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

Sorry if this has been mentioned and discussed previously, but how do you interpret this passage at
DN 27 #10.5 to #10.10:

“As the cosmos expands, sentient beings mostly pass away from that host of radiant deities and come back to this realm.
Here they are mind-made (manomayā), feeding on rapture, self-luminous, moving through the sky, steadily glorious, and they remain like that for a very long time.
Now, one of those beings was reckless. Thinking, ‘Oh my, what might this be?’ they tasted the solid nectar with their finger.”

Here we have beings that are ‘mind-made’ but still manage to think and act. This implies that cognition and consciousness are not necessarily dependent on a physical brain.


And this is what all ontologies ultimately have to explain, physicalism only seems attractive because it provides a solid explanation of how this works, however, it utterly fails in explaining how consciousness arises from the physical and thus cannot be a correct account. Because of this, we now have some other options: neutral monism (sometimes called dual aspect monism), panpsychism, idealism, dualism, and some form of pluralism (more than two ontological primaries). The suttas don’t take a hard stance on these options, though I think one can rule out dualism.

This is generally termed Objective Idealism. Of course, you can have non-theistic accounts of this view, as well as more process based accounts of it. So I would not immediately rule out all options. A world mind need not be eternalistic and unchanging, it could be like a constantly changing ocean of mentatal processes, Schopenahuer’s Will comes to mind, or some interpretations of Nietzsche’s Will to Power.

This is the other idealist option, sometimes called “subjective” idealism. It’s an interesting view, but I think it has issues, because it seems like the external world is there whether or not there are minds thinking about it. After all, the universe existed for aeons before sentient beings arose. Of course, this theory is itself an abstraction which sentient beings came up with themselves, but its empirically supported. Also, one could at least conceive that there are universes without sentient beings, how are these possible? Indeed, the issue is so serious, that subjective idealists like Berkeley often have to posit a God to support the external world.

I think then that the most parsimonious explanation is that the universe is just a field or ocean of experience (which is not-self and always in flux). Physical objects and beings are just the congealed, individuated or hardened forms of these conscious patterns. This view is not alien to ancient India of course and can be seen in the Upanishads which influenced early Buddhism (and perhaps is referenced in some suttas, like Agañña). Of course, a Buddhist version of this would not be eternalistic or see the world mind as a God or as pure bliss and so on.

So far as I can see, all of this needs to be taken into account if we are going decide on the relationship between mind and matter. In the end, we might be better off leaving those leaves on the forest floor.

I am certainly sympathetic to this agnostic position, and it has been my position for some time. The reason I have recently changed my mind a little bit on this is that I have begun thinking how its possible that physicalism / materialism managed to become such a dominant force in our world. I think its because they were able to appropriate the mystique of the power of the physical sciences to explain the external world and make it seem like their metaphysics is allied with this (protip its not, its just a metaphysical interpretation of the scientific data). This is why I think I had such a hard time accepting rebirth and karma, and it was a huge obstacle for me. I think that providing a probable and rational metaphysics can help some people overcome that mystique. Now, I am not saying whatever metaphysics we come up with should be some absolute doctrinal view. It would just be a skillful way of saying: look, physicalism is just one metaphysical theory, and its not the best one either. There are other ways to interpret the world which are even better and which easily allow for karma and rebirth.

We just don’t live in ancient India anymore, our intellectual culture as it is at the moment is dominated (though this is slowly changing again) by physicalist presuppositions. So I am not sure if leaving all the same leaves the Buddha left on the forest floor is as skillful right now. That doesn’t mean we have to pick them up, but maybe we can lean down and take a peek and this might help with right view. :smile:


True, what I mean here was that, there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism for continuing on to a next life if physicalism is true, for once the body breaks up, these constituent parts are not going to be part of some life process that has continuity with the previous life.

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I would agree with that. Kamma requires mental dhammas to carry over, not physical ones.

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I’m totally for an agnostic position! And my point is exactly about that: questioning assumptions about those leaves out there in the forest.

In the last few weeks, I’ve studying Pramana (Buddhist epistemology developed by Dignaga and Dharmakirti). One big use of Pramana is to attain a valid inferential cognition which is endowed with certainty. But until now it quite doesn’t do the trick for me, because there are a lot of assumptions which can’t be proven if a person is not omniscient (for example you can’t know that there is always fire when you see smoke, especially nowadays with all those chemical reactions of theatrical smoke).
Their description of the types of invalid cognition has helped me, though, especially to recognize when I’m just wondering about something I don’t understand, which helps me refrain from affirming anything about it.

So… as you can see. I have a loooooong way until the elimination of doubt.

Yes! It is important to identify physicalism as metaphysics. And not the only possible one nowadays.

That’s exactly what I’m questioning. Why do we assume that only because physicalism is prevalent nowadays, as part of contemporary culture, this means that there is no space for Kamma and rebirth? How can a nonbuddhist physicalist be so sure that there is no continuity of the aggregates carried on by physical causality? Did that person trace all the results of all actions of a dead person and their effects on all newborn beings? And how can anyone be so sure about any sort of metaphysics like idealism, dualism or physicalism, or just about things one doesn’t know directly, like the working of Kamma?

How can you be so sure?

Same question.

I can’t remember exactly which commentary explains this (from Buddhagosa? I can’t remember, sorry!): a mind-made body is interpreted as being a subtle form, so it is not immaterial. And it is created by the mind (thus the name).
Another one, “Made of perception”, is an expression of which I didn’t find any clarification yet.

Again you seem to be implying that this is the case because psychological studies are not helping. The success of the cognitive sciences shouldn’t be compared with such a different field as physics, and shouldn’t be measured by the amount of mental suffering present in the world.
It should be measured by there being an increase or no increase of knowledge regarding mental illness, regarding how the brain works, etc. In that regard, yes, there is a general increase of knowledge. It’s not about particular specific successful cases.

Do you realize the same rhetoric could be used against the Dhamma? Since the XIX century, there are more and more Dhamma teachings available in English. And more and more people follow the Three Jewels*. But still, there is more and more mental illness in the english-speaking world.
Do you see how this logic doesn’t really make sense to invalidate the Dhamma?

(* obs.: according to Pew Reserach Center, there are less and less Buddhists in total, year by year.)

Thanks. Indeed she is. And I agree with a lot of the criticism you have about the effectiveness of individual therapy without changing the living conditions of people. If the social structure produces mental illness, it’s quite hard o change that without changing that very social structure.

Because the very logic of the metaphysics of physicalism do not allow for rebirth and kamma, at least not in the way it is understood in early Buddhism. Physicalism holds that the mind is just what the brain does. Once one dies, the brain is no more, broken up into parts and eaten by animals and microbes. The classic view of rebirth and kamma hold that after death, there is some continuity of consciousness that takes up another body. But if consciousness is just a function of the brain, then nothing of it can move on, it is totally annihilated for that individual, since it is like the software running on a computer. Why is this so hard to understand? Let me turn this question around, how do you think its even possible for physicalism to accommodate for rebirth?

And how can anyone be so sure about any sort of metaphysics like idealism, dualism or physicalism, or just about things one doesn’t know directly, like the working of Kamma?

I never said that I am absolutely sure, I just think that non-physicalist theories like Idealism are more reasonable and have a better explanatory power than physicalism. Not only that, but it allows for rebirth and kamma, which physicalism does not.

The reason I think this is useful is that if we are going to reject physicalism, I think it is useful to have a basic theory of what a competing ontology could look like that also allows for kamma and rebirth. If we don’t, I fear kamma and rebirth will be hard to take seriously in certain quarters who already think physicalism provides the best ontological explanation.

The EBT don’t say that they are made of subtle matter but of mind. But even if we accept the explanation of the commentaries, then do you assume that they have a brain made of subtle matter, identical to the brain made of gross matter for us humans?

Even if they do, it would still mean that thinking and consciousness is not necessarily dependent on a gross physical/material brain. Doesn’t this prove that mind is not always an emergent property of the body? (unless you include the subtle material body in the generic term ‘body’… but in that case this goes beyond what scientific materialists state when they say that mind is an emergent property from the body ,i.e. the gross physical body).

PS: I might have missed your entire point, if so I’m sorry. I must say that your level of debate and philosophical references is way beyond my knowledge. Makes me think that I shouldn’t engage at all and just be a spectator :grin: :pray:

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You are probably right. My personal experience, however, is quite different. I have never had a physicalist conviction, yet I felt a sense of validation when I came across the anti-physicalist arguments of David Chalmers, Thomas Nagel, and Bernardo Kastrup. To this extent I agree with your point. My problem arises when the same philosophers, especially Kastrup, try to produce a metaphysics of their own. Criticising an existing paradigm may be hard, but establishing a new philosophical outlook is immeasurably harder. You need to see the world in the right way, so as to base your speculations on something solid. Kastrup uses empirical evidence, internal coherence, and parsimony as some of the main criteria for his views. But these are only useful in so far as they properly and fully reflect reality. And from a Buddhist perspective, he fails this test.

The main problem is his postulation of a mind-at-large, which he seems to regard as a permanent backdrop to our individual experiences. He argues that this idea is parsimonious. Maybe, but parsimony only works if the theory fits reality. The most parsimonious theory of all is that there is nothing, yet that is clearly wrong. The lesson is that one should not lean too heavily on parsimony. From a Buddhist point of view, a permanent mind-at-large can never be experienced; moreover, it can be known through insight that such a thing cannot exist. Parsimonious or not, such fundamental insights need to be incorporated into any valid philosophy.

There are other lesser problems with Kastrup’s philosophy. His idea of dissociation explains individuation, but not how there can be continuity over many births. Perhaps his ideas can be tweaked to accommodate this, but that requires that he sees the necessity of doing so. Again, for your philosophy to reflect reality, you need to see the world in the right way.

Then there is the additional problem that even Buddhists often cannot agree on what Buddhism is. How are we to build a satisfactory philosophy based on divergent ideas of the world? I am afraid much time will be wasted. At the moment I prefer to remain philosophically agnostic.

The change seems to me to be quite fast, almost as if we are approaching a tipping point. I think a number of secular Buddhist, especially those who reject rebirth because they adhere to the physicalist paradigm, will soon be left behind, without a proper footing either in Buddhism or the new emerging philosophy. It shows the potential danger of being too wedded to the contemporary zeitgeist and not having enough appreciation for perennial wisdom. Like any generation, we are too hubristic, lazily thinking of ourselves as more evolved, rational, and enlightened than previous generations. More respect for the insights of past generations would serve us extremely well.


In a similar vein, it also makes me think about the danger of being the creator/spokesperson of a spiritual/philosophical movement (any movement): once one’s name becomes associated with a certain set of views, it must be incredibly hard to change one’s own view. That insight came to me about Stephen Batchelor a few years ago (I hope no one will mind me using him as an example). I suppose it would be hard for someone like him, who’s name and reputation is so associated with ‘secular buddhism’, to one day change his mind and say ‘Hey guys, I now believe rebirth is real, forget what I said for so many years, I was wrong’. I’m not saying that he couldn’t do that, I’m just thinking that it would be incredibly hard for anyone in such a position. In that sense, it’s much easier for someone unknown to change one’s views.

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In what sense they continue? The definiton of death includes breaking up of the aggregates:

Yā tesaṃ tesaṃ sattānaṃ tamhā tamhā sattanikāyā cuti cavanatā bhedo antaradhānaṃ maccu maraṇaṃ kālakiriyā khandhānaṃ bhedo kaḷevarassa nikkhepo,
idaṃ vuccati maraṇaṃ.

The passing away, perishing, disintegration, demise, mortality, death, decease, breaking up of the aggregates, and laying to rest of the corpse of the various sentient beings in the various orders of sentient beings.
This is called death.

SN 12.2

Yes, the “aggregates”, so why single out rupa? The aggregates break up (in the sense of a single continuity aka a “life”), but they continue in the sense of a stream of conditions. What takes rebirth is not separate from rupa. This idea stems from the fallacy that rupa is the body, or matter more generally, and it leads to a mind/body dualism. Rupa is much more subtle than that.


I think that is true for common-or-garden varieties of physicalism, but not of all possible theories. An obvious case would be uploading consciousness to a computer. A physicalist could assert that consciousness is an emergent property of matter, but it need not be an emergent property of this specific matter. There is nothing irrational about supposing that the same consciousness can be based on different material substrata.

I’m aware that rupa can mean something along the lines of “appearance” in the Upanishads but in the suttas isn’t it more along the lines of matter, through it being defined as that which can be deformed etc Bhante?

An instance of a neural network or a gene is just an idea, a perception. A neural network that recognizes cats is literally a perception and it is made by training it to perceive cats. Trained neural networks have no physical form whatsoever. They just need physical form to manifest their innate perception. Neural nets are made by conditioning. A neural net copied to a file is indistinguishable from a neural net sent to the deepest reaches of space to return after eons. It is the same neural net. It will still recognize cats. And if a monkey typed on a keyboard and happened to randomly type in that neural net, it would still be the same neural net made of perception. And it would still recognize cats.

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Buddha’s teaching of cyclic birth is not about a permanent mind moving around from birth to birth. The mind is always taught as dependent on conditions. If mind, matter or both are primary, that makes no difference whatsoever to Buddha’s exposition about suffering and liberation from suffering.
How can physicalism accommodate rebirth? I don’t know. I only know that I don’t know that it can’t accommodate it (that sounded Socratic… hahahaha). The only thing I know is that the Buddha said he remembered countless of his own past lives and that he saw past lives of other beings and how their births are conditioned by kamma. In that, I have great confidence.

That’s an example. We could have many other such speculations: about how time works, about how intentions create a chain of cause and effect that conditions feelings in future lives of this or other realms, etc. But those would be just that: speculations.

Similarly, we could speculate that there’s only a universal mind and one continuity of births is a congealment of a sequence of thoughts, feelings, etc. floating around in this universal mind. Or we could speculate, like in @Ceisiwr’s diagram, that there is a phenomenal consciousness which is like a voyeur watching what happens in the physical world and it’s functional consciousness, without ever affecting this world or being affected by it (and thus it continues from birth to birth). Or we could speculate that there are separate parallel streams of moments of consciousness and moments of material things, and those condition one another.

I don’t think anymore that rejecting or accepting physicalism (or idealism, or dualism, etc.) is relevant for the Dhamma. Maybe it is even an effort which is detrimental to the Dhamma in the modern world.

I don’t assume that. I don’t assume physicalism also, just to be clear.
And who knows how the other realms work? I barely understand our human world. What is a subtle form? Is it made out of the same fields as the gross matter we know (strong and weak nuclear force, eletromagnetic, etc.)?

Good question. What is rupa? If it is that which can be deformed, does it include eletromagnetic waves, for example?

I’ve always been puzzled by what the phrase “breaking up of the aggregates” SuttaCentral actually means, given that the aggregates include form, feeling, perception, choices, consciousness In that context, where the other aggregates are experiences and processes, even form could be argued to be what is experienced, rather than “matter”.

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I’m not sure electromagnetic waves have ever been defined as “matter”. The forces are partly what lead to the development of physicalism as a monist theory I believe. In terms of the suttas and the Abhidhamma i’m not sure how the forces would be classified.

It seems to me unfortunate (speaking as a Physicist) that other knowledge systems feel the need to validate themselves by taking on the “science” label, and that they are, therefore, measured by whether or not one can use that knowledge system for “engineering” some outcome. With the theories of quantum mechanics and so on we can make accurate predictions, and engineer semiconductor devices, lasers, and various other things that our modern technology is based on. I would caution against thinking that this success means that physics “understands reality”. We just have cool models that generally work well.

So I’m a little saddened when the proponents of various knowledge systems, such as indigenous knowledge, or Dhamma, want to attach a “science” label. Luckily there are some stalwarts, such as colleagues in History or Classics, who resist the temptation to rebrand themselves as “Historical Scientists”.


Well, the basic definition includes heat, which is energy, so it is certainly broader than “matter”. But more than that it includes any physical property, such as color, distance, or position, and it also includes such properties as perceived by the mind. If you imagine a house, that’s rupa, since it has the properties of color and shape, which are physical properties.

Good to know. History is useful because it’s history, it shouldn’t have to pretend to be science.


Yes, and I do hope that Dhamma practitioners, indigenous peoples, etc can resist “science envy”, and promote their knowledge systems on their own terms.

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