For the Buddha, what is mind?

Jun 23, 2020

As it’s the mind that gets enlightened, we’d better know what Buddha means by it! Well, “mind” in Buddhism is used in a much broader way than we tend to use it in neuroscience and psychology. It is used synonymously with the word “consciousness.”

If you’re a Christian or a Muslim, or you talk about some non-physical part of yourself, it’s known as the soul. But Buddha doesn’t use that term at all. He uses the term mind, but it incorporates concepts, feelings, thoughts, emotions, unconscious, as well as our sensory consciousness. All of this is your mind. The whole spectrum of your inner experiences is your mind, and in Buddha’s terms it is necessarily non-physical. It isn’t the body. It’s not the brain. From the Buddhist perspective perhaps you could say that what we observe in the brain is an indicator of what’s going on in our mind – at least at the grosser level.

It’s clear from this that Buddha asserts far more refined, more subtle levels of awareness, of conscious awareness, of mind, than we would ever posit as possible according to the philosophical materialist models. And in the long-term, by using the sophisticated psychological skill called concentration meditation, we will be able to plumb the depths of our mind and access these more refined levels of our own capacity for cognition, sort of like accessing the microscope of your mind, in order to completely deconstruct all of the nonsense and get in touch with how things exist, thus removing one’s own suffering, thus enabling us to benefit others.

Years ago, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was participating in one of those Mind and Life conferences. For many years he’s been meeting with all the best brains in the West and discussing the nature of the universe and the mind. Most of their discussions have been published.

The main topic – I think it was in Cambridge, at Harvard – was the capacity of the human mind to concentrate. The Western scientists were coming up with their findings that probably six seconds was the maximum. Well, there’s the Dalai Lama and the other Buddhists presenting the Buddhist case from their own experience: the human mind has the capacity to concentrate for hours, days, weeks, months, even longer.

This is based on the experience of the meditators who’ve practiced single-pointed concentration, a psychological skill created by the Indians well before Buddha came along.

For us, six seconds is the best we can do because we don’t have such skills in the West and we don’t posit subtler levels of consciousness. For us, our conceptuality is very limited in its capacity for memory as well. But for the Buddha, we can refine our minds to an incredible degree of subtlety and clarity. Because these levels are more subtle, what they can cognize is more subtle, such as the past, the future, the minds of others, etc.

We would say, “Oh, come on, past lives? I don’t remember a past life. Don’t be ridiculous!” Well, we don’t remember most of today! The fact is, our gross level of conceptuality is simply not capable.

This is a whole realm that we don’t even touch upon in the West because we don’t posit it. It’s the subtler consciousness that enables people to have what they refer to as out-of-body experiences, people have near-death experiences; I mean, it’s universal. There must be countless people who’ve had similar kind of experience, but, of course, we can’t accept it in the Western model because it’s not a function of the brain.

From the Buddhist perspective, mind is so powerful. Mind is the creator of all our experiences. And the job of being a Buddhist is to know it intimately. We need to accomplish single-pointed concentration, unpack and unravel the contents, distinguish between the neurotic, deluded states of mind and the positive ones, eventually ridding our mind utterly of the delusions and growing the goodness to perfection.

That’s the meaning of buddha.

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