Jordan Peterson's take on the origins of the Buddha

In this short video, he compares the outset of Buddhism with the biblical garden.

  • During this class, Jordan Peterson describes how overprotective parenting led to the creation of Buddhism.
  • Peterson compares the Buddhist origin myth with the story of Eden.
  • Both tales deal with the onset of consciousness and mortality and therefore are universal in appeal.

Jordan Peterson begins at the outset of the origin myth. Siddhārtha Gautama's father was a local oligarch in the region of modern-day Nepal. It was prophesied that his child would either become a great political king or spiritual leader. The chieftain would never have a mendicant for a son, and thus built a walled garden to enclose his offspring. This way the young Gautama would only experience the pleasures of life: health, youth, and beauty.

Father purposefully kept son from disease and death, hoping that by showing the future Buddha joy and mirth he would never feel the need to wander around sampling spiritual disciplines, meditating, chanting, and the like. Peterson finds this predictable:

"It's also in some sense what a good father would do. What do you do with your young children? Well, you don't expose them to death and decay at every step of the way. You build a protected world for them, like a walled enclosure, and you only keep what's healthy and life-giving inside of it."

You wouldn't bring a three-year-old to a funeral or show a four-year-old The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Peterson continues. Because the Buddha has been raised in good health, however, he seeks what's beyond the protective confines of that which has blessed him with health. He becomes, like all humans, curious.

Peterson compares this moment with a realization from Doestoevsky's Notes From the Underground: give people utopia and the first thing they want to do is smash it to pieces "just so something interesting and perverse can happen." Peterson continues,

"We're creatures that are designed to encounter the unknown. We want to keep moving beyond what we have, even if what we have is what we want. And maybe that's partly because we're oriented towards the future."

Jordan Peterson during his lecture at UofT. Photo credit: Rene Johnston / Toronto Star via Getty Images

Buddha might have felt confined by a few walls; today, Earth itself seems too restrictive. Jeff Bezos calls us, in honor of Isaac Asimov, "planetary chauvinists," while Elon Musk declares we must become a "multi-planetary species." Most likely, a mature Buddha would recommend they both curb their interplanetary enthusiasm and take better care of the planet that birthed us. Still, a young Gautama felt stuffy in his pleasure dome.

Peterson compares what happens next to modern-day China's Olympics preparation, spray painting grass green and evicting locals to offer an appearance of sterility. Gautama Sr. attempted to make the outside world as safe as his son's walled garden. He tells the sick and ugly to take a walk. Peterson calls it the snake in the garden theory:

"No matter how much care you take to make things perfect, some of what you're excluding is going to come back in."

A chosen route was strewn with flowers; beautiful women lined the road for young Gautama's chaperoned chariot. But then, as always, the gods intervened. Though Peterson doesn't mention it, they create an alternate — or in this case, real — route for the Buddha to travel that only the prince and his driver see. And what he saw was old age, disease, and death. That is, he learned about time.

Gautama returns home distressed, though awakened to the nature of reality — in this case, nature. He has finally felt the pain of sentience. Peterson mentions that he's comforted in the safety of his walled garden, again protected by caretakers who use hugging as an analgesic. Pain reduced, Gautama eventually fixes for his vice. Forget these golden robes, he thinks, I must understand pain and suffering. Peterson notes the parallel with the biblical garden, the onset of consciousness after the tempting fruit is bitten.

In Peterson's retelling, the Buddha needed six months before venturing out again. In other versions, he sees all the world's ailments in a single night. Either way, Gautama could never really return to the walled garden. As with all epics, he had set out on his quest; there was no turning back. His father would have a mendicant for a son, one who would, in a strange twist, become a sort of political leader, though that's rarely discussed.

Interestingly, Peterson never mentions the fact that Buddha himself becomes a deadbeat dad, leaving his family shortly after the birth of his son, Rāhula, who he named for being a "fetter." Buddha felt his son chained him to a life he no longer wanted to live. Just as his father created his neurosis, we have to wonder what became of Rāhula's psychological trauma.

2017 Maps of Meaning 10: Genesis and the Buddha

Yet we're not there yet. We're still on the second fateful night, when the future Buddha wishes to return home. His father instead instructs the driver to take Gautama to an orgy of women assembled exclusively for his usage. When he arrives, the prince can only contemplate death. The comfort of fleshly delights has been replaced with the knowledge of mortality.

Continuing alongside biblical parallelism, Peterson notes that the Bible is set up in the same manner as the Buddhist cycles: a garden, the collapse of ignorance, the journey, a return home — all four of Joseph Campbell's phases of mythology covered.

The question has now been asked: How to bring order out of chaos? The very problem civilizations repeatedly pursue. In biblical and Buddhist times, it centered on tribal conflicts; today, how to leave a planet we're quickly destroying — though we're certainly still consumed by our tribal battles as well. Millennia change little.

For Peterson, it begins and ends here: "Identification with the spirit that generates order out of chaos."

What does that spirit contain? That is still a question being asked, likely one that will be asked until we are no more. The Buddha offered his response in the form of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path that followed. What must change is not external realities, most of which we have little to no control over. What must change is your mindset.

Origin myths are telling as they reveal the path ahead. The story of Buddhism is rooted in a tale many of us live through: the mythos of overprotective parenting. While curiosity is part of our biological inheritance, the ability to cultivate stillness and practice composure is every situation leads to liberation. A timeless message, regardless of external circumstance.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.