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"Mind According to Buddhism", by Alexander Berzin

Understanding the components that comprise a moment of our subjective experience enables us to deconstruct the moment. Such deconstruction methods also help us to understand what others are experiencing and to interact with them in a compassionate way.
Mind in Buddhism Berzin
Sunrise, Northport Harbor (1929)

The Issues
Is there such a thing as “consciousness” or, to use a much broader term, “mind?” This has become an important question in light of the development of Artificial Intelligence. Does a computer with AI have a mind? If it does have a mind of its own, what is the difference between us and such a computer? And if a computer with AI does have consciousness and a mind and they are reducible to an emergent property of matter, does that mean that it is the same with us?

To explore this issue, the first question is whether or not there is such a thing as mind, and do we have one ourselves? Well, there is the word “mind” that we all know and use, and words have meaning. So, “mind” must refer to something, although for some it might not be so well-defined. Now, no one would say that they can find some material or immaterial thing inside their brains called “mind.” But does that mean that the word “mind” refers to some imaginary thing, like a unicorn? On the other hand, no one would say that they don’t have a mind or feelings. The word “mind” can’t refer to just nothing.

One indication that there is such a thing as mind is that the mind and the body affect each other. If we are alert and take care, we are able to carry out physical tasks successfully; if we carry out physical tasks successfully, we feel happy and pleased. Even if we assert that the state of alertness is a function of the brain working efficiently, still the efficient functioning of the brain is something objective, while a feeling of alertness is something subjective. Neither occurs by itself, independently, nor are they identical. The two are individual, interdependent phenomena. In a sense, they are two ways of describing the same event from harmonious, but different points of view.


Mind as Mental Activity Described from the Point of View of the Individual, Subjective Experiencing of Something
What exactly do we mean by “mind,” then, in Buddhism? This can be quite confusing, because the words each of our languages uses to translate “mind” encompass slightly different things. In French or German, for instance, esprit and Geist not only encompass what English calls “mind” and Italian calls mente, but they also include spirit. In fact, the German word is also used even for ghost! So, to avoid misunderstanding, we need to look at what the Sanskrit word for mind, citta, encompasses.

First of all, most Western languages distinguish between mind and heart. “Mind” implies the intellectual, rational side and “heart” deals with the emotional and intuitive side, and perhaps the irrational side as well. But there isn’t that split in the Sanskrit language: there’s only one word that covers both. Not only does “mind” include both, “mind” also encompasses all aspects of sensory perception and all other ways of knowing something as well, like inference, presumption and so on. All of these are parts of what is meant by “mind”.

Even more radically different is that, in the Buddhism context, “mind” doesn’t refer to some sort of “thing” that has as its function perceiving, thinking or feeling. Rather, “mind” refers to mental activity from the point of view of the individual, subjective experiencing of something. Remember, when we say “mental” here, we mean both the senses and thinking.

There’s no actual physical or even immaterial “thing” inside our heads that we can point to and say, “This is the mind.” Of course, we can describe mental activity from its physical counterpart in terms of brain waves, and we can measure the electrical activity of the brain. Buddhism asserts something similar. It speaks of mental activity as having two inseparable facets, like the two sides of a coin – the experiential side and the subtle energy side. Buddhism also agrees with neuroscience that, in order to function, mental activity requires the grosser physical basis of the live sensorial cells of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body as well as the channels of the nervous system. In addition, both would agree that mental activity always has content. It is not just seeing or thinking, it is seeing or thinking something.

But although mental activity depends on the brain, brain waves, the photosensitive cells of the eyes and so on, the nervous system, content, etc., “mind” in Buddhism does not refer to any one of them or to all of them collectively. Mind in Buddhism is an additional component of mental activity – the individual, subjective, experiential component. Mental activity can be validly described from the point of view of each of these components.

Furthermore, mental activity is something that goes on moment to moment, without any break, whether we’re awake or asleep, and even when we’re unconscious. “Mind,” therefore, is a much broader term than “consciousness.” In each moment, mind is a composite of many everchanging components all networked together. For instance, when awake, each moment of mental activity is comprised of seeing, hearing or thinking something, some level of understanding of what it is that we are perceiving or thinking, some level of interest, alertness, attention, and concentration focused on it, some positive or negative emotion felt toward it, some level of happiness or unhappiness while perceiving or thinking it, possibly an intention and urge to do or say something to or with it, and so on.

One further point: As already mentioned, mental activity is both individual and subjective. We’re not talking about some universal type of mind – a universal consciousness, or anything like that. Everybody’s mental activity is individual. If I’m happy, that doesn’t mean that you’re happy. If I’m hungry, that doesn’t mean that you’re hungry. If a group of people see the same movie at the same time, each of their experiences of the movie will be quite different. Some will like it; some will be bored and hate it. So, we have to conclude that mental activity is both individual and subjective, not something collective.


The Defining Characteristics of Mind
If we want to know more precisely what mental activity is – in other words, what “individually and subjectively experiencing something” is – we need to look at its defining characteristics. The Buddhist definition is given in three words, each of which is a way of describing a moment of mental activity from three different points of view. The three words are usually translated as “mere” (which means “only”), “clarity” and “awareness”.

It is crucial to understand what these three words mean. Otherwise, when scientists and Buddhists discuss what consciousness or mind is, they might each be thinking of something else. It would be like discussing animals and one party is thinking of puppy dogs and the other is thinking of dinosaurs. So, let’s look at these defining characteristics one by one.

Clarity, as a characteristic of mental activity, is one way of describing what mental activity does. It doesn’t refer to how clear or in focus our minds are, and it’s certainly not talking about some sort of light in our heads that’s illuminating things. But, rather, “clarity” refers to the mental activity of giving rise to the mental appearance of something. So, it has to do with the content side of mental activity. The arising of a mental appearance is described in Tibetan as being like the rising of the sun.

What arises with mental activity is a mental representation, like a mental hologram, of something we’re perceiving, for instance a sight. When we see something, photons strike our retina; they’re converted into electrical impulses and chemical signals; and what we experience is the arising of a mental image – somewhat like a mental hologram. But there’s no location of that hologram. We can’t find it if we take an MRI or dissect the brain, and there’s no immaterial organ, called “mind,” where we can find this hologram either. It just “arises” like the sun.

The mental holograms don’t need to be visual. They can be of any sensorial object. For instance, they can be a mental representation of a sound. When we hear something, vibrations of air strike the eardrum and, again, get converted into electrical impulses and chemical signals. As a result, we experience a mental sound. Although we might be able to locate the parts of the brain that are involved with hearing; nevertheless, we don’t find a physical representation of a sound there. When we verbally think something or remember or dream something, these similarly entail the arising of mental holograms.

The second defining characteristic of mind, “awareness,” describes exactly the same mental activity as does “clarity,” but from a different point of view. It has to do with the cognitive facet of mental activity. It’s explained in Tibetan with the word “engaging.” Mental activity cognitively engages with something. For instance, there’s an object, like a table in front of us, and the way our mental activity cognitively engages with it is by seeing it. How does our mental activity do this? It does this by giving rise to a mental hologram of the table. In other words, there’s just one mental activity, but simply described from two points of view – cognitively engaging with something and giving rise to a mental hologram of that something.

“Cognitively engaging” with an object is a composite of many parts. Not only could it be seeing, hearing or thinking something, but at the same time it can also be knowing or not knowing what that something is, understanding or not understanding what someone says, and liking or disliking it. In addition, we may also feel happy or unhappy as part of our experiencing of something. Cognitively engaging with something even includes feeling some emotion toward it, positive or negative. So “awareness” doesn’t mean just being conscious of some object. Not paying attention to something someone is saying and even unconsciously feeling hostile toward the person are still cognitive engagements.

It’s important to realize that cognitively engaging with something and giving rise to a mental hologram of that something are just descriptions of the same activity from two points of view. Think about it: it’s not the case that first a thought arises and then we think it. The arising of the thought and the thinking of the thought are descriptions of the same cognitive event. Similarly, it’s not that first the mental representation of the sound of a sentence arises and then we hear it. The arising of the mental representation and the hearing describe the same activity.

The third defining characteristic of mind, “mere,” implies that the arising and engaging are all that’s happening. There is no findable, concrete “me” separate from the mental activity and making it happen or just observing it. And there’s no findable concrete “mind,” as a “thing,” separate from the whole procedure, that’s doing the activity. It’s not that there’s a “me” sitting in our heads at the control board of the machine called “mind” and pressing the buttons so that now we open the shutters of the eyes and look, and now we turn on the microphone of the ears and hear. It’s not like that.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t exist, or that no one is seeing or thinking. I’m thinking, not you. But that “me” that is thinking is just another way of describing individual, subjective mental activity. Just as giving rise to a mental hologram of something and cognitively engaging with something are neither separate from each other nor identical, the same is the case with the “me” involved with mental activity. The “me” is not separate from or identical with the arising and engaging but is just another way of describing the same mental activity. It is the individual, subjective element.


The Comparison of a Computer with AI and a Person
Does the functioning of a computer with AI have the defining characteristics of mind as specified in Buddhism. This is an interesting question. The computer takes in information and displays it on a monitor. It also processes the information and responds to it – for instance, by performing complex computations and providing answers to difficult questions. Furthermore, although we could say that the processing entails “paying attention to” and “concentrating on” the data, those features are constants, not variables as they are with a person. The processing could even provide a simulation of an emotional response, but then we would need to ask, “Does the computer actually subjectively feel pride and happiness, for instance, at solving a problem?” Does it get annoyed when we ask it to do what it considers too much? That begs the question of what it means to feel such things, which begs the further question, “Is such a computer a person?”

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that if scientists could program a computer such that it was sophisticated enough to be the physical basis of a mental continuum, it is possible that the continuum of a sentient being could take such a body as its basis. If we leave aside the issue of rebirth, still His Holiness’s statement allows for a computer with AI to have a mind. But what are the additional defining characteristics of a person that the computer would need to have?

When we speak about persons, we are not talking about omniscient beings, whether human or mechanical. We’re speaking about individual beings whose mental activity is limited because of having incomplete or inaccurate information about causality and reality – even if the data base they can access is the entire contents of the Internet. Their mental activity is also limited because of misunderstandings they develop from naively believing some of the misinformation they access, which leads to their developing deluded attitudes and disturbing emotions. Such beings then act on the basis of such attitudes and emotions and, according to Buddhism, their everyday experience of the events of their life – namely, with everchanging levels of unhappiness or short-lived, unsatisfying happiness – are the long-term results of their behavior. Will the computer with AI have such subjective experience? It could only have such experience if it became the physical basis of a person.


The Benefits of Understanding What Mind Is
Whether or not there is such a thing as mind and whether or not a computer with AI has consciousness do not affect the focus of Buddhism. The focus of Buddhism is on providing effective methods for overcoming our own problems in life and for becoming better able to help others do the same. Such a focus is harmonious with the aims of science and, in this respect, Buddhism and science can supplement each other.

How does understanding what mind is according to the Buddhist presentation help fulfill that joint aim? What are its applications? Understanding that mental activity refers to each person’s individual, subjective experiencing of their life allows us, for instance, to acknowledge and respect each person’s point of view in a dispute. Understanding the components that comprise a moment of our subjective experience enables us to deconstruct the moment. This, in turn, enables us to identify which components are deficient, missing or the troublemakers when we are experiencing mental or emotional turmoil. Such deconstruction methods also help us to understand what others are experiencing and to interact with them in a compassionate way.

Understanding that each component comprising a moment of our experience changes in each subsequent moment, that each of them changes at a different rate and that some of them are present in each moment and others are optional and can be replaced enables us to overcome bad moods. Understanding that no matter what the content of our moment-to-moment mental activity might be, the defining characteristics of the activity being mere clarity and awareness of something always remain constant enables us, on the one hand, not to get caught up in the content of our thoughts, feelings or sensory perceptions and, on the other hand, to deal with them in a calm and responsible manner with equanimity, compassion and wisdom. Therefore, understanding what Buddhism means by “mind” can be of great benefit.

For more material on mind in Buddhism, see Study Buddhism

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