Can tradition and science both fit? An interview with Thupten Jinpa Langri
It is likely that few English-speaking admirers of the Dalai Lama recognize Thupten Jinpa Langri’s face, even though they may well attribute to him an almost revered status. We who attend the Dalai Lama’s public appearances know Jinpa, His Holiness’s translator and interpreter, mainly by his voice. His job is to be an invisible conduit, and he keeps a low profile. So it was an unusual event—and the first time I had heard him address his own thoughts to an audience—when he took center stage at the Kalachakra Initiation in Washington, DC, in 2011 to deliver a talk entitled “Under the Umbrella of Buddhism: Do Religion, Science, and Secularism All Fit?” Jinpa began apologetically. When he prepared his talk, he had understood he would be addressing an audience of people from Himalayan regions, like Tibetans and Mongolians. Instead, several hundred Westerners showed up. Slightly flummoxed, he explained that the encounter between Buddhism and modernity plays out very differently for Buddhists from traditionally Buddhist cultures than for Western Buddhists. He would have to speak off the cuff.
Jinpa’s dilemma struck me. When Western Buddhists think of the dialogue between Buddhism and science, we might picture meditators in a laboratory wired to a brain scanner, researchers compiling responses to questionnaires, and other such exercises in data generation and gathering. If the mainstream press and the Buddhist press are any indication, we generally have little understanding of, and maybe even littler interest in, what the encounter with science might mean to traditional Buddhists such as Tibetans, who are struggling for cultural survival in an increasingly globalized world. When I thought about it, it was obvious that traditional Buddhists’ encounter with modernity would be very different from modern Westerners’ encounter with Buddhism. But how was it different? And more specifically and personally, I wondered if this difference could shed light on the Dalai Lama’s seemingly genuine enthusiasm for science, which had long puzzled me.
Few are as well qualified as Jinpa to illuminate these questions. An adjunct professor of religious studies at McGill University, Jinpa is a rare scholar who holds degrees from top academic institutions East and West, religious and secular. He grew up as a monk at a monastery in south India and was educated in the classical Tibetan tradition, receiving the highest academic degree of Geshe Llaram from Ganden monastery. He then earned a BA Honors in philosophy and a PhD in religious studies from the University of Cambridge, UK. Jinpa has translated Tibetan poems (Songs of Spiritual Experience), written a book about Middle Way philosophy (Self, Reality, and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy), and edited more than a dozen of the Dalai Lama’s books, including The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality. Jinpa directs the Institute of Tibetan Classics, which he founded, and translates texts for the Institute’s Library of Tibetan Classics. In recent years, he has collaborated with scientists at Stanford Medical School to pioneer research into positive mental traits, and he developed a secularized compassion training course that is now being pilot tested for treatment of PTSD in veterans. Today he is the Chairman of the Board of the Mind and Life Institute, which for over 30 years has brought the Dalai Lama together with leading scientists to explore the nature of consciousness.
—Linda Heuman, Contributing Editor
The Dalai Lama has been widely quoted in the popular press as saying: “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” How are we to understand this statement? His Holiness understands that Buddhist thought has some aspects that involve empirical claims. These aspects are the ones that thoroughly engage with science. These empirical claims may or may not stand up to current scientific understanding. And if they don’t, in the light of new scientific findings, they are amenable to being changed. But there are other dimensions of Buddhist thought, such as its philosophical and ethical dimensions. His Holiness has a conception of science that does not claim the totality of reality.
It really depends on your conception of the scope of science. If you believe that anything that is knowable, anything that is real, has to somehow come under the scope of science, then of course you have conflict. But if your understanding of science is that science is a particular way of doing things—a particular way of knowing that includes a particular methodology—then some aspects of reality may fall into this category and some aspects may not.
For example, right and wrong, good and bad have no scientific status. Science cannot tell us what is right and what is wrong. You cannot derive moral statements from statements that have to do with fact. And this has been acknowledged in the West since David Hume’s time. Hume famously stated: “No ought from is.” And in a sense His Holiness is agreeing. Science is in the business of trying to understand the facts. But how we use the facts is a different category of question.
What if science came up with evidence that contradicted fundamental tenets of Buddhism, such as impermanence or rebirth? But what would the evidence look like?
This reminds me of a question someone asked the Dalai Lama at his 2013 teachings in New York: “As science reveals more about our minds and the nature of life, what discoveries could be made to support the enlightened state?” In his reply, the Dalai Lama said, “It is important to make a distinction between what science has not found and what science has found not to be the case.” This is an important methodological distinction drawn from Middle Way philosophy. Just because science hasn’t found something to be the case doesn’t mean science has disproven it; no proof is not evidence of disproof.
But if people in Buddhist traditions begin to feel that they somehow need scientific evidence to prove the efficacy and the validity of their practices, we’re in trouble. Why would you need science to prove that what you are doing is valuable? I don’t understand it.
But many Westerners do need it. [Laughs.] But then, in some sense you are distrusting the whole history of the tradition, as if none of that counts! For practicing Buddhists, why would you need third-person proof to show that your own practice is helping you? In the end, when it comes to spiritual practice, you are your own best proof. Individual practitioners can understand from their own personal experience that practice is helping them to be more understanding, to be more open, to be more at home with others, or to have a greater sense of ease. From my point of view, these effects are much more powerful as a source of motivation than a scientific study that uses a scanner to show that when you meditate, things happen in your brain. Why would that help you?
One area where scientific study and evidence for the benefits of meditation practices does have a place is when secular adaptations of these practices are developed for the benefit of larger society in the context of clinical applications. For example, mindfulness-based behavior therapy is starting to be used as very effective treatment for relaxing tension. And increasingly, compassion meditation can be used for people with excessive negative self-judgment. In these kinds of situations, then having scientific evidence to show efficacy is helpful because these meditation techniques are in some sense non-pharmacological therapeutic treatments, which need some criteria to judge whether they are suitable for certain types of people.
In any case, at this point scientific study of meditation and its effects is very rudimentary. It is at such an early stage that there is no way it can show the specific effects of specific types of practice.
Do you see any problem with secularizing meditation? I don’t have any moral qualms about this if it benefits people—so long as it’s not claimed to be Buddhism. This is where I have a problem. If Buddhism is reduced to just meditation, and if meditation is reduced to just mindfulness, then there is a problem. Taking some things out of Buddhist practice and standardizing them for the benefit of the larger secular world, I have no problem with that. But what happens is that sometimes in the process, people then want to make the bigger claim that they have extracted the juice out of the Buddhist practices and what they have got is the essence, and what is left is all these mumbo-jumbo rituals that are useless. And this is where the problem is.
You have said that the tension between Buddhism and modernity is experienced differently by Buddhists from traditionally Buddhist cultures, such as Tibetans, and by Western Buddhists. What’s different? The inherited intellectual traditions that are the starting points from which a Western Buddhist and a traditional Buddhist encounter modernity are very different. Traditional Buddhists have our basic worldview grounded in the Buddhist worldview. Then we engage critically with the dominant perspective and incorporate from it those elements that have much higher empirical support—at least with relation to the physical world—which need to be part of our own view. Traditionally this is how Buddhists have done it throughout history. That trend should continue for the Buddhist tradition to survive. But the basic grounding of one’s worldview really has to be Buddhist.
Whereas Western Buddhists, or rather, Western convert Buddhists, came to Buddhism of their own initiative, so there are reasons why they chose Buddhism. Their reasons have nothing to do with a sense of loyalty to a particular memory or a mythology that is part of the narrative of the tradition. Many of them encounter Buddhism as part of a personal quest; generally it is a very individualistic approach. They come from an educated background, so their inherited intellectual tradition is the dominant one of science. Then they try to adapt elements of Buddhism that fit without too much conflict within that worldview. And so they are going to be more piecemeal in their embracing of the tradition.
How do traditional Buddhists and Western Buddhists differ in their relationship to science? How you incorporate scientific elements into your belief system really depends, again, on your conception of science and its scope. If you believe that everything that is knowable and everything that is true falls within the scope of science, then obviously you’re going to have a much more logical-positivistic sort of attitude. But if you have an understanding of the scope of science as more limited, then not everything you would recognize as part of reality falls within that category.
So science becomes part of a system for making sense of your experience rather than the entire system. Exactly. For traditional Buddhists it is better to have this more limited-scope conception of science, rather than the naive perception, which a lot of the general public has, that somehow science is the only avenue for understanding the real and if science doesn’t say it, then it’s not really real. This is a popular perception, and there’s a danger that traditional Buddhists might also buy into it. And if they do, then many aspects of the tradition become problematic.
I am concerned for younger members of traditional Buddhist communities, because as they become interested in their heritage—and given that their command of their own mother tongue is not highly developed—they end up reading books written by contemporary Western Buddhist writers. I often remind them that they have to be careful not to confuse the portrait of Buddhism that they will see in these popular writings with traditional Buddhists’ view of the tradition; for example, many contemporary Western Buddhists have little place for devotion in their practice. What can happen is that young people read these popular books and they start reinterpreting. Then there’s a loopback effect that makes them feel alienated from their own traditional-Buddhist way of doing things.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has long promoted introducing science training into classical Tibetan Buddhist monastic education. Why? His Holiness is concerned about bringing classical Tibetan culture and intellectual tradition into engagement with modernity. In the Tibetan exile community in India the majority of students go through a secular school system modeled on the Indian school system, which is basically a continuation of the British system. So they receive science education. But in the classical monastic training, generally speaking, there is no science training. Originally His Holiness had hoped that as the general population of Tibetans became educated in science, they would take charge of initiating a critical engagement with science; for example, they would begin writing scientific material in Tibetan and developing Tibetan language to be able to convey scientific ideas. That has not happened, because the general lay school system is a secular system, and science is generally taught in English. So no matter how scientifically educated Tibetan students may be at the end of their school or even university careers, they cannot be conversant in science in Tibetan to the point where they can engage the perspectives in classical Tibetan thought. That’s why His Holiness began to feel that in order to bring the classical Tibetan tradition into engagement with modernity, science has to be brought into the monastic education itself.
Why was it not sufficient for Tibetans to be conversant in the ideas of science in English? These lay Tibetan students who have been getting trained in science have very rudimentary mastery of the classical Buddhist tradition. They are not able to engage with science from the standpoint of the Buddhist worldview. There’s a whole new level of critical engagement with science that needs to happen, but that can only happen if it is the monastics who are scientifically informed.
So what you are talking about is a critical engagement of Tibetan Buddhism with science, not just Tibetan people with science. It is not Tibetan people per se but it is the Buddhist worldview. Buddhist concepts are really the content of the philosophical worldview of Tibetan people. And so in a sense, the essence of the Tibetan high culture or intellectual tradition is really Buddhist. Therefore, unless we find a way in which Buddhist ideas can critically engage with science in the Tibetan language, this encounter with modernity is never going to be done well.
One of His Holiness’s main arguments for teaching science to monks is that if you look at the history of the development of Buddhist ideas, Buddhism has always engaged with whatever perspectives were current. For example, the development of Buddhist epistemology theory or Buddhist logical methods occurred in the context of a very deep and prolonged critical engagement with non-Buddhist traditions in India. Also His Holiness has argued that in Abhidharma texts there are quite a lot of discussions about the external world that are essentially scientific theories. So Buddhists have been interested in understanding the world, not just in personal development. In fact, on the Buddhist model, personal development presupposes having a correct understanding of the nature of reality. After all, it’s the wisdom and knowledge that are supposed to liberate.
So His Holiness is reminding the monastic institutions that as a tradition Buddhism has always done this in the past. And now unless Buddhism engages critically with science it will not be able to keep its own worldview up to date—particularly when it comes to physical theories of the world.
With the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Emory University, the Emory Tibet Science Initiative has caught the attention of the popular press. What is this initiative, and why is it important? The Emory Science Initiative is aimed at bringing science into the monastic education system. There have been a couple of other initiatives before—such as Science Meets Dharma and Science for Monks—but what makes the Emory approach impressive is that they are developing a curriculum specifically for monastics. We cannot just teach science to monks as you would teach to a typical undergraduate or high school class—the context is completely different.
What are the challenges specific to that situation? You cannot just simply present discoveries as facts; you need to bring out their philosophical implications. A “big ideas” kind of approach is important. The monasteries have no illusion of developing into research centers to produce scientists. What they need is a program robust enough to convey the most important ideas and discoveries of science, to draw out their philosophical implications, and to raise challenges to some of the presuppositions behind their interpretations. So the monks are not just learning science. They’re learning science as a thought system or a philosophical view. But one of the things about science, unlike philosophy, is that you cannot avoid some degree of factual learning. You need some building blocks.
Has there been resistance to His Holiness’s idea of introducing science into the monasteries? Initially there was a lot of reluctance. It is perfectly understandable, because these monastic institutions are academic centers of learning that have several hundred years of history, success, and reputation. Most long-lasting institutions are conservative at their core. For example, look at the Catholic Church, or the monarchy system. Their conservatism is what makes these institutions endure. Many of the senior monks had the initial reaction, “We have gone without this science education for a very long time. Why should we have it now? If our system is working, why change?” It’s a very human thing.
And even though it was His Holiness who was making the suggestion, monasteries are autonomous bodies. The abbots of each of these monasteries are the final authorities. And many of these abbots were ordinary monks who have come through the ranks and who have tremendous loyalty to and affection for the institutions. None of them would want to take a risk that would potentially lead to the undermining or downfall of the system.
One of the principal concerns that some express is this: “Back home in Tibet, the important cultural and historical institutions have all been destroyed. What we have in India is the only source of hope. And since the classical training is such a time-consuming, labor-intensive system anyway, why do we want to add on something that would tax the time of the students as well as distract their attention?” This is a very legitimate concern.
Another reason for the reluctance is fear of modernity, because they see young monks—and especially young reincarnate lamas—who are exposed to consumer culture and then leave monasteries. For example, in India the Hindi Bollywood culture is very seductive; disciplinarians struggle to ensure that the monks do not go off and watch movies. Science is seen as part of the modern world, part of what is seductive. So why bring it in?
How was this reluctance overcome? Over time, the Mind and Life conversations have brought home that there is a genuine synergy at least at the intellectual and philosophical level between some aspects of scientific thinking and Buddhist thought. The Science Meets Dharma and Science for Monks programs have been teaching science—not as a part of the mainstream curriculum but as a separate extracurricular program for a select group of monks—and these programs have been quite successful. And there is a change of generation now in the leadership of the monasteries. The abbots are much more receptive to the idea of science education, and they appreciate the need to adapt.
In January 2013 there was a Mind and Life Conference in India at the request of His Holiness, and thousands of monks turned up. In his opening remarks, His Holiness spoke about the importance of making sure that there is a proper understanding of the place of science within the monastic education. The primary goal of the monastic system is to continue with the classical tradition. The introduction of science is not to replace that but to help enhance it. The monks shouldn’t be distracted by or overemphasize the scientific component of their education in terms of how they spend their time and effort. So His Holiness understands that it needs to be done skillfully.
You’ve made a good case for how Buddhism and science could be seen as compatible. So I’m wondering how you might respond to an observation by the French philosopher of science Michel Bitbol that “in science and in Buddhism, the whole distribution of what counts as knowledge and what counts as ignorance is completely reversed.” Isn’t it true that in Buddhism ignorance is defined as the belief that things are stable and constant (rather than changing from one moment to the next), that they have intrinsic properties, and that they exist in and of themselves independent of one another and observers? But these ideas, Bitbol points out, “are exactly the presuppositions that are made in everyday work in science.” I would agree with Michel Bitbol that the majority of scientists probably operate from that kind of assumption, which a Buddhist would see as being deluded. But there are other scientists who have a much more pragmatic view of the enterprise. They understand that these are constructs they have developed. The constructs are useful to come up with certain predictions and experiments, which then allow them to do certain things they couldn’t do before. So there are other scientists who take their constructs not as representing what is “actually out there” but more like a working model that helps them to fine-tune their understanding.
And even from the scientific point of view, what we mean by truth is a problematic question. There is a lot of debate within the philosophy of science as to the status of scientific truths. The majority of scientists have a universalist and absolutist standpoint that “truth is truth regardless of our perspective.” But others will have a different take, because the history of science itself shows that what was deemed to be true in one generation came to be modified later. These scientists will say that the idea that something is true regardless of who is looking at it or regardless of any framework makes no sense. Something can be said to be true only within a particular framework. This is why in Buddhism truth or falsity is considered within the framework of conventional reality, which takes into account the kind of background of language, shared consensus, and so on. When it comes to ultimate truth, you have emptiness, which is always negatively characterized. You cannot say anything about its attributes in language of objects and properties.
Might it be possible that the Buddhist worldview has something valuable to offer to the West, precisely in the ways in which it’s incompatible with or different from science? I do think the point that Michel Bitbol is raising about Buddhism’s ultimate challenge—or the skeptical question Buddhism raises about reification of some kind of ultimate and absolute indivisible constituent of reality—can be destabilizing to the entire scientific enterprise. Science operates from the assumption that you can build knowledge upon what others have done before, and that although you may never get the picture completely, you are always getting closer to the ultimate picture. Buddhism in general—and particularly the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy—questions the very validity of that notion. So in that respect, Buddhism may actually challenge the whole scientific enterprise.
But on the other hand, you could have an understanding of science that is more pragmatic. You could see it as a tool—yet another tool—that helps human beings have a better understanding of the world and their relationship with it, and by which the knowledge that is deduced can lead to understanding how things function. Then you don’t need to make that kind of ontological commitment that is problematic to Buddhists.
Another challenge Buddhism could offer is in its different view of human nature. For example, if you look particularly at Mahayana Buddhism—and especially East Asian Buddhism and Kagyu and Nyingma strands of Tibetan Buddhism—there is an assumption that the basic nature of mind is not just pure but actually good and enlightened. There’s actually a Buddha inside you; you just don’t know it. Meditation is there to help you peel off the layers that are obscuring its expression, but it is completely there already—you don’t need to cultivate it.
Not all Buddhist traditions make that assumption. For example, in the Tibetan tradition the Gelugpas don’t make that assumption. The Gelugpas accept that the essential nature of the mind is pure. But they understand this purity in the sense of being “un-deluded”—not pure in the sense of “good” or “compassionate.” For them, all of the qualities of enlightenment are there in the form of a seed, which needs to be cultivated. So it’s not a question of simply removing all the layers that hide a real Buddha inside you. You need to actively cultivate that seed, because the basic nature of mind is neutral—neither good nor bad.
But that view of human nature as essentially good can be problematic for science, because in the end science’s understanding of sentience has to be grounded in evolutionary theory. Evolution is the ultimate explanatory framework within which everything about human behavior and mental experience has to be accounted for. And within the evolutionary framework, it makes no sense to think of there being this kind of shining Buddha inside you.
Because that means we are basically altruistic? And that goes against an understanding of evolution by which we are all out for ourselves? Yes, although there is now a growing recognition in science that the selfish model of human nature may be a bit of an exaggeration. Anyway, concepts like the Buddha within are going to come up against scientific assumptions.
In the end, I think one other area where there will be a big stumbling block is the nature of consciousness. Some philosophers believe that science will never be able to have a full explanation of consciousness and that’s why it’s called the “hard problem.” Unless science as we know it changes, I don’t think science will ever come up with a final description of what consciousness is. The whole paradigm of science is from the third-person perspective. So within that paradigm, how can the first-person character of consciousness ever be captured? You can get closer and closer, but how are you going to finally get to the position where you describe the character of the experience of subjectivity in a comprehensive manner? What kind of language are you going to use? Science has to capture this first-person character of consciousness in some kind of scientific construct, but the language of science is all third person oriented. All of the models of science are really based on looking from outside in. It is object-oriented language and object-oriented description. Also, consciousness has the capacity to be self-aware. The third-person approach can never describe that.
In some sense, scientists do understand that at this point there is no actual evidence for their materialist standpoint, but at the same time most of them would agree that it is a kind of regulative assumption. They have to make that assumption to make any progress. All the current neuroscientific work is based on the assumption that ultimately consciousness is the brain. So I think this is one area where at some point there’s got to be a parting of the ways.
On the other hand, if you have the conception of science I described before as having a limited scope, then it shouldn’t be a problem. You would see it as just one of those things that falls outside the domain of scientific inquiry. And then there’s no contradiction.
Linda Heuman is a Tricycle contributing editor.
Image 1: Photograph by Andrea Gómez Romero
Image 2: Photograph by Jason Decrow/EPA/Pool
Image 3: Photograph by EPA/Newscom