Blog of James Robinson
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An Exploration of Consciousness

I have been listening to conversations with the Dalai Lama which led me to read ‘Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying – An Exploration of Consciousness’. Here are a few beautiful words from the Dalai Lama that I have taken directly from the book.

“To review just a little bit, there’s certainly a convergence between Buddhism and science when you speak of gross levels of consciousness. Buddhists would agree that the gross levels of consciousness are contingent upon the body, and when the brain ceases to function, those levels of consciousness do not arise. A very simple example of this would be that if the physical basis for vision is lacking – the visual cortex, the retina, the optic nerve, and so forth – you do not have the perception. It is very straight forward on that level.

“We’ve agreed that this consciousness arises in dependence upon the brain. This is a causal relationship, but once again the question can be raised: what is the nature of this causal relationship? Does brain function act as a substantial cause for mental processes, or does it proved cooperative conditions? I have never seen this explicitly discussed in Buddhist treatises, but it would be reasonable to surmise that brain function provides the cooperative conditions for the arising of mental processes. But what is the substantial cause of the primary, distinguishing qualities of consciousness, namely clarity and cognition? The Sutrayana system seems to answer that clarity and cognition arise from the latent propensities of the proceeding mental continuum. According to Vajrayana, as stated previously, the substantial cause would be identified as the very subtle mind, or primordial mind. But I understand the heart of your question to be: what is it that provides the connection between the very subtle mind and the gross body or the gross mind? Here we speak of the ‘very subtle energy bearing five-coloured radiance.’ This suggests that this very subtle energy is endowed with the ultimate potential for the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. From this energy there first arises the five inner elements, and from these the five outer elements arise.

“There are some mentalist Buddhist schools, principally the Yogacara school, that deny the existence of an external world. One reason proponents of this school posit the foundation consciousness is because they deny the external world. They need this foundation consciousness as the store house for imprints that manifest in a dual fashion, both as subject and object. According the this view, you don’t need an external world because everything arises from a source that is essentially mental in nature.

“Let’s move now to the Praangika Madhyamaka school, which we consider to be the ultimate Buddhist philosophical system. This school asserts the existence of an external world, including the objects of the senses. Whence does this world arise? What is the origin of this external world, the physical environment? The origin is traced back to particles of empty space. This origin is not posited as the beginning of all time, but rather the origin within a cosmic cycle. In short, you can trace this whole manifest cosmos back to the space particles. That is not to say that is the ultimate origin of the universe, but that’s the beginning for one cosmic evolution. Then you can speak further about what happened before then. The whole of the evolution of the natural world stems from space particles, and that evolution would take place regardless of whether there’s consciousness, regardless of the karma of sentient beings.

“This universe is inhabited by sentient beings who experience situations and environments that lead to their detriment or to their happiness. There is an interface between the karma of sentient beings and the natural environment. Karma modifies or influences the nature of the physical environment such that by inhabiting this environment one experiences pleasure or pain. In this context we speak of good fortune, misfortune, and so on. What is the source of the wholesome and unwholesome karma? This is traced back to mental processes and, more specifically, one’s motivation. Wholesome and unwholesome motivations are the most influential factor in determining whether one’s actions, or one’s karma, are wholesome or unwholesome. As soon as you are concerned with motivation, you’re in the sphere of the mind. And the mind is intimately related to the very subtle energy, the energy bearing the fivefold brilliance. This energy bears the potential of the five elements, with the five outer elements evolving from the five inner elements. Thus, karma would presumably have as its vehicle this very subtle energy as it manifests through the outer and inner elements. So there’s a two-way interface between the mind and the physical elements.”