April 03, 2009
Can Buddhism in the West survive into the next generation? After the initial burst of sangha-building by Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers, will the Buddhist meme propagate into kids coming out of college now? Will this 2,500-year-old tradition finally complete its circumnavigation and build sustainable roots in the West? Over the last few years a series of articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers on the “graying” of American Buddhism and the risks to its continued survival. Of course Buddhism remains one the fastest growing religions (if that definition really fits) in the United States. This comes even at a time when participation in religion appears to be declining.
There are real and serious issues that this line of discussion raises. How do Americans take a tradition with deep roots in contemplative practice and monasticism and broaden it for a society that will mainly be lay parishioners? How are families included? How are the communities of shared values and social action that are so much a part of American religious life to be included? All of these questions will have to be addressed if Buddhism is not only to take root but also to flourish and gain strength from its encounter with America and the Western perspective in general. In that regard, Buddhism’s’ relationship with science holds unique and uniquely hopeful possibilities.
By now everyone has heard the Dalai Lama’s apocryphal quotation on Buddhism and science. When asked what would happen if science discovered something that was at odds with Buddhist belief, he replied, “We would change our beliefs.” While some have questioned exactly what the Dali Lama meant, there does appear to be a very different attitude toward science in Buddhism than in other American religions. This is an important distinction that bodes well for the Buddhist perspective. The future of all religious enterprise will, to some degree, hinge on its response to science.
We live in a society that is saturated with the fruits and poisons of science. Through it’s daughter endeavor, technology, every aspect of human life and culture has been transformed by scientific practice. For the last four hundred years, a large fraction of religion’s cultural history in the West has been its reaction to science. The encroachment of science into the traditional explanatory domain of religion, from cosmology to human origins, has pushed many Western religions into positions of refinement, redefinition, or rejection with respect to science. The apparent gymnastics that many institutions have gone through to preserve scriptural literalism in the face of scientific exploration makes many people uncomfortable, to say the least (and this includes members of those traditions).
This does not seem to be a problem for Buddhism as it is emerging in the West. The Buddhist attitude may be due to the religion’s particular history of being absorbed by, and absorbing, very different cultures and ideas. Given the Western emphasis on empirical investigation via scientific practice, Buddhism’s own emphasis on direct investigation can make a good fit. There has also been an active interest for the last 40 years in how science and Buddhism can speak to each other. Sometimes it has been misguided, as with the formula “quantum mechanics = Buddhism.” Other times it has been more fruitful, as with the interest of neuroscientists in stabilizing first-person accounts with contemplative practice. Since the Dali Lama is often seen as a world leader speaking for Buddhism, his interest in science, along with the attitudes of the growing Western communities, has made Buddhism appear quite willing to engage in an open and frank dialogue with science.
Of course there are thorny issues. Reincarnation, a central tenet of Buddhism, makes many Westerners uncomfortable. To avoid this difficulty, many people seem happy to treat reincarnation as a metaphor for “conservation of energy” and not probe too deeply.
Finally, one can ask, “Whose Buddhism?” Some scholars argue that what is practiced in the West is just a cherry-picked version of Buddhism designed to make Americans feel comfortable. The response to this criticism, however, is an important one and hits on the key point for the future. Buddhism, like any tradition, is always changing. Every generation creatively misreads, to quote Elaine Pagels, the texts it finds to find meaning for its own time and place.
Perhaps what is remarkable about Buddhism is that after two-and-a-half millennia there appears to be so much in it that a scientific society can find meaningful.
Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester. He studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. He also moonlights as an award-winning science writer for magazines like Discover, Astronomy, and Scientific American. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. You can find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog or the Constant Fire website.