We’re at a unique place where we’ve outlived the significance of many of the religious images. These days a lot of my contemporaries view them as mythology/Jungian archetypes. Are they any more relevant?
I just read an interesting article by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga. He cites studies done over many years with lobotomy patients.
“… a series of experiments with split-brain patients that would change our understanding of the human brain forever… the two halves of the brain experience the world quite differently.”
One of the tests, an image was shown to a patient and they were asked what they saw. When isolated, the left side of the brain could describe the image, but the right side remained silent. It had no ability to communicate. But if you showed the patient the image, or something related to it, the patient could point to it.
“… through analysis and examination of all kinds of neurologic cases, you realized there are consciousnesses all over the brain!”
We think of ourselves as one but actually we are two separate entities. One of the interesting points in the article, a monkey’s brain has only one consciousness. We’re the only ones with multiple. What caused our split from the three tribes of guerrillas in Africa 60,000 years ago? Were we an anomaly?
This is something we’ve been grappling with for our entire history, something Zen is acutely focused on resolving: the unity of two hemispheres, clarifying, magnifying, bridging, building infrastructure; awakening events that completely change the relation between self and other; stepping out of the dream, resolving duality, becoming one. Many of the Zen phrases point to this: to attain One Mind, moment to moment, just do it, only go straight; not one, not two — to attain the One Mind is a central theme of Buddhism.
The Zen koan is an expression of the symbiosis of right and left, answered by raising the finger, shouting, hitting the floor. Any student of Zen already understands, the answer is never directly from the left brain. It doesn’t require thought.
Writing is a direct interface with the right brain, a technique of relinquishing control and allowing the subject or character reveal the story — rendered by the left brain. Often what the right brain attempts to reveal is a dense symbology, like the images in a dream — if a crow flies from East to West, it means something. Often what is revealed has never been seen or heard before in the human record.
It’s an incredible event in one’s life to attain harmony between the two hemispheres and to be able to use the full capacity. In my mind this is an awakening. For the two aspects to coalesce — to become a human being, to move freely, unrestrained — is the culmination of training, an act of awakening. Of course there’s a higher meaning, but we say the microcosm is the macrocosm. My moment of synergy, the first, was an existential crisis moment of (ceasing) letting my mind find its own way – giving up control. Automatically my perception changed, but I had to be driven to that point, and in a practice environment. This is why I’ve devoted my life to Buddhist practice and see its relevance, even in this age of science.
Modern science promises a fundamental change to the way we understand ourselves and Buddhist theory. Many aspects of “Buddhism” predate the Buddha’s lifetime. It was the science of the day. The four elements were an early intimation of the 118 elements of the periodic table. No one would go back and use the old version, it’s old science. The same with the theory of reincarnation. After reading Jared Diamond’s “Guns Germs and Steel,” I felt it had opened a new paradigm, a wider view of humanity, a deeper understanding of what we are than what I gleaned from religious texts. Is the theory of reincarnation an early intimation of modern scientific theory? It suggests the theory of evolution, without the element of time. Once we understood, and only recently, that beings evolved from a single cell over billions of years, that we will evolve into other forms, and our consciousness along with it, it became much more difficult for me to entertain this ancient belief, this and other ancient Hindi concepts such as the nine levels of existence, and the wheel of samsara.
A human doesn’t appear out of the ethers in one piece. It takes time to form an entity. A few years ago I saw a baby snake alone in the courtyard. I realized that the snake had never seen another, not even its own mother. After it left the egg, it was on its own. It didn’t need to bond to or learn from others. Humans are much more complex. We have to bond, not only with our parents, it takes a whole society. We need everyone, every garbage collector, policemen, j-walker, night bird. If you raised a child with no contact with other humans, it would not be a human being. Humanity requires all of our cultural weight: music, literature, art, science, etc. It exists only as long as we keep the thread. The human entity requires a lot of time. It takes decades to form a fully functioning member of society.
If you remove the theory of reincarnation from Buddhism we have to look at it in a different way. The wheel of samsara, the escape from life and death, there are many teaching points that use reincarnation as a basis. It’s one of the main fulcrums of instilling morality. If you behave badly, you’ll be reborn in a lower realm. In the Buddhist religion it can’t be removed, but in the esoteric practices it doesn’t have as much relevance. Morality never came from the fear of retribution. It comes later. This is easier to explain through compassion. Compassion doesn’t come through the fear of punishment or gain. In order to merge with the higher self, we say to become one, to attain samadhi or enlightenment – in order to go deeply into the matter you must be in accord with the One, not thinking of yourself but of all beings. In order to shift from the egocentric view to the view of the One, the self must be put down and the large view taken up. When that is taken up it is, for lack of a better analogy, to become the mother of all things, to care for all things, intrinsically, because you have shifted your consciousness. That is the fulcrum of compassion.
Karma, or cause and effect, is a trope so deeply embedded it can’t be removed. However, on the trail of evolution morality was not a deciding factor. Adaptability, luck, ferocity, those who obtained the most protein — good and bad only exist in human affairs, their struggle to live in peace with each other. Somehow we’re unable to do this, require quite lengthy guidelines, dogma. Zen Master Seung Sahn would often say:
“A cat understands a cat’s job a job, a dog understands a dog’s job. Humans don’t understand their job.”
Many of the streams of thought compiled into what we know as Buddhism are contradictory. The cycle of life and death perpetuates the entity even as we struggle with the emptiness of all things, for instance. To illustrate, I’ve decided to deconstruct the final sutra, the Surangama. Written in China in 713, it’s the farthest from the mean. Though through all the earlier texts the Buddha refused to reveal the origin of the universe, saying it would just be speculation, here we have his creation theory.
“Awareness so shaken by the void, was be-numbed by it and hardened into the (element of) metal; hence the wheel of metal to preserve the earth. When the movement caused by awareness produced wind and hardened into metal, the friction between wind and metal flashed fire, the nature of which was transformative. Fire sprang up and melted metal; hence the wheel of water pervades all the worlds in the ten directions. The meeting of rising fire with falling water, formed wet oceans and dry continents. This is why fire (sometimes) rises from the bottom of the seas, and streams and rivers flow over continents. Excess of water over fire resulted in (the formation of) high mountains; hence rock sparks when struck and melts when submitted to great enough heat. An excess of earth over water resulted in the growth of vegetation; hence a forest fire reduces the trees to ashes (i.e. earth) and a plant bleeds when twisted. Thus these illusory (four wheels) intermingled and became mutual seeds to ensure the continuity of the world.”