Overlapping Worlds

B. Alan Wallace

What do Buddhism and science have to offer each other? According to scientist and author B. Alan Wallace, quite a bit.

Indeed, Buddhism does not define itself as a religion or as a science, and traditionally it has made no distinction between religious truths and scientific truths. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has taken a leading role in dialogues between Buddhism and science, has repeatedly claimed that if compelling scientific evidence refutes any Buddhist assertion, Buddhists should abandon the discredited assertion. This attitude stems, presumably, from the Buddhist belief that sentient beings are fundamentally subject to suffering due to ignorance and delusion, and the way to freedom is by coming to know reality as it is.

If scientific research illuminates errors in Buddhist doctrine, then Buddhists should be grateful for such assistance in their own pursuit of truth. In other words, the Dalai Lama is flatly rejecting the notion that Buddhism and science are like apples and oranges. And he equally rejects the idea that Buddhist assertions are not subject to verification or refutation.

The way forward for Buddhism and science is through mutually respectful dialogue and collaboration in both empirical and theoretical research. This entails reaching out across disciplines and cultures to increase mutual understanding of areas of common interest. In terms of the interface between Buddhism and science, we must be conscious of the assumptions we bring to Buddhist studies, while entertaining the possibility of learning about the world from Buddhism, as opposed to studying this tradition merely as a means to learn about Buddhism. The aspects of Buddhism that are most inviting for such interdisciplinary inquiry are those that are accessible to empirical and analytical inquiry.

Moreover, such research will take fully into account the experiences of Buddhist practitioners, past and present, and will not focus on texts alone. In this way, Buddhism may be viewed as a form of "natural philosophy"-the label for early European science-challenging us to ask the deepest possible questions (as in religion) by means of rigorous logical analysis (as in philosophy) and empirical investigation (as in science). This way of grappling with Buddhist claims seeks an objective appraisal of not only the textual doctrines of Buddhism, but also its experiential insights. And objective appraisal of the latter may require testing these assertions by engaging in the Buddhist practices oneself, just as one might test a scientific theory by running experiments oneself.

The scientific engagement with Buddhism can shed fresh light on our own subjectivity, our own language, and our own categories-for example, of religion, science, and philosophy. By recognizing the unique contexts of both Buddhism and science, all participants in such dialogue can begin to escape the bad habit of giving privileged status to our own preconceptions. That alone is reason enough to embark on a cross-culturaland interdisciplinary-journey of understanding.

B. Alan Wallace
lectures worldwide on the relationship between modern science and Tibetan Buddhism, and has served as an interpreter for the Dalai Lama during his meetings with eminent scientists. He lives in Santa Barbara, California.

Images: Mandala: © Patrick A. George; Skull: © Digital Vision

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