The concept of karma in Buddhism maintains that all actions are conditioned by previous actions and give rise to the actions or consequences that follow. In “Is Delusion Hardwired?” Wendy Hasenkamp says, “ancient ideas about karma…are mirrored with surprising detail in the foundations of modern neuroscience.” She goes on to explain the concept of neural association and how the repetition of these associations creates networks between neurons that become stronger the more often we experience something because the associated neurons are interacting more frequently.
She connects this process to karma by highlighting its cyclic nature: the more often we engage in an activity, the more likely we are to engage in it again in the future because each time we perform that activity its associated neural network is reinforced. Hasenkamp argues that this neural plasticity is what leads us to delusion, or “our inability to see the true nature of reality,” because it determines concept formation. Through these processes of neural associations, conventional beings take patterns and repetitions of and within phenomena to mean they are concrete. We see phenomena as stable and unchanging and as having discernable essences, a perception that renders us deluded and ignorant.
So our delusion and ignorance turn out to be rooted in biological processes, which, as we discussed in class, makes Buddhism’s philosophy on suffering easier to swallow for those of us who put our faith in the scientific method. But while this evidence might present a more believable basis for suffering for skeptics, it makes ending suffering and escaping samsara seem an even more daunting and impossible task. Hasenkamp says that meditation can make us aware of our mental habits and, through that awareness, allow us to form new associations, presumably free of perceptions of essence, and allow us to transcend delusion.
In reading this article, and in our discussion in class, I came to realize that I am one of the skeptics of religion who tends to rely on scientific and mathematic evidence as determinants of truth. I attribute this to my relatively nonsectarian upbringing and education that always favored science and math and hailed them as indicators of intelligence and truth. In Buddhist Thought this semester, I often wondered about whether all of this Buddhist philosophy could be grounded in scientific reasoning because that was where my brain automatically went, even though I never thought I had any particular bond with science. I was happy to read this article and have some of my qualms put to rest.
One thing that I am still uneasy about, however, is the appropriation of Buddhist practices into western culture without a real understanding or respect for Buddhist philosophy. Hasenkamp’s article seems to have been written for the purpose of proving or selling a non-western concept to Westerners through a language and context they would more readily understand and believe. While the piece was certainly insightful and eye opening, I worry that it simply converts Buddhism to science, further taking away from a religion that is already being picked apart and misunderstood in the west.