Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics, Volume 2: The Mind

Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics, Volume 2: The Mind

Conceived and introduced by HIS HOLINESS THE DALAI LAMA,
edited by THUBTEN JINPA, with contextual essays by JOHN D. DUNNE
Somerville, Mass.: Wisdom, 2020. 554 pp., hardcover, $39.95.

Student: Master, my mind is restless. What can I do?
Master: Bring it to me.
Student: But I can’t find it.
Master: See, I already fixed it.
—Zen story

I wish the student in this story had this volume to hand to his master.

Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics is an ambitious four-volume work conceived by the Dalai Lama. The first volume was The Physical World (review in Quest, summer 2018). The Mind, the second volume, focuses on the science of the mind. Major topics in this volume, which is divided into six parts, include the distinction between sensory and conceptual processes; mental factors (attention, mindfulness, compassion); the Tantric theory of subtle levels of consciousness and their connection to subtle energies (including what happens to each when the body and mind dissolve at death); seven types of mental states and how they impact the process of perception; and styles of reasoning as a valid avenue for acquiring sound knowledge.

The volume draws from ancient texts by Buddhist thinkers such as Asanga, Vasubandhu, Nagarjuna, Dignaga, and Dharmakirti. Each part is preceded by an immensely helpful introductory essay by John D. Dunne, distinguished professor of Buddhist philosophy and contemplative practice at the University of Wisconsin. The final section, titled “Training the Mind through Meditation,” is a treatise for meditative practice.

The challenges for producing such a work are daunting. The translation seeks to reach a broader audience, although these texts were not written for the average reader and several passages had never been translated before. Furthermore, Sanskrit is a language in which one word can have many meanings (in high school, I had a choice of picking between Sanskrit and arithmetic. I chose arithmetic!). In addition, translating from Sanskrit to Tibetan was a challenge. Yet another hurdle arose in translating the texts into English without sacrificing the original meaning. This is where Dunne’s expertise proves invaluable.

Where does science come in? The Dalai Lama says, “Not only do Buddhism and science have much to learn from each other, but there is also a great need for a way of knowing that encompasses both body and mind.” His goal was to have a dialogue with scientists to see how the meditative techniques such as calm abiding (samatha) and insight (vipassana) can be incorporated in the fiber of present-day life. This work is not intended to convert followers of other religions to Buddhism, but to find teachings that would seamlessly benefit everyone.

It is impossible to delve into each chapter in the book here. I am drawn to the final part: “Training the Mind through Meditation.” Why do we need to know about the details of various mental states? Because they enlighten us in our journey to transform the mind.

The texts provide a profound analytical clarity that is perhaps not found easily. The Sanskrit term klesa means mental afflictions that cause suffering. It is possible to counteract these in a way that not only suppresses them but also uproots them. The two approaches are suppressing and undermining. For example, when aversion is present in any given moment, the mental state of craving cannot be present at the same time; it is suppressed. The two states are simply incompatible! On the other hand, when wisdom arises, the factors that would give rise to either aversion or craving are undermined; their cause is completely eradicated. When lovingkindness or compassion is present, how can hatred, resentment, or aversion also be there?

Another important insight has to do with inappropriate attention, which is a distortion of reality that arises out of our ignorance and conditioning.  The Sanskrit term smrti can be translated literally as memory or, in a broader context, as moment-to-moment nonjudgmental awareness.

The authors in this volume have a very clear definition of mindfulness as a mental factor that supports stable attention. What is stable attention? It is not losing track, either through distraction or focus (dozing while meditating!).

The authors explain another term, commonly known as clear comprehension (Pali: samprajanna), as “a meditative awareness that monitors the quality of one’s attention.” If, for example, we are focusing on the breath, this quality will point to us when we become distracted and are thinking of being on a beach!

The concluding section is titled “The Person or Self.” When one says, “I see a flower,” what does that mean? How is the seeing done? What is the self or a person? This is discussed in detail in volume four of this work.

We can’t wait.

Dhananjay Joshi 

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for forty years. He reviews regularly for Quest and works as a volunteer in the archives department of the TSA.