Science & Zen: A Closer Look

DNAWritten by Chuan Zhi on the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun website:

Neuroscience has recently revolutionized the way we envision the mind and the brain. With functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) we can now literally see the brain working in real time as different parts of the brain “light up” in response to various internal and external stimuli. Researchers now better understand not only how we think about things, but also how we feel about things. Emotions of all kinds — empathy, happiness, melancholy, anger, frustration, joy – are all seen as unique brain activities in particular parts of the brain. Researchers are also finding that people differ, often quite dramatically, in the degree to which these specific parts of the brain are active for specific emotions. Some people have a huge area of the brain devoted, for example, to anger, while others may have more brain development in the empathy area (empathy, we are told, is a direct result of the presence of motor neurons in the brain). fMRI studies of meditators have also revealed distinctly elevated activity in the parts of the brain responsible for attention and awareness.

A host of questions may arise in light of so much new scientific data as it relates to Zen or, in fact, to any spiritual practice. Is consciousness indeed no more than a collection of firing neurons? Is awareness something that can be assembled with so many dendrites, neurotransmitters, and the like? Is there a reason to engage in a difficult spiritual discipline if we are no more than a composite of our constituent parts? Is there nothing beyond that?

Science seems to forever get into conflict with religion. People on one side insist that spirituality and science are incompatible; on the other, they suggest that Satori, Enlightenment, Samadhi, Divine Union, etc., are all just terms for states of awareness we experience on the spiritual journey; that they simply reflect specific brain states rather than illuminating some fundamental aspect of reality. Is reality just a “state of mind” or does reality exist independently of mind? This question has kept philosophers busy for centuries and likely will continue to for centuries to come…

[continues on the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun website]