What is consciousness

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking more and more about the nature of consciousness. My Zen meditation practice basically involves letting go of thoughts, letting go of the self, and simply experiencing consciousness without content. I have direct experiences from my meditation practice, as well as a reasonably wide reading of Zen and Buddhist masters and their experiences and understanding of consciousness, self and reality.  At times, I feel like I have had openings to experiences which have “enlightened” me about the nature of self, consciousness etc, but I have not really integrated these tastes of non-self into any sort of stable or mature understanding of reality.

I had read a few articles by philosophers who have explored the nature of consciousness, particularly the so-called hard problem of consciousness and last year read a review of a new book by Anil Seth which led me to think he had made advances from the neuroscience perspective.

Apart from my direct explorations through Zen meditation, breathwork and psychedelics, I also have worked with several Zen teachers and read extensively on consciousness in Buddhist literature and in the works of Ken Wilber, who has explored and mapped states and stages of consciousness in his writings. More recently, I read and reviewed Sam Harris’s book Waking Up, which also discusses the nature of consciousness and self.

So I decided I would read some of the key books and articles on consciousness from the philosophers and neuroscientists, to complement my experience and understanding gained from meditation and psychedelic explorations.

I bought the following books:

Anil Seth is a neurologist, Peter Godfrey-Smith a biologist and philosopher of science. Annaka Harris is a science writer (fun fact: also the wife of Sam Harris). Lewis-Williams and Pearce are both archaeologists. The final three are all philosophers. I guess the other relevant discipline I am missing is artificial intelligence research. I’ve read a little in this area and have found it mostly irrelevant to the issues relating to consciousness that I am interested in, and tedious reading to boot.

I browsed Chalmers book on consciousness and discovered the entire book ignores the entire knowledge base on states of consciousness, meditation, nondual states, etc. As if it’s irrelevant. So I quickly browsed the books by the other two philosophers, and the book by Anil Seth the neurologist. Not a single mention of meditation, altered states, psychedelics. I had bigger problems with Seth’s ideas, but will leave that to a separate review.

My initial reaction was to dismiss the philosophers as inhabiting a limited sterile corner of academia ignoring large parts of human experience. But then realized if I did that, I would be no better than them.

Ken Wilber has gone down this same path of integrating Western psychology and philosophy with Eastern first-person methods and understanding and has been largely ignored by academia and philosophers.  In part, because he does somewhat go over the top, and despite his focus on empirical methods, does seem to uncritically accept aspects of Tibetan Buddhism at more or less face value. Such as rebirth.

Sam Harris seems to get it more right. And his conclusions are very much aligned with mine. And even he gets dismissed by Western commentators as being arrogant. By telling them they cannot just critique from the outside, without trying the methods for themselves. So much for open-mindedness to all the relevant evidence.

For consciousness per se, which is a subjective experience, its clear that the objective methods of science are going to be at best marginally relevant. What is most relevant is the actual massive domain of experiences of consciousness. Particularly those focused not on the contents of consciousness (as the psychologists and neuroscientists like to do) but those focused on the exploration of consciousness per se when the contents are out of the way. The recent book by Anneka Harris is the only other one on my list above which examines what meditation tells us about consciousness.  And when I started reading it, I found it a superb discussion of the various issues and theories about consciousness.  So my next post will be a closer look at Harris’ book, and then I will dive into the philosophers.

Links to my later posts on consciousness are given below:

Anneka Harris on the fundamental mystery of consciousness Oct 6 2022

Consciousness Explained…..or Consciousness Ignored? Oct 16 2022

Christian beliefs in heaven and hell are not what Jesus taught

In two previous posts (here and here), I examined the prevalence of belief in heaven and hell across the world and in the major religions. Less than half of Christians in developed countries say they believe in hell, and only a slight majority in heaven. The USA is the major exception, with over 80% of Christians saying that they believe in heaven and in hell. Here I examine the extent to which the Christian belief in heaven and hell as places of reward and punishment after death are supported by either Biblical texts or the teachings of Jesus.

All 31 uses of the word “Hell” in the King James Version of the Old Testament are translations of the Hebrew word “Sheol”.  Sheol in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) is a place of still darkness which lies after death. The first mentions of Sheol associate it with the state of death and a sense of eternal finality. The generally brief mentions of Sheol seem to describe it as a place where both the righteous and the unrighteous dead go, regardless of their moral choices in life. The references can usually be interpreted as either a generic metaphor describing “the grave” which all humans end up in, or as representing an actual state of afterlife (Wikipedia).

Views on hell and the afterlife vary in Judaism, as in the Hebrew Bible. They range from belief that physical death is the end of life, through to an afterlife in Sheol, where humans descend after death. There is generally no concept of judgement or reward and punishment attached to it, though some Jews believe that many humans in Sheol have intense feelings of shame about their misdeeds and this constitutes suffering which makes up for the bad deeds.

This is quite similar to the conceptualization of hell in the TV series Lucifer, where people are trapped in hell loops of their own making out of shame and guilt, and that is the only torture going on in hell.

According to my analysis of the World Values Survey and the European Values Study (see here), Jews have the lowest prevalence of belief in hell at 38% among the major religions. Belief in hell is even lower at 32% for Jews in developed countries.

What does the New Testament have to say about hell? The New Testament was written in Greek with a smattering of Aramaic mixed in. Translators are often faced with words which don’t have an exact equivalent in a modern language, and the use of “hell” as the translation of several words varies quite substantially across various translations of the Bible. Here is a comparative table for selected versions from this source which I haven’t checked fully for accuracy. I have checked the count for the King James Version (KJV) against several sources, and they agree that “hell” is referenced 23 times in the KJV New Testament.

Twelve of the references in KJV New Testament are to the place name Gehenna, which is a valley just outside the city of Jerusalem where trash was burnt. So references to Gehenna may possibly carry an inference of fiery torment. The references are in Matthew (7 times), Mark (3), Luke (1) and James (1).

Ten of the occurrences of hell in the KJV New Testament translate the Greek Hades. Hades is the Greek underworld where all the dead go. The references are in Matthew (2), Like (2), Acts (2) and Revelations (4). There is another mention of Hades in Corinthians 15:55 which is translated simply as “grave”. There is a single mention of Tartarus, one of the realms of Hades which is a deep chasm, a place of darkness and torment. The reference in Peter 2:4 refers to Tartarus as the place where God cast angels that had sinned, to be chained in darkness and reserved unto judgement.

Most of the New Testament was written decades after Jesus died, and already included mythological elements common to several religions of the region. The concept of hell evolved over time, particularly when Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire and a selection of writings was chosen to become the official Bible around 382 CE.

Jesus died in either 30 CE or 33 CE. The Gospel of Mark probably dates from around the year 70 CE, Matthew and Luke around 85–90 CE, and John probably sometime in 90–110 CE. Various changes and additions may have continued as late as the 3rd century. To understand what the earliest recorded forms of Christian writing had to say about hell, I read the two oldest gospel texts, likely written around two decades after Jesus’ death, earlier than the four gospels of the New Testament.

Written in the 50s of the first century CE, only two decades after Jesus’ death, the Lost Gospel Q (for Quelle or Source) is significantly earlier than any of the four gospels of the New Testament. The basis for the “Q hypothesis” is the large amount of common material found in both Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. Scholars have concluded that neither of the authors of Matthew or Luke knew of the other’s work, and that the common source must have been an earlier gospel, now lost. Unlike the narrative gospels of the NT, Q is a sayings gospel consisting almost entirely of sayings of Jesus, with very few stories about Jesus. The Lost Gospel Q is scholars’ best attempt to reconstruct the text, to uncover the pure voice of the Gospel Jesus.

Among the many gospels and other documents found at Nag Hammadi in 1945 was the Gospel of Thomas, another sayings gospel. When scholars realized that over one third of the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas were very similar to those probably contained in Q, this leant strong support to the Q theory. Some scholars date the original Greek manuscript to the 50s like Q, which means it was written before the New Testament Gospels, and thus more likely to be historically accurate. The Jesus Seminar determined that, for nine New Testament parables likely to have been told by Jesus, the Thomas Version was closest to the original in six cases.

The reconstructed text of Q contains 82 sayings of Jesus and the Gospel of Thomas 114. How many of these sayings mention heaven or hell? For hell (or any of the words translated as hell in the New Testament) the answer is simple: none.

The 6th saying in Q does refer to the devil, in the context of the devil tempting Jesus to turn a stone into bread while he was fasting for 40 days in the wilderness. There is no mention of hell or of the devil ruling over hell. This story is very similar to the story of Mara tempting the Buddha with visions of beautiful women to try to obstruct his meditation and enlightenment. And the message of the 6th saying is almost identical.

There is also a reference to Beelzebul, as the chief of the evil spirits. Saying 37 of Q describes Jesus as curing a man possessed by a demon, at which some in the crowd said Jesus was in league with Beelzebul. Jesus disputes this and the translation has him saying “So if Satan’s house is divided how can his kingdom survive?” and that he casts out demons by the finger of God. Beelzebul is one of the names of the Canaanite god Baal, but in Christian mythology is another name for Satan.

Both Q and Thomas have multiple references to heaven, the Kingdom of heaven, and the Kingdom of God. I have identified all the sayings in Q and Thomas which refer to heaven, the kingdom, and various alternate phrases.  Leaving aside several uses of the phrase “the heavens and the earth” which I see as a poetic reference to the universe or “everything”, and a single reference to “paradise” in Thomas 19 which is of Gnostic origin, the table below summarizes the number of sayings in which various references to heaven or the kingdom are made in Q and Thomas.

I am not sure of the extent to which these phrases represent direct translations of the original Coptic words (possibly itself translated from Greek or Syriac) or are variants introduced by the translators.

The “Kingdom of God” is also translated as “the realm of God” and the translators note that it is one of the most problematic phrases in the gospels. They actually used “realm of God” nine times in Q, compared to three for “kingdom of God”, but I have counted all “realm” references as “kingdom” references in the table above. The translators say that the Aramaic and Hebrew words used by Jesus are not referring to a place or territory but to a power that is coming to be, sometimes hidden and sometimes manifest. This sounds awfully like Buddhist writings that describe enlightenment or non-dual consciousness as ever-present but often hidden. In other words, a state of consciousness.

In fact, once I actually read all the sayings referring to the kingdom of heaven or other variants, it was quite clear that they do refer to an enlightenment state, ie. a state of non-dual consciousness always already present but usually hidden by everyday consciousness.

Q62 and T96 describe heaven as like leaven (yeast) in dough. T57 describes the kingdom of heaven as like wheat hidden among the weeds, and T76 as like a merchant who had goods and found a pearl hidden among them. The kingdom of heaven is clearly being described as like discovering something precious that has been there all along.

T109 similarly describes the kingdom as like a man who had a treasure hidden in his field without knowing it, and T113 says that the kingdom of the father is spread out on the earth and people do not see it.

In Q79, Jesus was asked, “when will the Kingdom of God arrive?” He replied, “You won’t be able to see the Kingdom of God when it comes. People won’t be able to say ‘it’s here’ or ‘it’s over there’. The Kingdom of God is among you.”

There are also several sayings where Jesus explicitly equates the kingdom with non-dual consciousness or enlightenment:

  • T3 mentions those who say the kingdom is in heaven or the kingdom is in the sea and dismisses them to explain “Rather the kingdom is within you and outside you”.
  • T22: “When you make the two one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make the male and the female into a single one, so that the mail is not male and the female not female, …. then you shall enter the Kingdom.

One saying of Thomas (T97) likens the kingdom of heaven to a woman carrying a jar of meal which empties out without her noticing. This quite unique saying implies that the kingdom of heaven can slip away if people are not careful. Q64 may also be relevant here: “Those who think that the realm of God belongs to them will be thrown out into the dark where they will cry tears of bitter regret.” These are definitely pointing to a state of consciousness which can potentially be lost, rather than to an eternal destination after death. And Q64 may even be warning that to grasp onto enlightenment is to lose it.

The Jesus of Q and Thomas is not the Messiah, the semi-mythical figure who will save humans who believe in him, but a wisdom teacher who is trying to explain to his listeners how they can enter the “realm of heaven” right here, right now. Jesus had a profound mystical experience, perhaps during his 40 days and nights in the desert, in which he experienced a non-dual state of consciousness where he was not separate but one with everything, where the inner was the outer and the outer the inner.

Like every mystic, he invents new language, poetic images, metaphors to try to describe his experience and encourage others to open to the same experience, and risks not being understood. He would have tried to communicate his experience in the context of the religious vocabulary he was familiar with and described it using terms such as heaven and God. And his common use of the term “father” for God would likely have been an attempt to convey the intimacy of the non-dual state where there are no boundaries and no “other”.

Although Q and Thomas are likely the earliest records of Jesus’ teaching, they should not be taken as a near transcript of things Jesus said. They are an early product of a developing tradition, recording sayings likely preserved orally, and predating most of the mythological elements later incorporated. It is noteworthy that neither of them contain any material about Jesus’ birth or death, let alone resurrection, and in both gospels it is his teachings, not his birth or crucifixion, which is important.

The clarity of Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom would have been filtered through at least one layer of memory of his disciples, and likely a second layer, contaminated by second layer understanding of other wisdom traditions such as Gnosticism or Neoplatonism. Some have attempted to identify Buddhist influences in the teachings of Jesus. From my reading of Q and Thomas, his sayings do not seem to have any clearly identifiable Buddhist terminology but rather to be the attempt of someone to describe his own enlightenment experience using poetic images and parables based in his own culture. Unlike the Buddha, he did not have a ready-made set of techniques (meditation) well known to others in his culture, which he could adapt as practices to facilitate the achievement of enlightenment. And so, inevitably, his teachings were turned from practices into beliefs by later generations of Christians.

As the Jesus tradition continued to develop, it incorporated many mythological themes from other Middle Eastern religious traditions, including death and resurrection after three days, and the myth of a paradise and a hell not of this earth, where the souls of the dead go after death. Probably after the first disciples and the second generation of followers, there were few traditions if any which preserved any understanding of Jesus’ actual message:  that the kingdom of heaven was right here now, waiting to be discovered like a treasure in a field, on this earth, not somewhere else in the future.

As for hell, it is not mentioned in Q or Thomas. The devil is mentioned twice, but only as an agent tempting Jesus to abandon his path to enlightenment. In few hundred years after Jesus’ death as the Christian religion developed and became the state religion of the Roman Empire, it incorporated a mythology of hell as a place of eternal torment for sinners. This was likely influenced by Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion which emphasizes a never-ending battle between good and evil — a contest between the religion’s God, Ahura Mazda, and an evil spirit, Ahriman. Its concept of hell involved the punishment of those who did evil in life, but it was also considered temporary and reformative, souls do not rest in eternal damnation. These beliefs almost certainly influenced all the Abrahamic religions, though Christianity’s notions of hell have also been heavily influenced by medieval views, particularly as expressed in the poetry of Dante and John Milton.

Modern Christianity, at least in developed countries other than the USA, is much more likely to preach that God is good, which makes it difficult to believe that God is also willing to have the vast majority of his children tortured forever and ever for any reason whatsoever, much less for crimes like accepting their sexuality or believing what their parents taught them, or not believing one or any of the many versions of Christianity.

The Wide Sky

Let me not spend my life
lamenting the world’s sorrows
for above
in the wide sky
the moon shines pure

ukiyo to mo
tsuki no sumikeru
hisakata no sora

— Saigyo

I came across this poem quite by accident.  But it really struck home, as I’ve been spending too much time thinking about the state of the world right now. The human race appears to be quite incapable of working together to address the existential crises of the pandemic, global heating and species extinctions, and overpopulation, as well as the rejection of reason and science dramatically exacerbating these potentially soluble crises.  Humans have not reacted to these crises in general by pulling together, given that collective action can indeed address and ameliorate, if not completely address, them. But ratherhave retreated back into tribes who blame the “other” for all their problems. It is indeed difficult sometimes to remember the moon shining pure in the wide sky.

Saigyō was the Buddhist name of Fujiwara no Norikiyo (1118–1190), a Japanese Buddhist monk-poet. He is regarded as one of the greatest masters of the tanka (a traditional Japanese poetic form). He influenced many later Japanese poets, particularly the haiku master Basho.

Saigyo was born into a branch of the Fujiwara clan, the most powerful family in Japan in the early 12th century. As a young man he joined the Hokumen Guards who served at the retired Emperor’s palace. Despite a seemingly assured future, he decided at the age of 23 to “turn from the world” and become a reclusive wandering Buddhist monk. He spent the rest of his life in alternating periods of travel and seclusion with occasional periodic returns to the capital at Kyoto to participate in imperial ceremonies. During this period, the second half of the 12th century, Japan was wracked by civil war

The translation of the poem above is by Meredith McKinney, who has published a selection of over 100 poems by Saigyo in the collection Gazing at the Moon: Buddhist Poems of Solitude (September 2021). The poems selected focus on Saigyo’s story of Buddhist awakening, reclusion, seeking, enlightenment and death. I can highly recommend this collection, which embodies the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware — to be moved by sorrow in witnessing the ephemeral world.

Meredith McKinney is an award-winning translator of classical and modern Japanese literature, who lived and taught for around 20 years in Japan. She returned to Australia in 1998 and now lives near the small town of Braidwood, not far from Canberra where I lived until early 2000. I was interested to learn a little more about her, and was surprised to find out that she is the daughter of Judith Wright (1915-2000), one of Australia’s greatest poets and an activist for the environment and indigenous rights. For the last three decades of her life, Wright lived near Braidwood. She became completely deaf in 1992 after progressively losing her hearing since early adulthood.

The Order of Time – Carlo Rovelli

When I studied physics at university in the 1970s, I became interested in the nature of time, particularly in light (pun intended) of its role in both special and general relativity.  I also read The Direction of Time by Hans Reichenbach (1891-1953) regarded as the leading empiricist philosopher of the 20th century, as well as other philosophers and writers.  Later, in the 1990s I became a student of Zen Buddhism with Hogen Yamahata, who emphasised that the only reality is what is experienced here-now. This certainly describes my experience of time but is also fundamentally at odds with the usual understanding of the implications of modern physics. 

So I read Carlo Rovelli’s fourth book The Order of Time (2018) with great interest.  Unusually for a physicist he gives an accessible and very readable overview of the main findings of physics but also discusses the human experience of time and tries to integrate our common experience with the insights of modern physics. See here for my previous review of his first book Anaximander.

It’s a short book and is written for a lay audience, written in a very readable and accessible way. Its been criticized by some for not having enough hard science exposition and too much speculative stuff, particularly in the third section. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the mix and wholeheartedly recommend it if you are at all interested in the nature of time.

Rovelli opens with the claim that the nature of time is perhaps the greatest remaining mystery.  I’m inclined to think that consciousness and the fundamental constituents of reality are equally great mysteries, and indeed these may all be interrelated. The introductory chapter identifies a number of key questions about time:

  • Does the universe unfold into the future, as time flows?  Does in fact time “flow”?
  • Does the past, present and future all exist in the block universe of relativity, with our consciousness or perhaps the “present moment” moving through the blocks?
  • Why do we remember the past and not the future? Put another way, why does time flow only in one direction, when the fundamental equations of physics have no preferred time direction?
  • Is time a fundamental property of the universe in which events play out, or is time an emergent property, perhaps emerging only at a certain scale or degree of complexity?

The rest of the book is divided into three parts. In the first part, Rovelli summarizes the understanding of time in modern physics, and how this is radically at odds with our normal perceptions of time. Special and general relativity have conclusively shown that there is not a single universal time. Time passes at different rates at different places (faster where gravity is lower) and at for observers travelling at different speeds (slower when velocity is greater).  Additionally, there is no longer a single universal “now”. Between the past and the present there is an expanded “now” in which different observers will see events occurring with different time differences and possibly in a different order. The direction of time, the difference between past and future, does not exist in the elementary equations of the world and appears only in the second law of thermodynamics (entropy of a closed system can only increase or stay the same).

The second part, The World Without Time, delves into the fundamental nature of reality, drawing on Rovelli’s own field of research, loop quantum gravity in a shorter section. He argues that the fundamental constituents of reality are events (interactions) not things, and that space and time are emergent properties from these interactions. This is controversial, quantum loop gravity is but one of a number of contenders for the ’Theory of Everything’. There are physicists such as Lee Smolin (The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time) who have argued the opposite: that time is indeed a fundamental property of the universe. And more, like Sean Carrol, who conclude that neither he nor anyone else has a clue whether time is fundamental or emergent.

Carlo Rovelli

The third and final part attempts identify the sources of time and to understand how the non-universal time of relativity and the non-time of fundamental physics are consistent with our experience of time: “Somehow our time must emerge around us, at least for us and at our scale.” This to me was the most interesting and inspiring part of the book, though there are many reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads who really did not like it. Rovelli is up-front about the speculative nature of his “possible” answer. He is not sure it is the right answer, but it’s the one that he finds the most compelling and he doesn’t think there any better ones.

As have many before him, Rovelli locates the arrow of time in the second law of thermodynamics, that entropy can never decrease. Entropy is a macroscopic property of systems and essentially associated with the number of microscopic configurations that are consistent with the “blurred” macroscopic view. Rovelli repeatedly uses the idea of “blurring” to explain the emergence of time at the macroscopic level. You have to read him to (possibly) understand it. He also identifies another potential source of temporal ordering in the quantum uncertainty principle; that the values of variables such as speed and position depend on the ordering of their measurement. He then states that Alain Connes has shown that the emergent thermal time and quantum time are aspects of the same phenomenon. Time emerges from our ignorance of the microscopic details of the world.

Although I studied statistical mechanics, I never understood until reading Rovelli that entropy was a relative quantity, determined not only by the state of a system but also by the set of macroscopic variable with which it is observed. Rovelli addresses the issue of why the universe started in a low entropy state (allowing the emergence of time) by suggesting that the universe has pockets of high and low entropy by chance, and necessarily it is only in the regions with low entropy that time can emerge so that life is possible, together with evolution, thought and memories of past times. He is arguing an astonishing variant of the weak anthropic principle, namely, that the flow of time is not a characteristic of the universe as a whole but necessarily associated with local region(s) in which entropy is initially low. This suggested to me that perhaps there might be sentient life forms evolve in local regions of the universe which are not in initial low entropy state according to the macro-variables by which we and other earthly life interact with reality, but may be low entropy for life forms which interact via a different set of macro-variables.

Rovelli goes on to speculate that the emergence of time may have more to do with us than with the cosmos per se. Is this dangerously close to putting humans back at the centre of the universe? He then discusses how causality also is a result of the fact that entropy increases. This is what allows past events to leave traces in the present, and that we remember the past but not the future. Evolution has designed our brains to use the traces to predict the future. Causality, memory, history all emerge from the fact that our universe was in a particular state of low entropy in the past. That particularity is relative, dependent on the set of macroscopic variables with which we interact with the world.

And in the final chapters of the book, Rovelli turns to us, and the role we play with respect to time. This for me was the most fascinating and inspiring part of the book. Rovelli argues that humans (and the rest of the biosphere) have been hard-wired by evolution to accept and use the concept of time. The changing interactions are real, but the time in which all this seems to occur is a manifestation of the human (and probably animal) mind, which has evolved to make use of the memory traces of the past to predict the future. The movement is real, the changing is real, but the time in which all of this seems to occur is nothing more than a manifestation of human (possibly animal) mind and the illusion, in turn, is supported by the entropy generated in the functioning of our brains.

From his discussion of the three sources of time, he draws a number of conclusions about the implications for us:

  • The self is not an enduring entity, but an emergent construct of the brain and memory, time is the source of our sense of identity.
  • Reality is made up of processes or interactions not things. Things are impermanent.
  • Being is suffering because we are in time, impermanent. “What causes us to suffer is not in the past or the future: it is here, now, in our memory, in our expectations. We long for timelessness, we endure the passing of time: we suffer time. Time is suffering.”

Rovelli explicitly notes how these are also some of the key insights of Buddhism: suffering, no-self, emptiness and impermanence. Rovelli here is NOT doing what people like Fritjof Capra and many new age gurus do: to use the strangeness of reality at quantum level as a justification for believing in macroscopic-level things like telepathy or clairvoyance.  Rather, he is arguing that his understanding of time is consistent with what I consider some of the most important insights of Buddhism. I have also realized that the lack of a universal present moment is not inconsistent with the Zen insight that only the present exists. My teacher Hogen-san has always used the phrase “here- now” to describe our only reality, not just “now”. So there is no conflict with the time of relativity.

While Rovelli addresses my key questions about the nature of time, I am not convinced of all his arguments and explanations, or even that I fully understand them. But it is an immensely thought-provoking read, and I will read it again and hopefully my brain will hold off hurting long enough for me to clarify my own thoughts and speculations on the nature of time.  In the meantime, I have been paying attention to the present moment as much as I can during my daily zazen, trying to simply experience here-now without thoughts about the past or speculations about the future.

Definitions of God and the Motte-and-Bailey fallacy

Recently, I got involved in an online discussion about whether spirituality was compatible with atheism (see previous post Atheism and Spirituality) and foolishly did not clarify what the term “god” referred to. But it was clear from the general context that those arguing atheism was incompatible with spirituality were assuming spirituality required belief in God and were using a concept of God (singular) largely consistent with the standard Christian God who is conceived of as an eternal being who created the universe and life, and who is both transcendent (wholly independent of the material universe) and involved in the world.

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Atheism and Spirituality

Late last year I volunteered to participate in a research study on psilocybin-occasioned mystical experiences.  I completed an online survey and later was interviewed by the principal researcher in a more than hour long semi-structured zoom interview. In the survey, I had answered a question on religious affiliation with “Atheist”. During the interview, the interviewer expressed surprise that I practiced Zen meditation as she equated atheism with a materialist philosophy.  I in turn was surprised at her assuming that a spiritual practice implied a belief in God or gods, particularly as my practice was to a large extent within a Zen Buddhist context, which does not treat the historical Buddha as a god or invoke concepts of gods.

I refined my thoughts on this topic in several online discussions, where I found both religious believers and some other atheists were very hostile to the idea that an atheist could have a spiritual practice. And I noticed that some of the atheists who did say they were spiritual, defined “spiritual” in terms of experiences like the enjoyment of a sunset or a moving piece of music, or the feeling of being part of nature.  

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Zazen, left brain, right brain, self

During the last COVID wave, while activities were restricted and I was largely staying at home, I intensified my zazen (sitting meditation) practice. With more attention to my  practice, I was surprised to find I was easily sitting for 45 minutes and spending less of that time lost in thoughts and more time simply being present here-now aware of the arising and passing on random thoughts, sensations and sensory inputs.

There are four main categories of things that distract my attention from being here-now:

  • Largely verbalised thought sequences. These can be somewhat spontaneous, jumping across subjects and concerns, or more focused on solving a problem, thinking through a situation or piece of work to be done, planning, strategizing, worrying, pondering the past or future.
  • Distracting sensory stimuli with associated thoughts and emotions, eg. An intrusive noise, an insect flying around or crawling on my skin, an itch, or an ache or pain.
  • Images that appear in the minds eye. These can be random or connected.
  • Full-blown dream-like visions or daydreams, sometimes short, sometimes long.

I also occasionally experience auditory or olfactory hallucinations. For example, a voice saying something, or a distinct smell.  But these are rare.

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Looking back on 34 years in the martial arts

As a student at the University of Sydney in the early 1970s, I became interested in Zen Buddhism through the writings of Alan Watts and others, but the concept of actual “practice” was completely foreign to me. Then I picked up a second-hand copy of Zen Combat by Jay Gluck (Ballantine 1962) and was absolutely fascinated by its survey of Japanese martial arts and the role of Zen in them. Bruce Lee also sparked a huge surge of Western interest in the Asian martial arts with his 1973 film Enter the Dragon.  The idea of practicing a martial art was something I could relate to, and in 1974 I enrolled in a lunch-time karate class at the University during my 4th year Physics Honors Year. I was so enthusiastic about karate that I remember being puzzled why others were not joining once they knew about the availability of classes. Over the next two or three years I trained in several karate styles including Goju Ryu, Dioshin Lyanbukan and Kei Shin Kan.

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The Indian Transmission of Zen Buddhism

A previous post examined the Zen tradition of “lineages” of teachers transmitting enlightenment person-to-person and documented the lineages of my Zen teachers down from Bodhidharma, the first Patriarch of Chinese Ch’an (Zen).  In this post, I examine the Zen tradition of an Indian lineage which reaches back from Bodhidharma through 27 ancestors to the the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Shakyamuni Buddha’s birth and death dates are somewhat contested, but 563-483 BCE seem to be the most generally accepted dates.

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Zen lineages and “transmission outside the scriptures”

I’ve mainly been doing shikantaza “just sitting” during the pandemic, but I recently started re-reading “Zen Koans: learning the language of dragons” by James Ishmael Ford. This is an excellent general introduction to Zen, the range of Zen methods of meditation, and particularly working with koans. Ford was given dharma transmission by my first Zen teacher, John Tarrant, who was the first Australian authorized to teach Zen.

Ford discusses the concept of Zen lineages in his book (pages 28-30) and this reminded me that I had collected information on the lineages of the teachers I have worked with, and inspired me to update it and turn it into a set of charts. These trace the transmission of Zen from India to China to Japan and then to my Western teachers. I’ve updated these and posted them below.

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