A few years ago, I and a few other Western scientists had an opportunity at informal meetings with a number of Tibetan lamas to talk about how Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, might become more established and useful in modern, Western culture. I’ve just recently come across a preview of the brief talk I gave toward this end that I think others might find interesting. It’s posing questions, not giving answers, but I think we’ve learned that often asking the right questions is more important than worrying about the right answers. There will also be a great deal of individual variation because one of the things the Buddha was known for as a teacher was adapting his teachings and responses to the particular people he was teaching to.
This, of course, makes many old Buddhist scriptures quite annoying to people who think of Scriptures should be The Truth and so not show any inconsistencies… :-)
As Buddhism comes into any new culture, it must establish productive relationships with important power and value aspects of that culture, and here we will focus on Western science. While Buddhism and science can potentially assist each other, science in the West has focused almost exclusively on the material world, with great success in advancing knowledge. Many Westerners, especially scientists have confusedly mixed this material success with a philosophy of materialism. This philosophy assumes that the only things that are actually real are material things, and thus all religion and spirituality are, by definition, primitive and erroneous beliefs that we should free ourselves of as quickly as possible if we want to make progress.
Buddha Statue in CTT Treehouse
From this perspective, technically known as scientism (current scientific findings as The Truth instead of recognizing science as a method for refining knowledge), the Buddha was a nice man who learned to alter the electrical and chemical balance of his brain processes so he didn’t experience suffering. Then he died and, since the mind is, in materialism, nothing but the electrochemical functioning of the brain, he was gone. The same is true for all monk, nuns, bodhisattvas, nice folks who calmed their brains down, but then they died and were gone. No devas, dakinis, gods, goddesses, reincarnation, karma. Prayers are just talking to yourself. By studying the brain processes of successful Buddhist meditators, someday we will create drugs or electrical treatments which can reduce suffering without anyone having to spend all those thousands of hours learning to meditate…
I once created a prescription label to illustrate this perspective. No, don’t contact me, it’s imaginary, not available! ;-)
Thus Buddhism is unlikely to flourish in this climate, but I will quickly review high quality scientific data that shows that the mind is more than just brain activity and that there is thus good scientific support for ideas, for example, about how prayer might have real effects other than just psychological ones, how reincarnation may be real, how mind may indeed have a spiritual reality beyond brain functioning. In the long run, Buddhism must align itself with this more liberal view of science, not simple, reductive materialism.
[This is spelled out in my magnum opus, The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together, now (2115) available as an ebook as well as a hardcover. Possibly as a paperback in 2016.]