June 21, 2013

Buddha Buzz: The Surveillance State & Revenge of the Neural Buddhists

Alex Caring-Lobel

We're in DC attending BuddhaFest and filming interviews, dharma talks, and Q&As for the Tricycle | BuddhaFest Online Film Festival, so I'll keep this short and sweet. We even almost lost an editor in a small DC Bikeshare accident! All this so you can get all the goodness of the festival from the safety of your own home. 


China has completed a program to monitor internet and phone use in Tibetan regions, requiring all users to register under their real names. Like surveillance efforts here at home, justification for the program is couched in the language of protection and defense, though, as usual, it's a bit less subtle in China. The scheme, according to Tibetan official Nyima Doje, "is conducive to protecting citizens' personal information." Needless to say, it's hard to imagine how that might be the case.

The newest phone and internet monitoring system only represents the most recent effort of increased surveillance in Tibet, which we covered last month here. Recent leaks made by former CIA employee and NSA contractor Edward Snowden (who, as it turns out, has self-identified as a Buddhist) go to show the great length of the US government's own Orwellian surveillance schemes. 

Human Rights Watch's Nicholas Bequelin has said of Tibet, "Chinese police forces are now running what could be called a major counter-insurgency operation in Lhasa." The problem, says Bequelin, is that there is no real insurgency in Tibet. The same, it seems, holds true in the US, where the anti-terror apparatus has been harnessed to undermine the Occupy movement—at the cost of millions of dollars to taxpayers.


Back in 2008 New York Times columnist David Brooks coined the termed "Neural Buddhists" to describe the latest preponderance of neuroscientific explanations for immaterial things such as contemplative states and all things numinous, which would initially seem to fall outside the purview of material explanation. (Tricycle critiqued this movement in its Winter 2012 Issue.) In his most recent column, Brooks returns to this subject, arguing that the "obviously incredibly important and exciting field" of neuroscience often falls into the extreme of assuming that "understanding the brain is the solution to understanding all thought and behavior."

Brooks makes some strong points, but unfortunately chooses to level his critique at the incapacity of neuroscience to take in the great complexity of brain function involved in consciousness. This would seem to suggest that advances in brain-imaging and the like would give the field the tools it needs to describe consciousness—and even that far more important, wooly concept, "experience," which neuroscience cannot even begin to approach. This, however, represents the grandest delusion: scientific positivism, which has made something of a comeback.

The fundamental point Brooks makes, however, cannot be overstated. "The brain is not the mind." In Buddhist philosophy, at least, the mind is fundamental, and the material universe is derivative from consciousness, not the other way around. Twentieth-century physicist Sir James Jean wrote, "In general the universe seems to me to be nearer to a great thought than to a great machine." The issue then with scientism—and its champion, neuroscience—is that it reduces us, and our thoughts, to mere functions within systems (not to mention the reduction of nature to a system or "ecosystem"). This occurs whenever we neglect Brooks' key point, from which we might conclude that the brain and mind are, at best, analogues.

—Alex Caring-Lobel

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roadrunner's picture

If you study the Buddha; you learn to understand the mind. If you study the
mind you will never understand the Buddha. This is how it works.

Dominic Gomez's picture

More accurately mind and material universe derive from each other, since both arise simultaneously. It's called dependent origination.

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

You can say that subject and object are coemergent, but what you say here would only be true only if the mind could only cognize material things. Concepts, like the ones you play with here, are immaterial.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Concepts become material in application. The concept of human equality became (even more) material after the Supreme Court yesterday ruled DOMA unconstitutional.

mahakala's picture

Concepts become material in application.

especially identity...

Dominic Gomez's picture

yeh...just pull out your driver's license :-)

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture


sbeithaca's picture

I'm having the same issue. All I see are links to the trailers. Maybe we're up too early!

lindalbullock's picture

So I bought the ticket but cannot figure out how to access the videos and pre talks. I shouldn't think being in Vietnam should make a difference. :(