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

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.


As said, the suttas clearly show such states relying matter. In any case, these are highly specialized conditions, it doesn’t really bear on a generalized idealist philosophy.

None of these have anything to do with idealism. They are different states of being, all of which are dependent on the interrelation between mind and matter.

SN 14.11:

The element of the dimension of infinite space appears due to the element of form.


Can an arahant under anesthesia, experience something with his liberated citta?

Note that it is craving, a mental principle, which warps perception.

Hi, Jean-Pate! Welcome to SuttaCentral.

1 Like

Hmm I will have to think about this some more. It definitely seems to me that the mental is primary in early Buddhism in some basic sense. Of course, this doesn’t mean its eternal, essentialistic or an uncaused cause. Its more of a Heraclitean / process philosophy type thing. Also, that still leaves room for there to be rupa in some sense, (even if it is a secondary property), and for this property to have some causal efficacy on the mental as well. Of course, this also depends on how you define and understand rupa, it is not obvious that it refers to matter or physicality as a fundamental ontological category. Indeed, if this were the case, then we are dealing with some kind of metaphysical dualism or even a kind of pluralism (which I will admit I am not partial to).

Of course, since ontology is not a major concern of the EBTs, any attempt to build a coherent ontological theory based on them will have to do some interpreting and exegesis. Perhaps that is the strength of these texts, you can have different metaphysics and still practice the teachings, since metaphysics is not at the core of the Buddhadharma anyways, but more of a background thing.

Actually we don’t see photons. Photons do cause a chain reaction starting in the retina, but we don’t see them. We see what we imagine is the probable cause of the excitation of the retina. One example: you and me are seeing colors in all our visual field, but actually only an area of around 10º in the center of the visual field corresponds to the area in the retina which is sensitive to color. That means the color in the margins of the visual field are basically an imagination or a best guess (based on memory, etc.). So we are not seeing photons, but our imagination.

Yes. Agreed!

Understood. By “experience” you are indicating the five aggregates, or “the all” (the 12 ayatanas). The only thing about using this word in such a context is that it sounds as though if no one is experiencing a sense base in a specific moment, that sense base is not there (since it is an experience). That might problematic in cases such as someone getting sick due to radiation, even without experiencing the radiation or knowing about it. It would seem as though the cause of the sickness is inexistent because it is not experienced and is unknown.

Much to the contrary. It seems to me that the reading of the suttas doesn’t inform us about ontological primacy of mind or matter. You argued the opposite when you said that emergentist theories of the mind are not compatible with EBT.
In terms of phenomenological primacy, it very clearly says that the mind is the forerunner of all dharmas. (More on that below. I’ll try to make my case that emergentist theories of mind are compatible with EBT.)

There is an instructive simile in SN 44.9 about the state in between:

I describe rebirth for someone who grasps fuel, not for someone who doesn’t grasp fuel. It’s like a fire which only burns with fuel, not without fuel. In the same way I describe rebirth for someone who grasps fuel, not for someone who doesn’t grasp fuel.”

“But when a flame is blown away by the wind, what do you say is its fuel then?”

“At such a time, I say that it’s fueled by wind. For the wind is its fuel then.”

“But when someone who is attached has laid down this body and has not been reborn in one of the realms, what does Master Gotama say is their fuel then?”

“When someone who is attached has laid down this body, Vaccha, and has not been reborn in one of the realms, I say they’re fueled by craving. For craving is their fuel then.”

This simile is very interesting because there can be no fire without both a combustible substance and wind. And Buddha compares rebirth to a fire (consciousness) going far away due to the force of wind (craving) and causing fire in some other combustible substance (another existence). That’s an incredible demonstration that even when talking about rebirth he is giving an explanation that mantains the interdependence of consciousness and its support.

Bernardo Kastrup argues that his interpretation is the simplest possible explanation of reality. I think that’s very much a stretch. There are many other which are as simple or simpler than his.

Agreed. It seems like all states imply interrelation between mind and matter. But that per se doesn’t say anything about the primacy of mind or matter. And I think there might be an idealist interpretation cogent with EBT. But also there could be a cogent physicalist interpretation.

@Javier , in this article, Douglass Smith argues against the idealist interpretation of the Nikayas.

But I think the main message in the article is that Buddha was a pragmatic non-foundationalist. He would have delineated an inchoate realist metaphysics not as the ends of his teachings, but only when useful for the means of conveying a primarily ethical message.

Only later interpretations turned into foundationalism and elaborated complete metaphyiscal systems: the dualist (actually pluralist) realism of Sarvastivada Abhidharma, the idealism or representationalism of Sautrantikas and Yogacharins, the anti-realism of Madhyamaka, to give some examples.

Coming back to my original point: exactly because the main message in the Nikayas is ethical and soteriological, I think it doesn’t clearly go for or against metaphysical theories such as realism, anti-realism, physicalism or idealism (in that point I disagree with Douglass; I think an idealist interpretation of EBT is also coherent).

Exactly for that reason, I don’t think we should necessarily take a stand against contemporary physicalist theories about the emergence of human mind. None of the reasons put here have convinced me to the contrary yet.

There were materialists at the Buddha’s time, the Charvakas. And it is interesting to see that his criticism of them is centered on their ethical nihilism, not on their materialist ideas per se.

‘Great king, there is no meaning in giving, sacrifice, or offerings.
There’s no fruit or result of good and bad deeds. There’s no afterlife. There’s
no obligation to mother and father. No beings are reborn spontaneously. And
there’s no ascetic or brahmin who is well attained and practiced, and who
describes the afterlife after realizing it with their own insight. This person is
made up of the four primary elements. When they die, the earth in their body
merges and coalesces with the main mass of earth. The water in their body
merges and coalesces with the main mass of water. The fire in their body
merges and coalesces with the main mass of fire. The air in their body merges
and coalesces with the main mass of air. The faculties are transferred to
space. Four men with a bier carry away the corpse. Their footprints show the
way to the cemetery. The bones become bleached. Offerings dedicated to the
gods end in ashes. Giving is a doctrine of morons. When anyone affirms a
positive teaching it’s just hollow, false nonsense. Both the foolish and the
astute are annihilated and destroyed when their body breaks up, and don’t
exist after death.’

The Buddha criticizes their idea that there are no consequences of actions in future births, because he has realized this matter directly (with the remembrance of his past lives and clairvoyant divine eyes which see the passing away and birth of all beings according to their actions).
But as in the simile of the fire carried away by the wind of craving, this idea of the future consequence of actions does not depend on affirming independence or primacy of the fire (consciousness) over the combustible substance. To affirm that fire (consciousness) is an emergent property from the reaction in the combustible substance would not change anything in the fact that this complex system is part of a causal chain from previous fires and future fires. This can be a physical causal chain with emergent properties called consciousness and craving. Why not?

That’s what I’m arguing also. So in that regard, I don’t see why it should be a standard interpretation that phsyicalism is not compatible with EBT.
For a long time I tended towards a more idealist interpretation, just like you have been arguing. This changed after I studied the Vaibhashika Abhidharma and compared it to the early suttas. I was surprised by their pluralist metaphysics and with how it was coherent with what the Buddha taught.
It seems to me that @sujato is holding this same pluralistic interpretation (vinnana, sanna, vedana, rupa and sankhara all are existent in the same level and dependent on one another). That is surely a very good and coherent interpretation of EBT. But is it the only one? Does it give us a ground to exclude an interpretation according to contemporary physicalist theories of the mind (which means we should go against those theories)?

Dualist theories of mind are being attacked by very strong arguments and evidence. Is it wise to hold the dualist ( or pluralist) position, even if it is not necessarily what the Buddha taught?


Does it matter, if the Nikayas & Agamas state that neither the khandhas, nor the internal ayatanani are ours (natumhāka) .

I would say this is a point towards the idealist interpretation, since consciousness that is supported just by craving is just two mental properties, without an actual physical property as support. If these two mental existents can exist by themselves without a material body, then it seems that the mental reality does not always need the physical substrate.

Well, that’s debatable, but beyond the confines of this thread.

While I agree that the EBTs allow for various ontological interpretations, I think that this is only true for non-physicalist interpretations (such as dualism, micro-panpsychism, idealism, pluralism). The problem with a physicalist interpretation is that it holds that only matter is the fundamental existent, and because of this, it is hard to see how it could allow for rebirth and karma. The point of the Buddha’s critique of Carvaka is that materialism cannot support the karma and rebirth worldview. If all that exists is matter, or if matter is primary, then at the breakup of the body, the mind ceases to exist immediately (since its just a function of brain).

For me at the moment, the most parsimonious explanation out of all the non-physicalist theories seems to be idealism, you don’t have a combination problem (as with panpsychism) nor do you have an interaction problem (as with dualism/pluralism). You just have one ontological primary that comes in different flavors, one of which we call rupa (and so on with the other aggregates, nidanas and other dhammas). These are all interdependent, impermanent, dukkha, and not-self. For me at the moment, this explanation seems elegant and simple to me, and easily compatible with the EBTs.

Of course, any ontological theory is going to be tangential to the main Buddhist project, which is pragmatic and practical. But sometimes these tangential things can help you see things in new ways and aid in right view. So I wouldn’t dismiss it outright.

Panpsychism at the physical matter level does seem to have serious issues, i.e. the combination problem. I do like some of the more recent theories based on information, e.g. David Chalmers or Integrated Information Theory. I suppose the main difference between 1.5kg of putty and 1.5kg of human brain is not the number of atoms per se, but a vast difference in the amount of information or information processing going in the brain. Some notion that experience/existence/being/consciousness may somehow be an intrinsic feature somehow of some information-related property: information itself, information processing or information integration, is an interesting one. There are some physicists also who speculate that maybe it’s information that is fundamental rather than matter or energy.

Of course, I’m not sure that really gets us to the picture painted in the EBTs. One can then, in such a framework, picture the physical universe as some kind of single sea of information/existence/being full of little ripples, small waves, medium waves, rising and falling, and maybe occasionally huge waves of information/being in brains like humans. I think there’s a principle of information conservation in quantum theory, so maybe the overall level of information/being in the universe is staying the same but arising and ceasing constantly in different forms. But happens in the far future, when entropy has taken over, and the stars have all died? There won’t be a lot happening then (even if the amount of information is still the same). So maybe information processing or some other information-related property is the attribute in question? Such theories seem to be a bit far from being finished products yet.

And even if information/being is being constantly recycled and there’s a form of cause and effect going on, that doesn’t mean that it is dependent origination (DO) or there’s even the type of thread of continuity from life to life that DO would imply. And where do psychic powers fit into all of this also? Theories relating information and consciousness are interesting but there a lot of loose ends when trying to relate them to the world of the EBTs! :slight_smile:

1 Like

Yes, but I guess a form of cosmopsychism might not fall into the same issue. I don’t know enough about the current panpsychist literature to comment though.

Well, it depends, IIT is just supposed to mathematically describe the amount of info in neural networks, not provide a metaphysics. Not sure about what Chalmers has advanced, is it a kind of micropsychism that tries to answer the combination problem by using IIT?

I mean, this is even more strange than materialism honestly, “information” being fundamental is quite a strange view. How can you have information without a substrate that contains the information? You need hardware to contain the info in computers, etc. It just seems weird to posit “pure information”. It’s like saying there is a “pure” ocean wave, without water.

Well the issue is that DO, which is the fundamental EBT theory, contains numerous mental elements that are qualitative, not just quantitative. As such, you’d still have some kind of hard problem type issue since you have to explain how qualia arise from pure information. So IMO the mental must be fundamental in any ontology that wants to be compatible with the EBTs. I don’t think the same holds true for other categories of existence, such as matter, space and time, mathematical relations etc.

Nice! Thanks for the correction. Nothing is unfiltered.


I’m afraid this is a misreading of Dhp 1. It’s understandable, given that this is how it is usually translated. However, it is an ethical teaching, that says that acting with a good intention leads to good results and vice versa, and it has nothing to to do with idealism.

The translation problem is that the word mano is usually translated as “mind”. This is not incorrect, however mano, while in a general sense a synonym for citta, tends to be used more specifically in the sense of the active, volitional dimension of mind. And the verses at dhp 1 & 2 make it clear that is the intended meaning in this case.


Thanks for the comment about the translation of Dhammapada verse 1! I was referring to it indeed; not as a demonstration of idealism, but of phenomenological primacy of mind.

That is the topic of this discussion. You both @Javier and @sujato have argued physicalism and EBT are not compatible. If you could further elaborate on why mentioning the suttas, it would be enriching.

Even in some pluralistic interpretations, mind ceases all the time. The issue of rebirth is not an issue of the permanence of the same mind, but of a causal chain linking actions from past births tainted by craving and future births and feelings.
We don’t understand it and the Buddha didn’t explicitly explain how this mechanism works. So, as I’d mentioned, we can’t rule out the possibility of a physical causal chain, such as actions causing a chain of effects leading to the happening of a future birth of a new psychophysical aggregate.

Could be. But if you look at the simile itself, this is not what it is saying. There is no lit fire seen up flying in the air. I don’t think that is what the Buddha was referring to. If you observe the interaction of fire and wind, what wind can do is push it further away from its original source, like in the spread of wildfires. There is no fire independent from the combustible.

Idealism as proposed by Bernardo has the problem of dissociation. In the forms that propose many minds, there are the problems of communication and solipsism.
You won’t find a perfect metaphysics. And I think that is also related to the fact that reality is beyond what language can represent.

Yes. It matters, because it defines how we interact with the current culture and with people who might be interested in the message of the Buddha but might think that dualism/pluralism is outdated.

1 Like

Sorry I wasn’t too clear about this "does it matter? " of mine.

The major point is about the primary ontology of Buddha’s message — “this body is not yours … it is to be seen as something to be felt (experienced) (kāyo tumhākaṃ … vedaniyaṃ daṭṭhabbaṃ)”.

The other ontological point, is about turning the mano towards the origin (yoniso manasikara), so as to be able to see, “according to how it has come to be” (yathābhūta).
That is to say, to see the manifestation of the aggregates (khandhānaṃ pātubhāvo), the obtention of the fields of sensory experiences (āyatanānaṃ paṭilābho). In other words, to see with a liberated citta, how this has come to be (bhūtamidanti), so as to have an insight from knowledge, according to what have become (yathābhūtañāṇadassana).

Then does it really matters, if the citta is an emergent property of mano? — although the suttas do not seem somewhat, to lean towards that exclusive scenario.
What counts is before all, to discern how it (the dhamma,) has become (yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti). And most of all, to see that all this, is “not yours”.

As far as this emergent property of mind, from the body is concerned, so much has been said about it, that I don’t believe anyone could prove anything scientifically wise, being solely on one side.

The one/the many, idealism/materialism, essence/existence, final cause/formal cause, realism/nominalism, rationalism/empiricism, analytic/synthetic, noumena/phenomena, deduction/induction, consistency/correspondence, wave/particle, possible/actual, thought/action - to say the least - are parts of the same framework.
It all depends where you stop at — or what good you think, can (or could) come out of it.

1 Like

I’ve read a little about such theories. I’m not sure. One person argued that in contrast to conventional panpsychism and its combination problem, cosmopsychism might in contrast suffer from the decombination problem! :slight_smile:

Nothing approaching a metaphysics. In some ways, Chalmers has an earlier and simpler theory (not having a notion of “integration”): basically information processing where it is happening in the natural world comes with experience (not necessarily even mind or consciousness or such). A human has a lot more information processing going on than a mouse and a mouse has a lot more information processing going than a thermostat etc. but his theory would argue that even at low simple levels there is still some low-level simple kind of “experience” going in. He also has a kind of property dualism going on with regards to information and matter. He proposes thought experiments where he argues it is at least logically possible to construct a “zombie” person or a “zombie” universe that seems to function and behave as ours does but have no consciousness. Therefore, he argues, consciousness needs something extra, some extra property. He posits information or information processing as being this extra property. So he would not view consciousness as an emergent property really. I don’t find his argumentation on property dualism particularly convincing.

Physical reality does seem to obey well-defined laws (a kind of mathematical recipe), even if we don’t yet know all the details. People like Nick Bostrom have speculated that maybe we are in fact living in a simulation. Perhaps, but it does seem quite possible that we could simulate this entire universe if we had a big enough quantum computer. Is this universe just the unfolding of some vast program?

If our universe is a program, then what is it running on? Well, for physical reality we say, this thing we call the physical universe seems to obey these laws and, well, just is . Well, what’s different from saying, this universe seems to be a unfolding program and, well, just is ! :slight_smile:

Or some physicists, noting how finely tuned the physical constants are for producing life in this universe, argue this implies, using anthropic arguments, there must be a multiverse out there with universes with all kinds of physical laws and constants (and we just happen inevitably to be in one that can sustain life). Alternatively, perhaps all possible programs are running out there somewhere and we happen to be in one that can sustain life! I don’t really see the difference with regards these two points.

Some of the most cohesive mathematical theories of information (and randomness too) revolve around computer programs and relate to compression, e.g. Kolmogorov complexity where the measure of the complexity of a collection of data is the length of the shortest possible program that can reproduce that data.

Chalmers does some thought experiments with regard to qualia. One that comes to mind is the gradual replacing of a human brain neuron by neuron with some kind of silicon substitute that functionally does the same thing. I guess one could as easily do this with some kind of interface for the remaining part of the brain with a computer simulation of the earlier part. If one posits that a computer program or silicon substitute can not have qualia, then I guess will have a spectrum of possibilities ranging from full qualia to no qualia with possiblities in the middle where the person has some kind of “fading qualia", which Chalmers thinks is absurd. I think there’s something to this kind of argument. So I’m not sure that the medium really matters as long as the information and functionality is the same.

“Computational processes are abstract beings that inhabit computers.
As they evolve, processes manipulate other abstract things called data.
The evolution of a process is directed by a pattern of rules called a program.
People create programs to direct processes.
In effect, we conjure the spirits of the computer with our spells.
A computational process is indeed much like a sorcerer’s idea of a spirit.
It cannot be seen or touched. It is not composed of matter at all. However, it is very real.
Hal Abelson (Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science - MIT)”

Information is neither matter nor energy, but it is real. In some cases, it is embodied in matter (mano as brain), and in other cases, it is communicated as energy.
Information is neither matter nor energy, but it needs matter for its embodiment and energy for its communication.
Somewhat, information (the immaterial mind), is citta + vaci.

Another paralell can be made from abstract types and data structures.
The protocol implemented by the abstract type might somewhat be paralelled to paṭiccasamuppāda up to the nāmarūpa nidāna; while data structures would encompass the following links.

Chalmers - that might possibly be considered The 21st century philosopher - sees consciousness (the dual knowledge that has come to be, from the saṅkhārā in the saṅkhārā nidāna), as a basic law of the universe; at the fundamental level, like gravity for instance.
I agree with Chalmers, in that consciousness at the viññāṇa nidāna level, is a consciousness that has not yet become visible (viññāṇa anidassana).
This consciousness, which had given rise from the original avijjā & saṅkhārā, to the nāmarūpa & saḷāyatana nidānā - therefore to sense-consciousness - and had become visible (nidarśana) for the first time, is now nurtered (and becoming visible/manifested, actualized,) by all the possibilities (wave) emanating from the mano and the ceto.

There is both a downward and upward causation.
Emergence from the consciousness in the viññāṇa nidāna; and emergence from mano and ceto (the tainted citta by the āsavā).
And there is some kind of a loop, going on between those two.


How do you observe it if it is not visible ?

There are two answers to your question:

When one intends (ceteti), or have underlying tendencies (anusayā), this becomes a support (ārammaṇa) for the maintenance (ṭhitiyā) of consciousness.
When there is a support, there is the establishment (patiṭṭhā) of consciousness.

  1. As long as there is the maintenance of consciousness, there is no visibility of that consciousness nidana.
    The same way that, with a tainted citta, you can’t see what has come to be from the nāmarūpa nidāna; the same way you can’t see the previous viññāṇa nidāna.

  2. However, when there is maintenance of consciousness, and the establishment of consciousness, then this conciousness becomes visible as sense-consciousness.

In other words, to observe viññāṇa at the viññāṇa nidāna level, you should have an untainted, liberated citta.