One area where Buddhist contemplative tradition may have important contribution to make is the practical techniques it has developed for training in compassion. With regard to mental training, both in attention and emotional regulation, it also becomes crucial to raise the question of whether any specific techniques have time-sensitivity in terms of their effectiveness, so that new methods can be tailored to suit the needs of age, health and other variable factors.
A note of caution is called for, however. It is inevitable that when two radically different investigative traditions like Buddhism and neuroscience are brought together in an interdisciplinary dialogue, this will involve problems that are normally attendant to exchanges across boundaries of cultures and disciplines. For example, when we speak of the “science of meditation,” we need to be sensitive to exactly what is meant by such a statement.
On the part of scientists, I feel, it is important to be sensitive to the different connotations of an important term such as meditation in their traditional context. For example, in its traditional context, the term for meditation is bhavana (in Sanskrit) or gom (in Tibetan). The Sanskrit term connotes the idea of cultivation, such as cultivating a particular habit or a way of being, while the Tibetan term gom has the connotation of cultivating familiarity. So, briefly stated, meditation in the traditional Buddhist context refers to a deliberate mental activity that involves cultivating familiarity, be it with a chosen object, a fact, a theme, habit, an outlook, or a way of being.
Broadly speaking, there are two categories of meditation practice — one focusing on stilling the mind and the other on the cognitive processes of understanding. The two are referred to as stabilising meditation and discursive meditation. In both cases, the meditation can take many forms. It may take the form of taking something as object of one’s cognition, such as meditating on one’s transient nature. Or it may take the form of cultivating a specific mental state, such as compassion by developing a heartfelt, altruistic yearning to alleviate others’ suffering. Or it could take the form of imagination, exploring the human potential for generating mental imagery, which may be used in various ways to cultivate mental wellbeing.
So it is critical to be aware of what specific forms of meditation one might be investigating when engaged in collaborative research so that complexity of meditative practices being studied is matched by the sophistication of the scientific research.
Another area where a critical perspective is required on the part of the scientists is the ability to distinguish between the empirical aspects of Buddhist thought and contemplative practice on the one hand and the philosophical and metaphysical assumptions associated with these meditative practices. In other words, just as we must distinguish within the scientific approach between theoretical suppositions, empirical observations based on experiments and subsequent interpretations, in the same manner it is critical to distinguish theoretical suppositions, experientially verifiable features of mental states, and subsequent philosophical interpretations in Buddhism.
This way, both parties in the dialogue can find the common ground of empirical observable facts of the human mind, while not falling into the temptation of reducing the framework of one discipline into that of the other. Although the philosophical presuppositions and the subsequent conceptual interpretations may differ between these two investigative traditions, insofar as empirical facts are concerned, facts must remain facts, no matter how one may choose to describe them. Whatever the truth about the final nature of consciousness — whether or not it is ultimately reducible to physical processes — I believe there can be shared understanding of the experiential facts of the various aspects of our perceptions, thoughts and emotions.
With these precautionary considerations, I believe, a close cooperation between these two investigative traditions can truly contribute toward expanding the human understanding of the complex world of inner subjective experience that we call the mind. Already the benefits of such collaborations are beginning to be demonstrated. According to preliminary reports, the effects of mental training, such as simple mindfulness practice on a regular basis or the deliberate cultivation of compassion as developed in Buddhism, in bringing about observable changes in the human brain correlated to positive mental states can be measured.
Recent discoveries in neuroscience have demonstrated the innate plasticity of the brain, both in terms of synaptic connections and birth of new neurons, as a result of exposure to external stimuli, such as voluntary physical exercise and an enriched environment. The Buddhist contemplative tradition may help to expand this field of scientific inquiry by proposing types of mental training that may also pertain to neuroplasticity.
If it turns out, as the Buddhist tradition implies, that mental practice can effect observable synaptic and neural changes in the brain, this could have far-reaching implications. The repercussions of such research will not be confined simply to expanding our knowledge of the human mind; but, perhaps more importantly, they could have great significance for our understanding of education and mental health. Similarly, if, as the Buddhist tradition claims, the deliberate cultivation of compassion can lead to a radical shift in the individual’s outlook, leading to greater empathy toward others, this could have far-reaching implications for society at large.
Finally, I believe that the collaboration between neuroscience and the Buddhist contemplative tradition may shed fresh light on the vitally important question of the interface of ethics and neuroscience. Regardless of whatever conception one might have of the relationship between ethics and science, in actual practice, science has evolved primarily as an empirical discipline with a morally neutral, value-free stance.
It has come to be perceived essentially as a mode of inquiry that gives detailed knowledge of the empirical world and the underlying laws of nature. Purely from the scientific point of view, the creation of nuclear weapons is a truly amazing achievement. However, since this creation has the potential to inflict so much suffering through unimaginable death and destruction, we regard it as destructive. It is the ethical evaluation that must determine what is positive and what is negative. Until recently, this approach of segregating ethics and science, with the understanding that the human capacity for moral thinking evolves alongside human knowledge, seems to have succeeded.
Today, I believe that humanity is at a critical crossroad. The radical advances that took place in neuroscience and particularly in genetics towards the end of the twentieth century have led to a new era in human history. Our knowledge of the human brain and body at the cellular and genetic level, with the consequent technological possibilities offered for genetic manipulation, has reached such a stage that the ethical challenges of these scientific advances are enormous. It is all too evident that our moral thinking simply has not been able to keep pace with such rapid progress in our acquisition of knowledge and power.
Yet the ramifications of these new findings and their applications are so far-reaching that they relate to the very conception of human nature and the preservation of the human species. So it is no longer adequate to adopt the view that our responsibility as a society is to simply further scientific knowledge and enhance technological power and that the choice of what to do with this knowledge and power should be left in the hands of the individual. We must find a way of bringing fundamental humanitarian and ethical considerations to bear upon the direction of scientific development, especially in the life sciences.
By invoking fundamental ethical principles, I am not advocating a fusion of religious ethics and scientific inquiry. Rather, I am speaking of what I call “secular ethics” that embrace the key ethical principles, such as compassion, tolerance, a sense of caring, consideration of others, and the responsible use of knowledge and power — principles that transcend the barriers between religious believers and non-believers, and followers of this religion or that religion.
I personally like to imagine all human activities, including science, as individual fingers of a palm. So long as each of these fingers is connected with the palm of basic human empathy and altruism, they will continue to serve the well-being of humanity.
We are living in truly one world. Modern economy, electronic media, international tourism, as well as the environmental problems, all remind us on a daily basis how deeply interconnected the world has become today.
Scientific communities play a vitally important role in this interconnected world. For whatever historical reasons, today scientists enjoy great respect and trust within society, much more so than my own discipline of philosophy and religion. I appeal to scientists to bring into their professional work the dictates of the fundamental ethical principles we all share as human beings.