Green Tara Statue

Choosing Reality

An interview with B. Alan Wallace about Buddhism, science, and the nature of mind

Buddhism is a rich spiritual and religious tradition that is growing rapidly around the world. Here in the United States, it’s practiced by a small but growing minority. The practice of mindfulness meditation, not necessarily associated with Buddhism, but generally so, is also growing rapidly in terms of being included in various schools as an aid to learning and personal peace. And, of course, yoga and ideas about karma and rebirth are becoming widespread in many parts of the US.

B. Alan Wallace is a scholar and practitioner of Buddhism since 1970. He has taught Buddhist theory and meditation worldwide since 1976. He devoted fourteen years to training as a Tibetan Buddhist monk and was ordained by the Dalai Lama. He later went on to earn an undergraduate degree in physics and the philosophy of science at Amherst College and a doctorate in religious studies at Stanford. He has written numerous books, including Choosing Reality: A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind (1989), The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness (2000), and most recently Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice (2011).

Wallace founded and runs the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, which also runs meditation retreats in Phuket, Thailand.

So Wallace is well-versed in both eastern and western traditions. It seems to me that meshing the spiritual insights of East and West with the more recent tradition of western scientific inquiry is perhaps the most promising route to an integral and forward-thinking worldview today. I’ve written in the past about the need for western science to become less dogmatic and to expand from its overly materialist worldview. I’ve also written about the need for Buddhism to expand and grow from its traditional roots by, in particular, embracing the insights of an evolutionary worldview that takes time seriously. My feeling is that there is real potential in this ongoing discussion.

What follows is an email interview with Dr. Wallace on these issues and more.

Why is Buddhism important in today’s high-tech world?

The growth of scientific knowledge and technology since I entered my adult years in 1970 has been phenomenal. Never in human history has there been such an expansion of human knowledge and power over the external world. But during this same period, the human population has doubled, due to human exploitation of the natural environment, the wildlife population of the planet has been reduced by half, and global warming is now imperiling human civilization and the ecosphere at large. In the meantime, before 1970, most of the income gains experienced during economic expansions accrued to most of the people, so that the bottom 90 percent of earners captured at least a majority of the rise in income. But during the 1990s and early 2000s expansions, the huge majority of income gains went to the top 10 percent, and from 2001 to 2007, 98 percent of income gains accrued to the top 10 percent of earners. This wild inequality in the distribution of wealth has gotten so out of hand that the 85 richest people in the world own as much as the 3.5 billion of the poorest, while almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.

In short, during the same forty years that human knowledge of the physical environment, biology, sociology, and economics has increased at an unprecedented rate, modern civilization seems hell-bent on destroying the ecosphere, global economics, and civilization at large. This indicates to me that our knowledge and power over the outer environment has not even remotely been matched by our knowledge of the human mind, human vices, the inner causes of suffering, and the inner resources of the human spirit. Buddhism highlights three fundamental toxins of the mind—greed, hostility, and delusion—and for all the information at our disposal, made so readily available through the internet, human civilization has not evidently made any progress in diagnosing or treating these afflictions, let alone explore the resources of the human spirit in terms of virtues such as compassion, wisdom, generosity, patience, and inner contentment. If our high-tech world doesn’t balance knowledge of the external, physical resources of our environment with knowledge of the internal, psychological and spiritual resources of the human mind, then I fear human society will continue on its present course of self-destruction.

How did you come to Buddhism? Do you call yourself exclusively a Buddhist or are you open to other traditions also?

I was brought up in a devoutly Christian family, and from the age of 13, inspired by my 7th-grade science teacher, I decided on a career in ecology, wildlife biology, and environmental activism. So all through high school and during my first two years of college at the University of California, San Diego, I focused my studies on science.

By the time I left home for university, it was clear to me that there were central elements of the Christian faith that simply made no sense to me, and I couldn’t believe them. For example, if God created a universe more than 13 billion years ago that now has 100 billion galaxies, why would he show himself, manifesting as the Son of God, only once through all of time and space? Even on our planet, our species of homo sapiens sapiens has been around for about 200,000 years, so if God decided to be so parsimonious to take human form only once in all of human history, why did he do so only 2,000 years ago? If human salvation depends on believing in this one instance of God becoming man, why did God exclude almost all of humanity from salvation, let alone the countless other sentient beings on our planet and all other possibly inhabited planets throughout the universe? Moreover, if God created humans with a higher intelligence than animals—to whom he apparently gave no moral sense and therefore no moral responsibility and no chance of salvation—then he must expect us to use our intelligence to understand his divine revelation. But that means that his revelation—whether relayed through his chosen prophets or through his only son—should be compellingly intelligible to us, so that we don’t have to rely on unintelligent, blind faith. If I believed that my salvation depended on what I believe, then I would be in constant fear that I hadn’t gotten all my beliefs in order—which religion, scriptures, sect or denomination, church, and doctrine should I be following to ensure my salvation? I look around and there’s no agreement anywhere.

Science at least, provides a vast store of empirical and rational knowledge about the physical world, but the more I learned about the scientific vision of the universe, the more meaningless it all seemed. As I learned later in life, I wasn’t alone in this conclusion. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg wrote in his book The First Three Minutes: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” And the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote in his book Ever Since Darwin, “Evolution is purposeless, nonprogressive, and materialistic.”

All through my youth I yearned for a life that was authentic, that is, true to reality, and meaningful, one that would provide me with an inner sense of fulfillment. But the two worldviews presented by the Western civilization in which I was raised and educated presented one or the other, but no integration of both. For me, this was intolerable, so after my second year of college, I sought a change of environment by enrolling in the Junior Year Abroad program, intending to spend my junior year at the University of Göttingen in what was then West Germany.

Before matriculating at the university, however, I spent the summer hitchhiking around Europe, and during my wanderings I stayed a few days at a youth hostel in the quaint Swiss alpine village of Grindelwald. There I came across a book, evidently left behind by another traveler, called The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, which was a translation of an ancient Tibetan Buddhist classic that probed the mysteries of consciousness. The further I read it, the more persuaded I became that this—the potentials of consciousness in human life and the role of the mind in the universe at large—was the key I’d been looking for.

By the time my summer travels were over and I had settled into my one-room apartment in Göttingen, I knew that I wanted to focus my studies on Tibetan Buddhism. Fortune smiled on me, for not long before I arrived, the Indology Department of the university had invited a Tibetan lama onto their faculty to teach Tibetan. I swiftly sought him out, he agreed to teach me, I soon became his only student, and in the meantime I dropped all the other courses I’d been planning to take, and focused solely on learning the Tibetan language and on reading as much as I could about Buddhism and the other great contemplative traditions of the world. By the end of that academic year, I was persuaded that, as Aldous Huxley argued in his book The Perennial Philosophy, the great contemplatives of diverse religious traditions throughout history, East and West, have discovered fundamental truths about human nature and the universe that constitute the very meaning of existence. I knew then that I was willing to make any sacrifice necessary to discover those truths for myself, and I sensed that my path was Buddhism. At the same time, ever since that time I have been open to learning from other religious traditions, appreciating the differences, while celebrating the common grounds among them.

After my year of studies in Göttingen and a summer spent in a Tibetan monastery in Switzerland, I bought a one-way ticket to India to immerse myself in Tibetan culture and spirituality in the Himalayan village of Dharamsala, home of H.H. the Dalai Lama and a thriving Tibetan refugee community. I was to spend four years in Dharamsala, taking monastic ordination from the Dalai Lama, followed by another five years studying, practicing, interpreting, and teaching in two Tibetan monasteries in Switzerland. After immersing myself in the study and practice of Buddhism for all of the 1970s, I then devoted four years to a series of solitary meditation retreats, seeking to put to the test of experience some core Buddhist theories about the nature of the mind. These retreats began under the direct guidance of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, and later in hermitages in Sri Lanka and in various retreat places in the United States.

What are some key ways that Buddhism is consonant with modern science?

Fundamentally, I find Buddhist and scientific methods for investigating reality to be complementary, as are many of their discoveries. Both traditions are focused on the empirical and rational exploration of reality, not on accepting beliefs out of blind faith. The Dalai Lama comments, “A general basic stance of Buddhism is that it is inappropriate to hold a view that is logically inconsistent. This is taboo. But even more taboo than holding a view that is logically inconsistent is holding a view that goes against direct experience.” This is consonant with an assertion attributed to the Buddha and widely quoted in Tibetan Buddhism, “Monks, just as the wise accept gold after testing it by heating, cutting, and rubbing it, so are my words to be accepted after examining them, but not out of respect for me.” A 3rd-century Indian Buddhist contemplative named Aryadeva claimed in a classic treatise that there are just three qualities one must have to venture onto the Buddhist path of inquiry: one must be perceptive, unbiased, and enthusiastic to put the teachings to the test of experience.

These three qualities are equally important if one is to follow the path of scientific inquiry. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman presented this ideal when he wrote, “It is only through refined measurements and careful experimentation that we can have a wider vision. And then we see unexpected things: we see things that are far from what we would guess—far from what we could have imagined. . . . If science is to progress, what we need is the ability to experiment, honesty in reporting results—the results must be reported without somebody saying what they would like the results to have been . . . One of the ways of stopping science would be only to do experiments in the region where you know the law. But experimenters search most diligently, and with the greatest effort, in exactly those places where it seems most likely that we can prove our theories wrong. In other words we are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.”

Despite these commonalities, the methods of Buddhist and scientific inquiry are obviously very different. Buddhist inquiry fundamentally focuses on gaining first-person experiential insight into the reality of suffering, its inner causes in the imbalances and toxins of the mind, the possibility of freedom from suffering and its inner causes, and the path to such freedom. Buddhism is not concerned with the nature of reality as it exists independently of human experience, but rather with the reality of human experience. So Buddhists have never sought a “God’s-eye” perspective on reality, for they have never accepted the belief that some independent Creator brought the universe and all its inhabitants into existence and rules all of creation, while punishing the wicked and rewarding the obedient.

Buddhism is essentially oriented to the realization of genuine happiness, akin to what the ancient Greeks, starting with Socrates, called “eudaimonia.” This is a quality of wellbeing that is not dependent upon sensory or intellectual stimulation, but rather stems from leading an ethical, which is to say a nonviolent, benevolent way of life, from mental balance, and from wisdom. Such a path to freedom yields a sense of wellbeing that emerges from what we bring to the world, not from what we get from it. The realization of freedom from suffering and its inner causes depends upon the close examination of one’s own experience from a first-person perspective, refined through rigorous meditative training in mindfulness and introspection.

Modern science, on the other hand, tracing back to Galileo, is primarily focused on fathoming the nature of the objective, physical, quantifiable universe from a third-person perspective. The original motivation as expressed by Galileo and other pioneers of the Scientific Revolution was to understand the mind of the Creator by way of His Creation, and this pursuit of a God’s-eye perspective sought to understand reality as it exists independently of human experience. Rather than refining the mental faculties of mindfulness and introspection, scientists have refined technology and mathematics to try to fathom the nature of objective, physical reality in the language of mathematics, which is widely regarded as the language of Nature.

The symbiotic development of science and technology over the past four centuries has greatly contributed to humanity’s “hedonic happiness,” which is a kind of wellbeing that does arise from sensory and intellectual stimulation and is not contingent on ethics, mental balance, or wisdom. Hedonic pleasures are ones we get from the world around us, and science has focused on the causes of suffering that stem from the objective, physical world.

Both eudaimonia and hedonic wellbeing are important, as are the first-person and third-person approaches to understanding reality. For Buddhism, the role of the mind in human existence and the world of experience is central, while material concerns are secondary. For science, the nature of matter and its emergent properties is central, while the mind and subjective experience in general are secondary. So there is a fundamental complementarity, and at the same time a certain tension, between these two approaches to understanding the world and the good life.

What are some key ways that Buddhism is not consonant with modern science?

After a thirteen-year hiatus from Western academia, at the age of thirty-four I decided to complete my undergraduate education, and I was fortunately admitted to Amherst College, where I studied physics and the philosophy and history of science. I pursued this line of inquiry precisely because I was intent on exploring the common ground as well as the disparities between Buddhism and science. This was an immensely rewarding experience, and immediately upon my graduation, I spent months in solitary meditative retreat to seek to assimilate what I had learned. It was during that time that I decided to return my monastic ordination, for I found living as a Buddhist monk in the West was just too dissonant with the surrounding culture. My commitment to the Buddhist path, though, was unwavering. After this sojourn in solitude, I spent six years in graduate studies at Stanford University, where I earned a doctorate in religious studies. During that time, in addition to studying comparative religion, I also studied cognitive psychology and the philosophies of religion, mind, physics, and biology. After graduation, I taught for four years in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and then set out on my own to establish the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies.

To address the question of ways in which Buddhism is not consonant with modern science, one must first acknowledge that many Buddhists and many scientists do not live up to the ideals of their own traditions. There are unethical, closed-mind, dogmatic Buddhists, just as there are unethical, closed-mind, dogmatic scientists, and many Buddhist and scientific institutions are deeply flawed by human vices. But I didn’t travel to India to study corrupt Buddhism any more than I studied at Amherst and Stanford to study corrupt science. But I certainly have found many tendencies in both traditions that betray the ideals of Buddhism and science. Foremost among these unfortunate tendencies is blind reliance upon tradition and unquestioned beliefs, while forsaking truly open-minded, fearless inquiry, as advocated by the Dalai Lama and Richard Feynman.

I believe that both Buddhism and modern science could greatly profit from shaving off their unquestioned assumptions with “Occam’s Razor,” which states, “It is vain to do with more assumptions what can be done with fewer assumptions.” To my mind, the principle obstacle to a deep integration of Buddhist insights and scientific discoveries is the uncritical acceptance on the part of many scientists and the general public in the metaphysical principles of scientific materialism. The fundamental belief of this scientific materialism is that the whole of reality consists only of space-time and matter-energy and their emergent properties. This implies that the only true causation is physical causation, so there are no non-physical influences in the universe. When applied to human existence, this implies that the subjective experience is either physical—despite all the evidence to the contrary—or that it doesn’t exist at all, which is simply insulting to our intelligence. As the philosopher John R. Searle states in his book The Rediscovery of the Mind, “Earlier materialists argued that there aren’t any such things as separate mental phenomena, because mental phenomena are identical with brain states. More recent materialists argue that there aren’t any such things as separate mental phenomena because they are not identical with brain states. I find this pattern very revealing, and what it reveals is an urge to get rid of mental phenomena at any cost.”

Just as Buddhism has failed to produce any significant technology or sophisticated mathematics over its long history, so has modern science failed to develop any sophisticated means for investigating the mind, consciousness, and subjective experience firsthand. Ever since the founding of behaviorial psychology at the beginning of the twentieth century, cognitive scientists have largely ignored the first-person experiential examination of subjective experience in favor of the study of behavior and brain functions. While all other branches of modern science have focused on the direct observation of the natural phenomena they are seeking to understand, the cognitive sciences have insisted on avoiding such direct observation of mental phenomena. The simple reason for this is that subjectively experienced mental processes and states of consciousness simply do not fit within the materialistic paradigm that has dominated science since the beginning of the twentieth century.

As a result of this fixation on approaching the study of the mind indirectly through the examination of behavior and brain functions, while marginalizing or even denying the validity of first-person experience, modern science has alienated us from our own existence. It is a commonplace nowadays to equate the mind with the brain, or to insist that the mind is nothing more than a function of the brain. But this is merely a metaphysical belief that has never been validated through scientific research. While the mind and brain are clearly correlated in precise ways that have been revealed through advances in cognitive neuroscience, the exact nature of those correlations remains a mystery. But this mystery is veiled by the “illusion of knowledge” that the mind-body problem as already been solved. Historically, such illusions of knowledge have proved to be the primary obstacle to discovering the nature of reality, and they are not consonant with either Buddhism or science.

As both contemplatives and scientists wake up to the limitations of their respective pursuits of knowledge, while celebrating their unique strengths, we may see a renaissance in open-minded, rigorous contemplative inquiry, coupled with the first true revolution in the mind sciences. This calls for an integration of first-person and third-person methods of research, which may enhance the hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing of humanity. The world is now facing unprecedented challenges environmentally, economically, socially, and morally, and to successfully rise to meet these challenges, we must draw on the wisdom of the East and West, of the ancients and the modern. These same challenges that imperil our very existence may help up unite in ways never before witnessed in human history.

I appreciate your stressing the open-minded investigation and self-verification that is a key part of Buddhism. I’ve found, however, in my studies of Buddhism and many discussions with Buddhists of various persuasions that there is a reluctance to challenge traditional views that are still part of most Buddhist traditions, such as, for example, karma and reincarnation, that don’t seem to have much empirical support. Many people like me are very attracted to Buddhism but find these types of beliefs a bit off-putting in the same way that Old Testament views on morality are off-putting. I, for one, feel that more people would be attracted to Buddhism if it were more open to change. How do you feel about doctrinal changes like this as a way to modernize Buddhism for broader appeal?

Buddhist views pertaining to karma, which are very difficult to evaluate empirically, are all predicated on the basis of the assertion that individual consciousness precedes this life and carries on after this life. Clearly, human consciousness arises in dependence upon the brain and is configured and influenced by many physical factors within this life. So that cannot precede this life and continue after brain death. But Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Jewish, Christian, and Sufi contemplatives throughout history have discovered evidence of reincarnation, as did Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato. This is remarkable in light of the great diversity of beliefs of these religions and philosophies. And scientists at the University of Virginia who have been studying evidence of alleged past-life recall, have discovered an impressive amount of compelling evidence in support of these contemplative discoveries. This research was summarized in the book Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect by Dr. Ian Stevenson.

As for empirical evidence of the continuity of individual consciousness after brain death, very recently a study was published on a very large-scale study conducted by scientists at the University of Southampton. They spent four years examining more than 2,000 people who suffered cardiac arrests at 15 hospitals in the UK, US and Austria and found that nearly 40 per cent of people who survived described some kind of awareness during the time when they were clinically dead before their hearts were restarted. One man even recalled leaving his body entirely and watching his resuscitation from the corner of the room. Despite being dead for three minutes, he recounted the actions of the nursing staff in detail and described the sound of the machines. The lead physician involved in this study reported, “He seemed very credible and everything that he said had happened to him had actually happened.” Much evidence of this kind came to light before this study, and this has been reported in the book Erasing Death: The Science That Is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death by Dr. Sam Parnia and Josh Young. Although this empirical evidence has been in plain sight for many years, the scientific establishment has generally ignored it, not because of faulty scientific methodologies, but because these conclusions contradict the deeply entrenched beliefs of scientific materialism.

In short, the views of the scientific establishment are so deeply committed to the reductionist belief that “the mind is what the brain does” that materialists have long blinded themselves to evidence both from within science and from outside that contradicts their beliefs. In fact, there is rapidly mounting evidence that the reductionist view of consciousness being nothing more than a function of the brain is fundamentally flawed and is based on inconclusive evidence and circular reasoning. While it’s certainly true that Buddhism needs to be more open to change, this is equally true of science, which all too often gets entrenched in its own dogmas and unexamined assumptions, without ever considering that other traditions of rational and empirical inquiry, such as Buddhism, might have made revolutionary discoveries of their own.

I agree that science can be as dogmatic as religion in many cases. That said, I’d like to probe a bit further the idea of mind independent of body. This seems to me fairly described as “Buddhist dualism” and it’s a view that seems fairly common in Buddhist teachings even though Buddhism stresses nondual thinking in other ways. It’s a type of dualism because it seems to posit an independent mind or soul stuff and then the world of matter and energy. Modern materialism has clearly gone too far in positing that matter/energy is all there is, which leaves mind looking like a helpless bystander, and this seems to deny the reality that is most obvious to us: we are not helpless bystanders in our own lives. However, I don’t see Buddhist dualism as a clear advance over hard materialism because it gives rise to its own set of serious problems, including a lack of parsimony, and prompting questions about how mind and body interact if they’re independent “stuffs” (the same problem that bedevils Cartesian dualism). So isn’t there room for a better integration of mind and body in our philosophical edifice?

Modern civilization suffers from a severe imagination deficit disorder in its inability to imagine any alternatives other than materialistic monism or Cartesian dualism. We’ve known since the 19th century that the Cartesian notion of two substantially real kinds of stuff—material and mental—is a dead end, for there’s no coherent way in which they can causally interact. But materialism fares no better in giving any coherent understanding of the nature of subjective experience or how it causally interacts with the brain. So we have two dead ends.

It’s a complete mistake to put the Buddhist view of the mind and body in the Cartesian box, for the rich and diverse schools of Buddhist emerged outside the context of Eurocentric civilization. Buddhism is not dualistic, it’s pluralistic, much more aligned with the views of William James than Descartes. Or, to bring this into the 21st century, it’s more akin to the views of the eminent physicist George Ellis, co-author of The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time with Stephen Hawking, considered to be one of the world’s leading theorists in cosmology. He has proposed a fourfold model of reality, consisting of (1) matter and forces, (2) consciousness, (3) physical and biological possibilities, and (4) mathematical reality. All of these levels of existence, he proposes, are equally real and distinct, and they are related to each other through causal links. This model transcends the ideological boxes in which the Western mind has been stuck for centuries, and it accords much more closely to Buddhist views of reality

As for the hypothesis that there is a dimension of consciousness that is not contingent upon a functioning brain, we should be led not so much by logical but by empirical facts. In the West, we have ignored our own rich Judeo-Christian heritage of contemplative inquiry, while equating religious belief with mere reliance upon divine authority. Then this same prejudice is projected on Buddhism and other Asian contemplative traditions, never considering that their centuries of rational and first-person experiential investigation of the mind and consciousness might have yielded discoveries that are not accessible by studying the mind only objectively by way of behavior brain activities.

You raise the idea of people being able to sense what’s going on around them during near-death experiences. Yet rigorous studies designed to firm up these reports, including the 2014 study that you discuss above, haven’t produced very compelling results. The 2014 Parnia study found only one person of over 140 interviewed that had any verifiable recollections of experience when brain function wasn’t expected subsequent to cardiac arrest. And the time of death itself is far less black and white than you suggest, as we know from numerous anomalous incidents of people being revived. Even if some kind of extrasensory perception is eventually confirmed with a larger number of NDE cases isn’t it more parsimonious to suggest that there is in fact some residual sensory ability longer than is currently expected, or, going beyond today’s conventional views but still far more parsimoniously, that what is happening is a type of clairvoyance rather than consciousness independent of brains/bodies?

Actually, if even one person makes veridical reports of what occurred in his immediate surroundings while his brain was dead, that should be regarded as highly significant, especially if his ears were closed and he was allegedly witnessing his environment from an out-of-body perspective. I noted that when this study made the news, the New York Times didn’t cover it, but instead ran an article by Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano entitled “Are We Really Conscious?” In this article he poses the question “How does the brain go beyond processing information to become subjectively aware of information? The answer is: It doesn’t.” So instead of covering scientific evidence (and there is plenty out there) that suggests the continuity of consciousness after death, New York Times published an article making the utterly ridiculous, irrational claim that we have no subjective awareness at all. This is the ultimate triumph of materialistic dogmatism over empirical evidence. The refusal on the part of the scientific community to be a fair, objective appraisal of the many studies of post-death experience and veridical past-life memories from the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia is simply a travesty.

This one study of post-death experiences should not be taken as definitive, but interested readers should open-mindedly read more thorough accounts of evidence suggestive of a dimension of consciousness that is not dependent on the brain. In addition to Ian Stevenson’s Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect and Sam Parnia’s Erasing Death, they should also study Life Before Life: Children's Memories of Previous Lives by Jim B. Tucker and Ian Stevenson and Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience by Pim van Lommel. If one is willing to consider that highly trained contemplatives throughout the ages using the most sophisticated methods for exploring the mind from a first-person perspective may have made their own discoveries, then they should research the extensive literature that reports such contemplative accounts of the continuity of consciousness.

You also acknowledge above that Buddhist notions of karma are “very difficult to evaluate empirically.” If this is the case, isn’t this indicative of a need for reform? Shouldn’t Buddhism be entirely empirical?

When I say it’s difficult to evaluate empirically, I simply mean that this calls for very advanced skills in Samadhi, or highly focused attention, and in methods of contemplative inquiry. As an analogy, it proved to be very difficult to prove the existence of the Higgs boson, but sufficient time, money, and effort was expended, and this major discovery was made. Why be so casual in dismissing what may be one of the greatest discoveries of the Buddhist tradition, allegedly made by the Buddha himself and replicated many times over the past 2,500 years by numerous, highly accomplished Buddhist contemplatives. There’s an element of ethnocentricity here that is indefensible in the 21st century, namely the notion that scientists have a monopoly on rigorous methods of rational and empirical study of the natural world. For all the scientific advances in the mind sciences over the past 135, scientists have left modern society completely in the dark about the nature, origins, and causal efficacy of consciousness. And some, like Graziano, veil this ignorance by suggesting there is not mind/body problem because there is no such thing as subjective experience. There is no discipline of knowledge that is entirely empirical, so there is no reason why Buddhism should sacrifice its rich theoretical heritage to satisfy the prejudices of those who can’t imagine that Buddhists have made discoveries of their own about the nature of the mind and its role in nature.

Is there a downside to being aligned with a particular Buddhist tradition or lineage rather than being more generally an “unaffiliated Buddhist” in terms of being able to break with tradition where warranted and not having to worry about offending elders, colleagues, etc. through any perceived apostasy?

Each Buddhist tradition has its own unique approach, internal consistency, and coherence, so there’s an advantage with following a single tradition that accords with one’s temperament and proclivities. If we think of such traditions as religious sects, then the questions of breaking with tradition and worrying about offending elders, colleagues, etc. through any perceived apostasy are bound to arise. But if one views them more as traditions of contemplative inquiry and of theories and methods to purify, transform, and liberate the mind, then the most important question that arises is: are they effective or not? If you’re following a single tradition, and your studies and practice are healing the afflictions of your mind, cultivating virtues, and bringing you greater freedom and joy, then there’s no reason to distance yourself from that tradition. In my case, I’ve received instruction from teachers of all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism and from Theravada teachers, for I’ve found this integrative approach the most helpful for transforming my mind in meaningful ways.

In terms of Buddhism being able to help resolve some of modern society’s existential and environmental crises, I agree entirely. How can we best accelerate the spread of mindfulness and compassion, which are the hallmarks of modern Buddhist practice?

We can all agree that mindfulness and compassion are virtues that everyone should cultivate and which may help resolve some of modern society’s existential and environmental crises. But to extract these qualities from the rich, integrated fabric of Buddhist theory and practice and insert them within a materialistic worldview, hedonistic value system, and consumer-driven way of life is unlikely to bring about any deep and lasting change. Modern society’s existential and environmental crises were not created by traditional religious beliefs or practices that have been with us for many centuries. Rather, these crises first arose primarily in the 20th century, which was the first era in human history that was strongly dominated by scientific materialism. For all of the advances in science and technology during that century, it also witnessed the most savage inhumanity of man against man, the greatest decimation of other species, and the most catastrophic degradation of the ecosphere. Moreover, the communist regimes under Stalin and Mao Zedong, waving the ideological banner of scientific materialism, waged the most destructive religious wars in recorded history, destroying whole civilizations and murdering millions.

A materialistic worldview naturally results in valuing only those material things and their emergent properties, such as wealth, power, and status. The hedonistic pursuit of these ideals naturally results in a way of life focused on ever-increasing production and consumption. This fully integrated triad of a materialistic worldview, values, and way of life is exhausting the natural resources of our planet and the eventually demise of human civilization. So we need to look beyond some quick fixes of increased mindfulness and compassion and fundamentally re-evaluate our beliefs about the nature of human existence, our values, and the way we lead our lives. Buddhism can contribute greatly to such a renaissance, but not if it is subjected to the same reductionism that materialism has thrust upon human nature.

What is substrate consciousness, and how does it relate to the Vedanta notion of Brahman?

In the Buddhist view of consciousness that I embrace, the first moment of consciousness in the development of a human fetus does not emerge from interactions of neurons, but rather from a subtle continuum of mental consciousness that is not contingent upon the brain and that carries on from one life to the next. This substrate consciousness may be regarded as a kind of “stem consciousness” that is not by its own nature configured as a consciousness of a human being or any other species. But when it conjoins with a human embryo, during the course of gestation it becomes configured as a human consciousness, eventually giving rise to a human mind and the five sensory modes of consciousness. Every time we fall into dreamless sleep, our ordinary mental consciousness and all five kinds of sensory consciousness are withdrawn into this substrate consciousness, and a similar process occurs when we die. One can lucidly experience this dimension of consciousness by rigorous, sustained training in samadhi, or highly focused attention; and when our ordinary psyche dissolves into this underlying conscious continuum, we may explore memories not only from this life but from previous lives. This is a scientifically testable hypothesis. In contrast, all the reductionist hypotheses regarding the nature of consciousness, including the preposterous “eliminative” theory that consciousness doesn’t exist at all, do not lend themselves to empirical verification or refutation. Since they do not fill the criteria of scientific hypotheses, they are nothing more than philosophical speculations, all too often fraudulently passed off as scientific conclusions.

That which some Buddhist traditions call the “substrate consciousness” (alaya-vijñana) goes by diverse names in other Buddhist and non-Buddhist contemplative traditions. The Vedanta tradition refers to the individual consciousness that goes from one lifetime to the next as the “jiva,” or life force, also known as the “atman,” or soul. The ultimate ground of being is called “Brahman.” It appears bound as the deluded jiva, but upon realizing the unity of the individual jiva and the universal Brahman, one gains freedom from the round of rebirth.

Is this notion of substrate consciousness a return to Vedanta notions of atman, then? And if so, how does this mesh with the traditional Buddhist notion of anatman (no-self)?

This is not an ideological return to any to any ideology, but rather a report of highly advanced contemplatives’ experiences of a dimension of consciousness that stores past-life memories. If one reviews contemplative literature from Hinduism and Buddhism as well as many other traditions, one finds that this is one of the primary common discoveries, though of course it is called by different names.

From a Western perspective, such claims may be regarded as “extraordinary” and therefore call for “extraordinary evidence.” But these claims are not at all deemed “extraordinary” in cultures such as Tibet, for instance, where there have been thousands of cases of individuals accurately recalling their past lives. The notion that these are all suspect simply because scientists did not verify them is absurdly ethnocentric, reminiscent of religious fundamentalists who assume that nothing is true unless it’s asserted in their scriptures.

For a moment, let’s turn the tables on the notion of “extraordinary claims” and briefly review some of the major scientific views on the mind-body problem. One common hypothesis is that the subjective experience and brain functions are identical. Neuroscientist Cristof Koch skeptically counters, “Are they really one and the same thing, viewed from different perspectives? The characters of brain states and of phenomenal states appear too different to be completely reducible to each other.” There is ample evidence that the two are correlated, but none that they are equivalent, and no one has found a way to put this theory to the test of experience. So it does not warrant the status of being even a scientific theory, let alone a scientific conclusion. It is merely an opinion that many people mistake for an empirical truth.

The most prevalent “conventional” theory is that “the mind is what the brain does,” which is to say that the mind is simply a function of the brain. However, all known functions of physical entities are themselves physical and therefore exhibit physical qualities that can be objectively measured. Mental phenomena display no physical qualities and cannot be objectively measured. So that makes this claim extraordinary, no one has found a way to empirically test this hypothesis, so once again it does not warrant the status of being even a scientific theory, let alone a scientific conclusion. The least scientific hypothesis, but one that is taken seriously by many scientists is that subjective experience doesn’t exist at all. But physicist Adam Frank counters, “Thus the essential mystery of our lives — the strange sense of presence to which we’re bound till death and that lies at the heart of so much poetry, art and music — is dismissed as a non-problem when it’s exactly the problem we can’t ignore. If we’re to have anything like a final theory of consciousness, we had better be attentive to the complexity of how we experience our being.”

The last stand of the materialists is called panpsychism, namely the belief that consciousness is an attribute of all matter, from elementary particles on up. There is no evidence that individual elementary particles, atoms, molecules, or cells (including neurons) are conscious, and there is no compelling theory that explains the “binding problem” of how these individual units of matter combine to form a unitary consciousness. As usual with all theories that try to reduce consciousness to matter or an emergent property of matter, no one has found any way to test this theory, so it is just one more uncorroborated belief.

In short, all the major hypotheses regarding the mind-brain problem turn out to be beliefs unsupported by any compelling evidence or anything more than circular reasoning. All that scientists really know in this regard is that mental and neuronal activities are correlated, but they’ve shed no light on the nature of these correlations. That’s okay, but when materialists treat this issue as having already been settled, they are thrusting upon the trusting public an illusion of knowledge that is detrimental to open-minded research that might actually shed a bright light on this issue.

I am sympathetic to the plea that science be less dogmatic and that Buddhism be more scientific. But all too often the insistence on being “scientific” means to conform to the metaphysical biases of materialism. Since the rise of behaviorism, the cognitive sciences have all but ignored introspection, while focusing exclusively on physical evidence of verbal reports of subjective experience, behavior, and brain activity.

But from the time of Galileo, a crucial aspect of scientific inquiry has been to directly observe the natural phenomena one seeks to understand with as much rigor and sophistication as possible. If scientists are interested only in understanding the behavioral expressions and neural correlates of the mind, then they their methodologies have been appropriate. But if they are truly interested in understanding subjective experience—including the whole range of ordinary and extraordinary states of consciousness, including out-of-body experiences—then they must develop rigorous, sophisticated methods for examining the mind from a first-person perspective. After all, while the brain is invisible to introspection, the mind is equally invisible to all instruments of technology.

It’s high time that scientists and contemplatives unite in mutually respectful collaboration, and it is with this vision in mind that I am now working to create a contemplative research facility that will fully integrate the strengths of the third-person, objective methods of science with the first-person, subjective methods of meditation. Readers who are interested in this cross-cultural, interdisciplinary approach to studying the nature and potentials of the mind should follow the activities of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, which is spearheading this initiative.

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