Post 9: Finale, Finally; or, A Coda On Looking At Buddhism Relatively

My points are modest in what they are trying to prove, or they would be if many people weren't entirely immodest in what they refuse to discuss.

All superstitions proliferate dogmatically, and all dogmatic assertions are by their nature fanatical. The only way to be respectful of Buddhism is to criticize it. Ultimately, there can be no blasphemy if there is no sacrosanct to blaspheme against.

Given the criticisms that I have levied in this series of posts, I have proven my belief that Buddhism is 1) a religion, and 2) guilty of all of all the vice that mortal flesh is heir to. You should join me in that belief.

That being said, I must admit that Buddhism is, for a religion, a remarkable one. Case in point, when I asked the three most educated Buddhism scholars whom I have the distinct pleasure of knowing to read a draft of this series and respond, each responded with kind words and amendments to my specific criticisms.

No doubt this is, in part, symptomatic of the same moral blackmail that I am railing against, and which is so easily summed up by the name of any given Catholic hospital ("Our Lady of Perpetual Suffering Catholic Hospital: where Science saves you, God gets the credit, and The Pope gets the money").

Nonetheless, the willingness of these three dear friends to self-criticize betrays remarkably broad minds and remarkably wide-eyes, especially in comparison to members of other religions.

I do understand that the pull of the religious is often an emotional appeal, and I respect that emotion, even as I identify it as dishonesty.

I do not know what to do with this information (and it certainly does not sway me towards the vain consolations of the superstitious) but know that eight of the ten people whom I regard as the smartest I know would self-describe as either Christians or Buddhists.


A lot of people seem unimpressed by the force of my claim that Buddhism, in nearly all its forms, has a dark side. This somewhat shocks me. I think it is a rather forceful one indeed. Maybe I have been especially extravagantly exposed to the casuistry and anti-intellectualism that surrounds non-scholarly Buddhist discussion in The West (specifically in America and Ireland, between which places I live).

But I doubt that very much. My points are modest in what they are trying to prove, or they would be if many people weren't entirely immodest in what they refuse to discuss.

People have made a character judgment of me simply for raising the question of whether The Dalai Lama is driven by the same earthly considerations that any religious leader is, or that Buddhists who are violent are nonetheless Buddhists, or that a psychological urge to retreat into oneself is both a motivating factor for sympathizing with Buddhism and A Bad Thing.

This is the supposed blasphemy I mention in the title of this series. This is the blackmail.

A lesson that I think history has taught us well is that the side which hopes to stop discussion before it begins by questioning the wisdom or the credibility of the speaker, rather than the one which hopes to see that discussion through, is nearly always the side that is lying, and nearly always to itself.

I meditate daily, yet cannot discuss it with many people who do the same, because they think that it is wrong for me to acknowledge that it is a completely neuroscientifically explainable phenomenon, even as I simultaneously maintain that it is often a beautiful and meaningful experience.

So this is all that I really want to say: Instead of discussing Buddhism only in tones of hushed respect, I simply suggest a different tone: Respect tempered by loud and well-argued criticism. If you already do that, then I am not talking to you, but thank you to the many in that category who have read and replied for humoring and honoring me with your time and your broad-mindedness. 

Those who would admonish me for criticizing Buddhism would do well to understand that learning and discussing its history openly and honestly can reduce fanaticism and increase truthfulness, while at the same time no less suggesting respect and intrigue.

In that spirit, after an appropriate amount of time, I will publish one final post in this series, aggregating and responding to the feedback from the posts.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.