Buddha & Science: A Buddhist Post-Mortem
Death is coming! There is no evidence to suggest that anyone who has lived, is living, or will live, will not die: we are all subject to a death sentence awarded us the moment we were conceived. This transient nature of our existence is, of course, a natural one. Although some religious traditions may ascribe our mortality to some ancient event such as 'the fall of man', there is no scientific evidence to back such tales up. Furthermore, all living creatures will eventually die, both fauna and flora. Even the Earth is not eternal, according to scientists, along with the Sun and all the other stars in this universe. Death is coming!
Looking a little more closely at our own human demise, what does science tell us? Well, when someone stops breathing and the heart ceases to beat, that person is a 'goner.' This demise may be caused by natural causes such as illness or aging, but also accidents, war, murder, manslaughter, and suicide are also potential reasons for someone dying. And, after death, the body (if it is still intact) will decompose, eventually ending up as a bunch of crumbling bones. But, where is the mind of the dead human being, according to the boffins? Well, in a word, nowhere. The mind, being the result of complicated processes in the brain, ceases upon death. (Most) in the scientific community declare that it vanishes in an existential 'poof' at the end of life.
Now, in traditional Buddhism, along with the belief systems of many cultures around the world, death is indeed the end of the physical body as scientists claim. (At least for now - some religions such as Christianity do teach of a literal bodily resurrection at some point in the future.) As to the mind, most religions teach that there is an eternal aspect to it called the soul that transcends physical death, whilst in Buddhism we find the more complicated idea that some aspects of the mind continue from birth to birth, but not an intact and eternal soul or mind, as such. Either way, there's a departure here from the modern scientific position that nothing survives death, either physical, mental, or 'spiritual.'
As Twenty-First Century Buddhists, what are we to make of these differences between science and the traditional Buddhist conceptions of death and the afterlife? For, the only afterlife accepted by the modern scientific understanding of the term is in the passing on of our genes, or in making a lasting impact on the people or society with which we have interacted whilst alive. This is very different to Buddhist understandings of this topic, where the rebirth of people's mind-continuum from to life to life is not only believed in, but allegedly documented. (See the reincarnation histories of the Dalai Lamas for examples of the latter.) Moreover, as in most traditional cultures, Buddhism attests to the existence of ghosts and spirits, phenomena that the far mass of Thai Buddhists believe in, for example.
Within Buddhism there is another attitude towards death which takes a much more immediate and, it must be noted, scientific approach, and that is to use our mortality as a subject for meditative reflection. Here, we are not dealing with beliefs or cultural assumptions pertaining to mortality, but in looking death in the eye and seeing what effects this process creates in us. It is a way to not only to come to terms with our own human mortality, but to actually psychologically transcend it, letting go of the fear that normally accompanies such considerations, and 'dying' into the present moment.
What is the focus of this fear that usually infects our contemplation of death? Essentially, it is the fear of losing one's self, that sense and idea of being this particular person in a world of separate individuals. We fear death because we fear the non-existence of the self. But, according to both science and Buddhism - though in slightly different ways, it must be noted - the self is an impermanent collection of elements that will not only eventually dissolve away, but are constantly changing throughout our lives. Both the idea of self and the feeling of being a self are themselves ephemeral processes in the human mind that will one day cease.
Wisely reflecting upon death, with a mind already pacified by meditative practice, can bring about a radical alteration in our understanding of ourselves and in our experience of our lives. When we are able to calmly consider that death is all-inclusive, and that no part of the self will escape its clutches, then we are able to accept death, and live life with the full appreciation that the present moment deserves. Paradoxically, in this acceptance, we are ripe to realize that all that is to die is not my self, anyway, taking us to another level of realization on the Buddhist Path. For, whether we take the scientific view of death, or whether we cling to a particular set of afterlife beliefs, or simply keep an open mind on the subject, as individuals our mortality is a fact, and yet, seeing beyond the ego is seeing beyond death, for there is no one to die! With this insight, our understanding of death is transformed: Death is coming? There's no such thing!
So, what do you make of death? Do you ascribe to a traditional understanding that something in us survives our physical demise? Or, do you take the modern scientific view of death that indicates nothing of our individuality transcends the cessation of our vital signs? And what of the notion that in truth there's no one here to die, anyway, and that if we can realize this fact wholeheartedly, we will have no need to fear that which cannot touch us? Please jot down your thoughts via the comments section below...before it's too late!
Buddha & Science: Exploring the Buddhaverse
Space, we are told by scientists is so immense, so mind-bogglingly vast that it is as good as (or, in fact, actually is) infinite. It is full of billions galaxies that are in turn inhabited by billions of stars and planets, and, moreover, the new scientific theories of the multiverse state that the universe in which all of this exists is just one of countless parallel universes. And, because space contains all of this stuff, it can kinda make one feel not so much tiny in comparison, but rather insignificant. For, in such an unimaginably infinite void, 'I' am just a tiny, albeit somewhat intelligent, animal scurrying around on the surface of Planet Earth along with nearly seven billion fellow human beings. We are like ants, nay microbes, in the sheer magnitude of this existence: so, in this light, how unimportant 'I' seem.
Despite the gloomy sentiments of the paragraph above, please don't despair, because space itself will now be shown to be the cure to this existential angst that contemplating it created in the first place! This more pleasing apprehension of space is not to be seen 'out there', however, but is to be experienced right here, where the feeling of 'I' occurs. And, thankfully, it doesn't require an extremely large and expensive telescope to be witnessed, either. All that is required to see the space at the heart of one's being is attention - even eyes aren't essential, in fact, for 'it' can be known just as well with eyes shut as open. To see what I mean, dear reader, I invite you to give a few minutes to investigate what lies at your very center:
Look at whatever is in front you - probably a computer screen at present - and notice its shape, size, colors, and its solidity. Now, turn your attention around to gaze back at what is doing the looking. Do you see 'you', dear reader, or do you see the space to which this little exercise is aimed at uncovering? What I mean to suggest, is that everything that you perceive right now is appearing in a spacious awareness located right where you are: do you see what I'm getting at? And, to show that this isn't a trick of the eyes, close them and pay attention to all the sounds that you can hear and that in which they arise. Do sounds not occur in a silent (spacious) awareness, too, along with all other physical and mental phenomena? Play with this exercise a short while, and see if you can find the space that lies behind the sense of 'I'.
Now, this space that we can experience in this present moment is also infinite, just as the 'outer' space described above. If you don't believe this, take a few more moments to explore it, and see if you can define it anymore than scientists can define that which contains the universe or multiverse. How big is it? Where does it begin and where does it end? Can it be timed or measured in any other way? I find not. This space is as infinite as the cosmic one that astronomers spend their days (and nights) staring at so intently. Moreover, this spaciousness is (thanks to the human mind) aware of itself; it can know that it is. And, because it has this capacity to know, it can be dubbed 'Buddha Space', for the term 'Buddha' comes from the root word 'budh', which means to be awake or to know.
In this context, the 'I' that can feel so minuscule and irrelevant when pondering the enormity of existence can be seen to be a valid vehicle for spacious awareness to know the universe and itself. 'I' do not have to feel so impotent in the face of the cosmos because at heart I am not 'I' but the spacious knowing that contains all that is experienced. Whilst over-identification with being this person can cause all kinds of problems for all concerned, seeing 'me' in its grander context as that which the monk Ajahn Sumehdo likes to call 'the knowing' is the beginning of awakening to our true nature, which is a vast and peaceful awareness. It is the 'Buddha Space' after which this blog is named, and if you are encouraged to take a peek back at what you truly are at heart by these words, then the blog has done its job, and 'I' can feel some pleasure from writing these small black squiggles, knowing that even they have some relevance in the vastness of this 'Buddhaverse.'
Buddha & Science: Cognitive Research
In an age when science and religion often seem to be at loggerheads, arguing over creationism and evolutionism, supernaturalism and empiricism, and many other points of contention ending in ‘ism’, it is refreshing that science is exploring an area of interesting research: Buddhist meditation. On the whole, this is being conducted in the scientific spirit, based on research and results, rather than bigoted opinions (whether scientific or Buddhist). So, following on from a previous article inspired by the book ‘Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed’ by Donald S. Lopez Jr., this article will offer further reflections on some of the issues raised in this interesting book. (To read the original article referred to above, please click here: What Kind of Buddhist Are You?)
“Over the past twenty-five years, the effects of Buddhist meditation have begun to be measured by neurologists, adding a new dimension to the Buddhism and science discourse. Rather than pointing to affinities between particular Buddhist doctrines and particular scientific theories, research on meditation has sought to calculate the physiological and neurological effects of Buddhist meditation. Such research would seem to introduce a welcome empirical element to the discourse.”
(Lopez, ‘Buddhism and Science – A Guide for the Perplexed,’ p.207)
This is an important development in the scientific examination of Buddhist efficacy, for basing any conclusions on evidence rather than doctrines and theories, truly objective understandings can be reached. No longer can it be claimed that the benefits of Buddhist meditative practice are purely subjective experiences that cannot be independently verified. Science is beginning to enter into research into these areas, and seems to be saying that genuine psychological and physiological benefits are being experienced by long-term Buddhist meditators.
Fact-based research like this has implications for the ongoing dialogue between Buddhism and science, as philosophical and theoretical convergences between the two disciplines are now being complemented with actual evidence. Buddhism, in this light, can be seen as a practical path towards a peaceful happiness, both for the individuals involved and for the society that they are part of. Superstition and the supernatural, which have often infiltrated the more pragmatic Noble Eightfold Path, can be put to one side for at least a time, while the reality of Buddhist meditative practice is evaluated.
Not that superstition and the supernatural don’t have their place under the Buddhist umbrella; Buddhism is a notoriously variegated set of philosophies, religions, and practices, all of which have their uses within particular contexts. All roads eventually lead to Bodh Gaya. The aforementioned Eightfold Path, however, contains little or nothing that can be classified as ‘unscientific,’ being a way of life based on morality, meditation, and wisdom, none of which rely on belief in gods, demons, heavens, hells, ghosts, spirits, goblins, monsters, and the like. But what of the actual areas of research being investigated? In his book, Lopez writes:
“Research on meditation in the realm of cognitive science has taken two major forms. In the first, scientists seek to evaluate the efficacy (variously defined) of a limited number of types of meditation…regarding the phrase ‘Buddhist meditation,’ one might ask: what constitutes a particular practice as ‘Buddhist,’ as distinct from an element of larger yogic tradition found in a wide range of traditions, including Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Sufism, or contemplative practice in Daoism, Judaism, or Christianity?”
In the West, the main forms of Buddhist meditation practiced have been vipassana from Theravada Buddhism, and zazen from Zen Buddhism, with a recent surge in practices employed in Tibetan Buddhism such as elaborate visualization techniques (as featured in the book by Lopez). As most of the neurological research taking place is occurring in the West, it is these forms Buddhist meditation that have been researched into. But, as well as some forms of ‘Buddhist’ meditation appearing in other traditions, as indicated in the above quotation, there is a much wider of variety of meditative practices to be found amongst Buddhists than indicated above. Nichiren Buddhists and Pure Landers use mantras as the heart of their mental cultivation, whilst ‘body-sweeping techniques’ are commonly used in Theravada Buddhism.
Meditation is an integral part of many Buddhists lives, both East and West. Whether in the Orient, the Occident, or elsewhere, nowadays Buddhist meditation is promoted as a way to spiritual liberation, psychological peace of mind, or as part of a healthier lifestyle. What kind of Buddhist meditation do you practice, if any, dear reader? And if you do, how has it benefited you? Do you have a regular meditative regime or are you more ‘spontaneous’ in your practice? Have you tried other meditative techniques than Buddhist, and how did they compare to your current practice? If inspired to reply, please use the comment feature below to leave your thoughts – who knows, someone may benefit from them.
“The second form of neurological research involves using highly trained meditators as informants in the laboratory, interviewing them about their experiences that can also be measured using brain imaging. Here scientists are exploring possible correlations between first-person experience and more standard scientific data.”
What do you make of this form of research? As argued above, it can be seen as independent corroboration of the advantages of Buddhist meditation, which doesn’t just confirm the hopes of those in the early stages of their own Buddhist discipline, but also makes Buddhism a much more attractive proposition to those yet to be interested in it. This is surely a positive development in the spread of Buddhism to the West, which is dominated by scientific theories, methods, and technologies. Moreover, in the global environment which is becoming more interdependent with each advancing year, the teachings and benefits of the Buddhist Path will hold more sway with the secularists that often form the political, educational, and social elites of many countries across the world.
[Furthermore,] this form of research is predicted on the assumption – one that has long lain at the heart of the claims concerning Buddhism and Science – that Buddhist doctrine is the product of Buddhist insight, that the chief constitutes of Buddhist philosophy are the articulations of someone’s (usually the Buddha’s) experience in meditation. However, it can be equally argued that it is not meditation that produced doctrine but doctrine that produces meditation. These are some of the issues that might be addressed as research on Buddhist meditation proceeds.”
Mmm, which came first, the doctrine or the egg, er, I mean meditation?! For most of us Western Buddhists, the doctrine definitely came first, at least on the intellectual level, with meditation practice following at a later date when we were convinced that it might do us some good. But, this doesn’t mean that meditation is created out of a set of teachings, and that the conclusions we come to as a result of Buddhist meditative practice is based on the doctrines we have previously learned. However, it is a possibility, and an interesting proposition worth investigating. Simply to reject it without careful (meditative) reflection would go some way to possibly proving it to be true, as we would probably be acting out of a doctrinal attachment. The very same kind of attachment to certain beliefs that could also affect our evaluation of the efficacy of our meditation practice! Certainly, as Lopez points out elsewhere in his book, the way most Buddhists describe their practice is in often convoluted terminology peculiar to Buddhism, like a kind of secret language of the initiated. This is something that this blog has tried to avoid; a task made easier by a certain propensity of the author’s to forget complicated theories and ideas!
One central aspect of Buddhism not covered in the book by Lopez is enlightenment. Not much, if any, scientific research has been done into this crucial part of Buddhist practice. But, then again, what exactly is enlightenment? Is it the culmination of the four levels of ‘noble being’ described in the Theravada Buddhist Canon, or is it the dzogchen of the Tibetan Buddhist, or the satori of the Zennist? Or, as this author suspects but cannot prove, is it that No-thing that can be said to lie behind all these various descriptions? So, with the many different views within the Buddhist world on what exactly enlightenment is, it’s no surprise that it has yet to be researched, but in time this too will no doubt come under the scientists’ gaze, and then things might start to get really interesting!
Why not a few more questions to leave you with, dear reader: Is Buddhist meditation entirely dependent on Buddhist doctrines, or is it possible to meditate without relying on the philosophical tenets of the Buddha Way? Is a balance between meditation and doctrine the ideal, or are Buddhist theories to be abandoned if they are not corroborated by (subjective & objective) experience? It seems here that a modicum of Buddhist teaching is required to start up and sustain Buddhist meditation, but that after a time, the teachings are there to complement the practice, not complicate it, with an ever-increasingly simple understanding of the world arising. So, what do you think on all this, dear reader – what is the relationship between doctrine and meditation for you? Which particular doctrines do you use in your Buddhist practice, anyhow: Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, or a combination of them? I look forward to your wise responses…
Buddha & Science: The Secret (No-)You
Recently, the BBC aired the excellent documentary ‘The Secret You’ which explored the question of self-identity from the viewpoint of modern science. The presenter was Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, who started the show by asking, “What makes me ‘me’?” He then announced that he was going to be the subject in a series of weird & wonderful experiments “to explore something that appears so simple yet is almost impossible to explain.” Du Sautoy revealed that as an atheist he neither believes in gods nor souls, but that what has traditionally been called the soul in many religions is equal to the modern scientific & philosophical idea of consciousness, and that his purpose in the program was “the search for consciousness” For Buddhists too, this search is a worthwhile exercise, as we endeavor to explore & understand consciousness in the pursuit of enlightenment, albeit through somewhat different means to Professor du Sautoy.
The first observation that du Sautoy makes regards the myriad physical sensations that he experiences on a moment to moment basis: “Without them, everything would disappear. Without them, I would disappear.” (An interesting point to note is that du Sautoy refers to his sense of self as “the ‘I’” throughout the show, which depersonalizes it, enabling a more dispassionate & objective approach than if he were to talk about ‘my self’ or ‘me’.) To explore this idea of a sensation-constructed world and the ‘I’, he visits the University of Portsmouth to observe the Mirror Self-Recognition Test, originally devised by Professor Gallup, who he meets a little later in the program.
Meanwhile, at Portsmouth University, the Test involved preschool children looking at a large mirror containing their reflection; a spot was placed on their cheeks and then it was recorded as to whether or not they touched their own face in response to seeing the spot on their mirror image. If they did not, this indicated that they had yet to recognize the image as their own, whereas if they reached for the spot on their cheek, this revealed that they were able to identify with the face in the mirror. Most children recognize themselves in the mirror between the ages of eighteen to twenty months old, which is when they are considered to be ‘self-aware.’ Prior to this, they seem to experience their mirror image as another child, unaware that it was in fact their own face staring back at them.
This experiment suggests that consciousness, or the quality of consciousness changes. It is not an unchanging, permanent ‘soul’, but rather the result of certain sensations and faculties interacting, the latter of which evolves into a mind that thinks of itself in terms of being a separate & unique personality. This coincides with the Buddhist understanding of self as something impermanent and forever changing. In the work of the British philosopher Douglas Harding, mirror experiments feature prominently (see ‘the Headless Way’ website linked to on the right of this page). In one such exercise, the experimenter is encouraged to see that whereas his reflection in a mirror is a limited person with a unique face, when attention is inverted, no such features can be found. Harding taught that this reveals the ‘no-thing’ that we truly are, as opposed to the thing (person) that simply appears to be here.
The above Mirror-Self Recognition Test was devised by Professor Gordon Gallup Jr. to test whether animals had a similar sense of self-awareness as humans. In research that he conducted, only chimpanzees & orangutans past the test, suggesting that such awareness is very rare in the animal kingdom. Interestingly, this ability to recognize themselves in the mirror is lost by chimps when they enter the last ten to fifteen years of their life. This may be related to the following reflections spoken by Professor Gallup:
“The price you pay for being aware of your own existence is to confront the inevitability of your own individual demise. Death awareness is the price we pay for self-awareness.”
Perhaps chimpanzees lose this ability to imagine themselves and possibly their own mortality late on in life as a mechanism to soften the blow of knowing that they will soon come to an end. On the other hand, it may be a way of making them more selfless in the context of their troop later on in life, more willing to self-sacrifice than the younger chimps. This would mean that the younger, fitter members would have a better chance of survival, and thereby contribute more for longer periods to the well being of the group as a whole. Whatever the reason may be, this lack of a sense of self mainly occurs amongst older humans as an aberration, such as senility or mental illness; most of us carry this sense of self and its eventual demise with us till the day we die. Unless, of course, we can transcend it in some way, such as through the realization that it is a delusion in the first place, as in the experience of enlightenment as promoted in Buddhism. This issue will be briefly approached later in this article.
Next, du Sautoy visits Imperial College London, where he talks with Dr. Stephen Gentlemen, who dissects a human brain, showing the different areas and explaining that as far as science understands it, consciousness is “a group of defuse nerve cells that project up to a relay station called the thalamus, and that sends projections out to all of the areas of the cortex [the surface covering of the brain]…Consciousness seems to be about a constant activation of the cortex.” This emphasizes the physical nature of consciousness, or at least its relationship to the physical brain, challenging the dualistic notion that body is unconnected to the mind (or ‘soul’), a common idea in philosophy & religion.
“Modern science can keep a body going, but how do you actually tell whether the ‘I’ is still inside that body, and alive?”
In the above comment, Professor du Sautoy reveals the common assumption – by atheists as well as religious types, it seems – that there is something somewhat ‘ghostly’ inhabiting the body. He relates that his wife was once in a coma for a short time, and that while she was unconscious there was no evidence that she was still there, that who she was is inextricably linked to being conscious. Thankfully, his wife recovered fully from the coma. However, in contradiction to du Sautoy’s comments, it seems that consciousness is not so much in the brain as on the brain, a network of nerve cells lying on its surface. Those aspects of the mind that are called the subconscious or instinctual are apparently located deeper inside the brain, just as our experience of the subconscious and our instincts appear at a deeper level of the mind than the conscious sense of being the ‘I’ that exists its ‘surface’.
Dr. Adrian Owen of the Medical Research Council researches the condition of people classified as being in a ‘behaviorally vegetative state.’ Patients are asked to visualize playing tennis while their brain activity is monitored; when areas in the pre-motor cortex part of the brain are activated during this procedure, this reveals that the person can respond to instructions, and that therefore they are conscious, despite being completely unresponsive outwardly. This has implications for the treatment of such people, for when they display the fact that they are conscious and able to respond mentally to instructions, it must not be assumed that they are immune to feeling pain, whether physical or emotional.
In deep meditation, we can also appear to be mentally absent & unresponsive to others, whilst perfectly alert within our meditative condition. We may hear outside noises but not react to them, settled into a blissfully peaceful state of mind. On other occasions, outer sense stimuli may be cut off completely as the mind goes deeper into itself exploring the recesses of itself. Whatever the level of meditation experienced, it’s fair to say that we wouldn’t say that it’s okay to mistreat meditators because they’re unresponsive to outer stimuli; similarly, those in vegetative states of mind deserve respect when being interacted with.
“My self [is] sitting in front of…me. But I have the illusion that I am three feet behind myself.”
In an interesting experiment in Sweden, du Sautoy dons the ‘Cyber Mind’ goggles that show him a camera view filmed directly behind him; this confuses his brain into thinking that ‘he’ is in fact sat several feet behind ‘himself’! Moreover, when another person wears the camera on his head, de Sautoy experiences himself as the other participant shaking du Sautoy’s own hand. In the program, the researcher Dr. Henrik [his surname is uncertain] explains that the brain is constantly trying to work out where it is, using all available data to answer this question. Du Sautoy notes that, “According to Henrik, my sense of a separate ‘I’ is an illusion created from my brain processing data from my senses.”
This relates to the age old question as to where consciousness resides. Is it inextricably linked to the body, presumably the brain, or is it something like an alien inhabiting the body but not connected to it? Throughout history, many accounts exist of people’s consciousnesses or ‘souls’ leaving the body and looking down at it, or/and traveling off to some other realm to engage in experiences that have nothing to do with the physical body. Are there hallucinations, dreams, or fantasies? Or perhaps there’s more to consciousness than we have (scientifically) yet to confirm. Of course, the view that the ‘I’ is an illusion created by the convergence of many different elements is noting new to Buddhists; that the sense of ‘me’ as a separate, permanent being is an illusion to be transcended has lead at the heart of Buddhism for millennia.
After this, du Sautoy is seen talking to Professor Christof Koch from the California Institute of Technology, who investigates the nature and relationships of the neurons in the brain. Professor Koch mentions experiments where it is revealed that individual neurons respond to particular pieces of information, explaining to some extent how memory works and how we recognize people and things. So, for example, in his research one patient had a specific neuron that ‘lit up’ every time a photograph of the American actress Jennifer Aniston was shown, whilst another patient’s individual neuron responded not only to a photograph of the actress Halle Berry, but also to her printed written name. Professor Koch calls these neurons ‘concept neurons’, stating that whilst each individual neuron is not aware, conscious emerges from a group of neurons interacting in response to a particular stimulus.
So, even specific memories can be located within the brain, revealing how each thought is dependent upon connections between different neurons in the brain, and that, therefore, if these connections are broken, we cannot remember something. So, when we feel bad about forgetting someone’s name – something that happens to me quite a lot – we might say, “It’s not me, it’s my neurons.” Whether this would excuse one in the eyes of the other is questionable, of course! This interdependency of thought is another aspect of modern scientific research that Buddhists have subjectively experienced for many centuries whilst meditating; that science and Buddhism are converging in their respective understandings of how the mind works is surely a future point of exploration for both scientists and Buddhists.
The next experiment for du Sautoy involved going to sleep with electrodes attached his head, charging the brain with small amounts of electricity to see how it responded. This was conducted under the direction of Professor Marcello Massimi of the University of Wisconsin and the University of Milan. This treatment was called Trans-Cranial Magnetic Stimulation (or TMS for short), and revealed that when awake (and conscious) the human brain reacts to a single point of electrical stimulation in a network of responses, whereas when asleep, localized activity only occurs in the vicinity of the stimulation. Professor Massimi stated that, “Consciousness is about the fact that our brain is a network talking to each other: connections. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” After encountering Professor Massimi, du Sautoy remarks:
“Am ‘I’ conscious, or are my neurons conscious? And, is there a difference?”
Again, we return to the theme that the conscious mind is a conglomerate of different mental processes coming together to construct the sense of self. Without these parts, there is no individual being to be called ‘I’. The Buddhist teaching of anatta (not self) seems to be corroborated by modern scientific understandings of how the brain works. The component parts of the brain that go up to make the ‘I’ are not, in themselves, individual persons, but elements in what becomes the sense of self. To experience the ‘I’ is to experience the result of all these converging processes; this ‘I’ is a kind of delusion formed from its myriad elements. It is this delusion of being a self that is to be transcended if we wish to experience what Buddhism deems the-way-things-are (the Dharma.)
After this, du Sautoy visits the Bernstein Centre for Computational Neuroscience, and takes part in an experiment where the brain is studied as the participant makes decisions to press one or other of two buttons. A brain scanner showed that du Sautoy’s brain accurately indicated which button he would press a full six seconds prior to he consciously knew which way he’s react himself and actually pressed the button. Professor John-Dylan Haynes who conducted the experiment remarked that our conscious decisions are shaped by a lot of unconscious brain activity that precedes it:
“The conscious mind is encoded in brain activity; it’s realized by brain activity. It is an aspect of your brain activity. Also, the unconscious brain activity realizes certain aspects of you. It’s in harmony with your beliefs and desires…Your consciousness is your brain activity, and that’s what’s leading your life.”
Du Sautoy is visibly shaken by this latest piece of information on how his brain works, for it reveals the experience of a conscious decision-making self into question, suggesting that rather than being individuals capable of free will, we are mental and physical processes that combine to produce consciousness and conscious ‘decisions.’ This echoes the ancient Buddhist teaching that states that everything in life is conditioned from previous occurrences, whether physical or psychological in nature. This teaching is commonly known as karma, literally ‘action’ in English, and revolves around the idea that whatever we do has consequences, and that whatever is occurring at the present moment is (at least partially) conditioned by previous actions. All this has much suffering intrinsically connected to it, and this negative side of life is unavoidable whilst we live under the delusion that we are separate selves. The goal in Buddhism, therefore, is to realize that which is unconditioned and rest in Nirvana. Du Suatoy, whilst not achieving the wisdom of enlightenment, has at least developed considerable understanding regarding the nature of the ‘I’. He concludes by saying:
“It (consciousness) is just the threshold, the final stage in a whole complex of brain activity. I’m unaware of most of it, but the tiny portion I feel…well, that’s ‘me’.”
Buddha & Science: Religion Becomes Science
Buddhism welcomes scientific knowledge, recognizing it as another branch of learning about the natural order. Many Buddhists are in fact hopeful that the truths unearthed by science will serve to support and verify the timeless teachings given by the Buddha thousands of years ago. At the very least scientific knowledge may reveal the truths of the physical world, which can only help to improve our understanding of life and mankind's place in the natural order, especially when such knowledge is incorporated with knowledge about the mental world or human world as explained through the teachings of Buddhism.
(P.A. Payutto, ‘Towards Sustasinable Science,’ p. 5)
The Venerable P.A. Payutto is probably the most well known & respected Buddhist scholar in Thailand. He is also a Buddhist monk. He has written many outstanding works on various aspects of the Buddhadharma, one of the most interesting being ‘Towards Sustainable Science,’ from which the quotations are taken in this article. In the above-quoted segment, he argues that, in essence, Buddhism and science are not in conflict, as the latter is concerned with knowledge regarding the natural order of things, which Buddhism has also been concerned with since its founding over two and a half thousand years ago.
But what is this ‘natural order’ that P.A. Payutto writes of? In Buddhist terms, the natural order is the law of karma and rebirth, the fact that every thought, word, and deed has a result. Now, science has not (yet) verified rebirth as an observable fact, but as to the idea of cause and effect, science is largely in agreement with the Buddhist teachings. Every action has a reaction, however infinitesimal the latter may be. In other words, what goes up must come down: Sir Isaac Newton was very much acting in the spirit of Buddhism when he developed the theory of gravity.
It is the fusion of science & Buddhism that Venerable Payutto points to that is so intriguing. He suggests that scientific discoveries and the technologies that come out of them can complement Buddhism, rather than contradict it, or make it seem defunct. Need Buddhism and science be in conflict? As the scholarly monk acknowledges elsewhere in the book, science and the technologies that arise from it can be used to destructive ends, but then humanity has an almost limitless capacity to abuse anything. The misuse of scientific discoveries is due to greed, hatred, and delusion, not science itself.
As to the limits of science, many religionists are keen to indicate that it will soon reach a dead end, much as atheists claim of religion; in truth, we just don’t know how much more science will discover in the coming centuries. Religionists may be in for some seriously unpleasant facts to be revealed in relation to their central beliefs, with Buddhism no exception. How as Buddhists should we respond to this - with dogmatism or open-mindedness? Questions relating to the nature of consciousness are being probed by science, and in the realm of technology, new inventions are beginning to challenge what we commonly understand to be ‘self.’
Science has advanced so far-reaching that it seems to be approaching the limits of the physical universe and, as it approaches the limits of that world, it is turning to the mysteries of the mind. What is mind? How does it work? What is consciousness? Does it arise from a physical source, or is it entirely separate from the physical world? These days computers have Artificial Intelligence. Will the development of Artificial Intelligence lead to computers with minds? This is a question some scientists are speculating about.
The idea of artificial intelligence comprising consciousness or some kind of ‘self’ are abhorrent to many people, attached to set notions of what makes a conscious being. It is a subject that religious people of various persuasions find uncomfortable, given the implications. Can an artificial form of consciousness be reborn, rise to heaven or be cast down to hell? (The Dalai Lama has toyed with this very idea.) Should we, therefore, approach such technologically-created minds with compassion?
Investigating the nature of self and consciousness have long been the concern of Buddhists, of course, and it is in this light that modern scientific discoveries regarding the mind and the universe can be understood with wisdom. As suggested in the following extract, it is our use of science and technology that causes so many problems in the world. Venerable Payutto cites the desire to conquer nature and drive for material wealth as the primary reasons for humanity’s rapid destruction of the natural world. These are forms of greed (for power and resources) and hatred (of material poverty), fueled by the delusion of selfhood.
Together with the development of industry we have observed the gradual appearance, in ever-increasing severity, of the harmful effects contingent on it. Now, with the danger that threatens us from the destruction of the environment, it is all too clear. The cause for this destruction is the powerful influence of these two assumptions: the desire to conquer nature and the drive for material wealth. Together they place mankind firmly on the path to manipulating, and as a result destroying, nature on an ever-increasing scale. These two influences are also the cause for mankind's internal struggles, the contention to amass material comforts. It might even be said that modern man has had to experience the harmful consequences of the past century of industrial development principally because of the influence of these two assumptions.
Industrial development has indeed had a catastrophic effect on the environment, as few people would now deny; recognizing the interdependence of all things, as science is now doing, confirms what Buddhism has taught us for thousands of years. How we treat our surroundings will have consequences for ourselves, our descendants, and all life on Earth. That humanity is only now becoming aware of the full implications of this interdependence illustrates that there is still a long way to go before we might be considered an ‘enlightened’ race. Enlightened, that is, not only in the scientific sense, but also the spiritual one.
Venerable Payutto has something to say on this, also, for he sees in future scientific discoveries the possibility that some religions at least will become unsustainable. Buddhism, as a religion that points to a deeper reality, a natural deeper reality, is in a position to continue to complement science, however. This vision of the merging of science and religion might disturb some, attached as they might be to certain opinions on the distinct natures of the sciences and religions, but in truth, it is the search for truth that lies at the core of all true religion and all true science. What do you, dear reader, make of Venerable Payutto’s views on Buddhism & science, particularly the idea that they are in a process of eventual unification in the light of the truth?
When science is finally able to arrive at the truth, to answer mankind's ultimate questions, it will be perfected. Many religions will no longer be sustainable. Conversely, a religion, which points to the highest truth, to reality, will be in a position to unify with science. At that time science and religion will have reached another meeting point, their last one, where religion becomes science and science becomes religion, the division between the two gone forever.
Buddha & Science: Psychotherapy
In Buddhist sutras and Zen texts, there are many passages with deep implications for Western psychotherapists. The dialogues recorded in them have evidently a psychotherapeutic significance. They could be examples of an Eastern version of psychotherapy. It is certainly interesting to compare them with conversations known from psychotherapeutic sessions today with regard to both form and contents. This leads beyond the concern of the present study. What I would like to propose here is that psychotherapy, as generally considered, is not necessarily of the West. In other words, I contend that Buddhism also has by nature psychotherapeutic elements. (Muramoto, from ‘Awakening and Insight’ – see below*)
As Muramoto writes above, many modern scholars and those working on the science of the mind believe that there is an intrinsic psychotherapeutic aspect to Buddhism. This comes as no great shock to those of us that practice Buddhist techniques such as mindfulness & meditation, of course. Many of us have ourselves experienced the benefits of Buddhist practice, such as feelings of contentment, compassion, and happiness. Moreover, we may have witnessed similar qualities arise in other Buddhists, as well as in those that do not classify themselves as ‘Buddhist’ but practice vipassana, zazen, or the like. Although Muramoto is primarily concerned with the relationship between psychotherapy and Zen Buddhism, other forms of Buddhism have been observed via scientific experiments to have the same positive effects on those that employ their techniques of mindfulness & meditation.
Nowadays there is a development of Buddhism in the West due in large measure to the efforts of Japanese Zen Buddhists such as Daisetsu T.Suzuki, Shin’ichi Hisamatsu and others. It is true enough that the understanding of most Westerners remains on a rather primitive level and is full of prejudices and misconceptions. At the same time, the phase of intensive introduction of Zen Buddhism to the West is gradually coming to an end. The so-called ‘Zen boom’ is certainly passing away. There is less and less ‘Beat Zen’ as one of the phenomena of the counter-culture, and instead there are more and more Western scholars who are no longer satisfied with translations or with introductions written in English, but find it very important to read Buddhist texts in their original languages. In addition, they strive to experience Buddhism directly in the Eastern countries where it has long been a central element of cultural tradition. (Muramoto, ibid.)
What do you make, dear reader, of Muramoto’s claim that “the understanding of most Westerners [of Buddhism) remains on a rather primitive level and is full of prejudices and misconceptions”? It seems true that these days the free-form styled ‘Beat Zen’ of Jack Kerouac et al is on the decline, along with various ‘hippy’ interpretations of Buddhism. Nowadays, Western Buddhists are more serious in our application of the Dharma to our lives, are we not? But, is it true that we find it important to study Buddhist texts in their original tongues, or experience Buddhism in its traditional cultural settings? (I, of course, do live in Thailand, and experience the good & bad aspects of Thai Buddhist culture daily, but this is surely not so for most Western adherents of Buddhism.)
We can say nowadays that the so-called encounter between the East and the West is taking place within Buddhism as well as within psychotherapy. No serious problem of the contemporary world, be it politics or philosophy, can be simply said to belong to either the East or the West, but must be recognized as a worldwide problem because it necessarily concerns all the people of the world. In the confrontation with any problem we already find ourselves permanently connected with all people in the world, most of whom we do not know personally at all. (ibid.)
Here, Muramoto seems to be hinting at the interdependence of the modern global society, something that humanity is waking up to, albeit at a rather late stage! Buddhism and psychotherapy have many elements in common, as well as divergences of course. Approaching the world’s problems with the aid of psychological and Buddhist understandings of the mind, as well as techniques for calming and stabilizing it, would appear to be a wise course of action in these troubled times. Muramoto seems to suggest that neither a solely Buddhist approach to this situation, nor a wholly Western, scientific & psychological one, will cure the world of its ills. The suggestion here is that as Buddhists we should realize that the Buddhadharma is not the only answer to the suffering in the world, but that other paths of investigation, including not only science but also other religions, can combine to help us come to our senses. Buddhists alone, no more than Muslims, Christians, scientists, or politicians, can heal the world. Put succinctly, we need one another.
The notion of the cosmos or the world still remains, but it has greatly changed. There seems to be no other principle than a cold mechanism called the ‘laws of nature’. Confirmed only by mathematical procedures, they provide us with the means of technological manipulation of all beings. The personified universe of the good old days does not show us a familiar face any longer. All that we can read in its indifferent countenance is meaninglessness. There appears to be no place where one could live in a way suitable to the word ‘human being’. (ibid.)
Muramoto appears most despondent in the above passage, seeing in the scientific world view nothing but a meaningless nothingness at the heart of all. Is this an accurate representation of science? Or is it an emotional response to what are, after all, theories & views of life based on facts? Science itself is surely no more negative than it is positive. Like the Dharma, it simply is. It’s us human beings that interpret the world this way and that, impregnating it with the meanings that we see fit. Is living in a way suitable to the word ‘human being’ incompatible with a scientific world view? Is living the Buddhist life, moreover, incompatible with a scientific world view? Things would seem pretty hopeless for us Buddhists if this is so, for as suffering human beings in a world full of scientific facts, it would appear that we are barking up the wrong tree with our ancient Buddhist understanding of the universe. Either that, or the worldwide scientific community is off its rocker, and we’re all in trouble, whether Buddhist or not!
The primary concern in a dialogue is not to prove which party is the greater, but to let the truth reveal itself through the dialogue so that both parties gradually and mutually deepen their understanding of each other and confirm their common ground. A dialogue is no competition or conquest but an experiential process of the common participation in finding the truth, and demands the confession that everyone knows the truth a little but not in its totality. It is worthy of practice in our pluralistic world. (ibid.)
Here is where Muramoto gets to heart of the matter, declaring that Buddhism is in a dialogue with psychotherapy (and science). As Buddhists, it surely does us no favors to react against modern understandings of the mind, and the universe in general. To engage with modernity, finding common ground on which to stand together will benefit both Buddhism and the world at large. Psychology and psychotherapeutic techniques, along with physics, genetics, archeology, zoology, cosmology etc, can complement our understanding and practice of Buddhism; it does not have to be an ‘us and them’ situation, as often found between Creationists and Darwinists. Are you open to this dialogue between East and West? And, dear reader, what do you think are the benefits and pitfalls of Buddhists falling in with scientists in their mutual search for truth?
All quotations are from the article ‘Buddhism, Religion and Psychotherapy in the World Today’ written by Shoji Muramoto and taken from the book ‘Awakening and Insight: Zen Buddhism and Psychotherapy’, edited by Polly Young-Eisendrath & Shoji Muramoto, and published by Brunner-Routledge, 2002.
Buddha & Science: Killing the Buddha
The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi is supposed to have said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Like much of Zen teaching, this seems too cute by half, but it makes a valuable point: to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught. In considering what Buddhism can offer the world in the twenty-first century, I propose that we take Lin Chi’s admonishment rather seriously. As students of the Buddha, we should dispense with Buddhism.
(Sam Harris, ‘Killing the Buddha’, Shambala Sun, March 2006 - see link below)
In his thought-provoking article for Shambala Sun magazine, Sam Harris raises some fundamental questions for those of us that follow the teachings of the Buddha. It is not that Harris is some kind of iconoclast that wishes to destroy Buddhist tradition for the sake of it, and nor is he (as far as I know) an American Zen master calling for attachments to be dropped so that one may awaken to the truth of Zen. He is a serious-minded scientist that has considered the negative affects that religions have had on the world, along with his colleagues the famous biologist Richard Dawkins and the well-known journalist Christopher Hitchens. (These three writers have been dubbed ‘the Unholy Trinity’ for their anti-religious views!)
Religions, according to ‘the Unholy Trinity’, have had, and continue to have, extremely dire influences upon the world, most apparent in the ongoing conflict between the West and Islamic terrorists. In Killing the Buddha, Harris highlights many current violent conflicts around the globe that religion has inspired or played a major role in: Iraq, Kashmir, Palestine, Sri Lanka, and Sudan, to name but a few. According to Harris, it is not only the god-dominated (theistic) aspects of many faiths that inspire such violence, but the very nature of religious faith itself:
Why is religion such a potent source of violence? There is no other sphere of discourse in which human beings so fully articulate their differences from one another, or cast these differences in terms of everlasting rewards and punishments. Religion is the one endeavor in which us–them thinking achieves a transcendent significance. If you really believe that calling God by the right name can spell the difference between eternal happiness and eternal suffering, then it becomes quite reasonable to treat heretics and unbelievers rather badly. The stakes of our religious differences are immeasurably higher than those born of mere tribalism, racism, or politics.(ibid.)
In other words, Harris is saying that religious belief in eternal life encourages the kind of behavior seen in the actions of suicide bombers in places like Iraq and Palestine, where belief in the heavenly rewards of martyrdom inspires the horrendous acts reported almost on a daily basis in the news. Indeed, looking at the terrible events on 9/11 (New York, September 2001) and 7/7 (London , July 2005), it is worth noting that suicide attackers were involved, almost certainly believing in eternal rewards for their awful actions.
It is not only Islamists that are involved in faith-inspired violence, and nor is it always in the context of a war. Look at the anti-abortion killings in America, which although on a much, much smaller scale than the above-mentioned atrocities, have still cost the lives of several doctors and other employees of abortion clinics. Like most mainstream Muslims (I would argue), most mainstream anti-abortion organizations in the States disavow the use of violence in the battle against planned pregnancy terminations, but the fact remains that violent incidents perpetuated by anti-abortionists have taken place, and continue to this day. Such violence is the direct result of religious faith combined with dogmatic interpretations of religious teachings. Regarding this point, Harris and his atheist colleagues would stress that religious faith produces killers.
At this point, Buddhists might retort that we are not involved in suicide bombings, the killing of doctors, or any other such violent behavior inspired by religious faith. Buddhism, like Jainism and Daoism, for example, does not encourage violence of any sort, and where Buddhists are involved in such acts, it is despite their Buddhist faith, not because of it. (Not unless they’ve completely misunderstood the Buddha’s teachings, that is; something that some Christians, Jews, Muslims and others would accuse their violent brethren of doing regarding their own faiths.)
The complicated conflict in Sri Lanka and the conduct of many Buddhists, including senior monks, would seem to dent a hole in the claim that Buddhist faith never results in violence, however. The Buddhist establishment there, it has been claimed, has not only failed to discourage the conflict between the Buddhist Singhalese majority and the Hindu Tamil minority, but actively encouraged the latter to acts of violence against the latter. Harris has an explanation for this:
The wisdom of the Buddha is currently trapped within the religion of Buddhism. Even in the West, where scientists and Buddhist contemplatives now collaborate in studying the effects of meditation on the brain, Buddhism remains an utterly parochial concern. While it may be true enough to say (as many Buddhist practitioners allege) that “Buddhism is not a religion,” most Buddhists worldwide practice it as such, in many of the naive, petitionary, and superstitious ways in which all religions are practiced. Needless to say, all non-Buddhists believe Buddhism to be a religion—and, what is more, they are quite certain that it is the wrong religion.(ibid.)
By ‘wrong religion’, Harris simply indicates that it is not followed by the majority of the world’s population. (Indeed, most independent estimates of the total number of religious adherents in the world put Buddhism in fourth place, way behind Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, the Big Three.) Harris is pointing out that while Buddhist practices such as morality, meditation, and mindfulness remain cloaked in religious garb, with all its superstition and blind faith, the heart of Buddhist wisdom becomes hidden and often marginalized.
The recent scientific interest in studying aspects of Buddhism, most notably mindfulness and meditation, is not interested in the more fantastic claims of the religion, such as the existence of gods, goddesses, demons, ghosts, nature spirits, heavens, hells, and reincarnation or rebirth. And it is these, along with ritual and dogmatism that Harris sees as damaging to the future practice of essential Buddhism; he believes that to kill Buddhism, and, in the sense of worshipping him – which does occur widely in the Buddhist world – killing the Buddha is the way forward for Buddhists.
In many respects, Buddhism is very much like science. One starts with the hypothesis that using attention in the prescribed way (meditation), and engaging in or avoiding certain behaviors (ethics), will bear the promised result (wisdom and psychological well-being). This spirit of empiricism animates Buddhism to a unique degree. For this reason, the methodology of Buddhism, if shorn of its religious encumbrances, could be one of our greatest resources as we struggle to develop our scientific understanding of human subjectivity.(ibid.)
What Harris seems to be promoting is the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, as taught by the Buddha in his first discourse called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (‘The Turning of the Wheel of Truth Discourse’). In studying this discourse, it can be noted that there’s no supernatural beliefs or faith-inspired worshipping to be indulged in; it is a logical and methodical approach to awakening to a happier and wiser existence. (The discourse is cloaked in magical events, however, such as the mention of gods rejoicing after its delivery, but these can be seen as cultural dressings, used to make the essentially non-religious teachings more appealing to ancient Indians used to talk of gods and the like.)
Is the practice of Buddhism shorn of its religious trappings possible? Well, many Westerners, not to mentioned educated Asians, have had no problems in practicing in this way, myself included. This is not to say that I am closed to the more supernatural elements in the Buddhist canon, but that I don’t actively believe in them either, remaining non-committal and open-minded. The Buddha himself, of course, taught in the often-quoted Kalama Sutta that we shouldn’t belief something just because it is part of tradition, found in scripture, commonsensible, logical, part of one’s opinions and beliefs, or taught by priests, monks or the like. We should test it out.
And this is where science comes in, of course. It’s one thing to test out for one’s self (so-to-speak) Buddhist teachings contained in the Noble Eightfold Path, as Buddhists have done for two-and-a-half thousand years, but quite another for modern science to research and confirm that this Way does indeed lead the practitioner to enlightenment and true happiness. Such scientific confirmation would not only benefit us Buddhists, but potentially present the opportunity for non-Buddhists to incorporate the contemplative and moral disciplines that have such wonderful results into their lives, also. In theory, this could reduce the conflict and misunderstandings in the world dramatically, if not eradicate them altogether.
What the world most needs at this moment is a means of convincing human beings to embrace the whole of the species as their moral community. For this we need to develop an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration. We need a discourse on ethics and spirituality that is every bit as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourse of science is. What we need, in fact, is a contemplative science, a modern approach to exploring the furthest reaches of psychological well-being. It should go without saying that we will not develop such a science by attempting to spread “American Buddhism,” or “Western Buddhism,” or “Engaged Buddhism.”(ibid.)
Harris has a point, doesn’t he? As Buddhists, do we really feel that we can convert the world to our way of thinking and behaving? (As Buddhists, would we even want to?) A non-sectarian, non-religious form of what Harris describes as contemplative science would seem to be the answer here, enabling people of whatever cultural and religious backgrounds to examine the evidence for themselves both subjectively and objectively, seeing how morality, meditation, and the wisdom that arises from them can help us to live more satisfying and peaceful lives.
But there’s a contradiction here, somewhere. If we are, as Harris encourages us, to kill the Buddha and Buddhism, and therefore cease to be Buddhists in any meaningful sense of the term, who is all this scientific research to be conducted on? Where will be the Buddhist meditators that have practiced for decades and reaped the rewards of their discipline to be found if they’ve renounced the Path and become ‘non-sectarian’. Buddhism, even with the supernatural and ritualistic stuff removed, is a whole way of life that incorporates not only meditation and mindfulness, but also morality and generosity, not to mention goodwill, along with many other aspects. So, I’m a trifle confused here, and perhaps I’ve misunderstood Sam Harris somewhere, but despite the rest of his article Killing the Buddha making perfect sense to me, this point leaves a doubt in my mind. Perhaps I’m just too attached to being a Buddhist!
Harris finishes his article with what I consider an inspiring paragraph. And it is worth noting that the central problem that he identifies as needing further study is the ‘reservoir of greed, hatred, and delusion’ that blights our lives. These so-called ‘three poisons’ are, of course, the cause of human suffering and misbehavior according to Buddhist teachings. For what it’s worth, I have no problem letting go of faith, in the sense of the blind, dogmatic sort, as that’s not part of my approach to Buddhism anyhow. I would be most interested to read of your opinions on the issue, whether you consider yourself Buddhist or not, so please click on the comments feature below and let me know what you think. Dialogue is one sure way that we can grow together in the light of the Buddha’s teachings, especially when we bring those very teachings into question. As to Sam Harris, here’s that final paragraph of Killing the Buddha, to leave us with much food for thought:
There is much more to be discovered about the nature of the human mind. In particular, there is much more for us to understand about how the mind can transform itself from a mere reservoir of greed, hatred, and delusion into an instrument of wisdom and compassion. Students of the Buddha are very well placed to further our understanding on this front, but the religion of Buddhism currently stands in our way.