June 25, 2010

Meditation, hold the Buddhism, toss the baby

A lot of people are ditching Buddhism and teaching meditation, and their students may scarcely know that the mindfulness meditation they're practicing was taught by the Buddha. The Guardian's Ed Halliwell writes:

So what happens when Buddhism meets our secular world? Whereas some students of Asian emigre teachers in the 60s and 70s appeared spellbound, wide-eyed with enchantment at exciting foreign rituals, many western teachers have moved on – Jack Kornfield recently explained that "more and more, we're teaching meditation not as a religious activity, but as a support for living a wise, healthy and compassionate inner life". He added that some of his students don't identify as Buddhists, "which is absolutely fine with me".

Baby-with-the-bathwater considerations are cast aside as meditation gains popularity, promoted by organizations like Mind & Life, which often tout the salubrious neuro-effects of the practice, and individual proponents like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction guru Jon Kabat-Zinn, who brought meditation to the medical field.

Most of us have read by now studies conducted by University of Wisconsin professor Richie Davidson, whose fMRI studies monitor the brain in meditative states. His most highly publicized subjects have been Tibetan meditation pros, which makes me wonder: If—as is believed in the meditative traditions of his subjects—the mind is separate from the brain, how do these monks understand the value of the studies' results?

Tomorrow, I'll have dinner with one of Dr. Davidson's accomplished meditators and I'll ask—and report back.

For Halliwell's part:

Traditionalists will complain about babies being thrown out with bathwater [there's that phrase again!], and they may have a point – in our urge to connect with a wider audience, there is the danger of losing important, less palatable messages, honed over thousands of years. But if the Buddha's insights are durable, then surely they can stand the creative tension that comes from attempts, Buddhist and secular, to forge new stretches on the road to enlightenment.

Photos: (l) Swashbuckler © 2002, who adds: "Bought a baby doll, my wife acted as focus model and thrower. She threw the baby and water out, while I tried to 'capture' the moment.  This was the best. Sorry, we have no children, so the doll was the best we could do." (r) ebay blog, image may be subject to copyright.

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Kalavati Viv Williams's picture

ZMGil --I agree it's so easy to just spin and spin creating more division and judgements within Buddhism, basically ego saying I"m better, my school/lineage is better. That is what appears to underly so much rumination...Lets enlarge our view to encompass all of this diversity of expression.

ZMGil's picture

Gobbledygook. Minds churning with such imaginary importance reflect nothing accurately. Drop the whole mess.

Acharya Malcolm Smith's picture

"experiencing deeply held emotional material can be very challenging."

Well, the whole point of Buddhist practice, in any school, is to first, learn how to pacify afflictive patterning through watching the mind and developing patience with afflictions when they arise, and otherwise keep a lid on them the rest of the time with both discipline and one-pointed meditation. And hopefully, through development of the three discriminating wisdoms of hearing, reflection and cultivation we can have a profound awakening, cut off afflictions, and begin to actually decondition ourselves from afflictive patterning.

I guess what I am saying is that if you are facing challenges in your practice, your practice is working.

Leslie Ellestad's picture

I suspect that people who delve deeply into a meditation practice will seek out a contemplative tradition to give support to the many challenging experiences that arise in practice. For myself, after 12 years of sincere practice, there are still big challenges arising in practice. This is also the experience of many of the people I know who have practiced much longer. Life gets much richer, and relationships deepen, but on the way, experiencing deeply held emotional material can be very challenging. If I had started meditating for "stress management", I would have been taken aback by the challenges present in practice.

Tricycle's picture

[...] all the discussion of science and Buddhism in my last post (see comments 7-11), I came across the Dalai Lama’s appearance before an audience of more [...]

Greg Bender's picture

Empirically speaking, I learned in school that this body is at some fundamental level nothing more than a heap of elements. Yet there is instinctive knowledge that if all these elements were mixed proportionally together in a bucket the resulting sludge would not be self-aware. This has over the years brought me to the question of : What's going on here? Is this a matrix that is reducible to the extent that a mere interplay of elements can be discovered that gives rise to self-knowledge, objects of knowledge and experience? Or is knowledge itself, awareness of being awake, the catalyst for creative appearance of elements that constitute being alive?

The yogin might say yes and smile. The yogin has experienced this self-knowledge resolving the issue for them. The scientist's tradition asks which one? They need a replicated fact for validation according to their tradition. The yogin laughs and offers a poem. The scientist wanted an article. I do not know if the empiricist's tradition can eventually measure how many angels are on the head of a pin, but we have been thinking about these distinctions for a very long time.

What does all this have to do with secular meditation [and as Jack Kornfield is related to have said, western teachers have moved on]?

Our culture tended to create living conditions in which mind is isolated from the body rather than being embodied. This is probably a general human attribute but it is exacerbated within our paradigm. We talk, talk; think, think. We become more convinced and enamored with our stories than reaching down, picking up a fist full of dirt and smelling it. From both a psychological and spiritual POV we might say this disembodiment is a cause of much unhappiness and dysfunction.

In seeking transform their suffering of life people turn to the options available. Today it seems we have many styles to pursue but generally they tend to come in two flavors, spiritual traditions and psychological l traditions, some of which rely on pharmacological models.

Techniques of mindfulness which bring isolated mind to bear witness to the activity of the body/mind interaction are shown in some studies to make a difference in lifestyle. This suits the psychological model. Psychological well being can be cultivated and the effectiveness of mindfulness techniques charted. People can learn to avoid the pitfalls of their own neurotic traps. So people want this. Psychological well being means having tools to cope. It means having insight into causes of happiness and unhappiness. Some want to be happy.

For others being happy is beside the point. They want to be wise. Wisdom is much more difficult to chart but Buddhadharma points in that direction. Meditation technique in an of itself while having a fundamental role in that quest uses something more. The basis of support is a 'view'. The myriad of views in Buddhadharma provide grounding for those seeking to be wise by that tradition. The neuro-scientist believes this is reducible to parts. I don't know.

So we have western teachers who are therapists, teaching psychological well being. We have western teachers pointing out methods that lead to spiritual well being. We have western teachers that do both. It is not lost upon me that without well being as support, coming to be wise would be damn difficult.

Will Buddhadharma find a place in the psychological or physiological model? How many angels reside on the head of a pin?

Fine exchange here. Thanks James. Thanks Malcolm and others.


Hudson's picture

Just to interject a short idea into this amazing discussion, of which I am learning so much (I've only been studying Buddhism for about 5 months):

In the Mahāyāna tradition, of which I have a very shallow understanding, consciousness is divided into three levels. Gross, which includes to workings of the brain, the nerves, neurons, senses, etc. Subtle, which is the thing most people would equate with "I", such as thoughts, mental images, memories. And finally, extremely subtle, which is the state of luminosity, of pure, aware, primordial mind called in Tibetan "rigpa." I will leave the description up to someone with a much better understanding than myself:

"Rigpa is a Tibetan word, which in general means ‘intelligence’ or ‘awareness’. In Dzogchen, however, the highest teachings in the Buddhist tradition of Tibet, rigpa has a deeper connotation, ‘the innermost nature of the mind’. The whole of the teaching of Buddha is directed towards realizing this, our ultimate nature, the state of omniscience or enlightenment – a truth so universal, so primordial that it goes beyond all limits, and beyond even religion itself.[1]

—Sogyal Rinpoche"

Another thing that is said in Buddhism is, "Emptiness is form, and form is emptiness." I puzzled over this for a long time, and when walking around yesterday, an intuitive understanding finally surfaced: it's a metaphor for the relationships objects have with one another. Without emptiness, how could there be form? How could a desk seem to exist without it having something to sit in, in relation to? And how could it ever be said, "I see space" if emptiness, also, is not a form.

So it's important to keep in mind relationships and causality when considering consciousness and so on. The ideas of gross science, of genetics, basic physics, chemistry and mathematics, are that things are composed of solid, permanently existing entities. In Buddhism, everything, as I have demonstrated, is considered in a relation to another: things do not have their own solid existence. This is the same with the mind: one moment of consciousness gives birth to another, but in these moments, there is nothing that you can say "Aha! THIS is consciousness." This is very difficult for Western science to comprehend.

Quantum physics has made some very important discoveries about this recently (some things to google: quantum uncertainty, focault's pendulum, super string theory, the EPR experiment, and it's applied test in later years), but science still seems to be grasping at the word "Ultimate" in every sense. It's this failure to understand that maybe the universe is something beyond us, that we might never fully understand and quantify (without become enlightened, of course) that I believe is what causes science so much grief. If you continue past atoms, to quarks, to superstrings, all you will find are smaller and smaller particles. The important part is the relationships these particles present, how they arise and interact, not the smallest, indivisible object, which does not exist. It is the same with mind: mind and body are one, as has been beautifully demonstrated by Malcolm Smith. It is not so important to determine the specific mechanisms for thoughts, or try to pinpoint a single neuron's activity and study it, as it is to stand back, and look at the entire view, instead of examining a single grain of sand.

In this way, maybe, we can begin to understand the vast, interconnected nature of all things.

Om mani peme hung

Acharya Malcolm Smith's picture

PS, I wish there was an edit function on these comments, but oh well...

Acharya Malcolm Smith's picture

HI James:

"He did, though, describe mind as “immaterial,” and I asked how it is possible for the immaterial to suffuse the material, or how the immaterial could attach to the material—and travel from one life to the next."

In Tibetan/Sanskrit, gzugs med/ārūpa is ambiguous: it can either mean immaterial or formless. Consciousness is definitely formless. Otherwise diverse cognitions of colors, scents, sounds, tastes and sensations of hot, cold, rough, smooth and so on would not be possible. Nor would happiness, sadness, and so on be possible. Nor would suffering be possible. Nor would liberation from suffering be possible.

Consciousness is embedded in matter, however. And to that extent, asserting that nāma is immaterial is rather pointless and leads to many contradictions. While I think it is true that Sutrayāna Buddhists held this notion in ancient India; I believe that Vajrayāna Buddhists had begun to abandon this idea by the 7th century and sought because of their adoption of practices such as pranāyāma and so on that have such profound effects on meditation, etc.

In essence, where Sutrayāna Buddhism is in some sense a pre-modern psychology; Vajrayāna is pre-modern neuro-science with deep links to Ayurveda, as I mentioned above. Thus, Vajrayāna gives physiologically-based accounts of afflicted cognitive experience [as well as the cognitive experience of liberation], predicated on Sūtra psychology [our experience mediated through confusion, desire, and hatred, samskaras, and so on], but seeks to account for these mental phenomena through examination and manipulation of the physical body. The very fact that cognition can be manipulated through manipulating the body led tantric yogis to largely abandon the substance dualism found Nikāya and Mahāyāna schools. And this is why every anuttarayoga Vajrayāna system, presents detailed accounts of conception and embryonic develpment which explain how the ālayavijñāna/prāṇavāyu nexus are responsible for conception. We see movement in this direction with the Nandagarbhavakranti sūtra, which is a late Mahāyāna "proto-tantric" sūtra dating from the seventh century that presents a very detailed account of the stages of embryonic development. Or in a commentary on Tibetan medicine, we have the following observation that following conception, "...the prāṇavāyu emanates from the ālayavijñāna".

I think therefore, it is pretty hard to argue that Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayāna maintain a hard substance dualism. Perhaps one can say that there is a "light" substance dualism in Vajrayāna, and that is a result of Sūtra conditioning.

But once I studied Tibetan medicine in detail, and certain Dzogchen texts, and reflected on other material in other Vajrayāna texts, and so on, I pretty much abandoned my own personal attachment to the the hard substance dualism I learned early on when studying Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa.

Now, I simply take the view that nāma is rūpa's cognitive function. Rebirth can occur because nāma organizes rūpa, and it can do so in ways that are closed to us cognitively unless we happen to possess any of the five eyes.

You have made a point about the incompatibility of science and Buddhism. Buddhism is religion -- it make unfalsifiable claims about reality. Even here, nothing that I have mentioned is scientific. It is all based on text, tradition, and yoga. There is nothing here that is scientifically verifiable, nor should it be. The qualia of liberated persons is not something that can be measured in an fMRI or a PET scan. These results are reproducible, but not reproducible in a sample population with a triple blind study and so on. They are reproducible by people willing to go do the work on their cushions, who are willing to devote tens of thousands of hours their lives to yoga, prostrations, mantra, prāṇayāma, and so on.

"Also, somewhat related to this, we have published articles of his in which he is very clear on his feelings about stripping meditation of its Buddhist context."

Meditation as a palliative does not cure anything since it has no diagnosis. It has become "lifestyle" indicator, like being a vegan, or a yoga practitioner, and so on.

This is fine, but it isn't Buddhism.

Thanks for listening.


James Shaheen's picture


Back to this:

"So when I read your quip, I decided it was necessary to set the record straight about what Tibetan meditation pros actually are likely to think about the relationship between mind and brain, and mind and body."

You're right; what you explain here is precisely what I heard this evening (I promised to report this). Our conversation was necessarily limited because it was, after all, a dinner with others, but the inseparability of body and mind (although distinct) was the bottom line. He did, though, describe mind as "immaterial," and I asked how it is possible for the immaterial to suffuse the material, or how the immaterial could attach to the material—and travel from one life to the next. The metaphor he used for the immaterial was electricity, and he pointed to a fan (it's awfully hot out), a lamp, then a DVR, and so on. (I mentioned the flower and its scent, which seemed to encourage him to continue.)

Metaphors fall short, though. And science is no support here (maybe Alan would argue otherwise), and I recognize that my attempt to understand this is little more than a request for scientific proof. If what you (and he) describe is to be known, it is to be subjectively known; absent the experience, I'm not getting it (but there are many things I don't get that may very well be true). In this instance, I don't think the natural sciences are the place to turn for answers, especially when the possibility of immateriality is suggested. What does make sense to me in terms of the early canonical material, though, is that consciousness and its object require one another; likewise, I believe you are saying that nama and rupa require one another. The former is much easier for me to grasp than the latter.

There is something from Gombrich I wanted to add but I don't have the book here and I don't want to run the risk of misquoting him so I'll post it later. If it says what I think it says, I'd be interested to hear your response.

As for this:

"To some extent, these mistaken assumptions held by others about our traditions are an inadvertent fault of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions themselves because of the complexity and hierarchy of tenets found in Tibetan Buddhism, the secrecy that is an unavoidable part of Vajrayana, the requirement to have language skills to examine primary texts, and the absence of English translations which enable access to these texts for non-specialists."

I don't doubt this is true. In fact, there are vajrayana practitioners--some I saw this evening--who do consider nama and rupa to be separable, or did until I asked their teacher the question and mentioned your post, after which followed some discussion. Because of the inseparability of nama and rupa, he felt the studies that measure the effect of meditation on the brain were indeed useful.

I've always felt that since studies like this make meditation more palatable to an otherwise skeptical public, and make it possible to introduce meditation to institutions that would otherwise bar it on the grounds that it is a religious practice, it is reason enough to continue. Jon Kabat-Zinn has been remarkably successful in introducing meditation as a useful tool to many who will never be Buddhist but who will nonetheless benefit from meditative practices. Since I don't need a lot of convincing that meditation changes my life, I haven't felt the results are relevant to my own practice.

With regard to what Alan Wallace and the Dalai Lama believe--I don't see where they depart from what you've stated now but of course, I can't speak for them. Perhaps Alan will weigh in if he has time. Also, somewhat related to this, we have published articles of his in which he is very clear on his feelings about stripping meditation of its Buddhist context.

For me to continue in this vein may be a stretch, but I think the discussion is a good one and I'm curious to hear more.

Thanks for you clarifications and the time you've taken,


Acharya Malcolm Smith's picture

Hi James:

It's not that science needs to catch up; it's Westerners that have some [understandably] mistaken ideas about the nature of Vajrayāna teachings who need to update their understanding of what Vajrayāna texts actually say about such things.

Regarding this:

"On numerous occasions you point out how vajrayana has resolved what you see other schools—and science—getting wrong."

I am not intending to assert that other Buddhist schools are "wrong" per se.

My intention is to point out how Vajrayāna in fact deals with the question of mind/body dualism or the lack thereof. It is natural that comparisons must be made with Sutra traditions, since some Vajrayāna views about such issues are in conflict with Sutra/Abhidharmika views on such issues.

Secondly, I am pointing out the ways in which western scientists, when evaluating Buddhist claims about mind/body interrelations do so assuming a general Buddhist substance dualism (which is understandable), and therefore offer criticisms and/or observations concerning the Tibetan Buddhist tradition on the basis of mistaken assumptions that this substance dualism are actually [universally] held in the meditative traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. I think I have shown that they are not.

However, because the Sutra traditions taught in Tibetan Buddhism do offer this substance dualist perspective, Tibetan scholars tend to present Sutrayāna perspectives to outsiders (whether Buddhist or non-Buddhist) for reasons I explain below.

To some extent, these mistaken assumptionsheld by others about our traditions are an inadvertent fault of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions themselves because of the complexity and hierarchy of tenets found in Tibetan Buddhism, the secrecy that is an unavoidable part of Vajrayana, the requirement to have language skills to examine primary texts, and the absence of English translations which enable access to these texts for non-specialists. It is also true that there are a variety of viewpoints in Vajrayāna -- however, the effort is made among Tibetan scholars is to explain traditions according to their own tenets. Thus I purposely avoiding mentioning Jonang, Gelug, Kagyu, and so on, and confined my comments to Dzogchen, Lamdre and Tibetan Medicine (which in fact owes a great deal to Dzogchen, as well as Indian Ayurveda for its views of the body and mind).

In that case, as far as statements by HHDL and Wallace are concerned, one needs to examine whether they are making those statements based on Sutra, or Tantra, and then whether they are making those statements based on lower tantra or higher tantra, and finally which specific school's presentation these statements are based upon.

I think you will find that in the end, both persons to whom you refer are giving a general Buddhist presentation, not a presentation made from the point of view of Dzogchen or Lamdre and so on.

Now, on to mind. A mind, whatever its physical nature, is a faculty of knowing. That's it. Nothing more. Cognitive scientists are faced with an irreducible fact: they know that they know. They may not know how they know, they may theorize about how the brain organizes matter to produce an illusion of knowing and so on and so forth, they may assert entities like qualia to account for the cognitively closed experiences of bats, and so on. There are many things they can discuss, but in the end, they cannot deny, no matter how unable they are able to find a specific locus for all mental functions, at base, they know that they know.

But, without a body, no one will know that they know. Even according to Abhidharma, formless realm beings (who really have no bodies according to their presentation) have no reflexive awareness of any kind. They have no knowledge of their state. They have only a single cognition, that is, the āyatana which propelled them into that rebirth. Without sense organs, one cannot know that one is knowing. There is no knowing without sensory activity and so on. So it seems to me be chasing a rabbit hole to theorize a real, substantial (on a conventional level) consciousness that is independent of a body. However, if someone wants to propose that we are conscious because we have a body, well, that just makes sense.

The Vajrayana systems I mentioned provide an answer to the question of the relationship of mind and matter. They basically assert that mind organizes matter, and that matter is permeated by intelligence in such a fashion that the two, matter and mind, nāma and rūpa, cannot be ultimately differentiated. In other words, for these traditions, as I stated already minds are always embodied. This energy [rtsal] that the Dzogchen tradition describes as being the basis of mind, even accounts for the life-force of plants, as well as being the basis of consciousness among so called sentient beings.

However, it is also the case that there is inert matter, matter that does not seem to animated by a "ghost", that does not seem to have an organized life-principle, that does not seem to have any consciousness, and that seems to serve as fuel, food, raw material for those material embodiments that do seem to grow, reproduce flourish and die. Whether the container/contained metaphor is useful or accurate or not is debatable. But we know that we know, and we know that we know because we are embodied.



James Shaheen's picture

Thanks again, Malcolm, I am learning a lot here.

Still, if you think science needs to catch up, I can tell you that it won't because it is not interested in the sort of knowledge you describe—at least if it "opposes physical explanations for consciousness."

In generating any kind of knowledge, there's a relationship between the intention, the means, and the end. Natural science, unlike spiritual practice, is not concerned with personal transformation. It is not like religion, which is concerned with meaning. It's concerned with explaining and demonstrating how things work, and its method is reductive in that the simplest explanation is viewed as the best. For something to pass muster as natural science, it has to be quantifiable and its measurement must be replicable within a very narrow statistical margin of error in a controlled setting. What you say may be perfectly valid and true but I can't see how it is something that can be effectively or even reasonably taught in a science classroom. The kind of knowledge you speak of starts with a different intent, uses a different method, and so the findings are simply of another order.

Given natural science's methods, it's is virtually guaranteed that "mind" will be considered a byproduct of the brain, if considered at all. To make the subtle substances you speak of the object of scientific knowledge, one would first have to render them quantifiable. If isolating, measuring and replicating them in a controlled setting is not possible, it's not a question of catching up, it's a question of dealing with two entirely different methodologies, what I referred to earlier as two mutually unintelligible languages. The challenge is to make these two languages intelligible to one another, not to have one "catch up with" or subsume the other.

In your first post you say that you're not making the case for vajrayana triumphalism, but to be frank, I find that a bit difficult to accept, especially when you refer to the confusion the sutric schools cause; you even find other vajrayana schools wanting. On numerous occasions you point out how vajrayana has resolved what you see other schools—and science—getting wrong.

Last, while it may be that not all Tibetan schools hold mind and matter to be separate, and that here I am mistaken, the very notion of mind itself is one that natural sciences would question (unless it is described as an epiphenomenon), and by even distinguishing it from matter there's an implicit duality that science may not accept.

I've cited statements by Alan Wallace and the Dalai Lama, and while it's not my place to referee what is the best or most authentic interpretation of the Tibetan Buddhist view on the relation of mind and matter, certainly there are those of the Tibetan tradition who do not share your view.

Thanks you for pointing out the diversity of beliefs among vajrayana practitioners—I found it very helpful.


Acharya Malcolm Smith's picture

Hello James:

I guess what I am pointing out is this: is in Vajrayāna, matter is regarded as possessing intelligence. In common Mahāyāna and so on, matter and mind are regarded as being substantially different, different types of dravya.

Continuity of mind is accounted for in Vajrayāna because the mind is inseparably bound to matter, even if that matter is in a very subtle form as vāyu. Hence, when the mindstream continues onward after the breakup of the body, it does so inseparable with a subtle vāyu, and that subtle vāyu is a physical element, it is the carrier of mind, and as indicated above, in considered synonymous with the mind. It, like the very consciousness it carries is impermanent, momentary, and so on. As I pointed out above, sometimes in Dzogchen we say vāyu, sometimes we say mind. They are synonyms in Dzogchen.

The problem with western science arises because while the Buddhist theory of the pañcadhātu or saddhātu taught by the Buddha do not conflict with modern empirical science, scientists, remarkably immune to training in Buddhist tenets, do not understand this.

In brief, in Buddhist cosmology, at base there are only six items: earth, water, fire, air, space and consciousness.

Earth is the solidity of matter, water its cohesive and moistness, fire its warmth, or temperature, air is its quality of motility. space is not an element per se, so it is not included in the mahābhūtas, the great elements, it is instead a dhātu, "a mine" or a "source" and in this case, it is extension and directionality, distinct from unconditioned space, that is mere absence of obstruction. Finally, there is consciousness, that faculty of knowing. None can exist without the others, they are all mutually interdependent qualities that make up our conventional reality. All six are impermanent and dependently originated dharmas, none are ultimate and independent.

Careful observation of above will lead one to note the presence of the three states of matter, along with heat as the principle that governs phase transition between states of matter.

For example, in the Dzogchen teachings, it is held that an immaterial mind is impossible, so that even so called formless realms beings actually have physical bodies albeit of subtle matter.

Wallace is correct in observing that consciousness cannot be observed, having no shape, form and so on. How could it? Consciousness is, from a Vajrayāna point of view, matter's intelligence. Why should it have a fixed shape, color, form and so on? He is incorrect if he asserts that consciousness is absolutely immaterial because it is obvious to simple observation that consciousness is embodied and permeates matter. Just pinch yourself. It is also obvious that in the body, for example, that consciousness can be blocked from reaching parts of the body if nerves and so on are pinched or severed.

I cited a few of the key points in my last post because the sutra tradition in Buddhism has lead people to overlook basic insights in Vajrayāna which negate the substance dualism that seems to permeate non-Tantric Buddhist tenets.

I just need to reemphasize a basic point-- mind and matter are inseparable in Vajrayāna. There are a great many masters who have made this point, and at this stage of the game, many Western Buddhist scholars are still catching up. Key sources for understanding the inseparability of mind and matter as, as I pointed out, the Dzogchen tradition, Lamdre, and also the Guhyasamaja tradition.

While it is true that in Indian tantric materials, vāyu as usually presented as a vehicle for vijñāna; in Tibet, from the 10th century onward, Tibetan masters began understand that the import of this was that the mind is actually a function of the physical energy of the body and write about it in this way. Hence, the flower/scent metaphor, etc. This identification is made extremely clear in the Dzogchen Nyinthig tradition specifically. It is not present in the general Dzogchen tradition, which tends to follow a more sutric approach to describing the mind.

I mut add however, that some masters went the other direction, and asserted that the inseparability of mind and matter merely meant that matter was just mind-stuff. At a certain point, whether you assert everything is mind, or everything is matter, there is no difference between the two propositions, you are still asserting one basic type of substance that forms conventional or empirical reality.

In any event, before people go making more observations about what Tibetan Buddhism as whole maintains about mind/body interactions, they need to examine more Vajrayana material. When they do, they will discover what I have discovered in my 21 year long study of Vajrayana (coupled with 6 years of intense training in Tibetan Ayurvedic Medicine, combined with expertise in Classical Tibetan) i.e. that the mind and body are not held to separable substances from a Vajrayāna POV.

So when I read your quip, I decided it was necessary to set the record straight about what Tibetan meditation pros actually are likely to think about the relationship between mind and brain, and mind and body.


James Shaheen's picture

@ acharya malcolm smith: Thanks for that and for taking the time to offer such a well considered response. In a response to George Johnson's critique of the Dalai Lama's THE UNIVERSE IN A SINGLE ATOM, Alan Wallace begins:

"In his recent review of the Dalai Lama’s book, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, George Johnson criticizes the Dalai Lama for opposing 'physical explanations for consciousness, invoking instead the existence of some kind of irreducible mind stuff, an idea rejected long ago by mainstream science.'”

Given what you've written above, you may find it interesting:


(As for George Johnson, following his review of the Dalai Lama's book in the New York Times, he questioned the compatibility of the Dalai Lama's views and scientific proofs for Tricycle: http://www.tricycle.com/feature/worlds-apart.)

In another article, "Immaterial Evidence" (http://www.tricycle.com/feature/immaterial-evidence) Wallace argues for the immateriality of mind, which begs the scientific materialist's question that if you argue that one is material and the other immaterial, and mind can survive the body, how is it possible to argue that they are not separate? And how do they interact?

Most neuroscientists will tell you that consciousness is physically generated. British Zen student Dr. Susan Blackmore, on the other hand, in her book "Consciousness: An Introduction," goes further in arguing that consciousness (identical here with "mind") is itself an illusion, somewhat analogous to our false belief in self.

The dialogue between science and Buddhism isn't smooth and sometimes I wonder if the ideas of both are expressed in mutually unintelligible languages and whether it is at all necessary that they meet.

Maybe material for a future post...

nathan's picture

I really think one of the major challenges with all of the secular approaches going on is that there is often an underlying assumption which says "mindfulness meditation alone will transform a person's life." However, what about ethics? What about the way one interacts with the larger world out there? Kabit-Zinn and Kornfield are both excellent teachers regardless of context because they don't appear to divorce mindfulness practices from everything else. I've seen both of these guys challenge people to explore how their actions and desires impact their communities, the environment, etc. However, a lot of other mindfulness programs and writers about mindfulness I've seen focus almost solely on individuals. It's about You having less stress. You being calmer. You being more compassionate - with yourself and maybe your closest friends and family members. But there's often little push to go beyond that, to develop an all embracing compassion like the bodhisattva embodies. When I think of a lot of mindfulness work I've seen out there, it feels like eating sugar.

In the end, maybe you feel better. Maybe you treat those you see on a daily basis better. That's great. But if that's all this life is about, it seems limited to me. There's so much misery in the world; I feel compelled to have a more expansive path.

I do think a person's heart/mind could be transformed through MBSR or other secular meditation programs, but in my view, so much of it comes back to how ethics are approached, and how expansive the vision is.

Genju's picture

In our clinic which uses a Mindfulness-Based approach, we steer away from any religious perspective simply because the participants come from various faiths and our focus is on cultivating resilience in the face if difficulties. We are, however, very clear on the origins, not only of mindfulness meditation but also the point of view that suffering is based on our need to keep things from changing, hold to the definitions of who we are, and have our relationships fit into nice little pigeonholes. None of this requires a belief in Buddhism, which also gets us out of needing to hold beliefs about babies or that baths are curative. :-) At a deeper level, I've come to see that through a secular approach, especially in a health care system, we are fostering a way to honor who we are just as we are, without need to take on more concepts, ideas or potentially superficial rituals.

In sangha, however, it's a different issue. People come with their idea of Buddhism - Zen in this case. That idea is often a huge obstacle to their practice and even to building community because it's made up (usually) of two things: (1) Zen means what-ever-feels-right-for-me and (2) Zen Buddhism doesn't have rituals and beliefs. While that may work in some gatherings of such-minded people, it doesn't work in others. In the latter, the slow struggle and realization that Zen does not mean a free-for-all and it does, in fact, have rituals can often leave the person very confused and disenchanted.

One of the things I try to point out in our sangha is that, on entry, our wish for Buddhism is that for it to be something different from our previous religion or faith of origin. If we come from a religious history that we experienced as oppressive, hypocritical and/or abusive, we will want Buddhism to be different and that will put us on alert for the things that trigger the anxiety formed in our previous experiences. So we will be selective: meditation, yes; bowing, no; sharing, yes; chanting, no. The metaphor of the baby/bath can get a bit brutal here so I'll just say it's like wanting to complete a jigsaw puzzle but only using pieces of a certain colour. We need to set our intentions for practicing a certain way, be it religious, secular, or a hybrid, in order to understand the service to which we put the idea of "meditating."

Can we take meditation out of Buddhism and still cultivate health and happiness? I think so. And, I think, the value of meditation moving into the secular realm is that it clarifies the need to set the intention of practice first.

Barbara O'Brien's picture

It's fine to meditate to reduce stress or to support a "wise, healthy and compassionate inner life," but right mindfulness and right concentration are only two parts of the Eightfold Path. The "secular" practice described here renders Buddhism into a nothing but a self-improvement project. It's not dharma.

On my own site I say, over and over again, that I don't mind people borrowing whatever they like from Buddhism and adapting it as they see fit. But we must take care not so compromise the integrity of Buddhism that it no longer acts as a container for dharma.

Acharya Malcolm Smith's picture

"If—as is believed in the meditative traditions of his subjects—the mind is separate from the brain, how do these monks understand the value of the studies’ results?"

The Vajrayana, particularly the Dzogchen tradition of Nyingma and the Lamdre Tradition of Sakya, do not not assert that mind and body are substantially different entities. According to Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, the body and mind are related like a flower and its scent.

The Dzogchen tradition asserts in the Khandro Nyinthig:

"... the energy of that vivid luminosity arising as the diversity, that is called 'vāyu'”, and it is called 'mind'."

Here, vāyu refers to the five vāyus shared in common with Ayurveda and Yoga i.e. pranā, udanā, apanā, vyanā and samanā vāyus, which are responsible for all physical functions. There are a further five vāyus, the nāgā vāyu and so on that are responsible for the proper functioning of sense organs and play a role in their development.

In particular, in the Guhyasamaja tradition, the ālayavijñāna and regarded as inseparable with the mahāpranāvāyu which forms the basis for the arising of the other five vāyus.

This vāyu is the support, if you will, of the ālayavijñāna and is regarded as the basis for relative rebirth.

So it is an innocent error to proclaim that our meditation understand the body and mind to be different, when in fact, our traditions regards nāma and rūpa to be inseparable.

In point of fact, it is one of the criticisms that Vajrayāna tenets in general make of other Buddhist traditions i.e. that these other traditions neglect methods predicated upon the physical anatomy of the person, and focus solely on the mind.

The Vajrayāna in general argues that because the mind and body are inseparable, because the mind is in fact embodied, that very embodiment demands knowledge of such things as cakras, ṇāḍīs, vāyus, and so on. Indeed, this is the very basis of the incorporation of Yogic practices like gtum mo (caṇḍalī), yantra yoga, and so on into Buddhist practice by tantric yogins beginning in the 7-8th century C.E. From our perspective, the modern day Yoga/Vipassana synthesis (while definitely sound, and wonderful) is very immature compared to 1300+ year tradition of Buddhist yoga found in Vajrayāna.

Thus, the Vajrayāna traditions of Tibet, along with Tibetan Ayurvedic Medicine, possess a very sophisticated understanding of the inter-relationship of mind and body -- we even understood that all sense organs are connected to the brain and explicitly teach this as such.

The point here is not to be triumphalist about Vajrayāna, but rather to point out that we have a rich tradition which discusses all of these issues in detail and, being free from the tradition of mind/body dualism so trenchant in pre-modern Western thought, anticipates the ability of scientists to empirically quantify some of our traditions basic tenets.

mary's picture

Perhaps far afield, but I liken this to what has happened in mediation of civil right's violation and discrimination. The EEOC now mediates disputes, conflicts, because the process of sitting down with someone and opening up dialog to transform one's view is actually the need underlying the conflict. To be present with someone who has harmed, and who may wake up when an exchange is meaningful - well that's the spirit of the civil rights movement. It does not have to be about blame, shame or humiliation - it can be about meeting and true transformation of heart. What adds to this process is a belief and trust that we can do this one person at a time. With meditation practice, I see the same in the movement by those who teach and hope to reach a greater community - if they can help one person to sit and stay present with expanding consciousness, they have brought Buddha alive in that person. May be labels are what we are resisting. Just as with civil rights - if one person's heart is transformed, isn't that a true bodhisattva path? Do we want extended litigation - war - to prove they are wrong and we are right? Or do we want peace? Do we want someone to learn the Buddhist path before they can be embraced by a Buddhist teacher, or do we want them to find their Buddha nature through the process of the breath and the alchemy of a Buddhist teacher? To me. teaching this way is the ultimate in humility and faith - not needing to label it as mine, my way, and knowing that the practice itself will transform. But if we can't get the horse to drink from the well, we benefit no one. I actually see Kornfield's teaching in this way as the ultimate in humility - giving up the notion that he can seduce another with his right view and instead knowing that it is so true and authentic that the practice itself - the breath - will transform all those who enter.

Bija Andrew Wright's picture

I get the feeling that the interest in "Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction" stripped of Buddhist religious trappings primarily comes from the Boomer generation. From my experience, younger people often want more connection with religious faith, not less, and the assumption that people will scatter like flies at the -ism of "Buddhism" is increasingly outdated.