The Dalai Lama’s View of Genetics

Considering how much I agree with what the Dalai Lama has to say in The Universe in a Single Atom, it’s no wonder I continually find myself attracted to Buddhism, at least philosophically. Since the last two chapters are relatively short and I feel the need to get back to poetry, I thought I’d summarize them and be done with what has been a more challenging book than I thought it would be when I first dove into it. This exploration that began with Maslow and then led, in turn, to Rollo May and the Dalai Lama has at times seemed more like a post-graduate course than a casual read. Although I’ve enjoyed the challenge and learned more than I have in awhile, all three have inspired considerable outside reading on the internet in order to understand what was being said by one of these authors. I suspect I’ll be following threads that I picked up here for a considerable length of time, and I’m sure I’ll be picking up another of the Dalai Lama’s books shortly, too.

I didn’t find a single idea in the last two chapters I disagreed with. The biggest problem is not citing all the ideas I agree with. The chapter entitled “Ethics and the New Genetics” looks at one final aspect of science. Although the Dalai Lama states that he has no complaint about genetic studies in general, like many common citizens he has some reservations about how those studies should be applied in the real world because he worries about the long-term effects:

But by doing these things, we are changing the genetic makeup, and do we really know what the long-term impact will be on the species of plants, on the soil, on the environment? There are obvious commercial benefits, but how do we judge what is really useful? The complex web of interdependence that characterizes the environment makes it seem beyond our capacity to predict.

Like me, he worries about introducing rapid changes into a ecosystem that has evolved over centuries:

Genetic changes have happened slowly over hundreds of thousands of years of natural evolution. The evolution of the human brain has occurred over millions of years. By actively manipulating the gene, we are on the cusp of forcing an unnaturally quick rate of change in animals and plants as well as our own species. This is not to say that we should turn our backs on developments in this area-it is simply to point out that we must become aware of the awesome implications of this new area of science. But with the new era in biogenetic science, the gap between moral reasoning and our technological capacities has reached a critical point. The rapid increase of human knowledge and the technological possibilities emerging in the new genetic science are such that it is now almost impossible for ethical thinking to keep pace with these changes. Much of what is soon going to be possible is less in the form of new breakthroughs or paradigms in science than in the development of new technological options combined with the financial calculations of business and the political and economic calculations of governments. The issue is no longer whether we should or should not acquire knowledge and explore its technological potentials. Rather, the issue is how to use this new knowledge and power in the most expedient and ethically responsible manner.

It’s hard not to agree that with “the new era in biogenetic science, the gap between moral reasoning and our technological capacities has reached a critical point.” On Facebook I’ve pointed to several articles that question whether the use of Bayer products are the source of problems with the destruction of bee colonies. It’s all to obvious that when it comes to a conflict between economics and “ethically responsible behavior” that economics, more often than not, take priority.

The Dalai Lama, and perhaps rightfully so, is even more concerned when it comes to the use of genetic cloning when it comes to humans:

In principle, I have no objection to cloning as such-as a technological instrument for medical and therapeutic purposes. As in all these cases, what must govern one’s decisions is the question of compassionate motivation. However, regarding the idea of deliberately breeding semi-human beings for spare parts, I feel an immediate, instinctive revulsion. I once saw a BBC documentary which simulated such creatures through computer animation, with some distinctively recognizable human features. I was horrified. Some people might feel this is an irrational emotional reaction that need not be taken seriously. But I believe we must trust our instinctive feelings of revulsion, as these arise out of our basic humanity.

It seems to me that “revulsion” is a good minimum standard for judging biogenetic manipulation, but it’s obvious that we are going to need higher standards than that, as the Dalai Lama points out:

Today’s challenges are so great-and the dangers of the misuse of technology so global, entailing a potential catastrophe for all humankind-that I feel we need a moral compass we can use collectively without getting bogged down in doctrinal differences. One key factor that we need is a holistic and integrated outlook at the level of human society that recognizes the fundamentally interconnected nature of all living beings and their environment. Such a moral compass must entail preserving our human sensitivity and will depend on us constantly bearing in mind our fundamental human values. We must be willing to be revolted when science-or for that matter any human activity-crosses the line of human decency, and we must fight to retain the sensitivity that is otherwise so easily eroded.

He ends his discussion of genetics on a note

The fate of the human species, perhaps of all life on this planet, is in our hands. In the face of the great unknown, would it not be better to err on the side of caution than to transform the course of human evolution in an irreversibly damaging direction?

that I often use when discussing Climate Change, formerly Global Warming. Climate Change is a theory, a prediction, but only a fool wouldn’t hedge his bet when the stakes are that high. Climate deniers claim environmentalists want to stop “progress,” but I would argue that what they really want is sustainable progress.

In conclusion, the Dalai Lama tries to tie his discussion of the three great areas of science with his own beliefs:

The insights of science have enriched many aspects of my own Buddhist worldview. Einstein’s theory of relativity, with its vivid thought experiments, has given an empirically tested texture to my grasp of Nagarjuna’s theory of the relativity of time. The extraordinarily detailed picture of the behavior of subatomic particles at the minutest levels imaginable brings home the Buddha’s teaching on the dynamically transient nature of all things. The discovery of the genome all of us share throws into sharp relief the Buddhist view of the fundamental equality of all human beings.

It’s definitely refreshing to have a religious leader address scientific thinking in such a thoughtful way, while still willing to state his reservations about what is happening:

Throughout this book, I hope I have made the case that one can take science seriously and accept the validity of its empirical findings without subscribing to scientific materialism. I have argued for the need for and possibility of a worldview grounded in science, yet one that does not deny the richness of human nature and the validity of modes of knowing other than the scientific. I say this because I believe strongly that there is an intimate connection between one’s conceptual understanding of the world, one’s vision of human existence and its potential, and the ethical values that guide one’s behavior. How we view ourselves and the world around us cannot help but affect our attitudes and our relations with our fellow beings and the world we live in. This is in essence a question of ethics.

Cultural Shock

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the way we see things often depends on what we are looking for. It’s easy to forget that the way we classify things depends on our purpose. The Dalai Lama argues that one of the fundamental reasons Buddhist psychology and Western psychology see people differently is because their overall aim is quite different:

The principal aim of Buddhist psychology is not to catalog the mind’s makeup or even to describe how the mind functions; rather its fundamental concern is to overcome suffering, especially psychological and emotional afflictions, and to clear those afflictions.

Of course, most of us are probably aware of this at one time or another in our life, but over time it’s easy to forget. For instance, when I considered turning to a Psychology major many years ago I was bothered by the fact that psychology seemed overly concerned with abnormal behavior, and I wondered how you could develop sound psychological theories without also focusing on those who were “well-adjusted,” not to mention those who were also successful.

The Dalai Lama points out other critical social concepts that make it unlikely that Buddhist and Western psychologists would see a patient in the same light and wonders if modern technology will ever be able to differentiate between accurate and inaccurate perceptions:

So when a perception occurs, it is not a case of simple mirroring in the mind of what is outside but rather a complex process of organization that takes place to make sense of what are technically infinite amounts of information. These are all cases where the illusion is conditioned by very immediate circumstances. But there is a whole category of more complex conditions for false cognitions, such as the belief in an autonomous self or the belief that the self or other conditioned phenomena are permanent. During an experience, there’s no way to distinguish between accurate and deluded perception. It’s only in hindsight that we can make this distinction. It is in effect the subsequent experiences derived from such cognitions that help determine whether they are valid or invalid. It would be interesting to know whether neuroscience will be able to differentiate between accurate and inaccurate perceptions at the level of brain activity.

With such different basic beliefs, it’s not surprising that Buddhists and Westerners do not, perhaps, cannot, see the world in the same way. But this doesn’t seem too shocking to me. It’s impossible to study modern literature without reaching some of the same conclusions. Works like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury address some of these issues, and it’s impossible to read modern literature widely without being exposed to moral relativism.

I was, though, more shocked when I read that:

Neither Sanskrit nor classical Tibetan has a word for “emotion” as the concept is used in modern languages and cultures. This is not to say that the idea of emotion does not exist, nor does it imply that Indians and Tibetans do not experience emotions. Just as Westerners feel joy at good news, sadness at a personal loss, and fear in the face of danger, so do the Indians and the Tibetans. Perhaps the reasons for the lack of such a word have to do with the history of philosophical thinking and psychological analysis in India and Tibet. Buddhist psychology did not differentiate cognitive from emotional states in the way Western thought differentiated the passions from reason. From the Buddhist perspective, the distinctions between afflictive and non-afflictive mental states are more important than the difference between cognition and emotions. Discerning intelligence, closely associated with reason, may be afflictive (for example, in the cunning planning of an act of murder), whereas a passionate state of mind, such as overwhelming compassion, may be a highly virtuous, non-afflictive state. Moreover, the emotions of both joy and sorrow may be afflictive or non-afflictive, destructive or beneficial, depending on the context in which they arise. When we turn to the afflictive mental processes, the list is fuller, largely because these are what need to be purified by the person aspiring to enlightenment in Buddhism. There are six root mental afflictions: attachment or craving, anger (which includes hate), pride or conceit, ignorance, afflictive doubt, and afflictive views. Of these, the first three have a strong emotional component. Then there are twenty derivative afflictions: wrath, resentment, spite, envy or jealousy, and cruelty (these are derived from anger); meanness, inflated self-esteem, excitement including surprise, concealment of one’s own vices, and mental dullness (these are derived from attachment); lack of confidence, sloth, forgetfulness, and lack of attention (these are derived from ignorance); pretentiousness, deceit, shamelessness, lack of consideration for others, heedlessness, and distraction (these are derived from the combination of ignorance and attachment). Clearly many of the mental factors enumerated here can be identified with emotions. Finally, in the list of fifty-one, there is a group of four mental factors referred to as the “changeables.” These are sleep, regret, investigation, and minute analysis. They are called changeables because, depending on the state of mind, they can be wholesome, unwholesome, or neutral.

I’m so immersed in my own culture it’s difficult to understand why “Buddhist psychology would not differentiate cognitive from emotional states in the way Western thought differentiated the passions from reason,” though that statement makes me question in what ways cognitive and emotional states really are different. Unfortunately, by the time the Dalai Lama finishes listing the fifty-one mental afflictions, I feel totally lost.

If that weren’t enough, the Dalai Lama warns that the Buddhist distinction between “wholesome and unwholesome emotions” would not be the same a the Western distinction:

It is most important to be sensitive to the differing contexts in which Buddhist and Western psychology provide treatment of the emotions. We must not confuse the Buddhist distinction between the wholesome and the unwholesome emotions with Western psychology’s distinction between the positive and the negative emotions. In Western thought, positive and negative are defined in terms of how one feels when particular emotions occur. For example, fear is negative because it brings about an unpleasant feeling of disturbance.

The Buddhist differentiation between unwholesome or afflictive and wholesome mental factors is based on the roles these factors play in relation to the acts they give rise to-in other words, one’s ethical well-being. For instance, attachment may feel enjoyable but is regarded as afflictive since it involves the kind of blind clinging, based on self-centeredness, which can motivate one to harmful action. Fear is neutral and indeed changeable in that it may spur one to wholesome or unwholesome behavior depending on the circumstances.

I certainly don’t completely understand the Buddhist perspective, though my previous reading about Buddhism gives me an inkling of what the Dalai Lama is pointing out. Though I’ve encountered a number of the underlying Buddhist ideas, like “attachment,” I’d never really considered how these basic beliefs would ripple through so many other fields of thought, giving the viewer a completely different perspective.

A Study of Consciousness

One of the Dalai Lama’s goals is to bring about the scientific study of skills that Tibetan Buddhists have been focusing on for centuries, and, while religious aspects may be part of the reason why science has hesitated to study them, the main problem with applying science to the study of consciousness is that most of what goes on in consciousness is not observable to outsiders. For the most part, observers have to rely on the individual to tell the observer what has occurred inside his head:

In order for the study of consciousness to be complete, we need a methodology that would account not only for what is occurring at the neurological and biochemical levels but also for the subjective experience of consciousness itself. Even when combined, neuroscience and behavioral psychology do not shed enough light on the subjective experience, as both approaches still place primary importance on the objective, third-person perspective. Contemplative traditions on the whole have historically emphasized subjective, first-person investigation of the nature and functions of consciousness, by training the mind to focus in a disciplined way on its own internal states. Scientific experimentation on human subjects raises numerous ethical issues, a problem which the scientific community takes most seriously. For the hermits who have chosen a life of solitude in the mountains, there is the added complication that such experimentation constitutes a profound intrusion into their lives and spiritual practice. It is not surprising that initially many were reluctant. Apart from anything else, most simply couldn’t see the point, other than satisfying the curiosity of some odd men carrying machines. However, I felt very strongly (and still do feel) that the application of science to understanding the consciousness of meditators is most important, and I made a great effort to persuade the hermits to allow the experiments to take place. I argued that they should undergo the experiments out of altruism; if the good effects of quieting the mind and cultivating wholesome mental states can be demonstrated scientifically, this may have beneficial results for others.

Of course, it is precisely these beneficial results that have already attracted many Westerners to various forms of Eastern meditation and exercise. It’s this popularity that seems to have drawn the attention of science.

In the 70’s Dr Herbert Benson advocated a form of secular meditation called the Relaxation Response after observing its positive effects:

Already experiments have shown that experienced meditators have more activity in the left frontal lobe, the part of the brain associated with positive emotions, such as happiness, joy, and contentment. These findings imply that happiness is something we can cultivate deliberately through mental training that affects the brain. This law whereby two opposing states cannot coexist without one undermining the other is the key premise in the Buddhist argument for the transformability of consciousness-it means that the cultivation of loving-kindness can over a period diminish the force of hate in the mind. Further, Dharmakirti argues that the removal of a basic condition will remove its effects. So that, by eliminating the cold, for example, one effectively removes all its attendant results, such as goose pimples, shivering, and chattering teeth.

I don’t really remember when I started meditating, but I know I started by doing yoga exercises and gradually adding meditation exercises. The meditation was my way of rewarding myself for doing my exercise consistently. I don’t think I ever equated my meditation with happiness, but it helped to eliminate tension, creating a sense of contentment. In many ways it seemed like a form of self-hypnosis, something I’d encountered even earlier when a dentist used hypnosis to relax me before giving me a Novocain shot or cleaning my teeth. If I hadn’t gone into the army I would never have switched that doctor; I always felt better after I left his office than I did before I went in.

Though I’m not sure I agree with the argument that “two opposing states cannot coexist without one undermining the other,” but I do agree with a Buddhist notion that seems to contradict much Christian philosophy:

These treatises themselves draw on the notion of Buddha nature, the natural potential for perfection that lies in all sentient beings (including animals). The Sublime Continuum and Nagarjuna’s Praise offer two principal theses for the basic transformability of mind toward a positive end. The first is the conviction that all negative traits of the mind may be purified by applying the appropriate antidotes. This means that the pollutants of the mind are not seen as essential or intrinsic to it and that the mind’s essential nature is pure. From the scientific point of view, these are metaphysical assumptions. The second is that the capacity for positive transformation lies naturally within the constitution of the mind itself-which follows the first thesis.

This is one of the basic tenants of Christian Science, and though I wasn’t raised in the church, I was raised with that basic belief system. In fact, one of my biggest arguments against conservative Christians is the idea that man in born inherently evil. At times I’ve wondered if “tabula rasa”isn’t the real state of man when born, but every time I’ve spent time with a small child I end up thinking babies are as innocent as angels. I find the idea that a child would spend eternity in in hell unless they’re baptized an abomination.

I don’t think I could have spent a lifetime teaching if I hadn’t believed that in some form of plasticity of the brain:

Buddhism has long had a theory of what in neuroscience is called the “plasticity of the brain.” The Buddhist terms in which this concept is couched are radically different from those used by cognitive science, but what is significant is that both perceive consciousness as highly amenable to change. The concept of neuroplasticity suggests that the brain is highly malleable and is subject to continual change as a result of experience, so that new connections between neurons may be formed or even brand-new neurons generated. Research in this area specifically includes work on virtuosos- athletes, chess players, and musicians-whose intense training has been shown to result in observable changes in the brain. These kinds of subjects are interestingly parallel to skilled meditators, who are also virtuosos, and whose dedication to their practice involves a similar commitment of time and effort.

It seems that even scientists are beginning to suspect that meditation may well change the brain.

The Dalai Lama describes two forms of meditation, the first,

One of the most basic mental trainings is the cultivation of mindfulness, especially performed on the basis of observing one’s breath. Mindfulness is essential if one is to become consciously aware in a disciplined manner of whatever phenomena may occur within the mind or one’s immediate environment. In our normal state, our mind remains unfocused for most of the time and our thoughts move from one object to another in a random and dissipated manner. By cultivating mindfulness, we learn first to become aware of this process of dissipation, so that we can gently fine-tune the mind to follow a more directed path toward the objects on which we wish to focus. Traditionally, the breath is seen as an ideal instrument for the practice of mindfulness. The great advantage of choosing one’s breath as the object of mindfulness training is that breathing is an instinctive and effortless activity, something which we do as long we are alive, so there is no need to strive hard to find the object of this practice. In its developed form, mindfulness also brings about a highly refined sensitivity to everything that happens, however minute, in one’s immediate vicinity and in one’s mind.

I’m quite familiar with. In fact, focusing on the breath was the first yogic meditation I learned. More recently, I’ve been using a commercial machine to help me learn to lower my breath rate. I’m not sure it’s helped lower my blood pressure as it claims, but I know it does help me to relax, sometimes to the point that I can’t get much done right after I’ve gone through a session of it.

I’m really not familiar, though with this second form of meditation,

Another practice for the development of attention is single-pointed concentration. Here the observer may choose any kind of object, external or internal, but something that he or she can easily conjure the image of. The training proceeds with the deliberate placement of one’s attention on the chosen object and the attempt to hold that attention as long as possible. This practice involves primarily the use of two faculties, mindfulness (which keeps the mind tied to the object) and introspective vigilance, which discerns whether distraction occurs in the mind and whether the vividness of the mind’s focus has become lax. At the heart of this practice lies the development of two qualities of the disciplined mind-the stability of prolonged attention and the clarity or vividness with which the mind can perceive the object. In addition, the practitioner needs to learn to maintain equanimity, so that he or she does not apply excessive introspection onto the object, which would distort the object or destabilize mental composure.

but I’d like to learn more about it. I know even less about what the Dalai Lama calls “insight:”

We must acquire the skill of probing the nature and characteristics of the object of our observation with as much precision as possible. This second-level training is known in the Buddhist literature as insight (vipushyana in Sanskrit, lhak thong in Tibetan). In tranquil abiding the emphasis is on holding one’s focus without distraction, and single-pointedness is the key quality being sought. In insight the emphasis is on discerning investigation and analysis while maintaining one-pointedness without distraction. Impermanence is chosen as a worthy object of meditation in Buddhism because, although we may understand it intellectually, we mostly do not behave as though we have integrated this awareness. A combination of analysis and concentration on this topic brings the insight to life so that we appreciate the preciousness of every moment of our existence.

Reading Buddhist descriptions of the various forms of meditation reminds me of how many different words the Eskimo language has for “snow.” Which, in turn, probably suggests that we Westerners know as little about meditation and different levels of consciousness as we do about the various qualities of snow.

A Buddhist View of Consciousness

Considering that the next three chapters all have to do with Consciousness, I suspect that the Dalai Lama is just hitting his stride in Chapter 6: The Question of Consciousness. It’s these sections that most attracted me to the book after I finished Maslow’s book calling for a reconciliation of science, psychology, and religion.

The first paragraph evokes the richness of the conscious experience:

The joy of meeting someone you love, the sadness of losing a close friend, the richness of a vivid dream, the serenity of a walk through a garden on a spring day, the total absorption of a deep meditative state-these things and others like them constitute the reality of our experience of consciousness. Regardless of the content of any one of these experiences, no one in his or her right mind would doubt their reality. Any experience of consciousness-from the most mundane to the most elevated-has a certain coherence and, at the same time, a high degree of privacy, which means that it always exists from a particular point of view. The experience of consciousness is entirely subjective. The paradox, however, is that despite the indubitable reality of our subjectivity and thousands of years of philosophical examination, there is little consensus on what consciousness is. Science, with its characteristic third-person method-the objective perspective from the outside-has made strikingly little headway in this understanding.

There is, however, a growing recognition that the study of consciousness is becoming a most exciting area of scientific investigation. At the same time, there is a growing acknowledgment that modern science does not yet possess a fully developed methodology to investigate the phenomenon of consciousness.

Considering modern society’s reliance on “Science,” it does seem hard to believe that it still doesn’t have a methodology to investigate experiences this vital to our well-being. Science, particularly medical science, obviously plays a major part in keep us well, but it is our conscious experiences that allow us to thrive.

The Dalai Lama attributes part of this lack of scientific progress to the limits of language in dealing with subjective experiences:

Perhaps it is because of these difficulties-the limits of language in dealing with the subjective-that many of the early Buddhist texts explain the nature of consciousness in terms of metaphors such as light or a flowing river. As the primary feature of light is to illuminate, so consciousness is said to illuminate its objects. Just as in light there is no categorical distinction between the illumination and that which illuminates, so in consciousness there is no real difference between the process of knowing or cognition and that which knows or cognizes. In consciousness, as in light, there is a quality of illumination.

Even in attempting to bring peak experiences into the psychological domain, Maslow pointed out that in talking to people about peak experiences that he had to resort to metaphors and “poetic” language. Anyone who’s ever been asked to rate their “pain” on a scale of 1-10 realizes just how difficult it is to quantify some feelings. Moans and screams often seem more accurate measures than any mathematical scale. Personally, I’ve always measured my pain on how loudly I yell “F***” when it occurs. If I can’t manage to utter it at all, it will probably be a “10,” the last pain I ever feel.

My mind got stretched just a little further when the Dalai Lama introduced Karl Popper and the Buddhist classification of reality:

In talking about mental phenomena which, according to Buddhist understanding, have the two defining characteristics of luminosity and knowing, there is a danger that one might assume Buddhism is proposing a version of Cartesian dualism namely, that there are two independent substances, one called “matter” and the other called “mind.” To allay any possible confusion, I feel a little digression on the basic classification of reality proposed in Buddhist philosophy is necessary. Buddhism suggests that there are three fundamentally distinct aspects or features of the world of conditioned things, the world in which we live:

1. Matter-physical objects

2. Mind-subjective experiences

3. Abstract composites-mental formations

After a short discussion of these concepts the Dalai Lama points out that this classification seems quite similar to the influential English philosopher Karl Popper:

I gather that this taxonomy of reality, which goes back to the earliest phases of Buddhism’s philosophical tradition, is almost identical to that proposed by Karl Popper. Popper called them, “the first world,” “the second world,” and “the third world.” By these he meant (1) the world of things or physical objects; (2) the world of subjective experiences, including thought processes; and (3) the world of statements in themselves-the content of thoughts as opposed to the mental process. It is striking that Popper, whom I know had no background in Buddhist thought, arrived at an almost identical classification of the categories of reality. Had I known this curious convergence between his thought and Buddhism in the times I met with Popper, I would certainly have pursued it with him.

One of the reasons I’ve been rather slow turning out these daily entries is that I’ve taken the time to provide background to the Dalai Lama’s ideas. I spent some time yesterday following Jeff’s link to recent discussion of “altruism” and much of this morning reading about Karl Popper’s philosophy. At the very least, I’ve managed to remind myself how profoundly ignorant I truly am, at least when it comes to the world of philosophy.

I’m still not sure my mind will stretch enough to get around the Buddhist “principal categories of cause:”

Crucial to understanding the Buddhist concept of consciousness-and its rejection of the reducibility of mind to matter-is its theory of causation. The issue of causality has long been a major focus of philosophical and contemplative analysis in Buddhism. Buddhism proposes two principal categories of cause. These are the “substantial cause” and the “contributory or complementary cause.” Take the example of a clay pot. The substantial cause refers to the “stuff’ that turns into a particular effect, namely, the clay that becomes the pot. By contrast, all the other factors that contribute toward bringing about the pot-such as the skill of the potter, the potter himself, and the kiln that fired the clay-remain complementary in that they make it possible for the clay to turn into the pot. This distinction between the substantial and the contributory cause of a given event or object is of the utmost importance for understanding the Buddhist theory of consciousness. According to Buddhism, though consciousness and matter can and do contribute toward the origination of each other, one can never become a substantial cause of the other.

This reminds me of the terms “substantial” and “unsubstantial” as used in Tai Chi, a physical concept I find as difficult to understand as the Buddhist version of causation. To me “the pot” is simply the “effect” of other causes, not a “substantial cause,” though perhaps the desire to produce a pot is the “ultimate cause” that causes all the other causes.

Rather than rejecting science out of hand because of the difficulty of reconciling the two, the Dalai Lama argues that a collaboration is possible:

Here I feel a close collaboration between modern science and the contemplative traditions, such as Buddhism, could prove beneficial. Buddhism has a long history of investigation into the nature of mind and its various aspects-this is effectively what Buddhist meditation and its critical analysis constitute. Unlike that of modern science, Buddhism’s approach has been primarily from first-person experience. The contemplative method, as developed by Buddhism, is an empirical use of introspection, sustained by rigorous training in technique and robust testing of the reliability of experience. All meditatively valid subjective experiences must be verifiable both through repetition by the same practitioner and through other individuals being able to attain the same state by the same practice. If they are thus verified, such states may be taken to be universal, at any rate for human beings.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the Dalai Lama feels this collaboration can take place. Hopefully you are, too.

Evolution, Karma, and The World of Sentience

Although many Christian Conservatives sound downright irrational when discussing Darwinian theory, the Dalai Lama seems to accept the basic theory but points out what he considers some of its limitations and explains why Buddhism disagrees with parts of it. It’s the kind of intelligent argument that makes us want to listen to what’s being said rather than automatically tuning it out.

In fact, I learned several things about the theory that I didn’t know previously, particularly how widely it has influenced scientific thought:

The Darwinian theory is an explanatory framework that accounts for the wealth of flora and fauna, the richness of what Buddhists call sentient beings and plants that effectively constitute the biological world available to us. So far the theory has avoided disproof and has offered the most coherent scientific understanding of the evolution of the diversity of life on earth. The theory applies as much to the molecular level-that is, to the adaptation and selection of individual genes-as to the macrocosmic level of large organisms. Despite its remarkable adaptability to all levels on which we might say life flourishes, Darwin’s theory does not explicitly address the conceptual question of what life is. This said, there are a number of key characteristics that biology understands to be essential for life, such as organisms being self-sustaining systems and naturally possessing some mechanisms for reproduction. In addition, the key definitions of life include the ability to develop away from chaos and toward order, which is called “negative entropy.”

It never occurred to me to think of Darwinian theory on a molecular level, but it makes sense that if if it operated on one level it should also operate on a lower level. too.

Of course if I’d wanted to learn more about Darwinian theory I would have chosen a very different book, but, as it turns out, reading the Dalai Lama’s views about scientific views is an excellent way to gain insight into a culture that I know very little about despite what most people would consider extensive readings in Chinese and Japanese literature. For instance, I’d never considered that the Buddhist definition of “life” might be different than our own:

The Buddhist Abhidharma tradition, by contrast, defines sok, the Tibetan equivalent for the English term life, as that which supports “heat” and “consciousness.” To some extent the differences are semantic, since what Buddhist thinkers mean by life and living relates entirely to sentient beings and not to plants, while modern biology has a much broader conception of life, taking it all the way down to the cellular level. The Abhidharma definition does not correspond to the biological account mostly because the underlying motive of Buddhist theory is to answer ethical questions that can be considered only in relation to higher forms of life.

The Dalai Lama points out another interesting contrast between Buddhism and modern science:

However, in Buddhism there is a greater appreciation of the challenge of accounting for the emergence of sentient beings from what is essentially a non-sentient basis.

This difference of concern suggests an interesting contrast between Buddhism and modern science, which may have partly to do with the complex historical, social, and cultural differences that underlie the development of these two investigative traditions. For modern science, at least from a philosophical point of view, the critical divide seems to be between inanimate matter and the origin of living organisms, while for Buddhism the critical divide is between non-sentient matter and the emergence of sentient beings.

and then explains why Buddhism makes this distinction:

Buddhism draws the critical division differently-i.e., between sentience and non-sentience-because it is primarily interested in the alleviation of suffering and the quest for happiness. In Buddhism, the evolution of the cosmos and the emergence of the sentient beings within it-indeed, effectively everything within the purview of the physical and life sciences-belong within the domain of the first of the Four Noble Truths, which the Buddha taught in his initial sermon. The Four Noble Truths state that within the realm of impermanent phenomena there is suffering, suffering has an origin, the cessation of suffering is possible, and there is a path to the cessation of suffering. As I see it, science falls within the scope of the first truth in that it examines the material bases of suffering, for it covers the entire spectrum of the physical environment-“the container”-as well as the sentient beings-“the contained.” It is in the mental realm-the realm of psychology, consciousness, the afflictions, and karma-that we find the second of the truths, the origin of suffering. The third and fourth truths, cessation and the path, are effectively outside the domain of scientific analysis in that they pertain primarily to what might be called philosophy and religion.

I’ve encountered the Four Noble Truths many times in my readings, but I’d never thought of them as having this radical effect on the way Buddhists see the world. In fact, I’d never thought about them other than as a philosophy or religion. It would never have occurred to me that they might affect the way people looked at scientific truths.

Of course, I was even more surprised by this:

In Buddhism, there is no recognition of the presence of something like the “soul” that is unique to humans. From the perspective of consciousness, the difference between humans and animals is a matter of degree and not of kind.

Though I should probably have known this, just as I know that the Chinese have no concept of heaven and hell, I’m so accustomed to the concept of “soul,” I didn’t know it. Heck, I’m so accustomed to the concept that I would even argue that “Skye” has a soul, and is probably more apt to end in heaven than I am.

The Dalai Lama’s greatest criticism of Darwinism, though, is that it seems unwilling or unable to account for many positive human traits:

At one of the Mind and Life conferences in Dharamsala, the Harvard historian of science Anne Harrington made a memorable presentation on how, and to some extent why, scientific investigation of human behavior has so far failed to develop any systematic understanding of the powerful emotion of compassion. At least in modern psychology, compared with the tremendous amount of attention paid to negative emotions, such as aggression, anger, and fear, relatively little examination has been made of more positive emotions, such as compassion and altruism. This emphasis may have arisen because the principal motive in modern psychology has been to understand human pathologies for therapeutic purposes. However, I do feel that it is unacceptable to reject altruism on the ground that selfless acts do not fit within the current biological understanding of life or are simply redefinable as expressions of the self-interest of the species. This stance is contrary to the very spirit of scientific inquiry. As I understand it, the scientific approach is not to modify the empirical facts to fit one’s theory; rather the theory must be adapted to fit the results of empirical inquiry. Otherwise it would be like trying to reshape one’s feet to fit the shoes.

This sounds an awful lot like Maslow’s argument against a “science” which is unable to find room for “religious” or “peak” experiences:

I feel that this inability or unwillingness fully to engage the question of altruism is perhaps the most important drawback of Darwinian evolutionary theory, at least in its popular version. In the natural world, which is purported to be the source of the theory of evolution, just as we observe competition between and within species for survival, we observe profound levels of cooperation (not necessarily in the conscious sense of the term). Likewise, just as we observe acts of aggression in animals and humans, we observe acts of altruism and compassion. Why does modern biology accept only competition to be the fundamental operating principle and only aggression to be the fundamental trait of living beings? Why does it reject cooperation as an operating principle, and why does it not see altruism and compassion as possible traits for the development of living beings as well?

I’ll have to admit that I never really considered concepts like Social Darwinism scientific, figuring that they were merely the rationalization of selfish people to justify their actions. I’m pretty sure the willingness to sacrifice for others, whether family or the group, is one of the traits that has allowed us to outcompete other species. If we hope to have any kind of future worth living, let’s hope we don’t manage to eliminate that trait.

The Buddhist Beginningless Universe

In the chapter entitled “The Big Bang and the Buddhist Beginningless Universe” the Dalai Lama shows that Buddhist cosmology is close to current scientific theories in many ways,

Modern cosmology-like so much else in the physical sciences-is founded on Einstein’s theory of relativity. In cosmology, astronomical observations taken together with the theory of general relativity, which reformulated gravity as the curvature of both space and time, have shown that our universe is neither eternal nor static in its current form. It is continuously evolving and expanding. This finding accords with the basic intuition of the ancient Buddhist cosmologists, who conceived that any particular universe system goes through stages of formation, expansion, and ultimately destruction.

but also explains where the two differ.e

I found this explanation of why Buddhists argue against a single definite beginning rather intriguing:

From the Buddhist perspective, the idea that there is a single definite beginning is highly problematic. If there were such an absolute beginning, logically speaking, this leaves only two options. One is theism, which proposes that the universe is created by an intelligence that is totally transcendent, and therefore outside the laws of cause and effect. The second option is that the universe came into being from no cause at all. Buddhism rejects both these options. If the universe is created by a prior intelligence, the questions of the ontological status of such an intelligence and what kind of reality it is remain.

Way back in high school when I was still naive enough to argue religion with fundamentalist Christians, I would counter with, “Who made God?” What kind of explanation posits an Unknown as the basis for the rest of the argument? Philosophically, I’m much more in tune with this Buddhist view, though I’m even more in tune with The Buddha:

According to the early scriptures, the Buddha himself never directly answered questions put to him about the origin of the universe. In a famous simile, the Buddha referred to the person who asks such questions as a man wounded by a poisoned arrow. Instead of letting the surgeon pull the arrow out, the injured man insists first on discovering the caste, name, and clan of the man who shot the arrow; whether he is dark, brown, or fair; whether he lives in a village, town, or city; whether the bow used was a longbow or a crossbow; whether the bowstring was fiber, reed, hemp, sinew, or bark; whether the arrow shaft was of wild or cultivated wood; and so forth. Interpretations of the meaning of the Buddha’s refusal to answer these questions directly vary.

Personally, I’m far more interested in finding happiness than I am in abstract philosophical arguments that ultimately seem insolvable, which is not to say that I don’t realize that there are important ramifications of differing answers to these ultimate questions.

The poet in me loves this definition:

Similarly, in beautiful poetic verses, the text compares the intricate and profoundly interconnected reality of the world to an infinite net of gems called “Indra’s jeweled net,” which reaches out to infinite space. At each knot on the net is a crystal gem, which is connected to all the other gems and reflects in itself all the others. On such a net, no jewel is in the center or at the edge. Each and every jewel is at the center in that it reflects all the other jewels on the net. At the same time, it is at the edge in that it is itself reflected in all the other jewels. Given the profound interconnectedness of everything in the universe, it is not possible to have total knowledge of even a single atom unless one is omniscient. To know even one atom truly would imply knowledge of its relations to all other phenomena in the infinite universe.

Wonder how our world would be different if more people believed in this model? One would certainly have a hard time reconciling this view with America’s emphasis on rugged individualism.

The Dalai Lama makes an interesting distinction between the evolution of the universe and the evolution of human consciousness:

My own view is that the entire process of the unfolding of a universe system is a matter of the natural law of causality. I envision karma coming into the picture at two points. When the universe has evolved to a stage where it can support the life of sentient beings, its fate becomes entangled with the karma of the beings who will inhabit it. More difficult perhaps is the first intervention of karma, which is effectively the maturation of the karmic potential of the sentient beings who will occupy that universe, which sets in motion its coming into being.

The ability to discern exactly where karma intersects with the natural law of causation is traditionally said to lie only within the Buddha’s omniscient mind. The problem is how to reconcile two strands of explanation-first, that any universe system and the beings within it arise from karma, and second, that there is a natural process of cause and effect, which simply unfolds. The early Buddhist texts suggest that matter on the one hand and consciousness on the other relate according to their own process of cause and effect, which gives rise to new sets of functions and properties in both cases. On the basis of understanding their nature, causal relations, and functions, one can then derive inferences-for both matter and consciousness- that give rise to knowledge. These stages were codified as “four principles”-the principle of nature, the principle of dependence, the principle of function, and the principle of evidence.

This interpretation nicely side-steps any direct conflict between science and Buddhism. Even seems to side-step the Darwin controversy. Too bad certain Christian religions can’t manage to do the same.

In the end, though, the Dalai Lama makes it clear his view of the world is not limited by science:

Even with all these profound scientific theories of the origin of the universe, I am left with questions, serious ones: What existed before the big bang? Where did the big bang come from? What caused it? Why has our planet evolved to support life? What is the relationship between the cosmos and the beings that have evolved within it? Scientists may dismiss these questions as nonsensical, or they may acknowledge their importance but deny that they belong to the domain of scientific inquiry. However, both these approaches will have the consequence of acknowledging definite limits to our scientific knowledge of the origin of our cosmos. I am not subject to the professional or ideological constraints of a radically materialistic worldview.

And in Buddhism the universe is seen as infinite and beginningless, so I am quite happy to venture beyond the big bang and speculate about possible states of affairs before it.

It’s hard to imagine a religious leader who would limit themselves to “scientific truths.” Such truths, after all, seldom inspire the kind of faith that religious followers expect.

Conflicting Models of Reality

The Dalai Lama’s introduction to the third chapter entitled “Emptiness, Relativity, and Quantum Physics” begins:

One of the most inspiring things about science is the change our understanding of the world undergoes in the light of new findings. The discipline of physics is still struggling with the implications of the paradigm shift it underwent as a result of the rise of relativity and quantum mechanics at the turn of the twentieth century. Scientists as well as philosophers have to live constantly with conflicting models of reality-the Newtonian model, assuming a mechanical and predictable universe, and relativity and quantum mechanics, assuming a more chaotic cosmos. The implications of the second model for our understanding of the world are still not entirely clear.

If the reader is willing to seriously consider what the Dalai Lama has to say, his understanding of the world may well change, too. At the very least, he will be reminded that how he sees the world is largely a construct determined by his environment and his culture,not an absolute reality.

In an extended metaphor, the Dalai Lama compares the common conception of self and the Buddhist “theory of emptiness” to classical physics and Quantum physics. He begins by describing the commonly accepted conception of self,

… if we examine our own conception of selfhood, we will find that we tend to believe in the presence of an essential core to our being, which characterizes our individuality and identity as a discrete ego, independent of the physical and mental elements that constitute our existence.

and then explains why, from a Buddhist perspective, that concept is wrong: “The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error but also the basis for attachment, clinging, and the development of our numerous prejudices.” Though I’d never heard this concept referred to as the philosophy of emptiness, I had encountered the concept in earlier Buddhist readings.

The Dalai Lama does a good job of explaining the theory of emptiness:

According to the theory of emptiness, any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence is untenable. All things and events, whether material, mental, or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena. But we know that there is cause and effect-turn a key in a starter, spark plugs ignite, the engine turns over, and gasoline and oil are burned. In a universe of self-contained, inherently existing things, these events would never occur. I would not be able to write on paper, and you would not be able to read the words on this page. So since we interact and change each other, we must assume that we are not independent-although we may feel or intuit that we are.

Effectively, the notion of intrinsic, independent existence is incompatible with causation. This is because causation implies contingency and dependence, while anything that possesses independent existence would be immutable and self-enclosed. Everything is composed of dependently related events, of continuously interacting phenomena with no fixed, immutable essence, which are themselves in constantly changing dynamic relations. Things and events are “empty” in that they do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality, or absolute “being” that affords independence. This fundamental truth of “the way things really are” is described in the Buddhist writings as emptiness,” or shunyata in Sanskrit.


In our naïve or commonsense view of the world, we relate to things and events as if they possess an enduring intrinsic reality. We tend to believe that the world is composed of things and events, each of which has a discrete, independent reality of its own and it is these things with discrete identities and independence that interact with one another. We believe that intrinsically real seeds produce intrinsically real crops at an intrinsically real time in an intrinsically real place. Each member in this causal nexus-the seed, time, place, and effect-we take to have solid ontological status. This view of the world as made of solid objects and inherent properties is reinforced further by our language of subjects and predicates, which is structured with substantive nouns and adjectives on the one hand and active verbs on the other.

But everything is constituted by parts-a person is body and mind both. Furthermore, the very identity of things is contingent upon many factors, such as the names we give them, their functions, and the concepts we have about them.

I’m not entirely convinced by the Dalai Lama’s explanation, but it has opened my mind to the possibility of seeing the world this way. It wasn’t too long ago that I’d never heard the term ecosystem and tended to think of environmental problems as a particular problem instead of a series of interconnected problems. This concept, though more fundamental to our thinking, doesn’t seem too dissimilar.

I was struck that some of the Tibetan debates the Dalai Lama described reminded me of the debate between Aristotle and Plato:

This issue has long been a focus of discussion in Buddhist thought. On one extreme are the Buddhist “realists,” who believe that the material world is composed of indivisible particles which have an objective reality independent of the mind. On the other extreme are the “idealists,” the so-called Mind-only school, who reject any degree of objective reality in the external world. They perceive the external material world to be, in the final analysis, an extension of the observing mind. There is, however, a third standpoint, which is the position of the Prasangika school, a perspective held in the highest esteem by the Tibetan tradition. In this view, although the reality of the external world is not denied, it is understood to be relative. It is contingent upon our language, social conventions, and shared concepts. The notion of a pre-given, observer-independent reality is untenable. As in the new physics, matter cannot be objectively perceived or described apart from the observer — matter and mind are co-dependent.

Aristotle seems closest to the “realists” while Plato was roughly the equivalent of the “idealists.” When I first encountered the two in a college philosophy class, I was certain that I agreed with Aristotle, who’s concepts come closest to modern science. Over the years, though, I often found myself agreeing with literary critics and psychologists who seem tied to various forms of Platonism. I began to wonder if Plato’s “ideals” actually come from some place inside the human brain, if genes may determine how we see the world. If there are archetypes, could they be the result of the way the human brain perceives outside stimuli?

The Dalai Lama makes it clear that the Buddhist understanding of the world is different than the Western view:

This recognition of the fundamentally dependent nature of reality-called “dependent origination” in Buddhism- lies at the very heart of the Buddhist understanding of the world and the nature of our human existence. In brief, the principle of dependent origination can be understood in the following three ways. First, all conditioned things and events in the world come into being only as a result of the interaction of causes and conditions. They don’t just arise from nowhere, fully formed. Second, there is mutual dependence between parts and the whole; without parts there can be no whole, without a whole it makes no sense to speak of parts. This interdependence of parts and the whole applies in both spatial and temporal terms. Third, anything that exists and has an identity does so only within the total network of everything that has a possible or potential relation to it. No phenomenon exists with an independent or intrinsic identity.

And the world is made up of a network of complex interrelations. We cannot speak of the reality of a discrete entity outside the context of its range of interrelations with its environment and other phenomena, including language, concepts, and other conventions. Thus, there are no subjects without the objects by which they are defined, there are no objects without subjects to apprehend them, there are no doers without things done. There is no chair without legs, a seat, a back, wood, nails, the floor on which it rests, the walls that

The more I run this concept through my head, the more plausible it seems, though I wonder if it’s ever really possible to totally understand a major concept from another culture. A quick check on the internet reveals that, at best, I only have a superficial understanding of this concept.

The Dalai Lama points out that the difficulty Westerners have reconciling classic physics with Quantum physics is similar to the problem Buddhists have reconciling a commonsense view of the world with the philosophy of emptiness.

Somewhat parallel problems arose in Buddhist philosophy in relation to the disparity between our commonsense view of the world and the perspective suggested by Nagarjuna’s philosophy of emptiness. Nagarjuna invoked the notion of two truths, the “conventional” and the “ultimate,” relating respectively to the everyday world of experience and to things and events in their ultimate mode of being, that is, on the level of emptiness. On the conventional level, we can speak of a pluralistic world of things and events with distinct identities and causation. This is the realm where we can also expect the laws of cause and effect, and the laws of logic-such as the principles of identity, contradiction, and the law of the excluded middle-to operate without violation. This world of empirical experience is not an illusion, nor is it unreal. It is real in that we experience it. A grain of barley does produce a barley sprout, which can eventually yield a barley crop. Taking a poison can cause one’s death and, similarly, taking a medication can cure an illness. However, from the perspective of the ultimate truth, things and events do not possess discrete, independent realities. Their ultimate ontological status is “empty” in that nothing possesses any kind of essence or intrinsic being.

It’s tempting to dismiss theories that don’t conform to our everyday reality, but we can only do so at a cost. It’s impossible, though, to deny the benefits gained from those who can see the world through the lens of Quantum Physics rather than through the “laws” of Classical Physics.

I’m not sure if I will ever be able to change the essential way I see the world, so it’s comforting when the Dalai Lama says:

The paradoxical nature of reality revealed in both the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness and modern physics represents a profound challenge to the limits of human knowledge. The essence of the problem is epistemological: How do we conceptualize and understand reality coherently? Not only have Buddhist philosophers of emptiness developed an entire understanding of the world based on the rejection of the deeply ingrained temptation to treat reality as if were composed of intrinsic real objective entities but they have also striven to live these insights in their day-to-day lives. The Buddhist solution to this seeming epistemological contradiction involves understanding reality in terms of the theory of two truths.

Though I doubt I could ever learn to see the world either through the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness or the concepts of Quantum Physics, it’s fascinating to see how others see the world quite differently than I, we, do. Keeping an “open mind” might well be the most important thing you accomplish from getting outside your comfort zone.