Science seems omnipresent in the modern world, and its explanatory force and benefits are hard to deny. Indeed, its success has even led some, including a number of well-regarded figures in the contemporary Buddhist world, to argue that the dharma itself must be made more “scientific” if it is to survive.
I’m not so sure that project could really work, or, were it achievable, even help. It’s not that the dharma needs to be placed in a special protected category reserved for “faiths,” a reservation into which reason is not allowed. In this respect, Buddhism is not like the varieties of theism, the authority of which rest, in final analysis, on the acceptance of divine revelation. Rather, it’s because the dharma need only be defended by direct experience and reasoning that it doesn’t need to borrow these aspects from science.
Besides, it seems like most of what is presented as “science” in discussions is not actually scientific praxis but philosophical theory: scientism and materialism. The insistence that science alone can answer all questions about the nature of reality—often paired with materialism—is actually scientism, a type of quasi-religious faith that holds scientific knowledge as the only viable knowledge. Though it’s kept well hidden, this very belief in science is itself a premise and not a finding arrived at by any type of investigation.
Materialism needs to be distinguished from science as well. While scientific discoveries continue to be made, modern philosophical materialism is in most important respects similar to the ancient Indian theories of the Charvaka or Lokayata systems, which Buddha and the great masters of his tradition knew and rejected. (So much for materialism’s cutting-edge modernity—a notion advanced to bewitch us into thinking that it’s the irresistible wave of the future.)
This modern materialism adds nothing to the old Charvaka theories except the illusion that, if complex physical processes are described in minute enough detail, we the audience will not notice the sleight of hand involved when sentience is magically conjured out of non-sentient matter and Pinocchio becomes a real boy. In fact, materialism cannot explain how life arose out of non-life, how consciousness arose from the non-conscious, with any more compelling seriousness than the theist who declares that God simply said: “let there be light.”
The crucial point, therefore, is that dharma has nothing to fear from, nor any need to prostrate to, science. Science works well in detecting and quantifying things that have a material or mechanistic explanation, such as the structure of DNA. It is the proper task of science to formulate and test hypotheses about how physical processes work. This inbuilt limitation does not invalidate the usefulness of the scientific enterprise, but it does put it at some disadvantage in describing the nonmaterial, such as ethics, the nature of mind, and liberation from samsara—the core concerns of dharma.
While science itself is not dangerous to the dharma, the appeal for a “scientific Buddhism,” an insistence that Buddhism must accord with the materialist propositions often paired with scientism, most definitely is. Such a Buddhism is not the dharma. Having abolished many of the key teachings to these ends, we are left with nothing, except, maybe, sitting cross-legged and talking peaceably about peace! Such an activity fits into the “Buddhism” sold at the expensive workshops on “spirituality” that currently litter this part of the world, but it’s not a Buddhism that’s ever been known to our predecessors.
It’s not, of course, the case that everyone who discerns an importance in fostering a dialogue between dharma and science is in fact an advocate of such a “non-Buddhist Buddhism.” But even then, one might wonder what the use of such a dialogue might be when one notes, for instance, the emphasis placed on such philosophically trivial matters as validating meditation practice through the study of brain waves during meditation.
Now, it may very well be that brain activity changes during meditation. But it’s difficult to see how knowing this could contribute anything significant to the process of dissolving the twin obscurations of disturbing emotions and nescience, a dissolution that alone brings about enlightenment. Would, for instance, Jetsun Milarepa have achieved decisive realization more swiftly if he had possessed a knowledge of neurology? The plain unvarnished truth is that while a variety of physical effects—from the modification of pulse rate to altered frequency of brain waves—may accompany meditation, these effects are not the source of the experience of the meditating mind any more than a lessening of indigestion.
In short, the understandable wish to advance the dharma by linking it with the prestige of science might obscure its actual power. The unique force of the dharma lies in its diagnosis of suffering and its causes and its prescription of the path to the cessation of that suffering. In this regard, Buddhism can speak for itself—even in the modern marketplace of ideas. It follows from this that the best way we can help sustain the dharma is to stay true to it. Right about now that might be the most radical we can do.
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