Are Buddhism and Science Incompatible?

By Knitter, Paul | National Catholic Reporter, June 21, 2013 | Go to article overview

Are Buddhism and Science Incompatible?


Knitter, Paul, National Catholic Reporter


Donald Lopez is on a mission. In his "role as a scholar," he feels called "to protect, preserve, and defend the religion that he studies." More specifically in this book, he seeks resolutely to protect and defend "the old Buddha" from "the scientific Buddha."

Who is this scientific Buddha who, in Lopez's view, is threatening, "bleaching," "domesticating" the message of the original Buddha? It's the Buddha "discovered" by critical, Enlightenment Europeans who thought they found a religion without God, based only on experience and reason. Nowadays, it's the Buddha who is presented as not only compatible with, but a harbinger of, the discoveries of quantum physics and even biological evolution. Most recently, it's the Buddha whose teachings on the benefits of meditation are being confirmed by neurological research and by movements such as "mindfulness-based stress reduction."

Lopez will have none of this. Yes, he recognizes that Asian Buddhists used this "made in Europe" scientific Buddha to trump missionary accusations that Buddhism was superstitious and world-denying. (More recently, Pope John Paul II made the latter charge.) But Lopez finds that the real and "timeless" message of Buddha is "radically incompatible" with science. Thus, while the life of this scientific Buddha may have been helpful and happy, Lopez wants to make sure that it is short and consigned to nirvana as promptly as possible.

With his somewhat rambling presentation, heavy on Buddhist history but light on scientific specificity, it's not always easy to pin down just where the incompatibility lies. He appeals to the Dalai Lama in arguing for a "dissonance" between the randomness that is integral to both quantum physics and natural selection on the one hand and the Buddhist understanding of karma on the other. Also, in light of the central Buddhist teaching that all sentient beings are really "no-selves," Lopez concludes that evolution for Buddhists is not aimed at the survival of species but at their "extinction." Finally, he argues that Buddhism holds to an anti-scientific "strict dualism" between mind and matter.

Regarding all the contemporary marketing of Buddhist meditation as the panacea for societal stress, Lopez insists that it is "inaccurate to assume that Buddhist meditation is encompassed by something called mindfulness." He writes, "No other Buddha in the past has taught stress reduction." Indeed, Lopez claims that the "preliminary practices" in all the meditation manuals of Tibetan Buddhism actually increase stress through their lurid descriptions of the sufferings of the human condition (samsara).

One can, and I think must, argue with Lopez about his specific incompatibilities between science and Buddhism. …

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