All posts tagged as buddhism

14 Apr

Mystery of Metamorphosis

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / April 14, 2011 / 8 Comments

 

The Mystery of Metamorphosis

 

Last month my friends at Chelsea Green Publishing sent me a fascinating new book by Frank Ryan called The Mystery of Metamorphosis; A Scientific Detective Story. I whipped through it in a couple evenings, rapt. Tonight I finally found time to blog about it.

In the book’s prologue, the author defines metamorphosis as "…the dramatic transformation of one being into another." The classic example of this phenomenon is a caterpillar’s conversion into a butterfly. The process is threefold. First, the caterpillar builds its cocoon. Then, inside, it liquifies, losing any recognizable form. Finally, from this organic soup, a wholly new creature emerges: the butterfly.

It’s miraculous. The caterpillar dies and is born again—more beautiful, and able to fly.

Poetic interconnections abound… Our spiritual traditions describe a similar process of withdrawl, breakdown, and renewal. The most widely known, of course, is the Christian myth of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Christ walks the earth mortal, dies for three days, and rises out of his tomb, divine. He transforms, transfigures. His story is one of metamorphosis.

In Buddhism, Siddhartha Guatama wanders the countryside seeking wisdom, falls into meditative trance sitting under the Bo tree, and awakens enlightened. Once a seeker of truth, he becomes its embodiment—the Buddha. His story is also akin to a metamorphosis.

The creation myth in Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, describes a threefold metamorphic process. It begins with tsimtsum, which literally translates as ‘withdrawl.’ Here, God withdraws His infinite self to allow a space for our world to exist. Next comes shevirah—’shattering.’ Inside the space cleared for the world, the machinery of creation is overwhelmed by God’s energy and breaks into pieces, losing its previous form. Finally comes tikkun—repair. This occurs when the broken pieces are recognized, redeemed, and reformed. The divinity of the world is restored.

Again, this is metamorphosis—transformation from one thing into something higher.

Almost ten years ago now I experienced my own metamorphosis, which led directly to the existence of this blog. I left my life as a professional musician in Los Angeles, packed my possessions into storage, and withdrew into three years of solitude introspecting and studying mysticisms and science. I reemerged happier, healthier, and more expansive. I often feel as though I transformed from one being into another.

Have you experienced a metamorphosis in your life?

Comments welcome.

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29 Jun

Religion, Science, and Education

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / June 29, 2009 / 8 Comments

Yesterday I graduated the Master of Arts in Education program at Antioch University Los Angeles! This personal milestone has put me in an excited and reflective state of mind. And so today, rather than detailing a specific poetic interconnection between spirituality and science, I’m feeling inspired to renew the overall mission statement of this blog, and my ongoing research in religion, science, and education.

This post is a credo!

The world’s religions have been at odds for centuries, with violent and tragic results. And since the Scientific Revolution in the 16th century, religion and science have also been unable to stop fighting. The reason for these conflicts is that our religious sects, and religion and science, have traditionally offered very different answers to the deepest questions people face: Where did we come from? Who are we? Why are we here?

These questions are philosophical, but should not be dismissed as abstract. Guiding philosophies lead directly to actions. Our metaphysics informs our ethics.

In his wonderful book Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, groundbreaking religion/science scholar Ian Barbour defines metaphysics as “philosophical analysis of the most general characteristics and components of reality…” At this point in human history, we undertake such analysis of our foundations using religion and science as our main tools. Sadly, in my opinion, both have become misused and misinterpreted in-and-of themselves. Traditional religious dogma convinces us our deepest questions all have answers, promoting absolutism over inquiry, hubris over humility. Worst case result: we kill in the name of our chosen deity. The scientific materialism of classical physics reduced us to assemblages of mindless particles moving in empty space—purposeless, lacking agency and soul. Emphasizing technology over wisdom, we penetrated the atom and used what we learned to build nuclear bombs.

But inside these tragic problems lies their solution: there are less traditional forms of religion and new developments in science that answer our most vital metaphysical questions in ways that sound similar, finally allowing for the possibility of an integrative and constructive worldview in which we can all share, peacefully. These untraditional forms of religion are the mysticisms this blog continually describes and celebrates: Vedanta Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, Kabbalah, Islamic Sufism, and Christian mysticism. The new developments in science are Einstein’s relativity theories, quantum theory, chaos theory, systems theory, and evolutionary biology.

The perennial philosophy of mystical spirituality and the worldview emerging from discoveries in modern science both describe a reality characterized by holism, interdependent relationship, and emergent creativity. This sort of reality should inspire awe and humility, compassion and charity, and playfulness and artistry.

As a thinker, writer and educator, I encourage all these orientations! I find them all to be expansive. Thus expanded, we all tend to kindness.

I also prioritize synthesis: both/and, higher level thinking. Other academics have championed religious tolerance, and tolerance between religion and science. While admirable, these efforts haven’t eased the perception that these two worldviews are fundamentally dissimilar—thesis and antithesis. My mission is actual resolution of the dialectic: I want to lead my readers and students in identifying principles common to religion and science, and interweaving them into a new unified and useful philosophical tapestry.

To repeat an analogy previously used in this blog: Only from the mountaintop can we clearly see how all paths upward actually converge on the same peak.

My goal is to illumine that summit—and to share the beauty, joy, and enchantment I experience seeing it all lit up!

Thank you, as always, for joining me along the way.

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03 Mar

On Neurotheology

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / March 3, 2009 / 3 Comments

Back in November I posted a blog called Buddhism and Your Brain, in which I explored a possible scientific explanation for the feeling of timelessness experienced in Buddhist meditation. A comment thread commenced about whether certain kinds of brain activity might cause mystical experiences, or whether they’re just correlations—secondary physical results of truly spiritual breakthroughs.

This radical question followed: If spirituality is just biochemical, could Nirvana be achieved by swallowing a pill? Could enlightenment come over-the-counter?!

Liberation by prescription! Pharmacists as the new clergy!

I didn’t know it in November, but brain/religion questions are being actively researched by scientists around the world, theorists in a new subspecialty of brain science called neurotheology. This emerging field is also capturing the attention of religious scholars, to mixed reactions. Many find it overly reductionistic—a new way for science to try to discredit religion, diminishing divine revelation to just the strange misfirings of neurons and synapses. Others find it affirming, considering the blotches of bright red and orange in SPECT scans taken at the climax of ecstatic prayer to be the physical, viewable footprint of God—religious iconography for the 21st century!

Last week I delved deeper into neurotheology, reading a wonderful book called Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. In the text, the authors explain that there is a place in the brain called the ‘orientation association area’ that’s located in the parietal lobe of the cerebral cortex—the part of our brains where all our most advanced cognitive functioning happens. There are technically two orientation association areas, actually: one in each brain hemisphere. The left area is responsible for creating our felt sense of having a discrete physical body, limited in space. The right area generates our sense of surrounding space in which our body moves and lives.

Turns out, when running brain scans of Buddhist monks at the peak of their meditations, scientists have observed that the orientation association areas of their brains go dark—they become deprived of stimuli. Essentially, a monk’s intention to dull his or her senses to achieve meditative quiet results in a lack of electro-chemical flow to these areas in the brain that give us a sense of having a physical body separate from the space around us. Thus ‘disoriented’, a monk becomes literally unable to tell where he or she stops and the rest of the universe begins.

Throughout history, mystics who’ve achieved transcendent states have commonly reported a feeling of merging with an infinity of space and time in which nothing individual exists—including themselves. The feeling is always described as profound, and deeply pleasurable.

And so the questions are asked and re-asked: Have mystics been reaching God, or inventing God—interpreting unusual brain activity as divinity? And shocking as the contention sounds, does it even matter? Is there any deeper Truth than what we feel anyway? Or, what if this is just how the divine chooses to reveal itself?

This neurotheology dialogue is just beginning, and I find it captivating. It elevates poetic interconnections between spirituality and science to a whole new level. Accordingly, I’d be thrilled to moderate any small part of the debate, via this blog.

Comments welcome!

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05 Feb

God is a Dirac Delta Function

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / February 5, 2009 / 13 Comments

Math scares me.

I can handle 2+2=4 well enough, and even some long division without a calculator, but higher math—differential equations, divergent series, multivariable calculus—makes my head hurt.

So I had a conflicted experience last week when I stumbled across something called the Dirac Delta Function. Named after Paul Dirac, a physicist and sort of ‘Original Gansta’ of quantum theory, the function is a math equation that yields zero for every number you plug into it, except when you plug in zero, in which case the answer becomes infinity!

Infinity only occuring at zero… I had no idea exactly what it all meant, but I smelled poetic interconnections between the Dirac Delta Function and religious mysticisms. Buddhists consider the true nature of things to be sunyata—emptiness. And Kabbalists describe God as ayin—a ‘nothingness’ (zero) with infinite potential to become anything and everything.

Math suddenly seemed like a fear worth facing…

I called a friend, Dawn Porter, Ph.D., University of Southern California math/statistics professor and co-author of the fabulously exciting text, Basic Econometrics. I begged for tutoring, and she generously obliged.

Here’s what I learned:

A math function can be used as a formula for exploring possibilities. Considered this way, functions are best visualized as graphs: The horizontal axis of the graph (the x axis) represents a range of possibilities, and the vertical axis of the graph (the y axis) represents the likelihood of any of those possibilities coming true. Here’s a visual:

 

 possiblities graph

 

The Dirac Delta Function yields a graph in which almost all values of x register a zero value on the y axis, which means there’s no chance of any of those possiblities coming true. The only value of x that gets any action is x=0. At x=0, the y value becomes infinity. So, paradoxically, when x is nothing, when there’s no possibilities at all, everything suddenly happens!

The darkest hour is just before the dawn… (No pun intended, Dawn!)

Here’s a cool animated GIF to illustrate that graph, courtesy of Wikipedia:

 

Dirac Delta Function

 

Now… Mystics the world over believe there’s a proportional correlation between ego and God. The more we identify with our self, our ego, the less room we have inside us for God. Thus, the more we empty ourselves of self-oriented wants and motivations, the more space divinity has to move into us and exercise its wants and motivations, which are always loving and groovy. Then we become Godlike.

With that in mind, let’s reconsider the animated graph, above. Imagine the horizontal x axis is your ego—your sense of self. Now imagine the verticle y axis is God. The Dirac Delta Function says that when x=0, when you become nothing, the value of God for you becomes infinite! But when you have any other value than zero, whether positive or negative, the possibility of God vanishes: When we concern ourselves with ourselves, divinity just can’t find good living space inside us.

I’m a born again math convert now… The Dirac Delta Function saved me! How about you?

Comments welcome.

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30 Nov

Buddhism and Your Brain

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / November 30, 2008 / 9 Comments

This week I read a fascinating book called Rhythms of Life: The Biological Clocks that Control the Daily Lives of Every Living Thing. The book is about circadian rhythms—the processes inside all of us that sync us with the beat of our environment. Though spiritual beings, we are also clearly of the Earth: There are mechanisms in our brains that register cycles of daylight and darkness and adjust our bodies accordingly—for sleeping, eating, etc. It happens involuntarily. We’re wired into the planet.

Turns out, our primary brain clock is a bundle of cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus—commonly abbreviated SCN. The SCN is what scientists call a ‘self-sustaining oscillator’. This means that it maintains its own internal rhythm, like a metronome in our heads that never winds down. The SCN constantly takes in information from our eyes about relative levels of light and darkness in our environment, keeping it properly synced to its surroundings. It then sends out neural (electric) and chemical impulses to various organs in our bodies at appropriate times of day: We’re signaled to feel hungry at intervals, sleepy at other intervals.

The SCN is located about two inches behind our eyes, centered directly between them. Interestingly, this spot corresponds exactly to the place in the head Buddhists refer to as the ‘third eye’. Focusing on this area in meditation is said to help a person experience a feeling of timeless unity, in which archetypal dualities such as light/dark and day/night are transcended.

I wonder… Does Buddhist meditative focus somehow affect or interrupt the functioning of the SCN, temporarily suspending circadian rhythms, leading to a mystical feeling of timelessness?

Is there a scientific basis for this spiritual experience?! Comments welcome.

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26 Oct

Indra’s Net and the IGM

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / October 26, 2008 / 44 Comments

I love religious mythology—its poetry and its gravity.

One of my favorites is the Chinese Hua Yan Buddhist myth of Indra’s net. This tale tells of a wonderful net hung in the heavenly palace of the Vedic God Indra. In every eye of the net, everywhere its threads cross each other, a perfectly round and reflective jewel is sewn. Indra’s palace is infinite in expanse, and so the net is similarly infinite, and its jewels are therefore infinite in number. Even more remarkable, though—the net is hung in such a precise way that every jewel reflects every other jewel in the lattice! The effect of this arrangement is awesome: Each jewel reveals and, so, in a sense, contains every other. Altering or removing any individual one changes the entire system of reflections—every other jewel is affected. A natural holism is thus co-created. And the arrangement is completely egalitarian, lacking any hierarchical structure—no start or end points, causes or effects are discernable. Indra’s net simply is.

Hua Yan Buddhists believe Indra’s net is analogous to the true structure and nature of reality.

Both the image and its philosophical implications resonate: Everything is connected. We’re all interdependent. Nothing exists in isolation. And we’re all equally vital.

Recently I was browsing headlines at a cool website called Science Impossible and found a link to a National Geographic article about the IGM—the intergalactic medium. Fascinated by cutting-edge cosmology, I read eagerly. Here are the first two paragraphs of the story:

Much of the missing “normal” matter in the cosmos has been found clustered around wispy ropes of invisible matter spanning the space between galaxies.

The filaments form part of the vast weblike superstructure of the universe, within which galaxies are embedded like sparkling sequins.

The quote’s italics are mine, added to indicate the place in the article where my jaw keeps dropping—this online science story seems to be painting a similar picture of the structure of our universe to that of Indra’s net!

The parallel is beautiful to me. It’s also compelling: scientific observation according with religious intuition.

What happens when metaphors become measurables? For me, wonder increases and life becomes more mystical.

What happens for you? Comments welcome.

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