Why is Buddhism closer to science than other religions? The Buddha taught that everything has causes and that only understanding can yield spiritual freedom. Since the Buddha saw that nothing is unchanging, the “Supreme Scientist” rejected the idea of divine creation. He insisted that faith without knowledge cannot make one free and advised his students to examine everything, especially his own words; to rely on their own reason and experience, not on authorities; and to pursue happiness by practicing what they knew to be true.
Scientific interest in Buddhism reflects this rare fusion of science and transcendence. Unlike Western science, which adopted materialist views that throw out the soul with the bath water of church dogma, Buddhist science is equally critical of both theism and materialism. Like most religions, Buddhism is critical of the materialist denial of transcendence and the claim that mind is an accident of matter. Yet the Buddha’s critique cites evidence rather than scripture. He observed that human language gives us more freedom than any lower life form; and that, however much mind depends on the body, it has causes and effects whose continuity, like energy, is neither created nor destroyed. His “middle way” between theism and materialism is radical in the West, where spirituality is caught in a crossfire between science and religion. Despite new disciplines such as psychoanalysis, we moderns are so far from a truce that we tend to insist that Buddhism must side with either theology or with mechanics.
The liveliest discussion in this crossfire concerns the idea that every intentional act – karma – has a developmental effect, and that effects not felt in this life must be experienced in future ones. While Westerners accept karma facilely, most find the theory as fantastic as the creation account of Genesis. Although scientists now view “self” as a hand-me-down from parents’ genes, the Buddhist idea that personal development is a process continuing from life to life is equally incredible to them. Karma theory reconciles evolution with creation by showing how life creates itself through action and reaction. One of the many meditative powers the Buddha reported was remembering acts in past lives that helped bring about his enlightenment. He even recalled being a monkey king whose self-sacrifice saved his subjects. Karma became a speculative theory organizing such observations into “laws of moral development” (karma-niyama). These laws postulate heavens and hells, but not in order to show divine retribution. Rather, envisioning death and rebirth serves to rehearse how the mind shapes embodiment and environment, awakening us to our ability to recreate our lives.
Karma is a time-tested remedy for fatalist views, from one extreme which posits that mind comes to nothing to the other extreme of the soul’s eternity. Nagarjuna prescribes karma as a corrective lens for such black-and-white vision: “The Buddha taught the truth of the conservation of intentional action: ‘openness’ means it is not annihilated; ‘evolution’ means it is not eternal. As a master may artfully make a creation, which in turns creates another creation, so the actor resembles a creation who creates another creation, and his evolution is what he creates.” Perhaps this old Indian prescription can open our eyes to a tolerance equally lacking in Yahweh and Darwin. Recently the Dalai Lama was asked about the creation/evolution debate. “Since Tibetans believe we descend from a monkey mating with a god,” His Holiness laughed, “we see both sides.”
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