we don't need to change how we do conservation, we need to change why we do it

Two Buddhas, Part-5: Your mind is not other than a fallen leaf, or a footprint

A short selection from Essay Six in Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice. (So let’s step beyond our inner nerd now, and follow our Buddhas.)

“What is the Way?” Ordinary mind is the Way. “Should I turn toward it or not?” If you turn toward it you turn away from it. “How can I know the way if I don’t turn toward it?” The way is not about knowing or not knowing. When you know something you are deluded, and when you don’t know, you are just empty-headed. When you reach the way beyond doubt, it is vast and empty as space. You can’t say it’s right or wrong. —Ordinary Mind Is the Way koan [1]

So how can we possibly under-stand this ordinary experience of unfathomable Mind that oversees our cleverly shifting interests? Can that which watches over everything also be a thing? The question posed by Leibniz and Heidegger, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” can also take the form, “Why do I have experiences at all?” David Chalmers calls this “the hard problem of consciousness” because, unlike easy problems that address our capacity to discriminate, integrate information, report mental states, or focus attention—all of which can be formulated in comparative terms—the immediate Truth of consciousness does not yield to measurement and research. [2] With what do we compare it? How can such questioning reveal a truth that lies outside its own play of truths? If the audience becomes part of the play, who’s watching its preoccupied faces? Nobody?

. . . There are of course theories on offer to make sense of “the hard problem” in terms of something else: If a being recognizes itself in a mirror is this consciousness? Do the “neural mechanisms” underlying consciousness consist of a functional cluster in the thalamocortical system, within which reentrant neuronal interactions yield a succession of differentiated yet unitary metastable states? [3] But it’s from very personal stories, like Jill Taylor’s “Stroke of Insight”, [4] stories which have been told by mystics and the mentally ‘afflicted’ throughout time, that we keep bumping into the oldest idea of all: Consciousness, Dogen’s “Primordial Awareness”, [5] is like a pool of water that returns to its unconditioned clarity—empty of every thing—only when, in perfect stillness, the judging and self-ish agitation subsides.

Perhaps what we really mean when we say the problem of consciousness is hard is that, what we are calling Mind, stands outside of everything we can possibly know, just as a mirror doesn’t enter into its reflected universe. Brain scientists must demarcate the objects of their research, because you can’t under-stand the unfathomable. But it turns out the hard problems are lived, not solved. We might like to imagine we are about to touch the mirror itself, but we’re only reaching out with more of our (admittedly wonderful) reflections. And in the end we’re forced to enter the poetical mood, so that metaphor can track The Way of our elusive (and illusive) quarry beyond the confines of academic departments.

Indirect language allows even sensible researchers, like Christoff Koch, chief scientific officer at the Allan Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, to directly contemplate “the ultimate goal of identifying the footprints of consciousness in highly excitable matter.” [6] The deep lineage of this metaphor is itself worth contemplating. In the early centuries of Buddhism it was considered profane to represent Buddha (awakening) with any overt image. Other than a footprint.


1. Tarrant, John. 2004. Bring me the Rhinoceros, And Other Zen Koans to Bring You Joy. New York: Harmony Books. p. 57. Zhaozhou questions his teacher Nanquan.

2. Guzeldere, Jun./Jul. 2002, p.15. “The argument that current scientific or philosophical theories can’t explain consciousness in their physicalistic framework was brought back again by David Chalmers in The Conscious Mind (1996). Chalmers introduced a distinction between the ‘easy’ and the ‘hard’ problems of consciousness, putting a twist on Freud’s ‘unknown’ and Levine’s ‘explanatory gap’. He argued that no level of sophistication in understanding the physical aspects of the brain or behaviour, or cognitive processes such as learning and reasoning (which he called the ‘easy problems’), can bring us any closer to understanding the qualitative aspects of the conscious mind (the ‘hard problem’).”

3. Edelman, 2000, pp, 143-152: The Dynamic Core Hypothesis.

4. Taylor, Jill Bolte. 2009 Plume Books edition. My Stroke of Insight: A Brain scientist’s Personal Journey. London: Penguin Books, 2006.

5. Dogen, 1986, p. 1. We must be careful here. Dogen begins, “Primordial Awareness is in essence perfect and pervades everywhere. How could it be dependent upon what anyone does to practice or realize it?” Then he says, “The vast expanse of Reality can never be darkened by the dust of presumptions. Who then could believe that it needs to be cleaned of such dust to be what it is?” The title of this short work, Fukanzazengi: How Everyone Can Sit, should alert us that he is not talking about ‘things’ here, there is no physical ‘mirror of awareness’, but he is just exhorting us to, as he says further along, “Be Before Thinking”. In Soto Zen meditation we are not trying to ‘get somewhere’, we are just ‘being here’. This ‘kind of reflection’ begins where presumption ends, but the ‘pool’ of what we can experience, though now calm, is just as deep as always; thus Primordial Awareness is sometimes translated simply as “The Way”.

6. Koch, Christoff. Nov./Dec., 2014. A Brain Structure Looking for a Function, Scientific American Mind, vol. 25, no. 6, pp. 24-27. Quote taken from p. 27.

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