Friday, October 2, 2009

Is Buddhism a Science, Religion, or a Philosophy?

I ran across a few other blog sites which have asked one of the three questions summarized above. I feel many of the arguments pro and con each of these items was partly based on semantics and partly on something else that I thought would be worth sharing about. If you define religion as a kind of social club with membership requirements, obligations, and rules to follow, a belief system about the meaning of life, whether or not a supreme god or goddess exists, and how reality functions, ethical norms that one must abide by, and some kind of priesthood and/or priestesshood, then there are forms of Buddhism that have all of this and that are definitely religions. Given this understanding of a religion, atheism is not a religion, because atheists generally do not meet as an organized club, have membership fees, and leaders, unless you count meeting with other atheist friends and chatting with each other, or maybe groups like "Heretics Anonymous" where atheists who have been burned out on religon can meet together to detox and their previous addiction to a cultish religious trip.

I mention this, because atheism is a kind of opposite pole to traditional religion. Some might argue that it is still a kind of religion in that an atheist usually has some kind of life philosophy that he or she lives by. This is usually true, because human beings think and will eventually have some thoughts about how reality works and how to live in reality. This life philosophy is usually something that is personally created by the individual over time, as they encounter experiences, read books, watch movies, listen to music, work at his or her job, and talk with others. People vary in how much they reflect on their lives and may seen as living a life philosophy by default. In other words, if you do not reflect on what life means, seek pleasurable experiences, avoid painful ones, believe that when your body dies that your core identity also dies, do not believe in reincarnation or the law of karma, believe that many chance and physical causation runs the universe, rather than any intelligent order, think that evolution mainly happened by accidental forces converging for no deep reason, and that we are lucky that we even have one lifetime (unless it is painful), then a person is an atheist and is living a certain kind of personal life philosophy. Because it is created by an individual for his or her own sake, it is likely that atheists would have differences of opinion with each other, and even the individual would have differences of opinion with previous version of his or her own beliefs as he or she learns about life over time. This particular view might be labeled "scientific materialism", "hedonism", and/or "humanism". The latter dependent on whether or not an atheist finds a reason to be a good person according to some ethical idealism or inner conscience (most do). It actually takes a lot of work to become a truly evil person. Like the philosopher Mencius once said (I am paraphrasing), "Doing evil is like swimming upstream". Basic goodness and social harmony tend to go together. Humans are very social creatures. The longer dependency of human children on their parents both makes them vulnerable to emotional wounds and also requires them to be more social than other animals who more quickly learn to fend for themselves. Other animals seem to have a stronger tie in to their instinctive intelligence and therefore are more hard wired biologically to act within the pattern of their species. Humans need to learn more and therefore can break away from the patterns of their species more easily. Perhaps dogmatic religions have their pull on humans because they give something that replaces the instinctive certainty that other animals species have.

I mention atheism because sometimes Buddhism has been labeled a version of atheism. It does have a lot in common with atheism. One of the stated missions of the Buddha was to "end all speculative views" and to ground in what our experience can teach us. In this sense, he laid down the foundations for science. I would consider Buddhism to be a scientific religion. This understanding of Buddhism is different from the claim by a Biblical Creationist that this or her religion is scientific. This is because Buddhism is scientific in principle and in its method. You learn from your experience and do not believe what you do not learn from your experience. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are prophetic religions. They all believe in a supreme god, who has a personality, who can talk to humans, and who is like a ruler who gives beliefs and rules that humans must follow, who rewards those who believe and follow these rules, and punishes those who do not believe and do not follow these rules. The main difference between these religions is which book represents the "will" of this supreme being, what beliefs should be believed, and what rules should be followed. All the arguments are essentially exegetical. You go to the authoritative book that represents the will of this god or goddess and find out what he or she said. The arguments are authoritarian in nature, because the supreme god or goddess is considered the ultimate authority that should be obeyed and believed. When a Biblical Creationist says that his or her religion is scientific, what he or she is saying is that he or she believes that his or her prophetic book has scientific confirmation, that geological records and the like can be interpreted in a manner that fits what the Bible says. But the belief system that is actually held by a Biblical Creationist cannot be built up by merely scientific means. It needs an authoritative revelation from an allegedly supreme being in order to validate itself. For instance, there is no scientific experiment that proves that this being created the world in exactly "six 24 hour solar days" (a few of the days not even having a sun and these days are "morning to morning" without having a sun, try to picture how you would even know it is morning without a sunrise!). Imagine a scientist saying to another scientist, "Look at this data, it shows that the supreme being made the universe in six days, rather than seven days, eight days, or one year. See this reading on this carbon dating method. We finally calibrated our instruments to know exactly when each thing was created to the day and, by golly, it happens to perfectly match the book of Genesis as interpreted by my minister who never studied any geological layers at all!". At best, a Biblical Creationist can perhaps scientifically prove that scientific research does not contradict his or her allegedly revealed belief system (I personally do not think that the six literal day creation theory is even biblical, because it cannot be taken literally and make sense).

The Buddha was not a prophet revealing the will of a personal supreme god, but a seer who saw the nature of reality, shared what he saw, and shared a method by which we could verify what he saw. Because of this approach, Buddhism is self correcting. It can change its opinions about how reality functions over time and still remain consistent with how the views of the Buddha emerged. When someone asked the Dalai Lama a hypothetical question, if science contradicted some Buddhist belief, what would he do. The Dalai Lama replied that he would let go of the belief and went on to mention that Buddhism has revised its beliefs many times. There are many Buddhist philosophical schools and some of them have emerged as better descriptions of reality than other ones over time. This roughly parallels how science went from Aristotle to Newton to Einstein.

The other difference is that in Buddhism there is very little that you have to believe. In a prophetic religion, believing and behaving a certain way is part of how you obey the supreme being. In Buddhism, you are expected to not believe something until you have learned about it in your own experience. Until then, you are meant to believe it, at best, as a working hypothesis. So you are meant to be a kind of agnostic atheist until you learn in meditation what is real and what is not. In terms of the categories of philosophy, Buddhism uses a phenomenological approach. The main instrument that you use to investigate reality is awareness. It is a more informal and personal approach than the rituals of modern science where there is observation, hypothesis, experiment, and verification or falsification. Assumptions are tested in reality by designing an experiment that can confirm or disprove what we would expect to find if something were true.

There is social side to science in that a scientific community has emerged where the results of certain experiments can meant to be repeated to see if initial experiments were accurate. Regular science places a lot of emphasis on repeatability and looking to see if alternative explanations can account for the results. Scientists are meant to be skeptical and try to disprove a hypothesis in order to see if it stands up to questioning. This has created a kind of scientific priesthood and priestesshood over time which makes judgments about other scientific investigators or smaller scientific clubs. Humans can be delusional and dogmatic about their theories about how reality functions. The scientific community, too, may have its own unexamined prejudices that may filter results. There are challenges, too, in that not everyone can afford to do certain kinds of research and testing, and therefore could not afford to prove their theories in this environment. This makes scientific research serve the interests of corporations which are profit focused and which can fund experiments that promise to create and sell new products. Perhaps universities are less swayed by this corporate bias to the direction of research, but I think that it still looms in the background as "issues of funding".

Because Buddhism does function as a religion in many ways, it can supply an alternative set of motivations for research and a distinctive direction for research. It is mainly psychological in its focus, since its aim is to end human sorrow by a way of living and by a shift in consciousness called "enlightenment". At the heart of everything that Buddhism does is this shift in consciousness that was achieved by the Buddha. The aim is not merely to believe certain beliefs or to follow a certain set of rules, but to duplicate this shift in consciousness inside of us so that we can achieve a state of consciousness that is a potential for us, natural to us and free from sorrow. In other words, the goal is not to produce believers, but to help birth enlightened beings and merely memorizing beliefs does not achieve this.

This is also where Buddhism is different from merely being a life philosophy. There is a life philosophy implied in Buddhism. It is about living in freedom as an individual and in social harmony with others. Its philosophy is evolutionary in a sense and dovetails well with the scientific theory of evolution. The Buddha, in this perspective, was one of the forerunners of a mutational shift that we will all eventually undergo. In terms of who has undergone this evolutionary shift, the Buddha said, "I am not the first and I am not the last". He expected that others would also undergo this process and vowed not to leave the Earth until he had created a living community with enough beings who had also shifted, enough "critical mass," so that future generations could rely on enlightened guides to midwife and complete their own mutational process.

Many life philosophies are merely about being a good person, finding supportive friends and lovers to share your life with, possibly creating a family, finding creative work that can pay the bills, and taking time to enjoy art and nature. Sometimes a life philosophy needs to develop to handle certain kinds of ethical and practical issues, like whether abortions are okay to do, whether women have equal rights to men, whether it is okay to mercy kill someone who is dying in extreme pain and who is not expected to live very long anyway, and whether it is okay to use lethal force to defend yourself against an enemy. While these issues are good to get mental clarity about and do profoundly affect how we choose to live, many life philosophies do not aim beyond a certain level of human life. Paradoxically, because of this aim to go beyond human life which is within Buddhism, it can affirm the value of human life and be more clear about what it offers us. We can live and enjoy our human life while evolving beyond what we what we already are.

Because of this perspective, I can look at Christianity and see Jesus in a certain way. When he talks about the "son of man" and reveals what it means when he turns his body into light, I see that he is showing the same mutational shift that had happened to the Buddha. When Saint Paul talks about Jesus being, "The first fruits of those raised from the dead," I can see that he is implying that others would follow Jesus in this same willed evolutionary journey. When Saint Paul says, "Not all flesh is the same, but differ in glory (energy)," I can understand that this mutational shift alters our very DNA. When Buddha says, "I am no longer a human." I can understand that this shift is not merely spiritual but biological. I can see that when you strip the anthropomorphic metaphors like "god" and use scientifically more precise terms like "Dharmakaya" or "all pervading impersonal wisdom energy" that Jesus is speaking about something scientific but within the context and limitations of the religion and culture of his time. He is doing the best he can with the language and belief systems of who he is communicating with.

When Buddha was asked about the validity of other religions, he said, "If they have the eightfold path within them, then they are valid. If they do not have the eightfold path within them, they are not." What he did not mean is that only Buddhism is valid. He was speaking as a kind of evolutionary scientist and saying that if a religion has all the critical elements to support the mutational shift then it will serve those who follow it. The eightfold path is like a stripped down version, like a basic car that can go down the road with no unnecessary bells and whistles. When a religion gets too much accumulation, then it can block the transformation process or bury the critical elements, just like certain features in car and make us lose gas mileage or short circuit our electrical system and prevent it from running at all. Like a scientist and like a social reformer, the Buddha makes sure that the critical elements are kept in focus. The Buddha's answer is also a cautionary note for future versions of Buddhism to keep to the essential process and not added too many unnecessary beliefs and rituals. Even beliefs which happen to be true could be unnecessary trivia that wastes a little time and when there are enough of them people can get lost in them and forget the original purpose of the teachings. I would say that Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and the Eight limbs of Yoga are another version of the dharma that can serve the same mutational process and has very little excess baggage too. I would also include the Tao Te Ching and Tai Chi as another valid path as well as the methodology of the Sufis and some Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart and the Hesychasts.

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