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.