A neural Buddhist?

Years ago, I recall being struck by David Brooks’ column, The Neural Buddhists, in the New York Times, way back in 2008. Part of the column is focused on a claim that research at the time, especially in neuroscience, was casting doubt on atheism (or at least strict materialism):

Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.

Brooks, The Neural Buddhists

I think it is fair to say that among scientists, and especially in areas related to neuroscience, cognitive psychology, etc., there has been an increasing appreciation for the importance of emotion in neuroscience. And, our understanding how meaning and beliefs depend on brain activity are fascinating areas areas of study today. But… most researchers are still working from a fundamentally materialist foundation (that is, I would say that neuroscientists don’t have to invoke something “else” beyond the brain to explain emotion or beliefs).

Scientists, even neuroscientists, can remain strict materialists, and atheists, and have no real problems pursuing their work. I think the other main point that Brooks makes is more interesting, when he summarizes some lines of research:

First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

Brooks, The Neural Buddhists

I might want to quibble with, or add some qualifications (to points 3 and 4). But, the basic point that our self (the “I” that I may feel is composing these words) is not a single, unified, or solid thing is still a good description today of the results of a large number of research studies in several fields (including psychology and neuroscience). And, this point is basically consistent with many Buddhist teachings, dating back to some of the earliest records of the teachings attributed to Gautama Buddha.

My own interest in neuroscience and psychology was originally motivated by a desire to understand how our brains give rise to subjective experience (including that of meditative states). Having started to study Zen Buddhism in high school and college, I wanted to know more about what might be happening to a person during meditation, and how meditation practice might affect the brain.

I have felt that my life has been mutually enriched through science (attempting to look at the world objectively) and my meditation practice (which I saw as an attempt to look closely at my own subjective experience). Brooks’ column, pointing to the compatibility of research on the self in neuroscience and psychology with Buddhism, motivated me to try and speak about connections between science (especially brain science), and Buddhism. But, while I tried to start a blog at the time, I never really found any momentum. The motivation to say something lay dormant for many years as I tended to my own work and practice.

Over the last year, I’ve found myself coming back back to this piece, thinking about what I might say that could be of benefit to others. Why now, after all of these years? And, while I was not directly inspired by the emergence of the Brood X cicadas this year, it is true that my desire to speak has been slowly growing and maturing over the years, much like the cicadas had spent the last seventeen years, waiting for their moment.

Brood X cicadas emerged this summer: a miraculous fruit of seventeen years of practice.

My goal with this blog is to look at the connections between science (especially neuroscience and psychology) and Buddhism (especially Zen Buddhism). I’m not really qualified to speak as an expert on the latter, but I hope that these observations may be helpful to even a few people. I know that thinking about them, trying to look clearly at my own life, has been helpful for me.

And, while I’ve taken the name for this work from Brooks’ column, he did not really seem to propose a new neural Buddhism (a neuroscientific version of Buddhism, or a Buddhist version of neuroscience). The main arc of the column moves from a rejection of strict materialism to considering how neuroscientific studies of the self seem compatible with Buddhism.

But, I don’t believe that science today is simply confirming what Buddhists already know. So, I probably would not call myself a “neural Buddhist”, or propose that Buddhism is justified by neuroscience (or vice versa). But, I have a great deal of optimism in the value of looking carefully at this life, from both the “inside” (in meditation), and from the “outside” (using empirical approaches, such as neuroscience and psychology). I hope you each find something of value here, and in your own observations.

Child exiting tunnel

Sign up for our weekly posts!


We will only use this address to send you our latest post (once a week at most).

Leave a Reply