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Consciousness and Quantum Physics

Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

August 26, 2006

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Verse on the Eighth (Store) Consciousness

“With its indeterminate (and non-obscuring) nature, the eighth consciousness operates with the five Universals.” The five Universals are contact, attention, feelings, perception, and volition. Volition is the motor of consciousness, the willingness to respond, to act. These five are universal because they are the basis of all consciousness.

“Realms and Lands depend on karmic power.” Whether you live in the realm of desire, of fine form, or of no form depends on your actions. Lands here means the ten lands of the practitioner. In the beginning with your practice you arrive at the Land of Joy, of happiness, and you continue to the second land, the third land, until you arrive at the tenth land and become a Buddha. You have buddhahood innate in you.

“People belonging to the lesser Vehicles do not know about the eighth consciousness because of their attachment and wrong views. It is for this reason that they still debate about its presence.” When we speak of the subconscious of Freud and the collective unconscious of Jung, we speak of one part of store consciousness. But store consciousness is much larger.

“How immense is the Unfathomable Triple Store!” We have spoken about the triple store aspect — the storing, what is stored, and the object of grasping. “From the deep ocean of the Store arise the seven waves of the seven evolving consciousnesses, the wind being the object of their cognition! This consciousness receives impregnation, preserves all seeds and also the body, organs and environment.” This is a very important sentence. The word is translated as “impregnation” here but in terms of thought processes it is learning, apprenticing, computing. That is the word vasana, perfuming.

The image they use in the sutra is tea. If you want to have jasmine tea you put jasmine flowers into a tea box for a few nights. The jasmine scent penetrates the tea and you have jasmine tea. For lotus tea, the people in Vietnam used to go to the lotus pond in the early afternoon in a small boat, and insert a small quantity of tea into each lotus flower. At six or seven o'clock the lotus flower closes and during the whole night the tea gets impregnation from the lotus flavor. In the morning they bring hot water and a tea pot to the middle of the lotus pond, they recover the tea from the lotus flower, and they have lotus tea. That is a very poetic way of having tea. People now are too busy to do that; they call it a waste of time. Time is to make money, not to do things like that.

The word vasana means impregnation, learning, processing. Because the consciousness is plastic, it can be conditioned. If we have habit energies and patterns of behavior, that is because of vasana. We develop those during the first six years of our life and we continue to do that.

The eighth preserves all the seeds, and of course memory, images, and all experience, and all the organs also. This body is maintained in life by store consciousness. What the neuroscientists call background consciousness is only something manifested together with the body.

In psychology we only speak of the first type of seeds: they manifest in mind consciousness as mental formations. There are fifty-one mental formations. The body with its five organs is the fruit of our retribution, and it has also come from store. The environment, which is another aspect of manifestation, is another aspect of our retribution. In Buddhism please remember that our retribution is double: we ourselves and our environment. People around you are part of you and part of your retribution. You get what you deserve. If you have a president like that, that's your karma, you have created him or her. He is born from your store consciousness, somehow, more or less collectively.

“It is the one who comes first and leaves last, being truly a master of the house!” This is speaking about the energy that animates the body. A living body always has store consciousness in it. When the body deteriorates, that manifestation withdraws at the same time, but returns to the seed in order to manifest again and again, like the earth. The earth brings us to life, the earth receives us back, and the earth will bring us out again. So life after life. That is the meaning of continuation, of rebirth. The rebirth of our body is linked to the rebirth of our environment. So this is the base, and that is why we call it basic consciousness.

In Western psychology, the subconscious is only background consciousness and actor consciousness. Background consciousness is part of the store and actor consciousness is part of the mind consciousness. But the store consciousness is much larger — it is immense. We need to think of store in terms of collective store and individual store.

Quantum Coherence in Practice

There is nothing complicated here! I think we have to establish the link between biology and quantum physics. One day we should have a unified vision, from cell we go to molecules but we have to go further, all the way to a quantum mechanical description involving fundamental particles or energies. Quantum properties may be detected in consciousness and in the brain . In our practice, every time we sit together and breathe together we come into phase and we create a coherence among ourselves or a holistic property of the sangha. Every time we become mindful of the bell and the breath, we are no longer separated from each other; we become one, all one organism. When we walk, if everyone is breathing and walking together, we lose our boundaries and we become something much more powerful. We can experience that in our practice.

Quantum coherence has been detected by neuroscientists. They have discovered that biological tissues, when they are excited with the right energy level, begin to emit a tiny glow. We know that there are a multitude of molecules of fat and proteins in the membrane of each cell. They are truly electromagnetic dipoles.

When a cell is at rest, these molecules of fat and proteins have their dipoles arranged in a haphazard way. They are out of phase . But when there is stimulation, they begin to jiggle intensively and oscillate in unison. One molecule behaves like the totality of all molecules. You begin to see the holistic property of a Bose-Einstein condensate.

Einstein predicted with mathematics that when we are able to bring the atoms of a substance down in temperature to near absolute zero, every particle behaves like the totality. Every particle loses its boundary and occupies the whole of time and space in that place. It is possible to use laser beams to bombard these particles to bring them down to a temperature very close to absolute zero. Scientists have been able to do that with certain gases, a certain liquids, including gases of sodium and rubidium as well as liquid helium. That is what Einstein called a Bose-Einstein condensate (named for Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein).

Einstein said that we can make the particles sing in unison. The one behaves like the totality and the totality can be seen in the one. We learn that in the case of a laser beam, all the photons in the laser beam behave holistically, they don't have their own boundaries anymore. They behave just like one photon, similar to a Bose-Einstein condensate.

We don't need to bring our brain down to a temperature near absolute zero. At body temperature we can observe behavior analogous to quantum properties, quantum coherence. This is very promising.

When the cell is excited with the right energy level, all the electrical dipoles come together and begin to oscillate together, to sing in unison. In Plum Village we try to imitate that model, when we sit and listen to the bell, when we walk, when we chant. We try to lose our boundaries and be just one. We try to create quantum coherence in our practice. This environment is very nourishing and healing.

When all the dipoles of these molecules come together and oscillate together, it sounds like beautiful music. They are in phase. They are suddenly coordinated. The practice of mindfulness and concentration can induce our brain to create such states of being. We can practically hold the brain circuits in a coherent place with our practice of breathing and walking. We can maintain that with samadhi or concentration. Samadhi means to hold at the same level, not off and on, off and on, but always on and at the same level.

Knowing That You Don't Know

We can practice looking deeply in order to get insight. That kind of peace, harmony, and insight can be downloaded to the store. If we continue we can erase the wrong programs. We can rewire how the brain works. Transformation is possible with the work of mind consciousness because mind consciousness is the gardener. It has the power of the gardener and it can take care of the garden. With the process of relearning and reprocessing, we can create positive beautiful patterns of behavior. Peace, harmony, and insight can transform the store, transform manas, and free mind consciousness. They free store consciousness totally.

Teachers throughout Buddhist history have tried their best to create means to help us understand. This kind of teaching does not aim at describing the truth, but aims at helping you to practice. If you are good practitioners you may be able to improve how truth is described and presented.

There is much in common between the practice of Buddhism and science. In Buddhism people stress that we should not cling to our notions, our truth, especially when our truth is described conceptually, because then we have not arrived at the deeper truth. Of course in Buddhism we have to use concepts and words but we are warned by the Buddha not to be caught in them; we should be ready to release what we know. To say “I don't know” is very positive.

Confucius said something like this: The moment you say I don't know, you begin to know. If you don't know and you say you know, you don't know anything. So “I do not know” is a very good practice.

Dharma Rain

Well, seven days is not much! But it has been a wonderful opportunity to come together to focus on a very important topic. It has been wonderful to walk, sit, breathe with you, to receive the dharma as rain, to laugh, to look at each other. It is my deepest hope that you can continue at home the practice of breathing and walking mindfully. And if I'm still around in 2008 let us come together for a twenty-one-day retreat with the title “The Brain of the Buddha.”

Please take Plum Village home with you in your heart. We need you to smile and breathe mindfully. If you can do that, space and time will no longer be obstacles.

Transcribed and edited by Janelle Combelic, with help from proofreader Elaine Hild, quantum physicist Ray Simmonds, and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

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