Buddhism: Are the States of Psychological and Material Space Inter-Connected?

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Space in the mind is a realisable attribute of Chinese Ch’an Buddhist meditation. Admittedly, this is a subjective awareness known only to the experient, but it is an interesting question as to whether the ‘space’ as perceived by this type of subjective experience, is in anyway an interface with material space, which is known to exist in the external world. The Buddhist answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no’ depending upon the tradition trained in. The Theravada School, for instance, states that although the material world is contingently real, nevertheless the mind can be ‘emptied’ of all (suffering-inducing) and reflective content related to its perception. In other words, the mind is ‘emptied’ of certain suffering-inducing content and reactions, but this ‘space’ remains strictly personal and unrelated to the space witnessed in an insubstantial and constantly changing material world. The Mahayana tradition tends to state that just as the mind is ‘empty’ of any substantiality, so is the material world, and that the subjective experience of space equates to the objective experience of space. In certain lineages of the Yogacara, there is an indication that the physical universe might simply be a projection of the mind – but this is a contested issue amongst scholars, as such a purely ‘idealistic’ notion contradicts the Buddha’s numerous statements that the mind (like all external matter) is impermanent.

Of course, if the Buddhist experience of ‘empty space’ is purely subjective, then how can it be ascertained that such an experience is ‘real’ as opposed to ‘imagined’? Other than measuring brain-waves and trying to ascribe some sort of correlation between EEG readings, CAT Scans or MRI data and meditational attainment, this experience remains outside of conventional science. In such circumstance, conventional science usually resorts to measuring behaviour so as to gain an insight into what might be happening in the brain-mind nexus, but in the case of this kind of systemic-shift in psychological functioning, the measuring of behaviour might not be that revealing when viewed from the perspective of everyday life. One interesting example of a profound inner shift which is both dramatic and extreme, is the example of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk (Thích Quảng Đức) who sat apparently ‘unperturbed’ as he self-immolated in protest to the Vietnam War. One US correspondent who was presented, stated that he thought he saw a moment of intense agony sweep across the monk’s face as the petrol was lit, before becoming ‘calm’ throughout what must have been terrible pain. Others simply witnessed an elderly Buddhist monk calmly exit his life – even adjusting his robes at one point during the burning. What the film footage shows is that this monk remained sat upright until life left his body. He did not scream and he did not run.

An interesting question presents itself – is the experience of a profound inner ‘emptiness’, in anyway connected or reflective of empty space as it exists in the universe? Or, is the perception of ‘space in the mind’ merely a psychological construct with no bearing upon material reality? If inner and outer space is in reality the perception of exactly the same thing, why do many meditators ‘reject’ the physical world for an existence of subjectivised isolation? Is the experience of inner space merely a psychological barrier (or ‘comfort blanket’) that insulates the practitioner from the reality of the outside world, or is a life totally immersed in material reality, missing a crucial element of inner human evolution? Of course, not only the Buddhist path, but most meditative methodologies assume that the profound ‘inner’ experience is indicative of a greater understanding of the universe, even though the price of this knowledge is often associated with the whole-sale rejection and denial of the existence and functionality of the material world. This observation would suggest a ‘rupture’ between inner and outer space – but why should this be the case? Certainly, within traditional Chinese Ch’an Buddhism, the ‘empty’ mind is experienced as ‘expanding’ and ‘embracing the entirety of material reality. Whatever this experience is, is a matter of ongoing debate, but the Ch’an methodology does offer an interface between inner and outer space – the thinking being that these two distinct categories represent two-side of the same perceptual coin.

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1 Comment

  1. For me space in my mind is equivalent to the distance I have from my emotions. This extra time so to speak is unbelievably valuable in all my relationships. This is further strengthened by the understanding that there is no separation between subject, object, and action in the outer realms. When one sees space between as clear light mind is drawn to it in profound ways. Especially when mind is seen as a mirror reflecting our projections back to us so that we see them. The trick is to not believe our projections to be real and of lasting substance. They are empty.
    Thanks for the good read.

    QP

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