Monday, May 31, 2010

Buddhism, The only Real Science

Buddhism, The only real science

Ajahn Brahmavamso


I used to be a scientist. I did Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University, hanging out in the same building as the later-to-be-famous Professor Stephen Hawking. I became disillusioned with such science when, as an insider, I saw how dogmatic some scientists could be. A dogma, according to the dictionary, is an arrogant declaration of an opinion. This was a fitting description of the science that I saw in the labs of Cambridge. Science had lost its sense of humility. Egotistical opinion prevailed over the impartial search for Truth. My favourite aphorism from that time was:

"The eminence of a great scientist, is measured by the length of timethat they OBSTRUCT PROGRESS in their field"!

To understand real science, one can go back to one of its founding fathers, the English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561 - 1628). He established the framework on which science was to progress, namely "the greater force of the negative instance". This meant that, having proposed a theory to explain some natural phenomenon, then one should try one's best to disprove it! One should test the theory with challenging experiments. One must put it on trial with rigorous argument. When a flaw appears in the theory, only then does science advance. A new discovery has been made enabling the theory to be adjusted and refined. This fundamental and original methodology of science understood that it is impossible to prove anything with absolute certainty. One can only disprove with absolute certainty.

For example, how can one prove the basic law of gravity that "what goes up comes down, eventually"? One may throw objects up one million times and see them fall one million times. But that still does not prove "what goes up comes down". For NASA might then 'throw' a Saturn rocket up into space to explore Mars, and that never comes down to earth again. One negative instance is enough to disprove the theory with absolute certainty.

Some misguided scientists maintain the theory that there is no rebirth, that this stream of consciousness is incapable of returning to a successive human existence. All one needs to disprove this theory, according to science, is to find one instance of rebirth, just one! Professor Ian Stevenson, as some of you would know, has already demonstrated many instances of rebirth. The theory of no rebirth has been disproved. Rebirth is now a scientific fact!

Modern science gives a low priority to any efforts to disprove its pet theories. There is too much vested interest in power, prestige and research grants. A courageous commitment to truth takes too many scientists out of their comfort zone. Scientists are, for the most part, brainwashed by their education and their in-group conferences to see the world in a very narrow, microscopic, way. The very worst scientists are those who behave like eccentric evangelists, claiming that they alone have the whole truth, and then demanding the right to impose their views on everyone else.

Ordinary people know so little about science that they can hardly even understand the jargon. Yet, if they read in a newspaper or magazine "a scientist says that?", then they automatically take it to be true. Compare this to our reaction when we read in the same journal "a politician says that?"! Why do scientists have such unchallenged credibility? Perhaps it is because the language and ritual of science has become so far removed from the common people, that scientists have become today's revered and mystical priesthood. Dressed in their ceremonial white lab coats, chanting incomprehensible mumbo jumbo about multi-dimensional fractal parallel universes, and performing magical rituals that transubstantiate metal and plastic into TV's and computers, these modern day alchemists are so awesome we'll believe anything they say. Elitist science, as once was the Pope, is now infallible.

Some know better. Much of what I learnt 30 years ago has now been proved wrong. There are, fortunately, many scientists with integrity and humility who affirm that science is, at best, a work still in progress. They know that science can only suggest a truth, but can never claim a truth. I was once told by a Buddhist G.P. that, on his first day at a medical school in Sydney, the famous Professor, head of the Medical School, began his welcoming address by stating "Half of what we are going to teach you in the next few years is wrong. Our problem is that we do not know which half it is!" Those were the words of a real scientist.

Some evangelical scientists would do well to reflect on the (amended) old saying "Scientists rush in where angels fear to tread" and stop pontificating about the nature of the mind, happiness and even Nirvana. Neurologists are especially prone to such neuroses (Neurosis: an undue adherence to unrealistic ideas of things). They are claiming that the mind, awareness and will, is now adequately explained by activity in the brain. This theory was disproved over 20 years ago by Prof. Lorber's discovery of the student at Sheffield University with and IQ of 126, a First Class degree in mathematics, but with virtually no brain (Science, Vol. 210, 12 Dec 1980)! More recently, it was disproved by Prof. Pim Van Lommel, who demonstrated the existence of consciousness activity after clinical death, i.e. when all brain activity has ceased (Lancet, Vol. 358, 15 December 2001, p 2039).

Although there may be correlation between a measurable activity in part of the brain and a mental impression, such co-occurrence doesn't always imply that one is the cause of the other. For instance, some years ago, research showed a clear correlation between cigarette smoking and the non-occurrence of Alzheimer's disease. It was not that smoking cigarettes somehow caused immunity from Alzheimer's, as much as the tobacco companies might have wished, it was only that many smokers did not live long enough to get Alzheimer's disease! Thus a co-incidence of two phenomena, even when repeated, does not mean that one phenomenon is the cause of the other. To claim that activity in the brain causes awareness, or mind, is plainly unscientific.

Buddhism is more scientific than modern science. Like science, Buddhism is based on verifiable cause-and-effect relationships. But unlike science, Buddhism challenges with thoroughness every belief. The famous Kalama Sutta of Buddhism states that one cannot believe fully in "what one is taught, tradition, hearsay, scripture, logic, inference, appearance, agreement with established opinion, the seeming competence of a teacher, or even in one's own teacher". How many scientists are as rigorous in their thinking as this? Buddhism challenges everything, including logic.

It is worth noting that Quantum Theory appeared quite illogical, even to such great scientists as Einstein, when it was first proposed. It is yet to be disproved. Logic is only as reliable as the assumptions on which it is based. Buddhism trusts only clear and objective experience.

Clear experience occurs when one's measuring instruments, one's senses, are bright and undisturbed. In Buddhism, this happens when the hindrances of sloth-and-torpor and restlessness-and-remorse are both overcome. Objective experience is that which is free from all bias. In Buddhism, the three types of bias are desire, ill will and sceptical doubt. Desire makes one see only what one wants to see, it bends the truth to fit one's preferences. Ill will makes one blind to whatever is disturbing or disconcerting to one's views and it distorts the truth by denial. Sceptical doubt stubbornly refuses to accept those truths, like rebirth, that are plainly valid but which fall outside of one's comforting worldview. In summary, clear and objective experience only happens when the Buddhist 'Five Hindrances' have been overcome. Only then can one trust the data arriving through one's senses.

Because scientists are not free of these five hindrances, they are rarely clear and objective. It is common, for example, for scientists to ignore annoying data, which do not fit their cherished theories, or else confine such evidence to oblivion by filing it away as an 'anomaly'. Even most Buddhists aren't clear and objective. One has to have recent experience of Jhana to effectively put aside these five hindrances (according to the Nalakapana Sutta , Majjhima No. 68). So only accomplished meditators can claim to be real scientists, that is, clear and objective.

Science claims to rely not only on clear and objective observation, but also on measurement. But what is measurement in science? To measure something, according to the pure science of Quantum Theory, is to collapse the Schroedinger Wave Equation through an act of observation. Moreover, the "un-collapsed" form of the Schroedinger Wave Equation, that is before any measurement is made, is, perhaps, science's most perfect description of the world. That description is weird! Reality, according to pure science, does not consist of well ordered matter with precise massed, energies and positions in space, all just waiting to be measured. Reality is the broadest of smudges of all possibilities, only some being more probable than others. Even basic 'measurable' qualities as 'alive' or 'dead' have been demonstrated by science to be invalid sometimes. In the notorious 'Schroedinger's Cat' thought experiment, Prof. Schroedinger's cat was ingeniously placed in a real situation where it was neither dead nor alive, where such measurements became meaningless. Reality, according to Quantum Theory, is beyond measurements. Measuring disturbs reality, it never describes it perfectly. It was Heisenberg's famous 'Uncertainty Principle' that showed the inevitable error between the real Quantum world and the measured world of pseudo-science.

Anyway, how can anyone measure the measurer, the mind? At a recent seminar on Science and Religion, at which I was a speaker, a Catholic in the audience bravely announced that whenever she looks through a telescope at the stars, she feels uncomfortable because her religion is threatened. I commented that whenever a scientist looks the other way round through a telescope, to observe the one who is watching, then they feel uncomfortable because their science is threatened by what is doing the seeing! So what is doing the seeing, what is this mind that eludes modern science?

A Grade-One teacher once asked her class "What is the biggest thing in the world?" One little girl answered "My daddy". A little boy said "An elephant", since he'd recently been to the zoo. Another girl suggested "A mountain". The six-year-old daughter of a close friend of mine replied, "My eye is the biggest thing in the world"! The class stopped. Even the teacher didn't understand her answer. So the little philosopher explained "Well, my eye can see her daddy, an elephant, and a mountain too. It can also see so much else. If all of that can fit into my eye, then my eye must be the biggest thing in the world"! Brilliant.

However, she was not quite right. The mind can see everything that one's eye can see, and it can also imagine so much more. It can also hear, smell, taste and touch, as well as think. In fact, everything that can be known can fit into the mind. Therefore, the mind must be the biggest thing in the world. Science's mistake is obvious now. The mind is not in the brain, nor in the body. The brain, the body and the rest of the world, are in the mind!

Mind is the sixth sense in Buddhism, it is that which encompasses the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, and transcends them with its own domain. It corresponds loosely to Aristotle's "common sense" that is distinct from the five senses. Indeed, ancient Greek philosophy, from where science is said to have its origins, taught six senses just like Buddhism. Somewhere along the historical journey of European thinking, they lost their mind! Or, as Aristotle would put it, they somehow discarded their "common sense"! And thus we got science. We got materialism without any heart. One can accurately say that Buddhism is science that has kept its heart, and which hasn't lost its mind!

Thus Buddhism is not a belief system. It is a science founded on objective observation, i.e. meditation, ever careful not to disturb the reality through imposing artificial measurements, and it is evidently repeatable. People have been re-creating the experimental conditions, known as establishing the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, for over twenty-six centuries now, much longer than science. And those renowned Professors of Meditation, the male and female Arahants, have all arrived at the same conclusion as the Buddha. They verified the timeless Law of Dhamma, otherwise known as Buddhism. So Buddhism is the only real science, and I'm happy to say that I'm still a scientist at heart, only a much better scientist than I ever could have been at Cambridge.

Ajahn Brahmavamso

8th February 2004


Sunday, May 30, 2010

Tenzin Palmo's Teachings

Cited from the book Three Teachings, which compiles her talks in Singapore during a visit in 1999.

Every being on the face of this Earth faces challenges. As a person, we all also face challenges which are multifaceted. It is so important that in the short decades of this human life that we make full use of what unfolds in our lives, whether good or bad, to learn the lessons we have to. Hopefully more and more people can be touched by the Dharma, and together make this life the best one ever needed, in the face of all tribulations.

Take some time to savour the following teaching by this great teacher.

Q: Is there something that you would have us take away from this meeting with you?
A: I think that we are in this world apart from anything else to really cultivate the mind on many levels and to open up the heart. And anything we can do which helps us do that is a good thing.

We all come from many different backgrounds. We each have such different histories, not just in this lifetime but in many lifetimes, so we are all coming form very different places. And in this lifetime we all have very different lessons to learn and different experiences which we need to undergo to help us to grow.

If one considers us all as like little children, then what we are trying to do is to mature. And all of us are maturing at our own rates. Certain experiences will mature one person and not another. So it’s not that everybody has to do things the same way, or this is the right thing to do and this is not the right thing to do. For different people at different times and in different places, there are infinite amounts of experiences which have to be undergone, and some things which don’t need to be undergone at all.

But the goal is to really understand the mind, to bring clarity into our mind and to learn how to tame our untamed minds, our wild emotions, our wild thoughts, to really begin to understand our inner life and to cultivate the mind and to make the mind increasingly clear and full of genuine understanding. Along with that, to open up the heart with loving kindness and compassion, so that we really do experience the happiness and suffering of others, that we’re not just trying to make ourselves happy and cozy in this lifetime. That’s very important.

Dogs and cats have the same idea to make themselves happy and cozy in this lifetime. There’s more to it than that. The fact is that we are human beings. We should use our human potential and not just slip back into being glorified dogs and cats. Do you understand? I mean, all animals want to be comfortable, they want to have nice food, they want to have sex. We always know what is the most comfortable chair in the house because that’s where the cat’s sleeping.

It’s a tremendous waste of the human life to just devote our lives to that level. We have such great potential. If we think just being comfortable will bring us happiness, then we are very mistaken. Our happiness really lies in bringing happiness to others, so in whatever sphere of life we may be, we can all do that.

Advice from a wise forummer

Atlaswept's reply to a post in sgforum. I'm posting this here as this reply left an astounding impact on me, and leaves me with no doubt that it is true in order for us to be of any benefit to others, an honest and true practice of cultivation is required.

Efforts encouraging others along their own inimitable spiritual path may serve to deepen personal faith(s), qualifying and quantifying, garnering and discarding their own discoveries, in their own way, in their own time. All such affinities along all such spiritual paths should be undertaken freely, absent deliberate repudiation. They should be studied and practiced with all seriousness and fervor, like someone digging a well that perseveres until they actually find water. While keeping a tolerant, open and compassionate mind, it is important that people dedicate themselves to the path they have chosen, as it would be pointless for someone to half-finish a dozen wells without ever reaching the water they are looking for.

Spiritual practice is based on experiential exploration and discovery that has to be pushed just as far into the inner world as science pushes its explorations into the outer world. That experience is always fresh, and it is ceaselessly renewed. It also brings along with it no shortage of obstacles and happenings of all sorts. It is not at all a matter of using ready-made formulae but of experiencing the teachings in the present moment, knowing how to use life’s good and bad circumstances, dealing with all the thoughts of all kinds that arise in the mind, and understanding for oneself the chain reactions they cause and how to set oneself free from the process. True spiritual discovery is to know how to use every instant in life for the goal one’s set oneself.

For relationships with others not to be mainly motivated by selfishness, which only creates friction and disagreement, each person has to give meaning to their life and attain a degree of inner development. Every instant of the process of spiritual transformation has to be accompanied by the idea that the qualities one’s trying to develop will help meet others’ needs better.

Perhaps it is along this way that we may present the wisdoms of personal successes and failures absent favor. Perhaps it is along this way that we may offer such experiences to others, not as Buddhists or Christians or Muslims, but as one human being to another. Perhaps it is along this way where we may find that we are one yet not the same, for within the limitless possibilities of perception countless living things have as many different worlds in which they exist. Perhaps it is along this way, where it may be best not to look upon oneself as the wise or good or as the purveyor of truth, but rather to always seek to understand wisdom, goodness and truth so that one may learn to recognize and honor them everywhere, within everyone and everything.

Mindfulness and the Brain with Jack Kornfield and Dan Siegel

Friday, May 28, 2010

Meditation Retreat

I shall be going for a meditation retreat on June 1 at Buddhist Hermitage Lunas in Kedah. It is going to be a 16 days retreat and the first one for me. I decided to go on my own so that there shall be no distractions.

Was just reading < Three Teachings > by Tenzin Palmo, a book compiling her talks when she was here in 1999. The first teaching was on the topic of retreat, and the following paragraphs she wrote somehow resonated.

The retreat was a vocation for me, I mean it was what I knew I had to do. This was what I was called to do in this lifetime for whatever reasons. Of course, from a Buddhist point of view, this was just my karma

Obviously something I left unfinished in a past life. Something I needed to continue in this lifetime. I was very motivated by the discovery that here was a practice which was so perfect, and the teachers who were so enlightened and the Dharma which is so unexcelled. I wanted to give it my whole being and I didn't want to be distracted. I knew how easily I can be distracted! For me it made sense to try to be in a situation which was non-distracting so that i could give myself to the practice completely and absolutely. So that was what I did.

I felt that if I was eventually going to be of any benefit to anybody, I could only do that by really realizing the Dharma in my heart. When I myself was in a state of ignorance and confusion, how could I help others? And it seemed for me that the perfect way to do that was to be in isolation.

How true. In the midst of all the reservations, expectations and fear approaching this retreat, there is also a realization of this is what I must do. In order to be able to progress in this life, the very first step of a dedicated retreat must be taken.

Happy Vesak Day

Happy Vesak Day to all Buddhists!
I would also like to extend peace and loving-kindness to everyone in this world and to all beings.

On this special day, we celebrate the Birth, Enlightenment and Parinibbana of Lord Buddha. Lord Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths:

The way to alleviate the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death, through the realization of the causes and abandoning of attachment, aversion and ignorance. By cultivating panna, sila and samathi through the Noble Eightfold Path, we can all realize and awaken to the truth of existence.

This most important teaching helps us to see the Buddha in all sentient beings, and guides us to practice towards Nibbana.

For this we shall pay homage to Lord Buddha:

Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma Sambuddhassa
(Homage to the Blessed One, the Exalted One, the Fully Enlightened One)

May all beings be well, peaceful and happy!

Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!