A Dialogue on the Existence of Past and Future Lives Based on Reasoning
A: Buddhism posits the existence of past and future lives, and there are some supporting cases of people remembering their past lives. However, I still have doubts about these claims, because neither I nor others around me have such recollections. How can the existence of past and future lives be clarified?
B: Many accounts of the recollection of past lives can be found at home and abroad, during ancient and modern times. A groundless and flat denial of them is unjustifiable. A number of scientists, such as Dr. Ian Stevenson and Dr. Jim Tucker at the University of Virginia, have investigated thousands of such cases using strict scientific discipline. In the end, they cannot but be convinced of the existence of past lives.
A: I am familiar with that. However, if that were the case, why can’t everyone around us remember their past lives as well?
B: Not remembering things is normal. You can’t remember most of the events in your childhood, can you? How about a past life that was much further back in time? In addition, after having wandered around through death and rebirth, one’s ability to recall the past only worsens. For example, some people become amnesiacs when encountering strong emotional blows. Hence, the inability to remember something can hardly validate the lack of its existence.
A: I grant you that. But without seeing it with my own eyes or experiencing it personally, I am afraid I remain unconvinced.
B: You have not seen your great grandfather with your own eyes, but you have no doubt that he existed, correct? Why is that?
A: This is obvious by reasoning. See, I was born because of my mom and dad. Without them, I would not be here; and without my granddad, my dad would not be here either. Deducing similarly onward, my great grandfather must have existed.
B: Well, past and future lives, even beyond your personal perception, can also be deduced to exist in exactly the same way.
A: Really? How can you do that?
B: Within the vastness of Buddhism, there is a branch of knowledge called Buddhist Logic (Hetuvidya) that applies reasoning to ascertain many major issues, including the existence of past and future lives.
A: In that case, please try to explain it in general terms.
II. Our mind stream flows from life to life
B: We must, first of all, know what is meant by past and future lives. We humans consist of a body and a mind. Without a mind, we are no different from corpses. After we die, the body is cremated or buried; this physical form definitely is not carried over to the next life. What’s most crucial here is the mind, which will continue to exist just as in this lifetime and move on to future lives.
A: How does the mind continue to go on?
B: Our mind stream continues from moment to moment—from when we were young to becoming an adult to today; it continues to see colors and shapes, to hear sounds, to remember the past and to plan the future. In the same way, it will move on to tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, next year, the year after that, and so on. When we die, although our body disintegrates, the mind stream will not perish as a result; instead, it transmigrates to another body form. This is reincarnation. It’s like a person, after having lived in one house for some time, moves on to a new house to live.
III. The death of the body does not account for the cessation of the mind.
A. How can that be? A human has to have a body first before possessing a mind. When the body dies, so will the mind, as an oil lamp dims and goes out when there is no more oil. Hence, the mind simply cannot continue by itself.
B. Now let’s do some analysis. You said, “A human has to have a body first before possessing a mind. When the body dies, so will the mind.” Why is that?
A: A person, when alive, can talk or laugh, but when dead, will become as inanimate as a piece of rock. Doesn’t it indicate that the mind has ceased to be?
B: The only conclusion to draw is that the mind is no longer connected to the body, but hardly that the mind has ceased to be. For instance, when a house is occupied, from it comes music, light, and chimney smoke. But should someday no more music, light, and chimney smoke come out from the house, can you tell for sure that the people in the house have died?
A: That’s not necessarily the case. Those people could have moved out.
B: It’s the same when a person dies. The mind departs from the body, rendering the body no longer capable of talking or laughing. Yet the mind will take birth in another body subsequently. While over here, a person dies; yet over there, with a cry a baby is born. This is the transmigration of the mind.
IV. The mind’s quality is clarity and awareness and it cannot be the function of physical elements.
A: But science has shown that the mind can never exist without the brain, and that the mind is nothing more than the brain’s byproduct. When the brain dies, all its activities cease, so naturally will the mind stop. How on earth can the mind transmigrate further on?
B: This is a crucial issue and we better be certain about it. Let’s see if science has really proved this point. Now please tell me, is the brain a material substance?
A: Yes it is. The brain is in fact a bunch of nerve cells, and nerve cells are physical materials made of atoms and molecules.
B: As you said, the mind is a function of the brain. Insofar as the brain is a material substance, it follows that its activity must also be purely the activity of materials, just like the physical change of water into steam, or the chemical change of salt forming as a result of neutralizing an acid with an alkali. But how can such a reaction be the activity of the mind? The two are simply poles apart.
A: What, then, are the activities of the mind that you are alluding to? What exactly are feeling, thinking, and so on, anyway?
B: This in fact we do not need to ask others; one has the answer already. For instance, don’t you hear me talking now?
A: I do hear you.
B: Do you see my face?
B: Do you feel the warmth of this room?
B: You know that you’re thinking of the topic of our discussion, right?
B: Okay. That which perceives exactly the colors and sounds, warmth or cold, and the thinking process is precisely your mind. In a nutshell, the mind is that which is clear and knowing. Your conscious experience is your mind, my conscious experience is my mind, and we all experience consciousness individually. This is our mind. The Treasury of Logic on Valid Cognition says: “The characteristics of the mind are merely clarity and awareness.” Now, suppose the activities of the mind are nothing but the reactions of physical elements; how on earth could you experience feelings or have ideas? Wouldn’t you be just like a moving corpse?
A: This is getting too fuzzy and too abstract. Can you be a bit more specific?
B: The mind that can perceive colors and shapes is the visual consciousness. To see things, we need the eye organ; but the physical eye by itself is not the conscious experience of seeing. A blind person can still perceive darkness; blindness does not eradicate the conscious experience of darkness. In addition, a blind person has nightly dreams, which are filled with various scenes. Colors and shapes themselves are not your consciousness. For instance, a desk surface has a certain color. Should the color have knowing quality, it follows that the desk should be cognitive of its color, not you. However, it is you who perceive personally the visual object. That which sees and perceives color is your mind, which is neither the eye organ nor the color on the desk.
A: Excuse me, where does this mind reside exactly? Is it in brainwaves or an electromagnetic field?
B: If you think this way, you will not be able to make sense of the mind. Saying that the mind is an electromagnetic field, or neurons or that the mind is like a mist, the empty sky, only renders all these suppositions anything but the mind. Why? Because none of these things is your subjective knowing, your most intimate experience right now. Try to grasp it justly.
A: (Trying to grasp the sense of “subjective knowing”). Okay, I think I got it. This knowing is what I’m experiencing, clearly, right now. I don’t need to ask others about it. I really should try to feel it. To imagine it as an electromagnetic wave or something else only moves me further away from understanding.
B: That’s it. Furthermore, besides eye consciousness, there are the auditory consciousness that hears sound; the tactile consciousness that feels heat, cold, pain, and itchiness; the olfactory consciousness that smells fragrant or unpleasant odors; the tongue consciousness that tastes sweet, bitter, sour, or spicy flavors; and the mental consciousness that thinks and remembers. These non-external experiences of sound, odor, and so on are all equally your very own subjective knowing.
A: That the mind is clarity and knowing, I have no problem with that. But why can’t it simultaneously be the activity of the brain, that is, an electromagnetic wave that also has a knowing quality? For instance, a person is a human being and a professor at the same time.
B: That a person can be a human being and a professor at the same time is easy for us to see. The so-called professor is this human being, when going to work, who teaches and does research, and who holds this title. The professor’s teaching and research are the activities of this person; they are not something separate, or having features distinct from this person. On the other hand, your argument that the brain’s chemical or electrical reactions can simultaneously be a subjective knowing mind is tenuous. As mentioned, the brain’s activity is like the physical changes of water turning into steam, or the chemical reaction of acid mixing with alkali to form salt. Then, can you find the cognitive knowing among the physical reactions in the brain, like the neutralization of acid and alkali? Or, can you detect awareness among the brain waves measured by instrument?
A: I’m afraid not.
B: Therefore, subjective knowing is subjective knowing, and physical reaction is physical reaction. It makes no sense to mix up these two entities. To mistake the identities of look alike twin sisters is excusable; however, to hold the knowing mind and the molecular reactions of the brain as identical is inexcusable, as these two are utterly different.
V. The mind arises merely from its own proceeding moment and it cannot be the product of material substances.
Examining causes and conditions and conclude that the brain is not a definite cause to produce the mind.
A: Although the characteristics and activities of the mind differ greatly from those of physical materials, it can still be argued that the mind is a function derived naturally from the chemical and electrical reactions of the brain. Scientists have obtained much strong evidence in this respect.
B: Please tell us about it.
A: For instance, how does visual consciousness come about when you see a flower? First, light bounces from the flower, enters the eye and reaches the retina, where nerves endings are stimulated. This leads to a series of electrochemical reactions and the signals are transmitted to the visual cortex of the brain. Once the cortex processes the signals, the consciousness of seeing a flower then ensues. This is but a rough summary; scientists have delineated meticulously the detailed chemical and electrical reactions.
B: Indeed, aren’t scientists amazing!
A: That’s not all. Scientists even have studied in depth the brain’s mechanism of human emotions. Certain neurochemicals secreted by the pituitary gland can activate brain neurons and are involved in the chemistry of romantic love. Also, brain endorphins can produce a feeling of euphoria and reduce pain. Brain injury can cause personality changes and people taking recreational drugs experience drug-induced hallucinations. The saying that “truth is at the bottom of the decanter” also reveals that alcohol affects human consciousness directly.
A: Recently, researchers at the University of Washington have successfully demonstrated the concept of human brain-to-brain interfacing. One person, using electrical brain recordings and a form of magnetic stimulation, sent a brain signal of a hand movement to another person. This magnetic signal stimulated the receiver’s brain cortex and elicited a response that corresponded to the intention of the sender.
A: These are all actual events and you’d better believe them. These discoveries are sufficient to prove that cognition and conscious perceptions are nothing but the activities of brain cells. Furthermore, a conscious intention can be transmitted through trans-cranial magnetic stimulation. Therefore, when the brain dies, all these activities—visual perception, tactile sensation, mental consciousness—will all disappear completely as a consequence.
B: Thank you for informing me. Scientific research did demonstrate an intimate relationship between the mind and the brain. Here’s one point though. The conclusion that “consciousness itself is the brain neuron’s activity, function, or product” can hardly be drawn.
A: Scientific experiments are obviously reliable; why do you still hesitate to accept them?
B: I absolutely acknowledge reliable scientific findings, and Buddhism has no problem with that either. But don’t you know that the statement “consciousness itself is the brain neuron activity” cannot be a definitive conclusion drawn from these experiments. Rather, it is merely an assumption! Scientists have done reliable experiments, yet this does not guarantee their conclusion is faultless. We must differentiate between these two aspects; it is crucially important!
A: Why do you say that their statement is only an assumption rather than a definitive conclusion?
B: Let’s analyze this cautiously. First, we must be clear that between two things, there are two kinds of relationships: They are of the same entity or they are of different entities. For instance, the table legs support the tabletop and prevent it from falling to the ground. This supporting function and the table legs are of one entity—if the table legs are gone, the supporting function no longer exists. The second relationship, being of different entities, is analogous to that between the table legs and the tabletop. The table legs support the tabletop; if the table legs are gone, the tabletop will fall to the ground—but the tabletop will not disappear simply because the table legs are gone. Now, the relationships of all things or phenomena are of these two kinds; there is not a third type. In Buddhist Logic, the relationships are called the same-entity relationship and the other-entity relationship.
A: Well, then, how do you apply these relationships to our discussion on the mind and the brain?
B: The scientific experiments you just mentioned indeed point out a close relationship between the brain and the mind, and on this we agree completely. However, many people jump to the conclusion that the two are of the same entity, like the relationship between the table leg and its function to support the tabletop. They assume that the mind and the brain are one and the same, and are thus inseparable. But why has the other alternative, that they are of different entities, not been considered? If the mind and the brain are not the same thing, but are like table legs relating to a tabletop, all the discoveries you mentioned can still be fully explained without any ambiguity.
A: It’s not possible, is it? If they are distinct from each other, how does the brain function by itself?
B: In the experiment at the University of Washington you cited, a person’s conscious mind elicited the hand movement of another person. The mind of the first person and the brain of the second are discrete, yet there is an interaction. Similarly in a person, if the mind and the brain are not the same entity, the mind can still interact with the brain. Why can’t this be the case? It is absolutely possible.
A: No way. For instance, people don’t have hallucinations when they are drug-free. Once they take drugs, they then hallucinate. It can be argued that the hallucination is nonexistent in the first place, and that it comes only after a drug acts on brain neurons. If, according to your assertion, the mind and the brain are distinct from each other, it follows that hallucination should have existed by itself without taking drugs, much as the tabletop exists by itself in the absence of the table legs.
B: I am afraid you are mixing up the mind’s clear knowing nature with the appearances occurring in it. The mind is clear in that it has a reflective ability, like a mirror, that allows objects to be reflected in it. Let’s say here stands a mirror. A man comes along, the mirror then reflects the image of a man; next a woman comes along, there appears a woman’s image in the mirror. The images appear and disappear according to the coming and going of the people in front of the mirror. However, the mirror by itself will not appear or disappear as a result; it is utterly independent of those people. The relationship between the mind and the brain is just like that. The mind has the nature of clarity and awareness. When drugs stimulate the brain, a corresponding hallucination will appear in the mirror-like mind; the mind simply reflects the effect of the drugs, but itself is not produced by the brain and drugs.
A: Hm, this sounds reasonable. So, it really seems difficult to dismiss the case that the mind is distinct from the brain.
B: I have read many books and articles that discuss the brain’s effect on the mind, and they invariably proclaim that the mind is a byproduct of the brain. It’s just too premature to draw such a conclusion.
Examining the temporal relationship between cause and effect and determining that in a fetus, the brain cannot be qualified definitely as the cause for mind formation.
A: However, the mind of a fetus is supposed to appear only after its brain has developed. Before the brain forms in the fetus, where is the fetus’s mind? It’s absolutely nonexistent!
B: This statement, again, is an assumption and is groundless. To say one thing causes the formation of the other thing, the following points must be ascertained: 1. The absence of the former dictates the absence of the latter, and 2. The arising of the former decrees the arising of the latter, and 3. All the while nothing else can produce the latter. For instance, during a power outage, the lights go off; when power is restored, the lights go back on; and all the while nothing else can make the lights go on. These conditions support that the electricity is what causes the lights to go on.
B. But how can anyone tell that the fetus’s mind is definitely nonexistent before its brain develops? Just think, you have absolutely no idea what my mind is experiencing exactly right now. In the same vein, if the fetus has a mind before its brain forms, you won’t have any idea either. On what basis are you making your assumptions?
B: As mentioned, case studies of remembering past lives have been reported. The underlying premise of these accounts is that there was a mind in existence before the fetus formed, which is the mind of the previous existence, i.e., the mind had been there all along. However, if you are reluctant to agree, I won’t cite this as proof for the moment. But logically, to state categorically that the mind is a function emerging only after the fetal brain forms is unfounded.
3: Explaining our tradition’s reasoning on the mind’s continuation
A: Then, how do you think the mind is created?
B: The mind needs neither a brain nor other factors to come about; it just perpetuates itself. Our consciousness at this moment can be traced back to the time of being born and of the baby in the womb, back to the previous life, more previous lives, back, and back, and back through the infinite regression of time. In other words, the present mind stream depends on the mind stream of previous moments, just like a sprout at this moment depends upon the sprout of the previous moment, which can be tracked back to the moment of being a seed. Moving forward, the mind stream will likewise continue on infinitely, unless it meets causes and conditions capable of stopping its perpetuation. This principle is what’s taught in the Treasury of Cognition and Logic
The mind has continued itself since beginingless time,
Therefore the mind needs no other causes to form anew.
The mind will perpetuate itself forward endlessly likewise,
If obstacles do not disrupt its necessary causes and conditions.
A: If this is the case, how do you explain the effect of the brain on the mind I just discussed above?
B: In order to suit beings of various capacities and acumen, in Buddhism the nature of the mind is explicated at different levels of profundity in the various schools of Hinayana and Mahayana. Putting profound levels asides for the moment, let’s approximate the basic level to a DVD disc and its player. A DVD disc contains the codes of a movie, which specify the display of corresponding stories on the screen. By the same token, the brain is like a DVD disc and the mind the player. The brain’s electro-chemical signals are like the codes on a DVD disc that can cause a corresponding consciousness to display on the mind. Now, the DVD disc and the screen are not the same thing, nor are the brain and the mind.
A: Can you use this model to explain specifically the process of seeing a flower I described?
B: Our view on the earlier steps of seeing a flower—from light entering the eyeball, to form an image on the retina and transmit signals to the brain—are similar to what you have said. The one and only difference is related to your assertion: “After the visual cortex processes the transmitted signals, the consciousness of seeing a flower is thus produced.” In your opinion, visual consciousness arises directly from material bases—the electro-chemical signals processed by the visual cortex. In my model, the visual cortex is a mere physical entity, and that it cannot create visual consciousness by itself. Rather, there is a pre-existing mind that has been closely interacting with the visual cortex. The electrochemical signals, upon reaching the visual cortex, affect the mind that is intimately associated with it, which then gives rise to the consciousness of seeing a flower. This is the key difference.
A: That’s it? It doesn’t seem to be a big difference.
A: This difference is actually rather immense, and is most critical! According to your point of view, when the visual cortex dies, the consciousness of seeing a flower will also extinguish; when the brain dies, all the consciousness of a person will also perish. Conversely, my model says that when the brain dies, the mind remains, which, as it turns out, is what goes through cyclic rebirth. Thus, in our respective claims, one works against a cyclic existence while the other supports a cyclic existence. This difference will influence enormously our outlook of life and everyday conduct. Don’t you agree it is really critical?
A: Indeed it is.
B: Furthermore, it is clear that the whole set of biochemical mechanisms discovered by scientific research does not dent even a little the proposition of the independent continuation of the mind and the existence of cyclic rebirth. We Buddhists have no qualms at all about embracing this set of biochemical mechanisms on material interactions. However, the viewpoint on how signals eventually become perceivable to the mind and the saying that there is no cyclic existence are both unacceptable to us!
A: Well, it sounds quite intriguing. Indeed a conclusion can’t be drawn in haste. I gather your model can also explain the induction of romantic sentiment by the neuropeptide secreted by the pituitary gland. That is, the peptide hormone by itself does not produce romantic emotions; rather, it exerts an effect on a pre-existing mind. Emotion is a conscious mental factor, not a physical element.
B: Rightly so!
The brain is not a direct, or concordant cause in the production of the mind.
A: Although your point sounds plausible, how is my point invalid? Both views can be permissible or both can be uncertain.
B: My point can be ascertained. I have now explained in detail the differences between conscious experience and physical reactions. The activities of the physical brain are but the physical-chemical reactions of atoms, molecules, and electromagnetic fields. How can such reactions mechanistically churn out the subjective cognition that perceives colors and shapes; feels warmth, cold, aches, and itchiness; and knows happiness and sadness? These two things belong to completely different categories, and the brain simply cannot give rise to the mind. The mind, let me reiterate, is by itself always clear and aware, although it can be influenced by material reactions. This is justifiable.
A: You argued that by merely being of different categories, the brain can’t give rise to the mind. This is not necessarily the case. For example, hot burning fire comes from cold wood, and sprouts emerge from the soil as a result of sunlight shining on the earth. Don’t these cases reveal the production of one thing from another thing of a different category? The structure of the brain is extremely complicated, which sets the stage for it to generate a perceiving mind.
B: Before analyzing the two cases you cited, let’s go over a few suppositions. In Buddhism, the causes that bring about results are of two kinds: the direct or substantial cause that acts on the nature of the results, and the supporting or cooperative condition that acts on the variations or fine characteristics of the result. In the case of grass seeds in soil growing into sprouts, the direct cause of the sprout is the seed, in that the sprout continues the essence of the seed. Water, sunshine, and other favorable elements are supporting conditions. That is, sunlight is not a direct cause for the sprout; it is a supporting condition that promotes the seed to become a sprout.
A: I can see that.
B: A direct cause and its result must be “concordant,” like that of a seed and its sprout. A “supporting condition,” on the other hand, does not have to be concordant, like that of sunshine and the sprout. Furthermore, a similarity in colors, shapes, and so on, is not what’s mandated in “being a concordant cause.” Rather, it requires a similarity in the nature between cause and result. Therefore, sunshine is not the concordant cause of grass, while a grass seed is.
A: Well then, how do you explain that from cold firewood comes a hot burning fire?
B: A good answer for this has been, in fact, provided by modern science. The process of burning firewood is actually a process of carbon dioxide formation through the combination of the carbon atoms in the wood and the oxygen molecules in the air. This combination releases the energy inherent in carbon and oxygen in a form of light and heat, which is fire. Hence, fire has the inherent energy of the firewood as its direct cause and these two are concordant. Wood, as a direct cause producing the result of carbon dioxide, is also a concordant cause. This point echoes perfectly with what Sakya Pandita says in The Treasure of Logic on Valid Cognition:
Stones, firewood, and so on are not the causes for fire
Instead minute fire particles are.
In other words, it is not the firewood per se, but rather the “minute fire particles” that are the real direct cause of fire. According to the Buddhist Sautrantika School, the “minute fire particles” are the subtle energy inherent in the minute particles of matter that are capable of producing fire, which, in terms of modern physics, in fact are equivalent to the energy stored in high-energy electrons.
A: Hm, surely this seems to be the case. But the criteria of your “concordant cause” are way too fuzzy. Between cause and result, there are similar and dissimilar aspects, and you just picked some similar parts and designated them “concordant,” and the dissimilar ones “not concordant.” It’s just random. In producing carbon dioxide from burning wood, you argue that they both contain carbon atoms, which justifies them to be concordant and establishes that wood is the direct cause to produce carbon dioxide. Then, I’ll argue that both water and carbon dioxide contain protons, neutrons and electrons, which will justify them to be concordant and establish that water is a direct cause to produce carbon dioxide. But can water produce carbon dioxide? It’s absolutely impossible!
B: Concordant things must have a specific condition as their common basis. In the case of burning firewood, the common basis is set at the level of atoms. If you choose protons, neutrons, and electrons, the common basis will be set at the level of subatomic particles. At this specific condition, what happens is nuclear reaction, in which elements can be interchanged or be synthesized artificially. Then, in principle, water can be turned into carbon dioxide.
A: Nevertheless, I still feel your definition of concordant cause is ambivalent. What are the criteria to group things as “concordant” anyway?
B: Even if you deem my criteria unclear, it does not affect our discussion on the mind and the brain. See, no matter how vague the criteria may be, there still exists a minimal common basis. For example, wood, water, and carbon dioxide are similar in terms of their physical basis of atoms, molecules, and an electromagnetic field, thus one can give rise to the other. Rice, vegetables, and the brain are also made from atoms, molecules, and an electromagnetic field; thus the brain can be produced from these ingredients. However, there is no such common basis between the mind and the brain: The brain is composed of atoms, molecules, and an electromagnetic field, and it does not perceive colors or experience happiness or pain. On the other hand, the mind is non-material; it has no atoms, molecules, nor an electromagnetic field, and it is what perceives colors and experiences happiness or pain. Thus, however complex the brain can be, it remains a material substance, a mechanical entity that cannot possibly give rise to the mind.
A: Hm, now this sounds more convincing. The more we discuss, the more extraordinary the mind seems to be. It is entirely dissimilar to materials!
B: Furthermore, let’s investigate from the perspective of physics. Physicists use seven fundamental physical qualities to define the characteristics of all physical reactions. They are: length, mass, time, electrical current, temperature, amount, and luminous intensity. Any physical characteristics, even the most complicated structure or interactions, can be qualified clearly by the combined operation of these seven units. For instance, they can delineate the distribution and changes of mass, electrical current, and temperature of any material substance as a function of time and location.
A: Ah yes.
B: The brain, even with its complicated structure, can in principle be described fully in terms of these physical characteristics. Let’s look at the formation of human brain. Rice, vegetables, and other foods ingested by a pregnant woman are converted into atoms or ions, which are then absorbed into the fetus to build up the fetal brain in due time. The whole process is quite elaborate and involves other physical factors such as the womb and a sufficient gestation time. Nonetheless, these parameters can cover in detail all the characteristics of the process.
Using these seven physical qualities, the formation of a brain can be described as the changes of a collection of atoms and ions. Initially, at a certain time and location, the atoms and ions forms a collection of mass, electrical field, and temperature, which is called the vegetable. At another time and location, these atoms and ions assume another set of characteristics in mass, electrical field, temperature, and so on, which is then called the brain. Throughout the whole process of change, there is no stage that cannot be delineated by the seven units of physical measurement.
A: That is the case. By employing these seven physical parameters, physicists can give an account of the whole physical universe, from the Big Bang in the beginning to the present day. It goes without saying that the same parameters can be applied to describe the physical and chemical changes from rice to the brain.
B: Right. In fact, it is the principle of concordant cause that enables physicists to use the seven physical qualities to describe the whole universe. See, although the physical entities in the universe vary tremendously, all of them can be characterized by these seven physical parameters, because their concordant bases are the same.
A: It makes perfect sense!
B: Now let’s take a look of the mind. Can the knowing mind be described by the seven basic physical parameters? For instance, this table you are looking at has a mass of 20 kilograms. How many kilograms is your cognizance of this desk? The desk has a width of one meter; what is the width of your cognizance of this desk? Furthermore, you like the color of this desk but not its style. Are the “like” and “dislike” you experience exactly in your mind the electrical currents? Do they have certain weights, sizes, or temperatures?
A: I doubt the mind can be depicted in such a way.
B: Certainly not. Awareness is your subjective knowing, not the mechanical weight or the size of something physical. If it could be measured in this way, then other people would be able to see the mass and size of your mind. Even so, that’s all they can see— numbers describing mass and size—but not your subjective knowing. That’s why we say that the “subjective knowing” is beyond the scope of any physical measurement.
A: I agree. However, in describing the activity of the brain using physical parameters, scientists can also pinpoint parallel reactions of the mind. For instance, when one is “pleased,” responses like electrical currents or certain frequencies of brainwaves are elicited at a corresponding region of the brain.
B: It is possible for these two to have some corresponding relationships. Nonetheless, the distribution of electrical currents is obviously different from your cognizing feeling of “like.” What is described for the former is not necessarily true for the latter. Going back to the DVD player analogy, the code on the disc corresponds to the movie played on the screen. But those “1-0-1-0” codes on the disc are not the characters or the plot of the movie. Should a description of the code on the disc be completely equivalent to the images and plot, then looking directly at the circular disc would be tantamount to seeing the whole movie, and there is no need for a DVD player and its screen after all! The same argument goes with the brain’s physical activities versus the mind. The two can have certain interrelationships, but each has its own special features. The qualities attributed to the former will not unequivocally fit the latter.
A: Hm, it is exactly so.
B: To follow your assumption, rice, vegetables, and so on could not have any awareness in the first place, yet they attained it in the process of becoming a brain. This amounts to saying that through rearranging the atoms of rice and vegetables to form the brain, incredibly among these bunch of atoms out popped a brand new “physical quality”—cognizing awareness! And this new entity is utterly beyond the measurement of the seven basic physical qualities. How will physicists respond to this?
A: (pondering..) Yeah, isn’t it an absurd assumption! I am afraid physicists would not like to say that there exists a physical entity that cannot be quantified by their seven basic physical parameters.
B: There we go, so why don’t you ask a physicist when you get a chance? Still, the point is quite clear to us now: The brain, composed of atoms and molecules, will remain in the physical domain of atoms and molecules, regardless of how complicated its structure may turn out. On the other hand, the mind, which is clear and knowing, exists by its own preceding causes; it is by no means a product of physical conglomeration; the two merely influence each other to some degree.
Physical functions are designated by name and they remain in the physical domain.
A: What you have said is quite enlightening; I need to ruminate over it. There are other issues though. The circuits in a computer are all semiconductor components, which originally cannot perform calculations. But after being combined in certain configurations, they are able to do so, such as calculating 1+1=2. The function to calculate and the mechanical parts of semiconductors are essentially discordant entities. If some key components in the assembly are broken, the calculating function will be lost. Using the same logic, inasmuch as the computer’s circuits give rise to the ability to calculate, why won’t the human brain give rise to a conscious mind?
B: No, there is no comparison between the two. What’s the nature of a calculating function? It is the change of input and output voltages according to programed paths, which is manifested as a calculation function like 1+1=2. Apart from the changes in voltage, there is not a completely new entity of so-called calculation. In other words, we give the name “calculation” to the function resulting from varying input and output voltage signals. “Calculation” is but a name so designated; its nature is the changes of current and voltage in electrical circuits.
A: Then, why can’t we say the mind is merely a name given to the chemical reactions occurring in the brain?
B: These two are totally disparate. In the computer’s circuits, other than the mere changes of voltages and currents, there does not exist an entirely different entity called “calculation.” Now, in the brain, other than the mere chemical changes, is it also devoid of an entirely different entity—the so-called mind? No, it is not devoid of this entity. From our previous analysis, we can see directly that in the brain there exists a perceiving mind that is utterly different from chemical reactions. Hence the “mind” cannot be a name designated to the chemical reactions occurring in the brain.
A: Nonetheless, artificial intelligence and robotics are being developed these days. In fact, some robots score better than humans in chess. Isn’t such artificial intelligence entirely on a par with that of a human?
B: You must see through the deceptive facade to grasp the inner essence. On the surface, both human and artificial intelligence are capable of learning and performing complex tasks. Yet the so-called intelligence and learning of robots are by nature the “calculation” function mentioned above; they are nothing more than the execution of computer programs, designated by the term “artificial intelligence.” The basic difference between the mind and this calculation function is quite distinct and needs no more reiteration.
A: Upon closer examination, we have to admit this is the case.
B: In all, the mind that is clear and knowing cannot arise from physical materials; rather, it’s a continuum of itself from a previous moment to the next, unceasingly. This is precisely what accounts for the existence of past and future lives.
This valid viewpoint, despite its simplicity, has eluded scientists.
A: The ideas you alluded to do not seem that complicated. But why have many intelligent scientists not seen eye to eye with you?
B: Old habits die hard; even many intelligent individuals, scientists included, are inadvertently subject to its sway. All humans and animals are born with an attachment to their body, identifying it as “me”—meaning that without a body there won’t be “me” and “my mind.” This is called “innate grasping” in Buddhism. On this basis, more concepts, like that of physical matter producing the mind, developed under the influence of materialism and other ideas. In Buddhism, this kind of concept is called “imputed grasping,” as it is acquired. All of these concepts are hard to crack: this is described aptly by the omniscient Mipham Rinpoche in his The Commentary on Ornament of the Middle Way: “On top of the iron chains of various innate grasping, people nailed more diverse imputed grasping upon it, and established their own schools and thoughts.”
A: However, scientists have achieved incredible discoveries and inventions. If what you said is really the unfailing truth, they should have observed it readily with their superb intelligence.
B: My reasoning, once stated, indeed seems quite plain and easy to understand; still, if it has not been spoken of, this way of thinking may not be obvious to people and hence they would reach no such conclusion. Specifically for people accustomed to the analysis of physical laws, they won’t have the slightest inkling that the essential nature of the mind is clear and knowing. Instead, they get hung up on considering the mind as something material. Fixated in their opinions, they keep moving in this one-track way of matter creating mind. For example, once Thomas Edison asked an assistant majoring in mathematics to figure out the volume of a light bulb. The assistant automatically applied mathematical equations to calculate it, and could not determine the answer after a long time. Edison, on the other hand, simply filled the bulb with water, and then poured the water into a measuring cylinder. He determined the volume right away.
A: Yes, there was such an incident.
B: Furthermore, being smart does not guarantee being free from errors. As mentioned before, many people, based on the effect of stimulating brain neurons on conscious feelings, conclude that the mind is a product of matter, without even considering the scenario of how matter and the mind may be different entities. Whether their conclusion is right or wrong, simply ignoring such a crucial possibility is a mistake by itself. Hence, scientists are not immune to making critical blunders either.
A: Well, what you said definitely makes some sense. Nevertheless, I still find it strange that the mind can exist independently of the brain and cycles from life to life. I just can’t readily accept it.
B: When something contradicts our fixed thought patterns, we label it as “strange” or difficult to accept. This only betrays our limited vision and we can’t affirm that it contradicts reality. For instance, the theory of relativity when first introduced was regarded as weird and met much opposition, since it contradicted people’s pre-existing notion of absolute time and space. Hence, it’s only prudent that we rely on intelligent analysis and wise investigation, rather than follow our feelings blindly.
A: Still, it’s not that easy for many people to swallow your point of view immediately.
B: This attitude is perfectly understandable. Frankly, it is by no means easy to stave off deep-rooted prejudices. However, if, on the premise of seeking truth, you are willing to challenge your own concepts and be ready to embrace any reasonable viewpoint, then it won’t be that difficult. Such is the spirit of Buddhism and, incidentally, it is also the true scientific spirit. Many people mistakenly equate science with materialism. In fact, materialism or not, the real scientific spirit adheres only to the truth, which is perfectly in line with the spirit of Buddhism.
A: I see, it looks like many people understand neither science nor Buddhism in a deeper way.
B: Exactly. The same goes for the attitude toward true case studies. Quite a few people upon hearing the reports of reincarnation immediately doubt their validity, without even a shred of reasoning. That’s not the way it should be.
A: Honestly, it is tough to tell how true those case reports on reincarnation are.
A: Again, this is mostly an excuse. In life people are often gullible and believe hearsay or fall for dazzling commercials, which in fact reflects their inability to discern what is true. Basically, the suspicion of the validity of cases of reincarnation comes mainly because it crashes against one’s pre-existing view of materialism.
A: That’s reasonable. While we were talking, I have tried to look at this issue from your perspective, which I find is indeed plausible. Furthermore, the cases on reincarnation no longer seem surprising; instead, they appear conceivable now. Should I hold tight onto the notion that the brain produces the mind, I would dismiss these cases and deem them unjustifiable. Frankly, I have never been impressed by the reincarnation reports and could care less about them. But after discussing with you today, I would like to revisit them. If I accept that my mind really continues, from past lives to now, and to the future after I die, then all such cases are but commonplace.
B: I am pleased to hear that. The quest for truth commands a fair comparison of the perspectives from both sides. This kind of attitude is not only harmless to yourself but also, on the contrary, is rather beneficial to you. After all, what you’ll be rewarded with is nothing other than the priceless truth.
校对： Tom Liu