A 6‑Step Guide to Zen Buddhism, Presented by Psychiatrist-Zen Master Robert Waldinger

Robert Waldinger works as a part-time pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try at Har­vard Med­ical School, but he also describes him­self as a “Zen mas­ter.” This may strike some lis­ten­ers as a pre­sump­tu­ous claim, but he has indeed been offi­cial­ly accept­ed as a rōshi in two dif­fer­ent Zen lin­eages in the West. With one foot in psy­chi­a­try and the oth­er in Bud­dhism, Waldinger (pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for his work on hap­pi­ness and lone­li­ness) is well-placed to explain the lat­ter in terms amenable to the for­mer. In the Big Think video above, he breaks the ancient reli­gion — or mind­set, or way of being, or what­ev­er one prefers to call it — into six dis­tinct con­cepts: imper­ma­nence, noble truths, mind­ful­ness, attach­ment, lov­ing kind­ness, and begin­ner’s mind.

If you’ve felt any curios­i­ty about Zen Bud­dhism and pur­sued it online in recent years, the term mind­ful­ness will be famil­iar to the point of cliché. Waldinger per­son­al­ly defines it as “pay­ing atten­tion in the present moment with­out judg­ment.” You can work on your mind­ful­ness right now, he explains, “by sim­ply pay­ing atten­tion to what­ev­er stim­uli are reach­ing you. It might be your heart­beat, it might be your breath, it might be the sound of the fan in the room — any­thing — and sim­ply let­ting your­self be open and receive what­ev­er is here right now.” This can help us put into per­spec­tive the next con­cept, attach­ment, or our feel­ing “that the world be a cer­tain way,” which caus­es no amount of our dis­sat­is­fac­tion and even suf­fer­ing.

All of these ideas are much expand­ed on in pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary Bud­dhist texts, which any enthu­si­ast can spend a life­time read­ing. My own inter­est was first piqued by a pop­u­lar 1970 vol­ume called Zen Mind, Begin­ner’s Mind, a com­pi­la­tion of talks by a famous rōshi called Shun­ryū Suzu­ki Waldinger ref­er­ences Suzuk­i’s work in the final sec­tion of this video, and specif­i­cal­ly his obser­va­tion that “in the begin­ner’s mind, there are many pos­si­bil­i­ties. In the expert’s mind, there are few.” In Waldinger’s own expe­ri­ence, “the old­er I get, and the more peo­ple call me an expert, the more aware I am of how lit­tle I know.” True mas­tery lies in the aware­ness not of the knowl­edge we have, but the knowl­edge we don’t.

Relat­ed:

Bud­dhism 101: A Short Intro­duc­to­ry Lec­ture by Jorge Luis Borges

How Lone­li­ness Is Killing Us: A Primer from Har­vard Psy­chi­a­trist & Zen Priest Robert Waldinger

What Is a Zen Koan? An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to East­ern Philo­soph­i­cal Thought Exper­i­ments

The Wis­dom of Alan Watts in Four Thought-Pro­vok­ing Ani­ma­tions

What Are the Keys to Hap­pi­ness? Lessons from a 75-Year-Long Har­vard Study

The Zen of Bill Mur­ray: I Want to Be “Real­ly Here, Real­ly in It, Real­ly Alive in the Moment”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

What Is Religion Actually For?: Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury Weigh In

In the nine­teen-six­ties, the music media encour­aged the notion that a young rock-and-roll fan had to side with either the Bea­t­les or their rivals, the Rolling Stones. On some lev­el, it must have made sense, giv­en the grow­ing aes­thet­ic divide between the music the two world-famous groups were putting out. But, at bot­tom, not only was there no rival­ry between the bands (it was an inven­tion of the music papers), there was no real need, of course, to choose one or the oth­er. In the fifties, some­thing of the same dynam­ic must have obtained between Ray Brad­bury and Isaac Asi­mov, two pop­u­lar genre writ­ers, each with his own world­view.

Brad­bury and Asi­mov had much in com­mon: both were (prob­a­bly) born in 1920, both attend­ed the very first World Sci­ence Fic­tion Con­ven­tion in 1939, both began pub­lish­ing in pulp mag­a­zines in the for­ties, and both had an aver­sion to air­planes. That Brad­bury spent most of his life in Cal­i­for­nia and Asi­mov in New York made for a poten­tial­ly inter­est­ing cul­tur­al con­trast, though it nev­er seems to have been played up. Still, it may explain some­thing of the basic dif­fer­ence between the two writ­ers as it comes through in the video above, a com­pi­la­tion of talk-show clips in which Brad­bury and Asi­mov respond to ques­tions about their reli­gious beliefs, or lack there­of.

Asi­mov may have writ­ten a guide to the Bible, but he was hard­ly a lit­er­al­ist, call­ing the first chap­ters of Gen­e­sis “the sixth-cen­tu­ry BC ver­sion of how the world might have start­ed. We’ve improved on that since. I don’t believe that those are God’s words. Those are the words of men, try­ing to make the most sense that they could out of the infor­ma­tion they had at the time.” In a lat­er clip, Brad­bury, for his part, con­fess­es to a belief in not just Gen­e­sis, but also Dar­win and even Jean-Bap­tiste Lamar­ck, who the­o­rized that char­ac­ter­is­tics acquired in an organ­is­m’s life­time could be passed down to the next gen­er­a­tion. “Noth­ing is proven,” he declares, “so there’s room for a reli­gious del­i­catessen.”

One sens­es that Asi­mov would­n’t have agreed, and indeed, would have been per­fect­ly sat­is­fied with a reg­u­lar del­i­catessen. Though both he and Brad­bury became famous as sci­ence-fic­tion writ­ers around the same time — to say noth­ing of their copi­ous writ­ing in oth­er gen­res — they pos­sessed high­ly dis­tinct imag­i­na­tions. That works like Fahren­heit 451 and the Foun­da­tion tril­o­gy attract­ed such dif­fer­ent read­er­ships is explic­a­ble in part through Brad­bury’s insis­tence that “there’s room to believe it all” and Asi­mov’s dis­missal of what he saw as every “get-rich quick scheme of the mind” ped­dled by “con men of the spir­it”: each point of view as thor­ough­ly Amer­i­can, in its way, as the Bea­t­les and the Stones were thor­ough­ly Eng­lish.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: A Wit­ty, Eru­dite Atheist’s Guide to the World’s Most Famous Book

Ray Brad­bury Explains Why Lit­er­a­ture is the Safe­ty Valve of Civ­i­liza­tion (in Which Case We Need More Lit­er­a­ture!)

Isaac Asi­mov Explains His Three Laws of Robots

Carl Sagan Answers the Ulti­mate Ques­tion: Is There a God? (1994)

50 Famous Aca­d­e­mics & Sci­en­tists Talk About God

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Discover the Singing Nuns Who Have Turned Medieval Latin Hymns into Modern Hits

We now live, as one often hears, in an age of few musi­cal super­stars, but tow­er­ing ones. The pop­u­lar cul­ture of the twen­ty-twen­ties can, at times, seem to be con­tained entire­ly with­in the per­son of Tay­lor Swift — at least when the media mag­net that is Bey­on­cé takes a breather. But look past them, if you can, and you’ll find for­mi­da­ble musi­cal phe­nom­e­na in the unlike­li­est of places. Take the Poor Clares of Arun­del, a group of singing nuns from Sus­sex who, dur­ing the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, “smashed all chart records to become not only the high­est-chart­ing nuns in his­to­ry, but also the UK’s best-sell­ing clas­si­cal artist debut,” reports Clas­sic FM’s Mad­dy Shaw Roberts.

“Music is at the heart of the nuns’ wor­ship,” writes the Guardian’s Joan­na Moor­head, but the idea of putting out an album “came about ini­tial­ly as a bit of a joke.” Not long after receiv­ing a vis­it from a curi­ous music pro­duc­er, the singing Poor Clares — skilled and unskilled alike — found them­selves in a prop­er record­ing stu­dio, lay­ing down tracks.

Roberts describes the result­ing debut Light for the World as “a col­lec­tion of Latin hymns pro­duced for a twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry audi­ence, bring­ing calm and beau­ty dur­ing a time when so many were sep­a­rat­ed from their loved ones.” Just a few weeks ago, they released its fol­low-up May Peace I Give You, the video for whose title track appears at the top of the post.

May Peace I Give You comes from Dec­ca Records, a label famous in part for their rejec­tion, in 1962, of a scruffy rock-and-roll band called the Bea­t­les. Pre­sum­ably deter­mined not to make the same mis­take twice, they’ve since tak­en chances on all man­ner of acts, start­ing with the Rolling Stones; over the decades, they’ve reached beyond the well-trod­den spaces in pop­u­lar and clas­si­cal music. The suc­cess of the Poor Clares goes to show that this prac­tice con­tin­ues to pay off, and that — like the pop­u­lar Gre­go­ri­an chant and gospel booms of decades past — ven­er­a­ble holy music retains its res­o­nance even in our trend-dri­ven, not-espe­cial­ly-reli­gious age. And as the pro­mo­tion of their new Abbey Road-record­ed album proves, even for the monas­ti­cal­ly dis­ci­plined, some temp­ta­tions are irre­sistible.

via Clas­sic FM

Relat­ed con­tent:

A YouTube Chan­nel Com­plete­ly Devot­ed to Medieval Sacred Music: Hear Gre­go­ri­an Chant, Byzan­tine Chant & More

Expe­ri­ence the Mys­ti­cal Music of Hilde­gard Von Bin­gen: The First Known Com­pos­er in His­to­ry (1098 – 1179)

10 Rules for Appre­ci­at­ing Art by Sis­ter Wendy Beck­ett (RIP), the Nun Who Unex­pect­ed­ly Pop­u­lar­ized Art His­to­ry on TV

Man­u­script Reveals How Medieval Nun, Joan of Leeds, Faked Her Own Death to Escape the Con­vent

Reli­gious Songs That Sec­u­lar Peo­ple Can Love: Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Sam Cooke, John­ny Cash & Your Favorites

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

180,000 Years of Religion Charted on a “Histomap” in 1943

For many, even most of us mod­erns, the cen­tral reli­gious choice is a sim­ple one: adhere to the belief sys­tem in which you grew up, or stop adher­ing to it. But if you sur­vey the vari­ety of reli­gions in the world, the sit­u­a­tion no longer seems quite so bina­ry; if you then add the vari­ety of reli­gions that have exist­ed through­out human his­to­ry, it starts look­ing down­right kalei­do­scop­ic. Or rather, it looks some­thing like the faint­ly psy­che­del­ic but also infor­ma­tion-rich His­tom­ap of Reli­gion above, cre­at­ed in 1943 by chemist John B. Sparks, whom we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for his orig­i­nal His­tom­ap depict­ing 4,000 Years of World His­to­ry and his sub­se­quent His­tom­ap of Evo­lu­tion.

The Use­fulCharts video below explains Sparks’ His­tom­ap of Reli­gion in detail, but it also cites his His­tom­ap of Evo­lu­tion, an exam­ple of how his world­view fails to align with cur­rent per­cep­tions of these sub­jects. Even the new­er His­tom­ap of Reli­gion is by now more than 80 years old, dur­ing which time schol­ar­ship in reli­gion and relat­ed fields has made cer­tain dis­cov­er­ies and clar­i­fi­ca­tions that nec­es­sar­i­ly go unre­flect­ed in Sparks’ work. But if you bear this in mind while look­ing at the His­tom­ap of Reli­gion, you can still gain a new and use­ful per­spec­tive on how the beliefs that mankind has held high­est have changed and inter­min­gled over the mil­len­nia.

The chart begins in pre­his­to­ry, divid­ing the then-extant faiths into the cat­e­gories “mag­ic and fetishism,” “tabu and totemism,” “ances­tor wor­ship,” “trib­al gods and divine kings,” “pro­pi­ti­a­tion of nature spir­its,” and “fer­til­i­ty cults.” Though Sparks’ infor­ma­tion may on the whole be “based on the­o­ries about the ori­gins of reli­gion which have now been either reject­ed or at least seri­ous­ly revised,” explains Use­fulCharts cre­ator Matt Bak­er, “the gen­er­al ideas expressed by these six types are still some­what valid.” The expan­sion and con­trac­tion of adher­ence to these types of ear­ly reli­gion through time are reflect­ed by changes in the width of the col­ored columns that rep­re­sent them. Fol­low these columns down­ward through his­to­ry, and new, more famil­iar reli­gions emerge: Tao­ism, Judaism, Hin­duism, Bud­dhism, Chris­tian­i­ty both Catholic and Protes­tant.

There­after come oth­er move­ments and fig­ures per­haps not imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­niz­able as reli­gious in nature: “human­ism,” for exam­ple, whose rep­re­sen­ta­tives include Shake­speare and Rousseau. Lat­er, the ideas of Russ­ian intel­lec­tu­als Vis­sar­i­on Belin­sky and Alexan­der Herzen branch off to become, after about a cen­tu­ry, the “cor­rupt phi­los­o­phy” of com­mu­nism, with its “God-less pro­pa­gan­da” sup­port­ing a “police state aimed at world dom­i­na­tion.” Bak­er objects that, if Sparks counts com­mu­nism as a reli­gion, then sure­ly he should count cap­i­tal­ism as a reli­gion as well. This is a fair-enough point, though behold this dense chart of “cults, faiths, and eth­i­cal philoso­phies” long enough, and you’ll start to won­der if every­thing human­i­ty has ever done isn’t, in some sense, ulti­mate­ly reli­gious in nature.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Ani­mat­ed Map Shows How the Five Major Reli­gions Spread Across the World (3000 BC — 2000 AD)

The Tree of Lan­guages Illus­trat­ed in a Big, Beau­ti­ful Info­graph­ic

Joseph Priest­ley Visu­al­izes His­to­ry & Great His­tor­i­cal Fig­ures with Two of the Most Influ­en­tial Info­graph­ics Ever (1769)

4000 Years of His­to­ry Dis­played in a 5‑Foot-Long “His­tom­ap” (Ear­ly Info­graph­ic) From 1931

10 Mil­lion Years of Evo­lu­tion Visu­al­ized in an Ele­gant, 5‑Foot Long Info­graph­ic from 1931

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

An Architectural Tour of Sagrada Família, Antoni Gaudí’s Audacious Church That’s Been Under Construction for 142 Years

In less than a year and a half, the cen­te­nary of Antoni Gaudí’s death will be here. Faced with this fact, espe­cial­ly ded­i­cat­ed enthu­si­asts of Cata­lan archi­tec­ture may already be plan­ning their fes­tiv­i­ties. But we can be sure where the real pres­sure is felt: the Basíli­ca i Tem­ple Expi­a­tori de la Sagra­da Família, Gaudí’s most famous build­ing, which — as of tomor­row — has been under con­struc­tion for 142 years. When it first broke ground in 1882, Gaudí was­n’t involved at all, but when he took over the project the fol­low­ing year, he re-envi­sioned it in a dis­tinc­tive com­bi­na­tion of the Goth­ic and Art Nou­veau styles. The rest, as they say, is his­to­ry: a trou­bled, unpre­dictable his­to­ry con­tin­u­ing to this day, explained by archi­tec­ture-and-his­to­ry Youtu­ber Manuel Bra­vo in the video above.

Though it isn’t yet com­plete, you can vis­it Sagra­da Família; indeed, it’s long been the most pop­u­lar tourist attrac­tion in Barcelona. The expe­ri­ence of mar­veling at the basil­i­ca’s aston­ish­ing degree of detail and not-quite-of-this-Earth struc­ture is worth the price of admis­sion, which has helped to fund its ongo­ing con­struc­tion. But you’ll appre­ci­ate it on a high­er lev­el if you go with some­one who can explain its many unusu­al fea­tures, both archi­tec­tur­al and reli­gious — some­one with as much knowl­edge ad enthu­si­asm as Bra­vo, whom we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for his videos on Pom­peii, Venice, the Great Pyra­mids of Giza, and the Duo­mo di Firen­ze.

With Sagra­da Famíli­a’s pyra­mi­dal shape, Bra­vo explains, Gaudí “hoped to sug­gest a con­nec­tion between the human and the divine.” Its three façades are ded­i­cat­ed to the birth, death, and eter­nal life of Jesus Christ, to whom the cen­tral and tallest of its planned eigh­teen tow­ers will be ded­i­cat­ed. The cathe­dral’s exte­ri­or alone con­sti­tutes an “authen­tic Bible of stone,” but it can hard­ly pre­pare you to step into the inte­ri­or, with its “beau­ti­ful play of space, light, and col­or.” As Bra­vo puts it, “the pro­tag­o­nist here is the space itself,” envi­sioned by Gaudí as “a huge for­est” involv­ing no un-nature-like straight lines. All of it show­cas­es “the com­bi­na­tion of aes­thet­ics and effi­cien­cy” that defines the archi­tec­t’s work.

Bravo’s video runs a bit over twen­ty min­utes, but you could spend much, much longer appre­ci­at­ing every aspect of Sagra­da Família, those com­plet­ed in Gaudí’s life­time as well as those com­plet­ed by the many devot­ed arti­sans who have con­tin­ued his work for almost 100 years now. The archi­tect “knew quite well that he would not live to see the tem­ple com­plet­ed,” says Bra­vo, hence his hav­ing “left behind so many mod­els and draw­ings” for his suc­ces­sors to go on. They’re work­ing on a 2026 dead­line, but as Bra­vo notes, giv­en the inter­rup­tions inflict­ed by COVID-19, “that date seems unlike­ly.” But then, has there ever been as unlike­ly a build­ing as Sagra­da Família?

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Incred­i­ble Engi­neer­ing of Anto­nio Gaudí’s Sagra­da Famil­ia, the 137 Year Con­struc­tion Project

The Japan­ese Sculp­tor Who Ded­i­cat­ed His Life to Fin­ish­ing Gaudí’s Mag­num Opus, the Sagra­da Família

Venice Explained: Its Archi­tec­ture, Its Streets, Its Canals, and How Best to Expe­ri­ence Them All

Take a High Def, Guid­ed Tour of Pom­peii

How the World’s Biggest Dome Was Built: The Sto­ry of Fil­ip­po Brunelleschi and the Duo­mo in Flo­rence

What the Great Pyra­mids of Giza Orig­i­nal­ly Looked Like

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

The Founder of the Red Cross Creates a Diagram of the Apocalypse (1887)

His­to­ry remem­bers Hen­ry Dunant (1828–1910) for two things–being the co-founder of the Red Cross move­ment and win­ning the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.

Less well known is his dia­gram of the Apoc­a­lypse. Between 1877 and 1890, notes the Red Cross Muse­um web­site, Hen­ry Dunant “pro­duced a series of dia­grams reflect­ing his dis­tinc­tive under­stand­ing of humanity’s past and future. Inspired by Chris­t­ian revival­ism, the draw­ings depict a time­line from the Flood of Noah to what Dunant believed was an impend­ing Apoc­a­lypse. The dia­grams fuse mys­ti­cal ref­er­ences with bib­li­cal, his­toric and sci­en­tif­ic events, while also set­ting up a clear oppo­si­tion between Gene­va, as the cen­tre of the Ref­or­ma­tion, and the Catholic Church.”

The image above is the first draw­ing out of a series of four, made with col­ored pen­cils, ink, India ink, wax crayons, and water­col­ors. Writes Messy Nessy, Dunant “spent con­sid­er­able time on the draw­ings, organ­is­ing the sym­bol­ic ele­ments accord­ing to a strict log­ic, mak­ing prepara­to­ry sketch­es and painstak­ing­ly incor­po­rat­ing draw­ings and colour­ings into his chronol­o­gy.” All along, he was dri­ven by the belief that the Apoc­a­lypse was in the off­ing, just a short time way.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

In 1704, Isaac New­ton Pre­dicts the World Will End in 2060

A Sur­vival Guide to the Bib­li­cal Apoc­a­lypse

It’s the End of the World as We Know It: The Apoc­a­lypse Gets Visu­al­ized in an Inven­tive Map from 1486

Discover the World’s Oldest University, Which Opened in 427 CE, Housed 9 Million Manuscripts, and Then Educated Students for 800 Years

In the Bud­dhist Asia of a dozen cen­turies ago, the equiv­a­lent of going off to study at an Ivy League school was going off to study at Nalan­da. It was found­ed in the year 427 in what’s now the Indi­an state of Bihar, mak­ing it “the world’s first res­i­den­tial uni­ver­si­ty,” as Sug­a­to Mukher­jee writes at BBC trav­el. As it devel­oped, Nalan­da became a “home to nine mil­lion books that attract­ed 10,000 stu­dents from across East­ern and Cen­tral Asia. They gath­ered here to learn med­i­cine, log­ic, math­e­mat­ics and – above all – Bud­dhist prin­ci­ples from some of the era’s most revered schol­ars.”

Alas, despite being much old­er than the famous­ly ven­er­a­ble uni­ver­si­ties of Bologna, Oxford, or Cam­bridge, Nalan­da can’t claim to have been in con­tin­u­ous oper­a­tion since the fifth cen­tu­ry. Destroyed by maraud­ers dur­ing Turko-Afghan gen­er­al Bakhti­yar Khilji’s con­quest of north­ern and east­ern India in the 1190s, its vast cam­pus lay in obscure ruins until Scot­tish sur­vey­or Fran­cis Buchanan-Hamil­ton and British Army engi­neer Sir Alexan­der Cun­ning­ham redis­cov­ered and iden­ti­fied it, respec­tive­ly, in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry.

In its near­ly eight cen­turies of ini­tial activ­i­ty, writes Mukher­jee, Nalan­da attract­ed pro­to-inter­na­tion­al stu­dents from all over Asia, and “reg­u­lar­ly sent some of its best schol­ars and pro­fes­sors to places like Chi­na, Korea, Japan, Indone­sia and Sri Lan­ka to prop­a­gate Bud­dhist teach­ings and phi­los­o­phy.” Its notable fac­ul­ty mem­bers includ­ed Aryab­ha­ta, “the father of Indi­an math­e­mat­ics,” who may have been its head in the sixth cen­tu­ry, and Chi­nese Bud­dhist monk Xuan­zang, who returned to his home­land in 645 with “a wag­onload of 657 Bud­dhist scrip­tures from Nalan­da.” Lat­er “he would trans­late a por­tion of these vol­umes into Chi­nese to cre­ate his life’s trea­tise.”

Image by Sum­it­surai, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Of the nine mil­lion hand­writ­ten Bud­dhist man­u­scripts in Nalan­da’s library at the time of its destruc­tion, “only a hand­ful” sur­vived. Some of them even­tu­al­ly made their way to the Los Ange­les Coun­ty Muse­um of Art, a fit­ting enough trib­ute to the world-span­ning out­look of the insti­tu­tion. Not far from its orig­i­nal loca­tion, now a UNESCO World Her­itage site, Nalan­da is mak­ing a come­back as an inter­na­tion­al place of learn­ing for the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. You can get a sense of how that project is shap­ing up from the BBC Reel video above. “I think we are already a uni­ver­si­ty of the future,” says its Vice Chan­cel­lor Sunaina Singh, and indeed, a promis­ing vision of the future needs noth­ing quite so much as a suf­fi­cient­ly deep past.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Intro­duc­tion to Indi­an Phi­los­o­phy: A Free Online Course

The Most Dis­tant Places Vis­it­ed by the Romans: Africa, Scan­di­navia, Chi­na, India, Ara­bia & Oth­er Far-Flung Lands

Learn the His­to­ry of Indi­an Phi­los­o­phy in a 62 Episode Series from The His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy With­out Any Gaps: The Bud­dha, Bha­gavad-Gita, Non Vio­lence & More

One of the Old­est Bud­dhist Man­u­scripts Has Been Dig­i­tized & Put Online: Explore the Gand­hara Scroll

How 99% of Ancient Lit­er­a­ture Was Lost

The Largest Free Kitchen in the World: Dis­cov­er India’s Gold­en Tem­ple Which Serves 100,000 Free Meals Per Day

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Is Consciousness an Illusion?? Five Experts in Science, Religion & Technology Explain

Even among non-neu­ro­sci­en­tists, deter­min­ing the ori­gin and pur­pose of con­scious­ness is wide­ly known as “the hard prob­lem.” Since its coinage by philoso­pher David Chalmers thir­ty years ago, that label has worked its way into a vari­ety of con­texts; about a decade ago, Tom Stop­pard even used it for the title of a play. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, it’s also ref­er­enced in the episode of Big Think’s Dis­patch­es from the Well above, which presents dis­cus­sions of the nature of con­scious­ness with neu­ro­sci­en­tist Christof Koch, Vedan­ta Soci­ety of New York min­is­ter Swa­mi Sar­vapriyanan­da, tech­nol­o­gy entre­pre­neur Reid Hoff­man, San­ta Fe Insti­tute Davis Pro­fes­sor of Com­plex­i­ty Melanie Mitchell, and math­e­mat­i­cal physi­cist Roger Pen­rose.

Koch describes con­scious­ness as “what you see, it’s what you hear, it’s the pains you have, the love you have, the fear, the pas­sion.” It is, in oth­er words, “the expe­ri­ence of any­thing,” and for all their sophis­ti­ca­tion, our mod­ern inquiries into it descend from René Descartes’ propo­si­tion, “Cog­i­to, ergo sum.” Sar­vapriyanan­da, too, makes ref­er­ence to Descartes in explain­ing his own con­cep­tion of con­scious­ness as “the light of lights,” by which “every­thing here is lit up.”

Mitchell con­ceives of it as a con­tin­u­um: “I’m more con­scious when I’m awake,” for exam­ple, and “cer­tain species are more con­scious than oth­er species.” And per­haps it could devel­op even in non-bio­log­i­cal enti­ties: “I don’t think that we have any machines that are con­scious in any inter­est­ing sense yet,” Mitchell says, but “if we ever do, they’ll be part of that spec­trum.”

The ques­tion of whether a machine can attain con­scious­ness nat­u­ral­ly aris­es in host Kmele Fos­ter’s con­ver­sa­tion with Hoff­man, who’s made seri­ous invest­ments in arti­fi­cial-intel­li­gence research. As impres­sive as AI chat­bots have late­ly become, few among us would be will­ing to deem them con­scious; nev­er­the­less, attempt­ing to cre­ate not just intel­li­gence but con­scious­ness in machines may prove a fruit­ful way to learn about the work­ings of the “gen­uine arti­cles” with­in us. Pen­rose’s the­o­ry holds that con­scious­ness aris­es from as-yet-unpre­dictable quan­tum process­es occur­ring in the micro­tubules of the brain. Per­haps, as Koch has sug­gest­ed, it actu­al­ly exists to one degree or anoth­er in all forms of mat­ter. Or maybe — to quote from a song in heavy rota­tion on my child­hood Walk­man — it’s just what you make of your­self.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Neu­ronal Basis of Con­scious­ness Course: A Free Online Course from Cal­tech

John Sear­le Makes A Force­ful Case for Study­ing Con­scious­ness, Where Every­thing Else Begins

Real­i­ty Is Noth­ing But a Hal­lu­ci­na­tion: A Mind-Bend­ing Crash Course on the Neu­ro­science of Con­scious­ness

The Sim­u­la­tion The­o­ry Explained In Three Ani­mat­ed Videos

What Is High­er Con­scious­ness?: How We Can Tran­scend Our Pet­ty, Day-to-Day Desires and Gain a Deep­er Wis­dom

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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