Tuesday, August 28, 2012

will science upend Buddhism?

I grind my teeth when others do it, but I am going to do it too ... posting a question asked and then cut-and-pasting the writer's response as if the writer had some handle on things and had ascended a throne. Ick. And yet I want to be able to find the response the next time the question comes up -- and it will -- and I am too damned lazy to rewrite what I think.

The question was nicely put: If science proves time and again that earlier scientific findings were off the mark and thereafter consigns those earlier conclusions to the dust bin, will Buddhism (the religion)  eventually be left behind and overshadowed by some newer and better conclusion?

Here, for future format purposes is what I wrote:

In one sense, Buddhism is constructed in such a way that it will, by its own encouragement, self-destruct. That, so to speak is the point: Reach 'the other shore' and leave the raft behind.

Whether Buddhism is a religion or not is a question better left to long nights of imposing discussion among people drinking lots and lots of beer. Some say yes. Some say no. Waitress! Another pitcher over here, please!

But as to the central question of whether scientific discovery will leave Buddhism in the dust, I think the answer is an obvious no. Science is aimed in the direction of intellectual and emotional conclusions ... things to hold onto for whatever period of time. And such conclusions are based in the past -- a time frame that no one can grasp. The fact that appreciations (of a flat earth, witches in Salem, etc.) come and go is evidence that science is bound to a world of limitation.

Buddhism does not exclude science (as some religions might). Science can be a very good thing and Buddhism acknowledges such potential good. But Buddhism's net is a bit wider. As a practical (as distinct from believing) point of view, it is not limited. Buddhism speaks to the present moment in which anyone, scientist or idjit, might find him- or herself.

Think about it: No matter how smart anyone might be, still they may find themselves suffering or experiencing a sense of something unsatisfactory or uncertain in their lives. Science invites us to out-think our problems. But out-thinking Buddhism is not possible because thought or emotion are as limited as science.

The Hindu swami Vivekananda once observed, "The mind [he meant intellect] is a good servant and a poor master." A good servant and a good tool, but not the sure-fire elixir that will lay uncertainty to rest. Vivekananda's observation, to the extent anyone is willing to credit it, does not mean any of us has to run out and crank up the God Machine. Just because intellect and emotion may play second fiddle in this life does not mean "God" needs to play first violin, as many religions may assert.

What it does mean is that intellect and emotion are not the be-all and end-all that most of us are habituated to thinking. This is hard to credit from the point of view of a fine-tuned intellect or a feel-good emotional palace. If my long-standing habit is to 'think things through,' then naturally Buddhism is something I can think through, know and reach a conclusion about. I am the master of my fate, right? But then life throws us one curve ball or another and the master's mastery is thrown into question.

OK ... if anyone is willing to credit that intellect and emotion only reach so far and no further and if Buddhism provides a beckoning hand, then who or what IS the good master, to use Vivekananda's terminology? Is it "God" or "enlightenment" or "the ineffable" or "emptiness" ... who or what is the good master?

This is a question that is posed differently by each individual, but the question remains unanswered without experiential proof -- the kind of proof that intellect and emotion cannot provide. And in Buddhism, one recommended course of action is to meditate ... literally, sit down, shut up, sit still, and focus the mind. And does this course of action provide the answer to who the good master might be, the answer to what it is that stands at ease and free and outside the confines of intellect and emotion? The only way to know if meditation works is to try it. Experimenting on lab rats won't do the trick. Doing meditation is a decision and a choice and there is no one and nothing (including intellect and emotion) that can do it for you. You won't go to heaven if you do it (a religious paradigm) and you won't go to hell if you don't (another religious paradigm). It's just a quite scientific approach to a problem that science can never answer: Me. You. Us... the stuff that will be around no matter how long science may ply its wonderful trade.

Sorry for all the blather. 

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