Sunday, August 16, 2009

Buddhism and the Dalai Lama

Buddhism is often referred to as a science of the mind, where principles are accepted or rejected based on the mental reactions they elicit in the practitioner. Principles are also accepted or rejected based on the perception of how closely and accurately they reflect the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (the historical Buddha who lived ~2500 years ago on the Indian Subcontinent). By personal experience I would say that the correct application of logic is inclined to elicit a positive mental reaction in the practitioner.

I have recently been having a variety of difficulties in my life and found myself reading one of the Dalai Lama's books (cited below) but I was inspired by a passage (page 162) "In battle, the mind supported by logic will always be victorious over the mind that is not".

The book is "Many Ways to Nirvana - Reflections and Advice on Right Living" by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Having had many challenges with combining a spiritual practice with a busy lay modern Western life I was attracted to this book because of these words on the back cover: "His Holiness the Dalai Lama Interprets the Ancient Wisdom of the Buddha for Living in the Modern World"

On page 17 the Dalai Lama was discussing the Buddhist idea of the non-self – ie. That a substantially existent person does not exist. Call me a realist but I think that myself and the Dalai Lama substantially exist. The Dalai Lama goes on to say that adopting this philosophical notion can reduce craving, grasping, and attachment. By experience I agree that this is the case, however, I am not convinced that that makes the non-self a relative truth nor an absolute truth. Craving, grasping and attachment are reduced when denying our own existence because we also deny their validity/existence implicitly in the process of self denial. Some Buddhists deny the self and the soul (anatman) but they accept that we have a consciousness that transmigrates through bodies (pg. 156). Accepting that we have a consciousness in such terms but not calling it a soul seems odd.

I have to admit that I was disappointed with the subject of God in the book (pg. 81 and 157). It seems as though Buddhists don’t accept God (typically), though my understanding was that Buddha merely refused to answer questions regarding God’s existence. Buddha also taught his followers to be inquisitive.

Lately I have been very interested in the concept of pre-destiny. The idea has appeared twice in this book (p. 76 and 116) however, I was disappointed that the Dalai Lama sidestepped discussing destiny in favour of re-affirming free will (thus operating under the assumption that the two are mutually exclusive). In Buddhism it is common for phenomena to be dismissed as being inherently illusory, but I haven't seen much discussion of the idea that it is free will (choice) that is what's inherently illusory (it feels real but maybe its not, and if its not then that strongly supports predestiny).

On page 123, the Dalai Lama writes "The only way to find out is to examine his teachings and to inquire about the Buddha’s devout followers". I was thinking maybe it would be wise for a monk to meditate until they reach one of the jhanas then focus their mind on the historical Buddha and then ask him directly whatever question they have.

On page 13 the Dalai Lama mentions that these three schools of Buddhist thought (Sautantrika, Cittamatra, Madhyamika) accept "that the disintegration of a particular conditioned phenomenon is not dependent on a fresh cause for its disintegration". I had a big problem with this because the proton is a basic sub-atomic building block (thus a conditioned phenomenon in Buddhist-speak). A proton can decay (change into something that is not a proton) if it collides or interacts with another sub-atomic building block (ie. Disintegrate due to a fresh cause), however, science has found no evidence that the proton undergoes natural decay (ie. no evidence that the proton will ever disintegrate without a fresh cause). As I’ve posted previously: based on data from the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory if a proton does decay its half-life is at least 200,000 trillion trillion years. This is so big it’s ridiculous! We might as well be calling it a hugemongousbagillion years! That is about 15 million trillion times the known length of the universe (from the big bang to now ~13-14 billion years).

I would like to point out that I have enjoyed the Dalai Lama’s writings and greatly respect the man.

I would also like to say that my very favourite part was on page 115, where the Dalai Lama states that having one global religion would not be good. I couldn’t agree with him more! And good for him for leading a religion that does not aim to convert others.

One thing I have learned, if I’m having trouble living happily in the moment it sure can help to watch my adorable daughter Mattea.

Jacob Levman