Look at how the meaning of vijñāna changed over time. In the earliest discourses, it simply means awareness of an object and discrimination of its components and aspects. And this consciousness, being sense consciousness, is of six types. But in its role as one of the five skandhas, its meaning has evolved in three phases —
- In the Nikayas/Āgamas, it means cognizance, that which discerns.
- In the Abhidhamma, it denotes the series of rapidly changing interconnected discrete acts of cognizance.
- In later Mahayana sources, it means the base that supports all experience.
This evolution fits the standard understanding of the Mahayana metaphysics as a reification and deification of what started as a dry empirical psychology that eschewed systematic ontology.
I mention this because I spent a week struggling over the new BoxPress intro. I wanted to include a theory of visuo-textual meaning. It seemed to me, following Rick Roderick’s “Uncle Bob Model” of cognition (wherein the perceived is the real, all knowing is unproblematic, cognition is transparent, and the idea that knowing conditions the known never occurs), that when Uncle Bob does reflect enough that meaning finally arises as a topic, meaning appears as expression. If so, Bob infers, then there must be a basis causing this emanation inside the object. Meaning in this second stage, then, is conceived as containment. Finally, Bob realizes that meaning is not a stuff buried inside the substance of things at all. In fact, it is exactly the opposite—activity of the subject.
So we begin with the idea that meaning comes, then we run with this and infer that meaning is in, and when this fails we finally turn within and see that meaning is an activity we carry out, the effect of will on imagination. This order, an order of discovery, inner discovery in this case (or, the discovery that the presumed outer was actually inner, project), is the opposite of the three steps above (cognizance, series, base) by which the Buddha’s anti-metaphysics got reified and deified under the pressures made by the donation market. (People give more donations to gods they can see than to “a method of mental training,” which doesn’t make for a comforting object of devotion.)
Why naive realism is not just a mistake
So the comfortable cocoon of naive realism is a dead end, and we found this simply by considering the most common metaphor for our experience of meaning, which is expression. We then found that emanation entails containment. We are naturally comfortable with that. We have benefited well from the hyper-economic assumption, which works for all animals, that the feeling (qualia) of experience are in the object. Terror of death, which is a priori a pain with built in motion compulsion and weighting of places in space, is taken by the giraffe as being “in” the lion it sees. In fact, for the body, this silliness was the first great achievement of the colony-enveloping locomotive proto-agent. The body wants the pilot to tie its care and pain to things in space! This originary act of tying craving to position space in the service of pro-survival movement is the “I”-maker, the world-maker, the meaning-maker, and the value-maker.
So our naive realism, being an innate tendency, is a deep-rooted complex. Which is why Buddhist literature describes the Buddhist path as effortful, as “your own hard work.”
These three phases are just like the Kantian threefold synthesis
Phase One: The moment-long getting of apperception.
The earliest sutras are shockingly pragmatic and anti-metaphysical. The style and language reflect the method. The Buddha “is coming from” a totally other paradigm. If he were not, he would not have a revolutionary message. If his language reified the things-to-be-changed, he would make this very task impossible (if the descriptions are important). So everything is impersonal, mechanical, natural, processual, and systemic. Matter is doing things, biological imperatives arise, subjects arise inside of these, but remember that really just matter is moving.
There are three main words for “mind.” But vijñāna is meant to be the most minimal. We have to use the term to communicate the medicine, but no digging is going on. Instead of a heavy atman or jiva or parusha, there is a floating and mechanical faculty of discernment. Nothing heavy! It’s like the Buddha is saying,
Damn it. I need to point this thing out to finish my sentence. But if they think it’s an ontic element, I might just as well pack up.
Phase Two: The series of discernments. This is like reproduction—you have many things, but they are lined up and ready for you to draw a line through them.
Phase Three: Finally, we take the leap and appreciate how are awareness does survive across time. The evidence? We are aware of the series of my impressions as [all] my impressions. This tiny little move from series as many to series as one is the great lynchpin for all subsequent reification.
Not much later on, the monks realize:
Oh my god, it just occurred to me that, in a way, the discerning faculty … it itself acts like a freaking substrate. Hey roommate, did you hear me? All things conditioned are processual and contingent and have no being—true. The only thing eternal is the unconditioned background within which all this bubbling is going on—true. But if my consciousness can grok that depth of infrastructure, then … “I” must really be something like a substance after all. Because I am aware of all this, even aware of transcendence and the unconditioned, since I’m laying it out here as I’m talking to you.