Help me better understand Buddhism, interconnectedness and consciousness
January 6, 2011 7:08 AM   Subscribe

Can you help me understand a little more about Buddhism so I can enjoy both sides of the discussion in a particular book?

I’m currently reading The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet. The science half of the discussion I easily understand. It’s the Buddhism I’m having a problem deciphering. I therefore feel like I’m missing out on an interesting dialogue. I’d like to understand Buddhism more. For example, in the book the Buddhist states to the scientist an idea that “this can only be if that also exists; this can change only if that changes.” Am I to understand that this refers, for example, to a tree only existing if the soil, air, sunlight (and therefore sun, stars, galaxies, etc, etc.) also exist? I think I have a good grip on the idea of interconnectedness in general, but then throw into the mix that, can it really exist without a conscious mind to observe the phenomena. I’m worried that I’m oversimplifying the statement. I also think I’m missing a piece between interconnectedness and the observer. Can anyone tell me if I’m on the right track, or guide me the correct way?

Am I even asking the right questions?
posted by studentbaker to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I think with respect to your specific question, "This" can only exist if "That" exists means that if everything in the world/universe were "This" there would be anything else (because everyhting would be the same. Therefore something exists only because there is something else to differentiate it.
posted by Busmick at 7:50 AM on January 6, 2011

Sorry ..."wouldn't" be anything else
posted by Busmick at 7:50 AM on January 6, 2011

I haven't read The Quantum and The Lotus. I recommend being suspicious of anything you read in a book that combines science with Buddhism.

"This can only be if that also exists", etc. refers to the Buddhist doctrine of pratityasamutpada, translated as "dependent origination", "dependent co-arising", "conditioned genesis", etc. (e.g. here). It can be used to mean causation in general (the fact that every event has a cause), but it almost always means a specific causal chain of 12 phenomena that supposedly explains how suffering (dukkha) arises and is sustained. The actual list of 12 things doesn't seem to make much make sense, and experts differ on how to interpret it.

Anyway, I think it would be a stretch to use this as justification for a claim that everything in the universe is "interconnected" in some way, since it only says that a few specific mental phenomena are interconnected in a few specific ways. If it's being used to refer to causality in general...well, it's just wrong that everything in the universe is causally related to everything else (in fact, relativity makes that impossible).

Another place where "interconnectedness" comes up is the ontology of the Yogacara school of Mahayana Buddhism, which forms a big part of the philosophical basis of Zen. Basically, it holds that the only thing that really exists (in a technical sense) is some kind of "universal mind" or consciousness, which we mistakenly think is divided up into all the various objects of the universe. (By "really exists" they mean something very specific: not dependent on a cause, and not reducible to smaller parts. So everyday things still exist in the ordinary sense, even though, strictly speaking, there is inly universal mind.) As esoteric as this doctrine sounds, Zen Buddhists tend to use it as a way to claim that all people and things are interconnected in a way so concrete that we can all intuitively realize it if we work hard at meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh refers to this unity as "interbeing" and even uses it to justify his ethical positions (if we're not really independent beings, we shouldn't want to hurt each other).
posted by Chicken Boolean at 8:52 AM on January 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

Seconding Chicken's suggestion of caution. It's quite possible that you're not understanding some of the connections made in the book because they don't actually make sense.

Drawing parallels between quantum mechanics and elements of Eastern spirituality is fashionable at the moment, but it's mostly being done by people with a poor understanding of one, the other, or both. Much of it relies on equivocation between the ways that physicists use certain words, and the way they're sometimes used in English translations of Eastern spiritual ideas. Frankly, it seems like a fairly dishonest and sensationalist way to sell books.
posted by ixohoxi at 8:58 AM on January 6, 2011

How about this: there is no "this" and there is no "that".

Anyway, there is no connection between science and Buddhism.

Ten years ago I became friends with a Zen monk who had lived in a monastery in Japan for 30 years. I asked him what books I should read in order to become more familiar with Buddhism.

"Forget the books," he said. "None of it will make any sense to you, and will do more harm than good. If you can learn how to sit, if you can learn how to breathe, that's the most important thing."
posted by KokuRyu at 9:26 AM on January 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

I recommend being suspicious of anything you read in a book that combines science with Buddhism.

Oh, I'm suspicious, that why I wanted to know more about the idea above, so I could draw a better conclusion. I think you've answered my question and given me a hundred more. Thanks.

Anyway, there is no connection between science and Buddhism.

The book isn't really trying to make a connection beyond a questioning relationship. It's more of a discussion of understanding our reality through Quantum Mechanics vs. questioning the very nature of reality to begin with. Or, at least, how we can be sure of what we are actually seeing or theorizing. It's just a little chit-chat between an Astrophysicist and a Buddhist Monk.
posted by studentbaker at 10:12 AM on January 6, 2011

How about this: you can only inhale if you exhale.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:51 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Partially Examined Life did a podcast on Buddhist philosophy that I thought was pretty excellent. It was just about Nagarjuna, though, so I would generalize carefully to the rest of Buddhism. They also did one on the philosophical implications of quantum physics, coincidentally.
posted by _cave at 4:54 PM on January 6, 2011

Dependent arising is a somewhat controversial topic, actually - Thich Nhat Hanh is probably the most vocal proponent of the ideas of interbeing and dependent co-arising, and he explains these ideas in this lecture. Here's a particularly salient quote:
"What is non-self, Anatta (Pali)? It means impermanence. If things are impermanent, they don't remain the same things forever. You of this moment are no longer you of a minute ago. There is no permanent entity within us, there is only a stream of being. There is always a lot of input and output. The input and the output happen in every second, and we should learn how to look at life as streams of being, and not as separate entities. This is a very profound teaching of the Buddha. For instance, looking into a flower, you can see that the flower is made of many elements that we can call non-flower elements. When you touch the flower, you touch the cloud. You cannot remove the cloud from the flower, because if you could remove the cloud from the flower, the flower would collapse right away. You don't have to be a poet in order to see a cloud floating in the flower, but you know very well that without the clouds there would be no rain and no water for the flower to grow. So cloud is part of flower, and if you send the element cloud back to the sky, there will be no flower. Cloud is a non-flower element. And the sunshine…you can touch the sunshine here. If you send back the element sunshine, the flower will vanish. And sunshine is another non-flower element. And earth, and gardener…if you continue, you will see a multitude of non-flower elements in the flower. In fact, a flower is made only with non-flower elements. It does not have a separate self.
I'll sidestep the Buddhist doctrinal issues by saying that he doesn't specifically ascribe interconnectedness to the principle of dependent co-arising. Many people disagree with Thich Nhat Hanh about this issue altogether, and there are many arguments to be made about whether or not his understanding is accurate (some of which are expressed in this Theravada forum thread). But yes, for some Buddhists, the principle of interconnectedness is a pretty big part of their belief system.

It may be important to note that Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen Buddhist, and Zen is said to have been heavily influenced by philosophical Taoism (which holds a lot of similar beliefs about interconnectedness, unity, and the relative nature of reality). It's important to note what flavor of Buddhism is in question when making statements like "Buddhists believe ___", since there are so many different practices and doctrines (though, of course, they share many commonalities).
posted by dialetheia at 6:55 PM on January 6, 2011

Basically, it holds that the only thing that really exists (in a technical sense) is some kind of "universal mind" or consciousness, which we mistakenly think is divided up into all the various objects of the universe.

Sorry, meant to register a minor quibble with this as well - this seems much closer to the Vedanta (Hindu) concepts of Brahman and Atman than to anything I've seen in Buddhism, and I'd be surprised to see dependent co-arising explained in this way by a Zen Buddhist. In fact, this is one of the objections that Theravada Buddhists have to Thich Nhat Hanh's entire interpretation. Could you point me to an example?
posted by dialetheia at 7:02 PM on January 6, 2011

I guess what I'm mildly irritated about here is the willingness to hijack Buddhism for one's own selfish purposes. When you talk about Buddhist doctrine, you aren't really talking about Buddhism. It's not something that can or should be described with words. I feel like a bit of an idiot even writing this.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:15 PM on January 6, 2011

Not an expert - but the concept that naming things individually partly defines the way we observe things. No magical properties involved - the quote above about a flower being part of the rain, sunshine, and clouds is quite poetic but sort of gets the point across.

Whether or not an object or this is a separate entity or not is subjective and something we observe for our own convenience, and I believe buddhism and similar schools of thought partially expand on that idea. Again, no magic implied - no quantum stuff, that's just pop nonsense, but from a philosophical and in some ways very real point of view, there is value in contemplating the ideas behind what makes one thing separate from another.
posted by TravellingDen at 7:18 AM on January 7, 2011

dialetheia: this seems much closer to the Vedanta (Hindu) concepts of Brahman and Atman than to anything I've seen in Buddhism, and I'd be surprised to see dependent co-arising explained in this way by a Zen Buddhist.

That was meant as a description of Yogacara ontology, not dependent co-arising. (I know absolutely nothing about Vedanta so I can't comment on the resemblance, but one poster in your Dhamma Wheel thread compares Thich Nhat Han's views to exactly that.)

Could you point me to an example?

If you mean sources explaining Yogacara itself, I think the main one is the Samdhinirmocana Sutra, but I've read almost no Mahayana primary sources so all my knowledge is second-hand (e.g. Paul Williams' Buddhist Thought has a decent explanation of the philosophy and Buddhist Religions by Robinson et al. talks about the history). If you mean examples of Yocagara influence on Zen, again, I haven't read the real stuff, but for example, the universal mind doctrine bears a very strong resemblance to Shunryu Suzuki's "Big Mind" concept (pretty much all over the place in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind), and I think Hakuun Yasutani talks about it (not by name) in Three Pillars of Zen (edited by Philip Kapleau, a fascinating book, especially for its first-hand accounts of enlightenment). Anyway, I don't think the fact that Yogacara influenced Zen is controversial, but I'm not sure how faithfully Yogacara philosophy is really preserved in Zen--partly because there's a lot of other stuff mixed in (Taoism, tathagatagarbha, etc.), and partly because, as KokuRyu points out, Zen Buddhists are cagey about theory (I know there are good reasons for it).

Your Thich Nhat Hanh link helped me understand interbeing more clearly, but I didn't see anything about dependent co-arising in there; it really seems more inspired by Mahayana philosophy. In fact, he explicitly mentions Nagarjuna. Moreover, the idea of breaking down a flower into "streams of being" sounds just like early Buddhist metaphysics, which (as you may know, but I'll try to summarize for other readers) was all about breaking down "conditionally existing" phenomena into independently-existing fundamental parts--a solid-seeming physical object like a flower, or a mental object like an emotion, is really a flowing stream of ephemeral, causally connected pieces. And, at the risk of going way too deep into this topic, Nargarjuna's break with that tradition (which Yogacara also accepted) was the claim that not only part-whole dependency but also causal dependency gives things conditional existence: a flower lacks independent existence not only because it's a grouping of smaller parts, but because it owes its existence to rain, clouds, soil, sunlight, etc, which is just what TNH says (and conveniently the same as studentbaker's example).

So, based on that lecture alone, I'd say it actually seems more likely that TNH takes his ideas straight from the Mahayana philosophical tradition than from an unconventional interpretation of dependent co-arising. I've only read the beginning of that Dhamma Wheel thread so far, but people seem to be arguing back and forth over whether TNH took his ideas from Mahayana sources or from a Sarvastivada version of dependent co-arising, which apparently includes some Mahayana-esque ideas about emptiness (= conditional existence)--maybe it's a combination of both.

Anyway, I was wrong to portray the Theravada version as "the" doctrine of dependent co-arising just because it's more familiar; other versions are no less valid, and for all I know they might make more sense.

To return to the original purpose of this thread, I can't say whether TNH's interbeing could support claims about interconnectedness--but since Matthieu Ricard, the Buddhist component of The Quantum and the Lotus, is actually a Tibetan Buddhist, this could all be beside the point! He might not agree with TNH on very much anyway.

KokuRyu: I guess what I'm mildly irritated about here is the willingness to hijack Buddhism for one's own selfish purposes.

You mean the book or the commenters in this thread?
posted by Chicken Boolean at 12:25 PM on January 7, 2011

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