Place and the NDE

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Japanese contemporary approach to transcendental states, including the near-death experience, is their understanding in terms of space, or more specifically 'place', in Japanese basho.13 For instance, Hiroshi Motoyama called the state of Samadhi 'The World of Places'.

The underlying idea is that our daily reality has an invisible deeper layer, which is different in dimension and is disclosed by the object-subject relation. Nishida called this deeper level of consciousness invisible place, or basho (Nishida 1990). He considered the latter to be the sphere of 'authentic self', which he differentiated from 'ego-consciousness', or the consciousness of the temporal self, which he considered an expression of an 'inauthentic self'.14 One may wonder, why place? Place is in many ways a mysterious term. In our common language, when we refer to our subjective experience of space we tend to use the term 'place' rather than 'space'. Accordingly, we were born in certain places, we live in certain places, we like to work in certain places, we go to relax in certain places, and so on. Most of these places are not marked on specific maps, but they became special for us because in a way they 'define who we are'. We might keep a photograph of them, a note made in a diary, or we might have spent a word about them with a family member or a friend. Nevertheless, most of these places remain private events of our lives. Following the Japanese tradition, place (or basho) represents not only the most intimate aspect of human beings but also of all the existing things (Ichikawa 1979; Watsuji 1988; Nishida 1990; Nagatomo 1992; Yuasa 1993). The concept is implicit in one of the three Japanese terms to indicate a human being (ningen), which literally means between a person and a person rather than an individual person (Kasulis 1981; Nagatomo 1992). Japanese philosopher Watsuji described the relationship between body (ningen) and space as a 'state of between-ness' (aidagara) (Watsuji 1988), while Ichikawa calls this the phenomenon of the 'body-space' (Ichikawa 1979). In other words, the spatial notion of place (basho) in Japan is not only a fundamental condition for our life on this planet, but also for our survival. Such an insight serves as a basis for a better understanding of both (1) an individual, and (2) the universal aspect of human beings (Corazza 2005).

The term basho was originally used by Nishida in the context of Logic of Place (basho no ronri), in which according to him the transcendental took place.15 For Nishida, place (basho) indicates that which grounds our being. A recurrent example that he gives is that of a tree in a garden. It is meaningless to say that there is a tree in the garden if we don't assume the existence of a certain basho. For the tree to be there, the garden (basho) has to support the ground of the tree.

The concept of place can be related to Buddhist notions of 'dependent origination', according to which all phenomena are said to arise and come to be in virtue of dependent origination. We may note, however, that what supports dependent origination is basho-being in virtue of which each being is created to be, where basho means the ontological foundation upon and within which beings are placed (2008). He explained his theory with the following example:

There was once a newspaper article in which it was reported that a lotus seed was discovered that had been stored in a dry natural environment for three thousand years! When it was planted where someone provided the appropriate conditions such as the appropriate amount of water, and the right soil and temperature, it sprouted new buds and blossomed. In this case, the seed's discovery by someone and an appropriate natural environment served as relational conditions, with the seed as cause while the blossoming of the flower was the effect.

(Motoyama 2008)

In this example, the lotus flower blossomed despite the fact that it had been stored in a dry natural environment for three thousand years by virtue of being grounded in a spatial basho. Thus the same thing may be said about human beings. Watsuji called it a state of 'between-ness' (Watsuji 1996). Similarly, Nishida wrote:

In order to say that objects are mutually related, constitutive of a single system, and maintain themselves, we must also consider that which establishes such a system within and wherein we can say that such system is implaced. That which is must be placed within something; otherwise the distinction between is and not cannot be made. Logically it should be possible to distinguish between the terms of a relation and a relation itself, and also between that which unifies the relation and that wherein the relation is placed. Even if we attempt to think in terms of function, while taking that which is the I as the pure unity of function, insofar as the I can be conceived in confronting the not-I, there must be that which envelops the opposition of I and not-I within and which makes the establishment of the so-called phenomena of consciousness possible within itself. I shall call that which is the receptacle of the ideas in this sense, following the words of Plato's Timaeus, basho [place].

According to Nishida, in order to perceive the object of our intention, there must be something like a place, or a field of consciousness, which 'envelops' both subject and object from within. He advanced the hypothesis that:

If the object is implaced in itself, it cannot become the so-called standard of the content of consciousness. The basho wherein the object is implaced must be the same basho wherein so-called consciousness is also implaced. When we look at the object itself, we may think of this as intuition. But intuition must also be consciousness.

This idea of basho understood as a field has been explored to some extent in the West. William James, for instance, used the term 'field' in The Varieties of Religious Experience, where he observed that human beings have 'fields of consciousness' (James 1902: 189). In more recent years the concept has been recovered by biologist Rupert Sheldrake in his theory of morphic resonance, where he advanced the hypothesis that minds extend beyond brains through fields, which he called 'morphogenetic fields' (Sheldrake 2003; Sheldrake and Fox 1996). The term 'morphogenetic field' was originally employed in biology and literally means 'coming-into-forms'. It designates a structure that is part of the universe and exists everywhere at the same time. According to Sheldrake, it has three major characteristics: (1) it connects together different regions of the brain; (2) it contains attractors; it is about something; it is meaningful; and (3) it links into a unitary system the subject-object relationship (Sheldrake 2003: 44). As a consequence, it is possible for matter to be influenced by these fields at the same time in widely separate areas. This means that a piece of transmitted information modifies a certain field and this field in its turn modifies other similar brains so that they are more likely to reproduce the same kind of behaviour. For instance, when rats in one part of the world were trained to run through mazes, it is alleged that other rats in other places seemed to acquire this ability simultaneously. Another example is when scientists working in different places and not in contact with each other tend to make the same discoveries at more or less the same time. Sheldrake suggests that a more useful term than field (Sheldrake 2003).

Another field theory has been postulated by Jacobo Grinberg-Zylberbaum at the National University of New Mexico, who suggested that the electromagnetic fields which are produced in the brain by the passage of nerve impulses in some way interact with the fabric of space. This interaction between fields and space allows the transmission of an effect from one brain to the next. However, he argues that the transmission is strongest when two people are in similar states, for example, in people who have strong emphatic feeling for each other. His theory supports the view that the activity of the mind can influence activity in the world beyond the brain.

All the field theories which recognize a link between minds can be related to Carl Jung's notion of the 'collective unconscious' (Jung 1936). Jung wrote:

The collective unconscious is a part of the psyche, which can be negatively distinguished from a personal unconscious by the fact that it does not, like the latter, owe its existence to personal experience and consequently is not a personal acquisition. While the personal unconscious is made up eventually of the contents which have at one time been conscious but which have disappeared from consciousness through having been forgotten or repressed, the contents of the collective unconscious have never been in consciousness, and therefore have never been individually acquired, but owe their existence only to heredity. Whereas the personal unconscious consists for the most part of complexes, the content of the collective unconscious is made up essentially of archetypes.

One of the reasons why Jung adopted this idea was that he found recurrent patterns in dreams and myths, which suggested the existence of unconscious archetypes, which he interpreted as a kind of inherited collective memory beyond the individual brain. He was unable to explain how such inheritance could occur, and his idea is apparently incompatible with the conventional mechanistic assumption that heredity depends on information coded in DNA molecularly. This theory would help to explain why certain images tend to be more recurrent during the NDEs.

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