy, as subtle energy is part of the material world. I must say that this problem leaves me puzzled.

Q: How did illusion begin?

A: As the continuum of the mind has no beginning, ignorance does not have one either. If it did, we would have to discover from within a state of consciousness that predates ignorance and is different from ir in an enlightened mind, therefore -- a cause resulting in ignorance. This makes no sense.

Q: Is there a primordial cause for all causes?

A: No. Generally, causes have no origin, and for this reason effects have none either. We can nevertheless say, in the context of a very specific point, that in some cases causes and effects have a beginning. When we establish that the continuum of the mind is without beginning, to want t o discern a beginning to causes would be an obvious contradiction! You know, Buddhist logicians are quite rigorous. From the moment they accept that the mind has no beginning they can affirm logically and resolutely that neither causes nor effects have one either.

The material on this page has been collected from the recent book, "Beyond Dogma: The Challenge of the Modern World", (c) 1996 North Atlantic Books, translated by Alison Anderson and Marianne Dresser from talks given during His Holiness's visit to France end 1993.
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