Martin J. Verhoeven, Ph.D.
Associate Research Professor
Institute for World Religions
A Lecture Given at Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, December
Published in Vajra Bodhi Sea: A Monthly Journal of Orthodox Buddhism as "Science and Spirituality," July-December, 1999.
Just to say a little bit about how I came to this topic. I think I am basically a humanist; I am not a scientist. And that is probably more by default than anything else. Actually early in my youth, I was quite enthusiastic about science. I attended elementary school when the first satellite, Sputnik, was put into orbit by the Russians. I witnessed my educational program change almost overnight, from a humanistic-based curriculum to one driven by science and research. The purpose was very clear: Americans had "fallen behind" in the "race" (although it was never clear to me what the race was for), and we needed to exert ourselves now in the sciences in order to compete with the Russians who had demonstrated their superiority by launching Sputnik.
This enthusiasm was infectious; I got excited, too, and delved into science with all my young energy. Yet, the deeper I delved into it, I had an intuitive feeling it wasn’t deep enough. Science, it seemed to me, did not deal with ultimate phenomena, but only danced on the surface of things. So, even though I won a scholarship to continue in science, I chose not to do so. Sometime around the end of my high school years, as I was considering my options at the university, I began reading in the area of psychology. I was fascinated with the human mind. At the same time, I came across a book on Buddhism. I put the two together, and came to the conclusion, "Ahah! This is what I’ve been looking for: the study of the mind." I had a realization that the mind is probably—according to psychology and Buddhism—the primary motivating factor in our behavior and in human history. It is at the root of everything else; it underlies all we do. Our attitudes, our opinions, desires, emotions— all are within the realm of mind, as are our unexamined presuppositions, our preconceptions. "Everything is made from the mind," said the little book on the Buddha. Mind, and all its states, governs our lives. So I thought, " I’m going to study the mind." I naively concluded that since psychology is the study of the mind, all I had to do was major in psychology to satisfy my deepest curiosity.
And so, when I went to the University, I immediately sought the Psychology Department, eager to penetrate the "eternal verities" through the study of modern Psychology. Much to my dismay, I discovered the Psychology Department was totally caught up with torturing monkeys and rats, particularly so at this institution—Madison, in the 1960s.
There was a senior fellow there, Prof. Harry Harlow who conducted deprivation experiments on Rhesus monkeys. Actually his experiments were quite horrible. He would take the baby monkeys away from their mothers and give them surrogate dolls. Being deprived of maternal affection would seem bad enough, but Harlow's surrogate mothers (the terry-cloth dolls) had pins sticking out of them, so that whenever the baby monkeys hugged the dolls, they would get stabbed with the pins—this of course undergo an extremely aversive experience. Alternately, he would put the baby monkeys into completely stainless steel cylindrical containers, so that they had nothing to hang onto at all for comfort. This was the first state of his experiment.
His second experiment was to observe these monkeys’ reproductive behavior, and observe how they would relate to their second and third generation offspring, their own little baby monkeys. Anyone with half a brain would know that such severely abused creatures would be totally dysfunctional and not know how to raise children. This, of course, constituted Harlow's "great" contribution to human understanding. And when the experiments were over, they battered, psychotic monkeys were sent to the local zoo. The local Madison residents would go there and see these poor, pathetic monkeys in the zoo. Many children's' first encounter with nature was through their trips to the zoo observing the monkeys that came out of Harlow's lab; they must have developed a skewed Hobbesian view that life was truly nasty, brutish, and short.
Well, I didn’t linger in the Psychology Department. I took one course, and never went back. In fact, I went to Madison specifically to study under a well-known humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers. Unfortunately, when I got there, all the money was going to Harlow (actually the funding shifted to "behaviorism" and "operant conditioning" which reflected more the interests of government during the Cold War years). Carl Rogers must have sensed the tide-change and left. So when I asked if I could study with Carl Rogers, I was told, "No; you are too late; he has left." His departure, as one of the departmental assistants told me under his breath was, ". . . a little bit like the ship abandoning the sinking rats." One semester later I began to see his meaning. So as a result of all these experiences, I shied away from science. At that time, the most intellectually interesting and challenging department on campus was the History Department. I gravitated to those bright minds, and pretty much remained in that field.
The work I am currently engaged in could broadly be described as the encounter of East and West. There are, of course, inherent difficulties in using such terms; after all, what is "East" and what’s "West?" A host of knotty issues surrounds their use: they are totally geographically relative, and are laden with all manner of bias, sloppy thinking, and ethnocentrism. But, I don't want to go into that tonight; I am just trying to paint the broad canvas of my interests. My formal training is in anthropology, history, religion, and philosophy; and my dissertation examined the East/West encounter in a very specific way, by asking the question: "What is Buddhism going to look like as it comes into Europe and America?" Buddhism migrated from India, to China, to Tibet, to Japan and so forth—every place it goes it changes the culture, and it is also changed by the culture it encounters. There is a reciprocal change and transformation that takes place: after entering a new country, that country is forever changed, but so is Buddhism. And so I posed question: "What’s going to happen when Buddhism comes to the U.S.? How will it change the U.S., and how will the U.S. change Buddhism? That is where I began.
My curiosity was partly personal—these were the two worlds I have been directly shaped by in my lifetime: East and West; Buddhism and America. But, my interest was also academic: there has been extant since the end of World War II, a considerable body of historical opinion that suggests this encounter between East and West, between Asia and the U.S., represents the most significant event of the modern era. For example, Bertrand Russell reflected at the end of World War II "If we are to feel at home in the world, we will have to admit Asia to equality in our thoughts, not only politically, but culturally. What changes this will bring, I do not know. But I am convinced they will be profound and of the greatest importance."
More recently, the historian Arthur Versluis, just came out with a new book, American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions. In it, he pieced together five or six major historical views on this subject and presented this by way of conclusion:
There has been a long history of interest and influence between the U.S. and Asia. Yet, as Americans, and from the dominant perspective of Western historians, we have tended to see the impact of the West on the East—in terms of colonialism (political-economic), in terms of the Christian missionary movement (proselytizing), in terms of science and technology (progress), and the military (power). But a far more subtle, and probably more influential, movement is taking place from East to West in the arena of ideas, specifically religious and philosophical. Many of us in this room have already had encounters along those lines to various degrees; which is probably why some of you are here tonight.
The question I am asking then is, "What is the shaped and significance of that encounter?" I can see why Toynbee might have stressed the importance of this encounter, as the coming to the West of the spiritual philosophies of Asia touches profoundly on all three dimensions of human existence. By that I mean the social, the psychological, and the natural. The social refers to the relationships of humans to humans; the psychological encompasses the relationship of an individual human being with his or her self; the natural describes the relationship of humanity with nature. These three areas are fundamentally impacted and radically challenged by Buddhism. Tonight, however, I am only going to deal with one of these three: the natural, the scientific. The other two are just as fascinating, but there is simply not enough time to discuss all three here.
Buddhism made its first major impact on this culture around the turn of the last century, largely as a spin-off of the gathering of religions that took place in Chicago in 1893, the World's Parliament of Religions. The Parliament, held in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair, was the first time that Asian representatives actually participated in an open forum with Western theologians, scientists, ministers, scholars, educators, and reformers. This unprecedented ecumenical event in the American heartland came at a most unusual time.
By the 1890's America was caught in the throes of a spiritual crisis that was affecting Christendom worldwide. This spiritual crisis or erosion of belief resulted from what contemporaries referred to as the "acids of modernity." Changes and rapid transformations brought about by new discoveries in science, especially the Darwinian theory of evolution, had a major corrosive effect on religious orthodoxy. In short, for many educated and thoughtful people, it was no longer certain that God was in his heaven, and that all was right with the world. Nietzsche's famous declaration that "God is Dead," may have seemed extreme, but few would have denied that God was in trouble. And certainly the childhood version of a personal, all-powerful God that created the world and ruled over it with justice and omniscience was for many a thing forever lost.
Many thinking people, individuals who were well-read, informed, and products of the finest universities both in Europe and America experienced a deep, personal spiritual crisis. People like my grandparents, brought up in an orthodox, traditional religious framework, suddenly met principles of geology, biology, and astronomy that shook their faith to its very foundations.
Sigmund Freud captured the spirit of the age well when he said, "the self-love of mankind has been three times wounded by science." That is, our view of ourselves, or the ego, received three major blows from modern science. He was referring to the Copernican Revolution, followed by Galileo, who took our little planet out of the center position in the universe. The Earth had been the center of the Universe for many, and everything revolved around it, both physically and metaphysically. Suddenly earth was just a tiny speck revolving around a sun; one of many satellites in a vast sea of seemingly infinite heavenly bodies. We continue to shrink in importance; this world is getting less and less significant, as we probe further and further beyond the so-called "edge" of the universe, which we never seem to find. So it goes on and on.
Then came Darwin, who announced that the ego-flattering gulf between animal and man wasn't as wide as we had thought. In fact, there may be no divide at all; only a continuum. Gone was the "special creation" status humans had enjoyed, as we have evolved or descended from animals—that is, according to the Darwinian view. Whole fields of related study began to develop along Darwinian lines, effecting even the social sciences with such movements like "social Darwinism." The long-held Biblical view that human beings constituted a specially created species divinely singled out by God to "have dominion" over all of creation underwent a shock. Not only did Darwin's new world remove people from front and center, it also diminished God. The impersonal forces of natural selection kept things going; no divine power was necessary, nor from what any competent scientist could show, was any Divinity evident.—either at the elusive "creation," or in the empirical present.
The third wound came from Karl Marx. In the Marxian world we were suddenly economic animals driven by self-interested desires. Again, impersonal almost mechanical forces of history driven by economic clash and class-struggle determined the course of human life. Marx, in a sense, presents a mixture of Darwin and Freud applied to the social and economic level. We are not self-directed, rational individuals guided by humanistic, altruistic impulses and religious truths. Rather we are enslaved by economic conditions that inform our very consciousness, and make us behave in predictable and pathetic ways. Where Darwin at least left open the possibility that religion might offer some consolation in a world "blood-red with tooth and claw," Marx dismissed religion outright as a vestige of superstition and a tool of social control used to enslave the masses. For Marx, religion existed not to console, but to control; it was "the opium of the people,"—a drug that dulled the will to throw off the chains of oppression.
Freud didn’t include himself as one of the wounds, but I will. Freud wounded our ego in the sense of demonstrating that we are not in control. of our inner lives, our own mind—much like Marx argued we were not in control of our external lives. Freud mapped out the dense, convoluted terrain of the psyche and concluded that we are not the masters of our own fate, even our own behavior. Impulses and desires beyond the reach of our rational minds prod and pull us. Conscious thought is but the tip of an iceberg—the underlying block of the unconscious really rules. Moreover, it’s quite nasty in there. Raw animal impulses and desires of the Id, like the raw forces of Darwin's natural world, wage constant battle with reality and society. As a result, we are never in control or at peace; life is a series of repressions, compromises, tensions, sublimations, neurotic maladjustments; for whether we yield to our Id or repress it, we end up discontent. Damned if we do, damned if we don't; and, never in control, even in our dreams. The net result of all these shifts in Western thought, really took Man out of his exalted state as "the measure of all things" This is what Freud meant by, "the self-love of mankind has been three times wounded by science."
Historians talk about this "wounding" as the unfortunate split between matter and spirit that has come to afflict the modern age. Some say it’s a split between matter and spirit; others, refer to it as a divorce between faith and reason, or a gap between science and religion, or as a dichotomy between fact and values/ethics. At a more personal level, it is the mind-body dualism. However one characterizes this split, it is perhaps the most significant phenomenon of contemporary life. It's our spiritual and psychological legacy from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is, I believe, still very much with us today; something that haunts our psyches.
Much of today’s near-obsession with therapy in the West, and even the shift toward psychologizing religion (including the "New Age" phenomena) can be seen as attempts in one way or another to reconcile and bridge this unfortunate split that we are heirs to. This becomes, in a sense, the central problem of the Modern Age, so much so that John Dewey, the pragmatic philosopher of the late 19th and early 20th century said, "The pathological segregation of facts and value, matter and spirit, or the bifurcation of nature, this integration [the problem of integrating this] poses the deepest problem of modern life." This split both inspires and confounds contemporary philosophy and religion . If we don't heal this split, we can never be whole; and yet, almost tragically, the very means we have available to heal it, insure its continuation, for all of our philosophies, disciplines, and religious traditions are infected or infatuated, if you will, by it.
Thus, when the eminent philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead, scanned the broad outlines of our time, he wrote: "The future course of history would center on this generation’s [meaning our generation] resolving the issue of the proper relationship between science and religion, so fundamental are the religious symbols through which people give meaning to their lives [being religion] and so powerful the scientific knowledge through which we shape and control our lives." And it is in regards to this troubling issue, I think, that Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, hold out the promise of achieving some reconciliation.
It is into this climate, this atmosphere, that Buddhism came to America in the 1890’s. Face-to-face encounters now took place, unlike the previous literary encounters, or the missionaries’ somewhat skewed discussions of Asian religions. Suddenly, people were speaking in a direct voice, from their own traditions, with their own words, through their own experiences— this direct encounter created a major impact. Few Americans had any direct contact with Asia or Asian religions. After the 1893 gathering of world religions in Chicago, America witnessed a flowering of interest in the "light of Asia." In fact, if you look at some of the journals from this time period that I was researching, there was perhaps more interest—just in terms of publications—in the Eastern religions in the 1890’s than there is today. Much of the writing is in many ways actually a more brilliant than some of the material we find today. Give credit to my grandparent's generation—the Victorians—who seriously looked into this issue.
I have heard that Boston in those days was the equivalent of Berkeley today. It's been said that one could walk down the streets of Boston and run into gurus, sages, monks and mystics from all over the world; shops catering to "seekers" of the spiritual that were selling all kinds of exotic paraphernalia. Even William James, the famous Harvard professor and American philosopher, tried sniffing nitrous oxide to achieve altered states of consciousness that would lead him into meditative trances and provide new insights into the varieties of religious experience—not too far away from Timothy Leary,a later-to-come Harvard Professor who used LSD in much the same way. So before the 20th century certainly in Boston, Chicago, and other areas of the United States we see an incredible interest the East and the inner spiritual world. The periodical, journals, pamphlets, books, and magazines from the late-Victorian Age show that many people were experimenting, searching, in quest of as one writer put it "alternative altars." The major attraction, or new altar, was Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism.
Here I would like to put these phenomena into context. In the mid to late-nineteenth century America was in the grips of a widespread spiritual crisis. The crisis manifest as a split between reason and faith, or science and religion. The interest in Buddhism, thus, to a large extent can be seen as an attempt to reconcile this troubling split. You may notice that this theme, this split, is still with us today. Any bookstore that has an Eastern religions section carries books discussing the comparisons and correspondences that are being drawn between science and Buddhism. In an earlier time, it was biology; currently Buddhism is being favorably aligned with the field of quantum physics. There remains a deep interest in discovering a way to bridge the gap between religion and science through Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, and to a lesser extent Vedanta, the more philosophical branch of Hinduism.
After the 1893 Chicago Parliament of World Religions, one Paul Carus, invited some of the influential Japanese Buddhist delegates to a week-long discussion at the home of Carus's father-in-law, Edward Hegeler. They were sympathetic toward Buddhism, and at the same time trying to reform Christianity—trying to bring it in line with current scientific thought. Carus wanted to support a missionary movement to the United States from the religions of Asia. He felt something like this: "You know, we don’t have a level playing field here. We have all these Protestant missionaries going over to Asia to convert the people ‘sitting in darkness’. How about making it a Darwinian, level playing field and throw into the mix Eastern missionaries; we will bring them to America. And may the best religion win!"
Paul Carus was situated in the Chicago area. With the aid of his rich father-in-law who put up money, they invited and supported a number of Eastern missionaries to America: including Anagarika Dharmapala, from what was then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka; Swami Vivekananda, who came over from India representing the Ramakrishna Vedanta movement; and Soyen Shaku, who was a Japanese Buddhist monk, and his disciple D.T. Suzuki. Some of you know D.T. Suzuki as the leading exponent of Zen in the West, because he came over in the 1950’s on a Rockefeller grant and lectured extensively at East Coast colleges. He also influenced writers and thinkers like Carl Jung, Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, Martin Heidegger, Thomas Merton, Alan Watts, and the "beat Buddhists"--Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginzberg, and Gary Synder. He died in Tokyo during the summer of 1966. His influence in the West was profound--making zen an English word, translating Asian texts into English, stimulating a scholarly interest in the Orient among American intellectuals, and deepening American respect and enthusiasm for Buddhism. The historian Lynn White Jr., praised Suzuki as someone who broke through the "shell of the Occident" and made the West's thinking global. All in all, Suzuki had a very profound influence on American culture; and his introduction to the West came about through the hands of Paul Carus.
During his stay in the U.S. in the 1890’s and early 1900’s, Suzuki stayed in a small town called LaSalle Peru, Illinois. He was only in his 20’s then, and for about eleven years he worked closely with Paul Carus translating Buddhist texts into English and putting out inexpensive paperback editions of the Asian classics.
These exporters or early missionaries who came, as well as the importers who brought them, all shared the same modern, scientific outlook. They translated Buddhism into a medium and a message that would be very compatible and resonant with the zeitgeist, the spirit of the Age, which was scientific, progressive. They selectively chose passages of text and carefully presented the Buddhist teachings in such a way as to appeal to the modern sensibilities, which were empirical, rational, and liberal. This is important. Why did they do that? Well, Americans wanted religion to make sense, to accord with conventional wisdom. Then, as now, our primary mode of making sense of things is scientific. Just look at any television ad; someone will say, "…nine out of ten studies show…"; or, "…researchers have found…" We bow to it; it’s almost a reflex. We don’t critically look at our faith in science; we presume its validity and give it an unquestioned place as the arbiter of truth. This has been true now for over 150 years, and shows little sign of diminishing.
Thus, the American importers such as Carus, wanted to make sense out of Buddhism and wanted Buddhism to make sense to Americans. They were determined to present Buddhism as something other than a superstitious, mythological religion like Christianity had become in their eyes. Darwin's evolutionary principles was destroying orthodox belief through what was called "higher criticism." Not only the importers of Buddhism, but the exporters too said, "How are we going to make it acceptable to Americans?" Dharmapala, D.T. Suzuki, and Vivekananda all saw quite clearly that Americans believed in science. These missionaries to America clearly knew Christian theology was in trouble, and that their respective traditions in contrast, had no problem reconciling religion and science. In terms of a Buddhist and Hindu worldview, modern science posed no threat. Buddhism and Hinduism could embrace science very easily. Thus, they presented Buddhism in its most favorable light viz a viz the current spiritual crisis in the West, and Buddhims not surprisingly became immensely understandable and appealing to Americans.
In the second part of this lecture I want to look at some of the problems with this early approach. Along with science, the early proponents of Buddhism to the West, relied on Christianity to "translate" Buddhism into cultural compatibility. Despite the growing skepticism and doubt, most Americans still considered themselves primarily Christian or Judeo-Christian. The Bible, especially the New Testament, was their religious-cultural bedrock. So how do you get Buddhism to make sense to them? You render Buddhist terms into Christian terminology and imagery. For example, you compare Christ to the Buddha or to Bodhisattvas. The Buddha had a group of followers; so did Jesus. He worked miracles; so did Jesus. Buddha was a rebel and reformer withing Hinduism; Jesus was the same among the Jews. Jesus walked on water; well, the Buddha did that while meditating—about the same thing. It goes on and on—the early interpreters of Buddhism to America drew extensively on such comparisons and seeming identity.
Paul Carus himself put out a book—his first book—called, The Gospel of Buddha. Later came another work called The Buddhist Bible. In the Buddhist canon of Asia there is no Buddhist Gospel, and there is no Buddhist Bible. There are Sutras, an immense and richly varied body of texts. But those texts have never been condensed into a single volume. That was done in order to make Buddhism more compatible with American religious types—gospels, Bible, sermons, salvation. So science was one format; Christianity, another. Tonight I am going to focus on the science aspect. Where were the similarities they saw between Buddhism and science? One was the notion of the acceptability of evolution in Buddhism—once Darwin enshrined that concept, everything was evolutionary, or it lost credibility. Evolution, the constant interaction of stimulus and response in nature, seemed to match very nicely with the notion of karma. A cyclical unfolding of events governed by the law of cause and effect. As it was in nature (at least in the new natural world of Darwin), so it was in the Buddhist universe.
Most people did not examine very closely the supposed identity of Darwin's evolution and the Buddhist concept of karma; they were content, even eager, to imagine them the same. Buddhists eager to convert Americans to Buddhism, and Christians eager to find some correspondence between modern science and their beleagured faith were happy enough to say, "Yes, the similarities are close enough; let’s let it ride. Buddhism and Hinduism both talk about the interdependence of all noumena and phenomena. Everything is a web—a woven-together thing. . . Look, how the ancient Eastern religions anticipated our modern science!"
This facile view accorded nicely with the principles of science that were beginning to map out the interconnectedness between the emerging disciplines of biology, geology, and physics; and the presumed "unity of truth" that Victorians held to so dearly. The very nature of matter and form, the truth of science and religion, must somehow be one and the same, they believed. For example, Buddhism describes the underlying nature of reality as a non-duality of form and emptiness, of creation and destruction. One Sutra states, "Form is emptiness; emptiness is form." They mutually interact and respond to each other. Some people say, "That’s too heavy for my little brain to hold, but it sounds good." After Einstein, however, people saw in these Buddhist concepts a view that bore uncanny resemblance to cutting-edge physics. Some observed: "Hey, look at the laws of thermodynamics: the conservation of matter and energy. Nothing’s produced; nothing’s destroyed. It’s just a transformation of mass and energy, form and emptiness."
I am not going to belabor this idea, but the point is that many people got excited about this apparent match-up between Buddhism and science. Where the old theologies crumbled under the jugernaut of science, Buddhism seemed to hold its own, even thrive. The early (and even contemporary) exponents of Buddhism pushed this idea. It remains an area of great promise and interest; but it is not one without difficulties.
It is here that I want to throw a little wrench into the works. I don’t do this intentionally to disrupt or debunk, but because I think we need to seriously re-examine this relationship. I would say as a way of over-view: there are fascinating correspondences between Hinduism and Buddhism and modern science; and there are also important differences. And we need to be aware of the differences as well as the correspondences.
Let me reflect a little bit on the differences. I am not the first to do this. Interestingly, D.T. Suzuki who came to the U.S. and worked with Paul Carus, was one of the most outspoken advocates of the link between Buddhism and science. If you look at Suzuki’s early writings, you will see that he virtually makes no distinction whatsoever between Buddhism and science. For Suzuki, Buddhism was eminently modern and progressive, compatible with the latest discoveries in Western psychology and philosophy. It was, in a word, scientifically sound.
When Suzuki returned to the United States, however, in the 1950’s, he had experienced a change of heart. He then wrote that his early modern agreement with people like Carus—that religion must be based on scientific grounds and that Christianity was based on too much mythology—was a little ill-founded. "I was wrong; a little too naive." What had changed? First of all, two world wars. As Kurt Vonnegut, a contemporary writer has said, "We took scientific truth and dropped it on the people of Hiroshima." Suzuki was of course Japanese; he felt directly the negative weight of modern science. Having come from that experience, he was now less sanguine about this idyllic marriage with religion and science that he had heralded at the turn of the century.
Suzuki was enjoying the wisdom of hindsight; but in fairness to Suzuki, so were many other people.
At the turn-of-the-century, people naively believed that everything that could be known was right around the corner, and that science was our salvation; our way, truth, and light. Soon all the riddles of the universe and the ills of society would yield to science. Science was, in fact, for all practical purposes, the new religion. In fact, Carus called his new system of thought "the Religion of Science," and Max Muller called his new theology "the Science of Religion." Well, Suzuki came back to America in 1959 and said, "If I could talk to my friends back around the turn of the century, I would tell them that my ideas have changed from theirs somewhat. I now think that a religion based totally on science is not enough. There are certain mythological elements in every one of us that cannot be altogether lost in favor of science. This is a conviction I have come to."
Since Suzuki's turnabout in 1959, there has been even further, deeper challenges to this relationship. Questions have arisen in two areas. One, as a society we have come to reassess the blessings and the promise of modern science in terms of the socio-psychological impact. I was just reading an article lately that pointed out that while people are still mesmerized by science and dream about what science can do for them, they also have nightmares about what science can do to them. This bittersweet realization is by now a standard fixture in the contemporary psyche: we have these dreams about all the wonderful things science is going to do for us; at the same time we have nightmares about the horrible prospects of what science could do to us. This concern, this ambivalence is growing; not becoming less. And for good reason.
I think it’s becoming even more pronounced today due to the entry of scientific knowledge into what we call biotechnology or bio-engineering—the actual manipulation of life at the subtle and primary level of genes. Scientists now talk of the end of evolution, the end of creation, in the sense that humans will soon take over nature and direct the course of creation. This brings to mind of course the anxieties over science-gone-wrong evoked in such popular motifs like the Frankenstein story, or the Japanese version in science fiction movies like Godzilla or King Kong Where do these "monsters" come from? They come out the human imagination's attempt to give form to some of humanity's deepest fears. These are all responses of the human psyche to this mixed blessing/curse of what science has in store for us. They are born of fear, and perhaps rightly so.
The second area of doubt regarding modern science comes from within the scientific community itself. This phenomenon is a little more subtle and has to do with an internal shift or even crisis that is going on within science, as it starts to question its own foundations and exclusive claims to truth. We are in the midst of perhaps a major paradigm shift, the outcome of which still remains unclear. It has to do with the loss of positivistic certainty that science enjoyed at the turn of the century. Especially in the areas of physics, and increasingly in biology and genetics, a growing body of knowledge is beginning to strain existing models of explanation and understanding. Science is going through its own kind of deconstruction, to use another overworked word like "paradigm."
With the ground-breaking work of Niels Bohr, Heisenberg, and Sir Arthur Eddington, the rock-solid presupposition central to that classical thought crumbled under the new science that started to emerge in the post World War II era. The idea of achieving descriptions of a world independent of the means by which it was investigated, was no longer taken for granted. The observer and the observed could not be presumed as separate and distinct. Gone, too, is the neat subject/object distinction that had come to define classical science. For example, Heisenberg pointed out that the very act of measurement interfered with what one was attempting to measure. You cannot separate the subject from the object of the experiment. So if the scientist changes the very nature of the truth, then that external world is really up for grabs. Now we have the new physics with quantum theory, which is no longer describing "reality." It is describing probable realities. The new physics looks for possible realities, and they are so elusive that no one model can exhaustively account for everything. The indeterminacy of models has replaced earlier certainties. Thus, it grows increasingly difficult to believe in an external world governed by mechanisms that science discloses once and for all. Thoughtful people find themselves with this very up-in-the-air kind of feeling regarding the most basic facts of life. Thus, it is now said that "we live in an age when anything is possible and nothing is certain." This is what some call the "post-modern dilemma."
Sigmund Freud also contributed to the undermining of certainty, especially religious certainty. He stated quite unequivocally that, "An illusion would be to suppose that what science would not give us, we can get elsewhere." Elsewhere, of course, refers to religion. And yet, his own psychoanalytic theory has become a matter of intense debate; has come under the critical scrutiny of the very scientific system he felt would validate his ideas. This shift away from the study of the "outside" so-called objective world of nature to the "inner" subjective world of the observer, is a hallmark of the new science. As Heisenberg observed, "Even in science, the object of research is no longer nature itself, but man’s investigation of nature."
As an ancient writer observed, "There is nothing new except what is forgotten." Thus, Heisenberg's insight into the subjectivity of experience was already expressed in the Middle Ages by Thomas Aquinas who said: "Everything which is perceived is perceived in the manner of the perceiver." This is axiomatic; something most philosophers and psychologists take for granted. And yet, we tend to forget this truth; we reify our thoughts and desires, our presuppositions and attachments, and mistake it for a hard and fixed external reality. So, when Heisenberg just says the same thing all over again, it seems even more profound to us now. We think we are observing nature, but what we are observing is our own mind at work. We are observing our own methodology. The Buddha of course, said something quite similar long before Aquinas or Heisenberg. In the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Buddha said: "The mind is like an artist/It can paint an entire world. . . If a person knows the workings of the mind/As it universally creates the world/This person then sees the Buddha/And understands the Buddha's true and actual nature." (Chap. 20)
So, by the mid to late 20th century philosophers of science, like Thomas Kuhn, were beginning to question the notion of science as an objective progression towards truth. In his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Kuhn observed that science, like religion, becomes heavily encumbered with its own baggage of non-rational procedures. Science much more than we are led to believe by its portrayal in textbooks, comes with its own set of pre-suppositions, of doctrines, and even heresies. Kuhn essentially demolished this logical empiricist and purist view that science was the impartial progression towards a universal truth. Instead, he saw it as a series of "paradigms"—a global way of seeing things which is relatively immune from disconfirmation by experience— that were constantly being established and shifting back and forth. One paradigm would hold sway for awhile, only to be bumped out in a "revolution" by another conceptual world view. These paradigms were self-contained and self-perpetuating; they tended to conserve and perpetuate their own ideas, just like religion tends to conserve and perpetuate its own ideas. Everything seems steady and fixed until some revolutionary thinker comes along and causes a radical shift. For example, Galileo, came out in the early 1600's and declared that Copernicus was correct: the earth moves, and the sun is the center of our galaxy. The Church denounced such views as heresies and dangerous to the faith. They forced Galileo to recant during a trial of the Inquisition. Although he was publicly compelled to affirm the existing scientific paradigm, Galileo still defied the authorities. After getting up from his knees, he is said to have mumbled "E pur si muove" (nevertheless it still moves). He was put under house arrest and lived out the rest of his life in seclusion. The world, of course, shifted paradigms to accept the new worldview. The Church, however, lagged behind, and only in 1992 lifted the 1616 ban on the Copernican teaching. Einstein, is another example. His theory of relativity at first was met with skepticism and doubt. So, at first the challengers to the entrenched paradigm are considered heretics. They were denounced; they were seen as quacks, as weirdoes. Finally, however, the evidence becomes overwhelming; their theories became the established dogma or doctrine and we go on until someone else shifts it again.
So, this is Kuhn's idea. I don’t want to argue whether Kuhn is correct or not; but merely point out that Kuhn, among others, has contributed to this feeling that science doesn’t have the absolute answers. Thus modern science presents less of a unified front; less of an absolute bastion of truth. Certainly many people still see themselves as living in a black and white world, and that is probably true of the natural scientists. While I was working on this paper one of my natural science teachers said, "Well you know those quantum physicists; I mean, they are way out there, and everything is relative to them. But I will tell you that in my field, there are still biologists who put their necks on the line to say that everything is black and white. It’s absolutely this way." And yet, in just the last few years, there is a growing body of evidence in the biological sciences that hints of a major paradigm shift in the making there as well.
In general, many scientists are coming to define their discipline in a more humble and tentative way. Science for people at the turn of the century was absolute, fixed truths and principles that held good forever and described the total nature of an absolute and unchanging reality, or a reality that was changing according to very predictable laws. Now a better working definition would be "a form of inquiry into natural phenomena; a consensus of information held at any one time and all of which may be modified by new discoveries and new interpretations at any moment." In contemporary science, uncertainty seems to be the rule.
The science that my grandparents looked forward to would not be a science that they could recognize today. And not just because of theoretical ambiguities and uncertainties. Modern science has become something we look at with deep ambivalence: we love what it can do for us; yet, dread what it can do to us. The scientifically "advanced" weapons of mass destruction of two World Wars, the messing with nature in terms of environmental pollution, the experiments with human embryos, genetically engineered life, chemical-biological warfare—all have created a very strange climate now. This anxiety about "Prometheus unbound"—the unchecked power of science—makes us more alert to the need to somehow reconcile our facts and our values, our morals and our machines, or as it is often expressed "science and spirituality." This contemporary longing makes Buddhism even more attractive rather than less. People are even more drawn to Buddhism, especially in the West, because they see it as a spiritual teaching that can mesh with and mitigate modern science.
In this last part I want to look at how close this relationship
is between Buddhism and modern science. Initially, many thinkers, both
East and West, heralded the coming age where Eastern religion and Western
science would unite in a perfect marriage. D. T. Suzuki certainly thought
this way (although later, as we shall see, he had a change of mind). The
notable physicist, Niels Bohr, as early as the 1940’s, sensed this congruence
between modern science and what he called "Eastern mysticism." As he was
looking into atomic physics and for a unified field of reality, he remarked,
"This reminds me of Eastern religion." He said, "When searching for harmony
in life, one must never forget that in the drama of existence we have both
spectators and actors." Bohr, a very popular lecturer, often used the Buddha
and Lao Tzu in his discussions on physics in his classes. He made up his
own coat of arms with the yin/yang symbol on it. This was a physicist
already in the 1940’s sensing the hopeful possibilities of blending Buddhism
Later, in the 1970's, Fritjof Capra, came out with his The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. Capra expanded on some of Bohr’s tentative impressions. He argued that modern science and Eastern mysticism offer parallel insights into the ultimate nature of reality. But, beyond this, Capra suggested that the profound harmony between these concepts as expressed in systems language and the corresponding ideas of Eastern mysticism was impressive evidence for a remarkable claim: that the philosophy of mystical also known as perennial philosophy, offers the most consistent philosophical background to our modern scientific theories. In the 1970's this notion came as something of a bombshell. Suddenly religion and science reunited—though in a rather unexpected way—Eastern religion and Western science. People familiar with Buddhist texts immediately saw (or thought they saw) the correctness of Capra's revelation. Buddhists needed only to turn to a couple of passages that I am going to read tonight to show, "Yes, they are immensely congruent—Buddhism and modern science." The Buddhist text that seemed most solidly to confirm the linking of science and Dharma is a famous teaching called the Kalama Sutta. The Buddha in his wanderings he came to the village of the Kalamas who proceeded to ask him a series of questions; here is the relevant portion of the text:
The Buddha once visited a small town called Kesaputta in the kingdom of Kosala. The inhabitants of this town were known by the common name Kalama. When they heard that the Buddha was in their town, the Kalamas paid him a visit, and told him:
"Sir, there are some recluses and brahmanas who visit Kesaputta. They explain and illumine only their own doctrines, and despise, condemn and spurn others' doctrines. Then come other recluses and brahmanas, and they, too, in their turn, explain and illumine only their own doctrines, and despise, condemn and spurn others' doctrines. But, for us, Sir, we have always doubt and perplexity as to who among these venerable recluses and brahmanas spoke the truth, and who spoke falsehood."
(Then the Buddha gave them this advice, unique in the history of religions:)
"Yes, Kalamas, it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look you Kalamas, do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, not by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: 'this is our teacher'. But O Kalamas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome (akusala), and wrong, and bad, then give them up...And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome (kusala) and good, then accept them and follow them."
The Kalamas voiced their doubts, their perplexity in determining truth or falsehood, because they had been exposed to all the competing teachers and doctrines at the time, and each expounded different notions of the truth. Not unlike our modern world today. The Buddha replied and provided them a Buddhist methodology for searching after truth. What should you use when you inquire after truth in the Buddhist perspective? He said, "Do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Don’t be led by the authority even of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances"—this would eliminate exclusive reliance on simply conforming to culture and tradition, as well as "the book," and most philosophical speculation— "nor by delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities." Some might argue that being "led by appearances" would include our scientific method, at least as it has come to be popularly understood—i. e. in its exaggerated reliance on natural phenomena as the only basis of what is true or real, and the equally exaggerated claim that scientific knowledge is the only valid kind of knowledge ('scientism,' and 'positivism.') The Buddha even discounts blind faith in one's teacher. So what's left, you might wonder? Here the Buddha lays out a subtle and quite unique epistemology: "Oh Kalamas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome and wrong and bad, then give them up. And when you know that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them."
Many people, both recently and at the turn-of-the-century, jumped at this passage as confirmation that ancient Buddhist wisdom is validated by modern science. In the 1890's, Anagarika Dharmapala, D. T. Suzuki, Paul Carus, even Vedantists like Vivekananda, generally waxed enthusiastic about the compatibility of Eastern spirituality and Western science. They saw in passages like the Kalama Sutta prove positive that the Buddha was imbued with the scientific outlook. , "Well, look at this" they said. "This is eminently scientific. Buddhism is just the scientific mind of skeptical inquiry. Know it for yourself; conduct experiments, and confirm them through 'intersubjective testability.' I do it; you do it. Anyone can do it and obtain the same results. Good, we know for ourselves; there is no speculation involved; we know something is true not because ‘My teacher said,’ or even ‘Einstein said’— all of this is contained within an eminently empirical model."
I, too, accepted this interpretation for a while. Naturally, one finds it quite attractive, since science virtually is our "god," our highest authority, these days. It is quite enticing to think that Buddhism and science are identical; but also misleading. As I continued my research, I came upon some contemporary Buddhist teachers who were critical of equating the Buddha's teachings with modern science. Master Hsuan Hua, from the Mahayana tradition, and Wapola Rahula, a Theravada scholar-monk, for example, both threw cold water on this notion.
Master Hua said, "Within the limited world of the relative, that is where science is. It’s not an absolute Dharma. Science absolutely cannot bring true and ultimate happiness to people, neither spiritually nor materially." Strong criticism that places science as a discipline stuck in relative truths, and as a way of life, unsatisfactory. In another essay, he wrote:
"Look at modern science. Military weapons are modernized every day and more and more novel every month. Although we call this progress, it’s nothing more than progressive cruelty. Science takes human life as an experiment, as child’s play, as it fulfills its desires through force and oppression."
Such outspoken criticism goes to the heart of our infatuation with the "miracles" of science. At best, our love affair with modern science and technology, has proved bittersweet. For every gain, comes a corresponding loss; every 'cure' seems to mask or unleash manifold other disasters. For example, DDT or PCB's, once heralded as wonder chemicals turned out to be ecological and medical disasters. And new potential nightmares lie hidden beneath the rosy promises of genetically-engineered life. When you look at some of the research that is now being conducted— cloning, genetically-programmed foods, and the awful prospects that bio-chemical weapons pose to life, for example in developing resistant strains of anthrax and smallpox with which to wipe out entire countries—Master Hua's words have an unfortunately all-too-true ring to them.
In 1989, Venerable Walpola Rahula, a Theravadin monk from Sri Lanka, warned that daily life is being permeated by science. He cautioned, "We have almost become slaves of science and technology; soon we shall be worshipping it." This was well into the final decades of the twentieth century when many people were already worshipping science. The Venerable monk observed, "Early symptoms are that they tend to seek support from science to prove the validity of our religions." Huston Smith, the eminent scholar on the world's religions, recently made a similar point in an interview: that the failure of modern religions in the West specifically roots to their accommodation to culture, rather than exerting a countervailing influence on culture. Smith specifically saw such co-option taking place in terms of material acquisition and bowing to scientific thought. Rahula Walpola elaborated on this point: "We justify them [i. e. religions] and make them modern, up-to-date, respectable, and accessible. Although this is somewhat well intentioned, it is ill-advised. While there are some similarities and parallels truths, such as the nature of the atom, the relativity of time and space, or the quantum view of the interdependent, interrelated whole, all these things were developed by insight and purified by meditation." Dharma, or abiding spiritual truths, were discovered without the help of any external instrument. Rahula concluded, "It is fruitless, meaningless to seek support from science to prove religious truth. It is incongruous and preposterous to depend on changing scientific concepts to prove and support perennial religious truths." Moreover, he said, "Science is interested in the precise analysis and study of the material world, and it has no heart. It knows nothing about love or compassion or righteousness or purity of mind. It doesn’t know the inner world of humankind. It only knows the external, material world that surrounds us."
I want to give rather full quotes for you because this monk's viewpoint is both powerful and rather unconventional, especially in regards to the facile linking of Buddhism and science that seems so ubiquitous these days in the West. Rahula emphasized, "On the contrary, religion, particularly Buddhism, aims at the discovery and the study of humankind’s inner world: ethical, spiritual, psychological, and intellectual. Buddhism is a spiritual and psychological discipline that deals with humanity in total. It is a way of life. It is a path to follow and practice. It teaches man how to develop his moral and ethical character, which in Sanskrit is sila, and to cultivate his mind, samadhi, and to realize the ultimate truth, prajna wisdom, Nirvana."
When I came upon these two comments, I had to pause, because both monks came out of the Asian tradition, and pre-date, in many ways, the "Westernization" of Buddhism. Unlike Suzuki and Carus, people heavily Westernized who had been promoting a very strong link between Buddhism and science, Master's Hua and Walpola emerged from a monastic discipline and a more traditional understanding that was less enamored of modern science, and more critical of Western philosophy. So I started to reexamine this passage that I have quoted from the Kalamas: "When you know for yourselves what is wholesome and unwholesome. . . " This, I believe, holds the key to understanding the difference between Buddhism and modern science. The passage needs to be understood within a specific context of moral inquiry, and not simply as a nod to Western empiricism. This "knowing for yourself" locates knowledge ('scientia') firmly within the moral sphere, both in its aims and its outcomes. It is using a meditative form of inquiry to penetrate the ultimate nature of reality. It implies a concept quite foreign to modern science: that the knower and what is known, the subject and object, fact and value, are not merely non-dual, but that knowledge itself is inescapably influenced by our moral and ethical being.
Interestingly, this is exactly what Suzuki said was lacking in modern science—a position he came to over time.
When he first came to the West as a missionary for Buddhism, Suzuki extolled upon the remarkable resonance between Buddhism and Western science. By the 1950's and towards the end of his life, however, that enthusiasm for identifying Buddhism with modern science waned. He came to doubt the sufficiency of a religion based on science, and even saw the need for religion to critique science. In 1959, Suzuki partially repudiated his early modernist agreement with Carus and Western Buddhists that "religion must stand on scientific grounds. . . that Christianity was based too much on mythology." Suzuki reflected:
This idea: that the very fabric of modern science is lacking this grounding in the moral sphere, and as a result its discoveries and uses are incomplete and often deleterious, should not surprise a Buddhist. For it is here that the marriage between Buddhism and science begins to unravel, and where the comparison breaks down.
You will notice that throughout the East Asian traditions there exists what I call a rather distinctive epistemological model or way of knowing; a theme that repeats itself again and again. In Sanskrit it’s called sila, samadhi, and prajna (morality, concentration, wisdom). The ethical component cannot be overemphasized. For, in order to see things as they are, there has to be this purification of the mind—a rectification on the part of the beholder. Another text, The Visuddhi Magga, ("The Path of Purification"), an early Buddhist manual from the fourth century, describes the Buddha’s science of inquiry as a three-step path: virtue, meditation, and then insight into the nature of all things as they really are.
This approach presents something quite different from the premises and procedures of modern science. Any of you students or faculty here from Stanford or U.C. Berkeley, I doubt you will have encountered this ancient methodology as part of your scientific training--even in the History of Science. When you go into your science classes nobody says, "You will need a protractor, an advance-function calculator, a computer, and of course be expected to sign up for the lab section on virtue and meditation, prior to writing up your insights." These are not the standard laboratory equipment of a modern-day scientist. And yet, without these, in the Eastern spiritual and philosophical sense, you cannot have science. This is "science" without a firm foundation. This formula is not unique to Buddhism; it appears throughout the Eastern traditions: Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism. Taoism, for example, speaks about cultivating the mind (xin), and regards the mind as a repository of all perceptions and knowledge. It rules the body. It is spiritual. And like a divinity, it will abide only where all is clean. This knowledge, this truth can only abide where the mind is made clean—meaning, one must be morally sound and grounded. It is interesting that these ancient wisdom traditions considered moral purity as the absolute prerequisite of true knowledge, and that we today regard it as immaterial , if not downright irrelevant.
In the Kuan Tzu—a text from around the 4th - 3rd century B.C., it's stated—
But our means of knowing that is by this" (our self, our mind).
How can we know that?" (the external world)?
Only by perfecting this."
Mencius, in the Confucian tradition, talks about what he calls, "the unmoving mind" that he acquired at the age of 40. This refers knowledge derived from the cultivation of equanimity resulting from the exercise of a moral sense. This "good knowledge" is gained by intuitive insight, and is to be distinguished from knowledge acquired through mental activity. Mencius considered this knowledge superior to material knowledge.
Zhuang Tzu, the famous Taoist treatise, spoke of acquiring the knowledge of the "ten thousand things"—which means everything, all of nature— through virtuous conduct and by practicing "stillness." By "stillness" the Taoists meant a kind of power (te) released through cultivating a selfless equanimity free from grief and joy, delight and anger, and desire and greed for gain. Thus, the Zhuang Tzu states:
The point I want to make is that I think we need to reexamine this facile linking of Buddhism to modern science. Fascinating correspondences exist, but there are also distinct and important differences. And I think we sell ourselves short when we disregard those differences. We engage in what psychologists call "selective perception," the unwitting seeing and selecting of only what we want to see. Thus, we can all too easily notice and embrace, only those elements of Buddhism that seem consonant with our way of life, and give short thrift to the rest. This psychological tendency is even further enhanced by cultural hubris: the fact that America is in its heyday, and as a triumphalist society feels that our way of knowing, our way of thinking, is the best. Therefore, when something new comes along, like Buddhism, we selectively garner out those elements that reinforce our world view as it exists, and disregard the rest, saying "Well, it’s superstitious; it’s mythological; it’s apocryphal, we don’t need it. We want something that is philosophically and scientifically sound."
Buddhism is a very rich and varied tradition. It contain many elements—some easily appreciated rationally; others, that challenge our received notions. But if we get rid of those unfamiliar elements, I am afraid may be throwing out the baby with the bath water. And we miss the opportunity to let Buddhism challenge us and revitalize us in perhaps in a new way. For Buddhism has a great deal to add to our understanding of the three basic dimensions of existence: humanity with nature (the natural), people with people (the social), and the individual with him/herself (the psychological). Buddhism offers profound and in some cases, radically different insights into these areas, if we let it. I shudder a little when I hear people say, "Well, Buddhism is just as American as apple pie." No it is not as American as apple pie. In significant ways it is quite different. Tapping the rich potential of that difference, it seems to me, lies in resisting the urge to quickly Americanizing it.
To conclude, I just want to quote from someone who appreciated the value of difference. Henry Clark Warren, Harvard Professor at the turn of the century, who was one of the first translators of Buddhist texts into English.
When Prof. Warren encountered the Buddhist texts, he was swept off his feet a bit. It challenged his established modes of thought; pushed him beyond accustomed patterns. But instead of grabbing onto the familiar philosophical scientific paradigms of his day to "make sense" of Buddhism, he allowed himself to meander the strange new landscape. He wrote:
Question: Referring to your last comments on the essence of learning in general, how do you keep from grasping too soon and sort of putting things into a framework or defining things, since that is how children learn from the very first?
Response: I wrestle with that one too. Someone once gave
a definition of sanity as the ability to hold two contradictory, opposite
ideas in your mind at the same time and not go crazy. That is really what
we are being called upon to do. In a scientific sense I think we do have
a precedent in a sense, namely to suspend judgment, remain open until we
get enough of data. From this point of view, the acquisition of the data
isn’t quite complete yet—we are historically only in the very beginning
stages of a Buddhist transfer to another culture. From another point of
view (one I presented earlier), there is both external data and internal
data. The internal data could refer to the purification of one’s own body
and mind (the instruments and laboratory, if you will, of our experiment.)
And as that inner work continues, it is said in Buddhism that even if you
don’t want it to be clear, it will be—as clear as an apple in the palm
of your hand. But until then it’s all speculation. So, I think it will
require a certain amount of emotional maturity to suspend judgment and
not jump to conclusions, and more importantly the direct knowledge that
comes through self-cultivation, to really "learn" Buddhism.