Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Preface of Buddhism and Science - by Donald Lopez

In BUDDHISM AND SCIENCE: A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED, Dr. Donald Lopez critically considers the compatibility of Buddhism and Science. He takes a step back from the generally taken for granted notion that they mesh almost seamlessly---something of which we are also guilty! Lopez writes, “This book surveys the long history of the discourse of Buddhism and Science in an effort to understand 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.” Dr. Lopez is a Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan.The passage below was excerpted from BUDDHISM AND SCIENCE, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2008 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

In the winter of 1870—71, Ernst Johann Eitel (1838—1908), a member of the London Missionary Society~ delivered a series of lectures on Buddhism at the Union Church in Hong Kong. Eitel was one of the great missionary-scholars of the Victorian period, an accomplished sinologist who also read Sanskrit. His ultimate goal was to demonstrate the falsity of Buddhism. Yet in his third lecture, he enumerated some of the ways in which Buddhism had anticipated science:

Though no Buddhist ever attained to the clearer insight and mathematical analysis of a Copernicus, Newton, Laplace or Herschel, it must be acknowledged that Buddhism fore-stalled in several instances the most splendid discoveries of modern astronomy. Teaching the origin of each world to have taken place out of a cloud, the Buddhists anticipated 2ooo years ago Herschel’s nebular hypothesis. And when those very patches of cloudy light or diffused nebulosities which Herschel believed to be “diffused matter hastening to a world birth” dissolved themselves before the monster telescope of Lord Rosse into as many assemblages of suns, into thousands of other world-systems dispersed through the wilds of boundless space, modern astronomy was but verifying the more ancient Buddhistic dogma of a plurality of worlds, of the co-existence of thousands of chiliocosmoi inhabited by multitudes of living beings.

Eitel invokes five great names in the history of astronomy: Nicolas Copernicus (1473—1543), whose On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres (De revolutionibus orbium coelestium) presented the heliocentric theory of the universe; Sir Isaac Newton (1643—1727), who invented the refracting telescope and explained the role of gravity in planetary motion; Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749—1827), who developed mathematical methods for calculating and predicting the motion of the planets; William Herschel (1738—1822), discoverer of Uranus and cataloger of nebulae; and William Parsons, third Earl of Rosse (1800—1867), who in 1844 built the “Leviathan of Parsonstown,” the world’s largest telescope. Each of these figures would have been well known to Eitel’s expatriate audience in the Hong Kong church.

Laplace and Herschel were associated with the nebular hypothesis, a theory previously propounded by both Emanuel Swedenborg and Immanuel Kant, which postulated that a solar system originated from a mass of incandescent gas—for Herschel it was a shining fluid that he called “true nebulosity”—rotating on an axis, eventually contracting into a mass. The outer rings of this mass broke off to form planets, with the central core becoming their sun. One of the great debates in astronomy in the nineteenth century was whether this incandescent fluid indeed existed or whether it was instead a mass of distant stars. In early 1846, Rosse and his monster telescope showed that the Orion Nebula could in fact be resolved into stars.

These were some of the latest scientific discoveries of Eitel’s day. And he claims that they have been “forestalled” (by which he means “anticipated”) two thousand years ago by the Buddhists. Eitel is referring to a Buddhist account of the origin of the world. Faint winds, impelled by the force of karma, begin to blow in the vacuity of space, eventually converging to form a circle of wind, described as solid and indestructible. A thick cloud forms above the circle of wind, raining down drops of water of various sizes that together become a great ocean, supported on the circle of wind. In this ocean, a thousand golden lotus flowers appear. The churning of the ocean eventually gives rise to a ring of mountains that contains the waters. In the center of the ocean, a great mountain appears, with an island (flanked by two smaller islands) in each of the four cardinal directions. This is a world, and a thousand of these worlds is a Buddhist universe, what Eitel calls a “thousand world” or chiliocosm.

Eitel sees in the Buddhist rain cloud an anticipation of Herschel’s nebulae, and in the Buddhist “thousand world” an anticipation of galaxies, anticipated without the assistance of Rosse’s giant lens.These worlds were inhabited by “multitudes of living beings.” Eitel, in keeping with the views of many astronomers of his day, believed that the planets were populated. Indeed, late in life, Herschel had published a paper arguing that the sun was inhabited, with two layers of dense clouds protecting the inhabitants from the intense light of the luminous shell observed from earth; sunspots may be the peaks of tall mountains rising through the shell.

We see, then, a Christian missionary, almost a century and half ago, making grudging claims for the compatibility of Buddhism and Science. Over the ensuing decades, such claims have continued to be made with a remarkable persistence. This book is a study of that persistence.

Its central claim is a modest one. It is that in order to understand the conjunction of the terms Buddhism and Science, it is necessary to understand something of the history of the conjunction. It might be dated back to the sixteenth century, when Saint Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary to Japan, noted that the Buddhists do not understand that the world is round. It might be traced back to the Reverend Dr. Eitel’s lectures from his Hong Kong pulpit. Or it might be traced to the year 1873, when the Wesleyan minister David da Silva in Sri Lanka held up a globe during a debate with a Buddhist monk and asked him to locate Mount Meru, the cosmic peak that rose from the waters to form the center of the Buddhist world. That these events occurred in the course of Christian missions to Buddhist Asia suggests that Buddhist claims about Science originated in polemic, with Buddhists arguing that their religion is not superstition but science. Yet such claims have persisted after the opponent in that polemic has disappeared, or has at least become less visible. And the claims of compatibility have not always originated among Asian Buddhists. The discourse of Buddhism and Science has been transmitted through networks that crisscross the nebulous boundaries of East and West. Asian Buddhists have argued for the compatibility in order to validate their Buddhism. European and American enthusiasts and devotees have argued for the compatibility in order to exoticize Science, to find it validated in the insights of an ancient Asian sage.

A second assertion of this book is that for more than 150 years, the claims for the compatibility of Buddhism and Science have remained remarkably similar, both in their content and in their rhetorical form. This similarity has persisted despite major shifts in what is meant by Buddhism and what is meant by Science. In the early decades of this history, Buddhism generally referred to what European scholars dubbed “original Buddhism,” the Buddhism of the Pali canon, preserved in the Theravada traditions of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. In the period after the Second World War, although the Theravada continued to be regarded as “Buddhism” in some quarters, Zen came to the fore. And since the 1990s, Tibetan Buddhism has displaced Zen to become the chief referent of Buddhism in the Buddhism and Science dialogue, largely through the influence of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Still, over the course of almost a century and a half, the Buddha is said to have somehow anticipated the most up-to-date view of modern science as thousands of pages of the calendar have been turned.

The referent of Science is also nebulous. At times, science has meant a method of sober and rational investigation, with the claim that the Buddha made use of such a method to arrive at the knowledge of deep truths about inner and outer worlds. At other times, science refers to a specific theory: the mechanistic universe, the theory of evolution, the theory of relativity, the big bang, whose antecedents are to be found in Buddhist doctrine. At other times, science has referred to a specific technology— the microscope, the telescope, the spectrometer—that has been used to discover what the Buddha knew without the aid of such instruments; as more precise instruments have been developed over the past century, the claims of the Buddha’s knowledge have remained constant. And at still other times, science has referred to the manipulation of matter, with dire consequences for humanity unless paired with the compassionate vision of the Buddha.

From the traditional perspective, the Buddhist truth is timeless; the Buddha understood the nature of reality fully at the moment of his enlightenment, and nothing beyond that reality has been discovered since. From this perspective, then, the purpose of all Buddhist doctrine and practice that have developed over the two and a half millennia is to make manifest the content of the Buddha’s enlightenment. From the historical perspective, the content of the Buddha’s enlightenment is irretrievable, and what is called Buddhism has developed in myriad forms across centuries and continents, with these forms linked by their retrospective gaze to the solitary sage seated beneath a tree. From either perspective, in order to make this “Buddhism” compatible with “Science,” Buddhism must be severely restricted, eliminating much of what has been deemed essential, whatever that might be, to the exalted monks and ordinary laypeople who have gone for refuge to the Buddha over the course of more than two thousand years.

If something is lost, what is gained? This book surveys the long history of the discourse of Buddhism and Science in an effort to understand 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.