According to Buddhist doctrine, there can be only one buddha for each historical age. A new buddha appears in the world only when the teachings of the previous buddha have been completely forgotten, with no remnant—a text, a statue, the ruins of a pagoda, or even a reference in a dictionary—remaining. Because the teachings of Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha—that is, our Buddha—remain present in the world, we have no need for a new buddha. But in the 19th century, a new buddha suddenly appeared in the world, a buddha who is not mentioned in any of the prophecies. What he taught is said to be compatible with modern science, and so I call him the Scientific Buddha.
Today, the Scientific Buddha is often mistaken for Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha, the real Buddha. But they are not the same. And this case of mistaken identity has particular consequences for those who seek to understand and practice the teachings of Gautama Buddha.
Some 2,500 years after the lifetime of the historical Buddha, the following quotation about Buddhism was ascribed to Albert Einstein: “The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.” This statement cannot be located in any of Einstein’s writings. But there is something about Buddhism, and about the Buddha, that caused someone to ascribe these words to Einstein. And since the time when Einstein didn’t say this, intimations of deep connections between Buddhism and science have continued, right up until today. In any given month, such publications as The New York Times and The Washington Post report on clinical studies investigating the affinity of Buddhism and science, particularly neurobiology.
I had once imagined that claims for the compatibility of Buddhism and science derived from the 1960s, gaining their first popular expression in Fritjof Capra’s 1975 best seller The Tao of Physics. The claims did derive from the ’60s, but I was off by a century. Statements about the compatibility of Buddhism and science were being made in the 1860s—in Europe and America during the Victorian period, as Buddhism became fashionable in intellectual circles, and at the same time in Asia, as Buddhist thinkers were defending themselves against the attacks of Christian missionaries. Thus, to understand what the compatibility of Buddhism and science means today, it is necessary to understand what it meant a century and a half ago.
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