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Buddhadharma : Spring 2009
57 SPRING 2 00 9 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly she explains. She and her fellow neuroscientists had been ask- ing the wrong question all along. The real question wasn’t, “How does the subject get into relationship with independent objects that it then represents internally in its perceptual sys- tem?” Everything was already in relationship; there were no separate things. The real question was, “How do we get the experience of separate subjects and objects at all when in real- ity there are no breaks? No breaks between objects and also no breaks between the subject and the object.” Walter Freeman, now a professor emeritus of neurobiology at the University of California Berkeley, says, “I’ve learned from Christine that [the model of representation] is not only unnecessary—it is confusing, obfuscatory, and a cloak for ignorance. There are no representations in brains.” He adds, “This became a very important shift in paradigm. Christine is a real visionary.” Skarda explained her insight in a paper published many years later in the Journal of Consciousness Studies. 1 Her former colleague Eleanor rosch, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of California Berke- ley, has included Skarda’s paper in the course reader for her cognitive psychology class. rosch calls Skarda’s approach to perception “very radical.” Traditionally, sensory physiology and psychology have approached perception as a bottom-up process, she explains. The body builds up and assembles the disparate information provided by the senses into conscious experiences. “Skarda’s view is that the sense organs take in wholes and our neurons break them down. That is so differ- ent from the way it is viewed in any field,” she said. “There are other people who are trying to bring meditative insights in some form into psychological theory and research, other people who are challenging that the external and the inter- nal worlds are as separate as they may seem and are trying to reframe that insight in terms of our science. But this spe- cific view (that the sense organs take in wholes) and the way Skarda interweaves physiology and philosophy, that is not happening [elsewhere].” Skarda was beginning to push up against the limitations of scientific methodology. Science by definition only concerns itself with hypotheses that can be tested against objectively measurable facts. The seamless state of affairs that Skarda had experienced, the state from which both subjective and objective realities emerge, was neither objectively findable nor measur- able. Freeman explains, “The assumption that there is some- thing unified out there is a hypothesis that [scientists] can’t ultimately verify.” Skarda was up against a wall with a whole new set of questions. “I didn’t have any tools left,” she says. Soon after her insight, Skarda was visiting the house of a new friend. Browsing his bookshelf, she came across books on Buddhism. On a whim, she asked if she could borrow one. Her eye had been drawn to one text in particular, a translation of Chandrakirti’s commentary on Nagarjuna’s Treatise on the Middle Way. She brought it home and read it from beginning to end in a single sitting. “I knew that that view had something to do with what had just happened to me,” she says, and she began to read more about Buddhism. Later that year Sakya Trizin rinpoche, the head of the Sakya tradition, came to town, and a Buddhist friend who knew of Skarda’s developing interest in dharma invited her to come to a Manjushri initiation. Skarda went along, and after the initiation her friend told her to offer a kata, the traditional ceremonial scarf. Skarda dutifully filed in line with the crowd of Buddhists, who one by one made their offering, received a nod of rinpoche’s head in blessing, and moved on. When it was Skarda’s turn, Sakya Trinzin interrupted the proces- sion and reached out and grabbed her arm. “I know you!” he declared. “No. I’m sure you don’t know me, rinpoche,” replied Skarda indignantly. “We’ve never met.” She broke away and rushed out the door. “Slimy lama,” she thought. The following night, Sakya Trinzin offered another initia- tion. Skarda’s friend encouraged her to come along, but Skarda had had enough. “I don’t know what’s going on anyway,” she declined. That night, she got in her car to go to a class. She drove and instead of arriving at the class, she somehow ended up at the site of the initiation. “What am I doing here?” she asked herself. “I might as well go inside.” Once again, she took an initiation. Once again, she filed into line to offer a kata to the lama. And once again, Sakya Trizin looked up when she came by. “It’s you again! I’m sure After three years in retreat, she couldn’t go back to science, to philosophy, or to living an ordinary life. She returned to India to once again consult with the Dalai Lama. “He was so pleased. He just kept saying, ‘She’s done it! She really did what I told her!’” 1 The Perceptual Form of Life by Christine A. Skarda, in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 6, No. 11-12 (1999), 79-93 . heididielmann