Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic

Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 304
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    Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic
    Book Description:

    Renowned Buddhist philosopher B. Alan Wallace reasserts the power of shamatha and vipashyana, traditional Buddhist meditations, to clarify the mind's role in the natural world. Raising profound questions about human nature, free will, and experience versus dogma, Wallace challenges the claim that consciousness is nothing more than an emergent property of the brain with little relation to universal events. Rather, he maintains that the observer is essential to measuring quantum systems and that mental phenomena (however conceived) influence brain function and behavior.

    Wallace embarks on a two-part mission: to restore human nature and to transcend it. He begins by explaining the value of skepticism in Buddhism and science and the difficulty of merging their experiential methods of inquiry. Yet Wallace also proves that Buddhist views on human nature and the possibility of free will liberate us from the metaphysical constraints of scientific materialism. He then explores the radical empiricism inspired by William James and applies it to Indian Buddhist philosophy's four schools and the Great Perfection school of Tibetan Buddhism.

    Since Buddhism begins with the assertion that ignorance lies at the root of all suffering and that the path to freedom is reached through knowledge, Buddhist practice can be viewed as a progression from agnosticism (not knowing) to gnosticism (knowing), acquired through the maintenance of exceptional mental health, mindfulness, and introspection. Wallace discusses these topics in detail, identifying similarities and differences between scientific and Buddhist understanding, and he concludes with an explanation of shamatha and vipashyana and their potential for realizing the full nature, origins, and potential of consciousness.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53032-3
    Subjects: Religion, Health Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. PROLOGUE: Skepticism in Buddhism and Science
    (pp. vii-xii)

    I am a buddhist skeptic. The Greek term skeptikoi means seekers or inquirers; the early Greek skeptics challenged the dogmatic positions of their contemporaries, advocating critical investigation instead. The Buddha (563–483 B.C.E.) himself embraced the value of skepticism, for he counseled others not to adopt beliefs on the basis of hearsay, legend, tradition, scriptural sources, logical conjecture, probability, or a teacher’s authority. He encouraged us to learn through our own experience which theories and practices are wholesome and which are unwholesome. Determining whether they lead to our own and others’ genuine happiness or to harm and suffering requires empirical...


      (pp. 3-14)

      For millennia before Galileo (1564–1642), people throughout the world gazed at the starry skies with unaided vision and sought to understand the correlations between celestial and terrestrial phenomena. Multiple systems of astrology were the fruits of their labors, but the modern science of astronomy remained beyond reach. For centuries, mathematicians sought to understand the movements of celestial bodies in accordance with the dominant worldviews of their times. But even the heliocentric system devised by Copernicus (1473–1543) was widely regarded as simply one more plausible mathematical model, for it was not experimentally better than Ptolemy’s (c. 90–168 C.E.)...

    • TWO BUDDHISM AND SCIENCE: Confrontation and Collaboration
      (pp. 15-33)

      After 2,500 years of assimilation into diverse traditional societies in Asia, Buddhism in the twenty-first century has grown in prominence throughout the rest of the world. Buddhism’s first exposure to modernity came via its encounter with European imperialism, which dominated much of South and East Asia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Then, in the twentieth century, Buddhism was subjected to a holocaust at the hands of multiple communist regimes that waged war on religions of all kinds. The conflict between Buddhism and communism is not rooted in the economic principles and ideals of communism, which are generally harmonious with...

      (pp. 34-59)

      With the growing interest in Buddhism in recent years, various new modes of therapy, such as mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioral therapy, have incorporated certain theories and practices from Buddhism. Proponents of these approaches attempt to offer the essence of Buddhist mindfulness meditation without what is perceived as the unnecessary baggage of its beliefs and rituals. Others, both psychologists and nonpsychologists, who regard themselves as Buddhist or are at least sympathetic to Buddhism, promote what they call agnostic, or secular, Buddhism, in which the teachings of the Buddha are denuded of anything ordinarily associated with “religion.”¹ Despite their aversion to many of the...

      (pp. 60-71)

      If galileo deserves to be called the father of modern physics and astronomy and Darwin the father of modern biology, no one is more worthy of the epithet father of modern psychology than William James. All three were great empiricists who challenged the reigning dogmas of their eras. Galileo challenged the widely accepted geocentric view of the earth and celestial phenomena. Darwin challenged the biblical view of human existence and the nature of all living organisms. And James challenged the neurocentric view of the mind, namely, that all possible mental processes and states of consciousness are strictly products of the...

      (pp. 72-85)

      When the founders of the Church Scientific codified the Book of Nature so that it included nothing beyond matter, energy, space, time, and their emergent properties and functions, something central to human existence was omitted: consciousness, along with the whole range of sensory and mental subjective experience. With the rise of behaviorism in the early twentieth century, consciousness was categorically dismissed. John B. Watson, on purely dogmatic grounds, argued that since mental processes cannot be scientifically measured, “psychology must discard all reference to consciousness.”¹ He heralded the domination of scientific materialism over the whole realm of the mind, saying that...

    • SIX WHAT MAKES US HUMAN? Scientific and Buddhist Views
      (pp. 86-107)

      For centuries, theologians, philosophers, and scientists have expressed diverse beliefs about what makes us distinctively human. Theologians have emphasized our ability to distinguish between good and evil, with great ramifications for our immortal souls. Philosophers commonly cite our ability to think rationally, and biologists look to our genetic makeup and enlarged brains. Buddhist thinkers value human communication and reasoning very highly; nevertheless, their attention is focused on our capabilities of seeking genuine happiness, deliberately applying ourselves to leading ethical lives, cultivating our minds through meditation, and realizing freedom from suffering and its causes by directly understanding the nature of reality....

      (pp. 108-122)

      Philosophers have speculated about the existence or nonexistence of free will for centuries and scientists have investigated the issue for decades, but no consensus has been reached or is likely. This matter may be settled not philosophically or scientifically but by pointing out the obvious: there are practical circumstances under which we have varying freedom to make wise decisions that contribute to our own and others’ genuine happiness. Moving beyond the intellectual question of free will, Buddhist meditation has as a central focus the experiential challenge to actualize freedom in daily life via the cultivation of inner freedom.

      Much like...


      (pp. 125-143)

      We are all skeptics concerning views and opinions other than our own. The challenge that Buddhism presents is to develop a true spirit of skepticism toward our own unquestioned assumptions, for it is these—not the beliefs of others—that lie at the root of our suffering. So how shall we define “skepticism”? Michael Shermer, executive director of the Skeptics Society and publisher of its magazine Skeptic, gives this promising definition:

      Skepticism is . . . the application of reason to any and all ideas—no sacred cows allowed. In other words . . . skeptics do not go into...

      (pp. 144-157)

      In 1859, Charles Darwin published his monumental work On the Origin of Species, which triggered a revolution in the life sciences comparable to the first scientific revolution in the physical sciences, launched by Galileo two hundred and fifty years earlier.¹ A year later, another English biologist, Thomas Huxley, who came to be known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his pugnacious advocacy of Darwin’s theory, coined the term “agnostic.” Huxley’s agnosticism is the view that the nature of ultimate reality, whether spiritual or material, is either unknown or unknowable; his view is thought to have been a response to the intolerance of...

      (pp. 158-172)

      Reading the records of the Buddha’s discourses and the subsequent commentarial literature within the Buddhist tradition, one is unlikely to find any explicit references to “mental health,” let alone “optimal mental health.” Elaborate theories are presented on the nature of the mind and its imbalances, and many techniques are taught for achieving exceptional states of mental well-being, but these are not framed within the context of mental health. Nevertheless, we may draw from the vast literature of Buddhism and reframe specific themes that are particularly relevant to the nature of mental health and practical ways to achieve greater psychological well-being....

      (pp. 173-193)

      At the dawn of the scientific study of the mind, William James embraced a method of inquiry consistent with all other branches of science, namely the direct observation of the phenomena of interest with maximum care, precision, and sophistication. While acknowledging the value of indirectly studying the mind by way of its neural influences and behavioral expressions, he took the radically empirical approach of placing the highest priority on direct observation of mental states and processes themselves. Such observations must be as free as possible of dogmatic biases, both dualistic and materialistic, so that theory is guided by observed phenomena...

      (pp. 194-212)

      As a result of the genocide perpetrated against Buddhist cultures throughout Asia during the twentieth century at the hands of various communist regimes, all waving the ideological banner of scientific materialism, the very survival of Mahayana Buddhism in particular has been imperiled. Thus, for many of its followers, the preservation of the vitality of the Mahayana tradition in the modern world is of the highest priority. Outwardly, the creation of images of the Buddha, translations and publications of Buddhist teachings, and the building of stupas are ways of preserving representations of the Buddha’s body, speech, and mind. All such efforts...

      (pp. 213-230)

      In today’s fast-paced world, with so many demands on our time and so little leisure, it is understandable that we seek shortcuts to fulfill our desires, including the goal of spiritual liberation. If time and resources limit us to a daily practice punctuated by occasional retreats, common sense suggests that we should focus on the most profound methods available. Consequently, Theravadin Buddhists tend to emphasize insight meditation and Tibetan Buddhists focus on the practices of Vajrayana, including Dzogchen, or the Great Perfection. But in our haste to ascend to the summits of Buddhist meditation, we are prone to overlook the...

  6. EPILOGUE: The Many Worlds of Buddhism and Science
    (pp. 231-240)

    In the prologue, I commented that in Buddhism grasping onto one’s own views, or vision of the world, as being uniquely true and superior to all others is regarded as a fundamental delusion. The preceding chapters have sought to demonstrate that such dogmatism is as common today among scientific materialists as it is among religious believers, East and West. Christian belief in the unique truths of the faith is rooted in history. Devout Christians believe that the words of the Apostles, as recorded in the New Testament, were blessed by the Holy Spirit. Likewise, the hand of God is believed...

  7. NOTES
    (pp. 241-270)
    (pp. 271-274)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 275-292)