“DOCTRINE CANNOT BE TAKEN BY FAITH”
In an interview with the journalist from the Russian publishing house “In the World of Science”, the spiritual leader of Buddhists shared his thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of the Western scientific worldview and the perspective of joint research and practices. Also discussed were issues of the perception of consciousness of Western and Eastern civilizations.
– Your Holiness, you are showing great interest in Western science, visiting laboratories, discussing with researchers, organizing meetings and debates. What brings together Western and Buddhist science?
– To begin, I would like to say a few words about the background, about that. why is such a dialogue between Buddhist and Western science possible at all (speaking “Western”, I mean the Russian scientific school). Let me remind you that Buddhism brought to Tibet in the VIII century. the great mentor of the ancient Indian monastery, the University of Nalanda Śāntarakṣita. He was an eminent philosopher and logician. This is understandable: a logical approach, the ability to ask questions, skepticism is very important. One should not just accept something or believe in something. or take it on faith only because a great man said so and it must be true. Buddha himself said to his followers and monks: “You should not take my teaching on faith.” Therefore, the Nalanda mentors made a distinction which Buddha’s teachings can be understood literally and which need interpretation. I think. This is a unique feature of Buddhism.
Focus on logical thinking and experiments. inherent in our tradition, brings it closer to the Western scientific approach. But in one aspect, the methods of science and Buddhism are quite different: a scientific researcher performs an experiment using various tools to analyze external phenomena, while spiritual research begins with the development of refined attention, which is then used in the introspective study of the world of inner experience.
Buddha was one of the ancient Buddhist scholars and a great thinker. Just imagine: 2.5 thousand years ago he. in fact, he outlined the provisions of quantum physics! That is why for more than 30 years now I have been participating in dialogues with modern scientists: we are discussing in detail the questions of cosmology. neurobiology, physics (especially quantum physics) and psychology. I can say that these discussions in four areas of knowledge bring us mutual benefits. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there is knowledge of cosmology, as well as neuroscience, especially in the field of medicine. But from the dialogues with modern scientists, we learned a lot of new things. As for quantum physics, here we are, perhaps more is known than modern science.
– Can you elaborate on this? In your book “The Universe in a Single Atom”, you write that quantum mechanics is practically a reflection of the Buddhist approach.
– In Buddhism, it is explained in great details that nothing exists in isolation, independently. Or, for example, the problem of the observer, the key to quantum physics. Modern science cannot answer the question of where the observer is, she has yet to investigate this.
I believe that the question of the role of the observer is one of the most difficult in quantum physics. Some physicists claim that the role of the observer comes down to the choice of instruments of observation, while others insist that the observer himself is a full participant in the emergence of observable reality.
This question has long been the focus of discussions of Buddhist thinkers.
At its core, the philosophical problem posed to physicists by discoveries in the field of quantum mechanics is reduced to whether the idea of matter as consisting of the smallest, but in the absolute sense of real particles, is acceptable at all. The Buddhist “theory of emptiness” in this regard can offer a consistent model of understanding reality as having no own independent essence in the final sense. This theory asserts the failure of any belief in objective reality, based on the idea of the existence of independent objects endowed with their own properties. All objects and events, whether material or speculative entities or even abstract concepts such as time, do not have an objective identity. The assumption of the presence of such an independent, by their own nature inherent in their being, leads to the conclusion that. That things and events are completely complete in themselves, and therefore completely self-sufficient. From this, in turn, it follows that all phenomena are not able to interact with each other and influence one another. But we see the opposite, which means that such a premise is not true.
Nonetheless, modern physicists, unlike theorists of Buddhism, can expand the perceptive capacity of the eye to incredible limits through the use of various instruments — giant telescopes (for example, the Hubble Space Telescope) or electron microscopes. The result was the accumulation of previously unimaginable amounts of empirical knowledge about the structure of material objects. In light of such changes, I insisted on the need to teach the basics of modern physics in some monastic educational institutions of Tibetan Buddhism. At the same time, I believe that in fact we are not introducing a new subject into the curriculum, but are only improving the existing curriculum.
– One of the main points of contact between Western and Buddhist science is the study of mental functions and the notorious question of “what consciousness is”. In your opinion, having at their disposal the most sophisticated ultra-precise technique, have Western scientists advanced in this direction? Can Buddhism help?
– Compared with the ancient Indian tradition, modern psychology is still at the kindergarten level, it is taking the first steps. Buddhism inherited this knowledge from ancient India. where this science was very developed before the arrival of the Buddha. In ancient India, there were practices of Samatha and Vipassanā, which can be attributed to the field of psychology, the science of consciousness. Buddhist psychology has become part of this knowledge system.
Western psychology deals with only five, as we call it, “kinds of consciousness” associated with the senses. With regard to vision, hearing and the like, in animals, these feelings are better developed than in humans. Let’s say I have a very weak sense of smell. (Although sometimes it also turns out to be useful: for example, once in a place where it smells bad, I don’t feel it.) In general, animals see us much better, hear it, because their survival depends on it. That part of the brain that is responsible for sensory perception. developed approximately equally in us and in animals. But the mechanisms, systems of the brain that provide thinking, in people are much more complicated. This suggests that if animal survival depends on sensory perception, then our survival depends on the ability to think, on knowledge. However, if you use this knowledge only to achieve material goals related to sensual pleasures, this is not enough. Do we have to analyze – what violates the peace of mind? These are not external causes, but our own consciousness. So, the main difference is that Western science considers only five senses, ignoring the main, sixth – “consciousness”. The first five senses belong to the field of sensory perception, whereas the latter includes a wide range of mental states – from memory and will to imagination. Mental states related to the field of sensory perception are derived from the activities of the five senses, which are considered material, while purely mental experience is largely independent of the physical basis.
It is the training of this basic consciousness, and not the state associated with the senses, that our practices are devoted to. In Western psychology, so far there is no knowledge about this “basic consciousness.” When we sleep deeply, five types of consciousness associated with the senses are practically inactive, but the “main consciousness” is present.
– Among Western researchers of the brain, psychologists, philosophers there is no agreement in the definition of “consciousness”, what exactly is meant by this concept…
– Western philosophy and science, in general, tend to explain consciousness exclusively in terms relating to the processes of brain functioning. This reductionist approach reduces nature and the very existence of the mind to matter. Some scientists see the mind in terms of a computer model, something like artificial intelligence. However, as I know, in modern neurophysiology the question is discussed: do the mind and consciousness represent more than just a simple result of brain activity and do perceptions and emotions go beyond chemical reactions? To what degree does the world of subjective experience depend on the substance of the brain and the characteristics of its work? This dependence must exist to some extent, but is it absolute?
I think until the end of the 20th century, scientists studied only the brain and neural connections, believing that consciousness was reduced to them. But towards the end of the last century, they experimentally discovered that, for example, as a result of meditation, serious changes occur in the brain, and a phenomenon called “neuroplasticity” was discovered. That is, the “training of consciousness” leads to visible changes in the brain. And today, many Western researchers agree that there is something that can influence the brain.
Nevertheless, the scientific equipment and methods of scientific research of the last decade are truly admired, but as for the scientific discoveries of modern Western science, there’s nothing new for us, believe me.
– And yet you encourage monks to participate in electrophysiological research in a state of meditation. Did these experiments bring something new to Buddhist science? What would you personally like to learn about yourself using the tools of Western science?
– Western scientists, exploring the brain, these experiments brought new knowledge. We don’t know … I think we need to do more research. During our debates with Russian scientists here in Dharamsala, one of them offered to bring here equipment that is rather bulky. Today. when in the East, in the West, in America, Europe, even in China and, of course, in Russia, many scientists express an interest in dialogue, I think our work should not be limited to single meetings. Therefore, I consider this idea of delivering scientific equipment to Dharamshala to be very important. We could eventually create a laboratory here, enlist the cooperation of some institute, the University of Delhi, to investigate some practicing hermits. Many of them spend year-round in the snowy mountains. They have the ability to develop internal heat. I would meet with such contemplators with great interest. These are common practices, they exist among Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and I seriously think about arranging a meeting with Indian spiritual leaders, including very experienced practitioners, at some point. We will have something to discuss. The tradition of performing such practices exists in Tibetans.
On the coldest winter days, practitioners remain completely naked or wearing very thin clothes. At night, they take a cut of cloth, dip it in cold water, and then wrap it around the body. Steam rises, the fabric heats up and eventually dries. Then it is dipped into the water again and wrapped around the body again. And so throughout the night — nine or ten hours — they change this fabric ten times a night. Thus, meditation contributes to the production of what we call “inner heat”, “kundalini.” Kundalini is produced here (puts a hand on the chest), and Kundalini is here (points to the head). I met a monk who, through the power of his meditation, could direct internal energy through his finger to a pile of sand, and it was possible to observe how sand spreads. Through deep meditation, you can gain the ability to control energy. If an experiment fixes this process, it will show how it happens, scientists will get completely new information about consciousness.
– What will it give to people? In Western science, an experiment is often carried out to obtain a result, for the sake of knowledge itself. But Buddhist scholars are trying to understand the relationship, the consequences.
– The ability to manage emotions. After all, the real source of both strength and problems for a person is consciousness, not the body. If we do not know what consciousness is, how can we cope with destructive emotions? They can not be defeated with a weapon or vodka. Destructive emotions must be opposed to the phenomenon of the same nature – emotions, but relying on logic, on the understanding of reality.
I believe that all the problems of modern Western civilization and its individual person stem from the inability to control emotions. If we say that compassion is important because the Buddha or Jesus Christ or Muhammad taught this, then people will just brush it off. And even if we threaten them for their sins with hell, they will not be greatly frightened. However, the opinion of scientists, people listen. And today, data from scientific studies indicate that compassion is inherent in man from nature. Once at a meeting with scientists, one of the participants suggested that we watch a video illustrating this thesis. In it, a six-month-old child was shown a cartoon in which smiling children played with each other. And the child, looking at the screen, also smiled and expressed joy. Then another cartoon was shown to the same child, where two children quarreled, and he was upset looking at the screen. This is pretty convincing.
Medical scientists believe that constant anger and fear destroy our immune system, while a compassionate mindset is good for health. When talking with people (including children) about the importance of compassion, we must first turn to their own experience – to the fact that everyone likes smiles and does not like evil faces. Then it should be told that in the long term, constant fear and anger are very harmful to our health, and a compassionate mindset, a smile, on the contrary, are good for health and longevity. The best condition for longevity – peace of mind.
We must educate people, tell them that non-violence and following secular ethics is in their own interests. This is not for the next life, no. Take, for example, sleep. If during the day you keep warmth, then you will dream good dreams. And if during the day you are experiencing severe anger or fear, then in a dream, continue to be afraid and you will have nightmares.
According to ancient Indian psychology, peace of mind is not disturbed by external causes, but by our own negative emotions, anger, and fear. Anger comes from irritation, and the cause of irritation is fear. Fear is generated by distrust. which in turn arises from extreme egocentrism, lack of concern for the welfare of others and focusing only on oneself. If we analyze whether there is a benefit from egocentrism, we will see that it is very harmful to health. Excessive egocentrism creates fear, anger, and hatred. And this, in turn, creates many problems that disturb the peace of mind. Such is the nature of things. Selfishness is not useful to us. I often say that taking care of yourself is absolutely necessary. But you can truly take care of yourself only by showing concern for the welfare of others because we are social animals. Today, the future of each of us depends on all of the seven billion people. Take care of humanity, and it will bring you the greatest benefit.
– And when did you yourself experience the strongest fear in your life that was difficult to cope with?
It was the night of March 17, 1959. Before that, I had been trying to resolve the consequences of the crisis that broke out in Lhasa on March 10 for at least a week. I tried to reduce tensions, but all my efforts were in vain. Day after day, night after night, new divisions of Chinese soldiers were arriving in Lhasa. The Tibetans were desperate. And it became clear that there is nothing left but to run. The day before, the Chinese asked me to indicate in which room at Norbulingka, the summer residence of the Dalai Lamas, I would live so that they could protect me. Whether they really wanted to protect me or, on the contrary, they needed to know my place of stay in order to more accurately aim the sight, I do not know. So on March 17th, I decided to run. It was then, on the night of the escape, that I experienced great fear, I did not know whether I would see the next day. We had to get past the positions of Chinese soldiers. We rode horses and could hear the conversations of the Chinese sentries on the other side of the river, tried to muffle the sound of horse hooves whenever possible and did not light a fire.
Later, I again experienced not so much fear, but serious concern – during a meeting with Mao Zedong.
– How did you cope with this feeling?
– Thanks to decades of consciousness training, in accordance with the knowledge accumulated by the Nalanda tradition. I am 82 years old, and I can say from my own experience that the training of consciousness is bearing fruit. Immediate results should not be expected, but work must be done decade after decade. And the most important of the workouts is the cultivation of altruism. As a Buddhist practitioner and student of the Nalanda school of thought, I know that nothing exists independently. Around the same says quantum physics. Today. after 50 years of practice, I see how much my emotions have changed. This was made possible thanks, firstly, to the development of altruism, and secondly, to reflections on the absence of an independent existence. Nothing exists the way it seems to us. Today, some scientists also say that destructive emotions are largely due to a superficial view of things. One American scientist. Aaron Beck (he is now almost 100 years old), a man far from religion, who has long worked with patients suffering from mental illness, somehow shared with me the conclusion he reached. He said that when a person is angry with someone, the one he is angry with seems to him 100% of negative qualities. In fact, this perception of the object of anger is 90% a consequence of the bias of our consciousness.
This is fully consistent with what the eminent Indian thinker Nagarjuna said. Under the influence of anger, a person can even try to kill someone. But in a few hours the attitude may change, and in a few years, these people will become good friends. This could not have happened if the negative qualities we attributed to the object of our anger were really real. Such emotions are based on the unjustified exaggeration of some of the same qualities, which follows from the fact that we see only “appearance.” The antidote here is a deeper understanding of reality, thinking that nothing exists independently. This practice is a very powerful tool against destructive emotions. And if Western science confirms this idea for its part, we will get a strong means for education, for convincing people. This knowledge can be applied in life and get the result.
Science may also have to learn as a result of acquaintance with the knowledge of spirituality, especially in such humanitarian fields. like morality or sociology, but that is certain. that some specific scientific sections of Buddhist thought, such as ancient cosmological theories or outdated physical concepts, should be revised in the light of modern scientific data.
The original interview – Elena Kokurina, you can read here.