The bridge between science and Buddhism, atoms and no atoms, theism and athiesm; Yidam deity meditation and the Cognitive Science of Tantra

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    “As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear-headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of the existence of consciousness.” — Max Planck, Nobel Laureate, the originator of Quantum Theory. [1]

    The Scientific Buddhist Buddha Weekly

    It bears repeating, even though the parallel has been drawn countless times, that the Buddhist view of reality is not significantly different from that of the Quantum Physicist — and very similar to modern Cognitive Scientists. The entire concept of Pratītyasamutpāda (Dependent Arising) is like a page right out of Max Planck’s writings. He wrote: “The mind is the matrix of all matter. I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.” Buddhism teaches similar concepts.

    In Buddhism, Dependent Arising (Pratītyasamutpāda) is a core concept, described as:

    “if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist.”

    It is interesting that Planck echoes Buddhist belief in Dependent Arising — also known as dependent origination, interdependent co-arising, conditioned arising or conditioned genesis. It is equally interesting that he specifically used the concept of a “mind matrix” in 1944, almost as if he was predicting the hit movie The Matrix, which contains within it similar concepts of observed-observer, mind matrix and the illusory nature of reality.

    NOTE: Dependent Arising does not assert that there is nothing without consciousness, rather that consciousness and all phenomenon (all dharmas) are inter-dependent on each other. This is a bigger topic than can be covered in this feature.


    Buddha Weekly Neo in the movie The Matrix sees reality as oneness Buddhism
    How Neo (in the movie The Matrix) sees “reality” after he comes to terms with his “Oneness” with his Universe (which, in his case, was a virtual computer matrix.). Conceptually, this is similar to the Cognitive Science theory of observed-observer.


    Buddhism teaches nearly-identical concepts

    Planck may have postulated this early on in the history of science, but Shakyamuni Buddha taught Pratītyasamutpāda 25 centuries ago. Buddhism has “dependent-arising” and “Emptiness”. Science has “observer-observed” and “conscious realism.” Buddhism has Karma; science has cause-effect. Modern Physics, Quantum Physics and Neuroscience have also circled around (both enthusiastic and wary at the same time) to the concept of observer-observed. Physicist John Wheeler put it:

    “Useful as it is under ordinary circumstances to say that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld.” [3]


    Buddha Weekly Observer makes observed a reality Buddhism
    Cognitive Science and Quantum Scientists postulate, based on experiments, that without an observer, there is no observed. In other words, as in Buddhism, our perceived “reality” is “dependent arising.”


    Seeing reality as it truly is — as derivative of consciousness, perception and interdependent arising — is one of the main goals of Vajrayana deity meditation, where one visualises oneself as a deity of choice. It’s one thing to know something; it is much more

    Buddha Weekly Buddha Seductions and Frightening images Buddhism
    Shakyamuni Buddha meditated under the Bodhi Tree, ultimately attaining enlightenment.

    emphatically understood if we experience it — as Buddha achieved under the Bodhi tree, and as we aspire to in our Buddhist practice. We visualize ourselves as a deity until we can almost believe we are (with divine pride!), then we dissolve it all into the Emptiness (or Oneness with all phenomenon) that it really represents. Max Planck would be delighted.

    Donald Hoffman, professor of cognitive science at the University of California, puts both our normal perceptions and our imaginary (visualized) perspectives into perspective (although here he is speaking of ordinary perspective):

    “We’ve been shaped to have perceptions that keep us alive, so we have to take them seriously. If I see something that I think of as a snake, I don’t pick it up. If I see a train, I don’t step in front of it. I’ve evolved these symbols to keep me alive, so I have to take them seriously. But it’s a logical flaw to think that if we have to take it seriously, we also have to take it literally.”

    Likewise, Buddha taught that we don’t have to take it literally. Buddha taught us that Samsara (the illusory world we think is real) is nothing more than incorrect perception created by “conditioning” and attachment to that conditioning. Or put in more definitive terms, that all phenomenon are dependent-arising (Pratītyasamutpāda in Sanskrit)  Cognitive scientists would speak in similar ways, using such language as “Evolution conditioned us to have perceptions that help us survive.”


    Buddha Weekly Suffering from anger buddhist obstacle Buddhism
    The root of suffering is attachment and clinging to our own perception of reality — and our own egos. We create our own suffering, our own Samsara through conditioning. What we perceive is illusory, in Buddhism known as “relative reality.”


    Unified mind versus innate enlightened potential

    Buddhism speaks in terms of “Innate Enlightened Potential” or “Buddha Nature”. Cognitive Science speaks in terms of “Unified Single Mind.” Emptiness, or Shunyata, is also a Oneness perception of reality. Removing “ego” from our perception results in Oneness (Emptiness) which Buddhists would say is the ultimate, true nature of reality.

    Professor Hoffman puts the Cognitive Science take on this in different — yet similar — terms:

    “I call it conscious realism: Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view. Interestingly, I can take two conscious agents and have them interact, and the mathematical structure of that interaction also satisfies the definition of a conscious agent. This mathematics is telling me something. I can take two minds, and they can generate a new, unified single mind.” [3]

    It’s not just Quantum Physics, Cognitive Scientists and Neurology that tend to align smoothly with Buddhist teachings on mind and reality; psychology has long aligned neatly with Buddhism. It’s well known that psychology and psychiatry have long borrowed meditation methods from Buddhist practice, notably Mindfulness, but the alignment goes far beyond practice into visual symbolic language, dream-activity, and the concepts of archetypes.


    Buddha Weekly Oneness with the Universe Buddhism
    One concept in Buddhism is Shunyata, variously described as Emptiness or Oneness. When the ego is removed, there is oneness.When the ego is introduced, phenomena arise from the observer (with the ego). 


    Psychology meets Buddhism: innate enlightened potential

    “Perhaps the most significant experience of the tantric path, therefore, is the introduction to a deity that will embody our innate enlightened potential, the seed of our eventual wholeness.” — Robert Preece [2]

    Not understanding the true nature of deity, some people view the virtual pantheon of deities in Vajrayana Buddhism with a suspicious eye. Buddhism, we are taught, is not theistic. Without exploring further, some people might view Vajrayana as “superstitious” or “pagan.” For this reason, Western practitioners are quick to add the label: “Meditational Yidam” to the deity, implying a construct of the mind. Of course, mind-perception is the whole point. Lifelong practitioners, on the other hand would find this too apologetic; there is room enough in a world of illusory perceptions (our world) for both atheism and theism.


    Buddha Weekly Wrathful Deities in our minds Buddhism
    In both psychology and Buddhist practice, we meditate. Here, in deity meditation, a wrathful deity is visualized. Visualization of deity helps us overcome incorrect conditioning of illusory phenomena. Becoming the deity, then dissolving the deity to “Clear Light” or “Emptiness” helps us overcome the conditioning that prevents Oneness or Emptiness.


    I attended one deity teaching with a well-known Tibetan teacher where he actually laughed and said, “Yes, I am a pagan.” He was speaking to a room of advanced students, and we all laughed along, understanding his deeper meaning. Later, this same teacher said, “Buddhists are atheists.” How confusing is that?

    Buddha Weekly Vajrasattva light enters to purify Buddhism
    Deity visualization is understood as a gateway between two realities.

    Deity Yoga (union) is a very profound practice. Robert Preece explains:

    “The deity in Tantra can be understood as a gateway or bridge between two aspects of reality. Buddhism has no concept of a creator God… the deity is a symbolic aspect of forces that arise on the threshold between two dimensions or reality, or two dimensions of awareness. In Buddhism we speak of “relative truth,” the world of appearances and forms, and “ultimate truth,” the empty, spacious nondual nature of reality.”

    Theism and atheism — do they even matter?

    So, the two extremes — theism and atheism — do they really matter? Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Zen teacher, explained what Buddha really taught:

    “The Buddha always told his disciples not to waste their time and energy in metaphysical speculation. Whenever he was asked a metaphysical question, he remained silent. Instead, he directed his disciples toward practical efforts.”


    Buddha Weekly PALDEN LHAMO MANTRA HQ Buddhism
    All phenomenon are dependent-arising in Buddhism.


    So, what then, does the newcomer to Buddhism make of countless Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Protectors and Yidams? They aren’t creator gods. They aren’t eternal, self-aware beings. It’s fine to view them as such if that’s your faith, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Shakyamuni Buddha, speaking in the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta, was very clear on how he viewed these cosmic questions:

    “So, Malunkyaputta, remember what is undeclared by me as undeclared, and what is declared by me as declared… And why are they undeclared by me? Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are undeclared by me.”

    In other words, the idea of creation, gods, heaven, eternity — and even the question “Does Buddha exist after death” — on these subjects, Buddha would not speak. Clinging to these notions become another form of attachment. [For a story on the “Four Questions the Buddha Would NOT Answer and Why, see here>>]


    Buddha Weekly Buddha mind abstract Lojong Training Buddhism
    Visualizing the self as the deity is a Vajrayana practice that helps us understand the illusory nature of relative phenomenon.


    The psychology of deities

    Why, then, is Vajrayana — a path that embraces Yidams or heart deities as a method — considered an advanced practice, rather than a superstitious one? The answer lies in psychology.

    Buddha Weekly Buddha glorious sukhavati realm of buddha amitabha art school Buddhism
    A complex visualization of Amitabha and other deities in Sukhavati.

    Rob Preece, in The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra, explains:

    “The intention of Tantra is to gradually awaken the seeds of our innate wisdom as a source of health, power, love, and peace that can then live through every aspect of our lives. We can engage in life more fully and confidently because we are in a relationship to our true nature personified in the deity.”

    When teaching deity practice, teachers often use language like “use your imagination” or “visualise the deity.” In other words, don’t expect a tangible deity to suddenly appear before you. That isn’t the point or the goal.

    One of the reasons Tantra uses teacher-transmission or “initiation” as a control it to ensure students have the right understanding of their practices — to prevent superstition.

    Visualizing Deities is not about worship

    Why, then, does Vajrayana focus so extensively on the details and appearances of these deities, if they aren’t trying to develop a worshipful wonder? Most visualizations in Vajrayana are challenging to say the least. The “gods” are magnificent and exotic and wonderful: some beautiful beyond conception glowing with divine light; some complex, with a hundred arms and implements; some wrathful and monstrous and awe-inspiring, surrounded by an aura of flames.


    Buddha Weekly Palden Lhamo 2 Buddhism
    Palden Lhamo embraces the wrathful nature — our Shadow in psychology.


    Do we “conjur” these gods to then bow down and worship them? No, in Vajrayana, we take them into ourselves. We see the deity dissolving and entering into us. Or, we visualize ourselves as the deity, then we see ourselves dissolve to Emptiness. Why work so hard if we are only going to dissolve the whole thing into emptiness? After all, these visualizations are beyond challenging. Why, then, give them up after all that hard work.

    The answer lies, in part, in the concept of Buddha Nature. [For a feature on Buddha Nature, see this story>>] Psychologist Rob Preece explains:

    “Our innate Buddha potential is said to be like a priceless jewel buried beneath our home, while we live our lives in ignorance of it. As a result, we flouder, lost in endless confusion.”

    Deity practice helps us awaken to our buried treasure, the jewel of our own Buddha Nature — and much more.


    Buddha Weekly BUDDHA mind space Buddhism
    At the ultimate level, oneness.


    The point of practice: union with deity; union with higher self

    The language of the mind is symbols and imagery. Developing concentration, clarity and stability — and correct understanding of relative phenomenon — are some of the key reasons to practice what is known as “Deity Yoga.” Deity  Yoga literally means “union with Deity.”)

    Buddha Weekly Tara in the palm of your hand zasep tulku rinpoche Buddhism
    Zasep Rinpoche is the author of Tara in the Palm of Your Hand, available here on Amazon>>

    Venerable Zasep Rinpoche explains: “Everybody has the same problems. Everyone has the same type of difficulties, struggling. But, this is practice. This is the path. This is how it is. Don’t blame yourself, don’t blame anybody, just keep practicing. This is how everybody has to learn.

    “So, when you have that, it’s like a child, a little child, fantasizing about toys. You go to the toy shop, and all you think about are toys. Like a little boy with his toy truck.

    Automatically, boom, your mind is gone. Drawn in. Because you want this, you like this, you are so excited. Yogis, or Yoginis, should have this kind of excitement or passion.

    Short video teacher on “Visualizing Your Meditation Yidam”


    Yidam visualization is “not easy”

    In a teaching session on deity, Zasep Rinpoche said, “visualisation is not an easy one to do unless you have a good imagination.” [See embedded video below, “Visualizing Your Meditational Yidam.”]

    “Some people feel, how can I do this visualization? My visualization is no good at all. I can’t see anything. My meditation is not good, concentration is not good, I don’t have clarity, I have no stable mind, my mind is all over the place and so on and so forth.”

    What is important in Yidam practice is to practice daily, and not to lose sight of the goal — to catch a glimpse of Oneness, or Emptiness, of reality as it truly is without the observer-observed.


    [1] Max Planck, 1944; Das Wesen der Materie [The Nature of Matter], speech at Florence, Italy (1944) (from Archiv zur Geschichte der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Abt. Va, Rep. 11 Planck, Nr. 1797)

    [2] The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra, Robert Preece

    [3] “The Case Against Reality”, The Atlantic

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    Lee Kane

    Author | Buddha Weekly

    Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
    Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.

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