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

Here are a few more pages from Why I am not a Buddhist:

The first decade of the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute was exciting. It felt like we were creating something unprecedented, a fusion of science, meditation, and philosophy. Graduate students, postdocs, junior and senior scientists, and scholars from all over the world formed collaborations to investigate the mind by interweaving contemplative expertise, the cognitive and brain sciences, clinical psychology, and cross-cultural philosophy. Scientists who had a personal and research interest in meditation could now support each other’s work and share their findings, and many new scientific studies were published as a result. The Francisco J. Varela Research Grants, which were created with the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute in 2004, supported many of these studies. The Summer Institute played a huge role in helping to create a new international research community.

At the same time, an in-group/out-group structure was developing. Skeptical or critical voices asking tough questions were being sidelined. Can scientists who are personally invested in meditation practice be objective and impartial in their research on meditation? Why is there so much antecedent commitment to establishing that meditation is beneficial when many people also report experiencing negative effects? Doesn’t it distort both Buddhism and science to use Buddhist concepts such as “awakening,” “pure awareness,” “innate goodness,” or “Buddha nature” to interpret scientific studies of the brain and behavior? Such questions were often pushed aside.

I also noticed that Buddhism was getting special treatment. Buddhist exceptionalism was rampant, as Buddhism was seen as superior to other religions, or as not really a religion but rather as a kind of “mind science.” Buddhist meditation practices were regarded as inherently different from prayer or worship. Ancient Indian Buddhist taxonomies of mental states were treated as if they were the direct product of meditation and as objective maps of the mind, rather than scholastic philosophical systems that aimed to reconstruct and systematize the Buddha’s teaching in as unambiguous a way as possible. Coupled to the special status given to Buddhism was the special status given to neuroscience, or more precisely, the small part of neuroscience that is human brain imaging. The result was a kind of “neural Buddhism.” 14 According to this way of thinking, “enlightenment” is a brain state or has unique neural signatures, mindfulness practice consists in training the brain, and cognitive science has corroborated the Buddhist view that there is no self.

There were dissenting voices, especially from historians of religion, philosophers, and anthropologists, but they were in the minority. Buddhist exceptionalism and neural Buddhism were becoming the default framework for most of the discussions about the scientific study of meditation.

At first I looked at these problems through philosophical and cognitive scientific glasses. Later I also came to see them from a historical perspective.

From a cognitive science perspective, the problem with neural Buddhism is that it’s “brainbound” or “neurocentric.” It rests on the assumption that cognition happens inside the brain instead of being a performance of the whole embodied being embedded in the world. The proper scientific framework for conceptualizing meditation isn’t human brain imaging; it’s embodied cognitive science, the study of how cognition directly depends on the culturally configured body acting in the world.

From a philosophical perspective, the problem with Buddhist exceptionalism is that it presents Buddhist theories of the mind as if they’re value-neutral descriptions, when they’re based on value judgments about how to cultivate or shape the mind to realize the supreme Buddhist goal of nirvana. In philosophical terms, the theories are normative—they’re based on ethical value judgments—and soteriological—they’re concerned with salvation or liberation. Buddhist theories of the mind lose their point if they’re extracted from the Buddhist normative and soteriological frameworks.

These points were brought home to me during a Buddhist vipassanā or insight meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Two longtime Buddhist meditation teachers, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, led the retreat. It lasted seven days and was designed especially for scientists and clinicians interested in meditation. Many prominent scientists who investigate meditation and are part of the Mind and Life community attended the retreat, as did graduate students from their labs. We spent ten hours a day over the course of six days practicing silent seated and walking meditation. We were given precise instructions on how to follow our breath and how to notice sensations, feelings, intentions, and thoughts as they come and go. We were told that we were “learning to observe the mind as it is” and “learning to see things clearly, as they are.” On the last day we talked about our experiences. There was a palpable feeling of being part of something special, a new community of intrepid explorers who were combining the latest scientific tools with ancient methods of introspection to chart the mind. I was caught up in the enthusiasm along with everyone else.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking throughout the retreat that what was happening didn’t match the rhetoric of “learning to see things as they are.” We were given a system of concepts to apply to our experience as we practiced meditation. Some of the concepts were seemingly everyday ones like “sensation,” “feeling,” “attention,” and “intention,” but they were tied to Buddhist concepts like “moment-to-moment arising,” “impermanence,” “mindfulness,” “not-self,” and “karma.” The retreat was silent, so these words were the only ones we heard. Their inner echo lasted longer, especially during the early days, as I was getting used to the silence. Each of us was trying to follow the meditation instructions, and we knew everyone else was trying to do the same thing. We were being given a powerful and collectively reinforced conceptual system for making sense of whatever happened to us as we sat and walked in silence. Occasional group or one-on-one interviews with the teachers reinforced the conceptual framework. We felt that we were on a new kind of scientific mission. How could this not direct and shape what we were experiencing? Were we learning to “see things as they are,” or were we shaping them to be a certain way? And wasn’t the whole effort guided by a certain vision of the Buddhist goal as dispassionate mental peace?


Religion and science have never been separate and autonomous spheres, or “nonoverlapping magisteria” in Stephen Jay Gould’s famous phrase. 18 On the contrary, they constantly intersect, usually with friction. Often the friction leads to conflict; sometimes it leads to cooperation and new insights. The culture and historical epoch determine the forms conflict and cooperation will take. Gould’s proposal to reconcile religion and science by treating them as independent realms, each with its own authority, is a nonstarter.

The “new atheists” recognize that religion and science can’t be separated in the way that Gould proposes, but their campaigns to stamp out religion in the name of science misunderstand the meaning-making activities of religions. Religions don’t explain the universe as science does; they create meaning through rituals, communities, textual traditions, and ways of understanding life’s great events—birth, aging, sickness, trauma, extraordinary states of consciousness, and death. The new atheists also misunderstand science. They fail to see that when science steps back from experimentation in order to give meaning to its results in terms of grand stories about where we come from and where we’re going—the narratives of cosmology and evolution—it cannot help but become a mythic form of meaning-making and typically takes the structures of its narratives from religion. 19

Buddhist modernism encourages a kind of false consciousness: it makes people think that if they embrace Buddhism or just pick out its supposedly nonreligious parts, they’re being “spiritual but not religious,” when unbeknownst to them religious forces are impelling them. These forces include the desire to be part of a community organized around some sense of the sacred, or the desire to find a source of meaning that transcends the individual, or the felt need to cope with suffering, or the desire to experience deep and transformative states of contemplation. (Of course, other kinds of forces may be impelling them, too, such as the need to sublimate desires, as described by Freud, or capitalist forces, as described by Marx.) The actions people undertake to satisfy these desires, such as practicing meditation or going on retreats, are also religious. People use the word “spiritual” because they want to emphasize transformative personal experiences apart from public religious institutions. Nevertheless, from an outside, analytical perspective informed by the history, anthropology, and sociology of religion, “spirituality without religion” is really just “privatized, experience-oriented religion.” 20

Buddhist modernism is now replete with appeals to the supposed authority of neuroscience. It has claimed that neuroscience confirms the truth of the Buddhist idea that there is no self, that neuroscience shows that mindfulness meditation “literally changes your brain,” and that enlightenment has “neural correlates.”

These ideas aren’t just wrong; they’re confused. The self isn’t a brain-generated illusion or nonexistent fiction; it’s a biological and social construction. Anything you do “literally changes your brain”; evidence for mindfulness meditation leading to beneficial changes in the brain is still tentative; and mindfulness meditation is a social practice, whose positive or negative value depends on social facts beyond the brain. “Enlightenment” isn’t a singular state with a unique brain signature; it’s an ambiguous concept, whose different and often incompatible meanings depend on the religious and philosophical traditions that give rise to them. Contrary to neural Buddhism, the status of the self, the value of meditation, and the meaning of “enlightenment” aren’t matters that neuroscience can decide. They’re inherently philosophical matters that lie beyond the ken of neuroscience.


Very interesting ideas in here. Thanks for sharing this.
I appreciate voices like this one, especially after seeing so much people just “swallowing” the idea that the Dhamma is the only true path to unconditional happiness. If that idea is not backed-up with analysis, critical examination and out-of-texts experiences (although I’m not denying the role of saddha, but giving it a complementary and never contradictory place alongside empirical evidence), buddhism is no longer different than any other religion or any of the soteoriological practices and philosophical ideas the Buddha seem to criticise in the suttas.

After reading the extract, it gives me the impression (I may be wrong, though) that the author has not understood some key concepts enough. For instance, I still don’t see any reason to conclude that the idea of anatta is not compatible with modern understanding of the brain.

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I think a slightly different question (apologies if this was already covered) is whether or not it even occurred to ancient Buddhists that mind could be an emergent property from the body. Were there equivalent philosophies that existed?

Myself, I’ve noticed that often when we try to evaluate Western philosophical systems against Buddhist ones, there’s an apples vs. oranges comparison taking place. Buddhist philosophy takes personal experience as the starting point. Western thought takes an objective reality (the world according to a third party observer) as a starting point.

So, when Vasubandhu says the three realms are just consciousness, a Western person easily thinks he means the objective universe is created by the mind. What he means is closer to all the rebirths and experiences associated with them are mind made. Which is not an unreasonable thing to say if you assume that the realms of rebirth are the result of sentient being’s actions. Actions are performed in the mind, after all. When you read Yogacara theories closely, they make no sense understood as ontological theories. They just explain the subjective experience of being a sentient being.

So, there’s an incongruity in our fundamental assumptions about the universe taking place when we read these ancient texts and think about what they are saying (or not saying). Part of it stems from our greater knowledge of the external world. Part of it is the different philosophical assumptions that arise from what we know.

The difference between a philosophical assumption and an objective fact is sometimes difficult to discern for someone inside a cultural milieu. You see it easily when you read something written by an ancient person who had a very different set of assumptions. How could they just assume rebirth happens or heavens and hells exist? If we could go back in time, they might ask us similarly incredulous questions. I’ve seen Buddhist arguments against the existence of atoms precisely because there was no way to observe them.

The communal religion vs. individual spirituality dichotomy is also a good example of how cultural assumptions fence people’s minds into a given space of thinking, and it’s difficult to get around it. We end up with blind spots. We can see ancient people’s blind spots and point them out, but we have our own.

It’s one of the unresolvable knots I sometimes struggle with after having read so much of the ancient world’s ideas during my lifetime. As a translator, I have to be mindful of them and compartmentalize my modern views in order to represent the ancient text as accurately as possible. As an individual person, though, I scratch my head about the ironies of the modern world knowing objective reality so well, performing so many miracles as a result of that knowledge, yet we are lost psychologically. Perhaps we are just as lost as we ever were and just have fancier tools to carry around as we wander. In that regard, Buddhism does have things to teach us.


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Just to add some pepper into the pot … :smiling_imp:

If one wishes to deconstruct or reduce things to the point of non-divisibility, one can have vast amounts of fun looking at particle physics and field theories, the whole Standard Model. I attach a couple of nice links which give a reasonable overview below.

Aspects of this have been touched on in other threads, but haven’t yet been mentioned here. The main thing that stands out for me in the Standard Model - is the glaring lack of a field of consciousness. Add in a field of consciousness (together with the other fields), and things start to make a bit more sense. :smiley:

This then leads to the understanding that reality is made up of fields (and their interactions) rather than particles… It is the interaction of the fields that ‘creates’ reality. And this resonates for me in terms of the Buddhas teachings on DO at the deepest level.

As such, and in regard to the OP question, for this ‘model’ to work, there is a necessity of a ‘field of consciousness’. It is just that at this stage of our technological evolution, there are not yet ‘scientific instruments’ that can ‘measure/perceive’ it.

But I believe that some individuals do have the capacity to ‘perceive’ it (in a way) through the deepest states of ‘meditation’. And I believe that the Buddha ‘saw’ the ‘mechanics/processes’ of existence… Yet this isn’t what he taught (he avoided talking about it) what he focused on was moving beyond suffering… So the teachings are the TOOLS the Buddha designed, in order to ‘crack the samsara trap/existence’, rather than describing the theory behind them.

Does this help?

LOL… :laughing: :rofl: :slightly_smiling_face:

QFT – How many fields are there? – Physics says what?(Standard%20Model%20including%20all,fields%20and%2012%20boson%20fields

This is the most delightful lecture :slight_smile: enjoy

And for something more generally appealing and just a nice watch


Thanks so much for these quotes. I haven’t read the book, and can’t comment on it in general, but what he says here sounds very reasonable, and I share his concerns.

Indeed, and this is not limited to HH, such a perception is routinely found among materialist commenters on Buddhism, although, in my very limited experience, less often among actual scientists.

Again, yes very much so. It seems that we are stuck in a paradigm of accepting the authority of science, at least within its magisterium, and the main interest is seeing how it supports Buddhism. Not whether it supports Buddhism, or—and to my mind this is a far more important task—to meaningfully critique science and change it for the better.

The scientific materialist paradigm is not an abstract set of ideas; it is inextricably linked with the industrial revolution, and hence, with the destruction of the environment. Climate change is the elephant in the room for anyone who wants to argue that scientific materialism is, on the whole, a good thing.

Cool. I would add to that it is not so much empirical adequacy but functional adequacy. Science is successful to the extent that it lets you get what you want; whether that is a vaccine for coronavirus, a theory that explains why the stars are like they are, or merely getting published. Buddhism is the same: Buddhists get hung up on the idea that the Dhamma encodes an “absolute truth”. But the Buddha didn’t care about that. His only concern was that it achieved its goal: ending suffering.

Maybe. Certainly that’s true of a lot of people within the Buddhist psychology world.

As i have discussed elsewhere, I disagree that this adequately represents the EBTs (and I would add Nagarjuna to that), but in terms of the details of such theories, the Tibetans typically rely on the Abhidharma, where this is probably true.

Interesting. This is a kind of “elevationist” shift; turn the dialog to some higher level that grants a special privileged knowledge. Perhaps if HH had more on a foundation in the EBTs this would be unnecessary.

I mean, can people who eat be objective in a study on food? I think this kind of approach is fundamentally misguided. Humans are cognitive creatures, and cognition is embedded in all kinds of personal and social constructs. The question should be, “How does a person’s personal meditation practice—or lack thereof—influence the kinds of questions they ask, their methods, and the way results are presented?” So long as there is a critical awareness of such things it is no more of a problem than anything else.

The bigger question, however—especially given the devastating collapse of the “scientific” credentials of psychology in general due to the falsification scandal—is this: is there any evidence whatsoever that the scientific method is a useful way to investigate the mind? I would say not.

Right, and this is certainly something that practicing psychologists are well aware of. From an EBT perspective I would argue that it is a predictable outcome of divorcing “mindfulness” from the context of ethics and meaning provided by the eightfold path.

Yes it does.

Not to mention that apart from “awakening”, none of these ideas are found in the EBTs, and IMHO contradict them.

I mean, this is the kind of modernist narrative that has been rejected in Buddhist academic studies for a generation. One of the underlying problems is the disjunct between different arms of the academy. Buddhist psychologists, in the guise of “neurodharma” routinely espouse ideas that sociological or historical scholars of Buddhism would regard as helplessly naive.

In our course in Sydney, we addressed this problem by making it “Buddhism and psychology”: the course was presented by both a psychologist and a monastic (ideally), and it would look at different perspectives.

Same in Theravadin meditation circles, especially the Burmese systems. They are like a linguist who takes a formal grammar or dictionary and assumes it is a complete and final description of language. Umm, yeah nah, like wut?

Good. Doing science without history is like asking of a map, “should I turn left or right”, with no idea where you’ve come from or where you’re heading.

Thank you!

Yes! I’ve been saying this for years. The whole idea of “seeing things as they are” is a “scientific” idea that was imported into meditation in the colonial era. Then scientists with zero understanding of history and context think, “Wow, it was there all along!”

Buddhist teachings are a conceptual map whose purpose is to guide you towards seeing reality in a specific way that is conducive towards letting go and being free from suffering. It is far from “objective”.

In the EBTs, “seeing things according to reality” (yathābhūtañāṇadassana) emerges at quite a late stage in practice, and doctrinally it usually has its full weight only in stream-entry. In that context, the bhūta has a strong sense not just of “truth”, but of “how things came to be the way they are”, i.e. the four noble truths and dependent origination. And that knowledge is inherently inferential. It’s a moment of insight, of realization, that lets you synthesize your prior (conceptual) knowledge. It is meaningful not because it corresponds to an objective truth, but because it genuinely results in a deep and permanent letting go.

I think I’m in love. :heart_eyes:

Right. This is something that should be self-evident to a student of sociology or history.

Indeed. There were materialists, and perhaps in the long and complex history of Indian philosophy of mind such ideas were discussed, but it is not at all obvious.

I agree with this in my limited reading of Vasubandhu. I’m wondering to what extent it remained true of later Yogacara. There seems to be this hard-to-resist drift to idealism, materalism, or dualism, and the Yogacarins were at least moving towards the idealist side.

Right! Objectivity is not objective.

This is something I try to emphasize when teaching suttas. If your first question is, “how is this relevant to me?”, you will never understand the suttas—or yourself.



So, when Ajahn Thanissaro writes about the Dhamma being a strategy to end suffering that does not have metaphysical implications, then is he right? Does it follow that it is irrelevant whether there is a permanent self or not, because “the Buddha didn’t care” about “absolute truth”?

I am being deliberately mischievous, but I think some clarity about this would be welcome. It seems to me that you cannot be deluded about reality - or at least certain aspects of reality - and still expect to make an end of suffering.


These are, I think, orthogonal arguments. I’m making an argument against metaphysics generally, whereas Thanissaro wants to substitute his own metaphysics, which IMHO is even more absolutist than Theravada. He just doesn’t want those things to be considered absolutes because that would conflict with his actual absolutes.

Obviously the Dharma contains strategies. Equally obviously, those strategies are based on the reality of the world, which is why they work. What I’m talking about has nothing to do with these things; it is about the tendency of the human mind to assume that, because a strategy works, it must therefore be the case that the specific form in which that strategy is described is an absolute and immutable description of reality.

The old “map” allegory works just fine here. Clearly a map only works because it corresponds in some sense with reality. Yet maps can vary a lot, and you’ll still end up at your destination. There’s no one “right” map that captures everything perfectly; for if there were, that would not be a map, but reality itself.

And that exposes the basic problem with the “absolute truth” argument. Maps, or for that matter spiritual teachings, work precisely because they are abstractions. They simplify things in a way that can be grasped and acted upon. If a traveller had to memorize every shrub and weed on the way before starting the journey, they wouldn’t get far. It’s enough to say, “go east”, then check your progress along the way.


Thanks Musiko. I’ll give it a try.

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Interesting remarks, Bhante.

I could get into a lengthy discussion on many of the aspects you mention but I’ve seen too many times where this leads. People inevitably fall back into their entrenched belief systems. This is not a necessarily a problem. It simply seems to be the human condition. I guess it sort of leads back to the matter of there being an “Absolute Truth.” I agree with your remarks; it is found in all approaches and domains, from spirituality to science.
The fundamental problem I see is that we can never “see things as they are” no matter the system or approach. We all come equipped with some form of a priori or antecedent composition (call it what you like). There is no “unconditioned” roaming this planet while still alive. I’ll leave whatever one wants to fill in as “true nature” or “what happens after” up to the billion different versions out there.

On the question bridif1 raises of whether
the idea of anatta is not compatible with modern understanding of the brain, on the one hand, and Bhante Sujato’s remark that scientists can also be objective when it comes to meditation, I think Thompson is basically saying that it is a classic case of conflating apples with oranges.

Though one can’t summarize Thompson’s thorough book in a few quotes, this gets to many of the questions raised (my emphasis in bold, below):

"I’m not saying that Buddhist meditative techniques haven’t been experientially tested in any sense. Meditation is a kind of skill, and it’s experientially testable in the way that skills are, namely, through repeated practice and expert evaluation. I have no doubt that Buddhist contemplatives down through the ages have tested meditation in this sense. I’m also not saying that meditation doesn’t produce discoveries in the sense of personal insights. (Psychoanalysis can also lead to insights.) Rather, my point is that the experiential tests aren’t experimental tests. They don’t test scientific hypotheses. They don’t provide a unique set of predictions for which there aren’t other explanations. The insights they produce aren’t scientific discoveries. Contrary to Sam Harris, Buddhist meditation isn’t a “first-person science.” Indeed, the very idea of “first-person science” is nonsensical (science is public and collective).

I’m also not trying to devalue meditation. On the contrary, I’m trying to make room for its value by showing how likening it to science distorts it. Meditation isn’t controlled experimentation. Attention and mindfulness aren’t instruments that reveal the mind without affecting it. Meditation provides insight into the mind (and body) in the way that body practices like dance, yoga, and martial arts provide insight into the body (and mind). Such mind-body practices—meditation included—have their own rigor and precision. They test and validate things experientially, but not by comparing the results obtained against controls.

I’ve been using the word “science” mainly to refer to modern experimental science. This is the kind of science that the Christian missionaries and European colonizers extolled and that the modern Buddhist reformers took as their model when they likened Buddhist doctrines to scientific theories and Buddhist meditation to scientific observation and experimentation.

Of course, one can take issue with this way of restricting the meaning of the term “science.” Consider that we call logic and mathematics “formal sciences,” as opposed to “empirical sciences.” “Science,” in this larger sense, refers to any systematic body of public and testable knowledge, not just to the kind of knowledge acquired through controlled experimentation.

A more radical idea from twentieth-century European philosophy is that there can be a descriptive science of the mind that studies the various types of conscious experience from an experiential perspective. Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) advanced this idea when he inaugurated the philosophical movement known as phenomenology, which he defined as “the science of the essence of consciousness.” 41 By “essence” he meant necessary structures. For example, a necessary structure of perceptual experience is that things appear to you perspectivally—you can’t see or touch something in its entirety from all angles at once. Husserl argued that, from the perspective of the theory of knowledge, phenomenology is the primary science, because it’s required for the philosophical justification of the meaning of empirical and formal scientific statements. For Husserl, scientific models and theories are abstractions from concrete, lived experience. They’re empirically adequate for controlling and predicting events within the ever-expanding range of our experience, but they don’t give us true representations of how the world is beyond that range. Moreover, they depend for their meaning on the necessary structures of consciousness that make possible our experience of the world. Husserl’s phenomenological empiricism was thus more radical than the empiricism of experimental science. Although Husserl’s phenomenology has occasionally been misdescribed as an effort to do “first-person science,” he didn’t describe it this way, but rather presented it as a collective and intersubjective project.

It’s striking that the modern Buddhists who assert that Buddhism is or contains a mind science don’t take the philosophical step of revamping their conception of science along these lines. 42 They may challenge some of the materialistic assumptions that scientists make, but they don’t pursue an epistemological critique of science, as Husserl did when he argued for phenomenology. This drawback is all the more surprising given that Buddhist philosophy has the resources for developing such a critique. Instead of following this path, however, these modern Buddhists invoke science because of its prestige and authority in the modern world. They rhetorically deploy the term “science” to promote a particular image of Buddhism—the Buddhist exceptionalist image."


To clarify a point made in my last reply when I say – “We all come equipped with some form of a priori or antecedent composition (call it what you like).” – I not only meant “we” but the systems, movements, philosophies (or the thinking that we have none), techniques and approaches that are like a set up that precede us. Ironically we, most often than not, barely notice it.

Newtonian physics still calculates fine for its domain. And modern quantum physics also calculates fine for its domain. Reality is contextually perceived.

For the Buddhism domain, we can be grateful that Mara endlessly and effortlessly shows us our delusions. Suffering is contextually perceived and can be extinguished.


Well, there was a split into at least two lines of thinking. One adopted Tathagata-garbha ideas, which forcefully rejected the philosophy of emptiness. So, it became very idealistic. The other was more traditional and kept to Asanga’s original philosophy better, which I think was a compromise between Nagarjuna and the Abhidharma tradition.

In China, the former won out against the latter. Xuanzang’s primary mission when he went to India was to find a complete copy of the Yogacara-bhumi. He found it and brought it back to China along with all the background literature. His attempt to supplant the Tathagata-garbha philosophy with traditional Yogacara failed, largely I think because the Chinese preferred a more positive and optimistic view of human nature. Plus, it was just easier to understand the simpler rhetoric of Tathagata-garbha texts. That’s how Chinese Buddhism ended up the way it did with less emphasis on emptiness and more on salvific teachings (in a nutshell). There was also the happy byproduct of all the translations Xuanzang produced.


I don’t get what you are saying here Karl. So Bhante said:

So is your suggestion that one can hold the view that there is a permanent self and still put an end to suffering?

Or is part of the context of suffering that the permanent self is a delusion and that this delusion will eventually be exposed to us by mara?

Or something else?

:scream_cat: nooooooooooooo. please let us not talk about permanent selves! (see DN1) :laughing:

Sorry. I was making a joke about Mara and reality. I was trying to say that what we tend to see is Mara’s illusions and that we need to be ever aware of the impermanence of those illusions, to not grasp at them. And Mara has endless permutations on views of self. The joke was that Mara is so prolific that the danger of suffering from those very illusions is quite real. So in that sense I was joking that Mara is absolutely a “reality” to beware.


@Jacques Thanks for all those quotes from “Why I am not a Buddhist”. They bring an important dimension to the discussion.

@sujato. What is this falsification scandal to which you refer?

On the question you posed: there is certainly a scientific approach to mind which is quite useful. The study of cognitive phenomena such as memory, face recognition, spatial orientation (and many other) are not beyond the reach of modern scientific methods. Much to the contrary. There is no big controversy in recognizing for example that the amygdala is related to the experience of fear, or that the hippocampus is involved in the formation of new episodic long term memory. And such knowledge is useful for medical and even ethical purposes.

Indeed. Objectivity itself is a philosophical assumption and should be seen as such. As you all indicated in this discussion anything we say, think or perceive is not a neutral absolute truth.
Nevertheless, this is not some kind of proof that, for example, there is no objective reality of the thing which is inter-subjectively perceived as an hippocampus and which is causally involved in the creation of long term episodic memories. Or else that there is no objective thing which is (inter)subjectively perceived as an anesthetic and which causes the whole subjective experience to interrupt.
Neither can we affirm that there is such objective thing, even though we can establish quite clear causal relations between physical phenomena and mental phenomena.

Modern science has its own field and perspective. And in that framework, it seems more and more clear that mind is an emergent property. The point I’m raising is that the early suttas are not in contradiction with this modern scientific framework. Neither can they can be used to support it in some way.
The methods taught in EBT can be practiced and lead to its results quite independent from engaging in negating or adopting the perspectives of modern science.

Right. But arguing that the early suttas go against the view that mind emerges from physical properties is itself a metaphysical position. It does not equate to saying that the early suttas don’t posit a metaphysics, that they have their own perspective and methods and neither affirm nor deny such view about the emergence of mind.

Interesting question, @Brahmali! I’ve always been interested in the notion that the suttas don’t posit any onthology. As you said, if they don’t, does it mean still there can be or not be a permanent self? That the path to end suffering only means abandoning the notion of a permanent self? But what would a “permanent self” mean apart from a notion?

Is notion that EBT don’t teach metaphysics an attempt to modernize it? Or is it an endogenous proposition?

Which would be this metaphysics proposed by Thanissaro Bikkhu?

(a side question: not really on our main discussion here…) Why did you call it and inferential knowledge? In the Pramana tradition of Dignaga and Dharmakirti, the knowledge acquired in stream-entry is not considered inferential, because it is said to be non conceptual. They call it “yogic direct perception”, which is a direct realization of the reality of phenomena (their aspects of dukkha, anicca, anatta, etc.).

Thanks for the references, Viveka. I’ve watched that class on QFT some years ago and loved it!
What you are describing, adding a field of consciousness, is what is called panpsychism. It is one of the theories out there, but I don’t agree it makes necessarily more sense to add a field of consciousness. We might interpret the five khandas as indication of fundamental realities, and try to fit theories of physics or cognitive science into this interpretation. But how useful is that? Will we end up proposing a field of consciousness, a field of sensation, a field of volition, a field of attention, a field of ideation, together with the fields of weak and strong nuclear force, of gravity, etc.? In my opinion that’s a questionable way to engage in a dialogue of Buddhism and modern science, the kind which Evan Thompson is criticizing.

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Maybe, maybe not :slight_smile: :upside_down_face:
I agree with many of your points, and I suppose I was just pushing the boundaries of how far into ‘structure, cause and effect’ one wants to go. I’m not at all invested in any theories. :slight_smile: And feel there is no need to have congruence between them.

For me there is no objective, independent reality, it is completely relative.

This isn’t really adding to your discussion though, so apologies for the tangent :slight_smile:


I agree with this statement. When I’m in the lab the scientific method can certainly help me to model the world so as to find a solution to a problem, but it can never address the subjective aspect of experience. Suffering, happiness and so forth can’t be fully addressed by a scientific method as they are subjective states. I don’t think there is any way to measure awakening or Jhana aside from brain scans, which wouldn’t really tell us much about the actual experience itself. Science can never tell us what something is like.

Personally I’ve never understood why some Buddhists need to have Buddhism proved by science and its shifting sands of theories. I suspect its due to a lack of saddha and a suspicion of being duped by religion. If you agree with the Buddha and see something in what he taught all you need is faith and practice until you first glimpse nibbana for yourself.

Going back to the mind/body problem it seems to me the suttas support the idea of mind existing without a physical body, as per the formless realms. Within the human realms mind and body are linked, with both mutually conditioning the other. So, if the Dhamma is dualist or idealist depends on if you accept rebirth and other realms or not and which realm you are talking about. For the human realm at least it seems to be a strictly dualist affair.

I’m excluding all forms of materialism/physicalism since that isn’t supported by the suttas.

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Right. And the number 1, iron-clad way to ensure that you never understand or transcend that system is to deny that you have it. Ahh, it brings back memories of the old days, when certain Ajahns would warn us of the dangers of being attached to views! Of course, they didn’t have any views … or did they?

Yes, exactly!

I didn’t realize this. It’s amazing how personal interests can drive a project with such far-reaching consequences.

I should have said, replication crisis:

It’s rather too complex to discuss in a little comment here, but I personally believe the implications of this crisis—which is only one of a long string of question-marks—are devastating to the claim that scientific method has been of any use whatsoever in fields such as psychology.

To say that it is “related” is trivial, and not a scientific matter: everything is related to everything else. However, according to Psychology Today:

The idea that the amygdala is the home of fear in the brain is just that—an idea. It is not a scientific finding but instead a conclusion based on an interpretation of a finding.

Again, “involved” is really vague. According to a recent paper:

existing data are generally not sufficient for distinguishing brain activity related to memory (and hypothesized memory-related variables) from activity related to viewing behavior

My point is not to contest these specifics. But if we want to point to something unambiguously true about modern psychological findings, we need to find something a lot more specific and rigorous. Once you start digging down, you find that the specifics of whole research areas are less than solid. Neurological research is largely based on fMRI, which measures the magnetic resonance of brain regions as a proxy for blood, as a proxy for brain activity, as a proxy for mental activity. It is woefully inadequate to measure anything about complex mental processes.

Here’s the thing. I’m not saying that we haven’t learned anything from such studies. I’m saying that I see zero evidence that focussing on fMRI studies—or any other field of “scientific” psychology—actually teaches you anything more about the human mind compared to, say, sitting in a park and observing people, or reading a Russian novel, or talking with friends, or meditating. You might learn different kinds of things, to be sure, but they are not necessarily more important or interesting things.

And given that that is the case, there is no basis for saying that scientific method has any special value in understanding the mind. On the contrary, I would argue that our perception of the success of scientific method is based on the physical sciences, and we assumed that applying the same method to the mind would be comparably stunning advances. A hundred years ago that was a reasonable hypothesis, but today, I would read the entire history of “scientific” psychology as a rebuttal.

Perhaps. But then, why is there effectively no progress at all in treating mental illness in society at large? Sure, in individual cases we have medicines or therapies that can work. But can we say with any confidence that the mental health of the general population would be worse if we had never developed a field of “psychology”, but had instead, say, built our cities with compassionate, community-focussed architecture? Or if we had recognized that the causes of psychological distress are frequently found in social injustice, and had put all that effort into fixing inequality, racism, and other forms of systematic injustice?

I’m sorry to say, but I know lots of Buddhist psychologists and psychiatrists, and almost all of them live in wealthy white suburbs where they take care of the mental health of wealthy white people. Is it ethical to focus research on speculative, expensive technologies by and for the rich, when actual solutions to human psychological distress are simple and effective: water, food, safety, housing, community, justice, a sense of meaning and belonging.

It’s about opportunity cost. Pouring trillions of dollars into research and focussing millions of bright minds on a field of study is not value-neutral or inevitable. It is a choice, one that is based on the hypothesis that this is an effective way of prioritizing human time and resources.

To be clear, I’m not just critiquing psychology here. I believe that the same can be said for pretty much any of the soft sciences. I think that the real reason they exist because of the prestige that physics and chemistry gained from their stunning, unprecedented successes, in the hope that comparable success would follow the application of similar methods in other domains. And it just hasn’t happened.

Not at all. It’s just an inference from reading texts. I’m a textual scholar. Part of my job is to read things and draw conclusions from them. So far as I am aware, nobody in 2500 years of Buddhism ever read the suttas and concluded that they were compatible with a materialist viewpoint of any kind. It’s a non-issue as far as textuality is concerned.

Well, the whole “nibbana” and “self” thing, the “mind like fire unbound” and so on. But his absolutist tendencies come out in more mundane matters, for example, see his debate with Ven Bodhi on just war, or his persistent attempts to deny the existence of bhikkhunis based on tendentious legalisms.

It’s a term from the suttas, see eg. SN 12.33.

It’s a complex question, and I’m not familiar with the pramana school in detail, although my understanding is that much of the philosophical debates around knowledge hinged on working out the exact implications of this very question.

But it seems to me the basic situation is quite straightforward. What can I see with direct perception? This. Can I see that this is impermanent? That is an understanding that requires knowledge of the past and future states of this. It therefore requires memory and projection, and is inherently inferential.

Now, one could make an argument against this case (if time is not momentary, perhaps we see a fuzzy smear of present in which things are impermanent).

But what if we were to extend the example: Can I see that all conditions are impermanent? There’s no possible way short of strong omniscience that one can see “all” conditions, hence it must be inferred.


His views on Nibbana and self are concerning but I don’t think there is any leeway for a Buddhist to support any type of warfare. Ven. Bodhi is quite wrong to suggest otherwise. Could you expand on what you mean here by “absolutist tendencies” Bhante? It’s not all that clear. Aren’t there some things in the Dhamma that are absolute?

To be clear, I’m not just critiquing psychology here. I believe that the same can be said for pretty much any of the soft sciences. I think that the real reason they exist because of the prestige that physics and chemistry gained from their stunning, unprecedented successes, in the hope that comparable success would follow the application of similar methods in other domains. And it just hasn’t happened.

I’m inclined to what you have said here and elsewhere Bhante. I do struggle to see how the “soft sciences” are sciences at all and indeed when we get to the likes of the social sciences such as sociology it seems to be more ideology than science. I guess it has to do with mathematics and certainty. We have at the top mathematics as a discipline with certainty and no room for interpretation, and so by extension no room for ideology. As we move down the sciences to physics we see less certainty and a bit more room for interpretation. This essentially goes on until you move downwards and even further away from mathematical certainty in the soft sciences, which are then naturally more open to interpretations and biases.

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