The conflict between science and religion is an old story. It goes back to Galileo, who faced the Inquisition for his heretical view that the Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around. In its modern version, the conflict revolves around Christian fundamentalism and its views on evolution. (It should be noted that the Catholic Church has no problem with Darwinian evolution.)
In all the battles between science and religion, Buddhism most often gets a pass. In fact, Buddhism is often presented as being in step with scientific discoveries in disciplines such as quantum physics or neuroscience. The so-called scientific approach of Buddhism has even led some to argue that it is not really a religion and should rather be seen as a method of empirical investigation. So today we are going to ask two questions. First, is Buddhism a religion? Second, what is the relationship between Buddhism and science?
The answer to the first question is yes – Buddhism is definitely a religion. I know because I practiced theoretical astrophysicist for 30 years, and I have practiced Zen Buddhism for just as long. From that perspective, I got to know the practices and history of Buddhism quite well, and it is most definitely a religion.
Let’s start with a big overview. Buddhism began around 2,500 years ago when an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama began teaching what became known as dharma (“the Law” or “the Way”) embodied in its four noble truths. Also note that Buddhism was never called Buddhism by Buddhists. Western visitors coined this term. The central idea of the four noble truths is that we suffer because we do not see that life is constantly changing. Instead, we spend our time in endless cycles of like and dislike, thinking this will somehow lead to gratification. In the two and a half millennia between them, this Dharma has spread across India, south to Sri Lanka, north to Tibet, then east to China, Korea and Japan.
Now comes the important point. In each of these cultures, Buddhism worked exactly as one might think a religion should work. There were rituals, prayers, doctrines, battles over doctrines, rigid hierarchies, oppressive patriarchies and politics – lots and lots of politics. There were also many beliefs that modern, scientifically oriented people would certainly not subscribe to – things like reincarnation, rainbow bodyand miraculous healings.
Buddhism changed as it grew
If all of this is true, how did we in the West come to view Buddhism as being so scientific? Well, part of that is good public relations. When Dharma practitioners have encountered people from the West, they have deliberately emphasized those aspects of their practice which correspond to a scientific perspective. It was a way of showing how advanced their spirituality was compared to Abrahamic traditions which were based on an “old man in heaven”. Equally important, from the 1950s, Buddhist teachers from Asia who came to the West placed a strong emphasis on contemplative practice (meditation) as the core of the Dharma. Rituals, especially those involving supernatural elements, were minimized. These parts of Buddhism therefore did not take root in the United States, Europe or the West in general.
All of this means that the version of Buddhism that most of us are familiar with is something relatively new compared to the forms that evolved in India and Asia. The “Scientific Buddha” and the idea of Buddhist exception in science are modern creations. Is it a problem? Does this mean that the Dharma taking hold here is a corrupted or inferior version of what came before, including its relationship to science?
I don’t think so at all.
Over the past 2,500 years, as Buddhism has progressed eastward, it has always been modified by the new cultures it has encountered, just as it has changed and transformed those cultures. When Buddhism reached China, for example, it became heavily colored with aspects of Taoism. This is how he gave birth to Chan, or Zen as it became known in Japan. Now that it finds a place in the West, Buddhism is being changed by its encounter with our dominant view of the world, which is science. It’s just the way of things. No aspect of human culture that is unable to adapt and change is likely to last very long. How certain aspects of a tradition are devalued while others are uplifted is part of this process. So if Western Buddhists don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about reincarnation (which I don’t), but want to spend a lot of time focusing on contemplative practice and compassion (which I do), it is part of the evolution of Dharma here.
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The trick in all of this – and it is difficult – is to allow Buddhism to change as it meets the West without taking away the power that has allowed it to last so long. Buddhism, like all religions, has always been salvific – it is about salvation. One difference between it and the Abrahamic religions of the West is that it can be seen as offering salvation without recourse to a theistic God. He is literally an atheist (although traditional Buddhism has many deities, like kwan-yin, which represent personalized aspects of the Dharma). The possibility of direct realization of the means of salvation is a powerful aspect of Buddhism’s approach. While contemplative practice was something usually reserved for monks in traditional Buddhism, it has always been part of the Dharma. This part has now been made central to the West. But this centrality has also given rise to the dangers of “McMindfulness,” which strips Buddhism’s concern for ethical practice and replaces it with a self-centered version of spiritual endeavor.
The bottom line is that it is a mistake to overlook the long history of Buddhism as a religion and to think that it should be reduced to something purely secular. Doing so ignores much of why the Dharma still exists millennia after its conception. At the same time, to demand that Buddhism remain static, retaining exactly the forms it once had in other lands, would be to deny it the creative power and evolutionary potential that have allowed it to survive for so long.
This is where the relationship with science is so important. If Buddhism is open to dialogue with scientific practice, that’s great. If his ideas about “being a subject” are useful for neuroscience, let’s go. If its long tradition of highly refined philosophical debates about the nature of experience, mind, and phenomena has anything useful to add to discussions at the forefront of philosophy and science, so much the better. . These are all great possibilities, and the fact that Buddhist leaders like the Dalai Lama are so interested in science only amplifies the potential.
These developments in Buddhism’s encounter with the West are all exciting, provocative and hopeful. We cannot forget, however, that Buddhism was always intended to provide a path of spiritual and ethical development – a path forward, a path in, and a path beyond.