Buddha’s Nature: Evolution as a Practical Guide to Enlightenment Wes Nisker, Bantam Books, New York (1998).
Dr. Stephen Fulder
We are apparently not as steeped in the scientific world view as we think we are. Quantum physics tells us that we can never be fully certain about the basic elements of matter, that there is no ultimate separation of the observer and the observed, that things are in process, nothing is absolutely solid and fixed in its own essence. Yet we go about our lives still completely invested in a basically Newtonian view of reality - that it is predictable, knowable and independent of us. Evolutionary science insists that we are a bunch of self-organising molecules, the top link of the chain of life from the basic duplicating macromolecules. But we go about our lives with the assumption that we are basically different from nature, above it, in charge of it, and relating to it like an engineer to a bridge rather than an engineer to himself. We are destroying our natural world in front of our eyes, plundering it mercilessly, and poisoning it with waste, effluent and pesticides. Yet if we could just take on board the deep knowledge of biochemistry and cellular life, that all life is basically one continuum, we could no more rape it than we could rape our own mother. The same goes for the new scientific understandings of the brain and mind: they have not really touched our lives. We still view ourselves as a grand computer, rather than a vast mystery.
One of the reasons that we just cannot absorb the discoveries at the cutting edge of science is that we do not have any ready made cultural or mythological moulds to put them in. Our moulds are hopelessly out of date, and we do not have any new ones. So what would our basic view of life feel like if we could take modern science seriously? Strangely enough, it would look pretty well like the view through the eyes of Buddhists. Wes Nisker’s book is one of the first of what I suspect will be a new generation of books which will show how the Buddhist view of reality could be a model that fits much better to reality as we now know it from science, than our current mechanistic, Victorian world views. The opening positions in this debate were put forward in the 1970’s by books such as ‘The Tao of Physics’ and ‘The Dancing Wu Li Masters’. However a lot has happened in the intervening years. The big change has been the rapid introduction of practising Buddhism into the west. There are now many westerners whose daily spiritual practise is Buddhist and who have a much closer and more intimate relationship with the essence of Buddhist teachings than were expressed in those early books. The early books were valuable about new physics, but naive about Buddhist teachings. Wes Nisker’s book redresses that balance.
Buddhist teachings are connected to deep investigation of the nature of reality. Through meditation we observe the arising and passing away of the life processes within us. This leads to realisations about reality that are not far from those of modern science. But they are realisations that are able to utterly transform our lives, towards greater freedom, ease and flow. When written down, the discoveries from inner exploration look like those of science’s outer exploration. But because Buddhist discoveries are the result of our awareness observing itself, it can release us from the pain and angst inherent in the human condition. Science’s discoveries are about our awareness looking outside itself. So it rarely leaves us feeling better. Often the opposite.
Here are some examples to whet the appetite. The Zen teacher and sage Thich Nhat Hahn writes (quoted by Nisker): “As I look more deeply, I can see that in a former life, I was a cloud. And I was a rock. This is not poetry; it is science. This is not a question of belief in reincarnation. This is the history of life on earth.” The Buddhist teachings of causation are fundamental, and their realisation within us creates a radical shift in our thinking. Everything is co-arising independently. ‘Because of this, then that’, is one of the crucial formulations of dharma. How does it feel, then, to know that ‘this body does not belong to you.....It is the result of previous activity,’ asks Nisker.
The book is ordered according to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness - Mindfulness of the body, breathing, sensations and so on. Mindfulness of feelings and immediate reactions to our experience, Mindfulness of emotions, and Mindfulness of mental activity. These are related in the book to the understanding of evolution, biology and studies of mind and brain. When talking about emotions, for example, the book discusses how we react with approach or avoidance to pleasant or unpleasant sensations, much like an amoeba or indeed all life. This reaction leads to full-blown emotional states of wanting or rejection through normally unconscious processes. Therefore we take our emotions to be ‘ours’. We take the experience to be mine. But both science and Buddhism show that emotions are the operation of biological survival mechanisms. They are not mine, they are evolution’s. Realising this deeply leads us to be less caught as a puppet dancing on the strings of feelings.
About a third of the book consists of meditation exercises as described and taught by the Buddha, and authentic to his original teachings. They are as practised by the Theravadan tradition (the way of the ‘elders’) of Buddhism. This is a unique and at first very strange mixture, itself expressing where we have come in the last generation. But it is so refreshing to be able to read something about science and the next page to practise it within us, using no more than the laboratory of our own attention and the instruments of our own senses. The exercises are powerful. If you practice them, things might not seem the same at the end of the book as they were at the beginning.
Do I have any criticisms? Not many. This is a great book. Perhaps there is something about the book which expresses a kind of easy-going Buddhism, which I expect is a culturally American phenomenon. It all looks a little too simple, too glib, too well packaged. There are many issues which are touched on so briefly and one longs for a deeper discourse, both of the science and the Buddhist teachings. On the other hand this book is for beginners to the field, and it is pioneering. I recommend it to all who are searching to understand the human condition. I recommend it especially to those who are involved or interested in science but are frustrated by the way it leaves them personally unchanged.
Dr. Stephen Fulder