Meditation, Buddhism, and Science

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
David McMahan, Erik Braun
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


These days, it is hard to miss the increasing popularity of Buddhist-inspired meditation. In medical clinics and neuroscience labs, in departments across the academy, in workshops and on phone apps, and in popular media outlets around the Anglophone world as well as globally, we seem to be fascinated by the nexus of meditation, Buddhism, and science. There are now many academic books on the market exploring the subject from a variety of angles—enough that the reader might be excused for feeling a touch of “mindfulness fatigue.” However, overlooking this excellent volume would be a mistake.

Meditation, Buddhism, and Science is comprised of ten chapters by some of the most esteemed analysts of modern Buddhism and meditation, and is edited by two of the most recognized scholars in the field. While all the contributors have expertise in Buddhist studies, their methodological specialties cluster around history (the editors of the volume and Robert H. Sharf); philosophy (Evan Thompson, William Edelglass, and William S. Waldron); and ethnography (Joanna Cook, Julia Cassaniti, and Jeff Wilson). Weaving together topics as varied as cognitive science, Buddhist doctrine, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, sexuality, secularism, and notions of selfhood, these chapters collectively provide readers with a series of snapshots of the current trends in humanistic and social scientific research on Buddhist meditation in modern and contemporary contexts. A notable strength is that the authors do not take the key terms in the book’s title—meditation, Buddhism, and science—as stable concepts, but rather subject each of these terms to analysis and contextualization.

Readers hoping to find an in-depth examination of meditation from any one particular disciplinary perspective may on first glance be put off by the book’s multifaceted approach. In the introduction, the editors point out that the “common thread” tying the chapters together is a “concern that the scientific study of Buddhist and Buddhist-derived meditative practices has been too narrowly construed and often neglects essential social, cultural, and historical contexts” (15). However, there is no consensus on the part of the authors as to how this deficit should be addressed, and the book as a whole does not present a univocal argument or unified analytical framework. Rather, each of the contributors offers critical reflections on the subject from their own disciplinary and methodological corners of the academy, and suggests disparate directions for further research and analysis.

These facts notwithstanding, it is the opinion of this reviewer that the eclecticism of the book has a number of advantages. Chief among these is that, by means of their breadth, the authors collectively provide a useful general overview of the field. Each chapter opens up whole worlds of scholarship, introducing a range of critical perspectives on meditation and citing a number of key sources for further reading. The book also serves as an introduction to the methods and interests of the authors themselves, many of whom have written book-length monographs or multiple journal articles further examining these subjects in great detail. 

The editors are to be commended for ensuring that the essays are, by and large, brief and accessible, ensuring that the book will be digestible for researchers, students, and nonscholarly readers alike. Oxford’s decision to release a reasonably-priced paperback copy of this book simultaneously with the hardcover is also appreciated. This alone is enough to ensure that this book will eclipse other scholarly introductions to the sociocultural dimensions of Buddhist meditation that are currently being sold at prohibitively expensive prices. Given these advantages of breadth, accessibility, and price, I am of the opinion that this book would be put to particularly good use in the classroom. I myself plan to assign it, in whole or in part, in a number of my own courses on religion and medicine, beginning this very semester.

About the Reviewer(s): 

C. Pierce Salguero is Associate Professor of Asian History & Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University's Abington College.

Date of Review: 
January 29, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David L. McMahan is the Charles A. Dana professor of religious studies at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. He is the editor of Buddhism in the Modern World and author of The Making of Buddhist Modernism and Empty Vision: Metaphor and Visionary Imagery in Mahayana Buddhism.

Erik Braun is associate professor of religious studies in the department of religious studies at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw , which won a Toshihide Numata Book Award in Buddhism.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.