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Buddhism and Neuroscience: A Gray Matter

28 Nov

For Immediate Release

The ongoing story of the convergence of Buddhist practice and science—lately and most notably, neuroscience—has garnered a lot of press, and the popular narrative has been overwhelmingly weighted in favor of those who argue that Buddhism’s rationalist bent makes it, of all religions, uniquely compatible with scientific truths. But as is evident in this issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, a strong counternarrative has begun to emerge. In “A Gray Matter,” Columbia professor of Japanese religion Bernard Faure writes that a “careful and critical reading of the literature on Buddhism and neuroscience will lead, I think, to a far more sober assessment of their convergence than one generally hears from its advocates.”

Aside from questioning the science itself, Faure challenges the highly selective reading of Buddhism upon which the supposed convergence is based: The convergence of Buddhism and science is, Faure argues, largely a consequence of modern Buddhists—in both Asia and the West—having radically redefined the tradition for that specific purpose.

While Faure takes a critical view of the exchange between Buddhism and science, his criticism is predicated on the belief that this dialogue is nonetheless necessary and—if some of the deep misconceptions that have shaped it are cleared up—potentially fruitful. But as Faure demonstrates, our erroneous views run deep. Perhaps the most significant difficulty is not so much a specific idea as it is the model that guides us. The Buddhism and science dialogue has been shaped by a model of comparison that sees the finding of agreement —convergence—as the most beneficial and desirable avenue to pursue. But as Faure writes, a comparative model based on mutual challenge might well shed more light on both Buddhism and science: “Convergence may never be reached, and that is likely for the best, because it is difference, and the challenges it presents, that is the richer source of understanding.”

“A Gray Matter: Another look at Buddhism and neuroscience” appears in the current issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

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Rachel Hiles
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