Whenever I read a headline that screams about how SCIENCE AGREES with anything Buddhist I cringe.
Does this only happen with Buddhism? I guess there must be Fundamentalist Christian websites boldly declaring that science agrees the Earth is just 6000 years old. I doubt there are a lot of other religions out there grabbing up anyone with a PhD who happens to say something like what their texts say. Deepak does it all the time, I suppose. But do we really want to sound like him?
I’m just gonna call Buddhism a “religion” for the purposes of this article, even though I still think it really isn’t one. Forgive me.
One of the things that got me interested in Buddhism to begin with was that it was the first religion I’d encountered that didn’t fear science. The Christians I grew up around in the boonies of Ohio were absolutely terrified of science. It was a dangerous and ever present threat to everything they believed in. The Hare Krishnas loved to throw the word “science” into their literature, but they spent as much time trying to disprove evolution as any believer in the historical truth of Noah’s Ark. Yet the Buddhists seemed to be perfectly willing to accept science.
But it seems like every three weeks or so, my Facebook gets clogged up with people sharing how SCIENCE AGREES with some random Buddhist thing. That’s why I rolled my eyes real big when I saw a headline that yelled, “Leading Neuroscientists and Buddhists Agree: Consciousness is Everywhere!”
I scanned through the article. Then I read it again for preparing this piece. I still didn’t get it. It sounds like some neuroscientist somewhere has a new definition of “consciousness” and he talked to the Dalai Lama about it and the Dalai Lama was all like, “Oh that sounds great!”
Therefore: SCIENCE AND BUDDHISM AGREE!!!!!
This stuff just makes me tired.
There is a lot in Buddhist philosophy about “all sentient beings.” And there is a lot in Buddhist philosophy that extends the definition of “sentience” well beyond the one we’re used to. For example, I just watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Lt. Data reads a poem in which he says of his cat Spot, “Although you are not sentient.” As far as I’m concerned cats are sentient. I think most people I know would agree with that. This begs the question of whether Lt. Data himself, being an android, is sentient. But whatever.
Actually not whatever! Cuz the article I’m responding to goes on a tangent about machine consciousness. It quotes neuroscientist Christof Koch as saying, “We’re witnessing the birth of computer intelligence. Is a machine conscious? Does it feel like anything? If it does, it may acquire legal rights, and I certainly have ethical obligations towards it. I can’t just turn it off or wipe its disc clean.”
And this is the problem.
Because while Buddhist writers often extend their definition of sentience to such things as “fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles,” to quote Dogen, once you start talking about consciousness we’re getting into a whole different area.
In the old Buddhist formula of what constitutes a human being there are five factors; form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness. Note that consciousness is just one of these factors. Also note that feelings, perceptions and impulses toward action are separate factors. Most folks these days would probably put all those things under the general heading of consciousness.
The way people usually talk about stuff nowadays in the West, there are just two things; form and consciousness.
Everybody seems to agree that form exists. Form is matter. Science is the study of matter and how it interacts with other matter. Science obviously works. You are reading this blog on a device that couldn’t exist otherwise. So matter is real.
For us, consciousness is the thing in doubt. We know that we feel consciousness. But maybe that’s just a byproduct of material interactions.
Lots of us these days are desperate to hear those who are experts in the matters of form tell us that consciousness is real. Scientists are like our High Priests. They know all and see all. If they believe in consciousness, it must exist. Because they can do the math! They know how to work those weird machines that go “ping!” and light up.
If one of those guys talks to the Dalai Lama and hears him go “Mmm-hmmm” when he says something about consciousness going “ping!” or lighting up a machine somewhere then SCIENCE AGREES!! And headlines are made!
Now there’s a lot in the old Buddhist literature indicating that many of the masters of the past have discovered that the entire universe is sentient. That’s pretty mind blowing if it’s true. It’s also a fairly good description of what I myself have discovered through my own practice.
But when you start saying consciousness is everywhere, something is going very wrong.
It could be a matter of words. But I feel like even saying “the entire universe is sentient” is also going wrong. Not as wrong as “consciousness is everywhere” but still wrong. Dead wrong. Completely and utterly wrong.
So what are you gonna do? How can you even talk about these ideas without the entire conversation going cockeyed?
I don’t know the answer. But I feel like one good place to start is by looking at our concepts and questioning them deeply.
Years ago at a lecture, some British guy was asking Nishijima Roshi about consciousness. Nishijima said, “Consciousness is just an idea.”
At the time I was baffled. How can consciousness be just an idea? There I was, sitting in a chair, being fully conscious of the conversation I was hearing and here was this Zen Master, who I trusted, saying, “Consciousness is just an idea.” So was my conscious experience of hearing that conversation “just an idea?” Is that what he was saying? Because, man, that’s some acid trippy Matrix stuff !
But that wasn’t what he was saying at all. He was saying that the British guy was talking about an idea called “consciousness” that he imagined was at work in the real world. Nishijima was trying to get him to look at what he was saying, at what this thing he called “consciousness” actually was. And what it was, was an idea.
Once you start defining everything as having consciousness you get into all kinds of mind twists about, “Well what does that mean? Does it mean I can’t erase all the porn off my computer because it’s conscious and it might not want its erotic memories removed?”
You get into trying to manipulate this idea of “consciousness” through the little thought maze you’ve constructed for it. But in doing so, you forget that it’s just an idea and that even the maze you made for it isn’t real.
Or something like that. Anyway. Science agrees!!!
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April 7, 2016 San Francisco, California Against The Stream
April 8, 2016 San Francisco, California San Francisco Zen Center
April 22, 2016 New York, New York Interdependence Project
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
April 24, 2016 Rochester, New York Rochester Zen Center
April 28-May 1, 2016 Atlanta Georgia 4-Day Retreat at Red Clay Sangha
June 2, 2016 Los Angeles, CA The Last Bookstore 7:00pm
September 10-11, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland 2-Day Retreat
September 14, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland Zazen and Discussion
September 16-17, 2016 Dublin, Ireland 3-Day Retreat
September 22-25, 2016 Hebden Bridge, England, 4-Day Retreat
September 27, 2016 – Wimbledon, London, England – Talk and Q&A
September 29-October 2, 2016 Helsinki, Finland, 4-Day Retreat
October 3, 2016 Turku, Finland, Talk at the University
October 4-5, Stockholm, Sweden, Talk and 1-Day-Retreat
October 7, 2016 Berlin, Germany Zenlab
October 14, 2016 Munich, Germany, Lecture
October 15-16, 2016 Munich, Germany, 2-Day Retreat
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
MORE EUROPEAN DATES TO BE ANNOUNCED SOON!
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
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