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Building Bridges: Researching the Efficacy of Religious Buddhist Practice at the University of Hong Kong
Recent years have seen a steady increase in scientific research into Buddhist beliefs and practices, in particular, research on mindfulness, which was pioneered more than 30 year ago, continues to attract mainstream attention. The large majority of this research, however, is conducted by Western researchers or Western Buddhists at universities in the West, and one starts to wonder whether the pursuit of finding scientific evidence for Buddhism’s religious claims is in fact a Western pursuit. It certainly ties in with the often-discussed observation of Tibetan masters who have taught in the West, that Western Buddhist are very good with knowledge, with trying to understand the teachings, but are somewhat lacking in the area of practice.
Although the majority of scientific research into Buddhism is conducted in the West, research and its outcomes are often referenced by Buddhists masters seeking to add weight to their teachings* and much of the research could not have been completed without the help of Buddhist masters.**
A team of researchers at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), under the guidance of Venerable Hin Hung, director of the Centre of Buddhist Studies, is trying to bridge this disparity by engaging in pioneering research on the psychological and neurological effects of Buddhist practices, drawing inspiration from Buddhist writing and theories for their hypotheses, while using cutting-edge scientific research methods.
Research published last year in the journal Neuroscience Letters, for instance, was inspired by the Buddhist belief that the heart and the mind are connected. While those researchers looked at the effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) exercises on the chaotic activity (entropy) of the brain and the heart, the researchers at HKU have looked at both the heart and the brain in a a single research project to see if any correlation can be found. In addition to showing that MBSR affects certain parts of the brain, their findings seem to suggest that there is a significant correlation between brain entropy and heart entropy when the participants were engaged in mindfulness exercises, but not while merely resting. Their findings suggest that mindfulness training might make the brain and the heart more coordinated. Although this was only a preliminary study, the team have now developed a method to continue this line of research, and have shared it with other scientists to inspire future research.
A more recent study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers had a closer look at the effects of Buddhist chanting, drawing upon the Arrow Sutra for their hypotheses.
Chanting and prayer are practices that appear across religions as a means of processing and getting through hardship. The research thus set out to investigate what happens in the brain when Buddhist practitioners are confronted with negative stimuli (distressing images) in three situations: during Amitabha-recitation, chanting the name of Santa Claus (control group), and while not chanting.
Harmful or distressing stimuli are processed in the brain in two stages: the early neural processing stage, during which there is heightened attention toward the stimulus, and a stage of emotional and cognitive processing of the negative stimulus (the stimulus has been observed and the subject is now trying to interpret and make sense of what was seen, and to decide what response to activate). Based on the teaching of the Arrow Sutra, the researchers postulated that chanting might only affect the second stage of processing.
The Arrow Sutra describes two types of pain that come from a single harmful event: physical pain and the mental pain that follows it (the two arrows). Buddhist practitioners, the sutra teaches, can avoid this second arrow:
When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows. . . .
Now, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones, when touched with a feeling of pain, does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. So he feels one pain: physical, but not mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, did not shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pain of only one arrow. . . .
As he [the well-instructed disciple] is touched by that painful feeling, he is not resistant. No resistance-obsession with regard to that painful feeling obsesses him. Touched by that painful feeling, he does not delight in sensual pleasure. . . . He is disjoined, I tell you, from suffering & stress. (Arrow Sutra, Access to Insight)
The research shows how the first arrow—the early stage neural processing—is unaffected by Amitabha-recitation, but seems to indicate that chanting does influences the second arrow, the second stage of emotional and cognitive processing of the distressing images. When the participants were chanting Santa Claus, or were not chanting, they were affected by the images and exhibited an increased amplitude of late positive-potential. During Amitabha-recitation, however, this increased amplitude was not observed, suggesting that the participants did not experience the same distress.
“It is possible that the chanting of Amitabha might have helped the participants to develop a religious schema and neutralized the effect of the negative stimuli,” the researchers observed. “These findings echo similar research findings on Christian religious practices. Hence, prayer/religious practices may have cross-cultural universality in emotion regulation.”
In an interview with Buddhistdoor, the researchers added: “We conducted this research because we want to find out whether claims of religious effects really work, and we want to test this like we test the effectiveness of aspirin. After all, to religious people the chanting is like aspirin. The name Amitabha might really help to calm them down when faced with stressful events. It becomes like medicine to them. . . . Psychological resilience is very important today, and our study seems to show that chanting Amitabha can help build up a religious schema, a mind structure, with more resilience.”
In general terms, people have a negativity bias; due to evolution we are more susceptible to negative events, and this bias affects a broad range of cognitive and psychological characteristics. People with a strong negativity bias are more vulnerable to depression since they inflict a greater psychological anguish on themselves: the second arrow is more painful to them. If they are Buddhist practitioners, perhaps chanting might be a way of diminishing the impact of that second arrow, and perhaps help in treating their depression. Before any real conclusions can be drawn however, more research is needed, and the researchers at HKU are already planning future research paths to venture onto.
To Venerable Hin Hung, it is not a question whether or not his department should be engaged in such scientific pursuits. As a monk, Buddhism inspires all his work. In a time when people are increasingly seeking explanations and knowledge via science, Venerable Hin Hung is choosing science as a way to communicate, bridging the divide between religion and science, and the scientific traditions of East and West.
* Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche: Science Shows Meditation Can Improve Our Quality of Life (Buddhistdoor Global)
** Scientists in Nepal Show the Neurological Benefits of Meditation on Buddhist Monks (Buddhistdoor Global)
Using Wavelet Entropy to Demonstrate how Mindfulness Practice Increases Coordination between Irregular Cerebral and Cardiac Activities (University of Hong Kong)
Repetitive Religious Chanting Modulates the Late-Stage Brain Response to Fear- and Stress-Provoking Pictures (University of Hong Kong)
Entrainment of chaotic activities in brain and heart during MBSR mindfulness training (ScienceDirect)
Sallatha Sutta: The Arrow (Access to Insight)
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