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Passion can be a source of knowledge

The following points sum up an interesting collaboration and partnership between a centuries-old science
of the mind, developed by the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and cutting edge neuro-science (studies of the
brain) from our times:

The study of the “inner science” of Buddhism is of particular interest to researchers in cognitive and
neuro-sciences and in the study of emotions.

Both science and Buddhism share an emphasis on experiment, investigation and direct experience;
theory backed by facts; a “fierce pursuit of the truth”. Falsification in science, which allows it to be self-
correcting and supports the notion of provisional truths, echoes the Buddhist practice of self-correcting.

In the Buddhist framework, there is no sharp distinction between cognition and emotion, and this has
been corroborated by recent studies of the brain, which show interactions across brain areas which
control emotions (such as the amygdala) and those which control reason (frontal lobe); the
“hippocampus” serves as the “transmitter” or “connector” between these areas. The metaphor for the
human brain corresponds to the “network” or “web” model of current information technology.

An exciting discovery in neuro-science is the idea of “neural plasticity”, the understanding that areas of
the brain change in response to experience and that new neurons grow throughout one’s lifespan.

Neuro-science shows clear links of brain areas with the immune system, the endocrine system (which
regulates hormones), and the autonomous nervous system (which regulates heart rate and blood
pressure). Emotions thus impact not just our mental but also our physical health (this informs our
current understanding of “wellness” and the ancient Indian system of “yoga”, the science of uniting body
and mind). This understanding underlies the Dalai Lama’s optimism that “our quota of happiness can be
enhanced through mental training”.

“Destructive emotions” can be defined as “those that are harmful to oneself or others”. The Buddhist
tradition identifies five main destructive states of mind: hatred, desire, confusion, pride and jealousy. In
particular, the “three poisons” of anger, craving (or intense attachment) and ignorance are seen as major

The higher ratio of the frontal lobe in the human brain enables the regulation of the emotions by reason.
While negative or “destructive” emotions tend to arise spontaneously, positive emotions more likely
result from deliberate thought, which confirms the Dalai Lama’s view that constructive emotions can be
both grounded in reason and enhanced by it.

Both science and Buddhism share the goal of freedom from dogma and conditioned thinking, and both
support the evolution of the human mind and thought away from destructive emotions towards
happiness and “eudaimonia” (a human flourishing in a peaceful society).

After reading and considering the points above, discuss the following:

1. Why are the “three poisons” identified by Buddhism as the main afflictions of the human mind? Can
you suggest some more that may be equally destructive?

2. What are the best strategies to overcome “destructive” or negative emotions?

3. Give examples of events or situations where you were unable to overcome or regulate a negative
emotion. (You may like to role-play some of these situations and encourage feedback from the

4. What is the significance of the idea of “neural plasticity” for you as a learner and knower? How might
it influence your choices or actions in life?

5. What is the significance of the common understandings of Buddhism and contemporary science?