Tin Htut and Ven. Dhammasami
10th July 1999
Truth is defined in the Oxford dictionary as the quality or a state of being true. However, in Buddhist philosophy, truth is not a quality which is subjective and in one way or another being judgmental. Truth is something that exists in reality and inspiring it as it is, denotes the discovery of truth in Buddhist terms. Anger, frustration, worry, compassion or any other subjective of the mind can be termed as truth, as it is for wisdom and enlightenment which are objective truths in the Buddhist philosophy. Truth can be elaborated into a real truth or ultimate reality that cannot be further reduced (paramattha sacca in Pali). What is accepted and conventionally agreed upon as true is an imposed and a conditional truth (pannatti or sammuti sacca). For most of us truth takes the meaning of conditional truth which may not always be a real truth that cannot be further reduced to be universally applicable.
In this study we will restrict ourselves to the search of real truth which must be applicable to everybody despite conditional differences in many ways such as race, culture, locality, background education and in faith. To come to this ultimate truth we may need to divide, dissect, analyse and reduce conditional truths into very small components until the final finding is not further divisible. Only then we will obtain a truth which will be applicable to everybody in every sense. We may classify the quest into four main categories which comprises of a cascade of universal questions.
Finding answers to these questions will be an endless quest if we limit ourselves to down-to-earth physical evidence only. We may have to consider using logic and meta-analysis on a piece of solid evidence that we can grasp. It is more of an issue of mind which has unlimited potential to probe into the mysteries of the universe. To start with, life-after-death can be a mind boggling and a tantalizing question.
1. IS THERE LIFE AFTER DEATH?
One does not normally believe in life after death unless one comes from a religious background since this subject is somewhat out of scientific scope. Classical science analyses objective realities only, preserving the neutrality it adopted 300 years back from its founding fathers Galileo, Descrates and Newton, etc. Subjective studies, like consciousness and mind were regarded as non-scientific, and the powerful probes of science have been generally pointed away from our interior selves. Nowadays, parapsychologists and some scientists think that it is time for a change, for the boundaries to be redrawn.
Newtons idea of the universe as a great machine, obeying precise rules of cause and effect, was shown to be inadequate almost two centuries later by Albert Einsteins Theory of Relativity. The true nature of matter is also no longer perceived as electrons, protons and neutrons, playing by the same rules as billiards, but as much smaller particles and fields of energy which seem to behave in outrageous ways: quantum physics has shown, on the smallest scale, that matter appears able to be in two places at the same time. Furthermore, matter which was once thought to be indestructible can now be annihilated by anti-matter particles in particle accelerators.
The disarray of traditional physics makes us hard to ignore phenomena which have not been explained scientifically, nor to regard such studies as pseudo-science. Science is still seeking an overall theory to make sense of all this, and Newton no longer has all the answers. The universe is a place of infinite mystery.
Life after death could not be proven objectively with hard facts using the conventional scientific approach. Nonetheless, it could not be simply turned down nor ignored either. There is circumstantial evidence to consider its existence. Accounts of apparitions, out of the body experience in near death cases and reincarnation or rebirth, are among few facts to consider.
Accounts of ghosts, spirits, poltergeists and demons are reported from time to time and they are becoming quite popular in the Western society. In Daily Mail, Monday, July 1, 1996, a documented evidence of an apparition was published. An image of a ghost appeared in a group photograph of the transport unit at HMS Daedalus, at Cranewell, Linconshire while it was taken in 1919. The man without a cap, half concealed in the back row was Freddy Jackson, the Navy mechanic. He had actually been killed in an accident 3 days before the picture was taken on the runway of HMS Daedalus. It was the official picture to commemorate the disbanding of the transport yard at the base. The negative was scrutinised for faking and was found to be untouched.(1)
Out of body Experience (OBE)
Evidence which seemed to support directly the idea of life after death, came from people revived from apparent death by modern medical technology. Millions of people have had near death experiences (NDE): usually they claim to leave their bodies, float through a black tunnel and enter a world of brilliant light.
Dr. Melvin Morse of Seattle has studied NDEs in children and has a collection of wonderful colour drawings of the next world, made by youngsters close to death. Dr. Morse is critical of scientific explanations of some sceptics, that these experiences are either hallucinations in a dying brain or a re-living of the birth experience. There seems to be a support for such NDEs as actual subjective experiences. A women dying of a heart attack, found herself floating around outside the hospital , where she noticed a tennis shoe on a distant window ledge. Her OBE might have been written off as hallucination if a hospital social worker had not recovered the shoe from the ledge!(2) A report in a scientific journal(3) of Near-Death Experiences of 16 cases from India described a different story. The authors have featured four case reports in their paper all of which mentioned about black-people armed with clubs took the subjects by force to their superiors (Yamraj) for judgement. They were released after finding out that they were taken by mistake, but one of the subject had his leg cut off in order to prevent him from escaping. Before he was released they put the leg back again and when the subject recovered from the incident his family found marks on his knees. The authors had also inspected the marks which were folds or deep fissures in the skin but the X-ray did not show any abnormality below the surface of the skin. These cases of mistaken identity described about horrible experiences which were quite different from other NDEs that involved seeing bright lights in pleasant environment and meeting gentle beings.
Reincarnation or rebirth type
Good evidence for life after death comes from the reports (4, 5)of Professor Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia, USA. In his research for over thirty years he has scientifically recorded approximately 2000 cases of reincarnation type from many different cultures. Many of the cases come from the East and mostly from Hindu and Buddhist cultures, but by no means limited to these beliefs. His cases also include Islamic groups in western Asia (the Alevis and the Druses), the Tlingit of Alaska, the Igbo of Nigeria, native Indians and Christians from the USA. The professor always considers alternative explanations, like fraud and hallucination, before making a judgement. He had about 25 cases where reincarnation was the only possible explanation and had made scientific history in May 1977, when he wrote the first article on reincarnation to appear in serious scientific publication, 'The journal of Nervous and Mental Disease'. He also published four volumes of a major scientific work- a study of birth marks and birth defects in children who remember other lives. His new evidence is compelling: children who remember their past lives sometimes carry marks and deformities suffered in a previous life. In India, a boy with no fingers on his right hand remembered a life as a child whose fingers on the right hand were cut off in a fodder-chopping machine. Another child, born with almost no chin, recalled the life and death of a bandit who was hanged twice- it seems the first execution was bungled and the bandits jaw was smashed in the process. In many of the cases Stevenson has documents and photographs confirming the injuries suffered in previous lives.(2)
Is there any scientific sign of some quality or force within us which might be capable of surviving death of the body?
We know that our body is composed of uncountable number of cells and tissues made from carbon based molecules, which are in turn a collection of subatomic particles of the four basic building blocks (half & integer spin particles of quantum physics). We know the structures of brain and their functions, but cannot locate where our mind is.
Is mind and brain different?
To talk about mind and brain being different, we need to show mind can exist on its own, is able to pass on information without the use of brains five senses. This can be done by Remote viewing, a type of experiment parapsychologists have been doing for years. This is done by the power of psi, the modern name for telepathy or extra-sensory perception (ESP). If mind and brain is different, there is a possibility for the mind to survive after the body died. The prevailing orthodoxy is when brain dies mind perishes also. This is deeply believed and scientists fail to understand that it is an assumption only, just like the notion of life after death. There is no reason why aspects of the mind should not survive death of the brain, but to shake this belief amongst conservative scientists of today, and to convince hard headed sceptics, is extremely difficult.
In the last decade, there has been a lot of talk about connections between science and mysticism. A vast number of scientists may regard that it is nonsense or just pseudo-science, but evidence put forward is compelling, and classical science cannot not provide satisfactory answers. We should remember that there were all sorts of things scientists claimed, which were really acts of faith, as much as any religious belief. When a scientist says we understand how the brain works, or how man came into existence through natural selection, these are also enormous extrapolations.
One has to have an open mind and look fairly at the evidence on life after death, which is impressive and comes from a variety of sources. Although science and religion are not generally compatible, the teachings of Buddha known as the Dhamma or the laws of nature can provide all the answers. The doctrine of Buddha could not exactly be called a religion although a degree of faith exist. It is largely based on physical laws of nature, just as science does, and on the introspective viewing and meta-analysis.
The Buddhist view
The Buddha himself had undergone the quest for truth and after striving with an extra-ordinary effort and perseverance to cleanse both mind and body, he came to know all the secrets of the universe. His teachings which are universally applicable are complied into three large volumes out of which Abhidhamma is the most sophisticated text. In terms of Abhidhamma, the Buddhist study of mind (psychology), consciousness or rather sub-consciousness taking place at birth (patisandhi citta) and at dying moments (cuti) are necessarily the same. Physical (body) and mental (mind) phenomena co-exist, both die momentarily and are reborn momentarily.
Physic is sustained partly by mind which ceases soon after a unit of mental process ceases, but both arise again consecutively. A new body which may not necessarily be the same arises spontaneously as soon as a new unit of mental phenomenon emerges. For some reason, if someone lost consciousness due to a fatal cause, the mind operating at that moment is also the same as the process of dying. This may explain the phenomenon of near-death experience, life-after death and the recall of past life in cases of rebirth.
As far as human world and any other sensuous existence is concerned, many forms of matter can exist without a mind (corpse, microbes, lower and higher forms of plants, rivers, earth etc.), but mind does not exist without matter. Mind operates through six doors which are the five senses plus thoughts and has a physical base (object) at each door of perception. Mind and brain may be regarded as different in terms of functions and potentials, but mind needs a physical object to co-exist and both mind and body emerges as a single entity as soon as it takes a rebirth. After dying from one existence the last thought directly links with a subsequent rebirth of mind and body which may or may not resemble the shape, form and composition of the past life. There are altogether 31 forms of existences in the universe and a person can be reborn in any of these existences depending upon the quality of life one has led. One has to reborn and die indefinitely in this cycle until one has totally extinguished the factors of rebirth. Impermanence is one of the ultimate truths that the Buddha has discovered in His quest for truth.
1. Daily Mail page 23, Monday, July 1, 1996. Associated Newspapers Ltd., Northcliffe House, London W8 5TT.
2. Jeffrey Iverson, 1992. In Search of the Dead. BCA Publishers.
3. Pasricha S (PhD), Stevenson I (MD), 1986. Near-Death Experiences in India, a Preliminary Report. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. Vol. 174, No. 3, Pages 165-170.
4. Stevenson I (MD), 1977. THE EXPLANATORY VALUE OF THE IDEA OF REINCARNATION. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. Vol. 164, Pages 305-326.
5. Stevenson I (MD), 1983. American Children Who Claim to Remember Previous Lives. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. Vol. 171, No. 12, Pages 742-748.
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