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A theoretical discussion of bhāvanā and its effects on brain plasticity


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Doctor of Philosophy in Religious Studies


Chu, William
Long, J. Bruce
Sasaki, Hiroshi


This study contributes a view of meditation as self-directed neuroplasticity in which both the mind and brain are understood as interactive phenomena. It challenges some contemporary assumptions that consider meditation as a brain-only activity as well as those yet to consider the neurological relevance of bhāvanā practice. The methodology draws upon the neurophysical model of mind-brain interaction proposed by Schwartz, Stapp, and Beauregard, and utilizes a multidisciplinary integrated literature review approach that contrasts the respective epistemologies of bhāvanā and neuroscience. This project explores the contemplative science of neuroplasticity, a nascent field that investigates the intersections between neuroscience, psychology, and contemplative practice, in dialogue with the early tradition of Buddhist bhāvanā (the Buddhist discipline of mental culture) as preserved in the Pali discourses and Chinese Āgamas. [LW -ok to italicize Agamas?] Recent neuroscientific studies reveal theoretical gaps in discussions of how early forms of Buddhist meditative practice may interact with the brain. Neuroscientists, some of whom are also Buddhists practitioners, have published essays concerning meditation. However, there is paucity of Buddhist scholarly voices: to date little has been done to discuss these studies from the viewpoint of the complementary nature of mind-and-brain interaction.

The first goal of the present study is discussing the Hebbian theory of synaptic plasticity and its relevance to bhāvanā. The second goal is presenting a critical analysis of the Lazar et al study (2005) concerning meditation’s impacts on cortical plasticity. The third goal is offering a speculative map of the Ānāpānasati Sutta [my italics] as exercises in neuroplasticity.

This investigation engages the following questions: How might the concept of bhāvanā facilitate a more dynamic understanding of meditation’s effects on neuroplasticity? Why is the complementary nature of mind-and-brain interaction important for both contemplative science and Buddhist meditative studies? Is the Mahayana idea of skill in means (upāya) [my ital again] an appropriate way to transmit Buddhist meditation in secular settings?

Degree Granter

University of the West



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