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Parallel Paths?

Review: A useful but incomplete book looks at the compatibility (if any) of Buddhism and science.

Every few years since 1987, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and his senior monks have met with a select group of distinguished neurologists, psychologists and other Western scholars to discuss the latest research into the neuroscience of meditation and the mind-body connection. The gatherings, organized by the Mind & Life Institute, explore the common ground between science and Buddhism, a 2,400-year-old tradition with roots in ancient India. These gatherings have spawned popular books and helped lay the groundwork for the burgeoning study of how Buddhist teachings illuminate the workings of the mind.

It's hard to imagine a similar collaboration between scientists and, say, a group of priests or rabbis — or any other adherents of divinely inspired faiths, for that matter. Yet it is somehow taken for granted that Buddhism, a tradition conspicuously lacking a creator deity, meshes nicely with science and its impersonal natural laws.

Or does it? In Buddhism & Science: A Guide for the Perplexed, Donald Lopez observes that Western scholars and Asian Buddhists have taken turns proclaiming the compatibility of science and Buddhism for some time now — more than 150 years, in fact. "The claim that an itinerant teacher of Iron Age India understood the theory of relativity, quantum physics or the big-bang theory (each of which has been asserted) would seem to be preposterous," Lopez writes. "Yet such claims have been made for more than a century, substituting whatever is regarded as the most advanced scientific knowledge of the day as a component of the Buddha's enlightenment."

This pattern has more to do with the mutual agendas of Asians and Western converts than with any true similarity between the scientific and Buddhist traditions, Lopez contends: "Asian Buddhists have argued for the compatibility in order to validate their Buddhism. European and American enthusiasts and devotees have argued for the compatibility in order to exoticize Science, to find it validated in the insights of an ancient Asian sage."

Lopez admits he is no scientist, and he won't grapple with speculation that Buddhist concepts of impermanence and emptiness somehow presaged the strange, subatomic realm of quantum physics, where virtual wave-particles wink in and out of existence.

A professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan, Lopez is a historian conversant with how Buddhism has been practiced at different times and places. Unsurprisingly, he disdains a "Buddhist modernism" that strips the Buddha's teachings from the cultural matrix in which they have been presented for centuries.

Varied Buddhisms, Varied Buddhas
Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, wandered the plains of northern India as early as the sixth century B.C., although scholars now think he probably died around 400 B.C., nearly a century later than the traditional dates. The sutras portray him as deeply affected by the problem of suffering; he is said to have practiced arduous meditation for six years before reaching enlightenment at age 35. He spent his remaining 45 years teaching legions of students, and as his dharma spread throughout Asia, a bewildering array of practices and beliefs grew up, reflected today in the Mahayana schools of East Asia, the Theravadan traditions of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, and the tantric Buddhism of Tibet known as Vajrayana.

These varied "Buddhisms" largely preserved core elements of the Buddha's teaching, including suffering (dukkha) as the shared human condition and the identification of craving (tanha) as the root of that suffering. The Buddha also taught the universality of impermanence (anicca), the doctrine of "no self" (anatman) — the idea that things have no abiding identity — and cause and effect (karma). Cool and analytical, the concepts call to mind modern psychology and philosophical schools like existentialism and phenomenology.

That, at any rate, is how Western scholars and practitioners usually present the Buddha's story. But, as Lopez reminds us, Asian Buddhists see the Buddha rather differently.

The Asian Buddha has supernatural attributes, starting with a miraculous birth accompanied by celestial fireworks. He consorts with bodhisattvas (those seeking the path to enlightenment), can predict the future, has full knowledge of his past lives and is omniscient regarding this world and everyone in it. By definition, therefore, everything the Buddha says must be true, and his realization is so complete that he is in a perpetual state of perfect enlightenment.

Western scholars somehow transmuted this devotional Asian Buddhism into a thought system so devoid of belief that some argue it isn't a religion at all. Lopez traces this process back to the early 19th century and the arrival of European colonialists in India, Sri Lanka, China and Japan.

A key figure was Brian Houghton Hodgson, a British envoy to Nepal, who collected Sanskrit manuscripts from a local monk and sent them to Europe for translation. At the time, Europeans knew little about Buddhism, which had died out as a living tradition in the land of its birth some six centuries earlier.

This was the era of the great philologists who mastered ancient Sanskrit and Pali and hypothesized their links to Slavic, Germanic, Celtic, Romance and Hellenic languages in an extended Indo-European linguistic family. When Hodgson's manuscripts got to Paris in 1837, they were eagerly pored over by Eugène Burnouf, a renowned Sanskritist.

Burnouf's reading of these texts formed the basis of his Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism, published in 1844. It was a massively influential work, read by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, as well as the American transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Burnouf muted the Buddha's superhuman characteristics and accentuated his humanity, according to Lopez. Burnouf's Buddha is a heroic "philosopher," the epitome of an Enlightenment man.

Even as scholars were idealizing the Buddha in the libraries of Europe, Christian missionaries were trying to convert practicing Buddhists across Asia. They were confident of their religion's superiority, disparaging Buddhism as little more than rank superstition. But in time, Asian Buddhists started to push back. A Sri Lankan Buddhist monk named Gunananda started publishing anti-Christian pamphlets in 1862. Eleven years later, he debated Buddhist cosmology with a Wesleyan clergyman before a crowd of 5,000, who generally agreed that Gunananda won by pointing out disputes among British scientists regarding Newton's theories.

A generation later, Soyen Shaku, a Japanese Zen priest who twice visited the United States, would proclaim Buddhism's compatibility with science: "It is wonderful that Buddhism clearly anticipated the outcome of modern psychological researches at the time when all other religious and philosophical systems were eagerly cherishing dogmatic superstitions concerning the nature of the ego." Shaku's disciple, D.T. Suzuki, later played a huge role in popularizing Zen among Westerners.

It's All Relative, Right?
Just as Buddhism has been viewed differently depending on setting and perspective, science has likewise proved malleable. Nineteenth-century scientists thought in terms of enduring but impersonal natural laws that governed the visible world: gravity, natural selection and thermodynamics. In this era, a comparison with Buddhism's impersonal karmic law might seem logical enough.

But science morphed from the predictable mechanisms of Newtonian physics to relativity's mind-bending curved space-time. Today, as scientists plumb the perplexities of string theory, dark matter and multidimensional parallel universes, the orderly Victorian cosmos seems like a comforting childhood memory.

Buddhism-science proponents were undeterred, simply accentuating other Buddhist teachings, like "no self" (or its correlate, "emptiness"), which seemed to resonate with the new science. And so in 1975, physicist Fritjof Capra published The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. Capra's approach is "not one of proof, but evocation," Lopez writes scathingly, adding, "One can only assume that he finds a deep comfort in the knowledge that what is newly known was once known long ago."

Lopez also implicates the Dalai Lama, who has frequently expressed his interest in science and in 2005 even published a book on the subject, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality. Although His Holiness sees Buddhism and science as occupying separate but complementary realms (roughly speaking, the spiritual world versus the physical), he "seems to describe a new Buddhism, one that retains compassion as its primary motivation, but adds the discoveries of modern science to the wisdom needed to complete the long path to buddhahood," Lopez writes.

Buddhists may indeed have to alter their worldview to accommodate modern science, Lopez acknowledges, but he cautions that the baby should not be discarded with the bathwater. "The question," he writes, "is which Buddhist doctrines can be eliminated while allowing Buddhism to remain Buddhism."

Lopez's strengths as a historian — his impressive command of the vast Buddhist literature and his skills at dissecting a text - may contribute to some of his book's problems. Too often, he assumes an essentialized Buddhism inferred from the sutra texts, rather than acknowledging the myriad ways that Buddhism actually manifests. In this way, he is an unexpected heir to the old Sanskritists.

And while ridiculing old comparisons between Buddhist ideas and now-discredited scientific theories is like shooting ducks in a barrel, many would argue that it is the paths, rather than the content, that are similar.

Lopez would deny even this similarity. Buddhism is profoundly "conservative," he says, owing more to replicating the Buddha's original insight as reflected in the sutra teachings than to firsthand experience. But this overlooks the glaring example of Zen, which explicitly rejects reliance on the texts in favor of sustained meditative practice. For Zen practitioners, and Buddhist monastics generally, the path has a see-it-for-yourself quality that at least resembles the trial and error of scientific empiricism.

Lopez barely acknowledges Buddhist converts in the West and in China (where Buddhism was suppressed for 50 years). Many, having rejected traditional faiths, were drawn to "Buddhist modernism" precisely because of its apparent rationality. For these Buddhists, in their own way as "real" as the traditional Asian kind, the perceived compatibility with science circumvents the cognitive dissonance associated with theistic religion — a measure of science's immense explanatory power.

Lopez briefly discusses research into the neural aspects of Buddhist meditation, made possible by new tools like functional magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography, but draws no conclusions. He omits mention of how Buddhist meditation is affecting clinical psychology, including the introduction of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Nor does he examine how the Buddhist concept of "no self" may accord with modern neuroscience, which sees the components of consciousness arising in many parts of the brain at once.

The book does a fine job of deconstructing many of the Western myths that have arisen about the Buddhist tradition, but it falls short of being a comprehensive discussion of Buddhism's relationship to science. It is, nevertheless, a worthwhile introduction to the topic, providing a valuable critical perspective in an area prone to much wishful thinking.

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