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 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.

Reality Isn’t Real

I still remember my freshman year Philosophy 101 professor asking the class to define reality. There were frosh in the class but also upper class students fulfilling some missed requirement. Some of those juniors and seniors chuckled quietly. I looked around and thought “Don’t call on me.”

It is still a difficult or silly question for most people. How would you answer? “It is everything out there,” you might say as you gesture in front of you. “It’s the things you can see and touch and hear.”

I had a lot of problems accepting the theory of solipsism presented in the class that says that I am the only person that exists. Knowledge of anything outside one’s own mind is uncertain and I can’t know the external world or other minds, so nothing might exist outside my mind.

I think I might have told the professor that I didn’t believe that to be true, and he said that it’s irrefutable, and that as a solipsist I would believe that I was the only true authority, I can only know my own reality. I can’t step inside another person and experience their reality.

I didn’t want to be a lonely solipsist.

Most of those views haven’t changed over the years and I read online that in considering the nature of reality some people will say that reality is all in your mind. What does that mean? This is not easy to conceive, but perhaps there are no actual things, colors, sounds or smells outside of your brain. It’s not philosophy; it’s science.

Consider that we do know that color consists of electromagnetic waves. Those colors we see depends on the length of those waves.

And sound? Sound is compressed airwaves.

Those smells are just pungent air molecules.

It is our brain that interprets these things as color, sound and smell. And we don’t all even interpret them exactly the same way. And I am not even getting into how dogs or bats or other creatures perceive their reality which certainly is not our reality. Bats use sound to navigate and dogs have a much keener sense of smell but poorer eyesight than us.

Reality is billions of neurons firing in your brain.

I know that the surface in front of my home that is green and keeps growing in warm weather is grass. I know this from repeated experiences. These experiences allow me to categorise and catalogue things.

This is what is known as our “internal model of reality” and we all need that model to navigate through the world and our lives.  But can our senses deceive us? Not only do animals have a different reality, but different people perceive reality differently.

That philosophy professor gave us readings about reality, and he told us that there were also scientists that believe that what we call reality is an illusion.

The article I read reminded me of the “thought experiment” (so far thankfully not duplicated except in films) where a brain is removed from a person and somehow kept alive and operating and is connected to a powerful computer that can act as its senses. Would the brain know the difference in its reality?

That is the premise in stories and films like The Matrix where Neo discovers that he is living in a computer-simulated reality.

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one,” said Albert Einstein. Quantum physics (which Einstein had some issues with accepting) suggests that particles do not exist until they are observed. Without perception, we cannot exist. If we fall in a forest and no one is there to perceive it, did we fall?

“What we observe as material bodies and forces are nothing but shapes and variations in the structure of space. Particles are just appearances.” Erwin Schrodinger

Well, I think that I exist, so that must constitute some kind of reality.

Time Perception

seconds ticking away

Where did the weekend go? I looked here and it was Sunday night. No posts on Friday or Saturday. No drafts. Nothing in the queue.

It was not a overly busy weekend, but I did go out Friday night, and Saturday was an all day film conference. And then today I fixed the pump on the dishwasher (just clogged), went with a friend to a movie, and then had dinner, sat on the couch and looked at my laptop. Here I am.

Something happened to my perception of time this weekend. I have read that fear can make time seem to slow down. Is that a defense mechanism or it just that a fearful situation makes each moment unbearably long.

So would positive emotions make time speed up? Maybe, but stress is a negative emotion and it can speed up our perception of time.

So, I looked for some research and it seems that humans have no actual sensory instrument for receiving information about time. I mean we our brain is able to process time, and we have some kind of internal body clock.

I found that research often looks at emotion and time perception, but one study I found  has been designed to study the time perception of emotional events. Participants watched three emotional films: one eliciting fear, another sadness, and a neutral control film.

This seems all very clinical. Not at all like what I felt this weekend, but I don’t doubt that time perception is dependent on a number of factors, psychological and external.


The story is told that Albert Einstein’s secretary was often asked tt explain to reporters and others the meaning of his scientific work and Einstein devised the following explanation for her to give when asked to explain relativity: An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour.

That feels like a better explanation, though it doesn’t explain the why of it.

Wikipedia says that “Time perception is a field of study within psychology, cognitive linguistics and neuroscience that refers to the subjective experience, or sense, of time, which is measured by someone’s own perception of the duration of the indefinite and unfolding of events. The perceived time interval between two successive events is referred to as perceived duration. Though directly experiencing or understanding another person’s perception of time is not possible, such a perception can be objectively studied and inferred through a number of scientific experiments. Time perception is a construction of the sapient brain, but one that is manipulable and distortable under certain circumstances.”

Ah yes, subjective time and objective time.

Maybe this is more like the question of “Where did the time go?” that hits middle-aged and older adults. Does time pass more quickly as we age? Of course not, but it seems that way and that is a time perception that can lead to regrets.

Another study that focused on this aspect concluded that our brain encodes new experiences, but not familiar ones, into memory, and our retrospective judgment of time is based on how many new memories we create over a certain period.

In simpler terms, the more new memories I built this weekend, the longer the weekend will seem in hindsight.

The author of the study dubbed this phenomenon the Holiday Paradox. Our childhoods and young adult years tend to be filled with more fresh experiences, but as we age our lives become more routine. There are fewer unfamiliar moments. This weekend went fast because it wasn’t filled with fresh experiences.

Is that it? I thought the film conference exposed me to new things. I have never taken apart a dishwasher pump before. Not fresh enough? Or was it that my Friday night to tonight was just crowded with one thing that went to another and I didn’t have time off to process the experiences?

My mother would have said when I was a kid that “Time flies when you’re having fun.” She and Einstein had that in common.


You May Have Superpowers

As a child, I read a lot of comic books about people with superpowers. I was pretty fond of the idea of invisibility. These days I think it would be great to have the ability to know the native language of anyone I met and be able to communicate fluently with them.

I was never a big fan of the X-men comics but the idea that there are many forms of perception and processing information through the mind instead of the five senses seems a lot less farfetched then it did when I was a kid.

I was also fascinated as a child with Extra Sensory Perception (ESP). To most people, ESP means some kind of psychic ability, but you may have extra human senses and not realize it.

Ever feel like you have a sixth sense?  ESP is still controversial when it comes to clairvoyance, telepathy, precognition (foretelling the future) or retrocognition (seeing events in the distant past), but there are other kinds of perceptions that are “extra sensory.”

You probably have some level of proprioception. It allows you to tell where your body parts are relative to others. Have you ever tried that simple test of closing your eyes and trying to touch your nose with your finger. Police like this test as a way to determine if someone was drinking and driving because this easy task is more difficult if you’re drunk.

Nociception lets you sense pain, and equilibrioceptionis  (balance) is what allows you to do things like walk on a tightrope.

One power that I find interesting is magnetoception which allows you to detect magnetic fields. That brings us around to the X-Men again. Magneto has the ability to generate and control magnetic fields. The ability to see Earth’s magnetic field was once thought to be restricted to sea turtles and birds like swallows and other long-distance animal navigators. Now, some scientists believe it may also reside in human eyes.

My belief about ESP as a kid was that we all have ESP, but only some people know it and work to develop it. Maybe you should ty to develop an extra sense such as the ability to hear the difference between hot and cold water. That’s hear, not feel, the difference. One study seemed to show that we can listen to the difference because there are more molecules in cold water and cold water is more viscous than hot water making it less clear to our ears. Hot water tends to bubble more than cold water and so creates more noise.

Sure, some of these powers are a bit less “super” than flying, super strength or my wish for invisibility, but there may be many other extra senses waiting within us waiting to be developed and used.

What a Long Strange Trip It Has Been

I’m reading that taking “microdoses” of psychedelics, primarily LSD, is now growing in popularity and it isn’t something occurring at those recent semi-Grateful Dead concerts. This is professionals who then head out to the office.

A microdose is about a tenth of the normal dose. For LSD, that is 10 micrograms, or 0.2-0.5 grams of mushrooms. That kind of dosage is considered “subperceptual.” meaning an  energy lift, maybe some insight, but not tripping – and continuing on with normal daily activities.

In the 1960s, there were plenty of experiments to study the creativity enhancing effects of psychedelics, and lots of celebrity “endorsements.”

Having been through those 1960s days, it seems like a long, strange trip to today and reading about psychedelics being used “to improve cognitive functioning, body awareness and spiritual evolution.”

The five categories for enhancement are generally listed as: physical, emotional, perceptual, creative and spiritual.

The benefits include more overall energy, resonance and openness, improved mood and patience, enhanced senses, improved comprehension and increased awareness of universal connectedness, in an enlightening and almost divine way.

Though it’s not all love and flowers. Some microtrippers also report that personal issues can be more disturbing and that day of energy can end with a heaviness requiring more sleep, and a warped perception of time.

Reading posts on Reddit is hardly scientific research, but many microdosers are active there and sharing the good and bad experiences – bursts of creativity and cluster headaches. And there are still the associations with music and counterculture that will create threads about it on But you can also find the straight-ahead carrying articles headlined “LSD Microdosing: The New Job Enhancer In Silicon Valley And Beyond?”  Strange trip indeed.