Friday, May 14, 2021

Making Buddhism a Bit too Simple

Each semester, I ask my Chico State University Science and Religion students to write an essay on which religion is the most compatible with science. 

The overwhelming favorite is Buddhism.

This fact actually leads to a question: What do my students mean by "Buddhism"? Honestly, what they describe does not represent the conensus of the Buddhist tradition; but instead a particular stream: Buddhist modernism or “minimalist Buddhism.” (Christianity, in case you were interested, is often portrayed as maximally incompatible because it tells us that the world was created in six days.) 

What also interests me is that my students are talking about a Buddhism which walks in lock step with their tendency to be Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR).

As Buddhism scholar David McMahan points out, much of what we hear today in the U.S. as “Buddhism” was created largely by 19th century Transcendentalists (like Thoreau), and even more, by later thinkers who promoted the “warfare thesis” between Christianity and science. Even some of my favorite Buddhist writers today like Lama Surya Das, Thich Knat Han, and the Dalai Lama support this limited form of Buddhism, one that is seen to be compatible with science. Often it presents itself as “mind science,” based on meditation and especially mindfulness.

To be sure, often this Buddhist modernism presents mindfulness meditation as central and a practice for all. This is in striking contrast to Southeast Asian Theravada Buddhism, which was created for monks, largely in monastic seclusion. The monks, not the laypersons, are the ones who meditate in Theravada.

Worth asking is, How does it work to present a specific Buddhism as if it's the whole shebang? Particularly, why does it work in a way that wouldn't with Christianity? The fact is that most Americans at least know Christians who are anti-science. But most are unaware of this history or of the variety of lived Buddhisms. Thus, modernist's Buddhism's frictionless compatibility with science represents an easy sell for one key reason: most Americans don’t know Buddhists, who represent less than 1% of the U.S. population.

And so Buddhism, especially the kind loved by many of my students, becomes a poster child for interacting with science. That strikes me as simple, much too simple. And real, lived Buddhism is far more interesting.


John Morehead said...

Thank you for this. I just recently discovered your blog through a Science for the Church email. I work as an evangelical scholar in multifaith engagement, trying to model respectful conversations through difference. Not long ago someone from the Northwest Dharma Association was a guest discussing American Buddhism. That conversation can be found here: A colleague of mine, Paul Louis Metzger, has had a long relationship with the Dharma Rain Zen Buddhist group in Portland. Our learning process continues.

Thanks again for your blog. I'm now a subscriber.

My Reflections said...

John, thanks for this. Let's stay in touch!