Neuroscience and Zen


The philosopher Colin McGinn once stated in his book Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World (Basic Books 1999) that consciousness (mind) was based on a natural feature of the brain but evades our cognitive capacity. Introspection, the perception of mental activity, was “too late” because it was too much mind already, whereas the view from the outside on the brain was “too early” and would only look on matter.

In recent years a lot of neuroscientists became interested in meditation and studied the mind of Buddhists, mainly of the Tibetan fraction. As we know from books of the Dalai Lama titled “The Art of Happiness”, Tibetans seem to have an interest to get happy through their Buddhist practice. By the way, this reminds me of an episode of the TV-series The Sopranos where a crippled Russian caretaker, after the mob boss suggested a couple of changes to become happy, says to him like: “What is it with you Americans, only you are possessed by happiness so much.” She was wrong – the Tibetans are, too.

No wonder that scientists found the part of the brain which is stimulated by meditation and causes feelings of happiness, and they even proved that meditation enhances empathy. Although there is a suspicion that Buddhists meditate because it gives them pleasure, that they are somehow rewarded (by their brain), the question remains what empathy is, as long as it is located in our head. It is the same question we ask about the meaning of awakening, taking precepts and studying scriptures: What is it good for? Empathy or compassion, as the Buddhists prefer to call it, makes no sense when not applied, when not put into action. Traditional Buddhism believes that intention causes main problems between people and is the deciding factor of morality (and even karma). Well, it isn’t.

Like fantasies that have never made it to realization, intent is a mind’s game and sometimes just leads to nothing. In daily life we are shown that actual deeds and their outcome are much more crucial, and we often do not even ask for the intention behind it. Having found a way to spice up your empathy does therefore not proof that you are able to bring anything good to someone’s life. It is probably much more interesting to find out which part of the brain is responsible for putting thoughts into action, for making dreams come true, so to say. It is not the same part that stands for empathy, and that may very well be the reason why Tibetan monks are not well known as generous donators. How we evaluate an action is still else, by some the Layman Pang, when he dumped all his belongings into a lake instead of donating them (not to make the surrounding poor villagers greedy), may just be considered a chump.

In the war of religions, or in this case: in the war between Buddhists, it was found out that adepts of Tibetan meditation methods (remember, it is those which imply Green Taras and other comical elements) enhance the activity of the so called gamma waves, responsible for a feeling of well-being, whereas Zen Buddhists stimulate rather their alpha and theta waves. Maybe that is just because they do not care so much about concepts of “happiness”. As we can see that artificial stimulation or the reduction of blood-flow also changes brains activity, we already know that meditation is not a requirement.

I dare to say that a somehow mystical experience is necessary to drop not only the attachment to belongings, status, career, reproduction etc. but also that to concepts and categories (like “happiness”) – and make this non-attachment part of ones everyday life and practice, as an ongoing process. A pure insight as a rationale will not do, will not lead to the required implementation. It has to be rather shaking one’s reliance on cognition and clearly overcome the boundaries of the common mind, like dreams sometimes do. When you ask yourself why so often Buddhists do not make a difference, but fly first class, drive an expensive car, own land, houses, fancy dresses and even consider their wives, husbands, boy- or girlfriends “theirs”, you may understand the mismatch of a rather logic realization to a “transcendent” one. Ikkyu’s was transcendent, the Dalai Lama’s is not. One travelled to brothels, the other one into bulletproof cars. What a pity we do not have Ikkyu’s brain anymore.

A most common drive of people is that to power over others, and this seems to make happy, too. Recently I saw the former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt on TV, over 90 years old and in a wheelchair, again violating a law against public smoking, not being stopped by the pussies who invited him. Defying a rather new democratic achievement, this guy who once relied on Kant’s axiom also underlined his friendship with one of last century’s worst war criminals, Henry Kissinger. The death of three German RAF-terrorists in Stammheim, claimed by the only surviving (stabbed) Irmgard Moeller to be a murder (although that might be part of her strategy), suddenly appeared in a new light to me. I imagined what a stubborn guy with a friend like Kissinger would have been able to order and cover up. The new chancellor candidate of his party, Peer Steinbrueck, named Schmidt and Gerhard Schroeder as his role models. Schroeder once answered to the question if he was greedy for power that without such a greed one could not become a chancellor. All of them are quite cool rhetoricians, and I consider them intelligent beings. Nevertheless, when Steinbrueck justified his perks, he reminded me of a soccer player named Philip Lahm who once commented that soccer stars are not overpaid because they obviously have a high market value.

Why all this name dropping in a blog like this (which surely could mention hundreds of figures from all the other parties, too)? First to tell you that it is possible to piss a Buddhist off, and becoming angry is not we should totally unlearn. Second to demonstrate in which areas we  may detect that all those prominent people are not detached at all. On the contrary, they use their greed for wealth and power to justify working for others, Steinbrueck guessed that we would find no one to do this job anymore when each politician is required to go public with the details of his bank accounts and belongings, being deprived of privacy. Well, I hope that you get the point.

Practicing Buddhism is the ability “to do the job” without expecting rewards. You should not trust anyone too much who can’t do so, especially when he or she openly confesses to it without understanding the third-ratedness of such a moral. Those guys are also taking pleasure in certain parts of their minds, and they are even willing to create precedents. Nevertheless they have not understood what life is about. When your mind is misled, as peaceful or happy it may feel, your actions will not be too wise. Zen is about bridging that gap and make your deeds rooted in the power of powerlessness.

Whatever neuroscience tells us about the neuronal field that reacts to our meditation, concentration or contemplation, it is basically the relation of action with nonattachment and independence, the freed mind, that corroborates an awakening, the root of wise deeds. Our politicians appear to be clever, voters may even believe they might have acquired some wisdom, but their dumb analysis of their own needs and motives speaks the language of delusion. We have to turn our view back from ideas and neurons inside to the matter outside, the matter that sticks to a Tibetan monk as well as a German politician. If neuroscientists fail to find this connection, they will have fallen for the same limited concept of the mind that lies behind Buddhist’s “intention” (cetana) which is supposed to create karma: “Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, and intellect(Anguttara Nikaya). Let us correct: What one does and what one is can not solely exist in the brain (mind). That goes for any empathy, be it a monk’s or a politician’s.

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