Buddhists on the Brain
by Dan Arnold, November 3, 2005
To regular readers of mainstream news weeklies like Time and Newsweek, stories on the latest interface between Buddhism and neuroscience are familiar; every few months there is at least a brief notice on, say, a study of MRI data from Tibetan Buddhist meditators, or on the Dalai Lama's addressing cognitive scientists at MIT. These dispatches from the frontiers of science and "spirituality" are common enough that some readers might have been taken aback by the note of controversy sounded in a recent New York Times piece on the subject (Benedict Carey, "Scientists Bridle at Lecture Plan for Dalai Lama," October 19).
Not all members of the Society for Neuroscience, it seems, are enthusiastic about the Dalai Lama's scheduled address at next month's annual meeting; more than 500 brain researchers have signed a petition calling for the talk's cancellation. To complicate matters, eyebrows have been raised by the fact that many of the signatories are Chinese (or of Chinese descent), possibly raising the sensitive political issue of China's occupation of Tibet. There is, however, no shortage of scientists willing to go on record as questioning the scientific merit of studies in this vein; one scientist, dismayed by creeping credulity, worried about this professional organization's looking increasingly like the "Flat Earth Society."
The Times' coverage of this flap chiefly concerned debates internal to the scientific community—debates, for example, about whether scientific objectivity is compromised by the fact that some scholars engaged in this research are themselves practitioners of Buddhist meditation, and about what kind of phenomena are suitable for properly scientific study. One signatory to the petition (Dr. Zvani Rossetti of Italy's University of Cagliari) rightly noted that "neuroscience more than other disciplines is the science at the interface between modern philosophy and science"—whence he concluded that "no opportunity should be given to anybody to use neuroscience for supporting transcendent views of the world."
The latter remark is not only something of a non sequitur, but a little strange since chief among the philosophical questions at stake here is what kind of relation (if any) there is between studies of the brain and the phenomena of the mind—and such questions at least arguably involve recourse to something like "transcendent views of the world" (depending, of course, on what that means).
But the controversy in question should take into account some of the contestation internal to the Buddhist side of the story: There is a history behind the peculiarly high-profile relations that various Buddhist traditions have to science. This history dates at least to the late nineteenth century, when Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka—reacting against Christian missionaries, and encouraged by sympathetic Westerners from the Theosophical Society—developed what many modern scholars have come to call "Protestant Buddhism": Buddhist movements that sought (among other things) to detach the "pure" or "original" Buddhist doctrine from the forms of life and practice that an English-educated Buddhist of the late nineteenth century might find it disadvantageous to have to defend before Christian missionaries.
Buddhists like Anagarika Dharmapala (an emissary to the 1893 World Parliament of Religions) in this way advanced the idea that it is Buddhism (and not Christianity) that is most compatible with the deliverances of science. I would urge that this idea—which reflects perhaps the chief apologetic strategy of "Protestant Buddhism"—lives on in a statement that you have all likely heard or even uttered: "Buddhism isn't a religion, it's a philosophy (or way of life, etc.)."
This commonplace statement advances the idea of the peculiarly rational and empiricist character of Buddhist thought (specifically as contra the unscientific "faith" that presumably defines "religion") -- and hence the unique extent of Buddhism's supposed amenability to scientific explanation. The contemporary version of the same idea would have it that Buddhism isn't a religion, it is (to use the title of one recent book in this vein) "mind science."
While certain trajectories of Buddhist thought might indeed be suggestively comparable with the philosophical projects of cognitive science, it is important to ask what is at stake (and for whom) when it is urged that Buddhism is uniquely compatible (if not coextensive) with science. In particular, we should ask which tradition's authority is meant to be advanced by such claims—a question that becomes all the more complex when it is further asked why either of these traditions should be thought to benefit from the borrowed authority of the other.
Dan Arnold is Assistant Professor of Philosophy of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.