Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Buddha & Science: Cognitive Research

In an age when science and religion often seem to be at loggerheads, arguing over creationism and evolutionism, supernaturalism and empiricism, and many other points of contention ending in ‘ism’, it is refreshing that science is exploring an area of interesting research: Buddhist meditation. On the whole, this is being conducted in the scientific spirit, based on research and results, rather than bigoted opinions (whether scientific or Buddhist). So, following on from a previous article inspired by the book ‘Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed’ by Donald S. Lopez Jr., this article will offer further reflections on some of the issues raised in this interesting book. (To read the original article referred to above, please click here: What Kind of Buddhist Are You?)

“Over the past twenty-five years, the effects of Buddhist meditation have begun to be measured by neurologists, adding a new dimension to the Buddhism and science discourse. Rather than pointing to affinities between particular Buddhist doctrines and particular scientific theories, research on meditation has sought to calculate the physiological and neurological effects of Buddhist meditation. Such research would seem to introduce a welcome empirical element to the discourse.”
(Lopez, ‘Buddhism and Science – A Guide for the Perplexed,’ p.207)

This is an important development in the scientific examination of Buddhist efficacy, for basing any conclusions on evidence rather than doctrines and theories, truly objective understandings can be reached. No longer can it be claimed that the benefits of Buddhist meditative practice are purely subjective experiences that cannot be independently verified. Science is beginning to enter into research into these areas, and seems to be saying that genuine psychological and physiological benefits are being experienced by long-term Buddhist meditators.

Fact-based research like this has implications for the ongoing dialogue between Buddhism and science, as philosophical and theoretical convergences between the two disciplines are now being complemented with actual evidence. Buddhism, in this light, can be seen as a practical path towards a peaceful happiness, both for the individuals involved and for the society that they are part of. Superstition and the supernatural, which have often infiltrated the more pragmatic Noble Eightfold Path, can be put to one side for at least a time, while the reality of Buddhist meditative practice is evaluated.

Not that superstition and the supernatural don’t have their place under the Buddhist umbrella; Buddhism is a notoriously variegated set of philosophies, religions, and practices, all of which have their uses within particular contexts. All roads eventually lead to Bodh Gaya. The aforementioned Eightfold Path, however, contains little or nothing that can be classified as ‘unscientific,’ being a way of life based on morality, meditation, and wisdom, none of which rely on belief in gods, demons, heavens, hells, ghosts, spirits, goblins, monsters, and the like. But what of the actual areas of research being investigated? In his book, Lopez writes:

“Research on meditation in the realm of cognitive science has taken two major forms. In the first, scientists seek to evaluate the efficacy (variously defined) of a limited number of types of meditation…regarding the phrase ‘Buddhist meditation,’ one might ask: what constitutes a particular practice as ‘Buddhist,’ as distinct from an element of larger yogic tradition found in a wide range of traditions, including Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Sufism, or contemplative practice in Daoism, Judaism, or Christianity?”
(Ibid. p.210)

In the West, the main forms of Buddhist meditation practiced have been vipassana from Theravada Buddhism, and zazen from Zen Buddhism, with a recent surge in practices employed in Tibetan Buddhism such as elaborate visualization techniques (as featured in the book by Lopez). As most of the neurological research taking place is occurring in the West, it is these forms Buddhist meditation that have been researched into. But, as well as some forms of ‘Buddhist’ meditation appearing in other traditions, as indicated in the above quotation, there is a much wider of variety of meditative practices to be found amongst Buddhists than indicated above. Nichiren Buddhists and Pure Landers use mantras as the heart of their mental cultivation, whilst ‘body-sweeping techniques’ are commonly used in Theravada Buddhism.

Meditation is an integral part of many Buddhists lives, both East and West. Whether in the Orient, the Occident, or elsewhere, nowadays Buddhist meditation is promoted as a way to spiritual liberation, psychological peace of mind, or as part of a healthier lifestyle. What kind of Buddhist meditation do you practice, if any, dear reader? And if you do, how has it benefited you? Do you have a regular meditative regime or are you more ‘spontaneous’ in your practice? Have you tried other meditative techniques than Buddhist, and how did they compare to your current practice? If inspired to reply, please use the comment feature below to leave your thoughts – who knows, someone may benefit from them.

“The second form of neurological research involves using highly trained meditators as informants in the laboratory, interviewing them about their experiences that can also be measured using brain imaging. Here scientists are exploring possible correlations between first-person experience and more standard scientific data.”
(Ibid. p.210)

What do you make of this form of research? As argued above, it can be seen as independent corroboration of the advantages of Buddhist meditation, which doesn’t just confirm the hopes of those in the early stages of their own Buddhist discipline, but also makes Buddhism a much more attractive proposition to those yet to be interested in it. This is surely a positive development in the spread of Buddhism to the West, which is dominated by scientific theories, methods, and technologies. Moreover, in the global environment which is becoming more interdependent with each advancing year, the teachings and benefits of the Buddhist Path will hold more sway with the secularists that often form the political, educational, and social elites of many countries across the world.

[Furthermore,] this form of research is predicted on the assumption – one that has long lain at the heart of the claims concerning Buddhism and Science – that Buddhist doctrine is the product of Buddhist insight, that the chief constitutes of Buddhist philosophy are the articulations of someone’s (usually the Buddha’s) experience in meditation. However, it can be equally argued that it is not meditation that produced doctrine but doctrine that produces meditation. These are some of the issues that might be addressed as research on Buddhist meditation proceeds.”
(Ibid. p.210)

Mmm, which came first, the doctrine or the egg, er, I mean meditation?! For most of us Western Buddhists, the doctrine definitely came first, at least on the intellectual level, with meditation practice following at a later date when we were convinced that it might do us some good. But, this doesn’t mean that meditation is created out of a set of teachings, and that the conclusions we come to as a result of Buddhist meditative practice is based on the doctrines we have previously learned. However, it is a possibility, and an interesting proposition worth investigating. Simply to reject it without careful (meditative) reflection would go some way to possibly proving it to be true, as we would probably be acting out of a doctrinal attachment. The very same kind of attachment to certain beliefs that could also affect our evaluation of the efficacy of our meditation practice! Certainly, as Lopez points out elsewhere in his book, the way most Buddhists describe their practice is in often convoluted terminology peculiar to Buddhism, like a kind of secret language of the initiated. This is something that this blog has tried to avoid; a task made easier by a certain propensity of the author’s to forget complicated theories and ideas!

One central aspect of Buddhism not covered in the book by Lopez is enlightenment. Not much, if any, scientific research has been done into this crucial part of Buddhist practice. But, then again, what exactly is enlightenment? Is it the culmination of the four levels of ‘noble being’ described in the Theravada Buddhist Canon, or is it the dzogchen of the Tibetan Buddhist, or the satori of the Zennist? Or, as this author suspects but cannot prove, is it that No-thing that can be said to lie behind all these various descriptions? So, with the many different views within the Buddhist world on what exactly enlightenment is, it’s no surprise that it has yet to be researched, but in time this too will no doubt come under the scientists’ gaze, and then things might start to get really interesting!

Why not a few more questions to leave you with, dear reader: Is Buddhist meditation entirely dependent on Buddhist doctrines, or is it possible to meditate without relying on the philosophical tenets of the Buddha Way? Is a balance between meditation and doctrine the ideal, or are Buddhist theories to be abandoned if they are not corroborated by (subjective & objective) experience? It seems here that a modicum of Buddhist teaching is required to start up and sustain Buddhist meditation, but that after a time, the teachings are there to complement the practice, not complicate it, with an ever-increasingly simple understanding of the world arising. So, what do you think on all this, dear reader – what is the relationship between doctrine and meditation for you? Which particular doctrines do you use in your Buddhist practice, anyhow: Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, or a combination of them? I look forward to your wise responses…


Gladstone said...

As the original word for meditation meant focusing the mind upon an object, any object, then there can be millions of forms of meditation (including gambling, drinking, and of course shopping). As for Buddhist meditation, however, then the Buddha only taught one.

As for offshoots of earlier meditation, particularly Kasina meditation, then it has just about died out as it takes many years of practice and there are simply too many distractions in the present age for anyone to seriously develop a form of meditation which is likely to freak most people out anyway.

However, there are some modern variations of visualization, or nimitta, practiced in Thailand even, and they collect loads of money teaching it, despite it not really being Buddhist.

One would have to question the validity of 'highly-trained' meditators (why doesn't he just call them experts as is popular in the West nowadays?) as no one I would regard as being close to an expert would even dream of meditating in a lab.

Such research does have some merit I suppose as the calming effect is measurable. However, when it comes to the mind in general science does not have anything that can pick up the mind itself, only the effects that the mind has on the body (auras and Kirlian photography are not the mind).

It is likely to remain this way as the mind does not exist in the human realm as a measurable entity, apart from the body part of it that is.

G said...

Ever the skeptic regarding science, Gladstone! ;-)

Bhavana (mental cultivation) includes samatha-vipassana meditation, rooted in anapanasati, or mindfulness of breathing, but the Buddha also taught the four divine abodes (brahma-vihara), which are also forms of mental cultivation, or meditation. (We might be pedantic about such words as samadhi, samatha, bhavana, vipassana, anapanasati, but they all refer to forms of what in English is termed 'meditation.') So, according to the Pali Tipitaka, the Buddha taught more than one type of meditation, and there are many stages to each form, of course.

But, this is sectarianism, anyhow, if we dismiss meditative disciplines from other Buddhist schools than Theravada because they are derived from different texts and cultures. Zazen, for example, is a form of Buddhist meditation - and a very efficacious one at that! (In fact, there are several forms of zazen, just as there are various forms of meditation in the Pali Canon.)

At present, science is very limited in its understanding of meditation, partially due to such research being in its infancy, poor funding for such research, and the fact that science is a discipline that often progresses very slowly. If we live into the second half the century, Gladstone, we will surely see scientific understanding of Buddhist meditation increase manifold by then.

Of course, all of this is academic if we Buddhists don't actually practice meditation (along with the other elements of the Path). What method do you employ, Gladstone? From your apparently Pali Canon based orthodoxy, it would seem that it would be anapanasati. Is this correct? What benefits and insights have you gained from your meditative practice, my friend?

Gladstone said...

Well, I started with traditional anapana-sati then took the more direct method of following the breath at the navel.

As for the benefits and insights, these can only be subjective opinions, but I still bang my head on low door frames from time to time and once every couple of years dive into the concrete pavement to see if I have mysteriously picked up any Kasina meditation (no success here).

The main insight that I have come across is that everyone needs some guidance, human beings are somewhat useless when left to their own devices.

G said...

Never done the navel thing, but like yourself have used anapanasati a lot over the years. I laughed reading about bumping heads & diving into pavements - sounds like me!

As to having others to guide us, this is a cause for much gratitude to the great teachers that have shared the Dharma with the world, not least of all the Lord Buddha himself. Thanks for the comments, Gladstone.

Lorem Ipsum said...

No great comment from me on types of meditation. That science should find positive benefits in it should not be particularly surprising to those of us who practice (or attempt to) regularly.

And I'm no expert, but I wanted to point out that meditation on its own is just that, and what the Buddha wanted us to achieve was a something wider: a reorientation in our approach to life. Perhaps this should be the subject of a holistic science of the future?

G said...

Hi Lorem.
Yes, practicing meditation on its own will have certain therapeutic benefits, but if we wish to achieve the "reorientation in our approach to to life" that you wrote of, we need to walk the Noble Eightfold Path. Meditation is one aspect of this way of life that the Buddha taught, and it is indeed a holistic system that science would do well to investigate in its entirety - now that would be some research!

Lorem Ipsum said...


Gladstone said...

Good point Lorem, although initially we do have to concentrate on the mechanics of meditation to become aware of our own minds, the important part is struggling with the awareness gained in order to let go of our primal instincts so that we end up somewhat better than sophisticated monkeys.

Incidently, as the source for my own views regarding science and metaphysics, this summer I attended a talk given in the Himalayas. It hasn't been published as yet but when it is I will give you the link, as you might find it interesting.

Why the Himalayas? As the teacher pointed out, once you tell everyone that you went to meet a guru on a mountain in the Himalayas then everyone will think that you have really lost it! However, the real reason being that it was such a great place to be.

Lorem Ipsum said...

'Although initially we do have to concentrate on the mechanics of meditation to become aware of our own minds, the important part is struggling with the awareness gained in order to let go ...'

Very well put, Gladstone. And sometimes it can be a struggle!

With thanks

G said...

Some of us monkeys aren't even sophisticated! :-)

Anonymous said...

The problem is when most Scientists cognize religion they belive religion is _only_ theism. They then base there studys from the point view of Theism. Not many scientists know about Buddhism and Interdependent Origination and Emptiness.If more scientists knew about Interdependent Origination and Emptiness, scientific studies would be very different. Its very hard for scientists (physicalists) to cognize Interdependent origination and emptiness because there understanding of cause and effect is more conjusive to theism.

G said...

That science has mainly examined theist religions is primarily a cultural one. Most scientific research into religion & Buddhism is conducted by westerners within western institutions, so quite naturally the majority of them will be focused on western religion (i.e. Christianity) which is theist.

Cause and effect lie at the heart of the teachings on karma & dependent origination, 'Anonymous.' Therefore, Buddhism actually has more in common with science than theism. As science continues to research into Buddhism, this connection will surely be examined, revealing the psychological & scientific elements to the Buddhadharma that have far more in common with science than the supernatural & superstitious roots of most theistic belief. Change affects science as much as everything else, doesn't it?

Gladstone said...

One other interesting point that came to light, regarding what The Buddha actually taught, is the proliferation of Brahman practices listed as being Buddhist.

This is not so surprising as Buddhism existed in a Brahman society and most who became interested in Buddhism had a Brahman cultural background. This is somewhat similar to today where most newcomers to Buddhism were brought up in a Chistian or Jewish culture, and consequently attach to the idea of goodness rather than the idea of karma.

Why would The Buddha bother teaching 40 methods of meditation (as listed by Buddhagosa in the Visudhimagga) when only one of them actually worked in the cessation of suffering?

The answer being that he probably didn't, even though he may be quoted as teaching some, or acknowledging that some were of use to certain people.

What was written down some 300 years after The Buddha was no doubt more politically correct than factual.

As for Buddhagosa, a Brahman turned Buddhist, very few monks agree with his views on what methods The Buddha taught and also his interpretation of Dependent Origination, which is basically a life to life view rather than what occurs in the present moment due to attachment.

It is also interesting to note that in the Thai Wats that do specialize in vipassana, numbering over 10,000, no one teaches the Divine Abodes or any other Brahman method.

G said...

Gladstone, do we know "what the Buddha actually taught"? The Tipitaka was written down in a very stylized & formulaic structure centuries after the Buddha passed away. Perhaps it is nearer his teachings than the Mahayana scriptures, but then it was taught as a raft to help beings realize that which is beyond doctrines, not as a set of dogmas to attach to. Surely what's important is that which helps to shake off the impediments to awakening, not clinging to particular teachings as being 'authentic' or not.

The brahma viharas are more 'samatha' in nature than 'vipassana', taught to cultivate positive mind states that can then be used as the foundation for later insight meditation and hence full awakening.

I live in Thailand and have visited monasteries - not "10,000", but then who has?! - where Thai monks teach the brahma viharas along with many other variations on Buddhist meditation. Some of these other techniques seem very peculiar to me, but then if they work for the practitioners, who am 'I' to judge them?

Based on the Pali Canon, Dependent Origination can be interpreted both as referring to life-to-life and moment-to-moment; in some ways that's the beauty of it, as it can inspire both those that ascribe to rebirth as a literal truth, and those who see it more as a metaphor or indicating psychological phenomena.

Count Sneaky said...

Meditation is a way the world has of gaining your attention along with all the other ways she has. Words,words, words...can one not just be aware?Continue chopping the world into smaller and smaller pieces and the hoped for reward will continue to reside in the smallest piece you can cut.

G said...

Of course, Count Sneaky, awareness is an integral part of the Eightfold Path, but on its own it rarely seems to bring on full awakening. Glimpses might be had, but if we are to sustain this vision of reality, most of us require a method to complement bare attention. Meditation, along with the rest of the Way fulfills this need.

Perhaps you're a buddha simply by being aware, Count Sneaky, and if so, homage to you! For most of 'us', however, realizing & sustaining awakening is little more complicated, hence meditation practice. And, Buddhist meditation is the art of letting go of any sense of reward, as well as relinquishing any idea of needing or not needing to meditate. (Great name, btw!)

Count Sneaky said...

Life is letting go of the thought of reward and simply living in the present. Yes, meditate if you will; abandon all doctrine; forget study. If you cannot be aware in the moment, then what good has it done you? You speak of "full awakening" as reward for practice, or at least something that exists as a possibility. Drop all this hope, desire,and seeking and see what remains.

G said...

You words remind me of the teachings of Jiddhu Krishnamurti, 'Count Sneaky.' These teachings pointed directly at the heart of awakening, but were somewhat dogmatic in their attachment to one way of seeing things. Not wishing to offend very nice people, I recall visiting the Krishnamurti Center in Hampshire, England, where no one appeared to be living life as taught by their deceased famous 'non-guru'. They appeared to be regular people with regular hang ups & imperfections in their wisdom. Part of the lack of real wisdom with followers of 'K' was that he denied all systems & techniques to cultivate awareness. This leaves those who follow his teachings with no support in their practice, drifting between ego & naked awareness without a notion of how to transcend the former.

If compassion arises out this void, it motivates the exploration & sharing of many ways to assist the awakening of seeing-the-way-it-is. Clinging to one way to see this truth may work where you are, but it won't work for everyone. Hence, Buddhism has a whole culture of skillful means (upaya) at its disposal, suitable for different temperaments. For many, perhaps most, letting go of everything and seeing what remains is nigh on impossible. And for the few that are able to momentarily let go in this way, even fewer can live it with consistency & integrity.

So, yes, 'Count Sneaky,' awakening is in this very moment. But whether it is full awakening or not is another matter. Complementing the very simple but evasive experience of the unborn with techniques (such as found in the wonderful Eightfold Path of Buddhism) is a wise way to go. And, when living from the unborn, it comes naturally to share these useful tricks of the trade with those with little dust in their eyes to assist them to a full & perfect vision.

Be well in what remains, G.

Gladstone said...

Yes, we certainly have our own ideas and opinions about awakening but these are all part of our ignorance. If we rely upon our own minds as is, then we don't change much at all.

To progress, knowledge must come from outside of our own little bubble. This comes in the form of guidance from teachers who know the path and meditation that provides awareness so that we can become aware of our mind and struggle with what we find.

Incidentally, the teaching I mentioned from a guru on the top of a mountain in the Himalayas is now up, and called the Sixth Element.

Count Sneaky said...

My friends,one would do well to question all of these "highly paid" gurus and their methods. One would do well to question every teaching whether it be from Gautama, Jesus, Krishnamurti, or anyone.
If you become a follower of this teaching, or that teaching, and then the promised result does not materialize and reality compromises your vision and time,then what? You become a scholar, a pharisee, or a tv pitchman in an attempt to reach others in the name of compassion. All very well and all is as it should be in the world. What are you really looking for?

G said...

What are you looking for on this blog, Count Sneaky? ;-)

Count Sneaky said...

Conversation. Other viewpoints. Testing my own views. We all benefit from questioning our own and other views, do we not? I question only to learn and mean no disrespect to others.I am but "a child crying in the night," as
the poet has it. My best

G said...

Nice quote, Count Sneaky.
It's unlikely that anyone's taken offense at your attitude, but then again your words did seem definite, as though you were preaching at us rather than looking for others' viewpoints & testing your own. This is related to the 8fold Path, where we find Right Speech, which encourages us to reflect on the words we use & their potential affects on others. Still, won't go on, or it might appear that 'I' am preaching at 'you!' :-)

Count Sneaky said...

Oh. No. I would not think that. I am glad that you understand that I have no intent to preach to anyone and certainly did not mean to appear to do so. This is one of the problems with words alone. However, they are all we have and we must be mindful of the way they may affect others. I do tend to use few words, and this is sometimes a problem. My best.

G said...

Okay, Count.
But, in the spirit of debate & straightening out our views, are words really "all we have"? Do 'we', in fact, have them at all, or are they simply phenomena arising in the universe along with everything else? On the other hand, perhaps our words are 'us' & to reflect upon them at all is a divisive act that splits the inherent unity of this moment?! Be well, G.

Count Sneaky said...

I think we must distinguish between two kinds of words, the everyday, ephemeral, words we all use and the frozen words that live in print year after year and influence the words of us all. We defend them, despise them, worship them and are inspired by them. Since the frozen words that live forever somehow provide our culture and personal thoughts, I think, perhaps, we must somehow get beyond them to the original stillness of mind.

G said...

Absolutely, Count: Nicely put!
Words & concepts can be tools for reflection as best, with the unconditioned underlying their conditioned nature. As such tools, words can lead to a kind of breakthrough into this realm of 'no words', as experience has taught 'me.'

Thank you for your words, Count,