May 19, 2014

Buddhism & Science

Scholar David McMahan and contributing editor Linda Heuman on Interfaith Voices

Buddhist scholar David McMahan and Tricycle contributing editor Linda Heuman are guests on the newest episode of Interfaith Voices, the nation’s leading public radio show on religion and spirituality, to speak about the longstanding dialogue between Buddhism and science. An alliance between Buddhism and science began “sometime in the late 19th century,” McMahan tells host Maureen Fiedler,

in some ways as a reaction to characterizations of Buddhism by…European colonists who were colonizing Buddhist countries and missionizing Buddhist countries, and were portraying Buddhism as superstitious and backwards and idolatrous. As a response, a lot of Buddhists began highlighting the philosophical, ethical elements—things that resonated with powerful forms of modern knowledge and Western thought, like transcendentalism and enlightenment rationalism and psychology, and also a lot of different kinds of science.

These historical developments have led to an understanding that contemporary studies on meditation somehow prove that Buddhism “works.” But according to Heuman, this approach “assumes that meditation is doing the same thing in a religious as in a secular context”:

We actually need to be asking, “efficacious for what?” and to really ask ourselves…whether proving the efficacy of meditation for therapeutic ends really translates into whether or not it works toward liberative ends.

Listen to the full conversation below, and don’t miss Linda Heuman’s interview with the Dalai Lama’s translator Thupten Jinpa Langri on this topic in the new issue of Tricycle.

—Alex Caring-Lobel, Associate Editor

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"Buddhism and Science"

sanghadass's picture

The Buddha was not a philosopher or a religious zealot. He was a pan-dimensional map maker. This is a relatively new discipline in the modern academy. It takes a lot of insight and dedication to research to get involved in this area of inquiry. Many feel that the Buddha was an explorer and discoverer without equal. The problem is: we have disciplines like philosophy and science! So we try to squeeze the Buddha into our known categories of learning. When really, what the Buddha discovered is something of an entirely different order. The Buddha was ahead of his time. His discoveries were timeless. An even bigger problem is: we may never catch up to him. Before we damage the 'planet' (ourselves) - in ways that are difficult to remedy. That is the tragedy of our times. So much, for the theory of our 'ignorant ancestors'! Big Love, sangha dassa

"The Buddha likens spiritual liberation to a long-forgotten, overgrown city deep in the forest. Just as it’s possible to reclaim and then inhabit this city once the path to it is found, it’s possible to live a liberated life when we discover and follow a path that will take us there." - (Gil Fronsdal)

sanghadass's picture

Throw out the baby with the bath water is an idiomatic expression and a concept used to suggest an avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad, or in other words, rejecting the essential along with the inessential.

sanghadass's picture

If I was to 'dismiss' your point of view, by pointing out your delusions. And if I claimed to be an advocate and spokesperson for science. Then you would deserve a good explanation as to why I had come to this conclusion. It might be the case that I - the science expert - could use 'the claim' that something is a myth, a fairy tale or, its simply 'not science'! As a device for closing down discussion. To be dismissive! To do this is not any kind of argument. It is not any kind of scientific finding.

It is clear that there is a 'mythic' domain. Some myths are just fairy stories, others may convey meanings that are not contained in their outward form. As to what comprises a myth - and what is not. Well, this requires some degree of investigation. Many theories in science were also thought to be myths to begin with. If the people who are responsible for many of our greatest scientific discoveries, had failed to question the assertions of the 'naysayers' - then where would we be? I feel we should be free to exercise our imagination. Our mythic imaginations may prove to be the source of many new discoveries in science, in the arts, in every field of life, and living.

I think it is easier to talk about - and critique - the myths of old, than it is to uncover 'the myths we live by'. The myth of the belief-less and myth-less secularist, scientist, or modern 'enlightenment man'. In contrast to the ignorant people of the past! Is one of the strangest myths of all. Some people may be happy to dismiss the Buddha as an 'ignorant ancestor'. Because he was not born in the age of modern science. They feel that he must have been an ignorant fellow, because he missed out on the opportunity to share their views on modern science, and the wonderful insights it has given us.

We can believe our spiritual ancestors were ignorant folk, and we are fountains of wisdom and understanding. However, an education is no guarantee that we will not spend our time, in ignorant and careless pursuits. In reality, wisdom is not a product of time or place. It has nothing to do with the era that we live in. Wisdom and knowledge are not the same thing. Ignorance and a lack of knowledge is not the same thing either.

Wisdom arises in an atmosphere of open inquiry. It is important not to close down inquiry. So our wisdom and understanding can unfold together. It is good to avoid dogmatic assertions of any kind. This is anathema to science. I think we should avoid making dogmatic assertions, as a means to facilitate all forms of inquiry. Many scientists are happy to entertain the possibility of 'valid forms of inquiry and understanding' that may fall outside their area of expertise. In the 'humanities' for instance. The 'belief' that the scientific method is the only valid means for answering questions - or the best - is not a scientific finding. It is an article of faith in the 'ideology' of Scientism. Some people are devoted followers of this modern 'faith' and, others are not. Some scientists may agree with the articles of faith in Scientism. Some, do not! We are all entitled to our beliefs.

We would be well advised to 'at least' familiarize ourselves with the detailed methodologies taught by the Buddha. In order to see what kind of findings they produce. This is what Buddhists have an interest in doing! The Buddha taught his Dharma on the basis of his own inquiry. He encouraged us to 'test' his findings. But not before we have carried out the experiments. We need to observe the correct experimental procedures, carry out the research and, collect the data. Then we analyze the findings. Then we are in a position to affirm - or negate - the Buddha's teachings. Not on the basis of an ideology - ancient or modern - but as a result of committed and diligent research. We require this kind of diligence and rigor in science and Buddhism. This is how we show respect for and, do justice to, the Buddha and science. Both of them can challenge our core beliefs and assumptions.

The Buddha encouraged us to explode our own myths! Any kind of reified 'identity' is one of the myths he tried to expose. The Buddha referred to his mendicant followers as nobodies. How can I be a 'nobody' (akinchana) if I am overly concerned with that which sets me apart - from others? If I live in a world that is inhabited by believers and non-believers. And I believe I am one - or the other. How am I going to follow the Buddha's advice, and realize that I am a nobody? If, I am concerned with affirming who I am, in contrast, to who I am not? This whole - self affirming - exercise may be nothing more than tilting at windmills.

We create an artificial division when we think, and then feel, our 'sense of self' into existence. We then affirm the existence of 'the other'. Self and other are dependently arisen phenomena. They have no 'own being' (svabhava). Believers and non-believers are the 'heroes and villains' in the 'mythos' of Scientism and earlier faith traditions. They just reverse the stereotypes. It is a recurrent narrative theme, or plot structure.

We are all believers! More deeply, we are all nobodies! We should hold our beliefs 'carefully'. Through our assertions of fact and fallacy and, in suggesting that people are off with the fairies! By being dismissive and derogatory! We may actually be doing people more harm, than good! They may retreat into their ideology as a place of perceived 'refuge'. Missing the liberating wisdom of the Buddha entirely. We may also harbor our own share of delusions as well. The Buddha declared that we are all deluded, with few exceptions. Instead of affirming that which divides us. The Buddha taught 'emptiness' (shunyata). Where there is not-self and therefore, not-other. The 'Buddha's teachings' (Buddhism) are not a philosophy or religion. It is the uncommon sense of the Buddha's awakened intelligence!

I do not feel ill-will towards anyone because they differ in their point of view. But I feel the need to defend science and objectivity. It is not clear to me that the devotees of Scientism do science any favors. They seem to confuse their 'ideology of science' with science - as a method of inquiry. I believe that staying true to the principles and precepts of Buddhism, best serves the interests of science. People are entitled to 'believe' what they like. Whether it be Scientism, or any other ideological position. But don't imagine that you are defending science as a field of open inquiry - in the process.

sanghadass's picture

The Buddha taught right speech in order to counter our tendencies to do the following:
belittle: to dismiss (someone or something) as unimportant.
synonyms: disparage, denigrate, run down, deprecate, depreciate, downgrade, play down, trivialize, minimize, make light of, treat lightly, undervalue, underrate, underestimate; scoff at, sneer at, laugh at, laugh off, mock, ridicule, deride, dismiss, scorn, pour scorn on, cast aspersions on, discredit, vilify, defame, decry, criticize, condemn, censure, abuse, malign, revile; slur; informal put down, do a hatchet job on, take to pieces, pull apart, pick holes in, drag through the mud, have a go at, hit out at, knock, slam, pan, bash, bad-mouth, pooh-pooh, look down one's nose at; informalrubbish, slate, slag off; archaichold cheap; rareasperse, derogate, misprize, minify. May not be 'science'.

The nature of right speech may not be a scientific question. Nevertheless, the Buddha encouraged us to see it as an indispensable field of inquiry. It is difficult to imagine how great the benefit would be if the peoples' of the world were to abandon all kinds of deprecating, demeaning, and fractious speech. Which leads to unnecessary divisiveness. It may surpass the greatest of our scientific achievements in its benefit and efficacy.

"And how is right view the forerunner? One discerns wrong speech as wrong speech, and right speech as right speech. And what is wrong speech? Lying, divisive tale-bearing, abusive speech, & idle chatter. This is wrong speech...

"One tries to abandon wrong speech & to enter into right speech: This is one's right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong speech & to enter & remain in right speech: This is one's right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort, & right mindfulness — run & circle around right speech."- MN 117

Dominic Gomez's picture

Attaining liberation in some forms of Buddhism equates with escaping the eternal cycle of birth and death. The jury is still out on whether this happens, let alone if life and death is an ongoing cycle.

Richard Fidler's picture

A couple of points: many teachers do not encourage the practice of meditation as a means to "attain liberation". You simply practice: "liberation" is never a goal of practice, but is a possible outcome. Second, equating the ritual of communion with the practice of meditation is not exactly correct. Communion is a ritual while meditation is a means of practice (along with discourse, reading, chanting, and so on). So it is not quite right to compare the two.

I do not understand why some Buddhists are incensed that others--for example corporate America--have "stolen" meditation practice from them. First, no one owns the practice so it cannot be stolen. And second, if meditation does diminish the importance of the self, then how can it matter where it is done and for what purpose? If Google has employees meditate, what are the harmful effects? I do not think Buddhism should hold a proprietary view of religious practices--and how could it stop whatever forces are propelling their spread? Better to sit back, be true to ourselves, and watch how the world changes.

sanghadass's picture

I did not get the impression that any one had an issue with who meditates. I thought it was really about right livelihood. Learning how to chill out on a cushion - is a good thing - so you can function better at work and be a better team player. However, if you use your new found calm and clarity to focus your attention on increasing your market share - without having much concern about the negative externalities - you still have a problem that needs attention, of a different kind. It is really about right livelihood! The 5th factor of the eightfold path. This is the most likely reason that 'some' Buddhist's have an interest in this topic. Meditation and social/environmental responsibility should go together. It should at least be encouraged. Drawing attention to the inner and outer need for greater care, simultaneously. I feel gratitude when people of conscience remind me of this nexus. I am lifted by their passion, compassion, and commitment. By their willingness to go out of their way, to draw attention to things that really matter! I cannot imagine how bad it would get if this did not happen. Perhaps a kind of high-tech return to the social climate of the 50's would be our fate. Yes, I know that some of us would be happy if this were to happen. Each to their own! I realize that being overly zealous on this front is problematic, as we are all on a learning curve and, we are all implicated in creating our own share of chaos. We are all players in the madness and mayhem! Welcome to planet earth! Regarding your comments about communion. Communion is not just a ritual practice - as found in Christianity for instance. I do recall reading a lovely reflection on the Christian ritual of communion - by Ven.Thich Nhat Hanh. He seemed to have no problem with 'experiencing' it, and understanding it, as a mindfulness meditation. If we do anything with enough care, love, and presence, it is meditation! If we are careless, unloving, and mindless, then clearly meditation and/or an experience of deep communion, is not taking place. Communion is a very rich and evocative word. It has more than one meaning. I shudder to think what the impact would be on poetry, and our freedom of expression, if we were to allow 'The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith' to determine the 'sanctioned' meanings of the words we use. But to be even handed in my treatment of communities of faith. It would also be disturbing, if we allowed the exponents and devotees of Scientism, to define for us what we have found to be meaningful forms of contemplative practice, not an empty ritual. It is of greater value and meaning to live a life that embodies acts of care and presence. Instead of conforming to an ideology - grounded in materialism or religion. The Buddha did not encourage us to be divisive and fractious. This is not the heartwood of the Bodhi tree! Doubt and certainty live through patterns of thought that arise and cease, arise and cease. The silence in their absence is infinitely sweeter. If we are identified with this rising and falling of thoughts and, if there has not been a complete dissolution of 'witnessing' in silence, it remains difficult to disentangle 'sakaya ditti' (personality belief) from the 'chitta' (thought stream). When this nexus between self grasping - personality belief - and the chitta is broken, identification with the thought process is no longer possible. At least it cannot be sustained for long. And the conviction that liberating insights are somehow encoded in the content of thought is no longer tenable. Awakening is not an accurate description of how things are! 'Avidya' (ignorance) is not 'rooted' in a misinformed or, misguided point of view. This understanding of the nature of avidya, is not any kind of liberating insight. It is just another point of view. This is not meant to subvert or undermine the significance of the view. Only to point out its limitations. Awakening is a trans-logical step beyond dualistic thinking. Ambiguity, astonishment and wonder are not dragons to be slane in an awakened and liberated awareness. Why cling to anything? There is no Idée fixe! And I get the feeling that we all struggle with this at times, as we must. The difference between pre and post insight into the conditioned nature of the thought process is that 'struggle' is not actually needed. It cannot be sustained for long before it is seen through. A Buddha would not go there in the first place. Certainty is the end of a road, not the open sky! Certainty 'pretends' to be beyond belief. Emphatic is not beyond belief! Truth is signless - signifying nothing! Beliefs are a net of views, for or against, sometimes useful and sometimes not, but hardly the Buddha's vision and gift! The liberating wisdom of the Buddha is not a collection of facts or fallacies subject to dispute! What would be the point? More important than being right, is to care! Liberating wisdom is softer than space 'unobstructed' and as warm as a loving grandmother. Awakening is not a state of knowing anything. Nowhere to be! No traveller or arrival. No end point. No foolish before and savvy after. No us and them! It does not matter if old Buddha believed in fairies in the Jeta Grove. It does not matter that you are a hairless ape. Believing in fairies does not hinder a return to the source. You can still pull out the arrow of Dukkha if you are a card carrying skeptic. There is nothing in our way. May all beings find freedom from sorrow. If we contract around a view and insist that the world conform to our vision, we will suffer accordingly. If we hold our views lightly without contraction, we will not suffer as a result. This much insight sheds light on Dukkha and its origin. We feel our way to liberation. We do not think our way there. Certainty is just a game of self affirmation. Self doubt is not life threatening. Which self should we affirm in our ever shifting states and transitions? We have no reason to feel indignant, or superior to others, if they differ in their point of view. Knowing this much is a sign of real clarity. We need to remember that our different ways of looking at things is conditioned by our background and life experience. Aware of the conditioned nature of our thinking process, we should have compassion for those who cling to their 'ways of looking' as if they were a place of true refuge. Freedom is not a point of view. It is not in our 'picture' of how things are. I remember this beautiful line of poetry from a zen teacher - name forgotten - ''The greatest recipe is not equal to a crust of bread!'' What do we need? We have each other - kalyana mitra's. We have the beautiful Dharma. I could be wrong?

"So this holy life does not have gain, honour, renown for its benefit
Nor the attainment of virtue for its benefit
Nor knowledge and vision for its benefit
But it is this unshakable deliverance of mind
That is the goal of this holy life
Its heartwood and its end" - Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 29

Betsy's picture

Thanks for your thoughtful response.
I wonder why it is rarely mentioned that the Buddha stated that this practice is not an intellectual exercise, but an experiential one... "to see for oneself."

Dominic Gomez's picture

Hi Betsy. One reason is that Buddhism was "discovered" by the West’s academia in the mid-1800's during a period of perceived cultural and intellectual superiority over the rest of the world. The intellect was the only available means by which it could comprehend the Law (dharma). A more accurate philosophical exchange between West and East actually took place earlier, in the 2nd Century BCE, between Greek king Menander and Indian Buddhist Nagasena (among others).

sanghadass's picture

"The famous Kalama Sutta of Buddhism states that one cannot believe fully in 'what one is taught, tradition, hearsay, scripture, logic, inference, appearance, agreement with established opinion, the seeming competence of a teacher, or even in one's own teacher." - from the link cited earlier. This is not to say that we should not listen carefully to others, and give them a fair hearing. But we are well advised to keep an open mind and not assume that there may not be more to learn and, we may not have a complete unabridged understanding of how things are. We may understand many things that are true and correct and still have a lot to learn. It seems to me that even if we try our best at understanding things, through what we have learned from others, through tradition, hearsay, scripture, or through exercising our logic, inference etc. we may still fail to understand the Buddha's intent in sharing his liberating wisdom. As you stated above, I also believe that the Buddha's wisdom - our own liberating wisdom - is experiential, and not an intellectual exercise. Intelligence can be a great gift and a terrible curse. It depends on what it is used for. The same applies to religion and, most everything else. But I could be wrong. It would not be the first time! Big Love, sangha dassa.

Richard Fidler's picture

Many secular buddhists have an uncomfortable relationship with those who speak pejoratively of "scientism", a word those persons use to disparage the view that science has a special authority that puts it above religion, philosophy, or other areas of the humanities. Truly, I believe science does belong in a separate category because it defines terms rigorously, uses methods of investigation that can be replicated, and is always open for revision (provided investigators follow the ground rules for collecting and analyzing evidence).

For that reason, the truth of Darwinian evolution carries more weight with seculars than does the contorted exposition of Buddhist psychology as it was developed in India hundreds of years ago. It is not that the insights developed there are wrong, but that they are not able to be tested in a rigorous way. Certainly, individuals can seize upon that psychology to make a framework for their subsequent understandings, but that is in no sense equivalent to evidence in a scientific sense.

Honestly, I am not sure it is necessary to have a theoretical framework in place to practice the dharma. Isn't it enough to simply practice--meditate, read books about the dharma and discuss them, have interviews with a teacher, chant sutras--and see what happens as practice continues? Is faith really necessary, faith in one of the many paths that define the dharma as it is practiced throughout the world? As a secular practitioner, I would say, no, it is not necessary. In fact, as often as not faith gets in the way.

No one feels indignant or superior among seculars I know. They simply wish to practice without having to give up their insistence that evidence is required for statements of fact. That they do not accept certain doctrines that others accept does not imply they feel others are wrong in what they believe. No one wants divisiveness here, either.

sanghadass's picture

Thanks Richard. I am sorry if I was being pejorative. I did not mean to be. I was just trying to explore my own perceptions. I have no idea if my thoughts miss a lot of details in the way I come to understand things. I do my best and I 'believe' I have good intentions. I have no issue with Darwinism and like a lot of people, I am in awe of the enterprise of science. And like many others, I am not pleased if it is misrepresented or, used for purposes, that seem to contradict our interests. The only time I am anti-science is when the extraordinary understanding it gives us, is mis-used in ways that lead to destructive outcomes. I have in mind some forms of applied science. Like developing weapons that can kill and injure more effectively etc. This is just my point of view, it may be 'naive' or misguided. Regarding your comment about the '' contorted exposition of Buddhist psychology as it was developed in India hundreds of years ago.'' I feel that they were just doing the best they could with what they had to go on. I have some interest in their efforts, and its development over time. I don't identify with any of the schools. I appreciate the efforts scholars make to bring their musings to a modern audience. Best wishes, Sangha. p.s. I would appreciate some feedback from you on the perspectives on science offered in the following link, when and if you can find the time:

Richard Fidler's picture

Thanks for the link. The gentleman who wrote it comes from a different background from me: he apparently did astrophysics at Cambridge--and I feel like a duck out of water responding to points he brings up. My interests have to do with biology, a field which differs from physics by not being driven by mathematical predictions. Data comes first in biology: the mathematics comes second--unlike theoretical physics. I am not qualified to criticize (or understand criticisms) of that field.

I am a bit troubled by this statement of the author:
"They verified the timeless Law of Dhamma, otherwise known as Buddhism. So Buddhism is the only real science, and I'm happy to say that I'm still a scientist at heart, only a much better scientist than I ever could have been at Cambridge." That sounds to me like someone who has "found the Truth", a claim he questions when it comes to the practice of science.

The most important criticism I have of the daily news article is that the author is very willing to throw away one of the cardinal points of science: a rejection of supernatural explanations. When you begin to make statements implying rebirth is a reality, you have to posit a means through which it happens. Somehow an individual--what? soul? identity?--is passed from one being to another. Yet this entity cannot be detected by means of our senses even amplified by scientific instruments. And the mechanism--the transfer of this something--how does it work? This doesn't sound like any kind of science I know.

Interpretations of rebirth vary according to the school entertaining speculations on the subject. Some insist that "influences" from one life travel from one incarnation to another. Others see rebirth in a more metaphorical way: every moment is a rebirth. The author of the article grabbed onto the first interpretation, insisting it represented "Buddhism". It doesn't.

I do not mean to be argumentative, either. I will only repeat that the secular followers of the dharma I know are not judgmental when it comes to points of doctrine that require a measure of faith on the part of practitioners. We are not scornful of those who accept ideas that cannot be proven, but at the same time we would like others to accept that our practice has its own validity.

sanghadass's picture

Thanks again Richard! Always a pleasure to hear what you have to say. It helps me to clarify what I feel and think about these things. If I believed in a God, I would be grateful for her tender mercies, for sending you along! I suspect you are right regarding your concerns about Ajahn Brahm. When he says: "They verified the timeless Law of Dhamma, otherwise known as Buddhism. So Buddhism is the only real science, and I'm happy to say that I'm still a scientist at heart, only a much better scientist than I ever could have been at Cambridge." Yep, that sounds to me like someone who believes he has "found the truth". It definitely sounds like a 'truth claim'. I would bless his cotton socks - if he had any - for his confidence, and his willingness to say as much. I 'believe' that his intention in sharing in this way, is a good one. I know him, he is very very sweet! And not remotely concerned as to whether people take him seriously or think he is some kind of buffoon! In fact, he is quite a 'joker' as well! I am in no position to test the veracity of his claims. However, I am equally at a loss, as to how I might falsify them. At least, not without considerable interest and 40+ years of applied attention. Perhaps if I had undertaken the training and inquiry he has, I might be in a better position to give you an informed opinion regarding his conclusions. It might be the case that people have been applying themselves in this way for countless generations, and as a result, they have all come to the same conclusion. This appears to be what he is saying. He might belong to a long line of experimenting and investigating sangha, that have been 'peer reviewing' their resullts for quite some time. I really cannot say for sure! I am unable to confirm or deny his findings. Therefore I don't see why I should insist that he is mistaken in what he claims to see and know. I don't have to believe him and, I don't have to disbelieve him. Honestly, I am not an authority of any kind. If you know something conclusively which tells you that he is clearly mistaken because you have evidence which falsifies his claims, such as, the teaching of 'rebirth' and 'the survival of consciousness' after death. Scientific evidence that proves his claims are 'unsupported by any evidence', then please send me a link, or two. At least he went to the trouble of citing research that he says, supports his conclusions. You also seem to be making something that looks a bit like a 'truth claim'. When you suggest something like: science is the only valid or appropriate way to verify a proposition or thesis. Or, it is as good as it gets. This is clearly true in many cases. It may not be true in all. It has not been universally true in my experience. I know that I love my daughters by the way I feel about them, and how I care for them. I am not sure anyone could demonstrate this fact scientifically. But I know without a doubt that it is so. On some topics I am a sceptic but not with regard to my parental affection and concern. I don't need any independent 'peer reviewed' verification to tell me whether I am in love! It may be the case, that the questions that the Ajahn asks - that reflect his interests - and the practises he has undertaken, to answer those questions, are better suited to the form of inquiry he encourages and teaches, than some kind of empirical inquiry in a laboratory, or in a field study. Different forms of inquiry may be suited to answering different kinds of questions. To give short shrift to this possibility because a mode of inquiry has an ancient pedigree seems like a belief that would need to be tested. Just one exception would disprove the rule. I really don't know how you could scientifically demonstrate that all forms of inquiry that have been tried - that do not fit the empirical model of science - are invalid and obsolete. You might just come up with a few good ones. I would like to revisit the topic of Scientism, but without a pejorative or derogatory intent. So please don't feel uncomfortable! To me, scientism is not a pejorative term. It is a reasonable position to take! If people have used the term unskilfully, that is to be regretted. It certainly does not invalidate scientism. Scientism is not a dirty word! It is a way of thinking about and giving expression to, a particular view of/on science. It makes perfectly good sense to make a distinction between what we believe and what we know regarding science, religion,and, most everything else. I think this is particularly appropriate when it comes to science. I don't see what harm it does to acknowledge our beliefs and, own them. Our beliefs with regard to the genius of science or, anything else that touches our lives. It is only when there is an insistence that there are two classes of human beings - believers and non-believers - and never the twain shall meet, that a 'seeming' problem arises. Particularly, if the believers are deluded - believing in falsehoods - and non-believers are of a completely different order. Of course, the same applies in reverse. Religious fundamentalists are so problematic because they reverse the stereotypes and, demonise people who are more than happy to return the favor. This is why I don't identify in such a way - as a believer or non-believer - and I would not encourage others to reify these 'constructed' identities. They are not scientific categories and they are very unhelpful and divisive. There has to be another way, and there is. Why not?

Richard Fidler's picture

You are certainly right that science can only answer certain kinds of questions, those that can be falsified. Stephen Jay Gould, a well-known evolutionary biologist, said that science and religion occupy two separate domains, the first entertaining questions that can be declared wrong, the second looking at all kinds of questions concerning spiritual matters. I am not totally sure he is right: science has things to say about a variety of topics formerly addressed by religion.

Some of those things touch on the Big Questions: Ethics can be rooted in evolutionary biology, consciousness in neuroscience; cosmology places our species and our planet into the broad context of the universe. That is not to say the tentative conclusions are right, but that they can be supported with evidence drawn from observations of the physical world.

Nor would I say that the concerns of science are the only concerns worth examining. Your relationship to your daughters is hardly worth quantifying, analyzing, and amassing evidence in support of some conclusion concerning love and caring (if those things can ever be defined rigorously). Who cares what part of the brain is engaged when we love? Not me.

Science, though, has a way of cutting to the quick. If rebirth is true, then what about the billions of years ago when life was nothing more than reproducing chemicals in a chemical soup? How did rebirth evolve to become the modern (Asian) idea that influences are magically transferred from one person to another? Karma might well be understood as all the conditions that trigger action, but how did it become connected with "merit"?

Secular Buddhists would trim away the teachings of Buddhism to reveal the core: the truth of suffering, the construction of conceptual models that provide us with an illusion of permanence, the abandoning of those models to participate in the world-as-it-is, and the practices that help us to see through illusion. The convoluted explanations of Buddhist philosophical schools seem like a distraction to the secularist. Who needs them?

As for scientism: perhaps the word reminds me of "educationist", a word a college teacher once applied to those in the School of Education who wished college profs to pay more attention to their students and less to the subject. The scorn they expressed grated on me, a student in the Education School. "Scientism" is a response to what those in the humanities see as arrogance among scientists, that arrogance constructed in minds outside those of practicing scientists. Here at Tricycle many--including an editor--have expressed views critical of the secular viewpoint. That probably got my hackles up. Anyway: Best to you.

sanghadass's picture

Hi Richard, To give a fair hearing to Ajahn Brahm's truth claims, we would need to unpack what he means when he refers to the 'eternal dhamma'. This may take forever or, it may come in a flash of insight, in a 'path moment'. Awakenings often cut away a great deal of dead wood without having to unravel the 'implied meaning'. This comes later. I have heard it is the same with scientific insights. Anyway, he spends a great deal of time teaching. He would do a better job than I can at explaining what he has come to understand through his years of practice. So I will leave that task to him. I feel that Scientism is a valid take on science. However, it is not an exclusive one. It is not one that I share, completely. My comments about 'constructed' identities that are divisive and, mutually exclusive, does not mean that we can do without an identity. Its just that some identities are not bound up in a game of binary opposites. Some are far more playful and inclusive. Wikipedia does an interesting job at unpacking Scientism. It is a fascinating 'way of looking' with many dimensions. Your observation that life only existed in a chemical soup for a very long time does not invalidate the theory of rebirth. Ajahn Brahm suggests that there is some good research that has been carried out in this area. He cites his sources in the link I sent you. I think he would be happy to receive informed feedback on the studies he cites. I would be! One of the studies he mentioned was reported in the journal (Science, Vol. 210, 12 Dec 1980), the other research he mentioned can be found in the (Lancet, Vol. 358, 15 December 2001). He also mentioned some other research. I hope this research does not upset the applecart! May I ask, if you would go so far as to claim that life is an 'earth bound' phenomena? The product of the primordial soup on this planet, and its chemical interactions? It is a good scientific proposition! But, it has not been demonstrated. Although scientific attempts have been made to establish the theory. I wish them luck in their endeavors. There are also other theories in science as to the origins of life on earth. I quite like the meteor theory i.e. life emerging from a chemical process that happened on our neighboring planet. To make absolute definitive statements about anything at all, seems to be seen as a bad idea, in science! So I understand your concerns about truth claims when made by Buddhist monks. But I would also advise that all of us should exercise caution in making truth claims i.e. a categorical assertion that something is conclusively 'like this'! Carl Sagan, and many other science advocates, seem to have felt/feel that life 'is more than likely' a universal phenomena. So, rebirth - if it happens at all - may not be something that occurs in our neighborhood exclusively. We are also talking about the slightly more elusive subject of consciousness with regard to rebirth. You may assert that life and consciousness is the same thing. Or, that consciousness is an emergent property that is found in some animals, and not in others. As far as I know, at least the last time I checked, the nature of consciousness is still an open question in the sciences and philosophy. There simply is no definitive definition of consciousness. I doubt that there ever could be. But all credit to you, if you have sorted that question out, and you understand 'the truth' of the matter. If this is the case, you are far better informed than I am. It follows from all this, that I have two things to say about (my brain, and my love that is 'located' in it. Do you know this as an established fact?) You also seem to have completely ignored what I was actually trying to say on the subject. Please revisit it and tell me if I was making any sense. At no point have I asserted the existence of transcendental entities in any shape or form. Therefore, I cannot be counted among the so-called 'delusional' believers. However, I have also avoided over-reaching when it comes to what I know 'actually' in contrast to what I believe. I would be seriously confused if I could not, or would not, see the difference between the two. If I was to do this, I would hardly be doing credit to science - and scientists - who make a lot of effort to maintain their objectivity, impartiality, and open mindedness. At least they should! My intent has been to 'clear up some confusion' as our beloved candor likes to put it! As a secularist, the issues I raise may be of little importance. But, as Buddhists - I believe - we need to go further. We don't need to divide people into believers and non-believers. As far as I can tell this 'fixation' is not particularly helpful. I think our collective interests are better served if we see ourselves - and others - just as suffering, sentient beings in need of care, understanding, and affection. Yours, sangha dassa.

Richard Fidler's picture

It's kinda hard for me to see how viruses can participate in rebirth. Can you see how that is possible? Or nucleic acids, for that matter.

Does it matter if "life" (the term implies an essence which is distasteful to some biologists) happened on the Earth or some other planet? The point is that it happened somewhere.

I prefer a very broad definition of consciousness, one that has spiders conscious. Consciousness involves sensory perception, processing, comparing processed information to patterns stored in memory, and reacting appropriately--in ways determined by learning and by hard-wired behavior patterns. One problem with buddhist psychology is that it neglects to make connections to the rest of the animal kingdom--and neglects to connect with human social development. Consciousness is only understood as an attribute that belongs to humans. There might be cursory mentions of "sentient beings", but not much is made of it.

sanghadass's picture

Thanks Richard, as far as I know, the Buddha - in the early strata of the teaching, did not teach anything that suggests that life - as we know it - is not an electro-chemical process. Yep, this joker tapping away at this lap-top can rightly be defined as an electro-chemical process. I am with you on this one! I wish, I could say with absolute certainty, that this electro-chemical process was all that is going on here! But sorry, I am not in a position to give you this absolute assurance. I have no idea! There may be a lot going on that I am completely unaware of! You seem to be hinting - in your own sweet way - that this is actually the case. Never mind, I have managed to survive to date. Wish me luck - or, favorable statistical portents - that I may continue a little longer. As most Buddhists know, plant life was not defined as 'sentient' by the historical Buddha. There appears to be some questioning of the notion, among Buddhist teachers - including the Dalai Lama and, the Theravadin sangha I mostly hang out with - about the sentience of foetuses 'in their early development'. The Theravadins rely on the early strata of the teachings as guidelines for their practice. If it is the case, as they are suggesting, that we are not necessarily sentient from the very beginning, it would mean that organisms may also be the result of a chemical process - exclusively. I have no problem with the Darwinian account of the evolution of life on earth. I have no problem with the notion that life is the result of a spontaneous chemical interaction/reaction back in the good old days. I don't see any obvious reason why the Buddha would have taken issue with these scientific explanations of life on Earth. Regarding your question about viruses and rebirth. Firstly, I have know idea as to the truth or falsehood of rebirth. I have no personal recollection of past lives. At least nothing I can identify as such. This may change at some point. I really 'dont know'. I am not yet confused about things that I certainly dont know and, things which I believe. I believe in the evolution of species. I also believe that science is a jolly good thing. A beautiful thing. If it is used for good purposes. I cannot imagine how unfortunate it would be, if science had not come along, and improved our lives in countless ways. Regarding 'viruses' and the question we may ask about their sentience or insentience. Well, I guess if they were some kind of plant life they would be considered non-sentient by the Buddha. If they were animals then perhaps he would have seen them as sentient. I am not sure if viruses are classified as plants or animals. I heard that they are not classified as either. Is that so? So I am sorry that I am not able to tell you if viruses have a stream of consciousness, and if they are subject to the rebirth process. Sadly, I cannot say anything of much consequence, about any life form - visible or invisible, with regard to the teachings on rebirth. Not the foggiest idea. In the 'Anguttara Nikaya' the Buddha makes a reference to life on other planets. He seems to have a number of scientific heavy weights that believe that he might have got it right on this one. Despite being one of our 'scientifically ignorant ancestors'! I am not sure if we have agreement as to the nature and cause of ignorance. I am also not sure that we are on the same page regarding the definition of science. I am not sure - completely - that the historical Buddha was not a scientist. It may just be the case, that a close examination of his research methods, may reveal him as an empiricist - in his theoretics and practice. You may care to disagree! Perhaps, he was a scientist - a bit ahead of his time. Anyway, I guess that more complex forms of life may exist elsewhere in the universe. If they are 'sentient' - and if the Buddha was correct - it would mean that they were also subject to the cycle of rebirth, assuming such a process exists. Therefore, if sentient life becomes impossible at one place in the universe, it may pop up somewhere else. Unless, some good evidence surfaces that rebirth actually takes place. I will remain a 'fence sitter' on the subject. Any research into the theory of rebirth would require a good research model and parameters.The results would need to be repeatable etc. So, have these requirements been met regarding research into the theory of rebirth? Ajahn Brahm - who is conversant with empirically grounded methods of inquiry, and having won a scholarship to Cambridge to study physics and, having qualified with flying colors - has concluded, after reading up on the subject, that good research has been carried out. Research that supports the theory of rebirth. You are probably more qualified than I am, and therefore more able to make an educated assessment, of Ajahn Brahm's conclusions. If you would care to look at the research he cites, supporting his conclusions about the nature of consciousness and rebirth, you might be in a better position to provide an informed opinion. Failing that, I am still willing to entertain your beliefs, conclusions, and assertions, about the nature of consciousness, and the theory of rebirth. I believe that your conclusions are very reasonable! However, I am not in a position to conclusively affirm or deny, what you have to say on the subject. Regarding your comments on the attitude of 'Buddhists' to animals i.e. many Buddhists treat animals in a way that leaves much to be desired. Yes, that is most regrettable. However, I don't think it has much to do with the amount of consciousness they believe animals possess. I think it is more to do with a general indifference with regards to their welfare. Some people don't really care that much if an animal is sentient, or conscious. They are more interested in what it tastes like or, if it is a race horse, they might be interested if it will win the race! They may not have the slightest interest in the horses 'quality of life' when it leaves the track etc. The Buddha would not even swat a mosquito! The Buddha also gave teachings that were aimed at improving social conditions. It is a great pity if Buddhists - or any of us - fail to exercise social and environmental responsibilty. I believe the 'assumptions' I have made in the above comments - regarding science - help me to preserve my objectivity. I don't think my views are particularly unreasonable. I am not an enemy of science but I lack faith in Scientism. I also believe - rightly or wrongly - that the ways in which we characterize the people we interact with, is an important area of reflection in Buddhist practice. It remains my view, that the characterization of people as 'believers and non-believers' is not helpful. Calling people ignorant or delusional is not 'good manners'! Right speech is a factor of the eightfold path. I believe there is a reason why the Buddha included this path-factor in his teachings. If someone is deluded and ignorant, then we might consider kindness, compassion and care in our dealings with them. An approach to communication that does not encourage their reactivity, or make them feel like they are being demeaned, belittled, abused or, denegrated. If they are openly hostile - to the point of being dangerous - then we should try to minimize the harm in dealing with the situation. If I am an ignorant person. It means that I am in need of great care. So I don't hurt myself or others. If I feel you do not genuinely care for me, in my state of stupidity and ignorance - which I may have some difficulty recognizing - I am not likely to listen to what you have to say. I may even become more resistant to positive change. I may just end up hating you! It is more important to care, than it is to be right! It does not matter to me if the Buddha understood the ultimate nature of reality. Liberation from suffering is the central concern of the Buddha's teachings. When I draw attention to issues that arise around divisiveness, fractiousness, reified identities created out of a fixation upon unhelpful characterizations and stereotypes. How we create 'others' by affirming ourselves. Binary opposites! I am not that concerned with whether these forms of human interaction are of relevance to science. As if that was the only important arena of inquiry - or the only valid one. That idea is nothing more than an article of faith. In the belief system of Scientism. It is not a scientific finding. To me, these issues are farely obvious realities that deserve close attention. I don't believe that the division of people as believers and nonbelievers is a skilfull, wise or, compassionate form of distinction, delineation, discrimination, discernment, demarcation - or whatever else you choose to call it. Whether it is carried out by so-called believers or so-called non-believers. I manage to get along fine without making this distinction. Big Love, Sangha dassa p.s. I hope my spelling is okay in all this? I don't know how to get the spell checker operating. Just another instance of my profound ignorance!

Richard Fidler's picture

I don't think research on rebirth is possible. Without a mechanism explaining how "influences" (if not a soul) can go from one body to another, then why waste time dabbling in what amounts to pseudoscience? My argument is that consciousness is limited to life forms that can be quite primitive, but does not extend to nonliving things like rocks and stars. (There is no sensory input, processing, or even slightly complex behavior). There was a time before conscious life existed. Therefore, rebirth must have had a beginning. But how could it have? The argument that life exists elsewhere in the universe does not solve the problem: how could "influences" travel from one star system to another? Really, doesn't the whole thing sound like a Heavenly afterlife in its improbability? The contradictions are legion. In fact, the whole issue does not seem worth spending time on.

sanghadass's picture

Hi Richard, I understand if you have had enough of me. I don't mean to impose. This discussion does help me to think things over. So your patience with me is much appreciated. I agree with you that the idea of interstellar rebirth is highly improbable. The notion of rebirth at all is extremely weird! It is also the case that our willingness to entertain the probability of something seems to be related to our preconcieved notions of what is possible. If we have already concluded that something is completely impossible then the probability of it actually taking place is 'zero'. I would also point out that improbability is not evidence for the non-existence of anything. Those who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible believe it is impossible for life to have arisen accidentally and spontaneously because of their preconcieved conclusions regarding what is possible. I am not a scientist, but I suspect many of them would think that 'quantum entanglement' is most improbable. According to quantum physics, quantum entanglement is independent of distance. That would give it the potential of being an interstellar mystery. With no logical explanation of how entangled particles have an intimate connection with each other, over distance. What probability would you give to this phenomena? So, I am sorry that my answer to your question - that "influences" [may] travel from one star system to another" - is so improbable! However, I did provide an answer to the question you were actually asking, regarding the impossibilty of rebirth in an earlier period on Earth, when complex sentient life forms did not exist - only viruses for instance i.e. maybe complex sentient life forms existed elswhere at the time. I assume that the existence of sentient life on other planets may have been possible, during the early period of life on Earth. I believe the Buddha may have taught that inter-planetary rebirth also takes place - but I am not sure. You also drew attention to the fact that there was a time when the universe was devoid of any life at all. The Buddha taught that this universe is one of a succession of universes, that happened before this one. He also taught that there will be universes arising and ceasing, long after this one has ceased to exist. He also taught that the process of rebirth straddles successive universal cycles. This teaching of the Buddha would provide an explanation, as to how rebirth might not be invalidated as a theory, by the observation that no life existed whatsoever, in the early universe. It would simply mean that sentient forms of consciousness could not manifest in the universe until conditions were right to give rise to complex and highly evolved organisms. Conditions in the early universe simply did not allow for this to happen. So that logical objection to the theory of rebirth, has now been dealt with! The Buddha also made an estimate of the age of the universe that is in 'the right ball park'. In fact, he was almost spot on, before the last update from physics. How did he figure that out, sitting under a tree contemplating his navel? I believe the idea of successive universes - arising and ceasing - is a topic of discussion in physics as well. Indeed, this idea may have seemed somewhat improbable if it had been proposed a couple of decades ago in physics. It is quite interesting how the improbable becomes possible as our understanding develops. Don't you agree? If I could borrow an observation from 'Candor' - ''True, science does not claim events are necessarily predictable. The main reason events are not always predictable is complexity beyond humans to grasp it. We evolved to survive, not to predict specific outcomes involving complexity on the scale of events like weather produces." This may also be a contributing reason, as to why we find rebirth and, quantum entanglement, so improbable i.e. 'complexity beyond humans to grasp it'. In addition to the preconcieved notions that we cling to, regarding what is possible, and what is not! As if that was a scientifically valid 'measurement' of anything! I am still not suggesting that rebirth exists. I have no idea, and I don't need to have an opinion on the subject. As far as I can tell. Opinions can get in the way of open inquiry. As they can also facilitate it. All the information I have provided regarding the teachings of the Buddha can be found in the sutta collections of the Pali Cannon. Internet searches should provide links to the teachings I have discussed. As a practicing Buddhist, this early strata of the teaching, is a source of interest. Through a familiarity with them, many of your rational concerns and questions regarding Buddhist teachings, can be responded to. Be well and happy, sangha dassa xxoo

sanghadass's picture


candor's picture

Agreed. Research on rebirth is a fool's errand. Might as well research the existence of Zeus, Thor, or any of the other products of ancient myth.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism illustrates "rebirth" with the continuation and permutation of species, seasons changing, wakefulness and sleep, etc.

sanghadass's picture

Dear Richard, You never know. With a little more creative thinking about research parameters, you might just come up with something which is not completely unworkable from the outset. You are an intelligent man. I have confidence in you. Think 'laterally'. There may be another 'indirect' approach that could prove more useful. Less wieldy! Existing research has already been cited. You don't seem to be even remotely interested in the possibility that someone might have put in some serious effort researching these kinds of questions. I think it might be the case, that what you really mean to say is: if this so-called 'research' does not confirm what I already believe on this subject. It is of no interest to me, whatsoever! Am I mistaken? Please correct me if I have completely misunderstood what you actually mean to convey. Is objectivity and open minded inquiry important, or not? Is it okay in science to upset the applecart? Perhaps my questions are out of line. If so, I apologise in advance. Best wishes, sangha dassa.

Richard Fidler's picture

It sounds to me like you want to prove rebirth happens. Research--at least to me--involves falsification, too. In science we approach a problem not with idea of proving something--you are open--even eager--to disprove it as well. That happens only with an absence of bias. Are you open to the possibility that rebirth is wishful thinking and nothing more?

sanghadass's picture

My Dear Dharma Mitra, as already repeated 'ad nauseum'. I have 'no idea' as to whether rebirth exists - or does not exist. If I had past life memories, that I had personally confirmed to be accurate. By revisiting remembered places, by checking records, by meeting and identifying people from a previous life, and 'such like' compelling evidence. I would then be able to declare with considerable confidence, that rebirth is an 'actuality'. However, as also stated 'ad nauseum'. I am not confused about the difference between what I know for sure and, what I believe to be so. I am only prepared to emphatically insist that something does not exist, with regard to things, that I truly understand to be non-existent. If I insisted that something was patently false, and I did not really know that it was the case. If I did this, I would be telling lies! Or, just exaggerating! I am happy to tell lies - without reservation - when there are good reasons! I would be happy to lie, exaggerate, or 'embellish' what I had to say. If someone's life depended on it, for instance. Or, if being truthful would lead to unnecessary harm of any kind. However, if you asked me, if I was willing to tell lies, in order to make a point regarding what I believe - or don't believe? To tell lies for religious reasons. Or, to falfify or exaggerate scientific findings. I would say, no! I would not wish to decieve any one for ideological or epistemological reasons. In defense of scientism, or religious ideologies of any kind. I would not do that! I would not encourage others to do that either. Its like the vegan argument, that we should not have chickens in our backyard because they lay eggs. Because, others may be encouraged to do the same. You might be a nice guy and treat the chickens in the yard with the utmost respect. But others may not have any real concern for their welfare. Therefore, having free range chickens is a bad idea! It may still lead to animal abuse, perpetrated by 'less caring' others. Likewise, with regard to telling lies and, making exaggerated claims. That would not be 'right speech' as taught by the Buddha. I would not be a very good Buddhist, if I ignored the Buddha's teachings for know good reason! I also believe that lies and exaggerations obstruct free and objective inquiry - if they are not seen through! Lies and exaggerations do not serve the interests of science or any other forms of open inquiry. I am willing to entertain the existence and non-existence of all manner of things - and processes - as a result of sound reasoning and scientific research. Therefore, I 'believe' in evolutionary science because there is overwhelming evidence to support it. I find that things that are supported by overwhelming evidence, provide me with the confidence I require to 'believe' in them. Although, I imagine many new discoveries may lead to new insights into a field of study as time goes by. Regarding 'rebirth', you have already mentioned the difficulties that could arise in finding valid experimental parameters. You also mentioned the difficulty in defining the actual process ''assuming it even exists''. Yes, as with all of your comments and criticisms, you are making very good sense. However, I have listened to Buddhist teachings on all of the above topics in considerable detail. And I have found that all of your concerns and valid criticisms have detailed answers that have their sources in the earliest strata of the teachings. A good person to talk to with regard to all the valid objections you have raised regarding the theory of rebirth is my teacher and friend 'Ajahn Brahm'. He has a background in science and has made an extensive study of Pali sources and, has applied himself to the training that is contained in the earliest strata of the teaching. I encourage you to ''rip into him'' with every sound objection you can come up with. As you know, as a practicing Buddhist, it is an open inquiry in which questioning, endless questioning - and discovery - is required. Your observation that clarity requires the absence of bias, is again, valid, reasonable, and I would go so far as to say it is 'completely' true. I believe, that this is 'obvious'. So, we need to give close and critical attention to the methods and/or processes of inquiry. As well as, the kinds of minds we have, that are asking the questions. Science does a good job of running a tight ship with regard to its research methodology. That is why it is so successful - right? The Buddha inquired into the kind of mind we need to have in order to free ourselves for a clear and unbiased way of looking at things. In the early strata of the teachings, we can find detailed and systematic expositions, of how to prepare the mind, to see and know the Dharma - for oneself. The Buddha did not encourage a blind, uncritical acceptance of his teachings. The Dharma is nothing more than an invitation. You need to keep your thinking cap on, if you want to study the Buddha's teachings. In order to help people to understand his discoveries he encouraged us to meditate and reflect on the Dharma. He did not encourage anyone to take him on his word regarding anything he had to say - and nor should we! We honor the Buddha by interrogating his teachings. Not by believing in them. We honor scientific inquiry by interrogating it as well. We should never assume anything in science is 'absolute truth'. If we did, as you have pointed out, we would be violating the principle of falsifiabilty. Science has never claimed to be the only valid form of inquiry - or the best - for a very simple reason. That is not a scientific proposition! It is not a scientific finding. Science can be conducted without making these claims. So why bother! Just think of right speech for instance. If all of humanity adopted right speech and refused to vilify others. What kind of impact could that have on people, and the world? Right speech is an area of inquiry. I am not sure it would be defined as a scientific inquiry. At least, if science is defined in a way that limits it to the kinds of research that goes on in laboratories, field studies etc. And, applied science i.e. the tecnological developments that flow from such research. But then again, it may be the case that there are 'contested meanings' of science as well. I know there were earlier definitions of what it is! Its meanings have evolved through time. I don't think we should automatically allow others to define it for us! Insight into right speech, in theory and practice, reveals something of significance and importance. It is a dimension of non-violence. It has very real impacts that can be known and experienced directly. Why would we consider it an inferior form of inquiry to a scientific one. Why would we say science can provide us with 'real' findings and outcomes of great benefit and, right speech is an inferior domain of inquiry. I believe right speech - if widely understood and practiced - could do more good, than the development of 'fusion' technology. It seems like an important area of inquiry to me. Along with the other seven factors of the eightfold path. I am certain we share a lot of common ground. I have no interest in you believing what I have to say. I am happy to doubt my own beliefs about everything - as well. The reason for this is fairly simple. I feel that the liberating insights of the Buddha, have more to do with kindness, compassion, care, sensitivity, love and wisdom etc. Living these qualities. Not just paying lip service to them. We can be very simple and loving people, full of fanciful notions, and still wake up to that which really matters. Be well, Sangha dassa.

sanghadass's picture

Dear Richard and Candor, I have finally clarified what my main concerns are, in what I have had to say - directly above. I know its only slightly shorter than a novelette but, what can you do? It has 'evolved' into this final form. There will be no further rebirth in this digital stream of life. It has attained 'parinirvana' (final extinction - without remainder)! As you might have hoped, I have reached a dead end in my branch of the evolutionary tree. Please respond to what I am trying to convey. Please 'clear up some confusion'. Goodness knows I still have more than enough to clear up. Please tell me how I am being obstructive with regards to the enterprise of science? I don't want to spark a return to the dark ages. I would be happy to remain a minor footnote, in the the history of this blog! xxoo

"Friend, the extinction of greed, the extinction of hate, the extinction of delusion: this, indeed, is called Nibbana." - 'Sariputta' (The Buddha's wisest disciple).

Dominic Gomez's picture

Like the notion of deities, a continuing cycle of life and death cannot be scientifically proven at present, only inferred. Science has only scratched the surface.

sanghadass's picture

I get your point. Proved, inferred, established beyond reasonable doubt. Much would depend on the research parameters, the strength of the evidence and, the repeatability of the findings. As I mentioned earlier. Research does exist. But a hard nosed sceptic, or a devotee of scientism, would be reluctant to look at, and would be disinterested in, such research. Their perceptual filters would predispose them to be dismissive from the outset. They would be more interested in affirming and reinforcing their own pre-conceptions. This is what might be called 'a bias'. It aint pretty if your bias is religious or grounded in materialism. Better to keep an open mind and real sense of curiosity about everything. xxoo

candor's picture

Hello Sangha,

As an unabashed “faithful devotee to Scientism” (also known as a metaphysical naturalist), I seek to explain to you why my kind is dismissive of research in areas like rebirth and the existence of deities, gods, supernatural phenomena, or other the products of ancient myth.

You see, metaphysical naturalism is a metaphorical web of belief where empirical facts and empirical phenomena are interconnected by logical coherence with other empirical facts and other empirical phenomena. At the core of the web are our strongest beliefs. Beliefs get less certain as we move out from the core.

The inner core beliefs of the web are made up of empirical phenomena that are confirmed daily in our experience: existence of space; time; stars; the regularity of day-night, seasons, gravity, air, water, and so on.

Moving slightly out from the core are empirical phenomena with no known exceptions: Newton’s three theories of motion, the theories of gravity/relativity, certain empirically-confirmed areas of quantum theory, and so on.

Moving slightly further out from the core of the web, we have empirical phenomena with a few non-contradictory exceptions likely caused by our incomplete knowledge. These include the theory of evolution, genetics, heredity, molecular biology, theories in modern chemistry, theories in geology, atomic theory, certain areas of particle physics, and certain theories in modern cosmology, such as the hot, inflationary big bang theory.

Moving to the outer web, we have empirical phenomena with difficult exceptions or a lack of empirical evidence which are not yet considered science. Examples are dark matter, dark energy, and some of the exceptions to our other, more confirmed theories. Other examples might include the more confirmed theories in psychology or the social sciences (e.g. supply and demand in economics).

Moving beyond the web and into areas of skepticism are certain areas of theoretical physics, such as string theory and multiverse theory, which are supported with elegant mathematical models that reconcile with relativity and quantum physics, but haven’t been confirmed empirically.

The strands of the metaphorical web, which hold the web together, are phenomenological interrelatedness and logical cohesion, from the building blocks of particle physics (quarks and leptons) to atoms, to molecules, to cells, to organisms, to the biosphere, to the solar system, to galaxies, to galaxy clusters, to the universe. It all fits together: in many cases, perfectly; in other cases, imperfectly; but there is no conflict or “bad fit” in the core of the web, and only resolvable conflict in the outer web.

The stuff of ancient myth (gods, rebirth, supernatural powers) doesn’t fit anywhere even close to the web, much less in it! Rebirth would connect with NOTHING in the web. In fact, to fit it in, we’d have to ignore the web entirely and the overwhelming empirical evidence that gives it strength, all so we can believe any given, unsupported ancient myth, of which there are at least hundreds. Which myth shall we choose? One that makes us feel good? One that helps us fit with a religious group (Catholics, Muslims, Hindus)?

It would be irrational for a scientifically literate person to take the stuff of ancient myth seriously as part of the web of what exists in the world.

If this doesn’t help you understand why metaphysical naturalists (also known as “faithful devotees to Scientism”) dismiss rebirth and similar claims as part of the world we live in, I don’t know what can. :-)

sanghadass's picture

There is a logical contradiction between one of your comments - made above - and, one you have made below. Above, you have stated: "It would be irrational... to take the stuff of ancient myth seriously as part of the web..." And below: "I don't consider rebirth logically impossible... it just currently doesn't fit or belong in the web..." You can't suggest that rebirth is an impossible myth in one reply and, then say its 'not' logically impossible in the next. It's just not cricket! lt is clear that the first comment is about what you believe - as an article of faith. The second comment is about a 'postulate' which you find improbable. Your first comment is commensurate with your ideology as an avowed devotee of Scientism. The second comment is commensurate with your interest in science - as a method of inquiry. I share your interest in science. I have very little interest in your beliefs about science.

We are in agreement about the logical cohesion of science and its discoveries. But we need to be logical and consistent with regard to what we believe as well. We need to apply the Buddha's insights into 'right speech' in order to avoid confusing what we 'believe' with what we claim to be established fact.

First of all we need to be clear about the distinction between myths, beliefs and, unproven postulates. To confuse these three would entail a serious logical error - a distortion. That could lead to confusion! A state of confusion that could make it impossible, to distinguish between beliefs and scientific findings. As a scientist or, a Buddhist, we would want to avoid misleading and confusing distortions of this kind.

The problem lies in your assertions regarding what is myth and, what is not. Some religious postulates are 'clearly' myths, others are not! Some religious teachings are highly improbable. Because they are clearly at odds with what we understand in the light of scientific discoveries. I have in mind religious beliefs - or postulates - like: 'the creation of Eve from Adam's rib.' In my belief-system, this account of the origin of our species would seem highly improbable. As such, I believe that this Biblical account is a myth - and nothing more. Other beliefs are not completely incompatible with the nature of reality - as revealed by science. You cannot arbitrarily declare a list of so-called myths and falsehoods in the form of a sweeping generalisation. Without appropriate discernment and discrimination. You would need to take it on a 'case by case' basis. Otherwise you may appear to have some other agenda, with no real interest in maintaining your 'objectivity'.

By 'myth', I assume you mean, a falsehood, an untruth, an imaginary account of how things are, complete nonsense! Of course we know that myths are also 'metaphorical' or, they convey hidden meanings. I assume by myth, you mean the former, and not the latter? The devotees of Scientism frequently use the word 'myth' as a kind of 'codeword' for absolute rubbish!

Belief in rebirth or, a willingness to treat it as an open question. Has little in common with the belief that the universe is less than 10 thousand years old. They are not in the same ball-park! The former is a theory we can investigate. The latter, is clearly a myth in the sense of a falsehood, fantasy or, delusion. It is clearly false because it completely contradicts what we have discovered in science. If we are incapable - or unwilling - to make discriminations of this nature. Then what has happened to our respect for objectivity and open inquiry? Which Scientism claims as articles of faith. When I see a 'mixed bag' of so-called myths - being waved in front of me. I need to take a close look at the contents of the bag! Before I decide what is clearly mythic in nature and, that which the 'bag waver' simply does not believe in.

It is possible that all the compelling evidence of scientific theories, and the 'picture' of life and the universe it gives us, could still be true - in every detail - and it would still not negate the theory of rebirth. Therefore, I refuse to take a conclusive position on this teaching. I refuse to dismiss it out of hand!

There is a direct relationship between what we believe (to begin with) and what we find probable (as a consequence). If we believe something is impossible, its probability is zero! However, our beliefs do not prove or disprove anything. They are merely articles of faith. To call the theory of rebirth an empty myth is nothing more than a belief. That is not founded on any scientific evidence.To assert that rebirth is a 'myth' is not only a misuse and distortion of the meaning of the word. In the sense of myths - as clear and apparent falsehoods - revealed in the light of scientific findings. It is also a devise that some people use, for dismissing 'the teachings on rebirth'. Because it is a bad fit with their belief system.

We can show our love and respect for the objectivity and brilliance of science, and protect it from the seething hordes of mindless believers. By being honest about what we believe and what we know - and saying as much. Its that simple! The Buddha encouraged us to be careful in our speech. So we may facilitate understanding and clarity. We need to get over the ideological hump! We can then begin to question the notion of believers and non-believers - as well! One step at a time. xxoo

candor's picture

There is no logical contradiction, sangha. It can be irrational to believe something that is logically possible, but extremely unlikely.

sanghadass's picture

Good to hear from you Candor. I missed you! Personally, I neither believe or disbelieve in rebirth. I am concerned about keeping an open mind - that is all. I am not irrational with regard to what I know - and see - is completely improbable. I am open to the possibility that good research has been conducted that may provide rational reasons for entertaining the theory of rebirth - instead of dismissing it out of hand! Research has been cited earlier in this thread. I would certainly not dismiss it for ideological reasons. I do not have an ideological position on rebirth. I do not see the need for one. However, as an avowed devotee of Scientism, I see why you do!

So, with you, I am happy to consider many ancient myths as exactly that. The idea of a creator God, the cyclops of ancient greek legend or, many of the ancient mythological stories in Buddhism, are easily recognisable as myths - they are highly improbable. Another example of a myth is the ancient Buddhist belief in an earlier epoch when human beings lived for thousands of years etc. I feel there is a need to clearly distinguish the tales of antiquity from other themes in the Buddha's teachings that don't strictly fit into that category. I believe that myths should be evaluated on a careful 'case by case' basis. I do not believe that ideas should be dismissed out of hand - because of their antiquity. This is an article of faith in a modern ideology that you openly subscribe to. It is not a scientific finding! I am assuming you subscribe to this article of faith because of your references to 'ignorant ancestors' and their 'delusional beliefs' etc.

Having said this, I do not believe that the Buddha was some kind of all-knowing being. He does not have this kind of status in the early strata of the teachings. At a later date he became more like a god - omniscient etc. So please don't conclude that I am promoting a belief in rebirth. I am not encouraging a belief in anything really. Although, as I said earlier, I believe in most everything science tells us about the world. I don't find any tension between my wonder and appreciation for science and my opennness to the possibility of things, that may yet be discovered and articulated in science.

Another area where we may differ is in a commitment to the idea that the empirical method in science is the only valid method for inquiring into the nature of reality. The ultimate nature of reality is still an open question for me? Open questioning is important to me as well! With what I have come to know and experience through my encounter with the Buddha's teachings. I have no 'reasonable' doubts that he was 'on to something' of real significance. I have found his methods of inquiry to be sound and productive of real and transformative insights. I have found that the results of my explorations in the Dharma are consistent with others that have undertaken the same inquiry. You might say that many generations of practitioners have 'peer reviewed' the Buddha's findings and found them to be perfectly consistent with their own. The Buddha insisted we do this! He was not remotely interested in people taking him on his word. With regard to the Buddha's methodological rigor? I have just spent the last nine days in silent retreat where the rigor of the Buddha's approach to inquiry was made clear through a close examination of the teachings he gave in the early 'sutta's' (discourses).

With regard to your observation that: "It can be irrational to believe something that is logically possible, but extremely unlikely." That is most certainy true! I apologise that I have not made your logical contradiction clearer. Let me try again. You have already stated earlier that looking into: "Research on rebirth is a fool's errand. Might as well research the existence of Zeus, Thor, or any of the other products of ancient myth." You have already listed rebirth as one of the ancient mythic beliefs along with all the other baseless ideas of the ancient world. It is clear from what you have had to say above, that rebirth is not an instance of an irrational belief in something that is logically possible. It is really an irrational belief in something that is impossible. This sounds like a contradiction in terms - to me. You could only really take one position or the other. However, you have taken both positions in the course of this thread. You really need to try and be more candid - Candor. This goes back to the question of right speech as a prerequisite for clarity. If you believe something just say as much. If something is a scientific finding just say as much. But do not pretend that what you believe is some how synonymous with science, and its findings. Best wishes, sangha dassa.

Dominic Gomez's picture

You place a glass wall between the outermost sphere of this web and the metaphysics of, say, the continuous cycle of life and death.

candor's picture

By "the continuous cycle of life and death" I presume you mean rebirth, as in I, candor, or at least my consciousness, will experience another conscious life of some form after my death.

If so, I'm not sure if the barrier is so much analogous to a glass wall as to a piece of web (fact, process, or theory) that doesn't connect to anything else in the web, when everything else within the web does fit and connect, even if some of the connections in the outer web are weak and subject to revision. But IF (much to my shock and amazement) researchers found some empirical connection to rebirth in the existing web, an empirically verifiable mechanism explaining the process of rebirth, and evidence for rebirth happening, for example, suddenly it would fit and be part of the web. I don't consider rebirth logically impossible (which would be more analogous to a wall); it just currently doesn't fit or belong in the web, nor is it likely to fit in the future unless something very, very surprising is discovered.

If "the continuous cycle of life and death" means the biological cycle of the food chain or the seasons, then it fits nicely in the web.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The biological cycle, as in the continual demise of millions of people on Earth each year accompanied by the millions of births.

candor's picture

I propose this as a secular, non-religious Buddhist, or quasi-Buddhist fire sutta/sutra:

With the dumb luck of birth, I enter into an indifferent universe -- the ocean of craving, aversion, and delusion -- as a sentient being of any species for one round, in eternity, where luck is the difference between days, months, years, or decades of torture; days, months, years, or decades of delight; or every other possible combination of good or bad luck imaginable in between.

With death, I am liberated. The imperfect and unholy life has been lived out, what can be done is done, and there is no more beyond. The flame is extinguished. I shall return no more.

Dominic Gomez's picture

I shall return no more (if you're "lucky" enough) pre-Lotus Sutra Buddhisms would have you believe.

Richard Fidler's picture

The main thing I would change in your analysis would be what you call "empirical phenomena": I would refer to it as theory. Theories by nature simplify reality--they are reductionist. For example, Darwin's original idea of evolution only dealt with natural selection, not genetic drift (the idea that change can happen because populations become reproductively isolated, that causing certain mutations to become common and spread widely). Theories are always incomplete because they do not look at all the conditions that cause change.

Theories must be supported by abundant evidence--and many are: plate tectonics, evolution, the cell theory to name three. Some--especially those from cosmology--have support--but evidence is much less abundant: the expanding universe theory is supported through four lines of evidence and no more (so far). Dark energy only has a single line evidence to the best of my knowledge. With so little support, the probability that theory is missing something is very high.

When it comes to a topic like rebirth, there is support--but it is not in a form acceptable to scientists: anecdotes, accounts of personal experiences, written stories. It is exceedingly difficult to study rebirth because persons who give the tests to determine the authenticity of a rebirth are not free of bias. It is too easy to fool one's self when you are expecting a certain outcome because of your own belief system.

Rebirth belongs to a large category of statements that are "not even wrong" in the words of Richard Feynman. That is they cannot be disproved. I have presented one observation which casts doubt on it--the fact that conscious beings originated at a certain point in time here on Earth, that observation suggesting rebirth would be impossible because there is nothing to be reborn. But that hardly disproves rebirth.

The Dalai Lama said Buddhism should give up theories that contradict scientific findings, but he will not have to change a thing when it comes to rebirth. It is not amenable to the methods of scientific investigation.

sanghadass's picture

Hi Richard, I see your point about the non-existence of sentient beings in the early history of the Earth: "hardly disproves rebirth". However, I have never heard this used as a Buddhist argument with regard to the theory of rebirth. If we were to follow your line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, we would end up with a theory of rebirth that suggested sentient life had its origin on Earth. Any instances of rebirth would then have arisen subsequent to this event. This is not a traditional Buddhist account of the rebirth process.

The Buddha taught that sentient beings in this universe have their origin in 'streams of consciousness' that have previously existed in earlier universal expansions and contractions. He taught that this stream of becoming is 'beginningless'. Sentient beings arise in environments that are condusive to sentient existence. The early universe or, early Earth, would not have been condusive to the arising of sentient life - as we know it. The fact that the Buddha could have come up with a model of expanding and contracting universes arising and ceasing in succession is itself extraordinary. It is used as an ancient Buddhist argument against the existence of a creator god i.e. there was no beginning!

This cosmological model of serial expanding and contracting universes did not seem to be around before the Buddha's time. It also exists in later 'Advaita Vedanta' texts. The common cosmological model in that part of the world before the Buddha's lifetime, was completely different. Traditional Vedic cosmology pictures a 'three leveled' universe. In the centre of the Earth they imagined an enormous mountain [Mount Meru] that reached to the heavens. The Earth was supported by a giant turtle floating in an ocean of milk. Elements of this cosmology were later adopted by Mahayana cosmologists - and landed in Tibetan Buddhist cosmology later on. Perhaps this is one of the influences that the Brahmin converts to Buddhism brought into the teaching with the development of the Mahayana.

Dominic Gomez's picture

If we limit ourselves to a Big Bang theory, of course a beginingless cycle life and death doesn't fit. But Buddhism doesn't apply this understanding to just sentient beings. All phenomena undergo the eternal cycle of birth, aging, decline and extinction, even the present universe itself.

sanghadass's picture

Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu! Well Said! Part of the problem seems to be a lack of sufficient Dharma study. There is a need to have a farely comprehensive overview of what the Buddha actually taught - and later developments - with regard to cosmology. Before we identify flaws in his cosmological model. This argument that rebirth is impossible because the universe is a 'one off' event with no precedent. Is simply not consistent with the understanding of the universe - or rebirth - found in the Buddha's teaching.

The only way to defend science or Buddhism as forms of open inquiry is to have clarity with regard to what we believe - and own it! In this instance, the belief is: sentient existence - on earth - has its origin in a physical evolutionary process. Therefore, rebirth is most unlikely. Though not impossible! If you start with Richard's initial belief you end up with his conclusions. Because of a lack of recognition of beliefs - which are viewed as dangerous and deluding convictions - clarity is lost. The followers of Scientism are often found making unequivocal and definitive statements of how things are in the 'real world'. The mere suggestion that they might be coming to a premature conclusion is often poorly recieved. Any objection to their knowledge claims is seen as the result of the 'ignorance' of the less well informed. A devotee of Scientism, who believes that science has the last definitive word on everything. Will feel uncomfortable with the idea that they may be entertaining 'mere' beliefs. They believe they are non-believers. They are 'knowers'. This is the myth of Scientism!

True believers of any shade view their convictions as established fact. When in fact, they may be relying on a partial and incomplete picture of how things are. By definition, any world 'picture' is incomplete. Any line of evidence that may contradict the established and 'unacknowledged' belief will be given no serious attention - whatsoever. The 'evidence' for this tendency is to be found in the 'dismissive' attitude towards the research on rebirth - that has been cited. The beliefs reinforce the established conclusion. The cherished ideological conclusions become an exercise in self-affirmation. You can then kiss 'open inquiry' goodbye! It does not matter whether the ideology is religious or materialist. The same self-reifying dynamic arises. The Buddha described the process wherebye we affirm 'ourselves' which leads to a cycle of re-becoming. Best Wishes, sangha dassa

"And so, Ananda, feeling conditions craving, craving conditions seeking, seeking conditions acquisition, acquisition conditions decision making [a belief system] ..." - The Buddha (DN15)

Dominic Gomez's picture

Science has only scratched the surface of universal phenomena. Buddhism is not a science, it is a philosophy of life. Its teachings arise from understandings of the workings of life prevalent in the Indian sub-continent 3,000 years ago. That said, the relationship between traditional Western empiricism (i.e. science) and Buddhism is not one of diametrically opposing views but of different perspectives. Both are looking at the same exact "thing" (i.e. life/the universe), but one from the side, the other from the top.

sanghadass's picture

Well said, Dominic. I get everything but the side and the top analogy. One of my teachers and mitra's uses other analogies and images to illustrate the point: When you look through a microscope or a telescope you are looking outwardly. If you look the other way round, to observe the one who is watching then meditative inquiry begins. So what is doing the seeing, what is this mind? How can anyone measure the measurer, the mind? We hold these kinds of questions as we hold a baby! We do not seek an answer. We remain an open question onto ourselves. Until it opens by itself!

Dominic Gomez's picture

A better analogy would be science poring over the blueprint of a Lamborghini to find out how it runs. Buddhism is getting into the thing and driving it.

sanghadass's picture

Ha Ha Ha Hee Hee Hee! If meditation - as inquiry - is our way of jumping into the car? Then it goes like this: At first, its a bit like driving in (Fred Flintstone's) jalopy. You have to stand up and run as there is no engine. You have to push with your feet to get the thing moving. Its good when you reach the top of a hill coz u can roll for a while and enjoy the view (YABA DABA DOOO!). If all goes well, it evolves - like an organism - into a VW beetle. But u need to take it out for regular runs. Through a genuine love of sunday cruizing! You may find yourself out on the open road quite often - enjoying the sites. Eventually it morphs into a lamborghini. But don't get atttached! The deals not done! At any time it may may morph back into fred's stone age bone rattler. Especially when we are only willing to settle for a lamborghini. It is due to our attachment to the lamborghini - and various other 'shiny things'. That we end up back in 'Bedrock' working in the quarry! Still, it could be worse? Its nice the way 'Fred and Barney' have a chin-wag at midday over their huge lunch boxes. Just like you and me! That would make Candor 'Pebbles' and Richard 'Bam Bam'. Though they may see it the other way round. A picture is worth a thousand words. But at the end of the day a picture is just 'a picture'. Big Love, sangha dassa.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Re: life (Lamborghini) A blueprint is just a picture. But life is so much more. It lives and breaths, gets born, matures, ages, and dies. By not being proactive, it passes us by. Live so you will have no regrets.
Shakyamuni (as Fred Flintstone) ago cracked the first rocks for us nearly 3,000 years ago. You and I are the Jetsons now ;-)

sanghadass's picture

Meet George Jetson! Jane, his wife... I enjoy a bit of frivolity but you are angling towards something important here. Something that is not immediately apparent. Firstly, the distinctions between ancient and modern? These 'perceptions' like all others are, sometimes close to the mark, sometimes confused and, often mistaken!

We must resist the urge to generalize the ancients as ignorant cave-men and elevate ourselves to a higher level. We have advanced technologically - due to the rigor and genius of science. In that sense, we are edging towards the Jetsons. But, I am not sure that the Buddha would be unreservedly impressed with our progress, relative to the 'mentality' of the folk of his day. Sure, we have advanced a lot in our ability to care for our physical wellbeing. However, since only a few of us live in a bubble of plenty, and only a few of those who do, fully benefit from it. There is clearly more that needs to be done! Perhaps we could benefit from the the Buddha's wisdom and compassion offerings in a way that would make us truly progressive. There is evidence aplenty of development but there is some debate about our progress in sensitivity and kindness. As for wisdom?

The other point I am not sure about - you mentioned 3 comments ago - is defining the Buddha as a philosopher or, his teaching as philosophy. You touch upon something very important in your last comment! I see it like this: there are different ways we can do philosophy? There are also different ways we can approach the Dharma. The most exciting way is jumping in the car and heading for the open road. To do this, we may need to pass through pleasant/unpleasant but 'familiar' and, also unfamiliar territory. So, some kind of guidance system is helpful. Passing strangers can be helpful. That varies from culture to culture. I found in India everybody was helpful when asked for directions. I would take their advice and waste a lot of time!

So philosophy can be useful but it also can hinder progress. The best way to get around is to have a 'good guide' who has your best interests at heart. Some one who knows the territory! The worst possible outcome is to just get obsessed or fascinated with Dharma guide books and the Dharma tourist promotion sites on the internet - this being one of them - and not get 'IN THERE' and take a good look around. We are all prone to this kind of weakness and we also have a tendency to overestimate ourselves. This is why 'good friends' (mitra's), our teachers and loved one's 'are the holy life' - as the Buddha taught.

I have found in my own journey into the Dharma, that it is not 'in essence' a philosophical one. My interest was sparked by meditation. Later on, I developed an interest in the Buddha's teachings - in greater detail. Meditation can be a real revelation of enormous power and significance. It can literally blow the the lid off our understanding of life and the universe! And it can do this in the most simple and beautiful ways. Something that is undeniably real and transformative. When this happens it is impossible to forget. Then a lot of the theory and philosophy becomes an exercise in recognising familiar territory. We also meet travelling companions.

Sometimes we find our way into new, clear, insightful, and beautiful Dharma realms. Like seeing the familiar in a new and transformed way. We then may find ourselves back in an 'all to familiar' place. We hang out in our old haunts but with the deep and well-founded conviction, that the mainstream and popular accounts of reality have been prematurely closed. At least, by some - not all!

There is simply to much more to be discovered with the Buddha's approach to inquiry. We must remain open to surprises. The best is yet to come! There is to much at stake to settle for what we have. Our survival as a species may depend on it! Good and clear understanding of the 'blueprint' is most welcome. But the ways of implementing that understanding may take more than theory or, a knowledge of the way ahead. It takes a heart/mind that is warm, committed, sure, and true! The Dharma is not just philosophical speculation. It is 'evidence based'. We just have to do the experiments and it becomes 'apparent here and now' - once we have undertaken the research. "To be known by the wise, each for themselves." (The Buddha)

This is the reason why your analogy of Buddha Dharma as 'getting into a car and driving it' is so true. And driving it does reveal things about the nature of reality which are 'at least' as profound as anything you can discover in a laboratory or in a field study. Anything we can see with the 'Hubble Telescope' or through an electron microscope. The proof of the pudding is in the eating! Big Love, sangha dassa

Dominic Gomez's picture

The Lotus Sutra introduces "the true entitiy of all phenomena". It is this which Shakyamuni awakened to in his day. The true entitiy (aka ultimate reality, dharma, the Law) is eternal and unchanging. It can be observed in living beings as the continuous cycle of birth, aging, illness and death. This was the case with Fred Flintstone and is still the case with the Jetsons, no matter how far away or how easily we can travel from Earth today or in the future.

candor's picture

I agree that "empirical phenomena" isn't a good phrase. I was writing off the cuff and looking for a quick, easy way to combine fact, process, and theory into a catch-all phrase. "Empirical phenomena" came to mind and I went with it.

With maybe a few nitpicks not worth getting into, I agree with the rest of your comment here as well.