Your Brain on Buddhism

There’s more and more information coming out about the positive effects of meditation on the human brain. Now, it seems, science is realizing that the early teachings of the Buddha anticipated knowledge only now being uncovered by neurology and neuroscience.

Neuroscience tells us the thing we take as our unified mind is an illusion, that our mind is not unified and can barely be said to “exist” at all. Our feeling of unity and control is a post-hoc confabulation and is easily fractured into separate parts. As revealed by scientific inquiry, what we call a mind (or a self, or a soul) is actually something that changes so much and is so uncertain that our pre-scientific language struggles to find meaning.

Buddhists say pretty much the same thing. They believe in an impermanent and illusory self made of shifting parts. They’ve even come up with language to address the problem between perception and belief. Their word for self is anatta, which is usually translated as ‘non self.’  One might try to refer to the self, but the word cleverly reminds one’s self that there is no such thing.

The Buddha, of course, arrived at this insight by immersing himself in ever-deepening states of meditative absorption, until he went so far “out there” (or “in there”) that the true nature of mind became obvious. What allowed Gautama to be recognized as a Buddha was the fact that he could develop this insight (to which he arrived upon an initial contemplation of suffering) into a complete “Net of Jewels” — the Buddhadhama, a beautifully interconnected set of instructions that, if followed earnestly and patiently, leads to the same Truth that he found under the Bodhi Tree.

In any case, it’s exciting to find that, yet again, modern science ends up parroting an understanding about the nature of reality that’s been commonly expressed by mystics down through the ages.


2 responses to “Your Brain on Buddhism

  1. Well, it looks like science is beginning to scratch below the surface of the contemplative life. It suggests that some scientists are actually leading a contemplative life. Since I am a scientist, and I lead a rigorous-self-aware contemplative life, then I am evidence that at least one scientist is leading a contemplative life.

    Nonetheless, to lead a successful rigorous-self-aware contemplative life one must realize that what has been understood as a contemplative life has not been well understood by the contemplative community since Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross had most of their books burned by the Catholic Church 500 years ago, and the Pali Canon was translated into Sanskrit 21 centuries ago. Thus, to understand the contemplative life one must not only lead a rigorous-self-aware contemplative life, but one must also be a rigorous scholar of comparative religions and contemplative literature, because there is good evidence that no religion today understands the contemplative life and what it leads to. Unfortunately there seems to be few rigorous scholars of comparative religions and contemplative literature, who are also rigorous-self-aware contemplatives, other than you and I.

  2. A great reminder to begin a new week!

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