“Do thoughts ‘come from’ a place that is inaccessible to our direct scrutiny? Or do they reside as thoughts in this place, prior to their emergence? Or is the idea that ‘they’ are somewhere else prior to their appearance even appropriate?” Tarthang Tulku, Time, Space, and Knowledge
This excerpt from an exercise in which one observes thoughts, and looks for the origin or development of thoughts.
I think this approach holds a lot of potential, and raises some interesting questions. I also don’t have a good answer for those questions. I wonder, at the same time, if thoughts have some inaccessible origin, isn’t it possible that they do develop there, and exist there? If the mind as inaccessible is true, then it seems entirely possible that thoughts could do all sorts of things there, in the manner of the unconscious: as it’s inaccessible, at least directly for us, there’s no way to know.
But I don’t think that’s the point of the exercise. At the very least, it’s a related consideration: the experience of looking into one’s own mind is really the goal.
Next, Rinpoche writes about two ways of seeing the mind and its relation to thoughts. These are: “self-reference and the category theory,” and “mind-body identity theory.”
1. Self reference- This seems to be the idea that although mind can’t find mind, it does exist in some form, and as a generator of thoughts. When it looks into itself, it only finds “mental events,” but this does not necessarily invalidate the role or power of mind. Mind as origin is in a category of its own, beyond “mental events.” Somehow, just as part of the way it works, mind can’t know itself directly (although it is the origin of thoughts- it’s as if the mind is some kind of organ that can only do certain things- like how the ear can hear outside noises, but can’t hear inside the foot, or inside the hair, for example).
2. Mind-body identity- This seems to be a basically scientific view of mind as chemical and body-based. Mind exists in the brain, nervous system, and the body. Somehow, as a function of this complex setup, mind exists. Mind happens as data is processed in the body. Because of the nature of the process mind can’t know itself- it is the complex processing. It is not set up to process or know itself. In a way, this is very much like the “category” part of the previous example; this kind of mind processes data, including thoughts and feelings, as physical processes, but it can’t process itself.
Rinpoche goes on to say that these two views are common, that mind can’t see itself because it can only process things outside of itself, but that in order to try to investigate thoughts, it is helpful to “suspend” these perspectives.
The next two paragraphs are shocking and somewhat problematic. Rinpoche writes that of the exploration of Exercise 11 [finding the origin of thoughts]” not only do thoughts not really have an origin, but this proves not that views 1 and 2 are correct, that somehow mind can’t know itself, even if it is the origin, but that there is no origin.
That was a pretty long sentence. Again, the claim being made is that:
1. Through looking into mind and its thoughts, or thoughts, one begins to see that the idea of origination or source is shaky.
2. This does not prove that mind is in a different category from thoughts, or that mind can’t know itself for some reason (although it does exist as source of thoughts).
3. This also doesn’t mean that mind is somehow the source of experiences itself, as in the idea that mind is real, but world/phenomena are illusory, like a hallucination.
Why is this problematic? Well, it’s shocking because it decentralizes mind. If mind is not the origin of thoughts, what are thoughts, and where do they come from? What is their nature? If they don’t come from somewhere, and if it’s possible we don’t ‘have a mind’ what does this mean? Insanity? Stupidity?
As someone who’s studied and practiced this sort of thing for a little while, it’s not entirely frightening. It’s actually a little exciting, and brings with it some feeling of relaxation. But it does still scare me a little. What if I’m not real? What if my mind isn’t real?
The other reason, and connected, is that Rinpoche seems to be saying that the no-origin perspective has been proven, when I don’t see that. He says that from a certain perspective it has been proven, but I don’t know that that supports this argument: you could say, for any argument, that from its own perspective it proves itself.
For now, I will leave it at this: I think this section of the space part of the book is both the strongest and the weakest. It is very strong in that the investigation into thoughts is both simple and profound. I can feel some change in my mind without even having done the prescribed exercise intensively (just having contemplated it a little). But the claim that this is somehow proven seems shaky.
Whether this shakiness is ego’s complaint, and the nature of the provenness, if somehow the feelings evoked by the exercise have some power or truth of their own, I can’t address completely. I don’t know. They are possibilities.
Next is a discussion of lower space: cramped, full of interactions, which we take to be cause and effect. The attack on the ideas of mind as origin or mind as physical are brought back in relation to lower space, and interactions in terms of this kind of space.
Quotes used with permission from Dharma Publishing. Books available from Dharma Publishing.