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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The Dharma of Transformation

Last week, on Wednesday August 10, in Thiksey Ladakh India, Tenzin Gyatsu, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, gave teachings on “A Commentary on the Awakening Mind” (Bodhichittavivarana) by Nagarjuna and Atisha ‘s “A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment” (Bodhipathapradipa).

At this session, the Dalai Lama made a some comments I thought were shareworthy.  They concern the term ‘dharma.’

dharma-chinese2b[Image: Chinese character for dharma, fa]

Dharma is a key Buddhist term layered with multiple meanings.  The original Indian definition referred to ‘duty’, and ‘law.’  In Buddhism, we often see dharma translated as ‘law,’ meaning a natural order or ultimate principle of the universe.  The Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms by Soothill and Hodous provides more definitions: “(1) thing, object, appearance; (2) characteristic, attribute, predicate; (3) the substantial bearer of the substratum of the simple element of conscious life; (4) element of conscious life; (5) nirvana, i.e. dharma par excellence; (6) the absolute, the truly real; (7) the teaching [of the] Buddha.”

Here is what the Dalai Lama said about dharma:

Since you’ve gathered here to listen to a Buddhist discourse, you should understand that the word ‘Dharma’ refers to making a spiritual transformation within ourselves by putting the teaching into practice . . .  You can’t expect to make such transformation just on the basis of wishes or prayers.  It will only come about by integrating the teaching within ourselves.  The source of our problems is our disturbing emotions.  Since we all want to be happy and avoid suffering we need to know what needs to be abandoned and what needs to be cultivated in order to fulfill these aspirations.  To bring about a transformation we need to apply the teaching within ourselves and in order to do that we need to listen and learn what’s involved . . .”

In this way, we can add another layer of meaning to the term and say that dharma is transformation.  Not merely arbitrary change, but rather change according to Buddha’s dharma, which is directed at the task of inner transformation.   The dharma that supports a revolution of body, mind and spirit, is not difficult to find.  Dharma is all around us, or as Hui-neng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch of the Ch’an school, said,

The dharma is to be found in this world and not in another. To leave this world to search for the dharma is as futile as searching for a rabbit with horns.”

Read the article about the Dalai Lama’s teaching session, with more excerpts, on the Dalai Lama’s website here.

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Nagarjuna’s Golden Bowl

Evidently, there was a Tibetan guru, an alchemist and tantric master, named Nagarjuna who lived during the 7th century.  This Nagarjuna and the legends surrounding him were mixed up with the earlier Nagarjuna (c. 250), known as the “second Buddha,” the founder of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy.

There is a story about how one of these two Nagarjunas, who was also a metallurgist, turned an iron begging bowl into gold bowl.

bowlOne day, as he was taking a meal, Nagarjuna saw a thief passing by his open door.  The thief noticed the golden bowl and wanted to steal it.

But Nagarjuna saw into the thief’s heart, and to save time, he went outside and gave him the bowl, encouraging the man to go ahead and take it.

The next day, the thief returned and handed the bowl back to Nagarjuna, saying, “Great teacher! When you gave away this bowl so freely, I felt very poor and desolate.  Show me the way to acquire the wealth that makes this kind of untroubled detachment possible.”

The short tale empathizes an aspect of non-attachment that we probably don’t appreciate enough, which is, that letting go of attachments to material things is actually a way to realize great wealth and abundance.

A key element in cultivating non-attachment is said to be renunciation, a word that means to reject something, e.g. a belief, claim, or course of action.  It also coveys sacrifice, giving up.   Naturally, in the context of Buddha-dharma and Taoism, there is more to it.  The Dalai Lama says, “True renunciation is a state of mind.  It does not necessarily mean that someone has to give up something.”

In his version of the Tao Te Ching, the late Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii, Chung-yuan Chang translated chapter 59 this way:

In guiding people and working according to nature,
It is best to follow renunciation.
Following renunciation means returning soon.
Returning soon means accumulating attainment.

He goes on to write, “The key word in this chapter is se, or renunciation, which means returning soon to one’s original nature . . . Thus [Te-Ching’s commentary says]: What Lao Tzu means ‘in guiding people and working according to nature, it is best to follow renunciation,’ is that nothing is better than the cultivation of returning to one’s original nature.”

I did an internet search for se and found it defined as “stingy, mean.”  But as the story of Nagarjuna’s golden bowl suggests that non-attachment requires generosity.

Atisha, in Kadamthorbu or “Precepts collected from Here and There”, is quoted as saying,

The greatest generosity is non-attachment.”

And in Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Social Action, Robert Thurman writes,

Those who . . . simply consume and hoard, soon lose their wealth, just as Nagarjuna states.  It is a fact of economics that the basis of wealth is generosity.”

For us, a key aspect of non-attachment means to go beyond the mere rejection of materialism. Go beyond ‘giving up.’  Spread out into giving.  Non-attachment is a state or quality of mind that helps us develop openness, spaciousness of being.

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Dalai Lama in the USA, Prayer, and Meditation

Tenzin Gyatsu, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet is in the United States this week to give teachings and public talks in six cities, including Westminster here in Southern California.  He met privately with President Obama today.

1139bMonday, the Washington Post published an opinion by the Dalai Lama, “Why I’m Hopeful About the World’s Future”.  In the piece, he wrote, “It is not enough simply to pray. There are solutions to many of the problems we face; new mechanisms for dialogue need to be created, along with systems of education to inculcate moral values. These must be grounded in the perspective that we all belong to one human family and that together we can take action to address global challenges.”

Also on Monday, speaking at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, the Buddhist leader asked the audience to observe a moment of silence for victims of the deadliest mass shooting in US history:

“Yesterday, very serious tragedy, Orlando. So let us some silent prayer, OK . . . Although, one Buddhist monk grows quite skeptical about the effects of prayer.”  He added that serious action, such as non-violent conflict resolution was the key to affecting real change.  “Then on top of that, some prayer is OK, no harm.”

This is not the first time the Dalai Lama has expressed skepticism about the power of prayer.  Responding to the terror attacks in Paris last November, he said, “We cannot solve this problem only through prayers.  I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying.  But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it.  It is illogical.  God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

It is difficult to tell from brief remarks if there has been a significant change in the Dalai Lama’s thinking – as he says above he believes in praying, and in the past, he has often been enthusiastic about the idea of prayer (see this) – or whether the message is essentially that prayer alone is not sufficient.  I’ve long been skeptical about the value of prayer myself and feel torn about its inclusion in Buddhist practice.

The initial definition of prayer is “petition.”  Prayer comes from Latin prex or précis, meaning “to ask”, which, interestingly, has a Sanskrit root, pracch that also means “to ask.”

The Buddha did not teach his followers to pray, and it seems he was rather pessimistic about prayer.  He was critical of the religious rites of the Brahmins, rejecting the authority of the priestly class to stand as intermediaries between ordinary people and the “divine.” But at the same time, the Buddha did not admonish the people for their religious ideas and practices.  He did not endorse prayer; he did not openly oppose it either.  As usual, the Buddha took a middle path.  We are to assume that he did not adopt this position out of some kind of political correctness but rather it was an unfolding of wisdom.

I’ve used prayer to augment meditation, but more like reciting aloud the Four Bodhisattva Verses or verses from Shantideva.  Reciting the Metta Sutta or Heart Sutra can be forms of prayers.  Prayer is related to meditation but I don’t see it as equivalent.

DalaiLamaInMeditationMeditation is method-oriented.  The efficacy of the various ways of meditation is in calming the mind, realizing inner peace, and awakening our inherent inner potential for compassion and wisdom.  As the Dalai Lama said the other day, “Genuine peace must come from inner peace.”  Meditation is about change.  Within the framework of a non-theistic practice, I am not sure about the usefulness of prayer.

Prayer is not a necessary part of the process of mental exercise as taught in the [Buddhist] tradition. We discuss these matters in completely different terms . . . We don’t regard the Buddha as universal spirit, or self as universal self, or personal self. We don’t discuss things in those terms. We don’t have any power beyond dhamma. Dhamma means things as they really are . . . That genuine knowledge . . . can be used to improve our condition.”

– Wadawala Seelawimala, professor at the Institute for Buddhist Studies and the Graduate Theological Seminary in Berkeley

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The Real Enemy and True Heroes

Mass shootings like the one in Oregon last week leave many of us with feelings of despair and frustration. Are we helpless to stop these incidents? They also lead to questions about guns and mental illness. Investigators have portrayed the Oregon shooter as an angry young man disconnected from others. How can prevent people like this from amassing stockpiles of weapons?

Frankly, angry and disconnected describes an awful lot of us, and from the Buddhist point of view, we all have mental health issues.

Buddhism teaches that all human sufferings stem from mental afflictions. We also call them delusions. The Sanskrit word is kleshas, meaning, “that which disturbs the mind from within.” A primary affliction is anger, also known as aversion or hatred.

Anger is a vengeful attitude toward one’s self, toward others, towards things that produce frustration, and towards frustration itself. Individuals who live in the realm of anger are obsessed with fault-finding, and while they may display a victim mentality, the truth is, as T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i put it, they are more “like a hawk sweeping the sky in search of prey.”

Dalai Lama6One of the most instructive and powerful Buddhist texts dealing with anger is the one I mentioned in a recent post, Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (or “Way of the Bodhisattva”). The Dalai Lama has given teachings on this work many times, in particular on the “Patience” chapter.* In 2001, I attended one of these teachings in Pasadena California and took copious notes.

Anger has lingering effects. The Dalai Lama said that when strong anger arises, all our normal senses of behavior are destroyed:

When one is under the domination of anger, those around us suffer also. Even friends and family suffer because they worry about our bad mood. Small outbursts of anger may seem to bring some satisfaction but there are long term negative effects. Anger [that arises when another person has harmed us] does not reverse. If we return the harm then the person responsible just becomes angrier and it becomes a vicious circle.”

The Dalai Lama pointed out that Shantideva identifies anger as “the real enemy, our inner enemy.” Anger is very powerful and comes from causes and conditions that we need to analyze so that we can prevent the causes from arising. He said, “The Buddhist way is to try and trace back the causes and counteract them.”

Here, I’d like to say that when we talk about causes and conditions, it is not just causes and conditions. It is also choices. I don’t accept that Shantideva or Buddhism in general is determinism. We have free will. Many of the causes were produced by actions we chose to undertake, and because mental afflictions disturb the mind from within, only we can chose whether or not to take the necessary actions to defeat them.  This should be empowering, for it tells us that we are not at the complete mercy of external forces.

Verse 8 in the chapter on Patience reads,

Therefore, I should eradicate
the fuel of this enemy,
for this enemy has no other function
than to harm me.

According to Shantideva, the practice of patience is the most effective antidote to anger. It involves cultivating tolerance and compassion, but it also requires an ability to endure hardship and maintain a strong determination to remove the causes of anger.

What happens in society is a reflection of what happens in the minds of those who live in that society.  Because of this, we are not helpless to stop gun violence and societal anger.

I believe that Buddhism rejects the notion of helplessness. If there were not a possibility of rational hope for human beings in the face of suffering, the Buddha would not have taught the Four Noble Truths, in which he said, “Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way that leads to the cessation of suffering . . .”

We change the world by changing ourselves and it can have a ripple effect. We are only helpless when we become hopeless, and because we can change, there is always hope.

As the Dalai Lama noted, in itself the mind is neutral and can take either the form of mental affliction or insight into true reality. It is up to each one of us to decide in which direction our minds will move.

Shantideva wrote,

Since my mind is not physical,
no one can destroy it.

And the Dalai Lama said,

We are changing our natural habitual patterns and since what we are changing is so monumental, there can be no relaxing in the battle against mental afflictions. Those who battle mental afflictions are true heroes.”

– – – – – – – – – –

* A 1993 teaching given by the Dalai Lama on the “Patience” chapter in Shantideva’s Guide was published as Healing Anger The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective

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