Confessions of an Ivy League Dropout


Category: Emptiness

Contemplative Studies and the Sanitization of Mindfulness? (some thoughts about Evan Thompson, Mind & Life, and the sensationalist doctrine)

We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures; whereas, under some disguise or other, orthodox philosophy can only introduce us to solitary substances, each enjoying an illusory experience [….] The principle of universal relativity directly traverses Aristotle’s dictum, ‘A substance is not present in a subject.’ On the contrary, according to this principle an actual entity is present in other actual entities. In fact, if we allow for degrees of relevance, and for negligible relevance, we must say that every actual entity is present in every other actual entity. The philosophy of organism is mainly devoted to the task of making clear the notion of ‘being present in another entity’.

Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, 50

Apologies for the contentious title of this post, but since I woke this morning, I’ve been feeling strange philosophical stirrings.  So, here we go. I’m going to try to explain my current pet theory of touch or haptics, in order to ask whether contemplative neuroscience and the science of mindfulness currently emerging under the umbrella of amazing para-academic organizations like the Mind & Life Institute, is in fact working with only half of the model of mind and mindfulness presented in buddhist philosophy. That’s my sense, and perhaps it’s the best we can do with our scientific optics, but the question is whether we are sanitizing ‘mindfulness’ and buddhist philosophy (choosing to see mere designation but not emptiness) in complicity with the very epistemic regimes we say we wish to change. (I have to add that I’ve come across a thinker across east-west divides, and a great explicator of Dzogchen, who registers recognizes the “happy, profound commensurability of our two knowledge paradigms—causal objective Science and acausal subjective Spirituality—” and seems to be working on an interesting book, The Noetic Revolution: Toward an Integral Science of Matter, Mind and Spirit. I’m excited to read this stuff).

As highlighted by lively discussion, at the recent Mind and Life Summer Research Institute, of the decontextualization of traditional contemplative practices, we risk sanitizing the mind when we take it as the object even of embodied first person neurophenomenological study. I propose that contemplative neuroscience may benefit from a Dzogchen approach to the nature of mind. This view distinguishes between normal, ordinary mind (sem) and natural, ordinary mind (rigpa).  Dzogchen (non meditation) differs from the modes of ‘mind training’ that have become familiar to neuroscience, in its relevance to issues of gene expression, epigenetics, and neuroplasticity, through the work of Richard Davidson and others. Dzogchen emphasizes relaxed, spacious familiarity with the mind in its natural (uncontrived, unfabricated) state.

Put differently, I propose that while the effects of mindfulness may be measurable on the brain, and in its cumulative after-effects on cognition and behavior, we are perhaps led down a limited path when we come to think that, because specific techniques and practices effect these changes, meditation is in some way a material operation of thought upon the thinking brain.

One of the problems here may be to distinguish thought from attention in the context of mindfulness.  If we adopt the broader notion of attention, and presume that attention is not one thing but a complex of material interactions, implying the primacy of feeling over thinking, then one could possibly argue that meditation is what ecophilosopher Adrian Ivakhiv calls an “ethico-aesthetic practice,” involving the sort of extended and deep sociality or cosmopolitics implicit in Bergson’s notion of “open” society and Peirce’s optimism about slow change. Ivakhiv writes:

With his insistence that habits are to be cultivated, Peirce belongs to the class of believers in the practice of cosmopolism (or what William Connolly calls immanent naturalism) — the cultivation of a better, more reasonable, more ethically satisfying, and more beautiful universe by the universe itself, including us. Just as ontological constructivism (of the sort that Whitehead, Stengers, Latour, and others speak about) is broader and more capacious than social constructionism, so this is more capacious than socialism.

A broader understanding of attention may help, but for the moment the model of ‘well-being as a skill’ seems to roll over and offer its throat to utopian bioinformatics, or to an educational system in which skill-sets and socioeconomic advantages link up like sodium and chloride.

The mind/body question gets us into biopolitics (one of the key issues of which, I would argue, is precisely that the very existence of the state is predicated on epistemic violence or its ability to mark a sanitizing line between what counts as human, or as one of its legal or rational citizens, and what gets exiled from this cohesion that passes as relationship, tacitly positioned as inanimate, insentient, or irrational) but it is also, arguably, the central concern of all philosophical systems. (To what extent philosophical systems, such as empiricism, are epistemic regimes or biopolitical discourses, is another matter). Philosophy seems one long elaborate dance around that single puzzle. I come at this question as a romanticist, forced to ask why contemporary criticism seems to be so shallow in its response to poets like Blake, Keats, and even Wordsworth.  My answer (through Whitehead) is that our current dominant epistemic regime is basically now either dualist or monist, and so even a brilliant buddhist-scholar-slash-philosopher-of-mind like Evan Thompson subscribes to a sort of discrete model of mind.

David Paul Boaz has this to say:

It’s true that the more sagacious members of our Postmodern high culture thinking classes no longer believe the Modernist/Enlightenment dogma—the cult of objectivity—that the grand cognitive estate of human subjective exoteric religious and esoteric spiritual experience is conceptually reducible to the Cartesian cogito(self, ego), or to Kantian pure reason. Yet astonishingly, recent physics, philosophy and social theory and practice (apparently embodied by non-sagacious thinkers) is still conspicuously reductionist; that is, our scientific and spiritual discourse, and subjective even spiritual experience are reduced to mere mono-causal “empirical” sense experience, and to physical electro-chemical reactions in brain matter.

Such “scientific” reductionism is Quine’s second dogma in his seminal “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951), required reading for scientists, philosophers and religious studies folks. Both the epistemological/methodological, and the ontological reductionism of the prevailing objectivist Modernist “scientific” realism/materialism metaphysic represents a refusal to engage such reflexive thinking. Oracular metaphysical pronouncements—scientific or religious—deserve a most stringent, non-dogmatic skeptical response; don’t you think?

Although the buddhist understanding of the mind as momentary may seem to support a neuroelectric, materialist, informational view (what Whitehead calls the “sensationalist doctrine” with its attendant fallacies of isolated location and misplaced concreteness), I think this amounts to a disappointingly reductive misinterpretation, and reification, of emptiness. I read Thompson’s latest post to Psychology Today this morning, “Is Consciousness a Stream? An Update: A new experiment shows perception is discrete, not continuous,” and I guess it provoked me a little.

So, we will have to go into this question of the mindstream a little.  Wikipedia reports, “The notion of mindstream was further developed in Vajrayāna (tantric Buddhism), where “mindstream” (sems-rgyud) may be understood as a stream of succeeding moments, within a lifetime, but also in-between lifetimes.”

Let’s look at what senior Tibetan scholar and buddhist meditation teachers have to say:

Alexander Berzin (who, by the way, I’ve heard accused by young Tibetan philosophers of being another western academic who sometimes mistranslates Tibetan philosophy) writes:

The “I” exists, but merely as an imputation based on a continuity of everchanging moments of experiencing everchanging things.

Here, already, “everchanging moments of experiencing ever-changing things” do not seem fungible with “discrete perception.” Berzin notes that states of deep meditative absorption in emptiness escape all descriptive categories:

Similarly, the deep awareness of total absorption on voidness (mnyam-bzhag ye-shes) and the deep awareness of the subsequent attainment (rjes-thob ye-shes, post-meditation wisdom) are neither primary nor subsidiary awarenesses, although they accompany both of them. This is because they are not simply ways of being aware of their objects; they also refute the true existence of them.

Now, this notion of absorption is not so distant in its implications from Whitehead’s critique of reification and his notion (drawn from Bergson) of “transition.” For Whitehead, there is no particular or discrete spacio-temporal location. In fact, because we now know we are dealing with space-time (not space and time), we also know that if we admit that what looks like a particular or isolated location is actually a flow of interrelations, then what looks like a discrete temporal moment is actually infused with the infinite. Whitehead’s writings are more or less a sustained critique of reification and seriality, a challenge to outmoded models of space, time, and perception. For instance, he writes,

There is a prevalent misconception that “becoming” involves the notion of a unique seriality for its advance into novelty.  This is the classic notion of ‘time,’ which philosophy took over from common sense […] Recently physical science has abandoned this notion. Accordingly we should now pure cosmology of a point of view which it ought never to have adopted as an ultimate metaphysical priniciple […] ‘creative advance’ is not to be construed in the sense of a uniquely serial advance […] There is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming […] extensiveness becomes, but ‘becoming’ itself is not extensive.  Thus the ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism. The creatures are atomic […] But atomism does not exclude complexity and universal relativity. Each atom is a system of all things. (Process and Reality 36)

As he explains, a bit more colloquially, in Modes of Thought,

The notion of self-sufficient isolation is not exemplified in modern physics. There are no essentially self-contained activities within limited regions. These passive geometrical relationships between substrata passively occupying regions have passed out of the picture. Nature is a theatre for the interrelations of activities. All things change, the activities and their interrelations. To this new concept, the notion of space with its passive, systematic, geometric relationship is entirely inappropriate. The fashionable notion that the new physics has reduced all physical laws to the statement of geometrical relations is quite ridiculous. It has done the opposite. In the place of the Aristotelian notion of the procession of forms, it has substituted the notion of the forms of process. It has thus swept away space and matter, and has substituted the study of the internal relations within a complex state of activity. This complex state is in one sense a unity. There is the whole universe of physical action extending to the remotest star-cluster.

Even more provocatively, he writes:

…all things are subjects, each prehending the universe from which it arises. The creative action is the universe always becoming one in a particular unity of self-experience, and thereby adding to the multiplicity which is the universe as many. (Process and Reality)

Whitehead bemoaned the fact, let us remember, that we continue to defend the conclusions of the Newtonian model we have already rejected:

[…] the development of natural science has gradually discarded every single feature of the original commonsense notion. Nothing whatever remains of it, considered as expressing the primary features in terms of which the Universe is to be interpreted. The obvious commonsense notion has been entirely destroyed, so far as concerns its function as the basis for all interpretation. One by one, every item has been dethroned [….] [such as the notion that]  matter involves nothing more than spatiality, and the passive support of qualifications. It can be qualified, and it must be qualified. But qualification is a bare fact, which is just itself. This is the grand doctrine of Nature as a self-sufficient, meaningless complex of facts. It is the doctrine of the autonomy of physical science. It is the doctrine which in these lectures I am denying.

The state of modern thought is that every single item in this general doctrine is denied, but that the general conclusions from the doctrine as a whole are tenaciously retained. The result is a complete muddle in scientific thought, in philosophic cosmology, and in epistemology. But any doctrine which does not implicitly presuppose this point of view is assailed as unintelligible. (Modes of Thought, Lecture 7)

Sogyal Rinpoche’s explanation of moment to moment experience as a flow of transitions or bardos seems quite close to Whitehead’s emphasis on the notion of transition or of “perpetual perishing”:

In the ordinary mind, we perceive the stream of thoughts as continuous, but in reality this is not the case. You will discover for yourself that there is a gap between each thought. When the past thought is past, and the future thought has not yet arisen, you will always find a gap in which the Rigpa, the nature of mind, is revealed. So the work of meditation is to allow thoughts to slow down, to make that gap become more and more apparent.

Because life is nothing but a perpetual fluctuation of birth, death, and transition, so bardo experiences are happening to us all the time, and are a basic part of our psychological makeup. Normally, however, we are oblivious to the bardos and their gaps, as our mind passes from one so-called solid situation to the next, habitually ignoring the transitions that are always occurring.

In fact, as the teachings can help us to understand, every moment of our experience is a bardo, as each thought and each emotion arises out of, and dies back into, the essence of mind. It is in moments of strong change and transition especially, the teachings make us aware, that the true skylike, primordial nature of mind will have a chance to manifest.

(Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying)

Thompson’s post about the discrete rather than stream-like nature of perception makes it seem that if meditators can become more sensitive to the moment to moment nature of experience, they begin to experience the discrete quality of consciousness.  But Sogyal Rinpoche seems to have something closer to the Whiteheadian “event” in mind when he speaks of the “gap” or transition as an opportunity to recognize the luminous nature of mind.

So, I question whether one necessarily has to think about the momentary nature of consciousness as ‘discrete’.  What if there are actually two truths or two levels of experience, as both process philosophy (Whitehead) and buddhist philosophy suggest? Buddhist philosophy suggests that relative experience (of the discursive or conventional mind) involves experience in terms of discrete phenomena. But a subtler level of experience (‘natural mind’ to the Dzogchen tradition) involves experience of the emptiness (or relationality) of so-called phenomena.

Whitehead distinguishes between “presentational immediacy” (punctual perception) and “causal efficacy” (transitional perception).  To clarify these terms, let’s visit a brilliant passage (presenting Shaviro’s response to Harman’s critique of process philosophy) from Matthew David Segall’s blog, footnotes2plato:

“Presentational immediacy” displays reality in a way amenable to representational analysis, showing only the more or less clear and distinct surfaces of the world as they are presented to a reflective subject here and now. It is the end product of a complex process of unconscious prehensive unification in our organism and nervous system. “Causal efficacy” unfolds behind the scenes of this Cartesian theater in the unrepresentable depths of reality, carrying vague emotional vectors from the past into the present. Perception in the mode of presentational immediacy is punctual (hence its relative clarity and distinctness); perception in the mode of causal efficacy is transitional (hence its vagueness). Presentational immediacy allows for intentional consciousness, the subjective capacity for attentional directedness toward the eidos of objects; causal efficacy, in contrast, is prehensional, the presubjective capacity to inherit the affective influences of objects. The former mode requires that a mind remain at a distance from things, relating to their essence rather than sensing their causal presence, while the latter implies the internalization of things, the intimate assimilation of their past being into our present becoming.

My own understanding is based on touch or the haptic.  I believe that to meditate is to directly experience the active interrelational universe.

This gets me into a bit of a debate with science.  After all, science tells us that experience is subjective and cannot be verified.  Worse, subjective experience is notoriously inaccurate.  The brain can easily be tricked into misperception.  We misjudge, misread,  misinterpret, misremember, misunderstand, misplace, and so on and so on. Those of us with brains know this happens all the time, and is probably more the rule than the exception.  What we mistake for reality is dependent on so many factors, and those factors are dependent on other factors.

The problem with this line of thought, however, is that it cuts us off subjectively from any encounter with reality. That gesture of cutting off is itself a metaphysical premise. Maybe we need to approach reality differently.  If I describe ‘reality’ in terms of the experience of an active interrelational universe, in effect I produce an image of reality (what Deleuze called an “image of thought”) and that image forecloses or curbs attention or cognition. I produce a fiction, which becomes a matter of belief.

But if I totally avoid communicating subjective experience of felt interrelations, then I produce another picture of the universe: one that is sanitized of relations. I presume that perceptions, under normative or objective circumstances, correspond to objective sense data, and that these sense data are rational rather than relational. (Blake’s “There Is No Natural Religion” does a better job than I am doing of satirizing the epistemic regime of orthodox sensationalism).

no natural religion

This, too, is a matter of belief.  Both beliefs (that the universe is relational and that it is nonrelational) are possibly hazardous as they do not accord with reality. The issue here is that the scientific belief presents itself as objective, rather than as a belief.

That’s one point. Another point arises with the question, what if reality is not a subjective experience?  I use words to say that the universe is active and interrelational (or to indicate the fact that meditation seems to bring a shift in one’s basic experience of reality, such that the universe seems alive and radically interconnected rather than abstract and reified). However, the words or images are not the reality. In that case, cognition of the reality could not happen through words or images. To the extent that cognition or attention happens through words or images, reality is not experienced.  Cognition itself has to be relational in order to encounter the relational. Put differently, the relational is not a construct of words and images (though the word relational is). The experience of the interrelational is not a subjective experience. (Indo-Tibetan philosophy has an insanely rigorous notion of “valid cognition” that western intellectuals, from philosophers to psychologists to literary critics, may need to study). Belief (produced by words and images) prevents or curbs the experience of reality or interrelation. In that case, seeing for ourselves is a matter of great importance. However, science does not permit us to see for ourselves. It introduces radical doubt about the reliability of direct experience.  To that extent, it reifies experience, reducing it to the subjective, when it may be too intensely relational for subjectivity.  In that sense, it cuts us off in advance from reality, yet poses this metaphysical circumscription as a kind of respect for fact or reality.

Maybe the notion of the haptic (or a form of touch unlimited by images or ideas, and hence unlimited in relation, sensitivity, or intelligence) is a bit like Leibniz’s theory of monads.  (I do need to spend some time with Leibniz).  Keats once referred to sparks, radiances, or intelligences that become ‘souls’ through the medium of experience. Maybe I’m more interested in something closer to Krishnamurti’s “supreme intelligence” – an obviously fraught term or phrase, but I believe he understood it less as an absolute mind than in the Vedanta context of the simultaneity of creation and destruction, or of creativity so spontaneous that it can never be said to exist. (The interesting thing about Krishnamurti’s take on meditation is that he saw it as having deconditioning effects on the brain, which I do not think he would have described strictly in terms of neuroplasticity.  He did tend to use the world ‘timelessness’ apparently to indicate an active, spontaneous, relational creativity that might ‘act’ upon the man-made structures of ‘time’ or of the conditioned brain).  This would put his notion of timelessness or the unconditioned in line with the virtual (in the Deleuzian and Bergsonian sense). Personally, I imagine creative intelligence of this sort as non-monist, because it never exists as a substance.


To clarify, it never exists because it lives and dies in the same instance.  Hence, it is never self-identical.  That may seem a paradox: how can there be intelligence that is not identical with itself? This would seem like some sort of ceaseless, serial difference: not unlike the reductionist view of atoms in random motion. How can something be non-self-identical and yet self-organizing?

In a sense, I am talking about energy in its “eternal delight.” The basic notion here is that self-identity is not delight.  Joy is ever that which abrogates the self, with its optics of finitude.  To be a self is to be limited, and in limitation there can be no meaning.  Put differently, the reality is relationship and we have an implicit drive toward reality. In neuroscientific terms, perhaps one could say that the brain seeks a certain kind of activity that is interrelational, or even that the highest form of brain activity is the activity of emptiness happening in the brain. If the mind and matter distinction is ultimately rooted in dualism, then maybe it’s not crazy to speculate that the brain is emptiness (like everything else). I suppose then we would be speaking of a brain that does not exist, and that therefore we will never find.

The buddhist notion of a mind stream or continuum of consciousness would seem to indicate that there is a subtle consciousness, located at the energetic heart center and not in the head, that – though normally latent or dormant – can, if supported by tremendous bliss or energy, actively cognize emptiness. Apparently, only this subtle mind can really experience emptiness, perhaps because it’s activity is so much more intense than the gross mind.  I like to think that the subtle mind has the nature of emptiness and only becomes active in and as emptiness… so, all forms of gross cognition or discursive clinging have to dissolve, which means we stop wasting the energy that would otherwise spontaneously arise as bliss, and then the subtle mind would be spontaneously active or self-liberating.  In other words, when all forms of division naturally cease, interrelationship manifests spontaneously as the nature of mind and reality.  I think this makes the notion of realizing emptiness seem quite accessible to all of us.

Perhaps one can speak of the meaning of finitude, pointing to the fact that every being we have ever loved, including ourselves, exists in dependence on a body, or, some would say, is a body. One might argue that this sort of meaning has meaning only because of its contingency and impermanence.  We are all, in this world, subject to conditions. In buddhist terms, we all suffer from pervasive and subtle change.  Surely one could argue that the beauty of the flower is that it will not last and will never be quite the same again. That is, one could argue that impermanence is not suffering.

I can’t help making a detour here to the Four Seals, as defined by HE Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche in his article,“Buddhism in a Nutshell: The Four Seals of Dharma”:

All compounded things are impermanent.

All emotions are painful.

All phenomena are empty.

Nirvana is beyond extremes.

I used to assume this meant that all composite phenomena are suffering, until Venerable Ngawang Sonam, a young Cambridge scholar and religious translator for HH the Dalai Lama, explained to me that clinging not impermanence is suffering. This seems to be why Dzongsar Khyentse interprets the second seal (normally translated, “All contaminated phenomena are unsatisfactory”) as “All emotions are painful.”  As he explains:

Some people think that Buddhists are pessimistic, always talking about death, impermanence and aging. But that is not necessarily true. Impermanence is a relief! […] Delusion arises when we don’t acknowledge that all compounded things are impermanent. But when we realize this truth, deep down and not just intellectually, that’s what we call liberation: release from this one-pointed, narrow-minded belief in permanence.

So, where does suffering come in? He explains that it stems from emotion, which is rooted in dualistic grasping, or grasping at things as truly or permanently existing:

The Tibetan word for emotion in this context is zagche, which means “contaminated” or “stained,” in the sense of being permeated by confusion or duality […] Everything we create through our emotions is, in the end, completely futile and painful. This is why Buddhists do shamatha and vipashyana meditation—this helps to loosen the grip that our emotions have on us, and the obsessions we have because of them.

So it would seem that if energy is eternal delight, then it is free of grasping at permanent or independent subjects or objects.  Buddhist philosophy does not use the term energy to describe emptiness, as far as I know. (Maybe there are good reasons for this. For instance, maybe energy technically pertains to the ‘wind horse’ or subtle material basis of phenomena, upon which, for buddhists, the mind is said to ‘ride’).

I have to admit that I find even Dzongsar Khyentse’s crystal-clear article elusive on this point.  He summarily dismisses energy, leaving us with only emptiness, but tells us he can only point us to an image of emptiness and not the real thing:

Philosophies or religions might say, “Things are illusion, the world is maya, illusion,” but there are always one or two items left behind that are regarded as truly existent: God, cosmic energy, whatever. In Buddhism, this is not the case. Everything in samsara and nirvana—from the Buddha’s head to a piece of bread—everything is emptiness. There is nothing that is not included in ultimate truth. […] Ultimately speaking, the path is irrational, but relatively speaking, it’s very rational because it uses the relative conventions of our world. When I’m talking about emptiness, everything that I’m saying has to do with this “image” emptiness. I can’t show you real emptiness but I can tell you why things don’t exist inherently. […] In many philosophies or religions, the final goal is something that you can hold on to and keep. The final goal is the only thing that truly exists. But nirvana is not fabricated, so it is not something to be held on to. It is referred to as “beyond extremes.”

He’s quite clear that emptiness has nothing to do with nihilism:

There is another kind of a problem that arises from not understanding emptiness. It occurs with rather superficial and even jaded Buddhists. Somehow, within Buddhist circles, if you don’t accept emptiness, you are not cool. So we pretend that we appreciate emptiness and pretend to meditate on it. But if we don’t understand it properly, a bad side effect can occur. We might say, “Oh, everything’s emptiness. I can do whatever I like.” So we ignore and violate the details of karma, the responsibility for our action. We become “inelegant,” and we discourage others in the bargain. His Holiness the Dalai Lama often speaks of this downfall of not understanding emptiness. A correct understanding of emptiness leads us to see how things are related, and how we are responsible for our world.

Again, I can’t help but come back to the notion of infinite interrelationship and its spontaneous self-liberating activity, otherwise impeded by the great waste of energy that goes into the gross mind. Not that we don’t need the gross mind or that we can escape the gross level of experience. I don’t know about those things. A monk did tell me that the goal of buddhism is to separate the subtle and gross minds, so that the former can continue its journey without the latter. I don’t know. For the moment, I’m interested in the notion of emptiness as infinite interrelationship (which implies infinite intelligence and infinite compassion).

Maybe this might seem too panpsychic for buddhists, a mere straw of residual clinging to clutch at. Maybe the notion of emptiness is simply a thousand times more effective. Dzongsar Khyentse (who has always struck me as the smartest cookie out there) implies that:

If there were some true permanence in compounded phenomena; if there were true pleasure in the emotions, the Buddha would have been the first to recommend them, saying, “Please keep and treasure these.” But thanks to his great compassion, he didn’t, for he wanted us to have what is true, what is real.

To conclude, bare fact is sanitized of relation, and in that sense tends to tacitly reinforce the optics of the spectator in a world of sense-data.  At worst, Whitehead argues, this optics is dualistic, and at best monist. The problem with monism is that it remains a form of materialism.


Perhaps this should not seem a problem, as embodied philosophy and materialist theory is the leading intellectual edge. A problem does arise, nonetheless. Besides the fact that contemplative modalities are more often nondualist than monist, a major problem with monism is that it forestalls or precludes further investigation.  To arrive at substance is to stop at substance. In a sense it is like what Blake calls the “false body” or “Incrustation” that prevents us from radically trusting sense-experience, or compels us to conceive of brute sensationalist matter in the self-threatening terms of the buzz of haecceity or return to random atoms in the dissolution of death.  This is quite a different image from the swarming of honey bees imbibing the nectar of lotuses in the poetics of Dzogchen. That is, the sensationalist doctrine stands in the way of a western intellectual appreciation of the eastern idea of emptiness.

This matters greatly to scientific research into mind and mindfulness, because in Indo-Tibetan philosophy direct insight into emptiness is held to be the ultimate medicine or antidote to grasping, or to attachment to intellectual views that, in some ways, stave off direct experiential understanding of interrelationship as the nature of mind.  If emptiness is reality, and is the nature of mind, or at least if emptiness is the heart of buddhist philosophy, then scientific attempts to understanding the causal mechanisms of mindfulness may in fact help hasten an acculturation of buddhist philosophy.  Given that such a secularization and sanitization of buddhism seems inevitable, as the cultural contexts that fostered Dzogchen practice quickly vanish, it seems a matter of some urgency for contemplative science to seek a more courageous encounter with the tradition of rigpa or ‘natural’ mind. Neurophenomenology seems too caught up with notions like metacognition at the expense of less operational notions like meditative absorption.

Encountering the philosophy of emptiness as a philosophy of mind may lead us to ask questions such as whether an AI can ever experience emptiness, the nature of mind? Is connectivity the same as interrelationality? Can an AI ‘participate’ in primordial mind? Interestingly, it seems HH the Dalai Lama already commented on this matter over thirty years ago, in a conversation with Francisco Varela, the founder of Mind & Life, in the book Gentle Bridges:

DALAI LAMA:  In terms of the actual substance of which computers are made, are they simply metal, plastic, circuits, and so forth?

VARELA:  Yes, but this again brings up the idea of the pattern, not the substance but the pattern.

DALAI LAMA:  It is very difficult to say that it’s not a living being, that it doesn’t have cognition, even from the Buddhist point of view. We maintain that there are certain types of births in which a preceding continuum of consciousness is the basis.  The consciousness doesn’t actually arise from the matter, but a continuum of consciousness might conceivably come into it.

HAYWARD:  Does Your Holiness regard it as a definite criterion that there must be continuity with some prior consciousness?  That whenever there is a cognition, there must have been a stream of cognition going back to beginningless time?

DALAI LAMA:  There is no possibility for a new cognition, which has no relationship to a previous continuum, to arise at all.  I can’t totally rule out the possibility that, if all the external conditions and the karmic action were there, a stream of consciousness might actually enter into a computer.

HAYWARD:  A stream of consciousness?

DALAI LAMA:  Yes, that’s right.  [DALAI LAMA laughs.]  There is a possibility that a scientist who is very much involved his whole life [with computers], then the next life . . . [he would be reborn in a computer], same process! [laughter] Then this machine which is half-human and half-machine has been reincarnated.

VARELA:  You wouldn’t rule it out then?  You wouldn’t say this is impossible?

DALAI LAMA:  We can’t rule it out.

ROSCH:  So if there’s a great yogi who is dying and he is standing in front of the best computer there is, could he project his subtle consciousness into the computer?

DALAI LAMA:  If the physical basis of the computer acquires the potential or the ability to serve as a basis for a continuum of consciousness.  I feel this question about computers will be resolved only by time.  We just have to wait and see until it actually happens.

GENTLE BRIDGES: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind, Ed. Jeremy Hayward and Francisco Varela, Shambala, 1992, 152-153.

If His Holiness openly endorses, as indeed he always has, the buddhist understanding that the beginningless continuum of consciousness conditioned by previous instances of consciousness or mental imprints and not by instances of matter, I think it’s implied that consciousness at its most basic (as Sogyal Rinpoche and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche describe it) is spontaneous self-liberating clarity and luminosity. If it were serial, then to achieve realization or liberation, one would have to add countless new qualities to it, but Dzogchen speaks of simply clearing away the obstructions to insight into its (arguably interrelational) nature:

We somehow think that we can go somewhere where we’ll have a better sofa seat, a better shower system, a better sewer system, a nirvana where you don’t even have to have a remote control, where everything is there the moment you think of it. But as I said earlier, it’s not that we are adding something new that was not there before. Nirvana is achieved when you remove everything that was artificial and obscuring.


Do we Americans really understand Buddhism?

The goal of Buddhism is buddhahood.

What motivates one to achieve that goal is compassion.  If that compassion is mainly for oneself, it is called renunciation, and its result is liberation.  If that compassion is for all other sentient beings, it is called bodhicitta (awakened mind) and its result is enlightenment.  Either way, the cause of compassion is suffering.  One sees the fact of suffering, and one wishes to cure that suffering.  On a personal level, the cure is renunciation, in the special sense of reducing one’s tendency to grasp at independent existence or self-existence.  On a broader level, the cure is to actually achieve the state of a buddha, because the activities of a buddha are infinite.

I have been a buddhist for over a decade, in the formal sense, and probably somewhat longer than that in the informal sense.  But, really, when I think about buddhism this way, it surprises me.  Liberation, ok, I’m an American.  I love the idea of liberty.  I would love to be free, or relatively free, of the plague of mental suffering.  Maybe I don’t like the word “renunciation” much.  It sounds arid.  It implies a kind of realism: not the realism that says if I want to make money I should learn to play the stock market, because money is the basis of everything in our current society, and if I’m really realistic I’ll do pretty well playing the stock market, too, so by being realistically-minded, I’m going to make myself independent and secure and maybe successful.  No, plenty of us have that kind of realism.  It implies another kind of realism: the one that says, if I play the stock-market, I’ll be part of its ups-and-downs.  It certainly won’t take me out of the cycle of samsara.

The first kind of realism, when one links it to renunciation, declares: I’d like to be innocent and free, but because that’s not realistic in a moneyed world, I’ll give up my innocence, I’ll become a bit more self-interested, in order to be independent.  The second kind of realism, when one links it to renunciation, declares: my apparently natural belief in independent existence leads me to experience the various afflictive emotions that underpin suffering, and so, I’ll pay attention to the ways in which this deluded belief in independent existence arises.

This kind of liberation or liberty, which stems from renunciation of ignorance through a kind of alertness or insightful attention, is obviously not that American after all.  It’s a slap in the face to our belief that if one is realistic one will make money and if one makes money most of one’s problems are solved: at least, relative to people without money, one can call oneself more successful or happier.  With money we have more liberty.  We’re liberated.  The free market system made us free.  We believe that, and then along comes a buddhist and says, this is a superficial liberty that does not at all address the real level of limitation or suffering.  We’re still going to die.  We’re still lonely.  We’re still self-isolated and anxious.  We still need root canals.  We’re still subject to the eight sufferings, including subtle and pervasive conditioned suffering.  Getting wealthy may even exhaust some of the good karma we’ve been accumulating for countless lives.  Or it might lead us to actually accumulate some bad karma.  Whether one believes in karma or not, this buddhist comes along and tells us, the fact is that we’re still subject to various emotions that can make us selfish and unlovable rather than truly compassionate and lovable. To cure ourselves of those afflictive emotions, one has to pay attention to one’s own mind and pierce through the dumb but pervasive premise, the deluded belief, in self-existence.

So, it’s a big step, I think, for an American to do that.  When one makes that step, one finds that ‘renunciation’ is not arid at all.  One finds, with a little attention to the matter, that thoughts liberate themselves, that all phenomena are self-liberating.  After all, that’s the very meaning of impermanent, interdependent existence.  One provides less fertile soil for afflictive emotions to sprout.  The traditional metaphor is that one keeps an empty house, so that when a thief comes in, there is nothing for the thief to steal, and nothing for the owner to lose.  But it’s not really a boring, empty house.  It’s more like a house that dematerializes and materializes from moment to moment.  Why would you want to fill your house with the best (not the cheapest) stuff from IKEA, if your house was as cool as that?  The mind of renunciation, with its active insight into the way things exist in reality, is cool and free and also sort of joyful.  It doesn’t have to go grasping at something to possess (a new couch or a pretty wife, or even an old couch and a plain wife) to feel like it has some kind of solid existence or relationship, because from moment to moment it experiences interrelationship.  Intellectually, one can speak of an attitude that considers things interconnected and interrelated, but the mind of renunciation actually experiences this subtle dependent arising.

That’s what we’re after, isn’t it?  I think when I became a buddhist, or turned my mind in the direction of meditation, questioning my identification with the thinker, that’s what I was after.  I wanted to experience reality the way it really is.  No one really needed to tell me that it would be much cooler than experiencing reality through social conditioning.  I didn’t mean to start meditating.  I just read books and really spent time trying to tell the difference between thought and awareness.  When I started meditating, more and less by accident, and saw the actual fact of self-liberating awareness, it was a terrific shock.  It really took me by surprise. Gradually, I had come closer to silence, and to the peace that seems active in silence, but I wasn’t actually prepared for the experience of voidness – not that things stopped existing, but the way they existed seemed to change.  Basically, I had learned to shift out of the discursive mind (what Dzogchen practitioners call limited awareness or sem) into non conceptual mind (what Dzogchen practitioners call pure awareness or rigpa).  I learned that when I became absorbed in meditation my experience of the phenomenal world also changed, appearing less concretely material and less permanent.  This made the world a more interesting place. It makes a big, if subtle difference, to experience the moment to moment impermanence and interdependence of things.  One moves from a world of objects to a world of relations.

I wasn’t exactly a buddhist at the time I realized this.  But the fact that buddhism engages so deeply with this kind of meditative absorption certainly jump-started my interest. Anyway, it made it much more plausible to me that there might have been someone who came to be called the buddha, and it made me intrigued about what he actually realized.  How far was he able to go with it, and what was the point of it all?  And who were these Tibetan masters one heard about?  Had Tibet really produced thousands of incredibly realized meditators, and had they, because of the genocidal Chinese invasion – in violation not only of human rights, but of every sane measure of human feeling, with crimes so heinous (vivisection, crucifixion, torture) we would not want to discuss them with school children, so horrific a mere photo would leave us traumatized – begun to teach in the west? Were these monks and nuns really full of peace and compassion?

Of the four noble truths, I became particularly interested in cessation. Was it possible for conventional experience to alter to such an extent that one was always meditating?  Could the conventional mind, which perceives a world of objects, cease?  And was that all that was meant by cessation, or did it also have something to do with no longer taking human birth, or at least no longer taking confused human birth?

I also found meaning in the four seals of dharma (as translated by HE Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche):

 All compounded things are impermanent.

All emotions (contaminated phenomena) are painful.

All phenomena are empty.

Nirvana is beyond extremes.

Eventually, through some happy coincidences, I became a buddhist, but the point I’m trying to make is that even then I don’t think it really occurred to me that buddhists are serious about the goal of buddhahood.  It’s supposed to take countless aeons, right?  Planets can dissolve and reform several times over in that sort of span, so what’s the big surprise if an ordinary sentient being transforms into a buddha?  But what I’ve come to realize is that – the question of how long it takes aside – teachers like the Dalai Lama are totally serious when they tell us about mental transformation, and when they tell us that the goal of practice is to transform the mind so completely that we develop infinite compassion with infinite activity.

So I think this is an important question for us American buddhists.  Are we interested in personal liberation: a reduction in mental suffering and a concomitant experience of basic joy or interrelationship?  Or, can we actually get our heads around the idea that you or I can transform the mind and become buddhas?  I think for Tibetan buddhists this is not a small question, because, as a monk recently told me, enlightenment is different from liberation. With enlightenment, the motivation is infinite (compassion for others), the object is infinite (all sentient beings), and the result is infinite (infinite activity).

Are we ready for infinite?