Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

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waryoffolly
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Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by waryoffolly » Tue Jun 30, 2015 8:23 pm

As most probably know, Tibetan traditions of Buddhism have strongly supported western research into the effects of meditation on the brain. I am aware that there is a considerable amount of research on mindfulness meditation. However, it seems that the Theravada has not engaged with western science to the same extent. Midfulness meditation as usually studied is more or less divorced from the practice of (Theravadin) Buddhism. There do not seem to be any studies like those done with Tibetan Buddhism (many studies have been done with advanced Tibetan Buddhist practicioners) which investigate the wholistic effects of following the Theravadin teachings (the entire 8-fold path rather than just a samma-sati) on the brain.

Has anyone here come across studies similar to those done for Tibetan Buddhism where the brains of highly advanced practicioners are examined?

If almost no research has been done here, why does Tibetan Buddhism engage so much more with western science?

Thanks,
waryoffolly

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Re: Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by dhammacoustic » Wed Jul 01, 2015 3:52 am

why does Tibetan Buddhism engage so much more with western science?
I believe His Holiness the Dalai Lama is responsible.
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Bhikkhu Pesala
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Re: Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by Bhikkhu Pesala » Wed Jul 01, 2015 4:12 am

Skilled practitioners don't need to have their brains examined.

It's the scientists who need to examine their own brains by meditating seriously using the Satipaṭṭhāna method for a few weeks or months. Then they will understand what the benefits are. Students are willing to undergo years of study at great expense to get a PhD, but how many are willing to undergo even a weekend retreat, a ten-day course, or ordination for free or at modest expense to practice mindfulness meditation?

Life is short, bound up with suffering, and there is only one path leading to the cessation of suffering. Right mindfulness, right effort, right thought, etc., should be developed. That cannot be done by examining others — it can be done by examining oneself.

The Buddha gave the Mirror of the Dhamma (Dhammadasa) by means of which the earnest follower can examine himself or herself, to see what more needs to be done.
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Ben
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Re: Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by Ben » Wed Jul 01, 2015 6:09 am

Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:Skilled practitioners don't need to have their brains examined.

It's the scientists who need to examine their own brains by meditating seriously using the Satipaṭṭhāna method for a few weeks or months. Then they will understand what the benefits are. Students are willing to undergo years of study at great expense to get a PhD, but how many are willing to undergo even a weekend retreat, a ten-day course, or ordination for free or at modest expense to practice mindfulness meditation?

Life is short, bound up with suffering, and there is only one path leading to the cessation of suffering. Right mindfulness, right effort, right thought, etc., should be developed. That cannot be done by examining others — it can be done by examining oneself.

The Buddha gave the Mirror of the Dhamma (Dhammadasa) by means of which the earnest follower can examine himself or herself, to see what more needs to be done.
This is an excellent post by Bhikkhu Pesala and echoes my own thoughts on the subject.
This modern trend of subjecting the Dhamma to the scrutiny of science is a mistake. There is an underlying assumption that the ultimate and hence only reliable method of attaining knowledge is from science. Dhamma and science are two very different means of investigation and 'authenticating' one by the other is a disservice to both.
Kind regards,
Ben
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Sam Vara
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Re: Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by Sam Vara » Wed Jul 01, 2015 8:51 am

Ben wrote: This modern trend of subjecting the Dhamma to the scrutiny of science is a mistake. There is an underlying assumption that the ultimate and hence only reliable method of attaining knowledge is from science. Dhamma and science are two very different means of investigation and 'authenticating' one by the other is a disservice to both.
Ben
Agreed - two excellent posts. The dhamma is "to be experienced individually by the wise", not publicly verified by those who who have not experienced it.

I once had a discussion with a psychologist colleague who said that science proved that meditation was a light form of sleep. Excellent! Much good may this do him.

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Emulated Reality
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Re: Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by Emulated Reality » Fri Jul 10, 2015 2:32 am

I agree that it is likely the influence and openness of the Dali Lama which has influenced our first, but assuredly not our last, scientific observation of Buddhist practice. Experiments to understand how a practitioner operates during the practice itself are a wonderful way to allow post-enlightenment (historical sense) thinkers to grasp the approach from the empirical route in which they have been extensively trained. Remember, the Dhamma is not something to be experience by only a select few, and surely going to retreats or doing coarses are not the only way to approach it. In fact, the researchers are exposed to highly trained practitioners in a setting where their interest is already peaked. I can confidently assure you that if the researchers had not previously attempted meditation, they surely would after examining it experimentally. Their published work then incites other scientists to pose questions on the topic, which in turn, leads to more grants and funding for more studies. It is only through this approach that science will ever study Theravadin traditions in particular (to answer the original question).

In response to Bhikkhu Pesala: it is not that the practitioners NEED to have their brains examined, nor did the Buddha NEED to have his profound insights examined or did he need to explain them to the lay. I believe they have done this as a modern Buddhisatva action, in other words, for the greater good after mutual agreement with the scientists in question. Not all religions or philosophies are taken seriously by science, we Buddhists should realize that study in this manner is a scientific way of showing respect to another valuable path towards truth.
Bhikkhu Pesala wrote: Students are willing to undergo years of study at great expense to get a PhD, but how many are willing to undergo even a weekend retreat, a ten-day course, or ordination for free or at modest expense to practice mindfulness meditation?
I wonder. But, how many Buddhists are willing to undergo training in the hard sciences? I believe there is much room for partnership when mutual respect is given, Science and Buddhism will make a great pair!
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Re: Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by Bhikkhu Pesala » Fri Jul 10, 2015 4:44 am

Emulated Reality wrote:Remember, the Dhamma is not something to be experience by only a select few, and surely going to retreats or doing courses are not the only way to approach it. In fact, the researchers are exposed to highly trained practitioners in a setting where their interest is already piqued.!
Yes, attending meditation classes and intensive retreats is the only way to realise the Dhamma. Even studying the texts and Abhidhamma won't lead to deep realisation without meditation practice.

The scientists researching meditation are following a blind alley. No amount of brain research will lead them to Enlightenment, and no number of tests or surveys will arouse faith in the Dhamma. They need to study the Buddha's teachings, and apply it through meditation practice via regular classes and intensive retreats to overcome their scepticism.

Even life-long devout Buddhists who already have scientific knowledge and firm faith in the Triple Gem won't understand the Dhamma fully unless they practice meditation seriously. The Four Noble Truths are extremely difficult to penetrate. Even the Bodhisatta had to strive for six years using the wrong method before he realised what the right method was. Fortunately, we do not have to waste six years following blind alleys — the path is clearly explained. The difficult part for us is applying it properly according to the instructions given.

Those who are trying to find the origin of the Universe by studying Hubble Photographs and doing complex mathematics are also following a blind alley. See the story of Rohitassa.
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Re: Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by SarathW » Fri Jul 10, 2015 5:01 am

:goodpost: Bhante.

A person has to hear the Dhamma from Buddha or though a Kalyanamitta so as to understand the Four Noble Truths.
Not through science experiments.

It is unfortunate that so many scientists do not have the fortune to learn Buddha's teaching.
However it is a great advantage to a Buddhist to have scientific knowledge.
“As the lamp consumes oil, the path realises Nibbana”

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Re: Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by Bhikkhu Pesala » Fri Jul 10, 2015 5:15 am

SarathW wrote:However it is a great advantage to a Buddhist to have scientific knowledge.
It's more likely to be a great disadvantage. Sunlun Sayādaw was just a barely literate rice-farmer but he was able to attain Arahantship by following simple instructions to practice mindfulness while he was working.

Nowadays, we have easy access to so many Dhamma books and talks. We can chat all day about various theories, but how much time do we spend for actual practice? You know yourself how many hours you spent on meditation retreat, and how many posts you made on this forum. Which is the greater? Not that each post takes an hour to write, but for each post that we write how many others do we read?
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Re: Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by SarathW » Fri Jul 10, 2015 7:05 am

Very interesting point Bhante.
I agree some times we are going to an analysis paralysis.
However time spend in the Dhamma Wheel is much better than wasting time in watching a movie or involve with useless talks.
While we are reading Dhamma posts we have to think about it as well, It is some what mindfulness meditation to me.
To me practice entails not only the time sitting in the cushion but the interaction with people (or doing day to day chores) with mindfulness as well.
:)
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Re: Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by Alobha » Fri Jul 10, 2015 11:30 am

Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:It's the scientists who need to examine their own brains by meditating seriously using the Satipaṭṭhāna method for a few weeks or months. Then they will understand what the benefits are.
I agree, but unfortunately this will not be enough to convince clinics and governments to train therapists in teaching satipatthana to clients.
Ben wrote: This modern trend of subjecting the Dhamma to the scrutiny of science is a mistake. There is an underlying assumption that the ultimate and hence only reliable method of attaining knowledge is from science. Dhamma and science are two very different means of investigation and 'authenticating' one by the other is a disservice to both.
Kind regards,
Ben
Well. In science, scientific methods are the most reliable method to attain knowledge. Just yesterday I heard of a "therapy" for depression that consists of knocking with your fingers against your eyebrows and your forehead. It means to fix broken energy circles and is supposed to heal depression after repeated knocking. People who wrote books about it say that is works from their personal experience. Of course there haven't been any studies on it, personal experience was enough according to the authors and "energy-masters".

Good for them I guess. So... People have a lot of different experiences. They may have their validity on a personal level (and I agree that for buddhist practice, that's all that really matters), but when it comes to decisions relating to society at large - ie "what therapy should be financially supported by the state and medical support programs?" "What is, overall, effectively helping people suffering from schizophrenia and what is more effectively helping for people suffering from depression?" then society may do well to not rely on reports of single horse-therapists, knocking-therapy-masters or even buddhists, but on sources that are as objective as possible. It's responsible of a society to do it like that.

If one goes to the hospital because one has malaria, would one want to get medicine that has been tested for efficiency in an objective way instead of taking a medicine because the medicine-salesman says "Hey it works great! It cured everyone to whom I've sold it to!". Because people make a lot of claims like these. People claim that putting crystals in your house can cure cancer and that taking a shower cures aids. That knocking with your fingers on your head helps with depression and so on.

Science and Personal experience are two different things. Science is very useful for a society to base decisions on and personal experience might often be very good for making personal decisions. I for one practice the Dhamma regardless of what any studies say and can still acknowledge that these studies may be of benefit to society and other people.
Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:Nowadays, we have easy access to so many Dhamma books and talks. We can chat all day about various theories, but how much time do we spend for actual practice? You know yourself how many hours you spent on meditation retreat, and how many posts you made on this forum. Which is the greater? Not that each post takes an hour to write, but for each post that we write how many others do we read?
Please walk a mile in the shoes of those you're judging before you judge them, Bhante. I frankly think you have no idea of the situation of laypeople and laylife if you make statements like these. Perhaps you should ask laypeople why they don't go to retreats regulary or why they don't spend time with kalyanamittas and the sangha as often as you may do. Perhaps ask them what hinders them to practice as much as you do.

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Re: Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by Bhikkhu Pesala » Fri Jul 10, 2015 11:56 am

Sunlun Sayādaw was a lay person, grafting in the fields with hand tools, but he managed to attain deep insights. He did not have the advantages of machines, and many years of education supported by wealthy parents.

I was a lay person before I become a monk, so I have already walked a mile in other's shoes, if not a thousand. I also see lay people here who clearly have plenty of time at their disposal to post thousands of times on forums.

I see some of my hard-working supporters with growing children who find time to meditate, and others who are retired with grown-up children who don't. Whatever your circumstances, it is possible to practice something at least. Don't shoot the messenger because you don't like the message.
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Re: Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by Ben » Fri Jul 10, 2015 12:01 pm

Hi Alobha,
I don't have an issue with the points you raised with me. In fact, I don't think we disagree substantially. I'm not a fan of clinicians using Satipatthana or Satipatthana derived secular practices for relaxation or this or that treatment. The appropriation of meditation by science and psycho-medical community was at the vanguard of those who have misappropriated it for corporate and military ends and agendas.

As for your comments to Bhikkhu Pesala, I have to weigh in and say that I agreed with Bhante. If more spent less time on DW and more time engaging with the Dhamma, and making the constant effort in day to day life, then there would be more progress on the path. Discussion boards are great if they inspire one to exert effort but they can also be a distraction.
With metta,
Ben
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Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.
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Re: Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by ieee23 » Fri Jul 10, 2015 2:04 pm

waryoffolly wrote: If almost no research has been done here, why does Tibetan Buddhism engage so much more with western science?
Lee Brasington is an American jhana master who made himself available as a test subject for scientific experiments ( electroides, MRIs, etc as he cycled through the jhanas ). I think he was able to do that not being a monk, and being barred from speaking of his attainments.
Whatever a bhikkhu frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of his mind. - MN 19

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Re: Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by Alobha » Fri Jul 10, 2015 2:22 pm

Ben wrote:Hi Alobha,
I don't have an issue with the points you raised with me. In fact, I don't think we disagree substantially. I'm not a fan of clinicians using Satipatthana or Satipatthana derived secular practices for relaxation or this or that treatment. The appropriation of meditation by science and psycho-medical community was at the vanguard of those who have misappropriated it for corporate and military ends and agendas.
Yeah we don't really disagree. I'm rather critical of taking meditation out of the buddhist teachings, too. Let's give it 20 more years and perhaps researchers will come to the conclusion that meditation alone is not enough and they investigate buddhist practice as a whole. At the moment it is nice to know if they find some effects of meditation, but I think people who practice not just concentration, but things like Sila and right view and right effort will quickly see that quite much is missing in research at the moment. They currently look at one piece of the puzzle instead of the whole picture. Research takes very little steps and those little steps may currently not go in the best direction (ie investigating the whole path as a method to alleviate suffering).
As for your comments to Bhikkhu Pesala, I have to weigh in and say that I agreed with Bhante. If more spent less time on DW and more time engaging with the Dhamma, and making the constant effort in day to day life, then there would be more progress on the path. Discussion boards are great if they inspire one to exert effort but they can also be a distraction.
Of course I agree, too.
Bhikkhu Pesala wrote: I see some of my hard-working supporters with growing children who find time to meditate, and others who are retired with grown-up children who don't. Whatever your circumstances, it is possible to practice something at least. Don't shoot the messenger because you don't like the message.
I just don't think it's appropriate to suggest that people spend too much time on the forums and too little on meditation retreats if they don't have that choice to do otherwise. I know a few Bhikkhus who have the financial support to fly around the world several times a year to visit Thailand, the US, the UK, Sri Lanka and meet with widely reknown monks and meditation masters. Ask people living below poverty line why they don't fly off to a monastery on a regular basis. You may respond that I just make excuses, but not everyone is living with conditions that are wonderful for practice. Some have no local theravadafriends who can support them in practice (and isn't noble friendship the whole of the holy life?) and some don't get the emotional support they could need to sustain practice or have the financial means to practice under good conditions and under the guidance of a well experienced teacher. Most live in a modern world where many things work against good practice. I could probably practice better working on a rice field than doing work that demands cognitive concentration on things unrelated to the Dhamma and fill up the mind for a good part of the day. People grow and live under very different conditions.
It's no excuse not to try, but one should not expect a plant to grow very much in a place where there is little to no sunshine and little to no water to flourish and grow. Measuring everyone by the same yardstick that doesn't seem helpful to me, but tends to stigmatize those who already struggle and blames them without acknowledging the context in which they try to practice. People can try really hard under bad conditions for practice but it may still not be enough to get anywhere. The least thing laypeople need then is someone implying that they're lazy or negligent or don't try hard enough / don't do enough. Dhammawheel has a few "bent until broken" stories where people try so hard and practice against all odds and struggle as best as they can but don't get very far and suffer incredibly from it. They beat themselves up because they think they just don't try hard enough. I wish more monks would come to acknowledge how difficult laylife can be for practice instead of denying laypeople spiritual support or making remarks about how they don't get anywhere because they are too negligent and don't go to retreats on a regular basis.

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Re: Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by seeker242 » Fri Jul 10, 2015 3:34 pm

I don't think it's Tibetan Buddhism engaging so much more with western science. But rather, western science engaging much more with Tibetan Buddhism than any other kind. Probably because Tibetan is the most widely known form of Buddhism in the west. It seem that way anyway. Dr. Herbert Benson for example. He approached the Tibetans asking to study them. The Tibetans didn't approach him asking to be studied, etc. And the Tibetans just said "Oh you want to study us, sure no problem!"

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Re: Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by Plat » Sun Jul 12, 2015 4:04 pm

It's true scientists have engaged Tibetan Buddhism more (and vice versa) and also Zen (Kabat-Zinn) but there has been work between scientists and the Theravada tradition, scientists like Jack Engler, Mark Epstein. Rick Hanson.

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Re: Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by Thisperson » Sun Jul 12, 2015 5:27 pm

Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:Skilled practitioners don't need to have their brains examined.

It's the scientists who need to examine their own brains by meditating seriously using the Satipaṭṭhāna method for a few weeks or months. Then they will understand what the benefits are. Students are willing to undergo years of study at great expense to get a PhD, but how many are willing to undergo even a weekend retreat, a ten-day course, or ordination for free or at modest expense to practice mindfulness meditation?

Life is short, bound up with suffering, and there is only one path leading to the cessation of suffering. Right mindfulness, right effort, right thought, etc., should be developed. That cannot be done by examining others — it can be done by examining oneself.

The Buddha gave the Mirror of the Dhamma (Dhammadasa) by means of which the earnest follower can examine himself or herself, to see what more needs to be done.
While I agree with what you have said Bhante, scientific proof of changes in the brain can help establish motivation for practice in those with not a lot of faith in the Dhamma.

Studies such as this one helped me to say "Maybe there really is something to this meditation" before I had personal knowledge of the value of the Dhamma. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/20 ... 144007.htm" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;

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Re: Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by Dan74 » Mon Jul 13, 2015 9:14 am

Nice thread and many very good points. But I don't think that earnest practice and scientific research have to be mutually exclusive. Of course Dhamma practice does not have to be scientifically tested and validated, this is not what is being claimed. But proven therapies and scientific studies make the Dhamma more appealing to the skeptics like Sam Harris and the like. This is a good thing. Studies of brains of people while in jhanas, etc, help us understand the brain. So I don't see a problem with scientific engagement with Buddhism. Buddhism can gain some more 'street cred' and science can deepen its understanding of the brain.
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Re: Have Theravadin traditions engaged with scientists?

Post by Anagarika » Mon Jul 13, 2015 12:57 pm

From my point of view, the intersection of traditional Theravada meditation practice and the "contemplative sciences" has been largely a positive one. I see no downside to a neuroscientist, for example studying the brains of longterm and short term meditators to determine the effect on the brain's adaptation to meditation, and to see through fMRI imaging the brain centers affected by Metta or jhana, for example.

By way of example, just up the road from me is Dr. Richie Davidson's Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. He himself is a daily meditator, and against the commands of his mentors, he went to Asia to study and practice meditation, and has returned to create one of the leading centers of neuroscience and meditation. A recent study examined Theravada and Tibetan meditators against a control group, to measure return to baseline tranquility after a negative stimulus. He has studied the ways that the brain's "plasticity" is affected by meditation, and has applied that to help combat veterans with PTSD and children with anxiety disorders recover. He understood long ago that breath meditation (largely in the manner taught in the Pali Suttas) enhanced mindfulness, and benefited people who were suffering, and his Center is now using science to understand why they benefit.

There's benefit to science and Sutta based meditation meeting and learning from each other. Traditional forms of meditation have not only stood up to scientific testing, but the testing has revealed just how important these practices are to brain health, to mitigation of illness, and to the cultivation of happiness, compassion and altruism. What the Buddha taught 2600 years ago is finding affirmation from the highest level of neuroscience and psychology, and to my mind, that is a good thing. Not that the Buddha's teaching needed affirmation, but the intersection of science and traditional meditation will serve to open the Dhamma to more people, and to implement the Dhamma to benefit more people who may never have been exposed to breath and body meditation and Metta practice, and that, in my view, is a good thing.

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