Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Place You Want to Go

Taking bit of a vacation, be back soon with updates !


Be happy, be brave and practice what I always tell you

And believe me, you will find it, well if you don't, then


The point between the eyes, is the place you want to go

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Names and Forms

So there is birth and previous birth and its cause the desire or ‘Tanha’ as the Buddhists call it. Logically desire can only rise out of sense contact. Sense contact can only occur in an entity who could perceive Namarupa or names and forms.
Before we go further into the other causes it would be helpful to learn what this namarupa is. In Buddhism the definition of the term is a bit different from that of the Vedas. There Nama means name and rupa means form in their literal sense. They are determinate divisions of reality. Buddhists have a whole philosophy on names and forms!

To them ( if we could go by the commentaries) "Name" are the three groups beginning with sensation (i.e. sensation, perception and the predisposition) and "Form" is the four elements. You know what the four elements are-it’s the same air, water, earth, fire of the alchemists. The Indians used to include Akasha or space in the list of elements as well. But the Buddhists do not.

Name by itself can produce physical changes, such as eating, drinking, making movements or the like. (I find it a bit abstruse I must say! May be they included all the actions in name. This also is logical if we consider forms as objects alone). Anyway it is said that name alone is not sufficient to create the world. So form also cannot produce any of those changes by itself.

The interesting thing is that, both these are supposed to be produced by the conscious awareness of their existence (on the part of the ‘thinker’ obviously) and is fabricated just like that –out of the thin air just like! There is no material to make these from.

"but just as when a lute is played upon, there is no previous store of sound; and when the sound comes into existence it does not come from any such store; and when it ceases, it does not go to any of the cardinal or intermediate points of the compass; exactly the same way all the elements of being both those with form and those without, come into existence after having previously been non-existent and having come into existence pass away”

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Desires go on living

Whatever the reasons for the adoption of the theory of rebirth without questioning it, the Buddha firmly maintained that was why birth occurs. That is, the basis of the present life is that of the previous ones. The desires one forms and acts out in those lives remain with one and manifests in the following ones. In that sense the desires are the upadana or the foundation on which the lives are built upon. The Jain’s who had developed a whole system of philosophy prior to this period had a curious notion about ‘karma sarira’ or desire body that is observed in company with our bodies. This body is said to be attached to us permanently and is the sum total of the desires and thoughts we harbor inside. It goes without saying that this body is as physical as everything else is.

So the cause of misery is the birth and birth is caused by previous births. These births as well as the present one are the result of desires that become attached to our consciousness because of their ‘desire’ to go on living!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Brain and its plasticity

In modern thought the brain and mind has almost become inseparable. It’s only people like Penfield who could even voice other views in this regard. And when they do so, that would normally be treated with derision, since there is a strong behaviorist content in modern medical thought.

Yet this was not what the doctor was famous for. He was the first to introduce brain mapping. In his experiments he had carefully mapped the brain of his patients and though he had not personally claimed that the centers within the brain are unalterably attached to the bodily parts from which they receive stimulation, he was supposed to have done so by all the text books on medicine till recently. This view was taught widely and every medical student believed in it implicitly. And so it was imagined that the adult brain had no plasticity, that is, once the centers of brain were confirmed by exposure to sensations they remain unchanged and localized.

Yet David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel had already proved that there was plasticity in the brain of the young and Wiesel had also received the Nobel Prize for the discovery! But they too had held firm on to the theory that adult brain is not plastic. It was left to Michael Merzenich to prove otherwise. By inhibiting stimulation from body parts to the brain he is said to have conclusively established that the brain adapts quickly and the part that is cutoff is immediately integrated into the system and used for processing other data coming from without that is related to its previous activity.

If that is so it’s done by neuro transmitters that act as messengers between neurons and the brain cells. This is important, because science has not yet found a central mechanism inside the brain that integrates all its parts into a whole and passes orders modifying the behavior of any of its parts when the need arises to do so. This is where the words of Penfield come to our mind.

“Scientific work on the brain does not explain the mind – not yet”

And again

“But the mind has energy. The form of that energy is different from that of neuronal potentials that travel the axone pathways.”

If there is a separate entity called mind and it has its own potential then what would prevent us from imagining that it acts as an integrative force on the brain, modifying its behavior to the extend it is needed? But then what could be the nature of this mind? How do we account for it? Where does it originate? Could it be of the nature of thought or feelings, could it be a body created initially by the brain itself and perpetuated by the constant and intelligent reactions of the being to its environment, becoming stronger and capable of existing on its own as time goes, even capable of attracting the necessary conditions to produce life forms so that it can survive?

I think it’s possible. In short energy can’t just disappear like that!

May be by now you have started wondering where I am leading all this to! Well not to worry. What I have been trying to do was to provide an impetus to our imagination so that we can cognize stranger things than what we are accustomed to by this circuitous and interesting journey. I certainly can go deeper into it and cite scientific examples by the scores. But that is not the point. The point is, there could be alternate views to the existing ones and if they come to us with the authority of a figure of the great Buddha’s stature we may give ear to it. I encourage you to read up on the subject of our brain and its functions.

I think it was evident to Buddha that birth is the result of previous birth. We can’t argue that the limited sphere of our ordinary experience is the end of all perception. Even the science recognizes that there are alternate states of consciousness where the reality experienced by us could be different to that of our ordinary one.

We will now return to the teachings of the great master.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Rebirth contd

About the middle of last century a neuro-surgeon called Wilder Penfield was conducting experiments on human brain while he was operating on his patients. He had kept them under general anesthesia to monitor developments during the course of the operations. What he found out was novel. The brain acts like a high fidelity tape recorder and stores all that it has experienced inside in the original format. Electrically stimulating certain areas of the brain elicited responses that were identical to that of the original event. Though only about five percent of his subjects showed this peculiarity and he has not claimed it as a path breaking discovery it is not to be dismissed on that basis alone. What connects him to our subject is the question of how mind works or whether it is connected with brain alone or has any independent existence, since that would help us in stating our case firmly that there is a substratum to life we are unaware of.

Let us listen to what the surgeon has to say about such things. This is what he said in Dartmouth Convocation on The Great Issues of Conscience in Modern Medicine (1960).

“It is fair to say that science provides no method of controlling the mind. Scientific work on the brain does not explain the mind – not yet. Neither the work of Pavlov on conditioned reflexes nor that of any other worker has proven the thesis of materialism. Surgeons can remove areas of brain, physicians can destroy or deaden it with drugs and produce unpredictable fantasies, but they cannot force it to do their bidding.”

Then again he says in his The Mystery of the Mind

"For myself, after a professional lifetime spent in trying to discover how the brain accounts for the mind, it comes as a surprise now to discover, during this final examination of the evidence, that the dualist hypothesis seems the more reasonable of the two possible explanations. Mind comes into action and goes out of action with the highest brain-mechanism, it is true. But the mind has energy. The form of that energy is different from that of neuronal potentials that travel the axone pathways. There I must leave it."

I admit that such ruminations do not conclusively prove there is something beyond the grave and that is mind and desires and thoughts continue their existence even without the body. In fact the doctor says just the opposite. He believes that with the death of brain the mind also ceases. But what I find interesting is the statement about the energy of the mind that is not really linked to the chemical or neurological mechanism that’s functioning within.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The stance on Rebirth

The Buddha of course stressed the importance of direct perception more strongly than any other part of knowledge and thus began his analysis on that level first. He also allowed inference since without its application it would be impossible to reason. But his stance on recorded knowledge (Or Vedas) of India was ambiguous. All systems in India have accepted the teaching of rebirth except the Charvaka’s and their teachings are not available to us for reference. Buddha though opposing the hegemony of the Vedas nonetheless accepted this doctrine and without it his system would have been incomplete or would have even failed to start.

What caused this implicit belief in this (apparently) strange theory among all philosophers in India? As of yet no one has come back from the dead and reported about what happens afterwards, so what could be the basis of this curious belief? Let us try to look into the matter a little more closely and find if we can resolve it before we proceed further with the things taught by the great master.

We all start our life with a materialistic outlook and in most of our activities follow that belief to the full. This of course has to be so from the time immemorial. According to the theory of materialists everything, including our mind, has to be material. So it goes without saying that the thoughts and feelings created by our minds are as material as anything else is and that they are tangible. In these days of speculations of time travel and multi-verses it’s not difficult to imagine that nothing is outside the physical universe and even the subtlest of vibrations have physical reality.

But to us every thought that we normally make (other than that is recorded) and every emotion that we feel within the mind are ephemeral and we think that they become dissipated or tend to disappear altogether once the moment of their need is past. The reason for this is that they do not intrude again into our consciousness. This is erroneous reasoning.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

On theory of Knowledge

I had condensed the basic part of Buddha’s teaching into a sentence in the previous post and it cannot be much intelligible to those who are following these notes without some detailed explanations on what they actually mean. But before venturing into an analysis of the 12 causes of misery Buddha found, I would like to touch up on some general aspects of philosophical speculation. Buddha was the first to formulate a definite system of philosophy that relied entirely on reason and logic in the world and was particular about defining terms in his system. Till his time philosophy was a mixture of intuitive or poetic insights on life and magical formulas to make life better and superstitious belief’s that went without being questioned. He changed all that and introduced the greatest analytical structure that is found in human history. Let us check the background to his inestimable work. I hope you would forgive the digression because it’s more to provide a basis for what is to come next.

Any real and meaningful system of thought needs to be backed up by a theory of knowledge and unless we are aware how knowledge originates and is stored it would be impossible to speculate on the finer points of life and philosophy. This in its turn demands a definition of terms that are employed in the thought process. I have a distaste for words like epistemology, ontology etc, so I would try not to use them in my article and would like to keep it simple. It might displease some who like things in the abstract. That would of course make the article intelligent and abstruse but if that’s what you are after then there could be any number of tomes around that would keep you occupied for the rest of your life and would shed no more insight into the heart of things as a halogen lamp would shed light on its own innards.

Anyway I am not comfortable with those finer terms of philosophy as well! Whenever I see them I have a serious doubt that they are playing with my poor intellect and trying to hoodwink me into the mires of complexities that I can’t escape from. This comes of being immersed in such abstract systems of thought for a considerable period in my life. May be it’s because of my lack of intelligence or the inherent lethargy; I have only gained one insight from all that hard work-That I am not as wise as I took myself for! The only consolation is that I am in good company. Socrates is said to have expressed the same sentiments when he was on trial.

Not that I am as wise as that great sophist too, for he was able to meet all the geniuses and intellectuals and artists of his time in person and put questions to them that they can’t answer! It was easy then. Athens was a small city state and one could meet people if one is ready to put some effort into it. But how is one to put questions to dead authors? The efforts to learn their works have left me with a firm belief that the writers of those toms are as unaware of reality as I am and was only trying to pass time by composing such delightful nonsense! This goes for the moderns too. One has to keep up pretenses of being intelligent doesn’t one? May be my effort is one such too, though I believe that the great soul I am talking about would show me better sense than that of trying to be egotistical!

Let us come back to the theory of knowledge which has to be the foundation of any system of thought. There is a notion that the Samkhya and Yoga systems existed prior to the period of Buddha, but we have no evidence for it other than the similarities in approaches found in them. The Samkhyas had a theory of knowledge that formed the basis of their analysis of life. It is helpful to learn of it before we start talking about the matter we are interested in.

If you ask anybody versed in philosophy in India they would tell you that there are mainly three methods to acquire knowledge. They are 1) by Direct perception 2) by Inference 3) and through Recorded Knowledge. These would look obvious to anyone once they have learned about them, for there are no other methods to gain knowledge. Yet it is not as easy to keep it fresh in mind at all times, is it?

Direct perception is the knowledge gained through our senses. Senses are 14 in number (14? you haven’t heard about this one have you? The ancient Indians were so meticulous about their definitions!), Five externals (Eyes, nose, ears, tongue and skin) and five internals (the centers to which these outer organs report their readings) and mind. I have said this even before- the Indians consider mind as an internal organ (Antakarana) or more precisely an organ with four parts (Psyche, nous, intellect and ego) and not a part of spirit. This is a subtle point to grasp and it would take time to do that for those who have been brought up with the belief that mind is sentient. These parts of the mind would look similar to you but they are not in Indian philosophy. Every single part does a particular job.

Buddha had simplified the matters somewhat by maintaining that there are only six senses. He included the internals in the external. So he would only speak about the six-fold realm of entanglement. He considered this primary.