“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)
(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?”
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.”
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.”
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…