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Saturday, April 30, 2022

Understanding of Human Mind in Buddhist Teachings

 “A cloud never dies” is the name of a documentary on the life of Venerable Thich Naht Hanh narrated by Mr. Peter Coyote. Watching it was a moving experience since I have been in the presence of “Thay” on  two occasions for extended periods listening to his Dharma talks and taking part in his morning walking meditation on two occasions.

Reflecting on my own growth in spirituality, I know how much his teachings helped me. I consider him Buddha reborn in the 20th century to re-establish the original teachings. “Thay” calls his approach “engaged Buddhism”. It is a perfect designation.

I consider myself a spiritual person at this stage in life. I was born and brought up in a traditional Hindu family immersed in the daily rituals of worshiping the Divine in everything. I have delved deeply into my tradition. I have also read extensively about other traditions from both the east and the west. I am no scholar. But have reflected deeply looking for common  threads, and messages of peace, and harmony in the various traditions of the world.

Based on my readings and reflections, it appears that Buddhist tradition is one which places emphasis on living a wholesome life in this phenomenal world and at the same time makes us aware of the spiritual dimension of the universe and of ourselves. It emphasizes respect for all forms of life. Buddhist psychology (called abhidharma)  tries to understand the way human mind works. These ancient ideas have been substantiated by modern neuroscience to the point that Buddha is now called the “Physician of the Mind”.

Buddhist meditation techniques offer practical methods, simple to practice and accessible to everyone. One can use it for body relaxation or pain reduction. One can use it for understanding oneself and others and develop compassion and loving-kindness. One can use these techniques to make connections between the historical elements and the Universal elements. It can help overcome the pitfalls in human perceptions, reasoning, and actions without demanding absolute faith in any dogma, even its own.

One other attractive and useful approach of  Buddhism-inspired meditation (particularly the Mindfulness idea) is that it starts with helping to build on one’s strengths before touching the weaknesses. This is the opposite of the approach of traditional psychology and psychiatry, which focuses on the “problem” area, trying to find its cause in the psychology and behavior of the individual.

In Buddhist abhidharma, we learn that all of us are born with 51 mental formations. Some of them are wholesome and helpful, such as loving kindness, compassion, and mindfulness.  Some are unwholesome and harmful, such as hate and prejudice. All of us have all of them in our “store consciousness” as seeds. We have to learn how to water the “good” seeds. Meditation techniques have been developed and practiced over centuries to help “water the good seeds” in us.

Because of the reasons I have listed in the previous paragraph, these ideas can be practiced by anyone from any religion, tradition, or culture. Hopefully the abhidharma (spiritual psychology) of Buddhist teachings which should be acceptable to all cultures and traditions can become the foundation for peace and harmony in the 21st century.  

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Antahkarana, The Inner Organ of Awareness and Mindfulness Meditation

 मनो बुद्धिरहङ्कार- श्चित्तं करणमान्तरम् । संशयो निश्चयो गर्वः स्मरणं विषया इमे ॥ अन्तःकरणं त्रिविधम्

This is a definition of our inner organ of awareness called antahkarana (अन्तःकरणं )in Indian philosophy. What an amazing understanding of our mental functions, expressed in so few words, centuries ago!

This “non-physical” organ of the mind called antahkarana has four components, and they are listed with their corresponding functions  in this sloka (or better called sutra since it is an aphorism, packing lots of information in a few words).

First is manas (मनो) whose function is doubt (संशयो); desires and feelings also belong here.

Second is buddhi (बुद्धि), is intellect including reasoning, judgement and therefore certainty/conclusion निश्चयो.

Third is ahankara (अहङ्कार) or ego whose function is ownership (I, me, and mine)indicated by the word गर्वः

Fourth is chittha (चित्तं) which stands for will, mood, memory (स्मरणं) etc., which drives action.

What is antahkarana? (अन्तःकरणं)  It is a psychological component of the physiological mind. It is subject to changes and fluctuations resulting in different perceptions at different times. Even if perceptions are proper, it can falsely attribute properties to the objects of perception, resulting in illusions and wrong conclusions. It is also the repository of virtues and vices of the evolved mental functions and pleasure and pain experienced in the body and  of fear and desire in the field of basic emotions.

But how is antahkarana aware of all these states? What is the ground on which these become evident? What is the screen on which the movie is projected? That “ground” is the object of spiritual quest. It is, however, the subject itself! “The seeker is the sought” says the Vedas. 

When understood from the point of view of modern neurosciences, manas indicates functions of the basal parts of the brain which react to desires, fear, anger etc. We call it the reptilian brain. Buddhi corresponds to the higher cortical functions of the brain called the executive functions. This is the function of the neo-cortex or the newly arrived brain. Ahankara corresponds to the insular cortex and other medial parts of the cortex of the brain connecting all the sensations as belonging to one’s body requiring action. It is the ego, personal self. Chittha corresponds to higher functions making one’s decision and eliciting a will to act based on memory, mood, and judgement.

Neuroscience tells us that our primitive, reptilian brain registers the emotions related to events and sensations and is made for the organism to survive. It is reflexive in nature. The middle brain, which is present in all mammals and birds, is where internal and external sensations are always relayed through and remembered. These parts function to store and retrieve memory to explore, learn, to seek food or a mate or avoid dangers, based on prior experience. The inner surface of the brain and the front end have centers involved in registering all the inner and outer sensation as belonging to this body which experiences them, helps make sense of them, and help take a perspective of the surroundings and of other people. Finally comes the areas of the brain doing the highest functions of the brain in judging, prioritizing, planning, and executing.

It is very interesting that modern neuroscience shows that the emotional brain and the executive brain do not have direct communication lines. However, the “emotional brain” and the “ownership brain” do. They exchange information. The only way the emotional brain can be controlled is through the “ownership brain”.  Therefore, all the perceptions, external and internal, are by nature constructed to act quickly, since that is the “survival” mode. For a thoughtful response the message has to go through the “ownership” part which then can request orders from the “executive brain”!

Hope this shows how mindful meditation methods help to make these connections. In mindful meditation we are asked to accept the feelings, emotions, and sensations without judging, without clinging or ignoring, owning them and looking at them deeply (vipassana).  By accepting them and owning them we can bring helpful communication between the executive, reflective part of our mind with the reflexive, emotional part of it.

Buddhism is practical and helps to learn how to live with peace and harmony – with oneself, with the outside world and with nature. It shows how our life is shaped in this world by causes and conditions, how we ourselves are responsible for creating those conditions by our actions, and how our mind creates its own ideas about others and the world based on our emotions, beliefs, bias, and dogmas. It teaches how look deeply and see how we are trapped in our habitual reflexive responses and how we can step out of these automatic, unwholesome responses to actions based on reflective thinking and understanding.

This is mind-training. It is neuroplasticity in modern terminology with strong empirical support. At present we use mindfulness practices mainly to reduce stress, relax muscles, relieve pain and anxiety and practical living, behavioral modification, and general well-being. But this takes care of only the body and the mind.

We can and we  must go further and use it for spiritual enlightenment also.

  


Saturday, April 23, 2022

Starting point for inward journey - atma vicara

  When reading and thinking about atma gnana – realization of our inner self – the following ideas emerged.

The basic premise behind the Vedic Hindu and the Buddhist philosophies is a simple one. All of us want to be happy and avoid suffering. That is just impossible because life is a mixture of happiness and suffering. That is the reality.

If we want to experience never-ending or eternal happiness, there are only two ways.

 One is to imagine another world where conditions for happiness are always present. This is what we call svarga or heaven. We can do the right things (punyam) and be a virtuous human being so we can get there. There are two problems though. One is that conditions for happiness such as milk, honey, wish-fulfilling trees (kalpaka vriksham) and wealth-yielding cows (kamadhenu) are said to be there. But our stay in heaven/svarga as the experiencer is short-lived. It will end as soon as we draw down from our account of good deeds in this world. We have to return to the earth according to this concept of heaven.

The other problem is that no one knows for sure there is a place called heaven. As my mother once remarked: “No one who got there has come down to tell us about it”.

We can take this course only on faith. Faith is a good thing.

The other method for continuous happiness, or at least freedom from suffering is through inward journey. That is the path of atma gnana, realization of our inner self. This is available here and in the now – during this life. This is what Buddha, Adi Sankara and Ramana Maharishi kept saying.

When Adi Sankara says: “tat brahma nishkala aham, na bootha sanghaha” (I am that eternal blemishless Self, not this aggregate of elements) and when Ramana Maharishi asks “naan yar?” (Who am I?), they are not saying “I am not this body” but saying that “I am not JUST this body”.

That is meant to become a starting point for meditation on the atman/brahman or the Inner Spiritual Self. 

 

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

What is complete knowledge

 To be able to assert that my knowledge about some subject is complete, that knowledge must have been acquired by my body, mind, and spirit. It must be verified by logic, emotions, and ethics.

To know anything in its entirety, one must know about the knowledge, knower and the known, says Vedic teachings. Western philosophers say that you can have complete knowledge of a thing only if you can know that thing with the body, mind, emotions, and the spirit.

I wish to add that you have to know “it” (the object of knowledge) from both inside and outside. How can I get a perfect understanding and knowledge of the Universe when I can never look at it and experience it from outside? On the other hand, I do have a better understanding of this planet, since I can get a glimpse of how the earth looks like from space even though not by my own eyes. I can definitely see that the national boundaries are our creations. They just do not exist in ultimate reality, although they are realities of life on this planet. 

You can know the knower through reflections and insight if the knower is oneself. What if the knower is someone else? How can you know that knower unless you can get into that person’s world from inside that knower?  How can you know how a bat experiences the world unless you can get into it, live upside down in dark caves, and experience “what does it feel to be bat” as pointed out by Thomas Nagel?

One can know the “known” only by experiencing the real world in its “suchness” (a thing as is and not as perceived) says Buddhism.

 

Friday, April 15, 2022

Real Time and Potential Time - An important addendum

 

I wrote the piece on real and potential time a few days back and posted it today. It is amazing that I did not know that a whole book is being published on this topic this year. The title of the book is: Out of Time: A philosophical study of Timelessness and is written by Samuel Baron, Kristie Miller and Jonathan Tallant. It is published by the Oxford University Press.

A summary of this book was just published yesterday (April 14, 2022) written by one of the authors, Samuel Baron in The Conversation and is also available at Phys.org under the title: Time might not exist according to physicists and philosophers – but that is okay. (Time might not exist, according to physicists and philosophers, but that's okay)

Of course, these authors are scientists (physics, I think). Their book is based on analysis of available facts. My idea is pure intuition. I am not a physicist or cosmologist. My idea is not based on any scientific analysis. It is pure intuition, looking at the universe like our ancient rishis did, like a child, with awe and innocence. 


Real Time and Potential Time

 Today’s reflection (deep looking) was on cause and effect, antecedent and subsequent, potential and manifest. All these concepts of awareness operate in time. They lead to one THING or to one EVENT and to another thing or event.

If time was not always an entity, before TIME came into the equation, what was there “before”? In this vast unmeasurable universe, maybe TIME is also potential, not actual. It shows its head only when something moves from one place to another or one thing changes to another! The first involves moving through space and in the second the thing is stationary but the form changes.

In other words, movement in space and changes in form shows us, the observers, passage of time. An observer becomes a necessary requirement for time to be perceived.

If there is no movement, or if there is no change in the form or if there is no observer what happens?

Time is there, but just as a potential. It appears to be real and of consequence because of us observers and experiencers.

This is the same for matter, energy, and information too. They can all be manifest or potential. Since time and space are intertwined, is Space the only constant?

Did our ancestors know this in their intuition? Is that why Vedic philosophy considers Space (dahara akasha) as the first of five principles? It is “Knowledge-Space or Ether of the Heart”, according to one dictionary. That Space is in our hearts, which is referred to as “guha”. Since Sound is the property associated with Space, the idea of Cosmic Dance and Nataraja evolved.

This idea of Cosmic Dance and Cosmic Sound has captured the imagination of astronomers and cosmologists to the point that a huge Vigraha of Nataraja stands at the entrance to CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.  (File:Shiva's statue at CERN engaging in the Nataraja dance.jpg - Wikimedia Commons)

Friday, April 8, 2022

Who am I? Am I particles of memory?

 Science and spirituality are points of view, systems of philosophy. Both try to understand life and cosmos. One focuses on reproducible evidence and therefore trustworthy for future actions. It breaks down whole into parts to understand better. It is objective. The other is intuitive and understands the whole and nature as is. It is a combination of subjective and objective and understands that what appears to be objective has the subject also included in it.

I tend to synthesize science and spirituality, whenever possible. I hope I am not going too far with the following thoughts.

When I read that the migration of birds depends on quantum changes in the molecules in their brains, something clicked. It appears that quantum effects of earth’s magnetism acts on two specific molecules in the brains of birds. The molecules are called Trip and FAD. Earth’s magnetic force trips one electron to flip from one molecule to the other and triggers release of neurotransmitters. This is coded as memory, in addition to other clues helping the birds navigate. This is “electromagnetic” memory which depends on quantum particles! May be, the same applies to any kind of memory, since it is a neuro-biochemical process.

If that is true - and that is a big “if” - does it apply to the philosophical question of “Who am I”? My “I” is not the same as the one born almost 89 years back in another part of the world. Every particle in this body has been replaced and changed over the decades – even the genetic material. How is it then that I am still me?

The fundamental particles which make me have changed. My location has changed. Many decades have passed. In other words, matter and energy keeping “me” together in space and time have changed. Yet I am still the same “I”. How is that?

That is because the template is the same as in the famous philosophical experiment in which the question is about an old chariot or a ship whose parts have all been replaced. Is it still the same chariot or ship? The parts are different. But the template is the same. It is another way of saying that the “form” is determined by information giving us a template.

The particles of the chemicals making up my current genes are totally different from the originals with which I was born. But the message has been kept the same by the genetic codes, which are molecules of information. Therefore my “form” is the same except for the changes in it due to passage of time. Information is the same.

The other common factor is my consciousness with its important function of memory. As pointed out by Buddha many centuries back, confirmed more recently by the work of Antonio Tomasio and others, “I” am made up of memories of events in my life (autobiographical memory) and a sense of ownership of those memories as mine (Thanks to our insular cortex). Therefore, I am aware and can say: “I am the continuity of what I was born with although I look and think different”. Others see that continuity too giving me another point of reference.

Since particles are parts of matter which change over space and time and since information, memory and consciousness are concepts and not concrete objects, our ancestors were correct when they challenged us to think “Who am I” and also suggested that may be “I am ultimately the same as the original even though I am separate and different”.  And yes, it seems correct that consciousness shines on its own and illuminates everything.

But that consciousness needs a body (matter) to operate from and information acts with the help of energy on the particles which make up the body. May be Buddha was also correct when he talked about “dependent co-arising” (pratitya samutpada) and said that “I am made of non-I elements”.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Rep.John Lewis and non-violent activism

 I just finished reading a book by the civil rights movement icon Rep. John Lewis. The title of the book is Across the Bridge: Life lessons and a vision for the future. In my view, this book must become a required reading for all, certainly for the citizens of the United States. Here are my reasons.

It is a book on the recent history of the civil rights movements around the world and in the US. He documents several crucial events on the way to freedom and the hardships previous generations faced, which many of us do not know. He witnessed some of them. He knew many of the freedom fighters personally. He learnt from them and followed the idea of nonviolent resistance to unjust practices.

John Lewis makes it clear that freedom for all human beings and civil rights are not just legal matters. The idea of freedom of the individual and human rights is spiritual in nature since all of us are created equal. The struggle has to be spiritual in nature and not legal battles or based on physical violence. I hope future activists keep this most important point in mind.

 When laws are immoral or unethical, we have a duty to resist and create conditions for change, always by nonviolent methods. These were the principles of Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent movement which he called Satyagraha. John Lewis understood the meaning of that Sanskrit word and quotes Gandhiji in this book.

John Lewis also emphasizes what proper ethical methods can be used to bring about changes in the society. This includes faith in a just cause, patience in preparation and implementation, study of history and action. In his discussion on actions, he quotes (page 67) Mahatma Gandhi’s translation of Bhagavat Gita, the sacred text of the Vedic Hindu tradition. This is an important concept to grasp and therefore, I quote the actual passage: “ It is the action and not the fruits of action, that is important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there will be any fruit. But that does not mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing there will be no result”.

John Lewis also educates us on how legislative process works – in essence how democracy works. It is a slow process and needs good preparation, patience, compromise, planning for variables and unexpected consequences. It is non-violent. It is the proper method for social change.

In summary, this is a “must read” book for everyone, particularly for young activists in any society.