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 including that of breath. In Compassion meditation, the objective is to work up feelings of unconditional love toward all sentient beings. At the risk of making a spiritual practice into a utility tool, Buddhism is a great aid to negotiating the vagaries of life.

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)

1 2