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Lions Roar : November 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2012 82 The remarkable successes of scientific research and theorizing come from the powerful methodologies of science, one of which is to engage in a close study of an object from an objective or third-person perspective. Instead of merely accepting traditional viewpoints without question or theorizing from abstract prin- ciples, science examines an object carefully, records its properties and functions, and then induces explanatory principles from the evidence at hand. But as we bring this approach to the study of the mind, we notice that for the most part it involves the study of other people’s minds. We look at other people’s behavior in various controlled situations, we scan other people’s brains in our imaging devices, and we dissect, probe, and stimulate other people’s neurons. The modern study of the self is essentially a third-person enterprise and thus follows in the mold of all previ- ous scientific research. But it seems consciousness is something that cannot be suf- ficiently comprehended in this way. We can study the structure and function of the brain’s neurons, transmitters, and other components, and we can study behavior. But the subjective phenomenology of human experience seems fundamentally inac- cessible to existing methods of objective inquiry. There is no instrument that can measure what it feels like to have an experience; there is no data set that can adequately record the nuances of a felt sen- sation; there is no theorem that can encompass the many idiosyncrasies of a unique human being. It may be that no third-person explanation can ever address the phenomenon of selfhood, insofar as it will always be imbedded in a first-person perspective. This is a philosophical problem rather than a scientific one. There may be plenty of ways we can describe the workings of the mind, body, and behavior, but it may also be true that something essential to understanding the self will remain forever out of reach to scientific explanation. No matter how good the micro- scope or telescope, such instruments can never be turned upon the one gazing into the eyepiece. According to classical Buddhist thought, self is a view. Perception is the function of the mind that creates meaning, that paints a picture or constructs a model of what is going on every moment. It does so by creating signs or concepts or views—sym- bols of some sort to represent what is seen with the eye, heard with the ear, smelled with the nose, tasted with the tongue, touched with the body, or thought with the mind. The view of self is just an illusion, as are all of our perceptions. The stream of perceptions, flowing along with the stream of consciousness, provides an ongoing interpretation of experi- ence, moment after moment, as each episode of cognition is con- structed and then fades away. As with every other aspect of the mind and body, perception is an event that occurs rather than a thing that exists. As such, individual views of what is happen- ing arise and vanish one after another in rapid succession and have no enduring substance. Yet such fleeting images are patched together in our minds like a filmstrip to create a relatively stable and coherent perceptual narrative. Ultimately the entire Western scientific enterprise is one of creating and refining conceptual models of the world we inhabit. It’s about constructing ever more accurate and useful percep- tions. The collective enterprise of furthering the subtlety and explanatory power of these models yields immense practical benefits and can also give rise to a profound intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction. The progress of human understanding is indeed impressive and has provided us with the means of radi- cally shaping our world. Buddhists, however, aren’t particularly interested in this agenda. There’s nothing wrong with coming up with more sophisti- cated ways of conceptually representing the world, and certainly it’s better to have right view than wrong view, but according to Buddhist thought this is not where the action is. Perception isn’t primarily responsible for the arising of suffering and it plays only a supporting role in the cessa- tion of suffering. Instead, it’s within the aggregate of emotional formations that both the causes of and solutions to suffering are found. The content of perception is not nearly as important as how we respond to it. The Buddha was thus addressing a very different issue than the contemporary scientist. The five aggregates (skandhas) are always co- arising and working together to forge who we are and what we do. The first aggregate is materiality, and it’s foundational, as is the second, conscious- ness, which provides the basic function of knowing or awareness of an object. These are augmented by the third, perception, and the fourth, feeling tone, which together create a sense of what is happening and how pleasant or painful it is for us. The fifth aggregate involves our emotional response to the object of the moment, the liking or not liking of it, the wanting or not want- ing it, or a whole range of other possible responses toward what we experience. We never just notice an object; we engage with it emotionally. Such engagement with experience is intrinsically immediate and personal—not personal in the sense of our narrative self, which is a story woven by perception, but in the most intimate and existential sense of the word. The self is created by our emo- tional responses as they unfold each moment: when we crave an object of experience, then “the person who” wants it is con- structed; when we generate aversion toward an object, then “the person who” hates it comes into existence. The person we are in each moment is forged by these emotional responses, which is why they are so much more immediate and constitutive of iden- tity than are perceptions. Since perceptions and emotions arise and pass away interde- pendently, they influence and shape one another. But it matters little whether you hate someone because they hurt your feelings or because you think they are a threat, or simply because they are called Joe—it’s the hating as an emotional response that causes