Science has not been kind to religion. For a few centuries now science has been chipping away at reiigion’s most cherished beliefs, leaving none but the most stalwart to argue the believability of a parting sea or a virgin birth. Some religions have been more vulnerable than others: the Abrahamic traditions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaismwith their built-in hisroricism, have been hit particularly hard. Most of their adherents either have dropped any claims to literal truth, skillfully adapting their beliefs to suit a postmodern sensibility, or, anachronistically, have held tightly to them, turning a blind eye ro empirical evidence. Buddhism, with its deconstructionist bent, has had an easier time in many ways, but with its varying degrees of emphasis on reincarnation and karma—and, in some cases, its own pantheon of deities—it, too, has come under the scrutiny of scientific inquiry. In “Modernity’s God-Shaped Hole,” the writer Andrew Cooper, a longtime Zen srudent, asks, “How are we to hold the kind of faith that can imbue experience with a sense of the sacred even as it speaks to, and does not reject, the particular challenges and characteristic mood of our age?” Cooper’s question places us in the “crossfire,” as he puts it, between “two valid yet contradicrory perspectives—the hisrorical perspective of the scholar and the mythic perspective of the religious pracritioner.”
This split is not unfamiliar to the Dalai Lama, whose traditional education, steeped as it was in Buddhist theology, metaphysics, and philosophy, did little to prepare him for the scientific discoveries of the contemporary world. His passion for the physical sciences—which he initially pursued on his own in the relative isolation of Tibet—led him to conclude that “if science can prove that some tenet of Buddhism is untrue, then Buddhism will have to change accordingly” (see “The Natural Scientist,”). His statement may be remarkable in its openness, but it may not be surprising to those familiar with Buddhism’s own spirit of inquiry. As B. Alan Wallace writes in “Overlapping Worlds,” “Buddhism, like science, presents itself as a body of systematic knowledge about the natural world.”
Albert Einstein once wrote that “Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: it transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and the spirirual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.” In this issue, a number of prominent scientists and students of the dharma explore the overlap of science and Buddhism. In “The Lama in the Lab,” Marshall Glickman profiles the Mind and Life Institute, which sponsors an ongoing dialogue between the Dalai Lama and some of today’s most respected scientists. The best-selling author Daniel Goleman (“Taming Destructive Emotions,”) reveals startling new discoveries about meditation’s ability to alter the brain, giving truth to the claim that a regular sitting practice can bring about long-term emotional change. In “Science as Koan,” Zen student and stem cell researcher Dr. Neil Theise describes a powerful synergy between meditation and scientific research. In two particularly original approaches, forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu uses chaos theory to elucidate one of Buddhism’s most intractable riddles, and renowned science writer Robert Wright places the Buddha’s teachings in the context of human evolution.
Most Buddhists probably don’t spend a lot of time wondering whether their daily practice meets with the approval of the scientific establishment. For many of us, it is enough that Buddhism alleviates suffering and imbues our lives with the sense of the sacred that Andrew Cooper alludes to. Buddhism’s relevance to modern life may make it a “religion for the future,” as Einstein proposed, but that relevance is tied to the present. As Sensei Enkyo O’Hara points out in “Practice First,” Buddhism is “about doing what you can, where you are, with what’s right in front of you, right now.”