Neuroscience and The Circle Time Parade of Changes

Dogen, the 13th century Zen master, said, “Impermanence is a fact before our eyes.” All things in the universe are a temporary combination of elements and they are transitory, constantly changing. Because of impermanence (anicca), and interdependence, Buddhism says there is no inherently existent self (anatman), a soul or own-being (svabhava) that is independent and permanent.

With regard to the mind, we see that thoughts come and go; they are neither stable nor lasting. As far as the body is concerned, it is obvious that it changes with time and many other factors, for these changes are most definately before our eyes.  It is irrational then to stand upon notions such as “I, Me, Mine” for it is so difficult to determine what “I” or “Me” is, or what can be “Mine”, belong to something that in the ultimate sense is an illusion.

Beyond what is obvious, or theoretical, there is scientific evidence which shows that the body-mind is ever changing.

An academic journal, CellPress, published a new research paper that found as people change, their brain undergoes physical changes and that there is no one location in the brain that is responsible for the ability to change what we call our ‘self’.

The paper says,

Scientific research highlights the central role of specific psychological processes, in particular those related to the self, in various forms of human suffering and flourishing. This view is shared by Buddhism and other contemplative and humanistic traditions, which have developed meditation practices to regulate these processes.”

The digital news outlet, Quartz, reporting on the new paper noted,

Neuroscience and Buddhism came to these ideas independently, but some scientific researchers have recently started to reference and draw on the Eastern religion in their work—and have come to accept theories that were first posited by Buddhist monks thousands of years ago.”

Some readers will find the paper interesting, particularly since it focuses a great deal on Buddhist meditation.

As all things are changing, they are ultimately unreal, including our own minds and bodies. The Buddha taught impermanence to awaken people to the folly of seizing and clinging to transient things, the root of human suffering.

Green leaves of summer turn red in the fall
To brown and to yellow, they fade
And then they have to die
Trapped within the circle time parade of changes

Phil Ochs, Changes


Knowing yourself

There is a well-known verse in the Tao te Ching by Lao Tzu that goes: “Knowing others is wisdom; Knowing the self is enlightenment.”

It reminds me of the Ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself,” once used by Socrates to explain why he was not interested in mythology but thought it more important to know oneself instead.

Naturally, the self I am writing about today is different from the “self” that Buddhism regards as a fiction.

We may understand that existence has no inherent meaning but this does not mean we should be content with a mass of meaningless experiences throughout life. With self-knowledge, we can at least interpret our experiences in order to better shape our present life and future.  Knowing oneself is also knowing what sort of principles we want to live by and understanding our relationship with other living beings. It is how we grow to have a fuller experience of life.

This is the true purpose of mindfulness. Becoming calmer, less stressful, and so on, are really just benefits we gain through the process of self-discovery.

ming-2b2Back in August I wrote about “not knowing.” I mentioned that Lao Tzu called not knowing “illumination” (Ch. ming). This same character, ming, is found in the verse from the Tao Te Ching I quoted above, taken from the still popular version by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English published in 1972. The character is a picture of the moon and a window. Moonlight shining through a window symbolizes brightness or illumination.

Arthur Waley, in his 1934 version, translated the verse like this:

To understand others is to have knowledge;
To understand oneself is to be illumined.
To conquer others needs strength;
To conquer oneself is harder still.


The Sun, Sky and Sea

I was sorting through some old papers the other day and ran across something I printed off the Internet about ten years ago that I thought would be nice to share with you today. It’s the last paragraph of a dharma talk given by Ven. Jen-chun, founder and guiding teacher of Bodhi Monastery (in New Jersey) and the Yin Shun Foundation, a charitable foundation, who passed away earlier this year.

If you want to practice the Mahayana path, you should contemplate the sun, the sky, and the sea. In the morning, when the sun has just risen, contemplate it and try to allow your mind to be that luminous. Take time to contemplate the sky and try to achieve a mental state that is like empty space – clear and without obstruction. Go to the seashore and contemplate the boundless capacity and unobstructedness of the ocean. If you engage in these contemplations, they will benefit you. On the other hand, if you allow yourself to be governed by the environment and pulled this way and that, you will not attain the Mahayana path.”

Now, as always, we don’t want to take this literally. I can just imagine someone reading this and thinking to themselves, oh rats, now I have to get up at dawn and contemplate the sun if I want to practice Buddhism. No, what we want to do is try to capture the spirit of these words and Jen-chun is asking us to be like the sun, the sky and the sea – to make our minds bright, clear and vast.

I thought the other day that the destruction of the self – that notion of a permanent, independent ego-entity – is actually just the realization of a sense of the infinite within the mind, to become infinite by recognizing that we already are.

Some 2500 years after the time of the Buddha and there is still much confusion and disagreement in regard to the teachings on the concept of the “self.” And yet, nothing could be clearer than this short statement from the Sunna Sutta or “Empty Sutra” found in the Samyutta-Nikaya:

Sunnam attena va attaniyena ya – Empty is the world, because it is void of a self and anything belonging to a self.”

Both attena and attani relate to the Pali word anatta, which is normally described as “no-self” or “no-soul.” The statement above is virtually the same as the one in the Heart Sutra, in which Avalokitesvara “sees” that the five aggregates are sunyata-svabhava or “empty of own-being.” But the self is not just the skandhas. Svabhava refers to a being-ness, essential nature, which is unconditioned and not dependent upon anything to come into existence, a spirit or soul that, unchanged, continues on after physical death. It’s also the sense of self, the sense of “I”.

This notion of self-hood is ignorance. The view from self is narrow, limited, egocentric – finite.  Buddhism encourages us to free our minds, to break through our limitations in thinking so that we can see ourselves, paraphrasing John Donne, as a piece of the universe, a part of the main.

Or, like Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath,

Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then . . .”

Realizing the infinite in a deeply intuitive way goes beyond merely recognizing the vastness of existence, as one would admire a beautiful sunrise, a clear blue sky or sea. And yet, for Rabindranath Tagore, whose phrase “the endless further” is used as the title of this blog, the appreciation of beauty, apprehending the truth of beauty, was a path to the infinite.

In Prabhat Sangit (“Morning Songs”), he wrote of his first realization of the infinite. For Tagore, it was a mystical experience:

One morning, I stood on the balcony of our Calcutta house and looked at the gardens of the free school. The sun was just rising behind the green branches of trees, and I looked on. Suddenly, I felt as if a layer was removed from my eyes. I saw an effable beauty, I felt an inexplicable joy within the depths of my own being and I found the whole universe soaked in it. My discontent vanished instantaneously and a universal light flooded my entire being.”

Perhaps he was thinking of that maiden voyage into the infinite, when he wrote this poem:

The same stream of life that runs through
my veins night and day runs through
the world and dances in rhythmic

It is the same life that shoots in joy
through the dust of the earth in
numberless blades of grass and breaks
into tumultuous waves of leaves and

It is the same life that is rocked in the
ocean-cradle of birth and of death,
in ebb and flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the
touch of this world of life. And my pride
is from the life-throb of ages dancing
in my blood this moment.

Are you infinite? Have you ever been infinite? Not necessarily awakened but beautiful . . .



A portrait of no-self? Nah, the Invisible Man.

In November 27th’s post, the Dalai Lama and Nagarjuna both stated that the doctrine of no-self (anatman) will sometimes cause fear, with a somewhat extreme example offered by the Dalai Lama of a man shaking when he was given the teaching. In most cases, however, we see that this fear manifests itself as resentment, or obliviousness, and often, as confusion or doubt about the doctrine.

Some who have a hard time grasping this concept are just dealing with inner resistance. With others, it may be a case of not being able to get past what they perceive to be nihilistic aspects. And in other cases, it is simply a matter of poor teaching and/or poor learning.

I think most people who have been exposed to Buddhist teachings understand impermanence and interdependence, at least on some level.  Nearly all Buddhist schools teach about the doctrine of dependent origination. On the other hand, some groups focus on concepts other than the traditional core concepts.

The Soka Gakkai (SGI), for instance, favors such Tendai concepts as esho funi (the oneness of life and environment), shiki shin funi (oneness of body and mind), shobutsu-funi (oneness of living beings and Buddhas), meigo-funi (oneness of delusion and enlightenment), and zen’aku-funi (oneness of good and evil).

Each one of these contains the word funi that, according to the SGI Dictionary, is “an abbreviation of nini-funi, which indicates “two (in phenomena) but not two (in essence).” This points to non-duality, how things may appear to be separate, but are not, instead they are, figuratively speaking, one. It also points to interdependency, the inter-connectedness of things.

These teachings are perfectly valid and illuminating, but in a way, it’s a case of putting the cart before the horse. Without a prior understanding of how the entity of human life fits in the grand scheme of things, it is difficult to have a very deep appreciation of interdependence.

The teachings are there, though. If one looks for them. Ichinen sanzen (three-thousand worlds in a single life-moment) is another way of expressing emptiness and the 10 Worlds and their Mutual Possession is essentially the same as Dependent Origination. Focus on less well-known concepts may be due in part from the SGI’s (and Nichiren traditions in general) desire to set their form of Buddhism apart from the rest of the pack, so to speak. Or it could simply be the Tendai influence. In any case, basic concepts that in most traditions are the starting point, may be obscured.

SGI President Ikeda has on occasion discussed, however briefly, the concept of “no-self”, as in this passage from Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death: Buddhism in the Contemporary World:

We cannot deny that a sense of “self” or ego is necessary for a fulfilling life, but Buddhism firmly points out that there are considerable dangers in the attachment to the idea of “self” as the whole of all that exists. By contrast, Buddhism teaches that the road to liberation from the sufferings of birth and death lies in our awakening to the far broader life that lies beyond the confines of the finite self.

Here the focus is on the “far broader” aspect of life. The way this is phrased, one might be tempted to think that it is inferring the existence of some sort of super-self that “lies beyond the confines of the finite self.” Yet, those with some understanding of no-self will infer the broader context to be the whole matrix of interdependence.

Language or semantics is the root cause for misunderstandings between Buddhist traditions. Whenever I read criticism, say from someone on the Zen side, toward, say, Tibetan Buddhism, or vice versa, it tells me that they have not gotten beyond the appearance of the words to see what’s really there. To me, there is no radical difference between Zen and the Tibetan Gelug school. They’re saying the same thing, just using different words. I could say the same thing about several other traditions as well.

Speaking of semantics, here is an interesting question and answer with the Dalai Lama (from my transcript of teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, UCLA 1997):

Q: When people ask if Buddhists believe in soul, I don’t know how to answer them. It seems that they are asking about spirit, a belief in a higher power than the ordinary human being’s consciousness. Is the biggest problem semantics?

A: There is probably an element of semantics. Although I use the English word ‘spirit’ or ‘soul,’ I must admit that I do not really know the full implications of these English terms. However, when Buddhists talk about whether or not there is ‘self’, we must take into account the context in which this discourse on no-self takes place. Within the historical context of Indian Buddhism the discourse is about whether or not atman [Brahman concept of a permanent self that is one essence with Brahma or god.] exists. By rejecting atman, Buddhists are not rejecting existence or any basis on which the natural sense of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ arises. Buddhist are not rejecting that. What is being rejected, in the anatman theory, is the metaphysical concept where atman is said to be a metaphysical reality that is eternal and permanent. The problem arises for certain philosophers to accommodate that never-ending continuum with the transient nature of life.

Certainly your point that sometimes the difficulty being semantics is very true. If we were to understand by the word ‘soul’ a basis upon which the natural sense of thoughts of ‘I am’ arise within the individual being, then we could say that soul exists. However, if one understands by the word ‘soul’ a metaphysical reality, like the atman theory, and is independent of mind and body, independent of mental and physical aggregates, something  that is self-sufficient, autonomous, and so on – then, of course, that concept is not tenable in Buddhist thought.

From the Buddhist point of view, ‘self’ or ‘soul’ is not a substance but a stream of consciousness. All that actually exists is a series of states of consciousness, one of which may be a consciousness of those states, but no one of which may be viewed as the true self, something that is permanent, abiding, everlasting. If we think we possess a self that is immortal, to which we should be true, that we must serve and promote, then we are only deceiving ourselves.

Poussin described it in this way: “There is not a self, a permanent substantial unity, but there is a person to be described as ‘a living continuous fluid complex’ which does not remain quite the same for two consecutive moments but which continues . . .” This continuum stretches over an infinite number of existences, bridging an infinite number of births and deaths, without becoming completely different from itself or being conscious of the previous rounds in the cycle.

Regardless of whether or not one believes in the cycle of birth and death or rebirth, the no-self concept is still valid. Instead of an infinite number of existences, think of it as an infinite number of moments. The personality and sense of “I” that we cling to so tightly is not tenable as a permanent entity regardless of whether it’s a matter of one lifetime, or many.

The question that comes up a lot is that if there is no self or soul, then what transmigrates through the cycle of birth and death? The answer is as indicated above, but if it does not seem clear, perhaps that’s because we are not asking the right question. For the majority of Buddhist thinkers of the past, the real question was how is karma carried over into this life and future lives.

The question was resolved by positing this continuum of consciousness. That’s the short answer. I’ll present the long (or longer) answer in tomorrow’s post.


Dalai Lama and Nagarjuna: No-self

Here is the Dalai Lama discussing the doctrine of “no-self” during his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA in 1997.

When we talk about ignorance, we must know that, to a large extent, it is something that is natural and innate within us and sometimes this naturally flawed way of viewing life can be reinforced by philosophical speculation. So when the Buddhist teaching of anatman (no-self) is taught often it can create a sense of unease within us. Because the grasping for self-existence is so deeply rooted in us, reflection on the fundamental Buddhist teaching of anatman can create some discomfort. Especially for those in whom this inherent self-grasping is further reinforced by metaphysical speculation – for them the sense of discomfort or unease can be even greater.

I can tell you a story about an Indian from Behar, who later became a Buddhist and part of the monastic order. One day I was teaching to him the doctrine of anatman, no-self, and when I mentioned to him that Buddhism rejects the concept of a soul, the person was literally shaking. So this shows how a genuine reflection on this most basic Buddhist teaching of no-self can go against the deeply embedded ways of viewing the world that we posses.

This is what is meant by verse 26 [of the “Precious Garland”], where it reads, “the teaching of selflessness terrifies the childish./For the wise, it puts an end to fear.”

For the wise, the teaching of selflessness really shows that there is an opening to getting out of this condition of being in an unenlightened state of existence.

In verse 27, it reads that:

All ‘beings’ arise from fixation of self
Such that they (thereby) are fixated on ‘mine’;
This is what has been stated
By the one who speaks solely for the sake of beings.

Given that it is this grasping at the concept of self-existence which gives rise to the unenlightened forms of existence, the Buddha has taught, out of compassion for all sentient beings, the path which would liberate all out of the bondage. The path here refers to the path of no-self.