Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Emptiness of the Mind in Kadampa Buddhism

The Kadampa Buddhist definition of Mind is 

"Mind - That which is clarity and cognizes. Mind is clarity because it always lacks form and because it possesses the actual power to perceive objects. Mind cognizes because its function is to know or perceive objects."

Modern Buddhism

In Modern Buddhism Volume 1, p109Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says that as well as understanding how physical things (including our bodies) are empty of inherent existence and ultimately unfindable, we should also understand that the mind is similarly unfindable upon analysis.  

The primary mind is like an empty space that perceives or understands objects. It is not so much a 'thing' as a process, 'an ever-changing continuum' or 'mindstream'. The main cause of the present moment of mind is the previous moment of mind.  

The primary mind of a sentient being is known as the 'root mind', from which all thoughts and other temporary minds (such as minds of anger and attachment) arise, and into which they eventually dissolve.

So the root mind is...
(i) Clear and Formless 

(ii) Cognizing
(iii) Devoid of 'inherent existence' (or any defining essence)
(iv) A process rather than a 'thing'.
Geshe Kelsang recommends meditating on the emptiness of the mind as a means of understanding the emptiness of all phenomena:

"This unfindability is its ultimate nature, or emptiness. We then think: All phenomena that appear to my mind are the nature of my mind. My mind is the nature of emptiness.  In this way we feel that everything dissolves into emptiness. We perceive only the emptiness of all phenomena and we meditate on this emptiness. This way of meditating on emptiness is more profound than the meditation on the emptiness of our body. Gradually our experience of emptiness will become clearer and clearer until finally we gain an undefiled wisdom that directly realizes the emptiness of all phenomena."

When I first read these teachings on emptiness of the mind I was rather puzzled.  Buddhism claims that everything ultimately depends upon the mind, and yet the mind is not findable by analysis.   Surely there must be something fundamental down at rock-bottom on which all phenomena are based?

Then I realised I was slipping into the error of reification - expecting there to be an inherently existing mind.   Looked at logically, the mind can be no more inherently existant than anything else.   The same arguments apply as they do to material things - anything that was permanent and unchangeable could neither act nor be acted upon.   The root mind is not a thing, it is a process, albeit a non-procedural (hence non-physical) process.

Not only is the mind empty of inherent existence, it is also empty of form or structure, though it can cognize forms and structures as internally generated images

In Transform Your Mind  Geshe Kelsang  says   "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."

'Cognizing' implies intentionality or 'aboutness'. Physical systems, including machines, are not in themselves 'about' anything. The apparent 'aboutness' of a physical system is projected onto it by the mind of its user.

The lack of inherent existence of the mind means that it has no defining essence, nothing to 'keep it as it is', so it can unobstructedly perceive all objects including those of its own creation. The mind can be 'about' anything whatsoever. This lack of defining essence, combined with lack of structure, allows the mind to change, expand, have freewill, and be creative.

From an article by Kadampa Working Dad:

"...Emptiness greatly increases the effectiveness of our concentration.  We normally grasp at inherently existent objects of Dharma, inherently existent meditating minds and inherently existent meditaters.  If an object of Dharma is inherently existent, then it is actually impossible for a mind to concentrate on it because the object of Dharma is separate from the mind. If a mind is inherently existent, it cannot mix with any object because doing so would change it and inherently existent things are unchangeable.  And if the meditater is inherently existent then they could never benefit from their mind meditating on objects of virtue because there would be no connection between the meditater and their mind.  But when we realize the emptiness of these three, it becomes very easy for our mind, its object and ourselves the meditater to all mix together like water mixes with water.  It was discussed above how mind and its object are like two aspects of the same entity.  We also naturally impute our I onto our mind.  So if the only object of our mind is the object of our meditation (meaning we have perfect concentration) and we naturally impute our I onto our mind (which in this case is the subject/object union) then we literally become our object of meditation.  The meditater, his object and his mind are three different aspects of the same entity.  This reveals an extremely powerful effect of concentration combined with an understanding of emptiness:  we become that which we concentrate on.  If we concentrate on love, we become a loving person; if we concentrate on compassion, we become a compassionate person; if we concentrate on the deity in our Highest Yoga Tantra practice, we become the deity.  If we understand this clearly, we will find it effortless to generate the desire to train in concentration."

When meditating, it is important not to confuse the clarity of the mind with its emptiness.   Contemplating a still mind devoid of all conceptual thoughts is not the same as contemplating the emptiness of the mind.   In the first case 'form' has been negated, in the second case 'inherent existence' has been negated.

Contemplating an empty mind devoid of conceptual thoughts can be a pleasant sensation, and it is instructive up to a point in terms of understanding the mind's clarity, but as a long-term meditational practice it is a dead-end.    The pitfalls of confusing emptiness with clarity (a fallacy that was taught by a monk named Hashang) are explained in Ocean of Nectar  p171.

A Double-Whammy against the mechanistic model of the mind

The physical,  mechanistic sciences construct their models, predictions and explanations by abstracting and reducing the numerous natural instances of processes operating on structures, into a few generic procedures operating on data.

Hence physical explanations are impossible to construct, will fail, or will be inapplicable as 'category errors' for any phenomena where...

(i) Structures cannot be reduced to data
(ii) Processes cannot be reduced to procedures

The formless nature of the mind gives a double-whammy to any attempts to construct a deterministic physical or mechanistic explanation for the mind.

The first whammy is obvious: something totally lacking in form cannot be expressed as a structure. 

Then there's the second whammy: algorithms and procedures are themselves ultimately structural.  In the Universal Turing machine (to which all other information processing machines are functionally equivalent) the algorithms take the form of state-transition tables, and the Turing machine populates its empty state-transition tables by reading them in from its data tape.

These whammies may explain why The Hard Problem is so hard that it is insoluble by science. The root process of consciousness is not even in principle reducible to a procedural form (it is 'non-algorithmic'). Consequently, attempts at physical or mechanistic explanations are a category error. 

For a discussion of why the mind is a non-physical, fundamental aspect of the universe which is not derived from anything else, see Confronting Materialism and the Delusion of the Mechanistic Mind, and for a clear description of the difference between mind and machine (useful when debating with materialists) see "When the body dies, the 'mechanism' of the body holding the spirit is gone, and the spirit finds a new body sooner or later, perhaps immediately." 

- Sean Robsville

Related Articles

Modern Buddhism

Intentionality ('Aboutness') and Mental Designation

Shared Etymology of 'Meaning' and 'Mind'

Mind and Mechanism – Buddhism and the Turing Machine

Conceptual Designation 

Mysterians, Mysterianism and the Mystery of the Mind

Qualia - Objective versus Subjective Experience

Objections to Computationalism

Secular Buddhism, Materialism, Physicalism, Naturalism etc



Amka Gabriel said...

Buddhism is very interesting theme at your blog. I like it because give an aufklarung to my knowledge.

ale said...

I found interesting analogy in Christian philosophy. Founded on article on Italian catholic newspaper

Man is not a machine. Note that claim to break through this limit is linked to the identification of mathematics with formal logic, which instead is only one aspect of human reason and the logical procedures included in a computer are actually predetermined and do not have any degree of autonomy from the programmer

seanrobsville said...


The article in the Catholic newspaper is probably referring to Gödel's theorem

From Minds, Machines and Gödel by J R Lucas

'Gödel's theorem seems to me to prove that Mechanism is false, that is, that minds cannot be explained as machines. So also has it seemed to many other people: almost every mathematical logician I have put the matter to has confessed to similar thoughts, but has felt reluctant to commit himself definitely until he could see the whole argument set out, with all objections fully stated and properly met.1 This I attempt to do.

Gödel's theorem states that in any consistent system which is strong enough to produce simple arithmetic there are formulae which cannot {44} be proved-in-the-system, but which we can see to be true. Essentially, we consider the formula which says, in effect, "This formula is unprovable-in-the-system". If this formula were provable-in-the-system, we should have a contradiction: for if it were provablein-the-system, then it would not be unprovable-in-the-system, so that "This formula is unprovable-in-the-system" would be false: equally, if it were provable-in-the-system, then it would not be false, but would be true, since in any consistent system nothing false can be provedin-the-system, but only truths. So the formula "This formula is unprovable-in-the-system" is not provable-in-the-system, but unprovablein-the-system. Further, if the formula "This formula is unprovablein- the-system" is unprovable-in-the-system, then it is true that that [256] formula is unprovable-in-the-system, that is, "This formula is unprovable-in-the-system" is true.

The foregoing argument is very fiddling, and difficult to grasp fully: it is helpful to put the argument the other way round, consider the possibility that "This formula is unprovable-in-the-system" might be false, show that that is impossible, and thus that the formula is true; whence it follows that it is unprovable. Even so, the argument remains persistently unconvincing: we feel that there must be a catch in it somewhere. The whole labour of Gödel's theorem is to show that there is no catch anywhere, and that the result can (113) be established by the most rigorous deduction; it holds for all formal systems which are (i) consistent, (ii) adequate for simple arithmetic---i.e., contain the natural numbers and the operations of addition and multiplication---and it shows that they are incomplete--- i.e., contain unprovable, though perfectly meaningful, formulae, some of which, moreover, we, standing outside the system, can see to be true.

Gödel's theorem must apply to cybernetical machines, because it is of the essence of being a machine, that it should be a concrete instantiation of a formal system. It follows that given any machine which is consistent and capable of doing simple arithmetic, there is a formula which it is incapable of producing as being true---i.e., the formula is unprovable-in-the-system-but which we can see to be true. It follows that no machine can be a complete or adequate model of the mind, that minds are essentially different from machines...'

For the convergence of Buddhist and Christian mysticism see The Zennist 'Where religious differences end' :
'When the Buddhist mystic and the Christian mystic meet they recognize each other by the very same light'