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



Fundamentals

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.

BUT INSTEAD ONE SHOULD

(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.'

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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."


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Historical Sites Recall When Kazakhstan Was Buddhist





 

By Michelle Witte in Kazakhstan Tourism on 9 February

'ASTANA – Kazakhstan today is a mostly Muslim country, but the Silk Road that crossed it was an important conduit for religions, including Buddhism, and some of Kazakhstan’s historic carvings and monuments are neither Muslim nor animist, but homages to Buddhas, bodhisattvas and the monks who carried their teachings from India and China across the Eurasian landmass.

Buddhism gained a large following in Central Asia between the second century B.C. up to the coming of Islam to the region around the eighth century, and many of the Turkic peoples living in Kazakhstan adopted it. Though now the Buddhist population of Kazakhstan is small – only about 0.5 percent of the population as of 2007 – the country has the largest number of Buddhists in Central Asia. It is also dotted with remnants of its Buddhist past, particularly in the Zhetysu (“seven rivers”) area of modern-day southeastern Kazakhstan, which includes today’s Almaty oblast and historically extended into Kyrgyzstan.

Within that area are the Tamgaly-Tas (“Stones with Signs”), one of Kazakhstan’s most popular tourist destinations and a UNESCO World Heritage site...'    Full article

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Meditation helps prevent Alzheimer’s disease





Meditation can help ward off Alzheimer’s disease by keeping the mind younger for longer

From the Daily Express


"Research appears to show those practising the technique can boost the grey matter in their brains.

Scientists believe this could lead to a new tool to combat the growing rate of mental illness in an ageing population.

We can start to lose some functional abilities from as early as our mid-20s.

But tests appear to show the process is slowed up by contemplation.

Dr Florian Kurth, of the University of California, Los Angeles, said his team was surprised by the difference in brain volume among participants who had meditated for years and those who had not...."   FULL ARTICLE



This example of 'mind over matter', where thought processes affect the structure of the brain (rather than vice versa), demonstrates the mysterious phenomenon of 'downward causation', which really shouldn't happen if the mind is just an epiphenomenon or emergent property of the brain. 

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Disembodied minds and consciousness without the brain


Does the mind need the brain in order to function?  Can there be such things as disembodied minds?  Can minds exist without matter?

According to Buddhist process philosophy, there is no logical reason why not...




Process Philosophy and the Mind
Process philosophers claim that processes, rather than things or substances, are at the basis of reality.  There are no basic building blocks of the world, because when those potential building blocks are examined in sufficient detail, they are all found to be processes rather than things  (they are dynamic wave-functions which only behave as particles under specially constrained circumstances).

Similarly, minds are not ‘things’, they are processes.  Buddhist meditators claim that the mind is a continuous process which is subtly conscious even in the deepest dreamless sleep. According to Buddhist teachings, the mind is also conscious after death (‘for in that sleep of death, what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil…’)


Two Types of Process - Mechanistic and Mental

According to process philosophy, there are two types of processes in the universe - mechanistic and mental. This view is known as ‘process dualism’ and should be carefully distinguished from Cartesian ‘substance dualism’, which believes in a body which is inhabited by a soul.

Mechanistic processes are those that can be modelled by a Turing machine, or combination of Turing machines (such as the instruction-set of a computer). Mechanistic processes include all the laws of physics (see the Church-Turing-Deutsch Principle), plus any algorithms you care to mention, whether they correspond to anything physical or not.

Mental processes are those that cannot be modelled by Turing machines or computers, and consist of subjective phenomena known as ‘qualia’ (qualitative experiences such suffering and pleasure) and ‘intentionality’ (meaning, attention, ‘aboutness’ and semantics),  plus possibly also some intuitive mathematical perceptions such as Gödel’s Theorem).



The Hard Problem
Although mechanistic and mental processes interact in the brain and are obviously closely correlated, there is no known mechanism (and maybe there is no possible mechanism)  for physical events in the brain to produce mental events (this mystery is known in the trade as ‘The Explanatory Gap and/or ‘The Hard Problem’). 

Buddhist philosophers claim that the mind is a permanently active process rather than a passive recipient of neural events, and has to actively observe changes of neural states to turn them into mental experiences.  The mind is said to ‘go to’ its object.

This is given credence by the fact that although is seems impossible to envisage any mechanism for the neural events to produce mental events, the converse is not the case.   A plausible (though admittedly controversial) mechanism known as the Quantum Zeno Effect has been proposed for interfacing mental attention (an aspect of intentionality) with neural firings. 

So, in any contest for ontological primacy between the mental and the physical, it could be that the mental has a slight advantage. But anyway, let's not go there in this particular post.   Let's just accept that mental and physical processes are different but equal, though both types have ontological primacy over 'things', substances and material appearances (which are all reducible to processes).




Disembodied Physical Processes.
Nowadays we know that disembodied processes can exist and operate in the physical world. These are processes with no need for supporting matter, medium or substrates. They are standalone processes that do their things with no visible means of support.  

The first such disembodied process was identified in 1887 by Michaelson and Morley, who proved that the luminiferous (‘light-bearing’) aether simply did not exist.   This came as a shock to the Victorians.  After all, light was known to be a process of oscillating waves, and waves had to propagate through some sort of medium like the waves on the sea, or sound waves through the air.   


The acceptance of independently functioning processes caused a major rethink of classical physics and led to the Theory of Relativity.

Another  even worse surprise came when it was found that particles of matter, when examined carefully at a small enough scale, also behaved as waves, and interfered with each other and even with themselves.  But waves travelling through what?  They couldn’t possibly be propagating through matter, because they were matter!
 

Consequently, all notions of matter being a fundamental aspect of the world disappeared from physics by mid twentieth century, and process metaphysics ruled supreme.




Equal Opportunities for Mental Processes!

So, if physical processes can operate in the complete absence of any material basis, substrate, medium or means of support, then why shouldn’t mental processes be able to do the same?  I appreciate this is an argument from analogy, with the use of Occam's razor ("entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity") to cut down the superfluous ontological apparatus of an unnecessary substrate, but it does demonstrate that there’s no logical reason that mental processes need to be embodied in matter (e.g. brains) in order to continue to function.  Indeed, recent evidence suggests that mental activity may continue when the brain has shut down.    


If the brain shuts down permanently, then the mental continuum (the root mind) may have to wander off and find another brain to associate with.    As the Buddhist philosopher and computer pioneer Alan Turing said  "When the body dies, the 'mechanism' of the body holding the spirit is gone, and the spirit finds a new body sooner or later, perhaps immediately." 







Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The equation that explains everything?



My cheat sheet says the answer is 42

Did you know that we are nothing but biological machines governed by physical processes which, according to the leading materialist philosopher Sean Carroll, are completely modelled by the above equation?  (Hat tip Jayarava)

Now I wouldn’t claim to understand the various parts the equation, let alone the equation as a whole, but I’m pretty sure, assuming the Church-Turing-Deutsch principle to be true, that the whole equation consists of a concatenation of Turing Machines and nothing else.  The Turing Machine is a mathematical structure (not normally or necessarily instantiated as an actual physical device)  that completely describes the concept of ‘mechanism’ to any level of complexity, including computers and all phenomena that can be modelled by computers.  


This immediately flags up two yawning gaps in this model's claim to be a complete description of the world. This equation cannot deal with (i) qualitative phenomena (qualia) nor (ii) anything that involves meaning and semantics (intentionality), because Turing Machines can only process Boolean, quantitative and syntactical information, and  have zero capabilities with intentionality and qualia.  In fact, no matter how many zillions of Turing machines you concatenate, a zillion times zero is still zero.

And no matter how may megazillions of Turing Machines you concatenate or link in a network, you won't get any mind-like 'emergent properties' emerging from them, because emergent properties emerge from the mind of the observer, not from the data.  The materialists' claim that mind is an emergent property of mechanism seems to be an example of the logical fallacy of petitio principii or circular reasoning.




Is the bunch of cherries an emergent property of the 13x15 pixel array, or does it emerge from the mind of the observer?

Incompleteness and incoherence
So Sean Carroll's equation may be accurate, but it is incomplete. 
 

It may accurately describe all known physical processes, but it says nothing about non-physical processes such as the experience of qualia (and most significanty, from the Buddhist viewpoint, the pervasive experience of dukkha) neither does it address intentional awareness - such basic features of our world as attention and aboutness.                                 
 

The incoherence of materialism
Materialism claims that the basis of all phenomena is matter.  This is incoherent and unscientific and has been demonstrably so since the Michaelson-Morley experiment.   


Michaelson and Morley proved that the foundations of electromagnetic physics  are based on processes, not substances.    Prior to their experiment it had been assumed that light waves and the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum propagated in the same manner as sound and water waves, through a substrate.  Michaelson and Morley proved that this hypothetical substrate (known as the 'luminiferous aether') did not exist.  So light waves are pure 'disembodied' processes which function without any material support whatsoever, with no need for even the wispy and tenuous hint of matter or substance provided by the aether.

Subsequently, quantum mechanics dealt the death blow to the 'substantialist' interpretation of physics by showing that fundamental particles aren't 'things' at all, but are processes.   Electrons and protons etc only appear as 'things' at the moment of measurement.  (They are reified by the observer).  When left to themselves they propagate through space as probability waves, which are of course processes. Consequently, Sean Carroll's equation is not about substances and 'things in themselves', it deals with relationships and dynamics, in other words processes.

The incoherence of substance dualism
Substance dualism is an erroneous attempt to counteract materialism by claiming that there are non-material things and substances, such as souls and ectoplasm.   This fails as a model of the mental world for much the same reasons as materialism fails as a model of the physical world.  Mental phenomena, like physical phenomena, are ultimately processes rather than things.   The root mind is known is Buddhism as the 'mental continuum' or 'mindstream', and like Heraclitus' river is never the same thing for two successive instants.

The Hard Problem
So the Hard Problem of consciousness, which is normally stated as 'how does the mind interact with the body?', could be restated from a  Buddhist viewpoint as 'how do mental processes interact with mechanistic processes?'  One possibility, as suggested by
Henry Stapp is by intentionality in the form of attention acting via the Quantum Zeno effect.



Read more at Buddhist Philosophy

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The appalling reputation of religion

Ecrasez l'infâme!


In recent weeks we have seen the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the kosher deli massacre, the Quran-inspired atrocities of the Islamic State and the blogger being slowly and sadistically flogged to death for the crime of insulting Islam.  So is it any wonder that young people are becoming increasingly hostile to religion,  and many children have come to  regard religious people as dangerous and threatening?


Obviously the main culprit nowadays is Islam , but you don't need to look too far back into the history of most religions, with the exceptions of Buddhism, Jainism and Anglican Latitudinarianism (with its spin-offs such as Quakerism and Methodism) to find doctrinally mandated intolerance and incitement to genocide, homophobia, anti-intellectualism discrimination etc.   Even the supposedly liberal Pope Francis has recently endorsed physical attacks on blasphemers.  It seems that old habits die hard.


Guilt by association?
So should Buddhism continue to market itself primarily as a religion? Might this attract guilt by association and collateral damage?    Should Buddhism concentrate on its spiritual rather than religious aspects in order to appeal to modern youth?  


The term  'spirituality' is more acceptable among the young than religion (hence the rise of the 'spiritual but not religious' demographic).  In addition, Buddhism could market itself as a psychotherapy and philosophy.





 



















Is philosophy more acceptable than religion?
 
If Buddhism is referred to as a religion, it needs to emphasise that it is a uniquely special kind of religion - one founded on philosophy.  All other religions are based upon unreproducible instances of 'divine revelation', where unverifiable 'truths' are revealed to one person or a small group of people and claimed to be the word of God, valid for all time.  Critical thinking and doubt are not encouraged.


Hence the sunstroke-induced hallucinatory ramblings, ravings and rantings of a seventh-century psychopathic pedophile are still producing rape, pillage and genocide wherever they are taken literally 1400 years later.  'As dangerous in a man as rabies in dog', to quote Churchill.


The Kalama people of India had many similar charlatans and madmen trying to convert them by claiming their own divinely inspired doctrines were correct, and everybody else was wrong.

One day the Buddha turned up, and the Kalamas asked him why they should believe his teachings rather than all the cult leaders, conmen and false prophets whom they had already seen off.

The Buddha replied:

"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." 

 
So the Buddha is making a statement which is found in no other religion. Unlike all other religious leaders he is not claiming a hotline to God, a personal, non-reproducible revelation which appears to him and no-one else.

He was saying:

(1) Do not believe anything on the basis of religious authority, or 'holy' books, or family/tribal tradition, or even coercion and intimidation by the mob.

BUT

(2) Test the methodology against your own 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'.


So maybe Buddhism needs to be marketed to an increasingly skeptical and anti-religious public as...

(1) An empirically testable psychotherapy.
(2) An ethical and humane spirituality'
(3) A belief system built upon a solid philosophical foundation.




Read more at Buddhist Philosophy




























Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Controlling pain with mindfulness meditation


Vidyamala Burch
From the BBC



"Vidyamala Burch is helping people in pain through the practice of "mindfulness", the act of paying more attention to the present moment. But it took her many years to discover it for herself first.

When people are having serious difficulties, it can bring out the extreme sides of people's personalities, says Vidyamala Burch, a 55-year-old pain management practitioner based in Manchester. "One is the denial, pushy, driven side and the other is the more passive, overwhelmed, depressive side."

Burch lives with chronic pain having acquired two spinal injuries at an early age. The first happened at 16 when she lifted somebody from a swimming pool during water safety practice. The second was the result of a car accident five years later...




...A lengthy period of rehabilitation followed in which she tried many different relaxation techniques. Three years later, she found that one, called Mindful Meditation, worked well for her.

"We have adapted the 'mindful movement' so that the primary emphasis is on being aware as you move, rather than how far you can move”

Now more widely known as mindfulness, it can be described as the act of focusing on the present moment, acknowledging thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. It is thousands of years old and Buddhist in origin, but has become popular as a therapy in the West in recent years.

Though perhaps most commonly associated with tackling mental health difficulties, and strongly promoted by the NHS for this, one of its first applications in this part of the world was to help with pain.

Burch says that when you have severe discomfort, there's a "rising up" in your body that exclaims "this hurts and I don't like it".

"The intuitive response is to turn away from it and try and get on with life in spite of your pain," she says. "With mindfulness, what we do is we turn towards it, to investigate what is actually happening in each moment."

In 2000, now ordained as a Buddhist, she found herself struggling to find paid work which she could physically manage. The idea occurred to her that she might be able to help others with pain on a professional basis.

She started a social enterprise called Breathworks where people with chronic pain take an eight-week course to learn how mindfulness could help them cope better with their physical symptoms..."

Read it all here




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Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Buddhist militancy triggers international concern




by Robert Spencer

"When did you ever see in the Financial Times, or anywhere else in the mainstream media, an article entitled, “Muslim militancy triggers international concern” — unless it was devoted to downplaying that concern or denying that there was anything rightly called “Muslim militancy” at all? When did you ever see in the Financial Times, or in any other mainstream media outlet, a victim of Islamic jihad being quoted saying: “If I could meet those responsible, I would ask: ‘Sir, does your prophet Muhammad teach this?’” When did you ever see in the Financial Times, or anywhere else, an exploration of whether Buddha or Muhammad actually did teach or incite violence?

No violence against any innocent people, Muslim or non-Muslim, is ever justified. This ridiculous piece makes no mention, however, of the fact that all the conflict — in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand — between Buddhists and Muslims was caused by Muslims attacking Buddhists. The Buddhists responded, and this is what they get. James Crabtree and Michael Peel would apparently have preferred that they surrender quietly to the jihad, and submit to being massacred or enslaved.

If Buddhists were organized like Muslims, we would now start seeing the mainstream media filled with weepy articles about “Buddhismophobia,” and laments that opposition to Buddhist militancy was really just a smoke screen for “racism” and “bigotry,” and that there wasn’t really any Buddhist militancy anyway, as it was actually all just a creation of those Buddhismophobes. But they aren’t, and we won’t..."   Full article

 

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