Sunday, 29 May 2011

Offering Crystals on Buddhist Shrines

Buddhist Crystal Offerings
Geodes, crystal wish-granting tree, quartz crystals and amethysts as crystal offerings to the Buddhas (click image to enlarge)

Crystals, with their combined  translucent, reflective and refractive properties are used to symbolise...

Wish granting tree on crystal base with crystal leaves

Wish granting trees are often made from crystals. The facets of the crystals radiate in all directions the fulfillment of the wishes of those wanting to be free from suffering.

Geodes symbolise emptiness.

Medicine Buddha with blue geode

Crystal Healing
Some practitioners include specific crystals for their healing properties within their shrine offerings. Therapists place their healing crystals before the Buddhas to purify them and increase their potency with the Buddhas' blessings.

Quartz Crystal Geode

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Subject Index

This index is now hosted at 


Rational Buddhism

The Sleep of Reason brings forth Monsters
I've started a new blog, RATIONAL BUDDHISM, to explore to what extent the teachings of Buddhism can be derived from reason and observation, rather than relying excessively on 'revealed truths' as in the more obscurantist dogmatic religions. 

If we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then how much mileage can we get from the first two aspects before we have to start invoking religious faith?

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 the dogmatic religions is in steep decline.

Introductory article



Manjushri's seed syllable the orange letter DHI

The Letter DHI

Manjushri's seed syllable DHI is used in many wisdom visulizations.  It is normally visualized as orange-colored.   It is the final syllable of Manjushri's mantra



Saturday, 21 May 2011

Ed Halliwell - Comment is free

Just came across a series of interesting posts on Buddhism and Mindfulness by Ed Halliwell at the Guardian's Comment is Free. Here are a few excerpts:

Meditation is an emotional rollercoaster
"...A lot of people now come to meditation having read reports on the virtues of mindfulness. Last week there was one claiming it can ward off ageing, and one suggesting meditators make more rational decisions. A month ago mindfulness was declared more effective for pain relief than morphine (maybe, but I still wouldn't fancy the dentist's drill without an injection), while it's also being said to increase grey matter in the brain, ease the fear of dying, and help US army troops operate effectively in a war zone, as well as protecting them from post-traumatic stress. Two new books are out in May, offering meditation plans as a proven path to wellbeing.

Such reports and regimes are genuinely helpful – I've written and enthused about similar ones myself – but collectively they can start to give the impression that meditation is the cure for all life's ills, and that if we could just sit down and follow the breath, problems and pain will fall away. Ten or 20 years ago, meditation suffered from an undeserved association with flaky new-ageism; today there's a danger of another unhelpful image – mindfulness as hassle-free, quick fix.

As anyone who's actually sat down to practise knows, this is a consumer fantasy. Mindfulness has a great many benefits, but they tend to come as a by-product of getting up close to unpleasant experiences like pain, turmoil, and "negative" thought patterns. Striving to avoid unwanted aspects of ourselves and our lives creates stress – by facing them openly in meditation, we give ourselves a chance to relate to suffering more skilfully, with confidence and compassion..."

You don't need the 'right' kind of zafu to be a Buddhist

"...Unlike many western Buddhists, I don't feel a strong connection with the East. I've never been to India or Tibet, don't get excited about Japanese tea ceremonies, and am usually filled with irritation and embarrassment when fellow westerners greet me by saying "Namaste" or in some other way acting as if they're from Bodhgaya rather than Brent Cross or Bangor. While deeply grateful to the lineages through which Buddhist practices are taking root in the west, my attraction to them is primarily their clear and direct transmission of insights and instructions that speak to me practically, ethically and spiritually. The fact that they came from Asia seems unimportant.

So reading Dzogchen Ponlop's new book Rebel Buddha gave me heart. Ponlop is a well-respected Tibetan teacher, steeped in the cultural heritage of his tradition, and yet his central premise is that western Buddhists risk making fools of themselves if their practice is based on attachment to foreign rituals that were adopted wholesale by spiritual seekers in the 60s. "If the Buddha's teaching is to remain relevant," says Ponlop, "we can't hold on to our hippie-era presentation of it... it is senseless to hang on to the forms of a traditional, Asian Buddhist culture and pretend we can fully inhabit that experience in a meaningful way."

Can we feel the future through psi? Don't rule it out
A study suggesting the existence of precognition should be carefully scrutinised – not dismissed out of hand.

George Osborne's cheap shot at contemplation
The chancellor's implication that meditation is wasteful ignores evidence that Buddhist mindfulness is a powerful tool.


Reframing the New Atheism debate
The centrality of consciousness should be acknowledged, rather than seeing the debate as purely scientific or religious

"... New Atheism doesn't acknowledge the centrality of consciousness", suggesting that when we view ourselves and the world in purely material terms, as crude scientism does, we rob ourselves of some of our humanity. Sadly, she didn't elaborate further, and a potential flicker of illumination was lost.
So how might the lie of the land change if we did acknowledge the centrality of consciousness?
This would mean taking an active interest in how our attempts at making objective observations are inevitably coloured by the subjective standpoint from which we view them; and becoming more alert to how our perceptions and perspectives are built from the ground of our personal histories: the parenting we received, our education, our cultural background, our genetics, the time and place we live in and so on. It would mean recognising that we don't see things clearly.
When a TV picture is fuzzy, don't we then examine our receiving equipment, rather than assuming the fuzziness is meant to be part of the transmission? In meditation practice, this process is sometimes called "turning the eyeballs inwards" and it's a central element of the Buddhist non-theistic tradition, which is, it has been said, less interested in whether God exists as whether the perceiver of God exists. Or, to put it another way, how can we judge evidence accurately when we're doing the judging from the position of an ever-changing, non-solid self and not recognising that our standpoint must inevitably influence the observation?"...


Mindfulness: beyond the science 
Each month, a digest of the latest research on mindfulness meditation lands in my inbox. The volume of studies has mushroomed in recent years – the most recent round-up (pdf) alone cites 35 new papers detailing effects on people with conditions such as heart disease and borderline personality disorder, the results of an innovative new mindfulness curriculum for schools, and the impact of mindfulness-based stress reduction courses on the structure of the brain (it seems to reduce density in the amygdala).

Scientific studies show the effects of mindfulness, but can they do justice to the transformation felt by many who practise it?  If practising mindfulness can help people – and it appears to – then all this evidence can only be a good thing. Whereas for years meditation's public image was stuck in the 1960s, tainted with hippie self-indulgence or new-age flakiness, now it's being taken seriously by everyone from top academics to US congressman and government departments.

But while it's the gold standard for evidence in our culture, can scientific data tell the whole story? In our book The Mindful Manifesto, Jonty Heaversedge and I describe how mindfulness is now being presented as a secular healing tool, but we also felt it important to acknowledge how for thousands of years it has been linked with spiritual training. Scientific studies might show that mindfulness improves well-being in material terms, but can they do justice to the inner transformation that occurs for many people who practise it? Isn't something lost by presenting its effects purely as a physical or mental health benefit..."

 Buddhism in education 

 "...As faith schooling from various traditions continues to grab headlines, the prospect of a specifically Buddhist education hasn't been much mooted. School-based practices inspired by Buddhism, on the other hand, are starting to gain momentum. Last weekend, Goldie Hawn was enthusing about the British launch of her meditation in schools programme, while, on a slightly lower key note, mindfulness teaching has already been introduced in several private institutions – Wellington College and Tonbridge School among them. There are also initiatives to introduce meditation in the state sector, under the guidance of psychologists such as Mark Williams in Oxford.

It's been said that Buddhism will establish itself in the west as a psychology rather than a religion, and that seems to be the case here - many of those introducing meditation to schools wouldn't identify as Buddhists. And the rationale has been mostly scientific – among other benefits, meditation has been shown to foster attention skills, reduce aggression, and increase pro-social behaviour and relational abilities (among children and adults), as well as protecting against anxiety and depression..."


The mindful enlightenment Buddhist practices can help bring about a new kind of social enlightenment.

"A fresh kind of enlightenment is in the air. Madeleine Bunting recently reported on the bold vision for progress being set out by Matthew Taylor at the Royal Society Of Arts. Calling for a new "revolution of the mind", the RSA is grounding its arguments in empirical studies from neuroscience and psychology.
Evidence from these disciplines is making it increasingly clear that we are social creatures with plastic minds, wired for empathy and able to access a consciousness that, if developed, could help release us from the shackles of emotion that so often bind us. Building on its 18th-century precursor, the defining feature of this enlightenment is an understanding that to tackle the world's most pressing problems, we don't just need more action, we need more awareness...."

Let's be honest about placeboRather than dismissing treatments that use placebo as hocus pocus, we should learn what we can from this powerful effect

Investigating the Buddhist mindsetDoes the Dalai Lama's support for a 'centre for investigating healthy minds' compromise its scientific respectability? 

A prescription for meditation
Research shows Transcendental Meditation, despite its celebrity baggage, can be an effective way of fighting depression.

'World's next top lama' to visit Europe
The Karmapa, 24 years old and likely spiritual successor to the Dalai Lama, is coming to the UK in June.

Suffering doesn't have to be worthless 
Does suffering improve us? If we can steer a middle way through suffering, neither wallowing in it nor ignoring it, it can help us grow.

Buddhism beats depression 
Should the health service sponsor Buddhist techniques to beat depression? Why not, if they work

How do you get to Nirvana? Practice   
"These can feel like giddy times for a Buddhist. It is not long since just mentioning meditation tagged you as a gullible new-ager or self-indulgent hippie. Buddhism, if considered at all, had a reputation for promoting withdrawal from this pain-filled world. But in the space of a few short years, core dharma has permeated western society's most influential institutions.

Madeleine Bunting charts the cracks in our once-cherished concepts of individual identity, and notes how the Buddhist teaching of egolessness resonates with corresponding insights from neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. Ideas that chime with Buddhism are being championed by the Royal Society of Arts and the New Economics Foundation, and reported in mainstream media. Before cif belief, I never dreamed I would synchronise my journalistic career and meditation practice, finding national newspaper space to write from a Buddhist perspective.

Buddhism is reaching beyond academia, think tanks and the media. Most GPs are aware of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and cognitive therapy (MBCT), well-researched approaches to health problems which feature meditation as their core component. MBCT is endorsed by the National Institute For Clinical Excellence, and thousands of people are being referred to mindfulness training on the NHS. In Scotland, the government has funded more than 200 healthcare professionals to teach MBCT. As Mark Vernon says, "people right now are slowly eating raisins in a workshop somewhere near you."

I'm glad they are, because if Buddhist practices are to work, they must be what they say on the tin – practices. Reading about them or studying them scientifically may be helpful as inspiration, but unless the disciplines are applied (repeatedly), the effect will be minimal. It's one thing to decide that compassion is a good thing, that mindfulness could make us healthier, or that there is no separate self, but quite another to develop compassion, mindfulness and selflessness. Our bodies and brains are products of millions of years of evolution that have programmed us to behave in certain ways, and as most of us discover painfully, it is not so easy to change habits we carry from the past...."

Self-help can be no help 
Quick fixes often make the underlying problems worse. Letting go of the desire for self-improvement is the answer 10 comments

The drugs don't work
The number of people on antidepressants is soaring – we may be more miserable, but let's swap the pills for support and care


Between the rational and the mystical
What is agnosticism?: We neither need an external, creator God, nor to close ourselves off from the spectacular majesty of existence

Dawkins strips away religion's dead wood  

Dawkins is doing religion a favour – by exposing faith and spirituality to criticism, he paves the way for their renewal.

"I doubt it was his intention, but in 100 years time Richard Dawkins could be hailed as a prime architect of 21st-century religion. Though strident to the point of comic fundamentalism, the New Atheist diatribe has not only laid bare the irrationalities of believers, but forced those of us who favour scientific-spiritual accommodation to sharpen our arguments. And that can only aid the development of spiritual forms fit for the modern world.

When I first picked up The God Delusion, I was a bit disappointed to find it was rather polite about my own tradition. Right up there in chapter one, Dawkins sensibly suggests that Buddhism might be seen as an ethical or philosophical system rather than a religion, and so not a major focus for his ire. We've got off lightly from other anti-religionists too – Sam Harris even goes on Buddhist meditation retreats.

The International Buddhist Film Festival, which opened in London last week, has at least provoked a bit of poking at our flabby underbelly. On Radio 3, Martin Palmer accused western Buddhists of creating their own version based on "the religion we don't want, which is Judeo-Christian, and the religion we would love to have, which isn't quite religion, which … doesn't have too many rules, and the rules it does have, like the Tibetan ban on homosexuality, are conveniently forgotten." Mark Vernon, relaying Palmer's comments on his blog, agreed, describing western Buddhism as "deeply partial, a pick 'n' mix religion". Their criticisms would appear to be supported by a glance at the IBFF schedule, which includes films – such as Donnie Darko and Hamlet – for which the label Buddhist seems pretty tenuous.

But Buddhism has always changed shape according to place and time. Impermanence, as one of the three marks of existence, must apply also to Buddhism itself. It accepts, even demands, that every culture must find its own unique expressions of awakening. To prevent them becoming pieces of stale ideology, its discoveries must be tested anew by each practitioner, rather than being swallowed from scripture. Whenever Buddhism is embraced in a new location, it has mixed with pre-existing wisdom – hence, for example, why Zen looks so different from Tibetan Vajrayana.

In Buddhism there should be no room for dogma – the ultimate criteria for performing an action is its role in alleviating the suffering of oneself and others. A course of action could reduce suffering in one circumstance and magnify it in another, so the rules are there to be broken and the traditions are there to be changed, provided, of course, you can do it skilfully. When asked to sum up the essence of Buddhism, Japanese teacher Shunyru Susuki replied "Not always so". The pliability of the teachings means that mistakes can be learned from, and culturally created doctrines or codes of behaviour that are unwise, outdated or harmful – the aforementioned approach to homosexuality for example – can be freely consigned to the bin.

Does that make western Buddhism a pick 'n' mix religion? Perhaps it does – but if we pick and mix well, we might create something good. Indeed, if we pick wise insights from the past and mix them with the ever-accumulating knowledge from our own cultural heritage, then what we might have a viable model for 21st-century spirituality. It needn't even be called Buddhism, which is, after all, just a word.

As a path that simultaneously emphasises both constant change and a relentless search for truth, perhaps Buddhism is in a good position to develop more mature forms. However, the rational onslaught must inevitably spur other traditions to self-question and adapt too. And this is where Richard Dawkins may well be one of religion's greatest allies. The old code that sacred beliefs cannot be challenged for fear of causing offence has been shattered – and it needed shattering. If the sacred dimension just means articles of faith that provoke outrage when assaulted, then religion and the religious would be better off without them. Dawkins and his ilk may have their sights trained on eliminating religion, but what they are actually doing is exposing its dead wood, the anachronisms that have been protected from critical thinking, and that needed cutting away.

Claims to special privilege in society, indoctrination of belief as fact, repressive or violent acts as a means of evangelism, and the upholding of outdated worldviews on scriptural grounds – all these and many other examples of the misuse of spiritual traditions do them no favours and should be dropped. If that is pick 'n' mix religion, can I be first in the queue at the sweet counter?

More articles by Ed Halliwell at  and 

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Subtle impermanence, the quantum vacuum, radioactive decay, and causality.

According to Buddhist Madhyamaka philosophy, all functioning things exhibit 'subtle impermanence' - perpetual activity and restless change even when they appear to be superficially stable.

This can be understood in terms of quantum physics as interactions with the quantum vacuum.   In quantum theory, even totally empty space is in a state of seething impermanence, with spontaneously occurring random energy fluctuations and rapid temporary appearances and disappearances of 'virtual' particles.    

"In quantum physics, a quantum vacuum fluctuation (or quantum fluctuation or vacuum fluctuation) is the temporary change in the amount of energy in a point in space, arising from Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle."

These random energy fluctuations interact with any matter in their vicinity, temporarily raising the energy level of atomic nuclei.  So the atoms that compose the world we inhabit, and everything built from them, are in a perpetual process of energy transition.

Usually, these temporary energy perturbations have no effect, with the energized atoms rapidly returning to lower energy states. However,  if the nucleus is unstable, and only requires a relatively small input of energy to break it up, a quantum fluctuation can cause the atom to 'spontaneously' undergo radioactive decay.   This has been likened to a small disturbance to an unstable snowfield triggering an avalanche:

"Radioactive decay is the process by which an atomic nucleus of an unstable atom loses energy by emitting ionizing particles (ionizing radiation). There are many different types of radioactive decay (see table below). A decay, or loss of energy, results when an atom with one type of nucleus, called the parent radionuclide, transforms to an atom with a nucleus in a different state, or to a different nucleus containing different numbers of protons and neutrons. Either of these products is named the daughter nuclide. In some decays the parent and daughter are different chemical elements, and thus the decay process results in nuclear transmutation (creation of an atom of a new element).

The first decay processes to be discovered were alpha decay, beta decay, and gamma decay. Alpha decay occurs when the nucleus ejects an alpha particle (helium nucleus). This is the most common process of emitting nucleons, but in rarer types of decays, nuclei can eject protons, or specific nuclei of other elements (in the process called cluster decay). Beta decay occurs when the nucleus emits an electron or positron and a type of neutrino, in a process that changes a proton to a neutron or vice versa. The nucleus may capture an orbiting electron, converting a proton into an neutron (electron capture). All of these processes result in nuclear transmutation.

By contrast, there exist radioactive decay processes that do not result in transmutation. The energy of an excited nucleus may be emitted as a gamma ray in gamma decay, or used to eject an orbital electron by interaction with the excited nucleus in a process called internal conversion. Radioisotopes occasionally emit neutrons, and this results in a change in an element from one isotope to another.

One type of radioactive decay results in products which are not defined, but appear in a range of "pieces" of the original nucleus. This decay is called spontaneous fission. This decay happens when a large unstable nucleus spontaneously splits into two (and occasionally three) smaller daughter nuclei, and usually emits gamma rays, neutrons, or other particles as a consequence.

Radioactive decay is a stochastic (i.e., random) process at the level of single atoms, in that, according to quantum theory, it is impossible to predict when a particular atom will decay.[1] However, the chance that a given atom will decay is constant over time. For a large number of atoms, the decay rate for the collection is computable from the measured decay constants of the nuclides (or equivalently from the half-lives)...

...Such a collapse (a decay event) requires a specific activation energy. For a snow avalanche, this energy comes as a disturbance from outside the system, although such disturbances can be arbitrarily small. In the case of an excited atomic nucleus, the arbitrarily small disturbance comes from quantum vacuum fluctuations. A radioactive nucleus (or any excited system in quantum mechanics) is unstable, and can, thus, spontaneously stabilize to a less-excited system. The resulting transformation alters the structure of the nucleus and results in the emission of either a photon or a high-velocity particle that has mass (such as an electron, alpha particle, or other type).


It is sometimes said that radioactive decay, and other 'random' quantum events, are uncaused.    According to the quantum vacuum fluctuation explanation, this is strictly speaking untrue.  It is the subtle impermanence of the quantum vacuum that energizes the unstable nucleus.    

Small energy fluctuations occur relatively frequently, large fluctuations occur infrequently.  Thus nuclei requiring only a small energy input to break them up (e.g. Hydrogen-7) will be more unstable, and have shorter half lives, than those needing a large energy input (e.g. Tellurium-128)

However, the underlying vacuum fluctuations do seem to be truly random and 'uncaused'. 

Related articles 

Buddhism, Quantum Physics and Mind 

Rational Buddhism

The Subtle Body as the Mind's User-interface.

           Sacred Mirror by Alex Grey

Buddhist visualizations of the subtle body
One of the most perplexing aspects of Buddhist practice to a scientifically trained Westerner is the system of meditational chakras, energy channels (nadis), subtle winds (pranas) and bindus (drops).  This system doesn't correspond to any physical anatomical structure known to modern Western medical science.

But it's unlikely that the system of chakras etc was dreamed up by ancient Buddhists in ignorance of the true 'physical' structure of human anatomy,  because anatomical knowledge would be available from doctors, and hacked up corpses in the charnel grounds, not to mention battlefields.  So if this 'subtle body' it isn't part of the physical anatomy, what is it?

The chakra system is visualized and manipulated during advanced meditations, and it does indeed seem to correspond to some kind of functioning reality, because as well as producing subjective mental effects, the meditator can also produce objectively measurable physiological effects,  the most well-documented of these being 'tummo' or inner fire.

Tummo is a measurable increase in body temperature, heat production and metabolic rate resulting from meditational visualizations of jets of flame burning in the chakras and energy channels.  There have been various reports of this phenomenon in the scientific literature. One of the best known exponents of tummo is Wim Hof, the ice-man.  

So the chakra system is a mentally-projected visualized model of the body which bears little resemblance to physical structures, yet  nevertheless it can be mentally manipulated to produce physical effects.

A strange Western parallel - visualization for treatment of arthritis.
These chakra phenomena have seemed esoteric and unrelated to Western medical science until recently, when another totally independent example of manipulation of a visualized mental projection has produced physiological and anatomical benefits:

"A chance discovery by academics in Nottingham has found that a simple optical illusion could unlock a drug-free treatment for arthritis.  The computer-generated mind trick has been tested on a small sample of sufferers and found that in 85 per cent of cases it halved their pain.

Research is still in the early stages, but initial results suggest the technology, called Mirage, could help patients improve mobility in their hands by reducing the amount of pain they experience.  For the illusion to work patients place their hand inside a box containing a camera, which then projects the image in realtime onto a screen in front of them.

The subject then sees their arthritic fingers being apparently stretched and shrunk by someone gently pushing and pulling from the other side of the box.

Chance finding
The Mirage mind trick has been developed by The University of Nottingham's Psychology department. It was first used at an open day last year as part of research project into the way our brains put together what we see and feel happening to our bodies.  The machine was a big hit with children at first, but it was one of their grandparents who made an unexpected discovery.

Dr Catherine Preston, from Nottingham Trent University, who is collaborating on the study said: "The grandmother wanted to have a go, but warned us to be gentle because of the arthritis in her fingers.

"We were giving her a practical demonstration of illusory finger stretching when she announced, 'My finger doesn't hurt any more', and asked whether she could take the machine home with her. We were just stunned - I don't know who was more surprised, her or us."

The chance find was followed up by recruiting 20 volunteers with osteoarthritis to put Mirage to the test.  The subjects averaged 70 years old and had all been clinically diagnosed with arthritic pain in their hands and fingers. Before starting the test they were asked to rate their pain from 0-20, with 0 indicating no pain and 20 representing the most unbearable pain they could imagine.

Pam Tegerdine, from Nottingham, volunteered for the first study. She has suffered with osteoarthritis since her 30s and now has constant pain in her hands, feet, and lower back.  Physiotherapy and numerous prescription drugs help, but she said the optical-illusion technology was like nothing she had ever experienced.

"It was a very weird sensation, but as my finger was being 'stretched' it felt more and more comfortable. I just wanted it to stay like that, to keep that image in my head. If this could lead to a drug-free treatment for arthritis then that would be fantastic...  FULL ARTICLE,   also BBC4 interview

Chakra visualizations as high-level user interfaces.
So how do we account for these 'high-level' mental projections and visualized models having effects on the 'low-level' structures of the body such as cells, neurones and hormones? A possible analogy might be with the levels of  'user interfaces' to computer systems.  

The low level structure of a computer consists of millions of microscopic semiconductor devices, which are difficult and tedious for the user to access and manipulate in any sensible fashion. For example, the lowest level user interface to the oldest computers consisted of sixteen switches and a seventeenth ACCEPT switch on the front panel.

A low level user-interface

The user set the computer going by programming in the bootstrap routine as double-byte 'words' by setting each of the 16 bit switches, then pressing the 17th ACCEPT switch, and doing this sequentially until the entire bootstrap routine had been loaded. A single wrong switch position in the sequence of 16-bit words would invalidate the entire operation.  After this, the user could use higher level interfaces such as punched tape, cards, or later technological marvels such as teletypes. 

Slightly higher level interfaces were cathode ray tubes, where sequences of commands could be typed in on a keyboard (anyone remember MS-DOS?). Later on came the WIMPS (Windows, Icons, Menu, Pointing Device) interfaces and desktop metaphors which are ubiquitous nowadays.

This analogy with computer interfaces demonstrates how the more visual and tactile an interface becomes, the more useful it is to the user.  In contrast to the old 16-bit switch banks, these modern graphical user interfaces bear no obvious correspondence to the basic 'anatomy' of the computer, yet they are far more powerful.

So might these chakra visualizations and similar mental projections be the mind's 'software configuration' for providing access to otherwise complex and inaccessible anatomical, neurological and endocrine systems?  

A simple visual and tactile interface to a complex biological system
The idea of chakras appears throughout history and across different cultures

So is the chakra model normally hidden within everyone's subconscious, but has been discovered and brought to the levels of conscious awareness by meditators?  

Is the fact that we're already half aware of the model the reason that it seems to resonate even with Westerners who are increasingly using chakra visualizations as alternative therapies?

Crossing your arms 'relieves hand pain'
Crossing your arms across your body after injury to the hand could relieve pain, researchers suggest.

The results from both participants' reports and the EEG showed that the perception of pain was weaker when the arms were crossed over the "midline" - an imaginary line running vertically down the centre of the body.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Brains of Buddhist monks scanned in meditation study

From the BBC:

In a laboratory tucked away off a noisy New York City street, a soft-spoken neuroscientist has been placing Tibetan Buddhist monks into a car-sized brain scanner to better understand the ancient practice of meditation.
But could this unusual research not only unravel the secrets of leading a harmonious life but also shed light on some of the world's more mysterious diseases?

Zoran Josipovic, a research scientist and adjunct professor at New York University, says he has been peering into the brains of monks while they meditate in an attempt to understand how their brains reorganise themselves during the exercise.

Since 2008, the researcher has been placing the minds and bodies of prominent Buddhist figures into a five-tonne (5,000kg) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.
The scanner tracks blood flow within the monks' heads as they meditate inside its clunky walls, which echoes a musical rhythm when the machine is operating.

Dr Josipovic, who also moonlights as a Buddhist monk, says he is hoping to find how some meditators achieve a state of "nonduality" or "oneness" with the world, a unifying consciousness between a person and their environment.

Zoran Josipovic looking at brain scans on a computer  

The study specifically looks at the default network in the brain, which controls self-reflective thoughts
"One thing that meditation does for those who practise it a lot is that it cultivates attentional skills," Dr Josipovic says, adding that those harnessed skills can help lead to a more tranquil and happier way of being.
"Meditation research, particularly in the last 10 years or so, has shown to be very promising because it points to an ability of the brain to change and optimise in a way we didn't know previously was possible."
When one relaxes into a state of oneness, the neural networks in experienced practitioners change as they lower the psychological wall between themselves and their environments, Dr Josipovic says.
And this reorganisation in the brain may lead to what some meditators claim to be a deep harmony between themselves and their surroundings.

Dr Josipovic's research is part of a larger effort better to understand what scientists have dubbed the default network in the brain.

He says the brain appears to be organised into two networks: the extrinsic network and the intrinsic, or default, network.

Zoran Josipovic prepares a Buddhist monk for a brain scan in an fMRI machine  
Dr Josipovic has scanned the brains of more than 20 experienced meditators during the study
The extrinsic portion of the brain becomes active when individuals are focused on external tasks, like playing sports or pouring a cup of coffee.

The default network churns when people reflect on matters that involve themselves and their emotions.
But the networks are rarely fully active at the same time. And like a seesaw, when one rises, the other one dips down.

This neural set-up allows individuals to concentrate more easily on one task at any given time, without being consumed by distractions like daydreaming.

"What we're trying to do is basically track the changes in the networks in the brain as the person shifts between these modes of attention," Dr Josipovic says.

Dr Josipovic has found that some Buddhist monks and other experienced meditators have the ability to keep both neural networks active at the same time during meditation - that is to say, they have found a way to lift both sides of the seesaw simultaneously.

And Dr Josipovic believes this ability to churn both the internal and external networks in the brain concurrently may lead the monks to experience a harmonious feeling of oneness with their environment.

Scientists previously believed the self-reflective, default network in the brain was simply one that was active when a person had no task on which to focus their attention.
But researchers have found in the past decade that this section of the brain swells with activity when the subject thinks about the self.

The default network came to light in 2001 when Dr Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at the Washington University School of Medicine in the US state of Missouri, began scanning the brains of individuals who were not given tasks to perform.

The patients quickly became bored, and Dr Raichle noticed a second network, that had previously gone unnoticed, danced with activity. But the researcher was unclear why this activity was occurring.
Other scientists were quick to suggest that Dr Raichle's subjects could have actually been thinking about themselves.
Soon other neuroscientists, who conducted studies using movies to stimulate the brain, found that when there was a lull of activity in a film, the default network began to flash - signalling that research subjects may have begun to think about themselves out of boredom. But Dr Raichle says the default network is important for more than just thinking about what one had for dinner last night.
"Researchers have wrestled with this idea of how we know we are who we are. The default mode network says something about how that might have come to be," he says.

And Dr Raichle adds that those studying the default network may also help in uncovering the secrets surrounding some psychological disorders, like depression, autism and even Alzheimer's disease.
"If you look at Alzheimer's Disease, and you look at whether it attacks a particular part of the brain, what's amazing is that it actually attacks the default mode network," says Dr Raichle, adding that intrinsic network research, like Dr Josipovic's, could assist in explaining why that is.

Cindy Lustig, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan, agrees.
"It's a major and understudied network in the brain that seems to be very involved in a lot of neurological disorders, including autism and Alzheimer's, and understanding how that network interacts with the task-oriented [extrinsic] network is important," she says. "It is sort of the other piece of the puzzle that's been ignored for too long."

Dr Josipovic has scanned the brains of more than 20 experienced meditators, both monks and nuns who primarily study the Tibetan Buddhist style of meditation, to better understand this mysterious network.
He says his research, which will soon be published, will for the moment continue to concentrate on explaining the neurological implications of oneness and tranquillity - though improving understanding of autism or Alzheimer's along the way would certainly be quite a bonus.

Related posts
Rational Buddhism
Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation Alleviates Depression 




Thursday, 12 May 2011

'The greatest man-made force for evil in the world today'


Here's an update from Islamophobia Watch on the earlier article 'Buddhists, Dawkins and Gays worried by Islam in Europe' , in particular atheist Richard Dawkins having second thoughts about the collapse of Christianity due to the realisation that it is the bulwark against something worse...

'Dawkins ponders anti-Islam alliance with evangelical Christians
Richard Dawkins is often described as a "militant atheist". However, if this term is meant to convey that Dawkins maintains a uniform hostility to all varieties of religious belief then it is misapplied.
Dawkins makes no attempt to hide the fact that he is discriminatory in his opposition to different faiths. He happily describes himself as a "cultural Christian" – by which he means a cultural Anglican. After all, according to Dawkins, Roman Catholicism is "the world's second most evil religion". No prizes for guessing which faith is the most evil. Indeed, Dawkins holds the view that Islam is not only by far the worst of all the major faiths but is also arguably "the greatest man-made force for evil in the world today".

In the past, however, Dawkins has presented evangelical Christianity in the US as a major enemy alongside Islam. Addressing a session at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2008, he told his audience that it was "possible to see Europe as a haven of civilisation, with the pincer movement of Islam on one side and the US on the other".

Now, however, Dawkins is prepared to consider the possibility of an alliance with US Christian evangelism to stem the tide of Islam. He has reproduced on his website a map by the Bakke Graduate University which portrays Islam and Christianity locked in conflict over the future of Africa. The BGU warns:

"For centuries, Islam has attempted to move southward on the continent of Africa. In spite of wars, political upheavals, and massive financial investments, the spread of Islam has remained stalled for 400 years just south of the Sahara desert and just inland of the eastern coast. The Islamic and Christian worldviews remain deadlocked in front-line nations such as Somalia, Sudan, and Mali. North of this line, wealthy foundations from the Middle East have poured money into colossal mosques, Islamic schools, and economic development. The strategies to reinforce this front line appear to be well-coordinated efforts to use money, impressive buildings, and children's education to shore up the future of Islam in the region."

Still, all is not lost. The BGU explains: "It appears as if God is reinforcing the African front-line from the south with resources from the west. This is not a centrally-planned strategy, but the movement of the Holy Spirit in churches, businesses and governments. Many who supply relief and education probably aren't aware that they have been sent by their Creator to accomplish His purposes in the region. Others are acutely aware of His call."

And how does Dawkins respond to Bakke Graduate University's promotion of Christian-Muslim conflict in Africa? By using it to illustrate his thesis that religious faith is "dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition"? Not at all. He writes:
"Given that Islam is such an unmitigated evil, and looking at the map supplied by this Christian site, should we be supporting Christian missions in Africa? My answer is still no, but I thought it was worth raising the question. Given that atheism hasn't any chance in Africa for the foreseeable future, could our enemy's enemy be our friend?" 

Map of Islam and Christianity in Africa

This raises a number of interesting points for Buddhists.

- Should Buddhists support an informal coalition of 'kuffars' against Islamic supremacism?  Historically Islam has attacked all religions, but has been particularly devastating to Buddhism.

- Should Buddhists support Christianity in situations where Buddhism hasn't a chance in the foreseeable future? For example, Buddhism has a strong anti-materialist philosophical basis which seems absent from Christianity. "Christianity ... has always been a religion seeking a metaphysic, in contrast to Buddhism which is a metaphysic generating a religion  ."  One of the reasons Islam is making such rapid progress in Europe is that it is aggressively filling the spiritual vacuum left by the spread of materialism. Maybe Buddhism could supply philosophical arguments to help prop up Christianity.

- Is it possible to be 'culturally Anglican' while being philosophically Buddhist? Although the Church of England is in a state of meltdown, there is much in historic Anglican culture that is worth preserving.  The basic tenet of Anglicanism is 'Latitudinarianism' - which means you can believe anything you like as long as you don't get too fanatical.  Since it's possible to be a Church of England Druid, maybe you can also be a Church of England Buddhist.

However, the intrinsic tribalism of Islamic doctrine - the divisive 'us versus them' mentality implicit in such fundamental Islamic polarities as Dar al-Harb versus Dar al-Islam, and Kuffar versus Umma, will forever limit the extent to which Islam can constructively engage with non-Muslim society.


 Update November 2012...

‘There’s no God and Islam is evil’ speech earns Richard Dawkins ovation from islanders

"RENOWNED atheist Professor Richard Dawkins received a surprise standing ovation in the traditionally Christian community of Stornoway last night, following a two-hour speech in which he said there was probably no God.

The 71-year-old described Islam as “one of the great evils of the world” in his lecture, The God Delusion, as part of a rare visit to the Western Isles.

The talk delivered on Lewis during the Hebrides Book Festival proved a major hit among the 220-strong crowd. There was a waiting list of 60 people for tickets, after the event sold out within 40 minutes.

Members of the audience cheered loudly as Prof Dawkins used the appearance to attack Islam, while stressing that the “vast majority of
Muslims” were not evil, only their religion was.

Prof Dawkins said: “We are terrified of being called ‘Islamophobic’. It is a disgrace a religion prescribes death for leaving it. The vast majority of Muslims would not dream of doing that, but they are taught it in their madrassas… and it only takes a minority to put that into practice. And, as 
we have seen, terrible things happen.”...   from   THE SCOTSMAN

Update on Dawkins and jihadism March 2013

Coercion, intimidation, thuggery
and outright terrorism are 
intrinsic and essential features 
of Islam. 

Islam is so intellectually moribund

and ethically repulsive 
that it cannot compete for followers
in a free marketplace of ideas, 
but must eliminate its competitors 
by whatever means may be necessary. 

See   No future for Buddhism in an Islamized World