Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Vishvapani and Dorothy Rowe Discuss Buddhism, Science and Reality at the North London Buddhist Centre

Vishavapani writes:
On April 11 I took part in a special event at the North London Buddhist Centre: a dialogue between myself and Dorothy Rowe, a well known psychologist and author. She writes accessible but intelligent books on emotions and psychology with a somewhat subversive slant, the best known being Beyond Fear and Depression: the Way out of your Prison. Now in her 80s, Dorothy Rowe is a respected broadcaster and commentator with an impressive ability to write about common experiences with depth and honesty and express profound ideas with great lucidity.

Our connection started when Dorothy wrote appreciatively on her blog about one of my Thought for the Day broadcasts. I proudly put a quote on my website and eventually we got into dialogue. When I came to plan events to launch my book, Gautama Buddha: the Life and Teachings of the Awakened One, wanted to do more than just giving straight talks or Q&A, so I proposed a joint event. As Dorothy lives near the North London Buddhist Centre, where I am the President, I proposed an event there.

Interest was so strong that we did relatively little publicity, relying on local interest and personal invitations. Around 80 people came on the night, many of them friends and contacts from the worlds of British Buddhism, Interfaith, the media and psychotherapy as well as members of the NLBC Sangha and others from Triratna in London. The theme of the evening was focused by Dorothy's most recent book, Why We Lie? She argues that we lie to protect ourselves and that the ultimate reason we need this protection is that our sense of ourselves as fixed, enduring subjects who know for sure what is real is an illusion.

Paramabandhu, a London-based psychiatrist and Order member, chaired the evening. I spoke first, describing the Buddha’s journey to enlightenment and discussing his teachings in terms of truth and lies. I connected Dorothy’s discussion of lies with the Buddhist notion of delusion and suggested that the Buddha spoke of the ‘three great lies’ we tell ourselves: that the elements of our experience are permanent when they are actually impermanent; that they are solid and knowable when they are insubstantial; and that they we can rely on them to make us happy when they are bound up with suffering and unsatisfactoriness.

Dorothy started her talk by saying that "Buddhism is the only set of beliefs that have been proved right by science and have a scientific support." She was thinking of the Buddhist account of the self and approached her understanding of this by discussing the view of human identity that is being revealed by neuroscience She said:

"Our brain constructs things and creates fiction: a picture of the world. That picture is inside my head, but the brain persuades me that it is outside. We see the world as we have learned to see it, not as it is, and we are incapable of seeing reality directly. Some of the ideas the brain creates out of our experience become our sense of being a person. But these ideas are constantly being invalidated, and so we feel anxious and insecure."

Our discussion and the questions we were asked ranged over many topics, and I found the evening stimulating and enjoyable. I was struck that Dorothy’s main topic was, in effect, anatta – the Buddhist teaching that we lack a fixed self and I reflected that the Buddhists I know tend to shy away from this subject, or the connected topic of sunyata, perhaps thinking that it is beyond the level of beginners and perhaps prone to misunderstanding. It was bracing to hear it expressed as a vital truth and one that is confirmed by scientific observation.

I also reflected on how fresh and stimulating it felt to engage in dialogue with a thoughtful and sympathetic non-Buddhist. At times it seemed that the insights of psychotherapy and neuroscience into the human condition were interacting with the Dharma and each was casting fresh light on the another.

You can listen to the dialogue here: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/audio/details?num=LOC760

Vishvapani is starting a blog at www.wiseattention.org.



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