Letters to the Editor Spring 2013

Scientific Buddha

Out of Context

I read the two Winter 2012 cover articles (“The Scientific Buddha” by Donald Lopez and “A Gray Matter” by Bernard Faure) on the convergence of Buddhism and science and found them to be off the mark in some important ways.

While it is the case that the research efforts into meditation started with His Holiness bringing some of his monks into the lab (including Matthieu Ricard), Richard Davidson was not seeking to validate Buddhism. He was investigating the effects of long-term training of the mind. The research efforts of Sara Lazar and her colleagues at Harvard, Willoughby Britton and her colleagues at Brown, Magdalena Naylor in conjunction with Shinzen Young at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, and many others are focused on meditation, not Buddhism. There is, after all, no “Buddhism.” There are Buddhist religions (emphasis on plural). However, in the articles Buddhism was treated as a monolithic entity. Both Faure and Lopez note that studying meditation is out of the context of Buddhist practice. This is, of course, correct. Yet many of the rituals they cite as being part of that context have nothing to do with what the Buddha taught. The Buddha did not practice or prescribe rituals. In fact, his teaching was a radical departure from and response to the Brahmanic rituals prevalent during his time.

I think the current nascent research efforts fit squarely within the new context of secular Buddhism (being forwarded by Andrew Olendzki, Mu Soeng, Stephen Batchelor, John Peacock, and others), which seeks the value not of Buddhism but of the Buddha’s insights. Buddhism has always been taken out of context. When it went from India to China, it merged with Chinese culture to create a new context. When it went from China to Japan, it morphed once again. Tibetan Buddhism is its own unique form. Science is part of the conversation that will form Buddhism in a Western context, because science is one of the primary cultural values we bring to the table.

Arnie Kozak, Ph.D.
Department of Psychiatry, University of Vermont College of Medicine
Burlington, VT

Stress Reduction

Overall I enjoyed reading about Donald Lopez’s perspective in “The Scientific Buddha.” However, it should be noted that the statement that stress reduction is not “the traditional goal of Buddhist meditation” is too globalizing, as it does not accurately reflect the 2,500-year-old suttas of the Pali canon, which constitutes the core teachings of Theravada Buddhism and is considered to be the most complete early Buddhist canon (by the British scholar Peter Harvey, one of many).

The Buddha, in our texts, states that all of his teachings are aimed toward the goal of ending “dukkha” (which covers all manifestations of discomfort, from stress to suffering). For just one example, take the foundational instructions for breath meditation laid out in the Anapanasati Sutta (MN 118): “One trains with the goal, ‘I will breathe in calming the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming the mind.’”

While there are other purposes for meditation in the Theravada tradition beyond reducing stress—for the benefit of others, toward awakening, and so on—stress reduction is a valid traditional goal of Buddhist meditation.

Josh Korda, Brooklyn, NY

A Problem with Science?

Why is it that some otherwise exemplary Buddhist scholars and teachers have a problem with science? The teacher to whom I owe most and for whom, in that role, I have enormous respect, has occasionally said things on the topic of science that strike me as quite silly.

I wouldn’t accuse Donald Lopez of silliness, but I find his attitude in this context quite strange. He neglects what I believe is for most people the most important aspect of Buddhism’s compatibility with science: the fact that, unlike religions with the supernatural at their core, it can never be brought into doubt by any scientific development.

Then consider Lopez’s last paragraph:

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.

The first sentence, up to and including “essence,” strikes me as a perfectly scientific view of “oneself and the world.” Many modern psychologists and philosophers of mind would very happily accede to it. Science is just as good as Buddhism, if not better, at dethroning the self: it can be used as an enormously thoroughgoing version of the five skandhas practice. What it cannot do, inevitably, given its nature, is to put this in a moral context and guide our actions. For that, Buddhism is still essential and will remain so in the foreseeable future. But science can—and, I’m quite convinced, will—provide vital support for Buddhism’s rise among “the educated classes” worldwide. Oh, and if you’d like a motto summing up the relationship: science is theory, Buddhism is practice.

Robin Faichney, Dunblane, Scotland

A Smoother Ride

Thanks for this beautifully written and provocative piece by Professor Donald Lopez. I think Lopez is quite right to critique the systematic watering down of the dharma on the part of Jon Kabat-Zinn and his legion of imitators, for whom “stress reduction” basically means using meditative techniques as substitutes for pills. There’s so much energy going into appropriating Buddhist methods in the service of having a smoother samsaric ride that the purpose of the teachings seems to be in danger of being forgotten.

It might be inconvenient that the Buddha taught and practiced jhana and knew nothing of “nonjudgmental bare attention to the present moment,” and even more inconvenient that he recalled his own past lives, taught karma and rebirth as experiential facts, prescribed rigorous commitment to morality as a precursor to meditation, and recommended renouncing samsara rather than improving it. Prof. Lopez suggests we take a serious look at what the Buddha taught (and his critique of society) on their own merits, rather than seeking to validate Buddhist teachings and techniques through oil-and-water mixtures of science and pop psychology. I appreciate the invitation.

Kevin Knox, Silver City, NM

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