Apr 5, 2008

Mind is the Forerunner

Every Sunday, we have a sutta study class that I lead. The other week we did the Agganna Sutta, the Sutta on "origins," and once again I was struck by this powerful mythic vision.

In this Buddhist version of Genesis, the earth in primordial times was dark and watery; an unformed primeval chaos. The first beings to appear by the force of their karma from previous world-systems were god-like entities, "self-luminous, feeding on bliss." As the earth congealed, a nutritious substance formed on it's surface ("oja") which intrigued the god-like entities and piqued their curiosity until some of them tried tasting it with a little on the ends of their fingers. Immediately upon ingesting gross matter, they fell from their high station and became gross material beings upon the surface of the earth.

In the history of our planet as reconstructed by modern science, there was a mysterious event called the "Cambrian Explosion." Prior to that time, some half-billion years ago, there were only algae and other simple one-celled organisms. Then, in the blink of a geological eye, the seas were suddenly filled with an astonishing array of complex life-forms. The lord of the world then was the trilobite.

These two visions describe the same event, which I suggest is the descent of mind into this gross material plane. The real explanation of evolution, it's hidden mechanism, may be the play of mind trying out new forms to manifest itself in this level of reality. Natural selection, as posited by Darwin, surely plays a part; unviable forms will be pruned ruthlessly. But it doesn't seem a complete explanation. Creationists love to point out anomalies like the impossibility of complex systems such as a working eye arising all at once. But why would a creator god stick us with an appendix, for instance?

I have argued before that the biggest single anomaly is human intelligence itself. Our hyper-trophied brains are a huge biological deficit; they consume an inordinate amount of the body's calories and our large-headed infants make childbirth more difficult and dangerous than in other mammals. Once our brains had reached the level where we could consistently outwit our prey species, strictly mechanistic Darwinian theory should have stopped further growth. Beautiful and haunting as they are, the Cro-Magnon cave paintings had no strictly survival value.

Materialists insist that brain generates mind. The truth may be quite the other way around. This would certainly be consistent with the teaching of the dependent origination, "because of consciousness, name-and-form (body and mind)" And the Dhammapada, "Mind is the chief, mind is the fore-runner."

I would venture a prediction. If we manage to get through the coming climate crisis with any kind of civilization intact (granted, a very big "if") the next big revolution is science will be the recognition of mind as a separate category independent of matter and energy. Materialism will come to be seen for what it really is, an out-moded superstitious way of thinking. Many of the mysteries of science will become clear. Quantum mechanics will begin to make sense once the mind is allowed as the observer which collapses the wave-function. We will realize that the universe is indeed, in a sense, created but that we ourselves are continually doing the creating. The initial breaking of the symmetry after the Big Bang, the arising of the trilobites, the emergence of homo sapiens all these are easier to explain when mind is taken into account than otherwise.

If that happens, it won't mean the end of human hubris. If we ever do get a technological fix on actual mind, perhaps in the form of Sheldrake's "morphogenetic fields," we might really get ourselves into trouble. The potentials for messing around are literally unimaginable now. Genetic engineering will seem like the crudest kind of tinkering if we can access the underlying informational fields that govern all living forms. It certainly won't mean the end of samsara, at best we may become something like the Nimannarati Deva, the "Gods Who Delight in Creation." Think of Q in Star Trek.

Mind has entangled itself in matter, in samsaric manifestation. Driven by desire ("that oja looks kind of tasty") it seeks always new experience, new manifestations, new forms of delight. The wisdom of the Buddha was to cut through all of that, to seek transcendence of all forms, all manifestations no matter how god-like. The trilobites were our first mistake.


Anonymous said...

I read a version of The Agganna while trekking in Nepal in November last year. It was good to find this creation myth.

As a 'materialist', I could never accept the creation out of nothing. There had to be something, it was just something we couldn't measure. It had to have folded out of, or flipped out of somewhere else. I still have this little nag that says, no the universe isn't just 15 billion years old. That's only as far as we can 'see'. Doesn't mean there's nothing else there.

Aganna says this; there is karma, cause. There wasn't nothing before. But I don't see this creation story this as anything other than a profound truth about creation of self.

Underneath, first, there is kind of non-differentiated awareness - not possible without some kind of medium and sensation, then the sensing, the craving, then the differentiation, the 'that is not me'.

Joe Clement said...

"Beautiful and haunting as they are, the Cro-Magnon cave paintings had no strictly survival value."

I find this hard to swallow. Being able to co-ordinate representations, to think in terms of a representational index of events and basic things, is powerfully useful. In the same way, there is something powerfully useful about having certain "innate" feelings about smells. Why do you think feces and rotting corpses exude grossness (and probably taste just as bad); why do some people seem to "get out" of feeling this way? That's an aesthetic judgement right there, which differs from person to person, and which has practical consequences.

The only reason to object to seeing things this way is if they wanted to see life and art as somehow fundamentally dirempt.

I like the piece over all. I have contemplated the ways that natural history can be viewed from the perspective of the Dharma, but never as a matter of justifying or making it more grounded.

Joe Clement said...

That is to say, mind is no less manifested in "cro-magnon cave-paintings," or any other kind of art or symbol, than you suggest brain manifests mind. To this end, I think there is something very powerful about the advent of art, symbolic communication and ultimately spoken and written language. These are technologies as much as tools made of stone or arrowheads, which have enhanced our survival.

What's more, they are what made the transmission of the Dharma possible. In the history of Zen, Mahakashyapa is said to have recieved this transmission by the Buddha raising a flower. For as beyond language as the gesture was, it was a response to something performed in language. The fundamental split that isn't really there is between the use/creation of language/symbols and their so-called meaning. I think the Buddha and his lineages show us something important about our relationship to and use of language or otherwise discursive thought, which doesn't mean to surpass it, but to put it in its place.

Eric said...

"Materialism will come to be seen for what it really is, an out-moded superstitious way of thinking."

It depends on what you mean by "materialism." It seems like your beef is more with "reductionism." The ancient Samkhya, for instance, stated that "mind" is clearly a product of "material" reality(prakriti).

Subhasis Chattopadhyay said...

I like your lucidity...and I agree with you that we may not survive the climate crisis...nice to read someone who is able to see Buddhism in conjunction with science. You have made an observation which is worth its weight in gold; both for its insight and uniqueness:
Materialism is just so much superstition.

Honsing said...

Firstly I think the sutta would not contradict if the first life form is uni-cellular, i.e. of only 1 cell. This would explain why the beings looked identical. These unicellular beings then feed on things and become of two cells, then of four cells, then of eight cells etc and therefore they looked more and more different. And they were described to be coaser and coaser. Hence this sutta does not contradict Darwin's evolution theory.

I believe the mind and the brain are separate entities. Simply put, the mind reincarnates while the brain does not. Psychology does not distinguish between the two and hence could not make significant progress. In essence, the brain does thinking, imagining and memory recalling. The mind has the feelings, mental formations and mental states.

Sometimes I imagine the mind to be of higher than three dimensions as well, just as there are supposedly 11 dimensions according to quantuum physics. That is why miraculous powers are possible, allowing the mind to warp around space to achieve the miraculous power of instantaneous travel, to warp around time to achieve recalling of past lives, to join with other minds in higher dimensions to achieve pyschic mind reading, and to dwell in higher non-material dimensions to achieve jhanas. As long as we keep thinking that mind is brain (three dimensional), then all these become unexplanable.

The mind takes form in the first three dimensional space as rebirth, old age, sickness and death. Hence how genesis went about is not really important. If genesis were of a different story, we would still exist today though perhaps in different form. It does not matter which form or realm incarnate the world first, for as long as there is greed, anger and ignorance, the other five realms will be generated. It does not matter what we were used to be. Through countless rebirths, we probably were in every realm once before. What matters is looking forward, what we would become. When would we be free from suffering? When would we be restored back to our pure nature, without perversion, be free from conditions, and dwell forever in equanimity.