Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birthday and that makes it a good time to think about Buddhism’s proper place in the ongoing Religion vs. Science debate.
So much of the public discussion about Science and Religion revolves endlessly around the pole of Evolution vs. Christian fundamentalism. This is a subject that seems beside the point to thoughtful practitioners of Buddhism. As a whole, Buddhist communities seem to be far more open to science and its worldview. This is particularly emphasized by the Dalai Lama’s statements about adapting Buddhist views to understanding gained through scientific research.
Unfortunately there is a line of thinking that sometimes includes Buddhism, which has been just as wrong in its approach to science as those who fight the dominant paradigms of evolution theory. For the last 25 years New Age ideas about the overlap between quantum physics and the worldview of eastern religions have often come to dominate “alternative” discussions of science and religion. I have often been told that quantum physics, with its uncertainty principle and “observer- affects-the-observed” results, confirm Buddhist worldviews. Movies like the whacked-out “What the Bleep Do We Know” and writers like Deepak Chopra have served to push this view into the popular mindset.
No matter how optimistic these perspectives are (as opposed to the angry inward focus of the creationists), they are none less gravely mistaken. As I have written about in Tricycle, there are many interpretations of quantum mechanics. Some involve consciousness and others do not. Quantum physics raises powerful, intriguing questions in this domain but it does not answer them. Rushing to embrace an interpretation that confirms a pre-established belief does great violence to the essence and spirit of science. More importantly it does violence to the spirit of authentic spiritual endeavor that, at its best, contemplative practice embodies.
As the 9th century Zen Master Rinzai taught, “Place no head above your own.” This matches nicely with the motto of the Royal Academy of Sciences: “Nullius in Verba”—Take no ones word for it. More than confirmation of any results published in a scientific journal the real contribution that Buddhism brings to the discussion of Science and Religion is the emphasis on experience. All religions have their contemplative traditions but Buddhism’s refinement of this practice and its emphasis on the work of the individual to directly explore the issues of Life and Mind give it a unique perspective on the debate.
Spiritual endeavor and Science are not the same but at their best they touch in the aspiration to know what is True and what is Real. No equation or religious coda can embrace the great openness of our lives as we experience it. Buddhism, with its earnest exhortation to the hard work of practice can help articulate these parallels with an honesty and good humor that is sorely lacking in public debate on science and religion.
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