A Scientific Buddha?

”… this belief in essences that must be destroyed in order to bring an end to suffering and rebirth.” – D.S. Lopez, The Scientific Buddha

Donald S. Lopez has written a clear book on Buddhism called The Scientific Buddha. Although it aims to critically scrutinize the notion of “The Scientific Buddha,” it comes across as a positive and very stimulating read, placed somewhere between science and religion.

The Scientific Buddha is based on several lectures, which gives the book a cozy feel. It begins with an introduction to Buddhism and from there, it moves on to the birth of the scientific Buddha. The problem, for Lopez, is that “some even went as far as to declare that Buddhism was not a religion at all, but was itself a science of the mind.” The author tries to convince the reader that Buddhism really is a religion. Partly he succeeds.

The debate is not new, but due to the increased focus on Buddhism and mindfulness in the West, many are trying to locate the real Buddha. Perhaps to gain authority. Personally, I don’t share this need for locating an origin, so in part, I am not convinced that it is such a big problem. And perhaps for this reason, I don’t find his argument that effective. After all, Buddhism may or may not be a religion (many scholars agree and disagree), but it has never been a religion in a Christian or Muslim sense. For example, the Dalai Lama has beautifully stated, “My religion is kindness.” The Buddha responded to life, not some transcendent demands. Furthermore, science can become a religion for some as well. So for me there is plenty of room for the Buddha somewhere in the middle.

The historical Buddha was a prince born into wealth and decadence, until he one day left his castle and experienced life in its full, that is, as suffering.He then began a journey, that was either religious or scientific, to create a way out of suffering. This journey he later shared as his teachings. Thus, the Buddha as scientist requires that the Buddha really was once a man called Gautama Siddhartha before he woke up under the Bodi tree.

Lopez shows how some have tried to place Buddhism in various scientific contexts, for example, evolutionary theory. While I agree that these contexts don’t make much sense, it doesn’t make the Buddha more religious either. However, once Lopez started talking about the problem with karma, mediation and the contemporary use/misuse of Buddhism, it became obvious that he knows his Buddha from the depth of his heart to the tips of his fingers writing this book. This embedded knowledge of Buddhism makes the book a very enlighten read.

From the third chapter onwards, Lopez goes more directly into the heart of Buddhism. ”The cause of the world is karma.” He discusses about the four noble truths, the cultivation of seeds, the three forms of sufferings, how nirvana is the end of rebirth, and how truth is something we have lost and now must find again. He mentions this to emphasize his point that the Buddha is religious, not a scientist, and yet it seems like the real Buddha is neither of the two extremes. There is an element of experimentation in Buddhism. Whoever the Buddha was and is – real or abstract – there is something in the practice related to his name that makes both religion and science too rigid or limited to grasp. He appears to more like a philosopher, for example, like Pierre Hadot understands “philosophy as a way of life,” not some abstract exercises.

Regardless of the debate whether Buddhism is religion or science, there has been a tendency to overemphasize the positive elements of Buddhism without paying enough attention to the role of suffering, including the suffering caused by some Buddhists. For example, the process of cultivation also means that creation goes hand in hand with destruction. Recently, the Buddhist majority in Myanmar has been critiqued for discriminating against the Muslim minority. Thus, perhaps not all Buddhists show loving-kindness and compassion.

Still, the reader may ask: Was the Buddha a scientist or a God? This either-or thinking is what causes suffering, I think. Following the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, I would rather ask, “What does the Buddha make possible?”

Let me give an example. If mindfulness is the heart of Buddhism, then, at least, it shows that the heart of the Buddha was pure. That, however, does not suggest that all teachers of mindfulness are pure rather than strategic business consultants; it just means that such forms of “mindfulness” only leads to mindlessness. A few rotten apples don’t cause a heart failure. In light of this, then, I am most comfortable with the Buddha being neither a scientist nor a God, but an extraordinary human being. He, or his followers, showed what the human being is also capable of doing. That’s enough.

What kind of book is it? The Scientific Buddha debates the role of the Buddha, but it also serves as a very clear introduction to Buddhism. And it does so exemplarily. It opens a debate further. Yet, although Lopez tries to convince me wrong, I am not converted. I think the problem with extraordinary human beings being put into categories is that so many have a need for a God or a Guru in their life. There are no God’s only different forms of life.

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