Alan Wallace has devoted the past thirty-four years to the study and practice of Buddhism and the interface between scientific and contemplative modes of inquiry into the nature of the mind. He is founder and president of the Santa Barbara Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Consciousness and teaches Buddhist meditation worldwide. He is editor of the anthology Buddhism & Science: Breaking New Ground (Columbia University Press, 2003). Margaret Cullen and Alan Wallace are co-trainers and collaborators on Cultivating Emotional Balance, a research project sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute.
Margaret Cullen: At the M.I.T. conference, you mentioned the mind as a sixth domain of experience. Can you explore the mind as a sense faculty and compare this to the traditional Western understanding of mind?
Alan Wallace: This is one of the crucial differences between the West and Buddhism. Going back to Plato and Aristotle, there’s a clear acknowledgment of the five physical senses, and then there’s reason. Aristotle elevated reason to the pinnacle of human existence, as did Thomas Aquinas. This has been echoed over the centuries in Greek, Roman and medieval European philosophy: the mind peaks out in reason. The notion of the mind as a mode of perception is not absent, but it’s gone way underground. For instance, there’s the ancient Greek idea of noetos, which refers to the perceptual faculty with which we apprehend nonsensuous events, such as thoughts, mental images, emotions and dreams. The Greeks had little if any idea of how to refine this faculty, and we’ve largely lost sight of it since the Scientific Revolution.
Buddhism, on the other hand, has from the outset recognized the presence of six modes of perception. The sixth is very close to noetos, and called manas-pratyaksha in Sanskrit, accurately translated as “mental perception.” It’s the sense faculty with which we can observe a wide and widening array of mental phenomena as our abilities of attention, mindfulness and so forth are honed. For example, when we practice samatha or vipassana, we’re cultivating exactly that ability to inspect things which cannot be directly observed with any other sense. We’re opening up a realm of experience that is otherwise inaccessible to immediate observation.
One way of looking at it is that we’re lowering the threshold between the conscious and the unconscious mind, so that more and more mental phenomena become conscious as the clarity and precision of mental perception grow.
We have six senses, not five! Wake up and smell the roses: What sense are you using when you observe the contents of dreams? The five physical senses are dormant. You’re not just remembering things, and you’re not simply making things up. You are observing the corollaries of sights, sounds, tastes, smells and emotions—all perceived with mental perception.
Among our six senses, five—at least in principle—can be enhanced by means of technology. Certainly visual and auditory—science is fantastic for that. But without technology our five physical senses are not very malleable through training. The opposite is true with the mind. There’s virtually no enhancement possible with technology, but there are extraordinary methods for enhancement by means of bhavana, which simply means “cultivation” but is often translated as “meditation.” Meditation can train the one sense with which we can explore not only mental phenomena but all other phenomena as well. The mind is the only sense with a visa or green card for visiting and dwelling in all six domains of experience.
This is the great complementary nature between the Buddhist and the Western scientific study of the mind. Western science has made wonderful strides in the behavioral and neurophysiological study of the correlates of the mind, and really no advances at all in terms of introspection or identifying and enhancing mental perception. Whereas Buddhism has made no progress in terms of brain science, some qualitative progress in behavioral science, but extraordinary progress in terms of enhancing and applying mental perception.
MC: Western science has explored the outer domain of experience and Buddhism has explored the inner domain. What about the relationship between the two? To what extent does consciousness influence “reality”?
AW: The crucial point here—which I don’t believe came out at the M.I.T. conference—is what is meant by “reality.” Humans define this term, but they do so in different ways. When scientists, especially scientific materialists, think of reality, their attention is generally directed to the objective world. Take food, for example. It has colors I see, fragrances I smell, textures I feel, and so forth. These are experiences of food that I’m picking up with my human senses. Physics, chemistry and biology are not concerned with sense impressions; they’re aimed at understanding the elementary particles, atoms and molecules of food that exist whether or not anybody is actually seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or touching the food. Since the time of Democritus and, more recently, since the times of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton, Western science has been asking: What’s really out there, independent of experience and consciousness? That’s reality.
That’s not what Buddhism is interested in. After all, Buddhism begins with the First Noble Truth, which addresses the reality of suffering. This reality is not out there, independent of the experience or consciousness. And if there is such a purely objective world, from the Buddhist perspective you’d say, “Who cares?” In the cultivation of mindfulness, we attend to the food that we experience with all five senses, as well as our mental sense of it. In the West there is a bifurcation of an absolutely objective world beyond and independent of consciousness and then an absolutely subjective world that’s just the realm of the mind. The statement “It’s not real, it’s only in your mind” would be considered lunacy from the Buddhist perspective.
There is neither a scientific definition of consciousness nor any objective, scientific means of detecting its presence or absence. Consciousness is on the level of Casper the Friendly Ghost at this point, which makes it hard to discuss scientifically. From a scientific perspective, what influence does consciousness have on reality? Well, define the doggone thing first. In Buddhism, what influence does consciousness have on reality? Massive!
AW: Well, take the first line of the Dhammapada: “All phenomena are preceded by the mind, issue forth from the mind, and consist of the mind.” This is not necessarily a form of philosophical idealism. It’s saying that loka, the world of experience, is inextricable from consciousness. “For the moment, what we attend to is reality,” says William James. It suffuses everything we know and has a monumental influence on the type of reality that rises up to meet us. Imagine a gradient from a disempowered mind to an empowered mind, a weak mind to a powerful mind, a coarse mind to a subtle mind. Someone with an untrained mind is very much under the domination of physiology, sense impressions, thoughts and emotions—a pawn on the chessboard of life. It’s like being shelled—“incoming, incoming, incoming”—one thing after another. We’re either dodging bombs or getting blown up.
Dharma practice is designed, in part, to turn the tables. The mind becomes empowered not to dominate reality but rather to develop its own equilibrium, clarity, wisdom and compassion. We then bring these qualities of mind to our wide array of experiences. We meet a hostile person and respond with compassion or equanimity instead of knee-jerk reactivity. We see something beautiful and appreciate it instead of falling into craving. Whatever we encounter, the dharma qualities of the mind rise up to meet and transform it. This then becomes more and more nutrition for our dharma practice. We’re digesting life from moment to moment, day to day, and the mind is being empowered in the cultivation of wisdom and compassion. Now that’s a psychological truth I know to be true.