Saturday, July 11, 2020

Is Buddhism science?

One of the greatest twists in the recent history of nonfiction came at the end of Sam Harris's The End of Faith (2004). The book gave physical form to the message-board atheism of the early internet and launched a publishing boom for religious skeptics, but its final chapter struck a different note. Harris, it turned out, is a self-described mystical seeker with a long history of pilgrimages and discipleships under various Eastern gurus. He concluded the book by evangelizing on behalf of a scientifically filtered Buddhism that can awaken us to "the intrinsic freedom of consciousness" and help us grapple with "almost every problem we have" as a species.

Despite his infidel reputation, Harris belongs to the religious current that David McMahan calls "Buddhist modernism." This is a global assortment of Buddhist movements formed under creative pressure from the dominant Western trends of the past few centuries, such as rationalism, Protestant anti-clericalism, and Romanticism. All of them sought to counter the judgment of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer that Buddhism is fundamentally pessimistic. At the same time, they accepted Schopenhauer's claim that Buddhism is "the finest of all religions," exceptional for its intellectual acuity and faithfulness to the human experience. In fact, a major strand of Buddhist modernism argues that Buddhism, properly understood, isn't even a religion but a uniquely empirical way of life based on meditation — "a first-person science," as Harris once phrased it.

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