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The Scientific Buddha

The Scientific Buddha

by Donald S. Lopez

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This book tells the story of the Scientific Buddha, "born" in Europe in the 1800s but commonly confused with the Buddha born in India 2,500 years ago. The Scientific Buddha was sent into battle against Christian missionaries, who were proclaiming across Asia that Buddhism was a form of superstition. He proved the missionaries wrong, teaching a dharma that was in


This book tells the story of the Scientific Buddha, "born" in Europe in the 1800s but commonly confused with the Buddha born in India 2,500 years ago. The Scientific Buddha was sent into battle against Christian missionaries, who were proclaiming across Asia that Buddhism was a form of superstition. He proved the missionaries wrong, teaching a dharma that was in harmony with modern science. And his influence continues. Today his teaching of "mindfulness" is heralded as the cure for all manner of maladies, from depression to high blood pressure.

In this potent critique, a well-known chronicler of the West's encounter with Buddhism demonstrates how the Scientific Buddha's teachings deviate in crucial ways from those of the far older Buddha of ancient India. Donald Lopez shows that the Western focus on the Scientific Buddha threatens to bleach Buddhism of its vibrancy, complexity, and power, even as the superficial focus on "mindfulness" turns Buddhism into merely the latest self-help movement. The Scientific Buddha has served his purpose, Lopez argues. It is now time for him to pass into nirvana. This is not to say, however, that the teachings of the ancient Buddha must be dismissed as mere cultural artifacts. They continue to present a potent challenge, even to our modern world.

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The Scientific Buddha

His Short and Happy Life


Copyright © 2012 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-15913-4

Chapter One

A Purified Religion

It is a great honor to be invited to deliver the Terry Lectures, and to be the first lecturer in their long history to address the topic of Buddhism. That history extends over more than a century, going back to Dwight Terry's original bequest in 1905, and the detailed instructions he provided for them in 1911. And the Terry Lectures are themselves part of a larger history of endowed lectures on religion.

These lectures on religion are each the products of their age, representing the concerns, and sometimes the prejudices, of their founders. Some of those concerns seem obscure and antiquated today; others remain relevant in their own way. In England in 1672, during the reign of Charles II, a group of Presbyterians and Independents established the Merchants' Lectures to "uphold the doctrines of the Reformation against the errors of Popery, Socinianism, and infidelity." The Socinians, largely forgotten today, called themselves the Polish Brethren and followed the teachings of Fausto Sozzini, who rejected the doctrines of the trinity and original sin. A century later, in 1768, the Bishop of Gloucester founded the Warburton Lectures, to "prove the truth of revealed religion in general, and of the Christian in particular, from the completion of the prophecies in the Old and New Testaments which relate to the Christian Church, especially to the apostasy of Papal Rome."

The late nineteenth century was something of a golden age for endowed lectures on religion. In a bequest in 1878, the Duff Lectures were established by the will of Alexander Duff, a Scottish missionary to India. That same year, at the Charter House of Westminster Abbey, Friedrich Max Müller, the leading Orientalist of the Victorian age, delivered the inaugural Hibbert Lectures, endowed by the Unitarian Robert Hibbert, who sought "the really capable and honest treatment of unsettled problems in theology." Perhaps the lectures most similar in spirit to the Terry Lectures were the Gifford Lectures, established in 1887 in the will of Adam Lord Gifford of Scotland. They were to be devoted to "Natural Religion, in the widest sense of that term," a topic that he wished to be "considered just as astronomy and chemistry is." His bequest stated that "the lecturer is to be subjected to no test at any time." By "test," he meant testimony, the requirement that one subscribe to a particular set of doctrines, such as the "Thirty-Nine Articles" of the Anglican Church. Indeed, he specified that the lecturers "may be of any denomination, or no denomination at all," as long as "they be able, reverent men, true thinkers, sincere lovers of and earnest inquirers after the truth." The first Gifford Lectures were given by Andrew Lang, one of the founders of what would come to be called the Anthropology of Religion. In the United States, the Haskell Lectures, "on Middle Eastern Literature and its relation to the Bible and Christian teachings," were established by Caroline Haskell at Oberlin College in 1899.

The Terry Lectureship on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy, established at Yale University by Dwight Terry in 1905, was thus part of an important trend in Europe and America, a forum for reflection on the place of secular scholarship in Christian theology. Mr. Terry was not a Yale alumnus, or even a resident of New Haven. He was from Bridgeport, and his bequest specifies that "the lectures be repeated in his home city of Bridgeport, Conn., and elsewhere at the discretion of the managers." It is clear from his lengthy and eloquent bequest that he was a Christian, genuinely ecumenical in spirit, that he was convinced of the ultimate compatibility of religion and science, and of the benefits to be derived therefrom. We read: "The object of this Foundation is not the promotion of scientific investigation and discovery, but rather the assimilation and interpretation of that which has been or shall be hereafter discovered, and its application to human welfare, especially by the building of the truths of science and philosophy into the structure of a broadened and purified religion." He continues:

The founder believes that such a religion will greatly stimulate intelligent effort for the improvement of human conditions and the advancement of the race in strength and excellence of character. To this end it is desired that lectures or a series of lectures be given by men eminent in their respective departments, on ethics, the history of civilization and religion, biblical research, all sciences and branches of knowledge which have an important bearing on the subject, all the great laws of nature, especially of evolution, ... also such interpretations of literature and sociology as are in accord with the spirit of this Foundation, to the end that the Christian spirit may be nurtured in the fullest light of the world's knowledge and that mankind may be helped to attain its highest possible welfare and happiness upon this earth.

Like Lord Gifford, Mr. Terry insisted that the lecturers "shall be subject to no philosophical or religious test, and no one who is an earnest seeker after truth shall be excluded because his views seem radical or destructive of existing beliefs." Indeed, he noted that "the liberalism of one generation is often conservatism in the next, and that many an apostle of true liberty has suffered martyrdom at the hands of the orthodox." He thus welcomed "expressions of conviction from sincere thinkers of differing standpoints even when these may run counter to the generally accepted views of the day." He asked only "that the lecturers are well qualified for their work and are in harmony with the cardinal principles of this Foundation, which are loyalty to the truth, lead where it will, and devotion to human welfare."

If we examine Mr. Terry's bequest as a historical text, we see in it many of the marks of liberal American Protestantism at the turn of the century: an ecumenical spirit; a conviction that religion, or at least Christianity, is fully compatible with science; and that religion and science can work together, not so much to save the soul for the next life, but to benefit the mind and body in this one, improving the condition of humanity. There is still something of the missionary's zeal in his words, but the aim is not so much conversion to Christianity, but rather the use of science to nurture and perhaps revitalize what he calls "the Christian spirit" toward the larger goal of human happiness in this world; there is no mention of the next. In many ways, it is a sentiment typical of a particular optimism about religion, science, and the future of the human race in the years before the Great War. The perspective provided by the passage of a century might temper our own optimism, yet there is still much to admire in Mr. Terry's bequest.

If it were possible for me to speak with Mr. Terry today, I would suggest to him that there already exists a religion dedicated to helping mankind to "attain its highest possible welfare and happiness upon this earth," a religion that "will greatly stimulate intelligent effort for the improvement of human conditions and the advancement of the race in strength and excellence of character," that this religion proclaims a truth that both "has been" discovered and "shall be hereafter discovered," a religion that is also capable of nurturing the Christian spirit "in the fullest light of the world's knowledge." I would suggest to him that the truths of science and philosophy have already been built "into the structure of a broadened and purified religion." I would suggest to him that that purified religion is Buddhism.

Buddhism is a religion that has been described as both a philosophy and a science. It is a religion whose founder claimed to be neither a god nor a prophet of God, but a man, who took the title of Buddha, "the awakened one." This man, through his own efforts and his own investigations, discovered the most profound principles of the universe, and then compassionately taught them to others. In his first sermon, he taught what are known as the four noble truths: first, that life is qualified by suffering; second, that suffering has a cause; third, that there can be a permanent cessation to suffering; fourth, that there is a path to the cessation of suffering. This fourfold sequence reflects the scientific approach of the physician: the Buddha identified the symptoms, he made a diagnosis, he gave a prognosis, he prescribed a cure.

The Buddha described a universe that was not created by God but that functioned according to laws of causation. Indeed, the most famous statement in all of Buddhism is not a prayer, a mantra, or a profession of faith, but a summary of the Buddha's teaching: "Of those things that have causes, he has shown their causes. And he has also shown their cessation." This law of causation is not limited to the material world, but extends also to the moral realm, where virtue leads eventually to happiness and sin to suffering, not through the whims of a capricious God, but through the natural law of karma, a law that, unlike the theistic religions, offers an adequate answer to the question of why the innocent child must suffer.

The Buddha understood the operations of the mind in precise detail, explaining how desire, hatred, and ignorance motivate actions that eventually result in all manner of physical and mental pain, and he set forth the practice of meditation to bring the chattering mind and the unruly emotions under control in order to reach a state of serenity. But beyond this, he analyzed the myriad physical and mental constituents that together are called the person, finding among them nothing that lasts longer than an instant. Thus, he discovered, through his analysis, that there is no self, that there is no soul, that what we call the person is but a psychophysical process, and that the realization of this fundamental truth results in a certain liberation.

The Buddha then extended this analysis to the universe, declaring the universal truth of pratityasamutpada, dependent origination, according to which everything is interrelated, each entity connected to something, nothing standing alone, with effects depending on their causes, with wholes depending on their parts, and everything depending for its existence on the consciousness that perceives it. Yet, whether wave or particle, there is no uncertainty about the ultimate nature of reality, which the Buddha called sunyata, or emptiness.

The Buddha's discoveries were not limited to psychological truths and philosophical insights. He described multiple universes, each with its own sun, universes that arose out of nothingness and returned to nothingness over the course of vast cosmic phases of creation, abiding, and disintegration, phases measured in massive units of time called "countless eons." And he explained how countless beings are born in these universes during these countless eons, each moving, through a process of spiritual evolution, to a state of perfect wisdom.

The Buddha discovered these truths not through revelation but through investigation and analysis, testing hypotheses in the laboratory of his mind to arrive at proofs. He articulated these truths in his teachings, called the dharma, truths that derive not from faith, but from the Buddha's own experience. And having reached those conclusions, he did not declare them to be articles of faith, famously telling his followers: "O monks, like gold that is heated, cut, and rubbed, my words should be analyzed by the wise and then accepted; they should not do so out of reverence."

And when he died, he did not ascend into heaven. He lay down between two trees and said to his monks, "All conditioned things are subject to decay. Strive on with diligence." Then he passed away, like a flame going out.

I would tell all this to Mr. Terry, and for support I would note that in 1896, his contemporary Paul Carus, founder of the Open Court Press, had advocated what he called the Religion of Science, and had described the Buddha as "the first positivist, the first humanitarian, the first radical freethinker, the first iconoclast, and the first prophet of the Religion of Science." Finally, I would point to the words of another of his contemporaries, Albert Einstein, who was developing the general theory of relativity at the time that Mr. Terry made his bequest. Here are Einstein's words: "The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism."

This is Einstein's prophecy, a prophecy very much in the spirit of the Terry bequest. It declares that the religion of the future will not be limited to our single small planet but will encompass the entire cosmos. All religions make universal claims, but the implication here is that the religion of the future will do so accurately, its cosmology based not on fables but on physics. Endowed with a scientific insight into the nature of the cosmos, the religion of the future will be able to dispense with the primitive notion of a personal God who created the world, a God who bestows rewards and metes out punishments to his creatures. This religion will not bifurcate the spiritual and the natural but will reveal their harmony. It will require no tests, no creeds, no confessions of faith or assents to propositions that derive from the authority of some scripture, no rituals that reenact forgotten myths. It will have no dogma; it will have no church. There will be no damnation, only salvation, a salvation not through divine grace but through human experience, the experience of the individual's sense of oneness with the universe. And, finally, it will be compatible with science. This will be the religion of the future. But it is a religion that already exists. It is, indeed, an ancient religion. It is Buddhism, set forth by the Buddha over two millennia ago. Buddhism, I might again suggest, is the purified religion that Mr. Terry prophesied a century ago.

I might say all of that to Mr. Terry, but I would not believe it. Everything that I have just said about Buddhism has been said many times in the past. But it is only one perspective on a vast and ancient tradition, and it is a perspective that is both limited and limiting. For, everything that I have just said about the Buddha and Buddhism is either partial or misleading, despite the sense of comfort it creates. Indeed, even this commonly cited declaration of Albert Einstein appears nowhere in his writings or records of his conversations. It seems he never said it.

But there is something about Buddhism, and about the Buddha, that caused someone to ascribe this statement to Einstein, the Buddha of the Modern Age. And since the time when Einstein didn't say this, intimations of deep connections between Buddhism and science have continued, right up until today. On May 25, 2008, the Sunday New York Times published an article titled "Superhighway to Bliss" about Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who suffered a massive stroke in 1996. After she regained the ability to speak, she described the experience as "nirvana." The next day, the piece was number one on the Times list of most e-mailed articles. In the "Science Times" section of the paper the following Tuesday, there was an article titled "Lotus Therapy," about the growing use of the meditation cushion to treat problems previously consigned to the analyst's couch. The next day, "Lotus Therapy" had taken over the top spot as the most e-mailed article. Two weeks earlier, the conservative commentator David Brooks titled his May 13 op-ed piece "The Neural Buddhists." The casual reader of the New York Times during the month of May in 2008 would likely have noticed this and wondered, "Why all the interest in Buddhism and science all of a sudden?"

Any scholar in the field of Buddhist studies would have been noticing this interest, at least out of the corner of the eye, for some years now. In my own case, I had originally imagined that claims for the compatibility of Buddhism and science derived from the 1960s, gaining their first popular expression in Fritjof Capra's 1975 bestseller The Tao of Physics. It turns out that I was both right and wrong. The claims did derive from the '60s; but I was off by a century. Statements about the compatibility of Buddhism and science were being made in the 1860s.

Identifying the historical origins of an assertion is the first step—a necessary but not a sufficient step—toward understanding that assertion, and it is significant that claims for the compatibility of Buddhism and science began in Europe and America during the Victorian period, as Buddhism became fashionable in intellectual circles. Similar claims for the compatibility of Buddhism and science began in Asia at the same time, a time when Buddhist thinkers were defending themselves against the attacks of Christian missionaries. Thus, to understand what the compatibility of Buddhism and science means today, it is necessary to understand what it meant a century and a half ago.

Buddhists first encountered science, perhaps ironically, in the guise of Christianity. When one reads missionary attacks on Buddhism, from Francis Xavier in Japan in the sixteenth century to Spence Hardy in Sri Lanka in the nineteenth century, Christianity is proclaimed as superior to Buddhism in part because it possesses the scientific knowledge to accurately describe the world, something that Buddhism lacked. For the missionaries, then, science was not an opponent of religion, or at least of the true religion, but its ally. Science would serve as a tool of the missionary and as a reason for conversion. Later, science would be portrayed as the product of a more generalized "European civilization," something that this civilization would take around the world; the vehicle for that journey was colonialism.


Excerpted from The Scientific Buddha by DONALD S. LOPEZ, JR. Copyright © 2012 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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