Buddha and Mind

How a religious practice came to fascinate neuroscientists and gave birth to the mindfulness movement

In 1981, a team of American scientists, led by cardiologist Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School, traveled to the Himalayan regions of northern India to research the meditation practices of Tibetan Buddhist hermits. They were interested particularly in the practice of tummo, which in Tibetan refers to a millennium-old tantric meditation technique. Advanced practitioners were said to be able to raise their own internal body temperatures at will. With the support of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Benson spent the next decade studying practitioners of tummo and other meditation techniques, tracking their vitals and body-heat output while they meditated.

postcard from nineteenth-century Burma
Photo caption

Nineteenth-century Burma––pictured in Joseph Moore’s views from the Great Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon (present-day Yangon)––was one of the birthplaces of Buddhist Modernism.

—© British Library Board. All Rights Reserved / Bridgeman Images

Inside a Buddhist temple in Burma
Photo caption

Nineteenth-century Burma––pictured in Joseph Moore’s views from the Great Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon (present-day Yangon)––was one of the birthplaces of Buddhist Modernism.

—© British Library Board. All Rights Reserved / Bridgeman Images

Benson’s findings were astounding. In meditative states, the monks had remarkable control over their body temperature and oxygen intake. They could use their body heat to dry wet towels placed around them, where most people would shiver uncontrollably. They could raise the temperature of their fingers and toes by as much as 17 degrees. Some could even spend a night on a rocky ledge at an elevation of 15,000 feet in the Himalayas, where temperatures fell to zero degrees Fahrenheit, while they wore only woolen or cotton shawls. Benson’s research stunned many in the West and paved the way for several decades of scientific interest in Buddhist or Buddhist-derived meditation.

This dialog has produced thousands of scientific papers on the neurological and clinical effects of meditation. It has also brought “mindfulness” into Western popular culture. The scientists—whom New York Times columnist David Brooks has called “the neural Buddhists”—study the effects of meditation. They conduct brain scans of monks meditating in fMRI machines. They develop clinical meditation programs, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, to treat psychopathologies. And some even integrate concepts from Buddhist psychology and philosophy into their research.

How did scientists become interested in Buddhist-derived meditation? First, Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, veiled Buddhist concepts with psychological and biological language and thereby created a standardized, replicable program of meditation, ready for export. Second, the Buddhist tradition contains an extensive discourse on the nature of the mind. This discourse is of great interest to neuroscientists and psychologists, who are in desperate need of anything that might help alleviate America’s mental health crisis. Third, from a historical perspective, a novel form of Buddhism known as “Buddhist modernism” emerged in the nineteenth century as a hybrid of Buddhist and Western discourses. Westerners and Asian Buddhists strategically reconfigured Buddhism as a “rational” and “scientific” religion, an idea that still influences scientists and even some Buddhists today. Finally, many scientists who study meditation have their own meditation practices, and they use their research to better understand—or even to legitimize—those practices.

Buddha and Mind
Mindfulness has become a buzzword. The concept is typically defined as “a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.” It is a skill that one cultivates through meditation practice, whereby one learns to pay attention to the phenomena of one’s experience from a detached perspective. An increasingly popular subject of clinical research, with 1,153 studies published on it in 2020 alone, mindfulness has been said to reduce stress and enhance emotional regulation, to alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, addiction, chronic pain, and eating disorders, to increase attention span, and to improve immune system function. And mindfulness programs have been adapted to a range of uses, from classrooms to the U.S. military to Silicon Valley corporations—Google, for example, now has a mindfulness program called “Search Inside Yourself.” Mindfulness has received a lot of attention from journalists too. In 2016, Time produced a special issue on mindfulness; and many articles tout the benefits of mindfulness, including “mindful sex” and “mindful diets.”

Not many people know that mindfulness is a translation of sati, a Pāli term used in the scriptures of the Theravāda school of Buddhism. It is one of the eight practices of the Noble Eightfold Path, which a Buddhist must follow in order to attain enlightenment. According to the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, or “Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness”—an ancient text on which many modern meditation movements are based—the practitioner is supposed to cultivate mindfulness of the body, sensations, the mind, and mental qualities; this is supposed to be the only way “for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nirvana.”

How did this ancient religious term end up in modern parlance? In the 1970s, Jon Kabat-Zinn was a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and also a practitioner of Zen meditation. He kept his two identities of molecular biologist and Buddhist meditator separate until 1979, when he founded the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program, which eventually became Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. His goal was to reframe mindfulness in language that would reach Westerners. He wanted to strip mindfulness meditation of its cultural baggage and export it to secular contexts, while still retaining its “liberating” potential: He promoted “a universal dharma understanding that is congruent with Buddhadharma but not constrained by its historical, cultural, and religious manifestations associated with its countries of origin and their unique traditions.” (“Dharma” is the doctrine taught by the Buddha.) In Buddhism, the main problem of existence is dukkha, which means “suffering” or “unsatisfactoriness,” and all the Buddha’s teachings aim at finding an end to dukkha. Kabat-Zinn chose to translate the central concept of dukkha as “stress.” In doing so, he changed the goal of meditation from the soteriological attainment of nirvana to one that was palatable to Westerners and measurable scientifically, namely stress reduction. Mindfulness is presented as secular; but, given its origin and goals, that characterization is questionable, and has caused considerable debate after being introduced into public schools.

Sara Lazar, professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, is one of many scientists who made use of Kabat-Zinn’s standardized, eight-week mindfulness program in her own research. Her lab studies the neuroscience of meditation and yoga, and her primary interest is in how meditation affects brain structure and function. Meditation, she tells me, targets many different neural mechanisms, from emotional regulation to cognitive control. “After you have been regularly meditating for a while, you start to change how you view the world and how you view yourself,” she says, adding that these changes have correlates detectable in the brain.

While much of Lazar’s research has examined the neural correlates of mindfulness meditation in treating psychopathologies such as depression, she recognizes that meditation can have transformational effects beyond that. “Of course, meditation was originally developed not for cognition or emotional regulation,” she says, but “for spiritual development.”

Traditionally, spiritual development would mean perceiving the world more in accordance with Buddhist doctrine: understanding on a deeper level that craving is the cause of suffering, that the self is an illusion, and that beings are reborn according to their karma. Much of the doctrine is not acceptable to a modern Western worldview, so researchers of meditation have to cherry-pick the parts of Buddhism they like and ignore the rest. For example, they might draw from certain passages of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta about developing mindfulness of the breath and body but overlook other passages about meditating over a corpse at a charnel ground. Or they might integrate into their research the Dalai Lama’s teachings on compassion, but they stop listening when he gets to the teachings on rebirth.

Asian Buddhists, in turn, have sought to associate their religion with the prestige of science. The Dalai Lama, in particular, has been a champion of the dialog between Buddhism and science. In 1991, he founded the Mind and Life Institute, with the purpose of “bridging science and contemplative wisdom to foster insight and inspire action toward flourishing.” The organization has hosted more than 30 dialogs between the Dalai Lama and scientists, and the spiritual leader has also spoken at several neuroscience conferences.

Buddhism’s extensive discourse on the nature of the mind is especially important in this regard. Many Buddhist texts across traditions discuss topics such as the nature of the self, the relationship between mind and reality, and the cultivation of positive states such as compassion. Non-Buddhist spiritual practices have also been subject to scientific study, most notably yoga and transcendental meditation, which are both derived from Hindu traditions. Yet Buddhism is more in vogue these days. Lazar attributes the popularity of Buddhism over other traditions partly to the Buddhist emphasis on the mind: “In transcendental meditation and yoga, when they talk about the effects of those practices, they often talk a lot about the effects on the body. Especially in yoga, they talk a lot about energy and chakras,” which are harder to translate into scientific terms. In contrast, Buddhism is more appealing to neuroscientists and psychologists, she says, because “Buddhism is all about the mind, about quieting the mind and learning about the mind, transforming the mind, and we have many tools for studying the mind, both subjectively and objectively.”

A good example of this use of Buddhist philosophy is the research of Judson Brewer, professor of psychiatry at Brown’s medical school and director of research and innovation at Brown’s Mindfulness Center. Brewer studies habit formation and addiction, and applies mindfulness as a treatment for smoking, emotional eating, and anxiety. He has been successful in developing innovative treatments for addiction: Using one of his mindfulness programs, participants were shown to quit smoking at about five times the rate of patients undergoing the normal, gold-standard treatment for smoking.

Brewer credits this success to the Buddhist model of craving, which for him fits perfectly with modern psychological models. When he started his residency in psychiatry, he noticed that his “patients with addictions were using the same terminology as the Buddhist scholars: craving, clinging, getting caught up in their craving,” he tells me. His model for addiction draws on a Buddhist concept called “dependent origination,” which the Buddha was supposed to have discovered on the night of his enlightenment, as described in some of the earliest scriptures. Dependent origination describes twelve links of a cause-and-effect loop that keep a being trapped in the rounds of painful existence and rebirth. To Brewer, the details closely resemble psychological models of reward-based learning. The Buddha, moreover, gives practical steps to escape this loop, which Brewer employs in his mindfulness programs for addiction. He even makes the bold claim that “Buddhist psychology is exactly the same as modern-day psychology.” For Brewer, “Buddhism is very much a scientifically based approach.”

painting of the Dalai Lama against a red background
Photo caption

André Durand’s oil on canvas The Jewel in the Lotus captures the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, in 1989, two years before he founded the Mind and Life Institute.

—© André Durand / Bridgeman Images

Scientific Buddhism
Where did this notion of a “scientific” Buddhism come from? And what makes it so easy for scientists to embrace a few practical “life hacks” of Buddhism, such as its ideas about craving, and ignore others, more cosmological, such as its ideas about rebirth? It is hard to imagine modern scientists selectively embracing parts of Christianity or Islam in the same way.

In The Making of Buddhist Modernism, which was begun with an NEH Summer Stipend, David McMahan, professor of religious studies at Franklin & Marshall College, details the development of “Buddhist modernism,” a detraditionalized, demythologized form of Buddhism fused with Western discourses. The idea that Buddhism is compatible with science came from two historical circumstances of the nineteenth century.

The first historical circumstance was European colonialism. Missionaries in Asian countries such as Burma and Ceylon (modern Myanmar and Sri Lanka) sought to diminish the prestige of Buddhism in order to spread Christianity. One of the missionaries’ rhetorical strategies was to align Christianity with science and technology. Buddhists responded in turn by construing Buddhism as the real religion of science and technology. In Pānadurē in the British colony of Ceylon in 1871, a Buddhist monk and a Christian missionary debated each other in front of five thousand people over which religion was the more scientific. One prominent Buddhist reformer, Anagarika Dharmapala, a Sinhalese nationalist, perceived a crisis of legitimacy for his religion. At the World’s Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893 as part of the World’s Fair, he presented a radical reinterpretation of Buddhism, one that would be more attractive to his Western audience. For example, he declared that “pure” Buddhism lacked rituals and ceremonies and had no doctrines of heaven and hell realms, even though those were universal features of Buddhism as it was actually practiced. Instead, he claimed that the Buddha himself understood Darwinian evolution, and that his teaching was rational, nondogmatic, individualistic, and psychological rather than metaphysical. Dharmapala and other figures like him went to great lengths to present Buddhism as scientific, creating an image that has stuck, not only among Westerners but also among Asian Buddhists.

European colonialism inspired another important aspect of Buddhist modernism, namely the emphasis on meditation. Historically, most Buddhists have never meditated. The practice was traditionally reserved for specialized monks, who undertook it with a lifelong commitment to fundamentally altering their experience of reality. It was considered too difficult and time-consuming for laypeople, and even today most Buddhists in Asian countries, including many monks, do not meditate. The first modern meditation movement for laypeople was started in response to British rule in Burma. When the British took power in 1885, many Burmese, especially the monk Ledi Sayadaw, perceived an existential threat to Buddhism. In order to maintain support for Buddhism among the laity, Sayadaw began teaching meditation widely, spreading the technique with the aid of books and pamphlets, now possible after the British expansion of print culture in Burma. He reinvented a meditation technique called Vipassana. His technique was highly simplified and required no extensive study of texts—a radical break from traditional procedures. While by no means the only influential modern meditation movement, the Vipassana movement of Burma has had a massive impact on secular mindfulness.

The second historical development was the Victorian crisis of faith. In the late nineteenth century, educated Westerners began increasingly to question the central tenets of Christianity and the authority of the Bible. This widespread loss of faith was spurred on by recent scientific discoveries, especially the theory of evolution, which seemed to render many Christian beliefs untenable. Fearing the nihilistic implications of these discoveries, a number of influential figures sought alternative belief systems that might reconcile science and religion. A prominent example was Paul Carus, a German-born immigrant to America, who grew up as a conservative Christian but began to doubt his faith. Carus went on a search for a “religion of science,” a belief system that could capture the essence of all religions yet be compatible with a scientific worldview. He identified Buddhism as the best manifestation of that belief system because, he argued, it lacked supernatural revelation and a creator God. He got this impression in part from hearing Dharmapala and others like him at the World’s Parliament of Religions. Carus became highly sympathetic to Buddhism and began promoting his understanding of it to the West.

The idea of a scientific Buddhism initially formulated by these late nineteenth-century figures has influenced the Western perception of the religion ever since. Other thinkers in the nineteenth century made ideologically driven attempts to align the Buddhist doctrine of karma with Darwinian natural selection. S. N. Goenka, a highly influential Vipassana teacher who died in 2013, popularized the idea that his meditation style was itself a kind of internal science, “empirical” in its emphasis on first-person experience (in Goenka’s rhetoric, the Buddha did not intend to start a religion; instead, he was a “super-scientist”). Others drew parallels between Buddhism and physics, especially quantum mechanics, beginning with Fritjof Capra in his 1975 The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. Historians identify the neuroscientific study of meditation as the latest manifestation of this long trend to legitimize Buddhism.

a modern Buddhist monk in a red robe sits and meditates in a temple
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A monk deep in meditation at Yangon’s Great Dagon Pagoda in 2013. Once reserved for the Buddhist religious elite, meditation is now widely practiced by laypeople around the world and is a centerpiece of Western secular mindfulness programs.

—Renato Granieri / Alamy Stock Photo

Problems of Mindfulness
The scientific study of meditation is not without its problems. A 2017 review by a number of leading mindfulness researchers raised various challenges, including the difficulty of defining mindfulness and methodological issues for interpreting results. It acknowledged that the media tend to exaggerate the potential benefits of mindfulness, falsely portraying it as “an essentially universal panacea.” Indeed, a lot of research has highlighted the benefits of meditation, but very little has highlighted the harm that can come from it. With such enthusiasm for mindfulness, researchers often do not report harm from the practice, simply because they are not looking for it. That is starting to change with The Varieties of Contemplative Experience project at Brown. This project documents distressing and challenging experiences reported by Western Buddhist meditators; on the most extreme end, these can be destabilizing, inducing, for example, psychosis or depersonalization disorder, which can in some cases last for years. The researchers at Brown speculate that these negative meditation experiences might be the inevitable result of transferring meditation from its traditional role in monasteries to the novel cultural context of the secular West.

Humanities scholars have also highlighted the importance of cultural context. Some disapprove of scientists’ eagerness to extract meditation from its traditional role in Buddhist soteriology and repurpose it for their own ends. Bernard Faure, professor of Japanese religion at Columbia, writes that “to decontextualize meditation techniques and lump them together under a vague, generic rubric is to misunderstand these practices, as well as their potential effects on the human brain.” For him, the science of meditation misses the mark:

While mental states achieved by meditators may be interesting for neuroscience (as are all unusual psychological phenomena, such as, say, autism) their soteriological context—liberation from samsara, pursuing the bodhisattva path, and so forth—which is to say, the kind of context that matters most to Buddhists—is deemed irrelevant by scientists. Similarly, the literature on meditation has a tendency to ignore cultural differences in order to emphasize some vague universality in human experience.

Likewise, in his book Why I Am Not a Buddhist, Evan Thompson, philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia, makes a case against “Buddhist exceptionalism.” Buddhist exceptionalism is the idea that Buddhism is superior to other religions in being uniquely rational or uniquely compatible with science, or that it is not so much a religion as a philosophy of life or therapy. He takes issue with recent books titled Why Buddhism Is True and Buddhist Biology for claiming to validate Buddhism with science. In his view, using neuroscience to explain Buddhist doctrine is a conceptual mistake. “Contrary to neural Buddhism,” he writes in his book, “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.” And he worries that the dialogs at the Mind and Life Institute have become corrupted by the desire of Buddhist-converted scientists, committed a priori to the value of meditation, to use their research to legitimize Buddhism.

The scientific study of meditation is indeed partly motivated by the personal experience of scientists. Many of them had their own serious meditation practices and benefited from meditation before studying it scientifically. Others took the opposite course, motivated by early mindfulness research to start meditating. Perhaps there are larger cultural forces at work. Perhaps the neural Buddhists, with their materialistic worldviews, still thirst for spirituality: the life-affirming orientation, the social identity based on shared moral purpose, and even the notion of transcendence that religions are uniquely suited to satisfy. In which case, scientific Buddhism may seem irresistible, with its appeal to empiricism, its emphasis on personal experience, and its eschewal of ritual and tradition. This ahistorical reinterpretation of Buddhism can certainly seem like a breath of fresh air to the modern white, upper-middle class Westerner, who, disillusioned with the Christianity or the Judaism of her upbringing, is still not fully satisfied with what our secular culture has to offer.