Sunday, April 29, 2012

Organizations and Buddhism

I DO want to briefly mention the tie-together of a few recent posts. Warner's rescinding his Dogen Sangha.  Barbara's kinda sorta China bashing over the Dalai Lama again. (Also see here.)  And Danny Fisher's happy as a clam that "Dharmic religions" gets their day in the sun at a White House -sponsored "faith-based" yadda yadda yadda.

These posts are all related to each other by some odd confluences of organizations (and in the latter two, government organizations) and Buddhism.  But Warner's is related too, as his is about a Buddhist organization or lack of one  thereof, to be more to the point. 

Barbara's critiquing China's meddling in a traditionally avowed theocratic organization, namely that of Tibetan Buddhism.  Danny Fisher is pleased that the government is meddling with Dharmic religions enough to recognize them, patronize them at the White House and so forth. And Warner's happy that he extinguished an organization before it had a crib.

To be fair to Danny Fisher, he'd be among the first to critique China too.

But I've a point in putting these all together: Lots of Western Buddhists bash China when it suits them for their preconceived political notions about a "Free" "Tibet" and all that, but they bash the US government when it doesn't positively patronize Buddhists.  And I put Warner in there 'cause he's kind of a too-cool for all that guy in his position of refusing all organization, but that's kind of impotent in my view.

Organizations are like knives; they are neutral morally. Patronage or oppression is the same way; it's the circumstances in which they're used that imbue them with a morality or lack thereof.  Nobody objects on moral grounds  if La Cosa Nostra is oppressed, except for some folks whose relations can be reliably traced back to the Old Country.

On the other hand, if you're going to accept patronage from a government, then it's only natural for there to be some kind of "organizational deformation" in response to that patronage; it's always been the case throughout human history.  And that deformation is a threat to the ethical soundness of a religious institution; of that there can be no doubt. Furthermore,  I'd also submit that Warner's position of removing the organization altogether is itself questionable, as it aborts the possibility of an organization to do any good.

I just think there's a great deal of hypocrisy presented as some kind of moral purity in the way many folks view state interaction with religion. States will interact with religion for their own political reasons. The US does it as well as China. Both lead to both benefits and morally questionable activities.  And religious organizations have similar issues.

The illusion of free will and its utter irrelevance

I like Brad Warner's Zen, despite its Soto flavor.  And I'm sure when his god book comes out, I'll probably read it and rip it to shreds - or not- I might not really; he and I might just come down on the same side of things with just each of using using more unfortunate language than the next person.

This post though is about a comment he makes on his blog entry on his return to California:

Sam Harris is a pretty convincing speaker, isn't he? I plan to watch that entire video soon. But I watched about a minute of it & it seems pretty clear where he's going.

The problem is it's all up in the head. This is what trips up people like Harris. They are far too clever for their own good. They can convince themselves of anything they choose to because their brains are so sharp and efficient.

I actually LIKE Sam Harris' stuff. So don't get me wrong here. Among his crowd of self-satisfied über atheists, he's definitely the best. Richard Dawkins has nothing on Sam Harris.

The best koan I know of that addresses the issue is the one about the guy who stubs his toe and says, "I had heard that the body is an illusion, where does this pain come from?"

It's a slightly different angle on the same problem. "I had heard (from Sam Harris) that freedom of choice is an illusion. Where does this freedom of choice come from?"

Nishijima Roshi always said that determinism and free will are both true. It depends on which angle you look at things from.

Thoughts may be conditioned. But that doesn't negate freedom of action. This is something you see through actual experience, though. Not through thinking.  

First of all, I think Warner's language in dismissing the so-called New Atheists is, yes, unfortunately chosen.

Can a speaker be convincing?  Or are the speaker's ideas, conveyed in the manner in which the speaker chooses convincing? Get it? Warner's language has embedded in it some kind of guru rejection which posits a "New Atheist guru" which  just isn't there in any of the New Atheist writings.   I don't find Warner's words here convincing at all. But not just for that area of his comment, though his dismissive use of the term "self-satisfied über atheists" does nothing to help his case.  Look, many religious folks are going to find New Atheist writings stridently attacking their sacred cows; I'll stipulate to that point.   But given the asymmetry of the playing field, as its been for thousands of years, and given folks like even Brad Warner responding as above, I can't hardly blame them.  Sure they largely don't attack Buddhism, and when  they do it's uninformed.  I'll stipulate to that point, too. But when we have a discussion together, any rationalist atheist is the easiest person in the world with whom a Buddhist can come to agreement. Period. Full stop. In fact, I'd rather spend eternity in the company of New Atheists than I would in the company of someone who gets all touchy-feely about how all religions are one and all that.

If you see my comment below Warner's, though you get to the meat of my objection with this passage. 

We're highly conditioned creatures. as the posts (here and here) indicate with regard to our views and beliefs of death alone. It's been good for our survival to have characteristics like this, and the conditioning to perceive the world as though there were an "I" with "free will" is another biological/social evolutionary trait we have had. 

There is, from  a systems theoretic, behavioral scientific, or Buddhist perspective, no reason at all why there is the necessity of considering that we have a "free will." We seem to perceive ourselves as separate selves with autonomous agency, to be sure, but that's not the same thing as saying we have autonomous agency.

One objection that one might lamely try to bring against this is that people, and Buddhists especially, are prone to develop and improve and cultivate skill. Of course that's true.  But so what? Beings such as us with perceived autonomous agency wouldn't perceive it any other way. In fact if there were a separate self with such autonomous agency it would make the cultivation of skill more difficult, as you can "get" from cultivation of the Buddhist Dharma.

But  that might not be the ultimate objection of Brad Warner (or maybe Nishijima).  That, rather may go like this: if the notion of "self" is inherently empty, with no intrinsic essence, the notion of a  "free will" attribute of this inherently empty self  is also inherently empty.  

But that's not the same thing; it's a kind of category mistake if  they're  going there, and I admit I don't know if that's where they're going.  "Free will" is an attribute applied to certain beings; it is an ideal in the way its advocates apply it, but only imperfectly realized, if at all,  because of the obvious fact of habit.  But that last sentence, to me, at any rate, implies that Occam's razor can be applied, especially given the fact that we improve by suspending such notions, except insofar as we think by practice we improve.  But that thought-position-action doesn't imply the grander philosophical notion; the latter is utterly unimportant as long as there's the former.  That former is assumed axiomatic in Buddhism and its writings; the latter, though, I can't think of something that leaps out at me at the moment that justifies a Western philosophical notion of free will.

I won't be surprised if someone else brings up another Buddhist position on this and cites myriad sutras to back up their position, but I just don't think the Big Question is all that important.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Google Buddhism

I'm a bit ambivalent about this guy at Google and his mindfulness courses.  I mean, yeah, of course, do it and all that.  And much of what's said here is quite apt. may be that “people love that entrepreneur/mystic thing,” but  the rubber meets the road and the metaphors mix in the aspects of  day - to - day practice  amdist the mundane events transpiring in every kitchen where there's that homicidal bitchin' to determine who will serve and who will eat.

  • Why not just call it Buddhist Buddhism Buddhism course?
  • Why does it have to be done at Google to attract the media's attention?
  • There's so much else that's not being gotten to here.

P.Z. Myers responds on NDEs...

It's also on Salon. Myers is almost certainly right...the counters given in his references (check out the timeline on on the "brain dead in the operating room" case.)

Still,  Buddha nature does pervade the universe.  It just does it in ways that aren't woo-filled.  That is, as I wrote last week, an experience of  change of awareness and acceptance of all that we are, all the muck and goo and anger and weakness and vulnerability - that can be employed as a force for the good, far more powerfully than reading about the NDE of someone else.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Near Death Experiences May or May Not Have Purely Naturalist Explanations

Materialistic scientists have proposed a number of physiological explanations to account for the various features of NDEs. British psychologist Susan Blackmore has propounded the “dying brain” hypothesis: that a lack of oxygen (or anoxia) during the dying process might induce abnormal firing of neurons in brain areas responsible for vision, and that such an abnormal firing would lead to the illusion of seeing a bright light at the end of a dark tunnel.
Would it?  [ NDE researcher Pim] van Lommel and colleagues objected that if anoxia plays a central role in the production of NDEs, most cardiac arrest patients would report an NDE. Studies show that this is clearly not the case. Another problem with this view is that reports of a tunnel are absent from several accounts of NDErs. As pointed out by renowned NDE researcher Sam Parnia, some individuals have reported an NDE when they had not been terminally ill and so would have had normal levels of oxygen in their brains.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this, though I would expect that there would be some physical (chemical/electrical/mechanical)  trace of the NDE - that is, if someone remembers an NDE it should do so by an observable change in their brains post facto.   I expect that the cessation of metabolic (and hence chemical/electrical/mechanical) processes should, as a physical process itself, be a closed system. 

And it well might be, and be the case that consciousness is not entirely contained in neural areas. 

It goes without saying the parallels to Buddhist concepts are potentially profound - Buddha nature evidently does pervade the universe, and not as some kind of faint hope either. 

More to the point,  - or changing direction of this post somewhat -  the change of awareness and acceptance of all that we are, all the muck and goo and anger and weakness and vulnerability - that can be employed as a force for the good, far more powerfully than reading about the NDE of someone else.  I had to go an extra few feet for someone yesterday.    The person had some problems in life I have been fortunate enough to avoid, or perhaps I'd experienced them in different ways.  I didn't at first know why it was important for me to do what I did, but I think it was because it was a great way to acknowledge and say "no" to all the crap we'd all experienced in life.  I was listening to a talk from Genjo Marinello the other day on resoluteness in practice.  I think you need a smidgen of something with excitement that feels a little like anger to cultivate that resolution. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Awareness and...?

I may have more to say yet on life, death, and the internet of things. But this post is about awareness. And maybe a bit about the internet of things.  I came across an article about awareness and its continuum a few days ago but was too engaged at the time to blog about it here.

One problem is that the word has more than one meaning. Trying to plumb the nature of self-awareness or self-consciousness leads down one infamous rabbit hole. But what if the subject is simply the difference in brain activity between being conscious and being unconscious?

 I think we Zen folk actually focus more on the issue of not so much the nature of awareness but in our practice of being aware. 

In studies using anesthesia, the paralytic effects of drugs used during surgery were blocked from one forearm, and then attempts were made to communicate with the patient. Dr. Alkire wrote, “Patients under general anesthesia can sometimes carry on a conversation using hand signals, but postoperatively, they deny ever being awake. Thus, retrospective oblivion is no proof of unconsciousness.”
The recent research by Dr. Scheinin and Dr. Langsjo and colleagues, including Dr. Alkire, looked for proof of consciousness. The researchers used brain scans in combination with two drugs, propofol, which helped cause the death of Michael Jackson, and another anesthetic drug, the many-syllabled dexmedetomidine.
The standard measure of unconsciousness is that a subject or patient does not respond to commands. By that standard, when a subject responds, he’s conscious. What makes dexmedetomidine an ideal drug is that people who are completely under can be brought back from oblivion by gentle shaking and loud speaking, even if they are still on the regular dose of the anesthetic.
In Dr. Scheinin’s study, when unconscious subjects on this drug were told to open their eyes, they responded. Then most of them drifted back into apparent unconsciousness, without their brain’s neocortex turning on. Only the brainstem, the thalamus and one part of the cortex were active.
The subjects under propofol were not waked up, but as the drug was withdrawn, the pattern of their awakening fit well with the other data.
Questions remain. What level of consciousness exists without the neocortex? Does this mean the subjects understood what was happening with more primitive brain regions?

 It's may be even more complicated than that, since the above is detailing a particular response to a verbal command.   The issues raised here - and the issue of memory and its determinant of awareness means that in terms of science and technology, we simply do not understand yet the ways in which our own biology is related yet to awareness and really memory.  We're just beginning to get ideas on these fronts, as well as the idea of what it means for the awareness of self as self to exist biologically.   It's partly why I cringe when I see people going woo about the internet of things, technology, etc. and putting some kind of metaphysical spin on them.   They misuse science's purpose, or misunderstand it, or don't care. 

Now don't get me wrong - technology is certainly influencing our biology in terms of our diets, our modes of transportation, and such.  The ubiquity of computing, memory, and  communications devices is no doubt contributing to an atrophy of our own cognitive and expressive skills.  But that's not anywhere near saying that my iPhone is primitively aware of anything.  Hell, I don't know what else can be aware of anything, strictly speaking.