The Place of Religion in the Technoscientific World

Introduction

 

At first glance religion on the one hand and science and technology on the other do not seem to have anything in common. Religion, according to some viewpoints, is a holdover from a bygone era, an era which was full of superstitions and irrational beliefs. Science, on the contrary, is a product of reason and truth. The only way for religion to show that what it offers is worthy of belief is that it is the word of God, that its pronouncement comes from Ultimate Reality in one way or another. Followers have to take these claims on faith, since there is no other independent way of proving whether God or Ultimate Reality really exists or not. Science, according to this common viewpoint, challenges everybody to prove its content. Those who do not believe, for example, that the Moon’s gravity is responsible for the tides are invited to offer their own alternative explanation as to why the tides behave the way they do without referring to these familiar concepts. Science does not rely on faith; everything can be proved and shown to be true or false objectively. As for technology, the challenge for religion is to come up with any solutions that could even remotely rival technology in effectiveness. Medical technology, for example, has progressed very rapidly, resulting in many people living longer than before. We can also think of the results of other types of technology. On the contrary, religion does not seem to offer any similarly concrete solutions. The promise of religion lies mainly in the afterlife, but without relying on faith it is impossible to prove that the afterlife exists. Thus for many in the world today the promise of afterlife offered by religion is nothing more than a false hope designed for the deluded, unenlightened mass. Technology offers solutions for the here and now, for today’s world, not for the world beyond death, which no one actually knows exists or not.

That is certainly a familiar picture. It does not matter which specific religion is there on the side of religion in the dichotomy. Many have claimed that Buddhism fares better on the whole than theistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but there are many elements in Buddhism which do not go along with the modern scientific mindset either. For example, the belief in life before birth and after death is central to Buddhism. It does not seem to be possible to have a coherent teaching on moral responsibility without the belief in these things. If everything in one’s life is totally annihilated after one’s death, then what is the point of trying to be a morally better person? Buddhism also has its fair share of superstitions; the Buddha performs many miracles as told in the canonical text; the worlds are arranged according to the moral quality of the inhabitants. It is very difficult to reconcile these to the modern scientific worldview. Owen Flanagan, a philosopher who has recently developed an interest in Buddhism, is clear in saying that the kind of Buddhism he would like to have is the kind that is totally cleansed of all that to him are “superstitions” (Flanagan 2011). To him superstitious elements in Buddhism are those that cannot be explained by science, such as the story that the Buddha travels to one of the heavens to meet his mother who died when he was only seven days old, or the belief in reincarnation. But the problem of stripping these elements from Buddhism is that what is left is only a set of abstract teachings, precisely the kind of thing that is amenable to modern science. As the belief in the afterlife is central to Buddhism’s stance on morality and responsibility, it cannot be eradicated without thereby affecting the whole fabric of Buddhist philosophy all together. What this means is that these so-called “superstitious” beliefs play an important role in Buddhism. Thus the belief found among many scholars that Buddhism is somehow different in this regard from other, theistic religions may be unfounded. Here Buddhism and the theistic religions are in the same boat.

The estrangement between religion and science appears be indicate that religion has become alienated to the modern world. This is because the modern world is so deeply influenced by science and technology that it is very difficult to imagine what the modern world would be like without the two. Thus the main problem facing all religions today is how religion can maintain its relevance in today’s world, a world which is founded upon science and technology. How can religion find its place in the social world when this world is being shaped more and more by science and technology? If science and technology do not need religion and if science and technology are also what is needed in today’s world, then religion appears to be superfluous. Would the belief in God or in Nirvana, which has founded the religious faith for millennia, be replaced by a new religion, that of science and rationality, and the belief that technology can fix every problem that is facing us? These questions have become all the more important when the role of religion in modern society is being usurped by science. Religion used to play the role of providing meaning and consolation to the people, but now that many are turning to drugs and medical help instead of religion, then what is left for religion to do?

It is my contention that the problem of relevance facing religion today is based on the belief that religion and science inhabit totally different world where there is no coming and going between the two. This belief is misguided. Religion still has quite a lot to share with science, something that science cannot find on their own. This is because there is bound to be something that is missed out by science because its own methodology prevents it from the beginning. Furthermore, religion also has quite a lot to learn from science too. It is only by opening the two up so that each can learn from the other than the place for religion in the technoscientific world can be assured. Moreover, it is more important perhaps that science learn from religion. In this way science can then find the kind of meaning that cannot be found otherwise, especially if science insists on proceeding with its own methodology alone.

In fact there are three domains in which religion and science can fruitfully interact, namely ethics, new possibilities for science, and new understanding of religion. Let’s discuss each of these topics in turn.

 

Ethics

The usual methodology of science does not leave a room for ethics. But this is where religion can make its strongest contribution. Science and technology have become so dependent on each other than it makes more sense to put them under the same word, “technoscience.” Technoscience is a unique development of the modern world; in fact the birth of modern science in the seventeenth century owed very much to the development of technology in that period. Galileo would not have been able to put forward his new scientific knowledge of the heaven had he not able to use the telescope which was an invention in that period. Technoscience certainly carries with it ethical implications. This is the case not only in today’s world where technoscience has become so pervasive in every aspect of our lives. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when modern science was at its formative stage, it was clear that technoscience was destined to be the instrument that Europeans used to conquer the rest of the world. To conquer the world, however, is not the stated objective of science, but this was inevitable when science became coupled with technology to produce immense power to those who knew how to harness it. The ethical implication is clear: To use the power of technoscience to conquer the world, as the Europeans certainly did in their colonization of the rest of the world, carries with it strong ethical values. And today when technoscience has become much more powerful, its ethical implications and values are as strong as ever.

It is quite ironic that though technoscience contains within itself strong ethical values, its own methodology does not permit of treating those values as constitutive of its practice in itself. That is, ethical considerations always come from outside of the technoscientific practice. When the scientists in Nazi Germany performed a series of experiments on their prisoners to see how tolerant the bodies of human beings were to extreme cold, they did a meticulous job which was perfect according to the scientific methodology. However, what they did was a blatant violation of ethical standard, for actually what they did was to put these prisoners under various degrees of extreme cold and measured how long they lasted until they finally died. It did not come into the minds of these scientists that these prisoners were human beings and that being put under such a condition would be extremely painful. In the minds of the scientists being in pain could actually be part of the experiment. If they had a way of measuring the pain suffered by these prisoners objectively, then this would have been a part of the experiment because that would contribute to their goals of measuring the threshold of endurance to extreme cold. However, what did not occur to their minds was that these prisoners were human beings, and human beings do suffer when put to the cold. The scientists did not know, or did not care to know, that they themselves could have been put under the same condition, and if they did not want to be in that situation (no one would) then the prisoners did not want so either. That is the crucial aspect of ethical consideration of their experiment, but their scientific methodology told them that this was extraneous to the science, and such feelings needed to be avoided.

If the scientists who were to perform these experiments were the least religious, they would certainly have not performed them. They would realize that both they themselves and the prisoners were not only human beings, but were creatures of God, created in His image, and thus deserve some respect. This realization would prevent the scientists from performing such horrific experiments because they would judge that the suffering of those who are put under these conditions is not compatible with the respect that any human being deserves. Here we see how religion contributes to ethical considerations in science. Nowadays we have strong regulations in using human subjects in research, regulations that stem directly from the horrors performed by Nazi scientists. Even though the regulations look secular, there is no denial that religious consideration could well be the foundation on which these regulations depend.

In other areas of scientific research and experiment, ethical considerations are also needed. Perhaps the hottest topic in technoscientific research and development today is in robotics. The US has developed drone airplanes that can fly far into hostile territory and seek out and destroy targets. In the works are robots that could one day replace human soldiers, with far more lethal consequences. The ethical problem for the drone airplane is: Is it ethical to send such airplanes to hostile territory and bomb targets? If the war is unjust, then the question is closed because in an unjust war every action by the one who starts the war cannot be ethically justified. But if the war is a just one, then should drone airplanes be considered to be an unacceptable means of engaging in warfare, in the same way as the use of chemical or biological weapons are so considered nowadays? What seems to be wrong about drone airplanes is that warfare is supposed to be a conflict between humans, but when drones travel thousands of kilometers into the enemy’s territory and destroy targets there, the human element on the attacker’s side is missing. Warfare then becomes utterly dependent on technology in a way that has not been seen before. It is true that warfare has always depended on technology, but what separates drones from all previous uses of technology is that with the drones fighting can be done remotely. The person who controls the drone can sit in a comfortable room half the world away from the site of the conflict. He or she then is not involved in the conflict in any manner, because for him or her engaging in the war is nothing different from engaging in a simulation game on the computer, something every child today is very good at. This conflation of a real war where real people are killed and a computer simulation game in which everything is happening as blips on the screen, exemplified by the drone aircraft, points to an urgent need for further ethical consideration of the whole thing.

In addition to the remotely controlled aircraft, military researchers today are working on a version of robot soldiers who in their vision would one day take the place of human soldiers in combat situation. What is scary about this development is that the robots are envisioned to function autonomously. This is where ethical considerations come in very poignantly. To function autonomously means the robot does not have to be remotely controlled; instead they can function independently by themselves. For example, a robot that is armed and programmed to destroy targets would be able to travel on their own and seek out the targets by themselves. What makes this particularly scary is that the robot will have to make its own decision as to which exactly is the target and which is not. But what would happen if it fails to make the distinction? What would happen if the information fed into the robot before entering the combat zone is a wrong one so that the robot is misled from the beginning? How could the robot distinguish between civilians and combatants? In real life combatants do not always wear a sign telling the world that they are indeed combatants; they would like to blend with the civilians for obvious reasons. How can then the autonomous robot know which one is actually the combatant? This is still an unsolved problem in military robotics.

Religion can be of great help in instilling a sense of ethical responsibility in robotics. It is right now not possible to engineer a robot who is as fully conscious as a human being. That scenario is still the stuff of science fiction. What is available, however, is a robot which has in it a set of algorithmic commands which allow them to function more or less autonomously. Thus the crux of the matter is not with the robot itself, but with the designers and the whole complex of operations surrounding the robot, the whole human and social context in which the robot develops. It is these systems that are in great need of religious sensibilities. It may be far-fetched to talk about the role of religion in military technology, but the core idea is that in any kind of technology, the military hardware discussed here being only an example, there is a need of religious perspectives and sensibilities, because it is these sensibilities that instill a sense of ethics in the design and implementation of a technology, no matter how crude or sophisticated. In the case of the autonomous military robot, it has to follow the rule of warfare. It must be able to distinguish civilians from combatants in a sophisticated manner, and it has to be virtuous in that it won’t shoot any combatant who has already surrendered. A key ingredient in the religious sensibilities is the realization that all human beings are sacred and deserve respect. Even if a human being is one’s enemy in war, the enemy still deserves respect and when the combat has ceased the enemy is to be treated like the human being that he is. This is a realization that stems ultimately from religion, and it shows how important religion is to such a sophisticated and advanced technology such as military robotics.

 

New Possibilities for Science

Apart from ethics, science itself benefits from religion because religion can provide science with new possibilities and insights which cannot be obtained through scientific methodology alone. For example, the works of such scientists as Francesco Varela, Richard Davidson and others have shown that ancient wisdom from Buddhism could shed light that offers new possibilities for scientific research. Buddhism has offered detailed first-person descriptions of what is going on in the mind. It has cataloged a large variety of emotive and other mental states which have proven to be useful when scientists use the new technique of imaging the workings of the brain and try to interpret what they actually mean. This incorporation of first-person report based on Buddhist terminology is known as “first-person science,” an idea which has started to receive more serious attention from behavioral and cognitive scientists.

Traditional scientific methodology believes that one should prevent elements from the “first person” to come in to play in the process of finding and building up scientific knowledge, because such first-person elements will distort the truth and the validity of the results. For example, scientists are taught to avoid the “secondary qualities” of objects and focus instead of their “primary qualities.” Secondary qualities are those properties of objects that depend on the perception of individuals for their existence. For example, the feelings of warmth or coldness that the hands have when they are immersed in warm or cold water are clear examples of the secondary qualities. The problem, according to traditional methodology, is that feelings felt by the hands are too inexact to be admissible as scientific evidence. Some persons may tolerate heat better than another, so the former may report the same water as being less warm than the other, who is more sensitive to heat. For the report to be scientific, the thermometer is used instead. Instead of relying on the sheer tactile feeling of warmth or coldness, the thermometer reports how much or how little the heat in the water causes the mercury inside the tube to rise up. The thermometer does not report the feeling of heat or coldness in any way. Heat as shown by the rising of the mercury inside the thermometer is an example of the water’s primary quality; whereas the feelings of heat or warmth or coldness felt by the hands are secondary qualities. The key here is that since primary qualities do not depend on the subjective feelings of the observer, they become the foundation for constructing scientific knowledge. This has become the dominant methodology in science for centuries.

However, what Varela is proposing is that, instead of relying exclusively on what is objectively verifiable in the primary qualities, scientific knowledge could advance more if one also brings in the first-person, subjective dimension. Buddhism does not distinguish between the objective and the subjective; instead it assumes that the two are both aspects of the same reality. In other words, when Buddhism describes reality, it does not divide the reality into the subjective, inner realm of private thoughts and sensations of an individual, and the objective, outer realm of publicly verifiable qualities. The so-called “inner” qualities are also publicly verifiable because anyone who follows the same procedure will experience those “inner” qualities in the same way as others. The Buddhist text states, for example, that when one attains the first level of meditative absorption (jñana) one will experience a sensation known as “vitaka,” which is a necessary factor in attaining the first-level absorption. The text describes vitaka as “hitting the bell.” This refers to the act of meditation where the meditator recalls and repeats what she is focusing her attention on. The recalling and the refocusing are known as “vitaka.” The text says that this is a vital ingredient without which no meditative absorption can take place. One knows that one has vitaka by comparing what the text says. It is like hitting a bell. When one is focusing one’s attention on something in the process of meditation, one has to keep repeating and bringing oneself back to the object of one’s meditation. This bringing oneself back is then compared to the action of hitting the bell over and over. What is happening inside is taken to be on a par as an element of reality as what is outside. In fact it is an implication of Buddhist and its main contribution that the inner and the outer eventually break down.

Another example that shows how the inner and the outer is broken down and merged together is that Buddhism has a very elaborate theory of the self and self-formation. This can be a resource for scientists who are studying consciousness and how the idea of the self is formed in a person, or whether there can be located a locus (or several loci) of the self in the brain of the person himself or herself. Buddhism teaches that what is commonly known as the self, i.e., the one who is the initiator of action of an individual, who makes the decision for the individual, who feels and thinks as that individual, ultimately does not exist as an objectively existing entity. Instead what is taken to be the self is a result of various factors, chief among which is upadana, or grasping. What is taken to be the self is a result of various forms and instances of grasping, resulting in various elements being brought together under the illusion that those elements belong to one and the same objectively existing entity known as the self. But the Buddhists ask us to examine this process in order to help us realize that the self does not objectively exist; instead it is only formed out of many elements which would not be related to one another if not for the action of grasping.

What the analysis of the self in Buddhism can offer modern science is that Buddhism has already a very detailed and systematic description of the self and the various processes by which the self come to be formed. This becomes a reference point against which modern neuroscience can conduct their experiments. Modern science has operated on the belief that first-person report should be filtered out, but as the analysis of the self shows, the inner and the outer are in fact aspects of one and the same reality. And if this is really the case, then to take the inner out believing that it is not part of the scientific process would mean that scientific knowledge would miss an important aspect which could have brought much in terms of our understanding of the world. According to Francisco Varela, one of the most prominent pioneers in bringing Buddhism and scientific research together, “… we foresee in the future that the mind sciences will evolve into a form of experiential neuroscience, bridging the gap between external and internal descriptions. Such a unification of our understanding of the world, a new frame for a mind science, is one of the major contributions Buddhism is capable of offering” (Varela 2012).

 

New Understanding of Religion

 

The relation between science and religion does not limit itself only to creating new possibilities in science. The relation goes the other way too. Science and technology can contribute to the many ways that religion can be transformed in order better to respond to challenges of the contemporary world. For example, the Internet and social media can promote religious teachings and create groups of faithfuls and practitioners who can always get in touch with one another through the social media. They can share the teachings and set up real world events where they can meet; they can also engage in discussion on the social media site and so on. A welcome development in how the practice of religion has been transformed by technology is in what is known as “Islamic computing.” An example of this is a software program, which can be downloaded onto a smart phone, that tells the exact time that Muslims have to pray to God. Another application facilitates online banking according to the Islamic system. These are just some of the current applications of modern technology to religious practice. In Thailand, many also use the social media to propagate teachings and to coordinate real world activities such as merit making ceremonies.

The use of technology is not limited to facilitating religious practice, however. His Holiness the Dalai Lama once said that if the findings of science happen to contradict some of the content by past masters, then he would be willing to forego the masters’ teachings and embrace the scientific findings instead. He says: “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview” (Tenzin Gyatso 2005). For example, Buddhism has an elaborate cosmology which claims that there is a central mountain that acts as the core at the center of the world and that the core is ringed by seven smaller mountains. The pillar also supports many layers of heavens and hells. According to the Dalai Lama, this belief has to change in light of the findings of science that show the geographical nature of the world as well as the place of the planet earth in the solar system. This shows that the idea of the world being supported by a central mountain is untenable. One can still be a good Buddhist without believing in the central mountain. Thus the teachings of Buddhism can then be enriched by these findings from science. Instead of believing that the earth is supported by a perfectly straight central pillar, something which cannot be supported by empirical evidence, Buddhists can believe instead that the earth is not supported by anything but float in space and orbit the sun as the third planet of the Solar System.

 

Conclusion

 

Such a belief, I would like to add, does not interfere with the main message of Buddhism, and in the case of other religions, this appears to be true also. A true believer and practitioner of a religion does not have to shut himself or herself off from the advancement in science and technology. Instead he or she finds a congruence, a harmony between science and religion such that the main message of the religion remains intact while becoming part of the scientific world. Becoming a part of the scientific world does not mean that one becomes “scientistic,” i.e., one who blindly follows everything in science and totally believes that science is superior to all other intellectual or spiritual endeavors. Such a person is indeed entirely ignorant. Integrating science and technology into our lives does not have to mean that we become scientistic in this sense. On the contrary, as our discussion on the ethics of science and technology shows, we stand in a real need for religious insights which would help us see the potentially disastrous consequences of technoscience. By doing that we do not become religious fanatics either. In fact religious fanatics, those who blindly believe in the content of religious teachings without reason, and those who are scientistic are but two sides of one and the same coin—they blindly believe in what they want to believe without proper investigation and examination through reason. Today’s world does not need those mindsets, but we need a way in which religion and technoscience to engage in meaningful dialogs so that we human beings can really flourish in both material and spiritual senses.

 

References

Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. (2005). Our faith in science. New York Times. November 12, 2005. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/12/opinion/12dalai.html?pagewanted=1 [Retrieved December 16, 2012].

Varela, Francisco J. (2012). Buddhism and modern science: the importance of the encounter with Buddhism for modern science. Available at http://www.mindandlife.org/about/hhdl-mli/buddhism-and-modern-science/ [Retrieved December 16, 2012].

Flanagan, Owen. (2011). Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

 

 

 

 

 

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About “The Inner Jihad”

I just read a very interesting article on “The True Jihad” on  the Enlightennext.org website, and here is my response. Please read the article first before reading this comment:

Key to this article is that view that the inner jihad – inner spiritual battle against evil – demands the existence of the enemy, namely the ego. Thus the current mindset that tries to look away from evil, thinking that the evil should be brought to the fold and not be discriminated against, is a total humbug. We need an evil, so that author says, in order for our struggle to be meaningful. If we lost sense of the evil, then the evil will have done away with us all.

That’s quite a nice point. But it enters into some kind of paradox that is very hard to get out of. Bear in mind that we are talking about inner spiritual battle here, the kind that Jesus went through when he was tempted by Satan, when the Buddha was tempted by Mara, and so on. And the Islamic tradition certainly has it right on the spot when it identifies that the enemy of the spiritual battle is our own selves. In the end the largest and most meaningful spiritual battle is one raging inside our minds, when we can overcome our own tendency to the ordinary ways of living and thinking, which is no different from blind people rushing about from one place to another hitting into things. Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed taught that this is only because we fall prey to our own egos; their hold on us is so strong that it takes utterly strong effort to see through.

The paradox, however, arises when the author insists that the egos are real. He is correct when he says that if we don’t take our egos seriously, or if we want to “include” the egos so that they, too, could be liberated, then the whole spiritual edifice breaks down and we will continue running around as blindly as before. But then in the zest to defeat the ego we have to be very careful not to fall prey to it yet again. So the longer the ego is needed, the further still from the eventual goal of spiritual battle we will be. In our enthusiasm to kill our egos we seem to have brought back those very same egos through the back door without our knowing through our very enthusiasm. If we are intent on destroying the ego with hatred, then not only will we not accomplish anything, we will suffer from self hatred, which is completely as bad as any form of hatred if not more. The longer we are convinced that the ego is there, existing substantially, then we cannot defeat it. We might believe we have crushed it by brute force, or sheer will power, but then the ego is a very wily enemy, one which has a way to catch us unaware at any time. So it seems that if there is no ego, then no spiritual battle is meaningful, but if there is an ego, then fighting against it just brings it back.

So what do we do? That question lies at the very heart of the spiritual battle. We realize that the so-called “ego” is ultimately speaking just a creation of our own mind. This is not the same as not engaging in the spiritual battle. The slothful who does not practice has no way of spiritual advancement because he does not make any attempt to see. For him things are just right the way they are. They are completely under the spell of their egos. But the truly spiritual also realizes that reifying the ego creates the same problem. So the way out is first to identify the enemy, which is the sense of “I” or “mine” that has gripped us for so long and is the source of all our problems. Then we see that this “I”, this ego, is no more than an illusion. At first the illusion appears real because it is the face that it is perceived to be this way that is the source of the problems, then the only way to get rid of the problems is to realize that the ego is only an illusion, and has been so all along.

Buddhism and Culture

One thing that Lewis Lancaster talked about in his lecture at Berkeley (see here) is that Buddhism is a “portable” religion. This means that Buddhism was the first “global” religion which was followed by Christianity. The core or the essence of Buddhism is not tied up with any particular place, or a race of people. Earlier religions, such as Brahmanism and Judaism, were very much tied up to particular places and people. You can’t become a Hindu; you have to be born one. That is, you have to have already a context in which you are a Hindu. You have to belong to a certain caste, and foreigners are always outside of the caste system. Hinduism, then, is not a proselytizing religion.

What interests Lancaster is that you can always take Buddhism with you, everything that enables you to set up and have a fully functioning religions practice and doctrines so that you can transplant the whole religion in a far away land. This is also in accordance with the teaching about no-self; there is no self, no core thing that one gets attached to. Buddhism in this sense does not have a core. Of course the Buddha said that there were important places for Buddhists to travel to in order to commemorate the Buddha’s time on this earth — his birthplace, the place where he attained Enlightenment, and so on. But those are not necessary for accomplishing the highest goal of the religion. For Hindus, on the other hand, the river Ganges is a “real” source of blessing. No other river can even come close. But there is no such river in Buddhism.

Another religion that is closely related to Buddhism, Jainism, has aboutthe same apparatus that could have made it as portable, but Jainism is not portable. This is not because of the doctrine in itself. There is no holy river in Jainism either. What has made Jainism much tied up with the land of India is instead its injunctions that the Jain monks may not make use of any vehicle. They have to walk wherever they want to go. So they cannot go far. This severely limits the range at which Jainism can fully spread.

Later religions, Christianity and Islam, all partake of this “portability” feature of Buddhism. You can have everything about Christianity without being tied up to, say, Jerusalem. All you need is a Bible and a set of practices. These practices even do not have to be exactly the same. As is the case in Buddhism, the practices serve to carry on the message of the religion, and they don’t have to be the same. All that matters is that they help to realize the purpose. For Buddhism, all you need is the set of the scriptures and a group of monks who follow the Vinaya rules. The monks are the ones who embody the teaching, so to speak. And even the monks themselves are not absolutely necessary, because one can gain Realization without becoming one. This is a rather controversial point, but even if the monks are necessary, one can become a monk only when certain minimal rules are followed. All this helped the spread of Buddhism far and wide.

What makes all this possible is the emphasis on the mind. And this shows how universal the religion really is. Since all of us possess our own individual mind and the capability of thinking and understanding, all of us have the potential to become fully realized. This is one of the important messages of the Buddha.

Buddha, God, and Emptiness

During the symposium on Buddhism in German philosophy and literature, there was a lively discussion on how to compare Buddhism and Christianity on the topic of God and ultimate reality. There was a question from the audience whether the difference between Buddhism as a non-theistic and Christianity as a theistic religion would be a significant matter in an attempt to compare the two. In short, whether the fact that Buddhism is a non-theistic religion would make it inadequate in some way to answer the people’s needs.

This is an age-old matter. The talk started out with the comparison between the two religions on meditation. There is meditation in Christianity too, and it was kind of marginalized as a result of the movement toward rationality in the modern age. Thus meditation came to be regarded as some kind of mysticism. But it was there in the Christian tradition. So the question was posed whether the difference between Buddhism and Christianity on the existence of God would make any differences in meditative experiences. Christians presumably meditate on God and the purpose of the meditation is to get closer to God, but if there is no God in Buddhism, what do the Buddhist meditators meditate on?

For Buddhists this question sounds quite strange, because there are so many things one can meditate on, and there is no restriction that one has to meditate on God only. God does not have a monopoly when it comes to meditative object. In any case, I said during the talk that one way to find a common ground between the two religions is that, instead of looking at God as the creator, one might look at God rather as the Ultimate Reality, one whom the meditator tries to get closer to. If God is identified with this Ultimate Reality, then He would have a lot of affinity with Buddhism, because in Buddhism meditation the goal is also to get closer to Ultimate Reality, to become one with it, in effect.

This Ultimate Reality is known in some traditions of Buddhism as Emptiness. This is the ultimate nature of all reality; it is the real nature of everything. Thus God can be identified with Emptiness, and since Emptiness is just another word for Nirvana, God and Nirvana are in fact one and the same. The goal of the Christian is to become “one” with God, and the goal of the Buddhist is to realize Nirvana, which in other words is to become “one” with it too.

I also said that the perceptible world, according to the Buddhists, has no beginning nor end. The world has existed “since beginningless time,” as Buddhists are wont to say, and it will continue to exist so long as there are causes and conditions for it. Thus there is no creator God, but there is the God that is to be identified with this beginningless world. What both share in common is that they are eternal. God always IS, and reality, Emptiness, whatever it is called, always IS also.

The problem, of course, is that Christians do not accept this picture. Since to say of God that He is identified with the world is to destroy the distinction between the creator and his creation, and if there is no definite future, then no eschatology is possible. No dramatic story of Jesus coming down and give the final judgment.

The Buddhists have no idea whatsoever of eschatology. This only makes sense in the theistic setting and in the context of putting everything under a dramatic plot or a narrative. For the Buddhist future is an illusion created by the deceived mind, and there is no metanarrative that informs every event in the universe. Your future depends on what you do at this moment. You might be born as a god in heaven if you acquire some positive merits, or you go to hell. This is entirely up to your choosing. But there is no such story for the world as such. No, the world is definitely not going to be any particular way according to some preordained plan. The world is just there, and what it is like is up to the people inside it who do their various actions.

One way to understand what I am saying here is this. It is accepted that God creates Himself (sui generis), so isn’t there a problem here about the created and the creator? So why don’t we look at everything as God? God creates the world when we look at Him in one way, but in another way God does create Himself, and He does this continually.

I know I am encroaching upon Christian theology, a topic which I claim no expertise whatsoever. My aim here is only to find a common ground between Buddhism and Christianity and other monotheistic religions. This picture would be quite compatible with Buddhism, just change the word ‘God’ to ‘Emptiness’ according to the Madhyamika, or ‘Ultimate Reality’ according to the Abhidhamma, or the ‘Mind’ according to the Yogacara.

I also know that this picture is pantheistic, and thus unacceptable as a Christian doctrine. But that is not my problem. So Christian theologians would have to find their own solution if they do not want to go the pantheistic route. If the goal of the meditation is to enter the state of union with God, how is that going to be possible if there is this unbridgeable gulf between the creator and what is created?

Did God Have a Wife?

The PBS is putting a new series on “The Bible’s Buried Secrets” which documented Jewish history at the period which led to the Bible as we know it today, as well as the whole idea of monotheism. However, it was discovered also that the Israelite God, Yahweh, did have a wife, who was a Canaanite fertility goddess. This is really interesting. Here is the video preview:

Well, for Buddhists this is totally normal, nothing surprising. We Buddhists might consider Yahweh himself to reside in one of the high heavens, corresponding with Brahma (they both created heaven and earth, you know), and Brahma came down often to listen to the Buddha’s teaching. So Brahma in a way was one of the Buddha’s students, a celestial one at that. Brahma did have a wife, Sarasvati, who played some role as the goddess of learning and poetry.

It’s too bad that the Israelites chose not to promote their own goddess, so she kind of faded away from history, until now.

Buddhism and Music

I have been listening to this beautiful YouTube video of Elizabeth Parcell’s singing of Mozart’s “Exsultate, Jubilate” and think that I should be saying something about Buddhism and music. But first let us listen to the first part of the video:

Very beautiful, isn’t it? The music does not end with this part, and I will post the second and final part toward the end of this present post. The theme of the music, of course, is Christian. If I am not mistaken, “Exsultate, Jubilate” are words that exhort people to praise Jesus, and the music ends with a rousing “Alleluia” or “Hallelujah.” (You will find this in Part 2 of the video.) Very Christian indeed.

So what does this have to do with Buddhism. I have thought for a long time, in fact since I was very young, why Buddhism does not have such beautiful music praising its founder as Christianity does with their founder. I went to a Christian school in early primary years, and they usually took me to a church where they sang hymns that contained praises to Jesus and things like that. I went with the flow, even though I was Buddhist as were most Thai students there, but I could not help thinking why there is no such beautiful music in Buddhism. All that we had was monks chanting, but monks in Thailand do not play musical instruments, nor do they sing melodies, and the chant had no harmonization at all. I was told, moreover, that music was a kind of “defilement,” something to be avoided. Music is something that leads you to become attached to sensuality and pleasure, leading you away from the true goal.

But then I began to wonder whether music is really as “defiled” as I was told. If music was really defiled, then the Mozart above would be so, but I find it very hard to bring myself to see that. In fact I remember the story behind the “Exsultate” according to which Mozart was commissioned by the Archbishop of Salzburg to write a piece of Church music for liturgical purpose, and Mozart came up with this classic masterpiece. The story had it that the Archbishop was not amused at all by this masterpiece, which he thought to be too “sensual” (well, I can see that too 🙂 ).  Anyway, the point seemed to be that Mozart was a rebellious soul, and his “Exsultate” could be interpreted as a statement against the Archbishop and his conservative attitude. Perhaps art took precedence over piety. In fact I think historians of music would say that the “Exsultate” did not have any religious sentiment at all; in fact it is a piece of secular music masquerading as a religious one. In today’s secular West, the piece is performed not in a church but in a concert hall, where people applaud loudly, which they don’t do at all in church.

However, I believe that the music is very deeply spiritual and listening to it I can’t help but think of the devotion that Mozart must have felt toward God, but being the artist that he was, this was how he showed the devotion. If the singer has to sing like an opera diva praising God, then she sings that, even though it may arouse feelings that typically one does not associate with religious piety. But I think one has to look beyond that. The real significance of the music is that, precisely because of the very beautiful coloraturas and harmonization, Mozart shows that art can arouse deeply religious feeling, and one who thinks that religious music has to be dull and lifeless may have to revise what they think.

This pertains directly to Buddhism and music. My point is that it is not necessary that beautiful music such as this has to arouse attitudes or sentiments that run contrary to the goals of either Buddhism or Christianity. Of course the “Exsultate” is very sensual; that is the point. But one be sensual while being deeply religious. If you are not convinced try reflect on the meaning of the Latin lyric, but if you do not know Latin (which I don’t by the way), at least you should know “Alleluia” if you are a Christian. Let the beauty of the music come to you without any judgement (like the Archbishop did). Let is seep into you, soaking you with the sheer rhythm, melody and harmony, and blend them with the meaning of the lyrics. The two cannot be considered in separation of each other, and I think this is where the mistake of those who think this is essentially a secular music lies.

Now what if this kind of beautiful music be set to words that praise Buddha instead? What if there is a full expression of joy and delight that the Buddha comes to the world and teaches us the way out of suffering and samsara? Wouldn’t that be appropriate to “Exsultate, Jubilate” too?

I end with Part Two of Elizabeth Parcell’s singing of Mozart:

Subject, Self, and Soul

The Ninth Annual Conference of the Metanexus Institute has just finished yesterday amidst all the fanfare and four very dazzling Flamenco dancers who performed for us during the closing banquest at the Husa Princesa Hotel in Madrid. It was a good memory and I believe people will look forward to the next conference, wherever it will be, as the organizers have decided to move it around the world.

Regarding the content of the conference, I would like to have more representatives from the Buddhist tradition, as there were not many at all at this conference. So this is perhaps something that the organizers might want to think about for the next one. Buddhism is a growing religion, and it is making its presence felt even in the West in many ways. (There were not too many representatives from Islam, too.)

The topic for this conference is on “Subject, Self and Soul,” certainly very big topics. That perhaps is a reason why there are a lot of philosophers at this conference. I think there are much more philosophers and more purely philosophical papers at this conference than in the previous one in Philadelphia. And I think last year´s conference featured more scientists, so there was a discernible shift from focusing on scientists to philosophers. I don´t think they designed it this way; perhaps the topic lent itself more toward philosophical investigation. But the sciences have a lot to contribute to the topics of the self, and who knows they might have something interesting to say about the subject and the soul too.

Listening to the many papers from the Christian tradition presented at the conference, I could not help but find similarities between Christianity and Buddhism. Of course there are certain differences but I am not talking about them in this post. The conference was opened by a keynote talk by George Ellis from South Africa. His key theme was on “kenosis,” the process of “emptying out oneself” that Jesus did for the sake of all of us. One empties out oneself when one totally eliminates any sense of one´s own individuality and totally opens oneself to all the sufferings, all the sins, of all beings in the world. 

This is where the similarity lies. I said “all the sufferings and all the sins” so as to bring about the two key terms in Buddhism and Christianity. Buddhism talks about sufferings, and Christianity about sins. What one gets from Christianity is that the reason why Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise was that they gain “knowledge.” But this is a very special kind of knowledge. We could look at it as the kind of knowledge which enables one to distinguish one thing from another; it is a kind of discriminating knowledge, one that embodies the process of conceptualization. Now Adam and Eve “know” that they are naked and so on. But to know that one is naked means that one is able to compare oneself and others. Knowing this requires that one also knows all about the convention and everything that makes up discriminating thoughts.

But this is also found in Buddhism. What Adam and Eve have learned is that they are now mired in the process of samsara, because they possess this discriminating thought, which corresponds to the Sanskrit samskara. This is usually translated as “thought formation” and it is not out of the mark. Adam and Eve learned how to formulate thoughts and as a result committed the original sin. Stated in Buddhist terminology, the representative of the human race came to possess samskara, which is a result of avidya, or “ignorance.” So here is a difference. Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) talks about the forbidden knowledge, but Buddhism talks about the ignorance. But to me at least both refer to about the same thing 🙂 .

The process after that is about the same in both traditions. Most readers of this blog who are from the West should be familiar with the story about the original sin and the lost paradise. In Buddhism, avidya gives rise to samskara, which in turn gives rise to all the remaining links of dependent origination, ending in all sorts of sufferings that afflict us everyday. So the Buddhist “original sin” is this avidya and the goal of Buddhism is to gain “redemption” though realizing the ultimate truth, to get rid, that is, of the root ignorance. (Of course there are differences but let´s focus on the similarity.)

So when Jesus came to the world, his mission was to take humans back to where they originally belonged – union with god or whatever you might want to call. Jesus takes away all our sins and as a result we are “redeemed.” The Buddha´s mission is to come to the world and announce the Teaching, the Dharma, and through following the Dharma one gains Liberation, or Nirvana, through which one is free from the cycle of sufferings. Jesus did this, according to Ellis in his talk, through the process of kenosis, emptying out himself so that all the sins and sufferings of everybody flow into him. The cross that Jesus died on is thus a very powerful symbol. In suffering on the cross, Jesus takes away our sins, as if our collective sins and sufferings are all collected together at that moment. When we reflect on that we are reminded of what Jesus did and what he came to the world for.

This is also a Buddhist message. A practice that is prescribed for those who vow to gain Realization so as to help liberate all the sentient beings in the world is called “Equalizing Oneself and Others¨and “Exchanging Oneself and Others.” The key is to realize that every being is interdependent and that sufferings arise only through thought fabrications and formations and conceptualizations that take things as they appear as being real in themselves. When Christians talk about “union with the divine,” Buddhists talk about becoming one and the same with the Bodhisattvas, taking up their qualities, which is full of compassion and the insight into the real nature of things, which is Emptiness. Buddhists learn to take up all the sufferings and pains of all sentient beings, no matter who they are, no matter whether they are their enemies, friends, or anything, so that they are free from sufferings and ultimately realize the Truth. If the Bodhisattvas are divine, Buddhists can eventually become one with the divine in this sense too.