Inspired by the Wisdom 2.0 Conference and the recent research on neuroplasticity, I offer some musings that scientists may consider for further research. I am not a scientist and certainly would skew the data were I to do research given my likely preferential intent with the outcome; fortunately, I am merely someone who grew up with a scientific education. Affirmed by scientific research more often than not, I look forward to more resonances between science and Buddhism.
Stanford University’s pioneer researcher, Phillip Goldin, shared his research data on two types of meditation: samatha and vipasannā, or focus and open awareness. Each produces unique signals in the brain.
I am intrigued and wonder what the brain imaging data might show for the meditative practice of dhyāna, or zen koans inquiring into the “I”, the self, by asking “Who?” “Who is this I?” “Who is it that is reading?” “Who is it that is listening?” “Who is it that is smelling?” etc. What might the brain show when it is being contemplated upon as nonexistent?
The Shurangama Sutra specifically recommends this meditative inquiry through the sense organ of ear, as opposed to the eye, nose, tongue, body or mind, the sounds, sights, smells, tactile objects of touch, or thoughts, the ear consciousness, eye consciousness, tongue consciousness, body consciousness or mind consciousness. What does our brain show when we use different meditation methods based on an aspect of a sense faculty? How does the speed of the sense data affect the quality of our meditative experience, e.g., the speed of light for images versus the speed of sound? How much of the sense data do we absorb then mimic, become inspired or depressed through mirror neurons?
Mirror neurons appear to intersect with the Buddhist idea of consciousness, of which there are six sense consciousnesses that collect data, a seventh consciousness that transports the data and an eighth (ālaya ) consciousness that acts as a repository. According to the Consciousness-Only School of Buddhism, all sense faculties, bodies, lands and realms all come into being because of the ālaya consciousness. Here is Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation of a verse from Verses Delineating the Eight Consciousnesses:
How immense is the Unfathomable Triple Store!
From the deep ocean of the Store arise the seven waves of the seven
This consciousness receives impregnation, preserves all seeds and also the
body, organs and environment.
It is the one who comes first and leaves last,
being truly a master of the house!
Obviously the implication here is that every piece of sense data we come across is experienced by the brain as a personal encounter, as if being perfumed. What programs, education methodology, life style choices can we create and promote to elevate us so that we and our children become kinder, wiser and more at peace? (I have some ideas if anyone is interested in hearing more!)
The fascination with finding the ultimate building block may have moved beyond materialism, but it is still an attempt at conceptualizing the universe or multiverse. Quark is now shown to be the conceptual elemental unit, and it is 99% emptiness. The string theory makes sense of the “point” and vibrating waves but may be struggling in some mathematical fog.
On the matter of numbers, there is a metaphorical and metamorphosing relationship between zero, one, ten and infinity in Buddhist texts. I was struck by the string theory’s ten dimensions, which parallels the Avatamsaka Sutra’s cosmology. Ten is the number of dimensions for worlds. Each dimension continuously multiplies itself into multiple dimensions; hence infinity. And yet infinite and multiple galaxies fold into one thought or one hair pore, and finally experiencing time and space non-conceptually.
With one dharma, all dharmas are created; with all dharmas, one dharma occurs. Dharmas cannot escape their interrelatedness and can never stand on their own. Infinite conditions of the Dharma Realm come into being because of the mind alone. . . In endless layers, the one and the many accommodate each other; the large and the small enter one another; the one is the myriad dharmas and the myriad dharmas are just the one — they interpenetrate and pervade without obstructing each other. (A Brief View of the Avatamsaka, a manuscript.)
The idea is demonstrated with one candle and ten mirrors.(See sample photo here.) The zero of the absence of inherent nature in the material candle is embodied in the one candle. The one candle is reflected in the ten mirrors while each of the ten mirrors further reflect ten more. The repetition occurs so that we see infinite candles.
I also offer ten theories and their analogies according to the Avatamsaka cosmology for possible scientific exploration:
1. The theory of totality. For instance, one drop of water in the ocean is replete with flavors from hundreds of streams.
2. The theory of transcending dimensions of space. For instance, a small television set can display what is happening in different parts of the world.
3. The theory of mutual accommodation. For instance, lights from a thousand lamps in a room interfuse.
4. The theory that the attributes of dharmas are just the inherent nature. For instance, waves and water cannot be apart from one another.
5. The theory of manifesting noumenon. For example, one individual can simultaneously be a son at home, a manager at work, and a parent at school without impeding one role over another.
6. The theory that the inherent nature of each phenomenon does not debilitate one another. For example, one Buddha may sit in a minute dust mote to turn the great Dharma wheel and establish the land of jeweled kings on the tip of his single hair.
7. The theory of inexhaustible nature. For example, the sheen of pearls referred to in the Indra’s Net metaphor intersect, making appear layers upon layers of reflections.
8. The theory of knowing autumn with one leaf. For example, casually pick an item or an event and see infinite Dharma Realms.
9. The theory of the nature that transcends time. For example, one flies through a hundred years in a night’s dream.
10. The theory of role reversals. For example, one Buddha emerges in the world and thousands of Buddhas guard that one Buddha.
It appears that most of the research on a core virtue being studied, compassion, measures some form of proactive giving, whether monetary donations or a helping hand. There may be more indicators of compassion for researchers to consider.
Mahayana Buddhism names the Ten Pāramitās as practices for Bodhisattavas, enlightened beings who wish to be compassionate to themselves and others, and these are:
1. Dāna pāramitā: generosity, giving of oneself
2. Śīla pāramitā : virtue, morality, discipline, proper conduct
3. Kṣānti pāramitā : patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
4. Vīrya pāramitā : energy, diligence, vigor, effort
5. Dhyāna pāramitā : one-pointed concentration, contemplation
6. Prajñā pāramitā : wisdom, insight
7. Upāya pāramitā: skillful means
8. Praṇidhāna pāramitā: vow, resolution, aspiration, determination
9. Bala pāramitā: spiritual power
10. Jñāna pāramitā: knowledge
Rendering these in more specific actions for contemporary observation, I consulted the Brahma Net Sutra’s prescription for Bodhisattvas. Here are a few indicators of compassion for consideration:
* Refrains from fault-finding, slandering, or gossiping about others.
* Accepts blame and endures humiliation and slander on behalf of others.
* Seeks conciliation and forgiveness humbly, rather than revenge.
* Counsels others to change for the better.
* Refrains from selling or storing deadly weapons.
* Promotes conflict resolution and peace.
* Maintains a vegetarian diet to reduce demand for slaughter.
* Cares for the elderly and the sick.
* Rescues the dying, including creatures large and small.
* Commits no arson.
* Leads with just use of authority, inspiration and service.
* Committed to help widely and for the long-term.
May this offering of random thoughts lead to the understanding and application of wisdom and compassion. May all beings be happy and at ease.