One thing I find puzzling about the 10 Unanswered Questions and Poisoned Arrow parable in the Pali canon is that they seem to ignore the existence of devas and/or a personal/interactive creator God. If such beings exist, why can’t we just ask them for the answers to those questions? Why do we have to find the answers ourselves? Is Buddhism saying that such beings don’t exist, that such beings are inaccessible or unreliable for some reason (e.g., they live outside of time in a nirvana-type state, or they might not be truthful), or that the answers are beyond human comprehension? What experiences had the Buddha had that allowed him to make such an absolute “it’s useless to try to answer these questions” statement? Though a great achievement, if the Buddha only (re-)discovered, but did not create, nirvana, how could he be sure that he knew the full reality of nirvana (e.g., that nirvana is truly eternal or how nirvana compares with the rest of the universe)? Why did the Buddha not feel it appropriate or necessary to acknowledge whoever or whatever underlies, supports, etc. nirvana? Was, or is, God(s) offended by being ignored or taken for granted in this way?
Many times in my life, in myself and others, I have seen how inaccurate, incomplete, often negative views can be reinforced by brooding or brainwashing — by a person going into some kind of echo chamber (in their head, on the Internet, only spending time with similar people in the real world, etc.) for a long time and repeating certain thoughts or feelings over and over until they become more and more extreme. The same was apparently true in the Buddha’s time, about 2,600 years ago: “‘He insulted me, he hit me, he beat me, he robbed me’ — anger will never cease in those who dwell on such thoughts” (Dhammapada, 3).
But real people are small and complicated. Everyone finds themselves born into a certain body, family, country, etc., which can be hard to escape. Everyone has had many unique past experiences that informed them. No one can see or learn everything. The only way to understand the complexity of life or people is to get out of your comfort zone (either mentally or physically) and have strange, new, different experiences. Brooding or brainwashing in isolation usually only makes one’s views more xenophobic, unrealistic, inaccurate, and incomplete; having difficult, new conversations and experiences usually makes one’s views more connected, realistic, accurate, and complete.
Here is a nice Ted talk, which says pretty much the same thing:
Mindfulness is probably the main Buddhist meditation technique embraced by the Western mainstream, including Western psychology. In general, it teaches people how to keep a mental distance from their experiences — both to reduce life’s stressfulness and to help people think, feel, and behave in a more calm, clearheaded way — without taking drugs. Like any skill, mindfulness takes practice, but pretty much everyone (excluding perhaps people with serious brain injuries) can do it.
Here are the mindfulness meditation steps that have worked best for me:
- With your eyes open, not focused on anything in particular, sit in a room and (mentally, internally) note what you see. Don’t get up and do anything in the room. Don’t critique the room; just let it be as it is. Don’t make any plans about what you will do in/to the room in the future (cleaning, re-arranging, socializing, etc.). If it helps, put a one-word label on the things you see (e.g., wall, outlet, carpet, door, etc.). When you’re comfortable with the process of labeling, stop using labels and just observe the room without thinking about it. Notice that the room was built at some point in the past, that it’s existing/abiding for awhile, and that it will someday decay or be destroyed. Actually, you’re not necessarily watching a room — you’re watching images, sounds, etc. that your mind is creating, based on sensory input. These mental constructions may be different than the room’s objective/absolute reality.
- Close your eyes, and mentally watch the sensations of your body: pains, pleasures, itches, urges, fatigue, etc. Again, don’t do anything to them. Just let them be as they are. Don’t scratch, don’t shift around, don’t go eat or drink anything, don’t go to the toilet, etc. Just watch. If labeling things helps, do it as before (in step 1, above), but stop once you’re comfortable enough with the process, and just watch the body without thinking. Notice that sensations all follow a predictable, bell-curve-type pattern: they arise, they may abide/stay awhile, then they decay on their own if you don’t do anything. Even itches, aches, etc. will eventually go away on their own. If any sensation is especially troublesome, hold that part of your body at a mental or physical distance, and say to yourself things like “the pain is over there… the pain is separate from me”.
- Turn your attention away from your bodily sensations, towards your mental thoughts and feelings. Watch the thoughts and feelings like clouds passing in the sky, or like a movie or TV show on a distant screen. Don’t get caught up in the movie. Don’t give the thoughts or feelings any energy (because this movie is like a “choose your own adventure” story). Don’t pursue, expand upon, cling to, dwell on, etc. anything you see. Just let things come into your mind, stay awhile, and then go. Like so-called “external” things and bodily sensations, notice that thoughts and feelings eventually fade away on their own; you don’t have to fight with them. Also notice how the part of your mind that is doing the watching feels. It isn’t tied up in anything, so it can be very calm, stable, and clear. No matter what happens in life, you can always return to this peaceful state of mind, and can use it to think more clearly.
This practice can be deepened further with Buddhist vipassana and jhana meditations, finding ever-more subtle and peaceful levels of the mind, and gaining ever-more insights into the nature of mental and so-called “physical” phenomena.
Scientist: If it can’t be measured with an objective, mechanical instrument, it didn’t happen.
Buddhist: Everything you’ve ever thought, seen, made, or done — including hypotheses, instruments, experiments, results, and theories — are constructs of the brain/mind. Everyone’s experience of life is inherently subjective; objectivity is impossible. Even one person cannot truly understand another person.
Scientist: But humans have evolved on this planet for millions of years. Under Earth-like conditions, our constructs are probably very accurate.
Buddhist: Under land-dwelling, great-ape-like conditions, the constructs are probably very accurate. But can a human really fathom the experience of something like the underwater echolocation experience of a dolphin, or the “rapid-pink” (Varela, Rosch, & Thompson, 1991, p. 183) combined temporal-visual sense that allows small birds to fly through dense bushes? Minds are embodied, and different species’ brains and bodies seem to be configured differently.
Scientist: Under ape-like or aquarium conditions, humans can observe dolphins and see what their echolocation abilities seem to allow them to do (e.g., navigate in the dark). Then we can create instruments (e.g., sonar), with which we can interact, that seem to us to allow us to do the same things as dolphins.
Buddhist: We can mentally construct a perception of physical instruments….
Buddhist: So the goals of science are conceived from a human perspective. Humans see something they want to understand, or a challenge they want to overcome, so they set about finding a way to feel like they’ve understood or overcome it. What bothers me about this is that, earlier, you claimed “it didn’t happen,” in an absolute sense. How can a research project that was conceived in a species-biased way lead to an impartial, unbiased realization of absolute truth?
Scientist: When research is done on extremely large scales, and involves extremely brilliant people, I think the results approach absolute truth.
Buddhist: I will grant you that it approaches an intersubjective truth, which may be all that most selfish/greedy/angry humans really care about (i.e., a human-serving truth), but not absolute truth.
Scientist: Then on what grounds would you say that absolute truth has been found?
Buddhist: With practice, the human mind has the capability to internally turn upon, observe, and go progressively deeper into itself. Eventually, we think it can go to such a basic level that it is no longer human, and some Buddhists think no longer subjective. From such a perspective, we think that one is in a less biased, or possibly unbiased, position to observe reality.
Scientist: How could that be verified? How could a human, from their everyday state of consciousness, confirm that a Buddhist meditator has gone to such an unbiased state?
Buddhist: Well, we don’t know whether you scientists could think up a way to measure states of consciousness, but we think that people who can achieve such a state are able to tell whether other people have attained it. “Enlightenment,” as we call it, is like a club with very difficult entry requirements. Western science also has quite high entry requirements: a high degree of cognitive abilities, often many years of school, a controlled laboratory environment, etc.
Scientist: How much practice are we talking about here?
Buddhist: For most people, it takes about three years of vigorous practice in solitude (i.e., few external distractions), with a good teacher.
Scientist: So it’s independently, empirically verifiable, but very hard to verify. Most people aren’t going to spend three years sitting out in the woods, in order to gain the ability.
Buddhist: Right. It would be wonderful, if more people would make the effort, but not many are willing. The Buddha suspected that it would always be that way.
Scientist: Can anyone do it, or only certain, privileged people?
Buddhist: We think pretty much every human being has the mental capability. Brain-damaged or severely mentally handicapped people might not, but most people can. It’s easier for some people than others (e.g., people with a calm temperment who live a peaceful life), for many reasons, but it’s just a learned/developed skill, like playing the piano.
Scientist: So it’s transcultural and dissociated from things like personality, gender, and social position.
Scientist: It sounds like Buddhist meditation, at least at a very advanced level, might be the doing of science from a more basic or simple, and possibly less biased, state of consciousness.
Buddhist: We would agree. Unfortunately, in order to communicate the findings of enlightened people to humanity, it is difficult to avoid the trappings of languages, cultures, institutions, and so forth. But, like Western natural/positivistic science, we think that there is basically one truth about one reality.
Scientist: Must one worship Buddha statues, wear charm bracelets, and so forth, to practice Buddhist meditation?
Buddhist: No. Monastic Theravada Buddhists think that the Buddha was just a man who accomplished something great. He is highly respected, but not worshipped. Westerners often mis-understand bowing as worship; in the Buddha’s case, it is only supposed to indicate deep respect. However, pop-culture and later Buddhist traditions sometimes take the Buddha in more religious, folklore, magic, astrology, etc. of directions. Buddhist monks are not supposed to participate in such things. It seems like some scientists also have faith in things like the scientific method and the capability of the discursive part of the human mind to understand everything. And then there is science fiction.
Scientist: Thank you. This has been very enlightening.
Buddhist: Not really, but please find a good teacher and practice meditation. Meditation is not the same as talking or thinking about things. Don’t take your discursive, human mind for granted.
Scientist: I’ll think about it.
Reference: Varela, F. J., Rosch, E., & Thompson, E. (1991). The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. MIT Press.
Words are like cartoons — idealistic outlines of an irrepresentably intricate reality.
… they think in terms of a language. Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman ideas and histories are so intricately a part of the thought-world(s) of English speakers that it is usually imperceptible to them. Even atheistic scientists often unwittingly use such concepts and words when speaking and thinking in English. Societies form as internally coherent bubbles, based on old ideas and events, expanding over time to incorporate new things. To really understand a society, one must learn its history from its perspective and think/speak/live as an insider. For example…
Ancient Greek and Latin still are often taught in British and some American schools, because many English words and grammar constructions derive from them. “An entire mythology is stored within our language” (Wittgenstein, Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough). “If a lion [or even humans with different thought-worlds] could talk, we could not understand him” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations).
The notion that human thought (e.g., in mathematics) and experience are capable of accessing or fathoming absolute/universal reason, logic, truth, and reality may come from the Eleatic, Plotinan/Neo-platonic, and physicalist mainstreams of ancient Greece and post-Greco-Roman Christian civilizations. These ideas have been mainstream during most of Europe’s history, and continue to be a core part of many contemporary Western institutions (governments, laws, non-profits/NGOs, science, etc.).
The monistic and essentialistic views of those schools of philosophy often tend Western seekers/explorers of world religions towards other monistic and essentialistic traditions (e.g., Islam; Bahá’í; Vedanta, Vaishnava, and Tantra Hinduism; Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism; etc.).
Words like spirituality, animism, numinous, gaia, etc. usually suggest that people/things have spirits, souls, or essences and that non-mundane experiences must involve a soul/spirit/essence, though there are non-essentialist traditions around the world.
The word “creatures” appears often in science and science fiction to describe living beings in general, and it apparently implies that which was creat-ed (by God, presumably).
Judeo-Christians often refer to people of other “faiths.” Non-theistic traditions often emphasize personal development or experimentation (e.g., lifestyle modifications, meditation, or scientific experiments) over faith in divine mysteries and either do not have concepts of theos/God(s); limit those concepts to beings who are not all-powerful, omniscient, always loving, creators of everything, etc; or argue that people often invoke God(s) out of convenience, fear, or avoidance. For example, it’s easier to put a word on a complex and variable phenomenon (e.g., “depression”) and give the impression that one understands it than it is to actually explore and understand the phenomenon. Also, it can be easier to invoke God(s) in order to deny one’s own capabilities, or to defer responsibility, for solving hard problems (e.g., for controlling basic human instincts, or for living a quiet/secluded life and attaining a deep level of self-knowledge) than it is to make the effort necessary to solve the hard problems oneself.
Finally, Judeo-Christians often assume that other traditions involve prayer or worship. In much of Asia, holding the palms of one’s hands together (anjali) means a greeting/salutation, not necessarily prayer to God(s), and bowing/prostration can mean a deep respect or personal exercise of humility or selflessness, not necessarily worship (in the sense of devotion to, or dependence on, a deity). Jews can be Theravada Buddhists without giving up Judaism (see the Jewish Buddhist movement), because that tradition considers the Buddha to have been only a human who accomplished something great (i.e., who stopped karma/becoming and converted his mind from having an impermanent kind of matter as its base to having a permanent kind of matter as its base), and who is deeply revered but is not worshiped. Of course, there are people in Asia who are praying to God(s) when they hold their hands together, or who do worship the Buddha or monks as God(s) (especially Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists, and occasionally the pop-culture side of Theravada), but anjali and prostrations don’t necessarily have those meanings.
In my experience, Buddhist monks often say that modern externalities (technologies, drugs, etc.) are unnecessary for seeing absolute reality and for healing or improving oneself, that they can have negative side-effects, and that meditation contains natural safeguards (e.g., progress in meditation depends on one becoming increasingly loving/harmless and sober of mind and body, and meditators can maintain control of themselves throughout the process) which technologies and drugs lack. They also sometimes claim that the most advanced meditation masters can see atomic-scale phenomena directly with their minds in jhana meditation. Wouldn’t it be interesting, and possibly validating of meditation for billions of non-Buddhists around the world, to find a rigorous way to compare what such people can see vs. what microscopes can see?
For example, have a CPU manufacturer produce metal plates with microscopic pictures etched onto them at scales from millimeter to nanometer. Deliver highly reputable meditation masters to an isolated facility, so they can’t be accused of cheating. Perhaps they should make the trip secretly, so there is no humiliation if they fail. In a controlled environment, give them the plates, without telling them what pictures they should see, and give them as much time and comfort as they need. Have them draw or describe (on record) whatever they could see, and then let them see the images for themselves with their eyes in a microscope, so that they know they were not deceived, before taking them home. Incentives for their participation might be that, the smaller of pictures they can accurately see, the more money will be donated to their home monastery or village, and the more positive international publicity and funding there could be for their branch of Buddhism. If any masters are found to be reliably capable of competing with powerful microscopes, perhaps the experiments could be demonstrated more publicly.