June 27, 2010
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!)