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Buddhism and ScienceReview - Buddhism and Science
A Guide for the Perplexed
by Donald S. Lopez
University Of Chicago Press, 2008
Review by Jason Thompson
Oct 20th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 43)

Amongst the names of major world religions, why does "Buddhism" sound more acceptable in the same phrase as "Science" than "Christianity" or "Hinduism"? Harvard neuroscientists collaborate with Tibetan monks, not Franciscan Friars; MIT invites a lecture from the Dalai Lama, but not Pope Benedict XVI; Marsha Linehan and Daniel Siegel describe the clinical efficacy of Buddhist-derived mindfulness training, but not Holy Communion. Do Buddhism's truth claims really approximate more closely to the data-driven testable propositions of modern neuroscience, cosmology, or evolutionary biology than those of other religious belief systems --- with the insights derived from its ancient contemplative practices even representing (as some claim) direct intimations of concepts only now revealed experimentally by the western mind sciences – or do other factors explain its vogue? Does Buddhism's Most Favored Religion status in the court of Science derive from the two traditions' genuine compatibility, or rather from scientists' yearning to fill a "God-shape" hole in empiricism's frosty weltanschauung with a spiritual tradition whose warm optimism and non-theistic metaphysics strikes them as a temple broad enough in which to run cosier-feeling, lotus blossom-scented laboratories without censure or loss of tenure? 

 Readers perplexed by the question of Buddhism's genuine compatibility with scientific evidence can already avail themselves of a small library of volumes on this topic, including profoundly erudite discussions on the former's intersection with cosmology (Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan's The Quantum and the Lotus); neuroscience (James Austin's Zen and the Brain and Selfless Insight, and Siegel's The Mindful Brain); and psychoanalysis (Jeffrey Safran's Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: An Unfolding Dialogue and Mark Epstein's Thoughts Without a Thinker.) Lopez, however, wisely reserves the issue of Buddhism's scientific and clinical validity for other authors to discuss elsewhere in the discipline-specific terms warranted by each field's technical complexity, focusing on the fresher, meta-scientific question of what broader historical, cultural and rhetorical forces might have led a rationalistic western endeavor to increasingly embrace "the teachings of an itinerant mendicant in Iron Age India."  If the "Buddhism" of Harvard and Daniel Siegel is not isomorphic with the philosophy and practice of Siddhatha Gotama and recognized early Buddhist philosophers such as Nagarjuna, Dogen, or Tsongkhapa, what parts of Buddhism get lost in Science's selective version?

Even Buddhism's earliest texts contain repeated insistences on the necessity for individuals to verify the truth of doctrines through observation and inquiry, rather than unquestioning faith in a teacher's validity.  This emphasis on the experiential construction of knowledge has led some modern Buddhist or Buddhist-sympathetic thinkers to infer that the early texts therefore effectively authorize a selective approach to Buddhist teachings and the abandonment of ideas that strike us moderns as too supernatural. For such an affront to rational modernity, Lopez turns to the Abdhidarmakosa ("Treasury of Knowledge"), a text by the fourth century Indian scholar Vasubhandu, which claims that at the center of the earth is a vast mountain, called Meru or Sumeru. Buddhists continued to debate Meru's possible location into the twentieth century, even after extensive human exploration and mapping of the Earth's entire surface had rendered this peak's existence rather unlikely. Buddhist scholars then claimed that their tradition's classical cosmology was metaphorical, and to downplay the significance of cosmology within the wider scheme of Buddhist thought. "The purpose of the Buddha coming to this world was not to measure the circumference of the world and the distance between the earth and the moon, but rather to teach the Dharma, to liberate sentient beings, to relieve sentient beings of their sufferings," Lopez cites the Dalai Lama commenting. However, as Lopez shrewdly comments, "once the process of deciding between the essential and the inessential is under way, it is often difficult to know when to stop."

Perhaps such pruning stops at a "core" Buddhism shorn of ancient metaphysical foliage. But is this demythologized still recognizably Buddhist? One standard proposed shape for this core is Buddhism's emphasis on compassion. Jesus may also have stressed compassion, but whereas Christianity eventually gave us the Spanish Inquisition and pro-life activists screaming abuse at abortion doctors, Buddhists have really walked the walk of their compassionate talk, a sloppy historian of religion might believe. Yet Buddhists are not ethically infallible, as Lopez illustrates by quoting a 1937 letter from the head of Chinese Buddhism to Adolf Hitler suggesting that the Nazi leader adopt Buddhism as Germany's official state religion, thence to convert all of Europe to Buddhism, on the grounds of the Germanic people's origin in "ancient Aryan stock," the ethnic group from which Siddhatha Gotama also hailed. Lopez cites further evidence of the imperfect ethical behavior of practicing Buddhists in his discussion of the tradition's emergence from hierarchically stratified pre-industrial Asian societies, as a result of which the tradition has long struggled to extricate itself from the impact of caste or ethnic prejudice.

Buddhism & Science raises important critical questions about the historical selectivity and demythologizing required to render "Buddhism" consistent with scientific rationality, and the ways in which Buddhist practice has more to do with faith than an inventory of many recent popular accounts of Buddhist philosophy (eg. Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism without Beliefs) might indicate. The book thus succeeds within its own designated parameters to illuminate the extent to which Buddhism and Science are (or rather, are not) strictly compatible. Buddhism is not a science, even if Buddhists are interested in some of the same questions that exercise scientific minds. Buddhism has a mythology, rituals and beliefs that were developed as part of a holistic approach to life emphasizing the necessity of psychological self-mastery, ethical behavior, spiritual community, relationships with wise teachers, and an understanding of the non-essentialist metaphysics explained by the Buddhist idea of "dependent arising"; science is contrastingly allergic to mythology and belief, comprising a huge set of specific sub-disciplines committed to exploring verifiable statements about the physical universe, with little methodological scope thus far to consider how those sub-disciplines interconnect as a whole or what their findings might entail for the day-to-day conundrum of how the average person is supposed to live a happy and meaningful life in a big and complicated cosmos. Buddhism is not just an ancient form of cognitive behavioral therapy; the reduction of 2,500 years of contemplative practice to "the power of positive thinking" is historically inaccurate. 

But if Buddhism loses something in its integration with Science, what does Science stand to gain in the process? Although Lopez clearly delineates this question as beyond the scope of the book's cogently argued historical and rhetorical thesis, I suspect this may be a more salient question for many readers drawn to a book with both "Buddhism" and "Science" in its title. Even for practicing Buddhists (to cite myself, at least), the question of whether any particular idea is genuinely "Buddhist" is less important than the question of whether the idea is true. For me, the appeal of ancient texts about techniques of ethical and psychological self-development is the possibility that the techniques might work today. Tradition in this sense has value as a structure through which practice can be taught and understood, but the purpose of practice is to become more insightful and compassionate, not to preserve a tradition. (Although with no tradition to follow whatsoever, perhaps practice would be impossible: as the Heart Sutra puts it, "Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.")

What happens in the brain during advanced states of meditation, and how can clinicians and therapists apply meditative skills to help their patients and clients? What is consciousness, and what is its relationship to the nature of reality? These are questions too large to tackle in one short book, but it seems plausible that scientists might feel drawn to Buddhism because it proposes answers to existential problems that until recently scientists regarded as outside the realms of science, but which are now under investigation in empirical terms. If the net volume of humanity's suffering reduces even marginally as an outcome of this Buddhist-inspired investigation, I will personally be thrilled to accept the world's modest gain in exchange for the inevitable metamorphosis of Buddhist traditions. "Impermanence" is at the heart of Buddhist philosophy, after all. What eventually emerges from Science's rapprochement with Buddhism will doubtless differ radically from either of those two traditions as we currently know them. Though whether we will be more likely to act compassionately if or when science confirms the Buddha's ancient wisdom remains perplexing.



© 2009 Jason Thompson



Jason Thompson teaches children with special needs in an Oakland public elementary school. He is studying for a MA in Special Education at San Francisco State University and a MA in Buddhist Studies at Sunderland University in the UK. He has a MA in English Literature from Oxford University. His research interests include developmental psychopathology, and the intersection of Buddhist thought with the western mind sciences. He has published journalism in the British and American media, and recently had a paper accepted for publication in "Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology."


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