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.

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