The considerable overlap between Buddhism and Neuroscience

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)

Works Cited

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 on 11th May 2014

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