Ajahn Kalyano Notes on the Nature of Consciousness -Buddha, Nature and Buddha-Nature
I do not believe that the theory of rebirth is incompatible with science. In this paper I seek to open people's minds to the possibility that our consciousness is more than just something created by our brain in a number of different ways. For those familiar with the Buddha's teachings, the teaching of dependent origination put forward such a view of consciousness.
The intention is to contradict the view that consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon of the brain – usually labeled as “materialist reductionism”. The suggestion is that in Buddhism we can find an alternative perspective on this, a perspective which also avoids the other extreme – the view that there is an immortal and eternal soul.
The Importance of perception
We can observe dependent origination as a psychological process more easily than we can in its deeper function related to rebirth. If we can see psychological processes, perception in particular, as part of physics, however, this can change. Then we can see how right or wrong view, the crucial first step in dependent origination, could run so deep into the very fabric of things.
Perception entering into physics means the mind is part physics not just the actions of or the cause of the mind. We see the pure information of the mind as part of physics. Then science is not reducing but expanding the nature and potential of the pure mind of information. We see that consciousness makes information part of physics. The philosopher North Whitehead put together the process of perception (conceptual prehension) and its associated actions (physical prehension) under the same term to describe how these come together in higher organisms.
Quoting from Wikipedia:
By way of illustration, Whitehead uses the example of a person's encounter with a chair. An ordinary person looks up, sees a colored shape, and immediately infers that it is a chair. However, an artist, Whitehead supposes, "might not have jumped to the notion of a chair", but instead "might have stopped at the mere contemplation of a beautiful color and a beautiful shape." This is not the normal human reaction; most people place objects in categories by habit and instinct, without even thinking about it. Moreover, animals do the same thing. Using the same example, Whitehead points out that a dog "would have acted immediately on the hypothesis of a chair and would have jumped onto it by way of using it as such." In this way symbolic reference is a fusion of pure sense perceptions on the one hand and causal relations on the other, and that it is in fact the causal relationships that dominate the more basic mentality (as the dog illustrates), while it is the sense perceptions which indicate a higher grade mentality (as the artist illustrates). (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_North_Whitehead)
This may seem like a mundane example but this coming together of perception and physical causation runs very deep. For information can be grasped at many levels of existence and guide the physical world.
For us as human beings an even deeper way of seeing than the artist is through Dhamma. We can see two aspects of mind the observer and the agent. The first we have some control over, the second less so. And overall we see that the mind, like the body, does not belong to us - we cannot control or master it, like we cannot control or master the physical world - it is far greater than we are. This is bad news for the ego but great news in that we can let go of ourselves into something truly vast. What follows is a collection of different essays, written over a period of time, on the nature of consciousness – its relation to the body, to the world, and to the transcendent. I will also suggest an alternative perspective on evolution and consider the possibility of life after death. I approach these questions from different angles with the intention of painting a picture of hope.
I. The nature of consciousness
The mind as part of nature
When we see the mind the way the Buddha saw it – as a thing of nature – this takes us from what we might call a psychological view to a wider philosophical view and finally to an even wider metaphysical view. This can progress in the following stages:
When we see the mind as a function, not as an entity, we come out with a view that is non-dual in nature. There is not the mind and the world but the mind functioning within the world.
When we see that the mind runs parallel to the world in the sense that the world is the territory and the mind the map and that the map is not the territory we see that despite being dependent on the world the mind is something new, something of a different nature.
The interconnectedness of different minds or sources of truth with each other can open us up to the idea of a universal consciousness. To call this consciousness God could be misleading if we understand this God as a being and the controller of the physical universe, this is not the case, and yet this mind does include the truths or laws of the material world just the same as it includes other kinds of truth.
The lasting nature of truth and its generative capacity can open us to the idea of rebirth.
When we see the reality and importance of emptiness of mind - silence or space of mind - this further broadens our scope and we see the possibility of a transcendent aspect of mind or truth that may take the mind beyond the world.
II. Consciousness and world relationship
Meaning – the giver of life
It is often only when we are dying that we begin to reflect on the big questions, looking for the meaning of life or for meaning in the ordeal of our last days to give us new life. Stephen Jenkinson, coming from a background in Theology, worked as a counsellor to dying people for over twenty years. He writes:
“Suffering, learning how to suffer, is how you make meaning out of what seems random, chaotic or pointless...Meaning comes from this kind of wrestling (with life).” (Die Wise' by Stephen Jenkinson, North Atlantic Books p. 113)
The fact that holds the greatest potential to change that meaning is the fact that we will all die:
“Dying (or the fact of dying) changes what life means if you are willing for it to be so.” (Die Wise' by Stephen Jenkinson, North Atlantic Books p. 91)
We could say that this willingness is the essence of the Buddhist path - the contemplation of impermanence. The Buddha urges us not to wait until we are dying but to begin this enquiry earlier in life, seeing in it the potential for liberation from suffering. In the worldly way of desire, searching for what we want, our purposes in life is what gives it meaning. If we feel we have no purpose then life is meaningless. In the spiritual path meaning becomes intention. We see the world in a different way and this view in itself is what drives us. There is no purpose in the same way, we are following an internal compass – our conscience - rather than an external one – our desires. Or we begin the spiritual path by looking outside, but if we focus on our desires we can lose sight of the realities of the world, Stephen Jenkinson writes simply:
“When you focus on how you feel about things in the world, then the things of the world slip from view.” (Die Wise' by Stephen Jenkinson, North Atlantic Books p. 367)
In addition to the conscience our body is a source of wisdom. The body will always tell us the truth, the mind will always delude us. And what then is the truth of the body? Death is the truth of the body. See that with a peaceful mind and you will see the deathless. This can all sound a bit heavy but the experience is actually the opposite, it is extremely light, let's play:
He entered the room, both literally and metaphorically. He had become a symbol unto himself. There was a profound meaning in every gesture and movement and yet nothing was out of the ordinary. In fact he was more grounded in normality than ever before. He truly, simply knew his own body as a body, right down to the very bones. Yet it was as if this experience were the word of the Lord from on high. How so? Death was there in full sight yet there was no fear, no grief or longing. There was peace and joy - freedom of heart. Such was the message, just this. It was enough. It was the end of suffering.
Then the more we look at the world with the body in mind in such a way, the more the barriers begin to break down between one kind of phenomena and another within our experience. We realise that we had been experiencing the body as a self and that this had been defining our relationship to the world. It had been defining what in the world was me or mine. Without this sense of self entering in to all our perceptions we see the world in a more impersonal way. This is very beautiful. We form a simple, unified picture in which we can feel at home, in which we can, in fact, find our real spiritual home and the true heaven, right here in a transformed experience of the world. This is mindfulness coupled with wisdom.
Try this picture: The mind is both the giver and receiver of meaning, of true life. The universal mind is not a being but the unity where all the layers of meaning can come together. The earth is to us like the greater body: we can see a greater mind that forms out of the meaning inherent in the Earth. Perhaps we can think of an ancient stone carved with runes as a meaningful and sacred thing; yet every stone has its meaning, carved into it by us or by the wind or the tides. This meaning is the sacredness and true life of that stone just the same as the true life of the mind lies in the meaning or truth it contains. We might say that the true spirit of something is not some kind of being but its deepest meaning, seen by the mind of wisdom free of hindrances - when we see the Dhamma we see the citta.
But is a stone really alive?
We can unconsciously also be defining what we call life as having a self, as having some independence and control over its destiny. However, the belief that we are somehow in control of our lives is an illusion (this is the truth of 'anattā' in Buddhism). This illusion is usually only exposed when we find ourselves no longer in control, even of our own bodies and minds and we panic. Actually the body teaches us that our relationship to the world, to our minds and to our bodies is the same, one of not-self or ‘anattā’ – this is the essence of their unity, their shared meaning as Dhamma. Within this relationship there is an automatic process going on that we can and must guide, as best we can, in the right direction. And through this process life needs to 'break us in' for us to grow up and enter into a true relationship with the world where we wrestle with life; where life can guide us as we guide our life between those stones.
And the superficial meanings of time and place will arise and pass away but the deeper meanings will live on as the giver of new life – life in Dhamma. If we can see and experience meaning as life, then we can follow a universal meaning through the universe. For there are truths we can ride on that need no eyes to see them or hand to write them down. There are truths completely within the mind that can talk to each other, see each other. These are the stuff of heaven and beyond.
Yet we are not the creator of the world. Through meditation it is not that the world becomes an extension of our consciousness, nor that we discover that this is so. Neither should we wish that this were the case. The world is not benign in the conventional sense. Through the development of an open, receptive mind, our consciousness becomes an extension of the world, then ultimately an extension beyond the world into space. This latter process is the way that the world is benevolent in an ultimate sense.
If we think about it perhaps we can see how all our experience is subjective, that in this sense all we experience is in our minds. We live in the world of our own sense impressions: sights, sounds, smells, taste and touch, and from this our brains construct some kind of image of the world for us to live by. Or at least we can try to see like this when our senses are doing a great job of making everything look real. Not that there is no reality out there, just that we are one step removed from it in our minds. It can actually be very liberating to realise this but it is not easy to change our perception. What can help is shifting our way of looking far away from the norm. What I am proposing is that there is a deeper way of seeing everything – as mind or the result of a greater mind.
This way of seeing is essentially impersonal. For our own purposes, in terms of our own liberation, it is enough to see what we usually see as personal as impersonal, to see our minds as minds, not as me or mine. To have this greater, universal view is to create a perception of the world where we see ourselves as a part of the world. It is also to express the result of letting go of the personal viewpoint in a way that can help inspire and educate others who cannot practice deeply enough to realise for themselves. It is a view that can help to shake the illusion of objectivity within the conventional world.
So can we turn things right around?
One way around, the universe looks meaningless – just cause and effect with no soul, empty and hopeless and full of suffering. People can think this is the Buddha’s teaching; this and how to get out of it. If we see the difference between creation and control and we could see how the universe can be a creation of a universal mind, and yet the creator is not the controller. In creating matter, control is lost. The limitations of the material world set a limit on the extent to which happiness can be created there; the best the material could do is point back at the immaterial.
And perhaps this could be the case. Let us look at the physical world as an expression of a greater mind, a model of the mind, if you like. Look at the polar opposites spinning around, positive and negative, do they remind you of something? Can you see how patterns are repeated in microcosm and macrocosm? Seriously, can we turn our view around and see not the mind as emerging from the material world but that the material world emerges from the universal mind?
To see like this is turning our view of the world upside-down. But this is hard to see. The senses do not see this way but discern discrete objects. Nevertheless science helps us see the laws underneath. These laws we can see as the mind of the universe rather than its physical body. This is not eternalism either, but to see an evolving mind, maturing in a relationship with the material world. The physical world is mind created, but this does not mean mind controlled. So this is not the mind of a creator God as we might understand it. The nature of God is perhaps not what we thought it was either. The essence of the mind is knowing not being, God is cosmic law or truth.. Although it goes both ways on a superficial level, essentially, on the deepest level truth forms being, rather than being and matter forming truth. Seeing this direction of causation is seeing dependent origination – the beginning of everything is knowing or not-knowing, not being or not-being.
There is no reason why the transcendent cannot express itself. It cannot control or it would be controlled, but it can create. Becoming part of this creation, being drawn into it is the big mistake, the creation is not the mistake, it is the way the ineffable can point back at itself – instead of the creator getting drawn into creation, the created gets back to the source.
To create within the fine material realm of the mind is better than materiality, and the formless is best. And yet there is a relationship here between form and formlessness. The object formed by the space is not the same as the space formed by the object. The interior of a building can be either objects creating space or space creating the objects – the latter impression points back to the ultimate, like the church spire.
We see post-samādhi how the mind can create from emptiness – when the mind is pure it is empty as though it remains in heaven – we can still think but as soon as there is any feeling reaction to the world, the world enters into the mind (as saṅkhārās).
Love is creation from the non-material realm. So to be creating, expressing through the heavens from the ultimate, constitute a non-returning to the material – it is pouring pāramīs (spiritual qualities) into the world, so that good beings can connect to them.
Conversely, the further we go into materiality – into birth – the further we go away from the mind – the source. Ignorance leads to feeling based on materiality. Delight in the material world is feeling based on materiality, not coming out of emptiness nor pointing back to it, not going beyond but trapped in a cycle within the world.
This also shows itself in the cycle of waking and sleep. Instead of images of the world creating feelings, in dreams feelings create images in the mind, this is the cycle of saṃsāra fulfilling itself in the sleeping mind. The unwholesome mind pushes us into sleep in order to complete its cycle, to bring the worldly mind to rest. Then the dreams pour into our semi-conscious minds as desire.
If we can understand and see like this we develop the clearest, most unified view of our experience as only mind or mind created, as only mind – past and present. The material world is all a result of the past in the present. When the past dominates the present we have a cycle, when the present dominates the past we are breaking that cycle. The pure creation of wisdom is freedom, the purest emptiness naturally arising out of clear seeing.
III. Information – the fabric of reality
The central teaching of Buddhism is that all things that arise do so according to conditions outside of themselves and cease when these conditions cease. There is therefore no permanent or independent existence but instead an interconnected, interdependent system. This is the nature of the world. To be an independent individual or to perceive oneself as such is thus a deluded perception of the situation. We realise, however, that within the mind there is another interdependence: of mind creating truth and truth creating mind. In this sense the mind has a life of its own.
There is also truth or information contained within this world, the laws of nature, that persists. Information exists at many different levels within the system from DNA to neuronal structure and chemistry. If we see all this information as similarly interconnected then we can see a universal mind or source of mind also within the same conditions. The existence of such truth is what can carry the mind beyond individual existence into a wider sphere, this is the medium of rebirth.
When we perceive ourselves as some kind of being or entity then it is hard to see anything permanent or independent about ourselves or the ripples we make in the world. It is hard to see what could be reborn. When we start to see ourselves as truth or meaning we can see how we may be reborn in many different ways.
One example we may give is of DNA. If we have children and pass on our genes then we are passing on something of ourselves, the information contained in the DNA, to the next generation and we are to some extent reborn in our children or grandchildren. This one maybe we all recognise – but is it the best we can do?
On another level we are reborn when people remember us or what we have done or said. It is actually only at higher levels of abstraction that we survive in such a way, not as specifics but as currents of underlying truth. If what we know is just the body and its associated sense faculties then all is lost. Others’ experiences in the sense world will be different from ours. And what is true will last in their memories more than that which was false because it will be reaffirmed.
The way in which we survive the most is in our truth becoming part of something much larger than ourselves. And this need not be our limited personal truth either. To follow and be part of a well established culture is what widens our existence the most. The extent to which the truth that is what we really are is part of the world is the extent to which we are the same as others on a deep level, and not different. This is real self-preservation. What then is this self we are trying to preserve through the great novel or the grand empire, the song or the sword? The humble servant of truth is far greater. I am proud to be a member of the longest surviving Monastic Order in the world. Our survival is a testimony to the deep universal truth the Order embodies. To keep to the same code of conduct over centuries is to keep that truth alive in the world. Our lives speak for themselves.
Mankind fights over ideas trying to sustain a false religion or creed. A true religion has no reason to fight to prove or assert itself, it has its own objective truth. Long live the humble shaveling! This is the way not to eternal being but to the eternal knowing of universal, everlasting, natural truth. There is no eternal being. There never was.
Some natural truth or meaning is buried deep in the structure of things for us to search for. Some of it is right in front of our eyes. Some of it we create ourselves. But all of our experience consists of one kind of meaning or another and all meaning is potentially within our grasp. We can make it all apparent. The meaning we have the most power over is that which we create ourselves. The meaning that has the most power over our lives is that which is most in line with truth.
Then there is a higher order of truth, universal truth, present in everything everywhere. The truth of impermanence is an example. This truth can raise the mind to a universal state, the mind may become time itself and go beyond the grip of impermanence, beyond materiality.
The fact that the body and mind are interdependent, bound up with each other, does not make them the same thing. They exist in parallel, following each other. The structure of DNA, the double helix, is a manifestation of the same thing. The two spirals follow each other. We can do a simple exercise between two people where one person’s hand follows the movement of another. First one person leads and then the other follows. Then we swap over and the leader follows. If we keep swapping over then we start to lose track of who is leading and who is following, we enter the flow and start to follow each other. Suddenly we can feel at One. Internally we can observe the same as the mind leads the body or the body leads the mind – except that here the flow is natural, what we are used to. Internally we can need to notice how sometimes it is the body that leads and sometimes the mind. We can be doing the same exercise we have done between us in reverse to discover that the body and mind are not the same. By bringing them together we notice that they are different within our experience.
Objectively speaking, we can still accept that the mind is in the brain – we don’t need another view, and yet we realise that it is our subjective experience that really matters. Our subjective experience is what we are and it has this kind of semi-autonomy from the physical world, running along in parallel. The more we can follow and go with this flow of nature, paradoxically perhaps, we realise this real semi-autonomy rather than looking for some kind of false independence. From here we go on to discover the empty mind, the transcendent element.
When the highest truth – or Dhamma – creates the empty mind, this is transcendence, detachment. The mind is in the world but not of the world. This is a new relationship we can find with the world which we discover runs very deep into the very nature of our existence, and the nature of the world around us.
We could see true evolution as the evolution of truth or, if we accept as we have discussed that information has a semi-autonomy from the material world, as the relationship between a greater mind and the physical universe. We can see the possibility of an influence of purity and coherence flowing out from the mind – the mind of the Buddha in terms of the affairs of the heart; or the mind of God (in our conventional use of the word) in terms of the natural, material world. The victories of strength or intelligence that are the factors in natural selection are only temporary triumphs. Longer term, the emergence of a cooperative rather than competitive intelligence hold sway. In terms of the mechanism of such a mind, I am not suggesting that our minds influence DNA but that the information coded there can be seen as part of a greater mind. This mind holds information at all kinds of levels that may not influence each other directly. They exist within a hierarchy and the information can be active or latent.
The flow of the world back into the mind, of the personal view or feeling, of a selfish sensuality overcoming truth, we could then see as a possible mechanism and source of impurity. In this way we see greed and hatred as going against the very flow of evolution. Or we could say that they are the real inner test that the evolving mind wrestles with.
To place this view of evolution within the Buddha's teaching, I would understand the term nāma-rūpa in the cycle of dependent origination to mean literally name and form rather than the translation often suggested of mentality and materiality. This is the dynamic interplay between information and the form in which it is expressed. The Buddha states that during life, sense consciousness is dependent on name and form. This is the drawing of information out of the world by which we survive in the present moment. This would be the conventional materialist understanding of the mind emerging out of life and furthering life. But the Buddha also states that name and form is depend on consciousness – that the mind is the forerunner, initiating all of our existence. This is the way in which our existence is created through the reading of information from the past, the following of the truth of nature already embedded in the world. The mind is that truth, the truth of the past generating the truth of the present moment and feeding this into consciousness. This mutual causation between name-and-form and consciousness is the cycle of saṃsāra. The past reaching into the present and the present into the past and the two spinning around each other to generate the future.
The path of liberation is the generation of emptiness rather than form within the mind through wisdom. Name or information does not take material form within the mind when it is not tied up with physical feeling. The mind remains empty in its essence taking the greater mind also in this direction, that of Knowing rather than Being. The mind discovers that it need not Be anything at all, escaping future birth, if it remains wise. It can become part of the greater mind that remains detached from the material world. This position of detachment is exemplified within the world by the life of the samaṇa. The samaṇa becomes the person able to remain in this position, supported in this position by the faithful, in order to feed wisdom into the world.
This goal we seek, not through holding a metaphysical view, or taking a mere view to constitute an existential shift. We seek the goal by noticing the suffering of becoming anything at all and by letting go. The goal is simply the result of this letting go taken to perfection, it is not some kind of metaphysical construction of mind. This letting go is the natural result of seeing with wisdom the suffering of material existence; in contrast the wise, knowing nature of the mind can become a tangible experience that we learn to trust.
In the present moment the mind is not in the body, the body is in the (wise) mind. This is the reality and an appreciation we can return to through practice of mindfulness. This is like a state of innocence and freedom if we can maintain it through wisdom. If we cannot, then over time the results of our unwise mental activity accumulate in the body, our body remembers, our body and its associated feelings. This is like the mind going out into the world and our body and feelings experiencing the result.
This is not the only source of our contact with the world. Our mind contacts the world in two ways. The above kind of contact is called ‘designation contact’. Secondly contact occurs through what the Buddha calls ‘impingement contact’ which is things coming at us and contacting the body and feelings (or ‘mental body’) first of all, and then come up into the mind. This kind of contact can then get mixed up with our memories. Feelings from the past and present come together and merge. If we get drawn into this, our minds become locked into time, within an inner vortex. When designations are placed on the objects of the world this is clear, we see mental action and result. When designation turns around towards our feelings then we get drawn into the vortex. ‘Impingement contact’ cannot be avoided, ‘designation contact’ can be. When the mind can patiently endure, these thoughts need not get drawn into feelings of impingement. Also, what we notice subjectively is that in the present moment our thoughts (our designations) are not necessarily located anywhere in the body. These thoughts come from nowhere inside and need not result in bodily feelings. Thus we can have outer designation without contact. This thought is free of contact, it is like free thought rather than thought bound to the world. These are the qualities of wisdom. A wisdom truly sublime.
IV. Life after death?
Freedom of Mind
It can seem like neural science is finally succeeding in reducing our popular view of ourselves to accepting that we are biological robots, but this is not what I think we are. The neuroscientists claim that we are just the information in our brains but, perhaps ironically, to see ourselves as a pattern of information is not to limit us but the opposite – to free us. Information is not confined to the brain it is everywhere and interlinked. To exist, if this is the right word, as information rather than as a being gives us, gives the mind, far greater scope and freedom.
Rather than debunking the whole world of spirits or ghosts, of heaven or an after-life, perhaps we can re-conceive such phenomena as part of a universal memory. Just as material things are the result of the past, the informational aspect of the material can be seen as a form of memory and it is not such a big leap to see how the world could remember in other ways and re-present these memories in the form of what appears as some kind of being. It could even be conceivable of such memories coming alive if their real life was always in the mind. In this way of looking, however, are there really any beings anywhere? Or, depending on our definitions, if a being is a pattern of information maybe there are beings everywhere, maybe everything is alive in the sense that it holds information.
There can be a lot of confusion around these fundamental definitions. Our concrete language making things substantial which are informational in their nature.
We may need to find a new way of speaking, a language of ultimate reality, to describe such things, or rather to describe things from the ultimate standpoint. To say that what we really are is information is not to deny the material reality to which this is associated. It is perfectly valid still to refer to beings in a conventional sense, for that is what the connection between the ultimate and conventional reality will produce on the conventional, material plane.
To describe the ultimate plane of the mind, or rather to describe reality from this standpoint, we only have to use psychological words and things look different, an aspect of mind rather than body. We can see the creation of material things as part of the way the world stores memory. The tree remembers the sunshine and the water, they are a monument to the soil. Just as we might write a book for the next generation, the seed and soil grows the tree. This is the way things begin to look if we see an open informational system. This is a natural way to see if our minds are not limited by desire, if through desire we identify ourselves with something solid, clinging to the earth out of fear and craving to survive, or simply a craving for bodily pleasure, when actually our real survival lies elsewhere.
Taking an ‘information systems’ view of life, identifying with a greater mind rather than the body, we can see how material life is born when, through the beginnings of sense consciousness (viññāṇa), different sources of information conceptual and physical (nāma and rūpa) come together. This is through primal processes akin to perception. If I understand him correctly, Alfred North Whitehead used the terms physical and conceptual 'prehension' to describe such processes. Placing perceptual processes at the centre of our world view, bringing everything together at this point (of 'concrescence' or becoming) is then a unifying view of the world where ultimately there is only perception or knowing of one kind or another.
In its conventional sense, knowing something is to become that thing, to draw it into our mind. This is prehension. Ultimately it is ignorance, not knowing, that brings the mind into material existence . Through not knowing the limits of material existence – through not seeing the possibility of an existence as truth – we grasp at the material and are reincarnated.
When a brain dies then, if any of the information, any of the message recorded there survives then that part of the mind survives. And this need not be through uploading our consciousness or part of it as the great novel blasted into space. If we try to survive as an individual this may be the case but this is not the only way. If there are ways of perceiving beyond the senses and surely there are many processes akin to perception in this way, ways one thing is grasped by another, through prehension, then there are other avenues and the greatest vehicle is not the personal message but the universal.
If the information that we are comes around again in another brain, or elsewhere, then if this is what we are, then there we are again. We only need to truly share perception and we are the same mind.
In terms of the ultimate, the Buddha, when asked about whether there is an immortal soul or not replied, in His teachings on dependent origination, with an answer in terms not of being but of information or pure mind. His answer was not in terms of being or not being but in terms of knowing or not knowing.
Knowing a universal truth is then the basis for a stable mind. Such a state of mind is subjectively experienced as based or abiding in space. ( There is also a kind of intuition here in the sense that when the mind is spacious it has no fear of death.) Here we have to be careful not to take that space to be an eternal soul but just space in the mind. We will find that such states are not affected by the body and in this respect are beyond the body. Here we have a stable message that, when the conditions are right can arise in another mind. This mind will be identical to our mind, in fact it will be our mind arising within another carrier of some kind. Depending on the message we can then image it being carried without the need for a physical body and bodily senses.
Just as in the mind a certain idea is not always present – does not need to be present all the time but can be stored in our memory – so too these stable states do not need to be present continuously. Just the memory of such a state already gives us a sense of stability, if we are not attached to that state.
We may also have to be careful to stay with a subjective mind and not drift into the idea that we become part of an objective truth. Such truth is beyond our minds. It is more that our experience can ride on such truth. Our stable minds are like a conclusion based on such truth, and remain empty of the phenomenon of the senses, empty of karmic formations, detached but not withdrawn. Such a mind is able to generate truth without greed or aversion and express this truth. Such a mind is beyond any sense of self and escapes the limits placed on the mind by the continuous desire to survive, the way in which information is filtered for this purpose by our worldly intentions.
And, although we may find hope if we open to such possibilities and adjust our worldly priorities to spiritual ones, still we must be careful not to enter into speculation beyond our experience or proliferate around the theory. We must be careful not to mistake ideas for realisation. Instead we must meditate in order to gather our own experience, our own evidence for the existence of a transcendent. We must empty our minds.
All this is quite different from the popular, conventional way of looking. Science, where we are looking to test a theory and find an underlying truth, is the dominant means of enquiry in the modern age. The Dhamma has many of the qualities of the truths of nature. It is universal and unchanging. It is, however, not an objective truth but purely a subjective one, it is only about our inner experience. It is also a result not a cause.
So we may have to change our way of looking from the way we develop through science where we have minds like critical microscopes. The Dhamma is not realised like this. The Dhamma is the most obvious thing that, because it is so obvious, escapes us. To discover it is like a fish suddenly realising the quality of the water that it is swimming in for the first time. This is a final result or conclusion in the mind leading to a blissful emptiness.
And what about feelings? Feeling too is information and is, of course, how we differ most of all from the robots. If we experience feeling as a message then this makes us more sensitive, emphatic human beings. We are not indulging in feeling but using feeling like a sense. I would argue that this is the real purpose of feeling – to connect us with the world. This is recognised in dependent origination, contact generates feeling. Delighting in that feeling takes us away from the contact which is its source. Such feeling is then blind and lacks real sustenance or meaning but is merely self-stimulation.
To be able to withdraw from contact (into samādhi) we can also discover is very pleasurable, refreshing and moreover we reset the dials. This is very important, it can give us a whole new perspective on our feelings.
Life After Death
It is a mistake is to think that hard scientific materialism excludes the possibility of life after death. Information and materiality are two sides of the same phenomena but materiality can be replicated by information (this is rebirth) or also the mind become based in emptiness (this is liberation).
Let me suggest a few possibilities:
Just as when physical conditions come together a body is born, when informational conditions come together a mind can be born as a new consciousness or an apparition. If the conditions that cause a mind state to arise are sensory then when the right sights or sounds happen they could call an aspect of consciousness into existence. We could thus see ghosts or spirits as a kind of memory, as remembered by the world somehow as they appear.
When all the conditions come together then a mind returns in full. This could be rebirth. We only have to see that information can form life to see the generative potential of the mind. When DNA was discovered philosophers threw out the idea of an eternal life-force, but perhaps they should have then entertained instead the possibility of eternal truths behind all existence that become part of the fabric of the universe.
If we see information as fundamental property of the material universe. If we see our eternal soul not as a being but a truth. Then we could be just information and yet we see that this information reaches far beyond our brains, and offers the possibility of life after death.
Such views are an extension of the Buddhist view of anattā, not self. This is a view of a universal, non-personal consciousness, of being as generated by knowing – minds generated by ignorance living in suffering and subject to death, and those generated by love and wisdom as living forever in happiness.
V. Coming together – conclusions
Rebirth and consciousness
It can seem to us as though the deeper truths of things must be hidden from us, as something belonging to highly advanced science. Through meditation however, we can discover that this is not the case. The deepest aspects of life are right here in our experience of the mind, in a transformed experience of ordinary life.
Calming the mind through meditation, with the absence of mental hindrances, we begin to see everything purely as information arising and ceasing (this is the fourth foundation of mindfulness of dhammas). This is taking us right to the essence, an essence of truth rather than one of being. This experience goes very deep. As I see it, this experience is in line with the fundamental nature of things, for truth or information is a fundamental property of the universe. To use a modern philosophical term, consciousness arises directly by way of 'strong emergence' based on this information.
Let me explain what this means and what its implications are:
Because there is information contained in everything, there is consciousness at the fundamental level. Because of the key function of such information, the intrinsic nature of things is that they have a little bit of mind as their essence. As we contemplate we can see the essence of things not as entities but as forms (rūpa) and patterns (nāma), physical and conceptual.
Information then has natural consequences – the effects the information produces are already a kind of reading of the information akin to perception. When a certain level of such ‘information integration’ occurs, a certain expression of consciousness arises. In fact we could say that information is already mind. Then there are different ways or levels of understanding that information. Beyond a certain level of understanding consciousness arises.
Here also we find a possible mechanism or medium for rebirth within a scientific view.
Dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda) could be considered to be an example of the principle of strong emergence – consciousness arises based on other conditions but is a completely new, original creation in that moment – in fact moment by moment. This fits with it being a fundamental, dynamic property of the universe. Dependent origination as a philosophy is hence an example of a 'process philosophy' that sees phenomena as inter related dynamic processes rather than fixed entities.
Karma and moral causation can be part of this informational web, part of the fabric of existence, although not everything that arises is karma. Most importantly we find the possibility that the same insight could arise life after life and that this ultimately could constitute the re-arising of an enlightened mind – an emptiness arising from a stable truth.
Understanding how this all happens is then relevant to how we practice. We keep the mind on the object rather than the space – the seeing of the information of the object is what generates the space. Emptiness appears as cause and result of letting go of attachment. This is the transcendent in action.
And if anyone asks us,
"What is the true nature of consciousness?"
We can simply say,
"It's like this."–
Dhamma makes the world perfect
The natural world is existence and meaning, past and present respectively, running parallel to each other – meaning following existence, this is becoming. Through good karma or 'merit' the past joins with the present – this is the mundane path of sustenance.
The life of the mind is meaning and expression, past and present respectively, running parallel to each other – existence following meaning, this is Dhamma flowing in the opposite direction.
These two directions, the wise mind and good nature, running in balance in their opposite directions, is stillness, neither becoming nor unbecoming, presence – this is the supra-mundane path of transcendence.
These two paths, like two sides of the same spiralling thread, come together to make the perfect world, the universe perfect both in mind and nature as these integrate fully. Everlasting truth finds its expression and its sustenance in the world, in the universe. This is the positive cycle of love and truth.
Eternal life is everlasting truth and emptiness, past and present, running parallel to each other. This is the ultimate purpose of the universe, to sustain and express the Dhamma. It is a purpose that has already been realised and will continue to be realised, again and again, forever more.
The integration of Dhamma into the world is transcendence, here and now, within the world. The full expression of Dhamma is the continual arising of enlightened minds in the world. The emptiness that arises through Dhamma is that which knows the truth. This is such a blissful abiding that the mind can stay there and does not need reminding of the truth over and over. The mind will remain there never to be born again, never to be part of the world but never to be apart from it either, existing in a state of detachment.
The Transcendent in a Nutshell
Just as the material body and the senses create mind or information, so mind or information creates the body. mind and body are, in this way, parallel realities bound to each other. Within this process all we ever experience throughout our lives are the objects of our own minds. To see like this is a direct experience of our reality – which is always an inevitably indirect, subjective experience of the world. These mind objects comprise thoughts, feelings and sense objects. These objects are and have always been the entirety of our existence, our existence has never reached beyond them. The objects of the senses have a basis in material reality and yet are impermanent. Out of these objects we create many things which have no direct establishment in material reality. The continuity within these objects is what we become. If we align ourselves with truth then we can become the truth. The truth is stable, forms a stable continuity and therefore a stable existence. Just as the mind creates truth so the mind is created by truth. This is our first (mundane) refuge.
The emptiness within this mind of truth, created by truth or Dhamma, is the most stable aspect of the mind. This is our second, transcendent (supramundane) refuge. This truth we may say is the ultimate, blissful conclusion of the mind, its highest potential, an abiding beyond the body.
So I hope that, without going beyond the bounds of science, I have given you hope of being something more than a biological robot.