Vipassana Meditation in light of modern science
- By Prof. P. L. Dhar
Inquisitiveness is one of the fundamental characteristics of human beings. Right from birth, a child would like to know and understand the surrounding world. As the child grows up, he or she begins to understand the cause-effect relationship between various events: putting a switch down lights a bulb, putting an ice cube in a glass of soft drink cools it, placing a hand in fire heats it—and we say, the child is learning, gaining knowledge. Science is essentially a systematisation of all the knowledge that humanity has gained about the external world, with the help of our senses.
As the child grows into maturity and experiences the various vicissitudes of life, sooner or later, he or she begins to question: "What is the purpose of all this—being born, studying, earning, having children, rearing a family, getting old and finally dying? Why so much suffering—caused by illness, old age, separation from loved ones, association with the ‘wicked’?" He begins to contemplate and understand his own true nature, the real cause of his suffering, and the way out of it, and thus becomes wiser. Dharma is essentially a systematisation of all the wisdom gained by humanity.
Viewed in this way, Dharma and science emerge as two complementary aspects of human endeavor. As the Isa-Upanishad puts it, "He who has both spiritual wisdom (Dharma) and secular knowledge (science) together keeps death at bay through the latter and experiences immortality through the former."1
Science (especially its applied version, technology), gives us the necessary know-how to keep our body in good shape; Dharma provides us with an understanding of the very purpose of our existence, the "know-where". Clearly, for the harmonious development of any society—for the harmonious development of any individual—a proper integration of science and Dharma is essential. This is especially crucial in modern times, when the advances in science and technology have empowered us enormously. However, from a lack of "wisdom", of Dharma, this advancement in science is leading only to an increase in our sorrows: poisoning of land, air, water and of minds.
The term "Dharma" literally means "natural law". Dharma is thus an exposition of the laws pertaining to our inner world, just as science deals with the laws pertaining to the outer world. The difference between science and Dharma is thus only a difference in the realm of enquiry—as there are differences between the various "departments" of science, such as physics, chemistry and botany. Yet there is a perception of irreconcilability between science and Dharma.
Many factors are responsible for this perception, the first and foremost being the erroneous understanding of both Dharma and science. Today, for most people, Dharma is synonymous with sectarian religions, with priest-craft; they see it as a mumbo-jumbo of words and elaborate rites and rituals, which can become the cause of internecine conflicts between neighbors, even though they may have lived like brothers for generations. Above all, Dharma has become synonymous with a stubborn resistance to any logical scrutiny of religious beliefs. No wonder the youth of today do not want to touch it with a barge-pole! A modern, rational person who is not willing to accept anything on authority—be it the authority of a religious teacher or a sacred book—is therefore tempted to reject it all often, even the eternal truths which are so badly needed to give direction to life will be rejected, thus throwing the baby out with the bath-water! This process is catalysed by a scientific temperament, which is equated with crass materialism—for hasn’t science got an explanation for every phenomenon on the basis of matter in motion under the influence of various forces? Therefore, anyone talking about the existence of reality beyond sensory perception is usually dubbed as unscientific—an ignorant fool living in a world of his own fancies. In such a scenario, the integration of science and Dharma is obviously impossible.
To change this situation there is clearly a need to present Dharma as a science, following a scientific method, shorn of all extraneous socio-political adjuncts and metaphysical speculations. The scientific attitude demands "induction from facts and not deduction from dogmas. We must face the facts and derive our conclusion from them and not start with the conclusion and then play with the facts."2 Secondly, we also need to understand whether materialism, a legacy of nineteenth-century science, is still endorsed by modern science. Fortunately, recent developments in science are questioning this traditional world view, and thus a proper understanding of these developments can give a fillip to the process of integrating science and Dharma.
The essence of the scientific approach was characterised by Thomson: "The aim of science is to describe impersonal facts of experience in verifiable terms as exactly as possible, as simply as possible, and as completely as possible."3
To become a rigorous science, Dharma must be presented as "the Law" which can be experienced by all, not merely a select few. The various propositions have to be presented as hypotheses to be accepted only on verification by experience, albeit personal and subjective,* and not on authority. Also, such propositions should be rational and logical.
The teachings of the Buddha, one of the greatest spiritual scientists, meet these requirements. His constant refrain to his disciples could easily be the advice of a modern humane scientist to young students:
Believe nothing merely because you have been told it, or because it is tradition, or because you yourself have imagined it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for him. But whatever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings, believe and cling to that doctrine, and take it as your guide.
The essence of Dharma, as put crisply by all the Enlightened Ones is "the eschewing of all evil, the perfecting of good deeds, the purifying of one’s mind."4
The simplicity of this enunciation, devoid of any esoteric pronouncement, may sometimes conceal its profundity. However, its practical utility and universal applicability are quite obvious. Viewed in this light, purifying the mind of its baser instincts is the quintessence of Dharma, since this would quite naturally lead to performance of wholesome deeds. It also leads to the development of an insight into the basic characteristics of life. This process of purification is not a mystic knowledge beyond the ken of ordinary people. It is a strictly scientific technique open to anybody who is willing to learn and verify it.
The process of purification of mind is analogous to cleaning the turbid waters of a lake. Two approaches are possible. One could use an external precipitating agent such as alum that chemically forces all the impurities to settle down at the bottom of the lake. Alternatively, one could go inside the lake, identify each and every impurity, and actually take it out. Clearly, the latter process is bound to be more messy and will need more effort, but its advantages are quite obvious. With the former method, we are only suppressing the impurities, but they are still very much there at the bottom. A major storm or churning of the lake can bring them to the surface again. However, with the latter method we have actually eliminated them and the lake will remain clean, so long as we do not add fresh impurities to it. The ancient masters recognised both these approaches, that is to say either suppression or elimination of the mental defilements.
If we divert our attention away from the defilements* as and when they arise (for example by listening to music, or having a drink, or chanting a "holy" name, or some lofty auto-suggestion) the intensity of these negative emotions abates quickly and we can get immediate relief. However these defilements are not actually eradicated, but only suppressed. Modern psychology agrees that they leave their impressions in the deeper recesses of the mind, in its subconscious and unconscious layers.
To remove the impurities of the mind, it is obviously necessary to identify them objectively, and it turns out that this detached "observation" of the mental-physical structure is sufficient to eliminate them. An incident from life of Swami Vivekananda illustrates this point. Once, as he was walking on a street in Varanasi, some monkeys started chasing him. At first Swamiji tried to run from them, but the monkeys kept pace and began to attack him. Just then an old man called out, "Face the brutes." Swamiji turned and confronted the monkeys, and when he did they all fell back and fled.
The impurities of the mind are like these monkeys and the only way to eradicate them is to face them squarely—to observe them without reacting. But how are we to observe these defilements? How does one observe anger, for example, without actually getting overwhelmed by it?
The ancient masters who unraveled the complexities of body-mind phenomena with penetrating insight discovered an important fact: "Whatever arises in the mind is accompanied by sensation" (sabbe dhamma vedana samosarana).5 They also found that all our reactions to various situations are in reality the reactions of the subconscious mind to bodily sensations. Now, while it is very difficult to observe objectively abstract emotions such as anger or passion, it is comparatively easy to train the mind to observe sensations (which carry the signatures of these emotions) in a detached manner. The continuous practice of observing these bodily sensations objectively is the crux of Vipassana meditation. Slowly, but surely, it grinds out the deep mental grooves of lifelong habits—craving for pleasant experiences, avoiding the unpleasant, and ignoring neutral experiences. It thus gradually lifts the veil which obscures from us the real characteristics of all body-mind phenomena: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and egolessness.
To be able to observe the sensations which keep on occurring continuously in various parts of the body, a minimum level of concentration of the mind is obviously essential so that one does not get easily distracted by the external and inner noises which are the hallmarks of our modern life.
The training of increasing the concentration of mind can be done in a variety of ways. In Vipassana, the object of concentration is one’s own breath. This practice is called Anapana, which literally means incoming and outgoing breath. It involves bare observation of the normal, natural respiration with a firm and steady attention, free from any strain. Again, there is no mystery about the choice of breath as the object of concentration; there are many sound reasons for it. Firstly, breath is universally acceptable, being non-sectarian. Also, it is readily available at any time and it is a neutral object: no-one has any craving or aversion towards it. Focusing attention on such an object continuously for a long period of time is, of course, quite difficult, given our present disposition, which only seeks excitement through pleasant objects. But a systematic, persistent effort does make a dent in this stubborn habit.
As a result we receive a foretaste of the fruits of equableness—a natural feeling of peace and tranquillity accompanying the sharpening of the mind. One could have chosen an object of concentration for which the meditator has some attraction or reverence. This would have made the task of concentration much easier because of the natural attraction for the object, but, as is obvious, this would only strengthen the mental habit of craving and thus take us away from the goal of complete purification of mind.
An obvious prerequisite for such a training is the scrupulous observance of basic moral precepts—in particular, abstention from killing, stealing, false speech, sexual misconduct, and intoxicants—since their willful violation would cause violent mental agitation, making it impossible to observe the mind-body complex objectively. Vipassana practitioners can thus learn by experience the importance of moral conduct for their own well-being. In this way morality and ethics thus become a scientific discipline, which one accepts on the basis of one’s own experience and not on account of social pressures or respect for a teacher. This was the fond wish of Albert Einstein, one of the greatest scientists of all times: "The foundation of morality should not be made dependent on myth nor tied to any authority lest doubts about the myth or about the legitimacy of the authority imperil the foundation of sound judgement and action."
From the above description of the basic features of Vipassana, it is apparent that it is an applied science, a technology for inner development. In the true scientific spirit, all that it involves is mindful observation, free from any admixture of prejudices or subjective judgements. Like any other modern technology, it has a scientific basis which can be easily understood; and what is more important, its results can easily be verified by personal experience, here and now. Ehi passiko, ehi passiko (come and see, come and see) was the constant refrain of the Buddha. There is no rite or ritual, dogma or a prior belief necessary for the meditation. Like any other technological skill it can be learnt by systematic practice irrespective of one's caste, creed, religious belief or nationality.
Though its most important objective is to purify the mind of dross, Vipassana is not a mere detergent to wash the dirt off the mental linens, and then to be left behind in the washroom after use. It is an attitude to life, a fragrance which naturally envelops practitioners as they develop more and more insight into the fundamental traits of human existence. It is an art of living equanimously in spite of defeats and victories, praise and criticism, falling health and rising prices. It is the art of transcending, and not suppressing, the sensory attractions. As the practice matures, one naturally develops a deep insight into the fundamental laws of life and becomes harmonious with these. One becomes established in Dharma.
It is historical fact that the rise of science in the post-Renaissance period was instrumental in spreading a general belief in materialism—a belief that matter is the sole reality. All the phenomena of nature, ranging from the motion of the planets to the tides in the seas, could now be explained rationally on the basis of well understood laws of nature. There was no need whatsoever for invoking divine intervention. Even the origin of sentient beings could be "explained" on the basis of the Darwinian theory of evolution.
Some people tried to further extend this theory to show that the simplest form of living protoplasm could arise from non-living nitrogenous carbon compounds under suitable conditions—thus exploding the age-old argument for the existence of God. Attempts were even made to explain consciousness and thinking as arising from the functions of the ganglionic cells of the cortex of the brain. The scientists of the last century firmly held that it should be possible to explain the universe with a few score elements and half a dozen elementary forces.7 No wonder, for most people today, the scientific approach is synonymous with a belief in materialism, a belief in the omnipotence of intellect, and any suggestion about "transcending the intellect" is seen as unscientific.
This picture has, however, undergone considerable change in the last few decades. New developments in science such as the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, are bringing about a profound change in our common-sense view of nature. Many illuminating books have been written in the last two decades which bring out the various facets of this emerging change. We shall mention here only a few of these points which seem most pertinent for our discussion.
The quest for the basic building blocks of matter led scientists to what are often called fundamental particles: electrons, protons, neutrons etc. The intuitive model of the atom which emerges from this research is similar to the planetary system—with a heavy nucleus (consisting of neutrons and protons) at the centre of an immense void, and tiny electrons whirling round it at very high speeds. Naturally, at first these fundamental particles were thought to be something similar to the classical particles, albeit ultra-small—something like specks of dust often seen in the path of a ray of sunshine entering a room. Belief in this concept has, however, been badly shaken by many discoveries. Experimental studies showed that these particles they could be "created" out of energy and could "vanish" in energy as predicted by Einstein's theory of the inter-convertibility of matter and energy.
Now, since energy is a dynamic quantity associated with activity or with processes, the obvious implication is that "a particle has to be conceived as a dynamic pattern, a process involving the energy which manifests itself as the particle's mass".8 This is a picture which is in great contrast to our common-sense notion of "mass" as belonging to an object, but in consonance with the insight of ancient masters: "No doer is there; naught save the deed is... The path exists, but not the traveler found on it".9
It will probably take even the scientific community many more years to fully come to terms with the philosophical implications of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Even today the import of Minkowski's oft-quoted enunciation: "Space by itself and time by itself are mere shadows of a four-dimensional space-time continuum which is an independent reality".10 We do not understand because we have no direct sensory or even intuitive experience of this four-dimensional space-time continuum. Evidently our perception of the world based on the common-sense view of absolute space and time is in error. The situation is quite akin to the erroneous view of the prisoners of Plato's Republic, who never having seen anything other than the shadows on the walls of their underground cave, mistook these for reality.10
An experience of this independent reality would clearly demand transcendence of the senses, coming out of the "prison house of sight". This is a term which we find repeatedly in the ancient texts, but something which would have been anathema to the nineteenth-century scientist. As Fritjof Capra, quoting Swami Vivekananda, puts it, this space-time of relativistic physics is the Absolute of Eastern sages: "Time, space and causation are like the glass through which the absolute is seen. In the Absolute there is neither time, space nor causation."11 This conception thus gives scientific authority (probably needed for the sceptics) to the vision of the ancient sages. Having experienced the transcendent reality directly, they declared: "There is, brethren, an unborn, a not-become, a not-made, not-compounded."12
Another mind-boggling characteristic of these fundamental particles, which has defied all conventional explanations is their ability to exhibit both "wave" and "particle" behaviour under certain experimental conditions.
The fundamental particles thus do not seem to possess any intrinsic nature waiting to be revealed to an inquisitive observer. As summed up by Capra:
My conscious decision about how to observe, say, an electron will determine the electron’s properties to some extent. If I ask it a particle question, it will give me a particle answer. If I ask it a wave question, it will give me a wave answer. The electron does not have objective properties independent of my mind.
We could thus say, with Sir James Jeans, that, in the light of this discovery, the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears as an intruder into the realm of matter ... but ... as the creator and the governor of the realm of matter—not of course our individual mind, but the Mind in which the atoms, out of which our individual minds have grown, exist as thoughts.
Any further understanding of the nature of ultimate reality clearly demands an investigation into the subtle mental plane—self-analysis rather than analysis of the world around, thus merging Science with Dharma.
It is also evident from the above description that an intuitive physical model of these fundamental particles is not possible since our senses can only detect either particle motion, characterised by a localisation of the object moving in a definite trajectory in space, or a wave motion, characterised by a motion of the medium. This realisation forms the basis of one of the very important principles of quantum mechanics: the Principle of Complementarity put forth by Niels Bohr. That is, in any experiment with micro-particles, the observer gets information not about the "properties of the particles themselves", but about the properties of the particles associated with some particular situation. This includes, among other things, the measuring instruments. The information obtained under some definite conditions should be considered as complementary to the information obtained under different experimental conditions. Evidence obtained under experimental conditions cannot be comprehended within a single picture, but must be regarded as various sides (complementing each other) of a single reality—to wit, the object under investigation.15
The social and philosophical implications of this principle are profound. It gives credence to the insight of ancient masters that our attempts at understanding "reality" through the study of matter with the senses are similar to the attempts of five blind men trying to comprehend an elephant by feeling it with their hands. The evidence thus obtained can never be synthesized into the true picture. Clearly, it follows that to comprehend the "reality" of matter, it is necessary to use some other mode of gathering knowledge—aparoksanubhuti or direct experience, as our ancient sages put it.
At the social level, this complementary principle points out that apparently contradictory views may emerge from the same "reality". Wisdom lies in treating them as complementary; this is a message of harmony needed so much in modern times when "appearances" often lead to unending conflicts. In fact Bohr fervently hoped that the complementary principle would, in the near future, find a place in school education.
There have been many developments in other sciences such as biology, psychology, chemistry, neurosciences, etc. All of these indicate the emergence of a new world view which repudiates materialism, but is in consonance with the vision of the Eastern sages of yore. In fact many of the insights of these sages remained unintelligible to the masses, based as they were on the transcendent experience; but today they can be better appreciated in the light of these scientific facts.
One such fundamental insight, which is extremely difficult to comprehend on the basis of our common-sense view of nature, is that of anatta—the fact of egolessness. However, when modern science tells us that the basic building block of matter is not a "being" but a manifestation of energy, which is essentially a process of "becoming", this assertion seems to make sense. It is this seemingly solid physical body, "my body", which creates the stubborn illusion of individuality. Modern biologists point out that 98 per cent of the 1028 atoms of a typical human body are replaced annually from the atoms of the surroundings—the earth, the trees, the animals, in fact all living and non-living entities. It thus becomes evident that one cannot talk of individual entities localised in space and time; we are all partners in a biodance.16 Walt Whitman's poetic insight— "Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you" —is thus a scientific fact!
Molecular biology associates our individuality with the uniqueness of the genes. But here too it is the pattern of the genes which remains the same and not the stuff of the gene—the thousands of individual carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and other atoms that comprise it, which are in constant exchange with the surroundings.16 So, even in the view of hard-core molecular biology, our individuality is a non-material "entity", an abstract pattern of arrangement of various labile molecules. When we couple this understanding with the impossibility of "exactly" locating any fundamental particle, as revealed by Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and also with the fundamental interconnectedness at quantum level, one is forced to agree with Capra:
The quantum field is seen as the fundamental physical entity; a continuous medium which is present everywhere in space. Particles are merely local condensations of the field; concentrations which come and go, thereby losing their individual character and dissolving into the underlying field.
This quantum field is obviously an impersonal entity—the nearest symbol which one can possibly conceive of for the transcendent reality. As even a layman today would testify, a subset of this field—the electromagnetic field—does have the "power" to produce the splendid illusion of a "living being" in every home—on television! One can thus appreciate that the fundamental quantum field could be responsible for creating the illusion of the existence of the viewer of the television too. That this viewer is illusory is the insight of anatta!
Both Dharma and Science enunciate the laws of nature; as applicable to the inner world of human beings and the external world. There can be no disharmony between them, for as Gary Zukav points out in his recent book,
[The laws of Science] are the reflection in physical reality—in the world of physical objects and phenomena—of a larger non-physical dynamic at work in non-physical domains. When Science and its discoveries are understood with the higher order of logic and understanding of the multisensory human,* they reveal the same richness that Life itself displays everywhere and endlessly... the paradigms... of Science also reveal the way our species has seen itself in relation to the Universe: Newtonian physics reflects a species that is confident in its ability to grasp the dynamics of the physical world through the intellect; relativity reflects a species that understands the limiting relationship between the absolute and the personalised conception of it; and quantum physics reflects a species that is becoming aware of the relationship of its consciousness to the physical world.18
It would thus not be an exaggeration to say that for a deeper understanding of modern science, there is a need to develop certain intuitive insights. These can enable us to have experiences more rich than those possible with the basic five senses. Clearly, the process of evolution of such a multisensory personality can be hastened by living life in conformity with the Universal Laws, the Dharma—that is, by practicing Vipassana.
The complementarity of science and Dharma can be succinctly put by paraphrasing the beautiful epigram of Albert Einstein: Science without Dharma is blind and Dharma without Science is lame—for Dharma gives us the vision of what ought to be done, and Science gives us the power to do it19. The developments in science have unleashed enormous power—but power can do as much harm as good. Today, there is a crying need to channel this power to ensure the very survival of humanity, for otherwise Man will destroy himself by misusing the same power. What we must do is reorient our lives in the light of the quintessence of Dharma, by practicing morality (sila), taming the senses by the practice of concentration (samadhi) and progressively purifying the mind by the practice of Vipassana.