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Technology, Mind, and Dharma

Mind is Space by Vera Bloom. From saatchiart.com

Previous articles in this column mention that the human mind as the most advanced form of technology. Readers may ask how so? Why is the mind referred to as technology? And what does this have to do with Buddhism?

We live in an age dominated by rational scientific thought and information technology. However, the evolution of humanity has always been driven by a desire to understand phenomena and the application of such understanding to solve practical problems. Therefore, we cannot separate the development of the human mind, the brain, and cognition from the evolution of scientific and technological thinking and practices.

In fact, science demonstrates that learning and experiencing are primary factors driving new neuronal development, even in adults and elders. (Semënov) There is clear co-evolution between mental abilities and technology development. The Dharma benefits from being considered one of the forces that drive human evolution because it explains and justifies the benefits of subduing negative emotions and destructive tendencies.

Without the constraints of limited processing capacity and memory—considering that Moore’s law is soon to become a thing of the past—the cognitive capacity of humans to acquire and process information is limited by our mental abilities, which in turn are impacted by our mental health, nutrition, and psychological and emotional factors. This includes the ability to control one’s emotions. Technology can be defined according to different frames of reference, which can also be applied to analyze the mind. For example, technology can be defined as consisting of both hardware and software—the knowledge and methods to produce and use technological hardware.

We can use this as an analogy describing the brain as hardware and the mind as software. While humans are born with hardware, our thinking, behavior, and learning impact the way the brain functions and evolves. Technologies change all the time following cycles of innovation or replacement from older to newer technologies. Cognition, emotional responses, psychology, and mental health are equally dynamic emerging properties influenced by usage. The mind evolves both individually and collectively as a response to environmental and social stimuli.

Technology is often viewed in the context of a lifecycle framework: from invention (discovery), to innovation (first commercial application), and diffusion (widespread replication and growth). Equally, the mind can be studied in terms of its innate cognitive abilities and functions—knowledge that is acquired from reflection and introspection, of creative functions (what individuals discover and realize by themselves) and learning (what people learn from observations and other people), according to different methods. (Grübler)

The brain and the mind are clearly distinguishable, yet there are still a lot of fuzzy areas in between. The brain can be considered a central processor, while the nervous system can be compared to a wide area network distributed throughout the body. Its perceptual ability, tightly coupled with intelligent functions, may even extend beyond the body itself.

There may be aspects of the mind that are disembodied, although we may not understand much about them. The existence of such properties is acknowledged in scientific literature, although it may be beyond human ability to cognize such a phenomenon. (Chong-Fuk, Austin) A technological analogy for the disembodied mind can be a virtual machine; computing in the cloud.

The mind has been described as: “The element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought.” (Lexico) And also: “The part of a person that makes it possible for him or her to think, feel emotions, and understand things.” (Cambridge Dictionary) It would be interesting to compare the definitions and terminology for the mind in other languages and cultural reference points.

In Buddhist philosophical vocabulary, there are at least three terms to define what is ordinarily designated as “mind:” manas (mental power or mental faculty), vijñāna (discernment or consciousness faculty), and citta (mind or thought). (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) If everything is mind, then ultimately there is no inherent distinction between mind and technology, and both problems and solutions arise in the mind as well.

Everything is in the mind

For centuries, philosophers, scholars, and researchers have investigated the relationship between mind and body. In the West, this classical inquiry is known as the mind-body problem, perhaps due to an inability to grasp and expound the deeper, un-cognizable aspects of such a relation, it is considered problematic. To unenlightened minds, everything is a problem.

In Western philosophy, the body-mind problem has been recorded as part of philosophical discourse in the thinking of Avicenna, the Pre-Aristotelian philosophers and notably by René Descartes. Analogous arguments supporting the mind-body problem today are the basis for dilemmas called the Mind Technology problem. (Fuller) But why is the relationship between mind and technology considered a problem?

Unenlightened humans continue to see incongruities throughout the ages, irrespective of whether they come from the East or the West, because they are constantly looking at their own obscurations and cannot see past them. No amount of scholarship, philosophy, or research—anywhere in the world—can actually solve the problem of unenlightened humans thinking that incongruences exist outside their own mind.

This is why many seek enlightenment.

Eastern philosophies, not without controversy and debate, suggest that we can resolve conflicting views and dilemmas—the apparent incongruences—by deeper introspection and appreciation of the nature of mind itself. By all means, that is no small task. One can follow this path by studying vast Buddhist teachings, such as the Abhidharma, also known as the Great Explanation (Mahavibhasa), which provides a systematic presentation of what might be called a map of the human mind.

At the heart of this mind-map is a distinction between the mind and mental factors, the first referring to the basic fact of awareness and the latter referring to aspects or dimensions of our mental life, defined in terms of their distinct functions. It consists of the oldest known recorded and most complete attempt to understand the mind and its workings. (Jinpa)

A useful reference that introduces and summarizes the essential points of mind in relation to the Dharma is Thubten Jinpa’s book Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics (Simon and Schuster 2017), helpfully reviewed last year in the Al-Shajarah: Journal of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization. (Bakar)

Practices and methods for cutting through obscurations can be found in Vajrayana Buddhism and can be considered as a technology that manipulates the mind-body system in ways that can be especially effective in producing transformations that help us to understand problems and lead to solutions. These can perhaps be compared to disruptive innovation—entrepreneurs master the art of transforming challenges into opportunities.

To sum up, there are several reasons to describe the mind as the most advanced technology. Practicing the Dharma can not only help humans to come to terms with the cause and cessation of suffering, but can also help to widen our understanding of both mind and technology, and illustrate how the two are sides of the same precious coin.

References

Austin, James C. 2020. The Disembodied Mind: An Exploration of Consciousness in the Physical Universe. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Bakar, Osman. 2021. “Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics.” Al-Shajarah: Journal of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) 26, no. 1: 136–40.

Chong-Fuk, Lau. 2017. “On the possibility of a disembodied mind.” Yearbook for Eastern and Western Philosophy 2017, no. 2: 338–52.

Fuller, Steve. 2022. “The Mind-Technology Problem.” Postdigital Science and Education 4, no. 2: 247–52.

Grübler, Arnulf. 1998. “Technology: Concepts and Definitions.” Chapter: In Technology and Global Change, 19–90. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781316036471.002.

Jinpa, Thupten, ed. 2017. Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics, Vol. 1 and 2 : The Physical World. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Semënov, M. V. 2019. “Adult Hippocampal Neurogenesis Is a Developmental Process Involved in Cognitive Development.” Frontiers in Neuroscience. 13, 159. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2019.00159

See more

Mind (Lexico)
Mind (Cambridge Dictionary)
Mind in Indian Buddhist Philosophy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Mind-body problem (Wikipedia)

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Further Reflections on Technology and the Buddhist Teachings
On Being Brave: Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on Technology and the Dissemination of the Dharma Transformative Technology as the Path Forward for Humanity
On Technology and Human Connection: An Interview with Ajahn Brahm

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