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Buddhist texts frequently stress the liberating power of prajñā or paññā, metaphysical insight. It is one of the three major components of the path in early texts, one of the six perfections in Mahāyāna. To know the truth about existence – its nature as impermanent, essenceless, unsatisfactory – is to liberate one’s mind and be unattached. In the Pali Vinaya, the Buddha’s first disciples Sāriputta and Moggallāna attain liberation from suffering as soon as they hear the Dhamma Eye: the phrase “Whatever can arise, can also cease.” Śāntideva at Śikṣā Samuccaya 264 says na śūnyatāvādī lokadharmaiḥ saṃhriyate: one who takes the position of emptiness will not be attached to worldly phenomena.

But something seems odd about these claims – perhaps especially to a beginning student of Buddhist philosophy. We might well acknowledge the tradition’s supposed truths as truths – and yet still be just as mired in suffering as we were before. I know I didn’t get liberated upon hearing that what can arise can cease, and you probably didn’t either. David Burton in his Buddhism, Knowledge and Liberation puts the problem well:

I do not seem to be ignorant about the impermanence of entities. I appear to understand that entities have no fixed essence and that they often change in disagreeable ways. I seem to understand that what I possess will fall out of my possession. I apparently accept that all entities must pass away. And I seem to acknowledge that my craving causes suffering. Yet I am certainly not free from craving and attachment. (Burton 31)

So what’s going on here? How is it that one can sincerely state that things are empty, sincerely hold that claim in one’s mind, and yet still feel attachment to those things?

In attempting to answer such questions I have found it extraordinarily helpful to think in terms of the powerful psychological theory put together by Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky, and expounded in Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman provides both experimental evidence – much of which has been successfully replicated, in a way far too rare in contemporary psychology – and intuitive examples like illusions, to demonstrate how much of our thought happens automatically, in ways we are not aware of.


This is not merely a sub-verbal phenomenon, either: it is involved in linguistic and even mathematical activities. If I ask you “2 + 2 = ?” or “What is the capital of France?” you are not able to prevent your mind from supplying an answer; it just comes. And Kahneman shows how a great deal of this unconscious mental activity is erroneous: we think automatically in ways that are demonstrably wrong. An example is the famous Müller-Lyer illusion: if you measure the two lines in this picture you will see that they are the same length, but your mind will still perceive the bottom one as longer.

Kahneman’s work is at some level an exploration of what Freud would have called the unconscious mind, the portion of our mental functioning that we do not control or even perceive. Later research has shown Freud unquestionably right about the basic fact that there is an unconscious mind; what he got wrong was the reasons it exists. I recall one contemporary psychologist putting it beautifully: “The unconscious is unconscious not because it’s repressed, but because it’s not conscious.” To think that repression is what makes thought unconscious, is already to give too much privilege and priority to the conscious mind. The unconscious comes first; we always already have it and are in it. Conscious thought is a very small part of our mental lives. One might well say the bigger puzzle for psychology is not why there is unconscious thought, but why there is conscious thought.

The classical Buddhists did not do Kahneman’s experiments; they had not even seen the Müller-Lyer illusion. But they deeply understood the importance of unconscious thought. When you measure the Müller-Lyer lines, do you believe that they are of equal length? Yes, and no. At the level of your conscious attentive mind you can reason to a belief that the lines are equal; but you still see them as different. It is this “seeing as” that a great deal of Buddhist thought is concerned with. It are why the Buddhist path is not merely a matter of reasoning, but of other practices – including restrained conduct (sīla) as well as meditation. You must train your unconscious mind to deeply recognize what your conscious mind fleetingly affirms. The only reason Sāriputta and Moggallāna could get liberated on hearing the Dhamma Eye is that they had already been on a long path of monastic self-cultivation that prepared them to understand it properly.

The perspective I am attributing here to classical Buddhists – and to Kahneman – is one that I have elsewhere referred to, following Aaron Stalnaker, as chastened intellectualism. But I am wondering at this point whether it even needs an “ism”. Given the number of ways that humans undermine themselves, this point begins to seem like it should be obvious. Aristotle understood it well enough in his theory of akrasia. What may really require investigation is why some Western thinkers, like Descartes and perhaps Plato, ever thought that human thought would be easily transparent to itself in the first place. Burton’s problem may come because we are still too beholden to their mistaken theories of belief.

Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.