April 17, 2013

The Myth of Progress

Lama Jampa Thaye

And there may be no "progress" in religion, in practice, or in the Dharma, either.

—Gary Snyder


I’ve been hearing from some people recently that Buddhism needs to change to fit with these modern times. I’m not sure what Buddhism they’re talking about.

The accumulated wisdom of the Buddhist tradition has always been transmitted in a living form, from person to person. It is thus an error to view it as merely a static body of knowledge. Each link in the chain of transmission has to re-present the teachings in light of respective cultural and social settings. We can observe this, for instance, in the early history of dharma in Tibet. At that time the great masters worked with their Indian mentors to establish lines of Indian Buddhist teachings in their new setting, one a world away from the intellectually and artistically sophisticated culture of medieval India.

Yet to accept the necessity of creative re-presentation of the tradition does not necessarily entail that we could or should improve upon the dharma itself. Nevertheless, it seems that such assumptions are prevalent in contemporary Western dharma circles due to the unacknowledged influence of the idea of progress. The power of this myth is at work whenever people talk of such things as “what the modern world can do for Buddhism” or “how science must validate the dharma.”

The notion that history is progressive and that, consequently, we are in important respects superior to preceding generations, is deeply ingrained in our way of thinking. It appears to have its roots in the Judeo-Christian notion that history is linear and is thus moving forward to a terminal point—in Christian terms, the Second Coming of Christ, an event that will usher in the end of history.

The notion of inevitable progress has been so tenacious that today’s dominant liberal and Marxist ideologies, which have in one way or another sought to replace Christianity, have swallowed its historical narrative without demur. They have merely recast it in terms of an inevitable social and intellectual progress culminating in the end of history itself.  Without consciously espousing this historical narrative, most of us therefore blithely assume that we are the cleverest humans to appear on this earth, when the truth is far from that.

For every temporary improvement in one area we can point to a corresponding shrinkage of our moral, intellectual, or spiritual capacity in another. The record of the 20th century—one shaped, incidentally, by those who asserted most strongly that history was moving toward an inevitable and perfect climax, be it the communist state or the Thousand-Year Reich—ranks the bloodiest in world history.

Buddhism offers a contrary idea of history. It teaches us that history, as the manifestation of samsara, is essentially cyclical in nature. As with individual beings, so societies and civilizations rise and fall. As it says in the Lalitavistara, “The palaces of impermanence arise and decay together with their inhabitants.”

Incidentally, this is not, it should be noted, a theory of eternal recurrence with an attendant closed universe, Buddhadharma teaches that samsara will continue only so long as its fundamental cause, unawareness, is not eradicated.

In spite of this, the fact remains that for Buddhism progress is not inevitable. The only lasting change is that which is won by the individual effort to apply the methods of the Buddha and, by doing so, finally attaining the transhistorical state of Buddhahood. In this light it makes no sense to talk and act as if we can and must improve on the Buddha in terms of moral sensibility, contemplative experience, and philosophical insight. 

To put it plainly, we take refuge in the Buddha because, as the ritual of refuge declares, “He is supreme among humans” due to his realization of the true nature of reality. That true nature of reality, emptiness beyond coming or going, cannot be modified—it neither declines nor improves. This means that the transcendental wisdom that apprehends it cannot be improved either. If that were possible, the Buddha would not be the Enlightened One and a valid source of refuge.

These questions of adaptation were a matter of intense debate in the 13th century when Sakya Pandita cautioned his fellow Tibetans,  “Since there is nobody in the three realms wiser than the Buddha, one should not adulterate the sutras and tantras that he taught. To do so is to abandon the doctrine and disparage the Noble Ones.”

When we talk about adaptation and flexibility, then, we should not confuse them with improving the Buddha’s teachings. None of the intellectual products of this particular civilization, be they political ideologies or transient scientific theories of the material world, possess anything that could improve the core of the dharma. In asserting this, one is not denying that the dharma can vary in its expression but rather, following the words of the bodhisattva Maitreya in the Uttaratantrashastra, that the ultimate source of the dharma—its very core, so to speak—is the unchanging state of Buddhahood: “In a true sense only the buddha is the refuge of beings since only he embodies the body of the dharma (dharmakaya).”

The rejection of progress as incompatible with the very nature of dharma might strike some as being in conflict with the view expressed in such Mahayana scriptures as the Saddharmapundarikasutra that all beings will eventually attain Buddhahood. The Mahayana notion of universal enlightenment should not, however, be misunderstood as a claim that progress toward Buddhahood is somehow structured into the very nature of the world, and that we are always reaching ever closer to it. Instead, its sense is that all beings will obtain enlightenment because they are primordially pervaded by buddhanature, the true nature of reality itself. As it says in the Hevajra Tantra, “All beings are already buddhas but this is obscured. When the obscurations are removed this is Buddhahood.”

The task before us in the 21st century is not to alter the timeless message of the Buddha, but, once we have received it fully (a process which may well have some way to go!), to present it in the language and organizational forms most appropriate for the contemporary situation. By doing so, we will emulate the bodhisattva Samantabhadra’s famous vow: “May I teach the dharma in however many languages of beings there may be.”

It would serve us well to remember that in the West, it’s still the early days of buddhadharma. For us, the Buddha is still teaching in Bodhgaya and Guru Padmasambhava has just decided to tame the proud.


Lama Jampa Thaye is a scholar, author, and meditation master from the UK, trained in both the Karma Kagyu and Sakya traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.





Nitya Brighenti. Vulture Peak. Oil on canvas, 30x48 in.

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Stephen Shogaku Zenshin Echard Musgrave Roshi's picture

I agree with you Lama Jampa Thaye .Most people who talk of "Science "are actually talking about scientism. The idea that science and science alone can provide answers to humanity's question Scientism b view is science is unified; there are no limits to science;, science has been enormously successful at prediction, explanation and control; therefore the methods of science confer objectivity on scientific results; and that which can not be scientifically tested is either suspect ,super natural or ignorant. Most scientists and the vast a majority of Philosophers are scientific materialists. That metaphysic is incompatible with Buddhism. The reductionist view that the mind is nothing more than the brain is an unproved theory. so far Science can not deal with the hard problem of Consciousness
Since science is not a thing a monolithic Platonic form some where but myriad of different disciplines what constitutes progress can only be applied to each of these disciplines independent of the other, though they do tend to agree at some level about basics.
People like Susan Blackwell, Stephen Bachelor etc. can not be called rightfully Buddhist as they themselves admit. What they do not admit is that Zen Buddhism is not nihilistic and any referencing of it in a materialist context is an oxymoron.
Neurosciences claims are extremely weak for a number of reasons and this just emerged again recently in Nature the Scientific Journal. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/sifting-the-evidence/2013/apr/10/unrel....
Leave Mind to the Buddhists and let the sciences deal with those areas they have competence in.

mahakala's picture

It all boils down to the petrifaction of belief systems and the dogmatic reliance on blind faith in hearsay rather than being open to new information as it presents itself. This can occur in every field of study - not just science (or religion) - as society itself does not encourage people to relate to themselves (or others) openly, but rather to imitate and regurgitate pre-established data, methods, rules and regulations. Yes, "it takes a village"... but unfortunately the village is much, much less than an ideal teacher - which creates opportunity, in a certain sense.

There is a vast portion of practice that deals only with correctives for unnecessary and/or unhelpful/harmful habits/addictions to various motions of mind. These motions are instilled by society in our formative years, and quickly take on a life of their own. Of course such societal habits derive from the human mind itself, so the seeds are there to begin with from birth - but the key lies in what is nurtured, and what is not.

The reliance on reductionism in general is widespread enough to be one of the default modes of ignorance, IMO. For instance, people in general are inclined to think they know whats going on, for the most part. They are not inclined to the perception of being specks of dust floating about in an inconceivably immense panoply of endlessly changing phenomena. They are rather inclined to see themselves as being fairly important people with fairly important things to do - which is certainly true in the context of personal life. Yet the perceived significance of personal actions from the level of personality is entirely destabilized by an awareness of the infinite. Perceived temporal continuity of the self requires a sacrifice of the greater reality, to a certain extent. Reductionism could be seen like a filtering process, to focus the mind into the personality... much like the eyes filter reflections of light into various shapes, colors and shades.

Mind is prior to the physical form that arises from it and the resulting personality which develops around that physical form - but awareness of this reality is not part of the general social training program. Even in areas where such an idea is part of general society, an idea of an apple is not the same thing as actually eating an apple.

Dominic Gomez's picture

It behooves the Buddhist to live with eyes wide open, mindful and having one's wits about him or her.

mahakala's picture

That behooves everyone. Because there are universal problems, there are universal solutions as well. It does not matter how you identify yourself. You cannot escape "delusion" and "ignorance" by identifying yourself as "enlightened" or "awake". These are actually very simple realities of logic, in the same way that 1 + 1 = 2.

There is a current popular trend to "mindfulness" in terms of performance enhancement. Somehow, it is presently a great revelation that (properly) paying attention to what you are doing helps you accomplish things in a better way. Yet this is something that is known to everyone since birth. It is natural, silent knowledge... a precursor to "common sense", which is less "natural" and more like "second nature". You dont need to learn how to breathe. You dont need to learn how to make your heart beat.

The territorial aspect of various practical traditions is a hindrance, to be sure. More politics does not equate to less politics. Seeing through the conceptual mind's shell-game in its entirety requires a willingness to drop the perception of a breach to the precious boundaries of the self-image as a heinous threat... and all the subsequent madness that goes with it. Of course, that would require the perception of such threats to be conscious in the first place. Humans can become animals of another sphere, but only by their own volition. This possibility is our natural right, because the fulfillment of it's reality is in our hands alone. Much of present humanity already considers itself "above" other animals and the rest of the natural world, and this is precisely why it flounders "below" it. The identity does not equate to the reality.

Dominic Gomez's picture

It behooves everyone, but not everyone behaves in like manner. Thus the onus on the Buddhist to demonstrate a truly human (i.e. enlightened) way of living.

celticpassage's picture

Your writing seems scattered, unfocused, and therefore not very informative.

Stephen Shogaku Zenshin Echard Musgrave Roshi's picture

It could have used some editing but it is clear enough Scientific materialism's metaphysic, particularly the Mind is the Brain dogma is not consistent with Buddhist teaching,as Buddhism denies the annihilation of consciousness at physical death. It is possible to accept the benefits of science without submitting to a metaphysic of reductionist physicalism.

celticpassage's picture

Well. You're article never really makes a point of brain/mind dualism, but rather how the 'progress of society' should be applied to the Dharma.

After all, you know I'm sure, that the Bhudda was just a re-imagined guy and that the teachings of the Dharma are wrong; merely a social construct of the age. And, that the only person who got it right was Christ, and that since he was merely a messenger of God.

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

This is right on. You'll find an interview dealing with most of these topics in the forthcoming (online May 6th) issue.

celticpassage's picture

The only progress that can really be claimed in modern times is scientific and technological.
I think this is considered progress because we can do more, or we have accumulated more 'knowledge' about the physical world.

This has an interesting social result in that what people mean by progress then is restricted to Western nations, or those that have adopted a Western mindset: All the other countries are backward, primitive and have not progressed. This is hardly the liberal attitude that most people who hail this progress also claim for themselves.

Of course increased knowledge of the physical world and concomitant technological ability to do more is not necessarily progress at all, but can simply be considered movement. I think there is also a case to be made that this direction of movement should not be considered progress given the number and severity of the problems such movement has created of which most people are aware: from environmental destruction and nuclear weapons which can destroy all human life (and the continued search for even more powerful weapons), to the economic slavery of 99.99% of people in service to .01%.

I think this myth of progress due to science and technology has been accepted by Westerners because they have swallowed the fantasy universe of Star Trek, hook, line, and sinker.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism foreshadowed George Santayana's little-heeded admonition that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Life is the eternal cycle of life and death, so progress for Buddhists is more quality of one's humanity than a linear accumulation of (scientific) data.

drleroi's picture

I am not sure if it is "Progress", but I am interested in the intersection of science and meditative practice, both buddhist and non buddhist. There does seem to be some physiological activity in the brains of advanced meditators, i.e. Mingur Rinpoche, etc. Integral and others are exploring this. It may well be that bio-feedback devices, etc. can provide valid teaching methods/techniques to achieve advanced meditation practices. In addition, buddhism does seem better equipped to encounter modern physics quantum mechanics, etc. then western religion.

Dominic Gomez's picture

More importantly than modern physics quantum mechanics Buddhism equips the individual to encounter daily life.

Will.Rowe's picture

I agree that we automatically assume that we are progressing, rather than regressing or simply diverting toward another direction. However, I do not really see any evidence that Christianity is the cause for this. Marxists did seek and accomplish to a large extent in making the state into their god, with each citizen its mere servant. Remember how the USSR even had Stalin’s picture replace the icons in the people’s homes? The communist "progress" ended in a totalitarian experiment that murdered an estimated 100 million worldwide and enslaved nearly 20 million in Gulags in USSR alone. That progress proved a failure for humans.
Science has also proven that progress can often be merely means for personal profit or gain, not evidence of more knowledge. In the 1970s science pronounced we were surely headed for another ice age. Now they proclaim the opposite with utmost certainty: that we are in an age of man-made global warming. They likewise assure us that despite the record cold in Europe and elsewhere, we should attend their lectures, classes, buy their books, thereby making them richer and granting them fame. Moreover, we must restrict our activities and curtail our lives with accordance to the new religion--worship of science and its preachers. Alas, hard science has become political science, and green is the new “red.”
“For every temporary improvement in one area we can point to a corresponding shrinkage of our moral, intellectual, or spiritual capacity in another”. This statement is quite correct and, as the author points out, has proven our non-progress over the last century. Newer is not better, better technology does not equal smarter people, and morally there is no evidence for progress.

speakerfone's picture

I like where you're coming from on the 'green is the new red' thing! We're in the minority though and speaking out against this moral majority feels like blasphemy these days.

Thomas Kuhn tried to explode this myth in his book 'the Structure of Scientific Revolutions' which introduces the idea of a paradigm and of their incommensurable nature. Scientific theories may appear to build on and progress but this only due to our myopic perspective.

I think the big danger of this taken for granted notion of progress is that we become arrogant and unaware at the same time. We feel there's some kind of invisible and inexorable force guiding us down the right path. Anyone speaking out against the dominant thinking is a luddite or 'against progress'. So such dissenting voices are silenced and guffawed at. These dissenting voices will become louder and hopefully when the cracks appear, as they are starting to, in the anthropogenic climate change paradigm we can get back to sensible thinking, economically and morally. There's definitely a political agenda enshrined in the 'green' paradigm. Don't get me wrong, we need to take care of the planet, but the medicine we're taking is based on a misdiagnosis of the cause and is causing more harm than good. This and the debt based money system are the two tragic sicknesses of our 'developed' world.

By the way, I think the ice age theory is resurgent! sun spot activity is heading for its lowest levels since the last mini ice age!

Richard Fidler's picture

While there may not be "progress" within historical tradition, there is progress within science. We know from physics that the universe has structure that can be understood: in other words, scientific truth exists. From biology we know that all life evolved over countless millions of years of time, not culminating in humans but having humans as just one branch of an immense tree of life. That insight has enormous implications: We are not the end product of evolution, change is not cyclic, all life is related through a common origin, we are not evolving towards any final state, but evolve in response to current environmental conditions, humans have inhabited the Earth for a relatively short period of time. Some of these implications have consequences to Buddhist ways of thinking. For example, rebirth is not a reasonable hypothesis given that all living things proceeded from biochemical molecules--nothing we would call "living" at all. If life ultimately came from nonlife, then at what point does "rebirth" occur?

The Buddha was not a scientist. He did not understand the Big Bang, Darwinian Evolution, neurobiology, or modern psychology. That is not to say he had nothing to say about the human condition: what he had to say has enormous relevance to our lives today. But there are domains of thought he did not comprehend (or is it that he did not choose to convey them?) and we can and should apply our modern conceptual framework to the dharma as the Buddha taught it. Not to do so would diminish ourselves: we are an intelligent species and we have not spent the last 2000 years simply dancing and singing, changing costumes as history demands, undergoing times of plenty and of scarcity, developing one new set of ideas only to be exchanged for another. We should mine the dharma for what jewels we can find, but we should not accept it as the final truth to all important questions. We have more intelligence than that.

celticpassage's picture

Pretty much everything you say is not a result of science but your opinion about the results of science.

For example:
"We know from physics that the universe has structure that can be understood" -- not a result of science.

"scientific truth exists" -- not a result of science.

"We are not the end product of evolution" -- not a result of science.

"change is not cyclic" -- not a result of science

"we are not evolving towards any final state" -- not a result of science.

Other statements seem to be beside any point:
"The Buddha was not a scientist. He did not understand the Big Bang, Darwinian Evolution, neurobiology, or modern psychology." So what?

"...and we can and should apply our modern conceptual framework to the dharma " you have no other choice.

"we have not spent the last 2000 years simply dancing and singing" If you think that people today are more intelligent than those in Bhudda's day, then you are mistaken.

Richard Fidler's picture

Do you know about the philosophy of science? Much as metacognition is about thinking about thinking, the philosophy of science is about how we do science, not just about scientific conclusions. For example, science is built upon the assumption that scientific truth exists. That perspective implies that science is not just one of various ways of looking at the world. Scientific truth can be tested, while others cannot. The examples you give as "not a result of science" puzzle me. As a student and teacher of biology, I can only tell you that evolution is not a directed arrow with humans at the end: it is represented by a branching tree as Darwin himself indicated. Evolution is characterized by endless change: it does not repeat itself. The statement that we do not evolve towards a final state is consistent with evolutionary theory as scientists understand it today. If people did evolve towards a final state, there is a problem with how the future can affect the past. This way of looking at the world bothers you--and I am sorry about that. However, I do believe accepting a scientific perspective does not get in the way of practicing Buddhism. As for your final comment about people being more intelligent now than formerly, I can only agree. I disagree with you if you are implying that our understanding of the universe is not more advanced now than it was two thousand years ago. We understand infinitely more now and, oddly, our enhanced understanding has only reinforced many teachings of the Buddha, not subverted them.

speakerfone's picture

Our scientific view of the world, whilst it does provide insights as to how conventional reality works, cannot liberate us from suffering since suffering stems from perceiving the self as autonomous, independent and permanent. The Buddha's mind was liberated from these delusions and the associated attachment and aversion that comes from splitting the world in to self and other. It was free therefore from the arrogant objectivism that science bestows on itself. This objectivism claims to observe the world impartially as if it could be separate from that which it is studying. How can we claim to comment separately, impartially and objectively on a world which you correctly posit we are (to some extent) a product of. It's like a goldfish looking around at the living room which it understands to be undistorted and true, yet it's unaware that everything it sees is through the distorting effect of the bowl.

Furthermore by the very action of claiming this objective viewpoint the scientific method further cements the delusion of self and other which buddha diagnosed as the source of our suffering. This is because the scientific method is rooted in the cartesian dualism of a theistic God delusion which it's buried in its own subconscious. This is the idea that somehow the intellect is separate from the body and that scientific theory inhabits some kind of conceptually pure realm. How can this be if it is a product of biology/genetics as it must be?

This is not to suggest scientific investigation cannot reveal interesting and useful/working truths. It is meant to point out that Buddha's wisdom goes far beyond that limited technique of investigation. In Buddhism this is the difference between conventional and ultimate truth. We must not lose sight of the important conventional truths that science can show us, but it's crucial not to mistake these with the ultimate truth revealed by Buddha.

To claim therefore that science can help improve Buddhism is to misunderstand what Buddhism is, or perhaps to misunderstand what science is. That's not to say that there aren't interesting convergences as we learn more via science about the lack of permanence within the mind for example, hinting at impermanence of self. Or when science struggles to identify the 'building blocks' of reality, which starts to feel a little like emptiness of phenomena. But these concepts in Buddhism are so much more subtle and exact than in science.

Furthermore science cannot give moral prescriptions. Biological science and materialism in general can only proscribe a morality based on nihilism since there can be no consequences to actions (I have some understanding of Dawkin's ideas on the genetic origins of compassion).

Progress in science never attains any ultimate goal and periodically falls back on itself or goes off in a different direction. You seem to put a lot of belief in the inexorable progress of science. Understandable since you're a science teacher. But there have been plenty of learned people who've suggested progress isn't so cut and dry. Thomas Kuhn in 'the structure of scientific revolutions' argued that one scientific paradigm does not necessary build in a linear way upon another and in fact are incommensurable with one another. The protagonists of one paradigm live in a completely different world of research to protagonists of another! So sure, progress may be occurring in science, but this is only conventionally speaking and withing the dominant scientific paradigms of the moment. Ultimate truth, and the Buddhist path that leads there, cannot gain or learn anything from such provisional truths.

celticpassage's picture

"Do you know about the philosophy of science?"
Yes I do. However, the philosophy of science isn't science.

" The examples you give as 'not a result of science' puzzle me"
They are not my examples, they are yours.

..."science is built upon the assumption that scientific truth exists"
Yes. That's what I said before: '"scientific truth exists" -- not a result of science.'"

"That perspective implies that science is not just one of various ways of looking at the world."
No it doesn't. In fact it implies and shows the opposite, that science is "just one of various ways of looking at the world"

"I can only tell you that evolution is not a directed arrow with humans at the end: it is represented by a branching tree'
I never implied that evolution was a 'directed arrow'. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean that humans are not the culmination of evolution.

"Evolution is characterized by endless change: it does not repeat itself."
That's not consistent with evolutionary theory. If evolution is a random process there is no reason whatsoever that it wouldn't repeat itself. Indeed, the search for life on other planets ASSUMES that evolution repeated itself many, many times. As an aside; if the environment doesn't change, then 'evolution' doesn't exist, so evolution is not the same as endless change.

"If people did evolve towards a final state, there is a problem with how the future can affect the past."
So what? You seem to be particularly stuck in a scientific worldview.

"This way of looking at the world bothers you".
No it doesn't. Just because I don't agree with your statements as a self-proclaimed representative of science, doesn't mean that what you say or what a scientific worldview may say 'bothers' me.

"I do believe accepting a scientific perspective does not get in the way of practicing Buddhism...our enhanced understanding has only reinforced many teachings of the Buddha, not subverted them."
Nice. But, personally, I don't really care whether it has or hasn't.

recurvata's picture

Well, I'd argue that 'transient scientific theories of the material world' are transient only in the sense that they are in fact progressing and 'superior to preceding generations.' We know far more about the material world than earlier generations, and this knowledge is progressing at an ever increasing pace. It muddies the central thesis of the view in the article to conflate the notions of spiritual progress and scientific progress.
And whIle Lama Jampa Thayer makes good points here, it leaves aside the question of whether presenting Buddha's message in 'the language and organizational forms most appropriate for the contemporary situation', or for that matter in any other cultural and/or historical situation, necessarily alters the message in some way. While the message may be timeless, people, times and cultures are not, as Lama Thaye points out. The message heard may not be the message intended. I don't have an answer, or even really a good question here. The best I can say is I don't know, which is something I say a lot more often as I practice.

speakerfone's picture

When we think a teaching could be improved here or there with a bit of psychiatry or physics we are adding ego poison to teachings and harm their efficacy.

The key thing is to take our teachings from genuine teachers with genuine realisation. They were taught by genuine teachers themselves.

celticpassage's picture

'Superior' is a personal judgement and will always remain so.
One thing you might want to think about is 'material world'

Dominic Gomez's picture

Since its birth in India Buddhism has impacted at least three major spheres of cultural influence, an indication of its universality and adaptability. But the Law does not spread by itself. People teach it to others. And we in the modern age have before us this wonderful opportunity to continue its legacy in many different languages.