According to the Buddha, expanding consciousness means to “see things as they are” (yathābhūta ñāṇa.)
Revised December 18, 2020; August 28, 2022; August 8, 2023
Buddha Dhamma Versus Modern Science on Consciousness
1. Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Buddha achieved the ultimate state of mind and became “all-knowing” (or “perfectly conscious”). He learned about the boundless universe, the endless cycle of rebirths, and 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 expanded 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.
- Yet, what 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 someday, well into the future.
- But we can get there in a lifetime by developing our minds by following the path the Buddha laid out.
- For all their impressive “material achievements,” today’s science and technology are still at very early stages concerning mental phenomena.
Complete Description of Mental/Material Phenomena in Buddha Dhamma
4. A complete and self-consistent description of mental phenomena is in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. Even though it is not necessary to learn Abhidhamma in detail, it is beneficial to learn the basics: “Abhidhamma.”
- According to Buddha Dhamma, one is said to achieve full and clear consciousness with a pure mind (devoid of defilements) that generates only pabhassara citta. See ” True Happiness Is the Absence of Suffering” and follow-up posts. Also see #11 of “Pabhassara Citta, Radiant Mind, and Bhavaṅga.”
- This does not mean that a person who achieves Nibbāna will be an expert in relativity or quantum mechanics. Relativity and quantum mechanics provide only partial explanations, and even then, just for material aspects of the world.
- When one achieves the ultimate knowledge (Nibbāna), relativity or quantum mechanics become irrelevant since they account for only some of the impermanent and transient behavior. The matter is secondary to the mind.
- However, Buddha Dhamma also describes the real nature of the material world: “Bhūta and Yathābhūta – What Do They Really Mean.”
Expanding Consciousness Stepwise
5. On the way to purifying the mind, people with good meditative skills can expand their consciousness by accessing higher meditative states (jhāna), i.e., controlling and focusing the mind.
- Even before the Buddha, ancient yogis could access such meditative states via concentration meditation (Samatha Bhāvanā). For example, when Prince Siddhārtha became an ascetic on the way to Buddhahood, he first followed two well-known yogis, Alara Kalama, and Uddaka Rāmaputta. They achieved very high states of jhāna (that belong in the rupa loka and arupa loka) 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 could experience such states when they get deeply absorbed in prayer or any 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. For that, the unique Buddhist system of insight meditation (Vipassanā Bhāvanā) is needed whereby anicca, dukkha, anatta, Paṭicca 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 the 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 and 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 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 make up a living being are feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), and mental volitions (saṅkhāra). Consciousness (citta) is nothing more than “being aware.” The other three, called mental factors (cetasika), arise with citta.
- 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 (saññā).
- Then the mind may start forming an “expectation” if that object is desirable. That is when “pure citta” evolves into viññāṇa, which is “defiled consciousness.” See “Viññāṇa (Defiled Consciousness).”
9. The chief characteristic of perception is the cognition of an object by a previous acquaintance. It is a perception that enables one to recognize an object. 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, can recognize people and material objects from their past lives.
Modern Science is Still at an Early Stage
10. Modern neuroscientists and philosophers are struggling with how even to define these “mental characteristics.” They have coined 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, 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 the 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. By definition, they cannot arise just from inert matter, but scientists are trying to derive them from matter.
- An informative read on various ideas of 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).
Buddha’s Thorough Explanations
11. As mentioned in #4 above, a complete and self-consistent description of mental phenomena is in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. Let us consider, for example, the visual recognition of a person, say Joe Smith. With the recognition (saññā) of Joe Smith, “feelings” (vedanā) arise together with a whole host of mental volitions, which are fifty-two in total. We immediately feel a certain way about Joe Smith based on our experience.
- For example, if hatred, one of the possible 52 mental factors (cetasika), arises when we see Joe Smith, we could acquire bad kamma and let our mind cultivate those feelings further.
- Vedanā and saññā are two of those 52 mental factors. Some of the rest of the 52 cetasika can arise with a citta; how many and which ones arise depends on the sensory input. For example, the mental factor lobha (greed) arises with a mind-pleasing sensory input.
- Vedanā and saññā arise with every citta, and thus they are separately treated. The rest (out of the remaining 50 cetasika) that arise with a citta are bundled together and called “saṅkhāra.”
- A fully developed citta is called “viññāṇa.” Here, viññāṇa includes vedanā, saññā, and saṅkhāra and also incorporates any expectation for the sensory input.
12. Using a somewhat different nomenclature, a “being” in the sense sphere can also be represented by just five “heaps of things” or aggregates (khandha), i.e., pañcakkhandhā (pronounced as “panchakkhandha,” pañca meaning five and khandha means a “heap”): consciousness (viññāṇa), feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), 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 nāma from rupa or the four mental aggregates from each other. Therefore, nāma does not arise from rupa as scientists believe today.
- Nāma and rupa (associated with a human) arise together from conception in the mother’s womb. Here, nāma is the “paṭisandhi viññāṇa” (or gandhabba), and rupa is the zygote made by the mother’s egg and father’s sperm; see “Buddhist Explanations of Conception, Abortion, and Contraception.”
The Buddha Taught Only a Fraction of His Knowledge
13. The Buddha told his disciples that what he taught them was just a fraction of his knowledge about “this world.” What he taught was sufficient to achieve Nibbāna and cut short the Saṃsāric 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 Simsāpa Sutta:
- Once, the Buddha was staying at Kosambi in the Simsāpa forest. Then, picking up a few Simsāpa leaves with his hand, he asked the monks, “What do you think, monks: Which are more numerous, the few Simsāpa leaves in my hand or those overhead in the Simsāpa forest?”
- “The leaves in the hand of the Blessed One are few, Lord. Those in the Simsāpa 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, dispassion, cessation, calm, direct knowledge, 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 dukkha’s cessation: This is what I have taught. And why have I taught these things? Because they are connected with the goal, relate to the basics of the holy life, and lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calm, direct knowledge, self-awakening, and Unbinding. This is why I have taught them”.
Building Faith Based on Knowledge/Understanding
14. But nowadays, one may be justified to spend a little time convincing oneself that Buddha Dhamma is compatible with contemporary “scientific knowledge” because that will enable one to build faith in Buddha Dhamma.
- However, when probing deeper into Dhamma, one realizes that it is not a matter of science proving Dhamma to be correct. Instead, as described by Dhamma, science is at a very early stage of discovering the world’s true nature.
15. Let me close with an example of the difference between technological progress in expanding consciousness and the mind’s purification. The modern world was unaware of microscopic living beings’ existence until the advent of the microscope by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in the late 17th century.
- 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 had not yet 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 using the scientific knowledge achieved over hundreds of years, but we can “see” much more by purifying the mind in a lifetime.