Sunday, 21 October 2012

Is the Mystery of the Mind beyond the Limits of Science?

'The mind is not the brain'
 - Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

Science cannot explain how events in the brain produce mental experiences, or how mental intentions produce effects in the brain, such as those which are transmitted via the nervous system to give rise to the voluntary movement of muscles.  This gap in our understanding of mind/brain interactions is known as The Hard Problem.

Over 140 years ago John Tyndall wrote:
"... the passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously; we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from the one to the other. They appear together, but we do not know why. 

Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened, and illuminated, as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain; were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be; and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem, "How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness?" The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable. 

Let the consciousness of love, for example, be associated with a right-handed spiral motion of the molecules of the brain, and the consciousness of hate with a left-handed spiral motion. We should then know, when we love, that the motion is in one direction, and, when we hate, that the motion is in the other; but the "Why?" would remain as unanswerable as before."

And in those intervening 140 years, science has made no progress whatsoever in addressing these questions.

So why is the Hard Problem so hard?

Is it just that we aren't yet smart enough to solve it, or is it that we never will be smart enough to solve it?  Or is the Hard Problem totally different from any other scientific problem because it involves a non-physical system: the Mind?

Read the full article at Rational Buddhism.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Buddhism in the British Army

From the Daily Mail

'Buddhism is experiencing an extraordinary upswing in popularity in the armed forces.

Since 2005, the number of servicemen and women practising the religion has risen from 200 to 3,800. Around 2,800 are Gurkhas, whose home nation Nepal has pockets of Buddhism.

But the other 1,000 are British, with many converting since they joined the military.

According to spiritual leaders, the reason behind the phenomenon is that Buddhism allows service personnel to escape the stresses and strains of military life.

Sunil Kariyakarawana, the Buddhist chaplain for the armed forces, said: ‘Buddhism has a different perspective about things.

'The military is a very stressful place. People go to war, that is one factor, and have to fight.

'Personnel see a lot of suffering in theatre. People are finding that Buddhism can help with these mental agonies.

'It is laid back and they can practise their own way.'

Dr Sunil said Buddha, who lived 2,500 years ago, never ruled out force: 'Sometimes you have to choose war as the least bad option.'

Read the full article

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Thursday, 11 October 2012

Buddhist Halloween

Buddhist Halloween?

Should Buddhists celebrate the ancient Celtic Druid festival of Halloween?

What's the connection between this pre-Christian Druid festival and Buddhism?

Buddhism teaches that the mind is not a physical entity.

Consequently,  physical factors can neither create nor destroy it.

The mind exists before conception, and survives after death to be reborn into another body.

The Druids were ancient Celtic priests who shared the Buddhists' belief in rebirth and the indestructibility of the mind.

They regarded the seasons of the year as being a metaphor for the death and rebirth of the human being.

Halloween represented the death of the old year and was believed to be the time of year when the veil separating the human and ghost realms was at its thinnest.

Yule (the winter solstice) was the time of conception of the coming year and Imbolc (Candlemas) was the actual birth of the New Year, with the appearance of the first lambs and green shoots.

The period between Yule and Candlemas was the gestational period when the new animal and plant life, though growing and stirring, was still hidden in the body of its mother, or in the case of vegetation within the body of mother earth.

The significance of Halloween to Buddhists now becomes clear. In the Druid system the period of seven weeks between Halloween and Yule is the gap between death of the old and conception of the new year. This corresponds to the 49 days of the bardo.

Halloween thus symbolises the entry of the disembodied consciousness into the intermediate state between leaving one body and occupying another.

In traditional Buddhist beliefs the bardo-consciousness will experience hideous apparitions - ghosts, demons etc.

If the mind reacts with panic then a samsaric rebirth, possibly in unpleasant realms, is inevitable.

However if the bardo-being recognises these apparitions as hallucinations - projections and reflections of its own negative karma resulting from evil actions - then liberation remains possible.

The reasons for the Druidic custom of dressing up as ghosts, demons and so on may be to symbolise that these scary bardo apparitions are in fact nothing other than aspects or appearances of the person's own self.

In tantra, gruesome visualizations are used to purify negativities

Among Western Buddhists, the festival of Samayatara, the female Buddha of the Northern direction associated with midnight and the wisdom of action, is commemorated at Halloween.

"...The point here being, of course, that as Buddhism has moved into new cultural spaces it has adopted the forms of those cultures, using them to express peculiarly Buddhist themes and sometimes supplanting their original meanings entirely [1].  Naturally, as Buddhism becomes rooted in the West we should expect the same treatment to be applied to Western cultural forms, even though by all accounts it appears to be appalling to many culturally conservative Buddhists that Westerners should want to practice and celebrate Buddhadharma in ways that resonate for their own cultures.  But, speaking for myself, I see this as a good thing - I am not Tibetan/Japanese/Chinese/Thai/etc. and I do not wish to be [2].
Which brings me to an upcoming and super-fun holiday: Halloween [3]!  If there is any holiday that I want/is a good candidate for being Buddhized, this is it.  There are several reasons why this is so:
  • Although the broad outlines of the origins and meaning of Halloween are known, they are not believed in.  The holiday is widely celebrated by Western (at least, North American) society, but is largely devoid of meaning.  Indeed, the actual meaning of “trick or treat” never occurred to me until I was an adult – it had always just been a phrase that got you candy (which was good enough).
  • More specifically, Halloween has no Christian content, which makes Buddhization much easier for two reasons.  First and most importantly, to Buddhize Halloween will not cause outrage among/backlash from the Christian community.  Secondly, there’s no metaphysics that will need abandonment or difficult reworking in order to fit with Buddhist thought.
  • The West needs to take the dark side of life more seriously.
  • There are tantalizing hints of existing traditions that could, by mere suggestion, be transformed from simple fun into meaningful ritual.
  • It’s so so so fun.
I can think of a few obvious ways this could be done:
  • Teachings about hungry ghosts/hell realms.
  • Pointing out the emptiness of ‘external’ perceptions (what’s behind the mask?).
  • Transforming emotional reactions, demonstrating purity of the world (the old peeled grapes as eyeballs, spaghetti as brains, etc.).
  • Chod practice!
  • Death and rebirth teachings/meditations."

Dr Yutang Lin blessing a ghost to leave a haunted house and be reborn in the Pure Land

Giving of fearlessness - bringing peace to haunted houses

Festival of the Hungry Ghosts

The Halloween Monk

Halloween Asian Style

Halloween and World Religions

Thai Halloween Party May End