Thought and Not Thought

You might not automatically think of Buddhism and quantum physics at the same time, but reading the book Wholeness and the Implicate Order by David Bohm had me doing just that. While the book seems to mostly be aiming to encourage science to use the evidence it already has about the interconnected and constantly changing nature of the world to change it’s long held perspectives on theory, it still produced a template of the workings of the world that parallels many ideas about the world described by the Buddha. This is pretty fascinating, both that someone working in the seemingly disparate field of quantum physics could basically come up something that is very close to Buddhism in many ways, and that it can provide useful ways to think about practice.

Whether he meant to describe the mechanics of the world in a way that matched Buddhist ones doesn’t matter though, because even if it wasn’t intentional we could still say there is little surprise that it did. Dhamma with a big ‘D’ means the teachings of the Buddha; dhamma, with a small ‘d’, means the reality of the way the world works. When we observe the world without concepts we are said to be seeing the dhamma. dhamma isn’t the exclusive property of Buddhism; the rules of the universe belong to no-one,they are simply as they are and have been since long before the Buddha turned up. It is merely the case that Buddhism makes the uncovering of them part of its fundamental practice that causes the strong link between dhamma and Buddhism. In fact the Buddha never described what he had found out about the world as his own idea, he always talked about it in terms of having re-discovered knowledge that had been lost.

There are many close parallels between Bohm’s ideas and Buddhist ones, and his description of a world in constant flux but entirely interconnected seems to almost mirror the world that the great Zen master Dogen describes, as so eloquently explained by Shinshu Roberts in her book Being-Time.

But I was most interested Bohm’s exploration of thought, and his idea of how thought and not-thought, played such an important role in properly understanding reality. In the scientific fields, Bohm felt that many had lost sight of the difference between a theory and reality, and he pointed to the historical tendency in physics of trying to fit reality to support a theory rather than the other way round. An example he gave was of Ptolemaic epicycles; there was once a belief that the planets moved in perfectly circular orbits, but even when we had observed that the orbits were not circular instead of changing the theory, the observations were made to fit into the existing theory – instead the conclusion was that the planets were moving in circular orbits within larger circular orbits. We might conclude that this was just bad science, but these kinds of things still happen today.

He described the root of this problem of not being able to see the difference between theory and reality as coming from our on-going process of differentiating between thought and not-thought. He explains that the process starts when we are children:

“It is well known, for example, that a young child often finds it difficult to distinguish the contents of his thought from real things… at some stage he becomes consciously aware of the process of thought, when he realizes that some of the ‘things’ that he seems to perceive are actually ‘only thoughts’ and therefore ‘no things’ (or nothing) while others are ‘real’ (or something).”

p72 Wholeness and the Implicate Order by David Bohm

Monsters under the bed seem very real to a small child, but at some point we come to understand the difference between what is just our imagination and what is more grounded in fact. Likewise as humanity developed he postulates that we were faced with the same issue of trying to discern what was real and what wasn’t from the contents of our minds. This he suggests is what drove us to try to find out what was only thought and what was ‘real’; the process by which we understood what was real was to identify what was thought and what was not-thought.

This is a way that we could also characterise Buddhist practice, as a process of systematically unravelling the contents of our minds and our concepts from the reality of the world as it actually is. The problems happen, according to Bohm, when we fail to recognise something as a thought and so come to treat it as real. Likewise in Buddhist practice, when we fail to recognise something conditioned as being impermanent, not-self, and a source of suffering then we too create problems for ourselves. The only way we could conclude that it was would be by superimposing a concept on top of the reality.

To draw a closer connection between Buddhist practice and Bohm’s ideas, it is useful to consider his definition of what thought actually is:

“Thought is, in essence, the active response of memory in every phase of life. We include in thought the intellectual, emotional, sensuous, muscular and physical responses of memory. These are all aspects of one indissoluble process.”

p64 Wholeness and the Implicate Order by David Bohm

This fundamentally mechanical process that includes all forms of physical experience supports the Buddhist stance that there is no real separation between the mind and the body, principally because every sensation that we experience is to be regarded as a mind object.

Now to talk about a physical experience, such as pain, or a feeling of fear, as being a mind object isn’t the same as saying that it is ‘just in our heads’ or that we are just imagining it. This is too simplistic a way to describe what is a complicated interplay between mind, body, and memory. Take this example as an illustration of how interwoven sensory experiences are, and how much of it relies on the workings of the mind:

“The images in our mind are extraordinarily rich. We can tell if something is liquid or solid, heavy or light, dead or alive. But the information we work from is poor – a distorted, two-dimensional transmission with entire spots missing. So the mind fills in most of the picture. You can get a sense of this from brain-anatomy studies. If visual sensations were primarily received rather than constructed by the brain, you’d expect that most of the fibres going to the brain’s primary visual cortex would come from the retina. Instead, scientists have found that only twenty percent do; eighty percent come downward from regions of the brain governing functions like memory. Richard Gregory, a prominent British neuropsychologist, estimates that visual perception is more than ninety per cent memory and less than ten per cent sensory nerve signals.”

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/06/30/the-itch by Atul Gawande

(Warning: if you decide to read this article it has one section that could be disturbing for someone squeamish about human anatomy, surgery, or those kinds of gory things.)

The role of memory and mind in our sensual experience is also suggested by the suttas too, for example in this one where an elderly man, Malunkyaputta, asks the Buddha for a brief teaching of the Dhamma:

“What do you think, Malunkyaputta: the forms cognizable via the eye that are unseen by you — that you have never before seen, that you don’t see, and that are not to be seen by you: Do you have any desire or passion or love there?”

“No, lord.”

“The sounds cognizable via the ear…

“The aromas cognizable via the nose…

“The flavors cognizable via the tongue…

“The tactile sensations cognizable via the body…

“The ideas cognizable via the intellect that are uncognized by you — that you have never before cognized, that you don’t cognize, and that are not to be cognized by you: Do you have any desire or passion or love there?”

“No, lord.”

“Then, Malunkyaputta, with regard to phenomena to be seen, heard, sensed, or cognized: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Malunkyaputta, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress.”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.095.than.html trans. by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Here the Buddha seems to be suggesting three things, firstly that we only have desire for things we have already encountered (the role of memory in sensory experience); secondly that it is possible to stop desire coming up for us if we can remove the element of memory and/or thought that is attached to the things that we currently have desire for; and thirdly that when we remove the concepts and memories that are evoked by sensory experience then we also remove the mistaken feeling of self.

The Buddha also echoes his words to Bahiya (Ud 1.10) that I often quote, that the key to seeing reality is to see that there is nothing more in our sensory experiences than what is really there – only the seen in the seen, only the heard in the heard, etc. Anything more than just the experience is a thought, or a concept.

The function of memory and mind on creating an interpretation of sensory data is also implied by the Buddha’s teachings on dependent origination, a theory of a chain of causal links that explain how ignorance of reality leads to suffering. The twelve links of the chain are usually described as:

Ignorance, mental formation, consciousness, name and form, the six senses, contact, feeling, craving, clinging, becoming, birth, and old age and death.

What you can see from this list is that contact, which is the moment that we become aware of a sensation (either physical or mental), isn’t at the start of the chain but half way along it. This suggests that there is a process already going on before we know that we have encountered some kind of stimuli that is shaping how we are going to experience that sensation. We don’t simply receive sensory information and then start reacting to it, there is already a ‘base code’ running that will form the interpretation of the event before we become aware of it. With this in mind we can perhaps better understand what it means to say that all sensation is a mental object, because everything we experience is an output of processes of the mind.

Whereas Bohm described the process of uncovering reality as discerning between thought and not-thought, in Buddhism we can describe this process as one of understanding what is a mental object (sankhara in Pali) and what is not.

How do we go through this process? Through practice. The path of Buddhist practice is one where we uncover what is real and what is just a mind object. The Buddha didn’t suggest that we sit and think about it though, because as you can see that approach carries with it the risk that we will mistake a thought for reality. Instead he insisted that we actually do it, that we practice and observe directly what is just a mental object and what is reality.

Within the process of uncovering what is real and what isn’t, Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggests that there are two approaches that can be taken to get to the heart of reality:

“One is to focus on the drawbacks of passion & delight in & of themselves, seeing clearly the stress & suffering they engender in the mind. The other is to analyse the objects of passion & delight in such a way that they no longer seem worthy of interest.”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn23/sn23.002.than.html trans. by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

He was making this comment in relation to this sutta:

“Just as when boys or girls are playing with little sand castles: as long as they are not free from passion, desire, love, thirst, fever, & craving for those little sand castles, that’s how long they have fun with those sand castles, enjoy them, treasure them, feel possessive of them. But when they become free from passion, desire, love, thirst, fever, & craving for those little sand castles, then they smash them, scatter them, demolish them with their hands or feet and make them unfit for play.

“In the same way, Radha, you too should smash, scatter, & demolish form, and make it unfit for play. Practice for the ending of craving for form.”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn23/sn23.002.than.html trans. by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The practice outlined in the Pali canon is the graduated path, a process of training that starts with the basics of moral behaviour and right action, then developing mindfulness and concentration to see more and more deeply into the nature of the world, eventually allowing us to ‘smash, scatter, & demolish’ form, feeling, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness so that we no longer cling to them.

We could characterise this kind of practice as being one that seeks to separate thought from not-thought by systematically working through all of our experiences and ideas of the world until there is no stone left unturned where a mistaken idea could hide.

There are lists and lists of areas of experience to be explored and investigated, in essence to uncover the mental objects that have obscured reality from us. The Satipattana Sutta alone (MN 10), the sutta referenced most often by modern mindfulness practictioners, directs us to investigate with mindfulness: our breathing, postures, body parts, the natural elements, death, feeling, consciousness, the five hindrances, the five khandas, the six external and internal sense bases, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the Four Noble Truths. While this is a pretty comprehensive sutta, it still doesn’t include other weighty topics such as jhana practice or dependent origination.

Theravadin practice is often described by other schools as ‘thorough’, or somewhat less generously as the ‘slow path’ or the ‘lesser vehicle’. When you consider the level of detail and time required by this kind methodical practice it is understandable where some of these opinions come from. The contrast between this slow path and faster ones is, in the opinion of Zen monk Anzan Hoshin, down to the difference in the approach to unravelling nama-rupa.

Nama-rupa means the mind (nama) that sees form (rupa), it is this that is at the root of our subject/object way of seeing the world. Hoshin suggests that the Buddha in the Pali teachings focused the practice on looking mainly at the objects (rupa), in just the way that Thanissaro Bhikkhu described; and that we stopped clinging to them when we saw that they had no real substance once our thoughts about them were taken away. He warns that there is a risk in this approach though:

“…if there is a belief that there is an object, then there must be a subject. If we believe that we can find any kind of object within our experience, then there is still a very fundamental misunderstanding because within our experience, all that we can experience is experience. We can never find any matter, any substance anywhere. All that we can find are our perceptions, our experiences. Anything else is a theory, a metaphysical concoction.”

p52-3 The Straight Path by Anzan Hoshin

Hoshin reminds us to not allow any residual mind object remain, even our idea of the mind itself. So he would add a third way that we can uncover reality: by seeing that both objects and the mind that observes them are not reality. We can feel like our minds are quiet and empty, but if there is still a feeling of self there then we are still not fully in touch with reality. Similarly, as I said in last week’s blog, when we are doing mindfulness practices or meditating we need to make sure that our attention is fully on the act of observation or participation so that there is no room for ideas of self to be present; we must focus on the washing of dishes, not on ourselves as we wash them, or our own feeling of being mindful. To not do so would be to leave our idea of our mind unchallenged and un-investigated.

It doesn’t matter which one of the suggested approaches we follow though because all routes lead to the same destination, in fact the many difference schools of Buddhism have co-existed and influenced each other for over 1000 years in some cases. The important thing is to follow our chosen route all the way to the end. As the famous saying goes if you dig twenty wells 1 foot deep then you will never find water, but if you dig 1 well 20 foot deep then you will be much more likely to find water. And the same could be said for quantum physics, if you follow that route then it seems that perhaps you might also arrive at the same understanding of the world as you would through Buddhist practice.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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