At the Edge of the Unknowable

Featured in Mountain Record 24.1, Fall 2005

As I press these keys, feeling their concavity under my fingertips, I am conscious. As you read these words, effortlessly recognizing the shapes of the letters, you are conscious. Every subjective experience has an object, and it rests within consciousness. Whatever I can perceive in seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling or feeling, whatever I think about, is always an object of consciousness. Yet, remarkably and somewhat unnervingly, consciousness itself can never be objectified. It can never be encapsulated, formulated, or even located in time and space. It is the ultimate slippery and ethereal “substance.” Despite my most diligent efforts in concentrating my focus, exercising flexibility of mind, exhausting the wisdoms of spiritual techniques and familiarizing myself with the conclusions of the most recent reductionistic theories, I will never be conscious of the source of consciousness. Consciousness seems to be fundamentally of a different nature—without apparent, or even imaginable, qualities or boundaries.

Although the Buddhist path addresses itself directly to the question of suffering, its cause and its cessation, and although most of us enter Buddhist practice via personal encounter with suffering, to travel this path is to systematically and intimately investigate the nature of our consciousness. Waking up requires that we study that which allows us to wake up. In their quest for clarity, Buddhist practitioners of all schools have for 2,500 years dedicated themselves to plumbing the depths of their minds, emerging from their meditative immersions with descriptions of what they encountered. These descriptions were cogent and consistent, and remain exceptionally relevant today. They include meticulous lists of phenomena making up momentary experience compiled by the Abhidharma masters, dynamic relationships of various levels of consciousness expounded within the Vajrayana tradition, and their transformation into different expressions of non-dual wisdom.

Modern science, having grappled with the basic questions about creation of the material universe and the origins of life, has recently turned to understanding the mystery of consciousness as well. With the new technological capacities for precise brain imaging, high-speed computer modeling, genetic manipulations, and with intensification of the dialogue between researchers and Buddhist meditators, scientists are poised to address the nature of the neural correlates of consciousness, as well as the effects of meditative states on neural activity and somatic growth—subjects at the heart of the body-mind interphase.

This issue of the Mountain Record features writings about consciousness, presenting various texts from Buddhist and scientific traditions. We hope to deepen your appreciation of the questions involved in being conscious, and of the breadth and pivotal importance of this area of human experience. In grappling with our consciousness, we are always on the edge of both the knowable and unknowable

Mn. Konrad Ryushin Marchaj, MRO
Mountain Record, Managing Editor