Arri Eisen is a professor at Emery University who has traveled to Dharamsala, India, to teach science to Tibetan Buddhist monks. He writes about his experiences at Religion Dispatches. In "Teaching the Dalai Lama's Monks: Better Religion Through Science," Eisen writes that a monk told him "I am studying modern science because I believe it can help me understand my Buddhism better." It was a statement, Eisen says, that turned his worldview on its head.
In an earlier article, "Creationism v. Integrationism," Eisen brought up the famous remark of His Holiness the Dalai Lama about science and sutras:
"Buddhism turns modern Judeo-Christian ideas on their heads. In Buddhism, experience and reasoning come first, and then scripture. As we wandered down the path of broken rock fragments, Dhondup told me that when he encounters something that disagrees with his beliefs, he tests the new idea with logical evidence and approaches, and then if it holds up, he accepts it. This is what the Dalai Lama means when he says that if modern science presents good evidence that a Buddhist idea is wrong, he will accept the modern science (he gives the example of the Earth moving around the sun, which runs counter to Buddhist scripture)."
Western non-Buddhists react to His Holiness's attitude toward science and scripture as if it were some kind of revolutionary breakthrough. But within Buddhism, it isn't all that revolutionary.
The Role of the Sutras
For the most part, Buddhists do not relate to the sutras in the same way people of the Abrahamic religions relate to the Bible, the Torah, or the Quran. The sutras are not the revealed words of a God who cannot be questioned, nor are they compilations of claims about the physical or spiritual worlds to be accepted on faith. Rather, they are pointers to an ineffable reality beyond the reach of ordinary cognition and senses.
Although one may have faith that the sutras are pointing to truth, merely "believing in" what they say is of no particular value. The religious practice of Buddhism is not based on fidelity to doctrines, but on the very personal, very intimate process of realizing the truth of the doctrines for oneself. It is realization, not belief, that is transformative.
The sutras do sometimes speak of the physical world, but they do so to clarify spiritual teaching. For example, the early Pali texts describe the physical world as being made up of Four Great Elements -- solidity, fluidity, heat, and motion. What do we make of that today?
I sometimes do reflect on how early Buddhists might have understood the physical world based on the "science" of their time. But "believing in" the Four Great Elements is never the point, and I know of no way that knowledge of modern earth science or physics would conflict with the teachings. Most of us, I suspect, in our own heads automatically interpret and "update" the ancient texts to match our knowledge of earth science. The nature of what we are trying to understand does not depend on believing in Four Great Elements rather than atoms and molecules.
The Role of Science
Indeed, if there is an article of faith among many present-day Buddhists, it's that the more science discovers, the better scientific knowledge harmonizes with Buddhism. For example, it appears that teachings on evolution and ecology -- that nothing is immutable; that life forms exist, adapt and change because they are conditioned by environment and other life forms -- fits nicely with the Buddha's teaching on Dependent Origination.
Many of us also are intrigued by contemporary study into the nature of consciousness and how our brains work to create an idea of "self," in light of Buddhist teaching on anatta. Nope, there's no ghost in the machine, so to speak, and we're OK with that.
I do worry a bit about interpreting 2,000-year-old mystical texts as quantum mechanics, which seems to be something of a fad. I'm not saying that's incorrect -- I don't know quantum mechanics from spinach, so I wouldn't know -- but without advanced knowledge of physics and Buddhism such a pursuit could result in junk science and, well, junk Buddhism. I understand there are a few advanced physicists who also practice Buddhism who have turned their attention to this issue, and I will leave it to them to figure out the physics-dharma connection and whether making it is useful. In the meantime, the rest of us probably would do well not to attach to it.
The Realm of True Seeing
It's a mistake, I think, to "sell" Buddhism to a skeptical public by playing up its apparent agreements with science, as I have seen some Buddhists try to do. This plays into an idea that Buddhism must be validated by science to be "true," which is not at all the case. I think we would do well to remember that Buddhism does not require validation by science any more than science requires validation by Buddhism. After all, the historical Buddha realized enlightenment without knowledge of string theory.
Zen teacher John Daido Loori said, "When science goes deeper than the superficial qualities -- and these days science does go much deeper -- it remains constrained to a study of the aggregates. From tree morphology -- trunk, bark, branches, leaves, fruit, seeds -- we dip into tree chemistry, then tree physics; from molecules of cellulose to atoms, electrons, protons." However, "When the true eye functions, it goes beyond looking and enters the realm of seeing. Looking speaks to what things are. Seeing reveals what else things are, the hidden aspect of reality, the reality of a rock, a tree, a mountain, a dog or a person."
For the most part the disciplines of science and Buddhism work on entirely different planes that touch each other only lightly. I can't imagine how science and Buddhism could conflict with each other significantly even if they tried. At the same time, there's no reason science and Buddhism can't peacefully co-exist and even, sometimes, illuminate each other. His Holiness the Dalai Lama seems to have seen the possibilities of such illumination.