Monday, June 27, 2011

Syncretism: The Relevance of Buddhism, Christianity and Other Religions in the Twenty-First Century

In answering the question of whether Buddhism and Christianity can remain relevant for the twenty-first century, panelists Lloyd Geering, a noted theologist and critic of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, and Stephen Batchelor, a self-professed "secular or agnostic Buddhist," make the case that the twenty-first century is a "continuation" of both Christianity and Buddhism, together with the syncretism of Islam, Hinduism and Greek philosophy, each of which has influenced all others over the course of history.

"The future is in our hands," notes Batchelor. "Buddhism is just a concept. If Buddhists are able to revive and restore a vitality to its critical tradition of thinking, to find a way of engaging more directly with the contemporary issues of the world, then we can say that Buddhism could be relevant. If Buddhists do not rise to that challenge, then it probably won't."

In a somewhat ironic nod to Richard Dawkins, Geering observes, "Christianity might also hold us back. That is the problem of fundmentalism, whether Christian or Islamic," he notes. "It is, in fact, working against the aims (providing meaning and solutions for the twenty-first century) we have been talking about."

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Towards a New Paradigm: The Convergence of Science and Buddhism

"All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter.
-- Max Planck --

"Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: it transcends a personal God, avoids dogma and theology; it covers both the natural and spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity."
-- Albert Einstein --
The Dalai Lama and the late cosmologist, Carl Sagan
"When I speak with open-minded scientists and philosophers of science," the Dalai Lama observes in his book "The Universe in a Single Atom," "it is clear that they have a deeply nuanced understanding of science and a recognition of the limits of scientific knowledge. At the same time, there are many people, both scientists and non-scientists, who appear to believe that all aspects of reality must and will fall within the scope of science. The assumption is made that, as society progresses, science will continually reveal the falsehoods of our beliefs - particularly religious beliefs - so that an enlightened secular society can eventually emerge."

"In this view," he continues, "science is perceived as having disproved many of the claims of religion such as the existence of God, grace, and the eternal soul. And within this conceptual framework, anything that is not proven or affirmed by science is somehow either false or insignificant. Such views are effectively philosophical assumptions that reflect their holders' metaphysical prejudices. Just as we must avoid dogmatism in science, we must ensure that spirituality is free from the same limitations."

"Clearly," he concludes, "this (scientific) paradigm does not and cannot exhaust all aspects of reality, in particular the nature of human existence. In addition to the objective world of matter, which science is masterful at exploring, there exists the subjective world of feelings, emotions, thoughts, and the values and spiritual aspirations based on them."

"If we treat this realm as though it had no constitutive role in our understanding of reality," he cautions, "we lose the richness of our own existence and our understanding cannot be comprehensive. Reality," he points out, "including our own existence, is so much more complex than objective scientific materialism allows."

Indeed, as many scholars working at the leading edge of science - particularly those scientists investigating the phenomenon of consciousness itself - have pointed out, there seems to be a convergence of physics with the metaphysics of the world's great non-dualistic wisdom traditions (particulary with Buddhism and the Advaita Vedanta). The following videos serve as a wonderful introduction to this seemingly strange intersection of the worlds of cutting-edge science with traditional Buddhist philosophy and metaphysics.

Knowing scientifically, that the space within the atom is 99.999999999999% empty, that what "matter" does exist therein is more probabilistic than "real," and that even such probabilistic particles are fundamentally entangled with every other particle in the universe is bound to redefine our collective worldviews going forward.

The intriguing aspect of the "truths' discovered by modern Western scientific inquiry and technology, is that all of these principles were largely anticipated by millennia old Eastern wisdom insights. The question then becomes, one supposes, whether ancient traditions, like Buddhism, can (as Einstein observed) serve as the basis for building a truly "cosmic religion for the future." For, in these days, the future seems more imperiled than ever by outdated religious traditions and understandings - traditions and understandings that seem to conflict evermore directly with mankind's burgeoining scientific understanding.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

An Evidence-Based Spirituality for the 21st Century

"If it is indeed reasonable . . ,. to be both spiritually inclined and scientific," asks psychologist Charles T. Tart, PhD., "how could we go on to develop an evidence-based spirituality for the twenty-first century?" How can we get beyond simply "I believe it," or "I don't believe it," and start to find out what is true and false about the area we call spiritual and psychic, and how do you go on to develop that in a useful kind of way?"

"If you look at the results of real science, and not scientism," Tart observes, "there is a lot of evidence to show that humans beings sometimes show the kind of qualities that we would expect spiritual beings to have. And, therefore," he points out, "it is quite reasonable to be both scientific and spiritual in your approach toward life."

In the attached videos, Tart, a fellow of the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology, lays the basis for a scientifically-reasonable twenty-first spirituality, examining research results in 'subtle energy' (known as chi or prajna in the East), 'psychic' healing, mindfulness, meditation and higher states of consciousness. The last video, Part 6 in the series, is particularly interesting as it compares Eastern spiritual 'psychologies' with traditional Western psychology (and what he calls "dismissive materialism").

"We can," Tart observes,"start separating out in a relatively objective way what is genuine and what is superstition or brain malfunctioning and use that to refine and clarify, and hopefully make more effective, various spiritual systems that are designed to make people have direct spiritual experiences. For instance, if meditation is associated with certain kinds of brain wave activity, and we can train that kind of brain wave activity more directly, maybe we can combine those two things and come up with a way to teaching meditation more effectively than it is done traditionally."

Friday, June 24, 2011

Carl Jung: Religious Experience and the Unconscious

According to the great Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung - the "Einstein of the mind" - the individual is born with an inherent disposition that becomes masked by the ego as he or she matures. And it is only by penetrating through the ego's mask that he or she discovers what and who she is. The danger, however, is that in doing so one will inevitably find a certain kind of madness.

In the lengthy video interview, attached, Jung observes that
"Man has a certain pattern that makes him specifically human, and no man is born without it." 
"We are only deeply unconscious of these facts" Jung notes, "because we live all by our senses and outside of ourselves. If a man could look into himself, he could discover it. And when a man discovers it, in our days, he thinks he's crazy . . . and really crazy."
Jung's view was that without some real, inner religious experience, the madness of the human ego could and would drive the individual actor to the depths of madness, a view that is readily understandable given the collective insanity witnessed by Jung during the first half of the twentieth-century. In candid correspondence written in the last year of his life, Jung observed:
"I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world, leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted either by real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community. An ordinary man, not protected by an action from above and isolated in society cannot resist the power of evil, which is called very aptly the Devil. But the use of such words arouse so many mistakes that one can only keep aloof from them as much as possible."*
Carl G. Jung
The existential question for Jung, then, was: "Have I any religious experience and immediate relation to God, and hence that certainty which will keep me, as an individual, from dissolving into the crowd?"

"To this question," he remarked, "there is a positive answer only when the individual is willing to fulfill the demands of rigorous self-examination and self-knowledge. If he follows through his intention, he will not only discover some important truths about himself, but will also have gained a psychological advantage: he will have succeeded in deeming himself worthy of serious attention and sympathetic interest. He will have set his hand, as it were, to a declaration of his own human dignity and taken the first step towards the foundations of his consciousness - that is, towards the unconscious, the only accessible source of religious experience."

"This is not to say," Jung cautions, "that what we call the unconscious is identical with God or is set up in his place. It is the medium from which the religious experience seems to flow. As to what the further cause of such an experience may be, the answer to this lies beyond the range of human knowledge. Knowledge of God is a transcendental problem."
[Jung, "The Undiscovered Self, pp. 101-102]

* Letter from Carl Jung to Bill Wilson (co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous), dated January 30, 1961. Jung died on June 6, 1961.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Virtue, Delusion and Mental Awareness: A Buddhist Perspective

"I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing."
The question of virtue - doing what is right and true to one's inner being - was tackled, and masterfully explained by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in his landmark book, "Understanding the Mind." Essentially, he says, virtuous action results from a virtuous mental awareness rooted in our Buddha nature, while non-virtuous action is the result of a delusionary mindset. End the delusions, he notes, and one will end all non-virtuous action. But that is where it gets somewhat complicated. . . .

"All non-virtue arises from delusions," Geshe Kelsang observes, "and delusions arise from four causes: the root, the seed, the object, and inappropriate attention."

"The root of all delusions" he notes, "is self-grasping, the seed of a delusion is a potential left on the mental continuum by similar delusions in the past that acts as the substantial cause of that delusion; the object is any contaminated object; and inappropriate attention is a mental factor that focuses on the object in a mistaken way and acts as a co-operative cause of delusions. For a delusion to arise," he states, "all four causes are necessary."

"In reality," Geshe Kelsang notes, "the causes of delusion exist within the mind, not the body. For this reason Nagarjuna said that physical asceticism is not very important. To overcome delusions we need the mental asceticism of practices such as meditation and patience."

"The easiest way to prevent delusions from arising," he observes, "is to stop inappropriate attention by not allowing our mind to dwell on and exaggerate the attractive or unattractive features of contaminated objects. In this way," he says, we shall be able temporarily to prevent delusions."

"However," he notes, "to eradicate (delusions) completely we must abandon their root, self grasping, by attaining (to be) a yogic direct perceiver realizing emptiness. Once we have attained a direct realization of emptiness, we shall gradually eradicate the seeds of all the delusions."

"We eradicate the seeds of all intellectually-formed delusions on the path of seeing," Geshe notes, "and the seeds of all innate delusions on the path of meditation."

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Einstein's Agnosticism and Natural Religion

There are very, very few individuals who permanently change the worldviews of large portions of mankind. In ancient times there was Lao-Tze, Krishna, Zoroaster, the Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed - all men who reconciled man with the world and the God or Being of their understanding. In modern times, perhaps only one man - Albert Einstein - has had such an effect, this time reconciling man with the universe itself.

And although Einstein was a scientist, and not an atheist but an agnostic at best, his spiritual life and views are a poignant reminder of how incomprehensible yet teasingly close is the evidence of some greater Being or entity, of which we may be a part. For Einstein a non-anthropomorphic God was evident in the profound simplicity and order of the universe itself, although he did not believe in life after death or a personal God that intervened in purely human affairs.
"I cannot," Einstein remarked, "believe in this concept of an anthropomorphic God who has the powers of interfering with these natural laws. As I said before, the most beautiful and most profound religious emotion that we can experience is the sensation of the mystical, and this mysticality is the power of all true science."

At a very deep level, as the above video demonstrates, Einstein held profound religious (in the sense of unitive) views, the most famous of which was that "God does not play dice with the universe." Yet, it was in his explanation of the illusory nature of our 'reality' itself, that Einstein was most prophetic - not just of the coming scientific understanding of reality, but of an awakening spirituality which questions the role of consciousness itself in forming and informing our world. 
"A human being is a part of the whole called by us "the universe"," Einstein noted, "a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest - a kind of optical illusion of consciousness."

"This delusion is a kind of prison for us," he observed, "restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening the circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

According to Einstein's own credo, "What I Believe," originally written in 1930, he explains that "(t)he most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is," he observes, "the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness."

"In this sense, and in this sense only," he concludes, "I am a devoutly religious man."

Monday, June 20, 2011

Emerson, Transcendentalism and Unitarian Beliefs

Unitarianism - the faith of Emerson and Thoreau, Dickens and Coleridge, Jefferson and Adams - was the essential faith of the American Transcendentalists, and its legacy can be traced through the New Thought movement to elements of the New Age movement today.

"Religion," writes James Freeman Clarke in 'The Manual of Unitarian Belief', "may be defined as the worship and service of God. It is necessary," he observes, "because man is feeble, and needs Divine power to give him strength; he is ignorant, and needs Divine light to guide him; he is sinful, and needs Divine mercy to give him peace; he is mortal, and needs faith in things unseen and eternal to give him the hope of continued existence."

"That religion is natural to man," Clarke observes, "appears from the fact that in a higher or lower form it has been found among all races and nations, among civilized and savage people, on ancient and modern times."

"Natural religion," he points out, "is that which is awakened by the sight of the order and beauty of nature, of its adaptations to the use of living beings, of its variety and unity; leading the mind up to the conception of a Supreme Being, perfect in power, wisdom and goodness."

"Revealed religion," he notes, "consists of the revelations of Divine truth made to the souls of inspired men, thus producing lawgivers, prophets, and spiritual leaders of the human race.
 "Saint Augustine," Emerson writes, "described the nature of God as a circle whose centre was everywhere and its circumference nowhere, We are all our lifetime reading the copious sense of this first of forms."

"Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on midnoon, and under every deep a lower deep opens."

The following are the "Religious Principles" of the American Unitarian Conference:
1. God's presence is made known in a myriad of ways. Religion should promote a free and responsible search for truth, meaning, communion and love.

2. Reason is a gift from God. Religion should embrace reason and its progeny, including the scientific enterprise which explores God's creation.

3. Free will is a gift from God. Religion should assist in the effort to find a path that exercises that gift in a responsible, constructive and ethical manner.

4. Conscious of the complexity of creation, of the limits of human understanding and of humanity's capacity for evil in the name of religion, we hold that humility, religious tolerance and freedom of conscience should be a central part of any religious experience.

5. Religious experience is most fulfilling in the context of a tradition. Our religious tradition is the Unitarian tradition, which emphasizes the importance of reason in religion, tolerance and the unity of God.

6. Revelation is ongoing. Religion should draw inspiration not only from its own tradition but from other religious traditions, philosophy and the arts. Although paying due regard for the hard lessons learned in the past and to the importance of religious tradition, religion should not be stagnant but should employ reason and religious experience to evolve in a constructive, enlightened and fulfilling way.

7. Conscious of the spiritual and material needs of our fellow men and women, the evil they may be subjected to and the tragedies they may endure, works of mercy and compassion should be a part of any religious experience.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Thomas Merton, Ecumenism and the Fruit of Contemplation

Thomas Merton
The word "contemplate," meaning "to view with attention" is derived from the Latin 'con + templum' signifying "an open space for observation." Thus, the modern contemplative - like the near-enlightened Trappist monk, Thomas Merton - might be seen as the person whose mind provides him or her the open space for the observation of the realities of consciousness and being that exist beneath the external 'realities' of our common lives.

In his book, "Mystics and Zen Masters" (as well as in the attached video),  Merton examines the depth and commonality of this open, contemplative experience, and discusses what the "ecumenism" of religions revealed by a common contemplative life has to offer as an aspiration for the non-contemplative.
"(G)enuine ecumenism," writes Merton, "requires the communication and sharing, not only of information about doctrines which are totally and irrevocably divergent, but also of religious intuitions and truths which may turn out to have something in common, beneath surface differences."

"Ecumenism," he observes, "seeks the inner and ultimate spiritual "ground" which underlies all articulated differences. A genuinely fruitful dialogue cannot be content with a polite diplomatic interest in other religions and their beliefs. It seeks a deeper level, on which religious traditions have always claimed to bear witness to a higher and more personal knowledge of God that that which is contained simply in exterior worship and formulated doctrines."

"In all religions," he notes, "we encoutner not only the claim to (divine) revelation in some form or other, but also the record of special experiences in which the absolute and final vailidity of that revelation is in some way attested."

"Furthermore," he points out, "in all religions it is more or less generally recognized that this profound "sapiential" experience, call it gnosis, contemplation, "mysticism," "prophecy," or what you will, represents the deepest and the most authentic fruit of the religion itself. All religions, then, seek a "summit" of holiness, of experience, of inner transformation to which their believers - or an elite of believers - aspire because they hope, so to speak, to incarnate in their own lives the highest values in which they believe.
In the following video, a letter which Merton addressed to one of his many correspondents is used to highlight the fruit of the gnostic consciousness that is experienced by the true contemplative - a higher consciousness which is available to us all, regardless of religious tradition.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Retrospection and Introspection: Theology, the Perennial Philosophy and Our Existential Challenges

In the attached videos, a panel of spiritual teachers and philosophers - from the 'dean' of comparative religious studies, Huston Smith, to noted Islamic scholar, Professor Sayed Nasr and author/film-maker, Peter Russell - discuss theology, mysticism and how the 'Perennial Philosophy' that underpins the world's great wisdom traditions may help us to cope with the existential problems that humanity faces today.

Professor Nasr traces the use of the term the 'Perennial Philosophy' back to the 16th Century, and from there to Leibniz and a host of later philosophical writers. Sayed calls the 'Perennial Philosophy' a body of "non-historical truths that has survived over the ages concerning the nature of reality, of the ultimate divine reality, of cosmic reality, and of microcosmic reality . . . and which (has) manifested . . .  in various great religious traditions in all their suppletive aspect, whether it be the Vedanta, or Islamic philosophy, or Mahayana or neo-Confucian philosophy in China, or Augustinianism and Thomism in the West."

Yet, it was Aldous Huxley who popularized the term in the modern West, writing his master work "The Perennial Philosophy," in which he traces the development of this recurring theme back through the writings of mystics and saints from all the world's great traditions.

While Huxley's "The Perennial Philosophy" is a comprehensive commentary on the philosophical and mystic insights into the nature of mankind's reality, it was in an introduction to another book, "The Song of God," written by his friends, Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda, where Huxley pithily summarized the 'Perennial Philosopy' in the following four points:
"At the core of the Perennial Philosophy," Huxley observes, "we find four fundamental doctrines.
First: the phenomenal world of matter and individualized consciousness - the world of things and animals and men and even gods - is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their beginning, and apart from which they would be non-existent.

Second: human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with that which is known.

Third: man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.

Fourth: man's life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground."
Commenting on the development of the 'Perennial Philosophy,' author and film-maker, Peter Russell, notes that "(f)or the first time in history we have access to all the world's spiritual traditions. If you had been born 200 years ago," he points out, "you would just have access to those in your particular culture, and the only teachers you would have would be any wise people that happened to be in your community. That was it, and perhaps reading books, but even then the books would have been from your own particular culture."

"Now we have access to the world and all its spiritual traditions," he points out, noting "(t)hat is what is going to take us into our next evolutionary phase." The idea of such an evolutionary shift is supported by a host of writers and philosophers, from the Jesuit paleontologist, Telihard de Chardin to Huston Smith, to cutting edge spiritual teachers Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen, who teaches what he calls "Evolutionary Enlightenment."

Professor Nasr points out that "it is a time to pay attention to what the 'Perennial Philosophy' says about the nature of reality, because surely the present understanding of the nature of reality (and) post-modernism is presenting us with with immense challenges to put it mildly."

"It is strange," he notes, "that now we have only a few years to live on the earth if we do not change our relationship to the environment, that what we have been saying all along (in the 'Perennial Philosophy') is now taken much more seriously with a lot of people.

Yet ironically, while not wishing to be an alarmist, Professor Nasr points out that "the ambience is such that it is now much easier not to talk about these matters than it was fifty years ago." Nevertheless, he notes, discussion of what our ultimate purpose is, seems more than ever necessary if we are to face and overcome the challenges we have brought upon ourselves, if we are going to continue to evolve as a viable species here on Earth.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Transformation of Consciousness: The Essence of All Religions

"There is a very, very dire importance to understand what is the essence of religion," Radhanath Swami points out, in the attached lecture delivered at the Unitarian Church of Dallas Texas.

"In a very broad sense," says Radhanath, a teacher in the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, "(the essence of religion) is to transform our consciousness - from arrogance to humility, from vengeance to forgiveness, from greed to generosity, and, most of all it is meant to connect us to the love within us so that we can be instruments of compassion in everything we do."

"This is the universal principle of religion," Radhanath explains, "to absorb ourselves in the love of God and to be genuinely compassionate to all living beings."

"Wherever we find love of God that is broad and deep," he points out (quoting his own spiritual guru), "it induces us to be truly compassionate and make sacrifices for the welfare of others. That is where the truth is. That is real religion."

"It is not about being a Hindu or a Muslim," he notes, "or a Christian, or a Jew, or a Sikh, or a Jain, or a Zoroastrian or a Buddhist, it is about loving God. It is about connecting to that higher experience of love within our heart and being an instrument of compassion within this world. That is the essence (of the world's wisdom traditions), and that is the greatest need."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Peter Russell: The Primacy of Consciousness

In the attached video lecture from physicist turned author, Peter Russell ("From Science to God: The Mystery of Consciousness"), Russell makes a lucid argument, grounded in modern physics and philosophy, that it is consciousness itself that is the fundamental basis of "reality."

"The one thing we cannot deny," he observes, à la Descartes, "is the fact that we are consciousness. Probably the only absolute certainty we have is that we are experiencing beings." Cognito ergo sum, or, 'I think, therefore I am,' as the pioneering French philosopher, scientist and mathematician put it.

Russell begins by observing that there is a groundswell of interest in the notion of consciousness due, in large part, to (a) the integral component that consciousness and the observer play in quantum physics, (b) recent work in neurology, neurospsychology and neuroanatomy exploring the correlates of consciousness, and (c) the current spiritual interest in the mind and, particularly, consciousness as the Ground of Being. Yet, as many others have pointed out, Russell notes there is no scientific definition of just what consciousness is.

"Various perceptions, feelings (and) thoughts are the forms which arise in consciousness," Russell points out, utilizing the well-known metaphor of mind as a film projector. "What determines the forms is what goes on in the brain," he notes, "but that doesn't mean to say that the brain produces consciousness. It may determine the shapes, the forms the experiences that arise in consciousness, but to say that the brain produces consciousness is like saying. . .  that the film produces the light that is in the (film) projector."

The "hard problem" of science today, Russell observes is why we have consciousness at all, rather than how consciousness operates. It may, he observes, be an impossible question for science per se to solve.
What may be needed to solve this "hard problem," Russell points out, is an entirely new scientific paradigm, in fact, a new "meta-paradigm" that recognizes consciousness itself, rather than matter per se, as the primary aspect of our "reality."

Monday, June 13, 2011

Hallucinations and the "Theater of the Mind"

The mind, the brain, or the "mind-brain," is far more peculiar than we think. Perhaps, stealing a line from Richard Dawkins (who accredits it to J.B.S. Haldane), it is "stranger than we can think."

In the following video from, neurologist Oliver Sacks (of "Awakenings" fame) discusses the visual and audio "hallucinations" that occur in approximately ten percent of the visually and hearing impaired - although these "Charles Bonnet" hallucinations are largely under-reported. Such hallucinations - which are distinct phenomena separate from the psychopathological hallucinations of specific disorders such as schizophrenia - may help to explain, Dr. Sacks suggests, how "the theater of the mind" is generated (or perhaps co-generated?) by the mechanisms of the brain.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Science, Consciousness and God

"The great problem of the modern age is to preserve the religious spirit, whilst getting rid of the superstitions and absurdities that deform it, and which are alike opposed to common sense."
-- Ernest Renan --
("Life of Jesus")
Whilst a religious belief that contradicts or ignores the realities science has uncovered regarding man, the world and the cosmos quickly becomes absurd, a sole reliance on science to inform us of these realities says nothing about our inner condition, or how we chart a path to contentment and a truly sustainable relationship with the Earth.

In a concise three-part video, below, Peter Russell, a fellow scholar at The Institute of Noetic Science, critiques the blind Western reliance on science and technology to shape our worldview, describing it as being arid and sterile in terms of providing satisfactory values and meaning.

What science has been unable to explain, as yet, he notes (as many others have) is the phenomenon of consciousness, a matter that has been the subject of Eastern inquiry for millenia. Developing our understanding and experience of 'consciousness' and 'being', he proposes, will move us along a path to sustainable happiness and inner peace."
"Western science has been remarkably successful in explaining the world around us," Russsell points out, "but it hasn't given us meaning. The world it describes is a dry, material world without any real purpose. And science has also given us an abundance of technologies which we use to satisfy many of our needs and desires. But, again, it hasn't given us values. It doesn't tell us the best way to use this incredible knowledge and power. It also hasn't really helped us to develop inwardly. If anything, it has reinforced our sense of self-centeredness."

"We are probably more full of ourselves today than we've ever been," he notes, observing that what we really need "is an integration of our scientific understanding of the world with the wisdom that is held in the world's spiritual traditions."

"The origins of consciousness may remain a mystery," he concedes, "but how to awaken our consciousness, how to free ourselves from disguised attitudes and values, to discover who and what we really are, is not a mystery. That is not a mystery. That is something that has been explored by spiritual teachers from around the world, people who have gone deep within their own minds and discovered the true nature of consciousness, and from that how to live with joy and love in their hearts. And that is what we need today. We need to rediscover that wisdom for ourselves."

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Teilhard de Chardin: A Recollection and Rememberance

Fr. George Lemaitre
After the irony of it being a Jesuit priest, Georges Lemaitre, who first proposed the 'Big Bang' theory, it seems only fitting that another Jesuit, Telhard de Chardin, a paleontologist, would set out a noetic perspective of man's evolution. Both priests (even though de Chardin was banned from having his later writings published until after Vatican II) laid the grounds for a new ecumenical movement that has seen the Catholic Church embrace both the 'Big Bang' and evolution as the most likely processes of creation - an embrace that may perhaps be seen as being equalled only by Luther's protest against the Pope as a turning point in Christian theology and practice.

The work of Lemaitre, who was trained as a mathematician and physicist, has been viewed as less controversial than de Chardin's; perhaps because Lemaitre limited his work primarily to physics and did not propose any new broad and sweeping theological systems, and partly because his work was quickly recognized and built upon by greater public figures, such as Edwin Hubble, in an era (the first decades of the twentieth-century) when the world's understanding of physics was transforming rapidly in view of the simultaneous development of both relativity and quantum theory.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Teilhard de Chardin's work, on the other hand, was viewed with a fuller skepticism by the Church hierarchy from the very start, directly challenging - as it did - the Church's teachings on the origin of man and its teachings on 'original sin.' As a result, de Chardin was banished to China for much of his life and career (where he helped in the discovery of 'Peking Man'), and his writings (including his classic works, "The Phenomenon of Man" and "The Future of Man") were barred from publication during his lifetime.

In "The Future of Man," de Chardin observed, in part:
"When observed through a sufficient depth of time (millions of years) Life can be seen to move. Not only does it move but it advances in a definite direction. And not only does it advance, but in observing its progress we can discern the process or practical mechanism whereby it does so."

"These," he writes, "are three propositions which may be briefly developed as follows:
(a) Life Moves. This calls for no demonstration. Everyone in these days knows how greatly all living forms have changed if we compare two moments in the earth's history sufficiently separated in time. In any period of ten million years Life practically grows a new skin.

(b) In a definite direction. . . . While accepting the undeniable fact of the general evolution of Life in the course of time, many biologists still maintain that these changes take place without following any defined course, in any direction and at random. This contention, disastrous to any idea of progress, is refuted, in my view, by the tremendous fact of the continuing 'cerebralisation' of living creatures. Research shows that from the lowest to the highest level of the organic world there is a persistent and clearly defined thrust of animal forms towards species with more sensitive and more elaborate nervous systems. A growing 'innervation' and 'cerebralisation' of organisms: the working of this law is visible in every living group known to us, the smallest no less than the largest. . . . What else can this mean except that, as shown by the development of nervous systems, there is a continual heightening, a rising tide of consciousness which visibly manifests itself on our planet in the course of time?

(c) (T)he underlying process whose existence we can perceive in this continual heightening of consciousness (signifies) . . . that Cosmic Matter, governed at is lower end (as we already know) by forces of dispersal which slowly cause it to devolve into atoms, now shows itself to be subjected, at the other end, to an extraordinary power of enforced coalescence, of which the outcome is the emergence, pari passu, of an ever-increasing amount of spiritual energy that is ever more powerfully synthesized."
"The greatest discovery made in this century," de Chardin writes," is probably the realisation that the passage of Time may best be measured by the gradual gathering of Matter in superposed groups, of which the arrangement, ever richer and more centralized, radiates outwards from an ever more luminous fringe of liberty and interiority."

"The phenomenon of growing consciousness on earth," he notes, "in short, is directly due to the increasingly advanced organisation of more and more complicated elements, successively created by the working of chemistry and of Life."

"At the present time," he concludes, "I can see no more satisfactory solution of the enigma presented to us by the physical progress of the Universe."
[Teilhard de Chardin, "The Future of Man," pp. 67-69.]

In the following video, renowned spiritual teacher Jean Houston recounts to Deepak Chopra how, as a teenager growing up in Manhattan, she was befriended and taught by an elderly de Chardin who passed on to her his vision of the Earth as a 'noosphere' embued throughout with consciousness.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Science and Religion: "The Necessity of a Rapprochement"

In the video below, Apollo 14 astronaut, Dr. Edgar Mitchell (the sixth man to walk on the moon), recounts the profound spiritual awakening - an experience of what the ancients called 'samadhi' - which he had while viewing the Earth, Moon and Sun in synchronicity from the immensity of space.

Mitchell's transformational experience prompted him to look deeply into the confluence of the world's great wisdom traditions and science. As a result of this search, Mitchell went on to found the Institute of Noetic Science ("IONS"), a think-tank dedicated to "supporting individual and collective transformation through consciousness research, educational outreach, and engaging a global learning community in the realization of our human potential."

Writing in the most recent IONS newsletter, Mitchell comments on the breach between religious and scientific outlooks over the last four centuries, and makes the case that a rapprochement between the two disciplines - one focused outwardly, the other inwardly - could allow humanity to tap into a vast and under-utilized potential for higher consciousness, thereby yielding a new moral ethic which could help us to resolve the existential problems we face.

"Perhaps after 350 years of divisiveness between science and religion," Dr. Mitchell writes, "we are on the threshold of a new era of knowledge and cooperation. It should be obvious that objective observation and reason do not by themselves produce a satisfactory ethic for living – neither for the individual nor for social systems. Facts become divorced from values, and action from need."

"On the other hand," he notes, "intuition and inspiration do not by themselves produce the agreement society needs to bring about order, structure, and survival in the material world. In this case, observation frequently becomes subject to individual interpretation according to the covert biases of the individual."

There is, however, Mitchell points out, reason to believe that these two great strands of humanity's quest for knowledge can, and should, converge.
"Research over the last fifty years by little-known but forward-looking thinkers," Mitchell observes, "has shown there is a vast creative potential in the human mind that is as yet almost totally unrecognized by science. Nonrational cognitive processes have so far eluded scientific description. However, this potential has been previously known and described by a few ancient sages and enlightened religious teachers, using veiled prescientific language to express what they discovered through subjective, intuitive, experiential means."

"We are," he opines, "on the threshold of rediscovering and redefining those concepts and insights through the objective, rational, experimental efforts of science – if dogmatism and outmoded belief structures do not prevent it. The proper direction of sophisticated instrumentation and laboratory techniques can be the means whereby the physical and metaphysical realms are shown to be different aspects of the same reality."

"If this is demonstrated," Mitchell wryly observes, "it would be ironic, but appropriate, that so-called godless technology and materialistic science should lead to the rediscovery of the essential unity of science and religion."
It is ironic, and just too, that this vision of a convergence of science and religion comes from an individual who glimpsed the potential for a confluence of humanity's understandings of 'inner space' and 'outer space' in space itself.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Thomas Merton, Zen and the Nature of the Ego

The ego (or small "self") is wholly narcissistic and driven by fear, or its counterpart, desire. When one first becomes aware of the spiritual nature of one's being there arises a real risk that the ego will say: "Spiritual? You want to be spiritual and become enlightened? Just watch how spiritual I can become!"

Thomas Merton
The renowned Trappist monk and prolific author, Thomas Merton, addresses this process of spiritual self-sabotage in his book, "Mystics and Zen Masters." In recounting the story of how Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chinese Zen (Ch'an) Buddhism was chosen, Merton illustrates how the self-seeking ego can embrace spirituality and the concept of enlightenment itself and, thus, fool even the most ardent spiritual seeker.

The Fifth Patriarch, when choosing his successor, asked each of the monastery's monks to write a verse illustrating their Zen insight. The much accomplished monk who was presumed to be the heir-apparent wrote:
"The body is the Bodhi tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror standing.
Take care to wipe it all the time,
Allow no grain of dust to cling to it."
Profoundly dissatisfied with this explanation, Hui Neng, the monastery's unordained cook, wrote:
"The Bodhi is not like a tree,
The clear mirror is nowhere standing.
Fundamentally not one thing exists:
Where then is a grain of dust to cling?"
The "clear mirror" is - or, so it seems -  really the ego which the heir-apparent was constantly trying to wipe clean. The problem, however, seems to be that it was the "ego"or "self" that was trying to wipe itself clean. Illustrating the principle that "self" cannot rid itself of "self" or "ego-nature," Hui Neng -  the unordained cook - was appointed as the Sixth Patriarch.

In rejecting the "mirror wiping" concept of meditation, Merton observed that Hui Neng "was not rejecting meditation itself, but what he believed to be a totally wrong attitude to meditation." Merton explains that a "wrong attitude" or error may occur when the ego, in a last-ditch effort to retain its hold on the spiritual seeker, embraces spirituality itself. He explains:
"1.  This wrong attitude assumes and gives primacy to a central ego-consciousness, an awareness of an empirical self, an "I" which, with all the good intentions in the world, sets out to "achieve liberation" or "enlightenment." This is the familiar empirical ego which is aware of itself, observes itself, remembers itself, and seeks ways to preserve and perpetuate its self-awareness. This "I" seeks to affirm itself not only in its actions, and its thoughts, but also in contemplation. In stripping off the exterior and sensible trappings of superficial experience, the ego seeks to realize its own spiritual nature more perfectly. This implies a rejection of one's sensible and active self in order to attain to an inner "silent" self, which is still, however, our "ego."

2.  The empirical and self-conscious self then views its own thought as a kind of object or possession, and in so doing accounts for this thought by situating it in a separate, isolated, "part of itself," a mind, which it compares to a "mirror." This is also considered a "possession." "I have a mind." Thus the mind is regarded not as something I am, but something I own. It then becomes necessary for me to sit quietly and calmly, recollecting my faculties and reaching down to experience my "mind."

3.  The empirical self then resolves to purify the mirror of the mind by removing thoughts from it. When the mirror of the mind is clear of all thought (so it imagines), the ego will be "liberated." It will affirm itself freely without thoughts. Why does it aim at this bizarre attainment? Because it has read in the sutras that "enlightenment" is a state of "emptiness," of "suchness." It is an awareness of an inner and transcendental mind. Presumably if all thoughts of material and contingent things are kept out of the mirror, then the mirror will be filled with the pure spiritual light of the Buddha mind, which is a kind of "emptiness.""
"So," Merton observes, "the ego-consciousness is able, it believes, to eat its cake and have it. It renounces its empirical autonomy in order to sink into spiritual, pre-biological nature. But since this nature is regarded as one's possession, the "spiritualized" ego thus is able to affirm itself all the more perfectly, and to enjoy its own narcissism under the guise of "emptiness" and "contemplation.""

In this manner, the ego, it turns out, becomes the ultimate ego-trap. The old axiom, "Know thyself!" is thus, still valid, albeit with the corollary: "But beware of thyself, and all its ways!"

(Excerpts from Thomas Merton, "Mystics and Zen Masters," pp. 19-23.)

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Cosmos and Kosmology: "A New Story"

In the attached set of videos, cosmologist and integral thinker, Brian Swimme, teaches a cosmic history lesson which puts into perspective where we are today, given our newfound knowledge of the universe, our world and life itself. He then suggests a "new story" that will help us to evolve as an integral component of life on Earth, and to face the existential problems we have created for ourselves by adhering to "old stories" that no longer fulfill their purpose.

In the first video ("A New Story"), Swimme points out that the cultural stories that developed over the past thousands of years, useful as they were, are no longer really helpful in light of the knowledge that we now have about our history, origins and progress. It is time, he notes, for us to develop a "new story" that will serve us well, given the new information that we have about ourselves.

Video Two situates us where we are in the vast cosmological scheme of things, while Videos Three through Five trace the origin of the universe, the advent of life on earth, and our development as a species. For those well versed in these areas, these videos may be superfluous. Yet, Video Six ("The Present Moment") is a must-see video which puts the existential challenges we face - particularly the man-made phenomena of mass species extinction - into a perspective that is valuable for anyone seeking solutions to the problems created by our common humanity. Videos Seven  through Ten, in turn, suggest how we can develop and enhance lifestyles and attitudes that are viable given the dynamic changes and challenges that we are living through. 

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Saturday, June 4, 2011

Dalai Lama: "Peace Must Come Through Inner Peace"

In a recent talk at Mumbai University in India, the Dalai Lama addressed an audience of students belonging to what he called "the first century" of the new millennium, noting that they have the responsibility to create a new world beyond the bloodshed and suffering of the twentieth-century.

Paying his respect to the great Indian traditions that brought Buddhism to Tibet, he acknowledges that Tibetan civilization and Indian civilization are different roots of "the same Bodhi tree." And, he suggests youth, particularly Indian youth, have a great opportunity and responsibility for changing the world for the better and addressing the common problems, like global warming, that we all face.

"Peace," he observed, "must come through inner peace."  But, he observes, it is necessary to have a realistic view of the world, and to "know reality fully" if humanity's problems are to be solved. For that, he stresses the importance of both ancient views, and modern knowledge.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Nagarjuna's Middle Way: Dependent Origination, Non-Self and Emptiness

Second only to the Buddha, himself, in terms of expounding the dharma, was the great Indian philosopher and teacher, Nagarjuna, teacher of "the Middle Way," or Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism. And central to Nagarjuna's teachings was 'sunyata' - "emptiness" - the realization that all phenomena are devoid of a self-essence and arise through the process of dependent origination, and are therefore devoid of any essential and abiding nature, a view of "reality" that is profoundly similar to the findings of modern physics.
"The ultimate nature of man," one commentator observed, "is the undivided being. . . . (M)an as a specific, determinate individual is not absolutely confined to his determinate nature. As an individual, man is essentially related to the rest of the world. He is also not apart from the indeterminate reality which is the ultimate ground of his very being. And in his ultimate nature man is himself the indeterminate, unconditioned reality, the undivided being.
[Ramanan, "Nagarjuna's Philosophy," p. 37]
Thus, Nagarjuna concludes, "Silence is the ultimate truth for the wise."
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
The following video looks at the implication that Nagarjuna's teachings on "no-self" (anatman) and "emptiness" (sunyata) have for us:

Nagarjuna: "The indeterminability of the ultimate nature is really the inapplicability of the way of concepts."

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Search for Meaning in Life

"The cry in every human heart is the search for meaning to life," writes the editorialist in the Tamil copy of The Daily Mirror. "Each one however has to make that decision to go in search and make his or her own discoveries. The question then is whether we want to, during this span of our lives, find the way, the truth and life."

"The truth," Krishnamurti observed, "is a pathless land."

"Humanity was in a sorry mess for thousands of years," we read in the Daily Mirror's insightful article recapping the celebrations of the 2,600th anniversary of the Buddha's enlightenment. "Destiny always sought one who would be receptive enough to be imbued with enlightenment. The Buddha yearned to know the way and the truth for greater meaning to his life. He traversed the path and made such discoveries that he shared with all beings. The Dhamma was discovered and sown in human hearts through his teachings."

"Now," the editorialist continues, "in the frontiers of hope, we want to catch a glimpse of its birth in other wombs that are conducive to giving life. Creation is awaiting the new arrival in every generation. The creative force is lying dormant within our inner being, wanting to reveal to those who seek."
"There had to be a beginning to the earth we live in," we are reminded. "From within the Source, the cosmos was made to be. If we, the creatures have intelligence, then surely there had and has to be an even greater intelligence and power behind creation. Like the banks hold resources or wealth in their vaults, there is a repository of wisdom and truth, buried within the psyche of creation. Siddhartha Gautama was a thinker of that age, influenced in the matrix of Hinduism. Buddha discovers the seeds of truth. To a lesser degree, down the ages, there have been other great thinkers, who unearthed a few of those seeds of Truth. From the sages in the Himalayas to the great thinkers like Aristotle and Socrates; from discoveries made in the field of various sciences to the other achievements of man, the creative power of wisdom has generously sowed its seeds in those who sought them. The discoveries have enriched and blessed, so that all would benefit in every generation."
In a recent lecture at the University of Mumbai, in which he reflected on the truths of ancient wisdom and the realities of modern life, His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama observed: "This marvelous human intelligence is sometimes used for wrong purpose(s)."

The younger generations, he suggests, reflecting on the sorrows and fears of the twentieth-centrury must develop inner "peace." And such peace, he observes, is available through the ancient teachings of the Buddha and Buddhist tradition."