Buddhism is not a collection of views. It is a practice to help us eliminate wrong views.
– Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Buddha's Teaching.
What’s the Big Idea?
I can already anticipate the critiques. Science is about objective, reproducible verification. Buddhist meditation, on the other hand, is about you, alone with your own subjective experience of your own mind. All of its so-called “evidence,” of the positive effects of meditation, the limitless capacity of the human heart for joy, compassion, and peace, etc. is anecdotal.
Putting aside for the moment the more “spiritual” aspects of Buddhist teaching, neuro and cognitive science have been paying close attention to meditation for some time now. While such studies are a source of controversy in the scientific community, there is increasing consensus that the sustained practice of meditation can permanently change the structure of the brain and improve attentional capacity.
It’s early days still for the neuroscience of meditation, but Kadam Morten, a teacher in the New Kadampa tradition of Buddhism, argues that the Buddha (Gautama Buddha, who lived in India approximately 2500 years ago) was the creator of a “science of the mind.” The practice of Buddhist meditation, he says (echoing Geshe Kelsang, the founder of New Kadampa), enables anyone to verify through self-study that beneath the “deluded mind-states” of anger, jealousy, and attachment which dominate our waking lives there exists a universal, self-renewing wellspring of compassion, joy, and love.
This “spiritual dimension” of our existence, which Buddhists believe is empirically verifiable through practice, is what fundamentally distinguishes Buddhism from what might be called Orthodox Atheism, which denies the existence of any such dimension.
What’s the Significance?
Those aspects of Buddha’s teachings that have been preserved in various traditions share a belief in the interdependence and interconnectedness of all things – a kind of unified theory of everything. In effect, they argue that most of human reality as we know it is a distortion, the result of the delusions that afflict our individual minds, and that we perceive distinctions where none exist.
For humans, Buddhists believe, compassion for others is the logical response to the understanding of interdependence and the shared experience of suffering that deluded mind-states cause. Through observation, the “Buddhist scientist” comes to understand the sources of her own confusion and psychic dissonance, and, seeing through the external differences that divide us, can better empathize with others.
Another recent Big Think guest, philosopher Alain de Botton, might disagree with the metaphysics of Buddhism, but he shares this core belief – that beneath our often horrible outward behavior toward one another, there exists a set of shared human values such as kindness, compassion, and value of children – and that our biggest challenge as a species is not losing track of them.
Of course if you believe that, at their core, people are violent and competitive and cruel, then neither argument is likely to interest you much. But if you agree that hatred, anxiety, greed, and jealousy are secondary and deeply destructive aspects of our nature, then – after survival – finding some reliable method to control or eradicate them – and thereby liberating our better angels –becomes pretty much the only worthwhile human pursuit.
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