Buddhism and Science

Are scientific laws permanent?

‘All things are impermanent’: what about scientific laws?

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Impermanence is fundamental to Buddhism. It is even “Buddhism in One Word” (Sangharakshita).  The locus classicus for this particular doctrine could be seen as being a verse of the Dhammapada (a collection of sayings ascribed to the Buddha, which are very likely to be very close to his original teachings), which runs:

277  sabbe sankhaaraa anichchaa ti yadaa paññaaya passati
atha nibbindati dukkhe esa maggo visuddhiyaa.

All processes are impermanent. When one sees this with understanding, then one is disillusioned with the things of suffering. This is the Path of Purification. (John Richards translation)

So what is being stated as being impermanent is all processes — the Pali word being sankhara (the transliteration doubles the a’s to show they are the long form), or Sanskrit samskara.  It pointedly does not say, “all dharmas are impermanent”, but two verses later, it does say, “all dharmas are insubstantial (anatta)”.  Dharmas here probably means anything that can be an object of cognition, whether it is what we see as a physical thing, or an idea, or an attribute etc. I think it would be best to see a physical law as a dharma, but not a samskara (though a philologist friend who read an earlier draft disputes this).

Verse 5 of the Dhammapada says:

Occasions of hatred are certainly never settled by hatred. They are settled by freedom from hatred. This is the eternal law

So here a psychological law is being stated as not being impermanent.  (Eternal law translates dhammo sanantano – ‘an eternal or age-old dharma’.)  Why should the same not be the case with the physical laws of the universe? However, it is possible that they are contingent in some way: the cosmologist Lee Smolin speculates that new universes are constantly being spawned within black holes, each new universe having slightly different physical laws from its parent universe. (The Life of the Cosmos.)

But Buddhists might differ from many scientists, in particular those who think that there will eventually be a final theory of everything, in that they would count physical laws as dharmas, and so would assert that they are insubstantial.  In other words, a law has no independent existence of its own.  It is simply an ordered description of the way phenomena behave — how they influence each other, how they arise and pass away etc. and another type of intelligence might use a different set of laws to describe the same phenomena, though it would in principle be possible to cross-reference the two sets, and show how they are consistent with each other.  It is an object of the conscious mind.

I wonder whether the regularity of scientific experimentation allows one to suspect that some physical laws would always be conceptually patterned in the same way, if different observers at perhaps very different times in very different parts of the universe set up their observations in the same way? In that sense, the law could be unchanging.

What is impermanent?  In the Buddhist tradition, very little is left out of the rather loose term ‘samskara’.  It is most importantly used for people’s mental states, habits, characters etc — in other words, it is encouraging you to feel that you are not stuck in any form of life, or any personal tendency.

This doctrine would assert that there can be no entity in the universe that was free from influence and thus change, similarly, no form of existence or realm, no physical object etc.  ( I am taking it as read that such entities are mind objects, though in this context they are mind objects within scientific discourse, which is very careful to specify them in ways that ensures they can be investigated coherently by many people using a variety of well defined observation methods.) But how would this apply to certain subatomic particles which are regarded as being completely stable?  Could one say that a proton(1) is a permanent entity?

It may be that it is illegitimate to apply Buddhist insights to the scientific sphere. I hope not, I suspect that the meeting of the two ways of looking at human life could be stimulating and fruitful. Scientific findings are very robust, and could clarify the worldview of Buddhists in many ways. Buddhists could also help scientists, for example by offering cogent alternatives to the view that it is primarily the human brain that gives rise to human awareness, and that there is an absolutely real, dead universe, lacking in awareness, which is ultimately separate from the processes of awareness. More importantly, it can suggest a non-religious ethical framework for scientists, some of whom have little in the way of ethics apart from the pressure of public opinion.

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(1) I had originally written ‘neutron’, a bit of a howler as a free neutron has a half life of less than 15 minutes. Free protons have never been seen decaying so far, so may be very long lasting, perhaps ‘permanent’, though protons within nuclei can transform to neutrons by beta decay, and a proton would lose its identity if it fell into a black hole.

Mind in Buddhism

Mind in Buddhism: Finding the Mind interview

CoverHow would you introduce Finding the Mind in just a few words?

Being aware is the most important part of our experience as human beings, so in Finding the Mind I wanted to explore what it means to be aware, and what you can do with this awareness. Buddhists have been looking into the issue for over two and a half thousand years so my book draws on the whole of the Buddhist tradition, as well as looking at some modern ideas.

I also put a few exercises in the book so that readers can do some of the things that Buddhist meditators have been doing down the ages and see what results they come up with themselves. I wanted to make the book accessible and also quite interactive because ultimately what is important is your own experience, not what somebody else says your experience ought to be. So I hope that Finding the Mind will give people a few avenues into exploring their own minds.

Why is the project of finding our minds so important?

In a way, experiences are all that we have got, so exploring the nature of experience is, I think, basic to our humanity. Also basic to our humanity are our unwelcome experiences – we suffer, we experience pain, and we wish things were different – and Buddhism has some very effective strategies for coping with these unwelcome experiences. Not just coping with them, in fact, but actually seeing through the issues that cause them in the first place.

The Buddha taught that suffering springs from our own minds, and mostly from the fact that we don’t know our own minds, so we end up making the same mistakes in life, over and over again. This is why I think that finding our minds is such an important project.  We become familiar with the way our minds normally work, firstly so that we can then work out how to change our minds, and secondly so that we can also empathize with the experience of other people. Because people’s minds do work in very similar ways, and if we can understand our own minds, we can understand more about what it’s like to be a human being in general.

So finding our minds is not only important but also quite fascinating and exciting – lots of unexpected insights emerge when we start to look at our minds. Imagine that you didn’t have repeated disappointments with life and that you’d found the confidence to engage with the world and leave it a better place! This is what I think engaging with the Buddhist view of the mind can offer.

You dedicate a whole chapter to the subject of compassion. What relevance does compassion have as far as finding the mind is concerned?

Well firstly I think that it’s very important that any discussions of Buddhism include the subject of compassion because compassion is such a crucial part of Buddhism in general. Obviously meditation is also crucial – it allows us to make our experience as simple and straightforward as possible so that we can notice what’s actually going on in our minds and make subtle little adjustments. However, what is equally important is what happens during the rest of the day: how we go to sleep, how we eat, how we behave at work, how we deal with the people we live with. All of this stuff is real – it’s our mind actually responding. So finding the mind is not just about self-discovery, it’s also about connecting with our capacity to respond to life in a more compassionate way.

And as I mentioned earlier, our experience of suffering is something that we share with all human beings. More specifically, it’s a common human experience to feel embattled, for example, or needy, or that there’s something missing. One way through these experiences is through awareness of others – in other words through compassion – because compassion expands our awareness from the narrow perspective of the self, leaving us more relaxed and happier. So, even from a selfish point of view, compassion really works! But of course it is also about something much bigger than that. Other people are just as real as we are, they are just as important. So not to care about other people I think is running away from something.

Does Buddhism point to objective and universal laws that govern the workings of our minds, or does it simply encourage us to explore our own subjective experience?

I think it’s definitely best if our exploration of Buddhism starts from our own experience – from basic mindfulness – but of course with mindfulness we start to notice patterns in our experience and patterns between people as well. We discover that there are universal laws that govern the lives of conscious beings – all beings with a mind – because there’s something about mind which is, in a way, universal. When we see ourselves as a distinct subject in here, for example, we are inevitably going to experience problems with the separation between ourselves and the world around us.

So all conscious beings face similar problems, and finding solutions to these common problems is exactly what Buddhism is about. It’s something that ultimately we have to do for ourselves, but Buddhism gives us maps of the patterns that we’re likely to find in our experience to help us on our way.

In fact the Buddhist tradition has come up with a number of different maps because the underlying truths of life can never be fully summed up in one single conceptual way. And I think it’s helpful to be exposed to the widest possible range of approaches, so in my book I include visual images like the Tibetan wheel of life, along with Buddhist philosophical teachings, and I also recount stories – some narratives and some more mythic stories. I think that once you’ve found an approach or a map that works for you it means that you can change your mental responses by using the understanding that’s come through from other people, as well as from your own mindfulness and self-understanding.

Are there many individual minds or is there just one universal Mind?

Well usually we have a sense of some kind of division between an outer world that we share with others and an inner world that is ours alone. However, I do know that some people have had wonderful panoramic experiences of unity where they feel a very strong connection with everything outside them as well. I think those are really valuable experiences, but I would be very hesitant to turn them into an ideology and to insist that there is only one Mind because quite a lot of the time we experience ourselves very much as individuals – I’m sure that there is truth in both views.

In the author biography on the back of the book it says that you curtailed your career in science to train for ordination into the Triratna Order. Can you talk a bit about this process and the place that Finding the Mind has in the context of your own experience?

I’ve always had a lot of curiosity about the world around me, as well as curiosity about myself. I can remember when I was very young, at that time when self-awareness starts to dawn, just looking around me and finding it incredibly weird and wonderful to think that I was in the present moment which wasn’t ever going to happen again. It was this fascination with my own awareness which led me into science, I think.

Then I got quite stressed while I was studying science at university so I started to meditate, and meditation took me to Buddhism. And Buddhism led me back to that same fascination with awareness! So in Finding the Mind I really wanted, at least for my own satisfaction, to explore what it means to be an aware human being, and to do so with fidelity to both Buddhism as a personal path and to science as an objective discipline. I find it very interesting to try and bring Buddhism and science together, and in some ways Finding the Mind is an outcome of that.

So is Buddhism a science?

Buddhism is certainly like science in some ways. Both Buddhism and science are explorations of what is going on in life, but the big difference between them is that Buddhism deals specifically with human experience rather than the outside world. Science is very interested in the outside, so even when it looks at the mind it views it as an outside phenomenon – science is not an exploration of the mind of the scientist, but the mind of the person she or he is putting into the MRI scanner. Buddhism is interested primarily in exploring the scientist’s own mind – our own minds – how they produce suffering, and how they can free us from suffering. So I would say that Buddhism is scientific, but it’s not the same as science.

You say that ‘the results of neuroscience and of Buddhist insight are being compared, and there are signs of an exciting synthesis emerging.’ Can you expand on this statement?

This is something that I discuss in the last chapter of my book – I talk a bit about the interesting insights that came out of the Mind and Life conferences where a number of top-notch scientists engaged in dialogue with Tibetan teachers including the Dalai Lama. These conferences were really productive, to the extent that a large number of American neuroscientists now also have some kind of Buddhist training or background, which is fantastic.

Since both neuroscientists and Buddhists are trying to find the mind, there is much that they can learn from each other. One of the things that science can learn from Buddhism is the value of introspection – the value of looking at your own experience with a quiet mind and not assuming that that must be completely untrustworthy because it’s subjective. Through introspection you can work from the inside, not just from the outside.

There are also many things that Buddhism can learn from science. It can learn, for example, not to be too bound by the specific teachings of particular Buddhist traditions but to look at them all together in the light of modern findings. To take a rather crude example, until recently the Tibetans still believed that the earth was flat and that there was a great mountain called mount Meru right in the middle of it. Science has enabled them to realize that although the teaching may have great symbolic value, it shouldn’t be taken literally. So I think that Buddhism and science can be friends with each other – they definitely don’t need to attack each other.

Lastly, can we really find our minds?

I feel as if I’m giving it all away here, but I think the answer is no – you can’t find your mind. Still, you’ve got to look! Buddhism is all about looking for our minds and not finding them, and then turning to the centre of our experience to realize that we can’t tie anything down when we look at it. We tend to have quite a lot of views about our subjective experience – we say ‘I’m like this’, ‘I have this identity’, ‘I associate with this’, ‘I call myself this’, and they’re all just stories that we tell ourselves which, in one way or another, cause us suffering.

So the funny thing is that the more you look for the mind and don’t find it, the happier you become – you find a sort of liberation of the mind. I mean, I don’t really know what enlightenment would be like, but I get a sense that even a liberated mind wouldn’t think that it had tied everything down. It would still carry on looking – looking really, really openly.

Buy Finding the Mind here.

Interview by Hannah Atkinson of Windhorse Publications, August 2012

Buddhism and Science: a book edited by Alan Wallace

Wallace Buddhism and ScienceBuddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground

Alan Wallace (editor) Columbia University Press, New York, 2003

Review by Ratnaprabha (Robin Cooper)

First Published in The Western Buddhist Review, Vol. 4 (2003).

The great Marxist sinologist Joseph Needham blamed Buddhism for stifling science and technology in China while they flourished in Europe.  In claiming that everything is an illusion, Buddhism “played a part in strangling the development of Chinese science”.  Zen Buddhism, in “rejecting all philosophy” was also unfavourable to a scientific view.  Since the Buddha refused to speculate, Buddhism discouraged scientific research. Above all, its main object is to escape from this world, not to try to understand it.  A “despairing” and “perverse” philosophy, he concludes.[1]  Needham’s analysis stands in marked contrast to all the sixteen contributors to this book, and indeed to the prevailing view today that of all the religions Buddhism is the most compatible with science.

It is certainly a fact of history that a great surge in systematic scientific research, followed by technologies with overwhelming effects, took place in Europe from the 18th Century on.  Despite its sophisticated civilisations, science in Asia had to await influence from Europe before it was able to make comparable advances.  A common view has been that there was a religious factor in this difference, that something in Protestant Christianity favoured science.  However, an excellent essay in this volume by Jose Ignacio Cabezon indicates that the conditioning factors were far more complex, and that when Western science did arrive in Asia, it was treated by Buddhists in an open and welcoming way, in contrast to the responses to science of many European churchmen.

When science did arrive, some South Asian Buddhist monks were tempted either to detect prefigurings of scientific discoveries in Buddhist texts, or to laud Buddhism as the most scientific of religions, and the Buddha as the first scientist.  They were supported, from Victorian times onwards, by westerners’ responses to Buddhism.  Cabezon points out that human beings have at first a tendency to treat what is culturally very different in terms of the culturally familiar, so a host of compatibilities between Buddhism and science were discerned.  Buddhism was seen as undogmatic, giving authority to the individual, critical in spirit, with a universal impersonal causal law (like science), and with a scientific ethics.  Colonel Olcott, a Theosophist instrumental in the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, pointed out around 1889 that Buddhism shared an evolutionary vision with science, both teaching: “that man is the result of the law of development, from an imperfect lower, to a higher and perfect condition” (p. 44).  (I have explored this connection elsewhere.[2])

Cabezon argues that the unsophisticated view of compatibility, or even identity, between Buddhism and science is now being replaced by one of complementarity.  Each has something to offer the other.  The contributors to this volume point out a number of such cross-fertilisations, concentrating on two areas in which Buddhist thought may be able to advance scientific understanding: cognitive science and modern physics.

There is one man in particular who should be credited both with stimulating Western scientists to investigate Buddhism, and with reassuring Buddhists that they have nothing to fear from science — the Dalai Lama.  As an inquisitive boy-Lama roaming around in the vast Potala Palace, he loved to investigate exotic Western mechanical devices, as well as quizzing his tutors on science.  Somewhere, he relates how, as he turned a globe in his hands, it gradually dawned on him that this was a representation of our spherical world, and the flat cosmology of the ancient Indian texts had now been superseded.  He has never lost his eager fascination for science, and he instigated a continuing series of biennial meetings with groups of Western scientists, in which a number of topics have been freely explored.  (The meetings are organised by the Mind-Life Institute, and an appendix in the book lists those which have been published so far.)

Thus many of the contributors have been involved in the Mind-Life conferences, and have to varying extents practised or studied within the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa School of Tibetan Buddhism. Alan Wallace, the editor, is one of his translators as well as being a writer on Buddhism and science; the Dalai Lama’s chief translator, Thupten Jinpa is probably the only Tibetan monk to have studied Western philosophy to a doctoral level, and offers an interesting essay on Tibetan responses to science.  Geshe Jinpa informs us that the Dalai Lama does more than encourage a dialogue between Buddhism and science.  He is prepared to let science change Buddhism, so that if a fact emerges that is incompatible with Buddhist theory, he says, “there is no doubt that we must accept the result of the scientific research” (p. 77).  He “believes that the dynamic encounter with scientific thought could help revitalise Buddhist analysis of the nature of objective reality and the mind” (p. 78).

After all, as the Dalai Lama writes in a short piece for this book explaining the nature of mind in Tibetan Buddhism for the benefit of scientists: “The mind is transformed when one ascertains and thoroughly acquaints oneself with fresh insights into the nature of reality that invalidate one’s previous misconceptions or false assumptions” (p. 96).  A Buddhist is interested in the way things are, not in clinging to any specific description, even descriptions hallowed by centuries of transmission in a Buddhist tradition.

The section on cognitive science includes a very stimulating paper by the neuropsychologist David Galin.  He engages thoroughly with Buddhist ideas on self, being cheerfully prepared to challenge them, without being dismissive.  It is well worth breasting the current of his sociological jargon for the sake of several gem-like insights on the human mind.  How do we deal with the complexity of experience?  Well, we “seek and find, or project, a simplifying pattern to approximate every complex field… by lumping (ignoring some distinctions as negligible) and by splitting (ignoring some relations as negligible).  Both… create discreet entities useful for manipulating, predicting and controlling… [but] may impose ad hoc boundaries on what are actually densely interconnected systems and then grant autonomous existence to the segments”  (p. 108).  Even the contents of our own consciousness have to be dealt with in this way, resulting in our array of fragmented self-concepts, and we just put up with the anomalies that arise.  Buddhism, he explains, agrees that discovering entities is conventionally indispensable, but attachment and aggression arise through reifying them, which violates the principle that all things are interdependent, and all entities are conditional approximations.

Galin is unhappy with Buddhism’s moral disapproval for these self-errors, since since they are “an essential evolutionary adaptation” (p. 132).  He applauds: “the Buddhist solution to the modern suffering of alienation and anomie… to completely contextualise self, not to simply erase it.” (p. 137)   He doesn’t, I think, have confidence in the possibility of an unmediated immersion in experience, making all self-views obsolete.  However, he recognises the importance of meditation.  We evolve to act in cumulatively more sophisticated ways on the environment, and have become able to model the states resulting from alternative courses of action (ie karma).  Sitting meditation eliminates physical action, and progressively limits mental action by interrupting the loop that connects action-observation-action.  Thus peripheral awareness has the space to grow, and to notice more and more facets of interrelatedness, allowing a more integrated mental structure to coalesce.

Historically, the schools of psychology in the West have sought to arrive at a final analysis of what the self actually is, and thus represent the operation of the first fetter that, according to the Buddha, prevents irreversible Insight: fixed self view (satkayadrsti).  However, the present contributors do not represent this trend, which may have run its course.  They recognise the fragmentary and contingent nature of the empirical self.  William Waldron connects the accounts of evolutionary psychology and Buddhism concerning the deeply rooted defensive predispositions erected around the sense of an independent ‘I’ .  Human evil and suffering are caused by attempts to secure constructed selves, often at the expense of others.

Waldron connects Buddhism and evolutionary psychology, claiming that both show that negative behavioural patterns (‘evil’) have a big influence over long periods of time in evolution, being present in ourselves as inherited capacities, active all the time as predispositions.  We can break such vicious, self-centred patterns by firstly understanding the human condition, and then working to overcome their influence.

Here, Waldron misses an opportunity to discuss the systematic teachings of Buddhist ethics, an astonishing lacuna in the whole book.  The simplest Buddhist formulation of the way to emancipating enlightenment outlines three trainings: the training in morality, in meditation, and in wisdom.  Buddhism and Science makes an excellent contribution to discussing the second and third in the light of modern scientific approaches, but hardly mentions the first — morality.  Yet the connection between morality and scientific enterprises is a live topic in current discussions of science, with very good reason.  New scientific developments almost always have implications for human well-being beyond the satisfaction of the curiosity of the researchers, and beyond the promise of technologies for entertainment or labour-saving.  For example, transport, agricultural (e.g. genetic modification) and power generation technologies can have major environmental impacts.  And medical technologies can involve potentially harming some beings (including experimental animals) to fulfil the wishes of others.  The book is rich in philosophical and psychological topics, but hardly mentions ethics.[3]

Another highly technical paper, again worth the effort, is by Francisco Varela and Natalie Depraz.  A Chilean neuroscientist who tragically died in 2001, Varela has for some years been making very fruitful connections between Buddhist non-dual understandings of the mind (informed by his ground-breaking work on brain states), and the work of the French phenomenologists.  Having established that actual experience and the states of the brain act reciprocally upon one another, so that it is incoherent to say that brain states simply cause mental events, he and Depraz show how perception can be regarded as subsidiary to the mental function of imagination.  Perception refers to what is present, imagination to what is not present, and the two mix so that in every moment they are emerging into awareness from an unconscious background, as a living present.

It is still the case that the dominant view among neuroscientists is, in effect, that processes in the body cause the mind.  But Varela and Depraz have shown that one’s state of mind can access local neural processes, so that neither can be reduced to the other.  The mental state corresponds to a particular neural state, and actively incorporates or discards any contemporary neural activity in the relevant brain region, evaluating many potential neural states, “until a single one is transiently stabilised and expressed behaviourally” (p. 213).  Mental states require both a phenomenological and a biological account.  The neural elements and the global cognitive subject are co-determined; the subject is emergent, not just from the neural base, but also from preceding mental states.  Buddhism extends this account by offering its pragmatic consequences, showing how the living present, with imagination active, is a means for human transformation.  The authors then describe empathy-enhancing Tibetan visualisation techniques that effect this process.

We can be dazzled by the power and scope of science into accepting the philosophical assumptions that many scientists live by.  But the materialist assumption, which includes the belief that the mind is only an epiphenomenon of the brain, is shown by analyses such as that of Varela and Depraz to be a very odd one.  After all, we know that we make free decisions to use our bodies in various ways: the mental is operating upon the physical, as well as being constrained by the limitations of the physical.  To suppress our knowledge of freedom of choice seems needless.  The difficulty is that notions of reciprocal and interweaving causal processes are comparatively new in the West, so a scientist would be afraid that granting causal efficacy to the mind would be to grant that the whole material universe came into being merely by the force of ideas.  A crucial contribution that Buddhism can make to science is to clarify the notion of dependent co-arising (pratitya samutpada).  When we observe a phenomenon, inner or outer, we can be confident that it arises and ceases through the coming together of innumerable cooperative conditions.  And that it forms an element in the complex of conditions out of which new phenomena are arising.  Consequently, no phenomenon exists independently, nor can it persist, since its conditions are inevitably changing.  The name that we give it does not refer to any real entity, but is rather a sort of focused torch beam selecting for our attention a little patch on the shifting cloudscape of experience.

Varela and Depraz are refusing to see brain and experience as isolated entities: “there is no gap to bridge, only traces to follow” (p. 226).  By allowing to experience a genuine causal agency, they are taking the subjective pole of reality seriously, something that is essential if we are to understand more fully the ways in which body and mind interact.  Continuing research need not exclude consideration of those mental states which are comparatively less closely jointed to a brain.  Buddhism at present diverges from science, in incorporating in its worldview various apparently out-of-body experiences, including the possibility of consciousness unlinking from a dying body, and relinking with a growing embryo — i.e. rebirth.  It is disappointing that this volume is almost completely silent on rebirth, despite the formidable investigations of Ian Stevenson[4].

Matthieu Ricard is a French-born Tibetan Buddhist monk with a background in science, whose published conversations with his philosopher father became a bestseller[5].  His article is on ‘Contemplative Science’, a vogue designation for Buddhism that is perhaps trying to appropriate some of the prestige of science.  However, the term does highlight the fact that meditation and other mental disciplines should be seen as valid methods for investigating the mind, complementing the objective techniques of brain scans and psychiatrists’ questionnaires.

Many centuries ago, the dialecticians of the Madhyamaka School of Buddhism (starting with Nagarjuna) tackled Indian philosophical positions that in some ways resemble the standpoints of modern scientists.  But it seems to me that Ricard shares with some of the other contributors to this book, notably Wallace, an unreflective overconfidence in the potency of these arguments against views that after all arise from a very different, and often very subtle, philosophical background.  Western thought already provides well-developed approaches to understanding reality, which have spotted the weaknesses of dualistic, mechanistic, essentialist and idealist views; in this volume, we have excellent presentations on Kant (Bitbol), and on phenomenology (Varela and Depraz).  One might add Spinoza, who so inspired Einstein, and is the subject of a recent book by neuro-scientist Antonio Damasio[6], as well as William James, Karl Popper and others.  Much hard work will be involved in integrating these thinkers with Buddhism (as the astrophysicist Piet Hut points out in the concluding paper in this volume), but it will be very productive, and surely they cannot be ignored.  Eventually, though, we will need a new Tsongkapa: a fine scholar with a brilliant mind, highly realised through meditation practice.

Meanwhile, the more unreflective western Madhyamikans, as well as putting old arguments into new bottles, also tend to conflate Buddhism as a whole with Madhyamaka thought, presenting rival Buddhist doctrines as if they had been been conclusively refuted by Nagarjuna and his successors in the Tibetan Gelugpa School.  There are scholars writing on science under the influence of other branches of Buddhism, and it is a great shame that the editor did not bring in their perspectives.  For example, several writers on Buddhism and Ecology (a topic unfortunately absent from this book) have practised in Theravada and Zen, including Joanna Macy, Kenneth Kraft, Leslie Sponsel, Bhikkhu Bodhi, and others.  (There is also a bit of a national bias, more than half of the contributors being Americans.)

The modern physics section of Buddhism and Science explores the surprising departures from down-to-earth realism that have been emerging mainly in quantum mechanics during the past century.  Fitjof Capra popularised some of the parallels with Buddhism, in a general and rather unconvincing way, in his very influential The Tao of Physics, published nearly 20 years ago.  Despite my protestations above, I must admit that a rigorous application of Madhyamaka epistemology to physics, as we see in several of the contributions here, promises to be far more genuinely illuminating than the vague (often verbal) parallels of Capra.  But the most impressive paper is by the French philosopher of science Michel Bitbol.  (He characterises Capra and others as offering: “mere analogy at an ill-defined level of the two discourses, with obvious apologetic purposes” (p. 327).)  His ‘Cure for Metaphysical Illusions’ is an extremely thorough, and difficult, elucidation of neo-Kantian philosophy of science, explaining how Madhyamaka approaches can build on it, and extend it radically.

Like Nagarjuna, Kant was aware of the limitations of concepts.  They are only for the formal ordering of the empirical contents, a process that will never end, though reason provides an inaccessible goal of complete rational understanding to regulate the process.  Unaware of this as we generally are, it is easy to take the form that our intellect gives to phenomena as being the form of the things in themselves, “projecting the a priori structure of the knowing subject onto the world, thus mistaking it for a pregiven worldly structure” (p. 328). This is the all-pervasive ‘transcendental illusion’, which is very hard to recognise, let alone to compensate for.  Bitbol calls on the neo-Kantian philosophers of science to help us with recognising it, but needs to bring in Buddhism to show us how to overcome the illusion.  “Nagarjuna’s exclusive mission was to free everyone from the spell of reified conventional truth” (p. 332).  (Bitbol helpfully points out in a note that samvriti satya, usually translated ‘conventional truth’, is more literally a surface truth covering over ultimate truth.) Thus, “to be in nirvana means seeing the very same things that appear to the deluded consciousness of samsara, but seeing them ‘as they are — as merely empty, dependent, impermanent, and non-substantial'” (333).

Efforts towards a compromise between science and religion in the 19th-century West failed, leading to a schizophrenic attitude in which a system of beliefs and values were seen as indispensable, but the available system (monotheism) was incoherent in the light of science. Bitbol wishes to initiate the construction of a single higher-order tool, combining science, philosophy, and the “nondogmatic soteriology” offered by Madhyamaka.  The new tool needs to rely on the “dynamic potentialities” of doctrines, not their canonical texts, seeing them as operational rather than dogmatic.

Scientific theories are not representations of the world, but are for structuring our actions and anticipating their outcomes, with philosophy helping adjust us between all the possibilities of action within a value system; then Buddhism opens life out in self-transformation.  Science does not reveal a pre-existent underlying absolute reality (realism), yet it is more than a set of useful techniques (instrumentalism), being “the stabilised byproduct of the dynamic reciprocal relation between reality as a whole and a special fraction of it” — the subject (p. 337).  The structure of scientific theories is highly significant, they are not arbitrary, but it is possible nevertheless to remain metaphysically agnostic.  In fact, Bitbol convincingly argues that this kind of philosophy of science is far more compatible with modern physics, especially quantum mechanics, than the belief in a mechanistic world and a dualistic epistemology.  Scientists resist relationalist and nondual philosophies, through fear of having no ground to stand on.  They can take heart, says Bitbol. Madhyamaka dialectically deconstructs substantialist and dualistic views, but it also introduces “a form of life in which losing ground is not a tragedy (it can even promote enlightenment…) and in which an alternative (say, pragmatic, integrated, and altruistic) strong motivation can be given to science.”  (p. 339).

There is not space here to detail Bitbol’s compelling philosophical framework for quantum mechanics.  But I will mention his response to the problem of indeterminism — the unpredictability of quantum events.  Is it that chance is ultimate, and any deterministic laws that we find come from the law of large numbers?  Or is it that determinism is ultimate, and apparent randomness comes from the complexity of huge numbers of interacting events, as studied in chaos theory?  If we take a dependent co-arising-type approach, we will see that the causes of any event are not defined in the absolute, but are “relative to the very circumstances of the production of the phenomena” (p. 349).  Since phenomena arise in dependence upon an enormously complex context, a context which includes the person or instrumentation detecting the phenomena, they are immune to any certain determination.  Relations between things should be seen as being prior to the things that are relating; however, “neither connection, nor connected nor connector exist”, says Nagarjuna.  Buddhism’s radical analysis is needed to cap philosophy of science, since it comes from “direct stabilised experience of a disabused outlook” — i.e., non-conceptual Insight into reality — while the insights of Western philosophy, impressive though they are, are the products of the free play of ideas.

Buddhism and Science succeeds so well because all its contributors take both Buddhism and science seriously, seeing that both represent ways of understanding human experience, and both present opportunities for enhancing its quality.  Although Joseph Needham was able to write so dismissively of Buddhism only a few decades ago, we now know that he was mistaken.  We know because scientists are engaging personally with the practice of Buddhism.  They are finding in it a congenial spirituality, which does not nag at their work, so long as that work does no harm. They are also finding that it offers remarkable new vistas into the methods and models of science itself.  But will Buddhism ever actually influence scientific practice — where to look in one’s research, how to explain and interpret one’s findings?    This book will convince the reader that mind-science has already  been changed by Buddhism, but the jury is still out on physics.   Francisco Varela has no doubt. His assessment, thinking particularly of Buddhism impacting science, is that: “the rediscovery of Asian philosophy, particularly of the Buddhist tradition, is a second Renaissance in the cultural history of the West, with the potential to be equally important as the rediscovery of Greek thought in the European Renaissance.”[7]  The dialogue has only just begun: we live in exciting times.

[1] Joseph Needham, The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China, Volume I (Cambridge University Press, 1978), pages 264, 265, 272.

[2] Robin Cooper, The Evolving Mind: Buddhism, Biology and Consciousness (Windhorse, Birmingham, 1996).

[3] For a good survey, see Damien Keown, Buddhism and Bioethics (Macmillan, London, 1995).

[4] E.g. Ian Stevenson, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (University press of Virginia, 1974).

[5] Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard, The Monk and the Philosopher (Thorsons, London, 1998).

[6] Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain (Heinemann, 2003).

[7] Varela, Thomson, and Rosch, The Embodied Mind (MIT press, 1993), 22.

Buddhist Biology from Barash

chap3

Illustration by Andy Gammon

Review of David P Barash, Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science (Oxford University Press, New York, 2014). By Ratnaprabha.

Through the nineteenth century, Western science gradually disengaged itself from Christian religion, and scientists set themselves up as rivals to churchmen in interpreting the world. Nevertheless, religion remains a force in our culture, and some scientists detect a spiritual vacuum in their own hearts, turning back in hope towards religious traditions, at least for their own personal solace. Yet to answer one set of needs through a religious allegiance, and a separate set of needs through the discipline of science leaves a frustrating split, despite Stephen Jay Gould’s recommendation that the two should be confined to “non-overlapping magisteria”.[1] David Barash joins the club of those scientists wanting science and religion to be at least on speaking terms with each other, better still to marry.  His arranged bride for science is Buddhism.

Thus he proposes a “Science Sutra… [in which] not-self, impermanence, and interconnectedness are built into the very structure of the world, and all living things — including human beings — are no exception.… It can help animate — more precisely, humanise — this otherwise cold and dreadful skeleton of rattling bones”. (Pages 27-8. The image of science as a rattling skeleton is from Bertrand Russell.)

Barash is a psychology professor at the University of Washington who has been active in the field of peace studies, but by training he is an evolutionary biologist, and it is biology in particular that he wishes to give a Buddhist flavour. He is an avuncular and jaunty writer, and this being his 33rd book, you can see that his publishers give him some leeway. He admits that they wanted him to discard altogether a chapter that tries to add existentialism to the mix, and they’ve left him to his own devices to the extent that the Buddhist sections are riddled with, mainly minor, errors of fact and spelling. As for science, he discusses genetics, ecology and neuroscience as well as evolution, and he is on pretty firm ground here, though some mistakes do creep in – including the howler that Newton discovered the second law of thermodynamics (page 58).

An enthusiastic Buddhist for most of his life, Barash’s chief inspiration is the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Thus, along with impermanence and non-self, the main Buddhist concept he wishes to apply to his biology is interconnectedness, all things linked in a dance of mutual dependence, a teaching that Thich Nhat Hanh adapts for modern audiences from Chinese Hua Yen Buddhism. Ecology, too, demonstrates that organisms and their environments constitute a net of mutual dependence.

Buddhist teachings argue that anything which depends for its state on external factors must change when those conditioning factors change (anitya), and if no part of that thing is immune from dependencies, then to identify any essential protected nucleus of self must be mistaken (anatman). In biology, impermanence is the rule, and evolution superimposes long-term inter-generational changes on the short-term developments undergone by every organism, so that only the genes themselves are (according to Barash) comparatively stable. My impression here is that Barash’s popular writing has not yet caught up with advances in genetics that he must surely be aware of. The gene as an almost fixed sequence of bases in DNA that codes for some detectable feature of an organism is only one component of inheritance. Genes interact in complex ways determined partly by environmental influences, events can switch genes on and off according to circumstances, and survival-enhancing features innovated by a parent can pass to its descendants without changes to the genetic sequence. As I was reading the book, there was news of research showing that mice taught to become frightened when they smelt cherry blossom could pass that fear to offspring they had no contact with: the genetic basis of the offsprings’ smell receptors had changed as a result of their parents’ experience.[2] A process like this is termed epigenetic, and epigenetics increasingly seems to be a significant factor in evolution.

In highlighting anitya and anatman (just two of the traditional three marks), and then adding interdependence, Barash is already reframing Buddhism according to his own preferences. As well as downgrading the third mark (duhkha, suffering), he adds pratitya samutpada, which is indeed basic to a Buddhist understanding of human experience, though it is incorrect either to translate it or to sum it up as only interdependence. It refers to an understanding of how the apparent entities that we single out from our experience come into being and pass away, as well as how they relate with other entities in the present moment. (The Present Moment, incidentally, is the name of Barash’s campervan, named so that he can sometimes claim to be “in” it.)

Barash is happy to modify traditional Buddhist teachings, if the results serve the needs of his audience: modern Westerners who have confidence in the findings of science. Thus he would ditch many of the practices of Eastern Buddhists (he rather condescendingly views them as naive and superstitious), and many of the teachings of what he calls “originalist” Buddhism. Someone has drawn his attention to David McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism, and since it is effectiveness and accuracy that motivate him, he is more than happy to confess that his grasp of Buddhism has come largely from the interpretations and revisions of westernised Buddhists. In fact he goes further, seeking to delineate what almost amounts to his own new religion, which he calls Existential Bio-Buddhism.

I think that this is fine, and it is very gratifying to see a popular scientist sharing an enthusiasm for Buddhism with his readers. Those whose interest is piqued can track down teachers and writers with a stronger basis in Buddhist traditions, and a deeper experience of practising them. But it is disappointing that he lacks the curiosity to further explore the aspects of Buddhism he is tempted to dismiss. (The “arrant nonsense” (page 11) of rebirth, for example, he explains as a “silliness about [transmigration of] souls” (page 138), and concludes that Buddhism must be “muddled” to teach both rebirth and anatman.)  One day, through a more daring dialogue than Barash risks, the interpenetration of Buddhism and biology is going to yield exciting fruit.

How is his biology informed by Buddhism? He uses it to speed up the defeat of essentialist and Platonic ideas in biology, and to support engagement with environmental issues, with its visions of interconnectedness and non-violence. Evolution confirms a kinship between humans and animals, hence a sense of solidarity with other forms of life, and a valuing of the natural world around us. Evolution and Buddhism also similarly agree that human beings are not special, indeed none of us as an individual ego is special either. In return, Barash is happy to contribute a conventional critique of Buddhism from a materialist scientific standpoint.

What other fruit could the dialogue yield?  What interests me most is the mind as an evolved phenomenon. From a human point of view, which is the only viewpoint we have access to, the degree and scope of our awareness is unparalleled in the natural world. Somehow we have come to the ability to reflect on our own experience, sometimes holding the stream of our consciousness in the illumination of mindful awareness. And we can enhance our level of consciousness through working on the mind with the mind. Perhaps as a consequence of this reflexivity, we seem largely trapped in a sense of separation from the world, a subjective me peering out at its hostile or alluring surroundings, always other. The teaching of pratitya samutpada states that this consciousness is dependently arisen, i.e. we can come to comprehend the evolutionary processes which gave rise to human consciousness, and thus understand our own minds better.

I feel that this understanding will not be well served by insisting on a materialist standpoint, as Barash and most scientists of standing do at present. Materialism seems to me to be primarily the rotting corpse of an old European debate, a debate that concluded first that mind and matter were two entirely distinct substances, and later that matter was the one real substance that made up everything in the universe, so that mind is nothing but patterns of electrical and chemical processes in the brain. The three truths that Barash imports from Buddhism – impermanence, not self, and pratitya samutpada – undermine such strict bifurcations as that between mind and matter. And I would say that honest reflection on experience doesn’t allow one to agree that awareness is illusory.  Like the objective world, the subjective or “inside” pole of experience must have arisen through law-governed causal sequences that can be understood. This is true of the whole range of minds found amongst animals, human and nonhuman, as well as this particular fleeting event of awareness that is my present moment. Buddhism wants to find evolutionary explanations (using the term ‘evolution’ in a general sense, not just as Darwinian natural selection). Buddhism has an evolutionary vision, as does biology. Biology is particularly interested in the evolutionary history of consciousness, Buddhism teaches its evolutionary potential, the further development of consciousness through contemplative methods.

Once mind or awareness is taken seriously as a genuine (though not substantial) phenomenon, we could consider its importance in the lives of animals as well as humans. It has arisen through evolution by natural selection: did its presence have any effects on the process of evolution? (Recall interdependence.) One possibility is through the Baldwin Effect, whereby innovative behaviours by animals (and behaviours have a mental origin) can propel them into new environmental niches where fresh selection pressures apply. For example, the Galapagos finches which now instinctively use cactus thorns to extract larvae from tree branches could not have started with a mutation for the behaviour – it is far too complex – they must have started with the novel behaviour, then passed it on through learning, until its different components were gradually selected for in the genes.[3]

Then there is the last of the three marks, duhkha or suffering. Entrenched views don’t just inhibit scientific progress, they may also inhibit compassion, and even promote antisocial practices in science, from cruelty to animals to environmental destruction and involvement in the technology of warfare. I think that an acceptable ethical framework, to be discussed and adopted by scientific communities, has its most likely origin in Buddhist ethics, a natural ethics based in intention and the consequences of behaviour rather than in scriptural commandments. Currently, scientists tend to govern their work with one eye on the law and the other on public opinion, but with little genuinely humanitarian ethical guidance.

Barash gives the impression of being an ethical man, and perhaps in a future work he will attempt to apply Buddhist ethics to his science. It may be for others to investigate how a fresh view of mental processes and their role in evolution, stimulated by Buddhism, could open up new avenues of research, as well as more creative ways of interpreting experimental results. More generally, Buddhism suggests a very open and provisional approach to concepts such as the gene, the species, and the individual organism. Constant reminders of impermanence, not self, and pratitya samutpada could release the creativity of scientists when they are entrenched in the “normal science” stage of struggling to fit research results into outdated theories, unwilling to let go of time-honoured biological concepts.

I would recommend Buddhist Biology to readers whose main allegiance is with science. It provides a friendly and engaging tourist guide to some of the features of Buddhism. We natives may chuckle at the guide’s simplifications and inaccuracies, but he points out impermanence, not self and interconnectedness; he shows how they apply to the biological sciences; and so he gives an authentic impression of Buddhism that may lead some of his readers to investigate it more thoroughly elsewhere, and to explore its practices in their own lives.

[1] Stephen Jay Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16-22.

[2] http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v17/n1/full/nn.3594.html accessed 1/1/14.

[3] D Papineau, “Social learning and the Baldwin effect” In A. Zilhão (ed.), Cognition, Evolution, and Rationality. (Routledge, 2005).  Also see Erika Crispo, “The Baldwin Effect and Genetic Assimilation” in Evolution 61-11: 2469–2479 (2007).

Is Buddhism Scientific?

A Review of Buddhism and Science: a Guide for the Perplexed

p199by Donald S Lopez Jr (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

After one of his recent lectures at Yale, a questioner almost pleaded with Donald Lopez: ‘Surely Buddhism is the most rational of religions’.  Lopez retorted, somewhat icily: ‘That is a Victorian conceit!’[1]  In this book, Lopez warms up considerably as he tries to defend Buddhism from the embrace of science and rationality.

The title is misleading.  Buddhism and Science simply aims ‘to document some of the ways that Buddhism has been represented as compatible with science over the past 150 years.’  (p216).  Lopez himself, a very fine Buddhist scholar and linguist, is unqualified to discuss scientific issues, as he freely admits (p4).[2]  So he tries to avoid the temptation to assess the validity of compatibility claims.

Scientific paradigms evolve, and the view of what Buddhism is has also shifted since the two were first compared.  With the image of both Buddhism and science shifting so much, Lopez is surprised that their compatibility has been claimed so consistently, especially since the need to counter anti-Buddhist views from missionaries and colonialists has long passed.  Before Einstein’s relativity demoted Newton’s mechanical universe, apologists seized on karma as a natural and mechanical law.  After the Second World War, Zen displaced Theravada in the popular imagination in the West, and the preoccupation became interdependence (derived from ‘creative readings of Nagarjuna’, p31); then emptiness and quantum physics, and today meditation, the brain and cognitive science.

After a long chapter on traditional Buddhism’s Mount Meru cosmology, perhaps the most obvious material to be dispensed with in the light of western geography, Lopez turns to the issue of social class and caste.  This issue is even less relevant to Buddhism and science than Mount Meru.  There may have sometimes been a racist, or at least nationalist, tinge to the Buddhist use of traditional terms like ‘aryan’ in the early 20th-century, and Lopez links this with the notorious racist ‘science’ of the same period.

Chapter 3 focuses on the Dalai Lama and another Tibetan monk, Gendun Chopel.  The latter encountered modern technology during his travels in the 1930s, and enthusiastically explained it to his compatriots.  Chapter 4 is the highlight of the book, covering the early decades of the investigation of Buddhism by European scholars, who constructed an image of a rational, even scientific, Buddha, which was then re-exported back to Asia.  The final chapter looks at laboratory studies of Buddhist meditation.

How do we compare Buddhism and science?  Perhaps the two simply rule over separate domains: the internal and external world respectively.  This was the Dalai Lama’s position in his early writings.  More true to Tibetan Buddhism is the distinction between the ultimate truth of liberation, and conventional truths concerning the mundane world.  But the line between Buddhism and science is not so easy to draw: Buddhism is itself concerned with conventional truths, and science regards itself as seeking Truth itself.

Some 20 years ago, the Dalai Lama’s youthful fascination with technology and astronomy firmed into what has become a very fruitful ongoing dialogue with many Western scientists.  He inaugurated – and is the focus of – a continuing series of biennial ‘Mind-life Conferences’,[3] where Buddhists and scientists seem to have genuinely learned from each other in a number of fields.  In fact, Lopez fears that the contact has infected the Dalai Lama with modernist tendencies, so that he is open to Buddhist ideas being corrected by science, and even prioritises experience over scripture (p139), a stance which Lopez regards as disturbingly innovative.

Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama seems to feel that certain Buddhist teachings need defending against scientific scepticism or materialism: karma and rebirth, yes, and most importantly, the need for compassion.  For example, in a recent book on his response to science, The Universe in a Single Atom – examined in some detail by Lopez,  the Dalai Lama’s enthusiasm for science stops short of fully endorsing evolution by natural selection.  From early on, the evolutionary nature of Buddhist thought has been recognised in the West,[4] but the Dalai Lama’s problem is with the mind appearing out of non-mind, and with randomness.  Since, in his view, mind and matter are quite distinct, how could a stream of mind appear in an evolving being, where no mind has existed before?  The Buddhist explanation has to involve karma, rebirth, and a beginningless mind-stream.  The Dalai Lama concedes that karma is an assumption, but no more than ‘that all of life is material and originated out of pure chance… karma can have a central role in understanding the origination of what Buddhism calls ‘sentience’, through the media of energy and consciousness.’[5]  The Dalai Lama understands Darwinism to claim that humans are ‘the products of pure chance in the random combination of genes, with no purpose other than the biological imperative of reproduction’,[6] leaving no room for true altruism.  Lopez ascribes to the Dalai Lama, probably mistakenly,  the very odd logic that if there were no karma and rebirth, there would be no Samsara, and so no place for the bodhisattva’s compassionate vow to liberate all from Samsara.  Surely the Bodhisattva’s compassion would not be stifled by a change in his or her conception of the scope of Samsara?

When the Dalai Lama expresses a hope that the wisdom needed on the Buddhist path will be enhanced by scientific discoveries, Lopez remarks that this was ‘something presumably not needed by pre-modern aspirants to [Enlightenment].’ (p151)  He goes on to attack the Dalai Lama’s omissions in this one book, which we must remember was specifically on the topic of science.  These include Nirvana and the non-physical realms, deities and the protectors he consults, and the possibility of living in the world untainted by the eight worldly concerns.

Elsewhere, the Dalai Lama comments extensively on such unscientific matters, but is not concerned to defend one glaringly pre-scientific Buddhist teaching. By the mid-19th century, Christian missionaries were deriding Buddhists for believing in Meru, the giant central mountain, topped by heavens, on a disc-shaped world.  Ignoring their own churches’ struggles with science, they upheld Western map-making and astronomy as showing the true state of affairs.  One Japanese Buddhist tried to defend Meru on scientific grounds (of course his efforts were fruitless) and some Tibetan lamas were still clinging to Meru cosmology quite recently.  So why did the Enlightened One have such poor knowledge of geography?  The Dalai Lama is prepared to say that the Buddha was simply wrong.  For Lopez, Meru looms large, and he strangely compares a Buddhism lacking Mount Meru to a chessboard without the Queen — if Buddhism loses Meru, he says, what doctrines are safe? (p72) However, Buddhist history is littered with the husks of superseded teachings.  A standard Mahayana explanation is that the Buddha, through skilful means, taught provisional truths to those not ready to hear higher truths.  More likely, he made use of contemporary Indian myths and travellers’ tales to construct a cosmology that could act as a vehicle for spiritual teachings, and didn’t know that it was not literally true.

The French Sanskrit scholar Eugène Burnhouf wrote the first authoritative book on Buddhism, published in 1844, after eagerly translating thousands of pages of Sanskrit manuscripts newly arrived from Nepal (p168).  His disciple, Max Müller, based at Oxford, built on his master’s erudition, and established an academic view of the Buddha that is only now being seriously questioned well over a century later (p187).

While celebrating Burnhouf and Müller, Lopez laments their misrepresentation of Buddhism as a stark humanistic rationality, which has today developed into modernist versions of the ancient religion ‘with the vast imaginaire of Buddhism largely absent; … extracted from… a universe dense with deities.’ (p216)  As a detached connoisseur of Buddhist cultures, depending chiefly on the preserved texts, Lopez finds modernising trends in Buddhism genuinely distressing, I think, and one has to sympathise.  Yet Buddhism has always been transformed by the cultures it has encountered, at the same time as it has enriched those cultures.  What is important for the practitioner (as opposed to the scholar) is not whether literal beliefs in Mount Meru survive, but whether we still have an effective path towards awakening.  Conceptual hints concerning awakening retain impressions of the Asian cultures Buddhism has passed through.  Soon they will be couched in terms which recognise the insights of Western thinking and the discoveries of modern science.  Yet these discoveries are limited in their scope.

The limits of any scientific investigation of phenomena come at the edge of a direct apprehension (as opposed to a conceptual description) of the streaming ‘contents’ of consciousness.  Lopez quotes DT Suzuki: ‘the spiritual facts we experience are not demonstrable, for they are so direct and immediate that the uninitiated are altogether at a loss to get a glimpse of them.’[7]  Such spiritual discoveries may provide scientists with hints concerning where to direct their observations, as well as suggestive explanatory frameworks. Suzuki noted a century ago that ‘Buddhism clearly anticipated the outcome of modern psychological researches’[8] (for example, explaining mentality with no place for a soul), and scientific psychology is still learning from Buddhist accounts.

A Chinese Buddhist commentator in the 1920s (Taixu) saw science as a stepping-stone towards a wisdom that goes beyond science and logic (p19).  Lopez takes this to imply that science can confirm the insights of Buddhism, but can’t achieve those insights itself, and regards this as a ‘strident’ view.  He seems not to distinguish between the attempt to convey one’s direct apprehensions of reality in concepts, and those realisations themselves.  Neither science nor Buddhism can have insights; each provides a set of frameworks for conveying experience.  Scientists have shown that careful quantitative observation allows meaningful accounts of reality to develop more or less cumulatively; those accounts are what we call science.  They help us understand how the material universe (including the human brain) works, and how to manipulate it effectively.

Are the realisations of mystics and meditators legitimate?  Yes, but the accounts the meditators give of their experiences, their interpretations, can surely be clarified –and even corrected – in the light of other, scientific sources of knowledge.  Suffering, impermanence and insubstantiality are still there, both subjectively and objectively.  They are amenable to discovery through contemplation, and through reflection on one’s experience of life.  They are also accessible to empirical investigation.  For Buddhists, the most significant arena of investigation is human experience, and thus the human mind.

The Dalai Lama has encouraged neuroscientists to investigate brain changes during meditation, and thus they have found willing volunteers amongst Tibetan monastics.  Wider studies have looked at the psychological effectiveness of meditation, though these have generally used simple meditation techniques that are not specifically Buddhist.  In a bizarre narrative, which is also something of a tour de force, Lopez opens the fifth chapter with a ten page imaginary account of a Tibetan performing the elaborate ritual visualisation of the deity Vajrayogini, only to be interrupted by the discomfort of his rectal thermometer and scalp electrodes!  It’s a striking juxtaposition of two apparently unrelated worlds.  How can you investigate scientifically whether Buddhist meditations work?  Can you even tie down what it would mean for them to ‘work’ in a truly Buddhist sense?  Indeed, that rectal thermometer may have registered a rise in body temperature.  So what?

Rather than meditation and other practices that constitute the Dharma, Lopez’ primary focus is on the image of the Buddha.  He contrasts the larger-than-life Buddha of the canonical texts, even the less baroque Pali ones, with the reasonable humanistic educator Buddha of the Western scholars.  Yet a number of those same texts represent the Buddha as asking his followers to honour the Dharma rather than his person, and to put his teachings into practice.  Arguably, his central teaching was of conditioned arising (pratītya samutpāda).  Specifics of the causes of suffering in craving, aversion and ignorance, and of cultivating a path to awakening, are instances of conditioned arising.  Conditioned arising asserts that there are regularities in human life, as well as in the world, that ensure that one set of circumstances surely evolve into particular new circumstances, a process that can be discovered.  It is here that the strongest parallel with science lies.  Science too is trying to trace the lines of causality that explain observed situations, and predict how they will evolve. Science is on its surest ground when it explores the regularities of matter and energy, untouched by the human will.  But there is no need to debar science from the phenomena of the psyche, and even the suggestion of karmic links between one’s willed actions and later events should be, to some extent, testable scientifically.

However, does Buddhism need that supplementation from science?  The question for pious traditionalist Buddhists is: ‘is there any knowledge beyond the content of the Buddha’s enlightenment that could be discovered by science?’  Many have been tempted to answer ‘no’, believing that the Buddha withheld certain truths either because people were not ready for them, or because they were not relevant for overcoming suffering and gaining enlightenment.  Could the Buddha, for example, have accepted belief in Mount Meru only because he knew no better? How much did the Buddha know?  Lopez asserts that ‘everything’ is the traditional view; some of the Mahayana texts he quotes seem to support this, though his canonical Pali sources circumscribe the Buddha’s knowledge comparatively severely.[9]  It is, surely, preposterous to claim (as Lopez puts it) that an Iron Age teacher understood Einstein’s theory of relativity, though a number of eastern Buddhists have done so.

Whatever the Buddha did or didn’t know, surely we are aided in comparing Buddhism and science by comparing their respective sources of knowledge.  Here, Lopez is interesting on sources of knowledge in Buddhism, especially when he considers the Dalai Lama’s views, but his ignorance of science makes it difficult for him to assess the comparison effectively.  Perhaps it is deliberate that there is no definition of science in this book.  This certainly helps Lopez avoid directly confronting the issue of compatibility from scratch; he prefers simply to analyse the succession of claims made by other writers.  In any case, he questions the much-vaunted ’empiricism’ of Buddhism, claiming that experiences, including deep meditation experiences, are recounted in the light of, and validated from, scriptural authority (p210).  (Science, also, is much less empirical than is often maintained, observations often being strongly influenced by theoretical assumptions.)

This is a valuable and fascinating survey of encounters between Buddhism and science.  I’m left with a sense of regret, however, that Lopez did not seek out as co-author an academic as literate in science as he is in historical scholarship, so that the two great disciplines could be brought at least to a point of mutual comprehension.  From that point of comprehension, the compassionate project of Buddhism can be enhanced by the insights of science, and by applying science to beneficial technologies.  And science can perhaps learn a non-supernatural ethics from a friendly Buddhism, as well as finding a guide into the subtleties of human consciousness.

First published  in Western Buddhist Review, Vol. 5.

Notes.

[1] ‘The Problem with Karma’, the third Terry Lecture at Yale University, 6 October 2008, video stream available online.

[2] This is not just modesty; for example, when Lopez humorously attempts to imagine a Buddhist response to cloning, he seems unfamiliar with what cloning actually involves (p150).

[3] Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom (Little Brown, London, 2005), 38f.

[4] Page 244n, and Robin Cooper, The Evolving Mind (Windhorse Publications, 1996).

[5] Quoted on pages 150-1.

[6] Quoted on page 151.

[7] Quoted on page 24, from Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism (1908).

[8] Quoted on page 23, from the same source.

[9] See Dharmacari Naagapriya, ‘Was the Buddha Omniscient?’ (Western Buddhist Review, volume 4).