The Heart Sutra and the Neuroscientist

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The neurosurgeon and the Buddhist practitioner are both intimate with the reality that between the atoms of the electrochemical dance of the brain lies an emptiness of anything at all which is solid and unchangeable, anything on which to lean. How to live in such a world?

I have just finished reading Henry Marsh’s Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery . It struck me as a very honest, unflinchingly human book, both bleak and reassuring, and it led me to consider, not for the first time, what it is that we are.

Marsh writes that he does not believe in an afterlife because he is a neurosurgeon. For him this is a simple equation, an utterly obvious conclusion. It is hard to argue with him without having his experience. While for me the whole world of the brain is extremely mysterious, he is used to dwelling in it, in that electrochemical world, in which it is obvious that interfering with one small, specific piece of flesh will lead to blindness, or to personality change, or to the putting out of the whole system — what we call death.

In material terms it is, of course, obvious that when this system stops working, life ends. Our personalities are also entirely reliant on the functioning of the brain. We can at least explain them ‘backwards’ — if an area is interfered with or removed, there are effects on the personality or even we could say the unique spirit of the person, as when a calm person for example becomes aggressive. But this does not explain where their original calmness ‘came from’. The electrochemical explanation may well be sufficient; if every snowflake is different, surely we are too. But something in people seems to consistently yearn for, or intuit, a source of creation, which would therefore not necessarily be subject to material death.

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While finishing Admissions I was also making a recording of the Heart Sutra, a Buddhist teaching which boldly proclaims the non-existence of everything. I have been somewhat immersed in it for a week now. “Nothing is born, nothing dies, nothing is pure, nothing is stained, nothing increases and nothing decreases, no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no ignorance and no end to ignorance, no old age and death, no end to old age and death, no attainment of wisdom, and no wisdom to attain…” and so on.

The point is not nihilism, but that nothing has an independent solid existence, as a thing apart from other things. This is in a sense reminiscent of Marsh’s reference to life and consciousness as an ‘electrochemical dance’, given that the electrochemical events in the brain are themselves also fleeting constructs of sets of factors and circumstances, or as Buddhists would put it, causes and conditions. There is simply no bottom line to hang onto.

What to do in such a world? Here the brain surgeon and the Buddhist lama are of similar mind. Relieve suffering, as best we can. The brain surgeon does this in an obvious, physical way. The lama, on the other hand, illuminates the fact that we cause our own suffering — on top of the physical pain we all have to face at some point. (And how very grim, in so many of Marsh’s cases, it is, sometimes completely obliterating even the possibility of adding on the extra twist of suffering that the Buddhists refer to. When you are in agony you don’t really care much about holding onto your construct of self: you may actually long for death simply to make the pain stop.) When not in agony, though, we can certainly cause no end of suffering by clinging onto who we think we must be; by trying to mitigate our self-imposed isolation by craving other things, other people; by clinging onto our youth, our bodies, our possessions; all ultimately in order to deal with the fear of death.

The message of the Heart Sutra — that form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form — does not deny that material forms exist and function in a meaningful way in everyday life, and does not deny either that they are ultimately groundless. We need to pay attention to the forms, of course; we need brain surgeons. We also need practices to keep us in touch with the fact that between the atoms of the electrochemical dance is an emptiness, an emptiness of anything we might be able to define as truly independent and lasting.

Through practices like meditation, and the mantra I am currently chanting, it is possible to feel as at home in the world where emptiness and form interpenetrate as the brain surgeon is in the world of flesh and electrochemistry. This may influence the way in which we experience pain of a physical nature, too, but at the end of the day the most accomplished spiritual practitioners and the most accomplished neurosurgeons, the gods of the worlds of emptiness and form, all die; and we do not know what happens then, only what stops happening.

This can be felt as profoundly anxiety-provoking and depressing, the ultimate lack of control. However, it is a well-documented mystery that the experience of meditation, which entails awareness of both the mind’s attempts to control and their ultimate groundlessness, tends to bring a sense of peace. Let’s stay with that.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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