Mindfulness meditation, the central practice of the contemplative sciences, is everywhere now: from corporate boardrooms to suburban bedrooms, from coloring books to the military. At the University of Virginia, where I teach, my colleagues in Religious Studies and elsewhere across the university have been working on the very ambitious and well-funded Contemplative Sciences Center, which is meant to integrate student affairs and academic life, and which draws directly on Buddhist-derived practices such as mindfulness.
The existence and popularity of such centers on campuses across the country rely on a certain narrative about Buddhism that has become an almost unquestioned part of the modern zeitgeist: that Buddhism is wholly compatible with modern science. This kind of Buddhism—represented by what the scholar Donald S. Lopez Jr. dubbed the Scientific Buddha—is a reenvisioned Buddhism that was brought to life in the late 19th century, a philosophical or psychological Buddhism stripped of the rituals and beliefs that for centuries have characterized the religion in Asia. The Scientific Buddha’s most lasting and most easily recognizable contribution so far has been the psychologized mindfulness practices that are so in vogue today.
The creation story of the Scientific Buddha is complicated. But it’s not new. In fact, the Scientific Buddha is quite clearly a reincarnation of the Scientific Christ—the earlier liberal religious effort to renovate Christianity in the light of psychology with the aim of making the religion more relevant to modern life. This torch, which was carried and then dropped by the early Christian reformers, has now been picked up by modern scientific Buddhists.
Courses in moral philosophy became a regular feature of American colleges early in the 19th century, as historian George Marsden has written in his very useful study The Soul of the American University. These courses aimed to bolster traditional Christianity rather than replace it; by providing a firm basis in reason for Christian morals and character, they sought to serve not only their students but also the needs of the new nation, to bridge sectarianism and inculcate virtue—a key, it was thought, to proper republican citizenship. As Marsden has written, “By the end of the 18th century American colleges were instituting courses in moral philosophy, taught by the clergyman-president, as the capstone and integrating feature of their curricula. Rigorous theology might still be preached in required Sunday services . . . but moral philosophy provided a common ground for building a republic of virtue.”
By the middle of the 19th century these courses were firmly established as standard fare in American colleges. Such courses in many ways were in the vanguard of liberal Protestant theology. Since their ambition was to be nonsectarian, public-minded, and up-to-date, they continuously adapted to emerging disciplines, including, and most especially, to historical critical study and advancing scientific knowledge. This was the whole point: to show that Christian morals were universal morals, were reasonable morals and American morals, and to reapply them to the needs of students, the society, and the nation with each new generation.
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