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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Riffing the Dalai Lama

On NPR the other morning I heard a story about the Dalai Lama giving the opening address at a conference of neuroscientists. The story is interesting in and of itself, and instead of regurgitating it I'll give you the link:
so you can read it for yourself.

Of course I'm amused that there was some opposition to a religious leader addressing a body of scientists. God forbid, we know that these days the teaching and conduct of science is endangered by the constant and oppressive encroachment of Tibetan Buddhists. But that's not my whole point.

Also of course I am extremely encouraged by most of what the Dalai Lama appears to be saying. He has a new book, The Universe in a Single Atom : The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, which apparently points out the similarities in the teachings of Buddhism and the findings of modern science. Let me admit right away that I have not read the book (and I am not going to review a book I haven’t read, even though I suspect that is done quite a lot), but if it is being represented correctly, the book seems to be in accordance with classics like The Dancing Wu Li Masters and Capra's The Tao of Physics, in that it points out the similarities in post-Newtonian physics, especially relativity theory and quantum mechanics, and the teachings of Buddhism in particular (and Eastern thought in particular). I understand that the DL has been quite a student of physics, and I loved the fact that according to NPR he lost the interpreter in the Q & A. My favorite part of his contention is that he urges his readers who are Buddhist, that if science proves the precepts of Buddhism to be false, follow science.

Now if you're not a Buddhist, that admonition is probably more shocking to you than it was to me. As a lifelong Buddhist, I would suspect any teacher who would tell me otherwise, although many do. In fact there was a psychotherapist in the '70's, Sheldon Kopp, who wrote a book called If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!. I haven't done the research to tell you what this quote is from, but to simplify, it means that Buddhism teaches you a set of tools to search "within", and if you use the tools properly, you should go where the practice leads you; and if you are lead in a direction so as to discover truths that are contrary to what you were told to encourage you to conduct the search initially, then you should believe what you see, and not what you were told. Basically, once you abandon pretense and stop lying to yourself, you will know what is true, without being told by gods or leaders.

If this shocks you, realize that Buddhism is the one "religion" (and I shudder to use the word, as the practice applies to me) that doesn't care if its basis texts are in fact attributable to their alleged author, Gautama Siddhartha. Zen, as the quotes goes, is a finger pointing at the moon. I am a practitioner of Zen Buddhism. I sit in zazen practice almost every Saturday morning and find myself in basis disagreement with the reading from a standard text rendered by another practitioner. But I don't care and I don't quit sitting, because the real truth comes to me as I sit, and usually I doubt I can express it any better than the Zen masters have, although their expressions are by definition inadequate. I was so thrilled, listening to this article read on NPR. But then I heard the but... although Buddhism is thoroughly compatible with modern science, that compatibility stops where it comes to the definition by modern science of conscience as a function of electrical activity in the brain. According to the DL, that cannot of course be true because Tibetan Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and if consciousnessness ends when the electrical activity of the brain stops, which it demonstrably does, then there would be nothing to reincarnate, would there?

Of course this is a no-brainer for me as a Zen Buddhist, as it would be for Theravada Buddhists. The truth is that original Buddhism and Zen take no position on reincarnation. When asked about reincarnation, Buddha said, and I paraphrase, "That's not the immediate problem. Concentrate on your existence now." But the DL's position depends on reincarnation. After all, each Dalai Lama is supposed to be the reincarnation of the previous one. According to their school, there has only ever been one Dalai Lama. Now personally I don't believe in reincarnation. Or in Sudden Enlightenment (kensho) for that matter. I don’t imagine what there would be to reincarnate, since I don't believe in the soul. So... Of course, you can believe what you want, as long as you don' t force it on me. But... There was a philosopher named Gilbert Ryle, who died in 1976 I believe at about the same time I felt compelled to subject myself to his very dry readings in what was termed philosophy of mind. Prof. Ryle originated the term "category mistake" in philosophy. Again to paraphrase, since I have no intention of re-reading that stuff, he accused Descartes of error in Rene's origination of what is called the mind/body problem. Ryle's take on the matter was that the notion of consciousness originated in misleading language. But I would take Ryle one step further.

Which I'll do in the next post. See ya!


Ogmin said...

You might want to check out the sutras a little closer. The buddha spoke directly of his own previous incarnations, memories which he experienced firsthand in the hours before his awakening at the foot of the bo tree.

Marcus Torres said...

Dear Bob,

The nature of brain and spiritual matter are very distinct and the spirit cannot be found by naively researching the brain, since they are distinct. Current science/research indicates to reincarnation as the clearest model capable to explain a series of experiences unexplainable before. Please see: