Modern cognitive science, operating under the domination of the ideology of scientific naturalism, has let its research methods dictate its subject matter, rather than the converse. John Searle likens this situation to the drunk who loses his car keys in the dark bushes but looks for them under the streetlight, “because the light is better there.” In a similar fashion, he argues, modern cognitive scientists try to find out how humans might resemble their computational models rather than trying to figure out how the conscious mind actually works. As a result of this misguided approach, he concludes, “In spite of our modern arrogance about how much we know, in spite of the assurance and universality of our science, where the mind is concerned we are characteristically confused and in disagreement.”

From an outside perspective that does not fit simply into our Western categories of religion, science, or philosophy, Tsongkhapa presents the hypothesis that highly developed, sustained voluntary attention, when applied introspectively, may play a crucial role in fathoming the nature, origins, and potentials of consciousness. Indeed, it may be as important to cognition science as mathematics has been to the physical sciences. The discipline he explains for stabilizing and refining the attention is one that acknowledges—and even highlights—the fallibility of the human faculty of introspection. But instead of responding by trying to exclude subjectivity from the investigation of reality, he suggests methods for developing and refining the mind so that it becomes a more reliable instrument of observation and analysis.

The means of achieving advanced states of sustained voluntary attention and claims concerning the therapeutic and epistemic value of such cognition training are not unique to Buddhism, nor are they bound to any one religious or philosophical ideology. As noted previously, such methods have been practiced for centuries in India, China, and Tibet, within the context of very diverse conceptual frameworks. Thus, the cultivation of quiescence stands as a bridge spanning multiple streams of Asian contemplative traditions.

 

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The importance of tuning the awareness inwards and stilling sensory and conceptual agitation has also been recognized in the Western Christian contemplative tradition. However, it is not apparent that Christianity has developed such attentional training to the extent that is found in Hinduism, Buddhism, or Taoism. Moreover, particularly since the Scientific Revolution and the Protestant Reformation, Christian contemplation appears to have fallen into decline. During the dynamic rise of modern science, contemplation, now called “mysticism” has come to be associated by many Christians with extravagance, fanaticism, and delusion. Dom Cuthbert Butler concludes that the old tradition of the Christian church was that contemplation is the objective of a spiritual life earnestly lived and that it is open to everyone. The modern idea, in contrast, is that contemplation is a thing practically out of reach of all but a very restricted number of specially called and favored souls, a thing to be wondered at from afar, but hardly to be aspired to without presumption.

Buddhism adopted techniques for developing sustained voluntary attention from the Hindu tradition and adapted them to Buddhist ends, and the Taoists did likewise when they adopted such methods from Buddhism. If the cultivation of quiescence presented by Tsongkhapa experientially refines the attention as claimed, and if such results are also valued by Christian contemplatives, those methods might well be adapted to Christianity for the enrichment of its own contemplative tradition. In this way, quiescence might serve as a bridge between Eastern and Western religions.

Whether one is operating within a scientific or a contemplative consciousness framework, there are truths to be discovered concerning the nature, origins, and potentials of consciousness. These truths do not identify themselves as being either scientific or religious, but they must be of central interest to both scientific and religious concern with the nature of human existence. Is it possible for human attention to be trained in the way Tsongkhapa describes? If it has been possible within traditional cultures such as Tibet, is it still a viable type of training in the modern West? If so, does the achievement of quiescence actually result in experiential insight into the nature of consciousness? Is there any validity to Tsongkhapa’s claims concerning the types of extrasensory perception and paranormal abilities that can be developed on the basis of quiescence? Is it possible to disengage the human mind from all conceptual frameworks; and if so, does this open up to consciousness dimensions of reality beyond the scope of human concepts? All of these questions can be readily answered on the basis of various ideologies; but the far greater challenge is to put them to the test of experience, for this, it may be said, is the origin of all genuine science and religion


Dr. B. Alan Wallace spent fourteen years training as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, and has taught Buddhist theory and meditation throughout Europe and America since 1976. He seeks ways to integrate Buddhist practices with Western science to advance the study of the mind. His works include The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness and Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground.

From Balancing the Mind: A Tibetan Buddhist Approach to Refining Attention © 2005 B. Alan Wallace. Reprinted with permission of Snow Lion Publications. www.snowlionpub.com