Pura Vida

Life in full circle

On Buddhism as a Different Kind of "Religion"

Buddhism is unusually science-friendly, better philosophy than religion.

One of the Buddha’s most-loved stories (he had a lot of them), concerned a event in which a number of blind men investigated an elephant. The occasion was famously described by the 19th century English poet John Saxe, who wrote:

"It was six men from Industan, to learning much inclined,

Who went to see the elephant (though all of them were blind),

that each by observation might satisfy his mind ..."

In the Buddha’s version, as well as Saxe’s, each felt a different part of the pachyderm, and so the one touching the legs thought it was a tree, the one touching the tail thought it was a snake, and so forth. As it turned out, the blind men "disputed loud and long, each in his opinion stiff and strong, though each was partly in the right, and all of them were wrong."

Buddhism is a bit of an elephant. The word didn’t appear in its current Western usage until the 1830s, and a case can be made that there is no such thing as “Buddhism”; rather, just as “Christianity” isn’t unitary (there are Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant, among others—each of which is further subdivided in proportion as one is familiar with the various denominations), there are many “Buddhisms,” notably including the Theravada tradition of Southeast Asia (Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka), and the Mahayana form, practiced primarily in Vietnam as well as in Central and East Asia (China, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Korea, Taiwan and Japan). In addition, Mahayana separates into a unique Tibetan form as well as the Zen tradition (especially prominent in Japan and Korea) and numerous modified manifestations of Western Buddhism, increasingly popular in the United States and Europe.

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Among these traditions encompassed by Buddhism, Theravada tends to emphasize personal enlightenment and claims to be closer to the Buddha’s original perspective, Mahayana is more prone to focus on assisting one’s fellows in their life journey, whereas Zen focuses on the immediate, practical and down-to earth, and so forth. However, they all share many of the key teachings associated with the Buddha, including concern with the sources of personal pain and disappointment (dukkha in Sanskrit), ways of ameliorating dukkha, as well as insights into the nature of reality and of living things.

In my recent book, Buddhist Biology, and in these posts, I consider Buddhism to be a single entity whereas it is multi-facetted and complex, an elephant indeed. I trust this is acceptable to all but the most well informed—and presumably well-intentioned—purists, because I am not trying to provide a detailed introduction to the various schools of Buddhism. Lots of other Buddhist adepts, better informed and more competent than I, have already done this. Rather, I prefer to paint with a broad brush, looking for basic patterns and relationships between biology and Buddhism. Like an elephant, however—in which, after all, a collection of seemingly disconnected parts (trunk, head, body, legs, tail, etc.) really does come together to form a recognizable if unusual creature—there is something identifiable as Buddhism, at least when viewed from sufficient distance.

For some, Buddhism isn’t a religion at all, especially since devotees typically don’t accept the existence of an all-powerful creator god who answers prayers and concerns him or herself with our affairs. On the other hand, there are Buddhist traditions that identify various supernatural beings as gods, spirits, ghosts, demons, and so forth; indeed, there is also a tendency among some strands of Buddhism to literally worship the Buddha as a god—even though in his teachings, Siddhartha Gautama—aka Sakyamuni, or the Bhagavat (“Lord”)—explicitly stated that he wasn’t one and shouldn’t be treated as if he were in any sense divine.

More than other religions—indeed, I would say, more than any other religion—Buddhism lends itself to a dialog with science. Why? Because among the key aspects of Buddhism, we find insistence that knowledge must be gained through personal experience rather than reliance on the authority of sacred texts or the teachings of avowed masters, because its orientation is empirical rather then theoretical, and because it rejects any conception of absolutes.

On the other hand, Buddhism resembles other religions in many respects. For example, it has followers who identify themselves as such, often by special rituals as well as styles of dress; it offers a compelling personal and emotional dimension to its practitioners; it consists of numerous narratives involving specific events in the lives of its founders, the Buddha most especially; it is summarized in a rich literature consisting of numerous stories and lessons; its followers derive a substantial body of ethical teachings and legal constraints; it is institutionalized in an array of social units (the sangha), composed of like-minded practitioners; and it boasts a wide variety of physical structures (monasteries, temples, statues) as well as sacred sites and complex works of art.

Most importantly for our purposes, Buddhism offers a well-established doctrine—more precisely, a coherent array of such doctrines—that is less a belief system than a series of postulates, claiming to provide insight into the nature of human beings and into the world where they operate.

The comfortable fit between Buddhism and empirical science has been facilitated by several teachings, of which one of the most important is the “Kalama Sutra.” In it, the Buddha advises his audience (people known as the Kalamas) how to deal with the bewildering diversity of conflicting claims on the part of various Brahmins and itinerant monks:

"Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them."

This teaching is widely—and appropriately—seen as supporting free inquiry and an absence of rigid dogma, an attitude entirely open to empirical verification and thus, consistent with science. Nonetheless, a case can also be made that the Kalama Sutra isn’t quite so “data-oriented” and thus empirically open-minded and pro-science as claimed. For one thing, those being exhorted are not the Buddha’s own disciples, being urged to treat skeptically the Buddha’s own teaching, but rather, people who had been following other teachings (notably, various branches of Hinduism) and who therefore might well have been considered “ripe” for the plucking … analogous to a Christian missionary seeking to dissuade pagans from continuing to follow their “old ways.” It is the rare evangelist who, exhorting his listeners to question their old, heathen beliefs, is equally insistent that they question the new ones that he is promoting.

Also, the Kalama Sutra appears to be primarily focused on moral teachings rather than matters of empirical fact and subsequent belief. Worth noting, as well, is that until recently, such skepticism was not generally considered central to Buddhist teaching; that has come more recently. On the other hand, the words of the Kalama Sutra are quite straight-forward, and they do in fact fit nicely into the Western scientific tradition: The Royal Society of London, whose full name was the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, and which was the world’s first—and for a long time, the foremost—scientific society, has as its credo, Nullius in verba—“On the words of no one.”

Returning once again to the Buddha’s emphasis on validation-by-experience rather than via hierarchical or scriptural authority, consider this statement, which could as well have been uttered by a senior Nobel-winning scientist, advising junior researchers in his laboratory:

Just as one would examine gold through burning, cutting, and rubbing so should monks and scholars examine my words. Only thus should they be accepted, but not merely out of respect for me.

On balance, it seems reasonable and appropriate that Buddhism be viewed in the West as comparatively free of irrationality, superstitious belief, and stultifying tradition—but this generalization must nonetheless be taken with a grain of salt, noting that in much of the world, Buddhism involves daily ritual devotions, belief in amulets and other special charms, and even the presupposition that the man, Siddhartha Gautama, was a divine being.

Buddhism unquestionably offers numerous opportunities for those seeking mystical personal experiences, just as it offers ethical guidelines as well as physical materials to study, admire, collect and revere, along with the prospect of supportive social networks. In my most recent book, however, I focus on some of the philosophical and doctrinal aspects of this particular elephant—i.e., what we might call Buddhism shorn of its abracadabra and hocus-pocus; in short, Buddhism without the bullshit. I hope you will find this approach as enlightening as I do.

In my next post, I’ll take a look at some of the sillier, more traditionally “religious” aspects of Buddhism … as it is widely practised, and as—in my not-so-humble-opinion—it deserves no more respect than does any other form of organized superstition.


David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist, professor of psychology at the University of Washington and long-time aspiring "scientific Buddhist." His most recent book is Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science (Oxford University Press).


David P. Barash, Ph.D., is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington.


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