In his new book, with stunning generosity and compassion, Wes Nisker grounds the Buddha’s teachings in discoveries made by the neural and evolutionary sciences. As The Tao of Physics does for quantum theory, Buddha’s Nature shows the spiritual relevance of evolutionary biology; in addition, it shares ancient practices that demonstrate the liberating power of these understandings. Thus, it brings healing for our conflicted and self-destructive world. We’ve been waiting for such a learned and life-loving presentation of the dharma. This book is a milestone in contemporary Buddhism.
From the perspective of the original teachings, the premise of Nisker’s book is obvious, yet it is startling to the modern mind: Dharma practice is rooted in the body—and not only in one’s personal body, but the body of Earth and the body of time. “By contemplating ‘the body as body,’ we can start to feel our connection with all life, our nature as nature.”
What Nisker does is to focus on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta to see what those early teachings reveal in the light provided by new information in the life sciences. To the first two foundations, mindfulness of body and mindfulness of sense impressions, he brings new insights about our developmental journey to help us attain “evolutionary wisdom” and “a new kind of intimacy with ourselves and our surroundings.” The third and fourth foundations, mindfulness of mind states and mindfulness of mental objects, allow Nisker to draw from his wide-ranging study in the neural and cognitive sciences. As we learn how moods, feelings and chronic worry are triggered and reinforced by patterns of brain activity that once served survival functions, we find it easier to disidentify with them. “I discover,” as Nisker says, “that I am not having a feeling so much as a feeling is having me.”
Like deep ecology and the concept of the ecological self, this vision of our “nature as nature” has far-reaching political implications, although Nisker leaves them to us to infer. The experience of mutual belonging in the living body of Earth, to which he leads us, can awaken us to our responsibility and power.
The writing of this book is as juicy as its subject. We dare you to find a book on science that is so personal or a book on meditation that is so funny and forgiving. It’s hard to get through it without reading passages aloud to anyone in sight. Take this one…
After a few years of meditation practice we can even learn how to occasionally ignore ourselves. And what a relief that can be! One suggestion is to regard your personality as a pet. It follows you around anyway, so give it a name and make friends with it. Keep it on a leash when you need to, and let it run free when you feel that that is appropriate. Train it as well as you can, and then accept its idiosyncrasies, but always remember that your pet is not you. Your pet has its own life, and just happens to be in an intimate relationship with you, whoever you may be, hiding there behind your personality.
This book gives us access to our most basic identity. “The sciences show us how interwoven we are with all life through the history of molecules, cells, bones, and brains.… Buddhist meditation, in turn, can make the latest discoveries of evolutionary science relevant and vital in our lives.”
With his understanding of the nature and purpose of Dharma discipline and the many specific practices he offers, Nisker has written a book on vipassana equal in stature to that classic of thirty-five years ago, Nyanaponika Thera’s Heart of Buddhist Meditation. It is a guidebook to the life that lives through us.