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  • Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground
  • Aparna Sharma
Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground edited by B. Alan Wallace. Columbia Univ. Press, New York, 2003. 444 pp. ISBN: 0-231-12334-5; 0-231-12335-3.

At a recent audience, the XIIth Tai Situpa Rinpoche of the Kagyu lineage raised issue with the efficacy of a discourse among an audience not conversant in his native dialect. His concern was that vocabularies of languages other than ancient Pali, Prakrit, Sanskrit (in which most Buddhist texts are written)—or their immediate derivatives—are too immediate and communicate a rather hasty and passing meaning of the subject. In the process, meaning gets straight-jacketed, closing doors to interpretations and interrelations that are key to the particularities of a given context.

Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground, an anthology of essays mapping the engagements and intersections between Buddhism and modern science, overcomes the restrictions the Rinpoche cautioned against in relation to the fields with which it engages. Its scope spans a wide panorama with topics such as quantum theory, lucid dreaming, relativity and the process of imagination studied along with aspects of the Buddhist philosophy.

Apart from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his principal interpreter, Thupten Jinpa, who has had an education in traditional Tibetan Buddhism as well as the Western academic tradition, other contributors to this edition are primarily Western scholars who have had experience with Buddhism. Some have been Buddhist monks who spent substantial periods practicing on the subcontinent. A few have participated in conclaves with His Holiness to interact and exchange ideas on issues concerning their disciplines. The book's approach is thus not necessarily Orientalist—a manner that would view Buddhism as culturally specific, or peculiar.

Before looking into some of the book's contents and approach, it is vital to recall the factors that will locate this work and the dialogue itself more specifically, as pointed out succinctly by Jose Ignacio Cabezon, Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies professor at the University of California. He identifies the following facilitators: one, the interactions between Buddhism and science are far more specialized today than, say 15 years ago. Two, the shift in the intellectual ethos of the West, which has resulted in a decline of resistance towards the contemplative sphere(s). Three, sociological factors, particularly the spread of Buddhism to the West.

Though Buddhism and Science is informative, intense and cogent, it only makes for an opening to the intersections between its subjects. The book starts with a historical overview. The essays thereafter examine specifically the underlying assumptions of Buddhism and science, and draw parallels between both. These parallels constitute spaces where scientific concepts have been explicated with the resonance of Buddhist principles of understanding phenomena, and vice versa. While it is necessary for any sustainable dialogue to map the points of congruence and departure between the participating spheres, particularly in this case, where the two have long been considered diametrically opposite, that in itself appears insufficient to constitute a dynamic and mutually beneficial flow or exchange.

Buddhism and Science refers to Buddhist philosophical notions and practices such as meditation, but the engagement with some concepts could have been deeper to bring forth their interrelations and links with Buddhist philosophy as a whole. The process of entification is emphasized through most of the text, and the interdependence of phenomena repeatedly pointed out. The arguments developed in relation to the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics are particularly useful. But what appears as an isolationist tendency, i.e. referring to particular aspect(s) only, bears the risk of undermining the complementary nature of the various Buddhist teachings, besides prompting, unintentionally, an incomplete, thus incompetent, understanding of the subject.

For example, in his essay investigating "identity" to unpack the dynamics of human-inflicted suffering, William S. Waldron, who teaches South Asian Religions at Middlebury College, states that nations, societies, individuals and cultures are reified into selves or entities defined by a divide between "us" and "them" or the "other." He adds that the assertion and protection of these entities requires the play of evil. In his deconstruction of the mechanisms of evil, Waldron locates and draws upon the concurrence between evolutionary...


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