[Buddha-l] Abdhidharma vindicated once again

Dan Lusthaus vasubandhu at earthlink.net
Wed Mar 2 15:37:38 MST 2011

A NYTimes interview with a major researcher on anesthesia.


The interesting portion, from a Buddhist-historical perspective, is what his 
current research is showing, namely that anesthesia allows surgery to be 
painless, with the person in a coma-like condition (not asleep), not by 
shutting down all the brain processes, but rather by *activating* certain 
functions which then *block* normal pathways, and the coma is maintained by 
an ongoing activity that blocks or jams the transmissions. The brain is 
running interference. This "Blocking" method is EXACTLY how Vasubandhu 
explained nirodha-samapatti (a kind of coma-like meditative "attainment" 
considered one of the highest attainments available, penultimate to full 
awakening, but something Buddha himself continued to engage in after 
Awakening) in the Abhidharmakosa-bhasya.

Q. What has your research shown so far?

A. Under general anesthesia, the brain is not entirely shut down. Certain 
parts are turned off; others are quite active - not only "active," but there 
is a level of activity that is quite regular.

Our observation is that it is this regular activity prevents the brain from 
transmitting information and contributes to a state of unconsciousness. It's 
analogous to stopping communication down a phone line when transmission is 
blocked. You could block transmission another way: by sending a loud signal 
down the line so that that signal was the only thing you hear. So in some 
parts what we see is that activity is turned off, leading to 
unconsciousness. In other parts, we see activity that is more active than 
normal. This also leads to unconsciousness. In sum: the drugs alter the way 
the brain transmits information.


So when Vasubandhu said that while most conscious mental activities shut 
down during nirodha-samapatti, but a kaaya-saak.sin, "bodiy witness", 
continued to operate during the samapatti's duration, what he said now has 
an attested physiological basis.

For Yogacara, the curiosity would go toward those operations that continue 
during coma, since that is where they located the alaya-vijnana.


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