I exit the subway to my quiet Brooklyn neighborhood and there he is again, wearing a ragged T-shirt, torn jeans, and dirty sneakers, sweeping the subway steps with an old broom.

He looks at me pleadingly. Feeling generous, I reach into my pocket for a coin but find only crumpled bills. Too much, I think. Mumbling a quick “Sorry,” I avoid his eyes and hurry on past.

The next morning I wake up with a new resolve. Today, I promise, I’ll manifest compassion to friend and foe alike. But the hard fact is that by the time I’ve finished shaving and listening to the news on the radio, I’m shaking my head at George Bush for vetoing another humanitarian bill, and as I step out of the subway in Manhattan to walk to my office, I’m puffing up my chest at the woman with the shopping bags who blocks my way on the sidewalk. And so it goes throughout the trying day, until by the time I make my way home again, the homeless man sweeping the subway steps can consider himself damn lucky to get even a dime from me, after what I’ve been through.

Buddhism claims that loving kindness is the fundamental expression of human nature. But my experience shows me that caring for others doesn’t come easily or naturally. In this world of child abuse and street snipers in Sarajevo, are Buddhists—with all their ideas about loving kindness—just whistling in the dark?

Buddhists say that the capacity for human compassion is immense, perhaps infinite, but Western science suggests something else entirely: “We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes…. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts which simply do not make evolutionary sense.” These are not the words of a misanthropic quack. Rather, they are the considered conclusions of one of the world’s preeminent sociobiologists, Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, who voiced these astonishing sentences in his seminal book, The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press).

Anatomical charts, circa 1700, from Tibetan Medical Paintings, (Harry N. Abrams, 1992). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Anatomical charts, circa 1700, from Tibetan Medical Paintings, (Harry N. Abrams, 1992). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Sociobiology posits that our genes set the biological pattern for our behavior. Corollary to this principle is a second one, simple, elegant, and devastating: the theory of the “selfish gene.” According to this theory—which is accepted today by nearly all professionals in the life sciences—genes have, through natural selection, “programmed” their carriers (in our case, our human bodies) to achieve one aim: the survival and replication of the programming genes.

At first glance, this theory would seem to indicate that no organism would ever act for the benefit of another if that act carries risk or cost to itself. Performing that act would be contradicting the overriding imperative of the organism’s genes to survive and replicate. Of course, we know that this sort of self-sacrifice occurs throughout nature: human parents do go hungry so that their children may eat, and prairie dogs will utter a warning cry when sighting a hawk, thereby saving others in their colony while putting themselves at risk.

This apparent altruism is neatly explained by a second genetic theory—that the primary concern of genes is with the survival and replication of their coded information and not with the survival of the organism in which they reside: a parent will sacrifice for a child precisely because the child carries replicants of the parent’s genes. Or, as behavioral scientist David Barash says in The Whisperings Within (Harper & Row), “How do I love thee? Let me count thy genes.”

This theory of “inclusive fitness,” elaborated by British biologist William D. Hamilton in 1964, and widely embraced by scientists today, explains on a genetic-biological level our warm feelings toward family, toward tribe, toward members of our own race—toward everyone with whom we share genes. And even in cases where genes are not shared, it may set the pattern for our behavior. As Paul Keddy, Professor of biology at the University of Ottawa, and a Buddhist, tells me, “The selfish gene may explain how the emotion of compassion evolved. Most organisms don’t know the degree of their relatedness to another organism, but we tend to act based on a feeling of empathy… When I see a starving African child on TV and it’s a heartbreaking sight, I know that I’m not genetically related to that child in any way, but that child looks so much like my own child that all those same emotions arise.”

Compassion, then, can be seen to have a biological basis. But—here’s the rub—according to the theories of the selfish gene and inclusive fitness, so do competition, envy, and even hatred. Each of us shares no genes with the vast majority of humanity, much less with the rest of sentient life; and, according to the theories, if competition between gene carriers arises—over food, land, affection, whatever might enhance the carriers’ fitness—where there is no blood shared, there likely will be blood spilled. A cursory look at human history shows this to be so: the tendency of genetically related peoples—tribes or nations—to dominate and exploit others is endemic; domestic violence occurs most frequently between husband and wife, who are genetically unrelated; and genocide is not a twentieth-century invention. As Richard Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene, “My own feeling is that a human society based on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true.”

Buddhists cherish the idea that our fundamental nature, our Buddha-nature, is universally compassionate; according to Western science, however, the nature that Nature gives us is anything but.

Another widely accepted aspect of genetic theory that challenges the Buddhist view is trait heritability—the theory that traits, including behavioral characteristics, have a genetic basis. Animal breeders employ trait inheritability all the time, breeding horses for strength, certain species of dogs for aggressiveness (such as the notorious pit bull), and so on. In fact, behavioral geneticists have identified the effects of a number of specific, individual genes on behavior. And while it seems unlikely that there are specific genes accounting for either altruistic or antagonistic behavior (these behaviors seen as the result, more likely, of the interaction between a number of genes), most biologists think it probable that genetics plays an important role in our individual dispositions toward altruism or antagonism.

Twin studies, primarily the study of the behavior of identical twins raised apart, tend to confirm this. Since identical twins carry the same genetic material, any behavioral differences between them must necessarily be due to environmental factors: educational, societal, etc. According to Morton Hunt the author of The Compassionate Beast (William Morrow & Co.), twin studies have led the Minnesota Center for Twin and Adoption Research to determine that “heredity accounts for about fifty percent of the variance in personality traits in the population at large.” Anyone who spends time with children will note that some seem sweeter than others, and that in nearly every group of kids there’s a biter and a bully. Genetics certainly plays some role in this—and is surely part of why some humans grows up to be Mother Teresa, or Adolf Hitler, and most of us someone in between.

C. Daniel Batson, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, has for many years been conducting experiments on the link between empathy and altruistic motivation. When I asked him why some people seem to have more of a capacity for empathy than others, he said, “There’s a fair amount of research suggesting that the empathic response is a product of a perception of the other in need and adopting the other’s perspective…. And there are probably hereditary differences in emotionality, and in intelligence, and those differences would affect perspective.”

Our karma, Buddhism suggests, determines the body we’re born into. And of course our body includes our genetic material—our DNA, the nucleic acids responsible for transmitting hereditary characteristics. Some of us, then, apparently are born into bodies more likely to foster empathy and altruism, some of us into bodies more likely to foster antagonism and aggression.

After a long day at work, I return to Brooklyn. He’s there again, sweeping the subway steps with an old broom. But today I cannot approach him. I imagine the double helixes of my DNA coiling through my cells, chaining my aspiration for compassion to the inexorable fact of my genetic inheritance as certainly as gravity chains me to the earth. How, I wonder, can I move forward toward compassion, dragged down by chains like these? Paul Keddy offers a clue: “No matter how we work with the Noble Truths,” he tells me, “we’re not going to be able to escape the fact that life is suffering. And that our genes are selfish. But that doesn’t mean that as human beings there’s no possibility for us to be anything but selfish. There would be no point in being on the Buddhist path if our behavior were not malleable.”

According to Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths, all life is dukkha, suffering or unsatisfactoriness; suffering is caused by desire; desire can be dissolved; and the means to achieve this is the Noble Eightfold Path. Furthermore it’s essential to note that the first step on the Path is right understanding. In order to attain liberation from suffering, we need to understand the nature of that suffering. We need to have knowledge of the world—including ourselves—as it really is.

The knowledge that Western science gives me tells me that I am a “survival machine”—a robot vehicle “blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes”—and that my attempts to act compassionately are foiled, at least in part, by the tyranny of these genes. But how far into reality does Western science actually penetrate? What are its limits?

An extensive ongoing dialogue, shepherded primarily by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, now exists between Western scientists and Buddhist practitioners. This investigation has produced several books, includingGentle Bridges (Shambhala Publications), coedited by Jeremy W. Hayward and Francisco J. Varela. Hayward, a trained physicist who teaches at Naropa Institute (founded by the Tibetan Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche), reports that in recent years members of the scientific community have posed two major objections to the scientific method—and the philosophy of logical empiricism based on observation and logic that underlies it. One is that there is, finally, no way to absolutely confirm any observation. Hayward writes that if you want to prove that all swans are white, you can observe a million swans and they can each be white, but that doesn’t mean absolutely necessarily that the million-and-first swan you observe will be white. This objection is not sophistic; further on in Gentle Bridges, Francesco Varela mentions that this very sort of situation arose regarding “the central dogma of molecular biology,” a dogma arrived at from thousands upon thousands of observations that the presence of DNA permits the specification of a protein, but that a protein never affects DNA. One day, however, someone observed a protein affecting DNA—thereby contradicting the previously accepted, observation-based, “scientific” dogma.

Anatomical charts, circa 1700, from Tibetan Medical Paintings, (Harry N. Abrams, 1992). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Anatomical charts, circa 1700, from Tibetan Medical Paintings, (Harry N. Abrams, 1992). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.


The second major objection to the scientific method revolves around its reliance on the presumed possibility of making a purely objective observation. Hayward stresses that observation is always subject to the bias of the observer, tilted by the observer’s belief system and his or her theory-laden terminology.

These refutations of logical empiricism have important implications for some aspects of Buddhist epistemology as well, for a principal method of much Buddhist epistemology is the practice of observation and logic. As the Dalai Lama says in Gentle Bridges, “From either of these two perspectives, the Hinayana or the Mahayana (vehicles of Buddhist teachings), we find that analysis and examination through reasoning… is very important. Once you find a fact through investigation, then you accept it…. Be open and investigate, find something, confirm it, then accept it.”

The apparent problem here is that, insofar as it relies on observation and logic, Buddhist epistemology seems to fall prey to the same refutations that undermine the scientific method. Whether observation and logic are applied to research into genetics or into the nature of emptiness, no fact can be absolutely confirmed—at least according to the present understanding of Western science.

Is there something about the Buddhist path, then, that allows the Dalai Lama and others to claim to confirm facts, when science cannot do so? A forceful answer to this question appears in the book White Sail, by Tibetan master Thinley Norbu, recently published by Shambhala. There, Thinley Norbu states categorically “The result of nonspiritual scientific theory is the creation of substantial phenomena. The intention of Buddhism is to create substanceless light phenomena. Also, no parallel can be made between nonspiritual scientific explanations of phenomena, which come from dualistic mind, and the Vajrayana Buddhist teachings of the clear appearance of nonsubstantial appearance, which come from wisdom mind. From the point of view of nihilistic science, fundamental, original mind is completely ignored as the source of phenomena, and no connection is even considered between phenomena and wisdom mind.”

“Wisdom mind” is often known as the mind of Buddha-nature, or the mind that has realized the emptiness of all phenomena and is liberated from all dualisms, including those that inform and define Western science. In the Heart Sutra, the Buddha says to his disciple Sariputra:

Form is precisely emptiness, emptiness precisely form;
Sensation perception, reaction, and consciousness are
also like this.
O Sariputra, all things are expressions of emptiness, not
born, not destroyed,
Not stained, not pure; neither waxing nor waning.
Thus emptiness is not form, sensation nor perception, reaction nor consciousness.

Or, as Thinley Norbu Rinpoche puts it, the mind is free “from the three conditions of being born, ceasing, and remaining”—the mind that Western science does not, and perhaps cannot, apprehend. For as Jeremy Hayward points out, “Generally speaking, scientists reject personal experience as valid data. The mainstream, even the mainstream of cognitive science, is still dedicated to proving that consciousness does not exist.”

In Gentle Bridges, the Dalai Lama says, “I think the basic Buddhist attitude is that we have to discriminate between things that are existent and things that are not. We determine that something exists by whether it is established by a valid cognition or not … what is meant by valid cognition is consciousness. I am defining consciousness here as a perception that perceives the object and is not mistaken with respect to the object.”

But how do we know that we have attained a valid cognition—a cognition informed by wisdom mind? During our conversation, Hayward relates that “the problem with introspection is that if one doesn’t recognize the ego, then one doesn’t recognize one’s self-deception. But the Dalai Lama, and all Buddhists, propose that introspection can be trained so that you can see through wishful thinking. If you have a method and community that knows how to recognize self-deception, then you have the possibility of a valid personal experience.” In Buddhism, method and community—taking refuge in Buddha, dharma, and sangha—constitute the Three Jewels, jewels that Western science regards as so much paste.

Despite the limitations of the scientific method, it can elucidate for us a relatively useful description of the phenomenal world—the world of suffering, of the First Noble Truth. And certainly this description, when applied through agronomy, medicine, conservation, and so on, can help relieve some of the relative sufferings of that world. But of the other Noble Truths science has nothing to say, for the cognition of these Noble Truths emanates from a mind that science utterly fails to recognize. Science, in brief, can tell us something about samsara—but it cannot, at least as presently pursued, point to a way out.

Will science ever recognize wisdom mind? It seems more likely that, as the dharma continues to spread, wisdom mind will subtly penetrate Western science—and that this penetration may help to inspire a distinctly Western Buddhism. What form the dharma may take as this integration proceeds, though, only time will tell. Meanwhile, I exit the subway and see him again. Science tells me that he and I are, if not mortal enemies, then at least competing gene carriers. Yet I know this knowledge is not enough. What knowledge would be enough? I still don’t know for sure, but I do know that it must issue from the teachings that enlightened mind reveals. And so I walk up to him, and as I do, I reflect on the words of the eighth-century master Shantideva:

May the teachings, which are the sole medicine for suffering
And the origin of every joy,
Be materially supported and honored
And abide for a very long time…

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