Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


A Guide for the Perplexed
Donald S. Lopez Jr.
University of Chicago Press, 2008

I was immediately interested in reading this book as soon as I saw it existed. Prof. Lopez is a learned scholar, a critical thinker and an entertaining writer, and I expected his approach to the subject matter would be of great interest. I was not disappointed. This book is informative and entertaining. It will also make the reader think.

Lopez begins with a long introduction that contextualizes what is to come. There have been discussions on Buddhism and science since the second half of the 19th century, and this must raise the question as to why the relationship has seemed to matter for so long. It was initiated mainly, it seems, as a response to Christian evangelism in the context of colonialism in Sri Lanka and of nationalism in Japan. A lot of what has been raised is therefore now only of historical interest. This perspective should encourage caution in contemporary considerations of Buddhism and science.

The first chapter is cleverly entitled 'First There Is a Mountain'. It considers traditional Buddhist cosmology to which Mount Meru is central. This traditional cosmology is, of course, totally at inconsistent with any scientific view and the inconsistency was especially important in debates between Buddhists and Christian missionaries in Sri Lanka in the colonial period. Lopez goes into detail about the debates and the ways a contemporary Buddhist may reconcile the opposing views. The obvious way is to claim that the Buddha knew better, but taught the traditional cosmology as an 'upaya', or compassionate means to an audience that would not have accepted the truth. The second way - unacceptable to most Buddhists - is to accept that the Buddha was wrong. A third way, not raised in the original debates nor by Lopez would be to question whether in fact the Buddha actually taught cosmology at all. At the end of the chapter Lopez reveals how one of his Tibetan informants deals with the problem by asserting that only when one has 'pure karma' can the true nature of the universe be perceived. This is a delightfully unfalsifiable assertion. In my view it hardly matters what the truth is, except that I do not believe that the Buddha could have been wrong either, as cosmology holds no soteriological power.

The second chapter, 'Buddhism and the Science of Race' is an intriguing exploration of how Buddhist and Western considerations of the origin and spread of Buddhism and of the true meaning of the word 'arya' ('noble' is one translation) became tied up with aspects of racist pseudo-science. This sad tale illustrates one of the reasons why trying to link Buddhism with science is ill-conceived. Science is not static, and since the scientific method depends on formulating falsifiable assertions, it is often wrong. Thus scientific knowledge grows. What we now see as offensive pseudo-science was once thought to be true. If we Buddhists link the truth of our beliefs with any particular current scientific theory, what are we to do in years to come when that theory is no longer in vogue?

The third chapter uses the title 'Two Tibetans' to open up a consideration of the thought of Gendun Chopel, a pioneering early 20th century figure, and the current Dalai Lama. Lopez quotes Gendun Chopel at length from a rather rambling essay which emphasizes the compatibility of the insights of Buddhism and of modern science. Chopel's purpose was principally to make Tibetans take science seriously and at the time he was writing - the early part of the 20th century - he may have made an effective point but the problem is that Chopel was scientifically naïve and the science he discusses is now not very current. There is in the end, therefore, no useful argument made. Next Lopez considers the book 'The Universe in a Single Atom' in which the Dalai Lama explicitly draws parallels between the practice of Buddhism and the scientific method. In his detailed examination of the matter of this book Lopez gently questions much of what is raised in it. He points out that in the end Buddhist meditators are following a path based on revelation and not of critical discovery. I share his doubt that it is really necessary for contemporary meditators to master scientific knowledge as well as religious knowledge and practice. This chapter is the heart of the book and in his usual considered and undramatic way Lopez shows the reader the futility of attempts to bring science and Buddhism together.

In 'The Science of Buddhism' Lopez moves the point of view from Buddhists engaging with the West to the Western orientalist invention of Buddhism. He contrasts the scholastic view of the Buddha as a moral philosopher and reformer of Hinduism with the mystic fantasies of the 'Buddhism' of the Theosophists and their fellow-travelers. This is very interesting in its own right, but importantly it also shows us how absurd the appropriation of Buddhism by the West has been and by analogy how absurd also is the appropriation of scientific discoveries by Buddhists.

The last chapter is 'The Meaning of Meditation'. Most of the chapter is a detailed description of a complicated Tibetan visualization meditation. Studies have been done of the physiological and brain states of meditators Tibetan and otherwise. Lopez is here making the crucial point that investigations of the physical states of meditators, and this includes the most sophisticated measures of brain function in the end are only describing epiphenomena. Increases in body temperature, relaxation etc may or may not happen during and after Buddhist meditation but they are not the point. This concept applies beyond meditation to all Buddhist practice. Scientific study of the physical and mental states of Buddhist practitioners may serve to extract useful psychological tools from the practice, but it cannot serve to solve the burning question of life and death and therefore is useless for religious practice.

Lopez wraps this excellent book up with a conclusion in which he explicitly argues that a Buddhism stripped of its human, imaginative and supernormal/inexplicable aspects is no Buddhism at all. I agree and recommend this book to not only those who like me have long been skeptical about 'Buddhism and Science', but also to those who might seek for justification for their religious beliefs in science. They seek in vain. Not every aspect of human life can be quantified.

- Mark Healsmith

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