The System of Ichinen Sanzen: A Contribution to a Theory of Cognition

The System of Ichinen Sanzen: A Contribution to a Theory of Cognition

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Henri Atlan (2000) has described as ‘intercritical’ the field in which scientific knowledge and religious understanding interact and where one can reflect on man and his values, considering biological dimensions and myths which traditionally are considered separate in western thought. With this in mind, we brought closer together the principles of the Buddhist system of Ichinen Sanzen (SIS), three thousand realms in a single moment of life, to the theories of complexity, seeing this approach as a contribution to a model of cognition which incorporates knowledge, self-knowledge and values.

In order to advance these reflections, we have resumed a classical discussion on the relationship between science and religion, forms of knowledge which have become separated in western culture by representing different systems and strategies to reveal life’s mysteries and its enigmas. Science considers religious understanding as a valorative dimension of life. Its teaching is strongly imbued with mystical experiences, by reason of which it is seen as erroneous and fundamentally opposed to a rational and empirical understanding of scientific phenomena. With such a restricted view, it is common for science not to consider religious systems as cognitive models through which man can understand the world, life and himself. But what is important is that religious systems admit error and consider it an important factor to self-knowledge, which we call a cognitive activator, to evaluate experience and improve human qualities.

For this reason, notwithstanding the reasons why science and religion was characterized and have been separate, we consider the role played by error and illusion in the cognitive process, since the singular development of human brain during the evolutionary process of Homo sapiens suggests there may cerebral instances which have a mutual effect on one another.  These influences act like noises or interference, which causes errors of judgment and a distorted perception of reality.

The theories of complexity considered here allow uncertainty and hazard in the order/disorder dynamic which permeates life and the necessary unity between nature and culture.  In this aspect we also consider human cognition in two aspects, a biocultural process that involves the human brain, its physical aspect and the world of values, the subjective and environmental conditions in the open dynamic of mental structuring and restructuring.  But the non-material aspects of cognition, like emotions, anger, happiness, are frenquently considered disturbances in comparison of rational dimension of brain, that is why the cognitive sciences tend to ignore their importance for the process itself and thereby ending up seeing human cognition in a reductionist way, that is, as a logical-formal process, or computation.  But if we consider the emergency of cousciouness we agree with David J. Chalmers (1997) who assures us that the conditions which enable the emergence of consciousness escapes the net of reductive explanation (p. 93).  It is in this multidimensional space, so resistant to delimitation, that we encounter error, illusion and noise which derive from a subjective perception of reality acting on and with rationality.  Given the complex nature of religious knowledge, we can establish a useful dialog to explain scientific questions related to the role of these “deviation” for the human condition.

The Buddhist tradition has a number of advantages when we face the challenge of understanding human cognition by way of religious tradition as an attempt to get away from the closed and linear models suggested by scientific modes of thought. The principal one is that it does not see human actions that are to be either rewarded or punished in the context of a transcendental being with moral characteristics. Man has within him the capacity to understand all phenomena by acquiring self-knowledge. That is why Buddhism is a religion of responsibility and not of guilt; is centered on man, his actions and his connection with the world. Its principal requirement is that we must be prepared to experiment, that is, it is a daily exercise of self-control to direct our actions in such a way that we are not merely following our earthly desires but to attach a high level of life. For this reason Buddhism is better seen as a means of self-improvement rather than a religion or a philosophy.

Its second characteristic is that the Buddhist way of understanding life does not mean that if we commit errors we are condemned to a dire fate. On the contrary, as man has to live by action, errors and illusions are necessary parts of being able to understand our own nature, so that we may face up to and confront our own limitations, thereby acquiring the freedom to decide and determine the correct path. In this sense, Buddhism always has recognized the operative value of error and illusion, which arise from the poison of personal attachments, but in a relative way. If in one hand they prevent humans from seeing life’s events in their true light, in the other hand they can also be seen as valuable instruments for man to understand himself, his nature and uniqueness; they are means to achieve enlightment or understanding. Ignorance and wisdom are both related to human desires and are two sides of the same coin, of the attachments of desires that turn into errors and illusions. That is, they act into our subjective world and like a mirror is reflected in environment. They are as noises to human cognition, restructuring the subjective world and becoming agents to higher levels of cognitive complexity.

The SIS of Mahayana Buddhist tradition and its integrated understanding of life help us to understand the interrelationed aspects of mind and experience, essential to a theory of human cognition. This relationship allows us to bild a bridge between man and his world. Not only does it reveal what is outside, it also reveals his interior condition. With this in mind, T’ien-t’ai, a Chinese sage who idealized the system, abstracted it from the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law. The SIS is also called the mutual possession of the ten world states interacting with the ten factors of individualization. This systemic unity is contained in three realms of existence; the realm of living beings, the realm of five components and the realm of environment.

In conclusion, in order to explain human cognition we propose a hybrid model based on the Buddhist tradition of Ichinen Sanzen and the theories of complexity.

Science and religion

Science and religion, each in its own way and using its own means, attempt to find answers to the fundamental questions of life, man and existence. Nevertheless, even with this common anthropological substrate, the East and West religious differ of each other in important ways. The major and most significant of these differences is that religious thinking in the West paved the way for the development of scientific thought in a way that could not have happened in the East, where religious principles are based on the fundamental belief that the universe is interconnected, body and mind, man and the world, interior and exterior, subject and object. For this reason, knowledge is intimately connected to a subject’s own experience. For scientific thought to be possible, the outside world, the environment and its objects had to be external and independent of the subject.

The scientific way of thinking separated thought and reality, in order to abstract nature´s laws which govern the phenomena observed by the scientists.  Science, as a modern discurse on the world and a specific way of acting, stabilishes specific rules, procedures and methods by means of which its truth may be tested. For this reason, science repels religious understanding because it does not submeet itself to empirical evidence under the light of reason. In order to establish the authenticity of its claim to interpret phenomena accurately, science uncouple of values that imbues the subject, proceeding the separation of its imeadiate experience. Consequently, scientific truth and values – which the subject imputes to objects -, become separate.

We can see this separation through the West history. Since the beginning of its philosophy, Christianity has separated the sacred from the profane, the world of man from the world of God, as we can find out in the St. Augustine writings, who was influenced by the dualist philosophy of Plato. The understanding that there exists a perfect and infinite being, beyond the imperfections and finite existence of men, by degrees, formed a singular view of the cosmos, the Western vision, which impregnated the paradigm of classical science. The Chrstianity when created a specialized space of the sacred for its rituals apart from the environment, unligitemated the world´s cosmogonic and cosmologic expression of non-institutionalized religious traditions. Time became radically separated from the rhythms of nature, which had formed an integral part of the traditional beliefs of Western paganism. For this reason, it can be asseverated that the origin of scientific retreatment of the subject from the phenomena which it investigates to abstract universal laws as valid truth for all places and all times, may be found in the institutional religion, as the Christian.

This form of thinking which separates the real from the ideal world, was deeply rooted in the thinking of the XVII century, in which modern science first began to blossom, that was naturelized throughout the Middle Ages. This kind of thought can be seen taking shape in Cartesian philosophy which considered the problem of divine transcendence for the rational mind. From the point of view of Alexandre KoyrÈ (2001), Descartes’ answer to this problem was to relegate the divine to infinite space. But in doing so, he nevertheless did admit the existence of God, thus making him part of the major intellectual revolution of modern times, the scientific. When discussing the finiteness or infiniteness of the universe, Descartes was juxtaposing, by analogy, an infinite and perfect creator God with finite and imperfect man and left them separate to concept a method of apprehending the reality: Science, philosoph, even theology, are, all of them legitimately interested in questions about nature of space, the structure of matter, the patterns of action and, last but not least, nature, structure and value of human thinking and of human science (KoyrÈ, 2001, p. 2).

Science, apparently freed of the inconvenient presence of a creator who opposed the development of rational means of understanding the laws of nature, was able to become an autonomous and universal language. But paradoxically it was religious thought, implicit in a modern form of thinking which enabled what we call scientific thought. Scientific thought’s familiarity with God would permit an analogous process of elaboration to explain the same world in his absence, as science does when it abstract the laws, concepts and theories etc.

These considerations, which place the presence of the divine at the center of discussion about scientific thought, even though we consider their differences, help to clarify difficulties in approaching the relationship between religion and science wherever they occur.  As, although the separation between science and religion have nothing to do with knowledge, anyway transcendental, both diverge concerning the nature of this transcendentality, one is rational, the other dogmatic.

In fact, it is difficult to find a basis or procedure which would guarantee that the criteria belonging to each remain valid in relation to fundamentals of their scientific and religious practices and systems for explaining the world (Stengers, 2002), and at the same time finding a point of intersection which might resolve questions which individually neither is capable of. Science does not need faith to guarantee the validity of its arguments as well as religion has no need of the rationality to adopt the perspective of faith, since science has abstained from going beyond the explanation about life’s enigmas. One of the major mysteries of life is death, a barrier which science is not willing to cross; whereas religion has created metaphysical explanations which offer existential consolation to this primordial question.

Let us outline the problem. On the one hand the basis of scientific thought is structurally analogous to Judeo-Christian thinking, which, allied to Greek thinking, uncoupled knowledge from experience. The development of Western knowledge is closely linked in decontextualizing the reality to represent it in thought, in mental spaces, allowing the creation of concepts and laws representative of the behavior of phenomena. But the western thinking confused the strategy in approaching a phenomenon with its own manifestation. When the scientist distanced itself from its experience of life, presupposing that scientific truth was crystalline and perfect and that man imputes values to reality which does not permit it to be discovered, it relegated other forms of knowledge to mere superstition. On the other hand, knowing the human knowledge separating the subject from the knowledge itself is a problem that had already been pointed out by Francisco Varela et. al. (1993) when he discusses the integrated process of cognition and experience. The point at issue is, how cognition can be accepted as such, without involving both the subject and object of that knowledge.

Let us therefore move away from the supposition that the subject acts by virtue of his contingency in the world, imputing values which emerge from and lead to the experience in the sense of subject knowing the world and itself. The subject and his world share the same existential reality as part of the same indissoluble bond. But that is not all. Apart from this, as Varela et al. observe:

“Even the most hard-nosed biologist, however, would have to admit that there are many ways that the world is – indeed even many different worlds of experience – depending on the structure of the being involved and the kinds of distinctions it is able to make.  And even if we restrict our attencion to human cognition, there are many various ways in which the world can be taken to be” (Varela et al. 1993, p. 9).

This variety of worlds is considered by the SIS which implies in how subjective and objective dimensions of cognition can be integrated. This variety is more than just a set of the possibilities of existence. The manifestation of one world depends on an affirmation of the subject who has to consider his choices in social and cultural terms, that is, ethically. In summary, the system clarifies the brain’s mutual dependence in relation to both behavior and experience. Its dynamic is concerned with changes which bring about ever-increasing complexity, and which are part of becoming more aware of its own mental processes which are needed to understand that world. Moreover, because its constitution, it seems the human brain works by interference of noices, to its improvement, which in the beginning is recognized as errors.

With this sense in mind, we are not talking about a simple circularity which we put in one side brain structure and in the other side behavior/experience, even they are exercing mutual influence, (Varela et al. 1993, p. 10) since in Buddhism the separation of mind and “reality” is an illusion. We suggest a form of cognition which is auto-eco-dependent, like a spiral model, in which events which might be considered noise are in fact basic conditions for the development of human cognition.

Instead of a cognitive model which is simply circular we prefer the image of a spiral. In the spiral model it is possible to see the interrelation of the structure of the brain and behavior/experience, where there exist, continuity and discontinuity, change and preservation. This model elucidates the problem outlined by Varela et al. (1993) which is even in the absence of a self there is an integration of factors which allows someone to recognize himself all over the time through the changings.

In the spiral model one can look not only at the structure (which allows us to identify something that remains, what makes it into a spiral), but also at changes (the quality of each ring).

From one ring to the next there is something that leads to more complex levels of development. The advantage of this model is that it permits to conceive changings in an open and incompleteness cognitive system, more appropriate when we consider the evolution of the human specie, that is, the biological aspects, and the emergency of culture, simultaneously, in complete interation.




The image above inspires the following considerations and analyses, and guides the construction of a model of human cognition in the light of SIS.

Cognition and complexity

For Atlan, religion has always dealt with ethical questions faced by the impasses put in its way by existence:

It is peculiar to the narrative of the mith to be repeated generation after generation, in an amplifying repetition in which the letter of the commentary and the commentary of the commentary, serve as a new text to be commented which is a pretext for new interpretations (Atlan, 2000, p.15).

It is in this context of mythical narration that questions inherent in the human condition may be update again and again. Atlan works with the biblical narrative of cabalistic interpretation and holds that the transformations in the human condition which in this century or the next appear to be inevitable, may not be so unheard of after all (Idem.p.18), that is, theycan be found latent as eternal enunciation of the human condition.The Buddhist cosmovision of the SIS reveals the human possibilities of life linked to the mind. With a basis in the elements of this religious system and the problems raised by complexity theories it is possible to highlight some questions relate  to life, experience and cognition. More fittingly this approach finds an intercritical space for the problem of error to the human mind.

In the cognitive model we are constructing it is important to consider and reinforce the role that noise1 has in the constitution of the mind, which is close to the Buddhist understanding of illusion as a factor which leads it to error. On this perspective the reality is distorted because we do not use the capacity of observation we have of the external world to observe our own selves. Seeing only the impressions the world makes on us, we don’t use the ability to observe our own mental state connected with the environment to recognize the poisons of attachment, anger, greed and foolishness which interfere in the rational dimension of mind.  But even though they may be poisonous they nevertheless remain part of the human condition, as seen by the Buddhism. This understanding of man can be found in the Lotus Sutra. Attachments and earthly desires, though poisonous, activate higher reflection, to access Buddhood and perfect knowledge.

Atlan (1996) speaks about the need of noise in self-organization of systems to reach higher levels of complexity. In the said Buddhist tradition, once the function of such desires is recognized, it is possible to see how the mind may be restructured by means of the practice of observation of its varying states. Analogously, in Atlan’s view, the principles of organizing and reorganizing life acquire the maximum complexity in human beings by virtue of the refinement, refinedness and efficiency with which the psychic apparatus works.

The presence of noise in the constitution of the mind is of fundamental importance in understanding the evaluated organization of experience. The subject’s intellectual repertory, formed throughout life, gives order and sense to his inner and outer universe. New facts and informations which impinge upon this order allow what is already known to advance, even though initially the subject´s conceptual universe comes into disorder and then to acquire new significance, as occurs when we follow certain religious, philosophical or scientific principles which interfere in the way we understood the world prior to their acceptance. New understanding can only really be incorporated into the system after undergoing a process of “resignification” and adjustment in relation to experiential data, so that a new way of explaining the world can be created.

The cognition, as mental activity does not occur merely as a localized process, exclusively cerebral, as many scientists think but right at the cellular level, in which the whole body is mobilized to understand (Atlan, 1996; Maturana and Varela, 2001). As Edgar Morin said, knowledge effectively cannot be an object like others, because it is the means to understand other objects and also to understand itself. (Morin, 1999, p.28). 

So we have to include in the studies of human cognition that favors its development. The events, the unexpected, the hazars unmake rigid pre-established schemes and reconstruct the world in other terms resulting from a reflexive attitude promoted by self-knowledge, which is capable of leading to new creative syntheses by means of the cultural psyche, a term used by Edgar Morin (2005), which involves self-analysis, self-criticism and self-improvement to incorporate an ethic, from individual towards the world. The principal aim of the cultural psyche, according to the author, is to overcome inner barbarism, favoring an ethic which comes from itself and is for itself, an ethic of understanding, of cordiality and friendship, by the practice of self-observation. However, such observation, contrary to what is often believed, is not just the practice of simple relaxation or calming the mind, although these may indeed be helpful. Its practice involves a difficult contact with the mental world:

The practice of introspection is extremely difficult, because it finds innumerable traps due to:

  • the interior complexity of the spirit which comprehends the potential multipersonality in each one of us;
  • the blind zones and their needs which make us extremely lax with our own mistakes but very severe when dealing with those of others;
  • the self-deception, that is, to bad faith or lack of good faith;
  • the both selective memory and forgetfulness, to the belief in pseudo recollections;
  • our tendency to self-justification which always transfers errors or failures to others;
  • the hatred that blinds us, to creative sentiments (Diel);
  • The unfair resentment, quos laeserunt et oderunt, he whowounds himself, hates himself (Seneca) (Morin 2005, p. 94).

On the other hand, the confrontation with our own subjective state allows the operative role of error and illusion to emerge, not only for our understanding of cognition but also of the human condition, and of the improvement of the subject’s qualities. Errors and illusions are often covered by rationalizations which try to justify the adoption of evaluative schemes to see the world in a distorted way. Justifications and rationalizations constitute a closed system of knowledge where the conceptual universe justifies the actions of the subject who feeds on his own values which allows justifying the logic he needs to live. Differently to this understanding, the knowledge has limits imposed by the subject’s constitution, his contingency in the world and supposes overcoming egocentricity. It presupposes a practice of self-observation that goes beyond the world of personal desires, even though in a first moment they are a necessary part for this overcoming egocentric phase.

There is another aspect of subjectivity that needs to be considered. As the knowledge is a translation and a construction of the subject, all observation and conceptualization should include knowledge of the observer who conceives it, in other words, there is no open knowledge without self-knowledge.  The open and complex rationality is defined by its opposition to rationalization. It comprehends the knowledge of its own incompleteness, the dialog between the irrationalized and the irrationalizable, and the confrontation with the complexity (which includes the inseparable, the uncertain and even the irrationalizable) (Morin, 2005 p. 201).

Rationality and rationalization are both parts of the same process of cognitive evaluation. It is important to emphasize that a contribution to complex thought is found precisely in the distinction and explanation of a process which includes evaluation of experience as a component of human cognition. It means, in the materialility of life there is a vital element that man needs to construct comprehensive knowledge, as self-awareness, which enables  him to avaluate his experience.

The brain interacts with the world of experience and with which obtains significance. That is, the world of experience acquires a human mental dimension. But error, as interference, covers the perception of reality since the emotional tie takes over the object colouring the subject’s evaluation.  But what is error? And what is not? Neither error nor truth can exist by per si. Error and truth can only be defined by taking into account references, models and principles in an absolute way. The question relates to the world of values and the variety of choices, in cultural system.

These considerations make us consider the close relationship between the brain and its context which ativates man’s inner states with which he perceives and evaluates what he sees. The fundamental man’s constitution can be found in his biological condition, in the culture and influences of his inner world. This tripod put in action his subjective perception of the external world, resulting in a symbiosis which activates models of cognition and an evaluation of reality. His biological and physical constitution, his family and social environment and the disposition of his personality form a repertory to translate and represente the reality. To the known repertory new elements are added, reorganizing it into a new order which enriches the new understanding of reality. In this sense, theres isn’t any real frontier between the subject and the world. Attempts to limit man to only one of his dimensions, whether biological or sociological also disappear. Boris Cyrulnik (2000) states in MemÛria de macaco, palavras de homem (Memory of a Monkey, Words of a Man):

Human and natural conditions exist coordinating themselves in a ceaseless interaction in which each dimension modifies another. This interaction needs evaluative models of reality. The model chosen lends sense to what has been observed and adds either a logic or delirious tonality to the same fact (Cyrulnik, 2000 p. 49).

This perception of the world passes through a neurosensorial selection. In such selection the interpretation of information operates within a repertory of “desires”, knowledge and mental attitudes, also influenced by culture, personality and language: To the inevitably organic dimension of the mind another super-organic dimension is added which not only permits the brain to allow the psyche to work but also receives impressions from its surrounds. (Idem, p. 70).

The hipercomplex activity of the human brain, responsible for the above processes in which a simple observation becomes a prodigious work of neuro-imaginary creation (Cyrulnik, 2000 p. 66), demonstrates the possibilities of the human mind. The bio-socio-cultural dimensions share and cohabit the same complex brain-mind-environment unity. New information can cause a cognitive reorganization capable not only of lending coherence to what is seen, but also a qualitative leap in the data of known experiences.

Events as desviation of order, or noise, play a fundamental role for human specie. The tri-unique human brain (Mac Lean, 1970)  –  understood not in the juxtaposition of evolutionary cerebral inheritance, that is, reptilian, mammal and neo-cortex, but as instances of a complex unity –, is a compositon of competences which communicate through dealing from primitive feelings to refined rational interpretations of observed phenomena. This constitution of the brain, which has developed in the course of human evolution, has shown it is capable of moving forward to ever more complex levels of cognitive elaboration. But that is not all. What is more interesting is to investigate possibilities already put forward in the Buddhist tradition. Could communication among theses competences not already be suggesting that one might act as noise to another? Could the emotional competence for the rational understanding, for instance, not initially be a destructuring factor but which later might rearrange experience into a new evaluative order?

Interference, which brings in the new, represents the incompleteness character of the human species and its own knowledge (Morin, 2002). The hypothesis described above is concerned with the communication of the aforementioned competences which are capable of creating new order from disorder, always activated in the sense of evaluating the reality in order to confer significance on it.  

In sum, in this conception of human cognition, natural and cultural conditions constitute man. Both dimensions interact and have a mutual influence. The human condition is condensed in the contingency of a porous body, a term used by Cyrulnik, which is capable of circumstancing in a singular way the exchange of information with the environment. This, associated with biological considerations, influences the individual both positively and negatively. This suggests that it is possible to transform a negative experience as a source of acquiring knowledge, given the dynamic character of transformations in the intellectual world which occur as a consequence of new facts wich are modifying elements in the constituted repertory, such as the difficulties encountered throughout life, that when dealt with internally become significant advantages.

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964) when comparing the complexity of organization of the human brain with that of animals verifies that the codification and transmission of information in man, by means of the exchange of codes which create new information, is really extraordinary. However, the manifestation of this innate capacity is only probable. It can only develop fully through the process of learning. Society plays a crucial role in the biological possibilities of human species. Other species, on the other hand, such as ants, have a collective organization with defined functions, but this does not guarantee the development of language. This is a characteristic of man, although it is only a biological potentiality (Wiener, 1933 p. 75).

Maturana and Varela (2004) in turn also speak of this potentiality when they discuss the case of two Indian girls found in 1922 living with a family of wolves. Because they were brought up by these animals, they acquired the same behavior as them, like moving on all fours and eating raw meat. This schooling by the wolves not only taught them wolf-like behavior, it also changed the chances of them being able to become fully human. After they were rescued, they learnt how to walk upright. One of them, however, never coped with her new way of life and died. The other girl never became fully human and used to return from time to time to her old habits, acquired living with the family of wolves. (p. 143 – 146).

It is important to note with this example that walking on two legs and other acquired human behaviors and attitudes are potentials that may be realized or not depending on what is or is not learned. Being bipedal is at the same time natural to the species and learned collectively. To realize our human destiny, which is at the same time natural and cultural, such characteristics which are considered to be natural are in fact naturalized as they are learned, that is, acquired.

The human ability to learn, which is based on neurological and neuro-imaginal configurations, pushes the species to live in colletivety. If, on the one hand, the biological dimension leads the realization of human living together in society, then it is only in society that man can experience the adventure of knowledge. It is in codification and decodification and the infinity of arrangement of signs in its repertory, that lays the freedom of evaluating. That seems to be based on the plasticity and flexibility of the human brain, although it is not limited to them, as this novelty in man originally emerged from the possibilities of the species realizing themselves in some way, rather like a miracle. We may suppose that, by virtue of man’s plasticity, all the possibilities ever experienced by its lineage will emerge, going back to its cellular origin in the seas. (Morin, 1970, p. 81). 

Life’s events need to be evaluated, as well as positive or negative values attached to them, depending on the imprints of individual and cultural experience and the effects of learning through the intentional action of teaching human beings. Everything depends on the form of interactions between the subject and the world. Knowledge acquired by the subject is experienced in a unique and singular way, within the possibilities of the species, personal relationships in society and the individual’s world. This configuration of being shows the routes and the possible choices, given the infinity of elements that can be arranged.

It is possible, therefore, to choose routes and strategies which lead to understanding the importance of our contingency in the world. But for the Buddhist right-thinking means being able to discern between possible choices, which take into account both self and the other as two but not-two, as a fundamental principle of living.

From this a pragmatic proposition arises to teach us how to judge and evaluate experience, and describe some images of the world which project positive values to make human existence happier and more worthwhile. It is gaining mastery in using these images that the educator or master requires to create a new man, who assumes responsibility for his actions and for the immediate order, in which his experiences acquire actual, concrete and effective significance. That why human education does not take place only in one phase of life, but as part of an ongoing and incomplete process.

Because Buddhism is a religion of human responsibility – perhaps more properly a way to knowledge – it turns to self-knowledge without conceiving the presence of a transcendental being, external to man. In view of this, the tradition offers a more secure perspective in understanding human cognition as a complex system.

Description of the SIS helps us to understand the open nature of cognition in which events, such as noise, may invoke states of being in symbiosis with the means of “constructing” reality in accordance with the levels of complexity of its development. The universe of values is inserted into the subjetc’s world in accordance with biopsychological factors of individualization and the cultural and social context, which mutually influence understanding and interference in the environment.

To summarize, we will indicate some important notions for understanding the importance of error in human cognition. The evolutionary development of the human brain has produced a tri-unique structure which retains the history of evolution. Moreover, this complex biological organization only acquires human dimension in terms of creating a symbolic world and conferring significance on worldly objects through learning, that is, by interaction with other human beings. But as opposed to a reductionist and divided view of man, these instances have a mutual influence on one another. Emotion, instinct and reason live side by side in the same complex unity and interact in a way that colors what is seen according to one’s mental state. It can be said that some states are more instinctive and emotional, others more rational but all of them have to interacting simultanously to humans be properly humans. The SIS helps us to understand how these instances interfere in the perception of reality and man’s actions in relation to his environment.

The cognitive system of Ichinen Sanzen: two but not-two.

Ichinen Sanzen, three thousand worlds in one moment of life or a single moment of life (Ichinen) or one mind, one thought or one moment-of-thought, was formulated by the learned Chih-I (538-597), also known as T’ien-t’ai in the 6th century BC in China. The Chinese sage studied the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law, Saddharma-pundarika-sutra in Sanskrit, which was translated by Kumarajiva, Indian philosopher, into Chinese in 406. It consists of six volumes and 28 chapters.

This Sutra remits us an image of flower growing in the mud. The muddier its soil is, the more pure and beautiful the flower will be. For the Buddhist, the mud represents our humanity, which is limited by the sufferings of life and dominated by worldly desires. In this view, suffering is an integral part of life. There is nothing we can do to avoid it. Pain is present at birth and follows us throughout life in one form or another until death. On the other hand the Sutra reveals that, for things and being to existe, there must be a prime cause, a close intimacy with life, capable of engendering them. Environment and beings form a link in this causal intimacy. All and everything is entwined in this inherent condition of life which causes us to exist, as in the meeting of sperm and egg or the seed in relation to the land. What makes possible a cause and creates an effect is called karma, an action which leads to existential patterns and is manifest through thoughts, words and actions in the world.

The Lotus Flower and its anatomy suggest another perception of the subject and object of knowledge. It evidences the inseparability of man and his world. Subject and object are symbiotic and retroaliment themselves. Although they seem to be autonomous they demonstrate an intrinsic contradiction. But the essential and intimate coexistence of both, without which there could be neither unity nor individualization, make them complimentary, necessarily. This unity formed by subject and object is very difficult to conceive. Oriental philosophy turns to the Lotus Flower for an explanation without words. It expresses such paradoxes by a non-principle. This primordial one creates at the same time the two and variety, but they do not diverge when seen as part of its original unity. The flower is a metaphor used to teach something which is difficult to grasp, namely the simultaneity of cause and effect. To the Buddhist mind, actions are like seeds which represent causes. But in the act which originates the cause there is also, latent, the effect.

T’ien-t’ai studied The Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom, by the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna, to expand his Buddhist cosmovision. The SIS was developed in the work Great Concentration and Insight (Maka Shikan) which was formulated around the phrase “the true aspect of all phenomena” of the Lotus Sutra, contained in the second chapter “Means”. T’ient’ai considered this chapter the most important because in it Sakyamuni set forth his principal teaching, that there is no difference between an ordinary person and a Buddha, and that in all human beings there exists, in latent form, a state of enlightenment. In other words everyone, without distinction, can reach the state of Buddha. This means that no Buddha can exist who is not human, nor any human who is not Buddha. For this reason, human desires are vehicles towards enlightenment, as necessary as wood is for the fire. Desires, when taken as the end of existence, according to the teaching, show the innate darkeness of life. Thus, controlled by impulses that propel him towards evil, man manifests various forms of destruction and unhappiness. As the environment in which man lives is directly influenced by his presence in the world, so the effects of those principles which guide his action become visible. Spiritual poverty shows itself in a degraded natural and social environment. But if these are seen as the roots of evil, man may redirect this tendency towards higher levels of knowledge and self-knowledge.

The three thousand worlds, or the totality of the world of phenomena, exist in only one instant of life. This signifies the indivisibility of all that exists, body and mind, cause and effect, subject and object, due to the existential conditions relative to the three worlds: of the five components – form, perception, conception, volition and consciousness – ; of living beings and of the environment.

To understand this interdependent relationship we must turn to the ten worlds described by the SIS. Every moment of life is endowed with ten worlds and each is simultaneously endowed with them. That is, every moment of life has a hundred states. The ten states are Hell, Hunger, Animality, Anger, Humanity or Tranquility, Heaven or Rapture, Learning, Realization, Bodhissattva and Buddha. All persons may have as their basic tendency of existence one of these. Their appearance, behavior, and environment reveal their state made up of genetic, psychological and family conditions and social and cultural context. An individual therefore sees life, himself and his context from the point of view of his state of life, which is close to the view of structural coupling of Maturana and Varela (1992). The individual and his environment are entwined together in an existential condition represented by one of the ten worlds. To understand this perspective is what Humberto Maturana calls being aware that our point of view is always particular. It is the result of structural coupling in the world of experience. This is the equivalent of saying that knowing how we know means that we are inserted in a specific behavioral dominion. In admitting such limitation of understanding in other areas of existence, man can see that it is similar to put in the centre of reflection what he is capable of and makes him different. (Maturana, 2001, p. 267).

Each of the ten worlds has its own characteristics which fall into three groups – the four evil ways, the six ways and the four noble ways which come from instinctive conditions to high spiritual conditions. We will now look at each of these states individually, to understand their special characteristics, so that later we can understand how they interrelate.

Hell, Hunger and Animality belong to the four evil ways and they are states in which the individual has no control over external circumstances, he is completely at the mercy of his environment, of his attachments and the needs to defend himself or satisfy his basic instincts.

In the state of Hell, the person is completely overwhelmed by suffering, deprived of liberty, whether in the psychological sense, as in depression, or in the physical sense, as in an illness that makes it impossible to live normally.

The state of Hunger is dominated by insatiable desires such as eating, making sex, gambling, or getting addictions in general, also, for power, recognition or fame. It is a state that is essentially compulsive.

The state of Animality is described as a state in which one is governed only by instinct, lacking reason or morality. He is under the laws of the jungle, defending territory or manipulating people in the family and society. Other people are only important insofar as they can satisfy desires, rather than for what they feel. Recent studies with PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scan imaging show that the images of brains of sociopaths differ significantly from non-sociopaths in the limbic system of the brain, which governs feelings and emotional behavior. And there appears to be a lowering of activity in the prefrontal lobe of sociopathic individuals which is associated with antisocial behavior, as this is the area in all social primates which governs group affections and social modes of living. Antonio Damasio (1999) who studies the importance of feelings and emotions to our surviving, behaviour and living in society concludes: The neurological evidence simply suggests that selective absence of emotion is a problem (p.42).

In a state of Anger the individual has some control over his environment. He nevertheless may use his instinctive reactions to respond to the environment, with force or aggression. It is a state of arrogance in which the person is compeled to prove his superiority to others.

The state of Humanity corresponds to man’s natural inclination to find tranquility, balance and rationality. In this state, the individual tries to control his environment through rationality and to be in harmony with it and with other people.

The state of Rapture is related to the pleasure a person feels when experiences a pleasant situation, for example when he overcomes a great suffering or satisfy a wish. Both Humanity and Rapture, however, are responses to stimuli from the environment and are easily exchangeable by lower states, to be considered higher states of life.

The highest states, the two vehicles, correspond to the man’s search for answers to questions about the world, life and their mysteries, include his own, which move on from a passive position, controlled by the environment to a state of enquiry about and study of it. The state of Learning corresponds to acquiring knowledge of how to achieve personal change and improvement. The state of Realization refers to acceptance of the impermanence and mutability of life and its phenomena. Persons in this state are those who become aware of the existence of laws which govern the whole universe and become involved with artistic creation or scientific discovery.

But when a person views the world from a position that is beyond mere subjectivity or satisfying their desires in order to consider others what is outside themselves in the natural and social world around them, they may attain the state of Bodissativa, which is one of the highest states in life. The word derives from Bodh and Sattva which signify respectively enlightenment and beings, in other words those who attain enlightenment and also help others to attain it. A person in this state understands that in order to improve himself he must look beyond himself.

The highest state of all, however, is that of Buddha, because it is the source of the highest wisdom, beyond Good or Evil. To attain such a state, nevertheless, does not mean being someone special, but having the capacity to observe the mind as part of the body and its environment in order to see its true entity. To attain it means to enter the sea of wordlessness, of beginningless time, from the remote past of non-individuation.

Each state, seen as one world, itself possesses the ten states, together making a total of a hundred possibilities. It is possible to say therefore that there is a state of Buddha within the state of Buddha. This is, of course, the best of all combinations within the system, resulting from the integrated observation of body/mind/environment in which the consciousness raises itself to observe the attachments, errors and illusions which interfere with existence, thereby controlling these.

The mutability of the states of life is owing to three Buddhist principles – impermanence, interdependence and vacuity. T’ien-t’ai describes life in terms of its precariousness, its mutable states, when it brings to the system a hundred states latent in the subject. In the blink of an eye, a person may go from Hell to the state of Buddha. By observing the mutability of the mind in passing from one state to another, an individual may experience what the Buddhist tradition affirms – the symbiosis of man and the world may take place when subjective states acquired jointly through perception, the senses, the consciousness and meditation are recognized.  In this sense, self-awareness emerges from the work of consciousness in experiencing body, mind and environment jointly. That is to say, it is possible by means of this self-conscious observation to create a better life by expanding the mind’s possibilities. Self-knowledge which links cognition with evaluation of experience occurs when the individual observes himself.

Man is the manifestation of the entireness of his internal and external aspects. T’ien-t’ai linked to the three worlds of existence and the hundred states of life the ten factors of individuation, which appear in correspondence with the disposition of the states of life.

In accordance with Dictionary of Buddhism, the ten factors of life are described below. 1. Appearance, the necessary attributes to discern an object, its color, form, aspect and behavior. 2. Nature, qualities inherent in objects or living beings which cannot be observed from the outside. 3. Entity, the essence of life, which involves both nature and appearance.

These three factors describe the reality of life, while the other six factors describe its function. 4. Power: the potential energy of life. 5. Influence: action and movement produced when inherent power is activated. 6. Internal cause: latent causes produce an effect of the same quality, good, bad or neutral. 7. The relationship of indirect causes with the internal cause that depend on various conditions which co-operate with the internal causes that produce effects. 8. Latent effects, which are produced in life when an internal cause is activated by its relation to various conditions. 9. Manifest effects, which cause a tangible and perceptible effect, which emerge as an expression of the latent effect and for which reason form an internal cause in relation to various situations.

The tenth factor, consistency from the beginning to the end, is related to the person as a whole, the integration of the ten factors, as a result of individuation and the singularity of existence, which the system always presupposes.

Cognition may be understood in this context, as emerging from the interrelation between the internal milieu and the environment. This suggests the cognition is better understood as a spiralar devolopement considering the experience of subject, its states of life which arrange themselves in direction to improvement. To describe a state of Hunger alongside one of Hell means being completely at the mercy of unsatisfied desires.  The world is seen through that prism and is controlled by the same. In comparison, in the state of Bodhissattva, others are always considered first. In such situations, for example during a time of war, we see real heroes saving the life of others even by putting their own at risk. However, subjective dispositions influence the environment and the personal manifestation of its internal conditions, as the three worlds are related in an independent way. The subject’s own world and the five components (form, perception, conception, volition and consciousness) belong to one of the three aspects of the environment and are related to the individuation of living beings.

The limitations of human beings and aspects of individuation constitute a contingency of being in the world given the biological conditions which govern existence. But the biological characteristics of the human brain also permit the emergence of mind, which is capable of making choices which increase the chances of creating something new. Recursively, the more complex creations become, the greater the challenge is for individual cognition and society.

Material, esthetic and ethical creation to construct a symbolic and cultural world means imputing values to choose what is capable the species accomplish the human destiny. Man’s bio-psychological complexity is inseparable from his ability to imput values. But the values we attribute to anything are unquantifiable, as they refer back to the subjective world and may therefore project onto that world what is well beyond the factual.  At this point, there is no guarantee.

The attribution of values occurs in a world of subtleties. Every judgment is the result of accommodations made between reality and the subjective world. Who can guarantee that the same world, facts and events are seen and interpreted by everyone in the same way?  Two people who commit the same type of crime can get different verdict. Jurists well know that in such a case, the difference is not in the crime committed but in the relationship between its circumstances and the motivation as described in the value judgments of the defence and prosecution lawyers, to make no mention of attenuating circumstances or distortions introduced by eye witnesses. Where does the truth lie? A single fact may have a thousand interpretations, a thousand possibilities. They are all possible and plausible because a fact which is based on something that happened in the past is itself reconstructed out of interpretations, value judgments, based on presumed knowledge, no longer verifiable rather than the naked truth. Man has to rely on another order not merely on the level of facts. Apart from which, reality can always be reconstructed by collective agreement. A community may decide what is acceptable and what is not in order to make moral sense of its life, which is why the crimes committed by the Nazis were so universally condemned.

The problem is how to make people capable of making judgments, which express the relativity of what they observe by taking into account the imponderable qualities of the moment in life in which they take place. Facts cannot be “frozen” until to be sure of making the right judgement. Not even technology – film and video, modern eye-witnesses – can guarantee a wise decision since what is at stake is not only the apprehension of fact itself, but the value we attach to it. There is no certainty at all that our choices will bring us only benefits.

Despite this, choices are inevitable and have to be made. The SISsays that everything depends on the affirmation of the subject, of a choice in terms of the disposition of the elements of the system which composes the three thousand possible worlds to create greater or less satisfaction and individual and collective self-realization. Between working in a bookstore and having a book published there are more than 2998 possibilities for the literature lover, which vary according to the combination of elements in the SIS.

The task of reconnecting subject and object inspires a model of self-knowledge that recognizes the internal constraints which prevent an individual following his goal and must invest in means which allow him to understand his own cognitive processes which involve body, mind and environment jointly. For this reason it is necessary to observe body and mind in a directed activity, such as the Buddhist practice of meditation.

Observation of the mind in the SIS presupposes the emergence of a different form of consciousness to what we understand in the West. In the Buddhist cosmovision, all beings and the entire universe are individuations of the primordial, beginningless time, called Kuon Ganjo. If everything is brotherhood at the primordial moment, without differentiation, individuation is the impulse to understand, which is why the Sutra of the Diamond states that in everything there is a potential for understanding, as a latent condition of life. Life, therefore, is knowledge. Only man, however, is capable of manifesting this and at the same time observing his own mind, recognizing the personal attachments that derive from the poisons of anger, greed and foolishness which act as impediments to discerning and evaluating the phenomena he observes.

At first sight the three poisons of anger, greed and ignorance and what they imply in terms of evaluation of experience may seem to be sources of moral precepts. But they are not. They tell us about the mind and its illusions, given the multiplicity of consciousness as Varela et al. (2003) have observed – people are imponderable beings, an express mental reality in a body which obeys the laws of nature, culture and psychological reality.

This multiple mind’s reality is composed, according to Buddhism, of nine consciousnesses, which in Sanskrit signifies discernment (vijnana) – 1) sight-consciousness (chakshur-vijnana); 2) hearing-consciousness (shrota-vijnana); 3) smell-consciousness (ghrana- vijnana); 4) taste-consciusness (jihva- vijnana); 5) taste consciousness (kaya- vijnana); 6) mind-consciousness (mano- vijnana), 7) mano-consciuosness (mano- vijnana); 8) alaya-consciousness (alaya- vijnana), e 9) amala-consciousness (amala- vijnana).

The first five correspond to the five senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. The mind, the sixth consciousness, integrates the five senses in a coherent way to form a judgment of the external world. The first six consciousnesses are related to external aspects which connect to the world of the senses. The manoconsciousness (the seventh) corresponds to the spiritual world Buddhism attributes to it consciousness and attachment to the self, as well as moral judgements of good and evil. It is important to emphasize our view of the world, and the value attached to it, depend on how much the self, which is the center of illusion, becomes dependent on psychological schemes which limit understanding.

The eighth consciousness corresponds to what psychologists call the unconscious. In it are stored as “seeds” the good and bad actions which, according to Buddhism, form the potential karma of a person and which will one day germinate. For them to do so, it is only necessary to find the right conditions which will turn them into actual reality. All the right conditions exist in embryonic form and it only requires external conditions to be right for the internal ones to become apparent, rather like soil, climate and temperature in the case of plants.

The final consciousness, amala, resides free of the karmic impurities as the basis of all the functions of life, kuu, or vacuity. To access it, one has to enter into contact with the final reality of life, which is contained in the three principles of impermanence, the interdenpendence of all phenomena and vacuity, where wisdom shines like a diamond in the body and mind of mortals.

The multiplicity of mental reality, made up of the five senses and the mind shows the sensitive nature of knowldege. The mind together with the other senses apprehends the world in an integrated way to consider important elements for the evaluation of experience. Feelings of attachment and judgments of value appear to be linked to the reptilian area of the brain, which also stores good and bad actions as vestiges in the consciousness that remain as models or paradigms capable of indicating subsequently non-intentional or unconscious ways of acting. This last form of consciousness is intentional so it is possible, given a positive disposition on the part of the individual, to observe one’s own mind, that is to observe objectively one’s own cognitive processes. Constant exercise of meditation contributes to understanding and evaluating the phenomena of existence with discernment and choosing the best of the many possibilities which present to the individual.

Buddhist principles stress the importance of evaluation, since they refer to the possibilities and choices which guide actions. Recognizing arrangenment of possbilities and choices to improve the psycho-bio-socio-cultural condition means to realize the importance for man in forwarding to more complex levels of understanding and evaluating life’s experiences

The SISis a pedagogy of choice and freedom by making use, at the same time, of existential mathematics, mystical psychology, the physics of the subject in the world, of a cosmogony and a cosmology.  The strategies of comprehension implicit in the system have as their object to guide the individual in the world to maximize potentials which may renew themselves at every moment, given the three thousand possibilities of existence.

Existential mathematics obliges us to think that the possibilities of choice are limited to life’s constitution, in view of a calculation which takes into account the three thousand possible worlds. One should also consider the ten states of life. These ten states are neither estatics nor autonomous. Each is contained in the other, forming the hundred possible states.

In the system the subject is of central importance. Without individualization of beings it is not possible to speak of life. In the subject’s factors of individuation are to be found the fundamentals of the laws that govern the universe (latent cause, external cause, relationship, latent effect and manifest effect). In delineating the conditions of existence, there is something that gives consistency to everything, not allowing anything to dissolve or become lost without trace in the universe. All objects and beings reside in the subject in latent form. Finally, a body may only occupy one position in space. Although there are fluctuant possibilities, only one is possible given the implicit finiteness of the existence of subject in time and space.

The system also shows the limitations of the subject related to biological, genetic, psychological, cultural, social and historical conditions. These refer to the present development of mankind and to the models of understanding of reality which a society is using at any given moment in its evolution. These factors which limit choices, however, do not make man a prisoner. The better these considerations are understood, the more freedom of action we have. In a reflection on freedom and biological determinism, Atlan concludes: The game remains passive insofar as it is imposed on us. However, the better we understand the rules, the more active our role can be, which is to say, the better we know what the body is capable of (2000, p.144).

The philosophy of Ichinen Sanzen, based on a system of value creation, tries to answer questions about the philosophical nature of man’s interrelationship with the world. It is a paradigm of the consitution of the subject, of self-knowledge to transform negative patterns, which are antivalues for the subject, in significant experiences of life, in the sense of freeing human potential.

In the Buddhist cosmovision the mind is the mirror of life and its logic should be found in knowledge of oneself and of the world. If we wish to know about the cosmos, it is the mind we turn to. Varella (2003), therefore, states that the technique of concentration and observation of the mind, developed by some Buddhist schools, allows to understand more clearly what cognition is, what is consciousness and what is the self which are controversial areas of the studies of the mind. The non-separation of man from himself which Buddhism proposes, contrary to the projection of the self when he assumes the existence of a God, concepts or justificatory schemes to understand and explain the world renders Buddhism open to the development of questions related to man and brings it close to science, according to Varella. It also enables discussion of the emergence of explanatory models and metaphors which help us to tackle problems which are difficult to resolve within traditions which separate subject and object of knowledge.

These ideas allow us to deepen the pragmatic aspects of a paradigmatic reform of thought which involves the cognition, evaluation and experience, in other words, a form of training directed towards self-knowledge as a discipline which departs from contextualization of the individual to transform the quality of reflection on mental and corporeal experience which observation of mind provides.

An open cognitive model

In order to construct a cognitive model which formalizes these present reflections, we will, inspired by the SIS, take aspects of body/mind/environment and consider error as a cognitive stimulus to the exercise of observation of the mind, by means of which man can identify states of life and, in these, the obstructions and errors which hinder understanding and cause suffering.

It is a model that integrates cognitive and evaluative processes and experience considering the limitations of being, and biological and cultural determinations, through the observation of internal states. Thus it will be possible to identify within the existential possibilities of each person, the best chance of developing their material, ethical and esthetic values. It is necessary for the subject to state in a pragmatic way which paths he will take to attain this, by concentration and observation of the mind and its states while it is active.

The configuration of the following elements of the system will be considered to construct the cognitive model.

  1. The symbiosis of the subject’s world; the world of living beings; the world of the environment
  2. The ten states of being, each present in the other, which make up the hundred possible states of being.
  3. The factors of individuation.


The cognitive model proposed takes the form of a spiral. The states in possession are dynamic and are distributed in two lines, whose configuration corresponds to the possibilities of existence, incorporated into the environment. Each form consists of appearance and environment corresponding to a basic life tendency and the predominant state of life.  Alterations in man’s internal and external condition can be evaluated when the mind observes its states in the light of events as a stimulus to cognition.

These considerations are not seen as final, only initial, for a deeper discussion of human cognition, using the model proposed as it is, open and incompleteness.



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1 The idea of noise is similar to that used byClaude Elwood Shannon in his theory of information, in the sense of considering uncertainty and the unexpected as explanations for order and disorder in systems.