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What is this thing called mind? A Buddhist Perspective.


1. There is little agreement among Western scientists about the nature and function of mind, consciousness—or even whether the mind exists at all.

2. It is a mistake to think that the mind is the brain. The brain is a material object;  whereas, the mind is non-material, and not a material object. The mind is a formless continuum that functions to perceive and understand objects. Because the mind is formless, or non-material, by nature, it is not obstructed by physical objects.

3. There is only mind and no external material world. The Cittamatra school asserts that there is no external reality, not even external objects, and that the material world we perceive is in essence a projection of our minds. From many points of view, this conclusion is rather extreme.

4. There is mind and an external material world. At this time, it seems more coherent to maintain a position that accepts the reality not only of the subjective world of the mind, but also of the external objects of the physical world.

The mind has two qualities: “clarity and knowing.” “Clarity” refers to the fact that mind has no colour, shape, size, location, weight, or any other physical characteristic, and that it gives rise to the contents of experience. “Knowing” refers to the fact that mind is aware of the contents of experience, and that, in order to exist, mind must be cognising an object. You cannot have a mind – whose function is to cognise an object – existing without cognising an object. Mind maybe described as “that which has contents.”

Mind is also described as “space-like” and “illusion-like.” Mind is space-like in the sense that it is not physically obstructive. It has no qualities which prevent it from existing. Mind is illusion-like in the sense that it is empty of inherent existence. It means that it exists in a manner that is counter to our way of perceiving how phenomena exist. When the mind is itself cognised properly, without misperceiving its mode of existence, it appears to exist like an illusion. There is a difference however between being “space and illusion” and being “space-like” and “illusion-like”. Mind is not composed of space, it just shares some descriptive similarities to space. Mind is not an illusion, it just shares some descriptive qualities with illusions.

Buddhism posits that there is no inherent, unchanging identity (Inherent I, Inherent Me) or phenomena (Ultimate self, inherent self, Atman, Soul, Self-essence, Jiva, Ishvara, humanness essence, etc.) which is the experiencer of our experiences and the agent of our actions. In other words, humans consist of a body and mind. Within the body there is no part or set of parts which is – by itself or themselves – the person. Similarly, within the mind there is no part or set of parts which are themselves “the person.” A human consists of five aggregates, or skandhas and nothing else.

Mind is what can be conceptually labelled onto our experience of clarity and knowing. There is not something separate and apart from clarity and knowing which is “mind.” “Mind” is that part of experience which can be validly referred to as mind by the concept-term “mind.” There is also not “objects out there, mind in here, and experience somewhere in-between”. There is not a third thing called “experience” which exists between the contents of mind and what mind cognises. There is only the clarity (arising of experience: shapes, colours, the components of smell, components of taste, components of sound, components of touch) and nothing else; this means, expressly, that there is not a third thing called “experience” and not a third thing called “experiencer who has the experience”. This is deeply related to “no-self.” The experience arises and is known by mind, but there is not a third thing that sits apart from that what is the “real experiencer of the experience.”

If we examine the origins of our inner experiences and of external matter, we find that there is a fundamental uniformity in the nature of their existence in that both are governed by the principle of causality. Just as in the inner world of mental and cognitive events, every moment of experience comes from its preceding continuum and so on ad infinitum. Similarly, in the physical world every object and event must have a preceding continuum that serves as its cause, from which the present moment of external matter comes into existence.

The invisible workings of karmic force (karma means action), are linked to the motivation in the mind that gives rise to these actions. Our state of mind plays a role in our day-to-day experience and physical and mental well-being. If a person has a calm and stable mind, this influences his or her attitude and behaviour in relation to others. If someone remains in a state of mind that is calm, tranquil and peaceful, external surroundings or conditions can cause them only a limited disturbance. But it is extremely difficult for someone whose mental state is restless to be calm or joyful even when they are surrounded by the best facilities and the best of friends. This indicates that our mental attitude is a critical factor in determining our experience of joy and happiness, and thus also our good health.

There is an intimate connection between mind and karma. Our state of mind plays a crucial role in our experience of happiness and suffering.

The mind can be defined as an entity that has the nature of experience, that is, “clarity and knowing.” It is the knowing nature, or agency, that is called mind, and this is non-material. But within the category of mind there are also gross levels, such as our sensory perceptions, which cannot function or even come into being without depending on physical organs like our senses. And within the category of the sixth consciousness, the mental consciousness, there are various divisions, or types of mental consciousness that are dependent upon the physiological basis, our brain, for their arising. These types of mind cannot be understood in isolation from their physiological bases.

These types of cognitive events—the sensory perceptions, mental states and so forth possess the nature of knowing, luminosity and clarity by the nature of clarity that underlies all cognitive events. In the case of sensory perceptions, external objects serve as the objective, or causal condition; the immediately preceding moment of consciousness is the immediate condition; and the sense organ is the physiological or dominant condition. It is on the basis of the aggregation of these three conditions—causal, immediate and physiological—that experiences such as sensory perceptions occur.

A feature of mind is that it has the capacity to observe itself in different ways. For instance, in the case of examining a past experience, such as things that happened yesterday you recall that experience and examine your memory of it, so the problem does not arise. But we also have experiences during which the observing mind becomes aware of itself while still engaged in its observed experience. Here, because both observing mind and observed mental states are present at the same time, we cannot explain the phenomenon of the mind becoming self-aware, being subject and object simultaneously, through appealing to the factor of time lapse.

The mind is an intricate network of mental events and states. Through the introspective properties of mind we can observe, for example, what specific thoughts are in our mind at a given moment, what objects our minds are holding, what kinds of intentions we have and so on. In our day-to-day experiences we can observe that, especially on the gross level, our mind is interrelated with and dependent upon the physiological states off the body. Just as our state of mind, be it depressed or joyful, affects our physical health, so too does our physical state affect our mind. There is a complementary link between body and mind.

It is possible that as the insights gained from research grow, our understanding of mind and body, and also of physical and mental health, maybe enriched.


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