• With The Scientific Buddha, Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan, has written a book that should be of interest to anyone who finds affinities between Buddhism and the sciences.

The book is a reworked series of Terry Lectures that Lopez gave at Yale University in 2008. As such it is more easily read but less complete than his earlier book on the same topic, Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed, focusing somewhat more on the person of the Buddha than on the religion.

The Scientific Buddha, like its lengthier predecessor, is a difficult book to evaluate, containing much that is of merit and much that deserves questioning. Reversing the Buddha’s typical discursive technique, we will turn to the beneficial first.

 The Historical Buddha

The historical Buddha (that is, the Buddha of the canonical sutras) is far from the model of a modern scientist, and his dharma is far from modern science. In looking for unscientific aspects to Buddhism there is a bushel of low hanging fruit, and Lopez spends much of Scientific Buddha doing the gathering. He focuses in particular on issues of karma and meditation.

Lopez tackles the theory, popular among certain thinkers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that the Buddha’s notions of karma and rebirth either presaged, or are compatible with, Darwinist evolution. It doesn’t take much work to explode these claims, since evolution is an amoral process, and one that lacks the cosmological, world-creating implications of traditional Buddhist karma.

Similarly Lopez finds much to criticize in the current scientific adoption of meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, in lay life and medicine. While mindfulness may work to alleviate certain symptoms of stress, or aid one in living a fuller life, this was not the Buddha’s aim in promoting meditative practice. Meditative states were associated with planes of potential existence, and his aim was to to gain complete renunciation, and escape the cycle of rebirth. So when journalists suggest that research on stress relief demonstrates (or could demonstrate) that Buddhist meditation “works”, something has got lost in the translation. Buddhist meditation was never intended simply to relieve stress, and it is hard to figure out how one would go about measuring renunciation.

Lopez also outlines the ways the historical Buddha was said to have superhuman, even supernatural, powers.

He has complete recollection of the past, including each of his own past lives as well as the lives of all sentient beings … He has full knowledge of the present in the sense that he is aware, or has the capacity to be aware, of all events occurring in all realms of multiple universes. He has full knowledge of everything that will occur in the future and is able to predict the precise circumstances under which various persons will become buddhas. … The Buddha described in the sutras is more a figure of science fiction than of science. (p. 43).

Though this passage exaggerates the role that the Buddha’s supposed supernatural abilities play in the sutras (I would say the claims are relatively marginal), nevertheless Lopez is right to point them out. And as he goes on,

… we might speculate as to what the traditional Buddha might say about the Scientific Buddha. In the Great Discourse on the Lion’s Roar … the Buddha declares, “Should anyone say of me: ‘The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. The recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma [merely] hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him’ — unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then as [surely as if he had been] carried off and put there, he will wind up in hell” (pp. 45-6).

Lopez’s Buddhism and Science reveals more clearly his background in Tibetan Buddhism. There the Dalai Lama plays a central role in his argument that Buddhism is not as scientific as some would make it out to be. The Dalai Lama is typically put forward as exhibit number one for scientific Buddhists, however Lopez shows how conflicted he is when it comes to matters that fail to agree with Buddhist orthodoxy, such as Darwinian evolution or the mind’s dependence upon the brain.

In Buddhism and Science, Lopez also makes much of the Buddhist use of the term “aryan”, as a word that eventually became absorbed into the racial categories of 19th and 20th century Europe. This is interesting and historically valuable, however the association with Nazism is unfair both to the Buddhist and the Victorian sanskritist uses of the term. And although Lopez claims to show that in some contexts the Buddha dharma was not to be taught to lower caste individuals, the argument he provides is tortured enough (a commentary which exists only in Tibetan, on a commentary on a commentary on a piece by Nagarjuna) not to provide much support for that conclusion.

The Historian’s Buddha

It is not the role of the scholar to protect, preserve, and defend the religion that he or she studies. (p. 78).

My suggestion is that we allow the Buddha to remain beyond the world, completely at odds with the world, and with science. (p. 79).

These two conflicting assertions appear on facing pages in The Scientific Buddha, revealing a tension inherent in Lopez’s program. The role of the historian is to provide a faithful picture of the past. However many great historians also use history as polemic. Much of the story Lopez tells in these books is a story of how Buddhism came to the west, how it was seen, sometimes myopically, often with genuine if naïve interest, by Victorian sanskritists. The story of Buddhism’s discovery in the west is fascinating in its own right, and Lopez tells it well.  However in the telling, it also becomes a morality tale. It’s one in which calling a claim “Victorian”, linking it implicitly and explicitly to orientalism and imperialism, is sufficient to lay open its falsity.

Eventually, with the rise of the science of philology and of Oriental scholarship in the nineteenth century, the huge corpus of Buddhist texts began to be read, providing a wealth of new information. The myriad idols coalesced in to a single figure, who then became a historical figure, a founder of a religion, and a superstition became a philosophy. This is what used to be described unequivocally as progress. (p. 39).

Academic irony aside, is this not, in fact, a picture of progress? It’s far from the complete picture of the historical Buddha, but what Lopez charts for us is, in fact, an advance: one that takes us from a picture of myriad idols set up to wow the superstitious to a historical figure who founded a broadly practiced, rationally approachable religion.

The problem with Lopez’s rhetorical argument is that it is a form of genetic fallacy: since the Scientific Buddha was born among the ignorant, he must be a figment of the imagination. But no such conclusion follows from the premise. It may well be that Lopez’s bête noir is a “Victorian conceit”, and nonetheless an accurate, if partial, representation of the Buddha of the sutras. As the Buddha himself put it: one blind man may feel a plow, and another a broom, yet they both may be holding the same elephant.

Reading the sutras, or witnessing doctrinal debates in a Tibetan monastery, one can hardly avoid seeing the Buddha dharma as in large part a rational enterprise, steeped in an empirical approach to reality. Sutras such as Cankī or To the Kālāmas reveal a mind of uncommon openness to reason. Though as Bhikkhu Bodhi notes, one can take that message too far, it is nevertheless both profound and thrilling to find such rigor, no matter where in history it may appear.

Lopez suggests that the Buddha “remain beyond the world, completely at odds with the world”. This is, to make a point, not the whole truth, even when it comes to the Historian’s Buddha. The Buddha gave different messages to different people. To monks he advocated renunciation and liberation, to householders his advocacy was quite different. Why then must we assume that the only end to which meditation may legitimately be put is one of complete renunciation? It may be that in the Buddha’s day monks were the only ones likely to have the time or interest to meditate, but change happens, and there is nothing in the Buddha dharma that restricts meditation to a solely monastic context.

More pointedly, does Lopez see any room for innovation in the dharma? Bhikkhu Bodhi recently gave a lecture on the Buddhist response to Occupy Wall Street. Though half of his discourse was ostensibly on the dharma, the Historian’s Buddha said very little that is directly applicable to this protest movement. Insofar as we can glean it from the sutras, the Buddha spoke very little about issues of social and political justice. Bodhi’s Occupy Buddha is as anachronistic as anything put forward by Victorian sanskritists. Surely that does not imply that Buddhist notions of social and political justice must also live short lives.

In place of the Scientific Buddha, Lopez places a different character. Let us call him the Historian’s Buddha. This Buddha is a good deal more colorful than his contrasting likeness, a better storyteller, indeed a man of many countries and languages. He is also at times, let us face it, a bit too credulous of his own capacities, and something of a reactionary.

The Secular Buddha

Lopez’s treatment serves as a welcome corrective to certain more panglossian interpretations of the Buddha and his dharma. It’s important for any who propose a more scientifically informed path, such as we find in secular Buddhist approaches, to realize that this involves judicious editing and reinterpretation.

Of course, it is always open for a historian to say that evidence from the Canon does not support a particular doctrine or practice. A proponent of secular Buddhism must come to terms with passages that deal with flying meditators, rebirth in hell and the Divine Eye. But Secular Buddhism would not be the first sort of practice that took positions contrary to the Historian’s Buddha dharma. One thinks, for example, of doctrines and practices involved in Tantra and Zen that break central monastic precepts, or certain Mahayana doctrines that reify nirvana as a kind of heaven.

Since these reformulations of the dharma have had long lives indeed, one wonders why a scientifically oriented Buddhist practice must expect to die young. Perhaps it will, but it would be a shame to forever restrict the Buddha to a version of the latin mass.

The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life. By Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (New York: Yale University Press, 2012).

No Comments

  1. Mark Knickelbine on October 10, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    Doug, great review! Thanks for writing it.

    Perhaps I should wait for my blood to stop boiling before I respond, but here I go anyway. The great revelation that there is much in the Pali texts that defies a scientific understanding of the world is no revelation at all to anyone who reads them. Neither is the observation that “Buddhism” as commonly understood in the West is a distortion seen through our own cultural lenses (not to anyone who’s read The Making of Buddhist Modernism, anyway). It appears, however, that to engage in this polemic Lopez leans heavily on another common if unwarranted assumption: that the Pali texts are themeselves an unproblematic report of what the historical Gotama did and said. If stories of the Buddha’s insistance on his own miraculous powers and peerless awakening contradict our idea of naturalist realism, they also contradict other teaching in the canon in which Gotama discounts the importance of the supernatural or even questions its existance, to say nothing of the many bhikkhus and even lay followers who attained the same awakening Gotama claimed. I think the evidence best supports the view that the Pali canon was generated by many authors over several centuries, some of whom had the goal of deifying the Buddha and making his dharma more consistent with the prevailing Vedic doctrine of northern India. Anyone who has ever tried to derive a consistent idea of how these texts speak to them has invariably had to decide how to resolve the contradictions in this highly heteroglossic material, often by simply choosing to ignore what does not seem valuable to them; and Westerners have been no different in this regard.

    Secondly, Lopez speaks from ignorance if he presents the views on mindfulness meditation your review ascribes to him. The meditation techniques in MBSR are mindfulness of the breath and the body and the cultivation of metta, and are based very closely on those prescribed in the Pali suttas. Moreover, the goal of mindfulness meditation is NOT (for the thousanth time) “to alleviate certain symptoms of stress.” It is to enable one to observe with clarity the texture of one’s lived experience — to “fully know dukkha”, if you will — and in so doing overcome one’s habitual reactivity (“cease craving”) and respond to life free of that reactivity (“experience cessation,” “cultivate the path”). In short, mindfulness teaches what Gotama taught in his first lesson in the Deer Park. True, no magic eternal Nirvana is involved in mindfulness mediation, not even formless jhanas or diving in and out of the earth; but there is good reason to question whether Gotama actually taught those things as being central to his dharma. Lopez may hate Western dharma practice for all kinds of reasons, but if he thinks that mindfulness is without a solid foundation in the Pali texts (and that, therefore, neuroscience isn’t validating Gotama’s observations of the human mind), he’s wrong.

    • Doug Smith on October 10, 2012 at 12:41 pm

      Hi Mark,

      I hope if you get the chance to read the book(s) you can come back and tell me if I’ve been fair to Lopez’s views. I am always more than a little concerned that I have misunderstood something, especially from such an eminent scholar. That said, both books are pretty much in concert, so at least I’ve had two chances for him to get his points across. And as I say, there is a lot to agree with.

      To be fair to Lopez, he is aware of the problematic nature of the Pali Canon. Indeed, he would probably say that one of the “conceits” of the Victorians was that there was an unproblematic Buddha in the first place. (Though IIRC he makes that case more clearly in his earlier volume). The later volume, I think, is more willing to put aside for the present concerns about an ‘authentic Buddha’ of the Canon. And since I’m inclined to agree that there is at least a relatively unproblematic Canonical Buddha, I’m not going to challenge him on that.

  2. mufi on October 10, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    Thanks again, Doug.

    I suppose that Lopez can be forgiven if he mistakes the goal of MBSR as the alleviation of “certain symptoms of stress”, given what “MBSR” stands for (i.e. “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction”).

    I also suppose that Lopez can argue that the principles from which MBSR was derived are inessential to Buddhism, to which my gut reaction is: So what?

  3. Mark Knickelbine on October 10, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    Mufi —

    Yes, MBSR has an unfortunate name; however, a scholar should know something more about something he is critiquing than just its name.

    And Lopez can argue that the principles from which MBSR was derived are inessential to Buddhism, but he should be aware that he is arguing, therefore, that the Four Noble Truths are inessential to Buddhism, which seems like a pretty heavy lift to me.

  4. mufi on October 10, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Mark: Perhaps Lopez interprets the FNT differently than you do (e.g. as intended to be a means of escaping the endless cycle of rebirth)?

  5. Doug Smith on October 10, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    Re. MBSR (which he mentions once in the book), Lopez’s main thrust is, as he says, “A glimpse at any number of forms of Buddhist meditation, however, suggests that stress reduction is often not the aim.” (p. 106). Further, “the Buddhist practitioner embarks on a path intended not to reduce stress or lower cholesterol, but to uproot more fundamental forms of suffering.” (p. 108).

    In Buddhism and Science, Lopez refers to MBSR as “another example of this denuding of the Buddhist tradition”. (p. 254n2).

    Just FYI.

    • mufi on October 11, 2012 at 11:25 am


      In Buddhism and Science, Lopez refers to MBSR as “another example of this denuding of the Buddhist tradition”. (p. 254n2).

      What can I say, except that perhaps some of us prefer a denuded Buddhism.

      Nonetheless, I’m open to learning more about these “more fundamental forms of suffering”, so that I can judge whether or not they are real and, if so, whether or not Gautama’s prescription for them is effective.

  6. Mark Knickelbine on October 11, 2012 at 11:25 am

    Doug, thanks for the FYI. This reinforces that Lopez speaks about MBSR not from any knowledge of it but from popular misconceptions.

    Mufi — no doubt that is the way Lopez is interpreting the 4NT, given that he appears to be endorsing the orthodox Theravadin interpretation of the Pali canon generally. You will not, however, find Gotama mentioning escaping rebirth as the goal of the path in Turning the Wheel of Dhamma, which is supposed to be his first sermon. You will also find that freeing the mind from defilements is often mentioned as a goal in the earliest texts such as the Dhammapada and the fourth chapter of the Sutta Nipata, while “the next world” is only occasionally mentioned and the notion of eternal escape from rebirth, not at all (to my recollection). In fact you could use the antiquity of these texts to argue that Gotama placed little emphasis on future lives or the absence thereof. The thing is that both points of view are expressed in different suttas; the suggestion that the Buddha was only concerned about escape from rebirth is only one of many possible interpretations, and, arguably, not the one best supported by the texts themselves.

    • mufi on October 11, 2012 at 11:37 am


      I’m inclined to agree with you – albeit, based on less experience with the canon and relevant scholarship than you apparently have.

      I’m also aware that Lopez is a reputable scholar and prolific author on Buddhism, which is the kind of expertise to which I normally defer under these circumstances – that is, until someone cites an opposing peer.

      That said, I seem to recall that you published an interesting book review yourself a while back, which contradicts this monolithic/rebirth-centric portrayal of the 4NT. Do you know which I’m talking about?

    • Doug Smith on October 11, 2012 at 11:50 am

      Well, I wouldn’t say that Lopez believes “the Buddha was only concerned about escape from rebirth”. I’d say from my reading that he does two things.

      (1) Lopez says that the Buddha was at least concerned about escape from karma and rebirth, and that this is not compatible with science. On this he is clearly right, not from any orthodox interpretation, but from the sutras themselves. There is a very, very large amount of data from the sutras that show convincingly that the Buddha did believe in literal rebirth and literal karmic interaction over more than a single lifetime. (Viz., that we could literally be reborn in hell for bad actions).

      (2) Lopez overemphasizes the Buddha’s concern about escape from rebirth. That is, he seems not to consider that one could restrict one’s interest in practice to those interpretations of the path that are more limited in scope, and thus recover something which is genuinely Buddha dharma and yet this-worldly.

      • mufi on October 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm

        Thanks for that clarification, Doug.

        Re: #2, I think we just need to get accustomed to the occupational hazards of being unorthodox – e.g. to the accusation that our interpretations of tradition and derived practices are inauthentic or, what’s worse, heretical.

        What’s more, the orthodox often (though not always) have history (including textual evidence) on their side.

        But, like I said earlier: So what?

      • Mark Knickelbine on October 12, 2012 at 9:00 am

        “There is a very, very large amount of data from the sutras that show convincingly that the Buddha did believe in literal rebirth and literal karmic interaction over more than a single lifetime.”

        But is there, really? Yes, The Buddha is quoted many hundreds of times in the suttas talking about rebirth, and of nibbana as escape from (literal) rebirth. But do we know who composed those suttas, when, and why? Was the historical Gotama even alive when most of the Nikaya texts were composed? Is the stark contrast between the pragmatic, this-worldly Gotama and the miracle worker who recalls his past lives the result of doctrinal changes that may have taken place over centuries? The Pali Nikayas are firm evidence of nothing more than the state of Theravadin orthodoxy a half millenium after Gotama is thought to have lived. And the answer to “so what” is, if there really was this genius who discovered and formulated a radical approach to human eudaimonia so powerful that it continues changing peoples lives 2,500 years later, wouldn’t we want to have some idea of what that approach was, and what it wasn’t?

        • Doug Smith on October 12, 2012 at 9:17 am

          Hey Mark,

          Well, here’s the problem. We have in front of us a large number of texts from the Pali Canon, that show the Buddha asserting literal rebirth. This occurs also in the Sutta Nipata, so it occurs in the earliest texts as well. (In one of the suttas of the Nipata the Buddha refers to stream enterers as having a maximum number of lifetimes yet to go, IIRC).

          If we’re going to cast that into doubt, because the texts were written down and compiled centuries after the Buddha’s death, then all we end up with is agnosticism about what the Buddha believed. And I don’t think that’s the right way to go; for one thing, reading the texts one does get the sense of a single authorial voice.

          Sure, there are some texts where the Buddha is more pragmatic, let us say, and others where he is more otherworldly. But one needs arguments from the texts to show that the pragmatic ones were all earlier than the otherworldly ones, that there is no trace of talk of literal rebirth in the pragmatic ones, and that the later ones were not given by the Buddha. Because even in a single lifetime, viewpoints change and perspectives modify. Later Plato is much more otherworldly than early, but nobody thinks that they were written by different people.

          Lastly, no scholar I know supports the view that the Buddha didn’t believe in literal rebirth. Certainly Gombrich doesn’t, and neither does Batchelor. And neither of those could be said to be under the thrall of Theravadin orthodoxy. (And of course literal rebirth and karmic causation appears in non-Theravadin Buddhist schools as well). So I think chalking rebirth up to the Theravadins is a red herring.

          • Mark Knickelbine on October 12, 2012 at 2:18 pm

            I also don’t say that Gotama didn’t believe in literal rebirth. The point is that we don’t know what a historical Gotama believed, or truly whether he existed, on the basis a straightforward reading of the Pali texts, which are not adequate evidence of such things (as I believe Gombrich and Batchelor would agree).

            Re: “agnosticism”, if what you mean is that we may never have a definitive answer as to what Gotama taught about rebirth and how central it was to his prescription for human flourishing, you may well be correct. I do think that structural and stylistic analysis based on what we do know, that for instance the Dhammapada and the fourth chapter of Sutta Nipata are among the oldest texts we have, we can demonstrate that certain texts, and certain parts of texts, are older than others (and the grouping of these texts in the traditional Nikayas is not an indication of their age). And if we can agree on that, we can look at how the doctrines emphasized in the texts changed from the likely earliest to the likely latest. I think such an analysis would suggest that rebirth went from playing a tangential role in the earliest teachings to becoming central in texts that almost certainly were composed after Gotama’s death, probably long afterward, and which reflected the Theravadin orthodoxy that has been preserved for us in the printed texts.

            But even that is unlikely to provide certainty to our interpretation. The point is we don’t need certainty. Our goal is not to find “what the Buddha really taught” and use that as the authority for our beliefs and practices. Our authority ought always to be human experience. Since these texts cannot be rendered coherent without interpretation, and since we have no Rosetta Stone upon which to base our hermeneutics, we can choose the pragmatic course of priveleging those texts that resonate with us, that make sense for our lives, and that prove out in the crucible of human experience. On that basis, I have no problem focusing on the pragmatic teachings ascribed to Gotama and accepting the rest as myth making.

          • Mark Knickelbine on October 12, 2012 at 2:39 pm

            “[r]eading the texts one does get the sense of a single authorial voice.”

            Does one? I for one cannot believe that the author of the Dhammapada and the author of any of the suttas in, say, the Digha Nikaya, was the same person. Why choose such radically different styles? Why such radical inconsistency in doctrine? It is certainly not impossible that they were all written by the same person, or even under the direction of the same person. But it is scarcely likely. It is much more credible that the stylistic and doctrinal diferences point to an evolutionary process that took place over a substantial period of time.

            Beyond that, not even all the suttas claim to have been composed by Gotama himself. The whole “Thus have I heard, at one time the Blessed One was dwelling on Vulture’s Peak” trope points to the third-person nature of the composition of most suttas, and is supposed to refer to Ananda’s original recitation at the First Council. This, and the hyper-standardization of the composition of Majjhima and Digha Nikayas, to me indicate that they were not composed by Gotama or by any one individual.

          • Doug Smith on October 12, 2012 at 6:46 pm

            Hey Mark,

            Well, radically different styles could depend on the sangha. Let’s say in the early days there were a small number of monks doing the memorizing; none of this would have been well institutionalized. So Gotama gave carefully designed verse, short passages packed with information, easy to memorize. Then as the sangha grew, and memorization became more institutionalized, there was less of an attempt to versify the dharma. There were more memorization masters involved who could recall large chunks of prose text. Of course, there would still be stock phrases (especially introductions and conclusions) added later, and there would always be plenty of repetition, for ease of recall. But this all makes some sense.

            Re. the Theravadin orthodoxy, the Theravadins were famous for one thing in particular: conservatism; preserving texts and traditions. I am sure that this involved some interpolation, e.g. of stock phrases and the like, and the Commentaries surely involve some fanciful reconstructions. But lacking independent evidence, I don’t find it likely that a highly conservative tradition based on rote memorization would make wholesale changes to the dharma, especially when precisely those same dharma elements were found in all other traditions as well.

            Re. “what the Buddha really taught”, I agree. It’s not important to our practice to know what the actual Buddha taught. We take what we find useful and discard or reinterpret the rest. As it must be. The great thing about the suttas is how much of it is useful.

        • mufi on October 12, 2012 at 9:39 am

          Mark: And the answer to “so what” is, if there really was this genius who discovered and formulated a radical approach to human eudaimonia so powerful that it continues changing peoples lives 2,500 years later, wouldn’t we want to have some idea of what that approach was, and what it wasn’t?

          Here’s the thing: I don’t assume that everything that I appreciate in Buddhism (for whatever reason) necessarily originates with Gotama.

          Sure, I’m intellectually curious about what Gotama did or didn’t say, but that’s mainly because I appreciate the legacy that he left behind – however much it may have strayed from his original teachings.

          That’s also why, when Lopez criticizes MBSR as “another example of this denuding of the Buddhist tradition”, I say: “So what?” In other words, what’s more important to me is my appreciation for MBSR and, by extension, for whatever strands of Buddhist tradition that Kabat-Zinn took the trouble to “denude” for our benefit.

          • mufi on October 12, 2012 at 9:52 am

            PS: I use MBSR/Kabat-Zinn only as one example of a modern/secular/naturalistic take on (or from) Buddhism that I appreciate. In fact, there are many such examples, including much of the content on this site. To characterize all of this as “denuded Buddhism” really just seems like an unflattering way of describing what I’m into these days. Oh, well.

          • Mark Knickelbine on October 12, 2012 at 1:57 pm

            Mufi —

            Totally agree that 1) MBSR and the other mindfulness-based approaches rock, 2)They don’t owe everything to Buddhism but are augmented by modern psychology and neuroscience as well as other wisdom traditions of the world, and 3) They would rock just as hard if they had nothing whatever to do with Buddhism.

            The fact is, however, that the MBAs WERE and ARE informed explicitly by Buddhist practice, specifically practices endorsed by the canonical Gotama. So when Lopez says the MBSR is a “denuding” of Buddhism, or that evidence of the efficacy of mindfulness practice does is not a scientific verification of what Gotama is said to have taught, he is, at best, missing at least half the truth.

          • mufi on October 12, 2012 at 2:43 pm

            Mark: I think we’re basically on the same page here, even though I still see compatibility between the premise that mindfulness-based approaches “WERE and ARE informed explicitly by Buddhist practice” and the premise that MBSR is “denuded”, insofar as it eliminates a lot of traditional content (or “baggage”, depending on how you look at it).

          • saibhu on October 14, 2012 at 6:51 pm

            Mark: So what is the half he is missing? Which parts of what Gautama is said to have taught are verified by science?

            I see that MBSR is informed by Buddhist practice as mentioned in the pali canon. But that doesn’t remove the possibility that it is a denuded form of Buddhism. In your previous comments you argue that you refer to “earlier” sutras and therefore ignore later ones. Well, ignoring a huge portion of the teachings of Gautama seems like a denuding to me…

            Maybe I’m stupid, but to me Buddhism seems to be concerned with more existential issues than those we can see in brain scans when we expose people with pain stimuli.

          • mufi on October 15, 2012 at 7:33 am

            saibhu: I’ve gathered the Mark has more experience with MBSR than I do, which is thus far limited to reading and listening to Kabat-Zinn, but I’ll say this much:

            1) I recall from listening to Kabat-Zinn’s audiobook, Mindfulness for Beginners, that his program involves a lot more Buddhism than I initially expected – for example, including an entire chapter on the ethics that are presupposed in mindfulness practice.

            2) Putting aside Kabat-Zinn and MBSR for a moment, it seems no more or less fair to characterize the Buddhism of, say, Stephen Batchelor or Owen Flanagan as “denuded”? After all, both to one degree or another eliminate and/or reinterpret any traditional content that’s deemed either an inessential legacy of ancient Indian metaphysics (Batchelor) or an example of superstitious overreaching (Flanagan).

            Not everything in Buddhist tradition is worth believing in or paying lip service to. If acknowledging that, while also acknowledging what’s worthy in the tradition, entails “denuding” it, then so be it.

  7. Mark Knickelbine on October 15, 2012 at 9:32 am


    I don’t think anything intrinsic to Gotama’s teaching is missing from MBSR.

    Neuroscience is confirming Gotama’s central observation that by cultivating certain mindstates we can change the self “as the fletcher shapes the arrow.” Contemplative practices do cause changes in brain structures that are responsible for emotional self-regulation of various kinds.

    If by “ignoring huge portions of the teaching of Gautama” you are referring to stuff like rebirth, formless jhanas, the various formulations of the 12-link chain of dependent origination, how to be born in various heavens, the miraculous powers of the arahant, the 32 marks of a great man, etc, etc, yes, mythology has no place in MBSR, but neither is it intrinsic to what Gotama taught, “suffering and the end of suffering.” If leaving mythology out is “denuding” Buddhism, I guess I prefer it in its nudity.

    • saibhu on October 16, 2012 at 2:57 pm

      Gotama’s central observation that by cultivating certain mindstates we can change the self “as the fletcher shapes the arrow.” Contemplative practices do cause changes in brain structures that are responsible for emotional self-regulation of various kinds.

      So you assume that the “self” can be measured by the structure of the brain? I’d assume that if my parents told me I’m adopted that would change how I relate to my “self” within seconds, a timespan that is probably to short to change my brain structure… Maybe my interpretation of “self” here is flawed, but then having a good definition of “self” is another story…

      I’m glad to hear from mufi that MBSR includes ethics. However, so far I’ve always been told that science has a hard time figuring out ethics (you can measure things like “well-being”, but not ethics).

      neither is it intrinsic to what Gotama taught, “suffering and the end of suffering.”

      Well, that’s because you’re using the term “dukkha” in a certain way that does not rely on rebirth. While I strongly support your refusal to believe in rebirth I have a hard time “believing” that rebirth is not central to the way the Buddha used the term “dukkha”.

      The founder of my meditation group has a very nice solution for this conflict. He simply states: The Buddha was wrong on this and many other things.

      Of course he got some things correct. But I’m still looking for anything of that (besides trivialities) that are verified by science. So far I haven’t found anything.

      If leaving mythology out is “denuding” Buddhism, I guess I prefer it in its nudity.

      Hell yeah! Nudity it is.

      • mufi on October 16, 2012 at 4:02 pm


        I’m glad to hear from mufi that MBSR includes ethics. However, so far I’ve always been told that science has a hard time figuring out ethics (you can measure things like “well-being”, but not ethics).

        According to Owen Flanagan, “ethics is inquiry into the conditions that reliably lead to human flourishing.” With that definition in mind, ethics seems more like medicine or psychotherapy, which you can measure in terms of its ability to “deliver the goods”, so to speak – in this case, “flourishing” (which Flanagan defines in terms of meaning and morality), as opposed to physical and mental health, although there is surely some overlap there.

  8. Mark Knickelbine on October 18, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    [I have a hard time “believing” that rebirth is not central to the way the Buddha used the term “dukkha”.]

    Saibhu, go back and read the Dhammapada carefully; compare also the fourth chapter of Sutta Nipata. The preoccupation here is with cultivating peace and happiness and reducing hatred, anger and craving. Rebirth is mentioned, but almost as an afterthought, the usual formulation being “if you do this you’ll be happy here and in the next world.” In Chapter 4 SN, there are several verses that seem to say “When you’re dead, you’re gone, so get serious now” ; and also, “The awakened person doesn’t cling to anything in this life or the next, doesn’t long for becoming or not becoming.” It’s quite possible, though not a sure deal, that an historical Gotama believed in rebirth; it is not at all clear, however, that the historical Gotama placed rebirth at the center of his teachings. Linda Blanchard has convincingly argued that the chain of dependent origination presents an ironic reading of rebirth, repurposing the concept to refer to the birth and feeding of our false sense of identity just as he repurposed many other Brahmanic concepts. It is true that the bulk of the Nikayas present dukkha as only escapable by escape from rebirth, but all this indicates for sure is that is what Theravadin orthodoxy held to be true centuries after Gotama’s death.

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