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The most recent book from Donald S. Lopez, Jr., one of the most widely read contemporary American scholars of Buddhism, is entitled Buddhism and Science. Unlike most books with this title, it does not explore similarities or complementarities between Buddhist tradition and the natural sciences. It is instead best described by Lopez’s original intended subtitle: A Historical Critique. Alas, Lopez’s publishers apparently thought this subtitle boring, and therefore required him to replace it; his chosen replacement, A Guide for the Perplexed, is not particularly exciting either, and more importantly makes it impossible for the casual reader to find out the ways that this book is drastically different from all the other books out there with the same title.

I am not here to write about dreadful editorial decisions, however, but rather the content of the book. Lopez undertakes what has become one of the most standard methodologies in the contemporary academic humanities: following Foucault and ultimately Nietzsche, it is typically known as genealogy. One starts with a widely used contemporary concept and goes on to show the history of its usage, in order to create doubts among those who might otherwise use it. This has already been done plenty of times both for the concepts of “Buddhism” and of “science”; Lopez’s project here is instead a genealogy of the joint concept of “Buddhism and science,” the frequent form of inquiry that tries to link the two conceptually or analytically. As is typical for contemporary genealogies ever since Edward Said (though not for Foucault’s own and certainly not Nietzsche’s), Lopez finds the origins of “Buddhism and science” in the colonial nineteenth century. He shows us that claims about Buddhism’s compatibility with science remain remarkably consistent from the late 19th century to the early 21st, even though the science itself has changed drastically.

Now what is the purpose of showing us this point? From Nietzsche onward, the genealogical method has never been neutral. The point has always been to undermine. Lopez doesn’t like “Buddhism and science” any more than Nietzsche liked morality. But Lopez is shier than Nietzsche in proclaiming his distaste for the topic of his genealogy. In a followup article published in the “religion and science” journal Zygon last December, Lopez brings out an “argumentative thesis” which, he claims, was only “implied” in his book:

that claims for the compatibility of Buddhism and science have been made in surprisingly consistent rhetorical forms over the course of more than a century and a half, years in which huge advances have occurred in the natural sciences. What is understood by “Buddhism” also has changed considerably over the period. That the claim has remained the same while the meaning of the two nouns — Buddhism, science — has changed so greatly raises a simple question that should give us pause: If Buddhism (however this abstract noun is understood) was compatible with the science of the nineteenth century, how can it also be compatible with the science of the twenty-first? Perhaps it never was, and perhaps it is not now. The more interesting question is why the claim continues to be made.

Now of all the seemingly innocuous words that merit a genealogy of their own, perhaps the most important is this “interesting,” so often claimed without argument. What interests tenured scholars of ancient languages is, to put it mildly, often not what interests most people who now live or ever have lived. So when such a scholar uses the word “interesting” as an adjective to denote a property intrinsic to his subject matter itself, as opposed to merely claiming his own personal interest in the subject, we should at least be alert to what makes it so supposedly interesting. In this particular case, the question of “why the claim [of Buddhism’s compatibility with science] continues to be made” is only more interesting if the claim happens to be false. If it is true that Buddhism (however understood) is compatible in important respects with the science of whatever century, the question at issue — why the claim of compatibility is made — ceases to be an interesting one for anyone without an obsessive interest in minutiae. For if this claim is true, then the odds are that that’s the reason it’s being made.

But to actually declare the claim false? That is where Lopez, like most Buddhologists of the present age, refuses to go. In the Zygon article he casually tosses off this bombshell in the middle of a sentence: “no scholar of Buddhism can say what Buddhism should be.” (Lest I be accused of quoting Lopez out of context, I’ll give the whole sentence: “For, although no scholar of Buddhism can say what Buddhism should be, a scholar can say, or at least speculate on the basis of historical evidence, what Buddhism has been for Buddhists across Asia, extending back over more than two millennia.” (891)) The claim is of course false. Buddhism should be a tradition that teaches us important, provocative and potentially true ideas about the nature of reality, how we should live in it, and the practices that will best enable us to do so. I have a PhD in South Asian Buddhism from Harvard University; I am therefore a scholar of Buddhism. And I have just said what Buddhism should be. Obviously, a scholar of Buddhism can say this.

What Lopez presumably means to say is that scholars should not say what Buddhism should be. But the “implied argumentative thesis” above, and indeed the whole book, are important precisely because of their implications for what Buddhism should be. Lopez’s timid rhetorical questions and “perhaps” are a still-timid way of phrasing the motivation behind the book: Lopez likely wants to claim that Buddhism and science are not compatible, not without doing violence to one or the other. If his genealogy were as forceful as Nietzsche’s, he would be able to come right out and say this. But just as Robert Gimello’s class contained a Catholic apologetic disguised as neutral Buddhist studies, so Lopez keeps up the engaged and partisan genealogical method under the guise of neutrality.

Lopez and Gimello share a familiar critique of modernist Buddhism, the Buddhism I have called Yavanayāna. Lopez claims he is trying to call attention to what is lost when it is claimed that Buddhism and science are compatible. I would say that that’s fair enough – except that this mournful scholarly expression of loss always seems to be directed against the Yavanayāna target. You don’t hear such scholars worry about what is lost in Chinese schools of Buddhism that proclaim that material things have an enduring or even eternal existence and we are all already buddhas – directly contradicting some of the most fundamental teachings of the early Buddhist schools. If you’re going to try and worry us about what is lost in “Buddhism and science,” when are you going to try and worry us about what is lost in Tiantai?