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Tibetan Buddhism's doctrine that human consciousness has a primordial oneness with the universe and is eternal is perhaps best understood through a comparison with Western thought on the subject. The study of human consciousness by Western civilization has been dominated by scientific materialism. As a result, although major breakthroughs have occurred in understanding mind and body phenomena, the tendency has been to reduce the mind to no more than biological processes in the brain.
This conceptual framework of human consciousness is supported by the theory of evolution, which maintains that human emotions and behavioral traits are necessary for survival in the outer physical universe.
Viewed from this context, the assumption that human consciousness ceases at the moment of death seems fairly logical. Tibetan Buddhism, however, has a very different view of the origins, nature, and role of consciousness in the natural world.
In stark contrast to Western beliefs, Tibetan Buddhism holds that nothing is real outside the mind, and that there exists both the individual mind and the ultimate, absolute mind of which they are emanations.
Thus, it is not surprising that Tibetan Buddhism doctrine espouses the continuity of mind or consciousness as the basis of evolution, karma, and rebirth.
Interestingly, several modern Buddhist thinkers contend that Buddhism is consistent with modern natural science.
This is because Buddhism has always espoused that true spirituality lies in developing an awareness that everything in the universe is interrelated and interdependent. Therefore, even the smallest thought or action can have real consequences throughout the universe
. Indeed, this thought process forms the very premise of the Tibetan Buddhist concept of an ultimate, absolute mind or universal consciousness. Modern Buddhist thinkers see this view as paralleling modern natural science, which now speaks of an extraordinary range of interrelations.
For instance, "ecologists know that a tree burning in the Amazon rainforest alters in some way the air breathed by a citizen of Paris, and that the trembling of a butterfly's wing in the Yucatan affects the life of a fern in the Hebrides." Similarly, biologists have discovered "the fantastic and complex dance of genes that creates personality and identity, a dance that stretches far into the past and shows that each so-called "identity" is composed of different influences." But perhaps the most compelling case for stating that Buddhism is consistent with modern natural science comes from quantum physics, which has now established that quantum particles exist potentially as different combinations of other particles
Thus, the Buddhist contention that the nature of mind is not exclusive to human beings but is the nature of all things, as in a primordial, pure and pristine awareness that is at once intelligent, cognizant, and aware, can be considered quite enlightening in the context of quantum physics, modern biology and genetics. For, the genetic code is the same for all living creatures. In other words, the various forms of plant, animal, and human life are all but variations of the one genetic code that connects them all.
Yet, there continues to be a dichotomy between the Western and the Tibetan Buddhist view of consciousness. This dichotomy can only be explained by the scientific materialism movement, which resulted in Western philosophy isolating the mind in its own sphere and in severing it from its primordial oneness with the universe. Western psychology accordingly treats all metaphysical claims and assertions as mental phenomena and does not consider them to be valid. Thus, Western psychology holds that the mind cannot assert anything beyond itself. According to Carl Jung, however, scientific materialism has only introduced a new hypothesis of matter as a tangible, recognizable reality, which is an intellectual sin. "It has given another name to the supreme principle of reality .... Whether you call the principle of existence 'God,' 'matter,' 'energy,' or anything else ... you have simply changed a symbol."
Carl Jung's observation is echoed by Rinpoche when he says, "Saints and mystics throughout history have adorned their realizations with different names ... And interpretations, but what they are all fundamentally experiencing is the essential nature of mind."
This essential nature, according to Tibetan Buddhism, is primordial and imbued with an innate quality of bliss because it is empty and has never been sullied by affective imbalances of any kind.
A similar doctrine can be found in the Platonism and Hinduism contention that truth and bliss is to be achieved only in unity or union with the eternal unchanging One.
Tibetan Buddhism explains that most human beings fail to access or penetrate through to the primordial consciousness because the ordinary mind is dysfunctional, oscillating between being obsessive and compulsive and slipping into a stupor.
The Tibetans call this aspect of the mind sem, which is defined as "the discursive, dualistic, thinking mind, which can only function in relation to a projected and falsely perceived external reference point." In sharp contrast, the very nature of mind or its innermost essence is absolutely and always untouched by change, death, or turmoil. This is because the nature of mind is the very root itself of understanding. Called the Rigpa, the primordial mind is said to be the knowledge of knowledge itself.
Modern Buddhist thinkers attempt to support this worldview by pointing out common experiences of moments of illumination, peace, and bliss that happen to virtually all people. These, they suggest, are fleeting glimpses of the true nature of mind or primordial bliss. The examples cited are the feeling aroused by an exalting piece of music, the serene happiness that is sometimes felt by watching snow slowly drifting down, the sun rising behind a mountain, or watching a shaft of light falling into a room in a mysteriously moving way.
Thus, Tibetan Buddhism suggests that a change in orientation is needed from a mind that looks out on the external world to a mind that looks in.
This notion of observing the mind with the mind may appear problematic to Western scientific thinking, for it does not allow for the separation of object and subject that characterizes scientific observations. However, while this may be a legitimate concern, it cannot be disputed that it is possible for an individual to detect his or her own emotional state, and introspectively recognize from moment to moment whether the ordinary mind is calm or agitated. More important, people do experience a consciousness of not just objects of consciousness but of the presence of that consciousness. All Buddhist contemplative practice suggests is that the rigorous application of this experiential investigation of the mind will lead to ultimately realizing the true nature of mind as possessing a primordial oneness with the universe.
Further, Tibetan Buddhism propounds that investigating and experiencing the primordial nature of the mind will lead to the realization that everything is impermanent, and, therefore, "empty." This implies that there is no such thing as a lasting, stable existence; and all things, when seen and understood in their true relation, are not independent but interdependent with all other things.
Again, this theory is consistent with modern natural science but divergent from the Western culture of individualism. For, the Buddhist cosmic principle is clearly one that attributes no special value to the individual human ego or identity.
In fact, Tibetan Buddhist philosophy is based on the premise that all human suffering stems from the ego, which gives rise to the fear of losing a personal, unique, and separate identity. This fear is unfortunate, as the notion of a personal identity is entirely illusory, depending as it does on an endless collection of things to prop it up such as a name, family, home, job, friends, and even credit cards
. Instead, what Buddhism propounds is that all fear and suffering will cease with the awareness of the self in the calm presence of the deathless and unending nature of mind. Indeed, this thought process is the very basis of the Buddhist theory and practice of the Four Noble Truths: the truths of suffering, the source of suffering, the cessation of suffering together with its source, and the path leading to that cessation.
The Buddhist view is that contemplating on and realizing the nature of primordial consciousness will yield a state of connectedness and well-being, thereby offering freedom from suffering. However, for any individual to penetrate this ultimate ground state of consciousness, a necessary prerequisite is the cultivation of a wholesome way of life that supports mental balance and harmonious relations with others. For, it is only such means that can dispel the attentional imbalances of laxity and excitation of the ordinary mind, which is caused by insecurity, pleasure and desire. Thus, it is evident that the Buddhist theory of consciousness has a solution to problems of mental health, whereas the Western theory assumes that it is normal for the mind to be subject to a wide range of mental stresses.
Implicit in this view is that penetrating through to the primordial consciousness will, in itself, change the nature of consciousness. This is evident in Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama's observation, "achieving…[continue]
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