The reason why I began with this story is to suggest the possibility that miracles do happen in this world. This is an important message for many people in the West, because the predominant world view in places like America tends to rule out such possibilities. Since coming back to America after living in Burma for 18 years I have seen a wonderful thing that does my heart good again and again: that very many Americans are firmly committed to being good people. This is truly wonderful and invaluable, and something the world really needs. The trouble is that generosity and ethical conduct, excellent as they are for increasing the quality and happiness of life for everyone, and leading one to a better world in this life and perhaps the next, are generally not enough for the attainment of true Liberation of Spirit, for full Enlightenment. That also requires freedom from attachments; and one of the greatest and deepest attachments, and thus one of the greatest obstacles to spiritual growth in the West, is Materialism. Materialism does not simply imply chasing after money and accumulating possessions, or even strong attachment to this sort of behavior; it also involves the firm belief that we human beings are a kind of intrinsically real meat robot enslaved by Laws of Physics, and that our minds are created and determined by the wiring and chemistry of our brains and not the other way round. Not even just a little.
There are of course plenty of other spiritual obstacles for us Westerners, including hedonism; lukewarmness; a consumerism-conditioned aversion for sacrifice, difficulty, or even inconvenience; and extraversion -- the tendency to look outward instead of inward for deep answers, or Reality, or happiness. The East also has its characteristic spiritual obstacles, such as uncritical dogmatism and a kind of "spiritual materialism," which need not concern us at present. It also shares our own brand of Materialism to some degree, especially in the more developed, westernized Asian countries, and in the cities of the relatively undeveloped ones. But the Materialism of a country like Burma (which has one of the few remaining spiritually oriented cultures on earth) is very different from what is taught in mainstream American culture. To give an example, one time in Burma I intended to live in a certain forest. A friend of mine, a city-born Mon-Burmese monk with a university degree in Physics, who worked as a high school mathematics teacher before his ordination, and who was quite an intelligent person, warned me earnestly that I should be very careful if I lived there, as it was well known that that forest was infested by ogres -- not just ordinary ogres, but ones armed with a kind of supernatural projectile weapon which could inflict insanity or worse. He said the forest also was inhabited by at least one dragon (nāga), and by a terrestrial spirit called an "ōssa-saunt" which was even worse than the dragon. Other Burmese people readily assured me that it was no joke. As another example, a Chinese businessman residing in Singapore once explained to me that it is very difficult to become successful in business in Singapore, as the richest, most successful businessmen already at the top can afford the best wizards. Thus syncretistic Eastern Materialism, such as it is, still leaves room for the supernatural, which includes the miraculous and the divine.
The kind of Materialism I intend to discuss at length here, I call Scientism. It has become essentially the predominant religion of Western culture, and is unofficially the National Religion of the USA, having replaced Protestant Christianity long ago. Even followers of other religious or spiritual systems found in the West, including Buddhism, tend to follow Scientism first and foremost, and their own professed system secondarily. For example, many Western Buddhists, even Dharma teachers, are reluctant to accept teachings of Buddhism that cannot be explained in terms of Scientism, and so they may ignore or reject even relatively fundamental Buddhist doctrines such as karma, rebirth, even Nirvana itself.
Scientism, as a religious system, shares many of the characteristics of other religions. It has sects. It has martyrs, like Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician in the 19th century who discovered the very important fact that if a doctor washes his hands before examining each patient, especially if he washes them with a chlorinated solution of water, his patients are much
less likely to contract, and eventually die of, infection. The death rate for women in his "lying in hospital" (essentially a maternity ward) decreased from over 20% to about 0.2% after he began his hand-washing campaign. He meticulously recorded data and published his findings in European medical journals…but most doctors were invested in their own favorite theories, and his revolutionary discovery was either attacked or ignored. Even his own nurses and students resented being treated like children and made to wash their hands again and again, and often would wash them only if he was watching. The extreme stress of having such an important discovery, which could save literally millions of lives, ignored and even resented, plus the strain of having to spend most of his time at the hospital to make sure that his refractory employees really did wash their hands, eventually resulted in a mental breakdown, and Dr. Semmelweis committed suicide. Scientism also has persecutions. As an example, it has been observed that the two branches of Science which have the most airtight, carefully designed experiments are Particle Physics and Parapsychology. Experiments in Particle Physics are extremely expensive (renting a huge particle accelerator in Europe is not cheap), so researchers want to be very sure that they will not waste their precious grant money by running a sloppily designed experiment. Parapsychologists, who investigate such unorthodox phenomena as extrasensory perception and psychokinesis, have a different problem -- they are required to design their experiments as carefully as possible because they know their findings may be attacked tooth and nail by orthodox materialistic scientists. If modern scientific theories cannot explain something, like, say, a precognitive dream, then it is impossible; or so runs orthodox Scientistic dogma. Sometimes the attackers of parapsychological research (and there is at least one organization founded specifically for this purpose) are reduced to saying, "Well, we don't know how they're cheating, but they have to be cheating somehow, because their findings are impossible." Most followers of materialistic Scientism, however, ignore Parapsychology, or else occasionally poke a little fun at it. It receives little publicity, even though its findings, if true, are potentially of immense importance. Scientism has its saints, like Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, and has had at least one Pope, the great theoretical physicist, cultural icon, and Scientistic evangelist Stephen Hawking. If there is a new Pope nowadays I do not know who he or she is. Perhaps lately the field is divided up between cardinals and archbishops.
It is true that if Scientism is a religion, then it is a spiritually bankrupt one; but it is certainly not the first such. For example, the Cult of the Emperors in ancient Rome, worshipping the Caesars as gods, was not a particularly uplifting faith. Some utilitarian ethic is certainly applied in Scientism, justifying its research (and often rightly so) by declaring it to be for the benefit of the human race, but humanitarianism is really incidental to the Scientistic quest for Understanding Everything. Many priests of Scientism are amorally devoted to "Pure Science" -- Science for Science's sake. It doesn't matter how the research is applied, or how many rats or monkeys are killed in the process, so long as it is research producing valid data.
One point should be strongly emphasized without further delay: Scientism is not exactly the same as Science.
Scientism is just one possible interpretation
of empirical Science. It is an interpretation which asserts that Science really explains Ultimate Reality. In the Philosophy of Science this is known as Scientific Realism.
However, there are other interpretations of Science. One of the best known of these is called Instrumentalism, with one of its most famous proponents being Ernst Mach, the late 19th/early 20th century Austrian physicist after whom the Mach number was named (mach 1 equals the speed of sound, mach 2 equals twice the speed of sound, etc.). According to Instrumentalism, Science does not necessarily explain Reality; the best we can say is that there is apparently enough correlation between sound empirical theories and Reality that we can use them to make reliable predictions for the sake of guiding our behavior. For example, a fired cannonball does not necessarily
obey mathematical laws as it flies through the air; instead, mathematically inclined scientists have come up with equations that seem to parallel the behavior of that cannonball well enough that the course of its flight can be predicted, probably, assuming that the cannonball even really exists. Instrumentalism acknowledges that we are all infinitely ignorant and cannot be too sure about anything.
The trouble is that most scientists, not to mention most non-scientists, do not or cannot tell the difference between Science and Scientism. Scientists tend to be specialists who have dedicated the lion's share of their studies to their own particular field of interest, and who do not take much notice of unorthodox interpretations of scientific empiricism. The Philosophy of Science is usually not studied much, and most Science is taught in terms of Scientism, asserting that Science is of course describing and explaining Reality. Thus most scientists are brought up in a metaphysical monoculture and are, understandably, philosophically naive.
It is important to realize that Scientism, like other religious systems, is essentially a fabricated belief system based on unquestioned articles of faith -- axioms which cannot really be proven, but are taken for granted from the very get-go. I have taken the trouble to compile a small list of some of the main unproved assumptions, or articles of faith, of the creed of Scientism:
- The Future Will Behave The Same As The Past -- This is an assumption based on inductive reasoning, and is pretty much a necessary hypothesis for all interpretations of Science, not just Scientism. The assumption is that because things happened a certain way in the past, they will continue to do so in future under essentially the same circumstances; but this cannot really be known with absolute certainty. It is an educated guess. Although deductive logic produces certain conclusions so long as the premises on which they are based are true, inductive logic is really not certain or logically valid. A case in point is the Case of the Logical Chicken. There was once a chicken genius who observed a consistency in its farmer's behavior: every time the farmer came out into the yard and made a certain noise (which need not be reproduced here), he would toss chicken scratch (good food for chickens) onto the ground. Day after day it was the same. So one fine day the farmer came into the yard and made his distinctive call; the chicken, confident of its inductive reasoning and expecting a meal, came running. But on this day, instead of tossing food as usual, the farmer lunged, grabbed the surprised chicken, wrung its neck, and marched back to his kitchen with it whistling merrily. For the chicken it was an honest mistake, and an intelligent one, but a mistake nevertheless. Even from the point of view of Science itself the notion that the future will behave like the past is questionable: if things in general are subject to entropy and decay, then it would be a fair guess that the so-called Laws of Physics themselves would also undergo change with time. Perhaps the speed of light may eventually slow down, or the charge of the electron become less. Who knows?
- Reality Necessarily Obeys Laws -- This also tends to be a fundamental assumption in Science as well as Scientism. It is an assumption that has been undermined somewhat over the last century by the idea of quantum randomness at the submicroscopic level, but the average scientist confidently assumes that the behavior of anything as large as a grain of sand should be completely predictable so long as one is knowledgeable of the Laws of Physics. And of course, Science is primarily concerned with the discovery of these Laws. Science depends upon regularity and predictability, seeking out the regularities -- and often dismissing irregularities as invalid. For example, in Chemistry, when one is making a large number of measurements (like weighing many similar samples for the purpose of statistical analysis), it is standard procedure that an anomalous measurement not conforming to the rest is simply thrown out, the assumption being that it must have been botched somehow. So scientific investigation often has a streamlining effect, ignoring or dismissing exceptions to the rule, for the sake of convenience, and in the faith that there are no exceptions. The mild persecution of Parapsychology mentioned previously is mainly the result of Scientism rejecting data that are exceptions to the rule; the Laws of Physics as they are currently understood cannot explain such information, and so it is dismissed with disdain.
- Physical Matter Exists -- This is a big one. The real existence of physical matter is taken for granted as an absolute fact not only by scientists but by almost everybody in the West, including even dogs and chickens. Consider an orange. When we perceive an orange, how do we know it is there? Well, we see it -- but a visual image is a mental state. We can pick it up and feel it, but the tactile feeling of holding and squeezing it is also a mental state. We can flick it with our finger and hear the solid thump of it, but that thumping sound is an auditory perception, another mental state. We can smell it or even taste it, but those too are mental perceptions. Take away all mental states and of course we have no way of knowing if that orange is still there or not. Scientists speak of photons or electromagnetic waves bouncing off the surface of the orange and striking the surface of our eyeball, being guided onto the retina by the lens, eliciting a nerve impulse leading to the optical centers of the brain, and so forth, but these too are known only through mental perceptions. The whole experience of the orange, and of everything else in the world, may be a kind of dream for all we know, since all we can really know is mind. There are ways of attempting to verify the existence of physical matter; for example, a person can walk into an unoccupied room and record what she sees, and then after she leaves a different person can walk into that room and record what he sees, and then they can compare notes; but the similarity of what they saw independently of each other does not prove the existence of matter. There are potentially an infinite number of ways of explaining that similarity of perceived rooms. A simple way of demonstrating the uncertainty of the existence of physical matter is to offer the example of the philosophy of George Berkeley. Berkeley was an Anglican Christian (eventually a bishop) of the early 18th century who developed a metaphysical system called Immaterialism. According to this system, all that exists in the Universe are spirits (i.e. minds) and perceptions. No matter. Matter seems to exist because there is a central Great Spirit, or God, who coordinates and integrates the perceptions of all other spirits. So when we see an orange, what is really happening is that God is merely implanting into our minds the perception of an orange as though it were physically there. The world is thus a mental virtual reality implanted into our minds, moment by moment, by God. Now, I personally do not believe that Berkeley was right. In fact I doubt that there are many people who take Berkeley very seriously nowadays. But I do have to admit that I cannot demonstratively prove that Berkeley was wrong. As far as I know, nobody has ever managed really to prove that Berkeley's Immaterialism is false (although many have tried). How could one prove such a thing? We simply do not want to believe him. But unless one can prove that Berkeley was wrong, it follows that one cannot prove that matter exists. To a person born and raised in an atmosphere of Scientism, philosophical Idealism may seem far-fetched, but some quite profound spiritual systems do endorse some form of it: Orthodox Theravada Buddhism does acknowledge the ultimate existence of both mind and matter, but both major philosophical schools of Mahayana, Madhyamaka and Yogacara, deny matter's ultimate reality; some schools of Hinduism, including Vedanta, are Idealist, declaring the reality of consciousness alone; and Christian Science also denies the existence of physical matter. (In passing it may be mentioned that according to at least one study the Christian Scientists have the highest average IQ of any denomination of Christianity in America. That they also have the highest ratio of women to men in their congregations may be purely coincidental to this.)
- Everything Exists As It Is Interpreted To Be, Even If No One Is Perceiving It -- The notion that the orange remains in the refrigerator, essentially unchanged, when nobody is there to perceive it is fundamental to the practical world view of practically everybody, including priests of Scientism, despite the fact that intuitive theoretical physicists have been questioning this notion for a hundred years or more. It is closely related to the belief in the existence of matter, and has similar difficulties. The faith that consciousness is merely an "epiphenomenon" of brain chemistry and thus a passive observer of the world with little if any real effect on it, except perhaps in some mysterious and paradoxical way at a submicroscopic level, is a primary reason why Scientism is also called Scientific Realism.
- There Is Only One Possible Correct Interpretation Of Reality -- In Mathematics it is well known that the very same problem may be worked out in terms of geometry or of algebra; and although the steps taken are very different between the two methods, they lead to the same correct solution. It may be , for all we know, that the great goal of Understanding Everything may also be reached by very different methods which are not commensurable with each other. This may be the case within Science, or even without it. Perhaps some day the dream of theoretical Physics, the Theory of Everything (TOE), will be worked out by some brilliant physicist. He may win the Nobel Prize for it, and there may be some wild celebrating among bespectacled doctors in lab coats, with much grinning and back slapping, and perhaps even some drunkenness. Then, some years later, after the celebrations are ended, some young hotshot doctoral student somewhere, too young to realize that it is impossible, may work out a different Theory of Everything which accounts for the empirical data just as well as the first one, but is incompatible with it. Before the head scratching has finished, a third Theory of Everything equally valid and equally incompatible with the others may crop up, and so on….Or it may be that the most brilliant mystics and meditation masters understand Reality at least as well as the most brilliant physicists, even though their methods and terminology are very different, and their predictions of empirical events are of a different nature. In the ancient Buddhist texts the stereotypical Fool is one who declares, "Only this is true! Anything else is wrong!" But that is exactly what is declared for Scientism when it comes to understanding Reality, or is at least implied. It is hardly likely that the whole truth can be known from a single point of view. What is impossible to Scientism may be very possible to some other system which is very different, yet equally valid, if not more so.
- The Correspondence Theory Of Truth Is Correct -- This article of faith enters the realm of Epistemology, or Theory of Knowledge, which, aside from the characteristically Scientistic interpretations, is foreign ground to most scientists. In classical Epistemology there are two main theories attempting to answer the question, What is truth? -- the Correspondence Theory and the Coherence Theory. In the Correspondence Theory a judgement is true if and only if it corresponds to some objective matter of fact; for example, the judgement "The orange is on the table" is true if and only if the orange really is on the table. This may seem obvious, but it is so only from a Realist interpretation of Reality. There are other possible interpretations. The Coherence Theory is a rival interpretation largely inspired by the Idealism of Hegel, and especially favored by the English logician/metaphysician F.H. Bradley. According to the Coherence Theory a judgement is true if and only if it is not in conflict with any other judgement which has already been agreed upon as true. So the latter theory is similar to what in Buddhism is called sammuti sacca, or conventional truth: it is true because people perceive it to be true, and agree that it is so. The Correspondence Theory would be more akin to paramattha sacca, or ultimate truth; but ultimate truth in Buddhism cannot really be expressed in symbols.
- Reality Can Be Understood Symbolically And Expressed In Symbols -- Consider the letters t-r-e-e. What similarity is there between these symbols and an actual tree? If they were written on paper, the paper itself would more closely resemble a tree than the letters, since trees are the main ingredient in paper. It is the nature of symbols, especially symbols like words and mathematical cyphers, to represent something in a very abstract and arbitrary way. Even to imagine a tree in one's mind, vividly imagining the shapes, colors, textures, smells…is still a far cry, to say the least, from a real tree. The tree as it really is, the Tree in Itself, is completely beyond the reach of symbolic perceptions; and, even as Science admits, all perceptions are symbolic. Thus we cannot really know something by perceiving it -- the best we can do perceptually is to know about it, and that in a very abstract way which presumably at least parallels in some way the reality. Yet adherents of Scientism insist that Reality can be known intellectually. Near the end of his classic book A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking indulged in a bit of hubris by saying, essentially, that scientists have only a few more mathematical equations to work out before they will know the mind of God. Meanwhile, he knew that the Three Body Problem, working out the behaviors of three mutually interacting particles (say, three little electrons), was too difficult for mathematicians to solve exactly. Understanding the Universe by means of the intellect certainly has its limitations.
- The Human Brain, Or Mind, Can Figure Out Ultimate Reality -- If one thinks of it, the idea that a lump of greyish meat, about the size of two fists and with the consistency of an overripe avocado, can figure out a Universe of potentially infinite complexity, is rather absurd. Although the power of that lump (or the intellect it generates) may be boosted with computers and amazing experimental apparatuses, the phenomenon of understanding is the responsibility of the human brain and intellect, which are limited, as also the computers and apparatuses are limited. It may be, for all we know, that much that is essential to the phenomenal Universe will always be invisible to us. Consider neutrinos: Some physicists hypothesize that they may constitute most of the mass of the physical Universe, yet they are notoriously extremely difficult to detect. Perhaps some equally important constituent of Reality is simply impossible to detect with scientific instruments. Perhaps it is even manifest, yet the limitations of human psychology do not allow scientists to look in the necessary direction to see it. Who knows? But this is not to insist that a human being cannot know Reality. It may be that, say, an accomplished mystic can know Reality, not by intellectually figuring it out, but by allowing his or her awareness to merge with it, experiencing it directly. Again, who knows?
At any rate, those are some of the unspoken articles of faith of the new religion of the West.2 600 years from now, or even 200 years from now, students of History may look back on the prevalent beliefs of the early 21st century with the same amused semi-pity that we may feel looking back on the beliefs of medieval Europeans or ancient Romans (who, despite cultural differences, were just about as intelligent as we are). What seems obvious is not necessarily true. For thousands of years it was plainly obvious that the earth stands still with the sun moving around it. Many of the assumptions we take for granted may turn out to be nonsense. From the Buddhist point of view even the idea that we exist as individual persons is nonsense.
Now, all of this criticism of Scientism or Scientific Realism is not to say that Science
is wrong or bad. Obviously it is the most comprehensive intellectual system ever devised for the purpose of understanding the phenomenal world. Also it is an extremely useful foundation for making empirical predictions and developing technology. But it does have relatively severe limitations. As an example, Science, thus far at least, cannot answer the question, What exactly is consciousness? Or worse yet, How does a brain create
consciousness? Scientists are at a loss with that one. Or, for that matter, What does vanilla taste like? Science cannot answer even such a simple question as this. How could one answer such a question? Let us imagine that a certain person has never tasted vanilla before and wants to know what it tastes like. So, being intellectually inclined, he studies Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Neurophysiology, learning all there is to know about the molecular structure of the chemical compounds in vanilla, how they interact with the sensory receptors of the tongue, how the nerve impulses travel from the tongue to the brain and are processed into sensory perceptions there, etc. etc. He studies the chemistry and physiology of the flavor of vanilla until he is blue in the face. He may earn a PhD. or even a Nobel Prize for his research, but he still
will not have the foggiest notion of what vanilla actually tastes like until he finally wises up and tastes himself some vanilla. Knowing the taste of Reality may be a similar situation. One may study Physics, Chemistry, and Biology till one is blue in the face and still not know what Reality really tastes like. Such an approach is like a fellow chained up in Plato's cave endeavoring to know the world as it really is by carefully examining and measuring the shadows flickering on the cave wall. Understanding Everything may not be primarily a matter of intelligence and learning, but rather a matter of wisdom. It may require looking inward as well as looking outward, exercising the heart as well as the head.
The system of Buddhism emphasizes looking inward, and in some important ways relies less on unquestioning faith than Scientism does. Instead of trying to explain what vanilla tastes like, a hopeless case, it explains how to find some vanilla and taste it for oneself. Intellectual systems are at best only a makeshift tool or "raft" employed to bring one to a direct experience of Reality. Different intellectual systems may be more or less appropriate under different circumstances; but to cling to any of them, which are single limited points of view at best, is ultimately an obstacle to knowing the Truth.
Not only Buddhist philosophy, but also some Philosophy of Science agrees that Scientism is only one of a potentially infinite number of equally consistent or "valid" interpretations of Reality, none of which is completely adequate (due to the limitations of formal symbolic systems, etc.). Therefore firmly believing in or locking onto Scientism or any other system
excludes all others and severely limits the scope of one's point of view.
Furthermore, it may be more useful from a spiritual perspective to say, as something to work with, not merely that there are an infinite number of interpretations of this version of Reality, but an infinite number of versions or levels of Reality; and firmly believing in this level keeps us stuck at this level.
It is human nature that we want everything to "make sense," that we want to have an acceptable explanation for things. (A desire to explain the world -- What determines the weather, fertility, health, and good hunting? What is thunder? What are the stars? Where do we come from? -- was one of the first reasons of earlier religions like classical Paganism, and is also one of the first reasons of Scientism.) Yet beliefs and belief systems are necessarily limited and limiting, and thus anything we inflexibly believe in becomes a mental prison for us. Enlightenment or Nirvana is liberation from mental prisons, and thus it is a liberation from symbolic belief systems, even from "sense." Enlightened beings presumably still make use of perceptual interpretations of the world, but if so they use them as convenient tools or makeshifts, without attachment, and thus they are not imprisoned by them. As the Buddha reportedly told a wandering ascetic named Aggivessana, with regard to the enlightened use of words, "A monk whose mind is thus liberated, Aggivessana, agrees with nobody and disagrees with nobody; whatever is said in the world, he makes use of that without adhering to it."3
As it turns out though, most progress on this planet, including what is presumably spiritual progress, is invested in improving the prison. One wants better food in the cafeteria, a pool table and new carpeting in the recreation room, some better exercise equipment, and more Internet access. Or, in spiritual terms, one wants, for example, to practice renunciation at a luxurious meditation resort without any politically incorrect threats to one's self esteem or non-consumeristic threats to one's convenience and comfort. One wants to work on oneself and Wake Up while remaining within the context of the egoistic dream. One wants to upgrade the delusion. Thus eventually the prison becomes so comfortable that even minimum security is not necessary -- the doors can be left wide open, unguarded, and almost nobody tries to escape. America's way of relentlessly fixing and improving everything has resulted in it being perhaps the cleanest, roomiest, most comfortable prison on earth. People prefer it to the potential dangers and uncertainties of true freedom. In fact, America, and the Westernized countries in general, are becoming much like a lesser heaven realm as described in traditional Buddhist cosmology. In Buddhism it is said that heaven realms (levels of existence better than this one), although celestially comfortable and blissful, are usually not the best places for spiritual development, because the beings there like it so much that although endowed with wisdom they are not strongly motivated to break free of the system, or cycle, of Samsara. Beings in the lower realms have plenty of suffering to motivate them, but inadequate wisdom and opportunity. But the human level has sufficient discomfort and sufficient wisdom to make Enlightenment desirable and possible. This leads to the ironic conclusion that a less comfortable world, and a less believable interpretation of it
, are actually preferable from a spiritual point of view, as they are easier to detach from and transcend. As the popular spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle has said, it is easier to wake up from a bad dream than from a good one.
Getting back to the idea of many levels of Reality, it may be said that we (whoever we are) exist and operate at many levels simultaneously. We are multidimensional beings. Intellect, Science, and so on are obviously very useful at this level; yet the cultivation of Intuition, Inspiration, and Wisdom, which arise from a clear, quiet mind, gives us access to other levels -- or rather it gives these exalted states access to this level through us. And ultimately, full Enlightenment can give access to all
levels, and to infinite possibilities. The common person is somewhat like a radio that can tune in to a single frequency, like an old-fashioned walkie-talkie; but as wisdom is cultivated one becomes receptive to a greater "bandwidth" and more capable of changing channels, so to speak, until with full Enlightenment we attain conscious access to all channels, all frequencies. Thus we realize our full potential (which everybody has as a birthright) to know and do what is Right, and Best, and Perfect.
Perhaps a good summary of all this is: Our Mental States Determine Our Reality.
This is a very useful working hypothesis, regardless of whether Scientism acknowledges it or not. It pays to be careful about Karma, which in the Buddhist interpretation means volition or intention, the momentum of our mind. If we have a bad mind we have a bad life and live in a bad world. If we have a good mind we have a good life and live in a good world. And if we can somehow have a perfect mind, then we have a perfect life and live in a perfect world, even though it may not seem perfect to imperfect bystanders. As the second verse of the Dhammapada states, "Ways of being (dhammā)
are preceded by mind, they have mind as chief, they are mind-made; if with a clear mind one speaks or acts, happiness follows him like an undeparting shadow." How, one asks, is the mind purified? Buddhism teaches that one begins with a foundation of generosity and virtue, and then upon that is based the cultivation of detachment and meditation -- and when these are sufficient Insight, or Wisdom, also is sufficient. As the 183rd verse of the Dhammapada states, "To do no evil, to cultivate skillfulness, and to clear one's mind -- this is the teaching of Buddhas." But a detailed explanation of how to become enlightened is not the purpose of this essay. That can be found in other places, and is well worth seeking. Here we are mainly trying to clear the ground and expose the roots of a fundamental attachment of Western Civilization, so that perhaps it may become less of a spiritual hindrance.
Some critically-thinking Westerners who have gotten this far in reading this may reasonably be wondering how much I am telling you from my own experience, and how much is mere guessing or dogmatizing. Obviously, the logical stuff, Philosophy of Science, stories about Neem Karoli Baba and so on, are not my own personal experience. They are derived mainly from reading too much. The suggestions regarding karma, multidimensionality, access to other levels of Reality, etc., are partly
, to some
degree based on my own experience, although I make no claims to having any great wisdom that others do not have. With regard to the possibility of miracles or supernatural events ("psychic phenomena") and the mind determining one's Reality I can fairly speak from experience. There have been many remarkable coincidences in my life, what Jung called synchronicity; and I have seen some pretty obvious cases of karma and its fruition, including some powerful cases, positive and negative, since my return to America a year ago; but probably my most objectively obvious, persuasive example of a presumably supernatural event was one that occurred when I was 13 years old…
My father was hiring a new housekeeper for the summer, and the three of us -- he, she, and I -- were sitting at the kitchen table. After explaining to her some details about her duties should she consent to work with us, my father then explained to her that if she were to find broken crockery or glassware around the house she should not immediately blame one of us kids, as there was a poltergeist in our house with a penchant for breaking dishes. As he was telling her this she slowly broke into a smile and one eyebrow started to rise, as though she were trying to decide whether my father was joking, or crazy. But within a few seconds of my father completing his explanation a glass ashtray on the corner of the kitchen table, directly between the two of them and touched by neither of them, made a sound like "zink" and split into two halves, the two pieces sliding about an inch and a half away from each other. Then, of course, she stopped smiling and started taking him seriously.
Of course, a hard-headed materialist could simply accuse me of lying, which I am not. Or, he could say that my memory is playing tricks on me; after all, I'm obviously not quite normal -- I shave my head and wear a brown toga, for crying out loud. But, although anybody's mind can play tricks on them, and such things are difficult to know sometimes, I remember this event as clearly as I remember a great many others from that age which nobody would question; besides, my father also remembered the same event, and presumably the housekeeper did also. It was a very memorable event. So let us assume that the hard-headed materialist gives me the benefit of the doubt and grants that the ashtray spontaneously split in half. His explanation would probably have to be something like this: The heat from a lit cigarette in the ashtray caused uneven expansion of the glass, which caused the ashtray to break. It is true that there was a cigarette in the ashtray, although it is also true that there had been hundreds or even thousands of them in it before that one; and whether the heat of a single lit cigarette would be sufficient to break glass, I cannot say. (The ashtray was a souvenir from a casino somewhere in Nevada, with a bottom about a quarter of an inch thick.) At the very least, a believer in Scientism and
my veracity would have to admit that the ashtray self-destructing just moments after my father warned of the possibility of such things was a very remarkable coincidence.
Still, despite such experiences as this, I admit that most of what I know about the possibility of the miraculous comes from what others have told me, and from books.
Some critically-thinking Westerners may also be wondering why, if beliefs are mental prisons, they should believe me, or even Buddhism, instead of Scientism, which would plainly be a case of replacing one prison cell with another -- "Out of the frying pan and into the fire." At a practical level it is pretty clear that we have little choice but to believe something
, at least until we become Enlightened, so it is good to believe something that leads to its own transcendence and does not "lock us into" a system. At the ultimate level one should not believe priests of Scientism, me, or anyone else. If you believe what I say without knowing it for yourself, deeply and experientially, then all you are doing is taking my word for it, and you still do not know anything, and have landed yourself in a new prison cell besides. Please just receive what I say as a hypothesis, as something to consider. For example, please consider that unless there has long been a worldwide conspiracy involving saints, sages, parapsychologists, and countless people who are seemingly honest otherwise, magical events, events which are inexplicable to Science, can
happen; and committing ourselves to Materialism, Scientific or otherwise, can rob us of miracles, of sacredness, of divinity, maybe even of Liberation itself.
Consider the biblical story of Jesus when he returned to his home town of Nazareth after the Spirit came upon him. The reaction of the people there was something like, "Hey, isn't that guy Jesus the carpenter? Don't his brothers and sisters live here in town? Who the heck does he think he is anyway?" Because of their limited and limiting beliefs as to what was possible, Jesus was only able to heal a few sick people there, and then he went away. The Buddha met with this sort of closed-mindedness also, even though he lived in a relatively enlightened culture. But it may be that a belief in the miraculous, or even a knowledge of it, is inherent in human nature. This is apparent not only in such phenomena as popular religions and a widespread passion for consultations with psychics. I consider it metaphysically plausible that the wonders of recent technology, especially in computers and medicine, are outward manifestations of a deep-down acceptance of Infinite Possibility -- our beliefs are largely limited by Scientific Materialism, so we must have our miracles compatible with Scientific Materialism. A magic cell phone that can do almost anything is truly a miraculous thing; but to free ourselves from limiting belief systems makes us available to greater miracles than smart phones, computerized cars, genetic engineering, and cures for cancer.
At this point the essay is essentially finished. Those of you who are satisfied, or completely dissatisfied, with the preceding discussion may safely stop at the end of this paragraph. All that remains are a few more stories from books, as further food for consideration, and before that, this blessing: May those of you who are seeking Truth, find it; may those of you who are seeking Freedom, find it; may those of you who seek the end of suffering and delusion, find it; may you receive all that you need; and if in your seeking you must come upon misfortune and pain, may it be for the purpose of helping you to Wake Up. Wake Up! It's time to Wake Up.
Here is an account of a poltergeist much more rascally than the one in my father's house:
The following testimony is from an appendix chapter called "Fruitage" in Mary Baker Eddy's book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures:
This one is another account of Neem Karoli Baba, who appeared to disregard the Laws of Physics rather often: