Skip Navigation
Whose Buddhism and Which Science?

Whose Buddhism and Which Science?

Donald S. Lopez Jr. of the University of Michigan seeks to explain why some Buddhists and some scientists have been so eager, for a century and a half, to assert the compatibility of two very different ways of seeking knowledge.

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

Before he embarked on research for his 2008 book "Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed," if Donald S. Lopez heard something about Buddhism and science being compatible, he would recall an old bestseller by Fritjof Capra, a physicist. It was published in 1975 under the title "The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism."

Buddhism and science—that's from the seventies, he would think.

Buddhism and Science

"I was right, but I was off by a century," said Lopez, a professor at the University of Michigan, at a talk on campus in which he considered the persistence, since the 1870s, of assertions of correspondence or at least compatibility between modern scientific methods and Buddhist practices, or between selected scientific theories and Buddhist beliefs. The Feb. 23, 2009, lecture was sponsored by the UCLA Center for Buddhist Studies. Lopez is a familiar name on standard texts and reference works in the field, and is coeditor with UCLA's Robert Buswell on a forthcoming million-word, polyglot "Dictionary of Buddhism."

"We see the claim that Buddhism and science are compatible being made for over 150 years, and a different Buddhism and different science is being called into play to make that claim over the decades," he said at the talk. "For Buddhism to be compatible with science over that period of time, as science changes so drastically, should raise some questions in our minds."

Lopez briefly surveyed the variety of different claims about Buddhism's relationship with modern science over the 150-year period. The first assertions of their compatibility came, he said, from Asian Buddhists, from Sri Lanka to Japan, who wanted to defend their belief system against charges of superstition and backwardness.

Much later, Easterners and Westerners would assert that the Buddha had anticipated a scientific theory or empirical finding, including the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, the Big Bang, and the existence of multiple worlds. Sometimes a technology such as the telescope or microscope was praised for confirming Buddhist teachings about reality.

In such instances the "Buddhism" in question was usually a fabled "primitive" or "original" Buddhism that Lopez said was invented by European scholars, a set of elite doctrines which excluded "much of what has been deemed essential, whatever that might be, to the exalted monks and nuns and ordinary lay people … over the course of more than 2,000 years."

Most recently, students of cognitive science have looked at the effects of Buddhist meditation on the brain, though with too little concern about how meditation is defined and what makes it "Buddhist," according to Lopez. The Dalai Lama has also frequently called on Tibetans to accept modern science; Lopez noted that Tibet's spiritual leader believes that scientists eventually will confirm that rebirth is real.

Lopez contrasted Buddhism, in which truth is "found and then lost and then found again," with science and its "quest for what has never been known by anyone, yet is somehow there, waiting to be discovered, if we just knew how to find it."

"In the meantime, we must live in doubt of our deepest knowledge," he said. "Perhaps this is why we yearn for the teachings of an itinerant mendicant in Iron Age India, even one of such profound insight, to somehow anticipate the formulae of Einstein."

Center for Buddhist Studies