The following article is excerpted from one of the final talks in our online course, Buddhism for Beginners. John Dunne, a Buddhist scholar and practitioner, introduces the origins, teachings, and historical development of Buddhism in this course for beginners and beyond. Here, he takes a closer look at the ongoing debate about whether Buddhism should be primarily thought of as scientific or religious.

Starting as far back as the mid-19th century, various people have tried to promote Buddhism as scientific. The idea started among various Asian intellectuals, some of whom were pushing back against colonialism by demonstrating the strength of their culture. Later, Western Buddhists also promoted this claim. So is there any truth to it?

Lamas and the lab

One way to approach that question is to look at how the claim has informed some useful dialogues between scientists and Buddhists, perhaps most prominently His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. There are good reasons those conversations work well.

First of all, Buddhism endorses the notion that if we want to prove something, we need to use empirical evidence. If there is a contradiction between what we can observe—either directly or through inferences based on perception—and what Buddhist scriptures say, then we are expected to reject the scriptures and go with what we have established empirically. In other words, the evidence of our own experience and reasoning has to be the touchstone.

There’s a quote often cited in the Tibetan tradition (it was originally in Sanskrit) in which the Buddha says, “Just as a goldsmith tests to see whether something is gold by touching it to a touchstone, by rubbing it, by heating it, so too, oh monks, you should accept my words only after examining them and not out of respect for me.”

Scripture is useful, but it is not what we need in the end. In the context of Buddhism, what we actually need is experience—the kinds of experiences that transform our habits. Mere intellectual understanding isn’t sufficient. No matter how many of the Buddha’s discourses we read, it will never amount to experience. So from its earliest days, the tradition had a built-in sense that while the Buddha’s discourses are necessary for teaching the path, at a certain point, we need to leave that behind in favor of our own direct experience.

This is one way in which you could say Buddhism is scientific. In our cultural history, to be scientific, in part, means to turn away from the kinds of knowledge claims we find supported by our scriptural traditions in the Abrahamic religions. For a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim scientist, the appeal to scripture has to be set aside, but Buddhism set it aside at the very beginning.

Another way in which Buddhism can be said to be scientific is how it engages in a very detailed examination of the mind. Within the Abhidharma, one of the three forms of canonical Buddhist literature, there’s a great deal of discussion about the mind itself and various ways of analyzing how it works. It asks: How do attention and perception work? If I am attached, how is attachment operating? How does it make me behave? How do I counteract attachment? How do I learn to recognize attachment? These various ways of analyzing the mind that we find in the Abhidharma literature are quite detailed and profound and have already proven to be of great interest to scientists who are seeking some alternative perspectives on the workings of the mind.

One of the key aspects of these Buddhist accounts of the mind is that they do not assume that there is a single controller or ego that is running all of these processes. That belief has turned out to be a commonly accepted position among neuroscientists, who have not identified a part of the brain that controls everything else. There’s no evidence of any single controller within the various brain processes that constitute consciousness. So, Buddhism’s robust account of the workings of the mind along with the position that rejects the idea of a single controller is another way in which Buddhism aligns fairly well with our contemporary mind sciences.

When you look at all this then, it makes good sense to say that there is a possibility for a good dialogue with science and also that in a certain way Buddhism is scientific. But let’s not be too confused about this, because to say that there really is a Buddhist science requires some qualifications.

The scientific method

Although there are amazing and detailed theories within Buddhism about the workings of the mind and so on, many of those theories have not gone under any revision for centuries. But that type of revision is central to the scientific method, in which a theory leads to hypotheses that are then tested, and if they don’t work out, in principle, we revise our theories. From there, we continue onward, all the while making some advancement. We don’t quite see that in Buddhism, where many of the fundamental theories have not been revised for centuries.

Does this mean that there is something wrong with Buddhism? If those theories are good enough for the training of people and if we’re not interested in what is objectively true, which itself is a very problematic idea within Buddhism, then perhaps we don’t need to have so much theory revision. But whether or not theory revision is necessary or desirable, it’s certainly not present in Buddhism in the same way that it is in the scientific traditions in the West. So we need to be cautious when talking about Buddhist science or the ways in which Buddhism is scientific.

At the same time, we do see contemporary figures, most importantly His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who are interested in some theory revision. The Dalai Lama wants to engage in dialogue with scientists so both sides might learn and revise their theories. We see this slowly happening in the Tibetan monastic institutions in exile and to some extent within Tibet, too, where there’s an entire program of scientific education that is ongoing. In any case, the idea of Buddhism as science has often been a way for Buddhism to negotiate its identity within modernity.

A matter of faith

There’s one last issue that we should consider. From our cultural perspective in the United States, if Buddhism is science, then it would seem that it can’t be religion. We very often think of religion as standing in opposition to science or that faith stands in opposition to rationality. But from a Buddhist standpoint, that’s already extremely problematic.

Within Buddhism there are classical accounts of what we might translate as faith. The first, which is called clear faith, only involves a feeling of being inspired. It’s not about believing anything in particular. The second aspect is motivational faith, which is a feeling of admiration toward someone that motivates you to become like that person. The third feature of faith is a trusting confidence that is based upon reasoning. You could say that that third kind of faith is involved when you see a chair and you sit in it—just a quick glance suggests that the chair is probably not going to collapse when you sit down. It’s an act of faith to just sit in the chair, but it’s not completely irrational.

We often think about religion as involving a set of beliefs that can’t be substantiated through rationality because they are somehow beyond rationality. Rationality is the domain of science and this kind of faith is the domain of religion. If we adopt that kind of a split, then Buddhism is not a religion, because it doesn’t even endorse this type of division.

However, for academic scholars of religion, Buddhism is certainly a religion. But we have to ask the question: what does religion mean here?

What is a religion?

It’s a difficult question to answer exactly. But let me introduce you to one idea that I find particularly useful, which comes from Emile Durkheim (1858–1917), known as the father of sociology. In his famous work The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim claimed that religions give us the tools to construct our reality together. It gives us the categories—space and time, gender and so on—that enable us to experience the world in a similar way. Of course, different cultures and religions have different ways of doing that. Sometimes that means they come into conflict because they can’t understand each other to the point where their worlds appear incompatible. They can’t even understand their different notions, for example of what constitutes the good or what constitutes beauty or what constitutes happiness.

For Durkheim, religion is that which gives us those tools for constructing reality, and we acquire those tools by participating in what he calls the sacred. The sacred is not about some kind of mystical underlying special world that is behind things. The sacred is simply that which we mark out as special in our lives, something that brings us all together and that we honor at once. When we come together and honor what we consider special, we are participating in mutually constructing a reality.

This vision means that religion could certainly apply to any system that brings people together under certain occasions to focus on what is special and in that sense participate in worship. This idea could apply very clearly to Buddhism, but it can apply to lots of other things as well.

I teach at the University of Wisconsin, and on several weekends in the fall, we see about 50–60,000 people dressed in the same color, all parading down the streets heading to the great hall, where they gather together, sing songs, and share a special moment. I’m talking, of course, about a college football game. Go Badgers! Well, is that religion? In some ways, from the Durkheimian standpoint, sports fandom functions very much like religion.

So, what is religion? It’s hard to say.

But the idea that Buddhism is not a religion is very problematic because part of what Buddhism is all about, even in a very self-conscious way, is the creation or the recreation of our shared reality together.

For more on this and other questions, check out Buddhism for Beginners, Tricycle’s new, free resource for addressing the Buddhist basics. Or to delve even deeper, sign up for John Dunne’s Buddhism for Beginners course.

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