The colour of happiness

  • 24 May 2003 by Owen Flanagan
  • Magazine issue 2396

MEMBERS of my tribe – we call ourselves philosophical naturalists – treat all talk of souls and spirits as metaphorical. We think of the seat of the soul as the brain, in concert with the rest of the nervous system. The Dalai Lama speaks of a “luminous consciousness” that transcends death and which he thinks might not have brain correlates, but we believe even this must be realised neurally.

So an interesting question for neuroscientists is how do the brains of Buddhist practitioners – or indeed any other wise, happy and virtuous people – light up? How are the qualities of happiness, serenity and loving kindness that arise from the Buddhist practice of mindful meditation reflected in the brain? How does that subjective experience manifest itself?

Neuroscience is beginning to provide answers. Using scanning techniques such as PET and functional MRI, we can study the brain in action. We now …


Spirituality and Science

July 19, 2009

One Religion that’s Actually Embracing Science: Buddhism

Major sectors of Christianity and Islam have made it clear that they’re not going to be best friends with science anytime soon. But at least one of the major religions is extending an olive branch.  New Scientist reports that:

More than 30 Tibetan monks, plus a handful of nuns, will be collaborating with a team from San Francisco’s Exploratorium (”the museum of art, science and human perception”) to build exotic machines to create patterns from sunlight using cardboard, dowels, reflective sheets of mylar and electronic components.

If all goes to plan, the monks will return to their monasteries and start spreading the joys of scientific exploration among other followers of their religion.

The project is the latest reflection of the monks’ spiritual leader’s fascination with science. In the Dalai Lama’s 2005 book The Universe in a Single Atom, the Nobel peace laureate argued that science and spiritual inquiry have much to learn from one other.

According to an Exploratorium press release, the Dalai Lama has been exploring how cosmology, neuroscience, and other fields interrelate with Buddhism since childhood (His Holiness does tend to be precocious). Now he’s setting his monks on an “ambitious” mission to “share not only in the traditions of Buddhism, but…also in Western scientific inquiry and evidence on the physical plane” with a goal of “shap[ing] these already highly educated monks into science leaders.”

Now if we could just get the Pope to follow suit