April 03, 2009

Guest Post: Astrophysicist Adam Frank on Science and the Future of Buddhism

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.

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Jeff's picture

If Tricycle had any balls and did more than kiss the trendy "spiritual" ass they'd interview Steven Allan Hassan. When I callled him he said that 90% of his buddhist related calls were associated with someone who had been a disciple of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Buddhism in America has a dark, abusive, and saidistic side and Pema Chodron embellishes that more than any other human being, any other buddhist in America.

Jeff's picture

They are deranged egomaniacs whose egos cannot accept the fact that there might be a human being they cannot control.
Steven Allan Hassan
Freedom of Mind

In a strange twist of the human psyche their shameless, outrageous act of human indecency are seen as an expression of some profound wisdom.
Steven Allan Hassan
Freedom of Mind

Jeff's picture

Endarkment of Religion


The book that needs to be written concerns the violation of human and civil rights by dogmatic fundamentalist religion. Perhaps the best example of this in America is Shambhala "Buddhism." Ken Wilber cited it as the most cultish sect of Buddhism in America and in an independent survey of religion in America by a group of university professor's it was cited as "one of the most abusive sects of religion in America." I got, unfortunately, involved in Shambhala Buddhism. For the past 6 years Tim Olmstead of Steamboat Springs, CO has been practicing crazy "wisdom" on my life. Why? I guess to cleanse my karma, break my ego, and wake me up as they say. Tim Olmstead I've been told had been a vajra guard goon in the cult of Shambhala. The vajra guard lured young women and young men to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche's bed under the auspices of having a spiritual experience. When Gary Snyder met Trungpa Rinpoche he was drunk and surrounded by women in dresses and heals toting automatics - Pema Chodron will tell you that everything he did was for the benefit of others, Kenneth Roxroth will tell you that he did more to damage the western dharma than any other person. One man tells of being punched by the vajra guard for not showing Trungpa Rinpoche the proper respect, the devotion to the guru.

In the last 6 years Tim Olmstead of Steamboat Springs, CO has contacted my employers, land lords, friends and family, He got me fired from a job with the USGS by releasing to them tapes he had made when I was at Gampo Abbey in which I had discussed, privately I thought, indiscretions I had made in the past. Tim Olmstead of Steamboat Springs, CO also paid a woman to tell him about our sex life which I believe has been posted on the internet. Tim Olmstead of Steamboat Springs, CO has told me that he is master and commander of my life, that he can play me like a puppet on a string, and that he can walk all over my life if he chooses to - and in fact which he has done. His wife, Glenna Olmstead of Steamboat Springs, CO will tell you that Tim Olmstead is a spiritual teacher.

Tim and Glenna Olmstead are good friends of Pema Chodron whose story, the one she is stuck on, is well known, it goes like this: "I'm Pema Chodron first American Buddhist nun and prize student of meditation master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

At the heart of all religion lies the seeds of fascism.


The Dalia does not change his beliefs as demonstrated in his ancient hatred of Dorje Shugden. Besides, I think enlisting a true monk to experiment the process will bring greater results than a man who's mind has been corrupted by the Western allure has caused him to become ill.
American need to leave the Old Politics of the East in the past and focus on what is clear and true and not seek advice from a man who was employed by the CIA for spititual advice or funding.He is tainted!

adam frank's picture

I myself am suspicous of attempts to say a partiuclar scientific results matches a particle doctrine in a particular religion so I agree with Jeff's points. I do think however that there must be some important relationship, if its a contextual one, for such important aspects of human culture.

Amitabha Mukhopadhyay's picture

It is a totally wrong concept that science and technology is in conflict with relegion. The more we are educated in the real sense of the term we could then be more relegious because then we will be in a position to understand the relegion better. Buddhism is a great relegion when it is considered as an open concept and a frame of mind that is all encompassing. With the growth of human civilization human beings would become more accomodating and more buddhists. To understand the future of human civilization please read my book MEGALOPOLIS ONE 2080 A.D. It would show how people will live and work and entertain themselves in a megacity of the future with a totally green surroundings. The website is http://www.eloquentbooks.com/MegalopolisOne2080AD.html

Jeff's picture


I agree that science is a search for truth and a worth while search. But, to me, buddhism is a search for what is, for suchness, and a search/training in being able to remain within what is and live in suchness. Perhaps scientific understanding can assist in that endeavor.

Jeff's picture


I agree. One of my favorite quotes is from a physics Phd from Berkeley who I met in an airport and had a few beers with waiting for our flights. He said that there is a physics theory that "everything that is is the full expression of zero." I always relate that to emptiness. BTW, we've met a long long time ago.

Jeff's picture

Several years ago I had the privilege of hearing Thich Nhat Hahn speak in Boulder, CO. There was a question and answer session after his short talk and one man asked a rather intricate three part question. I thought it was a great question. Thich sat quiet for a little while and then answered "why do people make something so simple so complex." That was his answer to the question. He cut to the bone and moved on and that answer still remains with me.

adam frank's picture

Its true that some people take science as a kind of religion, or substitute it for an source of "ultimacy". Thats a poor choice though because science is supposed to be about an open ended exploration of the the world.

@Jeff The emphasis I think is finding a proper relationship between the science and spiritual endeavor. They both are about some kind of search for truth even if they were to represent different domains. Also science is such a potent force in our lifes that understanding its context and deploying it with wisdom has some imperative now.

Scott's picture

I am slowly becoming a Buddhist. I don't really think of it as a religion. It strikes me that it is a living system of practices based on reality. Also, every religion I can think of has a group of fanatics doing some sort of violence. I don't see that in Buddhism. Even science has a fanatical group who accept science as religion.

Jeff Hanson's picture

Two quick thoughts:

1. Millions of people world wide do, have, and will practice "buddhism" outside of the monastic influence. I would argue that that is very healthy for "buddhism" and that monasticism is an exception and not the rule.

2. Why this emphasis on reconciling science and religion? As one physicist (Schroedinger I believe) remarked, and I paraphrase, physics cannot explain what is dear to the human heart.

To me Buddhism is about exactly that, the human heart.

Yim's picture

On the issue of cherry picking or "whose Buddhism"... Buddha said not to believe on rote but to see for yourself.... that in itself defines the religion to always be in flux and allows for what some may call "cherry picking" but others may see as their understanding of Buddhism which according to the Buddha would still be treated as correct?