You are here

The Intellect and Meditation as viewed in Buddhist traditions (2005)

"I cannot believe that God would choose to play dice with the universe." – Albert Einstein

As the years of intellectual quest go by, the logical mind may suddenly find itself unsatisfied with the current knowledge about its own nature. Full of genuine yearning for introspection, the persistent intellectual begins a quest for understanding that is supported uniquely by logic and reason. Texts such as the Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way and Balancing the Mind establish a good starting point for these intellectuals to explore the intricacy of their own minds and satisfy their intellectual cravings. Fortunately, along the way, upon reaching the maximum understanding of complexity of the nature of consciousness that is possible by these means, the intellect will succumb and the mind will finally enter a deep meditative state where ultimate insight arises.

The core of the intellectual path is to lead the individual to discover the limitations of the mind and realize that a kind of truth successfully evades scientific methods and logical axioms. As Alan Wallace states in Balancing the Mind, the intellectual path seeks to "guide contemplatives to states of experience that transcend all conceptual systems" (Balancing, 10). In order to do this, thinkers are gradually led to become aware of the unsteadiness of what they believed to be the basis for logical thought, and also, their personal inability to control their own thoughts.

In order to skillfully challenge the foundation of knowledge, Nāgārjuna examines closely the essence of concepts such as time, and motion in the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. In addition, he explores inconsistencies such as the subject-object paradox to elucidate why one should not identify with "I", the karmic cycle of actions and effects, and the causes of suffering from a logical standpoint. Moreover, he also approaches the nature of interconnectedness and emptiness by proving that nothing has a foundation by itself. The ultimate purpose of this exploration is to twist the intellect until it breaks apart once all possible logical pathways have been explored and the answer is yet to be attained. When posing questions such as "how can something that cannot see itself see another?" (Fundamental, 10) and "on what are fire and fuel established as dependent?" (Fundamental, 29) Nāgārjuna carefully anticipates all possible logical answers and addresses them by following the structure of deductive reasoning.

Similarly, in Balancing the Mind, Tsongkhapa’s addresses those intellectuals that have become aware of their inability to tame their minds by continually emphasizing the importance of achieving quietness of mind. He insists that this is essential before any transcendental insight about the nature of consciousness can be gained. Moreover, in the commentary, Wallace continues to appeal to contemporary intellectuals that seek understanding of consciousness by tying Buddhist concepts with ideas from the philosophy of mind as presented by thinkers such as Aquinas, and also with modern theories in cognitive science (Balancing, 274). For instance, he draws light into the nature of concentration based on experimental results, the intricate relationship between body and mind, the effects of sensory deprivation in the mind (Balancing, 83), and lucid dreaming as it relates to consciousness. Finally, Wallace argues that the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness is precisely the same that scientists are starting to discover among matter.

In Anguttara Nikaya’s suttas presented in Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, intellectuals are encouraged to think about Buddhism from a purely logical perspective. Most importantly, he recognizes the possibility that the teachings fail as a religious doctrine. For instance, he says that perhaps one of the core principles of Buddhism, reincarnation, may simply be a human idealization. However, he points out that even if that were the case, the philosophical teaching would suffice since they still draw benefits that can be enjoyed in this life (Numerical, 67). This means that an intellectual is openly invited to practice meditation simply for materialistic reasons (perhaps to improve concentration, control aggressive thoughts, among others) without any religious ties, hoping that along the way quiescence will manifest and insight is attained.

Another aspect that may appeal to intellectuals is the alleged universality of the teachings. This implies that the philosophy is independent of any human construct: the wisdom will arise without any teacher through self-enlightened individuals (Fundamental, 49). Interestingly, all the Buddhist texts discussed provoke the intellectual to question every single statement pronounced, and even leaves the path open to question directly its foundation: the Dharma as expressed by the Buddha. This is unlike the approach of other religions where an element of faith must be present to begin the spiritual journey. In other words, the intellectual can embark on a Cartesian-like philosophical meditation without any religious attachment, with the hope that it eventually leads the way towards deeper states of consciousness.

A discussion of the intellect would not be complete without paying close attention to the concept of suffering and impermanence in Buddhist traditions. Certainly, the words "there is no self" attack directly the modern emphasis on individualism present in scientific discoveries and intellectual expressions. However, much more was intended that simply creating an initial shock to the intellectuals by attacking the ego. Any intellectual, in any corner of the world, can see in front of his eyes how everything around him changes: how death appears closer as the days go by, how his intellectual pieces will one day be forgotten and how there will be a time where all the laws of nature will be revealed. Similarly, he acknowledges how his senses can trick his mind, how he can easily enter every night into a state of illusion, and finally, how powerful the mind is in determining his current mood. This is precisely when words such as "action and misery come from conceptual thought" (Fundamental, 48) stated by Nāgārjuna find resonance in a logical mind: once the intellectual acknowledges that she is in a state of suffering that cannot be alleviated by pure science.

In terms of the structure of texts, they all show a similar format to western logic proofs with premises and conclusions. However, each of them is unique in that it addresses a particular kind of intellectual. Some texts like Numerical Discourses of the Buddha address those intellectuals with a tendency of labeling and categorizing the universe. Others, such as Balancing the Mind, show a greater concern with tackling those that constantly need scientific evidence to support any claims. Finally, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way is directed mainly towards mathematical and philosophical oriented minds with statements that question knowledge and tackle all possible logical pathways. Finally, they all include metaphors to some degree or another to address those that enjoy the careful use of words and find meaning in apparently contradictory statements.

Once the individual realizes that the path of scientific exploration does not necessarily remove the hindrances of the mind, and that science itself has limits as to what kind of knowledge can be achieved, the intellectual begins a quest for alternate sources of truths. As opposed to Jnana Yoga, where the practitioner exercises the intellect by studying the sacred scriptures and texts from the traditions, the three Buddhist texts discussed aim at a direct intervention from the individual to engage in intellectual discussion and solve the enigma of the nature of reality. In the same way that a deep state of meditation can be obtained through whirling, the practice of asanas, or the repetition of mantras, it can also be gained through logical reasoning and introspection that aims at gaining ultimate insight. Just like the Koans that attempt to bring the intellectual mind to a meditative state, the three texts skillfully lead the intellectual to the lake of infinite depth where they can actively explore universal consciousness and permeate their existence with quiescence an insight.

Garfield, Jay L., trans. and commentary. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna''s Mulamadhyamakakarika. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Thera, Nyanaponika and Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans. and ed. Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from Anguttara Nikaya. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2000.

Wallace, B. Alan. Balancing the Mind: A Tibetan Buddhist Approach to Refining Attention. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2005.