Expanding “Consciousness” by Purifying the Mind

The other approach to expand our consciousness is by following Buddha Dhamma so that we can “see things as they really are”.

1. Twenty five hundred years ago, the Buddha achieved the ultimate state of the mind and became “all knowing” (or “perfectly conscious”). He came to know about the boundless universe, the endless cycle of rebirths, and about the complex process of cause and effect (Paṭicca Samuppāda) which sustains everything in the universe.

2. By developing scientific instruments (starting with simple telescopes and microscopes we have now developed very sophisticated instruments), we have been able to expand our “awareness”.

  • For example, within the past century, we have expanded our awareness of the vast space around us, and now we know not only that our universe is possibly infinite in extent, but there may be other parallel universes as well. Yet, what the science has achieved so far is nowhere close to the level achieved by the Buddha.

3. As humans, we may get close to the ultimate knowledge using the scientific approach some day well into the future (especially if we are able to take into account the consciousness, and mind in general, into science), but we can get there in a lifetime by developing our minds following the path laid out by the Buddha.

  • Today’s Science and technology, for all their impressive “material achievements”, are still at very early stages with respect to the mind phenomena.

4. According to Buddha Dhamma, one is said to achieve full and clear consciousness (anidassana viññāṇa), i.e., that person will be able to “see the whole world as it is”, when he/she achieves Nibbāna. This does not mean that a person who achieves Nibbāna will be an expert on relativity or quantum mechanics. Relativity and quantum mechanics provide only partial explanations, and even then just for materials aspects of the world.

  • When one achieves the ultimate knowledge (Nibbāna), by definition, relativity or quantum mechanics become irrelevant, since they account for only some of the behavior of impermanent and transient matter. Matter is secondary to mind.

5. Furthermore, even for people with good meditative skills, it is possible to expand their consciousness by accessing higher planes of existence for brief times using meditative states (jhāna), i.e., by controlling and focusing the mind.

  • Even before the Buddha, ancient Yogis were able to access such meditative states via concentration meditation (samatha bhavana). For example, when Prince Sidharatha became an ascetic on the way to the Buddhahood, he first followed two well-known yogis at that time, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, who were able to achieve very high states of jhāna (that belong in the rupaloka and arupaloka) via concentration meditation.
  • However, it will be explained in the future that these jhānic achievements of such yogis can be traced back to Buddha Kassapa who lived before Buddha Gotama.

6. Even today, people from other religions also could experience such states when they get deeply absorbed in prayer or any type of deep mental concentration; this has nothing to do with a particular religion. However, like everything else, such states are transitory; none of these states is permanent other than Nibbāna.

  • And Nibbāna is not possible to attain via concentration meditation alone, and for that the unique Buddhist system of insight meditation (vipassana bhavana) is needed whereby anicca, dukkha, anattaPaṭicca Samuppāda (Dependent Origination or “cause and effect”) and the Four Noble Truths (that the existence in saṃsāra is dukha, attachment or craving as the origin of the dukha, Nibbāna is the cessation of dukha, and the Eightfold Path is the path to cessation of dukha) are understood.

7. To recap, according to Buddha Dhamma, “beings” exist in different planes of existence with different levels of consciousness; different planes can exist in different dimensions as well as in different physical locations (such as planetary systems in this or other universes, for example). Beings are categorized according to their level of consciousness, and the humans lie somewhere in the middle (but still at a very unique place, as is discussed in “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma”)

8. Being “aware” or having consciousness is only one aspect of a living being’s mental composition; in Pāli, consciousness is viññāṇa. The other mental constituents that makes up a living being are feeling (vedana), perception (sanna), and mental volitions (saṅkhāra). Consciousness is nothing more than “being aware”. Based on consciousness, the other three, collectively called mental factors (cetasika), arise.

  • For example, when we “see” an object that is pure visual consciousness. Based on the visual, we next recognize the object based on our familiarity with the object. This is perception (sanna). These are discussed more in, “The Five Aggregates (Pancaskhandha)“.

9. The chief characteristic of perception is the cognition of an object by the way of a previous acquaintance. It is perception that enables one to recognize an object that has been perceived by the mind through the senses. According to Abhidhamma, “Its procedure is likened to the carpenter’s recognition of certain kinds of wood by the mark he had made on each; to the treasurer’s specifying certain articles of jewelry by the ticket on each..”.

  • It happens automatically since the mind compares the observed image with the stored images of people we know and quickly makes the “match”. (I was happy to see that scientist Jeff Hawkins has described this very well in scientific terms in his book “On Intelligence”; this book is a worthwhile read to see how scientists are slowly making progress!). Of course, the more frequently the memory is refreshed of the image, the easier it is to recognize.
  • Sometimes people, especially young children, are able to recognize people and material objects from their past lives.

10. Modern neuroscientists and philosophers are struggling with how to even define these “mental characteristics”. They have come up with the term “qualia” to represent the subjective aspect of sense experience.

  • In his book “Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge” (2006), Gerald M. Edelman, a neuroscientist, states (p. 14): “..The property most often described as particularly mysterious is the phenomenological aspect of consciousness, the experience of qualia. Qualia are, for example, the greenness of green and the warmness of warmth. But several students of the subject, myself included, go beyond these simple qualities and consider the whole ensemble of conscious senses or experiences to be qualia. Many consider explaining qualia to be acid test of a consciousness theory. How can we explain not only qualia but all the other features of consciousness? The answer I propose is to look into how the brain works, formulating a global brain theory that can be extended to explain consciousness…” 
  • In Buddha Dhamma, the qualia are the mental factors (cetasika), and they are built-in to a sentient being and are strictly individualistic, so by definition they cannot arise just from inert matter; but the scientists are trying to derive them from matter.

11. An interesting read on various ideas of different philosophers’ and scientists’ reasoning on how to explain consciousness and associated mental aspects such as qualia is given in the book, “Conversations on Consciousness” by Susan Blackmore (2006).

12. Let us consider, for example, the visual recognition of a person, say Joe Smith. With the recognition of Joe Smith  “feelings” arise together with a whole host of mental volitions, which are fifty two in number in total, and we immediately feel a certain way about Joe Smith based on our past experience. For example, if hatred, one of the possible 52 mental volitions, arise when we see Joe Smith then we could be acquiring bad kamma as well if we let our mind cultivate those feelings further.

13. It needs to be emphasized that pure consciousness does not entail recognition of an object. It is only a sort of awareness- awareness of the presence of an object. When the eye comes in contact with a color, for instance blue, visual consciousness arises which simply is awareness of the presence of a color; but it does not recognize that it is blue. There is no recognition at this stage. It is perception (sanna) that recognizes that it is blue. The term “visual consciousness” is a philosophical expression denoting the same idea as is conveyed by the ordinary word “seeing”. Seeing does not mean recognizing. The same is true for other forms of consciousness.

  • Viññāṇa, which incorporates all mental factors including sanna, vedana, etc. has all these mental factors in addition to the pure awareness.

14. Using a somewhat different nomenclature, a “being” in the sense sphere can also be represented by just five “heaps of things” or aggregates (kandha), i.e., pancakkandha (pronounced as “panchakkandha”, panca meaning five and kandha means a “heap”): consciousness (viññāṇa), feeling (vedana), perception (sanna), volitions (saṅkhāra), and form or materiality (rupa); see, “The Five Aggregates (Pancakkhandha)“.

  • These five components co-exist; they are born together at conception.  It is not possible to separate nama from rupa or the four mental aggregates from each other. Therefore, nama does not arise from rupa as scientists believe today; nama and rupa arise together from the moment of conception in the mother’s womb.

15. The Buddha did tell his disciples that what he taught them was just a minute fraction of his knowledge about “this world”, and what he has taught is sufficient to achieve Nibbāna and cut short the sansaric journey filled with dukha (unsatisfactoriness and suffering). He did not want people to spend their precious time in this human life studying things like the origin of the universe or the origin of life which would serve no purpose in achieving Nibbāna. The following passages are from the Simsapa Sutta:

  • Once the Buddha was staying at Kosambi in the Simsapa forest. Then, picking up a few simsapa leaves with his hand, he asked the monks, “What do you think, monks: Which are more numerous, the few simsapa leaves in my hand or those overhead in the simsapa forest?”
  • “The leaves in the hand of the Blessed One are few in number, Lord. Those overhead in the simsapa forest are much more numerous.”
  • “In the same way, monks, those things that I have known with direct knowledge but have not taught are far more numerous [than what I have taught]. And why haven’t I taught them? Because they are not connected with the goal, do not relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That is why I have not taught them”.
  • “And what have I taught? ‘This is dukkha… This is the origination of dukkha… This is the cessation of dukkha… This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha’: This is what I have taught. And why have I taught these things? Because they are connected with the goal, relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, and to Unbinding. This is why I have taught them”.

16. But nowadays one may be justified to spend a little time to convince oneself that Buddha Dhamma is indeed compatible with the contemporary “scientific knowledge”, because that will enable one to build faith in Buddha Dhamma. 

  • However, when one probes deeper into understanding the key concepts in Dhamma one realizes that it is not a matter of science proving Buddha Dhamma to be correct, but rather science is at a very early stage of discovering the true nature of the world as described by Dhamma.

17. Let me close with an example on the difference between technological progress on expanding consciousness versus that by the purification of the mind. The modern world was not aware of the existence of microscopic living beings until the advent of the microscope by Leeuwenhoek in the late 17th century: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonie_van_Leeuwenhoek.

  • However, a person who has developed meditation and attained higher jhānā can “see” such microscopic beings. There is this story in the Tipiṭaka about a bhikkhu who had developed abhiññā powers, but not yet had attained Arahanthood. One day he was about to drink a glass of water, when he realized that there were numerous microscopic living beings in the water. He tried to filter them out in vain and got depressed. The Buddha saw this and told him that, “it is not possible to live “in this world” without hurting other beings; the only thing we can do is to attain Nibbāna as soon as possible and get out of this world”.
  • Thus one can attain much more “knowledge” about this world by developing the mind. We can probe deeper into the microscopic world by using the scientific knowledge achieved over hundreds of years, but we can “see” much more by just purifying the mind in a lifetime.

Also see, “Quantum Mechanics and Dhamma“.

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