When you look at some of the research that is now being conducted—cloning, genetically-programmed foods, and the awful prospects that biochemical weapons pose to life, for example, in developing resistant strains of anthrax and smallpox with which to wipe out entire countries—Master Hua's words have an unfortunately all-too-true ring to them.
In 1989, Venerable Walpola Rahula, a Theravadan monk from Sri Lanka, warned that daily life is being permeated by science. He cautioned, "We have almost become slaves of science and technology; soon we shall be worshipping it." This was well into the final decades of the twentieth century when many people were already worshipping science. The Venerable monk observed, "Early symptoms are that they tend to seek support from science to prove the validity of our religions." Huston Smith, the eminent scholar on the world's religions, recently made a similar point in an interview: that the failure of modern religions in the West specifically roots to their accommodation to culture, rather than exerting a countervailing influence on culture. Smith specifically saw such cooption taking place in terms of material acquisition and bowing to scientific thought. Rahula Walpola elaborated on this point: "We justify them [i.e. religions] and make them modern, up-to-date, respectable, and accessible. Although this is somewhat well-intentioned, it is ill-advised. While there are some similarities and parallel truths, such as the nature of the atom, the relativity of time and space, or the quantum view of the interdependent, interrelated whole, all these things were developed by insight and purified by meditation." Dharma, or abiding spiritual truths, were discovered without the help of any external instrument. Rahula concluded, "It is fruitless, meaningless to seek support from science to prove religious truth. It is incongruous and preposterous to depend on changing scientific concepts to prove and support perennial religious truths." Moreover, he said, "Science is interested in the precise analysis and study of the material world, and it has no heart. It knows nothing about love or compassion or righteousness or purity of mind. It doesn't know the inner world of humankind. It only knows the external, material world that surrounds us."
I want to give rather full quotes for you because this monk's viewpoint is both powerful and rather unconventional, especially in regard to the facile linking of Buddhism and science that seems so ubiquitous these days in the West. Rahula emphasized, "On the contrary, religion, particularly Buddhism, aims at the discovery and the study of humankind's inner world: ethical, spiritual, psychological, and intellectual. Buddhism is a spiritual and psychological discipline that deals with humanity in total. It is a way of life. It is a path to follow and practice. It teaches man how to develop his moral and ethical character, which in Sanskrit is
sila, and to cultivate his mind, samadhi, and to realize the ultimate truth,
prajna wisdom, Nirvana."
When I came upon these two comments, I had to pause, because both monks came out of the Asian tradition, and in many ways predate the "Westernization" of Buddhism. Unlike Suzuki and Carus, heavily Westernized people who had been promoting a very strong link between Buddhism and science, Masters Hua and Walpola emerged from a monastic discipline and a more traditional understanding that was less enamored of modern science and more critical of Western philosophy.
So, I started to reexamine this passage that I have quoted from the
Kalamas: "When you know for yourselves what is wholesome and unwholesome..." This, I believe, holds the key to understanding the difference between Buddhism and modern science. The passage needs to be understood within a specific context of moral inquiry, and not simply as a nod to Western empiricism. This "knowing for yourself " locates knowledge ('scientia') firmly within the moral sphere, both in its aims and its outcomes. It is using a meditative form of inquiry to penetrate the ultimate nature of reality. It implies a concept quite foreign to modern science: that the knower and what is known, the subject and object, fact and value, are not merely nondual, but that knowledge itself is inescapably influenced by our moral and ethical being. Interestingly, this is exactly what Suzuki said was lacking in modern science—a position he came to over time. When he first came to the West as a missionary for Buddhism, Suzuki extolled upon the remarkable resonance between Buddhism and Western science. By the 1950's and towards the end of his life, however, that enthusiasm for identifying Buddhism with modern science waned. He came to doubt the sufficiency of a religion based on science, and even saw the need for religion to critique science. In 1959, Suzuki partially repudiated his early modernist agreement with Carus and Western Buddhists that "religion must stand on scientific grounds... that Christianity was based too much on mythology."
To be continued