August 30, 2018; revised October 3, 2022; November 28, 2022
You may first read the post “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta)” to have the proper background.
1. Let us systematically see what happens when we “see” a tree, for example. Please don’t just read through, but stop and think about each point. This post condenses much information (as for most posts, but especially this one).
- Light reflected off the tree falls on our eyes and forms an image of that tree on the retina in the back of the eye. As you can imagine, that image is tiny. But we “see” its numerous leaves, individual flowers, and fruits in great detail. How is that possible?
- Anyway, that image is transmitted to the brain through a chemical signal. How does the brain “see” the tree?
- Jeff Hawkins has thought a lot about this issue and is actively engaged in artificial intelligence. His book, “On Intelligence,” discusses current scientific knowledge on vision and other sensory inputs.
2. Starting on p. 55 of his book, Hawkins discusses how the image that falls on the back of the eye is transmitted to the brain: “Visual information from the outside world is sent to your brain via a million fibers in your optic nerve. .”,
- “You can visualize these inputs as a bundle of electrical wires or a bundle of optical fibers..” and “The inputs to the brain are like those fibers, but they are called axons, and they carry neural signals called “action potentials” or “spikes,” which are partly chemical and partly electrical..”.
- As discussed, not only visual signals but all sense inputs (sounds, taste, smell, and body touch) to the brain are the same type. You hear a sound, see the light, and feel pressure, but inside your brain, there isn’t any fundamental difference between these different types of neural signals. An action potential is an action potential.
- Scientists have not figured out how the brain distinguishes those different types of signals. Moreover, they have no idea how the mind “sees the light” or an image of that tree.
3. To quote more from that book: “.There is no light inside your head. It is dark in there. There is no sound entering your brain either; it is quiet inside. The brain is the only part of your body that has no senses itself. A surgeon could stick a finger into your brain, and you would not feel it. All the information that enters your mind comes in as spatial and temporal patterns on the axons”.
- So, it is a mystery how the mind senses those chemical and electrical signals coming to the brain as vision, sound, taste, smell, and body touch.
- Scientists are trying to solve this puzzle by looking for answers in the brain. They have come to the end of the line here.
- Now let us see how the Buddha described these processes.
4. Actual “seeing” (and hearing, smelling, etc.) goes on at the hadaya vatthu located in the gandhabbā or the mental body. The gandhabbā is like a fine mesh overlapping the physical body, with the hadaya vatthu located close to the physical heart. That is what gives life to the physical body.
- At the death of the physical body, that fine gandhabbā is pulled off the physical body like a ghost. It is so fine that we cannot see it. But we all know that a body can be alive one moment and become inert (like a piece of wood) at death a moment later.
- Of course, when the gandhabbā comes out temporarily (as in the case of those who can do astral travel or in the case of out-of-body experiences), it is still “attached” to the physical body and keeps the physical body alive. In “astral travel” terminology, the mental body is attached to the physical body via an invisible “silver cord.”
- Such cases are discussed in “Manomaya Kaya and Out-of-Body Experience (OBE).”
5. Another critical point is that in the subtle body of the gandhabbā, there are five “pasāda rūpa” located around the hadaya vatthu: cakkhu, sōta, ghāna, jivhā, and kāya, that correspond to seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touch. Here is the “missing part” of the puzzle that scientists will never be able to solve just by dealing with the brain:
- The brain is like a very sophisticated computer that analyzes those chemical and electrical signals discussed in #2 and #3.
- Those chemical and electrical signals (which come in packets of about 10-millisecond duration per scientist) are converted to electromagnetic (EM) waves and are transmitted through the air to the pasāda rūpa located around the hadaya vatthu.
- This is what the Buddha taught 2000 years ago, and until scientists make this connection, they will not be able to proceed too far from where they are now.
6. The Buddha did not explain it in terms of EM waves. These waves are called “kiraṇa” in Pāli or Sinhala.
- This is explained in the post “Citta and Cetasika – How Viññāṇa (Consciousness) Arises” and other posts in the following subsection: “Citta and Cetasika.”
- It takes a real effort to understand the details. But it will be worthwhile for those who are serious about learning Abhidhamma. Otherwise, try to get the basic idea.
7. As an example, let us consider seeing a tree. A continuous series of “data packets” (chemical and electrical signals per #3, #4 above) that come to the brain from the eyes are processed by the brain and converted to EM waves (kiraṇa).
- Those waves then travel to the cakkhu pasāda situated close to the hadaya vatthu. These waves from the brain to the heart area of the body travel in the air much faster than those chemical/electrical signals traveling from the eyes to the brain via axons.
8. When an EM wave (kiraṇa) packet arrives at the cakkhu pasāda, it hits the hadaya vatthu and “transfers” that visual information about the tree to the mind. The mind is born momentarily during this transition for the duration of that signal.
- This is what is meant by “cakkhunca Paṭicca rupeca uppajjāti cakkhu viññānam.” Here cakkhu is the cakkhu pasāda rūpa (not the physical eye), and rūpa (in “rupeca“) is the signal from the brain that carries the visual signal about the tree (not the actual tree!).
- See “Chachakka Sutta – Six Types of Vipāka Viññāṇa.”
9. This is CRITICALLY important to realize. What is meant by a “rūpa” is NOT the same as what our visual object is. We DO NOT see a man, a woman, or a tree. What comes to the mind is a “rūpa signal” that is generated by the brain. That signal has all the INFORMATION about that visual object.
- The reception of the visual signal (rūpa) by the cakkhu pasāda (cakkhu) happens at the very moment that the cakkhu pasāda transfers that signal to the hadaya vatthu by “hitting it.” And at that very moment, cakkhu viññāna arises: “cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpē ca uppajjāti cakkhuviññāṇaṃ“.
10. These are critical points to understand, even if all the details are not comprehended by modern science yet. Visual consciousness arises briefly when that information about the visual object is transferred to the mind.
- However, within that split second, not only the object (the tree in this case) is recognized, but also vedanā, saññā (recognition), and other mental factors also arise.
- For example, if we have seen that tree in the past, the mansikāra cetasika can feed that information too so that we will know the name of the tree instantly; see “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta).”
11. In another example, let us consider what happens when we tap a glass with a spoon. Of course, we will hear the tapping sound.
- Where did that sound come from” Was it in the glass? No. Was the sound in the spoon? No.
- The sound was emitted as a result of the spoon hitting the glass. If the spoon did not hit a glass, there would not be a tapping sound.
- In the same way, unless a “rūpa” or an image taken in by the eyes came to cakkhu pasāda and made it hit the hadaya vatthu, there would not be a “seeing event” or a cakkhu viññāna.
12. So, there is no “entity” called an ever-present mind. The mind arises when we receive sensory inputs via the five physical senses, as described above.
- What we loosely call the “mind” is the viññānakkhandha that arises in a billionth of a second after going through a fast process of citta, mano, mānasan, ..: See “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta).”
- We can not only hear the tapping sound, but we can also see the glass and the spoon simultaneously. But those two events do not happen “at exactly the same time.” They just appear to be simultaneous.
- What comes to the mind is a series of sense inputs (via all five physical senses) in rapid succession. We perceive it all to happen at the same time.
13. How this is possible is explained in the post, “Citta and Cetasika – How Viññāṇa (Consciousness) Arises” and other posts in the following subsection: “Citta and Cetasika.”
- As explained there, the process is similar to how a motion picture works. When making a movie, the producers take many static pictures (with a video camera) and then play them back at a fast enough speed. If the playback speed is too slow, we can see individual pictures, but above a specific “projection rate,” it looks like actual motion. Here is a video that illustrates this well:
14. When we see the outside world, what happens is very similar to the above. At the end of the video, it is stated that the “movie” we see is an illusion. As the Buddha explained, that holds for real life as well. When we see someone coming toward us, a series of “static pictures” or citta is projected at a very fast rate in our minds, giving us the illusion of a “movie-like experience.”
- The mind is very fast. The Buddha said that nothing in this world is faster than the mind. That is why we feel that all types of sense inputs come to “one’s mind” simultaneously. In reality, they are discrete snapshots, just like movie frames!
- But just like we see a continuous movie (a large number of individual picture frames), we feel like we have a continuous mind.
15. Now, to the second issue about the mind. Why do we experience the outside world our way and have our feelings and perceptions about a given sense input (love or anger when seeing the same person, for example)? That is why we feel like “I have my own mind.”
- The key is to realize that our response to the external sense inputs is unique because we have our “own way” of perceiving and evaluating those sensory inputs based on the set of gati we have.
16. As we discussed in the previous post, “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta),” our feelings and initial responses reflect our personality or gati.
- There we also discussed why the type of sensory input also plays an important role. So, our INITIAL response to an external sensory input depends on BOTH one’s gati AND the type of sensory input.
- That was an important post, so it may be beneficial to review it again. In this series of posts, I will highlight some critical features of Buddha Dhamma that will help get rid of sakkāya diṭṭhi. That is the key to the sōtapanna stage.
17. Our “state of mind” depends on our gati and the sensory inputs we receive. Furthermore, we don’t have “a fixed mind”; it can change rapidly.
- If you think back, I am sure you can remember times when you felt like your mind was filled with greed, other times with love, yet another time with anger, etc.
- As one progresses on the Path, these extreme swings of “one’s mind” will become less, which is the key to niramisa sukha, eventually leading to Nibbāna.
- Each of us does not have a fixed mind. That means we don’t generate “our own” saññā, vedanā, saṅkhāra, viññāna. In other words, we do not have our saññākkhandha, vedanākkhandha, saṅkhārakkhandha, and viññānakkhandha.
- Moreover, it is not fruitful to take any of them as “mine.” That perception is part of Sakkāya diṭṭhi.
18. Sakkāya diṭṭhi can be stated as the following wrong assumptions. “I am my body”, “I am my vedanā“, “I am my saññā“, “I am my saṅkhāra“, and “I am my viññāna“. The last four can be lumped together as “I am my mind.” But a better way to remove Sakkāya diṭṭhi is to realize that: “All those entities are not worthwhile to be taken as mine.”
- We tend to think automatically that “I have my own body,” “I have my own mind,” and “it is fruitful to be taken them as mine.”
- Let us first analyze the mind and see whether that statement is true. In the next post, we will address “I have my own body” and “it is fruitful to be taken as mine.”
- The Buddha analyzed how the mind arises step-by-step by breaking down the process. That is why he called himself a “Vibhajjavādi“; see, “Subha Sutta (MN 99)“: “Vibhajjavādo kho ahamettha, māṇava; nāhamettha ekaṃsavādo..” or “Young man, I am a Vibhajjavādi (one who analyzes from many aspects by dividing a given process to parts), I do not hold a fixed view based on just one aspect.”
In the next post, we will discuss why it is not fruitful to take one’s body as “one’s own.” But it is essential to know that the perception of “me” goes away only at the Arahant stage; see, “Sakkāya Diṭṭhi is Personality (Me) View?“.