Launch of a Book on the Mind
November 13, 2020
Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, HP, India – Daniel Aitken, CEO of Wisdom Publications, opened proceedings for the launch today of the English translation of the second volume of the series Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics by wishing His Holiness the Dalai Lama, “Good morning.” He thanked him for joining a virtual gathering in which series editor Thupten Jinpa, translators of this volume Dechen Rochard and John Dunne, as well as translators of other volumes, Ian Coghlan and Donald Lopez, were also participating.
Aitken described the publication of this series as an ambitious project. He noted that Tibetans are the custodians of the Nalanda Tradition, which through the series is being offered back to India and the entire world. Declaring that Wisdom Publications is honoured to be making these books available, he went through the motions of holding out a first copy, with a white silk scarf, to His Holiness.
Next, he invited John Dunne to talk about the essays he had written to introduce each chapter of the book. “This volume on the mind,” Dunne explained from Madison, Wisconsin, “is important because Buddhism has perspectives on the way the mind works that modern science lacks. We thought that introductory essays were necessary in order to make this volume accessible to readers in the West.
“Buddhist accounts of mind are motivated by an overall goal of relieving suffering. Moreover, Buddhist theories provide an account of cognition that, unlike early Western models, does not assume that there is a single, autonomous, controlling ‘self’ that is the agent of those cognitions. I wrote these essays taking such differences into account and seeking to build bridges between Buddhist science and modern science.
“In Western cognitive science there is a distinction between phenomenal and access consciousness and this is reflected in Buddhist categories such as the five mental functions with a determinate object or the distinction between the conceptual and the non-conceptual.
“We hope to help readers appreciate what the Nalanda Tradition brings to the study of the mind. We try to point out areas of benefit. Among scientists and clinicians, there is a great deal of interest in the effects of contemplative practices such as ‘shamatha’ and mindfulness meditation on the mind and body. The essays try to answer what happens when we meditate? What are the theories? And also how meditation operates.”
Daniel Aitken remarked that this series of books is unique even from a Buddhist perspective. He asked His Holiness if he could talk about his reasons for initiating their compilation.
“I respect all the major religious traditions,” His Holiness replied. “Despite various philosophical differences between them, they all convey a message of love, tolerance, forgiveness and self-discipline. From a Buddhist perspective, religions are a human creation and they focus on good human qualities, such as compassion and forgiveness. These are qualities that contribute to our being able to live a happy life.
“There are difference of tradition even within Buddhism. However, in general, it’s a mistake to think in terms of ‘my religion’ and ‘their religion’. And it’s especially unfortunate to fight in the name of religion. Therefore, we must promote inter-religious harmony.
“As far as Buddhism is concerned, the Buddha advised his followers, “As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it, so, bhikshus, should you accept my words — only after testing them, and not merely out of respect for me.” Although the Pali tradition relies on faith in the Buddha’s words, the tradition of Nalanda, which was a centre of learning, took a logical and reasoned approach. The scholars subjected even the Buddha’s words to reasoned scrutiny.
“In his ‘Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way’ Nagarjuna stated that all the Buddha’s teachings should be seen within the framework of the two truths, conventional and ultimate truth. At the heart of this approach is an understanding of the nature of reality. The Buddha didn’t create the distinction between conventional and ultimate truth, they are part of reality. And the emphasis in Buddhism is on understanding the nature of reality. Conventional truth is based on our perception of reality on the level of appearances. There is a disparity between appearances and the way things are. Ultimate truth pertains to the way things are in an ultimate sense.
“In elaborating on the two truths the Buddha explained the four noble truths beginning with the truth of suffering and its origin. Then, when you look at suffering there are three levels. First is the evident suffering that even animals are aware of. Next is the suffering of change, which most human beings confuse with pleasure. Underlying them both is the fundamental suffering that derives from pervasive conditioning. Suffering comes from causes, so if we don’t want to encounter suffering, we have to find those causes and eliminate them.
“Nagarjuna mentions that the two main causes are karmic activity and mental afflictions. Liberation occurs when there is a cessation of these two. Karma arises from mental afflictions and they in turn derive from conceptual elaborations, which are underpinned by ignorance. Ignorance is overcome by understanding the nature of reality.
“Once we understand that it is possible to overcome these causes of suffering an enthusiasm to follow the path of practice develops. Elimination of negative emotions won’t come about through faith and prayer, but by training the mind. To follow the path, you have to know about the mind. To clarify the mind and overcome negative emotions, you have to know the nature of the mind. One text says, the principal nature of the mind is clear light.
“There are several levels of mind and emotions. Destructive emotions occur at a coarse level of mind due to certain factors. There are more subtle levels of mind that we experience during meditation or in deep sleep. The subtlest level of mind manifests at the time of death, at the culmination of the dissolution of all conceptual thought processes. At that point, the mind of clear light manifests free of any affliction, clear and pure.
“It’s important to investigate the mind and the different levels of consciousness because even ordinary people experience the innermost, subtlest level of mind, the primordial mind of clear light, at the time of death.
“If you look at the resources we find in Buddhism, the primary emphasis is on understanding the nature of reality. As I said before, the fundamental source of our problems is ignorance of the nature of reality, which gives rise to mental afflictions. We have to put an end to the mechanism that gives rise to mental afflictions that are rooted in ignorance. One technique we see in Buddhism, which culminates in highest yoga tantra, is indicated in the third round of the Buddha’s teachings, and emphasises the subjective clear light.
“There are progressive levels of consciousness in the vajrayana. By using techniques such as ‘pranayama’, focussing on the breath, it’s possible to bring consciousness to its subtlest state. This is one way to approach pure luminosity or mere clarity and awareness.
“Another approach was revealed in the second round of teachings that dealt with the perfection of wisdom. Nagarjuna and Aryadeva have elaborated on this in their writings. The point they make is that underlying our perception of reality is a fundamental misconception of an enduring reality. This serves as the basis for creating the whole edifice of our naive view of reality, which gives rise to our emotional relation to the world. So, the aim here is to get our understanding of reality right. We have to analyse and deconstruct different layers of ignorance. We have to realize that the way the world appears to us is not the way it exists. Aryadeva comments that ignorance pervades our mental afflictions in the way our physical faculty pervades all our other senses.
“The way we can overcome ignorance is to understand emptiness in terms of dependent arising. We need to refine our understanding of the objective world by understanding the teaching on emptiness and by progressively reducing our dependence on coarse levels of mind. Both approaches are based on understanding the nature of reality.
“Both liberation and the cycle of existence are functions of the mind. Indian tradition, and particularly Buddhist tradition, emphasise understanding the nature of the mind, not necessarily in terms of religious practice, but in understanding the nature of reality.
“Modern science is astute about the physical world, but when it comes to understanding the mind, Indian and Buddhist tradition have a great deal to offer, not only theories of the mind, but also techniques for training it. These include how to develop a focussed mind as well as a sharp critical faculty (‘shamatha’ and ‘vipashyana’). These are two key kinds of practice, one restful and focussed and the other analytical and discursive. Consequently, scientists find dialogue with Buddhists enriching and beneficial.
“Neuroscientists correlate the mind with the brain, but make little distinction between sensory and mental modalities, which Indian tradition deals with in detail.
“Until the late 20th century people in the West paid little attention to the mind. When they used the word mind, they thought only of the brain. However, lately, cases have come to light of people, often experienced meditators, who are clinically dead but whose bodies remain fresh. Science is unable to explain this phenomenon. What’s more, there are cases of young children with clear memories of their past lives. Gradually scientists are coming to accept that there is something that affects the brain — and we call it the mind.”
His Holiness spoke of Buddhist literature and how its contents can be categorised under three headings — science, philosophy and religion. He mentioned that he had requested scholars to compile materials from these sources about science, especially in relation to the mind, and philosophy. He reported that he’s been informed that Chinese scientists who read the translation of the first volume were surprised by the scientific approach adopted by Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He confirmed that scientific and philosophical explanations may be derived from religious texts, but they can be examined in an objective, academic context.
When Daniel Aitken asked if His Holiness saw any benefit of the books to the world other than as a contribution to scientific knowledge, he drew attention to the need for ordinary people to develop a sense of emotional hygiene. Although everybody wants to be healthy and happy, they generally do not know how to achieve peace of mind. He declared that it’s time for people to pay attention not only to their physical health, but to their mental well-being as well.
He suggested that science can also look into how to develop peace of mind in day to day life. He gave the example of Shantideva’s observation in his ‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’ that when it comes to cultivating patience, our adversary is our best teacher and we should be grateful to him. He pointed out that we label people as friends or enemies in our minds and that if we are able feel gratitude to an enemy, it preserves our peace of mind. He added that these judgements are also related to the recognition that things don’t exist the way they appear. Because such thoughts help reduce anger and attachment, His Holiness concluded that he is not propagating Buddhism, but simple peace of mind.
Aitken invited Dechen Rochard to talk about her experience of translating this book. She began by thanking His Holiness for providing the opportunity to serve him as a translator. “Translating is usually a solitary activity,” she continued, “but I’ve found myself working with four Geshés, Thupten Jinpa, Ian Coghlan, and John Dunne with trust and mutual respect.
“The text contains a wide range of different, complex materials and making it accessible to English readers has been a challenge. Building bridges is a long-term project. This book is part of the foundation.
“Working on this project has introduced me to Indian Buddhist literature, which requires that you delve deeply into it to understand it. My understanding has been enriched, thank you.”
Aitken invited Thupten Jinpa to explain the importance of the series. “Your Holiness, colleagues and friends,” he began, “I am deeply honoured to be part of today’s launch of the second volume of Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics. One thing I would like to highlight is the highly ambitious nature of the series. What His Holiness has conceived and created here is truly innovative in the 2500-year history of Buddhist thought. The series offers to the wider world the insights, knowledge, and wisdom of India’s great Nalanda masters.
“We Tibetans take pride in being custodians of the Nalanda Tradition. Drawing on the Abhidharmakoshakarika, they developed a map of the mind and elaborated on the structure of our mental experience. The epistemology of Dignaga, Dharmakirti and so forth, analyses the nature of consciousness. Vajrayana texts, especially those related to highest yoga tantra present a unique view in which mind and body are regarded in terms of energy and awareness. Added to this, the Yogachara tradition provides meditative techniques for transforming the mind. As John Dunne observed, this volume will be of special interest to neuroscientists.
“As series editor, I’d like to thank Dechen Rochard for her translation, John Dunne for his introductory essays, publisher at Wisdom, Daniel Aitken, senior editor David Kittelstrom and his colleague Mary Petrusewicz, for their dedication. I must also thank the four monastic scholars — Geshé Jangchup Sangyé, Abbot of Ganden Shartse, Geshé Ngawang Sangyé of Drepung Loseling college, Geshé Chilsa Drungchen Rinpoché of Ganden Jangtsé College, and Geshé Lobsang Konchok of Drepung Gomang College, who worked for many years preparing the original Tibetan manuscripts of the series. It has been truly a source of profound honour for me to be able to play some role is making this important vision of His Holiness a reality.”
When Daniel Aitken asked about his hope and vision for the series, His Holiness replied that in modern times there has been great material development, but less attention has been paid to our inner world. “We face problems that we don’t want, and yet they are of our own making. We need to find ways to keep our minds peaceful. So, it’s useful for us to know how our minds and emotions work. In my experience the advice contained in Shantideva’s ‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’, Nagarjuna’s ‘Fundamental Wisdom’ and Aryadeva’s ‘400 Verses’ has helped me to retain my peace of mind. So, I believe this knowledge can be of benefit to many other human brothers and sisters.
Aitken thanked His Holiness once again and told him it had been an honour to take part in this work. His Holiness picked up a copy of the second volume of the series and posed with it before the screen displaying the faces of the various contributors.
He added some final words of appreciation for the work of the translators in translating the two books that have been published so far. He emphasised the importance of undertaking this work with a positive motivation to benefit others rather than simply to achieve financial gain. He ended by reciting verses from Shantideva’s ‘Guide’:
All those who suffer in the world do so because of their desire for their own happiness. All those happy in the world are so because of their desire for the happiness of others. 8/129
Why say more? Observe this distinction: between the fools who long for their own advantage and the sage who acts for the advantage of others. 8/130
Proceeding in this way from happiness to happiness, what thinking person would despair, after mounting the carriage, the Awakening Mind, which carries away all weariness and effort? 7/30