Buddhism and Human Genome

Buddhism and Human Genome

The manuscript for the 20th International Conference “Human Genome” on 17-18-19 November 2005 at Vatican City New Synod Hall.

First, I’d like to thank the Pontifical Council for inviting me to join this conference.

Counting down to the complete decoding the Human Genome began with the 21st chromosome – its base pair sequence was published in Nature Magazine in May, 2000 by Japanese and German teams, and the whole base sequence was found by the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium consisting of 2800 researchers from the U.S.A., the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Germany and China.

The overview version of all base pair sequences was published in Feburary, 2001,and a finished edition was published in October, 2004.

The data was published so that anyone on Earth could use it freely. It became the intellectual property of the whole human race, and could not be patented by private companies. Scientists should not cling to their theories but instead systematically search for mistakes on their own. This is also the case in Buddhism, where attachment to oneself is abandoned. If scientific research is published so that anyone can use it, it can greatly contribute to mankind’s welfare. However, its contribution is restricted when it is put under a patent. The recent tendency to patent medical research results is disappointing. The research by the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium has helped science recover some of its integrity.

Science isn’t useful when discussing questions of values or ethics. It only determines whether something is true or false through experiments and observations. What can not be tested by experiments or observations does not belong to science. When we discuss refutable matters, we should use scientific knowledge. When we discuss matters which are not refutable, we should consider them in terms of humanism and with reference to the classics. We, mankind, critically analyze non-scientific matters through history and over time through literature. Works which are repeatedly selected become our classics. Some classic literature includes matters which are refutable. The value of the important part of the classic would not be diminished even if those refutable parts were updated with scientific knowledge. The central dogma of Buddhism is not to cling to oneself, so it could welcome the revision of the Buddhist classics by scientific knowledge.

Interpreting Buddha’s enlightenment from a genetic perspective, Buddha’s realization freed him from the control of his genes. Animals are dominated by their genes and only repeat the cycle of birth, reproduction and death. However, humans wish for something beyond merely proliferating their genes. This differentiates humans from other animals. In order to transcend the animal’s plight humans demand to be free from the restraint of their genes.

Buddha had three realizations one night. First, he realized he’d had many former lives, which is called ‘the wisdom concerning one’s own reincarnation’. Later he realized other people had had former lives, which is called ‘the wisdom concerning people’s reincarnation’. In the last part of the night he realized how to become free from reincarnation, which is called ‘the wisdom to eliminate pollution completely’.

If reincarnation is reconsidered from a genetic perspective, what reincarnates is the genes. Buddha realized that all lives go through birth, reproduction and death infinitely, governed by genes and forced to reproduce genes. ‘The wisdom to eliminate pollution completely’ is expressed by Buddha as ‘the fourfold noble truths’, which are ‘suffering’, ‘the cause of suffering’, ‘the extinction of suffering,’ otherwise known as Nirvana, and ‘the path to Nirvana’.

‘Suffering’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘dukkha’ which means, literally, ‘to be denied what we desire’. Buddha said that there are eight sufferings. The first four are birth, aging, disease and death. The last suffering summarized all sufferings. It is the attachment to oneself.

‘The cause of suffering’ is passion, such as the passion for sex, the passion to live and the passion to die. These three passions correspond to the three elements of life in biology, those being; reproduction, dynamic equilibrium and death. These are the fundamental orders of genes for the proliferation of the genes themselves.

‘The extinction of suffering’ is the state of Nirvana where passions are extinguished and suffering, i.e. attachment to self, is also extinguished. This state brings freedom from the genes’ restrictions. ‘The path to Nirvana’ is where passions are completely controlled. Attachment to the self is controlled by protesting against the genes’ orders, and compassion for all others appears. Buddha showed, using a raft as a metaphor, that the essence of the doctrine was to leave attachments. A person having once crossed a river, will only be burdened by holding onto the raft that carried him. In this case, the raft is a metaphor for Buddhism itself! A Buddhist does not attach to Buddhism itself.

Buddha said that what cannot be controlled according to desire is not one’s own. We do not control our bodies as far as birth, aging, disease and dying are concerned. So, in order to control ourselves we must recognize that our bodies are not our own. This body does not belong to me so there is nothing that can be said to be mine or myself. If a person considers oneself thus, one does not discriminate others from oneself.

In eighth century China, the famous poet Li Bo teased an old monk who was meditating, and said “What are you doing?” “I am doing the yoga of Buddhism,” he replied. “What is Buddhism?” asked Li Bo. “Commit no evil, do only good deed, and in order to do so, purify ones heart by oneself; this is the teaching of all Buddhas. “Even a seven-year-old child knows that one should not do what is evil and should do what is good,” said Li Bo. The monk replied, “Even a seven-year-old child knows it, still I cannot do it even in my seventies.” Li Bo could not continue teasing the old Monk.

As for the purification of one’s own heart, three poisons are traditionally mentioned. They are greed, anger and stupidity. Here stupidity does not mean the lack of knowledge. Instead it means not realizing that one’s anger is not due to another’s evil but due to the dissatisfaction of one’s own greed.

Medical ethics based on Buddha’s teaching are as follows: “Commit no evil,” which translates as not to harm patients; “Do only good deed,” meaning to give priority to the welfare of a patient or a family; To “purify one’s own heart,” which corresponds with the principle of treating all patients fairly and equally. Buddha had compassion for all people without attachment to the self. So Buddhists affirm all religions equally allowing them to support a person’s self-determination based on his own way of life.

The right-of-self-determination as a principle in modern ethics originates from “On Liberty” written by J. S. Mill. He pointed out the “tyranny of the majority” by discussing the way Socrates was treated in “Apologia”. Socrates was accused of impiety, for denying the gods recognized by the State, and of immorality, for corrupting youth through his teachings. Mill wrote, “Of these charges the tribunal, there is every ground for believing, honestly found him guilty, and condemned the man who probably of all then born had deserved best of mankind, to be put to death as a criminal.” The court justly brought in a verdict of “Guilty” with the final numbers being 281 for guilty and 220 against. Knowing that he wouldn’t have been executed if he had only admitted to the charges in court, he did not do so. Because he chose death, there must have been something that was more important to him than his own life. If a person’s religion is anything one values beyond one’s own life then Socrates’ philosophy was such a religion to Socrates himself. \A1\A1It approves a religious liberty that is the ideal form of the right-of-self-determination. An adult with the ability of self-judgment, can do anything with what belongs to him, as long as it does not harm others, even if it is a silly decision.

In a democratic society, public information must be published and kept transparent. As for a personal information, privacy must be kept and an individual must be guaranteed the right of self-determination to handle it. Well, should a person who has had a gene examination be allowed to entrust to his self-determination whether the result of the gene diagnosis is told to his relatives or not? Does his gene belong to him only? It does not. One could argue that the gene is jointly owned by all family members who might have that same gene. Therefore, the right to handle the gene information isn’t left up to individual self-determination alone. Especially when the gene information reveals an illness which was inherited, the idea of self-determination shouldn’t be used to deny that knowledge to family members who share that sick gene. Buddhist monks should make endless efforts to end attachment to the self. They should also end attached to Buddhism itself as shown with the metaphor of the raft, and not bind others to Buddha’s teaching alone. They should welcome other ways of life equally too, as acts of self-determination.

The novel titled “Kappa” was written in 1927 by the Japanese novelist Ryunosuke Akutagawa who is famous for having written “Rashoumon”. Kappa is a creature from old Japanese tales that lives in a river. In Akutagawa’s version, Kappa’s world is a caricature of human society. In Kappa’s society, the right to self-determination is perfectly guaranteed. For example, when Kappa’s wife is pregnant, he calls the baby in the mother’s belly, as if he is using the mother’s body as a telephone. He asks the baby whether it wants to be born or not. The baby in its mother’s abdomen answers in a weak hesitating voice “I don’t want to be born because, firstly, my father’s heredity is awfully bad and…” The baby’s right to self-determination is respected and it is not born in the end. As for humans, whether or not to be born can not be determined by the baby itself. Buddha said that “birth” was the first suffering – suffering being those matters where we are denied what we desire. The suffering of birth is a changing aspect in comparison with that in Buddha’s age.

Human beings who looked for freedom from the restraint of their genes, now know the base sequences of the genetic code that laid their existence under restraint. Although we have found all the letters of this sentence, decoding the deep meaning is a problem for the future. Further research is necessary for the detailed elucidation of the genetic action that causes within us the passion to reproduce, to live or to die. Each new ethical problem which involves the research of human genes should be discussed under Institutional Review Boards where members of the religious world are included. The ethical principles based on Buddhism are as described earlier – to control attachment to oneself and to wish for everyone’s happiness, and in this specific case, to limit the tendency to obtain patents.

In closing, I would like to thank The International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium for it’s open disclosure of the human genome data. I hope, for the good of all people, that when patents are inappropriate for major medical research they will be blocked in the future as well.

Thank you.

Masahiro Tanaka, M.D. Chief Priest at “Buddhist Temple Saimyouji”, Physician at “Medical Clinic Fumon-in”, Mashiko, Japan