Book Review

The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, by the Dalai Lama, Morgan Road Books, New York, 2005; ISBN 076792066x, 216 pages, hardback, $24.95.
Book cover

This new book is a gold mine of modern scientific understanding combined with the ancient teachings of Buddhism. In it the Dalai Lama speaks of the scientific method used in Buddhist meditation as follows:

The contemplative method, as developed by Buddhism, is an empirical use of introspection, sustained by rigorous training in technique and robust testing of the reliability of experience. All meditatively valid subjective experiences must be verifiable both through repetition by the same practitioner and through other individuals being able to attain the same state by the same practice. If they are thus verified, such states may be taken to be universal, at any rate for human beings.
The Buddhist understanding of mind is primarily derived from empirical observations grounded in the phenomenology of experience, which includes the contemplative techniques of meditation. Working models of the mind and its various aspects and functions are generated on this basis; they are then subjected to sustained critical and philosophical analysis and empirical testing through both meditation and mindful observation. If we want to observe how our perceptions work, we may train our mind in attention and learn to observe the rising and falling of perceptual processes on a moment-by-moment basis. This is an empirical process which results in firsthand knowledge of a certain aspect of how the mind works. We may use that knowledge to reduce the effects of emotions such as anger or resentment (indeed, meditation practitioners in search of overcoming mental affliction would wish to do this), but my point here is that this process offers a first-person empirical method with relation to the mind.— pp. 134-5

Thus all meditative experience must be verified and validated for accuracy and reliability. Direct experiences are reported, compared, and analyzed, and then working models are created. Those models are then subjected to analysis using both logic and predictability. In the Buddhist Sutras the human mind is likened to a box with six monkeys: five monkeys look out of the box through holes while the sixth stands inside. Most people tend to think that our consciousness is unitary, that the box has only one monkey. But the Buddha taught that, while our mind functions collectively in a singular manner, we actually have six separate consciousnesses, one for each of the five senses and one mental consciousness (the sixth monkey) to interpret the sensory data generated. The "six monkeys in a box" is a working model that has held up over all these centuries for various Buddhist meditators.

The box of monkeys scenario also models how we can know things, how all of our knowledge is gained, and what our limitations are concerning all scientific knowledge. It allows us to separate the observer, our self, from the observed, our surrounding environment, through our sensory consciousnesses. According to the Buddha each sensory organ has its own separate consciousness which gathers data from its sensory organs and feeds that data to the self or interpreter. We can gain insight into how we know things by considering the testimony of our five sensory monkeys as experiential knowledge and the interpretations of the sixth monkey as intellectual knowledge. In this way these two primary forms of knowledge are defined and related: experiential knowledge is gained through sensory organs by direct experience, while intellectual knowledge is gained through various processes of interpretation. In this way, all human experience can be reduced to direct observations and their interpretations.

The author's phrase "observe the rising and falling of perceptual processes on a moment-by-moment basis" is especially noteworthy. When we focus our mindfulness or full attention onto the present moment and ignore the past and future altogether, we experience the timeless because time itself is nothing more than the appearance of a unidirectional flow of such moments. Timed events are created when the mind's attention to the present moment backs off a bit and is allowed to focus on a series of such timeless moments. So our own mind creates time by focusing on a series of timeless moments rather than on any one of them in particular. One may think that anyone can focus this way through meditative contemplation and introspection, but such is not the case, as the Dalai Lama rightly points out:

What occurs during meditative contemplation in a tradition such as Buddhism and what occurs during introspection in the ordinary sense are two quite different things. In the context of Buddhism, introspection is employed with careful attention to the dangers of extreme subjectivism — such as fantasies and delusions — and with the cultivation of a disciplined state of mind. Refinement of attention, in terms of stability and vividness, is a crucial preparation for the utilization of rigorous introspection, much as a telescope is crucial for the detailed examination of celestial phenomena. Just as in science, there is a series of protocols and procedures which contemplative introspection must employ. Upon entering a laboratory, someone untrained in science would not know what to look at, would have no capacity to recognize when something is found; in the same way, an untrained mind will have no ability to apply the introspective focus on a chosen object and will fail to recognize when processes of the mind show themselves. Just like a trained scientist, a disciplined mind will have the knowledge of what to look for and the ability to recognize when discoveries are made. — p. 136

Ordinary introspection, then, is not enough. Anyone can say that all we need do is focus our attention on the present moment to experience the timeless, and then back this focus off a bit to experience the timeful, but such procedures are not as easy to do correctly as they may first appear. Most people would likely not be able to do this focusing, nor would they likely recognize the two states as such. But to those trained in meditative techniques, these simple and straightforward procedures will reveal the six monkeys in the box and verify the Buddha's model of the human mind.

We can relate Buddha's sixth monkey with the manas or mind principle of modern theosophy. It is manas that takes the testimony of the physical senses and interprets it, and the processes of interpretation available to it are numerous indeed. Psychologically, the primary purpose of manas is to interpret sensory data and to find meaning in it. Modern psychology has shown that without meaning in existence the human mind tends to withdraw from life, which causes the body to decay until death is encountered. Statistically, those who find meaning in their lives live longer than those who do not. So the task of the sixth monkey is very important to us because it is his task to formulate a worldview which logically explains, as much as possible, our life and why we are here, and it is this that gives us meaning.

We can expand this Buddhist model to include the planes of being that lie beyond the physical by using the ancient maxim "as above, so below," in the sense that the lower planes are successive self-expressions of the higher. Just as knowledge gained on the physical plane can be divided into experiential and intellectual knowledge, so it is for all other planes. This expansion of our working model allows us to predict that we may have subtle bodies on each plane with sensory organs appropriate to the substances of those planes. In the same way that manas interprets data from the sensory organs of the physical body, so it may interpret sensory data from our subtle bodies. For each plane and body, our working model suggests that we have a self who makes observations and a self who interprets those observations, and that these two functions remain separate and distinct. Thus the duality of observer and observed, together with the two functions of making observations and interpretations, continues throughout the various cosmic planes of manifestation all the way to nondual experiences in those regions we may refer to as Beness, where such distinctions no longer apply. — Gerald J. Schueler

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2006; copyright © 2006 Theosophical University Press)

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