Sunday, April 3, 2011

Buddhism and Qualia

“Buddhism” is the name of an ancient tradition (with roots in the older Hindu tradition) that includes both philosophical and spiritual ideas and practices. After 2,500 years it is no surprise to find that classical Indian and Chinese philosophy, including Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, encompass a gamut of positions at least as diverse as those found in the European philosophical tradition. There are, in the philosophical senses of the terms, materialist Buddhists and idealist Buddhists, foundationalist Buddhists and relativist Buddhists. By titling this section “Buddhism” I do not mean to suggest that the arguments discussed here are characteristic of all of Buddhist thought. However these particular arguments do constitute a persistent and venerable thread and I will discuss several different sources. These arguments have roots in some of the most basic elements of Buddhist teaching. While I have chosen to concentrate on the Mahayana tradition that is not meant to suggest that other traditions and schools may not include similar arguments.

There is a complex mix of philosophical, psychological, spiritual and social motivations informing the life of Siddhartha Guatama and his ultimate focus on the nature of the self. The severe caste structure of Indian Hindu society was tightly tied to traditional Hindu concepts of karma and reincarnation. Souls rose and fell over the course of thousands of lifetimes, and humans were low on the scale of karmic life: overall the effect was fatalistic and conservative. At the same time the sixth century BC in India was a period of transformation when a vernacular Sanskrit brought cultural upheavals that included the beginnings of the Epic Hindu literature and the flowering of diverse Hindu sects, Jainism and other movements besides Buddhism.

The basic Buddha Dharma is the most well-known piece of Buddhist philosophy. These are the “Four Noble Truths”: All life is suffering (“duhkha”), says the Buddha; we suffer because we are caught in a cycle of sensual satisfaction and craving; this suffering can be alleviated and even brought to an end altogether; and the “Eightfold Path” of right attitudes and practices will lead to the cessation of suffering. From this starting point Buddhism developed, among other things, a philosophical tradition with a sustained interest in the nature of consciousness, experience and the relationship between the self and the world. The idea that the “ego”-self, the self that arises through the cycle of duhkha, is the encumbrance that the “bodhisattva,” or enlightened self, needs to lose in order to achieve nirvana is prominent in the earliest teachings attributed to Siddhartha.

It is a somewhat dangerous business bringing a discussion of Buddhism into a book focused on contemporary philosophy of mind. I want to stick closely to the line of argument that has brought us to this relatively exotic territory. The overall claim is that the metaphysical problem of the alleged existence of phenomenal properties as distinct from physical properties is a pseudoproblem. I have presented arguments of Hume and Wittgenstein that I think are persuasive versions of this claim. In the case of Wittgenstein I argue that the “solipsism” argument common to the early and late works entails that phenomenal properties do not exist (are not part of this world). The view that the self is “emptiness,” and that the overcoming of the duality between the self and the world constitutes nirvana (enlightenment) is extremely similar, if not identical, to Wittgenstein’s solipsism argument. I will describe the Mahayana version of the argument and then present some textual evidence for my interpretation from classical sources.

The earlier Abhidharma School taught that “dharmas” were individual, autonomous atoms of experience; something akin to Leibniz’s infinity of monads. This is idealist ontology: primary being was dharma which was understood as consciousness (more or less: the bulk of Abhidharma metaphysics consists of discussions of just what “dharma” is after all). Although the arising ego-self, on this view, dissolves into infinitude of discrete dharmas, these dharmas are constitutive of the world. Mahayana Buddhism attempted to go further and collapse the duality between the mental and the non-mental: a kind of ultimate erasure of the self from the world that resulted in freedom from the bonds of the karmic cycle, the traditional goal of both Hinduism and Buddhism. Their formula was


One must resist the Cartesian instinct to interpret this formula as stating that the world collapses into the mind (as it does on the idealist view). The idea is that each consciousness is a universe. That universe at the middle of which you are sitting is you: it/you came into existence when it/you became conscious. When you pass away the universe you inhabit will pass away: for that universe is you. This is a line that could be defended by Hume: he might point out, for example, that if all any talk about “the world” could possibly be referring to is experience, then it makes no sense to refer to “a world” beyond experience, and thus it is incoherent to speak of a common world for all of the “microcosms” – a pseudoproblem.

An account of nirvana as the realization of the non-duality of mind and world can be found in Mahayana Buddhism and its descendents. The Prajna-paramita, or Wisdom Sutra, was traditionally taken to be the word of the Buddha, but scholars trace its origins to the first century AD and it appears that it was composed over the next several centuries. In a chapter titled “Mara” (a malevolent deity who lays traps for spiritual seekers), we find:

Subhuti: Is it then possible to write down the perfection of wisdom?
The Lord: No, Subhuti. And why? Because the own-being of the perfection of wisdom does not exist, nor that of the other perfections, the emptinesses, the Buddhadharmas or all-knowledge. That of which the own-being does not exist, that is nonexistence; what is nonexistence cannot be written down by the nonexistent.

The spiritual goal here is to free the self from the cycle of satisfaction and craving, and that is accomplished by showing that the self is not part of the world (I am not claiming that our present question about phenomenal properties is what Mahayana Buddhism is all about!). The Wisdom Sutra emphasizes the nonexistence of “own-being,” the being of oneself in one’s world. I chose this passage because the topic is language, and the message conforms to Wittgenstein’s treatment of the alleged problem that arises when we think of phenomenal language, say the word “blue,” as referring to something internal (mental) versus external (physical). Here the predicate “exists” is understood as meaning “exists in this world,” the world of experience: but the experiencing subject is not in this world. This also conforms to Hume’s argument that it makes as little sense to speak of the physical as distinct from the mental as it does to speak of the mental as distinct from the physical. Both sides of the distinction drop away simultaneously.

In the chapter titled “The Exposition of the Nonexistence of Own-Being” the point is more explicit that karma (one’s involvement with duhkha, the cycle of satisfaction and craving) is based on “own-being” and “own-marks,” worldly characteristics of persons. “Dharma” means something in the area of “consciousness,” “self” or “view.”

Subhuti: If, however, these dharmas are empty of own-marks, how can with regard to dharmas which are empty of own-marks a difference or distinction be apprehended (to the effect that one says) “this one is a being of the hells, this one an animal,…this one a god, this one a human….” And as these persons cannot be apprehended, so likewise their karma or its karma result.
The Lord: So it is, Subhuti, so it is, as you say. In respect of dharmas which are empty of own-marks no karma or karma result can be apprehended....But when those too ignorant to cognize dharmas as empty of own-marks manufacture a karma…then, through badly done karma they are hurled into the three states of woe, through what is well done they are reborn among gods and men….Here the Bodhisattva, who courses in perfect wisdom, does not see those dharmas in such a way that, when seeing them, he apprehends any dharma whatever. Not apprehending them he sees that “all dharmas are empty.”

Hundreds of years later and thousands of miles away Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), the classic avatar of Japanese Zen Buddhism, had refined the teaching of the non-duality of mind and world into a meditation practice (“zazen”) and a literary genre (“koan”) that were more minimalist and practice-oriented than the ritual-encrusted, syncretic and generally more baroque Sanskrit and Tibetan traditions, although like Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, Zen and Chinese/Japanese Buddhism in general are descendants of the Mahayana tradition. In his Shobogenzo (“Treasury of the True Dharma Eye”) the solipsistic view has crystallized considerably. Here are quotations from the section “Actualizing the Fundamental Point” (written around 1230):

As all things are buddha-dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, and birth and death, and there are buddhas and sentient beings.

As the myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death.

The buddha way is, basically, leaping clear of the many and the one.

To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.

When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging body-and-mind, you grasp things directly.

To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the body and mind of others drop away.

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken.

When the fundamental truth of mind=experience=world is realized things are grasped directly. The idea that there are qualitative experiences that are distinct from the objects of experience reflects the same Cartesian duality of mind and world that underlies representational theories of mind; the Buddhist aim in criticizing this duality as a misconception is essentially spiritual. The Wittgensteinian position is clearly echoed in the Zenrin kushu, a 15th century Zen text, which describes consciousness as “Like a sword that cuts, but cannot cut itself; Like an eye that sees, but cannot see itself”: what is constitutive of the experienced world cannot be considered as part of, or as in, that world.


  1. Upfront admission: I only managed to skim this article for now, though I may go back and read it in full.

    While your grasp of the "concepts" of Buddhism seems rather good in general, the 'spirit' of the article does however strike me as somewhat anti-Buddhist in spirit. That is, while recognising many of the core teachings of Buddha-Dharma, it stills strives to conceptualise and examine what is inherently 'just there' in many places. Although I may be wrong, the Buddhist thought with which I am familiar typically rejects qualia as something that can (or should) be analysed. It is inherent to existence at a very holistic level, which may point towards its (lack of) usefulness as a concept to Buddhists. With regards to the mind-body, neither monism nor dualism is embraced (nor entirely invalidated) - in quite a satisfying way, I would believe.

    In summary, without going into too much depth, I think it would prove an extremely difficult to task to properly relate any Western philosophers' theories (inc. Wittgenstein) to those of Buddhism, largely in that the goals of the two are rather different, and indeed, even modern Western philosophy makes some fundamental assumptions that may not be valid within Buddhist thought. Nonetheless, an interesting read (skim); I am glad to see someone exploring such points.

  2. Nolderlin, If you do come back and read the post, you will find that the non-duality teaching you review is exactly the teaching I am drawing on. Our only disagreement is that i am sure that Wittgenstein (and Hume and in a way Berkeley) develop similar views. It is important not to "orientalize" Buddhist philosophy: as any good Buddhist would tell you, it's just people, thinking about the kinds of things people think about.

  3. Yeah, so I should probably go back and read your Wittgenstein/Hume posts if I get time; perhaps I am not sufficiently familiar with their ideas. Indeed, Buddhism should not be a mystical Eastern practice - quite the opposite, it is very much a "real world" philosophy and there is very little esoteric about it. Nonetheless, I think it does notably make recognition that analysis of discrete (self-contained) philosophical problems can never truly represent reality. We're speaking generally here, but I do find Western philosophy strives for a theoretical "ultimate and complete theory" which from my understanding, Buddhism denies even the existence of. Perhaps we're just coming at the same thing from a different perspective. In any case, I rather like your explanation of the Buddhist view of the mind, as it elucidates its non-independence/separation from reality/the actual world. Perhaps I shall now be tempted to explore more Wittgenstein and get a clearer picture of this connection for myself!

  4. This is a fantastic article. I think it would also be interesting to examine the Buddhist conception of rebirth in this light.

  5. I wonder whether the Indians took a simpler route- one not made explicit in their soteriological literature that has come down to us- to the affirmation that 'the metaphysical problem of the alleged existence of phenomenal properties as distinct from physical properties is a pseudoproblem'

    Speaking personally, the only reason I can think of for that metaphysical problem's existence is the notion that intuition is a path to truth. Deny this notion, deny that any 'synthetic' proposition has a claim to credence by itself, and the problem loses all interest for second order discourse as opposed to a first order, empirical, branch of psychology or neuro-science.

    Now, for the West, where Geometry held the highest prestige, the fact that Euclid's axioms seem common-sense gives rise to the notion that we can have intuition of synthetic judgements which are apriori true. We know this to be false- but a lot of bright Maths mavens didn't even after Einstein was proved right in 1919.

    Unlike the Greeks, Indian maths and grammar as far back as the 7th Century B.C seems to have been heavy on combinatorics and algorithmic methods. Why should this be the case? Well, things like balloting theory, Game theory, Probability, Statistics etc. use Combinatorics and discrete math rather than geometry.
    *contd below)
    In this context, if it was indeed the case that redistribution of land and cattle- but also dynastic feuds and Republican voting methods- by mixed strategy games (i.e. combining a bit of skill with a probabilistic element) then we can understand why the Mathematical paradigm for logic would focus on discrete maths- a field where spatio=temporal 'intuitions' are useless or misleading. In the Mahabharata- the great Indian epic- the Just King has to learn Probability and Game Theory to dispel his malaise. This did not mean simply how to load the dice. Rather it referred to 'mechanism design'- i.e. how to set up the game so as to get a socially positive result.
    Now cellular automata are a good way to model this sort of thing. Since this is purely discrete maths it can be done laboriously with little 'high concept' stuff. Some board games themselves offer a template for the development of a cellular automata approach. Another point has to do with Vedic Melody (Sama) where the existence of microtones and 'missed beats' makes a geometric (harmonics) less useful. A further point is that if Indians really put discrete maths over continuous maths then, when trying to reconcile arithmetic with geometry, they'd quickly reach the conclusion Cantor did but without his rigor- viz. there is a distinction between countable and uncountable numbers (basic to Jain ontology). Further cellular automata, unlike the axiomatic method derived from Geometery, easily accommodate Dialethia, multi-valued logics and also dispel the horror vacui arising from the notion that if, even for a moment, nothing exists then nothing can exist because the causal chain is broken. However, with cellular automata, long periods can go by with nothing happening on the board. What the Husserlians call the principle of displayability- viz. the notion that ever term or concept must have a phenomenon it determines- no longer seems 'common sense'.
    In Lord Buddha's case everything in his philosophy is already present in the declaration that only intentional conscious acts count. Interestingly, despite their divergent ontologies and epistemologies and mutual mud-slinging, all the other sects end up cashing out as something only verbally different.
    However, political and economic changes meant that game theory ceased to be of vital importance and thus removed the original motivation for the emphasis on combinatorics and discrete maths.

    Instead, the movement was towards algebraic geometry which only very clever people understood and for which there was little demand outside the centers of astrological learning.

  6. My personal view on Buddhists is not to dress in robes, and to live in a simple way. Buddha believe in "The Middle Way". "Live without desire, but don't desire not to desire." You can live what others would call a perfectly normal life and still consider yourself what others call a "buddhist"

  7. stream.of.consciousnessApril 8, 2012 at 1:01 AM

    this is stream-of-consciousness, so I am actually sorry for that, and given it is messy, am not really expecting a response at all. just thought i'd post anyway.

    I wondered if the way in which article was structured seemed to deny the moderate realism that some thinkers, like Tsongkhapa, would have asserted. While self doesn't exist inherently, there still is definitely a distinction between self and object, and therefore of qualia (?), even if not inherent.

    I found this post in the first place because i am trying to come to better understanding about how tsongkhapa and relevant thinkers might conceive of the orientations and approaches taken in theories of sense perception (phil of mind? or is that phil of science?) -- theories like representationalism, sense-datum, higher-order theories of consciousness >> particularly self-representational higher-order theories of consciousness. self-representational higher-order theories of consciousness seem to be entirely wrapped up in questions considering the reflexivity of consciousness, subjectivity, how to make distinctions between the conscious and the unconscious, etc. -- questions which seemed extremely well addressed in Tsongkhapa's philosophy. I am curious how an enlightened person (and in this case, one who has fully realized the ins and outs of Tsongkhapa's philosophy) would view the above theories and what sort of advice such a person might give with respect to the perplexities faced in above issues.

    i get it that there might be confusion with respect to east-west divide, but am curious if there is not at least some amount of logic that might transcend that divide.
    Can tsongkhapa's system be applied to systems whose ontology totally lacks any idea of an absolute or ultimate reality??? (such as self-representational systems, etc.)

    If, we just ACCEPT that tsongkhapa has full realization of reality, that enlightenment is highest, etc., then, he would know nature of subjectivity and it's appropriate relationship to objectivity.
    some discussions about qualia, and above mentioned sense-perceptual theories, seem to delve into the area of "ultimate analysis," but it is hard to see exactly when they do that... and when they DO start do to that (go into ultimate analysis), perhaps there is when T's philosophy would come in handy (if we were to assume it was right)?

    maybe it is because.... even if we did use T's logic to negate, it wouldn't entirely work full-circle because the other person has to be INTERESTED I KNOWING THE ANSWER – i remember reading this somewhere... (in prasangika-madhyamaka). not entirely sure if you get what i mean by this, but this is sort of the conclusion that i'm settling on at this point. << this might be the reason that T's philosophy is not more widely utilized in western theories of sense-perceptual theories..??? and science of vis. perception..????

  8. Very good article. However, you made a mistake about Dogen. I am a Soto Zen practitioner, and I can tell you Dogen was very much against Koan practice. The Koan practice is used more in Rinzae Zen, which Dogen found unsatisfactory. Dogen went to China and found his practice of "Shikantaza" and received his Dharma transmission from his master there. You can read more about it from a biography, but keep in mind the fundamental different approaches in the Rinzae and Soto schools.