Grabbing a firebrand

Grabbing a firebrand: aphorisms and Sangharakshita

Whenever we’re presented with a statement, it’s so tempting to take it literally, not to look through it for truth, but to think it is the truth.

The aphorism

The world will be different only if we live differently.[1] This quotation is an aphorism.

Aphorisms are short, pithy statements containing a truth of general import. The etymology is from Gk. aphorismos ‘a definition, a pithy sentence,’ from aphorīzein ‘to mark off, divide’ apo- ‘from’ + horīzein ‘to bound.’ Synonyms are the words ‘maxim’ and ‘saying’. An ‘axiom’ is different, a statement of self-evident truth; and an ‘epigram’ is like an aphorism, but lacking in general import.[2]

So an aphorism is ‘from a horizon’. An aphorism is a statement which defines a perspective by illustrating or describing the horizon of that perspective. Instead of standing outside a viewpoint and describing the viewpoint, an aphorism adopts a viewpoint and identifies the things which are only visible from that perspective.[3]

But an aphorism is like a firebrand — you can easily get burnt if you grab the wrong end.

Caspar David Friedrich, 'Wanderer above the sea of fog'

Caspar David Friedrich, ‘Wanderer above the sea of fog’

Nietzsche was one of the great aphorists. He wrote, in his Zarathustra: In the mountains the shortest route is from peak to peak, but for that you must have long legs. Aphorisms should be peaks: and those to whom they are spoken should be big and tall of stature.[4]

Aphorisms are inevitably ambiguous, because they are short and striking. And to work, they should really hit you, so it’s best if they sound rather controversial, against the run of normal opinion. Sangharakshita does this as an aphorist. But before I move on to his sayings, here are a couple of warnings. An aphorism is never exactly true. It is either a half-truth or a truth and a half.[5] And from Dr Johnson: In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath.[6] Lapidary inscriptions are the short sayings carved into tombstones and the like.

Whenever we’re presented with a statement, it’s so tempting to take it literally, not to look through it for truth, but to think it is the truth. But aphorisms say that so much more forcefully:

Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth.[7]

Words, like eyeglasses, blur everything that they do not make more clear.[8]

Encountering Sangharakshita’s sayings

When I was a student in 1976, I used to go along to the little Brighton Buddhist Centre in the backstreets not far from the sea. One of the first things I picked up by Sangharakshita was a yellow coloured booklet called Sangharakshita: Sayings, Poems, Reflections. The very first quotation from Sangharakshita was:

One cannot be what one should be merely by closing one’s eyes to what one is. That sort of thing really grabbed me. Wow, I thought! It worked. I was very struck. I had to think about it.

But you can’t get Sangharakshita’s teachings just from aphorisms. Sometimes, you are bound to get the wrong end of the firebrand.

I remember quite a while ago when a lot of people wanted to argue with Sangharakshita (which some have always have wanted to do, at least ever since I started first heard of him in 1976), I remember him saying: ‘before you decide you disagree with me, clarify your understanding of what I’ve said.’ It’s so easy to assume that one disagrees — or indeed that one agrees. But what does it actually mean?

A powerful example was a very controversial little booklet written by Subhuti, Women Men and Angels.[9] Its title comes from a strange saying by Sangharakshita. Angels are to men as men are to women — because they are more human and, therefore, more divine.[10] What on earth does that mean? It sounds like it’s saying that men are superior to women in some sense. If so, in what sense? But what is this angel? What is an angel? Is it good to be more divine? What about the Buddhist idea of the god realms where the devas (angels) live being a dead end? In any case, what is the background to this weird little saying — how does it fit in with traditional Buddhist teachings? How does it fit in with other ideas of Sangharakshita’s, and his life and behaviour? How does it fit in with your experience? There are so many questions. If possible, ask questions, get clarification before you get indignant.

Here’s another one: ‘One should not waste time helping the weak. Nowadays it is the strong who need help.’[11] If you’re like me sometimes, the kind of person that bristles at an outrageous thing, you might go ‘hey, what’s this about ignoring suffering and defenceless people, and only nurturing some master race?’ (For my thoughts on that saying, see note 11.)

Here’s some advice from Sangharakshita himself on how you might regard teachings or dharmic ideas that you come across. It is not enough to sympathise with something to such an extent that one agrees with it. If necessary, one must sympathise to such an extent that one disagrees.[12]

Attitudes to dharma teachings

Can you look at traditional Buddhist teachings in this critical, non-literal way? Sangharakshita writes: Many years ago, I constantly asked myself: ‘How does this teaching relate to one’s actual spiritual experience, spiritual life and spiritual development? Why did the Buddha say this? Why was the Buddha concerned with this? Where does it connect up with the spiritual life?’ And I found that very, very few scholars ever thought in those terms. In many cases it didn’t even seem to occur to them to do so — even to Buddhists themselves, very often. As though it was just a sort of game, you know, that had no relevance to life and no bearing on the spiritual life or on spiritual development as an individual.[13]

So is Buddhism, the Dharma, true? The Dharma is the Buddha’s Enlightenment objectified, and therefore falsified.[14]

One can only speak the truth to one person. The larger the number of people to whom you are speaking, the more will what you say become an approximation to the truth.[15]

Religion cannot be taught; it can only be caught. You have to catch the spirit of religion, and you do that through the influence of other people.[16]

The Buddha taught and influenced people by what he was, far more than by what he said.[17]

My personal view about Sangharakshita, having lived in the same community as him for five years, having read his stuff, having argued and disagreed with him sometimes, becoming his pupil and disciple by being ordained by him, my personal conclusion is that he is not stupid, and he is not malicious. I could say much more positive things about him than that, but I just want to try to assert those relatively uncontroversial characteristics. He is not stupid, he is not malicious.

I have sometimes heard people, including people in the Triratna Order, taking issue with what they think Sangharakshita believes, either as if he has not thought it through at all, i.e. he is stupid, or as if he’s actually trying to cause trouble. If you start from the view that he basically has a kind intention, and that he does have a reasonable knowledge and intelligence, then you can take what he says rather more subtly, rather more seriously. You might conclude that if your first response to it was ‘that’s puerile’ (to quote a commentator on some of his stuff that I saw recently), or ‘that’s nasty’, then you might pause in your response and say, ‘hang on a minute, perhaps I didn’t quite get it the first time’.

Having a project

I’d like to help his readers to see that Sangharakshita encourages them to make a difference in the world, to make the Dharma more available to people who might enormously benefit from it, if only they could encounter it in the right way. I feel quite strongly about this, though I’m not much good at it myself in most respects.

It seems to me that just about all the Triratna Order members I meet have a lot to congratulate themselves for. They are very impressive people. They have achieved something wonderful. They have found a real meaning in life. They have arrived at a sort of maturity, they’re confident, they have a lot of positivity, they are really alive. Even more importantly, pretty much all the Order members I know, as well as many other Triratna and other Buddhists, are genuinely working on themselves. They are putting into effect the first half of a saying by Sangharakshita: (1) Man can change. (2) He can change himself

It’s such an achievement to have a healthy life worked out, with a real sense of working on oneself, such an admirable and rare achievement. It’s wonderful to see it happening so much, so genuinely. I think it’s there much more now than it was amongst the practitioners that I knew forty years ago when I started coming along to Triratna activities. Much more maturity, confidence, and indeed kindness towards each other, happiness with the lifestyle each has chosen, people thinking for themselves, and making their own decisions. It’s impressive; it is to be rejoiced in.

I’m a bit scared though. I’m scared that because it is so satisfying to have reached that position, that we will stop there. Now we can be happy, now we can be fulfilled and integrated people, we can be comfortable, we can have our achievements on an ordinary human level — perhaps find a profession that helps others to some extent or is creative; perhaps find a loving partner and a good, aesthetic living situation; perhaps find financial security for our futures; perhaps raise a family. In itself, that’s not scary, it’s lovely; it’s a great relief that it is indeed possible!

But what about this poor world? What about human beings, what even about our own future selves, our long-term future selves, ourselves as we die, as we move on into the bewildering unknown.

Let’s finish Sangharakshita’s saying: (1) Man can change. (2) He can change himself. (3) He can help others to change. (4) Together they can change the world.[18]

My own feeling and hope is that a lot of people, to be truly fulfilled, need something else. We need our own projects. Projects for making a difference in the world, but projects that are genuinely our own, that we care about, not just things we have joined in with that looked nice when we were young. Have we got a project? I’ll end this post with some more sayings of Sangharakshita’s.

Need for vision

If one does not dream, one becomes a monster.[19]

Working on a project

If one is healthy, one has energy, and if one     has energy, one naturally wants to put it into something — that is, one wants to work, whether the work consists in digging the soil or painting a picture.[20]

Sometimes I think work — real work, work in which one believes — is the greatest enjoyment in life.[21]

You learn what it is that you are trying to do in the process of trying to do it.[22]

People who have no real work of their own to do will always interfere with that of others. They may even make their ‘work’ to interfere.[23]

Not underestimating oneself

We are usually able to bear much more than we — and others — think we can.[24]

Altruistic projects

You can’t help helping others when you are truly helping yourself… one can help others even simply by providing facilities whereby they can help themselves. The importance of being able to help others in a supportive way is also very great. In a way, even people in the forefront of our activities are only supporting the whole activity of the Sangha. This is developing the faculty of rejoicing in merit.[25]

The deeper the internal realisation, the broader and stronger should be the outflow of energy. A spirituality that is sterile in respect of ‘good works’ is highly suspect. Of course there is such a thing as purely spiritual action on higher levels of consciousness, and this is far more effective than ordinary action, but for most treaders of the spiritual path it is many, many years before this stage is reached, and meanwhile we have to busy ourselves with humble, everyday tasks of service on the mundane level.[26]


From a Buddhist point of view, your duty is what you see as incumbent upon yourself in view of the principles on which you believe, and the situation in which you find yourself.[27]

It is not a sign of spirituality to allow oneself to be exploited. Sooner or later you begin to start resenting it.[28]

I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.[29]

[1] Maturana, H R and F J Varela, The Tree of Knowledge (Shambhala, 1992).

[2] Online etymological dictionary:

[3] Wikipedia

[4] Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pt. 1, ‘Of Reading and Writing,’ 1883-92, trans. 1961

[5] Karl Kraus, Sprüche und Widersprüche, 1909

[6] Johnson, Samuel, in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Vol. vi. Chap. i., 1775

[7] Picasso, quoted in Dore Ashton, Picasso on Art (1972)

[8] Joubert, quoted in Auden and Kronenberger, Faber Book of Aphorisms (1962), 357.

[9] Windhorse Publications, 1995

[10] Peace Is a Fire (Windhorse Publications, 1979), 64

[11] Peace Is a Fire, 75. When I thought about this aphorism, years ago, I decided that it was suggesting that the most effective way of making a difference in the world is to band together with others who seem to be capable of making a difference in the world, referred to here as ‘the strong’ because of that capability. Help the strong in order that the world — which includes everybody, weak or strong — can be genuinely transformed in a radical and lasting way. It could also be hinting that it is a waste of time helping the weak in the sense that you need a certain amount of strength to be able to accept help. But don’t be cowed by this idea. In my opinion, your project must be your own project. Your heart, your vision, is so important. If that vision is to be involved intimately with people who are weak in the sense of being dependent on illegal drugs in extreme ways, for example, than that is admirable. You have found something very hard but very rewarding to do. Wouldn’t it be appalling if somebody was put off from a project like that by some silly little saying in Peace Is a Fire!

[12] Peace Is a Fire, 60

[13] Peace Is a Fire, 99

[14] Peace Is a Fire, 102

[15] Peace Is a Fire, 105

[16] Buddhism and education lecture, A Stream of Stars (Windhorse Publications, 1998), 15

[17] Peace Is a Fire, 106

[18] A Stream of Stars, 18

[19] Peace Is a Fire, 32

[20] Correspondence, A Stream of Stars, 69

[21] Correspondence, A Stream of Stars, 70

[22] ‘A Method of Personal Development’ Lecture, Peace Is a Fire, 30

[23] Peace Is a Fire, 30

[24] Correspondence, Peace Is a Fire, 105

[25] Door of Liberation seminar, Peace Is a Fire, 31

[26] Correspondence, Peace Is a Fire, 31

[27] Tuscany 1982 Question and Answers, A Stream of Stars, 72

[28] Door of Liberation seminar, Peace Is a Fire, 30

[29] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, May 1849

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.

Advances in Science

chap7The Enriching of Memory, a collection of quotations on the site, should be a bit easier to navigate and search now.  Here is something from Michael Roukes on how Science progresses.

“While we keep our futuristic dreams alive, we also need to keep our expectations realistic. It seems that every time we gain access to a regime that is a factor of 10 different—and presumably “better”— two things happen. First, some wonderful, unanticipated scientific phenomenon emerges. But then a thorny host of underlying, equally unanticipated new problems appear. This pattern has held true as we have pushed to decreased size, enhanced sensitivity, greater spatial resolution, higher magnetic and electric fields, lower pressure and temperature, and so on. It is at the heart of why projecting forward too many orders of magnitude is usually perilous. And it is what should imbue us with a sense of humility and proportion at this, the beginning of our journey. Nature has already set the rules for us. We are out to understand and employ her secrets.

“Once we head out on the quest, nature will frequently hand us what initially seems to be nonsensical, disappointing, random gibberish. But the science in the glitches often turns out to be even more significant than the grail motivating the quest. And being proved the fool in this way can truly be the joy of doing science. If we had the power to extrapolate everything correctly from the outset, the pursuit of science would be utterly dry and mechanistic. The delightful truth is that, for complex systems, we do not, and ultimately probably cannot, know everything that is important.

“Complex systems are often exquisitely sensitive to a myriad of parameters beyond our ability to sense and record— much less control—with sufficient regularity and precision. Scientists have studied, and in large part already understand, matter down to the fundamental particles that make up the neutrons, protons and electrons that are of crucial importance to chemists, physicists and engineers. But we still cannot deterministically predict how arbitrarily complex assemblages of these three elemental components will finally behave en masse. For this reason, I firmly believe that it is on the foundation of the experimental science under way [sic], in intimate collaboration with theory, that we will build the road to true nanotechnology. Let’s keep our eyes open for surprises along the way!”

Roukes, Michael, in Scientific American, Vol 13 No1, 100.

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.


[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).