What was your intention in writing this book?
My intention was to offer people my understanding of the dharma, including the use of the new information from the evolutionary sciences, as possible skillful means and support for liberation. Over the years, I have come to recognize that the discoveries in evolutionary science are really profound teachings of dharma, pointing to the truths of anatta (no-self), or dependent co-arising.
How does understanding or practicing the dharma affect our understanding of the new sciences?
The knowledge of science can be a powerful tool for transforming our lives, but only if it becomes integrated or “realized” within our hearts and minds. Even though we know how completely our lives are co-existent with the sun, the earth, the atmosphere, and the plants, we do not normally experience ourselves in that relationship, as embedded in natural processes. That’s where the Buddha’s teaching comes in. As I say in the book, I think the Buddha can be seen as a spiritual biologist. He instructs us to meditate and reflect on the body and the sense impressions, to examine how perception and cognition take place. He wants us to examine our biological condition, to drop below the individual story line and explore the base line of what we inherit as organic creatures, as human beings. In this process, we can begin to use our understanding of science as support for our medication practices.
Can you elaborate on how the specific practices which you offer in the book can help us realize our identity as an “ecological self?”
I have taken some of the traditional practices found in the Mahasatipatthana Sutra and focused them on realization of our evolved biological condition. For instance, I offer a guided meditation using the traditional body scan, which includes reflections on the major evolutionary changes that have shaped various parts of the body. I also frame the experiences of thought and emotion as being part of our common biological inheritance rather than having an individual psychological character. When we begin to realize how much of our experience is rooted in primal or evolutionary imperatives, we begin to see it as more impersonal, as archetypal. That perspective can begin to free us from the power of our biological conditioning and help to relieve our suffering.
Is this similar to the merging of dharma and physics that we saw in the seventies?
I think this marriage of dharma and biological science will be much more profound than the attempts to bring together physics and the dharma, primarily because the biological sciences are so accessible to our experience. We can feel evolution in our bones and see its legacy in our reactive mind.
What do you hope will come from the book?
Mostly, I hope that the book will help people understand themselves and others and find a new ease of being in their bodies, mind, and in the world. I also want this book to enhance the integration of dharma into the discourse of Western culture. Essentially, I think we are all in denial of our biological condition. We still want to think that we came from some other realm or were created through some medium other than natural processes. I think it would be a great blessing for all if we could embrace our biological and ecological selves.
from Wes Nisker’s Buddha’s Nature: Evolution as a Practical Guide to Enlightenment
Anyone who studies the mind will eventually come to what the neuroscientists call the “hard problem” of consciousness. For nearly three millennia, Buddhist meditators have been looking through their minds and bodies for a “self” they could call their own, but like the neuroscientists, they only wonder where it could be.
The conclusion that many have arrived at, summarized by Buddhist scholar Wapola Rahula, is that “what we call ‘I’ or ‘being’ is only a combination of physical and mental aggregates, which are working together interdependently in a flux of momentary change within the law of cause and effect.” In the Abhidamma, Buddhist sages teach that consciousness is not some mystical essence of the soul or spirit, but rather a natural occurrence, what system theorists call an “emergent property” of human life. They came to this view after observing their own minds in meditation.
With the application of mindfulness, meditators begin to see that rather than being a permanent “knower” or a steady-state condition, consciousness can be seen to arise anew in every split second or mind-moment.
Stop reading for a moment and look intently at some stationary object. Maintaining the visual sense impression, notice if you can simultaneously hear sounds. Can you be conscious of seeing and hearing at the same time? If you pay very close attention you might notice consciousness switching between eye and ear with great rapidity. While we seem to experience multiple sense impressions as a single conscious event, it is a false effect created by the speed of cognitive process.
According to the Buddha’s teachings, there are actually six different types of consciousness, each one associated with a particular sense door. Only when something is seen does “eye consciousness” arise; only when there is a thought will “thinking consciousness” arise. In the words of the Buddha, “Consciousness is defined according to the condition through which it arises . . . if it is conditioned by eye and material objects, it is called eye consciousness . . . if through mind and mental objects, mind consciousness.” Each type of consciousness will appear only in conjunction with an object – a sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, or thought. In other words, consciousness does not exist independent of its function, and there is not one consciousness.
In Buddhist psychology, seeing this discontinuity of consciousness is an important breakthrough in self-awareness. Meditators begin to realize that even consciousness has no separate, independent existence, but is always co-arising with its object. Now we may begin to understand ourselves as co-emergent with the world.
Adapted from Buddha’s Nature: A Practical Guide to Enlightenment, by Wes Nisker, with permission from Broadway Books.
This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.