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 careΒΉ 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.Β²  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. πŸ˜‰

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

Β² Or maybe I just haven’t been paying attention.

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RIP Spock

Spock and the Vulcan Salute in Star Trek IV

Today, I was surprised and saddened to hear the news that actor Leonard Nimoy has died. His character, Spock, was a role model for an impressionable teenage boy who didn’t have many role models. He taught the value of helping others, using logic and reason, not superstition, and the virtues of self-discipline.

But, as Spock would say:1

Change is the essential process of all existence.

Live Long And Prosper, Spock, wherever you are now.

1 Similar quotes here and here.

Spock and Me

Hello,

As some readers might know, I am a fan of classic Star Trek. I have been a fan since I was a boy when the Star Trek movies were popular.1 Recently, I made a small impulse-purchase and bought a bust of Mr Spock for my desk at work:

IMG_8908.JPG

I’ve always been a big fan of Mr. Spock, and when I was a young, impressionable teenager, I wanted to be as smart, calm and self-disciplined as him. I even practiced the eyebrow-move he sometimes does when he says “fascinating“, and the Vulcan-salute.

Anyhow, the bust is pretty small, as you can, but it looks nice (good detail), and has a small book of quotations by Mr Spock. Some of the better quotations I liked are:

After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.

And:

[Being Vulcan] means to adopt a philosophy, a way of life, which is logical and beneficial. We cannot disregard that philosophy merely for personal gain, no matter how important that gain might be.

And:

Change is the essential process of all existence.

….and so on. For $8 I felt it was a good purchase.

Spock was just a TV and movie character, but I always liked what he embodied.

Have a Logical Christmas!

Merry, Logical Christmas everyone!

P.S. You might also notice the post-it note on my desk that says Festina Lente. This is Latin for “hurry slowly”, and is a famous phrase often used by Emperor Augustus. I work in a complex, technical environment, so it’s a reminder to not be lazy, but not to rush either. I guess in Japanese, it might be something like γ‚†γ£γγ‚Šζ€₯いで (yukkuri isoide), but that’s just a guess. πŸ™‚

P.P.S. The two soldiers were purchased during my business trip to Chattanooga, TN, and the dental floss is just something everyone should have. πŸ™‚

1 Star Trek IV is still my personal favorite. Nuclear wessels! Hello computer.

Spock the Bodhisattva

Many people know and love the character “Spock” from Star Trek, the half-Vulcan, half-Human who is Captain Kirk’s closest friend. He is logical, intelligent, self-disciplined and always seems to be there to help the crew and save the day:

and:

Anyhow a while back I was watching the movie Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, and I started thinking. In that movie in particular, Spock was a kind of Bodhisattva in a way. Here’s the famous death-scene from the movie. Spock has just saved the ship by fixing the engine, but has been exposed to extreme amounts of radiation and is dying:

And the funeral scene:

It’s interesting that Captain Kirk describes him as the most “human” person he has ever met, despite being an alien.

A Bodhisattva in Buddhism is someone who embodies both wisdom and selfless compassion. It’s not enough to have compassion or wisdom, a bodhisattva has both, and have overcome self-centered perceptions of themselves. The embody the Six Perfections of generosity, moral conduct, patience, zeal, meditation and wisdom.

In a VERY long Buddhist text, called the Flower Garland Sutra, is a famous chapter called the Sutra of the Ten Stages, which talks about the ten stages of the bodhisattva’s development starting with joy all the way to full awakening (i.e. Buddha-hood, Enlightenment). To reach even the first stage is immensely great, and a very difficult undertaking, so bodhisattvas are seen as rare and priceless in Buddhism. Almost as priceless as the Buddhas themselves.

Now, of course, the character of Spock is just a science-fiction character. But, in Star Trek 2, I was impressed with Spock’s character, his discussions of ego,1 and his sacrifice at the end. The writers really made Spock’s character more than just an intelligent alien, but portrayed some nice Buddhist virtues too.

Something I thought would interest fellow Buddhist nerds. πŸ˜‰

Live Long and Prosper

P.S. On the subject of Star Trek 2….

P.P.S. When I was a teenager, I was a huge Star Trek fan. I even had, and finished, the Klingon Dictionary. I’m still amazed I met a nice girl and got married in college. :p

P.P.P.S. Shout out to my younger sister, who’s a “closet nerd”. Happy birthday! πŸ™‚

1 I found a clip of that discussion on Youtube earlier, but it seems to be removed now. That’s what actually inspired this post originally. Oh well.