What does it mean to have a mind? What does it mean to have experiences? These sorts of questions have preoccupied Buddhist philosophers for millennia, and the answers have been the subject of centuries-long debates across traditions. But these sorts of debates are more than just philosophical exercises. Making sense of how and why we experience the world in the ways that we do is also a critical part of practice on the Buddhist path.
Our minds shape our experiences. When I am in an irritated or agitated state of mind, I might experience the music coming from my neighbor’s apartment as intrusive and annoying. But when I am in a calm and relaxed state of mind, I might experience that same music as something that isn’t annoying at all. I might even find it enjoyable.
If we can begin to understand this sort of relationship—namely, that one’s experience is determined by one’s mind—then we might also be able to understand that others don’t always experience the world in the same ways we do. Different kinds of minds, in other words, experience the world differently.
This basic concept lays the foundation for a practice of compassion, specifically, a path of cultivating empathy for others. It is also at the heart of Sonam Kachru’s new book Other Lives: Mind and World in Indian Buddhism (Columbia University Press, 2021), a remarkable exploration of how Buddhism, at its most profound, invites us to get into other beings’ heads.
In some cases, empathy just requires a little imagination. For example, when we encounter someone with a visual or auditory impairment, we can close our eyes or cover our ears and make some sort of guess as to how those particular causes and conditions influence perception. Other perception-shaping causes and conditions might be psychological or societal, leading some people to have interests, preferences, or political beliefs different from our own.
But how can we make sense of other kinds of experiences? What is the difference between waking experience and dreaming experience, for example, or between the experience of a human being and that of some other kind of living thing? What is the experience of a being that exists in another realm? And how, from where we are, do we conceive of any of it?
The Indian Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu (fourth–fifth century CE), in his famous and innovative Twenty Verses, explored these kinds of nonnormative experiences. In this text, in order to give an account of the relationship between minds and the world, Vasubandhu considered experiences in dreams, as well as the experiences of creatures such as hungry ghosts and hell beings. By entertaining thought experiments about dreams and otherworldly beings, Vasubandhu constructed the radical argument that one’s perceptions of the world—and one’s experiences of reality—can be explained without referring to external objects. That is, when we talk about the nature of experience, we can talk about it without also talking about an objective reality that somehow exists “out there” in the world, independent of our minds. The world, in other words, is mind-dependent.
In Other Lives, Sonam Kachru skillfully unpacks these examples from Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses and explains their importance, walking readers through these seemingly strange examples of dreams and nonhumans. In doing so, he offers insights about the nature of experience and the relationship between the mind and the world. Kachru engages so closely with the philosophy of Vasubandhu that he occasionally wanders into some dense and heavy philosophical content, particularly about the question of how we can account for experience without relying on external objects.
But he also speaks broadly, demonstrating through his explanation of Vasubandhu’s thought that our ways of being in the world are grounded in—and in some cases limited by—the ways we have become habituated to perceiving, seeing, and experiencing reality.
Through his consideration of Vasubandhu’s examples of nonnormative experiences, Kachru shows us that, as he puts it, there are many different “ways of being minded.” That is, there are different ways of experiencing our perceived reality. This is important to understand because “being minded” is not unique to waking human experience. Sometimes, as we sleep, we have experiences in dreams. And sometimes, as we cycle through the samsaric processes of death and rebirth, we have experiences as nonhuman beings. But all these different experiences are part of the same mental continuum. Past experiences shape our present experiences; our present experiences, in turn, will shape our experiences in the future.
Vasubandhu’s philosophical opponents acknowledged that in dreams we do have certain experiences but argued that because dreamt experiences are not caused by actual, physical objects, the experience is not real in the same sense that our waking experience is real. If, for example, I eat or drink in a dream, my hunger and thirst are not satisfied when I wake up. Mental events in dreams, it seems, are not causally efficacious; they are incapable of producing real results.
Vasubandhu disagreed with this claim and refuted it with the example of a man who has a wet dream. In this case, a sexual experience in a dream produces physical results in the nondream world. This, Vasubandhu argued, shows not only that the results of experiences in a dream can be manifest in the waking world, but also that experience can be coherently explained without referring to extramental objects.
The only way we can explain the connection between the man’s dream experience and the waking result, therefore, is in terms of his mental continuum. Vasubandhu argued that all we need to give a coherent account of experience is the successive continuum of moments of consciousness; with that continuum, there is no need to refer to the existence of external objects.
This example matters because it helps to break down our assumptions about external objects. Our experiences have continuously reinforced a belief in what Buddhist philosophers call “object–subject duality,” or in Sanskrit, grahya-grahaka, a distinction between an object that is grasped and the subject who is the grasper. If, for example, I perceive external objects that I believe to be independent of my experience, this serves to reinforce the belief that I am something that exists independently of those objects. This, of course, is a problem for Buddhists, as it stands in opposition to basic teachings on both self-grasping and interdependence.
It stands to reason, then, that if we can explain our experience without referring to objects, then we can begin to break down this duality between grasped and grasper, lessening our attachment and ultimately our suffering as well. We can use Vasubandhu’s example of dreams to begin to question whether external objects should be part of the story we tell about experience. From there, we can question how experience works in the first place; if objects are not important for our experience of the world, then perhaps carving the world up into objects and subjects isn’t helpful. The less we rely on explaining the world in terms of objects and subjects, the less we will become attached to objects—or to our own sense of self.
If dreams can give an account of individual experience, suggested Vasubandhu, then imagining the experiences of other kinds of beings can give an account of collective experience. To make his argument, Vasubandhu referred to the experiences of hungry ghosts, who are believed to experience a flowing river as filled with pus and blood rather than water, and to the experiences of beings in hell, who experience being tortured by demons.
Kachru presents these examples with exceptional clarity, skillfully explaining how and why we might want to consider Vasubandhu on his own terms and take his examples at face value, even though he lived in a very different place and time. It might be difficult for some of us, in a contemporary English-speaking context, to take seriously the experiences of hungry ghosts and hell beings. But even if we don’t want to consider the broader cosmological possibilities that traditional Buddhism presents, starting with the realms of hungry ghosts and demonic beings in hell, Kachru’s presentation of Vasubandhu still offers a useful template for making sense of how others experience the world.
It is worth keeping in mind that the consideration of nonhuman experience need not be otherworldly; we can apply similar sorts of reasoning to the animal realm. Science has shown, for example, that dogs can only see limited colors, while mantis shrimp can perceive wavelengths of light in ways that human beings cannot even begin to fathom.
What we learn from this is that for most human beings, there is a certain spectrum of color we can perceive, conceive, and experience—but this particular spectrum is not the only way that color can be experienced. Something human beings label as “red” might be perceived by a mantis shrimp as many different wavelengths of light, while for a dog, it might be indistinguishable from other colors. These kinds of experiences are, once again, mind-dependent; they are complete for us, but there is more to the story. In other words, colors cannot be explained without referring to the kind of mind that is experiencing them.
A being’s particular way of “being minded,” as Kachru puts it, determines one’s experience of the world. We need to understand this, at least in part because it can help us reframe our ways of engaging with reality. If we can come to recognize that our experience is just a factor of the ways that our mind works, and not merely a condition of responding to external objects, then we can begin to lessen our attachments to the things that we perceive. We can begin to break down the object–subject structuring that causes suffering.
“There is no one type of experience that can serve as the norm for another model of mindedness,” writes Kachru.
“Nothing but another world can give Vasubandhu a model for having experience as if in a world.” This is important.
If, as Vasubandhu demonstrated, it is possible to give a coherent account of the experiences of beings vastly different from ourselves, then it should also be possible to give a coherent account of the experiences of human beings in our world who view the world differently, or who experience reality in ways other than our own. If we can take Vasubandhu’s examples to heart, we might be able to more readily engage in difficult conversations with those with whom we disagree. In doing so, we can gain a deeper sense of our own borders of perception—and we can glimpse, or at least acknowledge, the infinite wavelengths that construct our shared reality.