International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed (Buddhism and Modernity)

by Donald S. Lopez

Introductory Essay by Trinh Xuan Thuan

This book surveys the long history of the discourse between Buddhism and Science, which started as far back as the second half of the 19th century and is still very much ongoing today. Historian Donald Lopez, Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan, attempts to answer a central question. Throughout the ages, Science and Buddhism (not Asian Buddhism but the one seen through the eyes of European scholars) have constantly evolved. Yet, a similarity of views between the two concerning the natural world has always been claimed. How can that be? Lopez refines the question and gives elements of answers through a series of five essays and a conclusion.

The first essay discusses Mount Meru, the peak at the center of the flat Buddhist world, and how some European scholars have used that mythical view to debunk Buddhism's view of nature. The second essay addresses Buddha's rejection of the Indian caste system, and how the Buddhist “aryan” (sanskrit for “noble”) concept came to play a role in the European science of race. The third essay focuses on two Tibetans that have made contributions to the dialogue between Science and Buddhism, notably the Dalai Lama whose personal charisma and doctrinal flexibility have done much to spread Buddhist ideas among the general public in the West. The fourth essay is on Buddhism as seen through the eyes of European academics and the fifth is on Buddhist meditation and its relationship with modern neurological science.

Lopez concludes that connections between Science and Buddhism can be made because, as science evolves and its paradigms change, Buddhism also transforms itself, continually accommodating new accretions onto the original teachings of Buddha. In other words, it is Buddhism's infinite adaptability to modern ideas (while at the same time claiming a unique and unchanging truth embodied in the words of Buddha) that has allowed the continuing association of Buddhism with Science. No less a figure than the Dalai Lama himself has declared that if Science is able to show that Buddhism is wrong in some of its tenets, he would be ready to modify his views.

This well-written book should be of great interest to historians and philosophers of science interested in the complex relations between Buddhism, Science and Western modernity. However, while Lopez does provide the context and historical circumstances of the dialogue between Buddhism and Science, he is not a scientist, and hence does not attempt to judge or give a critical discussion of the relevance of the connections that have been made over the last 150 years between the two. He does not discuss in any detail the basic tenets of Buddhism that may be pertinent to modern scientific theories, such as the concepts of interdependance, impermanence or vacuity. For an informed discussion of the Buddhist basic concepts and their relevance to modern science, the reader is referred to the Dalai Lama's book The Universe in a single atom: the convergence of science and spirituality. As for a detailed exploration of the latest scientific concepts in physics and cosmology and how they converge (or do not converge) with the Buddhist vision of reality, the reader may profitably consult the book by Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan The Quantum and the Lotus: A journey to the frontiers where Science and Buddhism meet.