I find the field of Neuroscience totally fascinating as it challenges one of the most difficult questions mankind has ever asked, how or through what mechanism is consciousness produced. This is also known as the hard problem of consciousness. Neuroscientists have from a mechanical perspective dissected and probed the brain in many many ways, identifying all the parts big and small and how they interact with one another. But to no avail, there is no answer to the big question or at least no agreement or even a general consensus as to how consciousness arises, within the scientific community. If we compare a Neuroscientist to a motor mechanic we will have an amazing understanding of how all the nuts, bolts, and parts of a motor work but we will not know why they do what they do. Today we will explore the how and why of the Buddhist theory of consciousness.
Buddhism has for the last 2500 years also tried to answer this question but from a very different perspective. Buddhists began their understanding of consciousness by searching and studying consciousness from within or from an inner mental perspective. Aided by eastern philosophical training and through the practice of meditation, a practitioner is guided along a gentle path of looking deeper and deeper within one’s most secret place, the seat of our consciousness and our true being.
It seems to me the obvious solution is to not ignore the fact that these two opposites are asking the very same question, but are investigating it from completely different perspectives. What could they learn from each other and how might this benefit mankind? Could there be a new middle way or a consensus of consciousness to be found through cooperation?
To begin understanding the mental or inner perspective of how the Buddhadharma explains consciousness we need to understand two sets of ideas the Eight Consciousnesses and the Five Skandhas. We begin with the radio example. Many Buddhist lamas have likened the brain to a radio a mechanical device that receives signals from our sense organs or the gates of our perception. We are all familiar with them; sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Yes, there are other senses like balance and intuition but let us stick to the obvious ones for reasons of simplicity. In this example, the brain acts as a radio receiving signals from 6 different stations. In Buddhist terms, the stations are called the Eight Consciousnesses. They are as follows 1. Visual (or eye) consciousness 2. Auditory (or ear) consciousness 3. Olfactory (or nose) consciousness 4. Gustatory (or tongue) consciousness 5. Tactile (or body) consciousness and 6. Mental (or mind) consciousness. 7 and 8 will be covered later. The Five Skandhas or Mind and are as follows 1. Form, 2. Feeling or sensation, 3. Discrimination or Perception, 4. Mental Formations, and 5. Consciousness.
Ready to see how all this fits together? Let’s tune into the Visual station on the radio and take a look around. Oh, look what’s that? We have a form. The eyes sense something, for example, a rose, and sends the information to the sixth consciousness the Mind consciousness. Here is where things get interesting. The mind consciousness has received the first skandha of form from the eyes. Here we can think that the mind builds the picture or mental fabrication from the information supplied by the input or inputs. Once a mental fabrication has formed a feeling or sensation arises like good, bad, or neutral this is the second Skandha. The discriminating or perception Skandha then registers, recognises, and labels the object. Then the fourth Mental Formation Skandha has us act by taking a closer look, running away or simply moving on based now on all the information our sense consciousnesses provide. We are now in the fifth Skandha and consciousness of the rose. This state gives rise to the seventh consciousness.
The seventh consciousness or the defiled mental consciousness or better described as emotions arise. “Oh what a beautiful rose, I want it.” we say, and then we are fully aware or conscious of the rose. This is where all the trouble begins, you all know what I mean here.
After the stimulus ends or is no longer the focus of the mind’s attention the information or experience is stored in the eighth consciousness or the All Encompassing Foundation Consciousness. This is most like what we would call our subconsciousness, and is called Alaya in Buddhism.
Was that easy to follow and does it compare to your everyday experience?
Remember, Mind doesn’t mind, matter doesn’t matter! Mind is Boss.
6 thoughts on “Who is the boss, Mind or the Brain?”
Thanks QP I’ve seen these before but never understood the details. Too technical for me but your example helps a lot.
Regarding the seventh one where “all the trouble begins” is there something inherently wrong with it? And can you explain how Buddhism fixes the “bug” in this level of detail?
Yeah sure thing, the trouble arises when we want it. This is the entry point of aversion and greed and the slippery slope that includes all the other emotions that are for the most unstoppable. And the problems that come with them we know all to well.
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The way the Buddhadharma helps us here is as follows. For me it was one of the first “side effects” of meditation that I noticed. Meditation gives us space, space between the thoughts and space just before anger or jealousy arise. This is often only a few seconds, “oh here come the anger”, and we have a moment where we can choose a comedy instead of a tragedy. Then we must choose, that’s the hard part not to get swept up in the rush of emotions, to see past the anger. Funny thing is when we are angry we have a very clear picture as to why we are angry. We know to the finest detail as to why, how, and when things have happened. This clarity is called mirror like wisdom and here when we transform the anger into this unique wisdom without the anger and drama we have really accomplished something. Interesting eh?
My comment is more generalised about your blog than specific to this post, but it usually happens when you come across such an enjoyable blog for the first time! Firstly at a superficial level your images are superb, memories of Nepal, mountains, prayer flags, monasteries and people. I realise not all are from Nepal though. So many of your posts require deeper thought, more than I have right now but it will happen as I read more. Some of this post took me back 30 years, I was back at university after my PhD in Chemistry 15 years previous. Now reading psychology, year 2 was called Biology, Brain & Behaviour, and considerable time was spent exploring the difference between mind and brain, mostly from a philosophers viewpoint. Then …… we started on neurochemistry and with a PhD based on electrochemistry I was in my element! Synapses, axons, dendrites all fired by sodium/potassium ….. absolutely wondrous, and I began to doubt my belief in there being no god-like creator! How the hell does sodium passing across a membrane create a perception, a motivation, an emotion? Fast forward to today, and I have my favourite quote from the first page of the Dhammapada …. “All states of being are determined by mind, it is mind that leads the way …”. Did Sid really say that?
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So first thing, wow Dr. B thank you for your kind words. I hadn’t given so much thought to how big a roll my original photography could play in my blog. You have widened my perception.
As for the chemistry I also wonder how it is that sodium passing across a Membrane could give rise to anything. We simply do not know enough. But happily it work, most of the time.
Sid was a very cool customer, did he say that? Sure why not. Even though we don’t know for sure that’s what the writer would have us believe and I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Only because almost everything else I have learned not only seems logical but has made some empirical sense in my life so far. Mind or the clear luminous light of mind, our true essence and or the proverbial flashlight of ours that our mind shines on the form realms so that we can perceive them is I think what Sid was getting at here. Was that too far out in left field? It might be so far left that it meets the sodium in the far right field.