In what now seems to be a distant past, I came here in 1999, to talk to you about Early Buddhism and Modern Science. It was indeed in another century, and no one could then tell how very different in many ways the present one would already have become.
The one thing that was certain was how little human nature would have changed.
The speed with which the science of genetics has developed, with the unravelling of the complete sequence of the human genome, the genetic code that makes us what we are, together with that of an ever-increasing number of our fellow animals, has already led, not only to cloning, so far only of animals, but to the increasing possibility that we will be able to control, or probably more accurately to interfere with, our own evolution.
How little fitted we are to have such powers is easily seen from our activities in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the Sudan, and in innumerable other countries, and from the continued devastation of the world’s forests, with their often unique ecological systems, and the depletion of age-old aquifers, to our increasingly rapid consumption and depletion of the earth’s mineral resources and now, in addition, the unsustainable over-fishing of all the world’s oceans and seas.
Despite a great deal of talk and, here and there, small, ineffectual and often ill-thought out, politically motivated initiatives, humanity’s world wide contribution to climate change continues to gather pace.
Nevertheless, despite the evident dichotomy between religious faith and scientific method, the relationships between the fundamental underpinnings of Buddhist thought and modern science, to which I referred in 1999, and have since repeated ad nauseam ever since in one form or another, seems to be growing closer and closer in important ways.
Contemporary ecological studies and the concern with climate change, which are bringing many different scientific disciplines together to try to solve complex, interlocking problems, are two obvious examples.
In biological studies, the nineteenth and twentieth century academic divisions, and the seemingly separate scientific disciplines, with the ever more specialised methods and research objectives to which they gave rise, are increasingly being transcended.
Human beings are more and more seen, not as things apart, but as taking their natural place in the unbroken continuum of the animal kingdom.
But perhaps most striking of all is the breakdown of the once clear-cut division between the organic and inorganic worlds, between things that are living and things that are not. There is now no consensus on how to define life, and a sharp dividing line no longer makes much sense, since no one is quite sure where, if it ever existed, it should be. The Ancient Animists of Japan, however non-scientific their actual beliefs, would in some ways have been quite at home with modern science!
In physics, ever-increasing armies of mathematicians and theorists, with sometimes, it must be said, wildly improbable results for which there is no, and in some cases never can be, actual evidence, are now coming together with experimental physicists in an almost obsessive search for a theory of everything, which, at the sub-atomic level, would bring together the so far seemingly incompatible forces of quantum mechanics and gravity in a way which will make them compatible with the large scale structures of the universe which have so far been enshrined in the equations of Einsteinian relativity, although these are now, increasingly coming to be seen as being subject to possible modification.
Whatever the eventual outcome, the Buddhist concept of the fundamental unity of all that is has never been closer.
an abstract idea
if you like,
from a far off past
in the amber
of religious belief
you enter a rain forest
at the ecological system
that you yourself
how the ‘you’
that you seem
or seem to others
through a lifetime
with all you have met
in the world of illusion,
the hall of mirrors,
the only reality
that there is.
Indeed, in the sphere of human biology, there is the realisation that the closely related concepts of the self and of consciousness as continuous, unbroken entities are no more than fictions, mental constructs which, in the course of our evolution, we have ourselves created in order to come to terms with, to make sense of, to act and to survive in, the external world of illusion which we inhabit.
Yet again, the seemingly incompatible realms of Buddhist intuitions and modern scientific thought are closer to each other than they have ever been since modern science first came into existence.
In the social sciences, which are at last showing signs of actually becoming scientific, much has been discovered during the last decade that is of direct relevance to the conduct of everyday life.
In education, the ingrained habit of compartmentalisation, which makes us think of it as something which takes place in schools and universities at the hands of professional, often ill-paid educators, is showing some signs of being broken down by the realisation that the primary and inseparable locus of learning is the family and the home, whatever the number of parents it contains.
The twin processes of re-unifying what has been unjustifiably separated and of bringing into the home and into the minds of parents a consciousness of the light which fundamental scientific research is beginning to throw on the underlying causes of some of the day-to-day problems with which they are faced in bringing up their children, have direct relevance to the tackling of some of the major ills with which modern society is now faced.
One of the major, and most worrying, social problems in the West, and one that is even beginning to affect Japan, is that of teenage and young adult behaviour. It is on crime and vandalism, on guns and knives and killings, that most attention is focused, especially in the media in their endless search for sensational stories to increase their circulation.
There is the added factor that what happens on the streets is there for all to see. What happens in the confines of the home is largely inaccessible to the general public, as well as to the police and to the media.
Within the family, there are, indeed, a series of teenage behaviours which are, perhaps, not as well understood as they might be by many parents, although it is an area in which medical and social sciences have made considerable progress in the last few years.
As adults, we tend to see the world from an adult’s point of view. Naturally, no child has written a counterpart to the Sutra on the Heavy Indebtedness to One’s Parents, and it seems to me that in discussing the relations between parents and children, the emphasis tends to be placed on the need for children to be grateful for what they have received from their parents, whereas, from a child’s perspective, there should be equal stress on what parents gain from their children.
Children do not ask to be born. They have no choice in the matter.
It is all too easy to take for granted a mother’s unconditional love for her child, which would, in an ideal world, have its counterpart in the child’s unconditional love for its parents, and then to slip into thinking that a child has a duty to its mother, forgetting that unconditional love creates no debt.
Nothing is owed.
Indeed, if there is to be any talk of duty or debt, the first debt or duty is that of parents to the children whom they have, for an endless variety of reasons, some of them noble, some less so, and in many cases even by mistake, brought into the world.
What is more, if the concept of debt or repayment or duty enters into it, the ideal vision fades and the Three Wheels, that should embrace the giver, the pure gift and the recipient in a bond of true love, are broken.
In many parts of the world, doing one’s duty has been seen as the great good, the cement of society. But duty is a second division virtue; a useful second best for those who are unable, as most of us are, to do what we do out of love.
To see duty as a primary, rather than a secondary or subordinate virtue, is to forget that even in the armed forces, where duty looms so large, when a soldier throws himself on a live grenade and dies to save his comrades, the citation for the posthumous medal that he receives, if his heroism is recorded at all, very often refers to an action above and beyond the call of duty.
Unfortunately, in the world at large, the love between parents and children is often anything but unconditional.
It is not only in South East Asia that families make money out of selling their offspring into child prostitution.
Some years ago, for example, the authorities in the Netherlands discovered a ring of villages in which a significant source of income lay in providing their children for abuse by paedophiles from Amsterdam.
Indeed, world wide, one of the major causes of the alienation of adolescents and young people from society is not only parental ignorance, but widespread cruelty and persistent sexual abuse within the home.
In the modern world, the education, not only of children and adolescents, but of young adults in general, is a vital concern, and both within the family and outside it, education should encompass parents, as well as children.
Recent research has shown, for instance, that it may not always be simply indiscipline and thoughtlessness that causes a proportion of teenagers to behave, both within the home and outside it, in the irritating and antisocial way that they do.
Jet-lag is a familiar topic of conversation among those who make long transcontinental or transoceanic flights between Japan and Britain or the USA and is caused by the passage across numerous time zones.
This upsets the so-called circadian rhythm, the internal clock driven by the regular succession of night and day, which in mammals, including human beings, runs on a roughly twenty-four hour cycle and controls such things as the production during the night, by the pineal gland, of the sleep-inducing natural hormone, melatonin.
How universal, how deep seated this internal clock is, and how early in the evolution of all forms of life it came into being was shown by the discovery, some twenty years ago, that it is present even in bacteria.
The photosynthesizing cyanobacteria, often known as blue-green algae, are among the earliest surviving forms of life and can still be found, to give one example, around the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park in the USA.
As Eubacteria, they have no nucleus and are thought to have evolved as long as three and a half billion years ago, a time when there was hardly any oxygen and no ozone to shield organic life from the stream of destructive, mutation-inducing ultraviolet rays emitted by the sun.
As a result, their circadian clock still, in the very different conditions of today, turns on the reproductive process of cell-division at sunrise, shuts it down for three to six hours in the middle of the day, when the incidence of damaging mutations would have been too extreme, and re-starts it towards evening.
Teenagers too have their internal clocks and it is not air-travel, but the onset of puberty with its surge of hormonal activity, which has been shown, in the last few years, to cause a change in the circadian rhythm, which varies somewhat throughout life.
Adults are often either larks or owls, but most young children tend to be among the early rising larks.
In teenagers, on the other hand, it seems that the clock is shifted forwards by two hours or so, and the build-up of the sleep inducing hormone, melatonin is slower than it is in pre-teens, and there is even a delay of about an hour before the process starts.
Teenagers therefore join the owls and may find it hard to go to sleep until quite late at night, and are then awakened to go to school in what is still their night, some two hours before their internal clock signals that their body should wake up.
As a result, many of them become short of sleep and suffer what amounts to chronic jet-lag. Indeed a survey in the US has shown that about 25% of eleven to seventeen year-olds then proceed to fall asleep in class at least once a week and to perform better later in the day.
In case the sceptical among you think that an addiction to mobile phones, play-stations and chat-shows on the Internet is a much simpler and more probable explanation, the same phenomena have been observed in the developing world, where there are no such electronic temptations or addictions.
Another cause of trouble in the family is reactance, which is a technical term for the contrariness quite often found in young children, perhaps one in five of whom will wear anything except what their mothers suggest, or when told to do this or that will do exactly the opposite.
The theory is that underlying such behaviour is an often unconscious urge to reassert their freedom of action whenever it is perceived to be under threat. There seems to be confirmation of this hypothesis in the observation that often when children are told by an adult to stop doing something or other, they do it once more and then stop, a clear, instinctive assertion of their individuality and of the fact that it is they who have made the decision to stop.
It has been suggested that there is a long-term and deep-seated evolutionary basis for such behaviour, since the freedom to make one’s own decisions can later become a useful tool for survival, and this urge steadily increases among teenagers who are soon to leave the home and make their own individual way in the world.
Reactance is not, however, confined to children, and can have seriously damaging effects, as when strongly worded anti-alcohol or anti-smoking advertisements prompt students to drink and smoke more than ever. In adults it has even been noted that academics in general, and scientists in particular, two groups which set particular store by their freedom of action, are especially prone to reactance.
This does not mean that any kind of indiscipline must simply be condoned, as was many years ago so disastrously proposed by a large group of child experts and educators. What it does mean is that a better understanding of the often deep-seated origins of such behaviour might lead to a calmer and wiser approach to such problems, rather than giving rise to irritation or anger, or ill-considered punishments or threats.
Indeed, the Sutras, although in the very different context of religious faith, are constant in their praise of knowledge and understanding, the roots of wisdom, which reach their highest embodiment in the Buddha, and in their castigation of ignorance as the source of untold evils.
Broken and dysfunctional families, often with parents in and out of prison, are one of the current seedbeds of teenage violence, frequently in close association with poverty, unemployment and appalling housing conditions.
But dysfunctionality, like the societies in which it breeds, is constantly evolving, and one of the most disturbing aspects of that evolution is the total abnegation of parental responsibility, especially prevalent in the USA, through controlling children, even those who are not afflicted with clinically severe behavioural and mental problems, by feeding them with tranquillizers and the like.
While schools can do much to help, it is in education of, and in, the family that the solution, if there is one, must be found.
Last year, I talked of what I believe to be the evolutionary background of the universal tendency of small children, teenagers, and adults alike, to form packs or gangs, and spoke indeed of human beings as pack animals.
While the instinctive, and in many ways practical urge to do so is, I believe unstoppable, what can be tackled are the socially disastrous consequences that can flow from it.
Firstly, there should be much more emphasis on the fact that the vast majority of children and teenagers are excellently well-behaved and grow to be good citizens, whatever the society in which they find themselves.
Secondly, society should not fight the urge to form competitive packs or gangs, but should flow with it and harness it for the good.
Scout packs and Girl Guides and the like are not a notable source of crime, and the patrols into which they are divided are deliberately set to compete against each other in innumerable benign activities.
School choirs and music groups and many other activities, and, for those who are athletic, sports of every kind encourage the natural growth of leadership and, above all, the cooperation and discipline without which there is patently no hope of team or individual success.
For adults, the encouragement of talent in the young for its own sake and not for their own gratification and self-promotion, is a prime duty.
In the West, the tendency to over-protectiveness must be resisted, and the natural tendency of children to explore and be adventurous should not be suppressed. Young boys should not be discouraged from climbing trees because a proportion of them will harm themselves.
The risks involved in adventure training are a better outlet for the urge of teenagers and young adults to prove themselves than urban warfare.
Perhaps I have myself been guilty of putting too much emphasis on what is wrong with the animals which we are, and in the last ten years modern science has made great strides in showing that many of the things that we think of as being uniquely human are shared with other animals and that they, through their behaviour, give an insight into the evolutionary origins of such things as altruism.
Faced with the seemingly intractable problem of how natural selection, which always favours traits that increase the reproductive success of the individuals in which they are present, could favour the self-sacrifice or ‘altruism’ displayed by social insects, such as ants and bees, in which the multitudes of individual workers, as well as specialised guards or soldiers, are programmed to die in defence of the nest or hive, if it comes under attack, Darwin’s solution was to suggest, since all such insects are directly related to their queen, that natural selection might favour altruism at the kinship level.
This was, in effect, the foundation of a multilevel theory of natural selection acting through the group as well as through the individual.
Just over a century later, this idea was developed into a simple seeming mathematical equation, which states that where the sum of the benefit to the recipients and their genetic relatedness was greater than the inevitable cost to the altruistic individuals, altruism would be favoured because of the chance or probability that relatives might carry the same gene.
Despite accumulating evidence of the predictive value of the theorem, there was ferocious resistance on the part of many scientists to the idea that between-group selection could ever triumph over the vastly stronger force of within-group selection, invariably favouring selfishness.
Now, this resistance has been largely overcome by laboratory experiments at the bacterial and viral level and by observations in the field.
As a result, the idea of multilevel selection, which has enormous implications for the way in which human groups, from the local to the international level evolve, and is particularly poignant as an explanation of why a soldier may unhesitating give his life to save genetically unrelated comrades, is steadily gaining ground.
One of the best illustrations of the working of between-group as opposed to within- group selection is in lions, where the territory of each pride is its prime asset, and is defended by the females, only some of whom, however, bear the full cost of doing so.
If, within a given pride, too few accept the responsibilities of leadership with all its inherent dangers, putting their individual chance of passing on their genes at risk, and too many individuals batten on the few, the territory will be lost to a neighbouring pride with a greater proportion of altruistic females, and that group will survive to pass on genes for altruism.
Reverting to our own particular species, it is clear that human sexual morality, in most of its manifestations, has its origins in the purely animal drive on the part of males, which is common to many mammals, to perpetuate their own genes, to protect their mates from impregnation by rival males, and to restrict, as far as possible, female access to them, thus ensuring that their offspring actually are genetically their own.
In the light of current social trends and controversies, with their long antecedent history, it should perhaps also be noted that same sex attraction and copulation are quite widespread in the animal kingdom at large.
That the roots of human social morality in a wider sense, like those of altruism, lie far back in evolutionary time, is illustrated by our fellow primates, such as chimpanzees, in which the twin essentials of empathy and reciprocity, which, in human beings, has been developed into the universal moral maxim of doing as you would be done by, are readily observed.
There are hundreds of documented cases in which, after an attack, a bystander goes over to embrace and comfort the victim, quickly calming its squeals of anguish. Where one is given food to share, it will give much more readily to an individual who has spontaneously groomed it in the past; such favours are remembered and returned, and there can be quite strict enforcement of social rules that are set up within the group.
An extreme case of apparent empathy, the ability to identify with, and attend to, the needs of another being, is, perhaps, epitomised in the extraordinary actions which were observed in the case of a captive, female chimpanzee, since what it did can have had no possible origins in prior conditioning or training, or even in prior observation of similar actions.
When a small bird flew into the glass wall that surrounded the outdoor enclosure and stunned itself, the chimpanzee was seen by a zoologist to go over, pick up the bird and carry it up into a tree. It then spread out its wings and launched it into the air. Still being stunned it fell back to the ground, but fortunately soon recovered and flew off.
However limited its overall understanding of the situation, and as a result the ineffective nature of what it did, its reaction, not to another chimpanzee, or even to another furry mammal, but to a relatively tiny, winged and feathered animal of a wholly different kind which was in trouble, is remarkable.
Our knowledge of the mental and emotional life of other animals advances day by day, and with more rigorous research attitudes and procedures, crude anthropomorphism, the tendency to graft human characteristics inappropriately onto the animals that we study, the reverse of the equally pernicious tendency to see ourselves as totally distinct from them, is far less of a problem than it was.
But, like the chimpanzee, we, in our turn, have limitations.
Neither scientists nor priests nor educators are, by definition, wise, though with the proliferation of the human race and the breathtaking acceleration of its capabilities for good or ill, wisdom has now become more needed than it ever was.
However much knowledge and understanding, those fundamental aspects of the human intellect and the foundation of wisdom, may have grown, wisdom itself is still in short supply.
Some time ago, I wrote the following poem which I came across when I began to think about this talk, and which, by chance, seemed to provide at least one way of ending it.
is the realm
There is no
beyond all words
can not be taught
beyond the self
to see the world
as it is.