The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Foreword to Fathoming the Mind by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse

by Tenzin
November 8, 2018
Thu, 11/08/2018 - 09:51 -- Tenzin

It’s a dialogue that I confess I have avoided like the plague, mainly because I despair that Buddhists, let alone Mahāsaṇdhi practitioners, and scientists can even speak the same language in order to communicate genuinely. And so I am intrigued to see Alan Wallace engage in that discourse with such personal passion. 

It is said that to bump into or hear the term Mahāsaṇdhi or Dzokchen even accidentally will supposedly make our precious human bodies worthy and meaningful. So in that context, I rejoice that Alan Wallace’s translation of the Vipaśyanā chapter of Vajra Essence is now making some of these extraordinarily precious teachings available to a wider audience. I can only pray that at least a handful of those with the good fortune to seize this opportunity will not only hear but fully understand, practice, and realize the wisdom these teachings convey.

In this text, Düdjom Lingpa—one of the greatest masters and treasure revealers of the nineteenth century—explains the quintessential view of Buddhism with utmost clarity. But he does so in a unique way that requires no blind leap of faith on the part of the reader and practitioner.

On the contrary, in Düdjom Lingpa’s pure vision, the teacher, Samantabhadra, manifesting as Padmasambhava, engages with interlocuters who give eloquent voice to the coarse and subtle doubts and objections to the Buddhist view that arise in our very own mind and practice as projections of our reasoning intellect. In the ensuing dialogue, we recognize all our own qualms, worries, questions, and uncertainties to which Samantabhadra responds with precision, skill, and patience. Through the method of that remarkable interchange, this treasure teaching is perfectly suited to our present age of doubt and questioning.

But there is another dialogue that pervades virtually every chapter of this book. It’s a dialogue with science and its various branches and methods—from physics, behaviorism, and neuroscience to empiricism and quantum mechanics.

It’s a dialogue that I confess I have avoided like the plague, mainly because I despair that Buddhists, let alone Mahāsaṇdhi practitioners, and scientists can even speak the same language in order to communicate genuinely. And so I am intrigued to see Alan Wallace engage in that discourse with such personal passion. I also find myself both cheering on his trenchant critique of scientific materialism and being a bit skeptical of his hopes for genuine collaborative research between Buddhists and scientists.

In my observation, what scientists generally miss is so basic as to make real interchange extraordinarily challenging. For example:

  • Scientists generally reject the possibility of transcendence—that there is anything beyond what is observable.
  • The method of yogic direct cognition that is fundamental to Buddhist logic and practice, which I think goes further than what Wallace calls “introspection,” is generally unknown to scientists.
  • In general, scientists do not seem to grasp the view of nonduality. As a result, they also don’t understand the meaning of selflessness and wisdom, and they are therefore uninterested in what we Buddhists call “liberation.”
  • The distinction between ultimate and relative truth—so fundamental to Buddhism—seems alien to most scientists. Yet without that understanding, it seems impossible to engage scientists in discussion on rebirth and on past and future lives, which they say cannot be proved through analysis. In fact, the Buddhist distinction between teachings that require interpretation and those that do not is strange to most scientists.
  • And therefore, though they claim to share the Buddhist approach of exploring the relation between causes and conditions and their effects, I have yet to meet scientists who really understand cause and effect at the most subtle level. And therefore they also cannot understand practices like offering, praise, torma, maṇḍala, and more, which they disparage as “religious” or “superstitious.” 

Of course, none of this is reason to reject dialogue with scientists. In my view, we should engage in such discourse for very pragmatic, even saṃsāric, reasons. For example, I think Buddhist teachers can take advantage of the fact that Western intellectuals are attracted to Buddhism’s reliance on reason and logic rather than belief.

At the same time, I think the gaps in understanding between Buddhism and science are so wide that we should never portray Buddhism as science, as many people these days seem prone to do. It might sound chauvinist, but I am convinced that Buddhism has something unique to offer that science simply doesn’t have in its arsenal.

For all these reasons I am delighted to applaud Alan Wallace’s courage in exposing and dissecting the smug assumptions, dogmatic beliefs, and narrow measurement tools of scientific materialism that masquerade as empiricism and that he rightly says “are fundamentally incompatible with all schools of Buddhism throughout history.”

Commenting on his thirty years of experience participating in Buddhism–science conferences, Wallace remarks:

Time and again, experts from diverse fields, including psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy, have presented their cutting-edge research to Buddhists and then invited their response to these advances in modern science. In virtually all such meetings, it is the Western scientists who dominate, speaking for over 90 percent of the time…. Overall, I have found much greater openness on the part of Buddhists to learn about scientific discoveries in the mind sciences than I have found open-mindedness on the part of scientists eager to learn about Buddhist discoveries.

And yet Alan Wallace remains remarkably hopeful about the potential for genuine collaborative endeavors between scientists and Buddhist scholars, and he sees a particular openness toward Buddhist views in the field of quantum mechanics. And so, a good part of this book is geared to furthering, expanding, and deepening that Buddhism–science dialogue based on genuine empiricism.

Call me conservative and old-fashioned, but I have to confess I remain much more enthralled with Samantabhadra’s dialogue with his bodhisattva disciples, which to me makes Düdjom Lingpa’s Vajra Essence one of the most powerful, relevant, and practical treasure teachings we could ever wish to have.

I cannot and will not dismiss the other dialogue that Alan Wallace is so determined to further. Indeed, if I were to do so, I would be as dogmatic and close-minded as the scientists he so roundly condemns. On the contrary, I truly aspire that Wallace’s plea for scientists to respect Buddhist insight be taken seriously.

On that front, it is past time to puncture the subtle implication in Buddhism–science dialogues to date that we Buddhists somehow have to prove our validity in scientific terms if anyone is to take us seriously. I am glad to see Wallace show that to be impossible so long as the instruments of measurement and verification are decided by scientists.

But if Wallace can persuade scientists to open their minds to the possibility of transcending the observable, to the method of yogic direct cognition, to the view of nonduality, to the notion of liberation, and more, then I’ll be delighted to see them explore our world and engage in whatever dialogue is needed.

In the meantime, I am happy to bask in the glory of Düdjom Lingpa’s extraordinary Vajra Essence and am deeply grateful to Alan Wallace for bringing that brilliant and remarkable dialogue to a wider English-speaking audience. May all who touch and read this treasure benefit, and may its truth and power liberate all beings.