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Absorption. Human Nature and Buddhist Liberation

by Johannes Bronkhorst

Wil (Switzerland) / Paris: UniversityMedia, 2012. 263 pages. ISBN 978-3-906000-24-4.

This book argues for the central role played by absorption in the functioning of the human mind. The importance of absorption makes itself felt in different ways; the two studies combined in this book concentrate on two of them.

The first study argues that, largely as a result of language acquisition, humans have two levels of cognition, which in normal circumstances are simultaneously active. Mental absorption is a (or the) means to circumvent some, perhaps all, of the associations that characterize one of these two levels, resulting in what is sometimes referred to as mystical experience, but which is not confined to mysticism and plays a role in various “religious” phenomena, and elsewhere.

The second study takes as point of departure some puzzling statements in the early Buddhist canon that raises serious questions of a psychological nature. An essential element in the psychological theory proposed is the observation that mental absorption is a source of pleasure. Since the human mind is in large part guided by pleasure, which it seeks to repeat, states of absorption leave memory traces that subsequently direct the mind. However, these memory traces do not “recall” the states of absorption themselves, but rather the objects or circumstances that accompanied them. The resulting activity of the mind differs in this way from person to person, and can pursue wildly diverging goals.

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Buddhism and Science

Numerous recent studies attempt either to portray Buddhism as an ancient science that anticipated many results of modern Western science, or to criticize such links as misguided. Prof. Bronkhorst’s Absorption is the fruit of a totally different, innovative approach. Focusing on a phenomenon central to the Buddha and his community, meditative absorption, he explores both what modern science can contribute to its understanding and what challenges ancient Buddhist texts pose to modern science.

Absorption is deeply linked to human nature and the capacity of symbolic representation and language. Far from being limited to the realm of religion and mysticism, it plays a central role in diverse human activities, from music appreciation to sexuality.

Why is absorption usually perceived as pleasurable? What can modern disciplines such as evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and psychotherapy contribute to our understanding of this phenomenon, and what challenges do ancient Buddhist texts pose for modern science’s understanding of human nature?

Johannes Bronkhorst is emeritus professor of Sanskrit and Indian studies at the University of Lausanne. He has published widely in the history of Indian religious, philosophical and scientific thought, and in religious studies in general. Among his recent books: Greater Magadha (2007), Aux origines de la philosophie indienne (2008), Buddhist Teaching in India (2009), Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism (2011), Karma (2011).

“… a splendid work of Buddhology, psychology, and philosophy.” 
Prof. Florin Deleanu

“An original book, and a substantial contribution to the cognitive science of ‘mysticism’ and religion in general”
Prof. Ilkka Pyysiäinen

“… a stimulating philosophical essay … The model Bronkhorst presents does not only provide space for the mental possibilities recorded in early Buddhist texts but it also tries to present a coherent picture of ‘ordinary’ mental events.” 
Prof. Eddy Van Laerhoven