To analyze the effect of visualization of Tantric Buddhism on the cognitive behavior of a tantric practitioner.

Tantra Buddhism

Abstract

Neurotheology is an interdisciplinary field of research that aims to explore the question of how religion and god are perceived and experienced by the human brain and mind. Such an investigation has become possible due to recent scientific developments in social and cognitive neuroscience and the psychology of religions. This emerging field of research aspires to understand how the human brain and mind function in the pursuit of religious experiences. This article analyses the spiritual phenomenon of “visualization” in Tantric Buddhism through the analytical lens of neurotheology. Visualization is a revered practice of tantric tradition for accomplishing the insight vision of the tantric deity in order to attain perfection, worldly enjoyment, and spiritual illumination. This article will provide an outlook on the current state of the research evaluating the functioning of the brain during spiritual practice, i.e., visualization, and review the methodological issues that confront this research field. It will make an attempt to provide operational definitions of significant terms such as meditation, spiritual experience, and visualization. First, in this part, I will look into possible ways to quantify and compare the subjective feelings and thoughts (cognitive, behavior, and emotional parameter) of the tantric practitioner who is undergoing visualization. Second, my article will look into different interpretations regarding physiological (body) and neurobiological (brain) changes associated with religious and spiritual practices in Tantric Buddhism.

Introduction

The recently growing field of research exploring the neuroscience of spiritual practices and associated experiences has raised important issues regarding the relevance, validity, and need for such study. Meditation has been connected with a vast range of positive clinical and behavioral health outcomes, and several scholars in research have identified key areas of the brain and other electrophysiological correlates of both beginner (new to the practice) and expert (practicing for an extended period) meditators. The research of professional meditators is believed to provide a promising investigation strategy for learning high-order cognitive processes. A multitude of techniques referred to as “meditation” and a lack of agreement on how to design meditation studies reveal a poor knowledge of the ontological bases associated with meditation.

Within this context, Rao (2011) argues that part of the concern is that meditation research is carried out with little or no knowledge of the cultural subtleness regarding meditation. The meditation research presents a promising trend for a relatively new look into how the brain functions. However, accurate characterization of meditation theory as well as practice, especially, the fundamental problems surrounding description, has escaped the attention of most meditation investigations published within contemporary analysis journals. Within the relative lack of a mature and also well-developed assumptive, methodological base, the study associated with meditation is in debt to the contemplative traditions. This short article aims to bring into notice the frequently ignored (important) aspect regarding definition within the existing scholarship on neuroscience and meditation practice.

At the start, it should be stated that the focus of this article is precisely on Vajrayana’s meditative practice of deity yoga that has a spiritual or religious context. However, it should also be seen that there are a large number of studies that have evaluated meditation practices that are not explicitly spiritual (i.e., secular mindfulness programs). There are fewer studies on spiritual practice and in our case (i.e. visualization) much lesser. Studies of meditation practices related to a particular religious or spiritual tradition provide information that may contribute to the overall research of religious and spiritual phenomena.

The best way to develop this field is to determine the methodological issues that currently affect the area and explore how efficiently to address such problems so that future studies can be as robust as possible. This article will review components (like definitions, study design, theological and epistemological perspectives) of this area (the neuroscientific study of spiritual practice) of research with a critical view on methodology and study relating to deity yoga only. Further, I will explain how and why the issue of definition needs to be appropriately addressed, failing which, many disagreements in the philosophical context of meditation practice (concerning the neuroscientific search for the neural basis of meditation) are likely to accumulate.

Definition

A lot of work both in quantity and quality has been carried out which aims at exploring the neuroscience of meditation practice. From these works, one can easily make out or point out issues that scholars and scientists are facing while carrying out their research. The common problem which could be noticed is in defining the term meditation. This is because different traditions have different types of meditations. Sometimes the processes and descriptions (as written in traditional texts) are diametrically opposite. Awasthi praises and commends the attempts made in recent scholarships on neural correlates of meditation. Still, he mentions a number of issues and outcomings in the research area. In this context, he says “This may be due to a variety of reasons, ranging from simply omissions to a lack of suitable resources to address these issues, or relative unfamiliarity with the concept of mediation as discussed in the traditional texts” [Here I want to add an argument – A person can be familiar with traditional texts, first when he/she is a practitioner himself/herself.

Secondly, to a lesser extent a scholar who is working on the text (like ethnographic studies)]. It is true (to a certain extent) that without adequately understanding the traditional texts, it is challenging to define what meditation means to a particular tradition. In general, there can be no specific definition for meditation, which could be formed to define or represent all traditions. Therefore, scholars aim to develop an operational definition that includes a traditional description as well as the modern neuroscientific account of phenomena. Many scholars have shown their concerns on the existing operational definition of meditation [across various scholarship related to the neural investigation on meditation]. For example, Awasthi in his article on ‘Issues and perspectives in mediation research: in search for a definition,’ thoroughly addresses the definition issues. In the context of Vajrayana Buddhism, very little research work has been done so far. Clearly, this is due to the methodological and theoretical problems faced by the scholars who wish to study this tradition. For example, Koznevnikov et al. mention a couple of issues from gaining access to Buddhist practitioners to the influence of meditation on imagery. It is apparent [from different scholarships on Vajrayana practitioners] that a number of references have been used to explain a variety of terms related to the tradition.

But, the question here is, do the authors of these scholarships understand the theoretical (conceptual) and cultural nuances of meditation [This thing requires some thinking]. If there is little or no understanding (leading to a weak operationalized definition), it is very much possible that the project may have a weak study design, vague conclusion or discussion, wrong output (different from what was expected), and furthermore potential issues, which could create philosophical conflicts in the context of meditation practice. One way to look into this matter [contemporary scholarships on the scientific investigation on meditation on Vajrayana Budhhism] is by seeing who all scholars are working on empirical [collecting some data which will be used to reach a conclusion; conducting experiments on meditators] research project. It comes to my notice that a majority of these scholars are from the medical science or psychology field. This is because they all belong to a profession where the functional and structural framework of the brain is studied and are more accessible to types of equipment, which are used to test the brain (neural) activities. But, it should also be seen that the operational definition (one part of it) which they are deriving {or taking from} is from a traditional text.

The real knowledge which is in the texts is available to the practitioner and this knowledge is passed from one teacher (guru) to his deserving disciple. Also, a person studying such traditions will know a lot of information and facts which would be useful in making (or forming) an operationalized definition (to work on). Such people can be scholars in anthropology and religious studies. Here my point is that scholars from other (diverse) disciplines like anthropology and religious study should work (take more initiative / come forward) with scholars of different fields (like psychology and medical science) to form a more sensitive, appropriate, reliable, and responsive operational definition. This is what I would be calling more like empirical interdisciplinary research work. I want to be clear that my intentions are not to discredit or call onto the capabilities of other scholars who have worked or come out with definitions or any neuroscientific findings. Here I want to bring those findings together with the philosophical framework of meditation practice, and further help in bridging the gap between science and tradition (in order to stimulate scientific and philosophical debate).

Selecting a practitioner

In my readings, I have come across some possible unreliability of the result. The question is how reliable (or useful) is the data created (or generated) by the clinical instruments when compared to what the practitioner himself or herself went through? In Vajrayana Tradition itself, the different practitioners will differ from each other regarding the quality of meditation. It is difficult to rely on the fact that more the number of years of meditation (or cumulative years of meditation, e.g., 2hours × 365 days × 40 years), a meditator is more accomplished. Let us assume that a new person in the tradition can produce more detailed imagery.

If this holds true, it raises the question on the contemporary scholarships 6 on how the researchers select the practitioners. In order to select a meditator for further comparative study with other traditions, a preliminary investigation of different practitioners should be conducted within the tradition itself. This investigation will be carried out to check their accomplishment regarding creating detailed imagery. Such an examination should include both the experienced practitioners and those who are new in the tradition. The study could be a simple survey test or clinical tests (using EEG, fMRI, measuring heart rate oscillations, etc.) or even both, whichever suits the purpose of research. Such additional examination will take more time and labor. But, it is good to move forward into the further investigation with the best (generating detailed imaginary) practitioners.

Conclusion

While the neuroscientific study of spiritual phenomena has developed considerably since some of the initial research was conducted over 30 years ago, this field of study is still in its initial stages. Various unique methodological difficulties are confronting this field in addition to the common problems of funding and academic development. However, continuing such projects may be beneficial for both scientific and spiritual developments. From the religious point of view, such investigations may help toward a better understanding of the human experience of spirituality and religion. From the scientific viewpoint, such investigation may help explain the complex functioning of the human brain and also the overall relationship between brain and body physiology. For example, performing deity yoga enhances cognitive processes (neural activities), which could help in understanding brain disorders and further finding a way to fix them. Finally, if the methodological challenges can be met, studies of spiritual practices and their associated experiences could provide relevant knowledge for linking our scientific and spiritual pursuits.

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