Neuroscience, religion, and deconstructing the self

A mere heap of conditions this, where no being can be found
- Samyutta Nikaya PT 1 – 3 — SN 5.10

The quote above is attributed to the bhikkhunii (nun) Vajiraa in the Pali Cannon. Many spiritual seekers joined the early community that surrounded Gautama, an historical figure who lived from about 563 BC to about 483 BC. Gautama didn’t start teaching until he was in his 40s which means that understandings of this type were circulating as early as 2,530 years ago. The observation arrives from profound meditation into deep recesses of mind. We are a cluster of conditions – five aggregates the early Buddhists say – where no self can be found and only conditions arise.

For centuries teachers have tried to explain the Buddha’s observation with the cliché of an onion’s layers being pealed back, one after another, to find no true core, no seed, no root. The instruction is that self is an illusion. A Zen master might say that if only we could see phenomenon through the lens of enlightenment, we would realize that we are all one, not necessarily unique.

The truth of who we are is still to come. That’s a statement of faith. I take much on faith and abhor labels. If I’d said we can’t know, I’d be an agnostic. If I said God created everything, I’d be religious. If I endorse evolution, whether Lamarckian or Darwinian, well, you get the idea. We have differing perspectives. In truth, I’ve either come across or created understandings that allow all of the above to coexist in my thinking, and I’m anxious to expand into the next truths as well. So that makes me a relativist? Let’s move on.

A friend of mine recently felt despair upon reading Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman. Eagleman, one of many now popular neuroscientists, uses his book to expose regions of the brain and how they interact. Are our most intimate thoughts actually evidence of a self or simply modules, neurons firing, mechanisms, like chip sets on a motherboard. And what is the motherboard, if that metaphor applies, in human terms? Is there really a self? Are we really in charge? At the root, can we say we have free will?

It’s far too early in the mapping of the brain to answer many of these questions, if they can be answered by science at all. Actually, this may bother some readers, but I don’t care to answer the questions. I have faith in the process, in Buddha nature, that we just want to know and will continue trying. Better truths will come. What we should all be bracing for, or relaxing into, is accepting this new phase in the process.

I have a brain and I’m not it. The closest I can come to a physical, verifiable truth in the context of mind, is to believe the neuroscientist who says I have regions in the brain that process all kinds of information I once just assumed was me – metaphor, empathy, happiness, meaning, and so on. When these areas break down, either from injury or disease, they don’t work, I don’t work, I am not me.

Below I’ve provided links to two remarkable presentations by neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran, researcher at University of California. While watching the video, consider that it is not just science that is constantly moving forward, the humanities and religion is evolving, too. Catholic mass is no longer in Latin. Many evangelical churches today play rock on stage and use Powerpoint and multimedia to support sermons. Religion is evolving. Science is evolving. We are adapting.

One of the most profound religions in human history proceeded to build practice around a simple observation, that we are a collection of where no self can be found. Science and humanities, implies Ramachandran, will eventually merge. For some this is already taking place. I’ll go even further. It’s my personal belief that the next great religion will be based in this materialization. As you view the following videos ask yourself, if it really were time to change, what would I believe next?

VS Ramachandran: The neurons that shaped civilization:

VS Ramachandran: 3 clues to understanding your brain:

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