This is the question asked by Philip Goldberg in a recent article in which he boldly answers yes: “Religious faith in the case of the Hindus has never been allowed to run counter to scientific laws. The same can be said for Buddhism, which derives from the same Vedic roots.”
Setting aside for a moment the significant differences between hinduisms and buddhisms, which have merely an attenuated and ancient connection, Goldberg’s next statement highlights the several problems lurking in his affirmative answer:
Most of the Hindu gurus, Yoga masters, Buddhist monks and other Asian teachers who came to the West framed their traditions in a science-friendly way. Emphasizing the experiential dimension of spirituality, with its demonstrable influence on individual lives, they presented their teachings as a science of consciousness with a theoretical component and a set of practical applications for applying and testing those theories. Most of the teachers were educated in both their own traditions and the Western canon; they respected science, had actively studied it, and dialogued with Western scientists, many of whom were inspired to study Eastern concepts for both personal and professional reasons.
The difficulty here revolves around what Goldberg means by “Eastern Religions” in general and Hinduism/Buddhism in particular. As I noted in Fractured Faiths — The Myth of Unified Religious Traditions, there is no essential and singular Hinduism. The same is true of Buddhism. Instead, there are multiplicities of hinduisms and buddhisms.
This foundational issue aside, conceptions of Hinduism and Buddhism in the West are much different from the many divergent conceptions of these traditions in the East. Goldberg hints at the history of Western conceptions in the paragraph above, when he notes that the masters and gurus who brought their traditions to the West were cosmopolitan, educated elites who quite deliberately framed their traditions “in a science friendly way.” What they did, in other words, was reconstitute certain aspects of those traditions to make them fit for Western consumption.
Taking note of these and other facts regarding the Western construction of Hinduism and Buddhism, the scholar and historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith claimed that religion is “the creation of the scholar’s study, with no independent existence apart from the academy.” While this certainly is an overstatement, it goes directly to the heart of the essentializing and ahistorical problem.
Today I will briefly address the Western importation and construction of Buddhism; tomorrow I will do the same for Hinduism. In Robert Sharf’s (1993) classic article “The Zen of Japanese Nationalism,” he notes:
Zen was introduced to Western scholarship not through the efforts of Western orientalists, but rather through the activities of an elite circle of internationally minded Japanese intellectuals and globe-trotting Zen priests. Given the pedigree of these early Zen missionaries, one might have expected Western scholars of Buddhism to approach their high-minded [i.e., science friendly] pronouncements with considerable caution, if not skepticism, but such has rarely been the case.
Many of these intellectuals and priests had been educated in the West and were fascinated by Western culture. They knew that Zen Buddhism, as conceived and practiced in Japan, would not fare well in the empirically minded West:
Japanese intellectuals, seeking to bring their nation into the “modern world,” were naturally drawn to the European critique of of institutional religion. [Their] reconstructed Buddhism, under the guise of “true” or “pure” Buddhism, was conceived as a “world religion” ready to take its rightful place alongside other universal creeds.” True Buddhism was in no way opposed to reason; on the contrary, Buddhism, once purified of all superstitious accretions, was found to be uncompromisingly empirical and rational, and in full accord with the findings of modern science. Zen, we are told, is immune to “enlightenment” critiques of religion precisely because it is not a religion in the institutional sense at all; it is, rather, an uncompromisingly empirical, rational, and scientific mode of inquiry into the nature of things.
After providing a detailed historical account of this process, Sharf explains how utterly different this Western construction of Zen is from Buddhism in Japan, which is highly ritualistic, theistic, and metaphysical. In “Religion and Other Products of Empire,” Richard Horsley (2003) provides additional details:
[Western] Buddhism consisted primarily of the philosophy that had been produced and circulated among a small circle of monastic elites. Here was what many western intellectuals wanted religion to be: agnostic, rationalist, ethical individualism grounded in philosophical reflection. The Buddhism constructed and consumed by Westerners is deeply implicated in the imperial relations in which western elites, longing to be more complete and whole again, looked to subjected peoples for the sources of their own salvation and healing.
These sources, of course, had to conform to Western notions of reason and not be at odds with science. Many other scholars, including Gregory Schopen and C.W. Huntington recount a similar history.
Given this history, it is not surprising that Philip Goldberg — and many others in the West who call themselves Buddhist — consider their beliefs to be in full accord with a scientific worldview. These beliefs were recently constructed with just such a view in mind.