An analysis of the Buddhist concept of this moment - a way to the future
by Janaka Goonetilleke on 17 Apr 2010 2 Comments

Buddhism in a nutshell can be expressed as This Moment, This Moment, This Moment. In a world that is always in flux, the only reality is only at this moment, the basis to the Buddhist philosophy of impermanence. This is also expressed as the Law of Insecurity. In a world that is changing there is no security, a concept much in agreement with Einstein’s theory of relativity. This of course is very different from the western philosophy of objectivism. At this moment of time when western concepts are blindly followed, this article is only meant to titillate the Asian mind to further analyse our own native rich philosophies, be it Indic or Confucian.


This moment is an opportunity to practice the eight precepts of Buddhism condensed into three in the form of wisdom, morality and mental discipline in one’s actions. Neuro scientific studies with neuro imaging have now given us an opportunity to analyse these precepts. In the understanding of the brain one has to accept the evolution of the brain. The Primitive Brain is represented by the amiglyda whose function is based on fright and flight, and the neo cortex which is the part of the brain that has grown since we split from our primate cousins, which is geared to the activities of humans.


The picture of the Brain that emerges can be classified into three themes


1) The main function of the brain is automatic. This is true of most bodily functions, but also of conscious thought, decision making, forming attitudes, opinions and even moral judgements. Reality takes a back seat.


2) Neural ‘Plasticity.’ Not only does the brain respond to lifelong experiences, but also in terms of user hypertrophy and disuse atrophy of the different areas, the physical shape and makeup of the brain changes. There is some evidence that these changes can be inherited.


3) The social brain. It is suggested that we owe our complex large neo cerebrum to the evolutionary history of living together.


Morality and the social brain


Morality although subject to vast diversity, is secondary to nature and nurture; humans share an innate moral code. Experiments done on our ancestors the chimpanzees have shown them to have a primitive sense of fairness. It is this sense of morality that Buddhism appeals to. This innate sense of compassion and morality liberates the human mind from conflict. It was this sense of social justice in which King Asoka found salvation in spite of his great military victories. This emphasis on morality and compassion in Buddhism was most aptly expressed by the great Japanese nationalist and philosopher Okkakura in his book Ideals of the East when he said:

‘Compassion of Buddhism that elevates a dumb beast to a human proclaiming equality and brotherhood to all made Buddhism acceptable to Confucian China.’


The Buddha’s acceptance of moral diversity is reflected in Kalama Sutra, The Sermon of Free Thought. When questioned as to the truth of sermons preached by many ascetics and priests that passed through the village, the Buddha said when you yourself know that a certain teaching is skilful, blameless, praiseworthy, conducive to happiness and is praised by the wise, should one accept it as true and practice it. This innate sense of fair play and morals of a social brain questions the present trend of individualism.


From a neurological perspective, thoughts of empathy, compassion and morality stimulate the sub frontal lobe of the brain to secrete 5 HT which in turn suppresses the Amiglyda or remnant of the primitive brain, the site of fear and flight; the site of conflict. This leads to equanimity. This feeling of compassion as we all know is more widespread, going beyond humanity even to animals; this is expressed in compassion for our own pets. From neurological perspective, compassion, empathy and morals liberate the individual and are natural. It is the Me and the I that traps one into the eternal conflict that is prevalent in the present society that is unnatural.


The social brain and modern society


If Buddhism is about this moment, present western philosophy is about objectivism. A realistic objective to be achieved is driven by self interest. This self interest though claimed by the west to be the driving force to achieve, causes conflict within oneself between success and failure. In addition the drive for success is open to abuse as well, proven in the present economic crisis. It is this conflict within oneself that has created this epidemic of mental diseases and other stress-related illnesses.


Unfortunately, this aspect of self gratification has ultimately led to the destruction of social cohesion that has been developed over millions of years, as reflected in the social brain. The first victim of this is motherhood and the future generations. A mother is defined as the person who looks after her children. A study done by Rowntree Foundation of London according to the Guardian, has revealed the following data which is disturbing. Children of mothers who worked for 18 months during the child’s pre-school period had a 64% chance of passing the GCE Adv Level. If the mother worked 1 year extra the chances fell to 52%, increased the chances of unemployment by 3% and stress related illnesses by 6%. The scope of this article does not allow an in depth analysis of the social, economic and environment of the present concept that westernisation is modernity.


Creativity and the Asian mind


A mind without conflict in harmony is an essential element for the freedom of thought and creativity. To achieve harmony, compassion and morality are essential elements. From a neurological point of view, harmony is achieved by the stimulation of the prefrontal lobe of the cerebrum and suppression of the amiglyda. This is contrary to the belief in the western world that the drive to creativity is self interest or stimulation of the amiglyda, the centre for fright and flight. Okkakura gives credit to the Buddhist philosophy of compassion and morality for giving him the freedom and liberality to practice his profession as an artist. It was he who introduced the famous Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore to the concept of an Asian Mind. It is to this Asian mind that he gives credit for the great achievements of the Asian Civilisations. He differentiated this from that of a European mind that was based on the philosophy of Might Is Right.


In 2006, according to a recent article in the magazine Prospect, a study was carried out between Chinese and English speakers. It was found that the neurological responses to a stimulus were different in the two groups. This has been attributed to the differences in reasoning between Asians and Westerners. Quite logical, taking into account that the Asians who have inherited a civilisation based on great Indic and Chinese philosophies, may have evolved differently from westerners. It is best reflected in our art. If you compare the Hindu goddess Kali and Mona Lisa you see a distinct difference.


Goddess Kali with her large breasts, small waist, wide hips, is an expression of fertility; Mona Lisa is a replica of a beautiful woman. This is also seen in Indian Dances with various mudras, expressions which give credibility to the concept of an Asian Mind, a creativity attributed to Asian cultures acquired from her great philosophies. It is logical to believe that the compassion and morality of the Indic and Chinese philosophies created an innate sense of harmony and freedom of thought that gave artists the freedom and liberation to express themselves.


Neural plasticity and a way to the future


It is now accepted that the law governing neuronal activity determines Human behaviour. It is proven that grey matter or neuronal cells grow and also the interconnections between specialised centres, called white matter. Although it is easy to specify the areas stimulated on any given activity, very little is known as to what really goes on in these areas. What is important is that whatever centres are stimulated can grow and increase their connectivity, thus increasing one’s ability to be in control and improve one’s talents. This is how actions based on reality and mental discipline encapsulated in meditation gives birth to excellence.


For maximum stimulus, your motives must be without conflict and your mind must be in harmony. Young children without any experience of life do not have any conflict and are able to develop their talents. This is the basis for the Buddhist theory of no fear. If the motive is money as is the case in the present environment, the ability to concentrate on the activity is reduced and development of talent is compromised. It is activity at the moment which is realistic, moral with mental discipline that can cause maximum development.


It is recognised that all activity are reflex and automatic, the response generally involves an emotional element. If the response is mindful at that moment, then the stimulation of the amiglyda is minimised. It is the stimulation of the amiglyda that leads to the secretion of adrenalin that is related to the modern diseases of hypertension, stress, diabetes, cancer etc. The key to prevention is suppression of the amiglyda.


Meditation is used in the treatment of stress related diseases, but in the future has a place in the management of hypertension etc. It is also interesting that meditation can be used as a key to the pain pathway. In the early 1960s a Buddhist priest burnt himself to death in the meditative position to protest against the Vietnam War. Not once did he flinch until he fell down dead. This is the power of meditation.  


Thousands of years ago, the great Asian philosophies showed the way to the development of the human mind. The scope is incomprehensible. The road is still open to venture. Realistic actions at the present moment with mental discipline free from conflict and in harmony is the answer. The key to harmony is morality and compassion.


The author is a medical consultant                                  

User Comments Post a Comment
Comments are free. However, comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate material will be removed from the site. Readers may report abuse at
Post a Comment

Back to Top