Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Buddha & Science: The Secret (No-)You

Can you help Professor du Sautoy find the 'I'?

Recently, the BBC aired the excellent documentary ‘The Secret You’ which explored the question of self-identity from the viewpoint of modern science. The presenter was Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, who started the show by asking, “What makes me ‘me’?” He then announced that he was going to be the subject in a series of weird & wonderful experiments “to explore something that appears so simple yet is almost impossible to explain.” Du Sautoy revealed that as an atheist he neither believes in gods nor souls, but that what has traditionally been called the soul in many religions is equal to the modern scientific & philosophical idea of consciousness, and that his purpose in the program was “the search for consciousness” For Buddhists too, this search is a worthwhile exercise, as we endeavor to explore & understand consciousness in the pursuit of enlightenment, albeit through somewhat different means to Professor du Sautoy.

The first observation that du Sautoy makes regards the myriad physical sensations that he experiences on a moment to moment basis: “Without them, everything would disappear. Without them, I would disappear.” (An interesting point to note is that du Sautoy refers to his sense of self as “the ‘I’” throughout the show, which depersonalizes it, enabling a more dispassionate & objective approach than if he were to talk about ‘my self’ or ‘me’.) To explore this idea of a sensation-constructed world and the ‘I’, he visits the University of Portsmouth to observe the Mirror Self-Recognition Test, originally devised by Professor Gallup, who he meets a little later in the program.

Meanwhile, at Portsmouth University, the Test involved preschool children looking at a large mirror containing their reflection; a spot was placed on their cheeks and then it was recorded as to whether or not they touched their own face in response to seeing the spot on their mirror image. If they did not, this indicated that they had yet to recognize the image as their own, whereas if they reached for the spot on their cheek, this revealed that they were able to identify with the face in the mirror. Most children recognize themselves in the mirror between the ages of eighteen to twenty months old, which is when they are considered to be ‘self-aware.’ Prior to this, they seem to experience their mirror image as another child, unaware that it was in fact their own face staring back at them.

This experiment suggests that consciousness, or the quality of consciousness changes. It is not an unchanging, permanent ‘soul’, but rather the result of certain sensations and faculties interacting, the latter of which evolves into a mind that thinks of itself in terms of being a separate & unique personality. This coincides with the Buddhist understanding of self as something impermanent and forever changing. In the work of the British philosopher Douglas Harding, mirror experiments feature prominently (see ‘the Headless Way’ website linked to on the right of this page). In one such exercise, the experimenter is encouraged to see that whereas his reflection in a mirror is a limited person with a unique face, when attention is inverted, no such features can be found. Harding taught that this reveals the ‘no-thing’ that we truly are, as opposed to the thing (person) that simply appears to be here.

The above Mirror-Self Recognition Test was devised by Professor Gordon Gallup Jr. to test whether animals had a similar sense of self-awareness as humans. In research that he conducted, only chimpanzees & orangutans past the test, suggesting that such awareness is very rare in the animal kingdom. Interestingly, this ability to recognize themselves in the mirror is lost by chimps when they enter the last ten to fifteen years of their life. This may be related to the following reflections spoken by Professor Gallup:

“The price you pay for being aware of your own existence is to confront the inevitability of your own individual demise. Death awareness is the price we pay for self-awareness.”

Perhaps chimpanzees lose this ability to imagine themselves and possibly their own mortality late on in life as a mechanism to soften the blow of knowing that they will soon come to an end. On the other hand, it may be a way of making them more selfless in the context of their troop later on in life, more willing to self-sacrifice than the younger chimps. This would mean that the younger, fitter members would have a better chance of survival, and thereby contribute more for longer periods to the well being of the group as a whole. Whatever the reason may be, this lack of a sense of self mainly occurs amongst older humans as an aberration, such as senility or mental illness; most of us carry this sense of self and its eventual demise with us till the day we die. Unless, of course, we can transcend it in some way, such as through the realization that it is a delusion in the first place, as in the experience of enlightenment as promoted in Buddhism. This issue will be briefly approached later in this article.

Next, du Sautoy visits Imperial College London, where he talks with Dr. Stephen Gentlemen, who dissects a human brain, showing the different areas and explaining that as far as science understands it, consciousness is “a group of defuse nerve cells that project up to a relay station called the thalamus, and that sends projections out to all of the areas of the cortex [the surface covering of the brain]…Consciousness seems to be about a constant activation of the cortex.” This emphasizes the physical nature of consciousness, or at least its relationship to the physical brain, challenging the dualistic notion that body is unconnected to the mind (or ‘soul’), a common idea in philosophy & religion.

“Modern science can keep a body going, but how do you actually tell whether the ‘I’ is still inside that body, and alive?”

In the above comment, Professor du Sautoy reveals the common assumption – by atheists as well as religious types, it seems – that there is something somewhat ‘ghostly’ inhabiting the body. He relates that his wife was once in a coma for a short time, and that while she was unconscious there was no evidence that she was still there, that who she was is inextricably linked to being conscious. Thankfully, his wife recovered fully from the coma. However, in contradiction to du Sautoy’s comments, it seems that consciousness is not so much in the brain as on the brain, a network of nerve cells lying on its surface. Those aspects of the mind that are called the subconscious or instinctual are apparently located deeper inside the brain, just as our experience of the subconscious and our instincts appear at a deeper level of the mind than the conscious sense of being the ‘I’ that exists its ‘surface’.

Dr. Adrian Owen of the Medical Research Council researches the condition of people classified as being in a ‘behaviorally vegetative state.’ Patients are asked to visualize playing tennis while their brain activity is monitored; when areas in the pre-motor cortex part of the brain are activated during this procedure, this reveals that the person can respond to instructions, and that therefore they are conscious, despite being completely unresponsive outwardly. This has implications for the treatment of such people, for when they display the fact that they are conscious and able to respond mentally to instructions, it must not be assumed that they are immune to feeling pain, whether physical or emotional.

In deep meditation, we can also appear to be mentally absent & unresponsive to others, whilst perfectly alert within our meditative condition. We may hear outside noises but not react to them, settled into a blissfully peaceful state of mind. On other occasions, outer sense stimuli may be cut off completely as the mind goes deeper into itself exploring the recesses of itself. Whatever the level of meditation experienced, it’s fair to say that we wouldn’t say that it’s okay to mistreat meditators because they’re unresponsive to outer stimuli; similarly, those in vegetative states of mind deserve respect when being interacted with.

“My self [is] sitting in front of…me. But I have the illusion that I am three feet behind myself.”

In an interesting experiment in Sweden, du Sautoy dons the ‘Cyber Mind’ goggles that show him a camera view filmed directly behind him; this confuses his brain into thinking that ‘he’ is in fact sat several feet behind ‘himself’! Moreover, when another person wears the camera on his head, de Sautoy experiences himself as the other participant shaking du Sautoy’s own hand. In the program, the researcher Dr. Henrik [his surname is uncertain] explains that the brain is constantly trying to work out where it is, using all available data to answer this question. Du Sautoy notes that, “According to Henrik, my sense of a separate ‘I’ is an illusion created from my brain processing data from my senses.”

This relates to the age old question as to where consciousness resides. Is it inextricably linked to the body, presumably the brain, or is it something like an alien inhabiting the body but not connected to it? Throughout history, many accounts exist of people’s consciousnesses or ‘souls’ leaving the body and looking down at it, or/and traveling off to some other realm to engage in experiences that have nothing to do with the physical body. Are there hallucinations, dreams, or fantasies? Or perhaps there’s more to consciousness than we have (scientifically) yet to confirm. Of course, the view that the ‘I’ is an illusion created by the convergence of many different elements is noting new to Buddhists; that the sense of ‘me’ as a separate, permanent being is an illusion to be transcended has lead at the heart of Buddhism for millennia.

After this, du Sautoy is seen talking to Professor Christof Koch from the California Institute of Technology, who investigates the nature and relationships of the neurons in the brain. Professor Koch mentions experiments where it is revealed that individual neurons respond to particular pieces of information, explaining to some extent how memory works and how we recognize people and things. So, for example, in his research one patient had a specific neuron that ‘lit up’ every time a photograph of the American actress Jennifer Aniston was shown, whilst another patient’s individual neuron responded not only to a photograph of the actress Halle Berry, but also to her printed written name. Professor Koch calls these neurons ‘concept neurons’, stating that whilst each individual neuron is not aware, conscious emerges from a group of neurons interacting in response to a particular stimulus.

So, even specific memories can be located within the brain, revealing how each thought is dependent upon connections between different neurons in the brain, and that, therefore, if these connections are broken, we cannot remember something. So, when we feel bad about forgetting someone’s name – something that happens to me quite a lot – we might say, “It’s not me, it’s my neurons.” Whether this would excuse one in the eyes of the other is questionable, of course! This interdependency of thought is another aspect of modern scientific research that Buddhists have subjectively experienced for many centuries whilst meditating; that science and Buddhism are converging in their respective understandings of how the mind works is surely a future point of exploration for both scientists and Buddhists.

The next experiment for du Sautoy involved going to sleep with electrodes attached his head, charging the brain with small amounts of electricity to see how it responded. This was conducted under the direction of Professor Marcello Massimi of the University of Wisconsin and the University of Milan. This treatment was called Trans-Cranial Magnetic Stimulation (or TMS for short), and revealed that when awake (and conscious) the human brain reacts to a single point of electrical stimulation in a network of responses, whereas when asleep, localized activity only occurs in the vicinity of the stimulation. Professor Massimi stated that, “Consciousness is about the fact that our brain is a network talking to each other: connections. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” After encountering Professor Massimi, du Sautoy remarks:

“Am ‘I’ conscious, or are my neurons conscious? And, is there a difference?”

Again, we return to the theme that the conscious mind is a conglomerate of different mental processes coming together to construct the sense of self. Without these parts, there is no individual being to be called ‘I’. The Buddhist teaching of anatta (not self) seems to be corroborated by modern scientific understandings of how the brain works. The component parts of the brain that go up to make the ‘I’ are not, in themselves, individual persons, but elements in what becomes the sense of self. To experience the ‘I’ is to experience the result of all these converging processes; this ‘I’ is a kind of delusion formed from its myriad elements. It is this delusion of being a self that is to be transcended if we wish to experience what Buddhism deems the-way-things-are (the Dharma.)

After this, du Sautoy visits the Bernstein Centre for Computational Neuroscience, and takes part in an experiment where the brain is studied as the participant makes decisions to press one or other of two buttons. A brain scanner showed that du Sautoy’s brain accurately indicated which button he would press a full six seconds prior to he consciously knew which way he’s react himself and actually pressed the button. Professor John-Dylan Haynes who conducted the experiment remarked that our conscious decisions are shaped by a lot of unconscious brain activity that precedes it:

“The conscious mind is encoded in brain activity; it’s realized by brain activity. It is an aspect of your brain activity. Also, the unconscious brain activity realizes certain aspects of you. It’s in harmony with your beliefs and desires…Your consciousness is your brain activity, and that’s what’s leading your life.”

Du Sautoy is visibly shaken by this latest piece of information on how his brain works, for it reveals the experience of a conscious decision-making self into question, suggesting that rather than being individuals capable of free will, we are mental and physical processes that combine to produce consciousness and conscious ‘decisions.’ This echoes the ancient Buddhist teaching that states that everything in life is conditioned from previous occurrences, whether physical or psychological in nature. This teaching is commonly known as karma, literally ‘action’ in English, and revolves around the idea that whatever we do has consequences, and that whatever is occurring at the present moment is (at least partially) conditioned by previous actions. All this has much suffering intrinsically connected to it, and this negative side of life is unavoidable whilst we live under the delusion that we are separate selves. The goal in Buddhism, therefore, is to realize that which is unconditioned and rest in Nirvana. Du Suatoy, whilst not achieving the wisdom of enlightenment, has at least developed considerable understanding regarding the nature of the ‘I’. He concludes by saying:

“It [consciousness] is just the threshold, the final stage in a whole complex of brain activity. I’m unaware of most of it, but the tiny portion I feel…well, that’s ‘me’.”


Unknown said...

As a university that spends over a million dollars a year on alcohol it is perhaps not so surprising that one of their professors endorses the 'wired meat' theory of consciousness.

While it may appear that science and Buddhism are converging, I seriously doubt it; greed, anger and delusion will continue to rule science until there is nothing left of the planet we live on. What you do observe about science is that it is basically one new theory after another.

Also, karma is created by intent, not action. We can step on a cat and break its neck, but as long as it is unintentional then no karma is created (other than the negative reaction from the owner if they ever found out). Likewise, people who work in meat processing plants create no karma as long as they do so to earn a living.

Unknown said...

Just one other point, the closest they get to reality (if you call 180 degrees close) is the mention of the assumption that there is something ghostly inhabiting the body.

Reality being the exact opposite; that there is a body inhabiting the mind.

G said...

Interesting comments, Gladstone.

Living in Thailand, it seems that Buddhism as an organized religion is ruled by the three poisons also! (There are awakened Buddhists, of course, but they seem to be very much in the minority.) This is the way of things, of course, to be imperfect. Even the wonderful Buddhadharma is conditioned and therefore imperfect. Only the unconditioned can be seen to be perfect, and unless it is actually seen, this also remains another conditioned concept.

Fascinating statement you made about the body inhabiting the mind, Gladstone. Here, it seems that mind & body inhabit spacious awareness, and that this awareness in turn inhabits the void. Psycho-physical processes arising & ceasing in this 'no-thing.'

Unknown said...

What is also interesting about such studies is that they are nothing new, and in fact go back thousands of years; theories on the seat of consciousness.

We have consciousness because we have a body, have an existence, not because of having a brain. Pond scum has consciousness, as do devas and other beings that do not have 'food' bodies.

One Thai monk gave a talk on this about 20 years ago, subsequently posted on the web.


As for Thailand's national treasure, The Sangha, it has imperfections because its members originate in society; some manage to rise out of the mud completely, others just a little. However, among its midst are some true examples of Buddhism, a rarity in today's world, being freely accessible to all.

G said...

Thanks for the link, Gladstone.

The article it leads to appears to be an interesting mix of traditional dogma & myth derived from the Tipitaka & the writer's own opinions on the matter. Much of it has merit in that it is encouraging us not to take scientists' words for facts but to look for ourselves (in so far as we can) to see the validity of their claims.

Being written by someone that appears to see the Pali Canon as containing an infallible account of reality, it doesn't hold the same attitude towards Buddhist scripture, however. The Abhidhamma is referred to unquestionably in the article as though it couldn't possibly be a collection of Buddhist theories compiled over two centuries ago; like all other forms of knowledge, the Abhidhamma was devised by human beings and is therefore fallible not infallible.

This common attitude amongst Buddhists flies in the face of the teachings attributed to the Buddha in the Canon itself that the teachings should be tested and not simply accepted, and that all the teachings & methods that go to make up the Buddhadharma are skillful means (upaya) to realize Nirvana, which is the transcending of all conditioned views as opposed to the mere acceptance of them. The famous raft simile is another example of this approach to Buddhism.

Clinging to Buddhist scripture as "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" is another form of dukkha or suffering that will not result in liberation from suffering. Seeing the truth isn't the same as believing in it, is it?

One thing that is admirable in science is that it does change it's understanding of the way the universe works as new information comes in. This is being honest in the presence of the facts as they are known, which is an attitude that all of us would do well to foster. (Of course, many scientists do cling to their own scientific theories as 'gospel', but they are doing the same thing as Buddhists and other religious followers that take scripture as literal & complete truth.)

This is why Buddhist practice tempered with a scientific understanding is for many nowadays the wisest approach to walking the Buddha Way. If Buddhism is understood to the Raft that leads to awakening, then there need be no contradiction in this.

Of course, many more traditional minded people will reject this attitude and rely on ancient myths & dogmas to help them realize Nirvana, and as long as they eventually let go of these conditioned views when they have out used their usefulness, then this is wonderful, too.

Buddhism has morphed whenever it has encountered different cultures and psychological paradigms throughout history, and this will no doubt continue beyond the present age, providing humanity lives long enough! At heart, the Buddhadharma contains the timeless wisdom of the deathless, and this will express itself in the garb of the particular language & customs of the current age. This is a fantastic thing!

From your previous writings on the subject, you will no doubt object to much written above, but if at heart we are Buddhists walking the Eightfold Path, we can transcend those differences and see them as contrasting approaches to the unconditioned. If not, we'll be turning diversity into dogmatic conflict, but then that's conditioned human nature also!

Unknown said...

I doubt that any monk who specializes in teaching vipassana meditation regards the Pali Canon as infallible (especially as there have been many who never read a word of it), it is simply a guide. However, to speak or write publicly about such things then you must have an anchor, whether it be the mention of the Eightfold Path or the Abhidhamma.

I personally prefer a paperback copy of the Abhidhamma because it contains all the major topics of the Pali Canon without the stories. Of course, some of the subjects are iffy, particularly the mention of 'thought moments' in one section, and in general perhaps there is too much detail, but it is very good reference material.

It came into prominence at Nalanda university, close to around 1,600 years ago, where it was taught as metaphysics.

As for cultural morphing of Buddhism, externally this is acceptable as long as the 'anchor' is not changed.

In the present day, teaching Buddhist meditation has become a profession for some, and morphing has occurred due to introducing new theories that fit in more with the socially accepted academic views of existence.

Being familiar with the academic world, and having actually worked with a neurosurgeon professor on one publication concerning the seat of consciousness (simply as an editor and discussing content), I can assure you that despite the theories no one really has a clue.

The academic world is 'publish or perish', which undoubtedly leads to an enormous amount of 'mickey mouse' studies and very few turn out to be useful.

Science provides us with many items of convenience and useful medicine (most of which are simply copies of natural plant properties) and treatment. Some of these medicines however sell for $100,000 per gram, so they do not benefit everyone.

The two things you notice about the true sources of the knowledge of existence is that number one they are all monks, and number two, they all teach the same thing, although the details and the approach may differ.

As Buddhism was originally the science of the times then it is only natural that people question everything.

G said...

Hi Gladstone; stimulating comments again!

Many monks here in Thailand do teach that the Pali Canon is the literal truth, so that every single Jataka tale is taken as historically factual, and that every word attributed to the Buddha in the Tipitaka is quoted verbatim (because the Venerable Ananda is supposed to have had a super memory). This is much the same as Muslims considering the Koran the literal words of God & Christians the Bible. It would appear somewhat unorthodox for these monks not to teach this view. This often includes vipassana teaching monks, who are judged by the same strict sense of orthodoxy that non-meditation monks are.

One thing that seems most contentious in your comment is that you wrote that "the true sources of the knowledge of existence" are taught only by monks. This appears to be a typically Theravada bias towards the clergy, based, of course, on teachings in the Pali Canon. However, there are examples of laypeople being great teachers of the Buddhadharma throughout Buddhist history, even in the Pali Canon. (Upasika Kee Nanayon & Layman Pang being examples of the former, and Citta the Householder is an example of the latter.)

Again, living in Thailand I have met plenty of wise laypeople dedicated to a contemplative life, and have also met many monks apparently completely disinterested in meditation & awakening. Robes do not necessarily make a great meditator or teacher - and the lack of them does not prevent the realization of the supra-mundane Path and teaching "the true sources of the knowledge of existence".

On the other hand, millions of Thais rely on the Buddhist clergy to do the spiritual practice for them, whilst they donate stuff to monasteries, take part in rituals, and carry on with their Pathless lives. And yet, the very monks that they support don't pursue the spiritual Path themselves, instead being professional priests, living off of the goodwill of the people. It appears no more enlightened or enlightening as church on Sunday, donations in the tray, and a few hymns. (No offense meant to religious types reading this, but all the above may be 'religious', but as to it leading to Nirvana, there's much evidence to the contrary!)

As to your expressed skepticism regarding the efficacy of science to define consciousness, it's clear that this process is at the very start of its development, and has a long, long way to go to even begin to achieve this. What is clear is that some researchers do at least "have a clue" as where to start their inquiries.

A trend that I've noticed amongst many religious types & dogmatists is to belittle science and its achievements whilst at the same time depending on it & them. How many of us are alive because of basic medicinal drugs and procedures that are the direct result of scientific research? What is the comparative rates of infancy mortality between those countries with access to scientifically-derived medicine, and those countries that rely on superstitious practices because of a lack of funds?

Of course, science is often misused, but this is the result of human fallibility and not the nature of scientific research & development. It's greed, hatred & delusion that distort the use of science, as they distort all of our unenlightened actions. We couldn't even have this discussion without the science that goes into the technology behind computers & the Internet, not to mention the use of electricity.

These are just thoughts arising in the silence, and are not meant to imply that you are one of those 'religious types & dogmatists', Gladstone; indeed, much from your words leads to the opposite conclusion. But on the other hand, undervaluing science seems an attitude we would do well to avoid, given the persistence of destructive superstition in the world.

Be well in the Dharma,

Unknown said...

Science has its values, and we all benefit from them, but its sphere of influence is the world (lokiya-mundane), and as such cannot be regarded as a true refuge.

Sure the Thai Sangha is soaked in superstition in many places, and in others it is complete orthodoxy in scholastic study, because many Wats follow the beliefs of the local communities and the conventional religious view of Buddhism.

However, the basic framework of respect and support for The Sangha also provides the basic requirements for the development of those who go beyond all of this superstition and orthodoxy.

Thus, criticizing the Thai Sangha as 'organized religion' is not quite correct as it also produces some true Buddhist leaders.

I never met Achahn Chah when he was alive, but I understand that he was also considered unorthodox in some ways, and was no doubt criticized by many because of it. However, I suspect that he taught a mixture of orthodoxy (namely strict adherence to the Vinaya) and the unconventional (i.e. not promoting superstition and scholastic study).

Such opposition to differences in The Sangha is normal, and is usually fueled by common people, often the so-called elite of Thai society, who, once they gain high rank and influence, often think that they know everything. You might like to read the story of Pra Pimon Tam on the link that I gave you, as he was a monk from the NE of Thailand who spent around six years in jail for his 'unorthodoxy'.

As for lay teachers, some of them have been very useful, and it is true, many nuns and laypeople are far wiser than some monks.

However, as I have been told, some monks do have the advantage of receiving teachings that are unavailable to ordinary folk. Particularly, when they are students of an enlightened monk and that their practice and discipline are strong so that they don't go crazy from such awareness.

As you point out, it is not the robes that determine such opportunities, but the robes do provide the basic preparation for such, and while it would not be completely impossible for someone out of robes to realize such levels they would have to follow the same lifestyle and put in the years of continuous and undisturbed practice, and practice correctly; a tall order.

Thus, the now common statements of some basically 'ordinary' people that 'I've been practicing meditation for 40 years' don't quite qualify, and mentioning how long you have been practicing is basically an ordinary resume item and a sign that you are not quite up there.

The author I quoted was once criticized for including the mention of supernatural abilities in his talks, and in particular mention of the Yama realm, as for most people such things were complete myth.

He was aware of what the reaction to this might be, but said that nothing he talked about was hearsay but just 'what he knew in his heart', which I take to mean that he had experienced it himself, and that he included such references to illustrate that the world we live in was not set in concrete.

As for the Yama realm, an experience that would disturb most people beyond belief, he said that it was far from a unique experience but one which adept meditators came across early in their development through jhanas, and was also known in Hindu and other cultures as well as by quite a few meditation masters in Thailand.

He also said that the gap between the reality of true nature and the world of ordinary people was immense, and talking about such things would be unwise without using conventional forms of reference.

Thus, even the unorthodox have to follow convention out of wisdom.

Such is the nature of living in the world. You don't become like Pol Pot and get rid of scientists, because they do a lot of useful things, but they work in a limited sphere. You don't get rid of The Sangha because a lot of monks don't quite make it, because there are some that do, and as it turns out, the only ones that do, and we should not regard everything as myth just because a lot of things really are myth.

G said...

More stimulating views, Gladstone.

Yes, I wholeheartedly agree that the (Thai) Sangha shouldn't be abolished! Recognizing its serious problems with regards the whole point of being Buddhist is something that shouldn't be avoided either, as you appear to acknowledge. (Living in Thailand, I must emphasize that most Buddhists, including monks, do not seem to be walking the Path, however, and the idealized vision of Thai Buddhism that some Westerners seem to have is always worth dispelling.)

As to Ajahn Chah, yes he was unorthodox in some of his teachings & methodologies, much to the distaste of some senior Sangha members in Bangkok, who described him as a bit 'Mahayana' or 'Zennish'. (This was, in the eyes of Theravadan dogmatists, an insult.) That Ajahn Chah didn't get caught up in teaching the usual superstitious aspects of Buddhism is much to his credit, and has been replicated by (most) of his senior disciples, ordained or not. This is atypical of Thai Buddhism as a whole, however.

Reading between the lines of your comments, Gladstone, it's clear that you & I have similar understandings on much of these issues, such science being influential in worldly matters, and that it isn't "a true refuge". It can, however shed some light on the nature of life, including the mind. This data will only increase in time, and much of it will surely corroborate the psychological aspects of the Buddha Way.

As to the Yama realm, it is a useful metaphor on many levels, not least the understanding of the extremely complicated human mind, especially, perhaps, the subconsciousness. To take it as a literal place on the 'evidence' that some respected teacher said so is going against the Buddha's teachings in the Kalama Sutta, however. The wise thing to do, surely, is to suspend judgment on those issues which we know little or nothing about ( individually or collectively).

Mythology is an extremely useful device to highlight aspects of the teaching, especially those subjects that are tricky to express in literal meanings, either because of the complications of the subject matter, or because of the limits of language & concepts. The whole of the Buddhadharma exists as a raft to help us to 'get across' (or, as Ajahn Chah put it, to 'come home'), and therefore isn't to be carried around forever. This includes ideas of Yama & his realm. Claiming that these are real places seems no different to the superstitious belief in a Christian hell, a Greek Hades, or a multitude of imaginary destinations meant as metaphors for more concrete experiences. Is Buddha Amitabha's realm somewhere 'out there' to the West, or is it right here, to be realized by the wise?

Having said all this, Buddhism is big enough to contain many interpretations and beliefs, and if they help people to improve themselves, or even transcend themselves, then this is a wonderful thing. May we all realize the unconditioned!

Unknown said...

I remember being told about the late Pra Kru of the Vipassana Ajarns Training Center when he visited a Wat for a meeting. The abbot of the Wat was famous throughout Thailand for fortune telling, and his fame was being discussed by several abbots before the meeting. The Pra Kru agreed that he was indeed famous but he said that it was a pity that he wasn't a human being. This shocked the other abbots and they asked why he would say that. He replied that it was The Buddha himself who said that such practices belong to the animal mind.

The Yama realm is simply like all other realms, locations within the ignorant mind, and is entered by intantaneous birth through jhanas, although not the regular Brahman realm jhanas, as it is a Deva realm.

I do have one question regarding another topic, and that is what do the local Thai community in Ubon think of Achahn Brahm's bhikkhuni ordinations?

G said...

The description of the Yama realm as one of many locations in the ignorant mind is a useful one, Gladstone. Thanks for that.

An amusing & astute anecdote about the animal-minded abbot, too!

As to the recent ordination of bhikkhunis at Bodhinyana Monastery which involved Ajahn Brahmavamso, I've not discussed it with any local Buddhists, so I can't answer the question as yet, Gladstone. (Probably, most members of the local Thai community - as opposed to active Buddhists - don't know or care about it, in truth.) To be honest, I didn't know about it until I read your comment & haven't visited Wat Pah Nanachat for several months, so it will be interesting to find out people's opinions...

This subject is definitely worth a lot of reflection, and I plan to post on it after some consideration, Gladstone. (I've already been reading up on it.) Thank you for bringing my attention to it sooner than later!


Great work! Your dialogue is most interesting. "I" have no robe, "I" have no degrees, "I" have no teaching to follow or promote. "I" have no first -hand knowledge of this part of the world. "I" do have the writings of Agha Chan and many others, but "I: prefer the blog transmission method. Thanks


Forgive me, I had to leave my laptop for a few minutes and when I got back I lost my place and missppelled Ajahn Chah's name and dropped a semicolon to the floor and it bounced up where it didn't belong on the "I(;)" I had meant to imply with "I" that a part of consciousness resides with this body and enjoys the blog-transmission method.

G said...

"I" am glad that the "I" that resides in your body liked the dialogue, Count. As for semicolons, they have a habit of bouncing where they will - don't let the "I" worry about it!