Mind and Life

The conference on “Mind and Life: Perspectives from Science and Buddhism” took place last weekend and it was a great success. More than two hundred people attended the opening session on Saturday and stayed on to listen to great talks by leading scholars and scientists in the country. There was a lively discussion session afterwards.

The key theme in the conference is, of course, the mind. Buddhism has a lot to say about it, as do the sciences. That is why we organized this event. The morning sessions consisted of two talks by Charas Suwanwela and Prasarn Tangjai. Charas is now Chairperson of the Chulalongkorn University Council and one of the leading neurosurgeons in Thailand, and Prasarn is a well respected scholar who is knowledgeable is just about anything.

In the afternoon session on Saturday there was a panel discussion on “Mind, Body and Self.” Three panellists were invited — Somparn Promta, Anand Srikiatkhajorn and Vuthipong Priebjariyawat. Somparn is a Buddhist scholar, while Anand is a neurophysiologist and a medical doctor, and Vuthipong is both an economist and an engineer. The topic was a very interesting one, and we discussed a number of deep questions in both science and Buddhism.

Among the questions was whether there is a ‘seat’ of the sense of the self in an individual person. That is, whether the feeling or the consciousness that there is a ‘self’ can be located somewhere exactly inside the brain or not. Those who are familiar with Buddhism is immediately reminded of the challenge that Buddhist masters give to their students to search for the self. Look inside your body, so the challenge goes, and find where exactly is your self. Is your self at the heart, or is it inside the brain? Or is the self not physical at all? For those who believe that the self might be in some way physical, the challenge then is directed to finding any physiological evidence of that. Being the moderator of this session, I asked Dr. Anand this question and he answered that it was not possible to locate any particular region of the brain that is responsible for the sense of the self, but somehow the sense emerges as a result of a normal working brain that relates all of its episodes together to form a coherent whole. This is supported by an analysis of those who suffer from disassociative type of mental disorder, or schizophrenia, where the personality is split. There might be a physiological or genetic cause to that, which shows that shizophrenia is physiological and not purely mental. But since schizophrenia is a symptom of perhaps the brain’s failure to form a coherent picture of the personality, then this shows that the sense of self — our sense of who we actually are — is something emerging from a normally working brain that relates all its mental episodes together so that there is such a coherent picture.

This seems to go along with Buddhism. The doctrine of No-Self states that what we understand as our *selves* is a result of some kind of action that relates or binds together certain number of mental and physical episodes together. Buddhism does not deny that there is a sefl. To say that would be certainly absurd. On the contrary, Buddhism says that what is actually conceived of as someone’s self is a construction, a result of conceptual imputation, or ‘fabrication’ that naturally arises. Suffering then arises for those who do not fully realize this truth. For such people, they believe that their *selves* are real. That is why when they feel that their selves are threatened, they react out of fear or anger. This is a natural mechanism of the body to protect itself. What the Buddha did was then very revolutionary, for he denies that such mechanism (which we normally feel as an instinctive belief that there is a self) really exists. This is because whatever we take to be the self is always composed of mental and physical episodes and the binding mechanism itself that must be in place for a normal sense of self to emerge can also be analyzed so that they are also nothing more than the brain’s attempt to create a coherent picture that would enable the person to function normally.

In Buddhist terms, the sense of self arises out of avidya, or ignorance. Those who fully realize the truth, that is, those who fully destroys ignorance, know that the self is only a projection, much like a hologram picture. It functions as what is referred to when our names are called, or when we refer to ourselves using the first-person pronoun, for example. But that is only something constructed, something emerging out of assmbling of various episodes. Since all sufferings arise because of this false belief in the self, then when one realizes this truth, there is no suffering. Remember that ‘suffering’ is here an awkward attempt to provide an English equivalent of ‘duhkha‘ in Sanskrit; some translated this as ‘stress’ to point out that even when we are not normally speaking suffering we also suffers from duhkha.

This is only a part of the talks during the past two days. I’ll try to report further in the next posts.

Is this me?
Is this me?

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