Biomedical research buttresses and changes Buddhism

Buddhism has been the focus of recent biomedical and neurological research suggesting that the practice of meditation is psychologically and physically healthy, but Buddhist organizations have also been both changed and challenged by these insights, writes Jeff Wilson in the journal Zygon (March). Wilson finds that few Buddhist groups have discounted the findings about the healthy effect of Buddhist mediation, but only a segment of Buddhists have used them to actually promote the faith. Such a leader as Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche actively uses neurological findings and concepts to attract a skeptical, Western audience to Buddhism. He references his own participation in neurological experiments (Buddhist monks were among the main subjects in these studies) to make the point that he and “his religion are not at war with science, unlike some conservative forms of religion in the modern day,” Wilson writes. Such popular books as Rick Hanson’s Buddha’s Brain and James Kingland’s Siddhartha’s Brain are also examples of this approach. Wilson adds that relying on science to prove the claims of Buddhism “actually undercuts many inherited aspects of Buddhism itself, such as monastic and scriptural authority.” Another way Buddhists have approached scientific research on meditation is to hide their identity, as “large numbers of Buddhists disparage or eliminate Buddhism from meditation” as they cite these studies. One of the primary venues for this approach is Mindful magazine, a popular publication edited by Buddhists, though “you’d never know it from reading [it],” Wilson writes. Rather than reinforcing the truth of Buddhism, it makes it removable. “This allows the publishers to reach a wide audience of non-Buddhists, both for the well-being of readers and of course for the financial benefit of Mindful’s staff and writers.”

Thirdly, these scientific studies can also change Buddhism. Author Stephen Batchelor “deploys scientific studies in order to bolster his call for the reorganization of Buddhism in an agnostic, Euro-Enlightenment mode.” This is most evident in Buddhist groups that have not traditionally practiced meditation, such as the Buddhist Churches of America in the Jodo Shinshu tradition, but have recently adopted the practice. For instance, the Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple’s 750th anniversary celebration of Jodo Shinshu founder Shinran included a 24-hour meditation vigil. The organization used a form of chanting while the studies have stressed silent meditation, but these Buddhists also stress the health benefits of these practices.

At the same time, some Buddhist groups may acknowledge the health benefits of meditation but point to their teachings as more authentic than biomedical studies and transcending such material concerns. Such Buddhist critics see the science driving these studies as too materialistic and reductionist. Lastly, a segment of Buddhists also see themselves as reforming science. Buddhist scholar Alan Wallace sees Buddhism as a “super science” proposing a superior way of life. He proposes the “Jiva Project,” which would use the advanced EEG signatures of Tibetan monks to “determine if they were indeed reincarnated into the bodies chosen as their successors.”