Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Life after death: mental processes continue after brain processes shut down

From The Telegraph 

First hint of 'life after death' in biggest ever scientific study
"Southampton University scientists have found evidence that awareness can continue for at least several minutes after clinical death which was previously thought impossible.

...The largest ever medical study into near-death and out-of-body experiences has discovered that some awareness may continue even after the brain has shut down completely.

It is a controversial subject which has, until recently, been treated with widespread scepticism.

But scientists at the University of Southampton have spent four years examining more than 2,000 people who suffered cardiac arrests at 15 hospitals in the UK, US and Austria.

And they found that nearly 40 per cent of people who survived described some kind of ‘awareness’ during the time when they were clinically dead before their hearts were restarted.

 One man even recalled leaving his body entirely and watching his resuscitation from the corner of the room.

Despite being unconscious and ‘dead’ for three minutes, the 57-year-old social worker from Southampton, recounted the actions of the nursing staff in detail and described the sound of the machines.

“We know the brain can’t function when the heart has stopped beating,” said Dr Sam Parnia, a former research fellow at Southampton University, now at the State University of New York, who led the study.

“But in this case, conscious awareness appears to have continued for up to three minutes into the period when the heart wasn’t beating, even though the brain typically shuts down within 20-30 seconds after the heart has stopped.

“The man described everything that had happened in the room, but importantly, he heard two bleeps from a machine that makes a noise at three minute intervals. So we could time how long the experienced lasted for.

“He seemed very credible and everything that he said had happened to him had actually happened.”

Of 2060 cardiac arrest patients studied, 330 survived and 140 said they had experienced some kind of awareness while being resuscitated.

Although many could not recall specific details, some themes emerged. One in five said they had felt an unusual sense of peacefulness while nearly one third said time had slowed down or speeded up.

Some recalled seeing a bright light; a golden flash or the Sun shining. Others recounted feelings of fear or drowning or being dragged through deep water. 13 per cent said they had felt separated from their bodies and the same number said their sensed had been heightened...


Mental processes don't depend on mechanistic processes

What this study demonstrates is that there are two kinds of processes at work in our lives: mechanistic and mental. 

Mechanistic processes explain the working of all machines including computers, and all the classical laws of science including biology, chemistry, and physics. The brain is a physical machine no different in principle from a computer, and carries out mechanistic processes.  However mental processes are completely different.

Mental processes consist of irreducible aspects of consciousness that have no mechanistic explanation, for example qualia (qualitative experiences such as pleasure and pain) and intentionality or aboutness (the power of minds to be about, to represent, experience, cognise or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs).    

When mechanistic processes shut down, mental processes can still continue.


Sunday, 17 August 2014

Delusions in Buddhism

The basis of Buddhism is that we all suffer from delusions, and only by reducing, and eventually completely removing those delusions, will we find happiness.

Most people, on first meeting these teachings, are likely to be extremely skeptical. After all, most of us don’t see pink elephants,  think that we’re Napoleon, or believe politicians' promises. So in what way are we deluded?

The basic delusion of ‘inherent existence’ or ‘svabhava’

The basic delusion is that we believe that all substances, objects and people have an unchanging, stable, defining nature ‘from their own side’ that makes them what they are. This delusion of intrinsic nature, is known as ‘svabhava’  (Sanskrit for ‘inherent existence’), and can be refuted philosophically by the 'emptiness' argument, and scientifically by recognising the process nature of reality.

In Buddhist philosophy, all functioning phenomena exist dependently upon (i) their causes, (ii) their parts and (iii) the mental designation by an observer.   There is no extra or more fundamental ‘essence’ that makes a thing what it is beyond or beneath these three attributes of existence.  

Although we may understand intellectually that inherent-existence is impossible, nevertheless we still have great difficulty of ridding ourselves of this delusion.  The reason that svabhava is so deep-rooted, pervasive and systematic is that our brains and perceptual systems have evolved to use svabhava as a useful working approximation (or ‘conventional truth’) to represent commonsense reality. 

This ‘working approximation’ functions quite well in our everyday life, and only breaks down when we analyse phenomena in depth, either philosophically, or scientifically as with particle physics, where we are forced to realise that the observer is an inextricable part of the system. 

Why is the delusion of inherent existence so strong?

Our brains have evolved to present a useful model of reality to our minds as quickly  and efficiently as possible.   To do this they must sample reality, rather than monitor it continuously.    By analogy, think of  a movie camera that takes a series of frames as  samples of continuous reality, or a CD that samples a continuously varying soundtrack as a series of discrete numbers.  Sampling is essential because continuous monitoring would produce an information overload.

Our brains do a similar sampling job, along spatial and conceptual dimensions as well as along temporal ones.  Hence we normally see the universe as composed of discrete things, rather than continuously varying processes.

But if we analyse carefully, and on a long enough timescale, we realise that everything in the universe is impermanent, and part of continuously changing processes.   Even the universe itself is a process, starting out from the big bang.  At the other end of the scale, subatomic particles are processes - continuously varying wavefunctions, which only appear as distinct particles at the moment they are sampled.

However, our brains haven’t evolved for philosophical reflection. They have evolved  to present a workable view of reality which identifies threats, opportunities and resources as rapidly as possible.   Natural selection cannot select directly for true beliefs, but only for advantageous behaviors. 

So the brain is giving us a picture of the world that is merely fit for purpose, rather than one that represents some true underlying reality.      This is the explanation for the two truths - conventional truth versus ultimate truth.    Conventional truth applies to those entities in the world that are stable and persistent for long enough for us to regard them as things.   The ultimate truth is that all those things are actually impermanent when viewed on a long enough timescale, and have no defining existence within themselves.   

As Wiki puts it:
Ignorance isn't just an inability to apprehend the truth but an active misapprehension of the status of oneself and all other objects—one's own mind or body, other people, and so forth. It is the conception or assumption that phenomena exist in a far more concrete way than they actually do.
Based on this misapprehension of the status of persons and things, we are drawn into afflictive desire and hatred [i.e. attachment and aversion]... Not knowing the real nature of phenomena, we are driven to generate desire for what we like and hatred for what we do not like and for what blocks our desires. These three—ignorance, desire, and hatred—are called the three poisons; they pervert our mental outlook. 

Conventional truth enables us to go about our daily business. Ultimate truth enables us to perform philosophical analysis.  For further discussion  on this  topic see Evolution, Emptiness and Delusions of the Darwinian Brain.  

For general background see Buddhist Philosophy

Friday, 15 August 2014

The Limits of Scientific Explanation

Time is what clocks measure

Are there some things that science just can’t explain?
When asked to explain time,  Einstein famously remarked ‘Time is what clocks measure’.   In other words, time is a primal, fundamental aspect of the universe which is not explainable in terms of anything else.  If you try to explain time you end up with a circular definition.  

There are other primal aspects of the universe, for example, space, energy and charge, which are irreducible and not explainable in terms of any other phenomena.

So is mind one of these fundamental, irreducible aspects of reality?

Is there any scientific explanation for the mind?
What distinguishes Buddhists from materialists is that Buddhists believe that the mind is a primal aspect of existence, which is not explainable in terms of physics.  The mind is not mechanistic or deterministic and has no scientific explanation.

Let’s illustrate this with two examples.

(1)  When you hit your thumb with a hammer, nerve impulses are generated which are transmitted to the brain.

(2)  When you hit your thumb with a hammer, nerve impulses are generated which are transmitted to the brain,  and you feel pain.

The first statement is a purely mechanistic explanation of what happens.  The mechanical damage to the tissue, the chemical changes resulting from the compression and the electro-chemical transmission of the nerve impulses into the brain are all mechanistic processes, which can be modelled as a chain of physical causes and effects, by for example, a computer simulation.

The second statement has something extra - the result is a subjective feeling, an aspect of the mind, for which there is no mechanistic (scientific)  explanation.  It seems to be impossible to envisage any mechanism which can produce a mental state from any physical configuration of neural states.  The chain of cause and effect stops just short of its final link.   This is known by philosophers as 'The Hard Problem' or explanatory gap.  

The Buddhist would say that there is indeed no physical causal mechanism beyond the configuration of neural states. Everything that happens thereafter to complete the experience, flows in the reverse direction, and comes from the side of the mind.    The mind is drawn to the neural correlate of pain and recognises it as an object of aversion. In other words the mind develops ‘intentionality’ towards the brain state, and this intentionality, along with the actual subjective feeling of pain, does not have a scientific explanation.

But surely everything has a scientific explanation?
To say that mental phenomena exist that have no scientific explanation may seem provocative, possible almost heretical to some materialists. Yet there is strong evidence, from the very nature of science, that this is indeed the case.   

If we a have clear-cut definition of what constitutes a scientific explanation, then we will be able to see its limits.   That clear-cut definition exists in the form of the Church-Turing-Deutsch principle, which states that every physical process can be simulated by a Turing machine.   Since all chemical, biochemical and biological processes are ultimately physical, according to the CTD principle they can all be simulated by a Turing machine. Any phenomenon that cannot be simulated by a Turing machine must therefore be non-physical.

The Turing machine is not necessarily an actual machine or even a physical device (although physical demonstrations have been constructed) . Its primary purpose is as a thought-experiment, or a precisely defined simple mathematical object, whose precision and simplicity produce a rigorous definition of the fundamental behavior of all mechanistic systems and mathematical procedures.

In practice, a large unwieldy Turing machine may implemented as a series of small separate Turing machines (a process known as algorithmic decomposition)  which may consist of mathematical formulae such a Newton’s laws of motion, or conditional statements such as  IF … THEN … ELSE .

Any equation, mathematical or logical function, or statement in a computer language can be regarded as a mini-Turing machine dedicated to a single purpose, as can any combination of statements or functions.  A computer is a general purpose Turing machine (usually implemented as a combination of mini-Turing machines  known as 'opcodes', which constitute its instruction set

The computer language conditional  statement  IF … THEN … ELSE   is equivalent to the conjunction ‘because’ in normal explanatory discourse. 


From a back of envelope explanation to a computer simulation
Consider the following series of increasingly detailed scientific explanations:

‘Human life might be  wiped out in 2880 AD because asteroid 1950 DA might collide  with the earth.'

To put that in a more Turing-machine compatible form we might say.

IF asteroid collides with earth
THEN humans become extinct
ELSE life goes on

We could make this explanation more detailed and accurate  by replacing ‘asteroid collides with earth’ by various equations describing the orbits of the asteroid and the earth.    The whole thing would probably fit on the back of an envelope.  All the statements and equations on the envelope are reducible to a chain or network of Turing machines.

The next step, especially if we wanted an explanation of what would happen if we tried to alter the course of the asteroid (nuke it, or zap it with a laser, or spray it with WD40) would be to set up a computer simulation.

Computers are functionally equivalent to Turing machines, though again for convenience they are ‘decomposed’ into smaller mini Turing machines.  And it is actually quite surprising just how few varieties of these mini Turing machines (‘opcodes’) are needed to simulate any physical system - fewer than 20:


The conditional combination of  COMPARE, JUMP, JUMP-CONDITIONALLY form the IF … THEN … ELSE  statements  of higher level language.

Why mind is outside the scope of scientific explanation

So why is it that we can never simulate the mind using a computer,  (or even the back of an envelope)?       

The problem lies with the fundamental intrinsic limitations of the Turing machine, which affects every simulation and explanation built out of Turing machines, including all physical explanations and hence all other scientific explanations.    

If we return to the experience of pain caused by hitting the thumb with a hammer, we see that there are two mental processes, intentionality and qualitative experience,  which the Turing machine is incapable of simulating, as a result of its structural limitations. 

A Turing machine consists of just two main components:
(i) A tape of characters, which may be limited to just 1’s and 0’s.
(ii)  A table of actions, which instructs the machine what to do with each character.

There are also two minor components:
(iii) A read/write head, which simply transfers symbols from the tape to the table and vice versa,
(iv)  A register that holds the numeric identifier for the machine’s current state.

The tape consists of a string of characters drawn from a defined alphabet, where the term ‘alphabet’ is used in a rather technical sense of a restricted  set of characters, such as the 26 characters of the  Latin alphabet, the 33 characters of Russian alphabet, the four characters of the DNA alphabet, or the two characters of the binary alphabet.   The size of the alphabet makes no difference to the capabilities of the Turing Machine, since all characters are capable of being encoded as binary.

The table consists of five columns, with as many rows of instructions as are needed to do the job.  The columns are:

1  The row's machine state identifier to be tested against the actual machine state.
2  The row's character to be tested against the current character as read from the tape.
3  The identifier of the new state to which the machine will change
  The new character to be written to the tape.
5  An instruction to move the head one character right or left along the tape.

So there is no capability whatsover to make any intentional reference about anything outside the system.

Neither is there any ability to hold any internal qualitative state.  The only internal state it can have is the number in its register.    Even if additional registers were added, they could only contain ‘alphabetic’ characters or state numbers, for there is nothing else in the machine and nothing else can get into the machine.  

So to expect a Turing machine, or any narrative based upon Turing machines to be able to explain such basic mental processes as qualia and 'aboutness' is a category error.   And, according to the Church-Turing-Deutsch principle, all physical narratives must inevitably be isomorphic (functionally identical) with Turing machines. Hence we can conclude that there are basic mental processes which are, by the very definition of what is physical, forever outside the scope of physics.

As Particle physicist Peter J Bussey says:

"When we are investigating a physical system, physics tries to answer three kinds of question – composition, arrangement and behaviour. In other words, what is it made of, how are the parts put together and what laws of nature are operating? The answers provide a “physical explanation” of the system and its properties, and in this way physics achieves much insight into the world around us. In fact, there are those who claim that everything reduces to physics. But there are areas where physics cannot give answers, one such being metaphysics: questions about physics.

More importantly, physics cannot deal with our conscious mental nature and our nature as human persons. The nature of consciousness is beyond the methodology and conceptual apparatus of physics, which confines itself to objective, universal facts, whereas my conscious awareness is associated just with me. Cleverer physical theories are of no avail here – physics has a limited remit and is not set up to address what it really means to be human. Procrustean philosophies that try to cut humanity down to fit into a bed of physics are a dangerous illusion and should be shunned. They are true neither to humanity nor to physics."

When we seek to bridge the gap from the brain to the mind, we inevitably reach a point where the methods of investigation pursued by mechanistic science are exhausted, and 'physical' understanding comes to an end.  Logical continuity disappears, and we are left to meditate on mysterianism, and develop an intuitive understanding of the creative clarity and emptiness of the non-physical mind.

Read more at Buddhist Philosophy

Thursday, 14 August 2014

New Scientist rejects Scientism



I came across this short New Scientist video illustrating some ideas that have been bouncing around the Buddhoblogosphere for a few years in one form or another.

The video points out the logical contradictions of reductionism ("the mind is nothing but the brain, which is nothing but a biological machine, which nothing but etc..."). This is something of a change of direction for this magazine, which has previously tended to support physicalism and scientism.

What the video is saying is that all attempts at reductionism end in circularity, and you need consciousness to explain consciousness (a philosophical position known as Ontologicial Mysterianism). 

I have a few quibbles about oversimplification, but maybe this is necessary to get the message across. The video concentrates exclusively on structure, and ignores process and operations.  This becomes apparent in the oversimplification of the Von Neumann derivation of numbers, where numbers spontanously appear out of nothing.  In fact it is the operation of the mind on the empty set which produces these numbers.

The video is saying that...

- Mathematics is reducible to mind.

- Mind is reducible to biological macromolecules.

- Biological macromolecules are reducible to organic chemicals.

- Organic chemicals are reducible to atoms.

- Atoms are reducible to mathematics.

Mathematics is reducible to mind.

... which is where we came in!

I would reformulate this as ...

- The structures and operations of mathematics are reducible to the concepts and operations of the mind.

- The structures and  operations of the mind are reducible to the structures and operations of biological macromolecules.

- The structures and operations of biological macromolecules are reducible to the structures and operations of organic chemicals.

- The structures and operations of organic chemicals are reducible to the structures and operations of atoms.

- The structures and operations of atoms are reducible to the structures and operations of mathematics.

- The structures and operations of mathematics are reducible to the concepts and operations of the mind... 
(deja vu)

This is, of course, another illustration of emptiness, in that no rock-bottom foundation for any phenomenon is findable. 

Here it is enjoy WHAT IS REALITY

 ...and if you are interested in further disproofs of materialistic reductionism, then consider that...

The behavior of all machines, computers and physical systems is reducible without remainder to the operations of a Turing machine.

The behavior of the mind shows at least two functions - 'aboutness'  and qualitative experience - that cannot in principle be reduced to the operation of a Turing machine.

Therefore, there are some aspects of the mind that are non-mechanistic and non-physical.

Read more at Buddhist Philosophy

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Future of Buddhism in the West: SWOT Analysis

In recent years, Buddhism has been undergoing a rapid expansion in the West, especially America. But what of the future?   This article applies a simple SWOT business analysis to the potentials and limitations affecting the growth of Buddhism in the West.  

SWOT stands for

- Strengths: characteristics of the 'business' that give it an advantage over others.

- Weaknesses (or Limitations): are characteristics that place the business at a disadvantage relative to others.

- Opportunities: external chances to improve performance in the 'business  environment'.

- Threats: external elements in the environment that could cause trouble for the business. (The threats to Buddhism in countries where is established - eg Korea, Mongolia, Burma, Thailand - are outside the scope of this analysis. I hope to look at them in future articles.)


1.1 Diversity in presentation.

Buddhism can be presented as an applied psychology or philosophy, as well as a religion. And we can get a lot of mileage from the first two aspects before we need to invoke religious faith.

1.2 Lack of sectarianism.

Another aspect of Buddhist diversity is that the various traditions of Buddhism coexist without mutual animosity.

1.3 Intellectual  openness.

Among religions, Buddhism is uniquely open to examination and rationalism.  Unlike most religions, which don't like their dogmas to be questioned, Buddha said that subjecting his teachings to searching critical analysis would help us understand them.

1.4 Compliance with science.

The worldview of modern science, in areas such as quantum physics, computer science and biology, has become increasingly in agreement to that of Buddhism, especially as essentialism has declined.   Buddhism has no anti-rational foundational tenets such as creationism and 'young earth'.

1.5 Convergence with Western Philosophy

Essentialism has taken longer to disappear from philosophy than it has from science. To quote Daniel Dennett:

'Even today Darwin's overthrow of essentialism has not been completely assimilated .... the Darwinian mutation, which at first seemed to be just a new way of thinking about kinds in biology, can spread to other phenomena and other disciplines, as we shall see. There are persistent problems both inside and outside biology that readily dissolve once we adopt the Darwinian perspective on what makes a thing the sort of thing it is, but the tradition-bound resistance to this idea persists.' (Daniel Dennett in Darwin's Dangerous Idea , p 39)

But as essentialism declines, newer philosophical approaches such as Process Philosophy are far closer to Buddhist thought than the old 'footnotes to Plato' that have dominated Western Philosophy throughout the Christian era.

1.6  Critique of materialism

Buddhism is the only religion that can offer a convincing philosophical challenge to the bleak doctrine of materialism - the default 'scientism' that the mind is the product of machine-like neural activity and there is no spiritual dimension to existence.

For a discussion of why the mind is a non-physical, fundamental aspect of the universe which is not derived from anything else, see Confronting Materialism and the Delusion of the Mechanical Mind.

1.7 Medical applications

Buddhist techiques are becoming accepted in mainstream medical practice as treatments for a variety of psychological disorders.

1.8  Corporate Buddhism

Techniques of mindfulness and Buddhist based meditation (though often in a secularized form) are also finding their way into business organizations.  However this has its downside, see 4.2

1.9 Honoring the feminine.

The Abrahamic religions are patriarchal and misogynistic to greater or lesser extent. Buddhism, like Paganism, honors the feminine aspect of humanity. One of the favorite devotional Buddhas is the female Buddha Tara.

1.10  Grieving for dead animals

Only Buddhism offers solace and rituals for the death of pets. In contrast, Christianity regards animals as mindless machines whose souls do not survive death. 

1.11 No historical baggage

Buddhism in the West does not have the burden of historical baggage carried by other religions (inquisition, witch hunts, Galileo, religious wars, 911, institutionalized child-abuse etc). This is not to say that Buddhism's record is spotless, but its trangressions are fewer and less well known in the West than those of the usual suspects.

1.12 Rising status of Buddhism. 

At a time when other religions are coming under increasing attack from the 'New Atheists' for their absurdities, illogicalities and ingrained intolerance, Buddhism is escaping unscathed.  This is possibly in part to due its lack of an anthropomorphic Samsaric God (though Buddhism isn't necessarliy atheist), and in part due to its rising intellectual status, especially among the medical profession.

1.13 'Take what you want' versus 'All or nothing'

One of the attractions of Buddhism is that you can take what you want from it (eg meditation techniques) without being required to swallow a whole load of dogma.  This allows people to move into Buddhism at their own speed, as far as they want, by acceptance of those  aspects which are useful to them.  So Jews, Christians and secularists can all incorporate some Buddhist practices and philosophical views without needing to cease  identifying with their cultural or ancestral belief-systems.

1.14  The mindfulness boom and meditation apps

The recent rapid growth of mindfulness meditation in popular culture, and mobile meditation apps for stressed-out commuters, is bringing a wider population into contact with basic Buddhist techniques.


2.1 Coldness and aloofness

Buddhism is sometimes perceived as being cold, intellectual and aloof.  This may in part result from contrasting traditional visual representations of Buddha and Jesus.  Whereas Buddha is portrayed as serene but detached, Jesus is seen interacting with people.

2.2  Not family-friendly

Related to 2.1, though perhaps arising from different causes, dharma centers in the West have not in the past been particularly welcoming to children.   This may be a result of rapid growth and demographics, as many new Buddhists are often young students.  'Many U.S. Buddhists say that meditation centers aren’t especially welcoming of children, and some worry it will cost them the next generation of adherents'

2.3 Cultural 'otherness' and exclusion

When the Christian Church spread across pagan Europe, it did so by a process of 'transculturation', where local pagan customs were adapted rather than repressed, and given Christian significance. Hence pagan Eostre became Christian Easter, Yule became Christmas, Imbolc became Candlemas etc.
Although the exocitism of Buddhism has its attractions, this should not be at the expense of Western Buddhists withdrawing from their traditional culture and festivals. Like Lisa Simpson in 'She of Little Faith', Western kids won't take to any religion that prevents them celebrating Christmas and Halloween.

2.4 Misunderstanding and Misrepresentation

In the past, Buddhism has often been misrepresented by proponents of other religions, sometimes deliberately, and sometimes out of ignorance.

A favorite accusation is that of idolatry.  As accurate information is now available via the internet, this is becoming less of a problem. The anti-Buddhist propagandists are simply making themselves look stupid. For the usual anti-Buddhist arguments, and answers to them,  see here.

2.5 Lack of Philosophical Presence in Academia

Buddhist Philosophy (eg Madhyamaka - The Middle Way) is seldom studied in Western university philosophy departments, and when it is studied, it is often treated as of cultural, historical or anthropological interest only. 

Contemporary topics that can be addressed from the Madhyamaka perspective include:


3.1 'Spiritual but not religious'

The decline of traditional religions is leaving a spiritual gap which less doctrinaire faiths can fill.

There seem to be a number of factors at work:
3.1.1  Militant atheism
3.1.2  Collateral damage to other Abrahamic religions from Islam.
3.1.3  Decline of Catholicism due to child abuse scandals.
3.1.4  Perceived homophobia and bigotry
3.1.5  Anti-rationalism. Many evangelical Protestants have shackled themselves to a corpse in their commitment to the literal truth of Genesis and rejection of evolution.

Nevertheless, although the claim to be 'spiritual but not religious' has become something of a cliche, this reflects a need for some form of spiritual nourishment as an alternative to bleak materialism.  This is mostly being filled by 'New Age' spirituality, where you can pick and mix whatever beliefs and practises you like without any reference to doctrinal authority.  

As meditation and rebirth are popular New Age themes, bits of Buddhism usually get incorporated into the mix alongside Paganism, Celtic spirituality, crystals, geomancy etc.

3.2  Increasing the awareness of the medical benefits of Buddhist practice.  

Although Buddhist meditational techniques have gained orthodox medical approval to an extent unthinkable 20 years ago, there is probably still scope for expansion nere.

3.3 Increasing the awareness of the parallels of Buddhism and science.

Most westerners, because of the increasingly bitter battle between evolution and creationism, assume that religion and science must always and inevitably be in conflict. There is consequently immense scope for public education in the compatiblity of Buddhism and science.

3.4  Celebrating the Feminine

The Abrahamic religions started out as Bronze Age warrior cults, and it still shows. Their attitude to women, and the feminine side of human nature in general, varies from bad to appalling.   Buddhism can do more to establish its  reputation as the one major religion that doesn't denigrate women.

3.5  Acceptance of LGBT  people

Many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered people find the Abrahamic religions unwelcoming, if not downright hostile.  Buddhism provides them with an object of refuge.

3.6 Pop Buddhism and Buddha Chic

Ever since those long ago days of hippies and flower power, Buddhism has enjoyed a certain chic status among creative and artistic people. This aspect of pop Buddhism has become more widespread in recent years, with Buddhas appearing in suburban gardens, magazine advertisements and even nightclubs.

...but unlike showbiz, all publicity isn't necessarily good publicity, and there's an ill-defined boundary where Buddha chic turns into Buddha kitsch, and Pop Buddhism becomes trivializing...


4.1 Pop Buddhism and Buddha Chic (revisited)

The danger of Buddha kitsch is that Buddhism will be trivialized and may even become to regarded as a quick fix for Samsara (which is, of course, ultimately unfixable). 

Sogyal Rinpoche discusses this threat:

"How will Buddhism in the future find the way to make its fullest contribution towards the transformation of society? And yet how can we avoid it being absorbed and neutralized by its encounter with the contemporary world, so that it is reduced to yet another tool to numb us, conscripted and ‘integrated’ into western society, to become simply an interesting offshoot of psychology, a branch of the New Age, or part of the health movement? Many of the Tibetan masters I know today have the same concerns and are asking themselves the same questions as western Buddhists, as we pass through this period of transition together. They also have concerns of their own. They see a number of warning signs for the future.

When we see Buddhist images on advertising hoardings, in Hollywood films and as icons of the chic, it is a testimony to the popularity of Buddhism, which can be gratifying, even exhilarating—but at the same time chilling. Because where will the popularity of Buddhism lead? Are we witnessing the conversion of Buddhism into a product, something which is quick and easy to master, and which ignores the patient discipline and application that is really needed on the Buddhist path, like on any other spiritual path? Then what are the dangers of trying to make Buddhism too palatable for American tastes and fashions, so that we are subtly editing or re-writing the teachings of Buddha? Is there a risk of Buddhism being ‘sold’ too hard, and being too pushy, even evangelical? Commercial-style grasping seems foreign to Buddhism, where the emphasis has always been on examining ourselves. Driven by our compulsive desire for something ‘new’, what will be the long term result of seeking to put a little bit of knowledge into action too soon: rushing in too early, only in order to be productive? My feeling, and that of the masters I know, is that practicality should never take priority over the authenticity of the teachings."

4.2 Secularization   

In attempting to impose 'scientism' and physicalist philosophical views on Buddhism,  the secularizers risk throwing out all the spiritual and mystical aspects leaving an arid, spiritually-barren, materialist philosophy. This has been critiqued by Alan Wallace.

4.3 New Age

Another double-edged sword is the New Age. Although some New Agers may incorporate selected Buddhist beliefs and practices into their worldview, there is a danger that authentic dharma will become diluted,  garbled and corrupted by mixing with everything and anything, in multiple New Age spiritual fruit salads.   

4.4 Competing religions.

Apart from the New Age, which is so syncretistic that it's unclear whether it's competing or complementary to Buddhism, there are other possible threats:

4.4.1 Christianity

Although evangelical Christianity is a major threat to Buddhism in traditionally Buddhist countries like Mongolia and Korea, it doesn't seem to be in competion with Buddhism in the West. This is probably because most Western Buddhists are people who have already abandoned their Judeo-Christian religion before developing an interest in Buddhism, and are unlikely to go back to their ancestral faiths for a variety of pre-existing reasons.

The current meltdown in the Catholic Church will leave a spiritual vacuum worldwide that something will have to fill, though that something may not be Buddhism.

4.4.2 Paganism

Some versions of paganism, such as Wicca, are fishing in the same pool as Buddhism, in that they attract post-Christians who are looking for spirituality without the dogma, misogyny, judgementalism and homophobia that infest their ancestral religions.

4.4.3 Jihadism

As regards competing for converts with Buddhism in the West, Jihadism is a non-starter.  The growth of Jihadism in Europe and North America is due to immigration and massive birthrates.  Conversions of westerners are mostly among dissaffected sections of society such as street gangs and jail inmates, who are attracted by the violence, machismo and promise of divine approval for predatory and anti-social activities.

Conversions of 'normal' Westerners are so rare that Jihadists make a huge publicity circus whenever a prominent Westerner converts, in contrast to conversion to Buddhism, which is so commonplace it goes unremarked.

Jihadism is definitely not fishing for converts in the same pool as Buddhism.

The main danger of Jihadism is that the aggression, destruction and violence that has characterized its attacks on Buddhism wherever the two have met throughout Asia, will carry over to the West.  Jihadism doesn't play nicely with others, and won't compete on a level playing field...

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

Jihadism 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. 

Attacks on synagogues and churches are beginning in America and Europe, and it's only a matter of time before Buddhist centers and individual Buddhists are also victims of the growing Jihad in the West.  Buddhists  all over the world are, to some jihadists, fair targets for real or imagined grievances in other countries.

The jihadist problem is potentially worse for Buddhists than for other religions, since Jews and Christians are allowed to live as 'people of the book', but Buddhists must be exterminated, as Lama Ole Nydahl explains

“If we go southward in Afghanistan from Mazar-i-Sharif and down to Kandahar and then east, we will find the old Buddhist core area that was destroyed by three Muslim invasions over the period from 900 to 1100. That was Ashoka’s [1] old core area and where Buddhism originated. Later Islam began to penetrate down through India. And, according to new Indian research, the Muslims killed some 80 million Indians from ca. A.D. 1200 up until the English stopped it in the 18th century. We are talking about Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and others. If you peruse Arabian sources, the term “budh” — the root word of Buddha and Buddhism — denotes someone worshipping many gods and whom Muhammed says must be killed under all circumstances. Who cannot even obtain dhimmi-status. Even the original Buddhist ‘little road’ through Central Asia was destroyed by Muslims. So one might say that we have had much to thank Islam for throughout the years.”

Embarrassing pacifism
– Why didn’t the Buddhists fight back?

“Having a waterproof, completely logical system is very dangerous. When you do, you will have a tendency to bring all your friends along with you into an ivory tower and forget all the ordinary people running around down below. What will people do whose religion resembles a Swiss cheese – full of holes and devoid of logic and thus standing on feet of clay? Well, the more porous one's religion is, the more one will try to convince others in order to convince oneself. All according to the well-known principle: billions of flies eat manure, billions of flies cannot be wrong.”

Ole Nydahl emphasizes that there is nothing wrong with Jesus encouraging his adherents to make all people his disciples. After all, Nydahl himself tries to convince people of the blessings of Buddhism. What he rejects is the practice of subjugating the infidels by means of the sword.

– Are there no examples of Buddhists having taken up arms? Have they all adhered to a radical pacifism?

“Yes, I’m afraid so. I am not aware of any adequate resistance to aggression. And that is really embarrassing when you see your wife, your children, your loved ones, your friends being butchered, and you have not armed yourself to protect them. It must be terrible...”

The bottom line is that Jihadism is ideologically committed to the destruction of Buddhism, see Jihadism will destroy Buddhism

Read more at Buddhist Philosophy

No Soul in Buddhism?


A traditional Buddhist teaching, which may be confusing to western Buddhists, especially those brought up in the Judeo-Christian cultural tradition, is the denial of the existence of the soul. This teaching has its origin in the denial of an ancient Hindu theology of an unchanging and unchangeable core to the mind, but does not deny a non-physical mind existing as a continuum that goes on from life to life.

Unfortunately, the teaching on 'no soul' lends itself to deliberate misinterpretation by anti-Buddhists, who accuse Buddhists of being materialists.  

In fact, the 'existence' of the soul in Buddhist philosophy is denied in the same way as the 'existence' of the body, in that body and soul are both processes, but do not have any static, unchanging inherent existence.   It would perhaps be more skillful from a transcultural point of view, rather than to deny the soul, to regard it as a conventional truth like the body. 

So what is Milhouse actually buying? A 'thing' or a process?

Punnadhammo Bhikkhu has written an excellent review on this topic: 

"Is There a Soul in Buddhism?

To give the short answer first: "No."

As you might expect, the long answer is much more nuanced. The short answer depends on the commonly understood idea of "soul" as an unchanging personal principle that continues in time infinitely. This is the concept of "soul" usually implicit when one begins with the assumptions of a theistic religion. On the other hand, if by soul we mean simply that human beings have a spiritual aspect that is not ultimately bound up with physical processes, then Buddhism would be much more sympathetic to the idea. Buddhism may deny the existence of a "soul" but it is not for that reason "soul-less" in the same way as is materialist philosophy.

Buddhism is often called the "Middle Path." This has been explained in different ways in different contexts. The earliest use of the phrase is found in the Buddha's very first sermon, in which he laid out the "middle way" between the extremes of asceticism and hedonism. On the metaphysical level, the Buddhist doctrine (and more specifically the dependent origination) has been called the "middle way" between the extreme views of eternalism and annihilationism (sassatavada and ucchedavada).

The first sutta of the Digha Nikaya lays out sixty-two false views, or philosophical errors. These make a complex matrix of nuanced positions regarding metaphysical questions but we can simplify them all into two broad categories, (and one additional minor category.) The first major category of error is eternalism, or the belief that there are some "things" (such as a soul) that continue essentially unchanged forever. This was represented in the Buddha's time by all those Indian schools which postulated an eternal "atman", the Self or Soul or "jiva", life-principle. In later times, this philosophy was adopted in some form or another by all the theistic religions like Christianity, Islam or most forms of Hinduism.

The belief in an atman or soul in this sense usually goes hand-in-hand with the belief in a Creator-God, who is the first, most perfect and most powerful of the "souls". Sometimes the soul is seen as a part or a spark of the One Big Soul, as in the Upanashadic idea that Atman equals Brahman. Sometimes the human soul is seen as a separate entity created by God with an act of will. There are other variations on this theme. In any case, the idea of a God as First Principle or Creator would seem to be required once we accept the notion of an essential and eternal soul. The question of where these souls come from can only be answered by tracing them back to a first cause. The inquiry must end in an act of creation by a special ontologically privileged great-soul.

The opposite extreme view is annihilationism, which is a nearly literal translation of ucchedavada (the "cutting-off" view). This, in its simplest formulation, is the view that beings are "cut off" at death and utterly cease to exist. In the Buddha's time this was represented by various philosophies that either postulated the existence of a finite "life-principle" or took a hard-materialist line that denied any separate reality apart from the body.

In western philosophy, this view was developed by some of the stoics and has never completely died out. Today, in the form of so-called rationalism or philosophical materialism it is becoming established as the dominant world-view of the educated classes. On the metaphysical level, it is represented by what is called "physicalism, " the argument that all mental functions are in the last analysis dependent on physical processes. As a corollary, this would mean that such processes are also explicable in purely physical terms, i.e. as specific sequences of firing neurons...
   Read the rest of the article HERE (highly recommended!) 

For a general background see Buddhist Philosophy


Saturday, 12 July 2014

Jihad Escalation in Thailand: Jihadists target and murder Buddhist nursing students in Thailand


"The devout Muslims are in a Ramadan frenzy in Thailand and they are targeting the most gentle, the most innocent human beings – Buddhist nursing students.

Our man on the ground in Thailand, Chai, writes:

"So much for the peace of Ramadan in Southern Thailand.

“the two women were randomly selected because they were defenceless and also because they were clearly non-Muslims as they were not wearing scarves.”

  Muslims are now targeting Buddhist nursing students from the Yala Hospital. They gunned down two young women nursing students in broad daylight at the local market. Buddhist or not, had they been wearing Muslim scarves on their heads, they would probably still be alive.

  I don’t know why this should be a surprise to anyone though as Muslims have been murdering pretty young Buddhist teachers for years in Thailand’s South.

  The response from the Thai government so far?

  All Buddhist nursing students have been removed from the Yala Hospital and are now working in Bangkok. Only Muslim nursing students will be allowed at Yala Hospital.

And so the Islamization of Thailand’s Southern provinces marches on in exactly the same manner as Islamization works in other countries. Non-Muslims must comply with Muslim rules and dress codes during Ramadan or they will be penalized, beaten or murdered.

In this  the powerful video you can hear the local mosque in the background calling people to prayer. (at the very end of the video)

I’m sure Allah is pleased."

- Chai

See more at:

    Insurgents now taking aim at ‘soft targets’ The Nation July 11, 2014

Yala Hospital tightens its security, staff instructed to only leave premises when absolutely necessary 
    Despite boosting its security measures, Yala’s Yupparaj Hospital could not escape an insurgent attack when two of its trainee nurses were gunned down in the middle of a crowded market across the street on Wednesday.

    Prasit Meksuwan, chief of the Civic Council in Southernmost Provinces, deplored the attack as he cited the analysis by security officials as saying the two gunmen were likely lying in wait for anybody who could be considered a Buddhist to leave the hospital.

    Unfortunately, the two young women – Sutheera Phetjan, 29, and Kulradee Phetmak, 21 – ended up being the targets. Their families are now being provided with counselling and other assistance.

    Meanwhile, Prasit urged Buddhists to avoid travelling alone or visiting markets, which he said were difficult to secure as there were far too many people and protection was often lighter.

    Security sources say that these two women were randomly chosen for the attack because they weren’t wearing headscarves. Also, they were possibly chosen as “soft targets” by a new breed of insurgents, who were possibly seeking to avenge the arrest of an ustad or Islamic teacher on Monday.

    Separately, Dr Sawas Aphiwijjaneewong, chief of the public health provincial office, said the hospital has issued new regulations instructing members of staff to only leave the hospital premises if they have to run important errands. They have also been warned to not go out alone or after dark.  “However, the shooting happened in broad daylight in a market that was packed with people. This is beyond expectation,” he pointed out.

    Director of the Sirindhorn Public Health College in Yala, which had assigned 11 students to undergo apprenticeship at Yupparaj Hospital, said normally food was provided to students and members of staff inside the hospital and that security was tight for all hospital personnel.  She added that the two women were randomly selected because they were defenceless and also because they were clearly non-Muslims as they were not wearing scarves.

    The remaining nine students have been moved to other hospitals outside the three strife-torn provinces in the South.

    Kanthima Aldri-us, a senior nurse who oversaw the 11 trainees, said hospital staff and students were only allowed to go to the convenience store across the road for their own safety, but an ad-hoc market was set up on the day of the tragedy right next to the store.

    “It happened within just 10 minutes, after the two victims left the hospital for the market,” she added.

See   No future for Buddhism in an Islamized World