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Are the central claims of Buddhism consistent with a scientific naturalist four dimensional world view?

  1. Introduction

Ever since Buddhism made its arrival to the West sometime during the beginning of 19th century, it has been treated to be an ally of science which belief persists even today. Most often, the scientific authenticity of Buddhism is attributed to Albert Einstein quote that:

If ever there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism[1].

Even though there is difference of opinion between the western authors and core Buddhist philosophers as to whether the central claims of Buddhism are indeed scientific and whether this quote can in fact be attributed to Einstein, yet the fact that it is finding place in the literature in a large manner[2] brings to the central focus the scientific potential of Buddhism for debate and in accordance with this, the objective of this paper is to examine the statement as to whether the central claims of Buddhism are consistent with a scientific natural four dimensional world view.

  1. Discussions

Why at all Buddhism is considered to have a common ground with science in the western societies despite the fact that it is considered to be incongruent with the views held in the Eastern society? One view towards this is that it provided a possible remedy to a ‘crisis of faith’ in the Victorian society by being perceived as a ‘system’ that offered both ‘spiritual solace’ and ‘scientific rationality’ by bridging the gap between science and Christianity[3]. Even though there was a rapid waning in the belief of the connection between Buddhism and science, there has occurred a renewed interest in this with a large number of researchers devoting themselves to the study of such connections[4] in the last twenty years or so.

How can one draw the basis for a discussion on the relationship between Buddhism and science? According to some Buddhist scholars[5], this would fall into categories of dialogue and integration wherein dialogue makes it possible to compare religion and science even while accepting they are different for the reason they are analogous to each other in one way or another and integration takes the dialogue further to establish a claim that analogies in fact means similarities. When this is accepted, it follows that it is feasible to establish a singular system that covers both religious beliefs and scientific theories.

While discussing the central claims of Buddhism, it has to be kept in mind the term was coined by Western scholars in the 19th century to describe diverse views and practices that were found to be prevalent in Asia which trace themselves to the historical Buddha, viz, Siddhartha Gautama.

The central claims of Buddhism under such circumstances would have to move away from the religious elements (as for instance the belief that Buddhism is mystical[6]) to cognitive science wherein the focus of the claims are on selfhood, embodiment, meditation etc. In the recent past, the dialogue of the relationship of Buddhism with that of science has taken the form of ‘neruscientific research’ of meditation for the reason it appears to be compatible to each other, as for instance the central claims of Buddhism could be traced to human experience through the human mind, wherein the central concept is concentrated on explaining ‘conditions arising’ (pratītya samutpāda). Specific instances of conditioned arising relate to aversion, craving and ignorance and the teachings of Buddhism concentrate on cultivating a path to awakening conditioned arising.

Why naturalism acquires importance in the context of Buddhism? It is because Buddhism is considered to be a ‘phenomenological religion’ as a result of which it is not hit by the naturalistic rejection of reference to a transcendent entity[7]. A naturalist in this regard can be taken to be one who has the ability to dabble in all the branches of ‘physical science’, besides having some opinions (it is immaterial here whether they are right or wrong in holding such opinions) on human sciences as well.

The four dimensional world views are important for the reason it contains the central message which Buddhism wants to convey. It is comprised of in four ‘noble truths’, viz, that life is not only unstable but also unsatisfactory, (ii) the deep rooted desire of the human beings for seeking stability and satisfaction results in misery, (iii) if the human beings learn to stop the craving they would no longer attempt this impossible which (iv) would provide them with peace. The method to accomplish this is to follow the eight ethical and meditative lifestyle recommendations (they are not discussed here as they are not directly relevant for this paper) which are where the scientific aspect of Buddhism comes into focus.

Where are the commonalities between Buddhism and science? This question could be answered by stating the similarities could found in outlook and even in language that sounds similar. For example, the religious term ‘impermanence’ could be substituted with the scientific term ‘entropy’. Similarly, ‘emptiness’ could be substituted with the world ‘indeterminacy’. If science functionally could be treated as an effort to understand ‘reality’ and arrive at an understanding what could be done with that reality, in Buddhism, a parallel could be found in having an ‘insight’ on the experiences in life and understanding of that experience through the rigmaroles one undergoes with such experiences. It is for this reason Buddhism is considered to be a ‘phenomenological religion’.

Coming to a specific application of Buddhist teachings that can be correlated to the science of psychology, it can be found in the term ‘mindfulness’. Mindfulness directs the attention to the ‘present moment’ by accepting everything without judging or reacting. Its scientific value could be found in its ability to transform the spiritual notion into a powerful and all pervading therapeutic tool[8]. Mindfulness when practiced strategically can not only help in making one feel good by putting aside the negative feelings, but also could improve once physical health[9]. By cultivating mindfulness, one can become aware of the process of dissipation, which paves the way to fine tune the mind to follow a much more directed path on the objects one wishes to focus[10]. In effect it can be used as a therapeutic tool when one keeps away the thought that it has its roots in Buddhism. Therapeutic mindfulness strategies can scientifically be applied has been demonstrated in a number of studies[11].

  1. Conclusions

While concluding this paper, it has to be kept in mind that interpretation of the term ‘science’ itself is difficult, for the reason it is a vague and generic term, for which reason scientists themselves do not speak in a common language. While it is debatable whether Buddhism could be connected to pure sciences directly due to large number of grey areas existing in various arguments, ( as for instance, the relationship between Buddhism and Physics or Biology), when it comes to human sciences (e.g. science of psychology), one can say with a degree of certainty, Buddhism strikes a common ground. Evidence towards this could be found in the Jungian psychology and its offshoot ‘Transpersonal Psychology’[12]. It can also help one to maintain alertness, develop motivation and commitment[13]. It would then be prudent to conclude that even though Buddhism and science has distinct world views, yet without disturbing their individuality and uniqueness, mankind can benefit from another, if there is a mediation of ideas flow from one to another.

Works Cited

Abe, Masao. The Self in Jung and Zen. S.l. 1985. Print.

Austin, James H. Zen-brain Reflections: Reviewing Recent Developments in Meditation and States of Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010. Print.

Barbour, Ian G. “On Typologies for Relating Science and Religion.” Zygon. 37.2 (2002): 345-360. Print.

Dalai Lama: The Universe in a Single Atom, London: Little, Brown, 2005, Print

Garfinkel, Perry. Buddha or Bust: In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness and the Man Who Found Them All. New York: Harmony Books, 2006. Print.

Jackson, R R. “How Mystical Is Buddhism? (Ilkka Pyysiyaeinen’s Beyond Language and Reason: Mysticism in Indian Buddhism).” Asian Philosophy. 6.2 (1996): 147-154. Print

Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. New York, N.Y: Delacorte Press, 1990. Print.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life. London: Piatkus, 1994. Print.

McMahan, D L. “Modernity and the Early Discourse of Scientific Buddhism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 72.4 (2004): 897-933. Print.

Niimi, J. Buddhism and Cognitive Science, 18 July, 2002. Electronic, Available from http://home.uchicago.edu/~jniimi/buddcogsci/paper.html and accessed on 11 May, 2103

Payne, Richard K. Buddhism and Cognitive Science: Contributions to an Enlarged Discourse. Pacific World 4 (3) (2002), 1-14, Print

Philos Lennart Nerreklit: Naturalism & Spirituality on the Foundation of Value and Peace, V.6 I.U.C. Journal of Social Work Theory and Practice, 2002/2003. Print

Ryan, Phillip. Einstein’s Quotes on Buddhism. October 26, 2007: Tricycle, Electronic, Available from http://tricycleblog.wordpress.com/2007/10/26/einsteins-quotes-on-buddhism/ and accessed on 11 May, 2013

Rosch, Eleanor. Transformation of the Wolf Man. In: Picke Ering, G John (ed.). The Authority of Experience: Essays on Buddhism and Psychology. Surrey Curzon Press, 1997 Print

Segal, Zindel V, J M. G. Williams, and John D. Teasdale. Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse. New York: Guilford Press, 2002. Print.

Wallace, B A. The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006. Print.

Williams, J M. G. The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness. New York: Guilford Press, 2007. Print.

[1] For more detail on this quote, please see Ryan, 2007

[2] Please see Niimi, 2002

[3] In McMahan, 2004

[4] Some of them happen to be Alan Wallace, 2009; James Austin, 2010; Eleanor Rosch, 2007

[5] Barbour, 2002; Payne, 2002

[6] Please see Jackson, 1996

[7] Please see Philos, 2002/2003

[8] Please see Kabat-Zin, 1990, 1994

[9] Please see Siegel, 2007

[10] Please see Dalai Lama, 2005

[11] Please see Garfinkel, 2006; Williams, et al, 2007

[12] For more discussion on this see Abe, 1985

[13] Please see Segal, 2003

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