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.

Vasubandhu -1

Th. Stcherbatsky (1866 – 18 March 1942; see pronounciation of the name), says “Mountainman”, was a Russian scholar of Oriental Studies, and a world renowned specialist of Buddhist studies; he wrote a detailed analysis of Vasubandu’s Abhidharmakosha or Abhidharmakosa-bhāsya (bhāsya denotes “spoken word”, utterance”, or “poem/song”; abhidharma is a body of texts describing the interaction between body, mind, and ethics).

Vasubandhu lived during the 4th to 5th Cent., when the Gupta Empire ruled in (Ser-)India. He and his disciple Sthiramati (c.510-570) produced the Madhyānta-Vibhanga, a discourse, they pretended, uttered by Bodhisattva Maitreya (the next Buddha on earth).

Th. Stcherbatsky has been the first to translate this vibhanga (distribution, division, distinction, classification) on the Middle (Way: Madhyānta), first published in 1978, in Delhi.

Unfortunately later generations of scholars in Buddhism didn’t take the pains to review Stcherbatsky’s laudable but not yet fully acceptable attempts. Therefore, as far as faculties of Buddhology go this text with the, in its time, unavoidable mis-interpretations on several points is transmitted without a thourough review along the lines of what we now know of the Yogacara philosophy that bridged the very late Small Vehicle Teachings and those of the full-flung Mahāyāna.

It is remarkable that Vasubandhu and Sthiramati in their first Stanza on The Middle Path (stanza 1.2) refer to the thinking of Nāgārjuna where in one of the latter’s gatha (songs) in his Mūla-madhyāmaka-kārika he writes:

1. na sūnyam nāpi casū
2. tasmāt sarvam vidhīyate,
3. sattvād assattvāt satvāc ca
4. madhyamā pratipat ca sā.

The following are Vasubandhu’s seven-line stanza ending with Nāgārjuna’s four-line above-mentioned gatha. Stcherbatsky translates (p. 24):

Neither is it asserted
That all (the Elements) are unreal,
Nor are they all realities;
1. Because there is existence,
2. And also non-existence,
3. And (again) existence:
4. This is the Middle Path!

The neither-nor discussion with regard to existence as it arose in the monastic circles of in particular the Yogacara is totally foreign to Western thinking. Therefore it is natural that Stcherbatsky struggled with this concepts and desperately introduced the word “elements” in his translation (something must exist!) in a move to maintain the Greco-western philosophy about Being, Is, Existence Is.

Might we now retranslate Vasubandhu’s stanza in the Yogacara philosophical mood of those days, heavilly influenced by the utter neither-nor philosophy of Nāgārjuna, the translation of Vasubandhu’s Stanza 1.2 in Chapter 2 ought to run as follows:

Reality is not denied
Unreality is not denied.
Existence and non-existence
both exist
and do not exist.
This is the Middle Way.

Vasubandhu – 2

Vasubandhu’s and Sthiramati’s treatment of Chapter 3 is near-impossible to treat without long and meditative-philosophical introductions. However, on the subject of imagination we might show Stcherbatsky’s struggle with the neither-nor philosophy with regards to existence. He translates Vasubandhu’s stanza 19.27 (p.38) as follows:

Imagination (is the Mind),
T’ is not itself created by imagination.
But by another mental act.
T’ is split in two, (object and subject).
No ultimate reality obtains
In this dichotomized form.

With Nāgārjuna’s rigorous neither-nor philosophy in mind it would be possible to translate the stanza as follows:

Imagination is not imagined
There is no imaginer nor an imagined
This is the own-essence
which exists nor does not exist.
Not (a) by-another imagined, nor (a) other imaginator.

I.e. since the undivided pure mind, which is neither existent nor non-existent, does not dichotomize into imaginer and imagined, it is impossible to speak of imaginer in contrast to the imagined.

Lines as these are the product of objectless meditation; they cannot be considered from the point of view of philosophy. Objectless meditation was unknown in Stcherbatsky’s time, and still is to a large extent.

More gender

To continue the entry of January 20th on gender, it seems necessary to explain the (Hybrid) Sanskrit and Pali word bhiksunī, resp. bhikkhunī.
On page 128 Beata Grant (“Eminent Nuns; Women Chan Masters of Seventeenth-Century China”) laments the fact that Linji Master Jizong Xingche in several 19th-century publications is not recognizable as “the nun Jizong Xingche” but is rather referred to either as Jizong or as Xingchue, without “absolutely no indication of her gender … without the usual character ni [nun] that is usually appended to the names of female monastics.”

The character -ni stands for the last syllable of the Sanskrit/Pali name “bhiksunī/bhikkhunī“. It translates as “fully ordained female monk”, more precisely “female alms gatherer”. The male version = bhikshu, resp. bhikkhu.

Where at all -ni is added to the name of a Chinese female monk it is the last syllable of this “bhiksunī/bhikkhunī“, an appellation that in Chinese is approximately pronounced as “bishunii“. Therefore, if at all ni is added to the name of a chinese female monk such as Jizong Xingche one would expect something like Jizong Xingche Ni.
However, especially the Linji Chan tradition would consider it highly improper to designate a realized Master as a female being – or a male being for that matter. Therefore none of the Linji Masters in Beata Grant’s book will ever have been described as Master xx-xx-ni. This would be unthinkable if not an insult.


In her “Eminent Nuns; Women Chan Masters of Seventeenth-Century China” (2009, Hawai’i Univ. Press), a book that seems to have been put online, entirely or partially, the author Beata Grant addresses the issue – if it is an issue – of female monks of East-Asia.

She writes with the western concept of women’s emancipation in mind, and hence seems to stress the thought that women need to be elevated to the status of men while at the same time at least not downplaying the physical and mental differences between the two sexes.

The East-Asian Buddhist approach of monks and nuns – the Chinese and Korean – is a different one: as the object of one’s endeavours, enlightenment, is genderless, so is the monks Sangha, the men and the women, at least as far as the cultivation goes and the presentation to the world.
Beata’s “defeminization of Buddhist nuns” (p.94) therefore appears correct to the eyes of the western feminist, but it is a non-issue in the eyes of the said Chinese en Korean Sangha-members. (Sangha in the narrow sense of the community of monks and nuns.)

The gender-equality of the Dharma, hence the gender-equality of the East-Asian monks and nuns is demonstrated in the “families” that structurize themselves around a preceptor. Monks and nuns ordained at the same time under a particular preceptor are “brothers”; the “elder generation” of monks and nuns ordained under such a preceptor are “uncles”, and a “younger generation” of ordainees, ordained under this preceptor, are “cousins”. Certainly, this chosen form has gender: as there does not exist a gender-neutral way to convey genderlessness they show the male form.

Therefore Beata’s translation of “Dharma aunt” (p.95) is incorrect. In the absence of the original manuscript we may even surmise that the original Chinese text does not have the word “aunt” (ayi / āyí ) at all.

As an illustration we may give Beata’s feminist rendering of the Linji-monk Yikui Chaochen’s last poem, followed by a gender-neutral rendering:

All her life, this “fellow” has been tough as nails;
Once she dug her heels in, she could not be moved.
At twenty-four, she first found out about this matter;
Ten years she bitterly struggled, for forty forgot herself.
The nine bonds of this suffering world were untied
When she saw how to cut through its ways like water.
She’s long wanted to leave, and now her karma agrees;
Seven springs in a single day, iron nails turned to dust.
The four great elements dispersed by wind and fire.
Leaves fall, it is clearly autumn: time to return to the root.
Ha, ha, ha!
Footloose and fancy-free – that’s me!

A life long this “fellow” has been tough as nails;
Once having firmly footed, there was no way of moving.
At twenty-four the first discovery of this matter;
Ten years of bitter struggle, for forty forgotten the self.
The nine bonds of this suffering world were untied
Once seen how to cut through its ways like water.
Then this longing to leave, and now karma agrees;
Seven springs in a single day, iron nails turned to dust.
The four great elements dispersed by wind and fire.
Leaves fall, it is clearly autumn: time to return to the root.
Ha, ha, ha!
Footloose and fancy-free – (that’s me)!

(Does “that’s me” really occurs in the poem?)

Pity and martyrdom


Even Sir Monier-Williams (1819 – 1899) whose Sanskrit-English Dictionary saw the light in the last year of his life could in his translatory activities not avoid employing the religio-philosophical terminology that is so important in that culture of which he was a child. When describing the mental attitude of compassion, as it was expressed in the Hindu canon, he automatically translated “day” with “hav(ing) pity”, and “dayā“, resp. “dayākara” with (sympathy, compassion, and) “pity”, resp. “store of pity”.

The same is true for the earlier translators of the Buddhist Sanscritic and Pali canon. Here terms such as “anuganhāti”, “anuddaya”, “anukámpaka/anukámpika”, and even “karunā” are rendered with “merciful” and/or “full of pity” (and “compassion”).
These translators made no distinction between compassion and pity. It seems that the early Buddhist scriptures did. That is to say, when in the Birth Story (Jātaka) the bodhisattva senses the hunger and pain of the trapped tigress who is about to eat her cubs, he offers his own body. Was this a sign of pity?  Was this martyrdom? Could we replace compassion (anuganhāti, anuddaya, anukámpaka/anukámpika, karunā) with pity?

All Buddhist teachers reject the use of the word pity since pity easily entails an attitude of looking down on the person who is “to be pitied” by the person who is so much better off and has a so much better understanding and attitude towards the situation. The pitying person speaks from his very own top of the mountain about the to be pitied masses down below.
Compassion (karunā), in the Buddhist sense of the word, starts off as an universal attitude to be cultivated as an abstractum, not (yet) necessarily directed or applied towards some individual sufferer somewhere. In cases of urgency this universal attitude of karunā is made manifest in a more specific line of action towards the individual: beings in situations like this suffer, or could be better off, hence let me lend a helping hand because in my heart of hearts I know what it feels like; in the distant past I may have been there, and perhaps one day I will be there again.


Neither the classical Sanskrit, nor the Hybrid-Sanskrit, Pali, Buddhist Chinese etc. have a word that could be translated with “martyr”, or “martyrdom”. Buddhism has no martyrs; sometimes it has co-sufferers.

Confucianism and martyrdom

When scholars such as Walter H. Slote and ‎George A. De Vos in a publication of 1998 speak of Confucianism and mention that “filiality requires” “self-sacrifice”, they too apply the philosophical terminology of the West on concepts of the East. The same goes for another writer who in a publication of 2002 speaks in terms of “the [Chinese Confucian] martyr’s dedication to advancing society through selfless commitment to justice in public administration, ….”
Even Dorothy Ko, ‎JaHyun Kim Haboush, and ‎Joan Piggott (2003) cannot help but to refer to “the category ‘martyr'” when speaking of the Korean “widows [of the past] who commit suicide as a demonstration of loyalty to a deceased husband, or to avoid ‘humiliation’ …”.

It might be that Confucianists reading theses such as these would raise the same objections as Buddhists do when Western translators jollify the Buddhist canon with such highly sensitive words such as pity and martyrdom.


To remove the word love from today’s Buddhist parlance, so often repeated by the most vocal Buddhist teachers of the late 20th-21rst century, will prove to be extremely difficult. In fact, we may say that in this respect Buddhism has already be colonized by the Greco-European culture that spread and grew especially among the population of North-America.
Yet “love” does not appear in Buddhist canonical texts although here too well-wishing early translators applied the word to cover the cargo they were to convey.

The Buddhist canon speaks of mettā. Mettā is popularly translated with “benevolence, loving-kindness, friendliness”, and/or “amity”.
In the 19th century Pastor Samuel Beal, residing in China and far removed from Buddhist scholars has nevertheless spent a large part of his time in self-study and translating Buddhist texts, thereby amply using the word “love”. His translations were greedily adopted by Buddhists less well versed in their own culture and enamoured by Beal’s lovely books. Beal even gave a certain gatha (verse) the title “On love and Mercifullness [mettā]“.

We find Beal’s use of love and mercy in his “Texts from the Buddhist Canon: Commonly Known as Dhammapāda“, printed in 1878 by Trübner & Co Ltd, reprinted in 2007 by Routledge in London.

What could have inspired translators to employ the word love when coming accross mettā: universal friendliness or the below aññamaññan patibaddha citta? We don’t know; it’s a cultural thing; perhaps they wished to convey the loveliness of the texts and embellished these texts with lovely concepts belonging to their European culture.

There is this story about the mythical bird the Garudā (or Garulā) [Jātaka iii.188] where the text says: dve pi aññamaññan patibaddha citta ahesun. It is in a PTS-publication translated as “in love with each other”.

The voluminous PTS set of Jātaka were translated by R. Chalmers, W.H.D. Rouse, H.T. Francis, and E.B. Cowell (1895).

Aññamaññan (añña + [m]aññan) is not merely given as “reciprocal”, but in connection with the following patibaddha-citta (fettered in the bonds of) it becomes, according to translator, speaking from his own northern European background, “being in love”. Nevertheless, this is neither the literal translation nor the intention of the text, or rather, openly using a “being in love” is not in sync with the culture to which the text belongs; one remains discrete.
The text says: “fettered in the bonds of (patibaddha-citta) one another (aññamaññan)“, i.e. obsessed with one another — it can be love, it can be lust, it can be “politics”, etc.

Is love wrong? Of course love is not wrong. There is this lovely story about the father and mother of monk Nākula. They clung together like bird and feather as the saying goes. After we die, Nākulapita (Nākula’s father) asks, will the two of us be together again? Of course, replies Buddha, since you are so close in this life you will be close in the next.

Some would say that this is a romanticised late sutta, not a saying that really can be attributed to the historical Buddha. Well, prove it!
What we should remember though, is that even in this teaching about the old couple, the word love does not occur. Being close, being caring towards each other, having a strong reciprocity is what we will find reading the original text, not the romantic love as it came to be portrayed as of the 18th century in Europe.