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Buddhism and Modern Psychology

The Buddha said that human suffering—ranging from anxiety to sadness to unfulfilled craving—results from not seeing reality clearly. He described a kind of meditation that promises to ease suffering by dispelling illusions about the world and ourselves. What does psychological science say about this diagnosis and prescription—and about the underlying model of the mind?


Course at a Glance


About the Course

The Dalai Lama has said that Buddhism and science are deeply compatible and has encouraged Western scholars to critically examine both the meditative practice and Buddhist ideas about the human mind. A number of scientists and philosophers have taken up this challenge. There have been brain scans of meditators and philosophical examinations of Buddhist doctrines. There have even been discussions of Darwin and the Buddha: Do early Buddhist descriptions of the mind, and of the human condition, make particular sense in light of evolutionary psychology? 

This course will examine how Buddhism is faring under this scrutiny. Are neuroscientists starting to understand how meditation “works”? Would such an understanding validate meditation—or might physical explanations of meditation undermine the spiritual significance attributed to it? And how are some of the basic Buddhist claims about the human mind holding up? We’ll pay special attention to some highly counterintuitive doctrines: that the self doesn’t exist, and that much of perceived reality is in some sense illusory. Do these claims, radical as they sound, make a certain kind of sense in light of modern psychology? And what are the implications of all this for how we should live our lives? Can meditation make us not just happier, but better people?

Course Syllabus

Week 1: The Buddhist Diagnosis
Week 2: The Buddhist Prescription
Week 3: Does Your Self Exist?
Week 4: A New Model of the Mind
Week 5: Meditation, Modules, and Evolutionary Psychology
Week 6: What Is Enlightenment?

Recommended Background

No background in psychology or religious studies is assumed on the part of students. But it will help to have a curiosity about how the mind works, an interest in what accounts for the ups and downs of human experience, and an interest in the meaning of life.

Suggested Readings

Suggested readings will include Buddhist scriptures, scientific papers, philosophical writings, and excerpts from books (including my book The Moral Animal). Many suggested readings will be provided online, and none of suggested readings is essential to understanding the lectures. 

Course Format

There will be a one-hour lecture each week, and each lecture will be broken up into modules that are between 8 and 25 minutes in length. After each module there will be several multiple choice questions—not for purposes of evaluating you, but just to help you decide whether you should go back and review the previous module before moving on. There will be two short essays, one after the third lecture and one after the final lecture. Students are also encouraged to participate in the online forum--which, in addition to enriching the learning experience, can be a lot of fun.


  • Does Princeton award credentials or reports regarding my work in this course?

    No certificates, statements of accomplishment, or other credentials will be awarded in connection with this course.