Buddhism And Science: Promise And Perils

by Adam Frank, NPR, December 7, 2010

Bangkok, Thailand -- It began 2,500 years ago in Northern India.  Over the centuries it spread ever eastward.  Moving south it moved into Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.  Moving north it reached Tibet and then expanded across into China, Korea and Japan.

Every culture it touched, it changed.  And yet it was also changed in the process.  Now its circumnavigation is complete.  Buddhism has reached the West — the scientific, rational-minded West — and once again there are changes afoot.

The question is what kind of changes and for whose benefit?

Last week, I had the pleasure of traveling to Bangkok to attend a conference on Science and Buddhism. It was my first trip to Asia and there was enough eye-popping marvel to fill a few posts on the different trajectories we humans have taken in building our great civilizations. But today I want to focus on why a bunch of scientists journeyed halfway around the globe to present talks on topics as diverse as the origin of life and the fate of the cosmos.  The talks were not just for our own benefit but were part of a meeting with monks and religious scholars (and HRH, the Princess of Thailand).

The first wave of interest in "Science and Buddhism" began in the 1970s and focused on quantum mechanics. It was, to my mind, mostly silly.  The emphasis was on how quantum physics, with its uncertainty principle and wave function collapse, was somehow embracing ancient truths of eastern religion.  This approach reached the heights of wackiness with the infamous movie What the Bleep Do We Know.  The great problem with this train of thought was it assumed the answer it wanted to find in the first place. Quantum mechanics doesn't say Buddhism is true. It doesn't say anything.  It's a calculus that is open to many interpretations from the mundane (statistical approaches) to the mind-blowing (the many worlds interpretation).  While finding proof that mind affects subatomic behavior would be thrilling, such proof simply does not exist.

Now however things have sobered up.

The real place for Buddhism and Science to begin their discussions is the nature of the Mind.  After all, Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, claimed to have found a way out of the suffering humans are heir to and his prescription was centered exactly and explicitly on an investigation of Mind.  For 2,500 years the various Buddhist practices from Vipassina in Thailand to Zen in Japan have focused on a direct observation of, and investigation into, consciousness.

A number of talks focused on the way neuroscience and Buddhism can talk fruitfully together. Mario Beauregard, of the Neuroscience Research Center at the University of Montreal, spoke of his functional MRI studies exploring how the brain changes during contemplative practice (meditation).  The indefatigable B. Allan Wallace spoke of creating a "graduate program" for training contemplative observers who could work with scientists in studying the Mind.  Considering how young our studies of consciousness are adding trained "internal observers" to the mix, and unpacking the 2,500 years of insight into the nature of consciousness that Buddhism, holds seemed exciting indeed.

But there was more.  By its nature the Buddhist perspective is holistic and many of the researchers were, each in their own way, speaking to that holism as it manifested in their research.  Pier Luigi Luisi from the University of Rome spoke of the human genome and human evolution.  Dennis Noble of Oxford University spoke on the definitions of life in a cellular/bio-chemical context.  What was heartening was that the goal in these presentations was not to show how new theories embraced Buddhist worldviews but to ask deeper questions about perspectives and guiding metaphors.

And, of course, no discussion of Buddhism can miss the point that the goal of whole endeavor is to alleviate suffering.  "To save all beings" is a classic Buddhist phrase and appropriately talks on political and management science were also included with special emphasis on how Buddhist perspectives can support sustainable cultures.

For my part, I was asked to simply present the modern story of cosmology.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  It was happy to help.  The fact that no interpretation was asked for spoke volumes about the intentions.

When we discuss science and religion, as we so often do in this blog, we usually focus on the conflict model that has been the public norm in this country.  The problem with including Buddhism in the mix of our discussions of science and religion is that its most visible public entrance into the debate had been through the quantum mechanics and physical sciences.  This is, to my mind, the wrong gate.  Hopefully that era has passed and a new and more meaningful discussion can begin that will be fruitful and enlightening for everyone.