Is Consciousness Primary?

Last weekend I put up a video on my YouTube channel about a TED Talk by a guy named Donald Hoffman. Hoffman is a professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California at Irvine. The TED Talk he gave was called “Do We See Reality As It Is?

In the talk Prof. Hoffman gets into the idea that what we perceive with our senses may not correspond with reality. He compares what we perceive to the icons you see on a computer’s desktop. The icons are just a way for you to make sense out of what’s actually inside your computer. What’s actually inside your computer is far too complicated for most of us to make any sense out of. You can watch my video or the TED Talk if you want to know more.

After I made that video I watched a few more videos by and about Professor Hoffman. I was a bit disappointed by what I learned when I researched further. One of Hoffman’s ideas is that consciousness is primary. Consciousness is the basis of reality. There’s even a video of Deepak Chopra gushing all over Prof. Hoffman about this.

I don’t want to get into a critique of Professor Hoffman here. Rather, I’d like to try to say some things about why Buddhism rejects the idea that consciousness is primary.

This is especially confusing because there are some schools of Buddhism that talk about “Mind Only.” Even Dogen talked about “one mind as all dharmas, and all dharmas as one mind.” This was in an essay entitled Mind Here and Now is Buddha. When the word Buddha is used in this sort of context it refers to the entire universe as a living thing. I wrote about this essay in my book Don’t Be a Jerk.

Lots of people hear this sort of talk and figure that Dogen and even Buddha himself were all about the idea that consciousness is the primary force in the universe.

But that’s not what Dogen is saying at all.

The Buddhist idea of mind is not the same as our normal understanding of consciousness. The Sanskrit word that is usually translated as consciousness is vijnana. It is one of the Five Skandhas that are said to make up human beings. These five are 1) form 2) feeling 3) perceptions 4) impulses and 5) consciousness. There are, of course, numerous other translations, but that’s the version I learned.

Barbara O’Brien wrote a very good short introduction to the Five Skandhas on the website ThoughtCo. About vijnana/consciousness, she writes, “Vijnana is a reaction that has one of the six faculties as its basis and one of the six corresponding phenomena as its object. For example, aural consciousness — hearing — has the ear as its basis and a sound as its object. Mental consciousness has the mind (manas) as its basis and an idea or thought as its object. It is important to understand that this awareness or consciousness depends on the other skandhas and does not exist independently from them.”

The Mind Only school of Buddhism (Yogacara) studies vijnana/consciousness. They assert that, while consciousness is real, the objects of consciousness are not. But they do not take consciousness as primary. They say that consciousness is what we should study because it’s the only thing we know for certain is real. But they don’t say that consciousness alone is reality.

I guess that sounds kinda weird.

Let’s try this another way.

It seems to me that lots of people who assert that consciousness is primary think that consciousness must be a thing unto itself. They think that what we are is pure consciousness. They say that consciousness exists independently of the material universe. They imagine that consciousness might be able to exist by itself without anything to be conscious of.

But the Buddhist idea of consciousness is that consciousness only exists when there is an object or sensation or thought or some other something to be conscious of. There can be no consciousness apart from the objects of consciousness.

So the idea that consciousness is separate from rest of the universe makes no real sense.

Mind, in the Buddhist sense, is different from consciousness. When Buddhists say that all things are one mind, they don’t mean that everything is pure consciousness. They also don’t mean that the objects of consciousness are non-existent. They just mean that those objects are not what we perceive them to be.

Is air really odorless or are we just unable to smell air because we smell it all the time? Maybe it’s like someone who works at a bakery and doesn’t notice the smell of fresh bread anymore because they smell it all the time. Maybe air has a smell, but we can’t smell it.

If we can’t smell air, then maybe we can’t sense consciousness. We know it exists. But because we can’t sense it, we imagine it must be the ultimate substrata of everything.

The Buddhists would tell us that that’s not correct. Consciousness is just one of a set of things that come together to form a sentient being.

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