Friday, April 6, 2012

Buddhism: Science of Mind

His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama
Photo/Tenzin Choejor 

Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism
I am pleased to introduce to you a passage by His Holiness the Dalai Lama that presents Buddhism as a science of mind. In three brief paragraphs, the Dalai Lama summarizes the essentials of Tibetan Buddhism, so this text is also an excellent and concise introduction to this unique tradition. Thanks to His Holiness' scientific and universal approach in this passage, the Dalai Lama makes Tibetan Buddhism accessible and especially comprehensible to the Western reader. The Dalai Lama does not explain from a third person neuroscientific perspective, but rather from the first person scientific perspective of Buddhist researchers of the mind. The first person perspective is being studied today by neuroscientists, and provides a fruitful basis for dialogue and cooperation between the Buddhist science of mind training and Western science.

In the passage before us, the Dalai Lama presents negative emotions as our true enemy, and emphasizes that since we cannot remove the negative emotions by surgery, mind training is the only way to free ourselves from them - that is the importance of mind training. The Dalai Lama talks about different levels of consciousness, and explains that by working with the most subtle consciousness, we can remove the negative emotions from our hearts. The Tibetan Buddhist meditation techniques were developed in order to uproot the negative emotions from our mind quickly and with maximum efficacy. The Dalai Lama shows us the main reasoning behind mind training, and thereby accepts the argument that Buddhism is essentially a science of mind.

Prior to reading His Holiness' text, I briefly introduce the Three Yanas, the Vehicles, that the Dalai Lama mentions, and devote a few preliminary words to the type of text and the restrictions that apply to students regarding texts of this type. Following each paragraph by His Holiness below, I explain the text. In my view, this passage stands on its own, but the explanations are intended to clarify a bit more for the reader for whom Tibetan Buddhism may be new and foreign.
 Jhado Tulku Rinpoche 

The Vehicles – Paths of Practice
The Vehicles are different ways we can practice, different intentions that we can cultivate in our minds. The Fundamental Vehicle (Hinayana, Theravada) is the cultivation of the intention not to harm others, the practice of ethics, out of the understanding that there are present and future consequences to our actions, and out of a wish to improve our fortune in the present and in the future. At this fundamental level, I and mine are still central.

The Mahayana vehicle, way or scope, is the development of the altruistic intention, the intention that all beings be happy, and the wish to help them, as much we can, to realize happiness. The more we develop the altruistic intention, the more our practice will ultimately benefit our own selves. The Dalai Lama advises us to be wise egotists – if we wisely practice thinking of others and doing for others, we will be the first to obtain the benefit. “In our concern for others, we worry less about ourselves. When we worry less about ourselves, an experience of our own suffering is less intense.1

Vajrayana2 is the tantric path, the path of practice guided by an experienced and qualified teacher, a relatively short and fast path to the realization of enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. These three paths of practice refer to the different Buddhist teachings (“Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel”) that spread to the different parts of the world – the Fundamental Vehicle to the countries of southeast Asia such as Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Mahayana to China, Korea and Japan, and Vajrayana to Tibet. Practice according to these three vehicles is practice according to what the Buddha taught. Lest we be mistaken, ethics is an essential basis for Mahayana and Vajrayana practice, and according to Tibetan Buddhism, all three of these vehicles together comprise the graded path to enlightenment.

Tantric Text
Meditation has different levels of practice. Tibetan Buddhism encompasses all the levels of meditation practice, from beginners to the most advanced. Tantra is advanced meditation practice3 that also has various levels. Dzogchen, the “Great Perfection,” is the highest level of tantric practice in the Nyingma tradition4 of Tibetan Buddhism, and in Tibetan Buddhism generally. The text I have chosen was taken from a book by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, “Dzogchen,”5 that deals with this highest tantric practice. The Sanskrit word 'tantra' means 'warp' (the threads of a loom), and from here also: continuity, as in the continuity of a spiritual tradition that is transferred from teacher to student in a continuous lineage.6

Forbidden Texts
In Tibetan Buddhism, it is forbidden to read tantric books without the appropriate permissions and empowerments. What can we compare this to? We won't fly a plane without the appropriate training and a license. We received permisson from Ven. Sangye Khadro to read this specific section from "Dzogchen" by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, as an introduction to Buddhism. 

 Ven. Sangye Khadro

With these causes and conditions, from a book that is forbidden to me and to most of us to read, let's move on now to the text by His Holiness the Dalai Lama:
~ ~ ~
How can we exemplify different levels of consciousness in our experience? When the sensory perceptions such as seeing, hearing and so on are active, we are at a level where our state of mind is quite coarse. Compared to this, the consciousness of the dream state is regarded as much subtler. Even subtler still is the state of consciousness associated with particular experiences like fainting, or falling unconscious. The subtlest level of consciousness is experienced at the time of death. The unique approach utilized in the practices of Highest Yoga Tantra is to utilize the subtlest level of consciousness as a state of wisdom that realizes emptiness. This is a very swift and profound approach.5

The Consciousness of Death – the Most Subtle Consciousness
His Holiness explains about levels of awareness. What is the most subtle consciousness while we are still alive? Dr. Brian Weiss, a psychiatrist who heads a hospital psychiatric ward in a Florida hospital and is author of the book, “Many Lives Many Masters,”7 didn't believe in anything spiritual until a woman he treated with hypnosis began reporting her past lives. At the end of each reincarnation she described in detail, she would re-experience her death, and in the transition from life to life, under hypnosis, she served as a medium, transmitting very meaningful messages from spiritual teachers that were intended for Dr. Weiss. This is an example of the most subtle level of awareness.

Another example of the most subtle level of awareness at the time of death is the state of “thukdam” that Tibetan spiritual teachers remain in after physical death, but before their consciousness has completely disconnected from the body. This state, in which the body does not begin to decay, can last for a week or longer; a Tibetan lama (spiritual teacher) remained in this state for 18 days in 2008 and was examined by scientists with the newest and most modern equipment available to science.8 Thukdam is common in Tibet: only the mind of an adept is capable of remaining in thukdam.

The Wisdom that Realizes Emptiness
The wisdom that realizes emptiness is the most exalted view in Tibetan Buddhism and in Buddhism generally. The wisdom that realizes emptiness is the wisdom that removes ignorance regarding how the I exists, the ignorance that is the root of all the suffering of existence. The wisdom that realizes emptiness is the wisdom that uproots the root of suffering, the root of the negative emotions, from the mind's continuum. One must apply one's logic over and over in order to check, examine, reflect and correctly discern how the I exists. We usually grasp the I, the self, as inherently and independently existing. Conventional truth is the way the I, phenomena and objects appear to exist, inherently and independently. Ultimate truth is different – the I exists dependently, not inherently, as a result of causes and conditions, on the basis of its parts, and finally, on the basis of imputation alone, by convention. These two truths exist simultaneously and are simultaneously correct. I will not elaborate on this subject here. Prof. Robert Thurman says it differently, “One is all and all is one.” Much has been written about emptiness in Buddhism, and whoever has not yet delved into this important question, of how the I exists, is invited to do so, by reading and by observing the mind itself.9

A Swift and Profound Approach
Based on the experience of teachers from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, concentrative meditation (focus meditation, placement meditation) on a mental image is the fastest and most efficient practice by which to access the most subtle levels of consciousness. Even by the fastest method, fast is not so fast. In accordance with our karma, we will need to practice years or even lifetimes until our mind is serviceable and pliant. Water dripping on rock, bird wings chafing a cliff, a feather brushing an iron rod to make a needle,10 are analogies for the Sisyphean and slow work needed for mind training. In Tibetan Buddhism, the nine stages of progression in concentrative meditation, shamata in Sanskrit, are described in detail. The state beyond the ninth level, named 'calm abiding,' allows us to work with the most subtle level of consciousness, the consciousness of death. It is said that one can remain in the 'calm abiding' state for “hours, days, weeks, months, years and eons.”11

The Dalai Lama explains that in Tibetan Buddhism, Highest Yoga Tantra makes use of the consciousness of death in order to liberate from mental suffering, to liberate from the mistaken grasping of the I or self, for the cessation of suffering, for enlightenment. When analytical reasoning, the understanding of emptiness, the correct view of how the I exists, is combined with a serviceable and pliant mind, along with compassion and a large accumulation of merit, with the help of a teacher, we can uproot ignorance, which is the root of suffering. As we have already seen, the Tibetans like analogies. To what can it be compared? A mind trained in concentration is like a drill, the understanding of emptiness fitted upon this drill is like the drill bit, and with these two, we then have a very powerful tool for breaking down walls. By drilling a small hole in the wall of the mistaken perception of I with this tool, we can uproot the root of negative emotions and attain liberation.12

"Destructive Emotions," the true enemy
~ ~ ~
The fundamental philosophical principle of Buddhism is that all our suffering comes about as a result of an undisciplined mind, and this untamed mind itself comes about because of ignorance and negative emotions. For the Buddhist practitioner then, regardless whether he or she follows the approach of the Fundamental Vehicle, Mahayana or Vajrayana, negative emotions are always the true enemy, a factor that has to be overcome and eliminated. And it is only by applying methods for training the mind that these negative emotions can be dispelled and eliminated. This is why in Buddhist writings and teachings we find such an extensive explanation of the mind and its different processes and functions. Since these negative emotions are states of mind, the method or technique for overcoming them must be developed from within. There is no alternative. They cannot be removed by some external technique, like a surgical operation.5

An Undisciplined Mind Is the Source of Suffering
The Dalai Lama says that all our mental suffering comes from an undisciplined mind. Is that true? Our mind colors every moment of our experience. A sick person who accepts his illness with patience will smile to his guests; an angry impatient sick person will suffer twice as much, from the physical suffering as well as from the mental suffering. Life will always have ups and downs, successes and disappointments. Our ability to cope with these unexpected or unavoidable changes, with the impermanence of life and the difficulties life brings us, will determine the extent of our mental suffering in the course of our lives. A person who attributes his suffering to external sources will find, sooner or later, that there are countless external causes and conditions for continual dissatisfaction. External factors, the people we meet and so on, are not in our control. The Buddhists say that we cannot cover the whole world in leather to avoid stepping on the thorns and stones, but we can put on a pair of shoes, pieces of leather on the soles of our feet, so that we can walk more easily amidst the thorns and stones. An undisciplined mind is the mind we have until we are freed from the mistaken view of I, until enlightenment.

Taming the Mind - The Most Important Task
Therefore, if we really want peace of mind, if we really want to be free of the negative emotions that arise from ignorance – anger, hatred, greed, pride, desire, jealousy – our most important task is taming our own mind. That is the only way to become free of our tendency to hurt another or ourselves, whether by our thoughts, speech or actions. That is the only way to achieve lasting peace of mind.
~ ~ ~
It is because Buddhism places such emphasis on eliminating the root of suffering through a process of mental training, rather than relying on principles based on a belief in a divine being or theory of creation, that a number of people have observed that Buddhism is not a religion in the true sense of the word, but, more properly speaking, is a science of mind. There seem to be some genuine grounds for such a conclusion.5

Science of Mind
The Dalai Lama sometimes explains that Buddhist science is the knowledge, Buddhist philosophy is the understanding, based on this knowledge, that the possibility for change exists, and Buddhist religion is the practical way to bring about the desired change.

Today neuroscientists are verifying the Buddhist claim that we can develop and change the mind through mind training. An entire field of study, neuroplasticity,13 has resulted from the collaboration of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan monks with neuroscientists. Examples of productive collaboration between neuroscientists and the Tibetan masters are studies by Prof. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin,14  15 and the many publications by participants of the Mind and Life Institute.16 17 Matthieu Ricard, a Tibetan Buddhist monk of French origin, a former scientist, was Prof. Davidson's research subject, and according to the data for his pre-frontal cortex, he is 4.5 standard deviations happier than the average person, so he is sometimes called “the happiest man in the world.” There is no doubt that meditation on compassion leads to happiness and peace of mind.

Ven. Matthieu Ricard after emerging from the MRI, with Prof. Richard Davidson

Examining the Truth
As a researcher of the mind, the practitioner must examine, reflect and really delve into the question of how the I and phenomena exist. This means study, reflection and direct experience of a view that is different from the one to which we are accustomed. As we have seen, the wisdom that realizes emptiness is the most exalted wisdom – we are referring to a particular view. Buddhism therefore places great importance on what is called 'right views.' In ranking of importance, among the ten non-virtues in Buddhist ethical practice, of the two worst non-virtues18 recommended and advisable to refrain from,19 one is 'wrong views.' Wrong views are included in the “three non-virtues of mind” that are warmly recommended and advisable to refrain from (the three are: envy, harmful intent, and wrong views), that “cut the root” of mind training.20 We can begin examining while we hold onto doubt - there is doubt tending to the wrong, doubt tending to the right and neutral doubt. If we are uncertain about something, we should at least have neutral doubt – an open mind.

What is the place of faith in Buddhism? The Tibetans speak about three types of faith, “believing faith,” “aspiring faith” and “knowing faith.” Believing faith is the faith of a person who doesn't know, but is open to accepting the possibility that another has experience that he himself doesn't have. Spiritual teachers say that there is a path to enlightenment and that there is a state of cessation of suffering, the state of enlightenment. Spiritual teachers also say that there are consequences to our actions, the good and the bad, in this life and in future lifetimes. Although we do not have any experience or knowledge in these areas, we can trust the words of a reliable spiritual teacher who has no egotistical intention for himself, and has a kind and sincere intention for us; through a teacher we develop believing faith.

Aspiring faith develops when we observe the qualities of a spiritual teacher who we respect and say to ourselves, “I want what he has. I want peace of mind and patience, and the qualities that I see and appreciate in him.” The Tibetan teachers explain that from this point, from the moment aspiring faith develops in our minds, this is the real refuge.

Knowing faith develops in the course of practice, when we experience, from practice, by personal experience, the same qualities, truths, experiences and views that the teachers speak about. For example, after several months or years of practice, we may find that we are a little more patient, more empathic, less judgmental. These are examples of knowing faith that develops in the course of mind training: I applied it, and I find that this practice really has value. Although mind training has a scientific basis, and perhaps especially for that very reason,21 in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, faith is very important for practice.

Why Is It Important That We Train Our Minds?
As stated, spiritual practice is done in the heart, by paying attention (Hebrew, literally: placing one's heart) and looking inwardly. Through extended observation of the mind and various other practices, by developing concentration, by analyzing and applying reasoning, we learn to recognize how anger and desire arise in us, until we identify the root of the arising of our negative emotions, and can uproot it.

It is customary in the Tibetan tradition to set the motivation before engaging in any activity and to dedicate at the end. In the film “Seven Years in Tibet,”22 when Heinrich Harrer (Brad Pitt) brags to the seamstress Pema Lhaki (Lhakpa Tsamchoe) about his Olympic gold medal, she says, “This is another great difference between our civilization and yours. You admire the man who pushes his way to the top in any walk of life, while we admire the man who abandons his ego.” About 1300 years ago, the Tibetans, a collection of warring tribes scattered over the Himalaya, understood, as a society, that they are killing each other, and that they need this Dharma very much, this medicine for violence, that comes from the thought to harm others, a thought that arises in an untrained mind.23 Tibetan society as a whole, with all of its resources, devoted itself to producing compassionate people.

I dedicate this article with the hope and prayer that we, Israeli society, and the entire human society, will realize we are killing each other, and that we really need this medicine, of looking inward and engaging in spiritual practice, each person in his own way, so that we can take genuine and healthy pride,24 free of ego, in creating compassionate people and a compassionate society, like the Tibetans.

May all beings be happy!

by Janna Weiss
Published on the “Buddhism in Israel” website and on my blog 2010
1 His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Ethics for the New Millennium, p. 62. New York: Riverhead Books. 1999.
2 Vajrayana, Diamond Vehicle, is also called: Mantrayana – Sccret Mantra Vehicle, Tantrayana – Tantra Vehicle
4 Tibetan Buddhism now (2012) has six recognized schools or sects: Nyingma, Kaygu, Sakya, Geluk, Bodong, Jonang
5 His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Dzogchen: The Heart Essence of the Great Perfection, pp. 106-107, Patrick D. Gaffney, ed., Richard Barron, trans. New York: Snow Lion Publications. 2001.
7 Weiss, Brian L. Many Lives Many Masters. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1988 (Hebrew edition cited in original article, Qiryat Tivon: Mirkam Publishers. 1996.)
8 Former Ganden Tripa stays on thukdam for 18 days. Phayul October 7, 2008.
10 Prof. Robert Thurman tells the classical story of Arya Asanga with all the analogies for cultivation of the mind. Video 20 min.
11 Gen Gyatso, Dharma Friends of Israel retreats, 2009, 2010.
12 My thanks to Ven. Sean Price for teaching this analogy.
13 For example: Schwartz, Jeffrey M. and Begley, Sharon. The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 2002.
14 Prof. Richard Davidson and his group at the University of Wisconsin.
15 Matthieu Ricard, Tibetan Buddhist monk of French origin, photographer and former scientist, speaks about the importance of mind training for achieving lasting happiness. At the end of the talk, Ricard presents some of his friend, Prof. Richard Davidson's research, in which he participated as subject. Video 20 min.
16 Mind and Life Institute
17 Goleman, Daniel. Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. New York: Bantam Dell (Random House, Inc.). 2003. (Hebrew edition cited in the original, Moshav Ben Shemen: Modan Publishers, 2005.)
18 In the Hebrew original, 'non-virtues' is translated as 'thou shalt nots' and Buddhist non-virtue is explained in a footnote.
19 The ten “warmly recommended” to abandon are: 3 of body: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct; 4 of speech: lying, divisive speech, harmful speech, idle speech; 3 of mind: envy, harmful intent, wrong views
20 My thanks to Chamtrul Rinpoche for this explanation.
21 My thanks to Ven. (Guy) Phuntsok who pointed out the importance of faith in Buddhism to me.
22 Annaud, Jean-Jacques. Seven Years in Tibet (Part 7/15). USA 1997.
23 Geshe Pema Dorjee, Dharma Friends of Israel retreat, April 2009.
24 Tibetan Buddhism distinguishes between two types of pride, negative pride that arises from ego, and 'pride of the deity,' healthy pride, self-confidence without ego (distinguished from self-esteem that is related to ego according to research)

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