Dr. Sun Kyeong Yu explores connections in bioscience and Buddhism

On Thursday afternoon in Morris Hall, Yu presented the ideas she has explored within the last few years and divided her lecture into two parts: the gene in the current view and the Buddhist approach to what is considered as a gene. She based her foundation of her talk on three consecutive questions: is the gene DNA everlasting, is DNA (the gene) immutable, and is DNA (the gene) the blueprint of a living being?

Yu gave some historical context in Morgan’s and Muller’s studies of properties of the gene: self-replication, mutation, transmission, and the capability of producing products that furnish the development of an organism.

Yu argued that a gene is DNA and DNA is gene, so they are immutable and provided visual demonstrations on how both are connected.

From structured DNA, genetic information translates into RNA, which stems from the nucleus and creates protein. The protein then carries the genetic information transmitted from the DNA.

Later on, Yu used a quote from Prince Buddha of Northern India that explained how, in her view, bioscience relates to Buddhist thought:

“When this is, that is; this arising, that arises; when this is not, that is not; this ceasing, that ceasing.” Yu said that Buddha achieved Enlightenment over two hundred years ago since he believed that depending is the mode of existence.

“All living depends on other things,” Yu added. “The ‘conditioned existence’ is the mode of existence of all things. Nothing exists independently of conditions. All things come into existence, abide by, and pass out of existence only in dependence upon other things. In East Asia, everything is related to everything else.”

In order for a plant to grow, Yu said that it depends on its roots, and worms and other insects also add to the plant’s health. Likewise, a human’s existence depends on many factors such as their parents’ existence. This product of historical evolution. Humans also depend on oxygen and what occurs inside their bodies: the normal functions of tissues, organs, bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

What Yu meant in saying all that is kindling the awareness the naturality of body changes from the time a human is born. She pointed out that each cell changes, replaced by new ones; RNA changes every two hours; skin changes, depending on the cells. Therefore, the whole human skeleton changes every ten years.

“It is the understanding that all things accounts for each other in their relations and their relations to others,” Yu said. “I, myself, my existence depends on all of my surroundings. But if surroundings are there and I didn’t move and they didn’t move, then there is nothing.” It also involves comprehension on the relations between thing and things or person and people, Yu said.

In conclusion, Yu said that nothing or no one exists of essence except together and that is called sunyata: “emptiness.” In other words:
1. Nothing exists on its own but on conditions.
2. Nothing has its own inherent nature (svabhava) that always makes a given thing separate from and independent of others.
3. Everything is empty of independent existence (or intrinsic nature, the essence).
4. Everything is empty of essence.
Yu retraced her steps to again connect with Buddha’s thoughts in Dependent Arising:
1. If there is self, it is what makes me, me—that is my essence.
2. If there is self, it is permanent and immutable.
3. But there is no existence that is either permanent or separate.
4. All existence is the nature of dependent arising.
5. All things change constantly.
6. Everything is empty of essence.

“Therefore, there is no self,” Yu said. “We exist only as empty persons.”

In answer to a student’s question directed to Yu if her belief provided her with a sense of comfort, she responded, “It looks reasonable so far.” In an earlier interview, she said that the awareness that the interrelation offers her a life of peace and eliminates judgement and discrimination.

Yu embraces her life’s questions to the fullest in her continual exploration and adventure. Over the summer, she also spent six weeks with her husband, Dr. Chang-Seong Hong, at a Buddhist Temple as they translated a book project together. Haeinsa, the Buddhist Temple, was one of the three most prominent temples in the area and had the holy scriptures carved on 81,000 housing blocks. The couple met daily with Buddhist monks and professors in Buddhist seminary and discussed their project as they translated the Korean language into English. Yu added that she and her husband needed their help, as the most difficult part was interpreting the author’s citations from the old Buddhist scripture written in ancient Chinese lettering.

“One of the most wonderful experiences a philosopher can have is to come across the great books written by great minds,” Yu said of her experience. “It transcends any ordinary expectations of readers.”

Yu expected she would complete the project by the end of this month but an additional 100 pages needed to be added. She acquired her bachelors and master’s degrees at Seoul National University and studied molecular biology but also earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Duke University.

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