For Buddhism, Science is Not a Killer of Religion

Last Monday I spent an hour listening to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama speak on the issue of science and Buddhism. The occasion was a private luncheon for friends, donors, and faculty of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, a project aimed at incorporating modern science into the curriculum for Tibetan Buddhist monastics in exile throughout India.

The Dalai Lama talked about Mount Meru, which is, according to traditional Buddhist cosmology, a holy mountain situated at the center of a disc-shaped and flat Earth. This Earth is surrounded on all sides by the sea. This cosmology held until the 16th century, when European explorers arrived in India with a new religion and a new cosmology. The Earth, these visitors insisted, is not flat or disc-shaped, but is instead an enormous ball. This idea met with stiff resistance from the natives. There were problems. For example: Where in this universe was Mount Meru? On the surface of a sphere there is no central or special point for it to rest. Of course, the modern scientific idea finally took hold, but, due to the remoteness of Tibet, it was not until the 20th century that it made its way fully to that land. The Dalai Lama has been in power since 1960, so cosmology has been a live issue for him.

How does he handle the mount Mount Meru question? Very simply. On Monday he laughed and, waving his arm above his head, said happily,“No Mount Meru!”

Buddhism: Pretty Much Amenable to Enlightenment Types

On the surface, Buddhism can look pretty messy. There are a number of conflicting stories about the founder of the tradition. Many Buddhists consider Gautama Buddha to be divine, a savior of humanity, but some don’t. Some Buddhists barely think of him at all. And, despite scientific cosmology, there are a large number of mortal creatures—most of them non-human—inhabiting a spectacular 31-tiered cosmos, from the hell beings and hungry ghosts way down below to the (mortal) gods and goddesses in the heavens far above. There is karma, which you spend countless lives trying to work off. Once that’s finished, one of two things can happen. If you are of the Theravada school you are extinguished like a blown-out candle, entering nirvana and leaving forever the cycle of life, which is suffering. If you are of the Mahayana school you have the option of returning to the earth as a Bodhisattva to help other sentient creatures (including the polar bears, kiwi birds, and blobfish) reach nirvana themselves.

All of this is highly unappealing to us doubting Thomases who live by Occam’s razor and won’t believe in anything without sufficient evidence. But here’s the rub: In Buddhism, it seems, you don’t have to believe any of this stuff. You can say with all the gravity you can muster that you believe none of it—except perhaps something about nirvana, perhaps—and no one will tell you that you’re not a Buddhist. Because when you whittle it down to its essence, Buddhism is very simple and amenable to Enlightenment types.

To illustrate: His Holiness talked a lot about the Buddha’s teachings, collectively called Buddhadharma. He reminded us that the Buddha refused to take Big Questions, questions of origins or metaphysics or purpose or anything like that. He did so for a simple reason: such questions were useless for his mission, which was single—to relieve all sentient beings of suffering. And questions—such as Is there a God? Where did we come from? What is the purpose of life?—were refused, because the Buddha saw that these questions were tainted at the source. They were distractions from his goal, and, in fact, engaging them would have led to the very anxiety he was trying to relieve. So we have no cosmic-scale or speculative teachings from the Buddha. He was all business.

On this point, the Dalai Lama told us on Monday,

“Buddha’s mission to the world was not to measure the radius of the Earth and the distance between the Earth and the Moon and the distances to the stars, but to teach the Dharma for the single purpose of relieving all sentient creatures of suffering.”

Moreover, he reminded us of the Buddha’s absolute insistence that no one believe him just because he was “enlightened.” He also told his followers to believe nothing just because you read it somewhere or just because it comes from someone in authority. He taught that anything you believe, you should believe only because it is in accord with your experience and your reason. And His Holiness repeated his oft-quoted maxim about what to do when science conflicts with Buddhadharma: adjust or throw out Buddhadharma. After all, this is the only way to be true to Buddhadharma itself. This is Enlightenment thinking worthy of Kant himself. This is scientific rationality in all its rigor.

But the truth is, Buddhism does part ways with the pure reason of Kant and his ilk. That is because there is something you should believe—eventually—if you are serious about being Buddhist. Four things, in fact. Although you don’t have to actually believe these things at first, understanding them is a goal of every disciple of the Buddha. They are called the Four Seals of Dharma.

The Four Seals of Dharma and Seeing Anew

I have known about the Four Seals for years, but my first true personal encounter with them occurred in June. I was visiting India for the first time and while I was there I learned a lot of interesting things. One of these is, the roads of India are perilous and unbelievably chaotic. No one really knows how to drive, it seems, and the water buffalo and cows are outnumbered in the streets only by the small and fast-moving motorized rickshaws. So when I was taking a four-hour taxi ride from Delhi to Agra I had to have something to distract my attention from the harrowing video game-like scene out the front window.

A friend who was riding with me handed me a book called What Makes You Not a Buddhist. Written by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, a Bhutanese lama (and Director of the first Buddhist soccer film, The Cup), it peels away all the claptrap—the heavens, the hells, the pure lands, the deities, the hungry ghosts, the hell beings, and says simply: These are four things you must “believe” in order to call yourself a true Buddhist. They are (1) all compounded things are impermanent; (2) all emotions are pain; (3) all things—including “yourself”—have no inherent existence, and (4) nirvana is beyond concepts. That’s it. Here there are no personal gods or demons or cosmic metaphysics or even divinities to judge you, smite you, love you, die for you, or get between you and your reason.

Notice that the Four Seals are very far from self-evident. This is important. Taken together, the Seals amount to much more than an intellectual solution to the problem of suffering; instead they represent a radically new way of seeing the world. To see the world falsely is to suffer, says the Buddha, and to see the world through the lens of the Four Seals is to see the world as it really is. And when this clear vision is acquired, suffering simply dissipates. The end of suffering comes only with right vision.

So Buddhadharma suggests that you not try to relieve suffering by clinging to what you think will save you, whether it is science, religion, art, your spouse, your children, your money, your public image. Doing so will only increase your suffering and that of your fellow creatures. Instead, let go of everything you think is true, hit the big reset button, and learn to see the world correctly. This is what the Four Seals insist on, and this is what the Buddha insisted on. He did not argue his point of view with those who came to him seeking help; instead, he painted for them a new and clear picture of the world.

I had read about the Four Seals before, but for some reason (maybe because I was in India, maybe because I had just finished working with and learning from Buddhist monks, maybe because the taxi ride was making me ill) I found the seals to be palpably and scarily true. And, per the Buddhadharma, I didn’t believe them just because I was taught them (which I had been), or because I read them in a book written by a lama (which I was doing). I believed them because I had found them to be true in my own experience.

Which is strange, because I’m not a Buddhist.

Not only that, but I’m not into blending things. I’m kind of a purist. I like my wine red, my coffee black, my M&M’s plain, and my religious traditions separate. I hold to the principle that if one wants to find water one should dig a single deep well instead of a number of shallow ones. So it embarrasses me somewhat to admit that although my language is Christian, my stories are Christian, my Scriptures are Christian and my baptism is Christian, in truth I live in the hinterlands of Christianity, just a short distance away from Buddhism’s border. I’m a Christian all right, but I can see Buddhaland from my house.

It is my proximity to Buddhism that allows me to reconcile science and Christianity in a way that may seem contradictory to reason. Living near that border allows a Christian to be wide open to science and shows that Christianity too can absorb and incorporate modern science into itself with plenty of room to spare for metaphysics.

Science, the Killer of Religion

His Holiness told us a final story. Years ago, he met an American woman who was married to a Tibetan. On Monday he explained that it came out in their conversation that he loved science and enjoyed dialoguing with scientists. She was horrified to hear this, he said. Further, she insisted that science was a “killer of religion” and that he had better just stay away from it altogether. He was dismayed that one should think that the two most significant and comprehensive fields of human thought could not be reconciled. He may have felt dismayed at the time, but he smiled as he told the story.

The woman in the story held an opinion that seems to be widespread these days: Science is a killer of religion. Not only do those on the Christian Right believe this; so do the so-called “New Atheists,” who have invested their entire worldview in this notion. Their difficulty with religion seems to be borne of the mistaken ideas that God is subject to scientific categories and that religion is a purely propositional exercise. But God is not contained by discursive language; God is the fundamental mystery of life, the universe, and everything. Religion is not about faith statements but is about clear vision. Whether one is a Christian or a Buddhist, religion is about seeing the world as it really is.

These thoughts passed through my mind as I sat watching the Dalai Lama talk and smile. it occurred to me how easy the science-religion reconciliation is for him, for his fellow Buddhists, and, in a sense, for myself. It is easy because of the way Buddhists view the world and not because they are able to do any particular mental gymnastics.

The Buddhist approach to the science-faith question is not the tortured intellectual affair as it can be for many, who strain to see how God’s action in the world can square with certain physical laws or with some detail of evolutionary theory, or who reject God altogether because God can’t be strapped to a lab bench and poked and prodded. It is so different from that.

Buddhists spend their lives coming to see the world clearly, and the reconciliation is accomplished in the forming of that vision. So by the time one learns to see properly, the problem of science and religion, which appears so substantial to many, simply evaporates.