About the human capacity to overcome destructive emotions and achieve genuine happiness – A dialogue between Buddhism and Science

“Buddhism and science are not conflicting perspectives on the world, but rather differing approaches to the same end: seeking the truth.”

How can we overcome them? – a scientific dialog with Dalai Lama, narrated by  Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional IntelligenceNotable in this case was the presence of Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk and French interpreter to the Dalai Lama, who also holds a doctoral degree in cellular genetics and is one of the most informed participants in the dialogue between scientists and Buddhist contemplatives.

Richard appears to suggest that the links between emotion and thought, which modern cognitive psychology has until recently neglected, have been, by contrast, a major preoccupation for the Buddhist Abhidharma scholars. He also draws attention to the fact that for the Buddhists the Abhidharma analysis of feelings is primarily twofold: first, it indicates the manner in which feelings are to be interpreted, and second, it provides a method for learning to dissociate between different types of feelings (e.g., pleasant, unpleasant, neutral) and the reaction to those feelings (e.g., grasping, aversion, indifference). Noting that the Buddhist tradition operates on the premise of original goodness rather than original

Building on the results of previous collaborations the present volume takes the scientific dialogue between Science and Buddhism into a new di- rection. This is marked in particular by the transition from philosophical disputations, which have been the hallmark of previous encounters, to experimental research that directly focuses on the unusual cognitive abilities of longterm meditators and the lessons science may derive from studying these unusual abilities. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this new ori- entation is a paradigm shift in methodology.


…To be sure, the search for the neural correlates of consciousness and cognition, which in the last decade has become the main focus of research in the neuroscientific community, is not without its problems. Despite significant breakthroughs, the idea of corre- lating phenomenal states of consciousness to brain events has also sparked major controversies. There are now many philosophers and some scientists, who cite recent research in brain plasticity as proof that correlations be- tween subjective experience and brain events are not as rigid as previously thought.


… the important issue is not what emotions are, but what triggers their manifestation and whether they are constitu- tional of human nature. It is here that a difference begins to emerge between the Western and Buddhist perspectives. While Buddhists have primarily been concerned with overcoming the harmful effects of destructive emotions through some form of disciplined practice, the scientist’s main preoccupation is to identify the factors that act as catalysts for their manifestation. For the scientists, who in general adhere to a form of biological determinism (i.e., brain states cause subjective experience) emotional responses appear mainly as adaptive forms of behaviour that are the result of human evolution.


From a Western scientific perspective, whether human beings are inherently good, and whether or not they all desire happiness, a view that Flanagan sees as cogently Buddhist, is an open question. Modern researchers, as he sees it, are primarily preoc- cupied with studying humans as social beings. Drawing upon the ideas and examples of classical and modern philosophers, Flanagan contends that in their pursuit of virtue and happiness as the highest good, Western thinkers were not unlike their Buddhist counterparts. Flanagan concludes his brief presentation with a mention of the utilitarian and enlightenment perspec- tives on ethics, which have had a defining impact in shaping the way people in the Western world relate to emotions.

“… destructive emotions are seen as leading to bias in thinking, positive emotions are mainly seen as affecting the way we perceive and relate to things …”

… for the Buddhists the Abhidharma analysis of feelings is primarily twofold: first, it indicates the manner in which feelings are to be interpreted, and second, it provides a method for learning to dissociate between different types of feelings (e.g., pleasant, unpleasant, neutral) and the reaction to those feelings (e.g., grasping, aversion, indifference).


Richard concluded his presentation with a saying attributed to the fa- mous Tibetan hermit Milarepa, that reflects the Buddhist conviction in the human capacity to overcome destructive emotions and achieve genuine happiness, “In the beginning nothing comes, in the middle nothing stays, in the end nothing goes.”

“better to bring the yogi to the lab than the lab to the yogi” (315)


If an individual’s brain can be shaped by learning and experience, disturb- ing emotions and other psychological disorders are no longer perceived as unavoidable or irreversible and one can begin to think of antidotes.

“the culture shapes the way we experience and react to emotions”


Amidst highlights of these new research findings, insights from Buddhist psychology, and spirited dialogue, the contributions in this volume are a testimony to the possibility of genuine cross-cultural research on the effects and benefits of meditation on human well being and a valuable contribution to the general dialogue between Buddhism and Science.

 

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