Thursday, September 23, 2010

Modern neuroscience and Buddha nature and the "god concept"

What do recent results in neuroscience portend for some Buddhist ideas, particularly the Mahayana concept of the Dharmakaya?

... Our brains create an illusion of unity and control where there really isn’t any. Within the wide range of works arranged along the axis of soulism [i.e., belief in a separate individual "soul" and a separate "mind" as used in this article], from Life After Death: The Evidence, by Dinesh D’Souza, to Absence of Mind, by Marilynne Robinson, it is clear there is very little understanding of the brain. In fact, to advance their ideas, these authors have to be almost completely unaware of neurology and neuroscience.  For example, Robinson tells us, “Our religious traditions give us as the name of God two deeply mysterious words, one deeply mysterious utterance: I AM.” The translation might be, “indoctrination tells us we have a soul, it feels like we are a unified little god in control of our bodies, so we are.” 
In explaining why science suggests that the unified mind is illusory, there are thousands of supporting cases and experiments to choose from, but let’s take one case from the Emergency Room.
After eating dinner with her husband, Mrs. Blanford collapsed. She could not move the left side of her body. I met Mrs. Blanford soon afterwards: Her speech was normal, but she couldn’t see objects to her left, and she couldn’t move or feel the left side of her face, or her left arm or leg. Mrs. Blanford was suffering a stroke.

An interesting thing happened when I brought her left arm up across her face so she could see it. I asked, as I always ask such patients, “Whose arm is this?”
“That is your arm.”
“Then why am I wearing your ring?” I pointed to her wedding band.
“That wedding band belongs on the arm of Mrs. Blanford.”
“So whose arm is this?”
“That is your arm.”

How can we explain this? Given that we find neglect soon after right-brain damage, we are best served by adopting a neurological point of view. To do so, we need to understand a bit about how the brain works. In general, and in the broadest strokes, the brain is divided into two hemispheres. The left hemisphere processes speech and the motor and sensory information for the right side of the world. The right hemisphere processes nonverbal information and representations from the left side. This particular stroke rendered Mrs. Blanford’s right hemisphere dysfunctional, unable to process anything from the left side of her world. It is not the left hemisphere’s job to recognize the left arm, and the left hemisphere can’t immediately step in to do that task. To the left brain, the left side of the body essentially does not exist. The right brain has failed, not only to process arm information, but failed to let the left hemisphere know it failed.
For Mrs. Blanford, it isn’t only that her left brain can’t do the right brain’s task. The left hemisphere also can’t recognize that there is missing data, or that there is something wrong with the data it receives. It has to use the data it has, so the left hemisphere comes up with confabulations, creating verbal fabrications to explain away missing information. In this case the confabulation becomes, “That is your arm, not mine.” Although easy to falsify, the idea is internally consistent, makes some sense of the scrambled internal data, and feels correct. The injured brain creates a confabulation to maintain a unity of self and a feeling of control. We find a brain convincing itself of something that feels right, but isn’t.
A neglect case only makes sense if you consider each hemisphere as its own separate entity. We see that when a stroke damages the right brain just so, the mind follows as a result. It is expected, to be compared with the unplugging of a mouse resulting in a frozen cursor.
Clearly this comports with the Buddhist expectations in regard to the "soul," as well as the experience of many during meditation.

But what of the "god concept" in Buddhism? We say "Buddha nature pervades the whole universe." Is this a falsifiable claim?  

Shaku Soen via D.T. Suzuki maintained,

One of the most fundamental beliefs of Buddhism is that all the multitudinous and multifarious phenomena in the universe start from, and have their being in, one reality which itself has "no fixed abode," being above spatial and temporal limitations. However different and separate and irreducible things may appear to the senses, the most profound law of the human mind declares that they are all one in their hidden nature. In this world of relativity, or nânâtva as Buddhists call it, subject and object, thought and nature, are separate and distinct, and as far as our sense-experience goes, there is an impassable chasm between the two which no amount of philosophizing can bridge. But the very constitution of the mind demands a unifying principle which is an indispensable hypothesis for our conception of phenomenality; and this
hypothesis is called "the gate of sameness," samatâ, in contradistinction to "the gate of difference," nânâtva; and Buddhism declares that no philosophy or religion is satisfactory which does not recognize these two gates. In some measure the "gate of sameness" may be considered to correspond to "God" and the "gate of difference" to the world of individual existence.
Now, the question is, "How does Buddhism conceive the relation between these two entrances to the abode of Supreme Knowledge (sambodhi)?" And the answer to this decides the Buddhist attitude towards pantheism, theism, atheism, and what not...

Thus, according to the proclamation of an enlightened mind, God or the principle of sameness is not transcendent, but immanent in the universe, and we sentient beings are manifesting the divine glory just as much as the lilies of the field. A God who, keeping aloof from his creations, sends down his words of command through specially favored personages, is rejected by Buddhists as against the constitution of human
reason. God must be in us, who are made in his likeness. We cannot presume the duality of God and the world. Religion is not to go to God by forsaking the world, but to find him in it. Our faith is to believe in our essential oneness with him, and not in our sensual separateness. "God in us and we in him," must be made the most fundamental faith of all religion.
We must not, however, suppose that God is no more than the sum-total of individual existences. God exists even when all creations have been destroyed and reduced to a state of chaotic barrenness. God exists eternally, and he will create another universe out of the ruins of this one. To our limited intelligence there may be a beginning and an end of the worlds, but as God surveys them, being and becoming are one selfsame process. To him nothing changes, or, to state it rather paradoxically, he sees no change whatever in all the changes we have around us; all things are absolutely quiet in their eternal cycle of birth and death, growth and decay, combination and disintegration. This universe cannot exist outside of God, but God is more than the totality of individual existences; God is here as well as there, God is not only this but also that.

If there is one thing we read over and over and over in the Lankavatara Sutra, it's that these categorizations are themselves not quite where Buddha is, and I cannot help but think some of this was written by Suzuki and Soyen Roshi as a means to try to "explain" Buddhism in Christian terms much the same way that Christian missionaries  tried to explain Christianity in Buddhist terms.

As I mentioned before, Buddhists do not make use of the term God, which characteristically belongs to Christian terminology. An equivalent most commonly used is Dharmakâya, which word has been explained in one of the sermons herein collected, and it will not be necessary to enter again upon the discussion of its signification. Let us only see what other equivalents have been adopted.
When the Dharmakâya is most concretely conceived it becomes the Buddha, or Tathâgata, or Vairochana, or Amitâbha. Buddha means "the enlightened," and this may be understood to correspond to "God is wisdom." Vairochana is "coming from the sun," and Amitâbha, "infinite light," which reminds us of the Christian notion, "God is light." As to the correct meaning of Tathâgata, Buddhists do not give any definite and satisfactory explanation, and it is usually considered to be the combination of tathâ = "thus" and gata = "gone," but it is difficult to find out how "Thus Gone" came to be an appellation of the supreme being.

 I would submit that the attempt to make a correspondence between a monotheist deity and the Tathâgata is bound to fail quite early.  I can understand the difficulty my ancestors had in describing this particularly before the advent of modern existentialism and critical theory, which are better frameworks for making metaphors to Buddhism.  I just don't see support for these notions elsewhere in Buddhist literature, though I'm open to exploration, with a skeptical, doubtful  stance.

So I think the recent findings in neuroscience in no way, as I see it, are relevant or threaten to falsify the relation between the Absolute and the Relative.  They seem to buttress Buddhist views on this; only the idea that one can easily harmonize a creating personal deity with Buddhism is getting harder, I think.


chee family said...

the writer seem to have this notion that the Buddha, Tathâgata, Vairochana and Amitâbha are 4 different entities...but its like saying:' there are two items in this room, a chair and a furniture'

Anonymous said...

Sorry for my bad english. Thank you so much for your good post. Your post helped me in my college assignment, If you can provide me more details please email me.