Dharma and science



In his lecture entitled “Pragmatism's conception of truth ” William James observed that most of us are content to live within a framework of beliefs that give all the appearances of working for us in the practical world. Our notion of truth is some kind of practical agreement with reality. An idea agrees with reality, he says, when we can guide our actions by the idea and arrive at the goal that we expect our actions to lead us to. James goes on to say:

William James
And often agreement will mean only the negative fact that nothing contradictory from the quarter of that reality comes to interfere with the way in which our ideas guide us elsewhere. To copy a reality is, indeed, one very important way of agreeing with it, but it is far from being essential. Any idea that helps us to deal, whether practically or intellectually, with either the reality or its belongings, that doesn't entangle our progress in frustration, that fits, in fact, and adapts our life to the reality's whole setting, will agree sufficiently to meet the requirement. It will hold true of that reality. ( James, 1981, p. 96-97; McDermott, 1967, p. 434-435)

Because there may be many different ideas that, if acted upon, will lead to expected results, it can be said that there are many truths. For most people most of the time the pragmatic truths they learned as children will serve them for most of their lives, and there will be no need to change in any significant way from their childhood system of beliefs. Occasionally, however, experience, says James, “has ways of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulas” (James, [1981,p. 100]; McDermott, [1967, p. 438]).

The majority of people of European descent who have taken an active interest in Buddhism have operated most of their lives within the context of a scientific worldview. They are accustomed to thinking of events in the physical world in terms of the laws of mechanics and the laws of thermodynamics. They think of the universe as billions of years old and constantly changing with no discernible purpose, or at least with no human-made purpose. They are used to thinking of the consciousness of sentient beings as being intimately, although perhaps mysteriously, connected with biochemical events in a very complex neurological system. They are used to thinking of many issues as complex beyond human understanding, and therefore they are used to seeing human explanations of both microscopic and telescopic events as nothing better than approximations, as heuristic models. This is the intellectual framework of most educated Westerners, and for most of us experience has not boiled over sufficiently to require that we adopt an entirely different framework, a framework that seems alien to the perspective of the framework we learned as children. For the kind of person I am describing, it makes far more sense to understand Buddhist theories and practices within the scientific framework than to jettison both scientific method and the always-tentative working hypotheses that have not yet been been shown untenable by controlled experimental investigations.

For many Western Buddhists it is difficult to imagine a collision course between science and Buddhism of the same magnitude as that which has had such an impact on the evolution of Christianity during the past century and a half. After all, most of the questions that scientists choose to investigate fall into the category of those questions that the Buddha said he had no interest in answering, for the simple reason that nothing that he taught would be affected one way or another by the answer that might be given to these questions. One of the questions that remained famously unanswered by Gotama Buddha had to do with the way the universe came into being, and another had to do with the temporal and spatial extent of the universe. Both cosmology and cosmogony were seen as studies the results of which could have no bearing at all on the bare fact of frustration (duḥkha), nor on the causes of frustration or the means of eliminating it.

A further factor that makes for a comfortable congruence between science and Buddhism is that there is no commitment in Buddhist teachings to the human species having been created by an intelligent agent to hold a special place among the other creatures. It is, therefore, difficult to imagine any scientific work shaking the foundations of the Buddhist world to the same extent that Charles Darwin's work on the origin of species challenged the foundational principles of at least some Christians. Since the foundations of Buddhism are relatively secure regardless what scientists might discover about the world—it is unlikely, for example, that any scientist will discover that in fact there is no such thing as frustration—,it is unlikely that within Buddhism a fundamentalist movement will arise in response to the challenges of prevailing scientific hypotheses.

A further consideration to be borne in mind is that Western people who have grown up in an atmosphere of science tend to feel comfortable with the notion of doctrines as heuristic models, that is, as propositions that can be accepted provisionally in the hopes that such provisional acceptance will eventually lead to the discovery of a more refined and accurate proposition. Students of science are also relatively at home in the explanatory world of completely fictitious notions, such as perfect vacuums, friction-free surfaces, uniformly distributed gases, constant temperatures and pressures and so forth. Knowing that such fictions can prove to be of great benefit in coming to a better understanding of the nature of things no doubt plays a role in how readily Westerners can grasp such Buddhist staples as the theory of two truths and the concept of upāya, that is, an ultimately false doctrine that leads one to a truth that might have remained entirely inaccessible had one not provisionally entertained the false doctrine.

It is this relative lack of incongruity between science and Buddhism that has drawn many Western people to Buddhism. Scientific discoveries are unlikely to make experience “boil over” in a way that would send Buddhists scurrying to repair or rebuild their raft. Similarly, Buddhist teachings present very little that would require anyone to question scientific method. Despite this generally good fit between the hypotheses of science and the observations of Buddhism, however, there have been a few issues that have led to experience at least simmering if not entirely boiling over. One of the most important of these, or at least the one that has come up for most discussion on the Buddhist e-mail forums, has been the question of whether the prevailing hypotheses of neurophysiology require a serious re-examination of the traditional doctrine of rebirth. This issue, along with questions of whether scientific rational skepticism is a serious obstacle to the kinds of faith that some Buddhists see as important for progress along the Buddhist path, has come up many times for discussion.

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Buddhism and materialism(s)

December 7, 1994

Every tradition has some mechanism by which it strangles lines of free inquiry that are perceived as threatening. In Buddhism, a threatening course of investigation can be killed by labelling it either Eternalist or Annihilationist. Let a view be stigmatized as Annihilationism, and every Good Buddhist will immediately pour molten lead into his or her ears in order to avoid hearing anything that might smack of heterodoxy. The Annihilationism Alarm been rung several times by various contributors to this list in reaction to some of my postings.

There has moreover been an assumption that something called materialism is linked with Annihilationism and must also be anathema to all genuine Buddhists. The purpose of this essay is to explain what Annihilationism really means and to show why it was rejected by classical Buddhists, then to argue that one of the forms of modern materialism is not at all a form of the sort of Annihilationism eschewed by classical Buddhists.

One particularly clear statement of what the wrongheaded view of Annihilationism consists in is that of Nāgārjuna, who says (MMK 15:10-11):

The notion of perpetuity is that one exists; the notion of destruction is that one fails to exist. Therefore, a wise person should not experience existence or non-existence.
Perpetuity follows from believing that that which exists independently (svabhāvena) does not fail to exist; destruction follows from believing that that which existed before no longer exists.

The key point being made here is that the view of destruction (uccheda-darśana, alias Annihilationism) consists in the belief that something that once existed, such as a personal self, ceases to exist at the time of death. So the belief that is being described as false by Buddhists is a complex proposition that comprises two components: 1) the belief that a personal self exists during life, and 2) the belief that that personal self stops existing at the end of life. The view called the notion of perpetuity (śāśvata-grāha, alias Eternalism) also comprises two parts: 1) the belief that a personal self exists during life, and 2) the belief that that personal self continues existing at the end of life. The Middle Path (madhyamā pratipat), we are told, consists in denying both of those alternatives.

Now there is only one way that one can, without violating the principles of logic that classical Buddhists repeatedly endorse, deny both that a personal self stops existing at the end of life and that a personal self continues existing at the end of life. This denial of both of two contradictory propositions can be achieved only by denying the presupposition upon which they both rest, namely, the supposition that a personal self exists during life. This is the key point to remember: when Eternalism and Annihilationism are denied, what is really being denied is nothing more nor less than the existence of an enduring, fixed personal self. I shall return to this point later.

What precisely is meant by an enduring personal self? In many texts (let me just cite Vinaya-piṭaka Mahāvagga 1.6 as one example), the notion of self (ātman, atta) is connected to the notions of control and possession. The self is that which controls its own destiny and can be any way it wills to be; but since nothing meets that description, there is no self. Alternatively, the self is that which owns and controls others; again, since no part of our makeup has such control over any other part, nothing about us qualifies as the self. Put into other terms, the body does not own or control the body, nor does the mind (that is, the four immaterial groups of mental traits) own and control the body, nor does the body own and control the mind, nor does the mind own and control the mind. Rather, the body and the mind always operate in mutual interaction, each influencing the other. And neither of them is under the control of anything (such as, for example, a soul or a True Self) outside the body-mind complex. Another way of saying that there is no self is to say that nothing and no one is in control. Anyone who meditates for even five minutes learns that! It usually takes the better part of a lifetime to let the full implications of that simple lesson really sink in.

The next question to address is why both Eternalism and Annihilationism are denied. When the Buddha describes the details of the Middle Path that avoids two extremes, he outlines the eightfold path. In the Vinaya passage cited earlier, this Eightfold Path that is called the Middle Path is said to avoid the two extremes of hedonism (the excessive pursuit of sensual pleasures) and asceticism (excessive self-deprivation). In modern Buddhism, it may be noted in passing, the Middle has shifted dramatically towards the hedonistic end of the scale. That notwithstanding, the key thing to remember about the Middle Path, is that it prescribes a path of moderate behaviour and rightly motivated thought, speech and bodily action.

In discussions of the Middle Path, there are two sets of extremes that are to be avoided by it. One is the pair of extreme views (Eternalism and Annihilationism), and the other is the pair of extreme conduct (hedonism and asceticism). What is the connection between the two sets of extremes that the Middle Path avoids? In his explanation for why it is that he sees no need to predict whether or not the consciousness continues after the death of the physical body, the Buddha says (in the Cuḷa-Māḷuṅkya-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya)

Living the life of purity does not depend on the view that there is life after death, nor does it depend on the view that there is no life after death. Whether or not there is life after death, there definitely is birth, growing old, dying, grief, sorrow, suffering, lamentation and despair. And I have explained how to bring those things to an end here and now.

A somewhat more elaborate answer can be found in Saṃyutta-nikāya 4.391. The argument of this latter passage could be summarized as follows: Someone who thinks of the living body or the mind as the self or as belonging to the self recognizes that the body and mind are both impermanent. Those who think in this way then become filled with fear that they will cease to exist. Because they are filled with a desire to live (jīvitukāma) and a desire not to die (amaritukāma), they believe what they want to believe: there is life after death. Some people, on the other hand, are attached to pleasures and wish to pursue pleasures without regard to how their actions will affect other living beings. These people, who choose not to be responsible in their actions, believe what they want to believe: there is no life after death. The Tathāgata, on the other hand, realizes that all discontent arises from ignorance, which takes the form of identifying the body and the mind as the self. When this identification comes to an end, so does all discontent. One can then face all changes and all kinds of experience with calm and dignity.

If we take all these passages into consideration, it is clear that the principal error to be avoided is not the hypothesis that there is no life after death, but rather the attitude that one need not be responsible for one's actions. Presumably, then, if one can find a way to be responsible for one's actions, then it makes no difference at all whether or not one believes in life after death. The goal is responsible action; the beliefs by means of which one achieves that goal are secondary.

Now let us talk about materialism. In modern usage, there are two very different senses of this word, and care must be taken not to confound them.

These two kinds of materialism are not at all connected; they are simply two quite independent views that happen to be called by the same name in English and some other European languages. What I would argue is that there is nothing whatsoever in the first type of materialism that contradicts the letter or the spirit of Buddhist doctrine. Indeed, many ābhidharmikas were materialists in the sense of denying that mental events can occur independently of physical events; many ābhidharmikas (including Vasubandhu) denied that there is any such thing as disembodied consciousness, for their claim was that there is neither citta (thought) nor caitta (mental characteristic) that is not supported by a physical substratum. There is nothing counterdharmic about this view.

The kind of materialism that is much more contrary to the letter and spirit of Buddhist teachings of all schools (with the possible exception of some fringe movements in the twentieth century) is the view that the only goals worthy of the expenditure of effort and energy are tangible physical goals, such as possessions and sensual pleasures.

It is simply an empirical fact that anyone with eyes and ears can verify that there are many Buddhists in the world today who seriously and steadfastly seek to improve their moral character while at the same time denying (or seriously questioning) the existence of consciousness after death. Such Buddhists appear to agree with the Buddha when he said that living a live of ethical purity does not in any way depend upon the views that one has about life after death. It is also an historical fact that such Buddhists are not a novelty of twentieth century life.

Richard P. Hayes

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Reincarnation, more fuel for the fire

December 7, 1994

Someone asks:

My question to all of you is, why is reincarnation being questioned in the first place?

The principal reason for questioning rebirth is the same as the reason for questioning any claim to truth. There is no intrinsic reason either to allow this doctrine to go unexamined or to draw any more attention to examining it than another doctrine in Buddhism; it is simply one of the many hypotheses within Buddhism that is available for testing by whatever methods of investigation bear good fruit.

I suppose that one of the extrinsic reasons that the rebirth hypothesis has come under particular scrutiny in North American society is simply that many people, who are otherwise strongly drawn to Buddhism, balk at the doctrine of rebirth. My own experience in giving Dharma talks in various Buddhists settings, and in teaching meditation, is that a lot of educated people, who are accustomed to applying rather stringent standards of critical thinking, find the ethical teachings of Buddhism very palatable, but they feel that the traditional arguments given for rebirth are significantly less compelling than the traditional arguments, for example, against the existence of God, or against the existence of an enduring substance, or against the authority of revealed scripture. Moreover, very few people have direct personal experience of rebirth, and they take the Buddha at his word when he says not to accept anything unless one has direct personal experience of it.

I think you'll find very few Buddhists who have any particular desire to disprove the rebirth hypothesis. I personally have never met anyone who was determined to show that the rebirth hypothesis is false. Almost every Buddhist I have personally known is quite willing to use the language of rebirth, but many of them regard it as a poetic mode of speaking or as a mythopoeic way of talking about things; they are, for example, as willing to talk about rebirth as they are to talk about being inspired by the muses. It is a manner of speaking, even a rather charming one, even a rather inspiring one. But not necessarily one that conveys truths in quite the same way that some other propositions do. There are some teachers who avoid the use of rebirth language altogether. I trained for many years under a Zen master from Korea, and I must have heard him give at least three hundred Dharma talks, but I never once heard a single reference to rebirth issue from him in any of his talks to the general public, or even in his talks to senior disciples. Once someone asked him about it, and he paraphrased a reply that many Zen masters have given in the past: “Find out for yourself, if you are willing to die for the answer.”

Richard P. Hayes

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Science, Myth and Dharma

December 1994

There was a time when I held a position similar in broad outline to the position that some other north American Buddhists hold today. I outlined that strong position in a talk on the broad topic of North American Buddhism, delivered at the beginning of an eight-day conference on Buddhism in North America, held in the summer of 1987. A portion of my talk dealt with the doctrine of rebirth; that portion concluded with this recommendation:

Let it remain in Asia. It is not a doctrine that will do us North Americans much good, and it may in fact do us more than a little harm.

Part of my reason for holding this view at that time was that I had seen very little evidence of intelligent life on the planet earth as a whole, and even less evidence of it in American Buddhist centres. In that same talk I said:

If one is to be quite honest about it, one would have to admit that Buddhism in North America has not skimmed the cream off the top of society. On the contrary, it has largely been a catchall for misfits and renegades. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the form that Buddhism has taken so far in North America has neither been Buddhism at its best nor Western society at its best.

For reasons that I have never fully comprehended, that talk was not very well received by my audience. This may have had something to do with the fact that there were about a dozen Asian monks in the audience, who quickly disabused me of any illusions I may have previously entertained about monks being dispassionate, coolheaded and unencumbered by attachments to dogma. One monk, with whom I later established a good rapport, admitted to me that he had been so angry about what I had said that he almost walked out of the entire conference. One after another, these monks stood up and defended the doctrine of rebirth. Some quoted suttas at me. Others cited abhidhamma treatises. Some told me all about the ālaya-vijṅāna. Others quoted Dharmakīrti. I patiently listened to everything they had to say. Then I said: “Gentlemen, I think you have missed the point. My main interest here is not to rehearse all the arguments that have been conjured up to defend a doctrine. My interest is to reflect on whether that doctrine is true, because in the final analysis I think that as Buddhists we should hold truth in very high esteem.” One Theravādin monk giggled behind his hand. He later told me in private “We monks are not used to being challenged by a lay person, especially by a Westerner. Actually, I think it is very good for us!”

I no longer take a position as strident as the one I took in 1987. My recantation had nothing to do with being upbraided by a handful of breathing relics of the dharma-kāya. They had about the same effect on me as the Jehovah's Witnesses, whom I always cordially welcome in for a chat and a glass of whiskey (which I never drink except in their presence) but who always walk away without having converted me. So what did make me adopt a more conciliatory position? The two most important factors in the evolution of my thought on this whole question were 1) a little more study of Greek philosophy, and 2) a lot more study of Dharmakīrti.

The Greeks, as most people used to know before people discovered that smoking marijuana was much more immediately gratifying than learning verbal conjugations from dead languages, made an important distinction between historia and mythos. Historia, which literally means that which one learns through inquiry and investigation, was closely linked to knowledge (epistemé in Greek, scientia in Latin); it was a narrative of what is the case, and this narrative unfolded by maintaining an inquisitive (skeptikos) and discerning (kritikos) attitude. Mythos, on the other hand, was pure story, which was seen as a suitable instrument for giving advice, teaching the principles of morality and inspiring people to cultivate good character. Mythos was most effective when one could suspend the sort of judgement that one normally applies in critical, skeptical scientific inquiry. A healthy intellectual life required both historia and mythos-and an ability to know which of these modes was being used in any given discourse. The Indian tradition did not, so far as I know, make quite so clear a distinction between mythos and historia. There is plenty of very good critical thinking to be found in Indian literature, and there is also plenty of mythology; rarely did people see much need to keep these two realms distinct, or if they did see such a need, they did not draw much attention to it.

Of course Ancient Indians such as the Buddha did not distinguish between myth and science in the way that I do, and I would therefore be anachronistic if I were claiming that ancient Indian Buddhists saw parts of the canonical literature as mythopoeic rather than scientific. That notwithstanding, I still hold that discerning myth from science is a very important thing to do; and I think that retaining myth is also important, provided that we are clear that it is a means of conveying something of genuine value through the medium of edifying fiction.

My study of Dharmakīrti somehow made it more clear to me than it had ever been before that the doctrine of rebirth is absolutely central to the entire story that Buddhism tells. I stated these conclusions in a paper entitled “Dharmakīrti on rebirth” as follows:

In the parts of the first chapter of the Pramāṇa-vārttika that have been reviewed above, we see that the question of rebirth leads into a series of issues connected with the relationship of the body (more accurately, physical events) to the mind (mental events). This discussion in its entirety extends for approximately ninety verses.... Although he does occasionally make specific references to doctrines of other schools of philosophy, such as the Vaiśeṣikas and the Mīmāṃsikas, Dharmakīrti appears to have been far more concerned with offering arguments against the materialists than against any other philosophical position. In particular, Dharmakīrti was apparently concerned to provide as many arguments as possible for the conclusion that mental events have a series of causes that is independent of the multiplicity of causes of which the physical body is an effect.

Dharmakīrti's preoccupation with materialism is not surprising, since the Pramāṇavārttika was written as a defence of the principles of Buddhism against non-Buddhist critics, and there is probably no other philosophical view that is more radically opposed to the tenets of Buddhism than materialism. If the materialist's conclusions are true, then the continued existence of mental events after death is impossible. And if the continuity of consciousness after the death of the body is impossible, then there can be no rebirth. And if there is no rebirth, then the very goal of of attaining nirvāṇa, understood as the cessation of rebirth, becomes almost perfectly meaningless. Or rather, nirvāṇa comes automatically to every living being that dies, regardless of how that being has lived. If every living being attains nirvāṇa automatically, then no special effort is needed by anyone to attain the goal; in particular, the rigours of Buddhist practice are neither necessary nor fruitful. Given all these consequences of the materialistic outlook, it is obvious that Buddhists interested in maintaining traditional Buddhist teachings were obliged to find arguments against the materialist's position. (Hayes, 1993, pp. 128-129)

Therefore, I quite agree with those who say that the doctrine of rebirth is quite central to the story that Buddhism tells; it is about as central as the premise that wooden puppets can be turned into real boys is to the story of Pinocchio. Insist on denying that premise and you pretty well ruin the story. Ruin the story and you may grow up having a very long nose.

But I also agree with those who insist that the story that Buddhism tells is not in the realm of science at all. It doesn't even come very close. The only doctrine that passes muster as a scientific story is some kind of materialism of a sort that makes rebirth quite unlikely, perhaps even impossible, as any kind of accurate account of the state of the real world. Insist on taking rebirth out of the realm of illuminating myth and take it into the arena with scientific contenders, and you will force a quick denial of the premise that makes the Buddhist story a pretty one to hear. Your very long nose will quickly become a very bloody nose. Don't even try, folks.

I even have to agree with those who scold me for not being mindful enough in keeping my exegesis separate from my hermeneutics, and my historical claims separate from my philosophical ones.

Richard P. Hayes

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Science as myth

December 9, 1994

A reader opines:

It would seem to me the sensible approach to validating or invalidating Buddhist claims concerning reincarnation is solely an experiential manner. No amount of thinking pro or con will result in certainty-at best the mythology of ancient Buddhism clashes with the mythology of contemporary science.

Arriving at certainty is not the point of weighing the evidence for and against a position. The point of weighing the evidence is to weigh the evidence. This is something that mythology tends to do rather poorly but science tends to do rather well. To speak of science as simply another mythology is, to be sure, to be very à la mode. But, like so many other fashions of the day, science-bashing is perhaps entertaining to the feeble-minded but rather unproductive.

Those of you who have not entirely given up on critical thinking, of which scientific thinking is one of the species, may enjoy the Fall 1994 issue of Free Inquiry. In the lead article in a section called Defending Prometheus, Thomas W. Flynn makes this observation:

A century ago, freethinkers and other progressives expected science to yield immediate answers for every human problem. Robert Green Ingersoll boomed that science was “the only possible saviour of humankind.” Such naive optimism sowed the seeds of its own disillusionment. Correction was inevitable. Yet in recent years the pendulum has swung too far away from the scientific temper. For reasons alternately frivolous and profound, the default assumptions of our intellectual life have drifted into a Luddite orientation. Criticism of science and technology by the educated may be the tragic hallmark of our era.

As I have mentioned before, my first exposure to Buddhism was in a Unitarian Church to which my parents belonged. Looking back on it, I'd have to admit that a Unitarian Church may not be the best place to study Buddhism, especially a Unitarian Church in which 90% of the members are geophysicists, geologists, chemists and engineers. At that time I wasn't a scientist, but I was quite sure I was going to be a mathematician when I finished university, and I was strongly influenced by my geological father and his great love of systematic study of the natural world. And what appealed to me most about Buddhism was the promise it seemed to offer to people who wished to be both strongly moral and freely intellectual. Although I somehow got distracted from mathematics and science, I have never quite abandoned the scientific mentality, with its attendant skepticism and its mistrust of answers and certainty. Nor have I given up on the idea that there is something deeply compatible between a scientific mentality and a Buddhist one.

When I claimed that Buddhism was devoid of mystery, gnosticism and mysticism, I was making a claim only about a mentality that seems to me to be essential to true Buddhism, and I was quite aware that several million Buddhists would disagree with me for every three who agreed. I was (as is my wont) being a bit naughty and cheeky and even a little bit aggressively provocative.

So one reader was almost right when he said:

But to argue for a singular monotheistic interpretation reveals far more about the interpreter than what is being interpreted.

But he was not completely right. There is nothing monotheistic about this interpreter. Never have been a monotheist. Never will be, God willing.

Richard P. Hayes

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Of science, democracy and middle paths

December 25, 1995

Many of the readers of this forum are fortunate enough to live in countries in which the criminal justice system is based on the principle that an accusation of criminal wrongdoing is assumed false until it is proved to be true in conformity with rigorous criteria about what counts as sufficient evidence. Although it is true that the presumption of innocence allows some felons to go unpunished, most of us gladly accept this circumstance as a tolerable side-effect of a system that protects innocent people from unwarranted accusations and shelters political dissidents, academics with unpopular views, and various kinds of societal nonconformists from the depredations of those who wield the power of secular and religious authority.

Even if one acknowledges that some guilty people are found innocent, it would be silly to argue that the canons of evidence in our system of criminal justice were devised by criminals to ensure that they are protected from legitimate prosecution under the law. Similarly, even if one acknowledges that the rigorous criteria of what counts as evidence in science have the consequence that some realities remain unverified, it would be silly to suggest, as some people do, that the canons of scientific evidence were devised by materialists intent on insuring that no spiritual realities be acknowledged as scientifically established.

There are people who come dangerously close to suggesting that a bunch of anti-religious materialists all got together and said “What can we do to make sure that no one believes in souls and other transcendental realities? Let's try this: let's say that nothing counts as knowledge unless it can be tested in a laboratory and measured with instruments. Let's say that only publicly observable phenomena qualify as being properly established.” The history of science, however, shows that a very different process took place. What seems to have happened is that thinkers and philosophers (many of whom were very pious and devoutly religious Protestants) established canons of evidence designed to offer protection against the often arbitrary fiats of religious and political authorities whose dictates one could question only on the pain of imprisonment, excommunication, ostracism and other forms of persecution. It was only much later that natural philosophers (the people whom we now call scientists) began to discover, often with horror, that their canons of evidence undermined many of the socially mediated religious beliefs by which they conducted their daily lives. This often produced a severe crisis of faith: should one place a greater confidence in “revelation” and various forms of personal and traditional authority, or should one place a greater confidence in scientific method?

Much of this history is delineated in Keiji Nishitani's intriguing work Religion and Nothingness, where it is argued that the early Protestant celebration of science as a prophylactic against traditional Christian dogmatism led later generations of Protestants to question the principles of their own religious indoctrination. Nishitani also argues that Buddhism, properly understood, is unlikely ever to precipitate such crises of faith. Perhaps Nishitani was unaware of the future course of Buddhism in the West, where religious indoctrination does often seem to be on a collision course with the rational skepticism that forms the basis of most scientific enterprises, perhaps because few Westerners have yet understood either Buddhism or science properly, owing to their still being enthralled by the anti-scientific mentality of religious conservatism and the Romantic and largely anti-intellectual taking of refuge in the unquestionable nature of private experience.

Influenced by philosophers of science such as Stephen Toulmin and Charles S. Peirce and by political philosophers such as Charles Taylor, I have grown increasingly convinced that the institutions of Anglo-American jurisprudence and democracy are inseparable in their foundations from the methods of scientific skepticism. Moreover, under the influence of such Buddhist teachers as the current Dalai Lama and various Therav¯adin bhikkhus, I have become increasingly convinced that there is a radical compatibility between democracy, science and the essential teachings of Buddhism. (Not yet being a postmodernist, I have no qualms about speaking of the essential teachings of Buddhism and distinguishing them from accidental accretions that have become part of Buddhism as a result of its march through history.)

To put the matter another way, I have never seen any justification for compartmentalizing my thinking in such a way that there are some truth claims (such as those made daily in the news media and by my fellow academics) that I regard with open-minded skepticism, in contrast to other truth claims (such as those made by allegedly enlightened masters, or those offered up by my own meditative experiences) that I accept at face value without further enquiry. It seems to me that if one is going to question the economic theories of Newt Gingrich or the pronouncements of Evangelists such as Billy Graham or the privately ecstatic experiences of Pentecostal Christians, then one must also question the claims of a tantric guru to be transmitting the Buddha's wisdom and compassion to a disciple through abhiṣeka, and the judgement of a supposedly enlightened Zen master, and (perhaps most of all, since they are so apparently compelling) the insights that seem to have arisen through my own meditational practices.

To suggest that the habit of questioning everything that matters (and what could matter more than the claim to be receiving a transmission of pure Dharma!) is contrary to the fundamental spirit of Buddhist practice is tantamount to saying that Buddhism cannot possibly be practised in a democracy informed by the spirit of scientific rationalism. If this were so, then the modern West would be unique among all the civilizations of humankind as a culture that could not benefit from the Dharma. This would be, it seems to me, a very sad acknowledgement that there are severe limitations on the efficacy of the Buddha's Dharma to transform human mentalities in important ways for the better, regardless of their cultural conditioning.

Richard P. Hayes

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Superstition and Buddhism

May 12, 1998

Concerning the factoid that 70% of Americans believe in angels, a reader named Lee observed:

True. Scientists often quote these statistics and shake their head in amazement at the superstitious ignorance of the great unwashed masses who appear to be not only oblivious to the great achievements of science in our time as it reveals ultimate truth about ourselves and the cosmos, but also to ordinary common sense.

I don't think you fairly represent why some people quote such statistics. In this case, it was not a scientist who quoted the statistic. It was a Buddhist. And his point was not to celebrate the great achievements of science or common sense. Rather his point was to note that a very large number of people believe in things without having very compelling evidence. To be quite specific, he was noting that it is not surprising that few Westerners are capable of embracing the Buddhist conception of nirvāṇa, since the majority of Westerners are attached to the notion of continued existence after death, even after the death of one who has attained nirvāṇ. In making this point, the Buddhist in question was echoing an observation frequently made by the Buddha. Most people are not ready to grasp the Dharma, because it offers a solution that is too radically at variance with the opinions to which they are deeply attached.

Lee goes on to quote someone as saying:

On the other hand, it is true that Buddhism's ability to integrate such utter nonsense as scientific materialism and other superstitions is largely responsible for its current popularity with Western intellectuals.
To which Lee responds:
Agreed. Buddhism's chameleon-like ability, or tendency, to adapt to the local belief system is probably an important contributor to its historical success.

This issue could be put another way, by pointing out that the vast majority of things that people (including scientists) think about are questions the answers to which have no bearing whatsoever on the nature of dukkha, its causes, its elimination or the method of eliminating it. The four noble truths will still be true whether or not the Big Bang theory is correct, whether or not quantum mechanics succeed in arriving at a Theory Of Everything, whether or not human consciousness is completely dependent upon mechanical and chemical processes in the central nervous system. Since none of these things matter to the question of why we suffer and how that suffering can be stopped, no set of tentative answers to these other questions have any real interest to a Buddhist. That is what enables Buddhists to be so flexible in adopting local systems of belief; very few local systems of belief alter the fact that people are in needless pain that could be alleviated by making changes in basic attitude and outlook.

A superstition is merely a belief that one does not personally endorse and thinks is unwarranted in the light of available evidence. The Buddha dismissed all kinds of beliefs in his day, claiming that they were based on faulty reasoning. There is no reason why a modern Buddhist should not do the same thing. But if one is going to dismiss a view as a superstition, then it is not a bad idea to offer some more cogent criticism of the view in question. If it is based on faulty reasoning, then let that reasoning be spelled out.

I have no idea why the anonymous interlocutor quoted above thinks that scientific materialism is a superstition. Prejudice perhaps? Or perhaps she has some kind of evidence against a particular view? The term “scientific materialism” is so hopelessly vague and virtually meaningless that one has no idea which specific theory is being referred to or why it warrants being called a superstition. To be frank, I don't even care why anyone would reject scientific method or would find it important to quarrel with the principles of fallibilism and defeasibility. These issues have no real bearing on Dharma anyway.

There is a section in the Samyutta-nikāya in which it says over and again that the path to liberation is achieved through wisdom, and that wisdom comes about through mindfulness, and that mindfulness comes about as a result of careful or systematic thinking (yoniso manasikāra). When this concept is explained, it is said to mean the tendency to look carefully beneath the surface of things, to investigate carefully, to resist the temptation to arrive at hasty conclusions, to resist the temptation to accept only that which is pleasing to oneself or that which is popular or expedient. This principle, it seems to me, has a great deal in common with scientific method, which is also a set of measures to protect the human mind against its own tendency to believe what pleases it and to look no further. Charles S. Peirce said of science that it is the persistent willingness to seek for evidence that overturns what one currently is inclined to believe. There is certainly much of that spirit in classical Buddhism. There is very little of that spirit in Western Buddhism.

Many Western Buddhists strike me as people who have very little real interest in Dharma. What motivates them seems to be an adolescent and ill-considered resistance to various popular demons, one of them being something that they call Science. They falsely imagine that Buddhism is an intelligent alternative to Science, and so they have fantasies of being Buddhists. But a hatred of Science does not make one a Buddhist. Love of Dharma, going to the Dharma for refuge, and living a life governed by Dharma is what makes one a Buddhist.

Scientifically yours,
Richard P. Hayes

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[Hayes 1993]
Hayes, Richard P. “Dharmakīrti on punarbhava.” Studies in Original Buddhism and Mahāyāna Buddhism. Ed. Egaku Maeda. Volume 1 . Kyoto: Nagata Bunshodo, 1993. 111-130. (A PDF version of this article is available for downloading.)
[James 1981]
James, William. Pragmatism. Indianapolis; Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company. First published in 1907. This edition edited with an introduction by Bruce Kuklick, 1991.
[McDermott 1967]
McDermott, John J. (ed). The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967.

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On 16 Jan 2006, 06:25.