Part IV – Chapter 32
Whether mind or matter.
Note that similar arguments to the above can be used in other metaphysical fields. For example, the Yogacara school’s “mind only” doctrine (Mentalism) may be found useful to the meditator, to help him distance himself from apparent matter and material concerns. But such utility need not depend on the literal truth of the doctrine; it may suffice to regard it as just a tool. In spiritual pursuits, one has to be pragmatic, and not get bogged down in disputes.
It may be enough to think and act as if matter does not exist, for the same meditative benefits to ensue. Even if one considers the existence of matter as the most inductively justified hypothesis, the one most successful in explaining all available data – one retains the mental power to put those theoretical convictions aside during meditation, and flexibly attune one’s mind to the outlook intended by the Yogacara doctrine, so as to attain more important insights.
The doctrine that our experience even while awake is “but a dream, an illusion” can be rephrased, in modern (computer age) terms, as: all that appears before us is “just virtual world”. We can equate phenomenal appearances to a sort of massive hologram, a 3D movie “empty of substance” – yet which produces in us the same emotions, desires and reactions of all kinds, as a “real world” would.
The equivalence between the illusory and the real is at least conceivable in relation to the modalities of sight and sound, for it is introspectively evident that we can dream up sights and sounds as clear as those we apparently sense.
But in the case of touch (and smell and taste) sensations, I am not so sure we can perfectly reproduce them mentally, even in the sharpest dreams. However, I am not sure we cannot do so, either. There is (to my mind, at least) an uncertainty in this regard, because it is hard to tell for sure whether the tactile (or odorous or gustatory) phenomena that we experience in dreams (or in awake memory or imagination) are truly mental (memory recall) – or simply physical (present sensations) events that we interpret (intentionally or verbally) in certain ways.
For example, if I kiss a girl in my dreams – am I producing in my mind a phenomenon comparable to the sensation of her lips on mine, or am I simply reading the sensations currently felt on my (lonely) lips as equivalent to the touch of a girl’s lips? These are two very different scenarios. For, if I can imagine touch (as I imagine sights or sounds), then the phenomenological difference between mind and matter is blurred. But if touch (etc.) is not mentally reproducible, then careful observation should allow us to tell the difference between dream and awake reality.
Thus, we ought to distinguish two types of memory – the power of recall and that of mere recognition. In recall, the original impression (seemingly due to physical sensation) can sometimes, voluntarily or involuntarily, be fully reproduced in a relatively virtual domain (i.e. the apparent mind). In mere recognition, the power of reenacting the original impression is absent, but if a similar impression does arise, one has sufficient memory of the original (somehow) to be able to relate the later impression to the earlier and declare them similar.
But even while using such distinctions to discriminate between apparent matter and apparent mind phenomena, they do not provide us with the means to judge between Mentalism and Materialism. Because the mind-only advocates can easily argue that these are apparent distinctions within the realm of mind; that is, recall and recognition may be two categories of event within the framework of Mentalism. They could equally well be viewed as categories within a Materialist framework. Therefore, we have no phenomenological means to decide between the two theories.
This being the case, the mind versus matter issue (so dear to metaphysicians) is quite irrelevant to the meditator. Whether it turns out metaphysically that mind is matter or that matter is mind, or that there is a radical chasm between them, does not make any difference to the meditator. Meditation is a phenomenologically inclined discipline. Whether an object is yellow or red is of no great import to the meditator; all he cares to know is what it appears to be. Similarly, the metaphysical difference between mind and matter is of no great significance to him.
What seems evident phenomenologically is that mind and matter are not totally unconnected realms of appearance. (a) They contain comparable phenomena (i.e. sights and sounds within them seem to resemble each other). (b) Their “spaces” to some extent overlap (note the fact of hallucination, i.e. projection of mental images outside the head – as e.g. when one takes one’s glasses off and they still seem to be on).
(c) Also, mind and matter seem to have causal connections – in that our memories (and thence imaginations) seem to be caused by our material perceptions; and in that we produce changes in the material domain after having mentally imagined such changes (e.g. in technological invention).
(d) Even if we wished to claim mind and matter to be radically different substances, we would have to admit they have in common the fact, or stuff, of existence. Similarly, the subsumption of mind under matter or matter under mind seems ultimately irrelevant. In the last analysis, it is a merely verbal issue. Whether the answer is this or that, no change occurs in the facts faced.
Meditation is not a search for the answer to the question about the ultimate substance(s) of existents. All the same, this statement should not be taken to exclude the possibility that a fully realized person might experience something concerning the mind-matter issue, and might wish to comment on it.
Rather than linger on such philosophical conundrums during meditation, we should rather always infinitely marvel at the mystery of the facts of consciousness and will. How is it that existents “appear” to other existents? One part of the world seems to “know” another part of it, or even itself! Whether such appearance is momentary or goes on for a lifetime of years or eternally – it is a truly wondrous event! Similarly, how amazing it is that some entities in nature can apparently to some extent “affect” themselves or other entities in nature, by way of causation or (even more amazing) by way of volition!
Such questions are not asked idly or with hope of philosophical answers, in the present context, but to remind oneself of and remain alert to the miracle of consciousness and will. One should not take such powers for granted, but be aware of one’s awareness and one’s choice of awareness. At least, do so to some extent, but not to a degree that turns your meditation into a pursuit. Irrespective of any passing contents of consciousness, and of what stuff consciousness is ‘made of’, the fact of consciousness remains extremely interesting.
“Mind-only” philosophers (and this category includes not only Yogacara Buddhists, but in the West the likes of Hume and Berkeley) have proposed that we only perceive mental phenomena, by arguing that all so-called material phenomena have to be processed through local sense organs, sensations and brain, before the perceiver can access them.
That doctrine is wobbly, in part because it starts by assuming the validity of our scientific perceptions of the sensory organs and processes, and ends up by denying the reality of the very empirical data it is built on. That is, its proponents fail to reflexively ponder on their own information sources.
However, our first objection is not the main logical argument against it. The main reason that doctrine does not stand firm is another epistemological error. The Mentalists make the same mistake as do the Materialists – which is the common error of Naïve Realism. They each assume their doctrine is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the data at hand. But, as evident from the fact that both schools appeal to the same empirical data – that data can be interpreted either way.
It is not through a deduction that the issue can be resolved, but only through an open-ended induction. The only way to decide is by considering both these theories as scientific hypotheses, to be evaluated with reference to the totality of ongoing empirical findings. That is to say, only through a systematic, holistic, gradual approach, which we might refer to neutrally as Subtle Realism. This, of course, is the Phenomenological approach.
In phenomenology, the emphasis is on appearances as such, without immediate concern as to their ultimate status as realities or illusions, or as mental or material, or with any other such fundamental characterizations of data. Phenomena qua phenomena – and likewise intuitions qua intuitions – are always true. Taken “for itself”, every appearance is just what it seems to be.
The issue of falsehood (as against truth) only arises when appearances are no longer regarded at face value, and we use some of them to signify some other(s), so that we have to try to judge their truth value relative to each other. For this reason, phenomenology provides us with the most conceivably solid foundation to any philosophy or science.
 That is, we “sense” a vague familiarity, but we cannot clearly establish it.
 So far as I can tell. Some Buddhists, particularly those of the Zen persuasion, have had the same indifference to the issue. However, some Buddhist philosophers have debated it for centuries. It is surprising. Perhaps these monks were curious or looking for entertainment.
 Some have called this the “field of mind”; but, though the term “mind” here conforms to frequent colloquial use, I would avoid this expression, and prefer the broader term “field of consciousness”, reserving the term mind-field to the putative substratum of mental phenomena, i.e. to a specific category of contents of consciousness.