Category: Contemplative Science
The Power of Introspection

Introverts are not shy. Not always. How do I know? I’m one. And I’m not shy.

You can google Myers Briggs test, and do the test. It was helpful to me. I hope it is for you as well.

But what I wanted to say to you today is this: introvert or extrovert; these are mere orientations. Know this. Understand this. From understanding come unerstanding. When integrated into your own life it becomes wisdom. Wisdom and skill can then be used to help ourselves and those around us have better lives. Lead better lives.

Introspection couple with a basic curiosity will lead you evolve. Of this I have little doubt because I’ve seen it. The human condition is not fundamentally stable. We can change; we do change. Healing is the result.

 

 


David Foster Wallace – This is Water

David Foster Wallace was well aware of Buddhism via his connection to Jay L. Garfield. This is clear.

I find his speech, “this is water”, both inspiringly insightful and utterly heart-breaking for in the end to killed himself.

THIS IS WATER – By David Foster Wallace from The Glossary on Vimeo.

He saw past the veils of cultural pleasantries and into the second truth, the source of life’s dissatisfaction—self-concern or ego-grapsing to use more Buddhist parlance.

We need more people like Wallace. People that will tell it as it is. Without the BULL SHIT!

And he is right. It is difficult to talk about. Most people do not want to hear about it. Truth of suffering!? What suffering? Life is great. But we know these are mere words.

And he also correct when he says, “this is not about religion.” But then neither was the Buddha’s message. “This is suffering. This is its cessation.”

And he went on to say, “Do not believe me out of respect. Test it for yourself.”

He made a claim, an empirical claim, and asked us to test it for ourselves. Choice! People. I’ve stressed it here more than a few times—older readers might even say too often!

We lost a great and troubled writer when David choose out of the “rat-race” by killing himself. What a shame! There was an alternative. And this alternative does not require faith in anything other than yourself.

You are your own protector. Who else will be that protector. And you are also your worse enemy. For you wish for happiness and yet run to suffering—to borrow from one of the greatest sages of all recorded time.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, watch the video below and read this and also this.

Now, you know what needs to be done. Go. Do it!


Stop the Glorification of Busy

Do you brush your teeth each day?

Do you shower each day?

Do you lunch nutritious food each day?

Do you spend 30 minutes each day in quiet reflection?

If not; why not!?

StopBusyNo

We are naturally concerned with our health but often overlook the degree to which our mental life impacts of our physical health and our normal day to day activities.

By taking just 30 minutes a day to sit quietly and watch your breath you may begin to reverse the years of the compulsion to be always doing something, anything.

Science has shown what contemplatives have known for over two millennia — meditation is vital to good holistic health.


Video: Dysfunction and Meditation

For those of you who could not make the recent meditation conference in Melbourne (Australia), or asked to hear the presentation again, here is a shortened version of the talk recorded recently. I must apologize for the quality of the audio at the beginning. But it does come good about 2 minutes in.

You may also like to know that the content in the video is being developed into course material for future retreats. Retreats that will include (1) foundational theory that will give participants an understanding of traditional Buddhist psychology and epistemology recast into modern secular language. (2) Practical applications of said theory, in order to begin recognising patterns of dysfunction. And (3) meditation, (as outlined in the video) as a means of refining one’s attentional skills so as to better serve (1) and (2), as well as begin to cut through the cognitive hyperactivity that reifies the mere-I.

Now, someone might ask, why do others and indeed myself not put this into practice? Why is it that we continue to do the things we do? “I mean, I know that I should not (insert your own problem here) but, I just can’t seem to stop”, I hear you say. The answer is, in fact, quite simple. The answer is that we do not see the psychological connections between our actions, attachment-narrative or anger-narrative, and the mental imbalance out of which these stories arise.

Now, in Buddhist psychology we list six main types of mental factors that afflict the mind—attachment, anger, pride (the bad kind) and so on. These six are said to be the main source of life’s problems. Yet, when these afflictions arise, they do so within a narrative, not in isolation. Tiger Woods, for instance, probably believed that he was going to find some kind of lasting happiness, all the while knowing that he was harming himself and his family. When attachment came calling it did so embedded in an elaborate ruse. Just like Descartes’ “evil demon”, Tiger was deceived by his attachment-stories.

If we can begin to tease out these patterns of dysfunction, we can begin to isolate the various mental imbalances from which they arise. We can begin to draw connections between how we act, the stories we’re told, and the underlying causes.

Therefore, a combination of theory (learning the meanings and definitions of various psychological imbalances), practical application (how to recognise patterns of dysfunction) and mental training in order to refine introspective skills, if done properly, is what will allow for a paradigm shift in one life.

The following notice is in response to several requests I have had from readers.
For those in the U.S and Europe: the possibility of retreats in your country is currently being looked into. Whether or not these retreats go ahead, however, is largely dependent on finding enough time and people interested in making it happen. And therefore, if you or your organisation would like to host a retreat please contact me directly for details. Also, please note that no dates or venues have been set at this time.

If you cannot see the video, click here: http://vimeo.com/14373748


AICS to Offer Weekend Seminars and Meditation Retreats

Well, it has been a week since I got back from the Alan Wallace Shamatha retreat in Sydney. The retreat was great, of course, we were all well looked after and the teachings were wonderful.

Below is a photo of the meditation hall taken between sessions. The retreat was held at a Catholic conference/convent in Sydney hence the crucifix. But what was extraordinary so my Catholic friends tell me is to see statues of Buddha and other Buddhist images along side those of Jesus. There we were, Buddhist, Christian and scientist types all together, all investigating the nature of the mind by employing the contemplative investigatory method we call meditation. Now, that is extraordinary!

Shamatha Retreat with Alan Wallace—Sydney 2010

Since getting back to Hobart, I have been in contact with Alan to discuss both my future and the future of the Australian Institute for Consciousness Studies (hereafter AICS). I suggested to Alan that AICS offer regular weekend seminars and meditation retreats based on his style of presentation. For I believe his style is ideally suited to a Western audience which mainly consists of people from a secular background, and because these teachings on mental balance and training can be listened to without the need to believe in anything metaphysical. Moreover, this style brings together all schools of Buddhism from the Theravada and Zen, through to the Indo-Tibetan forms into one developmental approach. He agreed saying:”excellent idea!” as well as providing me with some of his own material for AICS to use.

And so, I will be leading retreats on meditation here in Tasmania four times a year—three weekend retreats and one week long retreat—into the future or until the time I go into long-term retreat myself. When this will happen is dependent on many factors which I will not go into right now. Suffice it to say, the Ph.D is only one of many impediments, and so I can say with certainty, it will not be for several years at least.

However , in order to start offering retreats I still need to find a good retreat centre which is not too expensive, and can accommodate up to several dozen people—this is actually not so easy. If you know of such a place could you please let me know. And so by offering regular retreats—with the week-long retreat in the warmer months to allow people from the main land to attend—I hope we can begin to build and promote the good work of AICS and the Phuket International Academy.

Phuket International Academy Mind Center

Phuket International Academy Mind Center

Above is a photo of the newly build Phuket International Academy Mind Center and here is a little snippet about the center taken from the website:

Phuket Mind Centre at PIA, offers training in the cultivation of cognitive and emotional balance. Phuket International Academy Mind Centre (PIAMC) provides a blend of contemporary psychology and neuroscience alongside ancient Asian contemplative practices. Delivered through residential retreats and weekend seminars PIAMC is open to all. Working in close interaction with the PIA Day School and the PIA Sports and Leisure Club, the programmes offered through PIAMC will contribute to everyone’s enhanced mental balance and wellbeing.

Although the full details are not yet available, I am hoping to post something about the dates for the first retreat soon…so keep an eye out. Until then you may also want to sign up for the AICS newsletter which you can do over at the AICS website.


Australian Meditation Conference 2010

Mark your calendars! July 31st is this years date for the Australian Meditation conference. The conference, I believe, has been running for two or perhaps even three years now, and focuses on bringing teachers of meditation together to discuss and present their work. From their website we get the following information:

The Conference brings together some of Australia’s leading meditation teachers, meditation researchers and performing artists in the field of contemplative/intuitive music.
The event provides practitioner-oriented education for wellness professionals. Our commitment is to bring together leaders in the field of meditation, presenting the latest information and approaches.
Storey Hall is in the heart of the city and offers a fully integrated venue, combining a great auditorium, exhibition space and an area for networking, refreshments and a vegetarian lunch.
This event promises to be a wonderful opportunity for anyone with a personal or professional interest in meditation to explore this marvellous practice in its many diverse forms.

http://www.australianmeditationconference.com.au

I was invited to present at this years conference—thanks to the recommendation of a reader—which of course I accepted. However, I never did find out who this person is, and so if you are reading this, please email me so that I may thank you.

I hope to weave the story of the Australian Institute for Consciousness Studies into the talk, as it is the institutes work which will give meaning to much of what I will present. However, speaking with the organizers after submitting my abstract, I subsequently found out that the conference attendees are mainly non-academics (somehow I was under the impression this was an academic conference), so I might in the end change the talk, making the content a little lighter. Regardless of the style of the conference, I am more than happy to be invited to events such as this, for it helps to promote AICS, and of course, the Institute will only succeed if people know about our work. So, if you feel inclined and you are in the position to do so, please do recommend the AICS as a possible guest speaker. Given our affiliation with the Santa Barbara Institute, this goes for conferences outside of Australia as well.

Then, given, I am coming to Melbourne I wonder if it would be worth arranging a day of meditation—perhaps the day after the conference as this is a Sunday. This would give us 4 or 5 months to arrange the event. If you would like to discuss this please contact me.  With all that said here are the details for the conference…

Australian Meditation Conference

Date: 31 July 2010
Place: RMIT
Time: 8.30am—6.00pm. My talk is at 2.30pm
Presentation title: Dispositional Narrative, Dysfunction and Mental Training.

Abstract: The stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, can often lead to dysfunctional cognitive states, which in turn lead to misunderstanding our place in the world. This dispositional narrative is based on fundamentally misunderstanding our own ontology—who we really are. This, then, begs the question: can mental training affect dispositional narrative in such a way as to lead to a flourishing life? Clarke’s talk will present current research that suggests this is indeed the case—thus detailing the efficacy of meditation as both a diagnostic and therapeutic tool used to explicate these dysfunctional cognitive states.


Does Buddhism Need Science

1. Introduction

Does Buddhism need science? That is to say, does Buddhism need the validation of science? Perhaps not, however, in order to lift the essence of Buddhism out of the cultural setting from which we as practitioners have learnt this science of the mind we call Buddhism, we need to test the claims presented. In this article, I want to explore the possibility that science and Buddhism need each other.

Most would agree I think when I say that calling Buddhism a religion is really a misnomer. For the Buddha himself urged his students not to believe what he taught merely out of respect. Like a philosopher he asked his students to test his claims as a gold smith would test the quality of gold before making a purchase. To put his claims to the blowtorch of empirical inquiry—direct experience. These were not clever tricks employed by a charismatic religious leader. He really did mean it. And it is, therefore, our responsibility as followers of this great philosopher, to do just that: think and investigate these claims for ourselves. It is not as if we have to reinvent the dharma-wheel, however we need to experience it for ourselves. After all, if something is worth believing in—the Four Noble Truths for instance—is it not worthy of critical, objective (in the sense of being free of bias) and rigorous investigation? So, let me ask you the question again: does Buddhism need science?

2. Asking Questions

To me the answer is an unequivocal, yes. For if Buddhism is to make a lasting contribution it must engage the predominate paradigm of its time. This is science. No question; no doubt. Science pervades the minds of ordinary people, so much so that marketers now use the term “scientific fact” to sell their products. Science is the religion of the non-religious. Yet, has anyone seen these magical products marketed under the guise of scientism, solve the problems of the world—stress, anxiety or loneliness? In a recent study, for instance, it was shown that the average age of patients being treated for clinical depression for the first time has dropped to the age of 15. The modern world needs something over and above the current pills it is being administered.

Buddhism as it spread from India engaged each new culture at the highest level of discourse. As it comes to the West, it must engage this culture fully—which of course includes the scientific tradition—if it is to find acceptance. For its part, science could play a role in helping the contemplatives to weed out untenable claims and ineffective practices (Wallace, p.146).

Some Buddhists may think: if science were to test the efficacy of Buddhist practice, there is the chance that the teaching of this ancient and refined tradition may be sullied. I say to those people: you are correct. This in fact is possible. However, most scientists—being well read people—already have some understanding of the Buddhadharma. Often their understanding is based on misinformation or even just plain wrong information, and it is for this very reason that it is vitally important that those trained in Buddhist theory and practice engage scientists and do so fully. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has called such people hybrids. These hybrids are people trained in traditional Buddhist theory and practice, and moreover, have gained—to some extent—rigorous training in one or more of the following Western disciplines: science, philosophy or psychology.

While I cannot speak for His Holiness, I can imagine the reason why it is important for these people to be trained in both traditions. It is because the knowledge garnered from meditation is direct, immediate, perceptual and therefore only accessible via first-person inquiry. This knowledge must then be translated into information readily accessible to science. If it is not, it will remain the domain of those trained in the Buddhist tradition, period. For that reason, we need to learn their language, their theories, and their paradigms in order to accurately articulate the phenomenology of meditation. What’s more as Alan Wallace points out:

Tibetan Buddhism’s own Dalai Lama has stated firmly that if science can prove any Buddhist theory to be false, then that belief should be dropped (Wallace, p.147).

His Holiness is not joking. If science was to prove beyond at doubt that a particular doctrine is false, then we must drop that tenet. I, therefore, fully support this call to action. But it does beg the question: false for whom? If science is working off the wrong page, then this ancient and refined tradition could potentially be refuted without proper investigation. Being refuted is one thing; being refuted by simply believing Buddhist theory of mind and its methodologies of first-person inquiry must be wrong by virtue that it is not the same as current science, then setting out to prove just this, strikes me as rather unscientific. However, I did not become a monk simply to belong to a creed. I can say with certainty that in my case at least it was a search for truth—wherever that led. And it is this same spirit of inquiry, which drives science. In that regard in 1963 the physicists Richard Feynman lecturing on the scientific method had the following to say:

Experimenters search most diligently, and with the greatest effort, in exactly those places where it seems most likely that we can prove our theories wrong. In other words we are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.

Anyone who has studied and meditated on the deconstructionist methodologies of such Madhyamaka philosophers as Nāgārjuna, Śāntideva or Candrakīrti, will see striking similarities here. Because our dispositional narratives—the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves—are such that we naturally reify our own existence, we in fact believe our on theories. Through this reification, the bifurcation of subject and object, us and them, ensues. The effect of which is the First Noble Truth—suffering. By applying the Madhyamaka dialectic, the explication of this root cause of dysfunctional states of mind—mental afflictions—can be stripped from our way of engaging the world. We, therefore, must “search most diligently, and with the greatest effort, in exactly those places where it seems most likely that we can prove our theories wrong”. Simply believing there is no inherently existent self will get you nowhere. It is only through critical analysis, which strips away our naive conceptions of ourselves, our tradition, our way of doing things that we can continue to move forward in our project of understanding the human condition.

Science, on the other hand, is a growing body of knowledge with practical applications. Applications such as quantum bits are so advanced that those working in these fields are the only people able to understand them. Yet, it seems to me that the real discovery of this scientific paradigm remains concealed to the very people who discovered them:

The most revealing characteristic of quantum physics is the role of the observer in measurement: it is the act of observation, intimately wrapped up in the point of view of the scientist—his or her beliefs—that determine outcomes such as wave or particle and other physical states. It seems that at the subatomic level, the level that supposedly underlies all physical reality, the mind acts as a potent, cooperative force in the creation of reality as we know it. Subatomic particles, the instruments that detect them, laws concerning their existence and expression, mathematics, and the mind all exist in dependence upon one another (Wallace, p.115).

Scientists, I believe, are yet to fully appreciate the possibilities their discoveries yield. Because mind is inextricably linked to the “role of the observer” and is a “potent, cooperative force in the creation of reality”, perhaps the question should be rephrased to: does science need Buddhism?

3. Does Buddhism Need Science?

Although physicists understand the observer plays a role in measurement, still they believe in an underlying reality beyond the mind—for them, there is still something out there. The quantum world—even for these scientists—is fuzzy, difficult to understand and has little direct relevance to the world of people, yet it is still really real. The most important discovery of the quantum world—to use Buddhist parlance—all phenomena are merely dependently arisen, existing in dependence on causes and conditions, parts and an imputing consciousness. This shows that the mind is inextricably linked to the creation of our world. Still, this fact remains somewhat in the domain of those working in the field of quantum physics. While these discoveries have provided the modern world with many benefits—I am writing on one such benefit—science has yet to find a way to integrate these discoveries into our own lives. Science has made the modern world an easier place to live; yet life has not become easier. Clearly, there is something lacking to modernity. Something beyond what is currently known to science.

This, I believe, is where contemplative traditions such as Buddhism can lend a guiding hand. By participating in research projects investigating such phenomena as consciousness, contemplatives can provide information that science does not have access to—albeit from a first-person point of view. That is, contemplatives can provide science with qualitative descriptions of various states of consciousness. Not just what is it like to experience non-referential compassion, but perhaps even non-dual awareness, and the cognition of phenomena as merely dependent-arising. Thus providing science with a motherly push in the right direction and perhaps even providing science with methods for integrating often, abstruse scientific findings, back into the lives of ordinary people.

We need a better understanding of the mind. That goes for those of us who follow a spiritual tradition as well as those with no such interest…[for] a mind made clear by self-knowledge will be better able to understand the message than one immersed in confusion (Wallace, p.164).

Such research has in fact already begun. In the 1960’s doctors from Harvard studied the effects of meditation on metabolism—showing that meditation may decrease the consumption of oxygen by up to 18%. In the 1970’s Jon Kabat-Zinn who has a Ph.D in molecular biology studied the effects of meditation on stress—as a result creating the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. In the 1970’s and 80’s Professor Herbert Benson—again from Harvard—studied tummo meditation—one tummo practitioner studied was able to reduce his oxygen consumption by up to 64%. Studies of the effects of meditation are not new. What is new is the concept of the hybrid. Someone educated in Buddhist theory and practice directly involved in the research project. Being trained in both traditions these hybrids can act as interpreters. By drawing knowledge of phenomenal structures of consciousness directly from their own mind, they can articulate this directly to scientists, and in their own language. Thus giving science—for the first time—ongoing access to new data and from here—new discoveries.

One such discovery is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability for the brain to restructure itself from experience. Previously it was believed that neuron connections were fixed in adult humans, degenerating over time. Now we know through study of meditation that the brain can in fact continue to grow even in later life. It is through mind training that enables these neuronal features to reconnect—all this from collaborative projects between meditators and scientists.

Because research has shown we are capable of changing and improving our cognitive capacities. We can, over time, change the way we relate to ourselves in order to reflect something closer to reality—thus becoming healthier people as a result. This ability to change is something that has been recognized by Buddhists for over two millennium—even if it was not under the label neuroplasticity. Yet it is science, which can help us deliver this message to the general community. Not to convert; simply to help. Perhaps then we can begin to recede the trend of 15 year olds being treated for clinical depression.

4. Conclusion

For these reasons collaborative projects such as the Shamatha Project are vitally important. It is also why I have begun, in affiliation with the Santa Barbra Institute for Consciousness Studies, a project to establish a similar institute in Australia. The aim of the Australian Institute for Consciousness Studies is to:

  1. Establish collaborative research projects between scientists, psychologists, philosophers and contemplatives in order to investigate the nature of consciousness.
  2. Establish facilities for people from around the world to learn meditation and engage in short and long term retreats.
  3. Establish educational programs, which facilitate integration of the findings from the studies conducted by our research teams.

That is to say, the aim of the institute will be to serve others by way of arranging collaborative research projects, where contemplatives and scientists work together, in a combined effort to understand that which is the producer of human flourishing—the mind. As well as develop contemplative observatories for budding hybrids, allowing these people to refine their meditative skills in conducive and supportive environments. And most importantly to create educational programs whereby techniques for integration of this new information are developed.

Thus, we find ourselves on the cusp of a new era of human flourishing. As knowledge of the human condition is, for the first time, studied from the first, second and third person perspectives. This is something, which science and the world’s great contemplative traditions can only benefit. It is my hope, therefore, that institutions such as Australian Institute for Consciousness Studies and the Santa Barbra Institute will become templates for our future, a place for all people to learn to meditation and be well. I leave you to ponder this wonderful quote from one of the world’s great thinkers—Albert Einstein.

A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited by space and time. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few people nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty (Albert Einstein, 1921).

References:

Wallace, A.B. & Hodel, B., 2008. Embracing Mind: The Common Ground of Science and Spirituality, Shambhala.


News From the Little Island that Could

I want to share with you—the loyal reader—some of the exciting events that have taken place over the past month or two. It all began when I emailed Alan Wallace—a Buddhist teacher and writer with a B.A in Physics and a Ph.D also—to thank him for his wonderful presentation at the Mind and its Potential conference, which some of us monks and nuns attended in the same week as His Holiness Dalai Lama teachings held in Sydney last year. You can hear the panel discussion which included HH Dalai Lama at the ABC radio show All in the Mind here

Eaglehawk Neck-Tasman Peninsula. photo by: noodlesnacks.com

Here is Alan’s reply:

Dear Clarke, Thank you for your kind words of appreciation. I see that you, too, are devoting yourself to bringing the full vitality of the Buddhadharma into the modern world. I believe one of the most important things we can do is establish “contemplative observatories,” where people can spend years in full-time practice, deeply probing the inner resources of the mind. In that regard, you might like to know of the efforts of (name removed for privacy reasons) to create such a retreat center in Tasmania.

While I do not want to go into the details as to what this all entails—this will come later—in order to get a general feel for it; what Alan is proposing—actually he has already begun such a project—is a project which combines first-person and third-person investigation into the nature of consciousness and experience. As you can imagine Alan’s email got me thinking. I started to think more deeply about things such as: what is the best way for me to help others—a university Professor? What am I going to do after my PhD? Am I even capable of doing such things? What is it that I really feel will make the greatest contribution to the West? And so on.

Now, you may think that this is all a little premature? After all I still have two years on my PhD to go. Although this is true, I do think it is worth contemplating this now, as decisions made now, may potentially, take me down a track in which it is difficult to change later. And given that Alan has in effect offered me a job of sorts, I really needed to mull this over now, not later.

For those that may be wondering or even worried about the utility of presenting the ancient teachings of the Buddha in modern contemporary terms, take the time to listen to Alan answering a question on the meaning of emptiness by combining dependent-arising—a concept originally presented by the historical Buddha—and quantum physics here. It is short and pithy and definitely worth a listen.

So, I got in touch with this scientist, which for brevity let us call this person Jo. Jo and I had a short email exchange in which Jo detailed he/her thoughts. And I have a meeting with Jo tomorrow to begin getting into the nuts and bolts of the project. I also emailed my teacher, then spoke with him when I was in Melbourne over Christmas. Suffice to say, I got the go ahead. Thus, below is part of an email I sent to Alan affirming my commitment to the project and my commitment to the long term goal of the overall cause.

Dear Alan,

I am emailing you before my meeting with (name withheld for privacy reasons) on Monday in order to affirm my commitment to a contemplative observatory project, regardless of what happens moving forward. You may also be interested to know that although I was planning on joining a University religious department to teach Buddhist philosophy after my PhD— in fact this was the very purpose of leaving the monastery after 14 years, a decision that did not come easily I might add. As it turns out, I believe becoming a so-called hybrid is a better outcome for it will allow engagement with Western culture, while remaining a monk—something I dearly want to continue—and in a way that is arguably of greater benefit. There are, after all, brighter people than I, already teaching Buddhist philosophy within the academy. I would, therefore, simply be adding to the noise.

Thus, this directional change, I think—and so do my teachers—is a perfect fit. It will allow me to write, engage people by attending conferences/workshops/retreats, actually practice the path full-time and by the combination of all three, make a contribution to modernity—which was the very purpose of leaving the monastery in the first place. So, I want to let you know that by hook or crook I am committed to becoming a full-time contemplative, writing about that experience, helping those wishing to do the same, and establishing the means for such. In that regard, I am thinking about setting up an organization similar to SBI—perhaps in collaboration with SBI or affiliated in some way and for want of a better name calling it the Tasmanian Institute for Consciousness Studies.

Moreover, I believe a retreat center in Tasmania would be the perfect location for a contemplative observatory. Land here is very cheap (and I feel we may need land that is owned by the Institute rather than by any one person—just my opinion). The environment here is very clean, pristine in fact. It is not too hot or too cold in either summer or winter. There are less than 500,000 people on the whole island. And therefore the Institute could easily purchase good, cheap and quiet land—perfect for meditation—which is close enough to the city of Hobart in order to fly in interstate and international people such as scientists and meditators. Tasmania in a lot of ways is unique. There is, perhaps, no other place in the world like it. While not being Tasmanian, I am Australian so perhaps, I am bias. I guess the only down side is its distance from the U.S and Europe. There is also the potential for open group retreats, as many people I believe would want to visit Tasmania as a meditation type holiday. I could also see the retreat land becoming popular among mainland Australians, as Tasmania is a place that many wish to visit.

As a side note, one of my teachers Geshe Loden’s heart son and scribe—a yogi; not a scholar—when hearing of this opportunity told me a story about a nephew of Geshe Loden’s. This nephew is a Rinpoche and apparently of the same continuum as Rahula—the Buddha’s son. This Rinpoche cried when telling the story of how the Chinese burned all the books in his monastery, which was famous for first-hand accounts of meditative experiences. Not just from high lama’s but, first hand accounts of meditative experiences written by ordinary monks. He believes it would be useful to write from a personal point of view just as these monks did. He feels that many Western Buddhists will benefit from detailing the experiences of meditation as it deepens over time and by an ordinary westerner. I’m not so sure I am the right person to do this. We will see what happens.

And just when I thought that life had thrown me enough curve balls—a new project is born.

Below is a video from the Mind and Life Institute. It captures, I believe, the motivation behind and potential benefits of such a project. (if you are reading this is an email, you may need to follow the link here to view the video). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5o6_KB7tDbc

And so, I am hoping to setup such a contemplative observatory here in Tasmania. One in which collaboration between contemplatives, scientists and other academics such as philosophers and psychologists can further our collective understanding of consciousness and the human condition. After all, the ideal of the Bodhisattva—something I take very seriously—is to directly help alleviate the suffering of all beings regardless of creed. And given that UTas has a world class center for cognitive science—the Menzies Research Institute—perhaps such a collaboration is not all a sky-flower. Moreover, I see the establishment of such a center as a place where people from around the world—not just Australians and not just Buddhists—can come to Tasmania to learn meditation and participate in group retreats.

Now, obviously this is a very large undertaking. It is not something, if indeed it is even possible, that will happen over night. And moreover there are no details as yet, just lots of energy.

However, regardless of whether such a center can be established here in Tasmania, in future articles I will outlining the concepts of cognitive neuroscience. How, I believe it can make a contribution to the modern world—including real data from previous studies of the positive affect of meditation.

So, if you are interested please subscribe to the newsletter in order to keep informed when anything new is posted.

UPDATE: I just received an email an Alan Wallace agreeing to the proposed that an Tasmanian center for consciousness be affiliated with the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. So, now, in principal the Australian Institute for Consciousness Studies has an older sibling.

UPDATE: I have registered a domain for the proposed institute AustralianInstitute.org

Some Useful Link:

Mind and Life Institute
Phuket Mind Center
Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies
Information on Tasmania


Is Wisdom Really Necessary In Order To Generate Compassion?

It seems that my assertion from the article Philosophy as Practice raised some eyebrows among Buddhists. Here is the section of in question:

…without the ability to analyze and use critical thinking, even the compassion spoken of in Buddhism cannot be fully developed. Therefore the wisdom lineage, as in “method and wisdom”, pervades the method lineage.

Compassion personified: a statue at the Epcot center in Florida

I was surprised by the doubt raised by this statement, as it seems to me to be quite clear. However, in order to practice what I advocate, that is, doing philosophy, since last Thursday when the doubt was surreptitiously raised during a discussion after class. I have been investigating whether this statement is in fact true, or simply an unchallenged assumption on my behalf. I consulted the following texts; Tsong Khapa’s Illumination of the Thought a commentary on Candrakīrti’s Supplement to The Middle Way; Tsong Khapa’s Lamrim Chenmo; Geshe Lhundrup Sopa’s commentary on Lamrim Chenmo.

My Argument

First of all, let us revisit the original argument and unpack it into its simplest form.

Premise: Great compassion cannot be developed without first understanding how sentient beings suffer, how suffering is generated and what are its causes.

Conclusion: You must therefore use analysis and reasoning to investigate the nature of conditioned existence and dependent-arising, in order to develop genuine great compassion.

The Contention

However, the doubt that compassion requires wisdom in order to be developed was raised as a question with a slightly altered form. Paraphrasing the question; “Is the wisdom realizing emptiness necessary in order to develop compassion”. Although this is not what I argued, I think this statement might also be a true statement but we probably should leave that debate for another day. So to make it clear then, I am not arguing that ordinary compassion cannot be developed without wisdom or that one must first realize emptiness directly, before developing compassion. I am, however, stating that without analyzing how suffering is experienced and its causes, it is impossible to develop great compassion. Ordinary compassion is a precursor to great compassion. Great compassion is the compassion of Bodhisattvas and is therefore the type of compassion we need to develop.

Ordinary Compassion Vs. Great Compassion

So the question could be raised: what is the difference between ordinary compassion and great compassion? While I do not know what the definition of ordinary compassion is, but at a guess, it could perhaps be characterized as; the wish for someone to be free from a manifest pain. Great compassion, on the other hand is defined as; the wish for all living beings to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. The difference is not just in how many beings are within the scope of compassion but rather, great compassion wishes all sentient beings to be free from the causes of all types of suffering. Great compassion, therefore, is not only concerned with manifest pain, but the potential for suffering. This is an important point and one that should not be glossed over lightly. Great compassion has a subjective aspect that wants to eliminate the potential for suffering. But, how can one wish to eliminate the potential for suffering, if you do not know what the causes of that potential are?

Therefore, if we genuinely want to develop great compassion, we need to understand what it means to suffer. We need to understand how suffering is generated, and most importantly, how to permanently remove these causes. Initially, we begin the process of developing compassion by inferring our own experiences of manifest pain, be it physical or mental pain, onto others. For example, when I see someone experiencing the pain of a headache, I recall the last time I had a headache, and I remember my wish to be free from that experience. Because I can infer my experience onto this person, the wish for them to be free from that pain will naturally follow. I contend, this is ordinary compassion, not great compassion. Ordinary compassion is an ability to empathize with others. However, this type of compassion is beneficial. In fact, without empathy great compassion could not be developed. Therefore, I am not belittling ordinary compassion. I am simply saying it is not the compassion spoken of in Buddhism.

Great compassion on the other hand has additional mental factors concomitant with the subjective aspect of ordinary compassion.
Kamalasila’s Stages of Meditation says:

When you spontaneously feel compassion which has the subjective aspect to completely eliminate (emphasis added) the suffering of all living beings – just like a mother’s wish to remove her dear child’s unhappiness – then your compassion is complete and is therefore called great compassion.

Three Levels of Suffering

So how do sentient beings suffer? Buddhism enumerates suffering in many different ways. One such presentation is the three levels of suffering.

1: The suffering of suffering: manifest pain either in the mind or body.

2: The suffering of change: This is subtler than the first. Put simply, it is the fact that pleasurable experiences carry with them the seeds for dissatisfaction. The bliss experienced from eating chocolate, for instance, will if you eat enough in one session, turn into an unpleasant experience.

Geshe Lhundup Sopa says (Steps On The Path To Enlightenment – P91):

All worldly pleasures are impure because they contain the seed of misery. They are not perfect sources of delight. From the yogi perspective, therefore, because ordinary enjoyment changes it is actually suffering.

3: Pervasive suffering: is the suffering of conditioned existence. It is the most subtle and the most difficult of the three to understand.

Just as it would be difficult for someone born into a prison cell who has never seen the ocean, to understand the depth of an ocean. It is difficult for ordinary people to comprehend the depth of our suffering. This does not mean, however, we can’t enjoy life. Just as a prisoner can enjoy a cup of tea, so can we. But understand that, just as a prisoner is locked in a cell, we to are locked in the cell of ego-grasping. By knowing this, we are motivated to do something about our situation and the suffering of others.

What are the Causes of Suffering?

The root cause of suffering is the fundamental ignorance grasping at an inherently-existent self. If we are to generate a wish for all living beings to be free from suffering and its causes, we must understand how we experience these three levels of suffering. For compassion that is spoken of in Buddhism to be fully developed, one must understand all three levels. We must understand just how the conception of an inherently existent self can be the cause of these sufferings. And we must understand the process involved in completely eliminating this conception.

Je Tsongkhapa has said ( The Great Treatise and The Stages Of The Path To Enlightenment P45):

After you have thoroughly distinguished the objects of meditation according to the previous explanations – how compassion is the root, how the developments of the spirit of enlightenment is the entrance to the Mahayana, and so forth – you must then analyze these explanations with discerning wisdom and elicit the experience produced after sustaining them in meditation. You will not achieve anything with the unclear experiences that come when you make a short, concentrated effort without precisely clarifying the topic with your understanding. Know that this is true for other kinds of practices as well.

Summary

To completely eliminate suffering, is different than a wish for a living being to be free from a particular manifest suffering such as a headache.
In order to completely eliminate suffering one must eliminate the causes of suffering, otherwise this elimination will remain incomplete as the potential for future suffering is still present. The fundamental or root cause of suffering is ego-grasping. Therefore, you must understand from within your own experience the suffering related to ego-grasping, in order to infer it on others. To have the wish that all living beings be free from suffering and its causes, means you must know how sentient beings suffer and what the causes of that suffering are. Without that understanding your compassion will remain mere empathy.