‘Sorry to bug you again Arnie, but I couldn’t help but think of you when I read this, food for thought-’
“All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental.
Far from being the raison d’être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel.
Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science’s disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.”
Which he extracted from here.
If you follow my blog, then you might anticipate my answer:
“Hi Mr Wawa,
No, a simple spirituality or religiosity cannot accommodate reality because it is not based on any observed reality (and that is all we really have to work with) but is most often opposed to it: deny the earth and gain heaven. But we do not have to engage Buddhism in a religious mode; I think Buddhism serves better as a social/psychological science because it gives a method that allows us to reprogram our minds to escape suffering. The Buddha’s original statements (the four noble truths and the eight fold path: the method) are completely compatible with quantum physics, and in some ways can be thought of as anticipating it (emptiness, illusion of things, and the nature of the void). And so, while I generally agree with most of the statement you provided (above), the first sentence of the last paragraph seems wrong. Buddhism is scientific because it is a system for looking at reality and recognizing what is directly in front of us. Albeit, Buddhism is a science directed towards social and personal problems and not one that studies subatomic particles. In my experience, Buddha’s method steps in after the psychotherapy.
It cannot be denied that many people do make the Buddha into a saint or a god and ignore his ideas in because they need either a metaphysical father figure, who will solve all their problems, or an external source of the validation they cannot give to themselves. At its best, Buddhism, as a religion, does work for many people because it directs ones focus on the awareness of moment by moment reality. But even if people use Buddhism as a religion, it does not negate the Buddha’s scientific approach.
For me, Buddhism as spirituality is unnecessary. On the other hand, science is only useful once we have answered the philosophical questions lumped under the rubric Ethics. With no ethics scientific pursuit can bring us to unlimited destruction. Buddhism is focused on alleviating the suffering of oneself and of others. The big ethical questions are answered in Buddhism-as-a-science in a way not unlike entanglement in quantum mechanics, in that we are all entangled with each other and would do well to act accordingly.
As for Buddhism not being radical. And if your purpose is wanting to understand yourself and your place in the universe, Buddhism as an experimental science is a pretty radical idea.
Religions can be used to form a dogma of belief for a community of followers. On the benefit side, a religious dogma would be a listing of a set of activities that, if practised, would lead one to spiritual benefit. On the down side, dogma can become a means whereby one group of people oppress others. Buddhism, as a religion, has for the most part been a religion of the former type, allowing the development of communities of people who work together and support each other in their spiritual quest. But even in this positive light, Buddhism as a religion can have a negative side. A sanga can form that supports our attachment to the difficulties we have in struggling with our own psychologies. On example: lots of us get caught up in complaining about the difficulties we experience. Our sanga members treat us kindly, hug us nicely, and listen. We suffer. And while we get support in our suffering, nothing changes; we continue suffering. On the other hand, I remember one spiritual teacher who fought this tendency very nicely. After a weekend meditation, he asked all those present to put up their hand if they had experienced physical pain during the sits. Everyone put up their hand. The teacher’s only comment was, “Good. Now no one needs mention pain again.”
But what if Buddha had been alive today; would he want to form a religion? Looking at what he said ~2600 years ago, I would say that what he brought to the world was essentially a scientific theory, not a religion. Science is a neutral device that lets us look at things analytically. Scientists think up theories, and then they develop methodologies to test the theories. After a theory is proven useful, then a technology is developed to exploit the knowledge that was revealed in the scientific experiment.
Buddhism’s major focus is the eradication of suffering; Buddhism as a science is the idea that there is a systematic way of doing the same. Many people react negatively to the idea that Buddhism could be approached scientifically. And there are two major difficulties in pursuing Buddhism as science: 1) it is hard to be aware of ones moment to moment suffering, and of ones moment to moment, suffer-inducing thoughts; 2) we are fragile beasts that suffer fear of extinction, and as our minds are naturally wired in such a way that we identify ourselves with—we believe ourselves to be—our suffering, we naturally fear to give it up: without our suffering, who would we be?
The first of Buddha’s four major scientific statements is that all is suffering. This statement is translated in various ways, but I think that the simple translation, ‘suffering exits’ is perfectly good to work with. This is a scientific statement because it is a simple observation. Buddha’s second main statement posits that suffering is caused by attachment to desires. This is a hypothesis which can be tested by experimentation: a simple survey could be devised by social scientists to check on the nature of any particular example of suffering (as opposed to pain), and this survey could help in determining the cause of that suffering. In my own experience, I have found that every instance of my suffering (as opposed to pain) was caused by attachment to some desire I had. The self analysis was hard and took a lot of work. And I am still being surprised by the up-welling of suffering.
Buddha’s third statement concluded that suffering can be alleviated by removing attachments to desires. Having made this scientific conclusion, Buddha then described a course of action, a technology that if followed would bring an end to ones suffering. This technology is found in the Eight Fold Path.
In science if you repeat an traditional experiment you get the expected result. If you use a developed technology, you get the expected result, as long as the machine is not broken. We are the machine, our brains are the software that makes the machine perform wonderfully—or makes it suffer.
But the Eight Fold Path is not merely a technology that gives a recipe for action, it also reveals the major causes of suffering. Where Buddha prescribes Right Thinking, he can be read to mean that incorrect thinking is the cause of one type of suffering. This holds true for all Eight elements.
If Buddhism is a religion then the Eight Fold Path is something to aspire to, attainable only through hard work, allusive insight, and the help of innumerable friends. One is not expected to succeed, one only hopes to succeed.
If Buddhism is a science, then Buddhism is a machine, like a car, that should diligently take one to the destination: the destination is a state of non-attachment and non-suffering. The technology is laid out in the Eight Fold Path. It is as simple as this: if one is thinking bad thoughts about another person, thoughts that if they became manifest would cause that person suffering, then one would do well to think something completely different, something that is positive, that would cause no one suffering. Go play the piano, take a walk. This process, of becoming aware of ones thoughts and then changing their nature by abandoning them and doing something else, will rewire ones brain, recalibrate ones machine into a more and more enlightened state. It is something that one can do safely at home alone.
Luckily, the religion of Buddhism has brought us one extremely well-honed and useful scientific exercise that can help us pay attention to, and to become aware of our moment to moment attachments and desires, and thereby point to the thoughts that give rise to our suffering. This honourable practice is meditation. The scientific companion to the cultivation of awareness through meditation is that when a suffering-causing thought or pattern is identified, then one can take the technology of the Eight Fold Path, think and act in a different way than one usually does, and thereby rewire our beings. All we have to do is have faith in the machine and use it.
It’s as easy as learning to be a software wizard on the computer. Re-hack your brain. One day I might complete the job on my own head.
I’m cutting my latest loaf of sourdough this morning, and I think it is too wet and heavy. My partner again states that she really likes my bread because it is good for the sandwiches that she takes to work. She says the tomatoes don’t make the bread soggy. All well and good, but what am I doing worrying about making the perfect loaf (a delusional goal) when all around the world most people have a hard time finding enough to eat? I live like the kings of old were accustomed to living, in terms of creature comfort, not in terms of life and death over others. At least not that I’m aware of, or am I?
I was in at the swimming pool a couple of days ago and a fellow in the change room was musing about how it would be nice if the pool bought a heat-less spin dryer to dry the swimming suits. I pointed out that we were going to have to do it the old-fashioned way and dry the suits on a line. He pointed out that the ‘Y’ had a spin dryer. “Maybe the pool management is saving the cost of the electricity and the machine?” I suggested. And then he made what I thought was a nonsequitur. “Somebody pays,” he said. I offered,”Taxes.” He came back with, “Even people in the third world pay for us. They send us all their stuff.” He suggested I look up The Story of Stuff, which I pass on to you in the spirit of dancing lessons from god, or being aware of what is really going on in terms of commercialism and economy.
On many Buddhist themed blogs lately I have been reading various musings, some tortured, some determined, all reflecting on the sorry state of the world today. Topics range from poverty, sex, politics, commercialism to war. The eternal human stuff. Well, if I am going to write yet one more blog about zen, what is my stand on these topics? I started musing about what I thought about politics, although the topic, politics, stands in for all the other topics as a test case.
Lessons learned from Nathan’s blog and Peter’s blog. Nathan writes from a zen perspective, often wondering how things in the world look when subjected to a certain amount of introspection and analysis. Peter directly points to common concerns and often asks how certain difficult topics affect your life, how zen practice affects your perception of the world. Or at least this is sort of what I take from the two of them.
What does Buddhism tell us about the world? This is territory for the Four Noble Truths.
Looking at all the world’s problems from the perspective of the 4NTs
If all is suffering then all the worlds peoples are suffering. What causes suffering? Suffering is the result of having desire, but desire results from having an incorrect or incomplete view of reality. In short (in terms of Buddhism), suffering is the state of not being enlightened. If the great majority of the world’s peoples are short of enlightened then their pursuits, for the most part, can be nothing other than an engagement with and a further perpetration of suffering. When suffering is caused by misapprehension of self and the world, we have to ask what is the major error in perception. It seems to me that the major error is a person’s idea of self. The old zen saw: the problem of the ego. Suffering people often feel that they are more important than other suffering people, that their suffering is somehow more important or significant than other peoples’ suffering. Politics is often called the art of the possible, but it is really the art of one suffering person tying to get advantage over other suffering people. Yes, compromises do happen, but few people are ever satisfied with a compromise. Compromise rarely (like never) stops the suffering.
What is the enlightened person supposed to do? Or more realistically, what can anyone who is writing about zen do about politics when confronted with the solipsism of suffering? Suffering is a real thing. It is everywhere. As zen nuts we vow to alleviate it. Should we get involved with politics if politics does not really relieve suffering? That depends.
So what am I doing writing this blog? I am trying to look at the world from a zen perspective. Trying to be aware of what really is going on. What is really going on in politics is that people try to thrash out some workable compromise. But how can a compromise work unless it makes deluded suffering peoples stop blaming each other for their suffering? If we want to engage in politics we need to point out that what is good for one is what is exactly good for another and that unless the good becomes general, suffering ensues. Supposed enemies are not really enemies in the long run. They are merely suffering people who have the misguided idea that someone else is causing their suffering. Oh, yes, someone might shoot you. But the reason they do so is because they are suffering and have mistakenly blamed you for it. The only way to stop someone or their brother or sister or friend from shooting you in the future is to help them alleviate their suffering. To try to subject your enemies to suffering is no solution at all. The proof of this pudding is that we have an endless history of people blaming each other for their suffering and going to war to put and end to the situation and yet we still have suffering and war. All attempted solutions have so far not worked.
Politics to a zen nut has to be an attempt to educate people about the nature of suffering, and it cannot be making accusatory or judgemental statements, or trying to get the advantage over another. Zen does not cast blame. The “beam in your own eye” is the blame you (I) give others for your suffering.
This is a hard lesson, especially when someone is coming over the hill with guns intent on killing you. How does one have compassion for the person who is causing you pain? The only reason they are causing you pain is because they blame you for causing them pain. This situation is the universal suffering circle from hell.
I have absolutely no idea how to go about educating the world. All I can do is argue that the first step in ending suffering is to stop blaming others for your (mine, our) disease of suffering. Have compassion for the (metaphorical) suicide bomber who sees his/her life as so awful that the only way they can stop their suffering is to cause others to suffer. How to make their life one of less suffering? What do you think?
One convenient thing about the radios: they had a strap useful for hanging them from one’s shoulder. So there I was one busy Sunday afternoon, deep in the middle of the rush, irritated yet again because I couldn’t find what I needed under the pile of radios. Ten years I took me to see the obvious. I don’t know what made me see the light. Whatever. I left the cash register, got a hammer and a couple of nails from the back room. Drove the nails into the wall. Took the radios and hung them up. Ten years. Problem solved.
Well It hasn’t been ten years, but the obvious just struck me. Here I am writing about the Bodhisattva Vows, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path and it wasn’t until just the other days that I realized that the Bodhisattva Vows are merely the Four Noble Truths tricked up into intentions rather than mere statements of theoretical fact.
The theoretical statement of facts called the Four Noble Truths:
1) All is suffering.
2) Suffering is caused by desire.
3) There is a way out of suffering.
4) Follow the Eightfold Path.
The Boddhsattva vows:
1) Sentient being are numberless, I vow to liberate them.
2) Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them.
3) Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.
4) The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.
1) All is suffering, therefore everyone suffers, and I vow to end the suffering.
2) Suffering is caused by desire, desires are endless, and I vow to stop desires.
3) Dharma gates are boundless. Dharma gates are the path out of suffering, and I vow to stop suffering by passing the lesson of each Dharma gate.
4) The Eightfold Path is Buddha’s way. It is unsurpassable, and I vow to embody it.
The Four Noble Truths are the theory; the Bodhisattva Vows state ones intention to embrace the theory (I suspect that all the sutras and all the writings of the sages boil down to the Four Noble Truths). The theory becomes fact once one has done the work to become aware, to be enlightened (or what ever name you use to name the end of suffering). There is not much more than that. When you are not engaged in suffering (and you are aware that you are not), then you have kensho (so simple to say, so hard to do). The trick in all this? Suffering is endless, vast in scope and covers all sorts of things beyond mere pain: envy rather than joy in other peoples’ joy; sadnesses rather than awe at the mystery of the universe; desire rather than delight in what one has; the need to gossip rather than searching out the unenlightened parts of one’s own being; the need to be loved (that statement will be controversial) rather than recognizing that one needs to love oneself first in order to love others. The list is endless: the need to be liked, honoured, admired, to judge, to be rich, to be better, to be exalted, to be enlightened above others…. No need to go on.
Oh, and sitting meditation? What does that have to do with anything? Meditation is giving ourselves the time and space needed to see what is going on inside and then practising to dissolve the attachments. And then maybe one day the light will come on and we will know what to do with our emotional radios.
This post was inspired by Nathan over at Dangerous Harvests.
According to Ludwig Wittgenstein (if I understand him properly), language is a tricky business in that all words have meanings that are idiosyncratic. Each one of us thinks and feels something completely different when we hear or use any particular word. Wittgenstein likens language to a large map. Each word inhabits one address on the map. Each person understands any particular word not in terms of the address but in terms of the route they took to learn the word. It is like going to school. We each took a different path to get there and had different emotional, intellectual and physical experiences along the way. It is the experiential route that brought each person to the word that informs, colours and gives meaning to the word.
What about concrete words such as ‘apple’? We can each experience an apple by biting into it and so come to some common idea of what the word apple means. But each one of us has an idea of the word apple that is coloured differently than all others’, depending on the apple pies our grandmother did or did not bake, by the day we fell out of the apple tree, by the wasp nest hanging in the midst of the fruit, by the story in the bible or by the story about Newton…
Abstract words are a different kettle of fish. In effect, the word ‘happiness’ only has a private address on the map. Worse, each person’s word ‘happiness’ has a private and undisclosed address. Only the individual knows where their experience of happiness resides. Because of this, the word ‘happiness’ is almost useless because it is not easy to know what others mean by the word. Happiness is a warm gun. I’m so happy to see you. What you did made me feel happy. Is everybody happy? Let me make you happy, baby.
Nathan asks if we can find out what everybody really wants. We already suspect that what everyone wants cannot be happiness because happiness always means different things? And we cannot say everybody wants the same thing when what they want is described by the word happiness which meaning completely different things for different people. So if happiness is ruled out, is there something that everybody wants?
One of my favourite stories (I do not know if the story is true or an urban legend, nor do I know where I heard it or if I only dreamt it, but I like it anyway):
Some people were studying gorillas, their social interactions and contracts, how they shared things and how they played scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Someone wondered what a sudden change of state would do to the social contracts in the herd (tribe, group). So they dumped a load of bananas into the gorillas’ clearing, far more bananas than the group could eat before the fruit rotted. The silver back, the toughest honcho, wouldn’t let anyone else near the bananas. I like to think that he thought that with more bananas than he could ever eat, he had enough to last him forever and so didn’t need to cultivate his mutual aid relationships with anyone else. He drove all the other gorillas away from the pile of bananas. No more scratch my back, I’ll scratch your. No more Mr Nice Guy.
When the bananas rotted, the silver back wanted back into the mutual aid society. All the other apes gave him a hard time, wouldn’t interact with him. It took him forever to win back his place.
What this story says to me is that, in terms of our type of capitalism, our western economic adventurers have figured out how to abstract the bananas and make them last forever (turned them into money), thereby allowing the monied to ignore the social interdependence that makes everything grow. The American Dream, the Western Dream, is to become wealthy, comfortable, privileged, beholden to no one.
I’d say that our biology tells us to want all the bananas. But in every animal society, the biological imperative of wanting all the bananas is tempered by the overwhelming need to live in a mutual aid network. Oh so clever humans have figured out how to do an end run around mutual aid networks by inventing non-perishable money to stand in for bananas. The idea of money allows our desire to have all the bananas run rampant, untempered by cooperative effort. As soon as money shows up in a society, everyone forgets their mutual aid pac and goes for all the money, for all the bananas. As far as I can see, cornering the market on bananas is merely a misguided attempt to stop suffering by attempting to control the universe (by buying it with the power of money), to make it do what we want. What we want the universe to do is to stop making us suffer. Yes, and if we stop suffering we might call that happiness.
You might think the word suffering is like the word happiness in that everyone suffers in different ways. Yes, but according to Buddha, all states of suffering can be alleviated in the same way for each person, but unless we learn to stop being attached to our suffering (more on this later) the desire for happiness cannot be fulfilled except in the most fleeting of ways. There is no one way to get all the bananas. There aren’t enough bananas in the world to allow everyone to get all the bananas. According to Buddha, instead of buying lottery tickets, the sure and only way to stop suffering is to rigorously apply the knowledge contained in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Yes suffering exists, and suffering exists because one desires all the bananas. But you don’t have to suffer just because it’s impossible to have all the physical and emotional bananas. Check out the Eightfold Path.
I’m out in the garden, pulling weeds here, piling mulch there. The wind the night before blew the plastic off my rebar cloche frames. Pining the plastic back with hard to find, big, wooden clothes pegs. The Tomatoes are looking good. The sun is shining — for once. So far I’ve not had to water much because the spring is being cold and wet. The environment Canada weather site promises a week of sun. All these concerns and events are the usual garden things. And I walk around doing the usual gardener things, being aware, paying attention. Oh, ya. Sure.
A white plastic bucket catches my eye. We’re not supposed to have standing water about, providing places for mosquitoes to breed. I walk over to check out the bucket, to make sure there aren’t any mosquito larvae hiding there. The bucket is half full of water. There are a dozen dead bees floating on the surface. Bees, looking for water, landing on the surface and then not being able to get out. Surface tension holds them tight. One bee still moving fitfully. I lift it out and place it on a wooden bench in the sun. Maybe it will make it.
These bees are all solitaries. Living in small family groups. Not hive dwellers. Mates will be missing companionship tonight. All because I neglected to remember that bees can’t make it out of a bucket of water. To water bees you need a board, slanted slightly, and a drip source of water that will form a thin, wet always refreshed film of H20. Some authorities say that a simple piece of wood floating on the surface of your bucket provides enough of a surface for swamped bees to crawl out of the water and make good their escape.
I’ve been in the city for the last three years and I’ve forgotten about the bees difficulty with finding water and their difficulty with getting out of buckets, but I remember that the floating-bit-of-wood trick doesn’t work as an escape route for every kind of bee.
I dump the water out of the bucket.
I don’t know why, with all the rain, the bees are flying into a bucket. But I guess now I’m going to have to figure out some kind of bee watering board. I don’t want to kill any more bees due to my inattention. I go around the garden and dump the water out of all the other buckets. I don’t look to see if there are any mosquito larvae.
Let’s back up a bit. Buddhism is a methodology for becoming aware in that true awareness relieves suffering. We do not have scientific proof for this assertion so we take it on faith. Through faith Buddhism becomes a religion. The danger with religions, for those of us who have the habit of attaching themselves to externals, is that religions can become elaborated with all sorts of easily misunderstood and rather seductive rituals, rules and robes. To be more exact, it is easy for people who join religions to get cluttered up with believing that the rituals, rules and robes are the point of the religion rather than just helpful tools for reaching the ‘goal’ stated by the religion. In Buddhism, when we forget that the RRRs are only there to help us realize the main purpose, we are no longer on the path to awareness, to being awake. We are merely falling into the delusion of dogmatism. This causes suffering.
The purpose and methodology of Buddhism is simply stated in the Four Noble Truths. The Forth Noble Truth unfolds to become the Eightfold Path. The first two parts of the Eightfold Path, Right View and Right Intention, tell us what we need to cultivate in ourselves in order to realized full awareness. The next three parts, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, outline what we need to do in the external world, on a daily basis, in order to realize the promise of the first two parts of the path. The last three parts, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, give us the tools for dealing with our own monkey mind while we live in the day to day world.
According to Buddhism, the prescription for our day to day suffering is the Eightfold Path. The difficulty in taking our medicine is that we are being told that we need to pay attention to each one of the eight at each moment of our lives. How hard is that?
We can approach the problem of applying the eightfold path to our daily lives in the same way we approach the monkey mind when we are meditating. When we notice our minds (or our lives, or our actions) wandering away from the concerns indicated in the eightfold path, gently take ourselves back to an awareness of our situation. Watch how we are being. Do not judge. (Sit with it, run with it, work with it, eat with it) See if there is anything at the present time that we can do to align ourselves closer to the eight injunctions. This is what the religion of Buddhism is suggesting. This is what being a Buddhist means. Day by day, bringing oneself back to awareness. How hard to take on. How much easier it might seem to simply focus on the robes, or get caught up in the daily excitement of mass culture, or go looking for love, or fight for money. How much easier to externalize our aspirations. How much easier to think that the solution to our suffering lies outside our self.
picture of chinese monks in robes and ritual
Whether we look at the world from a spiritual/religious point of view or from a scientific one, we can all agree on the existence of suffering and desire. The Buddha’s third Noble truth, ‘There is a way out of suffering,” is not so clearly true. We have no scientific proof that there is any way out of suffering. It is due to the fact that we must take the third Noble Truth on faith that Buddhism is a religion. Nothing wrong with faith. We have faith that the sun will rise on the morrow. It might not (and it might be cloudy), but we go about our lives as if another day will dawn. Buddhists believe in the end of suffering, trusting in a long line of Buddhist practitioners who also believed in and acted on the Buddha’s statements. Further, we trust the word of the many practitioners we meet — the abbots, the roshis, and the monks — the majority of whom seem to possess a calm centre, a certain unflappability, and a definite equanimity when facing situations that generally cause suffering. So we learn to have faith that there can be an end to suffering, and we continue our practice. But not everyone who suffers is inspired by faith. What to do?
Buddhism clearly states that there is a methodology for escaping suffering. We come to it in the Fourth Noble Truth. Buddhism’s methodology is a technology in a state similar to the state of mechanical technology before the development of the scientific method, in that it relies on trial and error. The problem with a trial and error technology is that we cannot be sure that all aspects of the technology are germane to the problem supposedly addressed. Some things will work, some things will be neutral and some things may actually be disadvantageous. In Buddhism it is necessarily left up to the individual who uses the methodology/technology, to judge, after the fact, whether or not their suffering is assuaged. Because of this after-the-fact nature of Buddhist practice, one starts along the path through the strength of faith alone.
Scientists would say that any traditional Buddhist evidence that suggests that the end of suffering is attainable is not evidence at all, merely anecdote. This does not mean that zen or Buddhism is false, nor does it mean that Buddhism cannot be understood using scientific methods. To be scientific, however, the truth of Buddhist methodology must be objectively demonstrated. In Karl Popper’s word’s the methodology must be falsifiable. By falsifiable, Popper means that if a thing is false then it can be demonstrated to be false. The only way to demonstrate that something is false is to test it by rigorous experimentation. If you can’t prove it false then it is true. And why would we want to prove Buddhist methodology true? Is not faith enough? If we know a method was true then would not many people be encouraged to follow it? And if many more people, stimulated by scientific proof, followed Buddhist methodology than do so now, would not more suffering be lessened?
While it is impossible to apply scientific methods to religions whose results only occur after death, the difficulty of applying scientific methods to a Buddhism that promises results in the present world is of a lesser degree. The only hindrance to a scientific test of Buddhism is the fact that the experimental apparatus consists solely of individual human subjects. Individuals are, of course, not exactly alike. Any particular technique that might work for one might not work for another. Because of this, the science of zen can never be as mathematically rigorous as nuclear physics, but it can be a softer science, somewhat akin to the social sciences or to psychology.
A Buddhist experiment, conducted to separate useful from less useful techniques to alleviate suffering, would have to:
2)Determine indicators of suffering.
3)Determine standards to identify the escape from suffering.
4)Do psychological profiles on beginning zen students in terms of their suffering.
5)List all zen techniques.
6)Note every zen technique used by each student, with duration/intensity of practice.
7)Regularly note results of each technique in terms of changing psychological profile.
8)Correlate results of various techniques against psychological type.
9)Compare results against a control group.
Such an experiment would require following a large number of subjects over a long time frame. I do not have the contacts within the Buddhist community to try to persuade monasteries and zendos to design and undertake such an experiment. I do, however, think that such a scientific experiment would be profitable. Why fly on faith alone? So, if there is anyone out there willing to fund such an experiment, or simply willing to design and organize such a thing, please be my guest. Lacking the resources needed to undertake such an experiment, and because I am at heart a theorist, in my next post I will turn to the fourth Noble Truth and try to analyze its various terms in a scientific manner.
Siddhartha had a historically important revelation which he formalized and called ‘The Four Noble Truths’. The first of his Truths states that suffering exists. The second states that desire exists. We learn from Buddhist commentaries that desire gives rise to suffering. But Siddhartha, by placing suffering first, seems to imply that suffering is the cause of desire.
Desire arises from suffering. Suffering arises from desire.
When we were growing fetuses, we floated in a perfect world: the amniotic sac, warm, comforting, protective, where all our needs were met. Evidence suggests that existence in the womb is so pleasurable, it can be described as all-encompassing, endless pleasure — Oceanic Bliss. But as our foetal beings grow larger, the womb we are contained within gets tighter, cramped. Then comes the great trauma of birth which saddles each one of us*, for the rest of our lives, with suffering and desire, and it does so for the simple but monumental reason that the process of being born destroys our Oceanic Bliss. Forget all that Freudian stuff about sexual trauma screwing us up. The first cause of suffering is the fact that our perfect world of Oceanic Bliss is shattered, destroyed, replaced by a hard, harsh, cold and sometimes cruel environment.
Reacting to the suffering we feel, at being forced into a rough, intransigent world, inspires our first desire: we want to return to that state of Oceanic Bliss which existed before we were born. Desire is always and only the wish to escape suffering so as to return to Oceanic Bliss. But desire is always frustrated. Oceanic Bliss cannot be regained. Frustrated desire causes more suffering, and continued suffering causes more desire to escape suffering.
The ego thinks up all sorts of strategies to return us to Oceanic Bliss. All such strategies are doomed to fail. Firstly, there are too many variables in any situation for our minds to account for them all. Lacking complete knowledge, our imaginations cannot effectively compute real future outcomes for any of our plans. Even if we attain some positive outcome, it is never up to the standard of Oceanic Bliss.
Secondly, we make the mistake of thinking that working on the external world is the way to regain bliss. The fledgling ego keeps whacking away at the new, recalcitrant world in which it finds itself, trying to fix it, manipulate it, or coerce it into fulfilling its desire. Ask any mother how determined the child is to get its way. But none of our efforts ever really works. We never return to Oceanic Bliss. We may get momentary pleasures, but they are short-lived and always pale in comparison to our (subconscious) memory of life in the womb. When our seeking after bliss fails to give substantial results, we blame the external world. We complain, seek revenge or think up more plots and schemes. And if, out of exhaustion or despair, we give up blaming the world, we often blame ourselves, sometimes to such an extent that we seek a false relief in self-damage.
Imaginary Case #1: Suffering: Jack is such a jerk he pisses me off. →Externalized Desire: He’s better stop bothering me. →On the Road to more Suffering: I swear, if he keeps on, I’m going to kill him.
Case #2: Suffering: I’m so lonely. →Externalized Desire: If only Jonny would fall in love with me, we’d live happily ever after. →Suffering: Jonny turns out to be a snake, a drunk, a womanizer, a brutal troglodyte. →Externalized Desire: Oh, if only he’d go to AA, I’d be happy again. →Suffering: Why won’t he go to AA? It’s probably my fault because I don’t love him enough. →Externalized Desire: I’ll buy this lottery ticket and win a million dollars so I can leave him and live happily ever after. Then he’ll be sorry.
And so we live our lives, striving after a past that cannot become the future.
Note from above: * excepting for a relative few of us. See more about Buddhism.