"It is very necessary to begin the study of science,"
July 8, 2002 9:47 AM   Subscribe

"It is very necessary to begin the study of science," says His Holiness the Dalai Lama in a speech posted at the Science for Monks site. He says science offers "precise and accurate analysis" of phenomena Buddhists have so far explained only "at a very gross level," like time and atomic structure. Tibetan translations of scientific texts and familiar classroom experiments are part of the plan. Will the "unending positive doubts and constructive curiosities" of modern science deepen or undermine the Buddha's teachings? An army of scientists who've taken a vow of poverty sure would throw an interesting kink into the current debate about corporate science.
posted by mediareport (11 comments total)
I'm not sure what the Dalai Lama means in the early paragraph about scientists categorizing themselves into two groups, but if you get past that I think you'll find lots of interesting stuff. And I love this quote from one of the students: "Investigation in science and Buddhism is very similar, but when we talk about emptiness it seems science is a little bit behind."
posted by mediareport at 9:53 AM on July 8, 2002

Great, let's teach Tibetan monks how to build atomic bombs...I guess Buddists becoming an "army of scientists" isn't so ironic then.
posted by yonderboy at 10:02 AM on July 8, 2002

The "integrity in science" link is interesting because I have worked for academic scientists who are "in bed" with large corporations and reap substantial incomes as a result. Ironically, professors are paid very little (except at the topmost schools) compared to their industry counterparts. Becoming an academic is kind of like taking a vow of poverty until the academic gets hooked up with a research corporation that pays for consultancy.

One of the aspects that is overlooked in the link is that managers and executives at research corporations are the former grad students and post-docs of academic scientists. They usually feel a great indebtedness to and respect for their former mentors and are prone to enter into financial agreements with them on behalf of their corporation. Also they are more likely to hire new researchers from the research groups of their former advisors (this is considered a favor to the academic usually) and approve consultantships and "awards" of unrestricted grant money.

One thing this leads to is an abuse of research funds. An academic researcher could be awarded a government grant through NIH for a project that was substantially completed (in advance) using unrestricted funds (from a corporation) then funnel the NIH money into a less "fundable" project. This shell-game is commonplace and hurts less established researchers who have to compete for NIH money with true proposals rather than proposals based on work that is already completed but not yet published.

In my field none of this becomes too unethical because there are no human subjects or clinical trials involved but I wouldn't doubt that the same thing occurs where human lives are involved and that scares me a little.
posted by plaino at 10:14 AM on July 8, 2002

Nice job Plaino--you explain succinctly how we all whore one or another way but always for MONEY. Your morality reminds me of the idea that a monk living atop a mountain can remain pure because temptation not present. The better test is to place him in, say, a place like Bay Watch.
posted by Postroad at 10:55 AM on July 8, 2002

There are some good books that are transcripts from talks the Dalai Lama held with some leading scientists. Gentle Bridges; Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying. Some amazon reviewers found them dry or tedious. I would like to see many more of these, some more in-depth, personally.

I think this process is a good thing. I was very impressed to find that the Dalai Lama acknowledged that if something is found to be true then Buddhists must respect it as such. He gives the example that if reincarnation is proven to be false without a doubt then it should be abandoned. But, for the time being it should be retained since it is a useful tool for realization. Dharma does mean "truth" among other things, so it must be this way.

Problems might be the preconceptions of both sides. Tantra is not really what His Holiness was connecting to science, but tantra in particular can seem really superstitious if not understood correctly, especially by a materialist. The Dalai Lama mentions earlier mistrust of Westerners from the Tibetan perspective. Another problem could be a domineering conquest mentality. I recall one article recently about PET scans of Buddhist practitioners during meditation practice. It concluded that since one region of the brain became less active during a point of clarity then that region must control mystical experience, calling it the "God center". That completely ignores the debate over whether mind is servant to the brain, vice versa, or interdependence, and then posits a God on top of it.

I don't see how Buddhism could be undone by science. Like the speech said, Buddhism is very compatible with science, especially with its default to verifiable truth. Now, some of the tantric stuff as I mentioned above, includes a great gigantic helping of symbolic language, so I could see that someone might like to go dimly poking holes around in there, but I guess that is kind of inevitable. I know about what any intellectual should minimally know about modern physics, but it doesn't bother me that Tibetan practices sometimes refer to five elements of air, fire, water, earth and space. It is actually pretty useful when developed and related to Wisdom.

As the Dalai Lama says, science is further supporting Buddhism by verifying emptiness, interdependence, and taking it far deeper than what was possible before. I can see the shared effort that he emphasizes, which is why I think it is good. It's the good direction to go in.
posted by mblandi at 12:30 PM on July 8, 2002

I read a very good quotation by the Dalai Lama in Sagan's
'The Demon Haunted World.' (I paraphrase)

Sagan asked, "If science disproved a particular tenet of Buddhism, what would you do?"

The Dalai Lama replied, "We'd have to adapt to that then."

"Even if it was something central, like reincarnation?"

"We'd have to adapt. But," he said with a twinkle in his eye, "reincarnation is very difficult to disprove."
posted by adrianhon at 1:37 PM on July 8, 2002

Thanks for the info, plaino; I wasn't aware that's how the shell game worked these days. I have lots of friends in botanical sciences departments at NC State University, a school that's always been real close to industry (textiles, turfgrass, tobacco). They tell me the connections have gotten much closer in recent years, which I guess is the way it is almost everywhere.

mblandi: I couldn't agree more. I hope the interaction produces lots of freaky new insights.
posted by mediareport at 10:51 PM on July 8, 2002

There's a Reincarnation FAQ for the curious.

I wish the Dalai Lama well but can't help feeling that he's trying to mix oil and water. Western Science is not metaphysically neutral - for it there is a real external world which our reason can explore - moreover this activity is worthwhile, created nature exists to understand and master.

Correct me please, but to a Buddist the material world is a mind-created illusion, engagement with which only causes more illusion and suffering.

These metaphysics seem fundamentally opposed as is their view of the good life, the one leading to a 'Baconian' torturing of nature to reveal her secrets, the other a Budda like withdrawl from the illusions of Samsara.

But as the Dalai Lama says in the link, when you're sick, there's no doubt who you'd turn to.
posted by grahamwell at 6:24 AM on July 9, 2002

Science and the Buddha-Dhamma are far from mutually exlusive, as they are both concerned with the quest for truth, without blind faith, dogmatic creeds or superstitious rites and ceremonies, but rather by a middle way, reminiscent of Aristotle's Golden Mean.
As part of this middle way, a Buddhist neither withdraws from the material world, nor indulges in it, but attempts to gain pure understanding of it, by breaking through the veil of ignorance with virtue, mental cultivation and wisdom. The Buddha Gotama, after all, had to leave his palace and enter the world before he could awaken, and free himself from its bondage.
posted by stuporJIX at 6:59 AM on July 9, 2002

Grahamwell, this part of the speech points out that actually Scientists are at this impasse, however the mind-only school is thought to be inferior in that it is dualistic in assigning reality to mere projection:

"Presently, the radical materialists in their investigation and experiment over subtle objects found out that nothing truly and ultimately exists. As they are unable to posit any truly existing object, they feel that true existence perhaps never exists... When they do not find it, they feel that everything existed as mere projection of our mind, hence drawing themselves close to the views of the Cittamatrina (Mind-only) school of Buddhism."

The tantric path and its goal lead to an engagement with reality to transform our misunderstanding of it (assigning existence to it, positing a self) to wisdom. This doesn't deny the appearance, but recognizes it as, at base, good and enlightened display. Therefore, it is considered to be a higher school.

You are right that reality is there to examine and master (although I don't like some connotations of that), but wrong in that you say that at heart Buddhism is not about that examination and mastering.

I often wonder if scientists working daily with particle physics are affected much by their understanding of emptiness and theories about the appearance of reality from it through relative interaction. Do they laugh when they get pissed off at screaming kids? Do they really care that much about material wealth? I know that Buddhism can feel schizophrenic at times, I guess I don't see why science can't.
posted by mblandi at 2:14 PM on July 9, 2002

Correct me please, but to a Buddist the material world is a mind-created illusion, engagement with which only causes more illusion and suffering.

Well, yes and no. The material world is real but it's also an illusion. I understand it as part of the whole empty-not empty dichotomy. If I look at my hand I see skin over bones, which is composed of cells, which are made of molecules, molecules to atoms, atoms to protons, neutrons and electrons and a whole lot of blank space in between. My hand is probably much more accurately described as a LOT of nothing with a little something scattered around. I see my job as a Buddhist to recognize both of those realities and a bunch more (what is the nature of a hand?) and to weigh the importance of each reality when choosing to deal with the material world.
Buddhism is the middle road, after all, recognizing that something can be tangible and intangible at the same time and embracing that. I think science and Buddhism have a lot to offer each other.
posted by dness2 at 3:49 PM on July 9, 2002

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