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Toward an Enlightened Science

In 2021, this column brought up some big topics, from best practices with technology for sanghas, to exploring the relationship between truth, neuroscience, and the Dharma. We then addressed duality in light of neuroscience and began pointing out the benefits of formulating a scientific theory of enlightenment. As this line of inquiry is bringing up new topics in the new year, there is something perhaps that I should emphasize.

In the world of increasingly rapid scientific and technological advances, losing focus and clarity in motivation, direction, meaning, and purpose can result in disastrous consequences. These consequences can range from the deliberate misuse of science and technology for harmful purposes to putting profits and careers before the advancement of humanity.

But what is the advancement of humanity really? In a Dharmic sense, advancement means progress toward enlightenment, liberation, or moksha. This means ending suffering, not just for individuals but for all sentient beings. This can seem like a long shot.

Enlightenment, or buddhahood, is beyond the ability of most of us to grasp and explain.

But in simple terms, we can say that by diminishing and eventually eliminating defilements, negative emotions, mental obscurations, and wrong views, we can achieve the pinnacle of consciousness. We can do this by following the precepts and methods taught by the enlightened beings and buddhas. The pinnacle of consciousness, which is intrinsic to every human being, can emerge and humans can realize their full potential, bringing forth boundless compassion and the end of ordinary suffering.

By applying the precepts and methods, by making enlightened and wise choices, we can evolve our hardware–our brain–and our software–our consciousness. Ultimately, enlightened science acknowledges that evolution is the natural consequence of conscious, ethical behavior–body, speech, and mind–based on the understanding of compassionate love, and it aligns with and strengthens this understanding.

This state is intrinsic to every human being and can emerge as humans realize their full potential. In addition to boundless compassion and the end of ordinary suffering, endless wondrous features can manifest, as expounded in many books that are now accessible through translations as well as on the internet.

The increasing availability of scientific knowledge and technology means that we can now investigate far-out phenomena, such as teleportation more systematically. We can actually test and verify these beliefs and ideas with the aim of integrating findings into emerging scientific paradigms, and we can correct many misconceptions associated with yoga and the Dharma.

The main goals for the practice of the Dharma are to reach enlightenment and achieve liberation from ego, from the endless cycle of rebirth, and hence from suffering. Similarly, the end goals of practicing science and developing technology are to benefit humanity. Without these goals, science and technology remain self-serving. Technocratism and scientism can be considered equivalents of bigotry in religion:

Technocratism uses scientific conquering nature for scientific subjugation of a man. The more rational, productive, technologically equipped and total is society management the more difficult it is to imagine the means and ways with the help of which individuals could destruct their slavery and get liberation and effectiveness of the system dulls individual’s ability to recognize the facts filled with repressive force of the whole.” Therein lies the crisis of modern civilization when the tendency of technological rationality development is directed to still increasing domination over nature, is spread over all spheres of human life, integrates all true opposition and absorbs all alternatives making it irrational.*

Scientism, defined as excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques, can be equally dangerous. (Hughes) Since its inception, this column has sought to bridge Dharma wisdom traditions and contemporary topics in science and technology. It has also threaded undeniable parallels and commonalities among these topics as a means of discovering, strengthening, and upholding truth and living a life of meaning.

A reader recently commented on my previous article in this column that the main difference between the Dharma and science is that the latter is often driven by ego. I replied by noting that it would be important to apply principles of the Dharma to reach a more balanced, less ego-driven attitude toward science.

In addition, we should note that Dharma practice can also be driven by ego. One’s desire for liberation from suffering is often an individualistic journey. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to hear about sangha members taking up vows for the purpose of living as freeloaders and taking advantage of privileges reserved for ordained members. Ego-filled, presumptuous, and vain practitioners seeking fame and fortune by means of the Dharma, reinforced by a hierarchical monastic system, are everywhere.

In Western thought, the notion of ego is often associated with Freud, but it has long been the subject of attention in wisdom traditions where it is known as anatta:

The concept of anatta, or anatman, is a departure from the Hindu belief in atman (“the self”). The absence of a self, anicca (the impermanence of all being), and dukkha (“suffering”) are the three characteristics of all existence (ti-lakkhana). Recognition of these three doctrines—anatta, anicca, and dukkha—constitutes “right understanding.”

(Britannica)

This non-existence of self as such may resonate in the thoughts of renowned scientists, including Max Planck, who once said:

There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.

(Planck)

Although ego is regarded as an obstacle to pure realization, some level of ego is necessary for the preservation of life–and extreme egolessness, as observed in the lives of many aspiring buddhas and saints, can come across as insane. It is not uncommon to associate spiritual practice with madness. This is partly rooted in fact. Readers may have heard of the “crazy wisdom” traditions.**

Before proceeding into the new year with analyses of scientific advances in the light of wisdom traditions, let’s remember once again that the intention behind this column is to understand how science and technology can help to advance rational analysis of at least some of the phenomena related to the Dharma, and how the principles of the Dharma can help to provide direction and context to scientific enquiry, so that the latter does not become self-serving, or even worse, serve as means to create ignorance and eventually lead to more suffering.

How, then, do we reconcile the rigorous discipline of the observance of the paramitas, moral conduct, and mind-training practices with the spiritual freedom of crazy wisdom, without becoming deranged and giving spiritual practices a bad name?***

Rigorous spiritual practices and disciplines are methods, in the same sense that science and technology are based on methods—their adoption benefits from some level of skill. The Dharma is not a single, coherent spiritual tradition, nor does science follow a single approach.

Courtesy of feynmanlectures.caltech.edu

There are many ways to experience the world and its phenomena. This is true both in the Dharma and in science. On the one hand, there is the propensity and ability to integrate and see the whole picture. Where differences are mere formalities, distinctions between religions, worldviews, and paradigms are a matter of perspective, of context, of point of view. The other is based on discernment, divide and conquer approaches, which rely on contrasting dual aspects of what is observed. Both can be said to be the result of the application of methods and means.

In the Dharma, we say that we need to learn when to accept and when to reject something. This freedom of choice is a prerogative of the mind, whether liberated or trapped in the cage of rationality.****

To many Buddhists, science and religion cannot be in conflict and have a compatible relationship.***** Perceiving reality as a continuum, the integration of views and the overcoming of conceptual boundaries are approaches considered in both the Buddhist path and in advanced sciences, such as quantum theory.

In Western societies, Dharma practitioners embracing Buddhist views are not superstitious, uneducated, or easily impressed folks. An increasing number of students and practitioners of the Buddhadharma are intelligent, educated, and generally highly critical thinkers.

Embracing the Buddhist precepts can lead to a more enlightened science as one becomes compassionate and aware of the ultimate purpose of human existence. One also becomes less restricted to a single narrow, dominant, egotistic, and ultimately ignorant view. How exactly we should characterize enlightened science we may leave to future articles, and open to suggestions from readers.

In wishing everyone all the best for 2022, let’s remain thankful and please watch this space. 

* Sysoeva, L. S. and P. V. Anosov. 2005. “Technocratism and Culture Crisis.” https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/4493267

** Larsson, Stefan. N.D. “Crazy Yogins During the Early Renaissance Period.” University of Virginia https://collab.its.virginia.edu/wiki/renaissanceold/Crazy%20Yogins%20During%20The%20Early%20Renaissance%20Period.html

*** Showler, Suzanna. 2020. “Crazy Wisdom: A Love Story.” Hazlitt. https://hazlitt.net/longreads/crazy-wisdom-love-story

**** Nguyen, Quy Hoang. 2019. “The Doctrine of Not-self (anattā) in Early Buddhism.” Sciendo. http://archive.sciendo.com › IRSR › irsr-2019-0003

***** Johnson, Courtney, et. al. 2021. “On the Intersection of Science and Religion.” PEW. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/trend/archive/winter-2021/on-the-intersection-of-science-and-religion

References

Hughes, Austin L. 2012. “The Folly of Scientism.” The New Atlantis. https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-folly-of-scientism

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. 2007. “Anatta.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/anatta

Planck, Max. 2009. “Das Wesen der Materie [The nature of matter].” Speech in Florence, Italy (retrieved from Archiv zur Geschichte der Max-Planck-gesellschaft, Abt. Va, Rep. 11 Planck, Nr. 1797) (1944).  in Braden, Gregg. The spontaneous healing of belief: Shattering the paradigm of false limits.

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