The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, February 4, 2012
Spirituality ...

At my zendo, I fill the role of the ‘science guy’. The majority of our sangha are either artists, therapists, teachers, or are at least hugely interested in arts and culture. I’m more interested in evolution and quantum physics. But we all like to sit quietly in meditation. And even during our discussion sessions, no one seems to object when I bring up something from the scientific perspective (thus far, anyway).

So, it seems to be my responsibility to verse myself in the literature regarding the connections and interplay between Eastern spiritual tradition and modern science. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a lot of good, thoughtful writings on that topic. There is of course Capra’s “Tao of Physics” and Lukav’s “Dancing Wu Li Masters”, but those seemed kind of mushy. They note the surface similarities between certain ancient Buddhist and Taoist doctrines and the wavy, abstract views of reality that science has developed over the past 80 years or so between relativity theory, quantum mechanics, chaos and fractal analysis, and the study of large on-going systems with their complexity, emergence and self-organization. But these authors beg the question as to whether the ancient sages were really on to something about the true nature of reality (and just how and why they gained such wisdom), or did they just get lucky in espousing a philosophy of life that worked in the world that they knew.

Not long ago, I got a recommendation from a sangha member who I greatly respect regarding the writings and thoughts of a Buddhist teacher named Wes Nisker. I checked out some of his videos and talks, and he seemed to say some insightful things. So I decided to invest a few dollars and some time in one of his books, i.e. “Buddha’s Nature: A Practical Guide to Discovering Your Place in the Cosmos”. I recently finished the book, and to be honest, Nisker turned out to be another dippy Buddhist wishful thinker. In “Buddha’s Nature”, Nisker focuses on modern evolutionary science and neurobiology. He zooms in on what they tell us about how our bodies and brains shape who we are and how the world looks to us.

Well, I’ve been interested in scientific and philosophic studies regarding the nature of human consciousness for quite a while now, so I was very hopeful that Nisker might have had something interesting to say. But I also hoped that he wouldn’t simply parrot the standard Buddhist doctrines and mix and match them with various scientific factoids so as to herald the triumph of the ancient teachers (and to vindicate those modern types like Nisker himself who have invested their lives into study of the ancient Eastern ways).

But of course, that is exactly what Nisker does in Buddha’s Nature. I made some notes on what he said, and I’ll share some of my reactions:

Nisker: “The Buddha’s Fourth Noble Truth is the most important one . . . because it tells us how to end our suffering.” Is Nisker really sure that we should “end our suffering”? I’m not a big fan of suffering (in fact, I do my darnest to avoid it!), but would a life devoid of all suffering really be worth anything? I see suffering and joy as two essential dynamic components in our lives, a yin and yang in the Taoist fashion (as I’ve said before, I am much more sympathetic to Taoist thought than Buddhism). A life of all suffering would be a broken life (and there are too many of those, admittedly); but on the other hand, no pain, no gain. Nisker and the Buddha say that suffering is ultimately a product of desire; so we need to eliminate desire. But without desire, what are we? Robots, machines? Too much desire is certainly a bad thing, but no desire is . . . basically dead!

Nisker: “It is very important . . to see the principle of karma, the fact that nothing arises independently of causes and conditions.” Ah yes, karma, that messy knot of ancient Buddhist magic and metaphysics that hundreds of modern gurus have tried to untangle (or sweep under the rug) through their wise words. So Nisker tried to explain it all as a matter of cause and effect, and what could be more scientific than that? Well fine, but if karma is ultimately a matter of cause and effect, then the Buddha is stuck in the 17th Century with Newton. Since the early 20th century, quantum physics has clearly established that reality, at its smallest level, is NOT completely about “causes and conditions”. So, perhaps Buddhism isn’t so modernist and post-Enlightenment after all?

Nisker on death: “Remember that death may come to you in an ordinary living moment . . . wouldn’t it be ironic if you were making some long-term plans or worrying over some trivial pursuit?” Ah yes, the usual Buddhist disdain for thinking ahead, for not simply enjoying the moment – all enjoyment, all the time. The end of suffering! Well, to be honest, that just doesn’t sound like life, human life anyway. I think that we humans were made to think ahead, to plan, to integrate the future in our everyday awareness.

Not that we shouldn’t sometimes just take a break and savor a beautiful situation, even if it’s just a nice warm cup of tea or a ray of orange sunlight at the end of an otherwise dreary day. But being human to me means believing in time and the future. This moment is great, but it becomes unbearably sad if we know there will be no more such moments. Is that what I want to know at the “hour of my death”? Do I want to die unbearably sad? I’d rather be planning and maybe even worrying a bit right up to the last breath. Once again, the Buddhist path to end suffering seems to offer nothing more than an eternal numbness. That seems to me the best description of what “Nirvana” means in the Buddhist lexicon (but admittedly, Nisker doesn’t weigh in on Nirvana).

More Nisker on death: “you might even try looking at the upbeat or brighter side of death . . . you will no longer have to work in order to pay for shelter or to feed and fuel this particular form.” That’s supposed to be amusing, I think (Nisker tries to be amusing in this book). But can you see what I’ve been saying? Buddhism seems so pessimistic about life, and offers nothing much more than numbness in its place, as an “end to suffering”. And Nisker just keeps on smiling in his unwavering defense of it. Just what we need, Wes Nisker’s Prayer for a Happy Death! Why is this so much better than the Catholic “Happy Death” that modern types scowl at?

Even more Nisker on death: “What a deep rest it will be! . . . we have nothing to fear from death but nothing – and nothing is the best thing that ever happens to us.” Hey, speak for yourself, buddy. I’m with Descartes on this one: I think, therefore I am. Again, Buddhism seems so pessimistic, despite all the beatific smiles and seeming profundity with which it is presented by proselytizers like Nisker.

Nisker on evolution: “some neuroscientists believe that we are not using the full neural capacity of our brain . . . perhaps evolution is planning ahead and the extra capacity means that we are in transition to another level of consciousness.” Whoa, now! Evolution, driven by the great roll of the biophysical dice, can “plan ahead”? And a Buddhist saying that evolution has some sort of consciousness behind it, a consciousness seeking to transition our own human consciousness to a ‘higher level’? What happened to all the Buddhist disdain for self, the great eastern wisdom that consciousness is an insubstantial ‘aggregate’?

Oh, yea, Nisker will get to that. But despite the fact that we have no selves and aren’t really conscious, Buddhist meditation moves our selves onward to greater levels of consciousness.

Nisker on emotions: “emotions are nothing more than the feelings associated with basic survival”. Hmm, Yogi Berra might like that one. Emotions are nothing more than feelings, and maybe vice versa. Got it?

Nisker: “[Buddhist] mindfulness allows us to see that persistent mind-states are not self-created . . our basic timidity or aggressiveness comes from some other life”. Some other life? Just what other life is that? This is modern science? That’s news to me.

Nisker: “regard your personality as a pet . . . give it a name and make friends with it.” This sounds a bit schizophrenic! Whatever happened to non-dualism and self-integration? Oh, that’s right, there is no self to integrate, according to the Buddha. Just an illusion. So whatever it is rattling around in our skulls making us — opps! sorry, there is no ‘us’ – making something think that it exists and think that it has a self and a personality, it might just as well separate that personality from whatever that rattling stuff is . . . Sorry, this is way too weird and dualistic for me.

Nisker: “consciousness is forever interfering . . . never leaving the psychic processes to grow in peace”. Oh, OK, so there IS some kind of consciousness, but it is a bad thing (like Mara, that evil spirit that the Buddha believed in but Nisker and his like don’t want to mention?). It interferes with “the psychic processes”. I guess that consciousness is not itself a “psychic process” in Nisker’s view. So, our bodies should have psychic processes, but no consciousness. These processes can then grow in peace. And consciousness should rest in peace. Once again, the Buddhist robot ontology and death wish come through.

Nisker: “All that we know of in nature is . . . empty or devoid of any ultimate selfhood. Quantum physics and evolutionary biology are modern scientific proof of that.” Oh, right, like the great quantum physicists like Bohr and Pauli and Heisenberg and Schrodinger wrote out proofs regarding ultimate selfhood. As though you can use a Feynman diagram to spell out the fallacy of selfhood. I tend to believe that evolutionary biology still has a lot of things to get to before weighing in on selfhood. Nisker doesn’t seem to know just what a “modern scientific proof” is, beyond his own hazy suspicion that quantum physics is something like something the Buddha once said. Wonderful thoughts to ponder over a few beers, but not something you take into the laboratory.

Nisker: “Realizing that the core of one’s being is not . . . [a] passing mental phenomenon . . . but rather this awareness itself . . .” Another Niskerism that makes sense if you don’t think about it. So, we don’t have true selves, but we do have “cores of being”, which equate to an awareness that this core is not a passing mental phenomenon. I guess this means that a core of being exists when something (who knows what) has an awareness that it is not a passing mental phenomenon. That awareness, which is a passing mental phenomenon itself, makes that “something” into a “core of being”. Again, sounds great after a few drinks . . . But does NOT sound much like hard science to me.

Since I’ve come this far, please allow me one more. Nisker: “In Buddhist teaching . . . mind-states of compassion and loving-kindness are not moral commandments, but rather an organic outgrowth of wisdom”. Oh, OK, so we humans don’t need morality, given that morality is usually imposed somehow by an authority of some kind. As with Occupy Wall Street (. . . and The Rest of the World, Until It Gets Too Cold Outside), Nisker and his Buddhist students don’t like authority. They like the idea that Buddhism will make us into a kinder and gentler society just by tapping into the wisdom that lies within each of us. It will simply take a few teachers like the Buddha and Nisker, and maybe the Occupy Wall Street organizers (what ever happened to them?) to get the rest of the world in synch with all this, and bingo! Paradise found. Utopia now.

Yes, well. Seems to me that this has all been tried before. Have these people ever heard of Karl Marx (OK, I can’t blame the Buddha for not knowing of Marx)? Do they know that these grand utopian schemes usually attract their Lenins, and given enough time and energy, eventually find their Stalins?

In his final chapter, Nisker says many things that I agree with. He wants to “offer you a larger context for your life . . . including the sun’s energy and your skeletal structure.” He believes in “sudden enlightenment”, but admits that such enlightenment, to have any impact, must endure “gradual cultivation”. He urges that we not live every day without some “appreciation for the air or the planet revolving beneath us”. He concludes that “we are all part of the same project”, on the same team in an “evolutionary sport”.

That is all quite beautiful. But I just don’t think that the pathway of doctrinaire Buddhism will lead the masses to the great enlightened world that Nisker envisions, whatever surface parallels it might have with certain findings from evolutionary science. I’m sure that Buddhism works for some people; in fact, I know some such people in my Zen sangha. But for me, classic Buddhism comes too close to negativity, nihilism and death to inspire the masses onward to better ways of being and being together. The Zen movement hasn’t had the guts to challenge this kind of Buddhism, but at least it asks some relevant questions. I wish that Nisker had done the same, in his quest for a better world.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:03 pm      

  1. Jim, Wow!. You really have given much thought to existence. And non-existence. My only comment is that I stumbled upon the writings of Roger Penrose,A professor of Physics at Oxford University in England when I was at Barnes and Noble in Morris Plains on Friday night. I hope you get to read his works. As to your writing, I will only say that I will have to reread Nisker’s comments. My take on Buddhist thought to date is that there is a world within which is vast and extensive and unimaginable. Freud called it the Royal Road to the unconscious. Words don’t capture it.The psychic wound is the door. The story is the coverup in my opinion. Cease desiring is the correct apprehension of it in my humble opinion.As for your comments, there is some anger there that needs to be seen for what it is on your part. Only a suggestion. I may be projecting, however, that is what the vast majority of human beings do on each other. The enlightened seem to catch themselves when they are projecting on others. To be empty and egoless is a challenge of challenge in an arrogant world that has to appear confident, and knowing and precise.. To find the presence of God, one must have a combination of self surrender and self discipline, combined with a sense of forgiveness toward oneself for being human and for other human beings for being human. As for the reality that we can be here today and gone tomorrow, I had the experience . as i may have told you, of being hit by a car and survived to tell about it. Smashed a front windshield and everything and walked away from it by the grace of God. When I was wheeled into the MRI for the head examination, I had a tremendous peace that I was blameless, and that if I was going to meet the Creator, He /She/It could have all of me. I signed my name to the insurance forms while laying strapped to the gurney like I was signing the Constitution. One year and a half later, I am still here, grateful to be here, yet cognizant that it all could be over in a flash.

    Comment by frank penotti — February 5, 2012 @ 3:43 pm

  2. I am continuing here in the hope that I can express my self appropriately. My hope is that I learn to practice the presence of God, with all of my lusts and misgivings and repressed anger at never being heard from my family of origin. The Italian mouths of mouths who seem to think they know everything about everything and really don’t know anything about anything. Oh the Italians who absolutely need to look good to cover up there fears and hostilities and their anger and their pride.
    So with that said, in all due realism, I find the experience of Buddhism to be a good fit for me. The only thing I need to say here is that I did not use my mind for many years as I was responding to years of obsessive intellectual speculation. I am only now learning to make distinctions between philosophies and people ….

    Comment by frank penotti — February 5, 2012 @ 3:51 pm

  3. Jim, Very good review of a book that it seems someone in your sanga recommended as showing the link(s?) / relationship / connections (hope one of those fits) between Buddhism and science. Am I wrong about this? I think I’ve got it right.

    What I particularly like about your review is that, instead of saying Nisker doesn’t live up to what the person who recommended the book promised and letting it go at that, you mention specifically five or six (depending how one might break up the topics) points where he offers inspiration instead of science. I’m not sure if the problem is Nisker himself or perhaps the person who recommended the book (no disrespect intended here at all) who is not aware of what you specifically mean by “science”.

    But there seems no doubt whatsoever that inspiration is exactly what Nisker is offering up—as so many of today’s preachers, teachers, TV personalities tend to do, i.e., offer inspiration, which tends to be less grounded in any real study of any kind, be it science, theology, or just plain knowledge of a religion or a philosophy.

    It does seem to me that nowadays people are content somehow with inspiration; less work involved, seems to me. Having spent 36 years teaching (and having retired 19 years ago), I’ve tho’t then and still do now that illiteracy is rampant in the land.

    It seems to me that for one to get someone who could write about science and any religion/philosophy, that person must be both a scientist and a theologian/philosopher him/herself. One person I can think of, who was both, was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Writing as far back as the beginning of the 20th century, he attempted just exactly that—to show how religion (specifically the Roman Catholic religion in his case) and science merged; and he did it beautifully. I have not yet heard of anyone else who has come close to what he did in regard to an attempt at merging two such diverse areas of thought.

    I cannot agree with the previous commenter that you are showing anger—well, perhaps just a tad? Or is it that, when you get involved in proving a point, it seems like you are angry? But, if there were any anger involved, I did not find any that was really serious.

    Rather I think, having the good grasp of both science and Buddhism that you have, it perhaps annoys you that inspiration is substituted for science. I must say I agree with you 100% on that point. I actually had a student one time approach me, asking for guidance on what she hoped would be a way to make a living. She wanted to call what she was doing “philosophy” and said she was interested in further philosophical study. I proposed a suggestion for a course of study, which she promptly indicated was not what she really was looking for. After some further explanation on her part, I said, well, I think you are mistaken in using the word “philosophy”; what you are trying to do is called inspiration. She was most happy at having found that word because now she had a name for what she proposed doing that would bring in some money for her work. Philosophy mistaken for inspiration.

    For a while I tended to think that de Chardin’s concept of a noosphere (a layer of intelligence that would gradually grow and circle the earth somewhat like the various layers of atmosphere circle the earth) had its beginnings in the Internet. Sadly, I have become disabused of that tho’t. It does seem to me that nowadays people tend to think that their slightest opinion “matters” somehow, is “important” somehow; yet they forget (or maybe never even knew) that an opinion must be based on some careful study, knowledge, understanding of the topic, rather than simply what *they* “think”.

    Furthermore, again with all due respect, I do think that some people tend to confuse disagreeing with a particular author of a particular book with a criticism of what works for them.

    Lastly, I like very much that you point out that the Zen movement, though it may have its own particular shortcomings, does “ask some relevant questions.” And in the end isn’t that what we all ultimately are seeking, though we may not know it: relevant questions so that we can search for the answers to them. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — February 5, 2012 @ 8:05 pm

  4. Frank, thanks again for your comments and for sharing quite deeply of your own life and your important experiences, on your path to greater wisdom and realization. I very much appreciate your taking the time, first off to read all my words (too many, no doubt!), and then take them seriously. And furthermore, to reflect on what Mr. Nisker and I myself are getting at, within the matrix of our own struggles toward greater authenticity.

    I’m sorry if I seemed a bit harsh, maybe I am a bit of a stickler for scientific and logical precision. But as long as we keep trying to go upward on the mountain of wisdom, we’re all on the right path, no matter how different and twisted (and even contradictory) those various pathways may seem along the way.

    As an amateur hiker, I know that some paths go down for a while in order to find the right way up. So yes, perhaps I’m calling Mr. Nisker out for seeming to be headed downward along the scientific path, even though it is clear that he is trying to find a more holistic experience of being. And yes, his own dips (thus my term “Dippy Buddhism”) may be necessary due to the rough landscape of reality. I certainly march in the wrong direction many days myself!!

    Comment by Jim G — February 6, 2012 @ 7:22 pm

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