Mirror of Zen Blog

Two Minds on Mind

Here are two minds I admire a great deal. These two great talks have been separately posted on this blog before, and no doubt they will be posted again. But I thought to offer them this time as a package experience, to complete the point. Dr. Anil Seth presents a most convincing case on the materialist/science-based view of the nature of consciousness/”reality”, and Sam Harris on “the illusion of free will”.

  1. Returning to Hwa Gye Sah temple from my second 100-day solo retreat (Winter 1998-99), 25 kg. lighter and hollowed from eating only pine needle powder and spirulina, I was eventually admitted into the room of Zen Master Seung Sahn. Arrayed in my finest formal robes, I offered the traditional three full prostrations before him, seated cross-legged on his traditional silken cushion. As I raised my face off the floor after the last bow, the first missile was lobbed in. A small barrage of kōans later, a back-and-forth of Dharma combat, he evidently felt some small satisfaction with my practice during the retreat, grunted some humphs of approval and “not bad”s and “wonderful”s, and we settled into a little silence together. As I knelt there on the floor, after the kōans and their way of revealing the practice, when I said something to use words to “say” something additional about the three-month isolation experience in the Jiri Sahn mountains, my lips opened and this impression came out, “Sir, it’s all just TV. This whole reality, only TV. Not real thing.” And he laughed out loud in reply, “Yah, yah! Everything only TV — coming, going, coming, going, coming, going. Only DON’T TOUCH, then you are free. Ha ha ha ha! You see that. That’s a wonderfullllll…”

Anil Seth makes the most convincing point (most through peer-reviewed science and fMRI brain scans) that our brain hallucinates our conscious reality, just as my Teacher was confirming in my retreat experience (and the view persists to this day — it was a consciousness-reorientation event). The Buddha would fully agree with Dr. Seth fully that “we are living in a controlled hallucination”. We’re all hallucinating all the time; when we agree about our hallucinations, we call it “reality.”

“Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality”. An utterly fascinating 17 minutes, one of the most-watched TED talks:

Your brain hallucinates your conscious reality | Anil Seth

2. Same Harris’s book, Free Will, is something I wish I had read years earlier. It makes a powerful point whose impact on me has been great, if just to confirm my own intuitions in ways with better words than my own. I would love to ask Sam about its relation to the law of karma, “mind-habit”, cause-and-effect. The word “karma” is represented as “action” in both Sanskrit and Chinese. Some action — movement into the space of interaction with others is already the space of exercising will. And so what guides that, has been the perennial question. The monotheists are on every kind of intellectual flypaper with this matter, because their framework is absolutely wedded to binary opposites, so there must be an I here “doing” (acting) in a world “I” am separate from. The conclusion to that deluded view of some conscious entity “mastering the controls” is the blatantly willful Satan of Paradise Lost crowing, “”Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Free will, if it existed there, ain’t God’s will — it splits away, only into further and further into error.

This explanation is clear, and to the point, and makes the point so methodically, that I wonder how anyone could possibly ever consider the concept ever again. I must leave the caveat that I would wish one day to ask Sam about the relation of this view to the law of karma and precepts — that, our actions are certainly conditioned by previous actions and thoughts, and then that creates further “valence” or affinity for those actions “again”, and then the repetition of the “action” becomes a mind-habit (karma). The role of precepts, as I see it, was the Buddha also perceiving that, rather than give the agency to the person to need to contend with these “lower” entrapping energies alone, that to have the precepts out there is as a roadmap would optimise the person developing greater and greater “valence” or affinity with more beneficial outcomes and moral orientations. It’s not like the precepts provide autopilot for us, like some driverless car. But rather, like the navigation screen stuck on our windshield, we are given a very clear and direct route to our desired goal (waking up). New accidents or difficulties are also pointed out to us, with alternative routes. And we can completely disregard the live-map unfurling on our screen — take an extra turn, whatever. And the map reorients, always optimising our return to the road, return to the Path, return to the Way.

I think Sam’s view is actually entirely compatible with that. I would simply like to ask how he sees the almost magnetic “link” that has to happen in order for consciousness to CHOOSE(?) to accept the precepts, and to “choose”(?) to follow them again and again, until they become that habit that doesn’t need the illusion of “choosing” (“free will”) anymore.

Blech. Too much word-diarrhoea today. Listen to Sam’s golden shower of wisdom, reflect on it, and listen to it again after a few days:

Final Thoughts on Free Will (Episode #241)

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