Is Buddhism Compatible With Modern Science?

The compatibility of Buddhism and science was being argued during the Victorian period. More recently this idea has been popularised by writers like Fritjoff Capra (who wrote a book – The Tao of Physics – on how Western science and Eastern religions were apparently converging), and former monk Stephen Batchelor (who argued the case for a socially engaged, secular western Buddhism free from its cultural and religious accretions in Buddhism Without Beliefs.) In this post I explain why I no longer regard Buddhism and western science as compatible…

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I used to think that Buddhism was compatible with modern science, but not anymore.

That Buddhism is scientific is not a new idea.  As Donald Lopez explains –

Statements about the compatibility of Buddhism and science were being made in the 1860s—in Europe and America during the Victorian period, as Buddhism became fashionable in intellectual circles, and at the same time in Asia, as Buddhist thinkers were defending themselves against the attacks of Christian missionaries… Some even went so far as to declare that Buddhism was not a religion at all, but was itself a science, a science of the mind. [1]

Buddha-and-Einstein  (www.bristol-buddhist-centre.org)

Buddha & Einstein
(image source: www.bristol-buddhist-centre.org)

This idea that Buddhism and science are compatible was popularised in the 1960s and 70’s by authors like Fritjoff Capra, who in his best selling The Tao of Physics had argued that Western science and Eastern religions were now converging.  In the 1990’s, former monk Stephen Batchelor argued the case for a socially engaged, secular western Buddhism free from its cultural and religious accretions in Buddhism Without Beliefs – a book that subsequently prompted me to investigate for myself what Buddhism had to offer.

However, given that the Pali Cannon is generally accepted as the wellspring from which all main variants of ‘Buddhism’ flow, we cannot in all honesty just ignore the fact that the suttas are peppered with references to devas inhabiting other realms of existence, or that the Enlightened Noble One is referred to thus –

 Itipi so bhagavā arahaṃ sammā-sambuddho,
(He is a Blessed One, a Worthy One, a Rightly Self-awakened One),
Vijjā-caraṇa-sampanno sugato lokavidū,
(Consummate in knowledge and conduct, one who has gone the good way, knower of the cosmos),
Anuttaro purisa-damma-sārathi satthā deva-manussānaṃ buddho bhagavāti.
(Unexcelled trainer of those who can be taught, teacher of human and divine beings; awakened; blessed).

As Stephen Ruppenthal notes in his commentary on the Dhammapada, the Buddha urges us time and again to attain nibbana by suspending our creative thinking – the very process that all humanists value so highly. [2]

Moreover, the Kalama Sutta – so often wrongly interpreted as meaning that we are free to basically pick and choose what bits of the Dhamma accords with our own (deluded) experience – is actually a call for faith in the Buddha, though not the blind faith one often sees in those who follow a theistic path.  The faith that’s being talked of here is more akin to trust or confidence that Buddha’s advice will yield good results (i.e. enlightened liberation from stress) if practiced sincerely and intelligently, neither accepting it on hearsay nor rejecting it according to one’s personal prejudices.

When I first came to Buddhism I was only interested in making my life more peaceful and satisfying. The following paragraph describes exactly the attitude I had –

Newcomers to Buddhism are usually impressed by the clarity, directness, and earthy practicality of the Dhamma as embodied in such basic teachings as the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the threefold training. These teachings, as clear as day-light, are accessible to any serious seeker looking for a way beyond suffering. When, however, these seekers encounter the doctrine of rebirth, they often balk, convinced it just doesn’t make sense. At this point, they suspect that the teaching has swerved off course, tumbling from the grand highway of reason into wistfulness and speculation… A few critics even question the authenticity of the texts on rebirth, arguing that they must be interpolations. [3]

For years I operated under the humanistic assumption that the teachings on kamma and rebirth and cosmology were either cultural accretion, or else the Buddha may actually have given them in deference to the rigid social hierarchy of his time.  But as Ven Bhikkhu Bodhi says, a quick glance through the Pali scriptures soon reveals that these claims just don’t bear up to scrutiny.

 

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[1] Donald S. Lopez, ‘The Scientific Buddha: Why do we ask that Buddhism be compatible with science?‘, on Tricycle website (accessed 20 February 2013)

[2] Stephen Ruppenthal in Eknath Easwaran Tr), The Dhammapada (2nd Ed), Niligiri Press, 2007, p. 114.

[3] Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, ‘Does Rebirth Make Sense?‘, on Buddhist Publication Society website (accessed 20 February 2013).



2 thoughts on “Is Buddhism Compatible With Modern Science?

  1. Firstly, I agree of your desire to scrutinize Buddhism carefully, however, I don’t agree that Buddhism isn’t compatible with modern science (pure science – as an ongoing process of discovery) and while agree with most of the assertions made do not agree on your claim about creative thinking.

    I agree that meditation is important and ‘creative thinking’ is apposed in this regard but can not accept that it should be abandoned or has traditionally been abandoned. Without it we could never have had the great Huayan philosophers such as Tu-Shun (杜順), Chih-yen (智儼), Fa-tsang (法藏), Ch’eng-kuan (澄觀) and so on. We would also have been without Gihwa who wrote extensive commentaries, Uisang who introduced and promoted the Hwaeom tradition and so on. All these people have been highly creative and without them Buddhism would have been much poorer. 

    I also agree about your interpretation of the Kalama Sutta, but again disagree about rebirth. As Professor Almeder argues that after considering all the evidence it is ‘irrational not to believe in rebirth’ since the evidence is so strong (cf, http://searching4buddha.blogspot.kr/2013/02/evidence-for-rebirth-and-reincarnation.html)

  2. Hi Ben, many thanks for taking time out to read and comment on my evolving thoughts regarding Buddhism and science. It’s important that I get clear on such things and I really appreciate the feedback.

    When writing my post I probably should have explained my understanding of the modern scientific outlook, instead of naively assuming that we might all agree on this. Whenever I speak of science, I tend to have in mind a viewpoint that is essentially materialist and positivist, and I assume that in general scientists believe the natural world can be truly understood through theorising about observations and measurements. Professional scientists and interested lay persons might disagree with my simplistic notion, but what I’ve just described does appear to me to be a commonly held view – especially among atheist non-scientists who believe that science has more or less disproved all religious claims beyond reasonable doubt.

    Buddhism, on the other hand, appears to be asking us to wake up to these mind-creations, which in our ignorance we understand to be actual reality as opposed to mere conceptual (impermanent) models about reality. Buddhism is empirical, and unlike science its claims cannot be ‘proven’ through debating them in peer reviews or just reading about them.

    What is the aim of Buddhist practice? As I understand it, the aim is to attain liberation from the endless and painful cycle of death and rebirth by walking the Middle Way – a ‘razor edge’ between liking and disliking, as Bhikkhu Yuttadhammo describes it in one of his internet talks. Unlike the Arahant or even the Stream-enterer, unenlightened beings like myself are continually straying on to one or other side of the path, and it results in our feeling always discontented. In our ignorance, we resort to thinking creatively in order to maximise pleasure and minimise pain, and our intentional acts generate kamma (for good or ill) which keeps us bound in samsara. But if we were enlightened we wouldn’t have to think creatively because our actions would always accord with reality – we’d just do whatever needs doing without thinking it through beforehand. No kamma would be generated because our action isn’t based on intention, and so there’s no ‘ripening’ for us to experience at a later date.

    I agree that letting go attachment to our creative efforts is tough one, but is it not Zen that teaches ‘the finger pointing at the moon isn’t the moon’?

    With regard to rebirth, I no longer have any view about it; the experience is simply beyond my ability to recollect so I just don’t worry about it, though presumably I’ll discover (re-discover?) the truth at some future date… 😉

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