Buddhist scholar, B. Alan Wallace’s Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge (Columbia University Press, 2007) is an attractive read for anyone interested in neuroscience, consciousness, psychology, Buddhism, or religious studies. Educated in the West and having studied under H.H. the Dalai Lama in the East, Wallace represents a unique type of interdisciplinary scholar. He has written many books exploring the interface of consciousness and Buddhism, translated and interpreted for many Buddhist contemplatives and scholars, and most recently established the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies.
According to Wallace, the occasion for the book is the present-day spiritual emptiness apparent in the materialism of Western society. Despite the immense wealth and scientific progress attained in the West, people still fail to live happy, satisfied lives full of purpose and virtuosity. Not neglecting the important contributions science has made to the cause of human health and happiness, Wallace still maintains that individuals in the West tend to be spiritually vacuous. Wallace believes that contemplative traditions, such as Eastern Buddhist practice, can make an important contribution to Western psychological health.
While many strands of Buddhist practice exist, Wallace promotes the spirituality and meditative practices based on samatha, a technique practiced by the Dzogchen school of Tibetan Buddhism. Samatha affords practicing individuals access to an alleged “ground state of consciousness” which is fundamental to all conscious activity. Wallace concedes that (physical) neural events shape the expression of conscious states in space and time – but the most pure and ultimate source is samatha, a state only attainable through meditative training techniques.
Familiarizing the readers with Buddhist tradition, Wallace details the movements through the meditative stages of samatha practice. Initially, one begins with an object of focus and ultimately ends up with an objectless meditative awareness, which connects one to the ground of all conscious activity. Not only does this practice bring health benefits through reduced stress, it also engenders psychological well-being because it places the practitioner into direct relationship with the fundamental processes of meaning in nature.
This text is a fascinating read for anyone interested to learn more about Eastern meditative practices, but it is unfulfilling for anyone seeking new empirical information about the brain and religion. Wallace merely shuns materialistic readings of consciousness and proceeds to insert his Buddhist influenced opinions to account for the metaphysical nature of brain based conscious activity. Wallace rightfully acknowledges that many scientists have spoken incautiously about religiosity. Regardless, most scientists will likely be uninterested in the metaphysical trappings of Wallace’s beliefs and drawn more to the potential health benefits to individuals trained in meditative practice.
Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge. By B. Alan Wallace. Columbia University Press, 2007. 211 Pages. ISBN 0-231-13834-2.
A link to Wallace’s website is here.