In her article “Brain Karma: Is Delusion Hardwired?,” Wendy Hasenkamp writes about several revelations regarding the functioning of the brain (as revealed by modern neuroscience) that relate interestingly to Buddhist teachings regarding the nature of human existence. I found this article particularly interesting in light of our class discussion today regarding the Buddhist teachings and wisdom in western contexts. In this post, I will engage Hasenkamp’s piece as well as drawing on our class discussion in an effort to consider what it means to employ elements of Buddhism outside of strict religious practice.
According to Hasenkamp, contemporary neuroscience is developing an understanding of the functioning of the human brain that aligns interestingly with the Buddhist idea of karma. Specifically, scientists have found that “our actions (including thoughts as well as observable behavior) leave a trace in our minds, making it more likely that similar actions will occur in the future.” (Hasenkamp 65) This understanding of human behavior and functioning has striking similarities to the Buddhist idea of how karma functions – including that thoughts and actions are not isolated and discrete events, but influence the course of life long after they have passed from being active. Hasenkamp argues that “the karmic aspects of neural plasticity have important implications,” (67) because understanding this aspect of the brain helps us to begin to understand the true (and truly connected) nature of things. Says Hasenkamp: “We don’t see interdependence and impermanence, because we crystallize everything into discrete preformed patterns that seem stable over time.” But understanding the process which leads to these misperceptions (whether it be based in Buddhism, neuroscience, or a bit of each) represents a shot at peeking behind this veil.
Thinking about the usefulness of neuroscience in illuminating Buddhist belief as well as the usefulness of Buddhism in illuminating the discoveries of neuroscience led me to think about our class discussion today. Surely, Buddhists do not need their sacred beliefs to be substantiated by modern science to continue to benefit from their wisdom, and scientists do not need to have their discoveries legitimated by religious beliefs, yet what emerges when the two are set into conversation with one another is expansive and rich while defying categorization as simply theology or research. What is striking to me about this, is that is speaks to our collective quandary about the usefulness (even “right-ness”) of Buddhist thought and practice out of context. Using what has been learned by centuries of Buddhist contemplation and scholarship on the topics of karma (cause and effect) and dukkha (inherent suffering), even non-Buddhists who are responding to science-based understandings of their brain’s functioning, can benefit from strategies devised to resist unproductive and/or unwanted patterns of behavior that contribute to human suffering. While this wisdom may not be enlisted with the express goal of escaping samsara, or of following in the path of the Buddha in any manner, it nonetheless contributes to the overall well being of sentient beings, and that cannot be all that bad in this author’s estimation.