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Correct me if I'm wrong, but I understand that Buddhists view enlightenment as a state of mind. As neuroscience progresses, we have more and more control over human brain, so inducing particular states of mind seems to be just a matter of time. Does it mean that at some point in the future, assuming that the science continues to progress, we will be able to cause enlightenment by neurosurgical means? Or is there something in enlightenment that would make it impossible?

If we reach that stage, will it make all the Buddhist traditions and scriptures obsolete? After all, enlightened people can see things clearly for themselves, so there would be no point in relying on such very old sources with unknown reliability, which were heavily influenced by their cultural contexts.

  • I think you are wrong; enlightenment was, as I understood it, actually meant as bodhi which means awakening, not enlightenment. Moreover, the specific buddhistic understanding of being awakened was also embedded into a set of compassion, ethics ("sila") and practice of that two basic things. There was even more (too much to put it into my humble words and even in a comment-box); much more than neuroscience is dealing with. "Neuroscience", besides its idealistic foundations is also embedded in big, and of course as well in small, business and thus bound to the priority of profit. – Gottfried Helms Feb 17 '15 at 15:58
  • Enlightenment is not a state of mind. – Andrei Volkov Feb 18 '15 at 21:47
  • Google "contemplative neuroscience". – eudoxos Feb 24 '15 at 16:53
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The brain is matter(Rupa). If the defilements are caused by the brain, a being should attain Nibbana when he dies as the brain stops functioning. If Nibbana is caused by the brain, a Sotapanna being should lose his attainment when he dies. According to Buddhism, neither is true. So your assumption is not compatible with Buddhism.

  • Yes, the brain is matter (rūpa). But the modern science is not limited to influencing matter. For example, some drugs may influence your sensations (vedanā) and perceptions (saññā). I don't see why it couldn't influence also other things and, for example, cause nibbāna. – michau Feb 18 '15 at 16:43
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    A drug may be able to make one see things. But it can't make one pay wise attention to it. Even inducing thoughts of impermanence would be like digging up a hole in the ground, putting water to it and calling it a well. But that isn't really a well. You have to keep digging until you reach the water source. – Sankha Kulathantille Feb 18 '15 at 18:01
  • Serious question (I'm new to this stack exchange): Is the Buddhism stack exchange about the religion, or the philosophy? Or both? (To me, religion is more about belief, while philosophy is about how to live or models for understanding.) – piojo Mar 3 '15 at 11:54
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    @piojo, you can ask that in the meta site. The short answer is, it's about anything that is related to Buddhism – Sankha Kulathantille Mar 3 '15 at 12:57
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I think that if someone has a brain disease that is interfering with their practice neuroscience may be able to fix their disease allowing them to practice, but apart from that I don't see much help it can do.

Enlightenment isn't a peaceful state of mind. It is the product of gaining very deep insight into the very nature of reality itself, and I can't see how neuroscience can implant even ordinary knowledge in a person, so how much less possible would it be to artificially create in a person the profound non-conceptual direct perception necessary to reach Nirvana.

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To take a slightly different example, psychiatric medication tend to suppress or modify parts of the brain's activity to control the symptoms of mental diseases. You can read about the mechanism of action of antipsychotics for example. More often than not, when the drugs are stopped, the symptoms of the disease returns. I have a friend who is on psychiatric medication, and to me, it seems that a part of his personality is missing, perhaps switched off, along with his mental disease, which is still there but simply suppressed. I felt sorry to notice that a part of him is missing.

On the other hand, recent research reveals that mindfulness and Buddhist meditation can help patients go off long term medication according to this article:

"We've seen this in the clinical domain for many years. People, in concert with their physicians... actually going off their medications for pain, for anxiety, for depression, as they begin to learn the self-regulatory elements of mindfulness," said Kabat-Zinn. "They discover that the things that used to be symptomatically problematic for them are no longer arising at the same level."

So, if you ask me, I think that the 2,500 year old techniques taught by the Buddha, referenced from very old sources like the Anapanasati Sutta are hardly being made obsolete by modern neuroscience and psychiatry.

Casts and crutches only help a man while his fractures heal naturally and then would in due time be discarded.

Similarly, neurosurgical and pharmacological interventions should be seen as temporary aids while man heals himself by natural means. In this case, meditation may help man discover how to control and self-regulate his mind, and become detached from repetitive thoughts that ail him. Of course, in very serious cases, meditation won't be possible.

On the other hand, if modifying our neural networks is enough to reach nirvana, then this implies that all that we are is contained in the physical body and there is nothing beyond. This means that when the physical body perishes, the self would be completely destroyed. Rebirth would not be possible. This seems to be leaning towards annihilationism, which has been refuted by the Buddha as a wrong view.

  • Please note that the quote said, "in concert with their physicians", and it didn't claim that mindfulness will cure psychosis. – ChrisW Feb 17 '15 at 19:00
  • You're right. I'll change my answer later – ruben2020 Feb 17 '15 at 22:41
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We are sum total off our Sankara. 1st stage of enlightenment happens when all the Sankara leading to a lower birth has been depleted though Vippassana and you experience something beyond the aggregates.

So if at all the advancement needed is something that can change your Sankara and also something to stop you from creating new Sankara. I do not think that any scientific innovation can lead to such discovery or innovation. We cannot identify and quantify Karma scientifically.

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I'm sure the brain sciences can greatly accelerate/enhance the process of "enlightenement" or "awakening", inducing certain heightened states of mind/consciousness that would make the rest of the process easier/more efficient to perfect/attain. It could make meditation somewhat redundant in the near future i.e. Jhanic states could be induced by Deep-Brain-Stimulation OR some neurohacking tech can make it easier for you to meditate/enter Jhanas (by enhancing prefrontal cortex function maybe), and this may make it much faster to cultivate the positive qualities normally attributed to enlightened/awakened beings as well (i.e. enhanced sense of morality, equipoise, refined charisma/speech and inter-relations with others, unlimited compassion, and so on, etc).

Future neurotech (another hypothetical device is the "Exocortex") could also enhance greater access to subconscious processes, attaining greater number of deep creative insights and solutions to problems in the real world, enhanced memory and other cognitive functions. Hypothetically we could become "even more enlightened" - surpassing the Buddha's own mind in many ways we never dreamed possible in his day or even today. There's still so much more to explore and we should not impose limitations based on old ancient tradition and outdated belief systems/dogma, etc. Ultimately we should even go beyond the Buddha himself, and not attach ourselves to any one teacher. We should strive to become "a light unto ourselves" as the Buddha posited.

Seek the middle path- not the extremes of spiritual attachment or the extremes of material attachment. Applying scientific method to unlocking the secrets of the mind, guided with sound rationality, skepticism, and logic, coupled with genuine curiosity for discovery and deep observation into the various states of subjective experience, unhindered by immediate bias and dismissal or imposed fixated beliefs/views, and willingness for continuous experimentation and making modifications/alterations, pushing our notions beyond the edge of what's possible and challenging our notions of reality and what we currently believe to be true, will be the key to progress of understanding the nature of the mind, and enhancing our relationship with reality. This could be the ultimate form of "spirituality".

Perhaps the future enlightened beings would be neuroscientists, neuroengineers, neurohackers, and the likes, and in far greater numbers than at any other point in history. And they would greatly accelerate and enhance scientific and technological contributions, progress, discovery, and implementation, that will help mankind and all living beings and the health of the planet, with much more efficiency and efficacy than ever before.

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Its an open question as to whether or not enlightenment can be attained by artificial means ( some type of machine-body interface, the use of some drugs, or some combination thereof). The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali state that enlightenment can be obtained by several means, one of them is stated to be drugs. Now that we live in the "Atomic Age"and we are advancing in the electronic sciences, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that we might develop some kind of "electronic nirvana" device( I'm going to include crystal devices here for all you Atlanteans). But I highly doubt that it would be a totally passive system where you could just sit or lie down and have the machine do all the work, I'm guessing there will still be an element self discipline required to still the mind to the point where one can become self-realized.

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Our current neuroscience beliefs state that our memories are stored chemically in the brain and disappear at death, therefore you can't simply attain enlightenment by neurosurgical means, because our mind is not physical.

Think of our brain as an interface to our non-physical mind (consciousness). So enlightenment is not something that can be invoked physically, the same as cutting Einstein's brain won't give you any intelligence gains, no matter how our neuroscience would progresses.

Enlightenment can be achieved only by a state of mind of your spiritual progress.

As our neuroscience accelerates, we can only enhance our brain circuitry to process more data (like photographic memory, abstract thoughts, etc.), as our current brains only handle an narrow amount of the information that is constantly being fed at the unconscious level, but it's nothing to do with attaining enlightenment.

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