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Perspective
Buddhism Meets Western Science
A dialogue on the mind and consciousness

by Gay Watson

The field of cognitive science has fundamentally changed in recent decades. As Western research-ers grapple with problems of consciousness and subjective experience, an interesting dialogue opens with Buddhist tradition, which has always been overwhelmingly concerned with human experience.

While the pan-Indian doctrine of karma refers to an inevitable causal chain of actions, the great innovation of Buddhism was to ethicize and psychologize this by emphasizing intent rather than action. Buddhism has always presented an empirical psychology that both reveals and rests upon a philosophy of process. The Buddha's analysis of the human condition was that it is unsatisfactory; that craving and misunderstanding cause this suffering; that it can be ended; and that a path of emotional and cognitive realignment leads to such liberation. These truths are less a statement of fact than a call to act. We are called to understand fully that ordinary life is suffering; cease from the causes of suffering; realize liberation; and cultivate the path. Throughout, the emphasis is on human experience, and the path to liberation from suffering is seen as attainable only by understanding experience and the ways to improve it. Buddhism does not propose beliefs of the supernatural or transcendent, but offers a practice: the cultivation of cognitive, emotional, and physical practices to bring about change.

Three realizations characterize the current generation of cognitive science: the fundamental and inescapable importance of embodiment, the importance of emotion, and the extent and importance of nonconscious processes; all must be seen as contextualized and interdependent.

Western science now acknowledges that the mind is not just a program in the brain, but that its processes are distributed throughout the body. This acknowledgment ends centuries of mind/body splitting in Western discourse. More importantly, it ends overvaluation of mind at the expense of body. Indeed, in a world theoretically ever more relative and pluralist, mindful realization of our common human embodiment may provide us with a much-needed foundation.

In Buddhism the separation of body and mind has never been as thorough as in the West. In a work that brings together philosophy, ritual, and medical practice, a thirteenth century Tibetan writer proclaimed that even if the mind is understood with the greatest wisdom one will never be fully enlightened until one understands the body. In an interview in the Winter 2000 Tricycle, S.N. Goenka, a leading meditation teacher, refers to the Buddha as a superscientist, stating, "If proper attention is not given to the sensations, then we are not going to the deepest levels of the mind. The deepest level of the mind, according to Buddha, is constantly in contact with bodily sensations. And you find this by experience." By attending to sensations, one trains the mind to resist reacting nonconsciously to them.

Western science now also finds conscious reason to be the tip of the iceberg of complex processes that are largely emotional and below the level of consciousness. Buddhism has always been concerned with feelings, emotions, sensations, and cognition. The Buddha points both to cognitive and emotional causes of suffering. The emotional cause is desire and its negative opposite, aversion. The cognitive cause is ignorance of the way things truly occur, or of three marks of existence: that all things are unsatisfactory, impermanent, and without essential self. The Samyutta Nikaya, a canonical work of Buddhism, describes feelings, referring to a twofold division into those of body and of mind and continuing on to a division into 108 types. The teachings place equal importance on body, speech, and mind; practices of mindfulness are related to bodily sensations, feeling, the mind, and its objects.

Though Western research finds that many of these processes function subconsciously, Buddhism has always posited sufficient freedom of consciousness to enable choice, and Buddhists try to increase conscious choice by cultivating mindfulness. Contemporary research finds the influence of mind upon body, body upon mind, and environment upon mind and body to be complicated and interdependent. Research has shown that repeated action, learning, and memory can actually change the nervous system physically, altering both synaptic strength and connections. Such changes may be brought about by cultivated change in emotion and action; they will, in turn, change subsequent experience.

Indeed, Buddhism's centuries of exploration of subjective mind states may be a resource for Western science. As scientists discover the impossibility and the inadequacy of objectivity, and the need for new methods to study subjective experience, they may turn toward this treasury of mental practices for help. A recent issue of the Journal for Consciousness Studies explores this. Perhaps this very project within contemporary cognitive and neuroscience will unite inner and outer, body and mind, first-person and third-person descriptions, and even Eastern and Western traditions.

Buddhism, based as it is upon experience and a psychological understanding of body and mind, is one of the oldest systems of thought yet most in tune with contemporary neuroscience and with other strands of contemporary discourse. The third mark of existence, that of nonself, describes dependent origination, the central philosophy of Buddhism which states that all phenomena, including persons, are constructed and dependent upon a network of causes and conditions.

The other face of dependent origination is the doctrine of emptiness. All phenomena, including persons, are empty of any unchanging, isolated essence because of this very dependence upon a network of causes and conditions from which they cannot be separated. Such theory resonates both with the findings of contemporary neuroscience and with the postmodern insistence upon contextuality and difference. Each person and thing is, at the same time, dependent, contingent, and determined by causes and conditions both environmental and cultural, uniquely individual and unrepeatable.

Buddhist teachings do not lead to logic of either/or; rather, they attempt to forge a middle path of nonduality. Unlike Western logic its purpose is not to support theory and abstraction, but to relate to an embodied way of being. This involves a movement away from binary dualisms toward relativity, mutuality, and commensurability. Thus in Hua Yen Buddhism, a central image is the net of Indra—a net of jewels, each jewel reflecting each other and the totality. Such a guiding metaphor replaces hierarchical symbols such as the pyramid or tree.

The related questions of self and free will are too enormous to engage here. The unexplained gap between physical phenomena and subjective experience remains both in East and West, science and philosophy. The no-self of Buddhism refers to the lack of some unchanging essential self, but does not deny a contingent transactional processual self, or one based on processes, such as thinking, feeling, and acting, rather than product. Buddhism posits sufficient free will to allow for intentional practices to augment awareness, to foster wholesome thought and action, and to defuse unhealthy reactions. Beyond this we must return again to intention—in this case the intention of dharma, which is the search for liberation. Outside this, Buddhism is little concerned about free will. For Buddhism is not concerned with ontology, or indeed with knowledge for its own sake. Such are questions that the Buddha refused to answer. What Buddhism is centrally concerned with is a path to liberation and the end of suffering through realigning our experience in accordance with the way things are, rather than the way we tend to misperceive them. It suggests that the way to change our experience is through understanding that experience. To this end it has undertaken centuries of first-person exploration of experience that may now helpfully come into dialogue with the West's superior third-person research.

Gay Watson obtained her doctorate from the University of London for work on Buddhism and psychotherapy. She is the author of The Resonance of Emptiness: A Buddhist Inspiration for a Contemporary Psychotherapy, and coeditor of The Psychology of Awakening. She teaches at Sharpham College, Devon, England.

January/February 2001 Bulletin Cover - Large © 2001 by Karen Blessen
Religion and the Brain: January/February 2001

Volume/Issue: Issue 19
Publisher: Park Ridge Center, Chicago
Date: January, 2001.
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