Buddhism's Other Option

A new book examines Buddhist practices' influences on the brain and emotions.

c. 2003 Religion News Service

We all have bad days, or so Western psychology assumes. Thereare times when anger, anxiety and depression just seem to get the upperhand. The most we can do, psychology contends, is learn to contain ouremotions--or take a pill.

Buddhism claims another option. Not only can negative emotions becontrolled, says the 2,500-year-old tradition, they literally can betransformed or eliminated through meditation--a variety of practicesinvolving techniques such as one-pointed concentration, visualization anddetached self-reflection.

For the past two years, a unique effort to measure that claim againstWestern scientific standards has taken place. Among those involved are theworld's best-known Buddhist, the Dalai Lama, and a small group of Westernresearchers, primarily neuroscientists and psychologists.

While the work is highly experimental, initial findings reportedlybolster Buddhism's assertions about the nature of human emotions. "Simplyput, output is related to input," said writer Daniel Goleman, author of arecently released book about the project. "All religious traditionspostulate that it is desirable to transcend negative emotions. Now we havesome scientific data that, by God, it can happen."


More than most major religions, Buddhism has made psychology and theworkings of the mind a major component of its teachings. "The Buddhisttradition," Goleman wrote in "Destructive Emotions: How Can We OvercomeThem?" (Bantam), "has long pointed out that recognizing and transformingdestructive emotions lies at the heart of spiritual practice--indeed, somehold that whatever lessens destructive emotions is spiritual practice."

Goleman's book, is, in the main, an account written for the layperson oftwo meetings -- a 2000 gathering in Dharamsala, India, seat of the DalaiLama's Tibetan government-in-exile, and a 2001 follow-up session in Madison,Wis. The two gatherings were part of an ongoing dialogue between Buddhistsand scientists that dates to 1987.

The 2000 session was an exchange of ideas; scientists described thelatest theories about the nature of the brain and mind, and Buddhistscholars explained their tradition's understanding of human psychology. TheMadison meeting went beyond dialogue. It included scientific experimentsinvolving advanced Buddhist practitioners designed to explore theirreactions to stresses, such as gunshot sounds close to the ear that leavemost people frazzled and presumably more likely to dump their anxiety onothers.

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