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A Practical Guide to Discovering Your Place in the Cosmos

Written by Wes NiskerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Wes Nisker


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: April 27, 2011
Pages: 256 | ISBN: 978-0-307-78872-6
Published by : Bantam Bantam Dell
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The Buddha said that "everything we need to know about life can be found inside this fathom-long body." Then why is most people's spirituality--whether Buddhist, Christian, or Jewish--completely cut off from their body? In this provocative and groundbreaking book, you'll discover that enlightenment comes not from "out there," but from a deep understanding of our own personal biology. Using the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, a traditional Buddhist meditation, Nisker shows how cutting-edge science is proving the tenets first offered by the Buddha.

And he provides a practical program, complete with meditations and exercises, that enables readers to become mindful of the origins of emotions, desires, and thoughts. One of the great synthesizers of East and West, Nisker shows how to incorporate the traditional understanding of the Buddha with the latest scientific discoveries while on our spiritual journey. He shows that we are not separate from nature and the evolving universe. The way to enlightenment lies within our very biology.

Most important, Nisker offers a practical program--complete with meditations and exercises--so readers can take their own evolutionary journey into their bodies to find the origins of emotions, desires, and thoughts.  Nisker provides a liberating way for each of us to incorporate into our lives the understanding, proven by the latest scientific evidence and foretold in the great traditional teachings of the Buddha, that we are not separate from nature and the evolving universe.  Our biology is not our destiny, but our way to enlightenment. -->


The Buddha Was a Biologist

It is our contention that the rediscovery of Asian philosophy, particularly of the Buddhist tradition, is a second renaissance in the cultural history of the West, with the potential to be equally important as the discovery of Greek thought in the European renaissance. [Asian philosophy] never became a purely abstract occupation. It was tied to specific disciplined methods for knowing--different methods of meditation.
--Francisco Varela, The Embodied Mind

Combining Buddhist meditation practices with current scientific knowledge  seems a wise use of human resources. Generally speaking, Buddhism and  science represent the respective genius of Asian and Western  civilizations. In comparing the two ways of knowing, one might conclude  that the planet was somehow divided along the lines of the two hemispheres  of the brain. In the West we looked outside of ourselves for truth,  dividing up the world with our intellect and reason to see if reality's  secrets were hiding inside of things. Meanwhile, the genius of Asia was  directed inward, relying more on intuition and experiential knowing,  seeking to resolve the questions themselves in the realization of  nonduality and the great mystery of consciousness.

In recent decades, through modern communications and travel, a bridge  has been built between the two civilizations, a kind of corpus  callosum connecting the two hemispheres of the world brain. Perhaps  out of the confluence, some tools and techniques will be discovered that  will nurture a more awakened and satisfied human existence.

As they compare notes, scientists and Buddhist scholars alike have been  astounded by the fact that the two ways of knowing have arrived at so many  similar conclusions. Physics is one arena where the two have found  agreement. As impossible as it must seem to physicists who use  sophisticated bubble chambers and laser photography to study subatomic  events, Buddhists have uncovered at least the basic principles of  subatomic physics through their meditation practices. Meditation can  reveal that there is no solidity anywhere, that the observer cannot be  separated from what is observed, that phenomena seem to appear out of  emptiness, and that everything affects everything else in a co-emergent  system that scientists have only recently acknowledged and named  "nonlocality." These truths have been discovered by many people who have  simply focused their attention inward.

Although the agreement between Buddhism and modern physics has been given  wide attention, I believe that what will become even more significant in  coming years is the sharing of information between Buddhist meditators and  biologists, in particular neuroscientists. The Buddhist and scientific  maps of mind and cognition are strikingly similar. Furthermore, the  Buddhists have for centuries been studying the elusive nature of "self"  and consciousness, concepts that are currently befuddling the  neuroscientists. Many Buddhists have even resolved these puzzles, at least  to the individual meditator's satisfaction.

Buddhist meditation itself could be understood as a form of scientific  research. Meditators try to maintain the scientific attitude of  objectivity while investigating themselves. They too want to look at life  without prejudicing the study with personal desires or preset theories.  "Just the facts, ma'am."

A scientist might argue that his findings are objective because they can  be verified by someone replicating the experiments or redoing the  mathematical equations. However, every Buddhist meditator who undertakes a  specific path of inquiry is, in a sense, redoing the experiment, and most  will arrive at similar conclusions about the nature of self and reality.  In mindfulness meditation, what is known as "the progress of insight"  unfolds in a relatively standard fashion for most people.

The Buddha wants each of us to become a scientist, using ourself as the  subject. He recommends a careful deconstruction of the seemingly solid  realities of mind and body as a way to explore their sources, and thus  reveal our oneness with the world. As it says in the Abhidhamma, an early  Buddhist text, "the first task of insight (vipassana) meditation is  . . . the dissecting of an apparently compact mass."

Modern science also set about the task of disassembling reality, and has  found--miracle of miracles--that oneness is right there, in reality's very  core. If it has proven anything, Western science has validated the  mystical vision as the ultimate truth. Nothing can be separated  from anything else. The scientists attempt to express this oneness by  inserting the connector: wave-particle, space-time, matter-energy.

Although modern science has helped humanity achieve new levels of  material comfort, its greatest gift may yet turn out to be spiritual--a  more accurate and satisfying way of understanding ourselves. Instead of  reducing humans to material processes, as some critics assert, scientists  are simply showing us the specific threads that connect us to all of life  and the universe. Most scientists would not deny that there may be other  factors at work in our creation (gods, spirits, souls), and at least they  are proving that we are not separate and alone. After all, every time they  find another cause they also find another connection.
A single protein molecule or a single finger  print, a single syllable on the radio or a single idea of yours, implies  the whole historical reach of stellar and organic evolution. It is enough  to make you tingle all the time.
--John Platt, The Steps to Man
The Buddha was a great scientist of the self. It is clear in the Pali  Canon that he was not much concerned with cosmic consciousness, and there  is no evidence that he believed in any god or goddess. He was also silent  on the question of a first cause, saying it would be impossible to trace  the karmic source of either an individual or the universe. Instead,  throughout his discourses we find the Buddha emphasizing what I would call  "biological consciousness."

The Buddha's meditation instructions in the Pali Canon are almost  exclusively focused on the natural processes of our physical and mental  life. He tells us to meditate on our skin and bones, our nervous system,  the processes of walking, hearing, seeing, and thinking. According to the  Buddha, everything we need to know about life and reality can be found  inside "this fathom-long body."

Throughout his teachings, for instance, the Buddha emphasizes the  impermanent nature of all phenomena. Remembering this universal truth  (documented from Heraclitus to Heisenberg) is critical to our personal  happiness, because the fact that everything is in transition means that we  can't hold on to any object or experience, nor to life itself. If we forget about impermanence and try to grasp or hold on to things, we will  inevitably create suffering for ourselves.

The Buddha tells us to become personally familiar with this truth  by meditating on the changes that take place inside of us at every moment: Herein a person contemplates as impermanent  and not as permanent, the pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings . . .  the feelings born of visual impressions, sound-impressions, smell-impressions,  (etc.) . . . the corporeal phenomena water, heat, air . . . skin, flesh,  blood, sinews, bone, marrow, (etc.) . . . visual consciousness, auditory  consciousness, olfactory consciousness, (etc.). . . . Contemplating  them [all] as impermanent, the meditator abandons the notion of  permanency . . . [and] by relinquishing, the meditator abandons  craving.

According to the Buddha, by experiencing our own impermanent nature--by  feeling it and reflecting upon it regularly--we can learn to inhabit this  truth and live by it. As we grow familiar with the radical impermanence of  every moment's experience we stop getting so lost in our own desire  system; we don't hold on as tight or get so "hung up." We are able to live  more in harmony with the way things are. This is one example of how the  Buddha was able to use his scientific insights in the service of  spirituality.
Those who drink of the deepest truths live  happily with a serene mind.
--The Buddha, The Dhammapada
As a spiritual biologist, the Buddha studied the human condition  thoroughly. He gave a broad outline of his findings in the Four Noble  Truths, the first of which announces that life is inherently  unsatisfactory, a time of continual neediness and desire accompanied by  some measure of pain, sadness, sickness, and inevitable old age and death.  It's all part of the deal when you get a human body and nervous  system--period. Critics cite the First Noble Truth as proof that the  Buddha was negative about life, but he was simply making a scientific  observation.

This human condition may seem inhumane to us, but that only means that it  doesn't meet our standards of fairness. We would like life to be  different, and ironically, that desire itself can become a major source of  our suffering.

All of this isn't to deny that there is joy, love, pleasure, and fun in a  life, but the hard facts are much more certain. It simply is not easy  having a body, fighting gravity from morning to night, being forever in  need of food, warmth, and shelter, and driven by the urge to procreate.  These are the biological conditions we are born into, and what the Buddha  saw was that we need to come to a deep inner understanding and acceptance  of them if we are ever to find any peace of mind or ease in life. Indeed,  meditators often report feelings of great relief when they begin to  acknowledge the First Noble Truth--and that it does apply to them.

The Buddha's Second Noble Truth is that human beings suffer because we  live in an almost constant state of desire. According to the Buddha, we  are born into this condition as well: it is part of our evolutionary  inheritance, the karma of taking form. He explains in detail how simply  having a body and senses and coming into contact with the world will  create pleasant or unpleasant sensations that will automatically lead to  reactions of desire or aversion. This process is instinctual, a function  of our nervous system, which operates according to the biological law of  stimulus-response. The Buddha saw that this organic condition keeps us  continually dissatisfied and off-balance.

With great psychological insight, the Buddha recognized that our desires  fall into three categories. One he called the "desire for existence,"  which we might think of as the survival instinct, which gets translated  into building strong walls around our houses, opening a savings account,  finding good doctors, or even seeking a religion that will promise the  ultimate security of everlasting life. The Buddha also saw a complementary  desire within us for "nonexistence," which can be translated into the urge  to lose oneself in sex, food, movies, or adventure, or by some means to  "get out" of oneself. Even the mystical search can be seen as a desire for  nonexistence, a wish to dissolve once again into the amniotic fluids or  the oceanic Oneness. The Buddha's last category of desire is for sense  pleasure, perhaps the easiest to notice. It's the pleasure principle,  present in almost everything we do.

I am always startled when I watch my mind for any length of time in  meditation, just to discover that these three desire gears are all there,  going around independently, with an ever-changing array of objects  attached to them. Desire is perfectly natural, I discover, but it has less  to do with "me" than I ever could imagine.

Like most people, I usually believe that I suffer only because the desire  of this moment remains unfulfilled, until, perhaps in meditation, I  recognize that I am caught on a treadmill. When my mind grows quiet, I am  able to see that desire itself is what keeps me dissatisfied. This is  difficult to notice, precisely because so few moments of our life are  without desire. Meditation can offer an experience of another  possibility.

The Buddha's Third Noble Truth, and his most significant biological  insight, is that nature has given us the ability to train our minds to  bring us new levels of satisfaction and freedom. During his own awakening,  the Buddha realized that as humans we are able to see into our primal  reactivity and in the process learn how to overcome some of it. Evolution  has gifted us with the potential for new degrees of self-awareness and  autonomy, and perhaps even the ability to take part in our own evolution.  If we learn how to develop this potential we might yet live up to our  self-applied labels of "conscious," or Homo sapiens sapiens, the  twice-knowing human. If we learn how to cultivate consciousness or alter  emotions we may be able to create an overall happier state of being. "I  teach one thing and one thing only," said the Buddha, "suffering, and the  end of suffering."

The Buddha's Fourth Noble Truth is the most important one of all, of  course, because it tells us how to end our suffering. In his fourth  and final truth the Buddha explains how to live a life that does not cause  harm to others, partially so that the mind, undisturbed by remorse, guilt,  or anger, remains open to the task of self-investigation. The Buddha then  gives the basic instructions for developing the vital skills of  concentration and mindfulness, and explains how to apply these in  meditation in order to realize our true nature. He calls this final truth  the Noble Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering.  
Wes Nisker

About Wes Nisker

Wes Nisker - Buddha's Nature
Wes Nisker is the bestselling author of Crazy Wisdom and a renowned lecturer who has taught courses on Buddhist meditation at the Esalen Institute, the University of California, and Spirit Rock Buddhist Meditation Center. He is the founder and co-editor of the international Buddhist journal, Inquiring Mind.


"What The Tao of Physics did to connect east and west in the realm of physics, Buddha's Nature does brilliantly in the realm of biology and the mind. This is the new Tao of evolution."
--Jack Kornfield, author of A Path with Heart

"This book will be welcomed as one of the best efforts yet to bring together meditators and scientists. It is an instrument for our greater joy and achievements."
--Thich Nhat Hanh, author of Peace Is Every Step

"A milestone in contemporary Buddhism...[Nisker] grounds the Buddha's teachings in discoveries made by the neural and evolutionary sciences. I dare you to find a book on science that is so personal, or a book on meditation that is so funny and forgiving."
--Joanna Macy, author of World As Lover, World As Self

  • Buddha's Nature by Wes Nisker
  • February 01, 2000
  • Religion - Buddhism
  • Bantam
  • $19.00
  • 9780553379990

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