The considerable overlap between Buddhism and Neuroscience
Following the thesis of Weisman’s article for the Seed Magazine, this essay will further furnish evidence in support of its claims. This essay will argue that much of the distilled wisdom of Buddhist thought is congruent with modern findings in neuroscience.
Of late Buddhism has found a following in the West. The major reason is that it is seen as a practical and philosophical system than a dogmatic religion. For example, the practice of meditation is far from being an esoteric mystical aspiration. There are palpable everyday benefits arising from regular meditation practice. Just as working out in the gym is good for the body, the daily practice of meditation is seen as a mind-exercise. To the extent that the mind is a manifestation of the physiology of the brain, meditation can also be seen as a brain exercise. Neuroplasticity is the term used by neurologists for describing the mutability of brain structures. Just as a body builder can shape and grow his muscles by enacting them against weights, the meditator is changing the internal pathways of his brain by focussing attention on chosen objects. In the Vipassana technique of mediation, the object of focus is the flux of body sensations
One of the important tenets of Buddhist philosophy is the impermenance of self (anatta). This concept finds congruence with findings of neuroscience, which have exposed the fallacy of the coherent ‘self’. As in Weisman’s article, even scholarly publications prove the transient nature of experience of personhood. Contrary to other Indian religions such as Hinduism and Jainism, Buddhism “rejects the idea that there is an enduring, substantial self or soul. In the Buddhist view, there is no fixed concept of self; instead, there is a sequence of impermanent, dependently arising moments of consciousness.” (Netland, 2008) The idea of the self as this fixed identification and attendant personality and experience is a fallacious one. It turns out that not only is this self-identification illusory, but also self-destructive. Buddhist meditators point out how restlessness of mind leads to self-destructive behaviour, which in turn is due to a “false grasping at self”. (Butler, 2006) One of the ends of meditation is to create conditions of equanimity, which can then be trained to gain focussed attention. Through the power of this focussed attention, negative tendencies can be dealt with.
One can broadly reduce Buddhist principles into scientific terms. But the results sometimes contradict proven scientific theories. Take, say, Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. When we sift through Buddhist texts on the nature of humans, we can see a counter-evolutionary stance. As Richard Dawkins famously articulated in his The Selfish Gene, it is the selfishness of individual genes to propagate themselves that drives evolution. The individual, for all the illusionary grasp of a self and autonomy is merely a container for those genes. The individual acts in self-interest only to the extent that he/she benefit the genes being carried. But Buddhist wisdom does not accept this understanding of human nature. Buddha calls us
“to realize that our deepest happiness consists not in living as individuals but as co-participants in a pervasive, ever-changing interconnectedness. To really live interconnectedly would mean the eradication of the selfish gene. It would tell us, as many contemporary evolutionary biologists are now arguing, that the “fittest” who survive are not the most selfish but the most cooperative. The compassionate gene can replace the selfish gene.” (Knitter, 2013, p. 6a)
One must qualify the compassionate gene argument by citing Dawkins again. Dawkins recognizes the role of compassion in the propagation of genes. He identifies the value of altruism in the natural selection process. Altruism and selfish-gene might seem contradictory. But we learn from the Buddha’s Bodhisattva text that
“Whatever happiness there is in the world all arises from the wish for others’ happiness. Whatever suffering there is in the world all arises from the wish for one’s own happiness. Compassion can win out over greed. However compatible that may be with science, it’s a message our present world would do well to consider.” (Knitter, 2013, p. 6a)
Buddhism is now nearly 2500 years old. It was born at a time when methods of scientific inquiry were not yet available. Yet, Buddhism seems to have got most things right about the working of the human mind. Although original Buddhist texts talk in esoteric terminology, it is not difficult to translate them into scientific language. This is precisely what the Life and Mind Institute has attempted to do. Roping in such eminent Buddhist monks as the 14th Dalai Lama, the institute had started a process of dialogue between Buddhist scholars and scientists. The process is already bearing some fruits. This marriage of two erstwhile domains of knowledge is not as incompatible as it seems. There is an underlying principle that unites Buddhism to science, which is its repudiation of dogma. As the Dalai Lama himself notes, “One of the basic stands in Buddhist epistemology is that if a person upholds any particular viewpoint or tenet that is contrary to reason, then that person cannot be accepted as worthy of engagement. And even more so, in the case of someone who rejects the evidence of empirical facts.” (Butler, 2006)
As a concluding thought, I should point to one of the issues raised by neuroscience with respect to Buddhism. The proposition that the self is a perception of the mind and that it has no basis in reality have led to challenges in moral theory. For example, “If the self is contingent and has no ontological status . . . this raises questions about how to develop a viable theory of moral agency and moral efficacy…A genuinely Buddhist approach to bioethics must flow from an identifiably Buddhist understanding of self, life and death.” (Netland, 2008)
Butler, Katy. “Being There: The Dalai Lama Gets Buddhism and Neuroscience to Go Face to Face.” Psychotherapy Networker January/February 2006.
Knitter, Paul. “Are Buddhism and Science Incompatible?” National Catholic Reporter 21 June 2013: 6a.
Netland, Harold. “Into the Jaws of Yama, Lord of Death: Buddhism, Bioethics, and Death.”Ethics & Medicine 24.2 (2008): 124+.
Weisman, David. Buddhism and the Brain, SEED Magazine, retrieved from http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/buddhism_and_the_brain/ on 11th May 2014