Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A New Perspective

Mary tells Pedro about the brain as a basis of the mind when she meets him at the center the following Sunday. Pedro thinks about it for some time.

Pedro: Sometimes people talk about brain and mind as if they are the same. But surely they are different. How do you see brain as a basis for mind?

Mary: It’s just a hunch. I don’t really know yet. The physical heart is not a basis for the mind for sure, as far as modern science is concerned.

P: I like the idea. However, scientists have studied the brain very closely. So much details have been discovered about brain cells, neuro-chemistry, synaptic connections, and impulse transmissions. They use that to find medicines to treat mental illnesses, or to find ways to make computers or people smarter.

M: Ah, mental illnesses. Depression, anxiety, dementia, schizophrenia... It’s the modern curse, a suffering that we can’t seem to escape.

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Worried Matildi's Turned Four.. by Filipa Machado

P: And so much money has been poured into research to find cures for them. Still, no bridge is found that connects the brain to the mind. The doctors can control the symptoms, but they can’t cure the cause.

M: The brain is a physical thing. The mind is not. You can't have a bridge that connects a physical brain on the one side and a non-physical mind on the other. If it can, then the bridge is somehow physical and nonphysical at the same time. Will it be a 4-dimensional bridge, or a 5-dimensional thing? Oh, this sounds like metaphysical mumbo-jumbo.

P: Well, I agree that we do muddle language very much, and we don’t even notice it when physical and non-physical things are mixed together in one sentence. But our language comes from our mind. If the language is mixed up, then the mind is probably that way, too.

M: Remember that part in the Surangama Sutra (楞嚴經) where the Buddha asked Ananda where the heart (mind) is? Ananda gave many answers but all were refuted. Finally the master gave the answer that the mind was not in the body, nor was it not not-in-the-body. Everyone in the audience was confused by the discussion going back and forth between the master and the disciple. I think the Buddha talked that way because the mind is not physical. It has no weight, no size, no shape, no location. 2,500 years ago there’s no language to describe such concept as ‘non-physical’, except maybe in words like god or ghost or spirit. But even those have appearances (相) as storytellers can tell you. So the Enlightened One used the expression “it is not here, and it is not not-here”. Maybe he did it to shake people’s habit of using physical attributes to describe non-physical entities. Another example is that in Zen meditation sometime a master asks a novice to contemplate the question “who is the real ‘I’ before my parents were born?” I think that’s also an exercise to make the novice recognize that ‘I’ is a word that describes a non-physical entity, not a physical body.

P: So what then?

M: If we can help it, we need to use precise language to describe the mind. There are new concepts to help us do this. Instead of using a ‘bridge’ to link the brain to the mind, we can use ‘equivalence’ or ‘correspondence’ - something happens in the physical brain is equivalent to something happens in the non-physical mind. The whole business of astrology and fortune-telling is conducted this way. Some planetary/stellar positions correspond to a person’s personality. Some combinations of cards or numbers are equivalent to the prospects of a person’s affairs. ‘Equivalence’ is a phenomenon, while ‘bridge’ is a thing. People may chase the mind-brain ‘bridge’ forever but never find it, kind of like physicists chasing some sub-atomic ghost particles, or philosophers chasing 'the nature of ego'. To me, ‘equivalence’ is a much simpler model than ‘bridge’, and that’s what I will use.

I still have a strong feeling that the brain is a basis for the mind, metaphysically speaking. Because when the brain is damaged somewhat, the mind loses some capabilities also, like not recognizing someone familiar. When one takes drugs such as cocaine or dope or alcohol, one's mind becomes sharp, or relaxed, or euphoric. That shows that when drugs enter the brain, the mind gets high.

P: OK. It’s a new perspective on the mind. In Buddha’s time people had no knowledge of what went on inside the brain. So they didn't consider the brain. They thought the heart was the mind.

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A painting done without perspective.

M: I can look up what’s known about the brain. That may yield more clues about the mind.

P: Maybe computers and evolutionary biology also have something to do with it. I will look into that.

A few weeks later…

Mary: I've got some rough sketches that can be a starting point for our investigation of the mind.

Brain: a biological circuit where chemicals and electrical impulses flow.
Mind: a cybernetic circuit where information flows.
Cybernetics: the study of feedback loops that have a steering and a sensor components.
Circuit: a looping pathway where something flows and transforms.
Information: en-formation. A formation that triggers another formation.

Pedro: What's this? Where do you find all these?


Thursday, February 19, 2015

An Elephant

Mary: The story of the blind men and an elephant comes from ancient India. Four blind men get together. Each one tells what an elephant is like based on his own experience. The first man says it’s like a pillar because he has touched one of the elephant’s legs. The second one says it’s like a rope since he has felt the tail. The rest of them say it’s like a hand fan and a wall because they touch the ear and the belly. Their conclusions are all different.

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Blind Men and An Elephant

Pedro: I thought it was 6 blind men. So we hear different descriptions about the mind like they say different things about the elephant?

M: OK, six. And yes, a person with full vision can see that the blind men are talking about different things because they touch only a small part of the elephant's body. But the blind men don’t know that. Maybe the Buddha is a man of vision who sees the whole mind; but we mortals only get partial views. Still, it’s not clear what the whole mind is based on his teaching.

P: I don’t get it either. Just remember a bad joke. A naked man walks into a bar and sees an elephant. The elephant looks at him and says “that’s cute, but can you really breathe through that thing?”

M: That’s awful! Where did you hear that?

P: From Dusty and Lefty, of A Prairie Home Companion radio show. I love that show. It’s on the KQED station on Saturdays.

By late afternoon the community work is over. Mary and Pedro say goodbye to each other and leave the temple. That night Mary looks up the Internet and finds more stories about elephants. Legend has it that Siddhartha’s mother, queen Maya, conceived him on the night when she dreamed that she was dancing with a baby elephant. China has a similar version of the blind men and elephant story that is likely originated from India. The story has influenced the Chinese culture so much that it’s etched into her language.

The Chinese word for ‘elephant’ 象 can also mean ‘appearance’ or ‘shape’ or ‘form’. For examples, pictograph 象形 (elephant-shape), weather 氣象 (air-elephant), portrait 肖像 (people-elephant), partner 對象 (match-elephant). Another word 相 has the same pronunciation as 象. It can also mean ‘appearance’, as in the case of 照相 or 相片 (photograph). That word may be a simplified character for ‘elephant’. In the Chinese chess game, one side has a piece marked as 象; the counterpart on the other side is 相.

Mary looks at some pictures of elephants, and a light bulb lights up. There's more to it than meets the eye. Does an elephant appear the same way to a child as to an adult? to a hunter vs. to a farmer? to an agitated person and to a calm person? to a bird, a fly, a tiger, a tree? No, it must be all different. What’s more, none can see what’s under the skin - the bones, the flesh, blood, nerves, fluids, microscopic cells and bacteria, and who knows what else. But surely there are more, much much more. What, then, is the ‘whole’ elephant?

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Le Boy de Marius Bouillabès

A seeing man sees more than the blind men. But it is questionable that he can see the ‘whole’. Science fiction will say that to a 4-dimensional being we are blind men. And a 5-dimensional being will call a 4-dimensional being a blind man. And so on.

Nevertheless, limited though it may be, the point of view is still the thing, since the basis of realism is perspective. As for the question of enlightenment, what then can be a good perspective, a good approach, to the mind? Can it be the brain activity?

Friday, February 13, 2015

An Idea

On Sunday, Pedro sees Mary as usual at a local Buddhist temple assembly. When the morning service is over, a vegetarian buffet lunch is served. There are spinach and mushroom soup, five-spice tofu, Vietnamese spring rolls, silky rice noodles, stir-fried mixed vegetables of mushrooms, cauliflower, vegetarian nuggets, bell peppers, and ginger. The dessert includes fresh cut figs, oranges, apples, grapes, cookies. The dishes of this meal vary from day to day, and they are made from fresh organic ingredients, by seasoned cooks, so that the tastes bring back memories of childhood feasts. However, one ascetic practice here is that the Sangha disciples eat only one meal a day. They must eat slowly to digest the food fully.

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Vegetarian buffet

A brief rest follows the silent meal, and then the community work begins. Mary and Pedro work together in the garden to pull weeds. During a break Mary tells Pedro about the Buddha Boy video she has recently seen.

Pedro is looking at Mary’s shiny dark hair, ruby cheeks, slightly upturned nose. Her body gives off a natural scent like the jasmine. Her sweet voice catches him a little off-guard. He blinks his eyes a few times, and then tells her the dream he had about the books in the castle.

“Maybe the enlightenment of the Buddha was that he discovered the mind,” Pedro says.

Mary: “Is it that simple? Most people know about the mind. Why would it take so much effort to discover it? And how does it solve the problem of sufferings?”

Pedro: It’s not so easy to understand abstract ideas such as the mind 2,500 years ago when Siddhartha Gautama lived. There was no name for it at the time. How do you describe something that has no name? It’s like Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity. He had to invent a name for it in order to explain it, and that name came from the word “grave”.

Mary: ‘Grave’! What a grim word. What does it have to do with gravity?

P: Well, you know the story about the apple and the discovery of gravity. Newton was studying the data collected by the astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, and the Laws of Planetary Motions. He was puzzled by why the planets moved in circular orbits, or more closely, in ellipses. Newton had devised his own laws of motions, and one of them was that a moving object would move and remain in a straight line unless it’s altered by external forces. He couldn’t understand why the planets did not move in straight lines, since there were no visible forces acting on them. This puzzle turned him into a typical absented-minded scientist, until one day he saw the apple fall to the ground. Bingo! That was it - the invisible force. All things on Earth, like the apple, fall down to the ground eventually, just as people will lie down to their graves at the end. On that count maybe the British did not do cremation much. Anyway, Newton saw that the planets were moving in straight lines and being pulled down by the force of gravity at the same time. The result could be the elliptical orbits. And that’s the story of the word 'gravity'.


M: Ah, the apple story. So, did the Buddha coin the word ‘mind’?

P: I don’t know. I think ‘mind’ is a relatively recent word used by English speakers. It came from the word ‘memory’.

M: Now I remember. The Sanskrit sutras translated into Chinese have always used the word ‘heart’ for ‘mind’. The Chinese, in her 5,000 years of history and culture, has no word for ‘mind’ except ‘heart’, and some other words related to 'heart'. The Heart Sutra (般若心經) that we recite in the morning assembly should probably be called the Mind Sutra. Yes, in it it says “… form is emptiness, emptiness is form (色即是空 空即是色)... “ It all has to do with mind perceptions, and not the physical heart.

P: Yes, translation is like magic. It bridges ideas from one culture to another, and one epoch to another, as if they can be one and the same. But really they are quite different. The Western thinkers like Socrates and Plato talked about memory and thinking. The Eastern Buddhism talked about the buddha nature, wisdom, heart, meditation. Yet they are all linked to the word ‘mind’.

M: Don’t forget consciousness, emotions, identity, spirit, desire. These words are so mysterious when you examine them. I remember a story of Zen Koan (公案) that made no sense: A master sees a disciple in the garden. He points his stick at him and says, ‘Answer me quickly. If you say something, I will beat you with this stick. If you do not say anything, I will beat you with this stick.’ The disciple, on hearing this, puts a shoe on his head and walks away.

P: I think it means that all meanings are subject to the mind. The dilemma of an impossible situation is a form of suffering. To break that dilemma, one needs to change one’s mind about it. So the disciple’s action shows that he is steering his mind to break the meaning of the master’s bidding.

M: It’s very confusing to talk about the mind. It’s almost like the four blind men describing the elephant.

P: Four blind men describing an elephant?

Monday, February 9, 2015

A Detective

Pedro’s friend Mary is a psychologist. She likes to read mystery novels and play amateur detective. Lately, a story about the Buddha Boy, Ram Bahadur Bomjon, fascinates her greatly. She has seen a video documentary on the Internet that shows the Buddha Boy sitting still in meditation without food and water, under a tree in Nepal, for many months.


His meditation is witnessed by a large crowd that surround him. With many people around day and night, it’s really impossible to smuggle food and water to him without being noticed. Yet no one can say for sure, since the night is totally dark there.

This documentary draws attentions from worldwide audience. Many people, especially scientists, do not believe it is possible that a person can go without food and water for so long. For this, the video makers set up a camera to record what goes on around the clock. After 4 days of recording, it shows that the Buddha Boy does not eat or drink, and his body does not wither as scientists predict it would under such fasting.

Does the Buddha Boy have magical powers? Or is it some trick he does for money and fame? As far as money goes, no donation goes to him. But he is famous. Meditation is no easy task. It is painful to sit for hours without moving or stretching the body. Doing it for days is unimaginable. Yet this young man has done it for months! What motivates him to endure such hardship?

He says he wants to become a Buddha by doing what the Buddha did 2,500 years ago.

Mary looks up the life story of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, whose teaching has become a major religion of Asia. Before becoming the Buddha, Siddhartha was a young prince in Nepal who lived inside a palace compound. There he got the best food, clothes, education, exercise, and entertainment. He did not know the affairs of the world or the lives of people outside the palace. By fate or accident, one day Siddhartha walked outside the palace compound and saw some very old men and some sickly people in the street. Walking around further, he saw a dead body being cremated in a funeral. He had seen no such sights ever before. The sufferings he witnessed greatly moved him, so he vowed to leave home and find a solution to end the pains of old age, sickness, death, and childbirth.

His father the king didn't like his son to abandon the throne he prepared him for. But Siddhartha's determination moved him, so he agreed to let him go. Then Siddhartha began his journey. For many years he wandered in forest and wilderness, seeking ascetic teachers and practicing what he learned. But the solution did not come to him. At last he decided not to wander around or to learn from others anymore. He stopped by a bodhi tree and sat down. For 49 days and nights he sat under the tree in meditation, during which the demon Mara appeared before him, seducing him with beautiful maidens and challenging him his own life and identity. At the end of this spiritual battle, Siddhartha vanquished Mara, and in peace he found the answer he was looking for! From then on he taught his discovery to the world. For this he was called the Buddha, the enlightened one or the awakened one.

A similar story is told in the Bible, Matthew 4:1, where Jesus Christ was in a desert for 40 days and nights.

Mary wonders about what that enlightenment was. How does the enlightenment remove the sufferings of death, birth, old age, and sickness? She researches further. The clues point to the modern day Zen Meditation. The word “Zen” is an English translation of the Chinese / Japanese word “chan” or 禪, which in turn is a Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word “dhyana”. The translations are all based on pronunciation and offer no clues as to what they mean. Dhyana is translated to “absorption” or “meditative state”, which is about as helpful as the word “enlightenment”.

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Patriarch Huineng


What has the Buddha Boy found out about enlightenment?