International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism and Christianity

by B. Alan Wallace

Introductory Essay by Trinh Xuan Thuan

This is a well-written and well-argued essay on the nature of the mind, as seen from the perspectives of Buddhism, Science, and Christianity. Wallace being a former Buddhist monk, it is not surprising that the discussion on Buddhism and its meditative techniques is the most developed and the most informative. The book also gives useful references to ancient Tibetan texts on the subject of the mind.

One of its interesting features is that, in addition to an account of the historical and scientific developments of studies of the mind, the book presents several short chapters juxtaposing descriptions of meditative practice with their respective theoretical bases. However, as the author himself admits, “to learn meditation (of which the author extols the many benefits and virtues), there is no substitute for the personal guidance of an experienced teacher” [149].

Wallace discusses in detail the contrasting views of cognitive science (psychology and neuroscience) as opposed to those of Buddhism concerning the nature of mind and consciousness. The vast majority of neurobiologists, psychologists and philosophers adopt a materialistic point of view: mental processes are simply emergent properties of matter. In the process of evolution, consciousness arose when the networks of brain cells in living beings reached a threshold of complexity, and thoughts and emotions such as love or hate are nothing but electrical and chemical currents in neuronal networks. In other words, we are nothing more than robots that have the mistaken impression of possessing free will. We think that we are in control, that we are free to make decisions, but that is purely an illusion: we are really just perceiving the results of operations performed by the neuronal system.

Buddhism, on the other hand, adopts a totally different point of view. For it, the highest state of consciousness, called “fundamental luminosity” or “essence of Buddhahood” does not arise out of the brain. It can manifest itself without the trappings of matter. Thus Buddhism envisages streams of “consciousness without beginning or end” [ch. 14] that persist after death, and are embodied in new physical supports in the course of numerous cycles of death and reincarnation, ending only when the state of nirvana is attained.

Wallace discusses the notion of rebirth in the Christian and Jewish traditions and reviews the scientific studies of rebirth that have been carried out, mainly in two ways. First, there are studies of people who have experienced the intermediary stage between death and rebirth, which Buddhists calls ‘bardo’ and Westerners ‘near-death experiences’. Second, there is the research of the late Ian Stevenson and his colleagues on young children possessed of alleged past-life memories. These studies are admittedly difficult and not conclusive, and they have been met with fierce resistance from the materialistic science camp. But as Wallace rightly points out; for the moment, science has not yet been able to show how our thoughts and emotions arise from matter, and affirming that consciousness is a physical function of the body is, at this stage, a metaphysical assumption.

This book is a passionate plea for opening our eyes to a non-materialistic approach to the mind, one that Buddhism has been following for the past 2,500 years through the practice of meditation. As Wallace rightly points out, “as long as our methods of investigating the mind are limited to the materialistic approaches of studying the brain and behavior, our understanding of the mind will necessarily be materialistic” [93].