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The Middle Way: The Evolution of the Brain

A talk given by Phiroz Mehta at High Leigh Conference Centre, Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire on 25th August 1984


How fortunate we are to meet once more under these auspicious circumstances. We are met to learn how to loosen the bond of mortality, to remove the veils of ignorance and the cobwebs of illusion and delusion, to fulfil the Way of Wisdom and to make a complete end of all ILL. What better cause can there be for rejoicing, peacefully, silently, singly? We are met to try to lose everything a greed-enslaved world grasps at, to lose the deadly sorrow produced by malevolence and ill-will, fear and suspicion, violence and hate; to lose our senseless pursuit of vain chimaeras, masquerading as noble ideals, or promoting worthy causes, or salving our fellow human beings. We are met to lose our ignorance of Truth. We are met to realize Freedom, Peace, and Purity.

We are met to release the Beauty and Joy of the Buddhadhamma, which is our own dhamma, our own because the Buddha-nature is the dynamic creative energy in the very heart of our being animating every single life-pulse. If we doubt this, if we deny it, then be assured we are a sorrowful burden upon the world, an imposthume, a barb. Then it would be best if we departed and ceased to befoul the sweet air of the sanctuary of holiness. That sanctuary is our own bodily being, the brahmapura, the divine city.

Let us look for a moment or two at a curious piece of evidence of a powerful source of the world’s sorrow. It occurs on p. 58, Vol. 2, of the 1916 reprint of Roget’s Thesaurus of English words and phrases, under list no. 984 which deals with Heterodoxy. Here of 69 substantives, we have the following: backsliding, heresy, Antichrist, superstition, fanaticism, credulity, paganism; Judaism, Mahometanism, Buddhism; etc. Under no. 986, headed Pseudo-Revelation, we have Veda, Zandavesta, Purana, Pitaka; and under false prophets and religious founders; Buddha, Zarathushtra, Confucius, Mahomet, Krishna, etc. The ill-mind, the sick psyche which produces all this is the world’s source of sorrow.

Peter Mark Roget (1779–1869) was an English physiologist and author. Between 1798 and 1846 he wrote several books: on electricity and Magnetism, on Animal and Vegetable Physiology, on Phrenology and on the Economic Chess Board, all of which have gone the way of so much intellectual lumber. But his Thesaurus of words and phrases which came out in 1852 and underwent 12 editions by 1904 by different learned scholars still holds an important place. Let us hope that a future editor, graced with wisdom rather than burdened with learning, will correct the erroneous impressions given by nos. 984 and 986 in connection with the headings of Heterodoxy and Pseudo-Revelation. Maybe, Buddhists can contribute to this desirable consummation.

In the Ruru-deer Jataka, the Bodhisatta says: “For who would willingly use harsh speech to those who have done a sinful deed, strewing salt, as it were, upon the wound of their fault?” In the light of this compassionate teaching, let us refrain therefore, from any stinging criticism of Roget and his editors. And also, following the instruction in Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga (pages 321 and 340 in Banamoli’s translation), we need not waste any energy suffusing these dead men with metta or karuna or mudita; we need only maintain upekkha.

In our 1982 gathering we considered in some detail (1st talk) the Four Signs which were to be the immediate cause of the Great Renunciation, viz., the decrepit aged man, the sick man, the corpse, and the bhikshu. It was the sight of the bhikshu more than any other sight which urged Siddhattha Gotama to go forth from home to homelessness (not to go away for that is a retreat, a defeat, whereas going forth is a going forward towards a fulfilment). He goes forth determined to find the means to save whoever would have faith in him, from the three evils: ageing, sickness, death. Precisely this, in bodily terms, is what he did not find. But what he did find was something beyond all price. He discovered the true meaning of deathlessness, and, he found the Noble Eightfold Path for Its realization.

Deathlessness is the fruit of Nibbana. When sajsara ends, Nibbana is present and the ineffable Peace supervenes. Sajsara ends when all the turmoil of the psyche has ceased. Then the psyche is still and silent, completely empty, perfectly transparent to the light of Transcendence. Prior to that beatific state, the turmoil of the psyche consists of the entire process of unskilled thought-speech-action, born of the receptive functioning of the senses and the ego-centred reactiveness of the brain and the body to all sense impressions. This turmoil is the consuming fever of the psycho-physical organism, ultimately killing it. But if we care to fulfil one of the purposes of our existence, viz. to transform our isolative consciousness into a Unitary whole consciousness, we will probably not die before such fulfilment if we can do what is necessary to cure the fever.

Unskilled thought-speech-action has two aspects: the obviously unskilled which is rooted in greed-hate-delusion, and the subtly-concealed unskilled, which is self-oriented without our being aware of the self-orientedness. Whatsoever is self-oriented, is divisive, disruptive, cutting us adrift from the Unitary Whole. Many a deed which is regarded by the worldly-minded as unselfish, or noble, or philanthropic, usually has a deeply hidden longing for the satisfaction of one’s own self-esteem, or of winning the good opinion or admiration of others, or of gaining spiritual merit. All this is due to the fact that our self-consciousness is isolative and separative. Only in the practical material sphere such self-consciousness is necessary, so that one does not suddenly obstruct a fast-moving bus, or drive off in someone else’s car, or mistake someone’ else’s wife for one’s own.

Unskilled thought-speech-action is unavoidable whilst man lives in bondage to one or other of two extremes: either as the slave of his pleasure-drives or as the tormentor of his finite temporal being, the nama-rupa or psycho-physical organism. So the Enlightened One taught that he who sought Vision (cakkhu), tranquillity (upasamaya), highest knowledge (abibbanaya — i.e. clairvoyance and clairaudience, the iddhis, seeing past habitations, obtaining the certainty of one’s own emancipation), full Enlightenment (sambodhaya), Peace (nibbanaya), such a seeker, the Buddha taught, should walk on the Middle Way. The vast majority of human beings tread the path of self-indulging sensuality. A very small minority, dissatisfied with worldliness, mistakenly tread the self-tormenting ascetic way, blind to the subtle selfness animating them — “I”, the separate self, must find God or Truth, or realize Nibbana. The congenitally lazy ones find the sensual path very agreeable, until its karmic consequences disillusion them. Death makes an end of the self-inflicted misery of all unwise masochists. Only a very small minority have sufficient stamina and intelligence to tread the Middle Way, which in fact is the supremely Happy Way.

The Buddha declared: “He who is neither a self-tormentor nor a tormentor of others, is here-now allayed, quenched, became cool, an experiencer of bliss that lives with self Brahma-become” (M.1.341, to Pessa in the Kandarakasutta). And to the Bhikkhus present on that occasion, he says: “Whoso is possessed of the Ariyan body of moral habit, inwardly experiences the bliss of blamelessness (anavajjasukha). Possessed of the Ariyan control over the sense-organs (i.e. the non entrancement by the general appearance or detail of sense-perception) he inwardly experiences the bliss of being unaffected (avyasekha sukha), because his equanimity and mindfulness are unshaken”. Hence covetousness, dejection and evil psychical states do not afflict him for they cannot arise in him through sense-impressions or memory.

Therefore there is freedom from unskilled thought-speech-action. The turmoil of the psyche is ended. He is now walking easily on the Middle Way, faring along peacefully and happily. Prior to this, he had to strive hard even to step on to the Middle Way, and to maintain himself steadily on it, for the power of the Deceiver and the Binder is very great indeed. That Deceiver and Binder resides within our own brain, our own undeniable heritage through an immense evolutionary span, a heritage no one has the power to refuse to accept.

It is essential to understand and be well aware of our present-day brain structure and how it has evolved. Our brain bears the evidence of the reptilian, the mammalian and the modern stages of its evolution from the inside outwards. Deep inside is the oldest part, the brainstem which conducts the basic biological functions, including heartbeat and respiration. Capping the brainstem is the R-complex, the seat of aggression, ritual, territoriality and social hierarchy. This evolved 400 million years ago in our reptilian ancestors. Surrounding this is the limbic (marking a margin or border) system or mammalian brain, evolved tens of millions of years ago in ancestors who were mammals that were not yet primates. This mammalian brain is a major source of our moods and emotions, and of our care and concern for the young. On the outside is the cerebral cortex which evolved millions of years ago in our primate ancestors.

Vertebrates appeared on the land about 400 million years ago. Basically they were air-breathing fish beginning to modify their fins into primitive legs. About 55 million years later, i.e. 345 million years ago, appeared the egg-laying reptiles. They were succeeded by the mammals who did not lay eggs but gave birth to live young. Intelligent behaviour evolved with the mammals. Their main sub-group came on the scene about 65 million years ago. These were the Primates with relatively large brains, well developed eyes and stereoscopic vision. Gradually they subdivided into four main sub-divisions — the prosimians, monkeys, apes and Man. Man was committed to a ground-living existence and showed certain unique adaptations of his own. Remember that adaptation is the key to evolution.

The development of the cerebral cortex proceeded slowly through vast periods of time occupied by various epochs: Oligocene, early, middle and late Miocene, Pliocene, early, middle, late and latest Pleistocene. Early Pleistocene saw Homo erectus flourishing, followed in mid-Pleistocene by archaic Homo sapiens. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens appears about 45,000 years ago in the latest Pleistocene epoch. He is markedly different cranially and sub-cranially from his archaic predecessor. Cortical activity now begins to play a dominant role.

The importance of the cerebral cortex must not be underestimated. Associated with it are intuition, critical analysis, ideas, inspirations, reading, writing, music, mathematics, insight into Truth. Every energy needs a material apparatus for its functioning and its manifestations. The brain is the apparatus, the instrument for all the forms of expression of the Psyche and of Pure Mind. The cortex is indispensable for Pure Mind; the reptilian and mammalian brains are associated with the entire psychological process and activities of the imperfect and impure psyche, which the Buddha called the defiled mind. Defiled psyche would be a better term. The reptilian-mammalian brain is the instrument of the Deceiver and the Binder.

It may be wiser in our day and age to regard Body in a new way. Throughout the past we have presented the whole man fragmentarily: as atman-buddhi-manas-sarira; as spirit,-soul,-and-body; etc. separated. We have singled out spirit or soul or mind as immortal, eternal essence, indestructible, and hence as the pure, perfect, divine, imperishable. By contrast, the body which obviously is subject to decay, disease, decrepitude and death has been despised, contemned, disparaged and disvalued. Consequently, Man, who is actually made up of everything, who is actually a Unitary Whole, has split himself up into different parts which are constantly in mutual conflict with each other. We regard ourselves as body and mind, as psyche and body. We are incapable of being conscious (not merely thinking of ourselves but being clearly conscious) of ourselves as a single nama-rupa, a single psycho-physical organism. I put it to you that Body is not only a single psycho-physical organism but it is the Totality — creative energy, the whole of the imperishable as well as the perishable — manifested as a microcosm. Such is the self-consciousness of the Perfected Holy Ones. It is identical with Totality-consciousness.

Ordinarily, if we say nama-rupa we are aware of a vnama plus a rupa, two separate ingredients mixed or joined together. We do not have the feel of a single, whole reality. Take a practical example. If we have no knowledge of chemistry and we say ‘water’, we are aware of water as a single element. The study of chemistry tells us that water is a compound of two different elements chemically combined. We also learn that these two elements are gases, Hydrogen and Oxygen, that each has quite different properties from the properties of the other, and that water, the liquid compound formed by their chemical combination has quite different properties from each of its constituents. Water is indispensable for life. Oxygen supports life, but would kill us if we breathed it exclusively beyond a certain limit. Hydrogen is non-poisonous, but if we breathed hydrogen only we would die for lack of oxygen. Yet inspite of our knowledge that water consists of two different gases chemically combined, most of us are conscious of water as a single unitary substance when we drink it or bathe in it. We are not conscious of this liquid as consisting of innumerable molecules of water, each composed of two atoms of hydrogen chemically combined with one atom of oxygen.

Now, can we be conscious of nama-rupa as a unitary whole and not as a mixture of a material body and an immaterial psyche? The time is not far off when we, or at least some of us, will no longer see the body in separative, analytic terms. The body is the Totality. Since we have not yet evolved sufficiently far, we are unable to be Holistically conscious of anything at all; we remain confined to the isolative and separative consciousness characterizing our sub-human stage of development. If we can be Holistically conscious and live continuously in that manner, we can be fairly free from thought-speech-action being in a state of turmoil, of constant conflict. Consequently, nama-rupa can be healthy and serene. Its harmony will find natural expression in thought-speech-action.

Science has amassed an immense amount of knowledge of the body. But it is knowledge of the body as an animate material object. Is there no more to the body than that? Since our consciousness is what it is, we are conscious of the body as a wonderfully functioning organism. If our consciousness were to become much more sensitive, if it were to outgrow its present limitations imposed on it by space, time, successive change, beginning growing and ending, in short by birth and death, in what manner would we be conscious of the body? Would we still be aware of it in terms of the three evils from which the Buddha sought deliverance, viz. ageing, sickness and death? Death is associated in our minds with ending. There is a feel of annihilation involved here. If our consciousness reached the culminating point of its evolution, might we not be aware of it all not as birth and death, but as a constant transformation in Eternity and not in time? In time, there is birth and death. In Eternity there is Creative Action without motion of translation; and this is deathless transformation. Was this the deathless that the Buddha realized, whilst bodily alive? What then is the hidden potentiality in the human body?. We must remember that Man is the Micro-cosm. He is the holographic representation of the Whole of Totality.

Thou art THAT. Thou art BUDDHA.


This is fascinating. Has much to do with the predominant consciousness keeping the wars and wealth inequality ongoing. this is what we are up against with those having a predominance of reptilian consciousness having the upper hand. Does David Icke have a point that reptilian entities from other realms have been controlling the one percent of the one percent?

Alanna Hartzok, 15th December 2017

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Website Developer and Archivist

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