An excerpt from Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics, Volume 2: The Mind

John Dunne

John Dunne holds the Distinguished Chair in Contemplative Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He received his PhD in Sanskrit and Tibetan studies from Harvard University.

The following is his introductory essay to Mind, Part 1 of Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics, Volume 2: The Mind.


The Path of Knowledge

From their earliest days, Buddhist traditions have emphasized the importance of the mind. Traditional accounts maintain that Prince Siddhārtha, who went on to become the historical figure we call the Buddha, the “Awakened One,” experienced a kind of spiritual crisis some time in his twenties. The crux of that crisis was the problem of duḥkha, a term that is usually translated as “suffering,” but which also points to a subtler, more elusive sense of persistent dissatisfaction. It is said that the young prince left his life of leisure and privilege and set out to solve the problem of suffering, and he encountered a panoply of options offered by various spiritual guides. Among the traditions he encountered, some urged spiritual seekers to manipulate their bodies through physical practices, including severe austerities. Such approaches, in various ways, see the problem of suffering as primarily a physical—and not a mental—issue, and they thus propose that the problem of suffering can be solved through manipulating the external world, the body, or both. Traditional accounts maintain that young Prince Siddhārtha plunged into such practices, and eventually, owing to the emaciation brought on by his physical austerities, he could press his hand on his belly and easily feel his backbone underneath. This hyperbolic image of the gaunt prince starkly conveys the strength of his determination to find a physical resolution to the problem of suffering and dissatisfaction.

In the end, however, Siddhārtha turned away from this more physical approach and adopted a perspective that appears to have been increasingly influential in his time. The physical world and the body itself must be maintained, but the problem of suffering cannot be eliminated through purely physical manipulations. Instead, suffering arises from a fundamental distortion in how we experience the world, such that we live in a state of perpetual ignorance (Skt., avidyā) or confusion (moha). Thus, to relieve suffering, one must remove that fundamental confusion by counteracting it with wisdom (prajñā), which “sees things as they truly are” (yathābhūtadarśana).

By interpreting suffering as a problem of ignorance, Siddhārtha had embarked on a spiritual path that, in common with some other Indian traditions, came to be known as a “path of knowledge” (jñānamārga). For any path to knowledge, including all Indian Buddhist traditions, the fundamental goal of philosophy and contemplative practice is to uproot the confusion that underlies all suffering. Buddhist accounts often focus on exactly what constitutes ignorance—the foundational cognitive distortion that lies at the root of suffering—since identifying ignorance properly enables one to cultivate its antidote. Different levels of philosophical analysis interpret ignorance differently, and at the most basic level, ignorance concerns the cognitive distortions that induce the sense that one has a fixed and completely autonomous personal identity. Subsequent volumes in this series will examine not only that basic level but also the more finely grained accounts found at higher levels of analysis, such as the radical anti-essentialism found in Madhyamaka philosophy. For all these levels of analysis, the key point is that the defect that produces suffering and dissatisfaction is within the mind itself, and Buddhist theorists from the earliest period onward were thus obliged to engage in an extensive and robust inquiry into the nature of the mind. In that endeavor, they explored the processes of cognition, the contours of affective states, the constituents of reliable knowledge, the meditative methods for transformation, and so on. This volume, compiled by a skilled team of Tibetan scholars, presents the Indian Buddhist account of the mind and its workings, and in this first part, our authors focus on the nature of the mind itself, along with key issues related to cognition. Before examining some key issues in part 1, let’s clarify the sources and methods for this account.



Sources and Methods

As noted in Thupten Jinpa’s introductory essays in the first volume of this series, the main sources for this compilation come from Buddhist works written originally in Sanskrit, although some are now only available in Tibetan translation. The present volume on mind cites dozens of sources, including discourses (sūtras) attributed to the Buddha, but three genres are especially central: the Abhidharma corpus, the pramāṇa or epistemological literature, and manuals for contemplative practice. Also key to the first volume of this series, the Abhidharma corpus emerges from the earliest period of Buddhist history, and these texts are especially concerned with giving a systematic account of the fundamental constituents of the mind. One of the most enduring Abhidharma contributions is the account of “mind and mental factors” that informs part 2 of this volume, but Abhidharma sources are often cited in other contexts as well, with the Treasury of Knowledge (Abhidharmakośa) by Vasubandhu (ca. fourth century) a frequent source.

Unlike the Abhidharma, the epistemological literature emerges later in Buddhist history, and it is associated especially with the Indian theorists Dignāga (ca. fifth–sixth century) and Dharmakīrti (ca. sixth century). For analyses of perception, inferential reasoning, concept formation, and other cognitive processes, Dharmakīrti’s works in particular are a key source. Our authors also cite the epistemological texts for their influential theories on the nature of mind.

The great Buddhist authors of India also wrote treatises (Skt., śāstra) that sometimes defy easy categorization, but many of these can fit under the general rubric of “contemplative manuals,” in that even when straying into abstruse philosophy, they remain centrally concerned with providing instructions, theories, or explanations for effective contemplative practice. Among the many such sources cited by our authors, one of the most frequent is Engaging in the Bodhisattva’s Deeds by Śāntideva (ca. seventh–eighth century), which is exemplary in the way it interweaves straightforward instructions for contemplative practice with philosophical analysis.

Traditionally, all of these sources are organized according to the hierarchical schema of the “four schools” of Buddhist philosophy: the Vaibhāṣika, Sautrāntika, Yogācāra, and Madhyamaka. The Madhyamaka school is traditionally considered the “highest” because its critiques of essentialism are said to yield the most accurate account of what truly exists, but the models of mind and cognition endorsed by the Madhyamaka are drawn almost entirely from the three lower schools. The third school, Yogācāra, is often considered a form of philosophical idealism, such that the existence of matter is critiqued. While the Yogācāra school provides some key sources for the models of mind and cognition presented in this volume, it is the two lower schools—the Vaibhāṣika and the Sautrāntika—­that provide the analytical perspective for the vast majority of the content articulated here. Setting aside the finer distinctions between the two lower schools, the most relevant aspect of their perspective is that they endorse a form of dualism, such that the world consists of irreducible physical stuff—­generally conceived as infinitesimally small particles of matter—and irreducible mental stuff, the various components of consciousness and cognition.

Methodologically, our authors adopt a traditional, pragmatic approach to this wide-ranging material. Since the higher levels of analysis provided by the Madhyamaka and Yogācāra schools are often counterintuitive, and since the basic models of mind, affect, and cognition can be adequately articulated without appealing to those higher levels of analysis, our authors primarily choose to present this material from the lower level of analysis assumed by the Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika schools. Higher levels of analysis are occasionally invoked, but this basic level, where mind and matter are kept distinct, is the default perspective for most explanations, in part because it does not stray too far from our ordinary intuitions. Still, as will become apparent, those ordinary intuitions are often called into question even at this lowest level of analysis, and this is precisely why that more basic level is pragmatically useful for explanatory purposes, since a critique that strays too far from our ordinary intuitions might prove challenging in an unnecessarily distracting way.

"The physical world and the body itself must be maintained, but the problem of suffering cannot be eliminated through purely physical manipulations."

The Nature of Mind

The first part of this volume presents an account of mind drawn from Indian Buddhist sources, and this immediately raises some difficulties for readers accustomed to notions of mind in Western philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science. One key issue is that the term mind in Western contexts suggests a single entity that endures over time and has various capacities, dispositions, or features. In contrast, the Buddhist sources cited by our authors maintain that mind is episodic, such that a mind (Skt., citta) is a continuum (santāna) of mental moments, each moment causally emerging from the previous moment and acting as a cause for the subsequent moment. Each mind is thus a unique moment of consciousness (jñāna) or awareness (saṃvitti). The analysis of the nature of mind is thus actually an analysis of what, in many Western contexts, would be a moment of mind or a “mind event.” In a way that can be additionally confusing, Buddhist authors will often speak of plural “minds” that pertain to the same person at different points of time or in different contexts, such as the mind in a moment of visual consciousness or the mind in a moment of one-pointed concentration. Both of these minds could be in the same continuum, such that in referring to someone named Jane, one could speak of “Jane’s many minds,” a locution that seems odd in Western contexts. In our translation, we have tried to avoid using the plural minds as much as possible, but it is important to note that, even in the singular, the term mind refers to a single mind event—that is, a discrete moment in a mental continuum.

Turning now to the nature of mind, our authors focus on the most widely cited account—namely, that mind is clear (Tib., gsal ba) and aware (rig pa). Here, the term clear renders two distinct Sanskrit terms that evoke the phenomenal character of mind and also one of its essential properties. In relation to the Sanskrit term prakāśa, the Tibetan translation is most accurately rendered as “luminous,” in the sense that the mind “illuminates” or presents contents, much as a lamp illuminates whatever is nearby. Unlike a physical lamp, however, the mind does not depend on proximity to “illuminate” whatever is present in a moment of consciousness; a concept of the Eiffel Tower, for example, can be presented in consciousness without any need for one to be in Paris. A second key feature is that, even in exceptional cases where a moment of consciousness has no cognitive content, a mind or moment of consciousness still includes the phenomenal character of presenting or illuminating, even though there is no content to be illuminated.

The mind is also clear in that it is transparent (Skt., prabhāsvara). Here, the term clear points to a fundamental property of mind. Water, for example, is by nature clear, in that even when it is murky, the impurities that obscure it can be removed, and its natural clarity or transparency will return. Likewise, the mind is clear in that no particular object (such as the Eiffel Tower) or affective state (such as anger) is essential to a moment of consciousness. This point is especially crucial for Buddhist approaches to personal transformation and behavior change, since it means that the dysfunctional habits that produce suffering and dissatisfaction can be transformed, precisely because they are not essential to the mind itself. This means in particular that ignorance—the fundamental cognitive distortion that underlies suffering—is not an essential property of the mind, and it is therefore possible to remove that distortion without putting an end to consciousness itself.

While the mind is clear—or perhaps “luminously clear,” to capture the two senses encompassed by that term—it is also aware (Tib., rig pa; Skt., saṃvit). In general, this means that a mind or moment of consciousness has an epistemic character; that is, the mind does not simply illuminate, it also does so in an informative way. More specifically, at the level of analysis deployed by our authors, a mind or moment of consciousness is about its object, and it presents that object in a way that is relevant to action that engages that object. Our authors point out that mind, by virtue of being aware, is distinct from matter, which lacks this character. Yet two points here are crucial. First, while the mind is distinct from matter, it nevertheless depends on a material “basis” for it to function. In other words, the mind is necessarily embodied, and the constraints posed by a particular embodiment—such as the capacities of one’s sensory organs—must be taken into account when examining cognitive processes and other aspects of the mind. Second, while the mind is intrinsically aware by virtue of presenting objects as relevant to embodied action, it is not necessarily the case that a moment of awareness—that is, any given mind event—­provides reliable information about its object. It is for this reason, in part, that Buddhist theorists are so concerned to distinguish the many varieties of awareness.



Varieties of Cognition: The Case of Sensory and Mental Consciousness

Much of part 1 is devoted to examining different ways of categorizing mind, and of particular note here is the distinction between sense consciousness and mental consciousness. In this context, the use of the term minds in the plural does not apply just to the continuum of mind events. We can also properly say that a sentient being in any given moment may have multiple minds. This points to an important feature of the Buddhist account presented by our authors—namely, that it adopts what could be called a modularity thesis, similar to some contemporary accounts in cognitive science. Modularity itself is a complex topic, and contemporary notions encompass a variety of competing approaches. In simple terms, modularity means that distinct cognitive processes are executed by distinct mental modules that are “encapsulated,” in that they can function independently of other modules. Strong forms of modularity often connect these functions to specific brain regions, and they may posit modularity even at complex levels of processing. Weaker forms of modularity assert that modules operate at more basic levels of processing, and such theories may not maintain a strong correspondence between a module and any localized brain region. From the perspective of this highly simplified account of modularity, the Indian Buddhist theorists assert a weak form of modularity, especially in regard to the five forms of sense consciousness.

In brief, an instance of sense consciousness emerges initially when the physical sense faculty contacts the object and thereby becomes its dominant condition (Skt., adhipatipratyaya). With additional conditions in place, the mental processes required to produce, for example, the first moment of a visual consciousness can occur simultaneously with the processes that produce the first moment of any other sense consciousness, such as an auditory or olfactory one. In this way, multiple sense “minds” can (and usually do) arise simultaneously, and this suggests that sense consciousness exhibits at least a weak form of modularity. For at the low level of processing required to produce the first moment of a sense consciousness, the five kinds of sense consciousness operate independently of each other.

Our authors point out that the low level of processing that produces an initial moment of sense consciousness is not sufficient to induce an action that engages with a sensory object. To facilitate action toward a sensory object, it must be conceptualized or categorized, and this can only occur when the data from sense consciousness moves into mental consciousness. At that point, on the basis of additional conditions such as desires and goals, a concept that facilitates goal-oriented action can occur. Now, however, the modularity related to sense consciousness no longer applies, because only one mental consciousness can occur at any given time. When conceiving sense objects, mental consciousness depends on the lower-level processing provided by sense consciousness as well as other mental processes such as memory.

One important aspect of this articulation of six types of consciousness—­mental consciousness and the five forms of sense consciousness—is that it reflects the commitment to developing models of cognition that do not require an autonomous self (Skt., ātman) or perceiver (bhoktṛ) as the agent of a cognitive act. Drawing on the work of Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, our authors point out that the sense of subjectivity in any moment of consciousness is simply a momentary “phenomenal form” or “image” (ākāra) that emerges simultaneously with the image or representation of the object. This “image” of subjectivity thus has no causal role or agency in that moment of visual perception; it instead reflects a basic structural feature—the subject-object relation—that characterizes any moment of consciousness bearing on an object.

"Unlike a physical lamp, however, the mind does not depend on proximity to 'illuminate' whatever is present in a moment of consciousness."

Epistemic Reliability and the Suspicion of Concepts

The emphasis on building cognitive models that set aside any notion of an autonomous, unchanging “self” acting as the agent of cognition returns us to the basic problem of suffering and dissatisfaction. As noted above, Buddhist theorists in India maintain that the fundamental problem of suffering is caused by ignorance, a fundamental cognitive distortion whose most basic manifestation is precisely this sense of an autonomous, unchanging “self” as the agent of actions, the perceiver of perceptions, the controller of the mind-body system, and so on. For these theorists, this distortion can only be solved by cultivating a form of wisdom that counteracts it. A basic theory here is that two cognitive states can stand in opposition to one another such that one necessarily inhibits the other from arising. An additional claim is that, when a nondeceptive (Skt., avisaṃvādi) cognition—one that is epistemically reliable—comes into conflict with an unreliable one, the reliable cognitive state, if sufficiently robust, will always inhibit the unreliable one. Moreover, the dispositions that cause the unreliable or distorted cognition to arise can eventually be eliminated by using contemplative techniques to immerse oneself in the experience of the reliable cognition. This basic model, discussed at length in part 6, applies to all cases where one seeks to eliminate cognitive distortions, and it applies especially to the cultivation of wisdom as a means to uproot ignorance.

Given the central role played by epistemic reliability or nondeceptivity in practices designed to transform a practitioner, it is no surprise that this issue surfaces repeatedly in Buddhist analyses of cognitive processes. The Indian Buddhist tradition contains an enormous amount of material simply on the question of epistemic reliability, especially in the context of a valid cognition (pramāṇa), which is both reliable and also a motivator of action. The foundational question of epistemic reliability leads to many other nuanced and subtle inquiries that produce the taxonomies in this section of part 1. One intriguing distinction that emerges in these taxonomic analyses is the notion that epistemic reliability can still apply to cognitions that are “mistaken” (bhrānta). Well-formed inferences, for example, are always epistemically reliable, but since they are necessarily conceptual, they are also mistaken. Here, epistemic reliability is rooted in the way that a cognition facilitates effective action in relation to an object, and in part this means that a cognition need only be accurate in regard to the causal capacities of the object relevant to one’s goal-oriented action. Thus, if I infer from billowing smoke that a fire is occurring in a particular location, my conceptual cognition of fire can enable me to take effective action—whether I seek warmth or want to douse the fire. Yet that conceptualization of “fire” itself is also mistaken, precisely because it is conceptual.

The notion that conceptual cognitions are necessarily mistaken—even when they are epistemically reliable—reflects an overall suspicion of conceptuality that characterizes Indian Buddhism from its earliest days, but the technical account in part 1 draws especially on Dharmakīrti and other Buddhist epistemologists. For these theorists, conceptual cognitions are always mistaken in two ways. First, the object that appears phenomenally in my awareness, known as the conceptual “image” (pratibimba) of the object, is taken to be identical to the functional thing that I seek to act upon as the engaged object (pravṛttiviṣaya) of my action. In other words, the phenomenally presented object “fire” in my conceptual cognition does not have the causal properties of an actual fire—the thought of a fire cannot burn wood. Yet our cognitive system creates a fusion (ekīkaraṇa) of this phenomenal appearance with the engaged object to which the conceptual image of “fire” refers.

Conceptual cognitions are also mistaken in another way: they take the categories presented in conceptualizations as truly real. Buddhist epistemologists say those categories are actually constructed through the process of concept formation. For example, the conceptualization of fire, when taken as referring to a real, causally efficient thing, presents that thing as bearing the same fundamental properties—some essence that constitutes a thing as “fire”—as all other things that can be categorized as “fire.” This projection of our categories into the world, however, is false for these theorists, since they maintain that all instances of things that we call “fire” are entirely unique. Instead, we construct concepts and categories through a process of exclusion (apoha), whereby the cognitive system forms categories primarily by excluding what is incapable of or irrelevant to the desired causal outcomes.

This brief excursus into the questions of reliability, error, and conceptualization demonstrates the finely grained and insightful analyses typical of the material found throughout this volume. Much more could be said about the taxonomies presented in part 1, but as is perhaps already evident from the approach to conceptualization discussed above, many of these materials point to a key issue: the primacy of direct perception, or what might be called a kind of “empirical stance.”



Empiricism and Buddhist “Science”

In his first essay in volume 1 of this series, Thupten Jinpa speaks eloquently about the notion of “Buddhist science” and the ways we might understand that term. Readers are encouraged to consult that essay for an appreciation of the methodological and theoretical commitments that Buddhist authors hold, and the way we might answer the question “Is this science?” Here, deferring to Jinpa’s lengthier discussion, I will just examine two issues that point to the type of “yes and no” answer that he gives.

One way to understand what we mean by science concerns the scientific method and the various commitments that it entails. In terms of the process of implementing research, an idealized and simplified account of science would involve: (1) formulating a theory, (2) generating hypotheses based on the theory, (3) testing hypotheses through experimentation, and (4) revising or confirming the theory based on the results of experiments. This abbreviated and idealized account excludes many issues, such as the way institutional and cultural pressures might prevent theory revision even in the face of contrary experimental evidence. Yet even setting aside these issues, this idealized process does point to one challenge for the notion of Buddhist science: theory revision.

This volume focuses especially on Indian Buddhist sources written in Sanskrit, and these texts emerged over more than a millennium of inquiry. We might wonder how exactly these theories and models were formulated. For example, what role did actual phenomenological inquiry play, especially if investigated with contemplative techniques? Were there attempts to test hypotheses with experimentation? Were textual accounts concerned primarily with claims made in other texts, or did they employ empirical observations to rebut textual critiques? The short answer to these and related questions is that we do not know. Certainly, just as with modern science, the need to defend one’s published views would drive many responses and adjustments to theories, but we do not know how much observation and even experimentation went into the Indian Sanskrit texts. However, one point is clear: substantial theory revision about key issues such as the nature of concept formation has not occurred for many centuries. And if we take science to require an ongoing process of theory revision, then we would likely conclude that “Buddhist science” is a highly contentious term.

Science, however, may also be characterized as embodying a particular commitment to a rigorous and ongoing inquiry into the nature of the world and the beings within it, where our notion of “rigor” requires us to base our knowledge claims in experience itself. This “empirical stance,” to borrow a term from Bas van Fraassen, requires us to set aside our theory commitments, our texts and publications, and our assumptions about the possible in favor of a kind of careful and disciplined observation that is rooted in the evidence of the senses. This attitude is precisely what underlies the Buddhist suspicion of conceptuality and theorization as an end in itself. And while it too can be—and indeed, has been—idealized in the context of Buddhist inquiries into the mind and its processes, the principled commitment to this empirical stance, which requires setting aside the authority even of the Buddha’s own words, might be enough to say that, yes, we can properly speak of Buddhist science. As you read through this volume, that empiricist spirit may not be evident on every page, but if you keep it in mind, perhaps you will agree that Buddhist science is an appropriate rubric for the detailed materials curated by our skilled authors.

John Dunne

"Yet that conceptualization of 'fire' itself is also mistaken, precisely because it is conceptual."

This, the second volume in the Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics series, focuses on the science of mind. Readers are first introduced to Buddhist conceptions of mind and consciousness and then led through traditional presentations of mental phenomena to reveal a Buddhist vision of the inner world with fascinating implications for the contemporary disciplines of cognitive science, psychology, emotion research, and philosophy of mind. Major topics include:

– The distinction between sensory and conceptual processes and the pan-Indian notion of mental consciousness

– Mental factors—specific mental states such as attention, mindfulness, and compassion—and how they relate to one another

– The unique tantric theory of subtle levels of consciousness, their connection to the subtle energies, or “winds,” that flow through channels in the human body, and what happens to each when the body and mind dissolve at the time of death

– The seven types of mental states and how they impact the process of perception

– Styles of reasoning, which Buddhists understand as a valid avenue for acquiring sound knowledge

In the final section, the volume offers what might be called Buddhist contemplative science, a presentation of the classical Buddhist understanding of the psychology behind meditation and other forms of mental training.

To present these specific ideas and their rationale, the volume weaves together passages from the works of great Buddhist thinkers like Asaṅga, Vasubandhu, Nāgārjuna, Dignāga, and Dharmakīrti. His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s introduction outlines scientific and philosophical thinking in the history of the Buddhist tradition. To provide additional context for Western readers, each of the six major topics is introduced with an essay by John D. Dunne, distinguished professor of Buddhist philosophy and contemplative practice at the University of Wisconsin. These essays connect the traditional material to contemporary debates and Western parallels, and provide helpful suggestions for further reading.


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