Buddhism and Parapsychology

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Loving
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Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by Loving » Wed May 01, 2019 1:56 pm

I was listening to a conversation between B. Alan Wallace, an expert on Tibetan Buddhism and the relationship between science and Buddhism, and physicist Sean Carroll (The Nature of Reality: A Dialogue Between a Buddhist Scholar and a Theoretical Physicist).

In this conversation, Alan Wallace makes the case for integration between Eastern meditative awareness and Western scientific rationalism, through the bridge of consciousness studies. He suggests (at least implicitly) that if significant resources are devoted to this important project, we may be able to demonstrate past life recollection and knowledge of other realms scientifically.

This, if it ever happened, would indeed be a bridge between East and West. Secular culture and values would be subsumed by Eastern religion and philosophy.

It would also constitute the maturation of the field of parapsychology, which in over a century has failed to demonstrate to scientists even the existence of any so-called "paranormal" phenomena in a controlled, repeatable manner. It seems to me that it is this same persistent null result that keeps mainstream scientific thinkers from accepting the premises of Eastern (and Western) religions.

In the case of Buddhism, it is precisely the claims indicated by Wallace that are made, and remain to be demonstrated to a mainstream scientific audience: through consistent and pure concentration, direct knowledge of (i) past lives and (ii) other realms can be achieved. Belief in these tenets, which are examples of right view, are necessary conditions for the metaphysical basis of Buddhism; and yet they are currently beyond the purview of science. For this reason, they constitute a "leap of faith" to the scientific thinker, who may thus hold them either in doubt (as probably untrue until otherwise demonstrated) or even in contempt (as on a par with other so-called "paranormal" claims).

At the same time, the success of scientific studies of meditation has swept the Western world. Experienced meditators (of the Tibetan tradition) are widely known to have distinct brain activity (specifically, increased gamma wave activity). In addition, there is a raft of research demonstrating various mental health benefits of meditation (in brief, these are: three types of attention (sustained, selective, and executive control), emotional regulation (including greater empathy, reduced anxiety, and reduced reaction to negative stimuli), prevention of mental illness, stress reduction, greater visual sensitivity, greater wakefulness, increased positive emotions, and decreased pain sensitivity; see Research on Meditation). Due to this overwhelming evidence, I have heard it predicted that meditation will soon be universally incorporated into schools and very widely practiced.

This is a curious dichotomy facing us at this point in time: there is an emerging rational scientific acceptance of the techniques of Buddhism, as evidenced by the mindfulness, Vipassanā, and yoga movements, and yet there lingers scepticism of the deeper doctrines on which they are founded. I cannot help but conclude from this that the expansion and deepening of the interface between experienced dharma practitioners and rational scientific communities is of very great importance.

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Kim O'Hara
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Re: Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by Kim O'Hara » Thu May 02, 2019 1:19 am

Hi, Loving,
First, a small word of warning: in case you didn't know, Alan Wallace is well known amongst Western Buddhists but is not universally held in high regard.
:thinking:
But I really wanted to comment on this -
Loving wrote:
Wed May 01, 2019 1:56 pm
... through consistent and pure concentration, direct knowledge of (i) past lives and (ii) other realms can be achieved. Belief in these tenets, which are examples of right view, are necessary conditions for the metaphysical basis of Buddhism...
I have to say that "direct knowledge of past lives and other realms" is not all important, let alone essential, to the "metaphysical basis" of my Buddhism, whether it's my own knowledge or anyone else's. In fact, I put them in the same basket as the "paranormal" powers (siddhis) allegedly developed by high-level practitioners, i.e. as most teachers say, they are peripheral to the practice and can be a distraction from it.

To the extent that other Buddhists share my views on this, it really doesn't matter whether such things are scientifically validated or not: the practice is what is important, and the practice doesn't depend on anything paranormal.
And anyone who has experienced this "direct knowledge", and the far larger number who believe those who have said they have experienced it, won't care whether science "validates" or "explains" the experience, since they know the truth of the matter. Sure, it's nice to have scientific support, but it's not at all necessary.

It seems to me that the scientific research into meditation has been useful (MBSR, etc) but far more useful to non-Buddhists than to Buddhists.

:namaste:
Kim

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Re: Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by Wayfarer » Thu May 02, 2019 1:56 am

I've listened to about 15 minutes and it's pretty interesting! I have read some of B Allan Wallace's books and I admire his lucid style. I've mainly encountered Sean Carroll through his blog and online. He comes across as (first and foremost) a genuinely nice guy, and is obviously eminent in his (very difficult) field of cosmology and physics. But he is, it seems to me, pretty resolutely committed to physicalism or scientific materialism. I will listen to more of that talk and see what he has to say about Wallace's ideas.

But kind of cross-cultural discussion between academics, scientists and Buddhists (amongst others) is not that new. It's been going on in academic circles for quite a few decades. The Centre for Consciousness Studies at University of Arizona hosts a pretty far-out annual conference on such ideas - have a look at the poster for the 2014 conference:

Image

The poster is obviously a spoof of the Sgt Pepper's album cover, with all the faces replaced by conference speakers - I know the two in the middle are Stuart Hameroff (l) and David Chalmers (r), both of whom I have seen speak. In fact it's the kind of place where you would see such a panel discussion as the one in the video (it might have even been filmed there.) But another point the cover makes is that it's pretty counter-cultural! (There's also the well-known Mind-Life Institute, founded by Francisco Varela et al, of which H H The Dalai Lama is Patron. It too explores the cross-over between scientific ideas and Buddhist principles. )
Loving wrote:This is a curious dichotomy facing us at this point in time: there is an emerging rational scientific acceptance of the techniques of Buddhism, as evidenced by the mindfulness, Vipassanā, and yoga movements, and yet there lingers scepticism of the deeper doctrines on which they are founded.
Right. That comes to the fore in discussions of secular Buddhism, and secular mindfulness. It is not discussed that much on DharmaWheel but there are some sites dedicated to that.

At issue is really the question of worldview, and it's a very deep question. The modern, scientific worldview grew out of the Western tradition, with a sharp break, you could say, at the time of the Trial of Galileo and the discovery of the heliocentric universe. Now, obviously, the natural sciences have gained an unprecedented understanding of the physical universe, although with massive gaps (like the dark matter~energy conundrum and the multiverse conundrum.) But overall, the scientific attitude is that 'In science, our goal is to describe everything we observe or measure in the Universe through natural, physical explanations alone' (Ethan Siegel). Whereas the Buddhist understanding incorporates something very hard to describe in plain language, but let's call it jñāna, which is a Sanskrit word usually translated as 'wisdom' or something similar. And I don't think there is any counterpart to that idea in Western natural sciences.

Quite apart from that, traditional Buddhism generally assumes the mythical cosmology of ancient India, which is far too vast to try and summarise in a forum post. It is very different from the medieval Western earth-centred universe, but also incorporates many elements which seem plainly mythological to modern eyes.

So - it is an interesting and possibly fruitful avenue of enquiry, but it's very early days yet, and there are many deep issues involved.

//ps// I listened to Sean Carroll's response from around 46:00-52:00. He's got 'nature of mind' so hopelessly mistaken, that you couldn't even argue with him about it! Basically, he understands by 'mind' some kind of 'invisible substance' that 'pushes things around'. Then he says 'there can't be any such thing' - which is true! There is no such thing! But, mind is not that in the first place. So his basic approach creates a definition which doesn't really describe what he wants to dismiss, and then he dismisses it on the basis of that description. I think that is what is called a classic "straw man" argument.
'Only practice with no gaining idea' ~ Suzuki Roshi

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Re: Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by Vasana » Thu May 02, 2019 8:17 am

Wayfarer wrote:
Thu May 02, 2019 1:56 am
.

But kind of cross-cultural discussion between academics, scientists and Buddhists (amongst others) is not that new. It's been going on in academic circles for quite a few decades.
It's not new but what Wallace is proposing *is* new. Rather than just Dialouge, actually conducting *long term* studies, training and experiments to parse out and test which currently unproven aspects of contemplative practices and paths an be verified and which can't. Many tests don't involve expert mediators nor are there m/Any that show the long term progression from novice to expert and the experiences that arise on the way..If different mediators report common experiences Then this could take certain claims in Buddhism beyond the realm of parapsychology.

Last I heard they have got some land in Italy so they will be going ahead in some shape or form.

'When alone, watch your mind. When with others, watch your speech'- Old Kadampa saying.

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Re: Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by Wayfarer » Thu May 02, 2019 9:24 am

Impressive! A great endeavour.
'Only practice with no gaining idea' ~ Suzuki Roshi

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Re: Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by Loving » Thu May 02, 2019 10:53 am

Excellent! Thank you for your responses :)

When I say that the scientific-contemplative interface seems utterly important, I say it mostly with a mind to those millions of people who are not involved in Buddhism. In particular, I say it with a mind to all those who could benefit from Buddhist practices, but are resistant to the idea. This is the same concern that has motivated a popular secularisation of meditation, and, in my meagre experience here in Australia, of Buddhism itself.

But I am dissatisfied with this secularisation of Buddhism, for this reason: secularity and Buddhism, it seems to me, are based on entirely different values. Meditation, for example, developed out of the attitude that eradicating craving and achieving a pure equanimity is the path to escaping rebirth. Yet in a secular context, meditation is more like a self-help strategy; more a means of achieving what you crave, than an eradication of craving. Equanimity is desired only so long as it makes you feel good, or stops you feeling bad. Thoughts of purity, merit, or karma are utterly irrelevant, and enlightenment is pretty much whatever you want it to be. In this same spirit, Buddhism is presented to a secular audience as if it is mostly about loving-kindness and compassion, and it doesn't particularly matter what your metaphysical beliefs are.

Am I wrong in remarking that this is a gross corruption of what seems to be the Buddha's intent? This is what brings me to the matter of direct knowledge of past lives and other realms. While I'm keeping in mind, as Kim O'Hara pointed out to me, that not all Buddhists subscribe to these doctrines, I find myself looking at them as the twin doors that separate secular belief from Buddhist belief. For if we do not accept that the Buddha had direct knowledge of these things, how can we accept that the Buddha was indeed a "Buddha", and not a man? How can we, thus not accepting, believe all that he had to say, or much of what his interpreters had to say? We will have to take the secular viewpoint, that we can only accept what we find either useful or demonstrable, and the rest can be discarded.

I am sure there are many Buddhists that do take this approach, and I would love to know more about them.

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Re: Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by PSM » Thu May 02, 2019 12:50 pm

Kim O'Hara wrote:
Thu May 02, 2019 1:19 am
First, a small word of warning: in case you didn't know, Alan Wallace is well known amongst Western Buddhists but is not universally held in high regard.
Not sure that's true...

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Re: Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by Loving » Thu May 02, 2019 5:38 pm

Here is a concise elaboration of Dr. Wallace's vision, as he articulated it five years ago:


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Re: Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by Loving » Thu May 02, 2019 5:41 pm

PSM wrote:
Thu May 02, 2019 12:50 pm
Not sure that's true...
I can't think of a single person who is universally held in high regard :tongue:

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Re: Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by Wayfarer » Thu May 02, 2019 10:28 pm

Loving wrote:in a secular context, meditation is more like a self-help strategy; more a means of achieving what you crave, than an eradication of craving. Equanimity is desired only so long as it makes you feel good, or stops you feeling bad. Thoughts of purity, merit, or karma are utterly irrelevant, and enlightenment is pretty much whatever you want it to be. In this same spirit, Buddhism is presented to a secular audience as if it is mostly about loving-kindness and compassion, and it doesn't particularly matter what your metaphysical beliefs are.

Am I wrong in remarking that this is a gross corruption of what seems to be the Buddha's intent?
I agree, but I think 'gross corruption' is a bit strong. It's more, as I said above, a matter of conflicting worldviews,

The idea of re-birth is a strong cultural taboo for a lot of people, and there's reasons for that. The Christian church anathematised the 'doctrine of the pre-existence of souls' very early in the Christian period, in other words, declared it an heresy. And there's no way to square it with scientific materialism. Actually I have had some pretty heated debates with quite well-known Western Buddhists who are quite hostile to what they call 'literal re-birth'. So it is a vexed issue. There are ways of discussing it and introducing it that don't necessarily rely on dismantling all of those barriers on one fell swoop.

So, yes, I agree with you but I would avoid become too polemical about it. Diplomacy is called for. :smile:
'Only practice with no gaining idea' ~ Suzuki Roshi

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Re: Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by Loving » Thu May 02, 2019 11:33 pm

I have no qualms with following Buddha's ethical and contemplative teaching while disbelieving the metaphysics of rebirth and nirvana. But in that case, what does it mean to call yourself a Buddhist?

I am very confused on this point. Might be time for a new thread.

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Re: Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by Wayfarer » Thu May 02, 2019 11:52 pm

Please don't misunderstand me - I'm not saying that you're confused and in fact I agree with you! I'm only suggesting that it is a controversial issue for some, and that it should be approached tactfully i.e. not by labelling it a 'gross corruption'.

(There have been many very threads on acceptance of re-birth, I will try and find some of them.)
'Only practice with no gaining idea' ~ Suzuki Roshi

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Re: Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by Loving » Fri May 03, 2019 12:13 am

Oh no. No misunderstanding. :smile:

My proper concern actually isn't with whether or not to accept rebirth. It is about the relationship between Buddhism and the teachings of the historical Buddha (so far as we can understand them).

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Re: Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by Wayfarer » Fri May 03, 2019 12:37 am

Fair enough! Well, glad you're here, and hopefully the DharmaWheel community will be of assistance in your quest.
'Only practice with no gaining idea' ~ Suzuki Roshi

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Re: Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by amanitamusc » Fri May 03, 2019 2:27 am

Loving wrote:
Fri May 03, 2019 12:13 am
Oh no. No misunderstanding. :smile:

My proper concern actually isn't with whether or not to accept rebirth. It is about the relationship between Buddhism and the teachings of the historical Buddha (so far as we can understand them).
What do you consider the teachings of the historical Buddha?

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Re: Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by Kim O'Hara » Fri May 03, 2019 12:27 pm

Loving wrote:
Thu May 02, 2019 11:33 pm
I have no qualms with following Buddha's ethical and contemplative teaching while disbelieving the metaphysics of rebirth and nirvana. But in that case, what does it mean to call yourself a Buddhist?

I am very confused on this point. Might be time for a new thread.
It's a good and important question but I would like to return to Wallace and the challenge of connecting Buddhism with science.
There's a new thread here - viewtopic.php?f=36&t=31120#p491615 - which describes an attempt by scientists to ascertain the limits of science. This statement -
...although science works, it can never hope to reveal nature “as it really is”; it can never produce a “God’s eye view” of the world. Rather, we can only know the world as it appears from our perspective. To complicate matters, however, one vital aspect of that perspective—conscious experience—tends to be left out of our scientific description of the world. We know the world through our experience of it, yet science struggles to explain this very experience.
- seems to me to express the difficulty as seen from the scientists' end of the project.

:namaste:
Kim

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Re: Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by Loving » Sat May 04, 2019 10:33 am

Kim O'Hara wrote:
Fri May 03, 2019 12:27 pm
There's a new thread here - viewtopic.php?f=36&t=31120#p491615 - which describes an attempt by scientists to ascertain the limits of science.
Thanks for sharing this :)

I am sure the workshops described in the article are aiming at something important, but I would be cautious about the way these things are presented by the media. In particular, I don't think any serious thinker honestly claims that science can solve everything. If it could, there would then be no such thing as philosophy, which is a whole domain devoted to questions that science cannot answer (what is the good, what is knowledge, what is beauty, what are the categories of being, and, indeed, what is mind and consciousness). In fact, though many scientists seem to forget this, good science is grounded in good philosophy, by which a scientist can say exactly what they are assuming and what follows from their assumptions. In short, there are things which are eternally unresolvable by science, and they are addressed by philosophy.

As to whether science can study consciousness, I find, much like the physicist who was quoted, that I don't see any problem with it in principle. There may be many methodological problems. But instead of thinking "science", think "statistics". Can we collect statistics about conscious experiences? Can we propose theories that explain these statistics? Can we test these theories? If yes, that's science.

Quantum mechanics has had a fundamental measurement problem for close to a century now. You cannot tell exactly where a particle is or how fast it's moving, because the very act of measuring it changes the result. It is the same kind of problem: a limited interface between observer and observed. For this reason, quantum models are not, strictly speaking, meant to be taken literally. Yet, owing to the fact that it makes the most precise predictions ever tested, I would say quantum mechanics is doing just fine. Hopefully consciousness studies are similarly able to flourish.

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Re: Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by Loving » Sat May 04, 2019 11:15 am

amanitamusc wrote:
Fri May 03, 2019 2:27 am
What do you consider the teachings of the historical Buddha?
Good question! See my new thread, where this change of topic is more relevant: Buddhism and the Historical Buddha

I read a book called The Life of the Buddha According to the Pali Canon by Ñāṇamoli Bhikkhu. According to that book, in Majjhima Nikāya 104 the Buddha is said to give this concise summary:
These teachings that I have directly known and taught to you—I mean the four foundations of mindfulness, the four right endeavours, the four bases for success, the five spiritual faculties, the five powers, the seven enlightenment factors and the Noble Eightfold Path ...
Importantly, some of my statements made earlier in this thread can be traced to this passage in Majjhima Nikāya 117:
Right view comes first. How? One understands wrong view as wrong view, and one understands right view as right view. What is wrong view? The view that there is nothing given, offered or sacrificed, no fruit or ripening of good and bad actions, no this world, no other world, no mother, no father, no apparitional beings, no good and virtuous monks and brahmans who have themselves realized by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world: this is wrong view.

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Re: Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by Miroku » Sat May 04, 2019 12:14 pm

Loving wrote:
Sat May 04, 2019 11:15 am
Good question! See my new thread, where this change of topic is more relevant: Buddhism and the Historical Buddha

I read a book called The Life of the Buddha According to the Pali Canon by Ñāṇamoli Bhikkhu. According to that book, in Majjhima Nikāya 104 the Buddha is said to give this concise summary:
These teachings that I have directly known and taught to you—I mean the four foundations of mindfulness, the four right endeavours, the four bases for success, the five spiritual faculties, the five powers, the seven enlightenment factors and the Noble Eightfold Path ...

You are on a Mahayana forum this limited view of what was taught by Buddha is not accepted here.
A boat delivers you to the other riverbank.
A needle stitches up your clothes.
A horse takes you where you want to go.
Bodhicitta will bring you to Buddhahood.
~ Khunu Lama Rinpoche

Even non-buddhists have many virtuous accomplishments
~ Jigten Sumgon

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Re: Buddhism and Parapsychology

Post by Loving » Sat May 04, 2019 1:11 pm

Miroku wrote:
Sat May 04, 2019 12:14 pm
You are on a Mahayana forum this limited view of what was taught by Buddha is not accepted here.
I am new to Buddhism. Do you want to offer an alternative point of view?

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