June 27, 2010

Buddhism & Science: How the dialogue might go deeper—or where it might end

dalai lama, japan, korean buddhism, chandrakirti, nagarjuna, science

After all the discussion of science and Buddhism in my last post (see comments 7-11), I came across the Dalai Lama's appearance before an audience of more than 500 Korean Buddhists in Yokahama today, where he encouraged the study of not only Chandrakirti but also science. From TibetCustom.com:

In his brief talk, he asked the Koreans to be 21st century Buddhists by mastering modern scientific ecuation as well as Buddhism. "Like great masters of the ancient Nalanda University, you must study and examine the Buddhist texts and practice the teachings in your daily life," he said.

Whatever we think about the compatibility of Buddhism and science—or the Dalai Lama's take on it—the fact that a religious leader of his stature continues to promote scientific study always comes as a welcome relief from the endless squabbling in this country about whether to teach creationism in the schools or whether climate change is really caused by human activity. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, the oil is gushing, and the world is moving on.

The Dalai Lama is brave to open the door to a dialogue between religion and science. After all, as he himself acknowledges, some dearly held beliefs may prove to be wrong, in which case, he argues, one will have to adjust one's view. But as Acharya Malcolm Smith, following a brief review of some fundamental Tibetan vajrayana tenets, astutely argued in response to my last post,

Buddhism is religion — it makes unfalsifiable claims about reality. Even here, nothing that I have mentioned is scientific. It is all based on text, tradition, and yoga. There is nothing here that is scientifically verifiable, nor should it be. The qualia of liberated persons is not something that can be measured in an fMRI or a PET scan. These results are reproducible, but not reproducible in a sample population with a triple blind study and so on. They are reproducible by people willing to go do the work on their cushions, who are willing to devote tens of thousands of hours of their lives to yoga, prostrations, mantra, prāṇayāma, and so on.

Here's where the dialogue could easily end, but if it is to go further, both sides will have to be as forthright as Smith about the nature of such beliefs and their immunity to traditional scientific investigation. I can't say whether Smith feels that a dialogue between science and religion—in this case, Buddhism—will be fruitful. But it will be interesting to see how the dialogue evolves with advances in neuroscience and a deeper understanding of the Buddhist traditions that so many of us have begun to study over the course of the past four decades or so. As Smith rightly points out, there is still a lot of confusion about precisely what those beliefs are. In fact, his initial point related to precisely this (I stood corrected).

For the full context of Smith's remarks, click here (Smith regrets that he cannot further edit his comments so he may have more to add. My apologies!)

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[...] Tricycle » Buddhism & Science: How the dialogue might go deeper—or where it might end [...]

Buddhism and Science: Kin by Water « earthdharma.org's picture

[...] The dialogue between science and Buddhism has the potential to develop specific interventions that could promote not only psychological and physical wellbeing but planetary health too. Modern earth science allows that human beings interact with the earth system and, to a degree, try to serve as stewards of the planet. But Buddhism offers earth science the possibility of a more unified understanding of the Earth, a science that frames humans as kin rather than stewards of the planet. See also: [...]

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[...] The dialogue between science and Buddhism has the potential to develop specific interventions that could promote not only psychological and physical wellbeing but planetary health too. Modern earth science allows that human beings interact with the earth system and, to a degree, try to serve as stewards of the planet. But Buddhism offers earth science the possibility of a more unified understanding of the Earth, a science that frames humans as kin rather than stewards of the planet. See also: [...]

Mike F's picture

Sure, but the change from the "conventional perspective" is made nevertheless, correct?

Acharya Malcolm Smith's picture

Relics fall apart too, eventually.

Mike F's picture

Thanks for that, that actually made a connection for me.
could you answer the first part too ?
i'll post it below,

Malcolm,
But in all the texts, it says specifically that relics of hair and fingernails are left behind–(as well as other things)…
This would be a change from the “conventional perspective”, wouldn’t it?
Like for Sonam Namgyal in 1952, that seems to be a change from the “conventional perspective”, correct?

Acharya Malcolm Smith's picture

Buddhas don't take rebirth. But their physical bodies fall apart, as they must, since those bodies are conditioned and not unconditioned.

Mike F's picture

Malcolm,
But in all the texts, it says specifically that relics of hair and fingernails are left behind--(as well as other things)...
This would be a change from the "conventional perspective", wouldn't it?
Like for Sonam Namgyal in 1952, that seems to be a change from the "conventional perspective".

additionally, you said earlier up above:
"However, on a conventional level, you are absolutely correct — everything that arises in this Sahaloka [i.e. the unbearable universe] must pass away, and this applies no less to Buddhas than to ordinary sentient beings."

but now you just said:
"As far as dying, goes — Nirmanakāya Buddhas do not go through a “death” process [that is, not in the same way that an non-awakenend person does] regardless of what happens to the four elements that constituted their karmically determined body."

I'm confused, maybe i'm interpreting it incorrectly, in the first quote it seems that a Buddha does go through the death process: "applies no less to Buddhas than to ordinary sentient beings"
in the second quote it seems that a Buddha does not go through the death process: "Nirmanakāya Buddhas do not go through a “death” process [that is, not in the same way that an non-awakenend person does]"
I'm interpreting that it does apply less to Buddhas, than to ordinary sentient beings. Could you help clear that up for me?

Thanks again Malcolm,

Acharya Malcolm Smith's picture

"What about the Great Transfer Rainbow Body (’pho-ba chen po) though?"

In my opinion, this is a realization not a physical phenomena. Part of the problem is the translation of the term 'pho wa-- here it means 'pho 'gyur "transformation", not transference as in the practice of 'pho ba. Hence it is more accurately translated as "The Great Transformation". This is when one's physical body reverts back into wisdom-- but this is an entirely subjective experience, like all path experiences.

I do not believe however that anything about your body changes at all from a conventional perspective. It just means that you have obtained the state of highest wisdom [ye shes bla ma], the sixteenth bhumi in your lifetime, having exhausted all phenomena. It does not mean that someone else cannot see or touch your body, or that it like some holographic display.

As far as dying, goes -- Nirmanakāya Buddhas do not go through a "death" process [that is, not in the same way that an non-awakenend person does] regardless of what happens to the four elements that constituted their karmically determined body.

Mike F's picture

Malcolm you said:
"However, on a conventional level, you are absolutely correct — everything that arises in this Sahaloka [i.e. the unbearable universe] must pass away, and this applies no less to Buddhas than to ordinary sentient beings."

What about the Great Transfer Rainbow Body ('pho-ba chen po) though? You wouldn't have to go through the death process then right?
thanks for the time,

Ted Meissner's picture

Hi, Bill. Thank you for replying and sharing your thoughts, I truly do appreciate having the dialogue with people here, as we do care about this practice and each other.

"Buddha says that the delusions the main cause of suffering, including physical illness, so if you eradicate ignorance, there IS no suffering. The best medical science can do is temporarily eliminate a particular illness, but it can’t stop death whereas Buddhism eliminates death completely."

I'm with you on suffering vs. pain -- training the mind can help alleviate one, and *some* scientific breakthroughs can help alleviate the other. And you're right, it can't stop death. Neither can Buddhism stop that kind of death. If we're going to compare, we need to compare apples to apples.

"It’s a legitimate claim that science is increasing physical illnesses."

Forgive me, but wouldn't it be more accurate to say it's people's mis-use, the unmindful application of knowledge gained from the scientific method, that can lead to increased harm to our environment? Shouldn't we try to be as critical in our finding the root problem as we are, say, in our meditation?

If we blame science, we label the wrong cause. We retreat to pre-Enlightenment era attitudes about learning.

"In many instances, the food industry is devoid of compassion and it exploits animals using scientific methods such as hormone injections to grow the animals more quickly for consumption."

Agreed, completely, I find that simply horrific how we treat other living beings. But again, that is not science. That is people behaving without compassion. Let's address that, instead of disparaging a method of learning.

"In all these ways science is the cause for our suffering to increase."

I'm sorry, Bill, but this confuses me. Either ignorance is the cause, or science is the cause. Is there a passage in the Pali canon that says science causes suffering? Not that I can find, anyway.

The teaching takes into account the layers of conventional activity and root cause -- ignorance, I agree with you (and the Buddha!) is the root, which manifests in unwholesome action, which may be drilling in the gulf as an example.

Science isn't the culprit any more than cabinetry is the culprit for stubbed toes.

"I’m just showing how science is not part of Buddhism (whose sole function is to eradicate suffering) and is vastly inferior to it."

I agree that science is not a part of Buddhism. It's different in what it does, that doesn't make it inferior. I would suggest (if that's the argument) that Buddhism is inferior in determining how fast light travels, or how to cure Polio. Or how to do anything it's not for, which is one thing and one thing only, "suffering and the extinguishing of it." At that, I find the teaching to be awesome, really top shelf!

Vu -- what is "quantum mind"? That's a physics term attached to a non-physics term. What is meant by it?

Well said, Malcolm, thank you! I'd had the same reaction as JonJ to "eliminates death." We all know (here) Dependent Co-Origination, rebirth, we get it. It's just that incautious use of that kind of phrase can cause tremendous misunderstanding, as there is so much possibility of mis-interpretation that puts our practice into the realm of easily dismissed nonsense.

And, for that matter, secular Buddhists remain skeptical at best about the validity of rebirth. Many of us don't find it relevant, however, to the direct experience of our practice -- we still do the same Eightfold practice as those who do accept rebirth. Functionally, there is no difference in what we do.

Thank you all again, for sharing your thoughts here.

Acharya Malcolm Smith's picture

JonJ:

"Buddhism eliminates death? I would like to see an explanation of how that works. The Dharma points toward ending the suffering associated with death, but we and everyone we hold dear still die."

Deathlessness is a common goal in all Indian religions. What other Indian religions means by deathlessness however, is quite different.

Buddhism's interpretation of deathlessness in Nikāya teachings means the ending of the cycle of rebirth. Someone who will never be reborn again, i.e. an Arhat, is considered free from death.

In Mahāyāna [and Vajrayāna], "deathlessness" means that one has realized the meaning of the non-origination of all phenomena through insight into dependently origination as emptiness. That which does not arise cannot die, being in a state of nirvana from the very beginning.

However, on a conventional level, you are absolutely correct -- everything that arises in this Sahaloka [i.e. the unbearable universe] must pass away, and this applies no less to Buddhas than to ordinary sentient beings.

Bill Esterhaus's picture

JonJ,

It's true that 'everything that is born must die' so we and everyone we hold dear must experience death in this life because we were born but we can become free from death by putting the Buddha's teachings of sutra and tantra into practice.

Birth, death and rebirth is the result of ignorance - we are born again and again without freedom and control. This cycle is called 'samsara' and must be broken. By eliminating ignorance from our mind through practising the three higher trainings (higher moral discipline, higher concentration and higher wisdom) and becoming an Arhat we are freed from the cycle of samsaric rebirth and will never again have to experience death. The practice of the three higher trainings eliminates birth, ageing and sickness which are the causes of death.

Buddha's tantric teachings give methods for becoming a deathless person by learning to identify with our very subtle body and mind. Since these never separate, if we identify with them as the basis for our 'I' or self rather than our ordinary body and mind, we will become a deathless person.

JonJ's picture

Bill,

Buddhism eliminates death? I would like to see an explanation of how that works. The Dharma points toward ending the suffering associated with death, but we and everyone we hold dear still die.

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Vu Nguyen's picture

The Buddha vast teaching and guidance is a combination of humanity knowledge and the Buddha great, noble and divine mind and characters.

Science is basically the study, analysis and experiment of natural law. There are many ways to conduct scientific methods or inquiries: whether one does it rationally with the mind and senses, analytically with equations or experimentally with equipment, or combination of these, it is science. And if one applies it daily, often or constantly, then it is part of one way of life.

The Buddha teaching such as Four Noble Truth, Eight Noble Path, Precept, and Middle Way are noble and effective moral and philosophy tenets for sufferings cessation and well being. While guidance such as compassion, mindfulness, and loving-kindness are noble virtues. His teaching for always seeking the truth or knowing the truth is to recognize reality and to escape from or prevent illusions or delusions.

Using the mind, heart and senses as part of the tools or means to develop or advance life essentials such as psychology, meditation, sciences of the mind and body, nutrition, consciousness, and quantum mind are definitely scientific methods. Before one can establish an equation, theory or set up scientific experiments, one must have form ideas or thoughts in advance. And thus, thoughts can be considered scientific. Thoughts or consciousness can change the world or give rise to matter (meta-physics or meta-sciences). Then again, sciences is a relative term or the meaning of sciences is relative (and science itself is not absolute).

The Buddha teaching and guidance cannot be fully represented or expressed by Buddhism books, sanghas or cultures (since there are many denominations across the world). The Buddha teaching and guidance is a way of life and state of mind: one not merely practices them for comprehension or understanding. Rather, one has to passionately live and experience them.

Vu Nguyen's picture

The Buddha vast teaching and guidance is a combination of humanity knowledge and the Buddha great, noble and divine mind and characters.

Science is basically the study, analysis and experiment of natural law. There are many ways to conduct scientific methods or inquiries: whether one does it rationally with the mind and senses, analytically with equations or experimentally with equipment, or combination of these, it is science. And if one applies it daily, often or constantly, then it is part of one way of life.

The Buddha teaching such as Four Noble Truth, Eight Noble Path, Precept, and Middle Way are noble and effective moral and philosophy tenets for sufferings cessation and well being. While guidance such as compassion, mindfulness, and loving-kindness are noble virtues. His teaching for always seeking the truth or knowing the truth is to recognize reality and to escape from or prevent illusions or delusions.

Using the mind, heart and senses as part of the tools or means to develop or advance life essentials such as psychology, meditation, sciences of the mind and body, nutrition, consciousness, and quantum mind are definitely scientific methods. Then again, sciences is a relative term or the meaning of sciences is relative (and science itself is not absolute).

The Buddha teaching and guidance cannot be fully represented or expressed by Buddhism books, sanghas or cultures (since there are many denominations across the world). The Buddha teaching and guidance is a way of life and state of mind: one not merely practices them for knowing. Rather, one has to passionately live and experience them.

Geshe Konchog's picture

Bill: NKT is the approach to dharma of the past, the anti-intellectual and ultra conservative faction that ruined old Tibet is on its last legs. I have no time for its western groupies.

Bill Esterhaus's picture

Hi Ted,

I'm so happy to hear you received medical help, I hope you are well now. Of course medical science has made a lot of advances and can help with a lot of physical illnesses, but Buddha says that the delusions the main cause of suffering, including physical illness, so if you eradicate ignorance, there IS no suffering. The best medical science can do is temporarily eliminate a particular illness, but it can't stop death whereas Buddhism eliminates death completely.

It's a legitimate claim that science is increasing physical illnesses. For example, due to industrial processes, our environments are becoming increasingly polluted and this leads to sickness, for example the recent oil spill in the Gulf will have many negative consequences. Furthermore, our food is poisoned by preservatives and other food additives that are causing cancers and other illnesses. In many instances, the food industry is devoid of compassion and it exploits animals using scientific methods such as hormone injections to grow the animals more quickly for consumption. Even medical science, in its laudable efforts to eradicate suffering, experiments on animals. Karma tells us that causing suffering to others will never lead to a reduction of suffering.

In all these ways science is the cause for our suffering to increase. It may seem to solve some problems but it also causes many others. I'm not against science, I'm just showing how science is not part of Buddhism (whose sole function is to eradicate suffering) and is vastly inferior to it.

Ted Meissner's picture

I agree, completely. But science isn't *about* ending suffering, that's not what it's for. Something not culminating in ending suffering doesn't mean it serves no purpose.

Petting my dog won't end suffering in all the ten directions, either. But I'm still going to do it.

Ted Meissner's picture

Bill -- science increases suffering? Science is a way of knowing, there is no greed to it. There are greed stricken *people*, yes, of course. But science has no more self than we do.

Science also lead to the end of polio and a host of other diseases, Bill. Without science, I would have had years of pain followed by a horrible death from colon cancer. Buddhism would have helped me not be attached to the pain and the end of my life, Bill, but scientific methods lead to the removal of my cancer.

If you get cancer, feel free to refuse modern, scientific treatment because it "increases suffering." I hope you don't ever have to go through it, but if you do, please don't reject science because of the actions of people out of greed and ignorance.

Bill Esterhaus's picture

Science will never advance to the point where it can eradicate suffering.

Ted Meissner's picture

I'm sorry, but I must respectfully disagree with Vu. It is classic mixing of science phrases where they simply do not apply. Sciences are not "part of Buddhism". The sciences are branches of knowing, following a methodology. Buddhism is also a branch of knowing, and it also follows a methodology -- but it is not the scientific method.

McLean v. Arkansas provided a nice guideline to the essential characteristics of science, based on input from scientists, not religious figures:

1. It is guided by natural law;
2. It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law;
3. It is testable against the empirical world;
4. Its conclusions are tentative, i.e. are not necessarily the final word; and
5. It is falsifiable.

Buddhist practice itself fulfills these criteria, though we've yet to see double blind, repeatable experiments that can validate supernatural claims in the suttas themselves.

The Dalai Lama stated in "The Universe In A Single Atom" that "My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: 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."

Agreed. The good news is that the practice itself is personal, not scientific -- you don't need supernatural elements to benefit from practicing the Eightfold Path.

Bill Esterhaus's picture

Science is not part of Buddhism because it originates in ignorance, dealing as it does with truly existent external phenomena that don't exist. The purpose of science is to improve samsara, whereas the purpose of Buddhism is to destroy samsara, therefore they are fundamentally different.

Science also causes suffering to living beings, whereas Buddhism can never cause suffering to living beings, it is the very method to destroy suffering through non-deceptive truth.

In these ways, science is vastly inferior to Buddhism and, like everything in samsara, in the end it proves deceptive. Following the path of science leads to only more suffering (genetic modification, experimentation on animals and human foetuses, nuclear and biological weapons, global warming, destruction of living beings and their environments) whereas following Buddhism leads to a final end to suffering. Science is a path to confusion and Buddhism is a path to wisdom - in this sense, they couldn't be more different and neither could their results.

Vu Nguyen's picture

The Buddha practiced, taught and guided life meaningful dimensions and the essence of humanity. The Buddha teaching embodied life purposes, essentials and the common good such as:

Moral
Ethics
Civics

Nature caring such as environment steward and care for all life forms.

Sciences of the body and mind such as meditation and healthy nutrition for physical and mental well being.

Social sciences such as communities building and social engagement.

Psychology such as sciences of the mind.

Philosophy of arts and humanities such as faith based on reason, deterministic and no-deterministic, no-self or the self, impermanent, non-duality, oneness or wholeness, interdependent-interconnect, middle way, mindfulness.

Philosophy of nature and sciences such as entanglement, consciousness or neuroscience, spiritual existence.

Meta-physics or meta-sciences such as quantum mind or transcendent state of being.

The Buddha is neither a Buddhist nor the founder of Buddhism. Rather, the Buddha is the teacher and guide of the founders of Buddhism. And yes, the Dalai Lama is certainly correct in stating sciences are part of Buddhism (and wise in promoting and encouraging sciences in Buddhism and religion) and thus the Buddha teaching or guidance.

Vu Nguyen's picture

The Buddha practiced, taught and guided life meaningful dimensions and the essence of humanity. The Buddha teaching embodied life purposes, essentials and the common good such as:

Moral
Ethics
Civics

Nature caring such as environment steward and care for all life forms.

Sciences of the body and mind such as meditation and healthy nutrition for physical and mental well being.

Social sciences such as communities building and social engagement.

Psychology such as sciences of the mind.

Philosophy of arts and humanities such as faith based on reason, deterministic and no-deterministic, no-self or the self, impermanent, non-duality, oneness or wholeness, interdependent-interconnect, middle way, mindfulness.

Philosophy of nature and sciences such as entanglement, consciousness or neuroscience, spiritual existence.

Meta-physics or meta-sciences such as quantum mind or transcendent state of being.

The Buddha is neither a Buddhist nor the founder of Buddhism. Rather, the Buddha is the teacher and guide of the founders of Buddhism. And yes, the Dalai Lama is certainly correct in stating sciences are part of Buddhism (and promoting and encouraging sciences in Buddhism and religion) sciences and thus the Buddha teaching or guidance.

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