The conflict between science and religion is an old story. It goes all the way back to Galileo, who opposed the Inquisition for his heretical view that the Earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around. In its modern incarnation, the conflict revolves around Christian fundamentalism and its views on evolution. (It is noteworthy that the Catholic Church has no problem with Darwinian evolution.)
In all the struggle between science and religion, Buddhism usually gets a pass. In fact, Buddhism is often presented as consistent with scientific findings in disciplines such as quantum physics or neuroscience. The purported scientific approach to Buddhism has even led some to argue that it is not really a religion and should instead be viewed as a method of empirical research. So today we ask two questions. First, is Buddhism a religion? Second, what is Buddhism’s relationship to science?
The answer to the first question is yes – Buddhism is definitely a religion. I know this because I have been a practicing theoretical astrophysicist for 30 years and a practicing Zen Buddhist for just as long. From that point on I got to know the practices and history of Buddhism quite well, and it is definitely a religion.
Let’s start with a big overview. Buddhism began about 2,500 years ago when an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama began teaching what came to be known as the Dharma (“the Law” or “the Way”) embodied in its four noble truths. Also note that Buddhism was never called Buddhism by Buddhists. Western visitors invented that term. The core idea of the Four Noble Truths is that we suffer because we fail to see that life is an incessant change. Instead, we pass our time in endless rounds of attraction and repulsion, thinking it will somehow lead to satisfaction. In the two and a half millenniums that separated then from now, this Dharma spread across India, south to Sri Lanka, north to Tibet, and then east to China, Korea, and Japan.
Now comes the important point. In each of these cultures, Buddhism functioned exactly as you would think a religion should function. There were rituals, prayers, doctrines, battles over doctrines, rigid hierarchies, oppressive patriarchies and politics – lots and lots of politics. There were also many beliefs that modern, science-oriented people would certainly not sign up for — things like reincarnation, rainbow bodies, and miraculous healings.
Buddhism changed as it grew
If all this is true, how did we in the West view Buddhism so scientifically? Well, part of it is good PR. When Dharma practitioners met people from the West, they purposely emphasized those aspects of their practice that fit a scientific view. It was a way of showing how advanced their spirituality was compared to the Abrahamic traditions based on an “old man in the sky”. Just as importantly, from the 1950s onwards, Buddhist teachers from Asia who came to the West placed a strong emphasis on contemplative practice (meditation) as the heart of the Dharma. Rituals, especially those with supernatural elements, were downplayed. Those parts of Buddhism, therefore, have not taken root in the United States, Europe or the West in general.
All this means that the version of Buddhism that most of us are familiar with is relatively new compared to the forms that developed in India and Asia. The “scientific Buddha” and the idea of Buddhist exceptionalism in science are modern creations. Is this a problem? Does this mean that the dharma going on here is a corrupt or lesser version than what came before, including its relationship to science?
I don’t think so at all.
Over the past 2,500 years, as Buddhism marched eastward, it was always changed by the new cultures it encountered, just as it changed and transformed those cultures. For example, when Buddhism reached China, it became heavily colored with aspects of Taoism. This is how Chan, or Zen as it became known in Japan, was born. Now that it finds a place in the West, Buddhism is changing as it encounters our dominant worldview, which is science. This is just the way things are. No aspect of human culture that is unable to adapt and change is likely to last very long. The way certain aspects of a tradition are emphasized less while others are elevated is part of this process. So if Western Buddhists don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about reincarnation (which I don’t), but want to spend a lot of time on contemplative practice and compassion (which I do), that’s part of Dharma’s evolution here.
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The trick in all of this – and it is difficult – is to allow Buddhism to change as it meets the West without taking away the strength that has endured for so long. Like all religions, Buddhism has always been beneficial – it is about salvation. One difference between it and the Abrahamic religions of the West is that it can be seen as offering salvation without resorting to a theistic God. It is literally atheistic (although traditional Buddhism has many gods, such as kwan-yin, who represent personalized aspects of the dharma). The possibility of a direct realization of the means of salvation is a powerful aspect of Buddhism’s approach. Although contemplative practice in traditional Buddhism was generally reserved for monastics, it was still part of the dharma. That part is now central to the West. But this centrality has also led to the dangers of “McMindfulness,” which takes away Buddhism’s concern for ethical practice and replaces it with a self-centered version of spiritual endeavour.
The bottom line is that it is a mistake to miss the long history of Buddhism as a religion and to think that it should be reduced to something purely secular. This overlooks much of why the Dharma still exists millennia after its conception. At the same time, to demand that Buddhism remain static and retain exactly the forms it used to have in other countries would be tantamount to denying the creative power and evolutionary potential that allowed it to survive for so long.
It is here that the relationship with science is so important. If Buddhism is open to dialogue with scientific practice, that’s great. If his insights on “being a subject” are useful to neuroscience, let’s do it. If his long tradition of highly sophisticated philosophical debate on the nature of experience, mind, and phenomena can add anything useful to discussions at the intersection of philosophy and science, so much the better. These are all excellent possibilities, and the fact that Buddhist leaders like the Dalai Lama are so interested in science only magnifies the potential.
These developments in Buddhism’s encounter with the West are all exciting, provocative and hopeful. However, we must not forget that Buddhism was always intended to provide a path of spiritual and ethical development – a way forward, a way in, and a way out.