Whether we look at the world from a spiritual/religious point of view or from a scientific one, we can all agree on the existence of suffering and desire. The Buddha’s third Noble truth, ‘There is a way out of suffering,” is not so clearly true. We have no scientific proof that there is any way out of suffering. It is due to the fact that we must take the third Noble Truth on faith that Buddhism is a religion. Nothing wrong with faith. We have faith that the sun will rise on the morrow. It might not (and it might be cloudy), but we go about our lives as if another day will dawn. Buddhists believe in the end of suffering, trusting in a long line of Buddhist practitioners who also believed in and acted on the Buddha’s statements. Further, we trust the word of the many practitioners we meet — the abbots, the roshis, and the monks — the majority of whom seem to possess a calm centre, a certain unflappability, and a definite equanimity when facing situations that generally cause suffering. So we learn to have faith that there can be an end to suffering, and we continue our practice. But not everyone who suffers is inspired by faith. What to do?
Buddhism clearly states that there is a methodology for escaping suffering. We come to it in the Fourth Noble Truth. Buddhism’s methodology is a technology in a state similar to the state of mechanical technology before the development of the scientific method, in that it relies on trial and error. The problem with a trial and error technology is that we cannot be sure that all aspects of the technology are germane to the problem supposedly addressed. Some things will work, some things will be neutral and some things may actually be disadvantageous. In Buddhism it is necessarily left up to the individual who uses the methodology/technology, to judge, after the fact, whether or not their suffering is assuaged. Because of this after-the-fact nature of Buddhist practice, one starts along the path through the strength of faith alone.
Scientists would say that any traditional Buddhist evidence that suggests that the end of suffering is attainable is not evidence at all, merely anecdote. This does not mean that zen or Buddhism is false, nor does it mean that Buddhism cannot be understood using scientific methods. To be scientific, however, the truth of Buddhist methodology must be objectively demonstrated. In Karl Popper’s word’s the methodology must be falsifiable. By falsifiable, Popper means that if a thing is false then it can be demonstrated to be false. The only way to demonstrate that something is false is to test it by rigorous experimentation. If you can’t prove it false then it is true. And why would we want to prove Buddhist methodology true? Is not faith enough? If we know a method was true then would not many people be encouraged to follow it? And if many more people, stimulated by scientific proof, followed Buddhist methodology than do so now, would not more suffering be lessened?
While it is impossible to apply scientific methods to religions whose results only occur after death, the difficulty of applying scientific methods to a Buddhism that promises results in the present world is of a lesser degree. The only hindrance to a scientific test of Buddhism is the fact that the experimental apparatus consists solely of individual human subjects. Individuals are, of course, not exactly alike. Any particular technique that might work for one might not work for another. Because of this, the science of zen can never be as mathematically rigorous as nuclear physics, but it can be a softer science, somewhat akin to the social sciences or to psychology.
A Buddhist experiment, conducted to separate useful from less useful techniques to alleviate suffering, would have to:
2)Determine indicators of suffering.
3)Determine standards to identify the escape from suffering.
4)Do psychological profiles on beginning zen students in terms of their suffering.
5)List all zen techniques.
6)Note every zen technique used by each student, with duration/intensity of practice.
7)Regularly note results of each technique in terms of changing psychological profile.
8)Correlate results of various techniques against psychological type.
9)Compare results against a control group.
Such an experiment would require following a large number of subjects over a long time frame. I do not have the contacts within the Buddhist community to try to persuade monasteries and zendos to design and undertake such an experiment. I do, however, think that such a scientific experiment would be profitable. Why fly on faith alone? So, if there is anyone out there willing to fund such an experiment, or simply willing to design and organize such a thing, please be my guest. Lacking the resources needed to undertake such an experiment, and because I am at heart a theorist, in my next post I will turn to the fourth Noble Truth and try to analyze its various terms in a scientific manner.