Buddha Nature and the Divided Brain

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a world that honors the servant, but has forgotten the gift.
--Albert Einstein

Except in the light of brain hemisphere lateralization, nothing in human psychology makes any sense.
--neuroscientist Tim Crow

An Old Tale

There's a traditional Buddhist story about a statue of incomparable value, which is lost and then forgotten. For generation after generation, various kinds of human rubbish and debris accumulate to bury it. Nobody ever suspects that anything important lies under the ground. Eventually a clairvoyant person happens by who comments: "If you dig here, and clean up what you find, you will discover something invaluable." But who would follow such advice?

Our Divided Brain

In his remarkable book, "The Master and his Emissary," neurological psychologist Iain McGilchrist provides a wealth of scientific evidence to support his contention that two opposed realities are rooted in the bi-hemispheric structure of the human brain.

Although each hemisphere is specialized, neither functions as an "independent brain." They integrate their activities to produce physical movements, mental processes and behaviors greater than, and different from, their individual contributions. With functional NMR scanners, real-time brain imaging is now routinely used to determine the functional effects of all kinds of strokes and brain injuries, and in that way we can observe how the hemispheres act together as "opponent processors."

Basically, the right hemisphere is mute, perceives in a holistic Gestalt manner and synthesizes over space. The left hemisphere, the seat of language, analyzes over time. The right hemisphere codes sensory input in terms of images, the left in terms of words and concepts. Specialization of function offers all kinds of advantages, but integrating those functions is a special point of vulnerability. When it comes to the large and complex human mind-brain, harmony can easily be lost.

The evolutionary relationship between our right and left hemispheres, McGilchrist suggests, resembles the tale of a wise spiritual master who selflessly rules a small kingdom. Seeing that it is not possible for him to personally supervise the bureaucracy of government in distant parts of his realm, the master entrusts that to his brightest emissary. As time goes by, however, the ambitious emissary prioritizes his own goals and values. Finally he gains sufficient power and position to dupe the people and imprison the master. The outcome is a tyranny that eventually leads to collapse and ruin.

In the 200,000-year history of anatomically modern humans, the cerebral hemispheres have a long history of productive co-evolution. The inclusive and empathic right hemisphere is attuned to the social and emotional sounds of speech, to music, all the subtleties of relationship and holistic processing. The great skills of the left hemisphere are linguistic consciousness (the re-presentation of life in words), mathematics and motor control of the dominant hand (hence, the making of complex tools). It is a natural competitor that can always explain its own viewpoint. One of those views is that it is the "dominant" hemisphere -- the one that deserves to speak for both. When it comes to human cultural evolution, it has generally claimed the driving seat for the last few thousand years.

A kind of power struggle between these hemispheres can be inferred in European history, leading ultimately to the industrial revolution -- a comprehensive triumph of left-hemisphere verbal thinking, computation and technology. We now live in the world the left hemisphere has built, according to its own mechanistic model. Its preoccupation with manipulation, competition and control has been institutionalized and assumed a life of its own. The right hemisphere's concern for empathic relationships and a broader vision has been marginalized.

The 20th century can be understood as the attempt of the left hemisphere to build a planetary empire on the back of an unsustainable industrial growth economy, powered by oil, advertising and consumerism. Is this the fundamental reason we find ourselves in such a perfect storm of ecological, social and economic crises?

Buddha Nature In The Empire Of The Left Hemisphere

The difference between the two brain hemispheres begs comparison with a distinction in Asian spiritual traditions between small and big self. Although early Buddhism denies that there is any such thing as a self, the Mahayana Buddhist teaching of Buddha Nature distinguishes our usual limiting sense-of-self from a bigger "original self." The characteristic of ego-self is what Einstein called the "optical illusion of separateness" -- it can easily become preoccupied with competition and manipulation. But if, as neuropsychologist Dan Siegel points out, the self is big enough to have a plural identity, then "I am more than me ... I am connected to you ... I am a member of we."

The lost statue of incomparable value in the opening story symbolizes Buddha Nature, the inherent potential for self-liberation we all have. Although covered by layers of psychological delusion and conditioning, this original self has for centuries been discovered and polished through meditation, mindful awareness and related disciplines. And recent brain research is helping us to understand how that works.

Brain Plasticity And Integration

It is a fact, says Siegel, that the mind can change the structure of the brain. When you teach people to use awareness to intentionally focus attention, you not only change the function of the brain, you change its structure. That is the phenomenon of neuroplasticity. In other words, when we meditate, the brain is re-wiring itself.

Neurological integration in the brain is the linkage of differentiated parts, and this affects the functional relationship between the left and right hemispheres. Social relationships that honor differences while promoting linkages also cause the brain to become more integrated, and that looks a lot like harmony. The un-integrated state is characterized by chaos and rigidity.

We Are The Environment

These new discoveries have enormous implications for psychology, and for all who follow a path of personal transformation. This is surely also the case for the social transformation that is necessary if civilization is to survive a global ecological crisis. Today, our society must come to the realization that its original self includes the whole living world, the Earth biosphere. That kind of empathy, based on a more holistic worldview, has become essential. We cannot have sane, healthy humans or relationships on a sick planet. As Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh notes, "We have been talking about the environment as if it is something different from us, but we are the environment. The non-human elements are our environment, but we are the environment of non-human elements, so we are one with the environment. We are the environment."

John Stanley and David Loy are part of the Ecobuddhism Project.