Biocentrism and the Continuum of Consciousness

There’s a guy named Robert Lanza, who is Chief Scientific Officer at Ocata Therapeutics (formerly Advanced Cell Technology), and Adjunct Professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, who is supposed to be one of the most respected scientists in the world.

Lanza has a theory called biocentrism.  It is not about ethics but rather deals with the idea of a ‘biocentric’ universe.  He calls it a “Theory of Everything.”  (I thought it was Stephen Hawking who had The Theory of Everything?)

On Lanza’s website, he says,

“According to biocentrism, space and time are simply the tools our mind uses to weave information together into a coherent experience — they are the language of consciousness…”

In other words, the universe could be merely a thought construction.  Perhaps consciousness even has a role in the creation of matter.  Certainly, Lanza maintains, an understanding of consciousness is crucial to understanding the universe.  He’s not the only scientist who is beginning to see things in that way.  However, this interesting theory is a bit off topic for this post.

What I find intriguing today is that Lanza (and others) view consciousness as a “linear stream” that does not end at physical death.  Death is merely a break in this stream and consciousness goes on.

According to what I’ve read, in Lanza’s theory if the body is the generator of consciousness, then consciousness passes away when the body dies.  But if consciousness is received in the same way that a cable box receives satellite signals, that’s a different story – then consciousness would not end with physical death.  Apparently, you can understand this easily if you understand about the quantum double slit experiment, which is, frankly, way over my head. 

In any case, all this is interesting because it coincides with the Buddhist idea of a continuum of consciousness, and if consciousness moving on after death could be verified in some way, it would be possible to attach some credence to notions such as karma and rebirth

Now, here is what the Dalai Lama had to say on the subject of consciousness at UCLA in 1997 during his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland:

“[If] you are able to isolate your mind [from] object oriented activity and insure that there is no thinking about the past or anticipation of the future, by trying to remain in the present, then gradually you are able to sense an absence, an emptiness, and that through persistent practice of meditation, slowly, I feel that you can begin to realize, experientially, what is this consciousness, which is the mere nature of experience and knowing, a form of luminous phenomena.

If you approach in this manner, I feel that there is a tremendous scope for discovery.  I feel that at a certain point you will get, through your own experience, a sense of what conscious really is.

According to the Buddhist explanation, consciousness or mind is said to be non-obstructive – there’s no physical properties, there’s no shape, it’s colorless, and it is in the nature of mere experience.  And it is the form of knowing and awareness.  Also we find in Buddhism that there is an appreciation of the existence of different levels of reality.  First of all, in Buddhism, whether or not that object or phenomena exists or not is considered from the point of view of whether the perception of an object or phenomena is a valid experience.

Considering this, it is possible that you can get a glimpse of emptiness, given that consciousness is a phenomena that is dynamic, that is in the form of a process.  Consciousness is transient, it goes through various stages of changes and that, in itself, is an indication that it is a product of causes and conditions. In the case of human consciousness, or mind, if we trace the path of causation we find that within the category of causes there are certain types of causes which can be described as material causes or substantial causes which can be described as material causes or substantial causes.  It is these factors that actually turn into the phenomena.  There are other types of causes which are more corporative or contributing conditions.  In terms of consciousness or mind, since it must posses a substantial cause, one could argue that the continuum, in terms of it’s origin, the continuum of the substantial cause must remain.  Therefore, the substantial cause of any sense of consciousness must necessarily be consciousness, either in a manifest form or in potential.”

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Reality, a process: Interdependence, Emptiness and Physics

At a teaching I attended in 2002, the Dalai Lama said that the principle of “dependent origination is the foundation for all the diverse concepts in Buddhism.”

bodhi-treeIndeed, it is. In one of the versions of the Buddha’s crucial night of analytical discovery via meditation beneath the Bodhi Tree, it is precisely dependent origination that he realized.  This analysis is a core teaching and the foundation for the philosophy of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school and nearly the entire Mahayana tradition.

In early Buddhism, dependent origination (pratitya-samutpada) was primarily used to explain the law of causation, the chain of cause, effect, and conditioning:

Ignorance > Karma > Consciousness > Name-Form > Senses > Contact > Feeling > Craving > Grasping > Becoming > Old age and death > Rebirth

The fundamental state of being is ignorance, conditioned by the imprints or seeds of past actions, habits and relationships (karma), which gives rise to consciousness, which is joined to name-form (the psycho-physical entity, specifically the embryo in the womb), which activates the six-senses; the senses come into contact with objects of desire and as a result, feeling, craving and grasping arise; these factors cause and condition the becoming of life and all that is becoming (existing) is subject to old age and death, and with the theory of rebirth, everything is set to be repeated in a future life, a continuum of consciousness within an seemingly endless cycle of birth and death.

By the time the Mahayana tradition was established, the focus of the analysis was less on how things come to be and more about how nothing can exist by itself, that everything is interconnected and inter-related. This is one reason why I prefer to describe pratitya-samutpada as interdependence. Dependent origination or dependent arising sounds too much like a form of creationism.

For Nagarjuna, the architect of Madhyamaka philosophy, interdependence was synonymous with emptiness (sunyata). In one respect, Nagarjuna’s teachings were a response and rejection of earlier Buddhist teachings presented in the Abhidharma (Sanskrit) or Abhidhamma (Pali), texts that contained detailed analyses of dharmas or “things”, which became the theoretical foundation for the Buddhist conception of reality. In the Abhidharma view, individuals are empty of “self”, but dharmas have own-being (svabhava). These dharmas are the building blocks of the universe and while they have only a momentary duration, their nature is fixed and irreducible. This concept projected a reality that was particle-like, similar to the Newton/Cartesian view of reality. In science, quantum physics deconstructed that view. In Buddhism, it was the Prajna-Paramita sutras and the commentaries by Nagarjuna which destroyed the Abhidharma view.

The true nature of reality (paramarthasatya) can be termed as the “emptiness of own-being” (svabhava-sunyata) and “interdependency” (pratitya-samutpada). Nagarjuna and the Madhyamaka’s taught that neither an individual nor dharma have an own-being that exists by its own right.

In a recent post, I mentioned the Sanskrit word parikalpita, meaning imaginary or the “imagined.” The Soothill Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist terms defines it as “Counting everything as real, the way of the unenlightened; The nature of the unenlightened, holding to the tenet that everything is calculable or reliable, i.e. is what it appears to be.” Paraikapita is one of the three natures (tri-svabhava) that imagines a duality between subject and object. This imagined reality is an illusion, a thought construction superimposed on the true reality. Like a veil, it conceals the truth of emptiness/interdependency and all we see in our ordinary experience is an apparent reality, in which things appear to exist by their own right and seem to possess a nature or being that is permanent, independent, unconditioned and designed.

Mu Soeng Sunim in his book Heart Sutra Ancient Buddhist Wisdom in the Light of Quantum Reality, gives us a glimpse into how emptiness and interdependency compare to modern physics:

Energy, whether of wave of particle, is associated with activity, with dynamic change. Thus the core of the universe – whether we see it as the heart of the atom or our own consciousness – is not static but in a state of constant and dynamic change. This energy – now wave, now particle – infuses each and every form at the cellular level. No form exists without being infused by this universal energy; form and energy interpenetrate each other endlessly in a ever-changing dance of the molecules, creating our universe. This universal energy is itself a process . . .”

In this way, we could also say that reality is a process.

In Madhyamaka philosophy, any duality between subject and object is considered to be imagined (parikalpita again); there is no independently existing ‘experiencer’ apart from the experience, and experience can be also designated as a process. As Sumin notes, in the world of subatomic physics there are no objects, only processes. Atoms consist of particles but these particles are literally empty.

2001a2So, we are aware now that reality is not particle-like but more like the nature of space. The common idea of space is an empty three-dimensional area. But there is no empty space (if by empty space, one means nothingness), space is actually permeated with an impalpable continuum. But the three dimensional aspect we perceive is somewhat of an illusion, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it is not the full reality. Not long ago some researchers, attempting to find a solution to the puzzle of space-time dimensionality, using a supercomputer, found that when the universe was created by the Big Bang, it had 10 dimensions – 9 spatial and 1 temporal – but only 3 of the spatial dimensions expanded. As I understand it, since only 3 dimensions expanded, and ours is an expanding universe, this accounts for the appearance that we live in a 3 dimensional reality. As Shakespeare said, “there are more things in the universe than are dreamt of in your science books.” Or, something like that.

One of the great benefits of Buddhism is that it helps us to see things as they are without having to become physicists, and we are encouraged to consider the possibility of seeing things differently, from various angles. Nothing is fixed, static. Many people tend to equate emptiness with nothingness. A better way to look at it is to think of emptiness as an expanse, particularly an expanse of mind, for one aspect of emptiness is that it means awareness, it is the penetrating insight into the actual nature of reality. Since Buddhism is also concerned with the problem of suffering, it’s helpful to view it as an expanse as well. Lex Hixon, in The Mother of the Buddhas, writes,

The relative truth of existence is that it is an expanse of suffering beings, a condition which is the motivation for the precious Mahayana commitment to universal conscious awakening. This relative truth of suffering must not be swallowed up, even subtly, by the absolute truth that Reality is an inherently selfless expanse, empty space, intrinsically peaceful.”

2001bAwareness is an expanse and like the universe, it should be ever expanding. That is why I don’t accept anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, “supreme perfect enlightenment.” If awareness is not static, then neither is enlightenment; it too is a process.

Finally, interdependency or pratitya-samutpada – the insubstantiality, the interconnectedness, the expansiveness of reality – is not only the foundation for all the diverse concepts in Buddhism, it is also the ground of the diverse world. Emptiness is the cause of interdependency and emptiness is not only a synonym for interdependence, it is also a synonym for something else:

That which is of the nature of coming and going, arising and perishing, in its saha (mundane) nature is itself Nirvana in its unconditioned (ultimate) nature.”

– Nagarjuna, “Treatise on the Maha Prajna-Paramita Sutra”

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Wonder

Friday night I went on the roof of my building to watch the International Space Station pass over Los Angeles very close to the moon. The ISS appears as a high-flying aircraft does, only it is faster-moving and has no flashing lights.  I’ve seen it a few times before and it is usually visible for only a few minutes. That’s probably because it’s traveling at around 17,000 MPH, some 250 miles above us.  And there are astronauts up there.  It’s way cool.  If you’d like to check when to see the ISS in your area, head to NASA’s Spot the Station.

Speaking of Venus, I can see it out my front window just after sunset, shining brilliantly right now. Jupiter is also currently visible, in the east-northeast sky, after 9pm PDT.  The Griffith Observatory Sky Report says “Binoculars are sufficient to see Jupiter’s four Galilean satellites.” But the meds I take cause my hands to tremble to such a degree I can’t hold the binoculars steady enough to see. One of these days, I must get a telescope.

In Los Angeles, we can only see the brightest stars with the naked eye. I feel nostalgic for those days of my youth when I lived in the Midwest and could look up at night and see a sky full of stars, along with that band of stardust called The Milky Way. And it still blows my mind that Venus is 26 million miles from Earth, and Jupiter 365 million miles, and that we can see light from stars that are, or were, billions of light-years away. These are facts I have known since I was in elementary school and still I find them amazing to contemplate.

I believe that is a condition known as wonder.

Wonder means to be amazed, astonished, in awe, and also “to think or speculate curiously: to wonder about the origin of the universe.”

As most of you know, Buddhism does not offer a full-fledged story about the origin of the universe, and there is no place in our philosophy for the idea of a creator being. It is said that the Buddha regarded speculation about the origin of the universe and whether or not it is eternal as among the “unanswerable questions” that he thought counterproductive, and which he refused to answer. Nonetheless, Buddhists have always considered the universe to be infinite and most likely filled with other worlds very much like our own.

From the standpoint of practice and Transcendental Wisdom, the Buddha was right. Knowledge of the universe does little, if anything, directly to relieve anyone’s sufferings. But, thank heavens, the mystery of the heavens was just too compelling for humans to ever pause in what Tagore called “the ceaseless adventure of the Endless Further.” It is an adventure that grows more exciting as time goes by.

This image shows the newly discovered dwarf galaxy Kks3. The core of the galaxy is the right hand object at the top center of the image, with its stars spreading out over a large section around it; the left hand of the two objects is a much nearer globular star cluster. Image credit: Dimitry Makarov.
This image shows the newly discovered dwarf galaxy Kks3. The core of the galaxy is the right hand object at the top center of the image, with its stars spreading out over a large section around it; the left hand of the two objects is a much nearer globular star cluster. Image credit: Dimitry Makarov.

For instance, scientists at Special Astrophysical Observatory in Karachai-Cherkessia, Russia, recently found a previously undetected neighbor. It’s practically next door, only 7 million light years away, which is about 2.5 times farther than our nearest large galaxy, Andromeda. A dwarf galaxy, named KKs3, with only 1/10,000 the stellar mass of the Milky Way, our new neighbor is very small, and very old. About 2/3rds of KKs3 is composed of star stuff formed 12 billion years ago, approximately a billion or so years after the Big Bang.

The Milky Way is one of three large galaxies belonging to the group of galaxies called the Local Group, a collection of 54 galaxies and dwarf galaxies that measures 10 million light years in diameter.

And 54 galaxies is nothing. Scientists estimate that there are somewhere between between 100 billion and 200 billion galaxies just in the observable universe and who knows how many objects in each of those galaxies. In our galaxy alone there are 300-400 billion stars . . .

To quote an old song somewhat out of context, “Ooh, it makes me wonder.”

And then, ponder this from Huang Po, a Chinese Ch’an teacher who lived during the Tang dynasty:

Remember that the endlessness of the ten directions of infinite space is originally one’s own Mind.”

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