These are difficult times. A global recession triggered by the coronavirus pandemic and widespread civil unrest have created a combustible mix of anxiety – stressors that increase the risk of long-term health problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released guidelines for dealing with this anxiety. Among them is meditation.
Buddhists have known about this strategy for thousands of years. And as the CDC example shows, scientists increasingly believe they can learn from Buddhism.
The impetus for dialogue between Buddhism and science comes from above. When Tenzin Gyatso – who is now the 14th Dalai Lama – was a child in rural Tibet, he saw the moon through a telescope and marveled at its craters and mountains. His guardian told him that, according to Buddhist texts, the moon emits its own light. But Gyatso had his doubts. He discovered what Galileo had seen 400 years earlier, and he became convinced that dogma had to comply with observation.
As the Dalai Lama, Gyatso has since maintained a dialogue with scientists. “If science shows that some beliefs in Buddhism are wrong, then Buddhism will have to change,” he said.
These are striking words from the head of a great world religion. Most Americans believe that science and religion clash. But Buddhists accept evolution as the source of human origins more than any other religious group.
As an astronomy teacher who has been teaching Tibetan monks and nuns for over a decade, I have found them very receptive to science as a way to understand the natural world.
The program I teach began in response to the Dalai Lama’s desire to inject science into the training of Buddhist monks. In our Spartan classroom – the windows are open to enjoy the monsoon heat and monkeys chatting in the pines outside – we talk about cosmology.
Monks and nuns enthusiastically absorb the latest research I present – dark energy, the multiverse, the big bang as a quantum event. Their questions are simple but profound. They approach learning with joy and humility. Outside of class, I see them applying critical thinking to decisions in their daily lives.
Yes, the Buddhist monastic tradition has been revived with a dose of 21st century science. But how did Buddhism influence science?
Buddhists as skeptics
Scientists are increasingly using Buddhist wisdom to gain insight into several research topics and to shed light on the human condition. When psychologists use Buddhist concepts in their work, for example, they find that their patients are less likely to display prejudices against people outside their social and religious group. And scientists have used the harmonic principles built into Buddhist “singing” bowls to design more efficient solar panels.
The two disciplines share an empirical approach. Buddhists are trained to be skeptical and to accept a proposition only after examining the evidence. The following words are attributed to the Buddha: “Just as a goldsmith would test his gold by burning it, cutting it and rubbing it, so must you examine my words and accept them, not just out of reverence for me.” ”
Numerous studies show that meditation has a positive effect on health and well-being. EEG tests to measure the brain waves of monks provide proof. Monks and other expert meditators produce high levels of gamma brain waves, which have a range of benefits for cognitive functioning.
Meditation also benefits the immune system. And it’s been shown to reduce mental wandering, which increases happiness and reduces depression. Meditation can even slow the rate of brain atrophy. In one remarkable case, meditation may have shaved the brain of a Buddhist monk by eight years.
Western scientists and Buddhist scholars have also collaborated on one of the deep mysteries of human experience: consciousness. Researchers used neuroscience to support the idea of an ever-changing self. Neuroscientists have modeled the sense of self in terms of changing networks and circuits in the brain. Your sense of a stable and grounded “you” is an illusion, they concluded.
Christof Koch is a great specialist in consciousness. Koch and his colleague Giulio Tononi proposed a bold theory of consciousness. They claim that it is not localized and cannot be identified in any part of the brain. They also write that plants, animals and microbes can be aware. Their theory “deals with consciousness [as] an intrinsic and fundamental property of reality.
Wait. Self is nowhere and consciousness is everywhere? It sounds like Zen sophistry rather than scientific analysis. But I see it as a sign of the fruitful convergence of Western science and Eastern philosophy.
It is too early to determine what this ambitious research will bring. But it shows that the contribution of Buddhist thought forces scientists to question their methods, their assumptions and their logical constructions. Koch and Tononi, for example, are less interested in the physical mechanisms and localized structures of the brain than in the network of transient connections that may underlie consciousness.
The best science lesson from Buddhism is about balance. In his gentle way, the Dalai Lama criticizes scientists for not paying enough attention to the negative implications of their quest for knowledge. He writes: “It is too obvious that our moral thinking has simply not been able to keep pace with scientific advancement. ”
In a troubled world, being guided by science while insisting that it reflects human values can be everyone’s best advice.
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