Saturday, April 27, 2013


The Dalai Lama needs to integrate more science in his ethics


Though religion is declared to be valuable but not necessary, the whole approach is entirely molded in the metaphysics of the religion that is behind the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism. I do not pretend to go into a full analysis of this religion here, but I would like to make a few remarks on the main concepts of the book.

The first and surprising central concept is that of “suffering” which is never quoted in Pali, hence “dukkha,” but only in this English translation which is the worst possible translation. “Dukkha” refers to the cycle of “birth-life-decay-death-rebirth.” Thus it refers to death as soon as birth, even death in birth when reducing it to “suffering”. If you reduce it to “suffering” you do not understand the dialectics of Buddhism. “Dukkha” is the opposite of “sukha.” “Dukkha” is the fact that any event of life has a beginning, a period of existence (growth and decay) and an end to eventually be reborn like a plant from a seed. This is connected to dissatisfaction, the fact that the phenomenon we are dealing with does not exist before its birth and will not exist after its death and its birth necessarily leads to its death. In other words life is a fatal, lethal, deadly business. But there is sukha on the other hand. Before decaying any phenomenon has to grow and develop. Before dying any phenomenon has to be born and grow and then only decay. Reducing “dukkha” to “suffering” erases the joys and the happiness of life, or it makes them purely artificial since they require a voluntary, hence non-natural, hence not arising from the natural circumstances in and around the concerned human subject but from his ethical decision to follow a certain path that cannot be natural since it is superimposed onto the natural human being. Love, compassion and empathy are not natural in man but the result of ethical choices guided by some ideological choices.

This centering of the whole vision on suffering, what’s more, shifts the center of interest from the phenomenon itself to the individual experiencing this phenomenon, as if the phenomenon had maybe not no existence but at least no value outside the vision this individual may develop. This is very dangerous. The phenomenon exists and occurs outside any individual who may be observing or using it. In fact the phenomenon does not even need to be observed or used by any individual to exist and develop. The Dalai Lama would probably agree but some formulations are inadequate.

This reduction of “dukkha” to “suffering” has far-reaching consequences.

It does not understand “dependent origination” properly. Once again this translation of “paticcasamuppada” is reductive. We are dealing here with a vision deeply embedded in Pali (and before Pali in Sanskrit and hence in probably most if not all Indo-Aryan languages). It is what is called the “preterit participle.” This preterit participle builds “nominalized” clauses attached to main verbal clauses and they express the fact that a set of circumstantial elements, actions or events are fulfilled and that this fulfillment enables another element, action or event to develop, to arise. This construction does not exist in Indo-European languages. That is a main difference between the two cousin linguistic families. This does not mean there is a cause and then an effect. It is not a connection based on causality but only on circumstantial fulfillment. Of course we can consider rain and sunshine are the causes of the growth of plants but that is not what happens in the real world. When rain and sunshine have been or are fulfilled up to a certain level then plants may grow, and at times they don’t because another circumstance is not fulfilled like the proper temperature. It is not causation but it is a set of circumstantial fulfilled elements and when this fulfillment is reached then another element develops, arises. That sounds logical because behind the universe there is no philosophical thinking mind that dictates in a way or another the fate of the cosmos. Evolution is produced by haphazard mutations (that might though be influenced by the circumstances in which they occur) selected within a constraining circumstantial environment.

The second consequence is that the vision of the real natural world, of which man is an animal member, is entirely negative and then positive elements can only come from virtue, from a cultivated human dimension of this human animal. But this human dimension of the human animal is not really specified in its/his/her fundamental Buddhist dimension, the mind which is in fact two Pali concepts, “mana” and “citta,” the first one being the more or less abstract capability and the second the various states of mind a mind can develop in various circumstances. I insist on these two concepts because it clearly states that the mind is not something that exists ready made in man but something that is a double process: a process in the confrontation of man to his/her environment and a process in its being a constructed dimension of the brain, and I insist on brain here. The Dalai Lama insists on the voluntary and systematic constructive attitude and action of any human individual to build empathy and compassion, but he misses the point at the level of the mind and the brain. He does not see the fundamental existence of this mind as a construct of the brain confronted to the world through the senses.

Compassion and empathy are the result of the mirror neurons in the neo-cortex. These mirror neurons enable an individual to imitate what another individual does in front of him/her, but also to share the emotions of the other person and his/her emotions with the other person. This neuronal fact is the very basis of compassion, empathy and love. This is typically human. But it is a physiological fact supporting a mental and behavioral phenomenon.

In the same way the Dalai Lama misses the fact that our brain is both animal and human. Animal in what we call the old brain only based on instinct and first of all on the survival instinct that states the individual has to survive at all cost in front of any danger, and the best way to survive is preemptive attack. But the neo-cortex enables a human being to develop a mind and that mind is the reflection and the construction of the brain. It is hierarchical, it works in stages: from smaller features to larger items, and from discrimination to identification and then later from simple sensorial capture to recognition, when the item has already been identified. This gives the mind the capacity to conceptualize and to build some abstract thinking and thus control the behavior of the individual this mind inhabits after having been constructed (and that construction is never finished).by the confrontation of the individual (and his/her brain) with the circumstantial, existential and experiential situational environment through the six sensorial organs of this individual, the mind being the sixth sensorial apparatus of the human individual.

Hence we come to the conclusion that the initial reduction of “dukkha” to “suffering” leads to the impossibility to integrate the most advanced research in brain neuroscience which makes the very ethical principles the result of the very particular way human beings, as a species, can survive in their world by producing a conceptualized vision of this world in order to both survive AND DEVELOP, the second dimension being most of the time forgotten by the adepts of the survival instinct like Ronald Lafayette Hubbard or ethics. Then what the Dalai Lama states as a voluntary action would become a voluntary ethical choice among possible responses to the environment, responses and choice both arising from the mind of any particular individual. And that’s how Homo Sapiens when becoming the human species we are today, invented all kinds of conceptualized mental – and practical – systems – and weapons-tools-artifacts – to understand and control his/her environment: language, communication, arts, religion, philosophy, science and that process will never be finished since there will always be something more to understand.

Then education becomes essential, not to preach – or graft if not brainwash – ethics into the student’s behavior, but to develop ethics in the ever mostly-self-constructing mind of any individual confronted to any circumstantial, existential and experiential situational environment to which this individual has to respond.

In other words the Dalai Lama has it entirely right but on premises that are not correct because they are not in phase with modern science, and yet it would be very easy to build the correspondence between this philosophy and modern science, knowing that there cannot be two identical minds in this world, that some minds have developed positive values and some others negative values, and that at any step in life there is always a mental choice to make, hence an ethical choice to make. The motivations of these choices can be of any type, sort or kind from the most negative to the most positive, from pure hatred to absolute love.


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