Letters to the Editor

Diane Rosenstein

"Samsara for Lease," 1993 photograph by Diane Rosenstein

GENOME BUDDHA
I would like to respond to "The Science of Compassion," by Jeffrey Zaleski in the Winter Issue. Many Buddhist teachings point to some quality of our existence as it is, and say, "This is it! This very body is the body of the Buddha. This very mind is the pure mind of the Buddha." We might find this somewhat difficult to accept, but if you reflect on something as miraculous as the structure and function of chromosomes—which are present not only in the human genome, but in all the so-called biological realms—you might accept that the very foundation of our "composite" existence is subtly and wonderfully pure. They function in a realm which we call form because we can describe its morphology, but which we cannot grasp, like the rainbow.

I don't believe that there is any quality of the genome itself which denies or restricts the possibilities of our Buddha-nature.

Ultimately, I believe there is no gap at all between chromosomes and compassion or science and compassion. The enlightened state of mind, which is the background of all phenomena, provides the fuel for intellectual speculation in the same way that the sun is the first source of all chemical bonds in nature that provide energy for life.

Biological science does not hinder my understanding of Buddha's teachings. However, how any scientist can come to a full understanding of the subject he or she studies without the teachings of the Buddha, I don't know.

I'm reminded of Dogen Zenji, the Soto Zen Patriarch, who wrote in the thirteenth century, "That we move ourselves and understand all things is ignorance. That things advance and understand themselves is enlightenment."

Rinchen David Stopher
Alpine, Texas

I am grateful to Jeffrey Zaleski for his insightful observations relating my field of sociobiology to certain fundamental issues in Buddhism. I must take issue with some of his points, however. First, it is—fortunately—not true that "Each of us shares no genes with the vast majority of humanity, much less with the rest of sentient life." Population geneticists have demonstrated that we share about ninety percent of our genome with chimpanzees, and at least ninety-eight percent with other human beings, even those not in any way countable as our "relatives." The basic mechanics of cell function are identical in virtually all animals which leads in turn to genetic identity at the overwhelming majority of chromosomal "loci." The biology of altruism to which Mr. Zaleski refers depends for its cogency on the one percent or so of human genes which we do not share.

Second, behavioral tendencies—even if "biological"—only rarely lead immutably to social results. As I emphasized in The Whisperings Within (Harper & Row) from which Mr. Zaleski kindly quotes, our genes are not tyrants. They do not command, or shout. It can be misleading, moreover, to interpret genetic predispositions as fixed especially among Homo Sapiens, the most adaptable of living things. To be sure, cultural tradition often distorts biological inclinations, a process that in a subsequent book (The Hare and the Tortoise) I labeled "cultural hyperextension."

Finally, Mr. Zaleski imagines "the double helixes of my DNA coiling through my cells, chaining my aspiration for compassion to the inexorable fact of my genetic inheritance as certianly as gravity chains me to the earth." The crucial question for Buddhists—as indeed for anyone else—is not whether we are innately compassionate, with the implication that if we are not, all is lost. Rather, it is, How shall we live? If our "natural" inclinations were all good and worth following, or if they were incapable of modification, there would be little call for teachings and teachers, or for extended periods of training and study. Gravity is an inexorable law, but the simple fact that things fall down does not mean that we cannot build.

David P. Barash
Redmond, Washington

A couple of thoughts about science and compassion. First, the closer science intrudes on subjects that are ruled by emotions, the hotter things get: I doubt anybody got too excited when mathematicans proved the impossibility of squaring the circle. But with physics and astronomy—supposedly neutral subjects—the temperature starts to rise Gust ask Copernicus). And by the time we get to Darwin, Freud—and Richard Dawkin's book, "The Selfish Gene"—we've got an existential free-for-all.

And second: how would our modern thinkers think if they lived in the optimistic atmosphere of, say, the Renaissance? Let me pick on Dawkins again: how would he view science and compassion if he had the realization of Shakyamuni Buddha or the Dalai Lama?

David Dixon
Indianapolis, Indiana

 

Jeffrey Zaleski Responds:

Strictly speaking, David Barash is correct about the near universality of the genome. I meant my statement about gene-sharing in the colloquial sense, in the way that allowed the straw man of my article, Richard Dawkins, to write in The Selfish Gene that "Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes which is anyone of us is bound to crumble away. Elizabeth Il is a direct descendent of William the Conquerer. Yet it is quite probable that she bears not a simgle one of the old king 's genes. "

Mr. Barash's other points, and those raised by David Dixon and Rinchen David Stopher, are also well taken—particularly the latter's comment that a scientist can come to a full understanding of his or her subject only by examining it in the glow of enlightened teaching. Indeed, that was the basic point of my article. I wrote about the science of compassion, but the law surely must apply to every inquiry based solely on logic and relative empiricism: that the "existential free-for-all" of which Mr. Dixon speaks will necessarily ensue, absent the insight of wisdom mind.

 

EXPLANATION REQUIRED

One day my friend and I cruised into his favorite avant-garde bookstore/cafe, and lo and behold, Tricycle: The BUDDHIST Review jumped out to me and practically knocked me off my feet.

I thought I had a gold mine in my hands, but it seems I'm not "into" Buddhism enough. I have no idea what you are talking about! I put aside the last three issues and made myself read them. In the Fall 1992 issue, the only story I liked was Stephen Batchelor's "Rebirth" (it was in English). Please, I'm trying to understand. For example, you talk of samsara, sangha, dharma—I know those are basics, but why can't you have explanations for them?

Joan Tsatsonis
Fairhaven, Massachusetts

Tricycle Responds:

We do appreciate your frustration but we're doing our best to accommodate the needs of a wide range of readers. We try to provide parenthetical definitions of unfamiliar terms and are now considering the inclusion of a glossary. -Ed.

E. Subitzky

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