Einstein and the Mysterians

Today is the 135th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s birth. He is, as they like to say in show business, a man who needs no introduction. It’s thought that Einstein was generally sympathetic to Buddhism, and you may be familiar with this popular quote attributed to him:

Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and the spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.  If there is any religion that could respond to the needs of modern science, it would be Buddhism.”

However, as far as I know, these words cannot be traced to a legitimate source, suggesting that it is probably not a genuine Einstein quote.

There are conflicting views about Einstein’s position on religion and spirituality. For instance, another quote attributed to him, “God does not play dice with the universe,” is used to bolster the notion that Einstein believed in a personal God, or at the very least a creator god. Yet, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Atheists like to claim him as one of them, but he quite often described himself as agnostic. On one occasion, he said he was a believer in “Spinoza’s God.” Spinoza maintained that God is the only substance of the universe: God is the universe, is nature, is everything.  But I feel Einstein thought of God as a metaphor, and perhaps Spinoza did as well, I am not an expert in his philosophy.

In a speech he gave in Berlin during the 1920’s, Einstein said,

The most beautiful and deepest that man can experience is the feeling of the mysterious. It is the foundation of religion as well as of all deeper striving of art and science.

Who never experienced that seems to me if not a dead person but then a blind person.

To feel that behind the experience of things there is something hidden and unreachable for our spirit, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirect and as a weak reflection, that is religiousness.

In this sense, I am religious. It is sufficient for me to have a presentiment in amazement of these mysteries, and to try with humility to comprehend intellectually a weak reflection of this sublime structure of being.”

It does seem that late in life, according to a recently discovered 1954 letter, Einstein had concluded that God was an expression of human weakness and that religion was childish.

Now, when I think of Albert Einstein these subjects do not usually come to mind, but rather his theory of relativity (e=mc2), and of course, Bob Dylan’s take on the great physicist in “Desolation Row”:

Einstein on Desolation RowEinstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row


Meditation, Mantra, and Minis

The Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) at Massachusetts General Hospital is a leader in the clinical practice of mind-body medicine.  It’s Director Emeritus is Dr. Herbert Benson, whose primary focus has been on stress reduction. In the 1970’s, he developed a technique based on Transcendental Meditation (TM) that he calls “The Relaxation Response.”

Transcendental Meditation and Mindfulness meditation are the two forms of meditation used most often in clinical settings.  Both TM and contemporary Mindfulness are often criticized for being “meditation lite,” watered-down versions of traditional meditation.  While it is important to note that 85% of all diseases is stress related, from a Buddhist perspective relaxation and stress reduction are only the short-range goals of meditation.  The long-range goal is transcendence over suffering, moving from unwholesome states of mind to wholesome ones, and the development of penetrating wisdom.  The Buddhist focus is on the complete transformation of the individual.

At the BHI, patients are encouraged to do “minis.”  These are mini-meditations, short periods of meditation usually 5 minutes or less, a quick fix to reduce stress in a short amount of time.

“Minis” can also be reciting mantras.  Ellen Slawsby, Ph.D., the director of pain services at BHI, says that mantras use “something inborn, an internal mechanisms to elicit your own endorphins or endogenous morphine.”  Indeed, studies have shown that reciting a mantra does release endorphins.  Mantras provide other benefits as well, all similar to those associated with mindfulness meditation:  they relieve stress; move energy throughout the body, regulate heart rate and chemicals in our brains; enhance positive brainwaves; increase immune functions; and help lower blood pressure.

Slawsby claims that “As little as 30 seconds of using a mantra can dampen unpleasant sensations.”  Sure, for maybe 30 seconds. The mantras used at places like BHI are often short phrases, maybe two to four words.  Aggie Casey, director of BHI’s Cardiac Wellness Program, says “They may quietly to themselves repeat the words ‘I am’ as they breathe in and then ‘at peace’ as they breathe out.”  Such phrases are hardly mantras, though.  They are more like short affirmations.

Healing Buddha Mantra: “Thus: Om Healer, Healer, Great Master of Healing Supreme, Joyfully Going Beyond, So Be It!”
Healing Buddha Mantra: “Thus: Om Healer, Healer, Great Master of Healing Supreme, Joyfully Going Beyond, So Be It!”

It is difficult to come up with a precise definition for mantra, but traditionally, a mantra contains one or more ‘bija’ (seed) syllables that may or may not have some literal meaning.  Roger Corless in The Vision of Buddhism explains that, “A mantra may contain words, or sounds that has a specific meaning; but meaning is not its essential feature.”

Originally, mantras were considered “sacred words” possessing magic power.  However, Ryuichi Abe* says, “[It] is possible to understand mantra as a linguistic device for deepening one’s thought, and, more specifically, an instrument for enlightenment.”  If approached in the right way, mantra is a meditative discipline.

There are certainly positive short-term benefits to the relaxation and stress reduction focus of contemporary meditation.  Yet these methods are much more effective, and transformative, when practiced from a deeper level, with a real commitment of time and perseverance.  Now there were always be those who will never be interested in committing to the full path.  For them, short periods of “mindfulness” are enough.  Yet, I can’t help but wonder if the contemporary approach to meditation and mantra doesn’t have the effect of detouring those who might decide to go further.  As well, I question how repeating a short affirmation for a small period of time can cut through the delusions of self and fundamental ignorance, which Buddhism teaches is the root cause of all disease and all suffering.

Today on a number of ABC programs, Nightline commentator Dan Harris promoted his new book about meditation 10 Percent Happier. On World News Tonight, he said it only takes five minutes. “Everyone’s got five minutes.” Only 10 percent happier? “That’s pretty good.” Well, it’s better than nothing. But I am afraid that these sort of presentations mislead people into thinking that is it easy, and when they find out it isn’t then they will give up, as many do, or form a negative association with meditation. The other extreme are those who oversell the benefits of meditation, giving people the impression that it will solve all their problems. That is equally as dangerous and irresponsible.

Meditation is hard. When we engage in meditation or mantra practice, difficulties will come up. That is a good thing, for without difficulties there can be no real progress. When we talk about overcoming or transcending suffering, we don’t mean that sufferings ever go away. But rather, we view suffering differently, and that change of perspective facilitates our transformation.  Thich Nhat Hanh writes in the Miracle of Mindfulness, “Feeling, whether of compassion or irritation, should be welcomed, recognized, and treated on an absolutely equal basis; because both are ourselves.”  The same holds true for suffering, and so the transformation we speak of involves establishing a state of inner well-being that the suffering part of ourselves cannot overwhelm.

Just as meditation is hard, life is hard. People have always looked for quick and easy solutions to life’s problems, but the plain fact is that the solutions can be as complex as the problems themselves.  Five-minute mini-mantras or even twenty minutes of mindfulness does not compare to the hours of practice these methods truly demand, and I feel, depreciates their full potential.

Suffering and illness are directly related to the unstable nature of the mind. Chaotic and stressful thought patterns disturb the flow of life force in the channels and nerves, resulting in physiological disequilibrium.”

David Crow, In Search of the Medicine Buddha

Steady periods of prolonged meditation or chanting, or both, are especially powerful tools for restoring balance and leading the mind back to a state of equilibrium.  Rome was not built in a day.  Inner transformation and durable wellness cannot be achieved in five minutes.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Ryuichi Abe, The Weaving of Mantra: Kukai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse, Columbia University Press, 2000


Some Random Notes

• It’s been a week since I last posted. I think that is the longest I have gone during the some four years I have been writing The Endless Further. My doctors were concerned about the size of one of the lesions on my liver, so last Monday I went into the hospital to undergo a procedure called a Radio Frequency Ablation. They put me under, stuck a needle in my stomach, ran it over to the lesion and bombarded it with high frequency radio waves. The doctor who performed the RFA said the lesion was “effectively treated,” meaning they killed it. This procedure buys me some more time while I wait for the Big T.

They released me Tuesday morning, and I have spent the days since then recovering. These things take a lot out of you. My get up and go, got up and went, and left me in the dust. However, I am feeling a little bit better each day. The healing process takes time.

• The European Union Council on Tourism and Trade is scheduled to present Burma (also known as Myanmar) with the award of World’s Best Tourist Destination for 2014. According to Business Standard, the “award is presented based on ethics for tourism industry, safety of tourists and preservation of cultural heritages designated by the UN Tourism Division, Unesco and the European Union Council on Tourism and Trade.”

This is the country where last month it was reported that state security forces and Buddhist vigilantes massacred at least 48 ethnic Rohingya Muslims, mostly women and children, and where in 2012 Buddhist mobs killed more than 200 Muslims and burned thousands of homes, drove more than 100,000 Rohingya into militarized camps, where they remain today, prohibited from traveling beyond the police and army checkpoints without permission.

Yeah, let’s promote tourism to that place.

• On a more positive note, it’s been reported that 50 volunteers the group Buddhist Tzu Chi are working closely with Malaysia Airlines (MAS) to provide counseling support for the families of the passengers on flight MH370. The volunteers include 15 Malaysians.

Tzu Chi (“compassionate relief”) is an international humanitarian organization, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that has special consultative status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Cheng Yen, a Buddhist nun, founded the organization in 1966 and I have heard nary a discouraging word about them.  I would provide a link to their site but Google says that it may have been hacked. Instead, here is a link to the Tzu Chi Wikipedia page.

• In the wake of the Dalai Lama’s historic opening prayer at the U.S. Senate, The Daily Beast tells us of 10 Religious Surprises in the US Congress.

• Included in the Dalai Lama’s Senate offering, was the prayer he recites himself each day, one that gives him “inner strength to serve humanity.” Several years ago I wrote a post about the Dalai Lama teaching on this prayer in 1999.  I called the post The Dalai Lama is Crying.


Clouds and Thunder

We had rain this weekend in Southern California – lovely, beautiful rain. We’re in a serious drought here and in the last 48 hours I think we’ve had more rain than we’ve had all year. And not just our usual version of rain, which is actually drizzle, but pouring, drenching rain, and thunder.

At one point on Saturday afternoon, as I was standing at my living room window looking out at the vault of clouds over the Los Angeles basin, and listening to the thunder roll, heralding another downpour, I thought of the third hexagram in the I Ching (“Book of Changes”), zhun or difficulty: “clouds above, thunder below”.

And I also thought of the commentary on the I Ching by Chih-hsu Ou-i (1599-1655), who began as a Ch’an (Zen) monk, but later gave it up to devote himself to Pure Land practice as taught by the T’ien-t’ai school. He was a prolific author, composing numerous commentaries, liturgies, and translations, including an interpretation of the I-ching.

zhun_hexagramIn the zhun hexagram, the upper three lines represent water, and the lower three, thunder.  But Confucius, who began the tradition of explaining the images or symbols, rendered the hexagram as clouds and thunder.  In Chih-hsu Ou-i’s interpretation (Chou i ch’an chieh), he offers this commentary on the image:

Clouds and thunder. Leaders set things in order.

To observe that the continuum of consciousness is not bound by time and cannot be found in the past, present, or future, and to observe that it is not interior, nor exterior, or in the middle, and that no one knows its home, this is setting meditation in order.

From the Buddhist perspective, when separated from one’s real nature of subtle realization, radiant and indefinable, the aspect of ignorance moving thought is ‘thunder’ and the false impressions of reality caused by ignorance are ‘clouds.’ When clouds and thunder fill up, this establishes the continuum of ignorance and this is difficulty.

Those who resolutely practice stopping and seeing (chih-kuan or samatha-vipassana) must walk the path to find their way home. They should understand that within the movement of thought, there is the nature of insight capable of realizing its own nature, and even the false impressions can stimulate the arising of this realization.

With regards to causes and conditions and the insight that encourages awakening, to explain how to check the wandering mind, realize the true nature of reality and perceive the essence of all states of mind, is ‘setting things in order.’ It is the supreme insight, the sphere of the inconceivable.”

In nature, clouds and thunder mean rain.  Water in this hexagram represents trouble or difficulty.  The rain this weekend was difficult for many folks here, with mudslides, flooding, and power outages.  But the rain also brought a temporary end to the drought.  So, rain can bring difficulty, and it can bring benefit.

In Chih-hsu Ou-i’s commentary, we see a similar principle. The very things that are occasions for the rise of passion and clinging (nimitta), are also capable of giving rise to insight and wisdom. This is what Nagarjuna meant when he wrote in the Treatise on the Prajna-Paramita Sutra, “In seizing and clinging things, wrong notions may arise. But if all is abandoned, how can awakening be realized at all?”