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A little while ago I had the pleasure of giving a guest lecture on Buddhism to David Decosimo‘s class at the Boston University School of Theology. The students were a delight to teach – smart, actively engaged, asking many questions. One student’s question in particular stuck with me after the session. She had started to ask a long set of multiple questions, and then distilled it down to what she referred to as a simple question: “How would you describe the relation between Buddhism and science?”

My first response was: “That is not a simple question!” There is so much to say about it that there are now books written not merely on the actual relationship between Buddhism and science, but on the very idea of a relationship between Buddhism and science. I gave a relatively rambling answer. But after leaving the classroom it occurred to me that there was a relatively simple answer that I could have given – one that would have put a large part of the question’s complexity aside, but focused on something of particular relevance to students of Christian theology.

That is: “the relationship of our tradition with science” typically means something very different to Buddhists than it does to Christians. Years ago I often found myself bored by discussions of “religion and science”, and did not see it as an area of interest. Then, after I started blogging, I realized I had been posting on religion and science many times. In retrospect I came to realize why that was; I had said some of this at the time but there is more to say here.

“Science”, of course, names a very, very large body of knowledge, as well as the norms and practices involved in coming to that knowledge. Discussions of “religion and science” are never discussions of all science. They select the “science” that is most relevant to “religion”. And in keeping with the general tendency in Western discussions of “religion”, “religion and science” usually means Christianity and science, in a way that is probably but not necessarily relevant to Jews and Muslims. The scientific questions usually investigated under that heading are evolution and cosmology, because the scientific consensus on those questions has seemed to be at odds with central tenets of traditional Christian faith. Of course they both contradict the biblical account of creation taken literally; but at a deeper level, a Christian natural-law ethics took as its starting point a divine teleology inherent in animal bodies. We should do what we are designed to do. And once upon a time, such divine design was actually the best available theory to explain the world’s biological variation. Darwin shattered such a view, and Christian faith has never been quite the same since.

But from a Buddhist perspective, things look very different. Here questions of cosmology and evolution really don’t matter! On some of their questions the Buddhist suttas say exactly this. The eternality of the cosmos is the first item on the Buddha’s list of unimportant questions. They do not help us with the quest to end suffering.

But what does help us with that quest is psychology! The Second Noble Truth tells us that suffering comes from craving; the causes of suffering are in our minds. And Buddhist texts are full of detailed explorations of those mental causes. The Abhidhamma texts break down the nature of mind in excruciating detail, and in this they are entirely true to the spirit of the early suttas. It is often stated that the Buddha told his followers not to care about “metaphysics”. That claim is entirely false. Rather, he told them not to care about cosmology, about the metaphysics of the universe’s origins. Throughout the early Buddhist texts we have, a central component of the quest for liberation is insight (paññā or prajñā), specifically meaning insight into a metaphysical question: the absence of self. We cling to existence in a way that makes us suffer, and we do that, in part at least, because we believe that our own selves are real and enduring entities. Psychological understanding is part of what helps us with that.

Several modern psychologists have turned to Buddhist psychological ideas with enthusiasm. The most widely known research project has to do with the beneficial psychological effects of mindfulness meditation, which is already now applied practically in completely secular contexts. Others have argued that psychological research finds no evidence for a unified self. And the Thai-born behavioural economist Nick (Nattavudh) Powdthavee noted how he told his 90-year-old Thai Buddhist grandmother about recent psychological research on happiness and she replied “Tell me something I don’t already know.” And so, he came to think:

maybe it wasn’t Philip Brickman and colleagues who first discovered that people adapt to changes in life events. It probably wasn’t Richard Easterlin who was the first to conclude that economic growth for all increases the happiness of no one…. It was actually the Buddha who first discovered them over 2,500 years ago. (The Happiness Equation, pp. 206, 210)

But there is one core Buddhist idea that psychology has not confirmed – and that is rebirth. Consciousness, research to date seems to indicate, emerges as a property of animal bodies, and dies when those bodies die. We have little good reason to believe that it transfers to another body after death, and less reason still to believe that the nature of that rebirth would correspond to the ethical qualities of one’s behaviour in life. Such research thus falsifies a key element of traditional Buddhist karma theory, and motivates the practice of naturalizing karma, and more generally naturalizing Buddhism. So it is the theory of consciousness as tied to matter, above all, that complicates traditional Buddhist ideas in the way that evolution complicates Christianity. One of the hot topics in contemporary Buddhist thought is the attempt to naturalize karma – but that attempt is itself psychological!

This isn’t the first time I’ve noted how Buddhist tradition emphasizes psychology while Christian tradition emphasizes cosmology. I spoke of it recently – and there my emphasis was not on science but on aesthetics. Christian church architecture, as I understand it, is all about representing the harmony of God’s created cosmos; the theory that I have been able to find behind Buddhist temple architecture is all about the effect that it has on us human beings. The traditions’ approach to art (or at least architecture), at some level, mirrors their approach to science.

As with any simple answer, there are all manner of nuances and complications to be found. But I think it is not an oversimplification to say: where the science that concerns Christians is evolution and cosmology, for Buddhists it is psychology.

[Cross-posted on the Indian Philosophy Blog. I will be taking a break and vacation two weeks from now; my next post will be in late January.]