Buddhism and Science for the Perplexed

Buddhism and Science for the Perplexed

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A Review of Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2008).

In brief, Donald S. Lopez is interested not only in the “what happened” of the Buddhist encounter with science, but in the “how” and “why” of the various encounters. Thus the long introductory chapter summarizes the main lines of Buddhist engagements with the sciences – e.g., that represented by the Theosophists in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, that presented at and which emerged out of the aftermath of the World’s Fair at Chicago in 1893, that inaugurated by the popular book The Tao of Physics (by Fritjof Capra) in the mid-1970s, and that undertaken most recently by His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and his Tibetan Buddhist associates, among other developments. However, it does so in order to observe the ideological motivations at work, i.e., about Buddhism as being a rational set of beliefs and practices rather than being an outmoded superstition (amidst the modern context), about Buddhism being at least equal to if not superior than Christianity or other Western religious or philosophical traditions (amidst the colonial context), or about Buddhism as capable of serving the needs of a people in quest of recognition as a modern nation-state (in the Tibetan case). Hence Lopez produces “a guide for the perplexed” in the sense that he attempts to make explicit how the meeting of Buddhism and science is really also about the larger story of Buddhism’s entry into and survival within the modern world.

The five chapters of the book focus on different facets of the overarching narrative but register related points of Lopez’s thesis. Chapter 1 explores how Buddhists attempted to understand, defend, reinterpret, or reject the Mount Meru “arising-out-of-a-flat-earth” cosmology that is prevalent across the spectrum of the ancient sutras. In one respect, this chapter probably fits most easily in the religion-and-science genre familiar to readers of this journal, and many Christians will recognize parallels between the various Buddhist responses to this question and what has happened in the last 150 years in the Christianity-and-science encounter. Thus, for example, the most popular Buddhist strategy has been to suggest that the Buddha, while fully knowing that the earth was round rather than flat, adopted the existing cosmological assumptions of his time as an exercise of “skillful means” for the purpose of conveying his message to his audience; yet this is also clearly the predominant approach among Christians who have sought to harmonize the biblical cosmology with contemporary scientific understandings of the world. But Lopez the scholar is not simply content to describe and analyze, he also pushes the hermeneutical and normative (buddhalogical or dharmalogical) question: how far can the “demythologization” of Buddhist cosmology go before undermining the Buddhist worldview and message?

Chapter 2 discusses “Buddhism and the science of race,” particularly observing how the Sanskrit term ¨¡ryan was exploited to argue for the superiority of Buddhist language, culture, and religion in the last two centuries. Thus, against politically correct scholarship that would have supported an egalitarian interpretation of the Buddhist tradition, Lopez pulls no punches in identifying how the Buddhist doctrine of karma was fundamentally tied in with the caste system of ancient India, and how this combined ¨¡ryan and doctrinal heritage has been re-deployed ideologically in Sri Lanka in the last fifty years by the Sinhalese majority against the Tamil minority. But again, Lopez observes both that the doctrine of karma sits very ill at ease with the modern theory of evolution, and that Aryanism is an ideology rather than a scientifically established historical tradition.

In chapter 3, the lives of two Tibetans, Gendun Chopel (1903-1951) and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (1935- ), take center stage. Chopel traveled widely across the Asian continent, and thought about Asia’s encounter with the west, modernity, and science. He wrote a long section at the end of his reflections on his pilgrimage which Lopez translates in its entirety in this chapter (pp. 108-12) and then provides commentary upon at some length. Then attention is focused on the Dalai Lama, who has been involved since the mid-1980s in dialogues with western scientists (which have been published in a number of volumes; for details, see also Yong, “Mind and Life, Religion and Science: The Dalai Lama and the Buddhist-Christian-Science Trilogue,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 28 [2008]: 43-63). Lopez notes how both men, motivated by their love of country, have sought to encourage their fellow Tibetans to embrace modern science in order to enable the emergence of Tibet into modernity. But the cost of entry into the modern world is the acceptance of modern science, to the point that even His Holiness has been said to be willing to reject any aspect of Buddhist teachings if it were shown to be false by science. What happens to Tibetan Buddhism going down this road is that it becomes indistinguishable from what happened to that Buddhist traditions that encountered the Theosophists a century before: in each case, the supernatural aspects of the tradition were minimized or even rejected in favor of a more scientific orientation and explanation.

The fourth chapter titled “The Science of Buddhism” is the most difficult to follow in terms of understanding its inclusion in this book. What is explicated here is the emergence of the scientific study of Buddhism since the mid-nineteenth century. In the end, the moral of the chapter can be compared to the story of the rise of historical criticism in the Christian West. What is at stake is either a scientifically informed but demythologized religious tradition or a robust religious tradition that resists scientific analysis. Thus the fifth and final chapter describes the emerging neuroscientific study of Buddhist meditation, but Lopez contrasts what occurs in the laboratory with a rich and thick phenomenological depiction of what really happens in the meditative ritual which defies scientific reductionism or even analysis.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama seems to recognize the very limited religious value of historical criticism or of a scientific approach to Buddhism, admitting after hearing three scholarly presentations on the Buddhist tradition: “If I believed what you told me…, the Buddha would only be a nice person” (p. 195). Yet Lopez’s point is that even with this realization, the price of entry into the modern world comes with a cost that even the Dalai Lama seems willing to pay at some level. What seems ironic in this regard is that, as Lopez notes in not so many words, the Buddhist encounter with science both highlights the need for the articulation of the “unchanging truth” of the tradition (which is odd given the Buddhist doctrine of the impermanence of all things!) on the one hand, but also reflects the fluidity and adaptability of the tradition vis-a-vis modernity and modern science (which in turn raises the question about what all the fuss is about anyway) on the other hand. Lopez adopts both postures at different junctures of the book, although ultimately, he seems to remain more a historian of Buddhism who is committed to preserving a recognition of the richness and complexity of the practices in the tradition no matter how difficult that may be to reconcile doctrinally with modern science. But it is also precisely because Lopez handles his responsibilities as a scholar of religion well that readers ofBuddhism and Science can decide for themselves in the end if the price for admission to the religion-and-science dialogue table comes at too great a cost for Buddhist practice and self-understanding in the modern world.