Mahayana Buddhism Study Group

Proposed meeting dates for 2019: 17th March, 19th May, 21st July, 15th Sept from 9am - 12pm at

The Mahayana Study group will gather to study topics and passages from well-known scriptures, and do some readings in the lead-up to each meeting. Then we have a meditation, presentation on the topic, and a discussion group.  It would be similar in format to the dhamma sharing group but by drawing on these texts, there will be a lot of content to draw on.

Examples will include some readings from well-known Mahayana Sutras, including Lankavatara, Vimalakirti, and others.  Also texts such as the Buddha Nature Treatise, Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, and so on.

Topics including prajnaparamita, bodhicitta, and sunyata.

The focus will be on East Asian traditions more than Tibetan (unless someone who is well-versed in Tibetan Buddhism joins.)

It won't be too academic or technical, but some study and reflection will be expected from attendees - readings will be posted here in advance to allow time for preparation.

Turning Up

Q. When one meditates on awareness, where then is this awareness located?

A: Nowhere. Location is in awareness, awareness is not in location. You’re trying to objectify it, locate it amongst the seen and the known. But it can’t be done, because it is prior to that. Hence, un-knowing, ‘don’t know mind’, way of negation.

When you meditate, the only thing that you actually do is turn up. Then the only thing you pay attention to, is you not paying attention. When you notice you’re not paying attention, then you’re paying attention. That is the only part of the whole process that you actually do.

The Factual Basis of Idealism

(Originally posted 2007, edited and updated 2014.)

According to evolutionary biology, Homo Sapiens is the result of billions years of evolution. For all these thousands of millions of years, our sensory and intellectual abilities have been honed and shaped by the exigencies of survival, through billions of lifetimes in various life-forms - fish, lizard, mammal, primate and so on - in such a way as to eventually give rise to the mind that we have today.

Recently, other scientific disciplines such as cognitive and evolutionary psychology have revealed that conscious perception, while subjectively appearing to exist as a steady continuum, is actually composed of a heirarchical matrix of thousand, or millions, of interacting cellular transactions, commencing at the most basic level with the parasympathetic system which controls one’s respiration, digestion, and so on, up through various levels to culminate in that peculiarly human ability of ‘conscious thought’ (and beyond, although this is beyond the scope of current science.)

Our consciousness plays a central role in co-ordinating these diverse activities so as to give rise to the sense of continuity which we call ‘ourselves’ - and also the apparent coherence and reality of the 'external world'. Yet it is important to realise that the naïve sense in which we understand ourselves, and the objects of our perception, to ‘exist’, is in fact totally dependent upon the constructive activities of our consciousness, the bulk of which are completely unknown to us.

When you perceive something - large, small, alive or inanimate, local or remote - there is a considerable amount of work involved in ‘creating’ an object from the raw material of perception. Your eyes receive the lightwaves reflected or emanated from it, your mind organises the image with regards to all of the other stimuli impacting your senses at that moment – either acknowledging it, or ignoring it, depending on how busy you are; your memory will then compare it to other objects you have seen, from whence you will (hopefully) recall its name, and perhaps know something about it ('star', 'tree', 'frog', etc).

And you will do all of this without you even noticing that you are doing it; it is largely unconscious.

In other words, your consciousness is not the passive recipient of sensory objects which exist irrespective of your perception of them. Instead, your consciousness is an active agent which constructs reality partially on the basis of sensory input, but also on the basis of an enormous number of unconscious processes, memories, intentions, and so on. And this is the way in which the ancient philosophy of 'idealism' does indeed recieve support from modern science.

"...this thing we call “the world” isn’t something wholly outside ourselves, something we experience in a detached and objective way. It’s something we create moment by moment in our minds, by piecing together the jumble of unconnected glimpses our senses give us—and we do the piecing according to a plan that’s partly given us by our biology, partly given us by our culture, and partly a function of our individual life experience.

That point is astonishingly easy to forget. I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I’ve watched distinguished scientists admit with one breath that the things we experience around us aren’t real—they’re just representations constructed by our sense organs and brains, reacting to an unimaginable reality of probability waves in four-dimensional space-time—and then go on with the very next breath to forget all that, and act as though matter, energy, space, time, and physical objects exactly as we perceive them are real in the most pigheadedly literal sort of objective sense, as though the human mind has nothing to do with any of them except as a detached observer.  What’s more, many of those same scientists proceed to make sweeping claims about what human beings can and can’t know and do, in blithe disregard of the fact that these very claims depend on the same notion of the objective reality of the world of experience that they’ve just disproved."
John Michael Greer 

Mind Only Teachings and Naturalism

My (current, tentative) understanding of this deep issue is that all mind-only teachings imply a perspective, which is generally not shared by most sentient beings. Why? Because part of the very process of individuation is the creation of the distinction of self and other. If you read developmental psychology, this happens in very early childhood, and is of course thereafter deeply ingrained in everything we think about the world. That is the origin of the 'self-and-other' division, which from a somatic perspective is completely necessary. But then it later forms the basis for the constant arising of 'me, mine, myself' and the consequent sense of division and otherness from everything around us.

Now, 'natural philosophy' takes this condition as its starting point; it assumes the reality of self-and-other, subject-and-object. And again, for the purposes of natural philosophy, which is concerned with analysing and mastering the forces of nature, that is a natural thing to do, there is nothing inherently the matter with doing that. But it looses sight of the crucial fact that reality is actually not something we're other to. There really is no such division, because there really is nobody standing outside of or apart from experience. Reality is actually totality, it is not actually divided between self-and-other, that division is first and foremost a reflex or a habit of thought. It is a necessary aspect of being in the world from the viewpoint of survival, but it is also an existential plight.

The most influential philosophy of mind in the West is representative realism of the kind developed by the British empirical philosophers. Long story short, this assumes the reality of the object or objective realm, of which the mind generates a facsimile, image or likeness. Then the understanding seems to be, that this image or likeness is continually enhanced by the progress of empiricism, which discloses more and more about reality and through which we gradually build up a more complete understanding. But the problem here is that the amount of scientific knowledge is already so vast that no one individual will ever know more than a narrow speciality. And there's also the 'fact-value' issue, which is that scientific analysis only deals with what is quantifiable, that it assumes that the objective realm is devoid of meaning, and so on. That is the origin of the whole materialist attitude in a nutshell; I have noticed that most people with a scientific materialist attitude (which is the predominant outlook in the secular west) assume that the phenomenal domain that is the object of scientific analysis, comprises the whole of reality; that is very much the empiricist understanding.

So - what the mind-only teaching is reminding us of, is that all we ever know of the world, even when mediated by scientific instruments, is still ultimately vikalpa. It is incorporated into our cognitive apparatus and then we make judgements about it. Obviously through scientific methodology humans have been able to realise great material power, but from the viewpoint of 'being in the word' that in itself is not necessarily beneficial (i.e. you have to put it to good use, and so on.) But the point I'm driving at, is that mind-only teachings come from those who really have seen through or beyond the 'illusion of otherness', they themselves understand the way the mind generates judgements which it then takes to be reality itself. So they have a different perspective or stand-point. And until we actually get to that stand-point - till we go 'through the looking glass' ourselves - we won't really understand what they're saying.

That is my current, tentative understanding of it.  (For a very good comparison of Western idealist and Buddhist philosophy, have a look at Schopenhauer and Buddhism, Peter Abelson. It discusses many similar points. This blog post cross posted at DharmaWheel.)

Physics and the Immortality of the Soul

There was an opinion piece published a while back in Scientific American, by physicist (and physicalist!) Sean Carroll, called Physics and the Immortality of the Soul.  Carroll argues that belief in any kind of life after death is equivalent to the belief that the Moon is made from green cheese - that is to say, ridiculous. 

But this assertion is made, I contend, because of the presuppositions that the writer brings to the question. In other words, he depicts the issue in such a way that it would indeed be ridiculous to believe it. But this is because of a deep misunderstanding about the very nature of the idea.

Carroll says:

Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?

I can think of a straightforward answer to this question, which is that the soul is not 'made of particles'. In fact the idea that the soul is 'made of particles' is not at all characteristic of what is meant by the term 'soul'.  (Jains and Stoics both believe in ultra-fine material particles that comprise the soul, or karma, but we'll leave that aside for this argument. 1)

But I think the soul could more easily be conceived in terms of a biological field that provides an organising principle analogous to the physical and magnetic fields that were discovered during the 19th century, that were found to be fundamental to the behaviour of particles. This is not to say that the soul is a field, but that it might be much more conceivable in terms of fields than of particles.

Morphic Fields

Just as magnetic fields organise iron filings into predictable shapes, so too could a biological field effect be responsible for the general form and  the persistence of particular attributes of an organism. The question is, is there any evidence of such fields?

Well, the existence of 'morphic fields' is the brainchild of Rupert Sheldrake, the 'scientific heretic' who claims in a Scientific American interview that:

Morphic resonance is the influence of previous structures of activity on subsequent similar structures of activity organized by morphic fields.  It enables memories to pass across both space and time from the past.  The greater the similarity, the greater the influence of morphic resonance.  What this means is that all self-organizing systems, such as molecules, crystals, cells, plants, animals and animal societies, have a collective memory on which each individual draws and to which it contributes.  In its most general sense this hypothesis implies that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits.

As the morphic field is capable of storing and transmitting remembered information, then 'the soul' could be conceived in such terms. The morphic field does, at the very least, provide an explanatory metaphor.

Children with Past-Life Memories

But what, then, is the evidence for such effects in respect to 'life after death'?  As it happens, a researcher by the name of Ian Stevenson assembled a considerable body of data on children with recall of previous lives.  Stevenson's data collection comprised the methodical documentation of a child’s purported recollections of a previous life. Then he identified from journals, birth-and-death records, and witnesses the deceased person the child supposedly remembered, and attempted to validate the facts that matched the child’s memory.  Yet another Scientific American opinion piece notes that Stevenson even matched birthmarks and birth defects on his child subjects with wounds on the remembered deceased that could be verified by medical records.

On the back of the head of a little boy in Thailand was a small, round puckered birthmark, and at the front was a larger, irregular birthmark, resembling the entry and exit wounds of a bullet; Stevenson had already confirmed the details of the boy’s statements about the life of a man who’d been shot in the head from behind with a rifle, so that seemed to fit. And a child in India who said he remembered the life of boy who’d lost the fingers of his right hand in a fodder-chopping machine mishap was born with boneless stubs for fingers on his right hand only. This type of “unilateral brachydactyly” is so rare, Stevenson pointed out, that he couldn’t find a single medical publication of another case.

Carroll, again

Carroll goes on in his piece to say that  'Everything we know about quantum field theory (QFT) says that there aren’t any sensible answers to these questions (about the persistence of consciousness)'. However, that springs from his starting assumption that 'the soul' must be something physical, which, again, arises from the presumption that everything is physical.  In other words, it is directly entailed by his belief in the exhaustiveness of physics with respect to the description of what is real.

He then says 'Believing in life after death, to put it mildly, requires physics beyond the Standard Model. Most importantly, we need some way for that "new physics" to interact with the atoms that we do have.'

However, even in ordinary accounts of 'mind-body' medicine, it is clear that mind can have physical consequences and effects on the body. This is the case with, for example, psychosomatic medicine and the placebo effect, but there are many other examples.

He finishes by observing:

Very roughly speaking, when most people think about an immaterial soul that persists after death, they have in mind some sort of blob of spirit energy that takes up residence near our brain, and drives around our body like a soccer mom driving an SUV.

But that is not what 'most people have in mind'. That is what physicalists have in mind - because that is how physicalists think. If you start from the understanding that 'everything is physical', then this will indeed dictate the way you think about such questions.  And it is indeed the case that there is no such 'blob' as Carroll imagines; never has been, never will be. That is not what 'spirit' is; but what  it is, is something that can't be understood, given the presuppositions you're starting from -  although I rather like the German term for it, which is 'geist'. 

The Domain of Meaning

There is the idea that information actually comprises a separate domain from the physical domain. Of course 'information' has a wide range of meanings, and is not easily defined. But Platonism argues that numbers, logical and scientific laws, grammar, and so on, are not and can't be explained in terms of physics. Indeed, the mind must be capable of grasping logic and using language and math for physics to be defined. And I think that is one hint of the nature of 'soul': that the expression pertains to the domain of meaning rather than to the domain of material existents.

This is in some ways a form of dualism, with the qualification that in this understanding, the nature of the existence of information is of a different order to the nature of the existence of material bodies. So it's not as if there is 'the domain of physical matter' and 'the domain of information' as separate domains; rather that the domain of information is implicit or subsists or precedes the physical domain. [This will be taken up separately.]

1. There's another objection, which is that the laws of physics have given rise to many deep conceptual problems, for example the possibility of parallel worlds, that are seriously considered by many reputable physicists. So ruling in or out ideas about 'the soul' on that basis is at best premature.