Are the early suttas against the view that mind is an emergent property from the body?

Hi, Viveka.
Interesting. I guess you are right in saying that the real “seeing for oneself” supersedes the words.

But how do you interact with contemporary findings and theories of cognitive science? Do you usually react to it by saying it is wrong and that mind is independent from the body? Or are you maybe not interested in it?

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Luis, do you think you can give links/specific references to the suttas that you mention?

Thank you. :pray:


Hi, Gillian.
Yes, sure!

nama-rupa is referred to as the support of consciousness and consciousness as the support of nama-rupa.

SN 12.67: Bundles of Reeds
SN 22.57: Seven Cases
SN 22.82: A Full Moon Night

But so far, I can’t find any, not even in descriptions of the arupa realm.

I have found one single case, in:
MN 60: Guaranteed

He taught that birth is suffering, and it is caused by action moistened by craving.

AN 3.77: Continued existence (2nd)


Current theories and views are just that. Scientific method does not give anyone the certainty.

As a Buddhist I sustain curiosity about those things but I don’t see that in anyway in conflict with my interest and efforts towards the four Noble Truths and it’s ennobling tasks.

Can you explain how does this exact point conflicts with any of the practical aspects of Buddhist path as summarised in 37 its awakening principles ?




In the EBTs, as with all schools of Buddhism, mind is a primary reality that is at least as ontologically fundamental as matter. It might be possible to argue for an idealist reading of Buddhism—that mind is primary and matter secondary—although I disagree, and most schools of Buddhism are not idealistic. But no Buddhists have ever held that matter is an ontologically primary substance.

Quite apart from the Buddhist idea, I have never found the “emergent property” thesis at all convincing. It seems to me no more than a naive inference from epistemology: scientific method is good at understanding matter, and infers from that to mind; therefore reality must be primarily matter and mind is emergent.

Buddhist philosophy always place experience foremost. That experience is complex and irreducible. We can reflect on the complex, shifting nature of experience, and draw out from it some threads, some different properties that we classify as “mental” or “physical”. Such properties are always interdependent. But these are not primary: the complex is. We should not mistake our inferred categories as fundamental realities.

Just to be clear, the usual understanding is that the formless realms are still dependent on rupa, even if said rupa no longer exists; just as I am dependent on my grandparents, even though they have passed. This is known as a “pre-nascent condition” in Abhidhamma terminology. In other words, Buddhist causality is asynchronous.


I’ve read some commentators who interpret the early suttas as not making any ontological assertions, but rather referring to experiences (so, it’s assertions would be phenomenological or epistemological ones). Do you disagree with that idea?

That’s very interesting! By this you are indicating that experience is primary, and that neither physical not mental phenomena are primary? Doesn’t that amount to a sort of idealism?

I’m not fully convinced either way, but I think emergentist theories are not to be easily dismissed.
Holding that experience is primary over either what we call matter or mind, how do you explain the fact that this experience is dramatically changed or even shut down due to physical causes?
Just to list some examples:

  • anesthesia.
  • Henry Molaison’s lost of both hippocampus causing him never to form new episodic memory again.
  • Damage to Brocca area making it hard or impossible to express words.
  • Damage to one side of the brain leading to hemispatial neglect, in which the whole concept of space is changed.

Sutta Nipāta 4.11. Arguments and Disputes

The pleasant, the unpleasant, originate from what?
In the absence of what do these cease to be?
That which is being, non-being as well,
what their origination, do tell me of this?

“Touch”, the origination of pleasant, unpleasant,
“Touch” being absent these cease to be.
That which is being, non-being as well,
its origin’s thus, I tell you of this.

From what causes in the world does touch come to be
And whence does possessiveness also arise?
in the absence of what is “mine” making not?
When what exists not are no “touches” touched?

“Touches” depend upon mind, upon form,
possessiveness caused by longing repeated,
when longing’s not found, possessiveness’s gone,
When form is no longer, no “touches” are “touched”.

For one in what state does form cease to be,
how bliss and dukkha come to cease as well,
please do you tell me how these come to cease?
For this we would know—such is my intent.

Neither one of normal perception nor yet abnormal,
neither unperceiving no cessation of perception,
but form ceases for one who (has known) it thus:
Conceptual proliferation has perception as its cause.

Whatever we’ve asked of you, to us you’ve explained,
another query we’d ask, please speak upon this,
those reckoned as wise here, do they say that
“purity of soul is just for this (life)”
or do some of them state there’s another beyond?

Here some reckoned as wise do certainly say:
“Purity of soul is just for this life”;
but others who claim to be clever aver
that there is an occasion
for what has nothing leftover.

And Knowing that these are dependent on views,
having Known their dependence, the investigative Sage
since Liberated Knows, so no longer disputes,
the wise one goes not from being to being.

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I mean the suttas are constantly talking about things that are or are not, so no. It’s true, however, to say that (a) epistemology and phenomenology are more important for the suttas, and (b) in all these fields, the suttas don’t make an explicit argument in these exact terms.

Idealism would be that mind is primary, but for the suttas, mind is, like matter, inferred. Another way of thinking about it would be, for the suttas, relation is primary: the basic experience is of a complex of relations.

Experience is interrelated, i.e. mutually dependent on the physical and the mental. That doesn’t mean one or other is primary. Perhaps we could say, experience is not like a mother and child, but more like a wife and a husband. The primary experience is a marriage, and it doesn’t exist without both partners. It’s a flawed metaphor, I know! Aren’t they all!

Experience, including its physical aspects, is dramatically changed due to mental causes, too:

  • Not paying attention while driving results in an accident
  • Getting angry changes your physiology
  • Meditating makes your brain work better.

I am stroke survivor. When I had a black out after stroke. I don’t remember when I reached hospital. My wife tell me I even followed commands to raise my hands. So how do we explain that? it seems that the body just like a puppet. It is actually constantly living by itself as long life consciousness came the first time to this body at conception. The process of doing everything by itself follows a natural process. Then consciousness is the experience of controlling the situation. And also consciousness think it’s the one doing the movement, he thinks he is making all decisions. But as my black out experience the body can keep following commands without ear consciousness. Without eye consciousness. So consciousness is the one that makes the idea of self. While the body can and does everything by itself. That is possible. You will not believe. What it probably does at the moment you loose consciousness at certain level. It doesn’t want to die. So it grabs all the info you have stored from your past life also.

I have picture of me in wheelchair meditating like I never did in this life. With a mudra. I even did a sort of peace sign replaced by mudra. I never do that. Explainable? I think we are far to understand your question.

But what Buddha explained of no-self is very hard to understand if things are like this


Hi Luis,

What do you think of the cases of people living with almost no brain materials? Cognitive science does not have any explanation for this I believe.
Here is an example:
The man who lived a normal life with almost no brain - Business Insider.

Also, some people have NDE and recollect what’s going on in their hospital room while they are technically ‘brain dead’, for example:

Many examples of these cases. IMO, this shows that the mind (or consciousness) is not dependent on the physical body (gross material body).

In the EBTs, I would say that a good argument that the mind is not necessarily dependent on the body is the existence of many non-physical beings with whom the Buddha interacts. Being asked if devas exist, the Buddha confirms that he knows by experience that they do (I’ll add the quote later on).

Acutally it does. Those cases of brain damage you’ve shown just indicate the dependence of consciousness on the brain, not the opposite. You can see from the brain scan images of the 44 year old man that he had thalamus, cortex, and an intact brain stem, which are all believed to be related to consciousness. Just below there is the story of a kid with lost of almost all brain, who lived until around 12 in bed, blind but responsive to stimuli. How does this indicate any sort of independence of consciousness from the brain?

For NDE there a lot of possible explanations about how abnormal functioning of the brain leads to out-of-body experiences for example. It is even possible to induce out-of-body experience by stimulating some parts of the brain. Maybe you can look for Metzinger’s analysis of this (a german philosopher of mind who has ha many out-of-body experiences and analyses it).

The Buddha doesn’t interact with non-physical beings. Beings in the form realm have subtle bodies. Beings in the formless realms can’t interact with other beings.

Wow, @Upasaka_Dhammasara. I hope you remain safe and healthy.

The current explanation given by cognitive science is that a lot of what the brain does in terms of processing information and responding to stimuli is unconscious. Consciousness results from specific processes and isn’t aware of all the information and choices the brain is dealing with.

I don’t know if you heard about Benjamin Libet’s experiments and the discussions about free will that arose from it?

Basically the experiment has shown that there is brain activity in the motor area commanding a movement such as raising one’s hands (as in your case ) some time before there is a conscious choice about raising the hand. Also, as you tell us, this action can happen even independently from consciousness at all.

All the best to you!


Which suttas indicate that mind and matter are inferred?

That’s also quite interesting! Could you indicate some suttas that indicate experience is a complex of relations?

It still seems to me that saying experience is primary is a sort of idealism because experiences are events of a conscious mind. There are things that are not experienced but which affects the experience (such as the anesthetic somebody else is applying to a patient, or the surgery which later results in bodily pain). So it seems that there is something outside of experience which is also primary.

Could you better explain this idea that neither the mental nor the physical are primary, but their relation is primary? It seems like you would be saying there can be marriage (primary) without spouses (not primary).

Right, but that doesn’t inform us of the causes of such mental events as lack of attention, anger or concentration.

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Well as the article states, the doctors had assumed that someone couldn’t theoretically live with so much brain missing. In another case, they mention a person missing the cerebellum, which apparently is associated with voluntarily movements, yet, this person could do voluntarily movements.
At the very least, these cases demonstrate that science does not really understand how the brain works and how it is related to consciousness (that’s why it’s known as the ‘hard problem of consciousness’).

They don’t have explanations for the people who can describe what the surgeon or people in the room were doing while being bread-dead. They just disregard these testimonies.

Thanks, I’ll have a look at his research.

Well it depends how you define physical and non-physical. I was using physical as ‘gross material’, which is what we can experience with our body and senses. You started your OP by mentioning the theory that mind is an emergent property from the body. This theory is about the gross physical body and denies the existence of subtle bodies. So the Buddha interacting with, intelligent, conscious, subtle-bodied beings, does go against this theory.

Hi Bhante

Can you expand a bit on why you disagree with idealist interpretations? Are there particular passages you can point to which indicate idealism is not a correct way to interpret the EBT teachings?

Regarding the arupa realms, is this idea that they are still dependent on Rupa in some way found in the EBTs or is it only an Abhidhamma development? If it’s found in the EBTs, can you point to where?

Also, I would say many schools of Buddhism today are idealistic in some way. East Asian Buddhism is strongly influenced by Yogacara. Zen for example, with its metaphysics borrowed mostly from Huayan Buddhism, is basically idealistic. Likewise, in Tibetan Buddhism, all but the Gelug school accept the Yogacara Madhyamaka position which is basically idealistic about the conventional reality. So I would say that idealism is actually very common in Buddhism today.

I guess one could add the Thai Buddhist views which see “the citta” as primary or foundational. But I don’t know enough about these Thai forest tradition views to say whether this qualifies as “idealism”.

I’ve recently been leaning towards an idealist metaphysics as the best alternative to physicalism (inspired by readings of the modern philosopher Bernardo Kastrup). I think a kind of Schopenhauerian idealism in which the world arises from “blind willing” is probably pretty compatible with early Buddhism (after all, delusion and sankharas are the two first nidanas of dependent origination). It’s no wonder Schopenhauer called himself a “Bauddhist” sometimes. He read Buddhist texts and saw how close his metaphysics were to the view he found in them.


Taking “emergent” as “conditioned”, we find mind emerging from the senses of the body (which include the mind):

SN35.236:1.6: When there’s an ear … nose … tongue … body …
SN35.236:1.7: mind, pleasure and pain arise internally conditioned by mind contact.

Personally, I find thinking burdensome. That doesn’t imply mindlessness. Instead, I use abstraction minimally in daily life, even while programming. Abstraction (i.e., form) overlays and twists what we perceive. Even something as innocuous as “I see a table” is suspect, since the utility of name and form is that it restricts and informs convention (e.g., “Let’s eat at the table.”).

Overreliance on name and form traps us into not realizing that we could, for example, use that table to change the lightbulb above. :bulb:
Overreliance on the formless traps us into not changing the lightbulb. :hole:

AN6.61:2.1: ‘The sage has known both ends,
AN6.61:2.2: and is not stuck in the middle.
AN6.61:2.3: He is a great man, I declare,
AN6.61:2.4: he has escaped the seamstress here.’

Instead of mind, consider contact and its origin:

AN6.61:12.4: “Contact, mendicants, is one end. The origin of contact is the second end. The cessation of contact is the middle. And craving is the seamstress,


Note that it is craving, a mental principle, which weaves reality.

I’d consider all the teachings on Conditional Dependent Arising to demonstrate this.


I’m thinking of contexts like the basic analysis of sense consciousness:

Dependent on eye and sights arise eye consciousness …

So what can be experienced directly is “sights”, which in physical terms is essentially “light”, or more technically, “photons”. We, as educated moderns, know that when we see something it is just photons. Now, photons are, in some sense, a fundamental reality, or at least, pretty much as close as it gets. Yet our understanding of “photon” is inferred from our science.

In the same way, concepts such as “matter” are inferred from sense experience. “Sights” and “sounds” are quite different: what is there that unifies them, that allows us to see them as the same kind of thing? That information is not encoded in the thing; it is inferred.

Or consider even within the scope of sight. We directly experience this sight, what is happening in your field of vision right now. Yet we know that this is not random or arbitrary: there is a flow that connects this sight with that sight I experienced a moment ago. Or perhaps better to say that we only experience the changes. The idea of “sight” as a category is therefore inferred, it derives from our memory that there have in the past been experiences similar to this.

Again, thinking of the same passage. But its one of those things that is expressed in many different ways. For example, the interdependence of namarupa on cosnciousness, or that consciousness relies on the other four aggregates.

It’s true, and make no mistake, Buddhism leans towards an idealistic interpretation. Perhaps it’s a linguistic problem, though; I’m looking for a word that means (gestures vaguely around) all this and experience is the best I’ve got.

But that is another inference. You could equally say that we simply are not aware of all the things influencing experience; it doesn’t tell us how primary those things are.

They’re interdependent. You can’t have a spouse without a marriage, and you can’t have a marriage without spouses. I’m just trying to say that the relation is critical. Perhaps “family” might be a better metaphor. Or perhaps I should just stop with the metaphors!

I feel a bit like you’re wanting me to make a statement about ontological primacy, whereas I’m wanting to talk about phenomenological primacy. Our experience is complex, that is the primary reality in which we live. It’s just there, the “big buzzing confusion” as Kalupahana called it.

Just as a scientist would regard matter as primary, but it is really just that their method works best with matter; so a meditator treats mind as primary, but it is really just that their method works best with mind. Both methods work perfectly well within their scope, but the temptation is to assume that therefore it explains everything outside the scope as well.

I just don’'t think there’s anything to justify it. The suttas treat rupa ontologically on the same plane as mind, it’s just that the mind is of more concern for meditators. But the Buddha seemed to accept the existence of the material world in the ordinary sense. He just didn’t like it very much!

Again, as you know, with many such things it has to be drawn out. The suttas consistently present the aruppas as dependent on the form jhanas, which themselves are dependent on the physical development of meditation. I’m not sure if there is an explicit statement that they depend on matter, but I can’t imagine how it’s possible to understand that they are not.

Like I said:

Whether some schools of Buddhism are in fact idealistic is debatable; certainly some schools leaned heavily that way. But it’s also true that if examined closely, we find different perspectives within the same school. I do think it is too broad to say that Yogacara as a whole is idealist, though certain Yogacarins may be. I don’t think, for example, that Vasubandhu was. Kalupahana discusses this, and shows how vijnaptimātra “mere expressions of consciousness” became cittamātra “mind-only”.

I’m not disagreeing that there are strong idealist tendencies in modern Buddhism, I am just a little cautious about ascribing such a broad brush to complex and rich philosophical movements. I think (quasi-)idealism developed late in the picture, at least 1000 years after the Buddha. It’s not like its just there to be picked up in the suttas: it took a long process of evolution.

Idealism goes beyond that to assert that matter is an illusion and doesn’t really exist. And I’ve never heard a Thai teacher say anything like this.


Hmm, I’m not sure that’s obvious though. For example, if we take the arupas at face value, then it seems consciousness can exist without matter. Likewise if there is an inbetween state which I think there is a good case for. Also in the Agañña Sutta it seems that beings with mind made bodies existed prior to the development of biological bodies. Another piece of evidence is that siddhis seem to be able to break all basic physical laws with the power of the mind. If the mind can impose on the laws of nature in this way, I just can’t see how matter is in the same ontological level.

They depict them as “dependent”? Can you point to a passage? I know they are often listed together one set of four after the other, but I can’t recall statements indicating dependence.

Well it depends on what kind of idealism. You could have an idealism which holds that matter exists as an emergent property from a more ontologically basic experiential existent. Indeed, this theory was not unknown in ancient India and can be seen in the Mahabharata (Mbh XII.224) where Brahman gives rise to akasa (space/aether) which gives rise to the other elements. Or you could have an idealism which says matter is just the extrinsic appearance or representation of an experiential reality, such as Schopenhauer’s philosophy or Kastrup’s recent work.

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