question How do we know about the world? Via the body, perception, sense consciousness and so on, all dependent on this embodied state. But how seldom our awareness rests within this body; how seldom the body and mind are at ease with themselves. We seldom think about our bodies; they are something given. When they work well and provide us with pleasure and happiness, we are satisfied with them and then ignore them. Only when they stop working properly, do we attend to them, and then only as a teacher to an errant pupil; we are angry and disappointed that they have failed us. We have a strangely ambivalent attitude to something so vital to us. It’s not like our relationship with a car; we can’t go out and hire or buy another one when it breaks down; yet we often treat our cars with more care and consideration.
We are born into this body, and when it dies, we die. But does one choose this body or decide its dimensions? Is one even able fully to control it? Can one choose when one wakes, goes to sleep, is ill, is healthy? No, most of what occurs with respect to the body is involuntary. We know, for example, that the body has various repair mechanisms, but it is very rare that we can set these in motion ourselves. Is this what we are, these arms, these legs, this head, eyes, teeth? With modern techniques, an awful lot of it can be made prosthetically. And so what are we? The bit that remains? The brain, two ears and so on? Or is this perhaps not how it is at all, not what we are at all? If the body were simply us, we would have a great deal more to say in the matter!
answer The lion’s share of our body’s activities is fortunately under the control of our peripheral nervous system, which includes the autonomic nervous system. ‘The sensory nerve fibres of the peripheral system carry impulses from e.g. the ear or the skin to the brain, and its motor nerve fibres carry impulses from the brain to e.g. our skeletal muscles. The autonomic nervous system comprises a sympathetic and a parasympathetic system which counterbalance each other. Together they run, for example, our heart rate and the flow of blood through our blood vessels, the contractions of our digestive tract, the ever-changing size of the pupil of the eye, the dilation and constriction of our bronchii, etc.’ We do not think that you would want to have a conscious say in these matters.
You will agree that these nervous systems carry out very complicated and, above all, indispensable and irreplaceable functions. But the relevant fact in the present context is that the systems are things (that belong to the rupa skandha) and what they carry out are not things but activities, processes (that belong to the arupa skandhas). A thing and what that thing does are not two things; they are a thing and an, its, activity or function, and an activity is an event, not a thing. It is for this same reason that Advayavada Buddhism stresses again and again that the mind is not a separate thing but one more function of the body; the mind is to think (and consciousness is to know) and to think is not a thing but an activity, a process, which is an event, not a thing. A mind that is in any way a thing separate from the body, and moreover carries out activities on its own and by itself, is an atman or pudgala, or a soul. To propound that such a thing exists, as you seem to do, contravenes the Buddha’s most basic anatman teaching.
Bearing in mind that the traditional khandhas or skandhas theory is but a very rudimentary presupposition of the actual physiological processes, earlier on we had this to say about the skandhas in this respect: The skandhas in fact do nothing – they are the doing. The cluster of physical existence is the rupa skandha. Also this cluster does nothing – it is physical existence in all its aspects. The four or so non-physical skandhas [traditionally sensations or feelings (vedana), perception (samjña, sañña), mental forces or formations (samskara, sankhara), and consciousness (vijñana, viññana)] are clusters or aggregates of functions, which are events – they denote how the rupa skandha is over time. The rupa skandha does not cause these events, it is them. Like when we say that a tree grows. The tree does not do the growing; it is the growing. This is how the tree is, how it exists in space and time. The growing of the tree is quite obviously an event, and not a thing, let alone a separate thing capable of in turn doing other things by itself. We owe the cohesion and activity of the rupa skandha to the spontaneous incessant dynamic principle of existence: the interdependent and conditioned co-arising or interdependent origination or universal dynamic relativity of all phenomena, called pratityasamutpada in Sanskrit.
important note Advayavada Buddhism supports the view that consciousness (to know) is a biological phenomenon. All living beings – plants, animals and humans – experience the world in their own ways. Each organism engages in a creative relationship with the external world, bringing forth a myriad of different ways of knowing, whereby the physiology of the organism changes accordingly (immanently) in the process.