Here are a few more pages from Why I am not a Buddhist:
The first decade of the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute was exciting. It felt like we were creating something unprecedented, a fusion of science, meditation, and philosophy. Graduate students, postdocs, junior and senior scientists, and scholars from all over the world formed collaborations to investigate the mind by interweaving contemplative expertise, the cognitive and brain sciences, clinical psychology, and cross-cultural philosophy. Scientists who had a personal and research interest in meditation could now support each other’s work and share their findings, and many new scientific studies were published as a result. The Francisco J. Varela Research Grants, which were created with the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute in 2004, supported many of these studies. The Summer Institute played a huge role in helping to create a new international research community.
At the same time, an in-group/out-group structure was developing. Skeptical or critical voices asking tough questions were being sidelined. Can scientists who are personally invested in meditation practice be objective and impartial in their research on meditation? Why is there so much antecedent commitment to establishing that meditation is beneficial when many people also report experiencing negative effects? Doesn’t it distort both Buddhism and science to use Buddhist concepts such as “awakening,” “pure awareness,” “innate goodness,” or “Buddha nature” to interpret scientific studies of the brain and behavior? Such questions were often pushed aside.
I also noticed that Buddhism was getting special treatment. Buddhist exceptionalism was rampant, as Buddhism was seen as superior to other religions, or as not really a religion but rather as a kind of “mind science.” Buddhist meditation practices were regarded as inherently different from prayer or worship. Ancient Indian Buddhist taxonomies of mental states were treated as if they were the direct product of meditation and as objective maps of the mind, rather than scholastic philosophical systems that aimed to reconstruct and systematize the Buddha’s teaching in as unambiguous a way as possible. Coupled to the special status given to Buddhism was the special status given to neuroscience, or more precisely, the small part of neuroscience that is human brain imaging. The result was a kind of “neural Buddhism.” 14 According to this way of thinking, “enlightenment” is a brain state or has unique neural signatures, mindfulness practice consists in training the brain, and cognitive science has corroborated the Buddhist view that there is no self.
There were dissenting voices, especially from historians of religion, philosophers, and anthropologists, but they were in the minority. Buddhist exceptionalism and neural Buddhism were becoming the default framework for most of the discussions about the scientific study of meditation.
At first I looked at these problems through philosophical and cognitive scientific glasses. Later I also came to see them from a historical perspective.
From a cognitive science perspective, the problem with neural Buddhism is that it’s “brainbound” or “neurocentric.” It rests on the assumption that cognition happens inside the brain instead of being a performance of the whole embodied being embedded in the world. The proper scientific framework for conceptualizing meditation isn’t human brain imaging; it’s embodied cognitive science, the study of how cognition directly depends on the culturally configured body acting in the world.
From a philosophical perspective, the problem with Buddhist exceptionalism is that it presents Buddhist theories of the mind as if they’re value-neutral descriptions, when they’re based on value judgments about how to cultivate or shape the mind to realize the supreme Buddhist goal of nirvana. In philosophical terms, the theories are normative—they’re based on ethical value judgments—and soteriological—they’re concerned with salvation or liberation. Buddhist theories of the mind lose their point if they’re extracted from the Buddhist normative and soteriological frameworks.
These points were brought home to me during a Buddhist vipassanā or insight meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Two longtime Buddhist meditation teachers, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, led the retreat. It lasted seven days and was designed especially for scientists and clinicians interested in meditation. Many prominent scientists who investigate meditation and are part of the Mind and Life community attended the retreat, as did graduate students from their labs. We spent ten hours a day over the course of six days practicing silent seated and walking meditation. We were given precise instructions on how to follow our breath and how to notice sensations, feelings, intentions, and thoughts as they come and go. We were told that we were “learning to observe the mind as it is” and “learning to see things clearly, as they are.” On the last day we talked about our experiences. There was a palpable feeling of being part of something special, a new community of intrepid explorers who were combining the latest scientific tools with ancient methods of introspection to chart the mind. I was caught up in the enthusiasm along with everyone else.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking throughout the retreat that what was happening didn’t match the rhetoric of “learning to see things as they are.” We were given a system of concepts to apply to our experience as we practiced meditation. Some of the concepts were seemingly everyday ones like “sensation,” “feeling,” “attention,” and “intention,” but they were tied to Buddhist concepts like “moment-to-moment arising,” “impermanence,” “mindfulness,” “not-self,” and “karma.” The retreat was silent, so these words were the only ones we heard. Their inner echo lasted longer, especially during the early days, as I was getting used to the silence. Each of us was trying to follow the meditation instructions, and we knew everyone else was trying to do the same thing. We were being given a powerful and collectively reinforced conceptual system for making sense of whatever happened to us as we sat and walked in silence. Occasional group or one-on-one interviews with the teachers reinforced the conceptual framework. We felt that we were on a new kind of scientific mission. How could this not direct and shape what we were experiencing? Were we learning to “see things as they are,” or were we shaping them to be a certain way? And wasn’t the whole effort guided by a certain vision of the Buddhist goal as dispassionate mental peace?
Religion and science have never been separate and autonomous spheres, or “nonoverlapping magisteria” in Stephen Jay Gould’s famous phrase. 18 On the contrary, they constantly intersect, usually with friction. Often the friction leads to conflict; sometimes it leads to cooperation and new insights. The culture and historical epoch determine the forms conflict and cooperation will take. Gould’s proposal to reconcile religion and science by treating them as independent realms, each with its own authority, is a nonstarter.
The “new atheists” recognize that religion and science can’t be separated in the way that Gould proposes, but their campaigns to stamp out religion in the name of science misunderstand the meaning-making activities of religions. Religions don’t explain the universe as science does; they create meaning through rituals, communities, textual traditions, and ways of understanding life’s great events—birth, aging, sickness, trauma, extraordinary states of consciousness, and death. The new atheists also misunderstand science. They fail to see that when science steps back from experimentation in order to give meaning to its results in terms of grand stories about where we come from and where we’re going—the narratives of cosmology and evolution—it cannot help but become a mythic form of meaning-making and typically takes the structures of its narratives from religion. 19
Buddhist modernism encourages a kind of false consciousness: it makes people think that if they embrace Buddhism or just pick out its supposedly nonreligious parts, they’re being “spiritual but not religious,” when unbeknownst to them religious forces are impelling them. These forces include the desire to be part of a community organized around some sense of the sacred, or the desire to find a source of meaning that transcends the individual, or the felt need to cope with suffering, or the desire to experience deep and transformative states of contemplation. (Of course, other kinds of forces may be impelling them, too, such as the need to sublimate desires, as described by Freud, or capitalist forces, as described by Marx.) The actions people undertake to satisfy these desires, such as practicing meditation or going on retreats, are also religious. People use the word “spiritual” because they want to emphasize transformative personal experiences apart from public religious institutions. Nevertheless, from an outside, analytical perspective informed by the history, anthropology, and sociology of religion, “spirituality without religion” is really just “privatized, experience-oriented religion.” 20
Buddhist modernism is now replete with appeals to the supposed authority of neuroscience. It has claimed that neuroscience confirms the truth of the Buddhist idea that there is no self, that neuroscience shows that mindfulness meditation “literally changes your brain,” and that enlightenment has “neural correlates.”
These ideas aren’t just wrong; they’re confused. The self isn’t a brain-generated illusion or nonexistent fiction; it’s a biological and social construction. Anything you do “literally changes your brain”; evidence for mindfulness meditation leading to beneficial changes in the brain is still tentative; and mindfulness meditation is a social practice, whose positive or negative value depends on social facts beyond the brain. “Enlightenment” isn’t a singular state with a unique brain signature; it’s an ambiguous concept, whose different and often incompatible meanings depend on the religious and philosophical traditions that give rise to them. Contrary to neural Buddhism, the status of the self, the value of meditation, and the meaning of “enlightenment” aren’t matters that neuroscience can decide. They’re inherently philosophical matters that lie beyond the ken of neuroscience.