by Carlo Carnevale
Now that the Buddhist traditions confront themselves with cognitive neuroscience and other natural sciences, trying to build up or expand an edifice for studying the mind and conscious experience, it seems vital to stand for the legitimacy and self-sufficiency of Buddhist traditional thought, maintaining critical distance from the prestige (and thus privilege) the scientific apparatus holds in modern western society.
To make this dialogue fruitful, it is essential to critically examine even the realist and materialist ontology of Western thought and its theory of knowledge, without feeling the need to legitimize complex and largely autonomous traditions such as the Buddhist ones.
Must we (or can we, even) immunize ourselves from what Bernard Faure described as a "sort of impersonal flavorless or odorless spirituality"?
At the very least we're going to need to avoid brutal simplifications: affirming that scientific studies verify traditional Buddhist ideas such as the absence of a self (anātman); imagining neural correlates for enlightenment; naively celebrating morpho-physiological changes Mindfulness Meditation (MM) stimulates the brain towards.
These ideas are not incorrect; they're simply confused. The self is perhaps not merely an illusion the brain creates; western science also comprehends it as a social and biological construct.
Whatever we may do functionally changes our brain; proves for univocally beneficial changes in the brain prompted by MM are still provisory, even if promising evidence deserve being explored by multiple perspectives. It calls for analyzing MM also as a social practice, which positive or negative facets depend on highly subtle and contextual factors beyond the brain; from this angle it is also possible to make sense of the surging commodification of MM.
With regards to enlightenment, it cannot simply be an isolated state with a specific, univocal neural pathway corresponding; it comes as an ambiguous, faceted concept, of which diverse and seemingly incompatible meanings are related to the religious and philosophical tradition they emerge from. Such meanings are not ambiguous because they are confusi confused or sparse, they're instead repositories of an affluence we're today responsible to further approach, devoid of prejudice.
Sources & Further Readings:
James William Coleman, 2002, “The new buddhism: the western transformation of an ancient tradition”.
A. Alpert, 2012, Reincarnation Now, Aeon.
How the things you do change your brain, Australian Academy of Science.
M. Karjalainen et alia, 2019, “Scientization, instrumentalization, and commodification of mindfulness in a professional services firm”, Science.