The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality – Dalai Lama

Chapter 3
Emptiness, Relativity, And Quantum Physics
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One of the most important philosophical insights in Buddhism comes from what is known as the theory of emptiness. At its heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity be­tween the way we perceive the world, including our own existence in it, and the way things actually are. In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possess self-enclosed, definable, discrete, and enduring reality. For instance, if we examine our own conception of selfhood, we will find that we tend to believe in the presence of an essential core to our being, which characterizes our individuality and identity as a discrete ego, independent of the physical and mental elements that constitute our existence. The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error but also the basis for attach­ment, clinging, and the development of our numerous prejudices.

According to the theory of emptiness, any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent exis­tence is untenable. All things and events, whether material, mental, or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, inde­pendent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and ex­ert influence on other phenomena. But we know that there is cause and effect-turn a key in a starter, spark plugs ignite, the engine turns over, and gasoline and oil are burned. In a universe of self­contained, inherently existing things, these events would never oc­cur. I would not be able to write on paper, and you would not be able to read the words on this page. So since we interact and change each other, we must assume that we are not independent­although we may feel or intuit that we are.

Effectively, the notion of intrinsic, independent existence is incompatible with causation. This is because causation implies contingency and dependence, while anything that possesses inde­pendent existence would be immutable and self-enclosed. Everything is composed of dependently related events, of continuously interacting phenomena with no fixed, immutable essence, which are themselves in constantly changing dynamic relations. Things and events are “empty” in that they do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality, or absolute “being” that affords indepen­dence. This fundamental truth of “the way things really are” is de­scribed in the Buddhist writings as “emptiness,” or shunyata in Sanskrit.

In our naive or commonsense view of the world, we relate to things and events as if they possess an enduring intrinsic reality. We tend to believe that the world is composed of things and events, each of which has a discrete, independent reality of its own and it is these things with discrete identities and independence that interact with one another. We believe that intrinsically real seeds produce intrinsically real crops at an intrinsically real time in an intrinsically real place. Each member in this causal nexus-the seed, time, place, and effect-we take to have solid ontological sta­tus. This view of the world as made of solid objects and inherent properties is reinforced further by our language of subjects and predicates, which is structured with substantive nouns and adjec­tives on the one hand and active verbs on the other. But everything is constituted by parts-a person is body and mind both. Further­more, the very identity of things is contingent upon many factors, such as the names we give them, their functions, and the concepts we have about them.
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Chapter 6
The Question of Consciousness
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Despite the tremendous success in observing close correla­tions between parts of the brain and mental states, I do not think current neuroscience has any real explanation of consciousness it­self. Neuroscience can probably tell us that when activity can be observed in this or that part of the brain the subject must be expe­riencing such and such a cognitive state. But it leaves open the question of why this is so. Furthermore, it does not and probably could not explain why, when such and such a brain activity occurs, the subject undergoes such and such an experience. For example, when a subject perceives the color blue, no amount of neurobio­logical explanation will get to the bottom of the experience. It will always leave out what it feels like to see blue. Similarly, a neurosci­entist may be able to tell us whether a subject is dreaming, but can a neurobiological account explain the content of a dream?

A distinction can be made, however, between this as a method­ological suggestion and the metaphysical assumption that mind is no more than a function or emergent property of matter. But as­suming mind is reducible to matter leaves a huge explanatory gap. How do we explain the emergence of consciousness? What marks the transition from non-sentient to sentient beings? A model of in­creasing complexity based on evolution through natural selection is simply a descriptive hypothesis, a kind of euphemism for “mys­tery,” and not a satisfactory explanation.

Crucial to understanding the Buddhist concept of conscious­ness- and its rejection of the reducibility of mind to matter- is its theory of causation. The issue of causality has long been a major focus of philosophical and contemplative analysis in Buddhism. Buddhism proposes two principal categories of cause. These are the “substantial cause” and the “contributory or complementary cause.”Take the example of a clay pot. The substantial cause refers to the “stuff” that turns into a particular effect, namely, the clay that becomes the pot. By contrast, all the other factors that contribute toward bringing about the pot-such as the skill of the potter, the potter himself, and the kiln that fired the clay-remain comple­mentary in that they make it possible for the clay to turn into the pot. This distinction between the substantial and the contributory cause of a given event or object is of the utmost importance for un­derstanding the Buddhist theory of consciousness. According to Buddhism, though consciousness and matter can and do con­tribute toward the origination of each other, one can never become a substantial cause of the other.

In fact, it is on this premise that Buddhist thinkers like Dhar­makirti have rationally argued for the tenability of the theory of re­birth. Dharmakirti’s argument can be formulated as follows: The consciousness of the newborn infant comes about from a preced­ing instance of cognition, which is an instance of consciousness just like the present moment of consciousness.

The issue revolves around the argument that the various in­stances of consciousness we experience come into being because of the presence of preceding instances of consciousness; and since matter and consciousness have totally different natures, the first moment of consciousness of the new being must be preceded by its substantial cause, which must be a moment of consciousness. In this way, the existence of a previous life is affirmed.

Some other Buddhist thinkers, such as Bhavaviveka in the sixth century, have tried to argue for preexistence on the basis of habit­ual instincts, such as the newborn calfs instinctive knowledge of where to find its mother’s teats and how to suck milk. These thinkers make the case that without assuming some form of preex­istence, the phenomenon of “innate knowledge” cannot be coher­ently explained.
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Chapter 7
Toward a Science of Consciousness
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The concept of neuroplasticity suggests that the brain is highly malleable and is subject to continual change as a result of expe­rience, so that new connections between neurons may be formed or even brand-new neurons generated. Research in this area specifically includes work on virtuosos-athletes, chess players, and musicians-whose intense training has been shown to result in observable changes in the brain. These kinds of subjects are interestingly parallel to skilled meditators, who are also virtuosos, and whose dedication to their practice involves a similar commit­ment of time and effort.

Whether we talk of the transfonnation of consciousness or of the introspective empirical analysis of what occurs in the mind, the observer needs a range of skills, carefully honed through repetition and training, and applied in a rigorous and disciplined manner. All these practices assume a certain ability to direct one’s mind to a chosen object and to hold the attention there for a period, however brief. An assumption is also made that, through constant habitua­tion, the mind learns to improve the quality of whatever faculty is being primarily applied, whether it is attention, reasoning, or imag­ination. The understanding is that through such prolonged and regular practice, the ability to perfonn the exercise will become al­most second nature. Here the parallel with athletes or musicians is very clear, but one might equally think of learning how to swim or how to ride a bicycle. Initially, these are very difficult, seemingly unnatural activities, but once you master the skill, they come quite easily.

One of the most basic mental trainings is the cultivation of mindfulness, especially performed on the basis of observing one’s breath. Mindfulness is essential if one is to become consciously aware in a disciplined manner of whatever phenomena may occur within the mind or one’s immediate environment. In our normal state, our mind remains unfocused for most of the time and our thoughts move from one object to another in a random and dissi­pated manner. By cultivating mindfulness, we learn first to become aware of this process of dissipation, so that we can gently fine-tune the mind to follow a more directed path toward the objects on which we wish to focus. Traditionally, the breath is seen as an ideal instrument for the practice of mindfulness. The great advantage of choosing one’s breath as the object of mindfulness training is that breathing is an instinctive and effortless activity, something which we do as long we are alive, so there is no need to strive hard to find the object of this practice. In its developed form, mindfulness also brings about a highly refined sensitivity to everything that hap­pens, however minute, in one’s immediate vicinity and in one’s mind.

One of the most crucial elements of training in mindfulness is the development and application of attention. Given that a signifi­cant percentage of children suffer from attention deficit problems in today’s world, especially in more materially affluent societies, I am told that substantial efforts are being made to understand the faculty of attention and its causal dynamics. Here Buddhism’s long history of training attention could make a contribution. In Bud­dhist psychology, attention is defined as the faculty that helps direct the mind to a chosen object among the variety of sensory informa­tion we experience in any given moment. We shall not be con­cerned here with the complex theoretical issues surrounding what attention is exactly – whether it is a single mechanism or of several types, or whether it is the same as controlled application of thought. Rather, let us take attention as a deliberate intention that helps us select a specific aspect or a characteristic of an object. The continued, voluntary application of attention is what helps us maintain a sustained focus on the chosen object.

Training in attention is closely linked with learning how to control our mental processes. I am sure most young people today, even many who have been diagnosed as suffering from attention deficit disorders, can enjoy a gripping film without distraction. Their problem is the ability to direct their attention willfully when there is more than one thing happening. Another factor has to do with habit. The less our familiarity, the greater the need for effort and deliberate application both to direct our attention to and to keep it on a chosen object or task. However, through habituation acquired in training, we become less dependent upon such delib­erate effort. We know from personal experience that, through train­ing, even tasks that seem extremely hard initially can become almost automatic. Buddhist psychology understands that through sustained, disciplined practice one’s application of attention, which initially involves a great deal of effort, subsequently gives way to a limited mastery in which some effort is still required, and finally the task becomes effortless and spontaneous.

Another practice for the development of attention is single­pointed concentration. Here the observer may choose any kind of object, external or internal, but something that he or she can eas­ily conjure the image of. The training proceeds with the deliberate placement of one’s attention on the chosen object and the attempt to hold that attention as long as possible. This practice involves pri­marily the use of two faculties, mindfulness (which keeps the mind tied to the object) and introspective vigilance, which discerns whethel’ distraction occurs in the mind and whether the vividness of the mind’s focus has become lax. At the heart of this practice lies the development of two qualities of the disciplined mind~the sta­bility of prolonged attention and the clarity or vividness with which the mind can perceive the object. In addition, the practi­tioner needs to learn to maintain equanimity, so that he or she does not apply excessive introspection onto the object, which would dis­tort the object or destabilize mental composure.

When the practitioner notices as a result of introspection that he has become distracted, he needs to bring the mind back gently to the object. Initially, the time lapse between one’s mind being distracted and detecting this distraction may be relatively lengthy, but after regular training, it will become shorter and shorter. In its developed form, this practice allows an observer to rest for long pe­riods on the chosen object, noticing any changes that may occur, whether in the object or in the mind. Furthermore, the practitioner is said to have achieved a quality of mental pliancy, in that the mind has become easily serviceable and can be directed freely to any ob­ject. This state is described as the attainment of tranquil abiding of the mind (shamatha in Sanskrit, shi ne in Tibetan).

There are claims in the Buddhist meditation texts that a skilled practitioner can master this technique to such a point that she can hold her attention unwaveringly for four hours at a time. I knew a Tibetan meditator who was reputed to have achieved this state. Un­fortunately, he has passed away; otherwise it would have been most interesting to examine him while in this state. with all the sophisti­cated machinery in Richard Davidson’s lab. One fruitful area of
study for the emergent field of attention studies in Western psy­chology would be testing cases like this against the current scien­tific understanding of human attention, which I believe sets the maximum span at no more than a few minutes.

These meditative practices provide a settled and disciplined state of mind, but if our aim is to delve deeper into the subject un­der investigation, it is not adequate simply to have a focused mind. We must acquire the skill of probing the nature and characteristics of the object of our observation with as much precision as possi­ble. This second-level training is known in the Buddhist literature as insight (vipashyana in Sanskrit, lhak thong in Tibetan). In tran­quil abiding the emphasis is on holding one’s focus without dis­traction, and single-pointedness is the key quality being sought. In insight the emphasis is on discerning investigation and analysis while maintaining one-pointedness without distraction.

In his classic Stages of Meditation, the eighth-century Indian Buddhist master Kamalashila gives a detailed account of how both tranquil abiding and insight may be systematically cultivated. These are combined so that they can be applied to deepening one’s understanding of specific features of reality, to the point that one’s understanding affects thoughts, emotions, and behavior. He partic­ularly emphasizes the need for maintaining a fine equilibrium be­tween the single-pointed placement of the mind on the one hand and the application of a focused beam of analysis on the other. This is because they are different mental processes with the potential of undermining each other. Single-pointed absorption on a chosen object requires holding the mind on the object with little move­ment and a kind of fusion, while insight requires a certain directed activity in which the mind moves from one aspect of the object to another.

When we are cultivating insight, Kamalashila advises that we begin investigation with as much sharpness of inquiry as possible and that we then try to hold the mind single-pointedly on the re­sultant insight for as long as possible. When the practitioner be­gins to lose the force of the insight, he advises recommencing the analytic process. This alternation may then lead to a higher level of mental capability, at which both analysis and absorption become relatively effortless.
As in any other discipline, tools help the experimenter focus his or her exploration. Since subjective experience can easily be­come derailed by fantasy or delusion, meditative tools such as structured analysis have been developed to focus contemplative ex­ploration. Often, topics for analysis are prescribed. A meditator may choose among many topics to focus on. One of them is the transient nature of our own existence. Impermanence is chosen as a worthy object of meditation in Buddhism because, although we may understand it intellectually, we mostly do not behave as though we have integrated this awareness. A combination of analy­sis and concentration on this topic brings the insight to life so that we appreciate the preciousness of every moment of our existence.

To begin we become mindful of the body and the breath in a state of calm, and we cultivate awareness of the very subtle changes that occur in the mind and in the body during a period of practice, even between the in-breath and the out-breath. In this way, an ex­periential awareness arises that nothing within one’s existence stays static or unchanging. As one fine-tunes this practice, one’s. awareness of change becomes ever more minute and dynamic. For example, one approach is to contemplate the complex web of cir­cumstances that keep us alive, which leads to a deeper appreciation of the fragility of our continued existence. Another approach is a more graphic examination of bodily processes and functioning, particularly aging and decay. If a meditator had a deep knowledge of biology, then it is conceivable that there would be a specially rich content to his or her experience of this practice.

These thought experiments have been performed repeatedly over many centuries, and the results have been confirmed by thou­sands of great meditators. Buddhist practices are tested for efficacy and confirmed by reliable minds before they become tools for meditation to use.
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Chapter 8
The Spectrum of Consciousness
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I spent a great deal of time studying the distinctions between sensory experience and mental experience. A defining mark of sen­sory experience is its contingence upon a specific sense organ-the eye, the ear, and so forth. There is a clear recognition that each sense perception is distinct from the others and has an exclusive domain, so that the eye cannot access sound or the ear taste and so on. As was noted by the early Buddhist thinkers, including Va­subandhu and Dharmakirti, there are significant differences in the spatiotemporal processes involved in apprehending the objects of the various sensory spheres. Visual perception of an object can take place from a great distance, hearing a sound from a lesser distance, while the experience of a particular smell occurs within a still shorter range. In contrast, the remaining two senses-giving rise to gustatory and tactile experience-need direct contact between the senses and their respective objects. In scientific language, I would guess, these differences will be eXplained in terms of the ways physical entities such as photons and sound waves e”:litted from objects stimulate the sense organs.

The defining characteristic of mental experience is the lack of a physical sense organ. By mental experience, which is effectively a sixth faculty in addition to the five senses, Buddhist theory of mind does not mean anything cryptic or mysterious. Rather, if one is looking at a beautiful flower, the immediate perception of the flower, with all its richness, color, and shape, belongs to visual ex­perience. If one continues to look, there arise repeated successions of the same visual perception. However, the moment thought occurs while one is looking at the flower- for instance, in focusing on a particular aspect or quality, such as the depth of color or the turn of a petal-one has engaged mental consciousness. Mental con­sciousness includes the entire gamut of what we call thought processes-including memory, recognition, discrimination, inten­tion, will, conceptual and abstract thinking, and dreams.

Sensory experience is immediate and all-enveloping. We smell the rose, we see the color, we feel the prick of the thorn without any conscious thought entering into the experience. Thought, by con­trast, operates selectively, sometimes even seemingly arbitrarily, by homing in on a specific aspect or characteristic of a given phenom­enon. While studying the rose, you may find unbidden thoughts entering your mind: the smell is vaguely citrus and refreshing, the color a soothing pale pink, the thorn sharp and to be avoided. In addition, conceptual cognition relates to objects through a medium such as language or concepts. When we see a beautifully colored flower, like the red rhododendrons that cover the hills around Dharamsala in spring, the experience is a rich but undiffer­entiated one; but when thoughts arise about the characteristics of the flower, such as “it is fragrant” or “its petals are large,” then the experience is much narrower but more focused.
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Given that the neurobiological model of perception and cogni­tion is an account of these phenomena in terms of the chemical and biological processes of the brain, I can see why from the sci­entific point of view no qualitative distinctions need be drawn be­tween sensory and conceptual processes. It turns out that the part of the brain most associated with visual perceptions is also that part most active in imaginative visualization. So far as the brain is concerned, it seems as if it makes no difference whether one is see­ing something with one’s physical eyes or with the “mind’s eye.” From the Buddhist point of view, the problem is that this neurobi­ological account leaves out the most significant ingredient of these mental events-subjective experience.

The classical Buddhist epistemological model gives no prominence to the brain in cognitive activity, such as perception. Given Buddhist philosophy’s emphasis on empiricism and given that an­cient Indian medical science had detailed knowledge of the human anatomy, it is surprising that there was no clear recognition of the role of the brain as the core organizing structure within the body, especially in relation to perception and cognition. Vajrayana Bud­dhism, however, speaks of the conduit located at the crown of the head as the primary seat of the energy that regulates subjective experience.
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Buddhism assumes the universality of mental afflictions in all sentient beings. The key afflictions are seen as expressions of at­tachment, anger, and delusion. In some species, such as human be­ings, the expressions of these are more complex, while in certain species of animals their manifestations will be more rudimentary and more nakedly aggressive. The simpler they are, the more such processes are considered to be instinctual and less dependent upon conscious thinking. In contrast, the complex expressions of emotion are seen as more susceptible to conditioning, including by language and concepts. So the possibility that the basic emotions, according to the classification of modern science, are associated with parts of the brain that are much older in terms of evolution and shared with the animals offers a potential parallel with Bud­dhism’s understanding.

From an experiential point of view, one difference between the afflictive emotions, such as hate, and wholesome states, such as compassion, is that the afflictions tend to fixate the mind on a con­crete target-a person to whom we become attached, a smell or sound we want to push away. The wholesome emotions, by con­trast, can be more diffuse, so the focus is not confined to one per­son or one object. There is therefore in Buddhist psychology a no­tion that the more wholesome mental states have a higher cogni­tive component than the negative afflictions. Again, this might prove an interesting area of comparison and research with Western science.

Given that the modern science of emotions is grounded in neurobiology, the evolutionary perspective is bound to remain the overarching conceptual frame. This means that, in addition to ex­plorations of the neurological basis of individual emotions, at­tempts will be made to understand the emergence of specific emotions in terms of their role in natural selection. I am told there is in fact an entire discipline called “evolutionary psychology.” To an extent I can see how evolutionary accounts can be given for the emergence of basic emotions such as attachment, anger, and fear. However, as in the neurobiological project that attempts to tie par­ticular emotions to specific areas of the brain, I cannot envision how the evolutionary approach can do justice to the richness of the emotional world and the subjective quality of experience.
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Chapter 9
Ethics and the New Genetics
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Particularly worrying is the manipulation of genes for the cre­ation of children with enhanced characteristics, whether cognitive or physical. Whatever inequalities there may be between individu­als in their circumstances-such as wealth, class, health, and so on – we are all born with a basic equality of our human nature, with certain potentialities; certain cognitive, emotional, and physi­cal abilities; and the fundamental disposition-indeed the right ­to seek happiness and overcome suffering. Given that genetic technology is bound to remain costly, at least for the foreseeable future, once it is allowed, for a long period it will be available only to a small segment of human society, namely the rich. Thus society will find itself translating an inequality of circumstance (that is, rel­ative wealth) into an inequality of nature through enhanced intel­ligence, strength, and other faculties acquired through birth.

The ramifications of this differentiation are far-reaching-on social, political, and ethical levels. At the social level, it will rein­force-even perpetuate-our disparities, and it will make their re­versal much more difficult. In political matters, it will breed a ruling elite, whose claims to power will be invocations of an intrin­sic natural superiority. On the ethical level, these kinds of pseudo­nature-based differences can severely undermine our basic moral sensibilities insofar as these sensibilities are based on a mutual recognition of shared humanity. We cannot imagine how such practices could affect our very concept of what it is to be human.

When I think about the various new ways of manipulating hu­man genetics, I can’t help but feel that there is something pro­foundly lacking in our appreciation of what it is to cherish humanity. In my native Tibet, the value of a person rests not on physical appearance, not on intellectual or athletic achievement, but on the basic, innate capacity for compassion in all human be­ings. Even modern medical science has demonstrated how crucial affection is for human beings, especially during the first few weeks of life. The simple power of touch is critical for the basic develop­ment of the brain. In regard to his or her value as a human being, it is entirely irrelevant whether an individual has some kind of dis­ability-for instance, Down syndrome-or a genetic disposition to develop a particular disease, such as sickle-cell anemia, Hunting­ton’s chorea, or Alzheimer’s. All human beings have an equal value and an equal potential for goodness. To ground our appreciation of the value of a human being on genetic makeup is bound to impov­erish humanity, because there is so much more to human beings than their genomes.
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