Yogacara and Empirical Science

The “Mind-Only” Doctrine and Modern Scientific Naturalism

Progress & Conservation🔰
34 min readOct 30, 2023
The Dreaming Buddha, generated using AI

I recently read the Lankavatara Sutra, a Mahayana Sutra that has particularly influenced the Zen Buddhist tradition. In fact, the Lankavatara Sutra is the sutra that Bodhidharma brought with him and which he entrusted to his disciple Hui-ko.

The Lankavatara is a sutra of the Yogacara school that espouses the doctrine of “mind only” or “consciousness only.” Prior to reading the Lankavatara, I was under the impression that the abhidharma of the Yogacara school taught that only the mind exists and nothing else. To use the language of Kantian philosophy: I thought that the Yogacara school was teaching that the phenomenal was the only thing that is real and that there is no noumena behind phenomena. However, I now believe there is another way of interpreting the “mind only” doctrine.

“Followers of other paths cling to the belief in a self and the view that the world is real and that material elements, substances, and tendencies exist. Or they insist that ignorance and the chain of causation are real. They make distinctions where there is only emptiness. Lost in projections, they become captives of the actors and actions of their own minds….

Whatever exists appears / like a painting or a shimmering mirage / all the forms that are seen / are like a dream in which nothing is real.”” — The Lankavatara Sutra

After reading the Lankavatara, it seems to me that the Yogacara school could be interpreted as making a psychological claim rather than a metaphysical claim here. The really real is only emptiness but, at the same time, what is real to us is only “projections of our minds.” I believe that the mind evolved, through natural selection, to have a sort of graphical user interface (GUI), much the way a computer does. Back of everything going on on my laptop is a string of code, a bunch of ones and zeros, and electrical signals — all of which are totally irrelevant and outside of the scope of what the user is thinking about. The user is only interacting with the graphical user interface. That’s how all of that information is translated into something that the user can understand and interact with in a functional sense. In the same way, we perceive the world around us in terms of colors and images fabricated by the mind — literal projections of the mind. The images produced are just phenomenal reality (the things as we perceive them) and not the noumenal reality (the things in themselves). Some animals, like bats and moles and dolphins, can “see” using sonar or echolocation. We just happen to see with light receptors and our brains have created a graphical user interface that renders an image from the data collected by those receptors, much in the same way that the data from an electromagnetic microscope must be interpreted in order to render it into a usable image.

I’ve come to think that what the Yogacara school and the Lankavatara were really trying to say is not that nothing but the mind is real but rather that our reality is nothing but mind. We do not, and cannot, know anything about the noumena behind phenomena. We cannot know what things-in-themselves are because the only contact we have with external reality is the phenomenal, the things-as-we-perceive them. What one perceives does not mirror an independent external reality but is rather a construct of his or her own mind.

“The extremes of existence and nonexistence / these are realms of the mind / who purifies these realms / stills their entire mind
When external realms are not perceived / their cessation does not mean nothingness /
everything is real…
What is real is not what fools imagine as existing. What they imagine as existing lacks any characteristic of its own existence. However, Mahamati, according to buddha knowledge there is something that exists
“According to what I teach, Mahamati, nirvana means fully understanding that it is nothing but the perception of one’s own mind and is not something that exists externally and that it transcends the four possibilities.
It is seeing what is real without falling prey to dualistic projections that are perceptions of one’s own mind and that are devoid of perceiver or perceived.” — The Lankavatara Sutra

The Lankavatara says that everything that we imagine to be real is only the projections of our mind but it also seems to suggest that some other reality is out there — the Lanka says, “[Nirvana] is seeing what is real without falling prey to dualistic projections that are perceptions of one’s own mind.” The really real is something that cannot be defined, an undifferentiated whole that constitutes the underlying non-dual reality back of all things — it really seems to be getting at something like what Lao-tzu, Chuang-tzu, and Wen-tzu called “the Dao.” It’s nature is empty, without characteristic, and it remains undefinable. The Real can only be spoken of in apophatic terms and cannot be understood or perceived by the analytical mind. The ultimate reality is simply called “suchness” in the Lankavatara.

“What is truly so does not vary. What is truly so does not come or go. What puts an end to all fabrications, this is what is truly so. Mahamati, a noble son or daughter should not embrace or cling to anything that is said because what is real is beyond language….
Mahamati, appearance is what is perceived as having physical shape and features. This is what is meant by appearance. If a certain appearance is referred to as a pot and not something else, this is what is meant by name. Designating names and pointing to appearances, as in the case of a pot, involve the mind and what belongs to the mind. This is what is meant by projection. But names and appearances are essentially ungraspable and ultimately unknowable. What is not affected by anything and what transcends mistaken projections, this is what is meant by suchness. What is real, true, certain, ultimate, self-existent, and ungraspable, these are the characteristics of suchness.”
— The Lankavatara Sutra

Of course, this reinterpretation of “mind only” would mean that my entire understanding of the Yogacara doctrine was thoroughly mistaken. I believed that the “mind only” doctrine was a metaphysical statement, when in fact it may have been merely an observation about human psychology and how all of our reality is merely the projection of our minds, whatever the brain presents to us in the form of a graphical user interface or auditory interface — that we can never intellectually and cognitively grasp the really real with the analytical mind. Yogacara, upon this interpretation, is not denying that there may be something going on outside of us, something which the brain is trying to interpret by way of mental projections. It is simply pointing out that the entire reality that we have constructed in our heads is nothing more than mental projections — it is nothing but mind! For the purposes of this essay, I will be using this particular interpretation of Yogacara but I would like to note that the other interpretation of “mind only” is most certainly how it was interpreted by certain proponents of the theory.

As a proponent of critical rationalism and the modern epistemology of science, I had very little interest in what the Yogacara school had to say. Modern scientific naturalism presupposes that the natural world exists and that we can study it using empirical methods. If the core thesis of Yogacara were that only the mind exists and that there is no external natural world to study empirically, it would be of little interest to any scientifically-minded person. Additionally, if there is nothing but mind, with no external reality, then the entire narrative of evolution through natural selection would be impossible to weave into the fabric of Yogacara thought; for biological evolution itself would be but a mental fabrication, a projection of the mind that has nothing to do with how we actually got here. It is good, then, that I have come to realize that this is probably not at all what the Yogacara school was trying to say. What Yogacara is actually saying, if this interpretation is correct, is perfectly compatible with both critical rationalism and the Darwinian theory of evolution.

Modern science and evolutionary biology, in fact, acknowledge the mind’s role in actively constructing reality as we perceive it. Ever since the rise of quantum physics, scientists have been acutely aware that our actual ability to understand reality as it really is is limited by the peculiar way that we perceive things. The way we see the world involves an interpretation of data based off of light receptors. Experiments with photons and electrons have demonstrated that human sensory faculties and cognitive abilities are not suited to accurately perceiving or understanding things that are too small. We can’t see where a single photon or electron is by bouncing light off of it and, when we do try to see it, we cause it to move to a different position. Hell, we can’t even understand the way such small objects behave when we do bounce light off of them. And if we try to examine light itself, the greatest human minds become dumbfounded and baffled by the way it behaves. We can’t tell if it is a particle or a wave, neither, or both!

If you read Karl Popper and study critical rationalism or the epistemology of modern science, you’ll find the assertion that “all knowledge is conjectural.” We make hypotheses and test them, proceeding by trial and error — abandoning hypotheses once they have been falsified and then replacing them with new ones. Through this method we hope to come closer and closer to a more accurate picture of reality but we also realize that absolute knowledge of ultimate reality is impossible to attain and that all knowledge is conjectural. We can only ever approach the truth. We cannot grasp the true nature of reality with any certainty. Our knowledge is and always will be limited and uncertain. The Yogacara doctrine of “mind only” just serves to reenforce this epistemic uncertainty. Everything we think we know must be conjectural due to the inherent limitations of the perceptual and cognitive faculties bestowed on us by evolution through natural selection. Our reality — reality as we experience it — is nothing but consciousness. We can only know the phenomenal reality — the reality that exists as a construct in our minds — but the noumenal reality of the world as it really is in itself is beyond the bounds of what we can fathom. Ultimate reality — the really real — is unknowable and our reality is only consciousness or mind or the realm of mental phenomena that we experience.

The Lankavatara Sutra distinguishes between the perceiving consciousness and the object-projecting consciousness. There is a distinction between the plain consciousness of sensation and perception — the awareness that something is going on — and the broader mental picture that we paint of reality. There is a difference between what is really real and the fabricated projection of reality that is created by our minds. This is consistent with a modern evolutionary perspective where we might say that there is some external stimulus (i.e. sensory input) that demands interpretation, which prompts our minds to fabricate or project some “picture” of reality. The apparent concreteness of things is a projection of the mind, a functional map of reality, that gives the illusion of things being unified wholes. If we were to examine any object closely enough, we’d find that it is composed mostly of empty space — the atoms that comprise it are mostly empty.

“Mahamati, as with its visual form, consciousness arises together with the minutest sensory objects and sensory material of the various sense organs, and with it arise external realms as well like so many images in a clear mirror or like the ocean when a strong wind blows. And as the wind of externality stirs the sea of the mind, its waves of consciousness never cease…. And due to the differentiation of appearances, Mahamati, you should know that these five kinds of sensory consciousness serve as the cause of conceptual consciousness…. Just like waves in a boundless sea blown by a powerful wind…in the Ocean of Alaya, stirred by the wind of externality, wave after wave of consciousness breaks and swells again…. Mahamati, because they are given to such dualistic extremes, they don’t understand what is nothing but mind and nourish, instead, the projection of realms of their own conception. But such things as their body, their possessions, and the world around them are nothing but projections of sensation. Mahamati, this is true of the existence of all things…. And if they were to analyze whatever does exist into the finest particles, they would not find anything there.” — The Lankavatara Sutra

Abhidharma is, first and foremost, Buddhist psychology. This remains true of the abhidharma of the Yogacara school just as much as it does for the abhidharma of other schools. The Buddhist methods of meditation are tools for exploring human perception and cognition. Yogacara, like Buddhism in general, is concerned with the realm of experience or what we might call “subjective reality.” It makes sense, then, to interpret the Yogacara position as making an assertion about the nature of human cognition. It is a mistake to take the “mind only” doctrine as a metaphysical assertion about the nature of ultimate reality.

It is now my conviction that the Yogacara school was really only trying to say the same thing as Immanuel Kant was saying when he made the distinction between phenomena and noumena. Kant distinguished between things as we see them (or phenomena) and things as they actually are independently of human experience (or noumena) — and he asserted that we can never really know the noumena because the nature of our reality is limited to the realm of phenomena, the sphere of reality as we experience it. The takeaway here is that our perceptions are not a clear window into ultimate reality but rather constructs of the cognitive apparatuses with which we were endowed.

It is easy to interpret Yogacara as teaching that only the mind exists and that there is nothing really real outside of the mind. Hopefully I have said enough to convince the reader that this is not how the “mind only” doctrine ought to be understood. Yet there is also another mistake that can be made when reading Yogacara texts. The Lankavatara Sutra and the Yogacara school espouse non-dualism. Because of their “mind only” doctrine, it would be easy to assume that consciousness is the non-dual reality that they regard as the ultimate reality. This would be a mistake since the Lanka clearly identifies ultimate reality as “that which transcends mental projections” and is “real, true, certain, ultimate, self-existent, and ungraspable” — the Lanka asserts that “these are the characteristics of suchness.” Prior to the arising of differentiated things that make up this world, the things that we distinguish as this or that, there was an undifferentiated whole or some sort of singularity out of which everything arises and to which it all returns. Chinese authors in the Daoist tradition have referred to this non-dual reality as the Dao and have asserted that it’s nature is essentially empty. The Lankavatara Sutra essentially describes the same thing but refers to this reality, not as the Dao, but simply as suchness. The really real described here is not consciousness or conscious. The Yogacara school does describe both consciousness and the ultimate reality as emptiness, but it also describes everything as empty. The Lankavatara Sutra and the Yogacara school do not teach that consciousness is the ultimate reality. The self is an illusion and so are all the projections of the mind, so how can we equate illusory phenomena with ultimate reality? We can’t! The ultimate reality is suchness, the thing-in-itself, the eternal unknown! We cannot truly know it or describe it but mystics claim that we can experience it.

Lao-tzu and the Buddha, generated using AI

The thing about suchness or the Dao or ultimate reality — whatever you want to call it — is that it isn’t actually a thing. When we speak of it as a “thing,” we are really trying to conceptualize it and describe it using language. But the “thing” itself is beyond conceptualization and indescribable. It just is the way things are. It is not a “thing” that exists. It is not so much a “thing” as it is a “state” — a state of lacking inherent existence or an essential nature. All things are ultimately empty and interdependently arisen. The thing itself just is emptiness. When we speak of it as a thing, calling it “the Dao,” “reality,” or “suchness,” we’re using words to describe that which is beyond words, that which is indescribable. The ultimate nature of all things is emptiness and it is this universal state of emptiness that constitutes the ultimate reality — and we poetically reify this state of emptiness using terms like “Dao,” “suchness,” “Eternal Buddha,” “tathagata-garbha,” “dharma-kaya,” and “God” as Western mystics like Pseudo-Dionysius have called it. Personally, I think there is a great risk in allowing ourself to go too far in reifying the really real and speaking of ultimate reality as if it were a thing. Of course, some degree of reification is necessary if we want to speak at all because we can only speak about something; yet the closer we get to describing emptiness or suchness in a way that sounds too much like a conscious entity or deity, the more risk we run of being totally misunderstood. The clearest and most concise way to put it is that the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth.

Yogacara Abhidharma and Darwinism: The Evolved GUI Metaphor

I believe that it would actually make a lot of sense for modern secular Buddhists to integrate the insights of the Yogacara school into our modern scientific and evolutionary worldview. It seems to me that we evolved, through natural selection, to have perceptions that represent noumenal reality to us as phenomenal reality — our brains have a graphical user interface (GUI) that allows us to see and interact with things in a functional way. On a computer, the graphical user interface is kind of like an interpretation and presentation of the underlying code — all the “ones and zeros” that can’t be seen by the user. It seems to me that the GUI is like the phenomenon whereas the code would be the noumenon. Just as the graphical user interface on a computer simplifies complex phenomena that the user could not even begin to understand by turning them into recognizable images, our brain’s graphical user interface simplifies the incomprehensible noumenon into a phenomenon or “mental projection” that we can understand and act upon. The reality that we perceive, the graphical user interface of phenomenal reality, is only a mental projection. The ultimate reality behind this is not something we can ever really know with any certainty. This seems to be how the mind works, from a modern scientific and evolutionary perspective, but it also basically seems to be what the Yogacara doctrine of “mind only” was really about as well.

I think we can use Kantian philosophy, Karl Popper’s critical rationalism, and Darwinism as a backdrop to better understand Yogacara — and, perhaps, even to revive it and reinterpret it for a new age. From a Darwinian perspective, we can look at the brain’s graphical user interface as the product of evolution, a feature of human consciousness that was selected for because of its ability to render an image of our reality that is actionable but not overwhelmingly complex. If we wanted to combine this graphical user interface metaphor with the insights of Yogacara, we could say that consciousness is the rendering engine — the tool that renders our GUI by taking in raw data from the noumenal realm and turning it into phenomena we can interact with.

The Yogacara school asserts the conditioned nature of consciousness and holds that it is malleable. This seems to be consistent with the picture that is emerging here from our evolved GUI metaphor. Different species would have evolved different mental models for rendering what noumenal data they are capable of taking in into some sort of actionable phenomenal reality. Different types of animals, then, would have evolved different sorts of graphical user interfaces. Natural selection would select for mental “renderings” that promote survival and reproduction. The renderings that are most useful for that purpose would be selected for and less useful renderings would die out. But, at the same time, mental renderings can and do change and evolve as environmental conditions change and selective pressure starts favoring new or different features. Darwinism explains why our perceptual reality is the way it is — it is geared towards survival and not towards ultimate truth.

Charles Darwin As A Buddha, generated using AI

Now, how might we integrate these insights into a critical rationalist framework that respects the epistemology of science? Karl Popper’s philosophy of science holds that “all knowledge is conjectural” and that we can really only proceed by falsification. From a modern scientific and evolutionary perspective, we can expect our perceptions and logical faculties to be relatively reliable because the evolutionary process is expected to select for something somewhat reliable. If our perceptions of reality bore no relation to reality, they would have no utility and would not have survived the selective pressure — they would have been weeded out by natural selection. If our perceptions of reality bore no relation to reality or rendered a totally inaccurate picture of reality, then our mental renderings would cause us to behave in ways that would lead to our quick annihilation. It would be really hard for an animal that perceives predators as harmless flowers to survive for very long — it would almost certainly die before being able to reproduce and pass on it’s particular traits. If a man had a picture of reality in his head where lions were cute and snuggly and this caused him to want to pet them, he’d probably get eaten pretty quickly. If a man had a cognitive world where the rules of logic in his head did not somehow parallel the physical laws of the real universe in some way, then he would very quickly die as a result of doing something stupid. If the system of logic that emerged in your mental world, for instance, did not entail a belief in the law of identity and the law of non-contradiction, you’d probably die from not being able to distinguish fire from water — the most mundane tasks would be rendered impossible. So the user interface and the “renderings” as well as the systems of logic that we have are fine-tuned by evolution, selected for their usefulness. If they had not been useful, they would not have helped us survive.

Evolution acts as a sort of “unintelligent designer” or a sort of demiurge. It is not an all-knowing intelligent creator deity that fashioned us into replicas of itself. We were not designed by an intelligent creator. We were created by a mindless process that selected for utility and, as a consequence, for a mind with relative reliability. This means that our minds evolved to be relatively reliable but also fallible. Consciousness renders a “knowable” reality but the rendering is a form of conjecture — a conjecture validated by the survival advantage that it gives. All knowledge coming from that rendering must also, therefore, be conjectural in nature. We can, however, move closer and closer to discovering the really real by empirical testing, trial and error, and falsification. Nevertheless, while we can move towards truth we can never arrive at ultimate truth because the noumenal world of ultimate reality stands outside the mind — and the mind is the only thing we experience directly.

To use the famous line from Alfred Korzybski, “The map is not the territory” and “the word is not the thing.” A map is merely a picture of reality and it cannot convey every fact about reality — if it could, it would have to be identical to the reality it represents. Words point to things but they aren’t the things that they point to. In the Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha warns the listener not to stare at his finger when he’s pointing at the moon — the fool looks at the finger and doesn’t realize that it is merely a thing designating or pointing towards something else, much like if a fool mistook a map of Australia with the actual place! The only thing we have direct access to is our minds — and our minds are just maps of reality and not the landscape of reality. We can know something but what we really know is only our minds, our experienced reality, and the knowledge derived therefrom is necessarily tentative and ought to be subject to empirical scrutiny.

“Lord of Lanka, the appearances of beings are like paintings: they are not conscious and not subject to karma. The same is true of dharmas and non-dharmas. There is no one who speaks, nor is there anyone who hears. Lord of Lanka, everything in the world is like an illusion. This is beyond the understanding of ignorant beings and the followers of other paths. Lord of Lanka, to see things like this is to see them as they really are. To see otherwise is to see them as they are not, to engage in projection, and to become attached to these two kinds of dharmas. Lord of Lanka, this is like seeing an image in a mirror or a reflection in water or like seeing a figure in the moonlight or a shadow on a wall or like hearing an echo in a valley. People attached to the images of their own projections cling to dharmas and nondharmas. Unable to abandon them, they continue to engage in projection and fail to attain tranquility. Tranquility means oneness, and oneness means the tathagata-garbha, the realm of self–realization of buddha knowledge, from which the supreme samadhi arises.” — The Lankavatara Sutra

Sufi Mystics Riding the Raft of the Eternal Dharma to the Other Shore, generated using AI

Results-Based Mysticism

I’ve long been fascinated with empirical approaches to mysticism and magic. The Islamic mystic al-Ghazali refers to sufism as a “religious science,” pointing towards the possibility of approaching spirituality and religious experiences in a scientific manner. In his book “Patristic Theology,” Fr. John Romanides speaks of hesychasm, the mystical meditative tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, in a very similar manner. Within the Eastern Christian tradition, people are not expected to take things on faith but beckoned to “come and see” — to examine the religious experience for themselves, to approach the faith in an empirical manner. Romanides argues that the visions and religious experiences of the biblical prophets, the apostles, and the desert fathers in the early Church were induced by particular practices — meditative practices outlined and preserved within the hesychastic tradition of Eastern Christendom. He argues that one should simply put it to the test in an experimental fashion — try doing what the seers and prophets and church fathers did and see if you can experimentally replicate their results. They had their visions and experiences after fasting, burning incense, reciting the Jesus Prayer like a mantra repetitively, and doing certain breathing exercises and meditative practices. Monks and nuns in the Orthodox Church still claim to have the same sorts of experiences after engaging in such practices. Romanides suggests that you don’t have to take their word for it but can simply try it for yourself and see what happens.

I find this empirical approach to mysticism quite appealing. However, I fear that Islamic and Christian mystics are far too quick to think that because they heard the voice of God this somehow confirms the actual existence of God as an entity outside of and independent of their own minds. It seems to me to be the case that such experiences are always colored by the beliefs and cultures of the people that have them. A Hindu who has never heard of Christianity will never see Jesus and have God espouse the gospel to him and a Christian who knows nothing of Hinduism never has a vision of Ganesh. Religious people are far too quick to jump to the conclusion that because they had an experience, now they know the truth. The Yogacara school might remind us that whatever experiences we have as a result of meditative or magical practices is really only in our minds. The mind alone is all that we experience. We can posit some sort of relation of our experiences to some true external reality but we can’t ever know for certain — and we ought to empirically test our hypotheses and try to falsify them. For instance, I could do an experiment where during a vision I try to actively change, through sheer mental will power, the apparition in my mind from that of the Virgin Mary to that of the lion-headed god Narasimha. If I were able to do this, this would seem to falsify the notion that what I am seeing is actually the Virgin Mary and not merely a hallucination.

Western occultists in recent times — like Austin Osman Spare, Aleister Crowley, and Peter Carroll — have advocated an empirical approach to magic and occultism. This approach is called “results-based magick” and is often associated with “chaos magick.” The idea is that you could try casting spells, doing sigil magic, and performing ritual magic to see what happens. Chaos magick and similar approaches to modern occultism are “paradigm-agnostic,” meaning that they remain agnostic as to whether or not any particular belief system is true. They use belief systems and practices in order to see what yields desired results without assuming the truth of the system first and without necessarily thinking that results prove the objective truth of the belief system around which any particular practice revolves. When speaking of magic and occult practices, Aleister Crowley writes:

“In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth and the Paths; of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether these exist or not. By doing certain things certain results will follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them.” — Aleister Crowley (Book IV)

Daoist Magician Growing a Tree From His Finger, generated using AI

Crowley notes that, in his experience, doing certain occult practices leads to certain experiences that can be replicated in a scientific way. Magickians, such as Crowley, have done certain experiments involving manifestation and vision quests, and they have published their results — now they are asking others to try to replicate these experiments and see what happens. It’s interesting that Crowley notes that the realms and beings that one may encounter during mystical and occult practice “may or may not exist” independently of the experience itself. He says “it is immaterial whether these exist or not” because he’s really concerned with the phenomena and the fact that it seems to be the case that “by doing certain [occult practices], certain results follow” in the form of specific related mental phenomena and experiences that seem very much to be connected to the practice itself. In other words, there is a definite experiential reality of magic working, regardless of whether or not this phenomenal experience corresponds to objective reality. It’s worth noting, of course, that Aleister Crowley was influenced heavily by Vajrayana Buddhism and the Yogacara school.

Even if these experiences are merely hallucinations or delusions — mere mental fabrications with absolutely no relation to external reality — , it may still be the case that such practices are useful and meaningful. From the perspective of psychology, it is possible for hallucinatory experiences to have a real therapeutic effect. This could be useful as a form of escape from the hardships of the real world but also as a therapeutic method for communicating with our own unconscious minds. It can be a way of advancing our knowledge of the inner workings of consciousness and human psychology. Even if the hallucinations induced by meditative practices are not really real in the sense of corresponding to objective external noumenal things, does it really matter considering that all of our reality is only mind? These sort of mental projections are, in some sense, just as real as any other experiential reality that we may have — and that makes them meaningful to us, regardless of where they stand in relation to the ultimate reality about which we know nothing at all.

It seems likely to me that the survival and prevalence of occultism and mysticism among humans is an indication that it may have some useful function. It is likely that the ability to induce hallucination, among other things, through rituals and meditation serves some adaptive function — that it offers some psychological or practical benefits of some sort to the species. This is something that evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists ought to be studying and conducting research on.

The Buddha very frequently beckons people to “come and see” and the idea that the truth of the Dharma is something that can only be known through “direct experience” is a recurring theme in the discourses of the Buddha. In fact, the discourses of the Buddha do not lay out a systematic philosophy that one should believe in but a set of things that one should do in order to directly experience the Dharmic truth for themselves. The “mind only” doctrine of the Yogacara school is a good reminder that any apparitions we may encounter during meditation are only projections of our minds, so it’s a good idea to not read too much into them. Furthermore, I think the “come and see” approach of the Buddha fits in well with the empirical aspect of critical rationalism and the philosophy of modern science.

“Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.” — The Kalama Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 3.65)

I believe that the skeptical and empirical approach we are developing here can give us a basis for reinterpreting the more magical aspects of Vajrayana Buddhism and the fanciful visions of Pure Land Buddhism in the light of modern empirical science. Pure Land Buddhism and Vajrayana have various layers of symbolism, myth, and ritual. If we adopt the “chaos magick” approach of seeing “belief as a tool,” we can reinterpret these more far-fetched systems in a manner compatible with the modern scientific or critical rationalist view. From the perspective of modern empirical psychology, perhaps we can view magical rituals and deity yoga as akin to psychodrama therapy. We can then evaluate these practices and whatever mental realms may be associated with them on the basis of the psychological results that they yield — we do not need to take the various pure lands and deities of Vajrayana and Pure Land Buddhism as literal things of a noumenal nature but, rather, can regard them as real psychological phenomena that may or may not have some therapeutic benefits in certain contexts and situations. A “pure land” could be seen as a sort of alternate “mental GUI” or virtual reality that people can play with, rather than as a real other-worldly realm. Think of it as strapping on a VR headset and turning on a game. Video games and virtual reality apps have a variety of uses and can be therapeutic at times — a video game on a VR headset can be a great way to temporarily escape the stress of the real world and reset so that you can later continue your life in a more mentally healthy manner.

Bodhidharma, generated using AI

The Buddhist Psychology of Yogacara Abhidharma

It is well-known that ordinary mindfulness meditation and various forms of psychonautics can play a useful therapeutic role. Modern empirical psychology could explore the potential utility of certain Vajrayana and Pure Land Buddhist meditative techniques within the frameworks of modern empirical clinical psychology. There’s a great deal of evidence from scientific research that supports the use of mindfulness meditation as a tool for improving mental well-being and the ability to focus. In fact, research has even demonstrated that mindfulness meditation can change the structure of the brain and alter brain function in a positive way. Who is to say that other forms of Buddhist meditative practice don’t have their own unique psychological and neurological benefits and uses?

Looking at these things through the lens of Darwinian evolutionary theory, I’d like to suggest that perhaps mindfulness meditation and controlled hallucinatory experiences are an adaptive mechanism for coping with stress, fostering creativity, and maintaining sanity in a world that is really quite terrifying. The use of various meditative techniques to enter altered states of consciousness is not strictly a Buddhist thing but is universal in nature — it exists in every religious tradition and culture throughout world history. It would not, therefore, be surprising to find that it has some beneficial psychological or social utility that might still be relevant in the context of modern psychology.

Channa’s Final Day, generated using AI

If these ideas are taken up within the framework of modern clinical psychology, the Yogacara idea of “consciousness only” or “mind only” could be leveraged in order to encourage patients who are using meditative and psychonautic techniques to critically examine their perceptions and experiences. By introducing a modernized Yogacara framework for understanding our perceptual realities, we can help prevent those engaging in mystical and occult practices for therapeutic reasons from falling into delusion. Within the Eastern Orthodox mystical tradition of hesychasm, various mystical writers have warned that prelest or plani (spiritual delusion) is the greatest risk that comes with mystical practice. Hearing the voice of God and then assuming that the voice you heard was literally God is a big problem. The Orthodox mystics warn that perhaps the visions and auditory hallucinations that one perceives as divine entities actually came from the devil or a demon. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have ever occurred to the hesychasts that voices and visions in your head may just be psychological phenomena and that no manner of evidence could ever definitively prove that an experience actually came from God or from any other source. The Yogacara framework makes it much less likely that we will fall into delusion as a result of these experiences. Integration of the insights of the Yogacara school with Karl Popper’s philosophy of critical rationalism will help ensure that we remain ever skeptical and critical and never take such experiences too seriously. In fact, I think this may actually be the key to maintaining one’s sanity while exploring the realms of mystical and occult experiences.

I have already suggested that we might want to look at hallucinations as akin to VR simulations. Within the context of clinical psychology, perhaps inducing visions within a controlled setting could allow patients to run “simulations” as vivid psychodramas that allow one to explore various issues in a relatively safe environment. Running such “mental VR simulations” in a controlled environment, under the supervision of a licensed therapist, could, perhaps, prove to be something akin to coding in a sandbox within a software system, safely running new programs in a non-real environment to see what happens. If the therapist is using a secular Buddhist version of Yogacara psychology as a framework, they could help the patient by using mindfulness and psychonautics as a tool to facilitate the realization of emptiness, something which may help the patient deconstruct rigid cognitive patterns in order to foster mental flexibility.

Such therapeutic techniques would most certainly not be right for patients with certain mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia. Nevertheless, introducing the patient to the philosophical ideas of Yogacara and critical rationalism during talk therapy may help people who have a hard time distinguishing between hallucinations and reality.

I suggested that a therapist could use Buddhist psychology as a framework for helping patients realize the empty nature of mental phenomena and, thereby, allowing them to deconstruct rigid cognitive patterns and foster mental flexibility. This may seem to be a novel idea but it is actually, in fact, a core idea of the classical Yogacara position. It seems to me that for the Yogacara school, being able to deconstruct rigid mental patterns in order to make the mind more flexible just is the definition of nirvana or enlightenment. For you to understand what I mean here, I probably need to explain the concepts of alaya-vijnana (“storehouse consciousness” or “repository consciousness”) and tathagata-garbha (“buddha seed” or “buddha nature”) within Yogacara psychology.

I had long been opposed to Pure Land Buddhism and the tathagata-garbha doctrine because I believed that the tathagata-garbha sutras were really just trying to sneak the idea of an eternal soul or true self in through the back door. I’m not totally convinced that this is not, in fact, how tathaghata-gharba is understood by a great many religious Buddhists throughout the world. I am, however, convinced that this is not, in fact, how the doctrine was originally understood by the Yogacara school and the adherents of the Lankavatara Sutra.

“How is it that what the Bhagavan says about the tathagata-garbha is the same as what followers of other paths say about a self? Bhagavan, followers of other paths also speak of an immortal creator without attributes, omnipresent and indestructible. And they say this, Bhagavan, is the self.” The Buddha replied, “Mahamati, the tathagata-garba of which I speak is not the same as the self mentioned by followers of other paths. Mahamati, when I speak about the tathagata-garbha, sometimes I call it ‘emptiness,’ ‘formlessness,’ or ‘intentionlessness,’ or ‘realm of reality,’ ‘dharma nature,’ or ‘dharma body,’ or ‘nirvana,’ ‘what is devoid of self-existence,’ or ‘what neither arises nor ceases,’ or ‘original quiescence,’ or ‘intrinsic nirvana,’ or similar expressions. It is to put an end to the fear foolish beings have about the expression ‘no self’ that the tathagatas, the arhats, the fully enlightened ones proclaim the teaching of the tathagata-garbha as a projectionless realm devoid of fabrications. Mahamati, bodhisattvas of the present and the future should not become attached to any view of a self.” — The Lankavatara Sutra

Within the framework of the Buddhist psychology of the Yogacara school, the tathagata-garbha is basically the field of consciousness as an unconditioned blank slate, free from mental projections and the karmic imprints of past habits and behaviors. This is the original and pure state of conscious being. The flipside of the tathagata-garbha or “buddha nature” is the concept of alaya-vijnana or “storehouse consciousness.” The best way to explain the alaya-vijnana (“storehouse consciousness”) is to say that it is the Yogacara school’s term for the mental component of reenforced neural pathways — that is to say, the “storehouse consciousness” is the place in the mind where habits of thought are stored. When you repeatedly fantasize about a certain act, the thought pattern and associated emotions get imprinted in your subconscious mind — it creates a neural pathway that makes it easier for your mind to go back there in the future, turning that thought pattern into a mental habit as you repeatedly return to it. The alaya-vijnana is simply the repository of mental imprints, habits, and latent predispositions. The alaya-vijnana is the “place” in your mind where impressions and habits of thought are stored — it is merely the Yogacara school’s way of explaining a well-known psychological phenomenon. The tathagata-garbha or buddha nature, on the other hand, is the purified alaya-vijnana — the “storehouse consciousness” wiped clean of the karmic imprints. The buddha nature is merely the blank slate of consciousness without the stains produced by karmic action or good and bad decisions in the past.

The original consciousness gets stained by the “karmic imprints” of the choices that we make throughout our lives but also by the “habit energy,” or vasana, of our ancestors — the behavioral tendencies encoded in our DNA. The more that we indulge this habit energy and let our minds go back to a certain place, the more we allow this to leave an impression on our consciousness. If one makes an impression in the ground with a huge rock, that is where water will naturally flow when it starts to rain. The impressions or “karmic imprints” in the storehouse consciousness is where the waters of thought will naturally flow if we let them, driving us to repeatedly engage in familiar fantasies and behaviors.

Yogacara psychology as espoused in the Lankavatara seems to be asserting that the bad habit energy and the imprints left in our consciousness by actions of the past can somehow be erased — you can remove the imprints of habit energy from the “storehouse consciousness” or “repository consciousness” through Buddhist meditative practice. By doing so, you turn the alaya-vijnana back into the tathagata-garbha — transforming the repository consciousness into the pure buddha nature, returning to the pure and natural state of consciousness as a sort of blank slate or empty field of experience. This is what nirvana entails — the erasing of the karmic imprints made upon the “repository consciousness” or “storehouse consciousness” by habits and repetitive behaviors of the past, whether those habits happen to come from our own past choices or from the habit energy of our ancestors as a result of their actions in previous lives.

Mental Illness, generated using AI

If this interpretation is correct — and if it turns out to be true that meditation can get you into such a state of consciousness — , this would have huge implications for clinical psychology. If you can, in fact, get back to a sort of blank slate free from the “impressions” made upon the mind by past events, then perhaps it is possible to very significantly reprogram the human mind using nothing but meditative and psychonautic techniques. It has been demonstrated that mindfulness meditation and psychonautics can literally change one’s brain structure and alter the way the brain functions. If Yogacara is correct, it would mean that this can be done on a much bigger scale than modern research suggests. We could rewire the brain, potentially undoing the reenforcing of neural pathways that has taken place over long periods of time, thereby erasing negative habitual thought patterns from our minds. To return to our metaphor of phenomenal reality as a graphical user interface, this would mean that Yogacara is essentially claiming that the user of the brain, just like the user of a computer, can actually go in and alter the code and change the software that is running on the computer. If this is indeed true, it seems like it could potentially be a powerful tool for helping people overcome OCD compulsions, addictions, and recurring intrusive thoughts. One could potentially break free from destructive patterns of thought and behaviors based upon them by reprogramming the mind. Mental illnesses like OCD involve neural pathways that have been continually reenforced and habits that have become deeply embedded in the mind. If we could actually harness effective techniques to “de-imprint” these embedded thought patterns and clear away the corresponding habit energy, it could offer a groundbreaking, new and effective, approach to treating these kinds of mental illnesses.

Moreover, this could offer a glimpse of hope for people suffering from severe mental illnesses, like extreme masochism or extreme addiction, where other methods of therapy and even pharmaceutical intervention appear to be totally ineffectual. If the Yogacara psychology is correct, there may in fact be new hope for the hopeless cases. It may be feasible to effectively treat even the most extreme cases using a novel approach to therapy that helps one reset the alaya-vijnana or repository consciousness back to its pure state as the tathagata-garbha — nirvana could actually be the path to a cure for certain people who find all other forms of treatment totally ineffectual! By reaching the undifferentiated state of original consciousness, one could potentially achieve maximum cognitive flexability. In the context of clinical psychology, this could be an opportunity for substantially reprogramming the minds of patients with certain severe mental illnesses.

Yogacara holds that these negative imprints can be erased from the mind and undone gradually through long-term meditative practice, but the Lankavatara Sutra and the Zen Buddhist tradition also teach that sudden enlightenment, instantaneous insight, or satori is possible as well. I think that this can provide some hope for people who are just hanging on by a thread, having suffered long with mental problems that seem unbearable. Furthermore, if it proves to be true that in some cases a more instantaneous rewiring of the brain is possible — one that doesn’t require years of therapy — , this would be something worth knowing about and studying. An approach to therapy that focuses on this interpretation of Yogacara would, of course, need to be tailored to the specific needs of individual patients. The approach of a clinical psychologist using this framework would likely differ significantly from patient to patient, depending upon the specific needs of the particular person seeking help.

There’s also an implication here for the whole nature vs. nurture debate. Buddhism holds that everything is “dependently originated” or “interdependently arisen” — this is a sort of deterministic view of the world in which everything that arises arises with other things as the causes and conditions of its own being. Nothing is self-existent, self-determined, and fully independent. This is the meaning of the Buddha’s doctrine of pratitya-samutpada or “inter-dependent co-arising.” What the Yogacara interpretation of nirvana implies is that while genetic predisposition, environment, and other causal factors do play a sort of deterministic role in creating our mental worlds or phenomenal realities, there is a way to create nearly boundless neuroplasticity through self-directed meditative practice.

Going back to our graphical user interface metaphor and the idea of reprogramming the brain through Buddhist meditative techniques, it would seem that there must certainly be limits to what we can do with this. We can, perhaps, make changes to the code — software changes are possible . Nevertheless, we are limited by the hardware. It would seem, therefore, that we can’t just reprogram the brain however we like. We are limited to running software that is capable of running on the particular machine we are using. As a result, there must be limits to the extent to which we can just safely rewrite our phenomenal reality. And we must exercise some caution because we know that the software that is currently running was selected, in part, for its utility from an evolutionary standpoint. It was “chosen” by natural selection because it is useful in the sense of helping us to survive and reproduce. Therefore, even if it turns out to be possible to throw out the software entirely and start totally from scratch, there may be serious danger involved in doing so.

The Eternal Buddha Nature, generated using AI

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Progress & Conservation🔰

Radical centrist, functional finance, universal healthcare, social dividend, universal basic income, land value tax, nominal GDP targeting, social democracy