The perspective articulated by the Buddha was something very different from either materialism or spiritualism, and might be called an early form of phenomenology. What we take to be “the world” is a virtual construction of the human mind and body, woven together of moments of consciousness arising and falling away in an ongoing stream. It is a world of appearances, of phenomena, constructed and imbued with meaning locally by each individual according to patterns learned from, and passed on to, others.
The Buddha seems to accept both the material and the spiritual elements of the other positions, but refuses to put either in a place of primacy. Matter is a condition for the manifestation of consciousness, and consciousness is a condition for any experience of matter. Posing the issue as a choice between whether the world “really exists” out there or is “merely created by the mind” is just too clumsy. It is the interaction of the two that yields the world as we know it, a world consisting of moments of knowing.
From this perspective, the senses of our bodies depend upon material phenomena for their form and for their sustenance, as do the objects that impinge on these senses. But a moment of experience of these objects by means of the senses can only occur when consciousness enters the relationship. Consciousness manifests as the knowing of an object by a sense, a process we refer to as seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching. It can also generate mental objects from its own memories, perceptions, and symbol-creation capabilities, in which case we say we are thinking (in the broadest sense of the term). What is unique about the Buddha’s model is that consciousness is not something apart from or independent of a specific moment of knowing—it is conditioned like everything else.
At the level of direct experience manifesting in the immediate moment, the mind and body work together to construct what I have been calling a virtual world. Much of the project of Buddhism has to do with understanding the dynamics and the qualities of this constructed world. It turns out that the enterprise can unfold in skillful or unskillful ways, yielding a world beset by suffering or free from suffering.
Wisdom Publications (2010)
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.