Mind Over Matter

bahubali sun under arm

Asceticism is severe mental and physical self-discipline, practicing mental meditation and physical exercise while avoiding indulgence and luxury, what is also called raja yoga in the Indian tradition, the second of the three paths of Hinduism.  While many of the world’s religions and traditions have ascetic fanatics, such as Christian monks who wear hair-shirts and whip themselves, the Jains are famous for going without food, clothes or any other comforts while meditating and holding yogic postures in the jungle.

Heraclitus sad painting

Much like Descartes, the first major modern European philosopher who dualistically argued for the separate existence of the mental and the physical, Jains teach that there are two distinct substances that become intermixed in our world, jiva and ajiva, mind and not-mind, spirit and matter, conscious and not-conscious.  When consciousness is not mixed with and thus obscured by the unconscious, when the mental is not clouded by attachment and involvement with material things, consciousness is naturally perceiving, understanding, powerful and blissful.  Jains argue that all of existence shares a single mind which becomes increasingly evident to those who rid themselves of material attachments and involvements.  The Greek philosopher Heraclitus, very similar in ways to the Buddha, said that waking we share one world in common, while sleepers each turn into a darkness of their own.

buddhist wheel of life

The unconscious (ajiva) does not have any inherent properties of its own, but when it mixes together with consciousness the two combine to create particular types of karma (action), active situations of conscious experience via cause and effect.  This is the Jain explanation for the same sort of karma that Hindus, Buddhists and others believe in, governing our present conscious experiences as well as past and future lives.  Thus, much as we would say in the frame of modern psychology, our blissful and painful experiences in this life have a cause and effect relationship with our past and future selves and actions.  This is how our minds become attached and addicted to particular material things, including the human body.  The Jains treat cause and effect between the conscious and unconscious as a material causal process, though like many ancient cultures they incorporate much into the material and natural that we banish to the immaterial and supernatural with modern considerations today.

puddle reflection

The Jains and Buddhists use the example of a muddy puddle, which when trampled is opaque but when settled becomes clear.  Once the dirt (material) mixes with the water (mental), passions are produced of two different kinds: attraction (positive) and repulsion (negative).  Experiences lead to passions, which lead to further experiences.  Forms of desire for things and fear of things are the entanglements our minds get into, though we can also perceive and interact with particular things neutrally, without either desire or fear.  Through neutrality, we can gain freedom from cycles of cause and effect.  The Jains are thus strange determinists who believe we can also earn an increasing freedom of will through neutrality and detachment.

blue lake reflection

By becoming tranquil, we gain space to shape our relationship with the situations of cause and effect around us, whether or not we strive to become totally detached or remain inter-meshed and interactive with them.  There is much in both Buddhism as well as Chinese Daoism, incorporated into Buddhism in China, which speaks of this kind of freedom.  As we become free through proper practices, abstaining from wrong actions and engaging in good actions, we react less and less to joy and pleasure by becoming attached and less and less to sadness and pain by becoming afraid.  For example, when we become more neutral towards possessions, we cease to hoard things we do not need and engage in charity to give others things they need.  This in turn makes us unafraid of loss and regarded with appreciation by others.

flowering plant

While the Jains share many of ideas, including several of their own creations, with other Indian traditions, particularly Buddhism, Jains are quite unique in one particular way.  While Hindus, Buddhists and many others argue that karma can be either good or bad, Jains argue that involvement with karma, cycles of cause, act and effect, are always bad, always a source of delusion, ignorance and suffering.  Jains call karmic particles of matter seeds (bija), which embed themselves and then sprout in consciousness as experiences, called fruits (phala).  Different seeds become fruit at different times and in different ways, consciousness having different experiences arise in different situations.  Jains believe we must seek, cook and thus destroy the karmic seeds we have in us in the fires of disciplined, effortful experience, such as the ascetic practice of fasting naked in the jungle for long periods of time.

Jain Monk with text

Those who do the hardest of monastic practices can strengthen themselves against karma in advance, such that future involvements will no longer plant seeds in their minds.  Thus, if Jain monks or nuns unfortunately suffer or witness violence, this does not plant seeds of desire for revenge or seeds of fear for death in them.  If ethics is the theoretical consideration of why we shouldn’t punch others, Jain monastic practice is the sustained elimination of the desire to punch anyone, regardless of future experience.  Buddhists argue against Jains that we should cook the bad behaviorist-seeds out of ourselves, but we can also plant good seeds that result in enlightenment for others and ourselves.  For Jains, enlightenment is neutrality and the elimination of involvements, the clarification of what already is.

Jain Sadhvis

Jain monastics take five vows to become nuns and monks, vowing to abstain in thought, word and deed (mind, mouth and body) from 1) violence, 2) sex, 3) lies, 4) stealing and 5) possession.  These are the most karmic producing activities, the ways that mind becomes most entangled with matter.  These vows are considered to be Mahavira’s realization and teaching which created the Jain communities in our era.  Jain commoners are not expected to abstain from violence and sex completely, but are educated and encouraged by monks and nuns to avoid doing evil, engage in doing good and attempt to obtain neutrality as much as possible.  Monks and nuns are more aware than commoners of the harm we each do to other living things, so commoners are highly encouraged to keep in mind that the harm we do to others is harm we do to ourselves and the good we do for others is the good we do for ourselves.


In the classic Introduction to Ethics dilemma as to whether to lie to Nazis about anyone hiding in the attic, a Jain commoner could lie and sacrifice morality for utility, but nuns and monks are supposed to remain silent rather than lie, even if threatened with death.  Similarly, as for the ethical dilemma of Les Miserables, a Jain commoner could steal food when they are starving, but a nun or monk should starve rather than steal.  It is for these reasons that Jains, like Buddhists, believe that full practitioners should completely abstain from sex and procreation, as they unfortunately involve us with attachment and fear, as do Nazis and starving.