Exploration 02 - 2009.01.29

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    The original topic suggested by Pema (Piet) for this two-part dialogue was "science and contemplation".

    I decided to provide a contemplative's view of the relationship between these two disciplines (two approaches to knowing). Since the notion of “science” is very broad, I wanted to decompose it, using an analysis that is generally accepted. So last week I followed the standard view of science as being "empirical", i.e., as "evidence-based". I also wanted to keep the equally-standard notion of science as being "rational", as opposed to "faith-based."

    It’s generally agreed that science is constrained and guided by both evidence and reason … and perhaps it involves other things we might consider another time. However, to bring our discussion closer to home, I pointed out that there are also other ways of knowing which are also both empirical and rational, but are not "science" (in the sense that we now commonly used the term).

    This is where we started last week: I began by sketching out a homework assignment, inviting participants to consider the very broad range of knowledge-gathering enterprises characteristic of humanity in general, that are themselves empirical-rational: hunting, food gathering and production and preparation, creation of shelter and dwellings and boats, working with nature in many different ways, making new materials, etc. And for the homework, I specifically suggested looking into the ways of knowing involved in these empirical-rational knowledge-gathering efforts. 

    For contemplatives, this is the crux of the matter. One assesses how some knowledge discipline compares with a spiritually-oriented use of contemplation, by seeing what kind of mind or cognitive capacities are involved in the other approach. 

    This probably seems strange to a modern person, vague and dubious. We are accustomed to using the mind to do things, to get things, to learn, contrive and solve... we're not used to seeing what kind of mind we are using in those cases. And the whole notion of trying to find out about that seems somewhat questionable—that would be the position of modern cognitive scientist, for instance. But all I'm really trying to do is show how a contemplative thinks about this question (“how contemplation compares with science”). And contemplatives—I and my teachers and their lineages, going back for several millennia, really think this approach is meaningful, and can be applied with important results.

    Contemplative spirituality uses a certain way of knowing, not to see or get something else, but because that knowing is itself the point. And anything that does not (at least eventually) centrally involve that particular way of knowing, at that level, in that pure form simply cannot be contemplative spirituality.

    But … there are some subtle details—and different ways of applying—this apparently simple and strict criterion. Historically, some contemplatives would look at the broad range of empirically-based knowledge gathering orientations, for instance, and say "well, those cannot be contemplation, because they are primarily just using the senses and reason... neither one of these or their combination gives you true contemplation, it's just not possible".

    Last week I mentioned a few examples, traditional themes like Nirvana (the goal of the groups just referred to), or “dukha” (fundamental unsatisfactoriness of all conditioned existence), or even less extraordinary things like love and respect for other beings … the claim would be that nirvana and dukha are not objects of the senses and reason, and that while love and respect might require the latter, they also require much more. So the conclusion is: ordinary faculties, at least in their ordinary forms, don’t give you true contemplation. There's just no way you can get from here to there. 

    Some other contemplative traditions had a different answer: “it's not that those ordinary kinds of ways of knowing are incompatible with—or exclusive of—the way of knowing involved in the appreciation of Nirvana etc.... it's simply that they are incomplete forms of higher ways of knowing that are central to the appreciation of these spiritually-significant dimensions.” So in forthcoming Kira programs, we might try to explore these disagreements within the contemplative world, and how they apply to us.

    For now: when I described the homework assignment last week, I wasn't asking you to think about and "answer" with a word or two, by way of identification, what these ways of knowing are that are involved empirical-rational knowledge gathering enterprises. I was asking you to put yourself in the shoes or sandals of someone who was engaged in those activities, and see directly what was/is involved.

    You could do the homework in an entirely satisfactory way by simply looking at your own life, as lived today, and seeing what kinds of faculties you are using, what kinds of cognitive operations you're using. And it's fine to name them, as we usually do, but you also have to be “in them” when you do that, really seeing as much as you can what they're like, what they do and don’t yield. This is a major part of what contemplation is actually about. Contrary to popular opinion, it's not concerned with having a special experience. It's partly about seeing what kind of knowing you are already engaged in, and in what that gives you … what it does and doesn’t contribute to your self understanding. 

    So with this emphasis in mind, we can ask what the senses and reason contribute that’s comparable to contemplation. As we’ve just mentioned, there are two general kinds of answers to the latter question ... in one point of view, ordinary kinds of cognition simply don't qualify, and in the other view they are seen as diminished forms of something higher (they can thus be used, exercised, and refined, returning them to contemplation itself).

    I actually raised several types of questions last week, of sorts that would naturally prompt all kinds of different responses. Was I asking you to draw on your knowledge of history, or of philosophy or science, etc.? Or was I asking for something else? For now, let’s just concentrate on the matter of apprehending your existence, your being, through the use of various sorts of cognitions involved in empirical-rational approaches. The investigation of such approaches is something you can undertake now... and every day, in many different situations.

    You will probably find reasons to say that the use of the senses plus reason is not comparable to having an authentic contemplative insight. And you may also find reasons to say that they are, or could at least become comparable, with some help. My objective was to raise the basic issue of how these two cases, or some in-between case, bear on the appreciation of your own existence. Are our senses and rational faculties limited, or open-ended? Relevant to contemplation, or not? How? Why? To what extent?

    The same point applies to science itself. You might judge that science is squarely outside, or overlapping, or well inside the domain of contemplation. 

    Finally, I would like to argue that there may be connections between the chances for science to somehow be contemplation (in the present or the future), and our taking responsibility for seeing and using our own minds properly, now and going forward in life. In both cases, what cognitive faculties are being used, how they’re used, and with what effect, are not things we should take for granted … and the two domains in which we should be mindful, science and ordinary life, might be linked. 

    The primary contemplative question has always been “what mind are you using?” The implications and possibilities arising from heeding this question are even greater now, in the 21st century, than ancient contemplatives ever imagined.

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