New Light on Enlightenment: A Convergence of Recent Scholarship and Emerging Neuroscience?

William H. Walters


Gotama Buddha taught that compassion can produce enlightenment. So Richard Gombrich claims, based most notably on his reading of the Tevijja Sutta. First announced in his 1996 How Buddhism Began, Gombrich revisited this thesis (his “discovery”) the next year in his Gonda Lecture, “Kindness and Compassion as Means to Nirvana in Early Buddhism” and has returned to it more recently in his 2009 What the Buddha Thought.

The first of the two sections of this paper explores Gombrich’s admittedly “radical” idea. Although I will tender some suggestions along the way, this section eventuates more in questions than categorical conclusions. In a different vein, the following section provides a brief overview of the recent plasticity revolution in neuroscience, with an eye to assessing the empirical plausibility of the basic idea that Gombrich discerns in the Tevijja Sutta that we can achieve enlightenment through compassion.

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