Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics, Volume 1: The Physical World

Edited by Thupten Jinpa
Somerville, Mass.: Wisdom, 2017. 530 pp., hardcover; $29.95

Monks and scholars, just as you test gold

By burning, cutting, and polishing it
So too well examine my speech.
Do not accept it merely out of respect.
—The Buddha

The Buddha said to accept the validity of what he taught only after direct experience; the mere testimony of scriptures is not sufficient. The examination of the nature of reality is only real when it is accompanied by direct perception. Scientists take a similar approach, with experimentation and mathematical logic as pillars of inquiry. Buddhism and science thus share this mode of critical inquiry, which draws its conclusions from evidence and reasoning. In Buddhism, however, empirical observation has a wider scope than the range of the five senses and includes experiences arising from meditation practice.

This, the first of a four-volume series, presents classic Buddhist scientific and philosophical explorations of the nature of reality for the contemporary reader. This series was conceived by the Dalai Lama and compiled under his supervision. The ancient Buddhist treatises identify three domains: the scientific, the philosophical, and the religious. The first two volumes in this series cover the scientific domain, with volume 1 presenting the physical world and volume 2 presenting the mind sciences.

Buddhism has two things that have great potential to serve everyone, regardless of their faith, as the Dalai Lama explains in his introduction. One is the presentation of the nature of reality (or science), and the second is the methods for training the mind to alleviate suffering and discover inner peace. Four principles of reason characterize the Buddhist outlook on the world: the principle of nature (that is, the way it is); the principle of dependence (cause and effect); the principle of function (those we perform and those we support); and the principle of evidence (drawing inferences: if such is the current state, such will be the future state). Contemporary science gives us the Big Bang theory for the emergence of the universe, but the Buddhist sources answer further questions, such as “what is the relationship between the natural world and the sentient beings that came to evolve with it?” The presentation of the nature of reality in Buddhism is fourfold: (1) the nature of the objective world; (2) the presentation of the mind, the subject; (3) how the mind engages its object; and (4) the means (the science of logical reasoning) by which the mind engages its object. This framework has been adopted for volume 1.

The depth with which volume 1 is presented is astonishing. The exploration is divided into six parts: “Overview and Methodology,” “Knowable Objects,” “Subtle Particles,” “Time,” “The Cosmos and Its Inhabitants,” and “Fetal Development.” Each part is introduced by Thupten Jinpa (the editor of this volume and the Dalai Lama’s principal translator) and provides a list of further readings in English. It is almost impossible to describe what each part entails in a short space. I was especially interested in causality and time.

The impulse to avoid pain is our nature, and being conditioned beings brings forth suffering (the First Noble Truth). Suffering necessarily has a cause (the Second Noble Truth). The ultimate cause of suffering is ignorance, but ignorance can be resolved (the Third Noble Truth). The cessation also has a cause (the Fourth Noble Truth).

The section on cause and effect in this volume is enlightening. Dharmakirti’s treatise The Exposition of Valid Cognition states:

Where it exists that arises

And when it changes that changes as well

This is referred to as the cause.

The section on time says that it is posited on the basis of “three states of conditioned things”: (1) that which is not yet risen; (2) that which has arisen but has not yet ceased; and (3) that which has arisen and ceased. This in turn relates to “entities of cause and effect that have already come, are coming, and will come into being.” In Buddhist thought, the shortest unit of time can be thought of as a moment. The Buddhist texts describe two types of moments: (1) the shortest moment of time; and (2) the moment required to complete an action. Vasubandhu posits that the “shortest moment” is 1/65 of the time it takes a strong man to snap his fingers. One hundred and twenty of these short moments are one second.

Major sources in this work have come from Tibetan translations of original Sanskrit works, which are mostly lost. Two canonical collections are used: “The precious collection of Kangyur contains translations of Buddha’s words embodied in the three baskets (Tripitaka), and the precious collection of the Tengyur contains treatises of great Nalanda masters such as Nagarjuna and Asanga.” (Nalanda University in India was the great center of Buddhist learning until it was sacked by the Muslims around AD 1200.) Works of the Buddhist sages Vasubandhu, Dignaga, and Dharmakirti are also quoted throughout volume 1. This is an astounding effort and a rich treasure, with the Dalai Lama’s vision shining through.

Dhananjay Joshi

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for the past forty-five years. He is a regular reviewer for Quest and volunteers in the archives department of the TSA.

Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump
Gary Lachman
New York: TarcherPerigree, 2018. xxii + 234 pp., paper, $17.

It is always a pleasure to read a new book by Gary Lachman, as there are few writers in the field of esoteric and occult studies who write as clearly and engagingly while also maintaining a mind-boggling level of output. Like his mentor and literary hero Colin Wilson, Lachman (a longtime Quest contributor) has the gift of digesting an array of ideas, theories, historical details, and mostly obscure thinkers, and rendering up highly readable books that avoid both scholarly nitpicking and pop sensationalism.

Dark Star Rising is no exception and, for bonus points, it may be Lachman’s most timely book, given its relevance to the Age of Trump, which continues to unfold on a daily basis.

To briefly summarize, Lachman starts out pondering the possible causes behind Donald Trump’s unexpected and, for millions, perplexing election victory. Rather than focusing on theories about Russian meddling, Lachman notes several factors that may have eluded most people’s attention.

One is Trump’s decades of practicing Norman Vincent Peale’s power of positive thinking (most famously described in his best-selling book of that title). Trump’s father introduced his son to Peale’s perspective in the 1950s and initiated his lifelong attendance at Peale’s Manhattan church. Lachman explores the history of New Thought, the hugely influential spiritual movement that blossomed in the late nineteenth century and counted Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science and Ernest Holmes’s Science of Mind among its propagators. Peale was perhaps the most famous of its exponents.

In a nutshell, New Thought teaches that we create our own reality through the thoughts we cultivate; that our individual minds are a manifestation of the universal mind or intelligence; and that if we wish to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, we can attract those states through prayer, creative visualization, a positive attitude, and maintaining a faith that the bounty of life can be ours.

Lachman suggests that Trump’s insistence on his own positively defined reality, which strikes so many as delusional or sociopathic, is rather an ingrained case of positive thinking, which for the most part has served him well throughout his life (taking him to the White House, for example).

Lachman also notes the pervasive influence of postmodernist theories that have saturated academia and oozed into Western culture at large. Rejecting the grand narratives of historical and cultural explanation that have characterized modernity, postmodernism has championed the rise of a subjective fracturing of the notion of truth. This feeds into the present space, where consensus reality has broken down. Accusations of “fake news” arise from both left and right, exacerbating the sense that everything is just a matter of interpretation. “You create your own reality,” indeed.

 Lachman also examines the Internet-based phenomenon of meme propagation, which amounts to the rapid spread in social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and 4Chan) of catchphrases, images, and clusters of ideas that have widespread social influence. According to Lachman, these resemble the practices of Chaos Magick and the sigil-based magick of Austin Osman Spare. (This spelling of magick originated with occultist Aleister Crowley, who used it to distinguish occult magic from the sleight-of-hand variety. Chaos Magick uses unorthodox, often ad hoc, ritual forms and stresses the subjective nature of belief.) In other words, the “anything goes” meme propagators of the alt-right, who spread the cartoon image of Pepe the Frog in mockery of progressives, may have been unknowingly (or not) using an esoteric practice that harnesses the power of intention, will, and mental energy to produce real-world results. As unlikely as this may seem, Lachman makes a plausible case for it.

 The most extended section of Dark Star Rising ponders the influence of Traditionalism on current political trends. This includes both the Traditionalism of René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon on the one hand and the more politicized version of Julius Evola on the other. Most curious among the defenders of Tradition in this sense is Alexander Dugin, a Russian intellectual who has bounced between supporting National Bolshevism, a Russian “red-brown” mixture of Stalinism and fascism, and Eurasianism, a geopolitical strategy that tries to cast Russia and its surrounding countries as an allied bloc. Given that Dugin identifies with the Traditionalist philosophy of Evola and savors the “positive” aspects of Stalinism and Nazism (whatever those may be), he is a controversial figure, to say the least. Lachman sees Dugin’s Eurasianism as a significant influence on Vladimir Putin’s attempts to restore Russia as a geopolitical force.

 But here too postmodernism may have the last laugh. If truth is up for grabs, and powerful rulers see fit to create their own realities, we may need to harness our own mental capacities and visualize a future that trumps those of both Putin and Trump.

In any event, Dark Star Rising is a stimulating read, and a provocative meditation on the hidden forces at work in our present juncture. Its timeliness, which is its greatest strength, may prove its greatest weakness a few years down the line. But for the time being, it serves as one of the most acute studies of the present moment.

 Jay Kinney

Jay Kinney was founder and publisher of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions and is a frequent contributor to Quest.