Buddhism and Brain Science

by Russell Rodgers

Most of us believe that our minds are in our heads. We have been told that our brains are biological computers—like the ones in our electronic devices, just more complex. When we get into this mode of thinking, it is hard to see meaning in life: it’s programmed and mechanical. Love becomes a chemical reaction. The beauty and magic of the natural world is seen as a subjective survival trait. Probably a pill will be discovered to create meditative bliss and well-being. Probably the feeling of being open, aware and basically good is just a chemical reaction.
Scientists like to examine things that are measurable using instruments. For them, finding magic and subjective meaning is outside their domain and possibly suspect. Many would be inclined to say. “It’s all in your head: there’s really nothing there. It’s just your subjective psychology based on cultural programming and your DNA.”
This raises an interesting point about subjectivity. Recently, scientists have been able to map the brain to the point where, using sensors, they can tell roughly what kinds of thoughts you are thinking. However, we need to be clear here: what they are looking at is blips on an instrument screen. They are not experiencing thoughts as we do, within awareness. Using instruments, scientists look at the mind from the outside. We look at it from inside our own awareness. We gather evidence from on-the-spot, subjective, felt experience.
There’s another issue here. Because of a bias towards matter-based explanations, scientists tend to attribute the cause for thoughts to brain matter. We could, in fact, reverse the causality. It is just as logical to say that mind caused the brain activity. What we have here is an observation that brain activity and thoughts happen at the same time. This is not the same as causality. It is a correlation.
Furthermore, no scientist has been able to find consciousness itself. From the Buddhist point of view, this is not surprising. In the scriptures, it says that wakefulness is always there, not created by anyone. Yes, it can be temporarily obscured by thoughts, but it is always there, like the sun above the clouds. Furthermore, Buddhists say that it is like empty space, but wakeful, intelligent in a pre-thought way, and possessing of warmth towards others. Since this level of awareness is not a thing, it has no location. Even the Buddha couldn’t find it.
It is true that if you destroy that area of the brain where thoughts seem to occur, then both the blips on the screen and the subjective experience of thoughts will also change. From the Buddhist point of view, thoughts originate dependently—they arise as a result of past habituation and present circumstances coming together. If any of those conditions change, so will the thoughts that seemingly spontaneously arise. So Buddhists are quite willing to accept that thoughts arise dependently. It’s not a great stretch to imagine that brain matter could be part of that dependence.
In contrast to the surface impression of thoughts, most mahayana and vajrayana schools would say that the basic nature of the thoughts, underneath the conceptual content, does not depart in nature from the empty consciousness that produced them. These schools compare thoughts and consciousness as similar to waves on the surface of the ocean. Conditions come together to cause waves, but their fundamental nature is the same as still water. One notices this empty quality when one becomes aware of a thought in meditation. The thought becomes transparent and empty, but a knowing, aware quality remains. This is the same quality that pervades all experience. So what we are saying here is that the conceptual and perceptual appearances in mind change, but the nature doesn’t. This nature has intelligence and warmth in a pre-thought sort of way. From this point of view, what brain scientists are looking at is just the appearances.
In order to go any further in this discussion, we need to look more deeply into the mind-as-brain model. We need to look at the logic of this model, and also at the unstated assumptions behind it.
In our brain-based understanding of mind, images of the world are formed in the brain on the basis of electronic impulses coming through the nerves from the sense organs. According to this model, we are not looking at an external world but at images.
In this model, from the point of view of our immediate experience, now, as you read this, there is no identifiable location for mind: it is all mind. The text you are reading now is images in the mind, the external world is mind, thoughts are mind, and, importantly, the impression of a self that is looking out at the world is also mind. Whatever you experience is mind. If you want to escape this trap, it’s your mind trying to escape.


Perhaps there is a world out there beyond mind, but we don’t actually experience it. We only experience what is in our minds. Many masters in our tradition say that the reality we experience is deeply habitual patterns that behave like what we call “matter”. If you have ever had an intense dream that was also lucid, you know that our minds are able to project images that are indistinguishable from waking reality. Because the images in our waking minds are vivid, seem to have logical relationships to each other, and follow predictable patterns, we call them “matter”. This apparent solidity is in contrast to the flighty thoughts on the surface of our minds. This view is similar to the Chittamatra mind-only school. This school uses elaborate arguments to support its view, but the scientific logic is actually simpler and more familiar, so we’ll stick with logical extensions of that model. Although they would agree that all experience is mind, scientists go further than the Chittamatrans by assuming that there is a world outside the mind. Buddhists tend to agree, disagree, or leave it as an open question, depending on the context.
Going back to the observation that everything we actually experience is happening in mind, we can imagine that awareness might contract around the impression of a personal self that looks out at the world. In other words, awareness becomes extremely focused. Also imagine that in doing so, it completely misses the background field of bigger awareness that manifests and includes both self and other. This is easy to do since it is hard to see the empty field of mind itself, precisely because it is an empty field.
As an example, we could use a mirror. The world “out there” is like images or reflections in a mirror. The mirror in this case is a traditional Buddhist analogy for mind. If a mirror was so big that you couldn’t see the edges, you wouldn’t know it was there. You would only see the reflections and you would think they were real. Likewise the background space of mind is hard to see because it is just space until an image has formed. Note that we are using a Buddhist definition of mind here: mind as cognizant awareness and the ability to manifest thoughts and appearances. Before the images appear, there isn’t much to see.
When awareness is mistaken as a self, it will tend to feel localized, looking out at an external world. From the point of view of the self, the world is experienced dualistically as “out there”. From the Chittamatran point of view of the whole field of awareness, self and other are both mind and are therefore non-dual.

The Yogi’s Job

I think it is worthwhile to point out here that one of the main jobs of a Buddhist yogi is to investigate awareness to see if it in fact comes from a localized self. For ourselves as beginners, we do have a sense of a localized watcher. We even put it to work in mindfulness meditation. But for highly trained meditators, non-localized awareness, also known as dharmakaya or cosmic mirror, becomes evident as the mind becomes sharper and less intoxicated with its thoughts. Based on attaining stability through shamatha, one can look directly at the sense of focused, localized awareness–the watcher– to see if it actually exists. This is important for Buddhists because having a self is a high maintenance project. Because of this high maintenance aspect, anxiety and suffering are integral to maintaining a self.

Matter and Spirit

I also think it is worth pointing out that according to our scientific model, what you are experiencing right now, in this very moment, is matter thinking, feeling, and being aware. If that is the case, then what do we really know about matter? In our ordinary conception of matter, can it think, feel, be aware, and experience love?
One of the issues here is linguistic in nature. “Matter” is a noun. When we label something as a “thing” we conceptually pick it out from it’s surroundings, as though it had independent existence. For instance, a Martian landing on earth might see trees as extensions of the earth. For us, the label “tree” suggests that trees have separate existence from the earth. Scientists know intellectually that trees are part of a web of relationships. They are actually a process, not static things. This misconception applies doubly to us as human beings.
Another part of the background to our understanding of the world of matter might be related to the monotheism that subtly saturates our culture. With the exception of some mystical monotheists, most do not see form and matter as the Body of God. Instead, God created the firmament and then left it to run itself according to mechanical principals, but with occasional nudges. For instance, we might pray to Him to intervene in the natural order to save us from some natural disaster. By and large, though, His universe runs according to principles of mechanics. Originally, it was the scientist’s job to interpret those principals based on what can be measured with the senses, or by instruments that are extensions of their senses.
In our predominately secular age, science continues to function with many of the same basic assumptions. Our exploitation of the mechanical model of the universe has greatly changed our lives. But it has also left gaping holes in our relationship.
In contrast to most religions, our monotheistic background does not normally mix spirit into, for instance, the earth. We do not believe, as the Chinese do, that the earth has chi, or as the Japanese do, that spirit or kami inhabit natural features. Aboriginal people all over the world experience spirit embedded in nature. Tibetans talk about felt presence, or drala. Our culture is the exception, probably because western religion has tended to be defensive towards the pagan competition.
What we know about matter depends on our senses, but they operate only in certain frequencies and inputs, and on a Newtonian level, not a quantum level. And, after all, we are only looking at the images. On top of that, our conceptual framework has a big influence on our attitudes towards what we experience. For instance, if we think that matter is, well, just matter, and that life is a completely mechanical process, we will tend to experience a world without meaning, and miss the magic of being alive. There is no room in this view for love, only chemicals.
We might consider what will happen to the world environment in the long run if we don’t have love for its natural functioning. Because of our technological domination over nature, we would have to become super-educated about ecology and super-rational in order to manage the complexity of the ecosystem. Our electorates and our politicians so far do not reflect that.
Without love and intrinsic respect, it is almost impossible to imagine humans being able master the kind of rational thinking that the
The scientific model doesn’t allow subjective values to interfere with “objective” analysis. That would be a violation of its own methodology. So the natural environment doesn’t have intrinsic spiritual value. Of course, most humans do value survival of our species, but we live in a civilization that has immense power over nature. To manage that relationship for long term survival in a technological, democratic society requires an extremely high level of ecological knowledge and extremely rational thinking on the part of the citizens.
Perhaps we need to lighten up on the notion that mind is essentially matter-based and therefore essentially mechanical. Or, maybe there is something lacking in our everyday understanding of “matter”. After all, our knowledge of it is indirect, based on images in our minds and the limits of our sensory apparatus. Perhaps mind is not even derived from matter, or perhaps matter is alive and conscious in some way that we don’t perceive. There is room left for mystery here.

Our Practice

As meditators, we can appreciate and hold multiple perspectives, including the scientific one. We can do this because we know that what actually exists is separate from our concepts about it. We do not have to let concepts substitute for the reality of actual experience. We do not have to let them solidify the aliveness of life.
We can appreciate the usefulness of each perspective to understand our experience, without being caught in the limitations of that perspective. Science has been incredibly useful for us technologically, but leaving things open allows phenomena to play. It allows us to be surprised and take delight as events present themselves on the spot. Probably, if you were able to ask them in a relaxed moment, most good scientists would admit that that is also their underlying motivation for doing what they do.