June 30, 2013

We Are Not Kind Machines

A Radical Rejection of Scientific BuddhismLama Jampa Thaye

Science seems omnipresent in the modern world, and its explanatory force and benefits are hard to deny. Indeed, its success has even led some, including a number of well-regarded figures in the contemporary Buddhist world, to argue that the dharma itself must be made more “scientific” if it is to survive.

I’m not so sure that project could really work, or, were it achievable, even help. It’s not that the dharma needs to be placed in a special protected category reserved for “faiths,” a reservation into which reason is not allowed. In this respect, Buddhism is not like the varieties of theism, the authority of which rest, in final analysis, on the acceptance of divine revelation. Rather, it’s because the dharma need only be defended by direct experience and reasoning that it doesn’t need to borrow these aspects from science.

Besides, it seems like most of what is presented as “science” in discussions is not actually scientific praxis but philosophical theory: scientism and materialism. The insistence that science alone can answer all questions about the nature of reality—often paired with materialism—is actually scientism, a type of quasi-religious faith that holds scientific knowledge as the only viable knowledge. Though it’s kept well hidden, this very belief in science is itself a premise and not a finding arrived at by any type of investigation.

Materialism needs to be distinguished from science as well. While scientific discoveries continue to be made, modern philosophical materialism is in most important respects similar to the ancient Indian theories of the Charvaka or Lokayata systems, which Buddha and the great masters of his tradition knew and rejected. (So much for materialism’s cutting-edge modernity—a notion advanced to bewitch us into thinking that it’s the irresistible wave of the future.)

This modern materialism adds nothing to the old Charvaka theories except the illusion that, if complex physical processes are described in minute enough detail, we the audience will not notice the sleight of hand involved when sentience is magically conjured out of non-sentient matter and Pinocchio becomes a real boy. In fact, materialism cannot explain how life arose out of non-life, how consciousness arose from the non-conscious, with any more compelling seriousness than the theist who declares that God simply said: “let there be light.”

The crucial point, therefore, is that dharma has nothing to fear from, nor any need to prostrate to, science. Science works well in detecting and quantifying things that have a material or mechanistic explanation, such as the structure of DNA. It is the proper task of science to formulate and test hypotheses about how physical processes work. This inbuilt limitation does not invalidate the usefulness of the scientific enterprise, but it does put it at some disadvantage in describing the nonmaterial, such as ethics, the nature of mind, and liberation from samsara—the core concerns of dharma.

While science itself is not dangerous to the dharma, the appeal for a “scientific Buddhism,” an insistence that Buddhism must accord with the materialist propositions often paired with scientism, most definitely is. Such a Buddhism is not the dharma. Having abolished many of the key teachings to these ends, we are left with nothing, except, maybe, sitting cross-legged and talking peaceably about peace! Such an activity fits into the “Buddhism” sold at the expensive workshops on “spirituality” that currently litter this part of the world, but it’s not a Buddhism that’s ever been known to our predecessors.

It’s not, of course, the case that everyone who discerns an importance in fostering a dialogue between dharma and science is in fact an advocate of such a “non-Buddhist Buddhism.” But even then, one might wonder what the use of such a dialogue might be when one notes, for instance, the emphasis placed on such philosophically trivial matters as validating meditation practice through the study of brain waves during meditation.

Now, it may very well be that brain activity changes during meditation. But it's difficult to see how knowing this could contribute anything significant to the process of dissolving the twin obscurations of disturbing emotions and nescience, a dissolution that alone brings about enlightenment. Would, for instance, Jetsun Milarepa have achieved decisive realization more swiftly if he had possessed a knowledge of neurology? The plain unvarnished truth is that while a variety of physical effects—from the modification of pulse rate to altered frequency of brain waves—may accompany meditation, these effects are not the source of the experience of the meditating mind any more than a lessening of indigestion.

In short, the understandable wish to advance the dharma by linking it with the prestige of science might obscure its actual power. The unique force of the dharma lies in its diagnosis of suffering and its causes and its prescription of the path to the cessation of that suffering. In this regard, Buddhism can speak for itself—even in the modern marketplace of ideas. It follows from this that the best way we can help sustain the dharma is to stay true to it. Right about now that might be the most radical we can do.

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.





Previous posts from Lama Jampa

"The Myth of Progress"

"Taking Vows (and Buddhism) Seriously"

"Buddhism and the Age of Compassion"

"The Power of Commitment"

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mahakala's picture

There are some who dispute
corrupted at heart,
and those who dispute
their hearts set on truth,
but a sage doesn't enter
a dispute that's arisen,
which is why he is
nowhere constrained.

Now, how would one
led on by desire,
entrenched in his likes,
forming his own conclusions,
overcome his own views?
He'd dispute in line
with the way that he knows.

Whoever boasts to others, unasked,
of his practices, precepts,
is, say the skilled,
ignoble by nature —
he who speaks of himself
of his own accord.

But a monk at peace,
fully unbound in himself,
who doesn't boast of his precepts
— "That's how I am" —
he, say the skilled,
is noble by nature —
he with no vanity
with regard to the world.

One whose doctrines aren't clean —
fabricated, formed, given preference
when he sees it to his own advantage —
relies on a peace
on what can be shaken.

Because entrenchments in views
aren't easily overcome
when considering what's grasped
among doctrines,
that's why
a person embraces or rejects a doctrine —
in light of these very

Now, one who is cleansed
has no preconceived view
about states of becoming
or not-
anywhere in the world.
Having abandoned conceit & illusion,
by what means would he go?
He isn't involved.

For one who's involved
gets into disputes
over doctrines,
but how — in connection with what —
would you argue
with one uninvolved?
He has nothing
embraced or rejected,
has sloughed off every view
right here — every one.

- Dutthatthaka Sutta

leebert's picture

[Reader #1 from another venue] comments:

"Though it’s kept well hidden, this very belief in science is itself a premise and not a finding arrived at by any type of investigation."

Oy. For the umpteenth time, science is based on the idea that knowlege is produced through repeatable, verifyable observation that permits the development of predictive theories about phenomena. Now, you may reject this idea, but you can't equate our acceptance of it with faith or belief. You may if you like reject the premise that we can't say something is true if it can't be demonstrated to be true, but you must then accept that anything whatever can be held to be true and there is no criterion for calling anything false. We aren't asking for the dharma to be "more scientific." We are trying to demonstrate that the dharma is not dependent on the rejection of knowledge and the embrace of unacceptable supernatural claims.

[Reader #2 from another venue]: I've come across similar arguments by conservative theists, aiming to protect their "God of the gaps" from the probing eye of scientific inquiry. This tactic is also known as an argument from ignorance, in which the ignorance is partly a real description of the current state of scientific knowledge and partly a product of the arguer's own poor knowledge & understanding of the relevant science. It's true that science has its limits, but that's why we have philosophy, and I dare say that what Lama Jampa is presenting here is just bad philosophy.

keving's picture

Leebert, you are certainly a person of considerable intelligence and education, and like all of us you see first and foremost what you already accept and reject. If you look closer this essay also points to a distinction between science and scientism. Scientism elevates science to a sacro-sant belief system "the one true hope of humanity" instead of one method of investigation and discovery. Like other systems of thought Scientism contains unverified assumptions and untested beliefs.... which appear so logical they go unnoticed and unquestioned by believers. To fit the reality of an infinite universe into a single system of thought or a limited means of investigation , is equivalent to trying to fit a mountain into a milk carton .... Let's be real here. The lama doesn't know everything and he and others of his persuasion may be wrong about a lot of things but what prevents you from admitting this about Scientism too? Are you only for questioning the things you disbelieve and not at all the things you believe/accept/value /trust?

celticpassage's picture

Oy. More canned answers from skeptic magazine which come from a simplistic view of what constitutes science.

zumacraig's picture

Your dismissal of the critique above is astounding and quite exemplary of the attitude that allows such blind adherence to these Lamas.

leebert's picture

I was over at Objective:Missionaries and thought ... maybe this Lama Thaye is just playing a joke.

So I re-read it. Nope, no joke.

Look: The bit about Pinocchio, Genesis & empiricism *IS* a joke.

Sadly, it's a farce, not satire. And these poor souls here can't see through it.

Sucks to be them.

leebert's picture

Go re-read the section about Pinocchio for yourselves:

First he slights academic and scientific materialism as being the same as some Vedic or Jainist view (modern materialism is nothing of the sort, Thaye is simply employing a popular slur against naive materialistm). That's the first thought-terminating cliche or stereotype, offense #1.

Then in support of that view, he clearly demands that consciousness will never to be shown to have arisen from non-conscious processes, and likewise that animate life can't ever be demonstrated likewise from non-animate ones. That, and any view otherwise is tantamount to hoping to raise Pinocchio out of dead wood.

He then caps it off by comparing theistic ontology ("Let there be light") with some imputed hand-waving by empiricists. Ignoring the deeper metaphorical possibilities of "Let there be light," Thaye belies his own hardened sentiments by reifying a freely interpretable, non-literal phrase from Genesis into some lever of prejudice.

But bringing "Let there be light" down to some kind of superstitious exaggeration of metaphor, he then suggests that empiricists, humanists and the like are simply superstitious in their addiction to materialism.

What a cheap shot and right from the hip. With those few sentences we're supposed to accept the argument & dispense with all of that. The prior knowledge needn't any explanation.

I've never read anything more insulting, presumptuous and patronizing from any Buddhist cleric, ever. But, there's always a first time. Would any of you here accept the same kind of piffle from a Christian theologian?

This isn't about having a discussion about whether or not there are experiences or phenomena that lie beyond scientific examination.

Exemplifying this are the ancillary defenses that have been prompted by Thaye's essay, among them the "No Good Scotsman" argument, that a good Buddhist would disavow a material examination of certain, inviolable processes.

I think this is very telling, that Thaye can arouse an anticipated defense under the rubric that sunyata defies parameterization, by inciting negative stereotypes, and beggaring questions on the matter. This is an implicit shaming tactic, and it's as stinky and smelly when a Lama does it as a scientist, priest or politician.

It is manipulative, and disingenuous at heart, to quash any form of open-minded consideration or expansive opportunities toward novel ideas. This isn't about defending the Dharma at all, but about defending Thaye's entitled sense of his Buddhism.

celticpassage's picture

I agree it's astounding to some but that just proves my point.

leebert's picture

Why! That just proves your point!?

zumacraig's picture

There is no reason to listen to any if these 'teachers'. Time is better spent reading basic philosophy. All the dharma teachers must be deflated and flattened. We might be on the right track when Tricycle collapses. Unfortunately, I don't see that happening anytime soon as many here insist on riding tricycles.

speakerfone's picture

There's real Dharma as taught and practiced by the Buddha and realised beings throughout the ages on the one hand and false doctrines on the other. I don't think fundamentalism is a dirty word when related to Dharma. The point is that Dharma works if you study and practice with a genuine teacher. In contrast, if you go along to a place where they just do a bit of meditation and suggest that the doctrine could be tinkered with to make it better suited for normal modern Western minds . . . well then you're going to end up with a normal modern Western mind. Just one that's relabelled Buddhist or 'neo Buddhist'. Maybe people practicing adulterated Buddhism could be referred to and refer to each other as 'Neo Buddhist'? At least for innocent people getting interested in Buddhism they would be immediately aware of some differences in the Buddhist marketplace and make their choice carefully.

This isn't about science vs Buddhism. It's about keeping the doctrine intact and unadulterated and being clear about what's Buddhist and what isn't. Also it's about appreciating that Buddhism has brought countless beings liberation from suffering in it's current form. By tampering with this and pretending that it's an improvement then you're potentially doing a great deal of harm to the opportunities for potential dharma practitioners to connect to real dharma,

Criticisms of fundamentalism and the predominance of power lying with the 'clerics' is a manifestation of the Western world's (generally from the liberal political standpoint) reaction to our own theistic religion's attempts to 'get back to fundamentals' and perhaps also reflects a distaste for Islamic fundamentalism. Whilst I sympathise with this kneejerk reaction dharma is not like these religions because it is a religion that actually has power to transform. That brings me to another point. Those that say it's not a religion are merely trying to make it sound more palatable. Stop marketing it. Stop making it in your own form, taking the bits you think will sell and the bits that won't . . . like prostrating to a Lama . . . 'Oh that simply won't do, far too strange, we are liberals after all' or 'Who is he to expect me to prostrate?'

zumacraig's picture

The error in your thinking is the belief in some transcendent, eternal dharma. If you take anatman at all seriously you'd see that there is no individual to attain personal enlightenment. Liberation is a collective process. Anything less is negative freedom and perpetuated suffering.

kammie's picture

I don't want to join this discussion. There's so much meanness here it's sickening. I just want to thank Lama Jampa Thaye for this article. When I first saw information about the scientific studies of meditation I loved it, but after some years I became disturbed about the apparently ubiquitous shedding from the new-style mindfulness practices of any information about ego and how the mind (world) works. People could get hurt.

Some people write beautifully about subtleties. I don't. But I rely on writers like Lama Jampa Thaye to powerfully thrust real concerns into the cutting edge of today's activities and directional tryouts. Thank you, Lama Jampa Thaye; your article is like the scent of a fresh breeze in a stale room.

As for this "discussion," if you have something to say about something, please say it on your own; you scare me and I haven't done anything against you; please don't attack me.

dneed's picture

might be useful to distinguish scientific practice from scientism—the first is a method of inquiry, the second a mode of unreflective discourse which enacts an imaginary world... most public discourse that speaks in terms of evolutionary mechanisms, for instance, is "scientist"... I thought the Lama's concerns were more with respect to the second, and thus not really critiques of scientific method/critical thought

I suspect the difference between the Lama's thoughts here and the Dalai Lama's interest in science is an echo of the long standing differences within Tibetan Buddhist thinkers with respect to the weight/value of fine-grain conventional truth. I think its useful to understand that that difference reflects differences among we humans (personality, etc) and to see its fundamentally a pedagological issue. Each of us, finally, has to decide whether our commitments reflect bodhicitta, whichever instinct we begin from.

So, that's the second point, I suspect the Lama is making—many people interested in intersection between Buddhism and Science are focused primarily on the grand idea rather than on care.

I have a lot of interest in the work being done in cognitive science, but most of the Cognitive-Buddhist Studies discourse I have seen--William Waldron is a bit of an exception--makes claims that are way, way out in front of what we know. Our scientific understanding of the brain/consciousness is, frankly, still in the "blood-letting" stage, if not the "four element" stage. We are nowhere near close to being able to talk about the relationship between brain events and awareness.

When I see a discourse, like that with respect to connections between cognitive science and Buddhism so vastly exceed its actual grasp, I know that what I am reading is really an ideological performance. It is not clear to me that folks making these ideological claims are really doing it from a basis of bodhicitta; in general it seems to me there is an unexamined desire for some vast synthesis that is, in fact, antithetical with a Perfection of Wisdom view.

I see Buddhist engagement with scientific thought primarily as part of the usual thing that happens when Buddhist thought emerges/encounters a specific cultural context. There is the usual benefit to the institution (Buddhist culture receives elite patronage and interest, gets a place at the table), but, long-term, we would also look for the ways Buddhist thought in the end usefully *disrupts* a culture's conceits. What the Lama does here is simply the work of adhering to the demands of bodhicitta, requiring that we reflect critically and, especially, requiring that we put our own commitments under the microscope.

So, I'd ask folks bothered by his remarks to do that. Are you motivated by compassion or by an interest in an idea? In the idea of a synthesis or vast system? In the idea of actually being able to grasp something?


janjansen's picture

Good point.

Simply put, I'd say that the use of science in Buddhist lectures is generally used (not only by the Dalai Lama) to make a connection with Western thought and to allow as many people as possible to enter the boddhisattva path.
On the other hand, these teachers will probably agree with the lama here that science ultimately cannot help us attain the goal of the boddhisattva path. Which is perfectly logical, as both science and Buddhism have very different goals.

zumacraig's picture

The Great Lama says:
"In this respect, Buddhism is not like the varieties of theism, the authority of which rest, in final analysis, on the acceptance of divine revelation. Rather, it’s because the dharma need only be defended by direct experience and reasoning that it doesn’t need to borrow these aspects from science."

-The dharma is the same kind of transcendental, arbitrary 'truth' based on slippery personal experience that belief in a divine being is. The inability to think outside of the ‘dharma’ and be aware of one’s ideology makes articles like the above possible. This right wing propaganda is just perpetuating suffering.

-The dismissal of science as scientism is just lazy thinking and a poor argument for ‘the dharma’. It’s like the author is saying, “ Science can’t answer all of our questions so the dharma fills in the gaps.” That’s ridiculous and the kind of emotional manipulation into dharma devotion that plagues western Buddhism. Science doesn’t claim it has or will answer all of our questions. To dismiss it as such is infantile.

-I can get on board with dharma and ethics, but nature of mind and liberation? What the hell does that mean? These are loaded buzzwords and buddhemes that teachers use to wow their students into submission.

Just say it, you think the dharma is above science and you great teacher have some special knowledge of reality that science or the student couldn’t even imagine fathoming.

Faithful Buddhist,

janjansen's picture

Ok probably i did not feel your meaning of the term "right wing", now that I read this. But then again it still is an Orwellian concept.

The Dharma is one of the 3 refuges shared by all Buddhist lineages. It has multiple meanings from multiple perspectives. Looking at it as a set of teachings from the Buddha that were orally transmitted and then written down by monks 200 years after his death, we see a vast cannon often symbolized with a closet holding roles of text in the refuge tree. From this vast set, different lineages/schools take different teachings, depending on the tendencies in people that they work with (the hinayana schools emphasize karma and monastic life, the mahayana schools emphasize the same with additional teachings on compassion, the Tibetan schools focus more on guru yoga practice and also include lay/yogi lineages that draw more from milarepa than from Gampopa). You quickly need to join an authentic Sangha to get some basic understanding here.

The author makes a distinction between science and scientism (an extreme form of scientific positivism) and does not tarnish the name of science but merely states that it has different goals. As Buddhism is not suitable for the goals of science, so is science not suitable for the goals of Buddhism. I am a scientist myself, I can see this. Why can't you?

If you have no confidence in your own mind's abilities, if you have no aspiration to reach liberation and enlightenment, you should probably seek something else and not call yourself a Buddhist.

zumacraig's picture

My views on the subject come from years in so-called authentic sanghas. Your comments here continue to demonstrate lazy thinking. Case in point, arguing about science vs. Buddhist and assuming there is some sort of dichotomy. The fact that you call yourself a scientist and believe in some transcendent liberation is blocking real thought and conversation here.
Right wing refers to any assumed atman that seems to sneak into all late capitalist interpretations of dharma.

janjansen's picture

lazy thinking? A scientist sets out to study the world via its material side, right? A Buddhist sets out to study the world via meditation. Isn't that right? This doesn't make it a dichotomy, it might still be that, viewed from other perspectives the two show overlap. You might view the goal of Buddhism as overlapping with science. Both are a study of "how things are", more generally. But more specifically again, Buddhism does not set out to build bridges and science does not set out to reach liberation.
I'm simply trying to show the nay-sayers that the lama has a point with his dismissal of scientific methods on the path to realization. Again this does not preclude that all science is useless or that none can be used never on the path.

I do not believe in some transcendent liberation, I have seen what my mind is capable of and I trust my lama that this realization can be extended towards liberation/enlightenment. What I seei n my lama is what I want to attain. I do not understand that you mean with this statement.

leebert's picture

Really, is this the best we can do, inveigh against empiricism by dint of straw-manning "scientism?"

Ever since B. Allan Wallace excoriated Stephen Batchelor in that grand Philippic a few years back, the tenor of prejudice against science, secularism & any humanist adaptation of the dharma has increased.

What's next? DBT is dharma only for psychotics? MBSR is worse than Nichirenism, Buddhalotry?

The push-back against the mindfulness industry ("McMindfulness") and this screed against "Scientism" both brought me to this thought:

Discrimination against one method or another reveals a vested sense of the right way to cure human nature, and the hubris that anything less must be part of the disease.

The disease, again, being human nature itself.

Excuse me if I'm reading that wrong, but I've been watching this conflict escalate over the past few years & I'm already very tired of it. I don't see balance here, instead I see straw-manning & contrived dialectics.

Are the stakes *SO LOW* that we have to create controversies in order to protect our own vested positions, views, cherished beliefs?

Ahh, silly me, and here I hoped Buddhists knew to rise above all that ...

Take heart dear readers, I note that overall the commenters have been a great deal more nuanced in their views than the writers. IOW the laity appears to have a better grasp of the situation than the clerics.


Climbing in vain hope
to the massif's opine line:
Not one tree grows here.

Richard Fidler's picture

The word "scientism" is a construction designed to put down European Enlightenment thinking of eighteenth century. It is bandied about by those who believe science is just another viewpoint on reality, having no special claims on truth. Hindu medicine is fine, acupuncture is fine, Native American healing techniques are fine, everything is fine--even though the systems differ in theory and in practice and are frequently contradictory.

Reductionism and causation are particularly set out for criticism by those insisting scientific approaches are inadequate. Of course, the advances of science that emphasized reductionism are plain for everybody to see: childhood diabetes (diabetes I) has nothing to do with maintaining balance among the four humors or eating a certain diet; it has to do with the failure of Islets of Langerhans to produce insulin. That condition is dealt with by appropriate administration of insulin. What could be more reductionist? What could be more correct? And the germ theory of disease? Reductionist, indeed, and occasionally mistaken, but a damn good place to begin. And its success in conquering a whole raft of disease stands in stark contrast to the relative failure of other medical frameworks.

Like you, I resent secularists being driven from the temple. Buddha himself urged people to forget about such arguments for an against metaphysical positions and get to practicing the dharma. That is what some posting here should set out to do.

leebert's picture

Well, truth is that I'm not the least bit concerned about being driven from any temple. I'm a Buddhist, but this declared horse race against secularism & mindfulness smells of bailiwick. If it weren't for the implicit & overt slurs I wouldn't give a tinker's dam.

As other people have suggested, all vernacular are fungible. It doesn't effing matter if I put my left shoe on first or last (but not second, that would be a sin) if the process *just works.* That's all that needs to happen is a working process.

"Scientism" is indeed a slur, and since it was stated, it invites examination.

janjansen's picture

Science is perfectly adequate for its purpose, which is the study of outer phenomena, the material world.

But I get more and more the feeling that scientists (and I am one myself), suffer from their own logical minds. We assume there is always some logical consequence to our statements and that all statements can be logically connected. We try to fit the world more and more in an either-or model, weighing everything on one scale.

However, what we see in science is that we are creating ever more specialized fields. Our theories that capture the workings of these different fields are often incompatible with each other. So more often then not, statements bare no logical correlation to each other coming from different fields (my feeling is that Goedel's incompleteness theorem supports their fundamental incompatibility as mathematical fact). The real nature of most of these statements is both-and, instead of either-or (atoms are both particles and waves, and can be described by both quantum mechanics and relativistic physics, to pick example from a popular field, which i'm not an expert in).

The same holds true for Buddhism and Science, on the other scale, the scale of studying the inner phenomena, Buddhism excels. As does science for studying the outer phenomena. Both-and.
As science has an applied goal of building bridges and aiding the external comfort in our lifes, so does Buddhism has the goal of reaching permanent happiness, away from our fluctuating emotions and experiences. Nobody can deny that using the mind's laboratory, i.e. meditation, for that is perfectly inadequate. The rest of Buddhism is just a framework to put this into practice, like the universities are the institutions of science. Even though the inner laboratory is subjective, we can perfectly well distinguish the authentic teachings/teachers from inauthentic ones by looking at their fruits. The teachers/sangha with the most happy, fearless and compassionate behavior should hold the right teachings.

Richard Fidler's picture

Unlike you I do not distinguish between an "outer" and "inner" world. There are different descriptions of consciousness: molecular, cellular, organ-level, organism-level. And there are the subjective, language-based descriptions which result from the communication of the concept-forming parts of our brain to the centers responsible for attention, emotions, and perception. Those descriptions are heavily influenced by culture, by conditioning.

The descriptions of consciousness that have to do with brain function lie within the domain of science and are invariant. Those that have to do with culture vary considerably according to the culture of the person making the description. The dharma, I believe, points to certain "meta-principles" that govern conscious behavior, principles that transcend culture. These include the importance of mindfulness in maintaining equanimity, the abandonment of clinging to outcomes in order to avoid suffering, and the absence of a controlling self, the homunculus that sees itself in control of the process of cognition, planning, remembering, and so on. It does not matter if you are Christian or Muslim, Chinese or American, a believer in the supernatural or a complete skeptic--those principles apply across the board. For that reason seculars belong in the community of the dharma every bit as much as those who cannot accept explanations of natural phenomena not based upon scientific inquiry.

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

"Examining and even questioning the foundational assumptions of secular and scientific materialism doesn’t mean we stop doing science or stop living in a technological world. Rather, it means we begin to see our worldview as a worldview, to appreciate how it, too, came to be constituted on the basis of a number of sleights of hand and is, as a result, no more universal or final or resting on solid ground than the worldviews of our medieval Western or traditional Buddhist predecessors."

—Linda Heuman, "What's at Stake as the Dharma Goes Modern?"

marginal person's picture

Of course scientist operate within a certain world view or paradigm. To be human is to be biased. The only difference is that it's a world view that enables us to save a critically ill child.

janjansen's picture

Here a copy of sherabpa's reply:
Reply by sherabpa on July 1, 2013, 7:05 pm
"If you read a bit more carefully what Lama Jampa Thaye says, it is not that, as you put it, 'science is unable to explain how consciousness evolved from non-consciousness', but that materialism cannot do so. He seems to clearly distinguish science from the philosophical and metaphysical ideas which surround it, which you do not do. You seem to be reading into the article something which is not there."

The McMindfulness industry is useful for people to relax and probably has its own worldly merits. My experience is that Buddhism on the other hand changes ones complete view on life and all experiences. It's goal is liberation and enlightenment. That this is attainable we can see in the behavior of realized teachers/practitioners. Remember, you can always check liberation in a teacher, because it expresses itself as continuous fearlessness, joyfulness and _active_ compassion (it is unlikely that you will see a liberated teacher "practicing"/"demonstrating" his patience, rather he will act so that no one has to wait). In fact, you should check a teacher for these qualities before you become his/her student.

leebert's picture

As for the benefits of any liberation theology (I see Buddhism, Christianity & Taoism as all variably realized to that end) there is no question to either the appeal, or practical outcome of active, even passive, practice.

The dharma as it is embodied in an anthropic vehicle (all of us), is conceived as a continuum of flux and experience that is contiguous with everything.

If find it utterly disorienting that anyone would perceive a dialectic between the Dharma & empiricism (even "scientism") because of "metaphysics."

The positions of Sherabpa & Thaye suffer from a conflation of terms, false equivalences, prior assumptions & other sentiments shot right from the hip.

Whatever.... :)

janjansen's picture

When Buddhists, 100s of years after the Buddha, began philosophizing too much instead of sitting on their meditation pillow, Nagarjuna wrote his treatise on emptiness, showing in effect that all philosophies, all words are ultimately "empty" (I sometimes see it as Goedel's incompleteness theorem for the world, although that may be a somewhat gross comparison). He thereby successfully brought the practitioners back to their pillow. See the article in that light.

leebert's picture

I've tried Jan, but his rhetoric occludes any comprehension of what he's actually trying to convey. I'm sorry but I'm far too tired of agenda-building exercises.

I hold no other prior prejudice by method or school, I honestly have no fealty to a school & bear no desire to challenge anybody else's.

P.S. I've come to a similar view of Goedel & incompleteness.

janjansen's picture

hi leebert,

I've reread your comment as well.

What I meant is that the article is directed at Buddhist practitioners, not at scientists. In other words, the scientists themselves, should in no way feel attacked. There methods are still perfectly worthy for their own purpose, they deserve the Nobel prices and contribute thoroughly to the comfort and length of our lives.
Even if they hold the most materialistic views, this is perfectly alright, as long as they are not Buddhist practitioners. The distinction between science - scientism is merely linguistic, when referring to pure science, the author indicates that this is compatible with Buddhist practice (up to a point of course, as the two have different goals), when referring to scientism, the author wishes to set aside the materialistic view of the world which can in no way be compatible with Buddhism. If he states, "If I may", the author does not wish to introduce a static definite vocabulary, but instead introduces a term to distinguish two views.

Cool that you understand Goedel in the same way. My hope is that someone works out his theorem in a Buddhist context, this could greatly contribute to both scientific understanding and Buddhist practice. We hear a lot about quantum physics and relativity in Buddhism, but I've never heard somebody explain Goedel in such a way!

leebert's picture


Jan, this is exactly what I'm talking about. Who's to say who does or doesn't delve into the dharma, or how?

janjansen's picture

well maybe the lama means only to reach his students?

In any case, i'm absolute confident in proclaiming that good practice exemplifies itself in good teachers/sanghas (fearless, joyful and actively compassionate).

In our sangha i see a lot of people coming by that practice "spirituality". meaning that they mix and match whatever they like. As I explained in another post, that doesn't work.

leebert's picture

There's a great deal that can be said about syncretic religion, but isolating whose inner vernacular can or cannot work starts reaching into fundamentalism.

leebert's picture

Hi Jan,

I see you've been privileged to instructions from the committee as well.

I've reread the article and I still see the strawmanning of "scientism" and putting the albatross of naive materialism around the necks of those who would try to study brain processes in the context of traditional mindfulness practices.

Even the opening statements, before the aspersions toward "scientism" and (naive)"materialism" are riven with prior assumptions (if I may....).

The leading title immediately sets the tone,

"We Are Not Kind Machines: A Radical Rejection of Scientific Buddhism"

It says it all right there, the agenda, the judgement, the stance. Lama Jampa is saying that he's against it (whatever it is).

OK, but it's a headline, so let's read further:

"..the dharma itself must be made more "scientific" if it is to survive."

Let's remember who has gone out on a limb to say this, HHDL, some others, and as I recall it it was NOT framed with respect to the Dharma. The Dharma is, after all, a stand-alone self-sustaining un-thing. Kinda like "God," a placeholder for a great many things, including direct experience, and the practice thereof. Buddhism on the other hand might use some improvement. Buddhism and the Dharma are not the same thing. And if memory serves me, the Dalai Lama said it was Buddhism that might benefit from science with respect to its future survival.

But then he continues with this:

"It’s not that the dharma needs to be placed in a special protected category reserved for “faiths,” a reservation into which reason is not allowed."

Wait a minute, there's a sudden leap. Since when has any effort sought to become an antipode to any faith, or for that matter relegate them into a ghetto of irrationalism?

"In this respect, Buddhism is not like the varieties of theism, the authority of which rest, in final analysis, on the acceptance of divine revelation. "

Oh oh. I've seen this one before. Buddhism is better. First tell that to the Zen Catholics. Second there's a long discussion about mythos & metaphor in the process of transcendental growth, in the context of liberation theologies. As such there is no need to cast a dialectic here, but he does. WHY?

"Rather, it’s because the dharma need only be defended by direct experience and reasoning that it doesn’t need to borrow these aspects from science."

This makes me very curious, that there's any question that it need be defended at all. From what or whom does "the Dharma" need defending?

More to the point: Are we talking about the dharma, or are we talking about something that might suffer under scrutiny? Could that be Buddhism? Or the age-old, world-wide privilege of clerics to impart their version of a faith onto a dependent laity?

I could go on, but I won't. The rest of the article attempts to reinforce the dialectic being cast in a similar vein.

janjansen's picture

People are so sensitive nowadays.

Chill down. If the author would have wanted to write an article about the "superiority" of Buddhism, and probably he doesn't, he would have written a wholly different article. The article simply compares differences of Buddhism with science, materialism, Mindfulness courses and scientism (an extreme scientific optimism). The point of these comparisons is to show that Buddhist should not make the mistake of falling into scientism!
It still holds that science (not scientism) is better suited for building bridges over rivers and classifying the outer world into atoms and whatnot than Buddhism is. Nobody is denying that. These things do not even lie in the scope of Buddhism (even if the enlightened mind could do these things there simply would not be room for it next to its active compassion :).

You see things that are simply not there. For example, when you quote:
"In this respect, Buddhism is not like the varieties of theism, the authority of which rest, in final analysis, on the acceptance of divine revelation."
You react:
"Oh oh. I've seen this one before. Buddhism is better."
There are big differences between the two, starting with the fact that Buddha is not a God. The author is perfectly right to point that out and it serves his point. Catholic Zen Buddhists are Catholics in the first place (i.e. believe in God) who got the allowance from their church to practice other meditation methods (and become quite upset when you start talking with them about the Dharma, I know from experience). Like mindfulness workshops, they solely learn to focus on their breathing, without an all-encompassing philosophy behind it explaining emotions, cause and effect and path and fruit of the path.

Now if you cannot see the difference between a mindfulness "course" and a Buddhist sangha (where practitioners take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, in all streams of Buddhism and also in the Lama in some, where Dharma btw has a different meaning or emphasis within the different streams), that would surprise me. When you believe that a mindfulness course is somehow better or you want to compare the two on a single good - bad scale, that is simply beside the point. As a matter of fact, Buddhists now perfectly well that people have different outlooks and require different teachings. Our sangha ofter refers people to yoga, mindfulness groups or the Church if they only seek to relax or believe in God. Buddha himself gave different teachings for different students.

If you feel better with some mindfulness group or thing, fine with me. Go there and develop yourself and shine the fruits in the world. I wish you all the best of luck!
But I do want to add here, that I have quite some experience with people who come for one meditation and them go their own way, because they think they can combine what they like on their spiritual path. They always look a bit funny to me, especially because I've been there myself and know that mind has a natural tendency to pick out the easy things and leave the rest. And maybe what you need for development are the hard things! In our sangha, these spiritual people visit us from time to time, and I'm convinced that they are the most confused, because you have to keep explaining them (twice, because after that I refer them to other groups) that Buddha is not a God, that we do more than just relaxing for 20 minutes.

zumacraig's picture

Classic right wing reaction. You misrepresent Nagarjuna. You then invoke the tone police on the commenter who is trying to set you straight. When you feel like telling someone to 'chill down', they're probably telling you truth.

janjansen's picture

and by the way, I am explicitly talking about the 70 stanzas on emptiness from Nagarjuna. He wrote other texts as well, which could have different goals, I don't know. That may be where our disagreement comes from.


janjansen's picture

This is how I understood Nagarjuna from a 5 day course with the Dalai Lama in Hamburg (I should note that I'm no longer a student of his). I'm quite certain that this was the Dalai Lama's explanation almost to the letter.

As for your other comments, I'd rather discus the content than the tone, but you are right that I detect an oversensitivity in the other commenter's words.

Probably, you are right that I am a bit "right wing" (although I think that is an Orwellian expression, but I feel you). Too often I see that active compassion is is understood as an om-sheet-om form of showy compassion with Western Buddhists. Instead of acting for the right cause, many prefer to demonstrate their patience and their tolerance. I feel it is healthy to counter that here and their.

speakerfone's picture

Through challenging the buddhadharma whilst engsging in regular study and practice we can develop unshakeable confidence in the buddha's words and teachings.

People without confidence in dharma, developed through rigorous hearing, thinking and meditation, will not challenge their own preconceptions and received 'scientific' doctrines. Instead they'll create their own brand of buddhism which reassures them, instead of unsettles them. A doctrine that cements ego, rather than demolishes it, a medicine that prolongs the illness, rather than cures it.

It's not some kind of luddite backwardness that prevents dharma practitioners ftom fully engaging in scientific beliefs. It's a confidence in the efficacy of dharma and the lack thereof in scientific method.

leebert's picture

Have you met this straw man of which you speak so authoritatively?

"People without confidence in dharma"

[ the unfaithful, those unlike us ]

"developed through rigorous hearing, thinking and meditation."

[ us being superior in our methods ]

"ill not challenge their own preconceptions and received 'scientific' doctrines"

[ are a bunch of dunderheads ]

"Instead they'll create their own brand of buddhism which reassures them, instead of unsettles them. "

[ they are not worthy, and are deluded fools ]

"A doctrine that cements ego, rather than demolishes it, a medicine that prolongs the illness, rather than cures it."

[ we own the cure to human nature. back off, it's our turf. Gee, was that in the least a bit patronizing? ]

speakerfone's picture

Sorry, that was a bit of a rant. Let me be a bit more straight about what I meant.

When I mentioned "people without confidence in the dharma" I meant people without confidence in the REAL dharma who feel it necessary to adjust Buddhist doctrine to their own needs. Whether this is because the real dharma is too uncomfortable to consider or whether it's just not very easy to market, whoever feels they can improve on it should (for safety's sake) initially be considered a dangerous charlatan. :o)

"Us being superior in our methods". Anyone can engage with genuine Dharma in this way (of hearing, thinking and meditation) to test for themselves whether they think Dharma and it's methods are effective and truthfull. I get the sense you're saying I'm being elitist or arrogant here, or saying that Buddhist methods are private and you don't know how to do it!

Of course I believe that Buddhist methods are superior to science when it comes to putting an end to suffering. I suppose my defence to your claim of arrogance is that this isn't some elite club that you have to be invited to attend. All are welcome. After all how else are all beings going to get practicing and get enlightened?

re. Dunderheads . . . nope . . . just that it's not Buddhism that they're practicing.

"They are not worthy and are deluded fools". Nope . . . they ARE worthy of REAL Dharma but 'yes', they are deluded into thinking that 'scientist style dharma' is ok. It's a bastardised work of ego and will only create confusion and lure people away from real Dharma.

"we own the cure to human nature, back off, it's our turf" Erm, yeah. When you've met a good doctor and had medicine from them which made you better, you'd feel it was necessary when you saw a fake doctor mixing his own medicines and selling them in the marketplace to shout out about such fakery!

marginal person's picture

It's good to be "shook" once in awhile.

Dominic Gomez's picture

re: efficacy of dharma...lack thereof in scientific method: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."~A. Einstein

speakerfone's picture

Sorry, I meant lack of ability in scientific method to deal with the origin and cure of suffering.

jackelope65's picture

For the greatest part, I agree with the author. I watched the movie about the reincarnation of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and was struck by the huge amount of cultural beauty/baggage that comes with the identification and teaching of a Tulku. Will a child born today be helped or overwhelmed either by the culture and science associated today with these Tibetan teachings or simply overwhelmed? Buddhist enlightenment does not require either, but when such dramatic shifts have occurred in culture and science as have occurred in the last 60 years, will the enforced requirement of either become an impediment on the path of present and future practitioners?

marginal person's picture

The writer makes an excellent point. The dharma need not be protected.
Let's take the various canons of Buddhism and put them under the same scrutiny as applied to the writings of Plato or any philosopher.
Some serious, objective, intellectual inquiry. Now that would be interesting.

leebert's picture

Sounds like scientism to me... :) Are you sure you won't go to hell for this?

marginal person's picture

Guilty as charged. I love the "water is wet" comment. Who can disagree with that? (also snakes are slimy and pigs are filthy-- why do you think we call them pigs?)

janjansen's picture

Buddha's teachings are about experiencing the mind in the right way so to say. To reach this experience Buddha taught several practices like different meditations. Therefore not all his teachings can be _objectively_ verified. One needs to _subjectively_ verify them by following one of the many different paths that the different Buddhist schools teach (some genuine some not). For most methods to work effectively, you need to have some trust in the way that buddha proposes, therefore it is helpful to meet realized teachers and study their behavior to check their genuineness (yes, unfortunately there also exist nonrealized teachers, who merely provide sustenance for their followers, the monks).

Some teachings of Buddha, like the Abidharma, deal with the mechanical workings of the world. They functioned to give practicioners a common view on the world, a vocabulary so to say. This part of the teachings could be investigated objectively. What you will find is that they are hopelessly outdated (talk about the elements as water, wind, fire, etc). In the Western world we also do not need these teachings, as we already a good general education. Moreover, the merits of analytically addressing and verifying these teachings are questionable, because as I said, the goal of Buddhism is not to explain the world, but to experience the world in right way. The direct unveiled experience of the world, as for example Buddha reached, includes past, present future, all materialistic and emotional perceptions, everything (again this is where a beginning practitioner should have some trust that also the Buddhanature also inhabits his mind).