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brian sinclair science + spirit


 

EMPTINESS: SCIENCE, SPIRIT AND

THE SEARCH FOR THE IN-BETWEEN

 

Dr. Brian R. Sinclair, PhD FRAIC AIA(Intl)

Faculty of Environmental Design

University of Calgary, Canada

 

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters,

compared to what lies within us.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

ABSTRACT

Architectural design presents a viable model for complex problem-solving beyond its disciplinary borders. Our contemporary condition, with its plethora of convoluted and inter-related aspects, demands systems thinking and holistic attention. The dualistic thinking so prevalent in the West can be seen as one root cause of suffering, or samsara. The arbitrary split of science and spirit has led us down a path of difficulty and dilemma. Buddhist philosophy teaches that this dualism or separation is problematic. Sunyata, or emptiness, holds that such polarized thinking is misguided and that appearances are illusory. Many of our contemporary problems surface because of dualistic thinking and our delusionary view that such thinking expresses truth and reality. This notion of sunyata contends that form is void – our conceptions are artificial constructs that are subject to change, much like waves that surface out of the vast ocean below.

 

Architectural design, through its effective marriage of art, science, and spirit, provides one exemplar with which to tackle modern maladies. The reintroduction of spirit into the equation of systems approaches may further serve to address ‘global bystander apathy’, or the situation whereby individuals feel helpless and powerless standing in the midst of overwhelming crises. Through the invocation of spirit that is brought in balance with science, our society may gain the insight and wisdom necessary to improve our realm. The Western world, and the Western mind, is at a point of ‘kairos’, that moment that is ripe for metamorphosis of the gods and that place between destruction and renewal. The current paper presents numerous questions, posits some different considerations, and calls for the forging of new relationships at this unique and critical juncture in time and space.

 

The schism between science and spirit is one very visible manifestation of dualistic thought; the tension between the two and our attachment to them gives rise to conflict and suffering. Architectural design is paradigmatic in that its practice bridges art and science while, consequentially, including spirit. Its holistic approach is exemplary for the solving of complex problems – architecture’s union of art-science-spirit reflects the Nagarjuna assertion of the Middle Way, and as such begins to counter dualistic entrenchment. In the art-science and science-spirit debates, architecture’s stance is to refuse to accept exclusively any of the positions. The Indian classification system of Satvik, Rajsik and Tamsik, as delineated by Kumar (1999), provides an interesting and promising framework that can overlay and inform the architectural design process. Architectural design processes, especially if executed in the nature of Satvik, have rich potential for the development and intervention of environments, and problem-solving in a more general sense, for a world at risk.

 

KEYWORDS
Science, Spirit, Systems, Architecture, Design, World Wisdom, Buddhism, Sunyata, Emptiness, Holism

 

ONE

 

“We live in an age of nuclear giants and ethical infants, in a world that has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. We have solved the mystery of the atom and forgotten the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about dying than we know about living.”

General Omar Bradley

 

“Where is the life we have lost in living?”

T. S. Eliot

 

Progress is often cherished and rewarded in contemporary Western culture, although its definition and tolerance seems to have become increasingly narrow and restricted in recent years. In North America progress is seen as a heroic pursuit, with growth and profit clear measures of success. Quarterly performance, short-term vision, mergers and takeovers, aggregation and conglomeration are all cast as good indicators of economic virility and a brighter tomorrow. Yet, in spite of high standards of living and plenty of six-digit salaries, progress in the West has frequently been portrayed as sadly misdirected and dramatically harmful. In this line of thinking our obsession with technology and bottom-lines has come at great cost – namely an almost complete and unquestionably risky unraveling of the tapestry of unity and holism that has served humankind through our long history on this planet. Assuming center stage is rationalism, empiricism, reductionism and ‘fact-as-measured-by-instrumentation’. Relegated to the margins are those dimensions of life which we seem to most desperately need today: relationship to nature, a sense of spirit, connection to place, and the assurances of community.

 

Resurgence editor Satish Kumar (2000) has spoken of the triad of ‘soil, soul and society’. Others refer to the trinity of mind, body and spirit in an effort to convey the complementary aspects of our lives that make us whole. The Western mind, in large measure through the development of science and the scientific method, has ushered in a deep divide between humankind and nature. While science has unquestionably contributed much to our quality of life, and to our understanding of the world around us, its Cartesian separation of mind from matter is unsettling. In our modern ethos we have moved far too quickly, and with overconfidence, towards the clear distinction of subject from object.

 

In our ‘progress-oriented’ delusion we have become enamored with technology and uncomfortable with soul. While the race for improved economic outcomes benefits immediate stakeholders through yearly dividends and returns, it has negative and profound impact outside the shareholders sphere of existence. Not the least inconsequential of these issues are social injustice, unrestrained consumption, unsustainable economics, destruction of community, and homogenization of cultures. In a 1916 lecture at Allahabad University, Mahatma Gandhi spoke to the question ‘Is economic progress real progress?’. In response Gandhiji noted, “I take it by economic progress we mean material advancement without limit, and by real progress we mean moral progress.” He went on to clarify his position: “Modern society has always assumed that growth is progress, that you grow or die. And we continue to delude ourselves into believing that more and more technology is progress and an answer to our problems.” Gandhi’s insight and foresight, almost a century ago, prove remarkably wise today. Throughout the past one hundred years we have witnessed the repressive hegemony of our modern Western industrial machine, driven largely by and in the name of science and technology. It seems the primary objective of this path has been to control and manipulate rather than to cooperate and participate.

 

Today we are obsessed with the neat, the clean, the carefully packaged, the easily acquired, the readily processed, the quickly understood, the extremely digestible, the fast, the cheap, the shallow, and the transient. A friend of mine, a Buddhist monk skilled in the mystical arts and a newcomer to America, conveyed to me his frustration trying to teach in a society that demands rapid response, quick answers, and ‘mastery-in-a-box’. He offered a course to laypersons on the art of thangka painting, a highly intricate and stylized art form requiring much patience and great skill. At the initial class students conveyed their goals of producing final ‘wall-ready’ paintings by the end of the course -- within weeks many had dropped out, with the persistent ones concerned about insufficient progress. These students are not to be faulted; they have been conditioned by a culture that celebrates mobility above stability and image before content.

 

The question of cultural conditioning is an interesting aspect of contemporary America. Spin-doctors and media-types work on the system, delivering the message of what we should buy, what we should eat, what we should think and, in the final equation, who we should be. The aggressive message delivery, versus encouraging ‘thinking-on-one’s-own’, begins in K-12 education and arguably earlier through the potent vehicle of television. For example, in an article on educational approaches Sarason (1998) notes, “The most rigorous study done of question-asking in classrooms found that in a forty-five minute period the average number of questions asked by students was two, and in some classrooms it may have been one student who asked the questions. The number of questions asked by teachers varied from a minimum of forty to well over a hundred.” Educational reform has been slow to surface and see realization. Likewise, other steps to stem the tide of cultural conditioning in the West have been less than effective. The popularization of culture and the ‘dumbing down’ of its participants charges forward. Tsunamis prove uncontrollable.

 

Related to our current omnipresent and pervasive cultural conditioning is the psychological and sociological phenomena of ‘bystander apathy’ (Latane & Darley, 1969). In 1964 38 neighbors watched and listened, but did not act to help, as Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered in urban America. The term ‘bystander apathy’ was coined to try and characterize the diffusion of individual and personal responsibility that surfaced in this case. Residents in the housing complex where the murder occurred stared out their windows onto the courtyard in denial, all believing that something so bad cannot be happening. All watched the drama unfold in helpless fascination. Tarnas (2000) writes that the schism between human beings and nature has ushered in a deep desacralization of the world. He argues this has “coincided with an increasingly destructive human exploitation of the natural environment, a devastation of indigenous and traditional cultures, and an increasingly unhappy state of the human soul.” Certainly as individuals many people recognize this serious state of affairs. However, I believe that like the neighbors of Kitty Genovese, many people today are in a state of denial. They suffer from ‘global bystander apathy’, passively observing as our natural resources are depleted, our cities are rendered uninhabitable, the gap between rich and poor widens, our children go hungry, and transnational corporations wrestle power and control from governments and citizens. The modern world effects radical separation of subject and object, feeling and thinking, inner and outer – the planet is being murdered while its inhabitants “watch the drama unfold in helpless fascination.”

 

While the present split between head and heart seems undeniable, it is important to seek paths that serve to reconnect these symbiotic dimensions of our being. It is always a difficult debate to posit spiritual avenues on one hand and scientific routes on the other. Nonetheless, the search for a system that embraces both is crucial to our effective grasp of the cosmos and to the resolution of our many pressing and threatening crises. Tarnas (2000) states that, to counter the disenchantment of the universe, “We need ways of knowing that integrate the imagination, the intuition and the aesthetic sensibility.” I argue that architecture’s methods, and especially the design processes employed within the discipline, afford one model worthy of broader consideration to these ends.

 

TWO

 

Emptiness (sunyata): the final nature of phenomena, their absence of inherent existence.

 

“The waves appear in the ocean only for a fraction of a second and then they fall back into that. So the water, the great body of water, is a source of the implicit order out of which these forms are appearing

and they are collapsing back into that.”

Mu Soeng (1998)

 

Physicist David Boehm, in his geyser analogy, referred to unfolding and enfolding in an effort to explain forms and their underlying order. From a Buddhist perspective form is akin to appearance – it can be seen as an abstraction that has no direct and demonstrable correspondence to reality. Transcending this illusory mirage is emptiness, also known as nothingness, voidness or, in Sanskrit, ‘sunyata’ which translates roughly as ‘zero’.

 

Western thinking, and especially thinking subsequent to the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, has been discriminating, bifurcating, categorizing and polarizing. Dualistic thought is today largely reflexive. Telos-Techne. Subject-Object. Emotional-Rational. Art-Science. Heart-Head. True-False. The path of Buddhism, and other related wisdom traditions, argues that this dualistic thinking, when perceived as true and real, becomes a source of human suffering. Sharma (1993) states that, “If we are free from vikalpa, awaken to the emptiness of dualistic discrimination, then we are emancipated from suffering through the realization of sunyata.” It seems that much of our suffering, conflict, and aggression relates to this tendency to assume polarization in thought, posture and action.

 

The philosopher Nagarjuna developed the system of thought known as Madhyamika (or the Middle Way) – which intentionally assumes no position either affirming or negating statements of reality. In essence all such statements fall short of being expressions of ultimate truth. Returning to the science and spirit issue, clearly neither path holds a monopoly on truth. Tarnas (2000), in his discussion of the man-nature division that has occurred across the past centuries and the ensuing separation of the modern versus primal outlooks, emphasizes that “… each view is correct in a certain way … each however is only a partial reading of a larger, deeper, and more complex story.”

 

Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, taught about the benefits of a balanced viewpoint and a moderate approach. He told a tale of an accomplished musician playing a string instrument. If any string is too taut is snaps. If any string is too slack it will not play. It is in the in-between, that condition amid taut and slack, where function and performance proves optimal. Balance is essential.

 

Science today attempts to reach beyond direct measurement. Conversely, the wisdom traditions attempt to embrace analysis and critical thinking. Both ends reach to the middle. Goodwin (2000) writes “Western science has been phenomenally successful in its goal of unlocking nature’s secrets. However, it has now reached certain boundaries and its limitations are themselves causing difficulties because science is being applied to problems for which it is unsuited. Can science be expanded in ways that do not alter its essential properties, but transform it so as to make it more appropriate for engaging with the issues that have become so crucial to our lives: living responsibly with nature, achieving health and good quality of life in creative communities and organizations, reorganizing economic principles and properties, among many others?” For such opening of minds to occur, constrictive preconceptions and dualistic thought must subside. While a new paradigm must be far more credible and substantiated than a mere ‘leap of faith’, a grasp of emptiness and some subscription to Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika posturing is useful. Hindu’s refer to the experience of Brahman – the one absolute reality that is at once the universal principle and the self or spiritual aspect of each person. The scientific, empirical, linear and rational way of looking at all phenomena can only take us so far, beyond which lies paradox.

 

Nagarjuna’s position was to refuse to take a position. Dualistic thought is rejected. Eliminating conceptuality is at the root of the search for suchness. With the grasp of suchness (or voidness) comes insight and union. The notion of form versus emptiness is perhaps best exemplified in the following excerpt from a Nyingma root text:

 

Mind has no form, color, or concrete substance.

It is not to be found anywhere outside or within your body, nor in-between.

It is not found to be a concrete thing.

Even if you were to search throughout the ten directions it does not arise from anywhere, nor does it abide and disappear at any place.

 

Yet, it is not non-existent, since your mind is vividly awake.

It is not a singularity, because it manifests in manifold ways.

Nor is it a plurality, because all these are of one essence.

There is no one who can describe its nature.

But, when expressing its resemblance, there is no end to what can be said.

It is the very basis of all samsara and all nirvana.

 

THREE

 

“Cultivating the intuition means deliberately practicing methods of investigation that pay attention to the feelings and images that arise in the cause of systematic encounters with natural processes, as well as detailed examination of quantifiable characteristics, leading to an experience of wholes and their qualities.”

Goodwin (2000)

 

“…we are often confronted with description of things, which are not architecture, as being architectural, for example, the architect of a peace treaty, the architecture of computers, even the architectonic of philosophy.”

Linder (1992)

 

Architectural design is a kind of alchemy – part glass box and part black box. As a complex marriage of art and science, design has commonly been charged with solving complex ‘wicked’ problems that prove resistant to more linear approaches. Architects, as practitioners of these design methods, have been characterized as a melange of artist, scientist and mystic. Indeed, the ‘mystery of design’ has been a strong aspect of the profession that many architects have parlayed to advantage.

 

While the argument can be made that all professionals have some aspect of mystique to them, the field of architecture seems particularly rich in this dimension. Harris (1993) argues that, with respect to the professions, “Only a part of the knowledge required for successful practice, that is, technical knowledge, is subject to precise formulation.” She later posits that “Practical knowledge, know-how, artistry, insight, judgement, and connoisseurship are expressed only in practice and learned only through experience with the practice.” Architectural design and practice, despite repeated attempts by researchers, defies precise codification.

 

Architecture can also be seen as having a strong craft component. Distinguished from the methods of technology and art, craft can be classified as “established practice modified by idiosyncratic technique, utilized loosely and variably, with a discretionary relationship to prescription, in a wide range of circumstances, and aimed toward an indefinite but desired result.” (Oakeshott, 1962) The practice of design requires significant components of both technical and practical knowledge, the former subject to more explicit codification and the latter surfacing more mysteriously only in the moments of engagement. As might be expected, this mix presents some interesting challenges for architectural educators who strive to prepare talented and competent design professionals. Schön (1983) wrote about reflective practice and ‘knowing-in-action’. Polanyi (1967) referred to the potency of tacit knowing. Another way of characterizing the more mystic aspects of architectural design is to realize the practitioner knows more than s/he can say.

 

Returning to the dualistic thinking that has propelled the rise of the art-science and science-spirit split, architecture has maintained its holism against the odds. Design not only marries art and science, but adds spirit into the recipe. It is arguably in the overlap of the three that the mystery and alchemy arises. Certainly many architects would accept the spiritual dimension of design as an essential ingredient to success, although most would likely avoid any religious connotation. While modern pressures downplay the introduction of the spiritual to the scientific, architects have long referred to the ‘divine spark’ that catalyzes a successful design project. Another portrayal of the design process comes from psychology and Gestalt, whereby the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

 

Design that moves too far to either pole is often unsuccessful, being branded as either too pragmatic (scientific / functional) or too poetic (artistic / formal). Architects frequently seek a middle path – that is, using Nagarjuna’s language, that balance between views or positions. Due to the fact that each building is usually customized (i.e., no two problems and no two solutions are the same), serious value is placed on invention, innovation and creativity. One strategy that may serve fields beyond architecture is to view design as a complex system of activities that demand or seek homeostasis. Like a three-legged stool that requires each leg for stability of the whole, design brings together art, science and spirit. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The system has at one and the same time form and no-form.

 

FOUR

 

“Already there are conflicts between communities and nations over land, water, oil, fish, ‘pollution rights’, acid rain, genetic resources, forests and many other resources. And such conflicts can be expected to intensify and to exacerbate already frayed relationships between women and men, between peoples of differing cultures, races, and faiths. Some of the conflict will be motivated by greed, some by extreme poverty, and some by despair.”

Barney, Blewett, Barney (1999)

 

“Twentieth century science has given rise to a marvelous paradox. The same extraordinary progress that has led to predictions that we may soon know everything that can be known has also nurtured doubts that we can know anything for certain. When one theory so rapidly succeeds another, how can we ever be sure any theory is true?”

Horgan (1997)

 

What lessons are to be learned? Paramount is our understanding of the complexity of systems and our need to embrace new ways of thinking and acting. Our ethos of increasing specialization, separation, narrowing of responsibility, and often myopic vision, has resulted in ecological and urban enigmas that reside beyond comprehension. The questions are so complicated and interdependent that solutions prove evasive, especially when sought from within the restrictive confines of a singular disciplinary vantage point.

 

Architectural practice, and especially its design methods, hold promise as a model for problem-solving across disciplines. In the past decade interest has been building in design methods and studio practices from such fields as K-12 education, engineering and medicine. Lateral thinking and design iteration, common in the creation of architecture, holds significant promise beyond the design professions. More research of the architectural design process, and especially testing through outside application, is needed to better understand the issues and to develop cross and inter-disciplinary models. The potent link between mind and matter needs to be reinforced. The subjective must coexist with the objective. The unity of the cosmos must be celebrated.

 

Satish Kumar (1999), in his autobiography entitled Path Without Destination, reviewed the Indian science of classification. While it may seem ironic within the current paper on emptiness, and especially given my plea to move beyond dualistic thought, I think it proves valuable to review this particular classification scheme in consideration of the current theses. The Indian system acknowledges three categories that relate to how we do and might exist: Satvik, Rajsik, and Tamsik. This system provides a frame of reference pertaining to such activities as eating, dressing and dwelling. Satvik food, for example, is simple, local, seasonal and natural – it is the food of gods, sadhus (Hindi holy men), mothers and babies. Rajsik is spicy, elaborate, lavish, stimulating – it is the food of soldiers and merchants. Tamsik is about malevolent forces; it is addictive and artificial. Our modern Western ethos seems heavily slanted in the Tamsik direction. Kumar addresses architecture using this same system: Satvik – simple, beautiful, appropriate-sized homes of natural and local materials; Rajsik – opulent, expensive, palatial, exhibitionist, plush and showy homes; and, Tamsik – high-rise homes built with plastic, asbestos and other unnatural materials. What is most interesting and compelling about this ancient approach is its profound relevance as the new millennium opens. This Indian classification system has great parallels with the Buddha’s teachings on moderation and Nagarjuna’s philosophy of Madhyamika. Further, it holds promise as a vehicle to inform and inspire design.

 

FIVE

 

Many of our contemporary problems surface because of dualistic thinking and our delusionary view that such thinking is truth and reality. The Buddhist notion of sunyata, or emptiness, suggests that form is void – our conceptions are artificial constructs that are subject to change, much like waves that surface out of the vast ocean below. The schism between science and spirit is one very visible manifestation of dualistic thought; the tension between the two and our attachment to them gives rise to conflict and suffering (samsara). Architectural design is paradigmatic in that its practice bridges art and science while, consequentially, including spirit. Its holistic approach is exemplary for the solving of complex problems – architecture’s union of art-science-spirit reflects the Nagarjuna assertion of the Middle Way, and as such begins to counter dualistic entrenchment. In the art-science and science-spirit debates, architecture’s stance is to refuse to accept exclusively any of the positions. The Indian classification system of Satvik, Rajsik and Tamsik, as delineated by Kumar (1999), provides an interesting and promising framework that can overlay and inform the architectural design process. Architectural design processes, especially if executed in the nature of Satvik, have rich potential for the development and intervention of environments, and problem-solving in a more general sense, for a world at risk.

 

REFERENCES

 

Barney G.O., Blewett, J., & Barney, K.R. Threshold 2000: Critical Issues and Spiritual Values for a Global Age. Grand Rapids, MI: Millennium Institute and CoNexus Press. 1999.

 

Goodwin, B. “From Control to Participation”. Resurgence. No. 201, July/August 2000.

 

Harris, I.B. “New Expectations for Professional Competence”. In: Educating Professionals: Responding to New Expectations for Competence and Accountability. Curry, L. & Wergin, J.F. (Ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 1993.

 

Horgan, J. The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. New York: Broadway Books. 1997.

 

Kumar, S. Path Without Destination. New York: Eagle Brook Morrow. 1999.

 

Kumar, S. “Soil, Soul, Society”. Resurgence. No. 200, May/June 2000.

 

Latane, B. & Darley, J. “Bystander Apathy”. American Scientist. No. 57. 1969.

 

Linder, M. “Architectural Theory is No Discipline”. In: Strategies in Architectural Thinking. Whiteman, J., Kipnis, J. & Burdett, R. (Ed). Cambridge: MIT Press. 1992.

 

Oakeshott, M. Rationalism in Politics: And Other Essays. New York: Basic Books. 1962.

 

Payne, R. The Life and Death of Mathatma Gandhi. New York: Konecky & Konecky. 1969.

 

Polanyi, M. The Tacit Dimension. New York: DoubleDay. 1967.

 

Sarason, S.B. “Some Features of a Flawed Educational System”. Dædalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Vol. 127 No. 4. Fall 1998.

 

Schön, D.A. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books. 1983.

 

Schumacher, E.F. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. London: Blond and Briggs. 1973.

 

Sharma, A. Our Religions. San Francisco: Harper Collins. 1993.

 

Snow, C.P. The Two Cultures. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 1959.

 

Soeng, M. “Buddhist Wisdom in the Light of Quantum Theory”. In: Buddhism in America: Proceedings of the First Buddhism in America Conference. Boston: Tuttle. 1998.

 

Tarnas, R. The Passion of the Western Mind. New York: Ballantine Books. 1991.

 

Tarnas, R. “A New Synthesis”. Resurgence. No. 199, March/April 2000.

 

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paper + image copyright dr. brian r sinclair 2009 | use only with permission