Buddhism Teaches the Cognitive Sciences About Reflective and Discriminative Consciousness

Let’s say you see a red apple, which is all that your eye does for you. It just brings you the sensory image of an apple by somehow translating the outside world into an image for consciousness, but it doesn’t provide the concept that the image is an apple nor does it make the word “apple” arise in the mind. That comes later. It somehow just gives you a mental picture image of a red apple by somehow reflecting the outside world and transmitting that reflection into consciousness. That’s   what the reflective aspect of consciousness does – it gives you the shape, colors, smell, feel of the apple by reflecting the outside world and making it into a consciousness image.

Therefore, what you actually see when you see an apple is not the apple but consciousness. You are just seeing, perceiving, witnessing or experiencing an image in consciousness, but not the apple itself. The image in the mind doesn’t give you any other intelligence beyond the image, so your eyes, ears, tongue, body and nose just give you all these mental impressions which Buddhism calls images or signs. Your five senses are like five soldiers who always make an accurate report to headquarters without adding any commentary or interpretation at all. They just give you all these simultaneous images. But who interprets them?

Without being able to grasp those images and discriminate them out into parts with borders, properties or characteristics, you don’t have a clue that there is something there with a specific meaning as a specific object with specific attributes and characteristics. In other words, besides reflecting the outside world into something internal, consciousness has a function of discrimination that makes this one set of pictures quite different in meaning from another set, otherwise they’d all appear to you as the same.

Okay, let’s take our tasty apple again.  A camera reflects a picture of an apple through its lens to its mirror just like an image passing through our cornea onto our retina, but without a commenting mind the camera lens or mirror just holds an image there. That camera image of the apple is something entirely unintelligible to the camera and which is the same as any other image because there’s no mind to discriminate any differences. Hence you can see what the reflective consciousness does, and what the discriminative consciousness does. One aspect of consciousness gives us images, another gives us meaning.

A mirror instantaneously and indiscriminately reflects in itself forms and images, and in the same way our sense organs provide consciousness with just such a nameless set of reflections or impressions. If you don’t have a discriminating mind, then the images on your left side will look like the images to your right. You could not tell them apart. Only discrimination can make them different from each other. This means there is a portion of consciousness that functions to grab individual objects out of the chaos to make sense of them, which we call the function of discrimination. The objective world is known to us or distinguished by this part of consciousness which distinctly determines individual forms, phenomena or appearances … and by those words I mean sights, sounds, physical sensations, smells and so forth.

You thus have a discriminative consciousness that takes this palate of indecipherable sense impressions and wraps them with words, names and labels from memory to make them into something recognizable. Discrimination, which is a function of consciousness, grasps phenomena out of the indistinguishable sensory consciousnesses, and in this grasping of phenomena discriminates an objective world. It gives you an objective field of separate objects with independent characteristics. It makes judgments or personal reasonings about this world, and has been doing so seemingly forever.

That’s the first part of what Shakyamuni Buddha taught about consciousness. You have a current state of consciousness and it has two aspects. Current consciousness is made up of both a reflective and discriminative consciousness. Consciousness also has an ultimate base, and through meditation you can trace consciousness to this ultimate root. That’s what Buddhist meditation is all about as its fundamental purpose.


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