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Research Bernoulli Institute Cognitive Modeling Research

Project: Tibetan analytic meditation through the lens of neuroscience: A cross-cultural scientific collaboration

People: Marieke van der Vugt

Collaborators: David Fresco, Joshua Pollock, Marieke van Vugt, Marcel Bonn-Miller, Geshe Nyima Tashi, Bryce Johnson

In recent years, the scientific community’s interest in studying the nature and clinical implications of mental training exercises derived from Buddhist practices has increased exponentially. To date, various forms of concentrative meditation (e.g., shamatha) have undergone intensive study within neuroscience and psychology--resulting in greater understanding of the neurobehavioral bases of these practices as well as secular clinical implementations for a wide variety of physical and emotional disorders. In many respects, efforts to establish secular ethics based upon Buddhist concentrative meditation practices have been a resounding success.

By contrast, much less is known about the family of practices of analytical meditation and debate common within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Whereas concentrative practices are foundational in all forms of Buddhism as a means of training and/or familiarizing ourselves with our mind, Tibetan monastics regard analytic meditation as a means to apprehend the true nature of reality beyond clear reason. Although the practice of analytical meditation involves careful study and memorization of Buddhist texts, the exercise is not merely academic. Part of the study and memorization is a process of contemplation on the text, such that the meaning becomes part of one’s being. This embodied knowledge is then tested and refined in an intense dyadic interaction where a “Challenger” poses questions that the “Defender” must successfully answer. Through this process, the interlocutors work in tandem to cultivate a sense of selflessness within the context of this analytical meditation/debate to achieve this deeper understanding into the nature of reality. An important gap remaining within the field of contemplative science is to undertake a careful study of analytic meditation both as it relates to the individual and, importantly, in terms of the dyadic and relational nature of the practice.

This project initiates a program of research that will bring the same degree of scientific curiosity and rigor that has characterized contemplative science thus far, to the study of analytic meditation/debate. Investigating these practices will not only further our understanding of the complete spiritual path practiced in Tibetan Buddhism, but also may have implications for education and the refinement of the secular ethics program. Importantly, the proposed program of research will not simply involve Westerners conducting a set of studies on Tibetan monastics, rather active Eastern and Western collaboration in the development, execution, and interpretation of the studies. In this way, we intend to foster cross-fertilization of Eastern and Western scholarship. We wish to utilize first, second, and third person methodology within this research program.

In conjunction with exploring the neural and behavioral effects of debate and analytical meditation, Marieke van Vugt will explore how these techniques can be adapted for use in higher education, as one of the applications of contemplative higher education.

Support: Hershey Family Foundation, Science for Monks, Teaching Excellence Fellowship

For more information see:

Last modified:16 February 2021 2.01 p.m.