Siddhartha’s Brain: Unlocking the  Ancient Science of Enlightenment James Kingsland William Morrow, 2016 352 pp.; $27.99 (cloth)
Siddhartha’s Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment, James Kingsland William Morrow, 2016
352 pp.; $27.99 (cloth)

There has long been a debate in the West about whether we should think of Buddhism as a “religion” like Christianity, Islam, and the other revealed faiths, or whether it is truly something else altogether. The Buddha himself often seemed to reject the notion of faith: he insisted that his followers trust their own experience rather than the supposed wisdom of others, and rejected much of the religious teaching of his time as little more than superstition. He considered himself an empiricist, relying on evidence rather than divine providence for his authority. And in modern times many writers and scholars, in a stream of books over the decades, from Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics to Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan’s The Quantum and the Lotus to the Dalai Lama’s own The Universe in a Single Atom, have suggested that Buddhist thought is somehow more compatible with science and reason.

Two new books now tackle this broad issue from entirely different angles and reach entirely different conclusions. One, aimed at a wide audience of lay readers, seeks to use recent scientific findings to explain the effects of Buddhist practice. The other, a densely argued academic treatise, largely rejects such attempts to reconcile Buddhism and science.

James Kingsland’s book Siddhartha’s Brain is by far the more accessible of the two. Kingsland, a prominent science and medical journalist, uses the latest advances in neuroscience to illuminate the biological foundations of mindfulness and meditation. Along the way, he also retells Siddhartha’s own journey from pampered prince to world-honored sage and makes a compelling case for why this 2,500-year-old story remains relevant to us today.

Kingsland explains, for example, how life in the world’s wealthiest countries often mirrors young Siddhartha’s sheltered existence:

Like him, many of us have been raised in a fool’s paradise. Most people in the developed world have food in abundance; entertainment and pleasant distractions are just a short journey or finger tap away; drugs and surgery give us the illusion that we can defeat disease and aging (though in reality they simply delay and prolong our old age). Until comparatively recently in human history, encounters with death were commonplace, but young people nowadays find it almost impossible that one day they too will die.

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