Buddhism and Science — An Interview with Lama Ole Nydahl
Monday 1 December 2008
Vilnius, Lithuania, on September 25, 2004
Conducted by Artur Przybyslawski at the Diamond Way Buddhist Center
Copenhagen, the place of your birth, was the place where the famous “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum physics was formulated and from where Tibetan Buddhism started to spread all over the West. This is a nice coincidence, isn’t it?
Yes. We started our first meditation group in the city where Niels Bohr cooperated with Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, and other scientists to do their amazing work. Now all over the world we have more than 450 groups and centers of the Karma Kagyu school, under spiritual guidance of the 17th Karmapa Thaye Dorje. In every big city of Europe you can listen to lectures on quantum physics at the local university and learn to meditate in our public centers. Everyone now has a chance to make some interesting comparisons between discoveries of physics concerning the outer world and the results of meditation, which point directly to the inner world.
You like to say that the same sharp and precise look is used by the sciences to examine the outer world and by Buddhism to examine the inner world. Can we say that Buddhist meditation is a scientific method?
One may compare Buddhist meditation to a laboratory, which offers the best tools to examine one’s mind in detail. There is no reasonable doubt that all events are interrelated, and it is not possible to observe things in the outer world without changing them. Looking inward at the mental processes where the same laws operate, is just as scientific. In both cases masses of different factors influence one another, but Buddhism adds the dimension of enlightenment. It is beneficial to recognize that there is an unchanging center, an observing space: mind. It is aware and gives us an absolute angle on what is happening. This is not found in other disciplines and brings a massive transformation unique to Buddhism. As one meditates more, one begins to notice what is between and behind one’s thoughts, what knows the thoughts. This process is something completely satisfactory, rich, and wonderful in itself. But then that growing experience of mind being perfect in itself—of not being dependent on thoughts, feelings, or anything else—brings about an experience of lasting security. There is no other object or goal. What is truly interesting is that potential, which makes thoughts possible, that clarity which knows and understands, and that unlimited essence where thoughts disappear again. So gradually the fact that one has thoughts, feelings, and countless other qualities at all—this power, richness, and potential of mind—becomes more important than whether thoughts and feelings happen to have a pleasant or difficult emotional overtone.
Experiment plays a crucial role in Western sciences. What about Buddhism?
The method of working with one’s mind and seeing the world as it is—and not as one hopes or fears it might be—is experimental. It is based on years of getting the right instructions; it builds on constantly checking if things really are like that—in our mind and in the world we observe. And it is proven through years of going ever deeper into, and finally staying in, mind’s radiant space. Such a process, I would say, is most scientific. To see things as they are—this wish brings science and Buddhism together. We call Buddhism a religion of experience, in contrast with the religions of belief from the Middle East, because the methods bring about the realization of the goal. Truth is here understood to be all– pervading and inherent in all beings. To realize this, one’s practice must be a constant experiment with mind, producing an awareness of its richness and capacities. In the end, such consequent, methodical work that involves one’s body, speech, and mind leads to an experience of mind’s totality—to enlightenment—as it did with Buddha himself. To quote the present head of our lineage, the 17th Karmapa Thaye Dorje, “Buddhism is not a religion. Buddhism is a method connecting us with our essence.”
Is it useful to try to put the Buddhist teachings in a waterproof logical frame of science? Can it be a way to enter Buddhism?
Most people today believe in whitedressed gurus looking into the world through complicated machines. And where intelligent people really want to learn, Buddhism should be accessible. As long as people have confidence, there must be a frame in which they can grow. Whenever they are really open, Buddhism should be there as a relevant choice. Also in this case, being Buddhist means remaining critical. All phenomena should be examined, and Buddhism here is very critical. If there is a point where the Buddha and science do not agree and science seems to be right, then one should have confidence in science. Even the Buddha would want that. There can be no teaching higher than truth.
Isn’t that a very intellectual approach— and not exactly the one of Diamond Way Buddhist practice?
Speaking from experience does not exclude an intellectual substructure. It is important to have at least some Buddhist experience, because if one tries to understand mind without maturity— meaning only intellectually—one loses focus. For instance, in the West the total logic of Buddhism has given many people the idea that the teaching is something dry or even dead, with no joy in it. Now, that is definitely not seen in the Diamond Way centers and is also not the experience of tourists who meet Buddhists in their own countries. They mainly meet them relaxed and smiling. The idea of Buddhism as joyless results from an intellectual understanding of the term “emptiness.” When Western translators came to Buddhist cultures and read the scriptures, their view was limited to a dualistic way of thinking. This is the “either-or” choice we use in the West. To those who were unable to recognize the timeless nature of the observer, “emptiness” could only be nothingness. Because of the same limited understanding, many of the early translations of Buddhist texts and commentaries explain nirvana, the highest goal, as annihilation or disappearance. Of course, this is not the case. “Liberation” is already great, and enlightenment is the explosion of joy, wisdom, and compassion—nothing compares to that.
So how do we explain, in the modern, more scientific language of the West, this Buddhist understanding of space that is not something and not nothing at the same time? How do we avoid the extreme of nihilistic conception of space as mere nothingness?
“Space is information” is probably the best way to put it, or “Space is latent energy,” “Space is potential”—these three formulae work well. If one looks inside, one meets naked awareness. Then a thought, feeling, or memory appears and disappears back into that space. The outer world functions in the same way: galaxies come together, change, and disappear into black holes—probably giving off hydrogen for the next universe.
How can critical Westerners who grew up in the culture of science accept Buddhism with all the strange looking meditation forms, mantras, and so on?
The only things that people need in order to benefit from Buddhism are: the confidence that there is a goal they want to reach, mind’s full development— we call it Buddha; methods that bring them there—his teachings; and trust in their friends on the way. These three things are all we need to know. Nothing else is needed. They are the basic refuge. But in order to obtain certain states of mind, one may also use special methods. The most effective among these work with identification, with feedback from male or female, single or united, peaceful or protective forms of certain colors, and holding different attributes in their hands. They influence one’s imagination, the energy flow in one’s body, and therefore also one’s mind. Such meditation forms express aspects of one’s enlightened nature and are not some kind of “gods.” Their function is to help beings communicate with their essence. This kind of meditation helps us make contact with our inherent enlightenment and accomplish the experience of our full potential. The syllables used—mantras—bring energy to different centers in the body: OM makes the head vibrate, AH leads the energy to the throat, and HUNG activates one’s chest. As such means are measurable, both scientists and meditators wishing to develop themselves seek results here instead of in the outer world, which feels no happiness or pain. What experiences is only mind. Therefore looking for happiness there is meaningful.
Given that point of view, how then do we deal with views like materialism?
If we put the human being in the center of whatever happens, one’s values become very simple. One may then simply judge if a particular activity benefits people or not. Up to a certain point, materialism is useful. For example, if one has a fast car, then one can meet more people—hopefully not more policemen, but people one likes to talk to. And if one has a warm house, one does not need to put on such a heavy coat that it becomes difficult to work. From a certain level of wealth, one also has to hire people to watch the things one has and does not need. Gradually material things absorb one’s energy and time, which is not useful. Kalu Rinpoche, one of our fine lamas, advised people to live like in a hotel. Here one uses everything but at the same time knows one can’t take anything along.
What, in your opinion, is the relation between brain and mind?
A view I really like is that the brain filters out impressions not related to survival and feeds the important material to mind. I am not sure how accepted this is among my colleagues. However, most Buddhists would agree that the brain does not produce mind but instead transforms mind. It is the radio but not the radio station. Like scientists, we also think that the brain is where impressions are stored. These are the mental imprints, which make one know who one is and what one did. The flow of impressions, however, is not created by the brain but transformed by it and works through our nervous system. Being in essence “space,” it experienced countless lives before and will continue until the experience of mind’s power of awareness is more prominent than anything that can appear in it. At that time, one may either choose to remain in a timeless state beyond ego, developing mind’s limitless qualities and insights, or find a new body to benefit beings in the conditioned world. It is also relevant to our question that Tibetans who say “mind” usually point to the heart. The brain, on the other hand, is conceived of as a place where different bodily functions are coordinated. In the case of heart transplants, one sees that the stored information of the receiver stays, while emotions and tendencies often swing toward those of the donor. Many such cases are described in the book The Heart’s Code by Paul P. Pearsall.
On various occasions you allowed your brain activity to be recorded scientifically while you were meditating. Do you think that, beyond maybe some curious findings, the results of such studies are of direct benefit?
First, it was a relief when they discovered that I have a brain! There had been some lingering doubts since my childhood.… Joking aside, the dozens of electrodes on my head during experiments in Zürich and Chicago actually showed that 35 years of living Diamond Way Buddhism does leave certain marks. Of course there are factors complicating the findings. Four years of boxing, nine years of the chemical experiments that my generation believed could improve the world, and also some motorcycle accidents must all have left traces. However, some things are not explainable through them. Going to an extremely restful deep-sleep mode in four to six seconds is unusual. On average it takes about ninety minutes. It is unusual to have a head full of theta waves, which usually disappear into the central brain before the age of two, and to willfully generate the dramatic curves of epiletic fits while experiencing bliss in each cell of my body. Actually, it was really funny seeing from the corner of my eye the scientists rotate excitedly around their computers. I held the state three and a half minutes through deep breathing and a focus on the magnetic field through my body. Actually, one should give such demonstrations mainly for scientific purposes. The effect of simply dissolving people’s preconceived ideas with unexpected findings is too short-lived. In this case, if some of the countless people suffering from epilepsy could somehow be helped, what a joy that would be!
From the Buddhist point of view, quantum physics is of particular interest, isn’t it? Some physicists say that the world is a fluctuation of vacuum or a dinner served for free….
It is interesting that the same insights come up whether we look into the outer world through telescopes, microscopes, and atom smashes, or into the inner world through meditation. Here is the Buddhist take on it all: 2,500 years ago Buddha said, Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form and emptiness cannot be separated. Today’s Diamond Way practitioners might express it like this: If nothing is there, we say it is mind’s “space essence.” If something appears, be it outer or inner, it is mind’s free play. And the fact that both experiences can be there is mind’s unlimited expression.
Alain Aspect proved the fact of nonseparability in the quantum world. Particles can communicate instantly, needing no time to exchange information.
You treat his famous experiment as a proof of Buddhist truths also…. This removes limiting dualistic habits; it adds the liberating both-and dimension of awareness itself to the either-or judgments necessary for survival.
And there is another fundamental scientific conclusion that sounds familiar to Buddhists, too…. Before observation, Schrödinger’s cat is neither alive, nor dead, or indeed possibly both alive and dead. However we look at it, the fact is that the nature of any thing cannot be determined in itself, independent of the observer. Observer or methods of observations affect the result of observation.
Yes, the fact that something is observed already changes it; one influences and colors every experience. Buddha gives very precise and detailed explanations on the science of perception, describing the “normal” inferential perception as opposed to “direct” perception when the mind is in a non-conceptual state. Buddhism understands this world—our lives as well as everything around us— as a dream. This is because situations constantly change, and nothing can last. Nothing rests in itself or can be determined through itself. Since everything appears, changes, and disappears, this whole world is seen as arising from the changing thought forms (karmas) as a collective dream of beings. In deep meditation, one may experience how collective pride makes everything solid arise; one also sees that the anger of beings produces everything fluid; that our attachments and desires bring about heat; and that collective jealousy is the source of movement like the wind. With the above realization, ignorance and confusion dissolve; and space changes from something that separates to a container uniting all. There is then no world apart from the beings who are dreaming, shaping, and experiencing it. The observer changes the observed, because everything is part of the same totality. Therefore, any distinction making subject and object separate and independent entities is artificial. However, because of not knowing mind, beings’ senses supply exactly the opposite information in every moment. Making this distinction is a very strong, lasting thought pattern. It takes years of meditation in order to break or even seriously dent it.
We spoke a lot about the similarities between Buddhism and science. But of course there are also differences between Buddhism and science. Will it ever be possible to scientifically prove the highest Buddhist teachings, that space and bliss are inseparable?
Unless the dance of what happens can be objectively measured as being joyful, that kind of insight can only be verified by living beings in meditation and life. The reason to expect that space and bliss are inseparable, even though one has to relax any expectation to enjoy them, is that yogis define spontaneous bliss as enormously deep meaning, love, and happiness, a limitless richness that no words can describe and that may never be possible to prove scientifically.
You used to say that Buddhism is not psychology but modern psychology is inspired by Buddhism, didn’t you?
Buddhism is simply how things are, so if psychology becomes good enough it becomes Buddhism…. We actually have a very fine cooperation. Psychology takes people from their bad projections to a liveable space. From there, Buddhism takes them beyond projections and ego to recognition of what they really are. Modern psychology works with ordinary states of mind. In these, duality is experienced as true and one believes changing emotional states to be real. As long as this is the case, the conscious radiance between and behind thoughts and feelings does not manifest. At a certain moment, however, quantity turns into quality. It is only possible to wake up into liberation and enlightenment from positive experiences, because bad ones block one and cause pain. In other words, mind will naturally recognize itself from a state of surplus and good feelings but never from neurosis and fear. So while one still believes that changing experiences are real, good thoughts and feelings are the way to go. Once awareness arises of that which produces and knows thoughts, hope and fear dissolve; and all experience is fantastic because it shows mind’s potential.
You also say that Buddhism is not some kind of philosophy, but we can find some similarities between Buddhist thinking and for example the philosophy of Heraclitus who even uses exactly the same examples….
Yes, Heraclitus lived slightly after Buddha and was both brave and great. Not trying to explain away things that one cannot understand by calling them “god,” both instead postulated space to be basically pregnant: inwardly with thoughts and feelings, and outwardly with universes and events. Since it works with mind’s totality and is not a system of belief, everything in Buddhism should be logical and explainable. When mind functions totally, every question contains its own answer; and all mental processes are logically satisfying. The difference between Buddhism and philosophy in the Western sense is that Buddhism is not formal and does not allow any empty categories not filled by experience. Buddhist philosophy works with life. Even the most complicated Buddhist arguments add no extra intellectual luggage but instead aim to break thought patterns that keep beings from experiencing mind’s full potential. All along the way, Buddhist philosophers are aware that concepts are like a finger pointing at the moon but not the moon itself. If one focuses only on the finger, one will never see the moon.
What about Tibetan medicine and Western medicine? Do they contradict or can they cooperate?
They work together very well. Western medicine is excellent for everything having to do with quick decisions, acute diseases, and surgical interventions. The Far Eastern approach is excellent for chronic diseases and for putting everything back in balance. They really belong together. If somebody has cancer, for instance, I advise to first remove the cause and then get everything into balance with the right mixture of Far Eastern medicine.
Can we say that Tibetan medicine works more with the causes and Western medicine with results?
That is probably a fine way to express that. One may also say that Far Eastern medicine works with body balance and long-range conditions, while Western medicine handles immediate cases very well.
Does science bring some particular benefit for practitioners of Buddhism?
Every achievement of science has Buddhist significance if used to benefit sentient beings. And the longer and better beings live, the more they may do for others.
Which areas of science could benefit from Buddhism most in the near future?
A general understanding of the universe— cosmology. There are countless loose ends and pieces of information from the Hubble telescope and other amazing sources to tie together meaningfully. A wide Diamond Way Buddhist view would be useful. It shows that both space and events are mind and shows how they relate. It could be beneficial to combine clear facts with an all-encompassing view. Scientists thinking linearly often have an excellent motivation; and if they can imagine space to be without beginning, it is logical to assume that, if one can prove one “big bang,” there must have been countless other ones. This is a meeting point with Buddhism, which claims that there cannot be any absolute beginning. That space must be essentially unobstructed. That nothing can be added to its timeless essence. That whatever can be fixed at a certain time and place cannot be the start of anything. Such cyclic, non-linear models of the universe presented in the Abidharmakosha explain the phases of appearing and disappearing universes over enormously long periods of time called kalpas. Also the concept of parallel universes provides a bridge to Buddhism. It presupposes countless worlds arising from the potential of space and thus makes relative any limitations to one’s awareness.
Do you think that Buddhism and science can cooperate in some special way?
I consider Buddhism the head and heart, and science the arms, legs, and eyes. Science explains “how” and makes people’s practical lives easier. Buddhism shows “why” and makes them happy. It helps beings to live, die, and be reborn better.
Einstein says that Buddhism is the only religion that is a consistent, logical system following from the experience of reality as a whole, and that is why it can also match scientific standards. Can we say that the highest Buddhist teaching called Mahamudra is the science of mind?
This is clearly the case. If there exists any science of mind in which it looks directly at itself, it is the teaching of “The Great Seal” and “Great Perfection”— the teachings of Mahamudra and Maha Ati. Mahamudra (or Chak Chen in Tibetan) is taught if one’s starting point and transformative energy is desire; and Maha Ati (or Dzog Chen in Tibetan) is taught if one’s starting point is anger. When one consciously uses those energies to know reality and one’s mind, one gets enlightened. They are a most powerful tool, which makes one experience space as bliss. From this view, every universe is a cosmic joke of space. There exists nothing more fantastic and exciting than experiencing mind’s radiant play, its full potential expressing itself as allpervading wisdom, spontaneous joy, and active compassion. Diamond Way Buddhism is the science leading to this experience.
Published in „Buddhism Today“, No 16, 2005