Two Views of Mind: Abhidharma and Brain Science

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Two Views of Mind: Abhidharma and Brain Science offers a clear overview of perception, thought, and awareness in Tibetan Buddhist psychology and in Western neuroscience. DeCharms lays out the Buddhist theory of perception side-by-side with the scientific view of Western neuroscience on the brain activity of human cognition. He discovers insights from each system that suggest exciting new approaches to perennial problems that the other has not been able to resolve. Directed to non-specialists, he focuses on the differences between the two traditions in methodology, assumptions, and purpose.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"DeCharms provides illuminating comparisons between the two systems of knowledge and proposes ways that further discussion could be of mutual benefit."—Choice

"Easily the best attempt to compare these very different disciplines."—Dharma Life

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781559390811
  • Publisher: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/28/1997
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 220
  • Sales rank: 1,135,085
  • Product dimensions: 6.04 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher deCharms is a cognitive neuroscientist at the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California San Francisco

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Usefulness of an Exchange:
A Discussion with His Holiness
the Dalai Lama

The fourteenth Dalai Lama, known with great respect and affection by the title "His Holiness" within the Tibetan community, is the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people, a Nobel laureate, and probably the most influential advocate and well known personal example of Buddhist ideals alive today. For many years His Holiness has shown an interest in learning about Western science in general and about neuroscience in particular, and he has repeatedly advocated its importance for Tibetan Buddhism. He is without doubt the most well informed Tibetan lama regarding the issue of Western neuroscience.

    We spoke mainly in English but were assisted by the excellent translation of the Ven. Lobsang Jordan. In transcribing the text from tape, care was taken to remain very close to the exact words used, particularly by His Holiness, although small grammatical changes were necessary to make the text more readable. My additions and comments have been included in brackets, which will be the convention throughout the book.


CdC: I have been here since Losar [Tibetan New Year] studying the correspondence and relationship between the understanding of the mind in Western neuroscience and the philosophical understanding in Tibetan Buddhism. I have been concentrating on the Sautrantika system of tenets in particular. I am hoping to compare the understanding of the mind from Buddhist philosophy with theunderstanding from Western neuroscience. As you know, there are a number of interesting relationships between the two, and these are what I have been exploring.

    I know that in the past you have made comments on the importance of the interchange between these two disciplines. I wondered if you have anything to say now about the benefit to Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan practitioners, and Tibetan philosophy that could come from an understanding of the brain drawn from neuroscience.

His Holiness: For practitioners, I don't know. My interest is for academic study about the mind and about the explanation of the relation between mind and this body. There are some rough explanations, or vague explanations on how this works. The detailed explanations are not yet available.

    For example, sometimes it is obvious: due to emotion, immediately there is a change in the body elements. When, for example, someone gets angry, immediately the body will change. If somebody should have desire, attachment, so the body elements will change. In sutrayana there is very little explanation of this. In tantrayana there is more.

    However, the scientific explanation of this relation is much more detailed. I think [that within the scientific view] the relation is mainly that something happens to some body elements ... something happens, so that these emotions develop. Scientists accept a type of brain that is [composed of parts of the material] body. So, you see, first some kind of movement happens in the body, then they accept the reaction, the so-called mind or emotions that come out. In any case, there is a more detailed explanation. There is some change in the body and due to that this happens and this happens [His Holiness makes gestures of thoughts and emotions]. This is very interesting. So that is the main reason for my interest. For us, in that field regarding the brain, it is very useful to learn the scientific findings.

    For the practitioner, without knowing any of these things, they practice, so it doesn't matter [laughing deeply]. Their main concern is change, they are not concerned in how change takes place, but how to change. That is their business.


CdC: So do you think that certain points in Gelugpa philosophy, such things as how a conceptual consciousness is formed, or how an "aspect" which reflects the properties of a perceived object is taken up by the consciousness during perception of the object, some of these debated points, might have answers from the understanding coming from neuroscience? Do you think that this is likely to have a new impact on the understandings of some of these ancient debated issues?

His Holiness: The findings of neuroscience can indeed solve some of these debated points. I do think so.

    For example, in the different levels of tenets there are two classes of models where seeing an object is explained. One is called "with the aspect of an object." You see an object first by getting an aspect of that object in your mind. Another version suggests that you do not have to depend on getting an aspect, that you can directly see the object. The explanation with aspect, with a kind of reflection, is closer to the scientific explanation. When we both see one table, we are both seeing one table, we can touch it simultaneously, but in a real sense there is some kind of reflection, some kind of aspect of that table on our mind, and the mind sees that aspect, not this [he places his hand on the physical table]. Therefore, some may see this table darker, some lighter, things like that. So therefore, the five senses of human beings have five perceptions of different appearances. So this is the scientific explanation. In the Buddhist explanation according to the Sautrantika school and the higher schools, this is also the way. So this is very useful for comparison.

    So now suppose today, if there is someone who believes the Vaibashika school of thought [the lowest of the four schools of tenets, which holds that perception does not depend on an aspect], not only can we use logic, but also we can use the arguments of science to demonstrate the superior understanding of the higher schools of thought.

    [In the following chapters I will consider in greater detail the mechanisms by which perception takes place. The aspect of a perceived object, which the higher schools posit is formed in the mind during perception, will be directly compared with physically manifest spatial patterns of neuronal activity which are found in the brain.]

Excerpted from Two Views of Mind by R. Christopher deCharms. Copyright © 1998 by R. Christopher deCharms. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

10 Concepts in Tibetan Abhidharma and Western Neuroscience
1 The Usefulness of an Exchange: A Discussion with His
Holiness the Dalai Lama19
2 Approaching the Tibetan View of Mind25
3 A Very Different Metaphor of Mind—His Holiness the
Dalai Lama29
4 A Discussion with the Venerable Lobsang Gyatso: Mind
and Mental Factors31
5 Is Buddhism Scientific? No45
6 A Discussion with Kamtrul Rinpoche—A Different
Authoritative Base57
7 Perception in Tibetan Abhidharma and Western
8 A Discussion with His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Aspects
of Perception94
9 A Discussion with Lati Rinpoche: Perception and the
Illuminating Nature of Mind101
11 A Discussion with Gen Damcho—Objects of Thought161
12 A Discussion with Lati Rinpoche—Ideas, Concepts,
13 A Discussion with Kamtrul Rinpoche: Memory and the
Freedom of the Mind199
14 A Discussion with Lati Rinpoche: Memory and the Subtle
Channels of the Mind206
15 A Discussion with Gen Damcho: Objects of the Mind and
16 The Mind from Inside and Out223
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