Postgraduate students

Alistair Savai’i Knewstubb, BA, DipGrad, MA

Buddhist contemplative techniques will not cause a scientific revolution

Buddhism is considered by many in the West to be less religious and to embody a see for yourself attitude that is resonates with modern scientific perspectives. This de-cultured or extracted version of Buddhism that constitutes Buddhism in the West’s imagination is a modern development that arose from orientalist fantasies and revivalist movements in 20th century Asia more than considered research into what Buddhism is in itself in its various forms across Asia throughout time. This imagined version of Buddhism has been popular in Asia itself with reformers and the founders of popular meditation movements such as Goenka’s Vipassana movement, Suzuki’s individualized portrayal of direct experience gaining large mainstream recognition and influence over the popular imagination of what Buddhism is. Important for this research is the XIV Dalai Lama’s support for science and Buddhism’s collaboration and his promotion of Buddhism as a science of the mind. A student of the Dalai Lama, B. Alan Wallace, has been spearheading cooperation between Buddhism and science with his establishing of three research centers around the globe. These centers for contemplative research have been established in the USA, Italy and New Zealand for the purposes of carrying our scientific research on the mind with Buddhist techniques. Specifically, shamatha is central to this new research and is, according to B. Alan Wallace, crucial for studying the mind. He claims it is the key ingredient that will lead to a revolution in the mind sciences and it is this claim that will be the topic of this research.

To evaluate this claim that Buddhist contemplative or meditative techniques are able to lead to a revolution in the mind sciences, Kuhn’s work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, will be used as a guide. It will be shown that there is no current Kuhnian crisis in the normal science of the mind sciences that indicate the coming of a scientific revolution. It will be shown that far from heralding a scientific revolution, the cooperation between science, Buddhist thought, and practitioners is strengthening the current paradigm by opening up new avenues for research. It is also helping the current paradigm effectively understand mental health and how meditation benefits the mind which also strengthens the current paradigm. This research is all feasible and proving fruitful results through the use of established third-person empiricist techniques that are the hallmark of the current paradigm and the exact methodology that Alan Wallace critiques as being part of a neuromythology.

It will also be shown that Buddhists themselves, after more than 2000 years of contemplative practice, cannot agree on what actually constitutes shamatha or jhana – access to which is equivalent to shamatha. It will be shown that these differing opinions on what is or is not jhana are not insignificant and force outsiders to cast doubt upon its reliability as a tool for establishing a revolutionary methodology that utilizes this tool to reliable first-person observations of the mind.

The third main refutation will be based around a critique of the language of contemplative science as it exists historically and also that the language that arises from the insights is necessarily obtuse due to the nature of the insights themselves. That is, the teachings of emptiness will be shown to be self-negating soteriological insights that are not compatible with science’s necessity for theses that can be falsified or at least contested.

After these three main refutations of the proposed coming scientific revolution in the mind sciences, a discussion on the difficultly of evaluating such a claim from within a specific paradigm will be undertaken to illuminate the inherent limitations of this evaluation. Despite these limitations, this evaluation comes to the conclusion that such a revolution is highly unlikely due to the aforementioned lack of a Kuhnian crisis, the high level of variance between highly experienced meditators’ views towards shamatha and the incompatibility between Buddhist soteriological language and science.

Supervisor: Professor Will Sweetman

University of Otago Religious Studies Programme