Tenzinsangpo's Blog

November 27, 2009

Buddhism and Its Melodious Enigma

Filed under: Uncategorized — tenzinsangpo @ 7:24 pm

Buddhism (more…)


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 (Buddhism and Modern Science)

“In the welter of conflicting fanaticisms, one of the few unifying forces is scientific truthfulness, by which I mean the habit of basing our beliefs upon observations and inferences as impersonal, and as much divested of local and temperamental bias, as is possible for human beings.

             – Lord Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)  ‘History of Western Philosophy’


In May 22nd, 2001, just few days before the death of the world renowned scientist, Francisco Varela (1946-2001), the Dalai Lama in his most moving tribute to the late scientist, who was at the time in his bed in Paris with severe liver cancer, said: “Good morning my dear friend- I consider you a special brother. We have a strong feeling of missing you here. So I want to express my deep feelings to you, as a brother, for your great contributions in science, especially in neurology, in the science of mind, and also in our work in this dialogue between science and Buddhist thought. We will never forget your great contributions. Till my death, I will remember you.” The Dalai Lama’s message was live telecasted through Internet in Francisco’s home and the arrangement was made possible by Adam Engle, who had co-founded Mind and Life with Francisco. The Dalai Lama’s final farewell to the late scientist in a way reflects the importance of dialogue between Modern Science and Buddhism. In this brief essay, TWO DOORS INTO REALITY, we will see how Buddhism and Modern Science go together and also the diversions within these two giant disciplines of 21st century.

Having keen interest in scientific understanding of world that enveloped his early childhood in Tibet, the Dalai Lama in late 1980ies took a major step in bridging dialogue between Modern Science and Buddhism. Through the initiative taken by the Dalai Lama, Francisco Varela and Adam Engle, the Mind and Life Institute was founded in 1987 and till 2009 as many as eighteenth Mind and Life conferences were held. Nevertheless, it isn’t only the Mind and Life conference where modern scientists and Buddhist scholars get together in hot debate. In 2002, Unity in Duality conference was held at one of the industrial city of southern Germany where Albert Einstein grew up, Munich. Inaugurated by the Dalai Lama, the conference was initiated mainly by Tarab Tulku Rinpoche (1934-2004). The color of the conference was ever more multiplied with the presence of world renowned scientist Professor Dr. Hans Peter Durr. So now, what is the binding force between Buddhism and Modern Science, and why their union has became the need of our times?

BINDING FORCE: The coming together of Buddhism and Modern Science could have many reasons, yet it’s the fundamental nature of the two giant disciplines to stand in the light of pure reasoning which had ultimately brought them hand in hand, so as to share the knowledge of great significance for the future course of mankind.

Lama Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), founder of the Tibetan-Buddhist Gelug-school and one of the greatest Tibetan scholars, famously wrote in one of his prominent text, Treatise Differentiating Interpretable and Definitive Meanings: “If a proponent asserts a tenet contradicting reason, that person is not suitable to be a valid being.” As in the case of the modern scientific methods, the analytical aspect of Buddhism is the core base on which the whole foundation of Buddha’s Dharma is laid. There is a particular Buddhist term called ‘Nang-don rig-pa’ which means inner science and in the early part of the 20th century a Tibetan scholar Gendun Chopel introduced a new term called ‘Rig-sar’. Gendun Chopel after having seen the vast similarities between Buddhism and Modern science was relating the term ‘Rig-sar’ directly to the Modern Science. In short, Buddhism and Science share commonalities in modern scientific and philosophic thought or at least are less at odds with them.

Having mind and its vital faculties at the center of investigation, Buddhism examines the nature of human mind (subject-pole) and the phenomena perceived by the mind (object- pole), and their implications for the concept of reality. What interests Buddhist isn’t those electrons dancing tirelessly within atoms neither the ever expanding of universe. Contrary to this, to achieve a lasting happiness has always been driving force for Buddhist practitioners. Yet, unlike many other religions Buddhism reject all kinds of dogmatism; rather its stands are based on sound reasoning. This in a way opens up a platform of Metaphysics in relation to Modern Science. At this stage of briskly modernizing world where human beings capable of reasoning has made an enormous progress in understanding the outer behaviors of the physical world, yet the subtle features of human consciousness and psychology has remained vastly aliened before the burgeoning high-tech computers and scientists. Buddhism, often regarded as an Inner Science, offers explanations where science often shies away, especially in the area of what Buddhism technically call as hidden phenomena.

As Buddhism offers the knowledge hidden with the great practitioners, scientific investigations grounded on pure mathematic and valid reasoning has equally enhanced the importance of Buddhism. In a way the coming together of the two giant disciplines of human society, Buddhism and Modern Science, consisting of one’s imperial light helps to brighten the weak portions of the other. And in the process, the shared light of each disciplines not only enrich the relevance of Dharma and Scientific Investigation but also serves for the still larger cause of humanity.

BRIEF OVERVIEW OF BUDDHISM: Once exceedingly simply and exceedingly complex, the teachings of Lord Buddha is generally classify into three different sections by the Dalai Lama:

• Buddhist Science

• Buddhist Philosophy and

• Buddhist Spirituality

Buddhist Science: In this section of Buddhism, Buddhist mainly explores the outer reality of the planet we are living in. The section accounts every part of world, from living to non-living phenomena, and every aspects of the outer world which the human mind could possibly encapsulate.

Buddhist Philosophy: Buddhist philosophy is primarily based on the investigation carried in the section said above. Understanding the law of karma, dependent origination and nirvana are some of the major topics which come under the Buddhist philosophy.

Buddhist Spirituality: The last category of Buddhism comprises voyaging into the actual path to achieve complete independence from the cycle of existence, to achieve nirvana. Yet in order to achieve the state of complete freedom one must have profound understanding of the knowledge that lies in the first two categories of Buddhism.

Now, when it comes in connections with Modern Science it’s the first category of Buddhism we are dealing with. At the same time, science like Buddhism can be classified broadly into two main categories, Hard Science and Soft Science. Hard Science comprises physics, chemistry and biology. Soft Science consists of psychology, and behavioral science etc. A point here worth to mention is that when it comes between Buddhism and Modern Science, chemistry of science with philosophy and spirituality of Buddhism are particular subjects which do not come into play. In later part of the essay we will see some of the major contributions made by the Modern Science to Buddhism and vice versa. At the same time we will witness some of the new realities which had made Buddhism the best friend of science.

IMPERMANENCE AND NEWTON’S VANITY: Born in 1670 Sir Isaac Newton, the father of modern science, instantly became famous for his mesmerizing discoveries in the field of Universal Law of Gravitation and Three Laws of Motions. In fact he became the first Britain knighted for scientific achievement. However, it was the vanity of Newton after publishing his famous and equally inaccessible book ‘Principia’ that he should have thought to teach himself Hebrew. Newton took interest in Hebrew primarily to study the floor plan of king Solomon’s temple, to quench his belief that it held mathematic clues to the dates of the second coming of Christ and the end of the world. Although many of Sir Isaac Newton’s discoveries stood to the acid test of time yet Newton’s static universe failed as we now know that everything is moving, changing, and to use Buddhist terminology, everything is ‘impermanent’.

In Buddhism, the concept of interdependent is closely linked to the notion of impermanence of all phenomena. Buddhist differentiates two categories of impermanence:

• Gross level of impermanence and

• Subtle level of impermanence

The gross lever of impermanence speaks about the changing of years, climate and youth etc. The subtle level of impermanence means change taking place within the split of a second. The subtle level of impermanence suggests that impermanence also rules the atomic and subatomic world around us. Hence, the impermanence nature of all phenomena, which is one of the key factors in formulating the Buddhist philosophy, steps against Aristotle’s immutable heavens and Newton’s static universe, and the latest discovers, quite merrily, stand with Buddhism.

BEGININGLESSNESS AND THE BIG BANG: There are sufficient amount of enigmatic explanations revolving around the concept of universe being created by something absolute, and as Lord Bertrand Russell once prominently claimed that the idea that things must have a beginning had come due to the poverty of our thinking, Buddhism, in this regard, steps parallel with the Nobel Winner by conclusion driven from the law of causality. The law of causality states that every action has its cause and that every cause should necessarily have its consequences. Therefore, fitting the law of causality in its understanding whether universe has beginning or not, Buddhism comfortably states the begininglessness of universe. But then here, a big divergence emerges between Buddhism and a group of scientists who believes in the theory of Singularity.

What does the theory of Singularity state? To have a better understanding of the concept let me put it this way; there is a girl called Dolma wishing to create a standard Big Bang. However, that would obviously break her heart as she needs to gather up everything there is between here and the edge of universe and squeeze it at a point so infinitesimally compact that it has no dimensions at all. It is known as a singularity. Naturally, if Dolma could reach at the point of singularity she would wish to hide herself at a safe place to observe the spectacle. Unfortunately, there is nowhere to hide because outside the Singularity there is no where. When the universe begins to expand, it isn’t spreading out to fill a larger emptiness. The only space that exists is the space it creates as it goes. And since the law of relativity states that everything in universe is relative to one another the time factor ceases to exist before the singularity.

Having made precise explanation on the theory of Singularity one might feel that in regard to the Big Bang Buddhist explanation of beginninglessness of universe is experiencing a state of loneliness. But that isn’t the case, there is an another group of scientists who sees the Big Band as a result of Big Crunch and that crunch itself is caused by a pervious Big Bang, hence in a way the Buddhist stand on beginninglessness has its share of seats within scientists.

BUDDHIST COSMOLOGY AND DR. COPERNICUS: There is something about the Buddhist way of looking at the entire cosmology. It has now become obvious that the mother earth revolves around the sun rather than medieval age’s prejudice based on mere faith that earth is at the center of the universe. Thanks to the great sacrifice made by the eminent scholars like Galileo (1564-1642) and much labor of Dr. Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543).

However, when it comes to the Buddhist perspective in regard to the nature of cosmology, I wonder what Dr. Copernicus would have to say if he was still alive! According to Buddhist cosmology (and this is still widely believed in Buddhism), the earth is primarily supported by the force of four elements and the sun and the moon revolve around the earth. Buddhist perception of cosmology is derived from the highly influential Buddhist classic entitled Treasury of Knowledge (Abhidharmakoshakarika), written by an Indian Buddhist master, Vasubhandu. The 14th Dalai Lama has on many occasions publicly put his critical remarks on the entire cosmological foundation laid by Vasubhandu in the light of reality proven by the Modern Science. So, the scientifically proved realities masterly support in strengthening one of the oldest disciplines to enhance its relevance in the face of highly sophisticated world.

NAGARJUNA, ALBERT EINSTEIN AND NIELS BOHR: One of the greatest disciples of Buddha Shakyamuni- Nagarjuna (approx 150-250 AD) has famously clarified the essence of Lord Buddha’s teaching in the light of concept widely known as ‘Interdependency’. In his highly acclaimed text Mulamadhyamakakarika, Nagarjuna stated the four essential pairs of interdependent. The four pairs of interdependent put forward by Nagarjuna can access with the help of comprehensive research works of Tarab Rinpoche where he classify them as following:

1. Creation and Cessation in regard to the individual identity of phenomena,

2. Finite and Infinite in regard to the time nature of phenomena,

3. Localization and Delocalization in regard to extension in space of phenomena, and

4. Part and Whole in regard to conjunct nature of phenomena.

Now to understand what really does the four essential pair of interdependent state one need an intellectual backed mind. With the help of understanding the explanation made by Tarab Rinpoche in regard to the four essential pairs of interdependences one could grasp why Nagarjuna, Niels Bohr (1885-1955) and Albert Einstein (1879-1955) are often considered a subject of intense discussion between Buddhist practitioners and the physicists. I will now try to explain what are actually the four essential pairs of interdependent, what they mean and their relationship with the two advanced schools in physics world, quantum physics and the theory of relativity.

CREATION AND CESSATION: Roughly speaking, from a Buddhist point of view transitory nature implies that creation and cessation are connected, and not just connected but within the shortest moment of time creation and cessation take place together. That is the way we can describe transitory nature. So what does that imply? That imply that even within the shortest moment of time it has creation and cessation- transformation go on all the time, and that is the way matter exists. This is the connection with creation and cessation as Buddha and specifically Nagarjuna relates to in the first dependent origination. He mentions that the dependent origination nature of creation and cessation is very important, but what shines through his presentation is what is even more important: that neither creation nor cessation exist in and by themselves- they both are of void nature.

FINITE AND INFINITE: Now if we look at “time” being of finite nature as well as of infinite-nature, all depending on how we look at it, in one way we can say that there is a finitude, something is created and something disappears: in a very short moment there is creating and cessation. Seen from this point of view nothing is the same for a split second, everything changes all the time. But in another way it never stops: there is no beginning and there is no end. So “time” nature and finite and infinite from one perspective become opposite and exclusive, but from another perspective become inseparable in unity.

LOCALIZATION AND DELOCALIZATION: It is in fact the same with matter entities: if we contact the outer aspect of the matter entity it has “localization”, but if you go into more subtlety of the entity- if we go into the very small particle level, the solidity of the matter entity, which seemed apparent before, starts to change. “Individual identity”, “time” and “space” nature- if we look at a deeper level of the matter entity we realize that these properties are not static, they are subjected to movements and changes. And with these also the nature of “localization” starts to change. The “localization” nature relates to an outer layer of matter reality. It seems to us as if the matter entity is “localized”, but maybe it real reality matter nature is not solid and “localized” as we believe.

PART AND WHOLE: On investigating the wholeness we can’t find more than the compounds of the parts. In this way the single part we were describing actually has its own compound wholeness. These differences of wholeness’s make up a new wholeness when compounded. Of course the different parts are joining each other. In that way they talk about oneness and separateness- the conjunction of different parts implies that in one way these are separate parts, and in another way the parts are not separate, but oneness or unity. In one way the parts are separate, but in another way, at the same time, they are not separate. It is in this way that Tarab Rinpoche argues for the unity and the opposition at the same time in regard to the forth dependent origination. The part and whole are not really opposites without at the same time being an integral unity of the phenomena. Having said about the four essential pairs of interdependents, we in our day to day life tend to see things as if they all possess intrinsic identities.

To simplify, Buddhism in its ultimate reality of every phenomenon says that if we dig deep enough, there is a difference between the way we see the world and the way it really is. And that every things existing in the universe are dependent on one thing or another, and to use a scientific term, everything exists ‘relatively’. In early part of previous century, some of the most distinguished scientists like Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg shared the same inside in connection with their ‘Uncertainty Principle’. Now to have a polished understanding in regard to the point where Niels Bohr’s and Buddhism’s views of the fundamental nature of phenomena walks friendly, let’s have a glimpse on what is called the ‘Quantum Mechanics’.

QUANTUM MECHANICS: Imagine a particle that disintegrates spontaneously into two photons A and B from Mcleod-Ganj. The law of symmetry dictates that they will travel in opposite directions. If A goes to Sarah, then we will detect B to Mcleod-Ganj. It all seems perfectly normal. But that’s forgetting the strangeness of quantum mechanics. Particles can also appear as waves. Before being captured by the detector, A appeared as a wave, not a particle. This wave was not localized; so that there was a certain probability that A might be found somewhere near Chandigarh or inside a cyber café in Manju-ka-Tilla! It is only after it has been captured that A changes into a particle and ‘learns’ that it is moving towards Sarah. But, if A didn’t know before being captured which direction it had taken, how could B have guessed what A was doing and adjusted its behaviors accordingly, so that it could be captured at the same time in the opposite direction? This is impossible, unless A can inform B instantaneously of the direction it has taken. But as Albert Einstein said, ‘God does not send telepathic signals’; he therefore concluded that quantum mechanics did not provide a complete description, that A must know which direction it was going to take and tell B before they get depart. In the latest experiment carried out by Nicoals Gisin, the photons are separated by 10 km, and yet their behaviors are perfectly correlated. The problem goes if we admit that A and B, once they have interacted with each other become part of non-separable reality. A doesn’t need to send a signal to B because they share the same reality. Now what shines from the Quantum Mechanics is that we cannot experience a so called objective reality that exists independently of the experiencing subject. This shocking discover made by Niels Bohr says what was actually said by Nagarjuna.

THEORY OF RELATIVITY: The theory of relativity says that everything in the universe is relative to one another. It explains that everything from space, time and motion are relative and that there isn’t anything which exists independently. Einstein during his earlier stages of life got the idea that it’s impossible to measure if anything is moving, and he called this Theory of Relativity. To have a clearer picture of the Einstein’s theory of relativity lets try to understand this way. At this particular moment while you are reading this essay you may intuitively think that you are sitting still at one particular place. But in actuality you are moving at 1,000 miles per hour and that is because you are sitting on a planet which is rotating at 1,000 miles per hour. Therefore just to sit still you have to run at the opposite direction of the earth at 1,000 miles per hour. In fact, the earth is revolving around the sun with 67,000 miles per hour; everything in the universe is in motion. So as did by Nagarjuna the theory of relativity states that there isn’t anything called absolute, everything needs to be seen in its relation with other. Nagarjuna calls it dependent origination, and Albert Einstein, the law of relativity.

BUDDHISM AND MORDEN SCIENCE ON MIND: One of the most subtle features of human beings are minds, and to examines the functioning of mind the neuroscientists base their means on tangible neurons and electrical impulses etc.. On the other hand Buddhism articulates the working of mind from the experiential levels. There is a group of neuroscientists who are vocal in their belief that mind isn’t any other than brain and vice versa. This stand on the nature of mind by neuroscientists ardently moves against the Buddhist concept of rebirth. Nevertheless, as said by Geshe Dorjee Damdul, it’s important to differentiate between ‘Seeing the nonexistence of rebirth’ and ‘Not seeing the existence of rebirth’. However, brain science is currently at the primitive stage and there are still wider scopes to develop. Many of the brain scientists, though firmly walk against the Buddhist concept of rebirth but in many respect support the functioning of mind suggested by Buddhism. For example, in his recent trip to London (2008), the Dalai Lama gave a short lecture in Sheldonian Theatre (University of Oxford), where he marvelously spoke about a research made by an American scientist who found that when someone’s anger fully gets developed, then the person to whom he or she feels anger appears 100% negative, but in reality the 90% of that negativeness is mental projection. Likewise there are many areas where highly trained Buddhist practitioners could also help the neurologists.

DARKNESS OF SCIENCE AND CHALLENGES AHEAD: With the beginning of Industrial Revolution back in 18th and 19th centuries, the structural mechanism of technological advancement, appeased by the modern science, has vastly altered the way in which one perceives the configuration of our shared planet. At this critical period of time when science in an acute collaboration with latest technologies has in one way supported and enriched billions of people across the globe, and gives us comfort and solidity, has simultaneously remained entirely indifferent to the serious calls of nature and its biodiversity. Although the basic motives of the scientists have constantly remained or so to say -In Search of Truth, yet the negativity of one sided assumption of scientists has frequently jeopardize the very existence of lives on this planet. Very well documented films like Eleventh Hours and An Inconvenient Truth clearly show the bitter ramifications of artificial plants, species and even human beings we are rigorously enduring to build.

The Great Britain’s humorous travel writer Bill Bryson wrote in his book ‘Notes from a Big Country’ that his teenaged son who is a runner possess 6100 pairs of running shoes. And that isn’t enough; science and free market system of globalizing world have now put a direct threat to the very existence of ancient civilizations having their own peculiar culture and heritage. Having created the world of consumerists, we have now reached at a stage where a slight failure in technologies will have a catastrophic impact on mankind. We once lived with nature; we are now living on technologies. As we are mindlessly causing havoc on the Mother Nature which nurtures our civilization, the future of our planet is bleak. The land and forest we have destroyed, the atmosphere and oceans we have polluted will pristine long after they get vanished but that world will be deprived of human species. Because the earth has all the time in the world but we don’t.

The science in 21st century is more or less like a human being consisting of highly advanced mind suffering from heart cancer. Therefore, learning from the past mistakes and ongoing threats on our very home planet, it’s the urgent need for ethics based on reasoning to be a lamp for science without hindering its fundamental believes in pure mathematics and reasoning. And it is, as far as I see, one of the motivating factors that propel the Dalai Lama and some of the prominent Tibetan Buddhist scholars to take interest in science.

THE WORMS IN THE SEEDS: The centuries old culture and heritage of Tibet has been acutely undermined by the intensifying effort of our very own people to melt in the pot of Western culture. In our pursuit to derive happiness from latest motorbikes, cell-phones and Korean movies, somewhere down the line we have (consciously or unconsciously) nurtured a terrifying way of looking and feeling for our very own identity of being a Tibetan. We all are aware of our youths living across the globe and their sense of narcissism; we all are aware of our parties and games so often synonymous with a long waited chance to settle old scores. Having said that, I will now go a little further; I will say we are in a major crisis where bogus power of dollars and fantasies of melodramatics movies attracts our people far more than the luminous radiance which already exists within our culture.

His Holiness’s constant urge for us to embrace the true value of our culture (particularly Tibetan Buddhism) from realistic perspective needs to see through the light transmitting from Buddhism with its charismatic relationship with Modern Science. I therefore think it would be the peak of one’s wisdom and understanding, especially when our nation is passing under a death penalty, to inculcate within ourselves the uniqueness of our culture by becoming a 21st century Buddhist.

At last, stepping closer to the closure of this essay, I would like extract a short stanza from ‘Gitanjali’ written by one of the foremost Indian reformer, poet and philosopher, Gurudave Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). The poet specifies that true freedom is attained only through the recognition of pervasive interdependence of all beings, enlargement of perspective, expansion of consciousness, and the acceptance of responsibility. And to use the words of Gurudave, “they who have failed to attain Swaraj within themselves must lose it in the outside world too.” The very poem which once evoked an entire civilization, not only to counter the external foes but also to enlighten the internal darkness, suits best to conclude my lines.

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragment by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening thought and action-

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

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