Picking the Bodhisattva brain in us

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“Pick someone’s brain” is a colloquial expression that means, according to Oxford English Dictionary, to “obtain information by questioning someone who is better informed about a subject than oneself.” In the capitalist world that promotes the division of labor and rewards specialization, there is something to be said about picking a specialist’s brain when it comes to obtaining information about a specific subject that one is not familiar with, whether it be about archaeology, cosmology, epidemiology, financial economics, or information science. However, the vast amount of information available through books written for the general public and on the Internet today makes it possible for all of us to be informed about subjects that have hitherto been in the exclusive domains of specialists and have not been easily accessible for the rest of us not trained in these specialized domains.

There is further encouraging news for all of us who are interested in obtaining information about diverse subjects in order to keep abreast of what’s happening in the world around us. That encouraging news comes, ironically, from a recent finding in the highly specialized academic discipline of neuroscience that the human brain is far more flexible than it has previously been thought. One concept that has gained wide circulation among neuroscientists—and the rest of us for that matter—is “neuroplasticity”, which refers to the flexibility of the brain in terms of its ability to cultivate and develop new neural pathways in response to experience. As a matter of fact, neuroscientists are now talking about “the brain that changes itself”, as the title of one popular book on this subject shows.1 To the extent that the brain is not a static and fixed organ but a dynamic and flexible organ that has the potential to grow even after reaching maturity, it is not too late for us to learn something new at an old age. This is indeed a good news for someone like old Father William who is convinced that he has lost his brain with old age and stands incessantly on his head, for he too has a neuroplastic brain and can teach himself new tricks, contrary to the popular saying that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”2 In other words, instead of picking someone else’s brain, it is now possible to pick our own brains.

Granted that neuroplasticity allows us to pick our own brains on most subjects, one question remains: which brain should we pick? This question is relevant because the human brain is not a mere physical mass that sits on top of the body but a complex system consisting of many different parts playing many different functions. The so-called “triune model of the brain” developed by Paul MacLean seems to provide us a useful hint in answering this question.3

The triune model of the brain looks at the human brain as a complex whole consisting of three brains: the reptilian brain (R-complex), the old mammalian brain (limbic system), and the new mammalian brain (neo-cortex). These three brains coexist in the human brain because they have developed in successive stages of evolution of humans as an animal species. Although it tends to oversimplify the intricate patterns of connections and interactions among different systems in the brain, the triune model of the brain is a useful model in that it reminds us of the legacies of our evolutionary past as reptiles and other animals before reaching the status of homo sapiens. In any event, what is clear from the triune model is that it is not the reptilian brain that we want to pick in our dealings with our fellow human beings. Rather, it is the new mammalian brain, or the neo-cortex, that we would like to pick if we are to exhibit such human qualities as compassion, empathy, equanimity, and wisdom. What we need to pick, in other words, is the brain of an enlightened Bodhisattva (Bodhisatta in Pali) in us, which we can cultivate and develop by following the Bodhisattva path, the path of spiritual development driven by the aspiration to attain enlightenment.

To become an enlightened Bodhisattva, to complete the Bodhisattva path of spiritual development, is not a simple matter, however. As the Buddha tells his monks, it was only when he attained Nibbana that he was able to proclaim the completion of his quest to become a fully enlightened Bodhisatta from an unenlightened Bodhisatta: “Monks, before my enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened bodhisatta, I too, being myself subject to birth, (aging, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement), sought what was also subject to birth, (aging, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement). … Then, monks, being myself subject to birth, (aging, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement), having understood the danger in what is subject to birth, (aging, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement), seeking the unborn supreme security from bondage, Nibbana, I attained the unborn supreme security from bondage, Nibbana.”4

One of the most striking visual images illustrating the challenges of the Bodhisattva path of spiritual development is the eleven-headed, or eleven-faced, Bodhisattva, which can be found in many parts of the world, including Japan where there are some forty such eleven-headed Bodhisattva statues, of which seven are designated as national treasures. Most eleven-headed Bodhisattva statues show the Buddha, the fully enlightened Bodhisattva, sitting on top of other ten heads, like those at Domyoji in Osaka, Hokkeji in Nara, and Rokuharamitsuji in Kyoto. The standard interpretation of such eleven-headed Bodhisattva statues is that the Bodhisattva path of spiritual development involves ten stages before reaching the final, eleventh stage of becoming the Buddha, the fully enlightened Bodhisattva.

The eleven-headed Bodhisattva statue at Kogenji in Shiga, Japan, believed to have been made sometime during the Heian period (794-1185), is generally regarded as the finest such statue, with its beautiful posture of the body as well as the gentle smile of compassion and wisdom the main face exhibits. Moreover, it is unique and diverges from other eleven-headed Bodhisattva statues in that the eleven heads are arranged in three layers, with eleven faces showing different human emotions. At the bottom layer with the same level with the main head are three heads, one head with an angry face, the second head with a threatening face with fangs, and the third head in the back with a laughing face with teeth showing in its opened mouth. The middle layer contains six heads, two heads with gentle bodhisattva faces, two with angry faces, and two with fanged faces. The top layer is the head with the Bodhisattva face.

What should we make of this striking eleven-headed Bodhisattva statue with different heads wearing different facial expressions? The usual interpretation is that the head with an angry expression is reminding them of the need to follow the Bodhisattva path, the head with a threatening face with fangs is prompting them to do good deeds, while the head with a laughing face is protecting them from evil spirits. Is it not possible, though, to interpret this three-layered eleven-headed Bodhisattva statue as a visual expression of the triune model of the human brain? Needless to say, it is unlikely that the sculptor who made this statue in medieval Japan had anticipated the triune model of the brain developed in late twentieth century. Nevertheless, it is a striking visual representation of the three layers of the human brain that reflect its evolutionary history as well as of the diversity of human emotions that need to be controlled and transcended if we are to attain enlightenment. We know now that we can pick our own brains, given the neuroplasticity of neural circuits in them. One way to cultivate and develop neuroplasticity in our brains is to practice mindful awareness, which is known to be a form of experience that influences the flow of energy and information through our neural circuits.5 What this means is that with practice, we can tame the reptilian and old mammalian brains in us, and stimulate the higher cortical activities of the new mammalian brain that will help us to develop such human qualities as compassion, empathy, equanimity, and wisdom—an encouraging news for us practitioners, Buddhist or not.

  1. Doidge, Norman, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, New York: Penguin Books, 2007.
  2. “You are old, Father William”, in Lewis Carroll (1832-98), Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland (1865).
  3. MacLean, Paul, The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions, New York: Springer, 1990.
  4. Bhikkhu Bodhi, In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005, pp. 55-56.
  5. Siegel, Daniel J., The Mindful Brain: Reflections and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, New York: Norton, 2007.