Brain and Brain? What is Brain?

Someone sent me a link to an article by Michael Taft, called A Universal Theory of Awakening. I’d never heard of Mr. Taft before, but apparently he’s a well-known writer and “mindfulness coach.” I get the impression from my very small amount of research on him that he specializes in presenting mindfulness as a secular activity completely independent of all the “woo-woo” of traditional Buddhism. But, since I don’t know his overall work very well I want to stick to this particular article.

The point of this short article appears to me to be to present the idea of Buddhist Awakening in a way that eliminates any references to anything supernatural.

He starts off by explaining our usual way of perceiving the world we live in and pointing out that whatever we perceive is just a representation of reality and not reality itself. He says, “Usually this experience of self-and-world … is transparent, meaning that we are not aware that it is a representation.” Buddhist Awakening is when you become aware of this representation as a representation and stop taking it as reality itself.

So far, so good. But then he says, “…there is a real you (a human being with blood and guts) and a real world (other people and animals, plants and planets, and, well, everything) out there. But you have never experienced this real world directly. You are only ever experiencing the brain-generated representation of the world, created from the real world impacting your senses. Furthermore, you have never experienced yourself (the blood-and-guts-being) directly, but only the brain-generated representation of yourself.”

He explains the experience of Buddhist Awakening this way; “The word awakening, in this case, is a metaphor. Being asleep means that you still experience the self-and-world representation as transparent. You believe the ‘dream’ your brain is assembling. The extent to which the self-and-world representation has become opaque (i.e. you see its constructedness) is the extent to which you are awake. You have awoken out of the ‘dream’ of the representation of self-and-world.”

There is a glaring flaw in this logic. I do not know if Mr. Taft is aware of this flaw or not. Maybe he is. Maybe this article is a kind of “skillful means” intended for an audience he perceives as being unprepared to take the next step in the argument Taft himself is making in this article.

In any case, the flaw in the argument is this: Mr. Taft talks about the brain and says that the real you is a “human being with blood and guts” that interacts with a real external world full of “other people, animals, plants, planets, and, well, everything.”

However, the very perception that I am a blood and guts human being, and that the representation of the external world is generated inside my brain is also part of that same representation whose reliability Mr. Taft rightly questions. 

I cannot even know for sure that I am a human with blood and guts or that I have a brain.

Again, I’m not saying that Taft himself doesn’t understand this. But a lot of people never seem to take that one step further off the precipice and into the vast unknown that the Buddhists call Emptiness. Many of us are so deeply attached to the materialistic worldview that we can’t follow our own logic to its obvious conclusion.

My teacher, Nishijima Roshi used to annoy people who like Buddhist metaphysics — including me — by describing Buddhist Awakening in somewhat similar materialistic terms. He would say that Dogen’s experience of “dropping off body and mind” was what happened when the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems become perfectly balanced. I really hated that!

I hated it because it seemed to reduce my real experience to mundane terms. Everything I experienced in life was just the action of chemicals and electricity inside a highly evolved animal. 

Then I thought about it a little more. For the sake of argument, let’s just say that maybe my experience really is just chemicals and electricity. But what are chemicals and electricity?

If mere chemicals and electricity can produce things like love, friendship, wonder, the experience of the taste of a sour apple or the feeling of warmth when Ziggy the dog snuggles up to me in the morning, then chemicals and electricity aren’t mundane things at all. They’re miraculous and mysterious in ways that all the woo-woo in the world could never hope to express.

In the Star Trek episode “Spock’s Brain” these weird alien women somehow remove Mr. Spock’s brain and make it run their planet’s central computer. Yet these women appear not to possess the intelligence necessary to do such an intricate surgical procedure. They seem pretty ditzy, in fact. When questioned about Mr. Spock’s brain, their leader gets all flustered and says, “Brain and brain? What is brain?

That’s my question, too. Brain and brain, what, indeed, is brain?

In the case of my teacher, I am convinced that his seemingly reductive and materialistic explanations of the experience of Buddhist Awakening were a kind of skillful means. He was constantly pointing out that Buddhism was neither a form of idealism nor a form of materialism. 

But people often think of Buddhism as a form of idealism. Especially when it says things like, “the Triple World (aka the entire universe) is mind alone.” To counter this tendency, Nishijima Roshi liked to explain Buddhist Awakening in terms borrowed from materialistic science. It was only in private conversations with him that I discovered his more mystical side.

That’s why I don’t want to be too harsh about Michael Taft’s Universal Theory of Awakening. It might be a useful way to draw in people who find the more mystical sounding claims of Buddhism off-putting. I am certainly very much in favor of removing Buddhism from the category of woo-woo spirituality.

Still, I think there is a place for the deeper insights into the nature of reality that Buddhist practice can help open us up to. And there is a place for the non-materialistic Buddhist worldview. 

Nishijima Roshi used to say that every philosophy but one fell into either the category of materialism or the category of idealism. Buddhism, he said, was the only exception. This is why the Buddhist worldview is so hard to understand. Whenever we encounter a philosophy that denies the materialistic view, we tend to think of it as idealistic. It’s almost impossible not to do so.

In fact, in terms of how our thinking works it may actually be impossible to hold a worldview that is neither materialistic nor idealistic in our thoughts. Thought insists on seeing things one way or another. It can’t contain contradictory viewpoints. And yet reality itself is not limited to the categories our thoughts insist upon. 

This is why Nishijima Roshi called Buddhism a “philosophy of action.” It is a philosophy that you experience in real action in the present moment. This is why Dogen used deliberate contradictions as a way of pointing out the limitations of language and thought to ever fully explain reality.

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