Meditation, Buddhism and Science | Sunday Observer
Book review

Meditation, Buddhism and Science

21 March, 2021
Book: Meditation, Buddhism and Science, 2017 
Authors: David McMahan and Erik Braun, Eds 
Publishers: Oxford University Press

Meditation has opened up a new avenue to deal with the pathologies created by the modern world. Sri Lanka, primarily being a Buddhist majority country and, simultaneously, on the verge of social calamity due to failed economic and social policies, has many alternative Buddhist groups emerging.

This expansion of Buddhist groups that practise meditation and engaged in sermons is inevitable. Against this background, the book provides a fertile ground for the reader to understand how meditation is socially constructed in a world where ‘modern-western science’ preoccupies the knowledge paradigm.

The edited volume consists of ten articles, including the introduction. The book’s primary logic is based on how meditation takes different shapes in different cultural settings and in relation to ‘modern science’. The articles in the volume are provided by experts in sociology, philosophy, religious studies and anthropology. 


The book starts with historicising meditation. In 1883, part of the Mandalay city in Myanmar was burnt down to ashes due to the third Anglo-Burmese war. One Burmese Buddhist bikkhu, Ledi-Sayadaw, saw his monastery and scholarly work compiled over many years being burnt down. This incident had a significant impact on the emergence of the modern Buddhist movement. The frustrated monk moved to the forest and started meditating, which was a rare practice at that time. These conditions led to an understanding of meditation as a mechanism for preserving Buddhism in the long term. Including women, hundreds of people started meditating.

Meditation was expected to expand and conserve Buddhism. The British colonial administration and policies had affected the form and expansion of meditation at the time. 

Meditation has a broader reach globally with distinct configurations, including in Silicon Valley, which is the centre of modern communication technology. Meditation manifesting in entirely different settings and purposes than the original spiritual Buddhist purpose is not unusual today. In that sense, meditation is practised in relatively secular spaces, such as military training camps, universities focused on business studies and multinational companies. 

It was initially believed that meditation is not suitable for the laity who live a secular life, where they cannot concentrate on reaching the subtle layers of spiritual realisation. With the advent of the presumption that methods of insight only needed the concentration for a moment, meditation started to expand among the laity and globally.

Trans-cultural phenomenon

The ‘discovery’ of ‘Buddhism’ by ‘modern science’ as a colonial adventure resulted in meditation becoming a trans-cultural phenomenon. As a result, Western scholars extracted ‘Buddhist text’ from the cultures they emerged and produced a ‘purified’ version of Buddhism, which is universal. As a result, Buddhism emerged in European intellectual circles as a phenomenon beyond the social and cultural conditions in which initially emerged and expanded. This perspective erased the ancient Buddhist cosmology. Buddhism was constructed as a system of ‘self-transformation’.

On the one hand, Western scholars presented Buddhism as an ‘exotic philosophy’, and on the other hand, Buddhism was experimenting with various forms internally to cope with colonial pressure. One of the primary attacks on Buddhism from the colonial missionary enterprise was that Buddhism was incompatible with modern science.

The well-known Panadura Debate held in colonial Ceylon was one of the best examples of this controversy among Buddhists and Christians. One of the main points of the debate was which religion was more compatible with modern science. The introductory chapter, which maps and discusses current trends and the history of meditation, ends with recent backlashes against meditation. 

The second chapter, ’How Meditation Works: Theorising the Role of Cultural Context in Buddhist Contemplative Practices’ is by David McMahan. It starts with comparing a meditating monk from the beginning of the common era and a contemporary American female professional who practises insight meditation (vipassana).

The chapter’s main argument is, that meditation can create different forms of existence depending on the cultures it emerges from, rather than the idea that meditation works in a universal form regardless of time and space. Thus, although the two personalities mentioned in the chapter are engaged in the same meditative practice, the elements they bring to the content and the meditation practice are varied. The author shows how meditation can expand in different social imaginaries with various attractions. 

Evan Thomson has written the third chapter under the heading, ‘Looping Effects and the Cognitive Science of Mindfulness Meditation’. The chapter discusses how modern science has created ‘mindfulness’ as a category related to the brain and how the contemporary person conceives this idea as the ‘truth’. The writer, who is from a background in philosophy, discusses modern science’s reductionist approach to engage in experiments by relating any cognitive function to a specific part of the brain. 

‘Buddhism, Happiness and the Science of Meditation’ by William Edelglass is the fourth chapter. The popular discourse is that meditation is a form of keeping a person happy. He discusses the construction of ‘the science of meditation and happiness’ and the politics of knowledge it represents.

Edelglass discusses how modern science is interested in measuring happiness rather than searching for what happiness is. As a result, many experiments have attempted to measure happiness and explore the reasons for happiness. According to some scientists, half of happiness is determined through genes and the other half through a person’s choices. The author emphasises the complexity of the idea of ‘happiness’ and how the so-called ‘science of meditation and happiness’ has promoted a reductionist approach to the subject. 

The fifth chapter by William Waldron is titled, ‘Reflections on Indian Buddhist Thought and the Scientific Study of Meditation.’ It discusses and compares the modern scientific study of meditation with classical Buddhist thinkers’ ideas. The next chapter by Joanna Cook is titled, ‘Mind the Gap: Appearance and Reality in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.’

The chapter attempts to explore meditative practice’s nature based on ethnographic research on mindfulness with a focus on cognitive therapy. The next chapter, ‘Wherever You Go, There You Aren’t? :Non-Self, Spirits and the Concept of the Person in Thai Buddhist Mindfulness’ written by Julia Cassa explores mindfulness-based meanings created by meditation that were proposed by the earlier chapters and shows how these meanings are produced and reproduced in multiple discourses and how meditation becomes a ‘reality’ in society.

The next chapter by Jeff Wilson is titled, ‘Mindfulness Makes You a Way Better Lover: Mindful Sex and the Adaptation of Buddhism to New Cultural Desires’ discusses how self-help Gurus have used meditation as a tool of sexual satisfaction and to maintain and sustain a related market. The ninth chapter, ‘Mindful but Not Religious: Meditation and Enchantment in the Work of Jon Kabat-Zinn’ by Erik Braun, explores how meditation is being extracted from the spiritual world and located in the secular world.

Modern meditation 

The last chapter by Robert

H. Sharf, ‘Is Mindfulness Buddhist? (And Why It Matters)’ historicises the practice of mindfulness meditation and argues how modern meditation is different from the earlier Buddhist approaches to meditation. He argues that meditation has always taken the shape of the society in which it emerges and the current conditions of reinventing medication in different locations is not a completely new occurrence. 

Seen in this sense, the book primarily deals with how meditation and mindfulness operate in the world under different social conditions and problematise how modern science captures and analyses the conditions that emerge from meditation and related discourses.