Friday, 16 November 2018

Can Buddhists Celebrate Christmas?


Buddhist Christmas



Bah Humbug!

Other non-Christian religions can get a bit uptight about Christmas, but Buddhism is fairly laid back.
 

A few years ago the city of Birmingham renamed Christmas to 'Winterval' as a result of protests by non-Christian faith communities, but as far as I'm aware it wasn't the Buddhists who were complaining. 

Of course, there are aspects of Christmas which a Buddhist might have reservations about - rampant consumerism and so on, but these are the same excesses that are often denounced by Christians who complain that in recent years the spiritual aspects of Christmas have been replaced by a credit card frenzy.

But in general Buddhists are quite happy with Christmas and have no hangups about hanging up Christmas decorations and enlightening Christmas trees.



Presents under the Bodhi Tree


In the Simpsons episode She of Little Faith , where Lisa converts to Buddhism, Reverend Lovejoy tries to dissuade her by saying that she can't celebrate Christmas because "Santa doesn't leave presents under the Bodhi tree". Richard Gere puts things right by explaining that Buddhists believe that those religions that are founded on Love and Compassion are valid spiritual paths.




So you can eat your Christmas cake and still be a Buddhist, though of course you can never finally have the cake whether you eat it or not (all cakes are compound phenomena and thus subject to impermanence).

Excessive consumption of Christmas cake may also promote the realisation that there is no inherent difference between an object of attachment and an object of aversion. ("Can't you manage just one more slice? Look here's a nice piece with extra thick icing... What's the matter, aren't you feeling well?")





Was Jesus a Buddhist?
Many Buddhists believe that Jesus was a High Bodhisatva or manifestation of Enlightened Mind. There is also some evidence that in the 'lost years' Jesus travelled to the East and studied Buddhism - certainly you can't get any more Buddhist than the traditional Christmas message of 'Peace on Earth - Goodwill to All'. And who exactly were the Wise Men and where did they originate? Were they Buddhists?



A Buddhist Christmas Carol

Dickens' well-loved story A Christmas Carol sometimes upsets the more fundamentalist Christian evangelicals with its 'ghosts' (to an evangelical all such spirits are apparitions of Satan). But from a Buddhist perspective the story makes perfect sense:

Chains of attachment to money-boxes

Marley's miserliness has resulted in him becoming a Preta (ghost) after death. His attachment in life was to money, and in the Preta realm his attachment manifests as fetters to chains of money-boxes, keys, ledgers and heavy purses. 


In order to help purify his karma, Marley sets out to warn Scrooge that the same destiny awaits him. Marley is assisted in his task by two peaceful Buddhas (Christmas Past and Christmas Present - Buddhas can manifest in any form that is beneficial to sentient beings), and one wrathful Buddha ('Ghost of the Future!' I fear you more than any spectre I have seen'). 

Buddhas can appear in any beneficial form

The Buddhas take Scrooge through a sort of mini-Bardo experience, where he reviews his life from the perspective of what he has done to others, or not done for others, rather than what he has done for himself. He awakens into a state of mind transformed by compassion and generosity.



Ho Ho Ho ... Hotei! The Buddhist Santa Claus


I'm a mince pie junkie, so when it comes to the the annual Christmas Battle of the Bulge, I've long ago taken Langri Tangpa's advice and adopted the practice of 'accepting defeat and offering the victory'.

Unfortunately, this does have a slight problem with the self-generation visualisations. Most of the Buddhas are portrayed as young, slender and sitting upright, which means that those of us with a more Homeric appearance (in the Simpsonian sense) need rather vivid imaginations to 'bring the result into the path'.

So I was quite pleased when I discovered a Buddha with whom I could easily identify - Buddha Hotei - a manifestation of Buddha Maitreya with an amply proportioned physique (The Wikipedia article rather unkindly calls him 'fat').

Buddha Hotei is very popular in China and Japan. He's often portrayed sitting in a semi-reclining posture and laughing uproariously, while distributing presents to children out of an inexhaustible sack. The similarities with Santa are quite intriguing, see Hotei_1, Hotei_2,
Hotei 3





The winter solstice

Of course the origins of Christmas long pre-date Christianity. The majority of the world's religions originated in relatively low latitudes (around 30°N) where the difference in day length between Summer and Winter is not particularly noticeable. However, for us folks who live further from the equator, the long dark nights and short dull days of midwinter are definitely a big psychological issue. That is why the Winter solstice has always been of such importance to Northern Europeans. It symbolises, if not the rebirth, at least the conception of the new year. In the Celtic calendar Imbolc (Candlemas) was the actual birth of the New Year, with the appearance of the first lambs and green shoots.

The early church failed to suppress the solstice celebrations and instead adopted them (much as they planted churches on pagan sacred sites), overlaying the scarcely concealed Druidic symbolism with Christian attributes. There is actually no historical evidence that Jesus was born on the 25th December.


The Celtic annual cycle of Imbolc, Halloween and Winter Solstice offers a rich source of symbolism and analogy for the process of rebirth, life, death, bardo and conception that would not be as apparent in traditional Buddhist countries, which are mostly at lower latitudes. So it is likely that as Buddhism continues to spread in the Anglo-Celtic cultural areas, it will adopt some of the Winter Solstice customs. There is no reason for in not to do so, for it is often remarked that unlike most other religions, Buddhism is not tied to a particular culture. 


Because of its strong philosophical foundations, Buddhism is universal.   It is effective for any sentient being, anywhere, any time.






Christmas Eve at Vajralama Center Seattle





- Sean Robsville



Read more at Buddhist Philosophy




 



Related articles:

Buddhist New Year

Buddhist Halloween

Buddhist Candlemas


Celtic Buddhism - Buddhism in pre-Christian Britain


Why Beauty Matters - Spiritual Art versus the Cult of Ugliness

Cauldron, Chalice and Grail Symbolism in Buddhism and Celtic Wicca

Buddhist origins of Christianity


Numinous Symbolism - Pagan, Buddhist and Christian

Evolution is no Threat to Buddhism


C J Jung, Buddhism, Tantra and Alchemy


Thursday, 15 November 2018

Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Intraocular Pressure in Glaucoma




From Journal of Glaucoma 

"Reducing intraocular pressure (IOP) in primary open angle glaucoma (POAG) is currently the only approach to prevent further optic nerve head damage. However, other mechanisms such as ischemia, oxidative stress, glutamate excitotoxicity, neurotrophin loss, inflammation/glial activation, and vascular dysregulation are not addressed. Because stress is a key risk factor affecting these mechanisms, we evaluated if mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) can lower IOP and normalize typical stress biomarkers...

...Between-group comparisons revealed significantly lowered IOP in meditators...

...A short course of mindfulness based stress reduction by meditation in in primary open angle glaucoma  reduces intraocular pressure, improves quality of life , normalizes stress biomarkers and positively modifies gene expression. Mindfulness Meditation can be recommended as adjunctive therapy for primary open angle glaucoma .

See also Medical Express


Friday, 14 September 2018

Buddhism in the People’s Republic



Buddhism in the People’s Republic is a special project by Buddhistdoor Global that turns an illuminating spotlight on the many faces, practices, and schools of Mahayana Buddhism in contemporary China.

This ambitious undertaking is a unique, year-long initiative that takes an in-depth look at one of the great living civilizational loci of the Buddhist tradition. We aim to introduce, examine, and discuss the ways in which this ancient spiritual tradition is expressed and practiced in modern-day China, and to consider its implications for the future of one of the most rapidly evolving societies in the world.

Buddhism was first introduced to Han dynasty China by traveling monks and scholars from India during the first century, and for the past two millennia it has been a key factor defining Chinese society, thought, and culture—its far-reaching influence helping to shape and inform virtually every aspect of life, from art, literature, philosophy, politics, and social mores to medicine, science, and material culture.

Since the 1980s, following the easing of state restrictions on religious practices, Buddhism has experienced a vibrant revival throughout the Chinese cultural sphere. That awakening has gathered momentum to the present day, and continues to play an important role in transforming the rich internal landscape of Chinese society.

Through this new project, Buddhistdoor Global’s editorial team and expert contributors aim to provide a concise, insightful, and informative overview of the history of contemporary Chinese Buddhism, and the modern practices and influences that are shaping the changing face of modern China.    Buddhism in the People’s Republic  


 


Monday, 9 July 2018

How Buddhist meditation kept the Thai boys calm in the cave


From Vox 

The boys’ coach lived in a Buddhist monastery for a decade and taught them to meditate in the cave. When the 12 Thai boys who’ve been trapped in a cave and are being rescued one by one were first discovered by British divers a week ago, they were reportedly meditating.

“Look at how calm they were sitting there waiting. No one was crying or anything. It was astonishing,” the mother of one of the boys told the AP, referring to a widely shared video of the moment the boys were found.

Turns out that their coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, who led them on a hike into the cave when it flooded on June 23, trained in meditation as a Buddhist monk for a decade before becoming a soccer coach. According to multiple news sources, he taught the boys, ages 11 to 16, to meditate in the cave to keep them calm and preserve their energy through their two-week ordeal...

Read it all here

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Universal Buddhism




International, intercultural, interfaith teachings - valid for all sentient beings, for all time,  on this planet and others, in this galaxy and others, in this universe and others...

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Computationalism: the Threat to Buddhism in China (and everywhere else)


In a recent comment on the article on intentionality,  a Buddhist from China states that 'Currently, Chinese Buddhism, traditionally a bastion of Mahayana, is booming but also undergoing tremendous intellectual challenge from computationalist philosophies (similar to the issues you addressed in some of your other posts)..'

So we Buddhists need to disprove computationalism,  (aka the 'Computational Theory of Mind), which 'holds that the mind is a computation that arises from the brain acting as a computing machine...  So the computational theory of mind is the claim that the mind is a computation of a machine (the brain) that derives output representations of the world from input representations and internal memory in a way that is consistent with the theory of computation'.
 

Computationalism is a form of materialism (in fact is the logical foundation of all forms of materialism, but more of that later). It denies any spiritual or transcendental dimension to human life. Everything is mechanistic.

The popularity of the Computer Theory of mind seems to be linked to the intensity of hype surrounding Artificial Intelligence.  We are currently going through the peak of another Artificial Intelligence (AI) hype cycle (an 'AI summer').   AI-hype assures us that computers are now so powerful that machine simulation of the human mind is imminent (as it has been for the past 60 years).  




Hype and reality

These AI-hype bubbles seem to occur every decade. In the 1950's the hype was about 'electronic brains' which could do dozens of calculations per second and would soon surpass humans in all mental functions. Then in the sixties, computers were on the verge of being able to understand human language, enabling true nuanced translation between languages, rather than clunky word-substitution. 

In the seventies, the microprocessor revolution was predicted to enable  massively parallel brain-emulators to be built, bringing about the long-promised AI revolution.  The eighties were the decade of expert systems, which would replace human technical and medical professionals by omniscient computers. 
 

In the nineties, we were assured that neural nets would at last provide the solutions to the failures of previous hype cycles.  In the noughties, the interconnection of millions of computers via the internet would finally give enough power to produce a global brain to surpass the human mind, and solve the problems that neural nets couldn't.  The current decade's hype cycle concerns robotics, which promises us that connecting computers to sensors and actuators will at last solve the Hard Problem  and lead to true artificial sentience, within a year or two at the very most - and this time it's really going to happen!

Although 'AI-hype' and 'computationalism' aren't totally synonymous, there is a close relationship (known as 'strong AI').  To see why AI always fails to deliver, and computationalism is a non-starter, and always has been, and always will be, we need to consider the following factors:

Computationalism implies that all mental processes can be modeled by suitable combinations of the the members of the instruction set of a general purpose computer, the instruction set being functionally identical to a Turing Machine (TM).     


So, if we can demonstrate any functions and activities of the mind which are beyond the capabilities of a Turing Machine (and hence all its derived instruction sets), then we have demolished the foundations of all forms of computationalism*.
 

When we examine the components of the TM in detail, we find that none of them...

(i) are capable of holding meaning. They do not possess any semantic capabilities, or 'intentionality' to use the technical term.

(ii) are capable of registering qualitative states ('qualia') such as sensations of pleasure, pain etc.

And when we check the basic repertoire of operations that the TM can carry out (and the derived and hence equivalent instruction-sets of general purpose computers) we fail to find any combination of these operations that can operate on the components to produce semantic or qualitative phenomena.  Thus two major functions of the sentient human mind are beyond the capabilities of machines.  These arguments are explained in more detail here, here, here and here.


This is why the Mother of all Algorithms is itself NOT an algorithm, and never could be programmed.


Tail wagging the dog?
The Turing Machine was, and is, an object of consciousness, a mathematical thought-experiment  first imagined by Alan Turing. For many years it remained just that - a mathematical structure with no physical instantiation, existing only in the minds of theoreticians.
 

Computationalism claims ontological primacy for this disembodied object of the mind, making it more basic than everything else, including the inventiveness that first created it.  The computationalists claim (explicitly or implicitly) that the Turing Machine is the foundation of consciousness, yet the TM is itself a product of consciousness. 

Buddhists would believe that there is a phenomenon even more fundamental than the TM, since the TM is an object arising out of thought.  That more fundamental phenomenon is the experience of creating, imagining and thinking about the TM in the first place.    

As the Kadampas put it: 

'..If we check, we can see that we cannot in fact separate out the objects of our thoughts from the thoughts or awarenesses holding them, any more than we can separate out a wave from an ocean or a reflection in a mirror from the mirror itself. There is no such thing as an object not known by mind, which is the definition of object, “known by mind”.


Can you even think of an object that is not known by mind? There is no world outside of our experience of the world. What is going on for you right now, for example, is your experience of what is going on – if you go looking, you cannot find anything going on out there. Your whole world cannot be separated out from your experience of the world – you cannot point to any world outside of your experience of it. As soon as you do, you’re experiencing it.


Waves are the nature of the ocean, not outside the ocean. Appearances are the nature of the mind, not outside the mind...'


Demolishing all forms of materialism
The Church-Turing-Deutsch Principle (CTDP) states that a universal computing device can simulate every physical process.


If the CTDP is true (and it's never been disproved) and computationalism is false (which seems to be the case) then all other physicalist and materialist theories of the mind are consequently false.  It follows that the non-computationalist mind exists outside the scope of the CTD, and hence it is outside the scope of all physical, mechanistic and material theories, no matter how they may be expressed.  By defeating computationalism we have removed the foundation of  all other physical/materialist explanations of the mind.  


Our next (and most important) task is to understand the true nature of this non-physical mind.


* Turing machines and instruction sets
Turing completeness is the ability of a system of instructions to simulate a Turing machine. A programming language that is Turing complete is theoretically capable of expressing all tasks accomplishable by computers https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_machine  

In computability theory, a system of data-manipulation rules (such as a computer's instruction set, a programming language, or a cellular automaton) is said to be Turing complete or computationally universal if it can be used to simulate any Turing machine. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_completeness

Although physical TMs can be built, they are generally demonstrated to students in the form of emulations using standard programing languages.     Hence, it works both ways,
TMs can emulate computer instruction sets, and computer instruction sets can emulate TMs.  

It's quite remarkable just how few instructions are required to provide full and complete computing capabilities - fewer than twenty:  SET, MOVE, READ, WRITE, ADD, SUBTRACT, MULTIPLY, DIVIDE, AND, OR, XOR, NOT,  SHIFT, ROTATE, COMPARE, JUMP, JUMP-CONDITIONALLY, RETURN

Increasing the power of a computer cannot expand its functionality beyond this instruction set, since any general purpose computer can simulate any other computer, albeit slowly.  Hence if machine sentience ('strong AI') were indeed possible, it could have been demonstrated in the 1950's!  Throwing newer, faster more powerful hardware at the problem won't produce any fundamental breakthrough in functionality, just as increasing the working temperature, spin-speed and capacity of your washing machine won't suddenly make it capable of mowing the lawn.


See also Buddhist Philosophy,  Why Materialism is Crap 
and

SWOT Analysis - Strengths. Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats to Buddhism

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

New study suggests existence of meditation-induced near-death experiences




There seem to be two ways of debiologizing your mind  (or maybe three, but we won't go there).   The first method  is to shuffle off your mortal coil, discard your muddy vesture of decay, or - in the words of the bard - kick the bucket. 

The second, and less drastic, is to rid your mind of all its biologically formed delusions by meditation.   The interesting thing is both methods produce similar results.

From Medical Express  
"...Around four percent of adults in Western countries report having a Near Death Experience (NDE) when they are close to dying or in the period between clinical death and resuscitation. Although individual, cultural and religious factors influence the vocabulary people use to describe and interpret their NDEs, consensual scientific opinion suggests that there is little variation in the components of NDEs.  

These typically involve an out-of-body experience, a loss of sense of time and space, communicating with light beings, meeting loved ones and looking back over their lives. NDEs can often be transformational, prompting enhanced levels of intuition, changes in life insight and a greater understanding of the self.  

The study showed that some advanced Buddhist meditation practitioners are able to harness these experiences at will, fostering insight into the psychology of death-related processes as well as the nature of self and reality more generally. Unlike regular NDEs, participants were consciously aware of experiencing the meditation-induced NDE and retained control over its content and duration...

... Participants reported that during the meditation-induced NDE, they visited non-worldly realms, experienced what happens during and after death, and experienced a state of existence known as 'emptiness'. Compared to regular forms of meditation, the meditation-induced NDE led to a five-fold increase in mystical experiences and a four-fold increase in feelings of non-attachment. Findings also demonstrated that the profundity of the meditation-induced NDE increased across the three-year study period, suggesting that the experience can be learned and perfected over time.

Unlike regular NDEs, participants were consciously aware of experiencing the meditation-induced NDE and retained volitional control over its content and duration..."

Read it all here

See also  Buddhist Philosophy






Thursday, 25 January 2018

The Hedonic Treadmill and Buddhist Psychology



The 'Hedonic Treadmill' is a phrase I came across while reading the excellent book Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright *.   The phrase succinctly summarises what I expressed rather more clumsily in a previous post:
 

'Dukkha is sometimes translated as suffering, but in actual fact encompasses all senses of unsatisfactoriness, even including pleasure (which evolution has contrived will always be a transient sensation - lest it detract too much from the grim business of survival).'  
 
As Wiki explains 'The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. Brickman and Campbell coined the term in their essay "Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society" (1971). During the late 1990s, the concept was modified by Michael Eysenck, a British psychologist, to become the current "hedonic treadmill theory" which compares the pursuit of happiness to a person on a treadmill, who has to keep walking just to stay in the same place.'

Or, as the Kadampas would say: 'Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive, Give no contentment, only torment.'  

* In Why Buddhism is True, Robert Wright  demonstrates how Buddha, living 2500 years ago, discovered mental processes, especially those causing delusions, which have only recently been confirmed scientifically by evolutionary psychologists.


See also

Evolution, Emptiness and Delusions of the Darwinian Brain

Dukkha, Dawkins, Darwinism and the Selfish Gene

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

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Significance of Alan Turing



All physical systems can be modeled and simulated by the actions of a logical structure known as the universal Turing Machine.  If we can demonstrate any functions and activities of the mind which are beyond the capabilities of a Turing Machine then we have produced strong evidence that the mind is a non-physical entity. 
 
The challenge of materialism

The main intellectual challenge to Buddhism nowadays is materialism. There are other challenges, but they could hardly be described as intellectual.   Materialism comes in various flavors, but its bottom line is the claim that the mind is nothing more than the physical activities of the mechanism of the brain. This, of course, invalidates Buddhism and indeed all other spiritual paths. In this view, spirituality, ethics, art etc are just by-products of purely mechanistic processes.

So Buddhism, being a philosophically justified system rather than one based on blind faith, needs to refute materialism by logical argument. This is where Alan Turing comes in.  Although Turing is nowadays best known as a computer pioneer, code-cracker and victim of the British establishment's vicious homophobia, he first attained prominence as a philosopher of mathematics.


Negating the mechanistic model of mind
One of the methods used in Buddhist philosophy to refute erroneous views is to identify the 'Object of Negation'  This approach consists of  obtaining a precise definition of the assertion which is to be refuted, and then demolishing it by analyzing its contradictions and inadequacies. Such an object of negation is provided by the Turing Machine as a model for the mind.

The Turing Machine (TM) is a logical/mathematical structure, a kind of thought-experiment, which doesn't necessarily need to implemented as an actual physical machine to be of use for philosophy.

The first advantage of using the Turing Machine for philosophical discussion is its great precision and clear definition. We find it difficult to refute 'materialism' and its more modern variant 'physicalism', not because of the strengths of the arguments for them, but because of their fuzziness and incoherence. The definitions of matter and physics are, when examined in detail, surprisingly vague and imprecise.  On the other hand, the Turing Machine gives a precise definition of 'mechanism', in the philosophical sense of the fundamental basis of physical actions.

The second advantage of using the TM model is the all-encompassing generality of the Turing machine as the model for all physical systems.   It is the mother of all mechanisms, the archetypal computer and the basic method of implementing all algorithms. All the apps on your phone and tablet are Turing Machines. All physical systems may be simulated by appropriately programmed Turing Machines.

However, when we examine the components of the TM in detail, we find that none of them...

(i) are capable of holding meaning. They do not possess any semantic capabilities, or 'intentionality' to use the technical term.


(ii) are capable of registering qualitative states ('qualia') such as sensations of greenness,  pleasure, pain etc.

And when we check the basic repertoire of operations that the TM can carry out (which corresponds to the instruction-set of a general purpose computer) we fail to find any combination of these operations that can operate on the components to produce semantic or qualitative phenomena.  In Buddhist terminology the Turing Machine is all rupa and no nama.   It cannot produce two of the main aspects of sentience.

Conclusion

The archetypal physical mechanism of the Turing Machine cannot of itself produce mental phenomena.  If we want to completely explore the mind, we need to look elsewhere in addition to the physical, mechanistic structure of the brain.




Sunday, 21 January 2018

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'.

 

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



 

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

How things exist - according to Buddhism and Science


Impermanence

At a time when the old feud between science and religion is flaring up again, and common ground between fact and faith seem to be diminishing, one particular branch of Buddhist philosophy may offer some basis for dialog. That branch of philosophy is ontology - or how things exist. Buddhist ontology clearly defines the similarities and differences between the spiritual and scientific worldviews.


Impermanence and Process Philosophy
Buddhism is a process philosophy; it regards change and flux as more fundamental than ‘things’, or ‘things-in-themselves’

According to Buddhism, every functioning object is impermanent and constantly changing. In order to produce a change, all things must themselves undergo change.   This has of course been familiar to science from Newton’s times, with every action producing an equal and opposite reaction.
 

Subsequent investigations have revealed that impermanence is pervasive, right down to the interactions of subatomic particles, which can only interact by giving and taking something of themselves, usually photons and gluons.

And as well as going all the way down, impermanence goes all the way up, so things that previous generations regarded as permanent fixtures are now known to be dynamic.  Continents move, collide and break up.  Stars, like our sun, are formed out of debris of previous stars. They burn themselves out then either explode or collapse

So with regard to impermanence,  Buddhism and science are in increasing agreement


The Three Modes of Existential Dependence




‘One single rose arises from its causes, exists in dependence upon its parts, and exists as a mere imputation by conceptual thought.
There are not three different roses but one rose existing in three different ways.’ 

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso  in Joyful Path of Good Fortune  p349



This is where the difference between the Scientific Materialist (Physicalist) and Buddhist interpretations of reality become apparent.  

Buddhists claim that three modes of ‘existential dependence’ are necessary to explain the world - dynamics, structure and mind. 

Physicalists say that only two modes - dynamics and structure - are needed, with the mind being reducible to the first two.

In this context, near synonyms for ‘dynamics’ are ‘causality’,  ‘function’ and ‘process’.

Near synonyms for ‘structure’ are ‘mereology’, ‘composition’ and  ‘arrangement’

Physicalism is a reductionist interpretation of science, which claims to explain all mental factors in physical terms.  (There are also more participatory interpretations of science in which the observer is part of the system - e g Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics -  but these, whether they acknowledge it or not, are closer to Buddhism than to reductionist physicalism.)


Physicalism and the Church-Turing Thesis
Fortunately, for the sake of discussion, there is a clear-cut definition of physicalism based on the Church-Turing thesis.   To be a purely physical system, a phenomenon must be capable of being completely simulated by algorithms acting on datastructures (without any unexplained remainder).

Buddhists would claim that there is always going to be an unexplained remainder, because algorithms and datastructures are not self-interpreting. Instead, any assignment of ‘meaning’ has to come from outside the system.




So how does this apply to Roses?

The complete quote from Geshe Kelsang is


‘There are three levels of dependent relationship: gross, subtle, and very subtle. Every functioning thing that we perceive directly is gross dependent-related. For example, a rose arising from its causes is gross dependent-related. However, the rose existing in dependence upon its parts is subtle dependent-related, and the rose existing as a mere imputation by thought is very subtle dependent-related. One single rose arises from its causes, exists in dependence upon its parts, and exists as a mere imputation by conceptual thought’


Causality
We can easily see how a rose can arise from its causes - rose bush, water, nutrients, sunlight etc without paying too much attention to the rose itself.

Structure
The dependence on parts is a bit more subtle. We need to look more closely at the rose to appreciate the complete anatomy of what it is in terms of its parts, which may not be grossly obvious. We may need a microscope to see the pollen and cells of the petals. And the cells have components and subcomponents.

Dependence on mental designation
The third mode of dependent existence, dependence on the mind of the observer, is even more subtle, and is best demonstrated by examining the arbitrary way that a rose comes into and goes out of existence.


Not quite a rose


Is a green shoot a rose?
Is a green bud a rose?
Is a bud showing some petal color a rose?
Has it become a rose when you can see all the petals?



Falling petals


Has it ceased to be a rose when the first petal has fallen?

…or a majority of petals, or all the petals?


No longer a rose


Or do you have to wait till it becomes a rosehip until it ceases to be a rose?

There is no rule which tells us at exactly what stage it becomes a rose and at what stage it ceases to be one. 

The decision is a subjective one,  made by how closely the botanical specimen in our hand matches a ‘generic image’ or picture of a basic rose in our mind.   And the judgement will differ from person to person.  


A generic image of a rose in our mind


There is no fixed specification for a rose ‘out there’ that tells us when an opening bud becomes a flower, or when a fading flower becomes a hip, any more than there is for when a high-sided tray becomes a box,  or at what stage of disassembly Milinda’s chariot becomes a heap of firewood.


Neither is there any permanently existing 'specification' , 'divine blueprint' or 'ideal form' of the various rose species that differentiates them one from another, or from other members of the rose family. 

Looking back along the evolutionary timeline, the judgement as to when and at what point the ancestral rosoid became a rose, is quite arbitrary.


The Rose Family (Rosaceae)


The involvement of the observer’s mind in creating reality is very subtle for everyday objects, but becomes more obvious at the quantum scale of reality.




Read more at Buddhist Philosophy