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Sunday, September 14, 2003

Buddhist neurology.

The Dalai Lama is the Big Event in Boston this weekend. (On our way back into town from a trip to Northampton, Mrs Philocrites and I watched his motorcade speed toward Harvard. He travels in a black SUV accompanied by several other large vehicles and a swarm of police motorcycles. I half expected to see brilliant robes fluttering in open windows, but no.)

He spent yesterday with neuroscientists at MIT — where one researcher suggested that "scientists could use minds trained by meditation to study mental phenomena the same way a high-powered telescope allows 'stable, vivid observation of stars and planets.'" The New York Times Magazine excitedly reports on inconclusive early studies of monks' brain activity, but who would dispute Richard Davidson's statement that "these are the Olympic athletes, the gold medalists, of meditation"?

And in the Globe's Ideas section, Jeffery Paine asks, "How, in a mere generation, did we get from Tibetan Buddhism's near-extinction in its homeland to its remarkable flowering in America?"

In the early 1970s, when Geshe Wangyal, Chgyam Trungpa, and other exiled lamas arrived here, they were astonished by the welcome they received from countercultural types like Allen Ginsberg, who expected those lamas to remake them into American versions of wise Eastern sages. Beyond the counterculture, many others — including liberal, well-educated Americans who had outgrown their faith of origin and were uncomfortable with anything theological — began to demand satisfactions reminiscent of the ones once provided by religion. As the Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow noted in 1998, ever more Americans claim that "they are spiritual but not religious, [that] their spirituality is growing but the impact of religion on their lives is diminishing." An increasing number of discontented souls turned to the exiled Tibetan lamas, who were out of work, and to Tibetan Buddhism, which, unmoored from Tibet, was free to become American Buddhism — or at least to meet Americans halfway. . . .

Modern people want a path shorn of dogma, fundamentalism, exclusivity, complex metaphysics, and culturally exotic paraphernalia, a path that can be integrated with ordinary life and practiced anywhere," one lama observed. Older Christian theologians might have responded that such a path would not be religion, but the Tibetan response was, in effect, "No problem." Indeed, over 2,500 years ago the Buddha himself declared he was not promulgating a new religion but teaching remedies for suffering, and that no one should accept his teachings on faith.

And there's a bonus for readers of this site:

Amid all his responsibilities, and despite the tragedy of Tibet everpresent to him, he obviously was a happy man, really a bon vivant who exuded a confidence that all would work out well. Westerners watching him observed a religion, it seemed, of generosity, high spirits, and good sense. (Tibetan monks and advanced Western students see a different side of the Dalai Lama, however. To them, he teaches centuries-old esoteric practices and expounds ideas about a multidimensional universe that might astound a proper Unitarian or Episcopalian minister.)

For archival purposes: Is Buddhism Good for Your Health? Stephen S. Hall. New York Times Magazine 9.14.03, 46-49, reg req'd. The Buddha of Suburbia: The Dalai Lama's American Religion. Jeffery Paine. Boston Globe 9.14.03, D1-2. For Dalai Lama at MIT, mind is what matters. Jenna Russell. Boston Globe 9.14.03, B3.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 14 September 2003 at 8:35 PM

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June 25, 2004 09:36 AM | Permalink for this comment

Hello there,
I am just very curious about this research, and am wondering what literature would get me ahead of the game in my knowlege of Neurology and its recent interest in studying the minds of Buddhists.

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