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

I think this is an interesting point that’s worth expanding on: is the Dhamma true because it is an accurate description of reality, i.e. it tells us truthfully “how things actually are”, or is it true because of the effects it has on the mind, i.e. applying the Dhamma in the mind it results in mental experiences like letting go, the end of suffering, and so on?

Anatta is an example:

  1. is the phrase “all things are not-self” true because that’s how things actually are; this is a fact about things that just is, an aspect that’s just encoded into things irrespective of human cognition, waiting there to be discovered by those wise enough to see…

  2. Or is it true because contemplating anatta, investigating it with the mind and understanding it has the potential to make a certain type of conscious experience (suffering) go away?

The first one is a correspondence theory of truth, the second one is a pragmatist theory of truth. They are not mutually exclusive of course.

Counterpoint: a map works because it deliberately misrepresents and distorts reality. It’s the misrepresentation and distortion that makes the map useful and an effective tool for getting from A to B.

What about many different maps that all misrepresent reality, but are effective at leading us to different destinations?

I don’t think I’ll ever feel 100 % confident about any particular metaphysical framework tho :man_shrugging: :slight_smile:

When speaking of reality, we should limit it to human cognition. “For it is in this fathom-long carcass with its perception and mind that I describe the world, its origin, its cessation, and the practice that leads to its cessation.” (AN 4.45) For all practical purposes, the world and our experience of it are the same.

The Buddha’s claim is that you can have an insight that makes it clear that there is nothing permanent in your mental makeup:

“So you should truly see any kind of form [feeling/perception/choices/consciousness] at all—past, future, or present; internal or external; coarse or fine; inferior or superior; far or near: all form—with right understanding: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’" (SN 22.59)

Again, if there were a self, your investigation of nonself would eventually come up against a barrier. If you did see a self, you nonself investigation would have to stop at that point. No such point is mentioned in the suttas.


This might be hard to believe for scientists, but speaking mainly from a position of faith, the foundation of the Whole material cosmos from the human body to a galaxy is the four elements. They cannot be seen, there existence has to be understood with pañña. They are dynamic entities that give rise to the infinite complexity. This is just a simile, water has just four phases but just take a look at the complexity that arises from them, from rain to rivers, hail to snow crystals, waterfalls to vortices.

Interesting little sutta,

Mendicants, the earth element is impermanent, perishing, and changing. The water element, the fire element, the air element, the space element, and the consciousness element are impermanent, perishing, and changing.

Someone who has faith and confidence in these principles is called a follower by faith. …”

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I do find physicalist theories usually very concrete (specific rules and predictions) as opposed to something like a “dynamic field of mentation”. That’s not to say idealism is wrong. It’s not a big step to fit things like rebirth and psychic powers into an idealistic framework. It’s a big struggle in a physicalist setting (even if it’s souped up to incorporate consciousness in some way as in panpsychism or David Chalmer’s approach). If consciousness is related to information and information is conserved maybe there is something like a constant sea of consciousness that just keeps getting recycled and a kind of causality too. It’s hard to reconcile that, though, with rebirth (an individual thread of continuity) as described in the suttas (the same holds for psychic powers). Though there’s a lot we don’t know about the universe (it may be weirder than we imagine :slight_smile: ). However, I suppose sprinkling a sufficient dash of idealism into the mix (as seems to be your approach) does seem reasonable in explanatory terms. It has struck me that perhaps Buddhism might be a kind of half-way house in some fashion between idealism and physicalism (much in the way it’s not eternalism or annihalationism).

But is that insight true because it’s an accurate description of the stuff that makes up human experience, or because of the effects that insight has on one’s own experience?

For example, to my understanding, the counterargument against Ajahn Thanissaro’s ‘just a strategy’ argument is essentially “since the strategy works, it must capture an aspect of reality”.

Another counterargument would be to jettison the idea of correspondence completely (to go full pragmatist). In this world, there are only strategies. These strategies don’t correspond to anything, but they still produce vastly different results. Here ‘truth’ is simply another name for ‘result’ of some strategy.

In a fully pragmatist world, there can be no ‘just a strategy’, because there is nothing outside strategy that’s better.

In a fully pragmatist world, perceiving non-self is true because it leads to extinguishment. All theories of self are false because they produce samsara.

For example, someone could say to me “on a distant planet in a distant galaxy, there lies a pink crystal that glows with a warm light. That crystal is your true self”.

I would not be able to disprove that. But perhaps (with enough time spent on the N8P) I would be able to know “if I take up that belief, that belief will fuel existence. With continued existence, I will be born, age and die; I will suffer”.


The point is to differentiate clearly what the Buddha experienced directly and explained and what are later (and our) speculations about what it means. I’m arguing this second is not important and can be left unestablished.

An example to illustrate what I mean. Suppose we are a people from the southern area of Norway many centuries ago. There are rumours about a strange light dancing in the sky, but we never saw it and we are not sure whether it exists or not.
Someone coming back from a hunt up north tells us about his direct experience of seeing the northern lights, and says they are seen in a particular time of the year if one travels north. Also, he says that if one travels further south, one is free from ever seeing the northern lights.

After that person dies, we’re still undecided about what exactly is the mechanism of how the northern lights happen.
Some say it is the shimmering armour of the Valkyries going to war, some say it is a bad omen coming from dead spirits. Some others say it somehow comes from the sun light.
It might seem improbable that it comes from sun light, especially because it is seen in the night sky, and maybe it is more plausible that it is the glow of the Valkyrie’s armour. But those people would have no means to establish which version is true.
And besides, none of these interpretations make any difference in what they had heard from the man who had directly experienced the northern lights: if you travel north, you’ll see them. If you travel south, you’re free from them.

Now: the person who saw directly is the Buddha. Norther light is cyclic birth. Travelling north is clinging. Travelling south is non-clinging.
The Valkyries, dead spirits, sun light, etc. are the various theories about how rebirth happens: it’s a transference of information much like the hypothetical uploading of consciousness into an AI; it’s the continuity of a stream of thoughts in a universal mind; it’s the continuity of a phenomenal consciousness untouched by the death of the body, etc.
I think we simply don’t have the knowledge to establish any of these hypothesis (nor to deny any). And none of these make any difference in the message that craving leads to birth and liberation is achieved by non-clinging.

In that regard, we can’t establish that EBT is against the contemporary emergentist theories of the mind.
Let’s say that the ancient theory that the northern lights are the glow of the goddesses armour is correspondent to the theory that rebirth is the transfer of a conscious stream due to physical causes. Centuries ago, there would be no way to deny that. One can’t establish that the northern lights are not the glow of Valkyrie’s armour before one actually knows the mechanism that produce it.
Those are my only two points: (1) a recognition of our ignorance about the details about rebirth, (2) that this does not make any difference in following the practical message the Buddha actually gave about clinging, non-clinging and rebirth.

The majority here seems to take for granted that EBTs are against physicalist metaphysics. I see that as correspondent to an ancient Norwegian establishing that the northern lights are not the bad omen from dead spirits or that they are not due to radiation from the sun interacting with the atmosphere. And that leads one to deny the theories of other contemporary fields of knowledge. IMO, unnecessarily and probably causing harm to the spread of the message of the Buddha about how to attain freedom from samsara.

Hi, @lankaputra.
The presentation of four elements is about particular perceived qualities of things. They are not for or against contemporary theories about chemical elements.

Besides, when describing the 6 elements of a person, the Buddha is clearly pointing to perceived qualities of compounded objects, and not to fundamental indivisible particles. Take a look at MN 140.


What, bhikkhu, is the earth element? The earth element may be either internal or external. What is the internal earth element? Whatever internally, belonging to oneself, is solid, solidified, and clung-to, that is, head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, contents of the stomach, feces, or whatever else internally, belonging to oneself, is solid, solidified, and clung-to: this is called the internal earth element."

Nobody would argue that heart wouldn’t also have the element of fire, or that bone marrow wouldn’t also have the element of water.
Similarly you can understand the 5th and 6th elements as perceived qualities of compounded objects, not fundamental realities.

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I respectfully disagree.

I think you misunderstood me. I am not for or against contemporary theories. What I am saying is, what ever is detected by scientists in their instruments is a play of the elements in the instruments and what ever is interacting with it. Interpretation and trying to make senses out of it is up to them.

Let me try another simile, if we take a computer simulation, however complex, it can be reduced down to ‘ones’ and ‘zeros’. What i am saying is something like that but not quite.

The 4 elements referring to qualities only doesn’t mean they aren’t ultimate realities :wink:

Right. Neither that they are.
One can understand the suttas both ways and it makes no difference.
Later interpretation came up with a theory of atoms of water, earth, air and fire. I personally don’t think it’s so reasonable that, in case the world is even made of fundamental particles, they are exactly those 4 qualities percieved by the human mind.

It would mean that as qualities of experience they cannot be broken down any further, thus being an ultimate category.

When we are dealing with suffering, we are dealing with “the stuff that makes up human experience”. Because this is so, we cannot have a strategy for overcoming suffering that is divorced from the reality of suffering. Reality and strategy cannot be separated.

I will give you a simple analogy. If you need to shop for groceries, you need a strategy for how to get to the supermarket. This strategy needs to be informed by the actual location of the supermarket. Reality and strategy need to go hand in hand. You could make a similar argument for almost anything we do in life. The spiritual life is no exemption.

A big part of the problem is that we already have an idea of the nature of existence. We are not blank slates on which a strategy can be applied. In particular, we automatically have a sense of a self. If all you have is a strategy, that strategy will act in the service of your sense of self. Let’s see how this might work.

The contemplation of impermanence is one of the main “strategies” for spiritual growth advocated in the suttas. Even if we assume a self, this strategy would actually work for a while. Most things in our experience are impermanent, and it’s obvious that these things have nothing to do with a permanent essence. If we see the true nature of these impermanent phenomena, we might be able to abandon craving and attachment to them, and thereby approach the supposed deeper reality of an essential self. It is not unreasonable to think that you might be able to realise this self through such a strategy.

In practice this would mean seeing the sensual world as impermanent and problematic. You then abandon attachment to this world and enter the world of samādhi. This world of samādhi has all the characteristics that fulfil your deepest desires: a perfectly content state of nondual bliss. And, crucially, it seems to align perfectly with your sense of self. It seems obvious that this state will carry on indefinitely after you die. There is no motivation for you to go any deeper. You have reached a supermarket, but unknown to you, it happens to be the wrong one.

So, what you need is a corrective to your powerful disposition to experience a sense of self. You need something to guide you to go beyond your own bias. This is where the Buddha’s more ontologically oriented statements come in. Even if you have roughly the right strategy, you need clarity about the nature of reality to ensure that you use that strategy wisely. Only in this way will you end up at the right supermarket.

Strategy and an accurate description of certain aspects of reality must go hand-in-hand.

We just need to be careful with what we mean by physicalism. If you have an idea of physicalism that is compatible with rebirth, then I have no problems with it. In the end, I prefer to remain philosophically agnostic.


Everything conceived as self or other occurs in the transformation of consciousness.~ Vasubandhu (Thirty-verses)

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Yes, it’s the main objection Madhyamikans make about Yogacara thought. In debate, Yogacarins can be forced to admit that consciousness is an underlying reality because consciousness is what generates karma, conditioning, and thus everything else. If its reified, it ends up as idealism. What’s really interesting, though, is that as an idea, his alaya-vijnana anticipates modern psychology’s concept of the unconscious mind.


Right. There’s another way of illustrating my point besides the way karma is explained as a creative transaction between the mind and the world.

When a fiction writer comes up with an idea for a story, they have some basic decisions to make before they begin. One of them is perspective: First person? Third person limited? Third person omniscient?

The decision is pivotal to how the story is told. It sets important parameters for how much the narrator knows about what is happening in the story, which in turn determines how much the reader will know and how they’ll learn it. A first person narrative is a much simpler way to write a story. There’s just one character’s perspective to deal with. Everything outside of that protagonist’s experience is out of bounds.

The third-person omniscient perspective can be a fun way to tell a story. You can create high drama switching between plot lines, but it gets complicated really fast, trying to make all the events and different perspectives fit together well enough that the reader isn’t lost by the inconsistencies that crop up. And they do. It’s guaranteed that the writer will spend 10 times more time editing to fix all the inconsistencies introduced as they wrote several intertwined plots. But you can tell the exact same story with the same events and themes from just one point of view.

To me, Buddhists chose to use a simpler first-person narrative style of philosophy because trying to explain some of these issues is intractable, and the effort becomes pointless when taken too far. They concluded that it’s a mirage. It looks like a fruitful endeavor, but it isn’t.

So, it doesn’t necessarily mean to me that Buddhists must be idealists that they focus on explaining how to transform the mind. I look at the EBTs as explaining how a practitioner’s story unfolds more than I do as explaining existence or psychology. Later Buddhist philosophers did try to build fleshed-out systems, and I think they were somewhat hampered by the limited material they had to work with in the EBTs. They weren’t designed for that.


I think his view is a bit more nuanced than just a permanent mind. I’m not done with his Idea of the world book at the moment, but I know that in many of his interviews he has explained how what he is trying to do in his metaphysics is give a better story than physicalism. He even outright states that he is “probably wrong” in the details of his theory, just that it is a step in the right direction. Of course, I am not arguing for a straight up adoption of Kastrup’s analytical idealism either, any Buddhist idealism will have to be distinctly Buddhist in that it will need to provide a theory of rebirth and karma as well as be non-essentialist and so on.

I respect agnosticism of course. But I also don’t see anything wrong with giving interesting metaphysical accounts as a teaching tool, as long as one realizes these are just useful ways of thinking about the world, not absolute systems. Like I said, I am not arguing for Buddhists to all come together and develop the “One Metaphysics to Rule them All”. Rather, what I am saying is that it might be useful to promote non-physicalist views as a counterpoint to physicalism within a Buddhist framework as a skillful way of showing people there are other ways of doing metaphysics which allow for karma and rebirth quite comfortably.

One can only hope! I think materialism is a very harmful way of thinking about things. Like Heidegger said, if you think everything is just stuff, you are going to see and experience it as things to be manipulated, as affordances “for me”.

Sure, but whatever physical substratum you pick would have to be analogous to the biological system which gave rise to consciousness. A computer is not analogous to a human body, as such, it can only run a simulation of consciousness, not consciousness itself. In the same manner, if you run a simulation of my kidneys on a computer, you cannot expect the computer to urinate on the floor as it runs the simulation.

I am not arguing that there is a permanent mind moving from birth to birth (indeed, this is Sati’s heresy from MN 38 so its quite a claim!). That is a total misrepresentation of the type of idealism I would approve of.

I think the point I am trying to make is that it only seems concrete from the physicalist perspective. After all, the only thing we really have access to is our experience. When we make measurements, observe an experiment, look through a telescope and calculate data and so on, the actual “concreteness” is all in the mind. The idea that this means there is a mind independent material world is already an abstraction or inference from our very immediate experience. It might be a very easy and natural seeming inference, but it is still an inference. Idealism just says its all upside down. :upside_down_face:

A reified consciousness would be a mistaken interpretation of the Yogacara system IMO. After all, the three natures are all empty and dependently arisen, as explained in all Yogacara texts. Not only that, but Yogacarins take great pains to say that all words and concepts are not really the ultimate, and that all explanations of reality are provisional. The real Ultimate Reality in Yogacara is, as the Samdhinirmocana says in chapter 2 (Xuanzang version, Keenan trans):

The sphere that is internally realized without descriptions cannot be spoken and severs expressions. Ultimate meaning, laying to rest all disputes, transcends all the descriptive marks of reasoning.


To establish an idealist or a physicalist metaphysics is, in my opinion, ultimately a futile speculative effort. It’s really like guessing if the northern lights are this or that without any basis to do so, as in the example I’ve given above.

Now, even in objective idealism there is an external world independent from your or from my mind. And all the rest about how the world functions can be seen as exactly how the world works from the perspective of a physicalist. The only difference is in the assertion of what these categories such as mind or matter ultimately really are outside of our categorization of them (which is something we completely don’t know!). It is a difference that makes no difference.

They do, and I agree; but mistaken interpretations happen all the time both among proponents of a system and its critics. I think the trouble was at the point when the self/other distinction is eliminated in Yogacara theory. What’s left is still consciousness. Madhyamikans seized on this in debates to prove that they didn’t apply emptiness properly, if a remember correctly. I also seem to recall there was a “corrected” version of the Yogacara system that addressed those objections.

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I disagree for the reasons I’ve given above.

Except that physicalism or materialism cannot really allow for karma and rebirth, not in the classic Buddhist sense as I’ve argued above.

Sure, under these assumptions. But this doesn’t affect the point. There’s nothing irrational about a purely physicalist theory of rebirth; such theories are commonly postulated in sci-fi and futurist thought. Why is it that physicalist fantasies of the future so often end up with people transferring their consciousness to computers?

I’d go so far as to say that, since the laws of thermodynamics must apply, and information is material, then any physicalist theory of consciousness entails that some form of rebirth is possible.