On Being Mindless is a valuable yet a disappointing book. Its virtues are closely related to its flaws, chief of which is that the title promises more than the book delivers. Instead of referring to the broad spectrum of Buddhist meditation practices, the book would be more accurately subtitled "nirodhasamapatti and the mind-body problem."
Nirodhasamapatti, which Griffiths translates as "attainment of cessation", denotes a psychological/soteriological state which plays a very specific role in Buddhist doctrine. By narrowly confining his attention to controversies in the Buddhist tradition concerning this state, Griffiths achieves an admirable thoroughness of discussion and is able to offer definite and clearly supported conclusions. Those who want a wide-ranging investigation of how the full range of Buddhist meditation techniques and the light they might shed upon the mind-body problem will be disappointed, though.
Griffiths has an entirely negative conception of nirodhasamapatti, describing it as follows:
"Perhaps the closest analogy in Western psychological parlance to this condition would be some kind of profound cataleptic trance, the kind of condition manifested by some psychotic patients and by long-term coma patients...However, it seems that the attainment of cessation is even more radical in its rejection of mental activity than are the dominant Western models for the understanding of catalepsy. For the Buddhist the attainment of cessation suggests not only that there is no reaction to stimuli and no initiation of action, but also that there is no internal mental life of any kind."
In this book, Griffiths is not concerned with the soteriological status of this state or its relation to nibbana. Rather, his discussion focuses almost entirely on set of controversies that arise concerning the ability of meditators to re-enter ordinary waking consciousness out of the state of cessation, and the implications of the positions espoused in those controversies for the Buddhist view of the causal relations between and among mental and physical events.
The book's Introduction contains a manifesto of sorts:
"The philosophizing found in this work both rests upon and illustrates an important general thesis about rationality. Briefly stated, this thesis is that philosophy is a transcultural human activity, which in all essentials operates within the same conventions and by the same norms in all cultures. These are, broadly speaking, the conventions and norms which demarcate what in the West has sometimes been called `rationality.' . . . Instead, the presence of attempts at critical assessment of the arguments and conclusions of the sources with which I deal in this work, are best understood as an attempt to provide some indirect evidence for the truth of the thesis that rationally grounded normative discourse is an appropriate tool for undertaking the activity of cross-cultural philosophizing."
As Griffiths recognizes, this "this is not an uncontroversial view."
The body of the book consists of four chapters. In the first three chapters Griffiths examines the controversies surrounding cessation in several Buddhists schools and authors: the Theravada, chiefly in the writings of Buddhaghosa; the Vaibhasika (Sautrantika) school, chiefly in the Abhidharmakosa; and the Yogacara school. For each, he summarizes the relevant texts, and extracts the doctrinal controversies to be found therein, with numerous astute observations on how problems of interpretation, both among traditional commentators and the contemporary reader, bear upon those controversies. These are perhaps the most valuable parts of the book for the reader who wants to learn more about the development of Buddhist doctrine through the commentarial history. Each chapter concludes with a formal analysis of the philosophical controversy that Griffiths has identified in the textual tradition, along with some remarks on the philosophical problems involved.
The final chapter of is quite brief. Griffiths' conclusion is that the Buddhist philosophy of mind is a "non-substantivist event-based interactionist psycho-physical dualism."It is valuable to have this explicit formulation of the Buddhist position in terms of contemporary philosophy of mind. I do not see, though, that that formulation is a result of Griffiths'study; indeed, it is just as much a presupposition of his investigation as a conclusion. Griffiths demonstrates in practice that the three propositions in question are adequate interpretative hypotheses for understanding the Buddhist text under consideration, in the sense that they are consistent with the most plausible analyses of those texts. He does not, however, show that the argumentative purpose of those texts, in their original contexts, were to establish a view such as that he describes. He does not show that they were formulated in response to other views on the same topic that differed in significant ways (for example, parallelist or epiphenomenalist views), or that such views have sufficient strength as alternative hypotheses to make these particular texts and arguments valid test cases of Griffiths' interpretation.
Moreover, given that none of those the three conclusions should be particularly controversial to those acquainted with the subject matter. I do not see that he does much to advance the reader's understanding of the mind/body problem. Those acquainted with contemporary discussions of the philosophy of mind in Western traditions will find his treatment cursory and unsatisfactory.