In the Pali canon, the story is told of a king who hears a sound he has never heard before, and finds that sound to be “tantalizing, lovely, intoxicating, entrancing, and enthralling.” He asks about it and is told it is the sound of a lute. He then asks that this lute be brought to him so he can see what sort of thing it is. The lute is delivered to the king, who examines it with great interest. He takes the lute apart, piece by piece, until it is little more than a pile of splinters. He then declares disdainfully, “What a poor thing is this so-called lute.” Casting it aside, he asks, “Never mind this lute, bring me just the sound.”

The king is patiently told, “This lute, sire, consists of numerous components, and it gives off a sound when it is played upon with its numerous components; that is, in dependence on the parchment sounding board, the belly, the arm, the head, the strings, the plectrum, and the appropriate effort of the musician.” (Samyutta Nikaya 35.205)

This story provides us with a useful perspective on the modern study of consciousness. It is a widespread assumption of scientific materialism that something like the mind (the lovely sound) can be reduced to the thing which produces it (the lute), and that the proper work of understanding the mind mostly involves a closer and closer investigation of the brain. Yes, the components of the lute are necessary conditions for the sound to be produced, but the sound itself is something wholly different from the lute. Too much emphasis on the physical basis misses the point that the music of lived experience is something enacted upon the brain rather than embedded in it.

The opposite assumption, that there must be something unconditioned, some essence beyond the normal matrix of cause and effect, in order to account for the sound of the lute or the experience of the mind, is equally prevalent. If consciousness is not reducible to materiality, the argument goes, it must be fundamentally irreducible and thus either a transcendent creation or somehow part of the primordial fabric of the cosmos.

I understand this story to be pointing toward the middle way between these two positions: The sound is an entirely natural phenomenon, but one that is implemented rather than constituted. In other words, the mind is an event that occurs; it is an interdependent confluence of factors that never actually exists but repeatedly and reliably unfolds. The neurons of the brain are indeed the stage upon which our human drama unfolds, but it is the activity of their firing, changing by the millisecond, that brings our story to life. And that activity is only accessed by attending directly to experience.

The matter is further remarked upon by Buddhaghosa in the Path of Purification (20.96), where he too takes up the example of a lute to illustrate the non-materiality of the mind. “There is no heap or store of unarisen [mind] prior to its arising. When it arises, it does not come from any heap or store, and when it ceases it does not go in any direction. There is no heap or store acting as a depository of what has ceased.”

In the same way, the sound of a lute does not exist anywhere before or after its enactment; the sound does not come from anywhere or go anywhere. The plucking of a string is an event, requiring the lute, the string, the pick, and the effort of an efficient cause (in this case a musician). In Buddhist language, both the mind and the sound of the lute “not having been, are brought into being, and having been, they vanish.”

The mind is an event that occurs; it is an interdependent confluence of factors that never actually exists but repeatedly and reliably unfolds. 

The neuron is something that stands at the intersection of space and time, much like the string of a lute. As a physical object (a living cell), it is of course extended spatially. The fact that there are so many neurons in a brain, and that each is connected to so many others in a web of such daunting complexity, invites the compelling project of mapping out its master wiring diagram. But the essence of a neuron is its function, the fact that it “fires” from time to time and that these action potentials interact with one another as they cascade through the architecture of the brain—much like what happens when a string is plucked.

From the perspective of lived experience, where things are happening in the head is irrelevant, while when they are happening is of great importance. We experience the flow of events, not the interconnection of structures. The practice of meditation involves listening closely to the music of your mind. We are not concerned in the moment abouthow things get to be the way they are, only that they are so very much exactly what they are. When a musician loses herself in the music, the instrument falls away—much like Dogen’s “casting off the body and mind.”

What consequences does this have for the way we live our lives? Notice that the story begins with the king’s sense of wonder at the beauty of the sound he hears. In those five adjectives we can find all the allure of the human condition: tantalizing, lovely, intoxicating, entrancing, enthralling. Yet he ends up with a pile of splinters, missing and dismissing the very thing that first caught his attention and inspired him to listen.

By all means, let’s study the brain, but the conceptual model of how it works to which we aspire, fascinating though it is, pales beside what is accessible when we cast aside scrutiny of the instrument and take up instead the playing of its music. What is the experience of the sound when we pluck this string? And this next note, is it discordant or does it beautifully complement the first? How deeply can we feel the harmony of several strings, spaced an interval of a third or a fifth from one another, resonating together as they are plucked simultaneously?

Accounting for experience is a fascinating project, but living it is far more so. Just sit quietly, and listen to the music.

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