Buddhism in Bangkok, Thailand: reflections on the topic of mind and brain in advance of mindfulness meditation events:
One cornerstone of Buddhism, and probably all religion, is that something survives death.
The fact that all religions, and many psuedo religions, teach this implies there is some truth to the matter. The fact they all disagree on the details should imply that none of us really know what is going on.
In Buddhist terms, there is rebirth, but not reincarnation – that means there is no permanent ‘soul’ (atman) that transmigrates, but post death there is a continuation of development from where you left off. Like a candle can pass a flame on to another candle, but there is no solid ‘flame’, just the passing on on a continuous process.
Modern day Buddhists often try to explain away the topic of rebirth, as something made up, not ‘real’ Buddhism, or something the Buddha got wrong. They do this because an acceptance of rebirth relies on faith/belief rather than observation.
Nonetheless, rebirth is an article of dhamma that the teacher has passed on. There is continuation; and ones karma decides its nature.
Further, according to Buddhist texts, this can be confirmed by developing the ‘divine eye’ in meditation. That is; one of the meditation insights that lead to Enlightenment is ‘seeing the arising and passing away of beings in the heavens and hells according to their karma’. Many meditators do infact report being able to do this. For the rest of us it is a working hypothesis only, and not something to blindly believe.
One would expect, however, clues to such a fundamental thing to be evident’ If the mind really is something that survives the body, there should be indications of various kinds. And perhaps there are. Try googling up The Boy With No Brain – one of Ajahn Brahm’s favourite examples that suggests the brain is not the master controlling homunculus that we assume it to be. Or refer to the video of Jill Bolte Taylor that we watched as a group a while back.
A more recent example comes from Arthur – watching a TV program, “AGAINST ALL ODDS”, 9th December 2008, 10:40 Approx. UBC. Arthur writes:
Pam Reynolds, Government of Canada
Out of Body Experience
An unusual operation on a brain aneurism which required that the heart was stopped and the cessation of the brain function. This was achieved by cooling down the blood to 15ºC and bypassing the blood through a lung machine fitted with a cooling facility
The blood was cooled down to 15ºC and the heart was stopped. The instruments then showed that the brain activity was also stopped, described as ‘flat lined’, so they could then operate. The blood was drained away from the brain and the operation had to be as quick as possible to avoid problems in bringing her back to normal temperature.
It was described as clinical death. She was said to be ‘well out’ with the use of drugs
After the operation Pam described watching the operation happen from above and she felt cold, she heard the high pitch sound of the cutting tool used on her brain, heard conversation and loud noises, viewed everything. Saw her eyes were blocked, saw a tiny pin point of light which got bigger- like a train ride.
The conversations heard were verified by the doctors.
The experience is by no means unusual, even though rejected by mainstream science.
Believers in rebirth or heaven will hi-jack science and quote people like Heisenberg with such lines as:
Atoms are not things, only tendencies
while sceptics such as Machael Shermer claim there are ‘rational’ explanations. He describes an alien contact experience of his own that happened after 83 hours of constant cycling in a cross country race, due he says, to exhaustion. Shermer quotes research of Michael Persinger who has found a way to use an electro magnetic helmet to induce out of body, God, and alien experiences. Since the expereinces are lab induced, these guys reason, they are scientifically explained, without recourse to the supernatural.
“having a religious experience” is merely a side effect of our bicameral brain’s feverish activities. Simplified considerably, the idea goes like so: When the right hemisphere of the brain, the seat of emotion, is stimulated in the cerebral region presumed to control notions of self, and then the left hemisphere, the seat of language, is called upon to make sense of this nonexistent entity, the mind generates a “sensed presence” [Link to article]
What to make of it all. Our working hypothesis that there is rebirth is only that – a hypothesis. Until such time as you prove it subjectively in meditation that is.
There is a middle ground between the extremes of view though, between the life-after-death explanation and the scientific; simply not knowing. You probably don’t know much about plasma physics, how wood nails are manufactured, or what the snow plow drivers do in the summer. But you accept fluorescent tubes (plasma), nails and snow plows. And you are probably happy not knowing how these things work.
So too with the mind vs brain theories. Keep an open mind (or brain) and enjoy the ride – probably the real truth is nothing like our small minded theories.