Buddha & the Brain


(This is an article I wrote ten years ago for a New Kadampa Tradition website, and I thought I’d dust it off and share it here as not much has changed in this department!)

In May 2001, Newsweek ran the headline ‘God & the Brain’. The magazine featured a series of articles on the new ‘neurotheologists’ who are attempting to chart the connections between mystical experience and brain patterns, hoping to answer the ‘question of consciousness’.

One of the articles began:

“One Sunday morning in March 19 years ago, as Dr James Austin waited for a train in London, he glanced away from the tracks towards the river Thames. The neurologist — who was spending a sabbatical year in England — saw nothing out of the ordinary: the grimy Underground station, a few dingy buildings, some pale gray sky. He was thinking, a bit absent-mindedly, about a Buddhist meditation retreat he was headed toward.

And then Austin suddenly felt a sense of enlightenment unlike anything he had ever experienced. His sense of individual existence, of separateness from the physical world around him evaporated like morning mist in a bright dawn. He saw things ‘as they really are’, he recalls. The sense of ‘I, me, mine’ disappeared. ‘Time was not present,’ he says. ‘I had a sense of eternity. My old yearnings, loathings, fear of death, insinuations of self-hood vanished. I had been graced by a comprehension of the ultimate nature of things.’”

Sharon Begley’s article went on to state that scientists are beginning to use brain imaging to pinpoint the circuits within the brain that are active when people meditate or enter periods of deep prayer. Current scientific thinking has us experiencing a sense of ‘cosmic unity’ when the parietal lobes quiet down, manifesting ‘spiritual emotions… of joy and awe’ within our middle temporal lobe, and having our intense periods of concentration, such as in meditation, linked to our frontal lobes.

Notwithstanding the above, Buddha drew a clear distinction between our body and our mind. Although the two are related, he said, they are not the same thing. The mind is not the brain, and the brain is not the mind. The brain is physical, whereas the mind is formless and functions to know objects. In fact, Buddha explained how our deepest levels of consciousness do not depend upon the body at all.

Here we can consider some words from Geshe Kelsang’s book Transform Your Life – A Blissful Journey, published in August 2001. In the chapter What is the Mind? he writes:

Some people think that the mind is the brain or some other part or function of the body, but this is incorrect. The brain is a physical object that can be seen with the eyes and that can be photographed or operated on in surgery. The mind, on the other hand, is not a physical object. It cannot be seen with the eyes, nor can it be photographed or repaired by surgery. The brain therefore is not the mind but simply part of the body. There is nothing within the body that can be identified as being our mind because our body and mind are different entities. For example, sometimes when our body is relaxed and immobile our mind can be very busy, darting from one object to another. This indicates that our body and mind are not the same entity.

In Buddhist scriptures our body is compared to a guest house and our mind to a guest dwelling within it. When we die our [deepest level of] mind leaves our body and goes to the next life, just like a guest leaving a guest house and going somewhere else. If the mind is not the brain, nor any other part of the body, what is it? It is a formless continuum that functions to perceive and understand objects. Because the mind is formless, or non-physical, by nature, it is not obstructed by physical objects. Thus, it is impossible for our body to go to the moon without traveling in a spaceship, but our mind can reach the moon in an instant just by thinking about it. Knowing and perceiving objects is a function that is unique to the mind. Although we say `I know such and such’, in reality it is our mind that knows. We know things only by using our mind.

I reckon we all know from our own common-sense experience of our own mind that mind and body are not the same. Here’s an experiment. Close your eyes and think about your mom. Ask yourself: “What does this thought feel like? What is it? Where is it? Does it feel like a chemical or neural impulse? Or the side-effect of heightened lobe activity? Etc.”

When I do this, consciousness of my mother (let alone any non-dual experience of anything transcendent such as the illusory nature of all phenomena or the experience of blessings) does not feel like anything physical at all. Thought exists in a different dimension altogether — the formless dimension beyond the physical, without shape, color, spatial boundaries, tactile properties. Invisible, but the creator of reality. Immaterial, but mattering a great deal.

Moreover, when we refer to ‘my body’, we do not feel as if we are talking about ‘my mind’, and vice versa, which clearly indicates that we know first-hand that they are not the same. We may have the figure of speech “My brain hurts”, but we also talk about our mind, feelings and experiences all the time, and I would argue that when we do we are not even casting a sideways glance at our brain. If you’re feeling depressed, do you have the notion “My brain is depressed”? If you really want something, does it feel like “My brain really wants that!”?

I personally think that we are not born with a belief that our mind is our brain. I think it is a so-called “intellectually-formed delusion” that we acquire due to incorrect reasoning and/or other people telling us. Often we don’t question this conventional wisdom and assume smart people know what they are talking about when they say the mind is the brain, even though it provides far more questions than answers.

I never thought about it much until one day, as a 14-year-old, I was dancing and suddenly felt a wave of bliss at my heart. I thought to myself: “This feeling is not in my brain! It is so much bigger than that. It is not physical!” And that for some reason got me thinking about an article I had read about a mother who had lost her child, and it seemed to me impossible that all that grief could be contained in a lump of grey matter in her head. Also, life just isn’t that meaningless – why do we worry about anything if all that is doing the worrying is a sponge-like organ or a bunch of chemicals? Who cares what happens to us or anyone else if it is only happening to a blob of meat in our skull? Anyway, I had practical thoughts like this before I met Buddhism, so when later I was introduced to Buddha’s experiential teachings on the mind it was a “no brainer” (sorry, couldn’t resist ;-))

In struggling to answer the ‘question of consciousness’ and how the mind relates to the body — which arose when the materialist view of Descartes and his followers took hold of Western philosophy — rather than simply accepting that mind and body are different natures and taking it from there, scientists have tried to answer the question by reducing consciousness to the purely physical. We are blinded by science: this reductionism obscures our own direct experience, based on the false premise that mind and body cannot be different natures. We are cheated out of an understanding of the formless continuum of our mind, with dire ramifications for our spiritual beliefs such as life after death, the existence of enlightened beings, and the possibility of infinite mental and spiritual development and bliss.

There is not and never will be a magical chemical concoction or brain operation that will lead living beings to full spiritual awakening. Finding a permanent way to quieten our parietal lobes is no guarantee of ‘cosmic unity’! And even if these things were possible, they would be pointless.

Geshe Kelsang's hands in meditation

Meditators, on the other hand, are scientists of the mind who spend their lives investigating the nature of consciousness from direct experience (something that can be done only by using mental awareness, not crude physical instruments) — and they have clearly understood that the mind is not anything physical. There may be some relationship between certain types of mental awareness and the brain, as there is between sense consciousness and our sense faculties (the eyeball, nose, etc); but the fact that two things have a relationship proves that they are two different things, not the same thing e.g. a driver affects his car, but is not the same as the car.

People tend to put their hands to their hearts, not their heads, to indicate deep feelings of love there. When we meditate deeply, our consciousness feels seated at our heart. In his Tantric teachings, Buddha explained that our mind is related to subtle inner energy winds that can be said to have locations within the body — we have conceptual thoughts related to the winds in our crown chakra (perhaps why we scratch our head when we’re confused!). Our minds of attachment are related to winds in our navel chakra (hence those butterflies!) We have love and wisdom related to winds in our heart chakra, which is also the seat of our deepest level of mind. Stories abound in Buddhism of great meditators, such as Geshe Kelsang’s Spiritual Guide Trijang Rinpoche, who remained warm and upright for days after their brain was dead, meditating on the clear light of bliss at their heart. You can find out more about all this in the Tantric books.

(Finally, there are stories of people who live with a tiny fraction of normal brain matter but still have an IQ of 100 or more. You can Google it.)

To gain experience of the nature and function of your own mind, you can try out this meditation: How to meditate on the peaceful clarity of your own mind.

Do you think it matters whether or not Westerners are taught that the mind is the brain? Have you had any experiences that convince you that it is not (or that it is!)? I look forward to your comments.

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 35 years' experience, I write about applying Buddhist meditation to our everyday lives. I try to make it accessible to everyone who wants more inner peace, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

22 thoughts on “Buddha & the Brain”

      1. Dear Luna Kadampa,

        In respond to your article, you resent with a note: “This is an article I wrote ten years ago for a New Kadampa Tradition website, and I thought I’d dust it off and share it here as not much has changed in this department!”

        As I had commented earlier: “The mind is neither inside nor out site of body but body is inside a mind.” But now I have just changed my mind: However, the mind is a Buddha nature, a universe, an emptiness, it can be also inside a SELF (form) as a universe in a nutshell or universe in a single atom as the Avataṃsaka (Flower Garland Sutra, Flower Adornment Sutra, or Flower Ornament Scripture, Hoa Nghiem) once stated.

        Happy Monkey New Year!

        Tru Le

        Tle8464953@aol.com

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  1. I’ve had experiences where I sent image content and some persons dreamt exactly with that content. This was even before I had instruction on Dream Yoga. Also, some other experiences regarding death of cherished people with whom I had an agreement for them to send some clear external signal of afterlife and they happened… But I’m still unsure if this is enough proof that mind and brain are not the same. Maybe I’d just fooled myself (though I examined those phenomena that happened to me and they remain consistent)…

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  2. If you want the latest scientific / neurological take on the subject, see here: http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/more-neuroscience-denial/.

    The article is aimed at a creationist surgeon, but summarises the position well for us here.

    See if you can spot the spark of humility in which Dr Novella acknowledges that ‘we can (and do) know with a high degree of scientific confidence that the brain causes mind, even if we cannot explain exactly how the brain causes mind.’ For these few words he has my undying respect.

    However, I believe his evidence for brain causing mind does not rebut the Buddhist view of mind brain interaction.

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  3. I find that the way science is focusing investigation accepts that mind is an effect of the brain. It is seen that brain activity affects, causes an effect, on the mind. What if this assumption is reversed? Brain activity seen as an effect of mind. The brain is the stuff in the skull but its activity results from mind. When the mind generates ‘cosmic unity’ it causes the parietal lobes to quiet down. Not the quieting down of the parietal lobes being the cause of ‘cosmic unity’.

    When we are frightened our heart beat increases. Is the heart beat the source of fright? Of course it is quite probable that in an experiment in which heart beat is artificially increased a feeling of fright may arise. If, in a real frightening situation, heart beat was reduced, would fright disappear? I am sure that by training the mind I can control the sensation of fright and this will normalize my heart beat.

    What affects what?

    Alex noted at the end of his comment: ‘thus positing the brain as an instrument of mind rather than it’s source’

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  4. The scientist’s investigation of the connection between brain parts and meditation, cognitive operations, drug use and other mental states is to see if there is a correspondance between these and parts of the brain. And there is! Therefore scientists think that mental states are associated with brain activity. Their working assumption is to regard the brain as the physical analogue of thoughts, feelings, decisions and other mental factors. Why is this not a plausible hypothesis?

    Furthermore, to dismiss the brain as ‘just part of the body’, as if it were equal in nature to other parts, is a little hurried. After all, the brain does not possess the simplicity of the arm or the tongue. It is arguable that the sheer complexity of the brain must represent far more complex operations than moving the eye or keeping the gait of the walk,
    and it is a reasonable hypothesis that these are in fact the thoughts, delusions, liberative experiences and instinctual actions we all possess.

    Furthermore once more, it is the case that human beings are repetitive creatures of habit, doing the same things all the time, developing routines of both physical movement and psychological drama. We are actually very robotlike. Surely the natural control centre for such behaviour is a computer-like organ such as the brain? We talk about ‘reprogramming bad habits’ nowadays, and becoming ‘indoctrinated by the media’, and feeling ‘stuck in our jobs’. This is symptomatic of a cybernetic model of the human activity, something that could easily be mediated by the brain.

    The notion that consciousness cannot be understood in terms of physicality is faulty. For example, consciousness may be generated from a particular configuration of neurons, a ‘state of neuronic alignment’. When neurons line up in a certain way, across the whole brain a field-like ‘consciousness’ develops that has phenomonological significance for us. So we could have reflective thought as physicality. Of course this theory could be junk, but it is easy to see how notions of consciousness and physicality can be combined into a single theory, even if the theory is falsified under testing.

    Ok, enough of the polemic. The state of play at the moment is that NO-ONE knows what consciousness is in the Western paradigm. Philosophers tend to brush over it in annoyance, they wish it weren’t there, and argue round it. Scientists are afraid to mention consciousness for fear of losing their status. So they stick to the ‘facts’ (that their job depends on). My position is: let them stew in their reductionist, desperate plight to reduce consciousness to the brain until vacuity of the whole enterprise is seen by the whole community. Then maybe there will be a paradigm shift. Meanwhile, we can be
    Buddhists and pity them for imprisoning themselves (but don’t try and talk them out of it because they will ‘disregard you are irrelevant’ – mind you, even mentioning you take Buddhism seriously can be dangerous to your academic career in itself).

    Even so, it is hard to ignore the scientific evidence that the brain is at least representing very important aspects of mind, a kind of TV for the movie of the mind. We cannot ignore this evidence when thinking about the mind/body problem! Maybe the brain manifests mind within a physical body. It is easy to just say that they are separate, but they are clearly intrinsically linked during life. Also, if the mind is healthy and happy, the body tends to be healthy, and if the body is happy, the mind is happier.

    My concluding thought on this as far as the Buddhist perspective goes is as follows. There is in fact no contradiction between the scientists and the Buddhists as long as scientists withdraw consciouness (and human agency) from the chemicals (thus positing the brain as an instrument of mind rather than it’s source), and Buddhists acknowledge the link between mind and brain activity. Mind is moving, and so do the chemicals and neurons (slightly afterwards).

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  5. V.interesting thread! A couple of thoughts that help me…..one (very dubious) analogy that explains the scientific problem to me (in a very non-scientific way) would be that of someone measuring a wheel in a cage, measuring how fast it is spinning, it’s colour, the noise it makes and then saying these measurements are infact a hamster! Measuring the brains activity may well show some of the interrelation between mind and body but misses the mark if it equates the two as the same.(I told you it was dubious!)

    Within a computer the processors process all the external stimuli (from mouse clicks or joystick movements). It processes 1s and 0s and makes pixels light up on a monitor – but the computer does not understand the program it is running, that is down to the person looking at the screen – they interpret the coloured lights on the screen (that are refreshing 1000s of times per second) and create landscapes, racetracks, universes etc. (and interact with these as if they are real and solid! Just watch someone playing a racing game lean into the curves! – sounds a bit like samsara).

    Their reaction to these worlds may well be measurable in the brain as it’s processors are whirring away but again we couldn’t describe/understand the person playing the game in terms of processor speed. They are different things – so I see the brain and mind in a similar way different (related) entities and measuring the brain gives not a lot of insight into the mind (except that there may still be a functioning connections between the two)….and I’d agree that it hugely underestimates the potential of the mind.

    I do like Luna’s statement that meditators are the scientists of the mind.

    Anyway that’s my (non scientific) ramble, great thread and fab blog again – thankyou Luna!

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  6. The difference between the Buddhist and the Materialist view of reality can be stated thus:

    The Buddhist believes that all functioning phenomena are dependent upon
    – Causality
    – Structure
    – Designation by mind

    (see Geshe-la on the three levels of dependent relationship in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, 2nd Edition – page 349, (Tharpa Publications, 1995, ISBN 0948006 46 3)

    The Materialist believes that all functioning phenomena are dependent upon
    – Causality
    – Structure
    …with the mind being reducible to the operations of causality on structure in the same way that the activities of a computer are reducible to the operation of algorithms on datastructures.

    To the Buddhist, in contrast, the mind is an irreducible foundation of reality. Please see my detailed comments at http://seanrobsville.blogspot.com/2011/06/is-richard-dawkins-buddhist.html

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  7. Interesting discussion. I always thought that dualism was a bit of a minefield, however, as it’s hard to fully identify the relationship between mind and brain. Sometimes I think it’s easier to understand the ‘mind’ in terms of the six senses (touch, sight, smell, taste, hearing, thought) and that these these things are conditioned and so ultimately impermanent and selfless. Or you can use the five aggregates to view things in the same way. I thought in Buddhism that the five aggregates are all conditioned and therefore unsatisfactory, impermanent and selfless – and that would mean both body and mind, no? What I mean is that ultimately the body and mind are of the same nature: empty of self and impermanent, even though they function in different ways. Looking at it this way we can skip over the ‘mind / brain’ relationship problem…. I think(!)…. 🙂

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  8. This is a topic that interests me greatly as I have studied Western monist theories (and by the way Descartes was actually a dualist!) quite extensively as part of A-level philosophy, but am myself committed to Buddhist dualism.

    The best line of reasoning I have heard to rebut the monist perspective comes from my teacher, who was taught it by Gen-la Khyenrab. It argues as follows: a monist will contend that our mind is purely physical. So what is experience? The monist will reply that experience is simply neurophysiological processes (i.e. neurones being fired in the brain, chemical activity and so forth). This leads us to two possible conclusions, both of which are absurd. First, it could lead us to conclude that experience IS literally the neurophysiological processes which occur in our brain or body. This is absurd because our experience, for example seeing a tree, is that of seeing a tree, not of seeing neurones being fired down pathways in our brain – to say that these processes are our experience is either to say that the tree is the neural path way (which clearly is ludicrous) or to say that our experience of the tree is a complete optical illusion, and that we are not actually seeing a tree at all! All there is, is physical processes occurring in our brain. This then becomes very complex, and contrary to our everyday experience which is of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting objects all the time.

    The second possible conclusion is that experience is the product of neurophysiological processes, and yet this implies that our experience lies outside of the processes themselves, so there must be something else administering them. What is this? No answer comes from the side of science. Moreover, since our experiences are often primarily non-physical (for example thinking of the past, or of the moon in an instant) this conclusion implies that a physical process can bring about a non-physical experience, which is evidently absurd.

    On the other hand, simply to argue that when we experience things – which are often non-physical – this is because our mind is indeed non-physical and does actually experience them is far more simple, coherent, and in line with our own experience.

    As you said in your article Luna, although a relationship between the brain and mind has certainly been established by science, this does not mean that the mind and the brain are the same entity, only that there is a relationship between them. Similarly there is a relationship between the object of our sight consciousness and our eye organ, but this doesn’t mean that what we see actually IS our eye organ – it clearly isn’t! Furthermore, even when people have suffered serious physical damage to their brain their mind remains the nature of clarity and awareness, and still functions to cognize objects. This clearly indicates that the mind and the brain are separate entities.

    Of course, the best way to prove that the mind is non-physical is, as you say, to practise inner science and develop our understanding of the mind systematically through the practise of dharma until we come to realise its nature directly. As Geshela quotes in Mahamudra Tantra, in the Sutras and Mahamudra scriptures it says ‘If you realize your own mind you will become a Buddha; you should not seek Buddhahood elsewhere.’ How wonderful!

    Thank you for your article.

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  9. Very nice article, and a good summing up of the matter. This is one subject where I have had personal experience of reading Geshe-la’s words, understanding intellectually what they mean, but completely not understanding their significance! It is only after carefully re-reading these explanations that their true meaning has started to become apparent. The mind and the brain are not the same.

    Even eminent neuroscientists like Steven Novella (who I greatly admire for his work in the Skeptical movement) use ‘mind’ and ‘brain’ as interchangeable terms. When I wrote to him asking about this uncharacteristic ‘sloppiness’ in terminology, his response was that ‘the mind is what the brain does’.

    It seems to me that many scientists have decided, without the evidence needed, that the mind and the brain are effectively the same thing, and are now looking for the evidence – which is ever elusive. But in the meantime, they are rock solid in their conviction that their conclusion is correct. I think it is quite astonishing, especially in the case of Dr Novella, who is absolutely scrupulous and methodical in just about every other sense. I cannot understand this reversal of the scientific process which seems acceptable in the case of mind/brain, but completely unacceptable for everything else, where conclusions can only be reached when the evidence is there to support them. As you say – a ‘culturally formed delusion’ which is so completely embedded in the fabric of reality that it evades the notion of being challengable.

    Also, of course, the notion that one could keep the option open that the mind is something other than the brain is so ‘woo woo’ to a sincere skeptic that even acknowledging the possibility is unconscionable.

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  10. Gen Tarchin is living proof of this. His body appears ravaged by Parkinson’s disease; but his mind is clearly way above and beyond damaged nerve cells in the brain. (very inspiring for me ~ i’ve got MS)

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  11. Thank you for sharing this. 🙂 Science as far as my “mind” tells me, is incomplete. Time and again, science itself has negated and abandoned its own theories due to the fact that its outcome was unfavorable, even harmful. I think it’s a case of mind over matter~ as in literally.

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    1. It is also not possible to examine the non-physical mind with scientific equipment, which is physical. We can only do it with mental awareness. (In a way though, meditators are inner scientists as they test theories very rigorously until they get results.)

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