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Out of Context

I read the two Winter 2012 cover articles (“The Scientific Buddha” by Donald Lopez and “A Gray Matter” by Bernard Faure) on the convergence of Buddhism and science and found them to be off the mark in some important ways.

While it is the case that the research efforts into meditation started with His Holiness bringing some of his monks into the lab (including Matthieu Ricard), Richard Davidson was not seeking to validate Buddhism. He was investigating the effects of long-term training of the mind. The research efforts of Sara Lazar and her colleagues at Harvard, Willoughby Britton and her colleagues at Brown, Magdalena Naylor in conjunction with Shinzen Young at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, and many others are focused on meditation, not Buddhism. There is, after all, no “Buddhism.” There are Buddhist religions (emphasis on plural). However, in the articles Buddhism was treated as a monolithic entity. Both Faure and Lopez note that studying meditation is out of the context of Buddhist practice. This is, of course, correct. Yet many of the rituals they cite as being part of that context have nothing to do with what the Buddha taught. The Buddha did not practice or prescribe rituals. In fact, his teaching was a radical departure from and response to the Brahmanic rituals prevalent during his time.

I think the current nascent research efforts fit squarely within the new context of secular Buddhism (being forwarded by Andrew Olendzki, Mu Soeng, Stephen Batchelor, John Peacock, and others), which seeks the value not of Buddhism but of the Buddha’s insights. Buddhism has always been taken out of context. When it went from India to China, it merged with Chinese culture to create a new context. When it went from China to Japan, it morphed once again. Tibetan Buddhism is its own unique form. Science is part of the conversation that will form Buddhism in a Western context, because science is one of the primary cultural values we bring to the table.

—Arnie Kozak, Ph.D.

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