Brain, mind and consciousness

Recently work of the artists Antoni Tapiès (1923 – 2012) and Salvador Dali (1904 – 1989) came into auction, respectively were brought together in a dedicated exhibition.
That allows us to dwell on the concepts of the brain in connection with physical feelings and that of consciousness and unconsciousness/the subconscious.

Tapiès’ biography (on “Fundacio Tapiès”) states: “The works of the last years are, most of all, a reflection on pain – both physical and spiritual – understood as an integral part of life. Influenced by Buddhist thought, Tàpies believes that a better knowledge of pain allows us to soften its effects and therefore improve our quality of life.

antoni-tàpies-ondulacions-i-brac 2009

Modern science says that at any one moment our brain is receiving about 100 million pieces of information which are fed into the nervous system through the ears, eyes, nose, tongue and touch receptors in the skin. This enumeration, and nothing more than the enumeration, by the way, is taken from the Abhidharmic Buddhist teachings, particularly where it deals with the concept of (Skr./Pali) vedanā, physical feelings. Well done, we might say; the scientific world is learning fast.

There is however a little snag, because in cases of Tapiès’ pains, for example, it’s not the brain that receives information and sends it through to the sense-organs. Rather it’s a malfunction of the body somewhere that sends it’s information “up” to the brain where it is processed as “arm hurts”, to give an example.
Now we must deal with the question of where this pain is located. Where is it sensed? Is there a sensing part of the brains’ functioning in that painful arm? No, actually, there is no proof of the presence of brain-matter anywhere else but in the head.
Well then, is the pain located inside the brain, in the head? No, in the case of a hurting arm or a broken leg the (physical) brain is without pain, it merely processes information.
So where is pain? What is pain?
In the mind of a meditator these questions might lead to a particular insight into the concept of pain — without however solving the scientific question, that’s not the task and function of meditation.

All this is not to say that Mr. Tapiès had a little meditative breakthrough; we don’t know what his “knowledge of pain” consisted of. It merely shows that the scientific labour of love on concepts such as physical sensations and their connections with the brain is only halfway through. More has to be figured out.

Salvador Dali gained fame with his dreamlike paintings: warped watches, dreamlike landscapes, etc.
No doubt the scientific worlds of psychiatry and psychology will be more than happy in suggesting that here the subconscious came into action — subconscious in the sense De Quincey gave it in 1823: “not wholly conscious” ( As of 1874 subconscious morphed into something like ‘consciousness on a deeper level’, to emerge suddenly and without manifesting itself as “sub-“; i.e. in the person’s perception it’s seen as real, physically existing, or on an artistic level not to be denied.

Western writers on Buddhism used this Romantic and post-Romantic concept of subconscious when treating the word/concept of (Skr./Pali) Citta: consciousness, as it appears in almost all canonical works of Buddhism.
However, as Buddhism did not arise in the Western world, but in the East, the word subconsciousness cannot be found in any of the canonical treaties of Eastern religion and philosophy. Subconsciousness is foreign to the Eastern thinking.

What we dó find in Eastern thinking is the concept of “unprompted consciousness”, and “consciousness” here is not cittá, but the above-mentioned physical experience called vedanā: feeling with the body.
In that case there is mention of ansankharika vedanā (speak: asan khá rika). Len Rek interprets it as “an attribute of an intention”. A ninth-century Pali-Abhidhamma compiler uses it in a citation that begins with “Vedanā-ñāna-[a]sankhāra …”: knowing that there is an unprompted ([a]sankhāra) feeling (vedanā).
This in apposition with “prompted feeling” as in (Pali) “itthā kantā manāpā piyarūpā kāma rajaniyā“: … endowed with pleasantness, prompting desires. (D i.245=M i.85; 504; D ii.265; M iii.267; VvA 127.)

“Unprompted” seen as “suddenly” has become an important subject in Eastern Buddhist thought when contrasted to, or compared with Daoist thinking. In his translation of Asvaghosa’s Sraddhotpāda shastra (The Awakening of Faith) Yoshito S. Hakeda points to the Chinese concept of hu-jan as in “Suddenly, a deluded thought arises; this state is called ignorance.” His dwelling on the concept is no longer extant in the online Heidelberg translation, but it is referred to in Whalen Lai’s treatment of the scripture called Hu-Jan Nien-Ch’i: Suddenly a Thought Rose; Chinese understanding of Mind and Consciousness. (The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 1980, Vol. 3, Nr 2)
The Chinese understanding of “suddenly”, hu-jan, is that actually this particular piece of consciousness did not arise (out of nothing or out of the subconscious) but was there all along, though not realised. Now when it is suddenly there this non-arisen present mind (i.e. a piece of memory) has in the East never been called subconscious. It is “unconsciousness” and as such a source of embarrassment. Hence it is called ignorance — how stupid could I be, not to see this before! Had I been conscious of it, had I been smarter, I would have had more wisdom; there’s work to be done.