I was listening to the audio of a retreat being led by Pema Chodron, an American who is a Buddhist nun. She says about a million interesting things, but I wanted to focus in on one of them. The Buddha himself said not to take any of his teachings on faith, but rather to check them out yourself, and this is in that spirit.
In her talk Ani Pema assures us that we have the same mind as the Buddha, the same potential for awakening. Big statement, but I think I have a bit of scientific proof (no, I don’t have the Buddha’s brain in a jar — sit down wise guy!)
Many years ago, I read in a book (sorry don’t remember at all which one!) an experience that the author had when he was able to actually see the cave paintings left behind by Cro-Magnons in what is now France. You might say he had a bit of instant enlightenment. He said that when he got into the cave and saw the paintings up close — the detail, how each mark was made, the “brushstrokes” — that he just broke down and cried. Across some 30,000 years of time he realized that the creator of this work had a brain just like his. In an instant he said, they were no longer “cavemen” or “primitive men” but just men. Fully developed humans like you see everyday. Which of course they were. And if a band of hunter-gatherers huddled together in a cave some 30,000 years ago were fully developed, imagine what you are. 🙂
I had a similar eureka moment a couple of years ago, this time with some really advanced minds. If you don’t want to read my ancient drivel, I will summarize briefly.
Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate in physics, and often recognized as a genius of the stature of Einstein, poopooed the notion that his brain was any different from anyone elses. He credited his success the opportunity to learn the background of and be given the time for working on the complex problems of physics. He didn’t say it directly, but he seemed to feel he was more tenascious than brilliant. In fact, he referred to his tenacity, the need to come back to a problem over and over again until it was solved, as a kind of insanity.
And perhaps he was right.
But I will add one Buddhist element to his “insanity.” Feynman and Einstein (and anyone else in that realm) must have had an extraordinarily clear mind in two respects. First they must have looked at the world with no preconceived notions, or as few as possible. How else can you discover something new? The second thing is that they must have been able to quiet their minds — well, their other minds — to think as they did. That is to say, I don’t know if you can work out the special theory of relativity for the first time if your mind is chattering like the rest of ours.
“How long to lunch? Why did I think that? Do my socks match today? I wonder what the weather will be like tomorrow. Did Madonna kidnap that kid from Africa? Gosh, light is really, really fast…pretty though” And on and on. It is not so much that the thoughts are mundane, but there are so many, so unfocused…and then so many more!
The genius must enter into what is essentially a meditative state where he or she can focus on the problem at hand pretty exclusively, but also not judge the solution until it is followed to a conclusion. Many times correct solutions have been discarded by less focused thinkers in scientific history.
I can see clearly that Ani Pema is correct. We do have the same brain, the same mind as the Buddha — and Einstein and Feynman, and with training and effort we too can awaken.