Scientific Buddhism

Religions can be used to form a dogma of belief for a community of followers. On the benefit side, a religious dogma would be a listing of a set of activities that, if practised, would lead one to spiritual benefit. On the down side, dogma can become a means whereby one group of people oppress others. Buddhism, as a religion, has for the most part been a religion of the former type, allowing the development of communities of people who work together and support each other in their spiritual quest. But even in this positive light, Buddhism as a religion can have a negative side. A sanga can form that supports our attachment to the difficulties we have in struggling with our own psychologies. On example: lots of us get caught up in complaining about the difficulties we experience. Our sanga members treat us kindly, hug us nicely, and listen. We suffer. And while we get support in our suffering, nothing changes; we continue suffering. On the other hand, I remember one spiritual teacher who fought this tendency very nicely. After a weekend meditation, he asked all those present to put up their hand if they had experienced physical pain during the sits. Everyone put up their hand. The teacher’s only comment was, “Good. Now no one needs mention pain again.”

But what if Buddha had been alive today; would he want to form a religion? Looking at what he said ~2600 years ago, I would say that what he brought to the world was essentially a scientific theory, not a religion. Science is a neutral device that lets us look at things analytically. Scientists think up theories, and then they develop methodologies to test the theories. After a theory is proven useful, then a technology is developed to exploit the knowledge that was revealed in the scientific experiment.

Buddhism’s major focus is the eradication of suffering; Buddhism as a science is the idea that there is a systematic way of doing the same. Many people react negatively to the idea that Buddhism could be approached scientifically. And there are two major difficulties in pursuing Buddhism as science: 1) it is hard to be aware of ones moment to moment suffering, and of ones moment to moment, suffer-inducing thoughts; 2) we are fragile beasts that suffer fear of extinction, and as our minds are naturally wired in such a way that we identify ourselves with—we believe ourselves to be—our suffering, we naturally fear to give it up: without our suffering, who would we be?

The first of Buddha’s four major scientific statements is that all is suffering. This statement is translated in various ways, but I think that the simple translation, ‘suffering exits’ is perfectly good to work with. This is a scientific statement because it is a simple observation. Buddha’s second main statement posits that suffering is caused by attachment to desires. This is a hypothesis which can be tested by experimentation: a simple survey could be devised by social scientists to check on the nature of any particular example of suffering (as opposed to pain), and this survey could help in determining the cause of that suffering. In my own experience, I have found that every instance of my suffering (as opposed to pain) was caused by attachment to some desire I had. The self analysis was hard and took a lot of work. And I am still being surprised by the up-welling of suffering.

Buddha’s third statement concluded that suffering can be alleviated by removing attachments to desires. Having made this scientific conclusion, Buddha then described a course of action, a technology that if followed would bring an end to ones suffering. This technology is found in the Eight Fold Path.

In science if you repeat an traditional experiment you get the expected result. If you use a developed technology, you get the expected result, as long as the machine is not broken. We are the machine, our brains are the software that makes the machine perform wonderfully—or makes it suffer.

But the Eight Fold Path is not merely a technology that gives a recipe for action, it also reveals the major causes of suffering. Where Buddha prescribes Right Thinking, he can be read to mean that incorrect thinking is the cause of one type of suffering. This holds true for all Eight elements.

If Buddhism is a religion then the Eight Fold Path is something to aspire to, attainable only through hard work, allusive insight, and the help of innumerable friends. One is not expected to succeed, one only hopes to succeed.

If Buddhism is a science, then Buddhism is a machine, like a car, that should diligently take one to the destination: the destination is a state of non-attachment and non-suffering. The technology is laid out in the Eight Fold Path. It is as simple as this: if one is thinking bad thoughts about another person, thoughts that if they became manifest would cause that person suffering, then one would do well to think something completely different, something that is positive, that would cause no one suffering. Go play the piano, take a walk. This process, of becoming aware of ones thoughts and then changing their nature by abandoning them and doing something else, will rewire ones brain, recalibrate ones machine into a more and more enlightened state. It is something that one can do safely at home alone.

Luckily, the religion of Buddhism has brought us one extremely well-honed and useful scientific exercise that can help us pay attention to, and to become aware of our moment to moment attachments and desires, and thereby point to the thoughts that give rise to our suffering. This honourable practice is meditation. The scientific companion to the cultivation of awareness through meditation is that when a suffering-causing thought or pattern is identified, then one can take the technology of the Eight Fold Path, think and act in a different way than one usually does, and thereby rewire our beings. All we have to do is have faith in the machine and use it.

It’s as easy as learning to be a software wizard on the computer. Re-hack your brain. One day I might complete the job on my own head.


The end of suffering, a zen experiment

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:
1)Define suffering.
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.