Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Buddhist way of overcoming the cycle of birth and death

S.M. Wijayaratne
Kurunegala “Daily News” Corr.

All human beings face and share the same fate. Due to ignorance of the true nature of life, we often weep and wail and sometimes even smile and weep again. When once we realise the true nature of life, we can face the impermanence of all component things and seek liberation.
“Life is uncertain, death is certain”
The Buddha
Everyday we hear of deaths all over the world. Many deaths are caused due to various reasons such as natural disasters, accidents, diseases, war and violence. Are we ready to face death fearlessly?
Once life is launched, like a bullet it must reach its destination which is death.
All of us have to face this inevitable, natural phenomenon whether we like it or not. The sooner this truth is accepted, the better we will be able to direct our lives for a good purpose. Actually, we are disturbed not so much by death itself, but by the wrong view we hold of it. Death in itself is not that terrible; what is terrible is the fear of death that prevails in the mind.
Biological clocks
Our lifespan is controlled by our biological clocks which are continuously ticking away. When they run out, sooner or later, there is little we can do to gain extra time.
Once our time is up, we must be prepared to go through the natural process of death. All human beings, irrespective of sex, or race, creed, will have to come to terms with death. There is no alternative escape. Death is an inevitable process of this world.
It is not often that we are brave enough to come face to face with the thought of our own mortality. Yet, man is not free in life unless he is also free from the fear of death.
It is hard to bear the loss of people whom we love because of our attachment to them.
This happened to Visakha, a well-known lady devotee during the time of the Buddha. When she lost her beloved granddaughter, she visited the Fully-Awakened One to seek advice in her great sorrow. “Visakha, would you like to have as many sons, daughters grandsons and granddaughters as there are children in this town?” asked the Buddha.
“Yes, Sir, I would indeed!”
“But how many children die daily in this town?” The Buddha questioned “Several, Sir. The town is never free from children dying, Sir,” Visakha replied.
“Then, Visakha, in such a case, would you cry for all of them? Visakha, those who have a hundred things beloved, they have a hundred sorrows. He who has nothing beloved, has no sorrow.
Such persons are free from sorrow.” The Buddha mercifully enlightened Visakha over the death of human beings.
When we develop attachment, we also must be prepared to pay the price of sorrow when separation takes place.
The love of life can sometimes develop a morbid fear of death. We will not take any risks even for a rightful cause. We live in fear that illness or accident will put an end to our seemingly precious permanent worldly life.
Realizing that death is a certainty, we hope and pray for a survival of the soul in heaven for our own security and preservation. Such beliefs are based on strong craving for continued existence.
Mental stress
According to psychological studies, much mental stress is caused by our refusal to face facts and accept life’s realities. This stress, if not overcome can eventually lead to grave physical illness. Certainly, worry and despair over illness will make it worse.
We cannot pick and choose the kind of illness we desire, nor can we choose the suitable or auspicious time to die. But we can certainly choose to face illness and death without fear.
People are frightened of dead bodies, but in the true sense, the living are in fact far more dangerous and brutal than dead bodies.
Dead bodies do not harm us, but the living are capable of doing enormous harm and could even resort to murder. So, is it not a stupid belief, for people to be afraid or frightened of dead bodies?
Each and every individual should be aware of the role of death in his or her destiny.
Whether royalty or commoner, rich or poor, strong or weak, a man’s final resting place within this life is either in a coffin lying buried six feet underground or in an urn or strewn over the sea.
All human beings face and share the same fate. Due to ignorance of the true nature of life, we often weep and wail and sometimes even smile and weep again. When once we realise the true nature of life, we can face the impermanence of all component things and seek liberation.
Until and unless we achieve our liberation from worldly conditions, we will have to face death over and over again. And in this respect, too, the role of death is very clear. If a person finds death to be unbearable, then he should make every effort to overcome this cycle of birth and death.
May you have wisdom to realise the Four Noble Truths. May you be well and happy.

The changing role of the Buddhist laity in Sri Lanka

The Buddhist laymen are beginning to believe that there is more meaning in the pursuit of the Dhamma that the Buddha taught, than in traditional ritualistic  practices in the hope of gaining privilege, material gain and personal protection. It is true that we have a vast collection of traditional stories, which focus on public worship, celebration and discourse and the ordinary Buddhist is more accustomed to adapt a behaviour as exemplified in them.
The Buddhist layman in Sri Lanka is gradually withdrawing from the ceremonies and rituals commonly practised by Buddhists and turning to gain wisdom otherwise.
They are beginning to believe that the Buddha’s teaching is not meant only for monks in monasteries, but also for the ordinary men and women living at home with their families. For man is his own master and there is no higher being or power that sits in judgement over his destiny. It indeed is the spirit of the teachings of the Buddha.
At his last moment, addressing his closest monk Venerable Ananda, the Buddha explained to him, “Ananda dwell making yourself your island, making yourself, not anyone else, your refuge; making the Dhamma your island (support), the Dhamma your refuge, nothing else your refuge”. So, the man today is trying to make the Dhamma his refuge.
In Buddhism, there is no initiation ceremony like ‘baptism’ which one has to undergo as in the case of many other religions. If one understands the Buddha’s teaching and believes that it is the right path and if one truly follows it, then he is a Buddhist. In short, if one truly observes the Five Precepts (Panca-sila) it is enough for a layman to call himself a Buddhist.
In this context, we must not mistakenly think that the Dhamma exists in our hearts already without the teachings and the teacher. If that were so, we would all be enlightened already. On the contrary, we believe that, not only the teaching exists for us but that there are also teachers who are able to expound it to us.
It is true that traditional religions have been experiencing drawbacks due to technological and industrial advancement and the rise of materialistic cultures. However, it is not equally true of Buddhists who have demonstrated otherwise. Although some of the Buddhists also have entered into competitive commerce, into fishing industry or poultry farming, or are making attempts to increase profits in some of the activities which may not be consistent with the teaching of the Buddha, yet they participate in these activities, while taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and the Sangha.
A noteworthy recent development is that more and more lay Buddhists are beginning to withdraw from these industries and also the traditional noise of various festival celebrations, ancient rites, rituals, myths and symbols. They are gradually seeking the quiet atmosphere of meditation. There are more and more meditation centres run by the laymen, one taking the lead in instruction and training. Of course some of them may be questionable or camouflaged ones but there are many truly dedicated centres and teachers.
Pious life
They are beginning to believe that there is more meaning in the pious life and in the pursuit of wisdom rather than performing rituals in the hope of gaining privilege, material gain and protection. For them the Buddhist belief in the concept of Anatta, (no-soul) seems contradicted by merit-making ceremonies, sometime for the benefit of the soul of the deceased.
Celebrations and rituals are characteristic of Theravada Buddhist practice and they, of course, tend to bring people together in pursuit of a common goal. But for the man who seriously takes the Buddhist path, they tend to drown certain fundamentals of Buddhism, just as the consumption of alcohol by some laymen at a domestic religious ceremony, or even a proud father at the ordination of his son into monkhood, which is both inconsistent with the holy occasion and the Buddhist concept not to consume intoxicating beverages.
The Buddhist laymen are beginning to believe that there is more meaning in the pursuit of the Dhamma that the Buddha taught, than in traditional ritualistic practices in the hope of gaining privilege, material gain and personal protection. It is true that we have a vast collection of traditional stories, which focus on public worship, celebration and discourse and the ordinary Buddhist is more accustomed to adapt a behaviour as exemplified in them. But today increasing numbers of educated lay persons are drifting away from these practices and are paying more attention to the essence of the teaching of the Buddha.
Another important development in the changing role of the Buddhist laity in Sri Lanka is the emergence of lay associations to promote and protect Buddhism. They have taken over, in part, some of the responsibilities of the Sangha. In general these organisations have helped Buddhist education and welfare.
Some of our early leaders in the movement for the revival of Buddhism formed bodies such as the Young Men’s Buddhist Association which have conducted Dhamma schools and examinations aimed at providing the youth with some standard of religious instructions as is imparted by the Sangha in temple schools.
The need arose for emergence of organisations to protect Buddhist interest nationally and internationally, when the Colonial rulers ignored Buddhism. The societies formed by laymen like the Paranavinnartha Bauddha Sangamaya, All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, Mahabodhi Society founded by the famous lay Buddhist, Anagarika Dharmapala, all took over some aspect of Buddhist education and propagation, establishment of Buddhist Schools, running orphanages, homes for the deaf and blind, and centres for the aged and delinquents.
These organisations stood in defence of the Buddhist traditions and institutions when they were largely undermined and challenged during the colonial period. In addition to these lay bodies, numerous lay writers and publishers of Buddhist books also took over some of the responsibilities of Buddhist education that was solely handled by the Sangha.
Today the society is unbelievable violent. Mothers throw away their own new-born infants to be picked up by an animal or well-wishers or to be naturally decomposed. The son kills father or father kill son. A whole family is erased forever by one gunman. A legislator kills a fellow legislator. Today killing is as common as smiling. It is against the urgency of this background that the teachings of Buddhism about violence must be studied and interpreted.
The Buddhist attitude to killing is summed up in the Dhammapada thus:
All tremble at violence,
All fear death;
Comparing oneself with others,
One should neither kill nor cause others to kill. so, the Buddhist Sangha as well as the Buddhist laity has an urgent duty of taking a lead in arresting this dangerous social menace.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Buddhism more scientific than modern science

 (Ven. Ajahn Brahmavamso Thero)


I used to be a scientist. I did Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University, hanging out in the same building as the later-to-be-famous Professor Stephen Hawking. I became disillusioned with such science when, as an insider, I saw how dogmatic some scientists could be.

A dogma, according to the dictionary, is an arrogant declaration of an opinion. This was a fitting description of the science that I saw in the labs of Cambridge. Science had lost its sense of humility. Egotistical opinion prevailed over the impartial search for Truth. My favourite aphorism from that time was: “The eminence of a great scientist, is measured by the length of time that they OBSTRUCT PROGRESS in their field”!

To understand real science, one can go back to one of its founding fathers, the English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561 – 1628). He established the framework on which science was to progress, namely “the greater force of the negative instance”. This meant that, having proposed a theory to explain some natural phenomenon, then one should try one’s best to disprove it! One should test the theory with challenging experiments.

One must put it on trial with rigorous argument. When a flaw appears in the theory, only then does science advance. A new discovery has been made enabling the theory to be adjusted and refined. This fundamental and original methodology of science understood that it is impossible to prove anything with absolute certainty. One can only disprove with absolute certainty.
Some misguided scientists maintain the theory that there is no rebirth, that this stream of consciousness is incapable of returning to a successive human existence. All one needs to disprove this theory, according to science, is to find one instance of rebirth, just one! Professor Ian Stevenson, as some of you would know, has already demonstrated many instances of rebirth. The theory of no rebirth has been disproved. Rebirth is now a scientific fact!

Ordinary people know so little about science that they can hardly even understand the jargon. Yet, if they read in a newspaper or magazine “a scientist says that?”, then they automatically take it to be true.

Compare this to our reaction when we read in the same journal “a politician says that?”! Why do scientists have such unchallenged credibility? Perhaps it is because the language and ritual of science has become so far removed from the common people, that scientists have become today’s revered and mystical priesthood. Dressed in their ceremonial white lab coats, chanting incomprehensible mumbo jumbo about multi-dimensional fractal parallel universes, and performing magical rituals that transubstantiate metal and plastic into TV’s and computers, these modern day alchemists are so awesome we’ll believe anything they say. Elitist science, as once was the Pope, is now infallible.

Some know better. Much of what I learnt 30 years ago has now been proved wrong. There are, fortunately, many scientists with integrity and humility who affirm that science is, at best, a work still in progress. They know that science can only suggest a truth, but can never claim a truth. I was once told by a Buddhist G.P. that, on his first day at a medical school in Sydney, the famous Professor, head of the Medical School, began his welcoming address by stating “Half of what we are going to teach you in the next few years is wrong. Our problem is that we do not know which half it is!” Those were the words of a real scientist.

Buddhism is more scientific than modern science. Like science, Buddhism is based on verifiable cause-and-effect relationships. But unlike science, Buddhism challenges with thoroughness every belief. The famous Kalama Sutta of Buddhism states that one cannot believe fully in “what one is taught, tradition, hearsay, scripture, logic, inference, appearance, agreement with established opinion, the seeming competence of a teacher, or even in one’s own teacher”. How many scientists are as rigorous in their thinking as this? Buddhism challenges everything, including logic.

It is worth noting that Quantum Theory appeared quite illogical, even to such great scientists as Einstein, when it was first proposed. It is yet to be disproved. Logic is only as reliable as the assumptions on which it is based. Buddhism trusts only clear and objective experience.

Clear experience occurs when one’s measuring instruments, one’s senses, are bright and undisturbed. In Buddhism, this happens when the hindrances of sloth-and-torpor and restlessness-and-remorse are both overcome. Objective experience is that which is free from all bias. In Buddhism, the three types of bias are desire, ill will and sceptical doubt. Desire makes one see only what one wants to see, it bends the truth to fit one’s preferences. Ill will makes one blind to whatever is disturbing or disconcerting to one’s views and it distorts the truth by denial. Sceptical doubt stubbornly refuses to accept those truths, like rebirth, that are plainly valid but which fall outside of one’s comforting worldview. In summary, clear and objective experience only happens when the Buddhist ‘Five Hindrances’ have been overcome. Only then can one trust the data arriving through one’s senses.

Because scientists are not free of these five hindrances, they are rarely clear and objective. It is common, for example, for scientists to ignore annoying data, which do not fit their cherished theories, or else confine such evidence to oblivion by filing it away as an ‘anomaly’. Even most Buddhists aren’t clear and objective. One has to have recent experience of Jhana to effectively put aside these five hindrances (according to the Nalakapana Sutta, Majjhima No. 68). So only accomplished meditators can claim to be real scientists, that is, clear and objective.

Science claims to rely not only on clear and objective observation, but also on measurement. But what is measurement in science? To measure something, according to the pure science of Quantum Theory, is to collapse the Schroedinger Wave Equation through an act of observation. Moreover, the “un-collapsed” form of the Schroedinger Wave Equation, that is before any measurement is made, is, perhaps, science’s most perfect description of the world. That description is weird! Reality, according to pure science, does not consist of well ordered matter with precise massed, energies and positions in space, all just waiting to be measured. Reality is the broadest of smudges of all possibilities, only some being more probable than others. Even basic ‘measurable’ qualities as ‘alive’ or ‘dead’ have been demonstrated by science to be invalid sometimes. In the notorious ‘Schroedinger’s Cat’ thought experiment, Prof. Schroedinger’s cat was ingeniously placed in a real situation where it was neither dead nor alive, where such measurements became meaningless. Reality, according to Quantum Theory, is beyond measurements. Measuring disturbs reality, it never describes it perfectly. It was Heisenberg’s famous ‘Uncertainty Principle’ that showed the inevitable error between the real Quantum world and the measured world of pseudo-science.

Anyway, how can anyone measure the measurer, the mind? At a recent seminar on Science and Religion, at which I was a speaker, a Catholic in the audience bravely announced that whenever she looks through a telescope at the stars, she feels uncomfortable because her religion is threatened. I commented that whenever a scientist looks the other way round through a telescope, to observe the one who is watching, then they feel uncomfortable because their science is threatened by what is doing the seeing! So what is doing the seeing, what is this mind that eludes modern science?

A Grade-One teacher once asked her class “What is the biggest thing in the world?” One little girl answered “My daddy”. A little boy said “An elephant”, since he’d recently been to the zoo. Another girl suggested “A mountain”. The six-year-old daughter of a close friend of mine replied, “My eye is the biggest thing in the world”! The class stopped. Even the teacher didn’t understand her answer. So the little philosopher explained “Well, my eye can see her daddy, an elephant, and a mountain too. It can also see so much else. If all of that can fit into my eye, then my eye must be the biggest thing in the world”! Brilliant.

However, she was not quite right. The mind can see everything that one’s eye can see, and it can also imagine so much more. It can also hear, smell, taste and touch, as well as think. In fact, everything that can be known can fit into the mind. Therefore, the mind must be the biggest thing in the world. Science’s mistake is obvious now. The mind is not in the brain, nor in the body. The brain, the body and the rest of the world, are in the mind!

Mind is the sixth sense in Buddhism, it is that which encompasses the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, and transcends them with its own domain. It corresponds loosely to Aristotle’s “common sense” that is distinct from the five senses. Indeed, ancient Greek philosophy, from where science is said to have its origins, taught six senses just like Buddhism. Somewhere along the historical journey of European thinking, they lost their mind! Or, as Aristotle would put it, they somehow discarded their “common sense”! And thus we got science. We got materialism without any heart. One can accurately say that Buddhism is a science that has kept its heart, and which hasn’t lost its mind!

Thus Buddhism is not a belief system. It is a science founded on objective observation, i.e. meditation, ever careful not to disturb the reality through imposing artificial measurements, and it is evidently repeatable.

People have been re-creating the experimental conditions, known as establishing the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, for over twenty-six centuries now, much longer than science. And those renowned Professors of Meditation, the male and female Arahants, have all arrived at the same conclusion as the Buddha. They verified the timeless Law of Dhamma, otherwise known as Buddhism. So Buddhism is the only real science, and I’m happy to say that I’m still a scientist at heart, only a much better scientist than I ever could have been at Cambridge.

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