Often reading Buddhism into science and vice-versa can be very misleading. This talk by Thupten Jinpa is in dialogue with David Lopez’s excellent book, Buddhism and Science: A Guide For the Perplexed. Dr. Jinpa pretty much states the historical Tibetan relationship to science as it came late to encountering “scientific modernity.”
While I am a former practicing Theravada Buddhist who could not honestly reconcile it with my knowledge of the way various things worked, Lopez’s book actually made me even most skeptical of attempts by the likes of Sam Harris to claim Buddhism as a non-theistic and rationalistic creed. It does not traditionally seem to be either. Ironically, Ajahn Geoff, a Theravadan monk, has said similarly that a lot of the scientific popularizations of Buddhism have more roots in William James and Japanese cultural outreach than in traditional Buddhist doctrine.
This leads to me wonder: If we go so such lengths to secularize Buddhism, is it because it is a tradition outside of our modern European extraction and thus easier to project upon? While I agree Buddhist ethics can be largely naturalized, but there is a large current of Buddhist thought that is impervious to this effort. Indeed, one of things missed on the episode is that Buddhist ethics, in a Buddhist spectrum, applies to animals as subjects and not just objects of the method. Only humans can transcend dukkha, but all animals can minimize it. This implies a volition that is not just human-specific. In fact, it is not a differences of kind or even degree of volition, as volition is always limited by karmic (*Also in naturalistic terms, it is important to see that Buddhists would be compatiblists in regards to “free” will. One is limited by karma, but still responsible for it.), but a difference in context; the context of human life enables one to transcend the cycle of dukkha. This context, however, is totally metaphysical: it is in a particular world, of which the Buddhist cosmology, has many, and a particular place in a particular time.
Is this so easily reconciled with naturalism? I don’t know. Maybe this can be done (for any religion) if one separates its ethics from its metaphysics. Even an Abrahamic faith such as Judaism has been naturalized in this way: Reconstructionist and Humanistic Judaism have removed or minimized the supernatural and metaphysical elements in Judaism and kept its cultural and moral logic. The result, however, may seem arbitrary outside of its context of the Jewish community. Why would a naturalized Buddhism be different? I suppose, if we take the claims Lopez makes about the historical relationship of Buddhism to science seriously, why should we privilege Buddhism over other traditions? I find these notions suspect, but Jinpa’s lecture does give me some reason not to write it off out of hand.
-C. Derick Varn