Panpsychism? Didn’t Even Know Him!

I’d like to talk to you about panpsychism and how it is related and not related to Buddhism. First, what’s panpsychism? 

Several people sent me this article from Scientific American called “Does Consciousness Pervade the Universe?” by Gareth Cook. It was posted to Scientific American on January 14, 2020 so it’s pretty new. 

It says, “One of science’s most challenging problems is a question that can be stated easily: Where does consciousness come from? In his new book Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, philosopher Philip Goff considers a radical perspective: What if consciousness is not something special that the brain does but is instead a quality inherent to all matter? It is a theory known as ‘panpsychism,’ and Goff guides readers through the history of the idea, answers common objections (such as ‘That’s just crazy!’) and explains why he believes panpsychism represents the best path forward.” 

And here is Mr. Goff himself explaining panpsychism, “In our standard view of things, consciousness exists only in the brains of highly evolved organisms, and hence consciousness exists only in a tiny part of the universe and only in very recent history. According to panpsychism, in contrast, consciousness pervades the universe and is a fundamental feature of it. This doesn’t mean that literally everything is conscious. The basic commitment is that the fundamental constituents of reality—perhaps electrons and quarks—have incredibly simple forms of experience. And the very complex experience of the human or animal brain is somehow derived from the experience of the brain’s most basic parts.”

Another article from the Atlantic called “Why Panpsychism is Probably Wrong” says, “Panpsychism’s popularity stems from the fact that it promises to solve two deep problems simultaneously. The first is the famous ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. How does the brain produce conscious experience? How can neurons firing give rise to experiences of color, sound, taste, pain and so on? In principle, scientists could map my brain processes in complete detail but, it seems, they could never detect my experiences themselves—the way colors look, pain feels and so on: the phenomenal properties of the brain states involved. Somehow, it seems, brain processes acquire a subjective aspect, which is invisible to science. How can we possibly explain this?”

It’s kind of interesting if you look at how some books about Buddhism say stuff that’s similar to this.  For example, Deepest Practice Deepest Wisdom by Kosho Uchiyama. On page 34, Uchiyama Roshi quotes an essay Dogen wrote about the Heart Sutra. He says, “The twelve sense fields are twelve instances of Prajnaparamita (deepest intuitive wisdom). Also there are eighteen instances of prajna; eyes, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind, form, sound, smell, taste, touch, objects of mind, as well as the consciousnesses of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind.” 

Then Uchiyama Roshi comments on this saying, “The twelve sense fields are the so-called six sense organs and they’re six objects. The eighteen instances refer to those twelve sense fields and the six consciousnesses. The six sense organs are eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. These organs are part of the makeup of our bodies. The six objects are form (color and shapes), sound, smell, taste, touch, and objects of mind. These are the external world. The six sense organs meet with the six objects of the external world and are reflected on to our minds producing six consciousnesses – eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, body consciousness, and mind consciousness.” 

Then Uchiyama Roshi says, “What is seeing? How can we see? It’s truly a mystery. Scientists may explain the function of retinal cells, optic nerves, and so forth. But no matter how much explanation is given, we cannot understand the most crucial point. Eyes are eyes, and things are things. But how does the consciousness of seeing arise? This is really mysterious and beyond our comprehensive thought. The root of this wondrous phenomenon can only be called ‘life.’ Even if we put all the various parts of the human body together such as head chest or legs and connect them we cannot create a human being. Only if life functions there is there a living human being. The ground such wondrous life is rooted in is Prajnaparamita.”

There are a lot of places in Dogen’s writings where he says things that seem to imply a worldview that is quite close to panpsychism. In Eihei Koroku (a.k.a. Dogen’s Extensive Record). there is dharma talk titled “Dogen’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness.” (Just FYI: Dogen didn’t title the essays in Eihei Koroku. Those were added by the English translators.)

It says,  “Shakyamuni Buddha said to his disciples there are four foundations of mindfulness on which people should depend. These four foundations of mindfulness refer to contemplating the body as impure, contemplating sensation as suffering, contemplating mind as impermanent, and contemplating phenomena as non-substantial. I, Eiehi Dogen, also have four foundations of mindfulness. Contemplating the body as a skin bag, contemplating sensation as eating bowls, contemplating mind as fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles, and contemplating phenomena as old man Jiang drinking wine and old man Li getting drunk.” Jiang and Li are very common Chinese names like Smith and Jones.  

There is a line in that dharma talk that Dogen often repeats throughout Shobogenzo and Eihei Koroku — “Mind as fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles.” That’s the one I want you to pay attention to.

There’s another good quote from Dogen that sounds a bit like panpsychism if you twist your mind that way. It’s from a Shobogenzo essay that Dogen titled Mujo Seppo, which is usually translated as “The Insentient Preach the Dharma.” My teacher Nishijima Roshi called it, “The Unemotional Preach the Dharma.” 

The quote goes, “In the words of the ancient the whole universe in ten directions is one eye.” By using this word “eye,” he’s referring to experience or the ability to experience.

The quotation continues, “And furthermore there are thousands of eyes on the tips of the fingers. There are thousands of eyes of right Dharma. There are thousands of eyes in the ears. There are thousands of eyes on the tip of the tongue. There are thousands of eyes on the tip of the mind. There are thousands of eyes of the thoroughly realized mind. There are thousands of eyes of the thoroughly realized body. There are thousands of eyes on top of a stick. There are thousands of eyes in the moment before the body. There are thousands of eyes in the moment before the mind. There are thousands of eyes of death in death. There are thousands of eyes of liveliness in liveliness. There are thousands of eyes of the self. There are thousands of eyes of the external world. There are thousands of eyes in the concrete place of eyes. There are thousands of eyes of learning in practice There are thousands of eyes aligned vertically and there are thousands of eyes aligned horizontally.”

There’s more stuff like this in Dogen’s writings and in the writings of a lot of other Zen teachers. If you take this material together, you could say that panpsychism, while it’s not exactly the same as the Buddhist idea of how the universe works, is definitely along the same lines. So when people hear about Buddhism being a religion that has no God, no concept of the soul, and arguably no concept of the afterlife (although we could probably have endless debates about that one) they get confused about how Buddhism can be a religion without any of that. But if you take this kind of quasi-panpsychist idea that everything is alive, then you don’t really need to have God as a separate entity, or the soul as a separate entity. And you don’t really need a concept of the afterlife, because everything is alive. Therefore life never actually ends, it just kind of moves to a different place. That’s where you get the idea of rebirth in the Buddhist sense. 

I think these are interestingly compatible ideas between panpsychism and Buddhism. However, I would also argue that Buddhism is not panpsychism. I’d like to give you some examples of why I think it’s not. 

There is a Dharma hall discourse in Eihei Koroku called “Mind is Walls, Buddha is Mud.”  Here Dogen says, “A monk asked Damei, ‘What principle did you attain when you saw great teacher Mazu and came to reside on this mountain?’ Damei said ‘Mazu told me that this mind itself is Buddha.’ The monk said, ‘These days Mazu’s buddha dharma is different.’ Damei said, How is it different?’ The monk said, ‘These days he says neither mind nor Buddha.’ Damei said, ‘This old man confuses people endlessly. I will let him have neither mind nor Buddha. For me it’s just this mind itself is Buddha.’ The monk returned and reported to Mazu and Mazu said, ‘The plum has ripened.’”

There’s another discourse in Eihei Koroku called “Not Understanding Mind-Only.” Here Dogen says, “Here’s a story Xuanshu asked Luhan, his student, ‘The triple world is mind only. How do you understand this?’ Luohan pointed to a chair and asked Xuanshu, ‘Teacher what do you call that?’ Xuanshu said, ‘Chair.’ Luohan said, ‘Teacher you do not understand the triple world his mind only.’ Xuanshu pointed to the chair and asked Luohan, ‘I call this bamboo and wood. What do you call it?’ Luohan said, ‘I also call this bamboo in wood.’ Xuanshu said, ‘If you searched the entire earth for one person who understands the Buddha Dharma nobody can be found.’”

Dogen comments on this by saying, “These ancient were these spoke like this but today what shall I say? A chair and bamboo, bamboo and a chair are not the same and not different. Whichever you call it, within this there is no triple world. Within the triple world there is no such thing as this. Having reached this situation again how is it? After a pause Dogen said, even though the boundless triple world is mind-only, searching for someone who understands Buddha Dharma finally we cannot find even one. Even though the bright clear mind only is the triple world, searching for someone who does not understand the Buddha Dharma we cannot find even half a person.”

That’s all kind of weird and crazy, I imagine. But what he’s saying here is that the mere understanding of “mind only” or the understanding of all things being the mind — which is basically panpsychism — is still not the Buddha Dharma. That’s kind of a foundation of the Buddha Dharma. That’s a philosophical conceit Buddhism takes about what is the nature of the world and what is the nature of reality. But that isn’t Buddha Dharma. 

So what is Buddha Dharma? 

Again let’s quote from the book Deepest Practice Deepest Wisdom. This book contains a commentary by Uchiyama Roshi on an essay by Dogen called Shoaku Makusa, which they translate as “Refraining From Evil.” I think that’s a pretty good translation. I, on the other hand, wrote a book in which I also commented on Shoaku Makusa. I called that essay “Don’t Be a Jerk,” and the book I wrote is also called Don’t Be a Jerk.

But the version in Deepest Practice, Deepest Wisdom is a more standard translation. It says, “There is a ghata (poem) of the ancient Buddhist that says; Refraining from committing various evils, carrying out all sorts of good actions, personally clarifying this mind, this is the essential teaching of all the Buddhas.” 

By quoting this old poem Dogen is saying here that the essential teaching of the Buddha basically is don’t be a jerk. That means that not being a jerk, and not committing evil, in other words, doing ethical activity, is much more important than understanding a philosophy like panpsychism.

Often when things like the sort of pansychism-ish teachings of the Buddha are spoken about in Dogen’s writings it gets very poetic. On the other hand, what the people who are writing about panpsychism are doing is trying to understand the world in terms of nuts and bolts. They’re trying to describe the universe rationally in a way that might be expressible in terms of mathematics. The Buddhists aren’t trying to do that. They’re trying to express something in terms of poetry. 

A lot of times there’s a feeling, in this very materialistic society we live in, that poetry is not as good as mathematics. Well, if you want to build a spaceship that can put people on Mars, or build a colony in space, or cure Parkinson’s disease, or something like that, then math and science are better than poetry. 

But Buddhism isn’t concerned with that aspect of things. It leaves that aspect of things to other people. What Buddhism is trying to do is find a way to live life, and have the right experience of this life, and make sense out of it. An idea about the nature of reality that is similar to panpsychism is a foundation of that. Which means you don’t need God, you don’t need a soul, and you don’t need an afterlife. You don’t need to worry about those things. 

But Buddhism emphasizes ideas like cause and effect (aka karma), which everybody hates to talk about and gets mad about, so I’m gonna leave that aside for now. And it talks about the necessity for ethical behavior. 

Those are the real teachings of Buddhism. And if panpsychism is related to Buddhism, it’s in terms of Buddhism’s philosophical foundations about the nature of reality which are somewhat similar. 

But Buddhism at its core is not panpsychism. Buddhism goes into a very different area. Buddhism is trying to say something like, well okay something like panpsychism is true. But what do we do about that? How do we live in the midst of a universe like that?

The other difference is that panpsychism is still based in a materialistic view of things. It’s still trying to understand the fundamental nature of reality in terms of matter. Buddhism doesn’t do this.

Buddhism rejects both a materialistic ideology and also rejects idealism. I’m talking about philosophical idealism, which says that that ideas are the main foundation of reality. Panpsychism, then, resembles Buddhist ideas about how the universe works. But ultimately it’s a different idea.

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