The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

The Dalai Lama on the Buddhist Concept of Mind

by The Dalai Lama
October 14, 2015
Wed, 10/14/2015 - 10:00 -- The Dalai Lama

Excerpt from MindScience: An East-West Dialogue by the Dalai Lama, Dan Goleman, et al.


I would like to explain briefly the basic Buddhist concept of mind and some of the techniques employed in Buddhism for training the mind. The primary aim of these techniques is the attainment of enlightenment, but it is possible to experience even mundane benefits, such as good health, by practicing them.

As a result of meeting with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds, including scientists and radical materialists, I discovered that there are some people who do not even accept the existence of mind. This led me to believe that Buddhism could serve as a bridge between radical materialism and religion, because Buddhism is accepted as belonging to neither camp. From the radical materialists’ viewpoint, Buddhism is an ideology that accepts the existence of mind, and is thus a faith-oriented system like other religions. However, since Buddhism does not accept the concept of a Creator God but emphasizes instead self-reliance and the individual’s own power and potential, other religions regard Buddhism as a kind of atheism. Since neither side accepts Buddhism as belonging to its own camp, this gives Buddhists the opportunity to build a bridge between the two.

First of all, I would like to give a brief account of the general approach of Buddhist thought and practice common to both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions of Buddhism.

One very obvious feature in Buddhism is the element of faith and devotion. This is particularly apparent in the practice known as “taking refuge in the Three Jewels”: the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. To understand the role that faith and devotion play in this practice, emphasis is placed on clearly understanding the nature of the path in which one is taking refuge, called Dharma or the “Way” by the Buddha.

The emphasis on first understanding the nature of the path, or Dharma, can be appreciated by considering how we normally relate to someone whom we take to be a great authority on a particular subject. We do not regard a person as an authority simply on the basis of their fame, position, power, good looks, wealth, and so on, but rather because we find what they say on issues related to their particular field of expertise convincing and reliable. In brief, we do not generally take a person to be an authority on a subject simply out of respect and admiration for him or her as a person.

Similarly, in Buddhism, when we take the Buddha as an authority, as a reliable teacher, we do so on the basis of having investigated and examined his principal teaching, the Four Noble Truths. It is only after having investigated the validity and reliability of this doctrine that we accept the Buddha, who propounded it, as a reliable guide.

In order to understand the profound aspects of the Four Noble Truths, the principal doctrine of Buddhism, it is crucial to understand what are known as the “two truths.” The two truths refer to the fundamental Buddhist philosophical view that there are two levels of reality. One level is the empirical, phenomenal, and relative level that appears to us, where functions such as causes and conditions, names and labels, and so on can be validly understood. The other is a deeper level of existence beyond that, which Buddhist philosophers describe as the fundamental, or ultimate, nature of reality, and which is often technically referred to as “emptiness.”

When investigating the ultimate nature of reality, Buddhist thinkers take the Buddha’s words not so much as an ultimate authority, but rather as a key to assist their own insight; for the ultimate authority must always rest with the individual’s own reason and critical analysis. This is why we find various conceptions of reality in Buddhist literature. Each is based on a different level of understanding of the ultimate nature.

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