A biologist and a Buddhist monk have a conversation on how science can make sense of rebirth, emptiness, and karma, the origins of consciousness and creativity, and how modern science’s understanding of the nature of reality benefits from the wisdom of contemplative traditions.
Scott Snibbe: I sometimes serve as a host for the London based podcast and event series Science and Wisdom Live. Today, we’re partnering with SciWizLive to share a dialogue on the nature of reality between scientist Rupert Sheldrake and Tibetan Buddhist teacher Geshe Namdak, who we had on the show as a guest in episode 41. In their dialogue, Dr. Sheldrake and Geshe Namdak touch on some of the universe’s deepest questions from what is reality to speculative ideas on how morality, our psychological tendencies and creativity emerged from the fabric of the universe itself.
If you enjoy this talk, you may be interested to sign up for the dialogue that I’m moderating with author Carlo Rovelli on October 20th that’s part of Science and Wisdom Live’s Science Day. I’m also leading a guided meditation workshop that day on How Things Exist. You can sign up for both at sciwizlive.com or find the link on the web page for this episode at skepticspath.org.
We’re going to start out by asking each of you, Dr. Sheldrake and Geshe Namdak, to give us—and this sounds a little amusing—to give us a short introduction to your thinking on the nature of reality, both from the scientific perspective, and of course from the Buddhist perspective and then go into an open dialogue about the topic, which we can go into much more depth.
Dr. Sheldrake, since you’re a guest who has never been with us before, we’d love to start with you.
What is the nature of reality?
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: All right. The nature of reality in five minutes. I’m not used to this challenge except when I went on train journeys in India. On the journeys, as I sat there in this compartment, someone would open the conversation, they’d say, what is your name? What is your native place? Are you married? How many brothers and sisters? How much do you earn? They always asked that. When they got through all those basic things, they’d say, what is your view of the nature of reality? I had long journeys on Indian trains discussing the nature of reality. This is the first time since Indian railways, that I’ve been asked this question.
Well, I don’t claim to represent either orthodox science or orthodox religion. My own personal spiritual history was Christian background, long atheist phase, indoctrinated into atheist materialism with my scientific education, discovery of the importance of consciousness through psychedelics originally, then meditation in the Hindu tradition and yoga.
And then I worked in India and I was very interested in Hindu philosophy. I was drawn back to a Christian path and I’m now a practicing Christian and Anglican. So my own views of reality are shaped both by science and by Indian philosophy and by the Christian tradition.
Starting with the scientific view: what modern science has done has shown that the visible kind of reality we experience through our senses is in fact pervaded by many invisible connections.
Isaac Newton in the 17th century, when modern science really began, through the scientific revolution of the 17th century, came up with a vision of universal interconnectedness in his theory of gravitation: that every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other particle of matter. The whole of nature is interrelated by invisible interconnections. And we now call those the gravitational field, which links together everything in the universe.
In the 19th century, Michael Faraday first discovered or named the electrical and magnetic fields. And we now think of the whole universe as filled with the electromagnetic field through which light travels and not just visible light, but invisible light in the form of x-rays, cosmic rays, ultraviolet, and so forth, so lots of invisible forms of light.
Then through quantum theory, we have the idea that there are matter fields underlying the very nature of matter. And the matter we experience as hard and impenetrable is actually made up of vibratory patterns of activity within fields. So, modern science, even conventional modern science, doesn’t give us a view of reality being what it seems to be to the senses. There’s a great deal of interconnectedness. In many ways, one could say that modern science is in the business of explaining the visible in terms of the invisible.
And the other great vision of modern science is that the universe is evolutionary. Not just life on earth, not just human culture, but the entire universe, starting with the Big Bang, has been expanding, cooling down and evolving so that more and more forms, structure, order, pattern come into being in a creative universe.
So if one then says, well, in the scientific worldview, what are the most fundamental realities? In the 19th century, people would have answered “matter” as the most fundamental reality. And that was the basis of the philosophy of materialism, which says matter is the only reality and mind is derived from matter in the brain.
But in modern science, the answer to that question is fields and energy. Fields are what shape and structure everything: The sun is round because of the gravitational field. The fields are what shape the natural order. And energy is what gives it actuality, movement, change. Energy is what underlies the development of nature. It underlies matter itself. As David Bohm said, “In the light of modern physics, matter is regarded as frozen light. But it’s light energy bound in fields vibrating to give us matter as we know it.”
Now, the big thing that’s left out of the scientific picture is of course consciousness. And for materialists, that is the hard problem. It’s called ‘The Hard Problem’ because if you say that reality consists of unconscious matter and that’s all there is, then how do you explain the fact that humans are conscious? Well, you can’t. And that’s why it’s called The Hard Problem.
Within science recently, there’s been a move within philosophy of mind and indeed, in neuroscience, towards a more panpsychist view of nature, saying that maybe there’s some kind of consciousness even in electrons and atoms, and that consciousness in human brains emerges from less complex organized systems; that consciousness pervades all matter, all the universe.
Now, that is an increasingly popular view. But it still sees consciousness as sort of emerging from complexities of matter. It doesn’t explain how the universe came into being in the first place, nor does it explain the creativity within the universe, nor does it explain the source of forms and matter energy. I, myself, as a Christian see the ultimate reality as the holy Trinity. The ultimate reality, or God in the Christian version, is not an undifferentiated blob, certainly not an old man sitting on a cloud. But rather an organic combination of ground of consciousness. God, the father is like the Hindu view of sat-cit-ananda, being consciousness, bliss. God the father is sat in the Hindu model, the ground of conscious being. And when God first announces himself to Moses in the Old Testament and Moses says, What is your name? He says, “I am who I am” or “I am that I am.” A statement that God’s nature is of conscious being in the present: I am.
Then the second aspect of God is the logos in the Christian Trinity, which Hindus would call names and forms: namarupa. It’s all the forms of things in nature, that which can be known. God, the father is the knower, the logos or the son aspect of the divine, is the known. You have consciousness, which has this division within it, of the knower and the known, and both of these are aspects of the divine. Both of them are aspects of God. It’s not as if God, the father, the knower, is God and everything else isn’t God. No, God, the known, the names and forms in nature are a reflection of this inherent principle of names and forms or logos within the divine.
But that by itself would be static. And the Holy Spirit, which is the dynamical principle in the Holy Trinity, breath, wind, or energy is the moving principle, which gives actuality and activity to things.
So everything in nature, both according to Christian theology and according to modern science, is made up of matter, is made up of energy and form or energy and fields. Our bodies are shaped by the fields that shape living organisms, they’re powered by the energy that flows through them and the breath with which we speak.
Everything in nature has energy and form. An atom has energy, which gives it its actuality and form, which gives it the quantum particles: the neutrons, the protons, the electronic orbitals around it. It’s a structure of activity. The form is the structure. The activity is the energy.
I myself see all these aspects of nature as reflections of the holy Trinity, the ultimate principle, which underlies all nature and evolution of the cosmos. So there you have it. That’s perhaps somewhat longer than five minutes, but it’s as short a summary as I can give.
Scott Snibbe: Geshe-la, if you’d like to start with the Buddhist view on the nature of reality.
What is the Buddhist view on the nature of reality?
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Yeah. So it’s a similar problem – we study for two decades, six days a week, quite intensive. So to summarize it all in five minutes or so is not an easy task. But let’s give it a try. Generally speaking, we have two types of truth, or we say, you have two truths. That means there’s a conventional truth and an ultimate truth. And it’s not they are two completely different entities or different natures. They also interact with each other.
So what is this ultimate truth? This ultimate truth means that nothing exists from its own side. It is what’d we call it an absence or a lack of inherent existence. So inherent existence means thinking that things exist without dependence. So if you go back to quantum mechanics or the interpretations of relativity, then we come to the conclusion that the correlation between the individual parts is more important than individual parts.
Nothing is independent. So that means if we see things as individual existence or without dependence, that is not reality.
The ultimate nature of everything is being empty of this, or lacking this, or have the absence of these concrete aspects of reality that we think. And whatever a piece as we know is not reality. So that’s the ultimate nature of reality.
And then we have cause and effect relationships, which actually prove that there is nothing that can exist from its own side. And not only is everything in cause and effect relationships. But also there’s an interdependence among parts and the collection of parts.
There is no table or a computer existing from its own side. It’s made up out of parts. And those parts only function because there is a correlation between the parts. That’s the second level of interdependence.
And then the third level of interdependence is the more difficult one to be understood because that talks about things are just merely imputed by the mind.
What we call a table, what we call Tenzin Namdak, is just, merely an imputation based on body and mind. So that’s three levels of interdependence. That gives an idea of what is reality.
Then with regard to consciousness, how does it relate to consciousness? The visible and invisible, as Dr. Sheldrake indicated, those two distinctions. So also in that regards, we have also manifest phenomenon we can see, like objects that appear to our eye consciousness, for example. But there are also hidden phenomenon in the sense they are hidden from sensory perception, meaning we cannot perceive them with our five sensory perceptions. The only way to get an idea of that reality is by the thought process, thinking and reasoning. And that has two levels of what we call the hidden phenomena. For example, if we go to our computer screen, then the color, the shape is manifest. We perceive with our eye consciousness. But the computer also has hidden aspects. For example, its impermanent nature that is momentary changing. The computer has that quality as well. And that we cannot perceive with our sensory perception. We can only perceive by our reasoning.
It is momentary changing because it comes into being at one particular time, and it disintegrates and breaks down over time. So if we talk about disintegration with regards with the Big Bang, as certain scientists think that’s a start of the universe, but it’s more or less a big bounce, right? That means that there is a stream of disintegration of previous forms of matter before the Big Bang came to be.
So I ended up a little bit more than five minutes, but that’s the best I can do.
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Well, thank you. That was wonderfully clear. And I actually think that almost everything you said is born out by modern science. I don’t see any conflict between it and the scientific, more sophisticated science we have today than 19th century materialism, and the idea of interrelatedness of everything is part of a scientific worldview.
The Big Bang
The idea of a series of stream of causes, that nothing just starts from nothing, all these things are very much part of the scientific worldview and the interdependence and interconnectedness. Of course, the scientific assumption that the universe comes into being with no cause in the first place is a philosophical assumption, it’s not actually proved by science. And although it’s part of the scientific worldview, it’s a naive assumption.
As my friend Terrence McKenna used to say, modern science is based on the principle give us one free miracle and we’ll explain the rest. And the one free miracle is the appearance of all the laws of nature and all the matter and energy in the universe from nothing in a single instant.
Personally, I think the Big Bang speculation or assumption is questionable and arguable, but I don’t bother arguing about it very much with my scientific colleagues, because it’s entirely in the realm of speculation. There were no scientists around at the time of the Big Bang observing it. And if they had been around, they would have evaporated very rapidly since it was millions of degrees centigrade.
All we can do is speculate that the Big Bang happened, the universe is expanding. Now, as far as we know, it’s always been expanding. So if you just turned the clock back, wind it all back, then it gets smaller and smaller till you reach an initial singularity where all the laws of nature, as we know them break down. And basically as the Big Bang theory, it’s an assumption. As you say, if you apply standard scientific assumptions of continuity, then you come to the conclusion there was a previous universe and this is a big bounce.
But again, that’s speculative as well. It’s more logical than the standard scientific view, but it takes us into realms of untestable speculation. I don’t think it helps us very much.
I think the biggest point of divergence between modern science and the Buddhist views, as far as I know about them, and I know a little bit about them, because my wife is a Dzogchen practitioner and our house is full of thangkas and statues of Buddhas and Green Tara and that sort of thing. So I live surrounded by Buddhist decorative arts. But consciousness studies is a relatively modern area of science. Consciousness was more or less ignored until about 20 or 30 years ago within science.
They proceeded as if it didn’t exist. And the scientists were somehow able to do all the science being conscious beings, but somehow that was left out of the whole picture. Whereas obviously the Buddhist approach has been to concentrate on the nature of the mind and the nature of consciousness from studying it from within, with a far greater intensity and over far longer periods than anyone in science.
Buddhism beyond consciousness
So I would say that by far, the greatest strength of the Buddhist approach is this understanding of consciousness from within. And I think that’s why some scientists have been meeting regularly with the Dalai Lama and there’ve been a whole series of discussions on science and consciousness.
But the biggest problem from the Buddhist point of view is its greatest strength, is this understanding of consciousness from within, not necessarily a problem, but then that’s been the focus of the most of the attention. I started as a botanist and I’m currently writing a paper on the development of plant leaves and the veins in plant leaves and how different plant leaves have different shapes. The study of human consciousness doesn’t shed much light, as far as I can tell on the study of plant veins in plant leaves or the structure of crystals, or many of the phenomena that natural science studies. And I’d be very interested to know how you see a bridge between these areas since you, like me, share a scientific background.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Yeah. Of course, as you indicate, the main emphasis of Buddhism is consciousness because Buddha’s main motivation was to eliminate suffering. So then because of that main aspect of consciousness has been explained in great detail. Also matter or plants, how it initially is formed and what is the process behind it? It’s very similar.
In consciousness, we have different activities that produce particular feelings, right? And those particular activities comes from a previous inclination or a previous kind of habituation pattern or a process. And this habituation pattern or process is not just in certain forms of philosophy, it talks about seeds or potentials.
And other forms of philosophy, for example, Lama Tsongkhapa‘s interpretation of one aspect of the great philosopher Arya Nagarjuna talks about the term disintegratedness. That is a term we define as everything that is impermanent, everything that’s momentarily changing is in decay. Every split second, decays and grows and decays and grows. So this disintegrated aspect of reality, of impermanent phenomenon as such, is not that when one moment disintegrates and becomes disintegrated-ness, that moment doesn’t vanish as such.
We classify that not as matter, a level of reality that is not consciousness and it’s not matter. So it’s not a visible aspect, what we can examine with empirical research.
But it carries information. It’s a process of carrying information of the previous moments and seeds, which produces the plant and the plant produces the different leaves and the different veins in the plant; the seed came from a previous plant. And it’s not just a disintegration of that previous plant that dies and the seed goes somewhere else.
But that information of the previous plant, that disintegrated-ness, so to say, leave a potential in the seed. Right? So this potential that is left in the seed, you can call it energy or you can call it the kind of field of energy. That is not well defined in Buddhism. Yeah. We only merely talk about it is not matter, it is not consciousness, so we can see it as a kind of energy, right? Which is not perceivable with sensory perception. And it carries information from previous moments until the next.
So as soon as the disintegration starts at moment one and goes two, at moment two the disintegratedness of moment one is still present. It doesn’t disappear. Though it’s not matter anymore. It’s not form. I don’t know, but it might be a way of thinking about how information is carried from the previous moment of time into the present, because we talk about space time. We cannot pinpoint down whatever object you look at; you have to see it in the context of space time.
As soon as you start to isolate the particular object or part of an object, you’re missing out in this process of space time. And then to understand that process becomes more and more challenging, because if you’re taking something out of the process and you don’t see the process anymore, then it becomes very difficult to describe this particular phenomenon.
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: That makes total sense to me. And the Buddha wasn’t studying botany and classifying plants like Linnaeus and most Buddhist monks since then have not been doing that either. But as a general overview of what’s happening, it makes complete sense.
It makes more sense to me than it might to most scientists, because as you probably know, one of my ideas in science is the idea of morphic resonance, which is the idea of a memory in nature. This is not a conventional scientific view. It’s treated by some people as a heresy. I see it as a hypothesis. But the hypothesis, which I first proposed 40 years ago, and in fact, developed when I was living in South India and I wrote my first book on this, A New Science of Life when I was living in Father Bede’s ashram in Tamil Nadu.
The idea basically is that laws of nature are not laws outside space and time, but they’re habits, and that nature forms habits. And there’s a kind of memory within nature. Each species has a kind of collective memory. Every individual draws on that collective memory and contributes to it. So as a plant develops, for example, a foxglove, it’s drawing on the memory of foxglove forms from previous foxgloves, collective memory, and these shape the way its leaves and flowers and fruits develop.
And we too, as humans have a collective memory, which is a bit like what Jung called the collective unconscious. So there’s a kind of a memory principle in nature, which leads to the formation of habits. And most things in nature are mostly following habits. And we ourselves are creatures of habit. And most of our mental life is habitual and unconscious, not all of our mental life, obviously because we’re conscious of some things.
But anyway, this general view of habits in nature and of memory that’s transferred across time from one organism to another, in fact, collectively from many organisms is a familiar idea in Eastern thought. In Hindu philosophy, it’s been an accepted idea for a very long time and Buddhist philosophy shares a lot of this with Hindu philosophy.
When I first thought of the idea of morphic resonance, the process by which the past influences the present on the basis of similarity, I was working in the biochemistry department at Cambridge University. And when I started talking about these ideas of morphic resonance, it didn’t go over very well with my colleagues in the biochemistry department. Some of my colleagues in philosophy and history were very interested and discussed the idea.
But when I took up my job in an agricultural institute in India and I was working with Indian scientists and I had discussions with my Hindu colleagues and told them about this idea, none of them had any problems with it at all. They said, “Oh, actually there’s nothing new in that idea. Ancient rishis have said this thousands of years ago.” And so I found that they instantly identified this as a standard feature of Indian philosophy. Whereas in the West, it’s treated as utterly shocking, even today, and utterly heretical.
But the problem I had with my Hindu colleagues, you’ve got a PhD in plant genetics, I said, this leads to a completely different view of inheritance. If plants are inheriting things through influences across time from past plants, then inheritance can’t simply be explained in terms of genes and DNA.
At first they tried to pretend it could, and then I proved to them, it couldn’t. Because they believed the Hindu philosophy and they also believed what they’d learned when they did their PhD in plant genetics, they must be compatible because the same person believed both.
I tried to point out they weren’t really compatible, that if you have a theory of reincarnation, as Hindus put it, or rebirth, the transfer of traits from one life to another isn’t encoded in genes, or it would be very hard to explain it in terms of genes. This would prove that science is radically inadequate.
Modern science has got a very inadequate view of inheritance and of causation. I said, “Why don’t you do something about it? If you believe the ancient rishis had a better view all that time ago.” And of course they didn’t do anything about it because they wanted to keep their jobs and get promoted and get papers published in mainstream scientific journals and things. So they just lived with two completely incompatible worldviews, like a kind of emulsion rather than a synthesis.
So the problem I had in Cambridge was to get people to take this idea seriously. And the problem I had in India was in a sense, the same problem. I couldn’t get my Indian colleagues to take seriously their own philosophy, or at least apply it to the science they were doing. They wanted to go on with conventional Western science.
I hope that the idea of morphic resonance and memory in nature can provide a kind of bridge between these Eastern and Western philosophical views.
My own view is that this collective memory means that we’re all influenced by many people in the past. Whereas the Hindu view of reincarnation, or at least the naive Hindu view, the simple everyday view that ordinary people have, is that you’re in one life, you’re one person, you die, and then the whole personality is transported over into another body and you grow up and you were that person in a previous life, one-to-one like strings of beads.
Whereas my own view is much more collective, that there’s a kind of collective memory and we tune in perhaps to some aspects of it rather than others. It’s not that I, Rupert Sheldrake, was a particular person who died in say 1930, and that was a particular person who died in 1870, et cetera, et cetera. I personally don’t find that view terribly convincing.
Now I know the Buddhist view is different and I’d love to know what you think about influences being carried over from one life to another in this context.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: There’s two aspects here. We have individual streams of consciousness and we have a collective form of what we call karma or activity that other beings would have also consciousness.
So as an example, human beings and animals possess a particular stream of consciousness. And that stream of consciousness is individual. It doesn’t have a beginning and it doesn’t have an end. Because every moment of consciousness can only be produced by consciousness itself.
And as you know, also in Hindu philosophy, it talks about universal consciousness, you become one with God’s consciousness, right? So we have similar aspects in Buddhism, but then it talks about the quality of something, that you get similar qualities as that universal aspect in your individual stream.
So that’s a differentiation between becoming one with universal consciousness. We say we become a Buddha eventually. That means that we get the same qualities. It’s not that our stream of consciousness merges with the stream of an other consciousness. That’s not the case, but we get the similar kind of aspects.
That doesn’t mean there’s a correlation between two or billions of beings having individual streams of consciousness. Basically what we talk about is probabilities.
We have probabilities in our continuity of consciousness created in the past. And it depends on external conditions for one probability to become manifest. For example, with the pandemic, most of us have the karma to be within this kind of lockdown aspect of the pandemic.
That’s our common kind of karma or common cause and effect relationship. Nothing is random in Buddhism. We have created a cause for this, otherwise it doesn’t come into being.
But we have individual streams of consciousness because some people don’t get sick at all, some people get not even infected, and some people get infected but get not sick, and are people who are infected and get sick, and among those that are those who die. So the collective aspect of all this is that we all in the pandemic, with our individual forms of experience. Yeah. So that actually proves that we have individual streams of consciousness.
There is constant interaction. Nothing is individual as such. There’s a process between consciousness, matter and what we call non-associated composition factors. Or you call it energy. So if you call it morphic resonance, or you call it the implicate order, there is something there that we cannot see that is the process or an intrinsic nature that has to unfold.
But what is actually morphic resonance? What is actually is quantum potential? They are now examining more in UCL, near London, as you know. They will come up with research very soon. And I’m very interested in their findings because that might explain a lot more about what is behind all this reality, what appears to us.
David Bohm’s Implicate Order
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Yes. Thank you. That’s a very clear explanation. You have a wonderful gift, Geshe Namdak, for clear exposition. I really appreciate it.
Well, the individual differences and the collective… You see, I think that the morphic resonance, how it relates to David Bohm’s ideas is that it uses quite different terminology, but he and I were quite friendly and we had some dialogues and discussions about the relationship between his idea of the implicate order.
He thought the implicate order was a hidden order which underlies the explicate order, the phenomenal world we experience, and shapes it and orders it. But the implicate order is in many dimensions. It’s not in normal three-dimensional space and time.
And when I first met David Bohm, he thought of this as a kind of one-way process. The implicate order folds out into the explicate order. And my criticism of that was it was like Platonism in Western philosophy, that there’s an eternal realm of forms or ideas that gives rise to the world we live in. But there’s no memory in that.
And Platonism doesn’t have a memory in nature. It has the idea of everything is governed by an eternal invisible reality. Because modern science grew up in the 17th century under the influence of Platonic thought, to some degree under the implicit influence of Platonic thought, as refracted through Christian theology, the idea that most scientists in the 17th century had was that, yes, nature is governed by an invisible ordering principle. And those are the laws of nature, which are ideas in the mind of God. And God was thought of as a kind of mathematician, an eternal mathematician. And therefore these eternal laws were eternal because they were in God’s mind and they were provided the hidden order, underlying everything in nature.
Now most modern scientists still believe that. But many of them don’t believe in God. So what they’ve got is basically the ghost of the mind of God, which is still full of invisible ordering principles, the laws of nature, which account for nature as we experience it in the view of conventional science. But without the theological background or any understanding.
In fact, they believe these laws are sort of free floating. And if you ask them where are they, how do they work, they can’t answer any of those questions because they haven’t thought about it. But it started as a theological conception that was fairly clearly worked out. And it’s been degraded into a kind of undiscussed assumption about eternal laws.
Now you see to start with David Bohm’s implicate order was rather than like that. But the challenge for any theory like that is evolution: that if you had any eternal laws, everything would just repeat. And the whole evolutionary view of nature is that it’s creative, that there’s an appearance of new things in the course of evolution.
And also there’s a kind of memory, because what’s happened before tends to be repeated. And there seem to be habits. So David Bohm, then he modified his theory to say that the explicate order, what happens in the world that we experience, the phenomenal world, feeds back into the implicate order. He used, the word introjection, is fed back or injected back into the implicate order. So the implicate order is building up a kind of memory as time goes on. And would act as a bearer of memory and habits would develop within it.
Now, my idea of morphic resonance says the same thing, but uses completely different language. My idea is that similar patterns of vibratory activity will influence subsequent similar patterns across space and time from the past to the present.
Now, if you say why? I just can’t say why. I say that’s a postulate, a hypothesis that nature works like this. As David Boehm’s postulate or hypothesis was that it’s an implicate order with a kind of memory within it. So in that sense, David Bohm’s idea in my idea are very similar and quite compatible. And his idea forms a kind of bridge with the world of quantum physics. And my ideas form a bridge with the realm of biology and psychology.
But the big unsolved problem for all these philosophies, possibly for Buddhist philosophy as well, I don’t know about that, but the big problem is creativity. Conventional science that says all the laws of nature are fixed at the moment of the Big Bang. It doesn’t have new laws coming into being, they’re all supposed to be there at the beginning. They can’t explain why. And they can’t explain why those laws are like that rather than some other laws.
I can’t explain, and David Bohm can’t explain the Big Bang either. But the evolutionary view of nature that came first through progressivist thought; in the 18th century, there was the idea that humans evolve through science, the enlightenment intellectuals thought that there was an evolution of humanity, but nature didn’t evolve, animals and plants didn’t evolve. Only humans evolved. They became better through science and they thought of Isaac Newton as a kind of God of this humanistic evolutionary worldview. Then Darwin and others showed that all of biology evolves, not just humans, but human evolution is part of a much wider biological evolutionary process.
But physicists said No, the universe doesn’t evolve. The universe is actually running down towards a thermodynamic heat death. That was the 19th century view. So biological evolution was a kind of anomaly in a universe that was gradually running out of steam and would eventually freeze up.
But then in 1966, when Big Bang cosmology became orthodox, we got a view of the entire universe as evolving. And that means that at one time, there were no zinc atoms or iron atoms or methane molecules or crystals of salt. And certainly no forms of life at the time of the Big Bang. All these things have evolved in time; that evolution involves a vast creative process. New things happen that weren’t there before.
At some time the first eye appeared in an animal, the first feather on a bird, the first human appeared, the first thoughts, human thoughts, the first language appeared in humans. It wasn’t human language before that.
Now for any philosophy that I know of, creativity is a problem. Because most philosophies explain things in terms of what went before. And you can’t explain a creative act in terms of what went before unless you say, It’s not really creative. It had happened before, but it’s been forgotten or it was in another universe.
Traditional Hindu and Buddhist philosophy as I understand them, are cyclical, they see repeating cycles rather than creative evolutionary process. Traditional Western philosophy, Platonic philosophy, didn’t see a creative evolutionary process either. And so I think that this evolutionary vision that we have in science provides a challenge for all traditional philosophies. I don’t know if you agree or not.
Karma and Scientific Probabilities
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Partly, not completely. But if we just look at life, for example, humans and animals and insects, all those different sentient beings, beings that have a stream of consciousness. And as I indicated, we have individual streams of consciousness and collective aspects, that we experience similar things. The stream is there since the beginning of this lifetime.
And that means that since beginning of this lifetime, we have done all kinds of activities that leaves these kind of probabilities, or what we call potentials or karmic imprints as we define it Buddhism. So these karmic imprints or probabilities within our continuities have many possibilities and even the possibility of creating something completely new that we haven’t experienced before, but similar.
So that means it’s not exactly the same, but a similar process can happen. The whole law of karma talks about it. That we can be born as a human, on a particular planet, but how we look, the shape of our body that depends also on external factors.
So it means we have these probabilities in our continuity of consciousness to be born as a human being at the planet at that particular time. But it also depends on the factors at a particular time on that planet. Meaning, what are the conditions in the atmosphere? What are the conditions for sustaining life? And that constant interaction between the continuity of consciousness, as well as external factors, and that produces a kind of creativity, in one sense, of a new being, or a human being that looks different than the one you’ve been before.
So it’s a very complex process of individual streams of consciousness. Consciousness is not matter. Imprints in this stream of consciousness, which is this disintegrated-ness according to one particular interpretation. That means that nothing is lost. There is no information loss.
So that also indicates the possibility of memory. And not only in the continuity of consciousness, but also in the field of matter; not a memory of a consciousness, but a memory of previous disintegrated aspects that are present at the moment in the form of probabilities.
When those moments of probabilities meet external conditions, then also there can be a new plant coming up because it depends on the soil, depends on what kind of chemicals are in the soil to develop. Like what David Bohm says, implicate, explicate order, it’s not that there are two complete different kinds of realities, it’s a constant flux. And what re-injects in the implicate order is memory, so to say, or it’s disintegrated-ness, right.
Because the flux of becoming more manifest or becoming more dormant, because there’s different levels of reality and the information that is stored or the memory, if you want to call it, that is stored, is disintegrated-ness of previous moments. And that is not classified as matter or as consciousness, but it interacts with those two. And it interacts with external conditions as well. So that gives an opportunity to develop or have this kind of creativity of new plants we haven’t seen before or human beings developing in a different, though similar way, than previous forms of human beings, for example.
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Yes. That’s a fairly plausible way of dealing with it because the idea of probabilities, of course, is standard in modern science. It’s interesting that this is part of the Buddhist approach because probability is the very basis of quantum theory and indeed practically everything else in science. In the 19th century, people thought that everything was predictable and completely fixed.
And no we recognize that through quantum theory, through chaos and complexity theory, that actually practically everything is probabilistic. Certainly in biology, it’s all probabilistic. When you look at a leaf and you look at the vein pattern on the leaf, there’s a roughly similar veins, but even on two sides of the same leaf, the veins have a different pattern. And on every leaf of the same tree with the same genetics, they are different.
I think that general approach is actually supported very strongly by conventional science. Also the idea that it interacts with different situations, which change in different planets and different climates and different eras; that also again makes great sense. So what I would conclude from what you’ve just said is that within the Buddhist philosophy, there’s a potential for creativity, for new kinds of plants and people and ideas and so on.
But in the past, I imagine, Buddhist philosophers didn’t place much emphasis on this. The potential was there, but Buddhism didn’t come up with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution or the Big Bang theory of cosmology, and neither did Christian theology, neither did science itself. It was an evolutionary process to this evolutionary view.
If I understand you correctly, you’re saying within the Buddhist philosophy, there’s the potential for creativity and indeed this can be realized. Creativity doesn’t pose a challenge to the basic foundations of the philosophy. But in the past, Buddhist philosophers didn’t emphasize this because they had no need to, because it wasn’t a big issue. Whereas in an evolutionary cosmology, it’s a very big issue. Would that be a fair summary?
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Yeah, that’s correct. With language, we have to be careful because when I talk about probabilities, we have different terminology within the Buddhist context. In philosophy, we talk about karmic imprints. But it’s a similar kind of approach in the sense that there are all these possible different types of karmic imprints, and it depends on external conditions for it to come to ripening or not. So we’re talking about probabilities, right?
And then in a similar way, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, it can be completely explained to a certain extent that species develop over time, although they are individual streams of consciousness, but they have these probabilities of being born in this particular place on the planet and develop in this particular way because of the temperature on the planet or because of the different external factors. So that falls quite well in the philosophy behind it.
Modern Buddhist Science
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: I think it would be very interesting to — I don’t know if there’s anywhere in the world where people who are Buddhists are trying to do science in a different way, because it would lead to very different predictions.
For example, I think on the basis of morphic resonance, that our memories are not stored as physical traces in our brains. I think memories are resonance and the reason we have our own memories is because we’re more similar to ourselves in the past than we are to anyone else. And on the basis of similarity, our memories are caused by a kind of resonance across time.
The standard materialist view of memory is that everything we remember is because of some modified nerve ending or RNA molecule or some physical memory trace inside the brain.
And of course, people who believe that materialist view believe that when you die, the brain decomposes, all your memories are wiped out, and that’s it. There’s no possibility either of reincarnation, rebirth, transfer into a collective unconscious or anything else, because it’s all just matter inside the brain.
Now, presumably the Buddhist view would be more that memories work not just as matter inside the brain, they interact with the brain, but they’re not in it. And so if there were a Buddhist university with Buddhist neuroscientists, then I’d love to see Buddhist university with Buddhist neuroscientists doing research on memory going beyond the materialist theory.
Unfortunately science has a kind of tyranny at the moment. In all countries, whatever people’s philosophy, they all do the same kind of science. Do you think that would ever happen or do you see Buddhist ideas somehow influencing scientists to do science differently? It would be very exciting if they did, in my view, but have you ever seen any evidence of this happening?
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: It’s not that it will happen, it already happened. Because we have a lot of research being done between the correlation of consciousness and brain activity. Richard Davidson, for example, is probably the world’s leading expert in the field of what effects does our consciousness, in particular with regards to mental states of meditators, how does it influence the brain.
For example, obsessive compulsive disorder, there’s a lot of research being done between the correlation of consciousness, what we call consciousness, and the physical brain. There is a correlation, but is that correlation causal? And so how does consciousness produce a particular brain activity or does brain activity produce a particular state of consciousness?
And both ways of traffic is possible. If you have, for example, a severe OCD issue, then the brain tells you what to do. You’re not in control. But if you train your mind in what Jeffrey Schwartz, a very interesting personality in the treatment obsessive compulsive disorder, he uses this kind of Buddhist techniques or what he calls the power of mental force or mental activity or mindfulness training to teach the patients to think about something else at the time their brains tell you to do something else. Over time, if you train well, then consciousness actually produces the brain’s activity. So that causality is two way traffic.
With regard to other forms of science that proves that consciousness is not the brain, what we call for example, the near-death experience when there is a cardiac arrest without 10 to 20 seconds of oxygen flow to the brain stops and the brain is dead, right? According to our neuroscientific interpretation.
But there is perception at that time. And it depends on which kind of research you depend upon. If you think about Bruce Greyson, one of the psychiatrists in America who did a lot of research with near-death experience.
And of course we have different research about children remembering previous lifetimes by Professor Stevenson, from the university of Virginia and his student, Jim Tucker. Stevenson didn’t say, I’m proving reincarnation. He says there is something that carries information from a previous personality to the present, that we call in Buddhism, the continuity of consciousness, right?
And then the newer fields developed within the Buddhist society in relation to neuroscience is what we call the thukdam or the clear light mind of death meditation, which we only have up to now documented, or we have data of about 13 cases only because it’s a very rare event. That means the person is clinically dead, has practiced in this life. This mostly happens with accomplished masters and they stay in the clear light mind of death for a week, two weeks. And just last April, we had one in Gyuto Tantric College, who stayed for 37 days in this clear light, which means that there’s no decomposition, no decay of the body, though there’s no heartbeat and no lung function.
So according to the present findings there is nothing measurable with EEG. They have measured no brain activity as such. From the Buddhist point of view, we say in the vajrayana explanation of these points, that consciousness is still present, but in a very subtle level.
And when that subtle consciousness doesn’t need the brain to function, and some accomplished masters, they meditate on the ultimate nature of reality at that time. But then the consciousness then leaves the body there’s different signs to be seen. Then the body starts decaying. So it’s a very interesting aspect, already quite some research already started in, these lines, but yeah, much more is needed. Of course.
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Interesting. Very good. That was a very good summary of this field of research. I think you’re right, actually that these areas of research are changing our view of consciousness. And what was regarded as merely anecdotal in the past is now being properly and rigorously investigated.
But by too few people. I mean, I know Bruce Greyson and I knew Professor Stevenson. And in Holland, I know Pim van Lommel, who’s done very good studies on near death experiences under much more rigorous conditions because he’s a cardiologist. Then in accidents and heart attacks under controlled hospital conditions, you can observe the details much more now.
So I think you’re right, actually, these things are opening up. But I look forward to the day when instead of just three or four centers in Western countries, in Buddhist countries like Japan, Thailand et cetera and possibly China too, if it were done on a larger scale, there’s more motive for Buddhists to do this than people who come in the west, many scientists and materialists, and many of them atheists would be opposed to this research. But in Buddhist countries, it would be perhaps easier to open the doors as time goes on for this research. And it’s obviously not only interesting scientifically, but it’s of enormous interest to millions of people because it’s relevant to our human lives, much more relevant than most of the research that goes on in scientific laboratories today.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Because there is this kind of research already going on in the monasteries itself. In my own monastery, Sera Jay, you have a science department, which has a lot of relationships with universities in the west. And they do a lot of kind of research regarding, you know, brain activity and such. So it is developing, it just needs some more time funding and efforts.
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Delighted to hear it’s happening in monasteries as well. I didn’t know that too. Very pleased to hear that.
The great potential: The origins of the universe to now
Scott Snibbe: That was an extraordinary conversation. I’m very curious, you’ve talked about that there can be a continuity of form or habits explained through either karma or morphic resonance, but there are these moments in the origins of life that are as profound as the Big Bang, right? The moment when the rocky earth suddenly has a self-replicating organism. And also how is the potential within the first self-replicating organism with a simple binary genetic code, capable of evolving towards a human being who can make iPhones and spacecraft and Buddhist monasteries and so on.
You touched on that a little bit, the creative principle, but especially those particular binary moments from rocky planet to living life and then from simple life to the extraordinary complexity of our human minds and behavior. Is it possible to touch on those questions very briefly?
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: We have to be clear that the materialistic world, or matter and the continuum of consciousness within the continuity of sentient beings, that’s two different things, right? So they interact with each other, but it’s two different things.
So that means that being, having consciousness comes from a previous moment of consciousness. And the previous moments come from previous moments. And what kind of being that is going to be developed depends on these kind of karma or these probabilities within the continuum of that particular being.
So it is different from the evolvement of creation of matter, although there is also the disintegrating aspects of previous moments which carries information throughout space time.
When one particular planet like Earth starts to explode or whatsoever, heat up the earth a little bit more and it starts to burn everywhere, then the human beings and those who have consciousness, they slowly will die out and be born in other places in the universe.
So that means that the particular earth will disintegrate and in the future, the same kind of continuity of matter, because of the probabilities, when it meets external conditions that can create a kind of new planet or maybe climate change happens again.
You have the distinction between the continuity of consciousness within sentient beings and the mere matter in the materialistic world. Although there’s a correlation between the two.
Scott Snibbe: And Dr. Sheldrake, what would be your perspective on this question?
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: That was a really interesting answer. Well I would take the view that the normal discussion of the origin of life is the materialist framework is taken for granted. That here’s this entire unconscious universe, stars, galaxies, planets, rock, totally unconscious, totally dead. And then miraculously, or by chance, here on Earth the first life appears. And it has the potential to become us.
A bit like Geshe Namdak, I don’t really accept that view that the whole universe is totally unconscious to start with. And like Geshe Namdak, think that if there are other planets where life has already evolved, then by morphic resonance, there could be influences to this planet and evolution on this planet could be shaped by influences from others. But that pushes the problem back to other planets and other forms of life.
And you could argue that given the Big Bang theory of the universe, at one stage, there were no planets. So the Big Bang was billions of degrees centigrade. There was no, not even atoms, it was too hot for atoms or even plasma. So it must’ve been the first life somewhere, even if it wasn’t here.
But I don’t take the view that the whole universe is unconscious, you see. I think that if we take the view that the entire universe might have a kind of mind or consciousness, a galaxy might have a mind or consciousness, a solar system might have a mind or consciousness, a planet might have a mind or consciousness.
And therefore when the first life appears on that planet, it’s not as if consciousness has come from nowhere, from total unconsciousness. But it’s coming into being within a larger, more coherent conscious system which may play a role, a creative role in the emergence of life within it.
So in the case of the earth, if we take the view that Gaia, the earth, is a living organism; that there was a kind of not just rock, but also oceans and swirling currents and clouds and atmosphere and hydrothermal vents, and clay that sort of dried up and then during the seasons got wet again, all sorts of changing conditions that might’ve been allowed for the emergence of life, within Gaia, that the mind of Gaia may have played a role in that emergence of life. We don’t necessarily have to explain it in terms of a bottom up emergence from mere inorganic or simple organic chemicals to more complex ones to — the usual view is this bottom up view.
But actually even within modern physics there’s a top down view. The gravitational field is a top-down field that includes everything in the universe. It doesn’t emerge gradually from bottom up, from particles of matter. It’s there from the beginning. And according to superstring theory, there was an initial unified field of all nature with 10 dimensions or 11 in brane theory or M-theory.
And these underwent a kind of splitting. These fields of nature split out gravity separated from electromagnetism. But originally, it was one combined field and that these top-down fields have shaped the universe from the large to the small. So it’s not all from the small to the large.
And if these overarching organizing fields have a conscious element to them, then we have a kind of interaction between the small and the large, which puts that problem in a different light.
It doesn’t explain it. It doesn’t give us any sense of detail as to how the first life happened. But it suggests that we don’t necessarily have to look for the origin of life in purely blind, inorganic matter and random collisions of atoms.
Scott Snibbe: It’s been a privilege having you two incredible beings speak with each other. We’ve really benefited a lot
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Thank you.
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Thank you.
Scott Snibbe: Thanks for joining us for this episode of A Skeptics Path to Enlightenment with Dr. Rupert Sheldrake and Geshe Namdak. If you’d like to attend Science and Wisdom Live’s Science Day on October 20th, where I’ll be moderating a dialogue with physicist and author Carlo Rovelli, you can sign up at sciwizlive.com.
Moderated by Scott Snibbe
Live event production by Science & Wisdom Live‘s Sajda van der Leewe and Marco Marco Colnaghi
Podcast production by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry and Chris Boulton
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio