When we think about the relationship between Christianity and Science, iconic events like the trial of Galileo, the Huxley-Wilberforce debate, and the Scopes Trial come immediately to mind. One might easily assume that all religions have a similarly contentious relation to Science. But Buddhism does not.
The first people to introduce European Science to Buddhist Asia were, ironically, Christian missionaries. Here, modern science was not an adversary of the church; it became a weapon in the arsenal of conversion, employed in battle against idolaters and heathens to promote the true faith. Thus, that Christians understood things that Buddhists did not was proclaimed as evidence of the superiority of the Gospel, and of the benightedness of the Buddha and his dharma. For example, in 1552, the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier criticized the Japanese for not knowing that the sun orbits the earth.
In the nineteenth century, Buddhist leaders began to respond to the charges of superstition being leveled at them by Christian missionaries. And they used the Christians’ own weapon—Science—against them. They could point to any number of Buddhist doctrines (multiple universes, the subtle impermanence of matter, the absence of a creator deity) to make their case that it was Buddhism that was the modern religion; if it was a religion at all. Christianity was a remnant of a primitive theism. The claim that Buddhism is compatible with modern Science thus began in the arena of polemics, as Buddhists defended their religion against Christian missionaries and Asian modernizers. Buddhism was not superstition; it was a scientific religion, the scientific religion.
Over the course of more than a century and half, the great European empires have fallen, their Asian colonies have gained their independence, Christianity no longer poses a threat to Buddhism. Yet the claim that Buddhism is the most “scientific” of the world’s religions continues to be made. Why?
“In the nineteenth century, Buddhist leaders began to respond to the charges of superstition being leveled at them by Christian missionaries. And they used the Christians’ own weapon—Science—against them.”
I am a scholar of Buddhism—we call ourselves Buddhologists—focusing on late Indian Buddhism (roughly from the fifth to twelfth centuries) and on Tibetan Buddhism. My early work was on Indian Buddhist philosophy and doctrine, especially as it was understood in Tibet, something that I continue to study. But I also have an interest in the history of the European encounter with Buddhism, and what that has meant for European and North American culture, as well as for Buddhism. In the course of this latter work, I have sometimes caught a fleeting glimpse, out of the corner of my eye, of something referred to as “Buddhism and Science.” I initially paid little attention, assuming it was yet another appropriation of Buddhism by the New Age, another product of the 70s, in this case made famous in Fritjof Capra’s unlikely 1975 bestseller, The Tao of Physics. It turns out that I was right about the 70s, but I was off by a century; claims for the compatibility of Buddhism and Science go back to the 1870s.
I found this perplexing. If people were claiming that Buddhism was compatible with the Science of the late nineteenth century, how could Buddhism also be compatible with the Science of the late twentieth century, two periods, scientifically speaking, that are light years apart? As I read more, I found that the claims made about the compatibility of Buddhism and Science a century and half ago were rhetorically almost identical to the claims being made today. Except that what people meant by “Buddhism” and what they meant by “Science” back then was quite different from what they mean by “Buddhism” and “Science” today. In the nineteenth century, Buddhism was largely the “original Buddhism” preserved in ancient Sanskrit and Pali texts read by the philologists of Europe, and Science was the mechanistic universe. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Buddhism is often Tibetan Buddhism (reviled as base superstition by the Victorians) and Science is quantum mechanics and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). All this seemed rather strange to me, and in the end, I decided to write a kind of cultural history on the topic.
In 1938, a Tibetan scholar named Gendun Chopel (1903-1951)—a poet, painter, and iconoclast—published an article (complete with his own hand-drawn map) in the Tibet Mirror, the only Tibetan-language newspaper of the day. The article was entitled, “The World Is Round or Spherical.” Also in 1938, Hitler annexed Austria; Otto Hahn produced the first nuclear fission of uranium; Howard Hughes, flying a twin-engine Lockheed, set a new record for the circumnavigation of the globe; color television was first demonstrated; the first photocopy image was produced; the ballpoint pen was patented; the first “Superman” episode appeared in Action Comics; Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered; Benny Goodman’s orchestra performed “Sing, Sing, Sing” at Carnegie Hall. In this same year, Gendun Chopel was attempting to prove to his fellow Tibetans that the world is not flat.
He did not go into a lot of scientific detail. He simply said that everybody used to think that the world was flat. Then, some people in Europe began to say that, in fact, the world is round, and they were burned at the stake for their beliefs. Now everyone, including other Buddhist nations such as China, Japan, Burma, and Sri Lanka, knows that the world is round. It is therefore embarrassing that the Tibetans are clinging so stubbornly to their flat world. In making his claim that the world is round, Gendun Chopel, a former Buddhist monk and a devout Buddhist, did not deny that the omniscient Buddha declared that the world is flat. He explains that the Buddha knew all along that the world is really round; he only said it is flat because no one in ancient India would have believed him if he had said something so contrary to common knowledge.
“To say that Buddhism and Science are compatible, one must specify what one means by ‘Buddhism’ and what one means by ‘Science.’ I try to catalogue the changing meanings of those two terms over the course of a century and a half.”
Some may see the book as an attack on the claims for the compatibility of Buddhism and Science. It is not. Instead, the book derives from the simple conviction that all grand claims have histories, and to understand such a claim, one must understand its history. To say that Buddhism and Science are compatible, one must specify what one means by “Buddhism” and what one means by “Science.” I try to catalogue the changing meanings of those two terms over the course of a century and a half. The meanings have changed over that time, but the same claim has continued to be made. This fact will cause most readers to conclude that there is much more here than meets the eye, suggesting that the claim for the compatibility of Buddhism and Science is serving some deep cultural need beyond the changing referents of the two terms. Why is it that we yearn for the teachings of an itinerant mendicant in Iron Age India, even one of such profound insight, to somehow anticipate the formulae of Einstein?
My own view is that the teachings of the Buddha do not and cannot anticipate Einstein, and that much is lost in the claim that they do. Such a claim requires that significant elements of what Buddhists have believed and practiced over the course of more than two millennia be jettisoned. The loss of so much that is magical about Buddhism is not simply an aesthetic loss. It is a domestication of the dharma, a rebuke of the Buddha’s radical critique of the realms of our existence, including the realm ruled by Science.
Donald S. Lopez, Jr. is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan, where he serves as chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and as chair of the Michigan Society of Fellows. Besides the books featured in his two Rorotoko interviews, he is the author of The Story of Buddhism, Prisoners of Shangri-La, The Madman’s Middle Way, and others. Donald Lopez was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2000. He is currently completing a book on the European encounter with the Buddha.