Monday, 28 September 2015

Why Materialism is Crap

Catholic philosopher Ed Feser has published an excellent critique of materialism at the Claremont Review.

The points he makes are valid from a conventional and substantialist viewpoint, though a Buddhist might additionally question whether the very concept of materialism is fundamentally deluded and incoherent (perhaps, in the final analysis there are no such things as things - see later section of this post). 

Some quotes from Feser's article...

"Contemporary materialists ... routinely denounce Cartesian dualism, Descartes’s famous bifurcation of the world into mind and matter—or more precisely, into res cogitans or “thinking substance,” and res extensa or “extended substance.” And they do so in the name of science. Yet they remain essentially committed to Descartes’s conception of the material world; indeed, modern science would not have been possible without it. What they forget is that the res cogitans they deplore was necessitated by the res extensa they maintain. Hold onto the latter and you are implicitly committed to the former, whether you like it or not. This is the source of the perpetual failure of materialists to come up with explanations of consciousness, meaning, and morality that are convincing."

"To understand the problem requires going back ... to the beginning. Like Francis Bacon, Descartes wanted to make of modern science an instrument by which we might predict and control natural phenomena and develop new technologies. What he saw more clearly than Bacon was that mathematics was the key to realizing this aim. Hence he adopted a purely quantitative conception of the natural world, treating matter as entirely definable in terms of the geometrical property of extension or spatial dimension. Descartes’s successors would put less emphasis on extension, specifically. But the idea that what is material is what you can capture in the language of mathematics is still with us, as a glance at any physics textbook will show.

Now, where does this leave the qualitative aspects of the world of our experience—colors and sounds, tastes and smells, heat and cold, pain and pleasure? Where does it leave the meanings and purposes we see in the world around us, and the thoughts and choices we find within ourselves? Descartes embraced the obvious implications of the exhaustively “mathematicized” notion of matter he had introduced into Western thought, which the scientific revolution took and ran with. If matter is purely quantitative, and the qualitative features of reality cannot be reduced to the quantitative, then they cannot be material. And if these features don’t really exist in the material world but do exist in the mind’s experience of that world, then the mind itself must not be material.

Hence, Cartesian dualism was by no means a desperate rearguard action against the scientific revolution; on the contrary, it was the logical outcome of the scientific revolution. Matter, on the scientific conception, is comprised of colorless, soundless, odorless, tasteless, meaningless particles in fields of force, governed by mathematical laws which describe how these particles happen to behave, but no purposes for the sake of which they behave. To be sure, we might, when doing physics, redefine certain qualitative features in terms of some quantifiable doppelgänger. Color, for example, can be redefined in terms of a surface’s reflection of light of certain wavelengths. Sound can be redefined in terms of compression waves in the air. But these redefinitions, which even a blind or deaf person can understand, do not capture the way red looks, the way an explosion sounds, and so forth. Color, sound, odor, and taste as we perceive them can—given the scientist’s essentially Cartesian conception of matter—exist only in the conscious experiences of an immaterial mind or res cogitans. Meaning can exist only in this immaterial mind’s thoughts. Purpose can exist only in its volitions."

"...having followed Descartes in defining matter in so thoroughly “mathematicized” a way that irreducibly qualitative features, meanings, and purposes are excluded from it, modern science itself effectively closes off the possibility of a scientific explanation of these features. Thus while materialists are right to complain that Cartesian dualism leaves mind-body interaction obscure, dualists are right to complain that purported materialist explanations in fact ignore, or even implicitly deny, the existence of mind."

"Cartesians and materialists alike are correct to regard modern science as having given us a very penetrating grasp of part of the natural order, namely the part susceptible of analysis in purely quantitative terms. Where they both go wrong is in supposing that modern science gives us the whole of that order."

"It is the way modern science characterizes matter, and not particular gaps in current scientific knowledge as described by Wilson, that leaves us stuck with Descartes’s dualism. Given this characterization, we may find ever more detailed correlations between the mental and the physical, but we will never be able to reduce the mental to the physical. Two celebrated recent books by philosophers—Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (2011) and Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos (2012)—see the problem more clearly than Wilson and other contemporary scientists tend to. Rosenberg’s mad but intellectually honest solution is to conclude that if matter as physics conceives of it is all that exists, mind must really be an illusion. Nagel’s sane but no less intellectually honest solution is to conclude that since mind and matter both exist but mind cannot be assimilated to matter as conceived of by physics, it follows that physics does not give us a complete account of matter. There must in Nagel’s view be more to matter than physics reveals, some additional ingredient that could account for the origin of consciousness, meaning, and value." 
  Read it all here  

The Buddhist critique of Cartesianism

While not disagreeing with Ed Feser's analysis of the implications of Cartesian philosophy, as carried to its illogical conclusions by eliminative materialists, a Buddhist might question the ontological primacy of both res cogitans and res extensa, on the grounds that the underlying nature of reality is process and change, rather than stable entities. 

Buddhists divide all processes into two categories -  mental processes ('nama')  and physical/mechanistic processes ('rupa').  Hence nama is the dynamic equivalent of res cogitans, and rupa is the dynamic equivalent of res extensa.

Parallelling Feser's analysis, Buddhists believe that although mental processes and physical processes interact, mental processes are not reducible to physical processes.

According to Buddhism, the basis of reality consists of ever-changing processes rather than static ‘things’ or substances.  If any ‘thing’ is analysed in enough depth, and observed over a long enough timescale, it can be seen to be a stage of a dynamic process, rather than a static, stable thing-in-itself. 

This becomes obvious when we remember that the universe is itself a process (a continuing  expansion from the Big Bang), and so all that it contains are subprocesses of the whole.

Mechanistic processes (which include anything that can be modelled by algorithms) explain the working of all machines including computers, and all the classical laws of science including biology, chemistry, and physics.

In contrast, mental processes consist of irreducible aspects of consciousness that have no mechanistic or algorithmic explanation, for example qualia (qualitative experiences such as pleasure and pain) and intentionality or 'aboutness' (the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs).    For a more detailed discussion see Buddhist Philosophy  

Friday, 21 August 2015

Quantum Physics - excellent TV program by Jim Al-Khalili

Einstein's Nightmare by Jim Al-Khalili on BBC 4.  Do we create reality? Fascinating TV program on quantum physics

This is the most readily understandable and accessible treatment of 'quantum weirdness' I've seen.   

Please note that this TV program will be unavailable after mid September.  Watch it soon, then check out Quantum Buddhism, Buddhism, Quantum Physics and Mind  and Buddhist Particle Physics.

Saturday, 15 August 2015


Aspects, components and interfaces

Buddhism - a religion, a philosophy or a psychology? Or all three?

Most religions have no foundation apart from the ‘truths’ revealed long ago by the voices of the gods to a collection of prophets. 

When different voices of different gods say different things to different prophets, then the only way to determine which version is correct is by war,  persecution and terrorism, as the Islamic State so effectively demonstrates.

Thankfully, Buddhism is different.   The Buddhist religion is based on two rational and verifiable foundations - a philosophy and a psychology.    And the psychology is itself founded upon philosophy, as shown in the diagram. 

So whereas other religions can only support their tenets by reference to ‘truths’ revealed to an exclusive group of long dead people who heard voices in their heads, Buddhism can appeal to rationality and shareable, reproducible experience.

Components and interfaces

The diagram illustrates how these three major domains of Buddhism - Philosophy (blue), Psychology (green) and Religion (orange) - fit together, with their components and interfaces.

The foundation of Buddhist philosophy is a logical analysis of phenomena, which radically deconstructs how things exist, and also how we think things exist. 

Deconstructing how things exist reveals that all phenomena are ultimately processes, and no thing or substance is capable of permanent existence, or existence 'from its own side'. This is the basis of Buddhist METAPHYSICS.

This conclusion immediately raises psychological implications. If everything is impermanent, then why are our minds so biased in favor of viewing the world as things and substances, rather than processes?    This is the main topic of Buddhist EPISTEMOLOGY, which interfaces philosophy with psychology.  An important concept in this epistemological analysis is the theory of the two truths - the contrast between the ‘working approximations’ we use to find our way around the everyday world, and how phenomena truly exist when we analyze them in depth.

The conclusion reached from the study of epistemology is that our distorted view of the world gives rise to DELUSIONS, especially the three mental poisons of aversion, attachment and ignorance.   Eradication of these three biologically based poisons, and prevention of their resultant actions, is one of the principle aspects of Buddhist ETHICS.   One of the main ways of reducing and eventually eradicating delusions is by the practice of MEDITATION, especially meditation on emptiness.

ETHICS and DELUSIONS are thus at a triple interface between philosophy, psychology and those aspects of Buddhism that people from Judeo-Christian cultural traditions would more readily recognise as religious.

Interfaces between psychology and religious practises are provided by RITUALS (such as sadhanas, pujas, mantras, mudras etc), ART (including numinous symbolism) and TANTRA.  

Unlike other religions, rather than aiming to placate or appease jealous gods, ritual practices are intended to produce changes in the minds of the practitioners, resulting in the ability to step outside the system of the Samsaric world (TRANSCENDENCE).  

Thus Buddhist art and ritual practices are intended to facilitate mental realisations, mystical experiences and ultimately the recognition of ones own Buddha-nature. Hence they are each shown as interfaces, with one end in religion, and the other in psychology.

Components which are primarily religious are the SANGHA, which is the community of Buddhist practitioners in its widest sense, including both ordained and lay persons organised as traditional congregations in dharma centers, or increasingly nowadays as online communities of people who may not have easy access to a center.  These geographically scattered Sangha often meet up for FESTIVALS.

Another major component of Buddhism is the large collection of NARRATIVES, ranging from historical accounts of the lives of major Buddhist teachers, including the Buddha himself, to the various parables such as the Jataka tales and Zen stories.

For a detailed discussion of the rational foundations of Buddhism see Buddhist Philosophy.

- Sean Robsville


Monday, 6 July 2015

Can you debiologize your mind? And if you do will anything remain?


The Seven Deadly Sins

Religious traditionalists have criticised scientists who study the physical effects of spiritual activities, such as meditation, as “biologizing the religious response”.

Which got me wondering, if you can biologize mental activities, then can you do the converse and debiologize them?  In particular can you completely debiologize your entire mind, and if you do, will there be anything remaining?

If, as a thought experiment, I took away all the biologically determined aspects of my personality (wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony), would there be anything left whatsoever?  Richard Dawkins certainly thinks so: 

''We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism - something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."  - Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1976)

This 'pure, disinterested altruism' sounds rather like the Bodhicitta that appears when our mind has been freed of delusions.  

So is defiance or eradication of gene-based biological delusions and memetic mind-viruses the way to progress along the spiritual path?  

Dawkins' claim raises a few questions...

(1) If I removed everything biological from my mind, would there be anything left at all? Aren't we just biological mechanisms - biophysical 'gene machines' and nothing more?

(2) Are these genetic drives really tyrannical delusions, or do they serve some useful purpose?   

(3) Are the traditional biologically-based 'seven deadly sins' of Christianity all that I need to eliminate, or is their something deeper that gives rise to them?     

(4) How do I go about eradicating these biologically based delusions?  If I try to repress them will they just do something Freudian and reappear in other, nastier forms - like Islam?   Rather than just trying to hold down the lid on innate genetic drives, is there any way of transforming or transmuting them?

(5) Assuming I could analyse and eradicate all biologically based delusions arising from my selfish genes, and all the garbage from malignant memes, would I automatically become enlightened?  Or are there still other factors holding me back?

So let's examine each of these questions in turn... 

(1) We are nothing but biological machines. If we completely debiologized there'd be nothing left.

This assumes that our behavior and mental activities are completely mechanistically determined. Buddhist philosophy rejects this view.  Removing all biological mechanisms from our mental processes will not remove the 'nama' processes that are the non-biophysical basis of our minds. See
Buddhist Philosophy.

(2) Are these genetic drives really tyrannical delusions, or do they serve some useful purpose?

All animals, including ourselves, have genetically programmed drives to eat, reproduce, fight for territory and mates, kill prey, help our kin and so on. These drives appear to our mind as attachment and aversion.

Manifestations of attachment include sexual desire, hunger and the need for security. Manifestations of aversion include fighting, fleeing and avoiding painful and dangerous situations. All these mental reactions have evolved because they gave our ancestors a selective advantage. They are, or were, essential for preservation of the individual and procreation of its genes.

We humans can to some extent distance ourselves from these drives. We can examine them and if necessary rebel against them. From the Buddhist point of view this is especially significant when these instinctive drives become pathological and turn into harmful 'innate delusions', giving rise to mental states such as anger, hatred, sadism, jealousy, greed, miserliness, sexual abuse and so on.

(3) Are the traditional biologically-based 'seven deadly sins' of Christianity all there are to eliminate, or is their something deeper that gives rise to them?    

In Buddhist ethics, aversion and attachment (and their associated thought patterns such as anger and greed) are two of the Three Poisons. The third poison is ignorance, which consists, among other factors, of being unable to separate the true nature of ones mind from the delusions which afflict it (especially the delusion of inherent existence).   

If we look at the seven deadly sins we see that five of them are in the attachment category (greed, pride, lust, envy and gluttony)  and two are in the aversion category (wrath being a strong aversion to people, and sloth being an aversion to effort).  None could be classed as ignorance, except possibly pride, which since it is an excessive attachment to self-image, necessarily assumes a distorted view of the self (which doesn't actually exist in the way we are accustomed to think of it).

The Buddhist view is that all manifestations of aversion and attachment arise from ignorance of the way that things exist.   This mistaken view regards things, phenomena and people as being inherently or essentially good or bad. So as well as getting rid of the seven deadly sins, we also need to cut their root, which is ignorance of the true nature of reality.

This 'ignorance' of the true nature of reality is also biologically based, and is a result of the limitations of our perceptual and neural systems.  See The evolutionary basis for the delusion of inherent existence in  Evolution, Emptiness and Delusions of the Darwinian Brain


(4)  Repression versus transformation. 
Repression won't make biological delusions go away. It will just bottle them up until they eventually explode.   That's why Buddhist psychology uses 'tantric' techniques to transform attachment into the spiritual path, see  Tantric SexTantra: Transforming enjoyments , Gruesome Tantric Visualizations and Attachment and Tantra 

(5) Assuming I could analyse and eradicate all biologically based delusions arising from my selfish genes, would I automatically become enlightened?  Or are there still other factors holding me back?

If simply debiologizing ourselves was enough to ensure enlightenment, then we'd  all become enlightened as soon as we died! However, according to Buddhist beliefs, as soon as we die, uncontrollable forces (karma) start to work to draw us into future rebirths in biological bodies.

Unfortunately, the ordinary mind has very little choice in its rebirth and will be drawn to an environment determined by its imprints and habitual tendencies.

If we recall the symbiotic minds hypothesis, we can see how this makes biological sense. A biophysical body inhabiting an environmental niche of extreme aggression and violence will be at an advantage if it can attract and capture a mind well acquainted with anger.  One which lives in an environment of severe scarcity would do well to attract a mind which is greedy and miserly. An animal which lives a sedentary boring sort of life, for example chewing the cud, will not benefit from a mind which has its thoughts on anything other than the mundane.   

Minds which are habitually angry, miserly or deliberately ignorant will be captured by inhabitants of  the environments to which they are best adapted.  The others may stand a chance of human rebirth. (In Buddhist beliefs, there is no guarantee that a human mind will be reborn into the human realm - there are plenty of other vacancies to be filled by suitable candidates)

'Sow an action, reap a habit.
Sow a habit, reap a character.
Sow a character, reap a destiny.' 

So as well as rebelling against the tyranny of the selfish replicators, we also need to purify the imprints and habitual tendencies that our minds have accumulated over millennia of being reborn into the biological realms. 


Anthropomorphism and Zoomorphism - anger, hatred and attachment as divine attributes?
Returning to the subject of memes, it's interesting to note how biological and memetic delusions can interact and synergize each other. 

By attributing two of the three poisons (attachment and aversion) to God, theologians are indulging in anthropomorphism (ascribing human characteristics to God), and also zoomorphism (ascribing animal characteristics to God). 

Dogs can show jealousy, bulls can show anger, even ants can show tribalism. All animals show attachment to something - mates, food, territory and status (pecking order).

Sunday School T-shirts?

The three poisons are products of biological evolution. Their purpose is to ensure the best chance of survival of the individual's genes in the natural world 'red in tooth and claw'.

The three poisons persist in humans because our bodies are products of evolution, and our minds have spent long aeons attached to the bodies of animals. 

But the belief that these biologically-based delusions form a part of the psychological make up of the Abrahamic Gods (who presumably have never been biological beings) is itself a delusion caused by anthropomorphic projection of the three poisons of the human mind on the cosmic scale. Man makes God in his own image.

Buddha never ruled out the existence of God as a philosophical concept. Subsequent Buddhist teachers have however warned against worshipping vindictive, jealous, angry, sadistic, possessive faith-based 'samsaric' gods such as Jehovah and Allah, who are merely the omnipotent and eternal mental projections of the worst aspects of human tyrants... 

"But as for those who disbelieve, garments of fire will be cut out for them; boiling fluid will be poured down on their heads.   Whereby that which is in their bellies, and their skins too, will be melted; And for them are hooked rods of iron. Whenever, in their anguish, they would go forth from thence they are driven back therein and (it is said unto them): Taste the doom of burning."

...not exactly what you'd think of as Enlightened Beings.

So an anthropomorphic, zoomorphic or 'samsaric' God could be defined as one who shows one or more of the following features, or encourages them in his devotees:

  • Attachment to being flattered/worshipped.

  • Jealousy of other Gods (Jealousy = Attachment + Hatred). Professor Dawkins quoted a passage from the Bible that commanded that if a friend or member of your family should try to persuade you to worship another god - "You must kill him, your hand must strike the first blow in putting him to death and the hands of the rest of the people following. You must stone him to death because he has tried to divert you from Yahweh your God."

  • Anger when his wishes are unexpectedly thwarted (though if God were really omniscient and omnipotent then he would know in advance that his wishes would be thwarted and could stop it happening because ... oh anyway..)
  • Tribalism to encourage attachment to the Chosen Ones ('The Saved' or 'The Umma') and hatred of 'the other'.  Religious tribalism is rapidly assuming the form of Global Divisiveness - dividing the world into Us and Them, God's Warriors versus God's Enemies, Dar al Harb versus Dar al Islam...  But if God is almighty, why are his enemies still allowed to exist. Why does he need bombers to kill them? Can't he do it himself?

'There is no compulsion in religion'

  • Lust (for 72 virgins).

To a sex-starved, socially-inadequate shaheed, the prospect of sexually enslaving 72 virgins by blowing himself up and killing kuffars in the process may indeed seem like paradise. But consider how attachment may change into aversion over the course of eternity:

Each girl will need to be pleasured at least once a day, and anything less than 15 minutes is going to be a disappointment and reflect badly on your manhood. You'll also need a few minutes for changeover and foreplay before you get stuck in to the next one. So its humping three virgins an hour, every hour, with no rest...

Heaven, Hell or an eternity of aversion therapy? After two weeks even the most pious shaheed would wish he'd been gay. Or maybe he'd just settle for a bowl of raisins.  

Nevertheless, it is blasphemous to examine such beliefs logically.

More at Buddhist Philosophy


Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Rational Basis of Buddhist Philosophy

"It is natural that doubt should arise in your minds.

I tell you not to believe merely because it has been handed down by tradition, or because it had been said by some great personage in the past, or because it is commonly believed, or because others have told it to you, or even because I myself have said it.
But whatever you are asked to believe, ask yourself whether it is true in the light of your experience, whether it is in conformity with reason and good principles and whether it is conducive to the highest good and welfare of all beings, and only if it passes this test, should you accept it and act in accordance with it."

- The Buddha


Buddhism is founded on two fundamental observations, from which the rest of the philosophy is derived. These two basic premises are:

(i) The underlying nature of reality is process and change, rather than stable entities.

(ii) Processes can be divided into two categories -  mental processes and physical/mechanistic processes (nama and rupa) .

Although mental processes and physical processes interact, mental processes are not reducible to physical processes.

According to Buddhism, the basis of reality consists of ever-changing processes rather than static ‘things’.  If any ‘thing’ is analysed in enough depth, and observed over a long enough timescale, it can be seen to be a stage of a dynamic process, rather than a static, stable thing-in-itself. 

This becomes obvious when we remember that the universe is itself a process (a continuing  expansion from the Big Bang), and so all that it contains are subprocesses of the whole.

The Rationality of Buddhism
Of course most religions don't like having their basic tenets subjected to searching analysis, and Jihadism has abandoned reason altogether, to the extent that you're likely to get your head chopped off for being too rational.
But Buddhism is different. In the Kalama Sutra, Buddha said that all religious teachings, including his own should...

(1) Not be believed on the basis of religious authority, or 'holy' books, or family/tribal tradition, or even coercion and intimidation by the mob.


(2) Test the methodology by personal experience. Does it do what it says on the box?

(3) Is the philosophy rational? Or does it require you to believe six impossible things before breakfast?

(4) Judge the tree by its fruits. Is it beneficial, or does it tell you to act against your conscience and 'The Golden Rule'.

According to Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Buddha told his disciples time and time again not to accept his teachings out of blind faith, but to test them as thoroughly as they would assay gold. It is only on the basis of valid reasons and personal experience that we should accept the teachings of anyone, including Buddha himself.


Reason versus revelation
One advantage of establishing a rational basis for Buddhism is that it gives Buddhism an 'intellectual respectability' at a time when the intellectual prestige of other religions is in steep decline, due to increasing obscurantism, which takes variety of forms varying from creationist anti-science to outright terrorism.

This 'intellectual respectability' also may help to prevent Buddhism being hit by collateral damage from increasing prejudice against all religions resulting from jihadist aggression.

Most religions contain some 'revealed doctrines' or 'dogmas', which were revealed long ago to one person or a few people, and then not to any others.

In all religions other than Buddhism, these ancient, unprovable, unrepeatable revelations are fundamental articles of faith on which the rest of the belief-system is constructed.

In contrast, Buddhism's fundamental doctrines are accessible to reason and investigation in terms of shared, repeatable, reproducible experience... full article


Sunday, 26 April 2015

Vatican Calls on Buddhists and Christians to Stand Up Against Modern-Day Slavery

From The Christian Times
by Monica Cantilero

"The Vatican is encouraging Buddhists and Christians to work together to end modern-day slavery, maintaining that the latter is an affront to human dignity and basic rights, a statement from the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue of the Roman Curia said.

The Council issued the statement, titled "Buddhists and Christians, together to counter modern slavery," during the Buddhist holy month of Vesakh (April-May) when Buddhists commemorate Gautama Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death.

The Vatican council emphasized the common respect that Buddhists and Christians have toward life.

"As Buddhists and Christians committed to respect for human life, we must cooperate together to end this social plague," the Council said. "Pope Francis invites us to overcome indifference and ignorance by offering assistance to victims, in working for their psychological and educational rehabilitation, and in efforts to reintegrate them into society where they live or from which they come."

The Council recounted that Buddha himself opposed trade using human beings. Citing a section of the "Eightfold Path," the Council said Gautama Buddha regarded trading in live beings such as slaves and prostitutes is one of the five occupations that should not be engaged in. According to Buddhist teachings, possessions should be obtained peacefully, with honesty, and through legal means, not in a way that causes harm or suffering and without coercion, violence or deceit, the Council noted.

The Council also blamed corruption as an impediment to seeing other people as one's equal.

"Human hearts deformed by corruption and ignorance are, according to the Holy Father, the cause of these terrible evils against humanity. When hearts are corrupted, human beings no longer see others as 'beings of equal dignity, as brothers or sisters sharing a common humanity, but rather as objects,'" the Council said.

In his message during this year's World Day of Peace, Pope Francis said historically, slavery causes the "rejection of others, their mistreatment, violations of their dignity and fundamental rights, and institutionalised inequality."

The Pontiff noted that even though the international community has already adopted several measures to end slavery, there are still "millions of people today – children, women and men of all ages – deprived of freedom and forced to live in conditions akin to slavery."

The Pope cited the following instances of modern-day slavery: "Men, women and child laborers; migrants who undergo physical, emotional and sexual abuse while working in shameful working conditions; persons forced into prostitution, many of whom are minors, as well as male and female sex slaves; those kidnapped by terrorists and forced to be combatants, and those who are tortured, mutilated or killed."

Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Emptiness of Emptiness

The Two Truths of Buddhism and The Emptiness of Emptiness
From an excellent article by Susan Kahn    

"...Nagarjuna’s doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness involves many reasonings that interrelate in deep and comprehensive ways.  To begin with, to be empty is to be dependently arisen and emptiness is no exception.  Ultimate truth is fully dependent upon conventional phenomena to perceive their emptiness.  And as entities are ultimately unfindable, this absence that is emptiness, cannot be non-empty and findable.  This recognition uncovers the ultimate truth that emptiness is empty.  But there is more to the argument.

It can also be deduced that if the emptiness of inherent existence is ultimately true, then emptiness must also be empty.  If emptiness existed in the independent self-established sense, then emptiness would not be empty but inherently existent.  And since everything is empty, that would make everything inherently existent too.  So if phenomena were empty but emptiness was non-empty, the ultimate truth of the negation of inherent existence would itself be negated.  Instead, the teaching that emptiness is empty is consistent with emptiness as an ultimate truth.

Nagarjuna’s reasoning extends into an eloquent somersault that completes the analysis.  If emptiness is empty, as in an absence, then it can only conventionally exist.  For there is nothing that can be identified about the emptiness of things, as in the example of elephantlessness.  What is not conventionally designated does not exist in any positive sense, is not an object, hence its emptiness. 

Therefore, to be empty is to only conventionally exist and likewise, to conventionally exist is the only way to be empty.  Furthermore, as there are no true objects to know, conventional truth is also the only truth there is.  This is the ultimate truth of emptiness and thus, a conventional truth.  The doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness culminates in the insight that the two truths, the ultimate and conventional are ontologically the same, like two different sides of the same coin.

To recognize emptiness as conventional is to thoroughly refute inherent existence and to underscore the recognition that emptiness is the emptiness of conventional phenomena, nothing more substantive than that.  This insight undermines a contradictory and dualistic reality where emptiness is totally real, while the conventional is totally unreal.  Nagarjuna’s doctrine negates ultimate truth as an independent base from which to assert an objective, non-empty view.  All views can only be conventionally true.

“Therefore it is said that whoever makes a philosophical view out of emptiness is indeed lost.” - Nagarjuna    read it all

Read more at Buddhist Philosophy

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Meditation - short term craze or long term opportunity for the growth of Buddhism?

Suddenly everybody’s meditating  - from stressed-out film stars and business executives, to senior citizens trying to slow down the effects of ageing. We’re all suffering from information overload, and a favorite way to bring order to the chaos of our minds is to meditate.

Although most of the meditation techniques are based on Buddhist methods, they are usually presented in a secular manner.  The marketing ploy seems to be: ‘Although the Buddhists have by some accident discovered techniques for calming and healing mind and body, let’s forget about their theories and all that religious stuff, and just concentrate on the practical methods for the here and now’. 

But can such secular meditation lead on to spiritual meditation? Can meditation for mundane purposes introduce people to the Buddhadharma?  Is this an opportunity for the growth of Buddhism in the West?


Tangled mind 
People are often motivated into taking up meditation by the realisation that their overloaded thought-processes feel like this…

Information overload

What they’re hoping to do is to sort them out into something neat and tidy like this....

Tidy thoughts

But what they might eventually experience, as they untangle their minds, is something like this, where they become aware of a clear central core to the mind…

The Core of Awareness


That central core (the 'root mind' or 'pure awareness') is non-physical and continues onwards when all the other strands, threads and processes of the mind have come to an end.   The core of the mind is like an optical fiber - clear and illuminating. It is the clear, pure awareness that is central to other thought processes.

Secular mindfulness meditations allow the meditator to catch a glimpse of this clear core by parting the tangled threads of peripheral thought processes.   However, only more advanced meditations, especially the Tantric-style ones, allow the meditator to actually manipulate this central core and its contents. For like a clear optical fiber, it carries information onwards from the end of this life to all our future lives

Mindfulness meditation primes the mind for spiritual experiences
From The Huffington Post 
"The practice of mindfulness dates back at least 2,500 years to early Buddhism, and since then, it's played an important role in a number of spiritual traditions.

While the stillness and connecting with one's inner self cultivated through mindfulness are certainly an important part of a spiritual practice, feelings of wonder and awe -- the amazement we get when faced with incredible vastness -- are also central to the spiritual experience. And according to new research, mindfulness may actually set the stage for awe.

Mindfulness is the key element of the spiritual experience in a number of different religions.

Awe is defined as a feeling of fascination and amazement invoked by an encounter with something larger than ourselves that is beyond our ordinary frameworks of understanding. Previous research has shown that spirituality, nature and art are the most common ways that we experience awe.

"You can't digest [the object of awe] with your cognitive structures -- it's too big for you," University of Groningen psychologist Dr. Brian Ostafin told the Huffington Post. "So there's a need for accommodation, to change your mental structures to understand what that is. This is the key element of the spiritual experience in a number of different religions..."

Progressing from secular meditation to the dharma
Mindfulness meditation is probably not a temporary craze, but is here to stay, since information overload is not going to decrease, and our lives or not going to get any less busy. Buddhists need to show that the dharma starts where secular meditation techniques leave off.   It will require skillful presentation to introduce spiritual ideas to an increasingly secular audience, without scaring them off with 'religion', and its associated bad vibes.

Read more at Buddhist Philosophy


How to meditate on the peaceful clarity of your own mind

Analytical and Placement Meditation

How to meditate

Daily Lamrim

What to Meditate on 

Sitting in Meditation 

Preparing for Meditation 

The Meditation Session 

A Meditation Schedule

Meditation Retreat

Kadampa Working Dad 

Kadampa Life

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Could meditation apps help the growth of Buddhism in the West?

The recent growth in the popularity of meditation has given rise to a range of meditation apps for phones and tablets.   Most of these are secularized introductions to mindfulness-style meditations designed for stressed-out commuters (there doesn't yet seem to be a Lamrim app!) . 

Nevertheless, there appears to be some potential here, both in terms of stimulating interest in meditation by way of mindfulness as described previously, and also the development of more specifically dharma-based apps.

So maybe it's time for the sangha to get programming!    I'd do it myself but my programming skills don't extend much beyond FORTRAN, and I haven't yet found a mobile phone with a built-in punched-card reader.

See also
Man behind meditation app goes from monk to millionaire
Ten best meditation apps 
Growth of Buddhism in the West - SWOT analysis

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Buddhism and secular meditation - conflict or cooperation?

Traditional Buddhist Meditation Methods

Meditation is all the rage at the moment in academia, business, the medical profession and also with ordinary stressed-out individuals suffering from information overload.

The clinical and business meditation techniques that have become so popular are based on traditional Buddhist practices. However, they are usually marketed with all the spiritual content stripped out, to make them appeal to a non-Buddhist and increasingly secular public.

From a secular, academic, medical and business viewpoint, the aspects of meditation that are evoking interest are:

(i) Somatic effects - effects on the structure, growth, neuroplasticity and ageing of tissues, cells and cellular structures, such as grey matter of the brain and telomeres of the cell nucleus [1, 2, 3, 4 ] .

(ii) Biochemical effects - effects on hormones and metabolic systems. [1, 2, 3, 4 ]

(iii) Healing - effects on the immune system [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

(iv) Physiological - effects on stress, blood pressure, pain control etc [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]  

(v) Neurological - measurable changes in brain activity [1, 2, 3]

(vi) Psychological - effects on personal well-being, clarity of mind and interpersonal relationships with family, friends and colleagues [1, 2,
3, 4]

Of course what's left out are any spiritual aspects.   The medical profession and academia are for the most part only interested in physical and chemical effects that are measurable under laboratory conditions. As a result of the prevailing materialistic philosophy in academia, spiritual aspects are dismissed as non-existent, or reduced to just another aspect of psychology.

Corporations are interested in practical methods for improving the health and mental performance of their employees as individuals,  and improving their relationships with their co-workers as members of a team. But companies probably don't want their employees becoming too interested in spirituality, or maybe they'll freak out and go and join some New Age commune.


Competition or complementarity?
So what are Buddhists to make of this secularisation and high powered marketing of their traditional practices. Have they been plagiarized? Are Buddhists facing competition from an ersatz and inferior product? 

Should they be resentful?  Well that would be un-Buddhist! 

The right response should be to rejoice in the good fortune of all those people who are having their mental and physical health improved by meeting with Buddhist methods, even if they don't know they're Buddhist in origin.

And of course there's an opportunity for spreading the Buddhadharma.  Since all the spiritual aspects have been stripped out of commercially marketed meditation courses, there's a fairly obvious gap regarding any explanation of what's actually going on in the mind of the practitioner.  This is likely to arouse interest and curiosity in investigating meditation further, and exploring the philosophical basis of the practices.     

Read more at Buddhist Philosophy


Sunday, 22 March 2015

Buddhas of Bamiyan - only the beginning...

By V.S. Naipaul For The Mail On Sunday

"The Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul has warned that Islamic State are the most potent threat to the world since the Nazis.

In a hard-hitting article in today’s Mail on Sunday, the revered novelist brands the extremist Muslim organisation as the Fourth Reich, saying it is comparable to Adolf Hitler’s regime in its fanaticism and barbarity.

Calling for its ‘military annihilation,’ the Trinidadian-born British writer says IS is ‘dedicated to a contemporary holocaust’, has a belief in its own ‘racial superiority,’ and produces propaganda that Goebbels would be proud of.

A long-term critic of Islam as a global threat, he also challenges those who say the extremists have nothing to do with the real religion of Islam, suggesting that the simplicity of some interpretations of the faith have a strong appeal to a minority.

"Imagine a world in which a young man is locked in a cage, has petrol showered over him and is set alight to be burnt alive.

Imagine the triumphant jeering of an audience that has gathered to witness this. Imagine, also, a 12-year-old child with elated determination on his features shooting at close range a kneeling man with his arms tied behind his back.

Then picture the spectacle of a hundred beheadings of victim after victim in humiliating uniforms, their hands and feet bound, kneeling with their backs to their black-robed executioners who wield knives to cut their throats as though they were sacrificial lambs.

Picture queues of helpless men and women being marched by zealous executioners who nail them to wooden crosses and crucify them, howling and bleeding to death as crowds watch.

Then picture thousands of girls and women, their arms tied, being marched by hooded and armed captors into sexual slavery. And then, if that is not enough, picture men being thrown off cliffs to their deaths because they are accused of being gay.

Yes, all these scenes could have taken place in several continents in the medieval world, but they were captured on camera and broadcast to anyone with access to the internet. These are scenes, of yesterday, today and tomorrow in our own world.

I have always distrusted abstractions and have turned into writing what I could discover and explore for myself.

So I must begin by admitting that I have not recently travelled in those regions threatened by barbarism – the Middle East, the north west of Africa, in pockets of Pakistan and in the Islamic countries of south eastern Asia.
Isis could very credibly abandon the label of Caliphate and call itself the Fourth Reich

Isis could very credibly abandon the label of Caliphate and call itself the Fourth Reich

However, in the 1980s and early 1990s I undertook to examine the ‘revival’ of Islam that was taking place through the revolution in Iran and the renewed dedication to the religion of other countries.

I travelled through Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia attempting to discover the ideas and convictions behind this new ‘fundamentalism’.

My first book was called Among The Believers and the second, perhaps prophetically, Beyond Belief. Since those books were written, the word ‘fundamentalism’ has taken on new meanings.

As the word suggests, it means going back to the groundings, to the foundations and perhaps to first principles. It is used to characterise the interpretation given to passages of the Koran, to the Hadith, which is a collection of the acts in the life of the Prophet Mohammed and to an interpretation of sharia law.

However, the particular fundamentalist ideology of ‘Islamist’ groups that have dedicated themselves to terror – such as Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and now in its most vicious, barbaric and threatening form the Islamic Caliphate, Isis or the Islamic State (IS) – interprets the foundation and the beginning as dating from the birth of the Prophet Mohammed in the 6th Century.

This fundamentalism denies the value and even the existence of civilisations that preceded the revelations of the Koran.

It was an article of 6th and 7th Century Arab faith that everything before it was wrong, heretical. There was no room for the pre-Islamic past.

So an idea of history was born that was fundamentally different from the ideas of history that the rest of the world has evolved.

In the centuries following, the world moved on. Ideas of civilisation, of other faiths, of art, of governance of law and of science and invention grew and flourished.

This Islamic ideological insistence on erasing the past may have survived but it did so in abeyance, barely regarded even in the Ottoman Empire which declared itself to be the Caliphate of all Islam.

But now the evil genie is out of the bottle. The idea that faith abolishes history has been revived as the central creed of the Islamists and of Isis.

Their determination to deny, eliminate and erase the past manifests itself in the destruction of the art, artefacts and archaeological sites of the great empires, the Persian, the Assyrian and Roman that constitute the histories of Mesopotamia and Syria.

They have bulldozed landmarks in the ancient city of Dur Sharukkin and smashed Assyrian statues in the Mosul museum. Destroying the winged bull outside the fortifications of Nineveh satisfies the same reductive impulse behind the destruction by the Taliban of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan..."  Read it all

See also 

Islam will destroy Buddhism

Islam will Dominate - The Islamic Threat to Buddhism

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Buddhism reduces religious intolerance - even among non-Buddhists.

Monotheistic intolerance

From The Pacific Standard

by Tom Jacobs

"Love Religion, but Hate Intolerance? Try Buddhism

New research finds that, unlike those of monotheistic faiths, Buddhist concepts do not inspire prejudice toward outsiders.

Does religion do more harm than good? Considerable research suggests the answer depends upon the type of “good” you are considering. Many studies have linked religiosity with mental and physical health, as well as a stronger tendency to help those around you. Others have found it inspires prejudice against perceived outsiders.

A newly published paper reports this trade-off may not be universal. It finds calling to mind concepts of one major world religion—Buddhism—boosts both selfless behavior and tolerance of people we perceive as unlike ourselves.

Reminders of Buddhist beliefs “activate both universal pro-sociality and, to some extent (given the role of individual differences), tolerance of people holding other religious beliefs or belonging to other ethnic groups,” writes a research team led by psychologist Magali Clobert, a visiting postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University.
“After being primed with Buddhist words, participants reported lower explicit negative attitudes toward all kinds of out-groups.”

In the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Clobert and her colleagues concede that the mention of mantras or meditation don’t impact everyone in the same way. Indeed, they have little if any effect on people with strong authoritarian tendencies.

But for the rest of us, having Buddhist ideas on the brain appears to not only evoke caring, but also reduce prejudice. This dynamic was found in three experiments featuring, respectively, people raised in a Christian society, people raised in a Buddhist culture, and Western converts to Buddhism... more

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Chaplain's Corner - Rev. Scott Kershner

From  The Crusader

'When I was a junior in college, I left southern Minnesota and studied for a semester in Thailand.

The study of Buddhism there changed the course of my life forever. I had been raised as a Christian, but had not reflected much about what that meant to me. My encounter with Buddhism opened expansive, life-giving questions. What did it mean to be selfless? Is that possible? What did it mean to live in community? What is freedom? What is prayer? I found there was much to admire and learn from in Buddhism. I couldn't have named it then, but I had begun to gain what is called "appreciative knowledge".

In fact, what I discovered was that Buddhism helped me return to the Christian faith of my family and cultural background with fresh eyes. After I returned, I found, to my great surprise, that the faith tradition under my own feet was deep and life-giving soil if I would give my roots some time to grow. Thus began my journey of return to Christian faith and eventually my ordination as a Lutheran pastor.

Our spiritual lives can be greatly enriched by encounters with other traditions. As we see human lives and admire teachings in traditions and cultures other than our own, we develop appreciative knowledge, and our lives are forever enriched. For the gift the Buddhist tradition has been to me, I can only say: Thanks be to God.'



Thursday, 12 February 2015

Family Values - Christians and Buddhists meet in Bodh Gaya

Interfaith Meeting in Bodh Gaya

From Vatican Radio  

"Fifteen delegates from the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, and fifteen representatives of the three main Buddhist denominations - Theravada, Vajrayana, and Mayahana - met at Bodh Gaya, a Buddhist site in Bihar (India), on Wednesday  to discuss the family, understood both as the "basic cell of society," as well as the expression of "global solidarity" between the different religions. After the gathering, set to end on Friday, the Vatican delegates will travel to Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh) for a similar event with Hindu and Muslim spiritual leaders.

Mgr Felix Machado, bishop of Vasai, president of the Office for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC) and of the Office for Inter-religious Dialogue of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI), is present at the event along with Mgr Salvatore Pennacchio, apostolic nuncio to India. "Both of our religious traditions and cultural experiences affirm the beauty of the family," the prelate told AsiaNews. "By reflecting on this, our leaders can examine and propose ways to support and revitalise family life in order to make human society prosper."

"The aim of our bilateral dialogue is to support each other in the work of strengthening the family, the basic unit of society, the nation and global solidarity," Mgr Machado added. The issue of "The family and children does not touch only Catholics," he explained. "In almost all cultures of the world, and in most religions, concerns have been raised about attacks against the institution of the family."

Spiritual leaders are expected to focus in particular on the difficult situations in which many children find themselves. "My thoughts," said the Bishop of Vasai, "go to those born out of wedlock who experience depression or develop long term psychosomatic disorders that result from divorce; not to mention the children victim of human trafficking or abuse." In view of this, "We intend to look for new ways to help our children."

Bodh Gaya is a religious site associated with the Mahabodhi Temple Complex and the Bodhi tree. Here, according to tradition, Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and became the Buddha."