Filed in History, Science

The Scientific Buddha

Why do we ask that Buddhism be compatible with science?Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

Wisdom Collection

To access the content within the Wisdom Collection,
join Tricycle as a Supporting or Sustaining Member

According to Buddhist doctrine, there can be only one buddha for each historical age. A new buddha appears in the world only when the teachings of the previous buddha have been completely forgotten, with no remnant—a text, a statue, the ruins of a pagoda, or even a reference in a dictionary—remaining. Because the teachings of Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha—that is, our Buddha—remain present in the world, we have no need for a new buddha. But in the 19th century, a new buddha suddenly appeared in the world, a buddha who is not mentioned in any of the prophecies. What he taught is said to be compatible with modern science, and so I call him the Scientific Buddha.

Today, the Scientific Buddha is often mistaken for Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha, the real Buddha. But they are not the same. And this case of mistaken identity has particular consequences for those who seek to understand and practice the teachings of Gautama Buddha.

Scientific Buddha

Some 2,500 years after the lifetime of the historical Buddha, the following quotation about Buddhism was ascribed to Albert Einstein: “The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.” This statement cannot be located in any of Einstein’s writings. But there is something about Buddhism, and about the Buddha, that caused someone to ascribe these words to Einstein. And since the time when Einstein didn’t say this, intimations of deep connections between Buddhism and science have continued, right up until today. In any given month, such publications as The New York Times and The Washington Post report on clinical studies investigating the affinity of Buddhism and science, particularly neurobiology.

I had once imagined that claims for the compatibility of Buddhism and science derived from the 1960s, gaining their first popular expression in Fritjof Capra’s 1975 best seller The Tao of Physics. The claims did derive from the ’60s, but I was off by a century. Statements about the compatibility of Buddhism and science were being made in the 1860s—in Europe and America during the Victorian period, as Buddhism became fashionable in intellectual circles, and at the same time in Asia, as Buddhist thinkers were defending themselves against the attacks of Christian missionaries. Thus, to understand what the compatibility of Buddhism and science means today, it is necessary to understand what it meant a century and a half ago.

Buddhists first encountered science, perhaps ironically, in the guise of Christianity. In missionary attacks on Buddhism, from Francis Xavier in Japan in the 16th century to Spence Hardy in Sri Lanka in the 19th century, Christianity is proclaimed as superior to Buddhism in part because it possesses the scientific knowledge to accurately describe the world, something that Buddhism lacked. For the missionaries, then, science was not an opponent of religion, or at least of the true religion, but its ally. Science would serve as a tool of the missionary and as a reason for conversion. Later, science would be portrayed as the product of a more generalized “European civilization,” something that this civilization would take around the world. The vehicle for that journey was colonialism.

The efforts by Buddhist elites of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to counter these claims and to argue that, on the contrary, Buddhism is the truly scientific religion (an argument that they seem to have eventually won) were directly precipitated by the Christian attacks. In a sense, the Buddhists wrested the weapon of science from the hands of the Christians and turned it against them. Whether to counter the missionary’s charge that Buddhism was superstition and idolatry, or to counter the colonialist’s claim that the Asian was prone to fanciful flights of mind and meaningless rituals of body, science proved the ideal weapon for the Buddhists. It was not, they argued, Christianity but Buddhism that was in fact the scientific religion, the religion best suited for modernity, not just in Asia but throughout the world. Buddhism was the opposite of Christianity. Christianity has a creator God, and Buddhism has no God; Christianity has faith, Buddhism has reason; Christ is divine, the Buddha is human. And it was this human, this Asian, this Buddha, who knew millennia ago what the European was just beginning to discover.

Some even went so far as to declare that Buddhism was not a religion at all, but was itself a science, a science of the mind. The implications of such a statement become evident in light of Victorian theories of social evolution, which saw the human race progressing from the state of primitive superstition to religion and then to science. As a science, Buddhism—once condemned as a primitive superstition both by European and American missionaries and by Asian modernists—was able to leap from the bottom of the evolutionary scale to the top, bypassing the troublesome category of religion altogether.

For the Buddha to be identified as an ancient sage fully attuned to the findings of modern science, it was necessary that he first be transformed into a figure who differed in many ways from the Buddha who has been revered by Buddhists across Asia over the course of many centuries. The Buddha was first encountered by European missionaries and travelers as but one of many idols, an idol known by many names. It was only in the late 17th century that the conclusion began to be drawn that the various statues seen in Siam, Cathay, Japan, and Ceylon, each with a different name, all represented the same god. And it was not until the early 19th century that it was known with certainty that that god had been a man, and that that man had been born in India. By that time, Buddhism was all but dead in India, and European scholars, many of whom had never met a Buddhist or set foot in Asia, created a new Buddha, a Buddha made from manuscripts. This was the age of the quest for the historical Jesus. European philologists set out on their own quest for the historical Buddha, and they felt they had found him. This Buddha was portrayed as a prince who had renounced his throne, who proclaimed the truth to all who would listen, regardless of their social status, who prescribed a life dedicated to morality, without the need for God. Such a savior held a special appeal to Europeans and Americans in the last half of the 19th century, an appeal only heightened by the fact that unlike Jesus, the Buddha was not a Jew but an Aryan. It was this Buddha, unknown in Asia until the 19th century, who would become the Buddha we know today, and who would become the Scientific Buddha.

In the long history of the discourse of Buddhism and science, what has been meant by Buddhism, as well as its perceived goals, has changed. In the beginning, Buddhism was the original Buddhism postulated by European Orientalists, a Buddhism that then came to be identified with the Theravada traditions of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, or at least with their Pali canon. In the period after the Second World War, Buddhism became Zen, especially as it was represented by D. T. Suzuki. During the 1960s and ’70s, Buddhism was often the Madhyamaka philosophy of Nagarjuna and the doctrine of emptiness. Over the past two decades, the Buddhism in dialogue with science has largely been Tibetan Buddhism, a form of Buddhism that just a century ago was regarded as a form of superstition so degenerate that it did not deserve the name Buddhism, but was referred to instead as Lamaism. A century later, the figure once known to Europeans as the Grand Lama of Lhasa, shrouded in mystery for so long, holds annual seminars with some of the leading scientists in the world.

The referent of “science” has also changed. Although quantum physics and cosmology still capture attention in some quarters today, the greatest energy is being directed toward neuroscience, and especially research on meditation. The assertions being made in this domain are qualitatively different from the assertion that the Buddha understood the theory of relativity. At the more recent turn of the century, meditation has become the centerpiece of the Buddhism and science discourse. Experiments are currently being conducted, data are currently being gathered, and that information is being broadly interpreted, with some scientists seeing more in it than others. But if forms of Buddhist meditation are shown to reduce what we today call “stress,” what, if anything, does that mean? Is Buddhism, then, a form of self-help? Has Buddhism always been, in its own way, a self-help movement?

Research on meditation has been conducted to test its benefits for weight loss, for lowering blood pressure, for lowering cholesterol, and for reducing substance abuse. That is, meditation is regarded in these studies as a therapy for stress reduction. Indeed, one of the forms of meditation examined in the federal study is MBSR, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which seeks to induce a form of awareness that focuses on the present moment, observing “the unfolding of experience, moment to moment.”

But is stress reduction a traditional goal of Buddhist meditation? A glimpse at any number of forms of Buddhist meditation suggests that this is not the aim. Take, for example, one of the most common teachings of the Nyingma or “Ancient” sect of Tibetan Buddhism, called the four ways of turning the mind away from samsara (blo ldog rnam bzhi). These are part of the so-called preliminary practices (sngon ’gro), meditations that must be completed in order to receive tantric initiation. Versions of these practices are found among all four of the major sects of Tibetan Buddhism.

The first of these is meditation on the rarity of human birth: how, among the beings that populate the six realms of rebirth, those reborn as humans with access to the Buddha’s teaching are incredibly rare. The second meditation is on the certainty of death and the uncertainty of the time of death, the recognition that one will definitely die, yet the time of death is utterly indefinite. The third preliminary practice is to meditate on the workings of the law of karma, how negative deeds done in the past will always ripen as suffering and how over the beginningless cycle of rebirth each of us has committed countless crimes. The prospect of eternal suffering lies ahead. And what are those sufferings? The fourth meditation is on the faults of samsara, visualizing in detail the tortures of the eight hot hells and the eight cold hells, the four neighboring hells, and the various trifling hells; the horrible hunger and thirst suffered by ghosts; the sufferings of animals, the sufferings of humans that we know so well, even the sufferings of gods. For in Buddhism, the gods also suffer.

Scientific Buddha 2The goal of such meditation is to cause one to regard this life as a prisoner regards his or her prison, to cause one to strive to escape from this world with the urgency that a person whose hair is on fire seeks to douse the flames. The goal of such meditation, in other words, is stress induction. This stress is the result of a profound dissatisfaction with the world. Rather than seeking a sense of peaceful satisfaction with the unfolding of experience, the goal of this practice is to produce a state of mind that is highly judgmental, indeed judging this world to be like a prison. This sense of dissatisfaction is regarded as an essential prerequisite for progress on the Buddhist path. Far from seeking to become somehow “nonjudgmental,” the meditator is instructed to judge all the objects of ordinary experience as scarred by three marks: impermanence, suffering, and no self.

With that prerequisite in place, the Buddhist practitioner embarks on a path intended not to reduce stress or lower cholesterol but to uproot more fundamental forms of suffering. These include what are referred to as the sufferings of pain; in the case of humans, these include birth, aging, sickness, and death, losing friends, gaining enemies, not finding what you want, and finding what you don’t want. And the sufferings of pain are only the most overt. The Buddha also spoke of what he called the sufferings of change. These, in fact, are feelings of pleasure, which, by their very nature, will eventually turn into pain. The claim here is that pleasure and pain are fundamentally different: that pain remains painful unless something is done to alleviate it, while pleasure will naturally turn into pain. The most subtle form of suffering of all is one to which the unenlightened are said to be oblivious: that our minds and bodies are so conditioned that we are always subject to suffering in the next moment.

The history of Buddhism and science is filled with false resonance: the doctrine of karma sounds like the theory of evolution, the Buddhist account of the origin of the cosmos sounds like the Big Bang, the doctrine of emptiness sounds like quantum physics. Immanuel Kant once observed that “since human reason has been enraptured by innumerable objects in various ways for many centuries, it cannot easily fail that for everything new, something old can be found which has some kind of similarity to it.” It is also true that our minds make consistent use of comparison to organize experience. Comparison may be an evolutionary adaptation. But in the case of Buddhism and science, something else seems also to be at work.

This is not to suggest that research on the neurology of meditation should not be conducted. Meditation is the virtuoso practice par excellence of the tradition, and monks have devoted themselves to its practice, and other monks to its theory, for more than two millennia. Clearly something was occurring in their brains, regardless of how it was described, and it would be fascinating to know whether it could be measured somehow. But it would be a great loss should the rich vocabulary and imagery of Buddhist meditation be abandoned in the process of scientific research.

It is often claimed that time in Buddhism is cyclic, but that is not so. Worlds come in and out of existence, in phases of creation, abiding, destruction, and nothingness. Beings wander among the six realms. Yet time moves forward to a time when there is no time, when samsara itself comes to an end. Despite the confusion that seems to surround us, there is movement forward.

This cosmic order is disrupted by the Scientific Buddha. He appeared in the world before the teachings of the buddha of our age, Gautama Buddha, had been forgotten, before his teachings had run their course. The Scientific Buddha was not predicted by a previous buddha, nor did the world await his coming. And yet he has served a useful role. He was born into a world of the colonial subjugation of Asia by Europe. He fought valiantly to win Buddhism its place among the great religions of the world, so that today it is universally respected for its values of reason and nonviolence. We might regard the Scientific Buddha as one of the many “emanation bodies” of the Buddha who have appeared in the world, making use of skillful methods (upaya) to teach a provisional dharma to those temporarily incapable of understanding the true teaching. For this, the Scientific Buddha was stripped of his many magical elements, and his dharma was deracinated. The meditation that he taught was only something called “mindfulness,” and a pale form of that practice. He taught stress reduction, something never taught by any other buddha in the past, for previous buddhas sought to create stress, to destroy complacency, in order to lead us to a state of eternal stress reduction, that state of extinction called nirvana. Having taught his version of the dharma, it is now time for the Scientific Buddha to pass into nirvana.

The Scientific Buddha is a pale reflection of the buddha born in Asia, a buddha who entered our world in order to destroy it. This buddha has no interest in being compatible with science. The relation of Buddhism and science, then, should not be seen as a disagreement over when and how the universe began. It should not be seen, in Stephen Jay Gould’s memorable phrase, as “nonoverlapping magisteria,” with science concerned with fact and religion concerned with morality. It should not be seen, in Buddhist terms, as the two truths, with science concerned with the conventional truth and Buddhism concerned with the ultimate truth. Buddhism and science each have their own narrative, each their own telos. If an ancient religion like Buddhism has anything to offer science, it is not in the facile confirmation of its findings.

One of the most famous statements in Buddhist literature occurs in the Diamond Sutra, where the Buddha says to the monk Subhuti:

In this regard, Subhuti, one who has set out on the bodhisattva path should have the following thought, “I should bring all living beings to final extinction in the realm of extinction without substrate remaining. But after I have brought living beings to final extinction in this way, no living being whatsoever has been brought to extinction.” Why is that? If, Subhuti, the idea of a living being were to occur to a bodhisattva, or the idea of a soul or the idea of a person, he should not be called a bodhisattva. Why is that? There is no dharma called “one who has set out on the bodhisattva path.”

This appeal that we continue to remember the Buddha in the various ways that he has been understood over the long history of Buddhism in Asia is not to suggest that Mount Meru can be found using GPS any more than that Noah’s Ark will ever be unearthed. It is not to claim that Buddhist descriptions of the world carry the same status as the descriptions of the most current scientific research (that is, those descriptions that have not yet been displaced). Nor is it to consign the Buddha to some vague realm of “the ultimate,” conceding all else to “the conventional.” It is to say, instead, that the Buddha, the old Buddha, not the Scientific Buddha, presented a radical challenge to the way we see the world, both the world that was seen two millennia ago and the world that is seen today. What he taught is not different, it is not an alternative, it is the opposite. That the path that we think will lead us to happiness leads instead to sorrow. That what we believe is true is instead false. That what we imagine to be real is unreal. A certain value lies in remembering that challenge from time to time.

To understand oneself, and the world, as merely a process, an extraordinary process of cause and effect, operating without an essence, yet seeing the salvation of others, who also do not exist, as the highest form of human endeavor—this is the challenge presented by that passage from the Diamond Sutra. The scientific verification of this bold claim would seem to lie, like buddhahood itself, far in the future.

Donald S. Lopez, Jr., is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. He is the author of several books, including Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed and Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. This article was adapted from The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life by Donald S. Lopez, Jr. © 2012. Reprinted with permission of Yale University Press.

Illustrations by Beppe Giacobbe.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
UKBuddhist's picture

An interesting article, I'm not sure that I agree with all that the writer has to say, but it is quite informative in terms of the history of the west coming to know about Buddhism & also raises some quite interesting points. I think that he could have used better terminology or explanations when talking about traditional Buddhism, indeed one could argue that many forms of traditional Buddhism exist even within any particular lineage as the Dharma for most is mind-made & therefore multiple because each individuals 'Buddhism' is different (everyone goes on their own journey spiritually & you can't be prescriptive therefore in a one size fits all manner).

What he fails to consider, to my mind, is that the transmission of Buddhism into new countries or cultures is a process that takes hundreds of years and usually absorbs what is beneficial into it from those cultures. For example there is a difference between Chinese and Japanese manifestations of Buddhadharma, even though they have many of the 'same' schools of Buddhism. Also during different time periods within a country the predominant forms can change due to the way people are at the time (& the predominant form effects the way people are at the time), even within one school there is change over time, for instance Chenrezig practise was not transmitted straight away to Tibet but later but it is now very popular or newly revealed Terma's which are mainly in the Nyingma tradition.

Gampopa an early master of Kagyu Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism wrote in his text Jewel Ornament of Liberation (almost 900 years ago) acknowledging the value of worldly knowledge, although physics etc hadn't been developed much at the time, medicine etc was being developed & obviously Spiritual Wisdom he considered higher than worldly knowledge in its scope to benefit the welfare of all beings. Also generally within Vajrayana Buddhism I believe that they consider the Buddhist Tantras to be all embracing fields of knowledge that can & do contain everything.

Also he fails to consider that what many scholars also suggest, that Buddhism evolved in part over time within India, not in essence but in terms of method.
Its likely that a western form of Buddhism would be different to Asian forms, who is to say how much science has to play in that? However as science is taught in schools, ignoring it would be like ignoring what is a part of us. I'm not sure that is wholesome. Of course there is tremendous value in the continuation of forms of traditional Buddhadharma also. But as its early days in the west quite the way Buddhism manifests is hard to guess at.

amogasidi's picture

I somewhat disagree with the premise that science has become a Buddha. The author seems to be saying that Buddhism is being supplanted in Buddhism by science. Firstly, the principles of Buddhism are not incompatible with science . Secondly Buddhism does indeed hold many things in common with science. The Tao of Physics fundamentally elucidates the principle that the object of an awareness interacts with the observer in determining the outcome of events. A fundamental statement about emptiness is that the other does not exist without the self and that the self does not exist without the other. Because this is so then the self cannot be said to inherently exist nor can the other be said to inherently exist. Nor can they be said to not exist. Quantum physics is now reaching these conclusions , so really it is more accurate to say that science is a disciple of the Buddha. As for stress reduction some things may be said in that the four recollections of the faults of cyclic existence, are meant to spur the student to practice but also that meditation is not a practice of increasing anxiety but a practice of awareness of identification and surrender or relaxing and letting go identification, with the realization that one is not really ones identificatons of oneself either. Also as a note, karma is not only negative actions ripening on oneself lifetimes into the future it is also the ripening of neutral and positive actions as well. And as for the ripening of consequence there is a component of identification ripening in the future and also a component of being significant in the now and subsequent moments of the now. Karma is the law of consequence and the Buddha did state on the matter: becsuse This exists That also exists. Because cause This is created That also is created. (Rice Seedling Sutra) Existents referred to are valenceless, neither stated as being positive or negative and do refer to any existent or consequent existent.

dmurray110's picture

I can live with science and Buddhist thought without cognitive dissonance. That does not make them one and the same, just not enemies, at least in my mind. That is enough for me.

I did enjoy the article. I didn't know how far back it was to the "birth" or the pressure for the birth of the scientific Buddha. Fascinating.

lotusnetter's picture

Why do people always try to compare science with religion or faith or philosophy? Buddhism is a big word, and includes a myriad of different sects, beliefs, and practices. For example I was completely unaware that there was a Buddhist rule that there can be only one Buddha per age. This is not true in any of the schools of Buddhism that influence my practice. It's tiresome to see religion and faiths exploit scientific language to justify their doctrines, and it's equally tiresome to see spiritual people exploit quantum babble words to validate their path. Both of these act to pervert both science and Buddhism.

Buddhism isn't science and science isn't Buddhism. There is no scientific Buddha, but obviously a lot of people have a need to manufacture such a Buddha for themselves. Maybe you compare certain aspects of Buddhism to science. For example, Buddha's suggestion that people test out things for themselves to see if they're true has a "scientific ring" to it. But again, this isn't scientific at all, it's similar to only one part of the scientific process. The scientific process also includes the fact that whatever truth one person discovers must be reproducible by another to be considered "truth". Yet we all know that what might be true for one person isn't for another. You can't build a transistor from relative truths.

It never ceases to amaze me to what extent people try to turn science into religion. Quantum mechanics seems to be a favorite of folks to use as a foundation for spirituality. But all of these attempts just pervert science. When are people going to learn that science is not a religion, but an empirical method for discovering how the universe works? And to add to this, the one thing my PhD in physics taught me is that despite all the amazing technology that the scientific process has enabled, we still know very little about the universe. Contrary to popular belief, Science does not have all the answers. And my PhD had little use in opening up my own heart.

Buddhism, in contrast, includes empirical methods for discovering how your own mind works, and this in turn is supposed to be used as a tool to help you to open up your heart and mind and be happy. But when are people going to learn that Buddhism is NOT a method for discovering how the universe works? There are plenty of quotes attributed to the Buddha himself that suggest that knowing how the universe works has little bearing on one's own progress along the path to enlightenment.

The bottom line is that Science isn't going to be very effective to help you open your heart and mind, that's not what it was designed to do, and Buddhism isn't going to be very effective at telling you how the universe works, because that's not what it was designed to do. The two are great tools you can keep in the same toolbox to help humanity survive and become wiser, but that's where the similarity ends.

stevenorthcounty's picture

Donald - I read your article with great interest. Thank you for your scholarship and fascinating thoughts.

John Haspel's picture

Mr. Lopez has presented a very important article pointing out how the need to reconcile the Buddha’s teachings to fit individual and cultural views is more a way of establishing the self in various doctrines than a practice of liberation and freedom as the Buddha taught. Even during the Buddha’s time there were those that wished to introduce a new Buddha and a new more accommodating Buddhism.

Especially significant is his explanation of the legitimacy given to later-developed “Buddhists” practices that originally were seen as antithetical to what the Buddha taught. It is only in the need to reconcile the dhamma to impermanent evolutionary views that allows for the significant accommodations made to the original teachings of the Buddha.

Great leaps of faith have been taken to “authenticate” these later adaptations to the Buddha’s original teachings. Sutra’s have magically appeared many hundreds of years after the death of the Buddha, claimed to have been protected in non-physical realms by spirits. New “Buddhist” religions arose whose doctrinal beliefs were no longer founded on the teachings of the Buddha but on these “advanced” sutra’s which often contradict, diminish, or dismiss entirely the Buddha’s teachings.

Now there is the need to reconcile the entire modern “Buddhist” society to the new view of a scientific Buddha to account for the new individual and cultural view as scientifically sophisticated. As the modern view of self changes, further accommodations to the dhamma are made to accommodate the proliferation of an ego-personality. No matter that this continual “I-making” is precisely what the Buddha’s original teachings were meant to extinguish.

This need is so pervasive and necessary for certain doctrines to continue that the Dalai Lama has stated that if science were to prove something in Buddhist doctrine as false, the Buddhist doctrine must be accommodated to the scientific “facts. The Dalai Lama was speaking as the head of Tibetan Lama-Buddhism but many believe that the Dalai Lama speaks for all Buddhists. Many scientific Buddhists were likely very happy to hear of the Dalai Lama’s position on the emerging scientific Buddha.

Of course the Buddha’s original teachings need no scientific authentication as the original teachings are entirely practical, and the efficacy of the Dhamma is readily observable by anyone. The Buddha taught a clear and direct way to understand the confusion and distraction of the preoccupation with the unsatisfactory nature of life. He taught that clinging to objects, ideas and hardened views continues confusion and suffering which would include the view that Buddhism must accommodate all views including the view of science. The Buddha taught an Eightfold Path as a way of recognizing all views that would continue to establish a self in any realm, to put them aside, and to awaken.

Science serves a useful purpose in explaining physical forces and how physical forces can and are manipulated by thoughts. The Buddha put this in a perspective that is useful in understanding the original teachings by teaching that what constitutes a “self” is comprised of five clinging-aggregates that is animated by a six-sense base. He also taught that from ignorance, through 12 easily observed causative links, confusion and suffering arises. This teaching, Dependent Origination, has also been adapted and misinterpreted to accommodate the need to make modern buddhist doctrine a non-dual doctrine founded on a vague view of inter-dependence, both views that contradict the Buddha’s original teachings.

(The Buddha never spoke against or in favor of non-dualism and interdependence, he specifically avoided both views as unproductive and distracting views.)

No scientific “proof” is necessary to understand the Buddha’s teaching. There is no need for yet another accommodated Buddha. As Mr. Lopez states in his opening, the Buddha’s teachings are still available. The Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s path to understanding. Modern Science can observe the usefulness of the Dhamma. For anyone who has engaged whole-heartedly with the Buddha’s original teachings knows, these teachings have been proven useful for over 2,500 years.

John Haspel

georgeaquinas's picture

You reference "the Buddha's original teachings" several times. What do you mean by this? How do you determine what is an "orignal teaching" and one that is not?

dmurray110's picture

I suppose that the Theravada might have some reason to "claim" that, but oddly it is Theravada Vipassana meditation that American scientific Buddhists have latched on to. Yes, we all have meditation, but Insight meditation has been secularized and studied scientifically for use by corporations and US Marines which are a far cry from any of Buddha's teachings.

My question would be, is secular Buddhism Buddhism? And for the record, I could probably properly be called a secular Buddhist since I am agnostic about reincarnation and karma carrying across lifetimes. Buddhism has reshaped itself to local custom wherever it has gone. Nothing is permanent, even Buddha's "original teachings." How much do we really need beyond the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold path? I that original enough?

georgeaquinas's picture

I don't think we need anything beyond the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path. However, I also think that all of the schools/modes/expressions of Buddhism are the unfolding of both of those.

Of course, the million lifetime questions are how are they expressed in our lives and are they practiced in such a way that our practice awakens us? Contemplating that is enough to shut me up for a while!

The opposite river bank is littered with uncountable boats of different sizes and shapes. The task is to find the boat that gets you across the river, not comment on the seaworthiness of other's boats.

At least, that is it how appears at this point in my path.

Psiguy's picture

"the mediator is instructed to judge all the objects of ordinary experience as scarred by three marks: impermanence, suffering, and no self."

I prefer not to judge, but to ask my self who it is within me that is choosing to judge.

When it comes to science, I treat studying spirituality like studying swimming. You can study it and know all the theories, but it is far better to just experience it first hand and evaluate it by doing rather than from the distant observation perspective. Otherwise you will drown as the ego self will hold onto all the knowledge as a possession of self thus precluding finding no-self.

In addition, the observation capabilities used to understand the spiritual process become much better when you are experiencing the process. One of the main elements is that as you transition your consciousness to the no-self, your consciousness changes from wave like attributes to particle attributes. That is, you begin to perceive from your soul or spirit directly rather than from your physical body senses. At this point, other people's thoughts, feelings and stored memories become physical tangible objects to your perception. It's easy to read people's souls including all past stored memories of their life experiences since conception and prior from the higher consciousness viewpoint.

Other factors include the increased processing speed of consciousness at the higher frequencies of operation and the increased capacity to process more information at a time. It's the equivalent to increasing both RAM and processor speed in a computer. This happens as consciousness expands, has a greater radius & circumference (to the point where you perceive other people as existing inside your consciousness.) and since the circumference is greater the speed at which consciousness travels to complete a revolution in the same time at all levels is much faster. Imagine you are standing in the middle of a merry-go-round and you can expand your consciousness to the outermost perimeter. That's how it works.

From the no-self perspective you begin to notice many things. For example I noticed that any time consciousness goes from a higher level to a lower level it gives off energy in the form of light, just as an electron does when it moves from a higher to a lower orbital. Also the two aspects of consciousness pair by traveling in opposing directions with opposing spin patterns just like electrons. There are many, many similarities when you just observe no-self from a higher perspective.

Finally, it gives you access to the Divine Library where if you know enough to ask the question, the answer will be given to explain what you perceive. So stop reading and thinking about what I wrote and go meditate!!! All answers are within. Humor intended.

erniecoleman's picture

I agree and thank you. When the ego mind goes quiet the ego self disappears.

gotimsiegel's picture

Thank you Mr. Lopez for your useful look at this issue. After having a practice for three plus years now, I can see and suggest that people using Buddhism or even IM just to reduce stress is a limited and hollow application of Buddhism.
And I am wary of the need for Buddhism or IM to be "scientific." What I know so far is that one must f-e-e-l -as in go to the heart in, their practice foremost and that offers to (scientifically) think or justify or explain their practice or Buddhism may take them astray from the greater path.
My humble two cents.

jackelope65's picture

Dualism rears its ugly head. In this universe, at least, there is but one truth and we must remain open until we know it.

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture
I've opened up this article from our Spring 2000 Issue by Brad Marston, a physics professor at Brown, that offers a similar argument from the viewpoint of a trained scientist. Here are some snippets:

"The equation seems to be: Physics is expressed in complicated mathematical formulas, and Eastern ideas are strange and hard to express in words, so they must be speaking of the same thing. Also it is tempting for teachers to leverage the prestige and power of science to promote a particular religious view. Scientists used to quote scripture. Now religious leaders quote scientific theories! However, we should keep in mind that the Buddha responded with silence when asked metaphysical or cosmological questions."

"The apparent resemblance of the language of quantum physics and of sutras is just that - an appearance. My training as a quantum physicist gives me no special insight into Buddhist practice. For that, daily life and ordinary mind are where the real work begins."

Psiguy's picture

"The apparent resemblance of the language of quantum physics and of sutras is just that - an appearance. My training as a quantum physicist gives me no special insight into Buddhist practice. For that, daily life and ordinary mind are where the real work begins."

Go further, the answer is there, just inside no-self. They are very, very similar and the further you go the more you see how much they are alike.

drgayle's picture

very well said, Alex.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The wonder doesn't stop at science. Geo-politics and global economics further illuminate the interconnectedness of all phenomena.

Psiguy's picture

We are all one. Thankfully the lower frequencies of consciousness have limited ability to manifest change in matter. That is a natural protection mechanism that is built in as our ability to exercise our free will is limited by our level of spiritual development.

Dominic Gomez's picture

When you're sleeping are you in lower frequencies of consciousness? (Kinda hard to change matters when you're asleep.)

Psiguy's picture

Good question. You have just addressed the question of meditation vs. sleep. They are not the same. This is why it is best to not meditate laying down.

In sleep you are surrendering your ability to guide your consciousness, so your vehicle stops, In meditation, you are directing your consciousness along certain pathways and directions. It's like exploration of new worlds around every twist and turn of consciousness.

Dominic Gomez's picture

How about sleep as a way to give your vehicle (your mind and body) a tune-up so you can continue moving forward and explore your life?

Dominic Gomez's picture

There can be only one Zeitgeist for each historical time and place. A new Zeitgeist appears in the world only when the previous Zeitgeist has been completely forgotten. During the Renaissance a new Zeitgeist appeared in the world: the Scientific Zeitgeist.

Psiguy's picture

True, but as you proceed in your development, time and space collapse. There is no space when all exists within you and there is no time when your perception is from the position of "all."

Einstein missed one thing. He knew it existed but he failed to include it in his formula.

Einstein mentioned that relativity was easy to understand. If you sat on a hotplate for a second it seemed like an hour and if a beautiful woman sat in your lap for an hour it seemed like a second. (His quote)

What he missed was that time is not just a function of the speed of light. It is a function of the operational frequency of consciousness divided by the speed of light. (The perceiver is important in the process) As speed of consciousness surpasses the speed of light time collapses and one automatically knows the future at the lower levels.

This is also the reason for non-locality of consciousness.

Tharpa Pema's picture

I suspect there are 84,000 Zeitgeists for any arbitrarily-defined moment in historical time and place. My thinking is not limited to "only one."

Dominic Gomez's picture

I was referring to the foundational one that had been shaping Western civilization for 1,500 years prior to the rise of science: Judeo-Christian monotheism.

Tharpa Pema's picture

I am interested that so many writers, of both articles and posts, sound to me as though they think they really know what Gautama Buddha thought and said.

Perhaps this is a rhetorical style, or an unconscious assertion of authority.

I myself think each person, each culture, each school of thought, and each era sheds new light on the subject of the Buddha’s teachings. I am interested in all viewpoints.

I also assume as a working hypothesis that none of us probably knows for sure. I acknowledge no absolute authorities.

This frees me to open to each different perspective to learn something new and thereby continuously broaden and deepen my understanding of what is “dharma.”

This is an intellectual attitude and also a moral one.

It allows me to include everyone’s point of view in my compassionate concern.

"For those of you who want to attain enlightenment, do not study many teachings. Only study one. What is it? It is great compassion. Whoever has great compassion has all Buddha's qualities in his hand." —Lord Buddha

Quoted from a Tricycle article, “Continuous Mind,” not as an “authoritative” scripture, but as one Buddhist statement that grants primacy to compassion.

debkarpel's picture

Thank you for posting this.

Keith McLachlan's picture

If science and Buddhism are in conflict, I'll listen to science. One of things I appreciate most about Buddhism lies in it not pushing doctrines. Buddhism is able to accommodate us; including Stephen Batchelor's atheism..

Buddhism has given us in the West a new perspective. The West's gift to Buddhism is the removal of its superstitions by basing Buddhism in science.

Mr. Lopez ideas are anachronism and out of touch with even the likes of the Dalai Lama who accepts science's primacy over Buddhist doctrine.

tiellis's picture

I quite agree. The minute we fall into the trap of insisting on adherence to traditional Buddhist "doctrine" as we ourselves claim to understand it, we fall into the trap of attachment to ideas. That way lies fanaticism.

The Dharma, however, is not anyone's ideology, not a "doctrine" at all. It is timeless and universal, and hence can be approached through insight from any and all cultural frames of reference, including (and especially) modern science. The three Dharma Seals that the Buddha set forth as litmus tests for authentic Dharma map very nicely onto three cornerstones of scientific inquiry:

Impermanence = Entropy, the Second Law of Thermodynamics;
Interbeing (or nonself or emptiness)= the Law of Conservation--the First Law of Thermodynamics ("This is because that is, and nothing is added or subtracted);
Nirvana or Oneness = the Quantum doctrine of nonlocality--that any "this" you can posit is, in fact, "that" as well.

Suffering, as the Buddha also notes, is simply the inevitable consequence of attachment to a separate self, which itself is the inevitable consequence of ignorance. Therefore, if we effectively banish ignorance and attachment, then we cease to suffer--and with the compassion borne of freedom from ignorance and attachment, we devote our lives to freeing others from suffering as well. How to do this? The Buddha's root injunction is equally simple at root: Breathe, Observe, Let Go. And repeat as often as necessary!

aasimmons3's picture

The life and teachings of the Buddha act as a guide. The historical truth should not matter at all. I love how the Dalai Lama says if Buddhism is proved wrong then Buddhism must change. I think the way lay practitioners in the West use Buddhism to reduce stress is beautiful and perhaps it decreases suffering more than the way it is used by lay practitioners in many parts of Asia. If you are not going to dedicate your life to achieving enlightenment then using "mindfulness" which doesn't just include meditation but mindfulness of our motivations and our thoughts at all times, is a fantastic use of Buddhism to make us a little happier. It decreases our suffering and the suffering of those around us. There are so many practices in Asia that miss the point, I don't see how science harms Buddhism. Science provides us with truth through the scientific method. Buddhism does something very close and Science has proved that there is something very special about Buddhism.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Art, literature, and geo-politics also validate the Buddhist philosophy of life. Such is its ubiquity.

aewhitehouse's picture

I've always viewed the "superstitions" in Tibetan Buddhism as archetypes.

Dominic Gomez's picture

As are the virgin mother, the holy spirit, and the demi-god messiah in another religion.

celticpassage's picture

It seems no matter how basic and obvious the point that Buddhism is a religion it still gets lost on lots of people who still go on thinking that Buddhism is somehow related to 'science'. I suppose it comes from armchair 'scientists'.

Bye the way, in case you missed it again, Buddhism is not based in science: it is a religion.

Oh, and did I mention that Buddhism is a religion?

Psiguy's picture

Oh, and did I mention that Buddhism is a religion?

It is only a religion if you do not understand the science of it!

For me... astrophysics would be a religion. I would have to take it on faith unless I am willing to do a lot of learning. The same is true of the science of consciousness for most people.

The best methodology to study consciousness is meditation. Is not direct observation a valid scientific methodology?

lleach's picture

To many. To others it is a philosophy. Methinks the Buddha was more with the latter.

wilnerj's picture

It is a religion with philosophy.
Enter a vihara and see the puja performed -- worship and service to the shakya trinity (Samantabhadra, Shakyamuni, and Manjusri), for instance. There are prayers of thanksgiving and for healing. The majority of Buddhists worldwide follow the Pure Land teachings seeking salvation under the care of Amitabha. Buddhism resides in the hearts of its followers and where they are so is Amitabha, GuanyIn, and Shakyamuni. And devotional service and faith is inseparable from its philosophy else the latter becomes ineffectual and thoroughly sanitized. The impact of Shakyamuni's teaching is not merely the intellectual study of his pronouncements neither is it n the examination of his skillful debates with other scholars. It is rather in the visceral absorption of these teachings and that is well within the domain of religion.

jackelope65's picture

I am a practicing Buddhist and physician, and I find this article dualistic and defensive. I have treated thousands of people with catastrophic illnesses and injuries including multiple sclerosis, severe diabetic polyneuropathy with drastic end-organ changes, multiple amputations ,quadriplegia, etc. Remarkably, recovery depends more on personal belief systems, spirituality, love, coping styles and similar factors much more than degree of illness or injury, medications, and equipment. There is no differentiation of Buddhist and physician, and in attempt to allay the severe suffering in front of me, rather than abstract thoughts of suffering, I incorporate Buddhism, love, compassion, medical skills, and every benefit that we can attain from scientific studies that address the most important aspects of healing. Science, medicine,as well as the use of ' Alternative Treatments ' including acupuncture, meditation, massage, and other such interventions, must be implemented if beneficial results occur. We are trying to relieve suffering and dualistic thinking between Buddhists, scientists, and clinicians must be avoided, as we all have the same goals and there is no reason to believe we have disparate purposes. Neither Buddhism nor science should remain stagnant in this quagmire of dissonance when we must face overwhelming suffering.

Psiguy's picture

I agree with the dualistic part.... but I do not judge it defensive, it just is. It is the truth from the author's perspective.

I see no division between Buddhism and science. I am a Buddhist and in a medical setting. Several MD's send their patients to me when they are giving up in finding a solution.

All illness and all psychological deviations are caused by blockages of Love in the soul. They are easy to locate and resolve when one approaches from a Buddhist perspective.

Just last week I was doing a presentation on this topic and a woman volunteered for a group demonstration. I was ten feet from her, walking toward her when all of a sudden it felt as though someone was stabbing me with pencils in my K-27 points (the end of the kidney meridian on the upper chest). I never met this woman prior and did not even talk with her except to motion her to come up when she volunteered.

I immediately stopped and asked her what happened to her kidneys when she was a teenager. She responded.. Well they shut down and I almost died." The chi blockage was still in her conscious field even though the event was 20+ years ago.

Rumi (the 12th century Sufi poet) was correct when he said "Life is about finding and removing the obstacles to Love that exists within us."

buddhajazz's picture

I too am a practicing Buddhist. As a nurse, my concern has been with the process of practice--the physical comfort as well as the emotional status of those who suffer. And I applaud you for your attention to "releve suffering" with all the new methods of medical intervention. In the field, I have seen very little of this. Physicians are often more concerned with the testing, interventions without emotional support, and the extension of life at all cost. Death and dying are not seen as normal and unreasonable attempts are taken to continue life. Family and patient suffering can develop into intense challenges way beyond reasonble expectations--while physicians use their interventions to bill the system. I see physician's using science in "quite disparate" ways to the Buddhist practice with the result often inhumane. I think it is time for the "dualistic thinking" to be addressed. Much has been added to the training of physicians but there is still much further to go.

celticpassage's picture

I agree that alleviation of sufferring is a laudable goal for clinicians, and people in general, but I think it takes things too far to suggest that Buddhists, scientists, and clinicians all have the same goals and purposes.

Indeed, many (or most) scientists have no scientific interest in relieving sufferring (e.g. particle physics, mathematics, and astronomy to name a few) and that would include a large proportion of neuroscientists as well.

I think it's also important to keep in mind that 'science' is amoral and so isn't really remaining stagnant in the face of sufferring since 'science' doesn't care about sufferring.

Also, dualistic thinking doesn't get in the way of relieving sufferring and the adoption of Buddhism specifically doesn't help in relieving sufferring. Many of the worlds relief organizations are not Buddhist.

Graham Doke's picture

Bravo! In an environment where clinical science seems to dominate healing, and our televisions abound with supposedly funny images of sociopathic doctors terrorising patients and staff while running countless tests, it is wonderful to hear about care and compassion in western medicine.

Graham Doke's picture

Apologies - this is an accidental repeat!

brainboy44's picture

The recent pair of articles in Tricycle concerning the relation of
Neuroscience research to meditation seems to have spiraled into a
state of confusion about basic terminology and motivation. The by-line
of the article is "Why do we ask that Buddhism be compatible with
science?" This question is a straw man, since very few scientists,
myself included, feel that "compatibility" between Buddhism and
Science is a goal of our research --- this is a meaningless statement
that has more resonance with 19th century Theosophy than with modern
thinking. A further problem is that current research is largely not
science, in the sense of basic research, but is rather clinical and/or
phenomenological. It is not "Science" but rather "Technology", based
on the perceived benefits of meditation in decreasing chronic stress.
The point that is missed by both authors in Tricycle is that
decreasing stress is not simply a "feel good" attempt, a
trivialization of the dharma, or is like having a massage or going to
a movie. Stress is a significant health problem that may lie at the
basis of a wide variety of disease, including auto-immune diseases,
diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and most dramatically senescence
--- there is evidence that the aging process itself is related to a
stress related suppression of the enzyme telomerase, and that
meditation, as found recently in the Shamatha project, might be
associated with improved levels of this enzyme. It is of course true
that these studies are based on statistical comparison of populations
and the populations are small. The history of small population
statistical studies in medicine is not very good, to say the least.
Nevertheless, there is preliminary evidence that meditation might be
an effective, low cost intervention for a variety of major health
problems. Is this the same as practicing the dharma? of course not,
and it is not claimed to be. However, the notion that the "Science
Buddha" is a historical misreading is missing the point that the
Buddha was clearly a "Technological Buddha" in the sense that medicine is
a technology whose goal is the relief of suffering -- just as is
meditation. As a neuroscientist (and Buddhist practitioner) working in
this area, I would again emphasize that our current level of
understanding of the neuroscience of higher cognitive and emotional
function is very primitive -- so necessarily the neuroscience of
meditation has very little to do with basic science, and is almost
entirely phenomenological and clinical, in a very early stage of
development. It should be taken with a (large) grain of salt. Having
said this, I find it irresponsible to have two academics in the area
of Buddhist studies, with no scientific experience leading
a somewhat histrionic and ill-informed discussion of these issues.
Tricyle has unfortunately acted as a typical media outlet of
pop-science by allowing an unbalanced and poorly informed discussion
to add confusion to this important area.

melcher's picture

Any article that flushes to the surface so many opinionated people with personal axes to grind is probably worth printing.

Psiguy's picture

Agreed.... It makes people think.

The thing we must realize is that what is a truth at one level of understanding or perspective is not necessarily a truth at a different level or perspective. The same is true in science when we go outside the constraints of an experiment.

djlewis's picture

Great. But just one problem with your analysis -- a big one -- people vary in their ability to practice Dharma with success. And one of, if not the major factor in that variation is the state of their mind. Put simply, to succeed at Dharma requires a certain degree of what we call "psychological health" in advance, and the techniques for gaining that health are generally not found in Dharma itself. In other words, says the teacher, there are prerequisites for this course (Dharma) -- without them, you have little chance of succeeding. Sorry, but almost nobody can even begin to approach Calculus 2 before mastering Calculus 1.

Let me put some substance behind that. People with PTSD often find they cannot even begin to meditate. Their involuntary and highly disturbing PTSD symptoms will kick in sooner or later and disrupt meditation. Worse, the experience may sour the would-be practitioner forever. So it would be quite unskillful to try to get a PTSD sufferer to meditate without extensive support and backup, including the option to give up gracefully.

But what if I told you that psychotherapy based on Buddhist principles could cure many PTSD sufferers and put them in a position to begin practicing Dharma with a decent chance to get somewhere. Well, so far the psychological mindfulness folks have *not* found that their methods do anything more than help people to manage their PTSD symptoms -- they cannot by themselves cure PTSD. But (a) that might help enough for them to begin meditation; (b) that might also help some curative therapy such as EMDR or Cognitive-Behavioral Prolonged Exposure to succeed even better. In fact, some would contend that EMDR, which can cure PTSD all alone without explicit mindfulness practice, is itself based on Buddhist-like contemplative principles.

Would you then continue to put down contemporary mindfulness and/or a contemplatively-based therapy like EMDR simply because they are not full-bore Dharma? By the way, one of the often-noted effects of curing PTSD, especially with contemplatively-based, relatively gentle methods like EMDR, is that the sufferer once cured, is often motivated to go even further. Having once seen through a huge illusion -- that their trauma was still present and dangerous -- they can more readily imagine that there is an even bigger illusion -- the independent, inherently existing self -- that they might want to work on for even greater relief from suffering.

To every thing there is a season...

Psiguy's picture

"But what if I told you that psychotherapy based on Buddhist principles could cure many PTSD sufferers and put them in a position to begin practicing Dharma with a decent chance to get somewhere. Well, so far the psychological mindfulness folks have *not* found that their methods do anything more than help people to manage their PTSD symptoms -- they cannot by themselves cure PTSD. "

Very true with current methodology. I spent 5 days at the American Psychiatric Ass'n Conference just attending the "Military Track" on the treatment of PTSD. The only methodology that was successful was virtual reality with psychotherapy. The reason, it best approximated psychotherapy which is the best, but most costly, treatment of PTSD. Even virtual reality as studied at Walter Reed was unsuccessful as they merely tried to utilize desensitization exposure. All the other methods, stellate ganglion injection, magnetic cranial stimulation, EMDR, pharma, cognitive behavioral therapy, .... don't work or only work temporarily.

I've removed the PTSD permanently in a few soldiers instantly by removing the emotion attached to the stored memory. It's not that hard, even for Vietnam vets after 40+ years of self punishment.

celticpassage's picture

Well, I think that your "analysis" is pretty short sighted and shallow.

Given the vehemence of your promotion of EMDR you sound like one of its adherents who laid out a reasonable amount of cash to be 'certified' in it's pseudo-practice. Bye the way, EMDR is not based on Buddhist principles at all.

Psiguy's picture

Sure EMDR is based upon Buddhist principles.

EMDR works by creating new bridges or neural pathways between the emotional and logical aspects of consciousness. In Buddhist meditation we do the same thing, but even better by utilizing Love as the surgical tool to remove the obstacle rather than just bridging around it. EFT works in a similar way.