Bummer. I thought I was going to enjoy B. Alan Wallace's "Mind in the Balance," since the subtitle points to an intriguing subject: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity.
But the book turned out to be a disappointment, largely because Wallace is disturbingly anti-science and pro-religion, which shows that Buddhists can believe with blind faith in weird stuff just as other religious fundamentalists do.
Right away I saw inklings of this. A sentence on page 1 had me nodding agreeably with Wallace:
But on page 2, the author starts to show his religious spots.
Well, theoretically perhaps.
But in practice, I've found that groups claiming to practice an experimental "spiritual science" or "science of the soul" don't really follow the scientific method.
Meaning, the questioning and exploring referred to in the quote above never results in any disconfirming of a cherished belief, or a marked change in a group's teachings, whereas science is continually revising and refining theories based on experimental evidence.
Buddhists often talk a good game -- I like how the Dalai Lama says that if science disproved some tenet of Buddhism, it would have to be given up -- but "Mind in the Balance" presents Buddhism as a faith-based religion, which turned me off.
Example: I can sort of understand what "brightly shining mind" might be like (this supposedly is primordial consciousness, the mind of the Buddha). Maybe it is possible to experience this through the Buddhist meditation practices described in the book.
But many Buddhists also believe in a bodily transformation that is a whole lot less believable.
The culmination of the path of the Great Perfection is the realization of the "rainbow body," in which one's body allegedly dissolves into shimmering, multicolored light at death. If the theory of reincarnation stretches the scientific imagination, the Buddhist assertion of the rainbow body transcends all bounds of credulity for many people in the modern world.
That's for sure. Count me as one of those whose credulity has been stretched to the breaking point.
Given Wallace's assertion that Buddhism is a religion committed to confirming religious phenomena, I figured that he'd offer up some evidence of "one's body vanishes at death like a rainbow disappearing into the sky" and "the material body of the contemplative decreases in size until it finally vanishes without leaving any trace of the body or mind behind."
All he does is repeat claims that this has been seen by Tibetan Buddhists, and says that Jesus' resurrection could be an instance of a physical body turning into a rainbow body.
Then Wallace says:
We may never know whether the Christian resurrection can be understood in Buddhist terms, but it is possible to put the Buddhist assertion regarding the rainbow body to the test of experience.
Great. Let's put video cameras and neutral scientific observers next to the death beds of advanced Buddhist practitioners and document what happens. Does the physical body disappear?
But this isn't the sort of test Wallace is talking about. It's pretty clear that by experience he means something else -- seemingly a subjective personal "step-by-step path of purification."
So there is no evidence confirming a Buddhist dogma, the dissolving of the physical body at death into a "rainbow body," that could easily be tested by scientific methods. Yet Wallace speaks of this being "an extraordinary challenge to many religious and scientific assumptions that limit the human imagination today."
Obviously the human imagination is alive and kicking in religious minds, which account for the vast majority of human minds on Earth. True believers such as Wallace accept all kinds of strange ideas, such as the rainbow body and Jesus' resurrection, without demonstrable evidence.
All science does is put imaginings to reasonable tests, if they are held out as reflecting objective reality rather than a subjective thought, emotion, or perception.
Wallace's version of Buddhism is annoyingly unscientific. He uncritically accepts religious beliefs, such as the rainbow body and reincarnation, on faith, and also makes unfounded claims that Buddhism knows more about physical reality than science does.
Thus at conception there is a confluence of the genetic information received by way of the egg and sperm of one's parents and the past-life information received by way of the life force. The interface between the two represents the interface between the scientific theory of evolution and the Buddhist theory of karma.
Well, that's interesting.
Wallace is on his way to a Nobel prize if he could back up that assertion. But of course, he can't. Wallace merely presents a Buddhist dogma as if it was fact, going on to talk about how karma supposedly manifests in the lives of humans and animals.
Here's another faith-based assertion:
So, from a contemplative perspective, this extraordinary claim about the physical nature of consciousness appears to be utterly unsupported by all the scientific and personal evidence available.
Again, absolutely wrong. I have no idea what the guy is talking about.
Hasn't Wallace heard about anesthesia, persistent vegetative states, neurological injuries, MRI scanners, and other evidence that the physical brain and consciousness are exceedingly intimately connected? If not identical.
Sure, subjective states can't be measured objectively. That's obvious, both philosophically and scientifically. That's a far cry, though, from asserting that Buddhists know human consciousness survives bodily death.
And they have discovered that ordinary states of consciousness actually emerge not from the brain but from such subtle, nonphysical continuua of consciousness that do not cease at death.
No, they haven't.
Every Buddhist contemplative who supposedly has made this discovery has been alive at the time. How the heck can someone know that his or her consciousness doesn't cease at death when they're not dead?
I found a little to like in "Mind in the Balance," but not much.
The meditation exercises were familiar to me. I kept penning question marks with my highlighter in the margins, because Wallace so often made dogmatic religious statements without a shred of evidence to back them up.
The main thing I learned from this book is that Buddhism really is a religion. I've tried to view it as a philosophy based on direct experience of one's own mind/consciousness, not on theological precepts accepted on faith.
But it's clear that Wallace, who is a long-time Buddhist monk ordained by the Dalai Lama, sees meditation merely as a means of confirming the teachings of Buddhism. If a meditator doesn't experience what Wallace believes is true, he or she is doing something wrong.
This isn't spiritual science. It is dogmatic religion disguised with a flimsy covering of a pseudo-scientific method.
If you're interested in non-religious Buddhism, there are plenty of alternatives to "Mind in the Balance." A couple of my favorites are "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and "Ending the Pursuit of Happiness."