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A Critique of Western Research on Meditation

as revealed in the article

"The Lama in the Lab"

By Dhammaccariya Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)
163rd day of a solo wilderness retreat
Inyo National Forest
October 13, 2005

(Copyright 2005 all rights reserved)

While it is encouraging to see research being conducted on meditation and those who meditate, I am too familiar with scientists and scholars ignoring the contribution of the contemplative.  It would be good to know that the subjects in the research of the Mind and Life Institute are contributors in their research, not just "lab rats." 

While the goals of the Mind and Life Institute state that their conferences are supposed to be a "Collaborative Research Among Buddhists and Scientists" it does not seem to be open to any contemplatives, but only scientists who claim to be Buddhists.  This discrepancy seems to be a serious oversight in their strategy if they genuinely wish to get at what it is to meditate skillfully.

With the kind of buildup we get in the article "The Lama in the Lab" by Daniel Goleman (Shambala Sun article of the, March 2003 issue) regarding "Lama Oser" (aka Matthieu Ricard, Born 1946 in France, Ph.D. in biochemistry at the Institute Pasteur, 1972) we can only hope he is the "real deal," however, we have yet to see the evidence in support of this claim.  Considering the research design specified that the lama execute "three meditative states" that were based upon a "visualization, one-pointed concentration and generating compassion" it is clear neither the researchers nor the lama understood what constitutes skilful meditation.  And they clearly did not understand absorption, which was the Buddha's definition of skilful meditation, which he called "samma-samadhi."

Also, the lama's choice of practices only supports the possibility that Tibetan Buddhism is primarily interesting in ritualized devotional practices as represented by their practices of (yantras), mantra recitations and Tantric visualizations and thus they, as an institution, do not understand what constitutes skilful meditation.  This means they are no different than Theravadan Buddhists and all of the other religions of the world in their ignorance of what constitutes skilful meditation.

The Buddha described skilful meditation (samma-samadhi) in a number of suttas, however, the best reference is the Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22), please see below.  Thus we can only conclude that this article reveals "research" that is another example of obfuscation and hyperbole at the expense of the pursuit of the truth.

Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22)

"And what is skilful meditation (sama-samadhi)? There is the case where an aspirant -- quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful (mental) qualities -- enters & remains in the first absorption (jhana), which is bliss (piiti) and joy (sukha) born from withdrawal..." (through fourth jhana).

However, in one of Oser's proposed meditations, in which he produced an "open state..." in which "The mind is not focused on anything, yet totally present," we can see that he may actually have arrived at the second stage of absorption (jhana).  However, in the experiment with the MRI the article says, "The prompt "on" was the signal for Oser to meditate, followed by silence for sixty seconds while Oser complied..." It is hard to imagine Oser, nor anyone else, could traverse the various stages of absorption within a mere 60 seconds.  We can only hope that the remaining 3 hours that he was in the MRI that he was given sufficient time to traverse to deeper levels of absorption instead of jawing with the researchers, or practicing mantra repetitions (japa).

In another experiment, when Oser attempted to "suppress the startle relfex," and they found this reflex almost "disappear(ed)" in him, we can assume he may have been successful at producing equanimity, thus he may have actually arrived at the 3rd stage of absorption (jhana), however we can hardly conclude that Oser is a "virtuoso of meditation," as the article says.

Without further research with qualified subjects, who can demonstrate skillful meditation, we cannot make any conclusions of this research, other than to conclude it seems Oser, has arrived at only moderate development in meditation in the form of the 2nd to 3rd stages of absorption (jhana).  It is, however, a good sign that these researchers have found someone who can at the very least produce the second stage of absorption, even if for only short periods of time.  And, thus this research shows promise that Western science is beginning to actually study skilful meditators to find out what skilful meditation is.

Since the research findings of present research on meditation are primarily focused upon the "Biology of joy" as found in meditation then this is a good indication that scientists are just beginning to scratch the surface of skillful meditation. We ecstatic Buddhists find the joy and pleasure of meditation the first level of absorption, because we find joy and pleasure are the first characteristics of the absorbed mind. Sidharta Gotama called the absorbed mind "jhana" and he called the joy and pleasure of meditation "sukha" and "piiti." According to Sidharta Gotama it is joy and pleasure that form 2 of the pentad of characteristics of the first level of absorption. It is excellent news that science is beginning to support what mystics, like Sidharta Gotama, and Teresa of Avila, have been saying for thousands of years.

Perhaps some day soon Western researchers will begin to examine the remaining 7 stages of absorption (jhana); however, they will have to find meditators who are sufficiently skillful in the contemplative life to manifest these levels of absorption. If these researches take an interest in studying meditators who have found depth in absorption, then they might find some of the members of the Jhana Support Group of value in their research, because it is these people who have taken an interest in the skillful practice of meditation.

However, research that is primarily focused upon the "Biology of joy" and is typically executed upon subjects who have never meditated before, while avoiding developing a model for what constitutes skilful meditation, then I am afraid western research on meditation will remain at a very naïve level, and may only produce feel good research that is another example of obfuscation and hyperbole at the expense of the pursuit of the truth.

May you dwell in the joyful home of the way (Di.t.thadhammasukhavihaaraa)

Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)

the Great Western Vehicle


Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22)

"The Lama in the Lab" by Daniel Goleman, in Shambala Sun From, March 2003


This article was first posted to the Jhana Support Group at this URL:


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