Towards A Science of Consciousness

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by His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama

While the Buddhist contemplative tradition has not had access to scientific means of gaining insight into the brain processes, it has an acute understanding of the mind’s capacity for transformation and adaptation. Until recently, I gather, scientists believed that after adolescence the hardware of the human brain becomes relatively unchangeable.

But new discoveries in neurobiology have uncovered a remarkable potential for changeability in the human brain even in adults as old as I am. At the Mind and Life conference in Dharamsala in 2004, I learned of the growing subdiscipline of neuroscience dealing with this question, called “brain plasticity.” This phenomenon suggests to me that traits that were assumed to be fixed—such as personality, disposition, even moods—are not permanent, and that mental exercises or changes in the environment can affect these traits. Already experiments have shown that experienced meditators have more activity in the left frontal lobe, the part of the brain associated with positive emotions, such as happiness, joy, and contentment. These findings imply that happiness is something we can cultivate deliberately through mental training that affects the brain

The seventh-century philosopher-monk Dharmakirti presents a sophisticated argument in support of the proposition that, through disciplined meditative training, substantive changes can be effected in human consciousness, including the emotions. A key premise underlying his argument is the universal law of cause and effect, which suggests that the conditions affecting the cause have an inevitable impact on the result. This principle is very ancient in Buddhism—the Buddha himself argued that if one wishes to avoid certain types of results, one needs to change the conditions that give rise to them. So, if one changes the conditions of one’s state of mind (which normally give rise to particular habitual patterns of mental activity), one can change the traits of one’s consciousness and the resulting attitudes and emotions.

The second key premise is the universal law of impermanence, which was part of many of the Buddha’s earliest teachings. This law states that all conditioned things and events are in constant flux. Nothing—not even in the material world, which we tend to perceive as enduring—remains static or permanent. So this law suggests that anything produced by causes is susceptible to change—and if one creates the right conditions, one can consciously direct such change to a transformation of the state of one’s mind.

Like other Buddhist thinkers before him, Dharmakirti invokes what could be called a “psychological law” in that he sees various psychological states, including the emotions, as a field of forces in which opposing families of mental states interact in a constant dynamic. Within the domain of the emotions, there might be a family consisting of hate, anger, hostility, and so forth, while in opposition is a family of positive emotions, like love, compassion, and empathy. Dharmakirti argues that if one side of any such polarity is stronger, the other is weaker in any given individual at any given time. So if one works to increase, reinforce, and strengthen the positive groups, one will correspondingly weaken the negative ones, thus effectively bringing about transformation in one’s thoughts and emotions.

Dharmakirti illustrates the complexity of this process by a series of vivid analogies from everyday experience. The opposing forces might be seen as heat and cold, which can never coexist without one undermining the other but at the same time neither can eliminate the other instantaneously—the process is gradual. Probably Dharmakirti had in mind the effect of lighting a fire to warm a cold room or rainfall in the monsoon cooling the tropics, where he lived. By contrast, Dharmakirti talks of the light of a lamp as immediately dispelling darkness.

This law whereby two opposing states cannot coexist without one undermining the other is the key premise in the Buddhist argument for the transformability of consciousness—it means that the cultivation of loving-kindness can over a period diminish the force of hate in the mind. Further, Dharmakirti argues that the removal of a basic condition will remove its effects. So that, by eliminating the cold, for example, one effectively removes all its attendant results, such as goose pimples, shivering, and chattering teeth.

Dharmakirti goes even further and suggests that, unlike physical abilities, the qualities of the mind have the potential for limitless development. Contrasting mental training with the physical training of athletes, especially long jumpers, he argues that in athletic prowess, although there might be a wide range of levels to which individual athletes can aspire, there is a fundamental limit imposed by the nature and constitution of the human body, no matter how much training one may undergo or how outstanding a natural athlete one may be. Even the illegal use of drugs in modem athletics, which may extend the body’s limits marginally, cannot in fact push the human body beyond the fundamental limitations of its own nature. By contrast, Dharmakirti argues that the natural constraints on consciousness are far fewer and are removable, so that in principle it is possible for a mental quality like compassion to be developed to a limitless degree. In fact, for Dharmakirti, the greatness of the Buddha as a spiritual teacher lies not so much in his mastery of various fields of knowledge as in his having attained the perfection of boundless compassion for all beings.

Even before Dharmakirti, there was a widespread understanding within Indian Buddhism of the mind’s capacity for transformation from a negative state to a state of tranquil and wholesome purity. A Mahayana work of the fourth century, The Sublime Continuum, which is attributed to Maitreya, and a shorter work attributed to Nagarjuna entitled Praise to the Ultimate Expanse, argue that the essential nature of the mind is pure and that its defilements are removable through meditative purification. These treatises themselves draw on the notion of Buddha nature, the natural potential for perfection that lies in all sentient beings (including animals). The Sublime Continuum and Nagarjuna’s Praise offer two principal theses for the basic transformability of mind toward a positive end. The first is the conviction that all negative traits of the mind may be purified by applying the appropriate antidotes. This means that the pollutants of the mind are not seen as essential or intrinsic to it and that the mind’s essential nature is pure. From the scientific point of view, these are metaphysical assumptions. The second is that the capacity for positive transformation lies naturally within the constitution of the mind itself—which follows the first thesis.

The texts on Buddha nature employ metaphors to illustrate the theme of the innate purity of mind’s essential nature. Nagarjuna’s Praise to the Ultimate Expanse opens with a series of vivid images which contrast the mind’s essential purity with its pollutants and afflications. Nagarjuna likens this natural purity to the butter lying unextracted in unchurned milk, to an oil lamp concealed inside a vase, to a pristine deposit of lapis lazuli buried in a rock, and to a seed covered by its husk. When the milk is churned, the butter is revealed; holes may be made in the vase so that the lamp’s illumination is released; when the gem is dug out, the brilliance of lapis lazuli shines forth; when the husk is removed, the seed can germinate. In the same manner, when our afflictions are cleansed through the sustained cultivation of insight penetrating the ultimate nature of reality, the innate purity of the mind—which Nagarjuna calls the “ultimate expanse”—becomes manifest.

Photo By Bill Kando Johnston, MRO

Photo By Bill Kando Johnston, MRO

The Praise to the Ultimate Expanse goes a step further and asserts that just as subterranean water retains its purity as water, so even within the afflictions the perfected wisdom of an enlightened mind can be found. The Sublime Continuum describes the obscuration of our mind’s natural purity with analogies to a Buddha sitting on a soiled lotus, honey concealed within a beehive, a piece of gold dropped in filth, precious treasure buried beneath a beggar’s home, the potential matured plant in a young shoot, and an image of the Buddha hidden inside a rag.

For me, these two Indian Buddhist classics and the various works that belong to the same genre, which are written in highly evocative and poetic language, were a refreshing contrast to the rigorously logical and systematic writings that are part of Buddhist philosophical tradition. For Buddhists, the theory of Buddha nature—the notion that the natural capacity for perfectibility lies within each of us—is a deeply and continually inspiring concept.

My point here is not to suggest that we could use the scientific method to prove the validity of the theory of Buddha nature but simply to show some of the ways in which the Buddhist tradition has attempted to conceptualize the transformation of consciousness. Buddhism has long had a theory of what in neuroscience is called the “plasticity of the brain.” The Buddhist terms in which this concept is couched are radically different from those used by cognitive science, but what is significant is that both perceive consciousness as highly amenable to change. The concept of neuroplasticity suggests that the brain is highly malleable and is subject to continual change as a result of experience, so that new connections between neurons may be formed or even brand-new neurons generated. Research in this area specifically includes work on virtuosos—-athletes, chess players, and musicians—whose intense training has been shown to result in observable changes in the brain. These kinds of subjects are interestingly parallel to skilled meditators, who are also virtuosos, and whose dedication to their practice involves a similar commitment of time and effort.

Whether we talk of the transformation of consciousness or of the introspective empirical analysis of what occurs in the mind, the observer needs a range of skills, carefully honed through repetition and training, and applied in a rigorous and disciplined manner. All these practices assume a certain ability to direct one’s mind to a chosen object and to hold the attention there for a period, however brief. An assumption is also made that, through constant habituation, the mind learns to improve the quality of whatever faculty is being primarily applied, whether it is attention, reasoning, or imagination. The understanding is that through such prolonged and regular practice, the ability to perform the exercise will become almost second nature. Here the parallel with athletes or musicians is very clear, but one might equally think of learning how to swim or how to ride a bicycle. Initially, these are very difficult, seemingly unnatural activities, but once you master the skill, they come quite easily.

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet and the temporal head of the Gelugpa School of Tibetan Buddhism. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, and is well known for his worldwide advocacy for Tibetans inside and outside Tibet.

From The Universe In a Single Atom.  Copyright © 2005 by The Dalai Lama.  Reprinted with permission of Random House, Inc.

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