Mind

Needing Nothing

NEED

These are the discussion notes accompanying my first ‘Budcast’ talk at the North London Buddhist Centre, October 2018.

The podcast of the talk itself is here.

According to Buddhism, our craving – being dominated by need – is the basic cause of suffering, our sense of frustration and lack.

The opposite of craving is a freedom of the heart and mind, which is the goal of Buddhism. Happiness does not come from getting what you want, but from liberation from craving.

What is craving?

“Craving… Is painful.… Craving is the longing for pleasure that we are not yet enjoying. It is a state of privation or lack, and hence of uncomfortable tension. As long as we have some hope of satisfying the craving, we usually fail to notice its unpleasant side, because the anticipation of future pleasure conceals the present pain, as sugar might mask sharp taste.” (Subhuti , Mind In Harmony, 24.)

For example, one can crave for material things, for other people, and for status or a secure identity. None of these things are reliable, they change, so if the craving leads on to grasping and clinging, it will inevitably result in a sense of insecurity, loss and frustration. If it becomes habitual, it is an addiction.

Likes and dislikes.

The succession of our experiences, some pleasant and some unpleasant, is pulling us and pushing us. They’re pulling us and pushing us because of our preferences, because of our likes and dislikes. The question is who is the boss? A lot of what we like and dislike is fairly arbitrary, yet we allow it to govern our lives. Can you ever arrange your life so that you will always get what you want, and never get what you don’t want?

If we govern our lives by our likes and dislikes, by the search for gratification, when will we have time to find meaning and significance, to make a real difference to the world? Pleasant experiences are wonderful, they refresh your life, but they can easily be contaminated by craving.

One of the big radical, and perhaps counterintuitive, Buddhist suggestions is no longer to let your preferences be the boss. You don’t use that scale of judging things anymore. Instead, you start to learn what is skilful and what is unskilful, to use the Buddhist terminology. You don’t try to go for experiences, instead you try to decide how to act. It’s a radically different way of living a human life.

And a skilful action is one which leads you into more expansive and freer states of mind, and which causes benefit to both yourself and others. An unskilful action is one that yields experiences which are contracted, self protective, anxious and tense, and which causes harm to both yourself and others.

The precepts – training in skilfulness.

  1. I take on the training not to harm anything that breathes. [Kindness]
  2. I take on the training not to take what is not given. [Generosity]
  3. I take on the training not to lose my way through sense desire. [Contentment & Simplicity]
  4. I take on the training not to speak falsely. [Truthfulness]
  5. I take on the training to avoid intoxicants which cause carelessness. [Mindfulness]

Desire/intention is okay

There’s not necessarily anything wrong with desire. It’s craving that’s the problem. But there are different kinds of desire – there’s the desire for stimulation and gratification, which tends to cause us problems. But there are also wholesome desires. Hunger, thirst, sex, well-being, love, acceptance – these come from our evolutionary past and our upbringing. As our species evolved, we needed to look out for food and shelter, companionship and belonging, protection, affection and sex.

There’s also the desire for the unknown, for a creative life, for a life bringing happiness to oneself and others. Desire for truth and authenticity. These are positive.

How to work with craving.

  • Noticing craving, staying with the experience/feeling. Imagine being interested in what’s happening, but without needing it to be just right, without needing it to be as if designed just for you.
  • Noticing discomfort, and staying with it. Renunciation is a great virtue in Buddhism – it means not acting on craving, not letting it turn to grasping.
  • Mindfulness of experiences, starting with the body.
  • Cultivating aesthetic appreciation, kindness, contentment
  • Learn and internalise how craving leads to suffering because of impermanence. Because everything changes, if you hang onto anything, you will be hurt and disappointed. Realising this deeply is insight.
  • Learn meditation: meditation is doing nothing. Imagine the calm delight of not needing anything, simply sitting still.

“The craving of one who lives carelessly increases like a fast-growing creeper. One races from place to place, like a monkey in the jungle leaping from tree to tree in search of fruit.” (The Buddha, Dhammapada, 334.)

Freedom.

There are three chains or fetters (from The Essential Sangharakshita, 198-201). Breaking them yields what the Buddha calls ‘the taste of freedom’.

  1. Habit. We are the sum total of our habits “a habit that a certain stream of consciousness has got into”. This knot can be untied, getting rid of the old self, becoming continually aware, positive, responsible, sensitive and creative of oneself.
  2. Superficiality. Acting from the surface, without thoroughness, without care, in appearance rather
    than genuinely, because we are divided, especially the rational mind from the deep emotions. You may be very busy, but lacking singleness of purpose, not doing things with the whole force of your being. “A small part of us is prospecting ahead, but the greater part is lagging far behind.” Commitment to something you really care about is the solution to superficiality.
  3. Vagueness. Not wanting to decide, shrinking from the pains of growth, keeping options open with several interests and aims. Break it by thinking clearly, sorting out priorities between alternatives, not postponing the moment of decision.

Our essential need as human beings, once food clothing shelter and leisure needs have been
met, is freedom – which is needed in order to grow. We need space to grow into. Freedom from all that restricts us externally and internally, from our conditioning and our old self.

Bhikkhu Bodhi (The Taste of Freedom, 1994): Freedom is spiritual autonomy, not simply licence to do what you feel like. Consider the sequence: complete bondage in prison, then unshackled in prison, then released into a life with many responsibilities, then a dictator who can do whatever he wants. However, even for the dictator, pleasant and unpleasant experiences still lead on to craving, hostility and delusion, compulsively, so one is not really free, there is no mastery, which shows that licence is not the same thing as freedom. You need to be free from craving, hostility and delusion.

 “Prisoner, tell me who was it that wrought this unbreakable chain?  It was I, said the prisoner, who forged this chain very carefully.  I thought my invincible power would hold the world captive, leaving me in a freedom undisturbed.  Thus night and day I worked at the chain with huge fires and cruel, hard strokes.  When as last the work was done and the links were complete and unbreakable, I found that it held me in its grip.”

(Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali, 31.)

                                    Notes by Ratnaprabha, http://www.northlondonbuddhistcentre.com

Tolerance — ksanti

Kusunoki_masashige

Kusunoki Masashige, photo by Jim Epler https://www.flickr.com/photos/epler/

The Zen master and the general

In the warring period of medieval Japan, one of the most ferocious of the clan generals swept into a peaceful valley with his army. The general was used to the terror his arrival would always cause. The Buddhist monks in the local Zen monastery fled into the mountains – all except one. The general stomped through the monastery buildings, and was very surprised to find one remaining monk, the Abbot, a well known Zen Master, who was calmly sitting in his room. He strode up to him. his sword drawn: ‘Don’t you know who I am? You dare to remain seated in my presence? I have killed scores of men. Do you realise that, without blinking an eyelid, I could run you through with this sword?’ The Zen master did not move. ‘General,’ he said ‘do you realise that, without blinking an eyelid, I could be run through with that sword.’ After a pause, the general put away his sword and bowed, and ordered his army to leave the valley.

I remembered this story as a striking example of a special kind of tolerance which is found in Buddhism, a personal tolerance which includes  the ability not to join in with any games of power. (I will question the Zen Master’s behaviour later.)

Tolerance in Buddhism

It’s tempting to bestow some reassuring but bland declarations of how nice it would be if everyone else were more tolerant. But what of our own personal level of tolerance? I’d like to look at that from a specifically Buddhist angle.

I learnt Buddhist meditation as I was about to start my finals at university (and I certainly needed the effects of meditation then!) So I had some contact with a Buddhist, the meditation teacher, in fact he was the one who told me that story. He impressed me very much, and I decided to investigate Buddhism as a whole, not just the practice of meditation.

Two things, among others, really struck me about Buddhism. One was its emphasis on the individual, and one’s actual experience, here and now. The other was that it does more than tell you that you ought to be kind to people, and tolerant and so on. It recognises that you may not feel kind or tolerant, and so it offers practical methods for developing such qualities, and methods for leaving behind habits that lead to harm and suffering. These two points apply to Buddhist tolerance.Firstly, it is said to be individual tolerance that matters most. So it is not Buddhism that is tolerant, but Buddhists. And it is not other isms that Buddhists tolerate, but real individual people. I think this is quite an important distinction.

However, if you strongly identify with your religion or your ideology, and label other people with their religion or ideology, then it is very tempting to make the label so huge that you can’t see the person behind it. And then it is a label which you tolerate, or don’t tolerate, as the case may be. She is a Moslem, so she must be bloodthirsty and fanatical, say.

The second point was to do with seeing tolerance as a quality to be developed in the individual, using practical methods, not as a pious hope, or something received from outside you by grace. So what is the quality of tolerance like, and how can you develop it?

Well, I’ve been using the word tolerance, which of course is an English word, to translate a traditional Buddhist term which actually has a rather broader meaning. The word in Sanskrit is ksanti, a rather beautiful word, I think. As well as tolerance, it means forbearance, patience, kindness, and maybe the best translation is non-reactivity. Non-reactivity is something the Zen Abbot exemplified, I think. It is the ability to respond with kindness whatever another person does to you. Quite a tall order, but it is something you can gradually strengthen, as we’ll see. It is not something you just have or don’t have, and you just have to put up with it. This is a great mistake, I think, which it is very easy to make. I can believe, ‘well, so I am a bit crabby. But I was born like that, and that’s the way I am.’ .So ksanti is a quality you can develop, the ability to remain cheerful and positive even if people are not treating you as you’d like to be treated.

An old poem ascribed to the Buddha includes the line: ‘Ksanti is the highest form of austerity.’ I think this means that when people get difficult, learning not to react with more of the same is a better form of training than the most impressive feats of self-denial or fasting and so on.

Developing ksanti

So how do you learn ksanti, how do you develop tolerance as a personal quality?

In Buddhism, the first steps for cultivating any inner quality are ethical ones. You apply awareness to your actions, and to your feelings as well. You restrain any impulses that are intolerant, because if those emotional urges turn into words and actions, they get a firmer hold on you, as well as damaging whoever has to bear the brunt. Instead of acting from intolerance, you emulate anyone you know, or know of, who seems to be truly tolerant, and so your habitual behaviours slowly adjust.

But ethics is only a first step, and it is not enough. You need to tackle the intolerant impulses at their roots in the heart, and cause tolerant impulses to sprout there instead. Any method which achieves a direct emotional change is called meditation. Meditations for developing ksanti use the medium of empathy. In a meditation to cultivate kshanti,you would get into a quiet state of mind which is flavoured with confidence. This is because the meditation will not work if you do not have a strong sense of self-worth. You could say that you can’t really tolerate others unless you can be tolerant to yourself: everyone has flaws and makes mistakes, but it is counter-productive to give yourself a hard time about them. In Buddhism, they are called ‘adventitious defilements’ because deep down you are ok, there is a core of inner purity, the potential for Enlightenment.

So with that feeling of being happy about yourself, you than call to mind the people you are intolerant of (whether or not you think the intolerance is justified), and you start to feel what it must be like to be them, as best as you can. You regard them with the same kind of understanding that you have for yourself, and notice that they are the way they are because of all sorts of circumstances, and some of those circumstances can change. Thus you start to empathise with them.

As you empathise more, you may realise that your intolerance of them is based on very superficial characteristics – it’s their tone of voice or their facial expression which really gets up your nose. Alternatively, you may decide that their behaviour is just not on. In Buddhist terms, their behaviour is unskilful, ie it is damaging to themselves or others. This is where your tolerance is really tested – when it seems that you have good reasons for it. William Blake says:

Learn … to distinguish the Eternal Human … from those States or Worlds in which the Spirit travels. This is the only means to FORGIVENESS OF ENEMIES.[i]

In other words, we can recognise that our common humanity is where our regard for each other comes from. On the surface of that humanity, everyone passes through many mental states, some skilful, some unskilful. If our reason for not being tolerant is others’ mistakes and unskilfulness, then we will tolerate no-one.

You can’t ignore unskilfulness. But I think you need a thoroughly tolerant frame of mind in order to be of any real use in helping someone overcome it. And maybe you can’t — maybe you can’t cope with this person, but you have no choice but to cope with your own reactions to them.

There are much more advanced developments of ksanti or tolerance in Buddhism, connected with the very significance of birth and death, but I just wanted to give you some practical ideas about how to make it stronger. There is one more thing I’d like to add about tolerance as a quality. Kshanti has been defined as not expecting anything.[ii] This may seem a bit extreme, because we always, surely, have some expectations. But then we are often being disappointed. And what makes it so difficult to be tolerant is other people not fulfilling our needs and our expectations of them. Expect nothing, and life is full of very pleasant surprises!

So in this talk, I have deliberately focussed on ksanti, tolerance, as a quality for each individual to strengthen in themselves. We may think we are already very tolerant. That may be true when it comes to events in distant countries, or the religious rites of exotic communities. Tolerance is really tested, though, between you and your relatives, the people you work with, or whoever is with you now. Can we really put up with such weird and unreasonable human beings in such close proximity?

One reason for the difficulty of being tolerant is that other people are different from us, and their differences can seem unreasonable, even threatening. Can I accept that someone else is fully human, and deserving of a good and full life, even though they are not like me? One way out of this problem is to regard differences as unreal, but I think that is a cop out.

Religious tolerance

I wanted to concentrate on personal tolerance, so I have not discussed religious tolerance, or the toleration of variant views and beliefs. As you know, this is not really an issue for Buddhism as a tradition, despite very poor behaviour by some Buddhist communities. But ksanti or tolerance as a personal quality is just as much an issue for Buddhists as for anyone else. For a Buddhist, any other person is to be treated as an independent human being, responsible for their own destiny, who is potentially a Buddha, whatever their opinions may be.

But what if their opinions are pernicious? For example, what if they hold tenaciously to an ideology in which a huge section of the community is regarded as untouchable, their very shadows being seen as polluting, as is still the case in large parts of India? If so, then I think the harmful views should be exposed, but in a spirit of personal friendliness. So I am pointing out that you do not have to tolerate everything. Tolerance does not mean blurring the truth and pretending that we all believe the same thing or are really all on the same path. I am convinced that there are  real differences between people, and also real differences between the Buddhist approach and other approaches, and between different people’s priorities and aims. I feel it’s rather intolerant for someone to insist otherwise.

Why is it that (with exceptions such as Northern Myanmar in our own time) Buddhists have as a whole has been quite happy to coexist with other religions and ideologies, while for most of their history, the other world religions have not been tolerant of each other?

I haven’t time to treat the whole issue thoroughly, and I could well be quite wrong about it. But I consider that it is connected with belief in God. Buddhists do not believe in God. Buddhism is a religion of discovery, of discovering the truth by taking full responsibility for the growth of your own wisdom and compassion. The other main world religions are, for most of their followers, religions of revelation. If you believe your truth is revealed from an infallible divine source, then it is difficult to admit the quite different revelations of other religions, or even the different interpretations of the revelation of your own religion.

It is obvious that individual theists can be genuinely tolerant people, but I think that such people have left behind some of the traditional associations with God. Each theistic religion as a whole, as a tradition or an institution, seems to militate against many forms of tolerance, and will carry on doing so unless there are some big changes. For example, I very cheekily asked a priest why the church did not simply repudiate the Old Testament, but he wasn’t having it!

So, if you are a believer in God, however you conceive of him, a non-theist might really test your tolerance by saying: ‘I am convinced that God does not exist, and that belief in God can in itself explain why there is more active intolerance in the theistic religions than outside them.’

Conclusion

I was thinking some more about the story of the Zen Abbot and the general. It is an impressive story, and he must have been a very impressive man. But I am not sure he was setting a very good example. In fact, I am sure he had no intention of setting an example, he was just being himself. If I had been there, I am certain I would have scampered off into the mountains with the other monks.

When I have told such stories before, some people usually respond by saying: ‘If everyone acted like that, society would fall apart!’ or ‘Someone has got to resist the tyranny and oppression of the strong over the weak’, or they think he was just lucky.

I sympathise with these responses, but I think they miss the point. The Abbot was not writing a list of recommended behaviours to suit all situations. He was just being himself, and each of us is different. For a start, we have probably not developed anything like his imperturbable kshanti, and that is not something you can pretend about.

Another Japanese master was lucky enough to die in his bed. As he lay dying, his devoted disciples gathered round, and asked him for his last words of wisdom. He just croaked: ‘I don’t want to die!’ ‘But master’, they said, ‘we want some final advice that posterity will remember you for’. ‘No really,’ he said ‘I don’t want to die.’ So I am sort of heartened by that. Maybe we can develop tolerance, tolerance for each of our fellow human beings, not imposing our expectations on them. But maybe we can keep one or two aspects of this world untolerated, as that last Zen master did with the expectations of his own pupils; maybe we can even refuse to tolerate the finality of death, and discover for ourselves what  it is all really about.

 

Based on lecture to a United Nations Association interfaith meeting in 1995

[i] William Blake, Jerusalem, 49: 72-5. His capitals.

[ii] Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, 174.

Welcoming impermanence – or not?

Do you think we can make Buddhism sound too positive, pandering to a need for reassurance that everything is rather lovely, really?

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s 2016 article ‘The Transformations of Mindfulness’ (1) is on the gradual leaching of central Buddhist priorities from Western Buddhist and mindfulness teaching. He acknowledges that coming to terms with one’s life, even delighting in it and dealing with various destructive habits through present-moment mindfulness is a very positive thing. But it leaves out the centrality in Buddhism of seeing through the defects of Samsara (unenlightened experience) and renouncing them, on the traditional basis of unfashionable/non-scientific viewpoints including karma and rebirth. He makes a number of points, but one of them in particular struck me. He says that some modern Western Buddhists and mindfulness teachers:

‘see impermanence as imbued with positive significance. They admit that clinging to what is impermanent brings suffering, but take this connection to mean, not that one should renounce the impermanent in favor of the imperishable nibbana, but that one should learn to live in the world with an open mind and loving heart, capable of experiencing everything with awe and wonder. The practice of mindfulness thus leads through the door of impermanence and selflessness to a new affirmation and appreciation of the world, so that one can joyfully savor each fleeting event, each relationship, each undertaking in its wistful evanescence, unperturbed when it passes. This attitude, though it has some resonances with Zen Buddhism particularly as expressed by Thich Nhat Hanh, is quite at odds with the Buddhism of the Pali Canon, the tradition from which mindfulness meditation originates. In classical Buddhism the fact of impermanence is viewed as a sign of deficiency, a warning signal that the things we turn to for happiness are unworthy of our ultimate concern. As the Buddha says: ‘Conditioned things, monks, are impermanent, unstable, unreliable. It is enough to be disenchanted with all conditioned things, enough to be dispassionate toward them, enough to be liberated from them.’

How do you feel when you read this? On the one hand I rejoice in that Zen-style open heart, and perhaps want to hunt the Pali Canon for contrary references. Or perhaps the early Buddhist approach is now out of date? On the other hand, my tendency to want to present Buddhism in these reassuring terms perhaps does it a disservice, partly because I am complacently content to keep my Buddhism on that level of successfully adjusting to the vicissitudes of life, finding joy and satisfaction in the ordinary, and pretending to myself that the full outcome of Dharma practice is no more than that.

I’ve also reflected on this in relation to a very different tradition: Tsongkhapa’s inspiring threefold summary of the path from the very beginnings of the Tibetan Gelugpa school (2). It is simply

  • Renunciation
  • Bodhicitta (a compassionate mind set on awakening)
  • Wisdom

To be frank, I’m rarely willing to renounce, I resist the embrace of the compassionate Bodhicitta, and I sidestep perfect vision of what is really going on. It’s easy to say this, but am I prepared to face the consequences of my habits of avoiding, and change my ways?! A chink of light is that I feel even more excited when I encounter Dharma teachings that oppose my customary approach than when I find teachings that encourage it. Is it not exhilarating to have your opinions exposed and convincingly overturned?

(1) Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context, and Social Engagement, edited by Ronald E. Purser, David Forbes, Adam Burke (Springer, 2016), p3.

(2) The Three Principal Aspects of the Path, by Je Tsongkhapa. (Sangharakshita’s edition, translated by John Driver, is in The Middle Way, XXXV, No 3, November 1960, pp 99-102.)

Am I humanist? Am I liberal?

Homo Deus coverHumanist? Liberal?

I’m in the middle of reading Homo Deus, Yuval Harari’s follow-up to his excellent Sapiens. It is so fluently and clearly explained, that it easy to forget that it’s possible that he’s not right in some of the things he says, but I suspect he generally is! His theme is understanding humanity and it’s trajectory, especially the drives for human bliss, human power, and an unlimited human lifespan.

I was particularly interested in what he says about humanism, the doctrine that glorifies those three aims. What follows may not do justice to his arguments…

He points out that humanist ideas have replaced the old European reliance on forms of religious authority to such an extent that humanist assumptions tend to be invisible to us. Particularly liberal ones. And as he went through them, I had to acknowledge that I felt a shudder of horror at the sense that they are assumptions. So in Buddhist terminology they are they are ditthis, views, and ditthis at best need to be taken as provisional conceptualisations, and at worst may be wrong views. He describes three basic forms of humanism – evolutionary, socialist, and liberal.

The evolutionary form says that some people are superior to others, and the species will progress if the superior ones are allowed to dominate. This may be comparatively benign, in the sense of recognising genuine artistic or scientific genius, or in the sense of recognising the possibility of genuine spiritual progress. But we particularly observe it in the horrors of eugenics and Nazism. Like all forms of humanism, socialist humanism values humanity above everything else, but it does so in the mass rather than in the form of individuals, initially overthrowing the privileged few through class conflict, and dreaming of an egalitarian utopian society in the future.

Liberal humanism is probably the one most taken for granted, it started earlier than the other two, as the value of each individual was recognised. It led to a sense that one’s own wishes and preferences are paramount, the more choice the better, and perhaps “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”, leading to consumerism, valuing immediate personal desires and so on. You need to think for yourself, and come up with your own set of values. The interior world of personal experience is far richer and more important than the exterior or shared worlds. All meaning is to be drawn from personal inner experiences. Human life is sacred, people must be kept alive at all costs. Free will and free choice are the highest authority. Be true to yourself: once you’ve clarified your feelings, they will tell you how to behave, and what is right. Something is bad only if it makes you feel bad, and as well as amplifying our own feelings, we should respect the feelings and sensitivities of others.

So our personal experience is prioritised – a combination of sensations, emotions, and thoughts – and we need to become increasingly sensitive to the flowing variety of our experiences. Thus we specialise like gourmets in our favourite range of sensations, sharpening our aesthetic sense, and also developing our ethical sense about what is right.

Now it seems to me that the basics of humanism have a lot going for them, and that basic Buddhism does include a humanist message, particularly the message of cultivating the psyche and its sensitivity. But it is salutary to me to notice how much I take the liberal humanist message for granted, and reinterpret the grand sweep of Buddhism almost entirely within that framework, though sometimes I use the evolutionary or socialist humanist frameworks. But is Buddhism really a framework that puts the individual human being, especially me, at the centre of all things?

I’ve long felt oppressed by the tyranny of my own preferences. And my impression is that most practising Buddhists I know are not very different from the mass of Western consumers in how strongly their decisions are based on what they happen to want at the time, whether it’s snacks, the temperature of the room, the comfort of the seat, the retreat or holiday destination, or even their moral judgements and political opinions… If you arrive at a retreat, are you eager to choose your own room and bed, hoping most are still free? If your bed is allocated before you arrive, do you find yourself complaining, at least tacitly, that it does not fully suit your needs?

Being governed by immediate preferences is giving priority to vedana. Vedana means the sensation, usually pleasant or unpleasant, that is an aspect of every moment of experience, and impels us to welcome and repeat the experience — or not. But my understanding of the Dharma is that vedana is, in a sense, given. I don’t need to pay very much attention to it, what’s important is karma, that is basing my decisions to act on whether it is skilful or unskilful, rather than on whether I feel like doing it or not. (Fortunately, the skilful is often quite pleasant!) In any case, is there really a unitary me with a deciding will?

Like a good liberal I aspire to improve my sensitivity; sometimes I am pleased to say it is my karmic sensitivity that I value. But how often do I prioritise broader issues of welfare and integrity over the ‘me’ and its petulant demands?

TURNING THE WHEEL OF DHARMA

The Buddha’s first teaching

Image: John Hill

Today, 8 June 2017,  is the full moon of Dharma Day, the anniversary of the Buddha’s first teaching, known as Turning the Wheel of Dharma.

Here is my Re-rendering of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (Ratnaprabha, June 2017)

This is what I heard. (After his awakening), the Buddha arrived at the game reserve near Varanasi, (and was reunited with his five former comrades).

He taught the group of five. He said to them: “Going forth (to seek awakening), you must avoid two extremes.

“Looking for gratification in sense pleasures is demeaning, crude and ignoble. It’s what people always go for, but it’s pointless, and it takes you nowhere near the goal.

“Yet self-torment is also ignoble and pointless, and (it commits you to needless) suffering.

“Instead of veering towards one of these extremes, (if you’re) attuned to reality, you will wake up to the middle path. It yields vision so that you truly know. It leads to peace, to complete awareness, to quenching (the flames) and waking yourself up fully.

“Speaking simply, the middle path has eight aspects. These are complete vision, complete emotion, complete communication, complete action, complete livelihood, complete effort, complete mindfulness, and complete unification (of the mind). When I attuned myself to reality, I woke up to this path.

“Furthermore, (I woke up to four noble truths). Firstly, this is the noble truth, the grand reality, of pain. Birth, ageing and illness are painful. Death is horrible. (Then you’ll encounter) depression, grief and physical agony; unhappiness and despair as well, and losing what you love, and not getting what you want. In fact all the aspects of life that we cling to are painful.

“This is the noble truth, the grand reality (that explains) where pain comes from. It comes from thirst, from craving. It is craving that impels us to remake ourselves so that we are still conjoined with gratification and clinging, indulging in one thing after another. (More specifically), it is craving for sense-gratification, craving for continuing (as we are), or craving for oblivion.

“This is the noble truth, the grand reality, of the finish of pain. It is the fading and finishing of that same craving, giving it up, letting it go, not depending on it any more, so that we are completely free from craving.

“This is the noble truth, the grand reality of the way that finishes pain. It is the same middle path (that avoids the extremes) – complete vision and so on.

“When I fully woke up, I saw this for the first time. A fresh insight, wisdom and awareness, indeed a complete illumination, dawned on me. I truly saw pain as a grand reality, I saw I had to understand it, and (eventually) I did.

“Similarly, I truly saw, as a grand reality, how pain comes from craving. I saw I had to let go of that craving, and I managed to do that.

“And I truly saw the grand reality of (the possibility of) pain finishing (for good). I knew I had to realise that finish directly, and I did realise it.

And I truly saw the grand reality of the middle way that frees one from pain, I saw that I had to journey on that way, and I travelled it to the end.

“It was these crucial insights that enabled me to perfect my full and complete awakening. This is an awakening that completes the journey, (a journey open to) all forms of life in the universe. I saw, and I realised: unshakeable is the liberation of my mind, I’m no longer compelled to re-make myself, this is it.”

The group of five listened enraptured to the Buddha. And as he listened, one of them, Kondañña, saw the truth clearly and lucidly, and realised that all that comes into being must also finish. “Kondañña knows!” Exclaimed the Buddha, “Kondañña knows!”

This, in the game reserve near Varanasi, was the (first) rolling of the Wheel of Dharma by the Buddha. The earth spirits yelled with all their might: “THE SUPREME WHEEL OF THE BUDDHA’S DHARMA IS NOW TURNING, AND NO ONE CAN STOP IT!” And the cheer went up through the ranks of invisible beings up to the (formless) world of pure spirit, so that the whole world trembled, and an incandescent light spread from horizon to horizon.

Brackets signify words added for clarification. Some repetitions have been removed. This re-rendering is interpretive, and other interpretations are possible; it is well worth looking through several translations.

Is Ken Wilber mistaken? Sex, Ecology, Spirituality

ken wilber

Ken Wilber

This is a rather critical book review I wrote for the Buddhist magazine Golden Drum in the 90s. Fans of Wilber, please forgive me!

Review of SEX, ECOLOGY, SPIRITUALITY. THE SPIRIT OF EVOLUTION.

Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. The Spirit of Evolution, by Ken Wilber, published by Shambhala (Boston and London, 1995).

‘I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s,’ wrote William Blake. Ken Wilber has created a grand system of evolutionary connections. Here is yet another book, his fattest yet, expounding it.

There is an X-shaped diagram of Wilber’s system on the end-papers. Levels of consciousness, their individual and collective physical structures, and cultures or shared world-views each have an arm of the X, and evolve in correlation with each other. For example, as conceptual thought became possible in consciousness, new brain mechanisms supported it, and it was reflected in village societies, with magical world-views.

Wilber’s synthesis, with its wealth of fascinating details, is extremely well thought out. If you are a believer in the idea that all spiritual schemes reflect intuitions of the same Great Chain of Being, then you will forgive his long-windedness, repetitiveness, jargon, surfeit of long supporting quotations, and his obsession with reducing every other analysis to its spot on the great X. But what I appreciated most was Wilber’s uncompromising evolutionary vision. We can indeed evolve as individuals and as a human world, and there are pioneers of consciousness who can show us the way.

What I think is Wilber’s biggest mistake stems from the rigidity of his X diagram. To fit the model, evolution must continue in the collective sphere, after the arising of self-awareness. So in general, a later society is likely to reflect a higher average form of consciousness than an earlier society. In recent centuries, he claims, the mental and biological parts of human experience have been differentiated on a large scale for the first time, a step forward allowing rationality to produce all its benefits. (Wilber’s mission is to encourage the next development: the re-integration of mind and nature on a higher level, in a global awareness and a global culture.) But is it really true that most people of today are more rational and independent-minded than most people in India or Greece (say), 2500 years ago? Is it easier to make spiritual progress now, and are we all starting from a higher base?

It would seem that with self-awareness, further evolution focused on the individual. Societies and world-views now only evolve if they are reformed by self-aware individuals, the number of which does not necessarily grow steadily. Cultures are not caught up in Wilber’s grand current of evolution. It is true that science is genuinely cumulative in its discoveries, and this fact may have misled Wilber. The progress that science makes, in extending the scope of models of the physical universe and making more sophisticated technologies possible, cannot be ranked in alignment with advances in consciousness.

Wilber’s method leads him to judge Buddhism on the basis of the type of language used in its writings, though he comes to mistaken conclusions through relying on modern commentators rather than the original sources. His image of evolution is still a Hindu one of consciousness emerging from a Ground of Being (or World Spirit, or Emptiness: terms from diverse traditions are bunched as ‘identical’ by Wilber), and passing through an arc of development until it can reunite with this Ground (from which it has never separated). Statements couched in ‘non-dual’ terms must, Wilber seems to believe, have come from this ultimate state of being, and he implies that he can recognise their authenticity because he has been there himself. Actually, blarney is all you need to pen don-dual paradoxes.

Blarney or not, this language is what he seeks in Buddhism, so he approves of Nagarjuna and Zen, and disapproves of early Buddhism. The Buddha encouraged a radical renunciation of the deluded, cyclical habits of life, because the ‘ground of being’ for Buddhism is ignorance, something to be transcended, and it is frustration that emerges from ignorance, something to be eradicated. So Buddhists have used the ‘dualistic’ language of transcending and developing (‘follow this path to this goal’) more than the language of paradox or of immanence (‘uncover your existing Buddha-Nature’), something that Wilber sees as a limitation.

Similarly, Wilber dismisses the teaching of no-Self, incorrectly seeing it as a dualistic denial of the ‘stable cohesive self’ that one should strengthen to progress psychologically. No, the Buddha was concerned to identify ‘wrong views’ – attitudes which impede the evolution of one’s consciousness by tying one to a limited sense of one’s own identity. ‘No-Self’ is no more, or less, dualistic than ‘no-duality’ (or indeed ‘no-World-Spirit’). The Buddha wasn’t bothered about fitting into a grand system or abiding by a metaphysical taboo against dualism. He was concerned to promote provisional right views which helped people to transcend themselves until they could dwell in ‘no-view’. Later, the increasing sophistications of the deluded mind called for more sophisticated countervailing right views, such as Nagarjuna’s.

Buddhism can be presented in many formats. Wilber’s system may lead you to believe that the later ones must supersede the earlier, and the linguistically non-dual ones must be higher than those that teach a path. On the contrary, an effective path of practice is essential, I would say, and the best way to choose a system of spiritual discipline is not to collect from a warehouse of words teachings that fit our preconceptions, but to meet the people who tread a coherent path. Are they kind? Are they deeply sensible?

Reading Ken Wilber is rather like being drawn to listen to a brilliant, manic and rather tipsy monologue at a party. As we imbibe the system of another man, I think it is worth taking care. Is it liberating, or is it enslaving?

Karma in Buddhism: why stop acting from preference?

kindnessKarma: acting by skill instead of likes and dislikes

A karma means a deed: anything we initiate, whether a deliberate thought, a few casual words to someone, or a physical action. All actions have their effects, and the intentional ones change our character and thus our future most powerfully of all.

There is a choice between what the Buddha called dark deeds and bright deeds. With mindfulness you can put energy into certain mental impulses and withdraw it from others; you can let some impulses express themselves in action, and restrain yourself from acting on others. This is Buddhist ethics, an ethics based in your knowledge of mental states, which offers the choice between skilful actions, the bright deeds, which genuinely benefit one’s self and others, and unskilful, dark deeds, which cause harm and distress.

The consequence of the basic negative impulses of craving and aversion is that things go wrong, and life becomes unsatisfactory because the world does not match your wants. This is how unskilfulness is defined in Buddhism: it comes from craving or aversion, and it leads to frustration and misery. By definition, unskilful actions harm yourself and others. Skilful actions in contrast come from open and loving states, and lead to benefit and happiness.

The first stage of a Buddhist life is to move the seat of government from the likes-and-dislikes polarity to that of skilful and unskilful, the criteria of Buddhist ethics. You restrain the craving, the clinging, and the other self-protective responses, and you see whether you can stop yourself turning those mental responses into harmful words and deeds. Instead, you practise friendliness, compassion, stillness, awareness and so on.

This does not mean a swap to not doing what you want to do and doing what you dislike. Skilful/unskilful are categories of a different nature from like/dislike. You are choosing on the basis of skilfulness instead of giving in to the habits of protecting a precarious identity, and a skilful choice can be tough, but it is often delightful. It can be very skilful to do what you like, and pleasant experiences are often the consequences of previous skilfulness. Ruling your life by always choosing what you like, hedonism, leads to disappointment and selfishness. But ruling your life by what you don’t like is religious asceticism, a practice the Buddha tried before his awakening, and emphatically found did not help. He reflected: ‘Why am I afraid of such pleasure?’ Then he explored the delights to be found in a clarified human mind – a skilful mind.

Karma, action, has tangible consequences, according to Buddhism. Why is it that one notices some things and not others? And why is it that some things are liked and some disliked? The reason is said to be past karma: the decisions we have made, the habits we have entrenched, perhaps in previous lives, in short all our seeds of ethical and unethical actions; these give significance to our current world, and determine what we notice and what we do about it.

Extracted from Finding the Mind by Robin Cooper (Ratnaprabha), Windhorse Publications, 2012.

Mind in Buddhism

Mind in Buddhism: Finding the Mind interview

CoverHow would you introduce Finding the Mind in just a few words?

Being aware is the most important part of our experience as human beings, so in Finding the Mind I wanted to explore what it means to be aware, and what you can do with this awareness. Buddhists have been looking into the issue for over two and a half thousand years so my book draws on the whole of the Buddhist tradition, as well as looking at some modern ideas.

I also put a few exercises in the book so that readers can do some of the things that Buddhist meditators have been doing down the ages and see what results they come up with themselves. I wanted to make the book accessible and also quite interactive because ultimately what is important is your own experience, not what somebody else says your experience ought to be. So I hope that Finding the Mind will give people a few avenues into exploring their own minds.

Why is the project of finding our minds so important?

In a way, experiences are all that we have got, so exploring the nature of experience is, I think, basic to our humanity. Also basic to our humanity are our unwelcome experiences – we suffer, we experience pain, and we wish things were different – and Buddhism has some very effective strategies for coping with these unwelcome experiences. Not just coping with them, in fact, but actually seeing through the issues that cause them in the first place.

The Buddha taught that suffering springs from our own minds, and mostly from the fact that we don’t know our own minds, so we end up making the same mistakes in life, over and over again. This is why I think that finding our minds is such an important project.  We become familiar with the way our minds normally work, firstly so that we can then work out how to change our minds, and secondly so that we can also empathize with the experience of other people. Because people’s minds do work in very similar ways, and if we can understand our own minds, we can understand more about what it’s like to be a human being in general.

So finding our minds is not only important but also quite fascinating and exciting – lots of unexpected insights emerge when we start to look at our minds. Imagine that you didn’t have repeated disappointments with life and that you’d found the confidence to engage with the world and leave it a better place! This is what I think engaging with the Buddhist view of the mind can offer.

You dedicate a whole chapter to the subject of compassion. What relevance does compassion have as far as finding the mind is concerned?

Well firstly I think that it’s very important that any discussions of Buddhism include the subject of compassion because compassion is such a crucial part of Buddhism in general. Obviously meditation is also crucial – it allows us to make our experience as simple and straightforward as possible so that we can notice what’s actually going on in our minds and make subtle little adjustments. However, what is equally important is what happens during the rest of the day: how we go to sleep, how we eat, how we behave at work, how we deal with the people we live with. All of this stuff is real – it’s our mind actually responding. So finding the mind is not just about self-discovery, it’s also about connecting with our capacity to respond to life in a more compassionate way.

And as I mentioned earlier, our experience of suffering is something that we share with all human beings. More specifically, it’s a common human experience to feel embattled, for example, or needy, or that there’s something missing. One way through these experiences is through awareness of others – in other words through compassion – because compassion expands our awareness from the narrow perspective of the self, leaving us more relaxed and happier. So, even from a selfish point of view, compassion really works! But of course it is also about something much bigger than that. Other people are just as real as we are, they are just as important. So not to care about other people I think is running away from something.

Does Buddhism point to objective and universal laws that govern the workings of our minds, or does it simply encourage us to explore our own subjective experience?

I think it’s definitely best if our exploration of Buddhism starts from our own experience – from basic mindfulness – but of course with mindfulness we start to notice patterns in our experience and patterns between people as well. We discover that there are universal laws that govern the lives of conscious beings – all beings with a mind – because there’s something about mind which is, in a way, universal. When we see ourselves as a distinct subject in here, for example, we are inevitably going to experience problems with the separation between ourselves and the world around us.

So all conscious beings face similar problems, and finding solutions to these common problems is exactly what Buddhism is about. It’s something that ultimately we have to do for ourselves, but Buddhism gives us maps of the patterns that we’re likely to find in our experience to help us on our way.

In fact the Buddhist tradition has come up with a number of different maps because the underlying truths of life can never be fully summed up in one single conceptual way. And I think it’s helpful to be exposed to the widest possible range of approaches, so in my book I include visual images like the Tibetan wheel of life, along with Buddhist philosophical teachings, and I also recount stories – some narratives and some more mythic stories. I think that once you’ve found an approach or a map that works for you it means that you can change your mental responses by using the understanding that’s come through from other people, as well as from your own mindfulness and self-understanding.

Are there many individual minds or is there just one universal Mind?

Well usually we have a sense of some kind of division between an outer world that we share with others and an inner world that is ours alone. However, I do know that some people have had wonderful panoramic experiences of unity where they feel a very strong connection with everything outside them as well. I think those are really valuable experiences, but I would be very hesitant to turn them into an ideology and to insist that there is only one Mind because quite a lot of the time we experience ourselves very much as individuals – I’m sure that there is truth in both views.

In the author biography on the back of the book it says that you curtailed your career in science to train for ordination into the Triratna Order. Can you talk a bit about this process and the place that Finding the Mind has in the context of your own experience?

I’ve always had a lot of curiosity about the world around me, as well as curiosity about myself. I can remember when I was very young, at that time when self-awareness starts to dawn, just looking around me and finding it incredibly weird and wonderful to think that I was in the present moment which wasn’t ever going to happen again. It was this fascination with my own awareness which led me into science, I think.

Then I got quite stressed while I was studying science at university so I started to meditate, and meditation took me to Buddhism. And Buddhism led me back to that same fascination with awareness! So in Finding the Mind I really wanted, at least for my own satisfaction, to explore what it means to be an aware human being, and to do so with fidelity to both Buddhism as a personal path and to science as an objective discipline. I find it very interesting to try and bring Buddhism and science together, and in some ways Finding the Mind is an outcome of that.

So is Buddhism a science?

Buddhism is certainly like science in some ways. Both Buddhism and science are explorations of what is going on in life, but the big difference between them is that Buddhism deals specifically with human experience rather than the outside world. Science is very interested in the outside, so even when it looks at the mind it views it as an outside phenomenon – science is not an exploration of the mind of the scientist, but the mind of the person she or he is putting into the MRI scanner. Buddhism is interested primarily in exploring the scientist’s own mind – our own minds – how they produce suffering, and how they can free us from suffering. So I would say that Buddhism is scientific, but it’s not the same as science.

You say that ‘the results of neuroscience and of Buddhist insight are being compared, and there are signs of an exciting synthesis emerging.’ Can you expand on this statement?

This is something that I discuss in the last chapter of my book – I talk a bit about the interesting insights that came out of the Mind and Life conferences where a number of top-notch scientists engaged in dialogue with Tibetan teachers including the Dalai Lama. These conferences were really productive, to the extent that a large number of American neuroscientists now also have some kind of Buddhist training or background, which is fantastic.

Since both neuroscientists and Buddhists are trying to find the mind, there is much that they can learn from each other. One of the things that science can learn from Buddhism is the value of introspection – the value of looking at your own experience with a quiet mind and not assuming that that must be completely untrustworthy because it’s subjective. Through introspection you can work from the inside, not just from the outside.

There are also many things that Buddhism can learn from science. It can learn, for example, not to be too bound by the specific teachings of particular Buddhist traditions but to look at them all together in the light of modern findings. To take a rather crude example, until recently the Tibetans still believed that the earth was flat and that there was a great mountain called mount Meru right in the middle of it. Science has enabled them to realize that although the teaching may have great symbolic value, it shouldn’t be taken literally. So I think that Buddhism and science can be friends with each other – they definitely don’t need to attack each other.

Lastly, can we really find our minds?

I feel as if I’m giving it all away here, but I think the answer is no – you can’t find your mind. Still, you’ve got to look! Buddhism is all about looking for our minds and not finding them, and then turning to the centre of our experience to realize that we can’t tie anything down when we look at it. We tend to have quite a lot of views about our subjective experience – we say ‘I’m like this’, ‘I have this identity’, ‘I associate with this’, ‘I call myself this’, and they’re all just stories that we tell ourselves which, in one way or another, cause us suffering.

So the funny thing is that the more you look for the mind and don’t find it, the happier you become – you find a sort of liberation of the mind. I mean, I don’t really know what enlightenment would be like, but I get a sense that even a liberated mind wouldn’t think that it had tied everything down. It would still carry on looking – looking really, really openly.

Buy Finding the Mind here.

Interview by Hannah Atkinson of Windhorse Publications, August 2012

Buddhism and Science: a book edited by Alan Wallace

Wallace Buddhism and ScienceBuddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground

Alan Wallace (editor) Columbia University Press, New York, 2003

Review by Ratnaprabha (Robin Cooper)

First Published in The Western Buddhist Review, Vol. 4 (2003).

The great Marxist sinologist Joseph Needham blamed Buddhism for stifling science and technology in China while they flourished in Europe.  In claiming that everything is an illusion, Buddhism “played a part in strangling the development of Chinese science”.  Zen Buddhism, in “rejecting all philosophy” was also unfavourable to a scientific view.  Since the Buddha refused to speculate, Buddhism discouraged scientific research. Above all, its main object is to escape from this world, not to try to understand it.  A “despairing” and “perverse” philosophy, he concludes.[1]  Needham’s analysis stands in marked contrast to all the sixteen contributors to this book, and indeed to the prevailing view today that of all the religions Buddhism is the most compatible with science.

It is certainly a fact of history that a great surge in systematic scientific research, followed by technologies with overwhelming effects, took place in Europe from the 18th Century on.  Despite its sophisticated civilisations, science in Asia had to await influence from Europe before it was able to make comparable advances.  A common view has been that there was a religious factor in this difference, that something in Protestant Christianity favoured science.  However, an excellent essay in this volume by Jose Ignacio Cabezon indicates that the conditioning factors were far more complex, and that when Western science did arrive in Asia, it was treated by Buddhists in an open and welcoming way, in contrast to the responses to science of many European churchmen.

When science did arrive, some South Asian Buddhist monks were tempted either to detect prefigurings of scientific discoveries in Buddhist texts, or to laud Buddhism as the most scientific of religions, and the Buddha as the first scientist.  They were supported, from Victorian times onwards, by westerners’ responses to Buddhism.  Cabezon points out that human beings have at first a tendency to treat what is culturally very different in terms of the culturally familiar, so a host of compatibilities between Buddhism and science were discerned.  Buddhism was seen as undogmatic, giving authority to the individual, critical in spirit, with a universal impersonal causal law (like science), and with a scientific ethics.  Colonel Olcott, a Theosophist instrumental in the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, pointed out around 1889 that Buddhism shared an evolutionary vision with science, both teaching: “that man is the result of the law of development, from an imperfect lower, to a higher and perfect condition” (p. 44).  (I have explored this connection elsewhere.[2])

Cabezon argues that the unsophisticated view of compatibility, or even identity, between Buddhism and science is now being replaced by one of complementarity.  Each has something to offer the other.  The contributors to this volume point out a number of such cross-fertilisations, concentrating on two areas in which Buddhist thought may be able to advance scientific understanding: cognitive science and modern physics.

There is one man in particular who should be credited both with stimulating Western scientists to investigate Buddhism, and with reassuring Buddhists that they have nothing to fear from science — the Dalai Lama.  As an inquisitive boy-Lama roaming around in the vast Potala Palace, he loved to investigate exotic Western mechanical devices, as well as quizzing his tutors on science.  Somewhere, he relates how, as he turned a globe in his hands, it gradually dawned on him that this was a representation of our spherical world, and the flat cosmology of the ancient Indian texts had now been superseded.  He has never lost his eager fascination for science, and he instigated a continuing series of biennial meetings with groups of Western scientists, in which a number of topics have been freely explored.  (The meetings are organised by the Mind-Life Institute, and an appendix in the book lists those which have been published so far.)

Thus many of the contributors have been involved in the Mind-Life conferences, and have to varying extents practised or studied within the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa School of Tibetan Buddhism. Alan Wallace, the editor, is one of his translators as well as being a writer on Buddhism and science; the Dalai Lama’s chief translator, Thupten Jinpa is probably the only Tibetan monk to have studied Western philosophy to a doctoral level, and offers an interesting essay on Tibetan responses to science.  Geshe Jinpa informs us that the Dalai Lama does more than encourage a dialogue between Buddhism and science.  He is prepared to let science change Buddhism, so that if a fact emerges that is incompatible with Buddhist theory, he says, “there is no doubt that we must accept the result of the scientific research” (p. 77).  He “believes that the dynamic encounter with scientific thought could help revitalise Buddhist analysis of the nature of objective reality and the mind” (p. 78).

After all, as the Dalai Lama writes in a short piece for this book explaining the nature of mind in Tibetan Buddhism for the benefit of scientists: “The mind is transformed when one ascertains and thoroughly acquaints oneself with fresh insights into the nature of reality that invalidate one’s previous misconceptions or false assumptions” (p. 96).  A Buddhist is interested in the way things are, not in clinging to any specific description, even descriptions hallowed by centuries of transmission in a Buddhist tradition.

The section on cognitive science includes a very stimulating paper by the neuropsychologist David Galin.  He engages thoroughly with Buddhist ideas on self, being cheerfully prepared to challenge them, without being dismissive.  It is well worth breasting the current of his sociological jargon for the sake of several gem-like insights on the human mind.  How do we deal with the complexity of experience?  Well, we “seek and find, or project, a simplifying pattern to approximate every complex field… by lumping (ignoring some distinctions as negligible) and by splitting (ignoring some relations as negligible).  Both… create discreet entities useful for manipulating, predicting and controlling… [but] may impose ad hoc boundaries on what are actually densely interconnected systems and then grant autonomous existence to the segments”  (p. 108).  Even the contents of our own consciousness have to be dealt with in this way, resulting in our array of fragmented self-concepts, and we just put up with the anomalies that arise.  Buddhism, he explains, agrees that discovering entities is conventionally indispensable, but attachment and aggression arise through reifying them, which violates the principle that all things are interdependent, and all entities are conditional approximations.

Galin is unhappy with Buddhism’s moral disapproval for these self-errors, since since they are “an essential evolutionary adaptation” (p. 132).  He applauds: “the Buddhist solution to the modern suffering of alienation and anomie… to completely contextualise self, not to simply erase it.” (p. 137)   He doesn’t, I think, have confidence in the possibility of an unmediated immersion in experience, making all self-views obsolete.  However, he recognises the importance of meditation.  We evolve to act in cumulatively more sophisticated ways on the environment, and have become able to model the states resulting from alternative courses of action (ie karma).  Sitting meditation eliminates physical action, and progressively limits mental action by interrupting the loop that connects action-observation-action.  Thus peripheral awareness has the space to grow, and to notice more and more facets of interrelatedness, allowing a more integrated mental structure to coalesce.

Historically, the schools of psychology in the West have sought to arrive at a final analysis of what the self actually is, and thus represent the operation of the first fetter that, according to the Buddha, prevents irreversible Insight: fixed self view (satkayadrsti).  However, the present contributors do not represent this trend, which may have run its course.  They recognise the fragmentary and contingent nature of the empirical self.  William Waldron connects the accounts of evolutionary psychology and Buddhism concerning the deeply rooted defensive predispositions erected around the sense of an independent ‘I’ .  Human evil and suffering are caused by attempts to secure constructed selves, often at the expense of others.

Waldron connects Buddhism and evolutionary psychology, claiming that both show that negative behavioural patterns (‘evil’) have a big influence over long periods of time in evolution, being present in ourselves as inherited capacities, active all the time as predispositions.  We can break such vicious, self-centred patterns by firstly understanding the human condition, and then working to overcome their influence.

Here, Waldron misses an opportunity to discuss the systematic teachings of Buddhist ethics, an astonishing lacuna in the whole book.  The simplest Buddhist formulation of the way to emancipating enlightenment outlines three trainings: the training in morality, in meditation, and in wisdom.  Buddhism and Science makes an excellent contribution to discussing the second and third in the light of modern scientific approaches, but hardly mentions the first — morality.  Yet the connection between morality and scientific enterprises is a live topic in current discussions of science, with very good reason.  New scientific developments almost always have implications for human well-being beyond the satisfaction of the curiosity of the researchers, and beyond the promise of technologies for entertainment or labour-saving.  For example, transport, agricultural (e.g. genetic modification) and power generation technologies can have major environmental impacts.  And medical technologies can involve potentially harming some beings (including experimental animals) to fulfil the wishes of others.  The book is rich in philosophical and psychological topics, but hardly mentions ethics.[3]

Another highly technical paper, again worth the effort, is by Francisco Varela and Natalie Depraz.  A Chilean neuroscientist who tragically died in 2001, Varela has for some years been making very fruitful connections between Buddhist non-dual understandings of the mind (informed by his ground-breaking work on brain states), and the work of the French phenomenologists.  Having established that actual experience and the states of the brain act reciprocally upon one another, so that it is incoherent to say that brain states simply cause mental events, he and Depraz show how perception can be regarded as subsidiary to the mental function of imagination.  Perception refers to what is present, imagination to what is not present, and the two mix so that in every moment they are emerging into awareness from an unconscious background, as a living present.

It is still the case that the dominant view among neuroscientists is, in effect, that processes in the body cause the mind.  But Varela and Depraz have shown that one’s state of mind can access local neural processes, so that neither can be reduced to the other.  The mental state corresponds to a particular neural state, and actively incorporates or discards any contemporary neural activity in the relevant brain region, evaluating many potential neural states, “until a single one is transiently stabilised and expressed behaviourally” (p. 213).  Mental states require both a phenomenological and a biological account.  The neural elements and the global cognitive subject are co-determined; the subject is emergent, not just from the neural base, but also from preceding mental states.  Buddhism extends this account by offering its pragmatic consequences, showing how the living present, with imagination active, is a means for human transformation.  The authors then describe empathy-enhancing Tibetan visualisation techniques that effect this process.

We can be dazzled by the power and scope of science into accepting the philosophical assumptions that many scientists live by.  But the materialist assumption, which includes the belief that the mind is only an epiphenomenon of the brain, is shown by analyses such as that of Varela and Depraz to be a very odd one.  After all, we know that we make free decisions to use our bodies in various ways: the mental is operating upon the physical, as well as being constrained by the limitations of the physical.  To suppress our knowledge of freedom of choice seems needless.  The difficulty is that notions of reciprocal and interweaving causal processes are comparatively new in the West, so a scientist would be afraid that granting causal efficacy to the mind would be to grant that the whole material universe came into being merely by the force of ideas.  A crucial contribution that Buddhism can make to science is to clarify the notion of dependent co-arising (pratitya samutpada).  When we observe a phenomenon, inner or outer, we can be confident that it arises and ceases through the coming together of innumerable cooperative conditions.  And that it forms an element in the complex of conditions out of which new phenomena are arising.  Consequently, no phenomenon exists independently, nor can it persist, since its conditions are inevitably changing.  The name that we give it does not refer to any real entity, but is rather a sort of focused torch beam selecting for our attention a little patch on the shifting cloudscape of experience.

Varela and Depraz are refusing to see brain and experience as isolated entities: “there is no gap to bridge, only traces to follow” (p. 226).  By allowing to experience a genuine causal agency, they are taking the subjective pole of reality seriously, something that is essential if we are to understand more fully the ways in which body and mind interact.  Continuing research need not exclude consideration of those mental states which are comparatively less closely jointed to a brain.  Buddhism at present diverges from science, in incorporating in its worldview various apparently out-of-body experiences, including the possibility of consciousness unlinking from a dying body, and relinking with a growing embryo — i.e. rebirth.  It is disappointing that this volume is almost completely silent on rebirth, despite the formidable investigations of Ian Stevenson[4].

Matthieu Ricard is a French-born Tibetan Buddhist monk with a background in science, whose published conversations with his philosopher father became a bestseller[5].  His article is on ‘Contemplative Science’, a vogue designation for Buddhism that is perhaps trying to appropriate some of the prestige of science.  However, the term does highlight the fact that meditation and other mental disciplines should be seen as valid methods for investigating the mind, complementing the objective techniques of brain scans and psychiatrists’ questionnaires.

Many centuries ago, the dialecticians of the Madhyamaka School of Buddhism (starting with Nagarjuna) tackled Indian philosophical positions that in some ways resemble the standpoints of modern scientists.  But it seems to me that Ricard shares with some of the other contributors to this book, notably Wallace, an unreflective overconfidence in the potency of these arguments against views that after all arise from a very different, and often very subtle, philosophical background.  Western thought already provides well-developed approaches to understanding reality, which have spotted the weaknesses of dualistic, mechanistic, essentialist and idealist views; in this volume, we have excellent presentations on Kant (Bitbol), and on phenomenology (Varela and Depraz).  One might add Spinoza, who so inspired Einstein, and is the subject of a recent book by neuro-scientist Antonio Damasio[6], as well as William James, Karl Popper and others.  Much hard work will be involved in integrating these thinkers with Buddhism (as the astrophysicist Piet Hut points out in the concluding paper in this volume), but it will be very productive, and surely they cannot be ignored.  Eventually, though, we will need a new Tsongkapa: a fine scholar with a brilliant mind, highly realised through meditation practice.

Meanwhile, the more unreflective western Madhyamikans, as well as putting old arguments into new bottles, also tend to conflate Buddhism as a whole with Madhyamaka thought, presenting rival Buddhist doctrines as if they had been been conclusively refuted by Nagarjuna and his successors in the Tibetan Gelugpa School.  There are scholars writing on science under the influence of other branches of Buddhism, and it is a great shame that the editor did not bring in their perspectives.  For example, several writers on Buddhism and Ecology (a topic unfortunately absent from this book) have practised in Theravada and Zen, including Joanna Macy, Kenneth Kraft, Leslie Sponsel, Bhikkhu Bodhi, and others.  (There is also a bit of a national bias, more than half of the contributors being Americans.)

The modern physics section of Buddhism and Science explores the surprising departures from down-to-earth realism that have been emerging mainly in quantum mechanics during the past century.  Fitjof Capra popularised some of the parallels with Buddhism, in a general and rather unconvincing way, in his very influential The Tao of Physics, published nearly 20 years ago.  Despite my protestations above, I must admit that a rigorous application of Madhyamaka epistemology to physics, as we see in several of the contributions here, promises to be far more genuinely illuminating than the vague (often verbal) parallels of Capra.  But the most impressive paper is by the French philosopher of science Michel Bitbol.  (He characterises Capra and others as offering: “mere analogy at an ill-defined level of the two discourses, with obvious apologetic purposes” (p. 327).)  His ‘Cure for Metaphysical Illusions’ is an extremely thorough, and difficult, elucidation of neo-Kantian philosophy of science, explaining how Madhyamaka approaches can build on it, and extend it radically.

Like Nagarjuna, Kant was aware of the limitations of concepts.  They are only for the formal ordering of the empirical contents, a process that will never end, though reason provides an inaccessible goal of complete rational understanding to regulate the process.  Unaware of this as we generally are, it is easy to take the form that our intellect gives to phenomena as being the form of the things in themselves, “projecting the a priori structure of the knowing subject onto the world, thus mistaking it for a pregiven worldly structure” (p. 328). This is the all-pervasive ‘transcendental illusion’, which is very hard to recognise, let alone to compensate for.  Bitbol calls on the neo-Kantian philosophers of science to help us with recognising it, but needs to bring in Buddhism to show us how to overcome the illusion.  “Nagarjuna’s exclusive mission was to free everyone from the spell of reified conventional truth” (p. 332).  (Bitbol helpfully points out in a note that samvriti satya, usually translated ‘conventional truth’, is more literally a surface truth covering over ultimate truth.) Thus, “to be in nirvana means seeing the very same things that appear to the deluded consciousness of samsara, but seeing them ‘as they are — as merely empty, dependent, impermanent, and non-substantial'” (333).

Efforts towards a compromise between science and religion in the 19th-century West failed, leading to a schizophrenic attitude in which a system of beliefs and values were seen as indispensable, but the available system (monotheism) was incoherent in the light of science. Bitbol wishes to initiate the construction of a single higher-order tool, combining science, philosophy, and the “nondogmatic soteriology” offered by Madhyamaka.  The new tool needs to rely on the “dynamic potentialities” of doctrines, not their canonical texts, seeing them as operational rather than dogmatic.

Scientific theories are not representations of the world, but are for structuring our actions and anticipating their outcomes, with philosophy helping adjust us between all the possibilities of action within a value system; then Buddhism opens life out in self-transformation.  Science does not reveal a pre-existent underlying absolute reality (realism), yet it is more than a set of useful techniques (instrumentalism), being “the stabilised byproduct of the dynamic reciprocal relation between reality as a whole and a special fraction of it” — the subject (p. 337).  The structure of scientific theories is highly significant, they are not arbitrary, but it is possible nevertheless to remain metaphysically agnostic.  In fact, Bitbol convincingly argues that this kind of philosophy of science is far more compatible with modern physics, especially quantum mechanics, than the belief in a mechanistic world and a dualistic epistemology.  Scientists resist relationalist and nondual philosophies, through fear of having no ground to stand on.  They can take heart, says Bitbol. Madhyamaka dialectically deconstructs substantialist and dualistic views, but it also introduces “a form of life in which losing ground is not a tragedy (it can even promote enlightenment…) and in which an alternative (say, pragmatic, integrated, and altruistic) strong motivation can be given to science.”  (p. 339).

There is not space here to detail Bitbol’s compelling philosophical framework for quantum mechanics.  But I will mention his response to the problem of indeterminism — the unpredictability of quantum events.  Is it that chance is ultimate, and any deterministic laws that we find come from the law of large numbers?  Or is it that determinism is ultimate, and apparent randomness comes from the complexity of huge numbers of interacting events, as studied in chaos theory?  If we take a dependent co-arising-type approach, we will see that the causes of any event are not defined in the absolute, but are “relative to the very circumstances of the production of the phenomena” (p. 349).  Since phenomena arise in dependence upon an enormously complex context, a context which includes the person or instrumentation detecting the phenomena, they are immune to any certain determination.  Relations between things should be seen as being prior to the things that are relating; however, “neither connection, nor connected nor connector exist”, says Nagarjuna.  Buddhism’s radical analysis is needed to cap philosophy of science, since it comes from “direct stabilised experience of a disabused outlook” — i.e., non-conceptual Insight into reality — while the insights of Western philosophy, impressive though they are, are the products of the free play of ideas.

Buddhism and Science succeeds so well because all its contributors take both Buddhism and science seriously, seeing that both represent ways of understanding human experience, and both present opportunities for enhancing its quality.  Although Joseph Needham was able to write so dismissively of Buddhism only a few decades ago, we now know that he was mistaken.  We know because scientists are engaging personally with the practice of Buddhism.  They are finding in it a congenial spirituality, which does not nag at their work, so long as that work does no harm. They are also finding that it offers remarkable new vistas into the methods and models of science itself.  But will Buddhism ever actually influence scientific practice — where to look in one’s research, how to explain and interpret one’s findings?    This book will convince the reader that mind-science has already  been changed by Buddhism, but the jury is still out on physics.   Francisco Varela has no doubt. His assessment, thinking particularly of Buddhism impacting science, is that: “the rediscovery of Asian philosophy, particularly of the Buddhist tradition, is a second Renaissance in the cultural history of the West, with the potential to be equally important as the rediscovery of Greek thought in the European Renaissance.”[7]  The dialogue has only just begun: we live in exciting times.

[1] Joseph Needham, The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China, Volume I (Cambridge University Press, 1978), pages 264, 265, 272.

[2] Robin Cooper, The Evolving Mind: Buddhism, Biology and Consciousness (Windhorse, Birmingham, 1996).

[3] For a good survey, see Damien Keown, Buddhism and Bioethics (Macmillan, London, 1995).

[4] E.g. Ian Stevenson, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (University press of Virginia, 1974).

[5] Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard, The Monk and the Philosopher (Thorsons, London, 1998).

[6] Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain (Heinemann, 2003).

[7] Varela, Thomson, and Rosch, The Embodied Mind (MIT press, 1993), 22.