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The Buddha as a Scientist?

Re-evaluating a Western Reading of Buddhism1


Joel Stephen Gruber
University of California, Santa Barbara
After a twenty-five hundred year global history, the defining characteristics that separate Buddhism
from all other religions, philosophies, systems of ritual, faith-based beliefs, brands of sorcery,
alchemical practices, inherited superstitions, views on death, and psychologies are more precisely
expressed as a defining characteristic in the singular: Buddhists always, with unwavering insistence,
maintain that they possess the correct interpretation of the Buddhas teachings. When Buddhism was
introduced to the western world, this interpretation underwent culturally specific and at times
dramatic changes.
During the middle of the first millennium before the Common Era, an organized band of individuals
challenged the accepted orthodoxy of Indian Brahmanism by arguing that the universe followed the
natural laws of cause and effect and was not, as the Brahmanical Vedas stated, controlled by the will
of the gods. Consequently, they rejected the efficacy of traditional sacrifice-based rituals intended to
secure divine favors, and they criticized the repressive caste system that determined who could
perform these sacrifices (and thus win the favor of the gods). Instead, they pursued truth based on
observable experience and engendered a new type of faith based on logic, providing the foundation
for the Indian sciences, including astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. The most brilliant of these
thinkers was so intellectually sophisticated that the non-theistic philosophy he introduced remains
compatible with some of the most advanced scientific theories in contemporary western culture. For
these reasons, his doctrine and meditative practices, collectively referred to as Buddhism, exceed the
typical superstition, dogma, ritual, and corruption of all other religions.
The above rendering of the Buddhas contributions to the intellectual history of humanity was
promulgated in earnest during the early twentieth century; by the centurys end, explanatory
derivatives of this new philosophical scientific Buddhism comprised the standard views of many
western secular intellectuals interested in religion, and the Buddhas non-religious teachings
emerged as the lone tradition among the worlds major religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam,
Hinduism) that was considered both a psychology and a scientifically inspired philosophy of mind.
This particular interpretation of the Buddhas life and teachings cannot however be located in
Buddhist traditions prior to the nineteenth century. If these depictions did not come from Buddhists,
wherefrom did they arise?
In the late nineteenth century, on the heels of Darwins On the Origin of Species, previously
unquestioned Christian doctrine was intensely scrutinized, prompting the development of a new
branch of Christian scholarship that sought to explain religion historically, rationally, and
scientifically. Around the same time, colonialist scholars translated the Buddhist sutras of their most
prized colonies. After decades of rigorous study and translation, several argued that the Buddhas
rudimentary methods for removing suffering were scientifically structured according to the same
principles dictating a physicians diagnosis and subsequent prescription for a cure. Moreover, the
Buddhas approach encouraged rational examination, and like a scientist he instructed his pupils to
challenge the truth of his teachings via a process of examination equal in rigor to the approach a
goldsmith would utilize to test the purity of gold.
While some colonialist scholars marveled at the philosophical sophistication of the Buddha,


1 In World Religions: Belief, Culture and Controversy, ed. Elisabeth McCaffrey. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2011.
http://religion.abc-clio.com/.

colonialist Christian missionaries castigated the most populous religion of Asia, persuading its
adherents to convert through arguments that at times included physical abuse, deprivation of
economic opportunities, and threats of eternal damnation. In response, members of the colonized
Buddhist elite defended the legitimacy of Buddhism by utilizing the same descriptive terms western
advocates employed to convince colonizing governments to halt or at least alter the strategies of
missionary proselytizing. The problem with this approach, however, was that outside of a small
percentage of the intellectual elite and an even smaller number of monastics, the millions of
Buddhists in Asia were not practicing this scientific Buddhism for the simple reason that
Buddhism was never a science and its philosophy had never been separated from its other religious
aspects.
While the arrogance of colonialists precludes the possibility that they intended to follow a millennia
old Buddhist model of scholarship, they accidentally did just that. Their new Buddhism, so they
claimed, represented the true teachings of the Buddha that had been misunderstood and adulterated.
Unbeknownst to them, hundreds of Buddhist schools had previously taken a similar approach to
introduce their new doctrines and practices.
However, these colonialist-era scholars were largely unaware of Buddhist history, and thus their
particular presentation was not guided by previous precedence, but fueled by their belief that they
(like the Christian missionaries they loathed) understood what inferior races had not. With their
best interests at heart, scholars of the colonial era believed that they could save the Buddhas true
teachings from the heathen Buddhists of Asia.
Numerous contemporary scholars of religion maintain that the current argument that Buddhism is a
non-theistic philosophical science of the mind rather than a religion is a product of this colonialist
legacy, albeit a more complex and sophisticated version of it. Moreover, these same scholars argue
that contemporary figures such as the XIV Dalai Lama frame their religion in secular scientific terms
for the same reasons that colonized Asians adopted western terminology, to preserve their religion
and prevent their people from being converted to foreign ideologies (such as communism and
democratic capitalism).
In conclusion, much of the doctrinal and meditative sophistication revered by those who adamantly
insist Buddhism is a non-theistic/scientific/philosophy of mind was developed by thousands of
Buddhist thinkers over the course of two thousand years. To argue that these doctrinal systems are
based on reasoning, privilege personal experience, and bear some resemblance to both science and
western notions of philosophy is to make a reasonable argument. However, it is also to ignore the
remaining history of Buddhism and the accompanying approaches that simultaneously became more
theistic, more faith based, and more ritualistic over this same period of time. In other words, to say
that Buddhism is non-theistic, philosophic, or scientific is to privilege particular teachings while
excluding a significant portion of Buddhists and Buddhisms. It is not to reiterate or illuminate the
original teachings of the Buddha.