Buddhism and Science: Reconciling The Two

From time to time I like reading about things from a long, long time ago.  Older the better. In high-school, I loved to read about ancient and mysterious civilizations such as the Sumerians or the Cretans and would imagine what life was like back then.  These days, I like to read about things much older: early geologic periods such as the Silurian and Cambrian periods of Earth’s history. These vast scales of time comprised of millions of years of Earth’s history, and have little resemblance to the world we know today, nor anything to do with human civilization.

Trilobite Heinrich Harder

Reading about these sorts of things is really fun because the earth was such an alien world compared to what we know now, and I like to imagine what it would be like to wade in the oceans of the time, see the simple, primitive life back then when life was so young and fresh.

It also puts me in a bit of a weird place with respect to Buddhism and religion in general.

After all, much of what we call religion is very human-centric.  All our deities are reflections of our own humanity (for better or worse), and religions generally address human concerns first: “what happens when I die?”, “what’s the purpose of life?”, etc.  What would a trilobite or cephalaspis care about such things?  Would an alien tree like Groot on a far-off planet care¹ about such things?

What about people themselves?  Are we truly good or evil, or is the sum-total of our culture and religion just a more sophisticated expression of our primate-driven instincts?  Is mindfulness meditation simply a way of taming ancient, imprinted patterns of behavior?

It’s not that I am atheist (I am not), and it’s not that I think religion has no value in the face of science, but I feel science is important in keeping religion grounded in reality.  The Dharma is nice because it has immediate, practical benefits in the world around us through mental training, the precepts, etc., plus it relies on observation and insight.  So, even in a modern science-driven world, I feel is still provides a solid foundation for one’s life, culture, etc.  It gives meaning and direction in a purely physical world, in my humble opinion.

However, at the same time, there is a lot within Buddhism that does feel kind of silly in the face of 4.5 billion years of geologic time.  How much of Buddhist culture, with its pure lands, bodhisattvas, holy sutras, cyclical appearance of buddhas, miracle stories and so on belong to the realm of symbolism or metaphor?  How much of it is simply a reflection of the mind-as-mirror?

These are questions I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and to be honest, I don’t have an answer.  I do still find stories and characters in traditional Buddhism inspiring and fascinating, and I don’t subscribe to the “buddhism without beliefs” mentality.  Further, I strongly disagree with the materialist approach to meditation you see in places like Silicon valley.  However, at the same time, in light of science and the scale of natural history, the sorts of things that medieval Japanese Buddhist monks used to argue about, for example, seem kind of silly.²  Should we really even care anymore? Can we still learn anything from them?

Anyhow, just something I’ve been thinking about lately.

P.S. If Star Trek IV taught us anything, it taught us to avoid human-centric assumptions. 😉

¹ I am sure Groot’s answer would simply be “I am Groot”.

² Or maybe I just haven’t been paying attention.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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