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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janjansen's picture

I don't know about Zen.
But it sounds like trust to me, especially since you can develop it.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Good point. In Buddhism faith, trust, confidence mean the same thing. Science asks in what.

mahakala's picture

I wonder what is the problem with the acceptance of demonstrable, comprehensible mechanical laws of physics directly coinciding and interpenetrating with insubstantial, incomprehensible mysteries? These problems of either/or/both/neither exist for the mind of critical analysis, not the all-encompassing reality itself. As humans whose sense organs are calibrated to perceive only a tiny portion of possible stimuli, we might find it wise to accept our limitations in the realm of conceptual thought as well - which includes science, philosophy, metaphysics, religion, ethics, sociology, psychology, art, etc. etc. etc...

It seems clear from our embodied human perspective that gravity is much more than an abstract intellectual "concept", and that the logical proposition that 1 + 1 = 2 is not open to debate or philosophical critique (unless you are keen on throwing the baby out with the bathwater). It also seems clear that we only know a small fraction of how everything in existence interacts with everything else, and for what purpose, under what duration, from what origin, and so on. And while the classifications speaking to the relative amount of our "scientific" knowledge may be a matter of subjective opinion, the vastness of the unknown is quite possibly endless as far as humanity is concerned. Does the tree falling in the forest make a sound if no one is around to hear it? Maybe not. Or maybe the other trees are hearing it and that is why the forest exists in the first place. Who can really say?

Is humanity capable of a perfect utopian paradise? Perhaps... or perhaps not. So far as we know, it has not worked out in that way. Does this mean that such a possibility will never occur? We cannot say for certain because our perspective on the scale of time is calibrated to our personal lifespan, or our cultural histories and so forth. In terms of geological time, our known human history is shorter than the shortest blip you can imagine. In terms of cosmic time, even less so, on another unthinkable order of magnitude.

In terms of buddhism, the story of the poison arrow seems most applicable. It is not really important to find out who shot you until you prevent yourself from dying of the poison seeping into your bloodstream.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"It is not really important to find out who shot you." Stem the hemorrhaging first. Past is past. Buddhism's concern is the present and future.

mahakala's picture

You might also say "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". The problems raised here relate to the methodology of prescribing treatments only for symptoms rather than treating the root cause of illness.

I understand that many people have a great burning desire to "save the world" in some way or another ("save the nation" or "save the church" or "save the children" etc.), and this phenomena is directly related to that kind of pursuit. It is not that all efforts to accomplish anything are in vain, but unbalanced perspectives lead to unbalanced actions that eventually bring about unbalanced environments which serve to perpetuate even more unbalanced perspectives. If you need evidence for that, just take a quick look around.

It all starts from "within", and extrapolates "outward" from there. Accordance with the Law (capital L) is brought about through an "internal" connection, not an "external" imposition. All resultant considerations involving personal matters will therefore apply in a fundamental way; and this flows in both directions.

marginal person's picture

Those who don't know history are condemned to repeat it.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Disavow past causes? This would be ignorance, one of the 3 poisons (along with greed and belligerence) innate in human life.

marginal person's picture

"Past is pas. t Buddhism's concern is the present and future." That was you comment. No?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Yes.

marginal person's picture

Past is past. Usually means forget it and move on. Your statement. "Disavow past causes? That would be ignorance..." is self explanatory. The statements are contradictory.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Past is past. Everyone makes mistakes. Just take responsibility and move on with your life. Make even greater effort to create value and change your karma.

marginal person's picture

True merit is like a river, the deeper it is the less noise it makes.

Dominic Gomez's picture

;-)

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

Richard Fidler provides a perfect example of scientism. If it happens, at first glance, to seem totally reasonable, it's only because it's a neat summation of the ideological milieu - a totally ubiquitous kind of thinking. It is scientism (which is not science!) that dominates, not theology or the humanities or literature or philosophy. It is the sacred cow that has a monopoly on public funding, and begs to be slaughtered.

Alex Rosenberg: "The humanities are nothing we have to take seriously except as symptoms. But they are everything we need to take seriously when it comes to entertainment, enjoyment and psychological satisfaction. Just don’t treat them as knowledge or wisdom." The result is, to borrow from Curtis White, "what psychologists call a double bind: science confesses that it doesn't know how to provide meaning for its own knowledge, but all other forms of meaning are forbidden."

One of the hallmarks of scientism (and it's pesky little brother, scientific positivism) is an assurance that, despite this "temporary" inability to account for the true meaning of all these matters, science is really on the verge of explaining all of this! (As Richard Fidler says, "There is no reason to think a scientific consciousness beginning at the molecular level and extending to cellular and organ levels cannot be developed within the next decade").

However, the premise of such beliefs is an easy target for the oft-ignored philosopher, as Lama Jampa indicates. It is not a "vitalist" perspective to deny that consciousness arose from inert matter. After all, to the intelligent physicist - and to the philosopher - the universe is "nearer to a great thought than a great machine." To put it succinctly, the idea that the material world fundamentally precedes consciousness or experience or any kind of symbolic order, and therefore exists objectively, is, quite literally, unthinkable. (In addition, it is in no way provable, falsifiable, empirical.)

Buddhism is not alone in holding this position, and to paint this as a matter of religious fundamentalism, as Lawrence Levy does below, is to completely ignore not only our rich theological heritage, but also our philosophical, theoretical, and literary traditions. It is a cultural travesty.


Richard Fidler's picture

The burden is on you to show that consciousness exists outside of physical interactions of particles, not me. You imagine something exists besides matter--and you must prove it. Of course, we both know that is impossible. How can anyone show something without physical parameters exists?

You claim that "Buddhism" holds the position that objective reality does not exist--yet it is unclear to me how you can make such a grand assertion. If that question is even discussed across the myriad forms of the dharma, those discussions hardly recognize the clarification of thought and the development of a nuanced vocabulary that evolved over the past five hundred years. Some forms of the dharma--Zen, for example--explicitly discourages wandering about in metaphysical realms. Most of us seculars applaud that stance. We believe the dharma is about practice, not philosophical discussion.

By the way, are you saying that it is only a particular viewpoint that has water made up of two parts hydrogen to one part of oxygen? That another viewpoint about the matter is equally valid?

speakerfone's picture

It's only because scientism is the dominant belief system that that onus of proof is on Buddhism. Prasanghika Madyamika analysis avoids predicating anything but instead busys itself with deconstructing illogical and false arguments. A classic example of an illogical piece of reasoning is the idea of 'emergent phenomena'. The belief that material reality, through complexity (or 'a sleight of hand' as Lama Jampa Thaye puts it), can produce something inherently different in character to it's parent. In Buddhist logic this is like asserting that barley can be grown from a rice seed.

Asserting the true existence of particles of material reality which extension in space is another illogical assertion. If a particle has extension in space then it must have a top, bottom and sides. It is therefore divisible. If you assert that the pieces into which it has been divided have extension in space they too must have a top, bottom and sides and so be divisible. A logical result of the assumption that matter has extension in space is that all particles are infinitely divisible. Which makes a nonsense of the concept of matter having extension in space.

Philosophical analysis is absolutely central to correcting our mistaken view of the world. Meditation without it is not directed and aimless. You can't be liberated from ignorance if you don't tackle the taken for granted assumptions of, for example, the solidity of the self and/or the solidity of external phenomena.

janjansen's picture

Wow, nice explanation.

Although, I should add that, from viewpoint of my lineage (Karma Kagyu), there is a different approach: The way of direct identification with the Lama via Guru Yoga. Study and becoming a monk (vows) are less important in this way, whereas with the Gelugpa's they are always central as I understood from the Dalai Lama.

However, my point is that there are different schools with different approaches. All have there own value as people's minds are vastly different. One should find a school that fits.

It is also my ardent wish that any new practitioner reading this, understands this and aims at eventually choosing ONE school that suits him or her (the Dalai Lama explains the same thing to Christians that are attracted to Buddhism).
Why? I have had experience with mixing teachings and the result was disaster. Mind is always lazy and does not like the mirror that dharma practice can confront it with. If you choose to mix teachings from different lamas, you end up following advices halfway according to your ego's liking. If you picture enlightenment as walking up a mountain, and the differently schools as different starting points at the bottom of the mountain, you end up oscillating between different paths which is certainly not the shortest route towards the top!

kundrolpawo's picture

On the contrary, the burden is on you to show that matter exists outside of your own awareness. Your awareness has never actually encountered any physical object directly. Direct observations can only be on mental events. However scientists may like to deny it, they are the ones making radical and unproven assumptions about the nature of the world.

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

To start with your final statement, yes. There are myriad viewpoints regarding water that are equally valid. For example, it's wet. I drink it. In the summertime, I prefer it to be cold; in the wintertime, hot.

I do, very literally, "imagine something exists besides matter." In fact, regardless of what I choose to imagine, the imagination is not matter. Most scientists wouldn't doubt this for a second, but your position happens to be an extreme one.

For example, if I imagine a strawberry, there is not a little strawberry somewhere in my brain that appears. There are neurons that fire and the chemical soup moves, let's be sure, but why would I assume that my imagining a strawberry IS (most important part) this chemical soup and neural pathways? The project of neuroscience is to understand how aspects of consciousness (like thoughts) and the brain correlate. But they are just that: correlates. Anyway, that imagined strawberry is not material, though you contend that whatever is not matter does not exist. I'd suggest you to look right in front of your nose, but it's much closer!

Richard Fidler's picture

When the neurons in your brain do not fire in a particular pattern, you do not imagine a strawberry. That is solid evidence your imagination is grounded in the activities of your brain.

Your statements about water are not science: wet, cold, hot, drinkable. They are descriptions related to perception and cognition. Of course, those things exist--at least for human beings that share the same kind of neural wiring. However, they relate to the nature of your nervous system and to your social conditioning. The word "wet" would have no meaning to a fish that spends its life in the water. Cold, hot, and drinkable are all relative terms defined in different ways by different people. The word "truth" cannot be applied to them.

janjansen's picture

You should reread Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" and reconsider his metaphor.

marginal person's picture

Good suggestion. Kuhn's an interesting read.
It's difficult to get beyond one's own "logic bubble". I try to read things that give me a fresh perspective, a window into another's world.
A reading (or rereading) of Emerson's "Self Reliance" might be helpful.

Lawrence Levy's picture

In this article, Lama Thaye wrote, "The unique force of the dharma lies in its diagnosis of suffering." Are we to believe that the suffering endured in a person battling Alzheimers, children who lose a mother to breast cancer, or young girls taken as sex slaves are the product of craving, karma, or past lives? To characterize their suffering as the product of their own personal causes is, to me, cultural travesty.

Buddha was a genius who gave us is a set of tools to know our minds and evolve. Why was he so adamant that we think for ourselves if all he wanted was us to follow what he said without evolving it? The phrase Buddhist fundamentalism does not preference science; it simply describes an attitude that appears unwilling to evaluate old ideas about causation and the like in the light of new discovery.

speakerfone's picture

Lawrence,
Buddha didn't say exactly say 'think for yourself'. He said 'examine my teachings as if they were a gold coin.' It can be said that at one level karma is a provisional teaching. That means a teaching that doesn't describe ultimate reality exactly but needs qualifying. A provisional truth always plays a practical role and in this case helps us see a link between cause and effect. Ultimately however, to understand karma is to understand dependent origination, which is to understand emptiness. This is the definitive or ultimate teaching on Karma

If you don't believe in karma then I presume you don't believe in rebirth. What's Juniper's take on rebirth?

Remember that since Buddhism rejects the notion of a self, these people's suffering is not a result of 'their own' misdeeds. So to suggest that somehow we can see suffering in the world and vilify the sufferers as evil doers would be a misreading of a provisional truth. Instead this teaching is useful from our own side to help us give up non-virtue by seeing it as inevitably producing suffering, since it is born from ignorance of the true nature of reality.

janjansen's picture

A Buddhist is supposed to in general use compassion for others and wisdom for himself because it is generally very hard to judge where others are coming from.
Karma is also not such a simple concept as you seem to imagine. First of all there is no judge. No God saying that your result is good or bad. Second of all, there are four aspects that need to come together to saw a strong karmic seed in our store consciousness: 1. understanding the situation you are in fully, 2. the will to do something (say: help/hurt someone), 3. the act of doing it or having it done, and 4. being glad with the outcome. Now you should imagine that we went through countless of rebirths accumulating good and bad karma here and there without much real understanding of what is going on (ignorance), especially in those lower rebirths in the realms of animals and the like. The result is that we have uncountable karmic imprints stored in our store consciousness. Depending on circumstances, different ones may come up. It is not such a personal thing as you imagine, this is the cyclic realm of existence (Samsara) from Buddhist perspective.
So when I would happen to wake up tomorrow with a life-threatening disease, I am confident there is no practicing Buddhist that I know that will blame me or judge me for having bad karma. (It might be a common view in India, but there, Buddhism has been virtually wiped out by the Islamic invasions. And from what I understand, in the rest of South Asia, Buddhism is not much more than an empty shell of rituals)
On the other hand, if someone gets interested in working with his mind and comes to a Buddhist for advice (preferably a realized teacher, but a small group of aspiring Bodhisattvas can do the job as well), the Buddhist will inform him that any karma that did not ripen yet, can be countered and overcome. In other words, your future is in fully in your hands as long as you work to rude out ignorance.

There is much more to say about Karma. For sure Buddhism can not magically cure karmic seeds that ripened, and with any dangerous disease you should visit a doctor before you seek shelter in a Sangha. Furthermore, some teachers hold the view that once the seed has ripened, e.g. cancers grows, you got rid of the karmic imprint completely. This means that you should fight the expression of the disease with whatever means you have: painkillers, chemo therapy, etc.

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

Hi Lawrence,

"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."

I think what Lama Jampa is saying here is that the unique force of the dharma lies in its particular treatment of suffering. He's not saying that it's the only way to look at things. Many learned Buddhist thinkers have rejected the theory of past lives, but that's off topic.

I wholehartedly agree that any "old ideas about causation," wherever they come from, should be abandoned if they're shown to be incorrect.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Shakyamuni simply teaches that life is suffering. The form that suffering takes is as manifold as there are individuals who suffer. Past is past. Buddhism focuses on the present and the future. Science is a powerful tool to alleviate future suffering when partnered with the wisdom derived from Buddhist faith.

danbarnes80's picture

There's no argument here. Ever notice how often "scientism" is described as "hidden"? That's because it's hard to find an educated person who actually holds this view. Strawmen aren't very quotable I guess. I think there is a strong attachment among even nominal secularists to the "magic" of conciousness, and many of them write a variation on this essay (there was one in the new york times just the other day). Why don't you build your boat out of whatever the heck you want, and let us do the same? When we get to other side, neither of us will care how the other got over.

janjansen's picture

uhm Stephen Hawking?
I could easily come up with more examples. But also know many from my private connections: scientific colleagues, friends, etc. Often the view coincides with some hostility towards whatever they dub as a religious idea or concept. In fact, ironically, I notice it is often easier to hold a sensible (scientific) discussion with a Christian on matters that go beyond the material.

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

Stephen Hawking is an excellent example. When he denied the existence of God the media and public were scandalized. But when he declared philosophy to be dead no one so much as batted an eye.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Thank you all for a good collection of thoughts on Buddhism's interface with Western empiricism (science). It forecasts the growth of a universal Buddhism that befits our time.

Lawrence Levy's picture

When Christians take the bible as literal — that the earth was created in 6 days around 5000 years ago, etc — we call it fundamentalism because it refuses to adapt biblical knowledge to new discovery. Buddhist fundamentalism is no different. It holds that the causes of suffering are explained by ancient theories of karma, craving, false views, and the like, and it refuses to integrate the role of genetics, evolution, economics and other discoveries that address the causes of human hardship. The sad part is that here in the West we had a chance to take the great tradition of Buddhist thought and give it a new lease on life, to make it a fresh, pure, inspiring source of personal transformation tuned to modern secular needs. After all, Buddhism is the anti-religion. Its insight philosophy holds that our conventions are not inherent truth. Instead, here we are on these pages fighting the same fight as every other religious tradition.

I invite you to examine Juniper's work, carefully crafted over ten years to preserve all that is amazing about Buddhist thought, while striving to escape the trap of dogma that Buddha implored us to avoid. The question we ask ourselves now is how best to serve the needs of modern secular life with the revolutionary body of thought that began with Buddha. Debating Buddhist fundamentalism will not get us there. So it is to this task that we now turn.
www.juniperpath.org

janjansen's picture

But but but... I don't see what you are on to. It seems like a strawman to me.

The theory of Karma is rather more profound as i explained above. Accepting it, accepting responsibility for your own actions, but also holding the view that any future is in your own hands, certainly requires some trust in your own Buddha-nature. Often this trust grows when coming in contact with a realized teacher.

I've been a Buddhist for about ten years now, and I always heard my teacher saying that we should adapt Buddhist teachings to whatever science has better answers for. This probably holds for much of the abidharma as i explained above. I'm perfectly sure that karma goes together fine with all your proven scientific theories (evolution and what not). In fact, I feel that karma given the right meaning to it. Something that science could never do by itself as many indicate in this forum.

In fact I've heard highly learned teachers tell me that much of Buddha's original teachings (the original canon written up by the monks) are way to obscure for us, because it crosses many cultural boundaries. Buddha adapted the teaching for the prevailing cultures at the time and also gave different teachings depending on the strengths of his students. Therefore, we rely more on direct explanations from teachers and recent commentaries on these texts.

In his words: "Buddhism should be like water, filling the gaps of whatever culture it flows into".
It could mean that lay-Buddhism will be more effective in our Western world, now that we have many free time and contraceptives and do not need to seclude ourselves to avoid submergence in Samsara.

With a fixed price on lessons and meditation "classes", your Juniper thing sounds an aweful lot like the expensive workshops on “spirituality” that the author of the article talks about.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Karma wasn't invented by Shakyamuni. He adapted a prevalent understanding of his time to his realization about the true nature of life. And today, Buddhists are in the position to adapt current scientific understanding of life to our own growing realization.

janjansen's picture

Karma is cause and effect, a logical alternative to theism, materialism and nihilism as explained by e.g. Nagarjuna.
How cause and effect works on the level of our emotions in combination with our free will, this is what the Buddha elaborates on from his enlightened experience.

I do not understand why people here state that Karma is an outdated concept and Buddhism should be taught without. I cannot imagine how teachings at the Hinayana and Mahayana level would work without.

Or do you mean that the word is translated incorrectly with the wrong connotation, i.e. the Indian fixed caste interpretation (which Buddha actually countered)? Like we often have see wrong Christian translations of Buddhist concepts: "Lord" Buddha, "Buddhist Diety's" for the yidams, meditation = prayer?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Karma is that 800 lb. gorilla sitting in the middle of the room that no one can explain let alone acknowledge.

Lawrence Levy's picture

Tricycle published a great interview with Juniper's Segyu Rinpoche last year (http://www.tricycle.com/interview/buddhist-training-modern-life) that articulates what Juniper stands for. We also have many pieces on our Web site (www.juniperpath.org) such as Awakening the Mind, Heirs to Insight, The Three Moments, A Buddhist Vote for Same Sex Marriage, etc. that do the same. Sometimes I wish we put on more of those expensive workshops on spirituality! Instead, we spent ten years cultivating a meditation tradition that we hope will serve individuals all over the world, today and into the future. Not for everyone, I understand that. All the best.

janjansen's picture

Sorry i should not have implied that Juniper is McMindfulness. I do not know and I hope it benefits you.

It may be that few people are attracted to Buddhism. It may even be that a Buddha exists in a Kalpa, but that beings do not have the capabilities to recognize him and ask for advice.
Buddhism should never become an obligation or tradition, because we deem it to be good for people. People should be attracted to it on their own accord. Otherwise, we end up with a hierarchical clergy that practices empty rituals not benefiting anyone.

Richard Fidler's picture

The author seems singularly unqualified to write about science (or, "scientism") when he makes statements such as "materialism cannot explain how life arose out of non-life." This statement alone implies that he regards life from a vitalist perspective, that life is a special state radically different from non-life. Well-trained biologists now understand life is about what living things do, not about a special characteristic they possess. We are alive because we do certain things: reproduce, metabolize, respond to our environment, and so on.

His statement that science is unable to explain how consciousness evolved from non-consciousness is not backed up by supporting evidence. It is true that consciousness--at least at the human level--has not hitherto been explained by science, but there is no reason that it cannot be so explained. The consciousness of simpler organisms is being explored as we speak. There is no reason to think a scientific explanation of consciousness beginning at the molecular level and extending to cellular and organ levels cannot be developed within the next decade.

Scientific knowledge, unlike knowledge gathered from other sources, can be verified through observations and experiments. Certainly other perspectives exist--and there is no doubt that they can influence human lives in positive ways--but they are embedded in cultural conditioning. Science offers true statements that go beyond the limitations of culture: water is always composed of two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen. That fact exists independent of culture. It is not just another viewpoint--it is universally true.

If the author wishes to put off seculars who respect Buddhism for its ability to adapt to new discoveries about the world derived from science, he certainly can do so--although I am not sure why he would want to. Insisting that science is just another viewpoint does widen a gulf between seculars and persons like himself who see religious perspectives as equally valid--even when they deal with areas such as diet, physiology, brain function, cosmology, evolution, and the like. Perhaps the scientific point of view that demonstrable truth requires scientific methods annoys some religious practitioners like Lama Jampa Thaye, too. However, both seculars and faith-based practitioners can go on with our respective practices amicably even though we share greatly different views about knowledge. At least, I hope so.

speakerfone's picture

Actually Buddhist logic is eminently qualified to deconstruct the illogical claim of materialism, that consciousness can somehow emerge from matter. It simply says something with the nature of consciousness could not arise from something of the nature of matter. Just as barley does not arise from a rice seed, light does not arise from dark, consciousness does not arise from matter. However to then jump to suggest this is a vitalist perspective is incorrect. Nowhere can this be found in the highest view of Buddhism, though maybe it's a valid criticism of the 'mind only' school (though I'd have to be a lot better educated to say whether it was or not).

These emergent theories of consciousness start with the assumption that matter is the building block a priori. Then they move on to ask how everything else came about. As Lama Jampa Thaye points out, this is not a new philosophy. Buddhist logicians have known of these philosophies since close to the Buddha's time.

Since neither mind or matter can be established as having true existence I don't think Buddhism falls into a dualism or vitalism here.

sherabpa's picture

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. There is nothing here in contradiction to your hope that 'both seculars and faith-based practitioners can go on with our respective practices amicably.

By the way, evidence, observation and experiment are not unique to science. Nor are they ubiquitous in science (e.g. theoretical physics).

Also, the idea that life is characterized by what a living thing does rather than its characteristics is not new. In fact, this was precisely Aristotle's view (see his conceptions of psuche/dunamis/energeia).

That water consists of H2O is, one could argue, not a transcendental fact independent of culture so much as an empirical discovery that has become a grammatical rule about the use of the word 'water'. Empirical discoveries are all to some extent 'independent of culture', but this does not make science particularly special, since science is not wholly empirical, as Thoman Kuhn and so many others have shown.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Dualism splits science from religion. Probably makes it easier to organize "life". Buddhism teaches dependent origination, the oneness of life and environment, et al. Apparently science is only beginning to scratch the surface of what "life" really is, while Buddhism is placing its understanding of it under the microscope.