Two Views of Mind

The following article is from the Winter, 1998 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

Abhidharma and Brain Science

by Christopher de Charms 250 pp. #TWVIMI $14.95

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This book presents a clear and readily understandable overview of perception, thought, and awareness in Tibetan Buddhist psychology and in Western neuroscience.

In this ground-breaking work, Christopher deCharms lays out the Buddhist theory of perception side-by-side with the scientific view arising from recent discoveries of Western neuroscience on the brain activity of human cognition. He discovers insights from each system that may suggest exciting new approaches to perennial problems that the other has not been able to resolve.

Directed to non-specialists, the approach is not to seek vague similarities between eastern and western ideas but to focus on the differences between the two traditions in methodology, assumptions, and purpose. The two systems are beautifully complementary in the different areas of mind that they place their major emphasis upon, and thus in the conclusions that they are able to draw. It is precisely these differences which lead to the possibility of each tration learning from the other, and bringing the insights from two major approaches to understanding the mind together.

Two Views of Mind opens the door to a new era of fertile dialogue between two great wisdom traditions by its innovative approach to the way Buddhism and Western science should be thinking about each other.

Included in the book are interviews with H.H. the Dalai Lama, Gen Damcho, Kamtrul Rinpoche, and Lati Rinpoche.

Christopher deChanns is a cognitive neuroscientist at the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco. His work focuses on how perceptions, thoughts, and subjective experiences can arise from the biological machinations of the brain. This question centers on what it means to be aware, both at the level of experience and at the level of the underlying neural processes. He has also investigated the understanding of mind arising from the traditions of Tibetan medicine and Tibetan psychology by working and studying with a number of Tibetan physicians and lamas.

Here is an excerpt:

Awareness is not physical. You can only have a concept of it when you are looking inside. Out there you will never find it, it has to be inside. Thus it is not physical.

It is not part of the physical universe because it is inside. You can't point to the place where it is. You look and you see it there, but it is not like something in the physical universe where you can point and say, Oh yes, there it is. It's over here, and it's over there. In that sense it is a non-dimensional, non-physical thing. You can think about it, but it is not locatable. Say, for example, that one is getting irritated. If you say, Okay, where is it? It is unlocatable. If it were something physical you would be able to stop and point and say, It is there. Similarly, you look out and you have a clear awareness of something out there, generated through the eyes, and if you say, Where is the awareness? It is unfindable. There is an awareness, but it is unfindable.

Similarly with neurologists themselves, there is no possibility that their investigations into the physical world are ever going to locate an awareness in that sense, because it is not a part of the physical world. It is non-physical. Say you are looking in the distance, you are having a looking in the distance awareness. Clearly the awareness is not inside the eye, nor outside the eye, nor in the distance, nor anywhere else. It is non-locatable in the physical universe in that sense. It is not to be pointed to anywhere.

CdC: I just wanted to comment that I think it is interesting that although we neuroscientists can find the hardware parts, and even find the activity which corresponds to the function of an awareness, I think that it is very true that having done that we have not found the awareness itself, although we may have found a counterpart.

[I would like to elaborate on this to avoid a potentially serious confusion regarding the argument that awareness is non-physical. I personally believe beyond any doubt that the functions of awareness can be localized within the brain, and I believe that the brain is the physical seat of awareness. In my interpretation the argument presented above is in no way necessarily at odds with this understanding and does not necessarily suggest that there is something extra, beyond the brain, which mediates awareness somehow. The argument suggests to me that the awareness from the subjective viewpoint itself will not be found in the brain (or anywhere else), not that its substrate cannot be found. In a somewhat parallel example, water is clearly the substrate of wetness, but the wetness itself cannot be pointed to, only the water. Subjective awareness as spoken of above is in a different category of description than localizable objects, it is known from a different perspective, and this is why it cannot be found as a localizable object. This suggests that to imagine looking for subjective awareness itself in the brain as an external entity is logically incorrect. However, this does not imply, in my opinion, that awareness does not have a physical substrate in the brain which functionally corresponds to it exactly. That would be a different argument. A similar point is made below by Lati Rinpoche, who suggests that the brain has the potential for creating illumination, but is not the illumination itself. I see the puzzle of how the substrate and the subjective awareness are explicitly related, in concept and in detail, to be one of the greatest challenges facing neuroscience. This is also a challenge that has been addressed by Abhidharma in many ways.]

Lobsang Gyatso: You will never find it in the brain! It is a matter of experiencing it. There is no possibility beyond experiencing awareness to ever find it in the physical universe.

Awareness and Physical Being

If you start to intensely contemplate something, focusing your mind upon it, and if your contemplation seems to follow a successful sequence of individual moments, then as you move through that sequence of contemplating you will find that the mind inside you, your awareness, seems to start to glow. It will come up with a tremendous vibrancy or clarity. You will find yourself sitting with great vibrant clarity of awareness. You will feel this awareness within yourself. During that kind of moment one feels very comfortable and very nice, but when that awareness starts to go away the pleasant physical feelings may recede as well, you might even begin to notice the whole body beginning to hurt a great deal. So, what you find through experience, if you are looking in this way, is that awareness itself has an expanding and shrinking quality to it. As awareness narrows one can find all sorts of difficulties, both mental and physical.

The intellect itself is similar. When the intellect really gets into a sharp mode, and is just roaring as you might say, when you are thinking about something which is absolutely captivating and the intellect is earnestly and eagerly grappling with it, and the intellect is going on and on with wondering and thinking and trying to understand, when you are caught up in that sort, of clarity of the intellect, you can find that any sort of physical ailment just does not impinge upon the experiential world. Time also seems to be a nonentity. When you start to look you find that hours have gone by since you started to involve yourself in the intellectual process. Then, as your ability to investigate or analyze or wonder looses it sharpness, if you do keep trying to go on, you may feel quite uncomfortable. Not only that, but the clarity may have completely gone away. When you get that really clear feeling of awareness, that feeling almost of what awareness is, there is a stability. There is a concentratedness, a concentration, that can come. That concentratedness can stay buoyant for quite some time.

It seems to me, therefore, that where you have awareness or mind in a very forceful and clear state, and very strong, it begins to take over the physical being, it begins to dominate what the physical body does. Where it looses its strength, the physical begins to dominate.

Awareness Can Increase and Decrease without Limit

Think of an increase in awareness in a metaphorical sense, like having something grow up or jump up. If you think of the increase in a physical sense, what is the highest that a person could possibly learn to jump? There is no way that this physical increase can increase in the way that an awareness increases within. Awareness can go from almost a blank mind, almost no awareness whatsoever, to an infinite feeling, an infinite awareness. It can increase without any limit whatsoever. This increase is related to the clarity of the appearance to awareness. To the extent that there is a growing clarity in the appearance to an awareness, the awareness increases in accord with that clarity.

It is like this light, the light from this little lamp. This is a really strong light, relative to the things that it right now casts its light upon in the room. Similarly, you talk of a strong light of awareness relative to the amount of things that are known. But this physical light has a certain limit to it, it can only beam out with strength to a certain limit. The mind is different from that. There is a one on the other relationship acting between the awareness and the light. You get a clearness in awareness, a light thrown in awareness, which is itself intimately related with the amount of light coming in from the object.

There is a relationship like that, a one on the other relationship, which allows a tremendous throw of light, metaphorically speaking, when you come to awareness. How vast the things it throws its lights upon. To the extent that there is a penetration into, an investigation into more and more detail of a particular thing being looked at, that causes a corresponding increase in the throw of the light of awareness onto that thing.

Its increase, the increase in the scope of the awareness, is related to the habituations of the mind as well. In other words, the habituation of the mind is what causes the greater and greater clarity, the greater and greater throw of the light of awareness. When you are bringing up awareness again and again and again, that is what is meant by habituating to an awareness. Making that continuum of awareness go on and repeat functions with the objects that those repeated awarenesses are aware of, they work in relation to one another. This causes more and more awareness, more light. For example, as you meditate, applying the mind again and again and again, the clarity of awareness increases more and more and more. This entails that the object which awareness is focused upon and is being clear about is becoming clearer and clearer. As that object becomes clearer, the mind becomes clearer. ä_æ

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