Rebirth, Philosophy and Modern Science

Frederick M Farrar


I do not believe in the traditional Buddhist understanding of karma, rebirth and its role in the cosmos. And yet I still feel that the Buddha’s teachings are of immense value and that it is possible to practice as a Buddhist without acquiescing to the traditional view. Even more importantly perhaps than either of these, whilst I accept that it is necessary to keep an open mind about this whole issue I do not believe we should be so “open” as to take the view that because the traditional belief is possible we should therefore act as if it is actual.

On the contrary I believe that the Buddha did not present a system of dogma and that the core of his teaching not only allows but actually necessitates a creative evolution of our understanding of conventional reality. Consequently it seems to me somewhat anachronistic for Buddhists to adhere to an unchanging system of belief in rebirth while surrounded by an ever deepening knowledge of life, consciousness, evolution of species, and so on, which in many ways seriously undermines the traditional forms of that belief.

The Universal Nature of Dependent Arising

I believe that the essential teaching which truly defines Buddhism is the teaching of pratityasamutpada, or dependent arising. Unfortunately in traditional accounts this is very often presented as a teaching of impermanence, or as the teaching of the arising of samsaric existence. Presentations which launch immediately into these specific areas of concern miss out the importance of the principle of dependent origination in its own right. But in the Pali Canon the universal nature of the principle, regardless of its specific manifestation, is pointed out: with the arising of this, that arises; with the passing away of this, that passes away. This not only is how things are found to exist, but is understood to be the only way things ever could exist. No other way is conceivable. This, for me, together with its accompanying emptiness of self-sufficient existence, is what makes Buddhism Buddhism. Everything else which has come to be taught by Buddhists, including by the Buddha himself, is an application of this understanding to the experience of conventional reality. By “conventional reality” I do not mean reality according to human social conventions. I mean reality as it is experienced by sentient beings of any type and which always conforms to the physical as well as social conventions of each type of being, whether animals, gods, ghosts or whatever.

The Doctrine of Rebirth in the Light of Evolving Conventional Knowledge

Our experience of conventional reality is not fixed. It changes due to our evolving understanding of its manifest nature. This hardly needs to be pointed out to people living in the twentieth century in which the pace of technological development has increased to such an extent that not only do we already have the power to destroy our world, but indeed are locked into a course which unless averted will very soon achieve exactly that result. Our understanding of the ecology of living systems has not been matched by our political and ethical determination to undergo the necessary radical changes in our way of life. I believe it is this type of tension in modern conditions which has stimulated so many people to look closely at the world’s spiritual traditions in the hope of discovering spiritual values lost in the rush for technological power. However, it is unrealistic to imagine that our embracing of these traditions necessitates our adherence to the archaic forms of practical knowledge which often characterise them, rooted as they are in ancient cultures still deeply immersed in a pre-industrial stage of development.

One such archaic form is the traditional Indian belief in reincarnation and in particular its Buddhist expression as the endless round of karmically conditioned rebirths. When I say that it is unrealistic for us to accept this traditional belief I am not saying that rebirth is an impossibility. I am saying that our deepening understanding of conventional reality reveals a high degree of incoherence and implausiblity in the traditional notion of a personal continuum or current of causes and conditions in which many lives unfold, all of which experience the consequences of actions carried out by previous manifestations in the current.

The Denial of Creativity

One of the strongest objections to the traditional account is that it suggests an overdetermined model of the universe which precludes creative change. If, to use an example put forward by Thrangu Rinpoche1, a baby is born in an African country on the brink of starvation, the traditional Buddhist believes this to be no accident. He believes that some previous karmic action carried out by this person has brought about this consequence. Similarly, if someone is born into a royal family, his view of this is the same. No Westerner would ever naturally think like this. To the Westerner such a view seems quite horrific, challenging as it does our sense of justice and morality. It seems both to mitigate the effects of an evildoer’s actions upon others, as it would interpret those effects as the result of the victim’s own previous karmic actions, and to accept a person’s privileged status merely on account of the circumstances of her birth. The problem here is not the belief that actions produce results, but that these results are said to be always experienced by the same being which carried out those actions. Furthermore those actions are usually either punitive or rewarding, which seems to me to be an obvious utilisation of the belief in karmically conditioned rebirth for the purpose of imposing ethical constraints on social behaviour. I cannot take this seriously as a sincere attempt to understand the nature of reality, especially as it seems to require the operation of an atemporal and ahistorical determinism which is completely contradicted by our knowledge of the novel creative factors involved in the present historically determined situation.

Distinguishing Between Coherent Thought and Pragmatism in Buddhism

Ahistorical determinism is not only unacceptable to western thought, it also appears to contradict the Buddha’s own teaching. My saying this emphasises the necessity to recognise the structure of the Buddha’s teachings. Some of these, like pratityasamutpada, self-emptiness and the actuality of the unconditioned, are absolutely central to the Buddha’s view. Others are less central, and some are very marginal. This seems merely to reflect the Buddha’s role as a teacher rather than as a detached academic. If his listeners held a strong belief in traditional Indian cosmology then he taught the dependent nature of cosmological phenomena. If they held a strong belief in rebirth then he taught the dependent nature of rebirth. If they were concerned mostly with this life then he taught the dependent nature of this life. This being no more than the pragmatic approach of a compassionate teacher seeking to help his listeners by the most effective means at hand, it is a mistake to try to include every recorded teaching within the inner coherence of his thought. What is evident in the Buddha’s teaching however, is the constant repetition of a central theme, namely that to attain freedom it is necessary to have right view. And always the essence of this right view is an understanding of the dependent, empty nature of phenomena.

The Dependent Nature of Knowledge

The understanding that all phenomena are dependently arisen shows at once that reality is continuous and singular. There is only one reality which extends throughout all space and time. But this teaching does not explain what arises, or when, or precisely how. In fact an essential element in the teaching is that knowledge itself is dependently arisen and thus is always limited by the conditions which give rise to it. It therefore seems to me to be a mistake to imagine that the Buddha, on attaining the awakened state, suddenly became omniscient in the sense of knowing everything about the phenomenal universe. To think this seems to make a nonsense of the teaching of dependent arising and again suggests that the universe has been completely determined right from the beginning. Were this to be the case it would, again, imply that there is no creativity in the universe, only mechanical cause and effect. If this were the Buddha’s view why would he bother teaching a path of self-awakening? Everything would have been determined in advance!

On the contrary I believe that the principle of dependent arising is extremely subtle and reveals unconditioned spontaneity at the heart of conventional reality. It is this discovery which to me makes any presentation of rebirth in a manner which presupposes ahistorical determinism completely inconsistent with the Buddha’s teaching. Unfortunately this is precisely how rebirth is so often depicted by traditional teachers.

The Undermining of Ethical Behaviour by the Doctrine of Rebirth

If we return to the example of the baby born into a situation of mass starvation, and believe that its dire predicament is a result of its own previous karma, how does this belief affect our actions and attitudes? As far as I can see it has no relevance whatsoever. The baby needs our help and we feel the need to give it regardless of its previous karma. So how is this belief in any way useful? If we succeed in lending a hand and our actions help the baby, does our action then neutralise the baby’s karma? Or is our act explained as an integral aspect of the results of the baby’s own karma? If so does that mean that our action is in some way caused by the baby’s earlier actions? Or does it mean that the entire situation was determined in advance so that in some way the baby’s karma anticipated the whole situation? Either way the explanatory possibilities contradict what is observed. All of the circumstances can be adequately explained by factors within the situation, which allows a very stark contrast with the increasingly elaborate and convoluted explanations whose only purpose is to preserve a particular expression of an archaic theory of rebirth and karmic accountability. And since we don’t know what the previous karma is supposed to be leading towards we cannot use it as a guide to our actions. In the end it merely seems to be saying: “Look what happens to you if you’re a good person. Look what happens to you if you’re a bad person.” To me this seems to encourage self-interest rather than selflessness. I contrast this with the Buddha’s teaching that realisation of right view results in non-attachment and a mind which is “signless, luminous and filled with a boundless compassion”. Compassion and ethical behaviour thus seem to arise from the unconditioned and from the clear perception of the interdependency of things, not from one’s opinions about rebirth.

The Distinction Between Samsara and Dukkha

It has been argued that if one believes that one’s personal existence ends at death then there is no real point in becoming a Buddhist since in that case one’s death is one’s refuge. My question then is: refuge from what? From samsara or from dukkha. To me the former argument only makes sense if one thinks of liberation as liberation from samsara, in which one believes one is going to suffer for all eternity. But surely this argument is tautological. A person who does not believe in post-mortem survival does not believe she is going to suffer in samsara for all eternity and thus needs no liberation from this belief. This may itself sound like some sort of liberation to a person who does believe that, but the question is, does the first person’s lack of belief in post-mortem survival liberate her from the present experience of dukkha? And the answer is, most certainly not.

Dukkha is a universal condition of samsaric existence. The Buddha explained that it arose on the basis of ignorance of the true nature of reality and a consequent craving for some sort of permanence in the face of inexorable change. Seeking death as a release from dukkha is no more than an extreme manifestation of craving, not a form of liberation. It involves only the idea of freedom from something, but is an idea which could never be realised as there is no one left to experience it. The person who does not believe in post-mortem survival in fact experiences a particularly acute form of dukkha, believing as she does that her self-cherishing life is the only one she will ever have and that everything she loves she is destined to lose. This is the heartbreaking psychological reality which most modern westerners have to face, and the message that death is their refuge is more likely to invite derision and a certain amount of mirth than any sense of appreciation or gratitude.

The Net of Views

Using the Pali Canon2 as our reference, atheistic Western views tend to assume forms of annihilationism, whereas their theistic counterparts tend to constitute forms of eternalism, both of which views the Buddha rejected. His view of dependent origination, which is not a theory but an acknowledgement of how we actually experience reality, refutes both of these views. His view paints a picture of a reality in a constant state of emergence or self-projection from its own former states. Within this emergence different phenomena, some complete with consciousness and a sense of self, arise. As these are never anything other than emergent states of reality they never constitute independent, self-sufficient entities, and so are said by Buddhists to be unborn. Reality seems to be endless transformation, without beginning or end. It is largely on this understanding, together with accounts of the Buddha’s having been able to remember many of his previous lives, that Buddhists accept the reality of karmic rebirth. And although the way this is understood is open to a wide range of interpretations, most traditional interpretations involve the belief in a personal continuum or current which flows through countless individual lives until the succession of rebirths comes to a halt as a result of the arising of wisdom and the cessation of karmic actions which perpetuate them. By and large this seems to be what the Buddha himself believed although at the same time he did not teach that this was what everyone else should believe. His attitude in this respect was that speculation about things one had no direct experience of was likely to lead to one’s becoming opinionated and void of true knowledge. Always he insisted that the only way to proceed was on the basis of one’s own experience, and even then, one’s ordinary senses and recollections were not to be uncritically trusted as they themselves were understood to be dependently arisen and thus limited in their reliability. This is why neither anecdotal evidence, nor logical deduction, nor even one’s own apparent memories should necessarily be taken at face value. When the Buddha declared that all types of nihilism, eternalism, and combinations of these two, were wrong views, he was not saying that what they said was necessarily wrong. To have answered like this would have been to enter into the same error which they had entered into. They were wrong views because they failed to understand the nature of knowledge itself. Such views can never be anything other than speculative opinions and do not constitute true knowledge. They thus could never provide a basis for true liberation. He described them all in one way, as the net of views in which the unsuspecting became trapped and kept away from the true path of liberation. What he taught instead was the path of karma-ending karma which would result in the realisation of the unconditioned.

The Possibility of Knowledge

It is true that we could end our reflections here since, if we could but realise it, no more really needs to be said of the Buddha’s teaching. However, our practical knowledge has evolved since the Buddha’s time and in the West especially has taken a course which has some bearing on what have since been held as traditional Buddhist beliefs. What I particularly wish to draw to the reader’s attention is the extent to which modern understanding has both converged upon the Buddha’s teaching of self-empty dependent arising, and at the same time been integrated into evolutionary theory and the growing field of systems analysis. I must say at the outset however that I do believe that the scientific method goes beyond the formulation of mere opinions and theories. To be precise it always seeks to formulate testable opinions and theories in order to transform them into useful knowledge. What I am saying then is that I do believe we are capable of obtaining true conventional knowledge about the world and that this is more than mere speculation and opinion. I am not saying that such knowledge is absolute but that to the extent that it proves to be useful it serves as true knowledge within the limits of its applicability. Thus the scientific method, when properly applied and understood, always distinguishes itself from mere opinion by taking concrete experience, rather than logical consistency or inspirational faith, as its measure. In this respect I believe the Buddha’s method to have shared the same spirit as modern science.

Accepting Reality as Given: The Relation Between the Concrete and the Abstract

Contrary to popular belief science does not depend fundamentally on a crude philosophy of materialism, but rather on empiricism, which is not the same thing. Empiricism means testing ideas by observing how things appear to behave. The notion that everything consisted of material atoms which acted as an irreducible foundation to reality was itself no more than an idea which fell foul of the empirical scientific method. One may think that some ideas, especially those of a pure mathematical nature, can be proved without needing to test them against concrete experience. But this would depend on how the idea was being used. If the idea remained a pure idea within the realm of abstract thought, then this would be the only realm in which such an idea needed to be tested. But if such an idea were then used to formulate a hypothesis which claimed to understand the nature of a less abstract, or more concrete level of experience, then the logical consistency of the more abstract idea would be no guarantee of validity at the more concrete level. This has been seen many times in the development of science. Sometimes ideas later found to be lacking in logical consistency have given rise to hypotheses which prove to be invaluable at the more concrete level. On other occasions, ideas which are faultless at the logical level have turned out to be entirely mistaken at the more concrete level, leading to no useful hypotheses at all. Understanding of the nature of scientific knowledge has thus been an aspect of science from its beginning and is properly the realm of philosophy.

The Problem of Seeing Mind as a By-product of Material Processes

Interestingly, philosophy has turned out to be very useful in untangling some of the problems which the scientific study of the mind has posed. For many a long year scientists have grappled over how to explain the existence of mind on the basis of nervous systems, neurons, synapses and so on. But the more apparently successful some scientists became at doing this the more others began to realise that this was making consciousness a mere by-product of material processes. If one could explain all conscious functions in terms of the activities of the nervous system then who needs consciousness? The material processes could get on perfectly well on their own without any need for a conscious subject to appear! This problem, which became known as epiphenomenalism, seemed to undermine the evolutionary explanation for the appearance of consciousness. If it served no purpose why should it have evolved?

Taking Mind Out of Nature

Soon people began to look at the philosophical foundations of science itself in search of an answer. This was very much in the spirit of the times as nuclear physics was at the same time beginning to hit upon a similar problem. The act of observation was affecting the results of research. By artificially excluding the observer from the observed there resulted a distortion. Cognitive scientists began to realise that the main reason it had seemed necessary to try to explain mind in terms of material processes was that the initial theoretical assumptions themselves had excluded it in the first place. The irony is that Rene Descartes had only encouraged this attitude to avoid subjective bias in scientific findings. Justified though his caution was his method proved to be a fundamental obstacle when it came to studying both subjectivity itself and microphysics. And so the path was opened up to the development of systems of phenomenology and psychology which sought to explore the ground which Cartesian science could not. And though the latter often complained and bellyached at the supposedly unscientific nature of the new fields opening up, its days of unchallenged hegemony within the scientific establishment were over.

Taking Time Out of Nature

In a similar vein, the tools of measurement in scientific studies had lain on the same side of reality as the observer, namely outside of the observed. Spatial and temporal systems of measurement were imposed upon the observed from without. In classical physics atoms had generally been thought of as fundamental building blocks, acted upon by external forces so that time was seen as an external relationship between things. In the realms of abstract thought inhabited by many theoretical physicists and mathematicians the direction in which time flowed seemed arbitrary. Their calculations seemed to work in any direction, time being little more than an algebraic value. And yet this contradicted how everyone experiences time as something intrinsic to life, producing effects which are irreversible. This became a subject of much study and was the central theme of Alfred North Whitehead’s3 process philosophy which was to become very influential on later thinkers.

Organic Time and Universal Creativity

Whitehead, as I understand it, rejected the notion that time was an external relationship between things. Views which made extrapolations to everyday reality directly from the abstract theoretical level he famously criticised as “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness”. He proposed a view of the universe which saw all true entities as processes in which time was an essential element, embedded in the construction of the universe and irreversible.

For Whitehead, the present is the origin of an actualising movement. The past is no more than the determinateness of the present, its distinct characteristics. The future is the pure potentiality immanent in the present conditions. And at the heart of all this is the creative movement which sets out from present determinateness to determine a new present. In this view, although the creative movement flows out of a determinate state, it moves towards an as yet undetermined future, and hence we are not considering a system of mechanical determinism. In such a system it would be the past which determined the future, the present being merely a passive stage in the unfolding sequence. In Whitehead’s view the present does everything. It is the past which is passive. The present is truly creative as it concretises a new present out of the range of possibilities presented by the past.

Self-liberating Creativity at the Heart of Dependent Arising

I believe Whitehead’s view to be very helpful in understanding the true profundity of the Buddha’s teaching of dependent arising. It shows that far from being a crude form of determinism, its real revelation is the self-liberating creativity at the heart of reality which is discoverable by anyone determined enough to search for it. This creativity is conditioned only in the sense that it is connected to a set of specific conditions wrought by its own and others’ previous actions. But it is unconditioned in that it moves towards a non-finite future. This is why I am calling it self-liberating, it leaves the present conditions behind in order to determine a new present. I believe the Buddha, by spurning all forms of speculation and opinionatedness, examined only that which could be genuinely known and as a consequence discovered that eternal unconditioned moment which is forever moving beyond conditioned existence.

The Limitation of Rebirth Doctrine by Knowledge of Organic Time

With regard to karmically conditioned rebirth, the central theme of our reflections so far, Whitehead’s work has some important implications on how we may and may not understand it. His work shows that time is intrinsic to the construction of reality and is irreversible. It is embedded in the structure of reality and as a consequence we cannot legitimately entertain any notion which proposes the operation of causal efficiency in a manner which denies the organic nature of time. As soon as we realise that time is part of the unfolding structure of reality then the notion of ahistorical causation becomes impossible and the example given by Thrangu Rinpoche of the African infant starving as a consequence of her own previous karma, becomes inconceivable. This isn’t to say that rebirth is an impossibility, merely that we cannot think of it as being ahistorical. If it takes place then somehow or other it does so in a way which is consistent with historical development. Similarly, precognition cannot involve actually seeing the future as this would mean that the future was predetermined and hence would mean there was no creativity, uniqueness or novelty in the universe, which again goes against the evidence of our experience.

Organic Mind: The Intrinsic Nature of Awareness

Another penetrating aspect of Whitehead’s work is his understanding of awareness. Whitehead recognised that if processes cohere creatively rather than merely exhibiting mechanical determinism, then they must involve creative awareness of the determinateness created in the past and the range of potentialities which could become our future. In other words, all true entities are aware in some essential way.

Suddenly we are no longer in the situation where we are wondering how mind could arise out of the matter of the body. It is beginning to dawn on us that “mind” has been there from the beginning, and like matter is merely a particular aspect of the creative movement which unfolds as process-being. In this view the universe is conceived as Being manifesting as an immense interdependent community of fundamentally aware beings, whose powers of awareness are inseparable from the potentialities presented by the determinateness of their embodiments. The transformation of rudimentary forms of awareness into the higher faculties of consciousness is the subjective accompaniment of the parallel evolution of living bodies. It is not that our brains are responsible for our awareness, which would bring us back to epiphenomenalism, but that the breathtaking complexity of our brain’s structure allows our awareness to carry out similarly complex functions, the two types of complexity being the same phenomenon seen from different points of view.

In 1896 Henri Bergson4 portrayed a reality in which the increasingly complex physiologies of living organisms, rather than adding something to reality which resulted in consciousness, in a sense took something away. His portrait of reality was rather like Indra’s Net, in which every point in the universe is present within every other point. This alone, however, though explaining the immanent potentiality of meaningfulness, does not explain awareness, a mere point being entirely without form and disinterested. Universal energy simply passes straight through a point without it being noticed. But an actual entity delays the reflexive flow of universal energies in order to determine the final nature of its movements in response to the forces which impinge upon it. This delay of universal energy is not simply an absence of something but rather constitutes what Bergson calls “a zone of indeterminacy” whose energetic being explicates that which is of interest to it in the universal presence it embodies. In the absence of this delay the universe would merely flow through the entity, as if it were no more than a point in space. But in order for an entity to become what it is it must exercise the capacity for delaying this flow so that the flow through begins to involve a flow within, an intense coherence which holds together a sequence in time. Indeed, in general the organism is no more than a memory, seen as an object from without, and appearing to itself as a being-in-a-world. Its appearance to itself is not something which happens to it, as if it were a passive spectator, but is something which it does as part of its becoming. Becoming itself is no more than remembering itself, and this is what we call awareness. And so what Bergson tried to show was that in assuming the being of things, which we must do in order to ask any questions about reality, we have already assumed all that needs to be assumed to understand awareness. Being is something which is given; it is the basis of all our explanations and cannot itself be explained. Awareness is an abstraction from this.

The Emergent Nature of Meaning

Many of these points have been picked up by Francisco Varela5, a contemporary cognitive scientist and Buddhist. Varela describes how consciousness emerges out of the phenomenon of self-organisation which he calls autopoiesis. An inexorable evolutionary drift has allowed the appearance of organisms capable of retaining their complex organisation whilst being able to rapidly adjust their structure in response to environmental conditions. Over time this ability to restructure oneself has allowed greater and greater intensification, allowing huge amounts of meaning to be held in awareness. The emergence of meaning within the inner coherence which we call awareness does not involve any transfer of information, as if the brain were little more than a computer processor. For Varela, the nervous system’s operational closure seems to rule out that idea. Rather, the cohering organism, in its contacts with its environment, becomes perturbed by it, and these perturbances are creatively overcome as an aspect of the organism’s self-coherence. The result of this dynamic adjustment is that the perturbations become meaningful in the context of the organism’s self-coherence. Gradually the organism discovers itself as an already ongoing task in an already ongoing world. What really are no more than perturbations in a cohering field of awareness are intelligently felt to be a being in a world. This is the difference between the brain and the computer. A brain is an expression of a cohering entity projecting itself intelligently into the future. The computer is a wholly lifeless lump of silicon and alloy which does what it is designed by living beings to do.

We may postulate that all true entities always manifest subjectively as beings-in-a-world, but that whereas the awareness of a primitive being manifests as a very primitive being in very primitive world, the awareness of a higher organism, as we know at first hand, manifests as a very complex being in an equally complex world. How the most complex of these beings, mankind, organises that complex awareness, has been the subject of the relatively new science of psychology.

Reconceptualising the Self

One of the most influential fields of psychology has been Gestalt psychology which became prominent through its clinical expression, Gestalt Therapy6, in the late1950s and early 60s. The Gestaltist goes beyond the individualism which characterised Freudian psychoanalysis to a large extent. Although Freudian analysis began the process of recognising the composite nature of consciousness, it still held a view of the individual apart from her environment. Gestalt psychology overthrew this attitude. Beginning with laboratory experiments which showed the way in which consciousness organised the perceptual field into figure-ground relationships, Gestaltists went on to define the organism as “an organism-environment field” in which it was “meaningless to define a breather without air, a walker without gravity and ground, an irascible without obstacles, and so on...”

They pointed out how the evolution of complexity of the perceptual faculties had necessitated a concomitant capacity for selectivity so that simple osmosis at the level of unicellular organisms had evolved into eating, which in turn had evolved into food-taking, hunting and so on. Similarly, simple phototropism, or light sensitivity had evolved into conscious seeing, the latter being an enhancement of the former through developing the capacity for selective visual discrimination. These enhancements in turn led to the capacity for retention of images, or imagination, so that the capacity for complex abstract thinking and conceptualisation became possible. No longer was the self thought of as an individual, or an essence at the heart of a person’s being, but rather as “the system of contacts at any moment.” They described the self as flexible, “[varying] with the dominant organic needs and the pressing environmental stimuli...” It was “the system of responses... [diminishing] in sleep when there is less need to respond.” It was “the contact-boundary at work; its activity forming figures and grounds.” They clearly distinguished this self from what they described as “the otiose consciousness of orthodox psychoanalysis which,” whose function was “merely to look on and report to the analyst and cooperate by not interfering.” For the Gestaltist it was a mistake to regard mere consciousness as the self. The self was “the integrator; ...the synthetic unity as Kant [had described it].” It was “the artist of life ...only a small factor in the total organism-environment interaction, but [one which played] the crucial role of finding and making the meanings that we grow by.” Clearly this was a revolutionary reconceptualisation of what it is to be a self.

Rediscovering the Self

But more than this, Gestalt therapy was placing this revolutionary view of selfhood at the heart of its therapeutic praxis, and in doing so helped spearhead a major cultural movement which resulted in a shift in cultural attitudes which made psychotherapy an normal aspect of everyday life and at the same time paved the way for the popular embracing of Eastern philosophy and religion which began in the 1960s. No longer was psychotherapy the domain of wealthy neurotics. Gestalt had significantly deepened the view, already proclaimed by Freud and his contemporaries, that the patterns of civilisation established by our Western societies purveyed harmful conceptions of the self which were everybody’s problem, not just the mentally ill.

Though a major influence, Gestalt Therapy was but one of a great proliferation of humanistic and existentialist therapies. Most had in common the shared dissatisfaction with traditional dualistic conceptions of mind and matter, heart and mind, work and play, recreation and politics, and so on. At the very time when traditional religious belief was waning, the Western spirit was engaged in a fervent quest for authentic being. From a Buddhist point of view one might think of this as a crisis of ignorance, a collective acknowledgement of dukkha, brought about by the coincidence of a number of poignant issues, from the pervasive background of the Cold War to the much hotter wars in Korea and especially Vietnam, which literally caught the public eye in a way which few other wars had before. These, together with the environmental crisis and the constant juxtaposition of Western affluence with third world poverty and famine gave rise to a widely felt disillusionment and hopelessness. In the midst of this it is hardly surprising that such major cultural changes took place.

Buddhism Without Dogma

Thus, the situation Buddhism was entering into was one of intense creativity and redefinition of what it is to be alive. And this was most evident in the United States where so much of this pioneering thought had fallen upon fertile ground. In this meeting of two different cultures it is certain that Buddhism will never be the same again. In a million different ways, all of this dynamism, energy and insight is being fed in the Buddhist path. What the result will be no one as yet knows. But we can have a good idea of what it will not be. It will not remain satisfied for long with outmoded forms of knowledge. It will not abandon the hard won insights of Western culture, often in the face of terrible religious oppression and persecution. It will not swallow Buddhism undigested but rather will extract from it that which is nutritious and discard that which is not.

In this respect it is essential that Buddhists do not underestimate the spiritual dimension of the work already being done by science, philosophy and psychotherapy. When those with the relevant background point out the psychotherapeutic significance of Buddhist practices this is not an attempt to reduce Buddhism to a competing brand of psychotherapy. It is an acknowledgement of the profound depth of experience to which Western philosophic and psychotherapeutic practice have penetrated. To ignore this is to deny the depth of Western experience which inevitably reduces Buddhism’s effectiveness and deprives Buddhist practitioners of a great wealth of human knowledge and wisdom. Far more fruitful than a defensive attitude towards Western knowledge is, I believe, the approach exemplified by Ken Wilber7 which understands the significance and relationships between different psychological approaches in terms of stages in the life-cycle of the human psyche. I believe it will serve humanity well if Buddhism orientates itself effectively within such a framework. Wilber’s system has it at the apex.

We are living in a period when science and mysticism, having left some of their dogmatism behind, have realised the significance of each other’s presence. This is the century in which a major philosopher such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty8 can redefine flesh as a fundamental element, beyond the distinction between mind and matter. It is the century in which our beloved Eastern gurus are taken to task for their archaic sexism. It is the century in which we have been able to tolerate the truth of Frederick Nietzche’s9 observation that there has only ever been one Christian. It is this general ambience with its restless search for personal truth which makes many of us in the West speak of a convergence between Eastern and Western thought. It is one of the reasons why so many describe the current situation as Post-Modern. And it shows why so many Western practitioners are not prepared to allow the meeting between East and West to be depicted as a flow of ideas from Oriental wisdom to Occidental ignorance. Such a view merely reflects the ignorance of the person who holds it, and causes nothing but harm. Instead, if we embrace that which is essential in both East and West we may fulfil the present potential for the invigoration and reinspiration of life which lies within our grasp.

* * * * * * *

20 October 1997

1. “King of Samadi”, Thrangu Rinpoche, Rangjung Yeshe Publ, p47

2.“The Digha Nikkaya”, trans Maurice Walshe, Wisdom, What the Teaching Is Not

3.“Process and Reality”, A.N.Whitehead, The Free Press

4. “Matter and Memory”, Henri Bergson, Zone Books

5. “The Tree of Knowledge”, Varela and Maturana, Shambhala

6. “Gestalt Therapy”, Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, Souvenir Press

7. “Sex, Ecology and Spirit”, Ken Wilber, Shambhala

8. “The Phenomenology of Perception”, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Routledge

9. “The Vision of Nietzche”, Philp Novak, Element, p105

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