Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Dalai Lama, Buddhism and Neuroscience

His Holiness the Dalai Lama recently addressed, amidst much controversy about the invitation to do so, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

His remarks there raise important questions regarding Buddhism and science which need to be considered, in a scientific, in a historical, and then in a future-related context.

A. Science: His Holiness called for a dialogue between Buddhism and neuroscience, on the grounds that the two traditions have a lot to contribute to each other. For example, His Holiness points out that "the effects of mental training, such as simple mindfulness practice on a regular basis, or the deliberate cultivation of compassion as developed in Buddhism", brings about observable changes in the human brain correlated to positive measurable mental states. If so, this is of course to be welcomed. However, from a genuinely scientific point of view, the question should probably be posed differently: "Is the effect of such "mental training" any different from that of prayer in other world religions, or secular singing, or any enjoyable form of aesthetic or even physical exercise? If so, how?". In declining to raise such genuinely scientific questions, His Holiness's address descends to the level of mere propaganda on behalf of Buddhism. By contrast, a call for a dialogue between neuroscience, psychology, and what we might call the different aesthetic and spiritual traditions around the world, would have been very welcome.

B. History: One of the reasons that Alexander the Great wished to conquer India was because he wanted to meet the famous "gymnosophists" (yogis) of India at the Buddhist universities of Taxila and Nalanda. That is why Alexander brought with him not only soldiers and generals but also historians, doctors, philosophers and so on. The interaction between the Greek world and the Buddhist world resulted in the Indo-Bactrian Kingdoms, on which so much knowledge is now available, not least from art historians in terms of the Gandhara School of Art (which produced the distinctive Buddhas that are so famous today – including those that were blown up by the Taliban in Bamiyan). In contemporary India, the still-living mark of that interaction is the Yunani (Ionian) School of Medicine, which is officially recognised and patronised. To my knowledge, India is the only country in the world which is still sponsors research into the old Greek systems of medicine. No other country does so, not even Greece, so far as I know.

So the interesting question is "Why did Buddhism, with its world-renowned universities, not only fail to give birth to modern science but why has Buddhism remained, in those countries where it has the majority, so resistant to scientific thought and civilisational progress?"

The full answer may be difficult to find. However, I suggest, inter alia, the following:

B1. For Buddhism, this world is not only unimportant, it is an illusion and a distraction from one's "real calling and purpose" which is to escape the trammels of this illusory world. The most intelligent and sensitive Buddhists have always therefore been focused on trying to escape the world, while providing some emotional and spiritual guidance to lesser mortals ("ordinary people") who are, for whatever, uninclined or unable to pursue their "real calling". This is of course very similar to the notion of monkhood and priesthood in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which appear to have borrowed these notions from Eastern religious traditions, even though there is nothing to justify such ideas in the Bible, as the Protestant Reformers (magisterial and radical alike) demonstrated.

B2. Similarly, one's sense that one is a "person" ("I")is essential to human development in the whole understanding of Western psychology and neuroscience as a result of the Reformation. However, this sense of being a person is for Buddhism an illusion, from which one's highest calling is to escape. Such an orientation has not provided, and does not provide, any motivation or basis for individual excellence in relation to things of this earth, whether athletics or aesthetics, cuisine or community affairs, business or politics – as can be seen in any Buddhist-majority country throughout history right up to today.

BTW, it is probably worth observing that, unlike Buddhism, science does accept as fundamental that there is a real world which can be observed, however much it might be influenced by the process of observation, and that there is a real "I" doing the observing.

It is not surprising, then, that Buddhism played, eventually, a negative role in terms of preserving (let alone developing) the pre-Buddhist Indian understandings of medicine, sanitation, town-planning and so on. In fact, the civilisational decline of India from say the 1st century BC to the time of the development of what we today call Hinduism (say the sixth century AD) is at least partly due to the influence of Buddhism (and the related but different religious movement called Jainism) – even though both movements made various highly important positive contributions to which I have drawn attention in my little booklet, Indian Spirituality (Grove Books, Nottingham, 1984, but now out of print and available for free download from my website: The main culprit for that civilisational decline, however, was the peculiar and repulsive movement known as Tantra, which developed as a reaction to Buddhist rationality, but as a result also of Buddhism's emphasis on experience. As Buddhism had no reason to reject Tantra, it eventually ended up accepting Tantra, with all its deleterious consequences for individuals and society.

C. The future: His Holiness's remarks raise the question of whether the Buddhist categories of "compassion, tolerance, a sense of caring, consideration of others, and the responsible use of knowledge and power" are sufficient to provide an ethical basis for science. I will collapse all those terms into "compassion", though of course we could take each of those terms and use them for similar analysis as that which follows, though these are merely first thoughts:

C1. As there is no adequate or sufficiently precise definition of "compassion" in Buddhism or in ordinary English, it might be as "compassionate" to prolong the life of a "terminally-ill" person, as it might be to end it (so the notion of "compassion" provides no substantial guidance to dilemmas posed regarding euthanasia)

C2. Similarly, "compassion" provides no guidance at the other end of life, in relation to the question of abortion – is it the life of the foetus that should be the object of "compassion" (so abortion should be banned?) or is it the feelings of the mother that should be the focus of our compassion (so abortion should be permitted and perhaps even encouraged in certain cases?)

C3. One can go on to discuss other specific examples of modern ethical dilemmas in relation to science (e.g. cloning), but we should perhaps consider more overarching issues, such as whether the notion of "compassion" provides any basis on which to decide whether, and if so at what scale, to continue to fund the kinds of scientific research which take up an overwhelming proportion of the money spent on scientific research at present – which we might describe as "science for the rich". A simple illustration is the amount of money spent on researching the diseases of the rich versus the amount of money spent on researching the diseases of the poor. Again, from a "compassionate" point of view, is nuclear research justified? At what scale? Is space research justified? If so, at what scale? And so on. Such questions have historically been, and continue to be, outside the frame of reference of Buddhism.

In other words, "compassion" is good and necessary, but it is insufficient to tackle the complex issues (or are they really very simple issues?) of modern society.

So it may not be merely Buddhist cosmology that needs to be modified in order to provide a basis for living in the modern world, as was argued by His Holiness at the Annual Meeting, but it may be the entirety of Buddhism that needs to be brought in line with Jewish and Christian understandings, for example of "holiness", "personhood" and "reality".

India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once said that he was a "Hindu by birth, a Buddhist by philosophy, a Muslim by culture, and a Christian by ethics". He said this because the first was a fact, but the rest represented, in his view, the best in India. I would only slightly modify that: Buddhism knows more about psychology, but Jainism has a more consistent philosophy.

In any case, the above may perhaps go some way to explaining why I am not a Buddhist, though I retain the highest respect for His Holiness as a Head of State, as a religious leader, and indeed as a person for all his work and his many contributions to modern society.

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