Buddhism as a “Science of the Mind”

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.”

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.

Image credit: Luciano Mortula/Shutterstock.com 

Follow Jason Gots (@jgots) on Twitter

How Pete Holmes creates comedic flow: Try micro-visualization

Setting a simple intention and coming prepared can help you — and those around you — win big.

Videos
  • Setting an intention doesn't have to be complicated, and it can make a great difference when you're hoping for a specific outcome.
  • When comedian Pete Holmes is preparing to record an episode of his podcast, "You Made it Weird with Pete Holmes," he takes 15 seconds to check in with himself. This way, he's primed with his own material and can help guests feel safe and comfortable to share theirs, as well.
  • Taking time to visualize your goal for whatever you've set out to do can help you, your colleagues, and your projects succeed.
Keep reading Show less

The 5 most intelligent video games and why you should play them

Some games are just for fun, others are for thought provoking statements on life, the universe, and everything.

(Photo from Flickr)
Culture & Religion
  • Video games are often dismissed as fun distractions, but some of them dive into deep issues.
  • Through their interactive play elements, these games approach big issues intelligently and leave you both entertained and enlightened.
  • These five games are certainly not the only games that cover these topics or do so well, but are a great starting point for somebody who wants to play something thought provoking.
Keep reading Show less

Bigotry and hate are more linked to mass shootings than mental illness, experts say

How do we combat the roots of these hateful forces?

Photo credit: Rux Centea on Unsplash
Politics & Current Affairs
  • American Psychological Association sees a dubious and weak link between mental illness and mass shootings.
  • Center for the study of Hate and Extremism has found preliminary evidence that political discourse is tied to hate crimes.
  • Access to guns and violent history is still the number one statistically significant figure that predicts gun violence.
Keep reading Show less