Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

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Nirvana and Psychology

July 13, 2017

Nirvana in Buddhism is the state of nothingness, either non-existence or simply bliss. For an essence to be in nirvana, they have nothing left of their identity, no desires, no events, no change. Is this something that should be in an improved Buddhism, should not be, or only in a modified state?


Because of the difficulty in conceiving of the reality of any immaterial essences, the object which travels between incarnations, this is almost a moot point. However, there might be something to be learned from its nature and role in Buddhism.


Why would a Buddhist, or a Hindu sharing the same afterlife beliefs, want to go into nirvana? Buddha revolutionized the Hindu process for achieving it, by stating that it was possible to achieve it in one lifetime, not only after a long series of reincarnations. With this modification, some of the unpleasantness in the definition of the immaterial essence seems to be reduced. Buddha’s teaching was that meditation was the key to achieving nirvana, but this means that those who die young, before they have had time within their lives to master meditation, would have to be reincarnated and try again.


Perhaps an approach to the difficulties of self-consistency and agreement with physical laws might be to assume that nirvana is a goal to be sought during one’s lifetime, and, while not achievable in full, can be nearly achieved by the use of Buddhist techniques such as meditation. But does not wanting anything at all seem like a goal that works for most possible practitioners of Buddhism? Buddha seems to have accepted this ancient Hindu goal, but it seems more like a goal for those who are oppressed and deprived, to make their state more acceptable, if not changeable.


Some Buddhist sects use meditation not for a highway to eternity in nirvana, but instead as a technique for either improving their mental state in the present, or for focusing their intentions on improving some aspects of their life or the lives of others close to them, in the future. Buddha’s direction for those who wished to improve their lives consisted in having them follow his Eightfold Way, a set of very simplified guidelines for how to make decisions when confronted with difficult choices. The first set of worldly goals involves something that seems very congruent with today’s society, in which individuals are concerned with how to succeed and to improve their economic, health, or other situations, while the Eightfold Way seems to be something more akin to recent past times, when moral questions might dominate the horizon for an individual. What goals might be incorporated in an improved Buddhism: improve your standing in society, follow a prescribed moral path, or prepare for some afterlife? Perhaps these correspond to phases of life, with young people being intent on achieving whatever they can while they can be filled full of enthusiasm, either naturally or by the influence of religion, middle-aged people interested in living a just and fair life after they have achieved some station, and old people thinking about an afterlife or at least a calm and quiescent old age. There was, at least at Buddha’s era, a Hindu tradition dividing life into these three periods.


Buddha’s biography has him passing through the first two periods, of youth and education, and family and career, very rapidly. He was born and schooled as a prince, and married young and had a child, but left them early to meditate and understand life somewhat better. He had lived a sheltered life, free from deprivation or suffering, either in his own personal experience or in what he observed inside his family palace, and was taken aback upon seeing examples of it when he first travelled outside the palace grounds. It is no great surprise that he later stated his goal was in teaching others how to mentally handle suffering, specifically by avoiding and eliminating desires and longings. Since he had hardly witnessed it prior to his initial departure from the palace, after marriage and child, it could easily be seen as something to completely capture his attention and demand his focus on, seeking some way to incorporate this into his rather insulated prior learning. What he came up was, in essence, a prescription for marching toward nirvana, specifically by meditation, similar to what was being practiced by other great teachers of that era on the Indian subcontinent.


Buddha apparently mastered the art of training his immediate followers to memorize his teachings, almost word-for-word, and transmit them to the next generation. This means that other teachers, who did not do this, had teachings that were lost to the future, where Buddha’s were not. Only several centuries after his death were they recorded and transmitted in written form, rather than oral tradition. This particular trait might be more important to the preservation of his teachings than its competition with those of others in his era or later. Having a good message is certainly critically important, but ensuring its preservation and dispersion is as well. This is yet one more reason not to be hesitant about striving to improve these teachings and make them more appropriate for our later era.


Nirvana provides a less disturbing picture for family and associates of a person who dies, than simple material decay and dissolution. As a comfort, it might have some role in an improved Buddhism, even if no one takes it too seriously. Grief can be very difficult to handle in the short term, and in this role, perhaps thinking about nirvana can bring some relief. However, for intelligent people, there might be too much disconnection from reality for it to play a large role. It does provide a way of speaking that might cause less emphasis on the loss, so a terminology or set of euphemisms might be the proper role for nirvana.


Without nirvana and without immaterial essences for reincarnation, Buddhists have no long-term individual goals, only the goal of having a satisfying and fulfilling life. Buddhism, via meditative techniques and the intra-religious support that social networks can provide, can certainly aid members in achieving this, both in dealing with setbacks and sadness and in facing challenges. Having a controlled mind, calm and able to concentrate, is a tremendous benefit, and is perhaps the instrument by which life changes can be effected.


These two features of real-life Buddhism, meditation and the community of adherents, are not completely disconnected. To be part of a social network and to benefit from that connection implies something about the mental state of the adherents. Meditation affects that. So also does the more general rules for living that Buddha left behind. Meditation assists the members to live according to Buddha’s suggested rules, which are not very different from the rules for living in other religions. However, these rules are often broken, and the phenomena connected with breaking them is often the emotional state of the person. In some situations, it is what Buddha called ‘grasping’. This is an emotional state leading to intensely seeking benefit that overwhelms any sense of fair play. Other emotional states which lead to rule breaking include revenge and hatred. Meditation quiets the emotions, and leaves the mind more free to make decisions based on the consideration of others. Emotions result from neurochemicals and hormones being pumped into the brain from one of several glands, and one aspect of meditation is learning the control of these, although it is not taught as such.


Another benefit of meditation is that it allows the noise in the brain to subside, again, another biofeedback training exercise. This allows the practitioner to think more clearly and focus on planning for some future activity. Both emotional control and focus are ideal attributes for community members to have. Thus, meditation, with its dual benefits neurologically, has a very serious long-term benefit in training members of the Buddhist community to be suitable individuals for interpersonal relations. Of course, it is possible to have jealousy, hate, rage, suspicion, plotting, ambition, and other emotions within a Buddhist community; nothing is perfect. However, the use of meditation should relieve much of these if done properly.


Buddhism, and its predecessor Hinduism together with its other offshoots, has as a core technique, meditation, which has both intrinsic benefits for the individual practitioner an. These might also be considered to be tailored for the individual, as it allows each person to calm their own mind. Since our minds can have multiple emotional problems, meditation has to be a general technique for dealing with them all. It might be considered self-controlled biofeedback, as the individual practitioner monitors his own state and perhaps continues or modifies his practice to make progress. It also has wider effects on the Buddhist community, turning most individuals into, at least emotionally, people with psychologies well suited for interaction, support, sharing and commiseration. Nirvana is not necessary at all for this to work, and is somewhat surplus to an improved Buddhism, except as a way of expressing support at a time of loss of an individual to those who were close to him. Thus, Buddhism can become more compact in its message, and not lose anything valuable for today’s world.


Reincarnation and Science

July 4, 2017

In order to try and understand if the concept of reincarnation has any role in contemporary Buddhism, it is first necessary to see if it can be defined in a way which is both self-consistent and not in violation of any known scientific laws. If there is no self-consistent way to define it, then there is no use in bothering to see how it compares with what is known via science, as a concept which is inconsistent within itself cannot be valid. If there is such a self-consistent definition, then it can be compared with science. This is not to say that science is always valid. Instead, it is important to see what the disconnects are between science and the concept, and then examine the science to see how justified it is. There is a big difference between a science fact which has been verified a thousand times and forms an important part of a larger theory, and someone’s science theory which is still speculative. There is a wide gulf between these two and knowing just where the contradiction is will be helpful in deciding on the proper position of reincarnation in modern Buddhism.


First off, consider self-consistency. The concept of reincarnation is that there is a set of entities, which we will term essences, that are connected with humans and animals while they are alive and then migrate, after some period, to another one at or around a birth event. Just which types of animals are included can be left for a later discussion. It helps to label these entities, with a particular essence being E0, and the humans it connects to as H0 currently, H1 next, H2 after that, and H-1 the previous one, H-2 before that, and so on. The animal sequence is, assuming that E0 is not connected to H0, would be A1, A2, A3 in the future, and A-1, A-2, A-3, in the past.


Now the connection mechanism between E0 and H0 needs to be defined. E0 is assumed to be composed of some non-material substance not yet detected by science. The space it occupies may or may not be the normal three-dimensional space that physical objects occupy. If it does occupy this space, it has a location and an extent. If it doesn’t, there has to be a mechanism by which the two types of spaces interact. Call these the physical world hypothesis and the immaterial world hypothesis.


What is postulated about the interaction between E0 and H0? Is there supposed to be some high-data-rate connection between the two, so that E0 can influence the actions of H0? Or does E0 just exist as a parasite, not contributing anything to the activities of H0? Call these the interactive and non-interactive hypotheses.


There is much more to the concept of reincarnation in the early theories of Buddhism, involving the propagation of E0 through the sequence of Hi, and about the final stage, but not the initial stages of the situation of E0. These can actually be discussed separately, as the existence question might be answered consistently, but the dynamics of essence objects can be completely different from Buddhism. In other words, maybe Buddhism got this concept partially correct but partially incorrect.


Consider the non-interactive hypothesis. Here E0 simply exists, and somehow H0 is labeled as being the possessor of it. E0 does nothing but goes along for the ride. Since E0 has no effect on H0, there might as well be no E0, for all H0 can tell. What happens to E0 does not affect H0, so there is no reason why H0 would make any changes at all to affect what happens to E0, except for some weird interdimensional altruism. Thus, if the non-interactive hypothesis is valid, there might certainly be some essences, but their existence in inconsequential to everything in the physical world and can be ignored completely. Thus, the only hypothesis that can fit in with Buddhism is the interactive one. The interactive one needs to be detailed somewhat in order to see how it relates to the immaterial world hypothesis. How does E0 connect with H0?


What part of H0’s body does E0 affect? One choice might be the nervous system, but all the cat scans, fMRIs, EEG’s, PET scans, and other types of brain imaging and monitoring tools have seen no signs of any effect of any non-material essences. This is a science question, not a self-consistency one, but it relates to how to possibly define an essence so that it has some hope of not being ruled out scientifically. Could an essence turn itself off in the presence of any brain imaging or monitoring technology? That would mean it would have, in and of itself, some grand sentient power plus some way to view the entire world plus a means of interpreting it plus a way to modify its behavior as technology changes.


Is there some other part of the body of H0 that E0 could affect? Medicine hasn’t detected that, but what would the point of reincarnation be if there was only an interaction between E0 and H0’s liver, to use an absurd example. At this point, it is fairly clear that there is no way to self-consistently define an essence which interacts with human beings and remains undetected. Thus, no reincarnation.


Even if there was a self-consistent role for reincarnation and essences in this limited domain of the interaction of an essence and a human, there would still be problems connected with the rest of the antique belief structure which surrounded them. These problems relate to origin and destruction questions for essences, the contradiction of the necessary sentience of an essence with the final postulated role it plays with nirvana, and possibly some quantitiative ones. These do not need to be explored, but perhaps for the sake of interest, they might be later.


What would happen if reincarnation were expunged from contemporary Buddhism? What role does it play, if any? Modern Buddhist sects which appeal to educated audiences do not seem to make use of it, and instead concentrate on providing benefits that occur during the lives of the members participating in Buddhist practices. There has to be some motive for members to be involved with Buddhism. Formerly, it may have been the belief that there were essences with some properties that were important to living humans, and needed some behavioral rules, but with the passage of time and the growth of technology, the niche which such essences might occupy has disappeared. Currently, it is mostly involved with some practices, most often chanting or meditation and social interaction, which have some effect on the mental state of the participants.


There might be some use in discriminating between Buddhism as a religion, Buddhism as a philosophy, and Buddhism as a collection of practices. These may have been all muddled together in more ancient times, but in the spirit of trying to suggest improvements to Buddhism, they can be teased apart.


Buddhism as a religion means an organization which somehow imbues into children the need to belong to it and to grow into adults who teach their children the same need. The organization must have some procedures to follow, and inevitably some means by which those involved in the hierarchy of the organization to survive. Some members of the hierarchy might live in sustenance situations, perhaps agricultural, and this provides a living for them and possibly others if their productivity is high enough. Other members of the hierarchy might be involved with selling goods and services to their members, and yet others might be involved with soliciting charitable and voluntary donations. In return, the hierarchy provides, besides services, a psychological feeling arising from a concordance of the childhood indoctrination and the adult fulfillment of that indoctrination. The sociology of belonging has been explored, and might be followed up here if necessary.

A second part of Buddhism as a religion relates to the interaction of the members of different blocks of the religion. By isolating a certain group of humans as members of a particular subset of a religion, there might be very positive interpersonal support which is generated. This can be a positive influence on someone’s life, especially for people who have significant problems in their lives, which create overwhelming emotional difficulties. Much like other self-help groups for people with specific problems, a Buddhist religious group can provide the interpersonal support necessary for individuals to pass through difficulties and to improve their station in society.


Buddhism as a philosophy is meant to be one variant of philosophy, specifically that type of philosphy which deals with world-views and behavior, known respectively as metaphysics and ethics. Over the last two and a half millennia, Buddhism has accumulated a great deal of philosophical insight, and it has been packaged together well. For those members who seek to understand the questions of metaphysics, Buddhism definitely provides some inputs. For almost all members, Buddhist ethics provides a large package of behavioral rules which can be followed and which would apparently provide a certain type of society, if followed universally. That society might be pacifistic and altrusitic, as far as human nature can provide.


Buddhism as a set of practices might be analogized with yoga, in that certain procedures of meditation can produce some positive effects on certain humans who espouse it. The procedures have not yet quite been reduced by scientific examination so that the neurology of them is understood, and until that happens, Buddhism can serve as a repository of some different variants of these procedures.


In summary, talking about improving Buddhism seems to imply that “Buddhism” be defined, before any imagination is applied to improving it. Is it desired to improve Buddhist meditation practice, or to improve the interpersonal interactions that exist within a subset of a Buddhist organization, or perhaps incorporate some other philosphers’ ideas into Buddhist philosophy? Or is it all of the above?


Why Improve Buddhism?

July 3, 2017

Buddhism is a religion or philosophy that originated with the teachings of Gautama Buddha, about 2500 years ago. The religion has changed tremendously from the time of its founding, and has divided into several branches. There would seem to be no good reason why it should not continue to change and hopefully, in the right direction, so it continually improves.


Society has been changing, and at a very rapid rate, over the last century or two, and this alone should be a good reason to see if Buddhism might be improved. Much has been learned in the fields of science, and new viewpoints on the world and the universe exist now that did not exist previously. So this alone provides a justification for seeing if Buddhism might be improved.


Buddhism is a complex subject and a complex organization, so it will not be easy to improve it. Chemistry might be improved by finding out some new information about some compounds or reactions, but chemistry has some very precise knowledge, arranged in a very comprehensible way, which is very amenable to additions or corrections. Buddhism does not have that set of discrete facts, but is more amorphous. So, perhaps the first step should be to try and define “Baseline Buddhism”, which will be the starting point for searching for ways to improve it.


Different branches of Buddhism differ in emphasis as well as actual doctrine, so some selection is necessary. For the purposes of this blog, no specific branch will be chosen, but instead, some core beliefs will be sorted out and used to compile baseline Buddhism.


There are some beliefs that involve non-physical entities, specifically two: the essence of a living organism and spirit creatures. These figure in the original teachings of Buddha, having originated earlier in the Hindu religion within which Buddha existed. The first is connected with the concept of karma. To be succinct, part of the baseline Buddhism will be the idea that there exists some essence within an organism, and it continues to exist after the death of the organism, and is later re-embodied in another living organism. The concept of karma is that it is somehow better for an essence to be in a higher organism than a lower one, and individuals should strive to be in higher ones at each successive re-incarnation, and they may do that by following some behavioral rules.


Consider the concept of the essence. Exactly what is it? Is it simply a label, an identification of some sort that is connected with an organism and somehow survives its death? The label cannot be physical. If it were some segment of the genetic code for the organism, some stretch of DNA, then this would certainly be detectable. However, it is well known how DNA propagates from organism to organism, and there is no room there for changes away from inherited DNA. If it is not part of the body, what does it consist of? There is no electromagnetic field which accompanies an organism, and no means known by which an electromagnetic field can stay self-contained. There is simply no physical means by which this label can remain in existence between organisms, as well as no way that something physical can be transferred.


Now comes the dilemma. If there is some other type of material which can be attached to an organism, there must be some process which connects to the physical world. How would the essence know where to be if it did not obtain data from the physical world telling it where the organism was? So if such things as an essence exist, there must be some physical signal that starts in the real world and brings information to the material that the essence consists of. The signal has to be of such a nature that it can interact with essence material, and then there has to be a control mechanism within the essence that allows it to track the organism and stay with it. If the essence actually does respond to behavior, this would imply a much larger, immensely larger, transmission of data from physical world to essence world, and a much more sophisticated computational system within the essence to apprehend behavior and make judgments on it.


How would Buddha have deduced what the behavioral rules were that would influence the response of the essence? This implies there is a mechanism for transferring information back from the essence world to the physical world, able to affect the brain of the Buddha, or perhaps his auditory nerves. This means there is some means for two-way information transfer, meaning some physical interaction between essence world and the physical world. In other words, some other force must be playing a role. But decades of research have failed to turn up any nook or cranny in which this mysterious force could exist. Physics is rather complete in this way. So, to have re-incarnation work and Buddhism be able to interpret it, some gap in physics must exist, and it does seem not to have one. The forces would actually have to be rather significant to affect nerves in a brain or an ear, and therefore not so hard to detect.


There is another conclusion that can be drawn. If these forces do not affect an organism, except in the case of Buddha’s brain, why would any person care about what happens to the essence connected to him? It could disappear, and he would not know. It could go and re-incarnate into some other organism long before he died, and he would not know. So, if the essence world does not interact with the physical world, there is no incentive whatsoever to care about what happens within it, that is, to objects within it, no matter what labeling they have.


Another question relates to validation. According to one theory, information about behavioral rules entered the Buddha’s brain by some channel. How exactly can we be certain that the information that he reported was accurate? Perhaps he misunderstood something, or forgot something, or imagined he heard something that did not come across the divide between essence world and physical world. In order to validate these rules, if someone cared to do so, there would have to be some similar transmission to another person, a Buddha prime. Perhaps a third person would be necessary to establish the correctness of what was being reported. The validation question is an important one for anyone considering obeying these rules, as if the rules are partially invalid, they may have wasted valuable time and effort.


A different way of looking at the concept of reincarnation is to consider the sequence of organisms that a essence object connects to. Let’s label the one it is in, which we consider to be a human, as H0. Label the next human in the chain as H1, then H2, and so on, and the previous humans, H-1, H-2, H-3, and so on. Interspersed among these may be some non-human connections, which are A1, A2, A3, and so on going forward in time, and A-1, A-2 and so on going backward. Human H0 is thinking about whether he wants to follow the Buddha’s behavioral rules or ignore them, and he notes that the chain of humans before him apparently did not, else he would either be in a better position in society, or else have achieved nirvana, a final state we will discuss later. If humans have been around for 100,000 years at least, and the mean generation time is 25 years, this means that humans H-1 to H-4000 all failed to do their part to get the essence now in H0 into some more elevated position. If he follows these rules, he can move the essence in H0 into a H1 which is more elevated in society, or who has some other benefits, but why, after 4000 generations have let him down, should he bother? Is it fair that he should be the one to make the sacrifices to follow these rules when obviously the previous H’s did not? This is a completely independent question from validation, and still remains even under the assumption that no errors exist in the codification of the rules.


One can possibly object, and say only those humans who existed after the behavioral rules were enunciated would qualify, but that is still humans H-1 to H-100, approximately. That still raises the question of fairness. It also raises a completely different question: where were the essences before there were any humans? Did they come into existence at some time? If so, how did that happen? The other end of this question relates to lifetime. Do essences expire after some period? How long is it, 100,000 years, 1,000,000 years, or longer? Will they exist after the Earth is consumed by the sun? Do they do interplanetary travel from planet to planet, seeking organisms to bond with?


In order to keep the concept of reincarnation within an improved Buddhism, it would have to be self-consistent and also not contrary to any known scientific knowledge. That would be the first point to be established, and the second one may be even more important. The theory of reincarnation seems to be tangential to life, and does it do Buddhism any good to have it? Should it be relegated to primitive thinking that is no longer given any attention?




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