Science and Buddhism

Buddhist monks of Tibet10
I was able to get away with my family last week despite the madness of COVID and Omicron. I tried to stay off my phone other than to take photos of my little granddaughter.

Back home this week, I was cleaning out some files and came across an article I had clipped out of an issue of Wired magazine years ago about a study that showed that some Tibetan Buddhist practices have been “proven valid” now that the world of science finally had some technology that could “test” them. I’m sure Tibetans were thrilled.

In one experiment, subjects were asked to watch a video of two teams passing a ball. One team wore white shirts, the other team wore black, and the subjects were asked simply to focus on how many times players in white shirts passed the ball to each other. The little trick of the experiment was that there was also a man in a gorilla suit who walked on screen, waved at the audience, and walked off again. The subjects didn’t notice him.

I remember seeing a video of this at an education conference in 2000 (see video below). Buddhism was never mentioned. What’s the connection? The point of the experiment was to show that humans see what they are looking for, not what’s there. That is selective attention. It is also a very old Buddhist teaching.

In the article, they talk with some participants at a Science and the Mind conference in Australia where participants explored areas of connected interest between Tibetan Buddhism and modern science.

For example, a scientist using magnetic pulses tried to access the creativity of the non-conscious mind and altered states of consciousness. Tibetan meditation seems to do the same thing.

I love science but this is something scientists have been trying to do for a long time – prove, disprove or replicate ancient practices.

I wrote earlier about a technique for pain control called Thong Len that scientists can’t prove but that they admit seems to work. What science is unable to prove gets little attention.

Drug-based treatments for depression have not developed as far as we might hope and some scientists think Tibetans may provide a path to the solution.

“If you go to Dharamsala (in India, home of the Tibetan government in exile), you go up through the fog in midwinter and you come out in the bright sunshine, it’s like going to heaven. What strikes you immediately is the happy, smiling faces of the Tibetans, who don’t have much, have been terribly deprived, and yet they are happy. Well, why are they happy? “They work at it! They don’t take their Prozac in the left hand and pop the pill. Monks have been studied by Richard Davidson, they are very positive, they’ve got no material possessions, it’s a grind, it’s cold, they don’t have much food. But they are happy. They work at it.”

The Dalai Lama embraces science and has said that Buddhists can abandon scripture that has been reliably disproved by science. The Dalai Lama has even opened a school of science at his monastery in India saying that “…the Buddhist tradition [is] to try to see reality. Science has a different method of investigation. One relies on mathematics; Buddhists work mainly through meditation. So different approaches and different methods, but both science and Buddhism are trying to see reality.”

 

The Caves of a Thousand Buddhas

Buddhas in Cave 7
A series of Buddhas in Cave 7of the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, Gansu, China

The Diamond Sutra is the world’s oldest book bearing a specific date of publication –  868 A.D. It was printed on a 16-foot scroll using woodblock and was discovered in 1907 in a series of caves in China among 40,000 books and manuscripts that had been walled up there. They are located outside the town of Dunhuang (also spelled Tunhuang).

Early Buddhist monks had made their way from northwest India to inhabit the Mogao Caves which came to be known as the “Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.”  The location had been a desert outpost along the Silk Road.

The caves were forgotten until the year 1900, when an itinerant Taoist monk named Wang Yuan Lu happened upon them and began to slowly restore the caves. When he eventually unsealed the caves, he found a cache of thousands of texts and paintings. He was unsure of what to do with all of it and was advised to reseal the location.

An archaeologist, Aurel Stein (a Hungarian working for the British)  convinced Wang Yuan Lu to part with a huge amount of manuscripts. Stein left (basically stealing) with 7000 manuscripts and five cases of paintings and relics. He gave Wang just £130 and the promise that he wouldn’t tell anyone about the transaction. The Diamond Sutra was among those manuscripts.

Stein was knighted in England but was rightly hated in China for stealing national treasures. His “discovery” led other scholars to visit the caves and they took more of the treasures, even chipping murals off the walls.

More about the Diamond Sutra

A page from the Diamond Sutra, printed in the 9th year of Xiantong Era of the Tang Dynasty, i.e. 868 CE. Currently located in the British Library, London which says it is “the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book.”

The Diamond Sutra

Diamond Sutra

I wrote something earlier that briefly referenced the Diamond Sutra, but it’s a book that deserves its own reference.

The Diamond Sutra was printed in 868 A.D. and is probably the world’s oldest book. At least it is the oldest bearing a specific date of publication.

The Diamond Sutra is a collection of Buddhist teachings. “Sutra” comes from Sanskrit and means teachings or scriptures. The writing is presented as a dialogue between the Buddha and Subhuti, one of his elderly disciples.

The copy of the Diamond Sutra that is considered the oldest was printed with seven woodblocks. Each block was one page and the seven sheets were bound together to form a scroll about 16 feet long.

The Diamond Sutra itself is relatively short and was meant to be memorized. It can be recited in about 40 minutes, which made it popular with Buddhist practitioners.

“As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space
an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble
a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning
view all created things like this.”
(Buddha speaking in the Diamond Sutra as translated by Red Pine)

The Buddha declares that the sutra will be called “The Diamond of Transcendent Wisdom” because wisdom can cut like a sharp diamond through illusion. In the sūtra, the Buddha has finished his daily walk with the monks to gather offerings of food, and he sits down to rest. Elder Subhūti comes forth and asks the Buddha a question. What follows is a dialogue regarding the nature of perception.

The Buddha often uses things that later in Zen Buddhism came to be known as koans.  For example, he says “What is called the highest teaching is not the highest teaching.”  It is generally thought that he was trying to help Subhūti and his followers “unlearn” preconceived, limited notions of the nature of reality and enlightenment.

All conditioned phenomena
Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, or shadows;
Like drops of dew or flashes of lightning;
Thusly should they be contemplated.


It is said although The Diamond Sutra looks like a book, is really the body of the Buddha.

The book was discovered in a series of caves near Dunhuang, China which came to be known as the “Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.” I have written separately about the discovery of the caves.

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There. That is a great title. And good advice. It is the title of a non-fiction book about conducting your own mindfulness retreat.

It is difficult to define a mindfulness retreat because different people and groups define it differently. You’ll see the term meditation retreat or even yoga retreat used interchangeably.

A search online will turn up retreats at various centers that are very different from what Sylvia Boorstein’s book is suggesting. One web post on the “best retreats” at well-known retreat centers offers mindfulness retreats where you can experience anything from Pranayama breathing lessons along with stress-management classes, facials, massages, and private yoga sessions. The center nearest to me offers two-night single cabin room accommodation packages with three meals a day, an arctic plunge pool, mud lounge, Scotch hoses (huh?), infinity pool, and services such as acupuncture and life coaching. The menu is not Spartan and includes fresh, raw, organic foods, juices, and smoothies as well as Mediterranean cuisine but also hamburgers and tater tots. Most of these “best” retreats are around $1000 for a weekend. That alone would cause me stress.

Sylvia Boorstein’s approach is a much more down-to-earth guide. The book guides you through a three-day retreat plan and also includes lessons on how to achieve through meditation practices some serenity and focus.

An important caveat is that you need a 3-5 day stretch where it will be possible to step away from your life. You need the time and a place, but the time is more important and possibly harder to obtain.

This rainy Memorial Day 3-day time would have been a good choice for some people, but it takes planning. For me, I had a variety of things on the calendar. None of those things were recreational or meditative. There were scheduled good things (meeting friends; an art gallery talk), obligations (dealing with my older sister in a nursing home), and the unexpected (a burned-out condensate pump on our air conditioner that flooded the basement). Life intrudes on Life.

Boorstein says that any place will do, but I think most of us would like something out in nature – the mountain cabin or the ocean beach – but a backyard works too. Solitude is important. Being distracted by people, including a partner who is not retreating or kids, will not work.

Other than that, you don’t need much besides the book. Maybe a mat or blanket and a chair or bench. Even those are optional if you’re good with sitting on the ground. You need to eat and drink but maybe this is the time to go with water and wise, minimal, healthy food too.

I was attracted to Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There by that unexpected title. It also reminded me of the first time I did some serious meditation days. My wife asked me what I was supposed to do. I said, “Just sit and empty my mind.” She replied, sarcastically, “You should be great at that.”

Of course, it is not easy. What seems to most people to be “not doing anything” is actually doing something quite difficult. Try to stop thinking. It is probably impossible, but you can get closer with practice.

This kind of practice and retreat doesn’t have to be attached to philosophy or programs, though it often is associated with one. I began my mediation practices in college because I met a girl who said she was a “Zen Buddhist” and I wanted to get closer to her. I became more attached to the practice than her. I drifted away from regular practice and being in a group after college. I reentered it in a more serious way when I met a man who is an American Jesuit priest, professor of theology, psychoanalyst, and Zen rōshi in the White Plum lineage.

Retreats, even if labeled Buddhist, are usually open to persons of all religious and non-religious affiliations. Weejend or weeklong retreats I have attended usually mix zazen (seated meditation in half-hour plus periods), kinhin (walking meditation, my favorite), chanting, dharma talks, and daisan (one on one interviews with a teacher), and beginners instruction. Sometimes they are silent. Sometimes they involve work at the center.

Though religion and philosophy do not have to be part of the retreat or your intention, my second serious reentry into meditation and mindfulness came when I went to talk by Robert Kennedy. His talk was, and his book Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit is, about the intersection of Zen Buddhism and Christianity.  Kennedy says that “What I looked for in Zen was not a new faith, but a new way of being Catholic that grew out of my own lived experience and would not be blown away by authority or by changing theological fashion.” He would say that God is in the Zendo.

For a time I attended his zendo sessions as they were not far from my home. But I have never been a good group member and organizations, membership, facilities, and fees all feel wrong to me.

And so, Sylvia Boorstein‘s book seemed right for me. In some ways, she is like Roshi Kennedy. Boorstein is a respected teacher of Buddhist Insight Meditation and has also remained an observant Jew.  One of her other books is That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist where she writes about how she resolved these two aspects of her life in a complementary way.

The lesson from both of these teachers is that mindfulness and even Buddhism do not replace your religious beliefs or is it a way to convert you. I haven’t come across any atheist retreat centers but they probably exist. Certainly, completely non-denominational retreats are available.

In Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There, she writes:

"I've noticed license plate frames that say "I'd rather be sailing" or "I'd rather be bowling." Sometimes I think it's fun to see the rather-be-doing frames because they are a hint about the driver. Other times I start reflecting about the fact that preferring to be doing something else always diminishes the present moment. I imagine starting a business that produces license plate frames that read "I'm totally content right now."

I attempted Boorstein’s retreat once before when my wife was away for a few days. I did it at home and I was too distracted. If I do it again, I really do need to “get away.” The basic schedule is to arrive, sit, walk, sit, tea, sleep, etc.

The book is intended to be read in sections with some time taken to reflect. My first reading of it was a sit-down-in-a-chair with my tea reading, not a retreat. Of course, armchair mindfulness is not the intention., but you could also do that.

Mindfulness cultivates the habit of being able to deal with life when things aren’t happening in the way we’d like. Mindfulness instruction is deceptively simple: pay attention. That is attentive sitting and alert walking. You can be in the moment when you’re weeding the garden or shoveling the snow. The practice becomes a part of your everyday life – not unconsciously, but consciously.

I doubt that he was a Buddhist or meditator, but Paul Revere had the words “Live Contented” inscribed on the wedding ring he gave to his spouse.

I took some ideas from the book that seem like little lessons, aphorisms, or koans.

Feel all of your body.
Slow is not better than fast, it’s just different.
Nothing is worth thinking about does not mean that Nothing is worth thinking about
There are no in-between times. 
Eat slowly. Taste it fully
Consider the interconnectedness of all things.
Discomfort comes from clinging to an experience that can’t continue. Discomfort also comes from wanting an experience to end before it is over. When clinging and aversion are absent, you experience freedom.


MORE
sylviaboorstein.com
Morning Star Zendo (Robert Kennedy)

On the Path

April 8 is the day Buddhists celebrate the birthday of Buddha. Gautama Buddha was born as Siddhartha Gautama, Prince of Kapilavastu in India in the sixth-century B.C.E.

Buddha in Sarnath Museum (Dhammajak Mutra).jpg
Seated Buddha; circa 475; Sarnath Museum (India). This figure, his hands in the dharmachakra mudra gesture of teaching, refers to the Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath, where the figure was found. CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

I first encountered his story when in Siddhartha. a novel by Herman Hesse. (In the novel, the Buddha is referred to as “Gotama.”) Though it is a novel and not a religious tract, it put me on a path to learn about this man who is revered as the founder of Buddhism and his teachings.

He is worshipped by most Buddhist schools as the Enlightened One because he transcended Karma and escaped the cycle of birth and rebirth.

He taught for around 45 years and built a large following of both monastics and laypeople.

What I learned through Hesse’s novel was that the Prince was raised in luxury with no view of suffering. He married. He fathered a son. It was a normal life for a Prince in India at the time.

When he was 29 he decided he wanted to see the world outside the palace walls. In some short trips outside the palace, he encountered suffering for the first time. It shocked him to see people starving, ill, or crippled. It also amazed him that people often seemed to be calm in the midst of all their pain and sickness.

He left his palace life, wife, and child and for six years he traveled the country. He studied meditation. He lived the life of an ascetic with severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence.

At age 35, he outlined the basic tenets of Buddhism. He wrote that the Four Noble Truths are: the nature of life is suffering; suffering is caused by human cravings and desire; there is relief from suffering in the state of Nirvana; and Nirvana is attainable by following an eightfold path to self-improvement. But a philosophy or a religion cannot be reduced to a few paragraphs or even to one book.

Dharmachakra.jpg
The eight-spoke Dharma wheel symbolizes the Noble Eightfold Path  (Image: CC BY-SA 3.0, Link)

The word Siddhartha is from Sanskrit siddha (achieved) + artha (what was searched for) and is translated as “he who has found the meaning of existence” or “he who has attained his goals.”

It was several centuries after his death that he came to be known by the title Buddha, which means “Awakened or Enlightened One” His teachings were compiled by the Buddhist community in the Suttas. They contain his discourses and the rules and procedures that govern the Buddhist monastic community (sangha).

I recommend Hesse’s novel to people not because it will turn you toward Buddhism but because following Gotama’s path with him may bring you some insights. It won’t bring you enlightenment.

Actually, Hesse deliberately tries to through you off the path. No spoilers here his fictional Siddhartha disrespects Gotama but achieves enlightenment because he does not worship Gotama like a god. I find that people who know of the novel but haven’t read it think it is a historical novel about the origins of the Buddha. It is not.

Much of Hesse’s writing is West meets East. He was a Western man changed by the mysticism of Eastern thought, and it became a guiding force in his books. In 1946, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for The Glass Bead Game.

A Second Trip to the Department of Speculation

wedding rings
Image by Enmanuel Merino from Pixabay

I read the novel Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill last year. It’s a short book about a disintegrating marriage. Nice, young happy couple gets married, has a child and not-so-unusually finds themselves dealing with life problems from a colicky baby to ambitions gone off course and a relationship that seems to have lost its way.

I actually “reread” this novel after listening to it as an audiobook. I rewrote my review on Goodreads after that second round and gave it an upgrade.

Something I liked on both passes was how she uses scientific facts, proverbs, quotes from Yeats, Kafka, Rilke the Stoics and others and integrates them into the book.

You could read this book in a day (it took me two sessions because I don’t binge read anymore) but I suggest you slow down.

By the way “Dept. of Speculation” was the couple’s code name for the uncertainties that lay ahead that thy speculated about in their married life.

It’s not your typical novel and it’s hard to summarize the plot and the structure. Is it a love story? I think so. Comedy or tragedy? Uh huh.

Here’s another little addition to the novel. On Goodreads, authors sometimes (rarely) add notes to their book’s page. Jenny did that.

She illuminates a passage from her book. Here are a few examples I picked from the novel and her notes.

The Buddhists say that wisdom may be attained by reaching the three marks. The first is an understanding of the absence of self. The second is an understanding of the impermanence of all things. The third is an understanding of the unsatisfactory nature of ordinary experience.
Jenny adds: I like to read Buddhist philosophy because it always seems simultaneously daunting and exhilarating. Oh, ok, I just need to remember that there is no self and everything dies, and nothing will ever seem good enough. Off I go! I grew up Christian and the part where you could just speak to Jesus about what was in your heart felt undeniably easier.

The Buddhists say there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these, only three involve misery or suffering. Most of us spend our time moving back and forth between these three.
Jenny: “When I was in college, I took an introductory Buddhism class and I heard this idea. I never forgot it because it suggested that there were so many possibilities of how to think and feel, and I glimpsed that I was one of those people that always lingered in the miserable three.”
And a reader adds: “I believe the three [states] are craving (wanting what we don’t have), aversion (not wanting what we do have) and clinging (wanting what we have to stay the same, when everything is always changing). Bottom line? Suffering = not accepting Now just the way it is… Freedom from suffering = accepting Now, knowing it will change…”

In her novel, she also offers this bit of Stoic philosophy:  A thought experiment courtesy of the Stoics. If you are tired of everything you possess, imagine that you have lost all these things.
Jenny: “I recommend this experiment. It really works. I have made use of it at many points in my life when I felt bored or trapped.”

Q. Why couldn’t the Buddhist vacuum in corners?
A. Because she had no attachments.

The Zen master Ikkyu was once asked to write a distillation of the highest wisdom. He wrote only one word: Attention.
The visitor was displeased. “Is that all?”
So Ikkyu obliged him. Two words now.
Attention. Attention.

I’m going on to her 2020 novel, Weather, next.