Buddhism and Science:

Buddhism and Science:

Probing the Boundaries of Faith and Reason

Dr. Martin J. Verhoeven

Religion East and West, Issue 1, June 2001, pp. 77-97


Western interest in Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, historically coincided with the rise of modern science and the corresponding perceived decline of religious orthodoxy in the West. Put simply: Modern science initiated a deep spiritual crisis that led to an unfortunate split between faith and reason—a split yet to be reconciled. Buddhism was seen as an “alternative altar,” a bridge that could reunite the estranged worlds of matter and spirit. Thus, to a large extent Buddhism’s flowering in the West during the last century came about to satisfy post-Darwinian needs to have religious beliefs grounded in new scientific truth.

As science still constitutes something of a “religion” in the West, the near-absolute arbiter of truth, considerable cachet still attends the linking of Buddhism to science. Such comparison and assimilation is inevitable and in some ways, healthy. At the same time, we need to examine more closely to what extent the scientific paradigm actually conveys the meaning of Dharma. Perhaps the resonance between Buddhism and Western science is not as significant as we think. Ironically, adapting new and unfamiliar Buddhist conceptions to more ingrained Western thought-ways, like science, renders Buddhism more popular and less exotic; it also threatens to dilute its impact and distort its content.

Historians since the end of World War II, have suggested that the encounter between East and West represents the most significant event of the modern era. Bertrand Russell pointed to this shift at the end of World War II when he wrote, “If we are to feel at home in the world, we will have to admit Asia to equality in our thoughts, not only politically, but culturally. What changes this will bring, I do not know. But I am convinced they will be profound and of the greatest importance.”

More recently, the historian Arthur Versluis, in a new book, American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions (1993), pieced together five or six major historical views on this subject, and presented this by way of conclusion:

However much people today realize it, the encounter of Oriental and Occidental religious and philosophical traditions, of Buddhist and Christian and Hindu and Islamic perspectives, must be regarded as one of the most extraordinary meetings of our age. . . . Arnold Toynbee once wrote that of all the historical changes in the West, the most important—and the one whose effects have been least understood—is the meeting of Buddhism in the Occident. . . . And when and if our era is considered in light of larger societal patterns and movements, there can be no doubt that the meeting of East and West, the mingling of the most ancient traditions in the modern world, will form a much larger part of history than we today with our political-economic emphases, may think.

These are not isolated opinions. Many writers, scholars, intellectuals, scientists, and theologians have proclaimed the importance of the meeting of East and West. Occidental interest in the Orient predates the modern era. There is evidence of significant contact between East and West well before the Christian era. Even in the New World, curiosity and interchange existed right from the beginning, as early as the 1700s. One can find allusions to Asian religions in Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, and of course, more developed expressions in Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

By the mid-twentieth century this growing fascination with Asian thought led Arnold Toynbee to envision a new world civilization emerging from a convergence of East and West. He anticipated that the spiritual philosophies of Asia would touch profoundly on the three basic dimensions of human existence: Our relationships with each other (social); with ourselves (psychological); and, with the physical world (natural). What is the shape and significance of this encounter? What does Buddhism contribute to the deeper currents of Western thought; and more specifically, to our struggle to reconcile faith with reason, religion with science?

Science was already the ascendant intellectual sovereign when Buddhism made its first serious entry on the American scene in the latter decades of the 19th century. A World’s Parliament of Religions, held in conjunction with the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago, brought to America for the first time a large number of Asian representatives of the Buddhist faith. These missionaries actively and impressively participated in an open forum with Western theologians, scientists, ministers, scholars, educators, and reformers. This unprecedented ecumenical event in the American heartland came at a most opportune time. America was ready and eager for a new source of inspiration, ex orient lux, the ‘light of Asia.’

By the 1890s America was caught in the throes of a spiritual crisis affecting Christendom worldwide. Modern scientific discoveries had so undermined a literal interpretation of sacred scripture, that for many educated and thoughtful people, it was no longer certain that God was in his heaven and that all was right with the world. These rapid changes and transformations in almost every aspect of traditional faith, had such irreversible corrosive effects on religious orthodoxy, that they were dubbed, “acids of modernity.” They ate away at received convictions, and ushered in an unprecedented erosion of belief. People like my grandparents, brought up with rock-solid belief in the infallible word of God, found their faith shaken to its very foundations. It was as if overnight they suddenly awoke to a new world governed not by theological authority but by scientists. New disclosures from the respected disciplines of geology, biology, and astronomy challenged and shattered Biblical accounts of the origins of the natural world and our place and purpose in it.          Sigmund Freud captured the spirit of the age well when he said “the self-love of mankind has been three times wounded by science.” The Copernican Revolution, continued by Galileo, took our little planet out of the center position in the universe. The Earth, held to be the physical and metaphysical center of the Universe, was reduced to a tiny speck revolving around a sun. Then Darwin all but eliminated the divide between animal and man, and with it the “special creation” status enjoyed by humans. Darwin, moreover, diminished God. The impersonal forces of natural selection kept things going; no divine power was necessary. Nor, from what any competent scientist could demonstrate with any factual certainty, was any Divinity even evident—either at the elusive “creation,” or in the empirical present. Karl Marx people portrayed people as economic animals grouped into competing classes driven by material self-interest. Finally, Freud himself characterized religious faith as an evasion of truth, a comforting illusion sustained by impulses and desires beyond the reach of the rational intellect. Nietzsche’s famous declaration that “God is Dead” may have seemed extreme, but few would have denied that God was ailing. And certainly the childhood version of a personal, all-powerful God that created the world and ruled over it with justice and omniscience was for many a comforting vision lost forever.

One of the lingering side effects of this loss has been the unfortunate disjunction of matter and spirit that afflicts the modern age. It can assume many forms: a split between matter and spirit, a divorce between faith and reason, a dichotomy between facts and values. At a more personal level, it manifests as a mind-body dualism. An unwelcome spiritual and psychological legacy from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is still very much with us today, something that haunts our psyches.

Much of today’s near-obsession with therapy in the West, and even the shift toward psychologizing religion (including the “New Age” phenomenon) could be seen as attempts to heal this deep sense of alienation. The pragmatic philosopher, John Dewey, wrote: “The pathological segregation of facts and value, matter and spirit, or the bifurcation of nature, this integration [i. e. the problem of integrating this] poses the deepest problem of modern life.” This problem both inspires and confounds contemporary philosophy and religion. Wholeness eludes us while the split endures; and yet, almost tragically, the very means we have available to heal it insure its continuation. For, all of our philosophies, academic disciplines, therapies, and even religious traditions are informed by and rooted in aspects of this dualism. Perhaps the most visible expression of this pathological segregation is the gap between science and religion.

Thus, when the eminent philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead scanned the broad outlines of our time, he wrote: “The future course of history would center on this generation’s resolving the issue of the proper relationship between science and religion, so fundamental are the religious symbols through which people give meaning to their lives and so powerful the scientific knowledge through which we shape and control our lives.” And it is in regard to this troubling issue, I think, that Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, are seen to hold out the promise of achieving some resolution. The idea dates back over a hundred years.

After the 1893 Chicago Parliament of World Religions, one Paul Carus, a Chicago-based editor of the Open Court Press, invited some of the influential Japanese Buddhist delegates to a week-long discussion at the home of Carus’s father-in-law, Edward Hegeler. Both deeply felt the spiritual crisis of the times. Both were trying to reform Christianity to bring it in line with current thought; in short, to make religion scientific. It occurred to them that Buddhism was already compatible with science, and could be used to nudge Christianity in the same direction. Toward this end, Carus wanted to support a Buddhist missionary movement to the United States from Asia. His thinking was to create something of a level playing field. Carus had witnessed the most ambitious missionary undertaking in modern history that send thousands of Protestant missionaries abroad to convert the people ‘sitting in darkness.’ He wished to conduct a Darwinian experiment of ‘survival of the fittest.” His goal: to bring Buddhist missionaries to America where they could engage in healthy competition with their Christian counterparts in the East, and thus determine the “fittest” to survive.

With the aid of his wealthy father-in-law who put up money, they sponsored a number of Eastern missionaries to the United States: Anagarika Dharmapala, from what was then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka; Swami Vivekananda, from India representing the Ramakrishna Vedanta movement; and Soyen Shaku, a Japanese Buddhist monk, and Shaku’s young disciple D.T. Suzuki. During his stay in the United States in the late 1890s and early 1900s, Suzuki lived in the small town of LaSalle/Peru, Illinois. He was in his twenties then, and for about eleven years he worked closely with Paul Carus translating Buddhist texts into English and putting out inexpensive paperback editions of the Asian classics. Suzuki later became the leading exponent of Zen in the West, when he returned in the 1950s on a Rockefeller grant to lecture extensively at East Coast colleges.  He influenced writers and thinkers like Carl Jung, Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, Martin Heidegger, Thomas Merton, Alan Watts, and the “beat Buddhists”—Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder. Suzuki died in 1966 in Tokyo. His influence in the West was profound—making Zen an English word, translating Asian texts into English, stimulating a scholarly interest in the Orient among American intellectuals, and deepening American respect and enthusiasm for Buddhism. The historian Lynn White Jr. praised Suzuki as someone who broke through the “shell of the Occident” and made the West’s thinking global. His introduction to the West came about through the hands of Paul Carus.

These early missionaries of Buddhism to the West, including Carus himself, all shared the same modern, reformist outlook. They translated Buddhism into a medium and a message compatible and resonant with the scientific and progressive spirit of the Age. They selectived passages of text to favor that slant, and carefully presented the Buddhist teachings in such a way as to appeal to modern sensibilities—empirical, rational, and liberal. Americans wanted religion to “make sense,” to accord with conventional wisdom. Then, as now, our primary mode of making sense of things was positivist—reliable knowledge based on natural phenomena as verified by empirical sciences. So firmly entrenched is the scientific outlook that it has for all practical purity.


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