[Buddha-l] Abhidharma vindicated once again

Jamie Hubbard jhubbard at smith.edu
Mon Mar 7 21:24:14 MST 2011

On 3/8/2011 12:33 AM, Dan Lusthaus wrote:
>> Regretfully,I haven't found much useful references to the case of the
>> Ganden Tripa's tukdam. I first heard of it while viewing a lecture by
>> the Dalai Lama on the 'Nature of Mind' at the University of California
>> Santa Barbara Events Center on April 24th, 2009. :
>> http://www.youtube.com/user/gyalwarinpoche#p/c/B99B861CCA727058/4/gO7RQi55asY
>> , at about min. 31:30 .
> Note HHDL says these measurements were taken "after he passed away...
> clinically dead..." and so on. The physical signs he points to are (1) body
> doesn't immediately decay, and (2) he requested that they put a machine on,
> but this apparently happened sometime after this fellow was already dead for
> sometime. "The results are not yet in but" it preliminarily it seems some
> "faint..electrical" activity was detected. "We believe this is the subtle
> mind" influencing "the body." He then switches to Tibetan and cites the
> Abhidharmakosa and Abhidharmasamuccaya re: their descriptions of the dying
> process. Then, to vajrayana and the Guhyasamaja Tantra...
I think that this is where things get interesting, at least for me. What 
is basically going on is that the Dalai Lama has a long-term and 
well-documented mind/body dualist position, and it constantly comes out 
in the Mind-Life Science discussions. His "subtle mind" is the whole 
gamut of Buddha-nature/tathagatagarbha/citta-prakrti, and etc. He will 
*not* let this go, in spite of his famous willingness to jettison 
Buddhist ideas not in accord with scientific findings ("not finding 
something is not the same as finding its non-existence"). For him this 
level of consciousness--subtle mind with *no neural correlates*--is 
crucial to his understanding of how nirvana can come about (we are 
Buddhas to begin with). Some sort of consciousness with no neural 
correlates must also be part of the rebirth process.

In this video (I confess: I haven't had time to watch it all, but what I 
have seen is pretty familiar from the mountain of writings on the 
subject) the topic comes in when he switches from the abhidharma 
literature to the tantric, asserting that in the latter there is a 
subtle mind that cannot be affected by destructive or negative states. 
The non-virtuous is dependent upon the gross level of consciousness, but 
not the subtle mind, which always has been and always will be free of 
impurity. This is straight-out tathagatagarbha thought and well 
documented. That the Dalai Lama is such a champion is interesting in 
many ways, but not germane here (the Gelug normally find this teaching 
to be "in need of interpretation"; I believe that it also has to do with 
some of the Shugden controversy).

What is germane, I think, is, as Dan notes, how the data is read. Vague 
so far, to be sure, but the Dalai Lama (and others, of course) want to 
read it to suggest that somehow this "subtle mind" is still influencing 
the physiology of the brain--I guess, in the state of tukdam (tho he 
doesn't use that term). In other words the non-material subtle mind can 
influence the material brain. Hence epiphenomenalism cannot pertain (he 
also is very interested in neuroplasticity for the same reason). I find 
a much simpler explanation to be simply that the physical was still 
chugging along somehow, and when they got the wires on that is exactly 
what they discovered. Is the other reading that if they had put the 
wires on from the moment of "clinical death" (not explained in the 
video) nothing would have registered on the machines? Would we then say 
that the subtle mind took a jaunt around the bardo for a few days and 
then came back to "re-animate" the meat and keep it fresh? Does tukdam 
teach something like that? Did the machine occasionally flat-line and 
then re-register brain activity? Of course, after years in India I agree 
with Dan's thinking that the reliability of the electric grid is also a 
consideration :)

Wouldn't the simplest explanation be exactly what Herman proposed: "So 
the man wasn't really dead according to our most commonly used clinical 
definition of death ; total absence of brain activity."

Yup, he was still chugging along, but it took some instruments to know 
this. This is why hospitals typically use "flat-lined" EEG results 
(several, over several days) as a measure (though this is complex and in 
fact there are states where the brain activity can drop so low that 
normal EEG machines cannot register it). So the fact that the lama still 
had brain activity even though outwardly he appeared dead is indeed 
interesting, perhaps even phenomenally significant. But it doesn't prove 
the existence of a subtle mind that has no neural correlates-- in fact, 
it proves exactly the opposite. And, as Dan notes re. tukdam/nirodha 
samapatti, he didn't wake up and that *is* pretty significant. For me, 
though, the interesting thing is that in both states we continue to find 
brain activity.


More information about the buddha-l mailing list