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By Lobsang Rapgay
The importance of positive emotions has been under scrutiny by scientists, philosophers and religious leaders for at least two decades. Government, legal and law enforcement agencies may intend to ensure social and political stability, but long-term harmony depends to a large extent on how individuals treat and regard others in the community.
Just how much people are prepared to help those in need is determined by their ’other’-oriented attitudes and behavior. These attitudes can also prompt people to find more equitable solutions to social dilemmas, and protect the rights of the disenfranchised.
Increasing scientific evidence has established the role of positive emotions in physiological, developmental, sociological, psychological and behavioral areas of human activity. Social scientists have demonstrated that children, adolescents and adults who manifest positive emotions such as empathy and sympathy when faced with someone in distress are more likely to help others, whereas subjects who experience personal distress at the plight of others are less likely to help.
Studies validate what many religious and philosophical traditions have been teaching about the benefits of such positive emotions as kindness, wisdom, caring, forgiveness, etc. On the other hand, scientific understanding may be necessary to complement religion in promoting ‘other’-oriented virtues because some studies question religion’s ability to, for instance, promote spontaneous altruistic behavior.
In determining the origins of emotions, scientists take varying points of view. The evolutionary scientists base their views on Darwin’s perspective that emotions originate from other species. On the other hand, biology-based scientists attribute the origins to neuro-physiological factors. In fact, they suggest that the brain has a neural circuitry for rapid processing of facial and gestural information. They found that primates had neurons in the temporal lobe that are activated by subtle signals received from the appearance of other monkeys. There is evidence that the human infant’s reflexive cry in response to another infant’s cry may be mediated by neurons.
Clinical and developmental scientists, on the other hand, trace the origins of positive emotions to the interaction of the mother/infant dyad. While they accept that the brain has a role in the development of emotions, they believe the primary origin of emotions begins with the infant’s experience of the mother and how the infant internalizes that experience. Researchers have established a neuro-physiological relationship between the infant/mother emotional experience and corresponding brain changes and functions. …
Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science
By David P. Barash; Reviewed by Jacob Sky Lindsley
Some curious students of contemporary Buddhism will be familiar with the ongoing dialogue between Buddhism and science. Events like the “Mind and Life” conferences put high-profile scientists in selfies with the Dalai Lama and other well-known Buddhists. While psychology, neurology, and physics have tended to be the disciplines most featured in such prestigious conferences, Dr. Barash’s Buddhist Biology attempts to add biology to this interesting discussion. Though many of the questions he asks are undeniably fascinating and profound, his overall approach seems ill suited to the task.
Before we go into a critique, Barash should be given credit where it is due. He is a buoyant, colorful and playful writer and doesn’t flinch when tackling complex questions. Additionally, his vocal call for human beings to take responsibility for their effect on the planet reveals his overwhelmingly positive motivation. He sees in Buddhism the potential to ground the insights of biology in a way that highlights human moral imperatives. He does a good job of highlighting the sheer wonder of our world and the reader can really feel how much he loves our Earth.
But as a rule, Barash does not entertain discussion on anything that falls outside the boundaries of his worldview. His downright ornery insistence on what he calls the “natural, the real, the material” makes it difficult for him to appreciate the methodology of the Buddhist tradition. While certainly understandable given his training, it nevertheless clouds his discernment and weakens his conclusions.
The book is roughly divided into two exercises: a discussion centered on the ways Barash sees Buddhist philosophy through the lens of contemporary biology, and, a moral argument for acting urgently on climate change. In his discussion of Buddhist philosophy, he comes across as mocking and dismissive of whatever parts of the tradition that do not conform to the philosophy of science. He uses the controversial work of Stephen Batchelor as the main justification for his method, interspersed with cherry-picked quotes from other popular Buddhist figures and Buddhist literature. I imagine that many of these authors would take issue with Barash’s approach – and he suspects as much, admitting that even Stephen Batchelor wouldn’t likely go as far as he does on some issues. It seems that for Barash, the story of biology and his vision of science necessarily have every answer, which makes his book a soliloquy rather than a true dialogue.
Barash’s main issue seems to be that he has difficulty seeing Buddhism as itself, switching between what José Cabezón calls the “identity” and “conflict” models of scientific engagement with Buddhism. In the first model, scientific concepts are “identical” with Buddhist ones, or vice versa. For example, early on Barash regards “Buddha Nature” as a teaching about “biological continuity among all living things” through time. While there is a possibly interesting convergence between the two, there is a highly significant gap between them that he leaves unexplored. In the second model, the two traditions are seen as inherently incompatible or even in “conflict.” We need only refer to the sections where he takes an insulting tone, using terms like “hocus-pocus” and “poppycock,” to refer to scriptural Buddhist ideas such as the knowledge of previous lives.
For a real dialogue to occur, one must be open to putting differences, as well as convergences, into conversation. This third, more responsible approach is what Cabezón calls the “complementarity” model. Complementarity acknowledges that each view (scientific and Buddhist) has something unique to contribute to the pursuit of knowledge. They may have different objects or different methods, but each contributes equally to a valid view of a more holistic reality. Barash doesn’t seem aware of the possibility that Buddhism might have some interesting criticism of his own assumptions. Instead, he seems to instinctively dismiss the strange or unknown as garbage in the name of Buddhist Modernism. This could be because he has not taken the time to thoroughly understand these areas of difference.
At times, Barash seems to have a confused – if not frustratingly wrong – understanding of some Buddhist concepts. For example, in one of the more interesting parts of the book, he asks how the theories of evolution and karma might inform each other. However, rather than examine the merits or weaknesses in the ideas of karma and reincarnation, he simply reduces what can be said about it to the “recycling of atoms and molecules” and proceeds to lament the fact that Buddhism insists on a “soul.” The Buddhist notion of reincarnation is not an easy subject, but to frame karma through the “mind/body” duality of Renaissance Europe is simply a mischaracterization. It doesn’t take much research to know that atman – as the soul and primordial self – was one of the main targets of Buddha’s critique of his Vedic contemporaries. A nuanced appreciation of this point should be basic to any discussion of karma or rebirth. There are too many places in the book where he makes blunders like this, undermining his credibility.
In addition, his monistic materialist reduction makes it difficult for him to rally the reader to his main point. When he attempts to move the discussion to ethical implications, the portrait of a world where free will is impossible and our genes rule behavior fails to inspire. We humans, understood as lumbering biological robots bent on self-preservation, can only encounter his pleas as one more thing to be consumed on our road to procreation and meaningless death. I really wanted Barash to succeed here, but the impersonal limitations of his appeal made it feel stale. One has to wonder whether it really matters if the world destroys itself. What makes one configuration of molecules better than another one?
Barash’s Buddhist Biology is a book about biology, but it has little to do with Buddhism. A more accurate title would be: What Biological Ideas Buddhism Has Too. There is certainly a lot of good information and interesting questions in his work, but readers looking for a conversation between Buddhism and science would do well to find books that engage these questions more maturely and with less speculation, such as the many that have been based on the Mind and Life dialogues. A good start might be Varela and Hayward’s Gentle Bridges. Barash is certainly less than gentle in his treatment of this complex and delicate topic, and his “bridge” looks more like a fortress. For Barash or any author wanting to have a place in these nascent explorations of the intersection of the Buddha and the boson, he or she will need to raise the portcullis and open the gate a bit more.
Published by Oxford University Press
FPMT News Around the World
The 26th Mind and Life conference recently wrapped up at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, South India. His Holiness the Dalai Lama convened the six-day meeting, titled “Mind, Brain and Matter: Critical Conversations Between Buddhist Thought and Science.” Video of the proceedings can be watched online.
The conference brought 20 well-known and respected scientists and philosophers together with His Holiness and other senior Tibetan scholars. Several thousand monks and nuns from numerous Tibetan monastic centers of learning also were able to watch the meeting, which explored questions concerning the fundamental nature of the physical world, consciousness and scientific research of contemplative practice. In addition, monastic students attended an educational session on the historical development of science and the influence that scientific thought has on how we understand the world.
The Mind and Life Institute, which organized the conference, supports ongoing dialogue and research to better understand the benefits of contemplative practice. The Institute grew out of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s interest in modern science and his desire to discuss the nature of reality with scientists.
With more than 160 centers, projects and services around the globe, there is always news on FPMT activities, teachers and events. Mandala hopes to share as many of these timely stories as possible. If you have news you would like to share, please let us know.
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By Jonathan Landaw
In the 1970s several books were published that discussed the apparent parallels between the ancient insights of Eastern mysticism and the modern science of nuclear physics. As Fritjof Capra wrote, “… the two foundations of twentieth-century physics – quantum theory and relativity theory – both force us to see the world very much in the way a Hindu, Buddhist or a Taoist sees it…We shall often encounter statements where it is almost impossible to say whether they have been made by physicists or by Eastern mystics.”
Considering the esoteric nature of their subject matter, works like Capra’s The Tao of Physics and Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters enjoyed surprising popularity. Among those who made their spiritual journeys to the East during those years were many who delighted in learning from these sources such tidbits as the fact that the coat-of-arms designed by the noted Danish physicist Niels Bohr for himself incorporated the Taoist yin-yang symbol. Suddenly, it seemed, hippie meditators whose scientific education barely reached the high school level were invoking the Uncertainty Principle as if they knew what they were talking about. Never before, perhaps, had there been such widespread and unwarranted certainty about the meaning of uncertainty. But that didn’t matter. In the chai shops of Dharamsala and Kathmandu, conversations in which “Max Planck” popped up next to “Madhyamaka” and “Heisenberg” rubbed shoulders with “Chandrakirti” sounded very profound indeed, and that was all that mattered.
Yet not everyone has been delighted by this (attempted) wedding of Western science and Eastern mysticism. Certain scientists bristle at the suggestion that something as fuzzy and imprecise as the musings of the easily misled could possibly have anything in common with their own highly disciplined profession. Stephen Hawking – who, according to his biographical sketch, is “widely regarded as the most brilliant theoretical physicist since Einstein” – has been particularly dismissive. As Alan Wallace states in Choosing Reality, “Hawking is an outspoken critic of any such meeting of East and West.”
John Boslough, author of Stephen Hawking’s Universe, recounts an incident that encapsulates the prestigious scientist’s position in this regard. In response to the Nobel laureate Brian Josephson’s stated view “that by understanding Eastern mysticism he will gain insights into objective reality,” Hawking declared, “I think it is absolute rubbish … pure rubbish.” Later, in conversation with Boslough, Hawking spelled out his objections by declaring, “The universe of Eastern mysticism is an illusion. A physicist who attempts to link it with his own work has abandoned physics.”
I have to admit that I have no way of knowing whether familiarity with a mystical tradition, whether Eastern or Western, would help anyone become a more competent theoretical physicist than he or she already was. It is certainly hard to see how practicing a debased or corrupted tradition could be helpful in this regard, and I even wonder if following a valid spiritual path – however that might be defined – would necessarily make one a better scientist. After all, the purpose of spiritual evolution is to become a kinder person, not a more brilliant theorist. But I do know that a meaningful dialogue between any two individuals or groups is impossible if one side remains close-minded about the views of the other. For example, the dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism was not well served by statements made in a recent book by Pope John Paul II that ascribed to Buddhism attitudes and positions simply not held by practicing Buddhists. And, in the case we’ve been discussing here, meaningful dialogue between Western science and Eastern mysticism is not served by ascribing to a system such as Mahayana Buddhism the over-simplified and misleading belief that “the universe … is an illusion.”
This misunderstanding, however, is understandable. In the writings of prominent spiritual masters from the East – Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike – are repeated references to the importance of viewing this world of appearances as illusory, as if it were a dream or a reflection in a mirror. The last stanza of the often-quoted Eight Verses of Training the Mind, for example, states, “… by understanding all phenomena [are] like illusions / Be released from the bondage of attachment.”
If such statements are not to be misinterpreted, however, we must pay careful attention to the word “like” in the quotation above and try to comprehend its significance. As the author of an as-yet unpublished manuscript has put it, “… objects of the everyday world are illusion–like and not illusions …” This author points out that even among those who call themselves adherents of the profound Madhyamaka view are some “who conceive emptiness [shunyata] to be mere nothingness” and therefore mistakenly “deny in one form or another the reality of the empirical world.” If Buddhist proponents can make this mistake, it is not surprising that those who can find little or no value in the spiritual path can make it as well.
What we need to appreciate is that the distinction between “illusion” and illusion-like” is not simply semantic. The Buddhist teachings are designed to lead to nothing less than our liberation from suffering and the causes of suffering; they are not mere gambits to be employed in the word games of clever debaters. If we mistakenly believe that the everyday world is mere illusion, we face the grave dangers of believing that nothing matters or makes sense, denying the workings of cause and effect and falling to the extreme of nihilism and despair.
The reason that Buddhist texts make repeated references to illusions, dreams, reflections and the like is that all these are well-known examples of things that do not exist the way they appear to exist. Our everyday reality is therefore said to be like an illusion, and so forth, because none of the items that make up our world exist in the self-established, independent manner in which they appear to exist, as things totally unconnected with the consciousness that perceives them. This is not to say that things are non-existent, but rather that they are non-self-existent. It is by training ourselves to see through the illusion-like way all things, including ourselves, appear to exist and recognizing the interdependent way in which they actually exist – and then living accordingly! – that we gain freedom from attachment, hatred and all the other misery-producing delusions currently imprisoning us. Constructing a theory, no matter how brilliant, that unifies relativity and quantum mechanics and accounts for the evolution of the universe from the primordial “big bang” up until the present moment cannot by itself bring about such a praiseworthy result.
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